Nataya Friedan Dissertation Defense

Nataya Friedan
Fri May 26th 2023, 9:30 - 11:00am
Event Sponsor
Department of Anthropology
Zoom & Anthropology Colloquium Room
Building 50, Room 50-51A

Oil and Water; Climate Change Attribution in Houston, Texas

My dissertation is about the political life of scientific evidence in Houston during intensified flood infrastructure planning process after Hurricane Harvey. In the Fall of 2019, I experienced the fifth 500-year storm to hit Houston in five years, Tropical Depression Imelda. By then, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports attributing these rain events to greenhouse gas emissions were circulating Houston. In spite of scientific consensus and data specific to the Gulf Coast, many leaders in Houston City and Harris County government as well as the business community were calling the storms “just another wet cycle.” Through ethnographic and archival research, I analyze anti-science sentiment at the center of oil-based capitalism where engineers, lawyers and business professionals negotiated facts and factuality across concrete and through floodwaters. My ethnography puts climate misinformation into a longer history of industrial story telling from 19th century booster narratives to present day public relations campaigns. Building on Hannah Arendt’s framing of the fabric of factuality, I show how campaigns against specific facts react with other public lies rendering a more three-dimensional portrait of post-truth America. Throughout my dissertation, I argue, the consequential lie that I observed ethnographically in Houston wasn’t “climate change isn’t real.” It was “fuel is cheap.” This lie requires businessmen and politicians to discipline liability through idiom and affect to maintain the semantic separation between industrial action and industrial harm, between oil and water, without which fuel would not be cheap in this century or the last.

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