The Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) has awarded the 2022 Rachel Carson Prize to Kregg Hetherington for his book The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops (Duke University Press 2020).
The Rachel Carson Prize recognizes an outstanding book in the area of Science and Technology Studies (STS), which makes an important contribution to public debate or social change and has distinctive societal and political relevance. For the 2022 prize, the Committee reviewed more than 50 books and evaluated their scholarly qualities and contributions to social change. With care and clarity, The Government of Beans tells the social, political, and environmental complexities of soybeans in Paraguay, weaving its entangled stories at local, regional, and global scales. Hetherington incites transnational and interdisciplinary discussions as he compellingly demonstrates how STS can draw attention to the fraught and violent practices of monocropping in the Anthropocene.
The Government of Beans also provides inspiration for ways to unpack and respond to the damaged planet in the Anthropocene. Focusing on soybeans as a character (rather than a commodity or crop species), the book zooms into stories of entangled relationships between soybeans, people, and the state in northeastern Paraguay, which, as he shows, is also part of a broader story of regional politics, the Green Revolution, and the global realities of monocrops and capitalist agricultural destruction. Hetherington leads readers through shifts in regimes of soy regulation and management (the government of beans) and its expansion (the soy state). Through vivid ethnographic vignettes, readers become privy to an assemblage of bureaucracy and bureaucrats, activism, ideology, law, failure, violence, historical contingencies and more. In short, soybean governance in the Anthropocene is messy and unsettled, undoing easy and neat narratives for or against soy. This is, as he writes, a story of how the Anthropocene challenges governmental form (p. 15).
Hetherington develops the concept of agribiopolitics to conceptualize the relationship between the government of human and plant health to address the complexities and conflicts over soy. In this important historical and theoretical intervention, he points out how biopolitics, as part of the Euro-American imagination, became a singularly human affair, blinding academics to the post-Cold War global welfarism that was fundamentally structured on new practices for maximizing plant life (in out of the way places such as Paraguay). In order to understand Paraguay’s history, agribiolitics remedies this structural and analytic divide. Hetherington invites us to rethink the entangled relationships between humans and nonhumans at multiple scales and builds bridges between STS and other fields of studies, such as agro-food studies, environmental humanities, political history, political economy, and anthropological studies of state and bureaucracy.
This is a story that does not have neat beginnings and endings. Just as the Anthropocene challenges governmental forms, Hetherington recognizes it also challenges theoretical and narrative conventions of ethnography. Writing the Anthropocene, he proposes, does not presume to have found stable answers or internal coherence. Instead, the book tries to keep up with its objects while representing worlds as multiple and heterogeneous (p. 16). These multiple worlds address ideals of social democracy and social justice, ecological modernization, transparency, and national sovereignty, containing multiple lessons for STS scholars and practitioners who seek to create social change in their own localities, towards just ecologies and democratic societies.
In these multiple worlds, however, soy is not a multiply enacted object, but a hyper object that thrives in the violent morass of neocolonial extraction (p. 17). Ultimately, The Government of Beans shows how devices of government are always at some level complicit in the destruction they seek to mitigate. This is not a moment of despair, however. Hetherington makes an invitation to attend and attune to what he calls tofu moments: these are not moments of closure or of understanding, but as calls to action in a web that exceeds their ability to capture or to map. Those moments come without guarantees, of course, and they are always fraught and contradictory, but they are also alive with experimental possibility (p. 221). We beautifully learn about why and how it matters not only to maintain biological diversity but also cultural and analytical diversity for meaningful possibilities of societal change.
For its activating storytelling of these experimental possibilities – possibilities to move beyond colonial, extractive, and destructive thinking and practices toward sustainable and just living together on this planet, the Society for Social Studies of Science is honored to award The Government of Beans the Rachel Carson Prize of 2022.
The Carson Prize Committee would like to extend an Honorable Mention to Max Liboiron for Pollution is Colonialism (Duke University Press 2021). Liboiron’s book excellently introduces new ways of ‘seeing’ pollution, and opens a space to learn about how to do science otherwise. Liboiron underlines that pollution is an enactment of ongoing colonial relations to Land, therefore, it is best understood as a violence of colonial land relations rather than environmental damage, which is a symptom of violence. Beyond providing an insightful critique of mainstream technoscientific and social understandings of pollution, this book is methodologically inspirational, showing the possibility of an anticolonial lab by practicing science otherwise in/through CLEAR, an interdisciplinary plastic pollution laboratory. Dr. Liboiron is the founder of CLEAR, and an Associate Professor in Geography and is formerly the Associate Vice-President (Indigenous Research) at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Liboiron is Red River Métis/Michif raised in Lac la Biche, Treaty 6 territory.
The list of finalists:
2022 Carson Prize Committee: Duygu Kasdogan (chair), Dominic Boyer, Vivian Choi, Misria Shaik Ali, and Natasha Vally.
I can’t overstate how thrilling it is to be mentioned in the same sentence as the name Rachel Carson, who stands in for a whole tradition of writing in which I always aspired to participate. Silent Spring was not only the most important critique of the green revolution at the moment of its planetary explosion, it was also the condition of possibility for a certain way of thinking the relationship between agriculture and ecology, between politics and plants, between human progress and annihilation.
Carson’s gift was the clarity of her rhetoric, the singularity of her focus harms, her ability to use words to call a generation to attention. She was able to portray a substance, DDT, associated with progress and prosperity, and show how it also threatened ecological collapse in a world of humans trying to dominate nature. Sixty years later, the monsters unleashed by the green revolution the great acceleration have become weirder, populating a world where the relation between humans and their others is more fraught, and harder to narrate. Unlike Carson’s DDT, the soybeans I write about are both a food miracle and, under certain global conditions, destroyers of worlds.
I’m grateful to the jury and to whatever set of conditions caused my book to resonate with them; it’s a great honor to be considered among the amazing list of recipients of this award. Of course the book is only partly mine, and was only possible because of long dialogues with campesino activists, bureaucrats and scientists who shared their insights. The book is stitched with the generosity, hospitality and trust of more people than I can count, the collaboration of brilliant friends and family members, and the inspiration, support, and labour of many colleagues and students. Thanks to everyone who made this possible, and to 4S itself which provides such an important meeting place for people striving to confront the epistemic murk of our present predicament.