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Julie Guthman Debates Lives Versus Livelihoods at Upcoming Event

We chat to Prof Julie Guthman about fumigants, farmworkers, and biopolitics in California’s strawberry industry

If you look beyond the fields of California’s strawberry industry, you will see there have been testy regulatory battles over the use of several chemical fumigants. In 2010, the state allowed the use of pesticide methyl iodide despite health concerns raised by Nobel Prize winners and state staff scientists. However, the maker of methyl iodide pulled it from the market after environmental and farmworker groups sued the state for approving the fumigant. Similarly, new regulations described as the “nation’s strictest rules” were brought in early 2015 to limit the use of the pesticide chloropicrin, a chemical weapon used in World War I. These two fumigants and the debates engulfing them will set the stage for an insightful talk by Professor Julie Guthman, geographer and professor of social sciences at the University of California at Santa Cruz, at the University of Sydney.

“The classic jobs versus environment debates in regulatory battles misses that for marginalised populations having a job is essential to health and life, while having healthy workers can be essential to industry futures in a time of labor shortage,” Prof Guthman said.

In this talk on Monday 23 November, Professor Guthman will discuss the debates that took place in California over methyl iodide and chloropicrin, debates which she believes have been largely cast as a trade-off between lives and livelihood. Activists have emphasised the harm to bodies that the fumigants would cause, while industry has consistently focused on how the reduction or loss of fumigants would precipitate a huge contraction of the industry. Prof Guthman will argue both sides have invoked farmworkers, a population that has been marginalised and invisibilised – especially in California, though in today’s border-induced labour shortage is receiving more recognition.

“I don’t think gender, ethnicity or class are ever entirely separable, but in this research ethnicity and class are both at play and work together,” she said.

While Prof Guthman is yet to research an equivalent example in Australia, she says “there may be interesting parallels and juxtapositions in the treatment of indigenous people in Australia and undocumented farmworkers in California as ‘disposable’ populations.  For example, it may be interesting to compare under what circumstances these populations are coming to have more recognition.”

She will provide a “novel” read on an old debate, bringing to bear a relatively new literature on surplus populations and disposability, borne of a rapprochement between Marxian political economy and Foucauldian biopolitics. Among other things, this read will trouble the distinction between lives and livelihood.

Prof Guthman says she is very excited to be at the University of Sydney for the first time. “I want the audience to think about how farmworkers are being invoked in regulatory debates about pesticides and therefore in what ways their lives matter.”

The event is jointly hosted with Sydney Ideas.

For more information click here.

Article with Rebecca Simpson