Tracey Heatherington

Dr. Tracey Heatherington is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology. Recently appointed, Dr. Heatherington arrived to UBC in June of 2020. As an environmental anthropologist, her current research covers conservation and sustainability in the context of globalisation, neoliberalism, social justice, and development. I sat down to talk with her about cloned mouflons, seeds, and her career in anthropology so far.

—-Lindsey Paskulin, PhD student in the UBC Department of Anthropology and Graduate Academic Assistant, Communications (spring 2021)

LP:       Would you like to talk a little bit about what you’re working on currently?

[Dr. Heatherington was seated comfortably in her Vancouver home for our Zoom call.]

TH:      [laughing] I’m doing a little bit of a lot of different things! How about what I’m working on this week?

LP:       Alright [smiling] This week then.

TH:      I’ve been co-organising a conference called Un/predictable Environments: Politics, Ecology, and Agency with a few of my colleagues from Belfast. My first job, straight out of my PhD, was at the University of Belfast.

LP:       What was that like?

TH:      It was a wonderful experience that was really different from anything I had experienced before. I had wonderful colleagues and I still keep in touch with friends I made there. The last UK conference I was at, I was reunited with one of my dearest friends, Maruska Svasek from Queen’s University Belfast. She and her colleague had the idea for a conference centring on discussions of art, activism, and green politics. Maruska thought of me because I’m an environmental anthropologist. And so, our collaboration was born!

We want the conference to be about the discourse behind prediction, what we can and can’t predict and the ideas around that. Geographers will tell you that there’s no such thing as a natural disaster. They are all man-made because we set up the context for the disaster to play out as a disaster. You have the so-called natural environment, but the natural environment in the Anthropocene is man-made! And I say man-made deliberately because there is a very deeply patriarchal history behind the way we use energy, the way we develop, how we invest in development, and even in terms of how we think about sustainability.

…The idea of complicating sustainability is something I have always been very invested in…

I want to discuss neoliberalism in terms of the way we understand biodiversity, conservation, and the conservation of parks and protected areas. We need to understand that there are many ways to approach sustainability goals and that some of these approaches actually reproduce the very problems we are trying to address.

[We talked more about Dr. Heatherington’s perspectives on this conference and then our discussion turned to her other recent endeavours.]

TH:      I recently submitted a paper as part of a conference hosted in Sweden and it should be published in the next few months. The paper I contributed is called Fertility’s Fate, and it problematizes the deep polarisation of debates around seed saving and seed banking, debates that tend to pit science against local knowledge as incompatible.

I find this polarization very disturbing. If the scientists don’t speak with gardeners, farmers, and small farmers in particular, then they are going to miss the point. Similarly, everyone working at a grassroots level, those doing important work in sustainable food systems and affirming the role of community, people, and cultural traditions in actively maintaining biodiversity; if they simply dismiss those scientist-types as being unable to work with them, then they’re going to restrict the options they have for achieving their own goals. To me, finding some kind of middle ground is extremely important.

LP:       How did you first get into this line of research? It seems like such a unique branch of anthropology.

TH:     [pausing briefly]

…It was really a series of conversations. I developed it over time…

My earlier work was in Italy looking at the politics around making a park.

LP:       That was in Sardinia?

TH:      Yes! In the middle of this process of Europeanisation, the politics around appropriating a large area of common lands for the purpose of a regional or national park is fraught with all sorts of assumptions. I came to this as someone interested in the larger cultural politics around conservation and development. I had become very curious about the way new genetics were being used in conservation. At one point, I heard this story about the cloning of a wild mouflon in Sardinia. Mouflons are a kind of indigenous wild sheep who became the poster children for the park’s movement there. Conservationists, particularly from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), had saved genetic material from a wounded, dying mouflon. They used this genetic material to clone the mouflon at a time when this technology was being developed and advanced. Their idea was, can we save endangered species through cloning?

Cloning has all kinds of interesting ramifications with regard to how we understand the ‘authenticity’ of the species you are considering. The technique involves the removal of mouflon genetic material from the nucleus of the cell, which is then implanted within a fertilised egg, and then into a normal sheep. For feminists, this has all sort of implications.’

LP:       And ethical concerns!

TH:      Exactly! [nodding] For this process, fertility is appropriated to reproduce this specialised endangered species. And here are these poor sheep! They don’t even have the opportunity to choose whether they become surrogates or not. Finally, after a lot of failures, one cloned mouflon was brought to term. Then this mouflon becomes a central point in cultural discourse surrounding the park. For me, what was interesting was that this discussion circumvented all the problematic politics around the national park dealing with land rights and indigenous local tradition.

It circumvents that narrative about history, culture, and problematic people and instead goes straight for the bright and shiny, new and cute, little mouflon. This is where I really became interested in the new genetics and how this reshapes our understandings of conservation and biodiversity. As climate change proceeds and progresses, it also completely changes the terms for everything we do with agriculture and ecosystems. I was knee-deep in all the discourse around the mouflon, and soon after I started to see stories about the seed bank at Svalbard being launched.

…I thought there must be complicated intellectual and cultural property rights issues with the seeds and with the whole idea of having this back-up…

It’s a glimpse into this whole other world of modernised agriculture.

LP:       One that isn’t talked about?

TH:      Actually, a lot of people are talking about it, but it’s really polarised. There’s a food sovereignty movement which is trying to raise consciousness around the crucial integration of cultural heritage and agriculture as an inherent part of how we approach our own humanity and where we’re going with it.

It’s incredibly important. But at the same time, there are questions of heritage around the science of agriculture, of seed conservation, about the way it’s been approached, the way that history itself has changed and transformed over time, the way people are perceiving it now, and the kinds of institutional formations that have emerged. Svalbard is just one part of a larger institutional formation around international articulations of seed banking. It’s something that concretises the global approach. The whole idea of a global science and internationalised laws around the seeds— it’s a tough problem!

LP:       Is that a particular challenge you had trying to do fieldwork on this? How did you balance all these different perspectives?

TH:      [pause] I don’t think I’m finished yet! For me, the challenge is to create a middle space where there is room for dialogue.

…Respectful dialogue, thoughtful dialogue, a space for possibilities that doesn’t discount traditional ecological knowledge or grassroots knowledge, or the sciences either…

It shouldn’t be an either/or proposition. I have come to respect the work of plant scientists I have met, and of all those engaged in Svalbard’s seed bank and in other living seed banks, whether they are part of a larger network or independent. Part of the discord is linked to the divide between public science and private interests, and how they articulate. It’s interesting for me to see how institutions get caught in the middle.

LP:       How have your individual experiences impacted and shaped her research interests?

TH:      It’s been really important for me to be shaped by different national contexts and by different places where I was working. I grew up in Canada, in Gananoque, Ontario. I did my masters at McGill University. When I moved to Harvard to start my PhD, my research context changed. At the time I don’t think I was as aware of how much the US context was shaped around me. As a graduate student, you don’t pay as much attention to the bigger picture because you are so busy trying to be in grad school.

LP:       And especially trying to be a graduate student at Harvard!

TH:      It’s no different than UBC, really [smiling] it’s busy. It’s insanely challenging wherever you are, but it was a wonderful opportunity. I’m a Europeanist, though, so even coming out of Harvard it was difficult to find the niche. Moving to Northern Ireland after my PhD was wonderful, because for the first time I was surrounded by a lot of others who did research in Western Europe. Europeanists in Europe, go figure. [laughing]

TH:      Northern Ireland was a really different experience from Canada or the US. It was in the middle of the peace process. I’d meet students who wouldn’t speak in class because they were afraid of identifying themselves as being either Protestant or Catholic. But for me, I couldn’t distinguish their accents, I couldn’t distinguish who was who. It was challenging to be a young faculty member in that context. I didn’t get to stay long enough in Northern Ireland to get used to things. I was only there for two and a half years so my experience there was limited.

After that I returned to Canada. I worked at the University of Western Ontario for a few years. I was just getting my feet on the ground there when I fell in love and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I lived in Milwaukee for 16 years. That was a really important experience for me because it was the one place where I finally felt the impact of public policy and public discourse as it shaped my university.

It was a university that didn’t have a lot of independent resources, didn’t have a huge endowment, and wasn’t a private institution. I was a public servant. I was employed by the State of Wisconsin because it was part of the Wisconsin academic system. As Wisconsin defunded education systematically, the politics between the campuses became apparent. This taught me a great deal about what neoliberalisation does to institutions.

…It’s reshaped, in part, how I think about conservation, the role of the WWF, of Conservation International, of Greenpeace, and how I think about the role of collaborating scientists…

I became even more critical of the scientific narrative while I was there. I came at seed banking from almost a hypercritical perspective. Then I had an interesting conversation during a Society for Social Studies of Science conference. Donna Haraway was there and we started talking about my critical perspective on the seed banks. I had a wonderful conversation with her, she was so gracious! At one point she said, ‘Tracey, don’t you think you’re being a little hard on the scientists?’

I was already in the middle stage of my career and I was thinking about the next thing I wanted to do. After that conversation, I decided that I should go to Svalbard to see the seed bank. The one thing that makes you less smug about what you have to say is usually to go and talk to people! I wrote to Cary Fowler from the Svalbard seed bank and he invited me to visit. I dropped everything and bought myself a ticket to Norway. I met with Cary and talked to him about his work. It was another one of those transitional moments which help you understand something in a whole different way.

LP:       Following that, and as you look back on your career thus far, what kind of advice would you give to students and those pursuing anthropology careers?

TH:      Find the mentors that you need, the support you need— that doesn’t actually change between being a student and being a researcher.

…Be fearless. Don’t let your hesitation stop you from doing something important. Learn what you need to know and make it work….

The farther along you get, the more you know that you need help, that you can’t do it all by yourself, and that you have a lot to learn! This research isn’t done yet— it’s a work-in-progress and most research is a work-in-progress!

It’s hard to know at which point you need to just pick the fresh flowers, put them in a vase, and say ‘okay, there it is’. You kind of arrange them, a few of them droop and a few of them stick up in weird ways, but you know that’s just the way it is. Research is just a work in progress. You try to find a way to make it relevant, make it provocative, and learn as much as you can to be conscientious and do it right and well. But there are so many ways to do it. You just have to pick one and stick with it.

In a post-Covid world, you can find Tracey soaking up the sun in Vancouver while dreaming of snowy winters back in Ontario.