How good can archaeology (or anything, for that matter) really be if it enables unsustainable, expansionist, or socially unjust development?
Lately, this question has been bouncing around archaeology in some form or another more and more frequently. I was first confronted by this dilemma several years ago when I was doing fieldwork for a cultural resource management (CRM) contract in support of a proposed strip mine. There are so many reasons to be opposed to coal, and other resource-extraction practices that expand far outside the concerns of archaeology but in dealing with CRM, the coal industry represents a mixed bag for contract archaeologists. On the one hand, it’s a source of income and another chance for archaeologists to document, study, and preserve cultural resources. But on the other hand, once the contract is done and the notice to proceed is given to the mining company, a profit will be made from the disenfranchisement and suffering of humans, catastrophic levels of destruction to the environment will occur, and our planet’s greenhouse gases will continue to climb to dangerous levels. The example of a strip mine is just one of several ethical problems CRM archaeologists face, but a pretty severe one. Similar conflicts between enabling development and a desire to conserve are common in CRM. Just think of all the road and sewer projects that enable urban sprawl. In the short run, infrastructure projects fix an immediate need for transportation, water, and waste management. But in the long run, conditions like structural violence through urban design and inequality to food access and public services come out of these infrastructure “improvements”. Moving even farther beyond that, the physical structures we build – from sewer lines to monumental architecture – reinforce dominant ideologies and power structures of the ruling elite on many levels. In the global political-economic setting we all live in, that’s not something to brush off lightly no matter what your party affiliation might be.
Archaeologists don’t just have an obligation to serve cultural resources they dig up, they also have an obligation to serve the people and environments impacted by their work. So this begs another question:
Are we responsible for what happens once we walk away from a completed contract?
It’s hard to be directly involved in a contract on a personal or professional level without seriously hurting business. If I went back to proposed strip mine sites once I finished fieldwork and reporting duties and chained myself to mining equipment, I could get my own company in a lot of trouble. So how do we reconcile the impacts of our work? One option is to flatly refuse contracts with unsustainable clients. That’s a fast-track to unemployment in the world of CRM. It’s also tricky when “good archaeologists” refuse to work with “bad clients” because it opens up those contracts to firms or individuals with less than favorable ethics and field methodologies. There are plenty of stories in the CRM community of crooked clients buying off contract archaeologists to do a “windshield survey” or anything else that barely passes state preservation standards.
I had this conversation with a friend and colleague from grad school the other day and she had a refreshing take on it. She had recently been to the Society of Applied Anthropology conference and met an anthropologist who works for the World Bank doing ethnographic studies in rural Asia and Latin America. When she told me about this, my brow immediately sank in disapproval of any work in the name of World Bank, but when she explained how the anthropologist was working to enable local voice and identity in shaping development projects, I reconsidered. A “good anthropologist” working from the inside. I liked the idea, and it reminded me of what the principal investigator (PI) told me when I got back from one particularly horrendous coal survey – [paraphrasing] “we need people who care and know better to go out and do the very best they can, and it’ll stop these guys from doing any more damage than they have to”. My PI has been an incredible mentor to me, and the best boss I could hope for. When I read or hear academic archaeologists criticize CRM, I think “they haven’t seen the good CRM”. But then we come back to the question at the start – how good is it, really? My friend from grad school also reminded me of an article we had to review, “Anthropology and Its Evil Twin: “Development” in the Constitution of a Discipline”. This work from James Ferguson (1997) frustrated the hell out of us at the time because it asked so many open-ended questions without providing answers. But here on the other side of grad school, my former classmate and I have grown to understand that anthropology is full of unanswerable questions. It’s all a mixed bag, and there’s no such thing as totally “good” or totally “bad”.
So then there’s the other option: instead of refusing contracts from clients seeking to unconsciously reproduce ideologies of power through physical structures, we can take the work. First, this is purely practical since we all have bills to pay (and let’s be honest, I’d prefer not to work in food service or as a barista again). Second, much like the World Bank anthropologist and the advice from my PI, having the right people in the right places can do tremendous good. Returning to one of the questions above, what can we do after completing a contract that gives us moral or ethical conflicts? Be active in your spare time and work to change the larger systems, the cultural structures that allow (and even demand) unsustainable land-use. Look into purchasing green energy credits from your utilities company. Conserve energy. Drive less and walk more. Ride a bike – after all, it’s the most efficient form of transportation second only to the albatross. Reduce consumption. All of those simple, everyday things that add up to make noticeable impacts in economic markets. Take it a step farther and join activist campaigns. If you can’t be there in person, then donate to activist groups and support the people who sacrifice to be on the front lines. Throughout Appalachia and states with coal-dominated energy markets, for example, there are annual “I Love Mtns Day” protests at state capitols, with auxiliary protests and events throughout the year to demand an end to mountaintop removal (MTR). Write to lawmakers. Attend city or town council meetings. You get the idea.
There’s something inherently activist about archaeology because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The recovery of material culture and identification of archaeological resources impacts present humans in ways far outside any connection to cultural heritage. So yeah, I argue that archaeologists are responsible to be good citizens and cultural stewards because we have the tools and the training to do so, and the public trusts us and expects us to do so. Hence, the frequent outrage and scape-goating toward archaeologists when some bridge project gets mired in funding issues and community organizers find that a taxpayer-funded project isn’t just bankrupting a city, but also creating a structural barrier that actually aggravates poverty and violence. Even better, it makes traffic way worse and consequently our air quality suffers even more. Cool, yeah that was kinda our fault in some abstract way. Oops.
Our work doesn’t have to be overtly activist though; the evidence speaks for itself, we just interpret it. Section 106 laws and other heritage protection regulations are all the argument we need to save resources. And when I say “save resources”, I don’t just mean buried artifacts. I mean the broader human resource, the communities that are impacted by development projects. There are so many things that fall outside the scope of research, or scope of work, that let us say “that’s not my job”. But the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of development projects are well within our scope of existence, and eventually come around to affect us.
There are a lot of open-ended questions here, just like in the chapter from Ferguson. I encourage your input in the comments section below, as a sort of “peer-review” forum. Not an archaeologist? That’s fine! Swap out the parts directly addressing archaeology and replace it with whatever you work with – banking, insurance, healthcare, web design – whatever it is, we could all stand to confront our longer-reaching connection to “development”. Are we enabling something unsustainable – socially, environmentally, economically? What do we do about it when we’re “off the clock”?
Archaeology • Sustainability