Kai A Bosworth

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Room 414 SocSci

267 19th Ave S

Pipeline Populism: 21st century American environmentalism and the politics of land

In response to planetary environmental problems like climate change, acid rain, and deforestation, environmental politics has taken a particularly populist tone over the past thirty years. Whether it is in the context of a national election, an anti-racist social movement, or especially against corporate- and state-backed fossil fuel extraction that is accelerating climate change and its acute impacts on marginalized indigenous populations worldwide, widespread political organizing appears both necessary and unimaginable to many of us. Only, we argue, if everyone (and we’re talking everyone) were to come together and agree on the problem and political solutions could we have enough political power to transition to a post-fossil fuel future. This imaginary situation inflects our strategic choices, down to the discourses, scales of organizing, and alliances created in local and regional political movements. How do we make sure no one is alienated and everyone is included? How can we convince as many people as possible to join us? What will we do when we win?

These questions have been most pertinently raised by those movements resisting the continental oil pipeline buildout in North America, especially those working against the Keystone XL pipeline in South Dakota, Nebraska, Washington, D.C., and New York, and a series of other pipelines now proposed across the continent. The struggle against Keystone XL was for environmentalists on the one hand victorious. Although the southern half of the pipeline was built in 2011, enough visibility was raised that President Obama and the State Department rejected the permit for the more important northern leg of the pipeline. The nation was alerted to the ecological devastation being wrought in the Albertan tar sands. Since this victory, several other major pipelines have been stalled, and proposals for several future pipelines remain untenable. On the other hand, however, in rejecting the pipeline, no collective political subject was created, the force of the movement was largely dissipated, and fossil fuel extraction and consumption continued unabated. The Dakota Access pipeline struggle, now led most prominently by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, all the Oceti Šakowi?, and hundreds of indigenous tribes from across North America, is the limit condition for pipeline populism.

In this dissertation, I hypothesize that the an unreckoned-with populism pervades contemporary mainstream environmental movements around the world, preventing themselves and us from seeing the racialized class conditions at the heart of environmental destruction. The supposed need to ‘make everyone care’ about the environment writ either large or small has a depoliticizing edge, structuring the political field in such a way that antagonism is rendered unthinkable. Populism is both the cause and consequence of participatory political spaces, from sanctioned public participation meetings to marches, protests, and concerts. Populism’s ideological form is part of the reason ‘land’ became the operative signifier around which some anti-pipeline groups have structured their thought, activity, and desires. Land is able to successfully articulate a multiplicity of competing political desires – for property and wealth, for the nation, family, and race, for knowledge and science, and for health, well-being, and the good life. ?

Against other postfoundational theories of populism which offer primarily a linguistically- or discursively-based understanding of political space, I argue that historical and contemporary American formulations of land function to ground populism in a materialized political space and to articulate it with both the political and economic. Within post-Marxist theory, land has lost its specificity, in a sense dethroned from its previous seat among Marx’s ‘holy trinity’ with labor and money. It becomes just one signifier among others. But as Deleuze and Guattari show, land holds a very specific role in capitalism, for it links sovereign and economic power and allows political violence an oscillation between these two poles. By developing this theoretical stance, I offer a path out of the conflict between economic-centric (primarily Marxist political economy) and state-centric (primarily anarchistic) accounts in political ecology. This allows us to see that populist mobilization of land reinforces possessive individualism and hides uneven and ambivalent political and economic consequences for farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, and Native American tribes. Understanding how environmental populism works to structure political spaces of anti-pipeline activism through a politics of land will contribute to a re-invention in our understanding of environmental politics and environmental justice adequate for the Anthropocene.

Last updated 06/27/2016

Educational Background & Specialties

Educational Background

  • B.A.: Environmental Studies, Macalester College, Saint Paul, MN, 2010.
  • M.A.: Geography, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, 2013.

Curriculum Vitae


  • Nature and Society
  • Environmental politics
  • Political Geography
  • Cultural Geography
  • Geographies of Race and Racism
Courses Taught
  • GEOG 3381W/GLOS 3701W Population in an Interacting World Fall 2015
  • GEOG 1301 Our Globalizing World (Fall 2013-Spring 2015- TA)
  • Geog 3401 - Geography of Environmental Systems and Global Change (Spring 2013 - TA)
  • Geog 1403 Biogeography of the Global Garden (Fall 2012 - Head TA)
  • Geog 1403 Biogeography of the Global Garden (Summer 2012 - TA)
  • Geog 1403 Biogeography of the Global Garden (Spring 2012 - Head TA)
  • Geog 1403 Biogeography of the Global Garden (Fall 2011 - TA)
Research & Professional Activities

Professional Activities

  • International Conference of Critical Geography, Ramallah, Palestine: "Thinking porous matter: hydrogeology, extraction and the subterranean body politic" , July 2015
  • Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers: Thinking porous matter: hydrogeology, extraction and the subterranean body politic , April 2015
  • Anthropocene Feminism conference, Center for 21st Century Studies, University of Wisconson-Milwaukee: Presentation: "The porous body of the earth: on permeable spaces of feminist geophilosophy" , April 2014
  • Post-Planetary Capital Symposium, the New School, NY: Presentation: "Earthrise: post-planetary environmentalism, frontier capitalism and the end of the whole earth" , March 2014
  • Dimensions of Political Ecology conference, University of Kentucky-Louisville: Presentation: "Breaking ground on political geology: possible ecologies for the Anthropocene" , March 2014
  • RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, London, UK: Presentation: "Capitalism’s Underground" August 2013
  • Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Los Angeles, CA: Presentation: "Oh the Humanity!: Extinction and Animism After the Anthropocene" April 2013
  • Workshop on Critical Climate Change Scholarship, University of Minnesota: Presentation: "Decompositional Cosmopolitics for the Anthropocene" April 2013
  • "Thinking permeable matter through feminist geophilosophy: environmental knowledge controversy and the materiality of hydrogeologic processes" 2017. Environment & Planning D: Society & Space 35(1). http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0263775816660353
  • Jenkins, J, K Boone, K Bosworth, J Lehman, T Lodor. 2015. “Boom and bust methodology: Opportunities and challenges with conducting research at sites of resource extraction.”The Extractive Industries and Society, .forthcoming. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214790X15001033
  • "Capitalism's Underground" in Capitalism and the Earth, edited by Nigel Clark, Arun Saldanha and Kathryn Yusoff, 2017, Punctum Press
  • Review: Ben Woodard, On an Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy: Bosworth, Kai, Environment and Planning D: Society & Space, 2014. Link
  • Antipode Institute for the Geographies of Justice Fellow, June 2015
  • Council of Graduate Students Travel Award, July 2015
  • Graduate and Professional Student Assembly Travel Grant (University of Minnesota), July 2015
  • TA of the Year Award, Department of Geography, Environment and Society , 2014
  • Department of Geography Golden Shovel, 2014
  • Department of Geography, Environment, and Society Travel Award, 2013, 2014
  • Consortium Fellow, Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences, June 2013 - August 2013
  • Graduate School Fellowship, September 2010 - May 2011