Priming the Pump with Grass, Trees, and Waste: An exploration of biofuels policy and research discourse and its potential to alter living spaces
Davitt, Marcia S.
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Biofuels, a solar-sourced technology that can be processed from non-fossilized plant matter, have significant appeal as a means of securing a reliable, sustainable energy supply. They appear to offer significant potential by virtue of being harvestable from common plant life such as prairie grasses. I argue that a shared set of knowledge claims emerging from multiple energy/environmental institutions in Germany and the U.S. are linked by a shared set of assumptions. I characterize these claims as a "mainstream" discourse because together they function as a single powerful discourse that influences national policy and research priorities. In examining the potential material impacts of the discourse on regional and global habitats, I demonstrate the powerful performative capacity of the discourse. I also describe how this mainstream discourse perpetuates momentum along existing trajectories of at least three socio-technological regimes: agriculture, transport, energy. The practitioners (biofuels experts) of the discourse construct representations of the realities that form the basis of their research. I refer to these representations as maps because like a city map, they privilege some things while marginalizing others. These maps are then utilized as guides for intervening into the habitat in order to develop and implement biofuels. Implicated within the maps are practices that have the potential to reconstitute reality. For example, the mapping of a variety of plants as "energy crops" implicates practices generally associated with high-yield cash crops intended for trade on the global marketplace. The materialization of these practices will assimilate various plants, reconstituting them as bona fide energy crops, resulting in monocultured regional and global habitats. I develop my argument by describing how knowledge production is regulated by the implicit rules that govern the discourse. This regulatory apparatus insures that certain types of knowledge as well as methods for producing that knowledge are privileged over others. I introduce several concepts--"institutional platform, thought collective, biofuels practitioner--"as analytical tools to develop my argument and explain how the discourse functions. I demonstrate how perpetual recirculation of knowledge claims through publication, citation, conferences, workshops and task forces naturalizes these claims, giving them authoritative force. This force is evidenced in an increased performative capacity as well as a higher degree of discursive hegemony. I demonstrate the material effects of the discourse at the practical level of its deployment by introducing another analytical tool --ground truthing. Geographers and military reconnaissance personnel use ground truthing to describe the process of physically inspecting the lay of the land in order to determine the accuracy of the maps. With this tool, I demonstrate the potential of the discourse to reconstitute habitats and landscapes. Finally I propose changing the terms of mainstream energy discourse through practices intended to de-scientize and democratize the discourse through incorporating alternative expertises. This includes: a} moving away from corporate control of energy solutions by situating energy-systems decisions and ownership at the local community level, and b} improving the definition of systemic problems by transitioning away from knowledge production that privileges the detached "spectator" approach over the embodied, participatory approach.
- Doctoral Dissertations