September 3, 2020
Through cotton, farmers, weavers, scientists, and wearers imagine Others across an ancient global commodity chain. It begins with a seed.
Five to ten million years ago, a member of the Malvacea plant family, which includes okra (Abelmoschus esculentus L.) and ornamental hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis L.) branched off from its relatives and evolved twisting, waxy hairs along its seed coat. The fibers of this new Gossypium genus may have been intended to enlist birds in dispersing seeds, they may have been a ploy to sail along the wind like dandelions (Taraxacum officinale L.), or the hairs might have acted like an umbrella to keep the rain off the seeds. Yet as cotton continued to evolve, it attracted an unexpected helper drawn to those threads – human beings.
In a project conceived and designed by University of Arizona Press author Andrew Flachs, with contributions from Elizabeth Brite, Maura Finkelstein, Meena Menon, Robert N. Spengler III, the Udaanta Trust, Jonathan Wendel, and Emily A. Wolff, you can learn a wide range of valuable information about global cotton production via an interactive map. This map is best viewed on a computer, and can be found here.
Cultivating Knowledge highlights the agency, creativity, opportunism, and performance of individuals and communities carving out successful lives in a changing agricultural landscape. The practice of sustainable agriculture on the farm—let alone the global challenge of feeding or clothing the world—is a social question, not a technological one. Farmers do not make simple cost-benefit analyses when evaluating new technologies and options. Their choices have dire consequences, sometimes leading to death. Through an ethnography of seeds, Andrew Flachs investigates the human responses to global agrarian change.
Andrew Flachs is an assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue University. Trained as an environmental anthropologist, his research spans sustainable agriculture, food studies, the anthropology of knowledge, and political ecology.