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Transforming Algae: Science and resource-making in sustainable development

Authors: Amy Braun*, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill - Chapel Hill, NC
Topics: Natural Resources, Development, Environment
Keywords: capitalist natures, STS, sustainable development, resource geographies
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper examines the technoscientific transformation of marine algae into a resource for sustainable development. A growing US algal development sector positions these unicellular organisms as crucial to engineering ecologically sustainable futures, transforming algae into a range of existing and potential consumer products that range from biofuels to food supplements to surfboards. I focus on US Department of Energy-led efforts to create a commercially viable algal biofuel. This process of resource-making occurs through the interplay of three factors. First, a web of state and industry actors shape the direction of algal research and development as they attempt to utilize algae as a tool for national and private interests. Second, this nexus of state-industry relationships mediates the scientific practices that enhance or optimize algae’s desired characteristics and derivative components. This optimization and harnessing of macronutrients and other cellular matter for further development turns algae’s components into potentially useful “bits of life” that circulate through economies and within human and nonhuman bodies. “Bits of life,” a concept developed by Anneke Smelik and Nina Lykke for thinking through relationships between organisms and their components, describes these technologically mediated fragmentations and recombinations of life at finer scales. Third, these actors and scientific practices mobilize around a suite of sustainability concerns. I argue that algal resource-making joins the malleability of the algal organism with the malleable and stretchy framework of sustainable development, wherein both algae and sustainability become flexible tools made to respond to a range of interests.

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