The CAS research group Airborne: Pollution, Climate Change, and New Visions of Sustainability in China has invited Anna Lora-Wainwright to lead the workshop Resigned Activism: Living with Pollution in Rural China at CAS Oslo. Lora-Wainwright is Associate Professor in the Human Geography of China at the University of Oxford.


Pollution is one of the most pressing issues facing contemporary China and among the most prominent causes for unrest.

Much of industry and mining takes place in rural areas, yet we know little about how rural communities affected by severe pollution make sense of it and the diverse form of activism they embrace.

This talk draws on my new book to describe some of these engagements with pollution touching on three in-depth case studies. It argues for a more encompassing, holistic and diachronic study of pollution as it is experienced in its local contexts. It promotes an anthropological study of how villagers experience pollution, what socio-economic and political relations exist between communities, local officials and polluting firms, how patterns of action and inaction develop and how they relate to shifting definitions of health, environment, development and a good life.

The term “resigned activism” serves as a conceptual tool to attend to subtle shifts in parameters and expectations and to the diverse forms of environmental engagement that they support. It encapsulates a spectrum of perceptions and practices comprising acts that may fit the conventional label of collective environmental contention, such as protesting at the factory gates and filing petitions. But it also includes less confrontational and more individualised or family-oriented tactics aimed at minimising pollution in one’s immediate surroundings.

                              While cosmopolitan green campaigners may not regard some of these practices as activism, this talk and my book argue that they nevertheless deserve attention as alternative, resigned forms of activism and environmental subjectivity. Such engagements with the environment (natural, social and political) alter what demands are regarded as acceptable and what strategies may be envisioned as feasible. They also mould different ways of valuing not only the environment but also health and development. Attending to subtle forms of engagement, to resignation as well as to activism, equips us better to grasp the circumstances in which change takes place, the many instances in which it does not and the wide, perhaps most interesting, space between them. I propose attending to agency as it emerges in unlikely places and subtle forms. In doing so, this work promotes rethinking conventional approaches to activism, it develops a more nuanced perspective on citizens’ agency and revisits concepts drawn from collective contention and comparative environmental justice. In turn, villagers emerge not as stable subjects but as involved in ongoing processes of negotiation with their families, neighbours, the polluting firms, various levels of the state and a range of outsiders.

                              Several statistics about pollution in China are readily available and much reproduced by the media. But what are the human stories behind them? How do those who live with pollution on a daily basis feel about it? What drives (or obliges) them to stay? How might their experiences, their concerns and their sense of entitlement shift over time? Describing a likely widespread scenario across much of industrialised rural China, this work provides a window onto the staggering human costs of development and the deeply uneven distribution of costs and benefits. It portrays rural environmentalism and its limitations as prisms through which to study key issues surrounding contemporary Chinese culture and society, such as state responsibility, social justice, ambivalence towards development and modernisation and some of the new fault lines of inequality and social conflict which they generate.

About the speaker

Anna Lora-Wainwright is Associate Professor in the Human Geography of China at the University of Oxford. She holds a BA in Social Anthropology and an MA in Chinese Studies, both from the School and Oriental and African Studies, and a PhD in anthropology from Oxford. Before taking up her post in Oxford, Anna worked as a lecturer and research fellow in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Manchester.

                              Anna's first monograph Fighting for Breath: Living Morally and Dying of Cancer in a Chinese Village (Hawaii UP 2013) is based on a total of 18 months of fieldwork in rural north-east Sichuan province starting in 2004. It is the first book-length ethnography to offer a bottom-up account of how families strive to make sense of cancer and care for sufferers in contemporary rural China. She edited a special collection for The China Quarterly on 'Dying for Development: Pollution, Illness and the Limits of Citizens' Agency in China' and co-edited (with Peter Wynn Kirby) a special section in the journal Area titled 'Peering Through Loopholes, Tracing Conversions: Remapping the Transborder Trade in Electronic Waste'. Her research has appeared in World Development, AREA, Positions,  Social Anthropology, The China Journal, The China Quarterly, the Journal of Contemporary China, Evidence and Policy and the Pace Environmental Law Review. Her forthcoming monograph Resigned Activism: Living with Pollution in Rural China (MIT, 2017) explores how rural Chinese communities experience, understand and deal with severe pollution. It challenges conventional approaches to environmentalism and draws attention to subtler, often invisible forms of activism, the dynamics by which pollution becomes part of everyday life and their consequences.

                              She is director of a Leverhulme Trust Project on 'Circuits of Waste and Value: Making E-waste Subjects in China and Japan' (£322,557) which builds on previous research with Peter Wynn Kirby funded by a John Fell Award. She is also co-investigator (with Thomas Johnson and Jixia Lu) on the project 'Coalitions of the "weak": fighting pollution at China's rural-urban interface', funded by Hong Kong Research Grants Council (HK$457,168). Her past research was supported by the Leverhulme Trust, the British Academy, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Inter-University China Centre (phase 1 and 2), the Rockefeller Foundation and the Social Science Research Council.

Open to all interested

This workshop is open to all interested.

Please email if you want to attend.