Expanding the Social World Downards…

…is an NSF-funded project led by Dr. Andrea Ballestero (Anthropology, USC) that examines how the increasing scientific and governmental attention paid to aquifers in Costa Rica is transforming spatial imaginaries and the meaning of private property.

MINAE-Dirección de Aguas, USGS, RTI, 2019.

Despite accounting for 99% of all accessible fresh water in the world (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2015), aquifers remained largely out of public view during the 20th century, reduced to a niche preoccupation of specialized government officials and extractive industries such as mining and agriculture. In the 21st century, however, aquifers have emerged from their relative obscurity. Governments are investing heavily in both scientific research to locate aquifer systems and in governance models to recruit citizens into their protection.

With this newly gained attention, the social world is expanding downwards. Aquifers are becoming sites where social life above the surface intersects with the worlds below it. This downward expansion unsettles spatial imaginaries of the underground that perceive it as a static geologic substrate. It also distributes responsibility for aquifers among a broad swath of actors, asking them to protect resources that include, but also exceed, the land they own or live on.

In Costa Rica these changes are reverberating across multiple social groups, although not always harmoniously. In March of 2020, for example, the largest newspaper published an opinion piece from a disgruntled geologist arguing that land use restrictions to protect aquifers burden people with impossible regulations and are the product of outdated “imaginaries” that are disconnected from reality.

This project studies how spatial imaginaries of the underground change when aquifers figure prominently in the public sphere. It focuses on Costa Rica, a country experimenting with governance ideas that center aquifers as critical formations for collective life. The project combines longitudinal, ethnographic, and multi-modal techniques to chart whether and how increased public circulation of scientific knowledge (a) recasts the relations between surface and subsurface and (b) transforms peoples’ sense of responsibility towards the land they own or live on.

A few publications related to this project include:

Ballestero, A. forthcoming. “Casual Planetarities: Choreographies, Resonance, and the Geologic Presence of People and Aquifers,” Environmental Humanities.

Ballestero, A. 2022. Aquifers: beyond countable water. In J. Roca & J. F. Salazar (Eds.), Rivus (pp. 38-42). Sydney, Australia: Biennale of Sydney.

Ballestero, A. 2019. “Aquifers (or, Hydrolithic Elemental Choreographies)” Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/aquifers-or-hydrolithic-elemental-choreographies

Ballestero, A. 2019 Touching with light, or, how texture recasts the sensing of undergroud water Science, Technology, & Human Values. doi: 10.1177/0162243919858717.

Ballestero, A. 2019. “The Underground as Infrastructure?: Figure/Ground Reversals and Dissolution in Sardinal.” In Environment, Infrastructure and Life in the Anthropocene. Edited by Kregg Hetherington. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Call for Applications: 2 year Post Doctoral Scholar (due March 31st, 2023)

I will be expanding this site as the project develops. This includes bringing together a group of collaborators in the US and Costa Rica, as well as incorporating visual, sonic, and cartographic materials.

Mundus Subterraneus, Athanasius Kircher (1665).