In my research on scientists in Brazilian who make bioproducts, like biofuels and bioplastics, from sugarcane, this sugar library became a methodology for tracking sugar(cane)’s many such transformations. The original research question guiding my project was how sugarcane—a crop with a five-hundred-year history in Brazil that includes slavery-based colonial extraction, violent labor conditions, and environmental destruction—could be transformed into the basis of new sustainable futures. In order to track this transformation, I started by collecting all the various forms of sugar(cane) I encountered in the field and beyond. How do certain forms relate to others? How does one form become another? I was capacious in what I recorded as a sugar(cane) form. As you can observe in the sugar library here, I catalogued artifacts ranging from images, photos I took, physical items (accompanied by photos), stories people told me, their decades-old memories, broader discourses I heard often, poems, artwork, knowledge artifacts like metrics and charts, and even absences and gaps. I’ve catalogued over five hundred entries.
Throughout my research and data analysis, the sugar library helped make clear that not only were there many instances of sugarcane being transformed into something else—biofuels, bioplastics, profit, hope, ideas of sustainability, biotech companies, research funding, racialized social systems, monocrop ecologies, job creation, job loss, regional economic disparities—but there were many different ways this transformation happens. The question is not how sugarcane is transformed, but what’s at stake with the numerous different ways that sugarcane is transformed? What social and political worlds are created when sugarcane is transformed one way into certain things, versus when sugarcane is transformed a different way into other things, or even the same things? What if we start asking about not only what we’re making out of sugarcane, but the mode in which we do so? This is an important question to ask in a world where changing the source of our materials—say, from fossil fuels to renewable sources—might be seen as enough to address the climate crisis, when in fact this doesn’t change the systems of racializing, extractive, growth-based capitalism at the root of many contemporary crises, climate change being one of them.
I’m using this sugar library to continue working on answers to these questions. As a catalog of artifacts with no inherent structuring or hierarchy, it allows me to explore juxtapositions and comparisons that might be otherwise hard to see or notice. The sugar library is also an important methodology for publicly sharing some of my data, in a different form than an already-written journal article or book. I hope this sugar library can be useful to other scholars working on sugarcane, bioproducts, industrial agriculture, or biotech, as well as interesting to practitioners in these fields who might inhabit sugar(cane) worlds similarly or differently. At the end of the day, it matters how we tell stories about our world—including about how we’re going to tackle climate and other crises—and a library like this might offer one place to look for different ways of telling such stories.
Click on the title of the image (sugar_#) to see a description and metadata (date and place of creation, etc.). Entries are not intended to be read in order, so feel welcome to scroll and choose entries randomly.