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Biopolarity draws on extensive interviews with dozens of coral scientists and on my observations of the international coral reef symposium in Hawaii on June 2016 to document the oscillation of coral scientists between hope and despair in their imaginations of coral futures. At one extreme of the oscillation are catastrophic predictions of the death of corals by the mid-21st century. In this despondent narrative, corals are getting fried and nothing short of an abrupt (and unlikely) shift in how humans use fossil fuels will save them. The pessimistic trajectory of this swing of the pendulum comes replete with daunting maps, images, and algorithms, documented, for example, by the recent, highly reported and minutely recorded coral bleaching events in the northern Great Barrier Reef—whereby huge tracks of coral animal colonies have lost their symbiotic algae and are thereby embarking on a quick and whitened path toward death. On the other extreme are narratives of hope for coral futures to come. Under the hashtag #OceanOptimism, a prominent coral scientist has been documenting hopeful news about the oceans. “We don’t want people going into a catatonic state of sitting in the corner and moaning because all is lost,” another coral explained to me. My article contemplates the tensions between the despair and hope narratives and what they represent. I would offer that they go deeper than localized personal and professional disagreements, that they in fact signify the emerging break between conservation and what some refer to as the new environmentalism. While more traditional conservationists aspire to recreate ecosystems in light of their past histories, new environmentalists regard nature as a garden that can and must be tinkered with and intensely managed. Rather than viewing humans as “screwing it up,” as many traditional conservationists would have it, some see hope in human-nonhuman networks and collaborations and seek to foster such connections.

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Anthropology Now

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This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Anthropology Now on 12/09/2016, available online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19428200.2016.1242908.