Author Archives: nikheynen

Sweet (and sticky) redemption

There is no U.S. agricultural history without the expertise and labor of African people who were enslaved across the South, including the Gullah/Geechee people of the lower Atlantic Coast. But the violence of slavery and white supremacy is tied up with the crops that grew the global economy, embedding sugarcane, cotton, rice, and other historic commercial crops with a traumatic legacy.

[Read whole essay here]

Community Solar as Energy Reparations: Abolishing Petro-Racial Capitalism in New Orleans

Luke, N. and N. Heynen. (2020) “Community Solar as Energy Reparations: Abolishing Petro-Racial Capitalism in New Orleans.” American Quarterly. 72(3): 603-625.

Intro excerpt:

Community solar programs geared to low-income communities strive to address energy poverty or energy insecurity by working around the financial and infrastructural impediments for renters and other customers without adequate infrastructure or the upfront capital to finance a residential solar energy system.3 Customers can harness energy collected at a location other than their home by subscribing to a share of a community-owned solar array and receive credit on their bill for the power produced through their participation. Given the history of racial discrimination in home lending that is reflected in an unequal distribution of property ownership in New Orleans, and the US more widely,4 community solar is a concrete policy intervention with the potential to generate equity in access to renewable energy and reduce disparate energy poverty across racial groups in the transition to clean energy. Distributing access to renewable and affordable electricity through community solar challenges the fossil fuel infrastructures that contribute to energy poverty, housing insecurity, and climate vulnerability and confronts the power relations that sustain petro-racial capitalism in New Orleans. We focus on this policy as an alternative system of energy production and consumption that works to shift the extractive energy paradigm to a renewable and reparative energy system. Importantly, community solar is only a piece of climate justice mobilization in the Gulf Coast, where Indigenous and Black communities are organizing for energy equity and self-determination in the transition to clean energy.5

On Abolition Ecologies and Making “Freedom as a Place”

Heynen, N. and M. Ybarra (2020) “On Abolition Ecologies and Making ‘Freedom as a Place’” Antipode.


This introduction calls for political ecology to systematically engage with the ways that white supremacy shapes human relationships with land through entangled processes of settler colonialism, empire and racial capitalism. To develop the analytic of abolition ecology, we begin with the articulation of W.E.B. Du Bois’ abolition democracy together with Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s spatially attuned analytic of abolition geography. Rather than define communities by the violence they suffer, abolition ecologies call for attention to radical place‐making and the land, air and water based environments within which places are made. To that end, we suggest that an abolition ecology demands attention to the ways that coalitional land‐based politics dismantle oppressive institutions and to the promise of abolition, which Gilmore describes as making “freedom as a place”.

“A plantation can be a commons”: Re‐Earthing Sapelo Island through Abolition Ecology

Heynen, N. (2020). “A plantation can be a commons”: Re‐Earthing Sapelo Island through Abolition Ecology. Antipode.

This paper is based on the 2018 Neil Smith Lecture presented at the University of St Andrews. It considers the plantation past/futures of Sapelo Island, Georgia, one of the Sea Islands forming an archipelago along the US Southeastern coast. I work through the abolitionist efforts of the Saltwater Geechee’s who have resided there since at least 1803 to better understand how we can mobilise an emancipatory politics of land and property and to produce commons that work to repair and heal the violence done through enslavement and ongoing displacement. I weave together a series of historical threads to better situate linked ideas of abolition democracy and abolition geography, and to extend the notion of abolition ecology as a strategic notion to connect Eurocentric based political ecologies with the emancipatory tradition of Black geographies.

Land Trusts as Conservation Boundary Organizations in Rapidly Exurbanizing Landscapes: A Case Study from Southern Appalachia

Brownson, Katherine, Jessica Chappell, Jason Meador, Jennifer Bloodgood, Jillian Howard, Linda Kosen, Hannah Burnett et al. (2020) “Land Trusts as Conservation Boundary Organizations in Rapidly Exurbanizing Landscapes: A Case Study from Southern Appalachia.” Society & Natural Resources 33(10): 1309-1320.

Exurban development is occurring in many formerly rural areas nationwide, often outpacing the ability of institutions to update land use regulations. These pressures can negatively impact local ecosystems and natural resources, including reduced biodiversity and degraded water quality. Local nongovernmental organizations play an important role in promoting conservation in exurban landscapes, where there is relatively little regulatory and institutional infrastructure. Here, we draw on boundary organization theory to discuss how land trusts can function as boundary organizations, by using boundary objects and working as a bridge between community members, scientists, and governments to navigate complex conservation challenges. Mainspring Conservation Trust in southern Appalachia serves as a case study to explore methods for engaging and connecting diverse stakeholders. We show that land trusts can provide a flexible and necessary alternative to regulations for meeting conservation objectives by working at the boundary between science and local action.

What Harriet Tubman and John Brown can teach us about abolishing ‘White men’

Heynen, N. (2020). What Harriet Tubman and John Brown can teach us about abolishing ‘White men’. Dialogues in Human Geography.

This commentary argues that one path toward Natalie Oswin’s ‘An Other Geography’ is through abolishing the institution of ‘White men’. Like other oppressive institutions, ‘White men’ have produced epistemic violence that has shaped and structured the discipline of geography in uneven and unjust ways. This essay is an effort to show appreciation and gratitude, and to stand in solidarity, with Oswin’s prophetic vision of ‘an other geography’. I mobilize the linked biographies of Harriet Tubman and John Brown as an entry point given how little we have yet worked to understand abolitionist history for thinking through the many ways we can work to transform geography.

Unscripted interview with UGA professor Nik Heynen

“Professor Nik Heynen is the co-director of the UGA Cornelia Walker Bailey Program on Land and Agriculture on Sapelo Island. Georgia. One of the natural treasures among the barrier islands along the Georgia coast, Sapelo is the home of the only remaining Gullah-Geechee community in America. The island and its people face threats from rising seas as well as exurbanization. Heynen explains the Cornelia Walker Bailey Program and reflects on the island’s past, present and future, including a variety of fascinating subjects, from sugar cane to one of the earliest Islamic texts found in North America.”

Myths, Cults, Memories, and Revisions in Radical Geographic History

Warren, G. C., Katz, C., & Heynen, N. (2019). Myths, cults, memories, and revisions in radical geographic history: revisiting the Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute. Spatial Histories of Radical Geography: North America and Beyond, 59-85.

The power of myth to take on important political meaning while at the same time obscuring embodied historical geographies lurks everywhere. The mythic status of John Henry, when mobilized by Pete Seeger for instance, was used as a symbol for labor struggles across the U.S. Given the positive portrayal of his racialized might and power, so rarely valorized in mainstream U.S. culture, John Henry’s strength and perseverance were mobilized symbolically in the freedom marches of the civil rights movement. This chapter shows how myths about radical praxis can play tricks with history and geography, wherein some people and places acquire cultish status while others are eclipsed with profound impacts on our understanding of the discipline and its community engagements. It focuses on the basics of the popular, mythological, version of the Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute and Fitzgerald as has been articulated within radical history. The DGEI.

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