Ashley Dawson currently works in the fields of environmental humanities and postcolonial ecocriticism. He is the author of three recent books relating to these fields: People’s Power (O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities (Verso, 2017) and Extinction (O/R, 2016).
People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons provides a persuasive critique of arguments for a market-led transition to renewable energy: not only is such a transition proceeding far too slowly to avert climate catastrophe, but it is doing nothing to rectify the glaring inequalities that modern energy systems have helped cement. The book surveys the early development of the electric grid in the United States, telling the story of battles for public control over power during the Great Depression. This history frames accounts of contemporary campaigns, in both the United States and Europe, that eschew market fundamentalism and sclerotic state power in favor of energy that is green, democratically managed and equitably shared.
Extreme Cities argues that cities are ground zero for climate change, contributing the lion’s share of carbon to the atmosphere, while also lying on the frontlines of rising sea levels. Today, the majority of the world’s megacities are located in coastal zones, yet few of them are adequately prepared for the floods that will increasingly menace their shores. Extreme Cities offers an alarming portrait of the future of our cities, describing the efforts of Staten Island, New York, and Shishmareff, Alaska residents to relocate; Holland’s models for defending against the seas; and the development of New York City before and after Hurricane Sandy. Our best hope lies not with fortified sea walls, the book argues, but rather with urban movements already fighting to remake our cities in a more just and equitable way.
Extinction: A Radical History surveys the current devastation of the natural world, which affects not just large rhinos and pandas but humbler realms of creatures including beetles, bats and butterflies. Dawson argues that this devastation is the product of a global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants and creatures, as well as collectively created cultural forms such as language, that have been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole. This attack has its genesis in the need for capital to expand relentlessly into all spheres of life. Extinction, the book argues, cannot be understood in isolation from a critique of our economic system.
Prior to this work in environmental humanities, Dawson published two monographs focused on diasporic studies: Mongrel Nation: Diasporic Culture and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (University of Michigan Press, 2007) and The Routledge Concise History of Twentieth-Century British Literature (2013). The first of these, Mongrel Nation, explores the history of the United Kingdom’s African, Asian, and Caribbean populations from 1948 to the present, working at the juncture of cultural studies, literary criticism, and postcolonial theory. Dawson argues that during the past fifty years Asian and black intellectuals from Sam Selvon to Zadie Smith have continually challenged the United Kingdom’s exclusionary definitions of citizenship, using innovative forms of cultural expression to reconfigure definitions of belonging in the postcolonial age. Radical aesthetic work was a natural accomplice to and corollary of the radical political movements that were to fight successfully for liberation in the second half of the twentieth century.
Professor Dawson is also the co-editor of five books, all of which have a strong scholar-activist slant; he has also edited numerous themed journal issues, and published more than 60 articles in peer reviewed journals and edited collections. Many of these articles can be accessed through his personal website, which can be found here.
Dawson is the founder of the Climate Action Lab at CUNY and a member of the Occupy Climate Change! research project headquartered at the Environmental Humanities Laboratory in Sweden. Dawson is also a long-time member of the Social Text Collective, where he served for many years as editor of Social Text Online. In this capacity, he curated dossiers of essays on topics as diverse as the legacy of Black British intellectual Stuart Hall, the strengths and pitfalls of the Occupy movement, and the politics of debt, among many other subjects.