For some time now it has seemed that an ecological or green approach to the world we live in offers the likeliest systematic alternative to the free market ideology that has driven globalization for the last three decades. Sian Sullivan offers, in her paper Banking nature? The financialization of environmental conservation, a sharp corrective to the assumption that ecology and market are inevitably antithetical, as well as to the notion that the crisis of 2008 has substantially impeded the progress of finance, world conquest by the bean-counters and fortune hunters. For she describes here an astonishing marriage of business and nature, the drive to make the logic and practice of money-making the principal means of coordinating environmental conservation.
Anthropology at its best has always shocked complacent audiences with hitherto unsuspected aspects of human behaviour. But our stock-in-trade used to be exploring the remoter niches of the planet, while ignoring the forces of contemporary world history. I defy any reader of Sian's paper not to rub their eyes with shock and dismay at what they find there. Yet she is describing the very frontiers of capital accumulation in our world. Although it is long and full of footnotes for the intrepid (plus nice pics!), the story she tells is a riveting read. In addition to offering a forward-looking model of anthropological inquiry at the global level, she links her revelations to Marxist and Foucauldian theory, making the financialization of nature another phase of primitive accumualtion and a new kind of neoliberal environmentality. How to stop the monetary machine and what to put in its place? Sian hints at an alternative in her conclusions. But first she wants to make sure that we understand the beast itself.
Sian is an anthropologist interested in shamanism, cultural landscapes, human-nonhuman relationships, and the politics of biodiversity conservation. She received her PhD from University College London in 1998 and currently teaches courses on Cultural Landscapes and Environment and Development at Birkbeck College (Dept. of Geography, Environment and Development Studies). She has conducted field research with Damara / ≠Nū Khoen people in northwest Namibia, and in social contexts associated with the global justice movement. Much of her published work can be found online at http://siansullivan.wordpress.com.
Replies are closed for this discussion.
Sian, as I have implied, our first task here should be to explore the extraordinarily rich scenario of improbable convergence that you depict. I for one have never before come across as wide-ranging and detailed an account of the financial frontier that you expose for us. There are so many features that I am sure our members will want to clarify or hear more about. But I want to lay down three larger questions to which our discussion might turn at a later point. They overlap of course. Certainly you are under no obligation to respond now.
The conquest of nature by finance that you describe so vividly here rests on an economics that is much richer in scope than the academic discipline allows for. You show us frontiers, spectacle, making the invisible visible, the inexorability of accountancy and much more besides. This is the world of bankers more than economists. It seems that the synthesis of finance and ecology arises because both address the global dimensions of human existence at a time when our political structures do not. Both appear to be progressive and reactionary at the same time. I wonder if an ideological or analytical focus on ecology is a promising alternative to market mania.
You make it clear that, seen from the perspective you document here, the financial crisis of 2008 was just a hiccup in the relentless march of neoliberal globalization. Within anthropology, the Comaroffs have argued a similar position for South Africa as a sort of bellwether for the contemporary world. Yet you also advocate a radically different approach to society and environment. What do you imagine are the kinds of social forces being generated today on which such an alternative might be based?
You bring out, in your section on primitive accumulation, the affinity between Marx and Polanyi's idea of the fictitious commodities. In both cases the subsumption of human livelihoods to the logic of capital is seen as being potentially disastrous. Yet, while Polanyi certainly was an Aristotelian in identifying the threat posed by money and markets to a society based on nature, Marx argued against many of his contemporaries like Proudhon, the Social Ricardians and Robert Owen that money is indispensible to the functioning of complex societies. How far would you go in arguing for non-monetary alternatives to financialization?
This is a very interesting institutional discourse analysis of this emerging financial frontier, it is a mapping that I was looking for, since I am working on an ethnography of the implementation of the Forest Rights Act in India, and one sees these issues emerging on the ground as well. I will move rapidly to criticism and questioning, but please do not let that obscure that I found a lot of very useful material in the paper.
1) I find it problematic that you employ the category "non-human nature" in the way that you do. I understand that this stems from a critical awareness of the problems of "nature" as a category, but it seems to get in the way later on in the analysis. Basically there is a "complex agent" of nature and human subsistence activities that is hinted at near the ned of the paper, but not really explored. It is not just the pacification / patientisation of nature one is talking of but also the patientisation of communities dependent on that nature-to-be-banked. Rather in the style of Frieire's "banking education" these communities are placed within frameworks of "managed participation". The history of Joint Forest Management is being applied in India in that way , precisely to prepare for Carbon-funded afforestation. I know that you are keenly aware of such issues, but the discourse analysis rather than ethnographic focus of the paper seems to have let this slip a bit conceptually.
2) There, to me, is a bit of a lack of synthesis of the overall drift of flexible-ised financial instruments. From housing markets to stock markets to micro-credit, to flexible labour markets, to GM seeds to farmers, there is a process of risk transfer from powerful to less powerful economic actors going on, which seems systematic. Bankers are very clear that they are in teh business of managing risk to their advantage, their is a converse to this. This is particularly serious given that climate change itself is a form of risk transfer from energy consumers (i.e. the rich) to those dependent on environmental stability and basic commodity markets (err the poor are most vulnerable in this context.) So I think the risk transfer aspect is key to explore.
3) Governmentality is a difficult and slippery concept, poorly defined by Foucault, and very variably applied in his wake. For instance "environmentality" has an almost celebratory ring in Arun Agrawal's hands, quite distinct from how you adress it here. The problem here, I feel, is an implied idealism. It is the ways in which regimes are enforced in practice, which circumscribe people's room for praxis, which I feel defines governmentalities on the ground. This is also an issue for the Elites, they subscribe to positions that suit them in very politically tactical senses, and without tracking the "games" they engage in, these strategies of power are hardly deciferable.
What I am saying is that my ethnographic experience is that these governing mentalities are not imposed from a centralised store of resources, but are implicated in circulations of power that are also implicated with not only strategic but also tactical political concerns at every level, and that these concerns circulate between these scales. In other words I think that "governmentality" is a concept that is in danger of missing these issues of practice, and so need to be approached ethnographically, as much as do the livlihood/ environment interfaces you mention.
Having made those 3 criticism, my overall feeling is that I would like you to do more work in these areas, particularly ethnographies that show these ideas circulating and being mobilised and transformed in practice. It is very nice to see others working on these kinds of issues.
From Eliza Darling on my Facebook page which contains a number of other comments:
Good paper. Cindi Katz's article "Whose Nature, Whose Culture? Private Productions of Space and the 'Preservation' of Nature" (1998) - on nature a as new accumulation strategy for capital as the latter hits the absolute boundaries of geographical expansion and commences a sort of "involution" of space - might be helpful for Sian.
Thank you, Sian, for bringing this important topic to our attention. What interests me is the power of the marketing process by which new and shifting stories are invented, told and re-told, of who we are and what is our purpose here on earth, until we lose awareness of our connectedness within nature and we accept and internalize new roles as owners and managers of nature and producers of nature's bounty. These stories become the basis for financial instruments and derivatives whose power over us is leveraged to be many times greater than that of our interdependent relationships within the underlying natural systems. I see the difficulty, mentioned above by Daniel, of dividing nature into the human and the non-human, as an illustration of the power of these stories, and as a consequence of a divide-and-conquer strategy that we have internalized and normalized to separate ourselves from nature. Perhaps, Sian, you are using this opposition of human and non-human nature in an ironic way, to illustrate some of the contradictions that lie on this path. I think anthropologists have an important role to play, in keeping alive all of the diverse stories of who we are and our purpose here on earth, and not allowing a single story to dominate all others. Sian's paper illustrates the urgency of participating actively in this role.
Before I get started, thanks Sian for contributing your paper for this online discussion. As someone who is currently wading through the concept of "value" in relation to international development and tourism, I definitely appreciate the scale of your discussion here. A couple of thoughts...
First of all, I can't help but start with the end...the very last line. How do you feel that anthropologists can "open up" the "possibilities" for thinking about and conceptualizing human/non-human ecologies without the ever present "structuring sign of money"? (34). Also, if this way of thinking about and commoditizing nature is so pervasive for particular global actors (ie bankers) how can anthropologists actually communicate these non-monetized conceptions about these interwoven ecologies? For me, that's one of the big questions. Anthropologists are particularly good at convincing other anthropologists, but what about making this argument to a roomful of bankers, developers, and state planners? Or is that the wrong place/forum to take this battle?
Second: I appreciate your use of Foucault here to explore the idea of environmentality in relation to the reformulation of nature as a "service-provider and store of capital" (31). You also argue, following Foucault's use of the term "docile bodies," that nature is "being made conceptually docile" (30). Nature, you argue, enters a "'machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it,' thus bending and releasing its immanent forces toward economic utilitiy" (31). Through these powerful discursive reformulations, you continue, "Nature's agency is foundationally discounted, and human:non-human relationships become further disciplined into master-slave or doctor-patient configurations" (33).
My questions about your discussion of environmentality: where are the gaps in this seemingly endless economization and financialization? Foucault also argued that power is never really complete, that it cannot be possessed like an object, and that it is based upon certain strategic relationships. I understand the argument for the pervasive financialization of nature, but where do these discourses break down? Like globalization, I doubt they are as all-encompassing as some may argue--and maybe the job of the anthropologist is to not only trace these larger discourses but also find out where they are being challenged? If nature does indeed have a sort of agency of its own, then when and where are these best laid plans or financialized discourses that commoditize nature running up against the incontrovertible wall of reality? Where are the cracks in this power structure - or do you see this as an unstoppable process?
Speaking of the conversion of nature into "tradable commodities for environmental conservation," you write, "They are structuring nature into the reified and exchangeable commodity form in previously unthought ways, at the same time as creating additional ways of bringing diverse peoples into the global market in service of these new commodity forms" (29-30). This passage really makes me think of the international tourism market, especially those markets that are literally banking on ecotourism and conservation. Certain conservation initiatives seem to be as much about creating value for tourism as they are about actually conserving places and ecologies. The value of certain places, it seems, comes from the potential for tourism above all else. These issues relate directly to the upcoming fieldwork I will be doing...I don't really have a question here but I am fascinated by this idea that these ways of conceptualizing nature in particular financial terms can have some pretty dramatic material and social effects, even if they are framed in terms of market efficiency and so on. Some of my questions are methodological--I keep wondering about ways to connect these larger processes and discourses with the perceptions and experiences of people who actually have to deal with them (in all of their forms) in specific locations/places on the ground. Making these kinds of connections is the big anthropological task these days!
Once again, thanks for the thoughtful paper.
Thank you for all your thoughtful comments. Please see the file attached above -- I didn't know I couldn't post something longer than 4k characters here!
Thanks Sian, for these extensive comments which were too long to include in this format. I am reproducing them in a series of posts (without footnotes which may be read in the file above), so that participants may refer to them online.
Sian Sullivan 1
Firstly, many thanks for your helpful comments, queries and additional reference suggestions so far, and particular thanks to Keith Hart for inviting me to share this working paper on OAC.
As you might have gathered, I am fascinated, perhaps somewhat morbidly so, with the ways in which nature currently is being conceptualised such that ‘it’ is easier to align with commodity-making processes, including finance commodities. When I first heard in the early 1990s about suggestions for carbon trading I remember thinking, Come on!, surely this will never catch on. How on earth could anyone think that industrial emissions and car fumes are equivalent to the stunningly complex, diverse and long-evolved forests of the global south? And what then would this re-imagining have for the equally stunning human cultures entangled with these landscapes?
But this is exactly what has happened in carbon trading, and is being rolled out as the model for the ‘valuing’ and conservation of myriad other domains of life. It is the attendant exclusions that I am concerned with: both of alternative understandings of ‘non-human natures’; and of understandings and practices of being human in relationship with all other manifestations of life. As ecologist Richard Norgaard describes, in shoe-horning our understandings of nature into monetary terms and concepts, whether metaphorical or as newly devised commodities, a foundational contraction of possibilities for understanding, both ecological and cultural, is occurring. Possibilities for different culture: nature praxes are being foreclosed, even as this new frontier for capital investment in nature conservation is composing new ‘socionature’ and ‘world-ecology’ possibilities. What I am attempting to do here is to consider what pattern emerges when you connect the ‘dots’ of current empowered discourses and trajectories, and to draw attention to possibly problematic socio-ecological outcomes.
Sian Sullivan 2
Two emphases in the comments so far has been to ask both how anthropologists might engage in a critical debate regarding these issues – to ‘speak truth to power’ as it were; and how I might anchor my own work and thinking in ethnographic depth and detail. These are critically important questions. The first challenges us to both traverse and connect the particular with the universalising, and to engage politically – to be militant even – at the same time as satisfying disciplinary criteria for doing work that can be considered ‘anthropology’. In this I am happy to be following David Graeber in this online seminar series whose work to connect complex anthropological insights with contemporary political understanding and activism has been a significant inspiration for me. Currently I work with a number of researchers concerned with the displacement effects that can be associated with biodiversity conservation practice, and we have attempted individually and collectively to make interventions that highlight these issues in broader policy and popular contexts. Often these have focused on critique of the implicit distinguishing of natural history from human dwelling that occurs in much conservation discourse and practice, and the pathologies associated with creating enclaves of ‘wild nature’ (sometimes through eviction) that are very specifically humanised even as they are posited as being ‘wild’. Geoff Chesshire is right to note that I use the term ‘non-human nature’ specifically here to speak of the divide between human and non-human worlds that often is assumed to be necessary in order to know and conserve nature.
At the heart of this engagement for me is a gut-feeling that much of the current impasse we are experiencing in terms of relationships between human and non-human natures – as seems manifest in contemporary socio-ecological crises, and the tragedy of irreversible extinction of biocultural diversity - flows from the foundational distinction between culture and nature that shores up modernity’s assumptions about the nature of reality. I am with Bruno Latour on this, and greatly value the conceptual spaces he is opening up for (re)assembling and (re)composing socionatures that are entangled in ways that perhaps support rather than further fragment the biocultural diversity of ‘life’s nature’. In terms of my own ethnographic background, the ‘institutional discourse analysis’ as Daniel frames it (I didn’t know that this was what I was doing so thank you for that!) presented in this ‘Banking Nature’ paper emerges from the feeling that new renderings of nature are critically inconsistent either with my own experience(s), or with the understandings and experiences of possible relationships between human and non-human worlds that I learned in my fieldwork with Damara / ≠Nū Khoen people in north-west Namibia. Nb. Keith, I have not worked with Kalahari San! And I resist the category ‘hunter-gatherer’. I think this is too simplistic and ahistorical a framing of people who incorporate and procure a range of livelihood sources. I have not heard any of the people I have worked with speak of nature specifically as like a bank, and am interested to know of references for where this is the case. My current work flows from attempting to understand the institutional restructuring of the north-west Namibian landscape that occurred where I conducted my earlier fieldwork through the introduction of new conservation and development management structures under Namibia’s national programme for Community Based Natural Resources Management or CBNRM. In other words, I see there as being a direct connection between these domains of focus.
In any case, reflections on the overlaps and disjunctures between a technologically virtualising management of an increasingly abstracted and tradable nature, and possibilities for understandings based on direct relationships and experiences of nature’s immanence, are what concern me here. Work that explores more of this detail is on my website, and perhaps might provide some of the ethnographic focus that commentators acknowledge is missing in the current paper.
Sian Sullivan 3
On this point, I do think that in anthropology we can be quite hampered by a charge that in speaking of such alternatives we might iterate a romantic and nostalgic construction of indigenous peoples, as living in some sort of unreachable and ahistorical harmony with a spirited nature. Adam Kuper, for example, argues that such a romanticism, and a delineating of ‘indigenous peoples’ and affective relationships with ‘the environment’ more generally, effects a problematic ‘return of the native’ in anthropology. He suggests that this echoes earlier characterisations that served to denote and demote the ‘other’, and that made possible the displacements and violences that then occurred so as to commoditise people and nature as labour and land. I think, though, that there is a danger here of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Of implying that it is only legitimate to understand relationships between culture and nature from the perspective of a significant onto-epistemological distinction between them, from which ‘nature’ can only be peered at from the culture side of the fence, unable to communicate or to act, due to the conceptual mechanism of being rendered mute. This is an onto-epistemological heresy for many (including myself), and I am in some good company here: see in particular work by anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and ecological ethicist Patrick Curry. But nevertheless this ‘heresy’ is the conceptual basis on which most conservation policy and practice currently is constructed, leading to the pathological attempt to solve problems by applying the very thinking and associated technocratic solutions through which identified problems were created. It thus becomes important to engage with and to unlearn current thinking, as a sensible, healthy and creative response both to understanding current socio-ecological impasse, and to making gestures towards composing something different.
And so I agree completely with Ryan Anderson’s affirmation of Foucault’s assertion that the strategic relationships, practices and discourses that become empowered always also contain their own ‘gaps’; their own contradictions and possibilities for breakdown, subversion, and reconstitution. Perhaps, in a sense, this seminar is one of those gaps. And perhaps what is necessary is an intention to change the terms of the conversation wherever this is possible; to not agree and to not collude, even in the smallest moments.
But in changing the conversation, we also need to have something different to say. This I think is where anthropological work can speak. But to do so in ways that open up the terms of reference in my view requires that we don’t stitch ourselves into conceptual corners from where it is not possible to speak from experiences of other realities (as noted above). As Ryan notes, it also requires making our work accessible, in terms both of how and where we communicate. This can be hard in academic contexts and with workloads that might devalue broader engagement. Each of us will be different in this respect in what we might wish or want to do, and I have no intention of being more than suggestive in this regard.
And then there’s capitalism. This brings in a somewhat tautological ‘Of Course!’ when thinking these issues through. Of course those that thereby are empowered will not (want to) see that the assumption that incentivised self-interested profit-oriented behaviour for the trade of new environmental commodities perhaps is the last thing that will engender equitable and ethical ecological relationships for a diverse commons of human and non-human natures. It also draws into focus the real disciplining constraints that are called on whenever (un)civil society seriously threatens the status quo, or whenever the resources needed to power the beast happen to be located in someone else’s land. In speaking of the niceties of neoliberalism’s hybrid uptakes and progressive manifestations in specific localities, I think then that it also is important to not lose sight of the disciplined closures of alternatives on which its roll out is predicated. Whilst I agree with Daniel that neoliberal governmentality is embodied in techniques, practices and contestations at different scales and contexts, it has been salutary in the UK, for example, to witness the pace at which banks have been shored up by centralised decision-making over tax-payers resources, and the rapidity with which the funding of our entire education system is being overhauled in ways that will see loan giving bodies benefit from the accrual of interest gained on student fees. It has been hard in these contexts to see that protest and alternatives are being heard or are able to manifest different outcomes. On which point, thanks also to Daniel for highlighting the risk transfer aspects of current financialisation agendas. I agree that this is a key and unproblematised facet of financialisation phenomena. Unsurprisingly, it also aligns well with a managerial construction of people in ‘ecosystem service-providing landscapes’ that creates them as service-providers for consumers elsewhere; at the same time as perhaps indebting them on the basis of the ‘value’ of the services they have so far maintained (as in the proposals for environmental mortgages that I mention).
Thanks again for your thoughtful comments!