OAC Online Seminar from 14-31 March Sian Sullivan Banking Nature?

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.

Views: 775

Replies are closed for this discussion.

Replies to This Discussion

I think you're getting the idea, and seeing the challenges.   My suggestion is mainly to search for some source of holistic thinking that is missing from business thinking.   Any source of ecological thinking would teach you about the natural challenge for any new actor taking on a bigger and bigger roles in their environment, and then having to watch for conflicts.   The emerging conflicts that business decisions create could even be one part of nature that would be very profitable to "monetize", and with a holistic interpretation give business a kind of "community information" to keep it from walking blindly into costly conflicts with the rest of the business and natural community.

The feeling of being in no position to change "the system" is not just for women seeking a greater role for their values and also for workers everywhere, but it's also the feeling conveyed to me by CEO's and government policy experts too.   So, your observation that somehow it's "community" that is needed is just the kind of thing to focus on.  In healthy community you find examples of the language for how things work in nature, and so can closely study how it develops. 

In a healthy community people do what they want, made possible by being aware of each other's needs and understanding how the whole community responds.   Families are usually where our learning about that begins.   For the economic community new employees in a business are "shown the ropes" as their introduction, and then proceed up the ladder if they are more effective in expanding the business's control of its markets and resources.  

If what they're learning as they advance in business is to worship that "bottom line" of ever increasing conquest, maybe the question is whether that erases the wisdom of community they learned as a child?    Maybe it only makes most people "put it in a box" to not open while they're at work.  If so, might someone suggest people open the box to see what's there, that might apply to the increasing failure of business to work as a community?

Allow me to suggest that business success occurs along more than one critical path. Some, like a certain bond trader described by Taleb, are incredibly lucky; they believe in their own genius because others believe in it, too, the result of fundamentally random but winning bets placed in the bond market's big casino. Others are brilliant but nasty martinets, like "Neutron" Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric. Some, whose achievements are frequently featured in Harvard Business Review, are devotees of team play, alliance-forging, and doing well by doing good. A rare few are like George Soros, hugely successful tough competitors but also aware that, while the market is a great wealth-generating machine, it is no guarantee of social justice. They may even, like Soros, go so far as to put their money where their mouths are. It may thus be a bit too simplistic to embrace an Atlas Shrugged model that suggests that to all successful business people business is war, the desire for community must be repressed, and anything goes in pursuit of crushing the competition. It may also be worth taking a hint from previous generations of successful revolutionaries, recognizing that sometimes forging a united front may be a tactical, even strategic, necessity.

Sian, thanks for your response. As Keith intimated, I'm afraid that was the full response from my contact in the EIB!

Geoff makes the point that "the real question is not how well we learn to understand and describe the world, but which forces we empower, which kinds of values, relationships and stories we reinforce with this knowledge". By working in such institutions as the World Bank or the EIB one is able to provide space for marginalised people to speak, to question established explanations, and tell stories to audiences that would not have previously considered listening. In Sinai the concerns of the resident bedouin communities combined with the local environmental lobby to protect an endangered coastline, were foregrounded by the EIB complaints department in their report. The result was the relocation of an electricity generating plant and a rethinking of the ministry of energy's approach to environmental impact assessment. The EIB's concern for the Roma inhabitants of an informal settlement under the Gazela bridge in Belgrade (in need of extensive repair) resulted in a much more robust approach to resettlement by the municipal authorities and continuing pressure to show successful resettlement results. The suggestion that loans to repair/upgrade irrigation canals in Pakistan might be supporting the continued feudal landlord system were met with consternation however. As were suggestions that loans for retail shop developments should look at the treatment of employees and make sure that they were fairly treated. It is not so much that what one said necessarily had concrete results but that one was engaging and obliging others to take on board different perspectives. The EIB's 'Social Assessment Guidance Notes' were only approved some five years ago (they appear as Annex 13 - the final annex in the Handbook). For the majority of project managers what is contained in them is 'common sense'. It is only when one begins to question that 'common sense' that problems are encountered. Critical NGOs focus on the 'letter' of the guidance notes and internal commentaries respond to that 'letter'. The elephant in the room - the actual focus of and justification for this finance - is thereby ignored. A recent comment from CEE Bankwatch on the work of the EIB and EBRD highlights some of the wider problems that remain un-addressed because of the silos and/or bunkers in which the financial engagement is rationalised.

Sian Sullivan said:

Dear David ~ thanks indeed for your engagement. I am fascinated by the comment from your EIB contact (would it be possible to see the full response?), and also by the examples of EIB engagement you highlight here. I am familiar with Chipko and similar movements and thanks for mentioning these here. I understand these as movements articulating a range of concerns around livelihoods, self-determination, resource and land rights, identity etc. that coalesce around desires for retaining the land-entwined economies that support all of these dimensions of being human.

I am glad that you liked the Resurgence piece ~ in case other readers are interested, the pre-edit version is available here.

Re: your 7th May invitation ~ thank you very much for this. Unfortunately I will not be able to take you up on this because I will be out of London on study leave. I wish you a very productive sharing at this meeting.





David Marsden said:

Sian, thanks for sharing this very rich and thought-provoking contribution with us. I had to do a little background reading before responding, and, thanks to Wikipedia, I am now a little more familiar with such terms as ‘onto-epistemological’ than I was, and I think I appreciate the use of the term ‘non-human nature’ a little better – my take is that it is a way of moving beyond the nature/culture divide. My take on ‘speaking truth to power’ (in your first extensive response) is the need to widen ‘gaps’; to open up rather than close down – something that I have always thought anthropology was good at doing. In that respect, I thought your article in Resurgence was clearer in making your points to a wider audience. Forgive me if I have misread your argument.

 

I emailed a copy of your paper to the Chief Environmentalist and Head of the Environment, Climate and Social Office at the European Investment Bank – my former employer – with a request for comments. (The EIB is a key player in developing Carbon Finance). This is what came back. “Anything can be marketised, given the right regulation !”  What am I to make of that? He didn’t have time to think through a suitable response? Coming from this particular anthropologist, he did not think it worth engaging? The language used was unfamiliar to him? As a neo-liberal economist it can be assumed that ‘of course!’ anything can be commoditised? How do we open up the ‘gaps’ so that we might engage with different perspectives more effectively? What compromises need to be made to effectively negotiate a shift?  

 

The EIB has a large (and expanding) interest in forests. A brief introduction can be found here. While working with them I was involved with an appraisal team looking at a potential project in Uganda. Forest Land is technically owned by the State. It is in forest land that this private entrepreneur is investing. Forest land is administered by the forest department – a legacy of British imperialism in Uganda as in India and elsewhere. With population expansion and a lack of resources in the Forest Department, much ‘forest land’ has become scrubland, pastureland, and sites for impromptu village developments since independence – no trees surviving! Leasing to private companies has become a source of additional revenue for the state. Legally all settlers are squatters. As in India there have been continual disputes between the state and ‘illegal residents’ (see here).  These private investments have been seen as progressive ways of engaging with local residents as well as expanding biodiversity. The Co-op has been a leader here, although not without controversy. From within the EIB we were able to ensure that the company talked with campaigning NGOs, worked in partnership with local developmental NGOs, built in training and employment opportunities for local residents. While this is very little in shifting perspectives it is one of a number of ways in which positions can be challenged.  The Complaints Mechanism within the EIB is emerging as an important vehicle for thinking through engagements. The Operations Evaluation Department and the Independent Inspection Panel at the World Bank serve to challenge monopolies over explanation and direction.

 

Over the last decades there have been considerable efforts to counter the monopoly that the State has over forest land. In India the Chipko movement (‘hug a tree’) was significant in building a constituency for joint- and participatory forest management. Similar movements in Latin America have challenged governments and multi-nationals. While they are beset with inevitable contradictions and problems they do provide opportunities for sharing ‘common’ forest resources and challenging assumptions. See here for a history of forests in India. It is such efforts and others described in The Human Economy (edited by Keith Hart, Jean-Louis Laville and Antonio David Cattani), and building on the work of the World Social Forum, that provide the ‘gaps’ for challenging monopolies over explanation and opportunities for building new pathways.  Paul Ekins’ (Ed.) The Living Economy, published in 1986, and building on the legacy of Schumacher, also offered interesting pathways for an earlier generation.

 

You might be aware of the recently created London Anthropology Forum. One of whose aims is to provide a ‘face-to-face’ opportunity to discuss significant contemporary issues. As you are based in London I would like to invite you to speak to the issues raised in your paper at the next meeting of the Forum, planned for Saturday May 7th to be held at the London School of Oriental & African Studies. This might provide an opportunity to identify additional ‘gaps’ that we can open and through which we can more effectively ‘speak truth to power’.

John, Of course there is a lot of variety in business people and their practices, and also that without business community support any proposed change in common practices would not get anywhere.   But still, somehow the system as a whole operates more in the manner of the least caring and least conscious of its model citizens.  I take that as evidence of emergent behavior of the whole that is different from the average behavior of the visible parts.  

So, that's sort of the systems question.  We see that the highly organized behavior of our whole culture conflicts with both the apparent and strongly felt self-interests of nearly everyone in the culture.   No one wants to burn up the earths resources at an ever faster pace, to the point that demand exceeds supply on a permanent basis and the devolution of the society begins.   No one wants that, but that's very much what we're seeing unfolding, isn't it?

We've been talking about the difference between lifestyles based on following rules, like monetizing nature to treat it as an investment commodity to use for maximizing growing profits, and the quite different issues that come up in considering holistic responses to complex community relationships.  Is that where the disconnection between our values and our behavior is?   Or is it somewhere else?    Are there rules of capital accumulation that are so pervasive that virtually no one notices they are there, but actually rule the behavior of the whole society, perhaps?   It's clear that people are just not asking the right questions it would seem, isn't it? 

 

John McCreery said:

Allow me to suggest that business success occurs along more than one critical path. ... [and]  thus be a bit too simplistic to embrace an Atlas Shrugged model that suggests that to all successful business people business is war, the desire for community must be repressed, and anything goes in pursuit of crushing the competition.  It may also be worth taking a hint from previous generations of successful revolutionaries, recognizing that sometimes forging a united front may be a tactical, even strategic, necessity.

I don't know why I didn't think of this before. Roy ('Skip') Rappaport made his name by writing what is still the best-known ecological ethnography, Pigs for the Ancestors (1968). But his masterpiece was published posthumously, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999). Skip believed that the divergence of science and religion, with the consequent rise of economics to the status of a pseudo-religion, was a disaster and it was linked to the dominance of physics as cosmology. He proposed an approach to religion that was consistent with scientific law and a cosmology based on ecology. He believed that ritual was the ground where religion is made, so he devoted 11 of 14 chapters to an amazingly systematic analysis of ritual. But the last two chapters explore what a world religion based on ecology might be. He knew and respected systems theory, but drew on a very wide range of anthropological approaches. I wrote the foreword to the book and edited it for publication. I do believe that is the best source for Phil's question about how anthropology might address the issues he raises.

 

The last chance to post here will be March 30th which means I will close the seminar early on March 31st (Thursday). I do this because we are trying to develop a format for our online seminar series and I don't want it to evolve into just another discussion thread. Ritual matters and we have already departed enough from the form I was trying to develop. Anyone who would like to contribute blog posts in future or to start a new Group would be more than welcome. In the meantime, I would like to thank Sian especially and all the participants for what turned out in the end to be an important discussion that will always be read and referred to here.

Phil, the god money calls, a sudden surge of work in the inbox. Just a couple more thoughts to see what you think. The core of both observations is the proposition that current ideologies and institutions may matter less than we think.

 

1. It is now a well-established result in network analysis that large networks tend to self-organize around dominant hubs, with the centrality of vertices controlled by a power law—basically the old Pareto principle: the rich get richer and richer, or, in the language of economics the GINI coefficient (range of incomes, however they are measured) gets larger and larger. Absent strong countervailing institutions, e.g., steeply progressive income and inheritance taxes, this will happen. In a totally free market, the outcome is inevitable.

 

2. History suggests that the specific form of economic organization is not a major determining factor affecting the polarization of rich and poor: Whether its ancient Rome, imperial China, the former USSR, or the Neoliberal global economy, the predictable outcome is the same (see 1). The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and then things go to hell. 

 

As far as I can make out, there have always been people who railed against the injustice of these outcomes and prophesied the catastrophes that overtook three of the four examples mentioned above. What should make us think that we can do better? That seems to me the critical question.

The sun was already high when I drove my new Japanese car round the last bend onto the straight stretch before the junction. It looked as if a pile of rags had been left in the road. Rather than run over them, I stopped. It was a very thin man, a beggar with tangled dreadlocks, apparently asleep. I got out and tried to rouse him. It wasn’t easy.

“Hey! Get to the side of the road. You’ll be run over here.”

“It’s warmer in the middle than the side.”

(In desperation) “What’s your name?”

A beautiful smile lit up his face. “Alvin. No-one has asked me my name for twenty years.”

“OK, Alvin. How about moving to the side?”.

He moved.

“Have you had anything to eat today?”

“No”.

“Here, take this and get some patties down at Liguanea.”

I gave him a small banknote which he put straight in his mouth. He began to eat it pensively. I ran to the car and drove away as fast as I could.

As Dr. Johnson says, “Smile with the wise, eat with the rich”.

Jamaica
1987

John, good questions both. 

As to #1, observations of network analysis are of the end patterns that organic development arrives at, viewed in hindsight.  As a result they're generally not informed by a study of the natural process of accumulation that leads to the pattern found.  How to do the later is what I discovered a cypher for, and that’s what makes my approach different.   For a balanced understanding you need to combine the two, the study of arrangements and the processes by which they accumulate.  

When you do, several very interesting things pop out.  One is that the processes of accumulation always start with compound acceleration, and for any lasting change of state, always then proceed by asymptotic deceleration.  That is where the ubiquitous "S" curves of development come from it seems, the transition from an initial explosion of self-replication that then matures to form a stable new system as it integrates with its environment.  The dominance of hubs in the end result often comes from the latter phase of growth, when unnecessary connections are dropped.   The growth process itself seems to not be hub dominated though, but more "hive dominated".  Hives are networks of equal connection, and hives of creativity are the birthplaces of innovation, forming cells of new organization that develop by mutual reinforcement.  Technology development often displays that, where many creative people in close contact are experimenting with different ways of building on each other's innovations, and develops as a group of complementary innovations to form a cell.

#2 is answered by what to me is “the usual scientific method” of struggling to find answerable questions for apparently insolvable puzzles.  Asking if planets were objects in motion was just such an answerable question for “the heavenly lights”, for example.  It is indeed puzzling that the most successful innovation cultures of history all collapsed when they ran into problems they couldn't solve.   It seems to be associated with a kind of built-in need to solve ever more complicated problems, and being unable to change course.  If you test that hypothesis you do find it "written in stone" in the organizing principles of endless growth for our society, at least.  

One only needs to question the validity of sticking with inherited principles like that to the bitter end, to have a reason to question them and look for something else.   Anyway, my writings on it led to discovering that Keynes noticed the same thing, and proposed a remarkably simple correction for it that I've discussed in various ways.  He was professionally ridiculed for it, though, and the only economist who apparently understood what he said was Ken Boulding, who spent his life repeatedly bringing it up.  What I've found is that all but a few of the most enlightened environmentalists just say "oh no, you can't change that!!" as their sort of quick solution for it...   I think that's all rather clear evidence of an inherited design flaw in our cultural model we could outgrow.   

I like the quote my friend Ala adds to her emails:  

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King Jr.

 Phil

 

John McCreery said:

Phil, the god money calls, a sudden surge of work in the inbox. Just a couple more thoughts to see what you think. The core of both observations is the proposition that current ideologies and institutions may matter less than we think.

 1. It is now a well-established result in network analysis that large networks tend to self-organize around dominant hubs, with the centrality of vertices controlled by a power law—basically the old Pareto principle: the rich get richer and richer, or, in the language of economics the GINI coefficient (range of incomes, however they are measured) gets larger and larger. Absent strong countervailing institutions, e.g., steeply progressive income and inheritance taxes, this will happen. In a totally free market, the outcome is inevitable.

 2. History suggests that the specific form of economic organization is not a major determining factor affecting the polarization of rich and poor: Whether its ancient Rome, imperial China, the former USSR, or the Neoliberal global economy, the predictable outcome is the same (see 1). The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and then things go to hell.

 As far as I can make out, there have always been people who railed against the injustice of these outcomes and prophesied the catastrophes that overtook three of the four examples mentioned above. What should make us think that we can do better? That seems to me the critical question.

Phil, thank you. I'm hooked and will soon be working through what you have written to understand the argument in more detail. Just one more thing. You write,

 

One only needs to question the validity of sticking with inherited principles like that to the bitter end, to have a reason to question them and look for something else.

 

I agree absolutely so long as the subject is "One." As individuals, we can all question tradition and challenge received ideas. But what about the politics, the process that Paul Wellstone describes as mobilizing, energizing and organizing enough people to become a movement able to effect change?

 

Can we learn from examples where this has, in fact, happened? As someone whose primary geographical focus is Asia, I think immediately of Thailand and Japan, both of which successfully resisted imperialism. I am not saying that either is a model to emulate. In Japan, where I live, the result of the Meiji Restoration was Japan's becoming an imperialist and becoming embroiled in the wars that ultimate led to defeat, occupation and postwar recovery. What I am suggesting is that we might have something to learn by paying attention to how the Thai monarchy and the Meiji oligarchs went about building the support for radical changes in the institutions by which their countries were governed—demonstrating that old patterns and principles can be replaced.

Before the discussion is closed, I would like to thank Sian for presenting a very thought- and discussion-provoking seminar.  I know we have been a rather unruly audience, failing to address our comments and questions toward you as we should have.  You really got us to stretch our minds, so perhaps from the vigorous exercise we sometimes lost our balance.  Thank you, Keith, for inviting Sian here to bring us this challenge.

Yes, a wonderful exploration that I sincerely hope seeps through this small space and infiltrates a larger mindstream.

 

I will find that book on religion/ecology that Keith worked on and keep up with Sian!

 

Two years ago I sat in a conference on a green economy and noted that despite the commentary, thought etc. when we finished we all would return to our respective institutions, where because we must be productive citizens who needed jobs, would take up our work, which in turn was cast to the mold of our hiring and department criteria, which generally left little room to extend today's arguments.  The conference was over and that was that.

This platform offers us a way out of the siloed structure of old institutional vessels.  I see it as a river system - and as life giving and elusive as water.  Some underground, some a rushing stream, some as vapor circulating the planet, some into the ocean.

My best wishes for all!!

RSS

Translate

OAC Press

@OpenAnthCoop

Events

© 2018   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service