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.

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I am better with the science than the politics perhaps, often finding myself at odds with the politicians who intend to be "on my side", but fail to because of how easily they are swayed by the mistaken ideas of profiting from an economic culture of endless growth.   Though politics seems like the vehicle that moves people, it both dominates the debates and doesn't lead people in thoughtful directions at present.   So bringing about thoughtful change is still likely to be one person at a time, without a mass movement to point to. 

That said, once the seeds of change are planted they can erupt with tremendous power, as seen in the dramatic changes in the Arab world this past couple months, or the collapse of the Soviet Union, or numerous other mysterious cultural phenomena.   It seems nearly all of human history was a matter of "unprecedented" emerging events quite "unforeseen" from the viewpoint of the past.   Cultural change is quite eventful.  Our relying on mental models built on information from the past, and so "looking ahead in the rear view mirror" as it were, is part of that too.

So, of course studying how past cultures managed to display foresight might be very productive.   My own approach verges on picking out the “animal spirits” at work that drive revolutionary change.  One interesting example I found is the apparent role of the explosive emergence of Hip-Hop culture in New York in 1988-90 when studying the dramatic abandonment of New York’s crack cocaine culture, that began in 1990.   Both social and technology change seem often to display the power of these “hotbeds of creativity" which emerge from active "hives" of social culture.    So in looking for how cultures of the past appeared to "get lucky" and make very good responses to their challenges, I’d partly look for creative subcultures taking hold to motivate those events.

Sian’s writing helps expose the opposite, the major errors in the current craze for using measures to monetize nature.  That gives evidence to how such “hotbeds of creativity” have frequently resulted in the worst kinds of errors in responding to problems as well as insightful solutions.   Reducing nature to information for making financial profit isn't learning from nature, but continuing to convert nature in our own image.  In the end measurements are just a tool, of course, and what you use then for is what matters.  Depending on your purpose you could use measures to learn from nature rather than to convert it into a commodity to buy and sell. 

Putting a dollar value to the “negative profits” of unforeseen environmental liabilities of past investments could be used to belatedly correct their balance sheets, and their perceived return on investment (ROI).  That would be very informative, by showing the cost of not avoiding approaching conflicts.  It's only common sense that avoiding future conflict is very profitable, and failing to is very costly, and by accounting for it the value of expanding investment would then show it too.  The better use of profits is for easing the pressures and repairing the damages, not barreling ahead.  That's also the idea of sustainability, that being responsive to the environment would allow investments to keep producing good returns, rather than incur ever growing hidden liabilities, pushing net returns below zero.  We're just repeating some old mistakes in getting it to add up.   That’s essentially the principle that Keynes discovered and described as the future of capital, that avoiding conflict is necessary to keep investment returns from going to zero, but it did not get discussed as such.

How our choices about the future are misinformed from using information from the past is exemplified our common misunderstanding of money.   People are unaware of the quantity of energy used for delivering what we spend on, because it largely goes unrecorded.   Once you learn how to measure it, spending money really is proportional to energy use.   It accumulates as a direct environmental cost for the energy uses “paid for but unrecorded” in the chain of services that are needed to deliver what you buy.   Since nature does not print out receipts for the accumulative charges, people then tend to see them as zero, and the basis of wealth as money itself.  The reality is more that money is a share of what the whole economy is organized to do for you with energy.  

So how to make that palatable is part of the political question, that I don't seem so good at.   The message money = energy is really NOT what people want to hear, is it?!    ;-)   So finding "a positive spin" to put on it, like that having access to energy is more honestly considered as a gift of nature to protect, rather than a right to squander, and might ease what is bound to be a rude awakening, and quite important to find a way to do.  


This has been a fantastic excursion for me. Thanks to all for their great contributions. I discovered this TED talk from 2007 that addresses some of the issues we are all struggling with. I thought it might be appropriate to share the link to this 20 minute video.

Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful contributions to this discussion. I have learned a lot and been very stretched too! I particularly concur with a comment from Phil’s latest post regarding ‘the major errors in the current craze for using measures to monetize nature’. Namely, that from a complex systems perspective these perhaps are showing ‘how such “hotbeds of creativity” have frequently resulted in the worst kinds of errors in responding to problems as well as insightful solutions. Reducing nature to information for making financial profit isn't learning from nature, but continuing to convert nature in our own image.’


I also would like to apologise if my pace has not been as rapid as Keith would have liked. I have been working on this alongside teaching and other commitments, and many of the comments have required thought that takes some time. I have needed to work quite hard at times to feel that I may have arrived at some understanding at other peoples’ understandings, which I guess is in itself axiomatic to the practice of anthropology.


I would particularly like to thank Keith for the invitation to contribute a paper on these issues for this forum, as well as for his contributions to the discussion, from which I have learned an amazing amount about his own work and views. Keith’s long post on finance is especially instructive and I am looking forward to engaging with many of the references suggested here. I am making a separate post that comments in particular on perspectivism, for those who might be interested, since this was briefly raised earlier in the discussion. These two posts will be my last in this discussion.


nb. Daniel, please email me off-list regarding the conservation and displacement network (s.sullivan AT bbk.ac.uk) ~ and thanks too for bringing in equilibrium / non-equilibrium ideas into the forum!


Which remains for me to say, thanks again, and very best wishes to all.




On ‘perspectivism’...


I have some questions regarding an earlier post in which Keith talks about his ‘impulse to go back to square one’ namely Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and then very briefly mentions ‘perspectivism’ as something that he doesn’t ‘really believe in’. I would like to say a little more on this.


Perspectivism is a framework alluded to in earlier comments in this discussion, for example in bringing in the detail from the Bird-David paper that Keith encouraged me to engage with. A summary of debate is provided by Latour in the paper attached. It is worth reading the Bird-David paper and also the 2004 Viveiros de Castro paper mentioned earlier.


I have been drawn to these views in anthropology, and I allude to them in my paper, because they resonate with what I have learned from (some) KhoeSan human-with-nature understandings. They also mesh with my own thought and experience.


Perspectivism, in brief, is the understanding that beings share culture, kinship, and reciprocal relationships, their perspectives differing due to being seated in different bodily forms (or ‘natures’). To quote Latour, ‘human culture is what binds all beings together – animals and plants included – whereas they are divided by their different natures, that is, their bodies’. This is in contrast with the naturalism of modernity, which posits a shared universal nature from which human culture and Reason rises and becomes separate.


The proposition is that such a foundationally different thinking (a different ‘onto-epistemology’ if you will) produces very different experiences and treatments of ‘non-human natures’, since these are understood to embody simply different perspectives in a shared moral community of ‘humans’. It perhaps also tends towards a socio-ecological ethics that, given current socio-ecological crisis, might be worth engaging with.


I am intrigued, Keith, by your statement that you ‘don’t really believe that stuff’. Is it that you do not believe the anthropologists’ work here in representing and translating ‘the native’s point of view’? Or that you do not believe ‘the native’s point of view’? Or that this is too far from a Kantian secular humanism to be believable, and therefore is not worth countenancing?


My concern here is that this seems to be a way of ‘rendering mute’: of that which is understood to be on the natural side of modernity’s universalising culture/nature divide; of the diverse and sophisticated cultural knowledges that might engender different human-with-nature relationships; and perhaps also of anthropologists attempting to open a space to consider the existence and/or relevance of these understandings.


There is an Achille’s heel here too perhaps. This is that understandings that make an assumption of nature’s sentience and of a community-like aspect to human-with nature relationships (and which tend to be associated with animist / shamanic / perspectivist onto-epistemologies), perhaps are as cross-culturally and historically ‘universal’ as the currently universalising rationalities associated with patriarchal modernity. The latter underscore current financialising agendas in environmental conservation (by flattening nature into finance-friendly numerical abstractions), which in my view extend inequitable patterning of land and resource access (cf. John’s useful post on this), as well as contracting (understandings of) both biological and cultural diversity. My hope has been that in this open anthropology forum there would be a possibility for engagement with some of these other 'universals' with a view, as Geoff has put it, of considering ‘which forces we empower, [and[ which kinds of values, relationships and stories we reinforce’ with the knowledges we choose to celebrate regarding our embodied life here on earth.



As you say, one of the dangers may be that we end up with a set of crude reductions:


shamans        :    financiers

gift                  :    money

multinature     :    multiculture

perspectivism :    positivism


But I think the very varied ideas and points of view here negate that. Many thanks for such a lively seminar.

Saying I don't really believe this stuff is not trying to shut anyone up. Perspectivism is probably the hottest property in contemporary anthropological discourse and if the gang of Viveiros de Castro, Descola and Latour can be shut up, that would be news to me. I was alluding to many previous conversations at the OAC in which contrary positions have been taken on this and indicated that, if Phil might benefit from taking a look at it, the link should be made by someone else than me. The fact that you took strong enough exception to a casual aside to devote your last post here to it, Sian, suggests a level of feeling that perhaps led me to use the word believe in the first place. Belief after all is "something held dear" (akin to beloved). What we hold most dear are the often unspoken metaphysical assumptions that underpin our own life strategies. I just don't hold this one dear and actually have detailed arguments which I did not wish to burden the discussion with at the time. One can lecture for knowledge or lecture for belief. I always choose the second. The topic you raised here and the way you did it goes straight to the question of our foundational beliefs. That is what makes it exciting. Open is a weasel word, but I don't think the principle of openness was infringed here, quite the opposite.

I can only repeat my thanks for the care, intelligence and commitment that you have brought to this seminar, Sian. I think we have different approaches to conversational style which caught me napping. But you have enriched our fledgling network immeasurably.

David,   Thanks for the link to William McDonough's TED talk, and his very idealistic "Cradle to Cradle" model.  It's an example of how hard it is for people to tell what to measure.  Every organism or natural economy imposes a complex footprint on its environment, and also creates wastes that are unusable by anything else.   So why we like some and not others is not really about following an idealized "cradle to cradle" model .    

The things we do like in nature start just like all the others, with taking greater and greater control of their surroundings, consuming other things taking over their habitats.  Then they switch, though, to doing what's profitable for both themselves and the larger system they become part of, i.e. they're "joiners" in the end.  

The problem for McDonough, though, is his new city only joins nature aesthetically, really.  I was an architect doing designs of this kind for decades, but noticed that to call any new development "low impact" you had to overlook, as Bill does, the far reaching impacts of your project expanding the world economy by something like $100,000 per household.  

A dollar is a dollar, and whether you live in an attractive or thoughtlessly designed town any dollar it generates for consumption will use the same share of outsourced square miles of farmland, acres of forest , tonnes of mineral resources and megawatts of fossil fuels, scattered all around the world.  

It's a fascinating conceptual problem, that my colleagues were never able to discuss.   

David Marsden said:

This has been a fantastic excursion for me. Thanks to all for their great contributions. I discovered this TED talk from 2007 that addresses some of the issues we are all struggling with. I thought it might be appropriate to share the link to this 20 minute video.
oops... in pasting that in from my note pad, the final sentence got lost! --

So it seems mythology, perhaps the core of culture, is suspiciously close to all our hearts..., right?



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