Tag Archives: political ecology

from Matsutake mushrooms to entanglements, patches and methodologies

I found Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World such an extraordinary book. I love particularly how it stretches to understand and theorise complexity in a way closely tied to justice struggles, that includes but is hardly limited to political economy and ecology.

It opens with this idea of entanglement, and its challenges to more traditional theorising around capitalism, nature, knowledge. I love her language, her style and the way it in turn allows such an intense grappling-with-things-as-they-are. She talks about enabling entanglements, all that this allows us to think through:

Ever since the enlightenment, western philosophers have shown us a Nature that is grand and universal but also passive and mechanical. Nature was a backdrop and resource for the moral intentionality of Man, which could tame and master Nature. It was left to fabulists, including non-Western and non-civilizational storytellers, to remind us of the lively activities of all beings, human and not human. Several things have happened to undermine this division of labor. First, all that taming and mastering has made such a mess that it is unclear whether life on earth can continue. Second, interspecies entanglements that once seemed the stuff of fables are now materials for serious discussion among biologists and ecologists, who show how life requires the interplay of many kinds of beings. Humans cannot survive by stomping on all the others. Third, women and men from around the world have clamored to be included in the status once given to Man. Our riotous presence undermines the moral intentionality of Man’s Christian masculinity, which separated Man from Nature. The time has come for new ways of telling true stories beyond civilizational first principles.

There is no question of what the stakes are — this wonderful idea of riotous presence. She continues

Without Man and Nature, all creatures can come back to life, and men and women can express themselves without the strictures of a parochially imagined rationality. (vii)

She continues:

My book then offers “third nature,” that is, what manages to live despite capitalism. To even notice third nature, we must evade assumptions that the future is that singular direction ahead…Yet progress stories have blinded us. To know the world without them, this books sketches open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life, as these coalesce in coordination across many kinds of temporal rhythms. (viii)

This ‘crippling assumption’ of linear progress is critiqued again and again, as is the reduction of theory:

While I refuse to reduce either economy or ecology to the other, there is one connection between economy and environment that seems important to introduce up front: the history of the human concentration of wealth through making both humans and nonhumans into re-sources for investment. This history has inspired investors to imbue both people and things with alienation, that is, the ability to stand alone, as if the entanglements of living did not matter.’ Through alienation, people and things become mobile assets; they can be removed from their life worlds in distance-defying transport to be exchanged with other assets from other life worlds, elsewhere.’ This is quite different from merely using others as part of a life world—for example, in eating and being eaten. In that case, multispecies living spaces remain in place. Alienation obviates living-space entanglement. The dream of alienation inspires landscape modification in which only one stand-alone asset matters; everything else becomes weeds or waste. Here, attending to living-space entanglements seems inefficient, and perhaps archaic. When its singular asset can no longer be produced, a place can be abandoned. The timber has been cut: the oil has run out; the plantation soil no longer supports crops. The search for assets resumes elsewhere. Thus, simplification for alienation produces ruins, spaces of abandonment for asset production. Global landscapes today are strewn with this kind of ruin. Still, these places can be lively despite announcements of their death; abandoned asset fields sometimes yield new multispecies and multicultural life. In a global state of precarity, we don’t have choices other than looking for life in this ruin. (5-6)

Again this is creating theory able to think in new ways about an all-pervasive precarity, all-pervasive spaces of abandonment and ruin (at the same as possible spaces of life and hope), and the entanglements that are part of this in complex ways. On precarity:

Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others. Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves. Unable to rely on a stable structure of community, we are thrown into shifting assemblages, which remake us as well as our others. We can’t rely on the status quo; everything is in flux, including our ability to survive. Thinking through precarity changes social analysis. A precarious world is a world without teleology. Indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening, but thinking through precarity makes it evident that indeterminacy also makes life possible. (20)

On assemblage, which she draws on a great deal and I confess I’ve never much cared for… but I love the idea stretched to be wielded in this way, these lifeways.

The concept of assemblage is helpful. Ecologists turned to assemblages to get around the sometimes fixed and bounded connotations of ecological “community.” The question of how the varied species in a species assemblage influence each other—if at all—is never settled: some thwart (or eat) each other; others work together to make life possible: still others just happen to find themselves in the same place. Assemblages are open-ended gatherings. They allow us to ask about communal effects without assuming them. They show us potential histories in the making. For my purposes, however, I need something other than organisms as the elements that gather. I need to see lifeways—and non-living ways of being as well—coming together. Nonhuman ways of being, like human ones, shift historically. For living things, species identities are a place to begin, but they are not enough: ways of being are emergent effects of encounters. Thinking about humans makes this clear. Foraging for mushrooms is a way of life—but not a common characteristic of all humans. The issue is the same for other species. Pines find mushrooms to help them use human-made open spaces. Assemblages don’t just gather lifeways; they make them. Thinking through assemblage urges us to ask: How do gatherings sometimes become “happenings,” that is, greater than the sum of their parts? If history without progress is indeterminate and multidirectional, might assemblages show us its possibilities?

Patterns of unintentional coordination develop in assemblages. To notice such patterns means watching the interplay of temporal rhythms and scales in the divergent lifeways that gather. Surprisingly, this turns out to be a method that might revitalize political economy as well as environmental studies. Assemblages drag political economy inside them, and not just for humans. Plantation crops have lives different from those of their free-living siblings; cart horses and hunter steeds share species but not lifeways. Assemblages cannot hide from capital and the state; they are sites for watching how political economy works. If capitalism has no teleology, we need to see what comes together—not just by prefabrication, but also by juxtaposition. (23)

I love how for her this fits into the landscape — a term with immense baggage in the world of geography, but still very useful I think. It moves into questions of methodology, where I also find so much to think about here, draw into my own work.

Telling stories of landscape requires getting to know the inhabitants of the landscape, human and not human. This is not easy, and it makes sense to me to use all the learning practices I can think of, including our combined forms of mindfulness, myths and tales, livelihood practices, archives, scientific reports, and experiments. But this hodgepodge creates suspicions—particularly, indeed, with the allies I hailed in reaching out to anthropologists of alternative world makings. For many cultural anthropologists, science is best regarded as a straw man against which to explore alternatives, such as indigenous practices.12 To mix scientific and vernacular forms of evidence invites accusations of bowing down to science. Yet this assumes a monolithic science that digests all practices into a single agenda. Instead, I offer stories built through layered and disparate practices of knowing and being. If the components clash with each other, this only enlarges what such stories can do. (159)

The concept of salvage, something I also find really useful:

‘taking advantage of value produced without capitalist control…”Salvage accumulation” is the process through which lead firms amass capital without controlling the conditions under which commodities are produced. Salvage is not an ornament on ordinary capitalist processes; it is a feature of how capitalism works. (63)

On supply chains, commodities, what a mushroom can teach us about the contemporary nature of capitalism, the idea of translation:

A supply chain is a particular kind of commodity chain: one in which lead firms direct commodity traffic.’ Throughout this part, I explore the supply chain linking matsutake pickers in the forests of Oregon with those who eat the mushrooms in Japan. The chain is surprising and full of cultural variety. The factory work through which we know capitalism is mainly missing. But the chain illuminates something important about capitalism today: Amassing wealth is possible without rationalizing labor and raw materials. Instead, it requires acts of translation across varied social and political spaces, which, borrowing from ecologists’ usage, I call “patches.” Translation, in Shiho Satsuka’s sense, is the drawing of one world-making project into another.2 While the term draws attention to language, it can also refer to other forms of partial attunement. Translations across sites of difference are capitalism: they make it possible for investors to accumulate wealth. (62)

and this:

Global supply chains ended expectations of progress because they allowed lead corporations to let go of their commitment to controlling labor. Standardizing labor required education and regularized jobs, thus connecting profits and progress. In supply chains, in contrast, goods gathered from many arrangements can lead to profits for the lead firm: commitments to jobs, education, and well-being are no longer even rhetorically necessary. Supply chains require a particular kind of salvage accumulation, involving translation across patches. The modern history of U.S.-Japanese relations is a counterpoint of call-and-response that spread this practice around the world. (110)

She continues with what helped out allow the global shift to outsourcing but following the commodity chain of the matsutake — this is a long quote but traces this way of unraveling how things work, fit together, of seeing absences as well as presences, of bringing together multiple ways of understanding how a thing works and how assemblage might be a useful concept along more traditional concepts used in looking at capitalism like alienation:

…I let the thread of the story unroll quite far from matsutake. Yet at each step I need the chain’s reminders to resist the lull of current erasures. This is not just a story, then, but also a method: big histories are always best told through insistent, if humble, details.

In collecting goods and people from around the world, capitalism itself has the characteristics of an assemblage. However, it seems to me that capitalism also has characteristics of a machine, a contraption limited to the sum of its parts. This machine is not a total institution, which we spend our lives inside; instead, it translates across living arrangements. turning worlds into assets. But not just any translation can be accepted into capitalism. The gathering it sponsors is not open-ended. An army of technicians and managers stand by to remove offending parts—and they have the power of courts and guns. This does not mean that the machine has a static form. As I argued in tracing the history of Japanese-U.S. trade relations, new forms of capitalist translation come into being all the time. Indeterminate encounters matter in shaping capitalism. Yet it is not a wild profusion. Some commitments are sustained, through force.

Two have been particularly important for my thinking in this book. First, alienation is that form of disentanglement that allows the making of capitalist assets. Capitalist commodities are removed from their life-worlds to serve as counters in the making of further investments. Infinite needs are one result; there is no limit on how many assets investors want. Thus, too, alienation makes possible accumulation—the amassing of investment capital, and this is the second of my concerns. Accumulation is important because it converts ownership into power. Those with capital can overturn communities and ecologies. Meanwhile, because capitalism is a system of commensuration, capitalist value forms flourish even across great circuits of difference. Money becomes investment capital, which can produce more money. Capitalism is a translation machine for producing capital from all kinds of livelihoods, human and not human. (133)

Gives examples of children reclaiming precious and dangerous metals from cell phones as another example of salvage — not anything thought of as capitalist labour, yet important to more traditional forms of labour such as the making of new phones.

However, there is something peculiar and frightening in this dedication salvage, as if everyone were taking advantage of the end of the world to gather up riches before the last bits are destroyed. (274)

These different forms of exploitation alongside each other makes theorising and organising for a better world difficult, but it is the task before us. Salvage is perhaps a term that can help get us where we need to go:

The challenges are enormous. Salvage accumulation reveals a world of difference, where oppositional politics does not fall easily into utopian plans for solidarity. Every livelihood patch has its own history and dynamics, and there is no automatic urge to argue together, across the viewpoints emerging from varied patches, about the outrages of accumulation and power. Since no patch is “representative,” no group’s struggles, taken alone, will overturn capitalism. Yet this is not the end of politics. Assemblages, in their diversity, show us what later I call the `latent commons,” that is, entanglements that might be mobilized in common cause. Because collaboration is always with us, we can maneuver within its possibilities. We will need a politics with the strength of diverse and shifting coalitions—and not just for humans. The business of progress depended on conquering an infinitely rich nature through alienation and scalability. If nature has turned finite, and even fragile, no wonder entrepreneurs have rushed to get what they can before the goods run out, while conservationists desperately contrive to save scraps. The next part of this book offers an alternative politics of more-than-human entanglements. (134-35)

And so we return to methods, to storytelling, to knowing place:

Telling stories of landscape requires getting to know the inhabitants of the landscape, human and not human. This is not easy, and it makes sense to me to use all the learning practices I can think of, including our combined forms of mindfulness, myths and tales, livelihood practices, archives, scientific reports, and experiments. But this hodgepodge creates suspicions—particularly, indeed, with the allies I hailed in reaching out to anthropologists of alternative world makings. For many cultural anthropologists, science is best regarded as a straw man against which to explore alternatives, such as indigenous practices.12 To mix scientific and vernacular forms of evidence invites accusations of bowing down to science. Yet this assumes a monolithic science that digests all practices into a single agenda. Instead, I offer stories built through layered and disparate practices of knowing and being. If the components clash with each other, this only enlarges what such stories can do. (159)

History is central to this, but what is it exactly? What does it need to be?

“History” is both a human storytelling practice and that set of remainders from the past that we turn into stories. Conventionally, historians look only at human remainders, such as archives and diaries, but there is no reason not to spread our attention to the tracks and traces of nonhumans, as these contribute to our common landscapes. Such tracks and traces speak to cross-species entanglements in contingency and con-juncture, the components of “historical” time. To participate in such entanglement, one does not have to make history in just one way.’ Whether or not other organisms “tell stories,” they contribute to the overlapping tracks and traces that we grasp as history.2 History, then, is the record of many trajectories of world making, human and not human. (168)

Just two other tidbits to end:

Privatization is never complete; it needs shared spaces to create any value. That is the secret of property’s continuing theft–but also its vulnerability. (271)

I just need to sit and think about that. And this, which perhaps is the real challenge this book seeks to address, the need for these new ways of thinking, studying, understanding:

Progress gave us the “progressive” political causes with which I grew up. I hardly know how to think about justice without progress. The problem is that progress stopped making sense. (25)

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Peet & Watts: Liberation Ecologies

How did I go so long with learning about liberation ecology, or reading Arturo Escobar or understanding the ways in which they renovate Marxism with the plethora of new ideas emerging from struggle in the developing world, particularly around environmental justice. The context?  ‘…a new emphasis on nature-society relations in fin-de-siecle atmosphere…’

— collapse of many actually-existing socialisms
— resurgence of environmentalist concerns articulated explicitly in global terms
— rise of political ecology (2)

I found this introduction incredibly rich, incredibly brilliant, and quite hard to get through. But in a nutshell, it was worth it entirely as this is the goal:

Looking to help create ‘a more robust political ecology which integrates politics more centrally, draws upon aspects of discourse theory which demand that the politics of meaning and the construction of knowledge be taken seriously, and engages with the wide-ranging critique of development and modernity particularly associated with Third World intellectuals and activists such as Vandana Shiva, Arturo Escobar, and Victor Toledo. … new theoretical engagement between political ecology and poststructuralism on the one hand, and a practical political engagement with new movements, organizations, and institutions of civil society… (3)

I love Vandana Shiva — she transformed by thinking, and Arturo Escobar is doing the same. Victor Toledo is now on my list. So back to the origins of political ecology:

Political ecology — the effort begin in the 1980s to “combine the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy… [which] encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources” (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987: 17).

Key scholars: Susanna Hecht, Harold Brookfield, Anna Bramwell, Susan Stonich, Michael Redclift and Ram Guha. A key text for future reference is Blaikie and Brookfield’s Land Degradation and Society. for all of them, poverty is the central variable in ecological deterioration, not population, market distortion or mismanagement. I though simultaneously ‘hurrah’, and also ‘it’s not rocket science’, but apparently for many people it is. I suppose poverty is not nice to look it, and its solution demands structural change.

What I love most about this chapter is how it summarises various currents of thought, containing wonderful matrices of the phases and major figures in the literature — here is development, which I am still fairly ignorant of:

Peet and Watts Development discourseThere is also a good summary of social movement theory, one that is so much more satisfying than say, Tarrow, Meyer & Tarrow or Gamson, not least because it finally gives a good summary of the traditional Marxist view:

‘The productive transformation of nature is the primary activity making possible the whole structure of human existence… from a dialectical view, societal dynamics emerge from contradictory oppositions in the material reproduction of existence, conflicts between the forces of production and a limited natural environment for example, which result in crises. These moments of contradictory crisis are, for classical Marxists, the contexts in which class existing “in-itself” engages in intensified political struggle and becomes class “for-itself,” that is a group with collective identity, a collective agent which forces necessary social and environmental transformations. In Marx’s own words, class is the main form of social engagement, and control of the means of production its primary terrain of struggle (Marx 1970). (28)

Because, after all, the point of all of this is liberation.

They look at the ways in which Gramsci broadened its theoretical power, first through idea of hegemony, state force and ‘common sense. Second, in describing that:

transformative human actions do not result automatically from material contradictions; they are mediated by subjective meanings and conscious intentions. Material changes… may create higher propensities for transformative action and limit the range of it possible outcomes, but ideological and political practices are relatively autonomous and are literally the decisive moments in the transformation of material conditions into political practices. (28)

They point towards Cohen (1982) and (1985) for a good critique of both. Summarise part of Marcuse’s (1964) contribution through his search for a substitute revolutionary subject to play the leading role previously assigned to the proletariat. The way that this challenge was taken up by the “new working class” theorists — Aronowitz (1973), Gorz (1967 – this is sitting in my piles), Mallet (1969), who see welfare state capitalism providing new strategy for labour. These contrast with Poulantzas (1973) and Wright (1979) who reject humanist Marxism to concentrate on classes defined as effects of structures, as well as those theorising the “new intellectual class” — Gouldner (1979) and Szelenyi and Konrad (1979) who look beyond workers to critical intellectuals as the motor of revolutionary change. For all of them, however, Cohen argues that their

presupposition remains production relations key to society and social movements (29)

This helps fit everyone in to a bigger picture, but you can imagine the density of the text. A chapter you will want to keep coming back to.

On to the Post-Marxists, who:

argue that production is only one arena for collective resistance, that groups other than the working class are now significant sources of social movements, that greater attention has to be given to active processes of human agency. (29)

The ways that these are

Very different from ‘resource-mobilization paradigm’ (Gamson, Oberschall, Tilly), where ‘conflicts of interest are built into institutionalized power relations. Collective actions involve the rational pursuit of interests by conflicting groups.

I have an immense frustration with that kind of analysis, it feels so good to have it put within this much broader context as just a small current — because it feels such a big current in much of the social movement literature itself.

On Habermas…I have to read more

Habermas (1984) differentiates system, in which people operate under strategic rationalities following technical rules, and lifeworld, with its communicative rationality oriented towards consensus, understanding, and collective action. For Habermas social movements of resistance emerge when commodifying systems colonize lifeworlds: resistance struggles are as much against dominant rationalizes as they are against institutional control. (29-30)

and the strain of social movement theory focusing on the urban — that community, housing and urban movements are now the drivers of change rather than the workers, particularly Castells (1977):

urban social movements respond to the structural contradictions of the capitalist system; but these contradictions are of a plural-class and secondary nature, involving various deprivations, rather than the working class struggling to control the productive apparatus. Thus protest movements organize around common interests on a variety of terrains of struggle, often in opposition to the state and other political and sociocultural institutions, rather than the economically ruling class directly.(30)

This describes how Castells argues in The City and the Grassroots (a magisterial work that I really loved, have yet to really grapple with) that social movement as agent of transformation is unthinkable in Marxism (Peet and Watts disagree) and

‘that social change happens when a new urban meaning is produced through conflict, domination, and resistance to domination.’ (30)

Here too we have Laclau and Mouffe, Castoriadis, modified by Touraine. All people I need to think about more — especially Castoriadis and Touraine also sitting in piles as yet unread.

This is a broad brush look at primary theorists in these different areas, the articles that follow a rather fascinating look at struggles around the world through a political ecology lens.

Theory for liberation.

[Peet, Richard and Michael Watts (1996) Liberation Ecologies: environment, development, social movements. London & New York: Routledge.]

 

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