DOES ANYONE really understand what is going on in the world economy? The pandemic has made plenty of observers look clueless. Few predicted $80 oil, let alone fleets of container ships waiting outside Californian and Chinese ports. As covid-19 let rip in 2020, forecasters overestimated how high unemployment would be by the end of the year. Today prices are rising faster than expected and nobody is sure if inflation and wages will spiral upward. For all their equations and theories, economists are often fumbling in the dark, with too little information to pick the policies that would maximise jobs and growth.
Yet, as we report this week, the age of bewilderment is starting to give way to greater enlightenment. The world is on the brink of a real-time revolution in economics, as the quality and timeliness of information are transformed. Big firms from Amazon to Netflix already use instant data to monitor grocery deliveries and how many people are glued to “Squid Game”. The pandemic has led governments and central banks to experiment, from monitoring restaurant bookings to tracking card payments. The results are still rudimentary, but as digital devices, sensors and fast payments become ubiquitous, the ability to observe the economy accurately and speedily will improve. That holds open the promise of better public-sector decision-making—as well as the temptation for governments to meddle.
The desire for better economic data is hardly new. America’s GNP estimates date to 1934 and initially came with a 13-month time lag. In the 1950s a young Alan Greenspan monitored freight-car traffic to arrive at early estimates of steel production. Ever since Walmart pioneered supply-chain management in the 1980s private-sector bosses have seen timely data as a source of competitive advantage. But the public sector has been slow to reform how it works. The official figures that economists track—think of GDP or employment—come with lags of weeks or months and are often revised dramatically. Productivity takes years to calculate accurately. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that central banks are flying blind.
Bad and late data can lead to policy errors that cost millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in lost output. The financial crisis would have been a lot less harmful had the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to near zero in December 2007, when America entered recession, rather than in December 2008, when economists at last saw it in the numbers. Patchy data about a vast informal economy and rotten banks have made it harder for India’s policymakers to end their country’s lost decade of low growth. The European Central Bank wrongly raised interest rates in 2011 amid a temporary burst of inflation, sending the euro area back into recession. The Bank of England may be about to make a similar mistake today.
The pandemic has, however, become a catalyst for change. Without the time to wait for official surveys to reveal the effects of the virus or lockdowns, governments and central banks have experimented, tracking mobile phones, contactless payments and the real-time use of aircraft engines. Instead of locking themselves in their studies for years writing the next “General Theory”, today’s star economists, such as Raj Chetty at Harvard University, run well-staffed labs that crunch numbers. Firms such as JPMorgan Chase have opened up treasure chests of data on bank balances and credit-card bills, helping reveal whether people are spending cash or hoarding it.
These trends will intensify as technology permeates the economy. A larger share of spending is shifting online and transactions are being processed faster. Real-time payments grew by 41% in 2020, according to McKinsey, a consultancy (India registered 25.6bn such transactions). More machines and objects are being fitted with sensors, including individual shipping containers that could make sense of supply-chain blockages. Govcoins, or central-bank digital currencies (CBDCs), which China is already piloting and over 50 other countries are considering, might soon provide a goldmine of real-time detail about how the economy works.
Timely data would cut the risk of policy cock-ups—it would be easier to judge, say, if a dip in activity was becoming a slump. And the levers governments can pull will improve, too. Central bankers reckon it takes 18 months or more for a change in interest rates to take full effect. But Hong Kong is trying out cash handouts in digital wallets that expire if they are not spent quickly. CBDCs might allow interest rates to fall deeply negative. Good data during crises could let support be precisely targeted; imagine loans only for firms with robust balance-sheets but a temporary liquidity problem. Instead of wasteful universal welfare payments made through social-security bureaucracies, the poor could enjoy instant income top-ups if they lost their job, paid into digital wallets without any paperwork.
The real-time revolution promises to make economic decisions more accurate, transparent and rules-based. But it also brings dangers. New indicators may be misinterpreted: is a global recession starting or is Uber just losing market share? They are not as representative or free from bias as the painstaking surveys by statistical agencies. Big firms could hoard data, giving them an undue advantage. Private firms such as Facebook, which launched a digital wallet this week, may one day have more insight into consumer spending than the Fed does.
The biggest danger is hubris. With a panopticon of the economy, it will be tempting for politicians and officials to imagine they can see far into the future, or to mould society according to their preferences and favour particular groups. This is the dream of the Chinese Communist Party, which seeks to engage in a form of digital central planning.
In fact no amount of data can reliably predict the future. Unfathomably complex, dynamic economies rely not on Big Brother but on the spontaneous behaviour of millions of independent firms and consumers. Instant economics isn’t about clairvoyance or omniscience. Instead its promise is prosaic but transformative: better, timelier and more rational decision-making. ■
AS PART OF his plan for socialism in the early 1970s, Salvador Allende created Project Cybersyn. The Chilean president’s idea was to offer bureaucrats unprecedented insight into the country’s economy. Managers would feed information from factories and fields into a central database. In an operations room bureaucrats could see if production was rising in the metals sector but falling on farms, or what was happening to wages in mining. They would quickly be able to analyse the impact of a tweak to regulations or production quotas.
Cybersyn never got off the ground. But something curiously similar has emerged in Salina, a small city in Kansas. Salina311, a local paper, has started publishing a “community dashboard” for the area, with rapid-fire data on local retail prices, the number of job vacancies and more—in effect, an electrocardiogram of the economy.
What is true in Salina is true for a growing number of national governments. When the pandemic started last year bureaucrats began studying dashboards of “high-frequency” data, such as daily airport passengers and hour-by-hour credit-card-spending. In recent weeks they have turned to new high-frequency sources, to get a better sense of where labour shortages are worst or to estimate which commodity price is next in line to soar. Economists have seized on these new data sets, producing a research boom (see chart 1). In the process, they are influencing policy as never before.
This fast-paced economics involves three big changes. First, it draws on data that are not only abundant but also directly relevant to real-world problems. When policymakers are trying to understand what lockdowns do to leisure spending they look at live restaurant reservations; when they want to get a handle on supply-chain bottlenecks they look at day-by-day movements of ships. Troves of timely, granular data are to economics what the microscope was to biology, opening a new way of looking at the world.
Second, the economists using the data are keener on influencing public policy. More of them do quick-and-dirty research in response to new policies. Academics have flocked to Twitter to engage in debate.
And, third, this new type of economics involves little theory. Practitioners claim to let the information speak for itself. Raj Chetty, a Harvard professor and one of the pioneers, has suggested that controversies between economists should be little different from disagreements among doctors about whether coffee is bad for you: a matter purely of evidence. All this is causing controversy among dismal scientists, not least because some, such as Mr Chetty, have done better from the shift than others: a few superstars dominate the field.
Their emerging discipline might be called “third wave” economics. The first wave emerged with Adam Smith and the “Wealth of Nations”, published in 1776. Economics mainly involved books or papers written by one person, focusing on some big theoretical question. Smith sought to tear down the monopolistic habits of 18th-century Europe. In the 20th century John Maynard Keynes wanted people to think differently about the government’s role in managing the economic cycle. Milton Friedman aimed to eliminate many of the responsibilities that politicians, following Keynes’s ideas, had arrogated to themselves.
All three men had a big impact on policies—as late as 1850 Smith was quoted 30 times in Parliament—but in a diffuse way. Data were scarce. Even by the 1970s more than half of economics papers focused on theory alone, suggests a study published in 2012 by Daniel Hamermesh, an economist.
That changed with the second wave of economics. By 2011 purely theoretical papers accounted for only 19% of publications. The growth of official statistics gave wonks more data to work with. More powerful computers made it easier to spot patterns and ascribe causality (this year’s Nobel prize was awarded for the practice of identifying cause and effect). The average number of authors per paper rose, as the complexity of the analysis increased (see chart 2). Economists had greater involvement in policy: rich-world governments began using cost-benefit analysis for infrastructure decisions from the 1950s.
Second-wave economics nonetheless remained constrained by data. Most national statistics are published with lags of months or years. “The traditional government statistics weren’t really all that helpful—by the time they came out, the data were stale,” says Michael Faulkender, an assistant treasury secretary in Washington at the start of the pandemic. The quality of official local economic data is mixed, at best; they do a poor job of covering the housing market and consumer spending. National statistics came into being at a time when the average economy looked more industrial, and less service-based, than it does now. The Standard Industrial Classification, introduced in 1937-38 and still in use with updates, divides manufacturing into 24 subsections, but the entire financial industry into just three.
The mists of time
Especially in times of rapid change, policymakers have operated in a fog. “If you look at the data right now…we are not in what would normally be characterised as a recession,” argued Edward Lazear, then chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, in May 2008. Five months later, after Lehman Brothers had collapsed, the IMF noted that America was “not necessarily” heading for a deep recession. In fact America had entered a recession in December 2007. In 2007-09 there was no surge in economics publications. Economists’ recommendations for policy were mostly based on judgment, theory and a cursory reading of national statistics.
The gap between official data and what is happening in the real economy can still be glaring. Walk around a Walmart in Kansas and many items, from pet food to bottled water, are in short supply. Yet some national statistics fail to show such problems. Dean Baker of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, using official data, points out that American real inventories, excluding cars and farm products, are barely lower than before the pandemic.
There were hints of an economics third wave before the pandemic. Some economists were finding new, extremely detailed streams of data, such as anonymised tax records and location information from mobile phones. The analysis of these giant data sets requires the creation of what are in effect industrial labs, teams of economists who clean and probe the numbers. Susan Athey, a trailblazer in applying modern computational methods in economics, has 20 or so non-faculty researchers at her Stanford lab (Mr Chetty’s team boasts similar numbers). Of the 20 economists with the most cited new work during the pandemic, three run industrial labs.
More data sprouted from firms. Visa and Square record spending patterns, Apple and Google track movements, and security companies know when people go in and out of buildings. “Computers are in the middle of every economic arrangement, so naturally things are recorded,” says Jon Levin of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Jamie Dimon, the boss of JPMorgan Chase, a bank, is an unlikely hero of the emergence of third-wave economics. In 2015 he helped set up an institute at his bank which tapped into data from its network to analyse questions about consumer finances and small businesses.
The Brexit referendum of June 2016 was the first big event when real-time data were put to the test. The British government and investors needed to get a sense of this unusual shock long before Britain’s official GDP numbers came out. They scraped web pages for telltale signs such as restaurant reservations and the number of supermarkets offering discounts—and concluded, correctly, that though the economy was slowing, it was far from the catastrophe that many forecasters had predicted.
Real-time data might have remained a niche pursuit for longer were it not for the pandemic. Chinese firms have long produced granular high-frequency data on everything from cinema visits to the number of glasses of beer that people are drinking daily. Beer-and-movie statistics are a useful cross-check against sometimes dodgy official figures. China-watchers turned to them in January 2020, when lockdowns began in Hubei province. The numbers showed that the world’s second-largest economy was heading for a slump. And they made it clear to economists elsewhere how useful such data could be.
Vast and fast
In the early days of the pandemic Google started releasing anonymised data on people’s physical movements; this has helped researchers produce a day-by-day measure of the severity of lockdowns (see chart 3). OpenTable, a booking platform, started publishing daily information on restaurant reservations. America’s Census Bureau quickly introduced a weekly survey of households, asking them questions ranging from their employment status to whether they could afford to pay the rent.
In May 2020 Jose Maria Barrero, Nick Bloom and Steven Davis, three economists, began a monthly survey of American business practices and work habits. Working-age Americans are paid to answer questions on how often they plan to visit the office, say, or how they would prefer to greet a work colleague. “People often complete a survey during their lunch break,” says Mr Bloom, of Stanford University. “They sit there with a sandwich, answer some questions, and that pays for their lunch.”
Demand for research to understand a confusing economic situation jumped. The first analysis of America’s $600 weekly boost to unemployment insurance, implemented in March 2020, was published in weeks. The British government knew by October 2020 that a scheme to subsidise restaurant attendance in August 2020 had probably boosted covid infections. Many apparently self-evident things about the pandemic—that the economy collapsed in March 2020, that the poor have suffered more than the rich, or that the shift to working from home is turning out better than expected—only seem obvious because of rapid-fire economic research.
It is harder to quantify the policy impact. Some economists scoff at the notion that their research has influenced politicians’ pandemic response. Many studies using real-time data suggested that the Paycheck Protection Programme, an effort to channel money to American small firms, was doing less good than hoped. Yet small-business lobbyists ensured that politicians did not get rid of it for months. Tyler Cowen, of George Mason University, points out that the most significant contribution of economists during the pandemic involved recommending early pledges to buy vaccines—based on older research, not real-time data.
Still, Mr Faulkender says that the special support for restaurants that was included in America’s stimulus was influenced by a weak recovery in the industry seen in the OpenTable data. Research by Mr Chetty in early 2021 found that stimulus cheques sent in December boosted spending by lower-income households, but not much for richer households. He claims this informed the decision to place stronger income limits on the stimulus cheques sent in March.
Shaping the economic conversation
As for the Federal Reserve, in May 2020 the Dallas and New York regional Feds and James Stock, a Harvard economist, created an activity index using data from SafeGraph, a data provider that tracks mobility using mobile-phone pings. The St Louis Fed used data from Homebase to track employment numbers daily. Both showed shortfalls of economic activity in advance of official data. This led the Fed to communicate its doveish policy stance faster.
Speedy data also helped frame debate. Everyone realised the world was in a deep recession much sooner than they had in 2007-09. In the IMF’s overviews of the global economy in 2009, 40% of the papers cited had been published in 2008-09. In the overview published in October 2020, by contrast, over half the citations were for papers published that year.
The third wave of economics has been better for some practitioners than others. As lockdowns began, many male economists found themselves at home with no teaching responsibilities and more time to do research. Female ones often picked up the slack of child care. A paper in Covid Economics, a rapid-fire journal, finds that female authors accounted for 12% of economics working-paper submissions during the pandemic, compared with 20% before. Economists lucky enough to have researched topics before the pandemic which became hot, from home-working to welfare policy, were suddenly in demand.
There are also deeper shifts in the value placed on different sorts of research. The Economist has examined rankings of economists from IDEAS RePEC, a database of research, and citation data from Google Scholar. We divided economists into three groups: “lone wolves” (who publish with less than one unique co-author per paper on average); “collaborators” (those who tend to work with more than one unique co-author per paper, usually two to four people); and “lab leaders” (researchers who run a large team of dedicated assistants). We then looked at the top ten economists for each as measured by RePEC author rankings for the past ten years.
Collaborators performed far ahead of the other two groups during the pandemic (see chart 4). Lone wolves did worst: working with large data sets benefits from a division of labour. Why collaborators did better than lab leaders is less clear. They may have been more nimble in working with those best suited for the problems at hand; lab leaders are stuck with a fixed group of co-authors and assistants.
The most popular types of research highlight another aspect of the third wave: its usefulness for business. Scott Baker, another economist, and Messrs Bloom and Davis—three of the top four authors during the pandemic compared with the year before—are all “collaborators” and use daily newspaper data to study markets. Their uncertainty index has been used by hedge funds to understand the drivers of asset prices. The research by Messrs Bloom and Davis on working from home has also gained attention from businesses seeking insight on the transition to remote work.
But does it work in theory?
Not everyone likes where the discipline is going. When economists say that their fellows are turning into data scientists, it is not meant as a compliment. A kinder interpretation is that the shift to data-heavy work is correcting a historical imbalance. “The most important problem with macro over the past few decades has been that it has been too theoretical,” says Jón Steinsson of the University of California, Berkeley, in an essay published in July. A better balance with data improves theory. Half of the recent Nobel prize went for the application of new empirical methods to labour economics; the other half was for the statistical theory around such methods.
Some critics question the quality of many real-time sources. High-frequency data are less accurate at estimating levels (for example, the total value of GDP) than they are at estimating changes, and in particular turning-points (such as when growth turns into recession). In a recent review of real-time indicators Samuel Tombs of Pantheon Macroeconomics, a consultancy, pointed out that OpenTable data tended to exaggerate the rebound in restaurant attendance last year.
Others have worries about the new incentives facing economists. Researchers now race to post a working paper with America’s National Bureau of Economic Research in order to stake their claim to an area of study or to influence policymakers. The downside is that consumers of fast-food academic research often treat it as if it is as rigorous as the slow-cooked sort—papers which comply with the old-fashioned publication process involving endless seminars and peer review. A number of papers using high-frequency data which generated lots of clicks, including one which claimed that a motorcycle rally in South Dakota had caused a spike in covid cases, have since been called into question.
Whatever the concerns, the pandemic has given economists a new lease of life. During the Chilean coup of 1973 members of the armed forces broke into Cybersyn’s operations room and smashed up the slides of graphs—not only because it was Allende’s creation, but because the idea of an electrocardiogram of the economy just seemed a bit weird. Third-wave economics is still unusual, but ever less odd. ■
Introduction: Sensors everywhere. Infinite storage. Clouds of processors. Our ability to capture, warehouse, and understand massive amounts of data is changing science, medicine, business, and technology. As our collection of facts and figures grows, so will the opportunity to find answers to fundamental questions. Because in the era of big data, more isn’t just more. […]
Sensors everywhere. Infinite storage. Clouds of processors. Our ability to capture, warehouse, and understand massive amounts of data is changing science, medicine, business, and technology. As our collection of facts and figures grows, so will the opportunity to find answers to fundamental questions. Because in the era of big data, more isn’t just more. More is different.
Does big data have the answers? Maybe some, but not all, says Mark Graham
In 2008, Chris Anderson, then editor of Wired, wrote a provocative piece titled The End of Theory. Anderson was referring to the ways that computers, algorithms, and big data can potentially generate more insightful, useful, accurate, or true results than specialists or domain experts who traditionally craft carefully targeted hypotheses and research strategies.
This revolutionary notion has now entered not just the popular imagination, but also the research practices of corporations, states, journalists and academics. The idea being that the data shadows and information trails of people, machines, commodities and even nature can reveal secrets to us that we now have the power and prowess to uncover.
In other words, we no longer need to speculate and hypothesise; we simply need to let machines lead us to the patterns, trends, and relationships in social, economic, political, and environmental relationships.
It is quite likely that you yourself have been the unwitting subject of a big data experiment carried out by Google, Facebook and many other large Web platforms. Google, for instance, has been able to collect extraordinary insights into what specific colours, layouts, rankings, and designs make people more efficient searchers. They do this by slightly tweaking their results and website for a few million searches at a time and then examining the often subtle ways in which people react.
Most large retailers similarly analyse enormous quantities of data from their databases of sales (which are linked to you by credit card numbers and loyalty cards) in order to make uncanny predictions about your future behaviours. In a now famous case, the American retailer, Target, upset a Minneapolis man by knowing more about his teenage daughter’s sex life than he did. Target was able to predict his daughter’s pregnancy by monitoring her shopping patterns and comparing that information to an enormous database detailing billions of dollars of sales. This ultimately allows the company to make uncanny predictions about its shoppers.
More significantly, national intelligence agencies are mining vast quantities of non-public Internet data to look for weak signals that might indicate planned threats or attacks.
There can by no denying the significant power and potentials of big data. And the huge resources being invested in both the public and private sectors to study it are a testament to this.
However, crucially important caveats are needed when using such datasets: caveats that, worryingly, seem to be frequently overlooked.
The raw informational material for big data projects is often derived from large user-generated or social media platforms (e.g. Twitter or Wikipedia). Yet, in all such cases we are necessarily only relying on information generated by an incredibly biased or skewed user-base.
Gender, geography, race, income, and a range of other social and economic factors all play a role in how information is produced and reproduced. People from different places and different backgrounds tend to produce different sorts of information. And so we risk ignoring a lot of important nuance if relying on big data as a social/economic/political mirror.
We can of course account for such bias by segmenting our data. Take the case of using Twitter to gain insights into last summer’s London riots. About a third of all UK Internet users have a twitter profile; a subset of that group are the active tweeters who produce the bulk of content; and then a tiny subset of that group (about 1%) geocode their tweets (essential information if you want to know about where your information is coming from).
Despite the fact that we have a database of tens of millions of data points, we are necessarily working with subsets of subsets of subsets. Big data no longer seems so big. Such data thus serves to amplify the information produced by a small minority (a point repeatedly made by UCL’s Muki Haklay), and skew, or even render invisible, ideas, trends, people, and patterns that aren’t mirrored or represented in the datasets that we work with.
Big data is undoubtedly useful for addressing and overcoming many important issues face by society. But we need to ensure that we aren’t seduced by the promises of big data to render theory unnecessary.
We may one day get to the point where sufficient quantities of big data can be harvested to answer all of the social questions that most concern us. I doubt it though. There will always be digital divides; always be uneven data shadows; and always be biases in how information and technology are used and produced.
And so we shouldn’t forget the important role of specialists to contextualise and offer insights into what our data do, and maybe more importantly, don’t tell us.
Illustration: Marian Bantjes“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
So proclaimed statistician George Box 30 years ago, and he was right. But what choice did we have? Only models, from cosmological equations to theories of human behavior, seemed to be able to consistently, if imperfectly, explain the world around us. Until now. Today companies like Google, which have grown up in an era of massively abundant data, don’t have to settle for wrong models. Indeed, they don’t have to settle for models at all.
Sixty years ago, digital computers made information readable. Twenty years ago, the Internet made it reachable. Ten years ago, the first search engine crawlers made it a single database. Now Google and like-minded companies are sifting through the most measured age in history, treating this massive corpus as a laboratory of the human condition. They are the children of the Petabyte Age.
The Petabyte Age is different because more is different. Kilobytes were stored on floppy disks. Megabytes were stored on hard disks. Terabytes were stored in disk arrays. Petabytes are stored in the cloud. As we moved along that progression, we went from the folder analogy to the file cabinet analogy to the library analogy to — well, at petabytes we ran out of organizational analogies.
At the petabyte scale, information is not a matter of simple three- and four-dimensional taxonomy and order but of dimensionally agnostic statistics. It calls for an entirely different approach, one that requires us to lose the tether of data as something that can be visualized in its totality. It forces us to view data mathematically first and establish a context for it later. For instance, Google conquered the advertising world with nothing more than applied mathematics. It didn’t pretend to know anything about the culture and conventions of advertising — it just assumed that better data, with better analytical tools, would win the day. And Google was right.
Google’s founding philosophy is that we don’t know why this page is better than that one: If the statistics of incoming links say it is, that’s good enough. No semantic or causal analysis is required. That’s why Google can translate languages without actually “knowing” them (given equal corpus data, Google can translate Klingon into Farsi as easily as it can translate French into German). And why it can match ads to content without any knowledge or assumptions about the ads or the content.
Speaking at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference this past March, Peter Norvig, Google’s research director, offered an update to George Box’s maxim: “All models are wrong, and increasingly you can succeed without them.”
This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.
The big target here isn’t advertising, though. It’s science. The scientific method is built around testable hypotheses. These models, for the most part, are systems visualized in the minds of scientists. The models are then tested, and experiments confirm or falsify theoretical models of how the world works. This is the way science has worked for hundreds of years.
Scientists are trained to recognize that correlation is not causation, that no conclusions should be drawn simply on the basis of correlation between X and Y (it could just be a coincidence). Instead, you must understand the underlying mechanisms that connect the two. Once you have a model, you can connect the data sets with confidence. Data without a model is just noise.
But faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete. Consider physics: Newtonian models were crude approximations of the truth (wrong at the atomic level, but still useful). A hundred years ago, statistically based quantum mechanics offered a better picture — but quantum mechanics is yet another model, and as such it, too, is flawed, no doubt a caricature of a more complex underlying reality. The reason physics has drifted into theoretical speculation about n-dimensional grand unified models over the past few decades (the “beautiful story” phase of a discipline starved of data) is that we don’t know how to run the experiments that would falsify the hypotheses — the energies are too high, the accelerators too expensive, and so on.
Now biology is heading in the same direction. The models we were taught in school about “dominant” and “recessive” genes steering a strictly Mendelian process have turned out to be an even greater simplification of reality than Newton’s laws. The discovery of gene-protein interactions and other aspects of epigenetics has challenged the view of DNA as destiny and even introduced evidence that environment can influence inheritable traits, something once considered a genetic impossibility.
In short, the more we learn about biology, the further we find ourselves from a model that can explain it.
There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.
The best practical example of this is the shotgun gene sequencing by J. Craig Venter. Enabled by high-speed sequencers and supercomputers that statistically analyze the data they produce, Venter went from sequencing individual organisms to sequencing entire ecosystems. In 2003, he started sequencing much of the ocean, retracing the voyage of Captain Cook. And in 2005 he started sequencing the air. In the process, he discovered thousands of previously unknown species of bacteria and other life-forms.
If the words “discover a new species” call to mind Darwin and drawings of finches, you may be stuck in the old way of doing science. Venter can tell you almost nothing about the species he found. He doesn’t know what they look like, how they live, or much of anything else about their morphology. He doesn’t even have their entire genome. All he has is a statistical blip — a unique sequence that, being unlike any other sequence in the database, must represent a new species.
This sequence may correlate with other sequences that resemble those of species we do know more about. In that case, Venter can make some guesses about the animals — that they convert sunlight into energy in a particular way, or that they descended from a common ancestor. But besides that, he has no better model of this species than Google has of your MySpace page. It’s just data. By analyzing it with Google-quality computing resources, though, Venter has advanced biology more than anyone else of his generation.
This kind of thinking is poised to go mainstream. In February, the National Science Foundation announced the Cluster Exploratory, a program that funds research designed to run on a large-scale distributed computing platform developed by Google and IBM in conjunction with six pilot universities. The cluster will consist of 1,600 processors, several terabytes of memory, and hundreds of terabytes of storage, along with the software, including IBM’s Tivoli and open source versions of Google File System and MapReduce.111 Early CluE projects will include simulations of the brain and the nervous system and other biological research that lies somewhere between wetware and software.
Learning to use a “computer” of this scale may be challenging. But the opportunity is great: The new availability of huge amounts of data, along with the statistical tools to crunch these numbers, offers a whole new way of understanding the world. Correlation supersedes causation, and science can advance even without coherent models, unified theories, or really any mechanistic explanation at all.
There’s no reason to cling to our old ways. It’s time to ask: What can science learn from Google?
Ao que parece, o século XXI começa agora. É o que leva a crer a leitura de tantas análises desta pandemia e tantas reflexões sobre suas consequências sociais e econômicas. E isto, venham de onde vierem: epidemiologistas, estatísticos, antropólogos, filósofos, historiadores, até mesmo economistas. Ou seja, o mundo não será o mesmo depois de meses com populações trancadas em casa, empresas e autônomos indo à falência, cadeias de valor rompidas, pacotes de estímulo governamentais, vigilância total (fundindo a tradicional vigilância sanitária com formas menos bem-intencionadas).
Talvez seja cedo para decretar algo tão drástico como a inauguração de uma era. A rigor, nada impede que o trauma acabe sendo curto, ao menos no campo da saúde (no econômico é um pouco mais difícil), e continuemos a operar como nas últimas, digamos, duas décadas. Mas isto seria só um outro adiamento: mais cedo ou mais tarde, o século XXI vai começar. Mesmo que – vamos supor – do dia para a noite as infecções e mortes mundo afora começassem a diminuir e desaparecessem, como parece ter sido o caso com outros vírus do passado. Então vale a pena simplesmente postular que esta pandemia é o marco inicial do século e explorar o que isto quer dizer.
HxB: 110.9 x 156.4 cm; Öl auf Leinwand; Inv. 1055
Mas que século XXI? Esta é mesmo a primeira pergunta: o que quer dizer uma passagem histórica, o início de um século, como tantos estão – estamos – prevendo? O que quer dizer isto que coloquei acima: “o mundo não será o mesmo”? E talvez ainda possamos ampliar a pergunta, deixá-la mais interessante e difícil de explorar: é mesmo o século XXI que está começando, por oposição a “século XX” ou “século XIX”, ou é algum outro tipo de período, talvez mais extenso, talvez mais restrito?
Temos o hábito de tratar 1914 como o início do século XX, porque foi quando Gavrilo Princip matou o arquiduque austríaco em Sarajevo e, na reação em cadeia, a ordem mundial pós-napoleônica, eurocêntrica e imperialista foi a pique. Essa é a cronologia famosa de Hobsbawm e ajuda muito a pensar em termos de transições súbitas e traumáticas. Mas é importante frisar que não foi só uma transição geopolítica. O Século XX começa com a Primeira Guerra Mundial também por ser o gesto inaugural dos fenômenos de massa – uma matança em massa! –, que se rebate nas funções e tipologias das técnicas e das instituições características do tempo que começava.
É claro que não dá para comparar uma doença que se espalha pelo planeta durante alguns meses, como tantas outras já fizeram, a uma guerra de mais de quatro anos que mata milhões, derruba impérios e força uma transformação profunda nas mentalidades. Mas essa é exatamente a comparação que estamos sendo forçados a fazer, então nada nos resta senão explorá-la. Que tipo de fenomenologia, que tipo de tecnologia, que geopolítica etc., estão em jogo se admitimos que o século XXI começa agora?
O cerne do problema está no seguinte ponto: o que se espera para o século XXI? E aqui é que chegamos ao que há de realmente desconfortável, aquilo que explica por que estamos entrando num mundo novo e incerto. E talvez explique também por que estamos tão impacientes para declará-lo inaugurado. Agora é a hora de encarar a evidência de que as perspectivas para as próximas décadas, na boca de quase todo mundo, por todo lado, são bastante sombrias. É assim no campo do clima, da agricultura, da economia, da política e também da saúde.
Seja qual for a atitude que temos no dia-a-dia em relação a todos esses campos, sugiro tomarmos como ponto de partida uma postura otimista. Por motivos puramente metodológicos: mesmo que você seja catastrofista e acredite que a humanidade (como espécie) ou a civilização (como forma de organização) não vão chegar até 2100, peço que deixe de lado por um momento essa filosofia e considere que, sim, vamos desenvolver tecnologias, sabedorias e práticas que nos ajudarão a contornar desafios como a mudança climática (e, se quiser, os exércitos de robôs superinteligentes e psicopatas), chegando saudáveis e prósperos ao próximo século.
Pois bem. Mesmo adotando essa perspectiva, o que se espera para o século XXI é que seja um período duro, eivado de catástrofes – ondas de calor, quebras de safra, pandemias, cidades inundadas, territórios ressecados, migrações forçadas, pragas, guerras por água e terra arável. Por um lado, sabemos que a lógica que orientou o grosso da atividade humana nos últimos séculos é incompatível com os sistemas naturais dos quais essa mesma lógica depende. Por outro, não temos ideia de como transitar para uma lógica compatível, embora alguns grupos tenham muitas, muitíssimas ideias para modos de vida diferentes. Acontece que a viabilidade da transição segue mais do que incerta.
Antes de avançar, podemos chegar a uma primeira resposta. Dizer que o século XXI começa com a pandemia do Sars-CoV-2, com uma doença de nome tão pouco impactante (Covid-19, uma porcaria duma sigla!), é dizer que estamos pela primeira vez encarando uma situação que, já esperávamos, será típica do nosso século. Estamos vendo, concretamente, nas nossas cidades, nos nossos bolsos e, para alguns, na própria carne, o que significa um mundo de desastres amplificados, multidimensionais, rapidamente disseminados em escala global, que inviabilizam a vida normal por períodos indeterminados.
Discutimos sobre estratégias de mitigação com um horizonte de possibilidades cada vez mais exíguo; preparamos formas de adaptação cada vez mais drásticas. Mas dificilmente conseguimos incluir no cômputo dessas atitudes todo o escopo das transformações necessárias, porque, no fim das contas, os piores cenários são praticamente inconcebíveis para nós. Pelo menos, porém, enquanto tentamos enfiar na cabeça a seriedade do que será o século XXI, podemos nos dedicar a alguns exercícios de pensamento.
I – A moldura moribunda
A primeira consequência de reconhecer a próxima etapa histórica como uma etapa de adaptação – conflituosa ou harmoniosa, tanto faz – a condições duras, já podemos ver, é que está ficando claro como as instituições montadas no século XX, ou mesmo nestas duas primeiras décadas de século XXI (no sentido cronológico estrito) são insuficientes para dar conta dos problemas que temos adiante. Mas me parece que o problema vai além do institucional. Estamos atados a um campo conceitual e mesmo categorial que não dá mais conta de recobrir nosso mundo com sentido.
Provavelmente nossa maior falha, como geração, tenha sido o parco aprendizado que tiramos de episódios como a crise financeira de 2008, as secas, inundações, queimadas e pragas, as milhares de mortes de refugiados no Mediterrâneo etc. No mínimo, o que essas catástrofes expõem é uma certa tendência inata nossa de fazer todo o possível para manter intactos os arranjos institucionais, modos de existir, formas de organização da vida em comum (chame como quiser) com que estamos acostumados. Mesmo quando já é patente que se tornaram obsoletos, inviáveis, até mesmo suicidas. Talvez isso aconteça porque o discurso e o próprio pensamento fluem e aportam em categorias moribundas.
Algumas pistas dessa morte anunciada: a chamada “ascensão do populismo” encarnada em Trump, Orbán e outros (que nem merecem menção) é muito mais a conclusão lógica desse esforço de manter os arranjos (ou as aparências) do que uma ruptura, como gostamos de pensar – ou mesmo um sintoma, já que ela não sinaliza o problema, ela dá sequência ao problema. Pensar que se trata de uma ruptura, isso sim é um sintoma: revela a crença voluntariamente ingênua de que “isto vai passar”, ou seja: de que vamos voltar aos arranjos civilizacionais em seu estado, por assim dizer, puro.
“Ascensão do populismo”, “volta do nacionalismo”, tudo isso são expressões anêmicas, eufemismos neuróticos, para a recusa em reconhecer as máquinas de guerra que estão se montando nas esferas de poder. Essas figuras todas professam um discurso negacionista do clima, mas na prática são menos negacionistas do que quem pensa que tem volta, que o mundo dos anos 2020 será um mundo de Clintons, Blairs, Merkels, Fernandos Henriques. Os poderes que orbitam em torno dos “líderes populistas” estão se preparando e armando para manter o acesso a recursos que, já está previsto, se tornarão cada vez mais escassos, enquanto o resto do mundo cai em pedaços. Exatamente como os “survivalists” ou “preppers” americanos que constróem bunkers, os enchem de enlatados e os cercam de metralhadoras. (Não por acaso, essas pessoas, em geral, dão apoio a esses líderes…)
Mas é isso que conduz ao seguinte problema: se 2020 inaugura o século XXI como um período de pessimismo e catástrofes em série, então o que se encerra com o século XX, ou esse intervalo que foram as últimas décadas (talvez desde a queda da União Soviética, se formos continuar seguindo a cronologia de Hobsbawm), é um período de grande otimismo. Se for assim, então a página a ser virada não é a de um século, mas de algo muito mais extenso, correspondente a toda a era de espírito expansivo, de crença na prosperidade e no progresso contínuos, material e espiritualmente. É um período que remete, pelo menos, ao século XVIII, era do Iluminismo, da industrialização, das revoluções na França, no Haiti e nas 13 colônias americanas.
É dessa era que herdamos o principal das nossas categorias de pensamento e parâmetros de ação; e, consequentemente, nossos arranjos institucionais na política, na economia e em tantos outros campos. Quase tudo que se disse, fez e pensou nesse período considerava que, dali por diante, as condições de vida só melhorariam – para os humanos, claro –, e com elas a humanidade como um todo, espiritualmente – ou melhor, a humanidade que subscrevesse às categorias de vida e pensamento disseminadas a partir da Europa. Estávamos “aprendendo a caminhar com as próprias pernas”, sem a tutela de autoridades espirituais ou seculares, pensava Kant. O saber se tornaria enciclopédico e acessível a todos, pensava Voltaire. A miséria seria eliminada, a democracia se tornaria dominante, a tecnologia avançaria tanto que a subsistência estaria garantida com 15 horas de trabalho por semana, chegou a pensar Keynes. Na década de 1990, além da ideia de “fim da história” que ficou marcada na testa de Francis Fukuyama para sempre, os economistas acreditaram, com um espírito que faz pensar nos delírios dos alquimistas, ter desenvolvido a fórmula da “grande moderação” – e, portanto, as recessões estavam superadas para sempre.
Vale dizer que o subtexto dos movimentos revolucionários de todo esse período, pelo menos a grande maioria deles, também era o da plena realização dos potenciais criativos da humanidade. A tomada dos meios de produção pelos trabalhadores não chegou a ser, na prática, uma ruptura com o passo faustiano da modernização. Ao contrário, desde Fourrier, Owen e Saint-Simon, sempre se colocou como decorrência dessa mesma modernização, necessária e conceitualmente demonstrada, para Marx (embora ele tivesse, assim como Engels, uma visão mais elaborada do que viria a ser a questão ecológica). Não é outro o espírito de Lênin quando fala do socialismo como “eletricidade e sovietes”, para dar um exemplo sonoro.
Evoquei todos esses nomes para dar estofo a um único argumento: estamos nos iludindo, um pouco como já nos iludimos depois de 2008, ao acreditar que a crise do coronavírus é um ponto de partida para a volta de políticas sociais, seguridade pública, uma nova era do Estado de Bem-Estar, uma espécie de keynesianismo-fordismo sem as amarras da produção fordista, ou seja, só com a conciliação de classes de inspiração keynesiana. Dizer que “o neoliberalismo morreu” porque os Estados Unidos, a Europa e vários países asiáticos estão dispostos a despejar trilhões de dólares no mercado, não apenas com afrouxamento monetário, mas com políticas fiscais e transferências diretas a trabalhadores e pequenos empresários, é um enorme exagero. Quem talvez vá parar na UTI é a globalização, ainda mais depois que os americanos saltaram para absorver toda a oferta de material hospitalar, numa demonstração de ausência de cooperação entre nações. Mas essa seria só uma decorrência pontual.
Podemos até esperar que alguns mecanismos emergenciais sejam perenizados, para fazer frente a outras situações de crise súbita, mas dificilmente passará disso. A resistência dos poderosos a responder à epidemia, seja com o isolamento social, seja com os pacotes de estímulo, é mais instrutiva do que o açodamento com que depois tiveram de correr atrás do prejuízo. As máquinas de mentiras que sustentaram medidas suicidas em várias partes, mas sobretudo nos Estados Unidos e ainda mais no Brasil, são instrumentos característicos de nosso tempo e isso não vai mudar tão facilmente.
Por sinal, as medidas de vigilância, para não dizer espionagem, usadas na Coreia do Sul e, em seguida, Israel, com a finalidade momentânea de traçar as linhas de transmissão do vírus, estarão disponíveis na condição de laboratório em tempo real, assim que o momento mais agudo da crise passar, para aperfeiçoamento e generalização por esses mesmos governos, e outros. A propósito, vale dizer que, no caso de Israel, o laboratório em tempo real já estava funcionando antes, ele foi apenas expandido para ficar de olho também na população israelense. Este é um ponto sensível, porque sabemos que todos os esforços da última década para denunciar os gigantescos esquemas de vigilância digital, envolvendo multinacionais e governos, foram fragorosamente derrotados: os “whistleblowers” da última década ou bem estão presos, como Julian Assange e Chelsea Manning, ou exilados, como Edward Snowden, ou mortos, como Aaron Swartz.
É tão absurdo imaginar que, depois da pandemia, vamos recuperar o papel socioeconômico dos governos ou a solidariedade entre cidadãos quanto crer, como coloquei acima, que a onda dos políticos xenófobos e estúpidos vai passar para dar lugar a novos anos 90. Trata-se de uma ingenuidade escolhida, porque a alternativa, pelo menos no curto prazo, é terrível. Pode-se analisar o fracasso de Corbyn e mesmo a perda de impulso de Sanders a partir dos erros que cometeram ou das conjunturas eleitorais de seus países, mas o fato é que seu papel histórico parece ser o de anteparos a forças terríveis, e os anteparos, por natureza, não vão muito longe.
Infelizmente, há um descompasso muito grande entre os incentivos para mudar a lógica da atividade humana – nem sequer se sabe ainda, ao certo, de que maneira – e os incentivos para recrudescer os esforços para encastelar-se (aqueles que podem) nos restos possíveis do século XX, adiando, contornando e terceirizando os grandes riscos e as grandes crises, reprimindo e, quando necessário, exterminando os focos de revolta e perturbação – o que inclui os migrantes. Por enquanto, ainda é muito fácil identificar perturbações e aniquilá-las (o termo da moda é “neutralizar”) antes que causem maiores danos, ou então lançá-las às costas de países e populações com menos capacidade de se defender. Por sinal, Saskia Sassen se refere a esse procedimento como “expulsões”, em livro de título homônimo.
FRIEDRICH, Caspar David_Barco de pesca entre dos rocas en una playa del Mar Báltico, c. 1830-1835_(CTB.1994.15)
Em geral, os analistas da geopolítica têm apostado que um resultado de toda essa crise será o recrudescimento do nacionalismo, do controle sobre as populações e das mensagens ditas “populistas”, contra a aparente volta da confiança na ciência, da solidariedade e das redes de proteção social. Ou seja, quem vai dar a letra são os Orban, Netanyahu e quejandos deste mundo. E nesse sentido, a recusa dos europeus em criar os tais “coronabonds” é péssimo sinal.
Nada de luz no fim do túnel, portanto? Acho que não é bem assim. O subtexto desse pessimismo é que a humanidade vai entrar no século XXI trabalhando com as mesmas categorias de interpretação de seu mundo e de orientação de sua ação com que atravessou os períodos anteriores, mas numa era em que as condições concretas do planeta são amplamente desfavoráveis a esses modos de proceder.
No curto prazo, essas análises parecem ter razão, já que a intenção de desenvolver novas categorias e formas de vida parece quase nula, restrita a nichos com pouquíssima reverberação. Mas é claro que estamos falando apenas do começo do século, ou do começo de uma época, podemos dizer; nada está escrito na pedra e a dissonância entre a estratégia de poder que passou do tempo e as pressões da realidade pode acabar se mostrando excessiva. Resta ver quanto tempo isso vai levar.
Ainda por cima, as projeções de uma perda maior de liberdade e de influência da sociedade civil ressoam com preocupações que já se ouviam, não só em relação às ações dos líderes mais retrógrados, tentando forçar a barra para manter ao máximo o equilíbrio de poder parecido com o anterior, mas também ao que poderiam fazer governos mais alinhados com os desafios do século. É o que leva André Gorz, por exemplo, a falar em “ecofascismo”, temendo que as restrições impostas por esses governos, num mundo que deixa de se expandir, exigissem chegar ao ponto do uso reiterado da força, em suma, ao autoritarismo, para pôr em prática as medidas necessárias de adaptação.
Em todo caso, todas essas previsões trabalham com a perspectiva de que as categorias tradicionais da economia, da política e da diplomacia se manterão intactas. Todo o problema reside aí. Também reside aí o alcance daquele exercício que sugeri no início: para poder ser otimista quanto ao estado em que estaremos no fim do século, vai ser preciso um trabalho cuidadoso sobre essas categorias, em todas as áreas da vida.
2 – O óbvio e o absurdo
Não faltarão referências para dizer que, apesar de algumas indicações pontuais em sentido contrário, a humanidade nunca viveu período melhor. É o que lemos, por exemplo, no livro de divulgação do badalado economista Angus Deaton, que faz uma ode da modernidade industrial e capitalista por meio da comparação com o mundo que veio antes, pré-industrial e pré-capitalista.
Sempre me pareceram estranhas essas defesas do capitalismo – que se apresentam, de fato, como defesas contra seus detratores – que o contrapõem à vida como era até o século XVIII. A estranheza vem do fato de que muito pouca gente estaria disposta a assumir uma postura de defesa da vida material tal como era, digamos, entre os séculos XV e XVIII, o que faz a apologia da modernidade soar como se ecoasse no vácuo. Além disso, não estamos na era clássica ou pré-moderna, de modo que nossos problemas e nossas escolhas nada têm a ver com o que foram naquele momento. Pouco importa o que a humanidade conseguiu fazer no tempo da máquina a vapor. Temos que enfrentar o que nos aflige hoje. Agora.
Deaton, em particular, faz a curiosa escolha de comparar o desenvolvimento econômico ao filme “The Great Escape” (Fugindo do Inferno), que narra a tentativa de fuga de prisioneiros de guerra americanos de um campo nazista. Escolha curiosa, mas ilustrativa: para o economista, ao inventar a produção industrial, as finanças modernas e tudo que vem junto, a humanidade teria escapado das amarras de uma natureza hostil. Posso até entender que se queira comparar o mundo sujeito aos rigores da natureza a uma prisão (nazista?!), mas se escapamos… escapamos para onde? Estaríamos então num mundo de puro espírito, descolado de qualquer determinante material? Ou será que simplesmente assumimos, nós mesmos, o papel de natureza hostil, encarnada numa monstruosidade que acreditou estar liberta da própria carne (e foi assim que se tornou monstruosa)? Sempre me surpreende que pessoas tão qualificadas possam repetir tanto uma argumentação tão pueril.
Mas não é preciso adotar esse simplismo apologético para reconhecer que a modernidade, naquilo que ela se propôs a fazer (sem querer antropomorfizá-la), foi muito bem-sucedida. Basta entrar nos indicadores da Agenda 2030, da ONU, para ver que a proporção de indivíduos passando fome no mundo nunca foi tão baixa, centenas de milhões de pessoas foram alçadas para fora das condições de miséria, doenças transmissíveis matam muito menos do que há um século, o analfabetismo está em baixa no mundo e assim por diante. Deixando de lado a constatação de que esses mesmos indicadores apontam um ligeiro retrocesso a partir de 2015, pode-se perfeitamente aceitar como verdadeira a avaliação otimista e, mesmo assim, manter-se pessimista quanto ao futuro. O primeiro motivo é evidente: todos esses indicadores falam sobre o passado e só dão sustentação ao espírito esperançoso da modernidade pós-Iluminismo. O segundo motivo é que justamente esses dados tão encorajadores podem estar na raiz de muitos dos problemas que esperamos enfrentar em breve – ou melhor, já estamos enfrentando, ainda que sem perceber. (E se a pandemia tivesse coincidido com a seca de 2014-2015?)
É neste segundo motivo que temos que nos concentrar. Assim como não é o caso de louvar os ganhos técnicos, econômicos, sociais e mesmo políticos dos últimos séculos, como se ainda estivéssemos enredados nos mesmos problemas, tampouco é o caso de deplorar as escolhas do passado, como se quem as fez estivesse mergulhado nos nossos problemas atuais. É importante não distorcer o passado, isto é, o caminho que nos trouxe até aqui, que é o que aconteceria se fôssemos julgá-lo com um olhar contaminado por tudo que estamos vivendo agora – ou, se preferir, por tudo que sabemos agora. Os excessos, as falhas, as crises daquilo que se encerra com esta eclosão do século XXI são precisamente aquilo que nos revela os desafios vindouros, porque as mudanças pelas quais nós passamos, e conosco nosso mundo, são as próprias fontes dos problemas que mudam e, com eles, as questões e, por fim, os conhecimentos.
Cabe ainda acrescentar uma outra pequena pergunta: não seriam os próprios indicadores dependentes de categorias cujos prazos de validade já começam a expirar? São, afinal, recortes do mundo que surgiram e se desenvolveram na era da modernidade otimista, ou seja, pertencem a ela. Neste caso, o problema estaria na insistência em tentar entender os desafios à frente com a lógica adequada a problemas e condições que ficaram para trás.
O que quer dizer, então, uma mudança de categorias? Pensemos nas palavras que mais usamos para entender ou avaliar o mundo em que vivemos; coisas como “eficiência”, “crescimento”, “desenvolvimento”, que associamos à economia; mas também palavras que usamos em outros contextos, como o par “democracia”/”ditadura”, “opinião pública”, “liberdade”, no ambiente político; e algumas noções mais híbridas, como “emprego”, “família”, “nação”; dá mesmo para entrar em mais detalhes, como “setor privado/público”, “exportação”, “aposentadoria”, “civilização”, “modernidade”, “produção”. E nem mencionei termos mais técnicos, como PIB, déficit público, inflação.
Sem usar palavras como essas, dificilmente conseguimos entender o que nos cerca, tomar decisões que afetam as nossas vidas e as dos outros, dialogar com quem quer que seja. É graças a essas noções que podemos diferenciar a mentalidade moderna como sendo “contratualista” e “individualista”, em vez de “comunitária” ou “hierárquica”. Isso mostra que não dá para separar o que entendemos por “nosso mundo” da linguagem que desenvolvemos para organizar nossa relação com ele – o que não quer dizer que a linguagem seja o ponto de partida do mundo ou sua fronteira, porque ela mesma vai tomando forma na medida dos problemas que aparecem na relação que constitui o mundo. A linguagem pode ser performativa, mas é ao mesmo tempo parte de individuações que a ultrapassam.
Daí a importância disso que estou chamando de “as categorias” – ou seja, ideias, ou melhor, conceitos – pelos quais é preciso passar para pensar de maneira estruturada nosso mundo e parametrar nossa ação nele. Elas são fundamentais e são razoavelmente rígidas, mas não totalmente. Basta ver como “democracia” deixou de ter o sentido de bagunça política (ainda empregado, por exemplo, pelos fundadores da democracia americana) e se tornou o nome de um sistema muito bem estruturado, termo carregado de valor altamente positivo, mesmo quando o exercício de um determinado regime com seu nome não lhe faça jus (i.e. sempre). A noção do “direito divino dos reis”, por exemplo, foi praticamente extinta, embora haja desvairados tentando ressuscitá-la, ou algo parecido com ela. A noção aristocrática de “honra” perdeu quase todo o peso que tinha no edifício das virtudes, enquanto as categorias econômicas de eficiência e produtividade se tornaram excelências, e por aí vai.
Agora, o que está sendo posto em questão são essas mesmas categorias que triunfaram sobre as mais ultrapassadas, como “honra”, “glória” e “direito divino dos reis”, mas também uma série de princípios feudais e eclesiásticos que hoje nem sequer fazem sentido para nós. Também vale lembrar que esses esquemas de pensamento suplantam outros, anteriores, mas às vezes recuperam ou retrabalham alguns de seus princípios. Quando a eficiência, o profissionalismo e outras noções semelhantes se tornam os alicerces da virtude, tomam o lugar de noções como justiça, temperança e bem-viver (eudaimonia, às vezes traduzida também simplesmente como “felicidade”), marcas de um mundo tão diferente que se tornou quase incompreensível.
Por que estou dizendo isso? Porque a força das categorias é parecerem óbvias, o que envolve tornar outros esquemas categoriais incompreensíveis e aparentemente absurdos. Pois bem, com o século XXI chega o momento de explorar alguns campos que nos soam absurdos, porque é o óbvio que está se tornando inconcebível.
Algo dessas mudanças já vem tomando corpo, sobretudo na maneira como o próprio conceito de civilização vem sendo posto em questão: em muitos meios, não carrega mais automaticamente um valor de incremento do espírito humano ou algo assim, passando a envolver boas doses de violência, um certo caráter ilusório, uma desmesura dos povos que subjugaram os demais e forçaram uma definição do curso adequado às vidas de todos. Cada vez mais, a noção de civilização carrega um subtexto de colonialismo, quando associada à história dos últimos quinhentos anos – e o próprio termo “colonialismo” passou a ter conotações negativas que, há um século, não tinha. Por sinal, ainda hoje é possível ouvir gente formada nas escolas de décadas atrás (muitas décadas) repetindo que as potências coloniais “levaram a civilização” a “povos atrasados”. São categorias que já se desvaneceram… e outras mais estão por fenecer.
3 – Mais do que uma economia
É sintomática, por exemplo, essa mórbida dicotomia entre “salvar a economia” e “salvar vidas”, que grassou por algumas semanas, na crítica às medidas de confinamento contra o avanço do vírus. Mas vamos deixar de lado a morbidade, por um momento, olhando só para o caráter sintomático. Pois é sintoma de quê, ao certo? De que colocamos a economia acima (ou à frente, se preferir) da vida? Ora, mas como isso foi possível, se é imediatamente evidente que só há qualquer tipo de economia se houver vida? Talvez seja mais, então, um sintoma de que perdemos a noção do que vem a ser uma economia.
Convenhamos que uma epidemia, manifestação escandalosa de uma doença, é algo inseparável da vida como um todo e, portanto, algo que precede e deve ser pressuposto por qualquer forma de organização da vida. Se uma pandemia é capaz de bloquear e comprometer o sistema dessa operação para além da duração de seus próprios surtos, então forçoso é constatar que há uma falha fundamental no mecanismo que sustenta nossas vidas em sua forma determinada corrente. Isto é evidente para além de qualquer comparação com épocas anteriores.
Falando em épocas anteriores, a experiência atual dá até vontade de voltar a pensar ao modo dos antigos fisiocratas (Turgot, Quesnay etc.), que consideravam o setor agrícola como sendo o único que gerava riqueza, de fato. Para eles, era assim porque só na agricultura se traduzia para o universo dos humanos algo do mundo natural que era a condição da vida. “Valor” designava a transferência do natural para o humano, a energia do sol e do solo concentrada no trigo e na cevada, por sua vez transubstanciados como alimento e como mercadoria. Os demais setores se limitavam a transformar esses elementos condicionantes da vida, fazendo-os circular, tornando-os mais complexos e diversos. No fundo, a tradicional teoria do valor-trabalho, sobrevivente hoje quase apenas entre marxistas, levava esse princípio adiante e o atualizava para a era industrial: valor nada mais é do que a transformação das energias do mundo, por meio dos corpos e das máquinas, em formas da vida social. Um metabolismo. Valor, no fim das contas, é uma noção poiética.
E no entanto chegamos ao ponto em que se tornou aceitável pensar que a economia é algo oposto à vida, ou pelo menos além da vida, mais ou menos como na imagem da “grande fuga” de gente como Deaton. Isto é que é enigmático. Uma adulteração lógica a examinar. Sem entrar em detalhes, parece ser o caso extremo da grande ilusão moderna apontada por Latour e Stengers, e mesmo antes, por Whitehead. Ela consiste em estabelecer uma cisão rígida (mas mediada) entre o mundo social dos humanos e o mundo natural, bruto; em termos científicos, consiste em isolar os fenômenos de toda valoração ou implicação que pudesse ser dita cósmica (nos termos de Bachelard, um obstáculo epistemológico), para revelar apenas suas relações diretas de causalidade.
Enquanto se trata apenas de método científico, vá lá; mas a atividade que dizemos econômica não é redutível à linearidade causal expressa no par produção/consumo, como quer a mentalidade moderna. Mesmo assim, ela não pensou duas vezes antes de aplicar a esse campo, equivocadamente, a mesma lógica que lhe serviu na epistemologia. Nesta última, de modo controlado, ou ao menos assim se acreditava. No mundo concreto, vivido, social, de modo brutal, cego, desmesurado.
E essa desmesura vai além, porque está na base de todo o maquinário de absorção, sujeição e aniquilamento que caracterizou a expansão colonial desde fins do século XV. Da expansão marítima ao fabuloso trabalho de engenheiros que cortavam ferrovias na selva e nas montanhas, marejando os olhos dos espíritos científicos ao mesmo tempo em que enchia os bolsos de quem financiou tamanhas aventuras, a experiência moderna sempre insistiu na cisão com o que lhe parecia ser meramente um mundo natural, para em seguida absorvê-lo como um buraco negro absorve a luz. E pensar que já Sófocles dizia não haver nada mais maravilhoso e temível quanto o ser humano…
Sem dúvida, uma parcela da explicação para nossa incapacidade de entender o que é uma economia está na confusão entre a variedade e sofisticação do que pode ser apropriadamente chamado de econômico e o enorme dispositivo técnico que foi montado para mobilizá-lo. Trocando em miúdos, aquilo que constitui uma economia (a elaboração dos modos de vida) foi soterrado por algo que podemos chamar de um gigantesco sistema de pagamentos e compromissos/promessas de pagamento – não no sentido usual da expressão, mas como toda a arquitetura da moeda e dos instrumentos financeiros que a orbitam.
Podemos observar, por exemplo, que na atual crise está intacta toda a infraestrutura necessária para tocar as necessidades da vida, isto é, o sistema econômico, produção, circulação e consumo. O que não está inteiramente de pé é o uso dessa infraestrutura, o que já é suficiente para ameaçar uma ruptura do sistema econômico em níveis sem precedentes, ainda que possivelmente por um período relativamente curto. Materialmente, não há nada que impeça a retomada do sistema tão logo a população se sinta segura. Ou seja, o uso dessa infraestrutura permanece disponível, do ponto de vista material. E mesmo enquanto durar o período de contágio, não há nada, materialmente, que impeça toda a população de viver com um nível de segurança suficiente, até mesmo um certo conforto, contanto que haja coordenação suficiente para tal.
A produção de alimentos e de energia não foi interrompida, as cadeias de distribuição tampouco, a não ser como medida de precaução. Na prática, o único elemento do sistema econômico que congelou, ao ponto da ruptura, com consequências palpáveis para além do momento da epidemia, é o sistema de pagamentos (sem falar, é claro, nos sistemas de saúde, cuja saturação não é primariamente um assunto econômico, embora tenha causas e consequências econômicas).
A rigor, as medidas necessárias para manter uma estabilidade social bem acima do mínimo, aliás bem próxima do satisfatório, estão muito aquém do que países estão preparados para fazer em situações críticas, até mesmo em guerras. Esses são momentos em que pontes, fábricas e cidades são destruídas. Pense em episódios tão diferentes quanto Fukushima ou a Batalha da Inglaterra. Nada disso é o caso agora. Tanto é que as medidas que os governos estão buscando dizem respeito, todas, ao problema dos pagamentos: redução de juros, adiantamento de créditos, títulos públicos com finalidade específica, pagamentos emergenciais a trabalhadores, pequenos empresários, autônomos etc., diferimento de impostos e aluguéis… Nada disso é mirabolante e é bem menos traumático do que os boletins de racionamento típicos dos períodos de guerra, que são, por sinal, um método de distribuição com eficácia limitada, particular a determinadas circunstâncias, como todos os demais. Mas chama a atenção esse detalhe significativo: ora, a metáfora que temos ouvido por aí, a começar pelo pronunciamento de Emmanuel Macron, é justamente a da guerra!
Ora, é nesse preciso ponto que faltam os mecanismos para lidar com interrupções, já que o “sistema de pagamentos” designa tudo que tem a ver com relações monetárias: aluguéis, salários, juros, impostos, ações. São relações que marcam distinções sociais, ritmos do tempo vivido, obrigações entre empresas, bancos e governos. Não é que a economia tenha um “lado real” e um “lado monetário”; assim como tudo que a humanidade faz, o real da economia (que não é um lado) só toma forma por meio de um imaginário codificado, que vincula a ação dos corpos e coletivos a uma modalidade técnica de sentido e propósito. Mas sendo assim, essa codificação é manuseável, como vemos sempre que há uma crise. Foi por perdermos de vista o caráter técnico e sociopolítico do dinheiro que pudemos nos enredar nessa bagunça, dizendo tolices como “dinheiro não dá em árvore”, e que temos tanta dificuldade em projetar medidas que respondam a um tempo de paralisia sem traumas desnecessários. Entre economistas, quem entendeu melhor esse ponto foram os “folclóricos MMTers”.
A parte fácil é entender que não deve mais ser considerado algo tão surpreendente que o ciclo habitual da atividade econômica seja interrompido de súbito, por períodos de meses a cada vez. Isto significa que, no mínimo, será preciso estabelecer mecanismos de “ligar/desligar” para os momentos de catástrofe. Desta vez, nem vamos precisar de um profeta para sonhar com vacas magras. Mas isso, por sua vez, implica uma ruptura com a crença tão disseminada de que um sistema econômico é uma espécie de máquina que funciona por conta própria, e que tem suas próprias leis, e que elas se manifestam em indicadores aritméticos, veladamente monetários. Este é o coração do problema das categorias, no campo econômico.
Isto significa que, como sistema complexo de natureza socio-técnica, nossa economia financeirizada é nada menos do que incompatível com o que o século XXI – esse que começa agora – promete ser. Neste exato momento, instantes iniciais do século, a questão de curto prazo posta à nossa frente pode bem ser essa que estamos discutindo nas últimas semanas: se a economia consegue sobreviver quando centenas de milhares de pessoas estão hospitalizadas, outras tantas morrendo, e muitas mais sob risco de ser infectadas e sobrecarregar os hospitais. A versão empobrecida desse dilema transparece nessa dúvida sobre se restringir a circulação das cidades derruba o sistema de pagamentos.
Mas a tendência é que essa pergunta seja potencializada em proporções terríveis: se a economia pode sobreviver quando centenas de milhares estão se afogando (imagine as cidades costeiras…), outros milhares estão sufocando (pense nas queimadas), centenas de milhões de agricultores perdem suas plantações, outros tantos ficam sem água, e isso sucessivamente, ano após ano. Toda essa lista trata de episódios que já vêm acontecendo, mas até agora a coordenação do sistema econômico-financeiro global – um sistema complexo e resiliente – foi capaz de conter possíveis danos à capacidade de pagamento em nível global. A pandemia do coronavírus foi a primeira vez que essa capacidade foi amplamente posta em questão.
Para muitos, a resposta a essa incompatibilidade consistiria em reinstalar mecanismos de solidariedade social mediados pelo Estado, à moda do período social-democrata do pós-guerra. Mas é preciso ir muito além, já que as categorias e instituições social-democratas têm os dois pés muito bem fincados na modernidade da grande indústria, estão baseadas na relação salarial, no emprego fabril e formalizado, na pura aritmética do nível de produto (ou, mais simplesmente, o PIB), das taxas de variação, uma capacidade produtiva inabalável. Em breve, já não será mais o caso de trabalhar com essas categorias.
Para se restringir aos momentos de ruptura, como o atual: seria preciso que houvesse mecanismos de interrupção de todas essas relações estabelecidas, para que os danos de uma catástrofe ficassem contidos em suas próprias fronteiras. Seria preciso que dívidas, juros, aluguéis, impostos, pagamentos de toda ordem, se congelassem e retomassem com o retorno à, digamos, normalidade. Mecanismos emergenciais como as rendas mínimas emergenciais teriam de ser disparados automaticamente, para não chegar à possibilidade ainda um tanto controversa de que se tornassem rendas universais, perenes. Seja como for, a consideração de tudo que se entende por econômico teria de passar inteiramente ao largo de categorias como o “nível de produto” e, com ele, do crescimento.
Já isto, hoje, parece inconcebível e inteiramente fora do nosso quadro de pensamento. Uma economia cuja moldura institucional levasse em conta a certeza de eventuais interrupções?! No entanto, estou falando apenas do que seria preciso para lidar de modo um pouco menos traumático com a série de interrupções do processo econômico esperadas para as próximas décadas. Ou seja, esse é o mínimo necessário para tentar responder às ameaças dentro do esquema conceitual com que estivemos acostumados, mantendo pelo menos os princípios da vida econômica que levamos desde o século XVIII.
Mas se a idéia for passar a uma vida conforme aos problemas concretos do século XXI, mais ou menos como a industrialização e o desenvolvimento das finanças lidaram com as condições e possibilidades do século XVIII, então vai ser preciso uma capacidade inventiva muito maior. Neste caso, para ficar no âmbito do pensamento econômico, os institucionalistas são uma fonte mais interessante do que as demais escolas, já que reconhecem as condições sociais e políticas para o funcionamento de qualquer sistema econômico, particularmente a tão incensada economia de mercado. Nada garante que o arcabouço institucionalista seja suficiente, mas será preciso pensar as condições para que mercados funcionassem de modo intermitente, subordinados às condições materiais e concretas de um mundo natural que, se dependesse do próprio mercado e de seus teóricos, seria abordado apenas pelo ângulo dos seguros (o relatório Brundtland já previa o encarecimento das apólices, por sinal) e das externalidades – este, aliás, é o primeiro conceito a ser sacrificado, já que, num sistema complexo em que a atividade econômica testou os limites do planeta, o que aparece como externo é simplesmente o que há de mais interno.
Seguindo por essa linha de raciocínio, mais ainda do que os institucionalistas, seria o caso de recuperar o “substantivismo” de Polanyi, aquele que aponta a inversão característica da modernidade: considerar o social como incorporado à economia, em vez do contrário. Para garantir condições de subsistência e conforto, o mecanismo de mercado é apenas um dos caminhos (Polanyi elencou outros dois, que denominou “formas de integração”: reciprocidade e redistribuição). Há condições necessárias para que funcionem: com muita incerteza – financeira, política ou, agora, ecológica –, o sistema de pagamentos pode entrar em colapso. Em funcionando, há condições necessárias para que os mercados sejam úteis: quando alguém como o governo americano pode desviar para si todos os bens mais essenciais só porque tem condições de pagar, há um problema grave. Assim como há um problema grave quando todos os incentivos do mercado vão na direção de uma promoção insuficiente da saúde. Essas são algumas das questões que vamos ter que enfrentar.
4 – Riscos existenciais
Quando se fala nas principais fontes de catástrofes e, de modo geral, perigos no século que ora se inicia, a lista costuma incluir os seguintes pontos: mudança climática, biotecnologia, inteligência artificial, poderio nuclear. Grosso modo, são esses os nossos principais “riscos existenciais”, para usar a expressão de Nick Bostrom. É importante ter em mente que cada um deles alimenta os demais, já que são componentes de um sistema cada vez mais integrado e complexo, que é o sistema do planeta (“Earth system”), hoje tão geofísico quanto econômico, tão ecológico quanto tecnocientífico.
É real, por vários motivos, o problema da complexidade dos sistemas geo-bio-físico e tecno-financeiro-econômico, cada vez mais indistinguíveis. O primeiro está na própria recursividade dos sistemas complexos: eles tendem a aumentar o próprio nível de complexidade. No caso da vida, isto acaba significando evolução, mas, no caso de sistemas técnicos, envolve igualmente uma perda de controle – e acho que não há muita controvérsia em dizer que é preferível poder controlar os sistemas técnicos. Mas também é uma característica de sistemas complexos que sejam mais “resilientes” (anglicismo que parece já ter sido plenamente adotado em português), porém ao mesmo tempo mais vulneráveis. É assim que sistemas ecológicos se adaptam a mudanças consideráveis, climáticas ou até mesmo internas a eles mesmos, transformando-se para isso, sem maiores traumas aparentes – isto é resiliência –, mas eventualmente chegam a um ponto de virada em que não podem mais subsistir, e entram em colapso – isso é vulnerabilidade. As extinções em massa ocorreram dessa maneira: foram rápidas e súbitas.
A relação entre resiliência e vulnerabilidade pode se explicar mais ou menos assim, tomando o caso de zoonoses e outros patógenos. No noticiário sobre o atual coronavírus, lemos que laboratórios mundo afora estão correndo atrás de vacinas e que, eventualmente, dentro de um ano e meio, talvez, teremos resultados. Lemos também que bactérias estão cada vez mais resistentes a antibióticos, mas que também estão sendo desenvolvidos novas classes de medicamentos contra essas superbactérias. Com a exceção de pessoas que seguramente não estão lendo este texto, sabemos todos que as vacinas foram fundamentais para controlar doenças como pólio, sarampo e varíola, e continuam sendo fundamentais para mantê-las sob controle. Sabemos que o saneamento nos protege do cólera e da febre tifóide. Sabemos que um bom urbanismo é fundamental contra o avanço da tuberculose e outras doenças respiratórias. Metrópoles superpovoadas são espaços ideais para a transmissão em massa de vírus como esse da atual pandemia, mas também são onde melhor se previnem as doenças e mais se tem acesso a tratamentos de saúde. Sabemos que o aumento da ingestão de calorias foi um fator na melhora dos indicadores de saúde e no aumento da expectativa de vida dos últimos séculos (deixando de lado o problema da má nutrição com o avanço recente dos alimentos ultraprocessados, sobretudo nos países ricos).
Pois bem, todos esses elementos estão profundamente conectados. Uma zoonose como o ebola ou o coronavírus não apaga a humanidade da face da Terra porque os sistemas de prevenção e tratamento dão conta de evitar os maiores estragos. Isto significa que podemos continuar avançando sobre florestas, escravizando animais e ampliando manchas urbanas sem constituir nenhum risco sistêmico. Microorganismos outrora assassinos que estão presentes no nosso organismo não nos afetam mais porque temos como combatê-los ou estão enfraquecidos. Não se pode mais separar nossa saúde, individual ou coletiva, dos dispositivos técnicos no interior dos quais vivemos e que constituem boa parte do nosso mundo.
A coisa vai mais longe, porém. Os laboratórios que investigam curas e vacinas são ou bem públicos, ou bem privados, e seja como for, dependem de financiamento, seja por meio de impostos, investimentos ou empréstimos (contra a perspectiva de lucros). Os sistemas de distribuição dependem igualmente de financiamento, mas também de transportes, que por sua vez dependem de energia extraída, ainda hoje, majoritariamente de combustíveis fósseis. O urbanismo e o saneamento que garantem boa parte da nossa saúde dependem, além do financiamento, da disponibilidade de mão-de-obra, o que implica sistemas de educação, distribuição de alimentos e – veja a recursividade – saúde, urbanismo etc. O acompanhamento e combate de qualquer doença, praga ou catástrofe depende de redes extensas de informação e comunicação, que dependem de computadores, satélites, pesquisadores, universidades, eletricidade…
Todo esse enorme conjunto de sistemas está integrados também aos ciclos ecológicos, o que significa todo tipo de coisa: chuva, vento, rotação e translação da Terra, efeito-estufa, correntes oceânicas. Mas, como vimos com os dados da poluição na China, depois na Europa, hoje nem mesmo essas variáveis podem ser desconectadas da ação humana – ação dita econômica, essa mesma que está soterrada no sistema de pagamentos que faz as vezes de economia.
Assim sendo, já se vê que o sistema é resiliente porque é capaz de enfrentar um sem-número de crises sem romper, mesmo que precise se transformar. “Sem-número” porque, de fato, é bastante indeterminado quanta crise esse sistema todo pode enfrentar e ainda se manter quase incólume. Mas não é uma infinidade. O problema de sistemas complexos como esse que envolve o planeta e a atividade humana é que, de uma hora para outra, o que eram dispositivos de compensação (e, portanto, estabilização), se convertem sem aviso em mecanismos de reforço, provocando uma reação em cadeia que é destrutiva e muito veloz. Este é o sentido da vulnerabilidade contraposta à resiliência.
Para ficar no exemplo da saúde, uma vez que entendemos o quanto a complexidade técnica, social e econômica nos protege contra eventuais doenças, também podemos entender o quanto estamos expostos uma vez que esses sistemas entrem em colapso. Se faltar financiamento para os laboratórios, os remédios e vacinas que nos mantêm saudáveis podem desaparecer de imediato. Nesse momento, também é provável que falte financiamento para os sistemas de tratamento. É provável que também falte para a produção de energia que alimenta os sistemas de transporte e distribuição que traziam os remédios e vacinas, mas também traziam o alimento. As redes de comunicação emudecem. Também fica comprometido o saneamento e, dentro em pouco, o mesmo acontece com o urbanismo, como foi quando a manutenção dos aquedutos se tornou inviável nas cidades do Império Romano decadente. Assim, em pouco tempo, nós, que estávamos tão bem protegidos contra novas doenças – e mesmo velhas doenças –, de súbito estamos completamente expostos.
Como cada um desses sistemas – inteligência artificial, biotecnologias, clima, nuclear, mas também finança, indústria etc. – é complexo por si só e todos estão conectados de múltiplas maneiras, constituindo um super-sistema-mundo, todas as tendências da complexidade se reforçam, da acelerada complexificação à resiliência e à vulnerabilidade. Muitas pequenas rupturas podem ocorrer sem derrubar o “sistema de sistemas”, muitas vezes inclusive reforçando-o, embora acumule resíduos que podem depois se revelar fatais.
Talvez o acúmulo dessas tensões, ao aumentar o estresse do sistema, leve ao seu colapso; talvez leve a uma supersaturação que induza à completa reconfiguração do sistema como um todo, levando a uma nova lógica, novos atratores, novas categorias, novas instituições etc. Esta é a maior esperança. J.-P. Dupuy, que cunhou a expressão “catastrofismo esclarecido” para designar a postura racional e esperançosa perante uma catástrofe já encomendada e que se torna cada vez mais palpável, teme que os sistemas em tensão acabem redundando em guerras que ponham tudo a perder. Pois bem, a corrida contra o tempo pode ser posta nesses termos: invenção ou guerra. Inventar novas categorias e parâmetros para novas configurações do sistema-mundo, antes que estejamos afogados num dilúvio de ferro, fogo e sangue.
5 – Para novas categorias
Com toda essa conversa de categorias que se tornam obsoletas, resta se perguntar sobre a emergência de novas categorias – aliás, “emergência” é um péssimo termo, já que se trata de um lento trabalho de invenção e amplificação, sem que nada pule “para fora” de nada. Ou seja, se o século nascente demanda uma passagem a novos conceitos de base, de onde eles virão?
Aqui é que reside toda a beleza das possibilidades abertas, da esperança e da coragem de viver – e viver consiste em construir as maneiras como essa vida vai se constituindo, se desenvolvendo, percolando pelas nossas relações conforme se desenvolvem. Aqui aparece novamente aquela proposta do começo do texto: se queremos fazer a aposta de que vamos chegar bem ao fim do século XXI, mesmo sabendo que será um período difícil, traumático, temos que ver quais são as condições para isso. Ou seja, explorar as possibilidades, examinar com cuidado o que parecia funcionar e não funciona, apontar as limitações das categorias usuais, investigar os potenciais de categorias concorrentes, vendo onde falham e onde prosperam… e assim por diante.
Seja o que for que vai constituir o esquema de interpretação do mundo no século XXI, o que parece seguro dizer é que seus principais elementos já estão flutuando pelas margens do mundo. Algum gaiato poderia dizer que essas figuras políticas monstruosas que vêm ganhando espaço também vêm das margens dos sistemas políticos estabelecidos. E esse gaiato teria razão, até certo ponto. Quando os modelos da era anterior começam a exibir trincas e pouco a pouco se põem a ruir, quem sai na frente são essas suas formas adulteradas, teratológicas, das margens do sistema estabelecido mas ainda orbitando nele e se alimentando dele. Mas elas só têm a oferecer o esforço violento de postergar qualquer invenção propriamente de fundo, tarefa que tende a se tornar cada vez mais trabalhosa, na medida em que requer volumes cavalares de recursos e energia. Além disso, é mesmo de se esperar que haja linhas de conflito e que justamente esses nomes monstruosos sejam a linha de frente do atraso.
Mas o que imposta é investigar de onde virão as invenções, que serão capazes de esvaziar essas forças do atraso. E aqui há uma miríade de possibilidades, é claro, já que são categorias da margem e é da natureza da margem multiplicar-se, variar infinitamente, provocar múltiplas diferenciações, algumas das quais se desvanecem logo em seguida, enquanto outras prosperam. Se as energias que circulam nas margens podem ser capturadas por essas figuras monstruosas e destrutivas, seu efeito é esfriá-las. Mas também podem ressoar umas com as outras e criar formas inesperadas, cuja fecundidade é impossível prever e depende das tendências mais amplas com as quais poderá se conectar.
Isto posto, é difícil escapar à tentação de fazer um arrazoado de iniciativas que introduzem novas lógicas (ou lógicas marginais) e, com elas, o potencial de uma reconstrução de categorias. Sem procurar muito longe, basta falar em princípios como a permacultura, os laboratórios maker, os circuitos de troca, que funcionam nos interstícios das cadeias globais de valor, em canais que resistem a traumas que seriam – e são – capazes de romper os vínculos de escala maior. Ainda no plano da produção/circulação/consumo, pululam mundo afora esquemas de comércio justo (ou “equitável”), moedas complementares, bancos comunitários, que permitem um manejo muito mais adaptável e fluido da distribuição dos meios necessários à vida, bem como sistemas de pagamento mais controláveis e sujeitos ao imperativo do bem-estar ou bem-viver.
Recuando um pouco, para poder avançar melhor: em momentos como o desta pandemia, vemos como essas categorias são maleáveis, ainda que busquem se manter rígidas. De um lado, governos e outras instituições abrindo exceções em suas maiores crenças, mas a muito contragosto: auxílios aos desempregados e pequenos empresários, rendas básicas emergenciais etc. De outro, o reforço ou ressurgimento, sobretudo nas periferias, de redes de solidariedade que se acreditava terem sido soterradas ou tornadas obsoletas pela modernidade individualista, contratual. Redes como essas podem até mesmo ser capazes, no fim das contas, de evitar o cenário apocalíptico esboçado por muitos, com roubos a supermercados e famílias pobres levadas a passar fome. Não estou dizendo, valha-me Deus, que basta contar com redes de solidariedade e podemos ficar tranqüilos a respeito das categorias que organizam nosso mundo. O que estou dizendo é que podemos aprender com elas, enxergar nelas elementos de novas dinâmicas sociais, políticas e econômicas.
Como sabemos, o coronavírus, assim como, antes dele, o ebola, o HIV e vários tipos de influenza, é uma zoonose, ou seja, patógeno que transita dos animais para os humanos. Não deixa de oferecer uma ocasião propícia para especular sobre outras instâncias de um trânsito entre mundos que nos forçamos a pensar como separados; a zoonose, como a queimada, a praga, a inundação e, muitas vezes, o câncer, apareceria então como um mediador, um viajante, um diplomata cujas mensagens (Botschaft, diriam os alemães) são a morte, a doença ou, se for o caso, misérias de outros tipos. Naturalmente, só pode nos parecer assim porque imaginamos essa divisão absolutamente ficcional.
Não há propriamente um trânsito, se entendermos que a relação entre mundo humano e mundo animal é uma questão de mera topologia, nada mais do que os movimentos forçados que a lógica divisora da modernidade impôs às dinâmicas que a ultrapassam. Mas o mais relevante é notar que o agente dessa comunicação das doenças entre humanos, morcegos, porcos, frangos e outros bichos, esse minúsculo xamã da morbidade, é um ente microscópico, tão simples, tão estranho – um vírus! Um pedaço de código genético encapado que nem sequer conseguimos determinar como sendo vivo – ou melhor, como sendo um ser vivo de pleno direito (direito!). Um ente que só pode existir com alguma clareza nas conexões, de um corpo a outro, de uma espécie a outra, sendo parte da vida só quando salta entre os infectados.
Existe um curioso paralelismo entre o simples vírus e toda a complexidade do aparato tecnológico humano. A diferença é que o primeiro nos lembra da nossa inserção inescapável (e bem tentamos escapar!) nas dinâmicas naturais – ou cósmicas, para empregar um termo mais carregado de implicações. Enquanto isso, o aparato técnico, mesmo ao operar justamente na mediação física e psíquica com o meio associado, tem nos servido mais para esquecer de seus dinamismos necessários, patentes, inescapáveis, fazendo parecer que nos isola deles.
Na verdade, boa parte da reconstrução das categorias sociais, políticas e econômicas consistirá em refundar a lógica dos dispositivos técnicos, para que sejam os operadores da tarefa de enxergar nossa inserção nos dinamismos naturais, ampliar os modos dessa inserção, reforçar a conexão entre nosso metabolismo e os demais. Também isto existe nas margens, aparece em filigrana nas ciências do clima e do sistema-Terra mais amplamente. De um modo mais próximo ao quotidiano, aparece no esquema de Kate Raworth com os círculos concêntricos da economia possível, que ela compara a uma rosquinha (Donut Economics). Por sinal, o subtítulo do livro dela é: “pensar como um economista do século XXI”, o que só reforça a ideia de que este era um século ainda por começar.
Aparece também na paulatina reemergência de tantos saberes subordinados (expressão de Foucault), que foram suprimidos ou absorvidos pelo saber magno do “espírito científico” moderno, objetivante, isolante, triunfal ao silenciar sobre valores e vínculos cósmicos, enquanto agia tecnicamente sobre esses mesmos valores e vínculos. Pelo menos, vejo assim a retomada de interesse em pachamama, sankofa, ubuntu, motainai, candomblé.
Desnecessário dizer que este é um trabalho árduo e de longo prazo, que só pode ser levado a cabo por meio de muita reflexão, mobilização e articulação. A seguir no exercício de pensamento em que reconhecemos na pandemia do coronavírus um verdadeiro evento, um ponto de virada, ato fundador, chame como quiser, o que se apresenta diante de nós é um chamado à invenção. O mundo passou a última década, pelo menos, postergando transformações cuja necessidade estava patente. Sem reação digna de nota, assistimos à perpetuação de uma mecânica econômico-financeira fracassada, suicida, reconhecidamente alienada – isto é, desconectada de seus próprios princípios. Pasmos, mortificados, acompanhamos a ascensão irresistível de figuras políticas doentias, alimentadas por medos, vergonhas e dores indefiníveis. Uma autêntica necropolítica, engordando com a perspectiva do mortífero.
Talvez faltasse engrenar o século XXI. Talvez estivéssemos meramente na fase de transição para ele. Mas com o coronavírus, mensageiro da vida indecidível, irrompe um século em que a vida, ela mesma, é uma questão de decidir. Se for assim, encerrou-se a década do impasse, com um chamado a encerrar a agonia da modernidade. Eventualmente vamos sair de casa e lá vai estar o século XXI, esperando por nós.
Sociólogo americano diz que vê legitimidade no comportamento da torcida brasileira na Rio 2016. GETTY IMAGES
Assim como muitos observadores internacionais acompanhando os Jogos Olímpicos do Rio, o sociólogo americano Peter Kaufman ficou espantado com o episódio das vaias ao atleta francês do salto com vara Renaud Lavillenie. No caso do acadêmico, porém, o que pareceu incomodá-lo mais foi a reação contrária ao comportamento da torcida.
Para o professor da Universidade Estadual de Nova York, que escreve sobre sociologia do esporte e estudou as reações do público ao comportamento de atletas, houve exagero na condenação das manifestações, sobretudo depois do “pito” público dado nos brasileiros pelo presidente do Comitê Olímpico Internacional (COI), o alemão Thomas Bach.
Após as vaias a Lavillenie no pódio, Bach usou a conta do COI no Twitter para dizer que o comportamento do público foi “chocante” e “inaceitável nas Olimpíadas”.
“O COI certamente tem questões bem mais importantes para lidar do que vaias de torcedores”, disse Kaufman, em conversa com a BBC Brasil, por telefone.
Veja abaixo, trechos da entrevista:
BBC Brasil – O senhor acompanhou a polêmica das vaias no Brasil?
Peter Kaufman – Sim, porque houve um repercussão considerável de alguns incidentes envolvendo o público na Olimpíada do Rio. O comportamento de torcedores é algo interessante, porque estão em jogo fatores culturais.
Cada cultura tem seus próprios valores: em algumas, é apropriado beijar em vez de apertar a mão quando se é apresentado a alguém, por exemplo. Em outras, é muito aceitável vaiar, assim como em certos países aplausos efusivos podem ser vistos como algo rude.
Sociólogo aponta que vaias podem ter diferentes motivos, inclusive descontentamento com os gastos nos Jogos. GETTY IMAGES
BBC Brasil – Por que as pessoas vaiam?
Kaufman – É uma questão de expressão, uma forma de interação social e participação. E isso varia de lugar para lugar. Se um alienígena chegasse aqui hoje e fosse assistir a uma competição esportiva, possivelmente teria outra maneira de se comportar de acordo com sua realidade. E, óbvio, sabemos que não é apenas esporte. As Olimpíadas têm um significado muito maior. O público brasileiro pode estar vaiando em desafio às autoridades, ao governo brasileiro e até mesmo ao dinheiro gasto na Olimpíada.
BBC Brasil – É injusto com os atletas?
Kaufman – Alvos de vaias podem se sentir ofendidos, tristes e até ameaçados por uma torcida mais ruidosas. Não os culpo por pensarem apenas na qualidade de seu desempenho em vez de analisar aspectos culturais ou políticos. É perfeitamente compreensível que o atleta francês tenha ficado bastante chateado com as vaias que recebeu até no pódio. Mas ele estava competindo contra um atleta brasileiro e em casa. Pelo que tenho lido sobre a torcida brasileira, era inevitável que ele fosse alvo dessas manifestações.
BBC Brasil – Renaud Lavillenie não foi a primeira “vítima” e não deverá ser a última, mas o comportamento da torcida no Estádio Olímpico, em especial durante provas em que normalmente o silêncio do público é uma questão de etiqueta, como o tênis e a esgrima, irritou até o presidente do COI, Thomas Bach. Como achar um meio termo?
Torcida brasileira ficou conhecida pelo excesso de vaias durante os jogos da Rio 2016. GETTY IMAGES
Kaufman – Olha, é irônico que sentimentos de nacionalismo e tribalismo surjam na Olimpíada, uma competição concebida em sua forma moderna para promover a paz e a união ente os povos. Mas o esporte é passional e excitante. As pessoas querem vaiar seu adversário para tentar afetar o resultado de uma partida. E, como costuma ser o caso por causa das rivalidades locais, os brasileiros “pegaram no pé dos argentinos”. Também vimos o público vaiando atletas russos por causa da controvérsia envolvendo o doping. As vaias, por sinal, são o menor dos problemas que o COI tem para resolver.
BBC Brasil – Mas Lavillenie não teria razão ao reclamar do barulho durante o momento de seus saltos? Não seria preciso criar uma cultura de torcida mais apropriada para o esporte olímpico?
Kaufman – Isso seria uma atitude de imperialismo cultural. Por que a maneira do brasileiro torcer é errada? A realidade que conhecemos é criada pelo ambiente em que crescemos. Você mencionou o tênis anteriormente: será que não vale a pena discutirmos a razão para o silêncio durante o saque no tênis enquanto no futebol a torcida pode urrar nos ouvidos de um atacante que vai bater um pênalti? A diferença é que o tênis é um esporte muito mais elitizado.
BBC Brasil: O senhor defende o comportamento da torcida, então?
Kaufman: De certa maneira, sim, apesar de que os esportes têm regras para lidar com isso. Acho fascinante o fato de que as normas de comportamento podem ser diferentes. Fica a impressão de que o COI foi pego de surpresa pela passionalidade do torcedor brasileiro. Mas lembremos da Copa do Mundo de 2010, em que as vuvuzelas do torcedor sul-africano criaram um problema até para quem viu os jogos pela TV. Mas ter proibido seu uso teria amputado um componente cultural.
Vaiar é uma expressão de crenças e valores. É tão “errado” quanto torcer.
Quais são os seis tipos de vaias da torcida brasileira na Rio 2016
BBC News Magazine
17 agosto 2016
Torcida brasileira já é reconhecida pelo excesso de vaias durante as competições na Rio 2016. GETTY IMAGES
Da esgrima à natação, do basquete ao tênis, atletas foram intensamente vaiados no Rio de Janeiro. E enquanto as vaias são comuns na maioria das Olimpíadas – apesar da ideia de que seja um momento em que o espírito esportivo deve reinar -, já está claro que a Rio 2016 é mais barulhenta que os Jogos mais recentes.
A BBC News fez uma lista com os seis tipos de vaias mais comuns durante a Olimpíada no Brasil, na tentativa de explicar ao público internacional esse fenômeno que vem sendo um dos mais discutidos pela imprensa esportiva:
1. Vaiar por diversão
O público brasileiro tem uma tendência a escolher ” um lado” – torcer por um time, ou um atleta, e vaiar os rivais. Mas eles podem trocar essa lealdade num piscar de olhos.
“Os torcedores brasileiros parecem ser bem igualitários. Eles são capazes de vaiar atletas de muitos países. É muito difícil de identificar o porquê da vaia a um outro atleta”, disse o diretor de comunicação do Comitê Olímpico Internacional, Mark Adams.
A mesma reação foi identificada pelo especialista em Jogos Olímpicos da Universidade de Salford, Andy Miah.
“Eu fiquei surpreso com o quanto eles são verbais e achei uma falta de espírito esportivo toda essa gritaria e vaia. Até eu perceber que era a forma que eles encontraram de se envolver com o drama do evento”, diz.
“Não é malicioso. Eu estava na esgrima ontem e eles estavam vaiando os jogadores e depois torcendo muito e apoiando muito quando eles ganharam. É tudo parte do teatro que é o que eles curtem”.
Ele ainda opina que há diferenças com Londres 2012: “era muito mais quieto, quase nunca tinha gritaria, só aplausos”.
2. Vaiar os favoritos
O público na Rio 2016 demonstrou uma clara preferência pelos azarões. Em uma das primeiras partidas de basquete, os torcedores apoiaram a Croácia enquanto vaiavam os favoritos – a seleção espanhola. A Espanha então começou a perder e foi derrotada por 72-70.
Esse não é um fenômeno novo.
Em uma das primeiras partidas de basquete, torcedores brasileiros apoiaram a Croácia torcendo pelo time enquanto vaiavam os favoritos, da seleção espanhola. GETTY IMAGES
Durante a Olimpíada de Atenas, em 2004, por exemplo, os torcedores apoiaram a equipe de futebol masculino do Iraque – durante uma semifinal contra o Paraguai – e vaiavam cada vez que os paraguaios ficavam com a bola.
De acordo com o professor de história da mídia da Universidade de Sussex, na Inglaterra, David Hendy, a vaia é “uma tradição nobre” e um lembrete de que o espetáculo é sobretudo para o público, mais do que para os competidores.
“E o público sempre vê tudo em termos dramáticos – um conflito entre heróis e vilões”, explica.
3. Vaiar os russos
Por causa a revelação de um esquema estatal de doping e da decisão do Comitê Olimípico de não suspender todos os atletas, os russos encontraram uma reação particularmente hostil do público no Rio de Janeiro.
As vaias começaram logo na entrada da delegação russa no Maracanã durante a cerimônia de abertura.
“Os russos sempre iriam ser vaiados porque muitos pensam que o COI não deveria ter comprometido os Jogos”, diz Andy Miah.
A nadadora russa Yulia Efimova, que foi banida por 16 meses em 2013 e conquistou o direito de competir novamente no Rio de Janeiro depois de apelar ao Tribunal Arbitral do Esporte, foi vaiada durante toda a competição dos 100 metros peito nas eliminatórias e na final, na qual levou a medalha de prata.
Ela caiu no choro depois que o ouro foi para a americana Lily King, que comentou: “isso só prova que você pode competir limpa e ainda chegar ao topo do pódio”.
Torcida brasileira costuma vaiar atletas russos desde o início dos Jogos. GETTY IMAGES
O boxeador russo Evgeny Tishchenko demonstrou frustração com a reação negativa do público aos atletas russos.
“É uma pena que o público se comporte dessa forma, apoiando quem quer que esteja contra a Rússia”, disse ele ao jornal Chicago Tribune.
“Estou bastante irritado com isso. É a primeira vez que eu enfrento esse tipo de tratamento. Para falar a verdade, estou um pouco decepcionado”.
4. Vaias políticas
Ao declarar os Jogos Olímpicos abertos na cerimônia de abertura, o presidente interino Michel Temer foi vaiado.
Temer assumiu em maio depois da suspensão de Dilma Rousseff e foi vaiado apesar dito apenas uma frase. Mas as vaias quase se dissiparam em meio aos fogos de artíficio e à música, até porque o nome de Temer não chegou a ser anunciado.
Presidente em exercício, Michel Temer, é vaiado na cerimônia de abertura da Rio 2016. GETTY IMAGES
Mas essa não é a primeira vez que uma Olimpíada é um catalisador para a insatisfação com a elite política de um país. O ex-chanceler George Osborne e a então ministra do Interior – e atual premiê – Theresa May foram vaiados na entrega de medalhas durante a Paralimpíada de Londres 2012.
“Foi uma resposta visceral e instantânea de um público indignado com as políticas para os deficientes físicos e que se sentiam sem voz”, diz Hendy.
5. Vaias patrióticas
Os fãs brasileiros foram rápidos em demonstrar apoio aos atletas nativos ao vaiarem vigorosamente seus oponentes.
O tenista alemão Dustin Brown foi vaiado até depois de cair e torcer o tornozelo durante uma partida com Thomaz Bellucci, apesar de ter recebido aplausos e apoio quando se levantou para ser levado ao hospital.
O francês Renaud Lavillenie queixou-se publicamente da vaias que ouviu no Engenhão na noite em que perdeu de Thiago Braz no salto com varas. “Dei tudo de mim e não tenho nenhum arrependimento. Uma prova inacreditável! Só estou decepcionado com a total falta de respeito do público. Isso não é digno de um estádio olímpico”, afirmou.
“As Olimpíadas sempre foram sinônimo de respeito internacional. Então as vaias podem distrair e até evitar que os atletas tenham o melhor desempenho”, diz Rhonda Cohen, psicóloga do esporte da Universidade de Middlesex, na Inglaterra.
O boxeador camaronês Hassan N’Dam N’Jijam certamente não ficou feliz ao perder a luta contra o brasileiro Michel Borges depois de muitas vaias pantomímicas. Segundo ele, o barulho pode ter influenciado os juízes.
Os atletas argentinos também foram vaiados durante a cerimônia de abertura só porque são… argentinos – nossos vizinhos e rivais, especialmente no futebol.
E há o caso da goleira da seleção feminina de futebol dos Estados Unidos, Hope Solo, que postou fotos nas redes sociais falando sobre o vírus da Zika e foi vaiada ao coro de “Zika!”durante a partida contra a Nova Zelândia.
Mas os torcedores não reservaram as vaias apenas aos estrangeiros. A performance ruim dos jogadores brasileiros da seleção de futebol também provocou vaias depois das partidas contra a África do Sul e o Iraque.
6. Vaia aos juízes
Até os juízes olímpicos caíram nas vaias do público brasileiro.
Como anfitriões, os brasileiros conquistaram uma vaga na final do salto sincronizado de 10 metros masculino, apesar de os atletas não terem chances na competição. Inevitavelmente, os juízes consistentemente deram notas baixas, gerando vaias nervosas do público.
Mas vale lembrar que nada se compara à final de ginástica masculina em Atenas 2004. O russo Alexei Nemov animou o público com uma rotina de barras arriscada, e, quando os juízes o avaliaram com notas baixas, ouviu vaias por sete minutos ininterruptos.
Just about 25 years ago Faye Harrison poignantly asked if “an authentic anthropology can emerge from the critical intellectual traditions and counter-hegemonic struggles of Third World peoples? Can a genuine study of humankind arise from dialogues, debates, and reconciliation amongst various non-Western and Western intellectuals — both those with formal credentials and those with other socially meaningful and appreciated qualifications?” (1991:1). In launching this series, we acknowledge the key role that Black anthropologists have played in thinking through how and why to decolonize anthropology, from the 1987 Association of Black Anthropologists’ roundtable at the AAAs that preceded the 1991 volume on Decolonizing Anthropology edited by Faye Harrison, to the World Anthropologies Network, to Jafari Sinclaire Allen and Ryan Cecil Jobson’s essay out this very month in Current Anthropology on “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties.”
These questions continue to haunt anthropology and all those striving to bring some resolution to these issues. It has become increasingly important to also recognize the ways in which those questions have changed, and how the separation between Western and NonWestern is less about locality and geography, but rather an epistemic question related to the colonial histories of anthropology. Decolonization then has multiple facets to its approach: it is philosophical, methodological, and praxis-oriented, particularly within the fields of anthropology. Here at Savage Minds, we have decided to take these questions on again in a different public, and work through a series of dialogues, debates and possibly even reconciliation.
We feel it imperative to decolonize anthropology; not doing so reiterates hierarchies of control and oppressive systems of knowledge production. But what does that really mean and what does it look like? What might it mean to decolonize anthropology? Various subfields of anthropology have been contending with this issue in different ways. For example, within archaeological literature, decolonization emerged as political necessity developed through an engagement with the postcolonial critique. Being inspired by Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s influential work on decolonizing methodologies (among others) resulted in the development of indigenous archaeology. Most archaeologists would argue that anthropological archaeology continues to exist within neocolonial, neoliberal, and late capitalist frameworks, and thus these critiques and methodologies need to be constantly revised utilizing interdisciplinary projects that locate decolonization across academia (including decolonizing epistemologies, aesthetics, pedagogy, etc).
Calls for decolonization have now emerged as mainstream politics in the academy: an era when academics across disciplines are calling for historical, financial, and intellectual accountability for not only the work we do, but also for the academic institutions in which we study, teach, and learn. We contend, therefore, that decolonizing anthropology (at a minimum) has now grown to a project beyond its initial impetus in treating non-anthropologist intellectuals as just that: intellectuals rather than local interlocutors. In its development across the discipline, in both archaeology and cultural anthropology, for example, decolonizing anthropology is a project about rethinking epistemology, methodology, community, and political commitments.
Epistemology. Decolonizing anthropology means rethinking epistemology. Anthropologists have long acknowledged the development of our field with a colonial impulse, and how the construction of knowledge reiterate systems of control. It is important to continue working through epistemic concerns to realign how our discipline might undiscipline itself and realign how it evaluates what research is considered important. Decolonizing epistemology destabilizes the canon. It is not enough to only add certain voices into our anthro-core classes; a decolonizing movement focused on epistemology provides rigor to the multiplicity and plurality of voices. Deeply linked to the ways in which knowledge is produced and constructed, is our pedagogy and the methodologies by which we practice.
Pedagogy. If we are to realign our discipline, it becomes imperative for us to reconsider how decolonization might impact our pedagogy. This is not a new concept in the academy: decolonizing pedagogy is a subfield within the field of education. As mediators/translators/facilitators of knowledge, it is our responsibility to consider how anthropological conversations about race and difference might be supported and developed in the classroom through a decolonized pedagogical practices. A decolonized pedagogy should be listed within as best practices in our guides to teaching and learning. Pedagogy also includes what one teaches as well as how. What forms the anthropological “canon” of works that one must know? Part of the decolonizing of the discipline is to reassess whose scholarship we mark as important via inclusion on course syllabi. The rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston’s scholarship by anthropologists is the most obvious example; who else are we–or should we–be learning from and thinking with anew today?
Methodology. Decolonizing anthropology means rethinking methodology, Our history is full of taking information from communities without enough consideration of the impact of this form of anthropological research. This does not only mean filling out our IRB forms, but also thinking carefully about power. Institutionally, our bodies are disciplined to hold and claim certain statuses as anthropologists. How does tending to such manifestations of power redirect our relationships in the field, our research questions, the ways we teach, and the way we work with communities?
Community. Decolonizing anthropology means rethinking community. Rethinking who the communities are within which we do our research. Rethinking the way we stretch and build our community of conversation to open beyond the academy, and learning how to extend our deep anthropological practice of listening with our ears and with our hands, and cultivating a spirit of reciprocity for a new era. And at the heart of today’s decolonial project, rethinking who our community of anthropologists is, and rethinking strategies of recruitment and retention for an anthropology that reflects and includes the communities whose stories, beliefs, and practices have long been those which comprised our discipline.
Political Commitment. Decolonizing anthropology means rethinking our political commitments. It also means to acknowledge that we are not the first to have them. Anthropology has long been a discipline with a political edge to its scholarship for some of its practitioners. However, as decades turn into centuries, what was once politically edgy looks embarrassingly not so, conventional or racist or both. We believe that a decolonized anthropology involves research that advances our understanding of the human world in a way that moves us forward.
All of this involves communication. As editors, our goals for this series are both personal and professional. Our first collaboration was an India Review special issue on Public Anthropology (2006), edited by Carole McGranahan, with Uzma Z. Rizvi as a contributor to the issue. Carole recently revisited her introduction to that volume in a keynote lecture for the annual American University’s Public Anthropology conference in 2014. In a talk on “Tibet, Ferguson, Gaza: On Political Crisis and Anthropological Responsibility,” she reflected on political changes in the discipline over the last decade, including our need to not only address anthropology’s colonial past, but also our imperial present. This is the sort of thinking we began together in 2006. Uzma’s article entitled “Accounting for Multiple Desires: Decolonizing Methodologies, Archaeology and the Public Interest” was based on her PhD research (2000-2003) in Rajasthan, India. The project was designed as a community based-participatory action research project that was explicitly linked to decolonizing archaeology in India. Both of us have had a long standing engagement with this literature and consider this contemporary moment to be significant within the praxis of our discipline, which is why we are thrilled to launch this series!
We have invited anthropologists writing and thinking about decolonizing the discipline to contribute essays to this series. Essays will be posted roughly every two weeks, and if any readers would like to submit an essay for consideration, please send us an email at decolonizinganthropology[at]gmail.com.
Our series schedule of contributors is as follows:
April 25–Faye Harrison, in conversation with Carole McGranahan, Kaifa Roland, and Bianca Williams
May 9–Melissa Rosario
May 23–Zodwa Radebe
June 6–Lisa Uperesa
June 20–Public Anthropology Institute (Gina Athena Ulysse, with Faye Harrison, Carole McGranahan, Melissa Rosario, Paul Stoller, and Maria Vesperi)
Feyerabend stands in opposition to the demand for a new construction that some thinkers have made after the supposed failure or historical obsolescence of deconstruction and of post-structuralism in general. On the contrary, he wholeheartedly endorses the continued necessity of deconstruction. Feyerabend also rejects the idea that we need an overarching system or a unified theoretical framework, arguing that in many cases a system or theoretical framework is just not necessary or even useful:
a theoretical framework may not be needed (do I need a theoretical framework to get along with my neighbor?) . Even a domain that uses theories may not need a theoretical framework (in periods of revolution theories are not used as frameworks but are broken into pieces which are then arranged this way and that way until something interesting seems to arise) (Philosophy and Methodology of Military Intelligence, 13).
Further, not only is a unified framework often unnecessary, it is undesirable, as it can be a hindrance to our research and to the conduct of our lives:
“frameworks always put undue constraints on any interesting activity” (ibid, 13).
Feyerabend emphasises that our ideas must be sufficiently complex to fit in and to cope with the complexity of our practices (11). More important than a new theoretical construction which only serves “to confuse people instead of helping them” we need ideas that have the complexity and the fluidity that come from close connection with concrete practice and with its “fruitful imprecision” (11).
Lacking this connection, we get only school philosophies that “deceive people but do not help them”. They deceive people by replacing the concrete world with their own abstract construction
that gives some general and very mislead[ing] outlines but never descends to details.
The result is a simplistic set of slogans and stereotypes that
“is taken seriously only by people who have no original ideas and think that [such a school philosophy] might help them getting ideas”.
Applied to the the ontological turn, this means that an ontological system is useless, a hindrance to thought and action, whereas an ontology which is not crystallised into a unified system and a closed set of fixed principles, but which limits itself to proposing an open set of rules of thumb and of free study of concrete cases is both acceptable and desirable. The detour through ontology is both useless and harmful, according to Feyerabend, because a freer, more open, and less technical approach is possible.
“Failing to take class division into account is not simply a political bias. It also distorts how we look at human evolution as intrinsically bio-social and human biology as socialized biology.”
August 1, 2012
Edward O. Wilson. The Social Conquest of Earth. Liverwright Publishing, New York, 2012
reviewed by Richard Levins
In the 1970s, Edward O. Wilson, Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould and I were colleagues in Harvard’s new department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. In spite of our later divergences, I retain grateful memories of working in the field with Ed, turning over rocks, sharing beer, breaking open twigs, putting out bait (canned tuna fish) to attract the ants we were studying..
We were part of a group that hoped to jointly write and publish articles offering a common view of evolutionary science, but that collaboration was brief, largely because Lewontin and I strongly disagreed with Wilson’s Sociobiology.
Reductionism and Sociobiology
Although Wilson fought hard against the reduction of biology to the study of molecules, his holism stopped there. He came to promote the reduction of social and behavioral science to biology. In his view:
“Our lives are restrained by two laws of biology: all of life’s entities and processes are obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry; and all of life’s entities and processes have arisen through evolution and natural selection.” [Social Conquest, p. 287]
This is true as far as it goes but fails in two important ways.
First, it ignores the reciprocal feedback between levels. The biological creates the ensemble of molecules in the cell; the social alters the spectrum of molecules in the biosphere; biological activity creates the biosphere itself and the conditions for the maintenance of life.
Second, it doesn’t consider how the social level alters the biological: our biology is a socialized biology.
Higher (more inclusive) levels are indeed constrained by the laws at lower levels of organization, but they also have their own laws that emerge from the lower level yet are distinct and that also determine which chemical and physical entities are present in the organisms. In new contexts they operate differently.
Thus for example we, like a few other animals including bears, are omnivores. For some purposes such as comparing digestive systems that’s an adequate label. But we are omnivores of a special kind: we not only acquire food by predation, but we also producefood, turning the inedible into edible, the transitory into stored food. This has had such a profound effect on our lives that it is also legitimate to refer to us as something new, productivores.
The productivore mode of sustenance opens a whole new domain: the mode of production. Human societies have experienced different modes of production and ways to organize reproduction, each with its own dynamics, relations with the rest of nature, division into classes, and processes which restore or change it when it is disturbed.
The division of society into classes changes how natural selection works, who is exposed to what diseases, who eats and who doesn’t eat, who does the dishes, who must do physical work, how long we can expect to live. It is no longer possible to prescribe the direction of natural selection for the whole species.
So failing to take class division into account is not simply a political bias. It also distorts how we look at human evolution as intrinsically bio-social and human biology as socialized biology.
The opposite of the genetic determinism of sociobiology is not “the blank slate” view that claims that our biological natures were irrelevant to behavior and society. The question is, what about our animal heritage was relevant?
We all agree that we are animals; that as animals we need food; that we are terrestrial rather than aquatic animals; that we are mammals and therefore need a lot of food to support our high metabolic rates that maintain body temperature; that for part of our history we lived in trees and acquired characteristics adapted to that habitat, but came down from the trees with a dependence on vision, hands with padded fingers, and so on. We have big brains, with regions that have different major functions such as emotions, color vision, and language.
But beyond these general capacities, there is widespread disagreement about which behaviors or attitudes are expressions of brain structure. The amygdala is a locus of emotion, but does it tell us what to be angry or rejoice about? It is an ancient part of our brains, but has it not evolved in response to what the rest of the brain is doing? There is higher intellectual function in the cortex, but does it tell us what to think about?
Every part of an organism is the environment for the rest of the organism, setting the context for natural selection. In contrast to this fluid viewpoint, phrases such as “hard-wired” have become part of the pop vocabulary, applied promiscuously to all sorts of behaviors.
In a deeper sense, asking if something is heritable is a nonsense question. Heritability is always a comparison: how much of the difference between humans and chimps is heritable? What about the differences between ourselves and Neanderthals? Between nomads and farmers?
Social Conquest of Earth
The Social Conquest of Earth, Ed Wilson’s latest book, continues his interest in the “eusocial” animals – ants, bees and others that live in groups with overlapping generations and a division of labor that includes altruistic behavior. As the title shows. he also continues to use the terminology of conquest and domination, so that social animals “conquer” the earth, their abundance makes them “dominate.”
The problem that Wilson poses in this book is first, why did eusociality arise at all, and second, why is it so rare?
Wilson is at his best when discussing the more remote past, the origins of social behavior 220 million years ago for termites, 150 million years for ants, 70-80 million years for humble bees and honey bees.
But as he gets closer to humanity the reductionist biases that informed Sociobiology reassert themselves. Once again Wilson argues that brain architecture determines what people do socially – that war, aggression, morality, honor and hierarchy are part of “human nature.”
Rejecting kin selection
A major change, and one of the most satisfying parts of the book, is his rejection of kin selection as a motive force of social evolution, a theory he once defended strongly.
Kin selection assumed that natural selection acts on genes. A gene will be favored if it results in enhancing its own survival and reproduction, but it is not enough to look at the survival of the individual. If my brother and I each have 2 offspring, a shared gene would be doubled in the next generation. But if my brother sacrifices himself so that I might leave 5 offspring while he leaves none, our shared gene will increase 250%.
Therefore, argued the promoters of this theory, the fitness that natural selection increases has to be calculated over a whole set of kin, weighted by the closeness of their relationship. Mathematical formulations were developed to support this theory. Wilson found it attractive because it appeared to support sociobiology.
However, plausible inference is not enough to prove a theory. Empirical studies comparing different species or traits did not confirm the kin selection hypothesis, and a reexamination of its mathematical structure (such as the fuzziness of defining relatedness) showed that it could not account for the observed natural world. Wilson devotes a lot of space to refuting kin selection because of his previous support of it: it is a great example of scientific self-correction.
Does group selection explain social behaviour?
Wilson has now adopted another model in which the evolution of sociality is the result of opposing processes of ordinary individual selection acting within populations, and group selection acting between populations. He invokes this model account to for religion, morality, honor and other human behaviors.
He argues that individual selection promotes “selfishness” (that is, behavior that enhances individual survival) while group selection favors cooperative and “altruistic” behavior. The two forms of selection oppose each other, and that results in our mixed behaviors.
“We are an evolutionary chimera living on intelligence steered by the demands of animal instinct. This is the reason we are mindlessly dismantling the biosphere and with it, our own prospects for permanent existence.” [p.13]
But this simplistic reduction of environmental destruction to biology will not stand. Contrary to Wilson, the destruction of the biosphere is not “mindless.” It is the outcome of interactions in the noxious triad of greed, poverty, and ignorance, all produced by a socio-economic system that must expand to survive.
For Wilson, as for many environmentalists, the driver of ecological destruction is some generic “we,” who are all in the same boat. But since the emergence of classes after the adoption of agriculture some 8-10,000 years ago it is no longer appropriate to talk of a collective “we.”
The owners of the economy are willing to use up resources, pollute the environment, debase the quality of products, and undermine the health of the producers out of a kind of perverse economic rationality. They support their policies with theories such as climate change denial or doubting the toxicity of pesticides, and buttress it with legislation and court decisions.
Evolution and religion
The beginning and end of the book, a spirited critique of religion as possibly explaining human nature, is more straightforwardly materialist than the view supported by Stephen J. Gould, who argued that religion and science are separate magisteria that play equal roles in human wellbeing.
But Wilson’s use of evidence is selective.
For example, he argues that religion demands absolute belief from its followers – but this is true only of Christianity and Islam. Judaism lets you think what you want as long as you practice the prescribed rituals, Buddhism doesn’t care about deities or the afterlife.
Similarly he argues that creation myths are a product of evolution:
“Since paleolithic times … each tribe invented its own creation myths… No tribe could long survive without a creation myth… The creation myth is a Darwinian device for survival.” [p. 8]
But the ancient Israelites did not have an origin myth when they emerged as a people in the hills of Judea around 1250 B.C.E. Although it appears at the beginning of the Bible, the Israelites did not adapt the Book of Genesis from Babylonian mythology until four centuries after Deuteronomy was written, after they had survived 200 years as a tribal confederation, two kingdoms and the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests— by then the writing of scripture was a political act, not a “Darwinian device for survival.”
In support of his biologizing of “traits,” Wilson reviews recent research that appears to a show a biological basis for the way people see and interpret color, for the incest taboo, and for the startle response – and then asserts that inherited traits include war, hierarchy, honor and such. Ignoring the role of social class, he views these as universal traits of human nature.
Consider war. Wilson claims that war reflects genes for group selection. “A soldier going into battle will benefit his country but he runs a higher risk of death than one who does not.” [p. 165]
But soldiers don’t initiate conflict. We know in our own times that those who decide to make war are not those who fight the wars – but, perhaps unfortunately, sterilizing the general staff of the Pentagon and of the CIA would not produce a more peaceful America.
The evidence against war as a biological imperative is strong. Willingness to fight is situational.
Group selection can’t explain why soldiers have to be coerced into fighting, why desertion is a major problem for generals and is severely punished, or why resistance to recruitment is a major problem of armies. In the present militarist USA, soldiers are driven to join up through unemployment and the promises of benefits such as learning skills and getting an education and self-improvement. No recruitment posters offer the opportunity to kill people as an inducement for signing up.
The high rates of surrender and desertion of Italian soldiers in World War II did not reflect any innate cowardice among Italians but a lack of fascist conviction. The very rarity of surrender by Japanese soldiers in the same war was not a testimony to greater bravery on the part of the Japanese but of the inculcated combination of nationalism and religion.
As the American people turned against the Vietnam war, increased desertions and the killing of officers by the soldiers reflected their rejection of the war.
The terrifying assaults of the Vikings during the middle ages bear no resemblance to the mellow Scandinavian culture of today, too short a time for natural selection to transform national character.
The attempt to make war an inherited trait favored by natural selection reflects the sexism that has been endemic in sociobiology. It assumes that local groups differed in their propensity for aggression and prowess in war. The victorious men carry off the women of the conquered settlements and incorporate them into their own communities. Therefore the new generation has been selected for greater military success among the men. But the women, coming from a defeated, weaker group, would bring with them their genes for lack of prowess, a selection for military weakness! Such a selection process would be self-negating.
Wilson also considers ethnocentrism to be an inherited trait: group selection leads people to favor members of their own group and reject outsiders.
The problem is that the lines between groups vary under different circumstances. For example, in Spanish America, laws governing marriage included a large number of graded racial categories, while in North America there were usually just two. What’s more, the category definitions are far from permanent: at one time, the Irish were regarded as Black, and the whiteness of Jews was questioned.
Adoption, immigration, mergers of clans also confound any possible genetic basis for exclusion.
Wilson draws on the work of Herbert Simon to argue that hierarchy is a result of human nature: there will always be rulers and ruled. His argument fails to distinguish between hierarchy and leadership.
There are other forms of organization possible besides hierarchy and chaos, including democratic control by the workers who elect the operational leadership. In some labor unions, leaders’ salaries are pegged to the median wage of the members. In University departments the chairmanship is often a rotating task that nobody really wants. When Argentine factory owners closed their plants during the recession, workers in fact seized control and ran them profitably despite police sieges.
Wilson argues that “social traits” evolved through Darwinian natural selection. Genes that promoted behaviors that helped the individual or group to survive were passed on; genes that weakened the individual or group were not. The tension between individual and group selection decided which traits would be part of our human nature.
But a plausible claim that a trait might be good for people is not enough to explain its origin and survival. A gene may become fixed in a population even if it is harmful, just by the random genetic changes that we know occur. Or a gene may be harmful but be dragged along by an advantageous gene close to it on the same chromosome.
Selection may act in different directions in different subpopulations, or in different habitats, or in differing environmental. Or the adaptive value of a gene may change with its prevalence or the distribution of ages in the population, itself a consequence of the environment and population heterogeneity.
For instance, Afro-Americans have a higher death rate from cancer than Euro-Americans. In part this reflects the carcinogenic environments they have been subjected to, but there is also a genetic factor. It is the combination of living conditions and genetics that causes higher mortality rates.
* * *
Obviously I am not arguing that evolution doesn’t happen. The point is that we need a much better argument than just a claim that some genotype might be beneficial. And we need a much more rigorous understanding of the differences and linkages between the biological and social components of humanity’s nature. Just calling some social behavior a “trait” does not make it heritable.
In a book that attempts such a wide-ranging panorama of human evolution, there are bound to be errors. But the errors in The Social Conquest of Earth form a pattern: they reduce social issues to biology, and they insist on our evolutionary continuity with other animals while ignoring the radical discontinuity that made us productivores and divided us into classes.
Even as larvae, honey bees are tuned in to the social culture of the hive, becoming more or less aggressive depending on who raises them, researchers report in the journal Scientific Reports.
“We are interested in the general issue of how social information gets under the skin, and we decided to take a chance and ask about very young bees that are weeks away from adulthood,” said University of Illinois entomology professor and Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology director Gene Robinson, who led the research with postdoctoral researcher Clare Rittschof and Pennsylvania State University professor Christina Grozinger.
“In a previous study, we cross-fostered adult bees from gentle colonies into more aggressive colonies and vice versa, and then we measured their brain gene expression,” Robinson said. “We found that the bees had a complex pattern of gene expression, partly influenced by their own personal genetic identity and partly influenced by the environment of the colony they were living in. This led us to wonder when they become so sensitive to their social environment.”
In the new study, the researchers again cross-fostered bees, but this time as larvae in order to manipulate the bees’ early life experiences. The larvae were from a variety of queens, with sister larvae divided between high- and low-aggression colonies.
The larvae were removed from their foster hives and put into a neutral laboratory environment one day before they emerged as adults. The researchers tested their aggressiveness by exposing them to an intruder bee.
They were surprised to see that the bees retained the social information they had acquired as larvae. Those raised in aggressive colonies were 10 to 15 percent more aggressive than those raised in the gentler colonies.
“Even sisters born of the same queen but reared in different colonies differed in aggression, demonstrating the potency of this environmental effect,” Robinson said.
The finding was surprising in part because bee larvae undergo metamorphosis, which radically changes the structure of their bodies and brains.
“It’s hard to imagine what elements of the brain are influenced during the larval period that then survive the massive reorganization of the brain to bias behavior in this way,” Robinson said.
The aggressive honey bees also had more robust immune responses than their gentler counterparts, the team found.
“We challenged them with pesticides and found that the aggressive bees were more resistant to pesticide,” Grozinger said. “That’s surprising considering what we know from vertebrates, where stress in early life leads to a diminishment of resilience. With the bees, we saw an increase in resilience.”
This finding also suggests that the effects of the social environment on young bees could extend beyond brain function and behavior, Robinson said.
The researchers don’t yet know how the social information is being transmitted to the larvae. They tested whether the bees differed in size, which would suggest that they had been fed differently, but found no size differences between aggressive and gentle bees.
“Adult honey bees are well known for their sociality, their communication skills and their ability to adjust their behavior in response to the needs of the hive,” Rittschof said.
“In mammals, including humans, the effects of early life social interactions often persist throughout adulthood despite additional social experiences,” she said. “A similar pattern in honey bees has broad implications for our understanding of social behavior within the hive and in comparison with other species.”
Clare C. Rittschof, Chelsey B. Coombs, Maryann Frazier, Christina M. Grozinger, Gene E. Robinson. Early-life experience affects honey bee aggression and resilience to immune challenge. Scientific Reports, 2015; 5: 15572 DOI: 10.1038/srep15572
Up next for this issue we have Todd Sanders and Elizabeth F. Hall. Sanders is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. He has written extensively on African and Euro-American knowledge practices, and is currently collaborating with Elizabeth Hall on a project called ‘Knowing Climate Change.’ Hall is a physician-scientist and Research Associate at the Centre for Ethnography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She trained as a specialist in public health medicine and holds a PhD in epidemiology. –R.A.
Global climate change is driving anthropologists in opposite directions. Some are enthusiastically adopting “the Anthropocene” – a “gift” from our friends in the natural sciences (Latour 2014) that might enable us to exit, at long last, our Modern world and its Holocene thinking (Hamilton, et al. 2015). The concept potentially dovetails with old and new concerns – networks, rhizomes and relational ontologies; more-than-human socialities; hybrids, nonhumans and the posthuman; multispecies, multinaturalisms and modes of existence – and promises critical purchase over today’s troubled times. For as we enter the Anthropocene, we’ll need new conceptual tools and ways of thinking to understand our new home. The familiar dualisms that have long dogged our discipline and world – Nature and Culture; local and global; Moderns and non-moderns; and so on – are not up to the task. Discard the Modern dualisms. Dwell on the emergent processes of their production. And reimagine worlds as partial and provisional, composed through multiple, heterogeneous entanglements. For many anthropologists, the time is ripe for such an Anthropocene Anthropology.
At the same time, climate change is leading other anthropologists right back to the Holocene. For them, this is not the time to abandon dualisms nor to theorise partial, emergent, hybrid worlds. Instead, we must entrench and purify the well-known anthropological categories of nature and culture, tradition and the local, and insist on the merits of holism. These anthropologists share theoretical affinities more with Julian Steward and Robert Netting than with, say, Latour or Tsing. Their scholarship is large and growing, and asks how climate change will impact local, traditional cultures. The story ordinarily goes like this: local, traditional cultures crucially depend on nature for their cultural, material and spiritual needs. They will therefore suffer first, worst and most directly from rapid climate change. These place-based peoples are somewhat resilient and adaptive, due to their local, indigenous or traditional ecological knowledge. Yet cultural adaptation has limits. Urgent anthropological interventions are thus required to mediate and translate between local and global worlds to help these cultures adapt. The Anthropocene figures here too: not as an opportunity to reconfigure and overcome Modern dualisms but as a way to underscore and holistically integrate them. Welcome to the Holocene!
While this approach is strongly endorsed by the AAA’s Global Climate Change Task Force (Fiske, et al. 2014), other anthropologists will insist that in today’s world, old ideas about local, traditional cultures are “obsolete from the outset” (Hastrup 2009: 23). For them, entrenching ourselves in the Holocene is not the obvious way to enter the Anthropocene. Still, it’s worth noting that obsolescence is a matter of perspective and is context-dependent. This pedestrian point is crucial because, when it comes to climate change, anthropology is not the only discipline in town. And because it isn’t, anthropologists may not get the last word on which of our knowledges and knowledge practices are useful, or useless, in the wider climate change arena.
In this vast, bustling arena, considerable efforts are being devoted to putting a human face on climate change. For many in the human sciences, this means supplementing and nuancing abstract, paternalistic, quantitative climate sciences with humanistic, qualitative data and values from real people (Hulme 2011; Jasanoff 2010). As we discuss elsewhere, this is one reason growing numbers of social and natural scientists are doing ethnographic research on “the human dimensions of climate change” (Hall and Sanders 2015). From geographers to geophysicists, ecologists to ethnobotanists, scholars from every alcove of the academy are joining the human dimensions enterprise. They travel to remote places on the planet to understand how local, traditional cultures will – or will not – adapt to climate change. And they tell familiar tales: the same tales, in fact, that some anthropologists tell about local, traditional, place-based cultures being done in by a changing climate. In this broader academic arena, such local, traditional peoples are fast becoming the human face of climate change. Figure 1, reproduced from a leading interdisciplinary climate change journal, is emblematic.
Figure 1. “Theo Ikummaq in the middle of Fury and Hecla Strait, between Igloolik and Baffin Island, explaining the challenges with spring ice conditions, while waiting at a seal hole (June 22, 2005).” (With kind permission from Springer Science+Business Media: Climatic Change, Travelling and hunting in a changing Arctic: assessing Inuit vulnerability to a sea ice change in Igloolik, Nunavut, 94, 2009, p. 375, Laidler GJ, Ford JD, Gough WA, Ikummaq T, Gagnon AS, Kowal S, Qrunnut K, Irngaut C, figure 2).
This scholarship shares affinities with salvage anthropology and cultural ecology, and while not unaware of the many critiques of such projects, remains mostly unfazed by them. These are urgent, real-world problems, after all, that require serious ethnographic attention. There’s no time for wiffle-waffle. But whatever one’s views on the matter, the point is that this multi- and interdisciplinary scholarship is large, and working hard to complement and complete the climate change puzzle: to serve up culture to nature, local to the global, traditional to the modern, values to facts, indigenous knowledge to Western Science. This is Holocene thinking replayed with a vengeance.
After decades of imploring social scientists to step up to the plate, to leave our ivory towers, to add the missing human piece to the climate change puzzle, “harder” natural scientists are welcoming such “soft” climate change scholars and scholarship. Of course economists got there first. But this new wave of human dimensions scholarship provides hope that, after decades of delay, important aspects of “the human” might finally be fleshed out and “integrated” into our understandings of climate change. These hopes are understandable, given the Modern metaphysics many in this arena share.
It all began with capital-n Nature, which natural and computational scientists reanimated decades ago. Today, this Nature takes the form of coupled Ocean-Atmosphere General Circulation Models (OAGCMs) and Earth System Models (ESMs), which rely on formally-specified (i.e., mathematical) equations to model the Earth System’s natural components and the complex links among them. “The human” came later. Social scientists from many disciplines are now adding in the human, or trying to, and the calls for more such efforts continue.
One perpetual challenge in this arena has been how to combine the two, Nature and Culture, the Ecological and the Sociological. Thus funding streams like the NSF’s long-running Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program have been established for precisely this purpose. The research projects they support are often large, always interdisciplinary and “must include analyses of four different components: (1) the dynamics of a natural system; (2) the dynamics of a human system; (3) the processes through which the natural system affects the human system; and (4) the processes through which the human system affects the natural system.”
But however funded, efforts to “integrate” human and natural components of the system in the name of climate change are legion. Consider the tightly-coupled Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs), which aim quantitatively to bring diverse natural “scientific, economics and social science expertise together to provide analysis and advice that comprehensively addresses all or at least many aspects of the climate change issue” (Sarofim and Reilly 2011: 27). There are also many looser modelling efforts with telling titles – coupled human and natural systems (CHANS), human-environment systems (HES), social-ecological systems (SES) – that aim to couple human and natural components of the Earth System. Such holistic, Modern integrationist efforts stabilise “components” through the act of “coupling” them, and sometimes mistake models for the world. They are also widespread and flourishing.
We want to build a unique transdisciplinary research environment where innovative ideas can flourish. By combining new forms of cooperation with a holistic perspective, we hope to generate the insights that are needed to strengthen societies’ and the ecosystems’ capacities to meet a world which spins faster and faster.
Folke is one of the Centre’s founders, and has devoted much of his distinguished career to theorising “resilience” and “social-ecological systems.” While Figure 2 is illustrative of some of his influential work on coupled systems, similar diagrams could be reproduced from countless other scholars.
Figure 2. A conceptual framework developed in relation to the resilience approach. (Republished with permission of Global Environmental Change, from “Resilience: the emergence of a perspective for social-ecological systems analysis,” Folke, C., vol. 16, 2006; permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.).
Note how the all-embracing social-ecological system is composed of Latour’s modern constitution: a Great Divide between Nature (left) and Culture/Society (right), with feedback loops between the system’s component parts. Note, too, how scale works, also in a Modern register: each side is composed of “nested hierarchies,” the “larger” levels encompassing the “smaller.” (There’s obvious scope here to fill local slots with local knowledges and peoples). While Folke acknowledges that these are conceptual models, many others do not, leading to statements like “[c]oupled human and natural systems (CHANS) are systems in which humans and natural components interact” (Liu, et al. 2007: 639). Coupled systems scholarship may enable us to sort messy empirical worlds into tidy, Modern boxes, and to pretend we haven’t done so. But such purifying practices are of little interest to Anthropocene Anthropology, and do not create an environment in which Anthropocene thinking might flourish. Where to find such a place?
Last year, we attended Carbon 14: Climate is Culture, an innovative ArtScience collaboration at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The event was produced by a London-based charitable organisation whose mission is to bring together artists, scientists, journalists, media specialists and other publics “to stimulate a cultural narrative that will engage and inspire a sustainable and vibrant future society” in the face of global climate change.
The four-month-long exhibition and festival was big, Canadian-flavoured, and guided by a single question, and answer, prominently printed on the catalogue cover: “What does Culture have to do with Climate Change? Everything.” The “culture” had two senses: as in the cultural arts (music, theatre, photography, etc.), which play a crucial role innovating and communicating to the public; and in the anthropological sense (more or less). The event featured a performance by Inuit musician Tanya Tagaq and a mock trial of Canadian broadcaster, environmentalist and scientist, David Suzuki, for his Carbon Manifesto; poetry slams and a performance art piece by Dene-Inuvialuit artist, Reneltta Arluk, that examined “the impacts of climate change on Northern peoples and explore[d] the artist’s personal cultural identity;” talks by journalists, artists and others on fossil fuel dependence and the health of the oceans, biodiversity, sustainability and extinction; workshops on provocative, environmental activist arts; public discussions, including one with University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver and Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the well-known Canadian Inuit cultural and human rights activist and author (Watt-Cloutier 2015). The event also featured visual arts and artists: videos produced with Inuit filmmakers on climate change and Inuit traditional knowledge, on everyday life in the far North, and others; photographs of majestic Nature; and awe-inspiring photos that the Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, took from outer space.
Climate is Culture was spectacular. Yet the event left us haunted by the thought that the sustainable, vibrant, dare we say “Anthropocene” future we had hoped to find looked strikingly like the present – or even the past. Nature had thoroughly bifurcated from Culture, while Culture had simultaneously split in two: planet destroyers (the global, modern, fossil-fuel-burning West) versus innocent victims (the local, traditional Rest). Modern dualisms ran amok, creating Nature and Culture, local and global, Moderns and non-moderns everywhere we turned. One prominently-displayed photo captured the mood most eloquently: a lone, Inuk elder standing on an ice flow, poised to harpoon an unsuspecting walrus poking its head out from beneath the sea (similar to Figure 1 above, add walrus). “Lukie, 70, prepares to harpoon a walrus while standing on moving ice in Foxe Basin,” read the caption. It continued: “This scene could have been from a thousand years ago, but it is today.” The photographer, a visual artist and Associate Professor of Geography at a major Canadian university, provided the perfect title: “1000 Years Ago Today.” Though the photo, caption and title said it all, a further plaque was provided, just in case:
The Arctic: A Place of Global Warming and Wisdom
Arctic climate change is a hot topic with surface air temperatures in the region warming at double the global average, and corresponding loss of sea ice, glaciers, and permafrost being observed by both scientists and local people. In Canada’s North, Inuit are on the front lines, and traditional knowledge and experience indicate that climate change already affects travel routes and safety; wildlife, vegetation and habitat; human food security and health; and communities and coastal infrastructure. These cumulative impacts challenge cultural and social identity. However, with an ancient culture, persisting over millennia, Inuit show that human ingenuity, connectedness with the land, and respect for future generations are all-important teachings for the modern world as we collectively face climate change, the paramount issue of our time.
* * *
So, what should we think when so many cutting-edge scientists including anthropologists, avant-garde artists, activists, journalists, charitable foundations, non-profit and government funders from across the planet are living happily in the Holocene – as if our theoretical lexicons and social imagination were firmly fixed, if not 1000 years ago today, perhaps 100? Who in this world is ready for an Anthropocene Anthropology? Are there grounds for hope? Enthusiasm? We think so, but only with certain shifts in anthropological practice.
First of all, more critical reflections, debates and theorising of anthropological knowledge practices around climate change are required. Many anthropological writings on climate change imply that holistically integrating our discipline’s disparate questions and theoretical concerns, knowledges and knowledge practices is possible and desirable – a win-win scenario, as it were. This approach is seductive: it suggests that every anthropologist can contribute her or his crucial piece of the climate change puzzle. But it is also seriously undertheorised, and does not accord with current thinking in the social sciences – including in anthropology – about what knowledge is and how it works. Partial connections and incommensurabilities render puzzle metaphors suspect. Knowledges are not puzzle pieces, nor can they simply “add up” to create “the whole.” Focus is required. Choices are always made. Power is never absent. Such commonplaces hold within as well as beyond anthropology. For these reasons, sustained engagements with social theory and the anthropology of knowledge would prove productive. How should we understand climate change anthropologically? Which of our many competing analytics provide the most theoretical purchase over the problem at hand? What are their real-world consequences? Should we dwell on culture or “culture”? Local or “local”? Or something altogether different, of which many promising candidates exist? Forging a meaningful Anthropocene Anthropology will mean prioritising certain anthropological knowledges, analytics and concerns over others. We can’t have it all ways.
Second, whatever our disciplinary response, we must recognise that anthropologists may not be the final arbiters on which of our knowledges and knowledge practices find favour in the wider world. Anthropology, after all, exists in a broader context. And as every anthropologist knows, context matters. The way forward is thus not to repeat, at higher volume, the truism that anthropology has lots to offer. It is to anthropologise the myriad Euro-American contexts in which climate change knowledge is produced and put to work. This means critically interrogating natural and social science knowledge practices surrounding climate change (e.g., interdisciplinarity, collaboration, producing “useful knowledge,” etc.), as well as the disparate policy and science policy realms through which scientific knowledges of climate change are institutionalised. Venerable traditions in political and legal anthropology, and in the anthropology of science and of policy, point the way. But whatever context we choose to study – there are many – Anthropocene Anthropology has its work cut out for it. For in today’s world, as Geertz might have said, it’s Holocene turtles all the way down.
Fiske, Shirley, J., Crate, Susan A., Crumley, Carole L., Galvin, Kathleen A., Lazrus, Heather, Luber, George, Lucero, Lisa, Oliver-Smith, Anthony, Orlove, Ben, Strauss, Sarah and Wilk, Richard R. 2014. Changing the atmosphere: anthropology and climate change. Final Report of the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.
Hamilton, Clive, Bonneuil, Christophe and Gemenne, François, eds. 2015. The Anthropocene and the global environmental crisis: rethinking modernity in a new epoch. London: Routledge.
Hastrup, Kirsten. 2009. Waterworlds: framing the question of social resilience. Pp. 11-30 in The question of resilience: social responses to climate change, ed. K. Hastrup. Copenhagen: Special-Trykkeriet Viborg a-s.
Jasanoff, Sheila. 2010. A new climate for society. Theory, Culture & Society 27(2-3): 233-53.
Latour, Bruno. 2014. Anthropology at the time of the Anthropocene: a personal view of what is to be studied. 113th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. Washington DC.
Liu, Jianguo, Dietz, Thomas, Carpenter, Stephen R., Folke, Carl, Alberti, Marina, Redman, Charles L., Schneider, Stephen H., Ostrom, Elinor, Pell, Alice N., Lubchenco, Jane, Taylor, William W., Ouyang, Zhiyun, Deadman, Peter, Kratz, Timothy and Provencher, William. 2007. Coupled human and natural systems. Ambio 36(8): 639-49.
Sarofim, Marcus C. and Reilly, John M. 2011. Applications of integrated assessment modeling to climate change. WIREs Climate Change 2: 27-44.
Watt-Cloutier, Sheila. 2015. The right to be cold: one woman’s story of protecting her culture, and the Arctic and the whole planet. Toronto: Allen Lane.
Physical scientists aren’t trained for all the political and moral issues.
Oct 2 2015 – 10:00am
By: Joel N. Shurkin, Contributor
(Inside Science) — The notion that Earth’s climate is changing—and that the threat to the world is serious—goes back to the 1980s, when a consensus began to form among climate scientists as temperatures began to rise noticeably. Thirty years later, that consensus is solid, yet climate change and the disruption it may cause remain divisive political issues, and millions of people remain unconvinced.
A new book argues that social scientists should play a greater role in helping natural scientists convince people of the reality of climate change and drive policy.
Climate Change and Society consists of 13 essays on why the debate needs the voices of social scientists, including political scientists, psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists. It is edited by Riley E. Dunlap, professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, and Robert J. Brulle, of Drexel University, professor of sociology and environmental science in Philadelphia.
Brulle said the physical scientists tend to frame climate change “as a technocratic and managerial problem.”
“Contrast that to the Pope,” he said.
Pope Francis sees it as a “political, moral issue that won’t be settled by a group of experts sitting in a room,” said Brulle, who emphasized that it will be settled by political process. Sociologists agree.
Sheila Jasanoff also agrees. She is the Pforzheimer professor of science and technology studies at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and did not participate in the book.
She said that understanding how people behave differently depending on their belief system is important.
“Denial is a somewhat mystical thing in people’s heads,” Jasanoff said. “One can bring tools of sociology of knowledge and belief—or social studies—to understand how commitments to particular statements of nature are linked with understanding how you would feel compelled to behave if nature were that way.”
Parts of the world where climate change is considered a result of the colonial past may resist taking drastic action at the behest of the former colonial rulers. Jasanoff said that governments will have to convince these groups that climate change is a present danger and attention must be paid.
Some who agree there is a threat are reluctant to advocate for drastic economic changes because they believe the world will be rescued by innovation and technology, Jasanoff said. Even among industrialized countries, views about the potential of technology differ.
Understanding these attitudes is what social scientists do, the book’s authors maintain.
“One of the most pressing contributions our field can make is to legitimate big questions, especially the ability of the current global economic system to take the steps needed to avoid catastrophic climate change,” editors of the book wrote.
The issue also is deeply embedded in the social science of economics and in the problem of “have” and “have-not” societies in consumerism and the economy.
For example, Bangladesh sits at sea level, and if the seas rise enough, nearly the entire country could disappear in the waters. Hurricane Katrina brought hints of the consequences of that reality to New Orleans, a city that now sits below sea level. The heaviest burden of the storm’s effects fell on the poor neighborhoods, Brulle said.
“The people of Bangladesh will suffer more than the people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan,” Brulle said. He said they have to be treated differently, which is not something many physical scientists studying the processes behind sea level rise have to factor into their research.
“Those of us engaged in the climate fight need valuable insight from political scientists and sociologists and psychologists and economists just as surely as from physicists,” agreed Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and author who is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. “It’s very clear carbon is warming the planet; it’s very unclear what mix of prods and preferences might nudge us to use much less.”
Joel Shurkin is a freelance writer in Baltimore. He was former science writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer and was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for covering Three Mile Island. He has nine published books and is working on a tenth. He has taught journalism at Stanford University, the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He tweets at@shurkin.
To kick off this issue, we begin with Sean Seary’s excellent overview of recent literature about anthropology’s engagement with climate. This review originally appeared on Anthropology Report, has been reproduced here to give us a solid foundation for moving forward. Seary, a recent graduate from Hartwick College, currently lives in Brunswick, Maine. His research interests focus on the convergence of anthropology and climate change. Seary’s work has also been featured on PopAnth. –R.A.
Introduction: Anthropological Interventions
Since the 1960s, global climate and environmental change have been important topics of contemporary scientific research. Growing concerns about climate change have introduced a (relatively) new variable in climate change research: the anthropogenic causes of local-global climate and environmental change. Despite archaeologists providing some of the first research and commentary on climate change–a point that is explored in Daniel Sandweiss and Alice Kelley’s Archaeological Contributions to Climate Change Research: The Archaeological Record as a Paleoclimatic and Paleoenvironmental Archive–the field of climate and environmental change research has been predominantly studied by “natural scientists.” This is where Susan Crate’s Climate and Culture: Anthropology in the Era of Contemporary Climate Change in the 2011 Annual Review of Anthropology intervenes. Crate calls for anthropological engagement with the natural sciences (and vice versa) on global climate change discourse, with the intention of creating new multidisciplinary ethnographies that reflect all the contributors to global environmental change.
Crate’s review begins by stating that the earliest anthropological research on climate change was associated with archaeologists: most of whom studied how climate change had an impact on cultural dynamics, societal resilience and decline, and social structure. Anthropological and archaeological engagement with climate change revolved around how cultures attributed meaning and value to their interpretations of weather and climate. Archaeology has long been working on understanding the relationship between climate, environment, and culture. Historically, archaeologists have worked with “natural” scientists in the recovery of climate and environmental data pulled from archaeological strata (Sandweiss and Kelley 2012:372). Such works include Environment and Archaeology: An Introduction to Pleistocene Geography (Butzer 1964), Principles of Geoarchaeology: A North American Perspective (Waters 1992) and Environmental Archaeology: Principles and Practice(Dincauze 2000). The archaeological record incorporates not only stratigraphic data, but also proxy records. These records contributed to much larger paleoclimate and paleoenvironmental studies, including publications in general science literature like Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Sandweiss and Kelley 2012:372; see also the 2013 article in Nature, Contribution of anthropology to the study of climate change). Conversely, the work of “natural” scientists has also appeared in archaeological literature. Contemporarily, archaeologists have studied the impacts that water (or lack thereof) can have on human-environment interactions, through the study of soil and settlements drawing from case studies in Coastal Peru, Northern Mesopotamia, the Penobscot Valley in Maine, or Shetland Island.
Contemporary anthropological analysis of climate change usually focuses on adaptations towards local climate, temperature, flooding, rainfall, and drought (Crate 2011:178). Climate change impacts the cultural framework in which people perceive, understand, experience, and respond to the world in which they live. Crate believes that because of anthropologists’ ability to “be there,” anthropologists are well-suited to interpret, facilitate, translate, communicate, advocate, and act in response to the cultural implications of global (and local) climate change. Understanding the role that people and culture play in understanding land use changes is crucial to defining anthropology’s engagement with climate change. Anthropologists, as well as scientists from allied disciplines must engage in vigorous cross-scale, local-global approaches in order to understand the implications of climate change (Crate 2011:176).
Crate urges that anthropology use its experience in place-based community research and apply it to a global scale, while focusing on ethnoclimatology, resilience, disasters, displacement, and resource management. By studying people living in “climate-sensitive” areas, anthropologists can document how people observe, perceive, and respond to the local effects of global climate change, which at times can compromise not only their physical livelihood, but also undermine their cultural orientations and frameworks (Crate 2011:179). Anthropology is well positioned to understand the “second disaster,” or sociocultural displacement which follows the first disaster (physical displacement), as a result local environmental and climate change. Some of these “second disasters” include shifts in local governance, resource rights, and domestic and international politics (Crate 2011:180). These “second disasters” present yet another challenge to anthropology’s involvement with global climate change: that global climate change is a human rights issue. Therefore, anthropologists should take the initiative in being active and empowering local populations, regions, and even nation-states to seek redress for the damage done by climate change (Crate 2011:182) It is the responsibility of anthropologists working in the field of climate change to link the local and lived realities of environmental change with national and international policies.
In order to accommodate to the rapidly changing (human) ecology, anthropology is in need of new ethnographies that show how the “global” envelops the local, and the subsequent imbalance (environmental injustice/racism) that it creates during this process. Crate urgently calls for anthropologists to become actors in the policy process, utilizing a multidisciplinary, multi-sited collaboration between organizations, foundations, associations, as well as political think tanks and other scientific disciplines. Anthropology’s task at hand is to bridge what is known about climate change to those who are not aware of its impacts, in order to facilitate a global understanding of climate change and its reach (Crate 2011:184).
Crate’s “Climate and Culture” may not have been the first Annual Review article regarding climate change and anthropology, but it is certainly one of the most urgent and pressing. Crate became a member of the American Anthropological Association’s Global Climate Change Task Force. Their report released in January 2015 sets an ambitious agenda for anthropology and climate change. Crate’s article also became foundational for a thematic emphasis of the 2012 Annual Review of Anthropology, which featured seven additional articles on anthropology and climate change.
Politics of the Anthropogenic
Nathan Sayre’s Politics of the Anthropogenic continues where Crate’s Climate and Culture left off: at the advent of a new form of anthropology, one that utilizes an interdisciplinary approach towards understanding the human ecology in relation to global climate change. Sayre invokes a term which Crate did not use in her review article, but that seems to have increasing salience to anthropology: The Anthropocene. Notably, the idea of the Anthropocene and its relationship to anthropology was also the subject of Bruno Latour’s keynote lecture to the American Anthropological Association in 2014: Anthropology at the Time of the Anthropocene.
Sayre describes the Anthropocene as the moment in history when humanity began to dominate, rather than coexist with the “natural” world (Sayre 2012:58). What defines the Anthropocene as a distinct epoch or era is when human activities rapidly shifted (most often considered the Industrial Revolution) from merely influencing the environment in some ways to dominating it in many ways. This is evident in population growth, urbanization, dams, transportation, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and the overexploitation of natural resources. The adverse effects of anthropogenic climate change can be measured on nearly every corner of the earth. As a result of local environmental change and global climate change, humans, climate, soil, and nonhuman biota have begun to collapse into one another; in this scenario, it is impossible to disentangle the “social” from the “natural” (Sayre 2012:62). Sayre states that anthropology’s role, together with other sciences, in analyzing climate change in the Anthropocene is to understand that there is no dichotomy between what is considered natural and cultural. Understanding the fluctuations in the earth’s ecosystems cannot be accounted for without dispelling the ideological separation between the natural and the cultural. By adopting conceptual models of “climate justice” and earth system science, anthropologists and biophysical scientists can further dispel the archaic dichotomy of humanity and nature.
The atmosphere, the earth, the oceans, are genuinely global commons. However, environmental climate change and the subsequent effects are profoundly and unevenly distributed throughout space and time (Sayre 2012:65). Biophysically and socioeconomically, the areas that have contributed most to global climate change are the least likely to suffer from its consequences. Those who have contributed the least suffer the most. Anthropologists can play an important role in utilizing climate-based ethnography to help explain and understand the institutions that are most responsible for anthropogenic global warming–oil, coal, electricity, automobiles–and the misinformation, lobbying, and public relations behind “climate denialism” in the Anthropocene. This is the first step in seeking redress for the atrocities of environmental injustice.
Evolution and Environmental Change in Early Human Prehistory
Understanding climate change in the Anthropocene is no easy task, but as Richard Potts argues in Evolution and Environmental Change in Early Human Prehistory, humans have been influencing their environments and their environments have been influencing them well before the era that is considered the “Anthropocene.” Throughout the last several million years the earth has experienced one of its most dramatic eras of climate change, which consequently coincided with the origin of hominins. Homo sapiens represent a turning point in the history of protohuman and human life, because of their capacity to modify habitats and transform ecosystems. Now, approximately 50% of today’s land surface is reserved for human energy flow, and a further 83% of all the viable land on the planet has either been occupied or altered to some extent (Potts 2012:152).
Vrba’s turnover-pulse hypothesis (TPH) and Potts’s variability selection hypothesis (VSH) both serve as explanations for the correlation between environmental and evolutionary change. Vrba’s TPH focused on the origination and extinction of lineages coinciding with environmental change, particularly the rate of species turnovers following major dry periods across equatorial Africa. Potts’s VSH focused on the inherited traits that arose in times of habitat variability, and the selection/favoring of traits that were more adaptively versatile to unstable environments (Potts 2012:154-5). There are three ways in which environmental change and human evolution can potentially be linked. First, evolutionary events may be concentrated in periods of directional environmental change. Second, evolution may be elicited during times of rising environmental variability and resource uncertainty. Finally, evolution may be independent of environmental trend or variability (Potts 2012:155). The aforementioned hypotheses and subsequent links between evolution and environmental change help shed light on the origins and adaptations of Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthals. The anatomical, behavioral, and environmental differences between neanderthals and modern humans suggests that their distinct fates reflect their differing abilities to adjusting to diverse and fluctuating habitats (Potts 2012:160). Potts does an excellent job of stating that before the Anthropocene, early Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthals not only impacted and manipulate their surrounding environments, but were (genetically) impacted by their environments.
Sea Change: Island Communities and Climate Change
Heather Lazrus’s Annual Review article Sea Change: Island Communities and Climate Change returns to climate change in the more recent Anthropocene. For island communities, climate change is an immediate and lived reality in already environmentally fragile areas. These island communities, despite their seeming isolation and impoverishment, are often deeply globally connected in ways that go beyond simplistic descriptions of “poverty” and “isolated” (Lazrus 2012:286). Globally, islands are home to one-tenth of the world’s population, and much of the world’s population tends to be concentrated along coasts. Therefore both are subject to very similar changes in climate and extreme weather events. Islands tend to be regarded as the planet’s “barometers of change” because of their sensitivity to climate change (Lazrus 2012:287). Not only are islands environmentally dynamic areas, consisting of a variety of plants and animal species, but they also have the potential to be areas of significant social, economic, and political interest.
Madagascar: A History of Arrivals, What Happened, and Will Happen Next
Madagascar is a fascinating example of sociopolitical and ecological convergence, and is explored by Robert Dewar and Alison Richard in their Madagascar: A History of Arrivals, What Happened, and Will Happen Next. Madagascar has an extremely diverse system of human ecology that is nearly as diverse the island’s topography, environments, and climate. As a product of its physical diversity, the human ecology of Madagascar has a dynamic social and cultural history. In the Southwest, the Mikea derive significant portions of their food from foraging in the dry forest. Outside of most urban areas, hunting and collecting wild plants is common. Along the west coast, fishing is crucial as a central focus of the economy, but also as a supplement to farming. Farmers in Madagascar have a wide range of varieties and species to choose from including maize, sweet potatoes, coffee, cacao, pepper, cloves, cattle, chickens, sheep, goats, pigs, and turkeys (Dewar and Richard 2012:505). Throughout the island, rice and cattle are the two most culturally and economically important domesticates, and are subsequently adapted to growing under the local conditions of the microclimates of Madagascar. Semi-nomadic cattle pastoralism takes place in the drier regions of Madagascar. Whatever the environmental, climatic, social, or economic surroundings may be, Madagascar (as well as other islands) serve as local microcosms for climate change on the global scale. This relates to Crate’s call for an anthropology that brings forth the global array of connections (“natural”/ sociocultural) portraying local issues of climate change to the global sphere.
Ethnoprimatology and the Anthropology of the Human-Primate Interface
Agustin Fuentes’s main arguments in Ethnoprimatology and the Anthropology of the Human-Primate Interface focus on human-induced climate change and how it affects a vast amount of species, including the other primates (Fuentes 2012:110). By getting rid of the ideology that humans are separate from natural ecosystems and the animals within them, then anthropology can better grasp inquiries relating to global climate change within the Anthropocene. Fuentes then goes on to say (similarly to Crate and Sayre) that by freeing anthropological (and other scientific discourse) from the dichotomy of nature and culture, people will fully understand their relationship in the order of primates, but also their place within the environment. Our human capacity to build vast urban areas, transportation systems, and the deforestation of woodland all impact the local environments in which we live, and consequently gives humans an aura of dominance over nature. As Fuentes states, “at the global level, humans are ecosystem engineers on the largest of scales, and these altered ecologies are inherited not only by subsequent generations of humans but by all the sympatric species residing within them. The ways in which humans and other organisms coexist (and/or conflict) within these anthropogenic ecologies shape the perceptions, interactions, histories, and futures of the inhabitants” (Fuentes 2012:110). Essentially, Fuentes points out that humans have dominated ecosystems on a global scale; however, this has impacted not only human populations but also various plant and animals species, as well as entire ecosystems. It is only within the understanding of the symbiotic relationship between human/plants/animals/ecosystems that people will realize their impact on the environment on a global scale.
Lives With Others: Climate Change and Human-Animal Relations
In Lives With Others: Climate Change and Human-Animal Relations, Rebecca Cassidy ties together Fuentes’s arguments with Crate’s by demonstrating how climate change not only impacts people’s physical livelihood, but also their sociocultural lives. Cassidy states that people with animal-centered livelihoods experience climate change on many different levels, and subsequently, climate change may see those animals (or plants) become incapable of fulfilling their existing functions. Societies that are most frequently geopolitically marginalized often are left reeling from the impacts that climate change has on their social, political, economic, and environmental lives (Cassidy 2012:24). The impacts that climate change has on marginalized societies often affects their ability to live symbiotically and sustainably with other species. Human/animal “persons” are conceived to be reciprocal and equal, living in a symbiotic world system, in which their sustenance, reproduction, life, and death are all equally important. The extinction of particular species of animals and plants can cause cosmological crises, as well as disrupt the potential for future adaptability.
Cassidy’s claim that humans, animals, plants, and their environments are reciprocal and symbiotic ties in with Crate’s plea for an anthropology that rids itself of the old dichotomy of the natural and cultural. Crate’s idea for new ethnographies that consider the human ecology of climate change begin by utilizing what Lazrus calls Traditional Environmental Knowledge, or TEK. TEK is “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive process and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment” (Lazrus 2012:290). TEK utilizes the spiritual, cosmological, and moral practices that condition human relationships with their surrounding physical environments. Such ethnographies should reflect all of the potential contributors to climate change in the Anthropocene, but they should also infuse new urgency to anthropological approaches. As Crate states “anthropologists need to become more globalized agents for change by being more active as public servants and engaging more with nonanthropological approaches regarding climate change” (Crate 2011: 183).
As made evident by the work of Sandweiss and Kelley, anthropology has early roots in climate change research dating back to the 1960s. Since then, anthropology’s contribution to climate change research has been significant, and is now sparking a new generation of engaged anthropology in the Anthropocene.
Targeted punishments could provide a path to international climate change cooperation, new research in game theory has found.
This is a diagram of two possible strategies of targeted punishment studied in the paper. Credit: Royal Society Open Science
Targeted punishments could provide a path to international climate change cooperation, new research in game theory has found.
Conducted at the University of Warwick, the research suggests that in situations such as climate change, where everyone would be better off if everyone cooperated but it may not be individually advantageous to do so, the use of a strategy called ‘targeted punishment’ could help shift society towards global cooperation.
Despite the name, the ‘targeted punishment’ mechanism can apply to positive or negative incentives. The research argues that the key factor is that these incentives are not necessarily applied to everyone who may seem to deserve them. Rather, rules should be devised according to which only a small number of players are considered responsible at any one time.
The study’s author Dr Samuel Johnson, from the University of Warwick’s Mathematics Institute, explains: “It is well known that some form of punishment, or positive incentives, can help maintain cooperation in situations where almost everyone is already cooperating, such as in a country with very little crime. But when there are only a few people cooperating and many more not doing so punishment can be too dilute to have any effect. In this regard, the international community is a bit like a failed state.”
The paper, published in Royal Society Open Science, shows that in situations of entrenched defection (non-cooperation), there exist strategies of ‘targeted punishment’ available to would-be punishers which can allow them to move a community towards global cooperation.
“The idea,” said Dr Johnson, “is not to punish everyone who is defecting, but rather to devise a rule whereby only a small number of defectors are considered at fault at any one time. For example, if you want to get a group of people to cooperate on something, you might arrange them on an imaginary line and declare that a person is liable to be punished if and only if the person to their left is cooperating while they are not. This way, those people considered at fault will find themselves under a lot more pressure than if responsibility were distributed, and cooperation can build up gradually as each person decides to fall in line when the spotlight reaches them.”
For the case of climate change, the paper suggests that countries should be divided into groups, and these groups placed in some order — ideally, according roughly to their natural tendencies to cooperate. Governments would make commitments (to reduce emissions or leave fossil fuels in the ground, for instance) conditional on the performance of the group before them. This way, any combination of sanctions and positive incentives that other countries might be willing to impose would have a much greater effect.
“In the mathematical model,” said Dr Johnson, “the mechanism works best if the players are somewhat irrational. It seems a reasonable assumption that this might apply to the international community.”
Samuel Johnson. Escaping the Tragedy of the Commons through Targeted Punishment. Royal Society Open Science, 2015 [link]
Antropólogo lança livro ‘Metafísicas canibais’ e expõe fotografias na mostra ‘Variações do corpo selvagem’
POR GUILHERME FREITAS
Índio com filmadora de Viveiros de Castro no Alto Xingu, em 1976. – Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
RIO – Certa vez, ao dar uma palestra em Manaus, o antropólogo Eduardo Viveiros de Castro deparou-se com uma plateia dividida entre cientistas e índios. Enquanto apresentava suas teses sobre o perspectivismo ameríndio, conceito desenvolvido a partir da cosmologia dos povos com que estudou na Amazônia, notou que a metade branca da plateia ia perdendo o interesse. No fim da palestra, diante do silêncio dos cientistas, uma índia pediu a palavra para alertá-los: “Vocês precisam prestar atenção ao que o professor aí está dizendo. Ele está dizendo o que a gente sempre disse”.
A cena, relembrada por Viveiros de Castro em entrevista ao GLOBO, remete a uma das teses centrais de seu novo livro, “Metafísicas canibais” (Cosac Naify e n-1 Edições). O autor descreve-o como a “resenha” ou “sinopse” de uma obra que nunca conseguirá concluir e que se chamaria “O Anti-Narciso”. Nela, aproximaria filosofia e antropologia, Deleuze e Lévi-Strauss, para investigar a pergunta: “o que deve conceitualmente a antropologia aos povos que estuda?”. As culturas e sociedades pesquisadas pelos antropólogos, escreve, “influenciam, ou, para dizer de modo mais claro, coproduzem” as teses formuladas a partir dessas pesquisas.
Um dos mais influentes antropólogos hoje, autor de “A inconstância da alma selvagem” (Cosac Naify, 2002) e professor do Museu Nacional da UFRJ, Viveiros de Castro desenvolve em “Metafísicas canibais” suas ideias sobre o perspectivismo, formadas a partir de ideias presentes em sociedades amazônicas sobre como humanos, animais e espíritos veem-se a si mesmos e aos outros. Ele descreve a antropologia como uma forma de “tradução cultural” e pleiteia que seu ideal é ser “a teoria-prática da descolonização permanente do pensamento”. O que implica reconhecer a diferença e a autonomia do pensamento indígena: “não podemos pensar como os índios; podemos, no máximo, pensar com eles”.Os primeiros contatos de Viveiros de Castro com esse universo estão registrados nas fotografias que fez durante o trabalho de campo com os índios Araweté, Yanomami, Yawalapiti e Kulina, entre meados dos anos 1970 e início dos 1990. Parte dessas fotos será exibida pela primeira vez na exposição “Variações do corpo selvagem”, no Sesc Ipiranga, em São Paulo, a partir do dia 29 de agosto. Com curadoria da escritora e crítica de arte Veronica Stigger e do poeta e crítico literário Eduardo Sterzi, a mostra reúne ainda fotos feitas pelo antropólogo nos anos 1970, quando trabalhava com o cineasta Ivan Cardoso, mestre do gênero “terrir” e diretor de filmes como “O segredo da múmia” (1982) e “As sete vampiras” (1986).
Em entrevista por e-mail, Viveiros de Castro, de 64 anos, fala sobre o livro e a exposição e discute outros temas de sua obra e sua atuação pública, como a crise climática, abordada em “Há mundo por vir?” (Cultura e Barbárie, 2014), que escreveu com a filósofa Déborah Danowski, com quem é casado. Fala também sobre a resistência dos índios contra o “dispositivo etnocida” armado contra eles no Brasil, que mira “suas terras, seu modo de vida, os fundamentos ecológicos e morais de sua economia e sua autonomia política interna”.
Numa nota em “Metafísicas canibais”, você comenta que, sempre que expôs a ouvintes ameríndios suas teses sobre o perspectivismo, eles perceberam as implicações que elas poderiam ter para “as relações de força em vigor entre as ‘culturas’ indígenas e as ‘ciências’ ocidentais que as circunscrevem e administram”. Quais seriam essas implicações? O que interlocutores ameríndios costumam lhe dizer sobre o perspectivismo?
“Sempre que” é um pouco exagerado; dá impressão que eu faço tours de seminários sobre o pensamento indígena para ouvintes indígenas… Eu tinha em mente, naquela nota, uma ocasião em particular. Em 2006, a convite do Instituto Socioambiental, fiz uma palestra para uma plateia de cientistas do INPA, em Manaus, sobre as cosmologias amazônicas e as concepções indígenas da natureza da natureza, por assim dizer. Ao entrar na sala, descobri, com não pouca ansiedade, que apenas metade da plateia era composta de cientistas (biólogos, botânicos, pedólogos etc.) — e que a outra metade da sala estava cheia de índios do Rio Negro. Falar do que pensam os índios diante de uma plateia de índios não é exatamente uma situação confortável. Decidi então apresentar uma versão esquemática do que eu sabia a respeito do modo como o que chamei de “perspectivismo ameríndio” se manifestava nas culturas rionegrinas (povos Tukano e Aruaque, principalmente). No meio da palestra fui percebendo os cientistas cada vez menos interessados naquilo, e os índios cada vez mais agitados. Na hora das perguntas, nenhum cientista falou nada. Os índios, com sua cortesia habitual, esperaram os brancos presentes pararem de não dizer nada até que eles começassem a falar. Uma senhora então se levantou e, dirigindo-se à metade branca e científica da plateia, disse: “vocês precisam prestar atenção ao que o professor aí está dizendo. Ele está dizendo o que a gente sempre disse: que vocês não veem as coisas direito; que, por exemplo, os peixes, quando fazem a piracema (a desova) estão na verdade, lá no fundo do rio, transformados em gente como nós, fazendo um grande dabucuri (cerimônia indígena típica da região)”. E outro índio perguntou: “aquilo que o professor disse, sobre os morros da região serem habitados por espíritos protetores da caça, é verdade. Mas isso quer dizer então que destruir esses morros com garimpo e mineração é perigoso, não é mesmo? E não quereria dizer também que índio não pode ser capitalista?” Percebi, naquele confronto entre cientistas que estudam a Amazônia e os índios que vivem lá, que os primeiros estão interessados apenas no saber indígena que interessa ao que eles, cientistas, já sabem, isto é, àquilo que se encaixa na moldura do conhecimento científico normalizado. Os índios são “úteis” aos cientistas na medida em que podem servir de informantes sobre novas espécies, novas associações ecológicas etc. Mas a estrutura metafísica que sustenta esse conhecimento indígena não lhes dizia absolutamente nada, ou era apenas um ornamento pitoresco para os fenômenos reais. E os índios, ao contrário, se interessaram precisamente pelo interesse de um branco (eu) sobre isso. O que me deu muita coisa a pensar.
Mais geralmente, porém, tenho tido notícia da difusão lenta e episódica, mas real, de meus escritos (e os de meus colegas) sobre isso que chamei de “perspectivismo” junto a pensadores indígenas, ou muito próximos politicamente a eles, em outros países da América Latina (o livro foi traduzido para o espanhol, assim como diversos artigos de mesmo teor). Isso me alegra e, por que não dizer, envaidece muito. Mil vezes poder servir, com esses meus escritos aparentemente tão abstratos, à luta indígena pela autonomia política e filosófica que ser lido e comentado nos círculos acadêmicos — o que também não faz mal nenhum, bem entendido.
Eduardo Viveiros de Castro na Flip 2014 – Arquivo/André Teixeira/2-8-2014
No livro, você pergunta: “O que acontece quando se leva o pensamento nativo a sério?”. E continua: “Levar a sério é, para começar, não neutralizar”. Partindo destes termos, quais são as maiores ameaças de “neutralização” do pensamento indígena no Brasil hoje?
‘O que se pretende é transformar o índio em pobre, tirando dele o que tem — suas terras, seu modo de vida, os fundamentos ecológicos e morais de sua economia, sua autonomia política interna — para obrigá-lo a desejar consumir o que não tem.’
– EDUARDO VIVEIROS DE CASTRO, Antropólogo
Neutralizar este pensamento significa reduzi-lo ao efeito de um complexo de causas ou condições cuja posse conceitual não lhes pertence. Significa, como escrevi no livro, pôr entre parênteses a questão de saber se e como tal pensamento ilustra universais cognitivos da espécie humana, explica-se por certos modos de transmissão socialmente determinada do conhecimento, exprime uma visão de mundo culturalmente particular, valida funcionalmente a distribuição do poder político, e outras tantas formas de neutralização do pensamento alheio. Trata-se de suspender tais explicações-padrão, típicas das ciências humanas, ou, pelo menos, evitar encerrar a antropologia nela. Trata-se de decidir, em suma, pensar o outro pensamento como uma atualização de virtualidades insuspeitas do pensamento em geral, o “nosso” inclusive. Tratá-lo como tratamos qualquer sistema intelectual ocidental: como algo que diz algo que deve ser tratado em seus próprios termos, se quisermos respeitá-lo e incorporá-lo como uma contribuição singular e valiosa à nossa própria e orgulhosa tradição intelectual. Só depois disso poderemos, se tal for nossa veleidade, anatomizá-lo e dissecá-lo segundo os instrumentos usuais da redução científica das práticas de sentido humano.
Mas sua pergunta acrescentava “no Brasil hoje”. No Brasil hoje o que se vê é muito mais que uma “neutralização do pensamento nativo”. O que se vê é uma ofensiva feroz para acabar com os nativos, para varrer suas formas de vida (e portanto de pensamento) da face do território nacional. O que se pretende hoje — o que sempre se pretendeu, mas hoje os métodos são ao mesmo tempo cada vez mais sutis e eficazes sem deixarem de ser brutais como sempre foram — é silenciar os índios, desindianizar todo pensamento nativo, de modo a transformar aquela caboclada atrasada toda que continua a “rexistir” (este é o modo de existência dos índios no Brasil hoje: a “rexistência”) em pobre, isto é, em “bom brasileiro”, mal assistencializado, mal alfabetizado, convertido ao cristianismo evangélico por um exército de missionários fanáticos, transformado em consumidor dócil do estoque infinito de porcarias produzidas pela economia mundial. Em suma: fazer do índio (os que não tiverem sido exterminados antes) um “cidadão”. Cidadão pobre, é claro. Índio rico seria uma ofensa praticamente teológica, uma heresia, à ideologia nacional. Para fazê-lo passar de índio a pobre, é preciso primeiro tirar dele o que ele tem — suas terras, seu modo de vida, os fundamentos ecológicos e morais de sua economia, sua autonomia política interna —‚ para obrigá-lo a desejar consumir o que ele não tem — o que é produzido na terra dos outros (no país do agronegócio, por exemplo, ou nas fábricas chinesas).
Como avalia o estado atual das mobilizações indígenas contra intervenções do Estado em seus modos de vida, como na região do Xingu, com a construção da usina de Belo Monte?
Os índios fazem o que podem. Estão lutando contra uma máquina tecnológica, econômica, politica e militar infinitamente mais poderosa do que eles. No caso de Belo Monte, já perderam. Mas não sem dar um bocado de trabalho ao “programa” que esse governo, cujo ódio estúpido aos índios só é comparável ao que se via nos sombrios tempos da ditadura, vai implantando a ferro e a fogo na Amazônia inteira, inclusive fora do Brasil. Mas a luta continua, e ainda tem muito índio disposto a resistir (a “rexistir”) ao dispositivo etnocida armado contra eles, no Mato Grosso do Sul, no Tapajós, no Xingu, no Rio Negro e por aí afora.
Você tem trabalhado com o conceito de Antropoceno (que já definiu como o momento em que “o capitalismo passa a ser um episódio da paleontologia”) para alertar sobre os efeitos destrutivos da ação humana sobre o planeta. O que precisa mudar no debate público sobre a crise climática?
Muito. Isso tudo vai descrito no livro que coautorei com a filósofa Déborah Danowski, “Há mundo por vir? Ensaio sobre os medos e os fins”, onde comparamos, de um lado, os efeitos já instalados e aqueles por vir da catástrofe ecológica desencadeada pela economia movida a combustíveis fósseis, e tudo o que vem com ela (inclusive o capitalismo financeiro e cognitivo), com os modos com que esse tema arquimilenar, o “fim do mundo”, vem sendo tematizado pela imaginação estética, política e mitológica de nossa própria civilização moderna, de outro lado. E por fim, tecemos considerações sobre como a “mudança de Era” (como dizem os camponeses nordestinos para se referir aos efeitos já palpáveis das mudanças climáticas) por que passamos hoje é pensada pelos índios, em suas mitologias e em sua prática ecopolítica concreta. Penso que as ciências humanas têm sido lentas em assumir que esta questão, que a palavra “Antropoceno” resume, é a questão mais grave e urgente da história humana desde o começo da era Neolítica, e que estamos entrando em uma situação inédita para a espécie como um todo. O debate na esfera pública tem sido laboriosamente mitigado, quando não silenciado, por uma poderosíssima máquina de propaganda financiada pelos principais interessados no status quo, a saber, as grandes corporações petroleiras e outras, como a Monsanto, a Nestlé, a Bunge, a Dow, a Vale, a Rio Tinto etc. Sem falarmos nos governos nacionais, meros instrumentos de polícia desses atores econômicos. Mas as coisas começam a mudar, devagar, mas mudando. Infelizmente, “devagar” é péssimo. Porque a aceleração dos processos de desequilíbrio termodinâmico do planeta marcha em ritmo crescente. O tempo e o espaço entraram em crise, escapam-nos por todos os lados. Hoje a luta política fundamental, a ser levada a nível mundial, é a luta pela liberação do espaço e do tempo.
Você afirma que o perspectivismo não é uma forma de relativismo cultural e, ao conceito corrente de “multiculturalismo”, contrapõe a noção de “multinaturalismo”. Quais são os problemas do relativismo cultural e como o multinaturalismo os evita?
‘O problema que se coloca não é o da “tolerância” (só os donos do poder são “tolerantes”), mas o da diplomacia’
– EDUARDO VIVEIROS DE CASTROAntropólogo
O relativismo cultural é, ao menos como costumeiramente divulgado pela vulgata ideológica dominante, meramente a ideia de que existem várias opiniões sobre o mundo, o universo ou a “realidade”, mas que esta “coisa lá fora” (o mundo etc.) é uma só. Entre essas várias opiniões, há uma certa — a nossa, ou melhor, aquela que acreditamos ser a verdade cientifica (e 99,99% dos que acreditam nela não sabem em que estão acreditando). O resto é “cultura”, superstição, visões exóticas de gente que vive “fora da realidade”. Em relação a essa gente, podemos e até devemos mostrar um pouco de tolerância (afinal, são apenas opiniões, “visões de mundo”), devemos ser “multiculturalistas”. Mas a Natureza, com N maiúsculo, é uma só, e independe de nossas opiniões (exceto da minha, isto é, a da “Ciência” que nos serve de religião laica). O que chamei de “multinaturalismo” ou de “perspectivismo multinaturalista”, para caracterizar as metafísicas indígenas, supõe a indissociabilidade radical, ou pressuposição recíproca, entre “mundo” e “visão”. Não existem “visões de mundo” (muitas visões de um só mundo), mas mundosde visão, mundos compostos de uma multiplicidade de visões eles próprios, onde cada ser, cada elemento do mundo é uma visão no mundo, do mundo — é mundo. Para este tipo de ontologia, o problema que se coloca não é o da “tolerância” (só os donos do poder são “tolerantes”), mas o da diplomacia ou negociação intermundos.
Você defende uma concepção de antropologia como “descolonização permanente do pensamento”. Como ela pode fazer isso? Quais são os maiores impasses da disciplina hoje?
Vou responder rapidamente, ou os leitores não precisarão ler o livro… Trata-se de tomar o discurso dos povos que estudamos (os “nativos”, sejam quem forem) como interlocutores horizontalmente situados em relação ao discurso dos “observadores” (os “antropólogos”). O que a antropologia estuda são sempre outras antropologias, as antropologias dos outros, que articulam conceitos radicalmente diversos dos nossos sobre o que é o anthropos, o “humano”, e sobre o que é o logos (o conhecimento). Descolonizar o pensamento é explodir a distinção entre sujeito e objeto de conhecimento, e aceitar que só existe entreconhecimento, conhecimento comparativo, e que a antropologia como “estudo do outro” é sempre uma tradução (e uma tradução sempre equívoca) para nosso vocabulário conceitual do estudo do outro. O maior desafio vivido hoje pela antropologia é o de aceitar isso e tirar daí todas as consequências, inclusive as consequências políticas.
As fotografias reunidas em “Variações do corpo selvagem” remetem ao seu trabalho de campo com os Araweté, Yanomami, Yawalapiti e Kulina. Quais foram suas maiores descobertas nos encontros com esses povos?
Tudo o que eu escrevi sobre eles.
Kuyawmá se pintando com tabatinga para o javari. Aldeia Wauja, Alto Xingu, 1977.Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
Mapukayaka pinta Sapaim que pinta Ayupu. Aldeia Yawalapíti, Alto Xingu, 1977.Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
Combatente yawalapíti pinta-se para ritual do Javari, Alto Xingu, 1977.Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
Os Araweté assistindo a fime sobre eles, no Xingu, em 1992Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
Índio com filmadora do antropólogo em aldeia yawalapíti no Alto Xingu, em 1976.Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
Yuruawï-do no jirau da casa de farinha. Aldeia do médio Ipixuna, 1982.Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
Foto inédita do filme O Segredo da Múmia, de Ivan Cardoso. Floresta da Tijuca, 1981.Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
Anselmo Vasconcelos, Ivan Cardoso, Oscar Ramos e a múmia, em O Segredo da Múmia, de Ivan Cardoso,…Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
Hélio Oiticica como adepto de Dionísio. Filmagem de O Segredo da MúmiaFoto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
Wilson Grey e Felipe Falcão em O Segredo da Múmia, de Ivan Cardoso, 1981.Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
First, a huge thank you to the (Dis)order of Things and especially Antoine for organizing this forum and to each of the contributors. It’s been a huge honor to have my work read so carefully and responded to so thoughtfully and I welcome the opportunity to try to clarify some of my work and acknowledge where the contributors have pointed out helpful areas for future research.
As Pablo K and others noticed, Bodies of Violence it is not meant to be a general theory of embodiment in IR (I’m not sure such a project is feasible or politically desirable in any event). It is a more specific intervention with a different ambition: both to speak to ‘mainstream’ concerns about theorizing violence, particularly forms of political violence associated with the ‘war on terror’ and to make not only a theoretical argument about how we might or should theorize embodiment and violence, but also to show that understanding these different ‘modes of violence’ necessitates such an understanding of the relationship between bodies, subjects and violence. My rationale for using feminist theory to think about the relationship between bodies, subjects and violence in IR was not meant to be exclusive: certainly (other) people working with concepts of biopolitics as well as anti-colonial/anti-racist theorists, disability theorists, phenomenologists and more also have much to say on this topic, some insights of which have been very important in my analysis, if not as fully fleshed out (if you will) as my engagement with feminist theory is.[i] For me, it was a particular reading of feminist theories of embodiment, not solely based on Butler, but on a particular feminist problematic in which women, as a category of those constituted, as Pablo K put it, the “improperly bodied”, are politically disenfranchised and generally excluded from their status as a fully human subject that served as a starting point, but far from an ‘ending’ for thinking about the subject of embodiment. Rather, it is, as Kevin noted, “the specific tradition of trying to think through women’s subordination in terms of the relationship between bodies, subjects and power” that feminist theory entails that I wanted to use to think about violence and embodiment in ways that I hope will speak not only to feminists in IR but also to other critical and the more pluralistically and trans-disciplinarily minded scholars in IR and beyond as well.
However, this brings us to some of the drawbacks of feminist approaches to violence and embodiment. Ali’s point about the violence of feminist theory is a particularly good one. Feminists working in IR tend to be quite aware of the uses of feminism for violent aims: the Taliban’s oppression and abuse of women in Afghanistan as a rationale for war by the US and its allies being supported by NOW and the Feminist Majority is a well-known example. Ali’s point about the violence of some feminism(s) against trans-people is also well-taken; though Butler is hardly a ‘TERF’ by any means, her work has been critiqued by trans-theorists for a number of reasons. For the purposes of this book, I don’t necessarily see a conflict between trans-theory and Butler’s theory of the materialization of bodies and the limits of intelligibility as being relevant to the ways in which security practices work to materialize only certain bodies as ‘real,’ often excluding trans- people and constituting them as threats. In general, I agree with Ali that we should welcome feminist scholarship and practice that is less defensive in regards to the ‘mainstream’ of the discipline and more willing to seek alliances and interlocutors from a broader range of scholars, both in the spaces of IR and outside doing work on violence, power and embodiment.[ii]
Forum contributors also provided some excellent provocations for thinking about aspects of embodiment or ways of addressing the thorny question of embodiment that my book did not focus on. Pablo writes, “It is a book thoroughly about bodies, but not therefore necessarily a theory of bodies and embodiment. And it is theory of em-bodies-ment that we may in need of.” On a somewhat different note, Kevin wonders what might happened if the embodied subjects of which I write “could have a more audible place in the analysis.” Of course, it (should) hardly need mentioning the great amount of work influenced by feminist and postcolonial theory that strives to bring the voices and experiences of embodied subjects, particularly of marginalized peoples, into IR as a disciplinary space. I would point, for one example, to the work of Christine Sylvester and others on experience as an embodied concept for theorizing war. However, as Kevin points out, my book has a different, and I would hope, complementary aim: to show the explanatory and critical value of theorizing bodies as both produced by, and productive of, practices of violence in international politics. It is the last point, that bodies are productive of violence, which speaks more to Pablo’s concern about bodies ‘mattering’.
While Bodies of Violence is perhaps most influenced by Butler’s project, as Kevin, Ali and Pablo K have all noted, theories of embodiment (or at least the relationship between discourse and materiality) such as Elizabeth Grosz’s Volatile Bodiesand Barad’s ‘posthumanist performativity’ as well as Donna Haraway’s work are perhaps more of an influence than appears in the published version of the book, which takes as an overarching frame Butler’s concepts of normative violence and ontological precarity. These other works are concerned, in their own way, with the ways in which matter ‘matters’ or the ways in which embodied subjects exceed their materializations in discourse.[iii]
It is the ‘generative’ or ‘productive’ capacities of bodies that is an engagement with ‘new materialisms’ or ‘feminist materialisms’ if you like. One of the aspects of Barad’s work, whom Pablo mentions, that is most appealing is the insistence of intra-activity, with the implication that we cannot meaningfully separate matter from the discursive, as phenomena only exist by virtue of ongoing assemblages and reassemblages of matter and discourse. Bodies ‘matter,’ they do things, they have what Diana Coole refers to as ‘agentic capacities’. One reason that Bodies of Violence focuses on actual instances of violence perpetrated on and by bodies in international politics is precisely to take bodies seriously as something other than ‘representations’ or ‘abstractions’ in IR. An example of bodies being ‘productive’ in the book are the ways that bodies ‘speak’ which might exceed the intentions of ‘speaking subjects’. Antoine’s discussion of my work on the hunger striking body in Guantanamo Bay (which I also discussed earlier here on the blog) makes reference to this point: the body in pain as a call for recognition. This is something the body ‘does’ that is not reducible to the intentions of a fully constituted subject nor the words spoken by such subjects (this is in addition to the ways in which hunger striking prisoners such as Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel have spoken eloquently about their experiences). And yet, while this body’s actions may have certain implications, enable certain politics, etc, this cannot be understood without understanding that the body’s capacities are already subject to prior materializations and their reception will also bear the marks of prior political assemblages as well.
A key example of this from the book is the embodiment of drone operators, or perhaps more accurately, the legal/technological drone assemblage. While this form of embodiment is what might be termed, following Haraway, a ‘material-semiotic actor’, it is a body, or form of embodiment, that is necessary for the kind of ‘death-world’ that enables the killing of suspected militants as well as those people who can only be named innocent or militant in the aftermath. Both bodies of drone operators and the people who are killed by drone strikes are intimately connected in this way: the embodiment of drone pilots is productive of the bodies of targets and the ‘uncountable’ bodies whose deaths remain outside of the epistemological framework enabled by this drone assemblage. Thus, there is less of an explicit engagement with ‘new materialisms’ per se than an acknowledgement (one that has been part of feminist theory for decades) that one cannot determine or write bodies ‘all the way down’ and that, in the words of Samantha Frost and Diana Coole,’ nature ‘pushes back’ in sometimes unexpected ways, but in ways that are nonetheless subject to human interpretation.
Antoine concludes the forum on a forward-looking note that also recalls Ali’s point of the various forms of critical literatures that have much to offer our thinking about bodies and violence beyond feminist literatures: “a growing task of critical scholars in the future may therefore also be that of attentiveness to new forms for the sorting and hierarchizing of bodies, human and otherwise, that are emerging from the production of scientific knowledges.” I agree and (some of) my current research is aimed precisely at the question of gender, queer theory and ‘the posthuman’. While I am wary of certain tendencies within some of the critical literatures of affect theory, ‘new materialisms’ and the like that suggest either explicitly or implicitly that feminist, anti-racial or other such critiques are outmoded, scholars like Rosi Braidotti and Donna Haraway have read the feminist politics the ‘posthuman’ in ways that engage the shifting materialities and discursive constructions of gendered and sexualized bodies. I’m working on a project now that pursues the question of embodiment and ‘drone warfare’ future to consider the politics of the insect and the swarm as inspirations for military technological developments, in the manner that Katherine Hayles describes as a double vision that “looks simultaneously at the power of simulation and at the materialities that produce it” in order to “better understand the implication of articulating posthuman constructions together with embodied actualities” (Hayles 1999, 47). This is to say both discursive constructions of insects/swarms in culture (particularly their association with death, abjection and the feminine) as well as the material capabilities of insects and their role in the earth’s eco-system and its own set of ‘death-worlds’ can and should be thought in tandem. The parameters of this project are yet not fixed (are they ever?) and so I’m grateful for this conversation around Bodies of Violence as I work to further the project of taking embodiment and its relationships with subjectivity and violence seriously in thinking about international political violence in its myriad forms. These contributions are evidence that work on embodiment in IR and related disciplines is becoming a robust research area in which many possibilities exist for dialogue, critique and collaboration.
[i] Also, feminist theorists such as Butler, Grosz, Haraway and Ahmed all engage in a variety of traditions as well, from psychoanalysis, Foucauldian theory, phenomenology, postcolonial theory, and more, so the divisions between ‘feminist theory’ and other kinds of critical theory is far from given, and a much longer piece could be written about this.
[ii] Although see recent work by Rose McDermott and Dan Reiter that seems determined to ignore the advances of decades of scholarship on gender, feminism, and war.
[iii] I agree with Pablo K that Butler’s work is ambiguously situated in relationship to the so-called ‘new materialisms’: I make a brief case in the book that it is not incompatible with her approach at times, but I don’t explore this at length in the final version of the text.
Like ‘sustainability’, ‘development’, ‘natural’, or ‘green’, the term is so vague that it can be used by anyone, whether they want to challenge the powers that be, just want to make a quick buck, or score a research grant. While the term can be used to support arguments for action on climate change, it can just as well be used to support digging more oil wells (“oh what the heck, we live in the age of human superiority anyway!”).
The word “Anthropocene” has become a rallying cry, to many signifying the urgency of action on climate change. The question now is whether we should keep using it.
‘Good’ Anthropocene or ‘Bad’ Anthropocene?
The types of opinions that cluster around the Anthropocene vary. In the book The God Species, prominent environmental writer Mark Lynas argues that, since we are entering into a new, never-seen-before era of human control of the environment, we have the responsibility, duty, and possibility to control it further. He argues that precisely because we are seeing unforeseen problems at a greater scale than anything we’ve ever seen, we will need to use all tools at our disposal. That includes nuclear power and genetic engineering.
Recently, Mark Lynas joined a cohort of other pro-tech scientists, writers, and environmentalists, and helped pen an “eco-modernist manifesto” The authors claim that “modern technologies, by using natural ecosystem flows and services more efficiently, offer a real chance of reducing the totality of human impacts on the biosphere. To embrace these technologies is to find paths to a good Anthropocene.”
Richard Heinberg at the Post-Carbon Institute calls this the “we’re-in-charge-and-loving-it” attitude. To him, this “techno-Anthropocene” argument signifies a brand of scientist who embraces the Anthropocene simply because it gives humans full license to keep terraforming the planet. Heinberg proposes his own version: the “lean-green Anthropocene”, since any feasible techno-solution will be powered by more energy, not less.
Somewhat surprisingly, the term has been eagerly adopted by critical theorists—perhaps too uncritically. Bruno Latour often likes to use the term as a launching point to discuss the new politics that these crises require. Recently, he pushed back against the eco-modernist manifesto, complaining that “to add ‘good’ to Anthropocene was a ridiculous thing to do”. According to Latour, there is only a ‘bad’ Anthropocene. But there is no doubt that there is an Anthropocene.
Prominent political ecology scholars Laura Ogden, Paul Robbins, and Nik Heynen reference the term to support their own arguments that grassroots organisations are the key to resilience and political resistance in this new era. In another article on this blog, Robbins and Sarah A. Moore suggest that while political ecologists and eco-moderns may have differing views, they are both reactions to the reality of the Anthropocene. Slavoj Zizek suggests that the Anthropocene, and the scientists that propose it, make us ask new questions about humans’ relationship to their environment, and our culture’s obsession with the ever-present apocalypse. In another essay, Dipesh Chakrabarty partly challenges the term from a postcolonial perspective, but ends up endorsing it, since it means that everyone (the colonisers and the colonised, the rich and the poor) will be affected by the coming disasters.
I say surprisingly since these same theorists would hesitate to use the words democracy, development, or progress without “scare-quotes”—they specialise in questioning everything under the sun (and rightly so). For them to endorse this new word so uncritically is perhaps the best indication of its widespread appeal.
The politics of climate science
Yet, in the past year—especially the past months—a flurry of critiques of the Anthropocene concept have appeared.
The first key issue is scientific.
Since Paul Crutzen first proposed the term (he suggested it started with the industrial revolution, but then changed his mind claiming that it started with the testing of atomic bombs) scientists have struggled to define what it is exactly and when it started. There is currently no consensus.
The vagueness of the term led to the inability to pin down what it would actually look like, and how it could be measured. Leading scientists have posed the question whether the Anthropocene is really just a ‘pop culture’ phenomenon, or a serious issue of concern for stratigraphers.
Consequentially, these scientific conversations are political in themselves. For many scientists involved, there is a feeling that those advancing the concept are interested more in highlighting the destructive qualities of humans to encourage action on climate change than to define a new scientific term. As such, the Anthropocene once again reveals that science—often claimed to be objective—is driven by, and subject to, personal and political agendas.
Blaming humans, erasing history
But it’s not just because the Anthropocene is politically charged and difficult to pin down that we should think again about using it. There are more troubling issues with the concept that we should be aware of.
First is the concern that the Anthropocene concept ‘naturalizes’ human’s impact on the earth. What does this mean? Essentially, that by saying that this is the ‘epoch of humans’, we are suggesting that all humans are the cause. In other words, that there is something intrinsically bad about humans, where we will always and inevitably leave an imprint on our environment.
At play here is the (very Western) idea that humans are separate from nature, and that either we get back to it or we rise above it. The alternative, as environmental theorist Jim Proctor suggests, is appreciating that the Anthropocene is not ‘because’ of humans. It requires acknowledging that these processes and events are many and they are intertwined—there is no clear separation between nature and culture, between human desires and natural forces.
But what forces should we blame? In all of the climate change research, we are told that it is definitely ‘man-made’. Arguing against this could bring us dangerously close to the denialist road.
It is at this point that we might want to select option (C): ask a historian. James W. Moore, a professor in environmental history, has asked whether we really ought to point the finger at steam engines, atomic bombs, or humanity as a whole. Instead, he argues for a different term altogether: the ‘Capitalocene’: the geological era of capitalism.
In short, it is not because of the steam engine that we saw unprecedented use of fossil fuels—it is rather a system of governance and social organisation that led to the global alterations we are seeing today.
It is strange to see the extent to which these kinds of wider social dynamics are totally obscured in the Anthropocene debate. Many have argued that the invention of fire was the first spark that would inevitably lead to the immense footprint that humans place on the earth. This idea is endorsed by, for example, Paul Crutzen, Mark Lynas, and John R. McNeill.
But to say that the control of fire was a necessary condition for humanity’s ability to burn coal is one thing, to argue that it is the reason why we are currently facing a climate crisis is another. Many Anthropocene proponents tend to reduce complex social and historical processes to simple, reductive explanations. But climate change is not just a matter of humans vs. earth.
Neither is the Anthropocene ‘the new reality’ affecting everyone. Actually, as Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg point out, because of existing power relationships, the ‘new reality’ will be more ‘real’ for some than for others. For most people, it will mean increased hardship and a fight for survival, while for some there will be easy lifeboats.
In this way, Malm and Hornborg suggest that Dipesh Chakrabarty, the scholar embracing the concept from a postcolonial perspective, should rethink his position: climate change is not, in itself, a universal levelling force, but may instead further exacerbate inequalities between the rich and the poor.
This leads to a final issue: the problem of politics. If, as many Anthropocene enthusiasts argue, the concept helps people understand the extent of human involvement in the earth’s systems, it also could lead to a promising political conversation, finally alerting those in power that something needs to be done.
But depending on your personal beliefs, the Anthropocene concept will lead you to different conclusions and calls to action. As Ian Angus from Climate and Capitalism argues, ecomodernists have hijacked the term for their own uses. But perhaps it’s the concepts own vagueness that has allowed it to be co-opted in the first place. It’s likely that this vagueness has played at least a small part in both the struggles of scientists to define the term and its chameleon-like ability to fit anyone’s agenda.
Is the term still useful?
It’s hard to say if the term is, on average, inimical to good debate or if it encourages it. But after considering the twists and turns the concept has taken since its inception until its current use, it’s worth taking the critics seriously.
Yes, ‘Anthropocene’ can be useful to tell the history of life on earth. It can also illustrate the extent to which humans have modified the earth’s systems. It also suggests that we can no longer go back to a ‘pristine’ nature that existed before humans, as cultural critics have long suggested. The term is incredibly appealing from a geological perspective, highlighting the fact that humans have made so deep an impact on the earth’s crust that future inhabitants of the earth, when digging, will come across a layer of soil that has ‘human’ written all over it. This geological fact is a useful tidbit to highlight all of the above.
But it doesn’t necessarily, as many have argued, help challenge the systems that perpetuate climate change. Because it applies to humans as a whole, it does not indicate that our problem is political, resting on the uneven distribution of power. In leaving the starting date of the Anthropocene undefined (some say 50 years ago, others say 400 years ago, yet others say 10,000, still others say 50,000), the word fails to highlight the primary actors of today’s ecological crisis.
Like ‘sustainability’, ‘development’, ‘natural’, or ‘green’, the term is so vague that it can be used by anyone, whether they want to challenge the powers that be, just want to make a quick buck, or score a research grant. While the term can be used to support arguments for action on climate change, it can just as well be used to support digging more oil wells (“oh what the heck, we live in the age of human superiority anyway!”).
You might ask, isn’t this the case with all words? Not true. There are plenty of terms that the climate movement is using that are both powerful and are not so easy to appropriate: degrowth, climate justice, ecocide, ecological debt, and 350ppm are just few.
Unfortunately, the term ‘Anthropocene’ fails to adequately frame the current situation, and in-so-doing allows anyone to co-opt it for their own solutions. While it has certainly got many people talking, it is neither political nor precise, and therefore may not lead to a very good, or challenging, conversation. And right now we need to have challenging conversations.
*Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.
(This invited post comes from Ståle Wig, a Ph.D. fellow at the University of Oslo. In the past Ståle has also run an excellent twopart interview with Paul Farmer here on Savage Minds, so check that out as well. When asked about his interests, Ståle writes that he “never became a proper Africanist, and is currently preparing Ph.D. fieldwork in Cuba.” -R)
On an August afternoon in 2008, around 50 first-year students gathered in a dusty old movie-theatre that was turned into a lecture hall, near the University of Oslo. As we came in to find our seats, an elderly man observed us curiously from a wooden chair under the blackboard. I had seen him before, in our assigned textbook, with his engraved features and unmistakable, soft white moustache.
That day I had come to my first lecture in anthropology. Fredrik Barth had come to give his last.
Much like our new subject, there was a mystique to the man by the blackboard. We were told that he was an influential anthropologist. Some of us had heard that in his golden years, his ideas engaged big shots like Giddens and Bourdieu. That he was at times strongly criticized, but also hailed as a reformer of the study of social life. But as we sat there waiting, none of us knew why, and what all that really meant.
In 1951, 22-year-old Fredrik was invited to join an archaeological expedition to present-day Iraq. When his colleagues had finished digging and went back home with hammers and brushes, he stayed behind chatting to the Kurds living in the area. Thus began a 60-year long career as an ethnographer. In his new book Hylland Eriksen follows Barth’s journey, from the deserts of the Swat valley to the plains South Persia, from coastal Norway to south Sudan. After a pit stop among his academic tribes, he’s off again, to secret initiation cults in the misty highlands of New Guinea, and onward, to Bali, Oman, China and Bhutan. Most anthropologists agree that ethnographic research is the core of our discipline. But none have hammered the point home quite like Barth. It is said that there are three types of anthropologists: Those who have done fieldwork in one place, those who have done fieldwork in two places, and Barth.
The 60s A-team
Based on source material from formerly unpublished interviews, as well as some conversations with the main character, Hylland Eriksen paints a sympathetic portrait of Fredrik Barth. The book also gives life to a cast of characters who shaped British social anthropology, and partly also the discipline as it is known today: The arrogant but razor sharp Edmund Leach, who Barth in his own words «fell in love with» at first sight. Evans-Pritchard, who was his antagonist and likely played a part in refuting his doctorate at the University of Oslo. The radical Gluckman of Manchester, the mighty Fortes of Cambridge, and the gang’s diplomatic middleman, Firth, who stayed friends with all without having to take sides.
It was Firth who ensured that Barth gave the first Nuffield lecture at The Royal Society in Britain in 1965, representing social anthropology for the first time among other sciences. In Hylland Eriksen’s words, the Norwegian stepped onto the podium as the «flag bearer» of British social anthropology. Barth has called it the highlight of his career.
«Study process, not form»
Part of what he argued for at the RSA is today taken for granted. He was skeptical of «deep structures», be they social, cultural or mental, as found in Radcliffe-Brown, Geertz or Levi-Strauss. He was one of the most vocal – but not the first – to depart with the notion of culture as a bounded entity. It was, Barth argued, the processes of social life that should be understood, not its hardened form. What meaningful strategies do people follow? What set of concrete opportunities and limitations influence their behavior? And out of this, what aggregate phenomena emerge?
These ideas lay behind his introduction to Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (1968), which was for years on the top 100 on the social science citation index. Here, Barth proposed that there is no one-to-one relationship between cultural differences and ethnic differences. It seems so obvious today: Ethnic identity does not grow naturally out some shared cultural mass. It is rather the result of a social process of inclusion and exclusion.
For better or worse, Barth didn’t have much interest in «cultural stuff», and the interpretation of symbols, which so excited Geertz. When Barth became head of the Ethnographic Museum in Oslo, a rumor has it that he suggested that they sell the whole collection of artifacts and rather spend the money on sending anthropologists to the field.
For all his inductive reflexes, however, Barth seemed to assume one thing: that most human behavior is based on the same basic logic: we are goal-seeking animals, prone to act as we see best. Hylland Eriksen discusses the critiques that have been leveled at this position. When opponents charge Barth for relying on a formalistic notion of homo economicus, theyare wrong, argues Hylland Eriksen. Barth claims not that humans per definition are egoistic and strategic, but rather that «it is strategic behavior, done by persons in some capacity or another, which generates regularity and social form» (p. 202). People will everywhere try to do the best out of their situation. But what makes up «the best» varies immensely, and is for the anthropologist to figure out.
Hylland Eriksen spends little time on the personal aspects of Barth’s life. The book describes briefly the marriage to anthropologist Unni Wikan, which he claims made Barth «less macho, more ambiguous», and directed his curiosity towards knowledge and rituals rather than economy and politics. It does not offer any wholehearted account of Barth’s inner life. Which is quite all right. What makes the book a good read is not its scant psychologizing, but the way it narrates – with some of the same adventurous spirit as its protagonist – the bewildering breath of an anthropological career.
Lessons to be learnt
The biography argues implicitly that there is something important to learn from Fredrik Barth. I agree. For one, he has a refreshing distaste for academics that align themselves too closely with pre-empirical projects. In a seminar in Lund University in Sweden in the 70s, Barth is said to have exclaimed to a self-proclaimed Marxist student: «You don’t need fieldwork, you have the answers already!»
Barth’s inductive attitude is reflected not only in his texts, but also in his reference lists. In an essay collection that sums up his life’s work, there are only five pages of references, many of which are to his own texts. This of course has to do Barth writing in a different time, with different norms for publishing. Besides, he went to places where few had gone, and there were fewer texts to quote. However, it also serves as a reminder: To be theoretically ambitious is not the same as having an endless reference list. Open a monograph today and one encounters 15 to 30 pages with references to other texts. At times, it seems that empirical patterns are in danger of collapsing under the weight of the quotations of fashionable thinkers. As students we are told to «apply» theory on our materials. Barth would have it another way. He trusted his own observations more than established theory.
His attitude was apparent in more than just writing. In the early 60s Barth turned down a professorate at Columbia University in order to build up a new anthropology department in the peripheral Norwegian town of Bergen. Soon, Bergen was no longer peripheral. Hylland Eriksen observes that a much-used textbook from 1968, written by Marvin Harris, holds the two great power centers in current anthropology to be Paris, under the leadership of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Bergen, under Barth.
Watching and wondering
86-year-old Barth is now retired from academic life. I visited him some months ago to talk about plans for fieldwork in Southern Africa. «Good luck», he replied, and added friendlily: «But don’t become a ‘proper Africanist’. Remember that it is the general questions that push our discipline forward. And those you can find anywhere».
In the end, I think this is what we can learn from an old-timer like Barth: To be more concerned with watching and wondering than with conceptual fashion walking. To rely more on our observations than the concepts of others. And to define the frontier of anthropology not only by reading new books, but by going to new places.
I can still recall how Barth ended that lecture back in 2008. He had spent two hours telling us about the characteristics of anthropological research: The power of understanding people on their own terms; of regarding every new finding as a provocation, and a call to rethink our assumptions and our models. But beyond this it was an open question as to what social anthropology should be in the future. Barth looked at us freshman students and said: «It is for all of you to find out».
Fredrik Barth – An intellectual biography is already available in Norwegian, and will be published in an English translation by Pluto Press in June 2015.
“A society that is always sicker, but always stronger, has everywhere concretely re-created the world as the environment and decor of its illness, a sick planet.”1
The “Anthropocene” has become a fashionable concept in the natural and social sciences.2 It is defined as the “human-dominated geologic epoch,” because in this period of natural history it is Man who is in control of the biogeochemical cycles of the planet.3The result, though, is catastrophic: the disruption of the carbon cycle, for example, leads to a global warming that approaches tipping points that might be irreversible.4 The exponential growth of our freedom and power, that is, of our ability to transform nature, is now translated into a limitation to our freedom, including the destabilization of the very framework of life. It reaches its highest degree with the problem of global warming.5 In this context, it becomes clear that the Anthropocene is a contradictory concept. If the “human-dominated geologic epoch” is leading to a situation in which the existence of humans might be at stake, there is something very problematic with this sort of domination of Nature that reduces it to a “substrate of domination” that should be investigated.6 Its very basic premise, that it is human-dominated, should be challenged — after all there should be something inhuman or objectified in a sort of domination whose outcome might be human extinction.
What is claimed here is that, exactly as for freedom, the Anthropocene is an unfulfilled promise. The same way that freedom in capitalism is constrained by fetishism and class relations — capitalist dynamics are law-bound and beyond the control of individuals; the workers are “free” in the sense that they are not “owned” as slaves, but also in the sense that they are “free” from the means of production, they are deprived of their conditions of existence; the capitalists are “free” insofar as they follow the objectified rules of capital accumulation, otherwise they go bankrupt — so is the social metabolism with Nature. Therefore, I claim that the Anthropocene is the fetishized form of interchange between Man and Nature historically specific to capitalism, the same way as the “invisible hand” is the fetishized form of “freedom” of interchange between men.
Since primitive accumulation, capital caused a metabolic rift between Man and Nature. It was empirically observable at least since the impoverishment of soils caused by the separation between city and countryside in nineteenth-century Great Britain.7 In the twenty-first century, though, this rift is globalized, including critical disruptions of the carbon cycle (global warming), the nitrogen cycle, and the rate of biodiversity loss that implies that humanity is already outside of a “safe operating space” of global environmental conditions.8 The Anthropocene, appears, then, as the globalized disruption of global natural cycles — and, most importantly, not as a (for whatever reason) planned, intentional, and controlled disruption, but as an unintended side effect of social metabolism with Nature that seems to be progressively out of control. It can easily be illustrated with examples. In the case of the carbon cycle, the burning of fossil fuels is carried out as an energy source for industrial and transport systems. Massive coal extraction began in England during the Industrial Revolution so that, with this new mobile energy source, industries could move from near dams to the cities where cheap labor was.9
There was no intention to manipulate the carbon cycle or to cause global warming, or any consciousness of it. The result, though, is that, in the twenty-first century, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is already beyond the safe boundary of 350 ppm for long-term human development. As for the nitrogen cycle, it was disrupted by the industrialization of agriculture and fertilizer production, including the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen with the Haber-Bosch process. Again, there was no intention or plan to control the nitrogen cycle, to cause eutrophication of lakes, or to induce the collapse of ecosystems. Once again, the boundary of sixty-two million tons of nitrogen removed from the atmosphere per year is by far already surpassed, with 150 million tons in 2014.10 A similar story could be told about the rate of biodiversity loss, and the phosphorous cycle and ocean acidification are following the same pattern. The “human-dominated” geologic epoch, in this regard, seems much more a product of chance and unconsciousness than of a proper control of the global material cycles, in spite of Crutzen’s reference to Vernadsky’s and Chardin’s “increasing consciousness and thought” and “world of thought” (noösphere). “They do not know it, but they do it” — this is what Marx said about the fetishized social activity mediated by commodities, and this is the key to a critical understanding of the Anthropocene.11
In fact, Crutzen locates the beginning of the Anthropocene in the design of the steam engine during the Industrial Revolution.12 However, instead of seeing it as a mere empirical observation, the determinants of the “human-dominated” geologic epoch should be conceptually investigated in the capitalist form of social relations. With his analysis of fetishism, Marx showed that capitalism is a social formation in which there is a prevalence of “material relations between persons and social relations between things,” in which “the circulation of money as capital is an end in itself.”13 Capital is the inversion where exchange value directs use, abstract labor directs concrete labor: “a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite,” and its circulation as money and commodities for the sake of accumulation constitutes the “automatic subject,” “self-valorizing value.”14 Locating the Anthropocene in capitalism, therefore, implies an investigation into the relation between the Anthropocene and alienation, or, as further developed by the late Marx, fetishism.15 This is the core of the contradictions of the “human-dominated” geologic epoch. According to Marx, the labor-mediated form of social relations of capitalism acquires a life of its own, independent of the individuals that participate in its constitution, developing into a sort of objective system over and against individuals, and increasingly determines the goals and means of human activity. Alienated labor constitutes a social structure of abstract domination that alienates social ties, in which “starting out as the condottiere of use value, exchange value ended up waging a war that was entirely its own.”16 This structure, though, does not appear to be socially constituted, but natural.17 Value, whose phenomenic form of appearance is money, becomes in itself a form of social organization, a perverted community. This is the opposite of what could be called “social control.”18 A system that becomes quasi-automatic, beyond the conscious control of those involved, and is driven by the compulsion of limitless accumulation as an end-in-itself, necessarily has as a consequence the disruption of the material cycles of the Earth. Calling this “Anthropocene,” though, is clearly imprecise, on one hand, because it is the outcome of a historically specific form of metabolism with Nature, and not of a generic ontological being (antropo), and, on the other hand, because capitalism constitutes a “domination without subject,” that is, in which the subject is not Man (not even a ruling class), but capital.19
It is important to note that fetishism is not a mere illusion that should be deciphered, so that the “real” class and environmental exploitation could be grasped. As Marx himself pointed out, “to the producers…the social relations between their private labors appear as what they are, i.e., as material relations between persons and social relations between things”; “commodity fetishism…is not located in our minds, in the way we (mis)perceive reality, but in our social reality itself.”20 That is why not even all scientific evidence of the ecological disruption, always collected post festum, is able to stop the destructive dynamic of capital, showing to a caricatural degree the uselessness of knowledge without use.21The fact that now “they know very well what they are doing, yet they are doing it” does not refute, but rather confirms that the form of social relations is beyond social control, and merely changing the name of the “Anthropocene” (to “Capitolocene” or whatever) would not solve the underlying social and material contradictions.22 Value-directed social production, that is, production determined by the minimization of socially necessary labor time, results in an objectified mode of material production and social life that can be described by “objective” laws. Time, space, and technology are objectified by the law of value. Of course the agents of the “valorization of value” are human beings, but they perform their social activity as “character [masks],” “personifications of economic relations”: the capitalist is personified capital and the worker is personified labor.23 The fetishistic, self-referential valorization of value through the exploitation of labor (M-C-M’) with its characteristics of limitless expansion and abstraction of material content implies the ecologically disruptive character of capitalism, that is, that in capitalism “the development of productive forces is simultaneously the development of destructive forces.”24 Self-expanding value creates an “industrial snowball system” that is not consciously controlled, “a force independent of any human volition.”25 In this context, it is not a surprise that the disruption of global ecological cycles is presented as the “Anthropocene,” that is, as a concept allusive to a natural process. That Man is presented as a blind geologic force, such as volcanic eruptions or variations in solar radiation, is an expression of the naturalized or fetishized form of social relations that is prevalent in capitalism.
Therefore, the technical structures with which Man carries out its metabolism with Nature is logically marked by fetishism. As Marx noted, “technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.”29 In capitalism, production processes are not designed according to the desires and needs of the producers, ecological or social considerations, but according to the law of value. Taking as an example the world energy systems, it has been demonstrated that there is no technical constraint to a complete solar transition in two or three decades if we consider the use-value of fossil and renewable energies (their energy return and material requirements), that is, it is technically feasible to use fossil energy to build a solar infrastructure to provide world energy in a quantity and quality sufficient for human development.27 This transition, which from the point of view of use-value or material wealth is desirable, necessary, and urgent (due to global warming) is not being carried out, though, because fossil energy is still more prone to capital accumulation, to the valorization of value: capital went to China to exploit cheap labor and cheap coal, causing a strong spike in carbon emissions on the eve of a climate emergency, in a clear display of fetishistic irrationality.28 More generally, the American ecologist Barry Commoner showed that in the twentieth century many synthetic products were developed (such as plastics and fertilizers) that took the place of natural and biodegradable products. However, the new products were not better than the old ones; the transition was only carried out because it was more lucrative to produce them, although they were much more polluting and environmentally harmful — in fact it is shown that these new technologies were the main factor for the increase of pollution in the United States, more than the increase in population or consumption.26
Of course the law of value does not determine only the final products, but also the production processes, which must be constantly intensified both in terms of rhythms and material efficiency, if not in terms of the extension of the working day. Already, in his day, Marx highlighted the “fanaticism that the capitalist shows for economizing on means of production” as they seek the “refuse of production” for reuse and recycling.30 However, under the capitalist form of social production, productivity gains result in a smaller amount of value created per material unit, so that it fosters enlarged material consumption.31 This general tendency is empirically observable in the so-called Jevons Paradox, when efficiency gains eventually result in a rebound effect, increased material production.32 It was first shown by William Stanley Jevons, who presented data that demonstrate that the economy of coal in steam engines during the Industrial Revolution resulted in increased coal consumption.33 What in a conscious social production would be ecologically beneficial (increased efficiency in resource use), in capitalism increases relative surplus-value, and therefore reinforces the destructive limitless accumulation of capital and a technological system that is inappropriate in the first place. It is astonishing that many environmentalists still preach efficiency as an ecological fix, without noticing that the capitalist social form of wealth (value) turns productivity into a destructive force.
Even the way capitalism deals with the problem of pollution is configured by alienation: everything can be discussed, but the mode of production based on commodification and maximization of profits. As production is carried out in competing isolated private production units, socio-technical control is limited to external control, through state regulations that enforce end-of-pipe technologies and market mechanisms. The Kyoto Protocol is the best example of market mechanism. It represents the commodification of the carbon cycle, establishing the equivalence principle, the very form of commodity fetishism, in a sort of stock exchange of carbon. Therefore, it implies a whole process of abstraction of ecological, social, and material qualities to make possible the equivalence of carbon emissions, offsets, and carbon sinks located in very different ecological and social contexts. The abstraction process includes the equalization of emission reductions in different social and ecological contexts, of emissions reductions carried out with different technologies, of carbon of fossil origin and biotic origin, the equalization of different molecules through the concept of “carbon equivalent” and a definition of “forest” that does not include any requirement of biodiversity.34
However, as with any commodity in capitalism, use-value (carbon emissions reductions) is governed by exchange-value. The fetishistic inversion of use-value and exchange-value that characterizes capitalism implies that the effective goal of the whole process of emissions trading comes to be money, not emissions reduction. Empirical examples abound. The trading scheme does not present any incentive for long-term technology transition, but only for short-term financial earnings (time is money). Offsets in practice allow polluters to postpone a technological transition, while the corresponding Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) project probably generates a rebound effect that will foster fossil fuel deployment in developing countries.35 Easy technological reductions, such as burning methane in landfills, allow the continuation of carbon emissions by big corporations. Some industries earned more profits mitigating emissions of HFC-23 than with the commodities they produced, while generating huge amounts of offsets that again allow polluters to keep up with their emissions.36 And the comparison of projects with baseline “would be” scenarios even tragically allows the direct increase of emissions, for example, by financing coal mines that mitigate methane emissions. And more examples could be cited. The fact that global warming is determined by cumulative emissions in any meaningful human time-scale reveals the perverse effects of this exchange-value−driven scheme: delays in emissions reductions today constrain the possibilities of the future.37Again, as could be grasped beforehand with a simple theoretical Marxian critique, exchange-value becomes dominant over use-value, as the allocation of carbon emissions is determined not by socio-ecological criteria, but according to the valorization requirements or by “the optimized allocation of resources” — when the global carbon market hit the record market value of 176 billion dollars in 2011, the World Bank said that “a considerable portion of the trades is primarily motivated by hedging, portfolio adjustments, profit taking, and arbitrage,” typical jargon of financial speculators.38 Kyoto, with its quantitative approach, does not address, and hampers, the qualitative transition that is necessary to avoid a catastrophic climate change, that is, the solar transition. Even though substantial amounts of capital are mobilized with the trading schemes, global carbon emissions continue to increase.
In this scenario, it is increasingly likely that the application of an end-of-pipe technology might be necessary. With the rise of the Welfare State and ecological regulation, a myriad of such technologies were used to mitigate industrial emissions to water, air, and soil — air filters, wastewater treatment plants, etc. The problem is that these technologies can only be applied in particular corporate units if it is feasible in the context of value-driven production, that is, only if it does not jeopardize the profitability of corporations. It happens, though, that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is still too expensive to be used in production units or transport systems. Therefore, what comes to the fore is geoengineering, the ultimate end-of-pipe technology, the technological mitigation of the effects of carbon emissions on a planetary scale, the direct manipulation of world climate itself — with the use of processes such as the emission of aerosols to the stratosphere to reflect solar radiation, or the fertilization of oceans with iron to induce the growth of carbon-sequestering algae.39 Its origins can be traced back to the Vietnam War and Stalinist projects, and one of its first proponents was Edward Teller, the father of the atomic bomb.40 There are huge risks involved in this approach, as the climate system and its subsystems are not fully understood and are subject to non-linearities, tipping points, sudden transitions, and chaos. Besides, climate system inertia implies that global warming is irreversible in the time scale of a millennium, so that such geoengineering techniques would have to be applied for an equal amount of time, what would be a burden for dozens of future generations.41 In case of technological failure of the application of geoengineering, the outcome could be catastrophic, with a sudden climate change.42
Considering its relatively low cost, though, it is likely that capitalism assumes the risk of business as usual in order to preserve its fetishistic quest for profits, keeping geoengineering as a sort of silver bullet of global warming.43 Of course there is the frightening possibility of combining geoengineering and trading schemes, so that geoengineering projects could generate carbon credits in a competitive market. That was the idea of Planktos Inc. in a controversial experiment of ocean fertilization, that alludes to a dystopian future in which world climate is manipulated according to the interests of corporate profits.44 It is clear that capitalist control of pollution, either through market mechanisms or state regulations, resembles the Hegelian Minerva’s Owl: it only (re)acts after the alienated process of production and the general process of social alienation. However, if the core of destructiveness is the fetishistic process itself that is reproduced by trading schemes, and end-of-pipe technologies are subject to failure and complex dynamics that are not rationally accessible to the time scales of human institutions (at least in their current forms), both market and state mechanisms might fail in avoiding a catastrophic climate change.
Future projections of global warming by neoclassical economists reveal the alienated core of the Anthropocene in its very essence. In integrated climate-economic models such as the ones developed by William Nordhaus and Nicholas Stern, the interest rate ultimately determines what is acceptable in terms of atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and its related impacts (coastal inundations, biodiversity loss, agricultural disruption, epidemic outbreaks, etc.), as “cost-benefit analyses” discount future impacts and compound present earnings.45 But as shown by Marx, the interest is the part of the profit that the industrial capitalist pays to the financial capitalist that lent him money-capital in the first place, after the successful valorization process.46 Interest-bearing capital is value that possesses the use-value of creating surplus-value or profit. Therefore, “in interest-bearing capital the capital relationship reaches its most superficial and fetishized form,” “money that produces money,” “self-valorizing value.”47 Interest-bearing capital is the perfect fetishistic representation of capital, as the automatic geometric progression of surplus-value production, a “pure automaton.”48Correspondingly, the determination of future social metabolism with Nature by the interest rate is the ultimate expression of the fetishistic character of this historical form of social metabolism with Nature, that is, of the fetishistic core of the so-called Anthropocene, no matter the magnitude of the interest rate. In capitalism the interest rate is determinant of investments and allocation of resources, and overcoming this is not a matter of moralistically (and irrealistically) using a lower magnitude for the interest rate as Stern does, but of overcoming the capitalist mode of production itself.49
Future scenarios determined by the interest rate ultimately negate history, since only in capitalism the interest rate is socially determining, as it is capital in its purest form. While in capitalism interest-bearing capital becomes totally adapted to the conditions of capitalist production, and fosters it with the development of the credit system, in pre-capitalist social formations, “usury impoverishes the mode of production, cripples the productive forces.”50This is so because in capitalism credit is given in the expectation that it will function as capital, that the borrowed capital will be used to valorize value, to appropriate unpaid “free” labor, while in the Middle Ages the usurer exploited petty producers and peasants working for themselves.51 The determination of future social metabolic relation with Nature by the interest rate is thus an extrapolation of the capitalist mode of production and all of its categories (value, surplus-value, abstract labor, etc.) into the future, the fetishization of history — again, this is in line with the term Anthropocene, that makes reference to an ahistorical Man.
Besides, the sort of cost-benefit analysis that Nordhaus and Stern carry out tends to negate not only history, but matter itself, as the trade-off of the degradation of material resources with the abstract growth implies the absolute exchangeability between different material resources, and hence between abstract wealth (capital) and material wealth, which in practice is a false assumption. For example, the most basic natural synthetic process necessary for life as we know on Earth, photosynthesis, is not technologically substitutable, that is, no amount of exchange-value could replace it.52 Besides, synthesizing the complex interactions and material and energy fluxes that constitute ecosystems of different characteristics and scales, with their own path-dependent natural histories, is not at all a trivial task — material interactions and specificity are exactly what exchange-value abstracts from. What this sort of analysis takes for granted is commodity-form itself, with its common substance (value) that allows the exchange between different material resources in definite amounts, detached from their material and ecological contexts. But it is this very detachment or abstraction that leads to destructiveness. “The dream implied by the capital form is one of utter boundlessness, a fantasy of freedom as the complete liberation from matter, from nature. This ‘dream of capital’ is becoming the nightmare of that from which it strives to free itself — the planet and its inhabitants.”53
Last but not least, capital is also trying to increase its profits exploiting the very anxiety caused by the prospect of the ecological catastrophe, as an extension of the production of subjectivity by the culture industry.54 For example, Starbucks cafés offer their customers a coffee that is a bit more expensive, but claim that part of the money goes to the forest of Congo, poor children in Guatemala, etc. This way, political consciousness is depoliticized in what is called the “Starbucks effect.”55 It can also be seen in commercial advertisements. In one of them, after scenes depicting some kind of undefined natural catastrophe intercalated with scenes of a carpenter building an undefined wooden structure and women in what seems to be a fashion show, the real context is revealed: the models are going to a sort of Noah’s Arc built by the carpenter, so that they can survive the ecological catastrophe. The purpose of the advertisement is finally disclosed: to sell deodorant — “the final fragrance.” The slogan — “Happy end of the world!” — explicitly exploits the ecological collapse to sell commodities.56 Opposition and political will themselves are being seduced to fit into the commodity form, even pervading climate science itself. Some scientists seem to notice this pervasive pressure of economic fetishism over science when they state: “liberate the science from the economics, finance, and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable” or “geoengineering is like a heroin addict finding a new way of cheating his children out of money.”57Decarbonization is always challenged to be “economically feasible.” What is necessary, though, is that a more radical critique come to the fore in the public debate, an explicitly anticapitalist stance that refuses the requirements of capital accumulation in the definition of socio-environmental policies — not the least because it seems it is already impossible to reconcile the limitation of global warming to two degrees Celsius and simultaneously keep “economic growth.”58
It must be highlighted that the fetishization here described and its ecological destructiveness are a historical development, specific to capitalism, and that is why it can be overcome: the social metabolism with nature is not necessarily destructive. Commodity fetishism and labor as the social-mediating category (abstract labor) are historically specific to capitalism, and began with primitive accumulation.59 The Anthropocene as the globalized disruption of Nature is the externalization of alienated labor, its logical material conclusion.60 Overcoming it requires the reappropriation of what has been constituted in alienated form, that is, the decommodification of human social activity or the overcoming of capitalism.61 Technology so reconfigured and socialized would no longer be determined by profitability, but would be the technical translation of new values, and would tend to become art.62 Instead of being determined by the unidimensional valorization of value, social production would be the outcome of a multiplicity of commonly discussed criteria, ranging from social, ecological, aesthetic, and ethical considerations, and beyond — in other words, material wealth should be freed from the value-form. Technologies such as solar energy, microelectronics, and agroecology, for example, could be used to shape a world of abundant material wealth and a conscious social metabolism with Nature — a world with abundant clean renewable energy, abundant free social time due to the highly automated productive forces, and abundant food ecologically produced, under social control.63
Then and only then Man could be in conscious control of planetary material cycles and could use this control for human ends (even if deciding to keep them in their “natural” state). In fact, this means taking the promise of the Anthropocene very seriously, that is, Man should take conscious control of planetary material cycles, extend the terrain of the political hitherto left to the blind mechanics of nature and, in capitalism, to commodity fetishism.64 And this not only because the productive forces developed by capitalism allow it — although up to now we do it without conscious social control — but also because it might be necessary. Civilization is adapted to the Holocenic conditions that prevailed in the last ten thousand years, and we should be prepared to act to preserve these conditions that allow human development, or mitigate sudden changes, because they could be challenged not only by human (fetishized) activity, but also by natural causes, what already occurred many times in natural history (such as in the case of glacial-interglacial cycles triggered by perturbations in Earth’s orbit, or the catastrophic extinction of dinosaurs due to a meteor impact).65 The (fetishized) “invisible hand” and the (fetishized) “Anthropocene” are two faces of the same coin, of the same unconscious socialization, and should both be overcome with the communalization of social activity, that is, the real control of planetary material cycles depends on conscious social control of world production.
It should be emphasized that what is here criticized as “fetishism” is not merely the imprecise naming of the “Anthropocene,” but the form of material interchange itself. And yet what emerges here is a truly utopian perspective, the promise of the realization of the Anthropocene, not as an anthropological constant or a “natural” force, but as a fully historical species-being that consciously controls and gives form to the material conditions of the planet. If, as put by the young Marx, alienated labor alienates Man’s species-being, the liberatory reorganization of social-material interchange would unleash the species potential that is embedded, though socially negated, in the “Anthropocene.”66Geoengineering and advanced technology in general freed from value-form and instrumental reason could be used not only to solve the climate problem, but also, as Adorno wrote, to “help nature to open its eyes,” to help it “on the poor earth to become what perhaps it would like to be.”67 Advanced forces of production imply that Fourier’s poetic utopian vision recalled by Walter Benjamin could be materialized:
cooperative labor would increase efficiency to such an extent that four moons would illuminate the sky at night, the polar ice caps would recede, seawater would no longer taste salty, and beasts of prey would do man’s bidding. All this illustrates a kind of labor which, far from exploiting nature, would help her give birth to the creations that lie dormant in her womb.68
Even the elimination of brutality in nature (predation) and the abolition of slaughterhouses through the production of synthetic meat nowadays seem within theoretical reach with “genetic reprogramming” and stem-cell technology. That goes beyond the wildest Marcusean utopian dreams.69 Of course, this requires a social struggle that subverts the production determined by the valorization of value and frees, first of all, human potential. On the other hand, with business as usual, we are likely to see our material future on Earth being determined by the interest rate, emergency geoengineering, and chance.
I would like to thank Cláudio R. Duarte, Raphael F. Alvarenga, Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, and the anonymous reviewers for the valuable suggestions.BACK
Paul Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415 (2002) 23.BACK
David Archer, The Global Carbon Cycle (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010), and James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009). BACK
Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (New York: Verso, 2010) 333.BACK
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: PhilosophicalFragments. Trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002 ) 6.BACK
Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume III, trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin, 1991 ) 949, and John Bellamy-Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review, 2000). BACK
For a discussion of the continuity between the Marxian concepts of alienation and fetishism, see Lucio Colletti’s introduction in Karl Marx, Marx’s Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (London: Penguin, 1992 ).BACK
Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. D. Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone, 1994 ) 46. See also Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993), and Anselm Jappe, Les aventures de la marchandise: Pour une nouvelle critique de la valeur (Paris: Denoël, 2003): 25-86.BACK
Peter D. Schwartzman and David W. Schwartzman, A Solar Transition Is Possible(London: IPRD, 2011), and Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi, “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030,” Scientific American (Nov. 2009): 58-65BACK
Andreas Malm, “China as Chimney of the World: The Fossil Capital Hypothesis,” Organization and Environment 25:2 (2012): 146-77, and Daniel Cunha, “A todo vapor rumo à catástrofe?” Sinal de Menos 9 (2013): 109-33. BACK
Barry Commoner, “Chapter 8: Population and Affluence” and “Chapter 9: The Technological Flaw,” The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology (New York: Knopf, 1971). BACK
Claus Peter Ortlieb, “A Contradiction between Matter and Form,” Marxism and the Critique of Value, ed. Neil Larsen, Mathias Nilges, Josh Robinson, and Nicholas Brown (Chicago: MCM’, 2014 ) 77-121.BACK
John Bellamy-Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review, 2010): 169-182. BACK
Larry Lohmann, “The Endless Algebra of Climate Markets,” Capitalism Nature Socialism22:4 (2011): 93-116, and Maria Gutiérrez, “Making Markets Out of Thin Air: A Case of Capital Involution,” Antipode 43:3 (2011): 639-61.BACK
Kevin Anderson, “The Inconvenient Truth of Carbon Offsets,” Nature 484 (2012) 7. BACK
Eli Kintisch, Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope—or Worst Nightmare—for Averting Climate Catastrophe (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2010): 77-102. BACK
Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti, and Pierre Friedglinstein, “Irreversible Climate Change Due to Carbon Dioxide Emissions,” PNAS 106:6 (2009): 1704-9. BACK
Victor Brovkin, Vladimir Petoukhov, Martin Claussen, Eva Bauer, David Archer, and Carlo Jaeger, “Geoengineering Climate by Stratospheric Sulfur Injections: Earth System Vulnerability to Technological Failure,” Climatic Change 92 (2009): 243-59. BACK
Scott Barrett, “The Incredible Economics of Geoengineering,” Environmental and Resource Economics 39:1 (2007): 45-54.BACK
Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, “A New Paradigm for Climate Change: How Climate Change Science Is Conducted, Communicated and Translated into Policy Must Be Radically Transformed If ‘Dangerous’ Climate Change Is to Be Averted,” Nature Climate Change 2 (Sept. 2012): 639-40, and Kintisch, Hack 57. BACK
Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, “Beyond ‘Dangerous’ Climate Change: Emission Scenarios for a New World,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369 (2011): 20-44.BACK
Commoner, Closing Circle; Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon, 1964); Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon, 1969). BACK
“Does the discipline of Sociology still have a role to play in the 21st century?To examine where we are at with Sociology in 2015, Philip Dodd is joined by three leading practitioners, the LSE’s Richard Sennett, Frank Furedi from the University of Kent, and Monika Krause at Goldsmiths, as well as the journalist and author, Peter Oborne”
“Does the discipline of Sociology still have a role to play in the 21st century?To examine where we are at with Sociology in 2015, Philip Dodd is joined by three leading practitioners, the LSE’s Richard Sennett, Frank Furedi from the University of Kent, and Monika Krause at Goldsmiths, as well as the journalist and author, Peter Oborne”
I think we can safely leave sociology to the last century without any meaningful loss to our abilities to understand and reform as needed, anyone disagree?
I just came across Massimo Pigliucci’s interesting review of Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin’s book The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. There are more than a few Whiteheadian themes explored throughout the review, including Unger and Smolin’s (U&S) view that time should be read as an abstraction from events and that the “laws” of the universe are better conceptualized as habits or contingent causal connections secured by the ongoingness of those events rather than as eternal, abstract formalisms. (This entangling of laws with phenomena, of events with time, is one of the ways we can think towards an ecological metaphysics.)
But what I am particularly interested in is the short discussion on Platonism and mathematical realism. I sometimes think of mathematical realism as the view that numbers, and thus the abstract formalisms they create, are real, mind-independent entities, and that, given this view, mathematical equations are discovered (i.e., they actually exist in the world) rather than created (i.e., humans made them up to fill this or that pragmatic need). The review makes it clear, though, that this definition doesn’t push things far enough for the mathematical realist. Instead, the mathematical realist argues for not just the mind-independent existence of numbers but also their nature-independence—math as independent not just of all knowers but of all natural phenomena, past, present, or future.
U&S present an alternative to mathematical realisms of this variety that I find compelling and more consistent with the view that laws are habits and that time is an abstraction from events. Here’s the reviewer’s take on U&S’s argument (the review starts with a quote from U&S and then unpacks it a bit):
“The third idea is the selective realism of mathematics. (We use realism here in the sense of relation to the one real natural world, in opposition to what is often described as mathematical Platonism: a belief in the real existence, apart from nature, of mathematical entities.) Now dominant conceptions of what the most basic natural science is and can become have been formed in the context of beliefs about mathematics and of its relation to both science and nature. The laws of nature, the discerning of which has been the supreme object of science, are supposed to be written in the language of mathematics.” (p. xii)
But they are not, because there are no “laws” and because mathematics is a human (very useful) invention, not a mysterious sixth sense capable of probing a deeper reality beyond the empirical. This needs some unpacking, of course. Let me start with mathematics, then move to the issue of natural laws.
I was myself, until recently, intrigued by mathematical Platonism . It is a compelling idea, which makes sense of the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” as Eugene Wigner famously put it . It is a position shared by a good number of mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics. It is based on the strong gut feeling that mathematicians have that they don’t invent mathematical formalisms, they “discover” them, in a way analogous to what empirical scientists do with features of the outside world. It is also supported by an argument analogous to the defense of realism about scientific theories and advanced by Hilary Putnam: it would be nothing short of miraculous, it is suggested, if mathematics were the arbitrary creation of the human mind, and yet time and again it turns out to be spectacularly helpful to scientists .
But there are, of course, equally (more?) powerful counterarguments, which are in part discussed by Unger in the first part of the book. To begin with, the whole thing smells a bit too uncomfortably of mysticism: where, exactly, is this realm of mathematical objects? What is its ontological status? Moreover, and relatedly, how is it that human beings have somehow developed the uncanny ability to access such realm? We know how we can access, however imperfectly and indirectly, the physical world: we evolved a battery of sensorial capabilities to navigate that world in order to survive and reproduce, and science has been a continuous quest for expanding the power of our senses by way of more and more sophisticated instrumentation, to gain access to more and more (and increasingly less relevant to our biological fitness!) aspects of the world.
Indeed, it is precisely this analogy with science that powerfully hints to an alternative, naturalistic interpretation of the (un)reasonable effectiveness of mathematics. Math too started out as a way to do useful things in the world, mostly to count (arithmetics) and to measure up the world and divide it into manageable chunks (geometry). Mathematicians then developed their own (conceptual, as opposed to empirical) tools to understand more and more sophisticated and less immediate aspects of the world, in the process eventually abstracting entirely from such a world in pursuit of internally generated questions (what we today call “pure” mathematics).
U&S do not by any means deny the power and effectiveness of mathematics. But they also remind us that precisely what makes it so useful and general — its abstraction from the particularities of the world, and specifically its inability to deal with temporal asymmetries (mathematical equations in fundamental physics are time-symmetric, and asymmetries have to be imported as externally imposed background conditions) — also makes it subordinate to empirical science when it comes to understanding the one real world.
This empiricist reading of mathematics offers a refreshing respite to the resurgence of a certain Idealism in some continental circles (perhaps most interestingly spearheaded by Quentin Meillassoux). I’ve heard mention a few times now that the various factions squaring off within continental philosophy’s avant garde can be roughly approximated as a renewed encounter between Kantian finitude and Hegelian absolutism. It’s probably a bit too stark of a binary, but there’s a sense in which the stakes of these arguments really do center on the ontological status of mathematics in the natural world. It’s not a direct focus of my own research interests, really, but it’s a fascinating set of questions nonetheless.
Blaming all of humanity for climate change lets capitalism off the hook.
by Andreas Malm
A coal-cleaning plant near Pittsburgh. John Collier / Library of Congress
Last year was the hottest year ever recorded. And yet, the latest figures show that in 2013 the source that provided the most new energy to the world economy wasn’t solar, wind power, or even natural gas or oil, but coal.
The growth in global emissions — from 1 percent a year in the 1990s to 3 percent so far this millennium — is striking. It’s an increase that’s paralleled our growing knowledge of the terrible consequences of fossil fuel usage.
Who’s driving us toward disaster? A radical answer would be the reliance of capitalists on the extraction and use of fossil energy. Some, however, would rather identify other culprits.
The earth has now, we are told, entered “the Anthropocene”: the epoch of humanity. Enormously popular — and accepted even by many Marxist scholars — the Anthropocene concept suggests that humankind is the new geological force transforming the planet beyond recognition, chiefly by burning prodigious amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas.
According to these scholars, such degradation is the result of humans acting out their innate predispositions, the inescapable fate for a planet subjected to humanity’s “business-as-usual.” Indeed, the proponents cannot argue otherwise, for if the dynamics were of a more contingent character, the narrative of an entire species ascending to biospheric supremacy would be difficult to defend.
Their story centers on a classic element: fire. The human species alone can manipulate fire, and therefore it is the one that destroys the climate; when our ancestors learned how to set things ablaze, they lit the fuse of business-as-usual. Here, write prominent climate scientists Michael Raupach and Josep Canadell, was “the essential evolutionary trigger for the Anthropocene,” taking humanity straight to “the discovery that energy could be derived not only from detrital biotic carbon but also from detrital fossil carbon, at first from coal.”
The “primary reason” for current combustion of fossil fuels is that “long before the industrial era, a particular primate species learned how to tap the energy reserves stored in detrital carbon.” My learning to walk at the age of one is the reason for me dancing salsa today; when humanity ignited its first dead tree, it could only lead, one million years later, to burning a barrel of oil.
Or, in the words of Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill: “The mastery of fire by our ancestors provided humankind with a powerful monopolistic tool unavailable to other species, that put us firmly on the long path towards the Anthropocene.” In this narrative, the fossil economy is the creation precisely of humankind, or “the fire-ape, Homo pyrophilus,” as in Mark Lynas’s popularization of Anthropocene thinking, aptly titled The God Species.
Now, the ability to manipulate fire was surely a necessary condition for the commencement of large-scale fossil fuel combustion in Britain in the early nineteenth century. Was it also the cause of it?
The important thing to note here is the logical structure of the Anthropocene narrative: some universal trait of the species must be driving the geological epoch that is its own, or else it would be a matter of some subset of the species. But the story of human nature can come in many forms, both in the Anthropocene genre and in other parts of climate change discourse.
In an essay in the anthologyEngaging with Climate Change, psychoanalyst John Keene offers an original explanation for why humans pollute the planet and refuse to stop. In infancy, the human being discharges waste matter without limits and learns that the caring mother will take away the poo and the wee and clean up the crotch.
As a result, human beings are accustomed to the practice of spoiling their surroundings: “I believe that these repeated encounters contribute to the complementary belief that the planet is an unlimited ‘toilet-mother’, capable of absorbing our toxic products to infinity.”
But where is the evidence for any sort of causal connection between fossil fuel combustion and infant defecation? What about all those generations of people who, up to the nineteenth century, mastered both arts but never voided the carbon deposits of the earth and dumped them into the atmosphere: were they shitters and burners just waiting to realize their full potentials?
It’s easy to poke fun at certain forms of psychoanalysis, but attempts to attribute business-as-usual to the properties of the human species are doomed to vacuity. That which exists always and everywhere cannot explain why a society diverges from all others and develop something new – such as the fossil economy that only emerged some two centuries ago but now has become so entrenched that we recognize it as the only ways human can produce.
As it happens, however, mainstream climate discourse is positively drenched in references to humanity as such, human nature, the human enterprise, humankind as one big villain driving the train. In The God Species, we read: “God’s power is now increasingly being exercised by us. We are the creators of life, but we are also its destroyers.” This is one of the most common tropes in the discourse: we, all of us, you and I, have created this mess together and make it worse each day.
Enter Naomi Klein, who in This Changes Everything expertly lays bare the myriad ways in which capital accumulation, in general, and its neoliberal variant, in particular, pour fuel on the fire now consuming the earth system. Giving short shrift to all the talk of a universal human evildoer, she writes, “We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe — and would benefit the vast majority — are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”
So how do the critics respond? “Klein describes the climate crisis as a confrontation between capitalism and the planet,” philosopher John Gray counters in the Guardian. “It would be be more accurate to describe the crisis as a clash between the expanding demands of humankind and a finite world.”
Gray isn’t alone. This schism is emerging as the great ideological divide in the climate debate, and proponents of the mainstream consensus are fighting back.
In the London Review of Books, Paul Kingsnorth, a British writer who has long argued that the environmental movement should disband and accept total collapse as our destiny, retorts: “Climate change isn’t something that a small group of baddies has foisted on us”; “in the end, we are all implicated.” This, Kingsnorth argues, “is a less palatable message than one which sees a brutal 1 per cent screwing the planet and a noble 99 per cent opposing them, but it is closer to reality.”
Is it closer to reality? Six simple facts demonstrate the opposite.
First, the steam engine is widely, and correctly, seen as the original locomotive of business-as-usual, by which the combustion of coal was first linked to the ever-expanding spiral of capitalist commodity production.
While it is admittedly banal to point out, steam engines were not adopted by some natural-born deputies of the human species. The choice of a prime mover in commodity production could not possibly have been the prerogative of that species, since it presupposed, for a start, the institution of wage labor. It was the owners of the means of production who installed the novel prime mover. A tiny minority even in Britain — all-male, all-white — this class of people comprised an infinitesimal fraction of humanity in the early nineteenth century.
Second, when British imperialists penetrated into northern India around the same time, they stumbled on coal seams that were, to their great amazement, already known to the natives — indeed, the Indians had the basic knowledge of how to dig, burn, and generate heat from coal. And yet they cared nothing for the fuel.
The British, on the other hand, desperately wanted the coal out of the ground — to propel the steamboats by which they transported the treasure and raw materials extracted from the Indian peasants towards the metropolis, and their own surplus of cotton goods towards the inland markets. The problem was, no workers volunteered to step into the mines. Hence the British had to organize a system of indentured labor, forcing farmers into the pits so as to acquire the fuel for the exploitation of India.
Third, most of the twenty-first century emissions explosion originates from the People’s Republic of China. The driver of that explosion is apparent: it is not the growth of the Chinese population, nor its household consumption, nor its public expenditures, but the tremendous expansion of manufacturing industry, implanted in China by foreign capital to extract surplus value out of local labor, perceived around the turn of the millennium as extraordinarily cheap and disciplined.
That shift was part of a global assault on wages and working conditions — workers all over the world being weighed down by the threat of capital’s relocation to their Chinese substitutes, who could only be exploited by means of fossil energy as a necessary material substratum. The ensuing emissions explosion is the atmospheric legacy of class warfare.
Fourth, there is probably no other industry that encounters so much popular opposition wherever it wants to set up shop as the oil and gas industry. As Klein chronicles so well, local communities are in revolt against fracking and pipelines and exploration from Alaska to the Niger Delta, from Greece to Ecuador. But against them stands an interest recently expressed with exemplary clarity by Rex Tillerson, president and CEO of ExxonMobil: “My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do.” This is the spirit of fossil capital incarnate.
Fifth, advanced capitalist states continue relentlessly to enlarge and deepen their fossil infrastructures — building new highways, new airports, new coal-fired power-plants — always attuned to the interests of capital, hardly ever consulting their people on these matters. Only the truly blind intellectual, of the Paul Kingsnorth-type, can believe that “we are all implicated” in such policies.
How many Americans are involved in the decisions to give coal a larger share in the electric power sector, so that the carbon intensity of the US economy rose in 2013? How many Swedes should be blamed for the ramming through of a new highway around Stockholm — the greatest infrastructure project in modern Swedish history — or their government’s assistance to coal power plants in South Africa?
The most extreme illusions about the perfect democracy of the market are required to maintain the notion of “us all” driving the train.
Sixth, and perhaps most obvious: few resources are so unequally consumed as energy. The 19 million inhabitants of New York State alone consume more energy than the 900 million inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa. The difference in energy consumption between a subsistence pastoralist in the Sahel and an average Canadian may easily be larger than 1,000-fold — and that is an average Canadian, not the owner of five houses, three SUVs, and a private airplane.
A single average US citizen emits more than 500 citizens of Ethiopia, Chad, Afghanistan, Mali, or Burundi; how much an average US millionaire emits — and how much more than an average US or Cambodian worker — remains to be counted. But a person’s imprint on the atmosphere varies tremendously depending on where she is born. Humanity, as a result, is far too slender an abstraction to carry the burden of culpability.
Ours is the geological epoch not of humanity, but of capital. Of course, a fossil economy does not necessarily have to be capitalist: the Soviet Union and its satellite states had their own growth mechanisms connected to coal, oil, and gas. They were no less dirty, sooty, or emissions-intensive — perhaps rather more — than their Cold War adversaries. So why focus on capital? What reason is there to delve into the destructiveness of capital, when the Communist states performed at least as abysmally?
In medicine, a similar question would perhaps be, why concentrate research efforts on cancer rather than smallpox? Both can be fatal! But only one still exists. History has closed the parenthesis around the Soviet system, and so we are back at the beginning, where the fossil economy is coextensive with the capitalist mode of production — only now on a global scale.
The Stalinist version deserves its own investigations, and on its own terms (the mechanisms of growth being of their own kind). But we do not live in the Vorkuta coal-mining gulag of the 1930s. Our ecological reality, encompassing us all, is the world founded by steam-powered capital, and there are alternative courses that an environmentally responsible socialism could take. Hence capital, not humanity as such.
Naomi Klein’s success and recent street mobilizations notwithstanding, this remains a fringe view. Climate science, politics, and discourse are constantly couched in the Anthropocene narrative: species-thinking, humanity-bashing, undifferentiated collective self-flagellation, appeal to the general population of consumers to mend their ways and other ideological pirouettes that only serve to conceal the driver.
To portray certain social relations as the natural properties of the species is nothing new. Dehistoricizing, universalizing, eternalizing, and naturalizing a mode of production specific to a certain time and place — these are the classic strategies of ideological legitimation.
They block off any prospect for change. If business-as-usual is the outcome of human nature, how can we even imagine something different? It is perfectly logical that advocates of the Anthropocene and associated ways of thinking either champion false solutions that steer clear of challenging fossil capital — such as geoengineering in the case of Mark Lynas and Paul Crutzen, the inventor of the Anthropocene concept — or preach defeat and despair, as in the case of Kingsnorth.
According to the latter, “it is now clear that stopping climate change is impossible” — and, by the way, building a wind farm is just as bad as opening another coal mine, for both desecrate the landscape.
Without antagonism, there can never be any change in human societies. Species-thinking on climate change only induces paralysis. If everyone is to blame, then no one is.
Surveys are the most dangerous research tool — misunderstood and misused. They frequently straddle the qualitative and quantitative, and at their worst represent the worst of both.
In tort law the attractive nuisance doctrine refers to a hazardous object likely to attract those who are unable to appreciate the risk posed by the object. In the world of design research, surveys can be just such a nuisance.
Easy Feels True
It is too easy to run a survey. That is why surveys are so dangerous. They are so easy to create and so easy to distribute, and the results are so easy to tally. And our poor human brains are such that information that is easier for us to process and comprehend feels more true. This is our cognitive bias. This ease makes survey results feel true and valid, no matter how false and misleading. And that ease is hard to argue with.
A lot of important decisions are made based on surveys. When faced with a choice, or a group of disparate opinions, running a survey can feel like the most efficient way to find a direction or to settle arguments (and to shirk responsibility for the outcome). Which feature should we build next? We can’t decide ourselves, so let’s run a survey. What should we call our product? We can’t decide ourselves, so let’s run a survey.
Easy Feels Right
The problem posed by this ease is that other ways of finding an answer that seem more difficult get shut out. Talking to real people and analyzing the results? That sounds time consuming and messy and hard. Coming up with a set of questions and blasting it out to thousands of people gets you quantifiable responses with no human contact. Easy!
In my opinion it’s much much harder to write a good survey than to conduct good qualitative user research. Given a decently representative research participant, you could sit down, shut up, turn on the recorder, and get good data just by letting them talk. (The screening process that gets you that participant is a topic for another day.) But if you write bad survey questions, you get bad data at scale with no chance of recovery. This is why I completely sidestepped surveys in writing Just Enough Research.
What makes a survey bad? If the data you get back isn’t actually useful input to the decision you need to make or if doesn’t reflect reality, that is a bad survey. This could happen if respondents didn’t give true answers, or if the questions are impossible to answer truthfully, or if the questions don’t map to the information you need, or if you ask leading or confusing questions.
Often asking a question directly is the worst way to get a true and useful answer to that question. Because humans.
Bad Surveys Don’t Smell
A bad survey won’t tell you it’s bad. It’s actually really hard to find out that a bad survey is bad — or to tell whether you have written a good or bad set of questions. Bad code will have bugs. A bad interface design will fail a usability test. It’s possible to tell whether you are having a bad user interview right away. Feedback from a bad survey can only come in the form of a second source of information contradicting your analysis of the survey results.
Most seductively, surveys yield responses that are easy to count and counting things feels so certain and objective and truthful.
Even if you are counting lies.
And once a statistic gets out — such as “75% of users surveyed said that they love videos that autoplay on page load” —that simple “fact” will burrow into the brains of decision-makers and set up shop.
From time to time, people write to me with their questions about research. Usually these questions are more about politics than methodologies. A while back this showed up in my inbox:
“Direct interaction with users is prohibited by my organization, but I have been allowed to conduct a simple survey by email to identify usability issues.”
Tears, tears of sympathy and frustration streamed down my face. This is so emblematic, so typical, so counterproductive. The rest of the question was of course, “What do I do?”
User research and usability are about observed human behavior. The way to identify usability issues is to usability test. I mean, if you need to maintain a sterile barrier between your staff and your customers, at least use usertesting.com. The allowable solution is like using surveys as a way to pass notes through a wall, between the designers and the actual users. This doesn’t increase empathy.
Too many organizations treat direct user research like a breach of protocol. I understand that there are very sensitive situations, often involving health data or financial data. But you can do user research and never interact with actual customers. If you actually care about getting real data rather than covering some corporate ass, you can recruit people who are a behavioral match for the target and never reveal your identity.
A survey is a survey. A survey shouldn’t be a fallback for when you can’t do the right type of research.
Sometimes we treat data gathering like a child in a fairy tale who has been sent out to gather mushrooms for dinner. It’s getting late and the mushrooms are far away on the other side of the river. And you don’t want to get your feet wet. But look, there are all these rocks right here. The rocks look kind of like mushrooms. So maybe no one will notice. And then you’re all sitting around the table pretending you’re eating mushroom soup and crunching on rocks.
A lot of people in a lot of conference rooms are pretending that the easiest way to gather data is the most useful. And choking down the results.
Customer Satisfaction Is A Lie
A popular topic for surveys is “satisfaction.” Customer satisfaction has become the most widely used metric in companies’ efforts to measure and manage customer loyalty.
A customer satisfaction score is an abstraction, and an inaccurate one. According to the MIT Sloan Management Review, changes in customers’ satisfaction levels explain less than 1% of the variation in changes in their share of spending in a given category. Now, 1% is statistically significant, but not huge.
And Bloomberg Businessweek wrote that “Customer-service scores have no relevance to stock market returns…the most-hated companies perform better than their beloved peers.” So much of the evidence indicates this is just not a meaningful business metric, rather a very satisfying one to measure.
And now, a new company has made a business out of helping businesses with websites quantify a fuzzy, possibly meaningless metric.
“My boss is a convert to Foresee. She was apparently very skeptical of it at first, but she’s a very analytical person and was converted by its promise of being able to quantify unquantifiable data — like ‘satisfaction’.”
This is another cry for help I received not too long ago.
The boss in question is “a very analytical person.” This means that she is a person with a bias towards quantitative data. The designer who wrote to me was concerned about the potential of pop-up surveys to wreck the very customer experience they were trying to measure.
There’s a whole industry based on customer satisfaction. And when there is an industry that makes money from the existence of a metric, that makes me skeptical of a metric. Because as a customer, I find this a fairly unsatisfying use of space.
Here is a Foresee customer satisfaction survey (NOT for my correspondent’s employer). These are the questions that sounded good to ask, and that seem to map to best practices.
But this is complete hogwash.
Rate the options available for navigating? What does that mean? What actual business success metric does that map to. Rate the number of clicks–on a ten point scale? I couldn’t do that. I suspect many people choose the number of clicks they remember rather than a rating.
And accuracy of information? How is a site user not currently operating in god mode supposed to rate how accurate the information is? What does a “7″ for information accuracy even mean? None of this speaks to what the website is actually for or how actual humans think or make decisions.
And, most importantly, the sleight of hand here is that these customer satisfaction questions are qualitative questions presented in a quantitative style. This is some customer research alchemy right here. So, you are counting on the uncountable while the folks selling these surveys are counting their money. Enjoy your phlogiston.
I am not advising anyone to run a jerk company with terrible service. I want everyone making products to make great products, and to know which things to measure in order to do that.
I want everyone to see customer loyalty for what it is — habit. And to be more successful creating loyalty, you need to measure the things that build habit.
Approach with Caution
When you are choosing research methods, and are considering surveys, there is one key question you need to answer for yourself:
Will the people I’m surveying be willing and able to provide a truthful answer to my question?
And as I say again and again, and will never tire of repeating, never ask people what they like or don’t like. Liking is a reported mental state and that doesn’t necessarily correspond to any behavior.
Avoid asking people to remember anything further back than a few days. I mean, we’ve all been listening to Serial, right? People are lazy forgetful creatures of habit. If you ask about something that happened too far back in time, you are going to get a low quality answer.
And especially, never ask people to make a prediction of future behavior. They will make that prediction based on wishful thinking or social desireability. And this is the most popular survey question of all, I think:
How likely are you to purchase the thing I am selling in the next 6 months?
No one can answer that. At best you could get 1)Possibly 2)Not at all.
So, yeah, surveys are great because you can quantify the results.
But you have to ask, what are you quantifying? Is it an actual quantity of something, e.g. how many, how often — or is it a stealth quality like appeal, ease, or appropriateness, trying to pass itself off as something measurable?
In order to make any sort of decisions, and to gather information to inform decisions, the first thing you have to do is define success. You cannot derive that definition from a bunch of numbers.
To write a good survey. You need to be very clear on what you want to know and why a survey is the right way to get that information. And then you have to write very clear questions.
If you are using a survey to ask for qualitative information be clear about that and know that you’ll be getting thin information with no context. You won’t be able to probe into the all important “why” behind a response.
If you are treating a survey like a quantitative input, you can only ask questions that the respondents can be relied on to count. You must be honest about the type of data you are able to collect, or don’t bother.
And stay away from those weird 10-point scales. They do not reflect reality.
How to put together a good survey is a topic worthy of a book, or a graduate degree. Right here, I just want to get you to swear you aren’t going to be casual about them if you are going to be basing important decisions on them.
“At its core, all business is about making bets on human behavior.”
— Ben Wiseman, Wall Street Journal
The whole reason to bother going to the trouble of gathering information to inform decisions is that ultimately you want those decisions to lead to some sort of measurable success.
Making bets based on insights from observed human behavior can be far more effective that basing bets on bad surveys. So go forth, be better, and be careful about your data gathering. The most measurable data might not be the most valuable.