Writing Planetary Ethnographies

by Kathleen M. Sullivan, California State University Los Angeles

Reviewed in this Essay:

Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa, by Julie Livingston (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).

Red Gold: The Managed Extinction of the Giant Bluefin Tuna, by Jennifer E. Telesca (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020).

Dispossession and The Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea, by Paige West (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

How can ethnographers, with their empirical focus on specific groups of people and localities and analytical tools tuned to the tempos of lived time, encompass changing planetary systems? Can ethnographers help their readers to think more deeply, broadly, and, perhaps, differently about the social, economic, legal and political practices now inscribed across our unequally shared planet, as these practices remake on an unprecedented scale the very planetary systems that humans depend upon? Can the implications of these practices be interrogated with unwavering attention to the social injustices, inequalities, greed, hopes, and law-saturated practices that shape contemporary human social relations and human-nonhuman relations?

But then, planet-spanning human social practices are not a new target for anthropological analysis. For a long time, such scales and stakes have been at issue in anthropological approaches to capitalism, colonialism, post-colonial movements, and migration, and in ethnographic attention to the relations between economic, legal, and religious registers. Nevertheless, the books considered in this review offer us another relevant analytical path as we begin to grapple in earnest with the impending effects of climate change on a planetary scale.

Livingston, West, and Telesca suggest a fresh tack by taking up the significant challenge of representation (legal, mediated, and ethnographic) in our efforts to understand the planetary context. Each book tackles head-on the challenge of interrogating one’s own representational practices, while also interrogating the circulation of representations that contribute to planetary systems change. Prioritizing this twofold representational challenge, these three books indicate how we might think about planetary systems through an ethnographic lens. Each book illuminates the myriad of ways in which capitalism (in its many forms) lies at the heart of our emerging concerns regarding planetary systems, and how planetary change is a function of the materiality of representational practices. Livingston explores practices of self-devouring growth, West explores practices of dispossession, and Telesca explores the geoeconomics of international commercial ocean fisheries management. Each author, in fact, demands that their audiences, particularly from the global North, take notice of their largely unacknowledged commitment to fostering capitalist economies of planetary change.

Julie Livingston tells three wonderfully poetic tales about a process of “self-devouring growth,” which is firmly situated in insatiable consumption practices and a society-wide commitment to economic growth. She uses the literary form of the parable. The main character of her parables is Botswana, where Livingston studies public health. She also liberally sprinkles in related examples from New York, Flint, Fukushima Daiichi, California, England, Zimbabwe, and the Aral Sea in order to ground her readers in the planetary breadth and stretch of self-devouring growth. Her choice of Botswana as protagonist is justified by its own remarkable recent history, demonstrating the contradictory positive and negative sides of self-devouring growth. Livingston situates her nation-protagonist (and readers) amidst complicated twists and turns, including the ways in which comfortable middle and upper-middle class living comes at steep, if momentarily externalized, costs.

The first parable concerns rain as an icon of social life realized in the political technologies of freshwater distribution systems, in persistent droughts and floods, in urban and rural water consumption, and in the thirsty water-consuming activities of diamond mining and cattle ranching, which at the same time fund a host of state-provided services. Water in Botswana, she argues, has always been a matter of public health but its “political modality” has shifted from that of “dynamic moral economy” to that of “calculable element of population management” (p. 12-13), from “collective self-agreement” to “five year plan” (p. 21), from the collective to the individual. These multi-pronged social shifts prove to be a recurring pattern in all three parables.

The second parable, about food, explores the uneven transformation of cattle as they are commodified. Cattle are being changed from subjects in a small-scale, kin-based form of pastoralism, in which they are revered as they contribute to family subsistence, hierarchical exchanges, intergenerational bonding and reproduction, and meaningful social life, into objects, mere cuts of beef in an ever-more technologically sophisticated industrialized beef export production sector. The beef export sector has contributed to economic and food security in Botswana, even as it is also undermining the extant property regime tied to pastoralism. The growth of this export sector has flipped ideas about success and failure upside down, radically changed diets, reinforced colonially-introduced racialized and class hierarchies, and entangled Botswana in its own scheme of exporting chilled boneless beef in exchange for cheap processed meat, all while impacting ground water, air, and soils upon which both beef agribusiness and local communities depend.

The third parable concerns movement, in particular the kinds of movement fostered by roads, which are themselves consumers of water, along with sand and petroleum. Roads are sign and symptom of modernity, paragon of infrastructure conveying self-devouring growth along with its good and bad effects (increased mobility for people and commodities, traffic crashes, vehicle manufacturing, used car imports, increased privatization of the public good, credit and borrowing). Livingston’s parables reveal the ways in which one kind of growth accretes upon another, linking rain, beef, and roads in Botswana with rains, roads, and consumption and production practices elsewhere on the planet. The linkages reinforce each other, tug at each other, even as what Livingston calls alternative ecologies suggest possible futures not yet realized. These parables, Livingston argues, hold lessons about the planetary implications of our drive toward self-devouring growth that are every bit as relevant for her readers as for the residents of Gaborone, Botswana.

Paige West’s engaging book tells the story of dispossession as it unfolds across Papua New Guinea. Teasing apart the complex relations between representational practices in a wide variety of sites —in the pages of surfer magazines, during vacation surfing trips, capacity-building workshops, conservation wild life management efforts, a university lunch reception in the US—West reveals a shared pattern. West argues that dispossession through representational practices provides the foundation for material dispossession. Papua New Guinea has much to engage the desires of international surfers, corporate officers, bankers, NGO workers, and scientists, and there is much more than merely wealth to accumulate through dispossession, including authority, reputation, identity, freedom, control, discoveries, rare animals, and experiences. Representational practices of dispossession are not limited to justifications and rationales, although those do play a role. West asserts that representations of Papua New Guinea as a particular kind of place, and people in Papua New Guinea as a particular kind of people, create avenues for ongoing practices of dispossession. For settler society visitors, Papua New Guinea remains frontier and terra nullius.

West’s first chapter examines international surf tourists’ identity-making projects as they descend on coastal surfing spots. Her second concerns notions of capacity and capacity-building exercises that discursively situate various Indigenous Peoples in Papua New Guinea, and their organizations, communities, and businesses, as unable to manage their own money and resources properly, because they are construed —echoing international surfing tourists’ notions— as being pre-modern. West argues that this purported lack of capacity is used to justify lower wages for national experts and scientists, who conduct much of the actual work, while situating control over large funded conservation projects in the hands of big international NGOs, usurping financial, representational, biological, authoritative, and property sovereignty from Papua New Guineans. Her next chapter is set in Maimafu, where a large now defunct wildlife management area encroached on Gimi and Pawaia Peoples’ lands. She explores the ways in which biodiversity has become yet another vehicle of dispossession, one rooted in past colonizers’ will to discover and possess, a will that also characterizes contemporary surf tourists’ quest for pristine surf breaks.

Throughout her book, West weaves in concrete ethnographic examples from the standpoint of various people of Papua New Guinea (a young New Ireland surfer, market women, national scientists, Unavisa Gimi speakers), using these examples to acquaint her readers with experiences of being on the receiving end of settler society visitors’ exclusionary assumptions and practices, as well as to introduce her readers to Indigenous Peoples’ social relations, property regimes, ontological, epistemological, and worlding practices. West argues that each time settler society visitors discursively and materially take what they want, they re-enact their (civilized) part in an enduring Euro-American-Australian settler imaginary grounded in a social evolutionary hierarchical model. Each time dispossession plays out in venues both inside and outside of Papua New Guinea, the sovereignty and autonomy of the Indigenous Peoples of Papua New Guinea are jeopardized.

West also engages with anthropology’s disciplinary role in practices of dispossession throughout her book, and in her last chapter she critically assesses the ontological turn in anthropology for failing to fully engage with the ongoing legacy of colonialism and dispossession. West, then, rethinks the political ecology approach to conservation interventions through her understanding of Gimi philosophies of life and dispossession, relaying stories told to her and telling one of her own making. As does Livingston, West provides her readers with ample opportunities to find something with which they can identify, while suggesting that perhaps readers can gain critical perspective on their own practices contributing to dispossession. Both Livingston and West have spent years working in their respective field sites and their books elegantly convey their deep ethnographic insights. Their writing styles, although quite different, are graceful and mesmerizing, and will entice both seasoned readers and undergraduates.

Jennifer Telesca, in her first ethnographic monograph, writes with exuberance and determination as she examines the geoeconomics of Atlantic Bluefin tuna capture fisheries management. Using Atlantic Bluefin tuna as her ethnographic subject, Telesca follows the fish on her breathtaking travels across the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and through a long history of capture by human societies. Situating a tuna at the center of her ethnography, Telesca aims to immerse her reader in a planet spanning human-nonhuman system, in which a sentient creature has now been reduced to a luxury commodity through high seas multilateral treaty processes. Atlantic Bluefin tuna have shifted in recent decades from high value sport fishing trophy with little food value to high value sushi fish, this new form of value arising from the development of mass luxury food markets.

Since 1969, Atlantic Bluefin tuna catches have been regulated through the very powerful International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Telesca provides a useful social history of ICCAT, arguing that coordinated international regulation of legal commercial Atlantic Bluefin tuna catches arose as a predatory management regime. This form of “sustainability” has been about sustaining capitalist extraction, economic profit, member state influence in international politics, and bureaucratic careers inside and outside ICCAT, rather than about sustaining tuna. Telesca details the influence of changing international treaty agreements, member state laws, and the division of the Atlantic into eastern and western Bluefin tuna stocks on the evolution of ICCAT and its regulatory efforts. Telesca follows the efforts of key groups converging at ICCAT meetings during 2010, 2011, and 2012, including ICCAT staff, ICCAT fisheries scientists, member state representatives, and expert advisory committees, as well as environmentalists and fisheries corporate executives (although they are more of a shadow presence). Dynamic ICCAT meetings determine mean sustainable yield, total allowable catch, and member states’ assigned shares of that catch. In the main meeting room, fisheries scientists present data driven models and analyses, while outside, environmentalists draw international media attention to the proceedings and the plight of Atlantic Bluefin tuna. Telesca argues that ICCAT’s management of commercial tuna harvesting is helping push Atlantic Bluefin tuna close to the edge of extinction, as evidenced by the consistently smaller sized tunas now captured, an observation hidden by the summary statistics of the fisheries scientists, which represent fish as metric tons. According to Telesca, the drive toward extinction is not simply a function of raw extraction, but rather arises out of a complex imbrication of governance, catch targets, harvesting practices, and market developments.

Livingston, West, and Telesca urge ethnographers to reconfigure our practices of storytelling, with an eye toward how we might contribute to emerging understandings of changing planetary systems, and how we might contribute to mitigating the worst of the impending effects. West challenges us to apply other philosophies of worlding in making our analyses, asking “us to imagine what writing ethnography or history might look like if we relied less on Euro-American-Australian forms of narration and more on other forms of narration” (p. 115). Livingston challenges disciplinary conventions by writing in parables, while Telesca treats Bluefin tunas as agential co-producers of the Atlantic Ocean that they share with people.

These authors’ finely tuned attentions to representational practices reveal two intrinsic dimensions of contemporary planetary systems change. These two dimensions are closely related, and each author ties them together at strategic points.

First, they each reveal persistent patterns of social practice shared across many sites, patterns formed by capitalist cultural logics, including governance practices and laws that sustain and encourage capitalist economic growth. Although deploying different narrative styles, all three interrogate the intertwined representational and economic relations that lie at the heart of current systemic shifts in our planetary systems —global warming, sea level rise, melting polar ice-caps, the sixth mass extinction. In their different ways, they each remind us that capitalist cultural forms continue to drive much contemporary production, while also driving toward endlessly expanding consumption and waste, pollution, destructive building and drilling, and the annihilation of other species. These authors remind us that these cultural practices impinge on people who have been either direct or indirect targets of development, conservation, and missionizing for a long time. A finite series of general patterns (dispossession, self-devouring growth) reassert themselves in different guises and cloak themselves in different rationales, knitting together what were once disparate sites across the globe, and in turn enhancing the patterns, rather than curtailing them. They prod us to examine the kinds of sustainability that we are actually putting into practice, reminding us that there is no escaping the economic underpinnings of our quotidian practices, and that we can address the ecological implications of our practices only by first acknowledging and accounting for them in all of their facets.

Second, each of these books explores how different groups of people understand and live human-nonhuman relations, making clear that human relations with other animals, plants, forests, oceans, and climate also entail human social relations. These entanglements are instantiated through a number of different ontological and epistemological framings, some of which are ecologies that recognize nonhuman beings and systems as having more than just the very truncated role of commodity. The authors suggest that embracing human-nonhuman relations as entailing something other than the commodity form, may in turn point to more equitable ways of imagining changing our socialities alongside the changing planetary systems.

The stories we tell ourselves matter. As the authors remind their readers, the stories we keep telling ourselves about our consumption practices —be that of water, beef, tourist fantasies, scientific discoveries, sushi, or sport trophy fish—necessarily involve other stories that we tell ourselves about the possibility of sustaining our current economic expansion and comfortable lifestyles while also being able to sustain the necessary stability in the planetary systems upon which everyone depends. These stories are studies in contradictions. Amitav Ghosh, in The Great Derangement, argues that the pervasive notion of a stable and predictable world is an artifact of the stories we in the global North have been telling ourselves for quite some time. “Sustainable” capitalism has already helped engender global system changes with which people are just beginning to grapple, and these incorporate humanly-made and planetary systems: a frozen power grid minutes from catastrophic failure, increasing numbers of very strong Category 5 hurricanes (there is no Category 6 yet), droughts that impact food production and freshwater availability for years at a time, wildfires that burn millions of acres in just weeks. Storytelling matters, because people share life, imaginings, and knowledge through stories; people learn from the stories they listen to and tell. Ghosh, in urging literary and artistic producers to examine the ways in which climate change is framed, suggests that among the fundamental challenges we will face will be those to our notions of dignity and social justice. Livingston, West, and Telesca suggest that there is a pressing need for a hard look at our own anthropological and ethnographic stories and the ways we tell them, so that we might resituate ourselves in relation to the systems with which we are co-producing this planet —a planet upon which everyone depends. The stories ethnographers tell matter, particularly if people are to think differently about the connections between economic and representational practices and their effects. Ethnographically informed stories illuminate often taken-for-granted assumptions that shape social practices, and can suggest fresh ways that these practices and their assumptions might be understood, and perhaps recast.

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