Managing the Anthropocene

In this age of the Anthropocene natural resource management is incredibly important. There currently exists a true human dominance over the biosphere. This dominance effects a range of topics from human health to the politics we address. Our dominance raises an important question: How, and perhaps more importantly, by whom, did this dominance arise and how, and by whom, should these ever important issues be addressed?

This ecological challenge requires constant revision of natural resource management/policy. If we are honest about the limitations of our natural ecosystems, however, and implement policies that best fit the needs, health and demands of an informed society and its natural heritage, then we also need to take conversations about the nature of governance very seriously. What is governance, where should its power lie, how can its influence best support a healthy, sustainable, ordered biosphere?

Arun Agrawal, in his book Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects, offers key insight to the nature of governance, landscapes and place while offering a promising direction natural resource management can take. In his book, Agrawal introduces us to Komoan villagers who reside in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. Their natural heritage is enriched by tremendous valleys and expansive rivers – the product of tectonic forces that continue to mold the region. Of incredible importance to the villagers is the bio-regions forests tracts. The ecosystem services the Kumoan forests offer the villagers are immeasurable. These forest tracts were, at one time, very beneficial to the colonial British state as well. Often at odds, the Kumoan people and the British state had very different ideas as to how the forests should be managed. Agrawal opens his books with a discussion of intense conflict in the region. As his book progresses, it becomes a story of decentralization, community empowerment and best management practices. Agrawal provides readers with a historical overview of natural resource management in the Kumoan region and explains the emergence of collaborative management, environmental identity, sense of place and changes in the relationship between the state and the local.

Villagers in the Kumoan region of northern India set ablaze hundreds of acres of forest in the early 1920’s. The fires were set in protest of colonial British rule – particularly the rules and regulations placed on the Kumoan people by the British state that served to “protect” and manage the local environment. The villagers used forests at the time to construct their communities, for fodder and other forms of subsistence. The British state saw extensive military resources – specifically a vast forest that could be utilized for expanding the navy. What followed the forests fires and initial protests was a period of decentralization. This decentralization allowed the Kumoan villagers to conserve their forests very carefully – a total transformation from the age of protest.

Agrawal’s investigation offers support for an ongoing trend in natural resource management: Adaptive Collaboration. Adding to the themes of Elinor Ostrom, Agrawal builds his premise that community based forestry is not only possible, but more sustainable than centralized governance. His book is a story of transition, from centralized policy making to adaptive collaboration – from state to village.  This story holds rather large implications for traditional leadership. The success of decentralised policies can be used as an argument to promote the redistribution of power, to rethink the common perception of authority, and perhaps most importantly, to rethink property – the success of decentralised policy making (not only in the Kumoan) builds the case for public, as opposed to state, ownership of the commons. This idea of collaborative governance ultimately empowers the populace, it takes power from authority and promotes the concept of self governance.

Agrawal personally visited forty villages in the Kumoan region. At each village he assessed the health of surrounding forests, conducted interviews with locals and investigated their historical records. His book is an interpretation of the data he gathered. What he illustrates in this book is how decentralized, adaptive, and collaborative strategies in natural resource management change the relationships between states and the local stakeholders within a community as well as the individuals connection to place. Feeding off of Foucault’s “Governmentality,” Agrawal investigates how decentralization efforts have better protected forests. In this book, Environmentality is the theme – as villagers become more empowered and knowledgable they are able to produce policies that best conserved their natural resources. It is a remarkable success story of decentralized natural resource management.

So what exactly is Environmentality? This concept, put forth by Agrawal, is a new way to understand environmental politics. Agrawal’s concept suggests the differences and changes in knowledge, politics, institutional arrangements and human subjectivity concerning the environment “are of a piece and are best understood when considered together.” Concomitant study of these changes then helps extend contributions from three types of interdisciplinary environmentalists scholarship – the three pieces of environmentality: common property, political ecology and feminist environmentalism. Environmentality, he writes, is a unique way to think about environmental politics:

(1) The formation of new expert knowledges;
(2) the nature of power, which is the root of efforts to regulate social practice;
(3) the type of institutions and regulatory practices that exist in a mutually productive relationship with social and ecological practices and can be seen as the historical expressions of contigent political relationships; and
(4) the behaviors that regulations seek to change, which go hand in hand with the process of self-formation and struggles between expert or authority-based regulation and situated practices.

In short, the idea of environmentality allows Agrawal to examine how environmental governance has changed over time in the Kumoan while providing a framework for analysing the problems with centralized governance and the success of decentralized decision making. Instead of “Governmentality” (molding human beings to the wishes of the state), “Environmentality” (human beings collectively deciding to better manage natural resources based on environmental pressures) produced a conservation ethic among the people of the Kumoan. It is communal natural resource management, as opposed to centralized authority, that is achieving sustainable forestry practices.

Agrawal builds his case by first investigating the relationship between power, knowledge and nature. He then investigates the technologies of government and the results of decentralization. In his book, Agrawal builds the case for decentralization noting how destructive centralized control was to the environment (after all, colonial Britiain wanted strict management of forests so they would have resources to exploit for weapons of war). In the opening passages it is clear the British state used the DAD approach to resource management – Decide, Announce, Defend (or perhaps more appropriate: Enforce). The state initially viewed the forests and land for exploitation. It is this view of forest, and the corresponding regulation of Kumoan villagers that led to massive protests and revolt across the region – cumulating in the large, expansive forest fires.

The state’s vision of the forests evolved over the decades in response to village uprisings. Moving from resources for exploitation, there emerged an idea among officials that foresters should view extensive woodlands as commodities and manage them as such. At this time forestry officials continued to insist that the state was needed for proper control and conservation of forests. The DAD approach, though adjusted, was still in full swing after initial uprisings. Government officials continued to work to expand their authority. Conflict and dissent, coupled with internal struggles, soon become more political fodder, however, for the Kumoan villagers. The continued resistance forced Administrators to increase representation, collaboration and policies of decentralization.

Agrawal’s book is a great example of how the cost of bureaucratic control always falls on locals. This burden forces democratic change. The regulatory mechanisms separated the Kumoan villagers from their natural heritage. The burdens of regulation and revolt lead to a decline in ecological health which manifested itself throughout the population. As a result, the Kumoan villagers began to organize – the principles of democracy and the ideas of self governance lead to the development of forest councils. It is during this stage of transition, from revolt to organization, that the state was forced into ceding its power. The entire relationship between the state and community was transformed – there were more channels for the flow of power. This empowerment caused stakeholder participation to increase and best management practices shifted from the centralized state to communities.

The process of decentralization changed how Kumoan’s viewed the forest. The woodlands were now in their control. This responsibility, the reclaiming of natural heritage, generated a needed concern for conservation. Best sustainability practices flourished simply because the Komoans were empowered – those in an environment, as opposed to a displaced authority, better understand human impacts to said environment and how subsistence is bettered/tied to natural resources. This makes sense – humans are part of nature, but nature continues to exist outside of human civilization. It is reckless and ill-informed human actions that pose a great risk to natural areas. The conclusion of many, that in order to protect our ecology there must be a strong government to over see our natural areas, is refuted in this book. The state saw the forest as a commodity, first and foremost, but the empowered Kumoan’s viewed it as their natural heritage. It was decentralization, not authority, that produced sustainable forest management.  The anarchist, who is usually fighting on the front lines for the environment, knows the idea of state management has disastrous consequences. Anarchists will find an ally (somewhat) in Agrawal. Self-governance and the co-operative nature of human beings is celebrated in this text, though Agrawal, much like his mentor Ostrom, never discusses absolute liberty.

None the less, Agrawal’s book echos a theme prevalent everywhere today. As natural resource management has evolved over the years, traditional views of the environment and human relationships between nature and sense of place have too evolved. Today, resource management is characterized by certain “wicked” problems making it difficult to place responsibility of certain issues within one dimension of government decision-making . The complexity of resource problems today often fall outside the realm of traditional policy making. This has paved the way for more adaptive management styles which utilize alternative stakeholder approaches to environmental issues. These new approaches are formally bringing government institutions and the public together to develop best sustainability practices. This new style of adaptive governance is formally educating stakeholders about the challenges and demands of resource management today. As societies ethical considerations of the environment continually evolve, so to are considerations of government. Today, as more people relate to the great outdoors and come to respect nature, the collaborative management between stakeholders and institutions are naturally moving towards decentralization.

The trend is indeed welcome to libertarians and environmentalists. States tend to view natural resources as a means for maximizing utility – especially when considering military strength (as is the case in Agrawal’s book) and neo-liberal economics. As nation states rise to power they continually wage campaigns to acquire more land and resources. The concept of Environmentality offers an alternative to the states view of natural resources. Furthermore, Environmentality offers the method of achieving sustainability – reclaim the commons, understand the nature of power and the making of subjects and dismantle illegitimate authority. It is this unique intersection of common property, political ecology and feminist environmentalism that makes Agrawals book stand out – it is an incredibly concise argument for decentralized governance.

Perhaps most interesting about the concept of Environmentality is its play on Michel Foucault‘s “Governmentality.” Governmentality describes a system by which governments work to produce a populace best suited to carry out the operation of said government. Agrawal departs from the government narrative and instead investigates how the environment itself will influence human action. His book describes the metamorphosis of revolt to sustainable management, based simply on the transfer of power from a centralized authority to local villages.

Environmentality is a success story. It informs the populace that we the people must continually challenge our institutions to ensure their practices are just and sustainable. No longer can we as a species afford to allow ourselves, nor our institutions, to utilize resources to serve self interests. To ensure this practice, we need to step up and take more responsibility in our everyday lives. The growing importance and successes of collaboration, decentralization and partnerships indicates the need for an informed, engaged and empowered citizenry to develop sustainable resource policies that protect both the land and biosphere.

The current environmental movement is a vast, worldwide movement that holds great implications for the future of human civilization.  Beyond our human species, resource management will decide the fate of all flora and fauna, and all of Earth’s vast and wonderous land and seascapes. What are the human dimensions of resource management then? Should human management of resources be the product of states? The product of a system that utilizes natural resources to secure political boundaries – or is a different order more desirable? Political institutions work for their own self interests. This suggest we make careful consideration of our subjected relationship with the environment and our governance – we should not simply accept preexisting interests. Indeed this shift is happening as we progress decentralist themes throughout our society.

Agruwal’s book is an incredible account of how, by simply increasing liberty, common property management results in best sustainability practices. For the libertarian, it is another body of evidence that rejects the idea that sustainability can only be achieved if there is a strong centralized authority. To the contrary, the structure of governance must fundamentally change if sustainability is to be realized. When we tear down the structures of large, centralized governments we liberate ourselves from manufactured political boundaries of the state and rediscover our natural heritage – under the principles of Environmentality the biosphere will take care of the rest.

Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects (New Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century) by Arun Agruwal, published by Duke University Press. $18.40

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