There seems to be a logic that if we get away from words that invoke the old neoliberal order, and instead transplant terminology from ecosystem science, the future will be secured for millions of hungry Africans. But the unstated agenda remains capitalist accumulation
If there is nothing else that readers should take from discussions swirling around such au courant buzzwords like “food security” and “ecosystem service,” it is the understanding that the invisible hand of the market has taken phantasmagoric form and has situated itself nicely alongside less fashionable buzzwords like inequality and degradation, and increasingly less fashionable words like sustainability.
None other than two esteemed world bodies of the UN, the Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), convened a conference last month in Nairobi, in which they declared that “ecosystem-based adaptation provides flexible, cost effective, and broadly applicable alternatives for building robust food systems on less inputs and reducing the impacts of climate change.”
What pray tell is the ecosystem-based approach? It sounds positively green by all accounts (think of verdant fields, normally with bright sunflowers in the foreground), and quite a refreshingly new perspective toward countries referred to on their best terms as “emerging markets.” After all, much of the discussions around sustainable development, especially in Africa, circulate around the principle that the poor must accept Western-based interventions in order to prevent becoming, well, Western.
The logic prevails then that if we get away from words that invoke the old neoliberal order, and instead transplant terminology from ecosystem science, the future will be secured for millions of hungry Africans living in less than agriculturally productive, water-scarce corners of the Earth. But this is really only transplantation of (apologies for an extended metaphor) the most inappropriate alien invasive species to any modern understanding of ecology: capital accumulation. You see, systems thinking is still debated within the ecological sciences, and yet there’s been no convincing argument amongst scientists, let alone to the political left, that the ecosystem approach can be combined with capitalism in any coherent way.
Why is this a dead-end? Short of delivering a lecture on contemporary ecological thinking, just know the following: in no system in the history of this planet has there been a model of living things that interact in such a way to produce an exponential growth curve. None. The reason behind that is because there simply isn’t enough energy and non-renewable material at any scale to sustain this kind of growth. The common parlance is that “even cancer cells” slow down eventually. Marxists refer to this phenomenon as the “metabolic rift,” or the disruption that occurs between human and non-human dynamics in the environment. Ecologists, and especially ecological engineers, often speak of the incommensurability of capital and the world’s biophysical processes.
Post-Washington Consensus thinkers, including high-level development workers and their funders, refer to these challenges as just minor obstacles to economic thinking. In this schema, the fundamental, glaring notion that such a rift is insurmountable on basic philosophic terms does not perturb them in the least. Even Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, who is seen by many in the US as the most important liberal thinker of the day, has argued that the free market can both deliver for man and the biosphere. Minor distortions, such as farm subsidies emanating from the Global North, or water privatization markets experimented with in the Global South, will be evened out. This is the kind of Pollyannaish “solutionism” (a term coined by Evgeny Morozov in his new book To Save Everything, Click Here about the current tech-savvy startup generation that sees little use for old political economic debates), which is perhaps the most disturbing of all. It has really only been in very recent times that neoliberal thinking has developed Orwellian overtones, where ecosystems are constituted of “services” (serving, as in the case of carbon, commodity markets and corporations from very far away indeed), “adaptation” is construed as a means of becoming more technologically adept so as not to be subsumed by the worst effects of climate change, and the “ecosystem” is comprised of people and natural things…and is really frankly more useful a heuristic than any other unit of analysis because it’s more transferable across all those poor, afflicted parts of the planet (or so development officers, aid donors, and their sundry investors believe).
Transition to the much-beleaguered and trying (as I once heard a British investor in emerging markets report to me) African context. With three of the top five countries in real GDP growth hailing from Africa, is there any doubt that the continent has finally been cured of its many ails? Once the scourges of disease, hunger, and poor education have been resolved, maybe those idyllic African landscapes, which at times fill the pages of National Geographic and resort pamphlets, will again become sustainable agrarian heartlands? Here crops will be farmed seasonally and in diverse assemblages and fertilized by wandering, jovial beasts of burden.
That is both a heavily romanticized reading of rural Africa, by which I mean the vast majority of sub-Saharan Africa, and disingenuous. The ecosystem has been a fruitful schema to think about the world for more than half a century, but the policymakers and technocrats who use its vocabulary now prefer it in the same way they prefer all economic models: ready-made (and what might add half-baked). Ecosystem adaptation is less about defining the local human-environmental context and reinforcing decentralized models of governance and management in the face of the worse effects of climate change, and far more about finding a way to make the movement of global capital into and out of risky markets more palatable. This isn’t authorial confabulation, either: I defy any reader to do a web search on the major donors to ecosystem-based adaptation efforts and return any results highlighting “decentralization,” “local knowledge,” and any talk of market integration that isn’t vertical (that is, in agricultural terms, surplus production for the purposes of sale). Add to that a search on ecosystem services that is not an explicit endorsement of them as commodities—there, again, you will be severely disappointed!
Africanists should take consolation in the fact that the conference in Nairobi recognizes that “local contexts” are instructive, and that ecosystems are complex and dynamic. But that is a punt, for if there’s anything that a Ghanaian smallholder and Namibian hunter-gatherer know quite well is that their livelihoods are not kissing cousins. That, at least, is a step away from the developmentalist one-size-fits-all approach that has been practiced by Western capitalists on the continent since the end of WWII. But this newfound love of all that is green and sustainable, and now apparently adaptive, if indeed it really is love, is nothing more than crude Newspeak. If these attendees were very interested in addressing the problems of local and regional ecosystem-based dilemmas, including food security, I’m afraid what drives these circumstances generally aren’t found in one’s home garden or little patch of sorghum. Quite a bit further still.
* Dr. Sam Schramski is a human-environmental geographer whose work focuses on issues of climate change adaptation in the Global South and is currently a visiting scholar at Indiana University, USA.
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