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Neoliberal Conservation  

Robert Fletcher

Neoliberal conservation describes a dynamic wherein prominent organizations around the world concerned with biodiversity protection have increasingly adopted strategies and mechanisms that seek to reconcile conservation with economic development by harnessing economic markets as putative mechanisms for financing nature conservation. Since the turn of the millennium, a vibrant discussion around this topic has arisen across anthropology, geography, and related fields. Within this discussion, the rise of neoliberal conservation is generally treated as part of more widespread processes of neoliberalization occurring throughout the global economy since the 1980s, promoting a constellation of core principles including privatization, marketization, decentralization, deregulation, and commodification. Neoliberal conservation arose out of a growing concern among prominent conservation organizations to include poverty reduction and economic development within their mandates as well as to capture additional funding via partnerships with wealthy corporations. It is commonly implemented through a series of so-called market-based instruments (MBIs), including ecotourism, payment for environmental services (PES), and biodiversity and wetlands banking, as well as financial mechanisms such as green bonds. However, evidence suggests that promotion of neoliberal conservation rarely achieves intended outcomes in actual implementation. This has led some researchers to argue that these activities are thus not neoliberal at all, while others defend this characterization within an understanding of neoliberalization as a variegated process. Researchers also point to the rise of right-wing authoritarianism as a potential challenge to neoliberal hegemony, yet the implications of this trend for conservation policy and practice remain little explored. Thus, the important open question is raised of whether neoliberal conservation was the product of a particular political era that is coming to an end, and if so, what will arise in its aftermath.


Sustainable Development  

Eric Hirsch

Sustainable development was famously defined in the 1987 Brundtland Report as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” In the decades that followed, anthropologists have made clear that the term requires a more specific redefinition within its context of late capitalism. For anthropologists, sustainable development evokes the effort of extending capitalist discipline while remaining conscious of economic or environmental constraints. Yet they have also found that sustainable development discourses frequently pitch certain forms of steady, careful capitalist extension as potentially limitless. Anthropologists have broadly found “sustainable” to be used by development workers and policy experts most widely in reference to economic rather than environmental constraints. Sustainable development thus presents as an environmentalist concept but is regularly used to lubricate extraction and energy-intensive growth in the name of a sustained capitalism. The intensifying impacts of climate change demonstrate the stakes of this choice. Anthropological interruptions and interrogations of the sustainable development concept within the unfolding logic of late capitalism range from the intimate and local realm of economic lives, to the political ecology of resource extraction, to the emerging ethnography of climate change. Anthropologists investigate sustainable development at these three scales. Indeed, scale is an effective analytic for understanding its spatial and temporal effects in and on the world. Anthropologists approach sustainable development up close as it has been utilized as a short-term disciplinary instrument of transforming people identified as poor into entrepreneurs. They can zoom out to see large extractive industries as, themselves, subjects and drivers of a larger-scale, longer-term framework of sustainable development. They also zoom out even further, intervening in emergent responses to climate change, a problem of utmost urgency that affects the globe broadly and far into the future, but unevenly. The massive environmental changes wrought by energy-intensive growth have already exceeded the carrying capacity of many of the world’s ecosystems. Climate change is at once a grave problem and a potential opportunity to rethink our economic lives. It has been an impetus to redefine mainstream approaches to sustainable development within a fossil-fueled capitalism. However, a deliberate program of “neoliberal adaptation” to climate change is emerging in sites of sustainable development intervention in a way that promises a consolidation of capitalist discipline. Anthropologists should thus engage a more robust ethnographic agenda rooted in environmental justice.


The New Commons  

Katharina Bodirsky

Traditionally, the notion of the commons refers to long-standing common-pool resources such as forests, meadows, or fisheries that are managed communally. By now, the term is used for the communal production and management of almost any material or immaterial resource. “New commons” can include—for example—co-produced knowledge, shared urban space such as housing or community gardens, or communities of care. They are defined less by the particular resource they use than by specific social relations of “commoning”: relatively open, egalitarian, and democratic relations of co-production and co-use by a community of “commoners.” The (new) commons are a central hope for many activists and activist scholars that seek to work toward a postcapitalist future beyond the market and the state and related modes of sexist and racist domination. They are often associated with autonomist, anarchist, and neo-Marxist political practice and thought. Commons imaginaries are moreover central to critiques of neoliberalism and to initiatives that seek to carve out alternative spaces for social and cultural reproduction in an increasingly commodified world. Of particular importance in the literature are urban commons, with cities being key sites both of neoliberal enclosure and of contemporary social movements that practice commoning. Ethnographers are increasingly exploring the complexity of actually existing commons, which often do not easily conform to commoning ideals. Such commons can be prone to co-optation into capitalist processes or have difficulties in maintaining egalitarian relations in communities open to difference. They often stand in ambivalent relation rather than clear opposition to the state. At the same time, anthropologists emphasize how commoning enables new experiences of personhood, sociality, and commonality. While approaches to traditional and to new commons generally differ in central questions and conceptual tools, a possible point of connection is in a shared concern with planetary futures. While much of the literature on the traditional commons is concerned with the sustainable management of natural resources, many “new” commoning initiatives seek to enact postcapitalist relations to nature that are nonexploitative and recognizant of multispecies connections.


Global Health  

Emily Mendenhall and Svea Closser

Global health can be understood as part of a larger history of global cooperation that reflects and enacts uneven politics, power, and privilege on an unequal earth. Global health emerged in the early 21st century when the groundswell of money for HIV/AIDS transformed the field, and a global orientation, as opposed to one of international relations or modularity, took hold. It is rooted in a long history of wealthier countries intervening in poorer countries with the stated aim of improving health—often with other goals, including economic power or winning hearts and minds. This history has been told by historians of medicine, as well as anthropologists. The idea of “global health” references the fact that health problems are concentrated not only in poorer countries, but rather around the world in resource-constrained settings, including rural areas and those that have been systematically cut off from services. The infusion of money for HIV, largely from wealthy nations, including the United States, positioned decision-making in global power centers that reflected a holdover from previous epochs of international health and colonial medicine. As in earlier eras, the period of global health was one where the focus was often on short-term, measurable outcomes achieved through top-down programs that sidestepped government infrastructure and development. This lack of sustained attention and support for national governments’ ability to build sustainable, broad-based health systems underlines long-standing concerns around the utility of technical solutions for health problems when long-standing social and economic political and policy problems are overlooked.


The Anthropology of Policy  

Noémi Lendvai-Bainton and Paul Stubbs

The anthropology of policy as a field emerged in the 1990s in recognition of the need to understand and critically interrogate policies as important sites of classification, disciplining, and production of order and change. The anthropology of policy has developed as a critical strand challenging mainstream policy studies, public administration, and political science by insisting that the work of policy is always political. Policy worlds are seen as inextricably linked to power relations just as much as politics itself; indeed, the border between policy and politics is highly permeable. A wealth of literature that has been produced in the early 21st century has highlighted the complexities of the spatiotemporal dynamics of the deeply fragmented, unruly worlds of policy. A linear, stagist, and one-dimensional understanding of policy time fails to take account of the multiple, uneven, and contradictory temporal claims of policy. An emphasis on policy performance and affect has also highlighted the ways in which policies are always unfinished as they are mediated and translated, refused, inhabited, and reworked by those they summon. In the context of heightened policy mobility and movement, the importance of the idea of policy assemblages has emerged. Assemblages, animated by actors and actants, are always a heterogeneous combination of discourses and practices existing through unstable and contingent spatiotemporal orderings. Spaces of solidarity and fragility, policy assemblages are key sites for the making and unmaking of both hierarchies and possibilities. A critical tradition of the anthropology of policy needs to be built upon in order to offer a contribution to a broader decolonial turn. There is a need to deconstruct colonial assumptions, emphasize the relevance of colonial legacies, and develop decolonial approaches to understanding the policy world much more than has been the case thus far. In addition, there are questions not only concerning the “what” but also the “who” of an anthropology of policy. Activist anthropology plays an important role in terms of antiracism, counterhegemonic world-making, and policy otherwise, with new imaginaries and possibilities going beyond the general academic critique of a neoliberal, postneoliberal, and postdemocratic world. The challenges of big data, technological change, the crisis of democracy, and new forms of authoritarianism and angry politics all highlight the continued importance of anthropological approaches to policy.


The Anthropology of Special Economic Zones (Free Ports, Export Processing Zones, Tax Havens)  

Patrick Neveling

Special economic zones (SEZs) are a key manifestation of neoliberal globalization. As of 2020, more than 150 nations operated more than 5,400 zones. The combined workforce of factories and service industries in bonded warehouses, export processing zones (EPZs), free trade zones (FTZs), science parks (SPs), regional development zones (RDZs), economic corridors (ECs), and other types of SEZs exceeds one hundred million. These figures include tax havens, offshore financial centers, and free ports. Neoliberal academics and researchers from international organizations say that this has been a long time coming, as the freedom offered in the zones was integral to being human and first implemented in free ports of the Roman Empire. Critical social scientists, among them many anthropologists, have instead identified the zones as products of a 1970s rupture from Keynesian welfarism and Fordist factory regimes to neoliberal globalization and post-Fordist flexible accumulation. Since the early 21st century, scholarship in anthropology has expanded this critical stance on worker exploitation in SEZs toward a historical analysis of SEZs as pacemakers of neoliberal manufacturing globalization since the 1940s. A second strand of ethnographies uses a postmodern lens to research the zones as regimes that produce neoliberal subjectivities and graduated sovereignty.