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date: 29 June 2022

Sustainable Developmentfree

Sustainable Developmentfree

  • Eric HirschEric HirschFranklin and Marshall College


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.


  • Sociocultural Anthropology

Sustainable Development Ethnography: Rethinking Conventional Definitions

The concept of “sustainable development” raises two immediate anthropological questions. First, what kind of development is the sustainable kind? And second, what do we mean by sustainable? Sustained, but how, and for how long? Who or what is being sustained? Implying a form of market life that is ongoing in a way that does not deplete a certain bank of resources or stretch an ecosystem beyond the limits of its carrying capacity, this mysteriously capacious, usefully ambiguous phrase has been deployed across market-based industries from the greenest of the green to the highest fossil fuel-emitting companies that exist. It has also been deployed by municipalities, regional governments, nation-states, multilateral entities, and non-governmental organizations for a dizzying variety of projects.

One of the most well-known and conventionally cited definitions of sustainable development comes from the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development on “Our Common Future.” The commission was chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s first female prime minister. Known as the Brundtland Report, it condensed an early effort to think about environment and development together in late-Cold War global governance. The report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland 1987).

The United Nations, the World Bank, and countless other multilateral organizations routinely cite this core definition. UNESCO’s Sustainable Development portal elaborates, presenting sustainability as “a paradigm for thinking about the future in which environmental, societal, and economic considerations are balanced in the pursuit of an improved quality of life” (UNESCO 2019). A great deal of international development funding from those organizations is directed toward programs and projects aiming to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals, a set of targets for 2030 that involve steps to eliminate poverty and protect ecosystems.

Yet scholars can only understand what it actually means to sustainably develop by zooming into everyday economic lives. Anthropologists and critical development theorists over the past several decades have made great efforts to push beyond measuring sustainable development through conventional aggregate indicators. They have argued for more sophisticated analyses than asking whether sustainable development is happening. Instead, they have trained their focus on how situations of sustainable development are composed, produced, and experienced; who a sustainable development framework benefits and harms; and what its consequences are, both intended and unintended, in a world where development has been spectacularly uneven along lines traced by long-term patterns of geopolitical inequality and the enduring legacies of colonialism. In short, to anchor sustainable development, scholars need to learn what is actually happening on the ground in the everyday lives of ordinary people.

In his updated preface to the seminal 1992 collection The Development Dictionary, Wolfgang Sachs identifies development as “a concept of monumental emptiness” (Sachs 2010, x). For this reason, anthropologists have had much to say about how development actually works, about what it requires to be represented as enduring for longer than a single boom or push—in other words, sustainable—and about why this phrase has captivated a world of governments, civil society actors, citizens, and subjects in search of improved lives. In particular, anthropologists and scholars in allied fields have spent many decades invested in the project to understand how people conceptualize sustainable development in their daily lives.

Perhaps the most useful contemporary working definition for sustainable development is this: an effort to extend capitalism with often token attention to environmental or economic constraints. Sustainable development discourses represent this extension as potentially limitless when done in the right manner. For example, many localized development projects around the world pair training in an ethic of micro-entrepreneurship with promises of the consumption and luxury that an improved livelihood makes possible. However, this notion comes up against two important limits: the finite availability of extractable resources and anthropogenic climate change—a consequence of the intensive energy use that underlies contemporary capitalism.

Anthropological scholarship of sustainable development overwhelmingly suggests that the concept prioritizes the economic over the environmental and social. In what follows, this article traces anthropological interruptions and interrogations of the concept from the intimate and local realm of economic lives, to the political ecology of resource extraction, to the emerging ethnography of climate change. The article is not exhaustive; rather, it follows a selection of scholarly conversations about sustainable development. With scale as its core analytic, the article moves outward in space and time. It proceeds with a brief overview of anthropological conversations surrounding development, sustainability, and climate change, and then approaches sustainable development up close in sites where it has been utilized as a short-term disciplinary instrument of transforming specific people identified as poor into entrepreneurs. The article then zooms out to see large extractive industries as, themselves, subjects and drivers of a larger-scale and longer-term iteration of sustainable development within the resource dependencies of late capitalism. Afterward, it zooms out even farther to a discussion of climate change, an issue of utmost urgency that affects the globe broadly but unevenly and suggests that the long-term carrying capacity of many ecosystems has already been exceeded. Climate change is at once grave and ambiguous. It has been both an impetus to (re)think mainstream approaches to sustainable development within fossil-fueled capitalism (Malm 2016), but it is also the extreme logical endpoint of sustainable development projects’ and policies’ overwhelmingly clear emphasis on economic sustainability. Through the three scales of sustainable development outlined in this article, it will become clear that anthropologists have been piecing together an emergent theory of environmental justice as an answer—sometimes implicit, other times explicit—to the expansion of the frameworks of extractive capitalism. This is the direction in which the anthropology of sustainable development ought to head.

A Multi-Scalar Phenomenon

This article cannot provide exhaustive coverage of an issue so wide-ranging or a conversation so profound. What it seeks to do, instead, is to pinpoint how sustainable development has taken broad shape as a theme of anthropological scholarship by assessing its role as a key point of analytical intervention across the distinctly provocative ethnographic questions arising out of daily development, resource extraction, and climate change.

The first emphasis in anthropological research roots a scholarly focus on ordinary economic lives in the “Third World,” a construct that Arturo Escobar provocatively unravels in his seminal book Encountering Development (Escobar [1995] 2012). Escobar and other writers interested in dissecting development as a discourse saw small-scale development interventions as imposed projects that ordinary economic actors had to “contend with” (Escobar [1995] 2012, vii). Escobar’s book emerged alongside a number of other important publications in critical development studies, including Vandana Shiva’s (1988) Staying Alive, James Ferguson’s (1990) The Anti-Politics Machine, James Scott’s (1998) Seeing Like a State, Gilbert Rist’s (1997) The History of Development, David Mosse’s Cultivating Development (2004), Tania Murray Li’s The Will to Improve (2007), and Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts (2002) and Carbon Democracy (2011) amongst many others.

This groundbreaking body of work probes the many problematic stated missions and “hidden transcripts” (Scott 1990) of that large sector of people whose work it is to improve other people’s lives—in other words, to “develop” them. In ethnographic studies of projects attempting to achieve development by micromanaging the economic lives of a given group of “trustees” (T. Li 2007), anthropologists have come to learn that apparently self-sustaining development is achieved through development workers’ active and exhausting labor of constantly composing the conditions for entrepreneurial growth. The broad consensus from that smallest scale iteration of “sustainable development ethnography” is that programs of improvement packaged as development that is self-sustaining are tools for expanding the scope of capitalism that perpetuates an ongoing geopolitical inequality between the “First World” and “Third World.”

A second emphasis in sustainable development ethnography zooms outward in scale from an emphasis on the micro-practices of development work to assessing how larger-scale state and industrial projects of extraction also set the terms of sustainability and development. This has entailed ethnographies that seek out a grounded understanding of what makes certain resource uses recognizable as sustainable or unsustainable. This work inspects the kinds of community life, forms of market-making, and equity implications that surround the problem of resource depletion. A burgeoning field of contemporary scholars is meshing ethnography with political ecology in a way that seeks to unearth the sociopolitical means by which resources are grabbed and extracted, circulate around the world, and are rendered meaningful. Through that work, anthropologists trace “resource logic” (Wenzell [2016]), a rationality in which non-human resources (and some human ones) become useful or exchangeable through the unidirectional sense of “supply,” sanctioned by regimes of enclosure, property, and concession. This logic has taken newly extravagant proportions in the contemporary “Capitalocene,” a term that Jason Moore uses (instead of the overused “Anthropocene”) to describe “capitalism as a way of organizing nature—as a multispecies, situated, capitalist world-ecology” (Moore 2016, 6). Contesting this resource logic, anthropologists and activists from many other fields have found something distinct. Alongside capitalist dynamics that transform nature into resources, humans around the world engage in relationships of reciprocity, exchange, and mutual obligation between humans and non-humans (De la Cadena 2015), demonstrating that value need not flow in one human-serving direction, but can emerge through multiple, overlapping, and mutual relationships.

The third emphasis represents a more incipient body of scholarship that is updating the analysis of sustainable development for the 21st century in which climate change is a real, urgent, and rapidly intensifying problem. As many anthropologists have argued, climate change is the extreme endpoint of unsustainable development, “the indirect costs” of the colonial and imperialist projects that created dramatically uneven prosperity across the world (Crate and Nuttall 2009, 11). However, climate change is also, certainly, a partial result of the globalized emphasis on economic sustainability over environmental sustainability. We have been aware of climate change as a major environmental problem since at least the 1960s (Hansen 2016), and of the global warming effect of greenhouse gases since at least the days of Swedish atmospheric scientist Svante Arrhenius (Arrhenius [1896] 2011, 56–77). Given this long-term knowledge, can the effects of development really be identified as “unintended consequences”? David McDermott Hughes believes they should not (Hughes 2017). He argues that climate change today is in fact the result of emissions-intensive industrial development proceeding apace, unmitigated under the dubious sanction of sustainability: he contends that such development should not be sustained, and that its “resilience” is undesirable. Other anthropologists, such as Jessica Barnes and her co-authors (2013), see robust connections between sustainable development discourse and discourses emerging out of the imperative to mitigate or adapt to climate change.

What, then, are anthropologists to make of “sustainable development,” a concept as dramatically open, easily exploitable, and politically capacious as it is vague? Anthropologists offer answers that vary between scales, as this article details next. The conclusion makes suggestions for where scholars may be able to begin directing anthropological dissections of sustainable development toward a project of environmental justice ethnography.

Expanding Capitalist Discipline: Local and Short-Term Development

International policy historian Stephen Macekura sees the Brundtland Report definition of sustainable development as an attempt to balance environmentalist concerns and equity concerns. Sustainable development represented a framework for the non-Western world that “would reconcile the desire for economic development with the necessity of environmental protection” (Macekura 2015, 5). While this approach meant incorporating environmental considerations into development policy, sustainable development was ultimately an “intellectual compromise” forged by negotiations within and between newly decolonized nation-states, Western nation-states, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), multilateral institutions, and other transnational bodies meant to accommodate aspirations for equitable growth alongside environmentalism (Macekura 2015, 8).

Meeting those present-day “needs,” in the Brundtland Report’s terms, quickly became a cottage industry that focused on expanding economic opportunities. As a capacious term, sustainable development as the Brundtland Report defined it is an ideal that encompasses both the ordinary life of the economy, on one hand, and the discourse and “category of practice” by which professional trustees bring people identified as poor into that economy, on the other (Mosse 2013, 227).

What did that cottage industry look like? Arturo Escobar suggests that “needs” were produced and recognized in very particular ways: “instead of the kingdom of abundance promised by theorists and politicians in the 1950s,” Escobar writes, “the discourse and strategy of development produced its opposite: massive underdevelopment and impoverishment, untold exploitation and oppression” (Escobar [1995] 2012, 4). Here, Escobar builds his analysis upon the resistance of dependency theorists (Cardoso and Faletto 1979) to the Eurocentric assumptions of modernization theory (Rostow 1971), which argued that humans all find themselves on different parts of the unidirectional pathway toward civilization. Ethnographies of international development that emerged in the years after the Brundtland Report deployed the work of Michel Foucault to focus primarily on how development worked as a discourse. A discourse is a means by which certain words, representations, and institutions come to be articulated as a coherent and legitimated way of knowing and being (Ferguson 1990; Escobar [1995] 2012). Development discourses were invented in the wake of World War II and the Marshall Plan, when the United States had unprecedented power to determine the fate of its decimated former enemies and of the colonized swaths of the world that were declaring independence from former superpowers (Rist 1997). Escobar argues that “the ‘Third World’ has been produced by the discourses and practices of development since their inception in the early post-World War II period” ([1995] 2012, 4).

Escobar’s Encountering Development illustrates that in order to extend the wealthy world’s “kingdom of abundance,” the United States, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other powerful states and multilateral entities first had to construct parts of the world as “poor.” Doing so was a key condition of possibility for a period of enthusiastic, overpowering intervention into “Third World” economies, which was accompanied by neoliberal development by the time the Brundtland Report helped to retool the active work of development. The report converged with a global moment in which neoliberal economics rooted in the theories of economists Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman were being embraced by powerful conservative governments around the world (Harvey 2007). At the leading edge of a surging neoliberalism built up in deliberate counterpoint to the Soviet Union and other socialist republics were the administrations of Ronald Reagan in the United States (1981–1989) and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom (1979–1990), the latter of which was famous for arguing that “there is no alternative” to the minimally regulated market-based economy.

A key tenet of the globalizing neoliberal agenda was that the state should not play a role in ensuring the prosperity of its citizens. It was by nature overbearing and unruly. But the market, according to neoliberal logic, was a significantly stronger and more reliable tool for expanding well-being economically. Albert Hirschman’s intellectual history of market ideology illustrates that the birth of capitalism itself was fueled by the argument that markets make us good, which Hirschman identifies as the doux commerce or “kind exchange” thesis. Free exchange was represented in Enlightenment-era Europe as a civilizing agent, presenting a tool by which an individual’s rational interests would overcome their irrational passions (Hirschman 1992). Thus, governments had no need to regulate economic exchange. Such laissez faire logic sees its most extreme version in neoliberalism and is actively cultivated throughout the micro-practices of development intervention, which establish the assumption that exchange and markets will flourish, their prosperity unleashed by a simple fix like entrepreneurial capacity building. Ethnographic field research in Peru revealed that entrepreneurship, and not environmental protection, tends to be the goal of many small-scale sustainable development interventions (Hirsch 2017b).

In this way, states receded, transitioning out of their long-standing role as service providers and guarantors of development through social programs. They receded by way of an ideology that promoted organically flowing markets and self-sustaining exchange. However, those markets did not simply and spontaneously appear as the state quickly vanished. Instead, markets had to be made. So did their market-ready subjects. What the state’s deliberate effort to thin its presence as a builder and service provider meant in practice was that development and service provision roles shifted to civil society institutions, notably non-governmental organizations (NGOs), whose staff worked to make markets and their users (Schuller 2009). This often took the form of erased gendered labor (Radcliffe 2015; Sharma 2008). Anthropologists have highlighted NGO work as a “pink collar” sector (Freeman 2000; Schuster 2015) in which more educated women were responsible for creating the subjectivity of less educated “Third World women” (Roy 2010). NGOs and some state workers distant from the state’s main apparatuses become the “trustees” of development (T. Li 2007). Mark Schuller followed a variety of aid NGOs in Haiti and argues that these institutions sought both to compose markets and render them available to broader circuits of exchange, a process he calls “gluing globalization” (Schuller 2009).

Out of that notion, a host of ethnographies have illustrated the many ways that non-state or state-partnered development professionals circulate to what they see as the poorest regions of Third World countries in order to produce markets and reorganize people’s economic lives, thus rendering them prosperous by virtue of their new capacity as entrepreneurs. Small-scale entrepreneurship, since the 1980s, has been a dominant means of configuring sustainable development as a specific response to the problem of poverty. For example, the Grameen Bank, founded by Muhammad Yunus, pioneered microcredit as a tool for conquering poverty among women in Bangladesh. By issuing tiny loans to promising women entrepreneurs, the Grameen Bank—and the many that followed its model in the global south and north alike—promised to tap the potential of the world’s “bottom billion” by extending the reach of capitalist forms of exchange (Roy 2010; Schuster 2015; Schwittay 2011).

This was also a transition noted by many residents of the rural villages of Peru’s southern Andes in the context of ongoing ethnographic fieldwork on development projects and climate change responses since 2008 (Hirsch 2017b). There, the state was rarely palpable in their lives. When it was present and apparent, it built transportation and potable water infrastructure, extended the electric grid, and ensured that a school stood in every rural municipality (see Harvey and Knox 2015). Or, it too-briefly showed its face in an emergency, like the 2016 earthquake in the village of Yanque. In ethnographic work with non-governmental development institutions, by contrast, it became clear that bringing Andean villagers into the ambit of regional and national economic markets was a project rooted in the difficult labor of creating citizens whose apparent self-reliance would obviate any need for government services (Hirsch 2018). Entrepreneurship dominated development as it played out in the southern Andean communities of the Colca Valley, while the environmental aspects of sustainability were frequently deprioritized. Development through entrepreneurship, in the discourses of many local project staff there, was also consistent in their minds with reducing an apparent dependence on outmoded state handouts and the so-called excesses of alcoholism in Andean men. The new neoliberal model was rooted in building psychological well-being in Andean young people that conflated economic development with personal development.

Entrepreneurship and the relationship of capitalist practices to other aspects of economic life in spaces of development has been an important topic taken up by feminist ethnographers of capitalism, financialization, and development. These anthropologists build on the work of theorists such as J. K. Gibson-Graham and Viviana Zelizer. In distinct ways, these scholars seek to make capitalism “strange” by making clear the profoundly gendered aspects of daily economic life under capitalism. They also suggest that that confident analyses of complete capitalist domination can overshadow the importance of other non-capitalist forms of value that help to configure economic lives. However, Anna Tsing, Kalyan Sanyal, and other scholars understand the heterogeneity and diversity of non-capitalist values to be essential elements of expanding capitalist relations, such as the sense of independent masculinity that FedEx promises as a reward for joining its subcontracted labor force (Tsing 2009; Sanyal 2007).

Carla Freeman has channeled these analyses into her work on neoliberal subjectivity and “pink collar” tech sector jobs in Barbados (Freeman 2000, 2014). Caroline Schuster (2015) extends these analyses in her study of the intimate economic infrastructure that supports and surrounds microloans in Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este, where entrepreneurs are “empowered” to help grow the market as they also benefit from its growth. Schuster analyzes the concept of “social collateral,” the innovation that a group of people (committees of urban entrepreneurial women, in Schuster’s case) will repay a loan shared between them due to peer pressure and a sense of mutual obligation. This form of economic empowerment is pitched as sustainable because the “social unit of debt” has been rescaled from the individual to the group. Social capital is converted into economic capital by shifting the social unit of debt. Similarly, other scholars have helped to build a corpus of feminist ethnographies of development in which microfinance, capacity-building, and the making of an entrepreneurial subjectivity are promoted as a means of economic growth by extending the field of value into the home (Beck 2017; Kar 2018; Radcliff 2015; Sharma 2008).

Sarah Radcliffe, for example, attends to the postcolonial intersectionality of intimate, gendered, racialized, and ethnic difference in Andean Ecuador, where the legacies of colonialism continue to reverberate in the context of development interventions for rural indigenous women. A host of additional studies suggest that the work of extending sustainable development is an intimate and invasive process that ultimately aims toward economic viability and profitability over time, as opposed to environmental stability (see Bedford 2005). Across all of these cases, ethnographers find themselves tracking the immense effort it takes development project staff to make the market look like it is working as a self-sustaining economy. That labor can be seen in such sites as the masked labor of Fundación Paraguaya staff to collect loan repayments in Paraguay (Schuster 2015), as well as the constant work of visiting entrepreneurs that was a daily part of the job for the employees of sustainable development NGOs in rural Peru.

Sustainable development projects under the sign of contemporary neoliberalism emphasize the economic. They represent an effort to infuse capitalist discipline into everyday economic lives by cultivating entrepreneurs and creating felicitous conditions for them to grow their businesses. These projects are deeply, often uncomfortably intimate, as evidence of household or personal development requires displays of disciplined practices, minds, families, and peer groups. This form of small-scale development is recognizable as “sustainable” in two specific ways. First, by a focus on the individual, household, and group scales, these interventions do not appear to pose any significant risk to the surrounding economy or environment. But second, sustainable here means that an entrepreneur has successfully linked into the broader economy and no longer requires an intervention by an outside institution. This understanding of intimate sustainability becomes problematic once the various environmental and social impacts of that economy are taken into account at a broader scale.

Resource Logic: Sustainable Development and the Prospect of Depletion

Anthropologists of development have noted slippages between two specific definitions of development. The first is the category of practice in which certain professionals, who vest themselves as “trustees,” actively create the conditions for prosperity and improvement for others deemed “less developed” or “underdeveloped.” Such active creation is accomplished by extending the field of capitalist discipline. This work is frequently identified as “big D” “Development” (Hart 2001; cited in Mitlin, Hickey, and Bebbington 2007). A common way for this to happen at small spatial and temporal scales is by NGOs and similarly situated development agents who are removed from the ambit of the state training their subjects in the value of entrepreneurship.

If the first Development involves building capitalist discipline into individual and small-scale community economic lives in order for a broader self-sustaining development to take hold, the second, “little d” development refers to the dynamics of the economy itself in its regular processes of growth and expansion. Little d development encompasses the ordinary, uneven “set of processes underlying capitalist developments” (Mitlin et al. 2007, 1701).

Escobar identifies that broader, little d development concept connoting ordinary economic functioning as capitalism’s ongoing metabolism of nature (Escobar [1995], 2012; see also Paulson 2017). Focusing on the broader work of transforming nature into resources helps anthropologists understand the ambiguities that the notion of “sustainability” presents in development discourse. Sustainability exhibits a slippage in its definitions between active intervention-based sustainable development and sustainable development projected as the proper ongoing processes of aggregate capitalism. In “D” development intervention projects, a finding of “sustainable” can be as simple as indicating that an intervention worked as measured by a project’s stated goals and may continue to work after the project ends. An entrepreneurial economy is sustainable when capitalist discipline has caught on. It is sustainable when the local markets deliberately composed, stimulated, and laboriously brought into being by NGO staff members or other outsider trustees have been effectively incorporated into the kind of broader regional, national, or transnational market thought to ensure that previously poor local market’s ongoing access to wealth.

Assessing sustainability on the larger scales and longer-term contexts of little d development means attending to the consequences of those broader markets by turning to questions of carrying capacity and resource depletion over time. How long can any broad, functional, and perhaps growing economy persist, given the constraints on meeting its environmental needs? Sustainability’s precise definition thus depends upon its scale. And this makes clear that an anthropological understanding of sustainability that attends to scale is essential to grounding its vast semantic ambitions in everyday life. Sustainability can be represented and recognized within certain constraints of time and space, but that micro-level sustainability can become an illusion when it is scaled outward.

Humans structure their lives in a way that requires the ongoing use of non-human animals, objects, and environments. Those things become “resources” when that use is systematized as a unidirectional input into a system of human need whose output is the satisfaction of that need, without any further regard to the non-human environment. Such a “resource logic” (Wenzell 2016) is a core assumption of sustainable development. The apparent abundance of certain resources that afford humans energy, food, water, and tools masks that extractive logic (Mitchell 2011). In his Annual Review of Anthropology article on mining, Jerry Jacka points out that “contemporary global livelihoods depend almost completely on the extraction of mineral resources” (Jacka 2018, 61). Minerals, Jacka suggests, are essential for “sustaining” livelihoods and building development. Globalization and growth over the past fifteen years have driven an expanding extractive sector, framing what Jacka calls “the mineral age” (Jacka 2018, 62). If mining enterprises are vital to economic sustainability, they also set the terms of sustainable development through corporate social responsibility programs. These programs can involve support for sustainable agriculture projects and tools for fighting climate change, as observed in the Peruvian Andes. Such projects set the terms of sustainable development in an effort to misdirect the local gaze from the externalities of extractive industry as that industry expands in Peru and around the world (F. Li 2015).

The book Extracted, by Italian chemist and Club of Rome member Ugo Bardi, warns that this mineral age rests on precarious ground (Bardi 2014). Bardi builds on the largely ignored warnings of the Club of Rome’s controversial 1972 Limits to Growth study, which modeled a future of hunger and population crises rooted in business-as-usual resource depletion. Looking at a longue-durée history of mineral depletion, he describes how mining is rapidly depleting essential materials that societies require. If Rob Nixon identifies the latest phase in petroleum extraction as the “Age of Tough Oil” (Nixon 2011, 269), Bardi suggests a simultaneous era of increasingly “tough” mining as frontiers of extraction expand and become more expensive and less reliable. Alf Hornborg similarly emphasizes the fundamental links between this extractive capitalist development and the global history of colonialism. He argues that “Neoclassical economic theory is an ideology originally developed in colonial Britain to justify and morally neutralize the exploitation of its extractive periphery” (Hornborg 2019).

Other scholars have characterized the 21st century by the increasingly ubiquitous consequences of climate change and the extractive “fossil capitalism” underlying it (Malm 2016). These findings would seem to bear difficult news for the carrying capacity of many of the planet’s ecosystems. In other words, most development, whether as an intervention or as ordinary growth, has not been empirically sustainable. Indeed, as the frontier of extraction for fuel and for highly profitable primary export commodities like copper, gold, and silver continues to expand, mediated by an intensifying land rush (T. Li 2014), territories and ecosystems all over the world are under an arguably unprecedented level of threat, calling into question that which is assumed to be sustained under the aegis of sustainable development.

The resource extraction that underlies such “ordinary” (or little d) development of the global economy has long been boosted by ideologies of inexhaustibility that are fundamental to the cornucopian association of technology with liberation from environmental constraint (Albritton Jonsson 2014). We see this perspective emerge colorfully in the work of Julian Simon, an economist and acolyte of the neoliberal crusader Milton Friedman. Simon is famous for winning a 1980 debate with biologist Paul Ehrlich by betting against Ehrlich’s doomsday projections of a coming resource scarcity (Sabin 2013). Simon sees all of our necessary resources as “infinite.” But this only works because he optimistically assumes human ingenuity to be infinite. He argues this in a chapter titled, “Can the Supply of Natural Resources—Especially Energy—Really be Infinite? Yes!” The chapter appears in his book The Ultimate Resource, a title whose referent is human ingenuity (Simon 1998). For Simon, as long as “resource” actually signifies the service a thing provides rather than that thing itself, resources can last forever, for humans can always come up with new technologies for meeting their needs.

Simon’s work would appear to represent an extreme position on the actual state of resource wealth at the end of the 20th century. But it renders explicit a widely shared, if implicit, assumption about the contemporary interaction between large economies and the environments upon which they depend: environments tend to remain stable providers that will continue to yield resources abundantly. Timothy Mitchell traces a genealogy of this sense of inexhaustibility through the history of oil in Carbon Democracy. He argues that the temporary abundance of newly discovered petroleum stores in the mid-20th century shaped a mass consumerism in the United States and throughout the global north around automobiles, air conditioners, and suburban-style living that would use enough oil to drive up its price (Mitchell 2011).

Gökçe Günel builds on Mitchell’s analytical interest in the apparent infinity of oil in her ethnography of ostensibly sustainable water use in the Arabian Peninsula (Günel 2016). There, the United Arab Emirates has come to depend upon desalination to meet—and far exceed—its water needs. The government invests $18 million per day in desalination technology and this investment allows inhabitants of the UAE to go far beyond their basic water needs. It lets them conspicuously consume water, with lawns and yards that mimic the excesses of a United Kingdom estate or a leafy suburban neighborhood in the United States in an environment that should lend itself to caution about its conservation. This setting demonstrates the importance of globalized promises of a US-style “good life” in organizing consumer behavior. The UAE’s return on investment in its desalination technology is a socioecological framework underlain by an illusion that Günel calls “the infinity of water,” in which the “technical adjustment” of desalination reframes water in the desert as abundant and capable of supporting a massive economy that can conspicuously defy the constraints of its environment (Günel 2016, 293). Although Julian Simon would be proud, desalination is not without its costs, for both the economy and the environment. Beyond its staggering $18 million/day price tag, the desalination process is highly energy-intensive, making it an adaptation to water scarcity that helps to exacerbate climate change. Its waste product, a dense salty brine, is usually released back into the ocean as a pollutant that is harmful to aquatic environments and over time can make desalination even more expensive and energy-intensive.

Resource logic, then, frames the non-human environment as a suite of products for humans to use without consequence to meet their needs and wants. Sustainable development, when applied to the ordinarily functioning economy, means following resource logic but apparently constraining human overuse in order to prevent complete resource depletion. Ethnographies and historical studies have found that constraint on sustainability motivates not the rethinking of consumerism and its elaborately structured incentives, but instead, aggressive cornucopian searches for new technological solutions and adjustments to replace or extend the life of the resource and thus, economic growth more broadly.

Despite the fact that resource logics structure much of the global political economy, framing nature as a set of resources is but one cultural construction. As Timothy Mitchell and Dominic Boyer have illustrated in their takes on extraction driven by energy needs, the infrastructures of that extraction exert considerable power to structure everyday life. Boyer calls this “energopower” (Boyer 2019). Arguing against this resource logic of unidirectional environmental inputs serving the good of humankind, a number of anthropologists are making clear that a unidirectional resource logic is reflective of colonialism, imperialist capitalism, Western and white supremacy, and far from the only means by which humans function.

Humans and non-humans can also serve one another mutually. Marisol De la Cadena offers a widely cited example of this mutual obligation in her ethnography of “earth beings,” or sentient beings that take the form of mountains, landforms, and bodies of water in the Peruvian Andes (De la Cadena 2015). There, she describes how humans, non-human animals, and the landscape together build livelihood and community. Her ethnography, like many other ethnographies of human and non-human interaction (see, e.g., Gomez-Barris 2017; Salomon 2018; Tsing 2014), is not presented as a story of exotic, harmonious non-modern others, but of a non-capitalist form of life and means of inhabiting the world. This way of being fails to articulate with the frameworks and ontologies of Peru’s extraction-happy leaders and the transnational mining concerns seeking to extract from and thus disturb Andean earth beings. However, that does not make it any less real. De la Cadena joins anthropologists all over the world who have supplied robust ethnographies that make resource logic and sustainable development discourses strange.

Neoliberal Adaptation: Climate Change and the New Face of Development

Perhaps the chief source of ambiguity that the concept of sustainable development evokes in the year 2020 is that sustainability is rarely understood with reference to any specific timeline. How long is “sustainable”? The word tends vaguely to connote “ongoing” but not quite “infinite.” The global economy’s dominating resource logic, and the fossil capital that has made that economy possible (Malm 2016), has placed the future of an inhospitably heated world as a time horizon for contemporary sustainable development. Thus, the most important problem facing sustainability projects may not be the prospect of a looming resource depletion at all, but rather, the consequences of an abundant supply.

Fossil fuel-based capitalism is at the root of contemporary anthropogenic climate change. Fossil capitalist entities and other extractive industries will also, themselves, be considerably destabilized as objects upon which contemporary economic lives are able to thrive. Though perhaps not all: if climate change may strike us as the logical endpoint of fossil capitalism, mineral-intensive extraction, and other forms of unsustainable development, it also opens up new pathways toward remaining deposits of the very fossil fuels that have driven it, such as the Alberta tar sands region (Hern and Johal, 2018). Candis Callison has, for instance, identified a global rush of oil interests to the Arctic region that promises to create a generation of “Inuit oil millionaires” (Callison 2014, 76). The breakup of northern ice sheets, as projected in some climate change impact forecasts, would open new access to oil reserves.

Susan Crate and Mark Nuttall’s edited volume, Anthropology & Climate Change, presents a collection of papers that helped to inaugurate a wave of anthropological scholarship in climate change ethnography (Crate and Nuttall 2009). Their volume consists of entries that trace indigenous peoples, marginalized communities, and other social groups far removed from the legitimating methodologies of Western science in their localized and longitudinal observations of climate change as its impacts emerge in the contexts of their experience. That experience may not be captured through the Western scientific method, but it is widely described as a form of environmental expertise (Crate and Nuttall 2009; Cruikshank 2005; Marino 2015). In part a comparative compilation of examples of indigenous “ground-truthing” (Callison 2014, 52), the articles in Crate and Nuttall’s volume consist of ethnographies arguing that climate change is forcing marginalized communities to reimagine how they can sustain their lives as shorelines erode, droughts intensify, glaciers melt, and weather patterns change. Climate change has also frequently meant a similar professional class of trustees attempting to channel sustainable development funds toward a focus on capacity-building for small, technical adaptation projects that look very similar to other entrepreneurial projects. This is a phenomenon that can be labeled “neoliberal adaptation.” Climate change is thus reconfiguring both small-scale economic lives and larger-scale resource logics.

In an article for Nature Climate Change, Jessica Barnes and her co-authors find that “an anthropological view reveals that some dimensions of climate change debates are not as new as commonly believed” (Barnes et al. 2013, 542). Showing how ethnographers situate apparently new practices of humans coping with environmental change in a deeper and more localized historical context, they argue that those experts pushing climate change adaptation strategies sound a great deal like the development experts enlisted to expand capitalist markets and the disciplined micro-practices those markets engage. “In some cases,” they write, “international development practitioners are simply replacing the label ‘underdeveloped’ with the label of ‘low adaptive capacity’ in assistance programs, with little attention to the differences involved” (Barnes et al. 2013, 543).

As with the effort to extend markets, and like the concept of sustainable development more broadly, resilience has come to anchor some of these neoliberal adaptation projects. Building resilience as a state- or NGO-based trustee of an apparently less resilient community in the face of climate change can raise more questions than it answers. As with “sustainability,” resilience, of what? Resilience, for whom? These are questions addressed in comparative fieldwork on contrasting frameworks of resilience observed in Peru and the Maldives (Hirsch 2017b). While in Peru a synonymous “adaptation” and “resilience” largely represent a continuity of market-based sustainable development in the form of neoliberal adaptation, the Maldives has sought to model complete carbon neutrality as a nation, suggesting that its own resilience means an ability to develop without increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Juxtaposing these two field sites leads to the argument that an emergent form of power over marginalized communities that have long suffered from uneven development is the power to define the “unit of resilience.”

David McDermott Hughes suggests that not all forms of economic life ought to be made resilient. In a study on the cynical climate change “victim slot” that the small, oil-rich island nation of Trinidad and Tobago has taken on to misdirect the gaze from its own high per capita extraction and high levels of economic growth, Hughes suggests that certain entities, such as oil refineries, should not become resilient at all (Hughes 2017). Resilience planning in the context of climate adaptation programs can also displace blame for the impacts of climate change from the extremely small fraction of the global population responsible for most of its carbon dioxide emissions onto those experiencing the impacts themselves (Cons 2018; Vaughn 2017).

Climate change, then, has emerged in the anthropological scholarship defining and debating sustainable development in several key ways. Climate change is a slow and abstract process that is most readily experienced indirectly or indexically, through altered weather patterns, intensified stresses on ecosystems, and the occasionally dramatic environmental disaster or crisis. Ethnographies of environmental observation are an important source of data on environmental change as the sustainability of ecologically dependent economies is tested. Problematically, contemporary political power backs the continual deployment and extension of capitalist discipline to solve the problems of environmental change through neoliberal adaptation. Anthropologists will therefore need to articulate a clear environmental justice agenda in order for their scholarly production to be useful for suggesting alternatives that do not capitalize, securitize, or militarize collective responses to climate change (Hornborg 2019). Doing this would channel scholarship toward serving the historically marginalized communities that uneven development, colonialism, and resource extraction have put at the front lines of climate change impacts (Whyte 2016).

From Neoliberal Adaptation to Environmental Justice

How should anthropologists proceed beyond the conceptual limits of sustainable development projects as climate change impacts intensify and become more ubiquitous? An engaged ethnographic focus on environmental justice in the context of climate change presents a promising framework for a program of research that moves beyond the green capitalist assumption that there is no alternative to sustainable development.

Above all, a program of environmental justice ethnography must focus on alternatives. How are people in marginalized communities moving forward in the face of climate change? Who organizes their access to alternatives—and what moves do they make when alternative options to extractive growth are unavailable?

Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte presents a take on indigenous climate justice that situates climate change within a broader history of settler colonialism. He makes clear that “carbon-intensive economic activities occur non-consensually on Indigenous territories” (Whyte 2016, 10); yet US settler colonialism “very specifically targets the ecologically mobile, adaptive systems of Indigenous peoples” (Whyte 2016, 5). His work shows how the well-intentioned programs of sustainable development configured by capitalist ideologies turn out to be extractive in intersecting and complex ways. Projects that seek to build an incremental sustainability perpetuate the logic of unidirectional resource logic and other “human-supremacist” structures (Crist 2013). Whyte makes clear that incremental efforts to adapt without getting to the heart of colonialism’s role in climate vulnerability fail any test of adequacy. Whyte argues against the discourse of “bad luck” that global governance bodies and technocrats have recently used to diagnose the “unfortunate” fact that indigenous peoples tend to be the most exposed to climate change impacts. “The settler colonial strategies that impede adaptation today are the ones that were originally designed to facilitate carbon-intensive economic activities” (Whyte 2016, 18).

Matt Hern and Am Johal make clear the importance of having an answer to what communities are to do once fossil fuel-based capitalism is able to downshift and be replaced. They directly address the potential plight of those who have come to be dependent upon high-emissions economic lives and industries, wondering what they will do should those industries cease to exist. Hern and Johal’s book, Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale, presents an intimate portrait of oil workers and others who benefit from extraction in the Alberta Tar Sands. A boom town community adjacent to the Tar Sands, Alberta’s Fort MacMurray sees the regularly painful consequences of oil’s booms and busts: “As the price of oil slumped, everyday conversations quickly turned anxious and fatalistic, but the invocations of emergency had nothing to do with the climate: the crises in Edmonton were all about mortgages and jobs” (Hern and Johal 2018, 49). The message that emerges out of their interviews with inhabitants of boom town Alberta is that non-emitting alternatives are essential to any environmentalist program of downshifting or degrowth.

Through their book, Hern and Johal also weave interviews with several indigenous interlocutors who convince them that the road out of climate change must be significantly more decolonial than most conventional solutions being proffered in the name of sustainable development. The politics of land, they say, has yet to be incorporated into scholarship on greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. “We are convinced,” they write, “that linking the domination of people to the domination of land and the other-than-human world is a key to grasping an ecological future” (Hern and Johal 2018, 30).

Ultimately, ethnographies and anthropological critiques of sustainable development accomplish three goals. First, they root sustainable development projects as they play out at multiple scales within the structures of a contemporary capitalist discipline. This is a structure that foists the responsibility for economic improvement and environmental stewardship onto individuals tasked with becoming entrepreneurial and reducing their consumption instead of reconfiguring structures of exploitation and deprivation. It prioritizes economic sustainability above ecosystem well-being. Second, anthropologists suggest that sustaining capitalism as we know it requires high fossil fuel emissions and immense mineral resource depletion, with business as usual becoming increasingly untenable. Third, they maintain a critical commitment to economic and environmental justice at a structural, rather than incremental level. Wolfgang Sachs, in his preface to the 2010 second edition of the Development Dictionary, appreciates that “the desire for justice is intimately linked to the pursuit of development” (Sachs 2010, viii). He continues: “The longing for greater justice on the part of the [Global] South is one reason for the persistence of the development creed—even if, in this century, neither the planet nor the people of the world can any longer afford its predominance” (Sachs 2010, ix).

In linking the limits of sustainable development discourse to contemporary climate change, a program of decolonial environmental justice ethnography can illuminate the roads we may take out of emissions-intensive economies by tracking how people are remaking their economic lives on the ground.

Further Reading

  • Babb, Florence. 2018. Women’s Place in the Andes: Engaging Decolonial Feminist Anthropology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Cepek, Michael L. 2018. Life in Oil: Cofán Survival in the Petroleum Fields of Amazonia. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • García, María Elena. 2005. Making Indigenous Citizens: Identities, Education, and Multicultural Development in Peru. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Mosse, David. 2004. Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice. London, UK: Pluto Press.


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