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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 8 (2001)
Culture, Power and Environmental Argument, Hornborg, A. and Gisli
Palsson, eds. Lund, Sweden: Lund University Press (2000), 225 pp.
Reviewed by Leif John Fosse, World Wide Fund for Nature, Oslo, Norway.
This collection of essays emerged
out of a social science initiative of the Nordic Council of Ministers
Nordic Environmental Research Programme, and examines the cultural dimensions
of environmental policy negotiations. Whereas much environmental social
science research tends to focus on the institutional, legal, economic
or sociological aspects of such negotiations, the aim of these authors,
ten anthropologists and ethnologists from Sweden, Norway and Iceland,
is to highlight their symbolic, experiential, and ideological aspects.
In other words, they seek to identify the metaphors, symbols or aesthetic
ideals that implicitly frame discourses on the environment.
This review, in turn, is written
by an environmental anthropologist practitioner, rather than researcher.
Therefore, any failure to place the contributions in the proper context
of ongoing academic discourses and exchanges on the environment may be
due to the perspective of the reviewer rather than a failure of the individual
authors or editors. The editors introduction provides a good overview
of the contributors main arguments and I draw extensively on their
observations in this review.
The volume's subject matter is approached
through a diverse set of concerns with the phenomenology of tourism, landscape
conservation, environmental activism, and the practical management of
fisheries and reindeer pastures. The perspectives are too disparate; by
the editors own admission, to represent a uniform statement on how
to apply culture theory to environmental issues. There is, however, a
common preoccupation with how cultural perceptions of nature are generated.
A concluding commentary by Tim Ingold places the individual contributions
in a wider perspective in a succinct overview of anthropological approaches
to the environment.
The first five contributions are
concerned with how cultural perceptions of nature are generated at the
experiential and phenomenological level. Löfgren discusses the way
cultural ideals about the kinds of nature found worthy of protection vary
in historical time, geographical space and social context, depending on
the technology used for transportation and representing the landscape.
Svensson, in turn, observes that
the tourist industry is founded on the commoditization of landscape experiences.
Noting how nature is increasingly marketed as an experience,
she claims that the tourist industrys appeals to the picturesque,
sublime and panoramic also underlie environmental or heritage protection
Saltzman notes a similar romanticism in the landscape ideals of urban administrators and the environmental and heritage conservation policies of the EU, which are at odds with the rationalized farming practices of todays rural populations. Guided by these romantic ideals we thus find
Swedish bureaucrats praising the
past knowledge and experience of old Öland farmers, while ignoring
the rationality of their technologically and scientifically informed,
contemporary descendants. When farming methods change while landscape
ideals do not, contradictions are inevitable.
While there is no denying aesthetics
and romantic notions of nature have formed an important part of the origin
of environmental practices and policies, Svenssons observation,
in particular, may not be entirely up to date. Protection of landscapes
today forms part of the wider field of conservation, concerned with broad-based
management of ecosystems and natural resources, and involving a wide array
of actors and interests ranging from indigenous peoples, peasants and
farmers, to business people and technocrats. Today, conservation is often
informed by development research and practices, and is likely to stress
the economic function and utility value of biodiversity rather than aesthetics
and romantic values. These may, however, form part of the individual environmentalists
motivation, even for the confrontational environmental activists studied
Kapstad investigates the importance
of bodily experience in the everyday cultural practices and confrontations
with authority of environmental activists. As a liminal experience, action
operates on the edge of what is civilized and structured, and transgresses
the relation between subject and object. This allows access to a state
where I am the action, and the action is me, where doing is everything.
But their engagement, as Ingold observes in his concluding commentary,
is in fact not with the global environment for which they campaign, but
with the local authorities and symbols of power. Deep green ecologists
have the opposite problem, Hornborg observes in his contribution: The
environment they want to save is so lofty and all encompassing that it
is impossible to relate to it in a practical, embodied way.
Moving on to the cognitive and conceptual,
Jensen looks into how the notion of biodiversity has come to occupy centre
stage in environmental discourse by filling multiple functions. In the
Swedish forestry debate, the concept has apparently facilitated constructive
communication between foresters, scientists and environmentalists, by
suggesting scientific precision and a moral measure of natural values
at the same time. The concept of biodiversity, she finds, summarises all
the values which environmental groups had previously been unable to formulate.
Indeed, it forms part of a wider cultural re-evaluation of the fundamental
premises of modernity, which has until recently been identified with uniformity.
Diversity is now commonly perceived
as crucial to the survival of ecosystems as well as human cultures. The
Convention of Biodiversity, an important outcome of the 1992 Rio conference,
states that nature has intrinsic value, but places humans firmly within
that nature. Here biodiversity is viewed as a democratic right of future
generations as well as a prerequisite for the survival of future generations.
The corresponding term "cultural diversity," we may note, has
provided an important common ground for environmentalists and indigenous
Hornborg looks into the correspondence
between how humans in different cultural contexts relate to nature and
how they relate to each other through exchange. Whereas social metaphors
for human-environmental relations in pre-modern contexts have been couched
in terms of reciprocal gift giving, modern economists use terms such as
ecosystem services, natural capital, environmental costs and debts. These
projections of principles of social exchange onto humanenvironmental
relations correspond, in turn, to different cultural perceptions of the
human person, whether engaged and infused with the natural environment
or its detached observer.
Hornborg notes the ways in which
personhood, nature and exchange are conceptualized in terms of concentric,
spatial models; which in his view permit formal comparisons between pre-modern
Algonquians of northeastern North America, modern economists, and the
post-modern deep ecology movement. This argument may, however, rest on
a stereotyped view of the sociability of the Algonquians.
Helgason, OĆinsson and Pálsson
in their substantial contribution trace some of the moral and existential
consequences of the commoditization and bureaucratization of Icelandic
fishing. In order to tackle the problem of over-fishing the Icelandic
government in 1983 introduced a management system based on individual
transferable quotas (ITQs) a market approach to managing natural
resources and a radical departure from the largely unmanaged fisheries
of previous times. The fisheries soon took on the characteristics of factory
production, in that the fishermen have become passive workers while the
owners and exchangers of fishing rights are perceived as the creative
agents of economic value. Fisheries ecologists and economists have assumed
the modernist role of engineers, manipulating the configuration of variables
in a predictable system to achieve the desired outcome.
The ITQ reform was originally presented
as a temporary measure, but soon developed into a system of property rights,
and the ITQs become market commodities. The stated objectives of policy
makers had gradually shifted from the original emphasis on the protection
of fishing stocks to the economic goal of efficient production. According
to the authors, the ITQ system has violated some tacit moral tenets of
the fishermens world view , such as egalitarianism and personal
autonomy. In the share system that preceded the ITQs, the fishing enterprise
was perceived to be a joint venture, with an explicit economic recognition
that the efforts of the skipper and the crew were essential in the creation
In the new production discourse,
however, the efforts of fishermen are taken for granted, and exchange
with ITQs have replaced the act of fishing as the source of economic value.
The commoditization of fishing rights has displaced the locus of agency
associated with the fishing enterprise from the skipper and his crew on
the fishing vessel to ecological specialists and business managers on
dry land. In their argument to reclaim the role of individual skills and
agency in the fisheries as a production process, I find it puzzling that
the authors do not draw on F. Barth, who makes a similar argument in his
classic study of role play and impression management on a Norwegian fishing
But does the new system of management
solve the underlying problem of over fishing? The ecological benefits
of privatisation are a key justification for the ITQ system. This sort
of argument is usually informed by G. Hardins tragedy of the
commons (1968): it is rational for a herder on a common pasture
to add extra animals to the pasture although this will collectively result
in overgrazing. Arguing against this, the authors find that the institution
of private property cannot on its own be expected to maintain or improve
the condition of the marine habitat, contrary to the tacit assumption
of mainstream fisheries economics.
Beachs chapter on Saami reindeer
herders follows this discussion nicely by focussing on the repercussions
of regulatory mechanisms implemented to remedy the problem of overgrazing
by reindeer in northern Sweden. International conventions prescribe new
forms of natural resource management and EU membership provides the Saami
reindeer herders with new subsidies and regional aid. As Beach points
out, however, the Saami must also deal with rational herd management measures
prescribed by the authorities
Compensation payments from hydroelectric
companies that have flooded grazing lands and from the Chernobyl disaster
add considerably to Saami funds which, according to the Reindeer Herding
Act, can only be spent on the herding enterprise. This stimulates the
increased purchase of high-tech gear and the use of helicopters and transport
trucks to carry the reindeer between ranges or abattoirs. According to
Beach, these technologies impair rather than enhance fine-tuned pastoral
skills among the herders, and the reindeer lose knowledge of migration
routes and useful routines. A dilemma for the Saami herders is that the
more they utilize modern, high-tech gear and methods promoted by the state,
the less their livelihood is regarded by the rest of the society as being
an expression of Saami culture and a livelihood rightfully granted special
Some of the contributors tend to
get so carried away in their deconstructionist zeal that one is left to
wonder whether environmental problems exist at all. The eloquent concluding
commentary by Tim Ingold goes a long way in correcting this impression.
The concept of nature may be culturally constructed, he admits, in the
sense that its meaning is continually subject to negotiation in
the multiple contexts of ordinary discourse. But which elements of the
world this concept is supposed to denote, are culturally constructed as
well? "Nature" is certainly not a given pre-existing stage for
existence, but is continually negotiated. But this is a life process that
involves more than just the worlds human inhabitants.
In a fascinating argument verging
on pantheism, Ingold holds that if the concept of construction is to be
useful, we have to include the natural, physical world in it, as this
shapes the human life-world as much as it is shaped by it. Human beings,
Ingold muses, are to be found around the edges of nature, not at its core.
He proposes the term "anthropocircumferentialism" to denote
this position, which may not gain currency for the mere unutterability
On a final note, we may observe that the English of some of the Nordic authors is patchy in places, indicating the proofreading may not have been entirely up to standard.