On non-equilibrium and nomadism:
knowledge, diversity and global modernity in drylands (and beyond …)
forthcoming in Pimbert, M. (ed.) Reclaiming Knowledge for Diversity, Earthscan London. (with Kathy Homewood).
Drylands worldwide, together with the variously nomadic peoples who live there, are associated with the incidence of poverty and environmental degradation. Corresponding assertions of pending social and ecological collapse have paved the way for hegemonic development and policy interventions focusing on the settlement of formerly mobile populations, reductions of livestock numbers, land privatisation and shifts towards commercial and tightly regulated production. Despite the wealth of expertise and monetary resources involved, however, these initiatives have rarely been successful, either in socio-economic or environmental terms. Our aim in this paper is to engage critically with the conceptual underpinnings and empirical consequences of a globalising modernity as these have played out in dryland environments, and in relation to practices of mobility amongst the peoples with whom such environments are associated. We draw on a debate that exists in ecology regarding the sources and types of dynamic behaviour driving ecological systems. Drylands have become a particular focus of this debate. In these environments extreme and unpredictable variability in rainfall are considered (by some) to confer non-equilibrium dynamics by continually disrupting the tight consumer resource relations that otherwise would pull the components of the system towards equilibrium. This implies that livestock grazing in drylands, widely thought to cause degradation and ‘desertification’ through detrimental management practices including mobility and the maximising of herd reproductive rates, in fact might not be causing irreversible ecological change. Or at least not through exceeding a density-dependent equilibrial relationship with forage availability. We attempt to extend discussion by thinking through the cultural and historical contexts leading to a particular ‘shoehorning’ of the dynamics associated with nonequilibrium and nomadism into a conceptual framework that emphasises the desirability of stability, equilibrium and predictability. In doing so, we draw on the explanatory power of theories of conceptual and ritual purification (associated with anthropologist Mary Douglas); of the empowered panopticon society with its requirements for diffuse and minutely controlled surveillance and regulation (cf. Foucault), and of the ideological differences between State and Nomad science as considered by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.
An earlier version of this paper was published in 2003 as
Working Paper 122 of the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation (CGSR), online here.