The aurora affect

December 2, 2012

It’s official. We live in a magical universe.

I have always known this, somewhere. In my heart, in my belly, in the places where the onslaught of modernity’s cynicism has not been able to reach. But now it is confirmed. Because last night I was privileged to watch – awed and humbled – the dance of the aurora borealis across a crystal clear Arctic sky near Tromsø in Norway.

As the atmosphere erupted into shimmering sheets of light above us, I heard Francesco, a self-professed aurora addict from Italy and tonight’s Arctic Guide, say ‘words are not adequate to describe this’. I agree. Nonetheless I will try.

I saw rainbow snakes curling and unfurling. Huge elongated forms suspended unimaginably high above, stretching from dark horizon ahead to bright moon above the snow-dressed mountains behind. Immense curtains of travelling light chased each other across the sky. Sometimes these consolidated into tendrils of numinous intensity that reached out as if to connect with each other, only to dance apart again in starbursts of green energy. They became horseshoes, hearts, circles and spirals – looping whorls of brightness that opened into fans and umbrellas of falling light that filled the sky and bathed us in luminosity. Mesmerising slow undulations were followed suddenly by dancing waves of florescent pink and green light, cascading urgently through space and weaving around the moon, as if possessed by the joy of possibility itself.

Science tells us that these performances are caused by solar flares on the sun’s surface. Highly energised particles burst into massive bubbles on the sun, each up to a hundred times the size of Earth. These bubbles of excited energy push photons and electrons out into space and towards Earth’s atmosphere. Here they collide with Earth’s magnetic field.[1]. This happens to be perfectly formed so as to shield Earth’s biosphere from being torched by this energetic onslaught.[2] The moving particles constituting Earth’s magnetic field are pulled into a torus-shaped strange attractor that forms concentrated rings of magnetic energy around the latitude degrees of the high 60s and low 70s.[3] It is this that makes aurora activity visible around these latitudes in both north and south of the planet. Amazingly, although separated by thousands of miles, the shifting forms of the borealis and australis auroras are identical.

All of this is quite astonishing enough. But there are silences in science’s explanations. Science cannot tell us why the auroras dance as they do. Why they form shapes that evoke snakes, birds and rainbows, and why their tendrils of light seem sometimes to race towards each other – to reach out as if to greet and connect with one another. Science cannot predict aurora movement, or even forecast aurora activity with exactness. And it cannot explain why the aurora affect is one of the experience of consciousness, sentience, vitality and heart-opening beauty.

The stories and explanations of peoples living ancestrally with the aurora point towards different understandings. I hear that indigenous peoples of Alaska see their ancestors in the dancing lights of the auroras, reading guidance and approval for human activity in their shifting shapes and changing energetic intensity. Those of the Scandinavian Arctic regions see the souls of unborn children in the lights, as well as warning young children to behave well lest they be snatched away by the giant snakes in the sky. Whatever the variations, they seem to amplify a sense of human connectedness with the mysterious dance of the aurora. To fold the immensity of the aurora into a cultural poetics that entangles human significance with cosmic sustenance, and that reads the appropriateness of human action in aurora entrails.

Science at its best also affirms this resonance of human and cosmic. Subatomic physics tells us that we too are made of the same dancing particles of light that form the aurora. That we are simultaneously matter and energy, our bodies an ephemeral borrowing of particles that have been around for billions of years. And science also speaks of our actions bringing forth the worlds we then see.[4]

But the instrumentalist and capitalist ethos in which scientific curiosity surfaced and succeeded has pulled our attention away from these connecting meditations. In emphasising controlled environments and new orders of discrete categories it has made a fissionable world poised for capture and circulation as capital. It has unbound the bonds connecting nature’s entities, and unwoven the fabric of long-maintained cultural land-, sea- and sky-scapes. It is an orientation that makes a mockery of magic, and that creates cynics of us all.

Perhaps we can live instead as if each sound, each step, each word, each action is redolent with connecting meaning and significance. As if each moment is a possibility for re-membering the privilege of being an utterly unique and magical constellation of atoms, memories, flesh and choice-full consciousness; inhabiting an equally unique and magical universe – where an aurora of the particles of which we too are made dances regularly, and beautifully, across the sky. Affirming a capacity for wonder as a necessary human capability, and confirming the yearning to live with and be nourished by mystery as key for human flourishing.

This, for me, is the aurora affect. A reminder of the privilege of being a part of – not apart from – a universe whose unfathomable meaning communicates through the experience of magic.


1.For a short computer graphics reconstruction of this follow this link.
2. Unexpected breaches in the earth’s magnetic field, coupled with current high levels of solar activity, are causing concern about the enhanced geomagnetic storms that may occur as a result.
3. As in this image:


4. See physicist Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics.

aurora me cropped


Chess or Go?

November 28, 2012

It’s November and I am in Oslo for the Norwegian Association for Development Research conference Development for a Finite Planet: Grassroots Perspectives and Responses to Climate Change, Resource Extraction and Economic Development. The conference has collected together an array of fascinating papers on local engagements with, and contestations of, environmental issues, in contexts as far apart as South Africa’s townships and the Amazon forests of Ecuador. I have been invited to be the discussant for the three papers constituting one of two partner panels on Resistance to Environmental Interventions, consisting of papers by both established and up and coming researchers on resource access and social justice issues. This post is constituted by my notes in response to the following papers:

George Holmes (Leeds University, UK) The politics of scale, hegemony, and resistance to a protected area in the Dominican Republic.

Narayana Rakesh, Darley Jose Kjosavik and N. Shanmugaratram (all at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, UMB) Confronting neo-liberal appropriation: slums as land occupation movements by Dalits in Bangalore, India.

Clare Tompsett (Norwegian University of Life Sciences, UMB) Community forests for subsistence or business? The ‘re-assemblage’ of the van panchayats.

The papers in this panel provide detail for particular circumstances that I am not directly familiar with, so I learned a lot from them about the complex ways that state-corporate structuring and governmentalityi is playing out in specific contexts; as well as the particular patternings of fortune and misfortune that are deepening as a result.

For example, in the paper on slums as occupation movements in Bangalore, India, presented by Darley Kjosavik, rural patterns of exclusion for Dalit slum dwellers are reproduced in urban areas of Bangalore, at the same time as neo-liberal policies are also reproducing caste inequalities through strengthening caste-based exclusions from access to resources. In George Holmes’ paper on resistance to a protected area in the Dominican Republic, élite capture of the forest reserve in this case echoes former kleptocraticii structures associated with Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, under which the appropriation of Forest Reserve land and resources prior to Trujillo’s assassination in 1961 was severe enough to receive mention on Wikipedia. And in Claire Tompsett’s paper, new Ecosystem Services and REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) discourses applied to Himalayan forests are creating innovative ways of leveraging new monetary values from nature. These are attracting a new layer of actors and organisations interested in these new values, and are redirecting traditional co-management institutions (van panchayats) so that they facilitate market access to these values.

At same time, these structures are continually being reshaped through the agency of those they affect – through varied strategies of alignment, resistance and forms of struggle. The detail provided in this panel regarding how this is playing out ‘on the ground’ links the papers in this panel coherently with those in the partner panel yesterday: by Conor Cavanagh (UMB/York University, Canada) and Tor A. Benjaminsen (UMB) on The art of resisting green governance: linking cases from Mali, Tanzania and Uganda; Faustin Maganga (Dar es Salaam University, Tanzania) on Resistance to BINGO-sponsored conservation in Tanzania: insights from participatory management of water, forest and wildlife resources; Sayuni Mariki (UMB), Hanne Svarstad (NINA, Oslo) and Tor A. Benjaminsen (UMB) on Elephants over the cliff: explaining wildlife killings in Tanzania; and Hanne Svarstad (NINA), Helga Kerkelund (NINA/SUM) and Tor A. Benjaminsen (UMB) on The tourism success of Kilimanjaro National Park: the identification and explanation of a local counter-narrative of exclusion. .

The current global moment of post financial crisis is particularly potent for the study of these dynamics. This is permitting restructuring and austerity strategies that are opening up new possibilities for resource access, and as such are justifying a deepening of pressures on varied locations and populations – often mediated by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). So, in the India case study presented by Darley Kjosavik, austerity and financial self-sufficiency agendas are justifying a grabbing of urban land and resources, through reconstituting slums as valuable real estate. This requires the eviction of slum dwellers – who of course happen to be of the scheduled castes. The authors of the India paper correctly identify this as a form of contemporary primitive accumulation.iii Such processes connect slum dwellers in Bangalore, to circumstances such as those now prevailing in Greece – where land and natural resources are being parcelled up and made available to outside investors under the sorts of IMF structural adjustment policies previously more familiar to countries in Africa. And of course many of the case studies presented in this panel and the partner panel yesterday afternoon provide detail regarding the implications of various forms of ‘green grabbing’, or the grabbing of conserved nature value made possible through creation of new markets in monetized measures of an increasingly scarce, and therefore valuable, nature health. These interventions construe biodiverse and carbon-rich landscapes as new sources of monetary value, through their standardisation and conversion into REDD+ and other forms of conservation credits.

George Holmes in his paper identifies an important and constantly negotiated binary between, ‘a top down, distant state creating protected area territories – and local communities who try and reshape these protected area territories to their liking’. The papers in this panel indicate that this binary can also be seen between REDD+ ready territories and developable urban land, on the one hand, and local communities engaging with these incursions on the other. These are all processes of de- and re- territorialisation that constituting basic and ongoing contestations over access and meaning in relation to land and resources that become poised for state-corporate capture and value accumulation.

In thinking through these connections between the papers presented in this panel it seems worth drawing some more attention to this. I think the productive tensions generated by this binary provide a way to link these papers, as well as to distil a key aspect present in many of the papers I have heard at this conference.

In all of these papers there seems to be a deepening of a situation whereby outside interests are cloaking areas in standardised forms of rationalisation, regulation and accounting that usually have little to do with local values, practices and organisations (and may even constitute radical departures from underlying local ontologies – i.e assumptions about the nature of the world that is inhabited). This creates a productive tension between these different interests, and importantly between the very different logics that animate them. Whilst the specific ways in which these tensions play out in different contexts are different in each of the case studies, it strikes me that there are also a lot of connecting similarities.

As such, I think we can perhaps introduce a bit more theoretical liveliness in thinking through the correspondences between the cases presented here – which all describe dynamics of both state-corporate capture and of local reshaping, resistance and contestation. I am reminded here of work by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and particularly their piece on what they call ‘nomadology’ in A Thousand Plateaus (1988(1980) London: The Athlone Press).

In this they call us to think about the repeated productive tensions that are generated as the rationality of the state-capital relation seeks to create and incorporate layers of human and natural ‘capital’ that otherwise exist in a relation of exteriority to state management. Such incorporation tends to be resisted, because it entails losses of freedom, autonomy, and emplaced practices that function through different rhythms and rationalities. They refer to the polarities of this binary as State or Royal science on the one hand, and Nomad science on the other.

One way to conceptualise this is to think of the structural differences between the games Chess and Go (cf. Deleuze and Guattari op cit. p.389).

chess & go

Chess is organised into strict striations of space – both physical and conceptual. Movement through space is highly controlled and the pieces played with are constituted of formalised identities that are hierarchically organised and that can only act and move in pre-defined ways.

The sorts of nature counting that is occurring today to make PES and REDD+ schemes possible, are examples of the ways in which state science incorporates landscapes, and peoples’ relationships with these, through standardised mapping technologies that in theory can be replicated, regardless of where they are being rolled out. In this way, local contexts globally are submitted ‘… to civil and metric rules that strictly limit, control, localize’ (Deleuze and Guattari, op cit. p.363). These rationalisations currently are part and parcel of the juggernaut of green neoliberal governmentality – which seeks to create opportunities for incursions of finance into the sustainability frontier, so as to create new financial value and thus contribute to so-called ‘green growth’. It is encapsulated by the dictum that ‘you cannot manage what you cannot measure’, as repeated at every opportunity by Pavan Sukdhev.iv

The game ‘Go’, on the other hand, works to different logics. The space of movement is relatively free of rigid boundaries and divisions; the rhythm of play involves unpredictable moments of both stasis and effervescence; its pieces are identical pellets organised along relatively nonhierarchical lines. In this game, power emanates more from situations in specific circumstances, rather than from hierarchically organised and rigid identities.

Deleuze and Guattari use the metaphor of the game Go to describe the logics of contexts existing, or desiring to exist, in relations of exteriority to the state-capital alliance.

In the contexts described in the case studies of this panel and the partner panel yesterday we see how the state-capital alliance creates new forms of accounting for, i.e. regularising landscapes – both rural and urban, natural resources and peoples, so as to further entrench neoliberal forms of governmentality and thus also release to new value. As such the striations of state science are deepened. We also see the creative ways in which recipient peoples are variously shaping, resisting and escaping these striations, so as to retain some form of autonomy in an ongoing context that is basically imperialistic. The complexity seen in the different cases is generated by the productive tensions between these different logics. As such, there is something akin to a ‘pattern that connects’ the different cases, even though the specific details of how this plays out clearly are diverse.

To close then, given the regularising and accumulating juggernaut of the state-capital alliance – and the environmental degradations, systemic inequities and structural violence with which it is associated – the question I seem to always be left with, is – how is it possible to create, embed and amplify new forms of socio-environmental organisation that move things in a different direction? The papers presented in these two panels seem to confirm a situation whereby, whatever people do to assert sovereignty over local and often ancestral circumstances, they frequently and/or ultimately lose out to the broader structural forces of the state-capital relation and its guiding logics. If this is the case, then as scholars concerned with describing and diagnosing the contemporary distribution of fortune and misfortune, how might we support each other to contribute work that offers different tools for conceptualising, and assisting struggle, so as to compose futures in which both human and nonhuman diversities flourish? So, I suppose that a question to ask here is this: how might we as scholars contest structural dynamics so as to refract, as well as to describe, the inequities that frequently constitute the material of our research?

i I use ‘governmentality’ in a Foucaultian sense, as a consideration of the praxes, discourses and institutions that are empowered to govern the ‘conduct of conduct’ («conduire des conduites», Foucault, M. 1994 Dits et écrits IV. Paris: Gallimard, p.237, see Foucault blog).

ii I.e. in which corrupt government practices act blatantly to increase the personal wealth and political power of a ruling class of elites at the expense of the wider population, see Kleptocracy).

iii Primitive accumulation was the term deployed by Marx (Marx K (1974 [1867]) Capital, Vol I (trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling). London: Lawrence and Wishart) to denote the initial creation and capture of surplus necessary for all subsequent capitalist relations of production and exchange. For Marx, the two critical enclosures are of land as property and human activity as labour, but the term primitive accumulation can apply to the enclosure and commodification of any productive forces that are not a priori manufactured for sale. Such appropriations require dramatic, albeit subsequently naturalised, conceptual transformations. The conversion of land into private property, thus requires the rejection of prior values, access or use rights so that land itself becomes capital that can be owned for most intents and purposes absolutely. Marx presciently stated that “[a]s soon as capitalist production is on its own legs, it not only maintains this separation [of labour from the means of capitalist production], but reproduces it on a continually extending scale” (Marx 1974 [1867):668). Massimo de Angelis (2001 Marx and primitive accumulation: the continuous character of capital’s “enclosures”. The Commoner 2) thus refers to the ontological, as opposed to historical, condition of capitalist production. Many other authors have stressed this ongoing nature of “primitive accumulation”, from Rosa Luxemburg writing in 1913 (Luxemburg, R. 2003(1913) The Accumulation of Capital. London: Routledge), to David Harvey writing in 2010, whose reframing of primitive accumulation as ‘accumulation by dispossession’ speaks volumes about the consequences of such capture (Harvey, D. 2010 The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. London: Profile Books). As such, recent analyses frame the process as “continuous” (de Angelis op cit.), “permanent” (Bonefeld, W. 2001 The permanence of primitive accumulation: Commodity fetishism and social constitution. The Commoner 2; Harvey, D. 1975 The geography of capitalist accumulation: a reconstruction of the Marxian theory. Antipode 7(2):9–21) and “contemporary” (Glassman, J. 2006 Primitive accumulation, accumulation by dispossession, accumulation by “extra-economic” means. Progress in Human Geography 30(5):608–625). I discuss the forms and implications of current primitive accumulations of newly monetised and financialised ‘natures’ in the paper Banking Nature? The spectacular financialisation of environmental conservation.

iv Pavan Sukhdev is a career banker from Deutsche Bank and head of the globally influential UN/EU programme The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). He is a founder-CEO of GIST Advisory, ‘a specialist consulting firm which helps governments and corporations discover, measure, value, and manage their impacts on natural and human capital’ and author of the recently published Corporation2020, a text and movement that urges firms to become multiple win ‘capital factories’, that ‘produce a surplus of all types of capital — financial, natural, human’.

After the green rush? Biodiversity offsets, uranium power and the ‘calculus of casualties’ in greening growth

April 24, 2012

Download full paper


Biodiversity offsets are part of a new suite of biodiversity conservation instruments designed to mitigate the impacts of economic developments on species, habitats and ecosystems. Led by an international collaboration of representatives from companies, financial institutions, governments and NGOs, the Business and Biodiversity Offsets Programme (BBOP) of the market-oriented Forest Trends group, has created a global framework through which principles and standards for biodiversity offsets are being established. These enable the apparently unavoidable harm caused by development to be exchanged for investment in conservation activities both at different geographical locations and in the future. Offsets can also be traded via bespoke markets for environmental conservation indicators. Given a globalising ‘green economy’ discourse that conservation can be a profitable enterprise if guided by market-based mechanisms and the entwining of ecological with economic categories, biodiversity offsets are becoming part of current entrepreneurial interest in biodiversity conservation. The green rush of my title refers to both this interest in conservation activities that can be marketised, and to an associated appetite in business and financial sectors for incorporating biodiversity offsets as part of a strategy for ‘greening’ the environmental harm caused by developments. Through a case-study connecting the extraction of uranium in Namibia for the generation of nuclear power in the UK, in which biodiversity offsets are invoked for the off-site mitigation of environmental harm at both ends of this commodity chain, I explore some implications of this new greening mechanism. I focus on 1. the (un)ecological assumptions guiding biodiversity offsets in organising complex ecological assemblages to serve ‘sustainable development’, and 2. some of the equity implications of the distributions and allocations of new environmental values that seem likely to arise from these.

Key terms: biodiversity offsets, uranium, nuclear power, Business and Biodiversity Offsets Programme (BBOP), Hinkley Point (UK), Namibia, EDF, Areva, value, mitigation hierarchy, conservation

Green: Going Beyond ‘the Money Shot’

October 21, 2011


Green is a 2009 film depicting deforestation of Indonesian tropical forest to make way for industrial palm oil plantations, seen through the experience of a particular injured and displaced orangutan called ‘Green’. It is made by French independent film-maker Patrick Rouxel. At the biennial WildScreen film festival of 2010, the largest global gathering of the natural history film industry, it attracted attention through winning a prestigious WWF ‘panda award’ for best film. This is an award usually associated with the exquisite work that can arise with much larger budgets and available through more formal and lucrative distribution channels.

I was privileged to be one of several academics who attended the 2010 WildScreen film festival as part of an AHRC-funded research network called ‘Spectacular Environmentalisms’ (AH/H039279/1). We have since created a website called Studying Green. This consists of a series of short essays by our team, reflections and response by Green’s creator Patrick Rouxel, and a range of study suggestions and aids. Our intention is to draw attention to this significant environmental film and the complex and disturbing issues it raises regarding the transformation of societies and ecosystems in service to global commodity markets. I reproduce my essay ‘Green: going beyond the money shot’ here.


In Green we bear witness to the violent stripping of vibrant, diverse and dynamic forested landscapes to make way for industrial palm oil monoculture. Communities of elephant, families of orangutan, and the multispecies weave of old-growth forest are felled to make way for the single West African palm species (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.) and its attendant ecology of workers, consumers and machines. We are soothed by the voice of the forest, as it speaks in layers of animal and bird calls, wind rustling through trees, and running water; then to be aurally assaulted by the harsh and relentless noise of machines, themselves intimately associated with the fossil fuels that palm oil biofuels seek to replace. Both landscapes are green, and both might claim the nomenclature of ‘forest’. But the qualitative biophysical, economic, cultural and affective differences between them are acute. The complex commodity assemblage that arises in service to palm oil production communicates and interacts with us in a different mode to that of the forested cultural landscape it displaces. This is the language of industrial and finance capital, and of life and labour as alienated commodity. It replaces a language of socio-ecological relationships rooted in places, with one of extraction and conversion to satisfy distant demands and hungers.

In between is a wound that can never be fully masked. The transition between these two green landscapes requires nothing less than a scorched earth policy. Palm monoculture plantations can only be planted in cleared land. They encourage the ripping away of unique forest expressions of emplaced evolution to create a ground zero moment of apocalyptic desolation. In Green, this is signified by the haunting and traumatising image of an isolated orangutan mother and baby scrabbling up the last remaining tree in a futile attempt to escape the destruction that is all around. The dehumanising brutality of this transformation speaks further as we watch a retrieved, lone orangutan being transported in the back of a truck. None of the onlookers appear able to feel enough to stop its head from repetitively hitting the hard metal of the truck floor, or to comfort and connect through gentle physical contact. And it is almost too shocking to write of the image of an orangutan stretched out on bare earth between cords tied to ankles and wrists.

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The making of a one-handed economist

October 20, 2011

Read my Dad’s book, The Making of a One-handed Economist! It’s available here.

I am of course biased. Nevertheless I do think that this is a super antidote to the great number of dry, academic textbooks out there on economics. Dad manages to convey complex economic theory with humour and without equations, drawing on many years’ teaching undergraduates at what is now Oxford Brookes University. He offers insight into the contributions and (dys)functioning of economic theories in ‘developing’ country contexts, drawing on work as a teacher, development economist and management consultant in countries including Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, Bangladesh, Malawi and South Africa. And his closing chapters taught me a great deal about the unintuitive and ungrounded thinking that has generated contemporary financial crisis. It will be great for students embarking on degrees in Development Studies, Development Economics, and cognate disciplines; for those embarking on or involved in work associated with ‘developing’ country contexts; and for anyone interested in global inequity, political economy and the roots of current crisis. Enjoy!

A techno-recipe for making nature the friend of capital

June 7, 2011

2011 marks the 200 year anniversary of the Luddite rebellion in the UK. The Luddite’s were workers whose livelihoods, cottage industries and communities were disenfranchised by capital intensive innovations in industrial technologies, primarily in the textile industry. Organising under a fictional leader called Ned Lud, they contested the transformations of their lives and productive autonomy by breaking the mechanised cloth-weaving frames of the new factories, particularly in Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. They were violently resisted by the growth-oriented state of the day, resulting in the hanging of dozens of the movement’s key protagonists.

Today the word ‘Luddite’ is used pejoratively to describe someone who is technophobic and resistant to technological innovation. This overlooks the incisive understanding held by the Luddites of the death-knell that capital investment and mechanisation can spell for relatively self-sufficient communities and associated productive ways of living.

A recent issue of the magazine The Land brings together a range of articles and commentaries to commemorate the Luddite rebellion and consider its relevance for the transformations faced globally today. In it I have a short piece that considers the roles of new Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs), predominantly in the form of internet-mediated financial markets, in shaping and structuring new environmental markets for the mitigation of environmental problems. I suggest that although touted to permit reductions of environmental problems, these actually facilitate environmental transformation through development at the same time as enhancing the ways in which environmental degradation can mutate into money-making and investment opportunities for financiers and business. You can download the article here.

To celebrate Earth Day 2011

April 22, 2011

To mark Earth Day on 22nd April I was invited to reprint a short article on the theme of ‘Bioculturalism and economic growth’ for the Indian environmental magazine Geography and You. You can find it here: Download

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