A New ‘Imperial Ecology’?

Ecosystem service commodities – A new ‘imperial ecology’? Implications for animist immanent ecologies, with Deleuze and Guattari

In New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, special issue on Imperial Ecologies (2010, vol. 69: 111-128). (First presented at a conference on Deleuze and Activism, The Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory, Cardiff University, 12-13 November 2009).

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Who gives a chicken’s fart about the Garden of Eden and rural tranquillity and improbable things like that? No one thinks about that stuff any more. No one believes in it. All we care about is the next pay packet, the next meal, the next gratification, the next party, the next football match, the next sensation. (Ben Okri, In Arcadia, pp. 7-8).


In 1944, as the Nazi Reich was drawing its final breaths, the economic historian Karl Polanyi wrote in The Great Transformation that ‘[w]hat we call land is an element of nature inextricably interwoven with man’s [sic] institutions. To isolate it and form a market for it was perhaps the weirdest of all the undertakings of our ancestors.’ He continued by noting that:

… in the field of modern colonization… the true significance of such a venture becomes manifest. Whether the colonist needs land as a site for the sake of the wealth buried in it, or whether he merely wishes to constrain the native to produce a surplus of food and raw materials, is often irrelevant; nor does it make much difference whether the native works under the direct supervision of the colonist or only under some form of indirect compulsion, for in every and any case the social and cultural system of native life must first be shattered.

In the same year, the free market economist Friedrich von Hayek published The Road to Serfdom. This seminal work fixes the intellectual argument for a global self-regulating market economy, claiming that this is the only form of political economy that will avoid the serfdom and totalitarianism Hayek saw as flowing inevitably from any planned collectivist or centrally regulated productive system. The road instead was to be open for a capitalist trade of commodities, goods and services extending into all domains of the earth and directed by market prices; enfolded in a monetary system controlled by haute finance – an international banking coalition whose financial freedom was ensured through the release of money’s value from the material constraint of the gold standard.

Hayek’s ‘manifesto’, its elaboration by neoclassical economist luminaries such as the Chicago School of Economists and their most well-known protagonist, Milton Friedman, and its extension globally through a realpolitik of ‘economic hitmen’, CIA ‘jackals’, and military adventure, guide global capitalism today, structuring both social and socio-environment relations. This global machine has required the iterative ‘disembedding’ of people from land, and of land from ‘nature’, in service to the exchange of ‘fictitious commodities’, namely land, money and labour. These become subsumed under the market mechanism through their radical ideational transformation into the commodity form, and not because they come into existence through their initial material creation as such. The widening disjunctions between human and non-human worlds that this produces are fuelled further by increased capture of nature’s sensual reality into the prolific and endlessly exchangeable spectacle of ‘celluloid nature’; paradoxically making nature’s screened and replicated presence both more vividly consumable, at the same time as being somehow less experientially reachable.

How are we to understand the structuring and alienating effects of these contexts as they proliferate in management of ‘the global environment’ and in the production of new ‘imperial ecologies’? How might the assumed epistemologies and ontologies of human/non-human relationships from which they flow be opened up and discussed freely? What theoretical resources are to hand to assist with a problematisation of current unfoldings of these dynamics in the globally urgent arena of ecological crisis?

In this article I extend a response to these questions by drawing into the frame some of the theoretical reflections and concepts of post-structuralist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. I rely mostly on the ‘plateau’ 1730 entitled ‘Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible…’ in their co-produced A Thousand Plateaus; as well as on Guattari’s later essay The Three Ecologies. Sometimes it can appear that a celebration of ‘Deleuzian thought’ that opens up and radicalises modern biosubjectivities, also can leave us in a place where this radicalisation is a liberation only of our-selves, in relation to the big constructing and constraining ‘Daddy’ of capitalist and patriarchal authority. But Deleuze and Guattari’s work also is much to do with ‘the schizoid and social(ised) self’ as always opening out to, and both mutually constituting and being constituted by, non-human worlds. As such it becomes a phenomenological movement towards thinking ‘the self’ as earthed and embedded with, not in, its ‘environments’: ‘environment’ here being the ‘plane of Nature’ that is ‘a plane of proliferation, peopling and contagion’ – and of process, movement and participatory compositions – beyond the dualism of natural and artificial.

To explore this and bring these gestures into the entwined domains of ‘culture’ and ‘ecology’, I want to ask how some of this provocative writing might inform understandings of both the opportunities for capitalism created by contemporary ecological crisis, and the possibilities for a critical political reframing and response. The remainder of this article is structured around the juxtaposition of two very different expressions of culture/nature relationships. The first is a current ‘imperial ecology’ constituted by the ideational transformation of ‘the environment’ into new commodity fictions called ‘ecosystem services’. These are becoming new units of environmental health and degradation that can be paid for, offset and exchanged at various scales, and in which proliferating innovations and investments are occuring in their ‘packaging’ and trade in new markets. I suggest that this transformation intensifies a classical and modern desire for the release of culture from nature, even as its market rhetoric speaks of a greater valuing of ‘nature’. The second is the possibility and implications of an animist ‘immanent ecology’ in which the human/non-human nexus is more explicitly experienced as one of intersubjective intensities and shared sentience.11 Here I work primarily with ethnographic material from Damara or ≠Nū Khoen people indigenous to north-west Namibia. My intention is to bring some of Deleuze and Guattari’s profound suggestions to bear in understanding the constitutive conditions in which these different expressions arise, and the social and environmental trajectories they may bring forth and sustain.

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