Anthropological Visions of Sustainable Futures, 12-14 Feb 2015

Gillian Conquest & Cathryn Townsend
PhD Students
University College London

The issue of sustainability is making us mad, claimed Bruno Latour in the keynote speech that opened Anthropological Visions of Sustainable Futures (12 – 14 February 2015), the inaugural conference of the new Centre for the Anthropology of Sustainability (CAOS) at University College London (UCL). To fight this madness all collectivities need to specify their attachment to the world – that is, the multiplicity of ways in which they go about “worlding” (Haraway, 2008). Anthropology is key to this endeavour, he claimed, because we need to find ways of comparing different ways of worlding without rendering them commensurable to each other. But at issue is whether we have enough of a stable Earth to entertain sustainable visions of multiple futures – and if we do not, then how do we enter into collaboration with all those with whom we share this position of instability? Latour’s opener set the scene for three stimulating days that brought together anthropologists who are engaging with sustainability issues in a multiplicity of ways. The second day began with a further keynote from Henrietta Moore, in which she challenged the four panels who would follow to address the question of what, exactly, does sustainability sustain, and what then might the concept do for anthropology?

The first panel, Institutions, Discourses and Effects, began with Katherine Homewood demonstrating that Wildlife Management Areas in Tanzania are part of a wider pattern of land grabs in which institutional narratives of environmental degradation serve the process of accumulation through dispossession on the part of elites. James Fairhead and Dominique Millimouno argued that international and local narratives of sustainability often conflict with one another; the former attributes an outbreak of ebola in Guinea to deforestation while the latter references the capriciousness of outsiders and the inequalities they bring to bear on local lives. Describing the state and institutional level of conservation management as “nature’s caring machine”, geographer Bill Adams criticized its top-down commoditized approach. He proposed that conservation should involve a diversity of approaches, rather than the relentless pursuit of efficiency. All speakers on this panel voiced concern about the way that local forms of engaging with the environment are subordinated to international narratives of sustainability.

The second panel was entitled Ecology and Sustainable Transformations. Laura Rival contended that the oxymoron “sustainable development” has been replaced with the term “sustainability”, requiring from anthropology an explanation of the “development” that has been elided: how people conceptualise nature and act in it under current conditions of economic development and globalisation. Manuela Carnerio da Cunha argued that indigenous societies value diversity for its own sake, which encourages the conservation and production of biodiversity. She related this to the law identified by Schrodinger and Georgescu-Roegen that diversity, or low entropy, is essential for life. Raising an interesting case study of the invasive spread of ash dieback fungus that is threatening Europe’s ash tree populations and the ecologies that depend on them, Anna Tsing talked about the need for anthropologists to react to how industrialization has changed basic ecological processes. Expressing unease about global tendencies towards homogenization, this panel highlighted particularly the effect on ecologies.

The first panel of the third day was entitled Sustainable Ontologies and opened with Arturo Escobar returning to Henrietta Moore’s keynote question, “what is it that we are trying to sustain?” In Escobar’s view, the answer is to design a “Pluriverse” – the possibility for living relational worlds and ontologies which have been “squeezed out of existence” by neoliberal globalisation’s commitment to creating a “One World World” (Law, 2011). Yet while Escobar presented ontologies as wholes that come into conflict with each other, Kirsten Hastrup’s paper, rooted in a historical analysis of hunting communities in the High Arctic, presented them as internally conflicted and conflicting, arguing that notions of sustainability need to be more pragmatic and less classificatory if they are to be compatible with actual lived worlds. In the final paper, Signe Howell questioned the utility of presenting different worlds as radically incommensurable, arguing that in their engagements with policymakers and planners anthropologists need to be willing to render complexity comprehensible if cultural difference is to be taken seriously.

While the morning’s discussions all hinged in some way on a commitment to exploring pragmatic solutions, it was the afternoon’s panel “Anthropocene”, “Capitalocene” and the Multiplicity of Gaia where three experimental ideas were presented for practical alternatives to the neo-liberal capitalism that both drives unsustainability and simultaneously informs most current approaches to sustainable development. Alf Hornborg addressed the way in which the technology of money has encouraged the destructive assumption that all values are commensurable, proposing that states could reintroduce different spheres of value by issuing a complementary currency to be used solely for the purchase of locally produced goods and services. Mauro Almeida proposed substituting “ontological anarchy” for the state of increasing entropy brought about by sustainable development, envisioning that non-directed local experiments, ideas and modes of being could be supported by collectivities networked through digital communications technologies. Finally, Veronica Strang urged that coherent, integrated, cross-disciplinary collaborations, led by anthropologists, are necessary if we are to build a complete and bioethically balanced picture of human and non-human interactions.

Clearly reworlding is necessary, concluded Jerome Lewis, co-director of CAOS alongside Marc Brightman, and charged with the complex task of summing up all of the wide ranging papers, responses and discussions. Characterising anthropology as a feral discipline that “eats away at the uncomfortable foundations of problems”, he ended the day with a call to embrace decay – because it is ultimately the decay of the old order that will make available the conditions for the pluriverse to thrive. It was an upbeat note on which to end a conference that had detailed so many challenges, threats, and opportunities concerning anthropology’s engagement with sustainability, and the key task now for both organisers and attendees is to keep the momentum, conversations and suggestions for practical actions going.



Haraway, Donna 2008. When species meet. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.
Law, John 2011. What’s wrong with a one world world.