“A Manifesto for Abundant Futures”

Rosemary-Claire Collard, Jessica Dempsey, and Juanita Sundberg. 2015. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Vol. 105, No. 2, pp. 322-330.
The concept of the Anthropocene is creating new openings around the question of how humans ought to intervene in the environment. In this article, we address one arena in which the Anthropocene is prompting a sea change: conservation. The path emerging in mainstream conservation is, we argue, neoliberal and postnatural. We propose an alternative path for multispecies abundance. By abundance we mean more diverse and autonomous forms of life and ways of living together. In considering how to enact multispecies worlds, we take inspiration from Indigenous and peasant movements across the globe as well as decolonial and postcolonial scholars. With decolonization as our principal political sensibility, we offer a manifesto for abundance and outline political strategies to reckon with colonial-capitalist ruins, enact pluriversality rather than universality, and recognize animal autonomy. We advance these strategies to support abundant socioecological futures.

What becomes of conservation—a field that has long defined itself as protecting nature from humanity—in a time when human impacts reach every corner of the planet?

Many conservationists, it seems, would argue that the defense of natural spaces has never been more urgent than it is now.  As Michael Soulé puts it, “The worth of nature is beyond question and our obligation to minimize its gratuitous degradation is no less.”  Others, however, are disillusioned with the notion of pristine nature and have instead embraced the idea that we live in a “postnatural” world.  “Conservationists,” Kareiva and colleagues argue, “will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness […] and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision. […] [We] need to acknowledge that a conservation that is only about fences, limits, and far away places only a few can actually experience is a losing proposition.”

No single factor can account for the emergence of postnatural conservation—resilience theory, postequilibrium ecology, ecosystems services, climate change, and the Anthropocene proposal itself all come readily to mind.  But, whatever its causes, the postnatural turn suggests the prospect of new common ground with environmental social scientists, philosophers, and historians for whom nature has always been a problematic category.  This is, after all, similar to what we’ve been saying all along.

But is the “new” conservation really what we had in mind?  In their new article, “A Manifesto for Abundant Futures,” geographers Collard, Dempsey, and Sundberg raise several important concerns about conservation’s postnatural turn and offer an alternative set of conservation principles.  What I’d like to do here is very briefly highlight their concerns before commenting (again briefly) on their proposed alternatives.

Collard and her colleagues’ concerns about postnatural conservation revolve around its close connection to neoliberal managerialism.  Postnatural approaches to conservation, they explain, typically call for the use of economic incentives to promote environmentally sustainable practices.  Under this model, human (economic) wellbeing is seen as the tide that raises all ecological ships, and economic optimization the standard according to which competing tradeoffs are weighed.  Meanwhile, postnatural conservation breaks with traditional conservation by orienting itself toward the future rather than the past.  Its focus is not on restoring degraded landscapes to a past condition or addressing the historical roots of contemporary problems, but rather on looking hopefully toward a prosperous, globally integrated future.

This combination of anthropocentrism, instrumentalism, futurism, and globalism make postnatural conservation an excellent fit for neoliberal managerialism, not for critical environmental studies.  Hence, the authors suggest, “new” conservation may actually reinforce the “old” political-economic system at the root of our global ecological crisis.  Their concerns clearly resonate with those I have raised in prior posts.

What, then, is the alternative Collard and her colleagues envision?  I will not attempt a full summary here—the article itself is a great read!  Instead, I will offer a few comments on how their vision of conservation fits into the themes that emerged through our recent Habitation in the Anthropocene project.

History: As a corrective to the ahistorical futurism and market triumphalism of postnatural conservation, the authors center their approach on addressing the accumulated experiences of social and ecological suffering that characterize the Anthropocene.  Instead of bracketing ecocide, they propose looking back to past nonhuman abundance as an aspirational benchmark for the future.  Likewise, they cite work being done by a host of social and environmental justice movements and call for “political struggle grounded in decolonizing” (p. 326).  Not unlike Asa’s post about the “multitemporal” nature of human-environment interactions, the “Manifesto” conditions future habitability on dealing with the complex inheritances of the past.

Future: Like postnatural conservation, Collard and her colleagues seek to foster a sense of hope that the future will be abundant (as per the definition in their abstract).  Their hope, however, is not for a future dominated by economic rationality, but for a plurality of futures where less instrumental and anthropocentric standards for good living have a chance to define abundance in new ways.  In particular, they highlight Leanne Simpson’s work on the Anishinaabeg concept of mino bimaadiziwin, which denotes “promoting life” or “continuous rebirth” and suggests an “alternative to worlds that are enacted through utilitarianism and extraction” (p. 328).  Finally, they do not look to managerial, market-based solutions within the current global system, but instead insist that “creating conditions for abundance necessitates enacting alternatives to imperial capitalism” (p. 323).

Agency: Against the human exceptionalism of postnatural conservation, they make “multispecies entanglements” foundational to their approach.  They tie the wellbeing of humans to that of nonhumans and, in so many words, propose a relational ethics for multispecies cohabitation.  Although they join postnatural conservation in rejecting the concept of wilderness, they seek to preserve that of wildness so as to recognize “animal autonomy,” meaning “the fullest expression of animal life, including capacity for movement, for social and familial association, and for work and play” (p. 328).  Finally, they advocate “acting pluriversally”—an ontological orientation that aims for radical openness to different ways of bringing the world into being.  In this way, their vision leaves open possibilities for multiple, self-determined futures in a way that postnatural conservation does not.

Limits: The authors acknowledge the material limits to habitability—and in particular how these have been reached as a result of capitalist imperialism and experienced most acutely by politically marginalized humans and nonhumans.  However, as my comments above should make clear, their vision focuses mostly on moral limits to habitability, particularly those involving social justice, animal autonomy, and self-determination.

I hope that “A Manifesto for Abundant Futures” will be read widely.  I share with its authors the sense that the Anthropocene is at best “a spark that will light a fire in our imaginaries” (p. 326) and their hope that we can again achieve “a world literally filled to the brim with different creatures” (p. 321).

William Cronon. 1995. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., pp. 69-90. This highly influential essay historicizes the concept of “wilderness” in the US context and explains why tropes of “pristine nature” are not only empirically misleading but also politically damaging.
Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, Robert Lalasz. 2012. “Conservation in the Anthropocene.” Breakthrough Journal. Winter issue. Here Kareiva and colleagues lay out a vision for what is referred to above as postnatural conservation.
Michael Soulé. 2013. “The ‘New Conservation’.” Conservation Biology. Vol. 27., No. 5., pp. 895-897. In this op-ed, Soulé, who is considered one of the founders of conservation science, makes a case against postnatural conservation.

3 thoughts on ““A Manifesto for Abundant Futures”

  1. Noah,

    This approach looks very promising and much more philosophically grounded than neoliberal ecomodernism. The latter, as Latour recently noted, has no politics, which means it serves to legitimize colonial politics. I’m on the road right now with the San Carlos Apache Tribe to overturn a congressional rider which traded away one of their sacred sites–and the public land it occurs on–to a multi-national mining corporation. See my New York Times blog about the barnstorming road trip here:http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/dotearth/2015/07/17/from-times-square-to-the-capitol-apache-protestors-fight-u-s-land-swap-with-mining-company/?referrer=

    Karieva’s group, The Nature Conservancy, supported the legislation in the neoliberal belief in a universal nature whose pieces are interchangable and a universal humanity whose interest (singular) can be represented by the governing power structure.

    The question of universality and plurality is essential habitation and conservation. It is why I prefer Homogenocene to Anthropocene to name the NOW we inhabit. “Anthropocene” valorizes the universal human subject in its domination of and escape from nature. It first appears in secular, modernist form with Buffon and has consistently named the NOW ever since. “Homogenocene” instead draws attention to the colonizing destruction of cultural and natural diversity over the past 300 years. I see no way forward to abundance and plurality through the name Anthropocene.

    On another theme, is it true that conservation has traditionally sought to protect nature from humans? Or is that the neoliberal myth employed to marginalize conservation and frame its work as anti-human, i.e. opposed to the development desire of the universal rational subject? A look at the actual campaigns and alliances of conservation groups shows a consistent interest in the health and well being of local communites. It may well protect “nature” from a universal, homogenizing “humanity”, but has always done so in the name of diverse, local communities of people/species/places.

    I’d love to do a working seminar with your folks some day.

    Kieran Suckling
    Executive Director
    Center for Biological Diversity

  2. Many thanks, Kieran, for sharing the important work you and Apache Stronghold are doing—and for the reminder about the long-standing orientation among (some) conservationists’ to the well being of local communities. There is, I agree, a broad spectrum of conservation approaches ranging between “fortress” protectionism and neoliberal instrumentalism. But would you also agree that the vast majority of conservationists have, until fairly recently, held on to the category of “nature” as denoting spaces and processes largely free from human impacts? An affirmative answer to this question wouldn’t change the record of conservationists one way or another; after all, many conservationists have worked to protect landscapes from degradation whether or not those landscapes were deemed “natural.” But my sense is that this distinction is important for understanding the contemporary debate among conservationists as well as the ambivalence that many environmental scholars feel about “postnatural” conservation.
    As you know, I share your concerns about the Anthropocene nomenclature, and so I too would be keen to participate in a seminar addressing questions of universality and plurality in the Anthro-cum-Homogenocene (and more). How can we make that happen?
    I really appreciate your continued interest in the blog and wish you and your Apache Stronghold colleagues all the best with the campaign.

  3. Pingback: A Manifesto for Abundant Futures | Juanita Sundberg

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