A central tenant of the American spirit and indeed even the U.S. constitution is the principle of individualism that promotes individual freedoms and interests over governmental institutions or the interests of the greater society. Related to the principle of individualism, is the personal obligation to be self-reliant in order to be free of state and social institutions that are believed to tend towards totalitarianism and socialism. With rising global populations that require greater food supplies, coupled with developmental incentives in every country to raise the standard of living with the same finite resources, issues of global capacity have been used in order to argue for more state control.
While smallholders have been assumed to be stagnant and homogenous traditionalists, or as Marx has infamously suggested, comparable to sacks of potatoes. On the contrary, however, Netting argues that smallholders continuously adapt to changing circumstances and are neither dependent on subsistence consumption or wage labor. Instead, “smallholders the world around emphasize their freedom to chart their activities and goals independently, to be their own bosses” (Netting, 332). As such, smallholders as individuals seek to improve their lot in life through the effective use of limited resources by their own efforts, skills, knowledge, and management abilities. Smallholders do participate in wage labor and market exchange, but they also insist on providing part of their own subsistence when possible, such as the Embu of Kenya who “view a good farmer who grows enough… to feed the family… without relying on income from wage labor to purchase goods that could be grown at home” (Netting, 84).
At the level of the individual household, there is considerable differences in wealth and property that is based on the capability of each smallholder to make the most of their limited resources. It is generally understood that their small plot of cultivated land and individual abilities forms the means of productions through which smallholders can improve the fortunes of their household. However, smallholders do appear to be risk-averse as well, preferring to ensure a reasonable livelihood and the long term security of their household, rather than seeking to get rich quick through riskier ventures. Their farming system also maintains a high level of productivity in an ecologically sustainable manner in order to protect their investment through on- and off-farm labor, in-depth knowledge of their microenvironment and with little to no costly external inputs. To the extent that smallholders are able to provide for their own sustenance without depending on wage labor or external inputs, they demonstrate a greater resilience against negative economic and political changes. “When labor and property rights are combined, and when the farm household organizes and schedules its own skilled activities as an independent enterprise, the relations of production are not those of alienation” (Netting, 331).
Therefore, while the development of a market economy with opportunities to take part in wage labor and commodity exchange is welcome in smallholder communities as additional strategies to improve their financial standing, they also remain committed to maintaining the means of production in order to provide for their own household at the most basic level. The way of life of the smallholder may not be one of luxury, but it adheres to the American values of self-sufficiency and individuality without requiring strictly hierarchical subordination or environmental compromising.
The American Context:
Review of Relevant Literature:
The Pure Commodity In the Age of Branding
By Richard Wilk
The opacity, lack of choice, and people’s mistrust of water providers points to a greater need for greater transparency and real choice. The solutions could potentially include greater accountability of government and private industry, as well as greater personal control over individual and family sustenance. In Smallholders, Householders, Robert Netting makes the case of the self-sufficiency through maintaining the means of production by small-scale intensive agriculturalists across the globe. These solutions don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but the example of smallholder, householders’ lifestyle is instructive in both the concerns of consumers today and a possible policy path forward in government and private interactions with citizens and consumers.
Over the past few decades water has been transformed from a relatively free resource into an important consumer good through ingenious marketing that has successfully employed the “historically grounded cultural meanings” of water. Despite the growth in bottled water as a commodity, Richard Wilks points out that bottled water has been tested and proven in many cases to be no different in either taste or quality than regular tap water. This reality has made the idea of bottling water politically, ecologically, economically, and morally offensive for many people, yet its presence is ubiquitous in modern societies. On the other hand, Wilk’s explains that public utilities, including tap water, have become synonymous with dysfunctional bureaucracies and are viewed as mysterious and potentially dangerous risks. Even while findings by scientists and risk analysts show minimal and progressively shrinking risks associated with public utilities. Wilk’s examines the advertising and labeling of bottled water, as well as conducts several marketing and consumer surveys in order to better understand the role that marketing has had in the rise of the bottled water industry. He finds that many of the marketing devices of modern consumer culture have been employed for bottled water products in order to increase their perceived value. For instance, images and metaphors of nature are often used in the labeling and packaging of bottled water to elicit thoughts of pristine and natural environments. At the same time, marketing of water also tends to emphasize the use of state-of-the-art technology to enhance and filter the water. Other brands use scientifically-generated additives in order to make health claims and market a wide range of benefits for drinking a particular brand. The various price-points of bottled water promotes distinctions of social class, while other marketing techniques target a specific age and gender with benefits and packaging particularly suited to that demographic. Exotic and distant locations across both time and space are also evoked in order to increase a sense of exclusivity and exoticism. Taken together, all of these marketing practices have served to transform people’s perception of water from a relatively free resource and a human right, to a valuable commodity to be bought and sold. These two notions of water are inherently contradictory and give rise to resistance of water as a commodity, as well as political activism that seeks to raise a greater awareness of global inequality in the access to clean and safe drinking water. However, Wilke’s argues that the rise of bottled water is as much the failure of governments to be transparent and open to public scrutiny as it is to the marketing of the bottled water industry. Fundamentally, he believes the issue is one of trust and mistrust of powerful forces in both government and private industry, neither of which people have any control over.
Protecting the Environment the Natural Way
By James Carrier
What Carriers’ analysis points to is how the nature of marketing hides certain aspects of the objects of consumption while magnifying others according to the preferences of consumers. This dynamic subverts the well-meaning objectives of ethical consumers. While greater transparency and accountability can serve to better inform consumers, Carrier argues that these practices are a function of marketing. As an additional measure, consumers who are concerned with living more moral lives could take the means of production into their own hands when necessary, starting with establishing or intensifying agricultural practices in their own back yard. Smallholder livelihood strategies of growing part of their own food subsistence guarantees that they know what went into the production and delivery of the objects that they consume.
Ethical consumerism is seen as a legitimate market mechanism that allows consumers to lead more moral lives while pressuring companies to adopt more environmentally-friendly business practices. However, Carrier argues that instead, market forces have focused on consumers perceptions of ethicality that effectively shapes the way ethical consumers determine what is considered morally acceptable products and business practices. Expanding on Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism, Carrier points to the ways that commodities elide the contextual background of objects in order to present it in ways that conform to the conceptual categories that ethical consumers commonly associate with ethicality. Based on this theoretical framework, Carrier examines the packaging of Fairtrade coffee and a 2008 study of the practices and processes of a growers’ cooperative in Costa Rica, as well as ecotourism processes in the Caribbean and Antarctica. He finds that the packaging and websites of fair trade coffee products often include an ethnic smallholder in order to present an image of a self-sufficient peasant. However, Carrier points out that the focused presentation of an ideal smallholder peasant ignores the migrant workers, roasters, shippers and retailers that are part of the production and delivery process. The consistent and perpetual use of this presentation in the marketing of fair trade coffee, according to Carrier, comes to define the moral values of the ethical consumers themselves.
He also argues that this same dynamic occurs in other industries, such as in the ecotourism industry, and he examines the practices of Montego Bay and Negril parks in Jamaica. These parks predominantly display fish and coral reefs in their marketing campaigns as representations of the environmental health of the park itself. These images are attractive to ecotourists, but implies a limited set of environmental practices at the individual or microenvironment level while ignoring larger ecological processes. By extension, Carrier suggests that consumers confuse the immediate properties of the object of consumption, whether it be a bag of fair trade coffee or a vacation to an ecotourism excursion, as representing the sum total of its production and delivery processes. He points out that this creates some odd responses in both the ethical consumer and in the ecotourism industry. Such as an ecotourist flying in a commercial airliner to Antarctica only to carefully tread around moss or an ecotourism resort purposely sinking a ship into the ocean in order to provide a memorable diving experience. In this way, Carrier argues that ethical consumers are themselves a market that businesses attempt to tap. For instance, the attraction of Montego Bay as Jamaica’s premier marine park has had the contradictory affect of being environmentally harmful to the parks ecosystem.
False Forest History, Complicit Social Analysis:
Rethinking Some West African Environmental Narratives
By James Fairhead and Melissa Leach
Social and environmental policies in the Kissidougou region of Guinea have been enacted to counter the perceived causations of environmental degradation at the local, regional and global level. Researchers and policy makers working in the area argue that the Kissidougou area once consisted of dense humid forests but today has been reduced to patches of forest because of rapid population growth and a breakdown of traditional forms of social organization. Policies meant to address these perceived causes have resulted in major social and economic changes for local groups in the region.
Fairhead and Leach examine historical aerial photographs, past military maps and accounts, and oral histories to determine the changing environment of the region. They found that actual social-environment relations and vegetative change contradict the assumptions of causation built into current social and environmental policies. The findings suggest that local land use can be environmentally beneficial and that effective regional environmental management has traditionally consisted of a unique network of relations.
Fairhead and Leach argue that new policies should be created that decrease external resource management in favor of local control. However, the article does not address local practices that are potentially harmful to the environment. It also fails to analyze possible motives of researchers and policy makers in developing and enacting current policies.
The Power of Environmental Knowledge
Ethnoecology and Environmental Conﬂicts in Mexican Conservation
By Nora Haenn
Haenn’s observation that Campesinos viewed forest regeneration as part of the necessary cycle of the forest/human activity relationship is interesting because it not only implies a temporary use of land, but a symbiotic relationship between human activity and the environment. This, coupled with their observed respect for protected areas, such as archaeological sites, leads one to believe that some form of localized sense of sustainability does exist and can be utilized to seek common grounds in environmental management projects. As Haenn points out, “it would not be surprising if this environmentalism built on notions of work to stress political autonomy and secure access to natural resources.” The protestant work ethic evident in early American history correlates with the Campesinos, and smallholders, notions of work. Yet, while industrialization and technology have isolated Americans from Nature, the conceptual structures of work of both Campesinos and Smallholders are still fundamentally linked with the environment. In this way, a policy approach that recognizes the livelihood strategies practiced by Campesinos and informed by the research on smallholder, householders conducted by Robert Netting could form the foundation of both effective conservation and economic security of both parties.
In the development of agricultural and environmental policies that involve a number of diverse stakeholders it is important to examine the ways in which different meanings associated with the environment frame debates and contribute to conflicts. The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Southeast Campeche is a protected tropical area in Mexico that involves a number of diverse stakeholders including farmers, environmentalists, researchers and government agents. Haenn argues that many of the conflicts over the Calakmul Reserve are caused by the different sets of meanings and definitions that each participant operates under. Haenn examines the various conflicts that arose in the Calakmul Reserve by drawing on Nazarea’s emphasis on the importance of understanding “ethnoecologies as situated knowledge within overlapping power structures.” Over a 14 month period of participant observation in the Calakmul region, as well as text analysis of various policy and research papers on Calakmul, Haenn explores how divergent constructs have incited conflicts. What she found was that despite similarities in land classification systems between subsistence farmers, or Campesinos, and the scientific research community, two fundamental difference between the two systems exist. First, the Campesinos viewed the forests as places of work and used forest growth as identifiers of past human activities. Conversely, policy and research papers defined forest growth in the complete absence of human activities. Secondly, changes within the forests are intimately tied to short-term market conditions for the Campesinos, while researchers and environmentalists attribute the long-term absence of human disturbance to overall forest health. These conflicts of understanding lead the Campesinos to believe that there were ulterior motives in the setting aside of land and motivated them to resist conservation efforts. Government agents like Calakmul’s ﬁrst Reserve Director, Deocundo Acopa, viewed the differing positions between the Campesinos and the more affluent researchers and environmentalists from the perspective of a power struggle between the powerful and the powerless. At the same time, as the Director of a government-funded agency, Acopa was tasked with winning the support of the Campesinos for the ruling political party, the PRI. Interestingly, the Campesinos learned how to take advantage of the resulting vagueness of the conservation policies at Calakmul. They adopted the rhetoric of environmentalism and conservation in order to gain new economic and political benefits while maintaining their use of land for subsistence livelihood.