Reflective Essay for ANT 450 – Culture, Ecology, and Sustainable Living
On the first day of class we were asked what was personally important to us concerning the environment, given our understanding of the issues. I immediately thought of the global power structures within the context of globalization and the disproportionate influence they have had on the process of globalization. It was my opinion that the only way to address these issues is to adopt international treatise that bound all countries who participate in the global economy to adhere to minimal labor, human rights, and environmental standards – even if these are determined based on local conditions. Therefore, I responded to the question posed on the first day of class that I would like to further my understanding of these conditions, how power structures functionally operate within the different contexts, and what plausible solutions could be implemented to resolve any disconnects.
I also believed that all costs associated with resource extraction, consumption, and waste should be calculated as part of the cost of doing business, although I understood that would be a very messy policy to implement. However, class readings, such as “Difference and Conflict In The Struggle Over Natural Resources” by Arturo Escobar, pointed out for me that solutions that seek to account for the costs associated with resource use is inadequate in accounting for non-market models of conceptualizing the environment and have also been met with fierce resistance. Other writings by Julian Steward, who argues that complex cultural systems must be considered in the examination of environmental adaptations, and Virginia Nazarea, who argues that ethnoecology must be understood as situated knowledge formed within much wider contexts, also seemed to suggest to me that one-size-fits-all solutions bely the true complexity of the issues. In fact, Ferguson and Lohman in “The Anti-Politics Machine,” provided a poignant case study of failed development projects in Africa that really drove the point home for me. Environmental solutions are much more complex and need to be considered at the local and cultural level if they are to meet the larger goals of environmental protection and preservation.
In the past I also advocated for ethical consumerism, even creating a website, therainforestsolution.com, which boldly claimed that purchasing environmentally-friendly, socially-responsible rainforest products could help to preserve the earth’s rainforests. For me, this was a way to counteract the negative impact that global market forces have been having on the environment in a more direct and personal level. However, Carrier’s chapter, “Protecting the Environment the Natural Way,” was very interesting in this regards as it questions products and services, such as ecotourism resorts, that claim to be environmentally-friendly and socially-responsible. In it, he argues that companies have learned how to co-opt the green consumerism movement through clever marketing and business practices. While Demaria et al. point out in “What Is Degrowth?” that market-oriented solutions essentially converts environmental resources into waste and pollution as well.
I still do believe that environmentally-friendly, socially-responsible products could be part of the solution to environmental degradation. However, I also believe that many of the products available on the market today are not what is considered to be basic necessities and the argument that many products are only promoting the consumer credo of buying as an activity is a legitimate one. At the same time, organic food and cosmetic products are priced as luxury items and are out of the reach of most people.
At that point in the semester I was beginning to look beyond the conventional solutions that are often presented to address climate change and environmental degradation. This meant that I had to re-examine my own beliefs and I started to look around at what my own role was in these larger issues. That is when I came to realize that I, in fact, recycle, compost, keep rain barrels, and maintain a relatively large garden with fruit trees and grape vines in my own back yard. My specialty area research topic was quickly shifted to examine the role of self-sustainability and self-sufficiency at the individual and community level, and what their relationship is with larger issues of the environment. Robert Nettings chapter, “Smallholders, Householders,” didn’t trigger too much of a response as it seemed to continue the developing narrative that environmental issues of sustainably are complex and require close case-by-case examination. Furthermore, David Griggs chapter that critiques Ester Boserup’s theory of agrarian change left me, as a student only learning about these subjects, thinking that Ester Boserup’s theory was soundly refuted and no longer valid. Even while Sherbinin et al.’s comprehensive review of research examining how the livelihood strategies of rural smallholders impact the environment found that many of the conventional understandings of the relationship, including Chayanov’s household economy framework, which Grigg references, are only relevant within very limited contexts. However, when it was suggested that I read Robert Nettings whole book, Smallholders, Householders, I quickly came to realize that Grigg was either misinterpreting or misrepresenting Boserup’s theories.
For me, smallholder livelihood strategies represent a possible solution to environmental issues facing us today as a highly adaptive and cross-culturally occurring practice. While I was excited to have been given the opportunity to discover and study Netting’s theories regarding smallholder, householder practices from around the world, the class readings also served to ground me. For instance, Brosius’s contribution, “Endangered Forests, Endangered People,” warns against co-opting indigenous practices and knowledge into a largely Western framework. An issue that I had to keep in mind given my chosen research topic that sought to compare the similarities between smallholder practices and deeply embedded American values of private property, individualism, and competition. Nevertheless, going back to what I read in Carrier’s piece, along with the findings by Wilk in “Bottled Water: The Pure Commodity In the Age of Branding,” American consumers tend to be distrustful of outside forces, but are seemingly left with the choice of the lesser evil between government and private institutions. I believe the self-sufficiency inherent in the smallholder livelihood strategy represents a viable third option to this modern dilemma. The adoption of sustainable smallholder agriculture practices is done at the individual level and its effects are directly and immediately felt by those who have an interest in environmental issues, however, it can also potentially have far reaching consequences to the current power structures.