ASA06: Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology

Panel 7

Environmental Cosmopolitans – Ben Campbell

Room: CBA 0.013 x 56

Panel abstract

Environmental movements have been frequently identified as a vector for popular alliances and interests that transcend national boundaries of citizenship. They are claimed to provide an international set of issues and agendas for thinking globally, and acting locally. To what extent are such associations in themselves ‘cosmopolitan’? Do they generate or are they enabled by cosmopolitan subjectivities? Does the etymology of the root ‘polis’ carry an urban bias visible in some environmentalists’ displacing of concern for the human context of what happens in hinterland peripheries, in favour bio-centrism? If we think beyond the circuits of international non-governmental organisations and professional cosmopolitans for exchanges of knowledge and experience about global environmental change, are there demotic or vernacular processes of trans-local environmental relationship that anthropologists have considered, or should do so?

Perhaps environmental ethnography has been so dedicated to understanding processes of underdevelopment and autarky at the polar opposite of the ‘polis’, that there has there been a fetishisation of ‘local’-ness in the discipline. This has been to the neglect of broader scopes for comparative thought and action, which for example the late Darrell Posey identified in trans-local shamanic knowledge. Rather than associating place with stasis, anthropologists can contribute to understanding human ecologies through ethnographies of mobile subject positions with multiple standpoints of place. Perhaps we should consider ‘nomadological’ environmental positionings, and the re-territorialisations of collectivity and solidarities engendered by contemporary movements of people. This makes it possible to look at new workings of place-oriented socialities and governmentality, as well as the re-creation of places such as religious architecture, parks and gardens in diasporic contexts.

The term ‘environmental cosmopolitans’ could be applied to the elite nineteenth century natural scientists in imperial institutions of power, who promoted theories of dessication across contexts, as a form of superior, expert knowledge (Grove’s Green Imperialism, and Drayton’s Nature’s Government). How can we by contrast characterise the information networks and intentionalities of people shifting across continents, and taking with them culinary or horticultural practices to reproduce or adapt everyday home environments abroad? Can the term ‘adaptive strategy’ be resurrected from equilibrium systems theory to be useful in this respect? What communicative institutions, such as kinship, congregation, and media, have enabled linkages among diasporically distributed communities to maintain interests in the state of ‘homeland’ places, even if these are not explicitly formulated as ‘environmental’. Events such as the Tsunami, the Montserrat volcano, and the Gujerat earthquake have clearly mobilised a combination of cosmopolitan and roots-based altruism.

Climate change currently dominates the environmental agenda at the international level, with disputes over the scientific evidence and cost-effectiveness of responses apparently creating new tiers of expertise to justify alternative paths of (in)action. Are there anthropological perspectives that would contest how the issue is framed by giving voices from different environmental cosmopolitan positions? The power to define relevant knowledge and constituencies of interest are clearly at issue (economic growth versus sustainability and poverty linkages). The ways in which nationally legitimised positions are negotiated in terms of histories of industrialisation and consequent claims for differential treatment, present arguments about non-universal measures and environmental ethics that anthropologists could consider. What domains of knowledge, science and ethics contend to define the distribution of global common ‘goods’ and ‘bads’?

This panel could contribute to relocating environmental anthropology as a study of change and movement, by remaining open as to how ‘environment’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ are read and researched. Descola’s (1996, in Nature and Society) characterisation of modern ‘naturalism’ as an objectified non-human domain in need of protectionist intervention could be queried by an expectation of pluralistic environmental cosmopolitanism. Is Descola’s model a recognisable way of thinking that is spreading globally, and that is shared by proponents of scientific management, social movements and the mixed modern populace alike? Ethnographic research is invited to speak to productions of difference and connection with landscapes, plants, and animals in people’s discourses and modes of interaction, that are lived in extensive placings of selves and knowledge.

Possible themes for papers:

  • History of conservation organisations and their circulation of information and paradigms for framing perceptions of environmental change.
  • Class configurations of environmental activists.
  • The use of international policies and rhetorics in the claims of governments and civil society organisations to speak for the environment.
  • People and topological discourse: internationally circulating cultural associations of ecotypes and subjectivities (e.g. ‘the rainforest dweller’).
  • Cultural locatedness of models of ecological change: actors and strategies of intervention.
  • Ecological dimensions of migrant livelihoods and cultural practice - negotiating ‘adaptive strategies’.
  • ‘Bio-regional’ sustainability as an alternative to global provisioning through commodities.
  • From golf courses to visitor centres - globally standardised architectures of place for the cosmopolitan consumer environment.


Dr. Ben Campbell
Department of Anthropology
University of Manchester
Manchester M13 9PL
T: +44 (0)161 275 4000
E: "Ben Campbell" <>

Political, Feathered, and Environmental Cosmopolitans: actors and strategies of intervention – too many big, black birds across Europe?

Dave Carss, University of Aberdeen

This paper is based on experiences from two pan-European research networks investigating cormorant-fishery interactions. As a result of international (trans-boundary) conservation legislation introduced in the1970s, numbers of these large fish-eating birds have increased from under 2,000 in the 1960s to over 300,000 in the 1990s and they now breed in most European counties when once they were confined to one. This legislation, however, now seems less able to cope with public demands to reduce cormorant numbers. Emerging from Brussels, it is also increasingly criticised for displacing concern for the human context of its effects ‘in the wider world’. Cormorants also transcend national boundaries, breeding in the north and migrating to southern countries in winter. Such numerous and mobile birds consume large amounts of fish and, despite the paucity of scientific evidence, many fishermen and women believe their own catches are reduced as a result and would like fewer birds. To date only biologists have contributed to the formulation of evidence-based management policy, giving rise to calls to re-frame the issue of ‘how many birds should there be?’ by giving voice to other positions. This raises important issues of relevant knowledge and constituencies of interest. One of the most vocal constituencies involves recreational anglers who, whilst forming a popular alliance at the international scale, often seem unwilling to experiment with possible mitigation measures because of the unique ‘local-ness’ of their particular fishery.

The Environment and the Law: globalization and environmental activism in Sri Lanka

Arjun Guneratne, Macalester College

This paper examines the emergence in Sri Lanka of transcultural thinking about environmental issues as well as the activism it engenders by examining the history and development of one of Sri Lanka’s leading NGOs, Environmental Foundation Ltd. (EFL). EFL’s perspective on environmental issues has its origins in the transformations wrought by colonialism in the country’s class structure and in the introduction of European ideas of nature to the country’s newly emergent middle-class. Modeled in part on the Natural Resources Defense Council of the United States, EFL was a new kind of environmental organization in Sri Lanka and a response to globalization and Sri Lanka’s increasing integration into the global economy. Unlike the handful of environmental NGOS that existed in the late seventies, which were essentially pressure groups, EFL was conceived, on the model of NRDC, as a public interest law firm, and drew on international models to frame its arguments about the application of the law in the cause of environmental protection. It quickly developed close links to international agencies of various kinds, which provided it with both funds and intellectual stimulation, as well as a network of like-minded organizations, such as the email network e-law. Through an examination of these processes, and with a focus on legal discourse, this paper discusses how a cosmopolitan environmental discourse developed in Sri Lanka, with roots in urban Sri Lankan middle class culture as it emerged and was transformed during colonial rule, and in the various discourses of environmentalism that have been drawn on by Sri Lankan activists to craft their own arguments.

The Cosmopolitan Tiger

Annu Jalais, London Scool of Economics

‘Environmental ethnography has been so dedicated to understanding processes of underdevelopment,’ observes Campbell, ‘that there has been a fetishisation of ‘local’-ness in the discipline’. Following on this, and by using the tiger as my trans-local cosmopolitan, there are two tensions I would like to explore in this paper. One has to do with tigers, the other, with environmental anthropology.

The tiger is a cosmopolitan animal. Today, it personifies the very universalism of a Western particular by bridging supra-regional political solidarities between urban populations all over the world united over the common cause of its salvation. It has come to symbolise this both through the ‘naturalisation’ (in Descola’s sense) of its identity as well as through the fetishistic fascination of urbanites for certain spaces invested with the idea of pristine ‘local-ness’ i.e. forests and tiger habitats.

The cosmopolitan tiger is appealing because it simultaneously acts as a metaphor for a perceived globally shared knowledge on its characteristics and attributes (albeit even if these are Western dominated and urban centric) as well as serving a rallying point of humanitarian cause for urbanites everywhere. What I argue is that this cosmopolitan tiger has risen to the detriment of ‘other’ tigers and therefore perpetrates the coercive and unequal relationship between those who ‘look’ at tigers versus those who ‘live’ with tigers. What environmental anthropology needs asking is why this cosmopolitan tiger provides an unwarranted sense of a genuine bond with both a certain kind of people and the animal world and not with humanity at large?

Both ‘one and other’: environmental cosmopolitanism and the politics of hybridity

Mark Johnson and Suzanne Clisby, University of Hull

Cosmopolitans are frequently characterized as having mobile and hybrid identities that are not rooted in any one particular locality. In this respect cosmopolitanism may be seen as akin to an environmentalist perspective, whose understanding of nature is of something global and universal, ultimately separate from, even if variously threatened by or responsive to, human culture interventions and protection in particular places. Critics of cosmopolitanism have argued that the detachment from place and locality may at best reflect the situation of a relatively elite minority. At worst, it is suggested, in attempting to posit cosmopolitanism as a generalized condition of people in the contemporary world, it ignores or elides the ways in which the majority of people not only identify themselves in terms of particular places, but are also variously constrained and enabled by very real material circumstances and struggles within particular localities. Similarly, critics of a globalizing environmentalist discourse have suggested that this understanding of the environment derives from a particular detached relationship to nature characteristic of modern capitalism: traditionally there were and remain alternative ways of understanding the world reflecting a more engaged and embedded relationship with place and surroundings.

Drawing on ethnographic work among a small group of expatriate Euro-American settlers in Costa Rica, our aim is to contribute to these debates by complicating the distinctions outlined above. First, we are concerned with a group of people who not only characterize themselves as cosmopolitan and express global environmental concerns, but who also, simultaneously, seek a more engaged relationship to, and see themselves as embedded within, place and surroundings. Second, we show how these people strategically deploy and ascribe – both positively and negatively – to themselves and others different ways of understanding and relating to place and surroundings that in many ways reiterates the more academic distinctions between the cosmopolitan and globalizing perspectives, on the one hand, and the more traditionally engaged and place-based perspectives on the other. In fact, as we argue, this particular group of people articulate what might be described as an alternative cosmopolitan hybridity; that is to say, they do not see themselves as being, in Bhabha’s terms, ‘neither one, nor other’, but rather claim to be both ‘one and other’. The more general point is that these different ways of characterizing one’s own and other ways of understanding and living in the world are differentially deployed in specific social situations as a way to establish social and moral authority, enact and affirm social distinctions and legitimate claims to place and belonging over the claims of others.

Is Cosmopolitan Environmentalism an Endangered Species or a Pest? A Critical Analysis of The Concepts of Ecological Standardisation

Werner Krauss, University of Texas

In my paper I am going to compare three different case studies, all of them related to the overall topic of “global change”: Earth Systems Sciences, Climate change research and Nature Conservation. All of them are global players, all of them have differing conceptions of the local and the global, and all of them have different ideas how to save the earth. In my comparative case study, I am going to show how they frame the international discourse and the perception of global change, i.e. climate change, interpretation of catastrophes and strategies for adaptation and mitigation. I will especially focus on the international organisation of concerned scientists IGBP (International Geosphere and Biosphere Programme), the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and nature conservationists from a National Park in Germany.

Re-zoning: nature, culture and politics in and around the Maya Biosphere, Petén, Guatemala

Dr Silvia Posocco, London School of Economics

Moving from an analysis of the International Conference on Sustainable Development: Environmental Governance, held in Santa Elena, Petén in August 2005, the paper considers the emergence of multiple ethno-graphics and ethno-logics of rezonificación, or ‘re-zoning’, in contemporary northern Guatemala. The paper notes how rezonificación connotes various re-zoning imaginings that call into question the legitimacy of the system of governmentality of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in contemporary Petén. Established in 1990 under the aegis of cosmopolitan conservationist agendas, the Maya Biosphere has since shaped multiple vernacular projects and conceptualisations of modernity, here including forms of late counter-insurgent and post-Peace Accords governmentality. Re-zonificación, as, at the very least, a possibility to envisage changes in the regulations of land use, may mark these systems of governmentality as obsolete. The paper asks what the implications of re-zonificación may be for the projects of various cosmopolitans such as agents of the neoliberal state, Q’eqchi’ activists, anthropologists, tourist guides and their clients, and Peteneros living in and around the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Whilst the presence of a television crew filming the reality show Survivor in the archaeological site of Yaxhá ‘re-zones’ the Biosphere and makes all ethnographic subjects and their respective ethno-graphics and –logics seemingly cosmopolitan, an analysis of rezonificación and its conditions of possibility should include a consideration of differences and discontinuities among cosmopolitan subjects, sites and temporalities, as well as a discussion of any rezoning of anthropology.

Environmentalism from Below: The Cola Quit Campaign in India - a Political Ecology Quagmire

Ravi Raman, University of Manchester

While admitting that there is "not one environmentalism but many", increasing evidence points to cosmopolitanism as the overarching reality. Exceptions do exist, but only a few. Through an enthnographic survey, the present paper explores a community-led movement in Plachimada, a tiny hamlet in the state of Kerala in India, against the global giant Coca Cola.It generates a case of what I prefer to call 'environmentalism from below', in terms of three major issues: overextraction of water, pollution of the local environment and the larger public health problem. Begun with the single agenda of protection of the local ecology, the movement, with its transverse solidarity across NGOs, issues and peripheral regions across states/countries, has transcended the original issue to grow into a massive front against multinational exploitation. The paper also offers a strategy critique both as part of furthering the cause through an addressing of the larger question of political-ecological oppression, as well as of enriching the theoretical insights therein. The paper traces the trajectory of a movement that finds itself caught between fundamentalist ecology and cosmopolitan environmentalism,with a consequent burgeoning of issues, a coalescing of spaces and an amalgamation of agencies.

Cosmopolitan Natures: paradigms and politics in Australian environmental management

Veronica Strang, University of Auckland

In recent years environmental management in Australia has undergone major changes. Decision-making has shifted away from local rural communities – indigenous people, farmers and graziers – into the hands of regional and national environmental and government agencies, based in the larger urban populations along the coast. There is thus a growing contest for the control of land and resources between relatively ‘rooted’ communities and more mobile, cosmopolitan groups.

There are major disjunctions between the conceptual models promulgated in this contest. Highly specific, holistic and integrative paradigms of human-environmental interaction, focused on local discourses and experience, vie with more reductive models which, characterise ‘nature’ as a separate, non-human domain. The latter, more bio-centric, approach has become increasingly dominant, reframing and reifying the ‘human’ aspects of human-environmental engagement as ‘cultural heritage’, while simultaneously failing to integrate social and cultural issues into environmental management.

Building on previous ethnographic research in Far North Queensland, this paper examines these competing discourses, and considers the relationship between conceptual paradigms and modes of human-environmental engagement. It poses a question: does cosmopolitanism itself, and the fluidity of connection to place that it implies, lead inevitably to a more alienated and objectifying vision of nature as ‘other’?

Cosmopolitanism and the French anti-GM movement

Gwyn Williams, University of Sussex

This paper looks at different kinds of environmental cosmopolitans in exploring some of the contradictions of anti-GM activism in France. Alterglobalisation activists on the Larzac plateau object to the cosmopolitan nature of genetically modified plants, which pose a risk of genetic contamination because the movements of their genes cannot be restricted by political boundaries. They also object to the cosmopolitanism of GM multinationals whose aim, they claim, is to turn living things into commodities and farmers into technoserfs as they seek to dominate global agriculture. The problem with a GM world, for activists, is that in certain ways it is excessively cosmopolitan. The solution they propose involves food sovereignty, whereby nations or regions would decide on their own agricultural policy rather than having it imposed on them by the WTO. In this, activists are anti-cosmopolitan. But activists also claim to defend the fundamental rights of people everywhere and in so doing they draw on cosmopolitan discourses. They insist that the whole problem of GM agriculture is one of human rights – the rights of consumers to healthy food and of farmers to practice alternative forms of agriculture – and must be fought on both a local and global level. The cosmopolitanism of the anti-GM movement is thus a complex one.

Back to the page listing all the panels