Financialization and the Production of Nature – Workshop Report

April 01, 2019

The workshop “Financialization and the Production of Nature: New Frameworks for Understanding the Capital-Society-Nature Nexus”, organized by Natalia Buier from the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology and Jaume Franquesa from the University at Buffalo – SUNY, was held at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology on 7 February 2019.

Establishing dialogue in a fragmented landscape
The workshop was a one-day event that brought together anthropologists conducting research on environmental interventions and transformations. It sought to approach issues such as energy and infrastructural development through a holistic approach aimed at overcoming the fragmentation resulting from specialization into subfields. Focusing on the relationship between environmental transformation and contemporary forms of accumulation, the workshop sought to identify and expand anthropology’s contribution to debates about the Anthropocene and Capitalocene. At the most general level, the workshop aimed to advance a historical materialist agenda for the anthropological and ethnographic study of the environmental predicament.

Anthropology and the study of the environment
After brief welcoming remarks by Professor Chris Hann, the organizers of the workshop gave an overview of the theoretical lineages that had inspired the event. Natalia Buier and Jaume Franquesa stressed the contributions that anthropology and historical ethnography have made to the study of the environment and examined the question of the relationship between anthropology and political ecology. They stressed the discontinuities in the Marxist engagement with the anthropological study of the environment and argued for integrating the rising interest among anthropologists for materiality and ecological relations with the analytical tools of economic anthropology. These remarks were followed by a presentation by Lela Rekhviashvili from the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography who introduced her research on transport infrastructure and stressed the possibilities for interdisciplinary work at the intersection of critical geography and anthropology, while also emphasizing the strength of the Polanyian tradition in relation to such an endeavour.

Technological fixes and the carbon economy
The first panel included presentations by Charlotte Bruckermann and Theodora Vetta. Bruckermann examined the problem of technological fixes and capitalist utopianism in relation to the project of “low-carbon life” in the context of the financialized Chinese economy. Approaching the problem of a carbon economy from a different angle, Vetta gave an account of labour struggles in Greece as arising in the double transition from carbon to renewable energy and from public to private ownership.

The impact of energy regimes
The afternoon opened with a panel that included Sergiu Novac’s and Jaume Franquesa’s presentations. Both speakers delved into the problem of energy regimes. Through a case study of the decommissioning process of the nuclear power plant in Greifswald, Germany, Novac looked at decommissioning as a waste-producing process and the social consequences of the expert-led process of greenfield construction. Franquesa’s analysis of wind-energy development in Catalonia highlighted the ecological dimensions of the contemporary model of accumulation that characterizes the Spanish economy and gave an account of oppositional, non-capitalist languages of valuation.

Labour and industrial developmentalism
In the last panel of the day Natalia Buier and Antonio Maria Pusceddu both looked into the geographies of deindustrialization and raised questions about the dominant alternatives to industrial developmentalism. Buier’s paper addressed the development of Spanish high-speed rail and the state-backed process of technological modernization as part of a broader context of industrial restructuring. Through the case of Brindisi and the longstanding problem of environmental pollution in the region, Pusceddu traced the history of labour as an environmental actor in Southern Italy and raised questions about the contradictions that arise at the intersection of environmental and class politics.

Denaturalizing inherited categories
Don Kalb’s concluding remarks highlighted the portable character of anthropological concepts and the way in which ethnographic research can contribute to an understanding of the historical transformation of capitalist social formations. His presentation emphasized the analytical strength of the concepts of dialectics, value, and combined and uneven development for the ethnographic study of contemporary environmental transformations. Finally, drawing on the contributions of the workshop participants, his talk spoke to the way in which all the workshop papers can contribute to a denaturalization of the most common categories of environmental discourse by showing the historical constitution of categories such as gift and commons. The day ended with a fertile discussion about preparing a future publication based on the contributions of the workshop participants.

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