Book Review: Carol Carpenter’s ‘Power in Conservation: Environmental Anthropology Beyond Political Ecology’

This review was originally published in Review of Environmental, Comparative and International Environmental Law (RECIEL) here.

The review of the present volume, Power in Conservation, is probably one of the most challenging reviews I ever wrote. This is not because the book is challenging but rather because the book is one of the most fascinating books I have read in a very long time.

The book will be disappointing for those who seek case studies of environmental regimes or some kind of guidance on how to address power issues in conservation discourses. This book is not a tool to address power in conservation regimes, nor is it a book that is aimed at policymakers or practitioners. Instead, Carpenter’s work is a ‘tool-box of ideas about power in conservation’ (at 14), a meta-study of discourses in line with Michel Foucault’s triangle of power relations (sovereignty, discipline and governmentality). And this study of discourses is undertaken by a careful unpacking of ethnographic case studies that were carried out by anthropologists like Arturo Escobar, James Ferguson, Melissa Leach and James Fairhead.

Contrary to what the title suggests—and that is probably the most critical point I can utter about this book—it is therefore not a book about power in conservation laws in general but rather a book about power in conservation discourses based on Foucault’s theory of power. This means that Foucault’s theory on power relations is the foundation of the book’s narrative, which might surprise an interested reader if the book was chosen based on its title. Such a reader might not expect reading about Foucault at first but rather about less theory-driven power issues in conservation laws and policies.

The first two substantive chapters of the book, after the Introduction, exclusively deal with Foucault’s power theories and other works on the power of discourses, thereby immediately setting the stage for what is to come in the work’s main body. These are then followed by 15 rather short chapters in which power theories and the discourses of power are contextualized within fields ranging from ethnography to discourses on conservation, subject formation, neoliberal governmentality and others. The chapters build on one another but could also be read as stand-alone chapters. This makes it sometimes difficult to follow a clear red thread throughout the book, because each chapter delves more into theory without a clear practical applica- tion of this theory. After all, it is ‘tool-box of ideas’.

That said, once I managed to delve into the narrative of the book, I felt as if I had one of the most fascinating books in a very long time in my hands. I had never really thought about the applicability of Foucault in conservation discourses. In Chapter 6 on ‘Sovereignty, Discipline, and Governmentality in Ethnographies’, this link becomes obvious: Here, Carpenter links Foucault’s aforementioned triangle of power on sovereignty, discipline and governmentality with the ethnographic case studies of other scholars—such as Donald Moore’s ethnography of colonial and post-colonial efforts to improve the population, forests and the productivity of the land in Zimbabwe, as well as Tania Murray Li’s ethnography of the improving rationale of colonial and post- colonial states in Sulawesi, Indonesia—to make visible the applicability of Foucault in conservation discourses. To those unfamiliar with this triangle of power, let me very briefly (and thereby superficially) explain what it is: Essentially, it describes three modes of governance. Sover- eignty is used as a means to respond to certain threats, for example, through a punitive legal mechanism, including the sovereign right to take life. Discipline would respond to this threat through surveillance and prohibitions. Governmentality, lastly, corresponds more to the way modern states govern, namely, by using discipline yet also aiming to find the root causes of the threats and acting proactively against them. While Carpenter does not provide a deep analysis of how the case studies play out vis-à-vis Foucault’s triangle of power, she nevertheless exposes the deeply running power elements that form any conserva- tion initiative, especially in relation to the different roles of the state, stakeholders and/or enforcement bodies.

One of the most fascinating chapters in the present volume was Chapter 12, aptly titled ‘Cultivating Neoliberal Subjects in Ethnographies’. Again, based on several case studies—ranging from an attempt at subject formation in micro-lending groups in Bolivia studied by Sian Lazar to a large-scale project in Indonesia that tried to turn communities into development subjects as analysed by Tania Li, as well as subject creation aspects of the contemporary global economy that utilize cultural differences, as examined by Anna Tsing—the analysis this time also includes international development programmes such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) or projects from the World Bank. Carpenter shows and, in my view, correctly concludes that ‘[c]onservation interventions create neoliberal subjects with or without market sensibilities’ (at 144). As Carpenter shows throughout this chapter, by applying conservation programmes, one of the prerequisites is the creation of a homo economicus who needs to be integrated into the market system. Those who refuse to be integrated into the market system are less likely to be supported by development programmes. While the book en gros is quite theoretical, this finding is quite significant and should be made much more known to decision- makers. It once again shows the importance of ethnographic legal studies.

To some degree, this argument reminds me of Chandler and Reid’s discussions in The Neoliberal Subject: Resilience, Adaptation and Vulnerability (Chandler & Reid, 2016). Here, the authors argue along Foucauldian lines and link the resilience of the biosphere with the resilience of the human subject. Inevitably, therefore, Chandler and Reid argue that the lens of neoliberalism, conservation discourses and the applicability of different modes of power lead to the question of what constitutes and what defines sustainable development—an issue which was not further discussed in the present volume but which would have also exceeded the book’s scope.

Unfortunately, the book does not really delve into the international level, such as the roles and modes of power relations and discourses in international conservation organizations and agreements. While Carpenter touches on global agreements, the discussion hinges on some case studies and lines of argumentation instead of really linking Foucault’s theories with international conservation efforts. This, I would argue, is a gap in the book, because in many instances, it is the policies decided at the international level that define the regional and local ones. It suffices to think of the guidance and standards that the Convention on Biological Diversity provides or of the concrete prohibitions and pro- visions of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which prevents certain whalers from setting sail for their hunts.

In my view, Carpenter treats international law and cooperation somewhat superficially in Chapter 16, titled ‘Universals, Collaborations and Global Agreements’ in which she explores Tsing’s study on universals—particularly a universal concept of ‘Nature’ with a capital ‘N’—and Riles’ analysis of the creation of United Nations (UN) agreements (Tsing, 2005; Riles, 1998). On the one hand, Tsing argues that despite a universal concept, collaborations are not based on consensus and that the concept of ‘Nature’ is empty, devoid of meaning. This, she argues, allows collaborators to bridge their differences. Riles, on the other hand, argues that it is due to formalized structures in UN bodies by which consensus is reached, not a meaningful bridging of political differences. This makes Carpenter conclude that universals are ‘empty, truths based on a priori assumptions of truth’ while ‘UN agreements are also empty, cleansed of the potentially infinite differences inside the brackets’ (at 189). To reach this conclusion, she leaves out a significant body of legal scholarship on language in international law (Linderfalk, 2010), on how ‘international law works’ (Guzman, 2007) or what differences exist between the branches of international law and the design of international agreements (Koremenos, 2016). And to arrive at conclusions concerning power in international conservation law primarily based on these studies seems to neglect the fact that on the international level, there are different discourses concerning conservation such as sustainable use and preservation, to name a few. All these discourses are inevitably linked to power, which therefore invite to an expansion of Carpenter’s fascinating study to include the international level.

These criticisms appear to be quite substantial, probably because in my own work, I specialize in international conservation law. How- ever, it should not be forgotten that the present book is rooted in the discipline of environmental anthropology, or rather political ecology, so the overall methodology as well as the theoretical framework and focus are significantly different. That said, in Chapter 17 on ‘World- Making in the Anthropocene’, Carpenter explicitly re-emphasizes the raison d’être of the book: ‘to give the reader a tool-box to think about power in conservation’ (at 191). And I think she has succeeded in doing so. Yes, the book is very theory-laden, but whenever power in conservation negotiations becomes a political or scholarly issue, the present study will serve as a reference point.

To conclude, after finding the red thread of the book, I was excited to see how Foucault’s power theories are applied in conservation case studies and discourses. Since political ecology is indeed ‘the most well- known approach to think about power in conservation’ (at 6), I applaud Carpenter for her linking of this discipline with Foucault’s theory of power, especially by drawing from scholarship which goes beyond polit- ical ecology. And while Foucault’s ideas are inherently complex, by read- ing this book, they become rather easily accessible and understandable. This makes the book incredibly valuable for those studying conservation initiatives, providing somewhat of an eye-opener for those engaging with conservation initiatives. However, it should be treated not as a final study but rather as a study calling for more research. Power in Conservation will surely motivate others to conduct similar studies on differ- ent elements along the discourse of conservation. For my own research, I will certainly take Carpenter’s book as a point of departure and consult it on a regular basis. While I do not think the book is aimed at a practitioners’ audience, it is particularly theorists which will find a great tool for expanding horizons and critically approaching conservation and sustainable development.

  • Chandler, D & J Reid, (2016). The Neoliberal Subject: Resilience, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Guzman, S. (2007). How International Law Works: A Rational Choice Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Koremenos, B (2016). The Continent of International Law: Explaining Agreement Design. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Linderfalk, U (2010). On the Interpretation of Treaties: The Modern International Law as Expressed in the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Berlin: Springer.
  • Riles, A (1998). Infinity within the Brackets. 25 American Ethnologist 378
  • Tsing, AL (2005). Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bibliographic information of the reviewed copy:

Carpenter, Carol. (2020). Power in Conservation: Environmental Anthropology Beyond Political Ecology, Abingdon: Routledge, 219 pp., £34.99, paperback. ISBN: 9780367342500

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