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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Watching the World Disappear: Reflecting on the Anthropology of Sustainability

By tjmscjo, on 19 February 2015

“Anthropologists are used to working with people who are watching their world disappear” joked Bruno Latour, as he opened the inaugural conference of UCL’s Centre for the Anthropology of Sustainability (CAOS). He was making the point that Anthropology is a good discipline to house a discussion over the forms of research needed to understand and act on ecological crisis.

The Emergence of the Anthropocene

With charismatic flair, Latour took us through his thesis of ‘we have never been modern,’ [1] updating the arguments from his seminal work with those relevant to contemporary environmental instability. The ‘people’ who are watching their world disappear are not ‘them’ – ‘the premoderns’ who inhabit a remote world and are being dragged into a global modernity where nature and culture are separated and structured by capitalist relations. The people Latour refers to is us, the moderns, the ‘we’ who think of the world in these categories.

The epitome of this modernity is the idea of the Anthropocene, which a recent geologists’ paper claims began on 16th July 1945 with the first nuclear bomb. This is considered the point when human processes made an indelible mark on the earth’s geological record but, Latour continued, just as the moderns reached this height of mastering nature, we lost faith in our ability to know and control it. We entered a period not of only environmental instability, but also of scientific crisis, with debates between warring camps about what is or is not real, knowable and true.

Bruno Latour discussing the nature culture divide and its relevance to academic imaginings of sustainability

Bruno Latour discussing the nature culture divide and its relevance to academic imaginings of sustainability

A Call to Action

Latour’s point was more than an exercise in academic ingenuity, it was a call for action to move beyond denial or paralysis in the face of ecological crisis. The route forward is to abandon the idea that there is one mode of science that can know nature. In the way that modernist ideas of the universality of humanity have been replaced with understandings of cultural diversity, the task now is to recognise a diversity of nature, and find alternative forms of knowing.

Themes from Latour’s lecture echoed throughout the conference, which had brought together speakers to reflect on what an anthropology of sustainability could be. Some main ones were:

  1. Escobar’s concept of the pluriverse [2] and the need to understand the multiplicity of nature
  2. Materiality and a focus on the specificities of places and the communities who live there
  3. Allowing the inanimate world to speak, and including such perspectives in research
  4. Complexity, c(h)aos and accepting the need to work with uncertainty
Focusing on the worm: CAOS' logo signifies the need to decompose academic hierarchies and build new research

Focusing on the worm: CAOS’ logo signifies the need to decompose academic hierarchies and build new research

How do you say ‘sustainability’ in Swahili or in Masaii?

CAOS, which has as its logo a worm decomposing the world in order to release nutrients and give birth to new life, aims to critically engage with different traditions of sustainably. It seeks research collaborations that will take the anthropological understanding of specific local culture-nature systems into a broader mode of academic intervention in the world.

The need for such collaborations was clear in comments such as Katherine Homewood’s that ‘there’s no word for sustainability in Swahili or in Masaii’. Her research on ‘sustainable conservation’ in East Africa provided a comparative analysis of two programmes of community conservation. It showed the inequalities and degradation produced through a sustainability agenda which is imposed through specific evaluation metrics and processes of territorialisation. These agendas require academic scrutiny and a commitment to learn local idioms of resource management.

The Need for Ethical Reflection

Bill Adams spoke about a different form of language learning and system adoption. Focusing on conservationism and the discourse of efficiency he argued that environmental NGOs have been adopting corporate methods to maximise their impact. They rank net benefits of intervening in ‘hotspots’, but, he argued, these such methods are used without adequate philosophical or ethical reflection, and risk standardising the mode of operating in the world.

This concern was raised later by Jerome Lewis, a co-leader of CAOS. He commented that “carbon, the stuff of life, is now the stuff of international trade” and urged the audience to reflect on what a universal currency for life could mean for the pluriverse.

Corporatisation of environmental NGOs:  a cause of concern for Bill Adams

Corporatisation of environmental NGOs: a cause of concern for Bill Adams

A Critique of Political Ecology

James Fairhead turned a similar critique onto Political Ecology, arguing that the framework prioritises capitalism as the explanation for socio-environmental relationships over other causal relationships. Henrietta Moore identified a different way to move analytically from local environmental change to global flows of power. She pointed out that communities constantly reflect on their own interventions in the world and do so in reference to other communities. She argued for research that analyses how these connections between communities produce change.

Concluding the conference, Jerome Lewis urged the audience to ‘resist the one world project’, but also to go beyond Latour’s ‘assemblages of objects’. He advocated for ‘a community of subjects’ who are actively engaging and reflecting on new ideas. The conference demonstrated a compelling range of approaches for this re-imagining of sustainability and for producing knowledge about the relationships between social worlds and the environment. These included artistic interventions, discourse analysis, ethnographic methods and cross disciplinary collaboration.

New Ways of Making Sense of Nature and Culture

One conclusion was that an Anthropology of Sustainability is one which is committed to listening to, working with and learning from the local. Other disciplines share this commitment and CAOS promises to be fertile territory for research collaborations which abandon the world of academic certainty and look for new ways to understand nature/culture and empower agents of change.


[1]Latour, B. (1993 [1991]). We have never been modern (translated by Catherine Porter). Harlow: Pearson Education ltd.

[2] Escobar, A. (2011) ‘Sustainability: Design for the pluriverse’ in Development vol. 54, no. 2, pp137–140


Charlotte Johnson splits her time between the DPU and the UCL Energy Institute. She has a PhD in Social Anthropology and more recently has been engaging in a project to map UCL’s research expertise in urban sustainability.