READ for the Week Ending 1/15/2010

What I’m reading. Comment if you want to know more about anything in particular.

  • Scott, James C. 2009. The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. Should be a groundbreaking correction to the pernicious and tenacious stereotypes about upland and lowland cultures, genesis, maintenance, and relationships. So thoroughly revises reflexive assumptions about mainland Southeast Asia that the book resists quick summary. A lengthier review may be required. Required reading for SEAsianists, Sociology.
  • Holt, John Clifford. 2009. Spirits of the place. Buddhism and Lao religious culture. In many ways this book represents a landmark in the English-language study of Lao religion. Taking upland-lowland realities seriously, Holt treats the interaction between ‘animist’ and Buddhist systems and rituals (and peoples) from a theoretical and historical point of view. A bit weaker in the last two chapters, the first three would serve excellently as an introduction to both the theory and realities of Lao religion and history. Strongly Recommended to SEAsianists and Buddhist Studies.
  • Federici, Silvia. 2004. Caliban and the witch: women, the body, and primitive accumulation. Stunning. A corrective to Marxist theories about the genesis (transition) to capitalism, Federici argues convincingly that a necessary and (logically) prior moment in the developing of formally free, male, waged productive labor, is the production of a denigrated, reproductive, female, unwaged domestic laboring class.  She then ties in, also completely convincingly, the witch-hunts of roughly two and a half centuries of (primarily) European history (though her last chapter traces the witch-hunt throughout colonialism’s path). Required reading for Anti-capitalists and Feminists.
  • Jerryson, Michael K, and Mark Juergensmeyer, eds. 2010. Buddhist Warfare. A much-anticipated and somewhat controversial volume that traces the connections between the Buddhist religion – stereotyped as a pacifist religion – and warfare. The essays are uneven, though some of this unevenness is undoubtedly tied to the wild diversity of attitudes and approaches (insider, outsider, political scientist, anthropologist, sociologist, religious studies, etc.) represented. (Note that google books does not show the actual cover on their page. Actual cover has a picture of a Lao Buddhist novice monk holding an automatic pistol). Recommended to Buddhist Studies.
  • Kummu, Matti, Marko Keskinen, Olli varis, eds. 2008. Modern myths of the Mekong: a critical review of water and development concepts, principles, and policies. Of great interest and contemporary currency, this volume contains a few critically important moments, but is of such wildly uneven quality that I cannot recommend it in its entirety. I’m personally most impressed with the essays by Jussi Nikula (“Is harm and destruction all that floods bring?” – an introduction to ‘flood-pulse’ ecosystem functioning) and Lustig, Fletcher, et al. (“Did traditional cultures live in harmony with nature? Lessons from Angkor, Cambodia.”). This latter is somewhat misleading, since ‘traditional’ here seems merely to mean ‘historical,’ which in many ways means ‘nothing.’ As a specific case study of Angkor, however, their evidence is clear and the conclusion not negotiable – Angkor was not ‘ecologically neutral.’ Not recommended as a volume.
  • Watts, Peter. 2008. Blindsight. Hard Sci-Fi. Very very cool, cerebral: is consciousness worth it, from the perspective of the species? And exactly how would an empathic vampire act in space toward a half-brained crew member who can’t be convinced to act in the interests of self-preservation? Essential for Hard Sci-Fi fans.
  • Wu Ming. 2005. ’54. Just awesome.  From the same collective author responsible for Q, this time the group tackles the year 1954 – the height of the cold war, the rise of the global heroin industry, and Cary Grant. And Hitchcock. Awesome.
  • Germano, William. 2008. Getting it published: a guide for scholars, and anyone else serious about serious books. 2nd Ed. Essential for academics.
  • Germano, William. 2005. From dissertation to book. Essential for academics.
  • Silvia, Paul J. 2007. How to write a lot: a practical guide to productive academic writing. Recommended if you need help scheduling your writing.
  • Boice, Robert. 2000. Advice for new faculty members. Recommended for academics.
  • Lamont, Michèle. 2009. How professors think: Inside the curious world of academic judgment. Recommended for academics facing tenure review, or charged with some form of ‘assessment.’

Look  at those last five titles. I’ve read all of them in the last month.  Can you guess what I’m working on?


Review: Forest Guardians, Forest Destroyers, by Andrew Walker and Tim Forsyth

I finished reading Andrew Walker (of New Mandala blogospheric fame) and Tim Forsyth’s new book, Forest Guardians, Forest Destroyers. The politics of environmental knowledge in Northern Thailand, out from University of Washington Press. (amazon)

This is an excellent, careful, critical, and engaged piece of work. I am not competent to evaluate the science of the book, though what level of competency I possess does not balk at its conclusions, even those most supposedly controversial. Perhaps the best example of the latter is the idea that a dense amount of tree cover in upland watersheds does not lead directly and uncomplicatedly to increased water flow (in dry or wet seasons), a commonly-held assertion in the lowlands.

The main point of the book revolves around the fact that environmental knowledge in Thailand has been portrayed and constructed (and then used) according to a problem which has already been closed. This problem, discussed as “problem closure,” (discussed in Tim Forsyth’s previous book) is crucial. When the problem’s definition prevents fresh, democratic, and honest approaches that allow for multiple solutions to real problems (rather than forcing all potential solutions to address predefined problems), there can be little genuine progress.

Closing-or defining-problems in such singular ways limits the range and perceived purpose of information to predefined objectives, and hence restricts attention to [sic?] alternative ways of experiencing or explaining environmental change. (238 )

Walker and Forsyth address particular issues chapter by chapter, including the power of environmental narratives, upland agriculture and its transformation by ethnic-Thai initiated reforms, the relationship between forests and water – especially downstream water availabilitiy, erosion, chemical use, and biodiversity.

A key theme that ties all of the chapters together is the use of upland ethnic minority groups – especially the Hmong – as stereotypes of ignorant farmers responsible for destroying the environment in general, and the prospects of lowland ethnically Thai farmers in particular. This is where the arguments tend to be the most effective, and rightly so. As the authors state in their introduction, the book is not intended to be an encompassing survey of environmental knowledge or policy in Thailand (let alone elsewhere), but rather an examination of the politics of environmental knowledge. Specifically,

This book challenges common presentations of environmental crisis in northern Thailand. The intention is not to deny the existence of environmental problems, but to argue that common explorations that link upland agriculture with environmental degradation are overly simplistic and do not provide a sound basis for addressing the challenges of upland resource management. Moreover, the tendency for the debate about environmental degradation to regularly revert to distinctions between ‘forest guardians’ and ‘forest destroyers’ is unproductive and socially unjust. (25)

In tackling the various issues addressed, the authors manage to convince the reader – at least, this reader, but I was already there, I suppose – that traditional upland agriculture is not damaging, and that the transformations that have emerged in upland agriculture (cabbages as the most visible example, for instance) is neither an uncomplicated nor clear-cut cause of difficulty. More clearly and persuasively yet, they discuss (in the chapter on Water Demand) the fact that the questions are posed in precisely a way that prevents any clear understanding of the overall issues: water provision in the uplands is directly related to water demand in the lowlands, though the questions are delinked, so that water demand is not normally studied, and and lack is attributed to the ‘savage uplanders.’

I confess, however, that I felt an itch at the back of my head throughout the reading of this book, and my discomfort led me to take longer reading it than I normally would require. What was the source of this feeling? After lengthy consideration, I think that my concern comes from the fact that the book itself seems to implicitly rest within a very instrumental problem closure of its own: directed seemingly toward policy-makers, it must make obscure some of the tensions which most directly animate the discussions under review, and give short shrift to others that the authors themselves recognize as crucial. That is to say, I got the persistent feeling that the authors’ implicit focus on policy obscured the force of their arguments and weakened what could have been an even stronger book.

First, the book is a scientific-political book which appears to aim at policy-oriented, state-based solutions. The state, as the authors finally mention in a brief three and a half pages toward the very end of the book (“Environmental knowledge is linked to statemaking.” [cf. Tilly] (231-234) is in many ways the dominant party involved in the transformation of upland agriculture and the various conflicts that exist regarding it. But there are few direct criticisms of this, or intimations that non-state solutions might be pursued alongside policy formulations: the book seems very loaded toward the policy angle.

I suppose we might say, “Who can blame them?” Certainly, no other institution has the level of power and practical ability to implement environmental planning changes in Thailand as the Thai state. And the need for rapid change appears to be crucial (though some of the felt peril is addressed in this book as a sort of unscientific amnesia and narrative force, rather than based on real experience). However, by orienting a book like this so fully toward policy, we do miss out on precisely the opportunities farmers – Thai and non-Thai – have to make changes in their own practices.

Perhaps more significantly, I felt a real lack of clarity existed in the discussion of the ethnic divisions between lowland and upland, the ethnic superiority (read: racism) of the lowland cultures against the upland, and the long-term and well-studied role of lowland cultural institutions in demonizing and then incorporating upland, non-wet-rice-based agricultures.

The stories in this book constantly revolve around the demonization by lowland Thai farmers and environmental groups of the upland agriculturalists whom they see as stealing or destroying ‘their’ water. The uplanders, on the other hand, are real people trying to make it in a world that has made its restrictions on their traditional agricultures clear, and provided them with new and different niches. Even occupying their assigned niches does not protect them from the denigration of their lowland fellows, which may be as strong an argument against a nation-state-based policy as I would care to make.

There is a stunning quote from a Buddhist monk (traditionally both religious and agricultural missionaries in upland Southeast Asia, as well, apparently, as in ancient India) included in the book that illustrates the sort of racism that uplanders must contend with. The monk, Phra Phongsak, claims that

Man coexisting with the forest: that’s a romantic idea, little more than wishful thinking. People still talk about it because that’s the way they’d like things to be. The hill tribe population is growing rapidly. They don’t just farm to live, they farm to sell and with the support of vested interest groups. They have TVs, motorcycles, and cars. [quoted in Fahn 2003:145] (96)

Precisely these sorts of statements continue to be made regarding Native Americans in the United States: somehow, indigenous groups, or upland groups, are supposed to retain their traditional methods and remain in relative financial poverty while the settlers and the lowlanders grow them out of space. The possession of TVs, motorcycles, and cars (I’ve even heard ‘medicine’) somehow is supposed to display the evil and grasping nature of the uplanders.

This division, while clear throughout the book, never really becomes the central argument that it seems it must. Perhaps this is because, as a policy-oriented book, emphasizing the ethnic tensions could sink its chances of seeping into the paternalistic Thai policy machine.

Towards the end of the book, the most concrete suggestions are made, and they happily settle into what must be described as a radical program of democratization, whether the authors would countenance that characterization or not. Arguing that environmental knowledge must be more politicized, the authors argue that

a more politicized account of how environmental knowledge is formed is necessary before assuming that it provides an accurate basis for explaining environmental problems or for indicating appropriate regulatory responses. (228 )

The concrete suggestions are threefold: (1) Redefine Problems (by increasing participation), (2) Use diverse knowledge claims critically, (3) Diversify expertise and increase participation. All leading to a (very good) emphasis on Participatory Land-Use Planning. (pp. 238-246) Essentially, in other words, numbers 1 and 3 both argue that increasing participation in thinking about and planning agricultural practices will help to create new solutions. The second one is a bit more tendentious, since it implies that someone must be empowered to dismiss or authorize the outcomes of such participatory planning, but perhaps that was not intended.

Overall, and in spite of these problems, this book is vitally important, concrete, well-positioned in debates about land-use, culture, and policy, and, hopefully, will become widely read and used; perhaps even by those bureaucrats who have so far done so poorly in ‘managing’ the northern Thai environment. Walker and Forsyth deserve to be complimented on this important achievement, and undoubtedly will be. Anyone interested in mainland Southeast Asia should read this book, for in it are many challenges to the conventional wisdoms of local knowledge (as long as it is the possession of lowland, dominant ethnic-group), and the effects of narratives in environmental politics.