Michael Watts is Class of 1963 Professor of Geography and Development Studies at University of California, Berkeley. He is the author and editor of a number of important studies of Nigeria, geopolitics, political violence and ecology. He was awarded the Victoria medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 2004 “for research on political economy, culture and power”.



Stuart Elden: You went to northern Nigeria in 1976 for your doctoral research. The dissertation and book that resulted from this – Silent Violence: Food, Famine, and Peasantry in Northern Nigeria (University of California Press, 1983) – has recently been reissued by University of Georgia Press. I want to discuss your more recent work on Nigeria and contemporary politics in the country in a moment, but first, can I ask you to reflect a bit on the Silent Violence book? What made you chose Nigeria as a country to work on, and how did you feel returning to the material to write the introduction for the new edition of the book after thirty years?

Michael Watts: First of all Stuart, let me thank you for providing an opportunity for you and I to discuss my work, and I hope, contemporary Geography on both sides of the Atlantic. A short answer to your question is that in the first case it was something of an accident and in the second Nigeria became for me, and many others who encountered it, a country – or a ‘profession as some commentators have said –a space of compelling interest and fascination. Yes, its a bit of a train wreck, endlessly dispiriting, always surprising, unpredictable – who knew that Nigeria would in the last few weeks be praised for its ‘world class response’ to the Ebola outbreaks in Lagos and Port Harcourt!! – and a country of such enormous and unrelenting energy and creativity that it has been hard to walk away from. It would be fair to say I’ve only worked in one place over the last thirty-five years, and indeed felt no need to work elsewhere (it is true I have dabbled a bit in California, Vietnam, The Gambia and India but these proved to be little more than diversions). I actually went up to University College, London in the late 1960s to read Geography. I was raised in a small village in the south west of England, neither of my parents pursued secondary education school after the age of sixteen and joining the professoriate never entered my consciousness until I moved across the Atlantic.  It was at UCL that I stumbled into two people – neither an Africanist – who in quite different ways set me off not exactly on a path to the academe as much as a rail-pass to other cultures. One was Cambridge-educated historical geographer Paul Wheatley, the strikingly handsome and charismatic theorist of pre-industrial urbanism – who co-incidentally came armed with the same West Country accent as myself, a fact of great significance to a young person surrounded by peers who arrived from the provinces armed with their RP English. And the other was Davis Harris, a cultural geographer of Amerindian subsistence systems and theorist of the domestication of plants and animals (David went on to direct the Institute of Archaeology in London and alas passed away recently [obituary]). Both per chance had robust connections to Berkeley. Wheatley had pitched-up in Bloomsbury from California where he had co-taught with Clarence Glacken a now infamous raft of courses on cultural geography; Harris was trained at Berkeley and worked especially closely with Carl Sauer and James Parsons. While I did write a paper on Nigeria –addressing the recently concluded brutal Biafran war and the birth of what we might now see with the power of hindsight as the ‘humanitarian international’ – my regional interests resided largely in south and south east Asia (I had hitch-hiked to India and Nepal in 1970 and was of course shaped, as were many students, by the Vietnam War). But while I was all dressed up and ready to go to India in 1972, the Pakistan-India war put an end to that. By serendipity I ended up in northern Nigeria near Sokoto, plumb in the midst of a run of terrible drought years which triggered a serious famine and food shortage across the West African Sahel.


Crossing the Sahara 1975 with trusty Landrover

Crossing the Sahara 1975 with trusty Landrover


Serendipity raised its head gain at this point and almost diverted me away from Nigeria. I had been awarded a place at Cambridge to conduct my post-graduate work but jumped ship and ended up in Geography at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor – one of the founding programs in spatial science and a college town with a Marxist mayor….. in the heart of the mid-West –a trans-Atlantic migration largely the product of a snow-job by a UCL classmate (Adrian Pollock) who was working, he said, with a strange and wonderful geographer named Gunnar Olsson. As it happened I too came to work closely with Gunnar – needless to say not exactly an Africanist – but also came under the wing of Barney Nietschmann (who subsequently migrated to Berkeley too) and wrote, under Barney’s guidance, a Master’s thesis… wait for it ….on lowland Mayan subsistence and ecology and its relation to state formation (an echo here of my classes with Wheatley and Harris). For reasons that are not entirely clear to me I then back-tracked to West Africa post-MA and to the problem of food and famine.  With the powers of hindsight my decision was multiply-determined: in part it was driven by the press of the terrifying realities of the Sahel famine in 1973-1974; in part because the Centre for Research on Economic Development (CRED) at Michigan (directed by arch-neoliberal economist Elliot Berg) had a raft of research programs – and PHD students – addressing Sahelian agro-pastoral systems; in part because of my accidental discovery of the excellent French marxist research on the Sahelian food crisis and ecological anthropology; and not least because I had gravitated to Michigan’s Department of Anthropology to work with Mick Taussig, Skip Rappaport and others which seemed to lead me further into ethnography, political economy and Marxism (a posse of anthropology graduate students, led by Bob Hefner, introduced me to Louis Althusser, Pierre-Philippe Rey and Maurice Godelier).

Even then Nigeria almost fell off the radar screen because military rule had made the prospect of acquiring research permission to conduct field study in the countryside almost impossible (some research students had been waiting many, many months). In desperation I turned, through CRED connections, to Niger and to working in Hausa-speaking southern Niger, just across the border from here I had lived in northern Nigeria. At the last moment, the angel of history showed up in the form of distinguished Nigerian geographer Akin Mabogunje at the University of Ibadan (a class mate and friend of Olsson) who promised me university affiliation and the likelihood of connections to obtain research clearance in the north. With that I jumped onto a plane to London, talked my father into driving with me in a beat up Land rover across the desert to Nigeria (that’s another story), and settled into what turned out to be a remarkable community of left expatriates (Bob Shenton, Louise Lennihan, Bill Freund and Paul Clough) and Nigerian scholars (Bala Usman, Ibrahim Tahir, Mamman Tukur) working on the Ahmadu Bello University campus in Zaria in the Muslim north. Collectively it turned out to be an explosive mix of anti-imperialist, Marxist and nationalist debate, all attempting to rewrite the history of northern Nigeria from the Sokoto Caliphate to the military present. I couldn’t possibly have landed in a more exciting and contentious place.


Hausa Women Kaita Village 1977

Hausa Women Kaita Village 1977


All this is perhaps more than you bargained for Stuart! I suppose this detournement is what happens when you ask someone in their sixties about their youth: Jameson’s provocation “always historicize” turns into a nightmarish personalized shopping list of who I met when and where. At any rate, I completed my dissertation – two massive volumes (!) and an entirely new PHD committee because my advisors had scarpered from Ann Arbor in differing directions: Nietchmann to California and Olsson to Sweden. The book which emerged from all of that – Silent Violence – was originally published in 1983 and my own sense is that very few (outside of a small coterie of Nigeria scholars) actually read it. I always thought it was a bit of a flop. In a review, my friend Don Donham (an anthropologist) said that it was distinguished by being unfashionable and very long: he was right. Perry Anderson once delicately asked me why the book wasn’t very influential. Probably right again. At least it received a jolt of energy a decade when Mike Davis got ahold of it en route to Late Victorian Holocausts. The book betrays all of my (then) obsessions with structural Marxism and somehow making it all fit together with hefty doses of Perry Anderson, E.P. Thompson and the classical agrarian question. Quite a task. Whether it all hung together, as we say in California, is questionable but I was able to lay out what I took to be an argument about (i) the moral economy (of a non-idealist sort) of the pre-colonial Caliphate in northern Nigeria, (ii) the internal contradictions of a colonial state constituted through an unstable class alliance between the Muslim elites and the Colonial Office which provided the frame within which colonial famine could be understood, and (iii) the uneven and contradictory effects of the commodification of the peasant economy (based on a village study) in which merchant’s capital was a dominant presence again as a way of understanding the structural violence of permanent scarcity (for some). One part of this story was to see drought and climate as less fickle than the market, and yet to recognize that peasants might tap a reservoir of knowledge and practice capable of drought proofing agriculture and providing food security. But – and a big but – peasant differentiation, and differing relations between households and the market, provided very different capabilities and entitlements as regarding how farmers in northern Katsina, where I worked, might weather climate and price shocks.


Field site, Kaita Village 1976-1978

Field site, Kaita Village 1976-1978


On this canvas I can get to the second part of your question, namely why I returned to Silent Violence thirty years later. UNDP had just released a new report on food and food security in Africa – hunger and famine across the Sahel figured quite centrally. World food prices increased dramatically in 2008, severe hunger was experienced from West Africa to the Horn to Kenya in 2011 with millions at risk. Now of course the dominant frame (unlikely the 1970s) was global climate change – and the likely deprivation to fall upon the semi-arid savannas of West Africa over the course of this century – and the Sahel as a new zone of counter-insurgency in the War on Terror. What was striking – or perhaps distressing – to me was not only the 1 billion who went to bed hungry in the world every night, and the extraordinary persistence and durability of hunger in the region, but the ways in which prescriptively “resilience” and “adaptation” now dominated the policy paradigm. ‘Adapt Now’ is the rallying cry of the moment (or one might say, ‘adapt or die’). The Intergovernmental Panel on Global Climate Change and other organizations work with a conceptual understanding of adaptation and building resilient communities that actually harkens back to 1960s cultural ecology. The focus is on proximate rather than structural processes regarding adaptation in social systems, and on passive, reactive or anticipatory adjustments. Adaptation’s revival and rehabilitation – it is hegemonic anchored now in equally powerful discourses of security, risk management and resilient social systems – is, from the political ecology vantage point, something of a paradox. As I attempted to show in Silent Violence adaptation has its origins in evolutionary biology and it was precisely the lacunae of organic analogies that political ecology and my book sought to address. In this second generation adaptive theory, the properties of complex systems – characterized by signaling and information processing, complex collective behavior, non-linearity – purportedly assure continual adaptation and resilience. What has dropped out, it seems to me, was precisely the hard-edged political economy that I thought Silent Violence – and other work on food and famine by geographers like Ben Wisner – sought to emphasize. It was this sense of déjà vu and of a recycling of analysis that I naively believed we had actually jettisoned, that brought me back anew to Silent Violence.

SE: That’s a fascinating story, and open up many questions and issues I’d like to explore with you. The relation between political economy and political ecology, which is perhaps one of the most striking parts of the book and anticipates some contemporary debates, especially intrigues me. But let me stick with Nigeria for a moment. In recent years your work has had more of a focus on the south of the country, especially in relation to oil politics – I’m thinking of many pieces, but perhaps especially the 2004 Geopolitics article and the Curse of the Black Gold book with Ed Kashi (2008). How did you come to move geographical focus within the country, and to focus on some quite different aspects?

MW: Like much of our intellectual and political lives, there is no simple answer to the question of why I shifted my regional focus in Nigeria from the savannas of the north to the forests and oilfields of the Niger delta in the southeast. In the early 1980s, shortly after I moved from the University of Michigan to Berkeley, I had the opportunity to work in The Gambia with a Cornell-trained rural sociologist friend (John Sutter, whom I had met in Niger in the mid-1970s while he was conducting his field research among Hausa communities in southern Niger across the border from Katsina where I resided) as part of a research project under the auspices of the Centre for Research on Economic Development at the University of Michigan assessing the potential impact of a barrage (never built fortunately) to be constructed across the Gambia river. One of the attractions of the research was that it focused on irrigated agriculture – Taiwanese government-constructed smallholder perimeters – and on intra and extra household dynamics among Mandinka communities. Coincidentally, I was able to enroll Judith Carney, then a PHD student at Berkeley, in this endeavor and it was from her research on the south bank of the river among female rice growers that her remarkable book Black Rice was to emerge. As a consequence, I devoted time and energy to non-Nigerian writing projects and drifted away from my concerns with northern Nigeria – though of course retaining my abiding interests in rural differentiation and food while deepening my reading around gender and feminist theory (which incidentally brought me into regular contact with an extraordinary group of women scholars – Jane Guyer, Gillian Hart, Pauline Peters and Sarah Berry among them – working on a radical rethinking the black box of the household and the domestic sphere through ethnographic studies on the continent).


Boarding oil platform 2005

Boarding oil platform 2005


Also, if I am brutally honest, I was dismayed and dispirited at the way in which northern politics in Nigeria was moving, the ruthless ways in which Islam was being deployed in the scramble for power (and oil rents) in the country, and the drift toward forms of Islamism that, well, did not sit easily with me. At the same time the 1980s was a period in which military governments were aggressively restricting civil and political freedoms and intimidating progressive left academics, journalists and community organizers and activists, a number of whom I knew from my time at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. As a result I did not entirely abandon my interests in the North and in fact was involved with my good friend Paul Lubeck at the University of California Santa Cruz – whose enormously important book Islam and Labor had pointed to the shifting Muslim landscape in Hausaland and the struggles over the power and authority of the traditional Sunni Brotherhoods – in writing about political repression and working for the release of Nigerian scholars and activists who were under arrest. At that time, partly for family reasons, I dabbled in research in California too, trying to figure out why anyone in their right mind would grow padi rice – in large quantities, including exporting the stuff to Japan – in northern California, and then getting diverted into a project on the un-natural history of the chicken…..yet another project I failed to complete, in which I thought I could tell the history of US post-war capitalism, including the origins of flexible post-fordism, through the poultry industry! (what I had in mind I think has been covered in part in a new book by Andrew Lawler entitled Why did the chicken cross the world?). But I digress.

And then history intervened in the form of two hugely significant developments in Nigeria. One was the appearance of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni movement on the national (and global) stage in 1990, and the other was the terrifying descent into some of the darkest days of military authoritarianism and terror associated with President Sani Abacha in the 1990s. It all culminated of course in the hanging of Ken and the Ogoni nine in November 1995. I was drawn into solidarity work both in relation to the massive state violence human rights violations meted out upon all manner of progressive forces and youth groups in the region by military forces. At about this time, I became the Director of the Institute of International Studies at Berkeley – a post I held for twelve years – and one of the things it permitted me to do was to establish (with Nancy Peluso, Don Moore, and Louise Fortmann) our Environmental Politics Working Group (something we modeled on Jim Scott’s Agrarian Studies program at Yale). We raised some foundation money and one of the things these monies afforded was the possibility of bringing what we called “activist scholars” to Berkeley for 3-6 months. Not surprisingly I was able to bring people from the Delta and as a consequence was increasingly drawn into that part of the world.


In the oil producing region of Okrika, Niger Delta

In the oil producing region of Okrika, Niger Delta


I had actually visited the delta in 1972 and 1973, shortly after the end of the Biafra War, and while the destruction and horrors of the war were evident , I was intrigued by the place. And then by chance on old student of mine – a brilliant Kenyan undergraduate at Berkeley who won a Rhodes Scholarship –working for the Ford Foundation in Lagos invited me to come and spend time in the delta with the idea of helping building a program in the wake of the Ogoni crisis and the return to civilian rule in 1999. Again serendipity took charge. I worked with a remarkable group of Nigerian “youth”, activists who had been involved in the insurgent youth politics of the delta, who had worked with Ken, many of whom went underground in the Abacha years – or were arrested and tortured – and were now in the thick of trying to avoid entering precisely the dark places anticipated by Saro-Wiwa, namely a shift from non-violent protest to militancy. I spent time in the creeks and across the oilfields in the wake of a raft of violent youth confrontations with the military – the so-called Egbesu Wars of 1998 and 1999 – and the rise of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) and its famous Kaiama Declaration (a call to reject the slick alliance of oil and state). What was in train was an increasingly fractious and difficult struggle within movements and communities over direct action. Virtually every community I visited seemed in the midst of some sort of political contention (within youth groups, between companies and chiefs, between state security forces and militants). The social field of violence was mind boggling to me in its panoply of forms (vigilante groups, youth wings, insurgents, ethnic militias, drug networks, oil thieves, and so on). And all of this crisscrossed by a sort of territorial and geographical fragmentation of space. I couldn’t make sense of any of it. And every time I made a new visit something astonishing would happen: chiefs violently dispatched from communities and youth armed men taking over customary powers, or explosive political violence around elections in which politicians were arming and recruiting various groups of very differing political persuasion both to co-opt and deploy as thugs, or the extraordinary appearance in late 2005 of a group that nobody had heard of from the western delta (MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), proclaiming through its brilliantly witty Subcommandante Marcos-like PR man Gbomo Jomo its intention to shut down the oil industry in three months (which they pretty much did). So, how could I walk away from that?

SE: You’ve written about the MEND, and more recently on Boko Haram. How far do you think the approach of the Federal Government to MEND holds lessons for dealing with Boko Haram?

MW: Well Stuart you have yourself written powerfully about Boko Haram [in The Geographical Journal] and made the point that both of these insurgencies – and the nature of the state response to them – points to the porosity of the boundaries between the insurgents and the powers of the state (federal, state and local). The history of the Nigerian state’s relation to the oil producing delta is one of serial deferment, punctuated by the use of powerful sticks and carrots: namely, throwing money at the problem through all manner of dedicated Niger Delta development programs and institutions devoted to improving conditions in delta communities (which are in effect oil rents channeled to powerful local political Godfathers and their cronies, or to the leaders of the militant groups), or deploying the Joint Military Task Force to violently oppress uppity communities and political groups. However turbulent and unruly this state strategy might be under either military or civilian auspices, the authoritarian Leviathan (to quote Dan Slater’s book The Ordering of Power) proved to be extremely durable.  In other words, this poses questions about how much conflict and disorder a system can accommodate while still able to socially reproduce itself.

The Nigerian state strategy came to a crashing halt beginning in 2005 with the emergence of MEND under the leadership of a charismatic and powerful figure (Tomopolo) who drew together the east, west and southern regions not only among the Ijaw (the largest so called ethnic minority in the delta) but also other “oil minorities’, into something like a pan-ethnic movement. Better funded, better armed, better trained and equipped with the powers of local spirit mediums (Egbesu) refitted to purpose, MEND represented a massive escalation of insurgent capacity. 1 million barrels of oil were shut-in in a matter of weeks, oil platforms 100 miles offshore were attacked, and oil installations around the delta including in Lagos were detonated and destroyed: the costs were astronomical (excluding the billions appropriated through stole, (‘bunkered’) oil). By 2009 the Nigerian federal forces confronted a massive crisis and launched a major military offensive that resulted in an amnesty for 26,000 militants and an allocation of a vast tranche of monies for various training exercise and “rehabilitation” programs. Commanders have appropriated much of this money, and the various trainings have been surrounded by accusations of corruption. At the same time for the better part of five years this amnesty has purchased a sort of peace, a peace not unrelated to the fact that a delta man, Goodluck Jonathan, sits at Aso Rock in Abuja as President. How this fragile peace will hold in virtue of the coming elections in early 2015, and in light of the fact that basic political conditions in the delta remain largely unchanged, is very unclear.


Interviewing (now President) Goodluck Jonathan

Interviewing (now President) Goodluck Jonathan


The Boko Haram case exhibits interesting family resemblances. While its recruits talk the language of True Islam and the restoration to the Caliphate, the degree to which they are alienated from virtually all forms of authority (the state, the market, religion, customary rulers) and confront truncated life chances (particularly the social obligations and expectation of men) is strikingly consistent with the secular insurgents of MEND. In the same way that MEND and delta militants had powerful supporters in government and were if not founded then at least propelled forward by unscrupulous politicians who funded and armed them as political thugs during elections, so too does Boko Haram have its supporters in state and local governments. Boko Harm began as small prayer groups in the 1990s and established utopian neo-Salafist communities in the northeast in the early 2000s but were hounded by corrupt and often violent local security forces and more crucially were drawn into gubernatorial politics in 2003 as thugs by a politicians promising “a new Islam”. It was the duplicity of politicians and the subsequent violent attacks on the group and the murder of their leaders that contributed to the escalation of violence.

Of course – and here is a striking contrast to MEND – at a certain point connections were made between Boko Haram and global jihadist movements (al Shabab, AQIM and al-Qaeda) and very quickly, especially after 2009, there has been an explosion of attacks by Boko Haram not just on Christians and schools but on politicians, police forces, local Muslim leaders and customary rulers (emirs) and military barracks. Further complicating the dynamics here is not simply the tactics and violence of Boko Haram (and its needs to be said the undisciplined violence and corruption of security forces who are responsible for civilian casualties and the displacement of thousands) but the fact that the center of political power historically in Nigeria has resided in the Muslim north. The northern political classes have both used Islam as a political tool (for example the adoption of sharia law across the 12 northern states in 2000) and abandoned the commoners (the talakawa as they are called) as the agrarian and industrial economies of the north have entered a tailspin (the rates of poverty in the Boko Haram heartlands are typically in excesses of 80%!).

In this sense responding to Boko Haram has all sorts of complexities. In the first instance Muslims attacking self-proclaimed Muslims in a religious and ethnically divided and political turbulent federation is quite tricky. Turning to the US for military support is especially provocative with such a vast Muslim population and the horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan in the background. The human rights violations of the Nigerian military in any case prevents any direct US military assistance. The very idea of an amnesty parallel to the MEND truce especially in view of the horrifying events of the last year is impossible. Nigerian security forces are seemingly outmaneuvered, and ill-equipped against Boko Haram’s fearless onslaughts (federal troops have regularly fled or refused to go into battle). And from the vantage of the Goodluck administration in the run up to elections, heavy-handed military responses (with unpredictable outcomes) can easily be read as (i) confirmation of his antipathy to the North, and/or (ii) a deliberate attempt to disrupt the political process in the run up to the 2015 elections (and by implication helping to deliver victory for another term to “the South”). None of this is to suggest that the federal response has been anything other than incompetent and inept as the case of the kidnapping of 300 girls at Chibok demonstrates. But at base the political context for dealing with Boko Haram is quite different to MEND and the ease with which amnesty or some sort of truce or purchase of consent can take place in the face of seemingly further escalations of violence (and of course with the horrors of ISIS hanging in the air) makes for a very different political dilemma for the Nigerian federal government.

SE: I’m struck by two themes that are coming out here. On the one hand, the relation between political economy and political ecology, already mentioned; and on the other between geographical questions and the issue of violence. These also intersect with each other – as your work and perhaps especially the co-edited book with Nancy Peluso, Violent Environments, demonstrates. Could I ask you to reflect a bit more first on the political economy and political ecology relation, perhaps not only in relation to your own work, but to these debates in and beyond Geography today?

MW: Stuart, I think you may have colonized some quarters of my brain because I’ve been writing about precisely these issues over the last year, quite explicitly in the case of thinking historically and genealogically about the rise of political ecology and its relation to political economy (the latter triggered by an invitation from my former student James McCarthy at Clark who is helping to assemble a Handbook of Political Ecology). An origins story is tricky of course. A number of people had either deployed the term political ecology or thought about the systematic relations between environment and production relations writ large – most obviously Eric Wolf, Angel Palerm, John Cole, Marshal Sahlins and Hans Magnus Enzenberger in the 1970s, and those cultural ecologists like Julian Steward, Raymond Murphy and others who, if uninterested in class and structures of accumulation as such, at the very least did not shy away from the social relations of production and the social organization of work. In my mind, one way to think about the conditions of possibility for the emergence of the ‘first generation’ of political ecology in the late 1970s and early 1980s – I am thinking here of the foundational work of the likes of Piers Blaikie, a ‘later’ Harold Brookfield, Ben Wisner, Susanna Hecht, Larry Grossman – is to turn to the then dominant (and competing) concepts, derived from Sauerian cultural geography/cultural ecology and ecological anthropology (my old Michigan teacher Roy Rappaport’s Pigs for the Ancestors was absolutely formative to this approach), which drew upon ecology, evolutionary theory, and living systems: to wit, adaptation, adaptive structures, adaptive orders, adaptive traits and functions. These forms of organic analogy – a mapping of systems ecology and ecosystemic epistemes onto social and economic relations – were exactly what came under critical scrutiny, contested by political ecologists in large measure because they could not be made to speak to the material conditions and realities across the Global South, most particularly the transformation of peasant communities in the throes of what my colleague Michael Burawoy (see his chapter here) calls the “second great wave of marketization” – and one might ensnared tentacles of American empire (the rise of peasant studies in the 1970s after all was shaped by the Vietnam war). There were, in sum, all sorts of anomalies an emergent political ecology sought to confront in their analyses of post-colonial rural and agrarian communities deeply enmeshed in the Cold War (it was from this world that political ecology, in the first instance, arose).

Of course, a number of advantages flowed from seeing human adaptation through the lenses of evolutionary theory, cybernetics and systems theory – that is to say through the reigning conceptual and theoretical apparatuses within American social and behavioral sciences during the post-war period. One was the sorts of quantitative data on material, energy and information flows – I have always thought of this as a brand of materialism – required to calibrate the sorts of regulatory functions attributed to culture: detailed accounting of ecological relations, survey data on demographic change, labor flows and land use constituted the hallmarks of the best of such scholarship. Another was conceptual, namely that causality in biophysical systems was circular (the so-called feedback loop). Cybernetic principles highlighted what Nikolas Luhmann called “recursivity”, that is a process which uses its own outputs as inputs (this is key to the operations of negative feedback for example). Implicit here too is the notion of contingency of all observation: that A causes B and B causes A points to the fact that it is always possible to observe otherwise. In Gregory Bateson’s language (a hugely influential figure in the history of nature-society relations – see his Steps to an Ecology of Mind), the sort of knowledge you get depends upon the code or map that you use. Systems theory contained an epistemological claim to the effect that the boundaries between system and environment or organism and environment were social constructions and arbitrary. Put this way, both cultural ecology and ecological anthropology, to the extent they framed adaptation as recursive, had unsettled the billiard board world of stressors and responses, and simple causes and effects.

But – and it is a big qualification – the functionalism and empiricism of systems and cybernetic theory, the strongly behaviorist thrust of the work, and the Cold War context out of which this science of control emerged all cast a long analytical shadow. Cybernetics was an instrument of technocratic management in which the angel of control was emphasized over the devil of disorder. Any sense of self-regulating equilibrium and balance or harmony seemed increasingly out of touch with the realities of communities marked by new patterns of social differentiation and inequality and what could only be called ecological destruction. In particular the withering critiques launched by Marxist anthropologists Maurice Godelier and Jonathan Friedman exposed not just the mechanistic and often Hegelian character of much of what passed as adaptation theory (the idea that regulation of the environment was happening behind the backs of the actors through cultural thermostats), but also the difficulty of seeing how the adaptive structure of societies could be squared with not just the clear patterns of ecological destruction but questions of power, class, property and access which were central to Marxian political economy. Subjecting social systems to an overriding logic of living systems or “ecological rationality” as Godelier called it, seemed to reduce social and cultural life to giant servo-mechanism.


The Gambia, 1983

The Gambia, 1983


On a personal note let me say that at the University of Michigan – I was in Ann Arbor, a sort of sister city to Berkeley, in the early 1970s – was a fantastic place to be located while thinking about the intersection of ecology and political economy. One could circulate among a group of anthropologists, geographers, ecologists, sociologists – Eric Wolf, Marshall Sahlins, Mick Taussig, Roy Rappaport, Dan Janzen John Vandermeer, Barney Nietschmann, Kent Flannery among them– for whom these theoretical concerns provided a sort of common point of reference. For anybody interested, I’ve written a little piece about Ann Arbor at this particular historical moment in a recent book dedicated to the work of Gunnar Olsson (GO: On the Geographies of Gunnar Olsson, edited by Christian Abrahamson and Martin Gren).

In any event, all of this bore down on cultural ecology. It bears repeating that while the intellectual milieu was one in which peasant studies and Marxist theory were high on the development agenda, it was also a historical conjuncture in which a dominant Malthusianism and technological determinism (one thinks of the ubiquity of the tragedy of the commons and Club of Rome style thinking) confronted rising Third World nationalism and left-wing radicalism. Rather than examining the functional adequacy of culture or social structure, political ecology started with the relation of producers to the market, the commodification of land and labor, the forms of surplus extraction and the prismatic forms of social differentiation with peasant communities, the breakdown of the moral economy, emerging forms of class structure and the changing relations of production. Rather than seeing environmental questions through the prism of society and nature or human response and biophysical trigger, political ecology, drawing upon Marxist ideas of the labor process and in the wake of Neil Smith’s hugely influential account in Uneven Development of notions of first and second nature, saw nature and society as dialectically constituted. Environment was not some pre-given context: it was an object that could be construed in different ways by different communities and classes. Political ecology problematised what the environment meant and to whom – a central plank in Piers Blaikie’s work on soil erosion in the Himalayas for example. What this meant was that the planetary ecosystem was a working and evolving ecological system in which nature and capital are constantly being produced and reproduced. There is no transcendent adaptive or ecological order here, but an ecological system in which capital necessarily privatizes, commodifies, monetizes and commercializes every aspect of nature.

If political ecology constructed a theory upon political economy, what this couplet meant analytically (and what theoretical traditions it drew upon) was, I think, not at all monochromatic. Generally speaking the dynamics of specific historical forms of capitalist accumulation – whether in the Brazilian Amazon or the Himalayan foothills – were its central starting points. It certainly denounced forms of Malthusianism and gave pride of place to structures of access to and control over resources, to the growing commodification of the resource base and social life, and to the role of the state. Political ecology turned the flashlight inward toward commercialization of agrarian societies, to how communities were being torn asunder and radically reshaped by the twin processes of globalization and to how the exercise of power was indispensable to the understanding of the institutions of property, resource control and market dynamic. Placed on the larger canvas of the extraordinary debates with Marxism and the political economy of development during the 1970s, it is scarcely a surprise that political ecology displayed a number of theoretical tensions. Some drew on world systems theory and dependency, others on the modes of production, and others the agrarian question. Perhaps these differences turn in some way on the institutional sites from which political ecology emerged, from the obvious fact that it parentage was transnational, multi-sited and trans-disciplinary. The Australian National University (Harold Brookfield and his group of Melanesianists), Berkeley (Susanna Hecht), the University of Michigan (myself), Clark University (Ben Wisner), and the University of East Anglia (Piers Blaikie) reflected quite different points of intellectual departure. The ANU-Melanesia group substituted what Brookfield called sociological explanation for ecological function. The sorts of adaptive functions imputed to pig cycles by Roy Rappaport were not about the disposability of pigs but the reproduction of a whole system of social relationships rapidly being transformed by cattle, coffee and the advancing frontier of capital. As one ANU geographer put it, describing the uplands in New Guinea, the communities were, in fact, at the “edge of a madhouse”.

A similar set of developments were reflected in work that linked the University of Michigan. Bernard Nietschmann’s stimulating cultural ecological study of the Miskito communities on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua entitled Between Land and Water, proved to be a sort of limit case for cultural ecological analysis exposing the sorts of constrictions imposed by adaptation as a framework (Progress in Human Geography has published an interesting assessment of the book in its Classics Revisited). By making use of Marshall Sahlins’ account of Marx’s commodity circuit (and implicitly Karl Polanyi’s work on markets), Nietschmann showed how the central dynamics of Misikito fishing and subsistence systems were increasingly driven by broader market changes, in large measure the commercialization of the turtle industry. My own 1979 dissertation at Michigan – which appeared as Silent Violence after I had relocated to Berkeley – certainly was influenced by these Polanyian insights into patterns of resource use and the politics of “fictitious commodities”. It was the intersection of markets (the role of merchant capital), patterns of social inequality and climatic perturbations that shaped what sorts of decisions and realms of choice different classes of peasant households could make to manage risks like drought as well as why the systems of which they were part might collapse (i.e. famines as crises of social reproduction). Ben Wisner – who completed his PHD in 1977 working in eastern Africa – was exploring precisely these issues with students at Clark University, in a different part of the continent, as a way of upending the stimulus-response models of hazard research associated with the scholars at Chicago, Toronto and Clark itself.

There were two other important sites: one was Berkeley Geography, in particular Susanna Hecht’s work on tropical deforestation in Brazil, a frontier of land clearance and speculation propelled by a powerful logic of political alliances between landed elites and state derived rents and subsidies. The other, the School of Development Studies at the University of East Anglia, centered on Piers Blaikie and his direct engagement with the political economy of development. Blaikie’s influential work emerged largely, but not exclusively, from South Asia on the subject of soil erosion and land management. Again adaptation was not the central concern so much as the chains of inter-dependency linking farmers, household, and communities to the state and the world market which shaped – and often undermined – the capacity to manage the land and soil resources.

So political economy meant different things to different geographers emerging from contrasting regional and theoretical traditions. Blaikie and Brookfield enjoined a mix of world systems theory, dependencia, and a very broadly defined (and not unequivocally Marxist) political economy. My own work drew heavily on Althusserian Marxism, the modes of production debate, the work of Karl Kautsky (and relatedly by the presence of Alain de Janvry on the Berkeley’s campus and the impact of his magnificent book The Agrarian Question in Latin America). Larry Grossman’s important book Peasants, Subsistence Ecology, and Development in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea reflected the influence of peasant studies and Hecht’s research in Brazil was shaped by Latin American theories of the state and rent-seeking. Subsequent path-breaking work – one thinks of Nancy Peluso’s research on Indonesian forests – drew on social historians like E. P. Thompson and theories of property. Both Wisner and Blaikie were directly engaged in policy and practical development work in a way that, for example, I certainly was not. What we all shared, I think, was common focus on patterns of accumulation, access to and control over resources, and changing class structure; political ecology could demonstrate that some individuals and households were rendered marginal (to their resource base) and made vulnerable to anticipated and unanticipated environmental processes in new ways. If pushed I would say that political ecology had as its reference point what I would call regimes of accumulation, operating at a multiplicity of scales and through complex chains of causation, providing structures of opportunity and constraint – imposed by social relations of production and exchange and by property relations – that shaped how resources, environments, and perturbations might be managed and governed.

What one might call political ecology 1.0 was subsequently challenged, deepened, and in my view dispersed, in theoretical terms by criticisms derived from, and engagements with, feminist theory, post-structuralisms of various stripe, discourse theory, a revived environmental anthropology and science studies. Political ecology too met up with environmental history and critical race theory. Out of this maelstrom came a second and third generation of political ecologists that we of course associate with the path-breaking work of Jake Kosek, Donald Moore, Diane Rocheleau, Rick Schroeder, Tim Forsyth, Paul Robbins, Melissa Leach, Julie Guthman, Rod Neumann to mention simply a few. I can immodesty say, a number of these folks pitched up at Berkeley as graduate students and became part of the Berkeley Workshop on Environmental Politics founded in 1994, a monthly seminar that for close to a decade provide an enormously generative setting for political ecological research. At the same time let me end – I know this is a long response – by saying that it is mildly astonishing to me that so much of the geographical and indeed social scientific work conducted in and around global climate change has returned to the language of adaptation, often blithely unaware of what I have just now recounted.

SE: I’d like to turn to the history of the discipline and perhaps some blind spots in our knowledge of it in a future question, but let’s pick up the second of the themes I identified before first. You’ve written about violence in various works – as well as Silent Violence already discussed, the relation of geography and violence was the theme of your 1999 Hettner lectures at the University of Heidelberg, later published as Struggles Over Geography: Violence, Freedom and Development at the Millennium. In the past decade or so obviously many geographers – David Harvey, Neil Smith, Derek Gregory – ended up writing books about the ‘war on terror’. Others, such as my former colleagues Susan Smith and Rachel Pain broadened the focus in their collection Fear: Critical Geopolitics and Everyday Life. Your response was a little different, in that you co-authored a book with Iain Boal, T.J. Clark and Joseph Matthews, under the name ‘Retort’ – Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War. Could you say something about how that collective project came about, and why you chose to make your intervention in that way? How do you think the discipline of Geography responded to the challenge of these events generally?

MW: I’m going to try to make this short because first I could end up in an less-than-thrilling detour on the origins of Retort, and second because the larger canvas,in my view, is not so much the War on Terror as the explosion of interest in violence, something that commenced long before 9/11, about which I am deeply ambivalent. Let me simply say that in my own formation I was shaped by two sorts of experiences both of which drew me reluctantly, I would say, into writing about violence. On the one hand there is the history of Nigeria itself. I first went there shortly after the horrors of the Biafra War at a time when the landscape (and the national psyche) were deeply scarred. If there is one thing that I recall vividly form my days at University College London as an undergraduate it was the presence – the image world – of Biafra. I wrote a long paper on the war and as someone very interested in photography, like so many others, I was devastated by the war photographs of Don McCullin and his documentation of the battle front. After all, Biafra we can now see was a sort of founding event for the emergence of the Humanitarian International and the circulation of such images – as Susan Sontag, John Berger and others pointed out during the 1970s – were part of the spectacle or spectacularization (and dispersion) of particular sorts of savagery. In my experience in Nigeria, conflict – and the legacy of Biafra – was never far away (and is still not far away) from the surface of everyday life. I recall vividly a friend in Katsina, not long after I had set up shop in the walled city, casually pointing out to me a spot where hundreds of Ibos had been burned alive, in this most civilized of Hausa cities. And in this sense the rise of radical Islam and the insurgency in the Niger delta, as it were, imposed themselves upon me, congruent with this historical echo of Biafra which has hung like a pall over the country since 1960.

One the other hand there was my effort to reconstruct the violence associated with starvation across several centuries in northern Nigeria. Here the violence was ‘silent’ and ‘structural’ and a part of what I sought to understand was why there had not been more violence, or at the least more organized resistance to forms of pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial exploitation. I was not alone in this project of course since the growth of peasant studies as a field during the 1960s addressed the fact of peasant revolution – here I had been deeply influenced by the work of Eric Wolf and James Scott – but also the fact of what seemed like a long history of acquiescence and withdrawal. One way to think about Silent Violence is that it is a meditation on what it takes for subjects – even and particularly precarious and starving subjects – to rebel. All of which is to say that I had in a sense always been interested in the conflict-violence question without ever fully grasping it. It was I supposed the extraordinary forms of Nigerian state violence leveled against the unorthodox Muslim dispossessed in the Mai Tatsine uprising of the early 1980s and the assault on the Ogoni people a decade later that brought the violence question into clearer focus for me.


RETORT installation Seville

RETORT installation Seville


Retort is a rather different matter. It is a rag-tag group of academics, activists, writers, filmmakers and artists of various stripe who were drawn together under the extraordinary wings of Iain Boal, a historian of technics and – I am not sure what words to deploy here – independent scholar and writer who moved to the Bay area from Boston in the mid-1980s. He drew together a core group – many shaped by varying engagements with Marxism, anarchism and the Situationists – all of whom had robust connections with institutions such as the San Francisco City Lights bookshop, the East Bay Socialist School, the San Francisco Art Institute and so on. Retort met every month or so for wildly overpopulated dinners typically triggered by visitors passing through and political matters of the moment. 9/11 and its aftermath had of course a catalytic effect on Retort and one of the many things produced including pamphlets and such like was a broadsheet distributed to the massive demonstrations held in San Francisco in the run-up to the March 2003 bombing of Baghdad. A small group of us in effect turned the broadsheet into Afflicted Powers. Tim Clark (an art historian), Joseph Matthews (a novelist), Iain Boal and I wrote the book in the context of what could only be seen as a defeat, as a challenge to what the Left meant in the 21st century, what it might do in the face of empire, and (especially after Abu Graib) to explore the relations between the spectacle, the image world, and imperialist war. Much of it was the product of long and heated discussions at a local watering hole, the Pig and Whistle in San Francisco.

The book was intended to be polemical and a challenge to the Left. It was written quickly with an eye to accessibility but also the temper of the times. I would have wished in a volume that takes the image world so seriously we had had a budget to include many more images. One part of the project assumed a rather different afterlife. We were invited to prepare a video installation using the original broadsheet at the International Biennial of Contemporary Art (BIACS) in Seville in 2007. It’s the first and doubtless the last time that anything I have produced stood next to a series of Gerhart Richter paintings! As you might imagine we had our own internal struggles and differences and much could be said about these sorts of collective endeavors. The book was translated into French and Greek and seemed to speak to a variety of constituencies. Ten years on it seems perhaps a little too prophetic for comfort.

As regards Geography’s response I think it has been quite remarkable. Derek Gregory’s work has been radically reshaped by these events and the reach of his work quite considerable. David Harvey’s no less so. Trevor Paglen’s experimental geography and his rendering of the ‘black world’ is astonishing and hugely significant. In some respects one might say that it has drawn a whole generation of geographers to examine the spaces of security, militarization, terror, surveillance and imperial nation building. Perhaps to a fault. The gravitational pull of these events has sometimes produced quick and superficial accounts and sometimes ‘crowded out’ other equally compelling subject matters.

SE: You mentioned a moment ago how the work you were discussing was sometimes neglected in contemporary debates. One of the things that struck me from moving from a Department of Politics to a Department of Geography was that, compared to political theory at least, Geography didn’t have an especially broad grasp of its own history. There are exceptions, of course, from David Livingstone to people like Charles Withers, Judith Carney, Mona Domosh and Miles Ogborn. But I’d draw something of a distinction between historical geography and history of geography, and the latter seems to be a somewhat marginalised part of the discipline. One of the key figures in the latter is Clarence Glacken, best known today for his book Traces on the Rhodian Shore, which traces the way nature and culture have been understood from antiquity to the eighteenth century. I know that recently you have been working with colleagues to collect what remains of his sequel to this book, for publication with University of Virginia Press. Could you tell us something about this project, of how you decided to work on this, and what you discovered?

MW: The standing and status of the study of the history of the discipline and of the history of geographical ideas is an intriguing question and one that I have reflected upon as part of a continuing conversation with colleagues at Berkeley on the nature of the foundational courses we offer for our doctoral students. There is no question that the history of geography has indeed fallen out of fashion and this is striking – if the Berkeley campus is at all representative – when compared to the degree to which something like a theoretical canon is taught (and indeed revered) in virtually all of the other social science disciplines. In this regard I am mildly embarrassed to admit that the vast majority of our undergraduate and PhD students at Berkeley – who are without question exceptional in all regards – graduate not only with little or no knowledge of the history of the discipline (and here I mean both of its commanding theoretical figures understood through a history or genealogy of ideas, and also of its institutional formation in relation to empire, state building, militarization and so on) but most would have read little about the Berkeley School of which they are a product! It is equally true – and once again I suspect this may be very different on your side of the Atlantic – that most of our doctoral students begin with little or no background in geography and geographic theory as such (typically a little Harvey, and maybe Massey). On the other hand they do possess a first rate grasp of some (and sometimes many) aspects of social theory (Foucault, Lefebvre, Gramsci, Derrida, Agamben) and they exhibit too an impressive sort of conceptual agility and fluency. Over the thirty five years I’ve been at Berkeley, however, I cannot recall a PhD dissertation that would comfortably occupy a “history of geography” slot.

I am not sure what to make of this. One answer might be that historians, and especially environmental historians, have stolen our thunder by writing brilliantly about Alexander von Humboldt (Gerard Helferich’s biography for example) or landscape in modern Germany (I am thinking of David Blackbourn’s book The Conquest of Nature). Another is that there are some recent important exceptions focused upon individual geographers of distinction (Susanna Hecht’s magnificent account of Euclides da Cunha, Neil Smith on Isaiah Bowman, Michael Williams’s new biography of Carl Sauer). And yet another might be that this disciplinary and intellectual history appears embedded in other sorts of geographical narratives rather than self-identifying as “the history of geographical ideas” (Diana Davis’s marvelous environmental history of north Africa for instance). An important exception was of course David Stoddard who taught here at Berkeley who sadly passed on November 23rd 2014. Let me say for the record that he cut a fine figure on campus dressed, even in winter, in ‘full whites’ – white shorts, shirt, socks and plimsolls – with his shock of red hair and full beard. For him even the best of American universities seemed to him stuck in, as he put it, the endless drudgery of marginally useful and often historically and intellectually shallow mandatory courses and very few universities on this side of the Atlantic grasped, he believed, that advancement of geographic knowledge “depends in large degree on having the opportunity to browse in libraries, to go where the spirit take you, simply to sit down and think.” He was more than mildly appalled at extent to which Berkeley geographers knew so little of the history of the discipline. But when all of this said and done, it is curious that at a time when cognate disciplines and even popular literature appears intrigued by the map, by place, landscape and so on that we have in so many ways withdrawn from the field of the history geographical ideas despite the current popularity of genealogical approaches in general within geography.


Clarence Glacken c. 1979

Clarence Glacken c. 1979


Changing fashions toward or simply neglect – I am not sure which – regarding the history of geographical ideas has a particular valency at Berkeley given the association of the Department with the likes of Carl Sauer, John Leighly, James Parsons, Paul Wheatley and of course the towering figure of Clarence Glacken. When I arrived in the late 1970s the Department was in the midst of an important (and quite contentious) transition. Sauer had died, Glacken had retired, and James Parsons and Hilgard O’Reilly Sternberg were both to retire by the mid-1980s, which is to say the very long shadow of Sauerian Geography was beginning to recede. Allan Pred, the newly appointed Dick Walker – while of different generations – and myself represented a new sort of Berkeley geography (to which the arrival of Gill Hart in the 1990s added very substantially), without inferring that there was any theoretical unity to this cluster of human geographers. Clarence in my view stood awkwardly in any case in relation to the Berkeley School. He had been trained by Frederick Teggart in the Department of Social Institutions as a Berkeley undergraduate. He graduated into the depths of the Depression and spent most of the 1930s and 1940s not in the academy but in the Central Valley of California working with refugees from the farm states of the Midwest and Southwest who had been uprooted by the Dust Bowl and by the global economic recession. In 1937, he took almost a year off to travel through Europe and Asia on a shoestring budget but upon his return he resumed work with farm-workers in California. But in 1941, he was drafted into the Army and was eventually trained (and served) as a specialist in Japanese language and culture. After a stint in Japan he served in Korea as deputy director of the Bureau of Health and Welfare in the military government where he studied deforestation. Out of this experience came his ethnographic study of three villages in Okinawa, The Great Loochoo: A Study of Okinawan Village Life published in 1955. Unlike Sauer, Clarence’s academic formation was forged in the harsh crucible of inter and immediate post war America and from these practical experiences emerged his interests in nature, culture and ideas. Only in his forties did he return to university to work for a Ph.D. in Geography at Johns Hopkins University on “The Idea of the Habitable World.” He was appointed by Sauer to the faculty in Geography at Berkeley in 1952. He was never, I think, close to Sauer and while Glacken respected Sauer’s scholarship they possessed quite different views of the world and the discipline. During the 1950s and 1960s Glacken was engaged in writing his magnum opus on nature and culture in western thought from ancient times to the end of the 19th century which was published as Traces on the Rhodian Shore in 1967. History intervened at this point in two crucial ways. First, the Vietnam War and the radicalization of the Berkeley campus, and the other was the arrival of Paul Wheatley with whom he taught a course on cultural geography that has entered the lore of the Berkeley School. Clarence suffered the grave consequences of being Chair during the late 1960s (he was appointed in 1966) when the campus erupted. And he became one of period’s many casualties. A man of uncommon sensitivity, he was finally engulfed by the disturbances (including disruptions of his classes by anti-war activists and tear gas) and as Chair was necessarily drawn into the extraordinarily turbulent world of campus politics – while himself being the least political person one could ever meet. In 1970 he was leveled by a severe nervous breakdown, shortly followed by a heart attack, which brought him close to death. All of these events left deep scars that shaped the remainder of his life.

When I arrived at Berkeley, Clarence – he was a tall, striking man with long grey hair tied in a pony tail – was finishing up the sequel to Traces. My office was located next to his – as it happens I now occupy his old office – and he would often call me in to check his translations (typed on 3×5 notecards) of some obscure German, Norwegian (!), Russian, or Italian text. Of course I was in no position to help at all since my French and Hausa exhausted my non-English language competency. But we talked often and at length –in fact he bequeathed to me some of his old teaching materials (slides), course outlines, readers and slides. I recall that he once asked me to give him a manuscript I was working on – I think he was simply curious as to what sort of geography interested me. He was characteristically generous, to a faul in fact, singing the praises of what I had penned, its clarity, its structure and quality of the prose. There was then a long silence. And then he uttered these words: “Of course Michael we have known this for about a thousand years”.

It was during this time that Clarence had another breakdown. He had been apprehended by the Oakland police in the early hours of the morning dressed in a bathrobe walking in his (rather posh) neighborhood among other things throwing rocks at houses. Not knowing who he was, the police took him to some sort of holding pen and subsequently to some sort of psychiatric facility. I went to visit him with my colleague David Hooson. Clarence was seated in a corner looking quite dreadful and when we approached he seemed to me terrified and withdrawn in equal measure. We finally coaxed some words out of him but he was extremely distraught, repeating over and over that “people” would “find out” that his scholarship was hollow and worthless, that he had nothing to offer and so on. It was all very upsetting. It turned out that Clarence had submitted the sequel to the University of California Press – a 2000 page manuscript – and it had been rejected. It was not clear what had transpired but I believe it somehow ended up on an editor’s desk who knew little about Glacken’s standing and perhaps the sheer size of the manuscript and its erudition perhaps seemed out of keeping with the times. It is not clear that it was sent out for review. More crucially the press did not retain a copy of the manuscript (as far as we know) and Clarence himself in the depths of his depression destroyed his own full copy. Clarence never returned to the Department after this incident and following his death we were left with his papers which contained notes and various incomplete versions of chapters and notes for example on Darwin and Marx. All of his papers are currently in the Bancroft Library on the Berkeley campus.

This is the context in which the matter of Clarence’s lost and missing work surfaced in the 1990s in the wake of his death in 1989. A number of us – and environmental historian and sociologist Ravi Rajan has performed heroic work here – naturally were concerned about the possible existence of a copy or some parts of the sequel to Traces and whether it might be possible to reconstruct some, even large, parts of the original manuscript. It also appeared that he sent another collection of essays to the University of Texas A and M press in 1980 entitled Reflections on the Man-Nature Theme as a Subject for Study but it is not clear what happened to this project and why it never appeared. An even bigger mystery, as Ravi Rajan discovered, is a complete handwritten manuscript that lies in the Glacken archive entitled, Man and Nature, Selected Essays, consisting of discussions of some of the central geographical ideas of selected individuals from the late eighteenth century onward. The text addresses the modern idea of the habitable word -through population theory and the limited area of the world; human modifications of the environment and the theories of geographical determinism; changing concepts of the soils; and the various ideas of nature that have arisen and their relation to the study of human culture. The treatment was exegetical but alas has no footnotes nor date. Apparently none of Glacken’s former colleagues knew about the existence of this manuscript but it may bear a resemblance to a shorter book project Glacken had discussed with publishers at various times after 1970.

In short, much spadework and investigation was required, going through the Glacken papers – Ravi Rajan a sociologist at the University of California Santa Cruz and Adam Romero a doctoral student at Berkeley were centrally involved in this project – to determine what actually existed. It quickly became clear that only a very few chapters were in a condition that might plausibly be published after considerable editing and transcription. As a consequence the three of us proposed combining these chapters with some of his early work, including parts of his dissertation, and other important contributions appearing in more obscure scholarly outlets. When completed, this book will be more of a Glacken “reader” – and nothing like (I presume) the manuscript he completed in the mid-1980s for publication- but nevertheless will contain some of his lost work.

The structure of the sequel to Traces remains an open question. In a letter to David Stoddart in the Glacken archive he did say that the book contained four parts pertaining to the 19th century: first ecological ideas in natural theology, among the evolutionists, and in late 19th century studies; second subjective attitudes toward nature; third, environmental influences and environmental determinism; and finally the study of the role of human agency in the transformation of nature. He also raised the possibility of another chapter on Ruskin. Other evidence indicates that Glacken had planned to continue the discussion of the design of the natural world through the writings of the natural theologians of the early part of the 19th century, turning to English natural historians, geologists, and others and finally to a study of their ecological ideas, and those of the evolutionists, especially Lamarck, Darwin and Wallace. The two other themes formed a substantial part of the sequel: a set chapters on environmental determinism, focusing on Bucle, Tagel, Ratzel, and the French Possibilists and another on the human transformations of the environment during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries up until the outbreak of World War 1. In particular, there would be a detailed discussion of Marsh and Shaler, and essays on the early nineteenth century German explorers of ancient Greece. It also seems that the sequel would follow a new theme related to Glacken’s study of the romantics, with essays on the development of emotive and aesthetic ideas of the natural world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, focusing on Keats, Shelley, Byron, and perhaps American figures too.

Two chapters we were able to unearth and reconstruct are themselves intriguing. One comprises biographical accounts of three remarkable figures. The first, Charles-Irénée Castel, Abbé de Saint-Pierre (1658-1743), who was a French social reformer and advocate of the concept of the progress of scientific knowledge. The second was Julian-Joseph Virey (1775 – 1847), a Doctor of Medicine and Professor of Natural History at the Athénée of Paris, who wrote about social problems but who attempted to fit human society into Nature. The third was William Godwin. Glacken draws almost entirely on Godwin’s s polemic on Malthus and he displays in argument family resemblances to the debates between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon. The other chapter paints an intellectual history of environmental ideas in two parts. One details five trends in the history of nineteenth century environmental sciences (scientific studies of soils; the emergence of scientific ecology; scientific exploration; faith in progress and the decline of the idea of the designed earth, and ideas about anthropogenic environmental change). In the second, Glacken sketches a comprehensive intellectual history and critique of environmental determinism.

Traces was a monumental achievement by any standard but how systematically it is now taught – or how familiar an average undergraduate might be with Glacken’s ideas – is an open question. But any serious scholar interested in the history of environmental ideas would surely cherish the notion of reading what Clarence might have to say about Malthus, Darwin, Shelly or Marx. I suppose this is, to return to your question, why we embarked upon this project, and why (since it has taken us so long) why we need to air these lost ideas as soon as we can.

SE: I’m certainly looking forward to this very much, since Traces was an important book in my own work, and was an inspiration for The Birth of Territory. When I talked about the project at Berkeley back in 2011 I was so pleased to do so in the ‘Clarence Glacken seminar room’, something I remarked upon in my lecture.

You’re one of the editors of The Dictionary of Human Geography, and I understand work has begun on its sixth edition. In a crowded field, where every other publication seems to be a companion, guidebook, handbook or reference work, why do you think this Dictionary has continued to be so popular, with it still being the first go-to text for students and, frequently, their lecturers? How does a project like this help to create, and preserve, the identity of Geography as a discipline?

MW: Yes, another edition is indeed in train although I am not involved as one of the editors this time. You’re quite right about the crowded field of handbooks and compendia of various sorts – you’ll recall I referred earlier to a new Handbook on Political Ecology which is a case in point. I am not sure, however, whether I have anything terribly insightful to offer on your question. In part I’m not entirely sure of the usage-consumption question – and again I return to something that I have invoked upon a number of occasions in the course of this interview, namely differences across the Atlantic in our respective geographical communities (this raises of course another interesting question about the sorts of geographical conversations that do, or do not, happen across the Atlantic, since I for one am always surprised at the relative sparseness of traffic… but that might take our conversation in a quite different direction!). I have no doubt you are right that it is a go-to text for UK and perhaps European Geography majors but I am not quite so sure about the US. Geography is, of course so weakly institutionalized in the US compared to the UK – and the structure of undergraduate education so different – that I could well understand why students reading Geography at Durham or the LSE, equipped with a much deeper sense of the discipline in all of its heterogeneity, might have it as a bedside reader! Let me say I often make use of the Dictionary but I am not at all sure about my colleagues. That said, there is surely something about dictionaries in general that have a sort of intrinsic appeal and staying power in a way that a reader or handbook might not. I also believe – and again I am speaking form the vantage point of the West Coast and American geography – well respected and credible texts of this sort do a great deal of political and institutional work among university administrators who still may have no real sense of the discipline, its intellectual core, its lexicon and its conceptual toolkit. It serves as a foundational or canonical compendium of geographic sensibilities – and a form of intellectual identity. And I happen to believe that despite the cross, inter, and multi-disciplinary moments (and occasionally booms) over the last three or four decades social science disciplines are as robustly institutionalised and as heavily policed as ever [At Berkeley for example it is the biophysical and informational sciences that have revolutionized their structural and organization: the social sciences remain firmly in the nineteenth century.] So a Dictionary proclaiming our identity is no small matter.

As regards the Dictionary itself and what makes a good or great dictionary is another question. Over time the Dictionary of Human Geography has become more capacious. Naturally, knowledge and concepts expand, contract and morph over time so this inflation should be no surprise; there is poaching and trespassing upon other disciplines and their analytics too. But I think the Dictionary has expanded to the point where it edges in some respects toward social science rather than geography per se. A drift from a narrow construal of Geography may not be a major failing but the semantic domain now encompasses words, measures and meanings that are not so much geographical as part of the vocabulary that human geographers qua social scientists necessarily encounter and deploy (modernity, GDP, slavery, science studies). In this sense, there is perhaps a loss of coherence – but not necessarily utility for students! To the extent that all of this is a problem, I would say that entries of such social science keywords should at the very least be made to speak to the ways in which geographers deploy, use and perhaps unsettle them. In this regard the Dictionary is only partially successful I think. But perhaps more crucially what makes a dictionary interesting would be that it takes historical semantics, and the sociology of knowledge, seriously (in the manner of Raymond Williams’ Keywords). It demands a great deal of contributors and of any dictionary project (including the role of the editors). The grave danger is that the purpose – or should I say an unintended consequence – of the dictionary becomes a ‘nailing down’ of the word, casting as it were concepts, terms and concepts in stone (words are not just slippery as the editors pointed out in their Introduction to the Dictionary but, to cite Pareto invoking Marx, “words are like bats, one can see in them both birds and mice”). A dictionary can (reluctantly) be in the business of confiscating ideas from history and obscuring the conditions of their production and use (‘situated knowledges’); it can also render them curiously lifeless (cross-referencing can of course help and considerable attention was paid to these interconnections in the fifth edition). Contributors (almost wholly form the Global North) do not of course speak with a single voice, any more than the entire project could be, or was ever construed as a point of Archimedian universality.  But the fact remains that dictionaries contain or must confront all of these forms of epistemological difficulty. But I do believe that the Dictionary has improved in its various editions and has become more sophisticated and as a result more interesting. Perhaps there is need for someone now to look at the Dictionary’s evolution, or perhaps one might say its genealogy.

SE: That sounds like a project for an enterprising PhD student! Michael, thank you very much for these answers and your insights into your own and others’ work. It’s been fascinating talking to you.


Note: all images are copyright Michael Watts, from his personal archive; used by permission.

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Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick and Monash Warwick Professor in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University. He is the author of Foucault's Last Decade (Polity Press, 2016) and The Birth of Territory (University of Chicago Press, 2013). He was editor of Society and Space from 2006-2015.