The Construction and Governance of ‘Environment’

From Ecocritique to Environmentality: 

We have considered the critical ethos within research programs, and the critical ethos within ecocritiques to date. The purpose of these exercises has been to provide a framework for us to understand the enmeshment of society, and “nature” in the construction of our lived experience and the discourse of the anthropocene. We’ve criticized “The Anthropocene” as too totalizing and inadequate for understanding the discrete actors that have come to and do make up the material stuff in our environs. We defined environs as sorts of built enclosures populated by humans, machines, capital and non-humans and we have seen that part of their existence is built upon the circulation of capital in the form of commodities; technocratic rationality tied to consumerism and the need for continuously functioning social machinery (such as commercial corporations); and the positions of subjects (people and other actors) within massive technological networks that produce risks through the mitigation of others and in service to the everyday needs of “society” writ large. The task at hand is to move from our understanding of ecocritiques as a genre of writing that see the construction of “the environment,” through the actions of social actors and the rule of “natural” or individual bodies through the lens of the critical ethos, to a broader understanding of environmental construction as resulting from interlocking technologies of government and as a project of government itself. We make this move by understanding “the environment” as a political object – that is, something that has become governable, and subject to governmental strategy

I asked you to read three chapters last week that dealt with the formation of “the environment” as an object of governance (note that this is not the same a ‘government’) and the intellectual history involved in moving from a concern of governing humans, to the government of the human through the government of the non-human. This is paradoxical and a little confusing, to say the least, but I’ll do my best below to elucidate the meaning of the above with a story. However, we must give a name to our object of inquiry first, and that object, or field of objects that concern themselves with the governance of the living and the non-human we call environmentality. I first give some background to the concept before diving into an example of an environmentality and I hope that this exercise will help you through the field of Environmentality Studies. 

The term environmentality was drawn from Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality he used to describe definite historical shifts in the way governments conducted themselves and their citizens in Eighteenth and Nineteenth century Europe. Two lecture series delivered by Foucault are important here: the first being his lectures titled Security Territory Population, and The Birth of Biopolitics. The above are not his sole writings concerning the subject and there are, arguably, many more throughout his corpus that provide support to the field of study known as Governmentality Studies. In particular, another lecture series by him collected as Society Must Be Defended has become more popular in recent scholarship and is well worth the read concerning the production and circulation of “truth” and the manufacture of “force” within society. It must be grasped that while there is disagreement over where to seat Foucault and his work (is he a philosopher, social theorist, political thinker, historian, etc.,?), it’s clear that he uses history to form concepts as a matter of method and his work in this area is largely descriptive though still embodying the critical ethos through its presentation and subject matter. When he, or anyone else discusses his work or a concept that he’s using like governmentality or biopower, they are most likely, and he certainly, referring to definite periods within governance generally construed throughout time. Thus, governmentality, for Foucault, is not something that has existed forever as a natural fact of human society, and it might not last forever once it pops into being, but, and here it is important to stress, that governmentality exists now and is a feature of any government that properly calls itself liberal. Liberal, again, does not mean Democrat or Republican, it isn’t merely in contradistinction to “Conservative,” but takes a more special meaning as one that – and I do violence to the concept here – is concerned with the welfare of the individual through the production of material means necessary for its flourishing (commodities and their circulation); the non-centralized planning of market economies (though government intervention and incentivization exist and are practiced); and the rule of the individual through some sort of universal suffrage and collective decision-making embodied in the rule of law (democratic, republican, etc.,) and a sort of rights framework that checks governmental power over the individual subject. 

Governmentality, as you saw with Lovbrand and Stripple’s chapter in Death, is concerned with the maintenance and articulation of population related to “environment” and its features. We are not concerned with the rule of individuals, such as the elimination or punishment of individual political dissidents, but the operating parameters of whole populations within a bounded territory or space. Those operating parameters are a set of rules related to actual things within space that become objects of government. More concretely, one might think of borders and border crossings and how the rules of conduct change between political boundaries that are used to draw limits to space. When I enter Colorado from Wyoming I am able to use marijuana legally if I so choose. My conduct in Colorado includes recreational marijuana use if I wish, and I may not, but the option is left open as permissible, intelligible, accepted, taxed, and endorsed conduct within the political borders of Colorado. Crossing back into Wyoming, it is illegal for me to use marijuana, even when prescribed by a doctor for medical reasons, and thus my conduct does not include the option to use marijuana in Wyoming without state sanction.

Notice that in either Colorado or Wyoming it is possible for me to use marijunana recreationally and so I, as an agent, can pursue it as an end. However, the point is to recognize that my choices for recreational marijuana use also includes the risk of a misdemeanor and a $750 dollar fine for the first offence in Wyoming. This, in someway, structures my choices as an agent concerning how I ought to conduct myself within specific enclosures at specific times. When, where and how I can do something is the normative force of government through the rule of law and the institution of policing. Zooming out one level further, we see that norms condition how rules about conduct are made. 

Standards of democratic decision-making, or rules for how the people are represented within and through their institutions condition how liberal society arrives at the formulation of law. Here too we see governmentality in operation and the key point is that governmentality is concerned with how individuals relate to one another and society within their enclosures. It is how decisions are made and not necessarily why that is in analytic focus. What are the procedures of a governing agency and how did they get that way? How are those procedures embodied, practiced, inculcated, memorized? How do those procedures allow that agency to relate to others and its environment? We’re not interested in grand theorizing and big philosophical pronouncements, but the small politics that lead to big details that get overlooked when we go asking for why rather than how. So, to adjust the old philosophical question, it’s not “why are we here,” but “how are we here,” that is of concern for the students of governmentality studies. 

Governmentality, I’ve said, is concerned with setting, enforcing and policing the conduct of conduct down to the individual level in society. As the rule of law is meant to be universal – that is, the law is supposed to apply equally to all and every person it touches – this means that setting the conduct of conduct will connect massive social machinery to the everyday actions of individuals. Seen this way, we see that individuals can be enrolled and assimilated within massive technological networks necessary for social reproduction and never know it. Their bodies circulate in space feeding machinery with more energy, capital, creativity, intelligence, body parts, emotions and lives and they may never stop to consider their place within the great gearworks of the social body. The social body itself is maintained through surveillance and security operations of both the military (that operates beyond the borders of the nation-state) and the police (that operate within that space). Foucault maintained that the central objective of policing was to maintain commodity flows throughout space and this is accomplished through identifying and removing undesirable elements from governmentalized environs. This means that criminality is an environmental feature of some environs and not others as a matter of conduct and nothing more; and that the aim of governance is connected to the maintenance of social machinery that draw in natural resources to reproduce governmentalized environs through the domination of the conduct of individuals. Thus, while Foucault may have said something true about strictly human affairs, he missed a critical linkage to the production and articulation of the natural through the domination of “the environment.”

Two key thinkers pick up the Governmentality trail and go further with it than Foucault and they do this by recognizing the centrality of knowledge within governmentality. It bears mentioning that in speaking of governmentality I do not mean that there is only one articulation of the concept. It is more appropriate to speak of variation between governing bodies and thus of different governmentalities that have real, definite and discrete embodiments. Governmentalities change and one way is through the generation of knowledge, specifically scientific knowledge-discourse. Tim Luke and Paul Rutherford both recognize that “the environment” has become central to specific patterns of governing and rule by watching how “the environment” is articulated within political discourse. Rutherford, for example, writes about the budding science of ecology as central to the scientific management of “the environment” within the political discourse of the 1960s and 70s in the United States. Luke, as we have seen, looks at how computing, cybernetics and computer science rose as a tool for capital by creating technological systems that we live through as consumers and labor. Both thinkers are concerned with how the new knowledge frameworks have been used to justify interventions within governmentalized environs that went beyond the control of the human individual. 

The documentary above is about Canmore, Alberta and their integration of wildlife into their town infrastructure. This shows a clear relationship to the non-human and how it is understood, and articulated through technological networks and supported by technoscientific knowledge. The documentary, I think, illustrates an environmentality at work and how environmental subjectivities (the next post) are constructed, learned and enacted.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, New York Department of Environmental Conservation, etc., are all agencies tasked with policing “the environment,” and all of them accomplish this task through the management of individual conduct relative to the non-human. They all have some sort of mandate expressly stating their mission as grounded in scientific rationality and wise resource management, and it is this mandate that allows them to police some elements of the social body and not others. The expansion of governmental rule into these areas of life previously untouched by the state was and is assisted through the production of scientific knowledge regarding non-human species populations and flows of energy and matter that gird the ecosystems of the biosphere. This expansion was accompanied by a shift in the reason of state to concerns related to how persons ought to relate to non-persons as a matter of social reproduction. This means that control of individual human bodies is articulated through the control of non-human bodies as a matter of governmental strategy and that criminality is a feature of human-non-human relations within governmentalized environs. The reason of state is supported by the force of scientific knowledge translated into a form of management and that management is supported by real technologies of government such as policing agencies. This means that, as analysts, one can see an environmentality through how individuals are policed in relation to “the environment,” and the non-human. I’ll give a brief and more concrete example below to help you think through this:

I went to court yesterday. It took all day and it was because I failed to have a personal flotation device onboard my inflatable kayak while paddling around Claytor lake last month (notice already that my relations to myself and personal safety changes when I get on the water from dry land and vice-versa). Everything ended fine and the judge was gracious and lenient for this most egregious violation which VA law classifies as a Class IV misdemeanor (wear your life jackets, please). However, I had to go sit in criminal court for a good portion of my afternoon which, as I was nabbed for being a scofflaw on the water, was the Conservation police check-in time. I heard a few cases but the most interesting were the poachers who were being brought to justice over their mishandling of wildlife or the illegal taking and attempted taking of wildlife.

The state of Virginia articulates deer, bear, elk, and other animals within its borders as belonging to it. This means that you, as a taxpayer, pay for the maintenance of those herds and their management. Hunting is an economic money-maker for Virginia and the commonwealth uses her creatures, in some cases, as commodities and thus articulates them as her property. Virginia then polices the conduct of her human persons through the establishment of hunting seasons with definite operating parameters for hunters within her borders. There are specific seasons for specific animals and each hunter must acquire the necessary paperwork to hunt during those seasons. Failure to file your paperwork properly and promptly, firing a weapon at an animal from a vehicle, accidentally feeding bears, or keeping fish below a certain length are ways to end up in Conservation court if you are caught by a conservation cop. 

You’ll notice that Virginia is not ticketing deer for j-walking. It might have bounties on coyotes, but it’s not educating them. It might have elk, but you’re in a world of legal and financial pain if you shoot one in the wrong county. It’s not about regulating the conduct of the individual elk, or deer, or bear – though it does when they become an inconvenience to its human populations – but about regulating the conduct of the hunter. One becomes a poacher and not a hunter when one hunts and kills against the grain of established law that sets the conduct of conduct within environs. In order to do or accomplish any of this governing at a distance,the state must have information about “the environment,” or the environs through which its populations are articulated and persist. This means that its governing apparatuses must be concerned with the generation of knowledge, data and information related to the functioning of the social body and the individual bodies within it. All of this governing and movement is related to the technical control over the living through the modification of life’s processes relative to the production of space and the circulation of commodities that simultaneously co-modify the living. Central to policing, production, and politics, then, is the technoscientific generation of knowledge related to the material control of things broadly construed. It is through the control of things, and the processes of bringing things into being and extinguishing them that we witness the functioning of power as the Earth and her inhabitants are understood and articulated as an object of environmental governance remaking people and place in the image of capital and power.

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