Self-devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa

Self-devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa. Julie Livingston, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019, 160 pp.

Wherever you are reading this you are in a world organized by self-devouring growth” (p. 1). So begins Livingston’s parable, a simple story used to illustrate a larger predicament. Her story, about the sources and effects of spectacular, unbridled economic growth in Botswana, is a powerful metaphor for global trends affecting us all. The story is not so simple, however, for two reasons: first, because the facts she marshals to illustrate the history, present and future of that growth are drawn from her decades of field experience and a dazzling array of sources (including WHO, EPA, and UN reports; Southern African and international newspapers; Botswana Ministry of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources and other government reports); and second, because the contours of Botswana’s ecological and population predicaments are emblematic of those found elsewhere and everywhere. Voracious consumption marked by seemingly unstoppable extractive technologies, diminishing natural resources in a climate-stressed environment, and the demands for better living conditions are worldwide phenomena. All of these things are the subject and lesson of her parable. From the beginning of her book, Livingston invites readers to locate themselves in her account. This was easy for me to do and, I anticipate, will be for readers as well.

Botswana, a country she knows well and loves, is a success story, Livingston reminds us repeatedly. It is a democracy with functioning schools, roads, universal health care, clean water, pensions, and less malnutrition than in earlier eras, all made possible because of the diamonds deep in the country’s earth. The country is a miracle, and growth, on the one hand, has been a good thing. “Development has its paradoxes, but its benefits cannot easily be ignored,” she emphasizes (p. 37).

And yet, like so many places, dramatic increases in population, market and globalization pressures, shifts in political priorities, and the ecological ravages brought by a warming climate shape water usage, food distribution, and road building. These unfortunate truths determine the future of the country’s eco-scape and thus its prospects for human survival and flourishing. This tension—between the benefits and adverse effects of development—is what Livingston illustrates.

So much has been written in the last decade about the negative outcomes of unrestricted growth—the depletion of natural resources, growing income inequality, and toxic environments—that the facts are, as Livingston writes, “so fundamental as to be unremarkable” (p. 1). She examines “this unmarked, unexamined imperative” of growth via a brilliant organizational structure that focuses on three human needs—water, food, and transportation. In particular, Livingston analyzes local examples of rain, cattle, and roads, her metaphors of choice for the lesson of self-devouring growth in Botswana. She states early on she will not provide solutions, but rather, a la Foucault, she invites readers to dwell on a genealogy of problems that beget ever-larger problems through which we can more precisely imagine and, perhaps, confront the planetary predicament.

Rain is the substance of life, especially in desert landscapes where the stakes have always been high. One hundred years ago and deeper in the past, rain in the land that is now Botswana was enchanted, sacred, and belonged to the ancestors. It was priceless, mythic, and thus could not be bought and sold. The political distribution systems attached to sacred rain shaped a moral universe of collective belief and enabled individuals to farm and to herd cattle. Rain was part of an all-inclusive animated ecology, in which humans were only one actor in a nature they were not separate from. Over time, hydraulic technologies supplanted pricelessness, and the metrics of water distribution and public health replaced a collective understanding of the shared responsibility necessary for public healing. Livingston illustrates how staggering population growth necessitated the increase in boreholes to provide water, at the same time as those boreholes deplete the underground aquifers. Dams and water pipes were built. On the positive side, the redistributive water schemes that emerged through the 20th century have decreased the vulnerability of poor citizens. But there is no end in sight for the demand for more water. Ever-more is needed for diamond mining, the intensive cattle grazing essential for the local food supply and the global beef industry, and road construction, all intertwined industries that have become essential for improved livelihoods.

The British drew Bechuanaland (now Botswana) into the beef market, and cattle need water, necessitating more boreholes. “In other words, an abundance of food is contributing to a shortage of water” (p. 36). Cattle, like rain, became disenchanted, techno–economic objects: beef. Do not be nostalgic “for a lost pastoral past of cows” Livingston warns, however, because the shift from cattle to beef reduced hunger and food insecurity. We learn details about the effects of capital investment in cattle: an increase in boreholes, fences, and feed lots requiring huge quantities of grain (and thus water). Livingston goes further to link capital investment to cattle disease, vaccinations, certifications, and the differential value of beef parts in the EU market. Beef has become a staple of the diet over the past several decades, and while it has contributed to full bellies, it also has been followed by dramatically rising rates of hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The future of cattle, so inextricably linked to water, consumption, and health, is the future of people—a stunning example of self-devouring growth.

Roads connect the country, are pathways to freedom, and represent a prominent symbol of development. Their example serves as the third of Livingston’s paradoxes. Roads became necessary for the growth of the beef industry. Road building created jobs, but to build roads, one needs sand and gravel—finite resources—in addition to water. Again, self-devouring side effects proliferate, and Livingston’s examination of aggregate (the combination of sand and gravel), the principle element in concrete, is particularly compelling. Mining sand and gravel has negative consequences for coastal erosion and river eco-systems, which are deteriorating, leading to increasing floods and droughts. Moreover, increasing reliance on automobiles for a growing middle class led to a huge rise in traffic accidents. Livingston’s comprehensive statistics, in this chapter as in the entire book, are shocking: “Africa has more than double the rate of traffic-related deaths in Europe, with Botswana in the lead” (p. 92). The tentacles of road building spread out in the world: for example, the concrete industry itself is the “largest consumer of natural resources globally” (p. 104). There is a global market in recycled toxic car parts, and ethanol production requires vast amounts of fertilizers, pesticides and water.

Botswana, as everywhere, is anchored in dwindling resources while the population grows, extracts, and consumes. There is great precarity here—of ecosystems, livelihoods, water sources. The only thing not precarious are the intensifying webs of global commerce and the self-devouring growth those webs instantiate.

I read this book while I was a voluntary Pacific Gas & Electric evacuee in October 2019, during Northern California’s expanding, frightening fire season. With fires raging, the company turned off power to my entire county and parts of other California counties as a fire prevention measure. Why?  Neglected power line maintenance and ignored tree culling created the “need” for this precautionary measure. But that need had been shaped by a decade of corporate decisions to save money and satisfy share-holders—in a time of ever-hotter, longer fire seasons, and in a drought-ridden environment of overgrown, unmanaged forests coupled with population growth, especially within the wildland–urban interface.

The lesson of Livingston’s parable envelops all of us, regardless of where we live or our material circumstances. I felt that acutely as I was reading. No one died in my county as a result of the fires in 2019, and no homes were destroyed.  But beyond my own county, close to a million people had their power preemptively shut off, and approximately 200,000 people were evacuated; many lost their homes; and millions breathed toxic air. Readers of this review will have their own experiences of self-devouring growth to draw from.

Livingston has forged a path into an anthropology of futures, one responsive to and reflective of the Anthropocene and the threats to human survival we witness daily on our ever-more vulnerable planet. She offers methodological and conceptual tools that will enable other scholars to grapple with futures, those that are unfolding now because of self-devouring growth, and those we want to imagine differently. This book is for everyone.

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