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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July-August 2010

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Books of Note - July/August 2010


James C. Scott, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

At first blush, it may seem that James C. Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed is unlikely to be of much interest to the readers of Environment. The book focuses on Zomia—a region that Scott defines as “the lands at altitudes above roughly three hundred meters all the way from the Central Highlands of Vietnam to northeastern India and traversing five Southeast Asian nations.” It examines how this region and its peoples sought to, and remained, outside state projects of rule, control, and appropriation. The clincher may seem to be Scott's assertion that his arguments do not apply to the post-1945 period once governments developed more effective appropriation, control, and governance apparatuses.

In contrast, those interested in the environment are typically, even if not always, concerned about the present and the future of the environment. Impelled by the conviction that environmental outcomes are steadily worsening, they often worry about how to prevent, or at least slow, such worsening. They view environmental governance to be a principal means to accomplish such an end; the more systematically, knowledgeably, and thoroughly, the better. Scott's project of understanding better those who remain ungoverned, and why remaining ungoverned and uncivilized is not necessarily a worse option than being governed and civilized, may therefore appear irrelevant to those interested in the environment.

Such a summary judgment would be hasty. One clue to why this magisterial work should attract environmentalists is coded in the sentence that begins the conclusion to the book, “The world I have sought to describe and understand here is fast disappearing.” Although Scott is talking about the unadministered Zomia and its peoples, the sentence itself could be the plaintive cry of a despairing Muir or Carson.

Indeed, despite its surface inattention to the environment, “the art of not being governed” bears relevance to students and activists interested in environmental processes and outcomes along at least two distinctive registers. On the one hand, it is an indictment—unintended to be sure—of much of what might be called the “ensemble of environmental governance.” Environmental governance is all about using power and knowledge to guide the skein of outcomes that collectively constitute and reconfigure the environment. Scott's work encourages us to doubt the emphasis and faith in environmental governance as the means to save the environment. As believers in environmental improvement would see it, environmental government is one way, perhaps the only way, to ensure the slowdown and reversal of the many different problems that threaten the individual and collective futures of humans. But The Art of Not Being Governed suggests that environmental government, like other projects of government, is perhaps less about the environment, and more about the development of mechanisms and capacities to rule, more about the appropriation of power by governmental actors. Environmental government, in this reading, is not so much about the environment as it is about government. Such an optic on government certainly resonates with the critical work of others who see environmental rule-making as being about the use of power to shape environmental outcomes in accordance with projects of state consolidation.

In a second register, The Art of Not Being Governed also encourages reflection on what counters government. And here, Scott's response to the project of government draws on John Dunn. If the nation state and its efforts to rule encompass environmental government, then representative democracy—another North Atlantic invention—is a means to think about how those subject to rule can shape their governance. The technologies the peoples of Zomia had used in the past to set themselves effectively outside of projects of rule—mobility, dispersal, evasion, tactical engagement, and the like—are no longer feasible; they have been either rendered obsolete by improvements in means of exercising force, or they are irrelevant even within the cultural logics of such peoples. But democratic engagement, representation, decision-making, and implementation—critical elements in improving the quality and experience of government—are ways to make environmental government responsive and effective. Although representative democracy is and has been until now an undertaking in formation, it is the means whereby both the goals and means of governing can be shaped by those who are governed.

ARUN AGRAWAL is a Professor and Associate Dean for Research in the Department of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan.

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