Jim Igoe


On his book The Nature of Spectacle: On Images, Money, and Conserving Capitalism

Cover Interview of February 12, 2018


My research and writing has been consistently motivated by concerns about displacement and dispossession related to mainstream nature conservation. This is an issue that has been taken up by a diversity of researchers and activists over the past twenty-five years, including some conservationists. As a result, problems of conservation induced displacement, dispossession, and related questions of representation, are more openly discussed in conservation fora, from interdisciplinary journals and professional meetings to the World Conservation Congress. Although these conversations can still be contentious, they name and discuss issues/questions that were barely acknowledged previously. Some of these conversations are now enshrined in a collection called An Anthropology of Conservation NGOs: Rethinking Boundaries (2018), edited by Peter Larsen and Dan Brockington.

I began raising concerns about these problems at conservation fora, because I perceived a potential common ground between biodiversity conservation and indigenous activism toward environmental justice. I still perceive this to be the case, and have been heartened by efforts, small and large, to realize and cultivate the potential power of this common ground. At the same time, however, contradictions and paradoxes of mainstream conservation present significant challenges and obstacles.

Notable among these, in recent times, is the idea that environmental harm in one context can be offset by environmental protection in another. In policy circles, this way of thinking has depended on elaborate abstractions. These relate to William Cronon’s fundamental point, as described above, that western ways of relating to nature turn on abstraction and distancing, which will not serve us well in organizing collective and equitable solutions to our current environmental crisis. Accordingly, in the contexts described throughout my book, connections to other people and actual environments have been increasingly mediated by images, consumptive/touristic experiences, and an unverifiable notion that these arrangements will help support technical experts who will solve the actual problems.

One of my main hopes for this book is that it will help raise reader awareness of these arrangements and their potential reconfigurations. How can the power of these arrangements to bring together people, exchange ideas, and care for environments be enhanced, while their alienating effects be minimized? Of course, I can offer no easy answers to these questions, but I offer a few closing points that are hopefully suggestive. Over the past couple of years, I have noticed some promising developments regarding mainstream conservation support for environmental justice struggles. There are also emerging grassroots networks, mobilizing to challenge myths of mainstream conservationists in an effort to mobilize more inclusive, equitable and effective modes of conservation.

There are, moreover, recent, major, and ongoing transformations to the realities described in The Spectacle of Nature. Over the past decade, my publications and collaborations have been concerned with “neoliberalism,” which celebrated globalization, privatization, free trade, and financialization. More precisely, we were critiquing the ecological implications of what Nancy Fraser calls “progressive neoliberalism,” which turned on alliances of progressive movements, Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood — celebrity, charity, and high-profile causes. Since 2016, Fraser claims, in the face of resurgent nationalism and right-wing populist politics, we have been witnessing “The End of Progressive Neoliberalism” (2017). U.S. President Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement, briefly toyed with legalizing the import of elephant trophies, and seems to be exploring possibilities for undoing the U.S. National Park Service. And this is just the tip of (the probably melting) iceberg. Whatever the implications or consequences of my book may be, they will necessarily relate to the transformations and the significant political-ecological realignments these doubtlessly portend.