The Nature of Spectacle is a book about capitalism and the environment. Its central concern, and unique perspective, is with the ways in which capitalist worldviews have become environmental over time. Specifically, it explores how money and exchange value are sensually enhanced by images and spatial arrangements, so that they can even be explicitly represented as inherent to nature.
The creation of American nature parks, in the late 19th century, accompanied an explosion of exchangeable consumptive experiences, in the form of elaborate exhibitions and fairs. Over the course of the 20th century, touristic nature destinations proliferated as a particular type of exchangeable consumptive experience, bolstered by nature films and television. By the turn of the millennium, productions of spectacular nature collided with increasing public awareness that consumerism and economic growth seem implicated in a socio-economic crisis that threatens our collective future.
The first part of the book explores these transformations in northern Tanzania. The creation of the Serengeti National Park, in the years following WWII, entailed the abstraction of landscapes into images, which generated money, which in turn could be used to further transform landscapes according to ideals of spectacular nature. This was accompanied by promises to newly independent governments that tourism would become the basis of their national economies, all of which was spectacularly conjured into existence. By the late 20th century, refinements to these techniques, in relation to the rise of interactive media, enabled the production of nature “cyberscapes,” at once actual and virtual, in which economic growth and ecosystem health could appear optimally aligned. These productions reflect and support a global policy zeitgeist, in which financializing nature is cast as its salvation. It also figures in consumer interfaces, through which the swipe of a plastic card or the push of a virtual unbutton appear to initiate a chain of events, ending in the protection of an acre of tropical rainforest or a family of arctic polar bears. These are the focus of the latter part of the book.
I have kept this book concise, to be read from cover-to-cover with relative ease. Chapter 5 (on policy) and Chapter 6 (on green consumerism) are both designed so that they can be read on their own.
My understanding of nature that is developed in the book is fundamentally informed by anthropologist Tim Ingold’s argument in Perception of the Environment (2000) that “the world can exist as nature only for a being that does not belong there” (p. 20). This point is highly consistent with popular presentations of nature as a panoramic spectacle, existing somewhere distant and exotic, and best appreciated at a distance. At the end of his groundbreaking essay, “Getting Back to the Wrong Nature (1994),” environmental historian William Cronon opines that relating to nature in these terms will not serve us well in finding meaningful solutions to the pressing environmental problems in which we are all entangled. My book also takes up that point through explorations of the ways in which spectacular nature has been refined to appear and feel like the most promising solution to these very problems.
The Nature of Spectacle draws from twenty-five years of experience with international nature conservation, with special reference to Tanzania. As I describe in my book, Conservation and Globalization (2004), I went to Tanzania in 1992 to study socio-cultural change among Maasai people. I had not been there long, when a group of elders advised me to focus on appropriations of land from their communities. I thereby learned that people in these communities regarded conservation as one of the greatest threats to their way of life.
This came as a surprise, since I had always imagined that conservation protected places where people did not live. In reality, as I and others have documented since, the creation of nature parks globally often begins with removing people from the conserved spaces. This was my main concern in the first part of my career, which I sought to convey not only to other academics and students, but also to professional conservationists. In 2005, I returned to Tanzania for further field research in and around several parks, including areas where I had previously conducted research in the 1990s. Two interrelated developments struck me in the course of this research: 1. the extent to which economic growth was presented as essential to ecosystem health, as well as vice versa; and 2. The pervasiveness of online photographs and videos in portraying the nature being conserved.
Following this research, I became part of an interdisciplinary research collaborative that produced a variety of publications on conservation and capitalism. I also began surveying photographic representations of nature areas, and their role in celebrating green growth. In theorizing these arrangements, I turned to Guy Debord’s treatise on moving image culture, Society of the Spectacle (1967). Debord argued that spectacle should be understood as the mediation of social relationships by images, an explicit riff on Marx’s concerns about the mediation of social relationships by money. I wanted to extend this argument to ways that relationships between people and the environment are mediated by images and money. I began with an article called “The Spectacle of Nature in the Global Economy of Appearances” (2010), which became the basis for this book.
Two points became essential to my understandings of the arrangements that I describe in the book. The first was that spectacular representations of conservation spaces were often highly selective, in ways that consistently eschewed the wider, and often contested, realities of which they were part. The other was that spectacle is always produced and projected in space. And the two go together. When tourists visit Tanzania, for instance, they will most likely spend most of their time in a selection of spaces that match their imaginaries of African nature. These spaces are also sites in which images are produced, and subsequently circulated. Significantly, nature parks are an important antecedent to theme parks, designed to present highly particular imaginaries of the world. These in turn have significantly influenced the design of other kinds of consumer spaces, including airports, convention centers, and museums. And these are all circuited together, often in reinforcing ways, which I explore in the book. Among other concerns, these explorations reveal how touristic encounters have become part and parcel of policy making, and related modes of environmental activism.
I would like a “just browsing” reader to turn to one of the personal stories that open some of the chapters, such as my childhood fascination with nature shows and science fiction (Chapter 7), encounters with elephants in Northern Tanzania (Chapter 3), and my family’s reflections on the Teddy Roosevelt Statue outside the American Museum of Natural History (Chapter 6). I wrote these stories in an effort to situate my experiences in relation to the book’s larger arguments, but also hopefully to intrigue a curious reader and invite them to explore.
The Museum of Natural History, for instance, is a fascinating, and in some senses disturbing, space to explore. The Roosevelt statue at its Central Park entrance is difficult to read as anything other than a celebration of empire and white masculine supremacy. Inside, taxidermy elephants and dioramas of conquered peoples are intermixed with interactive video experiences, theaters, restaurants and gift shops. At the same time, the museum also features the Northwest Coast Hall, created by anthropologist Franz Boas, as an exhibit that would celebrate indigenous cultures on their own terms. In 2008, I attended a two-day symposium on biocultural diversity in an auditorium adjoining the Northwest Coast Hall. The symposium argued for indigenous people’s rights to land and cultural self-determination, and the importance of indigenous knowledge to biodiversity, in relation to the museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. I encourage curious readers to explore these often-conflicting aspects of the museum, or many other similar spaces, in person and via the Internet. I also recommend Claudia Pierpont’s excellent piece on Franz Boas, in the New Yorker (March 8, 2004) and Tom Spanbauer’s breathtaking novel, In the City of the Shy Hunters, which situates the museum in the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
This is a bit of an aside, which reflects not only this chapter, but also my continued explorations since writing the book. The main concern of the chapter has to do with how efforts to save the planet, including in connection with indigenous struggles, are intertwined with consumerism and the reproduction of capitalist relationships. The chapter ends with a discussion of a humorous video in which a socially-conscious American consumer leaves his life behind to join indigenous struggles to save the rainforests in Central America. In the process, he learns that the best thing he can do is stay where he is and work to be a better consumer. This chapter is full of similar vignettes, which I hope will prompt readers – particularly social-minded consumers – to consider the ways our lives are entangled and implicated in the very problems that we hope to solve. What is the potential for positive transformation in the midst of these entanglements, and what are the arrangements that predispose us to believe that better consumerism is the best solution? By now the curious reader may wish to know what any of this might have to do with colonialism in East Africa, tourism, international policy making, or science fiction. Check some other chapters for details.
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.
Jim Igoe lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife Gladness and their son Vincent. He is on the Anthropology faculty at the University of Virginia. His research and writing addresses conflicts between national parks and indigenous communities in East Africa and North America, and the role of mass-produced images in mediating people’s relationships with the environment. In 2008, he co-convened a workshop called Problematizing Neoliberal Conservation. This was one of several events that brought together an expanding international network of scholars problematizing and theorizing intersections of capitalism and conservation. Jim Igoe appears in the film A Place without People, a critical history of Serengeti National Park. He is also author of Conservation and Globalization (2004), an accessible overview of national parks and indigenous peoples. He enjoys hiking, conversation, fiction, and music.