Managerial Environmentalism, Population Control and the New National Insecurity: Towards a Feminist Critique

Author(s): Ynestra King
Date Published: July 22, 2006
Source: Political Environments #5, Fall 1997

"I can offer no excuse for not being what people expect." --Rachel Carson

"The men who run the global corporations are the first in history with the organization, technology, money, and ideology to make a credible try at managing the world as an integrated economic unit." --Richard J. Barnet and Ronald E. Mueller, Global Reach (1974).

"It is our obligation to confront the underlying issues, the civilization choices camouflaged by this debate on the question of population... Population policies, either in favour or against , should not exist as such." --Rosiska Darcy de Oliveira, Terra Femina, Population: The Human Factor on Life, Love, Death and Exile (1994).

As the twentieth century moves to a close, the world has changed enormously. New metaphors for an integrated "one world" proliferate in the form of visual images such as photographs of earth taken from space, and turn up in such unlikely places as fundraising mailings from Planned Parenthood, in a drawing in which human beings crowd together, ringing the planet. On the one hand, the contemporary recognition of the interrelated nature of our planet, and the archaic nature of national boundaries, suggest the possibility of a new transnational cooperation and a popular realization that national boundaries are arbitrary and political, they are products of history, not nature. Potentially, it calls forth the notion of an interconnected world in which all inhabitants of the planet have an equal claim on wealth and freedom, opening, rather than closing, national boundaries and national identities in a recognition of all that joins us, rather than separates us as human beings sharing this planet with each other and the rest of nature.

But, as is often the case in the dialectics of history, this recognition of one, finite interconnected planet, so suggestive of shared possibilities and interests on the part of humanity, is also the occasion for an opposite possibility. Here images of a planetary pie, or a life boat, in which the joining and merging in itself threatens. This is particularly true in the bad faith context of US politics, in which the base selfishness of American foreign policy, and increasingly domestic policy, is an attempt to represent the interests of a very limited portion of the population as a national interest. Here, national security becomes synonymous with maintenance and enforcement of the economic and power status quo.

It is in this context that the appropriation of "environmentalism" as the agenda of US national security strategists and policy makers is particularly pernicious, and a development in which feminists have an ongoing critical interest.

Feminism and Environmentalism/Environmentality: On Terminology

The choice of language and terminology, "ecology" or "environmentalism", is very significant. These are not interchangeable terms. Environmentalism leaves intact a western (and capitalist) view of nature as resources for human exploitation, and as external to human beings. nature/culture dualism and naturalized systems of human oppression are not immanent concerns of environmentalists. Rather, they are concerned with managing a particular environment toward particular human ends and purposes, which may include the long-term stability of systems which oppress human beings. In one way or another, each of the three main branches of contemporary radical green theory-- social ecology, deep ecology, and eco-feminism-- begin with a critique of the limits of environmentalism.

Tim Luke, writing in Cultural Critique (Fall 1995) goes even further to suggest that a new meta-managerial perspective and policy elite are emerging under the banner of environmentalism. He argues that:

an environmental act, in turn, is already a disciplining move, aimed at constructing some expanse of space -- a locale, a biome, a planet as a biospherical or on the other hand, some city, any region, the global economy in technospherical territory-- in a discursive envelope. Within these enclosures, environmental expertise can arm environmentalists who stand watch over these surroundings, guarding the rings that include or exclude forces, agents, and ideas. (p.65)

Living worlds, or ecosystems and their human inhabitants become:

...sites of supervision, where environmentalists see from above and from without through the enveloping designs of administratively delimited systems. Encircled by enclosures of alarm, environments can be disassembled, recombined, and subjected to the disciplinary designs of expert management. Enveloped in these interpretive frames, environments can be redirected to fulfill the ends of other economic scripts, managerial directives, and administrative writs. Environing, then, engenders "environmentality", which embeds instrumental rationalities in the policing of ecological spaces. (p.65)

By focusing on the leading think-tank of environmentality, the US based Worldwatch Institute, Luke suggests that "discourses of nature, ecology, or the environment, as disciplinary articulations of "eco-knowledge", might be interpreted as efforts to generate systems of "geo-power" over, but also within and through, nature for the governance of modern economies and societies. 1

Here the "facts of life" as delivered and mediated by the Worldwatch Institute pass into "fields of control for eco-knowledge and spheres of intervention for "geo-power"." (p.67). He develops his analysis of environmentality as an extension of governmentality, which applies techniques of instrumental rationality to the arts of everyday management. "As ecological limits to growth are discovered or defined, states are forced to guarantee their populations' fecundity and productivity in the total setting of the global political economy by becoming "environmental protection agencies." (p. 69).

Governmentality reemerges as environmentality, re-establishing and enforcing "the right disposition of things." Resource managerialism is the eco-knowledge of modern governmentality, in which national security and national interests are "greened" in which the natural bounty of the planet is continually monitored and watched over by the new technologies of oversight. To construct the managerial problem in the fashion of environmentalism, nature must be redefined by the eco-knowledge of resource managerialism as the source of "goods" for the use and exploitation of particular human beings. Being "an environmentalist" provides the grounds for draping a bioeconomic spreadsheet over Nature while "hovering over the world in a scientifically centered surveillance machine"-- a green panopticom. International environmentalism is watching everything and everyone, measuring and evaluating among other things, the fertility of women, who can be reduced to "populations" for the purpose of analysis. The disciplining of nature, misrepresented as maintaining national security, involves the subdivision of nature into environs, the reduction of human beings to populations, and the construction of a geo-global political structure to manage it all.