For growth at any cost to become the only realistic basis for collective well-being, other forms of knowledge had to be suppressed or purged—recast as superstitious or irrational.
Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa
by Julie Livingston
Duke University Press, 2019, 176 pp.
In the 1960s, President Julius Nyerere had a difficult message for citizens of the newly independent nation of Tanzania: accept less. Rapid economic growth would require taking loans, threatening Tanzania’s autonomy as a nation. Importing consumer items from abroad would enrich foreign countries at Africans’ expense and make Tanzanians dependent on the outside world. Nyerere urged Tanzanians to reject the forms of wealth that former colonizers had enjoyed and to forge a different version of well-being. Why build cement buildings with corrugated metal roofs, he asked, when the mud clay houses with thatched roofs our parents and grandparents lived in can be made with materials found within our borders? Don’t import clothes or cars or other luxury items; instead make your own clothing with Tanzanian cotton cloth, ride bicycles, and take public transportation. Rather than move to cities, he told Tanzanian youth, stay in your village and participate in communal agriculture.
For the ambitious president, lowering material expectations was not an act of political piety, but a revolutionary declaration of autonomy in a world system that had long exploited sub-Saharan Africa. But in his idealism, he was asking a lot from his fellow citizens. Under colonial rule, Africans had been denied access to the material trappings of “the good life” while Europeans became wealthy on the fruits of African labor and resources. After winning independence, many Tanzanians were not expecting to be told, once again, that they should accept poverty. Nyerere faced a difficult political task: how do you tell dispossessed people to accept less, in an unjust world in which they have not yet had the chance to have enough?
Nyerere’s challenge—how to make a compelling argument for less—resonates anew in the context of global climate change. It is also one of the central challenges posed by Julie Livingston in her book Self-Devouring Growth. In giving this name to our collective planetary predicament, she is not invoking a metaphor, but describing an observable physical process. Our collective way of life, as it is currently organized, requires us to grow by devouring the material substance of our planet. There are two problems with self-devouring growth: First, there are the nonrenewable materials that we consume. Second, there is the waste produced by this extractive process. “In other words,” Livingston explains, “self-devouring growth is a cancerous model.” Like cancer spreading through a body, we live by devouring the material basis of our existence, creating necrotic tissue in the form of hollowed-out environments, toxic dumps, and poisons that we spread across the world. We must grow in order to maintain our mode of life; in order to grow, we consume our own future and ensure our eventual collective death.
Self-devouring growth is a universal story that can be told from any place on earth. Livingston tells her version from the standpoint of a country widely regarded as exemplary, virtuous, even miraculous in its development trajectory. Botswana emerged from British colonial rule in 1966 one of the poorest countries on earth, having been made into a labor reserve for the South African mining industry. Yet within less than a decade of independence, prospectors from the De Beers corporation found diamonds in the country. Botswana used its mineral wealth to build a welfare state, providing universal free healthcare, ten years of free education to all, and clean piped water to all of its residents. Botswana has often been hailed as the African miracle. It is a middle-income country with a strong, functioning democracy. Botswana, by most measures of success, has done everything right.
And yet Botswana is running out of water. The extraction of diamonds, a nonrenewable resource, requires vast quantities of water. Diamond mining contributes to environmental change that is decreasing the availability of water in Botswana. Moreover, a functioning welfare state requires roads to move people and medicine and goods; roads require cement, which also requires a great deal of water. Cars pollute the environment, endangering the water supply further. In 2015, the great Gaborone Dam that supplies water to Botswana ran dry. Rainfall levels are decreasing, and rising global temperatures mean that an increasing percentage of the reduced rainfall is lost to evaporation. Across Botswana, the water table falls steadily by the year. To grow its economy and maintain a welfare state, Botswana has had to devour the material basis of its future existence.
The problem is not contained within the country’s borders: the planet is warming, and that is not Botswana’s fault. The average African consumes one-fortieth of what the average American consumes. Even if in Botswana they never mined another diamond, never brought another herd of cattle to a feedlot, never built another road, their water supply would continue to shrink.
One of the most intractable problems of self-devouring growth is our collective inability to imagine alternatives. Growth is a mantra so widely accepted that it is hard to think of any examples of mainstream solutions to poverty that don’t rely on it. If you are poor, what your community needs is growth. You need more industries, more productivity, more job training, more opportunities—more of something.
But growth is not the only way to organize collective existence. For growth at any cost to become the only realistic basis for collective well-being, other forms of knowledge had to be suppressed or purged, recast as superstitious or irrational. Livingston’s book explores several examples of this kind of knowledge from Botswana’s past. I will focus on only one here: rainmaking. Livingston explores rainmaking as a stance from which to reimagine a planetary politics. In precolonial Botswana, rainmaking was not simply one of the tasks of government, but rather the central mode of political authority. Making rain was a complex social process that involved the hard work of cultivating harmonious relationships among living beings, human and non-human. If chiefs could not bring the rain, they lost their legitimacy.
One of the brilliant aspects of this rainmaking moral economy was a notion of intergenerational obligation. A lyric from a rainmaking song implores the ancestors: “give us the rain, it belongs to you.” To the extent that rain was property, living people could only possess it in their capacity as future ancestors. The Tswana rainmaking moral economy saw the moral distribution of resources not only in terms of people currently alive, but also in terms of people in the past and future.
Livingston does not romanticize the era of Tswana rainmaking: these were also patriarchal slaveholding societies. Nor does she argue that the era of rainmaking was better than the era of self-devouring growth. “We are not going back,” she insists, to a world without insulin and piped water and roads and hair salons. The important point about rainmaking is this: the Tswana knew how to do certain things that we do not know how to do, things that we desperately need to learn if we are to survive as a species. Tswana rainmakers knew how to imagine collective well-being in a way that created accountability to past and future generations. They knew how to stage a politics centered on the goal of “coaxing the climate.” And they knew how to cultivate a politics in which human well-being was inseparable from the well-being of other species. Unlike ours, this system contained powerful checks on growth.
The story of self-devouring growth can be told from any place on earth, but Livingston accomplishes something important by telling it from Botswana. We might expect a story about environmental catastrophe in Africa to be attributed to stereotypically “African” causes—corruption, ethnic conflict, tropical disease, and so on. But by writing about environmental catastrophe in a country that has done democracy and economic development “right,” Livingston reveals that we have missed a more important story about Africa: the story of global capitalism. In other words, what is wrong with Botswana is the same thing that is wrong with the rest of the world. Unlike so many stories told about Africa, Livingston’s dark parable does not invite condescension or humanitarian sympathy, but solidarity.
I find self-devouring growth a powerful and clarifying concept. I’m more accustomed to thinking about the climate change emergency through numbers, like the temperature beyond which the earth must not warm, or the number of tons of carbon we can safely put into the atmosphere. Instead, Livingston illuminates our way of life. She is asking a lot of the reader: she is asking us to understand that many of the things that make us feel well, prosperous, and secure are the very things that are killing us. “In order to apprehend and face the enormity of our predicament,” she writes, “we must stop cleaving our dreams and nightmares asunder—such that the side effects and desired effects of consumption-driven growth are considered in isolation from one another.” It is deeply unsettling to live with.
For Livingston, green technology and the quest for alternative energy sources do not, on their own, offer us a way out. The promise of a new form of clean energy led Botswana to license companies to undertake coalbed methane extraction within its borders, but extraction requires large volumes of water, and creates a saline water by-product that harms the local environment. Additionally, attempts to address climate concerns with new technologies often have harmful side effects that transcend national borders. High emissions standards for cars in Japan mean that Japanese children can breathe clean air, but it also means that Japan has virtually no market for used cars. The leftover cars must go somewhere, and that somewhere tends to be poor countries with weaker environmental regulations, many of which are in sub-Saharan Africa. And as political scientist Thea Riofrancos demonstrates, the vision of a green revolution in the form of electric cars, powered by lithium batteries, ignores the devastating ecological impact of lithium mining in South America. To escape the pattern, we must separate out temporary fixes from genuine alternatives to self-devouring growth.
What are those alternatives? Livingston’s book focuses on the deep past. But there are also activists in the present with responses to this question. For example, in the Indian state of Goa, the Goenchi Mati movement has been fighting against a rapacious mining industry by campaigning for zero-loss mining. If minerals are extracted from the earth, they want the full monetary value placed into a permanent fund, with the interest paid out to all citizens in the form of a basic income. Like the Tswana ancestors’ rainmaking, one of the core concepts of the Goenchi Mati movement is intergenerational obligation: the land and its wealth are not an alienable asset, but a shared commons that belong not only to those presently alive, but also to future generations who must be treated as real, concrete stakeholders.
Meanwhile, in South America, many are embracing a social philosophy based on the indigenous Quechua concept of sumak kawsay, translated into Spanish as buen vivir, which rejects consumer-driven capitalism and instead embraces an ethos of degrowth, ecological balance, and collective well-being. The governments of Bolivia and Ecuador have taken up some of the principles of buen vivir in the form of rights of nature laws.
In recent weeks, the Global Women’s Strike, an international feminist network that arose out of the Wages for Housework movement of the 1970s, has responded to the global COVID-19 pandemic by demanding a care income for all those who perform unpaid care work, most of whom are women. This includes the unpaid work of caring for and repairing the environment and suggests a reorientation of the economy away from consumer-driven production toward a revaluing of care, repair, and maintenance. These and other social movements suggest that the problem with self-devouring growth is not a lack of alternative ideas, but rather a lack of power to enact them.
Livingston ends her book with a question: what would rainmaking on a planetary scale entail? In other words, how can we enlist our species into a moral economy that is intergenerational, holistic, and inclusive of all living things? How can we imagine ways of being accountable to each other across generations and across national boundaries? How can we remake not only policies, but also how people define, feel, and experience collective well-being? This is an enormous ask, but anything less will result in the death of our species.
Emily Callaci teaches history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is currently working on two books: one about the global Wages for Housework movement, and one about reproductive politics in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.