De-Provincializing Development

By Gustav Peebles

This is the fifth entry in our new series “De-Provincializing Development,” which seeks to cast a critical eye on US progress towards the new UN goals. In this post, Gustav Peebles examines SDG #12 and encourages us to use anthropological knowledge to devise more sustainable forms of consumption and production.

Gazing at the challenges confronting global society, we seem to have an odd but quite stark paradox. At least in the capitalist mode of production, pulling people out of poverty means increasing their access to the goods and services that richer people already enjoy. Such an outcome is typically achieved by increasing production (which drives down costs) and increasing consumption (which allows enjoyment of said goods and services). This is what happened in America—as we became wealthier, a far broader swath of our population gradually moved from shanties to suburban homes and embraced a meatier diet.

As a result, the growth of what Sustainable Development Goal 12 would label our “material footprint” increased dramatically (historical data is hard to come by, but one can extrapolate common trends based on the twenty years covered here). And yet, this is what SDG 12 tells us we must reduce if we are to save ourselves from the deleterious effects of human-induced climate change. Put bluntly, if we follow the Euro-American model, eradicating poverty is good for humanity, but bad for the planet.

Put bluntly, if we follow the Euro-American model, eradicating poverty is good for humanity, but bad for the planet.

SDG 12 actually maps out clear thresholds for how to circumscribe these twin dangers of overconsumption and overproduction. However, the tactics offered mostly rely on a clear belief in the “gains of efficiency” as the potential panacea. In other words, policymakers believe that new technologies will radically decrease waste in the production process as well as in the supply and distribution chain. But respected environmental economists have debunked this as a hopeless myth. Instead, I wonder if the anthropological record and ethnographic practice could push global policymakers to consider other potential pathways to achieve sustainable consumption and production.

Source: Wikimedia.

Consider the role of status and hierarchy in the structuring of typical capitalist consumption. For example, we can predict that as millions of Chinese become wealthier they will buy more cars. Perhaps many policymakers would attribute this to a very “rational” personal goal of getting to work more quickly and efficiently. But what if car ownership is treated also as a tool in the ongoing battle for status in a given society? Anthropologists can help chart how certain goods gain new values in new spaces, maneuvering their way into spending decisions that then have immense downstream effects upon the overall “material footprint” of a given country.

Once we know more about how new objects acquire new force, we might be better positioned to offer alternatives to their tempting allure. As it currently stands, global policymakers have no plans for contesting the alleged delights of car ownership; instead, following a belief in individual rationality, policymakers approach it merely from the standpoint of efficiency and speed. Thus, they typically query whether we can build robust infrastructures that reduce the “rational” need for car ownership, not recognizing that wealthy Americans have been buying more cars than are necessary for the speed and efficiency of daily life for decades. Could a family be given an annual tax rebate or direct subsidy to not buy a car? Such a policy position is close to blasphemous in America. But why? Agricultural subsidies sometimes operate in this manner, and only a tiny minority of wonks and libertarians debate how to eliminate them.

Another policy blind spot resides in the legendary “tragedy of the commons.” Many of the problems outlined by the SDG goals point to the globe itself as a gravely abused commons, as various people have argued. But anthropology has a deep well of data about sustainably maintained commons across the world. The immediate equation of “tragedy” with “commons” is little more than an ideological belief parading as a scientific one. Worse still, when arguing over how to manage the commons, the typical knee-jerk response is that it must be managed by a state power. At that point, the argument is already lost, since it hinges upon the bugbear of a “planned economy” that has been ostracized since at least 1989. Think, for example, of the case of the American health-care system, and how proposing “single payer” as a solution is tantamount to stepping on the proverbial third rail. But all “single payer” means is that health care would move into a space of collective management and therefore—argue its proponents—become more sustainably managed.

Source: Pexels.

Indeed, the anthropological record reveals that a well-regulated commons is almost by definition a technique for reining in individual overconsumption. In this sense, one of the easier ways to meet the seemingly impossible twin goals of SDG 12 would be to find ways to push more and more goods and services into well-regulated, nonstate commons. Elinor Ostrom won her Nobel Prize for her studies of just these sorts communal economic spaces. Her proposal for devolution of sovereignty to more local institutions, combined with her refusal to believe in universal solutions that work across all contexts, sounds extremely familiar to anthropologists. Far too often have we documented cases of successfully managed communal resources that have been ravaged by a new regime (often colonial) that seeks to impose new rules and supposedly universalist frames from elsewhere.

Our efforts could also be focused on convincing others of the myriad, ethnographically documented ways in which the commons can be—and has been—managed, protected, and even expanded without relying on a top-down state system. For example, as I argued in Peebles (2012), the accusation of “dirty money” is precisely one such nongovernmental manner of policing the commons, trying to funnel and circumscribe the movement of money so that it can help sustain the community rather than go to simple individual gain. In these instances, local people are often employing nonstate tactics to stop what they deem to be individual overconsumption.

We must plumb the depths of the entire human experience in order to open our eyes to the myriad sustainable economies that have existed both in the past and today.

Following in the best of the anthropological tradition, we must plumb the depths of the entire human experience in order to open our eyes to the myriad sustainable economies that have existed both in the past and today. Doing so might be the best technique for escaping capitalism’s pyrrhic proposal that we destroy the planet in order to save humanity.


Peebles, Gustav. 2018. “Eradicating Poverty: Good for Humanity, Bad for the Planet?” American Anthropologist website, February 19.

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