Preaching to an Ivory Tower?



, ,




Part of the reason blogging has seemed perhaps so tedious these last few weeks is that I have been busy working to finish my independent research paper. An (incredibly inadequate) cumulative testament to what I have learned this semester, the paper was the final assignment, and most of my grade, for my Anthropology and Political Economy and Environmental History classes. The 25 pages only start to skim the surface of what I could have written and are also in no way capable of encapsulating all I learned or are articulated in a generally accessible way (cue echo chamber of academia). Nevertheless, in an academic sense, it was really beneficial for me to have to review all my notes and readings and remember all that I had the opportunity to experience this semester. Below are the start and end of the paper.


Neoliberalism and Its Discontents: A Multi-Country Case Study of Neoliberal Food, Water, and Energy Policy and Climate Change Vulnerability 


From the arid valleys of Bolivia to the mountains of Morocco and Vietnam, globalization and privatization of food, water, and energy continue to perpetuate and amplify landscapes of power, injustice, and inequality. Though the origins of such policy may be rooted in a larger neoliberal capitalist world order, the impacts are felt on intimate levels. The following research highlights three case studies, in three different countries and contexts, at different scales, to elucidate commonalities and points of divergence to the way neoliberal policies governing food, water, and energy amplify climate change vulnerability of those most marginalized in society.

As capitalism continues to destroy the environment, be it by degradation, pollution, or longer-term climate change, the people whose lives and cultures are connected to these places are impacted first and most severely. Political ecology understands the local, regional, and global changes to and within these environments to be inalienable from political, social, cultural, and economic relations (Swyngedouw 2009). In the socio-environmental world, the shifting landscape of water, energy, and food access that occurs with increasing neoliberalization leads to profit for some and exclusion and increased vulnerability for others.

Dominant climate change rhetoric and resource management policy is often focused on a biological conception of climate change and environmental impacts. This framing of climate change and nature ignores the social reality of disparate impacts; the fact that not all members of a society will feel the same degree of climate burden or at the same rate (Klein 2014). It ignores the fact that not all communities have the same adaptive capacity; ability, means, or resources to adapt (Adger 2006). And it ignores the guiding questions of what counts as nature and whose nature counts. In taking a historical approach, looking at relations of power and privilege, systems of control, and marginalization, this paper aims to create a more holistic picture of such a global issue at a case study level.

Helping frame this research was the guiding question of how national resource policies, food, water, and energy, prioritize those most vulnerable to climate change. Secondary questions included: what factors dictate the policy, local to global? How does the policy affect local communities? How does the policy impact climate change vulnerability? And finally, who is centered and prioritized by the policy? The evidence I utilize comes from a myriad of sources, many of which come from assigned readings this semester as well as program organized site visits, speakers, and opportunities. I also conducted informal interviews with host families to try and better understand the popular sentiment and opinion on these state policy decisions and prioritizations. Because of the limitations of this research, temporally, spatially, positionality wise, it is presented as case studies. I hope to shine a light on specific policies and their impacts within a larger context, but not present universal truths. Identifying trends that could serve as a basis for further exploration, I aim to leave the reader with better questions than they began with.


Political ecologist Erik Swyngedouw explains, “Produced environments are specific historical results of socio-biophysical processes” (2009, 56). And though this may seem abstract and theoretical in intent, its manifestations and foundations are nothing if not concrete in experience. From the expansive farmlands of Morocco’s countryside to the mountains of Vietnam and valleys of Bolivia’s Andes Mountains, the manipulation of water, food, and energy, through neoliberal policy is impacting communities and families in the most intimate of ways. Energy policy in the Vu Gia – Thu Bonn River Basin directly displaces marginalized ethnic minorities and threatens livelihoods and safety as weather only becomes more extreme. The Maroc Vert Agriculture plan bolsters the titans of industry and agriculture while privatizing, pricing out, and ignoring those already most marginalized, amplifying inequality and vulnerability. Where the Cochabamba Water Wars stand out as an example of successful re-appropriation of community space from the hegemonic Goliath of neoliberalism, indigenous-led Bolivia cannot be and is not the island of climate justice its nation discourse portrays. Neoliberal adjustment policies, forced by Bretton Wood institutions and to the benefit of the global elite, both in food, energy, and water policy, leave communities at the exploitative whim of companies and the perpetually unfair market.

Arturo Escobar’s conception of economic, ecological, and cultural distribution for understanding the ways dominance and hegemony operate is important in this regard. He explains, “There is a geopolitics to this effect (between rich countries with dominant cultures and poor countries with subaltern cultural conceptions), as well as class, ethnic, and gender dimensions to it (inside countries, regions, and communities)” (2006, 7). With dominance and hegemony written into not only the world system, but also the state, regional and local levels, the dispossession by accumulation that occurs via the neoliberalization of water, food, and energy “is nothing else than a legally and institutionally condoned, if not encouraged, form of theft” (Swyngedouw 2005, 82).

So What Now?

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

 –Audre Lorde

Policies that diminish a community’s adaptive capacities cannot be considered solutions. In creating policy around food, water, and energy and searching for solutions to climate change there must be an acknowledgment of the socio-environmental interface. Discussions need to center intersectionality, asking core questions about what counts as nature? And whose nature counts? Our world is landscaped with systems of power, injustice, and inequality. And it is violence to pretend climate change and environmental degradation doesn’t and won’t continue to follow the contours. Though this paper has illuminated the discontent of neoliberalism in guiding policy, especially in our era of anthropogenic climate change, it is also essential to understand the opportunity this presents.

The failings of top-down neoliberal policy illuminate the opportunity that policy has at a community-level to implement meaningful change that both protects from and mitigates climate change, builds equity, decreases social disparities, and increases opportunity. Though this research cannot and does not provide solutions, it is important to see the need for change. The paradigm of neoliberal dominance needs to shift to decision and policy making, resource and otherwise, that centers marginalized communities,[1] for equity as much as for resilience to climate change. Cochababinx Water Warrior, Oscar Olivera (2017) articulates a good place to begin; real change, revolution, and transformation comes from the community. Community systems need to be prioritized and built. Public participation and representation need to be increased and the social fabric of society supported with civic engagement. Community institutions need to be reconstituted. Creativity and connections must be fostered. And most importantly we must believe in ourselves, maintain hope always, and never stop being young.

 “Then when you know better, do better.”

 –Maya Angelou

[1] This notion of community is inherently vague, but it is based loosely on geography. Though I hope to avoid essentialism, the definition of community is complex, variable, and fluid across contexts.