In a recent post over at the Merton Stone blog I offer some reflections on my recent Indian fieldwork. I discuss the notion that the ‘scalar politics’ of prediction are key to understanding the work that they accomplish in contemporary political contexts, and introduce the idea that visions of ‘territorial futures’ are becoming a key tenet of new forms of governmentality.
The genesis of the latter idea comes from my reading of Foucault-inspired literature on the relationship between territory, biopolitics and governmentality. In this post, I make some tentative, scattered and nebulous suggestions about how these concepts can help us make sense of contemporary practices of environmental and climatic prediction.
Governmentality can be understood as the suite of techniques, strategies and rationalities by which societies are rendered governable. Foucault spoke interchangeably about the ‘art’ and ‘rationality’ of government, by which he referred to the ‘how’ questions of governmental practices which direct the production of certain knowledges and subject positions.
A particular form of governmentality which interested Foucault is biopolitics. This is a particular governmental practice which seeks to regulate populations, their collective behaviour, and their interactions with their environment. While discipline is overtly directed at the individual body, biopolitics is directed at the individual subject as a constitutive part of the multi-headed mass of the population - a category which emerged as a scientific and political object towards the end of the 18th century and which continues to be a central political problematic.
I understand territory to be a political category, perhaps even a political strategy, based on the knowledge and control of demarcated physical space. However, with the rise of biopolitics in the post-Enlightenment era, territory became less a concern for geopolitical blocks, and more a means for understanding and governing the
“complex composed of men [sic] and things. The things, in this sense, with which government is to be concerned are in fact men, but men in their relations, their links, their imbrications with those things that are wealth, resources, means of subsistence, the territory with its specific qualities, climate, irrigation, fertility, and so on.”
(Foucault 1991 ‘Governmentality’ in The Foucault Effect)
As the modern nation state developed, knowledge of the extent, character and constitution of political territories became ever-more central to the art of governing. While inventories such as the Domesday Book emerged in the medieval era, it is striking that the modern form of the nation state – which we imagine to be a rigidly demarcated spatial entity – emerged alongside and often before comprehensive knowledge of sovereign territories was generated. During the period conventionally delineated as the European Enlightenment, cartographic surveys took a central place in the new structures of governmental knowledge-making. It had been recognised that to successfully govern a territory, you had to know a territory, and the map evolved from navigational and military aide into a central pillar of nation state governmentality.
The history of prediction, like that of cartography, is long and epistemically diverse. Religious and spiritual authorities have often placed visions of the future at the heart of their knowledge claims, and our everyday lives are full of predictions of economic fortunes, changing weather, technological evolution and creative imaginations of the future of our respective cultures. Environmental prediction itself also has a history that is far longer than the history of simulation modelling and statistical analysis (see this ongoing project, of which UEA’s Dr Paul Warde is a part).
While territory in its 'modern' form has been at the centre of the practice of effective governance for at least two centuries, I’d like to suggest that territory is now evolving as a key political concern through the emergence of territorial futures as epistemic objects. In societal responses to climate change and other environmental challenges, prediction has gained a unique saliency as a strategy of knowledge production. But unlike economic predictions – which operate in an abstract, globalised space of capital flows – climate predictions are a deeply geographical project. Climate models represent and simulate space, and differential impacts can be discerned as a function of location. Predictions have thus generated new spatial categories, such as the popular understanding of which regions of the world are potentially the most vulnerable to expected changes. In turn, this has been generative of new political alliances, such as the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).
It is however in the use of regional prediction in the service of strategic decision making where territorial futures have figured most significantly as an emergent governmental practice. Projects such as the UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP) and the Indian Network for Climate Change Assessment (INCCA) have seen national space re-emerge as an object of natural-scientific investigation. While climate change debate at the global level has been characterised by upward-trending graphs of abstract global variables, in projects such as these the map is the central representational strategy. Credibility is sought for predictive activities by the detail contained in modelled space, and variables such as temperature and precipitation are shown in blocked colours to vary across recognisably local space.
The assumption underlying many of these strategies is that effective adaptation to climate change requires knowledge of anticipated changes on politically persuasive and governable scales, i.e. that without narrowing the uncertainty range around predicted changes, we cannot hope to effectively adapt our social practices to changing environmental conditions. I’ve written with Mike Hulme on some of the risks of this assumption. The crux of the argument is that prediction inculcates the pursuit of optimal adaptation strategies, i.e. those which are designed to cope with a particular future change. Embracing the uncertainties inherent to our knowledge of the future can conversely lead to the development of policies which would be robust to a range of possible futures.
|The power of regional simulation. The increasing spatial detail as one moves from global to regional models (a), and the appearance of local meteorological features in a regional model (b). Source: Mahony & Hulme 2012|
|Life, death, and the 'complex of men and things' in 2100. Source: http://peseta.jrc.ec.europa.eu/docs/Humanhealth.html|