Monday, 2 April 2012

Territorial futures and the future of governmentality

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
Where once the map provided rulers with the epistemic preconditions for the spatial extension of power, now territory is being re-mapped and re-imagined in service of new forms of governing. This time around, the maps are fuzzy, the instruments are no longer compasses and theodolites but computer models and climatic data points, and the ways in which the territorial knowledge is to be applied to decision making is still highly uncertain and open to challenge. To gain a comprehensive understanding of these developments, I believe we need to travel beyond the narrow confines of debates about the practice of adaptation in order to reflect on broader trends in how the modern-day state approaches the governance of its territory based on what it thinks it knows of its future.
Life, death, and the 'complex of men and things' in 2100. Source:  


  1. I like this idea of "territorial futures" - it is fascinating to see how prediction has become such an essential component of knowledge politics. I remember that for Sheila Jasanoff it is one of the key characteristics of regulatory science (as she explains in the "The Fifth Branch").

    In the field of biodiversity governance, it is quite striking to see that scenarios are also being developed everywhere. For instance there were 6 different scenarios developed in the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, showing changes in ecosystem services under different conditions. On one hand it is interesting to see how these predictions are (as you said) new epistemic objects - for instance maps that are produced don't follow administrative regions but ecosystems' distribution (more or less) and are new ways of representing and projecting the territory. On another hand, I am curious to see how these predictions are used. Do you think that they are often used as "pure" epistemic objects, providing the basis for "evidence-based" policy making? I mean as if they really allowed us to choose/control our future.

    For me it seems that these predictions, especially scenarios maybe, can generally be used in the context of wider advocacy strategies. Maybe as new ways to advocate for certain types of futures?

    On another matter, I just discovered this project: When talking about biopolitics and knowledge about human population, here it is about "Mapping life" and making visible as many species and their distribution on Earth.

  2. Thanks for the comment Maud. The 'Mapping Life' project looks pretty interesting - a nice example of the cartographic 'global gaze' which is so central to our political imaginations.

    Your question about the social life of predictions is one that I'm really interested in. By reading prediction through a governmentality lens, one is drawn towards the instrumental use of territorial predictions in decision making. Exactly how widespread this practice is I don't know, although it's prevalent enough to have prompted Mike, Suraje Dessai and others to criticise the colonization of adaptation politics by predictive techniques. I want to extend this critique to think about the representation of space in predictive knowledge making.

    However, there is indeed this other use of predictions as heuristic devices to enable exploration, imagination, challenge and critique (perhaps we can think here in terms of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic strategies?) Jerry Ravetz wrote a nice chapter called 'Models as Metaphors' where he argued for the heuristic potential of prediction (I have the book if you're interested). But even in the more heuristic field of scenario generation - which originates I believe somewhere at the nexus of national security and the energy industry - territorial and hegemonic imperatives have been pretty central.

    There are interesting comparisons to be made between prediction of climate and biodiversity. Both phenomena transcend national political territories, but employ cartographic strategies to 'territorialize' the politics. Temperature change - beyond GMT - has a spatiality which is largely independent of human action, yet the spatiality of biodiversity change is intrinsically linked to human spaces and the disappearance of an imagined 'wilderness'. And so on...

    I think there's certainly some mileage here in pursuing what we might call a 'critical cartography of the future' (

  3. Thanks for your reply Martin and also for the link on critical cartography - very inspiring!