chapter
Introduction
Pages 5

This book makes three assumptions about its readers. The first is that you are seriously concerned about what humanity (or at least a part of humanity) is doing to the rest of the biosphere, or ‘the environment’. The second is that you are seriously concerned about global inequalities in the distribution of money, technology, and power. The third is that you are convinced that mainstream thinking about these matters is fundamentally flawed in the sense that it will not lead to the kind of changes that you are hoping for, summed up in visions of a sustainable development. If all these three assumptions apply in your case, then I hope you will be prepared to spend some time considering the perspectives offered in this book. Building on those concerns, it attempts to outline an alternative understanding of the connections between global environmental problems and global inequalities. My own background is in cultural anthropology, so it is only to be expected that my struggles to rethink environmental issues, economics, and technology tend to take cultural aspects as a point of departure. The foremost hallmark of anthropology, I would argue, is the will to perceive and analyse the cultural dimension of all human thought and activity. But although much has been written under the banners of ‘environmental anthropology’, ‘economic anthropology’, and the ‘anthropology of technology’, it remains a demanding task to unravel how we modern humans tend to be constrained by our cultural preconceptions about material things such as the environment, the economy, and technology. These difficulties, of course, go back to the tenacious separation of social and natural science. In the world of research, at least, it is obvious that those who seem to be the most concerned about the future of the biosphere (the natural scientists) generally have the bluntest analytical tools for understanding the causes of anthropogenic environmental degradation, while those who possess such tools (social scientists, including anthropologists) generally tend to be less concerned with the biosphere as an objective, biophysical reality. In having been trained to approach the environment with quotation

marks, as a ‘contested’ or ‘negotiated’ cultural construction, anthropologists often seem at a loss when expected to say something about the real environment beyond human perceptions. Certainly, natural scientists need to realize that cultural systems such as language, money, and power are components of ecosystems, organizing significant aspects of their flows of matter and energy, but social scientists conversely need to realize that flows of matter and energy are fundamental to social systems, and need to be taken into account in any explanation of development and underdevelopment. Given this divide between social and natural science, the real dilemma is how we can learn to think in truly transdisciplinary ways about how material and semiotic processes are intertwined.1