Panel 1: Conservation

Feral disasters, feral recovery: Ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction and the governance of nature
Jonathan G. Wald
PhD Candidate, Anthropology
McGill University

Engaging with the natures of neoliberal conservation: A typology 
Ian Florin
PhD candidate, Environmental Governance and Territorial Development Institute
University of Geneva

Comments 14

  1. Dear all,
    Very welcome to this session on conservation in the Feral conference. Thanks to Jonathan and Ian for their interesting presentations. I am looking forward to good discussions. I am currently watching the presentations and hope to kick-off with some questions later on.
    All the best,

  2. Thank you to the conference organizers for putting this together, and thanks Ian for a great presentation!

    I’m struck by the fact that we both included Venn diagrams representing the Nature/Culture or the Socio-Cultural/Biophysical divide, although we clearly go in different directions with this binary. To get the discussion started, I wonder what place Nature might play in the typologies of neoliberal conservation. You are probably correct to argue that “feralism” might easily be recuperated into capitalist accumulation, but is the materiality of what you call “Nature” (with a capital “N”) always overridden by the discursive effects of neoliberalism? Are there any feral, material challenges to the commodification and regulation of the biophysical realm? In other words, is there any space for Nature to escape “nature” and cease to be derivative, reductive, or merely a brand?
    Best regards,

  3. Hi Jonathan and Ian,

    Thanks so much for your presentations, really interesting. I have a question similar to Jonathan given you both discussed similar ways in which nature is problematised (at a policy and economic level) but went in different directions. Jonathan, could Ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction be an example of ‘feral’ Nature being recuperated into a neoliberal policy framework? Similar to Jonathan, Ian are there ways in which the commodification of nature can work towards environmentally sustainable goals, e.g. carbon taxes or economic incentives to avoid the kinds of ecological disaster mentioned in Jonathan’s talk?


    1. Hi Holly,

      Thank you for your questions! There’s definitely a risk of Eco-DRR being used to support resource extraction or neoliberal policy objectives. In Stephanie Wakefields and Bruce Braun’s critique of green infrastructure projects (, they wonder if New York City’s ambitious plans to improve resilience after Hurricane Sandy might divert resources away from community building and towards protecting Wall Street financial interests. Like all technologies, Eco-DRR is vulnerable to being used in the service of wildly different ends. That being the case, it is still important to ask how our new environment plays a part in, or challenges, our collective politics. I’m not trying to paint too optimistic a picture in this presentation. The ferality of the environment does not necessarily mean the end of neoliberalism, but it certainly poses an interesting challenge.

      Best regards,

  4. Hello everyone,

    Thanks for your questions!

    Regarding the submission of discursive “nature” and material Nature to neoliberal processes, it has been widely discussed in the literature, especially by scholars interested in the Production of Nature subfield, notably in early works by Neil Smith in Uneven Development (1984) According to him, the development of capitalism puts an end to a first (untouched) nature, in submitting – even in indirect ways – all nature to capitalist processes. The “feral” resistance to the neoliberalization of nature conservation has been addressed by Sian Sullivan (following Holert and others) (eg. in the NatureTMinc book, 2014), notably around the idea that animist ontologies could be a challenge to capitalist ways of thinking about nature.

    Following also on your questions on the possibility of a non-derivative “nature”, some would say that if you look for neoliberalism, you can find it everywhere. To avoid this “if you have a hammer everything looks like a nail” effect, I use derivative nature only when the discourse I refer to has a link with a liquification process.

    Regarding the positive impacts reported by the literature (e.g. Holmes and Cavanagh 2016), they mainly include increased income and employment opportunities and in in some cases insulation from natural hazards. In my case study, I don’t have seen (yet !) incentives that would avoid the kinds of impact addressed by Jonathan in his presentation

    1. Thanks for responding, an emissions trading scheme or carbon tax is the big policy hope here in Australia for mitigating climate change. So we’ll see what happens with that …

  5. @ Jonathan : Merci pour ta présentation et tes remarques !

    I have a question/remark regarding the “ferality” of nature in your case, when you say that it appears both in the dangers of the natural disasters and in the capacity of certain organisms to reduce vulnerability and repair damage.

    Do you relate to this (quite) new critical literature that argues that discourses that puts forward the capacity of non-human to maintain landscapes are maybe more driven by capitalist than feral understanding of nature ? In the sense that they associate certain non-humans with particular labour forces and – in doing so – submit them to certain capitalist dynamics.

    A debate that could be interesting in that regard :

    Et un article qui parle un peu de cet argument (très axé sur la ville), qui pourrait t’intéresser ! :



    1. Salut Ian,

      This is a great question! Let me try two different ways of answering this.

      First, as an ethnographer, it was striking to me how environmental analysts working for the government would pragmatically shift their rhetoric in order to accomplish an environmental task. The risk of this, as they were very aware, is that reframing the environment in one way or another can compromise environmental protection. For instance, when they presented ecosystem restoration as a job-creation service that would boost the economy, they believed that they could frame the environment as a capitalistic concern without corrupting themselves. When that framing didn’t accomplish much in practice and others worried that their work had been tainted, they shifted to promoting Eco-DRR as a security solution. That seems to have worked better. To get back more specifically to your question, is this work driven more by a capitalist or feral understanding of nature: the answer is somewhat both and neither. The challenge for effecting policy and action in a democratic and bureaucratic institution is that there needs to be support across a broad range of registers. For some, their rationale may be entirely neoliberal. For others, more feral. This means that while the public discourse can be neoliberal, their might be a more feral “subjugated knowledge” (to borrow Foucault’s term) operating beneath the surface. The risk and challenge for environmental analysts in Minas Gerais has been and will continue to be whether or not this somewhat cynical operation will protect the environment.

      Second, on a more theoretical level, I think you are absolutely correct to point out that the current proliferation of discourses that marvel in nature’s spontaneity might have something to do with how readily these discourses can support value extraction. At least in South America, this affinity is not new. Mary Louise Pratt’s excellent historical study, Imperial Eyes, documents how early European naturalists supported the colonization of the continent. However, there might be a risk of treating linguistic and cultural discourse as a total understanding of environmental concerns. I’m skeptical that “the development of capitalism puts an end to a first (untouched) nature, in submitting – even in indirect ways – all nature to capitalist processes.” Is capitalism really that infallible? Moments like the Mariana dam collapse seem demonstrate that the material environment can still disrupt efforts to contain it. While the power of discourse must be acknowledged, there is a growing shift in anthropology to argue that we cannot reduce the environment entirely to the ways in which we talk about it (e.g. Natasha Myers, Zoe Todd, Elizabeth Povinelli, and Eduardo Kohn).

      Merci aussi pour les suggestions des articles. Les questions de urbanisme “vert” sont centrale en Minas Gerais parce que la faiblesse de l’agriculture rurale provoque la migration vers les centres urbains.

      Best regards,

  6. Hi all,
    Thanks for the interesting discussion so far, which I am enjoying very much. In reflecting on the presentations, I have some further questions.

    @Jonathan: how do you conceptualise the relation between Feral and control? It seems from your presentation that you see the Feral as escaping from human control, whilst I am wondering whether the idea of control (of nature) has always, to one degree or another, been an illusion? Yes, we can mend, bend, change, transform natures in many ways, often with predictable effects, but these also take place within larger contexts of where this control should lead towards, namely (capitalist) profit, scientific understanding, etc. As Carolan remarked in 2005:

    “although science and the market seek to continually dissect reality into its constituent parts, creating in its wake a world full of unitary, unproblematic, and ontologically fixed objects, such epistemic maneuvering denies the rooted, emergent, and interconnected qualities those objects have as ecologically embedded entities. All of which, in turn, leads to activities rife with unintended consequences” (Carolan 2005: 408-9, italics added).

    So my question would be how the ‘ferality’ of nature relates to this idea of ‘unintended consequences’ according to you? Is it the confirmation of this point? Or is it something more than that, given your plea for looking behind hybrids, etc? Might our noticing of the feral in the last couple of years have something do to with temporally cumulative ‘unintended consequences’, which also I guess directly relate to your broader topic of disasters?

    @Ian: thanks for your very insightful overview and discussion. Can you say a bit more about the relation between ferality and the deadening of nature through/for neoliberal conservation? Do you think that there is a dialectic going on here, where both feed off on each other? And if so, how does that relate to the possibilities for further forms of neoliberal conservation, and the limits thereof, both theoretically and in your case? Does the feral show that nature often escapes is deadening? Of should we be stressing the inherent vitality and livelines of conservation commodities, as Maan Barua and others insist on?

    Finally, I am very interested in the general question posed by Jonathan in the beginning and I would argue that the answer is ‘yes’ but that this may present both opportunities and challenges to accumulation. What do you think?


    1. Thank you Bram for that great question. I’ll try to clarify what I mean by “feral” and what I see as its stakes.

      Following Kymlicka and Donaldson, I think of ferality as an escape from control in some cases, but the work of ferality within queer theory (Kelly Struthers Montford, Chloë Taylor, and J. Jack Halberstam in particular) pushes me more towards thinking of it in terms of undomestication. In this sense, “going feral” encompasses more than simply the transition from control to uncontrol.

      Throughout his Spheres trilogy, the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk documents the multitude of projects humans have used to render the world hospitable both in thought and in practice. These ranged from the kind of urban design and infrastructure projects which sought to control the physical environment to the conceptual projects of cosmology which tried to give humanity a comprehensible “home” in the universe.

      While the dream of total control of the environment might never have been entirely accomplished, the relative stability of the Holocene (wonderfully illustrated in comic form at lent itself to maintaining that ideal. As the environment becomes more feral, partially through the buildup of “unintended consequences”, I argue that this ideal is becoming more difficult to maintain. One solution to this challenge might be to try and expand our conceptual vocabulary and recreate the feeling of understanding the order of the world. I’ve tried to show that this effort lies behind the work about “hybrids.”

      Another strategy might be to let our thinking be carried away to more unfamiliar territory. Here, I am inspired by works like After Ethnos (Tobias Rees, 2018) and The Great Derangement (Amitav Ghosh 2016). In that light, what is striking about the uptake of Eco-DRR in Minas Gerais is that it is accompanied by an explicit rejection of the ideal of control. Agency is given over to the plants and fish and governmental institutions merely serve as assistants. As Ian’s comments have rightfully pointed out, this strategy carries numerous risks in that it could easily be subsumed into a neoliberal effort to render the environment “liquid.” However, I take this conference’s emphasis on the “feral” aspects of the environment and thought to push more towards to ways in which Eco-DRR and disasters both indicate a kind of potential “escape.”

      Best regards,

      1. Jonathan,

        Thank you for your presentation, as well as your clarification of your concept of the “feral”. When I approached this topic, I was focused on the concept of “domestication” as a dialectical relationship between the human and the non-human worlds, where prehistoric populations who first engaged in agriculture had a mutual or commensal relationship with the non-human. Furthermore, I envisioned our recent and ever-increasing attempts to “ratchet up” our control of the natural world (through genetic engineering, damming and canalization of river systems, elimination of “non-native”, “invasive”, or otherwise undesirable species) as a fundamental change in that relationship.

        When I thought about modern agricultural systems and the ways that we spray ever more pesticides on undesirable plants that develop ever-greater resistance to those chemicals, I saw a categorically different relationship to the natural world than what came before. However, this notion of “undomestication” is…liberating. Rather than wait for the inevitable breaking point, where nature (with a lower-case “n” as in Ian’s Venn diagram) eventually tears free of the bonds of human control in a cataclysmic way, relinquishing that control and allowing space for undomestication creates a path for the amelioration of the growing tensions between us and “nature”. The notion of turning agency over to plants and animals strikes me as a very old and indigenous idea, and yet you led me there via a very different path, which was extremely illuminating.

        Many thanks,

  7. Hi Bram, thanks for your questions & reading recommendations!

    Regarding the relation between the deadening of nature and neoliberal conservation, I think that they do feed each other. On the one hand, I follow Sullivan when she says that the deadening of nature is a prerequisite for neoliberal conservation. On the other hand, I see in my case that some fetichization processes at stake in protected areas that embody certain living and vital qualities in flagship species (flying squirrels, bears…) and ecosystems (mires). In that sense, I think that ferality can be a challenge for neoliberal conservation in countering the deadening of nature. Besides, I think that it can create new opportunities for accumulation as it can fuel discourses & cartographic images that justify new kinds of “megaprojects” (green infra. among others) that rely on connectivity conservation paradigm. In this regard, I agree with Maan Barua (I will definitely read more of his work !) that we should look at the vitality and liveliness of conservation commodities.



  8. Dear all,
    Thanks so much for the great debate and presentations – the organisers will now open up the second week of panels in the Feral conference, to make sure to check them out and participate in the discussions!
    thanks again, and all the best,

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