‘It’s the global’: these were the words which miners in Sierra Leone used to explain the global economic slowdown of 2007, the event which would lead to the global economic crisis of 2008, and to the continuing crises which flowed out from it. These words stand, very effectively, for the ways in which crisis at a global scale intrudes and imposes itself as a crisis at local levels – and not only in Sierra Leone, but in the rest of the world as well. They are also words cited by Thomas Hylland Eriksen in his new book Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change, which deals with that continuing crisis and its attendant crises – crises economic, environmental, social and cultural. In Sierra Leone, and its near neighbours in the Upper Guinea Coast (Liberia, Guinea), for example, the Ebola epidemic of 2014 – 2015 was deeply related to the penetration of the region by multinational capital, and the consequent impacts on the local natural environment. These impacts created an ideal context for the Ebola virus to pass into local human populations from whatever animal population was harbouring it. Since the end of that crisis, accelerating processes of globalisation have been ongoing in the UCG region and in the world at large – and it’s these processes that Eriksen’s impressive book examines.
Overheating is, from one point of view, part of a genre of works warning of the threats humanity has created for itself, threats that the species has created for itself via environmental degradation in general, and through anthropogenic climate change in particular. Texts like these date from at least the 1970s, when the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth sounded the alarm over the emerging consequences of human impact on the natural world (Meadows, Meadows, Randers, and Behrens 1972). It is also, however, a book in the tradition of texts like Edmund Leach’s Runaway World (1968), which try to grasp the overall meaning, significance, and nature of the global processes of their own time. And from a third perspective, meanwhile, Overheating is part of a tradition of works in Social Anthropology which aspire to an understanding of the principles of human social organization, and which try to understand how human beings use culture to create society (the number of texts which qualify for membership of that category are too many to cite here). Many books deal with the colliding crises of our time, and many sound the alarm over the threats they represent. Not many try, as Eriksen’s book does, to also understand what those colliding crises mean for our understanding of how human societies work.
Overheating is more than just the title of his book: it is the central concept Eriksen uses to grasp a sense of the global system as it exists today, and how the human society being formed by that global system operate and functions – or does not operate and function. ‘Overheating’, in this sense, is meant in both a metaphorical sense (the febrile activity which accompanies global economic booms and bubbles just before they burst) and in a literal sense, in reference to the global overheating produced by the mass release of carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere, something whose consequences may yet involve human extinction. Both the literal and metaphorical forms of overheating are connected by one central concept – energy – and both involve the introduction of increased energy into a system, with direct results for the ways in which that system operates.
Increased energy in a system means increased activity in that system, activity that throws it out of a state of equilibrium, and thrusts it into a new, unbalanced, condition of volatility. The precise outcomes of such volatility cannot be easily predicted, but their general outlines can be glimpsed in advance. In the case of the global economic system, increased volatility implies a persistence of the various stresses of the past decade: continuing austerity and low growth in the developed parts of the world, and a more unpredictable pattern of economic change in the developing world, especially in Africa. In the case of the global environment, it implies a disturbing pattern of outcomes – an increase in global temperatures, leading to global environmental disruption and degradation, leading in turn to changes in the global distribution (and numbers) of species, including the human species. All these changes will also involve radical and rapid effects on human societies and cultures, of the kind which can be glimpsed in the quotation from Sierra Leonean miners which opened this post. Those changes and effects will present major challenges to humanity as a global collective, to the local societies into which it is divided, and to the relationship between those two levels.
This relationship between the local and the global is central to Eriksen’s text. When people – like the Sierra Leonean miners quoted above, for example – try to account for the adverse events they experience, they are, Eriksen compellingly suggests, engaging in scalar exercises. That is, their attempts to understand the volatile world around them exist in a context defined by the conjunction of scales, ranging from the local to the global. For Eriksen, scale ‘simply refers to the scope and compass of a phenomenon’ – but does so in a number of different ways. It can refer to a combination of ‘size and complexity’, which combine together to determine the character of communities both local and global; or it can refer to cultural and cognitive scales, which may allow a small society to, for example, place itself culturally in a much broader and longer history. When large-scale systems come to predominate in a globalized world, they inevitably tend to clash with smaller systems organized at lower local scales.
The purpose of the concept of scale is to understand the complexity of contemporary global society, and the contexts through which pass the flows that define it (flows of social, cultural and physical energy). It also allows a relatively short text to include a very wide range of cases of such flows, and to understand the insights those cases provide (this is one of the most important strengths of Overheating). There is, however, one point that I would like to raise with regard to Eriksen’s argument – the point that revolves around the concept of acceleration, the speeding-up of global interaction and exchange.
Such forms of acceleration were definitely a feature of previous decades and centuries of globalization. The roots of that process may lie, ultimately, in the incorporation of the Americas into European imperialism, something that was made possible by advances in maritime transport technology. Along with railways, this would allow the massive expansion of European imperialism in the centuries that followed, allowing for the emergence of a truly global market system by the time of the First World War (something acknowledged by John Maynard Keynes in his Economic Consequences of the Peace [ 1920]). After the Second World War, such global market ties and integration were vastly increased in their scope, speed, and scale by the emergence of mass passenger air transport, containerisation of maritime cargo transport, and the creation of fully global communications technologies, ranging from satellite links to the internet. This post-war era produced the ‘runaway world’ which Edmund Leach spoke of in his Reith lectures series and which involved the rapid acceleration of global processes, flows and exchanges. For the geographer David Harvey, this acceleration was nothing less than a process of ‘time-space compression’, in which physical barriers to global interaction were overcome by the reduction of the temporal barriers which those physical had, in the past implied (Harvey 1989). This is also the acceleration which Eriksen cites as the source of the increased energy (metaphorical and physical) which is producing global instability at all scales, from the global to the local and all points between.
But what exactly is the character and nature of that instability, and is the acceleration that it produced inevitably fated to continue? The speed and acceleration which followed the Second World War reached a new crescendo in the 1990s. This was the era when the changes in communication and transportation technology led to a surge of financial capital into the global economy. That surge brought with it increased global economic turbulence, at the same time as it seemed to radically speed up global integration and interaction of all kinds, economic, social and cultural. This period seemed to last right up until the global economic crisis of 2008. Eriksen explicitly faces that crisis, and builds it into his argument, acknowledging (for example) that the skylines of major world cities can suddenly find that the building projects that change them so quickly are suddenly suspended when the local or global economy enters the doldrums. He seems confident, however, that such interruptions are only and no more than that – interruptions. Sooner or later, perhaps even sooner rather than later, they will be overtaken by new phases of acceleration at all relevant levels, economic, social and cultural.
What if, however, these new phases of acceleration fail to materialise? What if the crisis of 2008 meant a new phase of global economic deceleration, or at least of protracted periods of deceleration in this or that local region of the world-system? Global demographic patterns seem to imply that this will occur – at least outside Africa. Europe seems to be mired in permanent economic stagnation, and even in the United States, the dynamism of that country’s economy has been unable to restore the levels of growth that were seen before the crisis. China’s high demand for raw materials has peaked, or so it appears, with direct consequences for demand in Africa. These phases of deceleration seem to be linked to the fact that these regions of the world are experiencing a demographic transition to entrenched low population growth, with the long-term economic consequence of entrenched low growth (Sharma 2016). If Africa is dependent on outside flows to trigger accelerated economic activity, then this is a disturbing pattern to observe. Africa, however, may have resources to fall back on which other parts of the world lack. Unlike the other states and regions mentioned here, Africa is experiencing the kind of rapid demographic growth that in other cases was associated with accelerated economic growth and consequent cultural change. For now, and for a long time to come, African societies will still be, unlike Europe and North America, societies of youth; and this demographic fact seems to provide, at least, the possibility of continued African growth and possibly even an ‘African industrial revolution’ (McKinsey Global Institute 2016).
At each scalar level of this overheating world, in other words, there are complex processes that are not only happening at different speeds, but which may well be heading away from each other. Understanding the relationship between societies located at each of those scalar levels, and the social relationships between scales, will certainly require the kinds of insights and thinking Eriksen provides in the book under review here – but it will also require an awareness of the fact that the patterns of acceleration and deceleration in today’s world are complex, and do not proceed in a linear fashion. Understanding the ways in which globalization produces new scales of social life, as well as new, complex, interconnections between societies located at different scales, requires us to understand the ways in which radical processes of acceleration can be suspended, interrupted or even reversed. This has clear implications, I would argue, for the ways in which social life is conducted at, and across, the scales of the local, the national, the regional, and the global – and it is also something to bear in mind, I believe, when reading Overheating, an indispensable text for anyone seeking to understand how contemporary globalisation is being shaped in front of us.
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