Africa: Eco-Populist Utopias and (Micro-) Capitalist Realities

Henry Bernstein, Philip Woodhouse


Of all the world's regions today, sub-Saharan Africa is seen as most emblematic of 'disaster' and 'tragedy'. All that can go wrong in the human condition seems to be concentrated with particular bleakness here, in an apparent combination of the effects of the worst of nature and the worst of society. This essay aims to probe some of the realities behind such widespread generalities which are uniformly negative, and frequently pejorative too, conveying the sense of a place where the miseries of the human condition are self-inflicted. We first sketch some issues of environmental change in Africa and perspectives in the debates they have generated. While the 'new ecology' of African environments, and how African farmers use them, has much to commend it, it is called on to support an eco-populism that ignores the dynamics and effects of 'actually existing capitalism' in Africa. This includes commodity relations in the countryside (and in urban areas, with which they are so closely bound up), and the class and other social inequalities they inevitably generate. In particular we focus here on petty production in savanna environments, for reasons explained below, after first sketching some global forces in environmental change in Africa.

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