All Roads Lead to Ruin: Terminality and Julie Livingston’s Self-Devouring Growth

It is a testament to the distilled clarity and prescience of Julie Livingston’s parable of a book that its title, Self-Devouring Growth, can strike one immediately as both so true and suddenly so evident that everything that follows in its slim 120 odd pages will then appear as the confirmation of all that the title had come to pre-organize in one’s intuition about our contradictory world and the book describing it. Of course, you would want to read the book and not rest on your intuitions but the point about the title is partly that it captures the historical period we are in as well as the consciousness we have of it. Not all historical periods are so meta.

There used to be a time when growth and development were unquestioned goods, even if there were fights over which model to adopt or which path to take. The post-War and post-colonial nation-state system came into place bearing colonial notions of growth and development, telling us how to move out of pre-scientific realms of fear and ignorance, and pre-modern forms of squalor and discomfort. Abandon ye all hope who enter huts and mud brick dwellings, who till with an ox-pulled hoe and use plant remedies. The whole imaginary of modernity was propped up against those who had such things as shamans and rainmakers. That became the premise of colonial independence movements too and their subsequent national formations, even when they had some version of a non-western ideology of self-reliance built into them. Scientific progress, American dreams, market capitalism, Communist industrialism, Maoist agricultural schemes, Gandhian self-reliance, Nyerere socialism, non-aligned self-determination, Malthusian ruthlessness, Eurosocialist equanimity all were rooted in growth as an unquestionable, if sometimes limited, good (that is partly why, compared to most current critiques, there is less of a simple emphasis in this book on the evils of capitalism). Development had its handful of critics and resisters along the way, but in an important sense it was the foundation of the global order even before we got the term globalization. Without growth, there would be no domain called the economy. Survival meant “grow or perish”.

Now it seems that even the global mainstream is agreed that the more apt descriptor of our condition is “grow and perish.” International bodies make this point. Scientific bodies make this point. The Rockefeller Foundation makes this point. Metrics related to improved health lock on to metrics related to the destruction of resources and the environment.[i] Listen to Andrew Haines, chair of a Lancet and Rockefeller commission on health and a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: “We may have mortgaged the future in attaining our current level of health and development”.[ii] This does not seem surprising at all, but for a long time it would have been impossible to say, to imagine. It was – and still is – a contradiction to say good health leads to bad health. But that is the current condition – one I call Terminality[iii]– that Livingston is grappling with.

As Livingston’s book shows clearly, growth, even as it can alleviate hunger and provide for some comforts, leads to destruction in all kinds of complicated ways and yet it is very difficult to see one’s way out of growth, mainly because the economy has become the dominant sphere of human life. There is a degrowth movement in economics and social thought, and more and more people are experimenting with communal living, or turning to regenerative economies. But the solutions are not easy.

I want to quickly take two aspects of the book to think about why. The first is roads, the second is rainmaking or, to put it in more generalized and perhaps fashionable terms, infrastructure and cosmology.

One of development’s poster-children dubbed “Africa’s miracle,” Botswana went from having twelve roads at independence in 1966 to having over seven thousand today. Roads, as the book tells us, “have long been fetishized as the magic amulet that will end poverty” (99); roads were both an indicator of Botswana’s “success” and its precondition, in so far as infrastructure is the precondition of modern production and distribution. Roads bring producers to market, people to services, and goods to people. In that same stretch after independence, the hungers of old legends were alleviated, thanks to the industrial transformation of meat production – the transformation of cow to beef, of living being and “total social fact” to fungible commodity. What’s more, both medical and living standard indicators have risen far above those of neighboring countries.

All that success has a steep price. Inequality is the social price: Botswana’s economic growth has made it “the third most unequal country on the continent, the tenth most unequal on earth” (8). But the price Livingston is most concerned with is a price that will be paid in the future. Growth now has meant the destruction of the resources of survival in the future. For example, water use has skyrocketed – for industrial agriculture and mining as well as personal use – and water tables have dropped to dangerous levels, the Gabarone dam dries up, and droughts are becoming increasingly frequent. Road construction also needs lots of water, as do the swimming pools and golf courses all roads lead to. Roads also need sand, though not just any sand. The sand of the desert will not bind in the “aggregate” required for construction. Rivers and quarries are heavily mined, sometimes changing the flood patterns and flows of rivers. The regulations of sand extraction lead to a black market in sand. The sand problem is not unique to Botswana. The concrete industry has been one of the largest consumers of natural resources, with 48 billion tons of aggregate alone used by the construction industry. The roads, necessitated by the modern car and truck, also encourage the construction of more concrete homes, malls, and other destinations to get to. And to get there you need more cars. And we know about cars and fossil fuels by now. But just in case anyone thought electric or biofuel cars would be a solution, Livingston shows us how the drive to produce biofuel devastated swathes of the Botswana economy and ecology, by way of land trafficking, cane plantations, high levels of water use and toxic effluent poured back into the water supply. Large companies like Daewoo take over massive swathes of African arable land to plant cane for ethanol to meet the demand generated for green fuels. This implies corruption, violence and eventually bankruptcies and the cycle of crisis and loss.

In Peru, where I have been doing some work with a Shipibo self-determination project, roads and riverways, including a massive Fitzcarraldo-like fluvial project called the Hidrovia Amazonica, are being planned along the Ucayali river in the Amazon rainforest. It is true that people want roads, but more than anything the government and the companies want roads. The indigenous communities, even as they want roads to make transport easier, know, at least, that roads also bring crime, cocaine trafficking and plantations, illegal logging, prostitution, alcoholism, pollution and toxicity, dependency, inequality, disease and immiseration for the many. There is a story the leaders tell. When the development folks, along with the missionaries, began to enter their territories in the middle of the century and looked at their forms of life, they would say, “You are poor. You need development.” And the indigenous leaders would say, “But we are not poor, we can get what we need.” The state and the development folks would insist again and say that the native communities needed certain things and lots of help, and eventually they would provide them with things and with help in various guises. In the end, that assistence made them dependent and eroded knowledge, and with knowledge gone so went food sovereignty, plant medicine, health. Now, they say, “We have become poor. Development made us poor.”

So some fight against infrastructure projects. But the national and international machinery in favor is too big, too powerful. Everything in growth-led projects – today mainly reducible to capitalism, including of the Chinese variety – requires more and more infrastructure for extraction from any and all corners of the world and distribution to ever increasing ‘markets’. And once they build it, people will come, as the saying goes. Infrastructure attracts the increased flow of people, goods, information. If you make an infrastructure map – from ocean shipping routes to earthly rail and roads and pipelines to airplane and satellite paths above the earth – you will see that they wrap the entire planet and the constant flow through them is making while breaking the planet.

Map by Hui, Student work at the School of Information, Pratt Institute

Flight patterns – Aaron Koblin

This infrastructure requires massive outlays of interest-bearing capital, with massive debts to be repaid to banks, to rich countries, to the national treasury, and so it had better bring in some money. Infrastructure has a feedback loop and it overdetermines outcomes: all roads lead to growth first and ruin soon after.

Natural Gas Pipeline, US


Electric Grid Map, Washington Post

What is to be done? How? Livingston says we need a “new imagination” (8). And, given the centrality of the water crisis, she takes Tsawana rainmaking as a possible, if slightly vague, model. As many others have pointed out, some of the blame seems attributable to the way in which the planet has become objectified as a spiritless resource that may be exploited with impunity. Modern production has no restraints and does not consider social or ecological relations in its calculus. It is not relational in the anthropological sense. It is autonomous and its cosmology is made up entirely of interest – return on investment, which is a financial term for growth. It is money looking for nothing else but more money, Marx’s M looking for M’, and whatever is in the middle has no intrinsic value. Livingston doesn’t make enough of the power of interest-bearing capital, which may have been less deleterious on a planetary scale when there was a couple billion dollars of global capital looking for its 5%. Now there is finance capital of 800 trillion dollars (perhaps more, no one in fact knows how to accurately account for it all) looking for its 10% and to get it, it must dig up every corner of the planet no matter what or who is on it.

The reaction from many a corner has been to think about the recosmologization of the world; that is, to move away from M’, and consider social and ecological relations as paramount, and natural resources as inherently valuable and responsive (sometimes in smarter ways than humans), such that rivers and mountains might have their own interests, and therefore bear rights.[iv] That, of course, is also a way of thinking and relating attributed to non-state and non-capitalist social formations, especially indigenous ones, since many indigenous groups not only are said to have a collective ethos and relations of reciprocity with each other, but also with the nonhuman world, for example with cows, plants, snakes, rivers, and mountains. That in effect is what has been called a cosmology, or in the case of the Shipibo self-determination project, cosmovision politica.

Although Livingston explicitly stays away from the term cosmology, it seems that is what’s behind the rainmaking parable, for rainmakers examined a vast set of relations – vegetal and social and spiritual, considering the state of the sand as well as the sky while making judgements on the chief. If the rains failed and famine was imminent, they could activate modes of retribution against the chief. Women could beat the members of the court and replaced them. It was a system of ecological and social accountability based on notions of an “animated ecology.” So rainmaking was not about thinking that you could make the clouds drop water, but an acknowledgement of the ways in which “in an animated ecology water has value in how it condenses (literally) the success or failure of moral relationships, of political vision, of collective self-agreement, however hierarchical the collective” (33).

The call to cosmology is powerful because it provides a different ethical orientation to the world, a different set of ideas by which to organize provision, care, the commons, the collective. One argument for proof of its efficacy put forth by indigenous as well as non-indigenous scholars and activists points out that indigenous territories remain home to the greatest biodiversity and the biggest carbon sinks.[v] Put another way, lands under indigenous governance are home to the greatest proliferation of life on the planet and their guardians stand against the deterritorialized movement of capital that digs up and destroys life on the planet in order to grow its own abstract need for profit. The indigenous self-determination (or autonomia) struggle projects important alternatives on several levels: the relation to property, to the environment, to resources, to life and personhood, to temporality, to the planetary rift, to non-human consciousness, to regeneration. So indigenous leaders call for the adoption of global political models based on indigenous values and human-nature relations.[vi] Even the UN and some climate scientists are getting on board. The last report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES 2019) stated:“Regional and global scenarios currently lack and would benefit from an explicit consideration of the views, perspectives and rights of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, their knowledge and understanding of large regions and ecosystems, and their desired future development pathways.”[vii]

The call is not for a romantic return to a beautiful past. As Livingston points out, Tswana life was not idyllic, not only because there was hardship and no antibiotics, but because there was a hierarchical society that took slaves. Nevertheless, unlike cloud seeding, meaning a technoscientific approach that can only work via abstract numbers, mechanics and a domination of nature, rainmaking is a relational technology that takes all the moral, technological and political entanglements into account in its animated ecology. The rainmaking model also reaches for the potential of lost and dismissed forms of knowledge and practice, the kind that was systematically eliminated from the realm of truthmaking by the tripartite rule of colonialism, secularism and science. But the point, Livingston argues, is to do so without giving up on the scientific methods that brought us antibiotics.

The problem is we don’t know how to bring about that world, the one in which we will practice some version of rainmaking, as we develop vaccines and antibiotics and… what else? Highways and roads? The internet? Fridges? MRI machines? Nuclear bombs and bomber jets? It might be worth noting that General Dynamics makes both MRI scanners and war planes, healing and killing manufactured under the same roof apparently without contradiction. Is there, then, a contingent bundle of technoscientific goods we can choose from or are technoscientific goods part of a teleological process that in the large scale can only be terminal? Or is the problem capitalism’s takeover of science? Can we change cosmologies without changing infrastructures? Is the revaluation (appropriation) of indigenous cosmological relations a solution or a fetish? Is it simply going to lead to the subsumption of indigeneity by capital? Or the fetishisation and appropriation of the figure of the “Alter Native” (or what Astrid Ulloa[viii] has called “the ecological native”)? Perhaps the detailed answers do not matter so much and we just need to “stay with the trouble” as Donna Haraway and in other ways Ana Tsing suggest, hacking our little ethical way daily through the ruins left us by the juggernaut of contemporary production.

As I work with Coshikox, the representative body of the Shipibo-Conibo-Xetebo people, against organized legal and illegal land and resource grabs for palm oil plantation, oil extraction, logging, cocaine and tourism, I get the feeling that Haraway’s exhortation might better be replaced with the imperative that we “stay with the struggle”.

But indigenous cosmology – its propagation, adaptations, transformations – takes a fight, and the change comes in the fighting. Stay with the struggle.

Nevertheless, if engaged through political projects for justice and equality, rather than regressive conservation project (saving the rainforest for the West, for example), the indigenous struggle for autonomia makes for one important alternative future on several levels: the relation to property, to the environment, to resources, to life and personhood, to temporality, to the planetary rift, to non-human consciousness, to regeneration.

Abou Farman is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research. His latest book, On Not Dying: Secular Immortality in the Age of Technoscience (University of Minnesota Press) was published in April 2020.


[i] Farman, Abou and Rottenburg, Richard. 2019. “Measures of future health from the nonhuman to the planetary: An introductory essay.” Medicine Anthropology Theory,  Special Issue: Measures of Future Health, co-edited by Richard Rottenburg and Abou Farman, 6(3): 1–28.

[ii] Umair, Irfan. 2015. ‘Planetary Medicine Needed to Deal with Global Warming’. Scientific American, 17 July.

[iii] Farman, Abou. 2020. Terminality – The Ticking.A-Line: a journal of progressive thought.

[iv] Youatt, Rafi. 2017. Personhood and the Rights of Nature: The New Subjects of Contemporary Earth Politics. International Political Sociology, 0(1-16).




[viii]Ulloa, Astrid. 2004. La construcción Del “Nativo ecológico”: Complejidades, Paradojas y Dilemas De La relación Entre Los Movimientos indígenas y El Ambientalismo En Colombia. Instituto Colombiano De Antropología e Historia (ICANH).