A microcosm of the Anthropocene: socioecological complexity and social theory in the Amazon

A microcosm of the Anthropocene: socioecological complexity and social theory in the Amazon


Eduardo S. Brondizio

date de sortie





We live in a time of accellerated changes, a historical zenith of the intensity and the scale of human activities encapusulated by the concept of the Anthropocene. The unwielding complexity of the anthropocene challenges the social and biophysical sciences to break barriers across and beyond disciplines and to rethink analytical models of social and environmental change. This is not a new task, but an increasingly pressing one. There has been many efforts to overcome analytical constructs based on dichotomies, equilibrium and linearity, and deterministic causality that have limited our understanding of socio-ecological phenomena marked by inter-connectedness and non-linear relationships across levels.


Having experienced exponential expansion and intensification of human activities during the last 50 years, the Amazon is a microcosm of this  global social accelleration. Furthermore, the development dillemas of the region catalize the challenges involved on reconciling economic growth, social justice, and environmental conservation amid a globalized economy and climate change. The accelerated interplay and ‘teleconnections’ among local, national, and global processes have been producing an evolving mosaic of justaposed social and environmental realities, nevertheless interlinked through physical, social, economic and political networks. These processes make the Amazon also a microcosm of the challenges involved in connecting disciplinary specialties and levels of analysis, as well as connecting science and local and indigenous knowledge systems. In other words, how to work within regional and global perspectives while understanding the differentiated ways that individuals, households, firms, and communities, within a variety of institutional arrangements, mediate and respond to macro-scale forces, and in the process contribute to shape the configuration of larger regions.


A microcosm of the anthropocene

The Amazon has a deep history of indigenous occupation marked by diverse forms of linguistic, economic, and political organization interlinked through regional and continental networks of exchange and circulation. During colonial times, the region was profoundly influenced by the impact of European expansion policies and mercantilism, and still bears the marks of social hierarchies, land concentration, and extractivist mentality from that time. The rate and scope of changes during the last 50 years, however, have been unprecedent. During this period, the Amazon has been perhaps the greatest and most dynamic laboratory of policies, views of development, democratization and multiculturalism, political ideologies and environmental agendas. The scale of massive changes put in motion by government plans of national (geopolitical) integration during the 1970s and subsequent cultural, demographic, infrastructural, economic, and political changes have been unparalleled. To illustrate with few examples, the regional population has increased from about from 7 to about 25 million today, while urban population has increased by about 500% during this same period. Today, the Brazilian Amazon has 784 municipalities, the majority of them created since the late 1980s. From few kilometers of localized roads in the 1960s, the region today is interconnected by a vast transportation network, which continues to expand. It has now one of the largest cattle herds in the world and moves to reach similar place in terms of soybean production, logging, and mining. From inexistent until 1970, deforestation has since claimed over 800,000 km², an area larger than France. During the past twenty years over 40% of the region has been designated as Indigenous reserves, extractivist reserves, conservation units, and other types of institutional arrangements which are increasingly surrounded by agribusiness, urban areas, and a variety of systems of production. And, as relevant, the Amazon has assumed an even stronger mythical and political place in the national and global imaginaries amid threats of international occupation and xenophobia, cultural and biodiversity loses, and climate change and savanization.


On the ground, however, nature still shapes the rhythms of life in many parts of the Amazon. The seasons of rain that organize the year in winter and summer, flooding and drought, movement and confinement that makes visits, travel, roads, housing, economy, and daily routines shaped by a humble sense of patience and resignation. Space still shapes one’s sense of time in the Amazon. The region’s long distances are better understood from days or weeks traveling in a boat or waiting for a road to dry and open. There is a sense of space not captured from captivating satellite images, a sense that the region is so vast that there will never be enough time to clear it all of its forests. On the ground, there is a sense of history that reminds us constantly of the persistence of structural conditions as well as the ability of people to change them ; as the legacy of rubber tapper leader Chico Mendes continues to remind us. One sees the immemorial traces and scars of colonial legacies marked in indigenous lives and rural livelihoods along with the unstoppable progression of frontiers whereas indigenous, old and new farmers are crafting history anew as they seek new forms of recognition and territories, while young generations seek their place in cities, but not necessarily away from the forest. Still, the land of economic booms and busts gives a constant sense of a recurrent past. Promises that were never fulfilled, projects and subsidies that brought miracles, only if not abandoned. There is a sense that the Amazon is the land of the future, only to be overtaken by a sense of déjà vu of the ironic defiance of politics and nature. On the ground, there is a sense that everything changes all the time, but that nothing changes at all. And yet, there is a sense of hope that the region is finding a sustainable path to the future. Rather than a regional particularity, these often paradoxical and contradictory senses of continuity and change reflect the realities of the anthropocene.


The prospects of shaping a sustainable future for the region is, however, puzzling. Government planned infrastructure projects involve significant expansion of dams and energy grids, roads and fluvial transportation, and mining operations. Agro-industrial expansion continues to intensify as government incentives and demands from global commodity markets increase side-by-side with a mosaic of institutional arrangements aiming at promoting conservation, indigenous land rights, and mitigation of climate change. Having some of the highest poverty rates in South America, the region continues to challenge social policies, whereas a now majority urban population lives with limited access to public services in municipalities that are too insolvent to follow the pace of change and to provide them. An economy still based on extraction and export of raw material and commodities that maintains a weak and largely inexistent industrial basis, little or no taxation collected by municipalities, and where the majority of the population depends on informal employment and various forms of government transfers and subsidies. On the other hand, there are new possibilities of democratic organization and participation, new opportunities of economic exchange, better access to education, more circulation of peoples and goods facilitated by improvements in transportation and communication and access to economic incentives. In this context, the decisions and actions of individuals, families, and communities about migration, education, and economic activities influence, progressively and unintentionally, the regional urban network and the institutional territorial landscape. These processes, among others, will continue to fuel social and environmental change in ways no less accelerated than before.


If we accept the premise that the Amazon is an microcosm of social acceleration (and the anthropocene) where social processes create continuously emergent features and new conditions, we should also accept that, although fundamental, disciplinary approaches are limited to explain the mechanisms and directions of change that transcend their specific domains or level of analysis. Notwithstanding the value of specific inquires, current problems pose different challenges for the social and biophysical sciences. How to bring together complementary perspectives and analytical tools that recognize the interplays and interconnections between  local, regional, and global processes in a situation of accelerated social and environmental change. Put differently, it is the challenge of finding balance in what Edgar Morin proposed as “complex thinking,” i.e., “…a thinking that is capable of unifying concepts which repel one another and are otherwise catalogued and isolated in separate compartments.” (2008: 81).


This challenge is not new of course, but perhaps more pressing at this moment when the social sciences (and humanities) are struggling to find new grounds for interpreting a world in transformation that recurrently defies our theoretical and methodological ‘toolkits’. This reminds one of what Bruno Latour expressed [paraphrasing him] as ’the ad infinitun dissatisfaction of social scientists between micro and macro explanations and viewpoints – when at one level one searches explanations at another, and when at another the process repeats’ and he continues, ‘may be the social possesses the bizarre property of not being made of agency and structure at all, but rather being a circulating entity (Latour 1999 :16). While the very notion of social processes as possessing the ‘bizarre property’ of interactions seems peculiar in itself, it says a lot about the history of the social sciences and the weight/value put on dichotomies as  conceptual devices.


From structural determinism to complex socioecological thinking

Amazonia, past and present, has been a laboratory and microcosm  to the challenge of understanding interactions between macro and micro processes and their influence on the formation and transformation of society and environment. Historically and with exceptions, interpretations of social and environmental change in the region have been either very localized and/or marked by macro-level structural determinism, usually grounded on simplistic social and environmental dichotomies and a preference for macro-level forces [political, economic, and environmental] in shaping local conditions. This is not surprising. The Amazon basin functions as a biophysical-climatic system interconnecting and influencing regional, continental, and global scale processes. On the other hand, the region has had a place on the popular imaginary as an organic whole and has been too often treated as a homegenous entity in scientific research. Since the late 1960s the region is experiencing transformations emanating from central planning and geopolitical thinking that have imposed ‘pharaonic’ scale development projects based on infrastructure constructions, immigration and social engineering. Not least, the region has a long history of being influenced by global commodity markets and extractivist economies based on a logic of external expropriation of its resources and societies. Its wealth has fueled regional, national, and global economies through major and mini resource booms, from the cacao economic cycle in the 18th century, to the rubber economy in the 19th and 20th century, to mining, beef, soy, logging, fisheries and fruit markets, and more recently international carbon compensation agreements. Little of the wealth generated through the extraction and transformation of these resources has stayed in the region, as it continues to be the case, and as it continues to indicate the importance of considering the role structural constraints on social development, but not only.


In this vein, social and environmental change in the region has been often thought of, and often misunderstood, as hierarchically and linearly organized, shaped by structural conditions and path dependency, i.e., conditions set at the macro-scale and/or associated with a particular historical processes resulting in predictable outcomes at regional and local levels. This approach has been commonly used to explain and to propose policy solutions for regional problems such as deforestation, urbanization, failure of development initiatives, and inequality and economic underdevelopment. While many important insights have come from this broad geographical and historical scope, macro-level interpretations obscure important inter- and intraregional processes and interactions and their role in shaping the future of the Amazon. The realities configured today in the region reflect how policy makers and interest groups, and not least scientists and activists, have interpreted and proposed solutions to these problems at a regional macro-level, and the unintended outcomes these « solutions » generate.


Different than just two decades ago when central planning and external forces explained much of the change at a regional level, the Amazon has experienced a social-territorial transition equivalent to a ‘state or regime shift’ to use a term associated with complex systems theories.  Regional networks of infrastructure and circulation, urban systems, institutional arrangements, and access to global markets now interconnect sociodemographic, economic, and environmental processes that were previously localized. Connectivity, of various natures, shapes change in the region today. In different ways, people decisions of land use are shaping regional landscapes, new political alliances are transforming the territorial governance and the position of different groups and their ability to direct change. While it is important to consider structural conditions and constraints from a macro perspective, as in Giddens’ structuration theory, today in the Amazon structure and action are part of one and the same interplay. Local level decisions and dynamics are the mechanisms of change that conforms, circunvent, and create structural conditions that shape the landscape of larger regions. In other words, large scale factors provide the backbone and constrains that shape long-term conditions and patterns, but micro and meso-level dynamics develop with certain degree of independence from which various socioecological configurations emerge.


Amazonian landscapes are becoming, progressively, a mosaic of social systems, institutional arrangements and economic arrangements. For instance, the dynamics of families, multi-sited households, and communities have direct implication to changes in urban areas in the broader region and consequently to the formation of a regional and subregional inter-urban systems. Desire for better services, education, markets, job opportunities, consumption expectations, circulation and movement intra- and inter-municipalities help to understand the dramatic changes in regional urbanization. Families and individuals are moving between rural and urban areas and between cities with great frequency. The lack of public services and opportunities motivates people to search for their needs in different urban areas. Progressively, different levels of hierarchies of urban centers, towns, and settlements are emerging in the Amazon. Villages that are closer and offer better services tend to receive new residents from surrounding areas and grow in importance as sub-regional centers. Small and medium cities have a similar role in relation to surrounding municipalities. Likewise, larger cities start to emerge as they represent centers of economic, political, social opportunities to different sub-regions. In between cities and towns, indigenous lands and a variety of conservation and extractivist reserves have emerged to guarantee land rights to local populations and as part of regional-national-global alliances of conservation and initiatives to mitigate emissions contributing to climate change. Together, they are creating a complex mosaic of territorial institutional arrangements interspaced by roads and cities and a level of connectivity and functional inter-dependence that will increasingly shape both social and environmental systems in coming decades.


We need to acknowledge the uncertainty that these processes produce and how these interactions influence the direction of change at a regional level, and the future of the region as a whole. The social sciences, in particular anthropology, can contribute directly with a view from the ground showing the many ways families, communities, and various types of collectives respond and react, accept and circumvent ‘structural conditions’. These perspectives can inform not only what policies are needed at a regional level, but how they may work or how they interact with everyday decisions of the people under different types of constraints and opportunities. This implies linking methods that break disciplinary confinements in specific levels of analysis, while at the same time grounding the interpreter on lived realities. Disciplinary contributions and specialties remain central, but can benefit from more engagement and translation within and across levels. The perspectives of families and rural communities – through ethnography, surveys, institutional analysis and various fieldwork approaches – help us to consider the differentiated ways that people respond and find solutions to historical challenges of regional development and conservation. Complementarily, regional approaches – through historical geospatial analysis, census, economic, demographic and governance analysis – can contribute to the understanding of structural constraints and opportunities and to appreciate the emergence of patterns resulting from their interactions with local actions.



For decades, social and biophysical scientists and activists have provided important critical voices against destructive and socially unjust development  in the Amazon. We have also contributed in many ways to shape the contemporary realities of the Amazon through interpretations and solutions proposed to curb deforestation, to promote new institutional arrangements as strategies for conservation or land conflicts, and to empower people and social movements by creating and/or defining new categories of social identity. In a context of social acceleration, however, we need to admit that our analyses are often unable to follow the pace and complexity of transformation; our interpretations get overridden by the very system they aim at understand and, intentionally or not, at ‘fixing’. The dilemma of proposing solutions based on specific (often disciplinary) analytical tools to complex societal issues often pushes us towards what Ostrom (2007) called ‘panacea thinking’ and what Smith and Jenks (2006 : 4) called ‘strategies of simplification’, ones that can produce, unfortunately, “a pandemonium of unintended, unforeseen, dangerous, and costly consequences.”


Solutions based on structural determinism and macro-regional approaches although important for some issues continue to contribute to shape the region without addressing fundamental social problems specific to different parts of the region and to different social groups. While one observes positive engagements of different sectors around development planning, they are still largely, and perhaps increasingly, sectoral in the way they influence policy making, i.e., focusing on independent solutions to different sectors of agriculture and husbandry, mining, conservation, infrastructure development and social policies. The resulting landscape represents a puzzling mosaic of increasing complexity, one that is likely to increase with the new [and contentious] Brazilian forest code. For instance, indigenous reserve and conservation areas now correspond to over 40% of the region and are responsible for around 70% of the reduction of regional deforestation since 2005, but are increasingly becoming islands of forests surrounded by agro-industrial and urban areas. Perhaps, most fundamentally, these solutions tend to disregard a disconnect between local and municipal economies and the larger regional resource economies within which they are involved. The lack of value aggregation of natural and agricultural resources perpetuates a historical mentality of extractivism, while the rates of urbanization in the region puts increasing pressure on municipalities to provide public services and social support. Ironically, the almost totality of Amazonian municipalities depend on federal transfer and aid instead of the tributary basis of their rich resource economies. This creates a recurrent structural constraint with no end in sight.


The continuing development of the region as a commodity export economy (including that of serving as carbon storage within international carbon compensation mechanisms) limits the expansion of employment opportunities for a regional population increasingly distancing themselves from a subsistence basis on the agricultural and resource sectors towards informal urban economies. There are very different inter-generational expectations about consumption, access to services, recognition of social identity, and their future role in environmental conservation in the Amazon. It is on the perspectives of and the opportunities available to new generations where the future of the region lies.


In regions such as the Amazon, attention to local processes and intraregional variability complements macroscopic analyses while providing an opportunity to tailor policy instruments needed for governance that are sensitive to how people in communities and subregions develop solutions to the use and conservation of their environment. These issues make the Amazon a window for similar global problems as well as for a needed reflexivity in the social sciences: considering the strenghts of our approaches to understand realities on the ground, but also the limits of our  approaches to interpret cross-level processes and to inform policy. Fortunately, there are many collaborative efforts focusing on these issues. A ‘complex thinking’ perspective is needed to bridge different branches of knowledge and approaches necessary to the understanding of this new reality and to value the contribution of the social sciences to pressing societal issues



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01/03/2013 - 30/07/2013