I like reading Julie Livingston’s Self-Devouring Growth as a push against the consumption of modernist time — that is, against the suspension of historical flux, imaginative possibility, and alter-social development. That may be an odd way to frame this tangible, original, and deeply materialist book. Its pages warn of the disappearance of substances like water, sand, milk, and minerals through which people construct lives and social value. The book so convincingly dispels efforts to reduce the planetary condition to a matrix problem begging for technological solutions (and it certainly shares few premises with so-called “eco-modernists”). Climate change haunts these chapters, especially in terms of recurrent drought in Botswana. But it is one issue in a constellation: so many distinct things on which consumption-driven growth depends are running out, and with them may go the capacity to conjure alternative futures and eco-social relations.
Livingston writes that parables are parabolic. They end up on a parallel plane to where they started. This is the book’s narrative technique, as chapters illuminate how principles of Botswanan eco-organizational practices such as “cattle” or “rainmaking,” ostensibly destroyed by mass-consumption, could re-appear in altered form as imaginative guides to a less substance-hungry trajectory. It also appears in spurts as an ontological claim. A parabolic sort of quasi-cyclicity seems to be the human condition even as some believe they live in linear time. Something like the animated ecologies long practiced within Botswanan territory are the future. But if the parabola is not soon completed those ecologies will be parched and seismic.
Two things stuck with me after I put down this book. The first is its claim that an empty trajectory of object-fueled growth is the universal (but unequal) human condition today. The world over, from Gaborone to Toronto, is relentlessly growing even as it is not clear where we are going beyond the coattails of the wealthiest segment of some over-consumptive city. The second is Livingston’s refusal to champion images of either austerity or stasis as a rejoinder.
Livingston infrequently uses these kinds of words, and may be skeptical of their baggage, but I think of her parables as attempts to reconfigure and conserve something like “modernist” capacities in the face of impending ruination. They are kindling to imagine distinct modes of non-consumptive growth that enable the continued exercise of “dynamic human creativity” she finds endemic to Botswana, to allow people to fashion and make new kinds of life. Minimally, her depiction self-devouring growth — and conjoined refusal to do away with growth itself — loosely reminded me of Marshal Berman’s 1982 statement that modernity’s constant change, burgeoning and receding dreams, and uprooting forces have become a globally-shared experience. But Self-Devouring Growth inverts the premises of Berman’s All That is Solid Melts into Air. The issue is not just that Livingston works through a broader archive of social dynamism than the hopes of European writers confronting capitalism. Berman’s book was subtitled The Experience of Modernity; his evaporating solidities were mostly cultural forms, aspirations, and strivings for new futures that were championed and discarded in an endless flux. Both texts dwell on the destruction of self, but Livingston’s is a more-than-human super-organism tied up with aquifers, bovines, and used cars. The key distinction is that cultural practices like “cattle” emerge as ghost-like presences in Livingston’s text. They seemingly cannot permanently melt into air and their cyclical principles may, in some form, always be latent for reanimation after the end of compounding growth. Instead, it is the physical solidities in Livingston’s book — the planet’s crust — that are disappearing. Berman worked through some 150 years of writing to recover how people ambivalently navigated flux, to offer lessons for how his contemporaries might channel these uprooting forces towards more livable trajectories. After a few decades more self-devouring growth, us ancestors and our imaginations will be from a different planet.
For all their differences, however, the reason that I feel compelled to put these books into dialogue is that they share a focus on the political power of collective imagination — both in terms of how it is trapped in a standstill at present, and how its reigniting could serve as an antidote to forces of dislocation. As Livingston (2019: 9) puts it, stories of livable growth might unlock “our collective imagination, an imagination we are going to need quite dearly in the rapidly unfolding future.” If I had a lingering question, it would be to ask what is the collective imagination that underpins this book? What makes “our” imagination collective at this moment — and why is imagination the central political vehicle for generating other futures?
Alex Blanchette is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Tufts University and the author of Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm (Duke, 2020).
Berman, Marshall. 1982. All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York: Penguin Books.
Weeks, Kathi. 2010. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.
 See Livingston 2019: 9. For “getting a life,” or cultivating capacities for world-building, see Weeks 2010: 232.