Self-Devouring Growth as Development, Desire, Disease and Death

As the stark realities of our planetary predicament – ecological crisis, global pandemics, species extinction, intractable social inequality – become daily more visible, it is now widely argued that humanity’s appreciable mark on the earth system has culminated in a geological epoch of our own making: the ‘Anthropocene’. Geologists continue to examine the stratigraphic signals left by the Anthropocene, while social scientists and humanists debate its political and ethical implications. Key to these debates is the contentious role of energy-intensive capitalism, foundational in extant models of socio-economic development, in contributing to massive inequalities and the steady destruction of the planet.

Julie Livingston’s pithy and poignant treatise, Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable, is a powerful aid for thinking through the Anthropocene and, more specifically, the limits of growth-driven development. For Livingston, this model of development has two built-in perversions: ‘first in how the protagonists of growth envision and appropriate the resources upon which it is fed, and second in how they attend to the production of waste that is a by-product of consumption-driven growth’ (5). To put it more grimly, growth-led development or self-devouring growth is a cancerous model that spreads to every crevice of the planetary body, exploiting its blood supply, eating its tissue, producing rot and gradually killing the larger organism. In this book, Livingston shows how our needs for water, food and transportation have become harnessed for self-devouring growth with catastrophic environmental and human consequences.

I am particularly taken with Livingston’s analogy of self-devouring growth to cancer and I want to treat this analogy quite literally. Livingston sets the stage for such an analysis by situating planetary processes on the same plane as a specific place on the planet: Botswana (for a similar style of argument, see also: Hecht 2018). The changing status of cattle to beef is a compelling illustration.

Livingston reveals to us the deep history of cattle in the politics and sociality of the Batswana, as modes of affiliation and patronage, as technologies of material and metaphysical production, and as aesthetic beings of tremendous regard (60). But change has occurred rapidly with the rise of the developmental state. Cattle have become figures of economic development, demystified, rationalised and rendered as beef that is traded and consumed on a global economic landscape of restaurants, takeaways and food vendors both within and far beyond the borders of Botswana.

Crucially, Livingston points out that the health effects of this transformation from cattle to beef indicate a system of growth that begins with development, translates into desire for modern tastes and patterns of consumption, transmogrifies into disease before ending in a ‘slow death’. Livingston borrows the term ‘slow death’ from Lauren Berlant’s (2007: 754) use of the concept to refer to ‘the physical wearing out of a population and the deterioration of people in that population that is very nearly a defining condition of their experiences and historical existence’. Beef alone cannot possibly account for changes in human health since contemporary diets include increased consumption of sugar, oil, and processed foods. What Livingston is suggesting is not a simple causal relationship. She is positing that we are witnessing the changing hermeneutics of the cow, which at one time was part of a certain kind of feeding and eating regime that underpinned ‘the seasonal fluctuations of real life, the hearth of extended families, and a calendar punctuated with ritual occasions’ (56). In this seemingly bygone world, people walked sometimes great distances and sometimes with cattle. Beef, on the other hand, marks a shift to nuclear families provisioned at supermarkets to which people drive or ride, to children who eat from their own plates rather than out of a shared basin.

What comes to my mind is Clare Herrick’s (2017) exploration of why people with non-communicable diseases in low- and middle-income countries fall sicker sooner and die earlier than their counterparts in wealthier societies. For Herrick, the explanation is manifold. It lies in the lexicon used to describe non-communicable disease, which often enfolds different disease processes into each other and lacks the fear and urgency to mobilise global health attention. It lies in the assumption that risk factors for chronic diseases are located in individual behaviour and choice, which engrains a culture of blame against those seen to exercise ‘wrong’ lifestyle choices. It lies in the long timescales that underpin both the causation and the management of chronic illness. And finally, it lies in the embodiment of chronic disease among people in the global south. Indeed, Herrick cites Livingston’s (2012) earlier work where the latter argues that the gruesome experience of cancer in Botswana is too often dissociated from the oncological experiences of the global north. Cancer in Botswana is ugly. It manifests as rotting flesh, pungent odours, pulsating tumours, unremitting pain. The suffering wrought by cancer in Botswana is rendered primordial and marginal – or so Herrick and Livingston argue – in the future-oriented imaginaries of the Western global health industrial complex.

Herrick’s account for the lack of political attention garnered by non-communicable diseases, compelling in its own right, is expounded on by Livingston’s more ecological framework in Self-Devouring Growth. The making of chronic illness can be read through Livingston as coterminous with our extant model of growth-led development. Self-devouring growth, in this view, is both a cancerous model in the planetary body and a model for causing cancer in the human body.

More worrying still is the question of what it might take to halt this process of self-devouring growth. Livingston rightly makes clear that self-devouring growth is one of the great existential crises of our contemporary world. She maps with elegance and panache the multi-scalar linkages between species interaction, cultural transformation, economic globalisation and human illness. And she contends that our habits of political thinking are not currently sophisticated enough to imagine our way out of self-devouring growth.

I read this book with fascination and pessimism. While the work is not intended to be defeatist, the enormity of our planetary and political predicament is nevertheless overwhelming. Livingston does offer a restitutive vision that she calls an animated ecology. This vision transcends the logic of the developmental state in which nature, separated from humans, becomes ‘an object with limits to be overcome, domesticated, quantified through technology’ (34). Instead, an animated ecology posits that healthy growth attends to our world as myriad, ongoing historical and interspeciated relationships. This is a vision built on the maintenance of collective self-agreement.

Livingston’s articulation of an animated ecology is poetic throughout the book and is undoubtedly inspiring. But it does trouble me in its occasional vagueness. While I may not be a hardened positivist in the study of politics, unlike the majority in my discipline, I still hold out a concern for the pragmatics of actualising this animated ecology in our systems of government. An animated ecology carries with it an ideological and ideational abstractness that is slippery and therefore difficult to pin down and realise. It seems to me that Livingston’s formulation helps us to grasp the scale of the problem while leaving us only with only nascent thoughts for how to address it.

But then again, maybe this is the very purpose of a parable.

Simukai Chigudu is Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford and author of The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Works cited

Berlant, Lauren. 2007. “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency).” Critical Inquiry 33 (4): 754–80.

Hecht, Gabrielle. 2018. “Interscalar Vehicles for an African Anthropocene: On Waste, Temporality, and Violence.” Cultural Anthropology33 (1): 109–41.

Herrick, Clare. 2017. “The (Non)Charisma of Noncommunicable Diseases.” Social Theory and Health 15 (1): 99–116.

Livingston, Julie. 2012. Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Epidemic. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

———. 2019. Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable. Durham & London: Duke University Press.


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