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Livingston Julie. — Self-Devouring Growth. A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa

Enrico Ille
p. 657-659
Référence(s) :

Livingston Julie. — Self-Devouring Growth. A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa. Durham-London, Duke University Press, 2019, 160 p., bibl., index.

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1At the end of this book, readers find themselves in front of questions: “What are we to do? How is one to argue for less—even if self-devouring growth is the force that is undermining collective well-being? How is one to argue for less when not nearly everyone yet has enough? [W]hat would rainmaking on a planetary scale entail?” (p. 127).

2At this point, one is well aware of the more cryptic elements of these questions, and they speak of a devastating spiral toward disaster. Julie Livingston’s relatively short intervention, about 100 pages of main text, narrates the many ways in which one of the “development successes” of Africa, Botswana, paves roads to perdition. It does so by combining a constant development-through-growth narrative with sucking away at non-replenishing resources: the over-bearing water needs of Gaborone, the “slow death” of millions fed on commodified beef, and the depletion of river sands to make more roads. Botswana’s main driver of economic wealth, diamond mines, already swallow enormous amounts of water, but all this takes place amidst predictions of decreasing precipitation and increasing evaporation due to heat.

3Put forward in this way, it seems almost impossible not to notice things going awry. However, being aware of awry consequences may not be the main issue anymore. When Limits to growth and similar arguments were attacked over the years, it was—apart from methodology—often about a claimed irreverence to the human ability to meet challenges, for instance, through technological innovation. Especially in recent years, it was less about the existence of these challenges (aside from increasingly delusional denials of climate change and environmental degradation). It can also be observed that polluters and wasters are often aware that pollution and waste can be problematic; they just consider other aspects to be more relevant for them now, here. This delegation of solving the problems to others, then, there, is also justified by a claimed lack of viable alternatives, meaning alternatives that maintain at least the same scale of production, distribution, and consumption (as well as profits, of course). It is often the problem of scale that haunts many of the proposed alternatives: the urban gardens that do not provide staple crops for the millions, the neo-rural communes that would break under the weight of metropolitan dimensions, smart green cities that are built on ample surplus, etc. As many examples show, upscaling is not multiplication, and the author readily admits that coming to an agreement in a planetary collective “seems to be impossible” (p. 29).

4One has to concede that the idea of increasing well-being through unwavering economic growth continues to dominate so many proposed venues for a better future that counter-narratives alone have substantial merit. Concomitantly, the subsequent self-destructive nature of resource depletion, a process Julie Livingston terms “self-devouring growth,” is of astonishing resilience. The counter-narratives, however, also have a long history that reaches not only into the genealogy of political ecology but also numerous strains of ethics formed around a notion of restraint.

5In the end, the problematic fulcrum remains located where contemporaneous care for a consumptive self beats a committed concern for preservation. A fundamental point of divergence in political debates is often around the limits of this “self”—individual, core group, community, region, nation, continent, planet, (universe(s)?)—because what is best for these selves can differ or outrightly contradict each other. This is also at the core of Julie Livingston’s rationale to present rainmaking among Tswana as a technology premised on a specific water distribution system (p. 15), one steered towards collective self-agreement.

6What did rainmaking on a communal scale entail, then? The notion that happiness, in Tswana boitumelo, is strongly intertwined with sufficient rains, connects human society and individual agency not only with climatic circumstances but with an “animated ecology” that comprises “frogs, cattle, pangolins, special snakes, clouds, trees, birds, and humans past and present among many entities large and small” (p. 15). It integrated regional political communities—as starkly asymmetrical as slave-owning societies are—under a common concern, making rain, and drew in “co-producers” across species and times. This did not mean a dissolution of hierarchy or the nature/society divide, as Julie Livingston points out (p. 41), because a hierarchy of beings still submitted other-than-humans to human purposes and some humans to others. But the integrative function of a collective concern covered both “domains,” a function so important that today’s government still invokes it, e.g. in 2013 in the form of officially organized prayers for rain—even if they may rather have been designed to defuse critical voices decrying flagrant inequality in water distribution.

7Just as any technology, rainmaking does some things and fails at others. Such a technopolitical viewpoint, however, gains insights on both and can break open some over-crusted categories (traditional/modern, secular/religious, capitalist/socialist) that may fail to advance debates on issues that are too urgent for stonewalling.

8Overall, the analysis of societal dynamics around rain, beef and roads flows easily through the text, with a knowledgeable, swift current across spatial and temporal connections. However, I wonder whether those concluding questions should have appeared up-front and whether potential ways towards rainmaking on a planetary scale, a different kind of growth, should have pervaded the text, not just the final margins. After all, “[w]e aren’t going back. We can’t. And why would we want to?” (p. 9).

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Enrico Ille, « Livingston Julie. — Self-Devouring Growth. A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa »,  Cahiers d’études africaines, 247 | 2022, 657-659.

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Enrico Ille, « Livingston Julie. — Self-Devouring Growth. A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa »,  Cahiers d’études africaines [En ligne], 247 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2022, consulté le 25 septembre 2022. URL :  ; DOI :

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Enrico Ille

Institute of African Studies, University of Leipzig, Germany

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