Demand for natural resources such as oil, water, and land remain undiminished at the start of the 21st century despite growing public anxiety about their depletion. As key resources become scarce, new resources come into existence. Across the globe, states and corporations have redoubled efforts to extract conventional and unconventional resources in an attempt to deliver ongoing prosperity to citizens and shareholders. The contradictions and violence of these endeavors are most apparent in state-sanctioned encroachment of multinational companies on indigenous and other rural lands.
The resurgence of anthropological research on natural resources, a field with a long and continuous trajectory, stems from the recognition of these dilemmas and their growing impact on the peoples and places anthropologists study. Until the past decade and a half, anthropological studies tended to focus—with some noteable exceptions—on agriculture, hunting, fishing, foraging, and similar activities involving the exploitation of so-called renewable resources. However, more and more anthropologists have turned their attention to the study of natural resources per se. They have produced studies of water, sapphires, gold, oil, coltan, forests, and biodiversity (Acheson 2006, Behrends et al. 2011, Mantz 2008, Orlove and Caton 2010, Whiteford and Whiteford 2005), of specific extractive regions such as Australia and Papua New Guinea (Rumsey and Weiner 2004), of modes of engagement with resources such as [End Page 5] extraction and conservation (Ballard and Banks 2003, Carrier and West 2009), and of conceptualizations of specific resource processes such as adaptation and commoditization. The common refrain of these studies is that while natural resource exploitation continues to play a critical part in shaping the human condition, it does not do so in a uniform or environmentally deterministic manner. However, with the exception of Ferry and Limbert’s (2008a) stimulating edited volume, little effort has been made to examine resources as a theoretical and comparative problem in a way that would conceive of their “resourceness” as going beyond their status as particular kinds of commodities.
This special collection explores questions in the anthropology of natural resources that have thus far remained implicit, including questions about resources’ specific characteristics and capacities, the processes through which they come into being, and how such processes of resource making can be studied ethnographically. We suggest that placing these kinds of questions—questions of an ontological bent—at the center of inquiry can enhance the possibilities for a comparative ethnographic analysis. They also help interrogate the logics that perpetuate natural resource exploitation and specify an anthropological intervention in cross-disciplinary debates. Our questions arise out of broader intellectual trends in the social sciences and philosophy to which anthropologists have contributed that probe the legacies of modernist divisions between human and nonhuman, the social and the material, and what is active and what is acted upon in the environment. Terms such as “socionature” (Swyngedouw 1999), “natureculture” (Haraway 1997, Latour 1993), “nature regimes” (Escobar 1999), or “second nature” (Biersack 2006) have been developed to convey the sense that nature “is humanly produced (through conceptualization as well as activity) and that [it] therefore partakes, but without being entirely, of the human” (2006:14).
Natural resource exploitation—as a sustained project of abstracting substances identified as useful, valuable, and natural in origin from their environment—has long played a central role in that continuing human effort to become “modern.” It is a process of boundary making par excellence—of distinguishing subject from object, nature from culture, and science from politics (Latour 1993). The intellectual agenda of scholars mentioned above, sometimes dubbed “posthumanist” or “new materialist,” has been partly driven by ethical concerns about climate change and ecological disasters, and the exploitation of resource environments. [End Page 6] One of anthropology’s key contributions to these discussions stems from research about the differences in how people relate to their surroundings and about worlds premised on principles other than modernist ones (Descola and Pálsson 1996, Ingold 2000, Strathern 1980). Curiously, geographers have been quicker than anthropologists to import concepts of nonhuman or material agency, which have also emerged from anthropological work, back into the study of resources as such (Bakker and Bridge 2006, Bridge 2009, Kaup 2008). In this special...