The World that Management Made

Posted by ap507 at Apr 25, 2016 04:30 PM |
Professor Gibson Burrell discusses Robert MacFarlane's recent article in the Guardian on The Anthropocene and why it deserves attention

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Robert MacFarlane’s excellent piece on the ‘Anthropocene’ age in a recent issue of The Guardian deserves attention in a number of ways. The idea of the Anthropocene is that it is a planetary age made by humans, no less than the volcanos and ice sheets of earlier times. Forging a synthesis from the highly separated discourses of science and art, MacFarlane portrays the concept of the Anthropocene in a sophisticated, provocative way.

For some commentators, the notion heralds the ‘end of nature’, for humanity is now able to entertain the idea that ‘we’ can influence deep time at the level of geological eras. What human beings are doing today –against nature, or changing nature – will live on into millions of years into the future. Tesco plastic bags will enter into the geological record, along with an isotope of lead from the ultimate decaying of radioactive uranium 235 found in soon-to-be-used arsenals of nuclear weapons. This nightmare of irreversible environmental change is accompanied in Macfarlane’s piece with a picture from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road’ which envisages an unexplained Armageddon in the USA, and globally, in which cannibalism is a reacquired human survival strategy.

However, Macfarlane argues in his conclusion that the concept of the Anthropocene is actually “arrogant, universalist and capitalist-technocratic”. He suggests that we must recognise that, first, unreflexive human arrogance is at play in any suggestion that we mere monkeys can remake nature. Second, what is being left out of the analysis is the vastly unequal distribution of power between different sorts of humans to effect the environment. Third, what is also ignored is ‘ideology, empire and political economy’.  The Anthropocene should be renamed he argues, the ‘Capitalocene’.

Sitting in a School of Management as I do, one can see how each of ‘arrogance, universalism and the logic of capitalist-technocratic approaches’ permeate our discipline too. And this is no accident. For behind the concept of the Anthropocene lie both the understated role, and indeed rule, of Western management and its ideology.

The containment of Nature and the natural world has long been a managerial objective. As the historian Karl Wittfogel showed, management first arises in the large river valleys of the world where ‘hydraulic’ societies struggle to predict and control regular seasonal flooding. The need for river management in the form of the building of flood defences creates large organizational requirements for human labour to construct levees and massive building projects to placate the fluvial gods.

The ‘end of nature’ is hence a long standing managerial goal.  Many senior managers today seek, like Egyptian Pharaohs, to build ‘a legacy’ through the investment of our energies in their heritage and the longevity of their name and descendants. Growth, expansion, conquest are the military metaphors which the Business School trades in. But the construction of the new – of the office block and the factory – involves the destruction of the old.

Many managers wish to identify and celebrate their own and their company’s (or university’s) meteoric ‘impact’ upon the plains of corporate life. Some are keen upon ending bio-diversity by eating up the competition in an anthropophagic feeding frenzy. The ‘environment’ in many management text books is disrespectfully reduced to threats to and opportunities for resource acquisition. ‘Strategy’ is a way of waging war upon your neighbours.

The language of management is Anthropophone for it speaks for all of humanity as the universal language of what needs to be done and why. The Anthropocene has required the visible hand of management to bring it into effect but equally ‘Management’ has succeeded in building the Anthropocene in its own image. Perhaps Macfarlane wishes to deny the puny role of human actors when faced with Nature in all its might, but senior management still seems to think its activity is a force to be reckoned with. It is this need for making an impact that might be the death of us all.

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