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Debut Issue of Economic Anthropology – Greed and Excess

SEA LogoThe Society for Economic Anthropology’s newest journal Economic Anthropology is now available!

The inaugural issue of Economic Anthropology, formerly published as the SEA Monograph Series, is now available on AnthroSource. This collection of articles from the proceedings of the Society for Economic Anthropology’s 2011 Annual Meeting Conference engages with and explores the concepts of “greed” and “excess” as accusations, ideas and behaviors that are shaped by social processes across time and place. Volume editors, Rahul Oka and Ian Kuijit note in their introduction that,

The articles in this collection are intended as just a first attempt to generate a broader conversation and move beyond accusatory judgments and folk concepts. Nonetheless, it is out hope that this issue will shed some new light on the ways and reasons that emotionally charged ideas and philosophies pertaining to greed and excess have emerged in past and present societies.

To access this exciting issue, login to AnthroSource.

Table of Contents

Economic AnthropologyIntroducing an Inquiry into the Social Economies of Greed and Excess – Rahul Oka and Ian Kuijt

Section I: History and Contemporaneity of Greed and Excess
System Failure: Institutions, Incentives, and Collective Folly – James Surowiecki
Greed Is Bad, Neutral, and Good: A Historical Perspective on Excessive Accumulation and Consumption – Rahul Oka and Ian Kuij

Section II: Ambiguities of Surplus: Can Marginalized Peoples Be Greedy and Excessive?
Land, Labor, and Things: Surplus in a New West Indian Colony (1763-1807) – Mark W. Hauser
Poverty and Excess in Binge Economies – Richard Wilk
The Social and Economic Production of Greed Cooperation, and Taste in an Ohio Food Auction – Jeffrey H. Cohen and Susan M. Klemetti

Section III: Who Shares the Surplus: “Greedy” Subsistence Producers inTransition Economies
Greed in a “Tribal” Economy? Acquisitiveness and Reciprocity in Lisu Society – E. Paul Durrenberger and Kathleen Gillogly
Boons and Busts: Asset Dynamics, Disaster, and the Politics of Wealth in Rural Mongolia – Daniel J. Murphy
Risk-Seeking Peasants, Excessive Artisans: Speculation in the Northern Andes – Jason Antrosio and Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld
Loci of Greed in a Caribbean Paradise: Land Conflicts in Bocas del Toro, Panama – Gayatri Thamp

Section IV: Entitled to the Surplus Greed and Excess among the Elites, Non-Elites, and the Nouveau Riche
The Potentiality and the Consequences of Surplus: Agricultural Production and Institutional Transformation in the Northern Basin of Mexico – Christopher Morehart
The Problem of Greed in Economic Anthropology: Sumptuary Laws and New Consumerism in China – Joseph Bosco

Section V: Some Perspectives and New Directions on the Anthropology of Greed and Excess
Folk and Scientific Concepts in the Study of Greed – Robert C. Hunt
The Rich Possibilities of Greed and Excess – Virginia R. Dominguez

Three days, two rooms, one house

Today’s guest blog post is by Shirley J. Fiske (Chair of AAA Global Climate Change Task Force*).

Photograph by William Geogheghan. Front row from left: Lisa Lucero, Sarah Strauss, Heather Lazrus. Second row: Carole L. Crumley, Kathleen Galvin, Richard Wilk. Third row: Susan Crate. Fourth row: Shirley J. Fiske, Ben Orlove, Anthony Oliver-Smith. Photo by Bill Geoghegan. Photo courtesy School for Advanced Research GCCTF member, George Luber was not able to attend due to the government shutdown.

Front row from left: Lisa Lucero, Sarah Strauss, Heather Lazrus. Second row: Carole L. Crumley, Kathleen Galvin, Richard Wilk. Third row: Susan Crate. Fourth row: Shirley J. Fiske, Ben Orlove, Anthony Oliver-Smith.
Photo by Bill Geoghegan.
Photo courtesy School for Advanced Research.

Looking back at the end of the week, we want to capture the feeling and substance of the three-day short seminar of the AAA’s Global Climate Change Task Force (GCCTF) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A compressed time period with intense discussion, seamlessly flowing between the two main rooms in the School for Advanced Research (SAR) Douglas Schwartz Seminar House—the dining area and the adjacent seminar room. The GCCTF was hosted by the School for Advanced Research to work out the approaches, complexities and details for the task force report on anthropological perspectives on climate change to the AAA, due in 2014.

Over the past year, the task force prepared white papers on the issues where anthropology connects to climate change and climate change policy—e.g., adaptation, resilience, vulnerability, lessons from our collective ancestors, the drivers and impacts of climate change. Papers were presented, discussed and critiqued. Ideas challenged. Assumptions laid bare. Intensity exemplifies our interaction. These discussions feed into our review of climate change anthropology and provide guidance for the future report.

Concentration. Challenge in finding common ground. Across our different perspectives we debated the key messages and common themes to anthropological studies of climate change—the primacy of context, the value of diversity, the importance of scales—geospatial and temporal—community and holism. We looked for key messages, themes, foundations, and Eureka moments. Comparability. Iterative drafts. These are all phrases and thoughts that members expressed at the end of the final day.

Release. Thanks to the expertise of our members we had yoga, stretching, and self-reflection. We got rain (much needed in Santa Fe). We had humor, from folk rap to folk tales to punctuate our day. Totally spontaneous. We rotated the facilitators each day and provided opportunity for multiple leadership.

“Talk sleep eat—sleep—eat—talk—eat—sleep.” New Mexican red chili. The sun, and rain, in the interior courtyard of the adobe Seminar House. The setting in the Seminar House at SAR channels our predecessors – Margaret Mead, Lewis Binford, Richard Fox, and Gordon Wiley, among many others. The photographs in previous seminars at SAR line the hallways.

We came to a mutual agreement on next steps, massive revisions, key messages and themes. We will keep the momentum going, expand our outreach, and encourage our colleagues in anthropology and other disciplines to recognize that cultures are always changing and to focus on the environmental justice aspects of the phenomena of climate change. The SAR seminar allowed us to develop the guiding document that we are tasked with producing in a more robust and deliberative manner, reflecting perspectives drawn from across the discipline and profession of anthropology.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the School for Advanced Research, the Atlantic Philanthropies, and the AAA, which made the seminar possible.

*The members of the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force are: Shirley J Fiske (Chair), Carole Crumley, Susan Crate, Kathleen Galvin, Heather Lazrus, George Luber (unable to participate at SAR due to the federal government shutdown), Lisa Lucero, Anthony Oliver-Smith, Ben Orlove, Sarah Strauss, and Richard Wilk.

Looking Back on Today

Today’s guest blog post is by AAA member, Richard Wilk of the Global Climate Change Task Force. Dr. Wilk is Provost Professor at Indiana University.

Looking Back on Today

By Richard Wilk

How are we going to be remembered in a century, in two hundred or five hundred years?  Not as individuals – even the most famous people will be long forgotten.  But what about our civilization and our way of life?  As a trained archaeologist, I ask whether our time will be called a golden age, an epoch of art, learning and enlightenment, or a dark and troubled era of wastefulness, decline and division.

Archaeologists have tried to purge the more obvious value judgments from their snapshots of past times. They no longer call epochs “decadent” or “formative” though terms like “classic”  and “high civilization” are still  used for the times when a culture hit its peak of power, built its most magnificent cities, made the most beautiful and elaborate arts and crafts, or conquered neighbors and welded them into a vast empire.

And they can also point to genuine examples of decline and failure. The Norse, for example, successfully colonized Greenland in 986 AD, and grew to 16 parishes led by a Catholic bishop in 1350. But when their trade with Europe was cut off by the Black Plague a hundred years later, and colder climate cut down on their pastures, the colonies failed and everyone sailed back to Iceland and Norway (see Stull 1990).  The people of the American Southwest, in Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and a series of other cultural centers  settled there for centuries, yet suffered a painful decline and dispersal between 1100 and the 1400 with continual raiding, warfare, migration and ultimately abandonment of sequential regional areas.

So what about our era, the rise of Western capitalism and its diffusion in the form of globalized trade and material aspirations? Pundits and preachers tell us we are at the edge of the cliff, about to fall into oblivion. Others claim just as certainly that we are entering a new period of growth and prosperity, as democracy and freedom spread and we transition into a sustainable economy based on green technology.

For a moment let’s just step back and look at one thing we have built our civilization upon – oil.  The amount we use is so large that the numbers are meaningless to most of us. Artist Chris Jordan uses huge canvases to help us really feel what 28,000 42-gallon barrels–the amount consumed in the USA every two minutes– looks like. As he says, it is “equal to the flow of a medium sized river” running 24 hours a day.

Maybe in 50 years but certainly in a century, free oil from the ground is going to be very scarce and a lot more precious.  There will be expensive substitutes from natural gas, algae, genetically modified palm trees and the like, but the idea that you could once pump oil and sell it for $100 a barrel is going to sound ridiculous. So looking back on today, from the distant future, the idea that people would burn the precious stuff just to drive around ‘sightseeing’ or on holiday, in a private vehicle, for fun, seems somewhat short-sighted.  A lot of the time these cars are not even full.

And why were their towns and cities spread out across the land, so people had to burn oil just to go to work or buy groceries? I have tried to explain this to European visitors several times, with little success. I somehow doubt that people in 100 years are going to have more sympathy. They are just going to think we were crazed, insane, and unbelievably wasteful; and that we were unable to understand what our own scientists were telling us.

At least the ancient Romans had an excuse when they poisoned themselves with lead in their water, food and wine. They had no idea that lead was responsible for their declining intelligence, miscarriages, memory loss and bad digestion. But look at all the poisons we ingest every day in our air, water, food and drink, despite dire warnings. How can we explain that in rational terms?

I just hope that none of our distant descendants ever runs across a catalog from Skymall or Hammacher-Schlemmer.  Like our giant yachts, trophy mansions and vanity museums, these catalogs demonstrate a rococo form of consumerism that has no pretense of being for or about anything, beyond the tiniest quantum of health or comfort. Are you ready to justify spending resources on an “indoor flameless marshmallow roaster”  to your great-great grandchildren, who are living in a world where oceans have risen to inundate most coastal cities, because of the fossil fuels we burned?

If these things were exceptional, my argument would be trivial. But our entire consumer culture has spun into a kind of ‘babes in toyland’ phase, that feels like one last big blow-out party where we try to recapture the innocent joy of a time when we didn’t know that our fun was wrecking the place.  The only difference is that in this case, it is the kids, not the parents, who are going to be asking, “What were you possibly thinking to leave us such a huge mess?”

Bloggers, political pundits, and social scientists have noted that the hallmark of the Anthropocene is that it is the only geological epoch where the active force in creating change (us, that is) consciously know that we are affecting the planet;  the question is whether humans have the interest and political will to do anything about it (Palsson et al 2012).  So far we have not heard any serious proposals to limit or control the wildest and most wasteful kinds of consumerism.


Palsson, G., et al., Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene: Integrating the social sciences and humanities in global environmental change research. Environ. Sci. Policy (2012), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2012.11.004   http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2012.11.004

Stull, Scott 1990 Colonization in a Marginal Zone: The Norse in Greenland. Crosscurrents 4:1-15. http://www.academia.edu/637940/Colonization_in_a_Marginal_Zone_the_Norse_in_Greenland

Chris Jordan: http://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/rtn/#oil-barrels

New Task Force on Climate Change

The Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) is proud to announce the creation of the Task Force on Climate Change, an effort to bring anthropology’s contributions to issues of environmental concern into the spotlight, and increase its engagement with current research, policy discourse and the communities they study worldwide.

While geophysical scientists and governmental bodies decry climate changes and the resulting ecological effects, anthropologists’ sociocultural and archeological interpretations are not as well known. Because of the specialized nature of their academic training (including extensive fieldwork, as well as expertise in biology, linguistics, and ethnography) anthropologists are uniquely positioned to interpret from multiple scales and perspectives and bring a new view to the effects that our changing environment have on livelihoods, identities and culture. Many anthropologists also study the asymmetries in global power dynamics and the inequities associated with global climate change policies and responses.

Appointed by former AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, the members of the Task Force include Chair Shirley J. Fiske, Susan A Crate, Heather Lazrus, George Luber, Lisaa Lucero, Anthony Oliver-Smith, Ben S. Orlove, Sarah Strauss and Richard Wilk. Two additional members are likely to be appointed.

The Task Force has outlined an action plan for its activities for the next three years, which includes producing guiding documents to recognize, promote and develop anthropological contributions to global climate change-related issues; promoting engagement of the AAA and anthropologists in general with public policy agendas and the greater public interest, utilizing media and outreach modalities to reach beyond the discipline; supporting anthropologists and anthropology students who are interested and engaged in climate research across all sub-disciplines of anthropology, by promoting public and professional exchange of ideas and networks, providing forums to listen and learn, and producing guidance documents on human dimensions of climate and climate change; and Provide the AAA with proposed actions and recommendations to support and promote anthropological engagement with climate change.

“I am pleased that the AAA has taken this action to get members of our discipline focused on our potential to contribute in a significant way to current policy debates surrounding climate change,” Task Force Chair Shirley Fiske said in a statement released on Monday. “In the face of increasingly widespread and directional environmental shifts linked to this phenomenon, there is no better time for anthropologists to make their voices heard.”


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