Environmental Anthropology and the Challenge of Imagining and Shaping Alternative Futures

Michaela Haug, University of Cologne

I argue that if we – as environmental anthropologists – want to be heard outside of academia, we have to offer more than critique. We have to develop the potential of anthropology to imagine and contribute to shaping alternatives.

Many accounts of environmental anthropology resemble what Sherry Ortner has described as “dark anthropology”, which grew in response to the rapid global spread of neoliberalism (2016: 49) and which taught us to document the ugly realties of the present world. In my own work in Indonesian Borneo, dark anthropology is represented by deforested and destroyed landscapes like this one and by experiences of injustice and increasing inequalities that often come along with large-scale industrial plantations.

During the recent years a “bright anthropology” emerged, or how Joel Robbins calls it, an “anthropology of the good” building e.g. on an interest in morality, well-being, empathy, care, and hope (2013: 457). This “bright anthropology” challenges us to pay attention to what is possible and to explore what people strive for. “Bright anthropology” resonates well with anthropology’s recent shift towards the future. Exploring how aspirations and imaginations of the future inform action in the present, enables us to view our interlocutors as active agents of change and as future-makers. This shift challenges us to look beyond the ugly realities of the present, and instead to learn about various possible futures. In my case this could be this Dayak father with his son, who dream of becoming independent oil palm smallholders.

Making various possible and often highly contested futures the subject of ethnographic inquiry raises the question which role we – be it as individual researchers or collectively as intellectual community – want and can play in currently ongoing processes of future making. In the face of various ecological crises, many people long for alternatives. Such visions of alternative futures inspire a great variety of initiatives and projects, like Guerilla Gardening, new multispecies solidarities, and new social movements. Some scholars see anthropology in a position to offer such alternatives by drawing on “what we learn from our education with other people” as this enables us “to speculate on what the conditions and possibilities of life might be” (Tim Ingold 2018: 112). Anthropology is well equipped for critical assessments of the past and the present but much less associated with alternative futures; but, so my argument here, we are much better heard if we offer alternatives that are worth striving for.

I experienced for example, that exploring the negative social effects of the oil palm expansion in Indonesia resonates well within academic circles and civil society organisations that share similar views anyway, but it does not necessarily open up fruitful discussions beyond that. Talking about alternative oil palm futures, on the other hand, offers much more entry points for a dialogue across disciplines and beyond academia.

The task of bringing alternatives to the table comes with some challenges, some of which are quite familiar to various kind of activist engagement, like e.g. the question whose visions for an “otherwise” we take up. It might be the visions expressed or imagined by the people we learn from in our respective field sides. With other words, the ones we discover by doing proper ethnography. However, it might also be a vision that we stand for, that we develop through our learning with other people, but which does not necessarily represent their voices – building on Tim Ingold’s separation of ethnography and anthropology.

Thealternatives that we bring to the table are definitively no “fix it all solutions” that will rescue us all. It is also not easy to deal with the old dilemma of upholding relativism in our research and still clearly position ourselves. However, I close this short statement by arguing that it is worth facing these (partly well known) challenges to develop the ability of our discipline to imagine and shape alternatives. This will increase our presence and make us – more clearly and more often – heard.


Ingold, Tim 2018. Anthropology: Why it matters. Oxford: Polity Press

Ortner, Sherry 2016: Dark anthropology and its others: Theory since the eighties. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(1): 47–73.

Robbins, Joel 2013: Beyond the suffering subject: Toward an anthropology of the good. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(3): 447 – 62.

Michaela Haug

Michaela Haug is assistant professor at the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology  and senior researcher at the Global South Studies Center at the University of Cologne.