An interview with Maron Greenleaf
This week, morethanhumanworlds interviews Dr Maron Greenleaf, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. Maron is a sociocultural anthropologist, political ecologist, and legal scholar who studies the intersections of the environment and economy. Her research examines how people interact with, understand, and govern the worlds around them and the kinds of economic and cultural values this engenders. In particular, Maron examines efforts to create “green economies” and the political practices, aspirations, and forms of inclusion and exclusion they create. Rural landscapes, including forests and mines, are a particular focus of Maron's work. She is currently completing a project that examines the cultural and political dynamics of enlisting capitalism to address climate change. It is an ethnography of forest protection and forest carbon valuation in the Brazilian Amazon—a landscape that is environmentally and culturally vital, threatened by deforestation and violence, and pioneering this form of climate mitigation (known as REDD+). In this project, Maron asks what happens culturally, politically, and socially when the aim is instead to keep carbon in the earth and the trees that grow from it. She is currently developing a new project on reforestation and the Trillion Trees Initiative. Maron's research has featured in journalist including American Anthropologist, Geoforum, Development and Change, and Journal of Peasant Studies. She is currently working on a book manuscript, provisionally titled Forest Lost: Valuing Carbon in the Brazilian Amazon.
Hello, Maron, and thanks for joining me at www.morethanhumanworlds.com. To get us started, could you tell us how you became interested in the intersections of the environment and economy, personally and/or professionally?
Thanks so much for having me, Sophie! I’m a big fan of your work and was delighted to receive your invitation.
I became interested in the relationship between what we think of as “the environment” and “the economy” when I was in law school. I had long been interested in economic issues—as an undergraduate, I was involved in the late-1990s anti-globalization protests, for example. However, I had consciously avoided taking any economics courses, as I thought they would cloud my understanding of the world. But when I enrolled in law school at New York University, I ended up essentially studying economics anyway because that was the way that environmental and climate law was taught there. My training focused on things like cost-benefit analysis, externalities, and carbon markets. I started studying the latter, focusing on efforts to include tropical forests in carbon markets via carbon offsets. At the time, in the late 2000s, these efforts were expanding rapidly and there was a lot of excitement about them. As I studied forest carbon offsets from a legal perspective, I started to become interested in what these efforts to monetarily value living forests were doing politically, socially, and culturally. I also recognized how potentially consequential they could be in the lives of the millions of people who live in or depend on tropical forests, yet how little was known about them empirically. So I decided to pursue a PhD to continue my research through the discipline that had most helped me to understand the world as an undergraduate—anthropology.
During my doctoral work and since, the environment and economy have only become more enmeshed, if that’s possible, in terms of policy, imagination, and some forms of everyday life. My interest in that enmeshment, too, has continued to grow. I see attention to it as a way to understand and try to live in this moment of climate change and environmental degradation.
Canine research assistant and author. Credits: Maron Greenleaf.
In an article published in American Anthropologist in 2021, you explore what it means to be a “beneficiary” in the context of climate-motivated forest-protection efforts in the Amazonian state of Acre in Brazil. What does this piece reveal about the relationships at play between the state, impoverished smallholders, and the forest itself?
I didn’t go into my research expecting to focus on beneficiaries. The term wasn’t on my radar at all. Yet it turned out to be one that I heard all the time, and I came to understand it as important to the effort of making forest carbon sequestration monetarily valuable in Acre. Both my legal training and my study of critical scholarship on neoliberal environmentalism had led me to anticipate studying other things—privatization, property, and markets, for example. But instead, I found that, in Acre, forest carbon’s new international monetary and cultural value was instead helping to fund something else—what I came to understand as a nascent environmentally-premised welfare state. I focus on the figure of the beneficiary to explore this state formation and the forms of citizenship that developed as part of it—how the state sought to govern smallholders as “beneficiaries” and how those smallholders used this positionality to negotiate and make claims on the state.
In Acre, the effort to monetarily value forest carbon sequestration doesn’t fund the types of exclusion we might anticipate but rather smallholders’ “precarious inclusion,” as I call it, in an envisaged low-carbon, state-created “green” economy. And the living forest is also included in that economy. Giving it monetary value as a carbon sequesterer and provider of other “ecosystem services,” as well as governing it as a source of valuable forest products like rubber, runs counter to models of “fortress conservation,” for example, in which the forest is walled off ostensibly for its own protection. Instead, in Acre the living forest was itself framed as a productive part of the green economy. As states seek to create green economies to address climate change and enable capitalism’s continuation, this kind of inclusion may become more prevalent (we could think of Green New Deal proposals here, for example). By examining the figure of the beneficiary, I sought to understand green capitalism and the precarious inclusion that is often part of it.
Logging remnants. Credits: Maron Greenleaf.
In 2021, you co-curated a brilliant collection of essays for the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s Hot Spot series “Fire Storm: Critical Approaches to Forest Death and Life.” What does this interdisciplinary collection of essays contribute to contemporary understandings of forest and fire crises in an age of planetary unmaking?
I loved putting together and editing that essay series, which I did along with my colleague David Gilbert at University of California Berkeley. The project came about as we recognized and worried over the prevalence and intensity of forest fires not only in the places each of us did fieldwork (the Brazilian Amazon and Sumatra, Indonesia, respectively) but also in the place we met, did our graduate work, and where David has always lived: California. We saw that forests and fires were increasingly central to the lives of really diverse human and more-than-human communities in these and many other places. And we thought it would be worthwhile to invite critical qualitative scholars of forests—yourself included!—to reflect on this centrality in many different parts of the world.
To me, the collection shows how forests and fires reveal how this time of “planetary unmaking,”
as you put it, creates and illuminates connections across space and time. Yet they also reveal
extensive inequities and historically-linked injustices, particularly for Indigenous communities,
those who cannot leave when fire becomes a threat, and non-human species and ecosystems.
And yet burning can also be a practice of care used by Indigenous and smallholder communities,
as some of the essays explore—one that protects against larger fires, sustains ecosystems, and
forges multispecies relations. It was wonderful to get to bring together work from scholars from
across four continents during the pandemic and I still have hopes of bringing us all together in
person in the future.
Fish pond—one of the forest benefits constructed for beneficiaries in the effort to reduce deforestation. Credits: Maron Greenleaf.
You teach a wide range of courses at Dartmouth College, encompassing themes such as environmental justice, law, power, society, culture, and sustainability. What kinds of environment-related questions, concerns, anxieties, or hopes have you identified among your student cohorts?
I love teaching Dartmouth students. They’re smart, passionate, and often anxious about what they see as the climate crisis. They tend to be happy to move beyond a nature/culture dualism and also to see the inseparability of issues of environmental and social justice. Although some are quite optimistic about technology and capitalism’s capacity to address climate change, many are also deeply concerned that doing so will entail creating new and perpetuating old forms of injustice. I learn a lot from teaching them!
Given the urgency they feel, many of my students are also eager to apply what they’re learning outside of the classroom. This year, I’ve worked with Sarah Kelly, a human geographer, to develop what we’re calling the Dartmouth Energy Justice Clinic in which we work with community partners and Dartmouth students to support socially just transitions to renewable energy. We’re currently working on two case studies, one on community electricity purchases (“community power”) here in New Hampshire and the other on hydropower conflicts in Mapuche-Williche land in southern Chile, where Sarah has been working for about a decade. Students have really valued working on these applied projects as research assistants and through “clinical” components of two courses that Sarah and I are teaching. We’re also starting to write journal articles with our students so that what we’re learning contributes to critical scholarship on energy “transitions.”
Mucuna preta in the sun—another benefit given to try to avert deforestation. Credits: Maron Greenleaf.
You’re currently developing a new project on reforestation and the Trillion Trees Initiative. What kinds of methods and theories are you deploying in this new project, and what are its aims and objectives?
I’m very excited about the project, though it’s still very new. It builds on my last project in that it approaches forests and forest-focused climate projects as spaces in which the environment and economy are mediated in everyday life. In this second project, though, the focus is not on “avoided deforestation,” as it was in my first project, but on planting trees. The idea of planting a trillion trees is one of the highly controversial “nature-based solutions” to climate change that has attracted a lot of high-profile support in recent years, including from the World Economic Forum and even climate change deniers like former President Trump.
I’m particularly interested in exploring tree planting in former industrial centers
that have long been deforested. So I’m currently considering focusing on the
North of England—a center of the Industrial Revolution that is now the site of a
large experiment in tree planting across a highly deforested and urbanized stretch
of the country. I want to explore how tree planting might be enlisted, in policy,
imagination, and practice, in creating a postindustrial and post agricultural economy
and landscape as the climate changes. Along with the standard suite of ethnographic
methods, I hope to spend time actually planting trees—to explore that practice materially and affectively. I’m also inspired by Andrew Mathews’s approach to understanding forests, so I hope to do a lot of walking in order to understand the socioenvironmental landscape these planted trees are joining and their role in it. I imagine my legal training will also come in handy as I examine the property and policy dimensions at play.
Amazonian giants at sunset. Credits: Maron Greenleaf.
Finally, Maron, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
I would encourage them to join us! Climate change and other forms of environment degradation can be overwhelming and disheartening. But there’s also no avoiding them as a human living in this moment (even though some of us are able to insulate ourselves much better than others). For me, making them a focus of study has been a way to engage with this reality, and there’s some relief and clarity that comes from doing that. In particular, studying more-than-human worlds can be a way to understand not only the breadth and depth of environmental harm within and beyond human communities. It is also a way to understand how relational life can continue even in the midst of that harm.
"Burning can also be a practice of care used by Indigenous and smallholder communities—one that protects against larger fires, sustains ecosystems, and forges multispecies relations."
"I want to explore how tree planting might be enlisted, in policy, imagination, and practice, in creating a postindustrial and post agricultural economy and landscape as the climate changes."