Self-Devouring Growth

A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa

Self-Devouring Growth

Critical Global Health: Evidence, Efficacy, Ethnography

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Book Pages: 176 Illustrations: 20 illustrations Published: September 2019

African Studies, Anthropology, Environmental Studies

Under capitalism, economic growth is seen as the key to collective well-being. In Self-Devouring Growth Julie Livingston upends this notion, showing that while consumption-driven growth may seem to benefit a particular locale, it produces a number of unacknowledged, negative consequences that ripple throughout the wider world. Structuring the book as a parable in which the example of Botswana has lessons for the rest of the globe, Livingston shows how fundamental needs for water, food, and transportation become harnessed to what she calls self-devouring growth: an unchecked and unsustainable global pursuit of economic growth that threatens catastrophic environmental destruction. As Livingston notes, improved technology alone cannot stave off such destruction; what is required is a greater accounting of the web of relationships between humans, nonhuman beings, plants, and minerals that growth entails.  Livingston contends that by failing to understand these relationships and the consequences of self-devouring growth, we may be unknowingly consuming our future. 


“Highly engaging, deeply thoughtful, and beautifully written, Self-Devouring Growth helps us to understand the environmental dangers the planet faces not as something to be avoided or prevented, but as something to expect and to live through. Julie Livingston's thinking about environmental and other futures is a breath of fresh air and cuts across stale debates around economic development and environmental sustainability in a very original way.” — James Ferguson, author of Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution

“Julie Livingston's concept of ‘self-devouring growth’ will become an essential tool across many forms of scholarship—and for concerned earth dwellers across the planet. As Livingston puts it, “GROW! is a mantra so powerful that it obscures the destruction it portends.” Self-Devouring Growth tells of the failure of Botswana's public water system, strained by failing rains and pumped dry by mining and commercial beef rearing for export. Regarded as a success of development, Botswana is the ideal site for a parable of the Anthropocene.” — Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, coeditor of Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene

"Livingston has written a beautiful book, which speaks from Tswana cosmology towards the complexities of global problems, and that points towards forms of activism that we can all take forward." — Shannon Morreira, Africa Is a Country

"An imaginative parable about human society and life on Earth. . . . The author notes that everyone cries foul when poorer countries achieve a standard of living enjoyed elsewhere, yet the global inequality reflected in this complaint suggests the need for collective creative thinking about new forms of growth for life on Earth to survive. Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers."
  — E. P. Renne, Choice

"I find self-devouring growth a powerful and clarifying concept. I’m more accustomed to thinking about the climate change emergency through numbers, like the temperature beyond which the earth must not warm, or the number of tons of carbon we can safely put into the atmosphere. Instead, Livingston illuminates our way of life. She is asking a lot of the reader: she is asking us to understand that many of the things that make us feel well, prosperous, and secure are the very things that are killing us. . . . It is deeply unsettling to live with." — Emily Callaci, Dissent

"Livingston has forged a path into an anthropology of futures, one responsive to and reflective of the Anthropocene and the threats to human survival we witness daily on our ever-more vulnerable planet. She offers methodological and conceptual tools that will enable other scholars to grapple with futures, those that are unfolding now because of self-devouring growth, and those we want to imagine differently. This book is for everyone." — Sharon R. Kaufman, Medical Anthropology Quarterly

“I like reading Julie Livingston’s Self-Devouring Growth as a push against the consumption of modernist time—that is, against the suspension of historical flux, imaginative possibility, and alter-social development.... The book so convincingly dispels efforts to reduce the planetary condition to a matrix problem begging for technological solutions....” — Alex Blanchette, Somatosphere

“It is a testament to the distilled clarity and prescience of Julie Livingston’s parable of a book that its title, Self-Devouring Growth, can strike one immediately as both so true and suddenly so evident....”

— Abou Farman, Somatosphere

“Livingston documents how the push to produce diamonds, beef, and a highway infrastructure for automobiles is decimating Botswana. The three parables she recounts together make a parable of climatic ruin: the goal of prosperity has turned upon itself, a serpent devouring its tail.” — Emily Yates-Doerr, Somatosphere

“[Self-Devouring Growth is] a book that offers an elegant and important argument about industrial capitalism and growth that is devouring the world in which we live.... It is a book firmly grounded in critical medical anthropology, which has for a long time dug into the political economy of health and the structural violence of capitalism....”

— Fanny Chabrol, Somatosphere

Only Julie Livingston could write this book because of the sources, sensibilities, and experiences from which she draws.... [She] leads us to think about the biggest burning question of our common era: What kind of future is possible when our ways of living are literally invested in our collective destruction?”

— Juno Salazar Parreñas, Somatosphere

“What Livingston’s remarkable book teaches that parable makes possible a politics of collective refusal. By allowing us to recognize ourselves in the stories of others..., parable opens up the possibility of creating worlds that are more just than the ravaged ones we currently inhabit.”

— Radhika Govindrajan, Somatosphere

“Julie Livingston’s pithy and poignant treatise, Self-Devouring Growth, is a powerful aid for thinking through the Anthropocene and, more specifically, the limits of growth-driven development.”

— Simukai Chigudu, Somatosphere


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Julie Livingston, a 2013 recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University and author of Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic, also published by Duke University Press, and Debility and the Moral Imagination in Botswana.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Prologue: A Planetary Parable 1
1. Rainmaking and Other Forgotten Things  11
2. In the Time of Beef  35
Cattle to Beef: A Photo Essay of Abstraction  61
3. Roads, Sand, and the Motorized Cow  85
4. Power and Possibility, or Did You Know Aesop Was Once a Slave?  121
Notes  129
Index  153
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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A 2020 Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0639-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0508-7