Conservation and Society

: 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 308--319

The Mechanics of Legitimation: An Aristotelian Perspective on Environmental Narratives

Alex Flynn 
 Department of Social Anthropology, Arthur Lewis Building, University of Manchester, Manchester, M13 9PL, United Kingdom

Correspondence Address:
Alex Flynn
Department of Social Anthropology, Arthur Lewis Building, University of Manchester, Manchester, M13 9PL
United Kingdom


Narratives dominate the environmental agenda. Emery Roe has first confronted such narratives as «SQ»Ex­cept-Africa«SQ» and secondly argued that these narratives cannot be easily undermined. Rather, counter­narratives need to be generated that can better represent the nuanced realities of the situations to which they pertain. But what makes a successful narrative? This article argues that successful environmental narratives (a) conform to a certain literary schematic of how to construct a good narrative and (b) that it is from the combined elements of this schematic that they derive the facility to influence, shape and determine the actions of their «SQ»readers«SQ». That is, it is from the mechanics of their construction that their legitimising influence is drawn. This paper is divided into four sections. Firstly, there is a demonstration, using two parallel literary texts, of how the Aristotelian model of narrative functions. Secondly, this Aris­totelian conceptual framework of narrative is applied to environmental discourses, focusing on the «SQ»Except-Africa«SQ» narrative, to demonstrate that successful environmental narratives share the exact com­ponents of literary texts. Thirdly, the focus shifts to several sub-narratives of the «SQ»Except-Africa«SQ» narra­tive to illustrate how the mechanics of the Aristotelian model in concert, but principally the component ethos, are crucial when examining the consequences of narrative mobilisation. The paper suggests that when constructing counter-narratives, the schematic that is highlighted here could be a useful tactic to try and undermine the backbone of the environmental policy-making agenda.

How to cite this article:
Flynn A. The Mechanics of Legitimation: An Aristotelian Perspective on Environmental Narratives.Conservat Soc 2008;6:308-319

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Flynn A. The Mechanics of Legitimation: An Aristotelian Perspective on Environmental Narratives. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2008 [cited 2020 Aug 11 ];6:308-319
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Wilderness is precious because it persists inde­pendently of humanity… Thoreau intuitively un­derstood that we are bound to the natural world by common origin. And so was born a conservation ethic we could understand, from which the under­pinning of the environmental movement was con­structed (Wilson 2004: vii, foreword to Henry David Thoreau's Walden).


The greatest environment and development narrative of them all, that of 'sustainable development', is carte blanche for the allocation of USD 5.89 billion of World Bank funds, dispersed between 106 ongoing projects. [1]

But what is a narrative? For definition purposes, Emery Roe argues that they can be compared to stories, but that they are designed to bring about action and are resilient to challenge, even when wisdoms upon which they are based are shown to be untrue. As Roth notes, 'the truth of a narrative is not necessarily determinable from the truth of its parts' (Roth 1989: 456).

However, the term 'narrative' does not hold a monop­oly in literature surrounding environmental discourses. Forsyth, in his examination of the Himalayan environ­mental degradation theory also employs the term 'myths' as does Brockington in his study of the creation of the Mkomazi Game Reserve (Brockington 2002). Forsyth de­fines myths as 'cultural devices which capture, in elegant and simple form, some essence of experience and wis­dom' (Forsyth 1996: 376). Roe deliberately separates myths from narratives, declaring the former to be more 'programmatic' (Roe 1991: 288). However, it could be argued that the import of Roe's 'narrative' and Forsyth's 'myth' is very much the same. It seems that the key ele­ment that they share is that both terms describe stories that carry the projection of self-legitimation. This charac­teristic is important, because it is upon the consequences of the mobilisation of narratives that this paper will focus.

Therefore, having offered a preliminary definition of narrative, I will argue that successful environmental nar­ratives (a) conform to a certain literary schematic of how to construct a good narrative and (b) that it is from the combined elements of this schematic that they partly derive the facility to influence, shape and determine the actions of their 'readers'. That is, it is from the mechanics of their construction that their legitimising influence is drawn. At this early stage it is important to draw some limitations on the scope of this paper. There are many means with which to try and understand the process of how narratives are mobilised into social action, how par­ticular beliefs are solidified and institutionalised into campaigns and projects. Neo-Marxian analyses of ideol­ogy, post-colonial theories of cultural hegemony or Fou­cauldian studies of the relationship between narrative and power could all be profitably employed to this end. Indeed, Foucault's notion of 'disciplinary power' (Fou­cault 1980: 123) is an excellent lens with which to throw into focus and scrutinise the various forms of politicised knowledge inherent to environmental narrative. Knowl­edge production and the role of such institutions as the World Bank in environmental narrative is obviously an important subject, but fundamentally it is the subject of a separate article.

Rather, this paper will initially focus on a literary anal­ysis of the mechanics of narrative with the focus later shifting to legitimisation. The paper will be divided into four sections. Firstly, I will demonstrate using two paral­lel literary texts, how the Aristotelian model of narrative functions. Secondly, I will apply this Aristotelian concep­tual framework of narrative to environmental discourses, focusing on the 'Except-Africa' (Roe 1991, 1995) narra­tive, to demonstrate that environmental narratives share the exact components of literary texts. Thirdly, I will fo­cus on several sub-narratives of the 'Except-Africa' nar­rative to illustrate how the roles of the mechanics of the Aristotelian model in concert, but, principally the com­ponent ethos are crucial when examining the conse­quences of narrative mobilisation. The fourth section will draw the main conclusions.

 Persuasion Through Construction: Aristotle and Literature

You perceive the force of a word. He who wants to persuade should put his trust, not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense (Conrad 2005: xiii).

This section presents a demonstration of how the Aristo­telian narrative model can be applied to two literary texts. Following on from this analysis is an illustration of how these components can then be applied to create an under­standing of the narrative of 'Except-Africa' and its vari­ous sub-narratives in the literature. How these narratives are constructed bears a great deal of importance as to how they are employed and what actions are carried out as a result of their dissemination. Therefore, analysing the mechanics of how narratives are constructed using the lens of Aristotle, is fundamentally inseparable from an analysis of how narratives are sustained, disseminated, mobilised and finally employed for legitimate purposes.

In outlining the Aristotelian model for a well con­structed narrative it is important to detail from the outset certain qualifications regarding its use in this paper. Firstly and obviously, there is no universal definition of what constitutes narrative, but as Cortazzi notes, literary theorists have broadly put forward three basic criteria in Western narrative studies. These are, temporality, causa­tion and human interest (Cortazzi 1993). The model of narrative that will be applied in this paper is that of liter­ary philosopher Richard Kearney's (2002) interpretation of Aristotle's Poetics (1996). In his definition the neces­sary components are: plot (mythos); re-creation (mime­ sis); release (catharsis); wisdom (phronesis) and ethics (ethos). Kearney's five-fold division can be seen as a de­velopment of what Cortazzi argues to comprise the basic model. Mythos and mimeis represent temporality and cau­sation, while catharsis, ethos and phronesis can legiti­mately be interpreted as refinements of 'human interest'.

Beyond this technical discussion, it is also crucial to note that the source of this paper's critical evaluation, Aristotle's Poetics, is a purely Western narrative form. Kreiswirth observes how the etymology of the word nar­rative is revealing of the plurality of traditions that lie behind the term in use today. He highlights that the word narrative, 'comes from the Sanskrit gna via the Latin gnarus, signifiers associated with the passing on of knowledge by one who knows' (Kreiswirth 2000: 304). Narrative as a concept has been developed in vastly dif­fering cultures and therefore it is clear that Aristotle represents only one tradition among many. For example, Ming Dong Gu's discussion of Chinese forms of narrative serves to illustrate that while the architectural model (Dong Gu 2006) of the West is of importance in Chinese literature, ultimately Chinese narrative theory has evolved another method, that of 'elaborate weaving' (Dong Gu 2006). He states that even in using the archi­tectural model the 'emphasis is on the seamless connec­tions of elements' (Dong Gu 2006: 130) rather than the 'narrative details such as characters, setting, scenes and episodes' (Dong Gu 2006: 131) which he refers to as building materials. The remit of this paper does not extend to an investigation of the differences between Western and non-Western discussions of narratology. But it is important to note that Aristotle is really the propo­nent of only one tradition among many, of telling stories. However, although Aristotle's model of narrative cannot be described as universal, what is clear is that all human beings, whether Western or non-Western learn to interact with narrative at a very early age. Prince, in his Diction­ary of Narratology asserts that 'narrative appears in every human society known to history and anthropology' (Prince 2003: 59) and that as children, humans learn to produce and process this form of knowledge. It can be argued therefore, that narrative structure is intrinsic to human society relating to any type of activity and in whatever form or tradition it is handed down; it is a key form of communication. Aristotle's Poetics was designed as a framework specifically for tragedy, but his theories have influenced the construction of narrative in all West­ern forms of literature. But how does this model work in application?

In terms of context and content, Dumas' potboiler Count of Monte Cristo (2002) and Chaucer's epic poem Troilus and Criseyde (1998) have little in common. How­ever, a systematic observance of Aristotle's model of nar­rative in these texts makes them comparable and bears witness to the model's incredible longevity.

Regarding plot (mythos), Aristotle states that it is the source and soul (Aristotle 1996). He notes that 'well­constructed plots should not begin at any arbitrary point' (Aristotle 1996: 13-14). Further, he adds that a defective plot is 'one in which the sequence of episodes is neither necessary nor probable' (Aristotle 1996: 17). At its most simplistic, mythos is merely the telling of story within a crafted structure. Dumas' ability to craft his text was cen­tral to the commercial success demanded by weekly seri­alisation. In Monte Cristo, the novel begins and ends focused on the figure of Dantes. He is young and naive at the outset, and through a tightly controlled sequence of events, he first confronts and then overpowers those who betrayed him at the beginning of the story. Chaucer uses the myths surrounding the siege of Troy to place his cha­racters within a tradition of storytelling. Troilus, the cen­tral character, meets Criseyde, falls in love, is separated from his beloved, is betrayed and then dies in strict linear progression. In each of these cases, the plot within the narrative fulfils the need for a non-episodic construction. As Kellogg and Scholes state, this quality comprises the least variable and most essential (Kellogg & Scholes 1966) component of narrative. The plots of these works create a temporally secure environment for the re­creation of reality.

Aristotle's concept of re-creation (mimesis) addresses the need to re-create the world. But it is not a slavish re­construction like for like. Rather it can be an idealised version through the use of different mediums, but what is central is that mimesis attempts to close the gap between the audience and reality with a pre-figuring and reconfig­uring of human action. As Kearney notes, mimesis 're­enacts the real world of action by magnifying its essential traits' (Kearney 2002: 131), these essential traits being central issues of human existence, such as power, love, desire or loss. Thus, when Troilus attacks the Greeks in despair at having lost Criseyde, Chaucer is attempting to recreate the reader's own sense of loss. Dumas' Dantes revels in his hugely exaggerated fortune, an invitation by the author to his readership to vicariously imagine the power of unlimited wealth, projecting his/her reality on to that of the text. In this multiplicity of reality, Aristotle's model is applied by juxtaposing the reader with the char­acters and magnified examples in the text. Mimesis is simply a connection to the human condition, distorted, but through this lens of the narrative medium, extraordi­narily powerful: it is a call to our reality.

Release (catharsis) has become part of an everyday lexicon and can be termed 'purgation by pity and fear' (Kearney 2002: 137). The reader, distanced by the fact that the narrative is a mere representation (mimesis), can more easily engage with upsetting events within the text. Troilus' wounds, graphically described by Chaucer, are thus rendered idealised poetry as opposed to frightening reality through this lens. Kearney suggests that through these confrontations with fear, a sense of awe can be en­gendered, which in turn allows the reader to touch upon hitherto imperceptible truths. According to Aristotle's model, in these moments, pity should also be mobilised conjunctly as the reader should feel an emotional release as a result of empathy with the character. In this manner, the reader of Monte Cristo suffers with Dantes and pities him through his lengthy imprisonment and consequently undergoes a cathartic experience as the wronged party revenges himself upon his three enemies. The reader shares Dantes' sense of triumph the greater due to having empathised with his suffering. Chaucer carries the tech­nique even further, encouraging the reader to ruminate on the nature of love, mobilising catharsis as the reader lives the suffering of the 'hero' and consequently pities his downfall. But these imaginary worlds must be premised upon elements of realism; empathy must be necessarily constructed from situations imaginable by the reader. Without projection from the reader into text, empathy cannot exist. But texts work both ways. They invite pro­jection but also seek to inform the reader on aspects of his/her own life and this is the importance of Aristotle's idea of phronesis.

Wisdom lies at the heart of all stories. What is it that we can know about worlds that are depicted in narratives? What do stories tell us and how do they illuminate our understanding of the practical world? Believability is key to a successful text as to internalise lessons we must feel as if we are engaging with a genuine and valid experi­ence. Aristotle argues that 'stories should not be constructed from irrational parts' (Aristotle 1996: 41) and a simple method of achieving this is to create a de facto overlap between history and story. The pseudo-realism of these texts, situated as they are in recognisable settings, is deliberately employed to create an environment in which the reader feels that valid truths can be imparted and a form of wisdom can be acquired. Phronesis is the process whereby the text posits content that will inform the read­er's knowledge. In Troilus and Criseyde, the 'moral' of the story is a meditation on betrayal. Troilus is betrayed by Criseyde a short period after they are separated and she has promised herself to him. In Monte Cristo, betrayal is also a strong theme, Dantes' fiancee jilting him for his rival a short period after Dantes is impris­oned. Dumas also uses the text to impart lessons on the righteousness of revenge, as one by one, Dantes' betray­ers are judged and punished (one goes mad, having been forced to kill his wife, one shoots himself in his carriage and the other is bankrupted and humiliated and in a ges­ture of clemency, allowed to live). However, as Kearney notes, this process and the content itself 'is closer to an art than a science; or, if you prefer, to a human science than to an exact one' (Kearney 2002: 150). Just as mime­ sis is no slavish recreation of everyday reality, phronesis is no mere retelling of the 'facts'. Rather phronesis, the knowledge imparted by the text, is an approximation, a fabulation, a form of discourse that operates between po­sitivism and relativism. The facts may not be 100 percent believable, but they are certainly more reliable than someone else's. White in his discussion of narrative also highlights the problematic nature of this particular form of knowledge. He observes the following:

The difficulty with the notion of a truth of past experience is that it can no longer be experienced, and this throws a specifically historical knowledge open to the charge that it is a construction as much of imagination as of thought and that its authority is no greater than the power of the histo­rian to persuade his readers that his account is true (White 1987: 147).

Therefore, clearly the values, configuration and ramifica­tions of this particular form of knowledge play a key role. How does the 'author' who White terms the 'historian' persuade his readers that his account is of value? It is in this that the fifth and last of the components that Kearney outlines, termed ethos, (ethics) assumes a crucial impor­tance.

Storytelling, like any discourse, is never neutral and, guided by the 'author', the reader reaches decisions about and pronounces judgements upon characters and their actions. Aristotle highlights that 'it is on the basis of peo­ple's character and reasoning that we say their actions are of a certain kind, and in respect of their actions that peo­ple enjoy success or failure' (Aristotle 1996: 11). A nar­rative functions best when it works to assist the reader to identify characters with moral positions. Thus, in Troilus and Criseyde, Troilus is a tragic hero, unambiguously be­trayed by his lover Criseyde. The reader is guided to this view by means of the characterisation that Chaucer employs. Similarly, Dumas clearly presents Dantes as the wronged hero of Monte Cristo, to the point that his ven­geance, black as it is, is condoned by the reader as the text has left little doubt that his persecutors are deserving of their just ends. As Kearney notes, we always apply our own presuppositions to every text that we confront, but the 'emplotted characterisation' of narratives is a power­ful agent and can change the reader's stance. Narratives convey an entire ontology of moral and ethical values that appear throughout the text in the guise of detail with certain connotations, or devices freighted with certain meanings. The narrative shapes the reader's reactions and conditions his/her responses; all the time, the reader's final judgement is being configured by the text. Phrone­ sis might impart knowledge, but it is a knowledge at once prompted and controlled by the narrative's guiding hand. Ethos in this context comes to initiate a four stage pro­cess.

Firstly, the audience's initial role is that of 'reader'. This is mostly a passive interaction as 'lessons' are inter­nalised in a process controlled by the 'author'. Secondly, a well constructed narrative then demands of its 'reader' an interaction, prompting a sense of agency whereby the 'reader' relates what he/she has read to his/her own rea­lity, creating what Kearney terms a 'referential world of action' (Kearney 2002: 151). Thirdly, all well constructed narratives must be repeated and disseminated by the 'reader'. As Carson pithily states '[t]hree good points about stories: If told, they like to be heard; if heard they like to be taken in; and if taken in, they like to be told' (Carson 2000: 1, cited in Kearney). Therefore this refer­ential world of action becomes a shared world of mora­lity, where community members find their views reinforced by one another. What results from this process is of course that the community becomes larger the more the narrative is transmitted. Fourthly, and perhaps most pertinently in the context of legitimation, a well struc­tured narrative requires its readers to ask the question of themselves, what needs to be done on the basis of what I have learnt? Based on what the politicised knowledge that the 'reader' has internalised, what actions will the 'reader' carry out? And commonly, in the practical sphere of environmental narratives, what resources will the 'reader' therefore gain?

 Legitimation Through Persuasion: Aristotle and the Environment

A powerful and influential narrative that Roe (1991, 1995) has identified and labelled 'Except-Africa' is de­fined by the author thus:

'Except-Africa,' as in the crisis narrative 'Every­thing works, except in Africa.' A major financial weekly tells us investment to developing countries continues to increase, 'except in Africa.' A report of an overseas think-tank concludes 'Africa is the exception' when it comes to development. A well­known historian notes that by the end of this cen­tury the world is likely to experience a decline in poverty 'except Africa, where things will only get worse' (Roe 1995: 1065).

It has been demonstrated that Aristotle's theory of narra­tive has influenced the construction of stories in differing forms of literature. However, it is not solely in this sphere which the model can be applied. What constitutes a good story is also of singular importance in the sphere of envi­ronmental narrative. This section will present an analysis of the narrative of 'Except-Africa', using the components of Aristotle's model of narrative outlined above.

Kearney asserts that '[e]very human existence is a life in search of a narrative. This is… because it strives to discover a pattern to cope with the experience of chaos and confusion' (Kearney 2002: 129). Mythos is a means to craft a fable, to project structure into art, or equally, in­to powerful environmental agendas as Roe argues is the case with 'Except-Africa'. He states explicitly that 'one of the principal ways practitioners, bureaucrats and policy makers articulate and make sense of… uncertainty is to tell stories or scenarios that simplify the ambiguity' (Roe 1991: 288). Environmental discourse is a complex do­main with a multiplicity of stakeholders. With the com­mon interface between indigenous technical knowledge and Western educated development practitioners also comes the problem of diverse and perhaps conflicting on­tologies and epistemologies. Narratives simplify matters. As Cronon notes, narratives are employed 'to find mean­ing in an overwhelmingly crowded and disordered chro­nological reality' (Cronon 1992: 1349). And Roe notes that a hallmark feature of the 'Except-Africa' narrative is the simplistic assumptions it makes. Roe argues that this has inhibited decision-making as the realities of a highly complex Africa (Roe 1995) have been ignored in favour of a distilled and manageable summary of affairs. Leach et al. in their study of community-based conservation al­so suggest that communities are not the homogenous or­ganisms, united by a sense of the 'other' that they are frequently portrayed to be by development practitioners and bureaucrats. They state that such a portrayal is a vast oversimplification of the reality in which 'gender, caste, wealth, age, origins, and other aspects of social identity divide and crosscut so-called "community" boundaries' (Leach et al. 1999: 230).

What is being argued here, is that to make the narrative appeal, it must have structure but also offer a neatly formed distillate of Africa, 'where one statistic "says it all"' (Roe 1995: 1067). Policy demands this homogenis­ing broad-brush stroke that places individuals concerned into mere categories. As Roe observes, '[t]he more uncer­tain things seem at the microlevel, the greater the ten­dency to see the scale of uncertainty at the macrolevel to be so enormous as to require broad explanatory narratives that can be operationalised into standard approaches with widespread application' (Roe 1991: 288).

Mythos is also visible in the 'Except-Africa' narrative as it 'follow[s] the common definition of story' (Roe 1991: 288) based on 'premises and conclusions… cast in the form of an argument' (Roe 1991: 288). The plot to 'Except-Africa' is based on the premise that everything can be developed. The plot thickens, however, with the conclusion that the situation in Africa can never hope to improve. Moreover, when tracing the narrative of 'Ex­cept-Africa', there are certainly events within the conti­nent that seem to take place and follow on from one another in logical fashion. 'Tribal tensions' for example, inexorably, lead to civil war that in turn lead to displace­ment of populations which finally result in famine, pesti­lence and disease. This simplification of the portrait and temporality of events dovetails neatly with what Aristotle suggests as necessary in a good plot.

In terms of mimesis, the narrative must always contain an element of authenticity. Elements of reality and creat­ing the 'second world' of mimesis are crucial if a narra­tive is to become widely disseminated. But mimesis is not a rigid recreation. Rather it magnifies the essential traits of the human condition and makes an appeal to our concept of reality. It is perhaps here that one can see clearly why environmental narratives speak so strongly. It is their connection to powerful issues such as the expropriation of land with ancestral homes (Wardi 2002) or burial sites (Woolmer et al. 2004) for example, that allows them to speak eloquently to differing peoples in differing contexts.

The narrative of 'Except-Africa' speaks intimately of the lack of resources and the need for land on which to live. El-Baz and Hassan discuss how nearly 50 percent of land areas, have suffered desertification due to 'human mismanagement of range lands' (El-Baz & Hassan 1986: 4). Indeed, they dryly note how the widely held percep­tion that the Sahara will engulf mankind is appealing: 'there is apparently something fascinating about the idea' (El-Baz & Hassan 1986: 9) without analysing what exactly it is. The crisis narrative of everything working, except in Africa also subtly touches upon notions of pov­erty and casually quotes statistics of the dispossessed. It invites us to consider who will be the winners of such processes as civil war and who the losers; civil wars that are of course more prevalent in Africa due to 'tribalism'. It magnifies ideas of progress and development (of any form) that all humans experience and invites us to engage with 'Except-Africa' via this connection. Mimesis within 'Except-Africa' addresses our reality by inviting us to consider such issues as health, scarcity and ultimately death in for example, reporting surrounding AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Such matters re­sonate almost universally.

To then consider catharsis in this context, it is clear that environmental narratives demand that we engage not only with a shared connection, but also with pity and fear. 'Except-Africa' is clearly a frightening scenario. Roe describes it as a 'crisis narrative', a situation where nothing is ever going to improve. Indeed, even a cursory glance at any news outlet concerning Africa is sure to contain stories of piracy, fires, AIDS, fixed elections, war amputees, plane crashes, etc. The lack of development is a particularly understated appeal to our fears. de Rivero, for example in The myth of development describes four Latin American countries as truly dysfunctional but indeed, in 'Africa, the situation is still more disastrous' (de Rivero 2001: 122). The narrative hints that despite all our spending and all our good intentions, no tangible benefits have been achieved. Are we wasting our money, is the question the narrative of 'Except-Africa' begs. But pity is also expressed in a subtle manner. Here, this narra­tive as well as many famine sub-narratives concerning Africa, operates from a patronising neo-colonialist posi­tion. Roe asks '[h]ave you ever noticed for example, how Except-Africa is always overcrowded when it is not un­derpopulated?' (Roe 1995: 1066). Instances of constant famine and child immiseration also contribute to this paternalist 'pity'. Indeed, who in the global north, does not pity people mired in 'poverty' without access to con­sumer goods? Thus, working in this dual manner, the nar­rative purges us when we partake in it, offering us a detached and safe emotional experience, distanced as we are by the fact that it is presented as mere mimesis, while allowing us to engage in pity, unfettered by any sense of direct obligation.

But a successful narrative must also be able to satisfy the component phronesis, to impart a sense of wisdom that the reader will distil, internalise and reproduce. The narrative of 'Except-Africa' is after all, information rich. Its purpose, it would seem, is to provide informative views on the state of the continent of Africa. In this it certainly succeeds. This information varies in its inten­tion, audience and format. Firstly, there is that which is articulated through academic discourse, for example: 'why Africa's economic crisis has persisted for two dec­ades' (Van de Walle 2001: 15). Roe observes that infor­mation is also disseminated as the product of think-tanks (Roe 1995) while of course the bulk of reportage is circu­lated through audio visual or print media. As Kearney ob­serves, phronesis operates somewhere between absolute fact and absolute relativism and the bulk of the content of the 'Except-Africa' narrative can be found between these poles. It is certainly no mere retelling of bald facts. 'Ex­cept-Africa' presents a raft of differing strains of infor­mation that genuinely inform readers or viewers. Without a doubt after reading the BBC's online article 'Q&A: Africa's permanent food crisis' the reader will doubtless be better informed about Somalia, the World Food Pro­gramme and Amartya Sen. Clearly, however, this knowl­edge, so obviously policiticised, has important political and socio-economic consequences. After all, the knowl­edge internalised through the narrative of 'Except-Africa' is certainly not knowledge that is marked 'for all uses, except-implementation'.

Roe succinctly states that in cases of environmental narratives it is 'not so much about what should happen as about what will happen' (Roe 1991: 288). This outcome reflects the idea that if environmental narratives function efficiently, their target audience will be in little doubt as to 'what needs to be done'. In this way, satisfying ethos, the narrative is internalised and through 'emplotted char­acterisation' leads the reader to inevitable conclusions. 'Except-Africa's' content is clearly not opinion-neutral. Indeed, despite its pretence as information it is clearly objectivity-light. Roe notes using 1994 data that Africa is constantly portrayed in a state of permanent economic collapse (see above) despite the fact that the average an­nual growth rate in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and GDP per capita for the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in this period was lower. Factual errors or slant­ing of the data concerning Africa is rife. Roe comments of this tendency:

an eroded hill is the sign of government indiffer­ence to desertification, a half-completed classroom means declining national self-reliance, beggars in the city foretell the coming anarchy, where virtu­ally every news report points to collapse under such headlines as 'Africa, A Continent in Crisis', 'Africa's Development Crisis', 'Africa's Food Cri­sis', 'Africa's Budgetary Crisis', and 'Africa's Tribal Crisis' (Roe 1995: 1067).

The dissemination that Roe notes here fulfils stages two and three of ethos, the relation of Africa to our own real­ity [see for example Avila & Pefluelas' (1999) paper 'In­creasing frequency of Saharan rains over north eastern Spain and its ecological consequences'], and the idea that once read, a good narrative demands to be repeated and reproduced. The nature of media coverage that Roe high­lights is extremely damaging to any form of nuanced policy-making decision. He notes in Except-Africa: Re­making development, rethinking power that where coun­ter-narratives really have to make an impact is in the spheres of the media and Western popular opinion (Roe 1999). But if the media and policy-making bodies' re­ports, generating a confluence of narratives that each support the other represents 'emplotted characterisation', and the conclusions the reader is meant to draw are clear, what are the consequences? Ethos demands reader par­ticipation. What are the 'readers' of this narrative, having internalised its lessons, meant to ask of themselves? What needs to be done?

Roe argues that the consequences that have resulted and continue to result from the narrative that everything works, except in Africa, are that policy-making has suf­fered because crisis narratives 'do such a poor job in sta­bilizing the assumptions for decision making in the face of a highly complex Africa' (Roe 1995: 1066). He adds that as a result of its homogenising approach which re­duces locally and culturally specific individuals to 'Afri­cans', crisis narratives like 'Except-Africa' 'push us away from looking at what is actually going on elsewhere in Africa and from constructing policy-relevant (counter-) scenarios there' (Roe 1995: 1068). Rural development in short, is being mismanaged by the vast group of influen­tial policy makers, development practitioners and techno­cratic elites that subscribe to the narrative. But here one arrives at the question of the ramifications of this actuality. Having internalised the discourse that 'Except-Africa' promotes, and having carried out functions that the narra­tive has naturally led to one to put into place, what gains have (rightfully?) occurred as a result and why?

Roe is explicit with regard to the 'Except-Africa' nar­rative on this point. He states: '[t]he more crisis narra­tives generated by an expert elite, the more the elite appears to have established a claim to the resources it says are subject to crisis' (Roe 1995: 1066). The expert elite in this case have mobilised the narrative of 'Except­Africa' to gain control of certain resources, be they land, development budgets or simply policy-making control. They are now stakeholders in areas which were formerly beyond their remit. Roe asserts how '[t]he seriatim crises that Kenya, for example, has purportedly undergone over the last hundred years have served to underscore no point better than that rural Kenyans are more and more per­ceived to be in need of an ever-widening range of expert help if they are to overcome their all-too-many problems' (Roe 1995: 1066). After all, if nothing in Africa is seen to 'work', then surely more solutions need to be proposed and carried out.

The elites that Roe describes are merely fulfilling their side of the ethos bargain. Having internalised a narrative, the question is, what can be done? And if the emplotted characterisation of that narrative also happens to assert a primacy of one 'character' (the expert) over another (the African) then removing control from the latter and plac­ing it with the former makes sense. In his discussion of narrative in environmental literature, Cronon highlights the fact that powerful narratives act by separating story from non-story-they hide 'the discontinuities, ellipses and contradictory experiences that would undermine the intended meaning' (Cronon 1992: 1349-1350). And as has already been noted above, neutrality does not exist in storytelling and as the 'author' of a narrative guides the reader to the conclusion, with a firm grip over who are in the 'wrong' and who are in the 'right', these clearly de­lineated roles metamorphose from mere characters in a story to actual people in real places.

What this framework illustrates is how a literary con­ception of storytelling can be applied to narratives within an environmental context. It has been argued that suc­cessful narratives, such as the 'Except-Africa' narrative that Roe has done so much to confront, conform con­sciously or otherwise to a very basic system of how to tell a good story. Humans have sought narratives for thou­sands of years and it could be argued that it is this same desire for simplified versions of complex realities cou­pled with a desire for purgation that powers environ­mental narratives today. A more cynical perspective, however, might point to the resources that have been acquired under the banner of narrative; the all­encompassing legitimation that a well constructed narra­tive can 'deliver'.

The next section will present several sub-narratives of the 'Except-Africa' narrative focussing on an illustration of the function of narratives, how they have been em­ployed and what actions have occurred as a result of their mobilisation. For in the context of environmental issues, surely the practical implications of ethos are of para­mount importance. As Cronon argues of the concept of narrative 'whatever its overt purpose, it cannot avoid a covert exercise of power; it inevitably sanctions some voices while silencing others' (Cronon 1992: 1350).

 The Consequences of Legitimation: Ngos and Conservation

It is a curious paradox that although Africa is the excep­tion (Roe 1995) regarding development, this is by no means a disincentive to policy-making bodies when ring­fencing finance for conservation projects or other such development undertakings. Indeed, the narrative of 'Ex­cept-Africa' is the perfect discourse to mobilise when ar­guing that the continent needs ever greater levels of support and of course, therefore, intervention. Clearly, Africa cannot be left behind on the pathway to modernity, just as equally local stakeholders cannot be trusted with their own resources. As Roe underlines, the major players in this danse macabre are multinational non­governmental organisations (NGOs) and conservation or­ganisations. He notes that as a result of the Rio summit, 'US-based NGOs have what are essentially sovereignty rights' (Roe 1995: 1068) and he states explicitly that nar­ratives are being employed in the constitution of power: 'crisis narratives are the primary means whereby devel­opment experts and the institutions for which they work claim rights to stewardship over land and resources they do not own' (Roe 1995: 1066). Indeed, Hanlon's (1991) study on NGO activity in Mozambique asserts that aid and therefore in practice, the distributors of this aid, the NGOs, are acting to recolonise the country. He cites one informant: '[I]t's identical to what happened 100 years ago. After the Berlin conference there were wars to estab­lish colonial control of the continent. Then in came the missionaries, and they cleared the way for the capitalists. Again we have wars, this time followed by the NGOs. They are the new missionaries clearing the way for big foreign capital' (Hanlon 1991: 203).

Rocheleau et al. comment of this situation in their case study of Kenya, '[i]n the 20th century, a series of "crises" in the Kenyan environment and economy have been iden­tified by "experts" within the colonial, national, and in­ternational government, academic, and non-governmental organization (NGO) communities' (Rocheleau et al. 1995: 1037-1038). And they conclude that '[m]ost devel­opment theorists and practitioners still seek to document or find so-called solutions to one, discrete local or na­tional crisis' (Rocheleau et al. 1995: 1045). There is usu­ally a large financial incentive to carry out development projects and clearly, for certain technocratic organisa­tions, mobilising beneficial narratives is a matter of their own survival; a primary concern which supersedes the priorities of those for whom they purportedly work. However, development practitioners marshalled within NGOs are not the only organisations to mobilise envi­ronmental narratives for their own purposes.

Conservation organisations have also employed and mobilised a narrative that creates an artificial divide be­tween 'nature' and 'humanity', a narrative that directly contributes to the problems that are perceived to beset 'Except-Africa'. Marks states that '[T]he romantic vision of keeping Africa as an unchanged paradise teeming with wildlife is a foreign nonsense, for to ask East Africa to perpetuate such an image is to ask it to stay poor and un­developed' (Marks 1984: 130). The discourse of 'pristine wilderness' holds that African land users are foolishly destroying the habitats of an ever-decreasing biodiversity as well as inadvertently their own means to a livelihood. After all, in 'Except-Africa', having been left behind by the development process, which has worked so efficiently elsewhere, nowhere are levels of education so low, com­munities so riven and resources so badly mismanaged.

What lies behind this discourse is the simple assump­tion of technocratic elites that their form of knowledge and expertise is superior to that of local inhabitants. It is emplotted characterisation that has led them to this con­clusion and this process can be traced back at least a cen­tury: 'it is their sheep, their camels, their goats that have ruined North Africa' noted Bernard and Lacroix in 1906 (cited in Davis 2004: 359) and this perception is still cur­rent today. The historical tracing of this narrative is rele­vant at this point because in the exercising of power, the crucial focus of narratives is through their function of le­gitimisation.

Davis' appraisal of the desertification narrative of French colonial North Africa provides an interesting ex­ample of how these power dynamics are in no way new, and of how current opinion often relies on such histori­cised cases from which to conjure its 'truth effects'. Da­vis begins by asserting that the term 'desertification' itself was not first used by Aubreville in 1949. Rather, she argues that the term and the narrative pertaining to it date back to the inception of the French colonial period, 1832. She outlines how the French scientific establish­ment constructed a myth that held that North Africa had formerly, throughout the Roman Empire, been the 'the granary of Rome' (Davis 2004: 362). This contrasted of course, to the deserts of the Maghreb, which the colonis­ers came upon 'where Arab armies have made of this country a desert strewn with ruins which however attest to its ancient prosperity' (Service des affaires indigenes 1931: 13, cited in Davis 2004). Davis depicts a scenario where the French scientific establishment and later, the French colonial authority, created a narrative of defores­tation and desertification perpetrated by indigenous inhabitants to legitimise their intervention. France occu­pied Algeria until 1962 and without doubt the emplotted characterisation of the lack of stewardship displayed by the indigenous inhabitants played a significant role in the legitimisation of seizing this territory.

Therefore the perception that Africa will be decimated if the local populations are allowed to continue unhin­dered with their practices is not new. Of course, this per­ception is not unique to Africa, but it could be argued that where the confluence of powerful images is so great (poachers, magnificent mammals, unspoilt and awe inspiring rangelands), nowhere is the world's attention so firmly focussed and therefore, the narrative so successful. Ultimately, one result of the question 'what needs to be done' has been the widespread deployment of so-called 'fortress conservation' (Brockington 2002; Goldman 2003; Colchester 2004). The impact of such programmes has been widely felt throughout the African continent. Brockington et al. estimate that land that falls under the auspices of such schemes amounts to 6 percent of the land surface of the planet (Brockington et al. 2005: 250). And although data on social impact is very much missing from the literature (Brockington et al. 2005). West et al. relate how '[p]rotected areas, as with any development intervention, are also instrumental in fuelling social con­flict between groups' (West et al. 2006: 260). Accounts from excluded peoples themselves communicate disloca­tion and violence as a direct result of fortress conserva­tion programmes (Nelson & Hossack 2003; Colchester 2004). It is against this background therefore that Brock­ington's study of Mkomazi can be contextualised.

Brockington describes how in the creation of the Mkomazi Game Reserve in 1988, the Tanzanian govern­ment evicted thousands of people and tens of thousands of livestock. He comments 'conservation has imposed de­cisions with little or no consultation and with violent enforcement. It has invented and obliterated history. It has caused impoverishment' (Brockington 2002: 4). This action was funded by various groups including the Inter­national Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and their description of what has happened in Mkomazi can be contextualised within their opinion that Mkomazi is '[a] unique success story within African conservation'. [2]

During the 1970's and 1980's, Mkomazi suffered a dramatic decline due to inadequate protection and severe mismanagement… When the George Adam­son Wildlife Preservation Trust began the rehabili­tation of the Mkomazi Game Reserve in 1990, the Mkomazi region had been left in a state of ruin due to invasions from livestock, poaching operations that decimated populations with impunity, indis­criminate hunting and uncontrollable fires. [ 3]

Organisations such as the IFAW have mobilised the nar­rative that places an artificial divide between 'nature' and humanity. This narrative is extremely contentious. Cro­non's paper of 1995 'The trouble with wilderness; or, get­ting back to the wrong nature' created a huge amount of polemical debate including Bill Willers' response, enti­tled 'The trouble with Cronon' (1996). Cronon argued that there was a pervasive tendency to place the human outside the natural. And as Yosemite was founded in 1864 to the exclusion of the Miwok, so Brockington ar­gues that Mkomazi has been established on a similar premise. It could not be asserted with any confidence that IFAW is happy to sanction the forcible expulsion of herdsmen and their families, but it has become a question of priorities, based upon inescapable conclusions. Brock­ington indicates that 'the social and economic costs of eviction have been severe and not matched by the bene­fits offered' (Brockington 2002: 3). But the powerful control over the plot of what would happen to Mkomazi if no action was taken has left actors with little choice. IFAW feel a need to act and the narrative they subscribe to, whether blindly, with reservation, or for gain, is a po­werful means of mobilising support as well as legitimis­ing their actions. Brockington argues that ultimately 'the trustees and their supporters passionately believe their li­terature… they are people of integrity' (Brockington 2002: 124). However, the component of ethos is key. Brockington argues that, '[i]t is because this [the politi­cised separation of wilderness and humanity] is such a powerfully convincing and persuasive myth that the Re­serve's conservation has been so successful' (Brocking­ton 2002: 124-125). Mkomazi has become a 'success story' due to the component of ethos having been neatly fulfilled. The audience has firstly internalised the narra­tive that human activity will always have a destructive impact on 'nature'. Secondly, with regard to Mkomazi, IFAW became involved because they related the threat to wildlife to their own experiences, which started with a campaign to protect white-coat harp seals on the ice floes of Canada's east coast. Thirdly, a massive public rela­tions campaign was initiated to publicise the plight of this distant piece of land in East Africa, which Brockington notes involved the 'cream of Californian society' and 'Hollywood' connection extend[ing] to a film about the work at Mkomazi called To walk with lions' (Brockington 2002: 2). And fourthly and most importantly, results to the question 'what needs to be done' were proposed and efficiently carried out, prompting the unintentionally chilling report, '[t]oday, there is a 30 square mile rhino sanctuary in Mkomazi, surrounded by an 8 [foot] electrified fence and patrolled around the clock by armed guards'. [4]

It must be noted that the narrative that human existence (especially human existence in the non-West) and 'na­ture' are mutually exclusive has reached an astonishing level of penetration. The BBC online website recently re­ported on the annual publication of the International Un­ion for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 'Red List', a list of endangered species. Under a heading of 'what are the threats?' it is indicated that 'human activities threaten 99% of Red List species'. [5] The case of the African hip­popotamus is highlighted. An IUCN scientist is quoted as saying that, '[R]egional conflicts and political instability in some African countries have created hardship for many of the region's inhabitants, and the impact on wildlife has been equally devastating' while cursory comments are di­rected towards 'illegal logging' and 'poor protection in several West African countries'.

Of course this information is not entirely false. It is certainly the case that human activity is threatening en­dangered species and that the political instability of some African countries has impacted on the hippopotamus population. But the dissemination of this narrative must be seen in the context of the dissemination of other narra­tives that also operate beneath the more general level of 'Except-Africa', specifically that of the African poacher (Leader-Williams & Gulland 1993) and the '[a]frican land users…recklessly destroying the land' (Bassett & Zueli 2000: 69). After all, surely not all humans are im­plicated in 'human activity'?

Neumann elicits a particularly striking example of the juxtaposition of (black) 'poacher' and (white) 'hunter­conservationists' (Neumann 2004: 826) in his analysis of a National Geographic article published in 1991. He ex­plains that he chose this publication because 'by virtue of its mass readership and its popular status as an outlet for scientific information [it has] a great deal of influence in shaping the identities of Euro-American self and non­European Other' (Neumann 2004: 823). Neumann dis­cusses the differing presentation of photographic subjects and finds a clear tendency through camera gaze, caption and the (un)naming of the subject, to identify black peo­ple as occupying a 'low position on the scale of cultural evolution' (Neumann 2004: 825), and white people as 'sporting [and] compassionate' (Neumann 2004: 825). Neumann concludes by stating that 'the photos associate, poor, uncivilized, male Africans with wasteful destruc­tion of a scarce resource… and affluent, white families with conservation-minded sustainable hunting' (Neumann 2004: 826). It is unpalatable to be told in the Western media that humans are directly implicated in the process of 'baby elephants orphaned when their mothers were killed' (Bonner 1992: 141 cited in Neumann 2004). But being informed in parallel that blame can be clearly at­tributed to (black) poachers provides an understandable solution to a complex problem.

This confluence of narratives and the resultant emplot­ted characterisation which results in a judgement as to what type of 'human activity' is threatening endangered species, is infinitely more digestible than a complex in­vestigation into the impact of, for example, the Chad­Cameroon pipeline. What is necessary to emphasise here, as Blaut (2000) does, is that many narratives lend cre­dence to each other and the media publish environmental narratives as part of a package of information. This inter­dependence of narratives is a key part of the process of ethos, the creation of a shared world of morality. Epis­temic communities are also of singular importance in this regard as they conduct politicised knowledge from site to site, acting all the time as advocates. The most obvious example of such a process is the reproduction of Hardin's The tragedy of the commons (1968) an ideology which has contributed greatly to the sedimentation of the 'Ex­cept-Africa narrative'. The article is available through 84 different sources and is cited by 3,492 other papers. [6] Granted, many of these papers will be responding criti­cally to Hardin's ideas, but the sheer breadth of reader­ship that this article has achieved is astonishing.

What is being argued here is that a well constructed narrative demands that the reader respond and that ulti­mately the narrative, through emplotted characterisation can determine how that reader will respond. Through the component of ethos, NGOs and conservation organisa­tions have mobilised huge amounts of money and re­sources to accomplish the aims that they have deigned 'worthy'. But it is the mechanics of narrative that have enabled them to achieve this. It is in the interdependence of all five components that the 'truth effects' of narrative can be mobilised to such great effect and with such far­reaching consequences.


The 'reading' or 'reception' of narratives is an important component in the discipline of narratology. The impor­tance of the 'reader' can be construed as minimal or al­ternately fundamental, to the extent where it is 'people's material and psychological condition, not the story, [that] determines a narrative's reception' (Bennett & Edelman 1985: 160). While it could be argued that the truth lies somewhere between these two positions, it is undeniable that narratives are not created, produced and consumed within a contextual vacuum. When actors partake of a narrative, some immediately dismiss it, others embrace it and still others recognise that it can be modified and adapted for their own ends and uses. Narratives, to a cer­tain extent, once issued from their source are beyond the control of those who produced them, be that body a pol­icy making think-tank, a respected opinion-forming col­umn in a mass circulation newspaper, the strategic decision-making board of a multinational NGO or senior figures within an institution like the World Bank.

In the interests of dismantling the idea of actors as merely 'passive listeners', it must be noted that individual 'readers' can contend or utilise narratives and actively do so in the context that has been examined, that of 'Except­Africa'. Haller et al. in their comparative study of who gains from community conservation politics, note that a particular project in Tanzania is viewed by local actors as 'neither a developmental option nor a political gain but, rather, as a constraint and a burden' (Haller et al. 2008: 120). But the fact that 'local capacity is very much ques­tioned' (Haller et al. 2008: 120) does not reflect a state of latent passivity. Rather what Haller et al. describe in their case study is a situation of multi-levelled passive resis­tance, a stance that will in the long term likely as not ren­der the project unviable for actors who did not seek its imposition in the first place. This critical position is also shared on a more abstracted level, beyond the immediate stakeholders, by academics such as Meroka (2006). Me­roka has examined the institutional imbalances in the dis­tribution of income from such programmes and noted how profitable they can be for the governmental levels of hierarchy that implement them. This engagement reflects the fact that powerful World Bank sponsored narratives in 'Except-Africa' do not simply solidify into de facto law; they are questioned and criticised. Indeed, such nar­ratives are continually being constructed and recon­structed by the local actors that they affect and Achebe highlights this situation stating that Africans and not out­siders need to 'narrate themselves in their own context and in their own voices' (Dikirr 2008: 82).

However, I believe that the processes of appropriation and subversion are themselves an important expression of 'self-narration' and Singh and van Houtum illustrate how popularised environmental narratives, imported into Af­rica by Western policy makers, have been taken on board and utilised by some indigenous elites to realise their own goals. They assert that 'through the sub-discourse of new conservation in community-based natural resource man­agement, states, non-state and indigenous elites are able to bargain control, access and the rigidity of the bound­edness of identities and spaces to maintain their territorial claims' (Singh & van Houtum 2002: 261). In support of this assertion, they cite the fact that the Makuleke have recently, through a subversion of the narrative of the 'ro­manticizing of the indigenous' (Singh & van Houtum 2002: 260) claimed a large part of the South African Kruger National Park as part of their homeland. This ac­tion demonstrates the type of realpolitik that can occur in localised contexts, where narratives have been employed to serve the interests of a group that perhaps might have been suborned by the original use of that same narrative by someone else. Such reversals of purpose clearly dem­onstrate the intrinsic power of narrative, and the possibil­ity of the powers of narrative to be subverted once that narrative exists within the public domain.

Fundamentally, the initiation and propagation of narra­tive is clearly a means of securing power and as such like any other, is subject to politicisation and unscrupulous subversion, by any potential interest group. I don't be­lieve this to be an overly cynical point of view. Roe sug­gests that rather than attempting to combat existing narratives in the environmental sphere, it would be more productive to produce new counter-narratives that can better do justice to nuanced situations. Implicit in this suggestion is the idea that narratives, in one form or an­other, are not about to exit the policy-making arena and I would agree with this. It is my view that high level pol­icy-making indeed requires simplified and digestible forms of information-national level policy does not and has never pretended to cater to an individual level. There­fore, the question becomes, how can counter-narratives be successfully created to subvert the politics that are cur­rently de facto reality?

What I have argued in this paper is that the mechanics of how a narrative is constructed bears a great deal of im­portance as to how it will be used and what consequences will result from its mobilisation. The individual compo­nents of a successful narrative will function together to realise the eventuality of what the emplotted characterisa­tion deems is necessary. Regarding the matter of the pro­duction of counter-narratives, it really becomes a question of adopting the other camp's tricks and leverag­ing in many cases, the exact actors and outlets that might have spoken for 'the other side' (to inject an inevitable degree of polemicism). This paper has detailed how I be­lieve successful narratives are created. What I hope it can suggest is how promoting alternative environmental nar­ratives can be best achieved.

The conclusion of this paper is after all nothing more than the final act in a sequence of arguments laden with emplotted characterisation. Phronesis has been explored, and ethos dictates that the answer to the question 'what needs to be done' should therefore be clear; we are ur­gently in need of alternate environmental narratives, in­formation rich and objectivity-light, but with a different set of people standing to gain.


I would firstly like to thank Dan Brockington for propos­ing the question regarding narratives in the first place and his subsequent patience and suggestions. I would also like to thank my father, Heather Goodall and the anony­mous peer reviewers for their constructive and thought­provoking comments. I owe a deep debt of gratitude for their insights.


1. Keyword search 'sustainable development' under category 'pro­jects'. URL: menuPK=224076&pagePK=218616&piPK=217470&theSitePK= 40941&query=sustainable%20development (last accessed 3 May 2006).

2. URL: (last accessed 4 May 2006).

3. See note 2.

4. See note 2.

5. URL: (last accessed 4 May 2006).

6.URL: (last accessed 4 May 2006).[50]


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