Conservation and Society

: 2019  |  Volume : 17  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 312--313

The Patagonian Sublime: The Green Economy and Post-Neoliberal Politics

Suchismita Das 
 University of Chicago, Department of Anthropology, Chicago, IL, USA

Correspondence Address:
Suchismita Das
University of Chicago, Department of Anthropology, Chicago, IL

How to cite this article:
Das S. The Patagonian Sublime: The Green Economy and Post-Neoliberal Politics.Conservat Soc 2019;17:312-313

How to cite this URL:
Das S. The Patagonian Sublime: The Green Economy and Post-Neoliberal Politics. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2019 [cited 2019 Aug 25 ];17:312-313
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This ethnography of ecotourism in the austral Andes of southwest Argentina comes as a rich new contribution to the anthropology of tourism, to Latin American studies and to the theorisation of risk in political ecology. Tourism, in as much as it concurrently straddles ecological, political, aesthetic, economic and cultural domains, deserves to be treated as a total social fact (Mauss 1967). Mendoza's comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon without carving up a perspectival niche for himself is therefore particularly commendable. Focusing on the Parque National Los Glaciares, and the 2003-2015 presidential reign of the Kirchners, this book analyses the centrality of a “green productivist” approach in Latin America's New Left movement. Coronil (1997) claimed that it was the extraction of rent – political economy's least-emphasised of the foundational trio of capital-profit, labour-wages, land-rent – that allowed for the “magical” powers of the Venezuelan petro-state. High-value, exclusive alpine tourism, which allows national parks to be constituted as territories for monopolised rent-extraction, Mendoza argues, is similarly central to the power and legitimacy of the post-neoliberal yet neo-developmentalist Argentinian state.

The legitimising rhetoric of this dispensation, he claims, works by positing nature tourism in Patagonia as a path towards personal income, and towards state revenue, with the promise of pumping the latter back into social and environmental welfare. While this discourse gives credibility to forms of green developmentalist governance, Mendoza critiques its cunning in creating a “semiotic estate”. Through “place branding and commodification strategies” (12), well-connected capitalists are granted monopoly concessions to the estate, so as to exclude both non-elite entrepreneurs and non-elite leisure-seekers from its use. Furthermore, even as post-neoliberalism promises the re-establishment of social safety-nets destroyed in the neoliberal turn, such welfare is tied to the category of formal labour. The book shows that the structural condition of tourism as a neo-developmentalist market-oriented ideology pushes workers towards informal labouring options, thereby making them second-tier citizens within the green productivist state. Also critiqued is the “hegemonic conservation front” that emerges around the state's mandate to protect nature – as a source of touristic income. Park management through discourses of community-based conservation and sustainability allows for a territorialisation of state power that can closely govern the citizens' subjectivities and practices without being perceived as overtly coercive.

Mendoza's primary fieldwork coincided with the global financial crisis of 2011. He uses this ethnographic/historical happenstance to offer a deep meditation on how contemporary social life is suffused with the need to manage ecological and economic risks. The chapters systematically delve into the thematisation of risks by differently situated interest groups – namely the elite alpine tourists, the tourism entrepreneurs, the state conservation functionaries and the Argentinian state. These risks reflect the constraints the larger political-economy places on people. In turn, the situated practices of risk-management help expand the green capitalist economy.

The first two chapters after the introduction demonstrate how the nature-oriented risk subjectivities of mountaineers and trekkers are implicated in global modes of capitalistic value-creation from, and of the landscape. The semiotic estate relies on harnessing the allure of risk that mountaineers create by “performing resolve” through daredevil, environmentally-conscious climbing techniques that “ennoble life”. Such imaginaries of adventure then draw international trekkers, whose “aesthetic experience of the overpowering force or scale of nature” (45), described as the “Patagonian sublime”, entails more of an imagined vulnerability to nature than actual physical danger. Performing resolve however is made possible by corporate sponsorship from global adventure brands that privilege the Euro-American “super-elite” mountaineers while condemning local climbers to being second-tier vanguards. Despite being a nationally-valued landscape, the Patagonian sublime becomes prohibitively expensive for most Argentinians, pushed out by the global elite tourists' performance, in Bourdieu's terms, of class-as-taste. The “serious game” (Ortner 1999) of forging a counter-culture and sublimating bourgeois discontent (Fletcher 2014) through mountaineering, Mendoza shows us, is now a “status game”, saturated by corporate branding. We learn why we cannot think of Patagonia the place today without thinking of Patagonia the outdoor clothing brand.

The next section discusses the socio-economic hierarchies of the tourism industry, tied up with actors seeking to minimise and control their risk from the economy. On one end, big businesses give rise to the spectre of a shadow state, where suspect patronage networks yield rent monopolies. On the other extreme, the seasonal workers bear the brunt of economic risks – as informally labouring second-tier citizens; and as subaltern subjects whose boisterous sociality is seen as a threat to the park's high-end place-brand. In the middle stand the small tourism operators, torn internally between opposing moral ideals of individualistic pulling-oneself-up-by-the-bootstrap entrepreneurialism, and market solidarity that values intra-class co-operation, opposition to big monopolies and granting of formal employment to migrant labour.

The third section focuses on the conservation bureaucracy's mobilisation of scientific sustainability to counter risks to the ecology. At the centre is a story of a private-citizens-initiated trail reconstruction project that epitomises the ideal of non-coercively recruited conservation subjects who volunteer time and effort to park management, without questioning the state-capital hegemony over nature. In this hegemony, sustainable use squares with ecotourism, ecological harm squares with practices that hinders touristic capital accumulation, and extension of state power squares with enforcement of zoning policies and with ostensibly “educational” patrolling/policing of the landscape.

In the last section Mendoza contrasts scientific sustainability with popular sustainability. The latter involves a notion of risk to nature as a collective material-symbolic patrimony that has to be saved from capture by corruption of the shadow state. Sporadic manifestations include the opposition to a private land grant of the alpine landscape, and to the construction of a highway which would dilute the locally-valued preservationist aesthetic. The chapters end with a reassertion of the central claim of the book that ecotourism is part of the Kirchners' repertoire of a “pluralized rentier state”. While rentiering in agriculture may be more authoritative and antagonistic, ecotourism is still within the larger bundle of an “all of the above” approach to resource exploitation that tries to marry development and conservation to yield larger capital accumulation and a stronger state.

In the vast ground that this book covers conceptually and ethnographically, there are points at which one is left wishing, using a trekking analogy, that the author had led us further down trails that held the promise of deeper analytical insights. For example, the semiotic estate is defined as the “coupled territorial and symbolic monopolies that facilitate rent capture” by the “public-private alliance” of the “conservation state and the tourism industry” (12). Case in point are the international brands that extract value from Patagonia by capturing its symbolic meaning as a zone of adventure. How is such capture monopolised? Is there an excess in this symbolic value that eludes monopolisation and ownership, given that once Patagonia is a sign-value, geographic foreclosures would be hard to enforce? With the less expansive discussion of the actual rent amounts charged, the mechanisms of its collection, budgeting, dispersal, etc., we understand more about rentiering as a discursive mode of power than as a political-economic strategy of rule.

One also wonders about the limits of performing resolve, involving “the positive sense of risking death as a way to create a community of practitioners organised around a shared sense of value” (38). Hayden Kennedy, a controversial “super elite” climber described in the book committed suicide in 2017, unable to reconcile with the death of his climbing partner. The incisive analysis of the performance of resolve as a capitalistic space-making practice is appreciable. The internal contradictions of this resolve though could be further explored. Similarly, the scrutiny of rock-climbing “play” of the seasonal workers, as a way of coping with marginalisation, was fascinating yet brief. Lastly, paralleling the discussion of the particularly male-centric imaginary of the indigenous Aonikenk and the livestock-tending, horse-rising gauchos as the exotic touristic other, how does Patagonian mountaineering veer into or away from machismo?

Overall, this book should appeal to a variety of readers, as it offers novel insights into Latin American resource politics, new directions of neoliberal conservation and the entanglements between capitalism, risk and ecology. The lucid writing makes it particularly accessible for undergraduate classrooms. It offers two major provocations that will compel attention and reflection from both academics and practitioners. Firstly, that the distance between the expansive powers of extractive environmental practices and the power derived from conservation may not be as much as is often professed to be. Secondly, as we live in economically and ecologically precarious times, the book prompts us to think more about how risks can be both seductive and vulnerability-inducing; both structurally constraining and productive practice-enabling.[4]


1Fernando, C. 1997. The magical state: nature, money, and modernity in Venezuela. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
2Fletcher, R. 2014. Romancing the wild: cultural dimensions of ecotourism. Durham [North Carolina]: Duke University Press.
3Mauss, M. 1967. The gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
4Ortner, S.B. 1999. Life and death on Mt. Everest: sherpas and himalayan mountaineering. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.