In economics, psychology, sociology, and philosophy agency is the capacity of an actor to act in any given environment. In sociology, an agent is an individual engaging with the social structure. However there is an ongoing debate within sociology as to the primacy of social structure vs. individual capacity/action.
Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices, and have the condition, or state of acting or of exerting power. The structure versus agency debate may be understood as an issue of socialization against autonomy in determining whether an individual acts as a free agent or in a manner dictated by social structure.
The concept of agency has existed since the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries). René Descartes' phrase Cogito ergo sum stated that anyone who could think is an agent, and any agent capable of knowing that it can think was a subject. Immanuel Kant expanded on this theory by stating that the only way to truly become self-aware is to engage with the outside world. These definitions of agency remained mostly unquestioned until the nineteenth century, when philosophers began arguing that the choices humans make are dictated by forces beyond their control. For example, Karl Marx argued that in modern society, people were controlled by the ideologies of the bourgeoisie, and Friedrich Nietzsche argued that humans made choices based on their own selfish desires, or the ‘Will to Power’.
All of the above approaches to the concept of Agency are centered on the human mind and its power over all other natural forces that can be conquered and manipulated: Thus laying the foundations for future scientific and industrial revolutions that have set the tone for ideas and approaches prevalent in mainstream development.
The industrialization of the world dramatically altered the natural world through new methods of resource extraction, production and transportation. The scale and intensity at which nature was used and abused increased manifold. More humans producing more and consuming more led to greater pollution and habitat degradation. The pace of environmental destruction greatly accelerated. Nature became a source of cheap raw materials as well as a dumping ground for the unwanted waste generated by economic growth.
Decolonization opened up the possibility of these previously ‘underdeveloped’ nations ‘developing’ along the same lines as the West. Rapid industrialization, it was thought, would end poverty and unemployment and make for a strong and self-reliant society. Henry Morgenthau, at the founding of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) in 1945, claimed that all nations could enjoy the fruits of material progress on an earth infinitely blessed with natural resources. In this manner, the prospect of unending economic growth was presented as a model of growth for the under-developed nations.
Overlooking Nature: A perspective on development projects
In his book, The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh talks about collective wisdom accrued over generations that have been put aside when it comes to development projects. The 2011 earthquake off the coast of Japan and the subsequent tsunami that caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to go into meltdown has been recorded as the biggest nuclear fallout since Chernobyl. Collective knowledge was set aside when building the nuclear plant: The coast around Fukushima has stone tablets placed along the shoreline during the Middle Ages to serve as tsunami warnings. Future generations were told not to build anything close to the water. Ghosh terms this as ‘European Enlightenment’s predatory hubris in relation to the earth and its resources.’
Assam is no stranger to flooding every year, but in the monsoon this year (2017), the data released by the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA) states that it has been the worst in the last four years in terms of floods. While the natural topography and climate of the region are obvious causes, floods are also caused due to excessive infrastructure building in the area and largescale deforestation. The way the administration deals with the river further accentuates the problems and causes widespread devastation.
Closer home, Mumbai experiences flooding almost every year during the monsoons, this causes uproar in the media and among the residents of the city. The real problem though is the unchecked development and deforestation in the city that has caused the region to lose its natural capacity to absorb excess rain water. The mangroves in the city have also almost disappeared, that protect the region against storms and erratic weather.
With the current attitude towards development (as a potential cause of climate change, disasters, and subsequent conflict), we need to rethink our approach. A theory that might be adapted in the development context is the Actor-Network Theory which suggests that society, organizations, agents and machines are all effects generated in patterned networks of diverse (not just human) materials, all knowledge is the end product of a lot of hard work in which bits and pieces-test tubes, microscopes, articles, computers, other scientists- all form part of a patterned network.
This is a radical claim because it says that these networks are composed not only of people, but also of machines, animals, texts, money, architectures – any material that one can think of. It denies that people are necessarily special: it raises a basic question about what we mean when we talk of people.
The Actor-Network Theory suggests that humans are part of and make up heterogeneous networks through which they exist. If we were to suppose, the natural environment as part of this network, as a two way interaction, would that make us ‘aware’ of nature in the sense of a being that is dynamic and exhibits force, rather than a dormant, static entity?
How we distribute agency is a question with major implications for environmental accounting. It also points towards human thinking: how and why is it that we have been unable to recognize the services and agency of the natural systems- is it because policy is looked at more from the structural frame that we begin to disregard agency and all that it accounts for?
In New Zealand a former national park has been granted personhood, and a river system is expected to receive the same soon. Similar debate has also taken place in India with regard to the living entity status of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. Perhaps humans are realizing or rather revisiting the concept of natural systems having agency.