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Past Distinguished Visiting Speakers

Previous Speakers

  • 29 September 2011:  Philip McMichael, 21st Century Development: Crisis and Renewal

  • 9 March 2011:  Victor Li, Globalization Without the World: The Allegorical Imperative

  • 10 March 2010:  Saskia Sassen,  The World's Third Spaces: Towards New Assemblages of Territory, Authority and Rights

  • 18 March 2009:  Boris Kargarlitsky, Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System

  • 17 April 2008: John McNeill, Empires of Energy: Peat, Oil and Coal and the International System Since 1580

  • 11 October 2007:  Aihwa Ong, Neoliberalism as a Technology of Governing

  • 18 April 2006:  Antonio Negri, The Multitude and United States Imperialism: Is a "New Democracy" Possible?

  • 16 March 2006:  Etienne Balibar, Strangers and Enemies: Further Reflections on the Aporias of Transnational Citizenship

  • 3 February 2005:  Ronen Palan, The Changing Topography of Globalization

  • 12 February 2004:  Michael Adas, Wary Vanguard: Sources of American Resistance to Globalization

  • 31 October 2002:  Ernesto Laclau, Contingency, Social Antagonisms and Globalization

  • 17 October 2002:  Aijaz Ahmad, Postcolonialism and Globalization: Changing Dynamics of Politics and Culture

  • 5 February 2001:  Michael Hardt, Globalization and Democracy

  • 28 September 2000:  Rey Chow, Collecting, Fidelity, Belonging: A Reading of Lao She's "Attachment"

  • 2 March 2000:  Arif Dirlik, Globalization as the End and the Beginning of History

  • 26 February 1999:  Linda Weiss, State Power and Asian Crisis

  • 23 February 1998:  Richard Higgot, Coming to Terms with Globalization?

An Interview with Philip McMichael

Agriculture must be at centre of development’s focus on managing future

By Mark Burgess, Graduate Student, IGHC MA in Globalization Studies Program

Agriculture must be “re-centered” as a source of socio-ecological sustainability rather than as an industrial economic sector, Cornell University’s Dr. Philip McMichael said in a September 29th public lecture hosted by McMaster University’s Institute on Globalization and the Human Condition (IGHC).

Peak oil extraction, the financial crisis, global warming and the collapse of order seen in the Arab Spring are interconnected, McMichael said, and all tied to food.

The challenge now is for development to focus on managing the future rather than improving on the past, he said, and to end the “fatal separation” of the natural and social sciences.

“Epistemically, surviving the future, in my view, means re-centering agriculture,” McMichael told the audience at Gilmour Hall. “Ironically, our development narrative has consigned agriculture to a secondary role, as servant to industrialization.”

McMichael marked 2008—with inflationary food prices he attributes to financial speculation and the move to biofuels for green energy—as a turning point. Agriculture, while both a significant source of greenhouse gases and ecosystem degradation, could also be the solution, he said, if local farmers’ place-based knowledge of ecosystems can be incorporated into a development paradigm that is currently too focused on price and industrialization.

The professor from Cornell’s Department of Development Sociology was the IGHC’s 17th Distinguished Visiting Speaker since the series launched in 1998, with other globalization luminaries such as Saskia Sassen, Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt and Arif Dirlik delivering public talks in past years.

In his introduction to McMichael’s lecture, IGHC director Robert O’Brien recalled the impact McMichael’s 1997 article “Rethinking Globalization: The Agrarian Question Revisited” had on him.

“Reading that article was like hitting me over the head with a shovel,” O’Brien said.

The lecture had a similar effect on the audience.

“You’ve scared me out of my senses,” one woman told McMichael during the question-and-answer session that followed.

There was plenty in the lecture to cause alarm, as McMichael cited news articles and reports from various intergovernmental bodies, as well as his own research.

More than one billion new consumers in 20 middle-income countries who wish to signal their new affluence by eating meat and driving cars are intensifying the demand for food, he told the lecture audience.

“Financial speculation compounds the problem,” he added. “The financial crisis contributed to speculation in commodity futures, encouraging investors to shift their funds into agricultural commodities and oil, driving up the price of land, food and farm inputs.”

Agriculture’s connection to rising greenhouse gases has been largely overlooked, McMichael said, even though it contributes up to one-third of emissions when land clearance is included.

Industrial biofuels, which he said the World Bank blames for 65 percent of the spike in food prices, can actually increase emissions via a “biofuel carbon debt.”

McMichael criticized development theory for being “fashioned as if human societies had no ecological basis” while informing agricultural and industrial practices that are dependent on extraction from nature and ignore the environmental impact.

Restoring biodiverse ecosystems is one of the most daunting challenges, he said, and one that our political institutions are especially ill-equipped to face.

McMichael referenced the United Nations’ 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which found that the world’s poor—often considered redundant in the development paradigm committed to industrialization and de-ruralization—are essential to understanding and managing ecosystems’ specific dynamics with their place-based knowledge.

“The ontological bias of our development paradigm toward commodification obscures socio-ecological services practiced by smallholders, fisher folk and forest dwellers, discounting their potential as a source of environmental knowledge to manage the future,” he said.

“Resolution of the limits of this bias requires incorporating values other than price into the development equation—which must now become about resilience rather than endless accumulation. The majority of human activity is local, non-monetized, and diverse, despite the reach of the universalizing market.”

McMichael argued that re-centering agriculture means adopting sustainable practices that take biodiversity into account but also involves revaluing farming in the social sphere and supporting those returning to the land.

He pointed to the UN- and World Bank-sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) from 2008 that called for a multifunctional role for agriculture that includes reducing poverty and social/gender inequality, stabilizing rural structures, reversing environmental degradation, and slowing global warming.

The report calls for natural, social and health scientists to work with local farmers, governments and civil society organizations to ensure the viability of the 350 to 500 million small farms that accommodate 42 percent of the world’s population, make up 80 percent of its agricultural land and account for 70 percent of its food supply, he said.

To strengthen the small farms, McMichael said the report calls for a move away from hierarchical development models and to instead build trust and to value farmers’ knowledge as well as natural and agricultural biodiversity.

In a seminar with Globalization students the following day, McMichael spoke of the need to combine food movements with elements of democracy and social justice to create a unified social movement. Local farmers’ markets, he said, should be connected to the social justice chain in urban areas.

The idea that small farmers are anachronistic needs to be discarded, he said, and the development paradigm we’ve internalized—that modernity is about urbanity and that places agriculture as the servant of the city—must be flipped.

Rather than forcing migration to urban slums, he argued, farming should be revalued so that people don’t want to leave small farms, and regulations that ruin small agriculture should be dismantled.

Learn more about Dr. Philip McMichael’s research