Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

by James C. Scott
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

by James C. Scott


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“One of the most profound and illuminating studies of this century to have been published in recent decades.”—John Gray, New York Times Book Review
“A powerful, and in many [ways] insightful, explanation as to why grandiose programs of social reform, not to mention revolution, so often end in tragedy. . . . An important critique of visionary state planning.”—Robert Heilbroner, Lingua Franca
Hailed as “a magisterial critique of top-down social planning” by the New York Times, this essential work analyzes disasters from Russia to Tanzania to uncover why states so often fail—sometimes catastrophically—in grand efforts to engineer their society or their environment, and uncovers the conditions common to all such planning disasters.
“Beautifully written, this book calls into sharp relief the nature of the world we now inhabit.”—New Yorker
“A tour de force.”—Charles Tilly, Columbia University
The Institution for Social and Policy Studies

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300246759
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 03/17/2020
Series: Veritas Paperbacks
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 91,626
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

James C. Scott is Sterling Professor of Political Science and codirector of the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University.

Read an Excerpt


Nature and Space

Would it not be a great satisfaction to the king to know at a designated moment every year the number of his subjects, in total and by region, with all the resources, wealth & poverty of each place; [the number] of his nobility and ecclesiastics of all kinds, of men of the robe, of Catholics and of those of the other religion, all separated according to the place of their residence? ... [Would it not be] a useful and necessary pleasure for him to be able, in his own office, to review in an hour's time the present and past condition of a great realm of which he is the head, and be able himself to know with certitude in what consists his grandeur, his wealth, and his strengths?

--Marquis de Vauban, proposing an annual census to Louis XIV in 1686

Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision. The great advantage of such tunnel vision is that it brings into sharp focus certain limited aspects of an otherwise far more complex and unwieldy reality. This very simplification, in turn, makes the phenomenon at the center of the field of vision more legible and hence more susceptible to careful measurement and calculation. Combined with similar observations, an overall, aggregate, synoptic view of a selective reality is achieved, making possible a high degree of schematic knowledge, control, and manipulation.

The invention of scientific forestry in late eighteenth-century Prussia and Saxony serves as something of a model of this process. Although the history of scientific forestry is important in its own right, it is used here as a metaphor for the forms of knowledge and manipulation characteristic of powerful institutions with sharply defined interests, of which state bureaucracies and large commercial firms are perhaps the outstanding examples. Once we have seen how simplification, legibility, and manipulation operate in forest management, we can then explore how the modern state applies a similar lens to urban planning, rural settlement, land administration, and agriculture.

The State and Scientific Forestry: A Parable

I [Gilgamesh] would conquer in the Cedar Forest.... I will set my hand to it and will chop down the Cedar.

--Epic of Gilgamesh

The early modern European state, even before the development of scientific forestry, viewed its forests primarily through the fiscal lens of revenue needs. To be sure, other concerns--such as timber for shipbuilding, state construction, and fuel for the economic security of its subjects--were not entirely absent from official management. These concerns also had heavy implications for state revenue and security. Exaggerating only slightly, one might say that the crown's interest in forests was resolved through its fiscal lens into a single number: the revenue yield of the timber that might be extracted annually.

The best way to appreciate how heroic was this constriction of vision is to notice what fell outside its field of vision. Lurking behind the number indicating revenue yield were not so much forests as commercial wood, representing so many thousands of board feet of saleable timber and so many cords of firewood fetching a certain price. Missing, of course, were all those trees, bushes, and plants holding little or no potential for state revenue. Missing as well were all those parts of trees, even revenue-bearing trees, which might have been useful to the population but whose value could not be converted into fiscal receipts. Here I have in mind foliage and its uses as fodder and thatch; fruits, as food for people and domestic animals; twigs and branches, as bedding, fencing, hop poles, and kindling; bark and roots, for making medicines and for tanning; sap, for making resins; and so forth. Each species of tree--indeed, each part or growth stage of each species--had its unique properties and uses. A fragment of the entry under "elm" in a popular seventeenth-century encyclopedia on aboriculture conveys something of the vast range of practical uses to which the tree could be put.

Elm is a timber of most singular use, especially whereby it may be continually dry, or wet, in extremes; therefore proper for water works, mills, the ladles and soles of the wheel, pumps, aqueducts, ship planks below the water line, ... also for wheelwrights, handles for the single handsaw, rails and gates. Elm is not so apt to rive [split] ... and is used for chopping blocks, blocks for the hat maker, trunks and boxes to be covered with leather, coffins and dressers and shovelboard tables of great length; also for the carver and those curious workers of fruitage, foliage, shields, statues and most of the ornaments appertaining to the orders of architecture.... And finally ... the use of the very leaves of this tree, especially the female, is not to be despised, ... for they will prove of great relief to cattle in the winter and scorching summers when hay and fodder is dear.... The green leaf of the elms contused heals a green wound or cut, and boiled with the bark, consolidates bone fractures.

In state "fiscal forestry," however, the actual tree with its vast number of possible uses was replaced by an abstract tree representing a volume of lumber or firewood. If the princely conception of the forest was still utilitarian, it was surely a utilitarianism confined to the direct needs of the state.

From a naturalist's perspective, nearly everything was missing from the state's narrow frame of reference. Gone was the vast majority of flora: grasses, flowers, lichens, ferns, mosses, shrubs, and vines. Gone, too, were reptiles, birds, amphibians, and innumerable species of insects. Gone were most species of fauna, except those that interested the crown's gamekeepers.

From an anthropologist's perspective, nearly everything touching on human interaction with the forest was also missing from the state's tunnel vision. The state did pay attention to poaching, which impinged on its claim to revenue in wood or its claim to royal game, but otherwise it typically ignored the vast, complex, and negotiated social uses of the forest for hunting and gathering, pasturage, fishing, charcoal making, trapping, and collecting food and valuable minerals as well as the forest's significance for magic, worship, refuge, and so on.

If the utilitarian state could not see the real, existing forest for the (commercial) trees, if its view of its forests was abstract and partial, it was hardly unique in this respect. Some level of abstraction is necessary for virtually all forms of analysis, and it is not at all surprising that the abstractions of state officials should have reflected the paramount fiscal interests of their employer. The entry under "forest" in Diderot's Encyclopedie is almost exclusively concerned with the utilite publique of forest products and the taxes, revenues, and profits that they can be made to yield. The forest as a habitat disappears and is replaced by the forest as an economic resource to be managed efficiently and profitably. Here, fiscal and commercial logics coincide; they are both resolutely fixed on the bottom line.

The vocabulary used to organize nature typically betrays the overriding interests of its human users. In fact, utilitarian discourse replaces the term "nature" with the term "natural resources," focusing on those aspects of nature that can be appropriated for human use. A comparable logic extracts from a more generalized natural world those flora or fauna that are of utilitarian value (usually marketable commodities) and, in turn, reclassifies those species that compete with, prey on, or otherwise diminish the yields of the valued species. Thus, plants that are valued become "crops," the species that compete with them are stigmatized as "weeds," and the insects that ingest them are stigmatized as "pests." Thus, trees that are valued become "timber," while species that compete with them become "trash" trees or "underbrush." The same logic applies to fauna. Highly valued animals become "game" or "livestock," while those animals that compete with or prey upon them become "predators" or "varmints."

The kind of abstracting, utilitarian logic that the state, through its officials, applied to the forest is thus not entirely distinctive. What is distinctive about this logic, however, is the narrowness of its field of vision, the degree of elaboration to which it can be subjected, and above all, as we shall see, the degree to which it allowed the state to impose that logic on the very reality that was observed.

Scientific forestry was originally developed from about 1765 to 1800, largely in Prussia and Saxony. Eventually, it would become the basis of forest management techniques in France, England, and the United States and throughout the Third World. Its emergence cannot be understood outside the larger context of the centralized state-making initiatives of the period. In fact, the new forestry science was a subdiscipline of what was called cameral science, an effort to reduce the fiscal management of a kingdom to scientific principles that would allow systematic planning. Traditional domainal forestry had hitherto simply divided the forest into roughly equal plots, with the number of plots coinciding with the number of years in the assumed growth cycle. One plot was cut each year on the assumption of equal yields (and value) from plots of equal size. Because of poor maps, the uneven distribution of the most valuable large trees (Hochwald), and very approximate cordwood (Bruststaerke) measures, the results were unsatisfactory for fiscal planning.

Careful exploitation of domainal forests was all the more imperative in the late eighteenth century, when fiscal officials became aware of a growing shortage of wood. Many of the old-growth forests of oak, beech, hornbeam, and linden had been severely degraded by planned and unplanned felling, while the regrowth was not as robust as hoped. The prospect of declining yields was alarming, not merely because it threatened revenue flows but also because it might provoke massive poaching by a peasantry in search of firewood. One sign of this concern were the numerous state-sponsored competitions for designs of more efficient woodstoves.

The first attempt at more precise measurements of forests was made by Johann Gottlieb Beckmann on a carefully surveyed sample plot. Walking abreast, several assistants carried compartmentalized boxes with color-coded nails corresponding to five categories of tree sizes, which they had been trained to identify. Each tree was tagged with the appropriate nail until the sample plot had been covered. Because each assistant had begun with a certain number of nails, it was a simple matter to subtract the remaining nails from the initial total and arrive at an inventory of trees by class for the entire plot. The sample plot had been carefully chosen for its representativeness, allowing the foresters to then calculate the timber and, given certain price assumptions, the revenue yield of the whole forest. For the forest scientists (Forstwissenschaftler) the goal was always to "deliver the greatest possible constant volume of wood."

The effort at precision was pushed further as mathematicians worked from the cone-volume principle to specify the volume of saleable wood contained by a standardized tree (Normalbaum) of a given size-class. Their calculations were checked empirically against the actual volume of wood in sample trees. The final result of such calculations was the development of elaborate tables with data organized by tree size and age under specified conditions of normal growth and maturation. By radically narrowing his vision to commercial wood, the state forester had, with his tables, paradoxically achieved a synoptic view of the entire forest. This restriction of focus reflected in the tables was in fact the only way in which the whole forest could be taken in by a single optic. Reference to these tables coupled with field tests allowed the forester to estimate closely the inventory, growth, and yield of a given forest. In the regulated, abstract forest of the forstwissenschaftler, calculation and measurement prevailed, and the three watchwords, in modern parlance, were "minimum diversity," the "balance sheet," and "sustained yield." The logic of the state-managed forest science was virtually identical with the logic of commercial exploitation.

The achievement of German forestry science in standardizing techniques for calculating the sustainable yield of commercial timber and hence revenue was impressive enough. What is decisive for our purposes, however, was the next logical step in forest management. That step was to attempt to create, through careful seeding, planting, and cutting, a forest that was easier for state foresters to count, manipulate, measure, and assess. The fact is that forest science and geometry, backed by state power, had the capacity to transform the real, diverse, and chaotic old-growth forest into a new, more uniform forest that closely resembled the administrative grid of its techniques. To this end, the underbrush was cleared, the number of species was reduced (often to monoculture), and plantings were done simultaneously and in straight rows on large tracts. These management practices, as Henry Lowood observes, "produced the monocultural, even-age forests that eventually transformed the Normalbaum from abstraction to reality. The German forest became the archetype for imposing on disorderly nature the neatly arranged constructs of science. Practical goals had encouraged mathematical utilitarianism, which seemed, in turn, to promote geometric perfection as the outward sign of the well managed forest; in turn the rationally ordered arrangements of trees offered new possibilities for controlling nature."

The tendency was toward regimentation, in the strict sense of the word. The forest trees were drawn up into serried, uniform ranks, as it were, to be measured, counted off, felled, and replaced by a new rank and file of lookalike conscripts. As an army, it was also designed hierarchically from above to fulfill a unique purpose and to be at the disposition of a single commander. At the limit, the forest itself would not even have to be seen; it could be "read" accurately from the tables and maps in the forester's office.

How much easier it was to manage the new, stripped-down forest. With stands of same-age trees arranged in linear alleys, clearing the underbrush, felling, extraction, and new planting became a far more routine process. Increasing order in the forest made it possible for forest workers to use written training protocols that could be widely applied. A relatively unskilled and inexperienced labor crew could adequately carry out its tasks by following a few standard rules in the new forest environment. Harvesting logs of relatively uniform width and length not only made it possible to forecast yields successfully but also to market homogeneous product units to logging contractors and timber merchants. Commercial logic and bureaucratic logic were, in this instance, synonymous; it was a system that promised to maximize the return of a single commodity over the long haul and at the same time lent itself to a centralized scheme of management.

The new legible forest was also easier to manipulate experimentally. Now that the more complex old-growth forest had been replaced by a forest in which many variables were held constant, it was a far simpler matter to examine the effects of such variables as fertilizer applications, rainfall, and weeding, on same-age, single-species stands. It was the closest thing to a forest laboratory one could imagine at the time. The very simplicity of the forest made it possible, for the first time, to assess novel regimens of forest management under nearly experimental conditions.

Although the geometric, uniform forest was intended to facilitate management and extraction, it quickly became a powerful aesthetic as well. The visual sign of the well-managed forest, in Germany and in the many settings where German scientific forestry took hold, came to be the regularity and neatness of its appearance. Forests might be inspected in much the same way as a commanding officer might review his troops on parade, and woe to the forest guard whose "beat" was not sufficiently trim or "dressed." This aboveground order required that underbrush be removed and that fallen trees and branches be gathered and hauled off. Unauthorized disturbances--whether by fire or by local populations--were seen as implicit threats to management routines. The more uniform the forest, the greater the possibilities for centralized management; the routines that could be applied minimized the need for the discretion necessary in the management of diverse old-growth forests.

The controlled environment of the redesigned, scientific forest promised many striking advantages. It could be synoptically surveyed by the chief forester; it could be more easily supervised and harvested according to centralized, long-range plans; it provided a steady, uniform commodity, thereby eliminating one major source of revenue fluctuation; and it created a legible natural terrain that facilitated manipulation and experimentation.

This utopian dream of scientific forestry was, of course, only the immanent logic of its techniques. It was not and could not ever be realized in practice. Both nature and the human factor intervened. The existing topography of the landscape and the vagaries of fire, storms, blights, climatic changes, insect populations, and disease conspired to thwart foresters and to shape the actual forest. Also, given the insurmountable difficulties of policing large forests, people living nearby typically continued to graze animals, poach firewood and kindling, make charcoal, and use the forest in other ways that prevented the foresters' management plan from being fully realized. Although, like all utopian schemes, it fell well short of attaining its goal, the critical fact is that it did partly succeed in stamping the actual forest with the imprint of its designs.

The principles of scientific forestry were applied as rigorously as was practicable to most large German forests throughout much of the nineteenth century. The Norway spruce, known for its hardiness, rapid growth, and valuable wood, became the bread-and-butter tree of commercial forestry. Originally, the Norway spruce was seen as a restoration crop that might revive overexploited mixed forests, but the commercial profits from the first rotation were so stunning that there was little effort to return to mixed forests. The monocropped forest was a disaster for peasants who were now deprived of all the grazing, food, raw materials, and medicines that the earlier forest ecology had afforded. Diverse old-growth forests, about three-fourths of which were broadleaf (deciduous) species, were replaced by largely coniferous forests in which Norway spruce or Scotch pine were the dominant or often only species.

In the short run, this experiment in the radical simplification of the forest to a single commodity was a resounding success. It was a rather long short run, in the sense that a single crop rotation of trees might take eighty years to mature. The productivity of the new forests reversed the decline in the domestic wood supply, provided more uniform stands and more usable wood fiber, raised the economic return of forest land, and appreciably shortened rotation times (the time it took to harvest a stand and plant another). Like row crops in a field, the new softwood forests were prodigious producers of a single commodity. Little wonder that the German model of intensive commercial forestry became standard throughout the world. Gifford Pinchot, the second chief forester of the United States, was trained at the French forestry school at Nancy, which followed a German-style curriculum, as did most U.S. and European forestry schools. The first forester hired by the British to assess and manage the great forest resources of India and Burma was Dietrich Brandes, a German. By the end of the nineteenth century, German forestry science was hegemonic.

The great simplification of the forest into a "one-commodity machine" was precisely the step that allowed German forestry science to become a rigorous technical and commercial discipline that could be codified and taught. A condition of its rigor was that it severely bracketed, or assumed to be constant, all variables except those bearing directly on the yield of the selected species and on the cost of growing and extracting them. As we shall see with urban planning, revolutionary theory, collectivization, and rural resettlement, a whole world lying "outside the brackets" returned to haunt this technical vision.

In the German case, the negative biological and ultimately commercial consequences of the stripped-down forest became painfully obvious only after the second rotation of conifers had been planted. "It took about one century for them [the negative consequences] to show up clearly. Many of the pure stands grew excellently in the first generation but already showed an amazing retrogression in the second generation. The reason for this is a very complex one and only a simplified explanation can be given.... Then the whole nutrient cycle got out of order and eventually was nearly stopped.... Anyway, the drop of one or two site classes [used for grading the quality of timber] during two or three generations of pure spruce is a well known and frequently observed fact. This represents a production loss of 20 to 30 percent."

A new term, Waldsterben (forest death), entered the German vocabulary to describe the worst cases. An exceptionally complex process involving soil building, nutrient uptake, and symbiotic relations among fungi, insects, mammals, and flora--which were, and still are, not entirely understood--was apparently disrupted, with serious consequences. Most of these consequences can be traced to the radical simplicity of the scientific forest.

Only an elaborate treatise in ecology could do justice to the subject of what went wrong, but mentioning a few of the major effects of simplification will illustrate how vital many of the factors bracketed by scientific forestry turned out to be. German forestry's attention to formal order and ease of access for management and extraction led to the clearing of underbrush, deadfalls, and snags (standing dead trees), greatly reducing the diversity of insect, mammal, and bird populations so essential to soil-building processes. The absence of litter and woody biomass on the new forest floor is now seen as a major factor leading to thinner and less nutritious soils. Same-age, same-species forests not only created a far less diverse habitat but were also more vulnerable to massive storm-felling. The very uniformity of species and age among, say, Norway spruce also provided a favorable habitat to all the "pests" which were specialized to that species. Populations of these pests built up to epidemic proportions, inflicting losses in yields and large outlays for fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, or rodenticides. Apparently the first rotation of Norway spruce had grown exceptionally well in large part because it was living off (or mining) the long-accumulated soil capital of the diverse old-growth forest that it had replaced. Once that capital was depleted, the steep decline in growth rates began.

As pioneers in scientific forestry, the Germans also became pioneers in recognizing and attempting to remedy many of its undesirable consequences. To this end, they invented the science of what they called "forest hygiene." In place of hollow trees that had been home to woodpeckers, owls, and other tree-nesting birds, the foresters provided specially designed boxes. Ant colonies were artificially raised and implanted in the forest, their nests tended by local schoolchildren. Several species of spiders, which had disappeared from the monocropped forest, were reintroduced. What is striking about these endeavors is that they are attempts to work around an impoverished habitat still planted with a single species of conifers for production purposes. In this case, "restoration forestry" attempted with mixed results to create a virtual ecology, while denying its chief sustaining condition: diversity.

The metaphorical value of this brief account of scientific production forestry is that it illustrates the dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value. The instrument, the knife, that carved out the new, rudimentary forest was the razor-sharp interest in the production of a single commodity. Everything that interfered with the efficient production of the key commodity was implacably eliminated. Everything that seemed unrelated to efficient production was ignored. Having come to see the forest as a commodity, scientific forestry set about refashioning it as a commodity machine. Utilitarian simplification in the forest was an effective way of maximizing wood production in the short and intermediate term. Ultimately, however, its emphasis on yield and paper profits, its relatively short time horizon, and, above all, the vast array of consequences it had resolutely bracketed came back to haunt it.

Even in the realm of greatest interest--namely, the production of wood fiber--the consequences of not seeing the forest for the trees sooner or later became glaring. Many were directly traceable to the basic simplification imposed in the interest of ease of management and economic return: monoculture. Monocultures are, as a rule, more fragile and hence more vulnerable to the stress of disease and weather than polycultures are. As Richard Plochmann expresses it, "One further drawback, which is typical of all pure plantations, is that the ecology of the natural plant associations became unbalanced. Outside of the natural habitat, and when planted in pure stands, the physical condition of the single tree weakens and resistance against enemies decreases." Any unmanaged forest may experience stress from storms, disease, drought, fragile soil, or severe cold. A diverse, complex forest, however, with its many species of trees, its full complement of birds, insects, and mammals, is far more resilient--far more able to withstand and recover from such injuries--than pure stands. Its very diversity and complexity help to inoculate it against devastation: a windstorm that fells large, old trees of one species will typically spare large trees of other species as well as small trees of the same species; a blight or insect attack that threatens, say, oaks may leave lindens and hornbeams unscathed. Just as a merchant who, not knowing what conditions her ships will face at sea, sends out scores of vessels with different designs, weights, sails, and navigational aids stands a better chance of having much of her fleet make it to port, while a merchant who stakes everything on a single ship design and size runs a higher risk of losing everything, forest biodiversity acts like an insurance policy. Like the enterprise run by the second merchant, the simplified forest is a more vulnerable system, especially over the long haul, as its effects on soil, water, and "pest" populations become manifest. Such dangers can only partly be checked by the use of artificial fertilizers, insecticides, and fungicides. Given the fragility of the simplified production forest, the massive outside intervention that was required to establish it--we might call it the administrators' forest--is increasingly necessary in order to sustain it as well.

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