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Updated by justinpwinn on Oct 10, 2017
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The top nine economic issues in my Master's thesis project

Many groups in society find ways to harness the productivity of marine resources in order to pursue a living. The way that one group finds to exploit those resources often conflicts with another group's strategy for doing so. This list highlights the importance of an anthropological perspective in pursuing responsible approaches to managing and harvesting marine resources.

Each of the items on this list is derived from my applied anthropology thesis project, which is designed to investigate how Cortez, Florida, a traditional fishing village at the north end of Sarasota Bay, experiences and adapts to climate change.

Cortez, settled by a community of fishermen from North Carolina in the 1880s, continues to rely on harvesting marine resources for its economy. My interest is in investigating the resilience and vulnerability to climate change in a coastal community still so closely tied to the environment through its commercial fishing industry. Their resilience is evident by their long history of commercial fishing, relative to the prevalence of tourist, residential building, and retirement industries that have come to surround it. Some of their vulnerabilities are that so many other kinds of development have encroached on and surrounded Cortez, and that the last major stand of old growth mangrove forests, Long Bar Point, is under constant threat of development. The mangroves are important for providing habitat for the developmental stages of nearly all the marine species commercially harvested by the villagers. Mangroves, and coastal wetlands generally, are also important for absorbing tidal and storm water surges, events predicted to worsen through the effects of climate change and its associated sea level rise and increasing storm intensities.

Long Bar Point is privately owned by Carlos Beruff, a successful developer who is constantly seeking government approval to clear-cut the mangroves and turn the land into another luxury tourist and retirement destination. In the past, the Manatee County Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers has denied approval of his development project. Beruff has since taken the tack of submitting his development plans as an environmental easement project. And given the shifting political ground in Washington since the onset of the Trump Administration, toward less environmental regulation, it remains unresolved how much longer the Army Corps will continue to protect the mangroves. The State of Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) has actually approved the project as an environmental easement, under the direction of Govenor Rick Scott, and against the opinion of the FDEP officer who reviewed it. Beruff, himself a failed U.S. Senate candidate in 2016, has famously supported both Governor Scott’s and President Trump’s political campaigns.

Caught between prevailing political winds from the state and federal level, the future of Long Bar Point, its mangrove forest, and the livelihood of fishermen in Cortez all lie in the balance. The following is a list of the top nine ways that economic anthropology provides insight into how to approach the vulnerabilities faced by a traditional fishing village in Florida.

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What is the economy? Photo: Rick Schwartz, http://www.justenoughfocus.com/cortez-sunset/

What is the economy? Photo: Rick Schwartz, http://www.justenoughfocus.com/cortez-sunset/

In his 1972 book chapter, On the Sociology of Primitive Exchange, the anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins, simply defines the economy as, “the process of provisioning society” (p185). Whereas such a broad conception may at first appear to overlook many of the specific and conventional ways we think of economic activity, Sahlins is also careful to distinguish economic activity among others in which people engage. He asserts that economics are an aspect of human activity that performs a specific function (that which provisions society), and often does so in tandem with the performance of other functions, like politics. So, for instance, when a fisherman pays the fee for a commercial fishing license they are securing access to a public resource from which they can provision their livelihoods. But, they are also acknowledging and supporting the authority of the state to regulate the way those public resources are managed, whether or not it has the ability to do so sustainably. Ultimately, for Sahlins, the economy, as an aspect of individual or institutional activity, is inextricably wound up in all other forms of human activity, and by recognizing how those various aspects are combined is fruitful for analyzing a particular activity’s function in society. So, from an anthropological perspective, meaningful insight into economic activity is made through understanding how it is tangled up with other social activities, rather than walling off specific and arbitrary market metrics as descriptive of a society’s economy.

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Exchange: Cortez seafood market

Exchange: Cortez seafood market

Another innovation proposed by Marshall Sahlins involves rethinking the ways that people exchange goods and services that speak to the quality of the relationship between people who exchange. Richard Wilk and Lisa Cliggett outline Sahlin’s typology of exchange in their book, Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology, 2nd edition (2007). Rather than categories like barter, money, or credit used in more conventional economic analysis, Sahlins identifies relational distance as more fundamental to different kinds of exchange. For instance, in what he describes as ‘generalized reciprocity,’ goods or services will be exchanged between family members and other members of a close knit community, with little or no expectation that an equivalent good or service of any kind will be reciprocated–think of the portion of a fisherman’s catch that would be used to feed his family. In ‘balanced reciprocity,’ Sahlins asserts that exchange will be conducted between members of different families or nearby communities, such that there is an expectation an equivalent will be paid in return–such as the fish sold to tourists at market value. And, finally, Sahlins imagines what he calls ‘negative reciprocity,’ or the kind of exchange conducted between groups physically and socially distant from each other. Negative reciprocity is the most socially detached type of exchange and involves the expectation that one group can gain an advantage over the other in the exchange–like the portion of the catch whose proceeds are used to pay federal taxes and state licensing fees, particularly when the state and federal government have the responsibility to sustainably manage the fishery, but could also approve a developer’s plans that would put the fishery at risk.

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Value: What is a mangrove worth?

Value: What is a mangrove worth?

While much of conventional economics holds that value can be summed up with price, derived from measurable amounts of supply and demand, anthropology draws on more subjective aspects of social life. In his introduction to The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (1986) argues that value arises from exchange itself, mediated by complex contests of power between commoners and elite in society. Appadurai’s approach to the emergence of value, based on the ways that different segments of society relate to a particular commodity, recognizes that class politics plays an important role in determining what something is worth. For example, the mangrove forest on Long Bar Point (LBP) is valued in Cortez as a gift from God from which they sustain their village. Carlos Beruff values LBP as personal property that can be developed into a money making machine from which he can draw the resources necessary to fuel his political ambition. Governor Rick Scott and Donald Trump value LBP as the pro quo to Mr. Beruff’s quid, which he uses to support their anti-regulatory, free-market ideology.

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Value, continued...

Value, continued...

Anthropologist, Anna Tsing, imagines that the value of a commodity is derived from the conversion of gift exchange into one of capitalist market exchange in her 2013 essay, Sorting out Commodities: How Capitalist Value is Made through Gifts. She contends that capitalist markets are perpetuated by their interaction with non-capitalist types of exchange (like gifts). Further, she reasons that the personal dimension of things as gifts is eroded the closer it gets to becoming a commodity in a capitalist market, and that this cleansing of personal attributes “from forest to table,” what she calls ‘alienation assessment,’ provides the commodity with its market value. In this sense the market value of LBP lies in its owner’s ability to erase the personal connection that Cortez villagers expressly have for the gifts from God that the mangroves provide. For Tsing, developing LBP into luxury condominiums has market value because Carlos Beruff’s claim of ownership denies local fishermen’s claim of their historical connection to it.

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Some problems with market logic

Some problems with market logic

Philosopher, Michael Sandel, makes the case that market logic increasingly pervades every aspect of society in his 2012 article for The Atlantic Monthly, What Isn’t for Sale? Further, he contends that this pervasiveness fosters inequality and corruption. The problem with inequality, he observes, stems from those in society with fewer resources having to increasingly pay for things they need which were previously provided outside a market system. One example is the need for fishermen in Cortez to now buy diesel fuel, required for their longer-range motor boats, to stay competitive in the fishing market after they transitioned from using wind-powered skiffs to harvest their catches. The corruption stems from markets being judged by their productivity alone, which absolves the market of being subjected to moral considerations. For example, when a mangrove forest that provides a community with their livelihood, that absorbs tidal and storm surges, that captures carbon, and that provides habitat for biodiversity to flourish is reduced to a thing to be sold at market for private gain, then the way that forest is valued has been corrupted. Sandel’s prescription for what he terms ‘market triumphalism’ is to have public discussions about what should and should not be made subject to market logic.

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The economy is society

The economy is society

Although fishing has formed the bedrock of the economy for the people in Cortez for more than a century now, the locals have diversified their businesses, and other provisioning activities, since then. Today, one can find a multitude of industrial activities that largely either support or ride the coattails of those still harvesting marine resources, like hotels, restaurants, and tackle shops. But, none of that, including fishing, speaks to the traditional role that mainly women have performed in supporting the livelihoods of the villagers. The labor involved in smoking the fishermen’s catch, cleaning the fish guts from their clothes, and raising their children along the way is intensive work that the women have been mostly responsible for, work that has been critical in support of Cortez’s fishing economy. Marcel Mauss, a pioneering sociologist who wrote The Gift (1923-1924), investigated and theorized how modern capitalist market economies are derivative of the kind of economies that preceded it. For Mauss, the most basic form of exchange is a gift that compels the person who received it to reciprocate and set the stage for future exchange. His program of ‘total services’ considers the social dimension of exchange that conditions relationships and approaches the analysis of economy as including all of the work and activities that people in society perform in support of their livelihood.

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How can growth be sustainable?

How can growth be sustainable?

Cortez experiences two kinds of economic intensification. One kind is the relentless encroachment of vacation resorts, luxury condos, and retirement homes that have come to besiege the village on all sides. Another kind, from within the community, involves the annual cycle of preparation for the Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival. This festival has been held for 35 years, as of 2017, and now draws upwards of 20,000 guests that come to Cortez, a veritable tsunami of tourists for a village of around 5,000 people. Katherine Spielmann is one anthropologist whose work examines the role of ritual in economic intensification in her paper, Feasting, Craft Specialization, and the Ritual Mode of Production in Small-Scale Societies (2002). For Spielmann, ceremonies like Cortez’s annual fish festival are what underwrite economic intensification through personal and collective obligations related to local craft specializations, such as smoked mullet, fried mullet, and mullet sandwiches. Spielman’s work is important for upending the notion that intensification occurs only in the context of increasingly complex political systems.

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Captains of craft and power

Captains of craft and power

Anthropologist Mary Helms researched the connections among political, artisanal, and mystical proficiency in small-scale society, which has provided insight into how aesthetics and morality are conflated in society in her book chapter, Skilled Crafting and Political Authority (1993). Helms found that expert crafting signals an ability to expose cosmological realities, while successful leadership entails their imposition. The acquisition of resources, she asserts, from outside realms is an important aspect of both crafting and political leadership, and also portends the importance of travel among relatively politically decentralized communities. In Cortez, the fishing boat captains have been the pillars of their community. Boat captains have acquired a sixth sense in learning to read the water from which they harvest their catches. And by selling the fish to markets and restaurants throughout the region they have learned to read what their customers want and how to fetch the best prices. Just as the importance of the financial and material support that captains in Cortez provide for the community cannot be overstated, neither can the importance of their role as leaders in their community.

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Selfish is not the catch of the day

Selfish is not the catch of the day

Both within the village and in its relationships with other communities, Cortez illustrates the significance that caring for the well being others is a keystone principle of their economic activity. The community is a well orchestrated assembly of fishermen, moms, tour guides, and fish cleaners that all support one another in providing the region with local delicacies and a rich cultural history that meaningfully connects Gulf Coast Floridians to the place they live. David Graeber observes the peculiar way that modern capitalist governments attempt to manage their economies under the assumption that all economic activity emerges from the self-interest of individuals in society. In his 2000 article, Give It Away, Graeber pushes back against the notion that a clear-eyed view of economics must somehow overlook people’s concern for others. He contends that it is the strength of social relationships that undergirds a healthy economy, and speaks directly to the kind of society in which their economy is embedded.

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Justin P. Winn

Anthropology provides a critical, social perspective to economic analysis that is otherwise beset by faceless market metrics. In considering the kind of relationships exchange partners have with one another, and with their environment, a more holistic view of economy is brought into focus. Politics, leisure, and domestic life are all intimately connected to the way societies provision their wants and needs. And taking those dimensions of everyday life into account offers useful insight and perspective on economic activity.

My applied anthropology thesis project is designed to investigate how the community in Cortez, Florida has and will cope in the context of a changing climate, an unfolding process in which all of humanity is implicated. My hope is that through working on this project with the community we can identify specific policy recommendations for local planning agencies that could tangibly diminish how this community is made vulnerable to the imminent impacts of a changing climate. And I have found that understanding how their economy works through a holistic, social lens will be crucial toward that end.

Investigating the quality of the relationships that Cortez has with its coastal environment, with businesses and tourists that buy their catch, and with Carlos Beruff speaks so much more to the health of their economy than do fluctuations in the market price for mullet. As Michael Sandel observes, a public discussion about the need to keep the mangrove trees on Long Bar Point within the commons is sorely needed, if Floridians were truly concerned about the future of Cortez and its other prized coastal communities.

Solving the problems that climate change presents humanity on a global scale will be tackled at the local level. Interventions orchestrated at national and international levels have fallen flat, and particularly so in the U.S. where commercial and political leadership still seems bent on ignoring the problem in search of more power and money. It is the complexity of a global problem as imminent and dangerous as climate change that requires us to investigate the complexities of social life in seeking solutions. Limiting our analyses of the economy to searching for patterns in market fluctuations will not provide the kind of insight required to fix the problem.

Finally, I would like to thank, sincerely, Craig Pittman with the Tampa Bay Times for his reporting on the evolving situation with Long Bar Point. I would also like to thank Ben Green, author of the wonderful book about the people of Cortez, Finest Kind: A Celebration of a Florida Fishing Village (1985).