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Anthropology, STS, and the Politics of Imagination in Navigating Socio-Environmental Change

“[T]he climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.”

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2015), p.9.

“We are in an imagination battle.”

Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (2017), p.18.

In late 2010, members of Dutch and Vietnamese planning delegations, sitting around conference room tables at a fancy hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, began work on what was to become the Mekong Delta Plan. The Dutch consultants depicted four quadrants divided by two axes, with climate change along one and economic growth along the other, which they deemed the two primary drivers of uncertainty facing the Mekong Delta region in the coming decades. The quadrants, they said, represented four “plausible future scenarios,” which could then be used to identify responsible investment and policy decisions in the present, regardless of whichever future were to unfold. This exercise, modeled on a similar set of quadrants used for climate adaptation planning by the Dutch in their own country, was central to the delta management approach being advanced by the Dutch participants. The “scenario planning methodology” is a strategic planning tool used to support policymaking under conditions of deep uncertainty, originally developed by former RAND Corporation strategist Herman Kahn and later refined by Royal Dutch Shell (Faubion 2019; Samimian-Darash 2021). In other words, it is an exercise in imagining possible futures, used to guide planning meant to enable adaptively navigating among unforeseen events.

But the assembled Vietnamese experts and policymakers were unhappy with the range of scenarios presented and decided to zero in on just one, orienting the entire document around the pursuit of “Agro-Business Industrialization.” This was seen as building on the region’s natural endowments and current economic trajectory while moving towards more sustainable, high-tech, value-added production. This scenario, it later became clear, was also widely considered to be the Vietnamese government’s preferred development vision. The Dutch approach that placed such confidence in expert-led adaptive management thus fell apart in translation to the Vietnamese political-cultural context, where it instead helped confirm the dominant imaginary of the present.

Imagination is a critical resource in the pursuit of sustainable futures, yet it is often constrained by powerful structural forces and vested interests. Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies (STS) offer unique perspectives and tools that can help identify tacit imaginaries and shed light on alternative ones, opening such discussions to a wider range of shared visions of what is possible or desirable in order to cultivate more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable worlds.

As societies grapple with compounding issues of social inequality, ecological degradation, and climate change, envisioning possible alternative futures becomes imperative. Unfortunately, in the world of development planning and policymaking, outside-the-box thinking is all too rare. Instead, hegemonic imaginaries often carry the day, inspiring more-or-less business-as-usual designs for the future that fail to deviate in any real way from the development trajectories that have led to presently unsustainable circumstances. Rather than expanding options for truly sustainable or “transformative adaptation” (Eriksen, Nightingale, and Eakin 2015; Warner and Kuzdas 2017), horizons are narrowed, and often what we are left with is more of the same, simply old wine in new bottles.

For hundreds of years, the Netherlands, occupying the combined deltas of three of Europe’s major rivers—the Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt—and with much of its land area gradually sinking below sea level, developed sophisticated methods of defending itself from the encroaching sea. Over time, these became increasingly muscular and engineered: an extensive system of dikes, sluice gates for controlling the flow of water, windmills for pumping water, and dike-enclosed areas known as polders that allow land below sea-level to be kept dry for agriculture and urban development. Today, the country is famous for the “Delta Works”—massive 20th century engineering feats including high-tech dikes, sluice gates, and storm surge barriers that are the awe of low-lying coastal regions around the world. These technological innovations co-evolved with social institutions to manage them, helping to produce the country’s uniquely technocratic political culture (Bijker 2002). By the end of the 20th century, the Netherlands had established a reputation for itself as a bona fide fortress against the sea. The accomplishment is reflected in a societal imaginary that places widespread faith in the country’s technical prowess and ability to solve any water-related challenges that come its way.

Broadly, we might understand societal imaginaries as collectively held visions, rooted in cultural narratives and values, which play a pivotal role in shaping how societies respond to socio-environmental change and anticipate and prepare for the future. The concept of “sociotechnical imaginaries” developed within STS is particularly apt here. Jasanoff and Kim define sociotechnical imaginaries as “collectively held and performed visions of desirable futures (or of resistance against the undesirable)” (Jasanoff 2015: 19) that are “reflected in the design and fulfillment of nation-specific scientific and/or technological projects” (Jasanoff and Kim 2009: 120). Sociotechnical imaginaries thus contribute to the coproduction of science and social order at the level of the nation-state and can help explain “the selection of development priorities, the allocation of funds, the investment in material infrastructures, and the acceptance or suppression of political dissent” (Jasanoff and Kim 2009: 123). By helping generate political will, widely held imaginaries get incorporated into scientific, technological, and political projects, reproducing hegemonic ideas and practices at the expense of others.

However, the heroism of the Dutch sociotechnical imaginary belies its responsibility for generating path dependency in the country’s development trajectory and narrowing available adaptation options in the face of climatic change and future uncertainty. Wesselink and colleagues (2007) have described how widespread faith in technocratic expertise and the country’s engineering-centric approach have, in many ways, undermined the population’s resilience: Dutch citizens have become increasingly invested in this development path, all while it contributes to further land subsidence and heightened flood risk, requiring ever greater efforts to keep people safe and their feet dry. Despite these weaknesses, by the early 21st century, national confidence in the uniquely Dutch ability to solve water-related problems spurred efforts to export this expertise abroad, under the guise of climate adaptation support for developing countries. One of its first targets was Vietnam, whose own Mekong Delta, roughly the size of the entire country of the Netherlands, was gaining recognition as highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and sea-level rise. Concurrently, the Netherlands identified Vietnam as a potentially lucrative partner for future trade and investments in agriculture.

A map of the Mekong Delta oriented to the left is on a round white table. There are piles of small white squares with different icons organized into rows below the map. Colored markers and pens are also on the table next to and below the map. A person's hands are visible at the bottom left corner, while the bodies of others are also seen standing around the table.

Dutch and other international consultants discuss Mekong Delta futures at a “strategic delta planning” workshop in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, October 2016. (Photo by author)

Returning to the story at the beginning of this post, when the scenario method was not applied as intended, the Dutch participants felt that the Vietnamese just did not understand it, yet the Vietnamese were critical of the approach for their own reasons. Vietnamese delegates pointed out that the four scenarios represented different visions of the future but that they seemed somewhat arbitrarily chosen. “For instance, why is it four and not five?” one questioned. It was still a limited selection of options. Others faulted the scenario method for its inability to provide concrete steps towards a desirable outcome. Participants on both sides failed to adequately recognize and unpack the implicit imaginaries animating their divergent visions of development planning. Yet they mostly acknowledged that the Mekong Delta Plan succeeded in being a visioning document, an exercise in exploring one particular imaginary of the future, albeit one that simply reflected elite-sanctioned and hegemonic interests and ideals.

Indeed, the planning process failed to recognize and account for a more diverse array of potential futures—visions shared by those excluded from the official process, who may have their own ideas of what a sustainable future looks like, one rooted in local knowledge and innovation, needs and practices, and images of what is desirable. Here, the critical and ethnographic tools of Anthropology and STS can work together to unveil alternative futures by challenging dominant narratives and opening up space for diverse perspectives. One of the strengths of STS lies in detailing the processes by which some imaginaries become privileged while others are marginalized. STS encourages us to question the assumed inevitability of certain technological trajectories. Anthropology can help reveal the richness and diversity of societal imaginaries, offering a counterpoint to mainstream discourses. The field often demonstrates that alternative ways of living sustainably are not only possible but already exist within certain communities. Together, these disciplines can help us draw on a richer palette of potential futures, fostering a more holistic and equitable view of human-environment relations and a more participatory and intentional approach to shaping the world we want to inhabit.

This post was curated by Contributing Editor Cydney Seigerman.


Bijker, Wiebe E. 2002. “The Oosterschelde storm surge barrier: A test case for Dutch water technology, management, and politics.” Technology and Culture 43 (3): 569-584.

Brown, Adrienne Marie. 2017. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Eriksen, Siri H., Andrea J. Nightingale, and Hallie Eakin. 2015. “Reframing adaptation: The political nature of climate change adaptation.” Global Environmental Change 35: 523- 533.

Faubion, James D. 2019. “On parabiopolitical reason.” Anthropological Theory 19 (2): 219-237. https://doi.org/10.1177/1463499618770558.

Ghosh, Amitav. 2016. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Jasanoff, Sheila. 2015. “Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity.” In Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, edited by Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim, 1-33. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Jasanoff, Sheila, and Sang-Hyun Kim. 2009. “Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea.” Minerva 47: 119-146.

Samimian-Darash, Limor. 2021. “Governing the future through scenaristic and simulative modalities of imagination.” Anthropological Theory 0 (0): 1-24. https://doi.org/10.1177/14634996211014116.

Warner, Benjamin P., and Christopher P. Kuzdas. 2017. “The role of political economy in framing and producing transformative adaptation.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 29: 69-74.

Wesselink, Anna J., Wiebe E. Bijker, Huib J. de Vriend, and Maarten S. Krol. 2007. “Dutch Dealings with the Delta.” Nature and Culture 2 (2): 188-209.

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