Science’s dry fantasy

Technocrats and the Politics of Drought and Development in Twentieth-Century Brazil
Eve E Buckley
2017, University of North Carolina Press
279 pages, plates, paperback

IT IS accepted almost uncritically within debates about climate change that scientific evidence is the best basis on which to discuss this topic and find solutions of whatever form. After all, it is hard to argue with empirical data. However, Eve Buckley’s valuable historical study of official responses to drought in Brazil – a country that has been at the very centre of debates about global warming and environmental change – suggests that, in practice, this assumption is flawed. Drought has always been a burning issue in Brazil’s arid north-east, especially its sertão hinterland, but it has also been the scourge of the south-east in recent years. Droughts since 2014 affecting the metropolitan areas of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, for example, have been described as the worst for 80 years. This makes drought a very political theme, and Technocrats and the Politics of Drought explores this historically by contrasting the aspirations of government officials aiming to find solutions or responses to drought based on science, and the social realities of drought in terms of its uneven impact on different groups. In so doing, this book draws attention to the difficulties faced by technocrats in the early 20th century who saw themselves as providing a concrete fix to an environmental problem that was the source of political polarisation between conservative landowners and leftwing reformers. As Buckley notes, the impact of the technocrats’ efforts often solidified existing social relations and reinforced landowners’ control over natural resources. This theme is of increasing relevance in the debate about climate change: the rise of engineering and agronomy professionals within Brazil’s drought agency infrastructure mirrored the rise of such technocrats in development agencies around the world who operated on the similar premise that practical solutions derived from scientific study could resolve our most pressing social issues. The author examines the work and plans of technical experts staffing the federal drought department, DNOCS, from 1909 to the 1960s, particularly in terms of their ideologies and reformist visions, and hence the essentially political nature of their approaches to climate instability. Most notably, she shows that despite their commitment to finding scientific solutions that would allow them to chart a middle way between entrenched conservatism and social disruption, many ultimately came to the conclusion that such a “middle politics” would not succeed. Buckley writes: “Like other development professionals in the twentieth century, they were determined to improve the lot of those who lived in the sertão … Yet many participants in this drama ultimately concluded that there was no route to this end absent a starkly political struggle over access to water and land … Brazil’s politicians and social reformers hoped that technical experts could cure the sertão’s chronic ills without encouraging broadly Marxist movements for social change that sometimes threatened to upend the social order (particularly after 1950). As archival records reveal, the drought agency’s professionals worked at an uncomfortable intersection where technology’s tantalizing promise of an apolitical means to end poverty collided with the stark probability that only open confrontation with those who monopolized land and water could reduce the dependence and vulnerability of the poor.” [p. 4] There is an important lesson here with clear implications for contemporary climate change debates about how elites can employ scientific expertise about environmental problems to engineer perverse outcomes that are in their favour. As Buckley notes: “Technocratic expertise clearly did not trump the material authority of landowners and industrialists. Claims based in scientific analysis were put to various political uses when reigning power brokers saw their utility, but they had little capacity to influence political action simply on the merits of their grounding in empiricism and relevant professional experience.” [p. 225]