Opinion

MSJ Series: The Atmospheric Politics of Lively Capital

The giant panda is a conservation icon, an anthropomorphised star of advertising campaigns that tells a fascinating story of affective force and capitalist economies in the Anthropocene.

Image via Shutterstock, ID:546638506

In 1896, Pierre Armand David, a French priest and naturalist, sent the first skins of ‘a strange black-and- white bear’ to Paris’ Natural History Museum. Virtually unknown to the West, the curiosity the creature sparked was so immense that people began to go to extraordinary lengths to lay hands on specimens. Collectors were sent in quest for larger, better preserved specimens, triggering what became an extractive ‘panda rush’.

The global panda spectacle took further grip when Su-Lin, a live panda cub, was brought to the US by Ruth Harkness in December 1936. The ‘lady and the panda’ became overnight media sensations, appearing in magazines and tabloids, endorsing advertisements to sell commodities in depression-hit America. The panda’s charisma became inexorably entangled with capitalist accumulation. Bought by Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, more than 53,000 visitors arrived to see Su-Lin on the first day. The institution’s costs were recuperated within a week. As other zoos began to follow suite, a new phase of panda extraction began, a trade that operated through primitive accumulation, tearing animals from their eco-social modes and rendering them into creatures for display and the generation of surplus value.

Manipulating affect

The term ‘charismatic’ was seldom used to describe the panda’s allure, but during the 1980’s, with the mainstreaming of market logics in conservation, the term gained ascendency, and flagship species such as the panda were seen as a means ‘to sell the cause of conservation as a whole’.

Much of this entailed micropolitical channelling of affects. WWF’s famous panda logo has been rendered more infant-like over time, thanks to an advertising agency, Landor & Associates, which in 1986 was brought in to enhance the brand’s commercial appeal. Arguing that the old logo, designed by Peter Scott in 1961, looked ‘sick, depressed’, they accentuated the animal’s eyes and enlarged its cranium. There was a ‘neotenic evolution’ of the panda – paralleling the transformation of Mickey Mouse from a rat-like creature in the 1920s to a doe-eyed animal five decades later.

This rebranding is about intervening in affective atmospheres to foster commerce, pointing to a wider ‘Disneyisation’ of the economy under late capitalism. Disneyisation is characterised by theming, the merging of consumption and play, and affective labour – features that are part and parcel of commercialised encounters with pandas in captive environments, where the animals not only generate intimacies, but are used to catalyse the consumption of a range of commodities from flights to ice-creams.

Affective labour

The life of Chi-Chi – perhaps the most famous panda of all time – shows how affective labour performed in captivity is vital for generating value-added encounters. Labour in the bodily mode, affective labour is immersed in the somatic and the corporeal, but its products are intangible.

Chi-Chi arrived in London in 1958. Her owner, an animal dealer named Heini Demmer, had plans of selling her to an American zoo, but this fell through due to an embargo on Chinese goods. Demmer sold Chi-Chi to London Zoo, with Granada Television paying a bulk of the money, in return for exclusive rights to film animals in the zoo.

Chi-Chi’s allure depended on being lively. In a newly-designed enclosure, Chi-Chi and an assigned keeper entertained large crowds through a range of anthropomorphic antics, including playing football. Desmond Morris (then Granada TV anchor at London Zoo) remarked, “was to add glamour… but at the cost of never being treated as a ‘wild’ animal”, where the creature could retract from being watched.

Political economies of captivity thus entailed affective labours of coping: being subject to the constant gaze of crowds and television media. Affective labour was crucial for forging notions of ‘authenticity’, on which television programmes relied to create brand value. As Morris recalls, Granada’s Zoo Time programme “succeeded where others failed is because it is real’ and did not ‘have a phoney ‘studio’ atmosphere [note term] which is all too easy to detect”. Animals had to be alert and interested when they went live on television, and this required cultivating their attention – an affective attunement crossing porous bodies and species divides. Whilst political economic straitjackets do not immediately recognise affective labours of animacy and authenticity as productive work, the immense success of Zoo Time and ZSL’s financial turnaround, evidence its economic valence. Affects of coping with stresses of captive environments is part and parcel of the lives of pandas in zoos today.

Atmospheric politics

Marxist feminists have long argued that the infrastructure of affective work is not only constitutive of immaterial economies under late capitalism, but vital for the reproduction of labour power.

This comes to the fore in the famous saga of getting Chi-Chi to mate. In 1962, Chi-Chi came into heat, displaying drastic changes in her temperament. From ZSL’s perspective, this was a potential infant panda wasted. Soon negotiations were underway to pair Chi-Chi with An-An, a male housed in Moscow zoo. In 1966, she was flown to Moscow.

A potential panda birth was an economic spectacle waiting to detonate: businesses planned ahead, manufacturing a range of panda-related commodities from teddies to key rings and even mugs of Chi-Chi minor. Whilst showing initial promise, the animals’ attempts to mate were eventually unsuccessful. Businesses took a hit, stranded with box loads of merchandise. An article in the Daily Mail perfectly summarised this turbulent affective economy: “never has such gloom been spread throughout the industrial world by the mere lack of mateyness by pandas”.

Chi-Chi, wrote her vet Oliver Graham Jones, “had become so conditioned to the zoo environment and the company of man [sic] that she developed anthropomorphic tendencies”. There were clear signs of imprinting.

The development of anthropomorphic tendencies is a barrier to the expansion of lively capital, and from the latter’s viewpoint, needs to be overcome. In the 1980s, following the transition to state-led capitalism, China initiated a lease model seeking to exploit the panda’s allure to the maximum, and animals were rented out to zoos and even state fairs on short-term loans. Captive panda reproduction was slow, posing a barrier to the limitless expansion of capital, so to meet demands, another round of primitive accumulation was set in motion: China began capturing wild animals to augment a captive population declining faster than it reproduced.

In 1994, after significant lobbying by conservationists, zoos were directed to participate in long-term loans that fostered captive breeding. Partnerships were developed between San Diego Zoo and China to improve reproduction, giving rise to an atmospheric politics of lively capital. Zoos began ‘environmental enrichment’ with the purpose of ‘drawing out species-appropriate behaviours’. Panda enclosures were altered from open spaces to those with more diverse terrains. Zoos began enrichment through targeting the animal-in-its-environment and its ecological, chemical and affective milieu, leading to a boom in captive panda populations. Today, there are many more animals available for loans, which China often exchanges for access to natural resources such as uranium and oil, or for access to markets for Chinese goods. Many of these pandas cannot be returned to the wild.

Lively capital and economies of the Anthropocene

Tracking histories of the global panda spectacle shows how its charisma is historically-situated, and long caught up in pathways of generating surplus value. Nonhuman charisma can be fetishistic, for its allure can hide coercive processes of capture and accumulation that is contingent upon nonhuman bodies and labour. Atmospheric politics, intervening in an animal’s volumetric environment and its affective intensities, and fostering a spectacular, Disneyised economy, enables us to attend to processes of extracting surplus from nonhuman life. Here, biopower is recast as a political technology of valorisation: making live and letting die is about fostering lively capital.


Maan Barua is lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Cambridge. As a cultural and environmental geographer with an interest in the spaces, politics and governance of the living and material world, his work brings posthumanist thought into conversation with strands of critical political economy to interrogate questions about nature, culture and capital. Maan’s research interests include urban ecology, more-than-human geographies, biodiversity conservation and the politics of lively capital.

This work was originally presented in June 2019 at Thinking and Enacting Justice In A Multispecies World, hosted by The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney. Featuring international academics and experts, the series of symposia and public events explored the question of what justice means in a multispecies context.