Reversing the commodification trap

Polly Higgins is the superpower behind the movement to make ecocide illegal.
Polly Higgins is leading the charge to make ecocide illegal. Source:

by Vijay Kolinjivadi

The seemingly insurmountable ecological crisis and staggering inequality facing humanity requires a vision that links urgency with inspiration. In recent years, a number of calls for a ‘safe living space’ have been made. This refers to a civilization that addresses fundamental human needs but does not overstep biophysical limits. In other words, we need governance institutions that reside between a social ‘floor’ and a biophysical ‘ceiling’. While this has garnered increasing traction among academics, activists, policy-makers, and well…just about anyone who cares about the future of children, unfortunately, the centre of power (Washington, London, Ottawa etc.) has another future vision.

The supreme rationale of this vision is to forever fabricate new ways to create new wants (i.e. new commodities) from consumers in the so-called “developed” world. The creation of new markets for new ‘wants’ we didn’t even know we wanted does not appear without consequence. Resource inputs, cheap human labour and a repository for waste products become imperative as ever-growing markets become a touchstone of the global economy. No corner of the world is left unscathed in the search for new raw materials, cheap labour and waste dumps. Often these activities occur at the periphery of the global economy, where pristine environments and culturally unique yet marginalized societies offer new sources of “fodder” to assimilate back into the centre of global economic power.

What’s more, any attempt at solving this from within the system has continued on the same lines. To protect nature, we are told we need to turn it into a commodity, or trade it on the market. Hence cap and trade schemes and eco-tourism enterprises, which just makes it easier for the same systems to keep profiting. Conceiving of market solutions to solve this crisis created by markets only serves to reinforce this dangerous power which is destroying true wealth, the kind that cannot be bought back or retrieved when lost. It is clear that this process, which is oh so reminiscent of colonialism, is not the way we are going to arrive at a ‘safe living space’. It is no wonder why it is hard to be enthusiastic about the prospects of searching ‘within the system’ for a solution.

Recently, however, I was refreshingly surprised to find a glimmer of hope from the institutions of our own global governance system. At this August’s meeting of the International Society of Ecological Economics in Reykjavik, there was a lot of excitement sparked by the talk of one plenary speaker, Polly Higgins. Higgins was a barrister at the Royal Courts of Justice in the UK and has since devoted her life to demystify the law and provide a potential solution to curtail the destruction of our global commons. At the plenary, she explained her campaign to legitimize “ecocide” as an international criminal law against humanity. Yes, that’s right…a law! Is it possible to enact a law so global in its vision, that it would serve to cut off the dangerous feedback of new market creation and associated eco-social destruction?

Through skillful chicanery, the neoliberal agenda has greatly influenced conservation policy in recent years by turning the benefits of ecosystems into tradable commodities which can be allocated through the market to maximize individual utility (and hence aggregated to achieve social well-being). However, such an approach ignores the high costs of defining property rights for ecological benefits which simply cannot be owned. Instead, the recognition of ecocide and subsequent codification as an international law would sanctify ecosystem structure and resulting processes that ensure human well-being for present and future generations. Without recognition of the sanctity of the global commons for our collective welfare, continued economic growth will invariably result in local (and increasingly global) resource depletion, fueling more social conflict and war.

Ecocide refers to damage or destruction to ecosystems (either by direct human agency or climate catastrophes) to the extent that human well-being is negatively impacted. By invoking criminal implications, an international criminal law would trump national sovereignty and could set in motion a paradigm shift away from continuous economic growth on a planet of finite resources. Corporate leaders would not be liable to monetary fines; instead they would be tried in an international criminal court for committing ecocide. It may come as a bit of a stretch to make an argument for improving the law, given that law has undeniably advanced further ecological degradation under a dominant political economy in which corporations are legally bound to put profit first in responding to their shareholders. However, an ecocide law would supplant corporate obligations by imposing a higher normative obligation to address injustice and equality first in the stewardship of a ‘safe living space’.

One outcome of causing mass ecological damage and destruction has been manifested in climate change as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. In relation to floods, tsunamis, rising sea levels and other naturally-occurring forms of ecocide, all nations would have a legal duty of care under an ecocide law to give assistance to communities suffering directly or indirectly from the degradation of the global commons and the ecological services these resources provide. In the case of climate change, the loss of the beneficial climate regulation service, irreversibly degraded by industrial activity, results in impacts often far removed from the source of degradation. An international criminal law on ecocide would place the burden of proof directly on those most powerful to influence and direct human impacts on ecological structure. These include heads of state, ministers, heads of banks, and corporate executives who are in a position to make decisions that impact many millions of others. In this way, we can begin to prioritise decisions that put the well-being of the planet and society first above private interests.

Much to the disregard of most economists, there are inherent dangers of viewing the earth and its resources as property–in which an imposed value can be placed to hasten and facilitate trade and consumption. The insightful aspect of Higgin’s plenary talk on an ecocide law transmitted the often neglected yet fundamentally moral characteristic of the environmental problems we face. Pretending that these can be addressed objectively under a single value ethic (e.g. utilitarian welfare) through cap-and-trade or punitive taxes will continue to mask and even reinforce perceived climate and other environmental injustices in the world today. If a ‘safe living space’ is our collective goal, we need to look beyond national laws and appreciate the boundaries for which the earth is sovereign…for which no space exists for bargaining or buying time. A global law brings with it an unavoidable ethical decision to put an end to the self-serving driver which crashes the floor and shoots the ceiling way into the air, away from reality.

For more information on the proposed international criminal law on ecocide, have a look at:


Vijay Kolinjivadi is a PhD student studying Ecological Economics at McGill University in Montréal, Canada. His research has led him to report on the dangers of commodifying nature and to identify how and when human-nature relationships can be resilient in the face of inevitable change. He enjoys traveling and reading in grassy meadows among other things.


Does The Climate Movement Have A Leader?

Bill McKibben during his "Do the Math" tour
Bill McKibben during his “Do the Math” tour.                 Source:

by David Gray-Donald

Climate change is big. As is the climate movement seeking to confront the issue, though it is not yet as powerful as the fossil fuel industry. People all over the world are standing up in very different ways, as evidenced by a quick glance at the over-800 partner organizations for the Peoples’ Climate March in New York City on September 21. It’s a real challenge to bring together these very different groups.

In Canada alone examples abound of the diversity of people and range of strategies being used to address the problem. Many people at the Unist’ot’en camp are returning to their lands and effectively blocking pipelines. At universities, people like McGill Environment student & Divest McGill organizer Kristen Perry are demanding endowment funds become fossil fuel free. Shaina Agbayani and others are focusing on the relationship between migrant justice and climate change. In Toronto’s Bay Street offices people like Toby Heaps are selling low-carbon investment strategies. Amanda Lickers, a Haudenasaunee environmental organizer, is working to oppose fossil-fuel infrastructure (including pipeline) projects destroying native communities. The scale of the challenge has been responded to with many strategies from diverse groups that together are sometimes called the climate movement.

In this movement, there is no central leadership, no intelligentsia behind closed doors like in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. Ellison’s protagonist, an unnamed young black man who becomes a spokesperson for what could be called the civil rights movement, is told what to do and what to say by a small group of white men using supposedly scientific formulas that perfectly guide the movement. Thankfully this is not how the climate movement works: it is more decentralized and people have more autonomy to act as they see fit. This comes with its own set of challenges, as seen recently during Occupy and a few decades ago with the leaderless women’s liberation movement.

But wait, interacting with climate activism may give you the feeling that there is a centralized organization and a mastermind leader.

When someone hears “350” mentioned and asks what it is, I’ve often heard the response that is the climate movement and Bill McKibben its leader. This is easy to believe when articles on environmental news sites like Grist and RTCC announcing the Peoples’ Climate March include only McKibben and by name as leaders and planners. The RTCC article begins “Led by Bill McKibben…”, and it is his thoughtful articles that appear in youth-targeted Rolling Stone. The “Do The Math” tour description reads “In November 2012, Bill McKibben and hit the road to build a movement strong enough to change the terrifying math of the climate crisis.” The notion that McKibben is the leader and the movement is in large part due to the way the organization has framed itself from the start.

The story of is similar to that of many NGOs in that it began with a core dedicated group and a compelling call to action. As McKibben himself likes to point out, it started out at a college in Vermont with 7 people, and they decided to each take a continent and build a movement.

The organization has been acting out that global narrative ever since. They’ve gained prominence and power that most grassroots groups would never dream of through a combination of millions of dollars of support from the Rockefellers and others and a persistent mentality that they lead the worldwide movement-building process. Following a notable lack of discussion with other groups, called out for and selected 500 people to gather in June 2013 in Turkey for a Global Power Shift and claimed it as “the starting point for a new phase in the international climate movement.”

The well-intentioned Americans of venturing overseas to be the global umbrella for the movement have created an organization that has unfortunately bulldozed over other voices in the climate movement and has come to be seen by many as the movement itself. So while the movement is bigger and more complex than, having this unofficial and unaccountable focal point limits how we think about and interact with climate activism.

Take, for example, the problem that those who have the least wealth will likely face the worst of climate change-caused catastrophes including drought, flooding and storms. This means that those who already face deep injustices will have very different demands from those who simply want to preserve the earth as it is. We need spokespeople who can be accountable to these groups. Unfortunately,’s insistence that they represent the movement while they don’t actually respond to these diverse demands ultimately hurts the movement.

In fairness, considerable credit is due to and to Bill McKibben for building momentum. McKibbon is a good writer, if over-simplifying, as seen in his very widely read July 2012 Rolling Stone article. Recently he has been sitting down to have serious conversations with powerful people like university presidents to push the divestment agenda. As a celebrity in the climate world he is drawing big crowds to the Peoples’ Climate March in NYC, and at hype talks in recent months has used his draw to put the spotlight on some local groups and individuals. The staff of seem very motivated, with their hearts in the right place, and the problems of being a big international NGO are not unique to

That said, constructive criticism is what will help the movement learn and improve. At a September 2 event in Montreal organized by and local campus groups, some issues were clearly visible. First, there were two lines of French spoken by all the speakers combined, a shame for an event happening in French-speaking Quebec, a hotbed of radicalism in North America. Thankfully the audience did hear some Kanien’keha (Mohawk), the language native to the area, from Ellen Gabriel. At one point McKibben attributed the initiation of the fossil fuels divestment campaign one half to journalist and board member Naomi Klein and one half to Nelson Mandela. Hopefully Klein, a thorough researcher, would dismiss such a claim outright as disinvestment is not a particularly new tactic for showing disapproval of an activity, even in the climate world. Throughout his talk, McKibben perpetuated the idea that was the movement, that it was the umbrella organization connecting everyone, that the 7 people from Vermont who went out build a worldwide movement had been more or less successful.

Near the end of his presentation, while he has talking about getting things right, Amanda Lickers, mentioned above, interrupted McKibben. He at no point tried to cut her off. She brought up the lack of acknowledgement of the centrality of indigenous contributions to the front-lines struggle to resist extraction and pipelines, the erasure of indigenous history in the planning of the upcoming much-hyped Peoples’ Climate March in New York City, concerns about inclusion of people most affected by climate change, and more. This drew many cheers of support from the audience. After she spoke, McKibben did not responded to her comments directly. He was visibly uncomfortable and while he briefly and generally mentioned the importance of front-line communities he unfortunately treated Amanda Lickers and everything she said as an interesting aside that was easy to ignore. In a place like North America, indigenous groups have been expressing and acting on their understanding of the earth for many centuries longer than the 25 years since McKibben’s first big book came out. In many ways, indigenous groups are at the front of the struggle here and in much of the rest of the world. They are more central than to the side, but they keep being pushed out, which is part of the injustice of worldwide colonialism. And if justice is not the goal in this movement, what is? A spokesperson better understanding the movement and the forces at play in our society, and conscious of the way they themselves perpetuate those forces, may have been able to better address Lickers’ comments and build a constructive dialogue with the audience.

It’s not that McKibben is a bad guy. It’s that he is currently not a good spokesperson for the climate movement, which is effectively what he is now given how he and project themselves and are seen by the media and general public. Naomi Klein will fully share the spotlight once her book is released. As with most of us (myself included), McKibben needs to undo his colonial mindset. As evidenced by Lickers’ interruption, when he speaks it is not on behalf of the whole movement and not on behalf of the most affected nor those fighting the hardest like the Unist’ot’en. The lack of confidence and imagination within the movement to put forward spokespeople intentionally but instead allow McKibben to remain at the front limits what it can do.

McKibben writes uncomplicated articles and speaks in ways comfortably relatable to American liberal-arts college audiences. While it is important to talk to those people, we need a movement with broader scope bringing forth dialogues about justice from different perspectives. We need to think hard about how the movement is represented, we need to listen to the voices in it, and to identify leaders intentionally. Being seen as spokespeople, McKibben and Klein could stress that they don’t represent anybody, that the main resistance is being done by others often completely separate from, and they can point to some of those struggles. can choose to stop over-extending itself in trying to be the movement and to not play the role of selecting who gets put forward as a leader. While not perfect, the Peoples’ Climate March appears to be a good collaboration between groups, and there are exciting possibilities for where the movement can go from here.

David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects. He is actively part of the struggle to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and is trying to educate himself on how to be a responsible adult male. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.


Just what is gentrification anyway?

In Hanoi, urban gardening is a means of survival. Photography by Aaron Vansintjan

by Aaron Vansintjan

We hear the term ‘gentrification’ often nowadays. The news is full of it. Protests against Google and Microsoft buses, people in Vancouver fighting condo development by burning condosfood co-ops in Brooklyn worried about whether they’re displacing the local Hispanic community. The news almost always frames the wealthy new residents as the culprits, and those unable to afford rising rent and property taxes as victims.

A month ago, I was staying in Tay Ho, a neighbourhood of Hanoi known for its growing expat population. Here I found chain supermarkets, unfinished luxury apartment complexes, brand-new chic boutiques, and dog spas. In between all of this, there remain some thin strips of orchards, garden plots, and vegetable markets hidden in the alleyways. A wealthy and mostly foreign social class seems to be increasingly encroaching on agricultural land. These, I thought right away, are the telltale signs of gentrification.

I wanted to find out more. To start my search, I met up with Roman Szlam. Roman is a volunteer guide for Friends of Vietnam Heritage, an English teacher, a blogger, and also happens to be a walking Wikipedia on the history of Hanoi.

“I’ve noticed everything you’ve noticed,” he noted, recognizing my discomfort. “I see all the farms disappearing, all the high-rises coming in here. All the luxury development.” But Roman didn’t seem too troubled by the changes in Tay Ho.

Apparently, everyone who originally owned land in Tay Ho has been able to sub-lease it at high prices. “Even the farmers,” noted Roman, “who are losing their farms here directly around West lake, tend to be happy. There are no protests from anyone.” What’s more, agriculture in the neighbourhood was primarily for decorative plants – in no way would the sale of this land affect the need for food access in the city.

I wondered whether it was really all that rosy in Tay Ho: were there some people that weren’t as happy as others? Nevertheless, to Roman, the real gentrification problems were occurring in the outskirts of the city and in the city centre.

What’s really happening in Hanoi?

In the early 2000s, Hanoi was facing mounting traffic problems, while the Old Quarter, the prime tourist attraction, was being slowly destroyed by untrammeled development. In 2008, the Vietnamese government allowed Hanoi to expand its borders significantly. To do this, they re-zoned huge swathes of land for commercial and high-income residential uses.

The re-drawing of Hanoi’s borders coincided with a spate of farm acquisitions by the land management department. Officials offered farmers a small payment in return for the land and then leased it to developers – often acquaintances – at inflated prices. In other words, outright corruption. These developers thought it was the perfect time to build houses for Hanoi’s new upper-middle-class. But this didn’t go so well.

“Nobody bought any of these developments,” Roman explained. “As they began to go bankrupt, these people who had borrowed 90 per cent of the money could no longer repay the banks.”

The criminalization of the informal sector, which grew in large part due to land dispossession, in turn sets the conditions for the creation of a cheap new labour market.

At the time, many government-owned corporations had started investing in the stock market. Come the crash of 2008, Vietnam’s banks had no more money, and foreign investors started pulling out, causing a banking crisis that still hasn’t been resolved. What’s more, a group of farmers started making a stink, holding in-your-face protests in front of the government buildings.

“This huge land grab,” remarked Roman, “became a national scandal. It couldn’t be hidden anymore. There was no money to be had anywhere. Consequently, a lot of the food production around Hanoi has been lost.” In a city where 62 per cent of the vegetables consumed are locally produced, you can imagine the effect on food prices.

Around the same time, the city cleaned up its downtown core by, on the one hand, criminalizing street vendors, and on the other, promoting supermarkets and shutting down two of the city’s open markets, replacing them with high-end – but mostly empty – malls.

Noelani Eidse, a PhD candidate at McGill, has been researching the case of Hanoi’s street vendors and how their livelihood has been affected by land grabs on the urban fringe. “It’s all part of this larger push for Hanoi to become a global city,” Eidse said. “The rationale behind banning vending is that vendors are adding to traffic congestion. A less explicit reason is that vendors are seen as uncivilized and their livelihoods are considered to be anti-modern, and a hindrance to development.”

There is no doubt that gentrification is an international phenomenon, and what links each case is the opening up of markets, privatization of public goods, and collusion between the market and state.

Eidse has found that it’s often the same people who were pushed off their land who are also forced to make a living in other ways. “For a lot of these people,” she explained, “it’s either working in factories or working informally.”

Those who choose informal work, like street vending and trading trash, are now being targeted by these new laws. Arrests and fines are more and more common, making it difficult for these people, mostly women, to practice their livelihood.

In sum, the unfair leasing of farmland to developers, shuttered and empty markets, lack of space for food vendors, and the inaccessibility of supermarkets for most Hanoians, has meant that many people in the city centre are now facing increased food insecurity and precarity. And so, the cycle of dispossession, precarity, and criminalization continues.

The all-too-real effects of gentrification

In Hanoi, top-down decisions to make the city more appealing to foreign investors helped trigger a nationwide banking crisis, followed by a shortage in food production and access locally. This is gentrification at its worst – far more devastating than a fancy boutique in the expat neighbourhood.

The changing of land rights, the corruption that came with privatization of land, and the increase in high-end development projects – all of these happened at about the same time that Vietnam opened its markets to foreign investment and encouraged foreign factories to set up shop. The criminalization of the informal sector, which grew in large part due to land dispossession, in turn sets the conditions for the creation of a cheap new labour market. People have no choice but to start working in the new factories run by foreign corporations.

Before I go on, I have to stress that Hanoi is unique. Vietnam, as a socialist state, also has an unusual land rights system and one-party-closed-door-politics. Pair this with increased liberalization, and a system of state-owned corporations, and you have a one-of-a-kind situation. It is also important to reiterate how sometimes it isn’t all that bad, like in the case of Tay Ho and its wealthy expats.

But it’s striking how these patterns repeat in other cities, like Lagos, Nigeria. Eidse noted that Singapore’s model of development and regulation has been a reference point for Hanoi’s own city planners. Gentrification in London and New York is well-documented. There, social housing and tenant rights were increasingly eroded through active government policies encouraging outsider investment. There is no doubt that gentrification is an international phenomenon, and what links each case is the opening up of markets, privatization of public goods, and collusion between the market and state.

In all cases, gentrification should be understood as the concerted effort, by a coterie of businesspeople and government officials, to profit from communal wealth.

It’s easy to vilify the upper-middle class – those taking the Google bus or the expats moving into the new high-rises – but if you really want to address the problem, you need to follow the money.

In all cases, gentrification should be understood as the concerted effort, by a coterie of businesspeople and government officials, to profit from communal wealth. In Hanoi, this came in the form of land grabs and policies targeting the informal economy, but elsewhere it can happen through the privatization of social housing, or the branding of a city as a haven for the creative class.

It all seems a bit hopeless. Yet, there are plenty of avenues for resistance. In Hanoi, a group of villagers who had been pushed off their land started protesting in ways that made it hard for the media to ignore them, or for the police to beat them up. As a result, they were able to bring national attention to endemic corruption and initiate a series of laws to protect against land seizures.

While gentrification hurts those who have little to start with, those who have lost the most often have the loudest voice. If we want inspiration for future actions, it’s these voices we should listen to. These villagers have it right – they followed the money, smelled something fishy, and created a stink.

This article was originally published in The McGill Daily.