La versión en español de este artículo está disponible aquí.
One could simply define extractivism as a productive process where natural resources are removed from the land or the underground and then put up for sale as commodities on the global market. But defining extractivism is not really this easy. Extractivism is related to existing geopolitical, economic and social relations produced throughout history. It is an economic model of development that transnational companies and states practice worldwide and that can be traced back more than 500 years all the way to the European colonial expansion. You can’t tell the history of the colonies without talking about the looting of minerals, metals, and other high-value resources in Latin America, Africa, and Asia—looting that first nourished demands for development from the European crowns and later from the United States, and more recently also from China.
Today this model of accumulation of wealth remains a key part of the structure of a globally dominant capitalistic system—a system where power is in the hands of those who control money and industry—that has extended the extractive frontier to the detriment of other forms of land and resource uses. Such exploitation has also appropriated human bodies in the form of slaves or, more recently, as labor-intensive precarious workers. Extractivism is entirely tied up with exploitation of people.
Today’s extractive industries such as gas, oil, and mining have an egregious reputation of violating human and environmental rights and supporting highly controversial political and economic reforms in poor countries.
Expanding the global frontiers of extraction
Since the mid-20th century, extractive frontiers have expanded around the planet as global demand for commodities has increased. Most non-industrialized countries (but also industrialized countries such as Norway, Canada, and the US) have activated their primary sectors of production to exploit landscapes that were previously inaccessible, such as in the case of fracking and tar sands extraction in the Artic or in the open sea.
Since the mid-20th century, extractive frontiers have expanded around the planet as global demand for commodities has increased.
The central idea behind such state-sanctioned extractivism is that extractive projects are strategic ventures for national development in resource-rich countries that can thereby strengthen their comparative economic advantages—that is, their economic power relative to the economic power of other nations. In other words, poor nations can exploit their natural resources as a means for economic growth, a source of employment, and ultimately a tool for poverty reduction.
This idea has been ingrained for many years in developing countries, and yet these countries have historically been unable to convert resource wealth into so-called development. Indeed, in some places that are rich in natural resources—typically in African countries with large oil or mineral deposits—there is an inverse relationship between poverty reduction and economic performance. This means that a lot of extractive activity is coupled with high levels of poverty, economic dependency on capital flows from developed countries, and political instability. This phenomenon is known as the “resource curse.”
In the last 20 years, several governments in Latin America, Africa, and Asia have challenged the “resource curse” by asserting national control over new forms of primary-production extractive industries. These are oriented around intensive and large-scale projects that cover previously inconceivable environments (again, like off-shore mining or fracking), as well as new forms of economic exploitation such as the agroindustry, fisheries, timber extraction, tourism, animal husbandry, and energy megaprojects.
These endeavours require national policy reforms. In Asia and Africa, extractivist national policies adhere to what is called “resource nationalism” and include the total or partial nationalization of extractive industries, renegotiation of contracts with foreign investment, increased public shareholding, new or higher taxation to expand resource rent, and value-added processing of resources.
In Latin America, the commodity boom at the beginning of the 2000s, marked by the increase in commodity prices together with transnational investments, led to great economic growth in what is called “neoextractivism”. Neoextractivism is a relative of resource nationalism and its emergence coincided with the rise to power of several progressive governments in the region that also seized more state control over natural resources within their national boundaries.
Advocates of neoextractivism claimed that new extractive practices would be “environmentally friendly” and “socially responsible”, thereby minimizing the disastrous impacts of extractivism as it was practiced throughout colonial and neoliberal history. Despite this, extractive industries have expanded and continue to expand in new frontiers with the negative effects of dispossessing people from their land, subjugating communal values to the values of extraction-driven development, and disrupting social structures, territories, and alternative forms of life.
In the debate over extractivism, there is no consensus about how to solve the problems caused by this mode of development. Some people think that extractivism should be viewed positively because of the economic growth and increased public spending that was accomplished during the early 2000s in Latin America. Others emphasise that most of the wealth produced is siphoned out of the producer countries to transnational investors, while negative impacts remain locally or regionally. And from the perspective of those who are directly affected by extractive industries, it is clear that economic revenues are not translated into socially just well-being and that these revenues are generated through the destruction of their lives and their land.
Not a neutral economic model
To further understand the complexity of the problem with extractivism, let us look at three interrelated dimensions of what makes up the extractivist economic model—and then consider how to go beyond the economic considerations of extractivism.
First, for extractivism to work, any biophysical “nature” becomes exclusively framed as a natural resource. That is, nature is conceived as an input (e.g. a resource like oil, soil, or trees) for the production of a commodity (e.g. gas, food, or timber). This simplifies the multiplicity of socionature relations with which such an economic model is entangled.
When thinking about the environmental impacts of extraction, we surely need to consider what will happen to other elements in nature that are interconnected with the extracted resource, including water, air, soil, plants, and human and non-human animals. A cascading effect of environmental change indeed often occurs in ecosystems that are impacted by extraction, and thus interrelated elements of nature become irreversibly altered.
Second, extractive projects are normally located in or close to marginal, poor, and racialized (i.e. conceived as non-white) populations. Extractivism arrives with promises of improved life conditions, more jobs, and infrastructure development. But large-scale extractive industries are by no means necessarily interested in forwarding local employment and improving the livelihood of people. Instead, experience tells us that they often serve to diminish alternative economic activities and disrupt existing community networks and social structures. Extractive industries have frequently dispossessed people of land rights with the result of cultural disruption and violence.
Demands for social and environmental justice revolve around claims that the social and environmental costs of extractivism are higher than any economic benefit.
Marginal populations still bear the brunt of the social costs of extractivism and don’t necessarily reap any benefits. In response to this, demands for social and environmental justice revolve around claims that the social and environmental costs of extractivism are higher than any economic benefit but that these costs are not accounted for in the decisions.
New demands from feminist movements and women Indigenous defenders highlight the relation between extractivism and patriarchal and racial violence and how this disproportionately impacts women. Examples are the increase in prostitution and sexual violence in communities restructured by extractivism and the externalization the social costs—the transfer of responsibilities for caring that are pivotal for the functioning of any economy—to women. As women are primarily responsible for the reproduction of life, they are highly vulnerable to the rupture of community or loss of territory. Because of that, women organizations have become the frontline defenders of their territories in the resistance against extractivism.
Finally, extractivism is a highly political endeavour that maintains a model of capital accumulation and destruction. It has led to the increase of socio-environmental conflicts around the globe, involving measures by states and industry to control resistance and criminalize social protest.
So, in sum, one should define extractivism as far from neutral or apolitical; it is an economic model that reflects a specific political position that relies on a given, predefined understanding of growth-oriented development as the ultimate good. Extractivism thereby reinforces political-economic arrangements that are biased against marginalized people who are deprived of their power to influence political decisions.
From an extractivist political perspective, resistance against extractivism is naïve, obstinate NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard-ism), or ignorant of the economic needs of the countries that could be “developed” by extractive projects. In reality, actions of resistance are contestations that challenge the dominant extractivist worldview and the uneven power relations between actors who decide, actors who benefit, and actors who bear the negative consequences of extraction. Under these conditions, extractivism is in complete contradiction to social and environmental justice and care for nature and life itself.
All in all, extractivism as a single model of production remains one of the most expansionist global enterprises and it squashes any other ways of living with the land. The 500 years’ legacy of extractivism is part of ongoing imperialist interest from industrial powers in securing access and control over natural resources around the globe, even in today´s green energy transitions. As such, extractivism stands in sharp contrast to flourishing alternative forms of land use and livelihoods.
Opposition to extractivism does not mean that people can’t use a resource at all and by no means implies a binary choice between either extractivism or underdevelopment. Instead, anti-extractivism is about focusing on what type of life we want to achieve as a whole and how we build global systems of justice. We can nourish ourselves from several non-extractivist modes of production and reproduction that center on a dignified life for all.
Bond, P. (2017). Uneven development and resource extractivism in Africa. In Routledge Handbook of Ecological Economics (pp. 404-413). Routledge.
This article explains the expansion of neoliberal environmentalism in the extraction of non-renewable natural resources in Africa. The author argues that if accounting the social and environmental costs, African countries end up poorer than before extraction.
Burchardt, H. J., & Dietz, K. (2014). (Neo-) extractivism–a new challenge for development theory from Latin America. Third World Quarterly, 35(3), 468-486.
An overview of key debates of ‘Neo-extractivism’ and the role of the state in Latin America.
Engels, B., & Dietz, K. (Eds.). (2017). Contested extractivism, society and the state: Struggles over mining and land. Palgrave Macmillan.
A presentation of several case studies around the globe on the conflicts between extractivism and other land uses.
Galeano, E. (1997). Open veins of Latin America: Five centuries of the pillage of a continent. NYU Press.
A classic essay on the history of the looting of natural resources, colonialism and uneven development in Latin America from the 15th century to the 20th century.
Svampa, M. (2015). Commodities consensus: Neoextractivism and enclosure of the commons in Latin America. South Atlantic Quarterly, 114(1), 65-82.
A critical analysis of neo-extractivism, capital accumulation, environmental conflicts and development. It ends up discussing proposals around ideas of post-extractivism and transitions.
Diana Vela Almeida is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Geography at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Diana combines political ecology, ecological economics and feminist critical geography to study extractivism, neoliberal environmentalism and socio-environmental resistance. Contact: diana.velaalmeida[at]ntnu.no
An English version of this article is available here.
Alguien podría fácilmente definir al extractivismo como un proceso productivo donde los recursos naturales se remueven del suelo o del subsuelo y luego son vendidos como commodities en el mercado global. Pero definir el extractivismo no es tarea tan fácil. El extractivismo está asociado a relaciones geopolíticas, económicas y sociales producidas a lo largo de la historia. Este es un modelo económico de desarrollo practicado por las empresas transnacionales y los estados en todo el mundo y que se remonta a más de 500 años atrás desde la expansión colonial europea. No se puede hablar de la historia de las colonias sin mencionar el saqueo de minerales, metales y otros recursos de alto valor en América Latina, África y Asia- saqueo que primero alimentó las demandas de desarrollo de las coronas europeas y luego también de los Estados Unidos, y más recientemente de China.
Hoy este modelo de acumulación de riqueza es una parte fundamental de la estructura dominante del sistema capitalista global, un sistema donde el poder está en manos de quienes controlan el dinero y la industria, y el cual ha extendido la frontera extractiva en detrimento de otras formas de uso de la tierra y los recursos naturales. Dicha explotación también se ha apropiado históricamente de los cuerpos en forma de esclavos o, más recientemente, como trabajadores precarios de mano de obra intensiva. El extractivismo está completamente ligado a la explotación de las personas.
Las industrias extractivas de hoy en día, como el gas, el petróleo y la minería, tienen una reputación notoria de violar los derechos humanos y ambientales y de apoyar reformas políticas y económicas muy controvertidas en los países pobres.
Expandiendo las fronteras globales de extracción
Desde mediados del siglo XX, las fronteras extractivas se han expandido alrededor del mundo a medida que la demanda global de commodities aumenta. La mayoría de los países no industrializados (pero también países industrializados como Noruega, Canadá y los Estados Unidos) han activado sus sectores primario- productivos para explotar paisajes que antes eran inaccesibles; este es el caso del fracking y de la extracción de arenas bituminosas en el Ártico o en el mar abierto.
Desde mediados del siglo XX, las fronteras extractivas se han expandido alrededor del mundo a medida que la demanda global de commodities aumenta.
La idea central detrás del extractivismo promovido por los estados es que los proyectos extractivos son núcleos estratégicos para el desarrollo nacional de países ricos en recursos naturales, y que pueden por lo tanto fortalecer sus ventajas comparativas, es decir, mejorar su poder económico en relación con el poder económico de otras naciones. En otras palabras, las naciones pobres pueden explotar sus recursos naturales como un medio para crecer económicamente, mantener una fuente de empleo y, en última instancia, como una herramienta para la reducción de la pobreza.
Esta idea ha estado arraigada durante muchos años en los países en desarrollo, y sin embargo, la historia muestra que estos países no han podido transformar la riqueza de sus recursos naturales en el tal llamado desarrollo. De hecho, en varios lugares ricos en recursos naturales, generalmente en países africanos con grandes yacimientos de petróleo o minerales, existe una relación inversa entre la reducción de la pobreza y el desempeño económico. Es decir, las actividades extractivas se combinan con altos niveles de pobreza, dependencia económica de los flujos de capital desde los países desarrollados e inestabilidad política. Este fenómeno se conoce como la “maldición de los recursos”.
En los últimos 20 años, varios gobiernos en América Latina, África y Asia han desafiado la “maldición de los recursos” al afirmar el control nacional sobre nuevas formas de industrias extractivas de producción primaria. Estas industrias están orientadas a promover proyectos intensivos y a gran escala que alcanzan ambientes previamente inconcebibles (nuevamente, como la minería a mar abierto o el fracking), así como también incluyen nuevas formas de explotación económica como la agroindustria, la pesca, la extracción de madera, el turismo, la cría industrial de animales, y los megaproyectos energéticos.
Estos esfuerzos requieren reformas de política nacional. En Asia y África, las políticas nacionales extractivistas se adhieren a lo que se conoce como el “nacionalismo de los recursos” e incluyen la nacionalización total o parcial de las industrias extractivas, la renegociación de los contratos de inversión extranjera, el aumento de la participación pública, impuestos nuevos o más altos para ampliar la renta extractiva, y generar valor agregado sobre los recursos extraídos.
En América Latina, el boom de las commodities a principios de la década de 2000, marcado por el aumento de los precios de estos productos junto con mayores inversiones transnacionales, condujo a un gran crecimiento económico en lo que se conoce como “neoextractivismo”. El neoextractivismo es un pariente del nacionalismo de los recursos y su surgimiento coincidió con el ascenso al poder de varios gobiernos progresistas en la región, que también tomaron mayor control estatal sobre los recursos naturales dentro de sus fronteras nacionales.
Los defensores del neoextractivismo afirman que las nuevas prácticas extractivas son “ambientalmente amigables” y “socialmente responsables”, minimizando así los efectos desastrosos del extractivismo practicado a lo largo de la historia colonial y neoliberal. A pesar de esto, la industria extractiva se ha expandido y continúa expandiéndose hacia nuevas fronteras y está causando grandes efectos negativos como el despojo de las tierras de los habitantes, la subyugación de los valores comunitarios por valores desarrollistas impulsados por la extracción y la disrrupción de las estructuras sociales, de los territorios, y de las formas alternativas de vida.
En el debate sobre el extractivismo no hay consenso sobre cómo resolver los problemas causados por este modelo de desarrollo. Algunas personas piensan que el extractivismo debe ser visto positivamente debido al crecimiento económico que genera y al aumento del gasto público logrado a principios de la década del 2000 en Latinoamérica. Otros enfatizan que la mayor parte de la riqueza producida se fuga de los países productores hacia los inversores transnacionales, mientras que los impactos negativos permanecen local o regionalmente. Y desde la perspectiva de quienes están directamente afectados por las industrias extractivas, los ingresos económicos no se traducen en bienestar social, además que son ingresos generados a través de la destrucción de sus vidas y de sus tierras.
No existe un modelo económico neutral.
Para entender mejor la complejidad del problema del extractivismo, veamos tres dimensiones interrelacionadas de lo que constituye el modelo económico extractivista, y luego consideramos cómo ir más allá de las cuestiones económicas del extractivismo.
Primero, para que el extractivismo funcione, éste debe tomar cualquier “naturaleza” biofísica y transformarla exclusivamente en un recurso natural. Es decir, la naturaleza se concibe como un insumo (por ejemplo, se toma un recurso como el petróleo, la tierra o los árboles) para utilizarlo en la producción de una commodity (por ejemplo, gasolina, alimentos o madera). Este fenómeno simplifica la multiplicidad de relaciones sociales existentes con la naturaleza, de las cuales dicho modelo económico también se encuentra entrelazado.
Al pensar en los impactos ambientales de la extracción, ciertamente debemos considerar qué sucederá con otros elementos de la naturaleza que están interconectados con el recurso extraído, incluidos el agua, el aire, el suelo, las plantas y los animales humanos y no humanos. De hecho, a menudo se produce un efecto en cascada de cambio ambiental en los ecosistemas que se ven afectados por la extracción, por lo que los elementos de la naturaleza que están interrelacionados son alterados irreversiblemente.
Segundo, los proyectos extractivos normalmente se ubican cerca o dentro de poblaciones marginales, pobres y racializadas (es decir, concebidas como no blancas). El extractivismo llega con promesas de mejores condiciones de vida, más empleos y mejor desarrollo de infraestructura. Pero las industrias extractivas a gran escala no están necesariamente interesadas en fortalecer el empleo local y mejorar el sustento de las personas. Al contrario, la experiencia nos dice que éstas a menudo reducen las actividades económicas alternativas e interrumpen las redes comunitarias y las estructuras sociales existentes. Las industrias extractivas con frecuencia han vulnerado los derechos de las personas a la tierra, resultando en fuertes disrupciones culturales y violencia.
Las demandas de justicia social y ambiental giran en torno a las afirmaciones de que los costos sociales y ambientales del extractivismo son más altos que cualquier beneficio económico.
Las poblaciones marginales aún cargan la peor parte de los costos sociales del extractivismo y no necesariamente cosechan algún beneficio. En respuesta a esto, las demandas de justicia social y ambiental giran en torno a las afirmaciones de que los costos sociales y ambientales del extractivismo son más altos que cualquier beneficio económico, pero estos costos no se tienen en cuenta en las decisiones.
Las nuevas demandas de los movimientos feministas y las defensoras indígenas resaltan la relación entre el extractivismo y la violencia patriarcal y racial y cómo esto afecta desproporcionadamente a las mujeres. Algunos ejemplos son el aumento de la prostitución y la violencia sexual en las comunidades transformadas por el extractivismo y la externalización de los costos sociales (la transferencia de responsabilidades de cuidado que son fundamentales para el funcionamiento de cualquier economía) a las mujeres. Como las mujeres son las principales responsables de la reproducción de la vida, ellas son muy vulnerables a la ruptura de la comunidad o la pérdida del territorio. Por eso, las organizaciones de mujeres se han convertido en la primera línea de la defensa territorial y de la resistencia contra el extractivismo.
Finalmente, el extractivismo es un proyecto claramente político que mantiene un modelo de acumulación de capital y destrucción. Este modelo ha causado un aumento de conflictos socioambientales en todo el mundo, resultando en medidas por parte de los estados y la industria para controlar la resistencia y criminalizar la protesta social.
En resumen, deberíamos definir al extractivismo como algo lejos de lo neutral o apolítico; éste es un modelo económico que refleja una posición política concreta, basada en una comprensión clara y predefinida del desarrollo, el cual está orientado al crecimiento como objetivo final. El extractivismo por lo tanto refuerza los arreglos político-económicos necesarios en contra de las personas marginalizadas que se ven privadas de su poder para influir sobre las decisiones políticas.
Desde una perspectiva política extractivista, la resistencia contra el extractivismo es vista como ingenua, NIMBYsmo (es decir, “No en mi patio trasero”), oposición obstinada o ignorante de las necesidades económicas de los países que podrían “desarrollarse” gracias a los proyectos extractivos. En realidad, las acciones de resistencia representan cuestionamientos que desafían el paradigma extractivista dominante y las relaciones desiguales de poder entre los actores que deciden, los actores que se benefician y los actores que soportan las consecuencias negativas de la extracción. Bajo estas condiciones, el extractivismo está en clara contradicción con la justicia social y ambiental y el cuidado de la naturaleza y la vida misma.
Con todo lo dicho, el extractivismo como modelo de producción sigue siendo uno de los proyectos globales más expansionistas y que aplasta cualquier otra forma de vivir con la tierra. El legado de 500 años de extractivismo es parte del continuo interés imperialista de las potencias industriales por garantizar el acceso y control sobre los recursos naturales en todo el mundo, incluso hoy en día, a través de intereses relacionados con transiciones hacia las energías verdes. Como tal, esto contrasta abiertamente con las formas alternativas de uso de la tierra y los medios de vida prósperos.
La oposición al extractivismo no significa que las personas no puedan utilizar un recurso en absoluto y de ninguna manera implica una elección binaria entre extractivismo o subdesarrollo. Al contrario, el anti-extractivismo se trata de enfocarse en qué tipo de vida queremos lograr integralmente y cómo construimos sistemas globales de justicia. Ahí, podemos nutrirnos de los saberes de varios modos de producción y reproducción no extractivistas que se centran en una vida digna para todas y todos.
Bond, P. (2017). Uneven development and resource extractivism in Africa. In Routledge Handbook of Ecological Economics (pp. 404-413). Routledge.
Explica la expansión del ambientalismo neoliberal en la extracción de recursos naturales no renovables en África. El autor argumenta que si se contabilizan los costos sociales y ambientales, los países africanos terminan siendo más pobres que antes de la extracción.
Burchardt, H. J., & Dietz, K. (2014). (Neo-) extractivism–a new challenge for development theory from Latin America. Third World Quarterly, 35(3), 468-486.
Proporciona una visión general de los debates clave sobre el “Neo-extractivismo” y el papel del estado en América Latina.
Engels, B., & Dietz, K. (Eds.). (2017). Contested extractivism, society and the state: Struggles over mining and land. Palgrave Macmillan.
Presenta varios estudios de caso alrededor del mundo sobre los conflictos entre extractivismo y otros usos de la tierra.
Galeano, E. (1979). Las venas abiertas de América Latina. Siglo xxi.
Un ensayo clásico sobre la historia del saqueo de los recursos naturales, el colonialismo y el desarrollo desigual en América Latina desde el siglo XV hasta el siglo XX.
Svampa, M. N. (2013). Consenso de los commodities y lenguajes de valoración en América Latina; Fundación Friedrich Ebert, Nueva Sociedad, 244; 4: 30-46
Proporciona un análisis crítico del neo-extractivismo, la acumulación de capital, los conflictos ambientales y el desarrollo en América Latina.
Diana Vela Almeida es una investigadora postdoctoral en el Departamento de Geografía de la Universidad Noruega de Ciencia y Tecnología. Diana combina ecología política, economía ecológica y geografía crítica feminista para estudiar el extractivismo, el ambientalismo neoliberal y la resistencia socio-ambiental. Contacto: diana.velaalmeida[at]ntnu.no
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
This month, we are featuring articles illustrating what decolonial ecology could look like—and, in the corollary, analyses of racism in the environmental movement and climate denial by liberals. As real estate markets become unstable, investors are looking for safe places to put their money—farmland and extractive industries.So we are putting the spotlight on fights for land reform, anti-extractivist struggles, and Indigenous movements around the world. Finally, with the start of a new school year and online education, we noticed an uptick of radical syllabi for making sense of the world—we collected these in our resources section.
A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!
Uneven Earth updates
Population | “Neo-Malthusian promotion of family planning as the solution to hunger, conflict, and poverty has contributed to destructive population control approaches, that are targeted most often at poor, racialized women.”
While often thought of as a given reality, definitions of population are highly political. They are most often negatively associated with notions of “overpopulation” or “too many” Black, Brown and Indigenous people, supposedly overly fertile women and poor people, as well as some religious and ethnic groups. These ideas about population serve the purpose of classifying people and marking them as in need of intervention, defining whose life and ways of life are valuable or worthy of reproduction. In this line, it is important to question how population numbers are calculated and how they are used, as they help shape possible futures.
In relation to the environment and environmental conflict, population is often defined as a problem in neo-Malthusian terms. Neo-Malthusianism builds on British economist Thomas Malthus’s predictions of population-induced resource scarcity and violence. Neo-Malthusian promotion of family planning as the solution to hunger, conflict, and poverty has contributed to destructive population control approaches, that are targeted most often at poor, racialized women.
Population control was an international development policy from the 1960s to mid-1990s. Its policies have been based on top-down, coercive interventions. Such interventions are tied with imperial strategies for restraining local populations. Examples include China’s one-child policy, sterilization abuses in 1970s India and 1990s Peru, and the wide-scale dissemination of long-acting reversible contraceptive methods in the global South as a condition of international aid, like Norplant implants in Indonesia and elsewhere. Although the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development foregrounded sexual and reproductive health and rights and women’s empowerment and moved away from population control, it continues in practice. Population control is part of a troubled present, and cannot be relegated to history as dated international development policy.
In the context of the global environmental crisis, neo-Malthusianism is on the rise. As we have seen recently, the alarmism around population growth mobilizes fear in ways that often promote fascist, racist and xenophobic discourses dressed in green. For example, human pressure on the environment is cited as the reason for international migration, and, for some, under this logic, walls, deportation and fertility control become desirable. It is not uncommon to see media coverage that portrays humanitarian and political crises as a population problem that is causing waves of migration to the global North, as can be noted in the case of Syria. Feminist political ecologists challenge neo-Malthusianism because it assumes that there are external limits to resources. This obscures the ways in which scarcity and conflict are shaped by social and political factors.
Recent feminist writing gives us insight into the current population control efforts which are promoted as a win-win for women and the environment. The Thriving Together campaign sponsored by the UK-based, Margaret Pyke Trust’s Population & Sustainability Network, is a case in point. The Population and Sustainability Network works to promote “family planning for the planet”. Its Thriving Together campaign aims to bring together international organizations that work on issues of human and environmental health. Their statement, signed by 150 organizations declares: “Increasing human pressures are among the many challenges facing planetary health. By harming ecosystems we undermine food and water security and human health, and we threaten habitats and species. Ensuring family planning is available to all who seek it is among the positive actions we must take to lessen these pressures”.
This quote is weighted with common assumptions about population and the environment. “Human pressures” refers largely to population numbers in “poor rural communities in developing nations” with “higher levels of fertility and more rapid rates of population growth”. This is where the purportedly neutral container of “population” becomes racialized, sexed, gendered, located, and classed. As is typical of population control conversations, the targets are poor, racialized women in the global South, largely in African nations.
Thriving Together instrumentalizes contraception as a tool for women’s empowerment, which they claim not only improves health but “advances education and life opportunities” while at the same time it “eases pressures on wildlife and ecosystems.” It is an unrealistic expectation that a contraceptive method could resolve serious structural issues such as these. As advocates for reproductive justice, including access to safe and free or affordable abortion, we are concerned that this approach has the potential to skew quality sexual and reproductive health services in the service of environmental and economic agendas. Further, when family planning is posed as a technical fix to multiple problems, it ignores the political, social and economic character of environmental issues. In a depoliticizing move, these kinds of statements downplay issues central to the current environmental crisis such as rising inequalities and land grabbing, among others.1 At the same time, it leaves unquestioned the abuses of carried out in the name of conservation, associated with sterilization, violence, and even death, as a recent report against WWF shows.
Thriving Together’s narrative leads to environmental conservation policies which too often consider people to be environmental threats and overly fertile. These ideas translate into tight restrictions on the actions and movements of people who live in places which are seen as ecologically strategic.
In contrast, a feminist take on population critiques the troubling ways in which some individuals and groups are targeted as the root causes of poverty, environmental degradation and conflict. As stated in A Renewed Call for Feminist Resistance to Population Control, we call for ways in which climate change can be tackled at the same time that we challenge racism and social injustice, including issues of sexual and reproductive health. There cannot be environmental justice, including climate justice, without social, racial and gender justice.
1 Note: Land grabbing is used to define the land transactions that followed the financial crisis of 2007-2008, as countries, private companies and individuals in the Global North started to acquire massive chunks of land in the Global South. Speculative trends and neoliberal policies worsened this situation, resulting in big changes in land use, tenure and ownership. The notion has expanded since then to include the multiple ways in which very few rich people have been appropriating natural resources (using diverse strategies such as debt, violence and public policy) at the expense of the rural and urban poor.
Ian Angus and Simon Butler. 2011. Too Many People?: Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
Systematically challenges the idea that “overpopulation” is the cause of environmental problems and climate change and calls to account the worst contributors to environmental destruction.
Betsy Hartmann. 2016. Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control, 3rd edition. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
Critiques population control and alarmism from a feminist, social justice perspective.
Anne Hendrixson, Diana Ojeda, Jade S. Sasser, Sarojini Nadimpally, Ellen E. Foley & Rajani Bhatia (2019): Confronting Populationism: Feminist challenges to population control in an era of climate change, Gender, Place & Culture. DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2019.1639634
Argues for renewed feminist attention to population control in the context of climate change.
Confronts the discourses linking climate change and the idea of the Anthropocene, which often advance neo-Malthusianism and suggests population control to address the challenges of climate change.
Anne Hendrixson leads PopDev, a feminist program challenging population control in all its forms through critical research, publications, and social justice advocacy. Anne is a writer and teacher who seeks to uncover the ways that population bomb thinking manifests in environmentalism, security discourses and sexual and reproductive health advocacy today. Contact: popdevprogram [at] gmail.com
Diana Ojeda is Associate Professor at the Center for Interdisciplinary Development Studies at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. Diana is a feminist geographer who does research on the relation between environmental issues and dispossession. Her recent work pays closer attention to the role of gender in the expansion of oil palm plantations in the Colombian Caribbean. Contact: dc.ojeda [at] uniandes.edu.co.
The Forest of Landes is the largest artificial forest in Western Europe. Located south of Bordeaux, it spans a triangle of nearly a million hectares in the south of the country, running from Soulac at its northernmost point, to Hossegor in the south and Nérac to the east, with its western boundary running along two hundred and twenty-five kilometers of sand dune bordering the Atlantic Ocean. It is by and large a monoculture – the entire forest is made up almost entirely of one species: the maritime pine.
A New World
Before the arrival of the forests in the mid-nineteenth century, Landes was a region of wetlands and bogs. In French, lande means bog or heath. Shepherds tended their flocks wearing stilts to navigate the muddy pasturelands.
The first efforts to create an artificial forest began in the 18th century as a way to control the windswept coastal dunes, which had a tendency to swallow nearby villages. The project to secure the dunes expanded after the revolution and carried on under Napoleon’s reign, but the project accelerated massively during the government of Napoleon III with the passing of the Law of the 19th of June 1857. At the time the wetlands still suffered from malaria, and industry was pressuring the government to grow trees, not for the wood specifically but for the rosin and turpentine that could be produced from the sap. The law made provisions for the draining of swamps and the planting of pines both to attenuate disease and satisfy the needs of industrial expansion, but it was not without controversy. For one, local shepherds relied on an extensive commons to graze their sheep and the law required municipalities to auction the commons to private interests. As the land was privatized, locals were dispossessed of their traditional livelihoods. In the decades following the passage of this legislation many tree farms were burned in retaliation, though without seriously altering the trajectory of these modernizing tendencies. We visited Landes because my girlfriend’s father and his wife bought a retirement home. Nominally, we were helping them move in. The house is in Seignosse about six kilometers from the sea. It is a basic house dating from the 1980s, with a slightly asymmetrical, pitched terracotta tile roof, off-white stucco walls with reddish trim and matching shutters. This style is common to the area. It began in neighbouring Hossegor, where architects building the first vacation homes in the 1920s took inspiration from Basque architecture, the Basque border being situated several kilometers to the south. Hossegor is the main draw to the region, with its famous surfing and stately (and extremely expensive) houses built in the early part of the 20th century. The pines there are more mature, distributed in a more organic fashion around the houses, the hills, the golf course and the downtown high street.
The trees were the first thing I noticed when we first arrived in Landes. Pines planted in straight rows seemingly ad infinitum mark a distinct boundary from surrounding regions. They are pleasing if slightly surreal. The size, the expanse of the forest makes it feel natural, as though it has always been there, encroached upon in certain places by human development, but still standing, still present. But one can’t help but notice that there is almost exclusively only one species of tree, that they are planted quite deliberately in straight lines, the underbrush cut away to reduce risk of fire. A number of individuals I spoke to and websites I visited referred to this landscape as sauvage or wild. What impressed me most about this characterization was that people applied it with the full knowledge that the terrain was a plantation, that it had been manufactured – in a sense – by turpentine producers.
As we first entered the region, driving along the departmental highway, I tried to convince myself that it was wild, that I did not see straight rows, or that that what I was seeing was not the overweening hand of human intervention, but a quirk, perhaps, of European nature, European forests, that I was simply unfamiliar with in North America. By this I do not mean to insinuate the superiority of Canadian or American wild space – as some kind of unbounded wilderness signifying unbounded promise; that too is a fiction. I live in a major city whose corona – an amalgam of suburbia, industrial land and suburbanized rural space – extends outwards for hundreds of kilometers. The province of British Columbia, where I grew up, has fifty-seven million hectares of forest, of which less than five percent is primeval forest; the rest has been harvested at one point or another. This means that an area approaching the entirety of France, is some form of tree plantation. The Landes forest is quite small by comparison. I simply mean that my unfamiliarity allowed for the opening of a kind of fantasy space. I am uncertain why I tried to do this as I looked out the window of the car, as I knew it to be untrue beforehand. In that moment, I wanted it to be fact. It was as though my mind was seeking through imagination to make it so.
It was the trees that made Hossegor possible, one of the rare instances where a spinoff of the development of heavy industry happened to make the region more appealing to tourists. Had the area remained a malarial marshland, fronted by mountains of sand pushed ever inland by the violent Atlantic winds, the area would have held less appeal to the developers and architects who first had the notion to build a beach resort town on the site.
As I explored the region I discovered that there were four distinct areas – four distinct types of area, each of which provoked in me a particular psychic experience, each one almost a self-contained dimension, self-contained from nearby, even adjacent terrain. In my mind I named these the following: the habitations, the forest, the beach and the dunes.
The habitations are the built areas that weave spider webs through the tree farms. In effect they constitute one urbanized area, but are officially broken into a number of small villages: Hossegor, Capbreton, Seignosse, Seignosse Beach, and a small stripmall area called Pédebert, which was beside where we were staying.
When we arrived there was a liquidation sale (called a braderie in French) going on amongst all the businesses in Pédebert. This is a once a year, multi-day event where everything in every store in the area is fifty percent off. There was a constant flow of traffic along the departmental road that passed the house, which my girlfriend’s father described as “infernal.” The event is known across the region and is especially popular with Spanish people who come from as far away as Galicia to shop for low priced brands. The businesses hire a team of people to manage cars and shoppers, renting large fields for parking, putting up caution tape and barriers along the side streets and the supermarket parking lot, even temporarily rendering streets one way to produce at least a modicum of order and fluidity in the inevitable traffic jam this event creates.
Capbreton is the only true port in the region. It dates to the Middle Ages. It is a fishing village (though now it harbours not only boats but also vacation properties). Under a special permission granted to them by Louis XIV, the fishermen here have the right to sell fish directly to customers, avoiding the typical intermediary process which is required elsewhere in France. On the beach slightly to the south, the ruins of World War Two-era German bunkers are slowly being reclaimed by the sea. Between the port and this southern stretch of beach, there is a line of concrete vacation houses and apartments which in design carry on the bunker theme. People fish in the channel leading to the port and there is a bustling, convivial popular feeling to the area.
Hossegor, with its stately trees, elegant art nouveau and art deco homes, its golf course and salt-water lake is an attractive spot. Its beach offers world-famous surfing. The town itself exudes a sense of wealth, illustrated most visibly to me by a teenage boy walking with some friends wearing an ensemble of Balenciaga athleisure: hoodie, track pants and running shoes, an outfit, which after researching on the internet, I learned cost more than three thousand dollars. To the west of the golf course there is a short, one block street that stood out to me and puzzled me. It is named after Gabriele d’Annunzio, the decadent Italian poet and politician who is known as the father of fascism and gave the world, amongst other things, the gesture that would later come to be known as the Nazi salute.
The waterfront of Hossegor is quite built-up. The buildings are concrete and mainly yellowish. It is hard to determine their age. Some are obviously more recent, and some, despite the high cost of property and the prestige of the area as a vacation spot, have an almost Soviet quality to them: square and artlessly brutal, weather-stained and sea-corroded. In the main plaza on the promenade there is a restaurant named Rock Food, which at first glance almost looks out of business, though it isn’t.
Seignosse is more inland, and generally more recent. It has developed in the last thirty years and has a more American feel: bungalow houses on cul-de-sacs with biggish garages on the side. At the center of the town there is an old church and a few old buildings surrounded by a number of pizza restaurants. Hossegor-Soorts, located further inland – the original Hossegor before it became a beach resort – is similar: an old church and town hall, surrounded by a pizza restaurant and other buildings.
Seignosse Beach is actually several beaches, which themselves are part of one long beach stretching up the coast almost to Bordeaux. Each one has a parking lot and a break in the dunes to get to the water, a self-cleaning toilet, a few restaurants, vacation rentals and places where one can rent surfboards and take surfing lessons. At one of the beaches there is a waterpark called Atlantic Park.
From the Atlantic Park waterslide complex, the dunes hide the view of the sea. The thought came to me that, protected by this barrier, the waterpark could exist in its own little world, could construct a vision of itself in which its waters reigned supreme, unchallenged by the devouring horizon of the ocean.
The self-cleaning toilets near the beach gave a sense of technology-driven efficiency and sanitation, but this was largely image. People had discovered how to hack their system. For instance, in one, somebody had defecated on the floor. After each new visitor the automated toilet went through its routine, thoroughly washing the bowl, but whatever process was meant to clean the floor simply misted on the pile of defecation, leaving a pool of fecal water expanding across the concrete surface, touching bare feet or splashing against the edges of sandals.
The dunes, running along the sea, dotted with grasses and succulents and fixed in place by the pines, as well as the Maginot Line of vacation properties, exude a rugged energy. They are a kind of wildspace that defies the boundary between nature and human engineering.
I visited Atlantic Park at the end of April, while it was still closed for the off-season. The town itself – if it is a town exactly – was also not yet up and running. Things were still largely shut down. A banner strung across a road advertised an event called “American Crazy Week.” This week took place over only two days: the 4th and 5th of May, and as to what it entailed I could only imagine. Some people walked dogs and others drank beer on the patio of a bar called Le Pas Sage (The Not Wise) located at the passage through the dunes to the beach. Others drank beer with dogs in the local square or whatever one wants to call it – a kind of concrete strip between the waterpark and vacation apartments.
The sun was strong and I felt dry, somewhat thirsty. My interest was to photograph the shuttered waterslides. Lacking clients, their tubular forms resembled some kind of industrial apparatus, like a refinery or chemical works.
Looking through the metal bars and seeing the grounds, decorated with palm trees and manufactured rocks, reminded me momentarily of what pleasure these types of nakedly artificial, engineered landscapes engendered in my friends and I as children. I wanted to go up on the dunes to get a better vantage point. As I walked through the asphalt passage that leads to the shore there was an old woman standing by a blown over section of fencing. She was overdressed and staring silently at the sea.
A number of paths crisscross the sands between the scrub plants. I passed one man sitting, looking out, but then there was no one. At one point there are a series of posts driven into the ground suggesting a road almost. The breeze was fresh. The dune towers above the village and the sea, as well as the water slides. It is enormous. I could see far out to sea, the mountains in the distance, a ship that looked like a drillship had been anchored off the coast of Bayonne for at least the previous week. On the other side of the dune I looked down on the waterslides and the tiny people walking along the plaza.
After photographing for a few minutes I felt a strange discomfort. I looked up to see a man watching me in the distance. He had a shaved head and was wearing a white tank top. I tried not to make it seem as though I had just noticed him, but he stood there watching, not moving. At first I felt conspicuous, with my white, telephoto lens, on top of the dune, but as I looked around I wished I could be more conspicuous as I noticed that there was no one around. In fact the dunes concealed much more than they exposed. If one stepped back just slightly from the edge, people down below saw nothing, heard nothing, especially with the wind and the crashing surf. As a space it was strangely isolated, cut off from the heavily frequented beach and village, which in linear distance were not far off at all. It felt like a different kind of space altogether, a ribbon of solitary desert cutting through the center of holiday cheer. The man stood in the distance still watching. My heart beat somewhat faster and I sweat. The sun made me slightly dizzy. If I hadn’t been carrying so much expensive camera gear I would have felt differently about everything, but an image came to my mind of how easy it would be to be robbed up there and then have the robber disappear into the dunes before I had time to find my way out. This was likely untrue, or maybe it wasn’t – slide out the edges and disappear into the pines. I have no idea, of course, what the man watching me was thinking, but I was affected by the implied threat of surveillance, the latent malevolence of the mysterious observer. It wasn’t lost on me that only moments earlier, that had been my role. Convincing myself that I was unsatisfied anyway with the angle, I hurried off towards the asphalt passage leading back to the settlement. As I walked, I was now more aware than before of the instability of sand and how it slowed my movements, but I took comfort in the thought that they would slow the watcher’s steps as well, who at any rate was not following me and had disappeared from view.
When I made my way back down the dune, the older woman who had been staring out to sea had returned closer to Le Pas Sage and was talking with some of the dog walkers. She was explaining to them how she had recently been forced to move eight times, but then said it was good to be living by the sea because the salt air “clears the nasal passages.”
As I walked around I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy. I don’t know why exactly. It was as if the discomfort I had felt at being watched had been passed from the man to the land itself, that the region had taken on a temporary taint of unease.
Everyone United Against Expensive Life
We did much of our shopping at the Intermarché, which is the large supermarket in the Pédebert area. Generally speaking, it is very American in its design: a large box fronted by an expansive parking area. Inside, it also much resembled a North American supermarket, with many products, broad aisles and so forth.
On one occasion as we were trying to enter, I was stopped by the concierge at the customer service desk. She informed me that I would not be able to access the store with my backpack – a precaution against shoplifting. I was uneasy with the idea of leaving my bag with her, however, as it contained all of my photographic equipment. My partner and I agreed that I would wait in the entrance while she procured the things we needed for that night’s dinner.
I milled about in the front. There was a glass window built into the floor, that allowed one to peer down into the wine cellar. This was where the expensive vintages were protected. The window looked down into a bright, white space, where the wine bottles were neatly arranged and displayed in such a way that they were visible, but I couldn’t quite make out the writing on the labels. I spent some time entertaining myself by trying and failing to read the dates and names written on them. The enclosure was accessible by a kind of robotic door, like an airlock, that an employee opened with a special key, and contributed to the general aura of spaceship conjured by the wine cave.
Presently I felt tired, however: the effects of the purportedly non-drowsy allergy medication I was taking. Slightly dizzy, I sat down on a bench near the automatic doors. In front of me was a display, which I stared at, finding the whole thing somewhat puzzling. The display featured two low-cost bicycles which had been branded as Interbikes. This part in and of itself was not particularly unusual; what I found more inscrutable was the banner hanging on the wall behind it. It read: “Tous Unis Contre La Vie Chère,” or Everyone United Against Expensive Life. It may have been the medication, but I stared absently for quite some time at this slogan. I was almost impressed with the kind of marketing emptiness it seemed to project. It managed to invoke a sense of unified political engagement, especially as it seemed to recall one of the talking points of the Gilets Jaunes protest movement (still ongoing at the time) which was a collective anger at the erosion of purchasing power and increasing poverty across the country, while managing at the same time to elide, and in fact erase the issue altogether, replacing complex political meanings with a bland and cheery exhortation to save. If I found the text of this banner strange, I found the imagery stranger still. It surely did not depict unrest or upheaval of any kind. Instead it showed a white, middle-aged couple in matching active-wear outfits, riding down a mountain slope in Africa. To say that it was in Africa is maybe not exactly even correct as it was an impossible Photoshop construct of sorts – more a map than a photograph even, but signifying what exactly? The riders seemed to be coasting down a slope, which I have to locate in South Africa, because spreading out in front of them was the entire African continent, as well as all of Europe and the Arabian Peninsula. Given the perspective, this mountain must have pierced the atmosphere, rising into the territory of low-earth orbit. It was the vantage point of a satellite, and yet these cyclists had no need for oxygen or protective suits.
My mind struggled to apply some kind of political meaning to this installation, but clarity escaped me. Instead my thoughts wandered to imagining the creative meetings – the conversations between artistic directors, copy-writers, photographers, illustrators and managers that must have come together to produce this banner – the layers of administrative process that are inherent to advertising – and how it all came together to create this object before me. I closed my eyes, feeling the light warm tingling that Reactine generates in my fingertips. Opening them, I saw that my partner was now bagging grocery items at the checkout. I went over to aid her. We carried the bags to the car, went home and made dinner.
Like the dunes, the pines are a distinct environment, a kind of space utterly unto itself. They are surrounded and cut through with roads and habitations, but to be in them feels utterly unlike being anywhere else, even when one has only entered a few hundred feet inside their boundary. In the morning it had rained, a light drizzling rain. By the afternoon the clouds were breaking apart and the sun came out, though it was one of those unsettled times when the day is peppered by moments which are both hot and cool.
At the end of the street where we were staying there was a path that led into the trees. Perhaps it went to the beach; we were uncertain. I took this path that afternoon, when the sun began to come out. The path was sandy and in many places there were large puddles. Tree pollen formed iridescent patterns floating on the surface.
Once inside this area, there were no more houses. These are tree farms and building is not permitted. A variance must be granted from, I don’t know who, the department maybe, in order to construct buildings. That is what happened in Seignosse, Hossegor, Pédebert. Any surrounding noise was absorbed by the trees so that the noises I heard were the noises of a forest – birds and wind, but mostly wind, because bird populations have plummeted across Europe in recent years.
Once inside the trees I had the feeling that they could have gone on forever. I had no sense of geography or space. There were no people. In certain areas, all of the pines had been cut, exposing sand and brambles, and the odd cork or other species of oak tree that remained standing, which the companies seemed not to have the right to take. I imagined that possibly in the future, with the cutting of the pines and the leaving of the oaks, this might transform into an entirely different kind of forest, that the oaks might slowly take over and by a hiccup of regulation transform these forests into ones that no one any longer had the right to harvest. Probably not.
At one juncture I came upon two machines: a cutting and limbing machine and one used to stack logs. The entire cut-block could be serviced by only two people.
The path did not lead to the sea. It led to a golf course. I walked along the road that bisected it, hoping I would get the ocean, but it was too long, and eventually I had to turn around so as not to be too late in making dinner.
On the way back the sun was lower in the sky. Inside the trees it was hot and a bit airless now. The trees grow on sand, and these sands seem to shift and transform over time, over the cycles of cutting and regrowing. I took a wrong turn around a little valley and this brought me up around a kind of sand cliff. There were roads cut into the trees by big machines, machines which were now gone. It was a strange feeling, following the paths of these enormous but now invisible machines that cut through the forest like giant insects. These roads had a meandering, haphazard quality to them, so that they would twist and turn and then trail off into nothing. Where there weren’t trees there were gorse bushes, and I had to walk through a number of them to find the next winding road.
In France there are people everywhere. It is rare to be in a spot and see no one, or more precisely to see no evidence of buildings or habitation. Even in the parks and hiking in mountains numerous people pass by. This was one of the most empty places I have seen in France, with the least sign of human construction (even though this forest itself was a kind of human construction). The lack of people gave the space a sense of vastness, as though it perhaps went on forever. It is interesting how entirely a space can be transformed, the feeling of the space and its sense of scale, by the presence of even one other person, or by the sight of any buildings.
I felt lost, even though abstractly I knew I was not lost. I knew to follow my shadow. I knew that no road was far away. The air was windless now and the light took on a warm rust colour. I was surrounded by a total emptiness, a total stillness. I kept walking and eventually came out at the road in Pédebert, near the Point point P building materials store and the wine outlet. An unseen dog barked behind a fence. It was nearing dinnertime.
Web Design: Ali Bosworth Photo Editing: Lise Latreille Editors: David Ravensbergen & Daniel Horen Greenford
Neal Rockwell is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He is currently completing a masters’ degree in Documentary Media at Ryerson University where he is exploring the effects of financialization on rental housing, as well researching the use of documentary power in the economy and the law, with the goal of strengthening documentary practice as a form of radical truth-telling.
Our planet is dying, and conservation as we know it isn’t helping. In fact, it’s making things worse. Long imagined as a bulwark against ecological destruction, players in the mainstream conservation movement—think big NGOs like The Nature Conservancy and their corporate partners—have actually been complicit in that destruction by propping up a fundamentally unsustainable capitalist system and the nature-culture dichotomy it’s built upon.
According to Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, sociology professors at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, conservation has long been due for a wholesale update—and today, it’s getting not just one but two: “new conservation” and “neoprotectionism.” But in their tightly-argued book, The Conservation Revolution (Verso, February 2020) Büscher and Fletcher make the case that both of these emerging, radical movements contain “untenable contradictions” and that neither can save the planet or humanity from catastrophe. In their place, they propose a new conservation framework of their own, one that complements the variety of ongoing “hope movements” imagining ecologically-sound and democratic alternatives to capitalism.
In the course of just over 200 pages, Büscher and Fletcher build up to this modest proposal swiftly yet methodically, combining history and theory to contextualize and, ultimately, critique their colleagues in the so-called “Anthropocene conservation debate” in a way that is both rigorous and accessible. While their own “convivial conservation” framework, by their own admission, needs further development, it is nonetheless an important addition to revolutionary thought in political ecology.
Their analysis begins with a critical but frequently overlooked fact: Conservation has been linked to capitalism from the very beginning. In 17th and 18th century Britain, they explain, elites “conserved” collectively-used lands by forcing rural people off them. That expulsion conveniently created a labor force for the rapidly industrializing economy. Ever since, capitalism and conservation have shared much of the same ideological DNA. Take the nature-culture dichotomy—the idea that nature is somehow external to humans. Capitalists have long used that idea to justify treating nature as an object to be manipulated in the pursuit of endless economic growth. Conservation organizations, meanwhile, have spread the same notion as they wall off humans from areas artificially transformed into “untouched” wilderness.
And while conservation has long aided and abetted capitalism—through ecotourism, for example—conservation can now be said to have fully integrated into the machine. By putting a price on nature through market-based instruments such as payments for environmental services, organizations like the Natural Capital Coalition see conservation itself as a force for growing the economy.
Like those mainstream conservationists, many of the contemporary thinkers Büscher and Fletcher deem “new conservationists” have no trouble with capitalism. But they depart with their mainstream counterparts in one significant way: They don’t aim to separate nature from humans. Instead, thinkers like science journalist Emma Marris see the planet as a “rambunctious garden,” one that humans must fully inhabit with the rest of nature and manage through sustainable economic activity. As environmental scientist Peter Kareiva puts it: “Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures.” While Büscher and Fletcher see the movement’s rejection of the nature-culture dichotomy and focus on poverty alleviation as positive steps, they argue convincingly that the new conservationist alignment with—or, in some cases, ambivalence toward—capitalism undermines its goal of ecological and social harmony. Capitalism, they say, creates poverty, and its rapacious appetite for growth simply cannot last on a finite planet.
Many neoprotectionists, Büscher and Fletcher argue, understand that essential fact, which is why their brand of conservation is at least nominally anti-capitalist. But unlike new conservationists, who reject the nature-culture dichotomy, neoprotectionists double down on it, campaigning for huge swaths of the globe to be made off limits to human beings. Perhaps the most well-known neoprotectionist—and a notable exception to the movement’s generally anti-capitalist stance— is the biologist E.O. Wilson, who calls for fencing off half the planet to “safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.” Putting hard boundaries between humans and nature, Büscher and Fletcher note, has, in fact, “saved important tracts of nature from previous waves of capitalist development,” but it has also routinely failed in the past due to corruption and weak enforcement. Enacting a similar scheme on an even grander scale, they argue, would not just require unprecedented militarization, but also likely plunge billions into poverty—making it immediately “socially, politically and culturally” illegitimate.
So what does a feasible, equitable, and sustainable conservation look like? According to Büscher and Fletcher, it should combine the best elements of the two radical conservation movements by rejecting both capitalism and the nature-culture dichotomy. Their proposed “convivial conservation” promotes a dialectical relationship between humans and non-humans while working in “conjunction, connection, and spirit with the many proposed alternatives” to capitalism, including ecosocialism and doughnut economics. Under such a system,for instance, natural areas would be “promoted” for “long-lasting, engaging and open-ended” human use rather than protected from humans altogether. It would also feature a new form of community-based conservation, which would repudiate neoliberal market mechanisms and instead prioritize democratic decision-making, social justice, and the needs of non-human nature. Büscher and Fletcher float a host of other ideas, including a “conservation basic income” and reparations, as potential components of convivial conservation.
What Büscher and Fletcher are proposing is a revolutionary upheaval of the status quo, but they are by no means polemicists. At times, “The Conservation Revolution” is practically genteel. After unequivocally rejecting mainstream conservation as “part of the very problem it addresses,” for example, the authors are quick to dismiss the idea that “there is nothing good in mainstream conservation or that all people working on and in mainstream conservation are somehow ‘bad.’” They approach their differences with those in the conservationist community , meanwhile, knowing that their colleagues are generally “imbued with a great sense of crisis and responsibility” and live a “tense and pressurized” existence. That may be true, but at a time when ecosystems face imminent collapse and humanity is staring down the barrel of a gun, such a tone can come across as oddly unhurried.
Convivial conservation is, the authors admit, “an exercise with many loose ends,” and indeed the “nascent” proposal only takes up about a quarter of an already slim book. At times, the program can seem not merely unfinished, but contradictory. This is perhaps most obvious in the authors’ list of “concrete actions” for achieving convivial conservation, which bend toward the technocratic. Why, for instance, bother proposing “convivial conservation departments” at conservation NGOs, when, as the authors themselves assert, many of those NGOs continue to work hand-in-hand with corporations? And if a sane conservation must be, first and foremost, rooted in overthrowing capitalism, why look to “new blockchain technologies” and “grants from international donors and individual patrons” to fund the movement?
Convivial conservation may not be a silver bullet, and The Conservation Revolution may not be the last book one needs to read to help imagine a life-sustaining future. But if we’re lucky, the world to come will look more like the one Büscher and Fletcher describe than not.
Jordan G. Teicher is a New York-based writer and editor. He tweets at @teicherj
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
Much as we might want it to be, the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. And the police are still racist. This month, we profile stories and analyses of the pandemic and of the Black Lives Matter protests. We tried to look for articles that take international and environmental justice approaches to these crises and struggles. There’s also plenty of great analysis coming out, reflecting on our current political moment. Finally, we highlight many articles on food politics, digging into the relationship between the food industry, race, and health – and the new political movements working in these intersections.
A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!
Uneven Earth updates
Decoupling | “Given the historical correlation of market activity and environmental pressures, relying on decoupling alone to solve environmental problems is an extremely risky and irresponsible bet.”
Jevons paradox | “Efficiency gains contribute to increasing production and consumption which increases the extraction of resources and the generation of wastes.”
Is economic growth compatible with ecological sustainability? To answer this question, we need to talk about decoupling. The term ‘decoupling’ refers to the possibility of detaching economic growth from environmental pressures. Economic growth is a measure of market activity, most often Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while environmental pressures include all the consequences an economy has on nature – a useful distinction being between resource use (materials, energy, water, and land) and environmental impacts (e.g. climate change, water pollution, biodiversity loss).
Generally speaking, two variables are said
to be ‘coupled’ if one evolves in proportion with the other (e.g. more of A
means more of B), and they decouple when they cease to do so. What matters for
sustainability is the nature of that decoupling: its magnitude, scale,
durability, and how effective it is in achieving environmental targets.
or weak decoupling,
for example between GDP and carbon emissions, refers to a situation where the
emissions per unit of economic output decline but not fast enough to compensate
for the simultaneous increase in output over the same period, resulting in an
overall increase in total emissions. Said differently: even though production
is relatively cleaner, total environmental pressure still goes up because more
goods and services are produced. Absolute
or strong decoupling, on the
other hand, is a situation where, to stay with the same example, more GDP
coincides with lower emissions.
Local decoupling refers to cases where decoupling is observed in one
specific place (e.g. decoupling of water consumption and GDP in Australia),
while global decoupling occurs at the
planetary scale. Also, decoupling can be temporary
or permanent –just as GDP and environmental pressures can decouple at one point in time, they can also recouple later on.
decoupling can be evaluated based on its magnitude and fairness. Decoupling can
be either sufficient or insufficient in reaching a specific
mitigation target. And following the principle of shared but differentiated
responsibilities, decoupling needs to be sufficiently large in affluent countries in order to free the ecological space
necessary for consumption in regions where basic needs are unmet.
Green growth vs. degrowth
The debate on
decoupling has two main sides. Proponents of “green growth” expect efficiency to enable more economic
activity at a lower environmental cost; on the other hand, advocates of
“degrowth” appeal to sufficiency,
arguing that less goods and services is the surest road to ecological
Many proponents of
the green growth narrative have put forward that economic growth inevitably leads to more efficiency and,
therefore, to reduced environmental costs. In the 1990s several economists
conducted empirical work that led them to believe that economic growth was
negatively correlated with environmental pressures. Environmental damages would
first grow but then decline. This inverted bell-shaped development came to be
referred to as an Environmental Kuznets
Curve, named after economist Simon Kuznets, who, in the 1950s, proposed
that, as a society industrializes, it would first become more unequal, and then
less. Over the years, scholars developed several theoretical reasons to explain
such phenomena. For example, as income per capita grows, basic needs get
satisfied and nations can afford to dedicate more of their attention and
resources towards environmental protection. Another explanation is that richer
nations’ industries are able to develop and afford cleaner and less
resource-intensive technologies. They also transition from industrial
activities to services, which are assumed to be less natural resource-intensive.
However, it is now
widely recognised that decoupling does not occur naturally by the mere fact of
a country increasing its GDP—thereby complicating the Environmental Kuznets
Curve hypothesis. Responding to this, some argue that policies such as carbon
taxes, quota markets, and other regulations could foster it. Many also argue
that a shift to clean energies, the establishment of a circular economy,
incentives for environmentally-friendly consumption, turning products into
services, and ecological innovations like, for example, exhaust filters,
water-saving irrigation systems, and carbon capture and storage could make
For green growth advocates, decoupling is either inevitable or has
not yet occurred because of lack of adequate policies and technological
development. Degrowth proponents, however, argue that the reason why this
long-awaited decoupling has not yet occurred is that because it is impossible. Here
is a list of seven reasons why this is so:
(1) Rising energy expenditures. It takes
energy to extract resources. The less accessible the resource, the higher the
energy bill. Because the most accessible resources have already been used, the
extraction of remaining stocks is a more resource- and energy-intensive process,
resulting in a rising total environmental degradation per unit of resource
(2) Rebound effects. Efficiency improvements are often partly or
totally compensated by a reallocation of saved resources and money to either
more of the same consumption (e.g. using a fuel-efficient car more often), or
other impactful consumptions (e.g. buying plane tickets for remote holidays
with the money saved from spending on meat). It can also generate structural
changes in the economy that induce higher consumption (e.g. more fuel-efficient
cars reinforce a car-based transport system at the expense of greener
alternatives, such as public transport and cycling).
(3) Problem shifting. Technological
solutions to one environmental problem can create new ones and/or exacerbate
others (e.g. the production of electric cars puts pressure on lithium, copper,
and cobalt resources; nuclear power generation produces nuclear risks and
logistic concerns regarding nuclear waste disposal).
(4) The underestimated impact of services.
The service economy can only exist on top of the material economy, not instead
of it. Services have a significant footprint that often adds to, rather than
substitutes, that of goods.
(5) Limited potential of recycling.
Recycling rates are currently low and only slowly increasing, and recycling
processes generally still require a significant amount of energy and raw materials. Most importantly, in the
same way that a snake cannot build a larger skin out of the scraps of its
previous, smaller one, a growing economy cannot rely on recycled materials
(6) Insufficient and inappropriate
technological change. Technological progress is not targeting the factors
of production that matter for ecological sustainability (it saves labour and
not natural resources) and not leading to the type of innovations that reduce
environmental pressures (it is more profitable to develop new extraction
techniques than it is to develop new recycling techniques); it is not
disruptive enough as it fails to displace other undesirable technologies (solar
panels are being used in addition to coal plants and not instead of it); and it
is not in itself fast enough to enable a sufficient decoupling.
(7) Cost shifting. In competitive,
growth-oriented economies, firms have incentives to relocate activities where
environmental regulations are the lowest. What has been observed and termed as
decoupling in some local cases was generally only apparent decoupling resulting
mostly from an externalisation of environmental impact from high-consumption to
low-consumption countries enabled by international trade.
Empirical evidence for
The validity of the green growth discourse
relies on the assumption of an absolute, permanent, global, large and fast
enough decoupling of economic growth from all critical environmental pressures.
et al. (2019) have recently showed, there is no empirical evidence
for such a decoupling currently happening. Whether for materials, energy,
water, greenhouse gases, land, water pollutants, and biodiversity loss,
decoupling is either only relative, and/or observed only temporarily, and/or
only locally. In most cases, decoupling is relative. When absolute decoupling
occurs, it is only observed during rather short periods of time, concerning
only certain resources or impacts, for specific locations, and with very small
rates of mitigation.
Debunking the decoupling
The decoupling hypothesis has played an
important role in legitimating a growth-based economy with a disastrous record
in terms of social-ecological justice. Its meagre achievements in the last two
decades cast serious doubt as to whether prospects for the future are better.
Given the historical correlation of market activity and environmental
pressures, relying on decoupling alone to solve environmental problems is an
extremely risky and irresponsible bet. Until GDP is actually decoupled, any
additional production will require a larger effort in reductions of resource
and impact intensity to stay away from resource conflicts and ecological
breakdown. Decoupling should today be recognised as what it is, a figment of
statistical imagination. This should prompt us to reframe the debate
altogether: what we need to decouple is not economic growth from environmental
pressure but prosperity and the good life from economic growth.
Mardani et al., 2019. ‘Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Emissions and Economic Growth: A Systematic Review of Two Decades of Research from 1995 to 2017’. Science of The Total Environment 649 (February): 31–49. The latest literature review of the
empirical literature concerning the decoupling of economic growth from carbon
Smith et al., 2010. Cents and Sustainability: Securing Our Common Future by Decoupling Economic Growth from Environmental Pressures. The Natural Edge Project. Routledge: London. A good example of a case for
decoupling and green growth
2011. Decoupling natural resources use and environmental impacts from economic
growth. A Report of the Working Group on Decoupling to the International
Resource Panel. Fischer-Kowalski et al.
UNEP, 2014. Decoupling 2: technologies, opportunities and policy options. A Report of the Working Group on Decoupling to the International Resource Panel. Von Weizsäcker et al. The two reports published by the
United Nations Environment Programme, the first on the state of resource
decoupling, and the second on policies to foster decoupling.
Timothée Parrique holds a PhD in economics from the Centre d’Études et de Recherches sur le Développement (University of Clermont Auvergne, France) and the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm University, Sweden). Titled “The political economy of degrowth” (2020), his dissertation explores the economic implications of the ideas of degrowth and post-growth. Tim is also the lead author of “Decoupling debunked – Evidence and arguments against green growth” (2019), a report published by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).
The Jevons paradox is that efficiency enables growth. New technologies that can produce more goods from a given amount of resources allow the economy as a whole to produce more. More resources get used overall.
This is the magic of industrial capitalism and the secret of growth. Economists have known it for a long time. So why is it called a paradox?
A question of scale
The paradox is that we tend to assume that the more efficiently we use a resource the less of it we will use.
This is the case in our personal lives. If you buy a more fuel-efficient car, you might drive a little bit more but overall you will likely burn less gasoline. Switching to a low-flow showerhead typically saves water at home.
This efficiency-for-conservation logic appears correct for most subsets of the economy. When a business switches to energy-efficient light bulbs, its electricity bills go down. Municipalities that require new buildings to meet energy efficiency standards might see energy use decrease within city limits.
But at the level of the whole economy, the reverse is true. These efficiency gains contribute to increasing production and consumption, which increases the extraction of resources and the generation of wastes.
Energy-efficient technologies do not reduce carbon emissions.
This suggests that energy-efficient technologies do not reduce carbon emissions, that fertilizer-saving precision farming techniques do not decrease fertilizer applications overall, and that increasing agricultural yields does not spare land for nature. Real-world evidence supports these claims.
Environmental policy focused on efficiency gains does not by itself benefit the environment. Economies grow by developing and deploying increasingly efficient technologies.
How growth happens
Consider a hypothetical example. If the owner of a tea kettle factory installs a new machine that can make one kettle from less raw copper than before, he might continue to produce the same amount of kettles at a lower cost, or he might choose to make more kettles overall from the same amount of copper.
Either way, profits will go up. The factory owner can buy more machines to make even more kettles from even more copper. Or he can invest those profits elsewhere, increasing production in another sector of the economy and thus increasing the use of copper and other materials.
As more tea kettle factories adopt the copper-saving technology, they might start selling kettles at lower prices to compete for customers. As tea kettles get cheaper, people will be able to buy more of them. Since more kettles can be sold, factories will make more—using more copper.
Copper’s price might increase as factories increase their demand for it. When the price goes up, more potential copper mining sites become profitable, which further raises supply.
Or, even if all tea kettle factories end up using less copper with the new, copper-saving machines, copper’s price will fall and other sectors will be able to afford more copper and therefore demand more.
Cheaper copper could make all copper-containing things cheaper, not just tea kettles, leaving people with more money to spend. They can demand more of the products of all economic sectors, further increasing the use of many materials, including copper.
Cheaper copper might increase industrial profits, too, which capitalists either reinvest to increase production or spend on luxury things.
Even if the initial factory owner decides to give his workers a raise rather than keeping the profit or increasing production, then the workers will have more money to spend on tea kettles and everything else. Even if they decide to save all that additional income, the banking sector will direct it toward investing in more new machinery to produce more things from more materials.
No matter what, it seems, copper consumption rises in the end, because efficiency increases kickstart the growth machine.
The more efficiently society can use copper, the more of it will generally be used. Unless, that is, society intentionally limits its use of copper.
The same goes for just about any resource.
150 years of more
English economist William Stanley Jevons gets credit for being the first to point all this out. In 1865, Jevons found that as each new steam engine design made the use of coal more efficient, Britain used more coal overall, not less.
In 1865, Jevons found that as each new steam engine design made the use of coal more efficient, Britain used more coal overall, not less.
These efficiency improvements made coal cheaper, because steam engines, including the ones used to pump water out of coal mines, required less coal to produce a given amount of useful energy. Yet increasingly efficient steam engines made coal more valuable too, since so much useful energy could be produced from a given amount of coal.
That might be the real paradox: the ability to use a resource more efficiently makes it both cheaper and more valuable at the same time.
In Jevons’ time, more and more coal became profitable to extract as more and more uses of coal became profitable. Incomes increased as coal-fired industrial capitalism took off, and profits were continually invested to expand production further.
A century and a half later, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that as industrial processes have gotten more efficient at using dozens of different materials and energy sources, the overall use of these materials and energy sources has grown in nearly every case. The few exceptions are almost all materials whose use has been limited or banned for reasons of toxicity, like asbestos and mercury.
In an economy designed to grow, the Jevons paradox is all but inevitable. Some call it the Jevons phenomenon because of its ubiquity. Purposefully limiting ourselves might provide a way out.
Fighting growth with collective self-limitation
To prevent catastrophic climate change, humanity must rapidly reduce the combustion of fossil fuels. But despite decades of policy efforts and international negotiations, emissions continue to rise every year.
The focus on making energy use more efficient is paradoxically worsening the problem, as efficiency gains facilitate increasing, not decreasing, carbon burning. And renewable energy sources are adding to fossil fuels, not replacing them. Earth’s limited sources of coal, oil, and gas will not run out in time to save the stable climate.
But what if governments around the world treated coal like they do asbestos? What if petroleum extraction and uses were subject to strict limits like those of mercury?
To limit the use of fossil fuels, or anything else, society must impose limits on itself, preferably democratically.
To limit the use of fossil fuels, or anything else, society must impose limits on itself, preferably democratically. We must set limits on our own activity.
Once binding limits are in place, efficiency gains become one of several tools for staying within them. With a hard cap on the total amount of oil that can be burned, adopting increasingly fuel-efficient machinery cannot backfire and spark growth of oil-burning economic activity. Instead, fuel efficiency would allow more useful work to be done with the limited amount of oil that society permits itself to combust.
Of course, we must also be skeptical of the maximizing mentality that considers efficiency and more to be good things as such. Collectively limiting ourselves offers not just an escape from capitalism’s endless loops of efficiency and growth; it also provides the constraints necessary to imagine and act out new ideas about what makes the good life, as well as revive and protect traditional lifeways.
For many communities around the world, a global project to limit resource use could bring liberation from pollution, exploitation, and the one-way path toward Western-style development. To them, limits do not mean reductions or sacrifice but an opportunity to pursue goals other than growth.
Efficiency makes growth. But limits make creativity.
Once free from the efficiency mindset, we see that setting legal limits is not the only solution to the Jevons phenomenon. Society can also purposefully choose less-efficient production processes, setting the paradox in reverse by constraining the potential scale of the economy. If efficiency makes growth, maybe inefficiency makes degrowth.
Further reading suggestions:
David Owen. “The Efficiency Dilemma.” The New Yorker, December 12, 2010. This New Yorker piece captivatingly chronicles the history of the Jevons paradox as an idea and as a real material force
Salvador Pueyo. 2020. “Jevons’ Paradox and a Tax on Aviation to Prevent the next Pandemic.” Preprint. SocArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/vb5q3. The Jevons paradox holds that using a resource more efficiently leads to economic growth and thus more of that resource is used overall. In this article, Salvador Pueyo shows that, similarly, advances in disease control have enabled humans and livestock to live at higher densities, eventually bringing about more ferocious outbreaks. He argues that the aviation industry shifts costs onto society by spreading diseases around the world, and should thus be taxed.
Sam Bliss, “Why growth and the environment can’t coexist.” Grist. This video explains degrowth in 4 minutes, starting from a Jevons-inspired explanation of how increasing efficiency in orange juice production leads to more oranges consumed, not less.
Sam Bliss is a wildly inefficient researcher, writer, gardener, and warehouse manager of Food Not Bombs Burlington. He participates in and studies non-market food systems in Vermont.
Who can ignore that the Olympians of the new bourgeois aristocracy no longer inhabit. They go from grand hotel to grand hotel, or from castle to castle, commanding a fleet or a country from a yacht. They are everywhere and nowhere. That is how they fascinate people immersed into everyday life. They transcend everyday life, possess nature and leave it up to the cops to contrive culture.
—Henri Lefebvre, “The Right to the City,” 1968
by Sasha Plotnikova
I first started hating the Olympics as a student in Montreal, a city filled with the carcasses of stadiums, pavilions, and decaying detritus of mega-events held there in the 60s and 70s. The year before I moved there marked the 30th anniversary of the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, as well as the year that the City finally repaid the $1.5 billion (CAD) of debt they were left with after the Games.
For cities hosting the Olympics, debt is a matter of course, and the legacy of the Games is palpable: entire neighborhoods are ripped from the urban fabric so that hotels, empty stadiums, and Olympic villages may sit in their place. The social, cultural, and financial weight of these white elephants is shouldered by long-term residents. Two weeks of fame for starry-eyed local politicians and Olympic boosters amount to a pressure-cooker of exploitation and state violence for those whose lives, labour, and culture make city life possible.
But a counterpart to this history of destruction is a lineage of struggle, survival, and solidarity. While the fight against the Olympics has historically taken place at an immediate, local scale, today’s anti-Olympics organizing is beginning to coalesce into an internationalist movement for the right to urban self-determination.
Bigger than the Olympics
In Los Angeles, a group of organizers working together under the banner of NOlympics LA are fighting for the cancelation of the 2028 LA Olympics and the abolition of all future Games. And that’s only their short-term goal.
As an active member of the LA Tenants Union (a supporting partner of NOlympics) and a hater of the Olympics myself, I’ve observed first-hand the group’s constant churn of actions, teach-ins, and community canvasses since their founding in 2017. But the larger significance of groups like NOlympics can be hard to see up close, and is often obscured by the fervour of organizing around immediate crises at the local scale. As I explore later, the NOlympics activists have developed an arsenal of popular education tactics that create a gateway to local organizing. Boykoff’s snappy yet poetic prose captures their spirit and teases out the long-term promise of mounting a campaign against specific, local issues. Ultimately, the book’s greatest contributions are the lessons it offers on the relationship between international solidarity and local action.
Himself a former Olympic soccer player, Boykoff has spent the past decade building critical analysis about the Games. This shows: the text weaves seamlessly in between interviews with the activists and the lessons that inform their politics. To underline the deep socioeconomic inequalities facing Angelenos, the book throws into stark relief the disparity between the priorities of the oligarchs behind the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the demands of the communities that are displaced and criminalized by the Olympics.
The book is written in four parts, moving from the history of the Games and the destruction they bring; to the origins of NOlympics and the significance of the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); to the way their local strategies fit into an internationalist movement; and finally to some conclusions for what is to be done about the Olympics.
Throughout, Boykoff situates their organizing within the long-time work of adjacent grassroots organizations in LA and within the praxis of past and present social movements globally. Boykoff’s account of the NOlympians’ trip to Tokyo demonstrates that it’s only through building international connections that the activists are able to connect the local to the global.
Seizing the means of the production of urban space
To understand why the Olympics are bad for LA, you have to understand why capitalism is bad for cities. As David Harvey explains in his book Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, urbanization — the visible arm of endless economic growth — was never anything other than a project of power. Cities develop as economic hubs, where what looks like an abundance of financial opportunities to politicians and investors, signals an ever-worsening quality of life for poor and middle-class residents. Each time the economy sees a boom, poor communities see an intensification of urban stress. As neoliberalism has dug in its heels over the past few decades, the gap between the rich and the poor has become most pronounced in cities.
Perhaps more than any other city, Los Angeles embodies the economic order that has come to define what it means for a place to be urban. The process of urban growth goes in lockstep with the growing burden of rent; the planned obliteration of public housing; the demise of labour unions; the stagnant wages; the proliferation of ever-new forms of segregation; and booms in the most precarious and informal branches of the economy. The lived experiences of millions of Angelenos are proof that the very machinations that spur economic expansion and urban development are the ones that make it increasingly impossible to live in cities.
Land speculators and real estate developers have been particularly pervasive throughout the city’s history. When they’re not at the helm of the city’s economy, they’re in the ears and pockets of politicians, laundering their projects through green-washing and transit-oriented gentrification policies.
The history of urban uprisings in LA has kept pace with this history of injustice. The city’s growth has been enabled by its entrenched culture of white supremacy, which has incensed urban movements from the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots; to the Watts Rebellion in 1965; the 1966 high school boycotts; the Chicano Moratorium in the 70s; the 1992 uprisings in the wake of the brutal police beating of Rodney King; and today’s Black-led demonstrations against police violence.The economic crisis faced by low-income residents is growing steadily, and with it, more and more people are starting to organize to take back the cities they’ve built and made their lives in. Whether that fight coalesces in an alliance against the Olympics or manifests in the daily work of tenant organizing, it’s a fight for the right to the city.
The movement for the right to the city was first given its name by Henri Lefebvre, on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Capital and on the eve of the urban social movements of May 1968. Lefebvre’s writing presaged what would take place in the last decades of the 20th century: the global rise of urbanization and the concentration of capital in the world’s cities. Since his time, urban centers like LA have increasingly become the places where the effects of a profit-driven housing system are most deeply felt: urban planning policies are written with the intention of displacing the poor and replacing them with higher-income, whiter residents — all so that the economy can continue to grow and attract ever-wealthier tourists, investors, and residents to the city. This process has irreversibly changed the look, feel, and spirit of cities to embody the sterile, generic luxury that caters to the global elite.
With this dark horizon in sight, Lefebvre wrote about the urgent need to fight for an urban life that centers poor communities, promotes a sense of belonging, and imbues the everyday with meaning and novelty—he called this the right to the city.
One of the most important takeaways of Henri Lefebvre’s “Right to the City” is the proposition that already in 1968, Marxism’s focus on the worker as the agent of social change no longer held the same ground as it did in the 19th century. In response, Lefebvre suggested that the task at hand is to seize the means of the production of space, updating the Marxist focus on seizing the means of industrial production. To claim their right to the city, tenants, street vendors, immigrants, service workers, artists, and those who care about and enliven public space would take back what they’ve created and nourished.
Human rights, as they’re understood by most, are underwritten by the notion of private property, and this makes the proposition that the city, or even housing, is a human right, for instance, a difficult pitch. The right to the city complicates that understanding: it’s not just about a right to resources— it’s about a collective right to self-determination through the built environment and the urban social realm.
For Lefebvre, the right to the city was the assertion of the right of low-/no-income residents to shape the city so that it might both fulfill their basic needs and better reflect their culture and desires. Without this right, anyone who isn’t identified as part of the white middle and upper class is targeted by social cleansing campaigns through evictions, rent gouging, policing, and surveillance. The right to the city is a fight for safe, affordable, and decent housing; for public amenities; for bountiful, accessible, unsurveilled and unrestricted use of public space; and ultimately, for avenues towards community control over the built environment.
A renewed interest in what Lefebvre articulated in 1968 has taken two paths. While it’s been embodied in the daily struggles of autonomous grassroots movements; it has also been opportunistically adopted by nonprofits as a brand. The nonprofit approach amounts to asking for a seat at the table by promoting community engagement and public meetings that in theory, offer an avenue for poor people to participate in urban planning. But even when long-time residents of gentrifying communities are invited to conversations between developers and city agencies, their presence is tokenized and their participation is superficial by design.
A grassroots right-to-the-city approach like that of NOlympics, on the other hand, offers an avenue for organizing against the abstract forces of neoliberalism by making clear demands for material changes that can improve the lives of poor people.
For an in-depth look at the renewed relevance of the right to the city in today’s anticapitalist movements, we can turn to David Harvey. He suggests that a primary obstacle to finding “our version of the [Paris] Commune,” might be the Left’s failure to collectively trace the connections between seemingly separate struggles, within our towns and cities and around the world. For him, it’s only through an internationalist movement that understands racial, environmental, economic, and spatial justice as facets of the same struggle, that we can begin to reclaim our cities. The promise of the global anti-Olympics movement is just that: an international, intersectional coalition rooted in local struggles for cities where the well-being of residents holds more weight than a two-week mega-event for the ultra-rich.
The long road to Olympic abolition
The Olympics produce a state of exception that allows municipal politicians around the world to usher in the version of the city they want but can’t get through a democratic process. Local police forces take advantage of this moment to acquire otherwise-unattainable funding, weapons, and legal protections. Host cities bend over backwards to accommodate a two-week mega-event, permanently altering their urban fabric and pricing out longtime residents. In Boykoff’s words, “It’s not just that poor people are not given a seat at the Olympic table — it’s that they’re the meal.” The same pattern plays out again and again, from Rio, to Sochi, Beijing, and LA. In the years leading up to the return of the Olympics to Los Angeles in 2028, we can expect nothing less than the exacerbation of the very demonstrations of white supremacy and aspirations for cosmopolitanism that have pushed communities of colour out of the neighbourhoods they’ve called home for generations. Already, we’re seeing the expansion of the LAPD; more transit-oriented displacement; hotel development; and rising rents.The 2028 Olympics represent the most recent incarnation of racist and anti-poor planning, and their arrival fans the flames of LA’s urban crises.
In 2017, NOlympics was born in the Housing and Homelessness committee of DSA’s Los Angeles chapter, which was unique in that it actively pursued coalitions with existing organizations led by long-term residents organizing with tenants and unhoused communities. This origin story is an important piece of the book, and Boykoff’s description of NOlympics’ relationship to DSA-LA further illustrates NOlympics’ commitment to long-time local struggles and international coalition-building. Since their founding, NOlympics has gained a relative autonomy from DSA, and gathered together a coalition of over 30 local grassroots organizations.
The day-to-day organizing of NOlympics LA is handled by a handful of dedicated, core activists, many of whom have been with the group since the beginning. But much of their base draws from the members of their coalition partners, which themselves benefit from having a shared forum for building solidarity, and a long-term goal to mobilize against. By strengthening those alliances, the group has planted roots in LA’s ongoing and wide-ranging struggles, from racial justice, to anti-imperialism, housing justice, and many more.
In effect, the group has embedded itself into grassroots organizations outside of DSA, learning from them, supporting them, and funneling new DSA members into these movements—responding to a common critique that DSA lacks those kinds of connections. As I’ve seen for myself, NOlympics organizers consistently show up to support protests at the homes of slumlords organized by the LA Tenants Union. They help to monitor encampment sweeps and empower unhoused residents with Streetwatch LA (another DSA-LA working group with relative autonomy), and turn up for direct actions organized by Black Lives Matter against the city’s record-high rate of police murder.
Similarly, NOlympics maintains a level of porosity and agility that welcomes new members on a regular basis and draws activists from different backgrounds to partake in their actions, which largely revolve around tactics of popular education: canvassing, polling, and teach-ins. By pulling together the already-existing expertise and analysis of local organizations, and setting out on a decade-long mission, NOlympics stands a chance of winning the cancelation of the LA2028 Games. More importantly, they’re ensuring that the city’s activist groups have a constant platform where they can come together, and that new members of DSA have an avenue for involvement in ongoing anticapitalist work in the city. Yet, for NOlympics, coalition-building is not just a tactic for mounting a localized intersectional critique of the effect of the Games on LA. It is also a project of international solidarity to end the Games for good: “No Olympics Anywhere.” The activists recognize that without lasting solidarity between host cities, all the work done in each host city is lost when the IOC moves on to its next victim. In response to the IOC’s globetrotting caravan of destruction, anti-Olympics activists around the world are beginning to strategically organize on a transnational scale. Fostering this coalition of global anti-Olympics groups has become a central initiative of NOlympics, responding to another shortfall of DSA, which is its lack of an anti-imperialist analysis.
Last summer, Boykoff traveled to Tokyo with NOlympics for the first major international anti-Olympics summit, where the activists from different cities around the world convened and marched with the local anti-Olympics organizers of HanGorin No Kai ahead of the Tokyo 2020 (now 2021) Summer Games. There, NOlympics organizers shared the particular ways that transnational capital manifests in LA. Boykoff, when narrating this trip, also observes the hurdles to this scale of organizing: if language barriers weren’t enough, different cultures of organizing can make collaboration difficult. But there were important lessons learned as well. Back in LA, the Nolympics organizers constantly remind local activists that their enemy is not just the LA City Council, but a transnational regime of neoliberalism.
As David Harvey notes, “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.” NOlympics’ answer to this is building a coalition that unites antiracist, anticapitalist, anticarceral, and anti-displacement organizers in the fight for their right to continue to live in and to shape the city — from LA to Tokyo and beyond. It offers lessons about the importance of local, intersectional solidarity to activists abroad; and informs the work of local activists with an internationalist analysis. NOlympians depicts a coalition of organizations that prefigures a version of Los Angeles where none of us are free until all of us are free; where the city’s racist history is top of mind as we steer the ship towards racial justice; and where solidarity plays out in everyday acts of mutual aid.
A gateway to organizing
Like DSA, NOlympics takes an inside-outside approach, agitating politicians in the city hall chambers while building power by organizing with their coalition partners. However, NOlympics’ unabashedly abolitionist mandate sets it apart from what Boykoff identifies as the “socialism by evolution not revolution” mandate embraced by much of DSA — instead of reform, they want an obliteration of the capitalist mega-event. Their positioning creates a bridge for new members of DSA to get involved with community organizing beyond electoralism. One way NOlympics has done this has been by perfecting the art of transfiguring cynical criticism into demands for positive change. They do this by exposing the failures of local government through gripping online satire, and pairing it with rambunctious, theatrical direct actions. Boykoff describes the ways in which NOlympics responds to the specific cruelties and political failures of contemporary Los Angeles. LA’s municipal government puts much of the city’s political power in the hands of the city council, while, as the NOlympians relentlessly point out, Mayor Eric Garcetti is often nowhere to be found. Before devoting much of his time in office in 2018 to courting a long-shot presidential bid, he signed the host-city contract for the 2028 Olympics without any input from the public—a clear tell that the 2028 Games were never intended to benefit the average resident of LA, but that they’re meant to serve the private interests of hotel developers, real estate speculators and international corporations that thrive on the tourist class.
Garcetti and LA City Council have consistently upheld racist and anti-poor policies. White supremacy is deeply ingrained in the city’s planning history, and wealthy, white residents look to the city council for leadership. The summer of 2019 saw an uptick in anti-homeless white vigilante violence after the city council reinstated a ban on vehicle dwelling. Backed by the most murderous police force in the nation, politicians and vigilantes alike are already on a campaign to sanitize and pacify neighborhoods across Los Angeles. The decaying local media landscape only makes matters worse, with Pulitzer-prize nominated journalists writing poverty porn, and the chairperson of the 2028 Olympic bid holding a major stake in one of the few local outlets.
Boykoff describes NOlympics as a “perpetual praxis machine,” and their organizing takes many forms, ranging from performatively canceling the Olympics on the steps of LA’s City Hall; to holding auditions for actors to fill Garcetti’s shoes in his frequent absence; to doing outreach in public spaces and areas most impacted by hotel development ahead of the Olympics. Threading together all of these tactics is the activists’ trademark humour, which makes their cutting political criticism more approachable. While people may not know exactly how to critique something as abstract as global capital, NOlympics shows them how and empowers them to do so. Their propaganda pairs criticism of the profit-driven political economy with people-centered alternatives, all in plain language grounded in the specific issues facing Angelenos.
Popular education is at the root of their approach to organizing, and as Boykoff observes, their regular meetings have become more about training people to organize, and less about report-backs and updates. Their organizing mandate seems to be not base-building, but creating an environment for organizers to grow and learn from one another, and connecting new DSA members with existing organizations working on specific issues in Los Angeles.
No Olympics are Good Olympics
If you ask any of the NOlympics LA organizers whether the Olympics could be reformed to better serve local communities, they would be quick to say that no Games are good Games. They would tell you that what powers the Olympic machine is the IOC’s determination to trample on poor communities in cities across the world, just to turn a profit, get back in their private jets, and do it all over again somewhere else.
Yet, after chronicling the work of these organizers, and explicitly reiterating their abolitionist platform, Boykoff lays out some suggestions for Olympic reform. For one, he suggests an independent panel to review bids, and proposes higher environmental oversight. He imagines an Olympic machine turned on its head, so that funds that circulate up through the Games into the hands of oligarchs may be redirected into marginalized communities instead. He also proposes that the IOC follow the lead of FIFA, making votes for the Games public.
It’s perplexing that after following the NOlympics organizers’ analysis so closely to their unapologetic, no-compromise demands for the eradication of the Olympic Games, Boykoff suggests reform. He implies that the IOC would be open to positive change; and furthermore that these reforms would not later be corrupted. It’s difficult, knowing what we’ve learned from his book, to imagine that a reorganized IOC would stage anything that truly benefits the no- and low-income communities of host cities. Boykoff’s propositions prompt an important question for the anti-Olympics movement and for the fight for the right to the city: How far can reform really go?
The NOlympians have rejected the premise of this question altogether. NOlympics is about ending much more than the Olympics, and spending energy on fighting for reforms to a system premised on the disenfranchisement of communities of colour and the banishment of the poor, might be something better left to the nonprofits. Instead, NOlympics has highlighted moments in sporting history when athletes got together to organize ethical, people-first events. For example, their videoA Brief History of Swolecialism gives an overview of the Workers’ Sports Movement. The 1932 International Workers’ Olympiad famously drew more visitors and competitors than the concurrent 1932 LA Olympics. That legacy lives on today in CSIT (Confédération Sportive Internationale Travailliste et Amateur, or International Workers and Amateurs in Sports Confederation), which offers an alternative to the IOC that goes unmentioned in NOlympians. Boykoff writes about these alternatives elsewhere, but misses an opportunity to connect the dots between NOlympics LA’s fight to abolish the Games and their enthusiasm for the potential of a democratic sports culture led by poor people.
Ultimately, the more important question at the end of this book remains unasked: what kind of city would it take to put people before profit, and to democratize sporting culture? What kind of city would it take to invest in and preserve bountiful public recreation space, provide clean water to swim in, and safe streets where kids can play — all without displacing long-time residents? It’s the kind of city that the partners of the NOlympics LA coalition are already fighting for and beginning to enact.
What the NOlympians are doing, and what Boykoff chronicles so well, is building a coalition of organizations in LA that are collectively fighting for their right — the right of regular people — to the city. In a global city like LA, this fight is up against the influence of transnational real estate investment, the tourism industry, and sportswashing. Though it’s difficult to measure the progress they’ve made towards getting the 2028 Games canceled, they’ve become a vital voice of dissent in our city hall chambers; a constant well of research and analysis while local media sleeps at the wheel; and an important common ground for groups fighting for environmental justice, tenants rights, Black liberation, and demilitarization. Boykoff illustrates not only the contemporary relevance of a right-to-the-city campaign; but the importance of far-reaching, collaborative, and coalition-based organizing that pairs single-issue struggles to general ones and local fights to the global fight against capitalism. The NOlympians are flipping the script, taking what engineer William Mulholland once said to the mayor at the opening of the Los Angeles aqueduct, and broadcasting it to the city instead: “There it is! Take it!”
All photos courtesy of NOlympics LA.
Sasha Plotnikova is a writer and design critic living in Los Angeles. She organizes with the LA Tenants Union and has taught architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. She tweets at @sashaplot_.
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
Following the killing of George Floyd, one in a long line of brutal murders of Black people by police, anti-racism protests have swept across the US, and conversations about structural racism and police brutality have dominated the global media. We decided to use this momentum to highlight educational readings and resources on anti-racism, police abolition, and the connections between racism and environmental issues.
In other news, this month, we launched a new section on our site: the Resources for a better future glossary! We kicked it off with Eleanor Finley’s entry on Human nature, which we linked below. In this month’s list, we also included analyses of where we’re at and where we’re going with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, and, as usual, we collected a variety of readings and resources about new politics, cities and radical municipalism, degrowth, and activism.
Uneven Earth updates
We launched Resources for a better future – a glossary of crucial concepts in political ecology, alternative economics, and environmental justice. It offers easy-to-read, clear, and opinionated explainers of some of the most important political and ecological issues of our time.
Human nature | In the first entry of our new glossary, Eleanor Finley argues that there is no human nature, only human potential
Planet of the dehumanized | Environmentalism that does not center structural inequality is a dangerous nod to both eco-fascists and eco-modernists alike
Top 5 articles to read
Reimagining a world where justice is possible. “It was none other Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” We live in a world where robbing entire classes and societies; manufacturing and trading ever deadlier weapons; poisoning the air, earth, and water; torturing or wiping out entire species; etc. are the alphabet of power. The justice of such power cannot be anything but a hellish nightmare for those who are born into the margins. Such a world will always be racist, regardless of the humanist sentiments of the majority.”
Coronavirus: its impact cannot be explained away through the prism of race. “Race is a social construct with no scientific basis. However, there are clear links between people’s racial groups, their socioeconomic status, what happens to them once they are infected and the outcome of their infection. And focusing on the idea of a genetic link merely serves to distract from this.”
The end of policing. According to Ruth Wilson Gilmore, this free eBook available on Verso “combines the best in academic research with rhetorical urgency to explain why the ordinary array of police reforms will be ineffective in reducing abusive policing. Alex Vitale shows that we must move beyond conceptualizing public safety as interdiction, exclusion, and arrest if we hope to achieve racial and economic justice.”
Ethnography and the struggle for social justice. Didactic video resources on how ethnographic research can be used to strengthen social justice struggles, with the Brazilian urban movement Lutas Pela Moradia no Centro da Cidade (with English subtitles).
Note from the Uneven Earth editorial team: This entry is the first to be published within Uneven Earth’s new Resources for a better future series: a glossary of crucial concepts in political ecology, alternative economics, and environmental justice. We are calling on experts and activists to help us put out easy-to-read, clear, and opinionated explainers of some of the most important issues. Anyone can write an entry, and we will help with editing to make them readable to wide audiences. The time is now to put forward concise definitions of key concepts, to explain our political position firmly and clearly.
What is “human nature”? How can we make sense of human beings as creatures which are part of the natural world? What makes our species distinct from others? People have been asking ourselves these kinds of questions for millennia. Aristotle, the classic Greek philosopher and harbinger of modern biology, famously characterized human beings as zoon politikon, a political animal that can deliberate collectively upon what should be in the world. Since the Industrial Revolution, it has become popular to define human beings in economic terms. So-called “man the toolmaker” alters his physical environment to suit his purposes. Yet, as we shall see, Aristotle’s ancient idea still resonates with much of what the science says about the human species today.
There is no single “human nature” or blueprint for organizing human life.
Anthropologists are scientists who study the human species from a holistic perspective, taking into account our biology, language, material culture (archaeology), social systems, and everyday life. Over the course of a century, anthropologists have amassed first-hand accounts of human societies from all over the world. We call this “ethnographic record”. The ethnographic record shows that within broad realms of “universals” like family and friendship, spirituality or religion, play and sports, politics, and production, the range of possibilities are endless. For this reason, anthropologists have long ceased trying to define “human nature” and instead focus on exploring the human potential. In other words, there is no single “human nature” or blueprint for organizing human life.
The idea of “human nature” nonetheless remains deeply lodged in our popular imagination about good and evil. Most often, people invoke the notion to justify an evil act or system of injustice. It is supposedly “human nature” to be greedy, for instance, or to exploit others. Although on the surface these expressions appear politically neutral, they are tautologies: “explanations” that merely repeat themselves. Why did men rape women, children, and other men? Why, because it was supposedly in their male nature to do so! Yet hardly explains why some men choose to rape and others don’t. It is equally in men’s capacity not to rape, so why bother blaming “nature” at all? Below the surface, statements about what is “natural” are really expressions about what we see as morally permissible. We invoke “human nature” as if to say, “These things will never change so don’t even try”.
We invoke “human nature” as if to say, “These things will never change so don’t even try”.
The debate about “human nature” is really a veiled way of talking about good and evil. To question the good of humankind is to question whether it is ethical to respect others. If we decide humans are bad, then we don’t feel bad treating them badly.
Thankfully, serious observation of human behavior points to precisely the opposite conclusion. Things are always changing, so you might as well try! While most species have evolved elaborate, yet confining physical adaptations like wings, beaks, or claws, human beings adapt through creativity and invention. Like dogs, cats, rats, pigeons, and many of the other species which have accompanied us across the globe, we are generalists who thrive in diverse environments. Flexibility is our hallmark as a species.
Flexibility is our hallmark as a species.
Despite our powerful plasticity, human beings remain primates with a distinctive set of physical features which shape our overall embodied experience and life cycle. As primates, our eyes situate themselves at the front of the skull, affording us an acute sense of sight and the ability to see at great distances. We possess opposable thumbs and long, agile fingers that allow us to tinker with fine and delicate objects. In distinction from all other primates, our posture is upright, a capacity gained through mind-bogglingly sophisticated skeletal adaptations in our feet, ankles, legs, and pelvis. These are just a few of the distinctive human features that anthropologist Julian Steward refers to as “the biological constant”.
Amid our many remarkable features, the human brain is exceptional. Each human possesses a highly-developed prefrontal cortex or “frontal lobe”, a highly flexible supercomputer overlaid by the patterns of symbols and associations we call “culture” (dolphins, porpoises, and other advanced mammals possess highly developed frontal lobes, however, without a common language, it is impossible to know in any detail what their culture might be like). The frontal lobe allows us to recognize, remember, reason, imagine, solve problems, and to project our mind’s eye into the past and future. For example, it is the frontal lobe which allows us to recognize the meaning of a traffic signal and predict what will happen if we do not stop. Most importantly, the prefrontal cortex allows us to alter what we’ve learned and invent new patterns. It is not only how we interpret the meaning of stories and metaphors, but also how we create new ones.
There is no human nature, only a human potential.
The uniqueness of the prefrontal cortex is significant to any discussion of “human nature” because it means there is no recognizable human life beyond the reach of culture. Human infants literally cannot survive without years of sustained stimulation, love, and affection from caretakers. There is no human “nature” that can be separated from the society in which we live. In 1961 Marxist historian Erich Fromm writes that for Marx, man is characterized by a “principle of movement”. Under the influence of early anthropology, Marx understood that history is a dance between invention and determination. There is no human nature, only a human potential.
Aristotle approaches the same point, but from the other direction. By describing humans as “political animals”, Aristotle correctly implies that even the most seemingly abstract inventions like ethics, philosophy, and debate have an objective basis in the way our bodies are constructed. Our biology equips us to understand not only what is, but also what could and what should be. We are ethical creatures; we are nature debating, rationalizing, and thinking with itself.
For years, things have been kicking off everywhere. In Argentina 2001, then in France 2005, then in Greece 2008, in Iran 2009, and then like a wave in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria to circle back to Spain, US, New Zealand, Turkey. Occupy Everywhere.
In Athens, in December 2008 the Mayor’s
Christmas tree was set ablaze with the curse/wish ‘Merry Crisis and a Happy New
Year’ until the Christmas tree in Hong Kong’s shopping mall caught fire too ten
To then kick off again in Iraq, in Lebanon, in
Sudan, in France. Till Chile consumed it all and spit it out ‘We will not
return to normality because normality was the problem’.
Six months later, maybe we crave for some
Maybe we could go back to that old normality
with all its contradictions, oppressions, cancellations, exploitations,
misrepresentations—but where, somewhere, one can carve out a small space where
there is Touch and there is Movement and therefore maybe a bit of Freedom.
So cοuld we go back? The ghost of
what-is-actually-normal is haunting our cities.
(the most important work is the work that
maintains and reproduces life)
(even the market had to start washing its
The fairy of what-is-actually-possible is
humming in between our screens.
So, the words appear again on a Hong Kong wall
‘We can’t go back to normal because normality was the problem’, only now they’ve
taken on a meaning more dense yet more subtle, punctuated by all our
How do we move? One answer: ‘there is no need to destroy everything and to give birth to a world completely new — it suffices to change the position of this cup or this bush or this stone, and to do the same for every thing.’
Maro Pantazidou likes to work on radical education and collaborative research. She is based in Athens.
A new documentary entitled “Planet of the Humans” directed by Jeff Gibbs, and produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore, was recently released to coincide with Earth Day. The documentary was highly anticipated, given Moore’s previously engrossing anti-establishment and award-winning documentaries on crucial political issues. The documentary, narrated by self-proclaimed environmentalist Jeff Gibbs, was released online and received over 4 million views in less than a week. The filmmakers unpack some of the myths surrounding large-scale renewable energy production like solar, wind, and biomass, arguing that such technologies are themselves materially-intensive and dependent on fossil-fuel derived energy, including coal, oil, and natural gas.
The film rightly questions capitalism’s
“addiction to growth,” as well as corporate
quests for profitable opportunities made available through greenwashing,
and exposes the “renewable energy scam” as an unsettling co-optation of
environmentalism by fossil-fuel driven interests. This line of questioning is
refreshing and highly welcome at a time when faith in green growth
is proposed as the main solution by the private sector, and their government
supporters, to address environmental issues. These messages from the film are
extremely important, given that it has been scientifically shown that
there is no such evidence that environmental degradation can be
reversed through increasing economic growth.
Since its release, the film has already received
considerable critique from renewable
energy experts, climate scientists, and climate activists, who
have decried the film as dangerously misleading and behind the latest
developments in the renewable energy sector. While we are sympathetic to this
critique on how the film throws the “baby out with the bathwater” on
renewables, we believe these critiques gloss over the important point the film
makes about corporate greenwashing around renewable energy. We also believe
that the critique of the film’s position being climate-denialist
is clearly inaccurate given the film’s central focus on the ecological crisis
associated with economic expansion. Ultimately, “Planet of the Humans”
demonstrates why massive-scale renewable energy is a false solution to meet the
insatiable needs of industrial society – this is a valid point! Even if
renewables were fully substitutable alternatives to fossil-fuels, an
industrialized civilization predicated on endless
economic growth is not sustainable.
Our concern lies with how the film
superficially points to environmental problems being caused by an abstract
capitalism without centering the analysis on the historical and structural
inequalities of capital accumulation. “Planet of the Humans” powerfully and
convincingly bursts the “eco-friendly” lifestyle bubble into which so many
well-intentioned progressives pour their hearts, souls, and wallets. However,
the film bypasses historically
ingrained privileges and structural inequalities along class,gender,
lines that lie at the heart of environmental crises.
A film produced by white people for other
well-meaning white people, which does not include voices from the most
vulnerable, who bear the major brunt of climate change and ecological collapse,
entirely misses the mark around why ecological concerns are a matter of
humiliating injustice for many people rather than merely a lifestyle
choice. If what counts as being a “lifelong environmentalist,”
as Gibbs claims at the start of the film, means making the individual
choice to move into an “eco-house” and become more sustainable,
then we are left with a very narrow and privileged understanding of what
environmentalism actually means. The absence of more than stock-photo imagery of
the structural inequalities of ecological destruction is precisely what makes
this film highly simplistic and therefore dangerous at this current
There are four key reasons why the film misses
the mark on the intertwined social and ecological crises of capitalism.
The film’s narrative groups humanity as a whole as the culprit for ecological degradation, as evoked in the film’s title, and as signaled by the Anthropocene trope as a universalizing explanation for our current predicament. This perspective neutralizes the powerful influence of historically transforming the world into standardized, calculable, and controllable landscapes to replicate Western imaginaries of the world. Not all humans are responsible for the current state of affairs. Some of us are forced to deal with the fallout of a particularly deadening vision of the world more than others. The consequence of activating the idea of the Anthropocene is that it allows big industries to convince us that “we”, the anthropos, are all equally responsible for climate change.
The film caters to Western views on environmentalism by those who do not have to deal with structural injustices of living in cities’ most polluted areas,dying from air pollution, havingtheir land dispossessed, or whose life choices are determined byprecarious migrant labour and remittance to families abroad. While the film artfully exposes the fallacy around so-called “green economy” illusions, it does so by focusing entirely on lifestyle choices like deciding whether to attend a solar-powered concert or to adopt a plant-based diet. This focus simplifies what environmentalism is meant to imply, even if the filmmakers may have had no intention of doing so. One consequence of the filmmaker’s one-sided Western environmentalist lens is its singular focus on renewable-energy supporters and activists. Environmentalism has less to do with having epiphanies of being inspired in the great outdoors, and more to do with supporting the autonomous decision-making of vulnerable communities in the face of egregious environmental pollution that no human being should ever be subjected to. Racialized environmental justice has a long history in the US. It is unfathomable that a film of this nature would blatantly side-step this, especially given Moore’s previous work on the racialized nature of environmental problems like the Flint water crisis. Only one female voice who defends the struggles of racialized people from so-called “developing” countries demanding environmental justice was offered space in the film, and even that for less than 1 minute.
The film blames overpopulation as another problem alongside relentless economic growth as where “we” went wrong as humans. This perspective unduly places the blame on populations in so-called developing countries and aligns with Malthusian and ethno-nationalist perspectives of eco-fascists by “greening” hatred among people. These are blatantly dangerous and could even be considered racist viewpoints especially considering that some environmental movements are deeply rooted in anti-immigration sentiment and white supremacy. This is particularly problematic when the film’s audience is seemingly well-meaning middle-class progressives whose dreams of a renewable-energy fueled capitalism are dashed without offering any alternatives. The consequence is that white-supremacist media sources like Breitbart can easily hijack a film like “Planet of the Humans,” as they already seem to be doing.
While perhaps not the intention of the filmmakers, the film paradoxically creates a narrative that is easy to co-opt by ecomodernists advocating for technological fixes to environmental problems. It essentially gives them a green light to irresponsibly advocate nuclear energy by laying claim to the failure of renewable technologies to power an industrial society. Indeed, given the lack of alternatives offered in the film, its silence on the matter essentially condones nuclear energy. Such a decontextualized view on the potential of energy alternatives like wind and solar shuts the door on renewable energy technologies without recognizing the crucial role they play as decentralized energy solutions, particularly those focused on ensuring energy democracy for communities around the world. In short, energy systems cannot be decontextualized from the kind of society that is democratically desired. Like fossil fuels, nuclear energy depends on powerful and hegemonic actors to drive and direct both energy demand and supply, but a sustainable future will require decentralized, autonomous communities that have control over their energy use and where their energy comes from.
implications of the film and its responses extend beyond its specific strengths
and weaknesses. Debates constructed around environmentalism more generally,
especially in industrialized countries, have tended to fall into particular narratives that do not adequately
share an ethical and political commitment towards social and environmental
for historical acts of colonial violence, and alternative
knowledges and ways of being. These narratives often advocate
for a renewable-powered and industrialized green economy, support centralized
techno-fixes like nuclear energy with potentially catastrophic social and
ecological consequences, or advocate for population control in veering
dangerously close to the side of eco-fascists.
that the film takes a North American focus, these positions amount to colonial
settlers on stolen land debating what counts as a sustainable future. The
striking absence of Indigenous
land defenders, their history of struggle, and lessons to be
learned from them is another missed opportunity to truly engage with what “sustainability”
could mean. While these concerns extend beyond the film’s intentions and
perhaps intended audience, it is impossible to ignore them given the totalizing
characterisation of environmental problems, as clearly evident in the film’s
Gert Van Hecken is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. For over fifteen years he has lived and worked in Nicaragua, both as a researcher on social-environmental conflicts in rural communities and as a representative for a development NGO.
Vijay Kolinjivadi is a Post-doctoral Researcher at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His research has focused on the socio-cultural and political outcomes around “payments for ecosystem service” policies with land-users in South and Central Asia as well as in Eastern Canada. His interests lie at the intersections of political ecology and ecological economics.
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
All of March and April, we’ve collected lots of articles on coronavirus. And we thought that, now, two months after the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic, is a good moment to reflect on where we are and take stock of where we are going. So, this reading list, we’re only featuring articles on coronavirus.
First, we’re highlighting guides and resources for how to organize during the crisis. Second, we highlight the political actions and movements that are responding to the crisis around the world. Third, we feature articles focusing on the wave of mutual aid that has emerged following the pandemic. We are also including analysis of what caused the pandemic. Other topics include: its effects in the Global South, the importance of care & care work, its impact on cities, degrowth as a key response to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, its effect on food systems, the emergence of eco-fascism in response, and analysis of what the world will look like after this all.
All that is left to us, therefore, is to understand what the disaster is producing within us, to pay attention to the explosion of affects it reveals. Therein lie the complexity of the situation and its rare promises. –Sabu Kohso
Stories of viruses are mostly stories of
surface breaking, membrane crossing, confinement evading, border shattering,
During the 19th century, scientists like Pasteur and others articulated the Germ theory: diseases could be passed on by tiny living things (hence the name microbes, small biota) invisible to the eye. Bacteria, organisms made of a unique cell, were “discovered”. An object, the Pasteur-Chamberland filter, was created to filter out bacteria from water. First dedicated to research, it also became an industrial device in a world now, and forever, scared of microbes and infections. But still, stuff that seemed to be smaller than bacteria, i.e., that could pass through these filters, kept on causing diseases. “Filterable viruses”, later only “viruses” (from poison in Latin), became then known to humans.
Viruses came to our world by crossing a membrane of unglazed, or bisque, porcelain. Here their narration starts—as if they hadn’t been there all along. Kevin Buckland, a storyteller living in Barcelona, teaches us this about the virus: “[its] power is simple: it can change periods into commas. It can un-end sentences. What was sealed and solved, what was packaged and piled, what had already been swept away is now again unfinished; ready to be rewritten.”
These past weeks, our days have been filled
with digressions about viruses. For example: are viruses alive? Yes, no, it
depends on how you define “alive”… And it depends on who you ask: someone
living through the Covid-19 pandemic, or the same person a couple months ago?
This question has been with us for as long as viruses came into our world. After they first crossed over the Pasteur-Chamberland filter, they were thought to be liquid entities. Then they became particulate. But what were they really, were they just toxins? Were they microbes? Nowadays, we talk of them as being at the edge of life, we ascribe them the gift of life only once they have crossed our cell membranes… The debate often follows a script:
—Viruses cannot self-generate their own body nor self-reproduce, therefore they are not alive. —Don’t they, though? —Well, yes, but they are not independent nor autonomous, they cannot do it on their own, they need to infect a cell to do it. —But some organisms also need other organism-hosts to reproduce. —Ah? —And how about you? would you be so independent and autonomous if you were in a world without any other living beings? —…
Indeed, asking “is this alive?” forces us
to think “what does it mean for something to be said to be alive?”. Another way
to go at it is to come up with lists of criteria, checklists, so we can tick “yes” or “no” when it
comes to viruses, and the debate is still not closed. All in all, this is a
tale of defining a phenomenon “en creux”, that is by focusing on what is
excluded by the definition. This debate of finding the limits of the domain of
life does sound abstract, but it is quite a spectacular contribution by the
If you ask “what does a virus
do?”, any biologist would tell you: first, it attaches itself to some
elements on the surface of the cells of animals or plants (bacteria have their
own made up category of viruses called bacteriophages). Then, using a diversity
of tactics, it will pierce through the surface membrane of the cell. Once
inside the cell, the pathogenic type of viruses will generally hack what the
cell does for a living (grow and reproduce) to reproduce itself to a vast
amount. After some multiplication, the virus will often engage with borders
again, this time to actually literally explode the membrane of the cell,
rupturing all structural integrity, spreading its inside outside. The cell, at
this stage, can safely be considered “dead”. See, it’s all about trespassing
This is the official story. But there is
some more unfinished business to it. We mostly think of viruses as
pathogens that infect us, make us ill, kill us. They are defined and perceived
solely from their function or from their way of life (a bit of DNA or RNA
genome encapsulated that needs to infect a host to actually do anything). Does
it make sense to lump all of them together under this single term? Their
genomes can be of all kinds and shapes, their structures as well, also their
rules of engagement with the cells. But above all, it seems that one important
activity of theirs is to mix things up: they insert their genomes into their
hosts, they pick up bits as well, they move these bits from one organism to the
next, they may have got stuck into cells to make new kind of cells. We’re now
in the world of Lynn Margulis
and her symbiogenesis stories—evolution as unfinished digestion: biological entities attaching to
or entering into other entities and sticking around. The most famous example is
the organelles found inside cells, like the mitochondria or the chloroplasts,
coming from bacteria that were “eaten” by other bacteria and stayed there. Some
say that the first eukaryotic cell (a cell with a well-defined DNA nucleus)
came from an actual virus entering a cell.
We should have listened to Lynn Margulis more. For one, she did offer a solution to the “what is life?” dilemma: life is not a thing, it’s a process. Indeed, what does an organism do? It grows. What for? To grow more. And Darwin was all well and good, but she insists the metaphor of the tree was terrible. Life is not made of independent branches of organisms, lineages that go their own paths separated from others. A more suitable metaphor would be the web: all these “lineages” bump into each other, cross each other, don’t respect the borders—neither the ones of the organisms, nor the ones of the taxonomists.
Taxonomy. This is another story of containment and packaging that got shattered. Taxonomy is the science of classification: ordering things into distinct categories, according to specific criteria. Essentially, compartmentalising, detaching, separating, confining… Taxonomists as border guards. Here, Debra Benita Shaw and her account of “promising monsters” is very telling. When she teaches us that “monsters are the necessary counterpart of taxonomy, [they] emerge both within the strata of the taxon and across its boundaries” and that “species are trapped in a taxonomic grid, but they are always struggling to escape/mutate”, it is almost like she’s telling us stories about viruses. Her monsters are both essential to the production of categories, taxonomies and hierarchies and to their undermining and challenge—they are mobilised to produce what is accepted as normal but they linger on, they proliferate. They are abnormalities that refuse to disappear, nagging us every now and then like a stone in a shoe; but they also are “unexpected formations that contain latent potential”, the deviations that hold the possibilities of future changes, evolutions and apparitions of new forms (such as the concepts of saltation and hopeful monsters in evolutionary biology).
It is easy to think of what is destructive
about viruses, especially on Wednesday 1st of April at 21:04 in
Barcelona, Spain. We are drowned in curves of new Covid-19 cases (is it flat
yet?), sunny and tempting empty streets from our balconies, graphs of daily
deaths, migrant persons fined for being out in the streets helping out others… And
it is particularly telling that the answer to a virus, given its ability to plough
through our established categories, was to multiply the confinements: lock
downs, movement restrictions, imposed distancing and isolations, borders
closing, modes of transport shut down. But what could be promising about
all this? True, at the moment, there is no shortage of interesting propositions
and analyses telling us that the coronavirus is an opportunity for social
change, an indicator of the failure of capitalism, a tipping point from which
we won’t turn back, a planet saviour, nature biting back… Funnily enough, one
interesting contribution was proposed by the virus itself, in a monologue. The
virus even managed to strip down the situation to the core bifurcation it
offers us: “the economy or life?”. Here it is again, forcing us to think about life.
Writing from within the pandemic, and a very specific vantage point (pretty privileged: work from home, cheap rent, no family responsibilities, official European identity papers—borders again), days are of a new kind. Constantly in the background, coming and going, tensing my jaw, aching my shoulders, piercing my chest and shortening my breath, an “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahaaaaaaa!”—anxiety, fears and worries.
Not so differently to a couple of centuries ago, viruses are invisible to most of us. They travel in droplets, in aerosol, linger on surfaces, clothes… anyone contaminated and in their incubation period, not showing any symptoms, could potentially pass it on. Not even some indirect clue of the risk. So much hand washing. Our relation with our hands has changed completely, they are the vectors of the invisible threat. Our mouths, our eyes, our noses are the points of entry. Scared of our own bodies, we embody the neo-liberal conception of life described by Silvia Federici “where market dominance turns against not only group solidarity but solidarity within ourselves”. In this situation, we are in constant state of fear of what’s within, “we internalize the most profound experience of self-alienation, as we confront not only a great beast that does not obey our orders, but a host of micro-enemies that are planted right into our own body, ready to attack us at any moment. […] we do not taste good to ourselves.”
The invisible does not only carry the feared entities. This is also where capitalism relegates its waste: air, ocean, underground, “ex”-colonies… All tales told, viruses seem to fit the risk society pretty well. This is the idea that our contemporary society has shifted to an obsession with safety and the notion of risk, and has dramatically shaped its organisation in response to these risks. From a class society where the motto was “I’m hungry”, and where social struggles were organised around this, the risk society’s motto became “I’m afraid”. This created a different set of demands, mostly revolving around the need to feel safe. The risks are mostly invisible (as in, actively unseen: nuclear, chemical toxins, oil spills, terrorism etc.). What therefore becomes central is to decide what constitutes a risk. Because scientists are now the ones that are relied on to make this assessment, science became a particular battlefield. In this framework, risks are divided into external and manufactured risks. The former are “natural” risks that arise from the outside (drought, floods, earthquakes—what “nature” does to us) and the latter occur because of what humans do to “nature” through its techno-scientific practices. Rob Wallace begs us to keep in mind that plagues are manufactured risks. The multiplication of zoonoses (infectious diseases that spread from non-human animals to humans), he argues, is a direct result of the capitalist modes of production: intensive monocultures, reduction of diversity, destruction of habitats… To quote the virus again, the “vast desert for the monoculture of the Same and the More” that we created is responsible for this pandemic.
What could exemplify more these invisible
manufactured risks than the nuclear complex and its associated
irradiations? And how this reminds us of viruses. They are both hyperobjects,
a term put forward by philosopher Timothy Morton to describe phenomena that
imply things, temporalities and spatial scales that are beyond humans while
intimately present—disproportionate, monumental and apocalyptic while mediated
by minute invisible entities. Also, responding to these disasters is difficult.
The true apocalyptic nature of these events is not that they will bring the end
of the world, it’s precisely that they are never ending, one
characteristic of the societies of control. Nuclear waste and viruses
will of course survive countless generations of humans. The monumentality of
this kind of catastrophe seems to call for a monumental solution, initiated by
a superior power, discouraging all revolts. But above all, it is the virtual
reality of radioactivity and viruses that throws us off. Impalpable, invisible,
delayed effect… nuclides and viruses diffuse in our world and bodies through
uncontrollable and unreliable movements. As hyperobjects, they are viscous: “they ’stick’ to beings that are
involved with them”. In a nuclear explosion or a pandemic, we cannot stop our
bodies from welcoming the radiations or the virus. They engage with our cells—manipulate,
use, modify, hamper them and threaten their integrity. Suddenly, reminding us
that we are made of cells, our own body integrity is at stake, and potentially
the ones of our offspring, or our closest ones…
No wonder a lot of my fellow humans are
lamenting “these days, I cannot think”. Cannot focus. Head in cotton, like when
taken by the fear of heights. But it is known, this is not fear, it is a desire
for heights. From my balcony on the 6th floor, peering over, I am
both terrified and excited. Powerful craving to let go, to give in to the air
and gravity. Fly, even for a few fractions; fall, finally free of the fear,
warmly wrapped in the friction of the resisting atmosphere—a liberating suicide.
We are now petrified by the phenomenal
amplitude of the situation. Confined, we are utterly confused when faced with
the satisfaction of one of our deepest and most repressed cravings: stop.
Take a breath and shut down the machine. Stand still, there,
wrapped in all the muck that we did not want to be with, reminding us of the
many ways we kept busy to avoid facing ourselves. Finally giving in to the
temptation—that has never left us since the first day of school—to stay in bed,
retreat, desert and abandon.
As Sabu Kohso reminds
us when writing about the Fukushima disaster, we
will not save the world. Our starting point could be to disassemble the
totality that was sold to us as The World, relocate its membranes and change
its punctuation, to recompose it offensively with new terrestrial relations
that are already solutions to live the good life. “In this mix of affects—despair,
joy, anger—that a lot of us share, we are tempering, quenching and forging new
weapons, and we are elaborating strange tools and curious talismans, to lead
ephemeral and intense lives on this earth.”
All images by Shrese.
Shrese is a carpenter and independent researcher based in Barcelona, Spain. Contact him at shrese at riseup dot net.
This article has now been republished in French by lundi.am.
Writing in the aftermath of the US-led overthrow of the People’s Revolutionary Government of Grenada, the inimitable Audre Lorde lamented the absence of a strong anti-imperialist movement in her seminal essay “Grenada Revisited.” Lorde identified two main factors to explain the dearth of resistance to the blatant intervention by the US in a sovereign state’s internal affairs: 1. a deliberately confused public sphere as “doublethink has come home to scramble our brains and blanket our protest,” and 2. a desensitized “[white] america whose moral & ethical fiber is weakened by racism as thoroughly as wood is weakened by dry rot.” The years following the 1983 invasion of Grenada have witnessed a continuation, and in many ways, deepening, of both: the racism that underpins the violent dispossession to which marginalized communities at ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ are subjected, coupled with the discursive infrastructure of a capitalist dominated media and public sphere designed to obscure and normalize this dispossession as well as to delegitimize resistance.
We currently face a combined economic, ecological and health crisis that is in many ways a product of the forms of exploitation and dispossession that Lorde identified in her essay, making it more vital than ever to draw connections in our analysis of and resistance to racial capitalism and Imperialism. Rob Wallace has demonstrated the linkages between capitalist modes of agriculture and the ecological transformations that have enabled the spread of “the most virulent and infectious phenotypes” of pathogens such as those that resulted in the coronavirus.
These processes have accelerated in the neoliberal era, spurred on by imperialist circuits of finance capital whose penetration of the Global South was enabled by the removal of “restrictions on the global flows of commodities and capital.” Neoliberalism has entailed a set of social and economic policies rolled out over the past five decades as a response to the crises of racial capitalism, designed to reverse even limited post-Depression working class gains and redistribute wealth upwards. Neoliberal policies including repeated tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, the deregulation of various sectors of the economy (including finance, telecommunication, energy, etc.), and the marketization and privatization of public services (including in the domains of education, social welfare, prisons, etc.) resulted in deindustrialization and the dismantlement of many public institutions that would otherwise have helped to mitigate the current crisis, including health care. The state’s “organized abandonment” was accompanied by a retrenching of its repressive apparatuses, including prisons, borders, and police—or the state’s “organized violence” in the words of Ruth Gilmore. This violence has targeted with criminalization the very Black, Brown, Indigenous, working class, poor and other marginalized and racialized communities who were the most impacted by neoliberal restructuring, extending already existing forms of exploitation, dispossession and exclusion in capitalist core states.
Many of the neoliberal policies behind the restructuring of the Global North’s welfare state were originally tested on—and resisted in—the periphery.
Many of the neoliberal policies behind the restructuring of the Global North’s welfare state were originally tested on—and resisted in—the periphery, via imperialist institutions like the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the World Bank, and the EU. As part of the attack on the post-independence assertion of Global South sovereignty, structural adjustment programs via enforced spending cuts and privatization engendered state disinvestment in public goods, contributing to the degradation of public institutions, including public health. They have also enforced capitalist patent regimes that limit these states’ abilities to provide affordable and accessible medicine to their populations, ensuring that the Global North benefits from the “monopoly rent…[and] an almost exclusive control of the world market of health.” Neocolonial debt further hinders Global South public health by diverting already limited state resources away from funding health care systems to servicing public debt. Similar to developments in the Global North, one of the few sectors that witnessed an increase in spending during the neocolonial assault on the state in the Global South were the repressive security institutions, also contributing the accumulation of public debt. This neoliberal restructuring combines with the colonial-capitalist assault on Global South ecologies and the destruction of imperialist wars and militarism, to produce “wasted lives”—contributing to an expansion of the “global reserve army of labor,” superexploitation of Global South labor and surplus value extraction.
While scholars like David Harvey argue that Imperialism is no longer useful as an analytic category, a look at any number of socio-economic indicators statistically mapped out onto an image of the globe makes clear that the north-south cleavage is still salient when it comes to patterns of accumulation and dispossession. Whether we look at it through the lens of public health, monopoly finance capital, global commodity chains, labor exploitation, unequal exchange, sanctions, climate disaster, or military interventions—there is a stark geographic dimension to how power is divided and exercised across the globe. As in the past, global inequalities today are also reflected and intimately connected to those within the metropole. In the current context, it is poor, undocumented, immigrant, Black and Brown communities hit the hardest by crisis. Not only in terms of being more susceptible to contracting and dying from the coronavirus, as a result of historical legacies of slavery and ongoing structural racism, resulting in a lack of access to adequate health care, nutrition and housing, as well as contributing to conditions as well as often limited capacity to “social distance,” but also because of the uneven impact of its socio-economic reverberations, including loss of employment and housing, as well as being subjected to state violence and surveillance as part of the state’s increasingly securitized response.
Similar to the Granada intervention conjuncture so incisively dissected by Lorde, the current moment has also laid bare the interconnections between the Imperialism and racial capitalism. Yet we still falling far short of the kind of political mobilization required, with the parallel analytical phenomenon that some interpretations of Imperialism have been stretched so thin that the concept has lost much of its meaning and urgency. Though there may be several factors that can account for this, central among them is what Lorde, referencing George Orwell, identified as “doublethink.” This refers to a deliberate and systematic politics of confusion that emerged in the late/post-Cold War period, providing a discursive cover for the neoliberal counter-revolution against post-colonial Global South sovereignty. This cover operates through several discursive mechanisms, including through the evasion and distortion of history to disrupt and reverse otherwise obvious connections between causes (settler-colonialism, slavery, racial capitalism, Imperialism) and effects (underdevelopment, de-development, inequality, dispossession). This doublethink equates imperialist violence with the responses it engenders, flattening out different forms of state power, (e.g. by conflating neoliberal and imperially aligned states such as Colombia and Peru with “Pink tide” governments such as Bolivia and Ecuador that have sought to nationalize resources and redistribute wealth, support the struggles of workers and Indigenous communities, and challenge imperialist geopolitical alignments, repeatedly referring to the latter as “authoritarian”). It also normalizes imperialist violence through discursive formations such as the ‘democratization’, ‘humanitarianism’, ‘development’, ‘war on terror’, ‘green transition’, and sets limits on what we are able to imagine in terms of liberation (e.g. whether or not international agreements can be broken and debt erased, regional integration, redistribution, ending private property regimes and reclaiming the commons). It is why for so many people it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Faced with this combined health-economic-ecological crisis, there is a renewed urgency to demystify and contest this politics of confusion by strengthening our anti-imperialist organizing. Just as we build solidarity through mutual aid in our communities to fill the gaps- as well as address root causes– left by the neoliberal, racial capitalist state, we must extend our solidarity to support mutual aid efforts in the Global South, where similar and much more severe gaps in the ability of the state to protect people in the face of coronavirus are intimately connected to US Imperialism. These include economic warfare against countries like Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, to the deepening and expansive tentacles of US military projection across the African continent through the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), including “46 various forms of U.S. bases” and other military interventions designed, in the words of the former deputy of AFRICOM himself to “Protec[t] the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market,” and including past and ongoing US directed or backed invasions, bombings, blockades, occupations, covert destabilization military operations and coups in places like Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Bolivia and Venezuela.
At its base, Imperialism is a system of domination that blocks real self-determination for states and peoples. It is about externally determining and imposing, often together with the collaboration of elements of a domestic elite, particular modes of industrialization, socio-political forms of governance and border-making/border practices that facilitate labor exploitation and surplus drain in the Global South for the benefit of (largely Global North/western) capital. It is about blocking alternative ways of imagining and pursuing development, value, and of living with one another and with the Earth. The imperialist aim is to obstruct the pursuit of alternative socio-political-economic projects (and sabotage extant ones) that threaten capitalist power. As Ali Kadri reminds us, the state-led developmentalist projects of the post-independence era implemented across West Asia and Africa “did not fail on their own”; it was “implicit and explicit” forms of Imperialism “that shut them down.”
Imperialism is about blocking alternative ways of imagining and pursuing development, value, and of living with one another and with the Earth.
Imperialism is also always about violence. There is the structural
violence that results from what Walter Rodney described as the “paradox” of underdevelopment,
parts of the world that are naturally rich are actually poor.” There is also, of course, the material
violence. Imperialism is backed up by the threat and
often actual shock and awe of military might. We are all too familiar with the
long list and typology of imperialist interventions, which include: the invasions,
occupations and other forms of imperialist (largely US/French/British/Germany
led)-military action witnessed over the past century in places from Vietnam to
Iraq, North Korea to Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Chile, Syria and Mali to imperialist
backed coups against leftist and/or nationalist governments across Africa and the
destabilization, destruction, and currency devaluation, wars and occupations enable
numerous forms of extraction and exploitation of natural and human resources.
In that sense, they are primary mechanisms of “surplus value and power creation.”
This is true not only, as Ali Kadri shows us, in the immediate aftermath of
violence, but for years following, as they produce the socio-economic
conditions of “underdevelopment” that enable Global North accumulation.
Returning to Grenada, Lorde pointed to the outcome (and aim)
of the US invasion: “Ministries are silent.
The state farms are at a standstill. The cooperatives are suspended…On the day
after the invasion, unemployment was back up to 35 percent. A cheap,
acquiescent labor pool is the delight of supply side economics.”
Counted among the list of imperialist interventions are the 1,000 military bases and installations the US operates/and or controls across the globe, which have aided in the funding of death squads, coups, and other covert operations. This number far surpasses that of foreign military bases maintained by any other state in the world. There are also the more subtle forms of military domination and imperialist induced vulnerability that come from state dependence on US/European weapons and surveillance systems, training, as well as military “cooperation” with joint military operations, wherein the US outsources risky ventures to Global South “partners.”
While much is made of Russia and China as competing powers for global hegemony, it is telling that the US spends more on “national defense” than the other countries included on the list of top 8 military spenders combined
The US dominated military-industrial-complex continues to be one of the most visible mechanisms of Imperialism today. While much is made of Russia and China as competing powers for global hegemony, it is telling that the US spends more on “national defense” than the other countries included on the list of top 8 military spenders combined (including France, United Kingdom, Germany, India, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia). The US dominated arms market also perpetuates financialization of the global capitalist economy as the top arms dealers are all publicly traded. The US continues to dominate with 42 of the Top 100 listed arms companies based in the United States. The speculative role of arms capital was once more on display as major US arms companies saw their stock prices jump following the Trump administration’s assassination of the leader of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Soleimani in January of this year In supplying their arms to the Global South, these merchants of death not only provide the conditions to alienate citizens from their states, but also alienate Global South states from one another as they find themselves caught up in conflicts that are not of their own making, nor in their own interest.
even more pervasive than militarism, economic warfare is one of the most
destructive forms of imperialist intervention. Currently, a third of humanity
is impacted by US sanctions. Sanctions are a way of
disciplining Global South self-determination, as
is so clearly the case in Zimbabwe where sanctions first adopted in 2001 were designed
to punish the government for its extensive land
reform program. Not
only do sanctions by design “cause untold death and devastation,”
a reality laid bare in the current health crisis, but also, as Lauren Smith
demonstrates, “economic sanctions serve to justify and conceal theft, through
asset freezes and seizures, at a rate only previously accomplished through
invasion and occupation.” US sanctions
trigger currency devaluation, inflation, increased unemployment, prices and access
to food, power, and industrial equipment, and, of course, medicine. In other
words, sanctions are a neocolonial tool designed to “prevent countries from setting
in place any form of economic development.”
has been the target of one of the most significant and consistent US sanctions
regimes, a punishment for asserting its sovereignty with the
1979 Iranian revolution. Though
lifted for a short time following the 2015 nuclear deal, Trump’s re-imposition
and expansion of sanctions have forced the Iranian economy to contract by 9.3
percent in 2019. To convey a sense
of the scale of the impact that the US enforced severing of Iran from the
international financial system has had on the Iranian economy, Kevin Cashman
and Cavan Kharrazian explain that it would be the equivalent to a 16 percent
cut in the US federal budget, or $521 billion in 2018. With at least 58,226 cases of the coronavirus and at least 3,603 deaths recorded since the outbreak, there is no doubt
that US sanctions have made it much harder to tackle
the pandemic. The country is facing shortages of respiratory-assistance
devices and basic medical equipment, such as gloves and masks. With the sanctions impeding Iran’s
ability to respond to the health crisis it is facing, the aims of the US’ economic
warfare on the country are rendered even more apparent: destabilization and death.
In Venezuela, even before the coronavirus outbreak, a report by the Center for Economic and Policy research demonstrated a 31% increase in mortality in the country after the 2017 round of US imposed sanctions, causing an increase of 40,000 deaths in the country. The most recent ramping up of imperialist aggression towards Venezuela in the form of increased sanctions, the deployment of navy ships towards the country and the placement of a $15 million-dollar bounty on the head of President Nicolas Maduro, have all contributed to undermining Venezuela’s ability to confront the coronavirus, and will undoubtedly result in even more deaths. To add insult to injury, US Imperialism has created both the conditions in which Iran and Venezuela have been forced to turn to the IMF for emergency funds to confront the coronavirus as well as the reason for which the IMF continues to block these countries from accessing needed funds.
US Imperialism has created both the conditions in which Iran and Venezuela have been forced to turn to the IMF for emergency funds to confront the coronavirus as well as the reason for which the IMF continues to block these countries from accessing needed funds.
are not only deadly in the sense of blocking access to the medicine, food and
finance required by states to provide basic welfare for their population, but also
in denying and distorting capital flows and economic transactions, and in
enabling the investment of seized assets in Global North banks. They are a major mode of Global South-to-North wealth drain. As
demonstrated by a recent report, the U.S.
economic blockade has caused over US $138.8 billion in losses to Cuba since the
1960s. Of course, not everyone in the Global North benefits from this wealth
drain. As with other examples of imperialist intervention, the inequalities of
racial capitalism are in fact exacerbated by sanctions as an economy built on “plunder” is by design one that
exploits, dispossesses and wastes lives.
Connecting the dots between racial capitalism and Imperialism
The above list of imperialist economic interventions includes debt colonialism, currency manipulations, structural adjustment programs, “free trade” deals, and other forms of economic intervention that block Global South development and facilitate Global South wealth drain and Global North accumulation. By dehumanizing, devaluing, and exploiting Global South lives and livelihoods, Imperialism perpetuates white supremacy both within the US and across what W.E.B. Du Bois described as the “global color line.” For Lorde, the seeming indifference of the US public to the imperialist violence committed against Grenada could only be grasped by understanding how “white america has been well-schooled in the dehumanization of Black people” and how such socialization enables accumulation through dispossession under racial capitalism.
By dehumanizing, devaluing, and exploiting Global South lives and livelihoods, Imperialism perpetuates global white supremacy both within the US and across what W.E.B. Du Bois described as the “global color line.”
The racialized forms of accumulation underpinning capitalism have always been international — from the foundational role of slavery and the dispossession of Indigenous lands and polities to the current formations and relations of power underpinning the globalized and hierarchically organized and racialized circuits of trade and production. These circuits of trade and production are kept in place by imperialist states and the multilateral institutions they dominate, from the IMF/World Bank to NATO, often including different organs of the UN and international law. These same interests, institutions, policies, and practices not only act outward to impact people around the world, but are responsible for criminalizing, exploiting and dispossessing Indigenous, migrant, Black, Brown, undocumented, and poor communities in the US itself. Trump’s framing of Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus,” a framing that was readily echoed by a mainstream media and public sphere long schooled in anti-Asian racism and the (neo)colonial tradition of deploying “health and medical discourses [to] further racist projects of excluding and eliminating those deemed undesirable,” is a reminder of Imperialism’s and racial capitalism’s shared discursive infrastructure.
Both this global domination and the resistance to it have always been international. From early forms of radical Black internationalism, including such luminaries as W.E.B. Dubois, Claudia Jones, Paul Robeson, Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon and Angela Davis, to organizations like the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, the International African Service Bureau, and the Black Panthers, internationalism was an important base of struggles against colonial regimes and white supremacy. There is also the long tradition of what Nick Estes describes “Indigenous internationalism,” through which Indigenous peoples have “imagin[ed] themselves as part of Third World struggles and ideologies, and entirely renouncing the Imperialism and exceptionalism of the First World (while still living in it).” Internationalism informed various state initiatives (e.g. the 1955 Bandung Conference, and 1964 UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), as well as early hybrid state-popular forms of solidarity expressed through institutions such as the Cairo based Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization and its “antecedent,” the African Association, and the Tricontinental Conference. Today, the international peasant and ecological movement of Via Campesina coordinates global resistance to the ravages of capitalist agriculture for a food sovereign future, while the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Black for Palestine and The Red Nation carry forward the mantle of internationalism in the name of anti-colonial solidarity, Palestinian, Native and Black liberation and human emancipation. Much anti-imperialist organizing in the US today centers abolition, pointing to linkages between US interventions “abroad” and repression at “home,” with a focus on “racialized policing and prison systems” as well as connections between the conceptual and material underpinnings of the carceral-police state in the imperial core and the periphery. The abolition project has assumed a new urgency in the current conjuncture as it is clear that communities targeted by the carceral-police state are the most vulnerable to the current combined crisis.
While the imperialist security state devises new mechanisms of control and capital figures out ways to profit from the crisis, resistance is also mounting. Already existing circuits and networks of solidarity are being mobilized, with organizations like the Red Nation calling for human solidarity “not just to stop the most catastrophic effects of COVID-19, but to end this inhumane and criminal capitalist system once and for all.” Others like Cooperation Jackson are building on the increasing radicalism of labor organizing in the face of the crisis to demand a “democratization of the means of production” as well as a redirection of funds spent on defending and expanding the US empire “to Health Care, Social Services, Universal Basic Income and Greening Public Infrastructure and the Economy.” There are also calls originating from the Global South for broad solidarity with demands for reparations and the cancellation of neocolonial debt. While the US practices public health Imperialism, Cuba is leading the way with its public health Internationalism, providing support to states in the Global South (and even Global North), which are struggling because of limited resources and the consequences of neoliberal cost-cutting of health-services to fight the spread and impact of the coronavirus.
International solidarity derives from the realization that our own liberation — and indeed, our survival — is fundamentally linked to the liberation and survival of the most oppressed people across the globe.
These past and present forms of internationalism have taught us that the struggle against racial capitalism and Imperialism can only succeed if undertaken as a collective. As rising temperatures and sea levels (as well as the rapid spread of the deadly coronavirus) remind us, international solidarity is neither an abstract nor intellectual duty. Rather, it derives from the realization that our own liberation — and indeed, our survival — is fundamentally linked to the liberation and survival of the most oppressed people across the globe. As internationalists, we also have a responsibility to educate ourselves to the greatest extent possible about the popular struggles unfolding in parts of the world where Imperialism is busy at work, in our names, and with our tax dollars. From Algeria, to Haiti, Chile, Ecuador, Lebanon, before the coronavirus health crisis gripped the globe, it seemed the entire world was on fire with popular uprisings resisting the ravages of capitalism and the apparatuses of “organized violence” that are designed to sabotage and manage dissent. Once the virus subsides, these struggles will undoubtedly reconvene with a vengeance, spurred on by the inequalities and injustices exposed and exacerbated by the combined crisis as well as by signaling from imperialist institutions such as the World Bank, which has called on states to “implement structural reforms to help shorten the time to recovery,” that business will continue as usual. Likewise the struggle for Palestinian liberation, where Imperialism and settler-colonialism combine to create the perfectly deadly mix for the unequal spread and impact of coronavirus, accelerating the Israeli project of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population.
As we have learned from the successes and mistakes of the past, our anti-Imperialism cannot be a one size-fits-all mode of organizing. It must be based on sound analysis of the particular histories, socio-economic contexts, class composition, ideological underpinnings, and political alignments of both states and movements. Yet it always requires that we resist imperialist military and economic intervention as well as the so-called multilateral institutions that facilitate Global South dispossession and wealth drain. It often means standing in solidarity with Global South popular movements as they resist the collusion of their governments in the exploitation, extraction, dispossession and destruction of peoples, lands, and ecologies facilitated by US provisioned arms, training, and diplomatic cover. By virtue of our geographic location in the belly of the beast, we have a special responsibility to resist all attempts by the US and other imperialist actors to sabotage, divert, co-opt, or otherwise limit the will of popular struggles across the Global South. It also requires that we stand in solidarity with those Global South states that are punished for the threat they pose to status quo functioning of global capitalism because of their geopolitical alliances and support for anti-colonial and anti-imperial resistance. Finally, we must be wary of forms of critique that may have the perhaps unintended consequence of turning people away from anti-imperialist organizing at a time when they are needed the most by claiming that those who focus their analysis and organizing on the role of US power, ignore or undermine Global South agency when in fact the principal aim of anti-Imperialism is precisely to support the building of a context in which meaningful Global South self-determination can be realized. At a time when so much is at stake, we must be as careful as possible to ensure our analyses do not reproduce and reinforce imperialist discourses and power relations.
It is the working class, poor, racialized and criminalized communities both in the Global North and South who suffer the most and who are also at the forefront of resistance.
As we confront these interlocking health-economic-ecological crises, we must remember that it is the working class, poor, racialized and criminalized communities both in the Global North and South who suffer the most and who are also at the forefront of resistance. True liberation and survival—depends upon centering the needs, struggles and collective leadership of the most vulnerable among us. To do so requires that we continue building on the analysis and praxis of those Internationalists who have come before us. They have shown us that the best antidote to the politics of confusion is a politics that connect the dots between the political-economic systems of human and ecological domination that continue to exploit, dispossess, and kill us.
After a commenter’s feedback, some corrections have been made on the history of Grenada’s revolution.
The authors would like to thank the editors of Uneven Earth, including Natalie Suzelis and Vijay Kolinjivadi, for their extensive and insightful edits and suggestions, as well as Max Ajl and Setareh Ghandehari for their close readings of the article and feedback. They would also like to thank Zainab Khan, Ramin Zareian, and Chris Tidwell for their research help with the sanctions section of this article.
Corinna Mullin is an adjunct professor at the New School and John Jay College (CUNY) and researches on Imperialism, capitalism and the politics/political economy of Global South security states; she tweets @MullinCorinna.
Azadeh Shahshahani is Legal & Advocacy Director at Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild; she tweets @ashahshahani.
In The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can, Stan Cox has a message for all who were counting on the Green New Deal to help save us from ecological and economic collapse: this legislation will not go far enough. Cox’s book comes at a sobering time, when the only two U.S. presidential candidates he mentions as being in favor of the Green New Deal—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—have fallen behind a ‘more electable’ candidate who has not expressed such enthusiastic support for GND policies. In light of such developments, and in light of the global health crisis now facing the world, a manuscript devoted to many of the GND’s shortcomings might seem untimely. Yet Cox provides important insights into how our intersecting crises—ecological, economic, and epidemiological—could lead to a positive restructuring of the economy, if we can push such legislation to meet them. To do so, Cox argues, requires expanding the GND’s restorative approach to environmental justice, a willingness to reinvent the economy at a scale not seen since World War II, and the prioritizing of people and the planet above economic growth.
There are a few assumptions of the Green New Deal with which Cox takes issue, given how far we have advanced on the climate clock. These include the legislation’s vision to build up ‘green’ energy capacity and its promise to maintain and even accelerate economic growth. First, Cox addresses the common assumption that clean energy will push out old, dirty energy, by showing that there is so far no evidence to support that this will happen. As Cox shows from previous cap-and-trade policies, new energy sources are more likely to add to the existing energy supply than replace it. So far, the attempt to phase out fossil fuel energy with solar and wind power has only served to supplement the energy market and, sometimes, even enhance the production and trade of fossil fuels. Therefore, the parts of the GND which promise to re-grow the economy by replacing fossil fuels with renewable or clean energy sources are simply not realistic. To reach the goal of clean energy by 2030 through solar and wind power, we would have to build infrastructure for such industries ‘at thirty-three times the highest rate of buildup ever achieved to date’ and at scale which would infringe upon land and water which we would do better to conserve.
Cox urges us to accept that while we must phase out fossil fuels now with a strong cap on fossil fuel production, we must also accept that such a rapid phasing out of fossil fuels will shrink GDP.
Instead, Cox urges us to accept that while we must phase out fossil fuels now with a strong cap on fossil fuel production, we must also accept that such a rapid phasing out of fossil fuels will shrink GDP. This insight brings some of the Green New Deal’s aims in conflict with one another. In the legislation’s own language, the GND proposes to bring ‘unprecedented levels of prosperity’ and a new era of ‘domestic manufacturing in the United States,’ while also ‘restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems.’ Yet as Cox points out, land and soil restoration alone will take a massive amount of work and coordination. The GND would then have to choose between such restoration and the massive building of new industries. Cox argues that the choice should be clear for those who truly know what is at stake. Because the GND also aims to ‘promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth’ Cox argues that it cannot do so while also drastically reducing emissions and growing a new energy market.
What’s new is also old
To help us understand how we might avoid some of these assumptions, Cox points to a few lessons learned from the old New Deal. What is not new about the Green New Deal, for example, is its ambitious goal to take on the task of essentially planning the entire economy as a necessary response to economic and ecological crisis. Although it may seem unthinkable after decades of neoliberalism, structural adjustment, and austerity, Cox reminds us that Roosevelt himself had introduced the New Deal by publicly acknowledging that ‘free market policies and resource extraction’ had created a fiscal and ecological emergency that required an entirely new — and entirely planned—economy (3). The government’s ability to take the reins from the free market was the first step in the New Deal’s success. The second, and more essential step, was that a national labor movement held this project accountable to workers. This labor pressure, which resulted in the passing of the National Labor Relations Act, helped ensure that the projects and stimulus packages meant to plan both production and consumption specifically addressed the rights struggles of working people along with the conservation and maintenance of the environment.
Yet what made the New Deal unsuccessful was its failure to implement its goals across racial lines. As Cox acknowledges, rather than helping Black workers in the South, for example, the New Deal cemented institutional racism by deferring to locally prevailing wages for occupations dominated by Black workers. Further, the Social Security Act of 1935 did not cover farm laborers nor domestic workers, which employed two-thirds of the Black population, and the New Deal’s housing policies perpetuated residential segregation. In order to learn from this history, Cox points us to the successful campaign of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which recruited thousands to stage a successful strike that demanded higher wages for Black and white farmworkers across northeast Arkansas. The goal of this organization was both a protest movement and a labor union: agitation and publicity, along with strikes and collective bargaining, aimed to put pressure on the New Deal and present radical alternatives to its policy. Similarly, no matter how progressive the Green New Deal’s goals, Cox argues that it must also face relentless pressure from unions, social movements, activists, and groups like Indigenous Climate Action, Sunrise Movement, Keep it in the Ground, and Fridays For Future, in solidarity with land and water protectors who are already struggling to defend some of the world’s largest carbon sinks.
The GND does take some of the New Deal’s key mistakes into account, in arguing for the importance of protecting First Nations and marginalized communities. Yet more pressure will be required to recognize the hard truth that we have already overshot our shared limit of fossil fuel production and consumption, and that even the clean energy of new public infrastructure would rely upon dangerous extractive practices that threaten marginalized communities and the sovereignty of indigenous lands. Climate activists, scholars, and the public must therefore ask themselves: can the GND really ensure a just energy transition by building a roaring new ‘green’ economy and mining raw materials like cobalt, cooper, lithium from around the world, which, as Cox points out, are both notoriously associated with human rights abuses and harmful extraction (68)? What the optimism of the GND does not appear to be taking into account is that the mining of such materials—even those meant to produce ‘clean’ or ‘renewable’ energy—is going to remain a dirty business.
We must be willing to cut the wasteful parts of this economy in the same way that the War Productions Board of the 1940s cut, simplified, and restructured the U.S. economy of the 1940s.
Further, what the GND seems to have not learned from the history of the New Deal is that a stimulus package by itself will not go far enough. In the case of the New Deal, as Cox points out, it was ultimately not the massive stimulus but the United States’ transition into a war economy that addressed both unemployment and overproduction. This is also why the United States, to this day, relies upon its military to help expand a GDP that is fundamentally linked to high carbon emissions. While the fact that the U.S. military is a bigger polluter than most countries is well known, what is less known, as Cox asserts, is that we must be willing to cut the wasteful parts of this economy in the same way that the War Productions Board of the 1940s cut, simplified, and restructured the U.S. economy of the 1940s.
A rationing economy
In what has become a rather prescient observation, given the current state of emergency brought on by the spread of COVID-19, Cox reminds us that it was not the New Deal, but the ‘emergency’ of World War II which allowed the U.S. to entirely restructure its system of production and consumption. In 1936, when the Roosevelt administration began easing off stimulus support, unemployment leapt back up to 19% and remained above fourteen percent until the war effort redirected its production to war-related materials and projects. Having spent $62 billion on stimulating the economy over the last eight years, Congress then spent $321 billion over the next five years in its transitioning to a war economy. Cox points out that while this new form of spending worked in restructuring production and consumption, many forget the sacrifices that were made to ensure a successful transition. A key element often left out, for example, is the War Production Board’s mandatory clampdown on prices as well as its rationing efforts, which aimed to ensure adequate food, shelter, clothing, and other basic necessities for the entire population. To this end, the War Production Board shrank, standardized, and simplified the economy in order to reduce civilian rail travel, prohibit the shipping of retail packages, and reduce the number and varieties of most commercial products.
Here Cox lingers on the point of the War Production Board’s tight rationing of goods, which included both food and fossil fuels. This is because, for Cox, proper rationing will be fundamental to a just energy transition. In making connections between the WPB’s tight regulation of the economy and what he argues should be a similar response to the emergency of ecological collapse, Cox chronicles how households were issued a monthly set of stamps for meats, cheeses, butter, sugar, fuel oil, kerosene, gasoline, tires, cars, bicycles, stoves, typewriters, shoes, coffee, canned fish and milk, fats, and other processed goods. Drivers began carpooling to work and families across the country planted 22 million ‘victory gardens’ to supplement the rationing system. Rather than being a hardship, Cox argues, rationing improved nutrition across economic classes and was met with overwhelming public approval. Even when ‘rationing was at its zenith,’ as Cox reports, approval outweighed disapproval by two to one, because civilians believed rationing was necessary to eliminate food shortages and conserve important raw materials. Cox insists that the same mindset must accompany the Green New Deal, which would entail a concerted effort on the part of national, state, and local legislation to ration electricity with the same zeal that this country has historically reserved for wartime.
Rations but not population control
Rationing off of overblown production and consumption of fossil fuels will not be as difficult for some as for others. Eighty percent of the population, as Cox reminds us, does not fly. Yet for all of Cox’s attention to detail in how to redistribute equitable energy consumption, there is one part of his enthusiasm for rationing that might give us pause, however. At one point, Cox suggests that one possible rationing formula might be ‘equal numbers of credits per adult for each energy source, with an additional half-credit for up to two children per household’ (103). Readers who have been following eagerly along may experience some dismay here. Why only up to two children, why only a half-credit per child, and what about children with special needs, for example, who might require a certain amount of technology? At this point in the book, it would have been helpful for Cox to engage with critiques of Malthusian population control, which is a well-known slippery slope in seeing the violence of climate catastrophe—and even epidemics—as helping to lower carbon footprint by lowering population. Recent takes about the spread of COVID-19 being a kind of ‘vaccine’ for humanity, for example, operate in precisely this Malthusian vein. Such presumptions forget that it is the safest and wealthiest classes who are responsible for the most emissions and even the spread of global disease, and that those least responsible for ecological and epidemiological crises are most vulnerable in their lack of access to healthcare, fresh food, shelter, and a living wage. Cox cites Georgios Kallis and other degrowth scholars who explicitly critique the Malthusian position of overpopulation, but he does not bring up these critiques in his own account.
Despite the above sentence, which enters into Cox’s analysis at the end of a long discussion about solidarity rationing, Cox is committed to reminding readers that the GND aims to stop carbon emissions in ways that will fundamentally uplift the most vulnerable. To do this, he maintains, the GND must be willing to deliberately scale back the economy and completely phase out fossil fuels by 2030, curtail the production and consumption of cars, air travel, and other fossil-fuel related activities, degrow the military and militarized law enforcement, end mass incarceration, and stop giving subsidies to industries that overproduce of civilian and military products. As Cox writes, we need a lower-energy economy with fewer goods, shorter working hours, and a motto of ‘sufficiency for all.’ Standardization and simplification will help ensure equitable distribution of essential resources and cut out the most wasteful parts of the economy.
The details of this kind of scaling back must be negotiated through local and participatory processes.
In thus countering the ‘eco-modernist’ approach of unhampered production in service of green luxury, Cox takes issue with those who do not see the need to deliberately scale back the economy. He argues instead that while many still believe that nuclear power or a battery-operated world will solve our problems, we must take a long, hard look at our ecological limits. If we are serious about meeting climate goals, for example, there can be no ‘high-speed rail’ as promised by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, because the concrete alone involved in such a project would contribute to an already-overshot cap of emissions. Rather, existing rail lines should be refurbished and extended in scaling back private transportation, while acknowledging that we need less—not more—energy use. The details of this kind of scaling back must be negotiated through local and participatory processes, but they would aim to include more public transportation, well-insulated and high-density housing, solar electric and water heating, and a new system of rationing not unlike that of the 1940s War Production Board. The good news is that the people responsible for the majority of emissions are in a relatively small class of consumers. The bad news is that we have to find a way to convince them to scale back the most.
In highlighting the above fact, Cox points out another common assumption: that simply taxing the 1% will be enough to stimulate the economy and re-build public infrastructure. Here the ambitious policies of both Sanders and Warren are called into question for not going far enough. Instead, Cox argues that the entire upper-middle class of the United States, which has a higher income than 96% of the world, will be adversely impacted by any ‘just transition’ that can equitably phase out fossil fuels. This is why Cox argues that a fair, effective climate policy will necessitate that ‘the 33% of American households with highest incomes will bear the greatest economic burden’ both in having to pay for economic restructuring, and in scaling back their own overblown consumption (109). The consumption of both its billionaire class and upper-middle class—the world’s 4%—must be heavily capped.
Restorative environmental justice
Instead of ‘leading the fight against climate change’ then, as the Green New Deal proposes, it would be more accurate to say that such legislation will begin to take some responsibility for centuries of uneven emissions, where the poorest parts of the world (who are responsible for only 15% of global emissions) feel the harshest and most brutal impacts of tropical storms, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and global migration. In fully recognizing the need for the U.S. to become accountable to these uneven causes and consequences, Cox acknowledges that there are many things which the Green New Deal gets right, or at least very close to right, in its vision of restorative environmental justice. Yet if the Green New Deal continues to rely upon the dream of a green energy economy to rival that of the fossil fuel industry, Cox warns, it will have to ignore this vision, as well as many of its own mandates to improve land use, preserve soil quality, and protect indigenous lands. Even if the U.S. refrains from further extractive practices on its own land, but continues mining precious metals across the world, it will still fail to enact this vision. Cox therefore suggests that the U.S. take part in a global fair-shares energy allocation that models the Green New Deal’s pro-worker and pro-poor economics, with the aim of globally ‘raising the floor and lowering the ceiling’ to put underdeveloped countries on par with developed ones.
Ultimately, Cox’s message is that, like the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which pushed the New Deal to ensure both workers’ rights and racial justice, the climate movement must stand in solidarity with indigenous climate struggles against market solutions, even and especially those alluded to in the Green New Deal. The good news is that those who are not already a part of the 33% of upper-class consumers will have less to sacrifice, and will likely benefit from the GND’s demands for worker’s rights, universal healthcare, housing, jobs, and universal access to clean air, water, and food. As Cox reminds us, the 40% at the bottom of the economic pyramid have a net worth of negative $22,000, which is why we must, as he says, raise the floor and lower the ceiling. Yet those who turn their noses up to a ‘sufficiency for all’ planned economy—which include, as Cox points out, the ‘fully automated luxury’ green modernists of the Left—must also be brought face-to-face with the reality that we are already approaching, at best, a future of more limited consumption.
In writing this book, Stan Cox could not have anticipated that the spread of COVID-19 may itself present an emergency situation requiring the restructuring and planning of the economy. The recently passed CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act in the U.S., which includes loan forgiveness and emergency funds for economic relief, has attempted to intervene in this emergency for the sake of stabilizing the economy. Cox would likely respond that such drastic intervention must become the new normal, but not for the sake of the market. Rather, he would argue that such an emergency should be an impetus for simplifying, standardizing, and restructuring production and consumption. Cox argues that this is not idealism, but necessity. By 2030 or 2040, if our aims and policies turn out to have been insufficient, as he points out, it will have been too late.
Natalie Suzelis is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. Her research analyzes the environmental and cultural history of capitalist development in early modern literature.
In late 2019, a novel coronavirus (SARS CoV-2)
emerged from a wet market in Wuhan in the province of Hubei in China. At the time
of writing, it has resulted in
cases approaching 1 million and the deaths of over 42,000 people worldwide. Only
a couple months ago, the world was taken aback by unprecedented bushfires in
Australia, massive youth movements striking for stronger action to tackle
climate change, and a groundswell of protests across the world demanding
greater democracy, an end to state oppression, and against debilitating
economic austerity in places ranging from Hong Kong, to India, to Chile, respectively.
In the midst of these events, COVID-19 felt like
it came out of nowhere. The situation (and potentially the virus itself) is
rapidly evolving, has taken world governments by surprise, and left the stock
market reeling. Its emergence, however, makes self-evident the fault lines in global
production systems and the ultra-connectivity of our globalized world. Like
climate change, it affects everyone (ultimately), but unlike climate change, it
occurs at a much faster rate and more severely impacts the most economically
vulnerable, who cannot afford or have the possibility to engage in social
distancing. Governments are walking on a tightrope, a balancing act between
ensuring public safety and well-being and maintaining profit margins and growth
targets. It’s the very same dilemma as climate change- just occurring at a faster
rate, arising everywhere, and obliterating the possibility to ignore it and
think about it later. In fact, one may argue that
the pandemic is part of climate change and therefore, our response to it should
not be limited to containing the spread of the virus. “Normal”
a crisis and so returning to it cannot be an option.
pandemic is like a chunk of ice falling off of a melting glacier. You can see
the ice falling, but you can’t see the melting of the whole glacier. Similarly,
climate change will keep dropping chunks of ice at humanity well after the
COVID-19 pandemic subsides. Unless we prioritize a diversity of alternatives
that put well-being over growth forecasts and profit, ecological breakdown will
forever remind us that societal death is just hanging over our shoulders,
always ready to scale down the arrogance of human exceptionalism a peg or two…or
but the same
The ease by which COVID-19 moves through human bodies, and the difficulty of containing it across any human-imposed border is a remarkable case of how humans are dependent on nature, and indeed are part of nature and cannot be separated from it. The study of world ecology for example sees the global and industrial production systems of capitalism as a very specific ecological relationship, without viewing humans as outside of nature. Industrial growth and production systems shape the ecological world and are in turn shaped by new and emerging ecological relations. Industrial production transforms relationships between people and their living and non-living world in ways that resemble a machine. The functioning of every machine requires resources (e.g. land, minerals, fossil fuels) and produces wastes (e.g. a car’s exhaust pipe, pollution, climate change). The consequences of these transformations result in all kinds of effects on life, mostly the loss of species, but also the emergence of new (unwanted) ones like viruses. COVID-19 emerged as a result of industrial production; the very same processes that global economic growth depends so crucially on. The massive-scale wildlife breeding of peacocks, pangolins, civet cats, wild geese, and boar among many others is a $74 billion-dollar industry and has been viewed as a get-rich quick scheme for China’s rural population. The emphasis here is not on the activity of wildlife trading itself (as distasteful as this may be). Rather, it is on capitalism’s relationship to life, which is to convert life into profit in the most efficient way possible, without thinking twice about the consequences, and irrespective of cultural and regional preferences. While out of immediate necessity, the public health focus is on managing the pandemic by flattening the curve of the virus’ propagation to save lives, it is ultimately necessary to understand how this happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. This latter question can be answered by seeing the coronavirus as a product of capitalism’s own making.
As socialist biologist Rob Wallace argues in his bookBig Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science, increasing land-grabs by agribusiness from industrialized countries has pushed deforestation and land conversion into overdrive for faster and cheaper food production. The transformation of vast areas of land into rationalized production factories provides ideal conditions for well-adapted pathogens to thrive. Any argument that claims pathogens and plagues have always existed across history will neutralize the globalized nature of current land degradation and hyper-connectivity, allowing diseases to spread faster and further than ever before.
The transformation of vast areas of land into rationalized production factories provides ideal conditions for well-adapted pathogens to thrive.
result of this process, combined with access roads and faster harvesting of
non-timber forest products, unleashes once contained pathogens into immediate contact
with livestock and human communities. The
recent outbreaks of Ebola and other coronaviruses such as MERS for instance were
triggered by a jump from virus to human communities in disturbed habitats
amplified through animal-based food systems, such as primates in the case of
Ebola, or camels in the case of MERS.
The economic pressure under capitalism coerces farmers in any country to cut corners, to rush, take risks, and exploit vulnerable people and decimate non-humans. Any safeguard is considered an obstacle to profit. Yet, somehow like magic, with the COVID-19 pandemic, safeguards in the way of protection for health care professionals, grocery store workers, personal protective equipment, and investment in health research that was non-lucrative just 3 months ago, is suddenly a societal priority. That is, for now; once the pandemic ends, rest assured capitalism has no intentions of keeping at bay. Indeed, it will come roaring back in the form of the most punitive structural adjustment the world may see since the 1980s. For example, The World Bank Group has recently stated that structural adjustment reforms will need to be implemented to recover from COVID-19, including requirements for loans being tied to doing away with “excessive regulations, subsidies, licensing regimes, trade protection…to foster markets, choice, and faster growth prospects.” Doubling down on neoliberal policies which encourage the unrestrained abuse of resources at a time of unprecedented inequality and ecological degradation would be a catastrophic prospect in a post-COVID world. In the discipline of our global economy, “time is money” and any divergence to this discipline means lost profits. The suspension of environmental laws and regulations in the USA is already a frightening sign of what returning to “normal” means for the establishment.
The unrelenting pursuits of economic development are also contributing to 2 degrees or more of global warming. This amount of warming is causing Arctic ice to melt at a breakneck pace, leading to the acidification of oceans, to massive die-off of insects, extreme storms, and rising sea levels. Just as economic growth requires resource inputs and generates wastes like greenhouse gas emissions that have unintended impacts to climate-regulating and other life-support systems, so to does industrial-scale wildlife harvesting generate the conditions for novel and virulent viruses to emerge.
Put differently,COVID-19 is both one and the same as any other ecological crisis (such as climate change) because its emergence is rooted in the same mode of production that has generated all other ecological crises and social inequalities of our times. Climate change plays itself out in different countries based on geographic and socio-economic factors. Similarly, COVID-19 will unfold in ways that reflect the age of populations, the capacity to inform people about and test for the virus, and to have invested sufficiently in health care and protective equipment before and during the pandemic. Finally, while climate change has disproportionate impacts on the economically vulnerable, on food providers (largely women), and on people of the global South, the response strategies to COVID-19 similarly weave through relations of class (e.g. those who are not afforded sick leave), gender (women thrust into roles as care-providers), and race (e.g. scapegoating people from China).
A temporal disconnect
So, if COVID-19 and climate change are one and the same, how are they different? A major distinction has to do with how we perceive time and the temporal effects of both.
A recent study raised an important concern of attempting to respond to climate change on a time scale that is convenient to society (e.g. clocks and calendars) but has absolutely no relation to the time scales of changes we are actually witnessing with climate change. The fact that whole ice sheets melting, 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and election years appear in unison as “daily news” stories illustrate the temporal disconnect with how society is responding to the changes occurring in our world. It is thoroughly arrogant to assume climate change, like COVID-19, is going to respond to our schedules.
The temporal disconnect of COVID-19 from society’s regularized temporal rhythms of work and leisure is becoming rapidly obvious, grinding the production of global society to a screeching halt within a matter of one week.
progression and potential evolution of COVID-19 clearly defies all of society’s
predictable and linear categories of time. Not only is the incubation period
for infection hard to pin down, but so is the lag time between infection and
when symptoms show up (if they do). Similarly, lockdowns will only manifest in
reductions of cases weeks after they are implemented. This is because
biological systems do not obey human-imposed rules. The temporal disconnect of
COVID-19 from society’s regularized temporal rhythms of work and leisure is
becoming rapidly obvious, grinding the production of global society to a
screeching halt within a matter of one week. The same temporal disconnect of
climate change impacts and its absolutely devastating consequences has not been
similarly appreciated, and the consequences of failing to recognize just how
fast impacts can take place is just beginning to be understood. For instance,
ecologists have long claimed that ecological systems change in non-linear ways.
There are thresholds of methane, insect loss, and permafrost melt that, once
crossed, are irreversible.
society must reflect and react in time to the changes it is
experiencing. To this extent, COVID-19 can serve as a lesson
showing the interconnectedness of society’s impacts and actions on the planet
and the immediacy of response required shift our relationships to the world. The
lag time between when social distancing measures are put in place and impacts
on the reduction of COVID-19 cases once again shows us that biological systems
do not obey human-imposed rules. The rapid responses that some countries
like South Korea have made to curb COVID-19 offer direction, but also others
that have developed an innovative biotech industry driven by public-demand
rather than profit.
In recent days, comparisons have been made between the number of deaths and suffering that climate change is causing in relation to the current suffering from the coronavirus, and that societal response to the virus has much swifter than that of climate change. Such comparisons are not helpful because they view climate change and COVID-19 as somehow juxtaposed to be two separate “things.” What if both are instead interpreted as by-products of industrial production systems, a tightly interconnected globalized world, and the struggle of modern society to effectively respond to crises it is actually living and experiencing? As Jon Schwarz writes here in reference to society’s stock market love affair: “Think about what we could have done to prepare for this moment, if we’d been less mesmerized by little numbers on screens and paid more attention to the reality in front of us.”
The orchestrated response to COVID-19 around the
world illustrates the remarkable capacity of society to put the emergency break
on “business-as-usual” simply by acting in the moment. Some argue that the
fallout of grinding the system to a halt will have deleterious impacts to billions
of livelihoods that we can scarcely comprehend at this stage. This is indeed true.
But it is also only true if we go on presuming that the sanctity of squeezing
profits out of every ounce of the earth and its people is a harmless process
that naturally creates wealth for all. With ecological breakdown and social
inequality reaching heaving proportions, society has truly arrived at a
crossroads. Time and temporality take on a totally different meaning; there is
no longer an attempt to make the world accommodate our needs and wants, but we
must immediately accommodate to the world. In contrast, achieving the UN’s
Sustainable Development Goals, carbon offsetting schemes, incremental
eco-efficiencies, vegan diets for the wealthy and similar tactics operate by
integrating the “irrationalities” of the world into “business-as-usual.” This
will never work. The rapid halt of flights around the world might reduce
greenhouse gas emission reductions more than the Paris Agreement or any round
of climate negotiations ever could! The fact that CO2 emissions have
so drastically in concert with the reduced flight demand and manufacturing
activity in China provides striking evidence of how economic growth is directly
responsible for the existential impacts
that 2 and 3 degrees of warming would cause to society.
Yet, despite this clear contradiction, powerful and irresponsible actors are still normalizing COVID-19 through a “keep calm, wash your hands, and get back to work” rhetoric. Indeed, as one market pundit claimed, the loss of stock values is more terrifying than millions of deaths and that maybe “we” would be better off just giving the virus to everybody. It is also important to note that self-isolation and “working from home” are recommended for some, while for billions of workers around the world, simply stocking-up and self-isolating are not options. Millions of migrant workers in India are at risk of starvation due to a 21-day lockdown that has provided no groundwork to account for the precarity of the country’s population.
A window of opportunity for a different
kind of world?
Could response strategies to suppress COVID-19 be the impetus to actually respond to climate change, rather than as stop-gap measures to get back to “business-as-usual” as quickly as possible? The answer remains to be seen, but some measures have already been proposed that have been otherwise considered at worst anathema to capitalism, including the nationalization of private enterprise in France and a universal monthly income in the US. As some have argued, COVID-19 presents society with an opportunity to actually respond to climate change through “planned degrowth” that prioritizes the well-being of people over profit margins. This might occur by getting accustomed to lifestyles and work patterns that prioritize slowing down, commuting less, shorter work weeks, abolishing rents, income redistribution from the richest to the poorest, prioritizing workers health (especially for low-wage migrant workers who are substantially more vulnerable in the face of an economic downturn), and relying on more localized supply chains. Yet, the global slowdown caused by COVID-19 is not degrowth; it does not reflect the ethical and political commitment to development predicated on prioritizing well-being over profit. We need a just climate transition that ensures the protection of the poor and most vulnerable and which is integrated into our pandemic response. As warming temperatures continue to melt permafrost at alarming rates, the possibility for even more severe pandemics emerging from the melting ice is a very real risk. Acting on climate change is therefore itself a vital pandemic response.
It can also be facilitated by solidarity networks to support (especially elderly) neighbours in meeting their needs; a genuine “Love in the Time of Coronavirus” moment so to speak. Such groups have already spontaneously emerged in cities around the world, from Seattle, to Montreal, from Wuhan, to Gothenburg and London. In addition to this groundswell of support, now is the time to be bold and demand that our governments serve the interests of people and planetary survival. In our current capitalism-induced ecological and public health crises, this means freezing debt payments to the poorest and ensuring accessible and affordable health care for starters and not letting our governments bail out corporations , while letting everyone else fend for themselves. We’ve heard of “crony capitalism,” well now “corona capitalism” has become a thing. Obviously, the conditions surrounding COVID-19 are not ideal for the just climate transition that is so badly needed, but the rapid and urgent actions in response to the virus and the inspiring examples of mutual aid also illustrate that society is more than capable of acting collectively in time to what it is experiencing.
This piece is a long-form version of a piece that originally appeared in Al Jazeera. Vijay Kolinjivadi is a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp and a contributing editor of Uneven Earth.
Exploring ways for activists to engage on the
ground during a global pandemic is extremely challenging.
Clearly there isn’t a quick and fast outline of how
activists must respond to this unprecedented situation of social and economic
upheaval caused by the most significant global pandemicsince the 1918 Spanish influenza.
Ameal Peña, considered to the the last living
Spanish survivor of the Spanish flu of 1918, recently was interviewed inEl Mundo, saying, “be careful (…) I don’t
want to see the same thing repeated. It claimed so many lives.”
Highlighting the term careful is important here:
we can view the response of the state to this pandemic with care, we can be careful
to see the gaps and address the ways that the state response is lacking.
Careful in this context also means taking care and directly engaging with the
crisis on a community based level in a safe way.
In Montreal, there have been a series of efforts
to coordinate mutual aid networks around the city—organizing that has largely
happened neighbourhood by neighbourhood, but also with coordination across the
One focus has been building support for a
#RentStrike on April 1st, coming up in just a couple days. As wallets are hit
by the virus and related shut downs, an essential and direct action response is
clearly mass collective action to refuse paying rent this upcoming month,
allowing those resources to instead support survival and necessities. cancelrent.ca
has been set up to build momentum and coordinate this.
Online, people have come together to address many
urgent needs, including coordinating safe grocery deliveries for vulnerable
populations in isolation, childcare offers, the general sharing of resources—all
moves to explore ways to build solidarity within the context of incomes burnt
by the pandemic.
Often, in a crisis, major media narratives are quick to switch to dominant social discourse in many areas, prioritizing the role and centrality of the state response. Clearly, without question, the state response is critical at this time, particularly the role of public institutions, including transit, but also clearly the public health care system is central.
In this moment, I feel it is important to support
and celebrate public institutions, first for the brave public sector workers,
doctors, nurses, cleaners, cooks and administrators that keep the hospitals
going, but also to remember clearly that the public healthcare system emerged
from social movement struggle.
This example outlines exactly why critiques of state policy and also independent community organizing responses to a crisis are key. Firstly, due to the fact that the state simply doesn’t have the full capacity to address the extent of the pandemic in my city, Montreal, or others right now, which is why mutual aid networks are coming together in response to the situation. Secondly, because the landscape of possibility shifts in such moments, this is not a cynical argument for exploiting a crisis to push radical ideas, as we see in the framework of disaster capitalism, this point is simply to recognize that a moment like this underscores the deep failures of the contemporary global colonial capitalist model that has played an central role to get us to this point of under-prepared disaster.
Key to this model is, simply put, an economic vision that views the planet as a body for exploitation and the natural world as simply a system that needs to be compartmentalized and defined within free market terms that seek to place economic value on the Earth.
In this ideological framework, propelled by the
Wall Street stock market vision, the earth isn’t a living being to be
respected, but a fantasy land to be exploited for profit. The health of the
earth, ecosystems and by extension human beings can’t fit into this vision.
The logic of the market is in a clash with the
framework of science, which today tells us in stark scientific facts two
critical things, first that climate change is real and that a significant
change to our systems of energy use and economic is urgent and necessary, but
second that the response to this pandemic needs time and that a true recovery
can only happen when the work of true social distancing has happened, which in
turn equals basically shutting down the global hyper speed economy.
In regards to science and listening to science, I
sharethe words of astrophysicist Carlo Rovelli, who
wrote in the concluding chapter of Reality
Is Not What It Seems,“science
is born from this act of humility: not trusting blindly in our past knowledge
and our intuition. Not believing in what everyone says. Not having absolute
faith in the accumulated knowledge of our fathers and grandfathers.”
Part of embracing this ever important role of
autonomy and thinking critically about the institutional discourses of power,
is embodied right now in the work of social movement activists, struggling to
address direct needs, but also to point out the ways that neighbourhood
organizing in this pandemic speaks to larger social movement critiques on the
colonial economic system that have brought us to the brink.
Stefan Christoff is a musician, community activist and media maker living
in Montreal, you can find Stefan @spirodon
It’s been two weeks since Rob Wallace conducted an interview on the underlying causes of the coronavirus that has since been read hundreds of thousands of times. Since then, also, the world has changed. As Wallace puts it, “What I noticed only after hitting the send button is that two weeks after the original interview, my answers here are taking a sharper tone. While before I addressed the outbreak with appropriately radical structural analysis, now, as the pandemic approaches, I’m beginning to feel the pinch of a gap in radical tactics.”
When translating his piece for Italian audiences, Luca de Crescenzo asked Wallace two more questions to account for the gap in time since the interview was first conducted. Here is their exchange, posted with permission.
I would like you to add a comment about the recent proposal of the UK authorities not to take drastic measures to contain the virus and to bet on the development of the herd immunity instead. You wrote: “this is a failure that pretends to be a solution.” Can you explain that?
The Tories are asserting joining the U.S. in effectively denying health care is the best active cure. The government is looking at parlaying its late response into letting Covid-19 work through the population to produce the herd immunity it says will protect the most vulnerable.
This is the utter opposite of “do no harm”, as the doctor’s oath goes. This is let’s do maximum damage.
This is the utter opposite of “do no harm”, as the doctor’s oath goes. This is let’s do maximum damage.
Herd immunity is treated in epidemiological circles as at best a dirty collateral benefit of an outbreak. Enough people carry antibodies from the last outbreak to keep the susceptible population low enough that no new infection could support itself, protecting even those who haven’t been previously exposed. It’s often no more than a passing effect, however, if the pathogen in question evolves out from underneath the population blanket.
We do better in inducing such immunity by campaigns in vaccination. Typically such an effect requires a wide majority of people vaccinated to work. Which, outside market failures in producing vaccines, is routinely no problem as nearly no one dies from them.
Given the trail of dead of a deadly pandemic, no public health system would actively seek out such a post-hoc epiphenomenon as an instrumental objective. No government charged with protecting a population’s very lives would allow such a pathogen to run unimpeded–whatever handwaving is made about “delaying” spread as if a government already a step behind in responding can exercise such magical control. A campaign of active neglect would kill hundreds of thousands of the very vulnerable the Tories claim they wish to protect.
Destroying the village to save it is the core premise of a State of the most virulent class character. It’s the sign of an exhausted empire.
But destroying the village to save it is the core premise of a State of the most virulent class character. It’s the sign of an exhausted empire that, unable to follow China and other countries in putting up a fight, pretends, as I wrote, that its failures are exactly the solution.
In Italy despite the quarantine and apart from the few who are working from home, a lot of workers still go to work everyday. Many shops are closed but most of the factories are open, even those which don’t produce necessary goods. Recently, the trade unions and the federation of the Italian employers have reached an agreement about safe and security measures at the workplace, which gives to the companies only “recommendations” about distance, cleanness, use of masks, without much specification. There are strong reasons to believe they will not be respected. What’s your take on that? Is workers’ strength an epidemiological variable?
Working people are treated as cannon fodder. Not only on the battlefield, but back home. Here you have a virus ripping through the Italian population at a rate that exceeds that of the pace it went through China, and capital is pretending it is business–their business–as usual. Negotiating a detente that permits this work to continue without biolab-level precautions is destructive to both workers’ standing–you’re signaling you’ll eat any bowl of shit they serve up–and to the very health of the nation.
If not for your unions’ very legitimacy, then for your very lives, and those of your most vulnerable co-workers and community members–shut those factories down! Italy’s spike in cases is so dizzying that self-quarantine and negotiated working conditions won’t be enough to quash the outbreak. Covid-19 is too infectious and under a medical gridlock too deadly for half-measures. Italy is being invaded by a virus that is kicking the country’s ass, with street fighting door-to-door and home-to-home.
What I’m getting at is that Italy needs to snap the fuck out of it already!
Yes, workers routinely hold up the sky during dark and dangerous days, including during a deadly outbreak. But if the work isn’t a matter of the day-to-day operations required during communal quarantine, shut it down. As in countries around the world, the government must then be held responsible for covering the salaries of the workers who have walked off the job in service of the nation’s public health.
If the work isn’t a matter of the day-to-day operations required during communal quarantine, shut it down.
It’s not my call, and my own country is totally botching its response to the pandemic, but should capital resist such efforts to protect the lives of millions, then working Italians, as working people elsewhere, should consider tapping into their proud history of labor militancy and find a means by which to wrestle operative command from the greedy and incompetent. If factories producing non-essential goods are still running, that means management and the moneybags behind them don’t give a fuck about you. Even now the chief financial officer upstairs is proving himself more than happy to fold in dead workers into the costs of production if he can get away with it.
It wouldn’t be the first time the people of the region pushed back during an outbreak. Historian Sheldon Watts noted one unexpected reversal in early disaster capitalism:
“In their rush to save themselves [from plague] by flight, Florentine magistrates worried that the common people left behind would seize control of the city; the fear was perhaps justified. In the summer of 1378 when factional disputes temporarily immobilized the Florentine elite, rebellious woolworkers won control of the government and remained in power for several months.”
Several months today might save many thousands of lives. With many countries ten days out from finding themselves in Italy’s predicament, working Italians can offer an example for the rest of the world that everyday people’s lives matter more than somebody else’s profit.
In 2013, Rob Wallace, a professional epidemiologist and expert on big agriculture wrote, with some defeatism, “I expect it will be a long time before I address an outbreak of human influenza again other than in passing.” It wasn’t that he didn’t think it was serious, or that he thought nothing bad would happen soon. On the contrary, he was just exhausted by the certainty that something obviously would happen. He continued, “While an understandable visceral reaction, getting worried at this point in the process is a bit ass-backwards. The bug, whatever its point of origin, has long left the barn, quite literally.”
Those studying infectious disease have long said that it’s not a matter of if, but when will a big virus hit us. From swine flu to SARS, every five years or so we’re sitting on the edge of our seats, wondering: is this the big one?
By all measures, Covid-19 is already a big one. Upgraded to pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, it has infected at least 127,000 people (but likely many, many more), killed almost 5,000, and is present on all continents but Antarctica. The bug seems to have left the barn.
Beginning 2020, when reports of a new virus were emerging from Wuhan, China, Rob Wallace has been in overdrive. His prediction that it will be a long time before he gets embroiled in the debate again obviously didn’t hold up. Since then, friends and acquaintances have been coming to him for advice, proposals, reflections, and interviews. His posts on the subject have been shared widely. At this point, who else should we listen to but a progressive, activist scholar, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu(Monthly Review Press, 2016) who has been studying this issue closely for decades?
Accordingly, we are here republishing a crucial interview with Rob Wallace by Yaak Pabst for the German socialist magazine marx21, with permission from the magazine.
In the interview, Wallace, with his usual incisiveness and expansive knowledge, talks about the dangers of Covid-19, the role of agribusiness in the crisis, the importance of mending humanity’s broken relationship to ecosystems in order to get to the roots of the crisis, and what kind of demands people can, and should, make of their governments. Read a follow-up to this interview here.
How dangerous is the new coronavirus?
It depends on where you are in the timing of your local outbreak of Covid-19: early, peak level, late? How good is your region’s public health response? What are your demographics? How old are you? Are you immunologically compromised? What is your underlying health? To ask an undiagnosable possibility: do your immuogenetics, the genetics underlying your immune response, line up with the virus or not?
So all this fuss about the virus is just scare tactics?
No, certainly not. At the population level, Covid-19 was clocking in at between 2 and 4% case fatality ratio or CFR at the start of the outbreak in Wuhan. Outside Wuhan, the CFR appears to drop off to more like 1% and even less, but also appears to spike in spots here and there, including in places in Italy and the United States.. Its range doesn’t seem much in comparison to, say, SARS at 10%, the influenza of 1918 5-20%, avian influenza H5N1 60%, or at some points Ebola 90%. But it certainly exceeds seasonal influenza’s 0.1% CFR. The danger isn’t just a matter of the death rate, however. We have to grapple with what’s called penetrance or community attack rate: how much of the global population is penetrated by the outbreak.
Can you be more specific?
The global travel network is at record connectivity. With no vaccines or specific antivirals for coronaviruses, nor at this point any herd immunity to the virus, even a strain at only 1% mortality can present a considerable danger. With an incubation period of up to two weeks and increasing evidence of some transmission before sickness–before we know people are infected–few places would likely be free of infection. If, say, Covid-19 registers 1% fatality in the course of infecting 4 billion people, that’s 40 million dead. A small proportion of a large number can still be a large number.
These are frightening numbers for an ostensibly less than virulent pathogen…
Definitely. And we are only at the beginning of the outbreak. It’s important to understand that many new infections change over the course of epidemics. Infectivity, virulence, or both may attenuate. On the other hand, other outbreaks ramp up in virulence. The first wave of the influenza pandemic in the spring of 1918 was a relatively mild infection. It was the second and third waves that winter and into 1919 that killed millions.
But pandemic skeptics argue that far fewer patients have been
infected and killed by the coronavirus than by the typical seasonal
flu. What do you think about that?
I would be the first to celebrate if this outbreak proves a dud. But
these efforts to dismiss Covid-19 as a possible danger by citing other
deadly diseases, especially influenza, is a rhetorical device to spin
concern about the coronavirus as badly placed.
So the comparison with seasonal flu is misplaced?
It makes little sense to compare two pathogens on different parts of
their epicurves. Yes, seasonal influenza infects many millions worldwide
each other, killing, by WHO estimates, up to 650,000 people a year.
Covid-19, however, is only starting its epidemiological journey. And
unlike influenza, we have neither vaccine, nor herd immunity to slow
infection and protect the most vulnerable populations.
Even if the comparison is misleading, both diseases belong to
viruses, even to a specific group, the RNA viruses. Both can cause
disease. Both affect the mouth and throat area and sometimes also the
lungs. Both are quite contagious.
Those are superficial similarities that miss a critical part in comparing two pathogens. We know a lot about influenza’s dynamics. We know very little about Covid-19’s. They’re steeped in unknowns. Indeed, there is much about Covid-19 that is even unknowable until the outbreak plays out fully. At the same time, it is important to understand that it isn’t a matter of Covid-19 versus influenza. It’s Covid-19 and influenza. The emergence of multiple infections capable of going pandemic, attacking populations in combos, should be the front and center worry.
You have been researching epidemics and their causes for several years. In your book Big Farms Make Big Flu
you attempt to draw these connections between industrial farming
practices, organic farming and viral epidemiology. What are your
The real danger of each new outbreak is the failure or—better put—the expedient refusal to grasp that each new Covid-19 is no isolated incident. The increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations. Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. At present, few governments, and few scientists, are prepared to do so. Quite the contrary.
Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. At present, few governments, and few scientists, are prepared to do so.
When the new outbreaks spring up, governments, the media, and even
most of the medical establishment are so focused on each separate
emergency that they dismiss the structural causes that are driving
multiple marginalized pathogens into sudden global celebrity, one after
Who is to blame?
I said industrial agriculture, but there’s a larger scope to it. Capital is spearheading land grabs into the last of primary forest and smallholder-held farmland worldwide. These investments drive the deforestation and development leading to disease emergence. The functional diversity and complexity these huge tracts of land represent are being streamlined in such a way that previously boxed-in pathogens are spilling over into local livestock and human communities. In short, capital centers, places such as London, New York, and Hong Kong, should be considered our primary disease hotspots.
For which diseases is this the case?
There are no capital-free pathogens at this point. Even the most
remote are affected, if distally. Ebola, Zika, the coronaviruses, yellow
fever again, a variety of avian influenzas, and African swine fever in
hog are among the many pathogens making their way out of the most remote
hinterlands into peri-urban loops, regional capitals, and ultimately
onto the global travel network. From fruit bats in the Congo to killing
Miami sunbathers in a few weeks‘ time.
What is the role of multinational companies in this process?
Planet Earth is largely Planet Farm at this point, in both biomass and land used. Agribusiness is aiming to corner the food market. The near-entirety of the neoliberal project is organized around supporting efforts by companies based in the more advanced industrialised countries to steal the land and resources of weaker countries. As a result, many of those new pathogens previously held in check by long-evolved forest ecologies are being sprung free, threatening the whole world.
What effects do the production methods of agribusinesses have on this?
The capital-led agriculture that replaces more natural ecologies offers the exact means by which pathogens can evolve the most virulent and infectious phenotypes. You couldn’t design a better system to breed deadly diseases.
Agribusiness is so focused on profits that selecting for a virus that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk.
Growing genetic monocultures of domestic animals removes whatever
immune firebreaks may be available to slow down transmission. Larger
population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission.
Such crowded conditions depress immune response. High throughput, a
part of any industrial production, provides a continually renewed supply
of susceptibles, the fuel for the evolution of virulence. In other
words, agribusiness is so focused on profits that selecting for a virus
that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk.
These companies can just externalize the costs of their
epidemiologically dangerous operations on everyone else. From the
animals themselves to consumers, farmworkers, local environments, and
governments across jurisdictions. The damages are so extensive that if
we were to return those costs onto company balance sheets, agribusiness
as we know it would be ended forever. No company could support the costs
of the damage it imposes.
In many media it is claimed that the starting point of the
coronavirus was an “exotic food market”« in Wuhan. Is this description
Yes and no. There are spatial clues in favor of the notion. Contact tracing linked infections back to the Hunan Wholesale Sea Food Market in Wuhan, where wild animals were sold. Environmental sampling does appear to pinpoint the west end of the market where wild animals were held.
The focus on the wild food market misses the origins of wild agriculture out in the hinterlands and its increasing capitalization.
But how far back and how widely should we investigate? When exactly
did the emergency really begin? The focus on the market misses the
origins of wild agriculture out in the hinterlands and its increasing
capitalization. Globally, and in China, wild food is becoming more
formalized as an economic sector. But its relationship with industrial
agriculture extends beyond merely sharing the same moneybags. As
industrial production–hog, poultry, and the like–expand into primary
forest, it places pressure on wild food operators to dredge further into
the forest for source populations, increasing the interface with, and
spillover of, new pathogens, including Covid-19.
Covid-19 is not the first virus to develop in China that the government tried to cover it up.
Yes, but this is no Chinese exceptionalism, however. The U.S. and Europe have served as ground zeros for new influenzas as well, recently H5N2 and H5Nx, and their multinationals and neocolonial proxies drove the emergence of Ebola in West Africa and Zika in Brazil. U.S. public health officials covered for agribusiness during the H1N1 (2009) and H5N2 outbreaks.
This is no Chinese exceptionalism. The U.S. and Europe have served as ground zeros for new influenzas as well, recently H5N2 and H5Nx, and their multinationals and neocolonial proxies drove the emergence of Ebola in West Africa and Zika in Brazil.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has now declared a pandemic. Is this step correct?
Yes. The danger of such a pathogen is that health authorities do not
have a handle on the statistical risk distribution. We have no idea how
the pathogen may respond. We went from an outbreak in a market to
infections splattered across the world in a matter of weeks. The
pathogen could just burn out. That would be great. But we don’t know.
Better preparation would better the odds of undercutting the pathogen’s
The WHO’s declaration is also part of what I call pandemic theater.
International organizations have died in the face of inaction. The
League of Nations comes to mind. The UN group of organizations is always
worried about its relevance, power, and funding. But such actionism can
also converge on the actual preparation and prevention the world needs
to disrupt Covid-19’s chains of transmission.
The neoliberal restructuring of the health care system has
worsened both the research and the general care of patients, for example
in hospitals. What difference could a better funded healthcare system
make to fight the virus?
There’s the terrible but telling story of the Miami medical device
company employee who upon returning from China with flu-like symptoms
did the righteous thing by his family and community and demanded a local
hospital test him for Covid-19. He worried that his minimal Obamacare
option wouldn’t cover the tests. He was right. He was suddenly on the
hook for US$3270.
An American demand might be an emergency order be passed that
stipulates that during a pandemic outbreak, all outstanding medical
bills related to testing for infection and for treatment following a
positive test would be paid for by the federal government. We want to
encourage people to seek help, after all, rather than hide away—and
infect others—because they can’t afford treatment. The obvious solution
is a national health service—fully staffed and equipped to handle such
community-wide emergencies—so that such a ridiculous problem as
discouraging community cooperation would never arise.
As soon as the virus is discovered in one country,
governments everywhere react with authoritarian and punitive measures,
such as a compulsory quarantine of entire areas of land and cities. Are
such drastic measures justified?
Using an outbreak to beta-test the latest in autocratic control
post-outbreak is disaster capitalism gone off the rails. In terms of
public health, I would err on the side of trust and compassion, which
are important epidemiological variables. Without either, jurisdictions
lose their populations‘ support.
A sense of solidarity and common respect is a critical part of
eliciting the cooperation we need to survive such threats together.
Self-quarantines with the proper support–check-ins by trained
neighborhood brigades, food supply trucks going door-to-door, work
release and unemployment insurance–can elicit that kind of cooperation,
that we are all in this together.
Conservatives and neo-Nazis like the AfD in Germany have been spreading (false) reports about the virus and demand more authoritarian measures from the government: Restrict flights and entry stops for migrants, border closures and forced quarantine…
Travel bans and border closures are demands with which the radical right wants to racialize what are now global diseases. This is, of course, nonsense. At this point, given the virus is already on its way to spreading everywhere, the sensible thing to do is to work on developing the kind of public health resilience in which it doesn’t matter who shows up with an infection, we have the means to treat and cure them. Of course, stop stealing people’s land abroad and driving the exoduses in the first place, and we can keep the pathogens from emerging in the first place.
Travel bans and border closures are demands with which the radical right wants to racialize what are now global diseases. This is, of course, nonsense.
What would be sustainable changes?
In order to reduce the emergence of new virus outbreaks, food
production has to change radically. Farmer autonomy and a strong public
sector can curb environmental ratchets and runaway infections. Introduce
varieties of stock and crops—and strategic rewilding—at both the farm
and regional levels. Permit food animals to reproduce on-site to pass on
tested immunities. Connect just production with just circulation.
Subsidize price supports and consumer purchasing programs supporting
agroecological production. Defend these experiments from both the
compulsions that neoliberal economics impose upon individuals and
communities alike and the threat of capital-led State repression.
What should socialists call for in the face of the increasing dynamics of disease outbreaks?
Agribusiness as a mode of social reproduction must be ended for good if only as a matter of public health. Highly capitalized production of food depends on practices that endanger the entirety of humanity, in this case helping unleash a new deadly pandemic.
Agribusiness as a mode of social reproduction must be ended for good if only as a matter of public health. We must heal the metabolic rifts separating our ecologies from our economies. In short, we have a planet to win.
We should demand food systems be socialized in such a way that pathogens this dangerous are kept from emerging in the first place. That will require reintegrating food production into the needs of rural communities first. That will require agroecological practices that protect the environment and farmers as they grow our food. Big picture, we must heal the metabolic rifts separating our ecologies from our economies. In short, we have a planet to win.
world had stopped changing, and yet it continued to move. It kept
floating and spinning, circling the sun, cooling and heating as
seasons passed by. Life flourished upon it, and people did, too. They
created, destroyed, loved, and forgot — caught up in desire and
lost in their fears. Though an endless repetition had taken hold of
this world. There was, in a sense, no uncertainty left, nothing to
dance with beneath the long rain. Except in the minds of those truly
the far-reaching fields and their colorful plants, there was a mighty
machine. From its back hung a plough, heavy and wide, digging through
the soil without hurry. Inside it, comfortably seated, there was an
old farmer, dressed in long sheets of linen, and lost in her
thoughts. As they were running along, the tractor added a quiet hum
into the evening’s soft noises and filled its surroundings with an
farmer’s name was Nara. She had always been the one to take care of
these fields. Her friends had fled from the droughts, her family had
died from the rains, and her thoughts had dulled from the silence of
their absence. But her work had remained. The fields were all that
was left, and her life was tied to them like a tree to the ground.
And over the decades, again and again, life had flourished through
her hands in new colors and forms.
was about to turn in for the day. She had ploughed the whole sector,
which was now standing out like a brown patch on a colorful tapestry.
Slowly, the tractor came to a stop. She got off and stroked its blue
hull, praising it for being such a sturdy companion. Tomorrow she’d
sow. A joyful pride filled her body when she looked over the fields,
and so she kneeled down and touched the soil with her cheeks to thank
farmer then left her machine and started to roam through the fields
without aim. It was a beautiful night. The sky was painted in heavy
strokes of ruby and blue with a few thin white lines stretched across
the horizon. A slight breeze was blowing through Nara’s hair and
the plants bent back and forth in a gentle rhythm. After some time,
her thoughts started to fade into a comfortable trance until she was
just listening to the sound of her feet.
the fields, one could see the distant towers glimmering in the
falling darkness. To Nara, they were a reminder that the world was
finally in good hands. She appreciated that such matters were far
away and out of her reach. But when she was walking through the
fields on that night, she made out something unusual that woke an old
rusty feeling of excitement from deep within her heart. There was a
person in the fields, first barely visible from afar, then
increasingly clearer, running towards her and waving their hands.
took a few minutes until the stranger came into Nara’s reach. It
was a woman, dressed in a long cyan dress with two sturdy boots
sticking out beneath. Much smaller than the old farmer, with a fair
and spotless face and hair so short that it was barely visible. For a
second, the woman looked at Nara with curious eyes before she dropped
to the ground in exhaustion. Her body rose and fell with heavy
breaths and it took a few minutes for her to come back to her feet.
Then, in a tone that was careful but clearly excited, she started to
you from around here?”
nodded slowly and muttered her name. She had not talked to anyone in
a very long time, so her voice was brittle and rough.
take care of these fields.”
strange woman looked around and praised the farmer on the beauty of
name is Yhi”, she added after a few seconds, “and I take care of
created some immediate sympathy in Nara, and they shook hands. After
that, she asked the strange woman what had brought her all the way to
am searching for something”, she explained, “Something that is
both old and new, that never breaks. Something always remains. Do you
know what I mean?”
Nara looked back to her tractor, still visible as a slight blue
glimmer on the horizon behind them. Following the farmers gaze, Yhi
expressed in excitement:
course! And you never had any trouble with it?”
really, it’s been serving me well.”
mysterious woman asked if she could see it up close. As there was no
objection, they began to walk back to the plough. On the way, she
started to ask about the old farmer’s life. About her town, her
family, her past, her dreams, and so on. But Nara had little to say.
So the stranger surrendered at some point and started to talk about
herself instead. Nara learned that she was an artist. When she asked
her how that takes care of people, Yhi started to laugh.
it is more about taking care of myself. And what I want is just for
others to discover the same. Think about it, when was the last time
you saw someone dancing?”
shook her head, and the woman explained to her that there were many
such things that people had forgotten. But there were exceptions to
every rule. And she would find it and spread it like a disease in
order to return some uncertainty to the world. Nara stopped for a
second at this remark, wondering what that woman had in plan for her
tractor. But before she could say anything, Yhi had already figured
out what was on her mind.
this could be the most interesting thing to ever happen to you! Think
Her voice was raised, and Nara got the
feeling that she was rather talking about her own life. After that,
they continued to walk in silence for the rest of the way until they
finally arrived at the freshly ploughed field, softly illuminated by
the ambient light of the tractor. With Nara’s skeptical look fixed
upon her, Yhi started to walk around the machine in amazement. How
curious it was for the farmer not to know what would happen next. And
how anxious it made her at the same time. It reminded her of the
at the front of the machine, Yhi stopped her inspection and lifted a
hood. Nara came closer and saw hundreds of pipes that went around and
connected to each other without any clear system behind it. In the
middle sat a white little box, as big as a fist, so seamless and
perfectly formed that the old farmer was not sure whether she was
seeing an actual object. There was an obvious connection between that
box and the mysterious woman. They were like two pieces of a
different world, lost out here in the wilderness.
some careful investigation, Yhi removed the box from its slot and the
humming noise of the tractor died down. They then sat down and opened
the box. Nara held her breath and could hear the air fill the empty
space within the object. There was nothing inside it, it was as empty
as something can be. Just as seamless and perfect on the inside as it
was on the outside.
looked devastated. All the strength and fire inside her had suddenly
thought there would be something”, she muttered with tears in her
old farmer wanted to console her new friend but still had little to
say. So she offered her a hand. Yhi got up to her feet and they
looked at each other for a while. Then, slowly, they started to turn
in circles. Step by Step. One breath at a time. They continued for a
long time, never going faster or slower, drawing circles into the
freshly ploughed soil as the ambient light of the tractor slowly
faded away and left them alone in the void of darkness.
they came to a stop, Nara realized that the faraway towers, as well,
had lost their light. Everything had become dark and silent. But
something unavoidable was on its way. At first it was only a soft
noise in the distance. As time passed, it became louder and
uncomfortable. And then, suddenly, a glaring light was aimed on them
from the sky.
began to tremble.
have to put it back”, she said faintly with almost no air in her
box was where they had left it on the ground, reflecting the light
like a diamond. In rapid movements, Yhi jumped towards it, closed it
again, and put it back into the tractor. Then she started to run. Her
cyan clothes fluttered wildly, and the dirt started to swirl up from
the ground as the helicopter started to follow behind her.
in the meantime, was completely paralyzed. She had grown too old for
this and didn’t know what to do or how to react. Suddenly, a loud
noise ripped through the air and she saw her new friend stumble and
fall to the ground. But Yhi raised her body again and slowly turned
towards Nara with a bitter smile on her face. Looking genuinely
relieved but also clearly in pain, she shouted towards the farmer:
that quite an irregular day?”
old farmer stood there and looked as Yhi dropped back to the ground.
And then, just as fast as the trouble had come, it went away again.
The helicopter landed right next to Yhi’s body and a group of tall
men appeared. They moved the body inside and, without sparing a
second, the helicopter rose up again and disappeared into the
a long time, the ambient lights and familiar humming of the tractor
returned and reminded Nara of the present. When she started to move
again, there were little feelings left in her heart, and no trace to
remind her of what had happened. She told herself that the story
would have ended this way with or without her. That this stranger had
died because that was what she had set out to do in the first place.
That death had been the only real change this person had possessed
the freedom to bring about.
so, there was nothing left to do for the old farmer but to keep doing
her work as she had always done. In the days to follow, she started
to plant new seeds on the field. And over time, the usual serenity
slowly returned to her old mind. Only every once in a while, when the
gleaming towers in the distance caught her eyes, she thought that she
saw a shadow moving through the fields. But it would fade away every
time, never to reach her again.
you to Marlene Wagner and Aaron Vansintjan for helping out with this
Foramitti is a researcher and activist from Barcelona and Vienna.
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
This February, we’ve collected–once again–articles that go beyond the front-page analysis of Covid-19, otherwise known as the ‘coronavirus’. Some excellent and useful pieces in there, including an intervention by Chuang, a radical Chinese journal. You might have also seen that Indigenous warriors in Wet’suwet’en were being forcibly removed from their land by Canadian armed forces–leading to blockades of key infrastructure by other Indigenous nations in solidarity with them. We’ve collected all kinds of pieces on the issue, including basic explainers, maps, background about Indigenous struggles in Canada, and deeper dives. We’re also featuring pieces on transportation and mobility, underlined by the growing call for free public transit around the world. Finally, this month, we’re highlighting rural struggles and politics.
Uneven Earth updates
Remembering | Link | “I remember rent being low. But water was expensive. A lot of electricity went into the desalination plants.”
A post-growth Green New Deal | Link | To decarbonize we must degrow, decommodify, and democratize the economy
A Wood Wide Web Story: an Apple Tree in Daegu | Link | “The surrogate mothers could only be married to the earth.”
Who owns the Green New Deal? | Link | Making sense of remote ownership problems and place-based governance
when I was young, I wanted to go on a road trip real bad. My mom said, “Maybe next
summer”. But I wanted to go that
summer. So she said, “We can’t go
on a road trip, but we can pretend.”
I was six years old, so I was okay with that. My sister was nine years old and she knew
better. But what was she going to
do? And my dad got into it.
They got us
sitting in chairs next to each other.
And Dad started out driving, and he described us driving down Chase
toward Avocado, and then getting on the 94.
We were taking the scenic route.
There were giant metal dinosaurs.
I knew which kind of dinosaurs they were. And then we caught up to the 8 and drove down
the twists into the Imperial Valley.
beautiful there, hot, humid, and beautiful, everything irrigated. There were giant date groves, and fields full
of alfalfa. We stopped in El Centro to
get some ice cream, my Dad pulling over and all of us unbuckling and getting
out and walking over to the refrigerator.
We got back
in the car. Mom was driving. She was the only one who could take over because
me and my sister weren’t old enough to drive.
We wanted to
play music, so Mom pulled over and Dad hopped out of the passenger seat and got
the boombox from the garage and dusted it off and we listened to the radio and
Dad’s old CDs.
It was a pretty
good trip. We went for four hours and
then we got off at our motel room in Tucson.
when I was in college. We lived in the
old house in El Cajon. I walked to the
El Cajon Transit Center to take a trolley to SDSU. It was about a mile or a mile and a quarter
walk. I remember during that time my mom
invited a mother and her son to live with us.
The mother lived in my sister’s room, and the son slept in mine. They were from the Imperial Valley. There used to be a big salt lake in the
Imperial Valley called the Salton Sea, but it dried up for the most part and
there were terrible dust storms from the exposed lake bed, and most people left
around the time I was in college.
the son being a bully, and I remember how finally I couldn’t take it
anymore. I couldn’t get any sleep with
him around. I think he thought that
since he and his mom didn’t have any place to go, and we were good people, that
we would have to help them, but finally we confronted them. He talked his mom into leaving instead of him
changing. I heard she got a job at the
Viejas Solar Farm, and he started school at the community college out
there. I remember one day she came back
to visit and she was talking about her son.
She was really worried because he had a gambling problem. All his money went to the casino.
It’s a sad
story. Some years later they shut down
the casino and remodeled it, and they use it for different things now.
one time there was a big protest.
“No More Ecosocialist Nightmare!” said one sign. Another said “War is Peace. Slavery is Freedom. Poverty is Wealth.” They were protesting in favor of personal
liberty. They said that climate change
might be bad, but so would an “Orwellian sustainability”.
The political science professors had theories of how to not have Orwellian sustainabilities, but I only had one political science class, so I wasn’t taught them. One of my friends was a poli sci major. He wanted to go into politics. I asked him about it and he said “Basically, it comes down to whether people who end up in power are the kind of people who don’t want there to be Orwellian sustainability. And, whether they’re the kind of people who can carry through that commitment.” I thought there should have been a better answer.
rations. I went to a hardcore concert
with my friend once. The singer was
screaming about rations, complaining because they didn’t think they needed to
be so tight. I also used to go to stand up
comedy back then and everyone talked about rations. I think people still complain about rations.
We used to
have FFDs (“fasting and frugality days”) where we tried to consume as
little as possible. Usually on a day we
all had off. We got out the CD player
and put on some Indian music and we would sit there with our stomachs digesting
themselves (or at least that’s what it felt like). We would groan and make jokes about being
I remember my
sister moving out to get married to her boyfriend. First they moved into the master bedroom of a
house in Rancho Peñasquitos, where the widower moved to the downstairs
bedroom. They had to work some shifts as
caregivers to lower the rent. Then after
he passed on, they moved into a house with another couple they were close to,
and the two couples started to have kids, and the kids grew up in one little
trying to find people to fit in our house.
We needed people we could really trust.
It took a few years, but I finally felt like one of my friends could
share my room. We adopted him into our
family, but not legally. My sister’s
room was free by then so we invited some older people from church to stay
there. They were okay for me and my
friend. But then they had to move to a
nursing home after about five years, and we had to find someone new. Mom and Dad were also getting older, so they
called up some old friends in another state, people they “never got to see
enough these days”. And they agreed
to move in. So my parents and their
friends were having a good time all the time, but it was too much for me and my
friend, so we started going out more.
There were a
lot of people who didn’t work, or didn’t work much. I remember spending whole days walking
through El Cajon, looking at the people walking around. There were some days I got real bored, and
there were two days to get through before my next shift at my job. I remember some people getting into mischief
because they were bored, and that bothered me, so I decided to try to talk to
those people. I would tell them about
imaginary places, and if they were bored enough, they would listen.
one time we did take a road trip through Imperial Valley. There were big signs that said “Dust
storms likely next 45 miles.” We
saw an old house and wondered if anyone lived in it.
I remember rent being low. But water was expensive. A lot of electricity went into the desalination plants.
When I was in college, some friends and I went out trespassing one night and ended up in the salt ponds at the end of San Diego Bay. We walked along the paths at the edges of the pond. Then we saw something lit up a little in the dark, a huge building. “Is that the desalination plant?” we wondered. When we got close enough to read the sign, we were close enough to be seen by the guard who ran us off the property and warned us harshly to never do that again.
when some people set fire to someone’s mansion.
They said it was for crimes against the environment, for hoarding
resources. The conservatives said,
“I don’t know why you would burn down a house to protest resource
I think the people who burned down the house had a point, and the conservatives
had a point. How can you stop someone
without hurting them? And how can you
hurt people without destroying something good?
I can’t think of how to get some people out of their mansions, but maybe
we can prevent people from becoming the kind of people who live in them,
without burning anything down.
never took anyone in. After the son left
it was just the mom and dad. “We’re
fine the way things are”, they said.
They were nice neighbors, always brought us something good at
friend and I started sleeping in tents in the backyard and my parents let a
couple of my cousins have our room. When
it rained, a few times a year, we slept inside in the living room.
I think I’m
okay with my neighbors not taking anyone in.
Some people can do some things, other people other things.
when the last homeless person got a place to stay. It was on the news. I heard that some of them messed up the
places they moved into, because they weren’t used to having their own
property. I guess some of them had
personality issues too. The city of San
Diego had a call for volunteers to be their friends, although they called it
something other than “friends”.
You can’t hire people or force people to be friends, was their thinking.
one night my friend was making too much noise getting into his bed and I said
vicious things. I needed my sleep and I
had been around him too much anyway. So
my parents sent us out to have vacations at separate hotels. We each had our own room in the hotels we
stayed in. We came back and found out
from each other that both the hotels were on the beach and had amazing
views. They were both in Mission Beach. We laughed when we realized that it wouldn’t
have been hard for us to have run into each other by mistake, down there on the
boardwalk. He said “That would be a
terrible mistake, to see someone when you shouldn’t”.
when my father died, and then a few years later, my mother. My sister and I sold the old house in El
Cajon, and I left San Diego County for good.
I left everyone behind. Time to
try something new, I thought. My friend
waved goodbye to me.
I took a
train to Chicago and then one to New York City and then one up to Maine. On the opposite end of the country, I got my
own place to stay. But there didn’t seem
to be enough people inside my house, and I didn’t know anybody to live with
me. My friend had to stay in San Diego. But I met a nice woman and we settled down,
so that’s what kept me up there, for many years.
These are all some things I remember. And what will you be remembering, as you live the life ahead of you?
James Banks lives in San Diego, CA and has written fiction and non-fiction about the sustainable future, being lost, development, trust, and (anti)romance. Website: 10v24.net
one: Calexico New River Committee /
public domain / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nrborderborderentrythreecolorsmay05-1-.JPG
two: by Dave Shearn / CC BY 2.0 /
three: by Pacific Southwest Region USFWS
/ CC BY 2.0 / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panoramic_aerial_of_completed_Western_Salt_Pond_Restoration_Project!_(6967928908).jpg
Over the past year the Green New Deal banner has been appropriated by so many different movements and political parties that it is difficult to agree on what it actually stands for. However, in its most radical articulations (such as the one presented in the book A Planet To Win) Green New Deal advocates prescribe the need for an active role of the State in the economy. In doing so, they heed Keynes’ advise formulated in the 1926 essay The end of laissez-faire: “The important thing for government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all.” This means moving beyond market-based environmental policy instruments (e.g. tax incentives and price signals) and fully embracing command and control regulation. Deploying the power of public investment and coordination is a historic break from the neoliberal dogma that has reigned over the world for the past 30 years. Thus, the Green New Deal is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
A truly transformative Green New Deal cannot simply be about returning to a welfare capitalist order of days of yore. It must move beyond capitalism’s growth imperative.
However, I argue that the vision sketched
out above is inadequate to deal with the current ecological emergency. A truly
transformative Green New Deal cannot simply be about
returning to a welfare capitalist order of days of yore. It must move beyond capitalism’s growth imperative. This is not only
because there is no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling of economic growth
from environmental pressures anywhere near the scale needed to deal with the ecological
crisis, but also because such decoupling appears unlikely to happen in the
future. At least in affluent countries, therefore, a downscaling of production
and consumption should be in order. But to ensure social well-being and
equality in the face of a contracting economy, we need to develop a suite of
Decreasing energy and material
There is clear evidence that the deployment of renewable energy is insufficient on
its own to displace fossil fuels in energy production. Historically, new energy
sources have added more energy without removing older sources. The average
trend in many nations
around the world over the past 50 years shows that each unit of electricity
generated by non fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of
fossil-fuel-generated electricity. What is, therefore, needed is a gradually declining cap on carbon emissions
that a country is allowed to generate in line with its international
commitments. This mechanism should be coupled with
additional policies to equitably distribute the remaining national carbon
budget across society and reduce energy poverty. To this end, we could think of
adopting a system of carbon quotas.
Decarbonizing the energy system can be further facilitated by scaling down aggregate energy use. For instance, a recent study published in the journal Nature shows that successfully reducing emissions has historically required reductions in energy demand, which in turn was caused by a lesser growth in GDP. The objective of reducing energy use can also be pursued by decreasing material throughput since material extraction and consumption are major drivers of energy demand. This approach to reducing material throughput has the added benefit of releasing pressure on ecosystems. Post-growth policies that go in this direction include, for example, legislation for longer-lasting products, banning planned obsolescence, introducing right to repair, mandatory recyclability, mandatory long-term warranties, etc.
The decarbonization of these basic services should entail their decommodification: removing them from the market logic and subjecting them to the logic of the commons.
Climate change is class struggle as it forces us to rethink the material conditions of everyday life: how we move, what we eat, how we supply energy and heating to our homes. The decarbonization of these basic services should entail their decommodification: removing them from the market logic and subjecting them to the logic of the commons. One important reason why decommodification and decarbonization should proceed in lockstep is because the consumption of public services has a lower environmental impact than their private equivalents. Think of private cars vs public transportation. But even more crucial than that, reducing dependence on individual consumer goods mitigates competition for social status and, consequently, does a lot to counteract consumerism. For example, cities are being increasingly crammed with SUVs as drivers dump compact cars in a vicious race for keeping up with the trend of car-size increase. As other drivers’ cars get bigger, mine feels smaller and smaller in proportion. The proof of this is that more unequal societies tend to have higher levels of average emissions per capita. We know that purchasing power correlates with personal environmental impacts, hence we must reduce outlets in which its destructive power can be unleashed.
Some policy proposals for ensuring that
everyone has their basic needs addressed in a fair and sustainable way are the following: a highly progressive tariff structure for water
and electricity in which the first unit is free of charge, an enhanced and free
public transport system, a
large public housing plan with passive houses,
public low-carbon amenities (swimming pools, libraries, community gardens,
etc.). It is time to reclaim housing,
mobility, water, and energy as rights, not as commodities.
Many shades of the Green New Deal are about
a return of industrial policies into the government’s toolbox. Such proposals vary
considerably in boldness though: from the director of UCL Institute for
Innovation and Public Purpose Marianna Mazzucato’s mission-oriented
innovation policy all the way to the leader of the climate campaign group
350.org Bill McKibben’s wartime-like
mobilization. But we cannot content ourselves with a more direct role of
the State in the economy, we must also democratize the workplace. It’s not enough
to try and nudge consumption choices, we need to win social power over material
It is not so much demand that influences supply, but rather the concentration of the means of production that determines the demand.
The theory of ‘consumer sovereignty in production’, which postulates that it is up to consumers to change their spending habits to influence producers, is at the core of liberal environmentalism. But a transformative Green New Deal must reject this theory as it neglects that it is not so much demand that influences supply, but rather the concentration of the means of production that determines the demand. We have, therefore, to look for responsibilities upstream in the supply chain and put them on the shoulders of producers who have the greatest power to influence consumption options by restricting supply.
In this regard, the current shareholder
model is problematic due to its concentration. Few large multinational
companies and financial groups control the direction of the economy: they
choose the activities in which to invest and those to be abandoned, the regions
in which to place factories and those to be de-industrialized, the technologies
to be used, contracts and wages to be offered, prices for consumers, and the
environmental impacts from production. Hence, democratizing economic production
means, first of all, involving in the decision-making processes all those who
must live with the consequences of production choices, namely local communities
But even more problematic is the fact that
shareholders are only concerned with a company’s ability to generate profits
regardless of its social and environmental impacts. An alternative model is
represented by not-for-profit cooperatives for which business activity is not
an end in itself, but only a means of fulfilling the social mission of its
corporate statute. This type of cooperatives are best placed to become the
engine of a post-growth economy in which production decisions are taken
democratically and the profit motive is impeded from acting as a pedal on the
gas of productivism.
To summarize, from a post-growth perspective a Green New Deal must pursue three distinct but interrelated goals: decreasing energy and material use, decommodifying the basic necessities of life, and democratizing economic production. Any Green New Deal proposal that does not address head-on the drivers of economic growth is doomed to fall short of the challenge of steering away from the worst scenarios of ecological breakdown.
Riccardo Mastini is a PhD candidate in Ecological Economics and Political Ecology in the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He is also a member of the academic collective Research & Degrowth, of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, and of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and visit his website.
Once upon a time there was, and there was not, a French landscape architect named Judith. On this particular day she waited in a traditional tea house in Yangnyeongsi, Daegu. The Korean city of street trees, apples and oriental medicine.
She was always looking for a way to be “different”, “special” and “unique”. As a young woman, she tried to challenge the status quo by experimenting with alternative lifestyles and joining protests. She said she would devote her life to activism, art and travel. Even now, at the end of her thirties, she proclaimed to everyone that she will never marry and have children but will have loved ones in every corner of the world – even in the deserts of Mongolia.
It was all the fault of author Simone de Beauvoir. Her interview with Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber in 1975 convinced Judith to never end up as a housewife, and to become a free woman. Judith wanted to be the next Simone.
Though, she also desired a soul-mate. Judith knew she had met her “amour de ma vie” when she was 21. It was someone who inspired her, brought the best out of her and with whom she could experience endless love and adventures. But it didn’t last, as society didn’t allow surrogate mothers to have partners. The surrogate mothers could only be married to the earth.
Seven months ago, Judith was assigned by her boss to work out the e-plantification of this city.
“Daegu?” she had repeated. “Why Daegu?”
“Because they have money,” her boss answered bluntly. She was Dutch. They are always honest. After her working day, Judith returned to her apartment feeling it was time to meet her former love, who lived in Daegu. She looked at the photo of Simone and her lover Sartre on her desk. They never lived together, but they were lovers until their deaths. Simone’s biggest success, she said herself, was Sartre. The promise of death, of separation evoked a certain curiosity from Judith.
Judith reflected on her own former partner. In this world, Sartre didn’t exist anymore. Women’s successes were their own. Needing men were a thing of the past. Perhaps she could at least check in with her lover, even if society wouldn’t allow them to be together.
Seven months later, Judith was on the other side of the world. After a work inspection by contractors, Judith went to this famous district in Daegu, where you would find innumerable herbs and medicines. In oriental medicine, the point is not to cure a disease but to fix the body. People get sick because the dual powers of yin and yang are unbalanced.
“Dong quai nourishes the blood and Omija juice reduces coughing.” A toothless woman told Judith.
In response Judith bought some kudzu, because it would help her with a hangover.
She noticed that the women in the contracting company drank soju like mountain water. She joined them last night, to quell her nerves. She would soon find herself in a meeting akin to an interrogation.
From the moment Judith left her hotel until she took a seat in the tea house, she hesitated a thousand times. From her bedroom to the taxi, the same thought echoed in her mind. “This has to be the craziest, if not the stupidest idea of my life.” But something in her – whether it be female intuition, her guardian angel or the voice of her dead grandmother – told her that meeting Han-Sol is what she needed to be able to heal her. Perhaps she would realise the feelings were only memories and nothing more.
Daylight shifted, and Han-Sol appeared. Judith held her breath. After all this time she had not changed from her time as an exchange student.
They greeted each other, but it was awkward. They used polite gestures to greet one another, trying to hide their invisible relationship. On the day they met, they called themselves ecofeminists. They shaved their hair off as a protest against the “patriarchy that intoxicated the French minds.” They slept together that night. Han-Sol had come from Daegu. Among their many talks, she expressed topics as diverse as K-Drama, beauty contests (which they also detested), and that Daegu produces so many beautiful women because of their apples.
“We have changed so much,” Han-Sol said. “I became a housewife, and you an architect for one of the most powerful companies in the world.”
Judith blushed. “We both do important work.”
Han-Sol continued, “Some women call me a Kim Yi Joung or a Mam’Chung, after a famous novel which was published ten years ago.”
“I’m not so familiar with Korean literature. Not since 2012, at least.” Judith admitted.
“Oh yes, 2012. What a year.” She looked down. They both recalled the painful memories which took place in that French village. “You know… It’s an insult for women who live easily by the money of the city to think my kind don’t work.”
“Really? That is ridiculous.”
“Some people joke that we are yang-banged,” she said, “because we convert yang energy into yin through our bodies. That is our only function.”
Judith could not look her in the eyes anymore. She knew about the discrimination. She also judged women who volunteered to be surrogate mothers. Or rather, she felt it was a pity. She felt their life was that of a machine.
“So, how does it work?” Han-Sol asked.
“What?” Judith was brought out from her thoughts.
“The e-plantification of our light infrastructure.”
“Oh. Well, do you know the process of photosynthesis?”
“Yes. I recently helped my eldest child with her biology homework.”
Judith wondered how many children Han-Sol had produced, but she now preferred ease so she stayed on technology.
“Plants convert CO2 into oxygen,” Han-Sol continued, “with the help of chlorophyll in the leaves.”
“That’s true,” Judith said, “but they also produce sugars. These sugars do not remain in the leaves. They are transported throughout the plant, and some of these sugars are excreted by the roots. There are bacteria that surround the roots, and they break down these sugars, too. In this decomposition process, they release electrons. Our technology collects the electrons in the minus pole of our plant battery. When the electrons flow through the wire, they can be used as electricity.”
“But is it healthy for the street trees?”
“Yes, the electrons continue their journey to the plus pole, the cathode. We do not disturb the trees and plants.”
She paused to think. “I think I understand.” She smiled. “You really have found a purpose.”
Judith looked up. “Han-Sol, what is going on?”
She hesitated, looking to her tea cup as if she was looking for advice, and then gazed right into Judith’s eyes.
“I know how you think about us. I am sure that book of Simone de Beauvoir is still in your suitcase at your hotel.”
Judith turned her eyes away.
“I wanted this,” Han-Seol said. “I truly love my daughters, but sometimes… I don’t know. I feel so confused. I know the work of de Beauvoir is not relevant, or can’t be relevant anymore, in this world. However, sometimes it is… I think that becoming a caretaker was a mistake, and that I should have stayed with you. To make art…create amazing ideas…to build a regenerative economy. I feel so… invisible. While you are so… unique. You are visible. I am sure you look down upon me.”
“No.” Judith looked down. “Not anymore.”
“But you did?”
“…Yes,” Judith admitted. She felt as if a colony of termites were eating her stomach.
“It is like I am struggling with ‘The Problem That Has No Name.’ Though, it has a slightly different nature than what Betty Friedan once described.”
Judith craned her neck. “Han-Sol, what is going on?” she repeated.
She hesitated. “I am confused… or maybe I need help. The insults that I hear make me mad. They do not know what it’s like to bear and take care of children.” She bit her lip, and her hands started to shake. “Actually, I think I lost my mind nearly seven months ago. I blame an old Korean novel that I found from the time before The Reckoning.”
People did not talk about The Reckoning because everyone had lost loved ones in this war. The ones who had survived The Reckoning now had a better life than they did before.
Judith looked up. People did not talk about The Reckoning because everyone had lost loved ones in this war. The ones who had survived The Reckoning now had a better life than they did before. If only they could forget the feelings of loss, Judith wished. The earth is healthier… so are bodies, but the memories of pain were hard to forget. It was easier not to talk about it. Han-Sol had always believed that The Reckoning was inevitable, after all the pollution, terror and other crimes she had seen in Asia and Europe.
Han-Sol paused before asking,“Have you ever read ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang?”
Judith shook her head.
“Han Kang wrote this after she was struck by an idea from another writer who suggested that humans should be plants. I wish sometimes I could also be a plant. They probably have all the answers to the questions I have because they live for so long, witnessing so much.”
“Yes, there is something wrong. Sometimes I feel I need a break from her children,” she whispered as if confessing to first-degree murder. “Seven months ago, I had another episode. My sister took over. She advised me to take a long walk. Mountain air is the best medicine.” She hesitated. “…I had an inner voice telling me to look up the eldest apple tree. Did you know that Daegu has the oldest apple tree in Korea?”
“Yes, you told me once. I remember you said that apple trees have an average lifespan of 30-40 years, but this tree produced apples for more than 80 years.”
“ I realise now why I was so attracted to that tree. She keeps living, keeping society alive.”
Judith didn’t know what to say or do, other than to continue listening to her story.
“I was alone when I arrived at the apple tree… or not really. There were three young guys…” Suddenly Judith held her breath as Han-Sol turned down her eyes. The biggest victims of The Reckoning have been men. Judith had not seen any men since then.
Han-Sol continued, “… and they seemed to have expected me.”
“Are they…” Judith did not finish her sentence, because she did not want to say it aloud.
“Yes, they introduced themselves as… gods. But we know what they are.” She scanned Judith’s face. “Do you believe that I really saw them?”
“I believe that there are still free men on earth, and only those kinds of men would have survived The Reckoning.”
Han-Seol smiled. “I knew you wouldn’t think I was crazy.” She sighed, feeling relief rush over her.
“What did they want from you?” Judith asked carefully.
“They wanted me as a judge in their beauty contest, ” she said.
Judith blinked, confused.
“I thought they were all … the same. You know? And they realised soon that I did not become a surrogate mother because I love yang energy so much.” That remark gave Judith her first smile of the day. “So they tried to bribe me with their powers. One offered to make me queen of a forested island, and my daughters would all become princesses.”
“Do they really have that power?”
“I think there is probably a place where they hide and where they would like to have some women around. I think that was the dodgiest offering.”
“What about the second?”
“He offered me wisdom and skill in war.”
That took away Judith’s remark. “Do they expect another war?”
“I don’t know. But as my aunt once said to my mother, and my mother later to me, as long as some people are oppressed there is always a risk for an uprising.” She hesitated. “My aunt told my mother that before she went to Gwanju.”
Judith remembered the death of her youngest aunt in the democracy uprising of the eighties. She thought of how her grandparents fought for a long time against the plans of the governments to wipe away the bloody history of Gwanju. Han-Sol was not born in that time, but she was aware – from a young age – of the memories of losses. They were intertwined in her family’s memories.
The two women looked at each other and continued to conversation.
“So what about the third?” Judith finally asked
“The third one offered me the love of my life. A love that I could finally keep until my death.”
Judith straightened her back. Her fingers were tingling, and it was not because of the medical herb tea.
“So, this meeting was more than seven months ago?,” Judith asked with a smile. Han-Seol nodded.
Judith took her cup again and drank from her tea, feeling the medicine flow through her body. This was indeed what she needed.
“Why don’t you ask me who I chose?” Han-Seol asked.
Judith looked her deep in the eyes and already knew the answer.
Wendy Wuyts is a Belgian PhD student in Environmental Studies at Nagoya University, Japan. She blogs about sustainability issues in Japan for Mo*, a Flemish magazine focusing on social and environmental matters globally, and has her own personal blog where she collects stories about trees, tree spirits and forest bathing (woodwidewebstories.com). In her free time she works on a second novel about tree spirits. This short story situates in the world of that novel, but is about other characters. In november 2019, Wendy’s first fiction book got published: ‘Als Meubels Konden Spreken’ (If Furniture Could Talk), which introduces the main character to the different dimensions and aspects of the circular economy.
Special thanks goes to Andrew Winchester Greer for proofreading and editing.
You go into your Wall Street investment bank and ask, “What’s a hot investment these days?” Your super sharp investment advisor says, “Farmland in Africa! People have to eat, right? And there are more and more people. Put your money in African farmland and you’ll double your money in no time!” She doesn’t say a word about what makes that land unique and special or about the people and other beings that live, or lived, there.
That’s a big problem. It’s a remote ownership problem. In fact, it’s a whole bunch of justice problems related to the hard-wired legacies of colonialism that come together as a multi-faceted problem about remote ownership of land and resources. In a nutshell, remote owners or rights holders often cause serious harm to far away ecosystems they know and care little about, and grave injustice to the people and other life that know those ecosystems most intimately and depend on them.
So, what about
this Green New Deal (GND)? Is it merely the old wine of capitalist
growth-driven development in a new bottle, or is it a recipe for
socio-political and socio-ecological transformation that will right past wrongs
and reshuffle political power in favor of historically disempowered people? Any
Green New Deal (GND) framed as a “just transition” has to address problems of remote ownership and empowerplace-based governance.
Open questions about the remote ownership problem in
Some say the GND in H.R. 109 introduced by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and others is merely a shift to green or climate colonialism, by which the greening—via decarbonization and other means—of wealthy, developed countries in a growth-driven, capitalist, and globalized world will worsen injustice in developing countries. This injustice includes not only increased exposure to environmental harms and health risks from extraction of materials needed for green technologies but also ongoing wealth inequality and social and cultural upheaval as the wealth-building potential of extracted resources (jobs, profits, etc.) is mostly exported along with them.
The GND risks continuation of the crushing of long-standing place-based governance systems.
At the heart of this injustice are international companies and their stockholders and other remote owners—land and resource grabbers—that exert enormous political power from the local to the global scale. The GND risks continuation of the crushing of long-standing place-based governance systems, permanent displacement of people with the most intimate knowledge of local ecosystems and devastation of ecosystems and the life they support, all typical of land and resource grabbing around the world. A particular concern is that land use reform is essential to success of the GND, yet the GND does not directly confront the hard wiring of the property rights regimes that must be addressed. Another is that the GND was conceived and announced with virtually no inclusion of Indigenous voices and that unless this lack of inclusion and the superficiality of references to Indigenous ideas is overcome, the GND could maintain “broken structures that perpetuate disconnection and individualism.”
Some cautiously, others more enthusiastically, see the GND as an opportunity to end and provide restitution for these injustices. The openings for transformative change to scale back land and resource grabbing and empower place-based governance systems, including Indigenous ones, are signaled in support for “community-driven projects and strategies” to deal with pollution and climate change; locally-appropriate ecosystem restoration; and free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities with respect to matters of concern to them. For these openings to fulfill their potential, justice activist Syed Hussan argues that the GND must foster “just transition in the broadest sense” and not just deal with displaced workers in fossil fuel industries and other discrete issues that decarbonizing the economy will entail.
Where to look for answers to remote ownership problems
The good news is
that worthwhile ideas about how the GND can confront problems of remote
ownership and promote locally-tailored place-based governance
systems are already out there. Here are some of these sources of inspiration.
The degrowth movement. Degrowth is a forceful challenge to the growth-insistent sustainable development model, and a more hopeful approach to long-term perpetuation of a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship. Degrowth combines a commitment to respecting ecologically-based limits with a commitment to developing a comprehensive, practicable approach to building thriving human communities based on conviviality and human solidarity without consumerism or material and energy excess. The reforms associated with degrowth “emphasize redistribution (of work and leisure, natural resources and wealth), social security and gradual decentralization and relocalization of the economy, as a way to reduce throughput and manage a stable adaption to a smaller economy.” Giorgos Kallis’s nine principles of degrowth should be useful in making sure the GND adequately confronts remote ownership problems: 1) End to exploitation; 2) Direct democracy; 3) Localized production; 4) Sharing and the commons; 5) Provision of relational goods, through friendship, love, healthy relationships, kinship, good citizenry; 6) Unproductive expenditures geared to communal activities, such as festivals, games and the arts; 7) Care, and treating humans and other life as ends, not means; 8) Diversity; and 9) Decommodification of land, labor and value.
The G20. What?!? Well, it’s useful to understand the key ideas of the global political apparatus that must be overcome for the GND to lead to radical social, political and ecological transformation. At annual meetings, the G20 typically agree on the need to “further collective actions toward achieving strong, sustainable and balanced growth to raise the prosperity of our people.” The means to do so generally involve supporting global trade and investment (much of which is tied to remote ownership) and the role of the World Trade Organization as a means to create jobs and maintain growth, with weak or marginal actions or aspirations to address inequalities, corruption, climate change and environmental harm. The G20 supports the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, with emphasis on sustainable, inclusive economic growth. A truly progressive GND should look past the SDGs!
The EJ Atlas. The Environmental
Justice Atlas documents real
cases of how remote owners have created social and environmental conflict. These compelling narratives are a rich
resource for understanding in detail the problem of remote ownership and the
power dynamics that must be confronted and reshuffled in order to overcome
Indigenous ways of thinking and being. In many Indigenous worldviews, attachment to place, founded on respect for all life and for deep appreciation of a reciprocal relationship with the Earth and its life community, is key to a more hopeful vision of the human-Earth relationship. Indigenous activist Eriel Deranger writes, “It is Indigenous communities, locally, nationally and internationally, that continue to push for an actualization of instilling deeper spiritual connections to Mother Earth to help us relearn what systems of colonization, capitalism, and extractivism have severed.” Connecting or reconnecting to the places that nourish our bodies and souls is at the heart of the long-term promise of a GND done well. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that “[f]or the sake of the peoples and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become indigenous to place.” But, inviting settler societies to become indigenous to place—and an invitation from Indigenous holders of knowledge of a place is essential—does not mean letting them “take what little is left.” Attaching to a place by carefully and respectfully seeking to become indigenous to it requires humility above all, and it requires direct experience with wise teachers, not merely book knowledge.
Indigenous peoples and other social groups that have been historically disadvantaged by colonization and land and resource grabbing must play a central role in developing and carrying out the GND.
Six mutually reinforcing proposals on remote ownership
and place-based governance for the GND
peoples and other social groups that have been historically disadvantaged by
colonization and land and resource grabbing must play a central role in
developing and carrying out the GND. Including Indigenous notions of justice,
decolonization and self-determination through meaningful inclusion of
Indigenous communities in decisions that affect them, which requires adequate time
and resources, is essential.
Second, the GND should empower communities like those included in the EJ Atlas to develop strong place-based governance systems and communities of solidarity and mutual care in order to resist the social and environmental conflicts they face, often because of remote ownership. This means providing them with a determinative role in decisions affecting them directly and indirectly. It also means developing a global/international scope and strategy so remote ownership problems in one place aren’t just displaced elsewhere. Also, we should look for opportunities to scale up and out from local remote ownership problems that are avoided or justly resolved.
Third, the GND should end corporate giveaways that are tied to remote ownership problems and exclude carbon markets, offsets or emissions trading regimes, and geoengineering—all of which typically pose remote ownership problems. Instead, the Climate Justice Alliance is fighting for a GND that shifts “from global systems of production and consumption that are energy intensive and fossil fuel dependent to more localized systems that are sustainable, resilient and regenerative.”
Fourth, stocks and other investment instruments in land and resource grabbing ventures that cause social and environmental conflict and harm in faraway places should be prohibited. This may require profound restructuring, dismantling or abolition of the financial and corporate structures that allow for these kinds of investments. At the least, it would entail deep rethinking of the metaphor of corporate personhood
Fifth, the GND should explicitly reject economic growth as a rationale and driving objective. It should oppose perpetual economic growth and promote communities committed to solidarity, maximal sharing and minimal use of materials and energy.
Sixth, the GND should place limits on wealth, which would help minimize or end the remote ownership problem. The most obvious way to do this is through progressive income taxation or a tax on wealth. For this to be effective, there of course also has to be collaboration between communities worldwide against tax evasion, with the aim of abolishing tax havens. A more radical transformation would be to target the globalized currency system which makes it possible for Wall Street investors to buy African farmland with US dollars in the first place. Or, the international community could finally adopt taxes on financial transactions; already implemented in some countries, this could be expanded to more countries and international transactions.
Some tough questions to test these proposals
If the GND is a step toward post-capitalist societies where remote owners, if they still exist, are no longer able to adversely affect far away ecosystems and people, it nonetheless is starting off in a globalized capitalist economy. As John Bellamy Foster has written, “We have to go against the logic of the system while living within it.” Making the proposals above work will not be easy. It will require people power through mass organizing and consciousness building. And it will mean confronting some tough questions. Here are a few.
Does the GND inevitably imply ongoing wealth and resource extraction in the global South to benefit the global North? If so, what are the implications for remote ownership and place-based governance? If not, what mechanisms are needed to minimize or end wealth and resource extraction in the global South to benefit the global North?
How can the GND
address remote ownership in the form of ownership of financial stocks or other
financial investments—keeping in mind how many people are counting on this type
of investment for their retirement and long-term care?
What are some good
examples that could be duplicated or scaled up of place-based governance
systems that maintain fairness among humans and between humans and other life
across generations? How should duplication and scaling up account for the
unique features of different places and avoid one-size-fits-all approaches?
Can the GND adequately
address, as Deranger puts it, the “intertwined roles of capitalism, consumerism,
militarism and colonialism as foundations to the current crisis” if it remains
“driven by White ENGOs, those with the resources and power, and mainstream
traditional labor protections and increasing unionization a long-term solution,
or does it risk locking in an us-them worker-owner power dynamic—where the
owners are often also remote owners and land and resource grabbers—that other
alternatives could overcome? What about more locally-committed, place-based employee-owned businesses or
Questions like these need to be asked in relation to every single aspect of GND proposals in the advanced capitalist countries. Political organizers and activists should think about how to balance such critical questions with the visionary rhetoric that makes the GND so popular—all the while keeping in mind that the strength of a GND vision should be judged on the basis not only of its policy designs but also its ability to inspire and unite broad movement building for climate justice. Grappling with entrenched problems of remote ownership is one way to take a focused approach to building momentum for this movement.
Dr. Geoff Garver is an adjunct professor at Concordia and McGill Universities in Montreal and coordinates research on law and governance at McGill University for the Leadership for the Ecozoic initiative. He is on the steering committee of the Ecological Law and Governance Association and the board of the Quaker Institute for the Future and is active in the international degrowth movement.
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
We’re back from our break with fresh new readings for you! The world moves fast, and a lot has happened over the past two months. Jane Goodall’s comment at the World Economic Forum that most of our environmental problems wouldn’t exist if human population growth were at the levels they were 500 years ago sparked another debate about the validity and dangers of ‘overpopulation’ arguments. We featured a critique of her claim here. We also collected resources around green colonialism: the push to ‘green’ the Global North at the expense of the Global South. And of course, we’re sharing a couple of articles about the Wuhan coronavirus which has been dominating the news, on top of the usual news and discussions about global and Indigenous struggles, cities and radical municipalism, and degrowth.
Uneven Earth updates
Energy and the Green New Deal | Link | The complex challenge of powering societies
Swedish colonialist neutrality | Link | A tradition of double standards from historical colonialism to current environmental injustice
Public money for environmental justice | Link | We’ll never fund a transformative Green New Deal with money designed for capitalism
Hayashi-san’s Green Headband | Link | “In Tokyo, New York, Montreal, Rome, Paris, Beijing, Kinshasa, millions of people were wearing green headbands … this has made you a martyr and brought the environmental movement to a level never before reached.”
Show me the money | Link | How will we pay for the Green New Deal?
A just food transition | Link | Why the Green New Deal should give farmers a Basic Income
Birth | Link | “Maybe then we’ll regain the access to the river, the river that is now controlled by the insiders and their obsession with energy resources.”
The fight for mom’s house. This is the story of a group of homeless mothers who for 58 days occupied a vacant home in Oakland, and eventually claimed a historic victory in the struggle for housing justice.
Portugal has found an antidote to right wing populism. Facing the policies of socialist Prime Minister António Costa, which include properly supporting the welfare state and investing in the public sector instead of austerity measures, right wing populists don’t stand a chance.
The municipalist moment. Movements on the left are increasingly looking to build power at the local level. The question is how we can leverage municipal gains to transform the system at expanding scales.
Nothing happens without energy. Literally. Lacking energy, there can be no heat, food, motion, information, or life. Commonly defined as ‘the capacity to do work’, energy has always been central to human societies, whether derived mechanically from moving wind or water, chemically from wood, oil, coal or other combustible fuels, or thermally from the sun. This is more than an abstract footnote—there are deep links between available energy and the very structure of civilizations, including their types of social organization and levels of complexity, as noted by anthropologist Leslie White . While this relationship is obviously not deterministic, there are social, technological, and economic arrangements, such those we enjoy in privileged parts of the global North today, which are likely unattainable at significantly lower levels of energy consumption.
Much discussion and research in recent years has focused on the prospects for a global transition to renewable energy, motivated by growing awareness of the existential threat posed by global climate change as well as localized environmental issues attributable to the production and consumption of fossil and nuclear energy. The Green New Deal (GND), the subject of this essay, is the latest in a long line of ambitious plans aimed at accelerating this process, in addition to its social and economic goals. However, many of these energy transition plans are conceived teleologically: they start with the outcomes they seek to achieve, then fill in the gaps with implied (but uncertain) socio-technological capabilities. In the process, they typically sidestep irreducible uncertainties and fail to properly engage with the considerable challenges involved in fundamentally transforming our energy system. It must be asked whether the GND commits these same errors. Avoiding them requires recognition that the transition to renewable energy is not simply the eventual outcome of the right set of policy settings, but what systems scientists would call a complex, path-dependent, socio-metabolic process. In other words, the transition will be far more constrained in terms of what we can achieve than we often like to think and will necessarily transform the basic configuration of our societies [2, 3].
Many of these energy transition plans are conceived teleologically: they start with the outcomes they seek to achieve, then fill in the gaps with implied (but uncertain) socio-technological capabilities.
That we must one day rely solely on renewable energy is true by definition. The fossil and nuclear fuels are depleting resources and their use entails ecological harm on an immense scale. Therefore, this use will eventually become infeasible, unacceptable, and uneconomic. But how we get from here to there is radically uncertain. There is no guarantee that we will complete the transition while maintaining an industrial socio-metabolic regime (our current pattern of material and energy use and associated societal configuration). In fact, this appears highly unlikely [2, 3].
For most people in the developed world, modern energy services are so ubiquitous and ingrained in our daily lives that they have been rendered largely invisible (at least until they are interrupted). Nevertheless, understanding energy is critical to accurately discerning where we are going as a society and what we can hope to achieve. This understanding suffers from what Mario Giampietro has called a “clash of reductionism against the complexity of energy transformations” .
Energy is typically understood in loose terms as something produced and transported by large and highly visible infrastructures (of which there are ‘good’ kinds and ‘bad’ kinds, defined by one’s perspective). It is generally perceived that energy is used for various crucial purposes, such as moving people and things around, heating and cooling homes and workplaces, powering appliances and devices, and producing consumer goods. Beyond this, various emotionally charged and frequently oversimplified narratives come into play, which inform expectations of what lifestyles and society at large ought to look like. While the range of perspectives and positions on energy is vast, they can be broadly grouped into two opposed narratives:
Narrative one sees energy presenting an urgent moral duality: oil derricks, pipelines, smog-covered cityscapes, and corporate interests on one side and climate saving technologies, eco-friendly behaviours, and new political movements on the other. In this strain of thought, we already have the requisite technology to carry out the transition to renewable energy and the only serious barriers are political in nature. Nowhere is the first narrative more clearly depicted than in US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent ‘A Message From The Future’ video.
Narrative two considers fossil fuels to be miraculous, prosperity-building, and geo-politically important resources, which should not be disregarded in favour of unproven, unreliable alternatives. As for climate change, positions can range from “the science in not settled” to “no problem, we’ll have the tech for that”. This narrative is captured in PR communications from major oil companies (and even more transparently depicted here), frequently loaded with promises of jobs, technological breakthroughs, and nostalgia for an era of pioneering industrial vitality.
Neither of these narratives is totally correct, but neither is totally wrong either. The first rightly highlights the social and ecological imperatives we face and how some forms of energy production are significantly less harmful than others, but tends to downplay the challenges and implications of transforming the entire energy basis of modern economies. Meanwhile, the second accurately identifies the unique qualities of fossil energy resources and their role in reaching our current level of development, but fails to identify that these have a limited lifespan, both in terms of their physical abundance and the extent to which we can use them without unacceptable consequences. It is on this fraught ideological landscape that the GND must vie for influence against competing visions of our energy future.
The Green New Deal
The GND (a clear allusion to Roosevelt’s depression-era New Deal) burst onto the US political scene in 2018, emerging from the youth-led ‘Sunrise Movement’ and subsequently championed by freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and a growing list of progressive political figures. Its supporters now include Joseph Stiglitz, Ban Ki-Moon, Paul Krugman, US senators (Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Ed Markey), and numerous organizations (including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, 350.org, the New Economics Foundation, Extinction Rebellion, and the United Nations Environment Programme). The concept has quickly spread internationally to Canada, the UK, Australia, and the European Union due in large part to the advocacy of respective green parties in these places. A recent Yale survey found a strong majority in the US (81% of those surveyed and even 64% of republicans) ‘strongly support’ or ‘somewhat support’ the various proposals associated with the GND. With this impressive momentum, the time has come to translate zeal into workable policy.
In the US, the GND is often described with the tagline “decarbonization, jobs, and justice.” Policy proposals center around a green industrial revolution—a rapid, large-scale transition to renewable energy alongside vastly expanded public transportation and building retrofits for energy efficiency within a 10-year timeframe. The plan is to achieve near carbon-neutrality of the US economy and improved environmental quality through immense public spending initiatives, funded primarily via redistributive measures designed to tackle inequality. The draft text of the GND House Resolution includes the aim to “virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.” Variations often include increased minimum wages, universal health care, improved access to education, shorter working hours, and democratized workplaces. For a more complete description of the origin story and details of the GND, see this article or this one.
As the GND ultimately hinges on energy transition, the feasibility of its assertions in this area are crucial.
Although it’s not hard to see the appeal, no one would deny that this is an immense task. In fact, there is already a chorus of critical voices from right across the political spectrum on questions of cost, timeframe, technical assumptions, and policy design. As the GND ultimately hinges on energy transition, the feasibility of its assertions in this area are crucial. To go any further, we need to cover some energy basics.
The global energy system is by far the largest, most technologically advanced collection of built capital, supporting infrastructure, expertise, and organizational capacity that has ever existed. Despite the hype around renewables, the global energy system is still 96% non-renewable, while solar and wind—the two renewable energy sources with the greatest growth potential—supplied just a little over 1% of total world energy in 2018 .
Firstly, it is important to understand that each type of energy production can satisfy only some types of energy demand: energy resources and the flows derived from them are not interchangeable. Instead, the energy system comprises a series of distinct flows spanning four basic stages, from primary resources through to delivered energy services:
To provide a bit more specificity to
this picture, the table below shows common examples of each of the four stages
and sequences of flows between them:
If fully enumerated, this would look more like a
complex, multi-nodal network rather than a straight line, but this
simplification serves to highlight some key features:
Changes at one stage require corresponding changes at all other stages in order to avoid supply bottlenecks or unused excess capacity. Each new increment of supply (primary resources plus secondary conversion) must be met with a corresponding increment of demand (end-use capital plus energy service demand) and vice versa. This means that investments needed to change the system are often larger than they first appear—investments in one part of the system require corresponding investments in others—and the ways societies use energy must evolve as supply changes.
The common lay concept of ‘energy’ as a homogeneous, aggregate quantity is a fiction. The various flows within the energy system are non-equivalent and non-substitutable (at least not directly). For example, gasoline is produced by a refinery and fuels your car, but this is not interchangeable with the electricity generated by a gas-fired turbine powering your laptop. In particular, the flows of ‘energy carriers’ between the second and third stages—consisting of electricity, liquid fuels, and heating fuels—must be considered separately, otherwise we risk overlooking constraints integral to the system.
The non-equivalence of energy carriers is an essential concept, analogous to the metabolism of living organisms requiring fats, proteins, and carbohydrates to survive. For most animals, diet can change with food availability, but there are limits to this. Humans can substitute one food group for another, at least for a period of time, but beyond certain boundaries severe physiological consequences begin to occur, including starvation and death. The energy system functions basically the same way. The composition of supply or demand can’t be changed arbitrarily and to the extent that it can be changed, this typically requires expensive and time-consuming adjustments at other stages in the energy system.
Energy for energy
the flows ultimately ending up as final energy services (or waste), a large part
of the output of the energy system must be directed back into its own
construction, operation, and maintenance. These flows represent the metabolism
of the global energy system. As shown in Figure 2, energy carriers are utilized in an
‘autocatalytic loop’ (energy invested to produce energy) and a ‘capital
hypercycle’ (energy invested to maintain the means of turning energy into
Our current economic structure and resource dependencies ensure that we’ll burn a lot of fossil fuels to carry out a major shift towards renewable energy—a cost of the transition that we can’t afford to ignore. Among other things, this complicates discussions around the pace of the transition; it is not necessarily true that faster is better as large, short-term increases in fossil fuel demand for a renewable energy buildout may lead to significant excess capacity, wasting resources and frustrating the transition further down the line. Generally speaking, an ‘optimum’ timeframe in terms of what would limit greenhouse gas emissions or ecological impact will not likely align with the deadlines proposed to date by the advocates of rapid transition. Vaclav Smil notes that energy transitions on this scale typically occur over multiple decades or centuries, not years .
The manufacturing of silicon wafers in solar PV panels and advanced metal alloys in wind turbines requires a lot of high temperature heat, currently provided primarily by burning natural gas or coal.
Examining the energy system’s own metabolism also raises questions of residual non-renewable energy dependence that may be difficult to eliminate. The energy system’s autocatalytic loop and capital hypercycle are comprised of a mixture of energy carriers, meaning any attempt to shift the system towards a renewable basis will likely run into limits (due to energy carriers required to support the energy system not likely to be produced at scale via renewable means). For example, the manufacturing of silicon wafers in solar PV panels and advanced metal alloys in wind turbines requires a lot of high temperature heat, currently provided primarily by burning natural gas or coal. Will it be possible to run solar PV panel and wind turbine production lines using solar- and wind-generated electricity in the future? We don’t know, but there are reasons to be skeptical . How about all of the remote access roads, transmission towers, substations, and supply depots required to create a renewable energy infrastructure? And the rare-earths, lithium, copper, iron, coltan, cadmium, and vast quantities of other minerals needed for the renewable energy buildout? It is hard to see how all of this can subsist on renewable energy flows alone.
And then there’s electricity. Electricity is not like the other energy carriers in one critical sense: it is not a physical substance that can be produced and set aside for later use. In effect, this means supply must match demand at all times in order to maintain the stable, functioning electrical networks that distribute electricity to end users. Demand is stochastic—it changes as industrial production ramps up and down, and more erratically as households turn on or off light switches, run appliances, or do anything else that uses electricity. Consequently, supply must be ‘dispatched’ to meet demand on very short timescales as any temporary gap leads to changes in system frequency and large gaps can cause blackouts and damage vital electrical equipment (illustrated below).
The key problem with most renewable electricity production (including production from solar and wind) is that it is intermittent and can’t be counted on when it is required most. Electricity systems needs to retain the ability to meet demand when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. There are ways to maintain this ability as the share of renewables increases, such as building enough spare dispatchable generation capacity to act as a backup (often gas- and coal-fired) or building storage and additional transmission capacity. All have significant costs, in both energetic and monetary terms, and face their own social and technical limitations. For example, while there is much discussion around building better batteries to unlock renewables, this is still an exceedingly expensive option that is suitable only for shorter timescales, not the summer to winter supply-demand gaps creating most of the need for system flexibility . Returning to our diet analogy, pinning all of our hopes on storage is a bit like asking a someone to put on 300 lbs every fall to survive the winter months with very little food. We wouldn’t expect a human being to be capable of this for very long and the odds of the energy system pulling off the equivalent feat are not much better.
This difficulty only increases as renewables provide a larger share of total electricity. Figure 4 below shows how the mitigation investment required to maintain stable electricity grids increases non-linearly as the share of intermittent renewables grows [9, 10]. Technical and economic limitations in the electricity sector will manifest during any large-scale transition to renewable energy. Aside from a few fortunate regions with abundant dispatchable renewable energy resources (geothermal in Iceland, hydropower in Nicaragua, etc.), with current technology, this ceiling is far below the aspirational 100% renewable goal of the GND. The importance of these electricity system barriers is underscored by the fact that the provision of many of our energy services will need to be electrified in order to align with the growth of renewable energy.
A story of limits
The crux of
the problem is this: renewable energy typically produces forms of energy that are
poor substitutes for the energy required to manufacture, transport, install,
and operate renewable energy, at least without major investments into each
stage of our energy system, significantly reducing or even erasing the net energy
delivered. As such, these energy sources are dependent on the existing system
and function less as a replacement for the fossil fuel economy and more as a
temporary extension of it. The empirical evidence agrees—renewable energy
investment does a poor job of displacing fossil fuels . Of course, there are exceptions (such
as traditionally produced biomass), but these have nowhere near the potential scale
required to run today’s enormous globalized, industrialized economy.
the existing limit lies on the path to a 100% renewable energy system, we can and
should push this limit through changes to consumption behaviours on the part of
both industries and households, through things like shared utilization of end-use
capital and energy services (think communal kitchens), a shift away from
currently preferred but inefficient types of end-use capital (e.g. prioritizing
public transit and micromobility over cars), greater alignment of demand to
match intermittent supply, and overall demand reduction. However, it is
precisely these kinds of changes which are more difficult to motivate,
especially among those following the second narrative described above who may
assume that high-energy, fossil-fuelled lifestyles represent ‘the good life’. Even
at the extremes of practical behaviour change, the 100% target may still be unattainable.
Leaving aside the narrow concept of limits, a fundamental change in our energy basis and socio-metabolic regime would mean becoming a very different society from the one we know today. It is tempting to opine on our society’s wasteful habits and ask how much energy we really need, but the answer depends largely on the type of society we want to live in. Do we want to be able to build smartphones? How about MRI machines and water treatment plants? We may not be able to pick and choose what we want to keep from varying levels of socio-technical complexity (while it is certainly worth discussing what we might want to keep and what we can afford to lose). There is no demonstrated historical tendency for complex societies to voluntarily downshift their energy consumption on a large-scale .
When politicians and activists say “we have the technology” they vastly understate the challenges, potential barriers, and ultimate consequences involved in the transition.
The main point here is that the prospects and implications of shifting toward renewable energy extend far beyond present-day cost-benefit calculations, political maneuvering, or waging war on climate change. When politicians and activists say “we have the technology” they vastly understate the challenges, potential barriers, and ultimate consequences involved in the transition.
Raised stakes and political pushback
By forcing extensive change into an expedited timeframe, the GND raises the stakes and reduces the margin for error in the transition to renewable energy. If such a policy package were embraced, people everywhere would be subject to dramatically increased risks of misallocation of resources, misalignment of capacity between the various stages within the energy system, and of consequent economic and social fallout. The calls for radical action motivating the GND stem from a sense of desperation in the face of increasingly dire predictions regarding converging climate and ecological crises. That desperation is certainly justified, and yes, time is not on our side, but we must not dismiss the existential risks of a poorly executed GND.
The GND makes some very big promises and displays unmistakeable utopian elements. The problem is not so much the aspirational decarbonization goals, but the assurances of prodigious social benefits assumed to be attainable through or while pursuing them. Universal modern healthcare and higher education, job guarantees, raised minimum income, the elimination of poverty and inequality, significantly increased taxation of the wealthy—these goals proved elusive even during the period of greatest stability and economic surplus the world has ever seen. To achieve them during what will likely be a period of profound and growing ecological disruption, climate instability, and social unrest is rather optimistic to say the least. We will need to walk a long tightrope, balancing the pace of change, unforeseen challenges, impacts on communities, and necessary sacrifices. Perhaps the most dubious aspect is the overall ethical shift underscoring the kind of social cohesion necessary to achieve the GND in developed nations, from hyper-consumerism to environmental stewardship and the voluntary curtailment of discretionary consumption—essentially expecting everyone to spontaneously drop any differences of opinion and embrace the first narrative.
Owing to the existence of embedded conflicting perspectives, the GND will always have its opponents. Assuming we go ahead with it, any unintended consequence or local failure (of which there will be many) will be met with a backlash that risks eroding public confidence in the GND. This is a dynamic heightened in direct proportion to the level of ambition the GND embodies; the more utopian the stated goals, the starker the underwhelming reality, and the greater the negative reaction will be. How would we maintain broad political support for the GND, given the inevitability of broken promises? It may be that some of these promises need to be tempered against the requirement for achievable goals. A prime example can be seen in the German Energiewende, a planned national energy transition initiated in 2010 aimed at phasing out coal and nuclear energy. Promises of clean, renewable, reliable, and affordable energy clashed against the reality of Europe’s highest power prices and unconvincing progress on decarbonization . This failure dampened public enthusiasm and made other countries hesitant to follow Germany’s example. The GND must learn this lesson—to promise more than you can deliver is to ensure failure.
There isn’t one unique, unambiguous end point to travel toward in response to the challenges we face.
One might reasonably ask whether too much ambition is really a weakness. Isn’t it better to have highly aspirational goals, even if they aren’t achieved, if only to carry us further than we would have gone otherwise? Well, not necessarily. It is important to note that there isn’t one unique, unambiguous end point to travel toward in response to the challenges we face. Time and our capacity for change are both limited. A last-ditch, herculean attempt to rebuild modernity anew would forestall the pursuit of other more credible and beneficialmodels of development.
First things first
So is the
GND a good idea? Unfortunately, not in its present form. Given current levels
of understanding of the complexities and trade-offs involved in a transition to
renewable energy, and inflated expectations of future energy consumption, it would
almost certainly result in a catastrophic failure. However, if guided by 1) an
accurate and realistic understanding of the role of energy in society and 2) a
willingness to honestly confront the profound socio-economic implications of a shift
to a renewable energy basis, a reformulated GND might be able to point our
global system toward a more sustainable paradigm.
Here are some additional principles for a truly transformative GND that I would propose:
Energy literacy: energy transition is at the heart of the GND and its current assertions in this area are highly questionable. As such, there is a pronounced need for energy literacy, both in policy formulation and post-implementation general education. This energy literacy is needed to disarm simplistic narratives and enable transformative thinking.
Demand side adaptation: to help bridge the gap between ambition and feasibility and unlock energy transition to the extent possible, the GND must embrace a radical rethinking of expectations for energy consumption. This must include overall demand reduction, but also greater demand flexibility, shared utilization of energy services, and shifting away from inefficient modes of energy service provision. Supply side interventions won’t cut it, we need to talk about the energy we use as a society.
Evolving timeline: a complex, socio-metabolic process cannot be forced to conform to arbitrary deadlines and attempting to do so serves only to lock in unintended, suboptimal outcomes in terms of what we really want to achieve. The GND must abandon its stated 10-year timeframe and instead incorporate an informed, contingent, and evolving target for the pace of the transition.
Political realism: assuming a forthcoming, sweeping alignment of perspectives on energy and social issues and subsequent unilateral action, as if in a political vacuum, is simply wishful thinking and must be rejected. The GND’s overall strategy must remain mindful of contrary narratives and the political pitfalls of excessive ambition. There should also be more discussion on who—from movements like Extinction Rebellion to environmental justice groups—can build the necessary political power for a truly transformative GND and how.
Epistemic openness: new approaches are needed to navigate radical uncertainty and conflicting socio-technical narratives regarding energy transition. The GND must engage fields like Post-Normal Science—an approach to scientific decision-making for issues where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent” [15, 16]—as antidotes to reductionism and ideological echo chambers.
As a parting thought, ‘deal’ may not be the appropriate language given an overwhelming level of uncertainty. How can a deal be made and subsequently serve as the benchmark of success when the most relevant details are not yet known? In place of the GND, we might be better served by scaling back our ambition and embracing a Green New Direction. This alternative could preserve many of the same essential goals, but would need to forgo the use of enticing promises to motivate action and instead do the hard work of building solidarity and commitment to collectively face an energy future which will be more complex, more unpredictable, and more challenging than anything we’ve previously encountered.
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Tim Crownshaw is a PhD Candidate in the department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University in Canada and a student in the Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) research partnership. He studies global dynamic transition pathways from non-renewable to renewable energy resources using quantitative, systems-based modelling approaches.
Old colonial relations cast a shadow over today’s environmental politics. But when accusations of historical abuse pop up, some nations manage to fly below the radar in spite of extensive colonial involvement. Due to their so-called higher standards of behaviour they may even gain advantages in the global competition for control of natural resources. ‘Neutral’ Sweden is one of those nations.
In this essay, I weave together depictions of Swedish colonial history with recent political events. I thus hope to shed light on the way that professed concerns with sustainability in Sweden and Northern Europe interact with postcolonial power structures today. Much of the historical research that I build on is derived from two recent books which have contributed to a rethinking of Swedish and Scandinavian involvement in colonialism: the research anthology Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena (2013), edited by Magdalena Naum and Jonas M. Nordin, and Våra kolonier, de vi hade och de som aldrig blev av (‘Our colonies, the ones we had and those never realized’; my translation), by Herman Lindqvist.
Double standards in Northern
European environmental politics
An odd thing happened to the mainstream image of Northern European environmental politics following the wildfires in the Amazon rain forest last year. In August 2019 the G7, or Group of Seven, countries offered Brazil a $20 million relief effort—allegedly to reduce the risk of climate change by counteracting extensive forest fires in the Amazon. The offer was however turned down by the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who confronted the G7 leaders and said that they were treating Brazil ‘like a colony’. Bolsonaro eventually had second thoughts and accepted the aid, but the controversy nonetheless brought the question of colonial guilt and contemporary postcolonial power relations to wider public attention.
What makes Bolsonaro’s scoffing particularly interesting is that he directed it toward nations that tend to be depicted as humanitarian and climate heroes: Germany and Norway. Those two countries had withdrawn financial support from the Amazon Fund in order to pressure Bolsonaro’s administration to take action against the Amazon fires. While influential socialscientists have celebrated Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Germany as ‘clean and green’ utopias, Brazil’s right-wing president unexpectedly—and even against his own anti-environmentalist politics—opens the door to an environmental justice critique of Northern European countries. He accurately ascribes double standards to Norway and Germany, Norway as a whaling country and Germany as needing reforestation. At the same time, his own administration engages in even more absurd forms of anti-environmentalism—as when the director-general of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research Ricardo Galvão was fired and labelled a ‘traitor’ after the Institute issued a report in 2019 on the acceleration of deforestation in the Amazon.
The clean and green façade of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is revealed.
Activists and NGOs used the attention which
both the Amazon fires and Bolsonaro attracted to point out that the Brazilian
president, although he himself wants to practice environmental destruction at
home, does sort of hit the nail on the head when he criticizes Northern European
countries for not wanting to change anything in their own backyards. As a
Norwegian news site writes, ‘Norway’s rain forest preservation
programs have not been without controversy, with critics suggesting Norway has
opted to finance climate measures abroad instead of cutting more carbon
emissions at home by curbing oil exploration and production.’ The clean and green façade
of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is
revealed. Also, the postcolonial interests of rich countries are still evident:
the $20 million relief effort may contain
a hidden agenda and climate care can serve as a perfect alibi for retaining
economic influence—provided that the commitment to sustainability and fair
distribution of welfare and resources is made credible. In 2018, the Brazilian
vice president, general Hamilton Mourão, expressed suspicions about such professed
commitments: ‘The rich world uses the climate debate to continue to dominate.’
There is a historical continuity to point to here: the poor have suffered the most from environmental impact and unjust conditions caused by the wealthy. And scientists project that this tendency will escalate with global warming, as a future scenario with extreme heat threatens the global South in particular, with consequences like decreased labour productivity, lower crop yields, and impoverished human health. And the ‘clean and green utopias’ of Northern Europe have a part in this unequal system. Equitable distribution of environmental load and economic benefits is not a core shareholder value in the global economy.
Sweden is one of the countries who are keen on business in Brazil. The Swedish Minister for rural affairs, Sven-Erik Bucht, went there in 2017 with major Swedish forestry actors and researchers, establishing relations for Swedish businesses under the guise of sustainability. The Amazon is a target for Swedish exports of technology and forestry know-how. Since Swedish forestry often includes criticized clearcutting, Greenpeace Sweden took the opportunity when the fires in the Amazon brought attention to deforestation to point to Swedish double standards when the country pressures Brazil to preserve the rain forest all the while replacing forests with tree plantations at a remarkable speed in Sweden. Since the same companies that are trying to gain access to Brazilian land are causing environmental harm back in Sweden, Greenpeace’s reaction against Swedish double standards could be taken even further. These double standards reside not only in the tendency to require better environmental protection in Brazil than at home, but also in how Swedish forestry actors would happily contribute to deforestation in the Amazon.
We can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.
So what is going on with all this? How can widely celebrated ‘clean and green utopias’ engage in such dubious practices? By looking at the role of Scandinavia, and in particular Sweden, in the colonial era, we can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.
Swedish colonialism in the ‘great olden days’ and today
Sweden’s ‘free lane’ into business profit in
formerly colonized areas depends on the common perception that Scandinavian
colonial violations were marginal, if they occurred at all. But however negligible the Swedish exercise of
power has been, it is paradoxically depicted with great glamour. A telling
example is the Swedish national
1844, including the patriotic stanza which begins ‘Du tronar på minnen från fornstora dar, då ärat ditt namn flög över
jorden’ (‘You are enthroned on memories of great olden
days, when honoured your name flew across the Earth’).
Many Swedes probably tune into the song with a sense of pride—most commonly at sport events—and a vague notion of its references to the Swedish Era of Great Power in the years 1611-1718. Sweden was then a colonizer, although admittedly on a smaller scale than Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain or France—and allegedly of a benevolent type.
But the Swedish Crown and power sphere were in fact heavily involved in the European colonization project with all its atrocities. This is convincingly shown in the anthology on Scandinavian colonialism from 2013 edited by Naum and Nordin. In more than a dozen close-up descriptions of colonial encounters, a continuous whitewash of Scandinavian history is revealed. The anthology displays Swedish involvement on several continents: from expansion up North to the New World, Africa, and Asia. In 2015 this book was succeeded by Våra kolonier in which popular historian Herman Lindqvist uncovers a strong Swedish ambition to develop a colonial role. Conclusions in the two books align: dreams of gold, ivory, sugar, spices, and tobacco triggered the Swedish search for and foundation of colonies from the early 17th century in North America, West Africa, and later the West Indies. Ships were built to export iron, wood, and tar, financing increasing imports.
Swedish iron was a key ingredient—mainly for
arms production—in the infamous triangular trade. Dutch-born entrepreneur Louis
De Geer was an important figure in this as the Swedish Crown granted him a
monopoly on copper and iron trade (he later got the epithet ‘the father of
Swedish industry’). A curious fact is that iron in his forges was cast into bars
that suited the backs of donkeys (!) used for transportation in Africa, as an
adaptation to the slave economy: bent bars were replaced by slaves. With Royal Swedish support he also established
a trading post in Cabo Corso at the African Gold Coast. 1,500-2,000 slaves were
shipped by Swedes over the Atlantic. Ethics were no
obstacle. The European colonial attitude depended on racial supremacy. A
Swedish pastor doubted openly that African slaves were human beings. A Lutheran
bishop in Copenhagen proclaimed that slavery was a natural state for heathens
and punishment for their sins.
The word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources.
Sweden has successfully avoided scrutiny partly
because of a widespread understanding that it never got any major colonies. The
word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources, historical or popular. But Sweden did have several colonies for
quite some time. Baltic provinces were annexed in wars in the 16th
and 17th centuries, staying under Swedish control for 150 years.
Regions in Germany and Poland were occupied. Swedish trade relied on indentured
peasants in those areas. If the brutality of Swedes is absent in Swedish
sources, it is all the more present in German, Polish, and Baltic ones.
The Swedish leadership also aimed for America.
A detailed colonial trade plan was formed and New Sweden was established in
Delaware in 1638, challenging Spanish control. The Swedish governor got royal
instructions to treat the ‘wild people’ well to gain their confidence. The
Crown was hoping that ‘higher standards’ would convince them to withdraw from competing
traders. And the Swedes managed to cooperate with the Lenape and Susquehannock
nations for some time.
In New Sweden, forest Finns were forced (by
updated legal restrictions in Sweden) to cultivate the colony with their ‘slash
and burn’ practise. They were roughly treated and historians have even used the
term ‘penal colony’. The use of indentured labour was similar to the infamous
use of the same system in British plantations in the West Indies.
There is evidence that the Swedish governor
actually wished to eliminate the Indigenous population in the barren colony. He
applied for sufficient numbers of soldiers to do so. The proposal was however
ignored by the Crown, probably because of the urgent need for war resources in
Poland and elsewhere.
The Swedish Royal council also planned other
settlements in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Asia in the 17th
and the 18th century. But plans constantly failed, until Sweden at
last obtained Saint Barthélemy from France in 1784. The Caribbean island became
an important trade hub with slave trade as the main objective. This trade
relied on Swedish ‘neutrality’ in European wars.
It is revealing as well that leading Swedish
merchants sold iron (for weaponry) to rebellious forces in the American War of
Back in Europe, the discovery of silver in Lapland in the 1630s triggered the Swedish Crown’s expansion north into Sápmi. In centuries to come, resources like fur, game, and minerals were extracted—and the Indigenous Sámi were ‘civilized’. The colonial attitude was obvious: Chancellor Oxenstierna referred to the northern parts of Sweden as ‘our India’. The ultimate purpose was to displace the Sámi people and deny them their independence and land rights.
The Swedish presence through settlers,
bailiffs, entrepreneurs, and clerics in Lapland has not been seen as colonial
domination by historians until the last few decades. Instead, terms like
agricultural expansion, Forest Sámi assimilation, domestication, or civilizing
have been used. But the compulsory boarding school
attendance (with Christianity lessons) for Sámi children cut off from their
families is not essentially different from the Belgian education of natives in
the Congo or North American examples such as the Brafferton Indian School in
Mining interests have repeatedly collided with reindeer herding and settlements.
Furthermore, the colonial legacy in Sápmi is
still evident today. There are long-standing conflicts about land use in much
of Sápmi, often in connection to the environmental impact of extractive
industrial projects. For example, mining interests have repeatedly collided
with reindeer herding and settlements. At the present time mining
entrepreneurs, including several multinational companies, are searching for
rare earth metals and iron, exploitation that is marketed by companies (and the
government) as environmentally and socially beneficial because Swedish
environmental protection and working conditions are superior to Chinese ones.
In all this, the Sámi appear to have no say.
One land use conflict is currently tried in the Swedish Supreme Court. The dispute concerns who should administrate hunting and fishing rights on the grazing lands of the reindeer herding community of Girjas: the Sámi community or the Swedish government. Girjas has won in the District Court and the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court’s decision will likely serve as a precedent in similar cases, meaning that it can have far-reaching effects on how Indigenous land use and land rights are interpreted by Swedish courts in the future.
In the court proceedings, surprisingly blunt
statements have been made by representatives of Swedish authorities about the
Sámi as ‘inferior’, a characterization which echoes the old colonial depiction
of Indigenous peoples. Throughout history many Sámi people have been hurt,
humiliated, and oppressed by Swedish authorities. When the well-known Sámi
public figure Johannes Marainen was recently interviewed in a Swedish newspaper, he
concluded that ‘We Swedes are quick to engage when people in other countries
are oppressed, but we have not really cleaned up in front of our own door.’ This is not the least apparent in the Swedish
government’s continual restriction of who has the legal right to call
themselves Sámi on ‘Swedish’ territory: reindeer owners of ethnic Sámi origin.
All other Sámi people—like fishing and hunting Sámi—are by Swedish definitions
not Sámi! The self-imposed governmental right
to define, acculturate, and segregate the Sámi people is largely unbroken since
Scandinavian peculiarities within the European colonial project
In a discussion of colonialism in Scandinavia, it should be noted that Denmark maintained even more widespread presence in colonies around the world than Sweden did, in Africa, Asia, and the West Indies. Also, Denmark tried to control the North, with its whaling and fisheries, in a ‘colonial union’ with Iceland, North Atlantic Islands, and Greenland. The exploitation of Greenland has been similar to Swedish expansion in Sápmi. Greenland still remains Danish, with a restricted autonomy. American president Donald Trump recently made a surprising announcement of the intention to buy Greenland, demonstrating how strategically and economically attractive land areas still are seen as available for purchase. But the neocolonial bid was declined by the Danish prime minister. Following the old colonial pattern, the islanders themselves were not consulted.
Heavy violence was not a part of Scandinavian
colonialism, at least not to the same extent as in British, Spanish, French and
later German rule. But one of the most long-lived slave revolts in the
Caribbean actually occurred in the Danish colony of St. John in 1733. For six
months a group of slaves battled and killed Europeans and slaves of other
origin, until French soldiers violently ended the revolt. Colonial competitors
would often unite in this manner against enemies who threatened the colonialist
Another difference between Scandinavian oversees colonies and those of other European nations was that the numbers of Scandinavian settlers in the colonies were on the whole few. However, this doesn’t mean—so Naum and Nordin write in the introduction to their anthology—that the colonies were negligible in geo-economic terms. The colonial purposes were similar to those of other European powers:
Scandinavia’s colonial expansion was motivated by and involved particular economic thinking, mercantilist drive for profit (to sell dear and buy cheap) and balancing national economies. Furthermore, it made use of the principles of natural law, which stipulated universal rights to trade, travel, explore and settle in foreign lands and justified violent actions if these rights were denied.
Naum and Nordin show how the quest for economic growth attracted Dutch capital and workforce to Scandinavia, bringing industrialization as well as capitalism. Books were written about the usefulness of trade and the need for founding colonies. Sugar refineries were built in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Swedish herring was traded as food for slaves. Merchants offered shipping of slaves to French colonies. Expeditions to America were made, even secretly in war time.
Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war.
The Swedish Crown, merchants, and political leadership shared a Eurocentric worldview and supported the right to conquer, dominate, and civilize in the name of superiority and technological advancement. But there was also a specifically Swedish twist to colonial ideology: Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war. When Britain and the Netherlands were fighting, Sweden exported cannons to the Dutch and iron for weaponry to the Brits. France could, when fighting Britain, rely on Swedish shipping of smuggled slaves, weaponry and other goods in the Caribbean. Also, hundreds of US trade ships managed to avoid customs by sailing under Swedish flag—and thus Sweden could maintain the lucrative Saint Barthélemy trade traffic.
There seems to be a line of continuity in
Swedish ‘neutrality’ goodwill from colonial times up to this day. When
defending delicate business agreements, Swedish rulers are well aware of the
strong link between ‘nonprofit’ trademarks and the ability to secure market
The self-image of Sweden as a peace-loving
world conscience of human rights rhymes badly with Swedish arms exports. The
last few decades there has been a public debate on exports to dictatorships and
regimes at war—though it is at least not, unlike in the ‘great olden days,’ a
question of illegal smuggling. On the contrary, the companies and the
government take care to emphasise the morally responsible nature of the Swedish
arms industry, using foreign policy watchwords like ‘equality,’ ‘freedom of
speech,’ and ‘press freedom’. Trade is promoted by professing high standards of
human rights and progressiveness.
But whatever ideals are invoked, Swedish
exports of military equipment are frequent to countries where essential
freedoms and rights are absent. The Swedish company SAAB recently delivered
airborne systems of radar surveillance to United Arab Emirates. The suppression
of human rights in the Arabic autocracy was never questioned. Amnesty noted
that SAAB does little or nothing to check if delivered equipment is used in war
crimes or oppression.
The ongoing SAAB delivery of 36 fighter aircraft to Brazil causes no troubling debate in Sweden. But when exports to warring countries are highlighted the government is forced to act; recently exports to Turkey were stopped because of the war in northern Syria (the contents of the exports were secret, however—protected by law).
Continuing on or
contesting colonial relations
As suggested earlier, ‘climate action’ is
becoming another useful sales argument for rich countries like Sweden. But when
it comes to climate offsetting, rich countries gladly export it. Swedish funds
support tree plantations in Kachung in Uganda in a project which has meant that
local farmers have been forced to move, thus losing their small
income. The project has even been considered a form of ‘landgrabbing.’ Now the
farmers cannot afford to send their children to school; some even starve.
Ugandan David Kureeba, chief at the National Association of Professional
Environmentalists, called this ‘climate colonialism’ in a major Swedish
newspaper. The colonial pattern is there, in
compensations for emissions of carbon dioxide as well as in exports of garbage
to Africa. In a similar case, it has been revealed that Swedish government agencies
have bought carbon offsets in Brazil from a multinational corporation that has
now been sued for poisoning the land of the Guarani people. The offsets were
bought to compensate for air travel by employees at agencies like the
Government Offices and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Another example of Swedish ‘high standards’ being more like double standards can be found in the story of the Ethiopian/Swedish cardiologist Fikru Maru. In 2013 he was imprisoned in Ethiopia, where he was detained for five years without a trial, falsely accused of bribery. His daughter—a Swedish resident—was informed by the Swedish Foreign Ministry that his prolonged detention time could not be questioned, since Swedish detention restrictions are lacking too (UN, the European Council, and several NGOs have criticized this). It would therefore be inconsistent to put pressure on Ethiopia. But alas, there were other reasons to be silent: Sweden was depending on Ethiopian support for a coveted seat on the UN Security Council and did not want to annoy Ethiopian colleagues by criticizing unlawfulness. This is revealed in a Fikru Maru biography which came out in October 2019.
As we have seen, there is reason to conclude
that Swedish ‘higher standards’ to at least some extent have been tactical more
than factual—a strategic colonialist neutrality. Some may even call Sweden’s
world conscience rhetoric hypocritical. In any case, regardless of how one
interprets Swedish neutrality, it is a fact that Sweden fully participated in
the colonial expansion and supported it; colonies added to the power and glory
of those ‘great olden days’ that are commemorated in the national anthem.
There has been no decolonizing moment during which Sweden has had to rethink its legacy. But some are trying to change this.
What differentiates Sweden from, for example,
Britain and France is that there has been no decolonizing moment during which
Sweden has had to rethink its legacy. But some are trying to change this.
Swedish artist Carl Johan De Geer, a descendant of the industrialist Louis De
Geer mentioned earlier, designed an art
in 2019 (in Norrköping Art Museum) to discuss colonial guilt. De Geer wants to
process the past in a way Swedish schools and art never have. For him, the
triggering factor was his own encounter a few years before with a descendant of
a slave sent to Brazil by his forefather (!).
The Church of Sweden also calls for a rewriting
of history: ‘Sweden must deal with its historical debt to the Sámi,’ Archbishop
Antje Jackelén officially declared in 2016, aware of the Swedish lack of
international credibility due to the state’s and the Church’s treatment of the
Sámi. As part of the Church’s self-examination several books have been
published, including one with scientific white papers. The Church supports the
Sámi Council’s request for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to
the one in Canada, but the Swedish national parliament has as of yet failed to
act on this.
Other states have at least partly begun to deal
with their guilt. Germany is perhaps the best role model. Its World War II
atrocities including the Holocaust have caused a processing in literature, art,
education, and public debate. This has been termed
‘Vergangenheitsbemächtigung’, i. e. the processing of the past, and may be the
key to Germany’s remarkable ethical recovery in the eyes of the world. But at
the same time, the immense German colonial abuse in Africa in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries has largely remained unexposed. Germany’s
unwillingness to owe up to its colonial past is evident in the strained relations between Germany and
Namibia (formerly German Southwest Africa) as the countries are five years into
unsuccessful negotiations of the terms of an official apology and compensation
from Germany for the genocide of 1904-1908.
It is disheartening (although perhaps not
surprising) that there is a similar absence of processing of historical crimes
in current superpowers. In Russia, Stalin is idolized to this day by one-eyed
history writing—spelled out even by president Putin, the new ‘tsar’—despite all
Soviet atrocities. Notable literature by Nobel Prize winners Alexandr
Solzhenitsyn and Svetlana Alexievich uncovers a broader picture, but has not had an impact on the history
that is told by the state. In China, the
Communist Party nurtures a leadership cult around Mao Zedong as part of the
government’s effort to legitimize continued power concentration and repression.
And the one-sided description of the conquest of America, which glosses over
genocide and traumatization of Indigenous peoples as well as the atrocities of
the slave economy, plays a role in continued racism in the U.S. in the 21st
Any benefits that can come from the infrastructures and technologies of modern, globalized society will be effectively undermined by continued abuse and uneven distribution of wealth. In a world of increasing inequalities, where material wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and environmental load is placed disproportionately on the poorest, there is certainly a need for both processing of colonial guilt and a decolonization debate.
If history is unprocessed and allowed to repeat itself, ‘clean and green utopias’ like Sweden can continue to use their good reputation and depict themselves as ‘neutral’ actors to get strategic advantages in global trade. A scrutiny of historical roles in the colonial era shows how the same old patterns are at work. Although political control over vast colonies is history, economic structures ‘invisibly’ serve the same function (and in a way that is often cheaper than managing empires). Today formerly colonized regions largely depend on foreign company investments to develop a role in global trade. Differentiation of production is driven by market laws; cheap labour and access to raw materials are essential to make post-colonial wheels spin. Environmental harm is part of the equation. And in this postcolonial world economy, Sweden uses the same strategies to promote its economic interests as during the era of European colonial expansion.
Former colonial powers have a responsibility both for their material impact on the planet and the ideologies they enforce.
The possibilities of
So where does all this leave us? Apart from scrutinizing
their colonial history and identifying repetitions of historical patterns in
the present, how might Scandinavian countries approach decolonization? This is
a complex question which I can barely begin to answer here. I will say this
though: we need to question the idea of economic growth as an ultimate bringer
of welfare for all. In a world experiencing the devastating effects of climate
change, this idea is less plausible than ever: as excessive consumption by a
world minority threatens all of humanity’s existence, there can evidently be no
equality unless wealth is distributed differently across the globe. This means
that former colonial powers have a responsibility both for their material
impact on the planet and the ideologies they enforce. Sweden—with its ‘higher
standards’—is one of those countries. To advocate a greenwashed variety of
‘business as usual’ is to preserve existing power relations, instead of
questioning vested interests. Selling Swedish fighter jets to Brazil and
oppressing Sámi people at home while telling Bolsonaro to respect Indigenous
rights—cashing in and washing our hands—is certainly not good enough.
But things can change. Slave trade and slavery
were abolished as a result of widespread resistance and popular movements. It
took centuries, but it happened.
We are now witnessing increasing pressure to change economic and political goals in an effort to counteract climate change. This may be the beginning of another dramatic shift of paradigms—if double standards hiding and justifying short-term profit interests do not stand in the way.
NOTE: Shortly after the publication of this text, the Swedish Supreme Court (Högsta Domstolen) ruled in favour of Girjas reindeer herding community against the state. The court’s decision was unanimous.
Many thanks to Rut Elliot Blomqvist for eminent editing and language revision.
Roger Blomqvist is a retired current affairs reporter/researcher and producer of “life philosophy” programs at Swedish public radio (Sveriges Radio), presently a university student of history and culture.
The Green New Deal is perhaps the most audacious plan to ever seriously address the grave social and environmental challenges we face. By identifying “systemic injustice,” the plan is sweeping in its scope. Yet, while the plan discusses public banks in a reference to adequate capital, the plan fails to see the commercial banking sector as one of the structural causes of, and impediments to solving, the problems we face. Importantly, the Green New Deal fails to articulate exactly why a nationalized banking system is critical to the success of the programs its proposes.
in modern economies when commercial banks extend interest-bearing loans to
individuals and corporations. The money in those loans does not exist before
the loan is generated but is created when the bank marks up the borrower’s
checking account. This is in stark contrast
to the general notion that money is a finite resource, such as gold, that is
allocated to its best economic use by the Central Bank.
When money is created by the private sector in the manner discussed above, it is seen as a private resource. Accordingly, public use of money for government spending is viewed as wasteful expenditure rather than productive investment. In the case of the Green New Deal, the massive price tag is seen as cannibalizing the productive private sector. It is for this reason that opponents of the Green New Deal argue that it will hurt the economy, and its proponents argue to “finance” the plan by moving money from one sector to another, e.g. from Wall Street to Main Street.
Money is a social relation. It is an abstract measure of what we all owe to one another.
Money, however, is not a private resource. And it is not a finite commodity. Money is a social relation. It is an abstract measure of what we all owe to one another. Think of it as a tally of everything you owe and are owed, for all the work you do and all the purchases you make. Now extrapolate that to the whole country, let the government manage it—just like it does with laws and other contracts—and you’ve got a monetary system!
The role of the government is crucial in managing the money system. Since money is a social relation, the government is responsible for the money system. Think of what happened in the Great Depression, the Savings and Loan crisis, and the 2008 Financial Crisis: the government always stepped in to repair the money system. And as guarantor of the social relation, it always will.
Monetary theorists understand the government’s monetary prerogative in three ways. First is the government’s ability to choose the unit of account that is used in the country—dollars in the United States and Canada. Second is the government’s ability to issue those units of account into circulation. Third is the benefit of first use that comes with issuing money. This last right is called seigniorage and can be thought of as the profit of creating money above the cost of printing and distributing that money.
has existed as a state-managed tally of owing and being owed (of credits and
debts in theoretical parlance) for thousands of years. In fact, a lot of
evidence suggests that such monetary systems existed for thousands of years
before coins and markets—and might even be the reason humans began to settle in
the first place! (See Money: The Unauthorized Biography.) Capitalism is a relatively new
manner of social organization and is characterized by a transition from
state-created money to bank-created money.
Think about that for a moment. Capitalism is about bank-created money! For thousands of years, the state, for better or worse, controlled three monetary prerogatives discussed above. The state created money by spending it into existence and guaranteed its value by levying taxes in the unit of account in which it spent. Beginning around the twelfth century, however, states began to expand beyond what their power to tax could justify and so they asked private merchants for loans. (See Brown 2013, p.111, and Davies 2002, p.261.) Slowly but surely, states lost the majority of their power to create money and the seigniorage benefit that came with that creation. States only kept the power to determine the unit of account. But with that power came the responsibility to manage the stability of the unit of account.
There has been precious little discussion on ending or reigning in the commercial banking industry’s money-creation power.
It is this strange conflict of interest with which this paper is most concerned. The state is forced to ensure a stable dollar, but it isn’t able to determine how—or for what—dollars enter society. So while much of the discussion surrounding the Green New Deal concerns ending or reigning in capitalism, there has been precious little discussion on ending or reigning in the commercial banking industry’s money-creation power.
While capitalism is often thought of as the private accumulation of surplus, the manner in which that accumulation is enabled is often ignored. Commercially created money means that production surpluses remain within the private sector. Were the state to take back the power to create money, and the seigniorage benefit that comes with such creation, it would severely limit the extent to which the private sector could accumulate surplus. In fact, nationalizing money creation would align the right of the state to create money with the responsibility it bears to manage money’s stability.
Perhaps most importantly, by regaining the monetary prerogative, the state could influence the direction of the economy by spending and lending money into existence in accordance with its goals. In the case of the Green New Deal, these goals would be social justice and environmental sustainability. This would mean that the tenets of the Green New Deal—from healthcare and education to healthy food and sustainable energy—would become structural components of a just and sustainable economy and not simply regulatory mechanisms of an extractive capitalism.
The Green New Deal, as currently written, is an end-of-pipe regulatory framework that relies upon taxing bank-created money to finance social and environmental spending.
This is a huge difference! By avoiding a discussion of a nationalized money supply, the Green New Deal, as currently written, is an end-of-pipe regulatory framework that relies upon taxing bank-created money to finance social and environmental spending. A nationalized money supply would transform government spending into the monetary creation mechanism and embed justice and sustainability as hallmarks of how we manage our national economy.
Joe Ament, PhD, is an ecological economist at The University of Vermont whose research explores monetary theory and policy in the context of socio-ecological equity.
Never for a moment would anyone have believed that Mr. Hayashi would become the most important person in the world, much less himself.
Mr. Hayashi, or Hayashi-san as one says in Japan, was ordinary in the extreme; average height, a barely expressive face, and dressed in an indistinguishable gray suit. Aged 37 years with a slightly stooped demeanor, he eked out an anonymous existence between an apartment in the distant Tokyo suburb of Machida and the headquarters of Yatohido Company. It was there that he was employed in the obscure but respectable profession of assistant accountant. His aged parents had retired several years earlier to their home prefecture of Kochi, far to the South leaving him alone in a capital city little friendly to young adults.
Nothing in the daily life of Hayashi-san would resonate with the ancient significance of his name meaning “forest”. On the contrary, he was dominated by the artificiality of this megacity of 26 million people which, in moments of reflection, makes one ponder at what point we are still actually human beings. The daily life of Hayashi-san had been upset several weeks prior by the arrival in his department of a trainee secretary, Miss Mariko – Mariko-san. Her smiles linked with the etymology of her traditional first name – “child of true reason” – were like a taste of sake to his parched throat reaching to his heart, even though he barely entertained the slightest possibility that she had actually noticed him with his middling status alongside the hundreds that made up the Yatohido social scene. Rumors circulating about her also suggested prudence, as the young woman was identified as a union type.
Proof of the matter came on one chilly day of 13 February.
Under a drizzle not quite rain, Mariko-san proudly appeared at the revolving door of the main entrance to the company headquarters, flanked by half a dozen strapping sumo wrestler types. A banner held above her head accused Yatohido Company of implication in illicit disposal of extremely toxic waste and called for a strike. Like all conscientious accountants, Hayashi-san was hardly implicated in the activities of his company. That is how the world is. The newspapers overflowed with evidence of increasingly serious environmental violations on the part of the company. He was not especially proud of it. However, his deeply-ingrained habits of meticulous labor rendered even the idea of protest virtually sacrilege.
Several employees had proceeded to the entrance, most of them indifferent to the troublemakers. Only a fewdonned head bands.
Strikes in the ex-empire of the rising sun differ significantly from those in the West.
For non-Japanese readers, it should be clarified that strikes in the ex-empire of the rising sun differ significantly from those in the West. Whereas Westerners gesticulate with vehemence, noisily yelling slogans and demonstrate outside of their workplace, the Japanese prefer to protest silently by wearing a white band tied around their head, before going to work, as a kind of symbolic protest. Sensitive to the code of honor as much as to the lure of gain, the Japanese bosses are generally resigned to grant concessions rather than see their employees express their discontent overtly in front of them, with the help of a cotton cloth of immaculate whiteness.
Hayashi-san had no will to participate in this demonstration. Yet, even when Miss Mariko turned her eyes upon him, he dared not look back at her. Even so, he committed the folly of turning his head towards her. Although petrified by the audacity of his act, Hayashi-san could not at the same time repress a frisson of wonderment at breathing the scent of jasmine exuded from the bodice of the young woman as she tied a cloth around the back of his head.
Despite this breach of the ordinary, the day began with metronomic regularity, reading departmental notes, checking bills, credits and debit accounts, all the little games that accountants play. At a quarter past eleven, as with all his colleagues, he placed a telephone order for a bento which was delivered at five minutes to twelve, with its heavy smell of perfumed rice and fried mackerel. Expertly wielding chopsticks, he carefully devoured the contents under the cover of a computer screen. It was at this moment he became aware that people were staring at him. The parade of company officials with scowling faces had not escaped him. It is true that very few of the accounting staff had participated in the strike action, but two tables further down, the grumpy Kazuki showed his opposition by wearing a white head band, without attracting the kind of sustained attention as himself. Even more surprisingly, Mr. Kosumi, the head of finance, entered the room in person with a mini-radio attached to his ear. The volume was sufficiently strong to indicate to Hayashi that the events associated with the strike now rippled through the company. The finance chief fixed upon him with an insistent stare before stifling a groan and turning on his heels.
In this atmosphere of general nervousness, Hayashi attributed the attention of which he was victim to the distinctive smell of the fish which he had just eaten. Struck with a certain shame, he disposed of the empty lunchbox in the bin near the elevator and not inside the office as usual. But the odor followed him for the rest of the day, at least he believed so given the searching eyes of those who observed in silence.
So many souls are prisoners of their illusions of success on which they have been lulled.
Hayashi-san’s stupefaction reached a height at the point when he exited the office at 6 PM. In order to economize on power, as is want in Japan, employees were no longer required to stay on in their offices until after dark. He really did not complain even if he sometimes wished to be able to finish off working on certain delicate documents.
His stupor was driven into fear at having nothing rationalwhen he noticed a group of journalists entering through the revolving doors. It seemed unlikely but they appeared to be personally awaiting him. Some of them knew his name and interrogated him on the meaning of his actions.
Deeply embarrassed, poor Hayashi-san stammered out vague contrite explications on the legality of the strike process notwithstanding of its potential damage to national production. In the wake of these maladroit verbal pirouettes, and profiting from the crowd and the gathering darkness, Hayashi-san made his escape. However, the looks he received in the metro and then on the Odakyu-Odawara line appeared to him no less inquisitive and suspicious than those of his colleagues and the reporters. Attributing this sentiment to work stress, Hayashi plunged into reading the Nihon Keizai Shimbun to check up on the stock exchange where he had placed his meager savings.
First observing the scorn in the eyes of his landlady, Hayashi-san then discovered the terrible truth in the image he saw reflected in the mirror of his minuscule bathroom. In his troubles he had forgotten to take off his headband upon leaving work. But the gravity of that forgetfulness was hardly equal to the surprise of discovering that the headband was actually green in color, not white …
That evening, switching from TV Asahi to Fuji Television and to Nippon News, he gained some understanding although not of the full depth of the disaster. His “statement” had become newsworthy. All the commentators questioned this novel mode of protest vesting the strike with a profoundly new forceful claim. Wearing the colour green had not escaped anyone, yet a great ambiguity surrounded it.
Many foresaw an environmental action, which made good sense in the light of toxic waste cases including Yatohido Company’s. Others forecast that it could be a protest against the excesses of Japanese acculturation. In reality, in old Japanese there is no term to describe this colour. Since olden times the term ao signified “blue” as well as referring to “green.” Other analysts passed comment that green is equally the colour of Islam. The fact that Hayashi-san had worn the green headband outside of his workplace was perceived as an act to draw attention to the fact that the world could no longer live in peace until the great questions dealing with Islam were resolved, commencing with the Palestine problem, otherwise threatening Japan’s petroleum supplies.
Wearing the color green had not escaped anyone, yet a great ambiguity surrounded it.
Hayashi-san preferred to sleep rather than listening to these rambling discussions. He could not be prevented, however, from asking himself why Mariko-san had given him a green headband, when all his fellow strikers were provided with classic white headbands. Was it just an accident? A mistake? Or, was she playing a joke on him? Or perhaps was she helping a colleague to takeover his position?
Hayashi-san’s night was interrupted by interminable periods of insomnia and horrible nightmares devoid of sense, even if some of them led to proximity with Mariko whom he would not have needlessly displeased.
On the morning of 14 February, Hayashi-san put away the headband and sought to forget this painful episode. That was impossible. All the passengers on the Odakyu Odawara line and, in turn, the metro appeared to scrutinize him with insistence. Without doubt it was an illusion of his fatigued brain. Still, he could not help but note that several Tokyoites were wearing green headbands.
A crowd of journalists, cameramen, and onlookers hurried in front of the Yatohido Company quarters. Even though the crowd was too dense for him to discern whether the strikers were still there, Hayashi-san did not imagine for a second that this was on account of himself. Nevertheless, as a precaution he furnished himself with an anti-pollution cotton protection mask covering his mouth and nose, to which he had added a gray scarf and wide-brimmed hat. Incognito, he flowed with the crowd of company employees and managed to pass through the media barrage without being noticed. Watchmen awaited in the interior of the building. Apprehended, he was led to face the shacho orcompany president.
Never in his wildest dreams had Hayashi envisaged to meet Yatohido in person. At least a dozen echelons above him were ranged, commencing with the certified accountant, then theinspector, then the deputy chief of service, the chief, and right up to the head of finance who alone could be expected to talk to the great patron. The interview was of murderous brevity. Yatohido did not even address a word to him. He merely turned a scornful glance – more contemptuous than angry – allowing a junior executive to explain that his deportment was totally unacceptable for a respectable company. They didn’t even ask him to explain himself. He was dismissed without any other form of process and enjoined to leave by the side door, so as not to add a new scandal to the actual dishonorable confusion.
His return trip was interminable. With eyes lowered upon his carefully polished shoes, Hayashi was certain that, in spite of his anti-pollution mask and hat, everyone was looking at him with repugnance and contempt. In his misfortune, he nevertheless was lucky that the landlady was absent at the time he entered his premises. With her characteristic cheek, she would not have held back from publicly insulting him.
Such horror! Not a single channel avoided this new style of green headbands.
With trembling hands Hayashi-san closed his double locks and collapsed on the tatami.The enormity of the situation rendered him incapable of the slightest movement. More than an hour passed before he found the energy to drag himself in front of a television. He reduced the sound to a minimum level so as not to compromise his shameful return. Such horror! Not a single channel avoided this new style of green headbands. Even the window dressers had seized the opportunity. On all cotton goods either sophisticated or customized, they offered the following groups: a creepy headband for punks, emerald with pearls for the rich class, a jade/black ornament style for the goths, and a lace-olive version for romantics.
The debate now entered a new stage with the engagement of the Midori no Mirai, the Japanese green party, which claimed ownership of the movement. According to this organization, by a courageous act, Hayashi-san had given tone to a new era. It was time that, in the country of the Kyoto Protocol, the population ceased to conduct itself in an irresponsible manner. Japan would, at the same time, be able show to the world the path of real change. In a surprising manner, the phenomena took on significant amplitude, not only in the Japanese archipelago, but numerous foreign journalists also commenced to cover the subject.
Hayashi-san switched off the television. Not only had he been dismissed for a grave error, but the association of his name with the movement compromised all chance for him to recover stable employment. If Hayashi-san had had the force of character of his ancestors, he would undoubtedly have committed hara-kiri. Better death than dishonor. In like fashion, he admired the determination of the samurai and kamikaze of glorious times. They too frequently adorned themselves with pennants, as with the white flag enhanced with the symbol of the rising sun, signifying the glory of the Japanese empire, not green flags of which a single thought brought tears of regret to his eyes.
Why him? It remained to be established whether or not Mariko-san had deliberately done this and, in either case, towards what end. He really didn’t know. At this stage, his options were limited. The best was to strive to forget and to move from Tokyo and rejoin his parents in the distant Kochi prefecture hoping that they themselves would not die of shame and deign not even to acknowledge him as their son. In the meantime, best to remain where he was for a few days to let the affair settle down.
Stocked with rice,preserved food,and bean cakes, Hayashi-san had sufficient provisions to hold out for a week. On several occasions he heard noises at the door and the hectoring voice of the landlady. He was careful, however, not to make the slightest noise. He no longer turned on the light including the television and remained dispirited, plunged into morbid thoughts which he was unable to give meaning to.
“In just one week hundreds of millions of people have donned green headbands as a way of signaling to their leaders that they don’t want to continue on a suicidal course.”
More so than even his hunger, repeated knocks and insistent murmurs behind the door confirmed his sense of isolation and resignation. One particular voice convinced him to open the door. It was that of Mariko-san.
— Open, I beg you, she repeated barely above a whisper so as not to draw the attention of neighbors.
— Mariko-san, what have you done? he was obliged to ask while allowing her to enter the genkan.
— I am so happy to find you, Hayashi-san, I was certain that you were dead!
Complex thoughts entered his mind. He was happy that she had taken interest in him including her concerns that he may have committed suicide. However, he still misunderstood her intentions. As the young woman continued:
— The movement has taken on an incredible surge, all over the planet. In just one week hundreds of millions of people have donned green headbands as a way of signaling to their leaders that they don’t want to continue on a suicidal course, whether economic or environmental.
Hayashi-san was not certain if he understood her entirely. He nevertheless managed to query:
— But why did you give me a green bandana?
— It was an accident. My little sister wished to help me with my preparations for the strike. It was she who cut up the cotton cloth. Without paying attention, she also cut up a green strip.
— But why me?
Mariko explained to him that this also was by chance. In the gloomy morning light, she likewise did not pay attention to the green color of the headband. When she came to understand the kind of scandal it provoked in the company, she warned the union boss. It was he who had the bright idea to alert the press in order to exploit the event, without imagining that it would take on such a dimension.
“A new fight is just starting. There will still be hundreds if not thousands of battles.”
— You used me, you brought it on, he inveighed, horrified to discover what really happened. And what will become of me now? I hope you are going to restore the truth …
— What truth? she declared, innocently. That you have become a hero all over the world.
The young woman took him by hand to the living room where she turned on the television.
In Tokyo, New York, Montreal, Rome, Paris, Beijing, Kinshasa, millions of people were wearing green headbands to work, on the streets, in the restaurants … Millions of others lit candles in front of his portrait.
— What are they doing? choked Hayashi-san.
— Most of them believe that you are dead. They learned that you were called up to meet Mr. Yatohido. Then you disappeared. In the meantime, everyone was talking about it. The trade in toxic waste was confirmed uncovering even more serious breaches. The collusion between business, government, the triads and yakuza, has been revealed. Yatohido was sent to prison along with his entire top management, as well as several ministers and Diet members. They were looking for you everywhere. Your landlady confirmed that you had never returned. Your parents were without news. Everyone thought that the yakuza had done away with you to smother the affair.
— It’s horrible!
— But this has also made you a martyr and brought the environmental movement to a level never before reached. The shock has shaken all of Japan, even leading to indignation on the part of the emperor himself in public statements. It has unleashed a global movement of protest on the part of those who are fed up with the situation. The New York Times has published your photo, designating you as “man of the year.” Some have even nominated you for a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize.
— But I have done nothing. I don’t want it.
— No matter, you have hit at the right time, she said with a consoling tone while grazing his cheek with her hand to calm him down. You are now the spokesperson for an immense movement for hope. You must return to the scene to continue the fight.
— But can we change so quickly as that? he wondered, not complaining about another gesture from Mariko-san, giving way to a strange tingling in his spine.
— For sure not. A new fight is just starting. There will still be hundreds if not thousands of battles. The lobbies are powerful. They have such money and power at stake, and so many souls are prisoners of their illusions of success on which they have been lulled. But you bring a new wind and a novel mode of protest to humankind.
— I shall never be able, he bewailed.
— I beg of you Hayashi-san, we really have need of you. The planet needs you.
To be sure, Hayashi-san could never have believed that he would become an important person, much less one of the most important in the world. Nothing had prepared him for this. However, Mariko seemed so convinced and convincing. Maybe it was worth trying.
This short-story appeared initially in French in the Canadian Review: Solaris (n°183, 2013). It was translated into English by the author and Geoffrey C. Gunn (former Professor at Nagasaki University).
Yann Quero has studied Environment and Oriental civilizations. In a meandering path between Europe, America, Africa and Asia, he devotes most of his time to writing, mainly in the field of science fiction. He has published six novels in French: The Era of Cain (2004), The White Man’s Trial (2005) The Future Will No Longer Be What It Was (2010), Mozart’s Tempest (2012), Planet 7 (2017), The Devil’s Bubbles (2018). He is also the editor of several anthologies of short stories on: The Diseases of the Future, Global Warming, GMOs, among other topics, and of a special issue of “Galaxies” review on Science Fiction and Ecology. Many of his short stories have been published in various journals and reviews such as: Galaxies, Solaris, Lunatique, The Vagabonds’ dream, Liberation, and others.
Renewable energy, reparations to the descendants of former slaves and Native Americans, universal basic income, energy efficiency improvements, new transportation systems, job retraining for fossil fuel workers—the list of Green New Deal (GND) aspirations is long and expensive. Senator Bernie Sanders recently released a GND proposal estimated to cost $16 trillion. That’s 16 times the current annual U.S. defense budget, which is about $1 trillion. U.S. GDP was $20 trillion in 2018. How does the U.S. muster federal spending that requires a sum that’s 80 percent of our annual economic output? The Green New Deal requires a LOT of money, amounts that now look politically impossible. Why is money so scarce? Why is there never enough to meet our needs?
Some point to Modern
Monetary Theory (MMT) as a path forward. MMT advocates say we need to stop
worrying so much about deficits. The Treasury and the Federal Reserve can issue
the money into existence to pay for it all. Inflation won’t be a problem
because we can tax the money back out of existence if prices start to rise.
Unfortunately, for the
system to work the way MMT imagines it does—that is, for the government to have
the ability to simply print money into existence, for free—some critical legal changes are needed: 1) the prohibition Congress passed in 1935
ending the practice of the Treasury borrowing directly from the Fed without
issuing bonds needs to be reversed, and 2) the legal requirement for money to
be in the government’s account before they spend it needs to be eliminated.
Otherwise the U.S. government would be required to borrow the money for the GND
from the large, private banks and investors by selling government bonds, as
they do now, pay the wealthiest class the added interest, and burden future
generations with the astronomical costs of it all.
MMT overlooks the privileged role of the U.S. dollar in the current global
economic paradigm. Recent changes in IMF reserve currency rules threaten this privilege, yet we
still have monetary power that many nations do not. We could use our waning
power in the world to spark a new wave of change in monetary systems and make a
Global Green New Deal possible.
What monetary system
changes are needed for a Green New Deal?
The monetary system
conditions at the root of runaway inequality and environmental destruction are
1) private ownership, 2) debt-based issuance, 3) positive interest, 4)
monoculture, and 5) monopoly. All these conditions need to change; the adverse
impacts are an emergent property of a complex system, not a simple linear cause
and effect relationship between one variable (like positive interest) and one
impact (e.g. compulsory growth).
All the government icons and signatures on our dollar notes make us think that the U.S. government issues all the money, but this is not true.
Private Ownership. All the government icons and signatures on our dollar notes
make us think that the U.S. government issues all the money, but this is not
true. The Federal Reserve System is effectively owned and operated by the large private banks; the dividends
they get paid for their capitalized ownership stake are guaranteed at 6% per year, right off the top of the bank’s earnings, tax free. On top of this, since the crash of 2008, the excess
reserves the banks hold are also paid interest, decreasing their incentives to move that money into the
normal economy with all its risks, shocks, booms, and busts.
We need to make money a
public utility, not a private profit center. Strategies include the network of
public banks at all levels of government outlined in the GND Congressional resolution introduced this year,
and past efforts like the NEED Act and the Chicago Plan. If MMT worked as advertised, it might also be truly public
Debt Based Issuance. Between 90-95 percent of the money in circulation in the
U.S. is issued by
banks when they make loans. That’s right, private banks create money
out of thin air as loans and reap the interest as profits. This means that
virtually all the money we use is someone else’s debt and comes into existence
with the built-in expectation that it will return a profit to its issuer in the
form of positive interest. This is one of the reasons there is never enough
money for all the things we need, because debt-based money tilts the scales so almost
every aspect of human life must produce a return for the lenders, or it doesn’t
get issued. If there were money enough to go around, no one would borrow it
from the banks—they produce, control, and benefit from money’s artificial
scarcity. The scarcity also comes from the fact that when all the money is
debt, there is never enough to pay back all the interest.
Positive Interest. Positive interest on all the debt-based money drives the
discounting/net present value calculation large investors use when they
evaluate the long-term value of investments. Discounting systematically
devalues the future, which undermines all the efforts we make to leave a better
world for our grandchildren. One way to envision the unfortunate effect of
discounting is to picture something simple, like a tree, and look at what net
present value calculations do to warp the way we value it with money.
Here is the tree’s
physical reality. The seedling is planted, and after 10 years, we’ll assume the
tree’s value has increased to $100. After 100 years, at this rate of
appreciation, the grown tree would be worth $1,000. Both values are in current
Here is the same tree when
viewed through the lens of net present value. The net present value of the tree
after 10 years is a lot less (discounting $100 over 10 years), and looking out
100 years, it’s worth almost nothing (discounting $1000 over 100 years).
The following illustration
shows how the assumed value of the tree would change dramatically if money did
not come with inflationary added interest built in but rather had some kind of
storage charge, or demurrage, for keeping the money idle (instead of the
rewards we give the banks now for excess reserves).
Money issuance needs to be
a mix of debt and “grants” (for lack of a better word). Grants would not come
with debt’s positive interest and could be used for public and private goods
that do not promise a financial return. Education, health care, child and elder
care, the arts, and democratic participation are all examples of human activity
which cannot and should not be profit centers for either public or private
Monoculture. Even though world currencies come in lots of flavors –
Dollars, Euro, Yen, Pesos, Rubles, etc., the majority of them use the same bank
debt issuance system. This creates a global monoculture of money in
circulation. On a systemic level, this single type of money is as harmful as
other monocultures. When the banks fail, the economy fails.
A key consideration for the Green New Deal is that creating different types of currencies could eliminate the artificial scarcity built into the money issued by banks.
Diversifying the types of
money in circulation would mean adding public currencies and complementary
currencies to the mix. A key consideration for the Green New Deal is that
creating different types of currencies could eliminate the artificial scarcity
built into the money issued by banks. We can have enough money for everything.
We just need different kinds of money. There are already examples of complementary currencies which are used for food, time, care,
carbon, data, and small businesses that don’t require bank money to provide a
means of exchange to meet these needs. If every currency couldn’t be used to
buy everything, this also reduces risks of inflation and accelerating
Monopoly. The laws that require all debts and taxes to be paid in a
particular currency (like the Federal Reserve dollars in the U.S.) give the
banks a monopoly on money issuance. We need to break the monopoly the private
banks have on the money we use and accept public and complementary currencies for debts and taxes. Cryptocurrencies threaten banking monopolies
but are still private currencies purchased with bank money. A truly public
cryptocurrency accepted for taxes does not yet exist.
The systemic impacts of
the current monetary regime have been well-documented in a report to
the European Club of Rome by my late colleague, Bernard Lietaer, and others. In
brief, these are 1) amplification of the boom and bust cycles, 2) short-term
thinking, 3) compulsory growth, 4) concentration of wealth, and 5) devaluation
of social capital. All of these exacerbate social and economic inequality,
climate change, and other harmful environmental degradation. It is not
sufficient to address these problems piecemeal, the solutions we propose must be
socially and economically just as well as enabling a safe, healthy, and
biodiverse environment. If we change the monetary system, we can transcend the
values money has warped which now lead us to human extinction. We can change
Gwendolyn Hallsmith is an author, musician, and activist who lives in an ecovillage she founded in Vermont. She writes and sings about sustainable communities and the new economy.
 This is not to say that valuing trees in money is even appropriate.
They produce the air we breathe, they protect the water we drink, they offer
shade and food and solace. To reduce them and the rest of nature to a dollar
value is the main step that leads to economic exploitation, environmental
degradation, climate change, and species extinction.
food and agriculture in the Green New Deal?
Our food system is inextricably linked with
the climate crisis in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Agriculture is responsible
for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions and the result, climate change, goes
on to disrupt reliable food production. To combat climate change, we must shift
how we produce, distribute, consume, and dispose of food. To adapt to climate
change, we must build agricultural systems that are resilient to disruption. The
timeliness of this move was evident recently as a national coalition of farmers
and ranchers endorsed
the Green New Deal.
The Green New Deal mentions
food in broad strokes. Its focus is on consumers obtaining food, which the bill
says can be supported “by building a more sustainable food system that ensures
universal access to healthy food.” The bill’s strength is in its acknowledgement
of systemic injustices wrought on marginalized groups, and its goal for a “fair
and just transition” to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. If these strengths
are built into eventual policy mechanisms, they should influence not only food
quality and access, but all levels of the food chain.
Green New Deal must address capitalism’s food problems through goal-oriented,
Underlying many ills of our food system is
the sometimes unexpected truth that a rational agricultural system is incompatible
with capitalism. This is because the goals of healthy agriculture and the goals
of capitalism are diametrically opposed. When capitalism’s logic governs
agriculture, it affects all manner of management systems, making it difficult
or impossible to implement ecological or humane practices that might decrease
short-term profit margins. It also results in the kinds of outcomes the GND
seeks to remedy: hunger surrounded by abundance, unnecessary waste, the
systemic injustice of farmer displacement,
labor abuses, and fossil fuel use.
Therefore, GND food policies should begin
with identifying the overarching goals, because the goals of a system are some
of the most powerful leverage
points for change. All policy mechanisms should be guided and tested
against the vision of a “just transition,” and it would be useful to identify
sub-goals that support a just
transition—for example, climate change mitigation; climate change resilience;
an adequately fed and nourished human population; pay parity and economic
justice for farmers; healthy and diverse agroecosystems; etc.
Does “efficiency” change if we alter the timescale, i.e. if we think about resource efficiency in terms of decades or centuries, rather than single-year yields?
Similarly, during policy discussions, it is
useful to question goals we might accidentally take for granted. For example,
why do we need highly “efficient” agricultural production as it relates to
labor? Does efficiency in this sense compete with goals of reduced fossil fuel
use, biodiverse agriculture, or widespread employment? Does “efficiency” change
if we alter the timescale, i.e. if we think about resource efficiency in terms
of decades or centuries, rather than single-year yields? This process point can
help avoid implementing policies that recreate problems driven by assumed,
rather than intentionally adopted, goals.
Finally, GND policy discussions must
incorporate, not ignore, the historical context of our current food system. Our
food system is built on systematic wealth accumulation
and the dispossession and cultural erasure of marginalized people in the United
States. For GND policies to be “just,” they must account for and begin to
reverse these patterns. To ensure that outcomes have integrity, and that mechanisms
are well-crafted, policies must be developed directly
with farmers, food systems workers, sustainability experts, and social justice
advocates. As the Agroecology Research-Action Collective reminds us, “…the Green New Deal will only succeed if it
helps rapidly eliminate the fossil-fuel economy, and transforms industrialized
agriculture into agroecological, regenerative agriculture, with special
attention to rural communities and inclusion of historically marginalized, and
socially disadvantaged groups.”
goal-aligned solution: Basic Income for farmers
One solution, in line with a just
transition in food and agriculture, is basic income for farmers. “Universal
basic income,” recently brought into mainstream debate by Democratic
presidential candidate Andrew Yang,
is a monthly stipend provided by the government to all citizens. While there is
a compelling argument for UBI for everybody, basic income may be critical for especially
for agriculture. Proponents of UBI argue that one of its essential functions is
allowing people freedom
to make choices based on what they truly want or need in life, without
potential financial crisis dictating their options. For people who work in agriculture,
that freedom is the freedom to farm.
Farmers in the United States are in historic
levels of debt. In order to make enough money to continue, many farmers
have to expand their farms—regardless of whether it is a sustainable or
desirable choice—which usually means building or purchasing expensive
infrastructure and equipment. The result is a race to increase profit margins
and pay down debt, often prohibiting farmers from making choices based on land
stewardship or care for workers. Over half of American farms earn negative
income, losing more than they make, and rely on off-farm income for
There is increasing recognition that agroecology, the science of farming in tune with local ecosystems, is one way forward for just and sustainable food systems. But in the United States, where land is expensive, industrial agriculture subsidized, environmental regulations minimal, and parity pricing absent, it can be economically untenable for people to start agroecological farms in a rabidly capitalist system. Young farmers interested in raising sustainable, healthy food cannot make enough money to do so.
Thus, a basic income would be a way for people to produce food without needing to exploit themselves, their employees, or their land. (India recently announced that it will be providing UBI for farmers, expecting it to double farmer incomes.) Anyone working in agriculture should be eligible for this support, without making distinctions between farm owners and farm workers. Because up to half of farmworkers are undocumented, this policy would likely necessitate a corresponding reform in immigration policy, at least for the food sector, as put forth recently by the Sanders Campaign’s Green New Deal plan. It is also possible that another aspect of food justice—access to fresh and healthy foods, mentioned in the GND—would also benefit from basic income for farmers, by supporting agricultural livelihoods without astronomically raising the cost of their products.
Basic income would be one step toward creating safety for people who want to farm but lack financial security.
Furthermore, a basic income begins to address historic injustice. Reversing the trends of land theft and ongoing dispossession in the food system is difficult for many reasons, one of them being that farmers from marginalized communities do not have access to the same wealth, credit, and financial safety nets of more privileged farmers. Basic income would be one step toward creating safety for people who want to farm but lack financial security.
Yang’s UBI proposal, the “Freedom Dividend,” is $1,000 per month. This might not be enough for farmers. The Freedom Dividend is designed with the idea that it will encourage people to find jobs to supplement UBI that alone keeps them at the poverty line. But farmers already have jobs. We need a debate among stakeholders about the benefits of parity pricing—ensuring farmers are paid enough to cover their costs and living expenses—versus basic income, in terms of allowing farmers to stop overproducing to cover their debt, and make both environmentally and socially sustainable management choices. A just level for farmers might instead be the living wage for their area.
Other social programs that could make
farming, and sustainable farming in particular, a more viable option: free
childcare, free health care, free education, and a guaranteed farming pension. The
latter could allow farmers to keep their land in agriculture, rather than selling
it to cover retirement costs.
The bottom line: anyone growing food for
other people, especially if they are growing it in ecologically-sound ways, should
be able to provide for themselves and their employees. If we want to make
sustainable farming desirable, viable, and just, we must support it by reorienting
policy to support such worthy goals.
Caitlin Bradley Morgan is a doctoral candidate in Food Systems at
the University of Vermont, studying the intersection of on-the-ground efforts
and wider systems change.
We had to start somewhere so we decided we would start from the beginning. From birth.
Let us first track who we are, I mean, exactly who we are, what we can do, or what we could do with some training.
We don’t have access to energy credits, that’s something we all have in common. And we live outside of the inside. Sounds kind of silly, outside of the inside, but English is not my language and I don’t know how to write it in a better way. Almost none of us have English as our mother tongue, but English is anyway the language we use every day here. Not so strange as this is a community of almost ten thousand people with more than a hundred (old) nationalities represented … The second language, quite unexpectedly but fortunately—and the tendency is clear as I see it—is becoming Lule Sámi, or julevsámegiella, the language of our hosts: the Sámi people of Jokkmokk. But the purpose of this message is to communicate our strategy to other outside communities all around the world, so English is the best choice.
Our strategy is, oh, it sounds very big to call it a strategy. I would fit better to say our first step. Yes. Our first step.
Our first step is to organize the safety of the births, of giving birth and of being born, the mum’s and the child’s perspective, health and well-being. How to handle it here on the outside? Most of the births go well with not much intervention, but “most of the births” still leaves lots of births in the risky zone, and we wanted to improve that.
You’ll find the technical and medical details in the attached file: a cost effective, low-tech and energy saving procedure, with ideas and input from doctors and nurses from more than ten (of the old) countries. In the other attached document, you’ll find the financial and organizational aspects of the project, the first act of our taking-back-the-public-services agenda.
– Alex, Alberto, Magda, Ibtisam, Ahmed, Rebecka, Eva! The text is almost ready, attachments included. Who wants to check my English? Alooo? Somebody at home? No? Really? Nobody at home? First time ever. Let’s have a look on the second floor. Somebody here? Ups! Yes, Alex and little Nico. Alex sleeping like a baby and you, Nico, awake with your eyes wide open, as if today were the first day of your life. Well, that was not so long ago, the first day of your life. You’re not older than a month, are you? Time flies. It feels that it was yesterday, but at the same time it feels like you’ve always been here. What are you looking at? What are you looking at? Do you like my glasses? Yes, they are red, like your trousers. Come with me to the kitchen so Alex can continue in sleeping mode. Let’s see if the cat is in the kitchen. We’re alone: you, me, Alex and maybe, just maybe, the cat. Where’s everybody? Do you know where everybody is? I’m sure they’ve told you where they’ve gone, but you’re not saying a word. And I’m sure they’ve also told me, but you know how distracted I am. Maybe we’ll find some clue written in the calendar in the kitchen? Oh yes, oh no! how could I forget that? And why didn’t anybody tell me? Of course, nobody told me because I’m always saying that I don’t like to be disturbed when I’m writing, especially if I’m writing in the basement with the door closed. But anyway, they should have told me! The Vidsel Test R.I.P., Nico, the day when we celebrate the closure of Vidsel Test Range. It seemed impossible to achieve, but we managed, somehow, we managed, and the big military companies finally left the area: no more bombs, no more tests with scary airplanes flying in the blue spring skies. We’re on the outside, yes, but this is becoming a good place to be outsiders. And maybe someday, maybe someday when you’re, I don’t know, twenty or twenty-five years old? Maybe then we’ll regain the access to the river, the river that is now controlled by the insiders and their obsession with energy resources. Or who knows, maybe we’ll not need to wait that long. Nico, what are you looking at? The window? The sun and the snow? Oh, that’s a fox. And here is Ninina, being a cat as usual. And you’re a little kid. Yes, you are. The first kid born in the new Birth House. You’ll be happy to hear about that when you are old enough to understand what that means. You know what? I’ve heard stories about the babies that are born on the inside, how they measure everything, and constantly! with thousands of tables of optimal progressions, graphs and percentiles left and right, up and down, and that was some years ago, who knows what they’re measuring nowadays. Don’t misunderstand me. Measuring in itself is not a bad thing, but getting obsessed with measurements is almost a disease, a disease that nobody is measuring. I guess they measure so much because they’re afraid. Afraid of life, afraid of death, afraid of things that they can’t control. And we? I mean, and I? Am I afraid too? Well, to an extent indeed I am. But there’s so many things that we can’t control, here on the outside, that finally you stop being afraid, there’s no point. And you never know when something bad can turn into something good, or even really good. Look at you! I remember how sad we were when the avalanche destroyed our house in Kvikkjokk. Luckily no one was injured but we needed a new place to live. We found this house, our house now, your house as well; this beautiful house with beautiful people living on it, and it was then that your parents met each other. Did you know that? Did you know that they met here? And here you are, looking at me, demanding milk, and of course your nonexistence is inconceivable. I’ve not read much philosophy, but I would call it Axiom of existence. Ok, I get it, you are really hungry, but how lucky we are, there’s plenty of mum’s milk in the fridge. I’ll warm up 120 ml right now. And after your lunch I’ll play a song for you.
If the way you look at me is the look of future days If the lightness of your body, make us lighter If the joy of being still with you sleeping in our arms Is a joy that is contagious and incurable.
I will tell you all the fables that I could someday forget I will walk with you to lakes that still are hidden I will sing a thousand songs, I will talk with you in words From the language that was used by our ancestors And you tell me, that you’re hungry.
Not afraid of the ruins of the city that is gone Not afraid of the future that has perished ‘Cos for you those would be stories, just some legends from the past Like the Holy Roman Empire or the Soviet.
And surrounded by the whiteness of the boreal spring And the quietness of the snow that still is falling With the firewood on the fireplace and the rocking chair for us It is time for you to eat, for me to wonder Such an energy, when you’re hungry.
Photo and recording by the author.
Miguel Ganzo Mateo is a Spanish writer and songwriter who works as a math teacher in a secondary school in southern Sweden. In 2018 he published the novel Sesenta metros cuadrados (Sixty square meters), and with the short story “Birth”he returns to Jokkmokk, the area in northern Sweden where the novel takes place. More info at www.miguelganzomateo.com.
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
Welcome to the last newsletter of the decade! That’s right, we’re taking a break in December, to recalibrate and recharge. We’ve been running our monthly reading list for almost two years now, and nearly 1,000 of you seem to find it useful, so we’re excited to continue providing you with news and analysis in 2020. See you next year!
Uneven Earth updates
The technical assistant | Link | It had been a long time since human hands had touched grain bins
Trade governance will make or break the Green New Deal | Link | How the GND could, should, must redefine “protectionism” and transform international trade
Rethinking education for the Green New Deal | Link | Governance for an eco-centered curriculum—or not?
Down Maria | Link | There was only one prisoner left, and he would not live forever
Against economics. “Any new, viable science will either have to draw on the accumulated knowledge of feminism, behavioral economics, psychology, and even anthropology to come up with theories based on how people actually behave, or once again embrace the notion of emergent levels of complexity—or, most likely, both.”
Under the paving stones, a vegetable garden. Joëlle Zask explores how greening citizenship – through cultivation practices – offers an opportunity for self-government which may just restore this relationship to one of perpetual regeneration rather than mutually destructive exploitation.
I died the way farm children used to die, suffocating at the
bottom of a grain elevator. My last breaths were cut by corn kernels dried to
commodity grade 15 percent moisture. It was not a work accident. It had been a
long time since human hands had touched grain bins. Remote-controlled tractors
and robotic machinery performed the entirety of production. But human labor
still existed in concentrated pockets across the vast agricultural expanse,
exhausted and exploited in climate-controlled slaughterhouses. The lives of the
slaughterers persisted only marginally longer than those of the cows and hogs.
Due to a rapid rise in evapotranspiration rates it was now too hot to maintain
the corn and soybean plants that had dominated the landscape during my
childhood. New forms of GM-adapted sorghum had replaced corn. Cotton fields
stretched northward towards the Canadian border. Motivated by land prices and
cooler temperatures, stockyards had moved to the tundra. In a stretch of dire
years before the large relocations, catastrophic heat waves had caused massive
cattle die-offs. Gates swung listlessly and feeding pens crumbled with rust and
faded paint. Traveling across the production zone, piles of skeletons the size
of garbage dumps lay bleached by the sun. The calcareous heaps in the brown
dust mimicked the shimmery mirages of buffalo bones in the 1850s, a time when
bookish boys from the East Coast would venture West to join in ritual slaughter
with frontiersman. These were the idealistic foot soldiers of Indian removal
treaties authored in Washington living rooms. The youth mindlessly constructed
immense piles of desiccated vertebras, femurs, and skulls that gleamed like
mirages in the boundless prairie. For several months the mob of maggots,
buzzards, and coyotes was so thick that the carcasses would be invisible, a
crawling mass of decomposers and parasites enshrouding the slain buffalo.
A long time ago. Not really long ago at all. Periods of killing
separated by other moments. Without future, without sense.
Most visitors were now agri-tourists taking an air-conditioned
trip to the evacuated, sticky cotton wastelands of central Iowa or southwestern
Minnesota1. The clientele were mostly sad, bland men on ostensibly
‘morale boosting’ work trips traversing the landscapes of their grandfathers,
celebrating the progressive depopulation and acceleration into remote
management from tech centers. With the right credentials, they could move
seamlessly among Bismarck, Santiago, and Nairobi. Apart from the flavorful
decoration of local customs and the recreational offerings beyond the expansive
slums, hyper-connectivity and global capital created interchangeable,
interconnected, and identical spaces. The trips – ‘historical encounters’,
‘rugged adventures’, ‘team-building retreats’ – pulled the transnational
merchants of machine-operated agriculture back to the soil. Their yearly ritual
honored the wit and sweat of their ancestors and the superiority of modern
science. The men would descend in the cooler months of October to April,
silently crawling through the rainy gray mud in repurposed military tanks
outfitted for luxury vacations. Inside the spacious cabins, the men kept tabs
on grain futures and their children’s drug rehab programs. They exercised in
pools and ate reheated cream of broccoli and ham dinners. The tanks stuck to
fixed tracks easily navigated by satellites that changed the course according
to weather and soil conditions. Occasionally they would pause to commemorate
the vacated homesteads, corn breeding laboratories, and tractor dealerships.
They never disembarked. The hazards were many – airborne pathogenic bacteria,
scorching temperatures, automated harvesters – and the men were simply
uninterested. It had been several generations since people walked outside, let
alone in the production zone.
I close my eyes and see the thin stalks of cotton plants,
leftover wisps along gravel roadsides. The overly ripe, chemical stench of
enzymatic digestion spilling from factories begins to make me nauseous. My
esophagus burns from the hydrochloric acid rising from my stomach. Each time I
try to roll over or prop myself up, the pit of corn shifts slightly and I sink
It is night and the pulsating light from nearby turbines creates
beams on the interior of the silo. The red light mixes with the silo’s neon
green elastomeric sealant to create a diffuse, sickly pink. My throat is dry
and I am still drunk from the night before. I push my face against the cold car
window, inhaling the pungent smoke curling from the front seat. The road is
dark and the headlights are off. We crawl along, at any turnout an immigration
checkpoint or patch of ice. Occasionally the car swerves to avoid deer fleeing
the early morning shots of the slaughterhouse supervisors and county sheriffs.
Cops and managers spend their vacation from their daily hunt to engage in a
recreational one. My body rejects its insides and a thin smear of shit drips
into my jeans. I roll onto my hip. I try to keep sleeping. We are headed
towards the brightening sky. I toss over, accept a smoke, feel it mix with
suspended ice crystals. Instantly my vision blackens. I vomit a slurry of mucus
and blood onto the truck floor beneath me. I take another drag. Why do I feel
so horny at moments of such total despair? I silently slip my hand under my
belt buckle, calmly touching myself. I am myopically groping, coughing,
squeezing, red, black, the faint beeping of a body cam, the flash of hazard
lights, the lingering hangover of solar retinopathy from a lifetime of
crushingly disappointing days spent wandering in and out of corn rows. I hear
the small talk of colleagues and peers recounting ‘trips up north’, cheerily
oblivious to the social turmoil, the policed meatpacking plants, the lurching
line of cars at shift change. The temperature oscillates between 10 degrees
below zero and 110 above. A trailer door clangs on its loose hinges at 4:30 AM.
At all hours, cars snake to and from the fortress of death. The miles and miles
of cattle chutes and rural traffic are visible from space, parallel traps
colliding. In the single grocery store people are whatsappeandocon sus tios
and if you want to see a doctor you need to video chat with them. It’s just
transnational company towns persisting on death.
From the bank buildings and boarded gas stations I see the
maniacal ghost of General Sheridan screaming, “Kill, skin, sell, until the
buffalo is exterminated, civilize!” Except what I hear is the optimistic voice
of a colleague at a remote research site documenting the silent extinction of
soil microbes and bubbling “innovate, digitize, synthesize”.
I breathe in, cough and ingest bits of corn. A few I manage to spit out, others stay lodged in my throat. I am conscious of the small cuts the corn are making and wonder I have ever fully inhabited a reality. My mind wanders and I spit shards of corn in the place of memory. It had all been part of a plan, botched or misunderstood, that ultimately led me to sliding under barbed wire and towards the grain bin. The last grain bin, I guess. I had momentarily glanced at a text message on a burner phone at a lurid bar on the outskirts of Des Moines where the protected bubble cracked into fields of outdated farm machinery and trailers. Tidal pools of time colliding and mixing together across minute distances. All the surfaces of the bar were covered in screens. Years ago, a previous owner had ambitiously converted the private lap-dancing booths into VIP VR clubs with bottle service. Now, only the truly desperate used the cum-smeared headsets to momentarily get off. Wisps of peanut shells littered the floor. Maybe there had been a plan or maybe the excitement of moving the wrong direction in the grid and feeling the scrape of roadside plants against my softened, alcohol-soaked skin had brought me this far. Driving along crop rows desperately hunting for a pocket of loose gravel along an unplanned curve, a rotting hog carcass, but never anything of the sort.
A muscular man, maybe 70 years old and sweaty, reeking from days
spent slurping warm cans of Natural Ice grabs my arm and tells me about being
19, heading to a state college in a larger farming town. He performed a few
Tennessee Williams plays in a drama class. And then? Now I’m sitting next to
you, kid. He slides his thick fingers over my city wrists and I want to lick
the pooled, boozy sweat from his cheekbones and the folds of his neck. I want
to suck the rows and rows of a single crop and the shiny leased truck and grain
futures out of him and spit it into a roadside ditch where mutated frogs croon
in painful harmony. But instead I lurch through hangovers pretending to visit
production sites, my own reconnaissance for a project I never got around to conceptualizing.
I’m a “technical assistant” and a cheap date for professors jostling for lunar
agricultural extension positions and cattle breeding jobs north of
Saskatchewan. We just pretend to breathe intention into this infernal heat,
competing for oxygen with the few remnants of life on the American prairie.
corn dust seeps into my eyelids, maddeningly itchy. Unable to move, I see
myself from the rafters, receding into the mass of kernels and mycelial decay.
I am being silently engulfed while my immobile flesh writhes inside. Was there
a time when I actually managed to taste his sweat? Only a few disjointed images
remain. I remember a few scenes from a summer long past when hordes rendered
air-conditioned tractors inoperable across the fields. Night-time break-ins,
fucking, pants bunched around ankles and work boots, enjoying the burn of
neonicotoid seed coating transferred from fingers to genitals and into the wet
interiors of our bodies. We shivered and spasmed and secretly smashed GPS units
and automatic steering controls. What else did I suppress as I amnesically
descended into the safe blinders of the scientific project?
I struggle to breath and become hypoxic. I can’t keep my eyes
open. I am in an airport where the walls are crawling with advertisements for
FieldVision, a cloud computing software extolling the virtues of digital
liberation for rural African farmers. Images of peasants in their cotton and
bean fields are flashed at airport travelers. The colors are inverted. Bright
red crops emerge from an indigo soil, bloody stalks moving rhythmically in a
Suddenly the distinctions of the cloud and the terminal and the
field all disintegrate. The contradictions maintained in virtual space spill
out onto the clean airport corridors. Glyphosate runs through automatic soda
machines and the stained soils overflow from computer projections and onto
runways. A swirling dust storm descends. Eager vacationers, blistering scalps
covered in corn-rows, are stranded on runways far from their securitized
enclaves in suburban Atlanta. The orgiastic celebration of a thinly-veiled seizure of generational
assets and communal modes of exchange. Apps that allow insurance companies to
seep into shared life from the moments of planting and harvest to the deepest
imagined intimacy. But now one could see the nefarious data pathways lighting
the night sky, an acre of corn equalized as a particular data bit to be spent
on Adderall or ski vacations in Dubai.
I can’t fucking breathe and the dust creates the deafening
sensation of tinnitus in my ears. I crave a bump of cocaine underneath a bronze
bust of Norman Borlaug. I want a strapping, bald geneticist to lightly tickle
my prostrate while he bubbles bubblegum breath about gene assays and actionable
partnerships. Each corn kernel surrounding my appendages becomes an
enthusiastic conference-goer draped in lanyards. Pack your bags and roll up your posters! Plant-based jet fuel
spews into the skies to transport the pragmatic, hard-working intellectual
class to the massive annual Conference. I trip on a teal
carpet unable to tell the moving walkway apart from
the hordes of pale legs stuffed into dress pants and
power suits. It’s fall in Florida and a hurricane warning has been issued outside.
Winds lash at stormproof windows but the concrete bunker is impervious to
climatic forces except for the drip-drip-drip from the ceilings. The noise of
thousands of dress shoes splorching across saturated carpets interrupt dry presentations on amalgamating
Big Data for on-farm precision. Buckets overflow with tepid water warmed by the
carbonated, dead oceans. The miasma of whale carcasses competes with the stench
of Yankee Candle sour apple wafting through the HVAC system. My eyes tear and
then bleed, the slides disappearing behind the flicker of lights.
Announcements sputter overhead to ONLY TAKE UNDERGROUND TUNNELS, TIKI BAR ON 3RD FLOOR CLOSED, SEVERE WEATHER WARNING but no-one seems to notice. People are in solution space. People are connecting. People are outlining meta-analyses. People are eating $18 pre-made tuna salad shipped in from a warehouse in Elizabeth, New Jersey. People are solving global problems. Weather insurance companies sponsor the meetings, host wine and cheese dinners, and raffle off vacations to gated mountainous islands where waves lap against the remnants of colonial fortresses, reclaiming fossilized rock. Underwater, the progressive myth of science reverts into a bubbling heap of pre-Cambrian forms metamorphosed into hydrocarbon. The gyre quickens. Trade booths advertise fertilizer sourced from seawater plastics. Scientists figure out new ways to accelerate the production of more calories. Extra soybeans are transported to coastal communities to fill sandbags stymying storm surges. Corn is pulverized and spread across icy highways and runways. Critical studies sub-committees have a place here too. Underground conference halls full of students exercise critique as normalization, critique as diverse viewpoint, critique as long as it is well-compensated and well-fed.
Science’s chief achievements are the consumption of artisanal
cheeses and lukewarm Tinder hook-ups in the suburban hotels of sinking cities.
At the Conference, the most valuable currency is verbally
promoting the pathological Project of keeping the landscape clean and
controlled. Science’s chief achievements are the consumption of artisanal
cheeses and lukewarm Tinder hook-ups in the suburban hotels of sinking cities.
Students churn out studies on the contingent social basis of markets and the
long-term impacts of conflict on female productivity. Thousands of technicians
and masterminds, well-versed and brilliant, pontificate on polyurethane
adhesion, lumber quality, and winches and grommets, except the ship has already
sunk to the bottom of a toxic, turbulent sea, and the oxygen is running out.
Numb hands flail at substance. Resilience is the constant buzzword.
Resilience for breakfast. Resilience for lunch. Resilience shapeshifts. A
perfect ideological match for a capitalism tunneling through chaos, briefly
adapting and consuming. A notion, a reference, a vocabulary in which the entire
terrain of life can be collapsed. Static Newtonian physical models, state-based
ecological energy flows, the tight cybernetic machinations of Cold War game
theory giving way to complexity science, Big Data, machine learning normalizing
the juxtaposition of slums drowning in saline wastewater and claw-foot tubs filled with reverse osmosis inside
high-rise condos, the chaotic dynamism of the market, and the wealth of
possibilities under mutant ecosystems well-guarded by planetary surveillance,
yuppie urban regeneration, microloans, and participatory soil health solutions
all tagged as ‘resilience’ to cloak the totalitarianism, economic precarity, the meaningless waiting game between no
possibility and worst possibility.
As the elevator’s thick sea of grain engulfs the last parts of my body, the pressure creates a near boiling slime against my skin. I am rotting. The ink from my tattoos are infected and bubbling beneath pale skin. Threadbare jeans, the last beads of hypersaline sweat, cells atrophying. Or maybe a longer, more comfortable death. Hemorrhoidal discomfort while listening to slide shows on statistical regressions and machine learning revolutions to explore microbiological frontiers. Eating bland meals alone night after night, scrolling through transgressive online articles and YouTube grindcore channels and wringing my hands at the ever-constricted lives of what I used to call friends, confidants. Cops, parking tickets, skyrocketing rents in toxic cities, living gloriously defaulting on financial obligations stealing time esoteric wormholes and throaty kisses. On the other side sleepless nights hollowly masturbating chafed skin while working on a model to capture stochastic variability in soil bacterial populations, fried dinners at the craft breweries sponging up the un-taste of the new urban middle class. But now I’m just choking, having wandered off, it feels so small in here.
A. Smoothness flails in the academy by day and plays saxophone by night. He squandered most of his twenties in rural and urban parts of the West and Midwest and now lives in New York City. Most days, A. Smoothness dreams about the Cloud vaporizing in boiling seawater, mass cellular disintegration as collective politics, and saving money for drugs by cannibalizing Mark Zuckerberg for dinner. Some musical collages can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/repeatoffender
‘The food that you buy will all be grown locally,’ says policy director at New Consensus, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, in a Vox video. This is stated simply, as an aspect of what it will be like to live in the time of a Green New Deal (GND). Yet it represents a fundamental challenge to international trade governance in ways that must be addressed if the GND is to be successful.
Green New Deals are currently being developed across Europe and North America, with policy initiatives ranging from regional to state to national levels. These Green New Deals vary in their details, but are generally an attempt to rally governments to address climate change, as opposed to letting the deregulated ‘free market’ decide if or which humans will survive the Anthropocene. GNDs are a forceful recognition that governments have a mandate to respond to the existential needs of the populace. In February of 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced a resolution to recognize the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal. It asserts that by 2030, the US needs to become a net-zero emissions economy, and to do this, a combination of green tech, ecological restoration, targeted growth in localizing economies and targeted degrowth in particular sectors of the economy need to all be undertaken together.
The language in the resolution is intentionally non-specific to leave room for interpretation and flexibility, yet that has not stopped conservative and centrist voices from calling it economically impractical. Others caution that the GND may be mere greenwashing of the current status quo. What is notable is that the Resolution chooses to emphasize economic security as opposed to economic growth. These are not the same thing at all. While the resolution could be read to be growth focused, it can also be read as a degrowth transition document—allowing for certain sectors to be targeted for growth but reducing the emissions of other sectors dramatically. The one place where economic development is promoted is in directing investment towards ‘deepening and diversifying industry and business in local regional economies’. And this is where trade governance comes in. To develop local economies with the goal of lessening emissions in trade is to effectively dismantle the international web of supply chains, and by extension, the current international trade regime.
To develop local economies with the goal of lessening emissions in trade is to effectively dismantle the international web of supply chains, and by extension, the current international trade regime.
local and regional economies would require a change from the ways in which our
local economies function today. Nearly half of all global production today is
destined for international trade. The food, goods, and services we use every day
overwhelmingly come from farms and factories and call centres around the world,
and government attempts to change this won’t go unanswered by the corporations
that feel the effects of a changing economic climate. National and regional
attempts to change the way that economic activity happens in local contexts
have been regularly shut down through a process of investor
state dispute resolution provisions, because these initiatives violate current
international trade rules. In countries all over the world, if local or
national policies appear to prevent a corporation from accessing a market—that
is, selling their product ‘competitively’—that corporation can sue the
government in question in the court at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The way that
international trade happens today is both intentional by policy design and also
particularly emissions intensive. The emissions from export-oriented production
in the world economy are rising faster than global GDP, contributing to
absolute increases of emissions over time. Yes, per capita GDP has risen
around the world with the increases in international trade, but so too has
social inequality and environmental degradation, correlations that major trade
organizations admit are concerning.
Resolution calls for “enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement
standards, and border adjustments with strong labor and environmental
protections to stop the transfer of jobs and pollution overseas; and to grow
domestic manufacturing in the United States”. Internet commentators have pointed out
the problems this would
create with trade agreements and global trade governance, but they’ve missed
the explicit framing of climate change as a national security threat: ‘by
impacting the economic, environmental, and social stability of countries and
communities around the world.’ This
framing may offer insight into the policy pathway to enact such a challenging
task as relocalizing economies through policy as suggested by the GND. Article
XX and XXI of the General
Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the core international trade governance
document, allows for nations to be exempt from the free trade mandate if they
are protecting the environment within their borders (though this is often hit
or miss) or for reasons of national security. By declaring in the Green New
Deal resolution that climate change is a national security issue, not just for
the USA, but for many countries, we can envision a policy pathway to defend
iterations of the GND at the WTO court of appeals.
A climate policy must change the way that the global economy works if it is to be successful, but if a policy is effective enough to disrupt global trade, it will violate global trade rules.
However, if we
now enter into a world of global climate change discourse framed primarily as a national security issue,
this threatens to entrench the military and security sectors at the very moment
that people are calling for their drawing down. This also potentially has the
power to challenge the fundamental mandate of the WTO, because economic growth
through free flow of trade across borders is their goal, and emissions are intimately tied
to GDP in today’s trade regime. The broad goal of indiscriminate growth in the
world economy is incompatible with the goals of the GND, and with climate
policy in general. It is an important climate policy paradox: a climate policy
must change the way that the global economy works if it is to be successful
(because decoupling of GDP and emissions is a mere myth), but if a policy is effective
enough to disrupt global trade, it will violate global trade rules. If the
relocalization of economies as proposed in the GND can be defended at the WTO
appellate court on climate change as national security grounds, this argument
is theoretically available to any country or state or municipality, which would
render the WTO useless in managing trade in climate policy contexts. And
because we have waited so long to act on climate change, almost everything will
be within a climate change context from now on.
The trade and
relocalization goals of the GND cannot be achieved without fundamentally challenging
the mandate of the WTO, and today’s international trade regime oriented toward
free trade and economic growth. This scenario is not a complete victory for those
who protest free trade agreements, nor is it a universe-ender for those working
in the WTO offices in Geneva (or elsewhere). It must be seen as an opportunity
to ask what an international trade regime would look like if it were oriented
towards ecological futurity. If the GND is successful in changing the way that
international trade works without being clear about how, why, and who should be
part of future international trade governance, we risk instability and power
accumulation. We must not allow the inevitable clash between the GND and the
international trade regime to be an unanticipated crisis. Planning for a GND at
any scale must include larger visions for an international trade regime in
which protectionism is actively redefined. Right now, protectionism means
protecting domestic industry and interests, and language in the GND Resolution
echoes this. But protectionism could and should reflect the goals of the GND
itself, envisioning international trade governance in which protection of
ecological integrity, well-being, and justice are the focus.
We must not allow the inevitable clash between the GND and the international trade regime to be an unanticipated crisis.
The Green New
Deals around the world have the seeds of change within them; they are ambitious
and important. But we must acknowledge that a new international trade
governance approach is integral to any national or international Green New
Deals. For the food we eat to be grown locally, we are going to have to do
nothing less than restructure the global economy. Best to know this going in.
Shaun Sellers is a PhD Student at McGill University,
studying ecological economics and trade theory.
The Green New Deal seeks expansive changes for society, from climate change mitigation to job creation. Education reform, while certainly not the focus, is also included, particularly in advocating for free higher education for all people who wish it. As stated in the 2019 United States House Resolution 109, which outlines the ambitions of the Green New Deal, society must provide ’resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education’.
Certainly, progressive movements in many
nations are fighting for free, or at least affordable, higher education. However,
it is in the lower levels of education—primary and secondary school—that change
is most vital in working toward the vision of the Green New Deal. After all,
younger generations will face direr consequences of climate change. In fact,
youth are one of the ‘frontline and vulnerable communities’ discussed in the
Green New Deal House Resolution. Young people are leading the climate
movement—see Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future school strikes. A truly
transformative Green New Deal must be for and by the youth.
One may envision a classroom in a nation that embraces the Green New Deal with students being taught a government approved, eco-centered curriculum with a strong climate justice component.
The Green New Deal strives to put the government in charge of providing more social services, including government-funded healthcare and job training. But an important but largely undiscussed question for Green New Deal advocates is: What role should government policy play in determining what is taught in classrooms? One may envision a classroom in a nation that embraces the Green New Deal with students being taught a government approved, eco-centered curriculum with a strong climate justice component. Some may see this as a good way of creating the citizens needed for the current and future state of the world. To others, this would be an unacceptable overreach of government influence. Certainly, governments already influence primary and secondary school curricula as it is. Even where states do not control classroom content, teachers must still shape their lessons to standardized examinations. The Green New Deal’s vision may lean toward even greater influence, however.
In this piece, I do not take a stance regarding
the ideal role of government in education. Rather, I offer examples to open a
critical dialogue on the topic among proponents of the Green New Deal. As
discussed below, governments could influence lower education indirectly by
simply increasing access or more directly by ensuring accurate information, by reformulating
disciplines and, most controversially, by setting moral education.
Indirect influence on lower education in the Green New Deal
Even without targeting what is taught in
classrooms, the Green New Deal can still have a strong influence in the school
system and the lessons that are imparted to students. For instance, by offering
affordable daycare and preschool, more young children could be exposed to the
education system. Increasing access to early education would also increase the
diversity of preschools. Putting kids from different races, classes, and even
countries together early on in life could instill a greater multicultural spirit.
Of course, this requires well-trained teachers who can ensure that students of
different backgrounds are not marginalized or bullied.
Factual content and teaching students to think
If one believes the government should play a role
in what is taught in the classroom, the least controversial target may be
ensuring that the content taught in classrooms is supported by science. Curriculum
on climate change, for example, should be evidence-based. Unfortunately, as discussed in a National Research Council workshop on
climate change and education, some teachers do not teach climate change as it
is considered too controversial and others feel pressure to teach ‘both sides’
of the issue.
Science education should move beyond facts and figures and teach students how to reason.
More generally, science education should move
beyond facts and figures and teach students how to reason. In fact, critical
thinking is important beyond the sciences. In a world where people on both the right
and left call the other’s facts ‘Fake News,’ people need a cognitive toolbox to
evaluate the credibility of what they’re told. The internet, especially social
media, bombards kids with a plethora of claims every day. Students must learn
to wade through them and determine which are accurate.
For advocates of the Green New Deal, it is
vital to discuss not just the importance of having the right information in
school courses, but also potential policies to ensure this. This piece can not
delve into specific policies, but, in general terms, how teachers are trained would
be a good starting point.
If one is okay with government shaping the
classroom, one can move beyond content and target the disciplines themselves.
Which disciplines should be rethought and how can we change them? A movement of
university students, for example, calls for rethinking education in economics,
which has become dangerously separated from the knowledge of social and natural
sciences. However, these changes target adult students and experts. After all, economics,
whether mainstream, Marxist, ecological, or otherwise, is not a field
universally taught to elementary or high school students. And yet, it is at
these lower levels that the push for an ecological future must occur.
Just as ecology and our understanding of the biophysical planetary limits can help reformulate economics, however, so could the linking of academic disciplines be used to reform primary and secondary education. For instance, education on the history of developed nations could include a discussion of the environmental impacts of the industrial revolution. Another example is the Climate Change and Environmental Education (CCEE) curriculum, which incorporates environmentalism in all areas of study, emphasizing how the most vulnerable are disproportionally impacted by environmental degradation. Examples such as these show how reformulating disciplines can be achieved by connecting concepts that, until now, where segregated into their own disciplines. Governments could, in principle, bring these changes to much broader swaths of society by forcing all public schools to adopt them.
Education and morality
Even those who feel governments should play a strong role in what is taught in the classroom may balk at the idea that governments should determine which moral lessons should be taught in school. Moral education, it may be argued, should be taught in the home, not in the classroom. But morality is already a part of US education at the lower levels. Religious instruction and the Pledge of Allegiance (a standardized recital meant to express one’s allegiance to the nation) are cases in point, even if the former is meant to instill the morals that the students’ parents are assumed to already espouse and the latter is not necessarily mandatory.
Several examples from the previous sections show
how the current education system
already has a moral component. For instance, teaching acceptance of
students with different backgrounds helps develop empathy and inclusiveness. Teaching
about the global environmental impacts of industry, which disproportionately
target the most vulnerable in society, is unavoidably tied to the concept of
In many cases, moral education may simply mean
making the process more targeted and explicit. For instance, Child-Friendly Schools sometimes hold social cooperation
and conflict resolution activities and seek to instill a ‘respect for nature’
in their students. As another example, the Humane Education movement advocates for activities explicitly meant to
encourage empathy for others.
It will also hopefully stir a more general discussion on how much government influence proponents think an ideal Green New Deal should advocate in other fields, from healthcare to job training.
That morality is already inexorably tied to education does not mean that the government should be given a more expansive role in determining moral education in schools. There are always dangers in giving a central government too much control over its citizens, and this is particularly worrisome when its influence is related to young people. In terms of the Green New Deal, proponents must consider how expanding the influence of the government could have detrimental effects, particularly as the parties in power shift over time. Setting a precedent on how the government can intervene in education must be done with caution. There is no easy answer to the question of what role the government should play in determining what is taught in schools. A functioning Green New Deal proposal must wrestle with this issue and, hopefully, proponents can develop a position that is of benefit to both students and society in general.
Finally, while this piece focused on education, it will also hopefully stir a more general discussion on how much government influence proponents think an ideal Green New Deal should advocate in other fields, from healthcare to job training, and what such influence might mean to people needing those services, both now and in the future. It may even spark discussions for Green New Deal proponents on potential alternative modes of governance beyond centralized governmental control, both at the local, regional and international levels.
Gabriel Yahya Haage is a PhD candidate at the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University, Canada. His research focuses on freshwater systems and the methods of understanding water demands in the ecological, social and economic spheres.
The fence looked somehow smaller. Francis
was sure it was the same— standard chain-link and razor wire, and slightly faded “Australian
Government: Prohibited Area” signs every twenty-five metres. Yet smaller —if only in the scale
of the threat it promised, even if not in its physical dimensions. As their car
pulled up at the gate, he realised it wasn’t the fence that had changed, but
the entrance. The concrete strongpoint that had long guarded the only access route
had gone, replaced by a neatly painted weatherboard guardroom and a matching
sentry box by the barrier. They looked rather like they might be hired out for
low-budget historical movies.
However, the figure that emerged from the sentry box was not an extra
from a colonial scene, but an Australian Federal Police officer for whom
admitting their vehicle was clearly the highlight of an uneventful morning.
She chatted as she checked his and the
driver’s ID and filled in her register, so he felt bold enough to ask her,
‘What happened to the old bunker?’
The policewoman chuckled. ‘They broke it up last year. The plumbing was crook, and when they came to fix it, they realised some genius had laid the drains under the concrete base. No dunny, no guard house. So they thought they’d get ahead of the game and replace it with something that might be useful once the Island’s decommissioned. Been here before then?’
‘Yes. A few times.’ As he said the words,
Francis suddenly felt much older than could reasonably be attributed to the jet
lag he was still feeling. The truth was that he had been here twelve times in
twenty years. The Island had become a constant in his life, a destination of
strange, regular pilgrimage, as he travelled from London to this prison island at
the ends of the Earth. And now the block house was gone, and they were thinking
ahead to shutting up shop. Of course they were. There was only one prisoner
left, and he would not live forever. But where did that leave Francis?
‘Better get going.’ said the
policewoman. ‘Boat’s leaving
He could have kissed her for breaking that
particular train of thought.
Francis O’Riordan was sixty-five years old.
Almost exactly. In fact, one of the particular benefits of this trip had been
the chance it offered to spend his birthday with his daughter Annie and her
family in Melbourne, a day of joyfully befuddled celebration that had started
as soon as his grandchildren saw him walking out of the arrivals gate at the
airport. The pleasure of seeing the children and Annie was intense, driving out
all the fatigue of his long journey, and punctuated only occasionally by the
stabbing pain of the remembrance that his wife Sylvie would never see them
again. This wasn’t like his other trips to or from the Island, stopping to see
Annie on the way, knowing that her mother was safely but jealously back in
London, waiting to hang on Francis’ every word describing their growing band of
grandchildren. Now Sylvie was
dead, and when the official government flight eventually took him back to
Heathrow, he would return to an empty house, with no one to tell about the
rampaging horde of hooligans clattering around the old rectory on the other
side of the world. He had lain awake that night in a dry river of grief, from
which he had thought he had escaped months earlier. Only the clank and crash of the first tram of the morning in
the Melbourne street outside had returned him gratefully to the world of the
There was no space for grief the following
night, as an angry Bass Strait crossing focused every waking thought on not
losing the rather good dinner Francis had unwisely tucked into before the ferry
had left its moorings in Melbourne.
The next morning, he had slept for most of the train ride from
Devonport, waking as the train slowed to cross the Derwent on its way into
Hobart’s northern suburbs. His tiredness and sadness were gone, his mind clear
now. He spent the afternoon re-reading the case files he had brought with him
from London, and reviewing the prison intelligence and psychologists’ reports
that had awaited him at his Hobart hotel. O’Riordan had time to attend choral
evensong at St. David’s Cathedral before enjoying a deep and uninterrupted
sleep. Next day, the journey out to Triabunna was a pleasure to him – the
paddocks green from the winter’s rains, and the rolling hillsides of forest
rich and deeply shadowed in the spring sunshine.
So the realisation that the work of the
Island might slowly and inexorably be coming to an end —and with it, his own
relationship with this place —was deeply jarring. Francis couldn’t help but feel angry with
himself for not having considered the obvious possibility that this might be
his last trip to the Island. This bad mood was still with him as the catamaran
docked at Darlington and he stepped onto the jetty.
This visit, the United Nations contingent
guarding the facility were South Africans. It was something of a polite
fiction; in truth, Australia operated the facility and provided the backbone of
its staff — whether that was the correctional services officers and domestic
staff who travelled across from Triabunna every day, or the navy and air
defence units who quietly watched the waters and skies around Maria.
Nevertheless, every six months a new detail of forty guards rotated through
from another nation, visibly maintaining the world’s commitment to
human-centred development. Being paid in Australian dollars for the duration of
their tour helped make this an appealing posting for military prison staff the
world over, needless to say.
Francis was searched and screened by two
guards who did a passable act as a comedy duo — a short and wiry coloured
Capetonian with three gold teeth, and a tall, beefy Afrikaaner whose face
looked like he’d had one too many rapid impacts on the rugby pitch. Their
banter and childish double entendre cleared away the mood that had earlier
seized him, and their elision of English with choice Afrikaans expletives
transported him through the decades to the years he and Sylvie had spent in
Pretoria when their children were tiny.
Processing complete, he stepped through the
control door and was inside the prison. A woman of about forty in a
Correctional Services uniform was waiting for him.
‘Professor O’Riordan? I’m Kylie Dunbar, the
deputy psychologist for CST Maria.
‘Thank you’, Francis said as he gratefully
passed her the large folder of briefing documents he had been juggling with his
bag after the Cape Town comics had finished searching him. He paused. You’re
not Don Dunbar’s daughter, are you?’
She laughed. ‘Yes, I am. Dad said to say
hello when he heard there was a Panel hearing coming up.’
‘How is he? Retired yet?’
‘A year ago. He’s good, thanks — making a nuisance
of himself to Mum and generally not catching as many fish as he’d like to think
‘What made you go into the family
Kylie laughed again. ‘The stylish uniform?
No, there’s only one place on the East Coast of Tasmania with a job for an
unemployed forensic psychologist who wants her kids to be close to family. I studied psychology because I thought
it would get me out of Triabunna forever, but after I graduated I realised that
my dad worked at the world’s most interesting natural experiment. Take a group
of certified geniuses who used to own the world and lock them up on a rock no
one has successfully escaped from in two hundred years. Observe and discuss!’
Dunbar paused and looked at her watch.
‘We’d best get over to the Superintendent’s dining room. The rest of the Panel
arrived last night, so there’s going to be some lunch and then the pre-Hearing
discussion starts at 2.30. We’ll have your bag taken over to your room.’
He always enjoyed the lunches on
Maria. Running the facility was a
curious mix of tedium and readiness, and the pattern had been set early that
the staff needed to be well looked after. He was very pleased to see that the
signs of winding down had not extended to the kitchens, and the food did not
disappoint. Nor did the company.
Collins had been the Australian
Superintendent for a good few years. He was a dour-looking man who defied
expectations with his dry but sympathetic humour. Next to him sat Mkhize, the South African Commandant. There
were four other Panel members alongside O’Riordan, two of whom he knew well of
old — Anand George, the Indian Supreme Court Justice, and Mariam
Petrossian, chief of threat assessment from the Office of the UN Secretary
General. The third was Jens Olstrom, a Danish behavioural psychologist whom
Francis knew by reputation. Collins introduced him to the fourth — who, by convention,
was furnished by the nation on rotation at the time of each Hearing.
‘This is Nonkonzo Mda, our South African
member this year.’
‘Professor O’Riordan, it’s a pleasure to
meet you after reading so much of your work.’
Mda was a small, slight woman, perhaps in
her late fifties. Her face had a sleepy look, and her tightly locked hair was
pepper-potted with grey. Yet her eyes twinkled slyly and she moved with a
precision that spoke of anything
but sleepiness. She was seated next to him at the lunch table, so they
chatted as the food was served.
‘Your accent, Nonkonzo – where is it from?’
Francis asked, not quite able to place the South African’s speech pattern.
She chuckled. ‘All over, Professor. I’m a
child of exile. I was born in Zambia, primary school in Moscow, high school in
London, university in Jo’burg when we returned after Democracy, doctorate in
Heidelberg. I confuse myself if I’m not careful.’
‘And how did that road end up here?’
‘Ah’ She chuckled again, in a way that Francis found unaccountably pleasing. ‘An unusual combination of specialisations and a very poor eye for the career choices that would get you to the top in Pretoria.’
He laughed, recognising the pattern of his
own life in her description. They chatted about Pretoria and London for a
while, before being drawn into an animated discussion between Kylie Dunbar and
Olstrom on the merits of predictive profiling. The Danish psychologist was clearly nostalgic for some of
the tools no longer available to his trade.
After lunch they moved to the Hearing
Room. It was a large boardroom,
internally like any other corporate meeting space — yet it was screened and
insulated to make it impervious to penetration by any known eavesdropping
technique. Not that anyone was trying now, to the best of their knowledge, but
maintaining the old disciplines had served the facility well over the years.
Collins called them to order after they had
taken their allotted places behind their name plaques around the table.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, let us commence the pre-Hearing procedures for the fourth parole application for Mark Franklin Rothko, prisoner number GZ037. Please identify yourselves for the record.’
After the Panel and the other attending
officers had done so, the Australian continued.
‘You all appreciate the significance of
this hearing. Rothko is the last prisoner on the Island, since Wei Xu and
Davenant’s deaths last year. I would remind you that — much as the Australian
Government might be pained by my saying so — issues of cost must play
no part in your deliberations. This facility was established by international
treaty to incarcerate those convicted of crimes against humanity until they
pose no further threat. That is the only factor you should give decisive weight
in your discussions. There are those who argue Rothko’s continued detention is
wasteful, and who would ask what possible threat a seventy-three year old man
could pose to the world today. You, however, have the fullest possible evidence
at your disposal, and are able to make the most informed decision on the real
risks at play here.’
And so their discussion began. They had all
consumed many hundreds of pages of briefing, and three of the five Panel
members had, of course, heard at least one of Rothko’s previous parole
applications. But the basic facts of Rothko’s case always made O’Riordan
experience a flush of angry disbelief at his sheer arrogance.
Rothko had made an immense fortune in tech. At first, he had done so the traditional way – a social media start-up sold for a record price, and the establishment of a lavishly endowed foundation. Yet, unlike most of his peers, Rothko had quickly parlayed his first fortune into a set of companies that continued to make massive profits year after year, pumping ever more money into his “foundation for the future human”. So far, so good. But after the signing of the Dushanbe Protocols, rather than terminating his work on Artificial Intelligence, Rothko had doubled down on it — scarcely even in secrecy. More than that, when the police finally raided his Transcentis laboratories in five different countries, not only did they find AI installations that showed every sign of being fully active and connected off-site, but also human subjects with wetware connections to his AI networks. They were all willing and handsomely paid — mainly migrant workers sending large remittances home — but they had undergone neurosurgery and ongoing drug treatment, sometimes for years. And all were significantly changed, in ways that left their interviewers and investigators disturbed.
It was the human subject work which had
really resulted in Rothko, Davenant and Wei Xu receiving the longest sentences
of all the transhumanists. Surprisingly many firms had continued with AI
research after Dushanbe, confident their will would prevail. It had been a
great shock to them when coordinated raids across the globe had pulled them
from their beds or their boardrooms; still more salutary when one corporation — perhaps tipped off
in advance — chose to lock down their facility and resist arrest. The level of
lethal force used by the Canadian authorities that day left no one in any doubt
that the rules had changed beyond recognition. Yet only the owners of
Transcentis could be shown to have used human surgical alteration in their
illegal AI work. The Special Tribunal had reflected these ethics violations in
its sentencing, handing down an additional ten years for each beyond the basic
sentences all had received for (in the familiar words of the Tribunal’s
verdict) ‘…defying international law while knowingly and willfully exposing all
humanity to existential risk for the purposes of private profit.’
Ultimately, though, they all knew that Rothko, Davenant and Wei Xu had remained on the island far longer than the forty two others originally sentenced with them another reason — their defiance. All the others had settled in the end. They had recanted, publicly renounced the goals of Artificial Intelligence and transhumanism, and agreed to parole terms that essentially forbade them from any contact with anything remotely resembling a computing device for the rest of their lives. By the time most of them left Maria this hadn’t been hard; twenty years of degrowth and ecological stabilisation had relegated their kinds of technology to niche functions in key public services — dull, utilitarian, and under tight, if discreet, control by the authorities to avoid unduly tempting enquiring minds.
These men had a hope; that they could return the world to its rightful path towards the Singularity and immortality.
The three old men of the island had been
made of different stuff. They had refused to concede any wrongdoing. They
railed at their confinement. They wrote prolifically and worked together every
day on grand projects, doubling and redoubling their efforts as the number of
their fellow convicts dwindled. They raged with contempt at each new parolee
who accepted the inevitable and left Maria to make his or her peace with a new
reality. Once only the three of them remained, their rage had settled, and they
had established a way of life that might have been best described as monastic in
its routines. Yet they remained incarcerated not because the authorities wished
to punish their defiance, but because they feared it. Not in its spirit, but
its implication. These men had a hope; they appeared to remain utterly
convinced that they could return the world to its rightful path towards the
Singularity and immortality. They shrugged off the delay caused by the Great
Transition and its absurd insistence on the equality and beauty of unaugmented,
unadorned humans as if it were nothing more than the irritating bites of
insects. Of course, to the intelligence specialists who monitored their
conversations and writings, this raised the very worrying question of why they
remained so resolute. Did they know of secret resources, hidden away to await their
release? Was there some remnant movement at large, biding its time until its
leaders emerged from prison? Could there, almost inconceivably, still be AIs
running quietly, sequestered out of sight, far better able to hide in a world
of limited connectivity than their forebears had been before the Great
Transition? The only possible risk management strategy must be to keep these
anti-human prophets safely under lock and key.
Davenant and Wei Xu’s deaths had been
unexpected. Davenant had succumbed to a highly aggressive brain cancer in just
a few months, which autopsy suggested must have metastasised even before his
first symptoms were visible. Some of the medical staff had insinuated that it
may have been related to the unconventional anti-ageing therapies he had
enthusiastically partaken of in the years before his conviction, but this
assertion did not find its way into any official records. Wei Xu, by contrast,
appeared almost to have chosen to die, retreating into himself after Davenant’s
death and suffering a massive stroke only six weeks after his friend and former
start-up partner had died. The emergency facilities on Maria were as good as
any teaching hospital’s (better, as the Principal Medical Officer liked to
joke, because there were no trainees to get in the way), but Wei Xu was dead
within eight hours of collapsing.
That left only Rothko. But did it change
the risk calculus?
The Panel was not without compassion. For
ten months, Rothko had effectively been in solitary confinement, an old man
whose last friends were now dead. But that in itself posed them a problem.
There were no longer any transcripts of unguarded conversations between
prisoners to provide insights. Kylie Dunbar and the prison psychologists noted
an increasing withdrawal from his previous activities, and some evidence of
depression, although Rothko was wholly unwilling to participate in any form of
therapeutic regime. News of the birth of a grandchild appeared initially to
have caused excitement, but this had rapidly given way to despondency. Rothko’s
writings had decreased greatly in number and length, falling back to little
more than weekly notes to his wife and daughter. Where once he was haughty and
defiant with prison guards and welfare staff, now he was compliant and quiet.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Panel split
down professional lines. George, the Indian judge, and Olstrom, the
psychologist, clearly saw a broken man who had been incarcerated for twenty
years, and had lost his only remaining friends. Patrossian and Mda, the
intelligence specialists, saw a man who had nothing to lose, whose release
might allow one last throw of the dice in the game of madness which had only
narrowly been thwarted years before. And that, of course, left the decision to
O’Riordan, as chair.
During afternoon tea, Francis left the
Hearing Room for some fresh air.
He stood outside and breathed in the warm, dampening air. The sky to the
East darkened over the Tasman Sea as a storm birthed itself, and the great mass
of Bishop and Clerk brooded over him. O’Riordan wished he could slip past the
chain-link fence and make his way up the mountain to hide as the cloud rolled
in from the sea. He felt someone touch his arm, and turned slightly to see Mda
standing beside him.
She looked up into his face, her eyes now
sad rather than twinkling as they had at lunchtime. ‘This is hard’, she
said. ‘But it was hard when we
fought them. You remember how hard. I know your story, Francis. It is the same
as mine. Neither of us chose to be
revolutionaries, I think. Rather the Revolution chose us. And because we fought
them hard and early, the Revolution was able to become a Transition, and not a
river of blood.’
‘That old man in there is sad and
suffering. But he is powerful too. We cannot let that power out when there is
any chance his machines remain in the world. We do not speak of that risk in
public any more, yet you and I both know we did not find all their machines, or
even all their wetware. Just because he is old and filled with grief, does not
mean he is safe. There is only one thing we can do.’
Her fingers brushed his as she turned and
walked away. O’Riordan stood for several minutes, not wishing to release the
memory of the comfort of her touch. As the first drops of rain hit his face, he
realised that this would perhaps not be his last visit to the Island after all.
Tomorrow he would tell that to Rothko. Then he might take that walk up Bishop
Martin Hensher has
recently swapped the life of a public servant for full time academia, with a
particular focus on preparing health care systems for the challenges of the
Anthropocene. Born and educated in England, he has also spent many years in
South Africa and, more recently, Australia, where he lived with his family for
seven years in the island state of Tasmania. They have recently moved to
Melbourne. Only you can judge whether his writing is dystopian or utopian, and
his family would probably suggest he is able to hold simultaneously the
positions of miserable bastard and incurable optimist with apparent
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
So much has happened around the world this month, it’s hard to keep up. From massive protests around the world that toppled whole governments and won people’s demands against austerity, to Turkey’s attack on Rojava, to massive wildfires in California (again). But that’s exactly why we put together this newsletter for you! This month, we feature some excellent analysis on what links these global protests against austerity, and on-the-ground analysis of protests in each country. We offer many stories that can help inform you about what’s going on in Rojava, and how we can respond to Turkey’s invasion and the US role. After Extinction Rebellion protesters tried to block commuters in London, a debate ensued about appropriate forms of direct action, which we feature here. Now that California is up in flames again, we offer some timely analyses on the economic system and built environment that have led to its current ecological crisis. We also highlight a few analyses from inside the movement for local democracy in North America, with several reflections on the Symbiosis Congress of Municipal Movements this September. There was also a lot of analysis about the role of corporations in the climate crisis, including Silicon Valley’s funding of climate change denial.
On the whole, a thread running through this month’s events was the perceived conflict between working class demands and environmental policy. Reminding us of France’s Yellow Vest protests, in Ecuador, social movements rose up against rising gas prices; in London, Extinction Rebellion was mocked for blocking a commuter train in a working class area. In California, austerity has led to the failure of its energy companies to provide energy for millions of people, targeting the poor. What are the opportunities for environmental policies to meet people’s needs, and at the same time reconstruct the world system ecologically? How can environmentalists, especially those in the Global North, appeal to the global working class? These are some key questions going forward.
Uneven Earth updates
Shrink the military, shrink injustice | Link | The US Green New Deal must be anti-imperialist
A Green New Deal for an ecological economy | Link | Introducing a series of proposals for a truly transformative GND
Designing for a world after climate catastrophe | Link | While architects are often told they will change the world, a new book fails to imagine what a world after capitalism could look like
Degrowth should be a core part of the just transition | Link | A review of Degrowth by Giorgos Kallis
Utopia, not futurism: Why doing the impossible is the most rational thing we can do | Link | This 1978 speech by Murray Bookchin is strikingly relevant today
Post-capitalists must understand the role of migration in global capitalism. “When reading and hearing of ambitious programmes for social transformation, it is our task to consider whether or not such programmes have a sense of the ‘real’ determinants of economic development that Marx recognised: international relations of production, the international division of labour in a world market, exploitation of resources and emigration of displaced people, and at the forefront of these processes, the inner structures of middle and working classes and relations between them.”
California’s wildfires and ecological crisis in the United States
It’s the end of California as we know it. “Our whole way of life is built on a series of myths — the myth of endless space, endless fuel, endless water, endless optimism, endless outward reach and endless free parking.”
The climate crisis does not respect national borders, and neither should programs that respond to it. The Green New Deal, unlike most proposed climate legislation, addresses justice, not just emissions. But to be truly transformative, it must consider justice internationally, not just in the country implementing a GND.
United States House Resolution 109, the document that proposes a Green New Deal, focuses narrowly on the US. It threatens to create Green New Colonialism through increased extraction abroad. It also gives no mention of the US military’s environmental impact or its ability to maintain global injustice by force.
The GND names social, political, and economic oppression as root causes of environmental injustice.
Happily, the GND holds a radical understanding of how environmental injustice comes to be. The GND names social, political, and economic oppression as root causes of environmental injustice. Traditional policy approaches for environmental justice, by contrast, focus on ‘disproportionate shares’ of ‘environmental consequences’ in a way that laments, rather than counteracts, underlying oppressions.
The fact is, socially and economically marginalized people bear the brunt of environmental hazards. Speaking plainly, environmental injustice occurs along race and class lines. 2018’s Hurricane Michael hit poor counties in Florida and Georgia hardest, demonstrating a pattern where environmental hazards exacerbate existing inequalities. This injustice does not confine itself to the United States or other countries that have produced the lion’s share of the emissions causing climate chaos. Shortly after Hurricane Michael, two serious cyclones hammered the coast of Mozambique, with more frequent storms expected in the future.
Climate mitigation and adaptation—not hazards alone—can also create or perpetuate injustice. For instance, implementing the GND’s call for net-zero emissions would require vast increases in production of renewable energy technologies and batteries. Accordingly, it would intensify mining in places such as China, Congo-Kinshasa, and Chile. This mining contributes to water toxification in Inner Mongolia, depends on child labor in Congo, and threatens to degrade Indigenous and peasant farmland in the Andes. The lack of attention to these energy and environmental injustices constitutes a ‘green colonialism,’ where the global north achieves a high standard of living and a sheen of carbon neutrality by exploiting the health, labor, and land of the global south.
It is true that renewable energy production can cut greenhouse gas emissions in the wealthiest countries, mitigating climate change’s most acute threats in the global south. Climate change is certainly a mortal threat and in itself an environmental injustice, but simply replacing one energy source with another would hardly be a just transition. Instead, as Elena Hofferberth writes, in order to prevent green colonialism, ‘[t]he acknowledgement of the global historical responsibility [for oppression and discrimination] must translate into true environmental justice…’
Accordingly, an internationally just GND must target the processes that generate global oppression. But what are those processes? Why are marginalized people at greater risk? And who marginalized them in the first place? The short answer is that state power determines who is protected from environmental injustice and who suffers it. Environmental hazards mostly result from economic processes, all of which require ecosystem destruction or disruption. Within a given state, non-marginalized people, those with economic means and social privileges, can protect themselves from these risks by influencing decisions or using legal processes to mitigate existing harms. Or they can simply pay to protect their land, often in the form of conservation easements.
But these people are usually playing a zero-sum game. If their communities avoid risks, others will not. Corporations have to grow or die, so they won’t surrender dirty projects if they do not have to. Rather, they will move them to where poor and marginalized people live. The state will thus favor industrial interests over people without political, economic, or social power who challenge them. In the US, this pattern concentrates pollution in low-income areas, especially those populated by people of color. Internationally, global south countries bear the brunt of resource extraction and waste disposal.
Economic processes, especially raw material extraction, depend on international stability that results from military power. A central example is the US military’s tight link to major US fossil fuel corporations.
These conflicts also arise across international borders. Where no one state dominates, the political fights take the form of military competition. Without a global government, there is no single body that can back up or arbitrate economic processes, so economic processes, especially raw material extraction, depend on international stability that results from military power. A central example is the US military’s tight link to major US fossil fuel corporations. In other words, it is no coincidence that the US has the largest economy in the world and the largest military.
A transformative GND, one committed to environmental justice and avoiding green colonialism, should therefore reduce American military capacity. This reduction would degrade one of the primary mechanisms on which injustice and exploitation depend. Thankfully, the current House Resolution already contains the seeds of that more transformative vision.
First and foremost, the GND already calls for justice through ‘stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of [I]ndigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth” (my emphasis). One only needs to go one step further to acknowledge that oppression based in militarism reproduces injustice on a global scale.
Consider military bases. The US military operates approximately 800 bases around a globe composed of 206 UN-recognized countries. They amount to hundreds of “sites around the globe are where the military can store its weapons, station its troops, detain suspects, launch its drones, and monitor global affairs.” This storage, stationing, detaining, launching, and monitoring all comprise a mechanism for oppression, one that projects the interests of the United States and holds the rest of the world in check. But bases can also create direct environmental injustices themselves. Bases, current and former, have left a range of environmental hazards around the world, ‘[f]rom Agent Orange in Vietnam, depleted uranium in Iraq, and munitions dumps and firing ranges in Vieques, Puerto Rico, to a toxic brew of poisons along the Potomac River…’ Often, these hazards impact people along colonial lines, such as military bases’ impact on traditional Native American foods in Alaska.
The GND should halt oppression by significantly reducing the number of US military bases around the world.
Accordingly, the GND should halt oppression by significantly reducing the number of US military bases around the world. In doing so, the GND would weaken the capacity of the United States to inflict environmental injustice, while simultaneously directly mitigating existing environmental hazards. Of course, this process would not do away with the injustices of extractivism in and of itself. What it woulddo is decrease imperial power and shrink local sites of environmental injustice.
This process would easily fit with GND jobs. Decommissioning bases, managing their contents, and remediating their impacts would require a huge amount of work. A GND committed to base reduction would also significantly cut oil consumption. The US military itself is the world’s largest consumer of oil, and shrinking it would cut its huge greenhouse gas emissions. Reduced military expenditure could also free up federal funding to pay for other aspects of the GND.
Critics may rightfully ask why this proposal does not simply call for full demilitarization and the abolition of the armed forces. After all, why simply lessen the potential for environmental injustice rather than eliminate it? One response could be that it is not just militarism but imperialism which the GND must target. But the two are intricately linked, and tackling the latter would warrant a more radical opposition to the military. My only defense against that is tactical restraint. A major strength of the GND has been its popularity, and too strong of a critique of American militarism could decrease support. I admit this defense is based on speculation about public opinion, but limiting the worst dangers from climate change requires mitigation as soon as possible. Compromises on rhetoric are warranted to adopt a transformative GND within the existing political structure. Since the proposed GND is largely aspirational, the GND goals could perhaps be framed in a way that is sympathetic to public opinion while policies themselves could be more radical.
These issues need to be carefully worked through in the creation of an anti-imperialist GND. The conversation should start by recognizing that reduction of military capacity provides an effective means of combating imperialism and environmental injustices alike.
Walter Keady is a masters student at the University of Vermont studying energy, environmental justice, and just transitions. He is a member of the Champlain Valley Democratic Socialists of America’s Executive Committee.
The Green New Deal is on everyone’s lips and policy
platforms. Liberal pundit Thomas Friedman coined the term in 2007, and Left
parties in the UK called for a Green New Deal during the recession that
followed the 2008 global financial crash. Last year, Congresswoman Alexandria
Ocasio Cortez rebooted the idea in the United States. Now progressive politicians
from Canada to Australia are putting forward
Green New Deals.
The proposals vary from place to place, but each GND is a
package of policies designed to transform our economy to deal with the dual crises
of climate change and social inequality. In this way they link environmental
justice with economic justice in an all-encompassing vision for restructuring
much of the existing social order.
It’s a tall task. The right has criticized the GND for being a laundry list of everything environmentally minded socialists have ever wanted anyway: not just publicly owned renewable energy and small-scale eco-agriculture but also universal healthcare, housing, and living-wage jobs. Centrists have argued that such a broad and deep policy package isn’t politically possible; only incremental, piecemeal changes can fight climate change successfully. Some leftists have expressed concern that the GND doesn’t go far enough: that it might cater to corporate and financial interests; that it threatens to intensify rich countries’ extraction of mineral wealth from the rest of the world (for solar panels, batteries, electric cars, and so on); that it could further marginalize Indigenous peoples; and that it risks being counter-productive by kickstarting economic growth, which would probably increase carbon emissions.
Seemingly every progressive and socialist espouses some version of the GND in part because it remains a vague outline of aspirations. Now its proponents must flesh out the details.
Despite these criticisms, the GND’s ambition has led to great excitement. The Left has been reanimated behind a common cause. Seemingly every progressive and socialist espouses some version of the GND in part because it remains a vague outline of aspirations. Now its proponents must flesh out the details. We need to publicly debate different visions of the GND. We must think strategically about how to make the GND a reality and how to ensure it is just and truly transformative.
We argue that ecological economists can
play a leading role in this. In their textbook Ecological Economics,
Herman Daly and Josh Farley list sustainability and justice as the field’s
first two goals. If the GND’s goal is to facilitate, through policy, the
transition to a socially equitable low-carbon economy, then ecological
economics basically bills itself as the science of the Green New Deal.
Of course, many fields have knowledge and ways of thinking to contribute to
informing a GND. Part of ecological economics’ strength is its willingness to
incorporate evidence, theory, methods, and perspectives from diverse
Yet ecological economists haven’t
engaged much with the GND, other than the pile of comments (compiled here) on how it might impede or enable degrowth—a downscaling of rich
countries’ economies, and the global economy, that would also downscale
emissions and exploitation. While making the GND compatible with degrowth is
crucial (see point 2 below), we know that ecological economists have a lot more
knowledge and ideas to offer to the design of such a transformative policy
To this end, this essay is the first in a
series of articles that aim to inform the GND through the lens of ecological
economics. The series will feature short position papers by students of the Economics for the Anthropocene program, a
three-university collaboration to train graduate students in ecological
economics, as well as by other invited experts.
These short articles will focus on thematic issues outlined in the GND, touching on questions such as: How can we pay for the GND? Would it break international trade law? What agricultural policies should an ecologically sound GND include? How do we organize to win a GND? And so on. The authors will propose specific principles and policies to ensure the GND lives up to its eco-revolutionary potential.
To introduce this series, we want to
convince you that ecological economics is a science fit for scrutinizing,
deliberating, and deepening the GND. That it can provide tools for exploring
the intricacies of changing everything about how the economy works.
The following are just a few aspects of ecological economics—and the transdisciplinary research community it’s part of—that can enrich understandings around the GND:
1. Social-ecological perspective
Ecological economics, unlike any other school of economic thought, integrates its investigation of the biophysical, social, and financial aspects of economies. Most economists study these realms separately. Considering them as coevolving, mutually constitutive pieces of a more-than-human whole allows ecological economists to analyze policies that address climate and the economy together, as the GND endeavors to do. One emerging approach, that of ecological macroeconomics, combines modeling techniques to demonstrate how flows of money between economic sectors relate to flows of resources and pollution through the production process, and how changes in one part of this ecological economy affect the rest of the system. Such models can project how different versions of the GND might affect employment, inequality, carbon emissions, mineral extraction, and other variables. Ecological economists’ coevolutionary way of thinking about the economy within society as part of nature, moreover, allows us to consider change holistically, historically, and materially, whereas most other brands of economics study production and exchange as if they occurred separately from politics, beliefs, traditions, and ecosystems. A total social transformation like the GND cannot be reduced to its economic elements.
2. Thinking beyond growth
Ecological economists have continually shown that resource use and carbon emissions rise together with GDP, and that wealthy economies have grown beyond the capacity of society and ecosystems to support them. We have also proposed many ideas for degrowing the economy justly, in ways that do not harm vulnerable people and that enhance local autonomy. The GND could spark a degrowth transition by breaking growth’s link to employment: a government program that gives everyone a job who wants one would ensure people economic security even as the economy shrinks overall. But to avoid simply stimulating growth, a GND must provide jobs that are regenerative and reproductive rather than productive in the conventional sense: ecosystem restoration, caring for the elderly, ecological farming, and such. Ecological economists are already imagining post-growth economies that pursue plural values. Real flourishing means balancing society’s evolution toward a diverse array of worthy goals that cannot be reduced to a number next to a dollar sign. Beyond GDP, the monetary value of all production in an economy, ecological economists measure whether economies meet people’s material needs and use metrics that track the physical size of the economy—the resources used and wastes discharged. Multiple countries in Europe, as well as Japan and others have integrated these into their national accounting systems. This is a first step towards understanding economies otherwise.
The GND could spark a degrowth transition by breaking growth’s link to employment.
3. Understanding complexity and scale
Ecological economics is well positioned to reflect on the difficult-to-foresee consequences of GND policies because of its grounding in systems theory. Making big changes to any system brings unpredictable cascading effects. If economic degrowth or the transition to renewable energy decreases the amount of institutional complexity that society can maintain, it is imperative to make sure that the resultant simplification does not impinge upon democracy or the rights that marginalized people, women, and minorities have won through social movements, and that any increased labour burdens from decreasing energy use do not fall disproportionately on these groups. Managing the government programs of the GND will itself require a lot of materials and energy. If a simpler society powered by renewables cannot sustain sophisticated systems like centrally administered national healthcare as we know it, there is a need to guarantee that newly designed systems for care are based on principles of justice. Systems theory helps us think up policies and institutions that can ensure justice that’s resilient to changing conditions. Central governments can finance and oversee decentralized healthcare systems, for example, that communities construct and operate in ways that work for their local contexts. Our ideological systems might need to coevolve with social-ecological change, too. Women’s emancipation need not rely on professional employment made possible by state-funded childcare and birth control, but we can dream up alternative desirable feminisms only if our beliefs about empowerment and freedom transform along with the economy.
4. Emphasis on equity
Just distribution is a key principle of ecological economics. If we cannot solve poverty by growing the economy, then someone has to take from the rich to give to the poor. But a GND proposing that the government play Robin Hood is not enough. Ecological economists recognize that the economy is set up to continuously create inequality. Labor markets, financial markets, tax laws, property rights, inheritance, and a horde of other institutions continuously transfer wealth to the already wealthy. An economically just GND can’t merely redistribute income and capital, it must redesign the rules of society to dole out the goods more evenly in the first place, and to recognize and recompense historical injustices. Ecological economists go further than government transfers and employment programs, studying collective property systems and commons governance regimes through which people share benefits and make decisions collectively. And we devise programs that integrate equity and ecology—not just a universal minimum income but a maximum, too; a job guarantee that offers part-time work that’s enjoyable but not super productive; taxes on carbon-intensive luxury goods. Reducing inequality will itself likely lessen the competitive pressures that drive the expansion of extraction and emissions. Ecological economics can also help inform processes for recognition of ecological and colonial debts and support charting paths toward meaningful decolonization. Additionally, ecological-economic models estimate production’s effects in other places, such that policy making can account for people and ecosystems abroad. A just GND, even if implemented by one country, must be internationally equitable.
5. Justice beyond humans
Some ecological economists are beginning to adopt a broader understanding of justice, one that considers the fate of other animals, plants, and entire ecological communities. Such a perspective, in the words of our colleagues, “views maintaining the integrity of the web of biotic and abiotic processes and communities that mutually constitute the biosphere as the first principle of distributive justice.” Protecting earth’s biodiversity and life-support systems will be incredibly difficult but at least the goal is straightforward. Extending justice to non-human beings is trickier. How do we know what an individual coyote wants? How can we invite prairie grasses to the negotiation between rotational grazing and total rewilding to replace monoculture corn? This is new ground for ecological economists— to study these questions we’ll need to see worldviews in their plurality beyond the Western one and methodologies from other disciplines that may include rituals, arts-based approaches, and radical forms of listening. Yet analyzing the potential effects of different possible GNDs provides an opportunity to invent innovative methods for thinking about, say, whether wind turbines or hydropower are better for birds’ wellbeing, or if rivers and their inhabitants mind diverting some water for small-scale hydroelectricity.
The GND must be accompanied by a revolutionary movement.
6. Political framing
economists, like any critical social scientists, insist that all economics is
political. Powerful actors take financial and environmental benefits for
themselves while pushing burdens like difficult labor and toxic pollution onto
those who are powerless to refuse them. We argue that the citizen movements
from below can counteract this power with numbers, by acting together. The
original New Deal, and most reforms historically, were essentially compromises authored
by elites in the face of mass uprising. The GND must be accompanied by a revolutionary
movement focused on the spirit as well as the details of a policy package that the
ruling class will try to water down anyway. This means making big demands and
taking to the streets, along with Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, and
environmental justice activists around the world, rather than simply designing an
The GND can serve as a vehicle for dreaming up a desirable future,
inspired by degrowth, environmental justice, and other visionary ideas about
radically different societies than our own. Parallel to designing and fighting for a state-led Green
New Deal we must continue self-organizing and engaging in projects of
solidarity outside the market and state. A successful GND, by ensuring certain basic
needs and even a livable climate, could in fact facilitate the creation of
autonomous mutual aid networks for food, care, housing, and so on by freeing
people from some precarity or wage labor.
This essay is a
call for ecological economists to collaborate with grassroots movements to put
forward ideas about a truly transformative and just Green New Deal that bridges
political aspirations, justice, and material realities. We therefore launch
this series with this think-piece in hopes that ecological economists and other
radical thinkers will join the conversation and bring their expertise to bear on the ideas around the GND. What
should a big government program to restructure society and create an ecological
economy include? How do we hold them to account?
We hope these essays contribute to the radical reimagining of economic life.
We would like to thank Martin Sers, Katie Kish, Rut
Elliot Blomqvist, Vijay Kolinjivadi, and Christopher Orr for comments that
contributed to this piece.
Leah Temper is an ecological economist and filmmaker
based at McGill University, Montreal and the Autonomous University of
Barcelona. She is the founder and co-director of the Global Atlas of
Sam Bliss studies and organizes non-market food
systems in Vermont. He also reads and writes about ecomodernism and degrowth.
This August, large parts of the Amazon rainforest were set on fire to make way for the exploitation of land for industrial agriculture, causing the loss of over 1300 square miles this year alone.
It should come as no surprise that the destruction of the world’s most vital source of oxygen was incensed in part by the same private equity firm that has waged a global war on the human right to housing. What links these disasters is the fact that our political economy has redefined land as resource and therefore as potential capital: homes become real estate, the forests that replenish the earth’s atmosphere are seen as obstacles to agriculture.
The myopia of this kind of thinking easily infiltrates the design fields, which have largely adopted a pro-market logic over the past century. Architecture and urban design specifically have suffered from lack of interdisciplinarity in practice and navel-gazing in their academic culture, resulting in an approach to today’s ecological and social justice crises that is overwhelmingly hands-off, or milquetoast at best.
A new, new world
The project of imagining what the future looks like is as old as the practice of architecture. Architects are futurists by necessity: we occupy ourselves with projections of the shape of things to come. Often, these ideas surpass what’s possible in the present and live their lives on paper, never finding concrete expression in the real world. This so-called “paper architecture” makes up a stunning amount of what’s been canonized in architecture history books. But whether paper architecture can make a difference in the world outside academia hinges on its ability to challenge the preconditions for architecture. By identifying present shortfalls in our political, economic, social, and ecological systems and projecting the form of possible alternatives, speculative design can imbue the discipline with political agency.
In StudioTEKA’s 2100: A Dystopian Utopia: The City After Climate Change, a Brooklyn-based architecture studio dives deep into a question the building industries have neglected to ask: how much longer can the world’s cities withstand the rapidly increasing frequency of disastrous climate events? And what happens when they no longer can? The writers estimate that 83% of the Amazon would be destroyed by 2100; today’s toll already brings that percentage to a tipping point of 15-17%. 80 years too soon, we realize that the issues addressed in this book are all the more pressing.
It’s a fascinating thought experiment: can we pack up and reassemble this lifestyle in newly temperate climates? StudioTEKA seems to think so, given the proper technocracy.
2100 depicts a world in decay, and sheds light on what a possible post-decay world might look like. StudioTEKA’s proposal stems from the expectation that our politicians will do little, if anything at all, to bridle the destruction of the biosphere over the next 30 years.
It’s a fascinating thought experiment: can we continue to consume resources at our current rate, and be able to pack up and reassemble this lifestyle in newly temperate climates? Will we be able to go back to business as usual after the climate collapse plays out over the next century? StudioTEKA seems to think so, given the proper technocracy.
The master plan in 2100 looks like this: if we can force politicians to take action by 2050, we’ll be able to limit warming temperatures to a 6-7 degree rise by the year 2100. By most measures, even a 3-4 degree rise would be monumental. The Earth’s middle band, which hosts most of the world’s population in 2019, will largely become uninhabitable due to drought, severe storms, rising sea levels, and catastrophic heatwaves. StudioTEKA predicts that 10 billion people will then move to inhabit 39 million square kilometers of newly-developed compact megacities near the Earth’s poles.
To allow for this density, each megacity outsources its energy production and manufacturing to a sister “extraction city” in the middle band. There, renewable energy is harvested, natural resources are processed and both are exported to the corresponding megacity. The plants are staffed by temporary workers that travel to the middle band from the poles. The designers refer to these projections as the “new, new world.”
The servant and the served
Expanding on the architectural trope of the servant and the served, StudioTEKA suggests seven such pairings around the world, with densities 2.5 times that of present-day Manila, today’s densest city. Using methods of visual representation that are customary to architects, the predictions and solutions in 2100 convincingly spin a linear narrative out of the chaos that we’re about to see unfold in real time. Through compelling infographics, the authors script a future characterized by a harmonic relationship between humans and ecology, as a foil to our current pattern of reckless exploitation.
In 2100’s Antarctica, three quarters of Ross Island are maintained as a nature reserve. Agriculture and recreation are housed in crystalline greenhouses on stilts, and artificial glaciers are farmed for water. This water is exported to Ross Island’s sister city Johannesburg and to other cities with water shortages. A rendering of Troll, Antarctica shows a neighbourhood-sized concrete dome housing a mossy sculpture park ringed by a river designed for indoor boating. During the dark polar winters, Troll’s residents travel to Sao Paolo to aid in mass reforestation efforts, sleeping in pods suspended above the urban forest’s understory.
With the historic fabric of Manila projected to be underwater by 2100, the city is rebuilt on a linear plinth elevated above the water. The plinth is designed to harvest of storm energy, which is then loaded into large batteries and exported to Wellington. Wellington’s coast is also flooded, and the communities are moved up to a new megacity distributed amongst the mountaintops and linked by bridges.
As frequent hurricanes render New York uninhabitable, Greenland’s largest city, Nuuk, rises as the capital of global finance. In Nuuk, buildings bury themselves into cliffsides; and in New York the historic fabric is rehabilitated to house the temporary workers that come to work in carbon capture and energy-storage export.
A megastructure weaves through Moscow, stitching together the public space on the ground level with transit and bikeways up above, significantly densifying the city while maintaining open space on the ground level. Its partner city is found in the hostile desert landscapes of Kufra-Adjabiya, where extensive water evaporation infrastructure creates humid zones for agriculture and human habitation.
A top-down approach
StudioTEKA’s approach to designing this new, new world stems from a mix of utilitarianism and a biomorphic design sensibility. Every design move is based on how many functions it can make the architecture perform: building facades can no longer merely separate inside and outside and give buildings a face—they now also grow plants, harvest energy, and capture carbon. Parks not only provide recreation space, but act as carbon sinks, perform soil remediation, and provide a barrier against oceanic storm surges. Like the different organisms that make up an ecosystem, each element of the built world plays a muti-faceted and active role in its environment.
There is no discussion of who will be left behind as millionaires buy up the hot new real estate of the compact megacities; no hint of universal rent control and no plan for the construction of public housing.
Uniting the fourteen sites is a single aesthetic language of twisting, white sinewy forms with parametrically-designed perforations that form megastructures, towers, or domes scaled much larger than the majority of the architecture we’re familiar with today. This design language has its roots in biomimicry—a desire for human-made forms to look like, or even imitate those of nature. Think of Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Oculus in New York, or Studio Gang’s Aqua Tower in Chicago for built examples of this tendency. The unintended consequence is that the forms proposed in 2100 could not look more unnatural in the historic city fabrics and cultures that they colonize.
Zooming out to the urban plan, we see a top-down approach: in some cases, a new figure is superimposed over an existing street grid, while a series of clip-on developments colonize a historic city fabric in others. The architectural proposals are deliberately gestural and unresolved, acting as placeholders for the kinds of forms that this design ethic could produce. What’s missing is a clue towards the kind of society these places are meant to foster, and the political economy that we would need in order to get there without leaving anyone behind.
Everything is the same, but on acid
Interestingly, 2100 was written during the last years of the Obama presidency and before the proposal of the Green New Deal (GND)— a model for “greening” the US economy that’s being pushed by leftist Democrats. Similarly to what’s depicted in 2100, the GND proposes a shift to renewable energy and the creation of “green” jobs. The dominant narrative amongst its proponents has paradoxically broadcast the GND as a growth-driven vision of a sustainable future. At their worst, both the GND and the world of 2100 enact a kind of common sense on acid; a sensibility held in common in a world dominated by capitalistic thinking. Already, Left critiques of the GND have articulated a GND that challenges the economic framework at the root of the climate crisis. Meanwhile, 2100 suggests that the right cocktail of new technologies, scientific research, and continued economic growth might allow us to keep living just the way we do.
What neither 2100 nor the GND address is the scale of production and natural resource extraction that would be required for a transition to renewable energy at this magnitude. Renewable energy has far-reaching material implications that will require the growth of mining operations across the globe.
The scale of construction proposed in 2100, too, has massive material implications. Given that real estate development is one of the world’s most most carbon-intensive industries, the proposed undertakings speak to our desperation in the midst of the climate catastrophe. In 2100, finding habitable environments takes on more urgency than reconfiguring the scale at which we extract, produce, import, and consume. As a chapter title poignantly asks, “Where in the world can we live?”
Futurism with class bias
The research that informs StudioTEKA’s specific design solutions, technologies, and site selections is remarkable for a design studio. But honing in on the technical makes the political the book’s weak point.
While they note abnormalities in the effects of climate change (like the escalator effect, which will lower sea levels at poles while raising them around the middle band) and even suggest ways to address renewable energy’s intermittency problems (the gaps in energy supply that follow lulls in weather events); StudioTEKA never address what many fear to be an approaching climate apartheid—the poorest left behind in uninhabitable places while the rich flee to new eco-utopian enclaves.
2100 is a world in which we have our cake and eat it too: where we can continue to grow the economy while lowering our energy use. How the current class war plays out in this dystopian utopia seems to be a question these designers won’t approach.
It’s crucial for designers to recognize the ways in which both the climate crisis and—ironically—“green” building solutions most negatively impact working class communities and the developing world. By largely limiting their research to scientific reports and big-picture population data, the designers have missed a huge opportunity. And so, the book reveals its class biases as it rolls out a long, intricately curated and site-specific list of technological and lifestyle-based solutions.
For example, 2100 hypothesizes that a unanimous shift to plant-based diets will occur, reducing the amount of land needed for farming by 36%. This kind of thinking ignores the integral role that sustainable, small-scale animal husbandry and meat consumption play in countless cultures in North America and around the world. It misses the mark. Instead of shifting the blame onto the individual, we must hold the Big Agriculture giants to account for their recklessness towards the environment. While the rate of meat consumption among non-Indigenous populations in the US and Canada poses a number of ethical issues, as well as public health and environmental concerns; so does a sudden, massive shift towards diets that depend on soy and nuts for protein. The industrial production of these plants depends on monocropping, which is already eroding away our biodiversity. The blind spot occurs again and again throughout 2100. It doesn’t attempt a critique of the market-based approaches to urban design that catapulted us into this crisis in the first place. There is no discussion of who will be left behind as millionaires buy up the hot new real estate of the compact megacities; no hint of universal rent control and no plan for the construction of public housing. The authors don’t acknowledge that the extraction cities will depend on a subjugated class of migrant labourers, while the bourgeoisie and the professional managerial class will be able to remain in the relative safety of the compact megacities year-round.
Essentially, what’s proposed is a world of advanced capitalism and 100% renewable energy. Drawing on research by Ecofys, a renewable energy advocacy firm, the ideas in 2100 hinge on the idea that ”energy use can be lower while living standards and economic development continue to rise.” For the most part, 2100 is a world in which we have our cake and eat it too: where we can continue to grow the economy while lowering our energy use. How the current class war plays out in this dystopian utopia seems to be a question these designers won’t approach.
A world without a middle scale
The world we’re shown is one that architectural renderings have become very good at depicting: brand-new, glassy, hyperbolic building forms tower over outsized green lawns and criss-crossing pathways populated by a parade of stock humans. There’s a lack of a middle scale in these proposals, which was also a major failure of Brasilia or of the contemporary dystopia of Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan. While it’s easy to copy and paste stock images of people milling about in an urban plaza; it’s much harder for a designer to create true community spaces. Much of what’s shown is a world of heavy-handed designs that impose a unified aesthetic across an entire landscape, ignoring the patchwork of vernacular buildings that characterizes the organic growth of our towns and cities.
In her introduction to the book, StudioTEKA principal Vanessa Keith suggests that the solution will be both bottom-up and top-down, quoting from Bossomaier and Green’s Patterns in the Sand, “…We have to focus on the local interactions: change these, and the rest will follow.”
But where are these “local interactions” in 2100? Rather than offer a “trickle-up” ideology such as that of radical municipalism, the designs within the book offer a vision of top-down design and of a large-scale, global model of production.
Saskia Sassen’s buoyant introduction speaks to the idea of “delegating back to the biosphere.” She sees cities, in all their complexity, as our best impression of the biosphere itself and applauds the book’s authors for moving “beyond mitigation and adaptation.” Reading between the lines, her words seem to beg for a new definition of what it means to be urban, not for an evolution of the techno-metropolises we already have. A sweeping shift to renewable energy means employing the biosphere in our systems of production rather than empowering the biosphere. The book ultimately maintains a dualism of human and land, in which land continues to be seen as a resource.
The notion of urban growth is identified as a challenge in the foreword, but goes unquestioned for most of the book. Many of the designs echo the wistful refrains of architecture academia – more schools, more libraries – because spaces for community are inherently more engaging to design. But to be able to work on these kinds of projects, designers need to tackle the overhaul of the political economy head-on. We need to work with other disciplines to imagine and implement a culture of mutual aid needed to prioritize these institutions.
Design for a world after capitalism
It’s fitting that this ambitious project was taken on by an architecture studio. On the first day of school, architects are told that we will change the world. We’re told we are generalists; that our work is the work of many disciplines, synthesized into its material form. But as real estate and resource extraction continues to drive our social and environmental ecologies into collapse, it would be a mistake to think we can simply design our way out in the traditional sense. What we need are interdisciplinary approaches at the scale of what StudioTEKA has begun to do, but with a much more headstrong focus on reshaping our political economy—a conversation largely ignored in design circles. The sites in 2100 are chosen strategically, and they suggest a monumental mass migration but never once mention the ugly ways that the class system of capitalist nations rears its head in a “green” transition.
The flaw of 2100 is not that it’s unrealistic—in fact, it follows the protocols of today’s neoliberal environmentalism quite realistically to their natural end. But it does not offer us a way out.
There is one proposal in the book that does stand out as a more sophisticated challenge to architecture’s habit of producing more stuff, and as a provocative step toward a new kind of city. In the Phoenix scenario, StudioTEKA propose a “green deconstruction” of a city that, in 2019, is the heart of the the fastest-growing metropolitan region in the US. In the plan, the region plummets into severe drought and experiences a mass exodus. It’s then transformed into one of the proposed extraction cities as its housing stock is hand-demolished in phases with the goal of salvaging building parts and making way for dew collectors, greenhouses, solar farms, and wind parks. This scheme implies a massive overhaul of the real estate market through the expropriation of homes to the city. In a beautiful display of what architect Keller Easterling has termed “subtraction,” a city is imagined to shrink to a scale that might allow for a more localized economy, and possibly for much stronger solidarity between its residents, largely seasonal renters who work in the city’s proposed renewable energy sector in the mild winter months.
The flaw of 2100 is not that it’s unrealistic—in fact, it follows the protocols of today’s neoliberal environmentalism quite realistically to their natural end. But it does not offer us a way out from a system that privileges the few at the cost of the many. On the whole, the proposals in the book are bold, but prove to be flimsy as they reveal their failure to take into account that the climate catastrophe arises from the ecology we have created for ourselves—a system of being in and understanding the world in which a capitalist political economy sets the terms.
We need to ask: how will ecosystems withstand the increased mining of rare minerals needed for the capture of renewable energy? How will we organize a growing population in a way that is sustainable, while maintaining a connection to the land?
We need to ensure that our innovations aren’t funneled into building “climate-proof” fortresses for the rich. We need to demand that frontline communities are prioritized; that real estate speculation is abolished; that with a reconstruction on this scale we can also overhaul our political economy into one that ensures what Donna Haraway calls the “ongoingness” of all. Designing for a post-climate crisis world inheres designing for a world after capitalism.
Sasha Plotnikova is a designer, writer, and activist living in Los Angeles. She is a proud member of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, the environmentalist study group OOLA, and the architecture faculty at Cal Poly Pomona. She tweets at @sashaplot_.
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
This month, we’re featuring a lot of analysis on climate politics: the climate strikes, climate apartheid, and the rise of fascism along with it. We are also featuring, as usual, many reports and articles documenting the ongoing Indigenous and land rights struggles around the world. We also highlight a debate that started with Jonathan Franzen’s article in the New Yorker, which mixes climate “realism” with a denial of the power of collective power, in favor of individual action.
We continued to collect analyses about the Amazon forest fires and Bolsonaro’s Brazil. A month after the crisis hit the news, articles coming out now are much more measured and well-researched, digging into the connections between global capital, our very own pension funds, and deforestation in the Amazon.
Finally, analysis and debate about degrowth is picking up again. On the left, there was surprising coverage of the movement in The New Republic and Current Affairs. World-famous scientist and analyst, Vaclav Smil, has just released an authoritative book on the science of degrowth. There was also an interesting debate where Leigh Phillips, author of Austerity Ecology, published an article denouncing degrowth. In four separate replies to his piece, scientists and authors took apart each of his arguments and countered them pretty effectively. We feature the debate here.
Uneven Earth updates
Last stand on Ménez Hom | Link | At the top of the Ménez Hom, between the earth and the sky, history had displayed the ability to repeat itself.
Life in flames | Link | On pain and hope in the aftermath of catastrophic fires in Bolivia’s Chiquitanía and Amazon regions
The vine underground | Link | “The unthinkable had happened. No one plans for the end of their own world.”
Destructive space-time | Link | How war bombs and resource extractivism compress past, present, and future
What if we stopped pretending? by Jonathan Franzen sparked an online debate about the merits of and issues with claims that it’s too late to take meaningful climate action. Franzen’s take: “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.” This Twitter thread by climate activist Dr. Genevieve Guenther takes apart Franzen’s article and argues for an activist approach. And Mary Annaïse Heglar writes that Home is always worth it and that “doomer dudes” are “climate de-nihilists.”
Önsketänkande med grön tillväxt – vi måste agera. An op-ed by earth-system scientist Johan Rockström of Stockholm Resilience Center cites the article “Is green growth possible?” by Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis. Rockström retreats from his earlier advocacy of green growth and argues that we need to act politically for more far-reaching change—starting with setting a final date for all fossil fuels.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s revolutions. Le Guin’s work is distinctive not only because it is imaginative, or because it is political, but because she thought so deeply about the work of building a future worth living.
What will it take for human civilization to thrive in a more equitable and sustainable existence on Earth? The enormous violence we see directed at the planet and amongst its inhabitants adds a tremendous sense of urgency to this question. There are many answers that seem compelling. Some answers are technological—we need to be more innovative and use science and technology to solve global problems. Other answers are economic—better pricing will be our ecological salvation. While others still suggest we build and maintain institutions and movements to regulate industries and the environmental bads that flow from the economy.
Too few look more fundamental answers or probe for deeper questions about solutions. Why do we extract and produce so much? Do we need all the consumer products that are produced from natural resources to live a happy life? What kind of economy can we build that allows us to live with better relations to each other and our planet?
Degrowth, by Dr. Giorgos Kallis of the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology (ICTA) of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, is an introduction to the ideas and genesis of a namesake concept in environmental studies that emphasizes dematerialization of the economy, but that also embodies a lot more. Kallis’ interdisciplinary scholarship contributes to the fields of political ecology and ecological economics, two fields that are heavily influential in shaping the main arguments of the book. I have used Kallis’ articles on degrowth in my courses for many years now, so it is a great privilege to have the opportunity to review this longer-form work.
The basic idea of degrowth is that
there are laws of physics that dictate certain physical and natural resource
limits on the economy. Most important are the laws of thermodynamics, notably
the second law, which asserts that the quality of energy or its ability to do
work in a closed system always declines with each transformation.
Accordingly, production—the material basis of the economy and economic growth—is entropic. The more we produce, the more we degrade our natural resources. This means there is an inherent contradiction between economic growth and ecological sustainability because eventually the energy in a system degrades in quality and there is none left that is capable of doing work. According to this theory, while resource efficiency and technological change are important to improving some environmental issues, economic growth ultimately has limitations. Either economic growth hits natural resource limitations that lead to its decline, or, eventually, as the global population begins to decline, the economy could contract.
Degrowth is just as much a prescription
for scholar-activism to examine pathways towards sustainability and environmental
justice, as it is a pathway for positive environmental change. In other words, when
people hear degrowth, many only think only of the pathway from the material
sense, as in degrowth means using less or dematerialization. But as Kallis
clearly articulates degrowth embodies more than just the dematerialized pathway
to sustainability, but as normative precepts that center values such as justice,
equity, race, gender, and living wage work.
Degrowth as it refers to the material
throughput of human civilization is a sobering reminder of the challenges ahead
and the lack of progress on many environmental issues. There are examples of
decarbonization of some electricity sectors around the world, for example in
California. But the overall use of natural resource impacts from human
civilization continues to increase.
of the book
Degrowth was coined in French scholarship in the early 1970s,
where the ideas were brought into contact with theories of social change that
emphasize autonomy and appropriate technology. Chapter 1 one describes these
origins of degrowth as a topic of investigation and debate in environmental
research. It opens with a short intellectual history of ecological economics
and the emergence of the concept degrowth, drawing on contributions from Nicholas
Georgescu-Roegen, Herman Daly, Serge Latouche, Cornelius Castoriadus, to
contemporary work done with colleagues at ICTA.
Kallis’ narrative weaves together a number of influential social scientists, philosophers, and writers that offer insights on the ultimate roots of social and environmental problems such as Ursula Le Guin, J.K. Gibson-Graham, David Harvey, Hannah Arendt, Karl Polyani, Ivan Illich, André Gorz, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Joan Martinez-Alier, to name a few. The articulation of ideas from these thinkers and integration into the motivation and rationale for degrowth, illustrates the breadth of Kallis’ scholarship and quality of writing.
Tracing the intellectual roots of
degrowth to The Limits To Growth,
Kallis shows how several key themes emerged as ideas underlying ecological economics
were read alongside theories of social change, anthropology, development
studies, and interpreted through the lens of environmental justice and
post-colonial theory. The resulting vision for degrowth is of social relations
with reduced the extraction and pollution, that maintains diverse economies, that
values leisure over growth for its own sake, and is based on strong empathetic
What is the economy? Chapter 2 grapples
with the idea of a socially-constructed economy. The chapter revisits the origins
of the ideas underlying how we imagine the health of economy, for example the Dow
Jones Index or gross domestic product (GDP). How did it come to be that the imperative
of economic growth became a core motivation of nation states in modern
One core contention is that economic
policies that use gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of well-being
should be abandoned. The most widely known illustration of this general point
is Daniel Kahneman’s “happiness-income paradox,” where people’s happiness is
not linked to the amount of money they make. This finding, which garnered a
Nobel prize in economics, was a challenge to Western ideas of progress, which
have long used economic growth as a yardstick of development. GDP has some
glaring problems including the fact that it includes spending on activities
that are negative—storm damage, deforestation, hospital visits, asthma inhalers,
for example. There are other indices attempting to move beyond GDP, including
the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare and Human Development Index, but
these too are not without gaps and shortcomings. Also challenging is the
commensuration of complex, undifferentiated social processes into numbers in
the first place, as Kallis notes.
Chapter 3 recounts the emergence of
economic growth in the 20th century phenomena and puts it in the
context of an increase in socio-ecological metabolism, i.e., the total use of
materials and energy of society, which has ushered in extinction and climate
crises. As economic growth marched on, so did ecological degradation and labor
Are growth and ecological
sustainability compatible? The case for degrowth is laid out in chapter 4
starting from the basic premise that material extraction and pollution increase
with economic growth. Some environmental scholars, such as economists or
sociologists adhering to ecological modernization, hold that we could maximize resource
efficiency through technological change and/or accurate pricing (internalizing
externalities). If this were possible, growth and ecological sustainability
could be compatible.
Degrowth advocates like Kallis, instead
argue that the two are incompatible. This is not to argue against trends
towards resource efficiency. They are not against, for example, recycling solar
panels, to utilize more sustainable materials use. Instead, they argue that much
more than resource efficiency and technological change is needed to avoid the
worst of our relations between the economy and its environmental impacts. For
example, recycling solar panels would embody certain principles of a circular
economy, but so would reusing old solar panels, which is not about technology,
but instead requires building new institutions, policies, and practices. Transitioning
to a sustainable economy according to the theory of degrowth will require
changes to wants, values, institutions, and behaviors.