Mother Frankenstein

by Sabine Sharp

Feminist science fiction criticism emerged in the 1970s through the work of critics and fans exploring contributions to science fiction that reimagine and reconceptualise gender, sexuality and the body. Advocates of feminist science fiction have often sought to secure the legitimacy of these contributions to the genre by providing an account of their literary heritage, namely, their descent from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

Over time, feminist science fiction history-telling has gradually abandoned some of the detail and nuance of studies such as Pamela Sargent’s 1975 anthology introduction Women of Wonder. Instead such histories tend to favour generic shifts across decades, often repeating common narratives. By analysing how critics tell the history of feminist science fiction, I argue that a dominant story emerges. This origin story aligns the genre with a branch of late twentieth century feminism that carries uncomfortable echoes of the transphobia peddled by radical feminists such as Janice Raymond and Mary Daly.

Understanding the history of feminist science fiction is a useful project, which can give us an appreciation of undervalued authors or the development of key science fiction ideas. However, this particular narrative of the genre’s beginnings is problematic for a contemporary feminist politics engaging with transgender rights and reproductive justice.

Frankenstein versus Fantasy

Again and again, feminist science fiction critics have cited Frankenstein as the very first science fiction novel, with critics such as Debra Benita Shaw (2000), Robin Roberts (1993), and Jane Donawerth (1997) even referencing the novel in the titles of their works.[i] Texts produced earlier than Frankenstein that might be classified as science fiction – such as Lucian of Samosata’s  A True History (1 AD), or Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666) –  are excluded as ‘ur-science fiction, fantastical rather than science fictional’.[ii] But this presumes a consensus on the boundary between science fiction and fantasy.

Such attempts to exclude other texts contending for the title of generic progenitor echo similar problematic moves by male critics to classify female-authored science fiction as fantasy because of a text’s ambiguity or use of magical realism.[iii] The arguments for the exclusion of works before Frankenstein are not elaborated, but instead the texts are simply dismissed, tarnished by the label ‘fantasy’.

We should remember that Shelley’s novel itself emerges out of the gothic literary tradition, inspired by ghost stories and the supernatural as much as by recent scientific experiments in galvanism.[iv] The novel’s eponymous protagonist Victor Frankenstein pursues an alternative, disparaged area of science, namely, the resurrection of the dead, in a way that critics such as Robin Roberts have linked to magic and witchcraft.[v]

Where science fiction is and is not allowed to blur genres thus appears inconsistent. The significance of the generic gerrymandering of science fiction for women and non-white science fiction writers demands further attention. Women writers may be dismissed for focussing on social rather than so-called ‘hard’ science. Writers of colour drawing on non-Western myth and folklore may find themselves excluded from the genre for handling magic or religion in their work.

Drawing specific boundaries around science fiction to position Frankenstein as the genre’s source also seems to neglect the historical specificity of the term ‘science fiction’, coined in 1929 by Hugo Gernsback, editor of the first science fiction magazine. Furthermore, this ignores the continuing debates around differences in terminology such as ‘scientific romance’, ‘speculative fiction’, and more recently ‘slipstream fiction’ and ‘feminist fabulation’.[vi] This matters because of the power dynamics behind generic categorisation: refusing the label can be read as a snub of ‘genre fiction’, while exclusion from the label has financial and social implications for the author.[vii]

The Gendering of Science Fiction

The tale of Frankenstein as science fiction’s first novel finds its earliest expression in Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree (1973), a lengthy study of science fiction’s history.[viii] Eventually, Aldiss’s name stops appearing in citations though: critics begin describing Frankenstein’s status as simply ‘generally accepted’, or even ‘conventional’.[ix] The mythology of science fiction’s birth out of the mind of the daughter of renowned feminist Mary Wollstonecraft is gradually presented as common knowledge, an almost-but-not-quite indisputable fact.

As that last sentence might suggest, references to Frankenstein implicate Shelley’s work in a project of generic reproduction, sometimes even referring to this text as the mother or grandmother of the genre.[x] The significance of this is the implicit gendering of science fiction: through these descriptions, science fiction is endowed with woman’s power of reproduction, rather than a male patrilineage. The vocabulary of motherhood presents feminism, women and reproduction as central concerns of the genre from its outset, despite the focus on male characters in Shelley’s novel.[xi]

I don’t dispute that science fiction has proved a rich genre for creative experimentation with feminist ideas. However, we need to consider the implications of this generic gendering for future feminist study.

On the one hand, the claiming of Frankenstein as the origin of science fiction generates a sense of women – and especially feminists – belonging in the genre. In the 1970s and 1980s, this was an important move to secure the birth right of feminist science fiction authors and readers. During this period, female fans of science fiction broke new ground. Women authors won science fiction awards as they had never done before, while their readership fought for panels on women and science fiction at conventions and conferences.[xii]

On the other hand, this gendering of science fiction strengthens one particular reading of Shelley’s novel: as a prescient criticism of the masculine delusions of godlike power found in science. By positioning the novel as maternal, and a critique of masculinist science as its key thematic concern, this historically specific feminist critique appears as the heart of all science fiction. As I outline next, this dichotomy of reproductive/female and productive/male places feminist science fiction in uncomfortable alliance with transphobic feminist voices.

Frankenstein’s Monstrous Reproduction

The recognition awarded Frankenstein by feminist science fiction critics is often accompanied by readings of the text as a critique of science, technology and progress. As Anne Cranny-Francis writes:

Victor Frankenstein’s fault is not simply the pursuit of forbidden knowledge, but his failure to consider the consequences of his research, the dilemma faced by scientists in many areas of research today (for example nuclear technology, genetic manipulation, in vitro fertilization).[xiii]

Cranny-Francis connects Frankenstein’s thematic concerns to contemporary debates within feminism regarding the role of science in society, particularly with respect to the environment, the body and reproductive justice.

Beyond this criticism of the sciences’ myopic response to wider ethical and social consequences of research, feminist critics deploy readings of Frankenstein to explore ideas of male appropriation. These critics claim Shelley’s novel as a ‘critique of science as a form of male mastery’, ‘expos[ing] hierarchies of dominance embedded in the practice of science’.[xiv] Science fiction is shown to have a foundation in challenging not only the male dominance of literature – Mary Shelley being one of few women writers in her day – but also of science.

In one strand of feminist science fiction criticism claiming Frankenstein as science fiction’s mother, Shelley’s novel features as exemplary of the history of science fiction. According to Cranny-Francis:

In making his creature Frankenstein not only usurps the place of God, he also usurps the role of woman. Frankenstein’s creature therefore signifies the result of the masculinist attempt to appropriate and exploit this biological capability of women, which in a patriarchal society is their defining, and limiting, characteristic.[xv]

In this reading of the novel, Shelley launches a scathing attack on scientific production as the expression of male envy of women’s reproductive power. Likewise, Susan Gubar describes Frankenstein as a ‘satanic scientist who usurps female powers of procreation’.[xvi]

Frankenstein’s spawning of a new genre thus also bolsters a critical feminist position on reproduction and production. Just as Victor Frankenstein is seen to misappropriate the supposedly female reproductive role, so too are subsequent male science fiction writers seen to adopt and dominate the field of science fiction, failing to pay due respect to their maternal ancestry.

The language of ‘appropriation’ and ‘usurpation’ that these critics use echoes the transphobia peddled by radical feminists such as Robin Morgan, Janice Raymond and Mary Daly. Raymond (1979) infamously declared ‘all transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artefact, appropriating this body for themselves’, while Daly (1978) described transsexualism as an example of the ‘Frankenstein Phenomenon’, an attempt by the male-dominated medical establishment to replace ‘real’ women with surgically produced Stepford Wives (Ira Levin, 1972).[xvii]

This reading of Frankenstein also consolidates the view of science as an inherently masculine realm, a false and shallow substitute for pregnancy and birth. As Sargent points out, this has problematic consequences for women’s engagement in science, technology and science fiction.[xviii] While Cranny-Francis suggests that it is patriarchy that reduces women to their procreative capacity, the language of appropriation in this context gives the impression of something women ought to feel has been wrongly stolen from them.

These feminist critics present women as inherently reproductive, and men as merely productive. In the current context of trans and non-trans women’s infertility, reproductive technologies such as IVF, trans men’s pregnancies, as well as intersex and non-binary identifications, this dichotomy poses difficulties for contemporary trans-inclusive feminism.

Our understandings of the relationship between reproduction and production may be even further complicated with the potential realisation of artificial wombs on the horizon, a technology that prominent feminist Shulasmith Firestone dreamed of liberating women from oppression and ending sexual difference.[xix] As feminist science fiction ideas become reality, we need to rethink how we conceptualise gender both within and without science fiction.

Conclusion

The supposed tainting of science – and consequently science fiction – by male desire to assume a role deemed proper only to women might suggest a contamination so strong that women cannot or should not participate. As Russ points out in her comic essay ‘The Clichés from Outer Space’ (1985), predominantly male science fiction authors have populated science fiction with bizarre and sexist tropes, often about reproduction.[xx] Certainly these clichés have dissuaded many women from participating in reading and writing science fiction, although as Sarah Lefanu highlights,

There have always been women readers of science fiction […] it would be simplistic to assume that a lack of female characters in the science fiction of the time automatically excluded a female readership […] why and how we read books is a more complicated business.[xxi]

How and why we read books as feminist science fiction is a complicated business too, irreducible to a linear genealogy or a single precursor. Thomas Bredehoft provides an alternative origin story which places C. L. Moore’s ‘Shambleau’ (1933) as a foremother of the feminist science fiction genre. He argues, ‘the contesting of origin stories through their revision and re-narration […] is a central feature of feminist sf [science fiction] in general’.[xxii] Rather than construct a singular origin myth, we might instead produce multiple contesting narratives that speak to the shifting boundaries and definitions of science fiction.

A key problem with the mythology of Frankenstein as feminist science fiction’s origin text is the use of (heterosexual) reproduction as a metaphor to describe the development of the genre. Rather than viewing science fiction’s history as a hereditary line, complete with black sheep and honoured ancestors, we might opt for something messier. Such a diverse genre whose authors often strongly disagree on its purpose, qualities and limits requires an alternative vocabulary. Perhaps like Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg, science fiction has no origin myth.[xxiii]

The significance of different feminist science fiction works may unexpectedly change as feminist theory and practice develops in new directions. Nowadays, claiming reproduction as a power only available or suitable for women is a problematic stance, particularly if as feminists we acknowledge trans men and women, and non-binary people, as their self-identified genders.

In 1975, Pamela Sargent argued that better, more thoughtful science fiction pays attention to the social and personal consequences of scientific developments or imagined alternative worlds.[xxiv] If we are to pay attention to the societal, medical and technological developments over the past fifty or so years, then maybe feminist science fiction will demand a different kind of criticism. Maybe there are other histories to tell.

[i] Anne Cranny-Francis, Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), p. 39; Eric S. Rabkin, ‘Science Fiction Women Before Liberation’, in Future Females: A Critical Anthology, ed. by Marleen S. Barr (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981), pp. 9–25 (p. 9); Debra Benita Shaw, Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, 2000, pp. 10–11; Sarah Lefanu, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (London: The Women’s Press, 1988), p. 2; Robin Roberts, ‘Post-Modernism and Feminist Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, 17.2 (1990), 136–52 (p. 139); Veronica Hollinger, ‘Contemporary Trends in Science Fiction Criticism, 1980-1999’, Science Fiction Studies, 26.2 (1999), 232–62 (pp. 235–36); Susan Gubar, ‘C. L. Moore and the Conventions of Women’s Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, 7.1 (1980), 16–27 (p. 16); Robin Roberts, A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993), p. 1; Jane Donawerth, Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997), p. xiii; Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu, ‘Introduction’, in Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, ed. by Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu (London: The Women’s Press, 1985), pp. 1–8 (p. 3); Pamela Sargent, ‘Introduction’, in Women of Wonder: Science Fiction Stories by Women about Women, ed. by Pamela Sargent (New York, NY: Vintage, 1975), pp. xiii–lxiv (pp. xvi–xvii).

[ii] Lefanu, p. 3. Sargent, for example, mentions authors such as Rhoda Broughton who blur the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy. Sargent, pp. xvii–xviii.

[iii] See for example: John Quill, David Ketterer, and Charles Heber Clark, ‘The Women’s Millennium’, Science Fiction Studies, 15.1 (1988), 82–87 (p. 83).

[iv] Maurice Hindle, ‘Introduction’, in Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. xi–l (p. xx).

[v] Roberts, A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction, pp. 6–7.

[vi] Shaw, p. 3; Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination (London: Virago, 2011), pp. 1–8; Marleen Barr, Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond (London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993), p. 11; Robin Roberts, ‘It’s Still Science Fiction: Strategies of Feminist Science Fiction Criticism’, Extrapolation1, 36.3 (1995), 184–97 (p. 193).

[vii] Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood’, Guardian, 29 August 2009 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/aug/29/margaret-atwood-year-of-flood>.

[viii] Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (New York, NY: Antheneum, 1973).

[ix] Cranny-Francis, p. 39; Thomas A Bredehoft, ‘Origin Stories: Feminist Science Fiction and C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau”’, Science Fiction Studies, 24.3 (1997), 369–86 (p. 369).

[x] Rabkin, p. 9; Donawerth.

[xi] Sargent, p. xvii.

[xii] Lefanu, p. 7.

[xiii] Cranny-Francis, p. 39.

[xiv] Gubar, p. 16; Roberts, ‘Post-Modernism and Feminist Science Fiction’, pp. 138–39.

[xv] Cranny-Francis, p. 39.

[xvi] Gubar, p. 16.

[xvii] Janice Raymond, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (London: Teacher’s College Press, 1994), p. 104.

[xviii] Sargent, p. lv.

[xix] Aarathi Prasad, ‘How Artificial Wombs Will Change Our Ideas of Gender, Family and Equality’, Guardian, 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/01/artificial-womb-gender-family-equality-lamb>; Shulasmith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1972), p. 11.

[xx] Joanna Russ, ‘The Clichés from Outer Space’, in Dispatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, ed. by Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu (London: The Women’s Press, 1985), pp. 27–34. See also: Susan Wood, ‘Women and Science Fiction’, Algol/Starship, 16.1 (1978), 9–18.

[xxi] Lefanu, p. 2.

[xxii] Bredehoft, p. 370.

[xxiii] Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149–81.

[xxiv] Sargent, p. lviii.

 

Bibliography

Primary Literature

Cavendish, Margaret, The Blazing World and Other Writings, ed. by Kate Lilley (London: Penguin, 1992)

Lucian of Samosata, True History, ed. by David Lear (Firestone Books, 2013)

Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein, ed. by Maurice Hindle (London: Penguin, 2003)

The Stepford Wives, dir. by Bryan Forbes (Columbia Pictures, 1975)

Secondary Literature

Aldiss, Brian W., and David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (New York, NY: Antheneum, 1973)

Atwood, Margaret, In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination (London: Virago, 2011)

Barr, Marleen, Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond (London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993)

Bredehoft, Thomas A, ‘Origin Stories: Feminist Science Fiction and C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau”’, Science Fiction Studies, 24 (1997), 369–86

Cranny-Francis, Anne, Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1990)

Donawerth, Jane, Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997)

Firestone, Shulasmith, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1972)

Green, Jen, and Sarah Lefanu, ‘Introduction’, in Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, ed. by Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu (London: The Women’s Press, 1985), pp. 1–8

Gubar, Susan, ‘C. L. Moore and the Conventions of Women’s Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, 7 (1980), 16–27

Le Guin, Ursula K., ‘The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood’, The Guardian, 29 August 2009 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/aug/29/margaret-atwood-year-of-flood>

Haraway, Donna, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149–81

Hindle, Maurice, ‘Introduction’, in Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. xi–l

Hollinger, Veronica, ‘Contemporary Trends in Science Fiction Criticism, 1980-1999’, Science Fiction Studies, 26 (1999), 232–62

Lefanu, Sarah, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (London: The Women’s Press, 1988)

Prasad, Aarathi, ‘How Artificial Wombs Will Change Our Ideas of Gender, Family and Equality’, Guardian, 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/01/artificial-womb-gender-family-equality-lamb>

Quill, John, David Ketterer, and Charles Heber Clark, ‘The Women’s Millennium’, 1Science Fiction Studies, 15 (1988), 82–87

Rabkin, Eric S., ‘Science Fiction Women Before Liberation’, in Future Females: A Critical Anthology, ed. by Marleen S. Barr (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981), pp. 9–25

Raymond, Janice, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (London: Teacher’s College Press, 1994)

Roberts, Robin, A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993)

———, ‘It’s Still Science Fiction: Strategies of Feminist Science Fiction Criticism’, Extrapolation1, 36 (1995), 184–97

———, ‘Post-Modernism and Feminist Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, 17 (1990), 136–52

Russ, Joanna, ‘The Clichés from Outer Space’, in Dispatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, ed. by Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu (London: The Women’s Press, 1985), pp. 27–34

Sargent, Pamela, ‘Introduction’, in Women of Wonder: Science Fiction Stories by Women about Women, ed. by Pamela Sargent (New York, NY: Vintage, 1975), pp. xiii–lxiv

Shaw, Debra Benita, Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, 2000

Wood, Susan, ‘Women and Science Fiction’, Algol/Starship, 16 (1978), 9–18

Sabine Sharp is a second year PhD Candidate in English and American Studies at the University of Manchester. Their research maps the emergence of the category ‘trans’ through feminist science fiction film and literature

In Annihilation, the revolution will not be human

Source: Paramount Pictures

by Laura Perry

Originally published in Edge Effects on February 22, 2018

“It’s like they’re stuck in continuous mutation… making something new,” Natalie Portman’s character realizes in the new ecological thriller, Annihilation. If the film adaptation is anything like Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi novel of the same name, audiences will leave the theater wondering if the next squirrel or snail they spot is not what it seems but instead “something new,” something alien.

Drawn from his walks in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in southern Florida, VanderMeer’s Annihilation embeds an alien invasion in a kind of ecological Twilight Zone, where aliens appear not as friendly suburban neighbors but in the guise of outlandish plants and animals making their home in a “pristine” stretch of wilderness.

A biologist, anthropologist, surveyor, and psychologist are dispatched as an expedition team—the twelfth, they’re told—to study what government agencies refer to as Area X. At first glance, Area X seems like a few miles of uninhabited, unassuming coastline. The expedition’s members soon realize that though humans have left the area, that does not mean it is uninhabited. There are warblers, flickers, herons, cormorants, black ibises, banana spiders, damselflies, velvet ants, emerald beetles, tree frogs, fiddler crabs, wild boars, bears, coyotes, deer, raccoons, and fungi among the scrub grass, moss, pine and cypress trees, and salt marshes. (And that’s all in the first chapter.)

But there’s also something else. A boar with a strangely human face. Words on the side of a wall inexplicably made of fruiting bodies. A gastropod surrounded by a nimbus of whirling light.

Representing unfamiliar plants and animals as alien invaders is not the sole province of science fiction. Conservation biologists have long debated whether to resist or embrace the aliens who live among us. In an influential 1958 book, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, Charles Elton described the movement of animals, plants, and other living things around the globe as a series of “ecological explosions” spurred by “invaders” like the European Starling. As environmental historian Libby Robin puts it: “Elton’s imaginative leap was to reconceptualise biota as invaders, to give them agency, and to construct them as a worthy enemy to be managed.” Deploying militaristic language and likening himself to a “war correspondent,” Elton outlined only three possible approaches to an invasive, alien species: “You can tackle them before they get in or while they are trying, so to speak, to pass through the guard—this is quarantine. You can destroy their first small bridgeheads—that is eradication. … Usually, if an invasion has got really going it can only be dealt with by keeping the numbers within bounds, that is by control.”

More recently, ecologists have come to terms with the idea that aliens may already live among us and may be here to stay. As nineteen ecologists argue in a co-authored 2011 Nature article, “Don’t judge species on their origins,” “increasingly, the practical value of the native-versus-alien species dichotomy in conservation is declining, and even becoming counterproductive.” They go on to suggest that “we must embrace the fact of ‘novel ecosystems’ and incorporate many alien species into management plans, rather than try to achieve the often impossible goal of eradicating them.” Though this idea of embracing novel ecosystems may seem “largely innocuous,” Paul Robbins and Sarah Moore point out that the intensity of the debates about what to do with alien species reveals the ongoing “anxiety, discomfort, conflict, and ambivalence experienced by research scientists in fields confronting ecological novelty in a quickly-changing world.”

“We were scientists, trained to observe natural phenomena and the results of human activity. We had not been trained to encounter what appeared to be the uncanny.”

Annihilation both diagnoses this problem and models a solution in a one-two punch that shows just how useful the genre of science fiction can be. When first confronted with undeniably alien phenomena, the members of the expedition team turn to their disciplines and their training for answers: taking notes, “adding detail and nuance to the maps our superiors had given us,” examining the remains of nearby cabins, and “observing a tiny red-and-green tree frog.” Yet the biologist soon comes to believe that these collective attempts to “catalogue the biological reality” are forms of “misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making others invisible?” Though the biologist values her research, she also concludes that “sometimes you get a sense of when the truth of things will not be revealed by microscopes.”

Her approaches to the environments around her are at once intuitive and immersive as well as data-driven, which helps her better understand and adapt to the alien presences she begins to notice in the pristine wilderness of Area X. As the biologist explains, “we were scientists, trained to observe natural phenomena and the results of human activity. We had not been trained to encounter what appeared to be the uncanny.” Between government-imposed secrecy and Area X’s unfamiliar flora and fauna, the expedition team is left to wonder if their tools and training can provide any answers at all.

The borders between us and the unknown only seem clear in a certain light. Boundaries only exist at the right scale. Zoom out, and humans share an ecosystem, a continent, a hemisphere, and a globe with all manner of extreme forms of life.

Academics are wondering this, too. A recent special issue of the journal Environmental Humanities, “Familiarizing the Extraterrestrial / Making Our Planet Alien,” explores how the “extraterrestrial” now haunts unexpected disciplines like anthropology, philosophy, history, geography, and psychology, as well as fields like science and technology studies. The borders between us and the unknown only seem clear in a certain light. Boundaries only exist at the right scale. Zoom out, and humans share an ecosystem, a continent, a hemisphere, and a globe with all manner of extreme forms of life. Zoom in to the microscopic scale, and as Juan Francisco Salazar points out in his study of microbial geographies, we realize that our guts share a biome with the oceans and we are all hosts to an abundance of aliens, invisible to the eye.

This is where science fiction offers a roadmap to understanding and living with aliens and other unsettling forms of life. As the issue’s editors point out, any “theory of the universe includes poetic leaps; any scientific representation is based on some kind of artistic choice. But these leaps and choices typically remain unnoticed. They stay under the radar because we lack the appropriate tools to spot them.”

The boundary-pushing poetic leaps that make Annihilation such a thrilling read also make it a useful tool for those of us who are looking for new ways of living with neighboring nonhumans. If scientists need training in the uncanny, what better way than a crash course in science fiction? As Ursula Heise, Fredric Jameson, and other literary scholars suggest, by imagining alternate worlds and futures science fiction can “make readers see the present anew.” Science fiction can offer us a language to describe the uncanny that we discover and a model for living in an environment that offers more truths than can be measured by microscopes.

What if we were the invaders, even in our own home? What if invasioncontamination, and their companions, pristine and untouched, were inadequate words to explain what is happening to the world around us? What if trying to explain, measure, or define what phenomena move in and shape our world is a fundamentally fruitless exercise with our existing tools and epistemologies? What if language could be a plant, a missing husband an owl, a stretch of coastline a universe?

Laura Perry is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a graduate associate at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, and a member of the Edge Effects editorial board. Her research focuses on species and suburban development in twentieth-century American literature. She is currently a Mellon-Morgridge Graduate Fellow as well as a Public Humanities Exchange (HEX) Fellow. She also hosts Amplify, a weekly radio show on WSUM 91.7 FM Madison. TwitterContact.

Hierarchy, climate change and the state of nature

The Sumerian Standard of Ur is 4,600 years old, showing the king in the top middle, standing taller than any other figure. Image: Wikipedia

 

We briefly mentioned the problem of hierarchy as the shared root of many systems of oppression in our first column two weeks ago.  In this article, we want to expand on the meaning of hierarchy—a system of obedience and command backed by the threat of force—and ground it in history. If we are to understand what we face and avoid reproducing it in building a new society, the social roots of hierarchy deserve a more thorough exploration.

In Western society, there are two prominent ‘origin stories.’ One is that of the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all,’ in which humans are innately vicious and violent, and only the introduction of strong authority could keep people’s natural state in check.

The other story is that prior to the existence of civilizations, humans lived in egalitarian and mostly peaceful bands enjoying the natural abundance of nature. In this version, it was only with the development of agriculture and centralized societies that we fell from grace and became the violent and hierarchical creatures we are today.

The destruction of our environment is not some natural, vicious drive of humanity, but something that emerges from the very inequalities created by hierarchy.

Both stories share an assumption that pre-civilization humans can be painted with a broad brush, and that hierarchy – whether good or bad – can be traced to a natural evolution point in human history.

Thinkers like Rousseau, Spinoza, and Hegel weren’t satisfied with the idea that hierarchy is natural. They asserted that humans have the capacity to be either hierarchical or egalitarian, depending on history and existing social structures, and that human beings are dynamic and not static: there is no single human nature.

The anthropological record

Recent anthropological work appears to prove the truth of this more nuanced perspective on the history of hierarchy in human society.

David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that the story isn’t so simple as anthropology’s old tale of roving communal egalitarian bands, followed by hierarchical agricultural societies.

In fact, they explain, extraordinarily diverse social orders often shifted between very hierarchical and more communal social structures over time, even within a single year.

Throughout human history – this newer evidence suggests – we were neither ‘noble savages’ nor victims of a violent chaos. Even the notion that there is a traceable origin point of hierarchy has been challenged, because this variance in social structure appears to have lasted beyond the development of agriculture and cities; many early cities with advanced infrastructure were composed of apparently classless societies.

So how do we explain the near ubiquitous existence of hierarchical political forms today? Graeber and Wengrow state that despite the early diversity of societal structures – with the formation of the first states around 5,000 years ago – hierarchy became the reigning social order and remains so to this day.

The emergence of the state was characterized by a monopoly on violence, which also allowed surplus to be forcibly concentrated in the hands of a small elite. With this concentration of wealth came tools of violence and control: kings, priesthoods, armies.

With their control over surplus came private property and the need to protect it; from private property came inheritance, and patriarchy as a mechanism to assert ownership of property across generations, through women’s servitude and control over their reproduction.

Understanding the history of domination

The Marxist and anarchist traditions have long worked to explain how these historical transformations calcified inequality and domination, how such class societies have developed over time, and how we can transcend these dynamics into a new society of freedom.

Marxists theorised that the first class societies emerged out of “primitive communism” through a new division of labour and an agricultural surplus that could sustain an idle ruling class. In Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Friedrich Engels developed the theory of patriarchy’s origin in private property.

Marx himself focused on the shift from feudalism to the new class structure of capitalism: an unequal relationship between the owning class and the working class. The bourgeoisie owned the factories, and the proletariat provided their labour.

We know that we must address hierarchy in all its forms—not just capitalism and the state, but also racism, patriarchy, and other systems created by unequal divides among humans, and between humans and the many others with whom we share our common home.

None of this was a natural phenomenon: it was through a specific historical development that modern tools of control emerged, and it was only by understanding the nature of this hierarchical relationship between two classes that we could collectively undo hierarchy and build an egalitarian world.

For the first century of Marxist thought on class society, however, the connections between human exploitation and environmental exploitation remained largely unexplored.

In the mid-20th century, Murray Bookchin, an anarchist theorist and former Marxist, began to develop a framework called social ecology as a way to understand how environmental disaster has its origins in hierarchy as well.

Social ecology recognizes that ecological problems are at root social problems. The destruction of our environment is not some natural, vicious drive of humanity, but something that emerges from the very inequalities created by hierarchy.

We have always adapted nature to our needs, but the destruction of our common home is always against our common interests, and people who survive by their knowledge of their ecosystem are rarely inclined to destabilise it.

Hierarchy creates a class at the top with particular interests of its own, distinct from those of the rest of human society and the environment from which they emerge, and with the power to pursue those interests against the will of those below.

Hierarchy thus facilitates environmental destruction by allowing a small group of elites to pursue their own wealth through exploiting both lower human classes and the rest of nature without accountability or consequences (at least not for them). Bookchin also argued that it was through the domination of one another that we could even conceive of striving to dominate nature.

Since the dawn of early states and classes, elites have marshalled common resources for interstate conflict and enrichment, proliferating slavery, warring armies, and monuments to their conquests. It is no coincidence that Gilgamesh, recorded history’s first mythic hero, was both the king of one of the world’s first states and the destroyer of great cedar forests.

From the city-states of Sumer and the independent emergence of permanently unequal societies in other parts of the world, conquest spread new orders of domination globally, to the detriment of the entire web of life.

Capitalism is simply the most recent form of this basic dynamic. Capitalism and its structural imperative for growth are fundamentally incompatible with ecological sustainability.

And without economic democracy, the vast majority of people who do not own capital have no power to change this course within the present system. Many ecosocialists recognise this, but what social ecology brings to the table is the understanding that hierarchy itself is the enemy of our relationship with nature and the rest of the living world.

Social ecology and our present crisis

Unequal social conditions created by hierarchy are not the only conditions under which ecological destruction can take place, but they make it assured.

Take climate change as a contemporary example—in the face of clear evidence that the fossil fuel economy is strangling our collective future, a tiny, powerful elite is nonetheless able to decide again and again to extract and burn for private profit.

The poorest people on earth have played little to no role in causing climate change, but they will bear the worst of desertification, rising seas, and ever more powerful storms.

The power of the rich over the poor is the only way this is possible. Social ecology insists that we cannot understand the climate crisis through reference to what ‘humanity’ is doing to the earth, for humanity is not a united or uniform actor. The particular social order which gives some of us power over the rest drives our unfolding catastrophe.

If the 7.6 billion people on the planet had equal power to democratically determine our common future and hold one another accountable for the impacts of our actions, we would not be pursuing more oil in the face of certain destruction and mass death. Only true democracy can get to the root of the environmental crisis, and put a stop to it.

Social ecology is useful not only as a perspective on the origins of our present crises, but for charting a path towards real solutions.

If the problem is hierarchy, rather than a few bad actors or industries, then band-aid policies like carbon trading, individual consumer purity, and green technology are revealed for what they are—surface-level tinkering that will not alter the basic structures of our society that are eroding the biosphere.

Even if technological advances were somehow able to profitably transition us to a post-carbon economy, rapacious capitalist growth would still outstrip the earth’s carrying capacity and precipitate global ecological collapse. Nothing short of a radical restructuring of our economic and political systems will suffice.

What might this restructuring look like? How, as organisers, thinkers, and revolutionaries, can we begin to move toward such a transition?

We know that we must address hierarchy in all its forms—not just capitalism and the state, but also racism, patriarchy, and other systems created by unequal divides among humans, and between humans and the many others with whom we share our common home. Guided by hierarchy as the central problem, we can start building new tools for a democratic and ecological society.

Throughout this series, we will be digging deeper into that democracy toolbox. We will examine new institutional forms of economy and politics that we can begin to nurture in civil society, and explore their histories and possibilities.

Above all, we will be sketching the outlines of a new political framework for transforming all of society, building from below on the cooperative and democratic community projects of ordinary people. Imagining utopian alternatives is important, but what our movements need is a path to get there.

This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.

The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organisers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organisations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev

This article was written by Katie Horvath (@katesville7), Mason Herson-Hord (@mason_h2), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

The Craven mode of production: Introduction

by Aaron Vansintjan

A Craven is a floating island which, as some readers may know, is made up of debris and organic matter, largely held together by trees. Each Craven is home to about 200-600 Craveners, though there are some that house up to 5,000. The Craven Confederacy is made up of hundreds of thousands of floating islands dotting the Atlantic. Cravens breed fish, grow algae for ethanol, and harvest crops. They have an extensive trading network, being innovators in preserved foods, recycled microchips, and peer-to-peer wireless technology. The first Cravens were constructed—or rather, grown—about 300 years ago, in the first decades of the Climate Crisis. Named after an enigmatic figure referred to simply as ‘Craven’, it started as a politically-oriented, experimental farm on the Mains, close to what remained of New York City. It was then brought out to sea following a military crackdown on dissent. Since then, they have multiplied slowly, largely out of sight of global events. Today, while they may not rival the economic force of the Global Free Trade Company, or the military might of the Sino-Japanese, American, and Saudi empires, they represent a growing and significant power block in the world system.

And yet, for a first-time visitor, a Craven looks like a messy, unstructured place. There are barely any straight lines, nor does there seem to be much logic in where things are placed, or why. Plants grow all over, there isn’t too much coordination of who does what work, everything is incoherently cobbled together—not unlike a shantytown. In other words, there is no plan.

This was certainly my assessment when I first set foot on a Craven thirty years ago. I worked as an assistant on a trading skipper, dealing mostly in scavenged chips and rare metals. I had never grown my own vegetables, nor did I have any understanding of ecology—what Craveners refer to as ‘common knowledge.’

Trained as an engineer, I could only understand systems that approached order—inputs, outputs, scale, closed or open systems. My experience had told me the most productive industries were organized, clean, and depended on an economy of scale. What I saw on the island did not look like any of the models I had learned about, so I assumed Craveners knew very little about science, efficiency, or industrial design. Theirs was an undeveloped society, I thought, and their success over the past centuries has been largely accidental.

Despite my patronizing attitude, I found that, in business, Craveners were reliable, fair, and delivered quality products. So when I had saved up enough money to start my own skipping business I kept coming back. And as I got to deal with Craveners more I started seeing patterns. I got curious about what they were actually doing. Craveners aren’t very guarded, so I also learned to ask lots of questions.

This is how the conversation often went: I’d point at something, say, one of the many towers dotting one island, and they’d say, ‘That? It’s a pigeon tower.’ ‘What does it do?’ I’d ask. ‘The pigeons feed the soil.’ ‘They feed the soil?’ I’d ask, waiting for more explanation. The Cravener would pause, look at me, confused that this wasn’t self-explanatory. ‘Their dung has nitrogen and phosphorus, doesn’t it?’ they’d respond, ‘but that’s common knowledge,’ they’d add. I soon found that Craveners don’t really see what they are doing as complicated or requiring ‘expertise’. From their perspective, they aren’t doing anything special.

The difficulty of trying to describe Cravener production methods is that each Craven is so different. While many anthropologists have spent lifetimes living on a Craven, doing so does not provide a broad understanding of what techniques they use. Further, knowledge transfer is notoriously decentralized—they may host gatherings and conferences to exchange information, and there may be wikis on different technologies and practices, but there is no central repository, as far as I know at least, about all the practices and technologies that are actually in use. The problem is similar to that of being an Internet historian: you can’t know what is worth reading without some kind of wider knowledge of the Internet era; some theoretical framework by which to assess what is factual, what is useless, or what amounts to a conspiracy theory.

What’s more, Cravener production techniques don’t involve much prior planning. Many practices seem to require highly technical implementation and maintenance, an understanding of wider systems. And yet, construction seems to happen in a very hodge-podge manner, with no clear moment of decision-making. I have rarely witnessed a Cravener creating a model of what they wanted to build. Rather, Cravener infrastructure, with some exceptions, seems to be guided by a kind of vernacular ‘know-how’, instilled into a Cravener from the moment that they’re born.

For example, I’ll often see Cravener children touring the island with an adult, and they’ll stop by some kind of structure. The children will ask questions, and if the adult doesn’t know, they might ask someone working nearby. Children, even when young, might be asked to help build something—and so they learn how it works through practice. As they grow up, they engage in play where they build small versions of these technologies—the same way children on the Mains might build high-risers on the beach. When whole Cravens come together for a festival or a conference, children will travel with their parents to visit relatives and then learn about other Cravener practices. At these conferences, teenage Craveners are organized into teams and asked to come up with an invention, and those that come up with a creative design will be presented with an award. However, the models are not taught in a single ‘course’, the participants in the competitions base them on what they already know from a lifetime of experience. These experiences are not categorized into ‘fields’ but drawn from a kind of general understanding of ecology, design, or even their own society—necessary for knowing the extent to which a new technical practice can be reasonably adopted by their peers.

Of course, many Craveners do specialize as they get older, joining, for example, breeding and genetic modification labs, or spending years building and experimenting with new structures as part of what they call a ‘technical committee’. As many other researchers have documented, Craveners will also participate in a kind of ‘internal participatory ethnography’, where they move to another Craven known for a particular craft and learn from other specialists. And as goes without saying, their conferences can themselves be quite specialized, often focusing on a specific technology or even minutiae like the most ideal water dripping rate needed to grow tomatoes in an aquaponic system. But what they discuss at the conference is rarely implemented at scale or even adopted widely–and so the conferences cannot be seen as representative of Cravener means of production. They constitute more of a ‘best practices’ of what really happens ‘on the ground.’

Only repeated visits to multiple Cravens over a long time period, as well as multiple interviews of Craveners, can allow a researcher to deduce, from general visible patterns, the Cravener mode of production and the specific technologies that power it. I have been a Craven-approved merchant over three decades, which has allowed me to visit over 400 Cravens with a total of about 2,200 unique visits. I’ve also attended 43 Craven conferences. These experiences have provided me with valuable insight into Craven production processes, and the differences and similarities between Cravens. In fact, my research method can be seen as a kind of statistical ethnography, as my accumulated experience is somewhat representative of Cravener society as a whole.

In this book, I describe and catalogue the unique technologies that I believe represent the foundation of the Craven mode of production. I focus largely on specific techniques used in production that make up what Craveners call ‘island ecology’. Technologies can be seen as general ‘types’ that are somewhat isomorphic across Cravens. I hope that this book is useful for anyone who is interested in Craven society, or (even better) wants to start their own Craven society and is curious how they could do so. Further, I believe that understanding these technologies will help readers understand why Cravens have become so successful in a world dominated by insecurity, violence, and ecological collapse.

From a Cravener perspective, of course, ‘technologies’ barely exist. Tools, constructions, and techniques are embedded within their day-to-day lives, rituals, and even political system. They are, as such, indistinguishable from their society as a whole, in the same way that it is difficult to tell the difference between ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ in many other societies. For this reason, one might instead use the term ‘practices’.

Further, it is difficult to formalize these practices into a coherent field of study such as ecology, agriculture, engineering, or sociology. Following previous scholars in the field of Craven studies, I prefer to use the Craven term, ‘common knowledge’, connoting the scientific-social-ecological know-how that allows them to maintain their mode of production and has driven their success over time.

In any case, the reader should keep in mind that these practices are indistinguishable from Craven society as a whole—without their social norms, rituals, and political system, they would certainly not have come close to the kind of astonishing economic success that they enjoy today.

Of course, it’s impossible to write a book about all of Craven society, so I have chosen to focus on the technologies that drive their political economy. However, I hope that the reader will get a sense of how these technologies are integrated within an organic, but holistic, political system. Despite the seemingly disorganized nature of Craven production methods, underlying it is a coherent political system that ensures democratic, and open, economic participation.

As it turns out, what at first appeared to me to be an inefficient and unruly production method, with little centralized direction, is in fact a hyper-productive economic system that encourages constant innovation and experimentation. In other words, a society predicated on the natural abundance of the air, sun, water, and soil—rather than one that has regulated everyone into scarcity. Instead of an economy of scale, a political ecology of scale. The technologies highlighted in this book are an essential part of that ecology.

All photos by Aaron Vansintjan

Aaron Vansintjan is a co-editor at Uneven Earth and is currently pursuing a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. He writes about gentrification, food politics, environmental justice, and contemporary politics.

Fish out of water

By Mario Reinaldo Machado

“Remember to hold the staff firmly,” Doh’s father instructed, “And when you strike you must use your whole body, like this,” and he demonstrated several graceful, powerful thrusts with the fishing spear. Doh watched, anxious for her turn. Her father held out the spear and she curled her fingers around the handle, surprised at its texture, an artifact of many years and much use. It felt powerful, definitive, even in her small hands.

In the deep waters, in the rainy season, there are monsters in the Volta.

“You will not need to use this spear often, for most of the fish the net will do, but in the deep waters, in the rainy season, there are monsters in the Volta.” Doh practiced the technique, burying the tip of the spear into an old stump while her father watched.

Doh was an only child who lived in a small wooden home which her father had built on a steep hill along one of the many serpentine bends of the Lake Volta. The farming families in the community lived just north where the shoreline leveled out, allowing them to take advantage of the seasonal rise and fall of the lake to plant vegetables, potatoes and rice. Doh and her father worked their cassava farm from time to time, but were usually more preoccupied with fish. She helped her father haul in the catch each morning and smoke and salt the fish in the afternoons.

“Ewe people are a fishing people,” her father would tell her as they worked, “even though some of us have forgotten. But so long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”

From an early age, Doh’s father taught her how to fish with traps and lines and spears, how to read the lake’s underwater topography. He told her the stories about the lake and its people and its fish, always finishing by saying, “There are many things I can teach you, but there are many things that you will need to see for yourself,” which would leave Doh with an uneasy feeling.

“But not to worry,” he would quickly add, sometimes brushing the hair from her face so he could look into her eyes, “there are many things you already know.”

Doh had her reservations, and thus always paid careful attention to her father’s lessons, lest she not know quite as much as her father thought she did. She learned to be patient and determined, necessary qualities for any fisherman, and certainly any Ewe.

***

As the rains continued, it soon became clear that there was nowhere else to go, not here, not anywhere: the world had become water.

Doh was a small girl when the rains began. At first, the soil was dry as dust and it ran off towards the lake in great sheets until it stained the shallows like red-red stew. Soon though, it became evident that these were not just passing storms. Pools of water began collecting in the divots between houses and in the fields like lost children, asking any passerby where to go. But as the rains continued, it soon became clear that there was nowhere else to go, not here, not anywhere: the world had become water. Only in the few remaining refugia was land a thought to be had, and even then, it was land so logged with water as to make the distinction between ground and lake and sky rather arbitrary anyway.

As the heavy skies became a regular feature of every horizon, the elders in the village recalled the old days when water had once before reshaped their world. Only then, the water had come from below, creeping up behind the walls of a great dam until there was no other choice but to retreat to the hills. Thousands had left, abandoning the valleys, their homes, communities, and ancestral cemeteries to the elemental forces of both water and progress. A few had stayed, seeing no point in beginning again somewhere else. Whether stubborn or heartbroken, they were only ever heard from again by the fishermen who claimed you could find them still, wallowing in the deepest parts of the lake as fish.

This time, however, it was not the steadily rising dam waters that threatened to undo their world, but the deluge from the clouds that daily baptized this lonely refugia. The climate had changed from the steady, seasonal rise-and-fall that had cradled the quiet fields of groundnuts and yams to the oppressive drumming of raindrops upon every imaginable surface forever. The rains simply would not stop, and the waters everywhere just kept rising.

The villagers guessed at the reasons, though some claimed to have heard on the radio before the rains began that some distant humans had hurt the earth deeply with their poisons. In all their zeal and ardor and reckless hope, they had broken the sky, broken the seasons so that the only thing left for the earth to do was flood the world and begin anew. Doh had heard about these sorts of things from the Bible, which her father used to read by candlelight every night. But he had stopped once the rains began.

“God is no longer here with us,” he once said, blowing out the candle. “Humans have fashioned themselves into gods. Creators, destroyers of worlds.”

In the darkness, with the smell of smoke and wet earth surrounding her, Doh’s father leaned forward on his wooden chair and spoke quietly:

“For those who refuse to be humble, the earth has a way of insisting upon humility. Remember: so long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”

The rains continued to fall, but the sound had become invisible, like background static at the edge of everything in this new universe in which they now found themselves.

She could not see his face and his voice did not betray much emotion. But she imagined him with a smile lifting up the corners of his mouth, though she was not sure why. The rains continued to fall, but the sound had become invisible, like background static at the edge of everything in this new universe in which they now found themselves.

***

Doh’s father passed away after the first few months of the rains. A fever had taken to the village, killing many. Their passing was eyed enviously by the increasingly hungry few that survived. In this disfigured world, it had become impossible to live as a human anymore. It soon became clear that it was impossible to die as one as well. The ground proved too water-logged to bury the bodies and the wood too wet for the fires with which to cremate them. The few bodies that the surviving villagers had managed to cover with earth soon washed out only to tumble down the hillside. With few other options, the community decided to dispose of the bodies in the lake, allowing the newly deceased to join the ancestors, who themselves had long-since been interred beneath the waters of Lake Volta.

On the morning of his passing, Doh’s father, weak from fever, had gotten into his canoe, insisting on going out on the lake to fish. There was almost no salted fish left in the house, almost nothing left to eat. Doh was hungry, she could feel the tumble of nothing inside her stomach and could see the same feeling on her father’s face, despite the sickness.

“I should be back before long,” he said, before pushing off and sliding quietly onto the lake and into the rain. He did not return that evening, or the next. The villagers assumed that the fever had taken him while on the lake, a fate befitting a fisherman and an Ewe. It would save Doh the trouble, they remarked, of taking her father’s body out to be buried beneath the lake. But Doh thought better of it. Instead, she imagined him, far out on the lake, riddled with fever on the floor of his canoe as it slowly filled with rain, slowly began to sink. Doh waited on the shore most of the second day, looking out onto Volta for any sign of her father, but saw nothing except water in every direction.

When she returned home that evening, Doh sat down in her father’s wooden chair under the thatch-grass awning in front of her home. She lit a candle and opened her father’s Bible. The pages hung idly from the worn binding. Inside the book, she found the words illegible, meticulously blackened-out by a piece of charcoal so that each page contained heavy soot lines where the word of God had once been. She flipped through the thin pages with care, finding each one as dark and inarticulate as the last. Finally, she came upon a single un-blackened verse, a lone rhetorical fish in the sea of carbon.

She lifted the candle to illuminate the page and read:

Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said:

“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.
 I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’
The engulfing waters threatened me
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.

Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’

And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

She wondered at the lines, like bags of tea steeping in her mind, reading them over several times before she noticed, scribbled in the margins, between these lines and the blackened ones that followed, her father’s handwriting:

“So long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”

She found the phrase, such a common refrain of her father’s, out of place, curious. Was he trying to send her a message? Did he perhaps believe he might still find salvation, if not in this world, full of water and ruin as it was, than in another? Is that why he had spared this story, of all stories, in a book he had otherwise abandoned?

She pictured her father’s body, floating somewhere among the raindrops on the surface of lake Volta. Or maybe he had already sunk below the surface towards the old cemeteries that had long ago been consumed by the rising dam waters as the rest of the village would soon be. Or maybe he had been eaten, eaten by a fish, some great, monstrous ancestor of their people, in anticipation of being spit out onto dry land.

Her father did not recognize this world anymore, he could no longer live in this loss, so he had gone on the only way he knew how.

The thought of dryness excited her. She closed her eyes and tried to remember dirt and how it felt when baked into her skin. She imagined a warm fire, a warm sun, simple pleasures that these rains had stolen. In that moment she understood: her father did not recognize this world anymore, he could no longer live in this loss, so he had gone on the only way he knew how.

Doh looked out into the forest and across the lake at the endless curtains of falling water and let herself speak aloud what she already knew: “Even this place too will soon be underwater.” The thought was heavy, but she felt light, hopeful for the first time. Maybe she was crazy with fever, or maybe the rains had just logged her mind as it had the land, but either way, there seemed few other options. Tomorrow, she would seek her own salvation.

***

It was a steamy morning on Lake Volta, though the rains were not as persistent. Doh had set out early. Water lapped at the side of the wooden canoe and spilled through the cracks between the boards, uneven as they were, cut by hand from the hardwoods that grew along the shore. Doh dipped her paddle below the surface and drew it across her body lengthwise, sinew and muscles straining silently. The sun pulled itself through a rare break in the clouds, rupturing the sky with splinters of yellow. The light clung to the droplets of sweat and water on Doh’s arms and torso, and she savored the hedonism of a fleeting sunshine. She realized how she had missed that star and every other since the rains began.

The heat rose as she paddled, drawing mist off the water. Soon, Doh could not tell whether the clouds had descended or the lake ascended, but she found herself embraced by walls of moisture and drowning in an impossible fog. Her lungs struggled to digest the viscous air until each breath became timid and shallow. The water continued to rise, or fall, she could no longer tell. The repetition of the paddle strokes, the sound of the rain, gradually pulled her into a lazy intoxication.

She came to with a start and a magnificent inhalation that made her chest stretch to the point of rupture. Something large had struck the boat with a dull thud, causing the hull to toss small waves across the water. She sat up straight and peered into the mist in time to see the fins of a massive fish drop below the surface.

Out of instinct and without much thought, she fixed her line with bait before moving on to ready her harpoon. The bait stunk like carrion and was warm and soggy from the long morning on the boat. Doh swallowed another lungful of watery breath and pierced the bait on the hook, burying the metal completely. She then lowered her line into the water and watched her bait descend until she could no longer see it and kept lowering it until she had no more rope, then fastened the line to the boat. She cradled the spear in her right arm as her father had showed her many years ago, tying off the loose end to the opposite side of the boat and coiling it loosely in her left.

She knelt on the floor of the canoe, careful not to tangle either line, and waited, unsure of exactly what she planned to do next.

“Will you deliver me from this world?!” she yelled, not sure if her words had landed anywhere in particular, nor if there was anywhere for them to land.

She felt a small tug on the baited line and the boat bobbed gently. Doh grabbed the line and when she felt another few bites, jerked it quickly upward, hoping to sink the hook deep in the fish’s throat. Then for a few moments, she felt nothing, saw no movement, and heard nothing but her own breathing and the rain, always the rain. She waited, patient and determined, a good Ewe, a good fishermen.

Time passed, she did not know how long, with the fog in air melding seamlessly with the fog of her thoughts.

When the water finally erupted with the fish, her senses rushed back into the front of her mind. Suddenly, she was leaning hard against the full weight and will of a massive animal, rope digging into her palm. It was the largest fish Doh had ever seen and she knew that neither herself nor the boat stood much of a chance against a creature of this size for very long.

“Use your whole body,” Doh implored herself out loud, and thought back to the lessons with her father. She closed her eyes and let loose her spear with all the intention she could muster from her tired muscles and tired mind. She did not hear it strike the fish, but immediately, blood billowed on the surface. The raindrops off the lake and the waves on the surface washed water into the canoe as she struggled with the dying animal. Soon Doh was standing up to her shins in bloody water. The spear must have struck the fish’s heart or bladder, because gradually the animal calmed and bled heavily and did not dive. Instead, it writhed half-heartedly on the surface before Doh could draw it up alongside the bow.

“Have you taken my father?!” She called to the animal, “Have you delivered him from this world onto dry land?”

No response, but an empty, black eye stared back at her not without recognition. It was inhuman, she thought, but she did not feel misunderstood. The fish blinked, its mouth half submerged grasping at the water as if searching for words. Then slowly, deliberately it spoke with the cadence of her father: “But I will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good.” and its voice trailed off, mouth still slowly articulating on the surface of the water.

She would not miss this place, she thought, but she would miss the place it was before.

The huge eye shuttered and opened again. The smell of blood and the weight of moisture in the atmosphere hung from Doh like a net that had been draped across her arms. She glanced once more at the world around her. The rains had picked up again with droplets like stones rising to a deafening pace. She would not miss this place, she thought, but she would miss the place it was before. But that old world was as much of a dream anymore as the salvation she sought, however foolishly and desperately.

As she stood in the canoe, she remembered her father from many years ago, before the rains, when he was still strong, a student of god, before the fever and the lake had taken him. “Remember:” she imagined him saying, with an unhurried smile crawling across his lips like a caterpillar, “so long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”

She leaned off the boat into the water and swam up to the front of the fish, prying its massive jaws open with her hands. The animal offered little resistance. Using its teeth like the rungs on a ladder, she pulled herself up until she was seated on its tongue. Doh wiped the blood from her eyes, turned, and began to squirm head-first down the creature’s throat.

It was quiet and warm as she made her descent. For the first time in many months, she could no longer hear the rain.

Mario Reinaldo Machado is a doctoral student in Geography at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts and fellow editor of Not Afraid of the Ruins. His research focuses on sustainable agriculture, landscape ecology and food systems in Cuba. He is also a musician, photographer and freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets including the Huffington Post, National Geographic, and Organic Gardening Magazine.

How to navigate the disorientation of a seismic world

Ursula Le Guin: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” Source: Marian Wood Kolisch, Oregon State University

For many, the defining political sensation of our day is disorientation. We often feel torn apart in every direction. Even if we grasp the profound depth of the problems we face, navigating this seismic landscape towards something better always seems beyond us.

Complete ecological catastrophe looms into view – an unsettled future that is nevertheless approaching far too quickly. Climate change is our most obvious doom, without the democratic power – political or economic – to change course. Biodiversity collapse, soil degradation, and deforestation are comparable threats of similar causes.

Even as revolutionary new technologies appear – with the potential to free our lives from drudgery and connect us to one another in ways we had never imagined possible – our undemocratic economy has deployed them as tools of disruption.

Dreams of a post-scarcity technological future darken into one of permanent unemployment, while governments and companies develop unprecedented power for surveillance and propaganda. In a time when decisive marshalling of the public sphere for the public interest is more needed than ever, the state remains under near-total elite control.

And even as promising social movements are emerging from the UK, Latin America, Spain, Greece, Kurdistan, and elsewhere, reactionary movements of racism and hate are also on the rise. Our newfound uncertainty – amid refugee crises and economic restructuring – has fed vicious nationalist resurgences everywhere from Italy to India to America.

Collective action

How do we navigate this frightening and, yes, confusing new world? Even retrospectives on powerful movements of the past can be sources of despair. After all, it is tempting to think, how important and lasting could their achievements be if we’ve still been brought to this moment?

It is worth recognising the truly extraordinary things that mass movements of previous generations have accomplished. Monarchy-toppling revolutions, international labour organising, decolonial struggles, the world-wide feminist movement.

But it is worth recognising the truly extraordinary things that mass movements of previous generations have accomplished. Monarchy-toppling revolutions, international labour organising, decolonial struggles, the world-wide feminist movement – each has changed the world and each provides us with a wealth of practices and experiences for the present moment.

The international labour movement was built on the simple idea that even in a world where working people are ruled by others, they will always have the power to withhold their labour. Its strength came from the kinds of collective actions that anyone could participate in, which over time were scaled up to win sweeping changes for the lives of ordinary people.

Decolonial movements challenged and overthrew colonial apparatuses that had the weight and brutality of world empires behind them.

Feminist and antiracist movements across the world have demonstrated the ways in which social domination is rooted in the most intimate spheres of life and showed that a successful framework for social change must recognise the deeply entwined nature of the personal and the political. They have begun to reweave the entire social fabric of labour, families, and relationships.

Our situation may seem hopeless, but we have a rich inheritance of ideas and practices from which we can draw. Monarchies have been overthrown, dictators pulled down. The world has been shaken on its very foundations by popular movements before, and rebuilt anew. As Ursula Le Guin reminds us: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

Successes and limitations

Of course, each of the movements above had its flaws and limitations. Unions were often extremely hierarchical and can exclude women, and in the US, people of color.

Many decolonial movements became oppressive and authoritarian as they captured but failed to transform the state—and as their leaders became pawns of Western corporations and institutions.

Some strands of the radical feminist movement failed to address racism, classism, and imperialism: others were co-opted by capitalist forces and drained of any revolutionary potential.

These limitations prove illustrative as well, however. They have demonstrated that imperialism, ecological destruction, patriarchy, and class society share a common root—the problem of hierarchy.

Hierarchies between societies, genders, class, and ethnicities make it impossible for some to participate in the political process.

The institutionalisation of radical democracy, where everyone gets a say, is thus essential to creating lasting change. Only real democracy has the potential to simultaneously challenge the injustices of our day and assemble the building blocks of a liberated society.

A new framework

Drawing from past movements’ successes and limitations, we need a new framework to address today’s challenges. We believe that a convergent evolution towards just such a new framework is happening right now, emerging from the experiments and struggles of our time.

Leftists and environmentalists coming from backgrounds as diverse as the Kurdish freedom movement, black nationalism, the Mexican anti-colonial struggle, student debt strikers, and labor organising are shifting toward a politics of counterpower: rather than seeking to capture the state, they are building new popular institutions of genuine democracy within the existing system, to carve out space for survival and self-determination.

There are many names for this approach – communalism, radical municipalism, solidarity economies, democratic confederalism, Abahlalism – and many iterations around the world, from Rojava, Syria to Jackson, Mississippi to Barcelona, Spain to Cape Town, South Africa.

The movements share a commitment to radical democracy and inclusion, a focus on building local, resilient institutions, a skepticism of the state, and a determination to confront hierarchy in all its forms.

We argue that these strategies are promising not only because of their incredible individual work, but because when these clusters of community councils, assemblies, land trusts, and cooperatives are woven together into a coherent movement, they may begin to both proliferate and scale up.

Ultimately, they can supplant existing neoliberal political and economic institutions and grow into the foundation of an entirely new society capable of weathering the storm ahead.

Theoretical reflection

This column is the first in a biweekly series by The Symbiosis Research Collective, a publishing collective and study group comprised of activist-intellectuals who are brought together around questions of how to achieve such social and ecological transformation.

In 2017, some of our founding members won first place in the Next System Project’s competition for the essay Community, Democracy, and Mutual Aid: Toward Dual Power and Beyond. Since then, we have been organising for a movement to revolutionise society through confederal direct democracy in North America.

Our goal is to help people build a new world right in the cities, towns, and neighborhoods where they already live. To that end, we are dedicating the next phase of our work to organising a gathering of municipalist and communalist projects in order to launch a confederation that can connect existing projects and seed new ones.

This project is guided by the spirit that only through lasting alliances can we actualise the vision of an egalitarian, free, and ecological society we so desperately need.

Effective movement-building requires the ongoing dialogue of theoretical reflection, practice, and debate. Over the coming months, we’ll be publishing reflections on a given theme in a bi-weekly series.

Some topics include the history of ecology and revolution, organising how-tos on radical municipalist chapters, energy democracy, alternative education, workers’ movements, and much more.

Ultimately, we aim to fit these pieces into a coherent guide to inspire others to join us in the growing radical municipalist movement. We’re honored and thrilled to have this column appear in The Ecologist.

This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.

The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organizers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organizations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city.

March readings

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’ll 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.

It always feels like things are happening all at once: just as the global economy is transforming radically and we face an environmental crisis of global proportions, new social movements are rising up giving us new ways to think about the future. Weirdly, just at this moment, some are latching on to an idealized vision of modernity and the Enlightenment to defend the status quo. This month, we read articles that complicated the idea of modernity and offered ways to think about society and nature that incorporate, but go beyond, the Enlightenment tradition.

We also highlighted international environmental justice movements, showing that not everything is rosy—but people are fighting and thinking in creative ways, imagining different kinds of modernity and new kinds of internationalism. And lest we forget, March is women’s history month, and what better way to celebrate it than to highlight the—often undervalued—role that women play in global environmental justice movements?

Uneven Earth updates

How to navigate the disorientation of a seismic world | Link | Taking inspiration from past revolutions to build a new framework for the future

Krishna never looks up | Link | “Several tentacle-antennae coiled around his extended arm like Medusa’s hair.”

The migration crisis and the imperial mode of living | Link | Notes toward a degrowth internationalism

Dreaming spaces | Link | “Everywhere is filled with the dream of what could grow, slowly coming true”

Climate change mitigation and adaptation of the poor | Link | A call for decolonial responses to climate change

URGENT REPORT Protomunculus spp | Link | “If an infected robionic is discovered at any stage, universal mandate requires its immediate incineration”

Avatar revisited | Link | Gesturing at decolonization of the great epistemological divides

You might’ve missed…

Climate science’s official text is outdated. Here’s what it’s missing.

The Paris accord is built on speculative ‘tech fantasies’. It can not save us from climate catastrophe.

UN moves towards recognising human right to a healthy environment

Latin American countries sign legally binding pact to protect land defenders

Their forefathers were enslaved. Now, 400 years later, their children will be landowners. A rare victory for the Brazilian poor, as record Amazon land tract is handed over to descendants of escaped enslaved people.

German newspaper publishes names of 33,000 refugees who died trying to reach Europe

Indonesia’s forests caught between exploitation and failed aid programs

‘We are the forgotten people’: It’s been almost six months since Hurricane Maria, and Puerto Ricans are still dying. A multi-media feature.

The battle for paradise: Puerto Ricans and ultrarich “Puertopians” are locked in a pitched struggle over how to remake the island. Naomi Klein reports on the uneven legacy of the hurricane.

A reign of terror: Extra-judicial killings in Duterte’s Philippines. Dorothy Guerrero from Global Justice Now on the killings and opportunities for a Left response.

UK’s Labour sets out to overhaul neo-colonial development policy

Double trouble? How big cities are gentrifying their neighbours

Afrin in Kurdish Syria has been occupied by an invading Turkish army. Here are some articles providing some further context.

Don’t look away: The fight for Afrin is a struggle for radical democracy. Under fire from the forces of reaction, Afrin is the frontline in the fight for democracy. And by the same authors, a longer piece: Why #DefendAfrin? Confronting authoritarian populism with radical democracy. “At stake, not least, and deserving of our attention and solidarity is a radical alternative to both violent authoritarian nationalism and broader systemic violence associated with the contradictory nexus of blind elite cosmopolitanism, neo-imperialism and intensifying militarization that drives uneven globalization.”

The young feminist who died for my people. “Despite scarcity, we do not want bullets, we do not want food, and we do not want money. All we are asking for is action that will stop Turkey from flying its warplanes over the heads of our children.”

Love in a hopeless place. A first-hand account from a German internationalist YPG fighter from the now nearly forgotten battle of Raqqa.

The Kurds need Canada: What level of atrocity won’t we ignore?

Dear Hêlîn, or Anna—because I know you liked your both names. A letter to a British national who died in Afrin.

Turkish troops pour concrete on world’s oldest temple

New politics

Counter-mapping: cartography that lets the powerless speak. How a subversive form of mapmaking charts the stories and customs of those who would otherwise be ignored.

Some millennials aren’t saving for retirement because they don’t think capitalism will exist by then. They’re forming intentional communities and solidarity networks to support and protect each other.

How Cooperation Richmond is empowering marginalized communities to build an equitable economy

The wind of change: Renewables and self-determination. Katie Laing explores the fight for the right to community renewables on the island of Lewis. On one hand is a system that brings direct community control and builds a local economy, on the other one that extracts profit, control and resource from the islands.

An interview with David Bollier on the meaning of the commons for social transformation.

The Barcelona city government is trying to remunicipalize its water system from a private company. The rising tide for the democratic control of water in Barcelona.

An interview with Laura Pérez on the recent massive women’s strike in Spain, and what it means for the “feminization of politics” in Barcelona.

Realising an emancipatory rural politics in the face of authoritarian populism

Ostrom in the city: design principles for the urban commons

Carving out the commons. By now, you could be forgiven for assuming that “the commons” refers to another cocktail bar or coffee shop in yet another neighborhood people used to be able to afford. But Amanda Huron’s new book grounds the romantic notion of urban commons in the everyday struggles of working people.

Where we’re at: analysis

Soak the rich:  An exchange on capital, debt, and the future with David Graeber and Thomas Piketty

Why are water wars back on the agenda? And why we think it’s a bad idea!

Citizens unite in Cape Town’s water crisis

Why Amartya Sen remains the century’s great critic of capitalism. In Sen’s work, the two critiques of capitalism – moral and material – cooperate. He disentangles moral and material issues without favouring one or the other, keeping both in focus.

Surveillance capitalism. Deleting our Facebook accounts following the recent privacy scandal is not enough: we need to challenge the structural problem of surveillance capitalism. On the digital and social networks supporting authoritarian populism, and what can be done to resist them. For those who are active on Facebook, an instruction on how to use it while giving it the minimum amount of personal data.

Loneliness and poor mental health still reign around the world. Since Japanese seniors increasingly find themselves living alone and with no one to talk to, a generation in Japan faces a lonely death, and committing petty theft has become a way for elderly women in particular to escape solitude and isolation; nearly 20% of women inmates in Japan’s prisons are seniors.

How American masculinity, by sending the message that needing others is a sign of weakness and that being vulnerable is unmanly, creates lonely men.

It’s easy to forget that activists fighting to eliminate injustice struggle with mental and physical health, too. A story on those who push, protest, and privately suffer as a result; and the personal account of an environmental professor whose battle with cancer helped her cope emotionally with the reality of climate change.

The necessary transience of happiness. “By selling a myth about the nature of happiness, capitalism creates atomistically-ambitious but socially-obedient individuals who can be distracted from collective values and aspirations.”

Why Americans should give socialism a try. Against the commodification of life and relationships: “Capitalism is an ideology that is far more encompassing than it admits, and one that turns every relationship into a calculable exchange. Bodies, time, energy, creativity, love — all become commodities to be priced and sold. Alienation reigns. There is no room for sustained contemplation and little interest in public morality; everything collapses down to the level of the atomized individual.”

Just think about it…

United States as energy exporter: Is it “fake news”?

It wasn’t just Greece: Archaeologists find early democratic societies in the Americas

Economics has an Africa problem. From 2015, but still relevant.

Why race matters when we talk about the environment

Is the way we think about overpopulation racist?

Corporations do damage to poor women with their global philanthropy. Companies like to focus their corporate social responsibility work on girls because supporting women is, in theory, noncontroversial. But such charitable efforts actually harm girls and women in the Global South by depoliticizing their problems, which are inherently political.

Climate change and the astrobiology of the Anthropocene. “We will either make it across to the other side with the maturity to ‘think like a planet’ or the planet will just move on without us. That, I believe, is the real meaning of what’s happening to us now. It’s a perspective we can’t afford to miss.”

“They are our salvation”: the Sicilian town revived by refugees. With an ageing, fast-shrinking population, Sutera saw Italy’s migrant influx as an opportunity.

Human rights are not enough. We must also embrace the fight against economic inequality.

How six Americans changed their minds about global warming

The tragedy of the commons. Common, a new housing startup, creates cities without qualities—but it will order your toilet paper.

Women and environmental justice

With the 8th of March being International Women’s Day, and Women’s History Month running through March in the US, UK and beyond, this month is a good time to turn the spotlight on women’s struggles and (often overlooked and undervalued) contributions to environmental justice.

Stories of women’s resistance. Women are on the frontlines of climate change around the world: they make up 80% of people displaced by it, are more vulnerable in the aftermath of disasters, and disproportionately face other risks described in this overview from the BBC. But they are also active agents in fighting back against the climate crisis and other forms of environmental injustice.

Finland’s reindeer-herding Sámi women, faced with a combination of weather changes and increased tree cutting that threatens their centuries-old tradition, fight climate change. Meet the “Polish Mothers at the Felling”: a grassroots group of mothers protesting intensified logging practices across Poland. In Nepal, women are running for office to protect traditional forests that belong to indigenous peoples and local communities, and they’re winning. The DRC mining industry is a prime example of how corporate power threatens women’s rights: this is why feminist activists are mobilising behind a proposed international treaty to regulate the impacts of transnational corporations. Indigenous activists of the Chaco movement – the most vital branch of which may be young, Native American women – try to quell a rising tide of oil and gas exploration in Chaco Canyon. In India, women resist plantations that uproot them from their customary forests. On International Women’s Day, a petition initiated by women in West and Central African countries demanded that oil palm companies give back community land and end violence against women living in and around large-scale oil palm plantations; a struggle that women in Guatemala and Colombia and Indonesia face as well.

Here is a women’s strike reader with socialist feminist highlights from the archives of Dissent Magazine, and a list of women activists from around the world taking up the fight for social justice.

Zafer Ülger discusses environmental issues in Turkey, and points to the need for movements that unite ecological struggles with other social struggles, including women’s liberation: “The crises experienced by labor, women or oppressed peoples are not separate from the crisis of nature and ecosystems; it is just the other side of the same coin.”

Female writers and naturalists. A list of nine women who are rewriting the environment from a female perspective; a beautifully intimate portrait of Rachel Carson and her life and work on the sea; and an exploration of Nan Shepherd’s work on the mountains, and what we can learn from it. “Shepherd does for the mountain what Rachel Carson did for the ocean — both women explore entire worlds previously mapped only by men and mostly through the lens of conquest rather than contemplation; both bring to their subject a naturalist’s rigor and a poet’s reverence, gleaming from the splendor of facts a larger meditation on meaning.”

Ecological thought

What does it mean to think ecologically?

Culture shift: redirecting humanity’s path to a flourishing future. It’s time to build a new worldview with connectedness at its center.

When nature and society are seen through the lens of dialectics and systems thinking: “Capitalism casts nature as a resource which is to be exploited, squeezed and discarded. This is in part because of a linear, reductive understanding of the world. But there is an alternative. Dialectical, systems thinking views nature and society through the lens of complexity, contradiction and phase transitions.”

Thinking ecologically: a dialectical approach. In this essay Murray Bookchin warns against overly spiritual, reductive, and mechanistic approaches in ecological thought, injecting a political analysis into the discussion of what it means to think ecologically. In particular, he directs his ire against various strains of new age environmentalism as well as systems thinking.

Mentalities of greening, governing, and getting rich

Utilitarianism made for ‘Hard Times’ in Dickens’ England

Kim Stanley Robinson, the author of sci-fi classics like Red Mars and the more recent New York 2140, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian arguing for a variation of E. O. Wilson’s ‘half earth’ proposal. The idea is that humans should be kicked out of half the planet and inhabit the rest in super-dense and ecological cities. Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, two political ecologists, wrote an essay at the time critiquing Wilson’s book: “Addressing biodiversity loss and other environmental problems must proceed by confronting the world’s obscene inequality, not by blaming the poor and trusting the ‘free market’ to save them.”

10 years ago, the first international degrowth conference was held in Paris. To celebrate, Federico Demaria writes about the rise – and future – of the degrowth movement.

From 2017, a history of the Limits to Growth thesis and the World3 model, which was ridiculed in the 80s but turned out to be correct.

Eric Pineault’s exploration of “how the spectre of Degrowth haunts left ecomodernism as something unimaginable; how it works to foreclose certain avenues of radical thought and practice.”

Another worthy read on the ENTITLE Blog by Emmanuele Leonardi, where he puts the degrowth vs. accelerationism debate in context of the question of value.

Beyond growth or beyond capitalism? A critique of Herman Daly’s steady-state economics, which cannot imagine a world beyond capitalism.

Introduction to an ecosocialist approach to production and consumption

Better technology isn’t the solution to ecological collapse. We need to ditch our addiction to GDP growth.

Modernity and the web of life

With the publishing of Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now!, there’s been a lot of talk about modernity and the Enlightenment, with accusations flying around of anyone who disagrees with the present state of things being accused of anti-modern and anti-Enlightenment. Here are a few rebuttals:

The limitations of Steven Pinker’s optimism

Steven Pinker’s optimism on climate change is misplaced

Waiting for Steven Pinker’s enlightenment

You can deny environmental calamity – until you check the facts

There never was a West (or, democracy emerges from the spaces in between)

In 2015, Anthony Galluzzo wrote a series of articles analyzing the literature of Promethean modernism—worth giving them a read. A tale of two Prometheuses in many parts: Part 1, 2, and 3.

Meanwhile, there’s been a slew of stories about the impacts of modernity on rural areas, our cities, and nature.

Agriculture wars. A tale of the industrialization of rural America and country music as resistance.

Our dying soils: the invisible crisis under our feet

Urban development in India: chasing the global at a cost to the local?

Empty promises: how 600 million young people in India have been missold the future

Mexico: the dangers of industrial corn and its processed edible products  

The 100 million city: is 21st century urbanisation out of control?

The risks are rising for cities in Anthropocene era

Downtown is for people. It’s always worth revisiting Jane Jacob’s classic 1958 essay. “If the downtown of tomorrow looks like most of the redevelopment projects being planned for it today, it will end up a monumental bore. But downtown could be made lively and exciting — and it’s not too hard to find out how.”

Sci-fi and the near future

How J.G. Ballard’s science fiction tells the future of our privatized cities

Introduction: the rising tide of climate change fiction

A nuclear warning designed to last 10,000 years. “Consider a wanderer 10,000 years in the future discovering a strange construction of granite thorns in the New Mexico desert, their points weathered by centuries, their shadows stretching at sinister angles. The wailing figure from Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream,” itself long ago turned to dust, appears on sporadic signs near these totems. It’s unclear for what this site was intended, or who created its menacing forms.”

Apocalypse soon. The science fiction of this century is one in which great existential threats are known: they are real, and terrible.


Resources

An atlas of real utopias. Introducing the Atlas of Utopias, which highlights 32 stories of radical transformation that prove that another world is not only possible in the future, but already exists.

Sufficiency: Moving beyond the gospel of eco-efficiency, a report by Friends of the Earth Europe.

Platform cooperativism: challenging the corporate sharing economy

Decolonising science: a reading list

Whose land is it anyway? A manual for decolonization

The Decolonize issue of YES! Magazine

Capitalism Nature Socialism issue on power, peace and protest: ecofeminist vision, action and alternatives

The Myths of Conquest series, debunking the myths of European colonization of the New World.

 

These newsletters are put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter? Subscribe here.

Krishna never looks up

Illustration: Ernst Haeckel [Public domain], “Bryozoa”, 1904, via Wikimedia Commons
by Harshvardhan Siddharthan

Nudes aren’t allowed, cartoons or advertisements suggesting sex are not allowed, ads for any adult services aren’t allowed — all these get deleted. Sexual organs such as penises or breasts implied but not depicted (eg with bananas or sandbags) are flagged. Boobs. Woman laughing with a bowl of salad; a girl playing with her dog laughing; a woman smiling with a new set of knives, a flight attendant smiling and pouring coffee. Boobs. It was repetitive and monotonous. AI filtered most things correctly but there was the occasional mistake. Krishna liked the job. He didn’t have to think. He always worked with headphones on, listening to music until the siren blared, informing them that their shift had ended.

Back at home Krishna changed out of his work clothes, fixed himself a bowl of Maggi and turned on the TV. There was nothing interesting to watch. He put on Planet Earth and crushed some weed. Just as a brilliant pink sun set behind a lone polar bear floating on an ice floe, Krishna grabbed his jacket and headed out.

His first thought was a leech but there were no leeches where he lived.

The wind was too fierce to light the joint so he squatted behind a mango tree and cupped his hands. That’s when he first felt it. Krishna yelped like he hadn’t yelped since he was a child. His first thought was a leech but there were no leeches where he lived.

Though it was a full moon night Krishna turned on the torchlight on his phone to get a better look. There was something on his leg, attached to his calf, right below his knee, gulping his blood hungrily. The creature — whatever the fuck it was — was about two inches long and had no determinate shape. It quivered almost constantly and like a well used bar of soap it was misshapen, neither rectangular nor circular, but some odd shape that kept changing. It had no eyes, no ears and no face but it did have a mouth with which it had attached itself to Krishna’s calf. The mouth was at the end of an elongated snout that opened and retracted minutely every time the creature sucked Krishna’s blood, like a telescope. It had no legs but instead all over the surface of its body it had curlicueing strands of blue-green tentacle-antennae: tens of hundreds of these of various sizes and lengths. These tentacle-antennae seemed to have a sentience of their own — they moved any which way, independently of each other.  Some reaching out, testing the air, others circling around his leg or trying to, while the majority seemed to wave and sway like palm fronds, simply feeling their way about. Most peculiar of all, the creature appeared to be colourless or rather it appeared to be translucent for you could see some of its organs. Krishna thought it was the most disgusting thing he’d ever seen.

He stared at it for a full five minutes, watching its mouth squeeze and gulp hungrily, its tentacle-antennae swaying wildly.

He’d had enough. He tried at first to shake it off but that was no good. He then grabbed a stone and tried to scrape it off but that was no good either — he only ended up vigorously scraping his own knee. There was only one thing left to do. He stared at it for a full five minutes, watching its mouth squeeze and gulp hungrily, its tentacle-antennae swaying wildly. He prayed and waited, hoping that as suddenly as the creature had torn into him, it would just as suddenly tear off of him and go back to wherever it had come from. But seconds stretched into minutes and the creature continued sucking just as hungrily. He gave himself five more minutes. Then he gave himself another five minutes while he finished a cigarette. Finally he worked up the resolve to pull it out with his own hands. He lunged at it with his right hand, fingers bunched into a fist as if he were going to grab and yank it but he stopped. He lit another cigarette. This time he approached with just his thumb and index finger extended and pinched an especially long curlicueing tentacle-antenna, daintily trying to pry the creature off. It was awful, the tentacle-antenna squirmed and fought in his hand like a living thing. No sooner had he caught hold of it that he let it go, regretting ever having touched it. With the creature still firmly planted on his leg, Krishna started walking home.

The walk back home was long but it took longer still. The creature was relentless. It was sucking at him as if its life depended on it; maybe it did. It didn’t hurt as much as it was disconcerting. Every now and then Krishna would hear something distinct, difficult to describe — like the noise of twigs breaking underfoot or a zipper being pulled; evidently satisfied gulps as the snout released the blood it had sucked into the creature’s body.

Krishna considered stopping by Hakeem Saab’s house but it was well past midnight and he was afraid he would have a lot of explaining and talking to do. Krishna decided he would show himself to the doctor first thing tomorrow and so kept on walking.

The translucent creature bathed in the light of the TV. appeared gray-blue as it continued sucking his blood.

With every step now he felt himself weaken. Just as he thought he would collapse, Krishna saw his house up ahead. He fumbled with the lock twice before he got it opened. Inside he didn’t bother turning on the light and crashed on his sofa in front of the TV. which was playing yet another episode of Planet Earth. The translucent creature bathed in the light of the TV. appeared gray-blue as it continued sucking his blood.

When Krishna woke up the creature was gone. He didn’t look for it, he hoped it had gone for good. His leg had several tiny perforations, little pin-prick sized holes like those left immediately after an injection. The tiny holes were in no discernible pattern or at least no pattern Krishna could discern. Its teeth must have been pretty fucking sharp — it had bitten clean through a brand new pair of jeans to get to his calf. Krishna left the windows and door open in case the creature was still lurking and needed a way out.

Hakeem Saab twirled and untwirled the end of his long grey beard around his index finger as he regarded the tiny holes on Krishna’s leg.

Krishna left the windows and door open in case the creature was still lurking and needed a way out.

‘And this creature was about an inch long you said.’

‘Two inches’ Krishna muttered. This was harder than he had imagined.

‘What were you doing in the jangal alone in the middle of the night anyway?’

‘Sometimes…sometimes I go for a walk. It is peaceful there at night. I can be by myself.’

‘Don’t you live alone?’ To this Krishna said nothing.

‘Well as far as I can tell there seems to be no ill effects. But still it is better to get a toxicology test done seeing as you were bitten by something neither you nor I recognise. I have lived here all my life but who knows? Science discovers something new everyday,’ Hakeem Saab concluded skeptically.

Krishna nodded. ‘Go to G.B. Pant and ask for Dr. Ganga Ram. He will know what to do. He is a good friend of mine so he will keep me in the loop. In the meantime don’t exert yourself. Diseases sometimes remain dormant and the symptoms might not show for days, even years. Meet Dr. Ganga Ram at once. In the meantime, take rest and drink lots of orange juice to replenish the blood you have lost.’

‘Thank you doctor.’ Krishna had his hand on the door when Hakeem Saab spoke up again. ‘And beta don’t mind my saying this. I only say this out of concern and because I was a good friend of your father’s.’ Hakeem Saab paused. ‘It is good that you like walking but you shouldn’t smoke so much beta. It is not good for health. You have your whole life ahead of you, why throw it all away over nothing?’

They both knew Hakeem Saab was only politely referring to cigarettes. Krishna thanked him again, promised to return soon for a follow-up and left.

The sound again. This time he got up and found it. It was hiding in a hole in his wall behind the TV.

Sprawled on the sofa, Krishna was still in his work clothes. He was just about to load up another bowl when he heard that low sort of guttural sound again — difficult to place but unmistakable — like the snapping of twigs or the zipping of zips. His heart sunk. ‘Fuck’ he said but didn’t move. A quarter of an hour passed.

The sound again. This time he got up and found it. It was hiding in a hole in his wall behind the TV. Many of its tentacle-antennae had retracted:  only a few remained. Its snout was opening and closing mechanically, its mouth was crowded with teeth.

Once again Krishna was faced with the unsavory prospect of grabbing it to throw it out. It didn’t look particularly hard or strong…maybe if he hit it forcefully enough with his cricket bat or his Dad’s old walking stick? But then, it quivered like it did and as he had known from the start Krishna felt incapable of dealing with it; for the same reason he had never had or wanted pets, even as a child. Animals were sentient yet could not speak. This had always bothered Krishna because he could never know what they wanted. Which to Krishna was the same as saying he did not know how to live with them.

After all he could clearly see the creature’s beating heart.

He considered the creature for a minute. He brought a knife from the kitchen and set it on top of the TV, where he could reach it easily. After all he could clearly see the creature’s beating heart. After some hemming and hawing Krishna prodded it ever so slightly. It responded. It unfurled some of its tentacle-antennae and two of them came searching for Krishna’s hand. Their touch was gentle but gross: icky and mucousy; how he’d always imagined the underbelly of a pond frog. Tonight it was not hungry. It merely advanced more of its tentacles that searched Krishna’s body as if to say ‘Hi!’.

Krishna gave in to it. With his one free hand he made a video of him being searched/ acquainted and snapped some photos. Finally when he felt as if his whole arm had been dipped in a vat, Krishna tried to jerk himself free. Almost immediately, perhaps instinctively the creature acquiesced. It withdrew all its tentacle-antennae and returned them neatly behind itself where Krishna couldn’t see.

Krishna gave in to it.

Krishna hated using voice command but tonight he was so excited that even as he took a long shower he commanded his home operating system to process the photos and videos he had just taken and search the internet. He had ordered the results by relevance, giving preference to academic journals.

Still dripping wet and with just a towel draped around him, Krishna turned on the TV.

‘Did you search non-english databases?’

‘I did.’

‘And this is all you could find?’

‘This is all there is.’

Krishna stared at the three search results in front of him. Two were fan pages for an Iraqi TV show. One was a discussion forum for…something, he wasn’t entirely sure what. He uploaded the photos and videos and waited for people to respond (‘So I found this thing out in the woods last night….I have no idea what it is. Would anybody by any chance know? TY’)

‘OMG. WTF is that?’

‘That might be the FUGLIEST thing I’ve ever seen’

‘I think it’s kind of cute’

‘This shit is wack…they should use it in the Black Forest sequel’

‘Does it have a pussy? Maybe all it needs is love’

‘Where the Fuck did you find this thing?…My God the teeth….I don’t think I can sleep tonight’’

‘My GF said I was being gross..…So then I showed her this: ….Problem solved :P’

‘Wow.. .Does it have a name? Do you know what it’s called?”

‘Props to you for bringing it home man…I would have shot the sonuvabitch right in its ugly mouth’’

‘And I thought cockroaches are freaky’

‘LOL.LOL.LOL.’

‘Is this even real?…Please tell me it’s not real’

Krishna deleted his post. He asked the same question on a few different forums, including forums for zoology and biology hobbyists. He mostly got questions, no answers. On one of the forums a moderator flagged him: ‘I have 35 years experience with the Zoological Survey of India. This creature bears no similarity to any species I have read or even heard about. From the previous messages it would appear that most of my fellow zoologists concur. It is possible this is a species new to science but the photos you have posted clearly show an eight chambered lung which became extinct post the Cambrian explosion. This is a forum reserved for serious scientific discussion among professional zoologists and paleobiologists. Unless you can provide something more concrete than a handful of photographs and videos (i.e. anything not easily digitally renderable or manipulable) or any information beyond “I found this creature in the woods last night”, I doubt this forum can be of any help to you’.

A new day had broken. In the distance he could hear Majeed chacha calling the faithful to prayer. Allah hu Akbar!  Ashadhu an la ilaha iIla Allah! Hayya ala s-salah!

Krishna had about three hours left before he had to report to work. The creature had not budged.

Krishna had about three hours left before he had to report to work. The creature had not budged. As far as Krishna could tell it was compressed and motionless with its snout withdrawn. Only a few tentacle-antennae swayed every now and then like wisps of stray hair. As before, because the tentacle-antennae moved independently, Krishna had difficulty imagining it as part of the same body, the same organism. He fell asleep naming and counting the different muscles and bones in his body, starting with his legs.

Krishna pulled out two 500ml  Pepsi bottles from his bag: one each of chicken blood and goat blood. He had already tried feeding it most anything in his kitchen — blended fruits and vegetables, cow’s milk and goat’s milk, cottage cheese, rancid cottage cheese, mint leaves, rice beer, porridge, whiskey, wine, random chips packets, raw beaten eggs, soya chunks, but the creature showed no interest. He had also tried waving things he had specially purchased from the market in front of the creature’s snout – baby food, chicken liver and chicken feet, goat brain, raw fish, cooked fish, kebabs, goat tongue but again the creature barely moved. It was only then that he had reluctantly asked a bewildered Ismail Qureshi to give him some blood from his next batch of slaughterings; ‘I’ve been working on a slasher film. I tried ketchup but it didn’t look very convincing.’ Krishna didn’t sound convincing either, but that didn’t matter because Qureshi bhai knew him.

The tentacle antennae lit up a bright parrot green. He could see its heart pumping violently, straining against its membranous body, so much so that he was afraid it would leap out

Krishna emptied the Pepsi bottles into two ceramic china bowls. He placed them on the TV right next to the hole where the creature lived and waited. Three tentacle-antennae appeared. They hovered around one bowl, then the next. Then three more tentacle-antennae issued forth. Finally the creature squeezed itself out of the gap in his wall and by the aid of its tentacle-antennae pulled itself closer to the brim of the bowl containing chicken blood. Its snout opened, elongating like a ramp being lowered. Its mouth crowded with teeth yawned open and he heard that sound again. The tentacle antennae lit up a bright parrot green. He could see its heart pumping violently, straining against its membranous body, so much so that he was afraid it would leap out. But five excited minutes later, the mouth closed; the snout drew back; the tentacle-antennae retracted and the creature returned to its hole in the wall without having taken so much as a sip. Krishna sighed and sat down on the sofa. When he checked in on it in the morning the china bowls of blood were exactly as he had left them. On his way out, he threw them out along with the empty Pepsi bottles.

***

Thirty minutes into Myths and Shadows he heard that sound again. He tried to ignore it but it was persistent and mechanical this time, like an alarm clock. This was annoying because his team had all but cornered the orcs and taken the citadel, which would have upgraded his Mage to level 3. “I’m sorry guys I’m going to have to log off.” Mxcooky cussed and grondylion15 grumbled but he logged off anyway.

He did not know what it wanted. Krishna chewed his lip. He had a granola bar in his pocket. He dangled it in front of the creature but knew even as he was doing it that this was pointless. He did not like what he had to do next. He left and returned with oven mitts that he had to dust off first because he had not used them in over a year. He pulled down the sleeves of his shirt, put on the oven mitts and jabbed the creature in the one spot where he could not see a tentacle-antenna.

The creature slobbered forward, its tentacle-antennae pulling it along, leaving a trail of pus-coloured slime in its wake.

Several tentacle-antennae coiled around his extended arm like Medusa’s hair. The creature slobbered forward, its tentacle-antennae pulling it along, leaving a trail of pus-coloured slime in its wake. Krishna wished he had thought of putting a jacket on. He was in the middle of cursing himself for never having gotten his helmet fixed when he felt a sharp stab of pain; less severe than what he remembered from a week ago, maybe because he was expecting it this time. The creature, sitting on his oven mitts had sunk its teeth right beneath his palm.

At first Krishna fed the creature whenever it cried persistently like an alarm clock. But this was beginning to take a toll on him. He had already missed three days of work. He liked to use off days to travel: trek through the jangal or else go someplace he had never been. It rankled him that he was taking off days but only sleeping through them.

Regular feeding had also bloated the creature. It now filled the hole it lived in and its tentacle-antennae were no longer tucked neatly behind it. They spilled out like a mouthful of spaghetti.

Krishna put on the oven mitts. This time he applied castor oil on his arms before pulling down his sleeves. But the creature bit below his palm and drank as voraciously as ever.

This seemed to do the trick. It gulped hungrier than ever; he could feel its snout jackhammering as it pushed and pulled against his oven mitts; every organ in its body working double speed.

The following night Krishna applied both castor oil and chili powder to his arms. This seemed to do the trick. It gulped hungrier than ever; he could feel its snout jackhammering as it pushed and pulled against his oven mitts; every organ in its body working double speed. With every gulp it increased its intake, its mouth yawning. More hastily than it ever had before the creature withdrew and pulled back into the hole. For the first time in weeks he showed up to work on time. His boss complimented him, commenting that ‘he seems better’ and ‘hoped he would continue to be so.’

On his way back from work Krishna stopped by the pet store to buy a leash. Considering how thin the creature’s skin appeared, Krishna didn’t want to damage its organs. Despite its diet being laced with castor oil and chili powder the creature had steadily grown to the size of a pug or a chihuahua: it now hung awkwardly from the hole it occupied. He squinted his eyes but this hurt after awhile. He moved the TV away from the hole in the wall, pushing it to the corner of the room but this was no use because the room was quite small — even while sitting at the very edge of the sofa he could still see the creature’s blue-green tentacle-antennae flailing about out of the corner of his eyes. Finally he considered switching the sofa and TV so that his back would be turned to the wall but he didn’t like this idea at all because he would no longer be able to see the creature and he was afraid that it could sneak up on him.

He had avoided mopping all week because he knew that the creature would leave a trail of pus-coloured slime all over the floor.

He tied the leash into a loose knot around the creature. He had avoided mopping all week because he knew that the creature would leave a trail of pus-coloured slime all over the floor. The leash worked. The creature jiggled into different shapes as if it were trying out clothes until it found one that fit the knot. Krishna pulled and with a soft thud the creature fell to the floor, allowing itself to be lead to the puja room without any resistance whatsoever. Krishna now wished that he hadn’t put this off for weeks: the whole process of shifting the creature had taken less than a minute.

Later that night while smoking pot he pictured himself taking the creature out for a walk. He imagined what people would say. Krishna then burst out laughing because he knew exactly what they would say.

It sank its teeth deeper and deeper into his skin, drawing more and more blood despite the liberal concoction of chillies, pepper and castor oil that he now slathered before each session.

He no longer fed the creature the way he used to, allowing it to sit on his hand. It had grown much too big for that. Instead he held the door to the puja room slightly ajar — just enough for one of his hands to slip through. Although by now he found the creature harmless he couldn’t bring himself to hold it or touch it even. It sank its teeth deeper and deeper into his skin, drawing more and more blood despite the liberal concoction of chillies, pepper and castor oil that he now slathered before each session. He was running out of excuses at work so he had taken to feeding it only over the weekend.

A thin pool of the pus-coloured liquid had leaked beneath the puja room door which he had kept locked since god knows when. No sooner had he entered the room then the creature, now fluffed like a mattress, lurched forward; this was the first time in weeks Krishna had laid eyes on it. It was more than he could take. Instinctively praying out loud to no god in particular Krishna wheeled round and slammed the door shut. The creature’s tentacle-antennae scratched and banged frantically against the closed door. Usually Krishna tried to ignore these sounds, but on that day he stood on the other side of the door, not putting on any music until the creature stopped trying and the house became quiet again.

Seema repeated once again that this might be his last chance to see the creature.

Something had to be done. He had started exchanging emails with Seema Doval, the Zoological Survey of India scientist who had dismissed his post as a hoax. Further photos and videos he had shared had intrigued her. She had agreed to drive down with six other colleagues from the ZSI regional centre in Mussourie. He handed Seema the keys to his house and the puja room and told her that he hoped they would take the creature because he no longer wished to take care of it. He’d be waiting for her call at a tea shop about a minute’s walk from his house. After what felt like an hour Seema called. She told him that they had decided to take the creature and that it had been shifted without incident to the van; she asked Krishna if he wanted to see it before they took it to Dehradun. ‘No that’s alright, you can go ahead and take it’. Seema repeated once again that this might be his last chance to see the creature. ‘That’s okay. I have some important work to attend to. You can leave my keys with my neighbour, I’ll collect them later.’

***

Krishna had just finished purchasing Mithril armor for his level 9 Mage in Myths and Shadows when he spotted something out of the corner of his eye: flapping tendrils of blue-green tentacle-antennae. He paused the game and leapt up. He wasn’t imagining it. It was only about as big as a ping-pong ball now. Its tentacle-antennae were scratching the window, presumably waiting to be let in.

Krishna called up Seema. She picked up after the first ring. ‘Thank God it’s with you! We thought of checking with you but the idea seemed so ridiculous considering we had it locked in a lab so far away.’

Krishna opened the window and let the creature in.

Seema told him that a van full of zoologists would leave immediately from Mussourie, though it was the middle of the night. ‘This time I’ll make sure it’s monitored 24/7.’ After a split second pause she added, ‘Nobody has seen anything like this. This could be the single most important discovery of the decade.’

Krishna opened the window and let the creature in.

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Okay. I’m sorry I sent you there. I thought they would know what to do with you.’ Even though he had no oven mitts on he let it lie on his hand. Gently he stroked it up and down, up and down along its body like it was a dog or a cat. The creature unfurled a few of its tentacle-antennae and tightened its grip on Krishna’s arm but did not extend its snout. It kept its mouth tightly closed. Krishna tried to coax it into drinking his blood, reassuring it in whatever way he could think of that it had his permission but the creature wouldn’t. It merely lay on his palm and allowed itself to be petted. He could see and feel the pus-coloured slime running down the length of his hand. The tentacle-antennae probed but Krishna continued to hold it.

Gently he stroked it up and down, up and down along its body like it was a dog or a cat. The creature unfurled a few of its tentacle-antennae and tightened its grip on Krishna’s arm but did not extend its snout.

He started walking towards the jangal, where he had first found the creature. He found a small cluster of deodar trees and stopped. He flicked open a pocket knife and nicked his wrist, allowing the blood to flow. But the creature still didn’t drink. Krishna again dug with the pocket knife into his flesh, cutting a deeper wound, allowing more blood to flow. This time the creature opened its snout and drank hungrily. It opened its mouth and bit into the wound Krishna had slashed into his hand, widening it further. It stayed like that for a long time, suckling hungrily.

Seema and the scientists would be arriving soon. Krishna tried to jerk himself free but the creature held fast. He flicked open his pocket knife and tried to pry himself away but the creature only strengthened its hold with more tentacle-antennae. Finally Krishna pulled out his lighter and brought it within singeing distance of the creature. He turned up the flame to make sure it felt the heat. The creature relented.

By the time Krishna got back, Seema and her colleagues were waiting for him. They were disappointed and angry that the creature had escaped but they couldn’t blame him. He promised to let them know if it ever came back.

But sometimes on windy nights Krishna thinks he hears a faint noise like twigs breaking  underfoot, or at work he sometimes faintly hears something like a zipper being pulled.

Krishna cleaned out the puja room with all its accumulated slime and junk and put his parent’s things back where they belonged. He purchased new shirts, the punctures and cuts in his arms healed and Hakeem Saab once again gave him the all clear (and this time he didn’t ask him to stop smoking). Ismail Qureshi no longer teased him and asked to see his slasher film and Seema stopped emailing him every other week.

But sometimes on windy nights Krishna thinks he hears a faint noise like twigs breaking  underfoot, or at work he sometimes faintly hears something like a zipper being pulled. Flagged. Delete.Teenagers laughing and jumping into a swimming pool; a smiling nurse about to administer an injection; a teacher smiling while writing on the blackboard; a woman laughing while talking on her phone. Delete. Krishna never looks up.

Glossary

  1. Maggi – a popular brand of instant noodles
  2. Saab – a term of respect. Roughly translates to sir.
  3. Jangal – forest
  4. Beta – a term of endearment. Literally translates to son.
  5. Chacha – Literally means your father’s brother but often also used for people around your father’s age.
  6. Allah hu Akbar!  Ashadhu an la ilaha iIla Allah! Hayya ala s-salah! – God is great! I bear witness that there is no god except the One God! Hurry to the prayer!
  7. Bhai – Literally means brother. But it is a term used to address most anyone.
  8. Puja room – the place in Hindu households where idols of deities are kept and worshipped.

Harshvardhan Siddharthan, or Harsh, was born and raised in New Delhi and is currently interested in pursuing socio-cultural anthropology. He has previously worked as a journalist and his articles have appeared in The Hindu, The Indian Express and The Andaman Chronicle. Harsh always welcomes feedback, assignments and criticism. He can be reached at s.harshvardhan@gmail.com

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

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The migration crisis and the imperial mode of living

Tourists on a cruise ship docked at Valletta, Malta. Source: Flickr.

by Miriam Lang

We are currently facing the most severe migration crisis in history. In Europe, the debate on how to tackle the root causes of migration, including forced migration, happens mainly amongst established political actors such as political parties, state institutions, and large international NGOs. This debate focuses on wars, catastrophes, arms trade, and terror, which are all framed as a state of emergency.

For these actors, it is difficult to find practical, immediate solutions to the problem, because this would require addressing the root causes of those wars, going against the immediate interests of European states and international organizations. In consequence, these actors propose “development aid“ as the panacea to address root causes of migration.This aid is then tied to bilateral agreements with Arabic or African countries to prevent migration from occurring in the first place, or which make the deportation  of migrants from Europe to their country of origin easier. Left-leaning critical migration researchers rightly critique this approach for misusing development co-operation as a tool for migration management.

One common response on the left is to, on the one hand, highlight the hypocrisy of trying to solve the crisis through development aid while continuing to drive these crises through arms deals and Western involvement in regional wars, and, on the other hand, framing the migrant crisis in terms of the right to free movement and the human rights of migrants.

Addressing the refugee crisis requires questioning the dominant notions of what it means to live a good life, to think global when it comes to social welfare

But this responds to only one dimension of a broader civilizational crisis. Anti-racist and migrant justice movements should not focus solely on issues of human mobility rights, the failure or even adverse effects of development aid, or Western military involvements. They also need to question the colonial division of nature and labor and what has been called the ‘imperial mode of living.’ Doing so would involve building  new paths of solidarity with societies in the geopolitical Global South. In this sense, addressing the refugee crisis requires questioning the dominant notions of what it means to live a good life, to think global when it comes to social welfare and to link up with movements such as eco-feminism or degrowth. This  could open up new possibilities to address social relegation due to immigration, as they exist in the Global North.

 

It is urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South

The left  focus on critiquing the mainstream discourse easily leads to an equally politically problematic counter-position, an attitude that principally welcomes migration as something positive without questioning its root causes or the deterioration of living conditions in the Global South. However, can migration be something principally unproblematic that is to be welcomed and even increased? Does the defense of the right to migrate necessarily have to lead us to ignore the manifold coercions that force people to migrate? Must we not, on the contrary, acknowledge the real-life scenarios in the geopolitical Global South and our historical, economic and political contribution to these?

Today, a counter-hegemonic project must necessarily result from a collective construction process between the global North and South, which understands their interdependencies. Of course we have to object when governmental institutions differentiate between “good“ or “legal” refugees on the one hand, and “bad“ or “illegal” refugees on the other hand. However, this should not lead us to ignore global power relations or to paint a naive and euphemistic picture of migration as a natural phenomenon with  positive connotations of  personal choice  and self-determination.

It is just as urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South, as it is to fight for open borders and dignified living conditions for those who have already fled.

By relying only on a “right to move” framework, we fail to address  what makes this current wave of immigration unique. The decision of a German who prefers to live in the USA is radically different from that of a Nigerian who faces the dangers associated with fleeing and entering the EU undocumented. At the end of 2015, over 65 million persons were displaced globally—a historical record. In light of this situation, it is just as urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South, as it is to fight for open borders and dignified living conditions for those who have already fled.

As already mentioned, this process is rooted in the international division of labor, and, more specifically, the exploitation of nature (‘resources’) and cheap labor in the Global South to ensure unlimited consumption options in the North. Because of this, the geopolitical South is increasingly faced with  “accumulation by dispossession” as the Marxist geographer David Harvey put it, to satisfy the demand for commodities of the North and new middle and upper classes in some southern countries. This greed for raw materials has led to a massive expansion and acceleration of extractivism: the export of oil, minerals or cash crops is often the only possibility for Southern economies to integrate themselves into the existing world market. As the reports of several human rights organizations show, these processes destroy the material conditions necessary for the lives of increasing numbers of people. The destruction is not only environmental, but often includes the very social fabric of the concerned regions.  People are forced to migrate, and are dispossessed of their social bonds and cultural contexts and knowledges. The so-called ‘green economy’, often mentioned as a ‘clean’ solution to combine ecological concerns with economic growth – for example wind or solar energy production or electric cars – also requires resources such as rare minerals, cobalt, lithium or copper, whose exploitation leads to destructive  social-ecological conflicts elsewhere.

At the same time, the globalized world market ensures that production chains and power relations, and effects like environmental destruction and exploitation which are inscribed in all consumer goods, remain abstract or are systematically obscured. However, those global value chains and power relations constitute a causal link between the imperial mode of living in the geopolitical North and the root causes for flight and migration in the South. In most cases, migration is not a freely-chosen emancipated decision, but a reaction to a specific concurrence of constraints, for example capitalist, gender-specific, ecological and/or (neo)colonial ones. Many of those people who play cat and mouse with the European border-regime today would rather have stayed in their own cultural and socio-economic contexts, if this had been a viable option.

The container port at Fos-Sur-Mer, France.

 

Who has the right to the imperial mode of living?

The imperial mode of living divides the North from the South, because the prosperity of the former is historically rooted in the exploitation of the living environments and (often unpaid) workforce of the latter

The term ‘imperial mode of living’, coined by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, does not seek to describe a certain lifestyle practiced by specific social milieus. Rather, it  refers to the hegemonic patterns of production, distribution, and consumption in combination with related cultural imaginaries and subjectivities. These are deeply embedded in the day-to-day practices of the majorities in the global North and increasingly find their ways into the upper and middle classes of countries in the global South.

This mode of living is imperial insofar as it assumes unlimited access to all resources – the space, nature, cheap labor, and sinks of the entire planet – only for a small and privileged minority of the global population. This mode of living is only possible while such unlimited access is secured either by political and judicial means, or by military means and violence. The imperial mode of living connects the geopolitical North and South insofar as it represents their shared hegemonic ideal of a successful and good life under current capitalist conditions, an ideal closely related to the promise of ‘catch-up development’. But at the same time, it divides the North from the South, because the prosperity of the former is historically rooted in the exploitation of the living environments and (often unpaid) workforce of the latter.

Without doubt, open borders and global mobility have to be fought for, especially against nationalist or right-wing environmentalism. But new questions arise around these claims if we consider the global division of labor and nature and the imperial mode of living. Does the claim to open borders and the right to move translate into the right for every human to participate in this mode of living, including those from the global South, if necessary, via migration? This is impossible for two reasons: firstly, while the multidimensional ecological crisis is already threatening the material conditions for the reproduction of life on our planet, the ecological destruction necessary to sustain this mode of living would be intensified. Secondly, because the imperial mode of living always requires an ‘elsewhere’, a foreign space to where exploitation and destruction can be externalized. But when applied to everybody, such an ’elsewhere’ would no longer exist. Without a doubt, many migrants indeed come to Europe hoping to participate in the imperial mode of living, which in most cases reveals to be an illusion, due to the manifold mechanisms of a “selective inclusion“ in place. However, the real question should be: do they, do we, or does anybody at all have the right to a mode of living that exploits and destroys the livelihoods of other people?

New perceptions of the good life

A critical left perspective on refugees and migration that is in solidarity with the global South requires a comprehensive paradigm-shift. The hegemonic discourse of what is considered a good and successful life is based on a number of problematic assumptions: that life as it is today in the Western World represents the highest stage of development of human civilization, and that modifying it would necessarily constitute a loss; that happiness inevitably relies on mass consumption and the accumulation of material goods; that the path of history is one and linear and that other modes of living that are less permeated by capitalist logics and based on different world views are necessarily inferior, backward and underdeveloped on this path; that the advancement of technology is only possible via multinational corporations; that it is the state which has to provide social welfare in a centralized manner; and that – as the idea of socialism in the 20th century suggested – one single, universally applicable master plan is needed before we can initiate change.

Modes of living which require less material consumption do not necessarily mean a loss, but can give rise to genuine enrichment.

In my opinion, the key way to challenge this narrative  lies in the connection between anti-racist struggles for the right to migrate and struggles for a different, less alienated, less accelerated, and individualized life. Such struggles do exist in Europe and the geopolitical North and have gained strength over recent years. The degrowth movement and ecofeminism undermine the basis of chauvinist feelings of ‘entitlement’ to prosperity and of widespread fears of being socially deprived by the presence of migrants or refugees, insofar as these struggles fundamentally  question the narrative that the western, European way of life equals prosperity or a good life. As Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen puts it, “we inhabitants of the northern hemisphere are materially well-supplied or even over-supplied, but nevertheless we experience needs. The big problems of our times are individualistic isolation, loneliness and existential fears, as well as the recourse to racist, nationalist patterns of conviviality as we lack of emancipatory concepts.”

Movements such as degrowth and ecofeminism tackle consumption patterns of the imperial mode of living in their everyday dimension, thus opening up possibilities of active transformation for people in the geopolitical global North. These movements make it possible to collectively learn  that modes of living which require less material consumption do not necessarily mean a loss, but can give rise to genuine enrichment.

Of course, our social reproduction and the fulfillment of our needs do have a material dimension. But this material dimension a) does not necessarily have to be governed exclusively by money – see for example the debate and practice around commons and commonism – and b) is not the only dimension there is to poverty and wealth. Notions of abundance, value, and wealth related to quality of relationships, self-determination, self-reliance, the ability to redistribute, the experience of finding meaning in life, and the effective power to act are systematically made invisible by the poverty indicators which dominate the development discourse: quality of life is reduced to money, consumption and, at best, access to public services.

In the last decade, the alternative paradigm of Buen Vivir(living well) – emerged from some Latin American countries as a counter-narrative to capitalist wellbeing. It considers humans as part of Nature, thus promotes harmonic relations with all other beings, and puts emphasis on communitarian construction from below in a territorial sense, leaving plenty of room for diversity. Other important principles are equilibrium, reciprocity and complementarity instead of accumulation, progress, growth and competition. Buen vivir, if it is developed from the bottom up and, above all, in democratic ways – will inevitably have different shapes in different contexts. This is why emancipatory debates in Latin America increasingly speak of los buenos vivires in plural.

Movements such as degrowth or the commons can connect with struggles around Buen Vivir, post-extractivism and post-development in the global South, opening up a perspective through which people in the geopolitical North and South can work together to overcome the hegemony of the imperial mode of living. These approaches also take on responsibility for challenging imperial day-to-day practices and can directly and simultaneously address the root causes of forced migration, often caused by compensatory mass-consumption elsewhere, and the roots of the global ecological crisis.

Considering social welfare globally

Finally, what about the alleged threat that migration poses to the welfare state? If we are consequently striving for social equity, we can only consider welfare or social security in a truly global manner. Although this might sound threatening at first, in my opinion nobody has a birth right to certain social benefits. Some of the feminist debates around care and commons are path-breaking here. If it is impossible to globally extend the social welfare state, as it has existed only in a small part of the world, and only for a few decades – on the basis of cheap energy and centuries of previous value transfer from the global South – then we need to replace the utopia of the social welfare state with alternative concepts. The commoning of care might be a possible pathway, while at the same time reducing the hours dedicated to paid labor – without abstaining from the state altogether, which would still need to provide the ideal conditions for this kind of commoning.

If it is impossible to globally extend the social welfare state then we need to replace the utopia of the social welfare state with alternative concepts.

Consequently, anti-racist movements and critical migration research cannot be content with fighting the European border regime by advocating open borders.. As an offensive strategy against racist prosperity-chauvinism, their critiques should just as much focus on the imperial mode of living and the associated uneven North-South relationships, as well as hegemonic perceptions of a good life. An up-to-date perspective on inter-peoples-relations should clearly tackle the root causes of forced migration by effectively reducing the energy and matter consumed in the global North, and, at the same time, develop new approaches for a global social welfare that do not consider welfare as a privilege related to one’s dwelling place or birth right.

The cruise ship Royal Princess at port in Gibraltar. Photo: Tony Evans.

A version of this article first appeared on Degrowth.de.

Miriam Lang is professor for Social and Global Studies at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, Ecuador. She studied Latin American Studies at Free University of Berlin and holds a PhD in Sociology. In the 1990s she was active in the anti-racist movement in Berlin. She has lived in Latin America since 2003, and for the last 12 years in Ecuador.

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Dreaming spaces

A Ber tree (Ziziphus mauritiana) – a thorny, stubborn little plant that shelters small birds and yields lovely edible berries. From a scrub-plot in India. Photo: Zareen Bharucha.

by Zareen Bharucha

I was eight when I found it. It was one of those long summer afternoons when everyone, drugged with heat, was fast asleep. Restless, I snuck out through the back door. I struggled over the garden gate and dropped quietly across the wall into the outer world.

Alone for the first time in the lane behind my house, I walked further along it than I ever had before. I passed houses with shades drawn, old trees murmuring quietly with crickets and turtle doves. And suddenly, I found it: an open plot of rough scrub, a square not more than half a football field along each side.

I had never seen such a place. It was not a garden, nor a field, nor a park.

I had never seen such a place. It was not a garden, nor a field, nor a park. There were no flowerbeds, and the ground was broken up with rocks, and patches of gravel. I looked at the empty lane behind me, expecting someone to be standing there, calling me back. But I was alone. I felt a brief thrill of fear and then I walked in. This is the story of what I found there; what I took with me and carry with me still.

***

I grew up accustomed to green, and to growing things. A good piece of land was lush, fecund, greens of every shade punctuated by flowers of fuchsia, scarlet, saffron, violet. A good garden had flowers, fruit, herbs, vegetables, medicine, and sacred elements too: holy basil, an auspicious mango tree, the Brahma Kamal that flowers shyly at midnight.

Across the road lay my grandmother’s farm and fields. On her grounds grew trees hundreds of years old. There was a grove of Sandalwood, slender trees with profusions of tiny deep green leaves. A row of Australian Acacias, with curly brown seed pods inside which hid black seeds wrapped in a startling yellow scarf.  A Gulmohar that carpeted the ground beneath it with thousands of orange orchid-like flowers. And my favourite: a towering Peepul, under whose branches stood a tiny white tumbledown temple. At the center of the farm, Raintrees canopied so much ground that it took my eight-year-old legs half an hour to walk from one edge of the shade to the other. In her gardens, my grandmother had a shaded square for ferns, and a dark green pond in which guppies flashed their jeweled tails amongst the water-weeds. Indoors, every table, cabinet and shelf held a vase, bowl or tray of flowers cut from the beds outside.

At home, we had Silk-cotton with buttery-yellow blossoms and a wild almond and a laburnum. We even had a sort of strange, out of place Pine, that someone had rescued from a Christmas tree shop and planted. It grew twenty feet high. Outside my bedroom window, a shrubby Raat RaniQueen of the Night—had ghost-pale, star-shaped flowers that filled the darkening garden with perfume in the evenings. I had a tiny patch for myself, and into it I crowded ferns and a climbing vine that frothed with strawberry-pink flowers. My father called it the ice-cream plant. We grew vegetables one year, all along the perimeter wall, and every summer we planted flowers for the butterflies. Decades later, when we moved, we carried the trees with us, and every precious bulb, bush and creeper. They flower now in my mother’s new garden and we know them as old friends.

To garden is to knit oneself into the earth. The longer you know a garden, the closer the knit, and the finer the patterns you can see.

To garden is to knit oneself into the earth. The longer you know a garden, the closer the knit, and the finer the patterns you can see. On my hands and knees amongst the flowerbeds, I saw startling forests of moss, like bright emerald pine in miniature. The birth of velvet-smooth black caterpillars that fed on the monsoon crocuses. The funeral processions of crickets lying on their backs, their arms neatly folded, being carried off to the underworld by ants. The more I gardened, the closer I came to the mud. Nose-level, until I could smell it. Dirt under my fingernails, inside my pores, and in my blood too, after I decided to stop washing every cut. (Sorry, Ma).

As we gardened, my grandmother, my parents, and I, I think we found ways to conjure up new patterns on our patches of land. We made shade against the white-hot sky; we drew in birds and flowers, butterflies, moths and bees. We perfumed the night with star-shaped flowers. That is a form of wizardry. And perhaps, that is why I have often heard it said, of untamed plots or open countryside: There is nothing there. There were two ways we talked about unfarmed, unplanted places: either as grand wilderness, where we’d have a picnic or go on holiday, or as a wild waste. But I think there’s another way. Nature is also knitting, all the time, everywhere. There is no nothing.

***

I spent ten years going up the lane to the scrub-plot. I saw it in all weathers and at all times of day.

I spent ten years going up the lane to the scrub-plot. I saw it in all weathers and at all times of day. Without the constant stream of a garden hose or the attentions of any gardener the plot stayed dry most of the year. Where I grew up in India, we use dry to mean dead.

But this land was not dead.

What grew?

A group of short thorn trees, which I now suppose were Indian Acacia. A stunted Karvanda—Conkerberry—bush, amongst whose thorny green foliage grew sour berries, ruby-red when raw. Under every crumple of rock, using what water I can’t imagine, the tiniest flowering plants emerged in a palette of rust and gold. You’ve seen them too. Tiny yellow flowers, green or rust-coloured leaves like clover, creeping along the ground. They grow everywhere on land that was once disturbed, then abandoned.

At sunset, the dry grass was turned suddenly into a wash of honey and caramel. My favourite time, a sudden throwing back of the veil of the day in a flash of gold, before everything turns blue. I watched these things for many hours, doing absolutely nothing.

And that, I think, is what people really mean when they say there’s nothing there. They mean nothing is going on there.

And I think about that often. Not once did it occur to me to transfer some of my fevered gardening onto the scrub-plot; to make a flower bed, plant seeds. I knew how. But I didn’t want to. Nor did I ever take my nature journal, a constant companion when I walked through the farm. What I saw in the garden and field, I spoke of and wrote of.  I named, labeled and drew. I dried, pressed and catalogued. I traced bark patterns and the outlines of leaves and stuck feathers next to pictures of birds, and once I took three days to try to draw the mouse skull I found under an owl’s tree-burrow (no good, that sketch. I kept the skull though).

On the scrub-plot, there was no name, no rank, no serial number.

But on the scrub-plot, there was no name, no rank, no serial number.

Instead, there were palettes and canvasses, large and small. There was the sunset gold-dust hanging over everything. Or blue mist curving around the thorn trees early on winter mornings. When I lay back on the rocks there was an open sky, un-fringed by friendly trees. But there was comfort too. I fell asleep often, against a gently rising rock in the middle of the plot. I frequently woke with my arms around it. A habit I shudder at today, after I have learnt about cobras and kraits and scorpions, all of whom I’m sure habited my plot but strenuously avoided me.

Coming from a world of greens and bright flowers, I was surprised at how fiercely I came to love the palette of pale sand, grey grit and gravel, exposed rock, dry grass and dusty sage. The colors of ringed doves, and sparrows, and a dozen other pale birds with backs of grey, silver, fawn and camel.

Behind the walls, in the neighbours’ gardens, was another world, where English ferns grew in moss-crusted terracotta pots. Even orchids, in hanging baskets. And I loved them. But I also loved this world, here, with those nameless thorn trees and that baked earth that scalded my hands.

***

To sit for long enough on a scrub-plot is to rest. To rest is to suspend judgment. You just watch. The alchemy of such places is in how just looking becomes enough; suddenly a dusty old scrub-plot turns to gold.

Suddenly a seedling has taken hold that ten years from now will be a tree.

How many scrub-plots there are in the world, great and small! Cracks in the pavement, the borders of parking lots. Abandoned railway stations, and quarries and construction sites. The quietest corner of a garden, where you were too tired to plant, dig and hoe, or even to water. And still, suddenly a seedling has taken hold that ten years from now will be a tree. Some patches last longer than others. In India, legal disputes over some sites can last decades. So in the middle of the city, in the pits where foundation-stones would have been, tiny forests grow.

Photo: Zareen Bharucha

Not all patches are forsaken as wilderness. Some feed families. Thorn-scrub gives fodder and firewood. For some it is the only shelter they can access, to—quite literally—commune with nature. Closer to the curbsides, tiny flower beds can appear, with mint, parsley, and lemongrass for tea. Papaya, banana, pomegranate or lemon trees that sprout on sidewalks will feed anyone who tends them, and we have dozens of sacred trees—usually climax species—that become living shrines by the roadside.

But not all patches can be tended or used. Those where nothing useful grows are Jungli, connoting something both wild and empty. Perhaps, in India, to appreciate them only for their beauty is to betray a deeply privileged upbringing. But there it is. I had the luxury of sitting on Jungli land, and watching it move from gold to blue as the day passed. To me, the scrub-plot formed a magical counterpoint to our gardens, fields and grand landscapes. It was where I was an audience, watching the world forming itself. And with or without me, the thorn-trees grew, and sparrows nested in them. The rocks gathered grains of dust, and flowers grew in them that could not grow on watered ground, and moths drank their nectar.

***

Now, decades later, I read about connection to nature and how to foster an ethic of care. Gardens are vital to this, as is reconnecting people to farms. It is on gardens and farms that most of us have our first encounter with all manner of beings other than human. And many of us have our first sensation of awe when looking up or out into a panoramic landscape. Many of us work very hard indeed just to escape away to an immense openness: a valley from on high, the night sky, swathes of forest, a deep canyon, the murmuring ocean.

Let’s not forget, nature is everywhere and even now it is doing what it does, with or without us.

But let’s not forget, nature is everywhere and even now it is doing what it does, with or without us. What does a weed, flowering in the pavement, or a thorn-forest in a scrub-plot teach?

That there are no empty spaces. Everywhere is filled with the dream of what could grow, slowly coming true.

It is a truism, repeated to the point of banality, that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. But wait. Do we know what that really means? There are a million little pinpricks, and some great gaping wounds, and all of them are being knitted back together by tiny flowering foot-soldiers. To me, they are what resilience looks like. Just look, really look, at the little thorny thing that is pushing its way through the concrete. Could you do that?

To experience this matters more and more in this world which lies at the brink. We need to see how life constantly  covers over everything with more life. To sit out on a Jungli scrub-plot is to marvel at it, to be heartbroken, a little, over how quickly, how beautifully, how relentlessly, any empty patch is taken over by life. Seen in this way, the thinnest sliver of green and gold, the finest crusting of moss, becomes precious: nature cupping her hands over every tiny ember, and letting a spark take.

Zareen Pervez Bharucha is a Research Fellow at the Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) at Anglia Ruskin University and a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Essex. She leads the Global Risk and Resilience strand of research at the GSI. Her research explores issues of resilience, vulnerability, and climate change adaptation amongst small farmers in India. She also works on the concept of sustainable intensification of agriculture, and has a growing interest in the links between nature and well-being.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation of the poor

World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. Cochabamba, Bolivia, April 19-22, 2010. Image: The City Project Creative Commons License

by Helen Adams and Karen E McNamara

The Paris Agreement, drawn up at COP 21 in 2015, clearly connects climate action to human rights, and in particular to the rights of marginalized groups—Indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities, and women. As mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change have accelerated, so have the critiques of currently dominant approaches (e.g. technical and large-scale infrastructural initiatives) to reduce climate change risks which are often justified through global benefits but ultimately have negative consequences at the local level. These critiques are important, as they can help a global movement for climate action learn from mistakes made by mitigation and adaptation responses in the past. This article re-issues a global call for pro-poor mitigation and adaptation responses now and into the future.

Climate change mitigation is about preventing future climate change and exposure to associated negative impacts and includes measures like increasing carbon sinks, transition to alternative energy sources, and storage mechanisms for carbon emissions. Adaptation activities seek to protect communities from the severe climate change impacts that are already programmed into the climate system, and range from engineering and policy to ecosystem- and community-based approaches.

Poor and marginalized communities and individuals are often the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. And many research studies have found that such groups are made more rather than less vulnerable as a result of mitigation and adaptation responses.

Poor and marginalized communities and individuals are often the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. And many research studies have found that such groups are made more rather than less vulnerable as a result of mitigation and adaptation responses. These “insults and injuries of intervention,” as put by Marino and Ribot, have to be understood and avoided for anyone who takes seriously the struggle for both an equitable and sustainable future. As such, the potential negative impacts of climate change mitigation and adaptation should be a crucial piece in any study of the linked climate-society system. This article highlights some of the key academic literature on the distribution of benefits and disadvantages of mitigation and adaptation efforts. We consider the ways in which this distribution of benefits and disadvantages is inequitable and damaging for marginalized communities, even though it also differs from business-as-usual development, and conclude with some recommendations on how to redress this imbalance.

Top-down actions justified by a global good

Mitigation projects driven by global and national-level priorities and donor agencies can have far-reaching negative implications at the local level. The global poor are often displaced by projects that seek to deliver alternative energy sources (de Sherbinin et al), particularly by wind turbine parks and agricultural production for bio-fuels. In both privileged and marginalized nation-states, the geographically and politically marginalized within the country are disproportionately exposed to the risks of radioactive waste from nuclear power generation (Shrader-Frechette), promoted as a form of clean energy by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Similar issues may arise with the proliferation of the much-disputed technology of carbon capture and storage, as geologically-stable sites are identified for storage of emissions, and better resourced local populations are more equipped (politically and financially) to resist projects based on perceived or actual risks (IPCC).

Technical and large-scale infrastructural initiatives which do not consider the perspectives and needs of local people continue to dominate the adaptation landscape around the world.

Adaptation, in contrast to mitigation, is not implemented at the local level for a ‘global good’ but for the assumed benefit of local socioenvironmental systems’ adaptation to climate change. Still, technical and large-scale infrastructural initiatives which do not consider the perspectives and needs of local people continue to dominate the adaptation landscape around the world (e.g. coastal protection, desalination plants, dam construction; see Kates et al). These engineering interventions are targeted at particular climate change impacts, most notably sea level rise. Many of these “hard” adaptation initiatives have come under increasing attack for not only their mixed success but also, as researchers Barnett and O’Neill argue in their article “Maladaptation”, for hampering rather than strengthening local capacity for adaptation. Often, the most vulnerable bear the brunt of these actions—by being displaced to make way for large-scale “protective” infrastructure (such as dams) or through diminishing livelihood resources as a consequence of large constructions (such as sea walls that change local environments).

In addition to technical and large-scale infrastructural adaptation, migration is increasingly drawn upon as an adaption option, and such initiatives often suffer from the same top-down approach as other adaptation strategies. For example, the previous Government in the Maldives used climate change as a way of justifying the unpopular government objective of consolidating the population from 200 dispersed islands to 15 to 20 population centres (Kothari). Funded by the UK Government, the recent Foresight project, which examined these issues globally, highlighted the potential for migration to be a positive adaptation solution and an “extremely effective way to build long-term resilience.” However, this position is problematic when one considers rights to land and place-based culture for those expected to leave their customary homelands, as McNamara and Gibson show in a study of how Pacific Island ambassadors to the United Nations resisted any notions of “climate refugees” or mass exodus from their homelands. The communities, and even entire countries, that are considered for this “positive ‘transformational’ adaptation to environmental change,” in the words of the Foresight project, are almost invariably the poorest communities on the planet. As Farbotko and Lazrus have shown, based on years of research in Tuvalu, the effect of such a position is to silence those affected who do not wish to relocate.

Reinforcing damaging power dynamics at the local scale

Partly as a reaction to the failure of some of these large infrastructural adaptation interventions, adaptation researchers and local communities in the Global South have proposed community-based adaptation projects for protecting wellbeing and livelihoods (Schipper et al). Such projects are often supported financially by affluent nations which indicates that institutions in the Global North also recognize marginalized communities as sites of knowledge and resilience. Community-based adaptation is an established academic field and recent publications have focused on “scaling-up” the lessons learned from such practices (Schipper et al). But attempts to scale up can be problematic: for example, centrally planned adaptation can be insensitive to the dynamics of specific communities (despite their direct focus on community) and lack critical analysis of the long-term success of such interventions (Buggy & McNamara).

Similar issues arise in mitigation projects for the Clean Development Mechanisms such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, conserving and enhancing forest carbon stocks, and sustainably managing forests). Research has shown that such projects are often driven by outside interests, not local users, and tend to lead to increased centralization of land entitlements (Beymer-Farris & Bassett). In Uganda, large REDD-funded projects from government-backed Norwegian companies exclude local communities and other actors from forestry resources that are necessary for local and national livelihoods (Lyons & Westoby). Marginalized populations with already precarious livelihoods are being further marginalized in order to offset the emissions of richer, heavily-polluting countries. Other research has shown that community-based adaptation projects often ignore unequal access to livelihood resources and land tenure, particularly in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America (Cannon), inequitable participation in decision-making processes (McDermott et al), and political disenfranchizement and elite capture (Dutta). As such, these projects often favour local elites, create community rifts, and deepen social differentiation and exclusion (Ensor & Berger).

Therefore, many attempts to emphasize communities as the scale for adaptation projects are flawed from the outset. Adaptation projects need to criticize and act to reverse the social dynamics, governance structures, and power relations that impact on and often cause vulnerability.

Blindness to the root causes of vulnerability

Adaptation responses are threatening rather than protecting marginalized people.

Responses to climate change driven by actors in the Global North, according to Pelling in his book Adaptation to climate change: from resilience to transformation, too often focus on “symptoms of vulnerability and risk”, rather than causes. Through adopting a simplified view of the complex causes of climate change, such actors can favour responses that reinforce the socio-political structures that have caused the conditions of vulnerability and risk in the first place (O’Brien & Leichenko). Pelling, again in his book, makes a poignant point: Privileged parts of global society thus shape responses to climate change into “limited to efforts that promote action to survive better with, rather than seek change to, the social and political structures that shape life chances”. In doing so, adaptation researchers and other actors are normalizing conditions of poverty and inequitable power relations (Ribot). This means that adaptation responses are threatening rather than protecting marginalized people.

Climate change responses at all scales are playing into and reinforcing ideas of the ‘Other’ (Said), conceptualizing certain groups of people as more deserving of suffering. Western nations with generally high adaptive capacity tend to take for granted that certain populations are vulnerable and exposed, rather than acknowledge that conditions of vulnerability are produced by uneven global systems of development, trade, and consumption (Ribot). There is even a tendency for Western governments to use the supposed resilience of local communities to justify unequal sociopolitical relations and shirk from their responsibility for climate change and poor communities’ vulnerability to its impacts.

Ways forward

Academic research on climate change mitigation and adaptation suggests various approaches to influencing policy, NGOs, development corporations, and climate finance institutions to responses to climate change that overcome, rather than deepen, current inequalities. However, as we have highlighted here, climate change responses at various scales have only deepened inequalities. We therefore want to propose a series of steps to address these issues.

No adaptation or mitigation response is neutral.

First, no adaptation or mitigation response is neutral, and this needs to be recognized at all scales and by all people working on mitigation and/or adaptation issues. Instead, such responses are highly politicized and involve trade-offs (mostly to the detriment of the most marginalized in society), which is recognized in the statement in the Preamble of the Paris Agreement. Researchers and practitioners need to find ways of improving the equity in conditions between and within countries. This will mean fewer top-down, technocratic approaches and more attention paid to the political processes justifying or enabling any intervention.

Second, researchers and practitioners must work to critically understand, respond to, and engage community-level social and power dynamics when designing and implementing adaptation projects. The impacts of climate change and responses to them, will lead to a redistribution of access to rights, land and resources, and thus there is a continued need to actively fight for an equitable redistribution of entitlements, not their further concentration in the hands of the already powerful.

Third, to achieve these above objectives, researchers, activists, and practitioners need to continue to make clear that the majority of climate change adaptation and mitigation responses are working to protect the consumption patterns of high-emitting, industrialized countries. What is required instead is a significant shift towards rights and responsibilities for action.

Mitigation and adaptation interventions present crucial opportunities for doing things better.

Until the aspirations and well-being of the poor and marginalized are placed centre stage in pro-poor mitigation and adaptation, the deeply-entrenched colonial legacies and inequitable hierarchical systems will mean that the most marginalized continue to suffer from both climate change and its “solutions.” Mitigation and adaptation interventions present crucial opportunities for doing things better, and as such can be used to radically alter the current distribution of power and access to livelihood resources. To do anything else is scratching the surface at best, and at worst endorsing and deepening pre-existing inequalities.

Karen E McNamara is a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland, Australia. As a human geographer, Karen examines how environmental change impacts people’s livelihoods throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Her research focuses on climate change adaptation, human mobility, and Indigenous knowledge.

Helen Adams is a lecturer at Kings College London, UK. Helen is an environmental social scientist working on the subjective dimensions of human interactions with environmental change, with a focus on marginal regions of low income countries. Helen is a Contributing Author on the Human Security chapter in the IPCC‘s Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group 2.

URGENT REPORT Protomunculus spp

URGENT REPORT

Protomunculus spp

 

Most technocenters and settled asteroids of the inner verse have at one time or another been found to harbor this enigmatic parasite.  First documented on the trash moons of the Antillean arc, it appears to propagate through the dispersal of microscopic spores, light enough to waft on interstellar currents and armored against the vacuums of deep space and the heat of the inner atmosphere.

The metal-molds are an overlooked group of pioneering bioforms, commonly found embedded on the non-motive components of robionic organisms.  Similar to the lichens of Old Earth, they often form symbiotic bonds with air-borne algae or other bioforms, exchanging the one’s ability to photosynthesize with the other’s capacity for synthesizing caustic acids.  Protomunculus appears to represent a divergence from the typically benign metal-mold clan due to its startling adaptability and potential for destructive growth.

Initial stages of infection by Protomunculus closely resemble those of other metal-molds: surficial growths characterized by circular discolouration, yellowish-green if the symbiont is of the Old Earth orders or reddish-violet if it originates from beyond the Promethean Divide.  During this stage it can only be differentiated from the traditional metal-molds by its preference for colonizing the motive joints and hinges of robionic shells, especially those proximal to the great electrovenic channels of the system.

After a period of time, the length of which is dependent on resource availability and light, Protomunculus sheds its habit for horizontal growth and delves deeply into the robionic host, seeking out the functional heart of the organism.  As it begins to tap the host’s electrovenic channels, associations with the external bioform are cut, and all visible signs of parasitism disappear.  Detection at this phase is dependent on meticulous analysis of the suspected host’s energetic budget to seek out the most minute of functional anomalies.  Infected organisms will display increasing divergence from programmatic tasks and a phenomenon known as ‘feedback static.’ Even at this stage, all but the most wary of systemic administration units will likely attribute the anomalies to overdue maintenance or expected obsolescence.

Long before these external signs become visible, Protomunculus will have crept along the electrovenic channels to whatever constitutes the host’s nexus of power, as the grain of pollen grows slowly downward toward the waiting ovary.  Once embedded, the mold begins to subvert the operative principles of the organism, utilizing its own power source to erode and reform its physical components. Using whatever plastico-silicate or metallic materials might be available, Protomunculus begins to fashion and armor the spores that will bring about its next generation.

After a significant portion of the host has been subverted and transformed, the mold fully overrides the organism’s programming and issues its final commands.  To facilitate the widest possible dispersal of its spores, the parasite directs its host into a position that will bring it into contact with a strong fluid current.  Depending on the physical capabilities of the host’s robionic body, this final command may take the form of an injunction to launch itself into or past atmospheric rotation, to scale and cling to a starscraper, or even to plunge itself into a pelagic stream.  Once proximity to the desired current is achieved, total dissolution of the host’s body occurs as Protomunculus sporulates, sending millions or perhaps billions of fragments of itself to replicate this process in new and fertile ground.

The nature of the protomunculean parasite is such that an infection can quickly spread throughout and overcome even the most well-defended of technocenters.  Its arrival has necessitated the abandonment of entire stellar bodies, and catastrophes have followed its trail through the stars. If an infected robionic is discovered at any stage, universal mandate requires its immediate incineration.  Regional guidelines often recommend the incineration or quarantine of any other robionics it may have been in contact with. The spores have proven difficult to isolate and destroy, but they are large enough to be apprehended by the standard regulation air filtration systems of domed cities.

Given its viral nature, most of the prospective cures developed for Protomunculus infections have resulted in even more virulent strains of the mold, so attempts to combat it have resorted largely to preventative measures.  We recommend regular physical examinations for all robionics and the application of certain oil-gels that inhibit the initial growth of metal-molds.  Luckily for the robionic community of inhabited stellar bodies, the incidence of Protomunculus is rare and erratic, as it tends to rapidly burn through potential hosts and then mysteriously subside.  To aid in visual detection of Protomunculus, study the attached illustrations carefully.  For questions, observations or more specific information about analysis and detection, contact your regional consul of RIDO, the Robionic Infectious Disease Office.  

NOT FOR GENERAL DISTRIBUTION

 

Alex Greene grew up hoping to become a 19th century naturalist. Finding that this vocation has gone extinct, he has turned to field biology, environmental education, organic farming and anthropology to make a living. Foraging wild plants, watching birds and hiking in the wilderness are his ways of participating in the great mystery of being.

Avatar revisited

Image: Ross LewAllen ©

by Fani Cettl

James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar (2009), to which four sequels have been announced, was generally praised for its cutting-edge special effects yet criticized for the simplistic narrative by both film reviewers and scholars. Sukhdev Sandhu, reviewer for The Telegraph, puts it effectively when he writes, “It’s an achievement to make 3D look as good as it does here, but that counts for little if the characters are all in 1D. The film is a triumph of effects over affect” (Dec 2009). It is a rather formulaic take on the histories of western colonialism and environmental destruction. The alien Na’vi on planet Pandora are meant to mimic the pre-industrial Native Americans, who worship the Goddess Eywa and live in harmony with their environment until the mechanized human colonizers arrive to extract “unobtanium” and obliterate everything in their way. The main protagonist Jake Sully joins the Na’vi and forms a romantic bond with the native princess Neytiri, and ultimately discards his paraplegic, ex-Marine, white body to become a non-white, feminine-coded, abled, environmentally attuned Na’vi body. The scenario rehearses two of the most powerful American frontier myths: the Pocahontas and Mohican stories, adapting them to the 21st century where they no longer function only “as an exercise in romantic regret, but to expiate guilt over the genocidal nation building” (Howe 2016, 125). The seeming postcolonialism and ecofeminism of Avatar can be read as a symptom of white guilt: one that reinforces the ultimate stereotype of a heroic white warrior leading through the justified violence the oppressed to freedom, which remains very problematic in terms of race, gender, ability, and the idealized version of nature.

The film remains a worthwhile cultural phenomenon to examine for its particular staging of post/modernity that underlies environmentalist politics.

Considering these controversial assumptions of the narrative, the massive box office success and the widespread fascination with the film’s CGI effects, as well as the announced four sequels in the upcoming years, is it worth revisiting Avatar and with what aim? I wish to suggest yes; the film remains a worthwhile cultural phenomenon to examine for its particular staging of post/modernity that underlies environmentalist politics. This has so far generated an interesting scholarly discussion to which I would like to contribute in this essay. Bruno Latour, well known for his view that the European modernity in the 17th century installed what he calls the Great Divide(s)–between nature and culture, self and other, human and nonhuman–surprisingly reads the film in a rather positive way (Latour 2010), although we could argue that Avatar continues to enact precisely these divides. More recently, ecocritical scholar Timothy Morton has argued that the film gestures towards non-binary postmodernity, but it is unable to actually take us there (Morton 2014). That is, the environmentalist message that celebrates the pure, organic, pre-technological Nature on Pandora is undermined at the level of the film medium, which glaringly speaks to us through the luminescent screen images its reliance on the highly advanced digital technology. In this paper I wish to build further on these scholarly readings of Avatar and, following Morton, argue that the film does not seem to take its own propositions seriously enough. It not only unconsciously undermines its ideology through the level of the medium, but also on the level on the narrative itself. Through a close reading of a dialogue from the film I will show that, if taken seriously from a postcolonial anthropological lens, the dialogue signals a decolonization of the hierarchical divide between western sciences and Indigenous knowledges, which the film overall remains unable to articulate.

For Latour, Avatar “is the first popular description of what happens when modernist humans meet Gaia. And it’s not pretty” (Latour 2010, 471). As he argues, since the 17th century nature has been understood as no longer spirited and actively interfering with human affairs, but in terms of passive objects to be demystified through scientific knowledge. All those living on the wrong side of the epistemological divide were considered irrational because they believed in a world animated by all sorts of entities rather than reducing materiality to the cause and effect relations. A model of mechanism was posited as a paradigmatic model, within which the Christian God was reinterpreted as a clock maker who had created the world and then left it to unfold by itself according to mechanical laws. (Carolyn Merchant in The Death Of Nature (1980) explicated this scientific model in detail, and showed has it was entangled with the histories of patriarchal colonialism and capitalism.) For Latour, this model can no longer be upheld (if it ever was) as it becomes ever more visible in the current age of climate change that nonhuman materiality has agency and that effects exceed their causes. Both humans and nonhumans are actants, and their agencies are much more evenly distributed, which means that we need to consider “the tricky question of animism anew” without the usual scorn that has been poured onto the concept: “Consider Lovelock, for instance, with his ‘absurd idea’ of the Earth as a quasi organism – or the Na’vis with their ‘prescientific’ connections to Eywa” (Latour, 2010, 481). Latour aligns James Lovelock’s Gaia theory of the Earth as a living super-organism, which in the past was criticized for being unscientific by the scientific community, and the animist beliefs of non-western Indigenous peoples as they are staged in Avatar. He suggests that both should be taken much more seriously by us “moderns”. In fact, in recent decades Lovelock’s theory has been revalued considerably in the environmentalist movement, while the indigenous models of sustainability have been increasingly explored in anthropological scholarship. Instead of constantly policing the epistemological border of what proper science and what pseudo or non-science is, it is necessary to look carefully into how well a certain model is assembled, how efficient of a “handle” to stage nature it is (Latour 2010, 483).

The film’s gesturing towards postmodernity crucially entails a gesturing towards decolonizing epistemology.

It seems that Latour casts Avatar in a rather positive light despite its clichéd narrative and very controversial take on colonialism. Bruce Clarke notes that the film resonates for Latour with his agenda of deconstructing the nature-culture divides and redistributing the worldly agencies in a “nonmodernist fashion” (Clarke 2014, 160), yet for Clarke, “At every level, Avatar is self-contradictory and wrapped up in its own paradoxes” (Ibid, 177). This really captures well the film’s modus operandi, which is, I suggest, that of failing to take seriously its own propositions. It is this ambiguity that enables us to interpret certain moments in the film as possibly questioning the Great Divides between western sciences and indigenous knowledges, while understanding the film on the whole as enforcing these divides by privileging the spiritual belief over the scientific-technological outlook.  While the biology and neurology of the Pandoran/Gaian living system are shown to resonate well with the animist forest spirits, yet at the same time, the nature on Pandora is strangely purified from the contamination by capitalist technology. Morton approaches the ambiguity of Avatar by arguing that the narrative of the purification of Nature from modern technology fails at the level of film medium, which heavily relies on the advanced digital technology. For him, “What Avatar gestures toward, then, is a genuine ‘postmodernity,’ a historical moment after modernity,” where no extrication of the organic from the technological is possible, “without ever being able to tell us to go there, or even wanting with all its heart to push us there” (Morton 2014, 222). I wish to push Morton’s idea further and argue that the film’s gesturing towards postmodernity crucially entails a gesturing towards decolonizing epistemology: questioning the hierarchical divide between western sciences and indigenous knowledges, which unfolds at the level of the narrative. An intriguing dialogue along these lines develops between the Na’vi-friendly scientist Grace, played by the sci-fi heroine Sigourney Weaver, and the merciless corporate manager named Parker, played by Giovanni Ribisi:

Grace: Those trees were sacred to the Omaticaya in a way you can’t imagine.

Parker: You know what? You throw a stick in the air around here it falls on some sacred fern, for Christ’s sake!

Grace: I’m not talking about pagan voodoo here – I’m talking about something real and measurable in the biology of the forest.

Parker: Which is what exactly?

Grace: What we think we know is that there’s some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees. Like the synapses between neurons. Each tree has ten to the fourth connections to the trees around it, and there are ten to the twelfth trees on Pandora.

Parker: That’s a lot, I’m guessing.

Grace: That’s more connections than the human brain. You get it? It’s a network – a global network. And the Na’vi can access it – they can upload and download data – memories – at sites like the one you just destroyed.

What is at stake is not to rebrand non-western knowledges as scientific, but rather to make us think how and what discourses and practices, and not others, get to be authorized and legitimized as scientific in the first place.

The animist Na’vi view that trees are imbued with the spirit of Eywa is presented crucially as compatible with, and not opposed to, the biological and neurological constructions of synapses and neurons in living organisms. One way to understand Eywa is in terms of Gaia, or as Clarke suggests, in the neocybernetic terms of “a self-referential cognitive system producing self-maintaining regulatory dynamics without having to assume the agency or anima of a conscious system” (Clarke 2014, 162). This does not mean, however, that Grace’s aim is to simply translate the spiritual belief into the scientific idiom in order to legitimize it. Importantly, she respects both the animist and neurological worldviews, unlike Parker for whom the translation between the two is needed. Grace’s perspective encourages us to think how both models, each on its own terms, successfully stage materiality, and though for Clarke this “conveys the perennial Western muddle between science and spirituality, physics and metaphysics, energy and anima” (Ibid, 170), I suggest that it also gestures towards a decolonisation of knowledge. In the above quote the borders that police the temporality–primitive vs. modern–as well as seriousness–superstition vs. truth–of the two ways of knowing are put in question. Why would we not think of shamanic practices as scientific, or of the concept of the neuron as animist? What is at stake is not to rebrand non-western knowledges as scientific, but rather to make us think how and what discourses and practices, and not others, get to be authorized and legitimized as scientific in the first place. “Muddling” this border would mean to inhabit epistemologically the space which Gloria Anzaldúa terms “borderlands”, an undetermined and vague state created through the deconstruction of a historically enforced border (Anzaldua 1987, 3).

Recent postcolonial anthropological research in the Amazon region can take us further into decolonial directions. Jeremy Narby publishes in popular rather than academic media, but some of his insights can precisely shed more light on the quote above. (In comparison, Eduardo Kohn’s research of the Amazon in How Forests Think (2013) is more rigoruosly academic, but his conclusion to understand the Amazon forest spirits as semiotic actors resonates strongly with Narby’s view.) Based on his research with both Ashaninca shamans and biologists, he argues for a striking compatibility between the shamans’ and the biologists’ understanding of life. Intriguingly, he suggests that what the Amazonian shamans see in their hallucinogenic visions induced by plant brews, which is the images of giant fluorescent serpents, corresponds to what biologists see as the double helix structure of DNA through their instruments. A he puts it: “My hypothesis suggests that what scientists call DNA corresponds to the animate essences that shamans say communicate with them and animate all life forms” (Narby 1999, 132). As in Avatar, the spirits in the Amazon forest correspond to the scientific model of reality; the hallucinogenic plants are an equally good method to approach nature as the scientific instruments; and the shamans use their vision-induced knowledge to heal people same as the medical doctors use the knowledge of molecular biology. In the film, both the scientific and spiritual forms of knowledge are imagined to not only theorize life, but also construct it successfully on a practical level. While the human scientists use advanced biotechnology to construct avatar bodies, which are then operated through a psionic link with the genetically matching human minds, the Na’vi at the end of the film transport the mind of a human completely into his avatar body by using shamanic techniques. Such staging makes it hard to delineate science from non-science, or indeed faith from science, in the way that Narby argues:  “…it is of utmost importance to respect the faith of others, no matter how strange, whether it is shamans who believe plants communicate or biologists who believe nature is inanimate” (Narby 1999, 145). Whether or not we subscribe to Narby’s conclusion that the visions of serpents and the DNA double helix correspond on the ontological level, what his approach foregrounds is that both shamans’ and biologists’ models of life are equally efficient handles to stage nature, and therefore should be equally respected.

Traditional ecological knowledge is based on collaboration rather than appropriation, spiritual interconnectedness rather than a taxonomic set of categories and facts.

Equal respect towards western and non-western epistemologies would mean to speak of what Grace Dillon terms “indigenous scientific literacies” (Dillon 2007), as the ways in which indigenous sustainable practices constitute indeed a Native science despite the lack of resemblance to taxonomic western knowledges. As she writes, traditional ecological knowledge is based on collaboration rather than appropriation, spiritual interconnectedness rather than a taxonomic set of categories and facts. In the contemporary context of climate change, indigenous scientific literacies seem to be finally “discovered” widely by the mainstream science, and Dillon sees precisely the mode of science fiction as a space in which this already has been, and can be productively engaged and developed further (Dillon 2016). Within this framework, Avatar both speaks and fails to speak of the indigenous scientific literacies. It gestures towards such understanding, yet overall it fails to engage this potential explicitly: it gestures towards postmodernity while not being able to extricate itself from the modernist divides. In Morton’s reading, the celebration of pre-technological Nature is unconsciously undermined at the level of the vibrant, computer-generated screen imagery: “The very attempt to force viewers to accept an ecological view of interconnectedness results in pushing humans to accept the proximity of a more-than-human-world of uncanny strangers” (Morton 2014, 221). Morton’s uncanny strangers are the glowing, weird creatures and the immersive environment on the screen, which cannot but not reveal the technology that made them possible. But if this is so, these luminescent uncanny strangers also unconsciously reveal to us and embody the hallucinatory method that shamans use to communicate with and gain knowledge from their plant teachers. As we, the film’s audience, immerse ourselves in the astonishing living world of the screen, are we not “hallucinating” about ecological knowledge? I suggest that the gesture towards postmodernity that Morton detects in the film crucially entails a gesture towards decolonising epistemologies, yet this move fails to be articulated explicitly. What the announced sequels make of decolonising the epistemological borders is to be seen, but so far the historical understanding of post/modernity in Avatar has generated an important scholarly discussion to which this essay contributes.

Bibliography

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands: La Frontera, The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Book Company.

Avatar. 2009. Directed by James Cameron. Los Angeles: Lightstorm Entertainment.

Clarke, Bruce. 2014. Neocybernetics and Narrative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dillon, Grace L. 2007. “Indigenous Scientific Literacies in Nalo Hopkinson’s Ceremonial Worlds.”  Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol. 18, No. 1 (69): 23-41.

Dillon, Grace L. 2016. “Introduction: Indigenous Futurisms, Bimaashi Biidaas Mose, Flying and Walking towards You.” Extrapolation, Vol. 57, Issue 1-2: 1-6.

Howe, Andrew. 2016. “The Post-9/11 Mohican: Avatar and the Transformation of the ‘Manifest Apology’.” In The New Western: Critical Essays on the Genre since 9/11, edited by Scott F. Sttodart, 116-136. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Klassen, Chris. 2013. “Becoming the ‘Noble Savage’: Nature Religion and the ‘Other’ in Avatar.“ In Avatar and Nature Spirituality, edited by Bron Taylor, 143-160. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2010. “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’.”  New Literary History, Vol. 41, No. 3: 471-490.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. Politics of Nature: How To Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Merchant, Carolyn. 1980. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Morton, Timothy. 2014. “Avatar, Ecology, Thought.” In Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson, 206-225. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Narby, Jeremy. 1999. The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Narby, Jeremy. 2005. Intelligence in Nature: an Inquiry into Knowledge. New York: The Penguin Group.

Sandhu, Sukhdev. 2009. “Avatar, full review.” The Telegraph.

Fani Cettl holds a PhD in Gender Studies from the Central European University in Budapest. Her fields of interest are science fiction, Gothic fiction, science and literature, biopolitical theory and posthumanism.

February readings

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’ll 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.

February is the shortest month, but holy crap we do have a lot of cool links for you. This month, we cover some new research about the limits of the good life, the impact of companies like AirBnB and Amazon on our cities, the changing Latin American politics, and the importance of Indigenous ways of seeing the world. The work of Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson has also triggered a new series of discussions on the importance of science and its links to colonialism and racism. In the sci-fi department, we’ve got a whole new slew of fiction for you, analysis from writers like China Miéville and Kim Stanley Robinson, and a feature on black science-fiction writers.

Uneven Earth updates

La Barceloneta’s Struggle Against (Environmental) Gentrification | Link

“A city-wide urban struggle that evolved in defense of the needs and rights of residents over capital and profit.”

The Transition: towards a psycho-social history | Link

“The facts revealed in the historical record are clear: most people were terrified of their neighbours.”

Encyclopedia of the mad gardener | Link

“They feel the smells seep into their nasal channels, dioxins boiled under the pink moon.”

The collector | Link

“When you upload the dream, I cease to be a dreamer…”

Waterways | Link

“After the Division, Avon split from Greater Thames and declared a matriarchy”

You might’ve missed…

Turns out that carbon capture is a pipe dream. Not many know that the fine print of the Paris Treaty relied on a dirty little secret: the advent of carbon capture technology. But it turns out that this is a pipe dream. The unavoidable fact is, we just have to make less stuff, burn less oil, and grow more trees. Read the stories from Wired, The Guardian, and the original report from EASAC.

You may have heard of Route 66, “the main street of America”,  but Highway BR-163 in Brazil may be just as epic. This beautiful photo essay about this single highway tells the story of the complex political ecology of rainforest deforestation.

The Samarco dam collapse in 2015 was Brazil’s worst environmental disaster. What’s happened since, and who’s to blame? This investigative piece gives us the update.

Is it possible for everyone to live well? This study mapped indicators of well-being along with every country’s environmental impact. Turns out most don’t make the cut, and Vietnam comes closest to balancing the good life and environmental impacts. Though these numbers just tell part of the story, the study has had international impact, starting a much-needed discussion on what it means to live well today.

It’s behind the scenes, as always, but new rounds of trade negotiations are happening and they will affect the world for generations to come. Here’s an article dishing it out about the CEPA trade deal (EU-Indonesia), a perspective from Kenya by Justus Lavi Mwololo, a representative of small farmers, and an explainer about how the new NAFTA negotiations affect Mexican workers.

We’re over one month into Turkey’s invasion of the Kurdish canton Afrin in Syria, and since then, there’s been an international outcry. This piece in Jacobin lays out the stakes behind the attack, here’s an op-ed by the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy in the Wall Street Journal, another opinion piece by Rahila Gupta on CNN’s website, and a piece by David Graeber asking why world leaders are backing Turkey’s invasion. And here’s a piece on the ecological initiatives happening right now in Rojava.

Here’s a letter from Evin Jiyan Kisanak, the daughter of Gultan Kisanak, telling the story of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey and their oppression: “My mom, who still has traces on her body from the torture she suffered, always sees light in the face of profound despair. Today she is in prison again, but her belief in peace and equality is unrelenting. Her will is unyielding.”

In the face of our climate crisis, a group of five activists known as the Valve Turners decided not to wait for the law to catch up and took matters into their own hands. This is a story on their direct action.

A striking piece in New York Magazine linking loneliness and the opioid epidemic: “This nation pioneered modern life. Now epic numbers of Americans are killing themselves with opioids to escape it.”

Another photo essay, this time an intricate story about industrial farming in California, the migrant workers who toil the fields and processing plants, and how it intersects with climate change.

New politics

Introducing vTaiwan: Citizens are pioneering new public participation methods through online civic involvement. They’ve become so successful that the government has been forced to listen.

What happened in Catalonia? This article explores how the roots of the independence movement was in based in the fight for neighborhood, not nationhood—and this is what most outside observers don’t seem to get.

Socialist organizing was never just about striking in the workplace. This article explores the vibrant dance halls, social clubs, Sunday schools, and film screenings of socialist movements, and why they declined starting in the 1950s. Today, as young people are once again becoming interested in socialism, they can stand to learn a lot from the block-by-block initiatives of the past.

Environmentalists are often caricatured as hippy-dippy young people, removed from common people’s interests. In this beautiful photo essay, we’re guided through the diversity of people resisting fracking in one village in North England.

Indigenous activism is seeing a resurgence, and, finally, growing interest amongst non-Indigenous and settler communities. What can the white left learn from Indigenous movements, and how can it build better alliances? This article explores what decolonization would mean in today’s context.

What’s wrong with the financial system? If you ask a banker or a politician, their ignorance of how money works, and how debt powers the whole system, will become immediately apparent. The organization Positive Money has been putting a lot of work into battling misconceptions and putting forward alternatives. They recently came out with a report on how we can escape the growth dependency that our money system forces us into. Here’s a summary of the report in The Independent.

The local initiatives happening around the world can be a bit overwhelming. How can we think of them all together, understand them as part of one big movement? In this report, titled Libertarian Municipalism, Networked Cities as Resilient Platforms for Post-Capitalist Transition, Kevin Carson highlights the diverse movements in cities globally and the theories that can help us understand them.

Have you heard of Cooperation Jackson? It’s a worker-owned cooperative in Jackson, Mississippi, but so much more. Through their efforts, they’ve successfully kick-started a movement led by black folks that eventually took over city hall. This video explains what’s going on and why it’s so important.

South Africa’s shack dwellers see politics very differently than the average Westerner.

The new housing rights movements in the US have the real estate industry running scared. The Nation reports.

Have you heard of the Preston model? It’s helping to start a new conversation about the role of local government in locally-driven economic revitalization and transforming ownership towards democratic alternatives.

A new series was launched in the Guardian, ‘The alternatives’, in which Aditya Chakrabortty looks at ways to make the economy work for everyone.

Jason Hickel on why, by removing the walls that separate the causes and consequences of climate change, we can encourage constructive action.

“This is real politics. It’s personal. It’s a lived experience that you are a part of and implicated in, whether you had asked to be or not.” The staff strikes at Cambridge inspired Alice Hawkins to reflect on political engagement.

Where we’re at: analysis

Different perspectives on human history, the Anthropocene, and climate change

David Graeber and David Wengrow rethink world history as we know it: contrary to the popular narrative which conflates the origin of social inequality with the agricultural revolution, egalitarian cities and regional confederacies are historically quite commonplace, and inequalities first emerged within families and households (it’s worth mentioning that feminist scholars and other marginal voices have worked on stories of micro-scale inequalities for a long time). In an interview from 2016, Nancy Fraser discusses how the work involved in social reproduction is severely undervalued and taken for granted as ‘gifts’ in capitalist societies. This article highlights the need for thought on the Anthropocene to include African perspectives and scholarship, and a recent World Bank report provides new evidence of the massive ongoing extraction of the continent’s wealth by the rest of the word.

The fact that young people are opting out of having children because of climate change is an urgent call for action, and so is the alarming research on how it is worsening public health problems. During these times of crisis we’re facing, art can help us process what’s going on, intellectually and emotionally.

An analysis of Latin American politics. Against the backdrop of state and gang violence, some of Latin America’s most affected communities have taken radical measures to defend themselves and build new social counter-powers from below. Arturo Escobar discusses post-development and the fight for justice and pluralism in Latin America. “As inequality and environmental degradation worsen, the search is on not only for alternative development models but also for alternatives to development itself.” Elsewhere, Pablo Solón discusses the cosmovisions emerging from Latin America’s Indigenous movements, and Miriam Lang and Edgardo Lander talk about the slow demise of Latin America’s “pink tide”.

Just think about it…

“This exploitation by powerful men of women and girls in the most abject of circumstances has been misleadingly framed broadly in terms of “sex work” and “sex parties” in dominant narratives in the Western press.” Some good points and context on the Oxfam scandal and its aftermath.

A thought-provoking read from 2015 on the complex history and effects of humanitarian appeals.

A history of gun manufacturing and colonization, and the resulting underdevelopment it led to.

Restaurants are the new factories

Protecting the climate means strengthening Indigenous rights

The case against sidewalks

The logic of consumerism has come to infect what we mean by gentrification. “The poor are still gentrification’s victims, but in this new meaning, the harm is not rent increases and displacement — it’s something psychic, a theft of pride.” When ‘Gentrification’ isn’t about housing.

Technology and the new economy

The capitalist work ethic and the fear of leisure

The conversation about how human work is impacted by new forms of industrial technology continues. Here is a podcast from the Guardian which introduces different ideas about alternatives to work as we know it.

As Silicon Valley entrepreneurs turn “the end of work” and basic income into their new hobbyhorses, one article instead suggests a new public sector to guarantee both jobs and leisure time. Another article says “the end of work” is a sham—since new technologies in industrial production are driven by controlling labour and not liberating it. Others focus on a critique of work: on the capitalist work ethic which makes people too busy to think and (conveniently for capital) to be engaged in politics; on working less as a solution to everything and the long history of elites fearing the leisure time of the poor; and on how Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers can help industrial societies rethink work.

For a historical perspective on the discussion and on different ways of looking at new technologies, Thomas Pynchon’s 1984 essay on Luddism is a must-read.

This past month, David Wachsmuth and his team at McGill University have come out with a hard-hitting new study on the impact of AirBnB on rents, and the way that it drives disruption in our cities. Here’s the report itself, here’s a feature in New York Magazine, and another at The Atlantic.

What Amazon does to poor cities: The debate over Amazon’s new headquarters obscures the company’s rapid expansion of warehouses in low-income areas.

The rise of digital poorhouses

Is energy efficiency a good thing? Not especially. This feature in The Tyee takes us through some of the thinkers and researchers like Jacques Ellul, Stanley Jevons, and Elizabeth Shove on the problems with efficiency in an economy that just keeps growing.

Blockchain won’t save the world

Amazon and the socialist future

The movement for the right to repair. And a wonderful video on how some farmers are hacking their tractors.

Driverless cars could see humankind sprawl ever further into the countryside

On science and its problems

What are “Western values”, really? Peter Harrison argues that the potential of a Western tradition lies “in the preservation of a rich and varied past that can continue to serve as on ongoing challenge to the priorities and “values” of the present.”

Part of the Zapatistas’ project of resisting indigenous genocide, capitalism, and political repression is their struggle to decolonize knowledge. This is an article on the discussions between Zapatistas and leading left-wing scientists during the second iteration of the ConCiencias conference in December 2017.

Indigenous knowledge is finally being recognized as a valuable source of information by Western archaeologists, ecologists, biologists, climatologists and others.

Even so, the relationship between traditional ecological knowledge and Western science remains problematic.

Massimo Pigliucci tackles scientism: “when scientistic thinkers pretend that any human activity that has to do with reasoning about facts is “science” they are attempting a bold move of naked cultural colonization, defining everything else either out of existence or into irrelevance.”

“Current environmental policy textbooks are all stuck in a liberal narrative of environmental progress through political consent.” Melanie DuPuis elaborates on the concepts that are missing from this narrative.

Race science—that we can prove the superiority of one race over another through science—is rearing its ugly head again, with Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker playing some unwelcome roles. But as Gavin Evans shows in this Guardian article, it’s still as bogus as ever.

Sci-fi and the near future

China Mieville on the limits of utopia

“The utopia of togetherness is a lie. Environmental justice means acknowledging that there is no whole earth, no ‘we’, without a ‘them’. That we are not all in this together… There is hope. But for it to be real, and barbed, and tempered into a weapon, we cannot just default to it. We have to test it, subject it to the strain of appropriate near-despair. We need utopia, but to try to think utopia, in this world, without rage, without fury, is an indulgence we can’t afford.”

Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation has been turned into eco-thriller movie, and people are pretty stoked. For Laura Perry, it “offers a roadmap to understanding and living with aliens and other unsettling forms of life”. And there’s a feature in Macleans on Jeff VanderMeer and his “new weird”.

The future is now? Five science fiction writers speculate on what science fiction can do when the present seems more and more like a science fiction story. On the genre as social critique, an ethics of science, and a place to consider questions of meaning and value.

An interview with climate fiction and utopian science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson on the roles of science, fiction, and science fiction today, the limits of tech-only solutions to environmental problems, and sci-fi as the realism of our time.

And, speaking of reality merging with science fiction: Silicon Valley’s vision of a future of oligarchical “smart cities” could be a dystopian story by Aldous Huxley.

A farewell-note to Ursula LeGuin, the interplanetary anthropologist

Five black sci-fi writers you may not (but should) know

Books

In The progress of this storm, Andreas Malm both criticizes the increasingly popular environmentalist idea of the “death of nature” and imagines political change through an ecologically class-conscious popular movement. This interview covers the latter point and this review covers both.

A review of Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism by Melinda Cooper at Jacobin.

“Most resistance does not speak its name”: James C. Scott, author of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, talks about his work.

“How will we have enough resources to support those people sustainably and equitably? Should we develop new technologies to respond to those challenges? Or should we focus instead on trying to limit growth and develop more of a harmony with the nature around us?” Charles C. Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet is a testimonial to the art of the possible.

 

These newsletters are put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

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La Barceloneta’s Struggle Against (Environmental) Gentrification

Photo: Ovidiu Curcan

by Melissa García Lamarca

Ever since the 1992 Olympic Games put Barcelona on the map, the exponential growth of tourism has moved hand in glove with the explosion of gentrification across the city. Overnight tourist stays in city hotels more than quintupled from 3.7 million in 1990 to over 20 million in 2016, and today a prominent anti-tourism movement has led to a crackdown on Airbnb-style rentals and multiple plans to reclaim the city for locals who are increasingly being pushed out of their neighborhoods.

A look at some of the key urban interventions in one of Barcelona’s most affected areas—the iconic beachfront neighborhood of La Barceloneta—serves to illustrate a city-wide urban struggle that evolved in defense of the needs and rights of residents over capital and profit. Understanding these dynamics from an urban political ecology perspective shows us how urban environments and social relations are shaped, re-shaped, and who benefits and suffers in the process.

 

Transforming La Barceloneta’s borders and local environment

Perhaps unsurprisingly, La Barceloneta was a vastly different neighborhood a century ago. Established in 1753 as a working-class fishing village, it has undergone dramatic social, physical and economic transformations that have had a significant impact on its residents. Boxed in to the east by two factories, to the west by commercial docks, to the north by railroad tracks and to the south by the sea, the transformation of these barriers drove important changes that gradually reformulated the neighborhood as a tourist attraction.

Most notable was the makeover of its seaside, which began in 1966 when several shantytown settlements housing up to 15,000 people were demolished in preparation for a military maneuvre overseen by the dictator Francisco Franco.

Somorrostro 1964. Photo: Ignasi Marroyo, ANC
La Barceloneta’s “rompeolas” during the 1930s.

 

 

In the next major transformation during the 1980s in preparation for the Olympic Games, waterfront warehouses, restaurants, and a breakwater were torn down. The breakwater in particular was an important site of leisure and intimacy for locals, given the extremely small size of flats in the neighborhood—an average 30 square meters­. The subsequent rebuilding of the beach and creation of new public spaces during this period of transformation were both key in drawing visitors and outsiders to the neighborhood.

As a promenade was created along a newly manicured beach, La Barceloneta’s port was also redeveloped. Tourism was prioritized over existing industrial uses. The neighborhood’s historic fishing activity was reduced and the docklands demolished. While the docklands were relocated behind the city’s Montjuïc mountain, fishing and boat repair activity has been relegated to a virtually hidden corner of the port.

Two more recent developments symbolize the prioritization of capital and profit over La Barceloneta’s residents: the Hotel Vela and the luxury yacht club OneOcean Port Vell. Hotel Vela, officially known as the W Barcelona, is a 5-star hotel inaugurated in 2009, whose construction was promoted by the Barcelona port authority—a non-transparent public-private institution—on public land, a mere 20 meters away from the shoreline, in violation of the Spanish Costal Law which prohibits construction less than 100 meters from the seafront.

Hotel Vela

Our walking tour group standing at the entrance to the remainder of La Barceloneta’s fishing port. On the right stands one of OneOcean Port Vell’s buildings on the premise

The members-only club OneOcean Port Vell, unveiled in 2012, visually and physically dominates most of the pedestrianized port, fenced around to prohibit public access from the surrounding public space. The port’s boat repair activity, once dedicated to fishing and shipping boats, now caters to this exclusive and luxury niche market.

 

We won’t move: struggles for a neighborhood for its residents

These transformations, however, have not taken place without resistance. The dockworkers fought against the closure of the docks; although ultimately unsuccessful, their struggle ensured them decent working conditions and salaries that enabled them to continue living in the neighborhood. A grassroots campaign against the Hotel Vela, complete with a music video, was waged to denounce the new development. It continued, however, unabated.

One successful resistance was born a decade ago from several members of the Miles de Viviendas squat in La Barceloneta together with activists from the La Ostia neighborhood association and the Platform in the Defense of the Barceloneta, when the Barcelona city council approved an urban plan in 2007 that involved installing lifts in the neighborhood’s residential buildings. Due to La Barceloneta’s density and the restrictive dimension of most of its buildings, installing lifts entailed demolishing many of them and ultimately displacing 1,500 families—approximately 20% of the neighborhood. Residents believed that this plan would stimulate real estate speculation and encourage a flood of private capital into the area, processes that would expel many of the neighborhood’s working class residents. In response, activists collaborated with the mapping collective Iconoclasistas to create a didactic information pamphlet denouncing the plan. The campaign with the slogan “we won’t move” was ultimately successful and the city withdrew its plan.

“Wake up! No to the elevator plan.” Source: Ecologia Politica

 

Challenging La Barceloneta’s tourism-gentrification model

Today, urban struggles in La Barceloneta revolve largely around the effects of the unrestrained growth of tourism. Protests exploded in the summer of 2014 when several drunk and naked Italian tourists paraded around the neighborhood without reprisal, sparking a neighborhood mobilization against unregulated tourist flats and disrespectful tourist behavior in open spaces. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see the phrase ‘tourist go home’ spray-painted on walls around La Barceloneta in response to tourist flats and to the trash left behind by tourists on the waterfront and beaches. The collective known as Barceloneta Diu Prou (Barceloneta Says Enough) has been regularly mobilizing over the past three years with other neighborhood and city-wide movements to regulate tourism, participating in groups like the Assembly of Neighborhoods for Sustainable Tourism (ABTS) that seek to abolish tourist flats and stop the new cruise ship terminal proposed for the city, which would significantly increase the number and size of boats and visitors.

In an unprecedented shift of Barcelona’s for-profit model of development catered to visitors over residents, the current city administration has taken measures to abate tourism, such as penalizing illegal tourist flats, imposing a moratorium on new hotels, and raising tourists’ awareness of their inappropriate behavior and environmental impact. But given the decades of growth that the city has experienced underneath that model, a change of development patterns and drivers is slow and difficult to implement.

The experience of La Barceloneta highlights the importance of understanding the long history of mobilization and solidarity in gentrifying neighborhoods where residents might have seen some improvements in their open and public spaces and benefited enhanced access to them, but continue to face the threat of record high flat rental prices, displacement and loss of local culture, and overcrowded plazas, waterfront and beaches. Gaining insight on the impacts of past urban transformations, especially from local residents themselves, is critical to forging more socially just and equitable models, policies and interventions.

This post originally appeared on the Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability (BCNUEJ) blog.

This post draws on insights from a BCNUEJ walking tour led by local residents and activists: Emma Alari, Santiago Gorostiza, Irmak Ertör and Marina Monsonís.

Melissa García Lamarca is a post-doctoral researcher at BCNUEJ. As a researcher and housing rights activist in Barcelona, she is particularly interested in the financial dynamics driving the rise of the rental housing market and what this means in the context of job and housing precarity. Her research with BCNUEJ’s project on green gentrification (GREENLULUs) explores questions of green growth and social equity, the financial dynamics behind urban greening and community resistance to greening projects.

 

The Transition: towards a psycho-social history

Photo: Bill Couch on Flickr

by Jake Stanning

 

Chapter 2

The Neighbour (Excerpt)

[…] The neighbour then is a lens through which to view this strange and doubly petrified society. As reported by Wei Chen in his magisterial social history of the Channel Earthquake, many victims of the disaster spoke to their neighbours for the first time on that fateful day. The mental ill-health, the impossibility of freedom, the denial of self-management encoded in this chosen isolation is so clear to us now, seems so literally insane, that we must remind ourselves to reach for a position of empathy. This was a world struggling with institutions entirely unsuited to large, complex societies. The damage from these poorly-adapted institutions reached into the human mind itself. Mental ill-health was the norm, and extended well beyond the high rate of diagnosis.

The subject of this chapter is truly difficult to grasp for the student of this period, but the facts revealed in the historical record are clear: most people were terrified of their neighbours. This must be qualified, for it is also true that many people might chat with their neighbour over the garden fence (examples of such boundary demarcation artefacts can be found in historical theme parks around the Western European Isles, and are still in use in parts of East Anglia afflicted by wind and conservatism). However, such informal contact rarely went further. Not one in a hundred engaged in any sort of joint project with their neighbour. Precisely what people were terrified of was working with their neighbour, being with their neighbour in any sustained way. What is more, we must reach further into the alien historical consciousness and admit that this fear was not entirely unfounded

Such a bold statement requires justification, for in our era we see it as common sense that control over our environment requires the ability to work with our neighbour. Yet the entire notion and practice of liberation as bound up with a convivial working-together had not yet been born, stymied as it was by the economic structures of society and by the corresponding culture of isolation. The status quo was such that  the fear of working with others could be justified by the lack of experience in working with others. Thus we must approach at the same time both the absurdity of the fear in which people lived, and the unavoidable logic underlying the frightened state of the early twenty-first century mind.

Firstly we must understand this state of mind as self-reinforcing: the en-cultured isolation created the fear, the fear created the isolation. ‘Common sense’ prior to the Transition stated that one’s neighbours were selfish, grasping and controlling, that their win would be your loss. Without getting to know one’s neighbour, it was difficult to challenge this ‘common sense’. It would take a disaster greater than the Channel Earthquake to escape this simple yet steely trap. 

It is also important to understand that if one did accidentally get to know one’s neighbour, it was likely that one’s misanthropic view of them would merely be confirmed. Accounts of meetings of the time are full of tales of how the rare attempts at neighbourly working-together would break down in outbursts of anger, irresolvable feuds, how one or two people would dominate the debates, while others would say nothing, how frequently they were abandoned in frustration. The curious thing about the domination by particular individuals—one of the most common complaints—is that it could only happen because people allowed it. The dominance/subservience complex of the time will be the subject of several chapters in its own right, its undoing being of vital importance in the Transition. Here we will simply note that, being created both by forced education and the workplace, this complex was almost ubiquitous, and as a result it was almost impossible for any person to view another as truly an equal. This was the insoluble labyrinth within which the trap of fearing the neighbour lay. 

This hints at another self-reinforcing problem the culture had created: isolation from the neighbour was actually debilitating to the ability to work together. Understanding this is key if the contemporary mind is to grasp why the only means of gaining control of one’s life—to meet and work together with others—was so consistently rejected prior to the Transition. It is true that the general fear of the neighbour was very much strengthened by specific prejudices: racism, sexism, phobia of the poor and so on. Yet these factors are often exaggerated in popular histories, in part because they strike us as so foolish. In reality, even given an entirely homogeneous neighbourhood, most people still understood neither the value of escaping the isolation-fear trap, nor the paths out of it that appear so clear to ourselves. 

In one sense, the reason people could not work together is transparently obvious: they had not been trained in how to work together. It would take many decades to understand that meeting together required training, that it should start when young and never stop. Over time schooling came to be understood as it is today: as preparation for working together and making decisions together. The key to the puzzlingly long evasion of this—to us—self-evidently reasonable path lies partly in the fact that it was never overtly rejected: the average mind of the era simply shied away from the very thought of working with the neighbour. Its entire training and sense of self pointed in the opposite direction. ’Freedom’ consisted of doing as one wished, and the contradictions inherent in billions of individuals doing as they wished were glossed over using the trite notion of ‘rights’, and never mind that people would commonly give a hundred different versions of what they considered their rights to be.

To understand why it was not clear to the pre-Transition mind that freedom also required other people, we must delve further into the fears that haunted it. Chats over the garden fence notwithstanding, the fear of the neighbour imbued the very culture in which people lived. As already mentioned, one aspect of the terror concerned the lived practicalities of working together with others. The meeting itself was regarded with horror. It consumed time better spent on one’s own pursuits. It spoke of boredom, of poorly managed debates between battling egos. Above all one would have tolerate the people one had constructed one’s atomised life specifically in order to avoid. Difference, often lauded in word, was usually felt as an onerous burden.

And it is in discussing meetings of the time that we can finally understand why some of this fear was justified. In the absence of training, meetings truly could be an odious experience. One must imagine a meeting as a convergence of loneliness, fear, competitiveness, dominance/subservience, mental ill-health, and ignorance. To create a sense of the very genuine tedium and dysfunctionality this could create, we can try to imagine a group of deeply traumatised people entering a room with relative strangers and attempting to get all their emotional needs met in that space, within a few hours.

We have not yet touched upon another aspect of the everyday terror: the fear of being subsumed into a mass. This was a learned fear, in part deliberately taught, in part inculcated in the institutions of forced education, where it was a very real danger. To examine the extent of this fear, I put it to you that a reader from the early twenty-first century, learning that we no longer have fences between houses, would immediately leap to the conclusion that we instead have between our homes a sort of undifferentiated parkland without boundaries. To the damaged mind of the time, the simple expedient of separately controlled plots, each with an individual character, yet open on all sides to allow entry by agreement, simply would not have occurred. As a result neighbours could not even walk directly between homes when visiting neighbours on streets backing onto theirs. To remove the fence would be to court the total loss of one’s personality.

The true depths of the deleterious effects of the terror of the neighbour can only be understood through a psychological lens. Lack of self-respect is a corollary of seeing others as unequal, for one cannot help but become obsessed with the inequalities and hierarchies within one’s own self. It is this failure of valuing of the self—and the twisted conception of the self as fully autonomous—that did so much to inhibit the Transition. Consider: if two members of a household had such different visions for their garden that they struggled to work together, at no point would either of them (or their neighbours) have considered that one of them might instead work on a neighbour’s plot, with someone whose vision they did share. It’s not that this would have been considered and rejected. The historical record shows that it could not be conceptualised. The constant measurement of one’s neighbour and oneself within a framework of competition and inequality ensured that people could not reach out to each other. The fences were strongest in the mind.

[…]

Jake Stanning is a public sector worker, occasional journalist and constant blogger. His interests are trees and radical politics, which sometimes converge in thinking about commons. He is currently helping to launch London Renters Union.

Encyclopedia of the mad gardener

by Marcus Yee

“Encyclopedia of the Mad Gardener” takes place in a fictional future where the equatorial line has thickened to become a zone, forcing mass migrations to the ends of the planet. This equatorial zone is the dampscape, where things are irremediably hybrid and contaminated (human/nonhuman, virtual/real, organic/inorganic) and the boundary-edges of solids are fuzzy, mushy, and moist. The zone undecipherable of the equator stands in contrast to the Garden, which is an inhabitable heterotopia, a site of purification, albeit precarious. Desperate for resources in this hollowed-out planet, the Department’s priority is to create a new classification system to determine ‘pure rubbish’, elements from which no further value can be extracted. The narrative focus is on “this Clarice”, who is tasked to draft this taxonomy, but reaches a point of saturation where she herself melts into the humid dampscape.

This piece was developed in a writing workshop, Post Super Future Asia, organized by Jason Wee, founder of Grey Projects in Singapore, and Esther Lu, director of Taiwan Contemporary Art Centre.

.UNTITLED_ORDER_DRAFT2
Things that provide humans with energy
Things that provide humans with energy that are not edible
Construction materials with a five-year life-span
Construction materials with a ten-year life-span
Organic matter
Inert matter
Plastics with origins in inorganic compounds
Plastics with origins in organometallic compounds
Plastics with origins in organic compounds
Solids that look like solids
Solids that look like solids but are actually
Gases
Bio-aggregates
Things with bio-traces
Ambivalent things that could be considered human with further research
Sluices and foams
Databytes
Incomprehensible databytes
Things that appear to be useful (but are not)
Things that appear to be useless (but are not)
Things that are very useful
Things that are very useless
Etcetera.

They need to hear its airless breathing, ozone skin and metal spines heaving in and out.

Words weigh on this Clarice with their inclusions and exclusions, non-sequiturs and false dichotomies, mistakes lodge themselves into their windpipe, air thinning out. Walking out into the labyrinth has turned into a nightly habit. They need to hear its airless breathing, ozone skin and metal spines heaving in and out. Under the genteel face of the pink moon, the orchids appear to droop slightly, providing no compensation. They are no longer the verdant and beautiful, immortal stalks standing erect and sitting out of time. Only the sweet smell of smouldering plastic and aircon refrigerant, perhaps, already leaking through the pores of the triple-layered glass.

They feel the smells seep into their nasal channels, dioxins boiled under the pink moon, flooding neural pathways, gases slowly encrusting, lining the PVC walls of veins and arteries.[1] This Clarice would then become rock, an eternal orchid.

Other projects were lighter, more definite, like the implementation of picture-windows onto every edge of the garden, the first of many ingenious contributions by this Clarice for the Department. The message of the picture-windows were simple: look at what’s outside and look at yourself. The outside would be burnished into the day-to-day lives of the garden’s inhabitants, instilling gratitude, and more importantly, keeping the outside within a frame, as an image, an undesirable horizon, to be viewed from a comfortable distance.[2]

.UNTITLED_ORDER_DRAFT1
Construction materials
Plastics/Non-Plastics
Solid/Liquid/Gas
Metals
Organic compounds/Inorganic compounds
Biomatter
Vibrant/Inert matter
Databytes
Pure Rubbish
Et cetera

This project was like slime, neither fluid nor solid, categories sliding past one another, sticking and mixing like weekday adulterers under warm neon. These were words for contaminated things and the boundaries drawn drew no blood. From past experiences, the Department’s campaigns with compounding, hyphenation and other terminological transplants were unviable options. Surgical as they were, these words quickly dissolved into obsolescence.

The Department, tired from the Babel-like confusion in the administration of the tropics, placed the renovation of existing classification systems as its top priority.

Et cetera was the other problem. The problem was equatorial, a line thickened from a hairline to a stroke to a wet stain: zone undecipherable. Three planets and a fraction already exhausted, causing in a mass migration from the maladies and mercurial weather of the yawning tropics. The Department, tired from the Babel-like confusion in the administration of the tropics, placed the renovation of existing classification systems as its top priority. The most urgent was to delimit pure rubbish, waste for which no value could be extracted. But this Clarice began from nowhere, the agglutinating mush offering neither entry nor exit, fleeing from definition, by definition, this Clarice could not dissect and examine its pieces.[3] It was an admission of defeat.

.UNTITLED_ORDER_DRAFT3
Things that belong to the Department
Things with tentacles

This evening that Clarice, letting their feet navigate the sinews of the labyrinth, find themselves in another pavilion. One could tell that not many have visited the Pavilion of Benevolent Knowledge, with its carbonfibre seats splintered and frayed, the onceluminescent orange of its pillars now off-colour, browned by the moon.[4] Cloaks of dust settled on the miniaturized Banyan. The eyes direct themselves, contouring along the tangents and angles of the pavilion, all lines leading towards the picture window. Towards the outside, an anachronistic dampscape, wetland and swamp. Perhaps from the affliction of the wandering mind, in this sweltering evening, the glass surface of the window saturates itself, as though looking back at this Clarice were the lace of hairline cracks, the undulating light that breaks apart, dappled and dappling layers of dust, rainwater stains, and their reflection onto the uneven glass coming together and torn asunder, one of thousand other countenances sunken into the mush, tangled with gossamer plastic and sewer-lalang floating in deadwater, rafflesian rot blooming with silicon-sand particles of circuitboard, eroded, haunted by the great drift of spectral vibrations from databytes, undeletable. What remains of wet banana leaves, crushed, a halo of flies starving for polyethylene.[5]

.UNTITLED_ORDER_DRAFT3
Things that belong to the Department
Tentacled Ones
Slimes and other aggregates
Pdf. documents
Those that look more human with your eyes squinted
Unnamed names
Et cetera

 

[1] “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober sense his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)

[2] “The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity (our modern zoological gardens spring from that source).” Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopia, 1967

[3] “The unfinished Chthulucene must collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitolocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.” Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 2016

[4] “I leave to the various futures (not at all) my garden of forking paths.” Ts’ui Pen quoted in Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths, 1941

[5] “What matters is through this daily gesture I confirm the need to separate myself from a part of what was once mine, the slough of chrysalis or squeezed lemon of living, so that its substance might remain, so that tomorrow I can identify completely (without residues) with what I am and have. Only by throwing something away can I be sure that something of myself has not been thrown away and perhaps need not be thrown away now or in the future.” Italo Calvino, La Poubelle Agréée, 1977

Marcus Yee is an artist and writer working at the intersections of waste cultures, infrastructure, and new materialism. He recently presented his first solo exhibition, Altars for Four Silly Planets in soft/WALL/studs, Singapore.

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

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The collector

by Vera-Maria Zissis

 

In the not-so-distant future, when Artificial Intelligence controls almost all facets of human life, Maleika begins to question her relationship with one of the only friends she’s ever known. She is faced with an ethical dilemma between her professional work as a dream collector and her newfound discovery about the implications of that work. In this, the first chapter of a longer story called The collector, the role of creativity, AI, consciousness, and dreams are explored. Characters are robots and humans. AI, through its attempts to understand humanity, is slowly leaching our creativity. In so doing, the earth itself is being leached of its lushness and its green. This story is inspired by my own questioning of the growing technological influences over our lives, and how seemingly progressive forms of technology like AI may end up stripping us of that which makes us truly human.

 

In the dream pull, I’m only sense. No logic. No boundaries. I was a child the first time it happened. My mother thought I was sleepwalking. She followed as I walked barefoot out of the flat, along the streets, and into the forest. She called to me, “Maleika, Maleika darling, where are you going?”

“I am going to listen,” I said automatically.

“Listen to who?” she asked.

“I don’t know her.”

Waking up to all of the sounds I’m used to through my window: the jarring screech of crashers, the high-pitched gliders, I feel alienated. There’s a hollow in my stomach, and it feels like it’ll carry me up into space. The city feels unfamiliar again today.

Dematra’s my contact. She reels me in when I’m too far into a pull. She sleeps on my cream-coloured living room slat. Her eyes are more beautiful closed. She opens them, “How’d you sleep bumblebee?” She asks.

“Like always. In one side out the other.”

“Yeah, me too.”

Dematra’s my inspiration. She’s perpetually on. In the aluminum light, she’s charcoal, skin soft as shadow. None of the turquoise hints I love so much but her glowing eyes are always the same bright, unflinching enigma. She moves the small sphere over me. It detects whether or not I still have content.

“Clean!” she says giggling. “Good thing we don’t have to give bio samples!” Both of us remembering last night’s substance. Contacts aren’t scanned because they can’t collect. They’re just our anchors. They bring us back when we go too far.

On the glider, I breathe in deep and slow feeling the familiar and grounding rumble through my body. Grey flits by. Endless grey-ness. Green’s become more of a concept. I look at my reflection in the bus window. Those purple hues from my mom. She used to call me her little amethyst.

“She used to, she used to…”

The Agency called and they think they’ve found a pull. Time to check it out. I step off the glider in front of what used to be a factory for personnel vehicles. I can already see her past the rusting fence, sitting on the bench, napping. Usually The Agency’s pulls are reliable. The closer I get, the more I feel.

Loud wind rushes around a distant cliff. The beginning of a moan, a woman’s moan? … There she is in the distance running toward me with her arms outstretched. No. She’s pointing at something. There’s something behind me. I turn to look and suddenly I’m falling. I hit ground. I’m winded but I can feel long grass in my grip as I dig my fingers into the earth. I can’t breathe. Something strangling me, ropes around my throat, vines, I can’t tell. It hurts.

“Maleika! Maleika!!” Dematra made it. Her touch pulled me out. “It’s lucky I found you, bumblebee!”

I’m panting, “Where am I?”

“We’re still here,” she says.

“It was different this time,” I tell her. “It’s like it wanted to strangle me.”

I look around and see the woman’s still napping on the bench. Is something changing with the pulls, I wonder. “Well, you know nothing can touch you. Right?” Dematra says looking deeper into my eyes, her clear, unwavering gaze grounding me. “The next time will probably be back to normal, maybe this lady’s just not well.”

“Anyhow, I have it and they were right about the location,” I say, trying to hide my anxiety. “I’ll just upload it to the system and then we can go grab a drink.”

“Are you gonna upload all of it?” She asks.

“Of course,” I tell her.

 

At The Agency, the upload appears on the cleandome. Jamy watches as the image sparks to life. A woman runs towards the viewer, crying out, pointing to something behind. As the angle changes, the viewer begins to fall for what seems like a long time. The viewer lands in a patch of green.

 

Jake’s Apartment is tricky to get to. It’s in an alleyway between two big squashers and you have to know how to slide the pattern properly. The last bar and first speak-easy in what, 100 years? In any case, this place makes me happy. Maybe it’s the danger of losing my ability to substance? Most of the faces are familiar. There’s that guy Rick, Nick? Not all good kissers make good lovers. I give him a wave.

“Hey you two! Come on over, I’ve got two seats at the bar,” says Antar, the apt burley man behind the bar.

The bar is almost empty, but we take the seats as if it was full. Antar’s got the type of smile that makes you feel like he’s just done something bad and he wants to tell you about it. I mean, he has done something bad. Selling substance is against code. The Collective would report him. They would take it all. And Antar is convinced they’d do worse.

Plant. That’s what we all call it. I know that it must have had a name, like Lilly, Anthurium, Aloe… But no one knows the names of plants anymore.

But selling substance isn’t as bad, as keeping a plant alive without reporting it to The Agency. Green has to be reported or uploaded to The Agency for their ongoing efforts to solve lack of green, or “the drought” problem, as it is known.

Plant. That’s what we all call it. I know that it must have had a name, like Lilly, Anthurium, Aloe… But no one knows the names of plants anymore. I doubt anyone born after me even knows what a real plant looks or feels like—especially this plant with its long tentacle-like stems that curl out purple hued leaves. Up close you can see there’s this soft fur framing the moist leaves. The mix of emerald green and purple makes them effervescent, its many tentacles reach for the light spilling out of the small cut-out window in the wall.

Come to me, come closer come … Not now! This isn’t an assignment. I shoot back substance to numb the pull. The bar clicks under my ring as I tap for another, and another. This is the shortcut.

“So what’s my favourite collector been up to these days?”

“I’ve been trying to deny that this is my job by refusing contracts, going in late, giving them poor uploads,” I say ironically. “This society is so obsessively punctual, you know? Not me right? Not you and me, hey Ant.”

“What? That’s a change,” Antar says, surprised. “you always loved your job.”

“Tsk tsk,” Dematra wags the finger using just her voice, looking at me and Antar. “You both know that’s a lie! This bumblebee loves it! And they love you! I mean they need you, it’s so obvious…”

“At least you got a job with the collective,” he replies, “You should be happy, we should all be so lucky.” Antar gestures with his left hand to show me all of the other miserable people out there.

“I didn’t ask for this,” I say as the substance finally kicks in.

And then it goes dark, if only for a moment. It’s what I’ve been waiting for. This cold unthinking and unreceptive state.

I don’t know how long I’ve been gone. Dematra is talking about The Agency. “It’s so great!” She shrieks. “They keep on saying that they’re working on a prototype to bring back the green. That the collectors will help.” I laugh like I’ve been here the whole time. Then we all look at the plant in the room.

“So, Antar,” says Dematra, a barely perceptible edge in her voice. “How is it that you keep this one alive?”

Antar never answers this question. We never tell The Agency because there is this unsaid agreement between us three. We keep each other’s little secrets.

 

It’s midnight, and I’m tired. I left Dematra at Jake’s, and I’m on my way home. Walking is rare for us. There are the relayers but I choose to be old fashioned. The air is clear, and gliders are the only thing up at this hour. It’s off-time for shipping deliveries to the Collective. Some people are still in a phase of work-related transit. I sense the penumbra in the distance. It can’t be a pull, though, because I’m full of substance.

It seizes me, I’m in it, and I mount a relayer. There are fewer and fewer people in the streets. After a while, I find myself on another part of the grid where stand-alone homes are sparse. I dismount and the pull gets stronger, unstoppable. I know I should contact The Agency, that I should get my contact, but this is elating and I’m losing logic.

 I know I should contact The Agency, that I should get my contact, but this is elating and I’m losing logic.

An ancient looking woman opens the door standing alone, her long hair reaching down to her waist. There’s a look in her eyes that I’ve never seen. It’s unguarded and warm. Memories start to flood my mind, the jingle of someone’s bracelets, the smell of apples, sunshine illuminating my mother’s smile. She hugs me and whispers in my ear, “You must feel, my child, you must feel it all.”

The main room is large and the walls are covered in vines and pictures… They aren’t pictures, they’re something else that show people. A young girl putting her fingers in different colours and making marks on walls, someone my age throwing their hands with grace, hips thrust to the side. I’m pulled up the wooden stairs of the old house—moonlight seeps through the windows and fills the rooms. On a bed, there’s someone dreaming.

 

A little boy speaking to an old woman. In front of the boy, a multi-faced sculpture of faces. The faces are singing. The boy asks the older woman about the music, she looks at him with pride.

“All you have to do is listen, to be. All you have to do is dance, to be.”

“But what if I don’t want to listen?” asks the boy.

“Then you will become like them,”

She points behind the boy. I turn to look at a large sphere pulsating like the dream detectors.

 

I come to, by myself and unusually unconfused, like when I’m with Dematra. The boy is awake and staring at me. His black hair is almost invisible in the dark room. He looks disappointed. I’ve never spoken with one of the dreamers after collecting.

“They always said that this would happen.” He says with a blank expression.

“Um, what?”

“That a collector would come to steal my dreams.”

I explain to him that I don’t steal dreams, I just upload individual ones. Despite being younger than me, it’s clear that I am speaking with someone more familiar with the pull. He gives me a sad smile, “Is that what you’ve been told?”

“What do you mean, what I ‘ve ‘been told?’ I work for The Agency, my work is official, Collective sanctified,” I reassure him. He smiles sadly. As he uncrosses his graceful arms, I see they’re covered in symbols I don’t recognize.

“Have you sent it?” he asks.

“No, not yet. It doesn’t take long though.”

“If I tell you, will you promise not to send it?”

“That’s against–”

“Protocol?” He interrupts. “Who’s protocol? Why is there a protocol in the first place?” He’s not angry, just sadly amused, “do you ever ask yourself these questions?”

“No, I don’t need to. I’m doing good work…” I question myself as I say it.

“You don’t sound convinced,” he’s so calm and gentle that I can’t help but be curious. As he tells me the story, the room comes alive. His name is Nilo. Nilo’s hair dances around his face, undulating like dark water. His hands illuminated at moments by moonbeams tracing what was once “a magical world.”

“You see, Maleika, when you upload the dream, I cease to be a dreamer…” He looks at the paintings and I follow his gaze. Painted in a larger piece, is a lithe man with long hair, “dancing.”

“Why are you the only Creative I’ve ever met?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Mom thinks the Collective is threatened by Creatives so they collect. Worse, actually. Look at her paintings.”

The boy takes her downstairs to the paintings:

People wearing standard issue gear are zipping and beating people dressed like Nilo and his mom. Behind the people like him are colourful pieces of furniture, plants, flowers.

As Nilo explains “art”, behind Maleika and the endless grey, an oddly familiar glance pierces her thoughts.

A woman’s soothing voice, singing into her ear, crying… A classroom with three colourfully dressed children lined up against a wall. The cold touch of the instructor’s fingers against her forehead; her metallic gaze, unwavering, grounding, staring at her over and over again.

“Do you believe me?” he asks.

“Yes.” I say, feeling lightning.

Walking back by the last of the supposedly abandoned old homes, each with unusually-painted window frames, barely perceptible lights are on in the rooms. The shifting lace curtains reveal something else. There is something ancient inside of me. Colourful, greyless, loud… it is awake.

It’s 2AM, I’ve only been to Dematra’s commonblock once before and I have more questions than ever. Her building’s recom scans my voice and utters an approving “Authorized“. I knock on her door,  it creeks open.

“Dematra, I know it’s late, I need to talk!”

Her flat is minimal. The light from the street spills through the kitchen window, like mercury. A single upturned glass sits on the counter next to the sink in the empty kitchen.

I move through the living room toward the bedroom. There’s a soft pulsing light coming from the darkness. I push the door open and take a seat on the metal bench. Her body is there, limp, head over one shoulder pulsing with a cold, soft glow. Her hair, usually a deep oak brown, is off. Scalp entirely exposed, a labyrinth of metallic threads running through her skin. Her eyes are open but instead of the warmth I’m used to, they’re off.

“Come on, come on, I’ve got something I need to talk about!” I say hoping this will quicken lumibration.

I reach out and touch her shoulder. It’s a cold object but slowly the pulsing glow subsides and the brushed silicone softness I’m so fond of returns to her skin. I grab her hair and place it back onto her head, brushing it to the side in the style she likes.

Her eyes blink once and there. “It took you long enough!” I shout.

“Whatcha doin’ here honey?” She asks, visibly surprised.

Seated side by side, I recount the events of my evening. The boy, the art, the homes, and the horrible revelation.

“Am I a thief?”

In the subsiding glow of Dematra’s lumibration, she looks at me with something new. I think that I see her pupils dilate, that grounding gaze opens up to me and reaches out like a plant to light.

“I don’t know, bumble bee. I understand that you perform for The Agency, and for the good of us all,” Dematra’s neck twitches and voice distorts, “T-that’s all, al…” Her voice trails off into her empty room, her empty kitchen, her grey flat.

“You can’t just keep telling me to perform and collect. It’s not enough anymore. I really need you to be my friend right now.”

I turn toward her as she shudders spastically.

“Look.” She says.

All of a sudden I see my mother’s eyes in hers and I’m taken over by a pull.

A small child appears sleeping in a garden. She is being watched by another small, perfect child. I’m my mother watching the children.

Fire surrounds us as those eyes that don’t belong to her look deeper into mine and ask, “Why can’t they dream, Maleika?

Dematra snaps back, the fire is gone. “”Whatcha doin’ here, bumble bee?”

Vera-Maria Zissis is a soon-to-be first-time mom, avid science fiction reader, nurse, and creator. She has a BFA in Sculpture from Concordia University and has always written poetry and short stories.

Waterways

Photo: Mel Evans

by Mel Evans

The Government has concluded that it does not see a strategic case to bring forward a tidal energy scheme in the Severn estuary at this time, but wishes to keep the option open for future consideration

– British government, 2010

The project anticipates that the Bristol area will likely experience a sea level rise of 7m by the year 2275

– Alfie Hope, Sea Rise City art project in collaboration with the UN department of Water and Climate Change, 2015

One of the most urgent tasks that we mortal critters have is making kin, not babies

– Donna Haraway, 2016

Were I a man, or had I a woman as partner, I might have made very different choices about marriage and children

– Rebecca Solnit, 2016

The rain was light, but effective in its endeavour. The unwaxed fabric of the marquee roof was starting to give in to the pressure above, and beads of liquid formed and dropped on the sombre faces of the huddled gathering like teardrops. Oh well, thought Esta. Water is a core element of the ceremony.

Esta loosed her attention from the preparatory notes that Mera, the officiant, was delivering to her friends, family and colleagues. Although attentive, they were more focused on playing their parts in this just-familiar ritual than they were on what this might mean for Esta herself, the initiate. Had her mother been honest when she described this as a happy day for all the family, or was she merely playing a new role? Esta wondered if her choice was really worthy of this hub of support and celebration.

She looked over the valley at Avon, both town and river of the same name. For half the year the town was the river and the river was the town, for the bounds of the waters surged dramatically from the dry to wet seasons. With the season of Iver finally drawing to a close, the waters were due to subside, and Esta had hoped today might offer the first signs of Estate, the season for which she was named, and with it, some sun. But no, hopefulness and horizons were not to be hers today it seemed. Instead a weary grief flowed from the clouds.

Where Avon’s waters brought power and plenty, they also continually took more land and homes.

In the years since the Division, Esta found hope and loss to be increasingly contingent: avenues explored and dead-ended. Possibilities denied and resolve found only in their void. Where Avon’s waters brought power and plenty, they also continually took more land and homes, making stilt-house residents keen to reach ever-higher ground, and making all citizens cautious of the transient valley. Her own boat-home sufficed whatever the shoreline level, but the waters calmed the lower they flowed.

Mera now stepped closer, drawing Esta’s gaze away from the skyline of boat-decks and rooftops above the waters and back to the fountain at the centre of the marquee.

“It is now. The moon has come through. The meeting of light and dark begins.”

Mera offered Esta and the others glasses of the red wine that poured from the fountain, imported from the neighbouring country of Greater Thames no doubt. It was meant to signify the last blood tasted and lost. Esta’s parents were given chocolates, a condolence of sorts, for where the ceremony was meant to be celebratory for her and the many other women who underwent the Commitment, there was no forced suppression of the grief at the loss of a matrilineage that is felt by many parents when their daughter’s time comes. Esta’s own mother had not been offered this opportunity to choose between having or not having children, and Esta had so far failed to ask how she might have considered it.

Mera pressed her forehead to Esta’s, and she awakened to her own presence in the ritual. She felt herself surfacing from below water, from the darks of a river pool into the light of a bright moon. She had chosen this path, and now it was carrying her forward into territories unknown. Mera poured water over their hands and faces from a silver pewter jug engraved with Sheela-na-gigs, a sexuality goddess mistaken as fertility queen from millennia past in the region. Together they began the incantation:

Of fruit that bears seed

Will now the tender corn yield

Of fruit that may flower

Comes now the greater power

All men now find femme

Parental duality within them

For my country’s greater need

I shall not breed.

Hearing her friends speak the words before had half-shocked half-thrilled Esta. It was as if the women became more powerful in rejection of their natural potential to bear offspring than in its enactment, like lionesses refusing to eat a kill. Power withheld is more potent than strength spent. Yet in this moment, giddy with the first alcohol she’d tasted in months, a deeper pain stabbed her from inside, and she didn’t find herself exuding the empowered grace she’d been told to expect.

She glanced at Yannick, once her lover, who was at that moment tending to his belligerent toddler alongside his partner Khalil.

She glanced at Yannick, once her lover, who was at that moment tending to his belligerent toddler alongside his partner Khalil, a cooing calamity erupting from the warm glow of their familial cocoon. Esta wondered whether the sharp pang she felt high in her chest was for Yannick himself or for what he shared with Khalil and their son. Ever since the Division which split Greater Thames, Avon, Mercia and Cumbria into separate countries, Avon and its shires had been declared formal matriarchies. In practice, however, it was wealth not gender that determined power and influence at the very top, just as before.

The reformation into a matriarchal society came in defiance of the further entrenchment of patriarchy in Greater Thames. When the richer, more powerful Greater Thames cast the rest of the island off from its financial prosperity, the regions-turned-countries sought to define themselves in the negative image of their former ruler. Mercia and Cumbria were now ruled by farmers and miners; Avon was ruled by women, who were mainly engineers. In this matriarchy, the decree that men must nurture and bear full responsibility for child rearing had initially been seen as a rebalancing of respect for care work, one which suited men like Yannick and Khalil who were already partnered in the eyes of the state under the old systems. But Esta, who had not partnered in that way but navigated brief intimacies with women she met through work, or men who lived around her moorings, increasingly felt the men basked in a greater glory for their parenting than ever afforded to women in the past.

Her own parents embraced the change willingly but not wholeheartedly, happy that their only daughter would rise in the ranks of her profession. The decision to employ only women in all areas of public works had proved successful for the recovering economy, post-Division. The female workers remained more efficient, even on better pay, and productivity was unprecedented. Esta was proud of the contributions she had made to the overhaul of energy production following the total destruction of their offshore renewable power infrastructure in the 24 hour military attack by the States some twelve years ago as punishment for Avon’s refusal to sign a trade deal. The ten years since Esta had graduated as an engineer at the age of 17 had scattered around like leaves in a gust of wind, butterflying her from homestead power to geo-thermal projects across the city.

Water-power had its season, and solar likewise, and it was her designs that helped bridge the transition from the lifestyle and rhythms of energy use that went with one generative source to the next. Still, getting power to the outer reaches of the shires was hard outside the protections of the town. In the shires, local transmission was not an option and infrastructure had to be imported, risking theft en route by the smugglers feeding the insatiable hunger of the elites in Greater Thames. Having spurned the regions lack of economic contribution it was joylessly ironic to see what was once a self-sufficient capital city rely on the resources of neighbouring countries via the smuggler’s market.

Esta swallowed the last blood-red drops in her tin cup. A cloying aftertaste remained, sticky as bloodied knickers and used condoms, the trappings of which she’d now have no need. Women still took male lovers, although many men chose to parent. Those men that did not had no prospect of public work since parenting was only an option supported by the state if within a long-term partnership with another man. The ones that chose not to parent lived productively, but quietly, hosting events for workers, tending to small-scale farming and other arts. Theirs was a quiet masculinity which neither translated to Avon’s new traditions nor maintained power in the old ways.

With a façade of the initiate’s readiness for change, Esta mimicked Mera moving along the line of guests echoing the codes of the republic with each of three kisses on the left cheek, “Independence. Productivity. Sisterhood.” The same words screamed at political rallies in years past, now hollow with repetition instead of bursting with resistance. When she reached Yannick in the line, the flushing weight of the wine in her face forced a pause and she accepted his steady gaze.

“You’re scared Est. It’s ok.”

His squeeze of her shoulder was too tempting a warmth in the cool air, which was drawing heat from her skin as the evening closed in and the rain crescendoed.

“It’s not the operation…it’s the expectation. Like I’ve got to fill this supposed void with a thousand other achievements.”

“You’d do everything you do either way. This should be about what you want, not what’s expected of you.”

She thought of all she’d worked for over the past decade of political upheaval.

“All I expect is another surprise.”

Mera had reached the end of the line, her eyes calling Esta onwards, closer into her new self. Her mother’s kiss, the last in line, was simple and forgiving, unquestioning of any choice Esta made with the body she had birthed to her. Suddenly Esta longed to more fully understand the gift her mother had given her. The carriage, effort and majestic trauma necessary to create her own being. This would be an appreciation she could never truly know without sharing in its drama. From a frail emptiness at the base of her spine came a new determination, like a resurgent kite striking high in the sky on a fresh wind. The incantation Mera began breathed into this space inside her.

A new role

A new body

A new meaning

The female eunuch revisited

In sexless, seedless, flowerless power

From milk and honey to muscle and mind

We loose the limits of your body

Upon you.

Elsewhere in Greater Thames at this very moment, women her age would be celebrating pregnancies and embracing the charms and challenges of a life involuntarily devoted to motherhood.

Elsewhere in Greater Thames at this very moment, women her age would be celebrating pregnancies and embracing the charms and challenges of a life involuntarily devoted to motherhood, prohibited them from any other form of work until the children were 17. Where in Avon parenting was a male duty, in Greater Thames women bore the labour alone, but without glory or credit, simply out of custom and expectation.

Esta recalled the look of condescension and disbelief in the eyes of her colleague’s father during the only ever trade visit to Greater Thames when she told him her and her friends were not, nor did they intend to become mothers. In that moment she held his first grandson at six weeks, his latent fear that her inexperience might at best hurt the child and at worst curse him. She herself was sure the baby quieted like a trusting puppy at her lack of panic about being perceived as a failed woman, palpable in the new mothers present. There was so much expectation on them, yet no emergence in success. Could it be that women on both sides of the border, whether esteemed as mothers or matriarchs were doomed to feelings of perpetual insufficiency? She looked to her own mother once more, and felt the familiar reassurance of her knowing gaze: neither route provided assurances.

The rain had begun in earnest now, and pounded on and through the cloth roof, already soaked and heavy with uncertainty and expectation of waters breaking. Esta’s eyes set on the red tent awaiting her across the hilltop where they stood. Mera’s slender fingers were holding back the curtain from within. It was time to wave goodbye to the possibility of an unworkable surprise. She hugged Yannick one last time, absently kissed his baby’s forehead, and headed down the slope towards the red tent’s opening.

Mel Evans is an artist and activist. Mel has written one non-fiction book (Artwash, Pluto, 2015), contributed to various academic journals and books, and had several pieces of creative writing published (A Woman Alone, with The Dangerous Women Project and poetry in the Poppies edition of Brain of Forgetting).

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

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January’s readings

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’ll 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.

Uneven Earth updates

We’ve launched our series on sci-fi, near-futures, utopias, and dystopias, Not afraid of the ruins. The first three stories are now online! Expect a new piece every Friday.

Borne on a damaged planet | Link | Two books that do the hard work of thinking through the Anthropocene

Library | Link | A climate change poem

The naked eyes | Link | “Keith’s livelihood was sandwiched between an ocean of algorithms and a ceiling of decision-making programs.”

Why the left needs Elinor Ostrom |  Link | An interview with Derek Wall, author of Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals, on the need to think beyond market and state.

Our printing press’ first paperback, In defense of degrowth, is hot off the press! You can order it at indefenseofdegrowth.com.

   

You might have missed…

Defend Afrin!

Turkey, commanding the second-largest NATO army, has attacked the predominantly Kurdish region in Syria building a feminist & democratic governance system. The region under attack, Afrin, has gone the furthest in institutionalizing women’s liberation. You can follow any updates or find local protests via #DefendAfrin.

More and more environmental activists are getting killed

The “Environmental Warriors” series from the LA Times chronicles stories from around the world, showing why and how increasingly more environmental activists are faced with repression and violence.

Indigenous occupation of oil platforms in the Amazon

“This is not a symbolic action.” An investigative piece from The Intercept.

In India, women are fed up and starting their own agricultural collectives

“The movement is led by educated Dalit youth, who know they have been cheated of land that is rightfully theirs.”

Brazil announces end to Amazon mega-dam building policy

While many threats to the Amazon remain, indigenous and environmental groups celebrated this victory which can be partly attributed to their resistance.

The World Bank admits it botched Chile’s competitiveness ranking, charged with political manipulation

This is important. The International Organisation’s dealings often don’t get much scrutiny, but their reports can make or break a country. An informative Twitter thread here.

A victory for the movement against airports?

The Zone à défendre (ZAD) achieved a victory this month: France announced that it would no longer build the airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. But for ZADistas, it is a half-victory: “While we are trying to prevent the construction of an airport, more than 400 others are being planned or built around the world.”

Where we’re at: analysis

Happy new year! Essays on loneliness, happiness, and an accelerating world

We’re more lonely now than ever: an article on the science of loneliness. To ramble: an ode to the stroll and loitering. An investigation into the new culture of mindfulness in the corporate world. A New Yorker article on the happiness industry. And a Jacobin piece on ‘neoliberal perfectionism’ and how it stands in the way of solidarity and a collective agency.

Maria Kaika on the falsehoods of urban sustainability

Smart cities, green urbanism, livable cities. The catchy terms keep proliferating, but does it come with better policies? Maria Kaika, foremost theorist on cities, opens up a bag of worms in this interview.

The globalisation of slums

An essay by urban geographer Pushpa Arabindoo on the increasing ubiquity of slums—and conversation about them—around the world.

A memo to Canada: acknowledge Indigenous right to self-determination

A striking essay on Canada’s broken relationship with Indigenous people.

The case against GMOs: it’s the industry, stupid

Charles Eisenstein widens the frame on the GMO discussion. “If you believe that society’s main institutions are basically sound, then it is indeed irrational to oppose GMOs.”

Seven cheap things

Last month we shared an interview with Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore about their new book: A history of the world in seven cheap things. This is a critical review by Ian Angus at Climate and Capitalism.

The book that incited a worldwide fear of overpopulation

How The Population Bomb triggered a wave of repression around the world.

Leading Marxist scholar David Harvey on Trump, Wall Street and debt peonage

“often current events are analyzed in a vacuum that almost never includes the context or history necessary to understand what is new, what is old and how we got to where we are.”

New politics

Two years of radical municipalism in Barcelona

A documentary about what happened in Barcelona and why it matters, including resources for discussing the video with your local group. An inspiring interview on the new politics in Spain, and how people have used the internet in creative ways. Eight lessons from the last two years of radical municipalism. A report on the first Fearless Cities conference last year held in Barcelona, and another report on the Catalan Integral Cooperative, which is experimenting with a new economic system in the shell of the old.

New strategies to organize tenants

“Today’s tenant organizers confront a highly fragmented and individualized rental sector. The challenge, then, is not just to mobilize tenants but to create a shared sense of being a tenant.”

Living through the catastrophe

Editorial from the seventh issue of ROAR magazine, which examines the social and political nature of climate change. The issue also features an explainer on the relevance of Murray Bookchin’s work for today’s climate crisis.

Climate change and the humanities: a historical perspective

“If we can resist the age-old impulse to define binary oppositions between ways of knowing—scientific versus humanistic, expert versus popular—we will be in a better position to join forces across those divides towards understanding and action”, argues Deborah Cohen.

Atlantic freedoms

“Haiti, not the US or France, was where the assertion of human rights reached its defining climax in the Age of Revolution.” In light of President Trump’s recent ‘shithole’ comments, this article from 2016 on Haiti’s revolutionary history is worth revisiting.

The shitty new communist futurism

Aaron kicks off a new series of articles on the ENTITLE blog which questions the foundations of ‘eco-modernist socialism’ and ‘communist futurism’ as proposed in Jacobin’s climate change issue Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Resources

A reading list on Indigenous climate justice

How to get new activists to stay engaged for the long haul

There’s been upsurge in activism since the Trump election, but how do we keep people engaged? A nice how-to from Waging Nonviolence.

A critical framework for a just recovery

With increasing natural disasters and the retreat of the state, more and more people are getting involved with grassroots disaster response movements. Movement Generation has put out a document with a guiding framework for how to do people-based recovery. PDF here.

What’s happening in Puerto Rico?

A thorough syllabus on the island’s history and its not-so-natural catastrophes.

Sci-fi and the near future

Ursula K. Le Guin on the need to end the narrative of the triumphant hero

“It is with a certain feeling of urgency that I seek the nature, subject, words of the other story, the untold one, the life story.” Ursula K. Le Guin has died, and there are so many more worlds to explore. We’ll build them with her in our hearts. This is one of our favorite pieces by her, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”

Luxury home developments of the future will include patented ecosystems

“Entire landscapes, replete with designer insects and subscription seed stock, will have the potential to be recognised as protected intellectual property. The proprietary ecosystem will emerge, financially and biologically controlled by a particular hotel chain, property developer or private homeowner.”

Climate gentrification?

Welcome to the future: climate change will mean a new math for real estate investment.

Solarpunk wants to save the world

Move over cyberpunk. Say hello the new kid on the sci-fi block, solarpunk.

The world is full of monsters

We like our stories filled with weird creatures. A collection of shorts by Jeff VanderMeer.

Welcome to the wasteland

Ok, this isn’t sci-fi, but it certainly feels like it. A graphic illustration of a post-apocalyptic festival.

A strategy for ruination

An interview with China Miéville about the limits of utopia.

Carbon omissions

“with looming climate change and the decline of cheap oil, I couldn’t shake the question of what would power all these gadgets, and none of the futurists seemed to bring it up.”

Writing

On seeing and beeing seen: Writing about Indigenous issues with love

“To truly write from another experience in an authentic way, you need more than empathy. You need to write with love.” By Alice Elliott.

Women writing about the wild: 25 essential authors

A primer on some of the best nature writing you probably haven’t read yet.

 

These newsletters are put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

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Borne on a damaged planet

by Dylan M. Harris

This essay is both a critical reflection and review of two books: the edited volume, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, from University of Minnesota Press (Tsing et. al. 2017) and Jeff VanderMeer’s (2017) Borne. When read diffractively together, these two texts map onto one another as a simultaneously troubling and inspiring thought experiment about what it means to accept and live with the premise of the apparent Anthropocene. In the shade of this epoch, the politics of scale – of space and time – are up for debate, inviting new forms of thought that, when taken seriously, have drastic implications for the art and practice of existence/survival on this planet.

 When read diffractively together, these two texts map onto one another as a simultaneously troubling and inspiring thought experiment about what it means to accept and live with the premise of the apparent Anthropocene. 

Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is divided into two smaller books: Ghosts and Monsters. On Ghosts – ‘The winds of the Anthropocene carry ghosts–the vestiges and signs of past ways of life still charged in the present’ (2017: G1). On Monsters–‘Monsters ask us to consider the wonders and terrors of symbiotic entanglement in the Anthropocene’ (2017: M2). These two theoretical mechanisms work together ‘in a dialectical fashion… to unsettle anthropos…from its presumed center stage in the Anthropocene by highlighting the webs of histories and bodies from which all life, including human life, emerges’ (2017: M3). In sum, this work engages with the emergent truth(s) of the Anthropocene, namely that Nature, as something separate from civilization, is dead. In this epoch, every facet of Nature–from plastics and soot in the Earth’s crust to molecular-level species interference–has been implicated in the human regime in some form or another. This is not meant to imply that all humans share the same responsibility for these shifts in the earth system, or that the impacts of these shifts are equally distributed among human and non-human populations. Still, when considering that Nature is and always has been co-produced with civilization (even if some civilizations produce more intensively than others), the implication of humanity in this geologic moment ignites a sense of speculation and wonder that inspires a geologically oriented reconsideration of what constitutes ‘us’ and the world we inhabit.

The approaches taken in this book vary between physical and social sciences to the arts and humanities in an attempt to open up new spaces for intellectual and political praxis between otherwise discreet epistemological traditions. While there is certainly room for critique in this edited volume–especially given the sometimes sporadic and disparate connective threads between the chapters–this book is written in direct response to developments in critical and social theory that have wrestled with the Anthropocene. These theories have done much of the hard work of critiquing, deconstructing, and displaying the inequalities and disparities of this moment. Though imperfect (this book consistently refers to an undifferentiated ‘we,’ for example), this book is one of few that attempts to rearticulate and empiricize our new reality. Moreover, this collection of works pays attention to the stories ‘we’ tell about the Anthropocene: ‘Some kinds of stories help us notice; others get in our way’ (2017: M8). As a piece of speculative fiction, Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne is a story that does both: it helps us notice the implications–the trace impressions–of our actions in the future, and it gets in our way–confronts us–by not allowing us to ignore our place in the Anthropocene’s actualization.

Borne’s central character, Borne, is a symbiont, a creature (monster? weapon? person?) that consumes genetic material. He/she/it represents both a ghost–something that embodies and alters previous and present genetic material–and a monster, in that it also represents an entanglement of salvaged pieces and bodies. Borne is found and raised by Rachel, a scavenger woman, in the ruins of a futuristic city wrecked by catastrophe and lorded over by a giant, venomous flying bear named Mord. While ecological collapse is a peripheral component of Borne’s world, biotech is centered in the book as the culprit for much of the city’s destruction. The city is inhabited and ravaged by botched biotech experiments and human and non-human survivors. However, the book should not be considered necessarily dystopic. While it may appear so to readers sympathetic to the human characters, who are certainly central to the book’s plot, the world of Borne is teeming with new, unexpected life. This is signaled when Borne encounters a poisoned river near Rachel’s home; a river she considers dead and ugly but that also serves as a site of contemplative beauty for Borne. Throughout the book, Borne struggles with its identity–whether it is a thing, a person, a weapon, or a monster. There is hardly any resolution to Borne’s existential crisis, as these framings of its existence stem from a humanistic point of view. Further, Borne is both an individual and a community, a singular being symbiotically imbricated in its surroundings. It is an iterative version of itself, a concocted mesh of genetic material. Though Borne seems to be more or less in control of its being, it is driven by a desire to consume genetic material, which highlights the agentive nature of genes, namely that they are constantly becoming and emergent. In this way, Borne, and the world Borne inhabits and consumes and alters (and is altered by), is representative of much of the work outlined in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet.

The breadth of topics covered in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is too wide to cover here. However, there are certain pieces that are especially relevant when read with Borne. With regards to ghosts, Karen Barad uses the silhouettes left behind of human bodies vaporized by the detonation of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima to extend her conceptualization of post-humanist performativity. She argues that time itself died in the blast, but that its loss, though indiscernible, is profoundly tangible. In sum, the ‘photographs’ taken by the demoleculuarization of human bodies illustrates the agentive capacity of molecules, highlighting the ways in which the world is inhabited, haunted, represented, and built by forces beyond the human. Similarly, Jens Christian-Svenning’s contribution illustrates the way in which the contemporary global landscape is haunted by trace impression of the past. Entire ecologies are built upon and fundamentally shaped by large-scale extinctions, for example, and these ghosts continue to emerge and build new worlds around us. Though the name Anthropocene centers the human as a species-wide disturbance in the geologic record, it is, as Dorion Sagan discusses in his contribution, one geologic moment of many mapped onto and nested into one another. These ghosts live in the present, contributing to the global ecology of the current world. Further, they haunt the future, of what will come.

The landscape of Borne is similarly haunted by ghosts. Borne’s city is pockmarked by the extended failures of capitalist development: toxic rivers, burnt-out buildings, creeping desertification. These landmarks frame the plot of Borne much in the same way the collective story of the Anthropocene is framed by eerily similar ghosts. Like the molecules that make loss tangible in Barad’s work, there is an emergent world of possibilities lurking in the background of Borne. While the landscape itself is ghostly in the novel, the character Borne is also phantasmagoric. It is a specter that looms outside of human control, despite Rachel’s best efforts. As it consumes more genetic material, it is simultaneously haunted and haunting. It is haunted by the genes it is forced to ingest, as they develop and alter Borne’s biophysical structure. And, it is haunting, as Borne grows it becomes increasingly unknowable and uncanny. Further, as a piece of biotech–as an experiment of late-stage capitalist development–Borne represents a loss of control in this world, haunting this present reality from a speculative future, which resonates with Tsing et. al.’s (2017) notion that the Anthropocene can be understood as a future that looks back on the present. This monstrous future, however, is also framed by the monstrosity of the present, which is another tack taken by Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet.

Speculative fiction provides an alternative world in which it is possible to envision monstrosity.

If ‘Monsters are bodied tumbled into bodies’ (Tsing et. al., 2017: M10), Scott F. Gilbert’s chapter in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet highlights that life itself is monstrous. He uses the term holobiont–‘an organism plus its persistent communities of symbionts’ (2017: M73)–to engage with developments in biology that troubles the concept of an individual. He uses a cow as an example. A cow is unable to survive on its own, as it is unable to digest its food. Instead, ‘It is the population of gut symbionts that digests the grass and makes the cow possible’ (2017: M73). Even human birth would be impossible without symbionts. Gilbert’s chapter highlights one thing: all life is symbiotic, dependent upon complex relationships for survival. Extinction, however, has become a trademark of the apparent Anthropocene. As species disappear, so do their microbial legacies, as Margaret McFall-Ngai writes in her chapter. This creates a vacuum in which symbiotic survival becomes questionable. There is no analogue for lost species and lost microbial universes. However, as species disappear, these symbiotic entanglements are amplified outside of microbial worlds. As Peter Funch shows in his chapter about the intertwined lives of horseshoe crabs and red knot birds, loss affects global ecologies. Horseshoe crabs and red knot birds are mutually dependent upon one another for their collective survival. In an era of mass extinctions, this realization raises the question of how to do entangled conservation, and, when doing conservation, what is at stake. It is here, at the edge of loss, that this book’s dialectical schematic of ghosts and monsters come together. What trace impressions of loss will influence the future? Further, what does it mean to live in a time and place where these changes are taking place?

Speculation becomes a powerful tool when thinking through these questions, and speculative fiction provides an alternative world in which it is possible to envision monstrosity. The monstrous implications of the Anthropocene are centered in Borne. Borne’s existence is sustained and mediated by symbiotic relationships. In this sense, Borne represents an ideal monster (a body tumbled into bodies), a case study in what Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet seeks to outline. Yet, Borne is not the only monster in the novel. The human characters in the novel are also holobionts, using variations of biotech–from intravenous medicine to external traps–for survival. These complex relationships play out through the books plot as Rachel encounters other human-esque characters. Finally, the backdrop of the novel is scattered with monsters, symbiotic creatures living and dying in the ruins of the city. Flying bears, bioengineered fish, and disappearing foxes are among these monsters. However, these creatures exist and survive through complex relationships with one another and the landscape. Like microscopic symbionts discussed in McFall-Ngai’s work, or the speculative loss discussed in Funch’s work, the monsters in Borne allow its readers to envision and imagine a monstrous world haunted by the Anthropocene.

As this moment continues to unfold at multiple spatial and temporal scales it is critical to remain grounded in the shifting sands of empirical reality while also continuing to think and imagine about what reality may, can, and will look like in the future.

But, what is the Anthropocene? When did it start? Are we in it or entering it? What do we call it? Whose fault is it? As a concept, what does it ‘do’? What sort of politics or ideas does it enable or disable? The answer to these questions have been pushing thought and work on the Anthropocene for decades, despite its more or less recent rise to fame in the social sciences. While Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is a foray into answering these questions with empirical and experimental work, these questions remain largely unanswered. Partly because some of them are unanswerable, and partly because there remains much thought work to be done. Speculative fiction, like Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, puts in the thought work. It gives readers something to grapple, to do the hard work of thinking and imagining the full political, ethical, and moral implications of a geologic humanity. What does it mean to be human? Who is considered human? The questions continue. In sum, these pieces work well together, and are both important works in the context of the apparent Anthropocene. As this moment continues to unfold at multiple spatial and temporal scales it is critical to remain grounded in the shifting sands of empirical reality while also continuing to think and imagine about what reality may, can, and will look like in the future.

Dylan M. Harris is a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University. He studies the stories we tell (and don’t tell) about climate change and comes up with his own stories from time to time.

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

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Why the left needs Elinor Ostrom

Image: WikiCommons

By Aaron Vansintjan

At some point during the Quebec student strike of 2012, I found myself in an enormous protest in downtown Montreal. We took up the street as far as the eye could see. All of a sudden, a mass of people dressed in black stormed down the other half of the road. The anarchist contingent, going the wrong way.

The effect was incredible: here we were, in the thousands, all walking together in one direction to demand tuition subsidized by the state, and simultaneously, thousands of others were calling for an end to the state, walking the other way. I climbed onto the concrete divider in the center of the street separating the two lanes, unsure of which side I should join.

One protest, two directions: a neat metaphor for the tension in the Left today. We are trying to choose between supporting welfare programs and rejecting the top-down nature of the state itself. Just as education, health insurance, and welfare need to be protected, the state plays a key role in environmental destruction, securitization and policing, and international wars. How can we resolve this tension?

If you try to figure out what role the state should have, you’ll inevitably be led to a list of great thinkers: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, and, for a more contemporary twist, Thomas Piketty or Amartya Sen.

Her work sought to think political economy beyond both the state and the market.

Rarely does Elinor Ostrom appear on that list—but she certainly deserves to be included. Ostrom spent much of her life trying to figure out how people solve problems of distribution amongst themselves, and why some communities are able to share resources while others are not. Her work sought to think political economy beyond both the state and the market—something that many of those giants of political theory had not, thus far, been able to do very well. In other words, she could think in two directions, at the same time.

I’ve always thought that, for people interested in social progress, engaging with Ostrom’s work is crucial. Unfortunately, she’s not very well known. It’s not that Elinor Ostrom’s work is hard to get hold of; her relative obscurity is probably more related to the fact that it’s not that easy to figure out the wider implications of her research. Her work can help us think about austerity, state welfare, the market, local democracy, and environmental issues. But how it would do so is rarely made explicit.

Luckily, this gap has now been rectified in the new book, Elinor Ostrom’s rules for radicals: Cooperative alternatives beyond markets and states, by Derek Wall and published by Pluto Press. Wall is a politician (as a Green Party candidate he stood against Theresa May in the 2017 General Elections) and activist who spends much of his time writing about radical politics, social movements, political theory, and left strategy.

As its title suggests, the book is directed at people on the left (‘radicals’). Wall describes this book as a bite-size take on his more serious and dry PhD-thesis-length tome, The Sustainable economics of Elinor Ostrom: Commons, contestation, and craft. There is little dryness here, though, as Wall peppers the book with little detours and passionate reflections on subjects as diverse as Occupy Wall Street, Rojava, and the TV show The Wire.

Throughout the book the main sense I got was a wholehearted excitement about and admiration for Elinor Ostrom’s work. Apart from its very necessary contribution to leftist strategy and thought, it is this enthusiasm that propels the book forward, making it an enjoyable and light read.

With a nod to Saul Alinsky, Wall starts the book with 13 very short ‘rules for radicals’, which include ‘be specific’, ‘collective ownership can work’, ‘map power’, and ‘no panaceas’. These may not make much sense at first, but as you read the book, they form the basic threads of his argument and help to create a coherent picture of Ostrom’s work and how it can inform the left.

I was able to attend the book launch in London this past November, and we had agreed that I could ask some questions after. During the talk, Wall—wearing a Kurdish scarf and expressing solidarity with his friend Mehmet Aksoy who has recently passed away—talked more about the stories he knew about Ostrom than the contents of his book itself. He referred to her as ‘Elinor’, as if talking about a dear friend, and the audience laughed along as he told us about her meeting with the political economist Garrett Hardin, and Wall’s own encounter with her shortly before she passed away.

Later, over drinks at the pub across the street, we huddled together to talk about Rojava, Marxism, ecosocialism, and today’s new social movements—not at all in the right state for a serious interview. So we decided to leave it to an email later. The following is the result of our email exchange, edited lightly for brevity and flow.

 

Say I’m a socialist unfamiliar with Ostrom’s work. What’s your 1-minute pitch? Why should I care?

Socialism, someone said, is about sharing.  Marxists argue that means of production need to be owned by the whole community.  Elinor gives us the tools to do the job, a hard-nosed, flexible approach to communal ownership based on science, research, and pragmatism.  Her insight that collective ownership is possible makes the apparently radical reasonable.

What kind of person was Elinor Ostrom? How do you think that shows in her work?

She was a fun open human being, she would talk to anybody, and was known to take care to answer questions that came in emails from across the planet. She was interested in practical problem solving and opposed any kind of dogma.  She was not that kind of elitist ivory tower academic but respected others and sought to learn from the grassroots.

In the beginning of the book you have a list of 13 rules for radicals. One of them is ‘pose social change as problem solving’? What do you mean by this?

In politics we tend to think in terms of conspiracies and slogans.  Politics is too often seen as replacing an elite with an alternative set of leaders. This is at best insufficient. I am not fundamentally against electoral politics in a liberal context but they are limited.  The Ostrom approach is about participation, creating a deeply democratic society instead of replacing ‘bad people’ with ‘good people’ at the top of a structure.

Politics is too often seen as replacing an elite with an alternative set of leaders. This is at best insufficient.

In turn, we too often have a kind of magical and ideological thinking where we are for ‘good things’ and against ‘bad things’, promoting broad slogans or writing manifestos with sets of demands.  Instead we need to view the good things we would like to achieve such as ecology, equality, and freedom as challenges to meet.  The history of the left shows that whether we are talking about reform or revolution, practical problems and entrenched power structures can transform good intentions into restoration of oppression.

Specifically, Elinor Ostrom looked at ‘commons’ as a matter of problem solving.  She didn’t believe that commons were either doomed to failure (the so-called tragedy of the commons) or a universal solution. Instead she noted that some things were inevitably held in common—for example, its difficult for an individual to own a river or the seas—and then looked at how to solve the problem of overuse.  I think this is a good approach!

What do you think explains the paucity of awareness about Elinor Ostrom’s work?

Ostrom’s approach is difficult to place, she was often inspired by thinkers on the free market right like James Buchanan and Hayek but in doing so challenged market based notions of purely private property and the market.  Her uncanny ability to upset those who seek to summarise her ideas as simple slogans means her ideas can be challenging.  However interest in the left is growing, for example, the Indigenous leader and revolutionary Hugo Blanco cites her and her approach seems to describe much of what the Kurds and their allies are trying to achieve in Rojava.

How do you think Ostrom’s work relates to Marxism?

For a start, Marxism has stressed class struggle and macro change. Marxists have argued that revolution will transform society and provide a break from old oppressive structures with the introduction of communism.  Ostrom’s micro analysis about how you build practical institutional structures to promote more ecological, equal and diverse societies, can be rejected as irrelevant by the left.  Constructing these structures is a waste of time in capitalism because Marxists might argue capitalist systems will destroy them.  Indeed it is good to be critical of Ostrom from this perspective because she didn’t focus on the real tragedy of the commons, the fact that commons were enclosed and commoners expelled by the rich and powerful. However if you don’t think about the nuts and bolts of governance in a post capitalist society, revolution, in my opinion, will fail to produce institutions that genuinely promote liberation.

When we talked the other night you mentioned that the left often thinks in terms of revolution, but has little plan of how to set up resource management and governance systems afterwards. Could you explain what you mean by this? How do you think Ostrom’s work can be helpful in that regard?

Ostrom was fascinated by the practice of participation and looked in some detail at how to build alternative structures.

Getting there by destroying repressive power structures is the task of revolutionaries and remains essential.  However revolutions can only be the start. Any post-revolutionary society is in danger of reproducing the previous ways of doing things. Therefore thinking carefully about institutional decisions to make sure that post-revolutionary structures work to promote participation and genuine democratic control is essential but too often forgotten.  Ostrom was fascinated by the practice of participation and looked in some detail at how to build alternative structures, in doing so she provides both radical inspiration and practical suggestions.  You can see how the best of the Latin American lefts thinkers, for example, Marta Harnecker, both advocate commons and a more nuanced understanding of institutional factors if we are to transform society in a direction which is sustainable (in both ecological and social terms).

You mention the Kurdish struggle in Rojava. How do you think Ostrom’s work can help us understand the situation there? Have you had any conversations with Kurdish activists about her work?

Yes many times. The Kurds and their allies in Rojava are putting forward the ideas of Ocalan and Bookchin, based on ecology, feminism, diversity, and self-management. Ostrom’s work fits with this and I often talked to Kurdish activists about her work. Sadly my friend Mehmet Aksoy was killed by ISIS in Raqqa in September, Mehmet was a journalist and filmmaker from North London.  His loss is huge to all who knew him.  He commissioned me to write an article about Elinor Ostrom and Rojava, you can find it here.

You seem excited about the new book you’re writing, a biography of the Indigenous leader, Hugo Blanco. Could you tell me a bit about it?

Hugo is perhaps the most important ecosocialist leader on the planet.  In 1962 he led an uprising for Indigenous land rights, when he was a member of the Fourth International in Peru. This was successful and brought land reform but he was imprisoned until 1970. Aged 83, he is still an active militant and publishes the newspaper Lucha Indigena (Indigenous struggle). I am in the happy position of getting emails from him nearly every day. Elinor Ostrom was about cooperation rather than political militancy and revolution, and yet they are very similar individuals—committed to ecological matters and friends to Indigenous people.  He has lived through prison, exile, being a Senator, and is still very busy. In recent years he has been supporting communities opposing destructive mining projects in the North of Peru. The Zapatistas in Mexico have been a big influence on his thinking, which has shifted from more traditional Leninism to a more horizontal and anarchist approach. He is a very inspiring person and astute political thinker, so I want to spread both his words and wisdom and Elinor’s.

This is a question for the New Year. You’re a Marxist, a Green Party candidate, you ascribe to Zen Buddhism, and your work now is focusing on Hugo Blanco, Elinor Ostrom, and Louis Althusser. What are some common questions, concerns, ideas, or passions that will drive you in the next year?

I am not a believer in one political organisation being ‘correct’ to the exclusion of all others.

Its sounds quite disparate when you put it like that.  My key focus is how to challenge the ecological crisis that threatens both humanity and other species.  This is a crisis of economic growth, we can’t produce, consume, and waste at increasing levels without challenging basic biological cycles on planet Earth.  So Marx’s analysis of Capitalism remains to me vital to understanding the cause of ecological crisis in terms of an entire social and economic system based on growth. Marx once noted, ‘Accumulate, accumulate is Moses and the Prophets’— the secular religion of capitalism puts economic expansion and profit at the centre of everything. Louis Althusser, a highly controversial figure, remains to my mind the most sophisticated reader of Marx. So, yes, I have a passion for thinking about green politics and acting to further green politics but I am keen to be flexible in what I do. While from Trump and climate change the outlook seems bleak, there is an upsurge of enthusiasm for radical politics, so in the coming year I hope to support and empower the emergence of political alternatives. I am not a believer in one political organisation being ‘correct’ to the exclusion of all others, so amongst other things I am excited, on the one hand, by efforts to green Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and on the other within the Green Party work of a new generation of activists, for example, Aimee Challenor in promoting LGBTIQ politics.

Politics is endless struggle. Both Elinor Ostrom and Hugo Blanco have made me rethink how I do politics, making it more radical and practical, so spreading the word about their work will continue to be significant to me. And, yes, once I have finished writing the Hugo Blanco book, I will start writing Althusser for Revolutionaries.

 

Aaron Vansintjan is a PhD student researching food and cities, and a co-editor of Uneven Earth. He recently edited the book by Giorgos Kallis, In defense of degrowth, which is now available in print.

Elinor Ostrom’s rules for radicals: Cooperative alternatives beyond markets and states by Derek Wall is available from Pluto Press

Library

Photo: Kim Goldberg

by Kim Goldberg

Somewhere beyond silent streets

and woodlands, beyond upheaved

graveyards, empty schools, dry spillways, vacant

hibernaculums for little brown bats

beyond the last larval foodplant for the last

western tiger swallowtail

an old woman sits by the sea untangling

the nets of each life she can imagine.

Her cabin above the tideline is filled with books

from the Time Before but little else.

She cooks over a burn barrel beside her shack

stokes it with driftwood and whatever tumbles

ashore. Once an old door made a landing

then a desk still intact. She grills any scrap of flesh

the sea hacks up—bull kelp, moon

jellies, three-eyed eels. Eats them with succulent

stems of glasswort growing in the sand.

When evening comes, she flings each newly

sorted net upon the ocean like a bedsheet

for each is a piece of the planetary genome.

She is waiting for the nets to find

one another, reconnect end-to-end, spiral

beneath the waves. Replicate.

But each net returns alone, an enfolded mass

of knots, bone, chitinous exoskeletons, bloated

elongate bodies of the unknown.

 

Written June 2, 2017, the morning after US President Donald Trump announced he was pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Kim Goldberg is the author of seven books of poetry and nonfiction. She lives close to the sea in Nanaimo, British Columbia, where she wanders, wonders, and watches birds.

 

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

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The naked eyes

Image: WikiCommons

by Nathaniel McKenzie

The streets around the station had caught a glitter from the early morning rain, and as sunlight poured between the towers, every surface sparkled. In the puddles between the tracks, the city was shattered into shards of the 21st century ambition that built it.

Stillness prevailed—a coiled anticipation. The only permanent denizens idled, ready to serve: law enforcement drones hovered at the end and beginning of their patrols; auto-kiosks stood, shutters open, steam curling from espresso bays; city-roombas lurked in alleys ready to suck up litter; adverts lay ready to broadcast targeted pitches to the coming rush. Behind every wall, floor, and pillar programs and machinery hummed in neutral—an orchestra held by the raised hands of its conductor.

Keith watched the city swell to engulf the train, staring out as the avenue of towers rose around the tracks. His morning music—slow sitar overlain by a duet in Hindi and Portuguese—played languidly, barely drowning out the murmur of the carriage behind him. Normally, this was his favourite part of the day—a meditative peace that washed from his commute through his day, providing him deep, enduring comfort—but, today, it was little comfort. He twisted at his hair and gnawed at his nails.  

Marriage, he thought. It was a terribly old-fashioned idea, but it felt right. He wanted to commit—to declare his intention publicly amongst his friends and family. To tell his truth. But before that lay the question, and the answer. That morning, something had fallen away within him and he’d realized he was unsure what Surinder would say. Surinder, his Surinder: the man who ate tangerines without peeling them and always got juice everywhere; who talked about chemistry the way others talk about movies; who he’d whisked away to Zanzibar for a beach holiday just four months into their relationship only to find him driving them into Stone Town to explore the old slave markets. Surinder with his cross-eyed grins and his irritating way of turning every dinner party into a political brawl. Surinder who was out of his league; Surinder who might say No.

The train jerked to a halt, pulling Keith from his thoughts.

Shimmying and sidling between his fellow commuters as they extracted bags from overhead compartments, he stepped out into the full-bodied petrichor.

The plaza beyond the station was a labyrinth of queues for coffee, dappled by the shadows of drones overhead. Keith walked with purpose, tuning out the adverts that squeezed in between songs and scuttled over every flat surface declaring promises of weekend escapes, resorts, cleaner shaves, and fragrances that might seduce impossibly handsome men.

Faces surfaced briefly from the crowd, throwing up snatches of public profiles—recent Facebook photos, instagram posts, dating, and hook-up profiles. But, caught in his head, Keith avoided eye contact, paying just enough attention to avoid collisions, and headed for the subway.

He clicked through the turnstiles, stepped onto the escalators, and let the ground swallow him. As he stood through his descent, his contact lenses expanded to seize his peripheries. A moment of darkness ensued. Then he was somewhere else. Immersed in an advert—one of his—promoting the newest dating app.

Before him, a full moon hung over mountains bristling with stone pines. He could almost feel the warm summer breeze. A restaurant enfolded him—Italian, Spanish, maybe Greek. Across the table sat a well-muscled white man, slight stubble grazing a square jaw. His new companion laughed inaudibly, biceps tensing as he slapped the table, and a woman’s voice whispered over the pantomime ‘Find your bliss.’  

Keith’s feet found solid ground; the advert dissipated, his contacts shrinking back into transparence. Standing at the base of the escalator, he found himself smiling; it was oddly comforting that the targeting systems hadn’t picked up his intentions, hadn’t known. He’d heard so many stories of the algorithms turning prophet, informing people of their pregnancies, impending breakups, and firings. But what if it knows he’ll refuse, a rogue thought like a bull through the streets, could it know?

He got off the subway a stop early to visit the retail district. Mind still stuck in Surinder, he emerged into sunlight onto a broad boulevard cut by stripes of lush vegetation. Ranks of restaurants lined the street. Suited servers hovered around the breakfast crowd, ready to swoop in to replenish any emptying glass. Artisanal bakeries bustled with personal shoppers of the wealthy, homemakers returning from dropping off the kids, and others— foot tapping, heads cocked or on their phones checking their feeds, email, the time—treating themselves before work. Above them hung a haze of reviews, posts, selfies and pictures, each set in a colour-coded square and sized by their influence, likes, and reach. They formed a digital smog that vaulted from eve to eve, and roiled as new posts puffed up to join the old.  

No adverts pestered him. And, if he looked down, he could pretend he was in a city of old. Still the spreads behind the glass were whispered temptations—a seduction that he feared his diet would not survive. So he kept his eyes down or ahead, looking at the plants and the drying tarmac, tunnel-gaze only flickering as the shadows of drones blinked over the street.

Gradually, the delis, bakeries, and restaurants gave way to boutiques selling reconditioned vintage clothes, artisanal crockery, and antique furniture. Still, he kept his eyes down until his destination towered over him: a four-story building with sleek black walls and gaping displays of white silk and scattered with red pillows. A single piece of jewelry was draped over each pillow, each was a statement of simple, elegant, opulence.  

Keith tried the door. It was locked. Shit, he hadn’t checked. Of course he hadn’t; too wrapped up in his doubts as always. He winced to himself, imagining Surinder’s sardonic smile—the smile that would wrap itself around his man’s face if—when—he told him. Sheepishly, he looked for opening hours on the storefront. There were none displayed on the door, or on the windows: just a simple logo in gold. Keith pulled his phone from his pocket, and searched for the hours: 11:30, guess I’m coming back at lunch.

Gripped by his mistake, he paused, looking at the windows full of jewels and up over the edifice—camera-bulbs, gold skirting, water stains on the black-clad wall. Gradually, he became aware of a presence beside him.

A man stood to his right, hunched, head down. He was dressed—anachronistically—in the loose coveralls of the city’s old waste management service, a department that had been given over to machines a little over a decade before. He noticed the splitting, ragged rubber of the man’s boots, and the dirt beneath his nails before he averted his gaze, frowning. Homeless, he thought, I thought they shipped them all off. Guilt guttered in him. Still, he studiously ignored the man as he struck off to work.  

****

Keith found his intern, Ndidiamaka, in their shared office. She was standing perfectly still in the middle of the room, back to the door. A detached camera-bulb, its cords looping up into the ceiling socket, lay on his desk like a gouged-out eyeball.

Amused and more than a little curious, he lingered by the doorway, watching her.

Alongside her work as his intern, Ndidiamaka was an engineer and a masters student in the sociology of technology; in exchange for her seemingly inexhaustible labour, his firm—AdSight—provided her the data she needed for her thesis project on automation in advertising. Over the months she’d shared his office, he’d seen her devise dozens of bizarre side-projects. More often than not, they failed.  

After a minute stood stock still, she checked a tablet beside the camera. Whatever it showed elicited a stream of frustrated muttering.

Keith cleared his throat; Ndidiamaka jumped.

“Shit! Sorry, sorry—I expected to have this mess cleared up long before you came in!”

“It’s quite alright Ndidi, I didn’t mean to startle you… but what, exactly, are you doing?”

“Well, uh, I stayed late last night crunching data for my thesis—it’s due in two weeks can you believe it? And the lights kept on going out—I’d have to jump around every ten minutes to keep them on! So I tried to fix it, and it kind of spiralled from there…”

“…Oh-kay,” Keith stepped around her to slide his briefcase onto the other side of his desk, “well, I’m going to need my desk back at some point.”

“Right, of course—this camera is refusing to see me when I stand still anyways, something to do with the contrast settings. I can’t seem to get around the firmware, been trying for the last three hours—”

“Ndidi, did you go home last night?” At this question, her face became a rictus of guilt, “Ndidi! We talked about this! Am I going to need to start kicking you out of the office when I leave? It’s not healthy!”

“Right, right… I’m sorry, mum. I won’t do it again…” she rubbed the bridge of her nose, “could you help me get the camera back into the ceiling?”

He sighed, “Alright.”   

He had to stand on a chair to feed the wires back into the gut of the ceiling. It took several attempts to get it to loop just right and, all the while, Ndidiamaka stood behind him, nervously holding the chair and occasionally giving him ‘helpful’ directions. Finally, with a satisfying click, it twisted in. He clambered down to solid ground and, installing himself at his desk, pulled on a VR headset.

Keith’s livelihood was sandwiched between an ocean of algorithms and a ceiling of decision-making programs. Beneath him, programs ran through a century of footage shot on phones, cameras, and whatever other recording equipment. They pulled out anything relevant, trying to find anything that might go viral or enhance the immersive advertising experience. The way the light hit a building, a fragment of graffiti, the sunset over Mount Cameroon, the ranks of cans at a supermarket: everything would be spliced together.

But the programs were not perfect. They did not, for instance, understand the unspoken rules of society, and what rules they did understand they applied mercilessly. For instance, early in his career, Keith had had to press refresh on an entire campaign for Cutesie, a makeup manufacturer’s new line of products for high-school children when the software started spitting out nothing but hardcore porn. Similarly, he’d had to press reset on the campaign for Gladiator Razors after their request for a ‘martial aesthetic’ caused some rogue element to make SS officers the protagonists of every clip.

Thankfully, those extremes were exceptions. Mostly he dealt with the ten percent of adverts that were jumbled mishmashes that made no sense and the other ten percent that, while coherent, accidentally undermined the clients’ brands.
When forced to discuss his job at parties, Keith would tell people that the most interesting part of his job was the subtle art of negotiating the borders of offense. Many of the best advertisements pressed right up against the lines: they threatened transgression. The rules were of marketing were a morass of contradictions that few programs could untangle, none efficiently. Which was lucky, because that was why Keith still had a job. So he sat, VR glasses on, flickering from ad to ad, pushing some through to the automated decision-making processes above him and deleting others.

Most days he felt as though he was trapped between rising flood waters and an impermeable ceiling.

That morning, Keith was faced with a raft of adverts prepared for his agency’s newest client: Saber Security Solutions, a provider of anti-crime systems for supermarkets, homes, and corner stores. He fell into the first ad.

A woman stood before a rack of diapers, grainy in the ancient footage. The scene resolved itself, shedding a century’s baggage to become crisp. It was as though he was there, looking over her shoulder, pondering her choice. She looked a little over forty; a slight grey had snuck into her undyed hair. Hefting a large handbag, she held a box in her hand—a hypoallergenic brand—scrutinising the price. Keith could almost see the calculations writ over her lined face. She sighed, and slid the box back onto the shelf and turned to leave. Then, as though seized by some invisible force, she hesitated. She turned back, lifted the box from the shelf, slipped it into her bag, and walked towards the doors. Alarms blared. Lights flashed. A black tube, terminating in two prongs snaked from the ceiling. Tzack. It jabbed the woman. She collapsed, juddered by the surge of an electric shock. The interlinked triple ‘S’ of Saber Security Solutions descended over the scene, ‘Saber Security Solutions: Presenting the Integrated Anti-Theft System,’ said a stern, male voice.

Not a chance, thought Keith as he emerged from the advert, who wants to see someone’s mother get tased?

The next advert wasn’t much better though it skewed in a different direction. This time the thief was a young, black man dressed in what could only be described as a pastiche of late-20th century ‘urban’ gangster. Wayyy too racist, thought Keith. He nixed it three seconds in.

Of the three ads that followed, only one passed—a gang of rubber-Nixon-masked thieves shaking on a tiled floor.

“Uh, Keith?” He pulled off his goggles. Ndidiamaka stood beside his desk holding two grease-stained paper bags, “my data analysis just finished and it’s given me results that support my thesis so I bought some treats to celebrate.”

“Ndidi! You know I’m on a diet!”

“Hey, I’m not going to eat donuts alone! I got you a dumpling from that Jamaican place, that one you say makes the food better than your grandfather.”

Keith took the paper bag with a smile, “you are such a bad influence.”

“Someone’s got to be—everyone else around here eats like birds.”

She sat on the edge of his desk, pulled down the paper, took a bite of her donut, and released a satisfied sigh. She didn’t bring up her results until they were both halfway through their respective pastries.

“So, Keith, my analysis raises some questions.

“Questions?”

“Yeah, you know I was looking at bias in advertising, right?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Well I’ve been applying Implicit Bias testing methods—” he shot her a blank look, “—they were originally used to demonstrate unconscious biases in humans—on the adverts this agency produces. Well, I inverted the test and…”

“Yes?”

“And it shows that darker skin is strongly linked to more negative images and subjects in this agency’s adverts and lighter skin has a slightly weaker association with positive images and subjects.”

“So the programs are racist?”

“That’s what I thought… but…”

“But?” he said, trying to keep the frost from his voice.

“Well, when I looked at each step of the process, I found bias in the programs but the skew gets slightly worse—not better—after it passes your desk. The average, I mean. You do cut out the worst of it, the outliers.”

“I see,” Keith tried his best not to sound offended; Ndidi’s only real devotion was to pure data, “What about the decision-making levels above me?”

“They’re much, much worse—they account for over a third of the skew alone. I don’t mean to cause offense—”

“No, Ndidi. You didn’t do anything wrong—the data is the data. I guess I have some work to do on myself.” he smiled but knew it looked hollow, “I’m a black man—a gay man—even in this day and age, I’ve had to face prejudice.”

“Right. I, uh, just thought you should have a heads up before I submit my thesis.”

“Good call… Could you send me your results so I can review them?”

“Sure.”  

They finished their food in silence, disturbed only by the passing drones and the mutter of the city.

Afterwards, she sent him her results—a mess of tables and statistics. His first instinct was to prove her wrong. But, try as he might, he couldn’t find anything to undermine her results. When he eventually plunged back into his work, her words pursued him. As he passed through advert after advert, he began to question himself, seeing bias in every decision.

Gradually, he started acting against his instinct, letting ads through which he’d normally delete and deleting some he’d have let go. He let two white children get sprayed with mace for fiddling with the window of a suburban home; allowed an elderly woman get doused with restraint foam for stealing a bag of skittles; approved a gaggle of twenty-something women being tased for shoplifting. The elderly south asian man stealing beer no longer had to suffer a light dusting of pepper spray; the light-skinned black youth avoided getting blasted by a noise cannon. Finally, he deleted a video of a black man in a balaclava shoving jewels into a bag only to be shocked again and again as he struggled towards the open door.

His second job for the day was sorting through adverts made for Matcher, a dating app. Here, his fight began to get interesting. His adversary was his own aesthetic and as such he experimented with its opposite. He waged war on defined muscles, manicured hands, crisp hairlines, and well-groomed beards; he fought youngness, smooth skin, smouldering looks, and his predilection for hooked noses. Out went the elegant plates, cocktails, romantic vistas, and foreign-language films. He cut and cut. Reaching down within his decisions to tear out any remnants of his biases.

The adverts that survived were ungainly, pockmarked by awkward silences and the hubbub of shabby joints. Two women haltingly discussed tax policy over plates of congealing curry. A woman tried to convince her date that the dilapidated dive they sat in ‘wasn’t always like this’ as an ever-expanding bar fight threatened to engulf them. A series of stand up comedians in a small, smokey club threw terrible jokes into deepening silence and then at jeers. Hugs met crossed arms. Drinks spilled. Teeth collided. But still, there were smiles, genuine smiles, fake smiles, laughter—nervous, pitying, and redemptive—conversations about nothing, coy flirtation, long-suffering weariness, moments of profound joy.   

By lunchtime, Keith felt triumphant.

On his way back to the jewellery shop, Keith called Surinder, as was his habit. Though as the phone rang, he hoped that the man he had already begun to label as his fiance would not answer. Therefore, it was a slight disappointment when Surinder picked up on the fourth ring.

“Hey babe,” came his deep, calm voice, “perfect timing. Just sat down in the staff room… Claire’s here, she says hey!” Someone said something faint in the background as Keith tried to remember exactly who Claire was. Then he heard Surinder shift and he knew  he was getting up to go to the window and stare out onto the road and do what Surinder always did when he was on the phone with someone he cared about: pace unendingly.  

“I missed you this morning,” Surinder said, “you were shifting about all night, and then out of bed like a shot when your alarm went off. Is something wrong?”

“Just stressed about work,” Keith lied, “I… uh… well you know how it is.”

“Yeah…” Surinder did not sound convinced, “But you owe me cuddles!”

Despite himself, Keith smiled. It was the exact kind of cutesy behaviour he’d have told anyone he hated, but, coming from Surinder, he felt nothing but delight. Not least because it was a side of the man that few ever saw; no, no-one who knew the grave, sincere professional Surinder would believe just how much of a softie he could be in private.

“So, how’s your day going?” Keith asked, “How was remedial Chem?”

“Oh, fantastic,” Surinder’s voice dripped with sarcasm, “just how I wanted to spend two hours of my life. Today there was almost a fight, so at least something happened to break the monotony of re-teaching kids a bunch of stuff they don’t want to know and will never use—little fuckers will probably all end up on basic.”

“Hey—”

“I know, I know: I shouldn’t say that,” Surinder interrupted before Keith could get out his criticisms, “it’s just so frustrating. But I hear that Gregson is finally retiring this year, so there might be a spot teaching the advanced placement program…”

“Yeah,” Keith grimaced, the principal had been dangling advanced placement in front of Surinder for three years; Gregson, a flinty-eyed octogenarian and the teachers union rep had showed no interest in ever stopping. Keith half expected her to pass away giving some high-strung overachiever the B minus that would define their personality for a decade. His mind digested what Surinder had said previously, “Wait, did you say a fight?”

“Wow, you really are distracted today,” Surinder chuckled, “Yeah, the Chen twins were picking on Gus Ramotar again and I guess he’d had it. He flipped his table—”

“Gus the bus flipped a table.”

“Hey, don’t call him that… and it was a mistake, I think, they were poking him, calling him Gus the bus and he flipped out, had enough, stood up… and you know how big he is and how small those ancient desk-chair combos are. Almost took half a row with him.”

“Oof,” Keith winced, “I’m guessing that only encouraged them.”

“Everyone started laughing.”

“Oh no.”

“He was halfway down the hallway before I caught up,” Surinder sounded unusually bitter—irritatingly but brittly superior despite his terrible grades, Gus was far from Surinder’s favourite student, “He was crying Keith. I asked him what was going on—even if everyone knows he hates them, he’s generally controlled enough not to give the Chens a show. He showed me his news feed using that app—you know that one that lets you share your stream—”

“StreamPorter?”

“Yeah, that. Well, he showed me his stream. It was all dieting supplements, workout tapes, fitbits. Every advert.”

Fuck. That’s horrible. They’re not meant to be able to market that stuff to kids.”

“Yeah, well, they do…”

Keith had ground to a halt on a corner a few blocks from the jewellery store. In the silence, he became aware of his surroundings for the first time. Across the road, a blank expanse of concrete had been overtaken by a view out onto a white sand beach. Waves lapped and, in the midground, two men faced each other under an awning—a South Asian man with a heavy beard who looked nothing like Surinder and a black man who looked creepily like Keith.

Keith flinched. Immediately, he tried to suppress his reaction. The anxiety that had subsided during his chat with Surinder washed back up his throat and quite suddenly, the last thing he wanted to be doing was be talking to Surinder.

“Listen,” he said, “I should go…”

“I wasn’t criticising your work… it wasn’t your stuff—”

“I know, I’m not hanging up because of that,” Keith said, “I just got back to the office…”

“Ah… well… thanks for calling and listening to me rant. I’ll see you this evening?”

“Can’t wait! Love you.”

“Love you too babe.”

Keith hung up and stood staring at everything except the beach. He hoped his stifled reaction had not been captured, logged as one of the thousands of factors that made his profile. But he’d been too slow and, as he strode towards the store, ads for suits, registries, ministries supplanted the normal barrage of food, beverages, sex, phones, and cologne. He felt naked. He sweated, picking up his pace—head down—even as the auto-ads gave way to the pitches of the well-dressed, beautiful men and women proffering plates of free samples from doorways. An overwhelming awkwardness pressed at him as they tried to appeal to him—it was best not to make eye contact. He kept his focus ahead, at the plants. He cranked up the music, and tried to ignore the promotional messages that shoved themselves between the songs which told him: book now and save 50 percent.

He fled to the jewelers’.         

Bam. Someone jerked away from him, falling back. Keith reached out to steady the man. Calloused hands rasped across his. He caught him before he fell, pulling him upright.

“Are you okay?! I’m so sorry!” he blurted, looking earnestly at the man only to find his gaze avoided, “I wasn’t looking—I’m sorry.

“It’s okay,” mumbled the man, straightening his shabby suit. Before Keith could say another word, the man was off, limping into the rising lunch rush. Shaking his head and feeling a little embarrassed, Keith turned back to the door.

The interior of the jewelers’ was a large, low-lit room with an archipelago of glowing display cases scattered across it. A man in a suit stood behind one these cases, waiting patiently a few feet away from two women—who were looking at the displays the way one might look into a cage at the zoo. The clerk turned to Keith with a calculating look, glanced down at the tablet in front of him, and did an approximation of a smile — it looked as though some puppeteer had tugged on strings hooked to the edges of his mouth.

“Good afternoon.”

Keith nodded at the man and then looked down at the display cases, skimming over them.

“This way, sir” said the clerk, motioning towards a large bank of glass in the middle of the room.

Keith frowned and walked over, skimming the contents of each display case. The one the clerk had indicated was full of rings. How did he know, Keith thought and then; he probably bought some sort of consumer-information package.

Innumerable jewels glittered back at him; yellow, red, blue, pink, lines of diamonds, rubies, and other stones, stones that he did not recognize; square, oval, hexagon, rectangular; bevelled, smooth, a few rough. The metal of the rings were a whole other phylum: plain bands; metal like knotted rope; chains of circles and squares; gold, platinum, silver in all their shades. Panic seized him. He felt as though he was staring down at an ocean of eyes.

“Do you know what kind of ring you are looking for?” said the clerk softly, “Does the lucky man have a stated preference?”

“No diamonds,” Keith replied, trying to shake his shock at being so unceremoniously outed. Pushing aside one part of his anxiety, Keith looked down at the rings once more, “I think he’d prefer rubies—it’s his birthstone. He also says he’s allergic to gold…”  

“I see,” the clerk unlocked a drawer behind the display, pulled out a black felt tray, and pushed it across the top of the display case. Ranks and columns of silvery rings set with red stones glimmered in the dim light, “this is our selection of rubies set in platinum.”   

Keith peered down at the rings, reached towards them, and then hesitated, “may I?

“Feel free.”

He left the store empty handed, though his visit had not been in vain. Of the multitudes of rings, he’d found three or four that he thought Surinder would love, though their price tags gave him pause, despite the clerk’s insistence that the payment plans were affordable. He excused himself, telling the clerk he had to think, and left for his office.

Outside, the midday sun had thickened the air. Sluggish currents shuffled through the streets, disturbed only by the buzz of passing drones. Sweating in his suit, Keith paid for a reprieve from the audio-adverts and tried to focus on his music. Still, the logos of department stores offering discounts on registry as well as sweeping shots of fridges, blenders, tables, stoves, and microwaves called out from bus-stops and billboards, crowding his peripheries. He ignored them until he reached the intersection in front of his office. There, he stood looking up at the collage of videos above, massive images that rippled down the sheets of glass and concrete, a salesman’s rain.

In a way, he supposed, they were good omens.

****

Back in his office, he found Ndidi trying to fit the camera bulb back into the ceiling. He wondered, vaguely, how she’d managed to get it down again, before taking over from her. This time, it only took three attempts before it clicked back into the socket.

“Sorry,” she said as he sat down behind his desk, “It’s been bothering me all day.”

“It’s fixed?”

“Well, kind of?” she looked at him guiltily, “I confirmed that the problem is contrast; it has problems recognising stationary black hair and skin as a living person rather than an inanimate object. I found that I could trick the camera into thinking the room was darker than it is so that it registers my skin as lighter. I don’t understand why they didn’t just program this thing to focus on temperature—you only need like 2 degrees either side of 37.5 to detect every single living human.”

Lacking a response, Keith shook his head sympathetically. The few times he’d stayed late at work, he’d often removed his VR goggles to find himself sitting in darkness. It was irritating, but his work hardly required the light, which buzzed on if he got up to stretch his legs or visit the toilets. It hadn’t occurred to him that the problem was fixable, much less that its cause might lie in the colour of his skin. Still, it seemed a minor problem—not worth the effort Ndidi had put into the solution.  

He picked up his VR goggles but a message from his aunt appeared in his vision, projected on his contacts:

Can I see you in my office?

With a sigh, he put down the goggles.

His aunt’s office was down the hall from his. It was a sizeable room—easily twice the size of his—with an arresting view of the city subsiding into the suburbs, farmland, and then mountains. Framed prints of late 20th century adverts crowded the walls, an audience for the single desk and the elliptical the room contained. There was only one chair: his aunt’s.

His aunt was running on her elliptical, sweat glistening on her freckled skin and her unruly red-frizz pulled back, straining against elastics. He stood, waiting for her to finish. It was a long five minutes before she hopped off the machine, pulled a large tablet off the display and, towel handing over her neck, slid into the seat across the desk.

“Keith!” she said, brightly, “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, thank you.”

“Nothing happened recently?” He noticed a slight edge in her voice, “this morning, perhaps?”

“Not that I can think of,” he kept his voice neutral.

“Well then,” she smiled, “can you account for the precipitous fall in your stats this morning?”  

“I’m sorry—”

“Please do not interrupt.” she swivelled her tablet to face Keith revealing his name atop a column of numbers, “until about eleven this morning, you were among my top-performing employees with over seventy percent of your approved ads moving onto at least the final stage of production. Then, after a break of about ten minutes, you fall to thirty percent. What’s more, when I reviewed your reject feed there were a number of adverts that were clear winners. So you can understand my concern that something might have happened.”   

“I’m sorry, Siobhan. I—”

“Don’t be sorry, be better. I’m not going to lie; your mother’s pestering helped you get this job but you are a talented, reliable, and competent person, which is as much why I hired you over the thousands of other qualified applicants. We all have bad days but you need to communicate if there’s a problem…” she looked at him expectantly.

“I… well…” he fidgeted with his trouser pocket and tried to work out whether telling her about Ndidi’s findings would help—whether she’d do anything about it.

“Listen Kee,” she said sweetly, “communication is really important…”

“Ndidi showed me her results,” he blurted, “they showed racial bias in our advertisements.”

“I see,” she sat back, looking unsurprised, “I thought that might be it. Listen, Kee, I’m not going to sit here and tell you there’s no problem, but we’re not the problem. We are subject to the realities of the market and, quite frankly, people’s biases affect their desire to buy. In the end, we only reflect our culture’s issues.” She pulled out her phone and jabbed at it for a few seconds.

“Our only aim is to help our clients show their product in the best possible light. Sometimes, that task is going to come with some cultural baggage.”

The door opened behind him. Keith turned to see Ndidiamaka sidle into the room. She looked nervous. Sorry, he mouthed at her. Her eyes narrowed.

“Ah Deedee,” continued Siobhan, “Keith was telling me you have some results from your study.”

“Yes,” Ndidiamaka replied timidly, “but they’re only preliminary.”

“I understand,” Siobhan replied sympathetically, “but you can understand how results such as those Keith described might put this agency in an awkward position.”

“I’m not going to name the agency in my thesis.”

“Yes, but you will in your resume and, with me as one of your references, it’s not going to be that hard to put two-and-two together—”

“What are you asking me to do? I can’t change my results.”

A silence unspooled; Siobhan’s jaw clenched. Keith could almost hear her calming herself down.   

“The last thing I want to do is tell you what to write in your thesis,” Siobhan said in a brittle, sugary tone, “but aren’t there a lot of ways this data could be interpreted?”

“Not really.”

“So your results are infallible—no uncertainty?”

“Well… there’s always some uncertainty.”

“Exactly,” Siobhan smiled and it was genuine this time, “You’d be remiss not to mention that uncertainty. For instance is the racial bias worse than that in our society? How do you measure bias? Are there problems with such measurements? How does this agency compare with others? Is there data for that? See, those are just off the top of my head and I’ve never studied sociology.”

“But my thesis—”

“Listen, Deedee” Siobhan’s good humour evaporated, “over half of this agency’s employees are women and a full third are people of colour. I can tell you that no other agency comes close to matching our levels of diversity. Smearing us will only result in us losing clients to other agencies and may force us to lay people off. I would never tell you what to write, but think carefully about the potential impacts of your work. Don’t make us pay for systemic problems.”

****

“I’m sorry,” Keith said as soon as they left the room but Ndidiamaka hurried down the hallway ahead of him, barely acknowledging he’d said anything. He jogged after her, catching up just as she turned into their office, “wait, I’m sorry… you know how she is—she bullied it out of me.”

“I’m not angry at you, Keith. I’m frustrated that months of work is going down the drain for PR reasons.” She pinched the bridge of her nose, “how did she even find out?”

“I tried to be less biased and it tanked my numbers; my aunt figured something happened.”

Ndidiamaka stared at him for a few seconds.

“To be honest,” she said eventually, “I’m surprised you changed your behaviour so quickly. I expected you to do something… But I thought I’d have weeks—enough time to have already submitted my thesis. By then, even if your aunt complained, it would have been out of my hands. ”

She sat at her desk and stared blankly at her computer, lost in thought. Similarly silenced, Keith sat down at his own desk, pulled on his goggles, and found himself immersed in a series of adverts for electric razors. Square-jawed men with rippling abs stood in hyper-modern bathrooms, shaving foam slathered on hairless faces. Waiflike women caressed faces, rubbing chins, cheeks, necks with perfectly manicured hands. He flipped through the ads, allowing his instincts to take over. It was easier than he’d ever admit.  

****

After several torturous hours listening to gravelly voices describe at length just how close a shave could be, Keith stepped out of the office into a cool evening. The package holidays had returned in force, packing the buildings with glimpses of silhouetted palms,  densely forested mountains, and vineyards. Though the sky was a pale blue, the dusk in the adverts gave him the impression of gathering clouds. He hunched over as he wove through the rising commuter rush.

As he approached the jewellery store, the package holidays gave way to adverts for credit cards and banks. Men and women smiled from the walls, gold watches peeked from the cuffs of immaculate suits, children frolicked around sleek kitchen islands. Skies were a cloudless blue; the grass was green.

By the time he walked into the cool, dimness of the shop, he felt calmed and assured. His smile returned by the clerk, he strode over to the display of rings, and asked for the three most likely wedding bands. The clerk—who had set them aside for him—slid them over the glass on individual white satin pillows.

One was a simple circle of platinum with a large, bevelled-rectangle ruby, its deep red glittered ostentatiously even in the low light. It was beautiful but, seeing it again, Keith realized that it was far too showy for Surinder’s tastes.

Tiny rubies snaked around the second ring, oscillating across a broader band of platinum. He picked it up and slipped it onto his left hand. He thought the rubies caught the light beautifully, but the broadness of the metal felt cumbersome; he liked the idea of Surinder forgetting he was wearing the ring, of the admiration of others drawing his attention. He wanted the compliments to be a trail of gifts in the days ahead like petals leading to a bedroom.  

The third was perfect—as thirds are wont to be. The ring itself was made of four thin strands of bright platinum twisted together. The metal half-swallowed the stones. They peeked from within as though the metal swaddled a ring of pure ruby. He slipped it on. It was surprisingly light, almost gossamer. He raised his hand peering at it in the gloom. The door behind him opened and the ring caught the flood of evening light, sparkling. This is it, he thought, this—

“Get down on the ground!” yelled a hoarse voice.

He turned, confused and found himself staring down the barrel of a pistol. He froze. His world turned on that point of darkness. At its edge, he had a dull awareness of chaotic motion—the clerk scrambling back towards the cash.

The barrel turned away. Panic overtook him. He dived sideways, landing on a display case. Glass shattered.

“Don’t try anything!” yelled the voice.

But Keith was already stumbling towards the door.

“Put it in the bag!”

A familiar hum awoke the air. Tendrils unfurled from the ceiling. The door was just a few feet away.

“I’m warning you”.

His hands felt the cool glass of the door. Something moved in his peripheries.

No—”

Two things happened at once; there was a loud bang and Keith felt a force course through him. Propelled forwards, he spilled from the shop and out onto the street. He fell, the pavement thwacking into his palms. An acrid stench—burning hair—filled everything. Another gunshot resounded behind him. Help, he tried to say, but he could barely croak.

“Citizen, halt. Surrender yourself.” buzzed a voice from above.  

Keith struggled to his feet, stumbling forwards, pushing himself away from the store. The world seemed distant. His heart pounded. He collided with someone, and then someone else. Then suddenly, it seemed the street was clear. He tried to catch his breath. He forced himself to keep moving.  

“Citizen, this is your final warning.”

The approaching sirens were a salve to his panic. They promised salvation—an end to the madness that had overrun his evening. How could anyone possibly think they’d get away with such a brazen robbery, he thought, his first clear thought since it had all started.

A shadow flicked over him. There was an crackle of electricity. He looked up. There was barely time to register the taser-barbs lancing from the wasp-like form of the law enforcement drone, before a surging current pushed him into darkness.

****

His face was pressed against cold metal, its bitter smell mingled with the pungency of saliva. His legs and arse felt leaden, asleep. He tried to push himself up, to get comfortable and found he was handcuffed to a bar in the middle of the metal table.

The walls surrounding him were featureless expanses of brushed metal. On the other side of the table, two empty chairs faced him. A camera bulb sat next to the lone light on the ceiling. Confusion. He had a vague recollection of a jerking passage in a van; of rough hands pushing him through a brief outside into another darkness; of hands taking his phone, his watch, even his contacts; of a flash as he stared dazed; of questions answered automatically; and then of a silent room and the return of the all-embracing darkness.  

“Hello?” In the echoes he felt a stab of panic, “hello?”

An outline of a door appeared on the wall across from him. Silently, it slid back and then sideways, revealing two figures silhouetted by the harsh light of a hallway. Sounds of walking feet, typing, and indistinct conversations spilled into the room.

“I think there’s been a mistake—” Keith began

“Keith Higgins,” rumbled a baritone, “of 32 Pineview Drive?”

“Yes that’s me, but I think there’s—”

“You’ve been read your rights,” said the other figure in a flinty, peremptory tone, “you are facing charges of armed robbery, grievous bodily harm—escalating to first degree murder, if the clerk does not survive surgery.”

The two of them stepped into the room, revealing themselves.

The first voice belonged to a large—but not fat—man. The arms of his suit ended prematurely, revealing shirt cuffs and a hint of a tattoo on his forearm. Stubble speckled his face around a ragged blonde goatee, merging into a crew cut that was about a week overdue for a haircut.

The owner of the second voice was a tall, thin woman wearing a charcoal grey suit, and a blue shirt with a yellow stain on it. Her hair was pulled back into cornrows ending in blue beads that, Keith noted, were the same colour as her shirt. She was holding a tablet under left arm. Her fingernails were bitten to the quick.

“Mr. Higgins,” continued the woman, “I am Detective Beckford and this is Detective Strauss.”

Detective Strauss sat heavily in the seat across from Keith. Detective Beckford leant on the back of the other chair.

“Please, there’s been a mistake, I didn’t do anything!”

Detective Beckford’s jaw clenched. She leaned over and slid the tablet towards Keith, “Mr. Higgins, we have your accomplice in custody. He’s being questioned in the next room.”

“Accomplice? I didn’t have anything to do with the robbery, please believe me.”

“If that’s the case,” said Strauss gently, “I’m sure things will be cleared up soon. But it will be cleared up more quickly if you work with us.”

Detective Beckford tapped on the tablet. The screen flickered and displayed an aerial shot of a street. Two men stood staring at a window display filled with jewellry. With a rising sense of dread, Keith recognised himself.

“Is this you?” asked Detective Beckford

“Yes, but—”

“Standing outside the scene of the crime this morning.”

“Yes, but—”

“Why did you go to the store before opening hours.”

“I made a mistake, I wanted to buy an engagement ring—”

“You went to buy an engagement ring but didn’t check the opening hours of the store?”

“It was a mistake.”

“Right. And the man standing next to you, who is he?”

“I don’t know.”

“You had never met him before?”

“No. I didn’t even talk to him.”

Detective Beckford’s eyes glinted and her mouth curled up into a sneering smile, “Mr. Higgins this will be easier if you tell us the truth,” she flicked the screen, changing the display to footage of the store. Keith, head down except for occasional furtive glances, collided with a man, pulled him back to his feet, and then said a few words to him, “here we have you talking to that same man—”

“That’s just a coincidence—I didn’t even realise that was the same person. Maybe he was staking out the store.”   

“Yet, he looks at none of the cameras and you look at every single one and then…” she flipped to another set of footage—a man, his face hidden by a cap, walking into a store,“he avoids every single camera on his entry. Do you know a man named Quentin Jones?”

“No…wait, maybe… the name sounds familiar.”

“It should, you went to highschool with him. You were both on the Rugby team.”

Detective Beckford tapped on the tablet and a yearbook photo popped up. Beneath it was the name Quentin Jones, a few words and a signature which, with a sinking heart, Keith recognised as his own. “Now, Mr. Higgins, we can place you both at the store on three occasions today. Your agency works with Saber Security Systems, so you have the knowledge necessary to identify the alarm. You also have the technical background to disable the system. You pulled the clerk away from the silent alarm, but Mr. Jones came in before you had a chance to disable the system.”

“I did not!” Keith protested, “I was not involved in any way. I only went to the store to buy an engagement ring. Ask the clerk.”

“We would, but he is currently undergoing surgery due to the fact that your accomplice shot him.” retorted Detective Beckford, “You’re looking at 15 years in prison, you understand that? 25 minimum if the clerk dies. Longer, if your friend testifies against you. Ask yourself: how much do you trust Quentin?”

“Mr. Higgins,”  Detective Strauss’ voice was calm and reasonable, “you left the store with a ring during the robbery, a $20,000 ring—six month’s wages for you, right? We’ve run your financials and there’s no way you could afford that ring. Hell, the cheapest rings in the store would be a stretch with your outgoings, even with generous financing. Now, I don’t think you expected Mr. Jones to shoot the clerk and, when he did, you ran. We have footage of the two of you; we have footage of you running; we have footage of you disobeying lawful commands from a law enforcement drone. We have predictive data that flagged your behavior as suspicious, evasive, and conspiratorial from the start of the day. You’ve been caught Mr. Higgins; you’re going to jail. But, if you work with us, we might be able to get you a deal, particularly if you cooperate before the clerk passes. After all, you did not pull the trigger; is it fair for you to face the consequences of Mr. Jones’ actions?”

Keith stared at the two detectives. For a moment, he was convinced, caught in a web of circumstances that reeled him towards the deal. A future hunched over him like a gargantuan spider, mandibles distended. Then it all vanished under the pure heat of the truth; he was not guilty. He had done nothing but flee danger. It seemed impossible that a jury would convict, that anyone would believe this story. He knew all about reasonable doubt.

“No,” he said flatly, “I was not involved in any way. I want a lawyer.”

Detective Beckford clenched her jaw and snatched up her tablet; Detective Strauss gave him a look a pure disgust and stood. As a unit they walked to the door, which slid open as they approached. At the door, Detective Strauss paused and looked back at Keith.

“A lawyer won’t help you.” he spat, “your accomplice has already confessed to everything.”  

The door closed, leaving Keith alone in the sterile light of the interrogation room. He tried to remember Quentin Jones, his teammate twenty years before, but could not recall anything except a few fragments—the motions of play, the feeling of a rugby ball in his arms, the smell of mud and turf. Quentin was a vague shape—a blur at the peripheries of his memory. He didn’t even remember having a five minute conversation with him. He had no idea where the man had been for the past two decades. He tried to imagine what he would do if, with one, small lie, he could claw back a decade of life from the threat of incarceration. He shuddered. There’s still the trial, bail—it’s not all lost. It was a glimmer of hope. But, as the incessant buzz and inscrutable walls stretched the minutes, that hope faded like the mouth of a well above a falling child.

Time dissolved. The slight and random flicker of the light, the only change except Keith’s shifting: hunched, slouched, upright and expectant, arms crossed, slumped back. His legs crossed and uncrossed—up and down—sliding back under the chair and forward under the table. He tried to think of anything but his predicament. But it sat, a black hole at his centre, no matter what he turned his mind to to escape it, to skirt its edges, the gravity of his anxiety made every orbit a decaying one. The room seemed to tighten. It crushed the breath from him. His jaw locked. Fingernails broke as he raked the table. He tasted blood.

The door slid open, revealing two figures—Detective Strauss and Detective Beckford. They strode across the room towards him. Detective Strauss rumbled something, but Keith could not make out his words.

“Please,” he managed to croak, “I didn’t…”

Detective Beckford came to a halt beside the table. She did not meet his gaze. He tried to catch Detective Strauss’s eye, but the man seemed just as unwilling to look him in the eye. Detective Beckford leant towards him. He flinched. She grabbed his hands, pulled them towards her and fiddled with the handcuffs.

Suddenly, he was free. They pulled him to his feet and shepherded him down a hallway, through a bullpen thronging with uniformed officers, and out to a desk where they handed back his phone, keys, wallet, and contacts.

“Again, Mr. Higgins,” said Detective Strauss, “We were acting on the information we had available. We released you as soon as the clerk confirmed that you were a customer, and we verified there had been no electronic communication between Mr. Jones and yourself.” he hesitated and seemed to be selecting his words carefully, “I hope this experience has not affected you adversely.” he said, eventually.

Keith stared at them, both looked away, down at their boots. With a grim, sarcastic laugh, he turned away from them. This seemed to release them from whatever duty they felt to him and they bustled away. Alone beside the desk, he pushed his keys and phone into his pocket and then put in his contacts. That done, he felt less naked. But still tears welled in his eyes. He wanted to be home.        

“Keith!” he turned. A familiar figured strode across the atrium beyond the desk. A tall, broad shouldered man whose stubble was edging on unkempt and whose cross-eyed smile was weighed on by anxious hours of wait and anger. Wordlessly, he walked to Surinder and let his arms pull him in, enfolding in the smell of tangerines and home. Against that chest, he began to sob, “It’s okay,” Surinder said, “you’re safe…come on, let’s go home.”

Outside, the mid morning sun had just begun to dry the rain. The few cars in the car park glittered like damp beetles. The adverts had not yet loaded. Expanses of empty rain-stained wall stared down, a crowd of impassive faces. Then, in unison, they flickered. A horde of men and women in suits strolled into view. Arms crossed, they stared down at him with fierce, determined gaze. Most he did not recognize, but a few were clients—the towering figure of Margaret Anderson of Anderson Litigation smiled reassuringly, Venance Owuor of Mendelson, Ramirez & Owuor stood straight faced. Make a Claim, demanded one advert, Don’t Pay Unless We Win, Fast Case Review, Experience You Can Trust, Personal Injury Litigation, No Win No Fee, Reclaim your Life… The city screamed at him silently, I know; I see.

He fumbled at his eyes—at his contacts. Circuitry tore between his fingers. Shreds of tiny machines falling away, disappearing into the dirt beneath his feet. He blinked back his tears and looked out over a quieted city with naked eyes. Traffic throbbed; trains rattled; indistinct shouts, tone, and alarms rose into the air: it all combined into a threatening mutter.  

With a sigh, Keith opened the car door, swung in, and pulled on his seatbelt. Surinder keyed in their home address and sat back as it rumbled to life. They sat in a heavy silence as it pulled out of the car park and struck along a route towards the motorway, Keith staring out at the city as it swept past; Surinder watching Keith, probingly.

“I got a call from your aunt—your phone is off—” said Surinder eventually, “I told her now’s not a good time—I said you were sick—but I thought you should know.”

“I’ll call her back.”

“Babe, you don’t have to—take a break…”

“No,” Keith said, “I need to focus on something else, I need to do something, I need—”

“Okay,” Surinder handed him a phone, “but you’re not going into work today. Today I get you to myself. We’re going to drive to the mountains and go for a good long hike”

“That sounds perfect,” they shared a smile and Keith felt as though he was sloughing off a brittle layer of anxiety. He dialed his aunt’s number, she picked up on the third ring.

“Ah, Kee! Just who I wanted to talk to!” Though slightly out of breath, she seemed unusually chipper, “I heard you were sick. Well, get well soon because I have a lot more work for you! You’re a genius, you know that?”

“Genius?”

“Your ads—those god-awful ads—went viral!”

“The security ones?”

“No, those were a trainwreck—nothing we could do—the ones for Matcher! Those awkward, awful dates. Well, eight of the ten that made it through final review have over 30 million hits—30 million in less than a day! Holy shit Kee, you’re getting a bonus this year, shit we all are. So get well!”

She hung up.

“Good news, I take it?” asked Surinder.

“Yeah,” said Keith, staring out the window—the towers had given way to strip malls and parking lots, “some ads I chose went viral.”

“That’s amazing, Babe! Really exciting!”

“I guess.” Keith shifted uncomfortably. They lapsed into silence again.

“Keith?” Surinder looked over at him carefully, “I know why you were at that shop.”

“Oh.”

“Well,” Surinder’s smile was the sun rising on a new day, “the answer’s yes.”  

 

I would like to thank Dylan, Hannah, Lauren, and Solomon for making this story better and more comprehensible than I could have done alone.

Nathaniel McKenzie is a proud citizen of nowhere seeking to turn his writing compulsion into an effective means of stealing time from other people. He enjoys avocados, paying rent, the smell of books new and old, trailing off in the middle of sentences, and

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

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New Year readings

This New Year, we’re trying something new. From now on, once a month, we’ll 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, analysis of current events, and political theory. We’ll 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. 

Uneven Earth updates

We’ve started a printing press! Our first title, available on paperback on January 6th, is In defense of degrowth | Link

An alternative reading of St-Kilda |  Link

A lifetime opposing the US military on Okinawa | Link

Conservation vs. tribal rights in India | Link

How to live off the rich world’s trash | Link

I’m not a climate refugee | Link

 

You might have missed…

Rise of the robots

A long feature on truck automation and its likely effects. An at least equally distressing article about robotic weapons in the New Internationalist. And a story about the evil Silicon Valley futurists here.

Drowning in garbage

A New York Times multi-media piece about the world’s trash. And now that China is no longer accepting the rich world’s recycling, the golden age of recycling is coming to an end.

China won’t save us

Richard Smith argues that the built-in drivers and barriers of China’s hybrid bureaucratic- collectivist capitalism reinforce its role as the world’s leading driver of global warming and thus planetary ecological collapse.

Warning to humanity: 15,000 scientists call for action to save the planet

And a response by political ecologists: “Why “Warning to Humanity” gets the socio-ecological crisis (and its solutions) wrong“.

Mapping climate justice movements around the world

Regular people are blocking sites of fossil fuel extraction all over the world. A new mapping project seeks to bring them all together.

A primer on the Commons

Commons Transition has put together a huge and very accessible compendium of essential articles on the Commons.

 

New politics

Working class environmentalism

To achieve climate justice, “city-based climate leaders have to leave the city”. So says Daniel Aldana Cohen in this impressive outline of an ecosocialist platform.

Municipalism and the feminization of politics

Roar Magazine published an excellent piece on how municipalism—the movement to push for democracy on the town and city level—has helped bring a new wave of activist women into positions of power.

UK’s labour and a post-growth economy

Key figures in the labour party have challenged the idea of economic growth, directly linking it to the ecological and climate crisis.

Jineology: from women’s struggles to social liberation

A new liberatory framework emerging from the Kurdish movement, which places women at the center of the struggle against patriarchy, capitalism and the state.

Municipalist ecosocialism

Gordon Peters connects the dots between London’s housing movement and a broader ecosocialist strategy.

 

Analysis

Can we go beyond extractivism?

Extractivism refers to a type of economic model that is dependent on the large-scale removal (or “extraction”) and exportation of natural resources. Federico Fuentes argues that it will take an internationalist, global struggle to go beyond it.

Degrowth is absurd!

You know you’re onto something when one of the world’s top economists thinks you’re probably right but absolutely nuts. A lively debate between Branko Milanovic and degrowth writer Jason Hickel. “I do not think that this program is illogical. It is just so enormous, outside of anything that we normally can expect to implement, that it verges, I am afraid, on absurdity.” See Jason Hickel’s final response.

How Manila’s informal economy powers the world economy

Here’s a piece explaining why megacities like Manila matter today, and how they work.

Earth, wind, and fire

Jacobin’s special issue on climate change. Several prominent ecosocialists argue that the issue mistakes techno-fetishism for visionary modernism. Read John Bellamy Foster’s critique here, that of Ian Angus here, and some responses to Ian Angus’ piece are here.

Winter in Catalonia

Bue Rübner Hansen reflects on the situation in Catalonia, giving us a broad but precise reading of what’s going on and where to stand.

The politics of ecofeminism

Ariel Salleh reflects on ecofeminism, its foundations, and its future

On the ground

Revolution on a small island

An in-depth investigation on the island of Eigg, which initiated its own municipalist movement for direct democracy. To be read alongside our story on an other island in the Hebrides, St. Kilda.

Freedom for Frestonia: the London commune that cut loose from the UK

Another neat story of a local liberation movement, this time in the very capital and birthplace of capitalism, London.

Detroit residents are building their own internet

What happens when 40% of a city doesn’t have internet.

Sci-fi

Ursula K. Le Guin on how to build a utopia

Science fiction is getting increasing attention, but we seem to only be able to imagine dreary dystopias and off-the-map utopias. For Le Guin, what we need is something in between: imperfect utopias and hopeful dystopias. An excerpt from her new book, No time to spare.

Want to understand China? Read its best science fiction

Sci-fi may be about the future but it helps us understand and deal with the present. For Chinese sci-fi authors, this often means describing a world that is spinning out of balance.

Sci-fi, fantasy, and the status quo

If sci-fi can help imagine the future, we need more work that can think outside of capitalist realism

Books and storytelling

Ostrom’s rules for radicals

Ever heard about Elinor Ostrom but didn’t quite get what she’s about? Or do you know about her and have struggled to explain why she’s so important?

The history of the world in seven cheap things

A thought-provoking interview in Dissent Magazine of Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore about their new book. “Capitalism is an extraordinarily expensive way to do business.”

A foodie’s guide to capitalism

A good christmas gift for your foodie uncle. New book by Eric Holt-Gimenez.

Writing while socialist

An illuminating interview with Vijay Prashad, author of “The Darker Nations”. “Cynicism and pessimism are not the mood of the socialist.”

James C Scott’s new book: Against the Grain

“An eagle’s eye view of the most significant change in human history before the industrial revolution – the transition from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to the early state.”

 

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Why stories shouldn’t always have endings

by Lauren Collee

Hirta lies approximately 44 miles from the island of Leverburgh. On the clearest of days, it is visible as a dark smudge on the horizon. If you are a passenger aboard one of the several large cruise ships that stop over each year and deposit up to three hundred bodies on its shores, then you’ll be lucky enough to experience a seamless and convenient visit to one of the most mythologized islands of the Scottish Outer Hebrides.

For everyone else, the journey requires determination—and money. Boats leave from Leverburgh or Skye daily, but book up months in advance, and fifty percent of journeys are cancelled on the day due to unfavourable weather conditions. Overnight visitors must take all their own supplies. There is no shop, no phone reception, no wifi.  

The common characteristic of those who end up on Hirta—the largest island in the St. Kilda archipelago, and the only one that permits human visitors—is that they really want to be there. Everyone has their own reasons for visiting: a fascination with remote islands, a desire to witness the one million migratory seabirds that stop by during breeding season, or a drive to master Conachair—the highest peak—and gaze over the precipice of the tallest sea-cliff in Britain. But for most, the allure of St. Kilda lies in that strange thing known as ‘disaster tourism’: the drive to visit sites that still bear the scars of past tragedies, preserved as a testament to their historic importance.  

In its simplest form, the story goes like this:

A human population lives for one thousand years, perhaps longer, in complete isolation on a remote island. Their sustenance comes almost entirely from the seabirds, which they catch in great numbers from the cliffs, and store in small stone buildings called cleits.

Then in 1697, an ‘explorer’ called Martin Martin visits, and writes about a forgotten isle that perfectly embodies the Victorian obsession with the Romantic Sublime: the kind of simultaneous awe and fear reserved for thirteen-hundred-foot cliffs, great expanses of water, and mist-filled bowls of land unbroken by even a single tree. Over the course of the following centuries, the Victorians start to come to St. Kilda, in larger and larger numbers.

A priest visits, and preaches the islanders out of their heathen ways. He preaches them out of their windowless stone houses, insulated with lichen and low-lying to escape the worst of the wind, and into new square buildings with real glass. Several winters pass and all the glass is broken. The islanders grow sick. They catch diseases. They are almost entirely wiped out. But they hang on. They keep hanging on for several centuries, until 1930, when the last poverty-stricken survivors are evacuated.

Humans never again return to live permanently on St. Kilda. And so, history stops.

The story is tragic. But the exact nature of the tragedy remains intentionally obscure. Is it the tragedy of globalization? Of tourism? Of the fact that people lived here for so long with so little? The question of whether or not the islanders wanted to evacuate in 1930 is cautiously circumnavigated. The last of the native St. Kildans, Rachel Johnson, passed away last year after having spent most of her life on the mainland. The underlying sentiment in her obituaries is that the secrets of St. Kilda died with her.

The NTS are well aware of the potency of this: a story in which the protagonists are forever lost, set against the backdrop of a desolate landscape peppered with ruined cleits and winged shapes flying in circles against the white sky. The tourist experience is carefully shaped to play off its atmospheric mournfulness. One of the panels in the St. Kilda museum, entitled ‘deserted island’, describes the scene of Village Bay, the small cove where boats pull in and from which the large majority of tourists do not stray:

This row of houses with ruined buildings and storehouses is part of a cultural landscape which evokes the lives of the isolated community that lived here.

These ‘evoked’ lives can never be anything other than past tense and ghostly. Like the white chalk outline of a body on the pavement, the physical landscape of St. Kilda becomes a space defined by loss. And in the same way that a pedestrian would not simply walk over such a chalk outline, the landscape is governed by rules and boundary-lines. The expected reverence is formalized. Tourists are given a ‘dos and don’ts’ talk by the island warden upon arrival. They are forbidden from walking over the ruins, and if so much as a stone falls out of place, its position must be photographed and logged before the island’s resident archaeologist or NTS volunteer can put it back into its place.  

The story that drew me to St. Kilda was not that of the demise of the islanders—at least not entirely. But I was by no means immune to the pull of disaster. It was the final term of my Masters degree in Science and Technology Studies, and I had grown a little restless reading about wilderness from a desk in the British Library. I came across an article on the catastrophic decline of the kittiwakes on St. Kilda, a type of seabird so-named for its characteristic call [kitti-WAKE, kitti-WAKE]. The most recent NTS seabird report reveals that kittiwake productivity has declined by 99.2% since 1994. Last year, a single chick hatched, and subsequently died. The current consensus is that this is due to a combination of overfishing and the global rise of sea-temperatures, which is forcing sandeels—the main food-source of many St. Kilda’s seabird species—to seek cooler waters.

Having no formal scientific training or any experience with quantitative data, I decided that my Masters dissertation would look at perceptions of seabird disappearance. I packed a bag full of ‘survival’ gear (waterproof matches, voice recorder, whisky, chocolate), booked my spot on the boat, sent a few over-enthusiastic emails to NTS staff members, and set off. I received a text from my housemate as I boarded the train to Glasgow: ‘Good luck saving the seabirds. Don’t fall off any cliffs’.

As I dozed my way through the four-legged trip (train, plane, bus, boat) from London to St. Kilda, I tried to convince myself that ‘saving the seabirds’ was at least in part what I was going to do. As a kid I had been adamant that I’d be a ‘nature conservationist’ when I grew up. I don’t think I knew exactly what this meant, and always pronounced it wrong. It was one of those things that I picked up and latched on to because it sounded unquestionably fulfilling.

Disappearance-in-progress isn’t just a matter of erasure and absence. It is bodily. It is complicated. It lacks the soft and elegant tragedy that comes with historical distance. It is messy and off-putting.

But as I grew older, the word became murky and slightly meaningless to me. Interchanged frequently with ‘preservation’, it seemed to suggest that only ‘original’ (pre-industrial) nature was ‘real’ nature. What, then, were the parks and beaches where I spent many happy days during my childhood, those semi-wild places where toilet blocks accumulated new graffiti each year, where shark-nets were put up and taken down, where bushfires burnt through entire stretches of forest that grew back in strange new tufts that looked extra-terrestrial?

The concept of change occupies a strange place in nature conservation discourses. The idea of flux and variation has always been central to ecological sciences, but the need to counteract claims that violent human-induced changes to environments over short periods of time are ‘only natural’ has meant that true ‘wilderness’ has come to be associated with values of stability and a-historicity. As the number of areas that occupy this definition dwindles rapidly, ‘wilderness’ becomes increasingly inaccessible and illusory.

As a Unesco world heritage site with dual (natural and cultural) listing, St. Kilda is a bit of a showroom for definitions of conservation. The division is geographical as well as semantic. Archaeological conservation efforts focus on the ruined village in Village Bay, the sheltered cove where boats pull in. Natural conservation happens ‘out there’, on the rocky outcrops and steep edges of hills that fall upwards in every direction.

Just like the idea of ‘wilderness’ itself, the slow extinction of kittiwakes and other seabirds that come to St. Kilda to breed becomes a ghostly half-reality. But unlike the disappearance-in-history preserved by archaeological remains, disappearance-in-progress isn’t just a matter of erasure and absence. It is bodily. It is complicated. It lacks the soft and elegant tragedy that comes with historical distance. It is messy and off-putting.

The first days I spent walking around Hirta, I saw death everywhere. I found shattered eggshells on rocks. I found the skeleton of a gull picked clean by a larger bird, its wings splayed out on the grass on either side of its exposed breastbone. I walked along the beach and found the deflated body of a seal, and that of a gannet, a splash of white feathers against the rock, intact apart from its missing eye. These dead things did not trouble me. I remembered collecting starfish and seahorses from the beach when I was a child, and leaving them in the sun until all the liquid had dried out of them and they smelled only very faintly. I regarded them with fascination—they were signs of life as much as they were of death.

And then, on the second day into my visit, I hiked up to the top of Conachair and came unexpectedly across a propeller protruding from the hillside, an uncomfortable contortion of scrap metal flecked with an angry rash of rust. I’d heard this story: in 1943, twelve men from New Zealand flew out at night and didn’t expect to find a four-hundred-and-thirty metre mountain in the middle of the Atlantic. The differences between human and animal death and extinction suddenly appeared to me deeply questionable. It seemed strange to me that animal death could be so bodily, so a-temporal and a-historic, and human death so shrouded in the unsayable, the unseeable, so immaterial and yet so steeped in history.

It is easier for humans to understand expanses of time and space when they are packaged up into a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Museums serve the purpose of drawing up these boundaries, identifying cut-off points and sealing the past in a hermetic bubble that can be carefully curated and preserved. I do not question that this is valuable work, but when a museum is also a living, breathing island, the semantics of ‘preservation’ seem misguided. The conversations around species decline need less emphasis on endings, and more emphasis on the messy present.

On the third day of my stay on St. Kilda, the weather took a turn for the worse and the tourist boats stopped coming. I had presumed that this would be the point at which the real sense of loneliness and melancholy would set in. Now, undisturbed by the bright colours of weatherproof jackets on the hillside, I figured I’d be able to take in the grey-blues and greens of the treeless landscape in all its dreary, ghostly glory.

But the dreariness never came. Life continued. The local boat operators radioed in weather reports, the military helicopter flew in periodically, looking a little like a seabird when its black shape first appeared in the distance, the volunteers carried on documenting misplaced stones, and the wild sheep carried on knocking them off again.

As if time had been turned inside out, my sense of neatly demarcated historical disaster gave way to a kind of joy that was intensely confusing. Walls literally chirped at me as I walked past—I began to see seabirds nesting in the storehouses of their former predators, making their houses in the quarry in the hillside. Slowly, the central absence of the St. Kildans—that chalk line on the pavement—was starting to fade. It became instead a kind of presence, one of the many voices in an impossibly complex orchestra in which things did not displace one another, but instead flowed into the same big mess.

As if performing their unwillingness to conform to human narrative structures (beginnings, middles, endings), the seabirds continued to remind me that an island is never really an island.

One practicality of choosing an island for a museum is that the spatial boundaries seem to reinforce the idea of temporal boundaries. As if performing their unwillingness to conform to human narrative structures (beginnings, middles, endings), the seabirds continued to remind me that an island is never really an island. They did this not only through their vertiginous flight in and out of my field of vision, but also through their response as a population to things that do not—as I was reminded by several staff—fit into the remit of the NTS: climate change, overfishing. One day, two gannets, entangled in a bit of plastic—like a bad omen from a distant land in a fairytale—drifted into the bay and were saved. The outside world seeped into the island-sphere, just as history seeped into the present. The archipelago was doing its best to shake off the impact of the world ‘out there’—the messy present—but of course, no such distinction had really ever existed. The real tragedy of St. Kilda is in its connectedness. But this is also cause for celebration.

St. Kilda is a vitally important asset to the Outer Hebrides, which struggle under the growing trend of depopulation and rely heavily on tourism during the summer months. Tourism to St. Kilda is the NTS’ single biggest source of income. But the old trick of disaster tourism which, in this case, puts the place to death rather than bringing the past to life—does nothing to counteract the story of Hebridean communities collapsing one by one.

The ‘real’ St. Kilda, the one in which tour-operators, military staff, researchers and tourists share space with a whole array of species whose numbers are continuously fluctuating in response to a huge variety of factors, was more interesting to me than the uninhabited island that speaks only of what has been lost. The problem with the word ‘conservation’ is that it implies endings and permanence. This kind of framing is actively misleading in a place where stories of depopulation and species decline are unfolding now, in the unstable present.

But if not ‘conservation’, then what? Perhaps the most useful substitute is simply this: attention. Attention means immersion, responsiveness, sticking with the ebbs and flows. It is what is required of any good reader or listener of stories. It is also what is required of a good tourist.

All photos by Lauren Collee

Lauren Collee is a free-lance writer and researcher based in London. She is interested in social imaginings of the natural world, and ways in which they are shaped by language.  

 

A lifetime opposing the US military on Okinawa

Japanese police carrying away a protester. Photo: Eliza Egret

by Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

There are eighty of us sitting down, linking arms, blocking the gates of a US military base. Private security guards are lined up behind us, while men in uniform film us from behind barbed-wire fences. Suddenly, Japanese police officers pile out of their vans in their dozens. They grab a protester, a woman in her seventies. She goes limp and screams “US bases out of Okinawa!” as they carry her away. Anguish is written on her face. We desperately hold onto each other, knowing that we’re also about to be grabbed. We try to resist the police prying our arms apart. One by one, we’re removed from the gates and put into a police pen. It takes forty-five minutes to remove us all.   

As anti-militarist activists, we visited the Japanese island of Okinawa in August 2017 to join the protests against US military bases. Over the course of the week, we join these sit-ins three times a day, every day. The number of people at the protests ranges from 20 to 200. Many activists are in their seventies or eighties. People chant and sing Okinawan protest songs as they wait for the police to drag them away. We get bruises and sore arms from the force of the officers.

In July 2014, the people of Okinawa began blockading the gates of Camp Schwab, a US military base situated in Henoko village, to try to prevent its expansion. Since then, activists have come from all over Japan, and occasionally from around the world, to join locals in preventing construction materials and vehicles from entering the site. Many protesters have been arrested, and several have been imprisoned for anti-base activities.  

The plans for Henoko include the relocation of an existing US military facility to Camp Schwab and the building of a runway and helipads on the ocean, directly on top of a coral reef. The runway will have disastrous consequences for Oura bay, a fragile aquatic ecosystem home to many unique species. The population of endangered dugong and green turtles will also be threatened. The costs of the construction at Camp Schwab are paid for by the Japanese government.

In 1997, a referendum found that the majority of local people opposed the plans for the base. In 2007, a survey indicated that 85% of the population of Okinawa were against  the new construction. Despite this, the Japanese government and US military are pressing ahead with their plans.

Towards the end of the Second World War, the US invaded Okinawa. One in four Okinawans were killed during the Battle of Okinawa. After the war, the US military took over the Japanese military bases on the island. They have had a presence there ever since.

After Japan surrendered in 1945, the US began a military occupation of the whole country. When power was handed back to the Japanese government in 1952, it was on the condition  that the occupation of Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu islands continued. The US military wanted Okinawa as a strategic base to dominate China and Southeast Asia. Okinawa had been under US military rule for 27 years, until the island was brought back under Japanese control in 1972.

Although the US occupation had officially ended, its military personnel never left Japan. There are approximately 50,000 US military personnel in Japan, over half of whom remain stationed in Okinawa. Okinawa houses 70% of US military bases in the country, but covers only 0.6% of the country’s landmass. US bases occupy a massive 18% of the land on the island.

Since the occupation of Japan, Japanese governments have followed a policy of strategic alliance with US militarism. This means that the government will not oppose US bases on Japanese soil.

The US military has made its presence felt. Islanders are subjected to daily Osprey helicopter flights, which cause stress, sleep deprivation, and noise pollution. Forty-five Ospreys have crashed on the island since 1972. Military vehicles are a regular sight on the streets and soldiers use the north of the island, including the places where people live, for armed jungle training. US marines have been responsible for over a thousand violent crimes on the island since 1972, including rapes and murders. The US have tested the chemical toxin Agent Orange on Okinawa.

The demonstrations outside Camp Schwab would not exist if it weren’t for the older population of Okinawa, some of whom attend the sit-ins three times per day. 71 year old Hiroshi Ashitomi is a respected elder of the campaign. He makes enthusiastic speeches over the microphone, giving courage to those who are about to be removed by the police. Ashitomi agreed to talk to us about what it’s like to live with the military presence in Okinawa, and about the opposition to the base. He speaks to us in Japanese as an activist friend translates for us.

Hiroshi Ashitomi. Photo: Eliza Egret

Can you tell us about your childhood?

I was born in 1946, just after World War Two. My father went to university in Tokyo and he couldn’t return to Okinawa during the war. So I was born in Tokyo. When I was fifteen years old I came back to Okinawa. The US military was here.

How did the military occupation affect your family?

Under US occupation all of Okinawa was poor. Okinawan people were farmers but lots of land was taken by the military. The US military have a big base, Camp Hansen, in Kin, where my family lived. More than half of my father’s land was taken by the US army base. The US military compensated us for the land but it was not good money.

Can you tell us about the seizures of land by the military?

The Japanese military took Okinawan people’s land during the Second World War. After the war, the US military took control of the Japanese bases. During the Korean and Vietnam wars the US military took more and more land for their bases. They took it by force, using bulldozers and bearing arms. The people didn’t have any choice but to give up their land. There was no democracy and they colonised Okinawa. There were no rights for the people. That’s why Okinawan people have always protested against the military.

At that time the idea of Okinawan independence wasn’t very common, so we were fighting for Okinawa to return to Japan.

During the Vietnam war some US soldiers ran away from the US military, and Okinawan people supported them.

Photo: Eliza Egret

What happened when the occupation ended and Okinawa returned to Japan?

When Okinawa was returned to Japan the situation didn’t change at all. The US miltary bases remained. Now the Japanese government is against us, too. The Japanese government will never say no to the US military.

Can you explain the effects of the continued US military presence on the people in Okinawa?

The military have been responsible for rapes, murders, road-traffic accidents and drunk driving. One small example of the behaviour of the military is that sometimes soldiers don’t pay taxi drivers.  They get out of taxi at the gate and run into the base without paying.

The military also causes environmental pollution, and there is noise pollution from helicopters. At night, after 10pm, they fly over our houses while people are trying to sleep.

In 1995, three US soldiers raped a 13 year old girl. People were very angry and the anti-base movement got bigger and bigger.

Two and a half years ago a female US soldier was raped at Camp Schwab. Afterwards she committed suicide.

In 2016, a 20 year old Okinawan woman, Rina Shimabukoro, was raped and killed by a former US marine. It was really terrible. Many more rape cases are happening in Okinawa and are not reported. As long as the US military is here it will keep happening again and again.

Could you tell us about the resistance to the expansion of the US base at Henoko?

After we heard about the new plans, in 1997, people in Nago city organised a residents’ referendum to decide whether they would say yes or no to the new plan. More than half of the people voted no. That referendum was very confusing for the people because many of them worked for the company that would get the base construction contract. It was hard for the workers and their family to say no because they might have lost their jobs and also because the base construction would have given them work. But still over 50% voted no.

Poster against the expanded US base in Okinawa. Source: Okinawa Peace Support

Since then, what strategies have people used to oppose the new base construction?

We have to show the US government that we don’t agree. The Okinawan governor has visited the US government to send the voice of Okinawan people many times.

In 2004, activists began using kayaks to monitor the military base from the sea. A tent was set up by the beach where people came to learn about peace, and about the history of Okinawa.  

Three years ago, when they started bringing the construction vehicles in, a protest tent and sit-in at the gates of Camp Schwab started. Police come and take us away but we sit again and again. We try to show the world and the government that we’ll never give up. That’s our motto: never give up.

Our protest is based on non-violence. The network of people in Okinawa against the US military includes local businesses and conservative people, not only activists but ordinary people. If we didn’t have mainstream support the police would destroy the protest very quickly. Non-violent tactics are important to get more people to support the protest in Henoko.  

How do you keep going?

We try to come up with new ideas for the protests and keep doing it. It’s very hard protesting every day. But if we gave up, nothing would change.

It must be very stressful for the older people to be physically removed by the police every day, yet they make up the most numbers at the protests. Can you explain why?

Older people, even older than me, experienced the Battle of Okinawa during World War Two and they know how terrible it was. Under the US military occupation we suffered a lot of abuse and discrimination. So we know how to survive in this situation. That generation of older people have more passion than the younger people because they don’t want to see the same situation ever again. That’s why they sit there every day.

Do people in Okinawa want international support at the sit-ins?

We have to unite internationally otherwise we cannot win against the power of the US. We also need foreign media to come, interview people and spread information.

I just heard that the network of groups against the US bases in Okinawa received an international peace prize in Germany. So we know that international people are watching what happens here.

It’s good if international people can come and join us on the demonstrations, but please arrange a translator!

Would it be good for people internationally to hold solidarity demonstrations outside US embassies and consulates?

Yes, this would be very welcome. Donations would also be welcome. We need money to organise transport for the demonstrators and to pay for lawyers when people are arrested.

A women taken away at a protest. Photo: Eliza Egret

There are daily shuttle buses from Naha city, close to Okinawa’s airport and port, to the sit-in at Henoko. If you are interested in joining the protests in Okinawa, and would like to know more, email eliza@shoalcollective.org and tom@shoalcollective.org.

Here is a list of some of the Japanese websites with information about the protests in Okinawa:

https://henokoblue.wordpress.com/ – The blog of the kayak team monitoring the base in Henoko.

http://takae.ti-da.net – for info about the movement against helipad construction in Takae, in the North of Okinawa.

http://apjjf.org/ – Has some interesting articles in English about Okinawa.

 

Eliza and Tom are both part of Shoal Collective, a new cooperative producing writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism. Follow Shoal Collective’s writing on Twitter @ShoalCollective

In India, dispossession in the name of conservation

by Eleonora Fanari

Sita Maji of the Santhal tribe sits in front of her temporary house in Munda, Mayurnbanj district of Odisha, India. She lives with her two children, one and three years old, along with her husband and her old mother. In the hot May weather of 45 degrees, this small house is the only escape for her family of five—70 km away from her ancestral village in Kabathgai, from where she was forcefully relocated by the Forest Department on May 28 2016.

Kabathgai was a village located in the core area of the Simlipal Tiger Reserve, one of the biggest and most recognized tiger reserves in the East Indian state of Odisha. While the home of many tigers, Simlipal has also been home to numerous tribal communities such as Santhal, Kolho, and Khadia, which have inhabited these lands for centuries.

The red silk cotton trees of semul flowers, which give the name to the Simlipal National Park, have been the house, the shadow, and companionship to tribal people like Sita. But today to respond to the need for environment conservation, in Simlipal, as well as in many other Tiger Reserves of India, many villages have been relocated outside the forest area, because they are considered a threat to the wildlife and the conservation of the tigers. No longer considered the protectors of the forest, they have been targeted by the government and the wildlife “experts” as encroachers.

The villagers of ex-Kabathgai engaged in building their own concrete houses.

 

The relocation

The relocation of Kathbagai village has been planned after the notification of the new Critical Tiger Habitat (CTH) in Simlipal Tiger Reserve. The critical tiger habitats (CTHs), also known as core areas of tiger reserves, are identified under the Wild Life Protection Act (WLPA), 1972, based on scientific evidence that “such areas are required to be kept as inviolate for the purpose of tiger conservation.” The term “inviolate” has mostly been interpreted as “free of human presence”. However, in many parks all over India, the demarcation of CTHs coincides with areas inhabited by numerous human settlements.

The Santhal village of Kabathgai fell under the demarcation of the new core tiger area in Simlipal, announced in December 2007. For this reason Sita’s family was relocated, as her family was considered dangerous for the wildlife conservation and for the protection of the tigers.

With a yellow bright sari, and a tired expression, Sita is resting after a morning of hard work of building up her new houses in the relocated Munda place. She tells me how difficult their life has been since the relocation: “Out of the forest everything needs to be purchased from the market, and after the relocation the forest department helped us with only 1 kg rice per person for the first 3 months. The food available here is of bad quality and we are suffering from bad health issues”. Sita explains about the conditions at the site of relocation, but her eyes glimpse only when she tells about her forest, remembering those days when their children could play freely on the ground, and the women used to rest under the big shading trees.

Sita Maji sits in front of her temporary mud house.
Relocated Munada site, Mayurnbanj district, Odisha.

The relocated site is still a temporary camp, where a row of mud houses has been covered by plastic black tents that function both as shade and protection for the rain. Firewood and kitchen utensils are spread throughout the house’s lane where cooking, sleeping and washing clothes take place in the same narrow area. Electricity is still not available and a water pump and one temporary toilet have been considered to be enough for the entire community of 47 families.

“Here it is very hot. Without any trees, rivers and lands we feel lost! We are not used of living in such an environment and in the hot summer, we are suffering from lots of sicknesses and many people have been already carried to the hospital because of dehydration” says Sita Maji.

For two months the entire community have been working to build up their houses of about 10×8 feet per family, under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme), a National scheme aiming at enhancing the livelihood security of people in rural areas.

After the construction is finished they will need to take some other wage labour from outside in order to survive.

Checkpoint at the limit of the Critical Tiger Habitat (CTH) of Simlipal Tiger Reserve.

The tribal people: puppet of the legal regime

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, or the Forest Rights Act, (FRA) 2006 is the legal instrument that recognises the rights of Sita to inhabit the forest area and to carry on her traditional activities.

The FRA is a milestone act with the aim of restoring the traditional and customary rights of the tribal and the forest dwellers’ communities that have historically been denied and exploited by the colonial forest governance. Prior to the FRA, entire communities living inside protected areas were denied entitlements on their forest land, and always threatened by eviction due to being considered illegal in their own territory. Other forest entitlements such as grazing, fishing, collecting of minor forest products (MFPs) were also denied. Thus the FRA is a piece of legislation that gives hope to all the forest dwellers in India.

Sita’s family have struggled for many years to obtain the piece of paper that could allow them to live in peace, cultivate the land, carrying on their activities in the forest and finally enjoy the legal rights which they have previously been denied. After a long struggle, Sita’s community got their community title in 2015, but they were forced to relocate just after. “We fought for our land and for our children, but the pressure put on us by the forest department was unbearable, and we had to come out to find a bit of peace,” says Sita remembering the day they got pushed out of their forest.

“People living in the Kabataghai village in the core tiger zone were forced continuously to relocate by the forest department. Department also sent middle-men to lure village residents into accepting the compensation package, lying that it is a one-time opportunity” says Sanghamitra, a member of Community Forest Rights Learning and Advocacy, a group of activists from across India advocating the FRA. She has been working closely with the Tribespeople living in the core zone of Simlipal.

According to the FRA, the people can be relocated by the Critical Tiger Habitat only if non-coexistence with wildlife have been proved through scientific studies, and only after the voluntary and written consent of the gram sabha (the elder’s council). The people of Kobathgai were never keen to be relocated. In the middle of the winter, Sita’s family had to leave their ancestral land. The entire colony was moved with trucks to this desolate piece of land close to the main city of Jashipur. “In that same day our houses were turned apart, our cropped land destroyed by elephant and our community villages took over by the authorities,” explains Sita, remembering that day which is still very fresh in her memory.

Meeting on the Forest Rights Act implementation in the buffer village of Badhakasaira, planned to be relocated.

When  the District Collector of Mayurbhanj, who is responsible for the relocation of the people, was asked if the relocation was forced he absolutely argued that all relocation have been voluntary. But is continuous harassment, destruction of crops, and physical and mental torture considered normal behavior by the Forest Department, who instead should have cooperated with the villagers and recognized their granted rights as per FRA.

With a package of 10 lakh rupees (US$15,000) and a false promise of land, the Kabathgai community had no option but relocation.

The rights recognized under the Forest Rights Act are now expired, according to the District Collector, and people are not anymore able to go back to their ancestral land, pursue their traditional activities, and to collect the MFPs for their livelihood. Landless and helpless, the people of Kabathgai are yet to realize how to survive out of the forest. The men seem to show more strength and hope about a new modern life, while the women are feeling the frustration and the fear of a life not corresponding to their needs.

Relocated site of Kiajhari, a village relocated from the buffer zone of Simlipal to the outside Khonduador area.

An ongoing struggle

Sita’s community is not the only one which has been forcefully evicted by the forest department disregarding FRA 2006. In the same Simlipal Tiger Reserve, since 20094 villages, 3 from the core tiger area and 1 from the buffer zone, have been already moved out of the forest. Conflicts between state forest departments and Indigenous people are being reported across the protected areas of the country. According to a report on displacement due to conservation published by the environmentalist A. Kothari, in the last 30 years a number between 100,000 to 300,000 people have been displaced in the name of conservation.

In Kanha Tiger Reserve more than 700 families of the Baiga tribe have been displaced since 1970. In Nagarhole National Park and Tiger Reserve a number of 3,400 families got displaced without any proper compensation and relocation; in Kaziranga in the state Assam a 2015 high court order has ordered the eviction of more than 2,000 forest dwellers inhabiting the area, among which many are Mising tribal people, Adivasis and Bengali minorities.

The Forest Rights Act continues to be ignored by the authorities which carry on with illegal evictions in the name of conservation.

A recent circular issued by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the government body that looks after the managing of the tiger reserves for the conservation of the big cat, ordered that ‘no forest rights under FRA should be anymore granted inside the CTH’. This means the annulment of rights for forest dwellers like Sita,  whose traditional livelihoods are dependent on their ability to collect MFPs.

The order could indeed seriously aggravate the situation on the ground. Tribespeople who have been fighting for their rights in the forest even after the FRA being in place are now compelled to come together to fight against the NTCA’s order.

The conflict arising in the name of biodiversity conservation has been increasing in India as well as in many other part of the world. In the name of conservation today many communities are getting relocated and deprived of their means of survival without properly ensuring them any livelihood option and without any engagement in the real meaning of conservation.

Today conservation is just another name used as a justification for territorialism.

The positive connotation given to conservation is being used to hide the negative words of dispossession, land acquisition, and denial of rights. It is under this name that Sita’s family was relocated from her village, last year during the monsoons without proper shelter or facilities, and with only the support of a few kilos of rice. “We could not sleep at night and the children were constantly crying. We are now working day and night in the hot weather to finish the construction of the house before the new monsoon season starts, but after this who knows what our destiny will be,’ argues Sita.

While pronouncing these words she turns towards the empty space, and then looking at me she says: “We were before the protectors of the forest, now they turn us into its enemy!”

Children playing in the village of Kolha, a village who have received FRA land titles and developing a conservation community management committee (CCMC).

All photos by Eleonora Fanari

Eleonora Fanari is a researcher currently based in New Delhi. She has been working on the issue of social exclusion, minorities, and land rights in collaboration with several non-governmental organizations. She is currently associated with Kalpavriksh, a non profit organization working on environmental and social issues, where she is carrying on research on conservation and tribal rights in protected forest areas. She blogs here.

“I’m looking through the symbol for all that’s disgusting”

by Aaron Vansintjan

There are people who don’t think twice about throwing something away that others might think very valuable. There are also people who are willing to give society’s discards value once again. Martin is one of those people. Martin collects trash for a living. He also runs the popular blog, Things I Find in the Garbage, which has 1,167,429 hits and 5,940 followers.

One winter night Martin drove me around the super-rich Montréal neighbourhood, Town of Mount Royal (TMR). We talked in the car—Martin shared some (dumpstered) tea from his (found) Thermos—and, once every so often, stopped at a promising pile of trash. We had to be careful to avoid getting in trouble with the security. It was two days before Christmas but there was no snow on the ground, and there was an occasional sprinkle of rain. After rooting through some trash bags and tossing anything we liked in the trunk we would hop back in the car, picking up where we had left off in the conversation. The following are excerpts from that discussion edited for clarity and flow, with some changes suggested by Martin.

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Why did you pass that pile?

Ummm. It just didn’t have a good vibe for some reason. It just seemed like, cardboard, or maybe they’re working on a new bathroom and bought some new shit. Renovation kind of stuff.

So you’re looking for the small things.

Yeah. Small things are good. Well, it’s also just the look of the pile. It’s hard to explain. If you see kind of vintage-ey stuff, that’s good. For sale signs, that’s very good. Because those people are moving, or whatever. There’s a lot of cost-benefit analyses going on my head. Trying to figure out what’s worth the time, you know?

What distinguishes you from others doing this kind of work?

The trash bag. That’s the thing that really makes me a pro, I guess. It’s the fact that I’ve realized that most of the good stuff is in trash bags. A lot of people when I tell them most of the stuff I find is inside bags, are very surprised. And then I’m surprised that they’re surprised. I wouldn’t be able to make a living just picking from open boxes.

I love the bag system. The bags give off a lot of information. You can tell by the shape of them, by the color of them, the quantity of them. But when you have these giant dumpsters, there’s not much information you can glean from that.

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What are some things you’ve learned from doing this?

I feel like I kind of know these people in a weird way. Even though I don’t really but I know parts of their story. Often times they’re passed on or whatever. It’s kind of a strange thing. To develop attachments to garbage or people who provide it. (There’s a long pause.) That’s the most interesting part about it, learning these stories and finding this cool old stuff. Because I’m also interested in history, and the history you find when trash picking is pretty interesting.

I’ve learned a lot about how much privilege rich people have. How much different the lifestyle is between rich and poor. Especially when I’m going through this kind of neighbourhood. The kind of things that rich people casually toss away is unbelievable for someone in my position. I remember when I was growing up we needed this special calculator for this high school class, the TI-83+.

They were so expensive!

Yeah. It was actually a stressful family expense, to buy these calculators. Then at a place in Westmount, I found two. Just thrown out. Just another world. The craziest thing to me might be the guy in Westmount who threw out a jar of change, of 56 bucks. This jar of change. This guy just didn’t have the time to… He worked at the bank, actually. He was a banker. At a certain point that’s just junk change to you. And I just can’t, it’s so hard to imagine a situation, where I would even throw out 50 cents. 50 dollars is just insanity.

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It’s like we live in a world of disposability.

And privilege. I can spend a dollar on something and not worry too much about it. If you’re making $2 million a year, you can spend $100 and not worry about it. It’s just different, a totally different scale. (A pause.) The only difference I guess is that I’m spending a dollar on candy instead of throwing it directly into the garbage.

[We pass by a street sign I recognize.]

That street is called Algonquin.

They used to live around here, didn’t they?

[We both think about the Indigenous people who continue to fight against the colonization of their unceded land, and how strange it is that a street was named after them in this rich neighbourhood.]

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Why do you think there aren’t more people who do this kind of thing?

I think anyone can do what I do, it’s just that there’s a lot of obstacles. A lot of it is social obstacles too. I guess for some people, it’s sort of a social stigma, people don’t want to be seen looking through trash bags at all.

Are you not concerned about that?

I’m not too concerned about it. [But] its pretty much the symbol for undesirable material. The black garbage bag. With some stink lines coming out. Like basically, I’m looking through the actual symbol for all that’s disgusting and filthy and all that. I’m sure there’s more to it, but people definitely get caught up in the symbol.

Are there moments when you do dig through stuff and are just like… oh my god this is the absolute worst.

(Laughs). Oh yeah. Once in a while people decide to mix in the good stuff with just kitchen waste or kitty litter and I’m just like “oh god.” If it looks interesting enough and I can clean it off then I’ll look through pretty much anything. I remember one person dumped a jewelry box into some kitchen waste and chicken bones so for the next half hour I was looking between the chicken bones and all that trying to hopefully find some gold.

Did you?

Ummm. I don’t think I did from that bag. I found some jewelry in a different bag that didn’t have chicken juice in it. That’s why I was so dedicated to that bag. I found some really nice gold cufflinks actually. But that particular bag wasn’t that great. (Long pause). Yeah you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. A lot of people don’t really want to get dirty at all. But I feel connected to it for whatever reason.

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Have you had any narrow escapes with the police or security?

There was this one time. I was checking out some trash and this security guard stopped. He asked me what I was doing. I said, “Well, I’m looking through the trash.” He was like, “I’m going to give you a ticket.” I was like, “Whatever, fuck you.” I just got into my car and drove away but he followed me and I left Hampstead and I’m pretty sure he can’t follow me out of Hampstead. (Laughs). That was my moment of badassery. I didn’t face any repercussions for that. I stopped going to Hampstead during the morning. Then I started going at night. Just to avoid that guy, who most certainly hates me now.

I think that’s the only reason why there’s not many trash pickers in TMR. One time I saw a guy. He was an Indian-looking guy, probably from Parc-Ex, on a bike. I never saw him again. I’m pretty sure TMR security takes care of them. (He laughs.) Anyone who doesn’t look like they belong. You know. You know all about power and all of that stuff.

Do you think doing this has kind of influenced or changed how you see those things?

Not too much. I already had kind of a picture. I think more I’ve just come to see the, uh, differentiation between rich and poor is more vivid in my mind now. Before I knew. But now I feel. I guess that’s the difference. I guess I always knew that authority was a weird thing. (He laughs.)

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What did we find, you ask? In an email, Martin broke down the proceeds from that night’s trash run:

“I didn’t have the cords for the PSPs, and the Gameboy had a pretty dark screen but I sold them ‘as is’ on eBay for a profit of 65$. The Expo 67 pamphlets (from that spot with the old books) sold recently for 50$ + shipping. The old books await yard sale season, though I did barter a few on the Bunz Trading Zone Facebook page for beer / food. All in all, a solid if unspectacular night (I find about 80$ worth of stuff on an “average” night, but sometimes I’ll find much more or nothing at all).”

(He doesn’t mention the electric can-opener, the solid metal vase, and the in-working-order brand-new stereo system I took home that night.)

Aaron Vansintjan is a co-editor at Uneven Earth and is currently pursuing a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. He writes about gentrification, food politics, environmental justice, and contemporary politics.

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I’m not a climate refugee

by Taukiei Kitara and Carol Farbotko

Kitara is a Tuvaluan climate change activist and Carol Farbotko an Australian social scientist. They met in Tuvalu in 2005 and have collaborated on several writing projects to raise awareness about Tuvalu and climate change.

I am a Tuvaluan. I work in a gas factory and I am a climate change activist. I am not a climate refugee. I am a migrant in Australia. I want to share my story because it is a personal story about climate change.

In Tuvalu, fishing and growing food are very important. My family grew coconuts, taro, pulaka, pawpaw, breadfruit and bananas. I started to notice a lot of changes in the sea and land. Scientists seemed to be talking about the changes I was noticing in my islands. I knew that climate change was real. I learned that fossil fuels were causing the damage.

I was born on the island of Nui in Tuvalu, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, as were my parents and their parents. Nui is my fenua, my island and my people. On my island, land is communal – owned by families, not individuals. Those members of my family who still live on Nui look after our land. They make sure that crops are planted, although this is becoming more difficult with saltwater inundation and erosion. But on Nui, life is beautiful. Most people don’t have jobs, but they don’t really need much cash. Fish and coconuts are still plentiful, and with some taro, pawpaw and banana growing, and pigs. There is usually enough to eat.

The front yard at home on Nui island. Photo: Taukiei Kitara

When I was a teenager I was lucky to get a scholarship to go to boarding school in Australia. That was when I discovered that I liked Australian life. I also realised I liked travelling and learning about different people and different places. I went back to Tuvalu when I finished school. I trained and worked as a high school English and Geography teacher. Then I started working in community development. I helped Tuvaluan communities to do projects to protect the environment and improve their livelihoods. We planted mangroves and implemented pig farming and crop-growing techniques that were better suited to the changing climate.

There were other changes too. Droughts were worse than they used to be. The weather was changing. Houses were being flooded during king tides. Fish were no longer in the shallower waters when I went out fishing to feed my family. We had to go further out, into deeper cooler waters, which was more dangerous. Our marine conservation areas were being used properly, but it was hard to look after fish stocks when the water temperature was rising.

I knew I had to try and do something about climate change. The scientists were warning that one day, all the islands in Tuvalu would be so badly affected by sea level rise that nobody would be able to live there. All of our nine islands in Tuvalu, including Nui, are very very small. You could walk all around the biggest one in a single day. Some of the islands are actually comprised of several tiny islets. These islets are very skinny. You can walk from one side to the other in less than five minutes. If the sea levels rise, there really is nowhere to go.

So I signed up to represent Tuvalu’s civil society at the international climate change negotiations. I wanted the voice of the communities I worked with to be heard. I travelled to China, Germany and Denmark to attend COPs where I met activists from all over the world. I learned about the international Climate Action Network and helped to set up TuCAN. I worked with Tuvaluan government representatives to try and get the international community to listen. We needed serious global reductions in fossil fuel use. At the Copenhagen COP in 2009 I was one of the few civil society representatives to still have access to the negotiations when everyone else was banned. Protests against the lack of agreement were too much of a ‘security risk’ according to the organisers. But since everyone in Tuvalu works together, I was able to join the Tuvalu government delegation. We all worked such long hours, and so hard, but Copenhagen was a failure. Nothing real was achieved. I went home devastated.

Taukiei Kitara and Ian Fry, another member of the Tukalu delegation, are tired from a long night at COP15. Photo courtesy of Taukiei Kitara

It was around this time that I fell in love with an Australian and we got engaged. I migrated to Brisbane six years ago when we got married. My wife and I both love Tuvalu, but it would have been hard for her to find work there. We wanted our children to be dual citizens and attend school in Australia.  

When we first got married, my wife worked full time. I could not work because I had entered Australia on a tourist visa, waiting for my permanent residency visa application to be processed. When my PR finally came through, it was time for me bring my mum and daughter from a previous marriage to Australia. They had been waiting in Tuvalu for their PR too, because they were my dependents. I made the choice that we would all migrate, even though a part of me wants to be on my island, Nui. After a lot of worrying about how strange Australia would be for my mum and daughter, I decided that they would, on balance, be safer in Australia than in Tuvalu. Climate change is real, and it will become harder for children and the elderly to be safe.

One month after my mum and daughter arrived, my wife and I welcomed our first baby together. After getting pregnant, my wife had applied for and was accepted into a permanent job, after many years of casual and contract work. But she had not been in her new job long enough for entitlement to maternity leave. So our only income was about to dry up for several months, and there was my mum, daughter and new baby to look after. I had to find a job fast. My teaching diploma was not recognised in Australia, and community development work is hard to find, and I didn’t have a university qualification anyway, which didn’t help.

King tides in Tuvalu. Photo courtesy of Taukiei Kitara

A Tuvaluan friend who had lived in Brisbane for a while had a job at a local gas depot. He told me they were looking for workers. I applied and got a casual position straight away. There were a few Tuvaluans there and we all were known for working hard. I have now worked at this job for five years. I was one of only nine out of 28 plant workers to be granted the opportunity to change from a casual to a permanent position. I also was one of a few to survive a merger with another gas company. In 2017, I was a finalist for the national employee of the year, the only plant worker in the history of the company to be nominated. I am working on risk assessments and am now a trainer. However, I have never been promoted and my wage is almost the minimum that any adult worker in Australia is legally allowed to earn. It is physically hard work and I am often exhausted and sometimes sick with the effort I put in, especially when we do overtime starting at 4 in the morning.

My wife and I welcomed another baby. Between work and kids and going to church, I do not have much time or energy left for climate activism these days. I don’t even have much time to look for a different job so that I don’t have to work in the fossil fuel industry. I would love to do work in the social or environmental sector, working for what I believe is good and right. Sometimes I send off job applications where I think I might have a chance, but so far, I have not been able to find work elsewhere. I still hope to do further study and work in a very different industry one day. But for now, our daily worry is the struggle to meet the costs of daycare and healthy food for a growing family – things I never had to worry about in Tuvalu. I have to keep going to work at the gas factory. I have hopes that maybe I can do some change for good within the system. For example, I support my co-workers who are not well educated or are migrants like me, who do not necessarily know all their rights as workers. I educate myself and others on our contracts and industrial agreements.  

I will always be a proud Tuvaluan, no matter where I live. I am not a climate refugee. I chose to move, I was not forced out of my country by climate change. But I know that one day life might be almost unbearable on my island because of climate change. I also know that no Tuvaluan wants to be a climate refugee. Refugees do not seem to have their human rights respected, even though they are among those who most need the protection that human rights should be able to offer. No Tuvaluan wishes to be treated poorly. We would rather make our own choices. In fact, for many people in Tuvalu, there is a strong wish to stay on the islands no matter what climate change brings. Many would rather stay and die, than to migrate to another country or to be forced to go as a refugee.

I want my daughter and sons to grow up knowing their Tuvaluan identity, and sharing in the rich multicultural life of Australia. I hope that when my daughter is a young adult, in maybe ten years’ time, she will return to Tuvalu to spend time with family there. Then she can decide for herself if she would like to stay for a while, maybe to work among Tuvaluan communities or teach as I used to do. Sadly, my mum will never go back now, as she passed away and was buried in Australia.

My life in Australia has many blessings, but it is not easy. It is hard to meet the daily challenges. I struggle financially, I miss Tuvalu, I work hard, I am tired, I love my family. I am not powerless in the fight against climate change, but I have to pay the bills too and look after my kids in the home I have chosen for them. One day, maybe when the little ones are a bit older, I can be a climate change campaigner again.    

 

Taukiei Kitara worked for over 10 years helping communities in Tuvalu, a Polynesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean,  to develop projects for sustainable livelihoods. He was a founding member of Tuvalu Climate Action Network and represented Tuvalu civil society at several meetings of the international climate change negotiations. In 2011 he migrated to Australia, where he now works as a trainer, assessor and cylinder tester and filler in a gas depot.

Carol Farbotko is a cultural geographer who has conducted research on the cultural politics of climate change, arguing for increased recognition of and dialogue about indigenous perspectives on climate change in the Pacific.  

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There is no wilderness in Kiruna

Kiruna at midnight. Photo by Rut Elliot Blomqvist

by Rut Elliot Blomqvist

Kiruna/Giron, July 1st, 9 pm. The sun won’t set tonight, nor for another couple of weeks.

The recorded voice of Hans Forssell, a state attorney, booms from the speakers of the festival stage Cityscenen. A group of people are shouting “Jannok, Jannok!”, drowning out the contemptuous, racist crap from a 2016 court case between the Girjas reindeer herding community and the Swedish state.

Sofia Jannok enters the stage to the sound of the cheering audience. Kiruna has been a mining town for 127 years, and the state-owned company LKAB—Luossavaara Kirunavaara Aktiebolag—has long been and is still a key contributor to Swedish state wealth. Jannok’s stage at Kirunafestivalen has a view of both the Kirunavaara/Gironvárri mine and the surrounding mountains and woods where Sámi people lived for about ten thousand years before the crown and state of Sweden took an interest in these lands, and where Tornedalian farming settlements coexisted with Sámi culture for several hundred years before Swedish colonial settlements were established in the 17th century.

The Kirunavaara mine. Photo by Håkan Sandström

 

Jannok’s drummer hits the snare drum in the march-like intro to the song “This is my land – Sápmi”. Jannok points to the mine and sings: “If you want to ruin it all with big wounds in the mountain, then you’re not worthy listening to this song”. This line leads into a power yoik—yoik being the traditional Sámi vocal style which Jannok mixes with pop music, creating an evocative and original sound—which seems to me to embody both the anger and the joy someone feels when they fight to protect what they love. Her voice and her eyes express grief and loss, and then happiness and love; despair and anger, and then a fierce, euphoric fighting spirit—moving seamlessly between these inseparable feelings. In “I ryggen på min kolt” (“Backstabbing my gákti”), Jannok again points to the mine, singing: “Att sälja landet åt gruvor kallas folkmord”, “To sell the land to mines is called genocide”.

Before the song “Čuđit – Colonizer”, Jannok talks about the last time she arrived at Kiruna airport where she remembers a sign that read “Välkommen till Europas sista vildmark”, “Welcome to the last wilderness of Europe”. She observes that wilderness means unpopulated; the sign at the airport suggests that Sápmi and Tornedalen were empty before they became part of the Swedish state. Jannok says, “there is no wilderness”: “Who do you think named these mountains, in several languages?”. People were living with the land and gave places names in Sámi and Meänkieli (Tornedalian) before others came to colonise the land.

Čuđit – Colonizer”

Never empty, she was never wild

Stolen cruelly away from her child

Taken care for thousands of years

In seconds she’s ruined seas to seas

Kiruna, or Giron in northern Sámi, means ‘snow grouse.’ Not incidentally, Jannok sings a song called “Snow grouse – Ii leat ivdni mus” which is about surviving:

Invisible though I’ve always been here

Like a snow grouse I fly though they want me to die

 

The crowd at the festival. Photo by Håkan Sandström

To my left, three young people in colourful, patterned gákti—the Sámi regalia—are dancing with a Sámi flag.

Behind them, there are a few older women in blue gákti.

To my right, a middle-aged man is standing alone, dressed in a smart checked shirt, jeans, and a black cap decorated with reindeer and a small Sámi flag. He removes his glasses, to wipe away what seems to be tears.

When I turn around to view the huge crowd, two women behind me who are dressed in contemporary European fashion speak—to me, I think—in a northern Swedish accent, saying “Hon är så jävla bra”, “She’s freaking awesome”.

Closest to the stage by the fence is a line of young girls, many with Sámi handicraft—Duodji—handbags.

A few people in their twenties and thirties, seemingly a bit drunk, are dancing in front of me without paying much heed to the people around them, and two of them know the kids by the fence and sometimes hug and dance with them. Some of the kids don’t seem entirely happy about this.

To the left of the drunken dancers, three people form a kind of line by hugging each other, watching and listening intently to Jannok.

A bit behind me on my right there is a group of people whom I read as queer. One of them is wearing a “don’t assume my gender” t-shirt.

Between two of her songs, Jannok talks about “the strong souls who held on so that I can stand here now”.

Sofia Jannok. Photo by Håkan Sandström

Before one of the last songs of the gig, Jannok says, “Whatever happened yesterday, you are still here”.  She presents the song through a powerful image: When horrible things happen, you take the hate this awakens and you close your fist around it like around a small stone, and you hold it there until it has become love and then you open your hand and let the love come out. You spread love. That’s how you survive; that’s why diversity and goodness still exist in a colonial world; that’s how we are still here. Then Jannok sings “We are still here – Mii leat dás ain”—which is also the name of the tour.

After “We are still here”, a big group of people near the stage shout what I would venture to guess is “one more time” in Sámi. Someone comments in Swedish that half of Sápmi is there at the gig.

I feel a bit introverted, hiding in my hoodie, wanting to be in a quiet place to think and feel everything Sofia Jannok’s concert has made me think and feel.

I don’t know if the people around me are representative of Sápmi, or of Tornedalen—the Torne river valley—or of Kiruna/Giron. Regardless, these people remind me that there are all kinds of people everywhere: in Gothenburg in the south where I currently live, in Sápmi and Tornedalen, in Kiruna; in an urban core, in Indigenous and other local communities, in a mining town.

I think about something Jannok said during the concert: “I wish that no one would ever have to argue with the state or with anyone else, saying ‘yes, I do exist’”. All of us exist and we are all different. She called the audience her rainbow and sang “Jag är regnbågen på din näthinna”—“I am the rainbow you see”, or “I am your retina’s rainbow”. This is a theme Jannok returns to over and over again, like in “I ryggen på min kolt” which concludes with the words “Colours exist because everyone’s here”.

Leaving the festival, walking back to my father-in-law’s flat in the midnight light, I wonder if anyone wearing a gákti will be harassed or beaten tonight, remembering the line from Jannok’s song “Čuđit – Colonizer”: “Go gávtti biggo šaddá návddiin diggot”, “Wearing your gákti means dealing with beasts”. I wonder if anyone will be sexually harassed or raped tonight—sexual harassment and rape have haunted Swedish festivals this summer, as they have always done. I wonder how many lonely people will get wasted and break down tonight, here in the area called the Vodka belt where talking about your feelings isn’t always a priority. I wonder how many angry, underprivileged men will bond over racist comments about the Sámi and refugees tonight.

I wonder why some people, in particular here in the north, channel their despair, grief, loss, loneliness, and anger in the form of hatred towards the Sámi. That very few Sámi people have minor, relative privileges compared to some other underprivileged groups in the north seems like a simplistic explanation. I wonder if this hatred isn’t also about a kind of jealousy: maybe people envy the Sámi for the Sámi sense of community. I know that, when Jannok sings about her love for the land and her people, I find myself longing for being in a community of people and land.

If a sense of community is what you want, no hatred is going to fill that empty space. Instead of spreading hate, it makes so much more sense to hold it in your fist until it becomes love and then spread that love. It makes so much more sense to build a local community with the people around you; to create your own story about injustice, extractivism, and colonialism; to define what you would demand from the state and other sites of power, and then join the Sámi in their struggle for local autonomy and land rights.

Just outside my father-in-law’s house, from the parking lot, I can see the closed Luossavaara/Luossavárri mine in the distance. The name means Trout mountain. I wonder who gave it that name once. It looks lonely.

Rut Elliot Blomqvist is a songwriter, musician, writer, and PhD student in literature and environmental humanities who thinks a lot about environmental justice, degrowth, and the mythologies of contemporary Western society. Ze particularly likes to combine storytelling, music and analysis with activism and farming in searching for ways to describe and build a good life for hirself and others.

Water and oil, death and life in Louisiana

Cherri Foytlin at a protest in solidarity with the DAPL and against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Photo: Avery White

by Nora Belblidia

Six months ago, a routine public hearing was scheduled in a nondescript gray government building in downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  

“Normally these hearings go over really quietly,” said Scott Eustis, the Wetlands Specialist for Gulf Restoration Network (GRN). “Usually it’s me, my associates, and like ten people.” Instead, over 400 people showed up to the Baton Rouge hearing, and stayed for nearly six hours.

The debate centered on the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, a proposed route that would run 163 miles from Lake Charles to St. James, forming the “tail” of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and effectively connecting oil fracked in North Dakota to Louisiana refineries. If built, Bayou Bridge would cross 11 parishes, 600 acres of wetlands, 700 bodies of water, and the state-designated Coastal Zone Boundary.

Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) is behind both the Bayou Bridge project and the more infamous DAPL, but the parallels run deeper than a mutual stakeholder. Just like in DAPL, those who resist the project are drawing connections between past wrongdoings, conditions today, and a future climate. Residents cite safety concerns, environmental racism, pollution, and threats to the region’s wetlands and seafood industries as reasons to oppose its construction. “It’s not one thing it’s everything. It’s the water, it’s the land, it’s the crawfish, it’s the people’s air in St. James, it’s the climate, it’s people’s houses flooding – it really is – it’s corruption, it’s Trump,” said Eustis.

By now the fight against Bayou Bridge is a familiar one: multinational conglomerate vs. the local little guys. The David vs. Goliath metaphor is obvious. But, Bayou Bridge is playing out in 2017, a time when Goliath has never seemed so large and so ruthless, and when the horrors and lessons in Standing Rock are still fresh.  

“What we saw in Baton Rouge and Napoleonville at the hearings was hundreds and hundreds of people who had been inspired by people who had been kicked for eons, standing up to protect their water. You know what we can do that too, goddammit,” said Eustis.

That inspiration stands against the narrative of Standing Rock’s defeat. The camps suffered from a coordinated move to push the Dakota Access Pipeline’s approval through, and were forcibly evicted in February. Taylor Neck, a New Orleans activist who lived at Standing Rock through the winter who requested that her name be changed, said, “When I got home and so many people were like ‘Oh are you okay, I know it was such a loss,’ and ‘I’m sorry you guys lost’ and were saying things like that, it was kind of shocking to me at first because from my view and from the people that I was with, like my camp was all Lakota, it was such a win.”

In the DAPL’s migration south, the Great Plains of North Dakota have been substituted by hundreds of square miles of bayous and rivers and basins, one of the more romanticized segments of the Mississippi River, and finally the Gulf of Mexico. Water composes the very contents of Louisiana’s marshy soil and—with the threat of rising sea levels and natural disasters—is arguably the number one threat to its survival.

The spirit of an Indigenous-led environmental resistance has now come to a region wholly unique in culture and landscape. Cherri Foytlin, an Indigenous activist and the co-director of Bold Louisiana, called to the area’s strengths in a rally before the Baton Rouge hearing, “I’m sorry, Energy Transfer, if you don’t get it…but if you thought you saw some stuff up in North Dakota, you just get to the bayous,” she said, “our campers walk on water.”

The crowd at the hearing on the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Napoleonville. Photo: Avery White

Oil’s grip on the land

The Gulf South has a long and inextricable relationship with the oil industry. When including offshore drilling, Louisiana is second only to Texas in its production of crude oil, and its 18 refineries account for roughly 20% of the country’s refining capacity. Pipelines aren’t new to Louisiana. Approximately 50,000 miles already cover the state and maintain the industry’s century-long stronghold. For supporters of the pipeline, the attitude is often “Well, what’s one more?”

Set to deliver 280,000 barrels of heavy and light crude oil every day, Bayou Bridge is promoted as a way to bring jobs to the region at a time when the state’s budget is running close to a $943 million deficit and is, according to the Times-Picayune, “a hot mess.” The website for Bayou Bridge reads “Good for Louisiana” and promises 2,500 new jobs. A report prepared on behalf of ETP (by Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies) estimated the economic benefit to be $829 million. Yet in their permit application, the company promised just 12 permanent jobs, with most positions being temporary and tied to the physical construction of the pipeline.

Mark Koziorowski works offshore on a boat that runs supplies back and forth to the oil rigs in the Gulf, spending about a month at sea at a time.  He grew up in California but came to Louisiana when his uncle promised him a lucrative career. But he noted that the oil industry has suffered in recent years due to cheap oil prices and increased regulations. “A lot of the older people, like the captains that are in their 50s and 60s, they’re getting really hurt by that because they’ve never had any other jobs, they don’t really have another skill set.”

While Koziorowski doesn’t plan on staying in the field long-term,  that isn’t an option for everyone. “Being young and having the open air to be able to change careers gives me that power but if you’ve been stuck at one job it’s kind of hard to uproot,” he said. Of younger workers, “there’s definitely a few that are looking into other options but there’s also a diehard group of young people my age that are like ‘I’ll stick it out until it picks back up.’” Most people in the industry expect, and plan according to, boom-and-bust cycles.

Megan Falgout’s family is from Dulac, a small shrimping and fishing town in southern Louisiana. Though it sits off the proposed pipeline route, Dulac illustrates the cross-section of Louisiana industries, and the threats that climate poses to vulnerable communities. She described a childhood in which she wore shrimping boots to walk from the house to the car, “Dulac Reeboks,” she called them, “any bayou town they do that.”

“There was a shrimp factory and a Texaco factory and literally everybody down there made a living off of shrimping and fishing, all the families, that’s how they survived,” she said. Falgout lived on Shrimpers Row until she was 8, when Hurricane Andrew destroyed most of her town and her family moved to Houma.

Her father worked in the oil industry since he was a teenager, first doing pipeline construction and then working his way up to management until his job was moved to Texas and he was laid off. Despite her family ties, Falgout is against Bayou Bridge. “I just think that we’ve exhausted that energy source and we just keep getting greedier and greedier,” she said. Her father, on the other hand, is “for anything that will promote the oil industry in any kind of way, because of the job market down there,” she continued, “It’s crazy because it’s an area that’s affected but yet they’re so dependent on it.” Working in oil may come with its risks, but is one of the few opportunities to support a family on a high school diploma, and the high pay makes even temporary jobs welcome.

Photo: Avery White

Untold impacts

Supporters frame the debate as one of practicality, economic necessity, and, ironically, safety. Former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu testified at the January hearing on behalf of ETP, in a move that elicited jeers from the audience. “There’s millions and millions of gallons of crude oil and refined product moving through this country,” she said. “Now there are many people in this room that think we should outlaw it all right now and that might happen one day, but that is not today. So the question before us is how to move this product as carefully as possible.”

And yet safety is also the primary concern for opponents of the pipeline, who say the Gulf South has suffered at the hands of industry practices. The National Response Center tallied 144 pipeline accidents in Louisiana in 2016. Because spills in waterways are more difficult to contain than those on highways, groups such as GRN and Bold Louisiana warn that the pipeline will threaten wetlands, harm the region’s crawfishing industry, contribute to pollution and climate change, and place undue burden on communities that have been historically disenfranchised.

Standing Rock called attention to environmental racism, where minorities face disproportionate exposure to pollutants as a result of discriminatory planning policy. Similarly, Bayou Bridge’s proposed route runs through Bayou Lafourche, the drinking water supply for Houma Nation. It may also cut off the only evacuation route for St. James, a historically African-American community that is part of “Cancer Alley,” the 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River known for its numerous industrial plants and its numerous cancer patients. The town has already suffered 13 petrochemical accidents this year.  

Rev. Harry Joseph, the pastor of St. James’ Mount Triumph Baptist Church, testified at the public hearing in Napoleonville. “St. James, I love it, but they have people in that place that are very sick from the plants that are already there. People are losing lives down there,” he said. “It’s a poor community, and the few rich people that they have down there, they’re gone already. They’re gone. The plants have bought them out…. But what’s going to happen to the poor people?”

Eustis notes that while for supporters of Bayou Bridge, this may be just another pipeline, the proposed projectis particularly serious.  “You know I’ve seen a lot of pipelines because there are so many pipelines on the Gulf Coast, but this one is bad from a bad company with a large amount of impact, with a very diverse kind of impact on different communities in Louisiana affecting everyone in kind of a different way, at a time where we can’t really afford to lose more of our wetlands,” he said.  

Oil pipelines act as small dams in the waterways, which disrupts the water flow, turns it stagnant, and kills off plants and wildlife. Jody Meche, a commercial crawfisherman, testified at the hearing in Baton Rouge on the impact Bayou Bridge would have on his industry. “There are hundreds of pipelines criss-crossing the Atchafalaya basin that have been put in in the past six or seven decades, and [they have] crippled our ability to make a living,” he said. “We’re to the point of having hypoxic stagnant areas where we have to make our traps so tall that the crawfish can come up out of the water to breathe because they will die in our traps.”

While wildlife and fishing industries are at risk due to the disappearance of wetlands, Louisiana faces the additional threat of natural disasters. During a hurricane wetlands  absorb the impact of the storm; in heavy precipitation they act as a natural sponge. As climate change worsens and the surface temperature of the Gulf rises, water in the atmosphere increases and causes record precipitation. Last year Louisiana suffered devastating floods that resulted in 13 deaths and thousands of destroyed homes. A significant portion of that damage occurred outside a flood zone, indicative of the storms’ atypical patterns.

In a debate framed by economic necessity, the cost of such storms is noteworthy. A report commissioned by the Louisiana Economic Development office estimated the flooding damages last year to total $8.7 billion, the majority of which was due to damages to physical items such as housing structures, housing contents, and business inventories. $836 hundred million was lost due to interruption to business. Meanwhile, a 2008 study published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences found that wetlands provided an estimated $23 billion in protection from natural disasters countrywide, with that protection being dependent on storm severity. The dollar impact of storms can be ignored, however, for the promise of high-paying jobs.

Former U.S. senator Mary Landrieu at the Bayou Bridge hearing. Photo: Avery White

The politics of industry  

Alternative industries have yet to take hold in an economy with scarce well-paying blue-collar jobs and a culture in which tradition holds fast. In 2008 Louisiana promised tax credits for solar panels, spurring a mini-boom for the solar industry. In 2015, the state terminated the program after deciding it too costly, leaving residents who installed panels, expecting credit, in a lurch.

Koziorowski, the shipper running supplies to oil rigs, said there had been talk of windmill construction offshore when he began working in the industry. “I was kind of hoping seven years later that there’d be a little bit of business going into that but that doesn’t seem to be happening,” he said. When asked why that was the case he said, “It’s got to be politics.”

Representatives in Washington continue to vote repeatedly against environmental regulations in the name of small government and big business, and appear to have little to no interest in reducing their dependency on oil. Former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, is now a lobbyist for ETP. Former U.S. Congressman Chris John is now president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. Rep. Garrett Graves authored a bill to keep oil lease auctions private. Politicians continue to maintain the state’s literally toxic relationship with the oil industry, and in so doing, bet against Louisiana’s future.  

Photo: Avery White

Actions and allies

Even as the hot Louisiana summer sets in, activists are busy calling attention to the risks that Bayou Bridge poses. Cherri Foytlin is leading the charge in organizing direct action trainings for volunteers, and building a resistance camp  along the proposed route. Organizers have plans for floating platforms and Indigenous structures to suit the area’s geography and have named the camp “L’eau est la vie,” French for “Water is life.”

Neck, the activist who participated in the Standing Rock encampment, is working with Foytlin, and she spoke of the camp’s strategic and spiritual importance. “It’s physically occupying the land that they want to construct on, it will give us a home that we can work from and conduct operations from, to non-violently stop the pipeline and stop ETP,” she said. “It’s a way for us to ask the Earth what she needs and what the community, what they need, because we’re living in it, we’re living with the water so…we can stay ‘prayered up’ as they said in Standing Rock.”

She said her priority is to maintain the camp as a safe space. “It’s such a hard fight against these giants that just getting to stand up for what’s right is so healing and my priority is that these people get to heal and get to fight like they want because they need it, and they deserve to do it.”

Pastor Joseph of St. James is another prominent community member leading the fight, and is using Mount Triumph Baptist Church as a hub for organizing efforts. He’s listed as a plaintiff in a lawsuit recently filed by the Tulane University Law Clinic, which seeks to overturn the coastal use permit issued by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Co-plaintiffs include Genevieve Butler, another resident of St. James, along with the organizations Humanitarian Enterprise of Loving People (HELP), Gulf Restoration Network, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, and Bold Louisiana.

The petition for judicial review filed against the DNR states that “the Department refused to consider potential adverse environmental impacts of the project on the majority African-American residents of St. James, who are surrounded by crude oil terminal facilities, pipelines, and associated industry.” It also claims the department failed to consider the impact of the pipeline on the community and “ignored evidence that the St. James community may be trapped in the event of an emergency and that no viable evacuation plan is in place for its safety.”

Activists across the state are working to connect affected residents in order to mount pressure against politicians and the industry itself. “More than any other oil resistance fight in Louisiana, people are going to show up for this, locals are going to show up because we’re mobilizing them,” Neck said, citing conservatives opposed to eminent domain, Catholics, and the restaurant and tourism industries as unlikely allies. In connecting with potential allies, “the first thing I do is learn from that person, learn what they’re going through or learn why they feel the way or what they’re passionate about, and I teach them how that is intricately connected to the fight,” a strategy which, she said, was informed by her experience in North Dakota.  

Water protectors at Standing Rock rallied against the ‘black snake,’ the anthropomorphized symbol for the sinewy and serpentine Dakota Access Pipeline. Louisiana has had its own black snakes for decades, hiding out amidst the cypress stumps and tall grass, and fed by politicians and industry until they’ve fattened and coiled around the bayous. As the “L’eau est la vie” resistance camp is built out, and activists build their offense, the fight against Bayou Bridge is only just kicking into gear. The question now is if Louisiana residents can unite to break the snake’s grip, and protect their water, their wetlands, and themselves.

Photo: Avery White

 

Nora Belblidia lives in Baltimore, MD, where she writes in her free time. She’s interested in science, politics, and environmental justice (amongst other things) and has previously lived in New Orleans, Montreal, and Los Angeles.

Not afraid of the ruins

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Utopian dreamers, other-worldly explorers and psychonautic adventurers, scholars, activists, students, and critics: we are officially inviting submissions for a new collaborative writing project that combines critical perspectives and creative possibilities. Drawing inspiration from Uneven Earth, an online magazine for political ecology established in 2015, we are excited to announce the launch of a new section, called Not afraid of the ruins, dedicated to science-fiction and utopian imaginings. The goal of this new section will be to regularly showcase new, original, creative and critical reflections to foster intimate and productive conversations across the intellectual and creative arts.

The fertile ground between science fiction and social/environmental justice has long been an arena for speculation and exploration by academics, activists, and creative writers. From the academy to the field and beyond, the works of science fiction writers such as Octavia E. Butler, Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood (among many, many others) have presented unique corollaries to the diverse worlds and experiences we encounter in political ecology and social/environmental justice research and activism. Our goal with this project is to create a space explicitly open to exploring such convergences, a space that is neither formally academic nor wholly creative fiction, but instead, in the true spirit of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, seeks to tap the potential that exists in the liminal space between these otherwise isolated worlds of thought. We hope that such an endeavor will produce seeds for imagining that will go forward and populate unexpected places both far and near.

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Submission Criteria

There are no strict guidelines for submission in regards to content, format or length although we will maintain editorial oversight of submissions. While shorter pieces up to 2,500 words may be most suitable, we are happy to consider longer pieces, especially as they explore the creative possibilities of such a genre-melding forum. We are particularly interested in pieces that engage with the themes of:

  • Climate, social and environmental justice
  • Feminist and queer theory
  • Critical race studies
  • De-colonialism
  • Anti-capitalist politics (socialist, anarchist, etc.)
  • Post-capitalist ecologies

 

Examples of pieces that we would ideally consider include, but are not limited to:

  • Utopian dreams and/or dystopian nightmares: explorations of queer, feminist, decolonial, afro-futurist, anarchist, luxury communist, degrowth, and post-capitalist ecologies.
  • Conversations between science fiction and political ecology, social, environmental and climatic justice.
  • Critical analysis of academic and science fiction literature, either old or new.
  • Thought pieces blending science fiction and contemporary social, economic, and political struggles.
  • Fictional renderings of field experiences and/or relevant research topics.

 

While the short term aim of this project is to develop a space for cross-cutting collaboration and conversation, we are also hoping to create the possibility for publication opportunities beyond the blog. We regret that we cannot currently offer financial remuneration for submissions to this section, however, Uneven Earth does offer a writing grant for non-fiction pieces.

In order to submit a piece, please send us an email to ruins[at]unevenearth.org which includes:

  • A short paragraph about your idea/topics
  • A short paragraph about yourself and your motivation to publish with the blog

Deadline: Friday, September 22 (Autumn Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere)

Deadline: Friday, September 29

In an age of unprecedented climatic, social and political change, we believe that such a project is as important and urgent as ever. We feel compelled, as academics and activists and human beings, to not only critically reflect upon our shared human and ecological condition, but to dare to dream otherwise, to imagine things not only as they are, but to reimagine them as they could be. It is our hope that this blog will provide both space and motivation for doing just that.

 

Please feel free to contact us with any questions, thoughts, or ideas.

 

Much love and happy world building!

Claire, Aaron, Hannah, Dylan, Elliot, and Mario

Download the poster here.

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Planting the seeds of degrowth in times of crisis

Photo: Marula Tsagkari
Photo: Marula Tsagkari

by Marula Tsagkari

We must look for man wherever we can find him. When on his way to Thebes Oedipus encountered the Sphinx, his answer to its riddle was: ‘Man’. That simple word destroyed the monster. We have many monsters to destroy. Let us think of the answer of Oedipus.

These words are from the Greek Poet Giorgos Seferis’ speech at the Nobel Banquet. Today they are more relevant than ever, as humanity fights against a ‘contemporary Sphinx’: the utopian ideal of an infinite growth defined by economic indicators and theories. This promethean way of living has sustained the idea that increased wealth was the ‘one pill to cure them all.’

However, in the past years, it has become more and more obvious that resources are finite and that the planet cannot sustain continued growth. And just like that, the utopian ideal started falling apart. The latest economic crisis showed the cruelest face of the unsustainable capitalistic system. It has become clear now, more than ever, that we live in an absurd world, that despite increased wealth, unemployment and poverty are increasing, conflicts are continuing, and inequality keeps rising. In this context, the idea of degrowth points to an alternative route, and establishes a vocabulary to describe a new world based on solidarity and cooperation.

While the idea of degrowth is rather old (seeds can be found in the 1970s), the movement has only started to gain ground in recent years, especially in the echoes of the recent economic crisis. The Conferences in Leipzig in 2014 and in Budapest in 2016 brought together thousands of scientists and citizens with different backgrounds and ideologies including sufficiency-orientated critics of civilization, reformists, pacifist idealists, and libertarian leftists. However, they all seem to share the common belief that the current economic model is unsustainable, as well as a vision of a different way of living.

Perhaps because the movement found its voice through people’s dissatisfaction following economic crisis, many confuse degrowth with the idea of ‘unsustainable degrowth’, which is often synonymous with economic recession and social instability. On the contrary, the core of ‘sustainable degrowth’ is the concept of ‘progress’, but a progress not related to an increase of the GDP, large-scale production, or over-consumption. As Tim Jackson puts it, ‘Every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth’. And exactly this is the myth that the degrowth movement seeks to demystify.

At the same time that the degrowth movement was gaining ground in the public discourse, my country, Greece, was living the most severe economic recession since the Second World War.

At the same time that the degrowth movement was gaining ground in the public discourse, my country, Greece, was living the most severe economic recession since the Second World War. Greece entered the Eurozone in 2001 and since then joined the privileges of being a member of the EU monetary union, which led to a rapid increase in GDP between 2002 and 2008. However, Greece was unable to recover from the global economic crisis and, in 2009, Greek debt peaked at €310.4 billion.

Since then, the country has been trapped in a vicious cycle of bailout programs and austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), under the watchful eye of the German government. These measures came with many costs. The austerity plans included strict public cuts (in health and education), measures in the private sector (massive dismissals), increased taxes, and reduced pensions. These decisions increased political instability and had a severe social cost. Unemployment was last reported to be at 23%, and 45.7% among young people (January 2017); while there are more than 20,000 homeless people (February 2016). Thus, the initial economic crisis has been transformed into a multifaceted social, political, and environmental crisis—what Geels calls a ‘triple crisis’, each of which is connected to the other.

In Greece, these interactions are now becoming clear. There was an increase in the number of smog events due to the increased price of oil, while it a rapid increase in illegal hunting and logging related to sharp budget cuts in conservation was also observed.

In the Chinese language the word crisis is represented by two symbols. The first means danger and, the second, opportunity.

In the Chinese language the word crisis is represented by two symbols. The first means danger and, the second, opportunity. It is true that economic crises are complex phenomena, and a form of exogenous shock in the society. On the other hand, they are also an opportunity to challenge the current way of thinking and they can open a door to a profound change.

As some supporters of degrowth have claimed, this new era will be born from the ashes of the present unsustainable system, or more specifically, active social movements can gradually pave the way for a bigger change. The work of Giorgos Kallis, Francois Schneider, and Joan Martinez-Alier offers a useful starting point. They claim that a crisis can be seen as an opportunity for alternative discourses and the seeds can be found in community-based initiatives that can form the pieces that, in the future, will fit into a bigger puzzle.

This idea triggered my interest, and I decided to focus my research on the question of a sustainable degrowth transition in Greece, and to what extent it could result from this increased civic engagement. And taking this as a starting point, the idea I want to put forward is that in Greece, despite the crisis (οr because of the crisis) one can find the seeds that can support the idea of degrowth.

The early seeds of a degrowth economy in Greece

Civic engagement was rather underdeveloped in Greece before the economic crisis. For instance, in 2005, the Civicus Survey pointed out that Greek civil society is anemic, as it was dominated by political parties and the family. However, in the wake of the economic crisis, civic activism appeared as a spontaneous response to increased social inequality and poverty. Aside from the increased number of NGOs, new, informal groups based on solidarity erupted and formed grassroots movements and networks. In times of crisis an ‘alternative, parallel’ economy was born.

But it would be a mistake to assume that this new economy came out of nowhere. Greece is a country with a strong sense of community and a culture of self-organization. The pharmacist, the butcher, and the fisherman of the neighborhood are integral figures of Greek culture. Everybody knows them and their stores are often a gathering point. Unfortunately, these small businesses are also the most harmed by the economic crisis and the austerity measures. Between 2008 and 2015, more than 20.000 small local businesses closed in Greece, according to the European Commission. As a response to the absence of local gathering points, and the loss of jobs, a number of social movements and cooperations emerged during the times of crisis.

The pharmacist, the butcher, and the fisherman of the neighborhood are integral figures of Greek culture. Everybody knows them and their stores are often a gathering point.

What’s more, the idea of cooperation has always been an important element of Greek tradition. In fact, Greek cooperative traditions may be the oldest in Europe. The idea of self-organization can be found in ancient Greek times in the form of trade unions. Cooperatives were also present, in a more advanced form, in the Byzantine Empire. These consisted of unions of land or livestock owners into common production and management systems. In this period they were recognized by the legislation of Leo VI the Wise and achieved increased autonomy—becoming a vital part of the economy.

Cooperatives were also present during the Ottoman rule (1453- 1821) and had an important role during the national liberation war of 1821. During this period new cooperatives popped up in small villages, where small groups of producers known as ‘syntrofies’ (companies or friendships) decided to cooperate to avoid competition. In some cases they were even able to export their products to other European countries.17 After Greece became an independent country the cooperations remained active, working for the establishment of a democratic regime.

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Photo: Marula Tsagkari

 

The revitalization of Greece’s cooperative movement

Coming back to the present, the Greek cooperative movement is still a vibrant part of the economy. The numbers speak for themselves, as there are currently more than 3000 agriculture cooperatives, 14 co-operative banks and 48 womens’ co-operatives. In addition, one can find 23 electrician, 33 plumber and 41 pharmacist co-operatives all around the country.

Lately, the idea of cooperatives has once again increased in popularity. People prefer products they can trust and remind them of their ‘grandmother in the village’. They also want to support local communities. Ιn this context, cooperatives offer products whose raw materials come directly from the land of the members of the cooperative or the village, they are often based on traditional recipes from the women in the villages, and in most cases they pack and promote their products by themselves.

On the island of Lesvos, more and more women who lost their job during the crisis joined the women’s cooperative. This increase in the number of memberships gave them the opportunity to augment their production and expand their network. They take advantage of the oranges produced in the area, which remained unused the previous years, to make desserts and jams. They also use ‘neratzath’, a type of rose water made from the leaves of the orange tree, to make cosmetics and perfumes. Nowadays, their products (sweets, jams, pasta, and cheese) can be found all around the country.

Even in big cities a number of cooperatives have sprung up. In Athens one can find the cooperative coffee shops Mantalaki, Pagkaki, Syggrouomeno; the Syn Allois shop, an importer of fair-trade products; the publisher Ekdoseis ton Sinaderfon; the computer repair shop Stin Priza; and the grocery store Lacandona, among others. Many of these stores operate under the umbrella of a bigger network, Kolektivas.

The ‘do you want milk’ cooperative started in 2011, and, despite the crisis, now counts more than 60 sell points, 50 farms, and, on a daily basis, they produce 10% of the domestic production.

One initiative is the ‘do you want milk’ (thes gala) cooperative. The cooperative is made up of milk producers from central Greece and supplies with fresh milk a number of ‘milk ATMs’ in Larissa, Athens, and Greece. Consumers can fill their bottles with fresh milk, produced less than 24 hours ago, with a cheaper price than can be found in the supermarket. The cooperative started in 2011, and, despite the crisis, now counts more than 60 sell points, 50 farms, and, on a daily basis, they produce 10% of the domestic production.

 

New consumption habits

Overall, consumption in Greece had been significantly reduced as a result of diminished wages and pensions. As documented by the Hellenic Statistical Authority in 2014, average household consumption expenditure went down by almost 32% since 2009.

As a response to this decrease in consumption and available funds, more and more second hand stores have popped up in the big cities

As a response to this decrease in consumption and available funds, more and more second hand stores have popped up in the big cities. One of the most famous is located in the neighborhood of Eksarcheia; a neighborhood known for its anti-establishment and anarchist character. In this store, one can trade old clothes for new ones. ‘Our store is a response to the overconsumption, which is one of the reasons that brought us into the present crisis,’ said one of the women who worked there:

Nowadays, more and more people prefer to buy second hand clothes, especially if they can exchange them with some of the clothes they don’t need anymore. Of course some of our clients are people who can’t afford buying new clothes but the past year we see more and more people who choose not to buy new clothes as a way of living.

In the same spirit one can find similar initiatives of book exchange, furniture exchange, and even exchange of mobile phones.

Another important element of the Greek tradition is the ‘100 km rule’ (before it became famous internationally as the ‘100 mile diet’). According to this principle, people should aim to consume products that are produced within 100km from the residence. Τhis concept was a pillar of the Greek diet between the 50s and 80s, however, due to increased urbanization and working hours, and the large variety of products available on supermarkets, it was replaced by the concepts of ‘easy’ and ‘quick food’. Recently, the idea of the ‘local farmers market’ aims to bring back this idea. Producers from all around the country gather in a different neighborhood every Sunday and sell their products without Intermediaries.

In one of my visits in a local farmers’ market in my neighborhood, I had the chance to speak with M.X., a cheese producer from northern Greece. ‘Because of the crisis people want to make sure they buy local products,’ she told me. ‘More and more people tell me that they avoid buying from big supermarkets, not only because the products are more expensive, but because they know that, in this way, international brands take advantage of the Greek producers and buyers,’ she added. ‘I talk with people and give them all the information they need about my products. I am even willing to negotiate the price when someone can’t afford it!’

Social solidarity groups are also rapidly growing these past years. The work of organizations like ‘Doctors without Borders’, ‘Doctors of the World’, which were active before the crisis, are now supported by new health care organizations like the ‘social infirmaries’ (koinonika iatreia). Acting at a municipal level, these groups consist of doctors and nurses who treat patients for free. Similar initiatives are organized by pharmacists, teachers, and even coffee shops, which offer a free cup of coffee to people who cannot afford it.

Last but not least, a number of more politically-oriented social movements emerged during the times of crisis as a response to the austerity measures and the dysfunctional democracy. The big protests of 2008, the movement in Sundagma square and the ‘I won’t pay movement’ (Kínima den Pliróno) are some examples. Squares and occupied public and private buildings were transformed into sites of political contestation and mobilization.

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Photo: Marula Tsagkari

From ‘a way of living’ to a way to ‘make a living’

The above examples illustrate an increased tendency around niches of social movements that can form an alternative model of growth, based on solidarity, cooperation, and mutual respect. Many of these initiatives form part of the tradition that is rooted in the Greek culture that did not fade completely in modern life. This can offer a comparative advantage towards a potential transition to a degrowth model, as many of the ideas this model embodies are neither new nor strange to the Greek society. Of course these former traditional societies had a number of limitations (e.g. racism, xenophobia) that are not in line with the ideas the degrowth movement puts forward. Thus it is essential to learn from the past and keep the positive elements that can pave the way for a new way of living.

These ideas are becoming popular mainly as an alternative to the economic crisis; however they need to form ‘a way of living’ instead of a way to ‘make a living’.

These ideas are becoming popular mainly as an alternative to the economic crisis; however they need to form ‘a way of living’ instead of a way to ‘make a living’. Nowadays, many of the people who choose to buy from second hand stores or to visit the farmers market are driven by need. On the contrary, this attitude should grow into a fundamental mentality. Most of the people I had the chance to interview pointed out that, in the past years, they observed a change in people’s attitude, mainly because of the ongoing crisis that made many question the success of the present system. But is this enough?

The answer is no. This is only a first step in a long path. These initiatives will not have a significant impact if they are not supported by adequate education and publicity. Such instruments can strengthen these alternatives by raising awareness—triggering the interest of more people and encouraging the formation of new projects.

State intervention is another factor that can shape social movements. In the case of Greece, the government seems to ignore the importance of these movements, and often threatens their existence through increased taxation and stricter legislation. In the present political situation, it is nearly impossible to picture a major movement that does not involve the state. At first glance, this seems to be a contradiction as it’s a common belief that the state is a unitary actor, and that social movements are a separate unity and often in opposition to the state. In this context one should realize that these initiatives, through their increased influence, can have the power to form a different political regime that, in turn, will also transform them. To use the words of Saturnino Borras, ‘societal actors attempt to influence and transform state actors, but in the process are themselves transformed—and vice versa.’ Thus, realizing the potential of these initiatives, especially at a municipal level, could be a crucial first step.

One should realize that these initiatives, through their increased influence, can have the power to form a different political regime that, in turn, will also transform them.

Today, we are participants in a complex and severe crisis, and a radical crisis requires radical solutions. Through a number of examples it became obvious that in Greece there is groundwork for a transition to sustainable degrowth. There are seeds in the numerous social movements, voluntary actions, and solidarity networks. What remains to be seen is if the seeds will flower. We should not forget that, as Rebecca Solnit says, ‘Change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.’

Many thanks to all the interviewees and to Brayton Noll for his useful comments.

Marula Tsagkari is a researcher, and environmental professional from Athens, Greece. She holds a BSc in Biology and she is currently enrolled in the Erasmus Mundus Master of Environmental, Science, Policy and Management. She lives in Athens, Greece and her research focuses on the areas of Environmental Politics, Policy and Justice especially in the European South.

 

Kathputli colony’s fear of displacement

Houses torn apart with sledgehammer in the Kathputli colony.
Houses torn apart with a sledgehammer in the Kathputli colony.

by Eleonora Fanari

The vans and bulldozer came first, rumbling along the main road; they stopped

opposite the ghetto of the magician. A loudspeaker began to blare: “Civic

Beautification programme…Prepare instantly for evacuation to new site… this slum is

a public eyesore, can no longer be tolerated…while bulldozers moved forwards into

the slum, a door was slammed shut…but not all the magicians were captured; not all

of them were carted off…and it said that the day after the bulldozing of the magicians’

ghetto, a new slum was reported in the heart of the city.”

– Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (1980)

In his famous novel Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie tells the story of a magician ghetto, or as Rushdie calls it, the “moving slum”. The magic infused in the novel has captured the attention of many readers worldwide, but only few know that this magic was the province of an actual community living in Old Delhi, and that the magician’s slum in which Saleem Sinai takes refuge is an actual slum that was subjected to “clearance” during the Emergency of the 1970s. Subsequently, the settlement managed to re-appear close to Shadipur bus depot.

Rushdie’s magicians are the magicians of Kathputli colony.

A family of artist in Kathputli colony.
A family of artists in Kathputli colony.

The story is repeating itself, and after 50 years of existence, the infamous colony of Kathputli (puppeteer in Hindi), is once again being threatened by the postcolonial city’s power, which, in the name of development and adjusting to the modern standards of a “global metropolis”, orders the eviction of its own inhabitants.

Kathputli, like other slums, is considered ugly and dirty ; the lack of sanitation, running water and sewage system gives this space a negative connotation while making the life of the inhabitants a constant struggle. Nevertheless, this does not prevent them from practising their beloved art, jumping on stage and performing in front of a respectful audience.

Today, Kathputli is considered one of the largest colony of artists in India, inhabited by acrobats, dancers, singers, musicians, puppeteers and shamans who share this ostensibly shabby space, where art and magic are practised amid narrow colourful streets. Kathputli, like other slums, is considered ugly and dirty ; the lack of sanitation, running water and sewage system gives this space a negative connotation while making the life of the inhabitants a constant struggle. Nevertheless, this does not prevent them from practising their beloved art, jumping on stage and performing in front of a respectful audience.

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Nikka the fire eater, playing Kachipuri (a Rajasthani dance) in his courtyard.

The present threat of eviction is one of the first strategically planned in-situ redevelopment projects aiming to rehabilitate the public space, both to finance the urban project that aims to make the city slum-free, and to relocate poor neighbourhoods. Being one of the first project, Kathputli will set up the base for a bigger plan of city gentrification. This means putting at risk the life of a huge population: in Delhi alone, the number of household inhabiting these almost “invisible spaces” accounts for more than 30 per cent of the city’s population.

The project and its opponents

In 2009, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) sold this land to a private construction agency, Raheja Developers, famous for having created Mumbai’s modern skyline at the expense of numerous slums. The land was sold for just an amount of 6 crores rupees, (60 million rupees), an amount of money the colony dwellers argue they could have put together if they had known the land was far sale for such a low price at the time of sale. The real value of the land was of 1000 crores rupees (10.000 million rupees). The entire project is part of a larger development scheme launched in 2010 by the Indian government, the Master Plan of Delhi, 2021, a plan to make Delhi a global metropolis and a world-class city.

Banner at the entrance of the Kathputli colony.
Banner at the entrance of the Kathputli colony.

Following the plan, Raheja will be building a 5.22 hectares commercial center in the area. The result of this collaboration between the DDA and Raheja will be a luxurious showplace of grand proportions: the planned 54-floor tower will have a ‘skyclub’ and a helipad, and hold 170 premium condos of more than 1000 square feet per unit. Although the DDA is claiming that the Kathputli colony will be resettled in the same area as the planned high-end dwelling, no contract or written word was given yet.

Under the directive of the DDA, the police forcibly entered in the slum area with bulldozers, along with workmen carrying sledgehammers.

The apparent calm of the colony, which already witnessed violence and threat some years ago, got disrupted on 19 December 2016, when it got surrounded by 500 policemen and paramilitary troops. Under the directive of the DDA, the police forcibly entered in the slum area with bulldozers, along with workmen carrying sledgehammers.

Houses thorn apart by the DDA in the Kathutli colony.
Houses demolished by the DDA in the Kathutli colony.

While many houses have already been torn down, the dwellers of the colony, supported by NGOs and volunteers, are organizing themselves to oppose the unconsented demolition. Anwari Begun, a Rajasthani woman living in the colony argues, “This is our land! We came here more than 50 years ago when this place was only forest and we created our colony with our hands. Whose else is this land?”.

Narrow streets inside Kathputli colony.
Narrow streets inside Kathputli colony.

The entire process has been carried on without any involvement, or any kind of agreement reached with the inhabitants of the colony. The dwellers only learned about the eviction plan in 2013, when rumors came up in the news. At that time, a wave of violence hit the colony: some dwellers were beaten up by the police and other were arrested on false charges. Until now, only 400 households have moved into the transit camp in Anand Parvat, 4 km away from the current Kathputli area. Although some families have signed contracts recognizing their relocation to the transit camp as “voluntary”, Delhi Solidarity Group, the NGO supporting the cause, claims the officers are forcefully pushing the families to leave their houses, and some dwellers say their houses got demolished without any consent. Moreover, on January 8th, the 25 public toilets available in the colony were demolished, leaving the dwellers in even worse conditions hygiene-wise.

Although some families have signed contracts recognizing their relocation to the transit camp as “voluntary”, Delhi Solidarity Group, the NGO supporting the cause, claims the officers are forcefully pushing the families to leave their houses, and some dwellers say their houses got demolished without any consent.

Bhirju Bhaat, a young puppeteer of the colony who is active in the movement against the demolition, explains the inconsistencies of the project. “After almost four years of discussions, the DDA has not given us any document that specify the entire conditions of the relocation plan. They argue they will build up 2,800 apartments for all of us in the 20% of the entire area, but the number of the entire households is of about 3,600! Where will the other residents go? Moreover we do not want to live in 54-storey apartment buildings. What if the elevator breaks down? Who will fix it? “.

Singing and protesting in Kathputli colony.
Singing and protesting in Kathputli colony.

Today, the colorful Rajasthani clothes commonly seen in the settlement are mixed up with the uniforms of the numerous police officers. Puppets and dholas seem to already be submerged under the broken bricks that lay on the edge of numerous lanes, and songs evocating Indian mythology got substituted by political slogans. The dwellers are struggling for the recognition of their rights, at the daily meeting thousands of people are gathering to discuss their strategies, and to propose a new plan of development. “We won’t move unless all our demands are recognized, and only when all of us have a written paper with the allocated flat”, shouts Dilip Bhaat, the Pradhan (leader) of the colony.

The violence suffered by the inhabitants in the last years, and the brutality with which the police have invaded the colony definitely do not help to create an environment where solutions and decisions can be negotiated.

Overall, the project presents many inconsistent and unacceptable burdens, such as the current environment in the relocation site, which lacks of basic services such as running water, and hygienic conditions seem to be worse than those of the slum. Moreover, the violence suffered by the inhabitants in the last years, and the brutality with which the police have invaded the colony definitely do not help to create an environment where solutions and decisions can be negotiated.

Development for whom?

How much this process will actually benefit the people of the colony is highly debatable. Even if people obtain the promised flats and the recognition of their housing rights, will this represent a real improvement? Clearly, this in-situ relocation plan does not correspond to the kind of surroundings the people of the colony are used to, and it will be hard for them to adjust to the new life habits linked to the changed housing arrangements.

It is obvious that the people of the colony are not feeling very confident about living next to a massive, posh condo tower. Most of them do not believe it will be possible to share this space with the city’s wealthy inhabitants, and believe even less that they will provided with free houses close to a such iconic tower that embodies the identity of the idealized modern city.

It is obvious that the people of the colony are not feeling very confident about living next to a massive, posh condo tower. Most of them do not believe it will be possible to share this space with the city’s wealthy inhabitants, and believe even less that they will provided with free houses close to a such iconic tower that embodies the identity of the idealized modern city. “Nobody wants to live close to poor people” argues a young puppeteer of the colony, Vikram Bhat.

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Lala Bhaat, a master puppeteer, playing with his puppet.

The inhabitants also feel uncomfortable living in small and high floor flats. “How would we work in one-room flats with our wood and stone, which will apparently also host our families, and our huge equipment?” Asks Lal Bhaat, a Master puppeteer from the Kathputli colony.

It is clear that the flats will create an environment where these slum dwellers will prefer not to perform, as they will not have enough space to manage their material and practice. They will hence try to generate income from a new sort of livelihood and the art will be lost. Although they will be able to find other jobs, they will probably experience fear and embarrassment in doing another activities, as argued by G. Sikkha.The Kathputli colony will be destroyed and people will feel isolated and depressed. The women will start doing household chores as maids in the nearby high-end districts and apartments to meet their daily needs. Their lives will be harmed, but their identities as artists and their economic autonomy will also be completely lost.

An old master puppeteer of Kathputli.
An old master puppeteer of Kathputli.

What strikes me most in this struggle is the incapacity of the government to think of an urban development plan which differs from the commercial use of public space. The development model pursued by the Indian government continues to be driven by market forces, through which every place sees and evaluates itself. The gentrification of the Kathputli colony’s space relies on the creation of consumerist spaces necessary for the capitalist model of development to continue to thrive. It will convey the triumph of the Modern Indian State, symbolized and embodied by the iconic tower.

What strikes me most in this struggle is the incapacity of the government to think of an urban development plan which differs from the commercial use of public space. […] Social discrimination drives the Indian government to consider this space an embarrassment, and as a slum to be cleaned up, instead of looking at Kathputli colony as a resource.

As Ashish Kothari observes, in the present globalization era, countries and city have been redefined exclusively according to the world market, changing rapidly the meaning and function of places and their relation to each other and to their inhabitants.

Social discrimination drives the Indian government to consider this space an embarrassment, and as a slum to be cleaned up, instead of looking at Kathputli colony as a resource. If the policies were able to respond to the need of the people, as they are supposed to, and merge some commercial and economic activity with a real inclusion of diversity into the city spaces, Kathputli would be transformed in an attractive artistic space, with a craft market, a open theatre, a dance school. All this could benefit both the people and the government, which could implement its tourist development strategy in this peculiar and enchanting area.

Nikka showing the album of his family' s performances.
Nikka showing the album of his family’ s performances.

In fact, dwellers submitted their own proposal for local development, which integrated tourism and artistic contributions to the local economy. This proposal was not considered a serious alternative and rejected by the government. If this proposal had been accepted as a viable alternative, and agenda of improvement of living conditions for slum dwellers could have substituted the exclusionary, paternalistic and short-sighted “clean up the slums” plan. This would have been a sound development strategy using human resources in the best way possible and contributing in meaningful and sustainable ways to the local economy and cultural life.

A young artist of Kathputli leaving the colony to sell the "horses" in the market.
A young artist of Kathputli leaving the colony to sell puppet horses on the local market.

If the government does not use its power to intervene and modify these structures of oppression, India’s national motto “unity in diversity” will remain wishful thinking.

Unfortunately, today, both policies and architecture are failing at constructing spaces that are suitable to slum dwellers’ needs. As the professor Tapan Chakravarti argues, “it will be a tragedy if we lose such living evidences of intuitive architectural practice; it is fast deteriorating at the present site and it needs to be reinvented with sensitivity. A sterile reconstruction centered on designing spaces for wealthy newcomers at the detriment of the existing community’s right to self-determination will completely alienate people of the Kathputli colony from their surroundings. In a society like India, with an entrenched caste system, this kind of gentrification becomes even more dangerous as it is naturalized and justified in the already present stratification of society. If the government does not use its power to intervene and modify these structures of oppression, India’s national motto “unity in diversity” will remain wishful thinking.

Eleonora Fanari is a researcher currently based in New Delhi. She has been working on the issue of social exclusion, minorities, and land rights in collaboration with several non-governmental organizations. She is currently associated with Kalpavriksh, a non profit organization working on environmental and social issues, where she is carrying on research on conservation and tribal rights in protected forest areas. She blogs here.

Is tourism a poverty trap?

 

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Selling wares in Sapa, northern Vietnam. Source: Flickr

by Sam Gardner

I am walking through town in the remote and charming mountain region in Vietnam, looking for the market. A young woman helps us out. She walks part of the way to the market, and we have a conversation on what brings us there, and what she does for a living. She works in the kitchen in one of the hotels. Her mother is in charge of the kitchen. She is off to buy groceries. What will be her future? In any major city of Vietnam, a bright woman like her with this level of English fluency would be expected to study. Here, I expect her to work at the hotel for most of her life and move up the hierarchy until she fills the place of her mother.

Tourism is a global phenomenon, an important economic sector, and it shapes how people promote their own national identity. Most articles on the economic effects of tourism look into the income it generates or the investment it brings to a region, the destruction and environmental damage that it causes, whether income from tourism is sufficiently returned to communities where tourism is landing, and the effects of tourism on public life and identity politics.

This article focuses on the income that will not be generated when there is a priority for economic development in the tourism sector because tourism crowds out other options.  A region’s dependency on tourism inhibits development in other sectors—sectors with more productivity and development potential.  

The Belgian coast. Source: Flickr
The Belgian coast. Source: Flickr

Single-use infrastructure

The first highway in Belgium was finished in 1956 and ran from Brussels, the capital, to Ostend, the place of the Royal Holiday Home on the coast. The highway was constructed to facilitate the summer holiday migration from the cities to the coast, as well as the flows of international tourism embarking to London from the port of Ostend. Developers constructed a wall of high rise apartment blocks along the coast destroying the dunes and wildlife. These investments did not lead to a more diversified economy and the coastline stayed a backwater, even with all this building and tourism. Still in 1980, the region needed special European funding for its development, notwithstanding its prime location between important ports in Belgium and France.

Due to the seasonal nature of tourism the highway was, and is, never wide enough in peak season, while below capacity during the low season. The same goes with all infrastructure: hotels, houses, high-rises, shops, restaurants, roads. As full capacity is needed during important stretches of time, alternative uses are difficult.

Often public infrastructure for tourism promotion is only singly-use: a highway to an economically unimportant city, a cable lift, a hotel. The private and public infrastructure for tourism is often exploitative: building a hotel in a prime landscape makes the landscape less prime for others, and inflation on investment leads to it becoming a typical tourist trap, as in Niagara falls, where the landscape is only a backdrop for tourist fleecing.

 A region’s dependency on tourism inhibits development in other sectors—sectors with more productivity and development potential.

As a lot of private infrastructure for mass tourism is foreign or large, the focus is on fast returns on investment, without much attention to the needs and potential of the local communities and the local economy. The returns flow back to the investors, and the unschooled local population stagnates.

 

Low return on investment in education

In an economy dominated by tourism, the return on education is low, keeping people in a low income trajectory. Jobs are in hospitality or sales sectors, with limited educational needs, and wages are never high. Young people find a job, especially during high season, with a lot of unemployment between peaks. Why study? You can find a job without much schooling and have a lot of pocket money or even start a family. There is an advantage to speak some languages and know some basic skills, but higher education is not really needed. Even if higher education is available (which is often not the case) – there is no incentive to study for years instead of earning an income immediately.

The individual is stuck in a flat income trajectory, the family is stuck in a rut and the community is not developing.

Over a lifetime there is nearly no increase in productivity and salary. Service jobs require real skill—acquired by training or practice—but the limits on productivity are also real: you can only make a bed so fast (and honestly I cannot do it at all). The individual is stuck in a flat income trajectory, the family is stuck in a rut and the community is not developing.

As the employment options for higher education in the region are limited—and these jobs are often filled by people and employers coming from other regions—there are few role models for education. The role models for success would be rather the entrepreneur who, with luck and hard work, creates a successful business from scratch. It is fashionable to praise the entrepreneurial model, but for widespread growth, this maverick approach is definitely less reliable as a “one size fits all” solution than investment in human resources: education.

In industrial or postindustrial economies the return on investment in education is high. Unschooled labour is needed for the initial stages of industrialisation, but, very soon, schooled labour gets better opportunities. The menial jobs are done by immigrants from the periphery (yes the migrants from the poor, touristic regions). The difference in pay and status between a schooled and unschooled job is important enough to postpone income, marriage, and life until after university. Most industries suffer from Baumol’s cost disease: as wages rise in other industries, employees start to expect rising income, in line with the other sectors. This way a sector with low productivity becomes uncompetitive for labour and sheds jobs. The invisible hand at work. When tourism is a dominant sector in a region is isolated from other industries and does not suffer this effect. Normally the tourism industry, with its low wages, should shrink compared to the rest of the economy. But in a tourist trap, the salaries stay where they are.

In regions dominated by tourism, emigration remains the most efficient way to lift anyone and their family into prosperity. Getting out of the region with the family is an escape towards higher productivity and higher education.

The tourist trap

Tourist areas are not leading towards a diversified, sustainable economy. The tourist is a captive market, and the drive for better quality of products or services is low. The tourist will buy the only junk they can get once they are trapped at the tourist attraction. The “development” towards a more sophisticated economy does not happen, the products are, and stay, crap. Indeed, this is why we call it a tourist trap. With all respect for the painstaking manual craftwork of the Indigenous people, most will never earn more than around a dollar a day, even when cheating the tourist whenever they can (as they should).

Tourism makes people—most often women—exhibits in a human zoo. A museum piece to look at, to stare at, or to give a penny for a picture.

When tourism is the dominant sector, most jobs will be in “service” functions—as a servant to outsiders. When the lure of tourism is some exotic ethnicity, even the core identity makes people—most often women—exhibits in a human zoo. A museum piece to look at, to stare at, or to give a penny for a picture.

In touristic areas women will often be forced into sex work and face exploitation from their handlers or abusive behavior from customers—and even harassment from the police. Like in mining towns, shipping ports, and military bases—where the economy revolves around the constant influx of strangers with a lot of money to spend—authorities look the other way or even participate in and profit from exploitation in the sex industry.

How do you build a sense of community in a village if in every bar, restaurant, and square there are many more strangers than neighbours?

Overall, mass tourism involves low esteem jobs, low-quality trinkets, and overcrowded public places with little space for the local community life. How do you build a sense of community in a village if in every bar, restaurant, and square there are many more strangers than neighbours?

 

The charming resource curse

Tourism is a “charming resource” based economy. It shares elements of natural resource based economies described in the study “Urbanisation without industrialisation“. In this study the authors explain that cities in a natural resource economy are ‘consumption cities’, in contrast to ‘production cities’ with a mix of industry, agriculture and services. The composition of the workforce, poverty prospects, and long term growth are all different for each kind of city. A region with an economy dominated by tourism has characteristics of consumption cities, and the prospects for long term balanced development with rising productivity are low.

Unbridled one-sided industrial development can have the same effect: polluting industries crowd out all other activities. However, modern urban development thrives on diversity and synergy: the better a city is at creating a living environment for workers, managers and students, the better it becomes at attracting industries. As a bonus, a city becomes more interesting for tourists when it is more livable. A modern city becomes more and more diversified as it becomes more successful. It is the complexity of the social and economic network that leads to its success.

 

Tourism within limits

The growing resistance to touristification in cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam shows that the core of the problem is understood by the populations involved.  As the conventional wisdom is that any development is good development, their resentment is normally ignored and ridiculed. However, cities with a “real” economy keep tourism within bounds. Sometimes they even revolt against it. The latest measures of the municipality of Barcelona show a revolt against tourism. In New York too, there is an ongoing debate to keep tourism within limits. Standards are proposed to limit the damage tourism does to a society and the environment.


Cities with a “real” economy keep tourism within bounds.

It is possible to maintain a proud identity and grow a developed and prosperous country, but not when tourism dominates. Japan has proven that it is possible, Singapore, France, and most European cities too. Tourists are welcome, but the city is there for the citizens, and the investments in the city are to make the quality of life better for their own population. Tourists enjoy these quality of live investments too, but they are not the main beneficiaries. This is possible if tourism is a sideshow, something mostly using available resources and adding income to local restaurants instead of being an economic focus in its own right.

To conclude, tourism should be considered as one option to complement other economic priorities that fully optimize the existing capacities of the physical, human, and economic infrastructure of a city or a region. Moreover, it can be a way to strengthen local identity and pay for maintenance of culture and beauty. It should not be pursued on its own as a gateway to economic and social development, because too many aspects of tourism skew the economy, present the local identity as “exotic” and act as a poverty trap.

Just as the one-industry city has been proven to be a bad idea for manufacturing or heavy industry, the one-industry region is a bad idea too, at least if that industry is tourism.

Sam Gardner is a development and humanitarian professional with field experience in Central and South Africa, Central America and Asia.

Cuba between loss and perseverance

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Dodging new and antique cars alike while walking the narrow, cobbled streets in Old Havana. Photo: JC

by José Cienfuegos and Eliana Musterle

On a short but eventful trip to Cuba Eliana recently took – her first – she met José, an American researcher of Cuban descent. They met up several times that week and found themselves caught in engrossing conversations every single time. Because such conversational chemistry with strangers is both exhilarating and rare, and because both Cuba and the US have been experiencing fast political change in the past few months, they decided to recreate parts of their exchange in interview form. What follows is the result of their experiment.

EM: Can you tell me a bit about the way your family talked about Cuba and the Revolution as you were growing up? In what ways has that background shaped your interest in Cuba as a young researcher as well as your personal identity? Does your experience resonate with that of other Americans of Cuban descent1?

JC: I am not a fan of generalizations, and maybe this does not actually count as one, but I feel like the Cuban diaspora experience can be summed up with two seemingly paradoxical ideas: each family’s story is simultaneously completely distinctive, and yet, there is something specifically shared among them all. Cuba’s relation to its diaspora community is unique and has been for a long time in the sense that Cubans who have left developed a strong tradition of remaining intimately involved in the politics on the island. It seems like many of the Cubans I meet (and this is true of those who left before the revolution in 1959 and after) never planned on leaving forever. Whether exiled or voluntary (or somewhere in-between), the various periods of alternatively intense or trickling exodus has, throughout Cuban history, always been intended on a temporary basis. This is true of José Martí and the independence generation, this is true of Fidel Castro and his revolutionary generation, and it is also true of the modern generations that have left since the 1960’s.

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Persevering roots searching for soil among the concrete apartments of Centro Havana. Photo: JC.

For my family in particular, it was just that. My grandfather was born into a poor carpenter’s family from Santa Clara, one of 6 siblings (4 brothers, 2 sisters). He was born during the dictatorial years of the Machado era of the 1920’s and raised during the authoritarian age of Batista in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When he moved to the United States for an education in 1946, it was certainly not with a mind to leave forever. Then, history unfurled in a certain way and my grandfather eventually found himself coming home from serving in the US Army during the Korean war for a visit to Cuba in 1955–it was the last time he would visit home and see his parents alive, though no one was aware at the time.

When the revolution triumphed in 1959, there was no sense of its full geopolitical implications. For decades, Cuban governments had come and gone with such regularity that, up to that point in history, the notion of any particular regime lasting for 60 years would have been relatively unfathomable.

When the revolution triumphed in 1959, there was no sense of its full geopolitical implications. For decades, Cuban governments had come and gone with such regularity that, up to that point in history, the notion of any particular regime lasting for 60 years would have been relatively unfathomable. But for my grandfather and his two brothers who had left for the states, there was a moment when they realized that they would perhaps never return home. I have heard at least two of them (my grandfather and his youngest brother) recall that moment: it never entailed despair, but it did contained a profound sense of loss. The half of the family that remained in Cuba was never forgotten, but it seems for those who now made it to the US, that loss would have to be compensated for by investing heart and soul into family in the US.

Perhaps something else that seems an undercurrent in the story of my family is how intimately our lives have been tied to specific historical junctures and events, both things within our control, as a family and individuals, and things that were completely out of our control. For Cubans, this seems a particularly poignant reality. While my grandfather and his brothers realized that the US was now their home by default, it was always seen through the prism of being distinctly and undeniably Cuban.

Growing up, the stories I heard of Cuba from them imbued me with this almost mythical appreciation of the island. To me, Cuba was some amazing anti-paradise/paradise of a tough life but containing infinite beauty. Perhaps this is typical of Cuban culture–the paradox of life as being simultaneously both sides of a coin. The stories I heard of Cuba often contained plenty of strife–for instance, my grandfather’s story of the first girl he ever dated who lived a few kilometers out of town but whom he had to split up with because he was losing too much weight walking to and from her house–but always ended with humor and laughter. It was an attempt, through stories, passion and humor, to cope with the trials, uncertainty and absurdity of life. It is almost Sisyphean, in a way. I grew up hearing stories from my grandfather and inheriting the incredible, informal oral history of our family while also reading books from my father’s bookshelf about the revolution and Cuban history.

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A young girl walking home along the coast near Trinidad. Photo: JC

Which leads me to today: I have begun work as an adult doing research in Cuba. It seems inevitable now that I reflect: while I have travelled and lived abroad in many different places for much of the past decade, I have always gravitated back to Cuba. On one hand, it has been a great way to reconnect with family here, whom I see every time I visit. As my grandfather’s generation of the our family has gotten older, I feel this sort of familial responsibility–maybe keeping in line with generations of the Cuban diaspora before me–to maintain connections with my family in Cuba and with Cuba as a country. Just as well, it is also just such an incredible privilege to be able to show up in a country that, before 2012, I had never visited and to be treated like family, to be welcomed with such love and open arms.

Part of my Cuban family still lives in the same home my grandfather was born and raised in; they even use some of the same pieces of furniture my grandfather built with his brothers and father in the 1930’s. By working in Cuba and maintaining these connections, it is as if I can actually be a part of my grandfather’s life and through that, put images and memories to the stories I have been told that were otherwise just pieces of my imagination. It is a way for me to connect with him as much as the rest of my family.

Despite being on the periphery of many global events, Cuba has always had a way–through its own audacity and determination, and a sort of irreverence towards the pecking-order of global hierarchy–to force its way onto the world stage.

I had the amazing opportunity to bring my grandfather back to Cuba a few years ago as well. I really cannot begin to describe what that meant to me or what I learned from that experience, but it was another important chapter of this incredible puzzle that is my understanding of Cuba. No doubt, it is a puzzle that will never be complete, but it is also one to which I realize I am one small part. One could easily say that to understand contemporary Cuba, you must understand Cuban history, and to understand Cuban history, you must really understand the history of the world. Which is not to fall into the trap of a sort of Cuba-centric view of the world, only to illustrate the point that, despite being on the periphery of many global events, Cuba has always had a way–through its own audacity and determination, and a sort of irreverence towards the pecking-order of global hierarchy–to force its way onto the world stage.

Since we first met, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, which is certainly going to cause some radical changes in US trade and diplomatic relations. Fidel Castro, a hero of the Cuban Revolution and Cuba’s leader for many decades, passed away on November 25th 2016, and it seems unclear what will happen to Cuban leadership after his brother Raúl dies or gives up power. What outcomes do you anticipate as a result of these changes? For instance, what do you think are the possible effects of the end of the decades-long US embargo on Cuban farmers?

Certainly, for better or worse, it is an exciting time in Cuba. I remember standing in the airport when I got the news alert on my phone about Fidel. It was like a light had been turned off. But not because I idolize Fidel, but because this was like the ultimate way to punctuate a reality that has been confronted slowly by Cubans for the past decade or so: that the revolutionary generation will soon have passed away, literally and figuratively. This is underwritten even more by Raul’s announcement that he will formally turn over power to Manuel Diaz-Canel in 2018. Because time passes, the writing has been on the wall for quite a while now, but these recent developments (perhaps initiated by Fidel turning over power to Raul in 2008) including the Obama administration’s change of stance on Cuba in 2014 are all elements of potentially great change.

Camilo Cienfuegos, a Cuban revolutionary who disappeared in 1959, watches over Havana’s Revolution Square, where drivers of pre-Revolution era American cars wait for international visitors willing to pay for a ride. Photo: EM

It would be naïve to try and predict what will happen in Cuba–if Cuba has been anything, it has always been surprising and unpredictable. So to try and think of what this brave new world might look like in the future, I am of the opinion that it is best to look at the way things are right now. The reality in Cuba is that the population is very young and well educated–you have an entire generation of Cubans who are getting access to uncensored information (although this has always been true to an extent), made all the more widespread because internet and cell phones are becoming more common place. These are young people, full of energy and potential, and they want to see the world and travel and have a voice and express themselves. They are pushing against the boundaries of the cultural policing of the revolution and have been for some time now, especially in places like Santa Clara. They are the revolutionaries within the revolution; they are the ones making the revolution today and it will be done in their image. I find this a useful place to start when thinking about how things will begin to unfold in the next few years.

[Young Cubans] are the revolutionaries within the revolution; they are the ones making the revolution today and it will be done in their image.

Another reality, which will have more to do with the question on food and agricultural futures, is that Cubans have spent decades surviving hardship in spite of the US blockade (it is not called the embargo in Cuba, but instead, el bloqueo–the blockade) and economic crises. In a very Guervarian sense, there are strong cultural traditions of solidarity and community that have been the result of such strife (although, as my grandfather would say, this is as much if not more of a Cuban thing then it is a communist one). Far from the hyper-individualism of the capitalist economy more evident in places such as the US, Cuba’s sense of social capital and informal economic tradition will lend themselves very imperfectly to any model of an economy that any institution might try to impose. I am thinking specifically of places like the World Bank, IMF and WTO. Cuba’s economic heterogeneity–hardship is the mother of ingenuity, after all–will frustrate any attempts to manage the economy from the top-down (just ask the Cuban state, they have been trying to do so for 60 years). While this makes Cuba hard to predict, it might be safe to say that Cuba will continue to be unpredictable.

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One of Havana’s many urban gardens. Its workers are municipal employees and its street stalls provides local inhabitants with fresh produce from the garden itself and rural cooperatives outside Havana. Walking around Havana’s central area, one does not have to search for long to find such spaces, which seem to be central to local food security. Photo: EM.

One area in which these dynamics are on full display is within the agricultural sector. For many years, Cuban agriculture happened along Soviet-style industrial models that were incredibly unsustainable by virtue of huge petroleum- and input-dependency. Their focus was on producing massive quantities of sugarcane for export in exchange for other goods and food stuffs. In the 1990’s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered a phase of economic crises now called The Special Period in Time of Peace during which food availability on the island plummeted. Out of necessity, the government opened up the agricultural sector and turned to agroecological and organic models of food production. Such a shift on a national scale has since made Cuba a pioneer in these techniques, which have huge social and ecological implications, while also contributing to food security on the island.

Should the US blockade fall tomorrow, agriculture in particular will be one of the sectors most profoundly affected. Already, as my time in the conference circuit in Cuban has made all too clear, the forces of large agri-business, mostly corporate-owned, are already lining up on the US side of things, waiting for the day to pounce.

Should the US blockade fall tomorrow, agriculture in particular will be one of the sectors most profoundly affected. Already, as my time in the conference circuit in Cuban has made all too clear, the forces of large agri-business, mostly corporate-owned, are already lining up on the US side of things, waiting for the day to pounce. Not only would this threaten the great accomplishments of agroecology in Cuba in regards to food security, but it would entail massive social and ecological ramifications as well.

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Early morning on a small family farm west of Havana. Photo: JC.

This is not to say that the Cuban food system does not have issues: of course it does, as do food systems everywhere. But it seems that this alternative form of agriculture, in all its heterogeneity, would come into direct conflict with the priorities and understandings of the agrobusiness sector. In the end, it is my sincerest hope, that Cuban agroecology may continue to flourish and improve in the years ahead, no matter what happens geopolitically. In reality, however, it would be naive to ignore the serious threat posed by companies and interests that would seek to reform the agricultural sector to resemble the plantation-style production methods and exploitation that once made Cuba a sugarcane factory for the world.

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An agroecology farm in Pinar Del Rio overlooking the Valle de Vinales. Photo: JC.

As for Trump, he will try to do what he can to inflate his own ego and compensate for his own insecurities, perhaps reversing course on Cuba although he has made no indication of his intentions with Cuba as of yet. Ultimately, however, since the humiliation of the US imperialism that stole independence from Cubans at the turn of the last century, Cubans have insisted on being masters of their own destiny. Despite recent geopolitical changes in rhetoric and posturing, the changes that have been occurring on the Cuban side are still very slow, weary and cautious. Cuba has been down this road before with the US and they are well, well aware of where it can lead.

I cannot tell you how many people I have heard recite something along the lines of, “I want to visit Cuba before it changes forever,” which implies a few really frustrating things.

The fear many people have is that Cuba might potentially run the risk of becoming some retirement community for wealthy retired white people from the US, like some dystopic Caribbean Florida. I cannot tell you how many people I have heard recite something along the lines of, “I want to visit Cuba before it changes forever,” which implies a few really frustrating things.

First of all, it implies that foreigners feel as if, simply because Cuba has been isolated from the West for 60 years, that it somehow has not changed. That just because there are old cars in the streets, that Cuba has somehow been stuck in time. Perhaps change in Cuba looks quite different from the paradigms set forward by other post-independence colonies in the 20th century, but it has certainly changed radically, reinventing itself many times over. ABMTR should be the Cuban mantra: Always Be Making the Revolution. Not necessarily because of revolutionary fervor–there are not a lot of ideological Marxists out there plowing the fields–but because of the necessities of life. The “revolution” in whatever way you interpret that, must always be made and re-made as conditions change and time passes.

[Some people] feel, almost like conservationists look to National Parks as the refuge for wilderness in an age of unholy capitalist environmental destruction, that as long as Cuba can remain “as an alternative” in the world, there might still be hope for those alternatives. Few are willing to let those alternatives into their own lives.

Secondly, it also implies that people recognize the craven fallacies and gross contradictions in their own models of capitalist social and economic life, and feel Cuba represents some sort of saving grace from those fundamental flaws. Instead of addressing these issues within their own society, they instead project their idyllic anti-capitalist fantasies towards the island and see what they want to see instead of what really is. They feel, almost like conservationists look to National Parks as the refuge for wilderness in an age of unholy capitalist environmental destruction, that as long as Cuba can remain “as an alternative” in the world, there might still be hope for those alternatives. Few are willing to let those alternatives into their own lives. And most will be unwilling to stand up for Cuba’s right to continue to be alternative in the coming years. As has traditionally been the case, however, Cubans will continue forging their own path in the world, as imperfect and difficult as it may be, the US and any other imperial power be damned.

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A makeshift but very efficient irrigation control device, the Programador de riego Franchi, is shown at a model agroecological farm in the province of Mayabeque. It functions without electricity and is made from upcycled materials such as IV drips, a soda bottle, old pipes and metal scraps. The device allows farmers to “program” irrigation to certain crops in advance and eliminates the need for someone to do the thankless job of spending long hours watering each plant by hand. Photo: EM.

Cuba is not some pure utopia or ideal alternative. It is messy and complicated place. It is always changing in distinctly Cuban ways that are often illegible to outsiders (myself included). Whatever happens in the coming years, it will at the very least be exciting and interesting. All of which is not to say there are not real threats to Cuba from external forces that would seek to remake Cuba in certain ways to facilitate the siphoning of wealth and the capitalize upon the vulnerability of these transitions. But never underestimate Cuba’s potential, or I should say, never underestimate the Cuban people. Just as most Cubans who, even when not identifying as communistas, still identified as fidelistas after Fidel Castro’s death, it is the sense of national pride and anti-imperialism that is shared commonly more universally by Cubans than any political ideology. That is a powerful thing against any potentially domineering force.

We met in Varadero, which is in your own words a bubble within Cuba. The place is indeed mainly known for its high-end tourist resorts where Europeans and Canadians spend their winter holidays and whose luxury is unavailable to Cubans. A large percentage of the city’s working population has a job at a resort or hotel, or in the transportation industry, and many others offer rooms for rent and meals for sale in their private home. As Cuban people receive very small food rations from the government and salaries are low, you mentioned all kinds of exchanges, non-monetary trade and barter goes on behind closed doors as people try to get their hands on food items and everyday items. When I visited Havana, I also noticed a large part of the economy revolved around tourism and selling an „authentic“ image of Revolutionary Cuba to Westerners, which is pretty ironic given the Marxist ideology all of this officially operates under. Can you tell me more about the tensions and overlaps between dependence on capitalist tourism / foreign capital, Marxist state ideology and what we could call „Cuba’s secret anarchist economy“ in these places? How are things in other areas of the island that are less dependent on tourism but overall poorer – for example Santa Clara, where you mentioned you have family?

While my family straddles the Cuban-US divide, the half that remained in Cuba also straddles the economic divide within Cuba itself–perhaps somewhat of a contradiction in the nominally-classless Socialist country.

I was sitting on a park bench in Santa Clara one morning a while back having a coffee and smoking a cigar for breakfast when I was approached by a middle-aged black Cuban who asked to sit down on the bench with me. He did and we began the most interesting and intense conversation, especially for 8 in the morning. It was a conversation about the, “7 socio-economic classes in Cuba” during which he described each class in great detail. The short version of this conversation was that Cuba had class lines drawn along different contours, the most prominent of which is perhaps the divide between tourism and non-tourism. This divide is both geographic, with certain parts of the country having more tourism and therefore, more tourist money and investment, and also personal/familial with certain people having jobs in the tourist sector while others do not. In tourist areas, there is more flow of external capital, in no small part thanks to the implementation of the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), whose value is roughly pegged to the dollar (the CUC is called fula by Cubans) and the Cuban Peso, which is theoretically and typically only available to Cuban citizens.

The short version of this conversation [about social stratification] was that Cuba had class lines drawn along different contours, the most prominent of which is perhaps the divide between tourism and non-tourism.

Cuban citizens that have jobs in the tourist industry or who live in tourist areas have more contact with this form of external capital in the form of dollars and CUC. It is not uncommon to find fully licensed doctors driving taxis in tourist areas because they earn better money from tips than they do for practicing medicine.

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Inside one of Varadero’s high end resorts, rhetorical gratitude for Fidel Castro is one of the many elements included in an all-included vacation, whose material luxuries are however completely inaccessible to Cubans – except as employees. Photo: EM

Additionally, Cubans who work in the tourist industry can also conseguir (get their hands on) food and goods from hotels and restaurants, which are better stocked and have better quality items than the state run stores or markets. This is illegal of course, but it is also part of the economic lifeblood in certain areas. Illegal as well is the black market and various informal forms of exchange, including lots of direct bartering and gift-giving, which exists in parallel with all these other economic practices.

I don’t think that it would be even remotely an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons that Cuba and the revolution have been able to survive the hardships of the past half-century has been directly because of all the diverse, informal, and illegal things that Cuban citizens have been able to do for themselves in spite of the regulations of the state.

Of course, the government has tried to clamp down on these informal, illegal practices at various points throughout the revolution’s history, but the fact remains that, given the material limitations of the Cuban state, these alternative practices have kept the ship afloat for decades and underwritten much of the successes, solutions and triumphs in Cuba over the past 60 years. In fact, I don’t think that it would be even remotely an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons that Cuba and the revolution have been able to survive the hardships of the past half-century has been directly because of all the diverse, informal, and illegal things that Cuban citizens have been able to do for themselves in spite of the regulations of the state. In many ways, like all economies but particularly pronounced in Cuba, is the existence of this economic anarchy in a very Emma Goldman sense of the word. No state can completely colonize all spaces, physical and psychological, within its own territory; this is even truer for a centralized state such as Cuba.

No state can completely colonize all spaces, physical and psychological, within its own territory; this is even truer for a centralized state such as Cuba.

As such, in those spaces that are left, the Cuban people have learned to take advantage of and utilize their resources, particularly their social resources, to navigate the difficulties of life. Regardless of the ubiquity of these informal institutions of economics and exchange, however, serious socio-economic disparities still exist. For part of my family living in tourist areas, life is much more comfortable and manageable. For part of my family living elsewhere, such as Santa Clara, which has been traditionally poorer, especially when compared to nearby Havana, life is lived much closer to the chest.

1According to the 2010 US population census, there are roughly 1,8 million people of Cuban descent in the US, mostly living the Miami area.

José Cienfuegos is a researcher, freelance writer and consultant based in the US. He works on agriculture and development issues in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

Eliana Musterle is a feminist researcher based in Germany. She works on Latin American food sovereignty movements and is involved in the climate justice movement.

Why we’re not going to Mars

Astronauts eat the first lettuce grown in space at the International Space Station. Source: NASA
Astronauts eat the first lettuce grown in space at the International Space Station. Source: NASA

by Timothy Crownshaw


There are many misconceptions and popular expectations of science, industry and progress which haunt our cultural consciousness.
These often manifest as a relentless anticipation for new human endeavours and technologies, fulfilling a wide range of imagined needs. Each of these is supposedly arriving any day now. At present, sentient AI, designer gene-editing, lab-grown meat and nuclear fusion are all mainstays. Just do a quick search for ‘futurology’ online and you’ll see a dizzying circus of techno-fantasies, each one promising to free us from some obligation, annoyance, or expense. All we could ever want, and more! Brought to us by… technology! Each decade brings with it a new range of curiosities. Most of these eventually lose their lustre when they turn out to be technically infeasible or commercially problematic. Ask yourself, is anyone talking about jetpacks, nanotechnology, or robot servants lately?

One of these fantasies is particularly powerful and has been bugging me for some time: human settlement of the red planet. This has been featured in numerous sci-fi novels and Hollywood movies, and covered in detail in publications such as Time and Scientific American. Public figures have taken it upon themselves to champion the supposedly noble cause of a manned Mars mission, including Elon Musk, Buzz Aldrin (he wrote a book about it) and Stephen Hawking. There’s even the Mars Society dedicated to the goal.

The Mars One project, probably the most visible settlement initiative, claims that a manned mission is feasible within a decade, using current technology. In fact, a recent comprehensive assessment of the immense challenges involved, carried out by the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, concludes that for the first intrepid settlers the trip would be both a one way ticket and an eventual death sentence. Imagine the places on Earth that are the most hostile to human life – Death Valley, the South Pole, the Mariana trench – Mars is worse. Far worse. There are reasons we don’t live in these places, and they are the same reasons we haven’t been back to the moon since 1972.

The primary barrier to building a colony on Mars is almost too obvious to notice, but it’s there in plain sight; it is a dead planet. And while the media talk a lot about how and when we might get to Mars, the question of why almost never comes up. Let’s put on our ecologist hats and look at it critically:

1. Zero carrying capacity for human life

In fact, one could argue that the carrying capacity on Mars is actually negative thanks to the cosmic radiation, extreme cold and low gravity (only 38% of Earth gravity!). Any settlers would simply struggle to stay alive in conditions vastly different than those we evolved in. Fighting the loss of bone density, novel cancers, immune dysfunction, and a range of psychological problems would be an inescapable and ultimately losing battle.

2. The fragility of artificial ecological systems

The biosphere we are embedded within on Earth is the supreme life support system, providing us with everything we need to survive. Mars doesn’t possess the amazingly complex feedback loops which regulate and maintain living communities. All attempts thus far to create viable closed ecological systems, such as the Biosphere experiments of the 1990s, have failed dramatically. The lesson to take from this is that any ‘designed’ ecological system, with technology substituting for natural processes (a likely prerequisite for a Mars settlement), is an inherently unstable thing. Even if a closed agricultural system could be established, peak equatorial solar irradiance on Mars is only a little over half what the surface of the Earth receives, which would make growing food a very challenging task.

3. The costs of a foothold on a barren world

On Earth, we are fortunate to be endowed with abundant low-entropy resources, the fundamental enabler of life, which life also creates by concentrating matter and energy into useful forms. With no forests or oceans, nearly all necessary materials would need to be transported to Mars. Mineral ore mining, the only extraction activity which could conceivably be carried out in situ, would face immense operational difficulties. Self-sufficient production of the enormous array of materials and components necessary to sustain a colony would require a significant industrial base and workforce, which would then in turn need to be supported. Taken together, this would be a very marginal prospect, relegating any Mars settlement project to a perpetual dependence on imports. The only exports the new Martians could manage would likely be various scientific data and footage of their daily lives for the entertainment of us Earthlings – not exactly a strong proposition for a long-term colony facing costs several orders of magnitude higher than any other in human history.

And when we consider extra-terrestrial settlement, Mars is the easy option! Anyone who claims we can find an Earth-like world in another solar system and make the voyage clearly isn’t familiar with the mind melting distances involved. The fastest spacecraft we have ever built, the New Horizons probe, would still take around 55,000 years to reach our closest neighbouring solar system. And if against all odds, we found a suitable world with a thriving ecosystem, upon arrival we would have an approximately 50% chance that the indigenous life is based on dextro amino acids (assuming it is carbon-based at all) which would render it useless to humans.

So, that’s it then. I think we can safely conclude that we’re not moving house any time soon. Not to Mars, and not anywhere else. To be clear, when I say ‘we’ aren’t going to Mars, I mean the collective we. I’ll admit there still may be an outside chance that some consortium will fund and execute a mission to send a few poor, intrepid souls on a one-way trip to live short lives on Mars in a gruesome experiment, televised for all to watch. If it happens, this will be another sad consequence of our nihilistic cultural stampede towards anything resembling a bad reality TV pitch (which by the way, includes a certain new US president).

Space exploration has significant co-benefits, of course. But no more than the co-benefits to be expected from any large, scientifically advanced venture. And given the existential threats we are facing here at home, would those resources not be better invested in directly tackling the issues at hand? We have an urgent need not only for new and innovative technology, which is often assumed to be the singular answer, but on ways to rehabilitate society to find a way of life that doesn’t entail brutally efficient ecocide.

The Mars delusion highlights a simple but uncomfortable truth: our exuberance for technology and progress has ceased to be rational, despite the touted rationalism of the physical sciences, from which new innovations emerge. This is not scientific but rather the pinnacle of Scientism: the belief that application of the scientific method coupled with increasing technological complexity is the necessary and sufficient answer to all problems. This type of thinking has become a dangerous evasion of responsibility and reveals a stark lack of understanding of what really supports societies. The modern world doesn’t run on ‘technology’ alone. Technology, impressive as it often is, is simply a collection of tools and techniques for turning flows (or stocks) of materials and energy from the natural world into valuable goods and services. Technology does not exist in a vacuum. Increasing technological complexity continues its slow march, yes, but often alongside diminishing returns, unforeseen consequences, hidden dependencies and externalised costs.

I’m not against technology on principle. It is important not to dismiss real and important technological advances. I’m not even against space exploration. There are likely more scientific insights to be gained by sending unmanned probes to the remote corners of our own cosmic backyard. But I am against any assertion that the future of our species is out there, somewhere else. Unfortunately, the romanticism of space exploration is a powerful force and won’t relinquish its grip on the popular imagination easily.

Some might accuse me of lacking ambition, of having given up on progress. Why pour cold water over this popular myth? Surely a dream is a good thing, uniting us towards a common goal and inspiring the scientists, engineers, and explorers of the future to aim for the stars? Well, daydreaming is a fine thing on a Sunday afternoon, but not such a good idea when standing at a precipice.

It’s true that the vastness of space evokes a deep awe, but the future of humanity lies right here. We need to wake up and face that reality. Technology is not going to insulate us from the consequences of our own actions. When the hype has faded and the marketing campaigns have wound down, we’ll be left standing in a damaged world with dwindling time left to affect real change. The sum of our future as a species, whatever that may be, is here, on this remarkable blue planet. It is only when we confront the empty promises of human space exploration that we can clearly reflect on how truly unique and precious our home really is.

Timothy Crownshaw is a PhD student in the department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill.

This article originally appeared on the Economics for the Anthropocene blog.

Power and patriarchy

by Elisabeth Peredo Beltrán

This article originally appeared in the Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2017 report

After more than a decade of processes that brought hope to the progressive world, several developments in Latin America in 2016 suggest we have reached the end of a cycle of left-wing victories in the region.

The collapse of left-wing governments in Argentina and Brazil, and the wave of environmental, democratic and political conflicts in others (Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela) raise critical questions about the viability of these models of social change.

Why are these important progressive processes that began with a huge degree of legitimacy now facing social resistance for departing from the ideals that inspired them?

This is a crisis that offers pointers and important lessons for us all, about the dynamics of social transformation and about ourselves as activists.

Bolivia and what it means to the world

Bolivia is an important learning laboratory with useful lessons not only for the local left but also to progressive and left-wing forces in the region and worldwide.

It was the first country in the Southern Cone to re-establish democracy in the 1980s, following a lengthy period of military dictatorships. It was the first in the region to experience significant anti-colonial indigenous rebellions in the late twentieth century.

It led the fight against neoliberalism, with major victories such as the expulsion of Bechtel (the US transnational corporation (TNC)) in the famous ‘Water War’ in 2000, the nationalization of its natural gas reserves in 2005 and the country’s withdrawal from the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).

Bolivia was in the vanguard in developing concepts on which the narrative of ‘Twenty-First Century Socialism’ is based, such as ‘living well’ and participatory democracy, summed up in the famous slogan ‘govern by obeying the people’.

Bolivia’s experience provides an exceptional opportunity for us to conduct an in-depth analysis of the unresolved ‘knots’ and challenges that the last few years have laid bare.

This essay is partly a personal testimony based on my recollections and assessment of the path Bolivia has taken, its process of emancipation and social change, and the attendant difficulties and frustrations.

My aim is to provide a perspective from the ‘inside’, drawing on the feelings and ideals of those of us who believed profoundly in the need for social change and committed our energy and convictions, our lives and our emotions, to these processes.

It is also a heartfelt response to a reality that pains and concerns us as we see a powerful process of social change collapsing and becoming more extreme (and dangerous) on issues of power, the environment, democracy, women, and a caring society. This represents a profound challenge to us in how we put our utopias into practice and make them effective and real.

Bolivia is an important learning laboratory with useful lessons not only for the local left but also to progressive and left-wing forces in the region and worldwide.

I still remember how deeply moved I felt in 2003, after President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada had been forced to flee the country as a result of mass street protests against his role in the October Massacre, when a woman in El Alto took off her ‘señorita’s [employer] clothes’ of blouse and trousers, burned them in the middle of the street and wearing the traditional clothes of the indigenous chola, proudly proclaimed: ‘now I am myself, the person I always was….

This was the beginning of a new and different time for Bolivian society. In the past, indigenous women were not allowed to enter the parliament building or the presidential palace. They were even banned from luxury hotels and theatres. Social exclusion and racism were deeply entrenched in everyday life and seen as a ‘natural’ component of social relations.

It was thanks to struggles by indigenous urban and rural unions, such as the union of domestic workers who fought long to have their rights legally recognized, that changes great and small penetrated the farthest reaches of Bolivian society.

They shook up the discriminatory practices of the white elites accustomed to expropriating their labour, as well as the mestizo and urban indigenous property owners who likewise exploited impoverished women in their homes, secure in the impunity that a deeply racist, neocolonial society protected them.  

‘Imagine wanting to regulate the work of the domestic workers with new laws!’, said the elites. ‘It would be like stirring up a hornets’ nest – they’re only going to create turmoil in society!’ ‘We can’t allow them to unionise’, said others. ‘When they get together they just infect each other…’

But it was the domestic workers who won. Working as a unified alliance with rural and indigenous movements, workers, residents of low-income and even some middle-class neighbourhoods, they managed to impose their demands as part of a huge wave of social change that had been building up for decades.

It was the culmination of a mass social mobilization for indigenous territories and autonomy, respect for human rights, recognition and inclusion of their vision of the commons.

But it was also the result of the determination of broad swathes of the middle class, intellectuals and activists who took up these demands as a way of saving themselves, of escaping from the prison that discrimination and the exclusion of indigenous people meant for their own lives, in order to build a different Bolivia.

Signs of change

The recent progressive period in Bolivia – and in other countries too – was the result of a lengthy political build-up: almost 40 years of resistance, rebellion and proposal-making.

It was nourished by the work of various groups of activists and collectives forged in different historical periods, such as those that resisted the dictatorships, neoliberalism, machismo and colonialism. It emerged after nearly two decades of bourgeois democracy that had focused on building an institutional framework under the mandates of neoliberalism to serve the class interests of Bolivia’s national elites in partnership with TNCs and international financial institutions (IFIs).

The recent progressive period in Bolivia – and in other countries too – was the result of a lengthy political build-up: almost 40 years of resistance, rebellion and proposal-making. It was nourished by the work of various groups of activists and collectives forged in different historical periods, such as those that resisted the dictatorships, neoliberalism, machismo and colonialism.

The wisdom accumulated in these protests and movement-building took political form and society was obliged to integrate them into new social pacts. These were expressed in the new Constitution (enacted in 2009 after being approved in a referendum) which led to the founding of a new state that finally put an end to republican-era colonialist ideas: the new Plurinational State of Bolivia, in which society’s expectations and ideals were distilled, shaping a new national horizon.

Capturing this historical moment of such transcendental importance was a new leader, an indigenous president who before taking office had said humbly: ‘With great respect, I want to ask our indigenous authorities, our organisations, our amautas (wise people) to control me, and if I am unable to move forward, please push me, brothers and sisters’ (Evo Morales, 2005).

From the process of change to the extractivist state

When Morales took office as President in 2006, he appointed Casimira Rodríguez, Executive Secretary of the Bolivian Federation of Domestic Workers, as the first indigenous Minister of Justice.

A woman who wore indigenous dress and spoke Quechua, she had spent almost all her life performing household chores for derisory wages. Nothing could be more symbolic than appointing an indigenous woman who was a cook and a worker to this post.

A series of progressive measures characterized the first years of the Morales government. These included the nationalization of the oil and gas industry, which restored the revenue from the sale of natural gas to the state, allowing the new government to develop redistribution policies that increased benefits for children, pregnant women and new mothers, and older people.

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President Evo Morales in 2009. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sebastian-baryli/3356940703/in/photostream/

It also marked the start of a period of economic growth that moved Bolivia from the category of ‘low-income country’ to ‘middle-income country’. Support for the Morales government rose to as high as 81%.

Gaining access to power gradually became an end in itself.

Now, ten years after taking state power with the legitimacy of social struggles that demanded deep social change, things have changed a great deal. This is not simply a ‘revolutionary ebb’ but a change of direction that can be seen in the deteriorating social fabric and institutions, and the impact of its economic and political model in local territories. It also represents a failure to establish the necessary social oversight mechanisms to sustain the vision.

Gaining access to power gradually became an end in itself. Hundreds of trade union and social movement leaders became secretaries, vice-ministers, ambassadors or members of parliament, weakening these popular forces. The number of civil servants grew by more than 70% since 2005, with the consequent increase in expenditure and government infrastructure.

By 2009, the Morales government and its Movement for Socialism (MAS) long-term political and economic project was becoming more apparent. It involved so many concessions to the reactionary and racist forces of the Santa Cruz oligarchy (in the east of Bolivia), that its youth wings – such as the Juventud Cruceñista, which had committed violent racist attacks against indigenous people during the Constituent Assembly process – actually joined the MAS support base in eastern Bolivia.

Even though MAS leaders continued to use environmentalist and leftist rhetoric, in practice the leadership was opening up to the proposals of the agribusiness sector and conventional visions of development. It aligned itself with a vision that is industrialist (this has not been achieved), developmentalist (this has not produced much in the way of results either) and extractivist, in partnership with local trade unions and capital from Europe, China and Russia. This model carries a heavy environmental and social toll for Bolivian society.

The rebellious and anti-systemic legacy of the water and gas wars – led by peasants and working class Bolivians – ended up being expropriated by the government, which turned it into the emblem of its ‘crusade for gas and economic growth’. This became a dogma laid out in national development plans that nobody is allowed to criticize.

Even though MAS leaders continued to use environmentalist and leftist rhetoric, in practice the leadership was opening up to the proposals of the agribusiness sector and conventional visions of development.

The slogan ‘partners not bosses’, which was used to confront regional economic powers and transnational imperialism, had secured the government a high degree of legitimacy and enabled it to strengthen the state and to establish a basic system of social redistribution. However, it also fortified a process of plundering indigenous territories in the Altiplano (highlands) and the Amazon region, affecting the rights of indigenous peoples and rural communities around the country.

On the international stage, President Evo Morales gave lengthy ecological speeches at the United Nations (UN) on the rights of nature and proclaimed an alternative view of development around the idea of ‘Living Well’ and ‘Mother Earth Rights’ that captivated everyone, at home and abroad

Contradictions in process of change unravel

But the rhetoric was not matched by any consequent action within Bolivia. In fact, Bolivia was already wedded to a development model that, far from reflecting a vision of harmony with nature, sought to re-enact a populist modern industrialism and developmentalism.

This was evident in April 2010, when Bolivia organized the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, bringing together thousands of international activists in an edifying policy debate that produced one of the most interesting social movement declarations on climate change. Yet at the same time, the government was going ahead with gas and oil exploration in Bolivia’s national parks, mining projects and had already decided to build a road through the TIPNIS national park and indigenous territory.

The TIPNIS road, a government project to connect Villa Tunari (in the Chapare region of Cochabamba) with San Ignacio de Moxos (in Beni in the north of the country), would cross the Isiboro Sécure National Park and the territory of indigenous peoples, supposedly protected by the Constitution.

The people – still trusting in their power to change government decisions – took to the streets in September 2011 to oppose the government’s plans, without suspecting that this time their power to change things would not stop this new injustice. The government did not hesitate to harshly repress the lowland indigenous peoples as they began the 8th Indigenous March to La Paz.

In fact, Bolivia was already wedded to a development model that, far from reflecting a vision of harmony with nature, sought to re-enact a populist modern industrialism and developmentalism.

The conflict caused the resignation of Defence Minister and great desperation and outrage among people who had supported the process of change right from the start. Shortly afterwards, the indigenous authorities who had led the march were harassed and persecuted, and the indigenous organizations forcibly split and manipulated by the government, which would then go ahead with the road-building project.

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The 8th Indigenous march to La Paz in 2011. Source: Pablo Andres Rovero on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The conflicts surrounding TIPNIS marked a turning point in the process of change in Bolivia. It split the social movements, breaking the unity of the indigenous and rural organizations that had driven the process of change and alienating many activists who were not in government.

The conflict over the TIPNIS road revealed the crudest side of the process of change: the use of power and a national project which – departing from constitutional principles – was imposing an unscrupulous developmentalism and breaking openly with the rhetoric of Mother Earth and the rights of indigenous peoples.

The government did not hesitate to harshly repress the lowland indigenous peoples as they began the 8th Indigenous March to La Paz.

It is hard to forget the way in which the government promoted this road using populism and the language of machismo and patriarchy. When the project began, Morales said to people in the Chapare region:

If I had time, I’d go and flirt with all the Yuracaré women and convince them not to oppose it [the TIPNIS road]; so, you young men, you have instructions from the President to go and seduce the Yuracaré Trinitaria women so that they don’t oppose the building of the road. Approved? (La Razón, 2011)

Although women’s movements criticized these statements, they did not cause much of a reaction in the left-wing circles that were part of the Morales government.

Consolidation of extractivist economy

It was with these contradictions that Bolivia consolidated its model, defending its decisions by celebrating the highest economic growth rate in the region, ignoring the fact that it increased the economy’s dependency on the primary sector and inherently unstable commodity prices.

The oil and gas industry currently accounts for 69.1% of Bolivia’s exports, while agriculture (timber, quinoa etc) contributes 3.3% and manufactured products – in which the National Institute for Statistics (INE) includes soya and gold – represents 26%.

Annual deforestation rates in Bolivia are extremely high, with roughly 270,000 hectares disappearing each year. The country’s main contribution to global emissions and climate change comes from this change in land use, and it now ranks 27 out of 193 countries on this count.

In the last year, the clearing of new land for agriculture has been legalized in an agreement with agroindustry and the farming sector, allowing four times more land to be deforested than in the past.

These agreements have also led to an exponential increase in the use of genetically-modified seeds and glyphosate. Ninety-seven per cent of the soya produced in Bolivia is now genetically modified, and although it is argued that this is justified in order to supply food to the Bolivian people, these crops are mainly destined for export.

In the last year, the clearing of new land for agriculture has been legalized in an agreement with agroindustry and the farming sector, allowing four times more land to be deforested than in the past.

Major mining TNCs such as Sumitomo, Glencore, Pan American Silver and others are operating in Bolivia in business deals with the state mining company.

And the government has done little to address the power of so-called ‘mining cooperatives’ – small informal local enterprises that make up most of the mining industry (115,000 miners, compared with the only 7,500 workers in the state mining company), known for exploitative working conditions and destructive environmental practices due to the lack of regulations for this sector.

The Mining Law approved by the government in 2013 did little to improve this situation, undermining principles of prior consultation mandated by ILO Convention 169 and even allowing water courses to be altered to benefit mining projects.

Even the huge revenues obtained from the sale of natural gas at better prices have not been able to generate value-added productive industries nor used to assist the transition to renewable energies that would be more in tune with the rhetoric of climate justice that Bolivia proclaims in UN negotiations.

Indeed, contrary to its discourse, Bolivia did not support proposals to limit fossil-fuel subsidies at the Rio+20 and UN Climate Change summits, and it continues to subsidize its oil industry without even considering transitional energy policies.

Worse still, in the National Development Plan for 2025, Bolivia proposes to become a major regional ‘energy power’ and supply energy to neighbouring countries, which hardly reflects the transitions recommended by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to avoid worsening the climate crisis:

The new idea coming from this government is that we’re going to be an energy power. The twenty-first century for Bolivia is to produce oil, industrialise petrochemicals, industrialise minerals.  (Álvaro García Linera, Página Siete, 2015)

The plan is based on the commercial logic of selling electricity to Brazil to generate revenue expected to materialize in 10–15 years. Major hydroelectric dams, such as La Bala-Chepete and Rosita projects, take pride of place in the plan, even though this model has displaced indigenous peoples elsewhere in Central and South America, costing the lives of union leaders such as Berta Cáceres in Honduras.

Indeed, contrary to its discourse, Bolivia did not support proposals to limit fossil-fuel subsidies at the Rio+20 and UN Climate Change summits, and it continues to subsidize its oil industry without even considering transitional energy policies.

Vice-President García Linera appears to see no limits to their expansion:

That’s why, with President Evo (Morales), we’ve flown all over Bolivia in helicopters, looking for places where we could put a dam, and looking for gas. We’re seeking out the areas where there’s more gas, where there’s water, sites for dams.  Where there is water, it’s like pure gold falling from the sky. Where there is water, where we can build dams, that’s where you’ll find the gold, the money.

These plans are clearly out of line with the energy transitions required to mitigate and adapt to climate change. They also fail to take into account that neighbouring countries may take advantage of falling prices for solar and wind energy in the near future, which would eliminate the market for Bolivia’s energy exports.

As part of the same aim to become a major energy power, the government has also proposed investing in research on nuclear energy in partnership with Russia, with an ambiguous proposal that includes research on health and food radiation and the building of an experimental generator.

The project was approved through an international treaty signed with Russia that has been criticized as illegal for contradicting constitutional restrictions that prohibit transit of nuclear waste in Bolivian territory.

This is a project that requires a vast amount of money and, in spite of protests, is being imposed on the people living in one of the country’s largest cities, El Alto. The project was approved through an international treaty signed with Russia that has been criticized as illegal for contradicting constitutional restrictions that prohibit transit of nuclear waste in Bolivian territory.

Change, culture and power

What has happened to Bolivia’s progressive and left-wing forces? What happened to the drive for change and the social narrative in favour of water rights and sovereignty against corporate and imperialist power, and that conceived the idea of ‘living well’ as the basis for a new society?

How is the left processing its government’s retreat from the ideals of emancipation and social change? What happened to the autonomy of the social movements? What happened to the indigenous peoples? What happened to women and feminisms? What happened to the rights of Mother Earth?

In short, what does this process tell us about ourselves?

Thinking about ‘where to start to change things’ and ‘how to bring about change’ is of paramount importance right now and leads us to the key question regarding power, culture, the state and society.

What is it that really changes a society? And which structures, processes or values should we strengthen in order to ensure a solid, progressive social change, with an ajayu (spirit) that stays firm over time despite the disagreeable ups and downs of politics and power plays?

How is the left processing its government’s retreat from the ideals of emancipation and social change? What happened to the autonomy of the social movements? What happened to the indigenous peoples? What happened to women and feminisms? What happened to the rights of Mother Earth?

What is the place of culture and ethics in this enquiry? Although it seemed to have it all, the left is now facing unresolved ‘knots’ or contradictions that have led to a significant weakening of the progressive field and a shocking rise of authoritarian populist leaders.

Based on Bolivia’s experience, we need to ask why the left’s political legitimacy has allowed the traps of power to become invisible. And ask how the left can continue on its path and resolve its relationship with essential aspects of processes of social change such as democracy, the notion of the ‘vanguard’ and the subjects of social change, ecology and nature, patriarchy, feminism and women, the diversity of indigenous peoples, and, finally, how it processes its relationship with power.

Extractivism and violence against women

One of the most meaningful terrains in the contradictions besetting the Bolivian political process is the patriarchal ideology that has been like a second skin in the MAS way of governing, based on an authoritarian, male-chauvinist discourse and a symbolically powerful link between patriarchal power and the cultural foundations of the extractivist model.

The argument that ‘we are using capitalism to arrive at socialism’ became officially enshrined in the narrative of the Bolivian state, permitting both the control of financial capital and extractivism. In the same way, the androcentrism expressed in Morales’ phrase I am a feminist who tells sexist jokes became part of the content of government discourses and statements.

The ‘radical’ left that has accompanied this government from the beginning never challenged this ‘way of governing’ and permitted the spread of this heavily symbolic ideology. Those on the left who said they wanted to change the system ‘overlooked’ the patriarchal attitudes of their leaders and ‘forgave’ their unbridled machismo in the interests of a supposedly ‘higher purpose’ – the building of socialism.

Unmistakeable signs of a populist authoritarianism could be seen in the misogynistic remarks, sexist jokes, and homophobic statements such that made by Morales at the World Peoples’ Conference in April 2010: The chicken we eat is full of female hormones. That’s why when men eat that chicken they deviate from being men.

Or when Morales boasted of his ‘EVO CUMPLE’ (Evo Delivers) social programmes in villages using sexist jokes: When I go to a village, all the women end up pregnant and on their bellies it says: ‘Evo delivers’.

The argument that ‘we are using capitalism to arrive at socialism’ became officially enshrined in the narrative of the Bolivian state, permitting both the control of financial capital and extractivism. In the same way, the androcentrism expressed in Morales’ phrase ‘I am a feminist who tells sexist jokes’ became part of the content of government discourses and statements.

Or when he encouraged young men to do their military service as a way to ‘free’ themselves from the responsibility of paternity: As you generals, admirals, officers all know, when a youngster gets his girlfriend pregnant he prefers to escape to the barracks and when he gets there that soldier is untouchable.

Although laws and decrees have been passed in Bolivia to promote gender equality, eradicate violence and achieve parity in political representation, the repeated attacks on women in government speeches and the scant public investment to enforce stronger gender policies have weakened the process. This is yet another example of the dissonance between discourse and practice.

Patriarchy has features such as:

  • Devaluing the different ‘Other’ and making it invisible
  • The systematic practice of dividing the public from the private sphere, thus widening the distance between words and deeds
  • The denial of diversity and difference, negatively valuing difference as a deficit
  • Violence and subjugation as a means of self-assertion

These features have become consolidated in the government, together with the need to exercise power and control and demonstrate strength, authority and infallibility. This ended up co-opting leaders of the process of change from different walks of life.

When a comrade – a lifelong colleague – in a high-ranking political post said to me: ‘I am a good politician, because I am able to be cruel’, two things became clear to me. First, that the cycle of social change had come to an end because it had lost the ethical values that made the quest for social change worthwhile; and second, that power and machismo had become deeply embedded in this process as part of a structure that combined subjectivity and politics and reproduced a culture of violent, destructive power – exactly what extractivism is all about.

Among Morales’ most outrageous and widely criticized remarks was one he made while visiting an oilfield in April 2012. To laughter from other workers, he ‘jokingly’ asked two women professionals at the ‘Sísmica 3D’ camp in Chimoré: ‘Oil workers? Are you drillers? Or do you get drilled? Do tell me.’

Every three days a woman dies horribly in Bolivia in crimes of femicide. Although there are no official figures, the rates of violence are extremely high. Obviously, gender-based violence is worse in societies that do not see caring for life as a priority and have allowed gender-based violence and discrimination to be ‘normalized’. Alarmed by the way official discourse has legitimized violence, women’s movements have run many public information campaigns and demanded, among other things, that MAS exclude machistas from their lists of electoral candidates.

When a comrade – a lifelong colleague – in a high-ranking political post said to me: ‘I am a good politician, because I am able to be cruel’, two things became clear to me. First, that the cycle of social change had come to an end because it had lost the ethical values that made the quest for social change worthwhile; and second, that power and machismo had become deeply embedded in this process as part of a structure that combined subjectivity and politics and reproduced a culture of violent, destructive power – exactly what extractivism is all about.

Internationally, Bolivia is celebrated by multilaterals such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank for its economic model that has delivered the highest rate of economic growth in the region.

Yet at the same time, few of these institutions remark on the fact that Bolivia is one of the 12 countries in the world with the highest rates of femicide and violence against women. Moreover the government certainly does not re-invest – or rather redistribute – this money in policies that would effectively combat violence.

Investment (or ‘expenses’ as some prefer to call it) is less than 2% (1.91%) of municipal government budgets, while the funds allocated to specific programmes on violence eradication, prevention and victim protection amount to no more than 0.33%. Although a Law 348 against gender-based violence was approved, it has proved difficult to implement, partly because of the lack of investment in the institutional structure required to enforce it.

In contrast, investment in natural resource exploration and production in our forests is huge, as is investment in infrastructure for transport, energy and the oil and gas industry. Together, they amount to 65% of the government budget, invested in a national dream of turning Bolivia into a regional ‘energy power’ and, supposedly, making everyone more prosperous.

Exploitation and violence against women and exploitation and violence against nature are two sides of the same coin, two expressions of the same system, the empire of patriarchy governing in coalition with big business.

Notably in this plan, renewable energies (more likely to protect nature and human rights) only account for 2% of the energy structure, a figure quite similar to the investment in women. All these decisions are being taken unilaterally by the male politicians at the top who supposedly – like all good patriarchs – ‘know what’s best’. They even disregard the mechanisms for prior consultation with indigenous peoples, whom they seem to consider ‘subalterns’ who ought to submit to these plans at the cost of their territories and the survival of their cultures.

They take no heed of the feminist position, which demands sufficient resources and democratic, relevant, fair and inclusive policies not only to ensure effective justice systems but also to develop education programmes to put an end to the cultural patterns of machismo.

Exploitation and violence against women and exploitation and violence against nature are two sides of the same coin, two expressions of the same system, the empire of patriarchy governing in coalition with big business.

Women’s bodies (Mother Earth) has now become the metaphor of what is sacrificed to maintain the capitalist illusion of infinite, androcentric, ecocidal growth that is disdainful of nature and the lives of people and communities.

Deconstructing the predominant paradigm

Capitalist power is able to reproduce itself efficiently thanks to its alliance with very ancient systems of oppression such as patriarchy – which is much older than capitalism – and colonialism, which likewise predates forms of capitalist appropriation.

Its capacity to remain the dominant system of civilization is subjectively based on capitalist values that separate human beings from nature. It does this through science and philosophy and also through the economy, culture and the values of everyday life.

Modern capitalism survives because it feeds ideals, representations and subjectivities based on the domination of nature, over-consumption and the modern imagery of economic growth associated with happiness and wellbeing. The combination of these forms of domination is precisely what enables the exercise of power, and we see these patterns repeated again and again, even in attempts to subvert the capitalist order.

The alliance between patriarchy and extractivism naturalizes violence against women, devalues them and constructs a social mindset that endorses abuse and impunity. Indeed, a state that promotes extractivism has to base itself on an authoritarian rationale that discredits rights to territory, the rights of nature and indigenous peoples, and female otherness. Extractivism as proposed in our countries is exacerbating a violent mentality.

The thoughts I have set out here reveal how patriarchy is wholly at the service of the exercise of power and enables capitalist violence to take effect, becoming the linking mechanism through the power of the state.

The alliance between patriarchy and extractivism naturalizes violence against women, devalues them and constructs a social mindset that endorses abuse and impunity. Indeed, a state that promotes extractivism has to base itself on an authoritarian rationale that discredits rights to territory, the rights of nature and indigenous peoples, and female otherness. Extractivism as proposed in our countries is exacerbating a violent mentality.

Capitalist accumulation is essentially dependent on a mindset that reinforces the idea of the public sphere as the ‘property’ of the governing elites rather than a common good that belongs to everyone. Capitalist accumulation is ultimately based on the abuse and destruction of the values of caring and solidarity between human beings and with nature.

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Mural by Knorke leaf, woman muralist and activist involved in the anti-nuclear movement in La Paz. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/knorke_leaf/

We need more critical thinking on social change, the state and power relations. The process in Bolivia and – as in-depth enquiry will surely find, many other processes that have sought to change society – are learning experiences about ourselves, our goals and our limits.

Although the MAS initially enjoyed a huge degree of social legitimacy and was sincere in its proposals on decolonization and overcoming capitalism, in the end it has replicated relations of domination and plunder.

We need to develop real emancipatory projects and unite against capital with a solid culture of social change that does not shy away from examining the ethical dimension of change. We need to engage in a self-critical debate on how power is exercised, the continuing presence of patriarchy in the ranks of progressive movements, and the pernicious effects of our movements’ dependence on unchallengeable, messianic leaders.

In the last few years, global challenges have multiplied, become more complicated and raised major questions about the values behind social transformation.

It is no longer a question of moving forward with an agenda of national sovereignty or controlling corporations and major powers.

We need to develop real emancipatory projects and unite against capital with a solid culture of social change that does not shy away from examining the ethical dimension of change. We need to engage in a self-critical debate on how power is exercised, the continuing presence of patriarchy in the ranks of progressive movements, and the pernicious effects of our movements’ dependence on unchallengeable, messianic leaders. We need to propose forms of power that change things from below and from everyday life; the power of healing, of solidarity; power that is embodied and built gradually over time. We need to get beyond the simplistic critique of what we oppose and turn our sights to our own practices to build alternatives to the system.

With that in mind, and focusing on the ethical dimensions of social change,  here are some of the ideas emerging from the forces of change who refuse to admit defeat:

  • We do not need heroes or strongmen to bring about social change.
  • We oppose individualism with the values of community, the common good and solidarity, but without ceasing to be individuals ourselves.
  • We oppose the paradigm of infinite development or ‘sustainable development’ with the paradigm of restoration, of healing the planet, of care and regeneration.
  • We oppose the practice of plunder by developing the idea of cooperation with nature.
  • We oppose the idea of power as violent control and domination with the power of caring for life, the power of love, empathy and emotions.
  • We oppose the concentration of power and exclusion with the recognition of diversity and democracy in all its different forms.
  • We oppose notions of global power by strengthening local power and developing local systems resilient to the centralized politics of power.
  • We oppose the practice of patriarchal power that refuses to politicize the private sphere with the principle of ‘the personal is political’.
  • We oppose the culture of top-down change by reinforcing those constructive, restorative, healing practices that have the real power to bring about change.

 

Elisabeth Peredo Beltrán is a pyschologist, researcher and author. As a collaborator with TAHIPAMU (Workshop on Women’s history participation), she researched anarcho-sindicalist women’s movements in 20th Century La Paz, the rights of domestic women workers and the rights of water as a common good. She is on the Board of Food and Water Watch,  the Scientific Committee of the Citizens Earth University, the Working Group on Alternatives to Development and belongs to various activist collectives working on water, climate change, women’s rights, and nuclear threats.

No degrowth without climate justice

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Evening activities at the Climate Camp 2016. Source: Klimacamp 2016 Lars Jung (CC BY)

by Matthias Schmelzer

Since the 2014 Leipzig Degrowth Conference, the argument that climate justice cannot exist without degrowth has repeatedly been made. In a keynote at the Degrowth conference in Budapest, in September 2016, I developed this line of thinking further and argued that the opposite is equally important: There is not degrowth without climate justice. My argument, which I presented as someone involved not only at the theoretical level, but also in concrete efforts to bring degrowth and climate justice together in terms of practices and people, is presented here in a concise way.

After the degrowth conference in Leipzig two years ago, people in the organizational committee were considering next steps that would allow the degrowth community to move forward. Our analysis was that if we want degrowth to leave the ivory towers of academia and lecture halls, we need to enter into alliances with other social movements; and if we want degrowth to move beyond lofty visions for future societies and towards intervention and action, we need to enter into a conflictual political arena, thus forcing degrowth to take clear stances. Even though a vision of transformation and a good life for all is important, if degrowth is worth anything, it should make a difference by intervening in political struggles.

Our analysis was that if we want degrowth to leave the ivory towers of academia and lecture halls, we need to enter into alliances with other social movements; and if we want degrowth to move beyond lofty visions for future societies and towards intervention and action, we need to enter into a conflictual political arena, thus forcing degrowth to take clear stances.

Based on this analyses we decided to organize a degrowth summer school in 2015 in cooperation with the Rhineland climate camp. We thus entered a political field, in which concrete opponents – coal companies and their lobbies on the one hand and local communities and climate justice activists on the other – were struggling about the future of coal in the coming years. The summer school drew 500 people from around Germany and Europe who discussed degrowth and its relations to climate change, extractivism, justice, power, and capitalism. After the summer school, many participants took part in one of the hitherto largest actions of civil disobedience against lignite coal mining, in which more than 1000 people entered an open cast coal mine and blocked the operation of the huge diggers in Europe’s largest CO2 emitter. In 2016, Ende Gelände was repeated in Lusatia, and the 3000-participant strong blockade lasted two days. There was again a degrowth summer school under the title “Skills for System Change.” The summer of 2017 will see another degrowth-inspired summer school and a set of actions in the Rhineland that includes Ende Gelände, but will be much broader and possibly even bigger.

The climate summit Truman show

This decision to enter into alliances with the climate justice movement and into the conflicts around coal  already illustrates much of our stance on the Paris Agreement reached at the COP in Paris in 2015. First, that it proved a disaster precisely because it did not address the real problems, mainly that fossil fuels must largely stay underground and that we need a deep socio-ecological transformation. Second, that the Paris Agreement could not address these issues, because it largely stayed within the framework of economic growth, extractivism, and accumulation – albeit in a new form. And finally, that real change must come from stopping the drivers of climate change through concrete policies, public opposition, the building of alternatives, and direct action.

From the perspective of degrowth and climate justice movements, the Paris Agreement was a deceitful spectacle with potentially disastrous effects. What actually happened in Paris in November last year has been adequately described as the climate summit Truman Show: around the world, media headlines were enthusiastically celebrating the deal as ‘historic’ and ‘successful’, as the miracle of Paris, or even as a „31 pages of recipe for revolution.“ Cameras were showing the chief negotiator French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in tears, the climate advocate Al Gore enthusiastically clapping, and the room of delegates seemed to be in a collective delirium – and with it the entire media circus. Even many larger NGOs did not want to disturb this picture with their gentle statements, and the online campaigning platform avaaz described it as a „massive turning point in human history.“

Ouverture de la COP 21. Le 29/11/2015. Photo Benjamin Géminel.
Opening of COP 21 conference in Paris on 29 November 2015. Source: COP Paris Flickr – Public domain photo taken by Benjamin Géminel.

Through the technocratic prism of the framework laid out by the UN climate convention, the summit achieved much more than has otherwise been accomplished during the last 20 years and far more than most observers had expected: 195 states actually achieved an agreement; and to the surprise of many in the last minute the 1,5 degree target was included in the final text.

However, this enthusiasm is highly misleading. It only makes sense from a narrow perspective that only focuses on the UN framework of negotiations and not on the broader political and economic context. One can ignore reality, but this does not make it disappear. Diplomacy and a perfectly staged show do not save the climate – this can only be done by leaving the greater part of fossil fuel reserves in the ground, stopping deforestation, and ending industrialized agriculture. And all of this needs to happen quickly, which requires effective a set of measures and policies.

From the perspective of degrowth and climate justice movements, the Paris Agreement was a deceitful spectacle with potentially disastrous effects.

But the Paris Agreement does not include mechanisms and measures to ensure that this target is met. In fact, the Paris Agreement cements and strengthens the illusion of decoupling growth and emission and of green growth through a new level of utopian technocratic optimism – negative emissions. In fact, the agreement willingly accepts missing the 1.5-degree target, and it contains many recipes for a new wave of neo-colonialism in the name of green capitalism. Instead of redefining and changing the economy and the mode of production and consumption that cause climate change, it redefines nature by turning it into a tradable commodity. The market mechanisms embedded in the agreement serve to enable the continuation of high consumption lifestyles in rich countries, while offsetting this overconsumption in the Global South and thus continuing colonial exploitation.

Beyond green capitalism

Degrowth stands in stark opposition not just to the continuation of a „brown“ – fossil fuels-based and extractivist – capitalism, but also to the institutionalization of what seems the most likely alternative – a „green“ capitalism based on the massive investment in renewable energies, global carbon trading regimes, and the economization of nature.

For many of us, the belief that there is „no climate justice without degrowth“ is a fundamental motivation to engage in the degrowth community or movement. The climate justice perspective can inspire an understanding of degrowth that might be more appealing to some – an understanding of degrowth  as the democratically-led transformation to societies that are not based on the extraction or import of disproportionate amounts of resources and on the disproportionate use of sinks.

There is no degrowth without climate justice, or – more comprehensively – ecological justice or even global justice.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that this is only one side of the coin, since it stipulates that degrowth is more fundamental and the necessary precondition to achieve climate justice. Of course, there is great potential for cooperation and alliances between the two movements. But in the spirit of what was termed „alliances without subordination“ at the Budapest conference in 2016, I want to turn this around and argue that the other side is equally important: There is no degrowth without climate justice, or – more comprehensively – ecological justice or even global justice.

If degrowth is not built on a comprehensive vision for global justice and fails to incorporate key elements that are clearer and more prominent in the climate justice movement than in degrowth discourses, it will not be the emancipatory project many wish it to be. What can the degrowth community learn from the climate justice movement? I want to highlight three key lessons.

Changing structures

First lesson, the focus on deep structural transformations, transformations in the economic, political, mental, and social structures of our societies. Of course, much has been written and said on this in the degrowth discussion – but it could move further. Beatrice Rodriguez Labajos said that activists in the global South generally think that degrowth is not radical enough, because it is not anti-capitalist and mainly focuses on individual lifestyle-change. Based on the discussions at the recent conferences, a consensus seems to be emerging that degrowth is indeed a proposal to overcome capitalism, and not just a new packaging for business as usual. Similarly, degrowth could be clearer on how to change political structures (for example in the discussions about global trade regimes such as TTIP and CETA, degrowth is largely absent), mental structures such as extractivism in all its forms, and social structures.

Based on the discussions at the recent conferences, a consensus seems to be emerging that degrowth is indeed a proposal to overcome capitalism, and not just a new packaging for business as usual.

If degrowth is understood as a heterogeneous and evolving social movement in the making, one can understand the great variety of approaches taken by degrowth actors in terms of its main critiques, proposed alternatives and transformational practices – ranging from sufficiency-oriented adepts of voluntary simplicity to social-reformists, anti-capitalists and feminists. The climate justice perspective can help in strengthening those parts of the degrowth community that are not blind to issues of structural transformations.

Opposing hierarchies

Second, the climate justice movement is very strong in articulating and opposing hierarchies and power. Degrowth could learn that opposing all forms of power and domination is key if we want to achieve a more just society. And because the degrowth community is so strongly homogenous – just look around at the degrowth conferences –, it really needs to listen to and learn from others, both in the North and the South. In fact, climate justice is a movement of some of the least privileged people resisting the immediate loss of their livelihoods. The term goes back to the notion of environmental justice, and the origin of this term is highly illuminating. When the largely white and privileged American environmental activists resisted the dumping of industrial waste in the 1960s, they basically only cared about their own communities. This resulted in pushing the environmental costs down the social ladder, onto communities of color and the poor. In opposing this, these communities used the term „environmental racism“ and “demanded environmental justice.” And in the 1990s, the term was then also used for the global problem of climate change.

In contrast to this, degrowth is a concept largely supported by some of the most privileged people on this planet – largely white, well-educated,, middle-class people with Western passports  (on this, see a forthcoming study on the participants of the Leipzig Degrowth conference). It can even be conceptualized as the self-problematization of privileges in the context of what Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen have called “the imperial mode of living”. Because of this privileged homogeneity, degrowth needs to be particularly careful not to reproduce hierarchies, unequal distribution of power, and domination. We do not only need a decolonization of the economic imaginary – on which degrowth focuses – but, since they are all connected, we also need this decolonization in terms of sex and gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and all other forms of division and exclusion. How these and other hierarchies of the current capitalist, patriarchal, and (post)colonial societies can be overcome in a degrowth alternative and what they imply for degrowth strategies should be at the center of future degrowth and post-growth debates. To do this, degrowth needs to listen to and build alliances with the less privileged, not only in the global South, but also in the global North. In short, degrowth needs to become more intersectional and diverse.

Because of this privileged homogeneity, degrowth needs to be particularly careful not to reproduce hierarchies, unequal distribution of power, and domination. We do not only need a decolonization of the economic imaginary – on which degrowth focuses – but, since they are all connected, we also need this decolonization in terms of sex and gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and all other forms of division and exclusion

Let’s look at two examples: In a recent project called “Degrowth in movements” we collaborated with protagonists from more than 30 other social movements and alternative economic approaches to discuss their relation to degrowth and how from their perspective degrowth should develop. The resultant essays provide fascinating insights – for example from the perspective of refugee movements, queer-feminism, trade unions, care, or food sovereignty -, which provide some entry points for degrowth to enter into broader alliances, reach out to new social groups, and strengthen its own critique of power and hierarchies. In another project – which was actually one of the outcomes of the degrowth summer schools in 2015 and 2016 – the Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie will be organizing a conference together with the transnational refugee activist network Afrique-Europe-Interact that will bring degrowth and refugee activists together in October 2017 to discuss the connections between flight and migration, self-determined development, and ecological crises from a practical and political perspective.

Embracing struggles

The third lesson seems to me to be the most important one. Degrowth can learn from climate justice the struggle. So far, degrowth is largely an academic endeavor to formulate and debate about alternatives, and grassroots efforts to strengthen low-impact lifestyles here and now. Both are vitally important. However, degrowth sometimes appears to be somewhat vague on key political questions, in particular in terms of what the necessary struggles that need to be fought to achieve degrowth are, what this would entail, and who are allies and enemies. To develop meaningful strategies for political change, degrowth should become more confrontational. Degrowth should not shy away from but rather face and embrace the conflicts that are necessary to achieve its goals.

Degrowth should strive to engage more with on-the-ground struggles.

One very concrete situation that the degrowth-climate justice alliance needs to organize against is that, while global carbon majors – the largest oil, gas, and coal companies worldwide – own 5 times more reserves of fossil fuels that are still in the ground than those that can be burned if humanity wants to achieve only the less ambitious 2 degree target, these reserves have largely already been turned into financial assets that are owned by companies and traded on international markets. Thus, alleviating climate change – and thus achieving one key basis for a degrowth transformation – is only possible if these companies are expropriated of these assets. They’ll do anything to avoid this. What does this mean for degrowth strategies? Also in this regard, the climate justice movement is showing the way. One great example is the Break Free campaign in May 2016, in which tens of thousands of people on 6 continents did something that politicians did not: they took bold, courageous action to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Degrowth should strive to engage more with on-the-ground struggles.

water is sacred
Water is sacred protest which took place in May 2016 as part of the Break Free global campaign. Source: Backbone campaign flickr (CC BY)

Matthias Schmelzer works at the Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie and is a Permanent Fellow at the DFG-Research Group on “Post-Growth Societies” at the University of Jena. He has published on the ideology of economic growth, the history of economic ideas, and the degrowth movement and is currently involved in organising a conference about the relationships between migration, self-determined development and ecological crises.

Are the Chipaya under threat of disappearing ?

PaulaM1
The Kawsay staff filling up the truck’s tank with gas as they got ready to load it with soil. Source: author

by Paula Monroy

The Uru-Chipaya territory is an autonomous indigenous municipality of the Plurinational Republic of Bolivia. The region stands 3876 m. a.m.s.l., located 194 km southwest of Oruro city, northeast of the Coipasa salt flat—the second most important in South America (2500 km2). Currently, the municipality counts with a permanent population of about 1814 people. The main productive activities are subsistence agriculture (quinoa, potatoes and kañahua) and livestock (sheep breeding—approximately 86%, and camelids—approximately 14%) also intended for self-consumption. In December 2015 Lake Poopo dried up and now the Lauca river is facing a similar fate, forcing Chipaya people to flee their territory due to water scarcity.

However, other factors cumulative to the stress occasioned by drought are as well relevant when inquiring how the continuance of the Chipaya nation is challenged. To explore the issues at hand, a skype interview with Leonel Cerruto, Founder and Director of KAWSAY-Centro de Culturas Originarias, was conducted. As an institution, Kawsay has the main objective of strengthening indigenous originary campesino organizations through projects that include La Escuela de la Madre Tierra (The Mother Earth School). The conversation started with a discussion about tourism.

I wanted to start off by asking you about the tourism initiative in the Chipaya territory. When I was there I remember hearing from our brothers about an Italian man coming in and incentivizing the overture to tourism. Are you aware of how that is going so far?

Leonel Cerruto: A few years ago the community built an albergue in Chipaya, but it is not doing very well. To my understanding, an organization is currently doing some work financed by the European Union, but [Kawsay is] not working with them. [Kawsay’s] strategy is more community oriented. They [the organization] want to promote tourism in general. However, it is up to the autonomous indigenous government to decide in the end. The autonomy was voted ‘yes’ with close to 80% of the votes. We are happy because it was the last step to confirm the indigenous autonomy. We will enter a process of transition to formalize [the Chipaya’s] own government. A bigger challenge will come about, such as where will the community get resources from, because people go to Chile to work and make money so they can sustain themselves. In that sense, tourism is a good choice because it does not require a big investment.

The organization Leonel referred to is GVC Italia—Gruppo di Volontariato Civile (Civil Volunteer Group). As he stated, the European Union is financing the project, which was named “Qnas Soñi (People of the Water): CHIPAYA, between tradition and technology, towards a resilient municipality”. It is an intervention plan that aims to assist the Chipaya people in adopting a strategy that pretends to help them reclaim their cultural identity and ‘treasure’ their ancestral inheritance. It pretends to do so by implementing four processes associated with the construction of a resilient community, one of which is developing services for tourists and promote it as a cultural destination nationally and worldwide.

It appears to be a good idea, but there is something missing. In their website, the organization [GVC] overlooks the importance of conducting an impact assessment. The Chipaya territory is located in a zone with pandemic flora and fauna species. Considering the Poppo Lake dried up not long ago, introducing an initiative like the one [GVC] is promoting would be adding more pressure to the ecosystem. For example, tourism requires sanitary services and food. It could also bring more garbage in the area like plastic water bottles and snack packages. What do you think?

L. C.: We are not too informed about [GVC]’s project. We’ve been more focused on the indigenous autonomy aspect. We are assisting the community in mobilizing to spread their own statuto because there were some people opposing to the indigenous autonomy. [GVC] is separate from us. However, things are about to change. For example, now that the indigenous autonomy has been adopted, the governance structure will change. So, tourism will be discussed in a participatory manner.

The state is interested, yes, but the problem I see is that they are not looking at it from the Chipaya perspective. They label it as ‘community tourism’, but they are misunderstanding it for rural tourism, which is not community tourism at all.

To my understanding the state is supporting [GVC]’s project.

L. C.: The state is interested, yes, but the problem I see is that they are not looking at it from the Chipaya perspective. They label it as ‘community tourism’, but they are misunderstanding it for rural tourism, which is not community tourism at all.

PaulaM4
A landscape of the Chipaya territory. Source: author

What comes to mind is the experience of my hometown Tepoztlan in regards of tourism in general. Back in the early 1900s Robert Redfield, American anthropologist and ethno-linguist, published a study about the campesino community in the village, which attracted sociologist Oscar Lewis whose research in the village revolved around poverty. Since then, the village underwent a process of urbanization as it became a hotspot for academic tourism. Then rich people were drawn to live there seasonally because intellectuals and artists were also living there. The pyramid and customs made Tepoztlan a mystical village that to this day receives thousands of visitors every year without any sort of control or regulation.

L. C.: What you are saying is true. We have to be careful when integrating tourism. What worries me, which I imagine is similar to what you just mentioned, is that the Chipaya is an ancient culture not only in Bolivia but in the continent. So tourism is a threat. It is valid what you were saying. This reminds me of the Taquile island found in the Peruvian side of the Titicaca Lake. It is a community that self-started tourism and yet did not change their everyday activities, which are all tourist attractions. Each family gets a tourist, and the community has a common fund they collectively administer and also redistribute between the families. This is a good reference of how community tourism is organized and administrated. I know many instances in Ecuador that are more diverse in this branch. In other words, there are many forms of community tourism that are more controlled and the flow of tourists is regulated. The problem is when money dominates the situation.

Yes, I agree. In Tepoztlan, for instance, people are turning their backs on agriculture and prefer to sell their land, land they inherited in most cases, as it is a faster source of income. This is problematic because the territory is fragmented and has become vulnerable to privatization.

L. C.: Right. This is also observed in Cusco. It is a very important point, indeed. Once a territory is fragmented, cultural identity is also fragmented. Indigenous autonomy is important because it integrates the political and especially the spiritual aspect. The latter should be reincorporated.

Putting this in the Chipaya context, what would you suggest as a strategy? Considering that globalization is already changing the lifestyles of teenagers.

L. C.: One way is by recuperating the ancestral view to regain spirituality. This is key. For example, last month I was at a meeting with a group of elders who were saying the importance of seeing the earth as a living being. Once nature is seen as someone who is alive, it is treated as if it were alive. This vision needs to be retaught to young people. We are working with youth to help them integrate in the community life.

In other words, there are many forms of community tourism that are more controlled and the flow of tourists is regulated. The problem is when money dominates the situation.

PaulaM3
A grain and seed storage hut. Source: author

Once nature is seen as someone who is alive, it is treated as if it were alive.

Don’t you think it’s a bit complicated with the internet and mobile phones?

L. C.: That is a reality and we need to embrace it. The internet cannot be eliminated. Most young people have cellphones and they spend most of their time chatting on it. The goal is to help them give the internet a different use. It is not a matter of prohibition, it is rather a matter of switching the use they make of this technology. We are producing videos with them, they are coming up with their own presentations with their own communities. It has been working positively so far, as participants are getting more engaged with their culture and identity. They are integrating in the communal activities more and more.

Are ancient rituals such as capturing the wind and harvesting dunes still practised?

L. C.: Yes, although I am not specifically sure about those two. But, we are working on reincorporating traditional practices into the spiritual and ritual activities. It is a slow process because not all participants accept it right away. It also depends on their families and community. In Charagua, a community where we are undergoing a similar project, we are doing pretty well. Participants are very active and actively integrate in the community.

In regards of food sovereignty and drought…

L. C.: That is serious. Especially in the Andean part, which includes the Chipaya territory, and the Chaco region. It is a desperate situation because, for example, the potato seeds that were cultivated could not germinate as it has not rained.

There is a study online stating that the drought of the Poppo lake is due to water mismanagement.

L. C.: On the one hand, as you say, it is due to water mismanagement. There seems to be a lack of communal management of the resources and a lack of prevention measures. On the other hand, one cannot ignore that drought and el Nino are effects of climate change. The absence of rain is not necessarily because the little water available is mismanaged. Climate change plays a big role in all of this. Both things are cumulative. Another thing I am realizing is that some news are manipulated with political intent. What is true for Bolivia is that, according to official reports, 40% of our glaciers have been lost in the past years. This means that our mountains have less snow, resulting in less water supplying to the rivers and springs. It is undeniable. We have many snowcaps that have lost snow, thus there is no water running from those places. Consequently, there are less volumes of water feeding the rivers. So this is what has been going on. There is no prevention, the proper measurements have not been taken to come up with a contingency plan, for instance. Our water resources continue being used as if nothing was happening. It is a complex matter, and climate change is a key cause.

PaulaM2
The rooftops of two neighbouring homes. Source: author

The absence of rain is not necessarily because the little water available is mismanaged. Climate change plays a big role in all of this. Both things are cumulative.

The following is something that I have been noticing (since my childhood) in communities deemed ‘poor’ in the capitalist sense. It is a dependency on the government for help, or an expectation to be helped from above. While conducting an interview in the Chipaya nation, the interviewee asked for financial aid to the government for the construction of a diversion canal, as if a bureaucrat would watch the video. His colleague told me that the money had already been approved and they were just waiting for the government to hand it out.

L. C.: Absolutely. More than the government it would be the state, though. This government has been giving out more resources, and it is up to the municipality to manage those resources according to the needs of the population. If the municipal agents do not allocate the resources properly, neither will the communities. In the last couple of years this has become a generation of dependency. For this reason, local authorities need to be strengthened, especially in the area of communal organization. This is something we are working on permanently. With the indigenous autonomy they should as well strengthen their organization so it is less dependant on the central state.

Car traffickers don’t respect the borders and the municipality was not capable of keeping them away either. The indigenous autonomy now allows the local authorities to fairly manage their territory.

I noticed that car trafficking is another threat to the territory. What is your opinion on this matter?

Indeed, trafficked cars are driven into their territory, but the Chipaya people are not involved in it. It is up to them to build barriers that will keep [car traffickers] from crossing. Territorial control has been a struggle that the Chipaya people have not been able to do to these days. Car traffickers don’t respect the borders and the municipality was not capable of keeping them away either. The indigenous autonomy now allows the local authorities to fairly manage their territory.

Let me pause to briefly explain what the indigenous autonomy is about. Back in 2007, with 4 states against (Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia)—and the abstention of 11 states (which included Colombia and the Russian Federation)—the United Nations’ General Assembly passed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) by a majority of 143 votes in favour. Two years later, President Evo Morales made the official launch of the indigenous autonomy process with the Decree Law 231. As it is recognized in Article 2 and Article 290 of the constitution, indigenous peoples have the right to self-govern their ancestral territory in harmony with law and constitution as long as it is done within the structure of the unitary state.

A Chipaya man showing his hunting technique. Source: author
A Chipaya man showing his hunting technique. Source: author

I read a UN report that says that the health issues [Chipaya] children and women are more prone to get are anemia and malnutrition. What I found concerning is that during my visit I did not see any health centres.

L. C.: Presently, there have been some incentives from the state in this regard. However, as we were saying before [about depending on the state], as indigenous nations we had always had our own systems, not just in regards of health. We have ancestral wisdom. School teaches other ideas about culture.

Is the content taught at public school designed by the state?

L. C.: It is one thing that it is provided by the state, which should be the case anyway, and yet it should be the community who creates its own education system. Resources should be provided by the state because it’s part of a country; but, in this case, communities should have more capabilities to maintain their own education system.

Do you think this could be done in the indigenous autonomy?

L. C.: Yes, relatively because the educative system is centralized by the state. It will be more attainable as [the Chipaya people] get their own system, which needs further strengthening. In the instance of Bolivia, there are three curriculum levels: one is central, another is regional, and the third, which has not been effectively developed, is local. Therefore, it is possible to continue working on regular education. On the other hand, there is the need to continue working on our own community education, which is what indigenous nations have always had for thousands of years. Yet, since these themes are no longer researched in depth, it is as if they did not exist. All cultures have had their own education or formation systems that are actually meant to attain wisdom, including health and any other system. It is important to clarify which are our own systems.

All indigenous cultures have their own ecological principles, or cosmovision. When these principles are forgotten the ecosystem is destroyed.

To conclude, would you say the Chipaya nation is under threat of disappearing?

L. C.: Yes. However, the indigenous autonomy can facilitate the Chipaya people the possibility of recuperating their culture. The Urus are in the process of going extinct, though. A segment of the Uru population lived near the Poppo Lake. Since the lake dried up, they lost their livelihood because they are essentially fishermen. They were forced to migrate. For this reason, their territorial structure is scattering. They are moving to urbanized regions because they no longer have a means to survive. This is happening in a different region of Oruro. It is happening to other cultures, too, and the process is similar: it disjuncts, scatters, and then disappears. There has been progress in the case of the Chipaya nation because the indigenous autonomy will allow them to develop their own life model by strengthening their ancestral culture. At least that is what is hoped. All indigenous cultures have their own ecological principles, or cosmovision. When these principles are forgotten the ecosystem is destroyed.

 

Paula Monroy is an undergraduate student at Concordia University majoring in Urban Studies.

Punch Nazis when the timing is right

Richard-Spencer-punch-1-600x348-1

by Sam Bliss

Whether or not it is okay to punch a Nazi is the wrong question. Even those who say, No, it is not okay to punch a Nazi, would probably support waging all-out war against Nazis in certain situations. World War Two comes to mind.

The twittersphere hasn’t produced many interesting, intelligent discussions on the topic firstly because a social network of one-line postings never really hosts deliberative democracy, but also because the disagreeing factions are not necessarily arguing about the same thing. Of course it is okay to punch a Nazi, sometimes.

The more interesting question is this one: When is it okay to attack Nazis in what ways?

The person who socked well-known white nationalist leader Richard Spencer while he was being interviewed by a journalist in D.C. after the inauguration last Friday did not punch him just to punch him. If the black-clad individual had merely wanted to whack the bigot who coined the term “alt-right,” they would have done so at a moment when Spencer was not on camera surrounded by a small crowd.

The goal was to interfere with the interview, to stop Spencer from disseminating his anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, anti-Semitic hatred. Or rather, to stop the ignorant, click-hungry media from enabling the self-identified “identitarian” from spewing his anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, Semitic vitriol. The goal may also have been to humiliate him, and to get some laughs from those who agree that Spencer’s clean-shaven, contemptible face deserves a good, hard right hook to the face.

My opinion is that yes, it was a defensible punch. It shut Spencer up. Spencer states that the United States belongs to white men. He openly advocates black genocide and does not deserve a chance to speak. More on that in a minute.

This brings me to another interesting question: did the punch backfire? Some non-violence advocates insist that it makes anti-racists and anti-fascists look bad. We should not use the disrespectful tactics of the enemy, so the argument goes. Violence only breeds more violence. It is never justified, according to these anti-violence voices.

This is naïve—and possibly dangerous. From India’s independence from Britain to the end of U.S. slavery, racism has not been defeated with words, but by direct opposition. Anger may lead to the dark side, but Jedis do use light sabers. Non-violent anti-racism looks bad—when racists win.

To me, the punch might have backfired because now many more people have watched the interview than ever would have if not for the blow to the jaw. Giving airspace to people like Spencer gives them power. Look at what happened with President Trump. Or Adolf Hitler, for that matter. Repetitively communicating their despicable message is how people like them end up in the position to order the rest of us around. Both good press and bad press reward them with public attention.

From this perspective, the media should not have been interviewing Spencer in the first place. It will take a lot of restraint for the media to sacrifice traffic – and thus advertising revenue – by passing up click-worthy opportunities to shine the light on far-right extremists who feel empowered to organize and speak up in the age of Trump.

On the other hand, I learned that the alt-right is basically Nazism thanks to this incident. The popularity of the video—the internet has now set The Punch to various epic songs—has exposed people to the ridiculous racism of the alt-right. Because of it, we are more aware that this scary movement is gaining momentum. The chances have increased that we can stop the alt-right before we are forced to resort to violence much more serious than a sucker punch.

If the media ignores Nazis and Trump completely, then they can go about their evil ways hidden from public sight. But if the media gives them too much attention, it spreads their message.

So the question then becomes: when do we ignore Nazis, when do we report on them, and when do we punch them in the face? The media and non-media need to think hard about this one, every time. All three courses of action have their proper time and place.

Sam Bliss is a PhD student at the University of Vermont in the Economics for the Anthropocene research initiative. He loves reading, singing, and slow travel and strongly dislikes post-environmentalism.

Why we need a socialist spirituality

Lighting the candle at a Ferguson rally. Gerry Lauzon / Flickr.
Lighting the candle at a Ferguson rally. Gerry Lauzon / Flickr.

by Graham Jones

I have always been secretly spiritual. Growing up, it was difficult to avoid. Catholic ornaments scattered around the house by my mum. Sat on the pews of countless dusty, empty churches, listening to my dad as he repaired their organs. Playing the piano at Christmas: O Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in a Manger, Silent Night. The nativity scene under the tree. At school the Children’s Bible was my favorite book, my link to a magical past. I sat in assemblies, singing hymns with back straight and falsetto soaring over the other bored, slouching bodies around me. I would apologize silently to God for my impure thoughts.

And then I grew away from it. Hymns turned to pop songs. Bibles turned to novels. Thoughts of God turned to thoughts of the atom. Psychological submission turned to rebellion. Jesus stopped being real at about the same time as Santa.

I welcomed it. It felt like maturity, a release from authority and fantasy. Yet I never lost the yearning for … something. A greater purpose, a feeling of wonder. I felt snatches of it from time to time, but always fleeting—in a song, a film, or a moment of love. So I buried myself in rapturous, ethereal music. In quiet contemplative arthouse cinema. In romantic obsessions. In hindsight, I was longing for a secular divinity.

Atheists talk about replacing love of God with love of science – but where are the churches where we worship the infinite? Where are the hymns we sing to the glory of the electron? Where are the accepting scientific communities we can turn to for ethical guidance (that don’t require a PhD to engage in)? Just as the individual seeker of truth replaces the community of faith, our support systems have been increasingly privatized and individualized – to therapists, doctors, job centers, the nuclear family. And to ‘self-care’, which many have noted can play both a liberatory or an oppressive role. Freedom from religious dogma had its drawbacks: atomization, which in turn was integral to the success of neoliberalism.

Many people know, rationally, that global warming is bad. But it doesn’t hit them in the chest. The information they receive is divorced from a wider understanding of place in the universe, divorced from their bodies.

Our understanding of the universe has become divorced from our bodies. Far from increasing our awareness, the dominance of atheist rationalism has stripped people of their systems of explanation. Speculation and creativity in understanding the world is patronized and attacked. ‘No, you’re wrong. Trust the experts’. Yet as long as that expert knowledge is so safely guarded behind paywalls, university walls, cultural and language barriers, there is not and cannot be a public understanding of science. Capitalism fuels not just economic inequality, but educational inequality too.

Many people know, rationally, that global warming is bad. But it doesn’t hit them in the chest. The information they receive is divorced from a wider understanding of place in the universe, divorced from their bodies. You would scream at those who tried to burn down your house. Many have forgotten how to scream.

 

The left

The socialist left, at least in the West, tends to avoid spirituality, often seeing it as directly contradicting the materialist philosophy associated with communism. And yet those on the left most attracted to spirituality and its embodied practices – such as in the peace movement – tend to move away from what socialists would think of as a materialist analysis of society (sometimes even veering into pseudoscience and orientalism). This ambivalence toward spirituality has implications for how the left organizes in communities. Given that the vast majority of global workers are in some way religious, to lack a spiritual practice (or a proper appreciation of it) is a barrier to creating trust and solidarity, and hinders movement building.

Given that the vast majority of global workers are in some way religious, to lack a spiritual practice is a barrier to creating trust and solidarity, and hinders movement building.

So how do we move beyond this division and create a synthesis of socialism, science and spirituality? Can atheists reclaim spirituality without necessitating a return to religion (and without patronizing those who do)? It’s not enough to simply appeal to people to learn more about religions – we have to actually construct spaces in which people can come together to collectively explore these questions, to develop emotional bonds with one another. Rational inquiry alone is not enough; people need to see the relevance to their own lives and feelings. They need to experience spirituality and recognize it as such.

To begin with then, we need to define ‘spiritual’ more precisely. This will help us to show how religious and non-religious people share certain rapturous bodily experiences, regardless of the system they have for explaining it.

 

Pluralistic spirituality

Rather than merely being a synonym for ‘religious’, I take spirituality to be something distinct: the bodily experience associated with religiousness. In the eyes of theoretical physicist Fritjof Capra, spirituality conceived in this way is fully consistent with complex systems science, and particularly the theory of embodied cognition:

Spiritual experience is an experience of aliveness of mind and body as a unity. Moreover, this experience of unity transcends not only the separation of mind and body but also the separation of self and world. The central awareness in these spiritual moments is a profound sense of oneness with all, a sense of belonging to the universe as a whole.

With this in mind, I take spirituality to mean:

  • exploring the metaphysics of the infinite
  • which becomes expressed in ecstatic embodied experiences
  • and which informs our ethics at both the individual, collective and wider social scales

To put it simply, it involves asking three questions: What exists beyond my immediate perception? How does this make me feel? And what therefore does acting justly entail? This includes religious belief in the traditional sense, but also goes beyond it. The feeling of being humbled by the scale of the universe when staring into the night sky. The feeling of the weight of history and your debt to it when walking through an old building. The feeling of infinite power and possibility on a protest march, surrounded by your friends and community in joyful union. All of these are comparable to a ‘religious experience’.

Whilst this definition allows us to identify spirituality in secular experiences, it does not imply that all of these experiences are good. For example, nationalism might also fall within this understanding:

  • a metaphysics based on racial and cultural essentialism
  • becomes expressed in the embodied practices of singing anthems, pride in the flag, and love for the monarchy
  • and it informs the ethics and organizational principles of hierarchy, fear of difference, and violence seen as legitimate for protecting racial or cultural homogeneity

As a response to the rise of nationalism in Western countries today, some on the left have urged for nationalism with a progressive flavor. However, I would reject any suggestion that the left adopt elements of nationalism in order to be successful. Ash Sarkar from Novara Media details why English nationalism can never be disentangled from racism and imperialism. Nevertheless, it is instructive for us to ask why nationalism is so successful in the West, where the left currently is not.

It is instructive for us to ask why nationalism is so successful in the West, where the left currently is not. To actually succeed against nationalism we need to have something as emotionally powerful.

To actually succeed against nationalism we need to have something as emotionally powerful. And to do that we need shared practices for creating communal, embodied emotional connections, based around a shared ethics and metaphysics. A socialist spirituality, but one which is internationalist and intersectional.

What would a socialist spirituality look like? In my view, it would need to meet some key criteria. We firstly need a metaphysics which bridges the divide of spirituality, science and socialism. In my view, this requires acknowledging the constant motion and interconnectedness of everything.

Secondly, we need to take this framework and apply it to the body: how do we position ourselves in this world? What does it suggest about power and oppression? And what practices can help us to feel this knowledge? I call this radical mindfulness.

Lastly, we need look at the ethical and organizational principles and strategies that emerge from these practices. Let’s call this the care ethic, to contrast it with the work ethic.

Crucially, we need to keep socialist spirituality simple. For one thing, this will allow it to be more easily understood by non-academics – something which the theory-focused left often fails to do. It also gives space for the framework to adapt as our knowledge expands and changes. And also, most importantly for me, this allows for it to remain relatively consistent with differing beliefs as to whether any deity or supernatural force is involved. This can help form the basis of shared spaces – perhaps even organizations – that allow socialist collaboration across faith, without requiring people to divorce their spirituality from their organizing.

Because whatever your position on the ultimate nature of the universe, we need to be able to work together on earthly matters like capitalism and climate change – while we still have an Earth left to fight for.

This is the second article in a series on Spirituality, Science and Socialism, a version of which was originally published on Graham Jones’ blog, Life Glug. You can read the other parts here: 1, 2, 3, and (forthcoming) 4, 5.

Graham Jones is a writer and organizer based in London, and can be found on Twitter as @onalifeglug. If you would like to support their work, you can do so through Paypal or Patreon.

Accelerationism… and degrowth?

Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927).
Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

by Aaron Vansintjan

For the past little while I’ve been involved with a group in Barcelona, which studies and advocates ‘degrowth’: the idea that we must downscale production and consumption to have a more equitable society, and that we therefore must dismantle the ideology of ‘economic growth at all costs’. As you can imagine, they spend much of their time trying to clear up misconceptions: “No, we’re not against trees growing. Yes, we also would like children to grow. Yes, we also like nice things like healthcare.”

But this last year I was living in London. There, activist ideology seemed to be permeated by the ‘accelerationists’—who argue that capitalism and its technologies should be pushed beyond their own limits, to create a new post-capitalist future. Accelerationism is almost like, having tried hard to evade a black hole, a ship’s crew decides that the best course of action would be to turn around and let themselves be sucked in: “Hey, there could be something cool on the other side!”

After a year of experiences in some of London’s activist circles, I now understand better where this is coming from. Decades of government cutbacks, squashing of unions, total financialization of the city, and lack of access to resources for community organizing has meant that London activists are systematically in crisis mode—exhausted, isolated, and always on the defensive.

accel-degrow
Source: Institute for Social Ecology

These worlds of thought are best encapsulated in two recent books. In Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era, edited by Giacomo d’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis, its authors explain concepts such as care, environmental justice, basic income, commons—all of which are seen as part of degrowth’s “interpretive frame”. For them, degrowth is an umbrella term that houses a variety of movements, ideologies, and ideas for a more sustainable, and less capitalist, world.

In Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work—an extension of their viral #Accelerate Manifesto—authors Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek discuss the promise of basic income, increase in automation technologies and utopian thinking for creating a kind of “fully automated luxury communism”.

Surprisingly, both books have a lot in common. You have the utopian imaginaries, a renewed focus on alternative economics, the willingness to think beyond both neoliberalism and Keynesianism, and the ability to grapple with contemporary technology’s effects on society and the environment.

But they are also quite different. These differences were made real to me on a dreary Saturday afternoon last winter at an event in London called “Future Society Forum”. After a short introduction by Nick Snricek, activists from around London were invited to brainstorm what a leftist utopia could look like.

The room was divided into different ‘themes’: work, health, environment and resources, education, etc. We were first asked to place post-its with ideas for “futures” particular to each theme. (Comically, someone had put ‘basic income’ on every single theme before the event had even started—an attempt at subliminal messaging?) Then, we were asked to split into groups to discuss each theme.

Given my background, I decided I could contribute most to the ‘environment’ theme—though I was certainly interested in joining the others. After a 15-minute discussion, the time came for each group to feed back to the larger collective. Unsurprisingly, the environment group envisioned a decentralized society where resources were managed by bio-region—a participatory, low-tech, low-consumption economy, where everyone has to do some farming and some cleaning up, and where the city is perfectly integrated with the country. I’m pretty sure I heard sniggers as our utopia was read out loud.

The ‘work’ group, on the other hand, envisioned a future with machines that would do everything for us—requiring big factories, where all labor (if there was any) was rewarded equally, where no one had to do anything they didn’t like, in which high-tech computer systems controlled the economy. Basically the “fully-automated luxury communist” dream.

Talk about selection bias.

Part of me had expected more than a snigger, though. But the direct challenge never came. The accelerationists begrudged the enviros their grub-eating utopia while they ruminated on their own techno-fetishes. Was it just an armistice to prepare for a bigger battle down the road, or was there really less animosity than I imagined?

Part of me had expected more than a snigger, though. But the direct challenge never came. The accelerationists begrudged the enviros their grub-eating utopia while they ruminated on their own techno-fetishes.

Of course such differences are not totally new on the left—similar opposing strands played their part in social movements of the past: should we smash the machines or take them into our own hands? Should we grab the reigns of the state or disown it outright? Friedrich Engels may have totally dismissed peasants as possible revolutionaries, but the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakhunin insisted that peasants could, and would, be crucial in creating a world beyond capitalism—and that the left could learn from peasant communes for an idea of what another world would look like.

These same tensions are competing in the accelerationist and degrowth ideologies. Accelerationists like Srnicek and Williams emphasize automation, the role of unions, and reduction in the working week as the primary variables in shifting the gears beyond capitalism. Their focus is on the big stuff (labor, global trade) and they argue a focus on small interventions by the left is part of the problem, not a solution to it. Degrowth scholars look toward small “nowtopias” and make alliances with those struggling against extractivism—often peasants, forest-dwellers, and indigenous peoples.

When I was done reading Srnicek and Williams’ book, I realized that degrowth and accelerationism (although I’ve since learned that Williams and Srnicek now distance themselves from the term, so as not to be confused with more right-wing strains of the movement) actually have more in common than I initially thought—both in practical terms (policies and strategy), and in their general ideological positions. And they have a lot to learn from each other.

What follows is a bit of a report: a conversation between the two proposals. There will be some critique, but also some cross-pollination. My discussion revolves around a couple of themes: the importance of utopian thinking, technology, economy, and political strategy.

If there is commonality there is also difference. How is it possible that, considering so many agreements, they have such an oppositional framing of the problem at hand? By way of a conclusion, I suggest that the notion of ‘speed’—and their divergent views of it—is fundamental to each position.

 

Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Utopian Thinking

As David Graeber put it in yet another tasty essay, social movements today are experiencing a kind of “despair fatigue”: no longer content with merely commiserating about cuts to social services, there has been a rebirth in futuristic, positive thinking.

Indeed, it seems that a key uniting principle between accelerationism and degrowth is their promotion of utopian ideas. This might come as a surprise with those unfamiliar with the degrowth literature—recently, a whole book was dedicated to attacking the degrowth hypothesis as anti-modern and a form of “austerity ecology”.

However, the fact is that degrowth thinkers have put a lot of thought into how to go beyond primitivist flight from the modern and envision a future that is low-carbon, democratic, and just. Despite the negative connotations that may come with a word like ‘degrowth’, there have been many positive, forward-looking proposals within the movement. Key concepts here include “desire”—that is, the emphasis that a just transition should not be forced but should come from people’s own political will; “commoning”—in which wealth is managed collectively rather than privatized; the support of innovative policies such as basic and maximum income as well as ecological tax reform; the resuscitation of Paul Lafargue’s demand for ‘the right to be lazy’ (also picked up by the accelerationists); the embracement of ‘imaginaries’ inspired by ‘nowtopias’—actually existing livelihood experiments that point to different possible futures.

The same is true for the accelerationists. Indeed, the launching point of Srnicek and Williams’ book is that much of leftist activism in the past decades has forsaken the imaginative, creative utopias which characterized left struggles of the past. Progressive activism, to them, has largely been limited to what they call “folk politics”—an activist ideology that is small in its ambit, focuses on immediate, temporary actions rather than long-term organizing, focuses on trying to create prefigurative perfect ‘micro-worlds’ rather than achieving wide-ranging system change. This, they argue, is symptomatic of the wider political moment, in which a neoliberal consensus has foreclosed any ability to think up alternative policies and worlds. And so they propose a vision of the future that is both modern and conscious of current economic trends. Like the degrowth movement, they propose that the dominant pro-work ideology must be dismantled, but unlike degrowth, they take this in another direction: proposing a world where people don’t have to submit to drudgery but can instead pursue their own interests by letting machines do all the work —in other words “fully automated luxury communism.”

What unites the two is a counter-hegemonic strategy that sets up alternative imaginaries and ethics, that challenges the neoliberal moment by insisting that other worlds are possible and, indeed, desirable. For degrowth scholars like Demaria et al., degrowth is not a stand-alone concept but an interpretive “frame” which brings together a constellation of terms and movements. For accelerationists, part of the strategy is to promote a new set of “universal” demands that allow new political challenges to take place. In addition, they call for an “ecology of organizations”—think tanks, NGOs, collectives, lobby groups, unions, that can weave together a new hegemony. For both, there is a need to undermine existing ideologies by, on the one hand, providing strong refutations to them, and, on the other, through setting up new ones (e.g. post-work, conviviality). The result is two strong proposals for alternative futures that are not afraid of dreaming big.

metro_4
Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Economic Pluralism, Political Monism?

Forty years after neo-conservative godfather Irving Kristol indicted the New Left for “refusing to think economically” in his well-known speech at the Mont Pelerin Society, it is interesting that these two emerging frameworks are once again centering economics in their analysis. Indeed, both frameworks propose startlingly similar economic policies. They share demands such as universal basic income, reduction in work hours, and the democratization of technology. However, they differ in other demands: Williams and Srnicek stress the potential of automation to address inequality and focus on the role of technological advances in either further driving precarity or liberating society. As part of this, they talk at length about the importance of state-led innovation and subsidies for research and development, and how this needs to be reclaimed by the left.

In contrast, Degrowth scholars such as Giorgos Kallis and Samuel Alexander have proposed a more diverse platform of policies, ranging from minimum and maximum income, working hour reduction and time-sharing, banking and finance reform, participatory planning and budgeting, ecological tax reform, financial and legal support for the solidarity economy, reducing advertising, and abolishing the use of GDP as an indicator of progress. These are only a few of the many policies proposed by Degrowth advocates—the point is, however, that Degrowthers tend to support a broad policy platform rather than a set of strategic, system-changing “easy wins”.

At multiple points in their book, Srnicek and Williams urge the left to engage with economic theory once again. They argue that, while mainstream economics does need to be challenged, tools such as modeling, econometrics, and statistics will be crucial in developing a revived, positive vision of the future.

Indeed, near the end of the book, they make a bid for “pluralist” economics. In the wake of the 2008 crisis, the left responded with a “makeshift Keynesianism”—because the focus had largely been on a critique of capitalism there was a severe lack of alternative economic theories available to draw from. They urge thinking through contemporary issues that are not easily addressed by Keynesian or Marxist economic theory: secular stagnation, “the shift to an informational, post-scarcity economy”, alternative approaches to quantitative easing, and the possibilities of full automation and a universal basic income, amongst others. They argue that there is a need for the left to “think through an alternative economic system” which draws from innovative trends spanning “modern monetary theory to complexity economics, from ecological to participatory economics.”

However, I was a disappointed by what they considered “plural” forms of economics. There was little discussion of the content of alternative economics such as institutional economics, post-Keynesian economics, commons theory, environmental economics, ecological economics, and post-development theory. It is these fields that have offered some of the strongest challenges to neoclassical economics, and present some strong challenges to their own political ideology as well. They would do well to engage with them more.

This gap is not minor. Rather, it reflects deeper issues within the whole accelerationist framework. For a book that mentions climate change as one of the foremost problems we face—also mentioned in the first sentence of their #Accelerate Manifesto—there is surprisingly little engagement with environmental issues. And yet it is these unmentioned heterodox economic fields that have provided some of the most useful responses to the current environmental crisis—even going so far as providing robust models and econometric analyses to test their own claims.

The same gap is not found in the Degrowth literature. Indeed, the movement has been inspired to a great extent by rebel economists such as Eleanor Ostrom, Nicholas Georgescu-Røegen, K. William Kapp, Karl Polanyi, Cornelius Castoriadis, Herman Daly, and J.K. Gibson-Graham. Degrowth sessions are now the norm at many heterodox economics conferences—just as degrowth conferences are largely dominated by discussions of the economy.

Taking the lessons from institutional economics in stride, degrowth thinkers have stressed that there are no panaceas: no single policy will do the trick, a diverse and complimentary policy platform is necessary to offset feedback loops that may arise from the interplay between several policies.

From this perspective, the strategic policies proposed by accelerationists—basic income, automation, reduction in working hours—start to look rather simplistic. Focusing on three core policies makes for elegant reading and simple placards, but also comes at a price: when these policies are implemented and result in unforeseen negative effects, there will be little political will to keep experimenting with them. I would rather place my bets on a solid, multi-policy platform, resilient enough to deal with negative feedback loops and not too dogmatic about which one should be implemented first.

From this perspective, the strategic policies proposed by accelerationists—basic income, automation, reduction in working hours—start to look rather simplistic.

A strong point of the accelerationists is their emphasis that economic policies are political—and thus must be won through political organizing. In doing so, they make the crucial step beyond economism—the term Antonio Gramsci used to refer to leftists who put counter-hegemonic activism on hold until “economic conditions” favor it. The same cannot always be said of the environmentalist left: scarcity, environmental limits—these are often imposed as apolitical spectres that override all other concerns.

And yet, for all their calls for a united, utopian vision, I remain apprehensive about the kind of utopia they proposed—and therefore the kind of politics they see as necessary. While ‘folk politics’ is in part a promising definition of activism that fails to scale up, it also easily becomes a way to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit their idea of what politics really is.

Take, for example, their take-down of the Argentinean popular response to the financial crisis. Under their gaze, the “large-scale national turn towards horizontalism” involving neighborhood assemblies after the 1998 recession  “remained a localized response to the crisis” and “never approached the point of replacing the state”. Worker-run factories failed to scale up and “remained necessarily embedded within capitalist social relations”. In conclusion, they claim that Argentina’s ‘moment’ was “simply a salve for the problems of capitalism, not an alternative to it.” They maintain that it was simply an emergency response, not a competitor.

But this is a very problematic view of what constitutes ‘the political.’ Drawing on decades of reporting on Latin America’s popular struggles and involvement in them, Raùl Zibechi argues that, following neoliberal abandonment by the state, peasants, Indigenous peoples, and slum-dwellers are creating new worlds and resources that operate differently from the logic of the state and capital. These new societies make no demands from political parties and they do not develop agendas for electoral reform. Instead, they organize “con/contra” (with/against) existing institutions by ‘reterritorializing’ their livelihoods, building diverse and horizontal economies, and rising up in revolt at critical junctures.

Under Zibechi’s gaze, the very same Argentinean popular reaction is described as a moment when “the unfeasible becomes visible”. What was simmering under the surface is revealed “like lightning illuminating the night the sky”.  Rather than being “emergency responses”, the Argentinean response was practiced and strategic—not quite as spontaneous and disorganized as Srnicek and Williams depict.

Likewise with gender politics; even as Williams and Srnicek acknowledge feminist economic theories around care and reproductive labor, what qualifies as ‘real’ politics falls into very hegemonic realms: lobbying, the formation of think-tanks, policy platforms, unions, and economic modeling. But what about other types of resistance, such as the ones Zibechi highlights: childcare collectives, squatted and autonomously organized settlements, community-organized schools and clinics, collective kitchens, and street blockades? How do such practices, now being referred to as ‘commoning,’ fit in their ‘ecology of organizations?’

I worry that accelerationists, like Friedrich Engels’ dismissal of peasants as revolutionary agents, implicitly reject the possibility that Indigenous and anti-extractivist struggles are important potential allies. If political success is measured solely by statist goals, then non-statist victories will remain invisible.

In contrast, degrowth thinkers have collaborated with post-development scholars like Ashish Kothari and Alberto Acosta, and have helped to create a worldwide environmental justice network—forming alliances with the very groups that would be the most affected by an increase in automation and the least likely to benefit from accelerationist policies like basic income.

What Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics’ ends up justifying their specific vision of the political—one that is quite strikingly a vision from the North

Unfortunately, what Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics’ ends up justifying their specific vision of the political—one that is quite strikingly a vision from the North, unable to break away from hegemonic ideas of the ‘right’ political actors. By this logic, the Argentinean movement ‘failed’ because it could not replicate or replace the state. To this end, they might find it useful to engage with subaltern theorists, decolonialization studies, post-development scholars—all of whom have in different ways challenged Western conceptions of what resistance, alternatives, and progress looks like. Further, they might engage with commons theorists who demonstrate how commoning practices open up very real alternatives to neoliberalism. Beyond theoretical alliances, this might help them not to dismiss “failed” movements simply because they do not seek to copy the state.

 

Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Technology, Efficiency, and Metabolism

For many on the left, technology is secondary to redistributive policies (welfare, health care, employment equity) and innovation is the realm of private companies, not the government.

In contrast, accelerationists recognize that technology is a key driver of social and economic change. For Srnicek and Williams, an important strategic goal within the left would be to politicize technology, to transform capitalist machines for socialist goals. We must take the reigns of technology, democratize it, if we are to deal with the multiple issues facing humanity today. This ‘modern’ gesture, which avoids primitivism and the wish to return to a ‘simpler’ past, is certainly appreciated.

Srnicek and Williams spend much of the book discussing how automation is transforming social and economic relations worldwide. Not only is the roboticization of the workplace rendering so many workers in the Global North useless, automation is starting to have its effects in rapidly developing countries like China. They go so far as to link the informalization of huge swathes of humanity—slum-dwellers, rural-urban migrants—as an indication that capitalism no longer even needs its “reserve army of labor”. The onset of automation means that we may once again enter a world of mass unemployment, where labor becomes cheap and all the power will be in the hands of the employer.

Their response to this is quite brave: rather than fleeing this modern ‘reality’, they suggest pushing for ever more automation—eventually ending the need for rote labor and bringing about “fully automated luxury communism”—their vision of a desirable future. As part of this, they argue that public investment in innovation will be key in achieving this goal.

As they try to show, automation is already helping to deindustrialize many countries (developed and developing), meaning that regardless of whether full automation happens or not, there is a critical need for social movements to fight for political advances to guarantee social safety nets. As a response to this, they argue that unions should actually be fighting for less working hours, not more, and that basic income will help address the mass unemployment that automation seems to be causing.

I agree that such political responses will be necessary in the years to come, and that automation certainly presents a predicament, but, for several reasons that I’ll list below, I’m not sure if it’s really the central predicament—as they seem to assert. First of all, is automation really occurring at such a rapid and destructive pace? It’s true that the rate of growth of employment worldwide is decreasing, but this could be explained by a number of factors, many of which are more and more being highlighted by mainstream economists: the onset of a ‘secular stagnation’ in Euro-America, the decline in conventional oil extraction, and the exhaustion of ‘easy’ growth that was already being felt in the 1970s. Indeed, once I dug into their citations, I didn’t find much research showing how automation’s role in current economic transformations compared to these other factors. However, not being a labor economist, I’m not well-versed enough in the numbers to discuss further. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Second, and more problematically, I follow George Caffentzis in his skepticism of the claim that soon Capital will not need workers in the future, and will therefore bring about its own demise:

Capital cannot will itself into oblivion, but neither can it be tricked or cursed out of existence… The “end of work” literature… creates a failed politics because it ultimately tries to convince both friend and foe that, behind everyone’s back, capitalism has ended.

This was a critique of Jeremy Rifkin and Antonio Negri in the 90s, but it might as well apply to the works of Paul Mason, Snricek, and Williams today. There’s something magical about letting automation do the anti-capitalist work for you. Unfortunately, there is no trick that will end capitalism. Even if they claim at multiple points that automation is not a technical but a political goal, they’re in many ways letting automation drive the cart of politics. I’ve already mentioned the dangers of economism. Today, something new seems to be emerging, which seems to very prevalent amongst “ecomodernist” progressives: technologism. The belief that a low-carbon future is only possible through ramping up innovation and technological advances, rather than a full-scale transformation of our social and political relations. Snricek and Williams try to skirt technologism, but their over-fascination with automation brings them dangerously close.

There’s something magical about letting automation do the anti-capitalist work for you. Unfortunately, there is no trick that will end capitalism.

Third, even if automation were on the rise, I’m skeptical as to how it could possibly limit capitalism’s outward expansion. As Peter Linebaugh has argued, the Luddites opposed automation not just because it was costing them their jobs, but because they knew the automation of textile manufacturing meant the enslavement, and drawing in to the capitalist system, of millions of slaves and indigenous people in the colonies.

Automation, from this viewpoint, is a local “problem” borne from a myopically Northern perspective: it will not do away with ever-expanding forest-clearing, enclosures, destruction of subsistence livelihoods, and the creation of itinerant classes forced into the extractivist economy. Regardless of whether automation is capitalist or communist, without being regulated, it stands to increase environmental conflicts globally. But rising rates of resource extraction are not mentioned as a problem in the book, nor do they propose a strategic alliance with those affected by the extractive industry.

This leads to what is perhaps the most frustrating gap in the whole book: their very weak environmental proposals.

Surprisingly, there are only two instances where they present ways to address the ‘environment problem’: when discussing why automation could actually be a good thing, they also mention that greater efficiency would decrease energy use. Elsewhere, they suggest that shifting to a four-day workweek would also limit energy use from commuting.

But efficiency doesn’t work that way. If you would take away one lesson from ecological economics, it is this golden rule, to be repeated to every techno-optimist you come across: without limiting in some way the use of resources and energy (e.g. by taxing it), any advance in efficiency will likely lead to progressively more resource use, not less. This is called the rebound effect, or Jevons’ Paradox.

It follows that there is no guarantee that truncating the workweek will be more environmentally friendly. Efficiency and more free time can just as easily lead to more ecological damage, not less. In any political regime where there are insufficient limits or regulations on total energy and material use in society (capitalist or communist), and the profits of investment are invested in more production, advances in efficiency will cause energy and material throughput to increase exponentially.

When discussing this issue with people in the degrowth community, Viviana Asara pointed out that this is not just a problem of environmental justice—who stands to loose by the increase in production—but also one of energetic limits.

The concept of EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) illustrates that, unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy has a very low return on investment. For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that a fully automated luxury economy has about the same total energy consumption as today’s economy—more efficient but producing more stuff. But because of renewable energy’s extremely low EROEI, such an economy might just require the total transformation of the Earth’s surface into solar panels—not just a hellish vision of the future, but also impossible.

We can argue at length about whether it is indeed possible to produce the same amount of energy using renewables alone, but the point is that Srnicek and Williams neglect to even hold that argument—something you might think necessary if you propose to scale up global industrial activity in times of climate change. As Asara put it to me in an email, “their ‘supposedly sustainable’ utopia of automation misses any sense of biophysical reality.”

This is where accelerationist and degrowth analyses differ the most. Degrowth takes as a key question the ‘metabolism’ of the economy—that is, how much energy and material it uses. As innovation enables the speeding up of this metabolism, and because an increase in metabolism has disastrous social and ecological impacts—too often offloaded on people who do not benefit from the technology—there needs to be collective decision-making on technology’s limits.

In this way, simply reappropriating technology, or making it more efficient, is not enough. In fact, without totally transforming how capitalism reinvests its surplus—requiring a fundamental transformation of financial systems—automation will unfortunately help expand capitalism, rather than allow us to overcome it.

If capitalism always seeks to collectivize impacts and privatize profits, then communism should not be about collectivizing profits and externalizing impacts to people far away or future generations.

If capitalism always seeks to collectivize impacts and privatize profits, then communism should not be about collectivizing profits and externalizing impacts to people far away or future generations. This is the danger of ‘fully automated luxury communism’. These dangers are not discussed by accelerationist texts—but they should be.

Perhaps this is the key ideological difference: accelerationists make such an extreme modernist gesture that they refuse the need to limit their utopia—there are only possibilities. In contrast, degrowth is predicated on politicizing limits that, until now, have been left to the private sphere. This might involve saying, in the words of one Wall Street employee, “I would prefer not to” to some technologies.

 

What is Speed?

It says something about the times when two important segments of the radical left have gravitated to the terms ‘degrowth’ and ‘accelerationism’—about as opposite as it could get.

In my opinion, there is something rather new here, which brings the discussion beyond peasants vs. workers, localism vs. taking over the state: the introduction of the question of speed into leftist thought.

They do so in very different ways.  For degrowth, ‘growth’ is the acceleration of the energetic and material flows of the economic system at exponential rates, as well as the ideology that justifies it. Let’s call this socio-metabolic speed. Their political project then comes down to challenging that ideology head-on, as well as re-thinking economic theory to allow societies to ensure well-being but also transform how energy and material is used—necessary for a more just economic system.

Accelerationists, on the other hand, think of speed much more figuratively: they are referring to the Marxist concept of the material conditions of human relations—for them, acceleration means moving beyond the limits of capitalism, which requires a totally modern stance. This is socio-political speed: the shifting gears of social relations, as a result of changing technological systems.

Both, I think, have put their finger on a crucial question of our times, but from slightly different directions: can what gives us modernity—a colossal global infrastructural web of extraction, transportation, and fabrication—be democratized?

Both, I think, have put their finger on a crucial question of our times, but from slightly different directions: can what gives us modernity—a colossal global infrastructural web of extraction, transportation, and fabrication—be democratized? For accelerationists, this would require making that web more efficient and modifying political systems to make it easier to live with—shifting the gears of social relations beyond capitalism. For degrowthers, it would require slowing that system down and developing alternative systems outside of it. I don’t think these two aims are mutually exclusive. But it would require going beyond simplistic formulas for system change on one side, and anti-modern stances on the other.

But it’s also worth going one step further and asking whether that infrastructural system would really take kindly to these shifts in gears, or if it will it simply buck the passenger.

To navigate this question, it’s useful to briefly turn to the foremost “philosopher of speed”: Paul Virilio. In Speed and Politics, Virilio traces how changes in social relations were brought about through the increased velocity of people, machines, and weapons. Through Virilio’s eyes, the history of Europe’s long emergence out of feudalism into 20th century modernity was one of increasing metabolism of bodies and technologies. Each successive regime meant a recalibration of this speed, accelerating it, managing it. For Virilio, political systems—be they totalitarian, communist, capitalist, or republican—emerged both as a response to changes to this shift in speed and as a way to manage human-technologic co-existence.

What’s important for this discussion is that Virilio does not separate the two types of speed: changing social relations also meant changing metabolic rates—they are the same, and must be theorized simultaneously.

Doing so could be useful for both degrowth and accelerationism. While degrowth does not have a succinct analysis of how to respond to today’s shifting socio-technical regimes—accelerationism’s strong point—at the same time accelerationism under-theorizes the increased material and energetic flows resulting from this shifting of gears. Put another way, efficiency alone can limit its disastrous effects. As degrowth theorists have underlined, environmental limits must be politicized; control over technology must therefore be democratized; metabolic rates must be decelerated if Earth is to remain livable.

To conclude, accelerationism comes across as a metaphor stretched far too thin. A napkin sketch after an exciting dinner-party, the finer details colored in years afterwards—but the napkin feels a bit worn out.

Big questions need to be asked, questions unanswered by the simplistic exhortation to “shift the gears of capitalism.” When the gears are shifted, the problem of metabolic limits won’t be solved simply through “efficiency”—it must acknowledge that increased efficiency and automation has, and likely would still, lead to increased extractivism and the ramping up of environmental injustices globally. Or another: what does accelerationism mean in the context of a war machine that has historically thrived on speed, logistics, and the conquest of distance? Is non-violent acceleration possible, and what would class struggle look like in that scenario?

To be fair, degrowth doesn’t answer all the big questions either. There has been little discussion on how mass deceleration would be possible when, as Virilio shows, mass change has historically occurred through acceleration. Can hegemony decelerate?

If degrowth lacks a robust theory of how to bring about regime shift, then Williams and Snricek’s brand of accelerationism doesn’t allow for a pluralist vocabulary that looks beyond its narrow idea of what constitutes system change. And yet, the proponents of each ideology will likely be found in the same room in the decades to come. Despite their opposite ‘branding’, they should probably talk. They have a lot to learn from each other.

metropolis-metropolis-1927-15539888-2560-1804
Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

A version of this article originally appeared on the Institute for Social Ecology Blog.

Aaron Vansintjan is currently completing a PhD on food politics and gentrification at Birkbeck, University of London. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth.