Dispatch from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec

Photo: Francisco Dominguez

by Addison Winslow

Juchitán is a very windy place. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere so windy. Up in the city of Oaxaca, people said it would be hot—“un chingo de calor”—but the pummeling winds at times make it almost frigid. Sounds like it does this pretty much all year round, in the whole Isthmus region.

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is the thinnest point between oceans in Mexico, stretching roughly from Coatzacoalcos in the state of Veracruz, to Salina Cruz, just south of here. It’s probably the least imaginary line between North and Central America, on account of the abrupt break in the mountains (the chain that runs up the whole country, blending further on into the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas), which reemerge again if we proceed south into Chiapas.

There are other remarkable features: the urban centers on the Isthmus are some of the only ones in North America which are majority Indigenous, zapotecos. Some local guys also speak of how the Isthmus is known to have the most beautiful women in Mexico. But if you’ve heard of the area, it’s more likely for the earthquakes last year. I talk to people everywhere who lost their home, or maybe only half of it. The municipal palace of Juchitán collapsed; so did the old colonial market. In the long past year people have been focused more on rebuilding their own places of refuge, and the market plaza persists as an improvised labyrinth of tarps and narrow, crowded pathways between butchers, fruit stands, and taquerías.

My companions and I are staying in what used to be a restaurant; it is now a meeting place and the home of two organizers, some cats, and a near-hairless Xoloscuintle dog. There’s a pile of cots for visitors like us. While we were lounging around one morning, a small group came in to have a meeting. It went on for about five hours, in which time we read some, napped, and didn’t eavesdrop as much as we should have. Finally, one of the live-in organizers came to invite us to introduce ourselves and explain Symbiosis, the group I was representing and asking them to join, now that they’d wrapped up the agenda.

Before we began, one of the organizers filled us in on their struggle. They’re coordinators from a group called the Assembly of the Pueblos of the Isthmus in Defense of Land and Territory(APIIDTT). It’s part of a network of local assemblies in the area, whose existence predates the earthquake. Their collective activities include a refusal to pay electric bills, and resistance to megaprojects planned for the region. But the assemblies have greater ambitions, and at least one has become a veritable government outside the government. “We try and organize collectively to take care of our issues, but in a horizontal manner,” the organizer tells us.

***

Mexico has a fierce revolutionary tradition, co-opted without pretense by the ‘Institutional Revolutionary Party’ (PRI) which controlled government from the end of the revolutionary period in 1929 until the year 2000, when the viceroy of the Coca-Cola empire in Mexico, Vicente Fox, and his rightwing National Action Party (PAN), came to power. The appellate ‘PRIAN’ was given to the fluid collaboration of the two dominant parties—however it was under Fox’s administration that documents were released detailing the ‘Dirty War,’ a coordinated terror campaign in the 1960s and ’70s that had suppressed leftist activism and paved the way for the full force of neoliberalism to come.

As it tends to, the left survived those trying times, in a couple recognizable forms. The first is what we can call the ‘partyist left,’ la izquierda partidista. After blatant electoral fraud in 1988, the losing insurgent candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas created the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), along with Andrés Manuel López Obrador (then still a ladder-climbing apparatchik) among others. The PRD ultimately operated much like other parties, so that even AMLO, after two presidential runs of his own and more high-profile battles over election fraud, left to create a new party in 2012, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). In the July 2018 elections, MORENA won the presidency (in AMLO) as well as majorities in both houses of the legislature, and ran competitively for nearly every state governorship, winning four in the south of the country. Many analyses have been written of what this victory represents.

“There’s always been a ‘left’ in Mexico,” I was told: “In the way of life of the people, from below, where it hasn’t been undone.”

But here we are concerned with the other left. “There’s always been a ‘left’ in Mexico,” I was told: “In the way of life of the people, from below, where it hasn’t been undone.” Two manifestations of this should be mentioned, both with roots threading back to the Mexican Revolution and the influence of the peasant uprisings associated with the name Zapata.

One goes by the slogan usos y costumbres, which means that the traditions of indigenous peoples entitle them to a peculiar style of local governance, which tends to be a council of elders, assembly decision-making, or a mixture of both. The other came out of revolutionary land reforms, which divided many vast private landholdings into communal farms called ejidos. Constitutionally, the highest authority of the ejidos is the general assembly, which ordinarily convenes every six months, but can also be called on other occasions by an initiative supported by twenty percent of the members.

The ejidos were inalienable, off the market, until that proved incompatible with NAFTA and had to be done away with. Perfectly compatible with NAFTA, of course, were the billions of dollars of agricultural subsidies the US and Canadian governments use to undervalue the primary commodities produced by the majority of the world’s population. The result of the legal vulnerability of the ejidos combined with the economic clout of North American industrial agriculture was the upending of rural society in Mexico, rapid urban proletarianization, and one of the largest migrations in human history over Mexico’s northern border to the United States.

In the decade or two before NAFTA, though, some staunch Maoist guerrilla sorts had formed clandestine organizations, and some of them took their activity into the Lacandon jungle. Here on the forgotten periphery of the continent, they met the local people, and together watched as the swirl of the capitalist world prepared to suck them in. In the meantime, many of them busied themselves preparing, with some rifles, to make themselves heard.

The Zapatista uprising reignited hope against capitalism worldwide, not least in Mexico. In 1996, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) made the call for a gathering of indigenous peoples which resulted in the creation of the National Indigenous Congress, around and through which emerged what we might call the ‘movements for radical democracy.’ Speaking broadly, this is what makes up the ‘other’ left in Mexico.

***

One of the people in the meeting in Juchitán, the mother of our friend who lives here, is a delegate to the National Indigenous Congress. Each of the local assemblies has one. The original impetus for the formation of many of these assemblies on the Isthmus was to coordinate the collective refusal to pay power bills, insisting that electricity is a human right. The assemblies consisted of the people involved in the strike. One of them has gone ten years now without paying, and the government apparently hasn’t cut them off. In January 2019, the assemblies, all together, will enter negotiations with the federal government for the first time. This was the subject of their meeting.

By contrast: I myself come from Chico, California—the valley city that absorbed most of the refugees from the fiery apocalypse of Paradise, CA this past November, which was caused by the negligence of our local (private) electric monopoly. While the fire was still burning, the governor declared power companies immune to lawsuits for the damages of infernos they provoke. I was listening closely.

Meanwhile, at least in some cases the purview of the assemblies on the Isthmus has expanded far beyond being a utilities union. In one town, Álvaro Obregón, the community assembly has a majority of the town’s support, and something approaching administrative independence, except that public money still passes through the hands of the ‘official’ municipal government, which also has the power to approve infrastructure megaprojects. The people of Álvaro Obregón recently formed a community police force in response to threats from paramilitary groups; the county police will hang out at the entrance to the town, but don’t really enter.

***

The focus on electricity returns us to how windy it is. With foreign investment related to the carbon credit scheme created by the Kyoto Protocol, the Isthmus has been the site of the construction of massive wind turbines. One of a series of megaprojects planned for southern Mexico is a new string of turbines along an extensive sandbank closing in the lagoon just south of here. It would be the largest wind energy project in Latin America. By one account, it was only the moment when the company arrived, bringing barely any machinery (yet), and closed off the entrance to the sandbank with armed guards, that people noticed there was something menacing about their intentions.

Initially, it was difficult for my companions and me to understand this resistance to clean energy.

Initially, it was difficult for my companions and me to understand this resistance to clean energy. But it scares away the fish which the people along the coast live off of. In a documentary we were shown, people speak of the sea as their mother. The Isthmus is also a narrow and important passage point for migratory birds, which are, with appalling frequency, being knocked dead by the sweeping turbine blades. The locals see it as a matter of dispossession and territorial integrity—and, as a matter of fact, with the construction of these turbines, electrical bills have increased.

After listening awhile, we explained Symbiosis. It was almost awkward—after their descriptions of their situation, principles, and intentions, it felt like we were parroting them. But such are the convergences, and this is grounds for unity. Most of those present expressed enthusiastic interest in our work, and we agreed to talk further. Several of them will be in Chiapas soon, and we’ll reconnect there.

***

We came to Juchitán on the recommendation of an elder of the movements in Mexico, Gustavo Esteva. Esteva was at one time a CEO, then a Trotskyist, later an adviser to the Zapatista army in their negotiations with the federal government, and now is a ‘deprofessionalized intellectual’ settled in the city of Oaxaca and serving a critical advisory role to the assembly of La Universidad de la Tierra, or Unitierra.

Before everyone split for the holidays, Esteva had had us around for one final conversation at Unitierra, at a small table tucked beneath shelves of political economy texts. He took us through a lengthy story—really, a comprehensive theoretical construction which would properly make its own essay. As with the assemblies he then sent us to investigate, it seemed from his telling that Unitierra and Symbiosis have converged upon the same practical conclusions, and it seems we’ll be counting each other as partners in our respective endeavors. They call their project Crianza Mutua, which doesn’t exactly have an English translation.

In light of the rest of what Esteva shared with us, I’ll turn back to the story of the Zapatistas. The EZLN has, for decades now, called for cross-border collaboration in the resistance to global capitalism, convening gatherings on the national, continental, global, and even intergalactic levels. In the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle (2005), they declared themselves dedicated to working with all dispossessed peoples; that Cuba and Ecuador would just have to let them know where to send the solidarity corn and crafts. Simultaneously, they were keen never to mark themselves as a separatist movement. The rallying cry was ¡Nunca más un México sin nosotros! The national liberation was for Mexico, but only a more inclusive Mexico.

At a gathering about a year ago, Esteva told us, someone speaking on behalf of the Mixe people said that they don’t consider themselves part of the ‘original peoples,’ or part of Mexico at all. On the tail end of their word came one from the Zapatistas; they had been considering the same thing: ¡Nosotros sin México! Since 1994, they had always flown the Mexican flag in their events and tours; apparently no one had noticed that for several years now they’ve ceased to do so. The world is undergoing changes, and so are the movements. In 2017, out of the National Indigenous Congress was formed the Indigenous Governing Council (CIG), with the initial goal of selecting a spokeswoman to run as an independent presidential candidate and bring attention to their issues and beliefs. The elections this year, of course, went the way of the partyist left, and the CIG were outside as critics.

But in August of this year, the CIG met to assess the just-ended campaign and discuss what happens next. It was there that the EZLN, following a presentation of an analysis of the world, put forward several proposals, which will be further discussed at the international gathering in Chiapas at the end of this month and year. For a taste, here are three of them:

…we propose to double down on the work of the CIG Support Networks in order to open our collective heart to all of the rebellions and resistances that emerge and persevere wherever we might be, in the countryside or the city, without regard for borders…

…to begin or continue the struggle to grow both the demands and dimensions of the Indigenous Governing Council, with the goal of extending it beyond original peoples to include workers of the countryside and city and all of those who have been discarded or marginalized…

…to begin or continue the analysis and discussion toward the creation of a Coordination or Federation of Networks which avoids any kind of centralized or vertical command and which spares no effort in building solidarity, support, and sisterhood/brotherhood among those who form it…

There’s not really much of a coincidence. In common between Symbiosis in North America and the resistance in Mexico sit the Kurds, resounding out of Rojava. In every location I’ve mentioned, people made reference to them as an inspiration for the scale-up of organizing in the works, generally agreed to be the next step forward. What we are part of is a global movement emerging, and, with due humility, we should be stoked.

Though we can all feel equal under the long curve of ecological collapse, in North America we have a difficult assessment to make regarding our responsibility with our neighbors not far to the south.

At the same time, though we can all feel equal under the long curve of ecological collapse, in North America we have a difficult assessment to make regarding our responsibility with our neighbors not far to the south. I contend that the most predictable form a reactionary municipalism could take is a passive reproduction of the economic inequalities embedded over centuries in the land and labor-power of nations. It’s also perhaps the most innocuous form of hierarchy, because we can content ourselves as having addressed the concerns of everyone in the room, and still discount the majority of the world’s population.

We have a contradiction to reconcile in the twofold objectives of Symbiosis. While on the one hand, dual power is concerned with building autonomous, local capacity in the struggle, we’re engaged in Symbiosis with the rapid upscaling of the resistance for a world system change. Without venturing to envision exactly what conditions will be required for confederal unity, I’ll continue the tradition of recommending we all read “The Tyranny of Structureless” another five times, but also provide for our collective memory an anecdote from what I believe to be the most ambitious international confederation up until now.

The World Trade Organization operates [operated] on consensus, with each member country having equal say. As preferred in the neoliberal order, the coercion and hierarchy are in the details. It was the poor countries who made the call for clear and determined structure, having been shut out of expensive and impromptu proceedings among the tight clubs of wealthy countries. In 2003, a meeting in Cancún was cut short by a walkout protest after a shystie manipulation of the preliminary draft of an agreement. As the rules had it, it would require consensus to remove points put in by the wealthy countries, though not to insert them in the first place.

We can tear down borders in our declarations yet have them reemerge in proceedings, out of the persistent asymmetry of material resources.

In the spirit of solidarity, we can outdo the mutual suspicion that plagues the international relations of nation-states. But we shouldn’t assume it will be so easy. We can tear down borders in our declarations yet have them reemerge in proceedings, out of the persistent asymmetry of material resources. We will have to find ways to structure equality over what the market provides for us.

Speaking of structures and proceedings, I will close with an official pronouncement of the hereby improvised Intercontinental United Antinationalist Resistance Working Group, which currently consists of my companion and me (you’re all welcome to join), declaring our firm resolve:

  • to investigate the tastes and ambitions of the CIG and their Support Networks in regard to an intercontinental organization of resistance and rebellion;
  • to suggest to whoever shows up next week in Chiapas that we all do it together;
  • to develop, in conversation with those who are down, a compatible, if not equivalent proposal for the structure of the Symbiosis confederation as that which emerges from the expansion of the CIG.

We’ll also be thinking of some more pointed projects which can bring together and mutually benefit the movements on all sides of the continent, and would very much like to hear suggestions. Actually, if anyone wanted to discuss, on any level, all of this that is going on, my companion and I would be very pleased to have support and input.

It is our task to see that borders are not only torn down at the start, in documents, but that we continue tearing them down all through the process until all the fences, and walls, and lines in the sand are wiped away with them.

Addison Winslow is a member of Symbiosis and currently lives in Chico, California.

How much will the US Way of Life © have to change?

by Max Ajl

Debates about the Green New Deal—Ocasio-Cortez’s version and occasionally radical varieties such as that of the US Green Party—have incited much discussion about paths to utopia. Central to these conversations is the labour question: who will do the work of making the world, and how will that work be apportioned? And how much will the US Way of Life © have to change?

Ecologically-minded socialists and degrowthers tend to point out that cheap energy and excess material use are built into the socio-technical structures of capitalism. Getting rid of capitalism requires replacing capitalist technology. We must build, literally, a new world, which may require more labour and much lighter consumption patterns in the core, especially among the wealthy. Eco-socialists also tend to be more attentive to agriculture’s role in development in the periphery and core.

Eco-modernists tend, instead, to focus on eliminating exploitation while maintaining as much as possible of the physical infrastructure and patterns of consumption of capitalism. They imagine machines that will take the place of the current ecologically destructive physical plant, including in the countryside—prototype AI bots to supplant fruit pickers, or non-existent carbon-dioxide-sucking machines in place of restorative agriculture, a proven method of sequestering atmospheric carbon. Very frequently, they imagine a totally post-work world, creating the conditions for a new utopia: Fully Automated Luxury Communism.  

Those who hold the latter position often forget that the current distribution of labour is the fruit of a very specific historical moment, marked not merely by a temporary cheapness of energy—and tell Bangladesh, the Seychelles, or your grandchildren that petroleum is cheap—but specific sectoral allocations of labour in farming, industry, and services in the core states.

Geographer Matt Huber, for example, claims that ‘very few actual people/workers are needed to grow the food many of us consume.’ He then deploys this claim—incorrect on its face—to attack those who defend smallholder farming as an active anti-systemic struggle. As he goes on to write, ‘Capitalism has produced the first society where the vast majority need not work in agriculture. A reversal of this is not politically possible or desirable.’

Huber, like many who write in this vein, does not draw a distinction between agriculture in the wealthier and the poorer countries, and does not seem to understand that such geographically-specific food systems are interwoven threads in the fabric of a world system.

The descriptive portion of his statement is true above all in relation to those who work on farms in the wealthier countries, although with important variations among them. When we widen our analytical lens to include those who work on the farms in the periphery that produce much if not most of humanity’s food, including the tropical foods consumed in the core, claims about the disappearance of labour from agriculture collapse.

Labour-intensive agriculture has been and continues to be central to global capitalism.

Labour-intensive agriculture has been and continues to be central to global capitalism. Sugar produced on Caribbean slave plantations supplied cheap calories to the British workforce and large profits to the British ruling class. As Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik show, Britain accrued much of its wealth by siphoning off the bounty of Indian agriculture in jute, opium and spices throughout the colonial period, much as the Netherlands built its affluence on rubber and sugarcane from what was then Java.

Such flows of wealth and value from agriculture to the colonial powers produced systematic famine, and were also the basis for industrialization—a historical process, not a technical model.

These days, of the 12,000 food items on an average supermarket shelf in Western Europe or North America, two-thirds have a total or partial import content from tropical areas. Producing such agricultural goods is labour-intensive. And many of those who work hardest are also the hungriest.

Labour has not been erased from the food chain, but only from some links of the food chain visible in the core states. Contemporary imperialism engineers prices, under- and de-develops the periphery, maintains massive labour reserves, and suppresses wages. As a result, consumers in the core command enough social power that people in other societies must labour to produce our food. Eurocentrism makes such labour invisible.

Where capital has replaced labour in commodity export sectors, the consequences have been disastrous. Land concentrates in the hands of the bourgeoisie, poor people flee to slums, debt-driven suicides mount in India, and the Tunisian semi-proletariat immolates itself. As the poor’s capacity to demand a share of the social product decreases, consumption decreases, and they go hungry. If capitalism has produced a society where some ‘need not work’ in agriculture, it has also produced a society where consumption in the core—such as it is, given widespread malnutrition and obesity—turns on immiseration in the periphery.

If you treat the living as the dead, it should not be surprising when the graveyards spread.

On the ecological front, industrialized agriculture has meant pretending soil and flora are not living entities that require care and attention. If you treat the living as the dead, it should not be surprising when the graveyards spread: topsoil loss, algal blooms amidst fertilizer outflows in the Gulf of Mexico, fields so damaged that they cannot absorb water in the American Midwest, leading to land-gouging floods. Recent reports speak to planet-wide biospheric breakdown, much of it related to the industrialization of agriculture.

Meanwhile, the US’s remaining farmers are killing themselves at a higher rate than war veterans, even while ‘efficient’ labour-light US agriculture only survives by massive subsidies—explicit subsidies from the state in the form of price supports, and implicit subsidies in the form of impossibly cheap energy, for which we know well the consequences.

Labour needs may have decreased on US farms, but this is not a proper way to build a national farming system.

Yet on the basis of (1) the rural-to-urban transformation of the core states; (2) the tiny percentage of the labour force in US agriculture; and (3) the socially-created poverty in peripheral agricultures, Huber claims that ‘we cannot act as if smallholder agriculture is any material basis for a society beyond capitalism.’

I am not sure if Huber is referring to paths to a society beyond capitalism, or if he is drawing up recipes for the cookshops of the future. Whatever the case may be, let me put some facts on the table about the human and social resources available in the present, and their capacity for materially improving the lives of the very poorest among us.

A copious literature makes clear that smallholder agro-ecology in various countries of the former Third World can feed, for example, 12-15 people with one person’s year-round labour on plots of between one and two hectares. In price terms, agro-ecology yields higher economic returns than conventional agriculture, and this with close to 0 percent of global agricultural research and development devoted to improving, rather than merely documenting, its potential. Agro-ecology is carbon-dioxide-absorbing, bio-diversity defending, and resilient in the face of climate change. And there is no question of whether smallholders can feed the world, as they outproduce export-oriented heavily capitalized farms on a per-land-area basis.

There is no question of whether smallholders can feed the world, as they outproduce export-oriented heavily capitalized farms on a per-land-area basis.

Furthermore, productivity per-person and per-hectare can increase (or yearly labour-inputs decrease) through sustained agro-ecological research and practice, a point at odds with those who insists that smallholder farming is a sentence of perpetual drudgery. What the viable alternative could be is always the question left with no good answer.

In the entire peripheral world, smallholder agriculture is the basis for resistance to capitalism: by de-commodifying access to food, by closing off market opportunities for corporate sellers of agro-industrial inputs, by reclaiming land from export-oriented commodity crop production and giving it to poor people for accumulation from below, by increasing the embeddedness of national agricultural systems, and by creating larger internal markets that can form the basis of a sovereign industrialization. Such an industrialization would necessarily rely more on nationally-sourced inputs, preferably renewable ones where possible—for example, there is simply no good socio-ecological reason to rely so heavily on metal and plastic furniture when wood does the job just as well, with far lower CO2 costs and without ripping into the earth.

In terms of political feasibility, we know from the work of Ricardo Jacobs that slum-dwellers in South Africa are interested in a return to agriculture, while Brazilian agrarian reform settlements include former slum-dwellers.

Huber and others claim that smallholder life involves coercion, so relying on smallholders to feed the world would involve even greater coercion. However, the issue is not forcing smallholder peasants to feed urban people, but for economies in the poorer countries to figure out how to balance agricultural and non-agricultural labour while moving away from dominant agro-export models that have produced a planet of slums. Such models put enormous pressure on the lives of smallholders, whether through insufficient credit, lack of tenancy guarantees, or compelled industrialization while input prices are kept out of reach. It is these models that are part-and-parcel of the ‘debt and manifold threats’ to the livelihoods of peasants that Huber decries. It is capitalism in the countryside, and not farming itself, that keeps smallholders poor.

The challenge is equally to allow countries in the periphery to carry out massive internal agrarian reforms, which would help improve the lives of the poor in the city and countryside alike, and move toward a ‘planet of fields.’ Furthermore, such countries must be able to determine their own developmental paths, free from “humanitarian” proxy armies or the sanctions that are imposed, with silence if not assent from much of the Western left, on countries that carry out radical agrarian programs, like Zimbabwe or Venezuela, until they re-align with US/World Bank agendas.

There is no reason—pragmatic, social, or ecological—to suggest that smallholder farming does not offer the scaffolding for a permanently sustainable and relatively equal world in the periphery.

For that reason, we ought to defend agricultural models for the Third World wherein national lands are devoted to sustainably feeding the domestic population. Does that mean that 6-10 percent of the population in the periphery will be involved in agriculture on a permanent basis? Or will such work be rotated? That is for the people, the ones who will build the future, to decide. What is clear is that getting more lands in the hands of smallholders in peripheral states is currently an extremely live anti-systemic struggle.

I happen to agree with Huber about the thorniness of what used to be called the agrarian question of labour in the core states, and I agree that speaking of smallholder agriculture as the basis for US food consumption and a path beyond capitalism is not as straightforward as it is for the periphery.

However, if we accept what I have argued above, we can summarize it in some basic statements.

One: current ways of replacing labour with capital in the Western countries have ripped apart our socio-ecological capacity to manage the land. Two: current consumption relies on imperialism to feed us food we like to eat. Three: the more peripheral countries re-orient their agricultural sectors to domestic feeding, well-being, and social development, the fewer foods will be available in the wealthier countries. Four: there are no serious models for ecologically sustainable regenerative agricultures that rely on technology as a substitute for human attention. Five: we cannot divorce thinking about a sustainable world from anti-imperialist struggle.

Increasing the percentage of the population in core states involved in farming follows logically from the above points. An increase does not mean 50 percent of the population, and it does not mean that everyone will be involved in farming. A corollary would be ensuring that such work is made as attractive as possible, inviting people to choose it freely, and de-centralizing cultural life and social infrastructure.

A second potential course of action is devoting as much research as possible into lessening the difficulty of the labour involved, through—of course!—technology. In both the core and periphery, how much farming will be mechanized and, more importantly, which tasks should not be mechanized remain open questions. So, too, is the meaning of mechanization, and what kinds of tools can spare labour without excess energy-intensive extraction. How much we can replace hard labour with constant attention through human presence and careful intervention in natural cycles is another open question. There is nothing wrong with stating that we do not have all the answers.

It is worth pointing out that almost no one demands that we mechanize the difficult work of caring for children, the sick, and the elderly, since some realms are a step too far for the solve-everything-through-tech community. Yet the earth—a living community, the physical basis for society, and for children, the sick, the elderly, and in fact everyone to have decent lives—does not receive the same treatment.

I do not think my suggestions are by any means the easiest ones. They will involve some changes in the US way of life, though perhaps fewer than one might imagine. Given the social crises endemic to this way of life, fundamental change is long overdue anyway. I do not have a problem stating the existence of such difficulties, especially since I do not see any other feasible answer to how the US can feed itself if agriculture is to be made into a sustainable sector of human production that does not rely on exploiting other countries.

However, I do not see such a transition as an insurmountable obstacle. I do not see why slitting the throats of chickens in slaughtering plants until one’s hands are riddled with carpal tunnel syndrome from repetitive stress injuries is preferable to work on farms, especially since what was previously agricultural labour is now called food processing, but with far more drudgery and alienation in the work process. Furthermore, mechanization of animal agriculture comes with its own massive and insuperable ecological problems.

In any case, I see no reason to imagine the current menu of choices as a natural phenomenon. Capitalism has structured US society and ordered its value system to de-value farm labour, the land, and the lives of non-humans. Such choices were made historically and can be unmade.

Moreover, there is an immense interest in farming even in the current set-up. Across the US, urban gardens sparkle like emeralds in cities. The Land Institute, Soul Fire Farms, the Savannah Institute, the Iowa Land Trust, and others are building up the facts-on-the-ground for a permanently sustainable US farming system.

To wave around the possibility of technological breakthroughs that can remove labour from the farming process while restoring the health of the land is to hope for a solution from the machine.

To wave around the possibility of technological breakthroughs that can remove labour from the farming process while restoring the health of the land is to hope for a solution from the machine. It very often tacitly authorizes the further destruction of peripheral farming systems, and justifies an attitude of contempt toward those in the US working to build sustainable forms of production—the embryos of a better world in the interstices of the current one. There is nothing realistic in imagining shortcuts where none currently exist.

Max Ajl holds a PhD in Development Sociology from Cornell University and works on the Tunisian national liberation movement and post-colonial development in the Arab world. He is on twitter at @ajl_max.

May readings

Illustration by Annie Xing Zhao

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

This month, we’re highlighting a few articles on the work of activist organizing, the work of gestation, and… on doing less work. There’s also been a flurry of conversation about futurism on the left, spurred on by the release of Aaron Bastani’s new book, Fully Automated Luxury Communism. We highlight several critiques. From the recent setback to the municipal movement in Barcelona, to urban environmental justice struggles, we once again feature lots of pieces on radical municipalism. And, our section on the Green New Deal and Degrowth has basically become permanent, as the debate between them rages on.


Top 5 articles to read

Spadework. On political organizing.

The radical plan to save the planet by working less

Aaron Bastani just released his book, Fully Automated Luxury Communism. Read two critical reviews of the book: Cookshops of the future and Climate, communism and the Age of Affluence?. And two previous articles on the subject by our co-editors Aaron Vansintjan and Rut Elliot Blomqvist here: The shitty new communist futurism, Where’s the ‘eco’ in ecomodernism?, and Pulling the magical lever.

How a beloved Bay Area bakery is tackling the housing crisis

Labor does you



News you might’ve missed

Let’s be clear, says Mexico environment minister, ‘parasitic and predatory neoliberalism’ to blame for climate crisis

The rise of the superbugs – and why industrial farming is to blame

Sudan protesters plan general strike as talks falter. And an update. And another (bad news).

The Yellow Vests of France: six months of struggle

MPs make history by passing Commons motion to declare ‘environment and climate change emergency’

New Zealand’s world-first ‘wellbeing’ budget to focus on poverty and mental health

Why the Guardian is changing the language it uses about the environment

Corporate trade tribunals used by mining companies against communities and governments

The West has been dumping tens of millions of tons of trash in Southeast Asian countries for more than 25 years – now they want to send it back



Indigenous struggles

The long read: bullet ants and stolen land

The Yurok nation just established the rights of the Klamath river

Brazilian Indigenous peoples propose boycott

Native knowledge: What ecologists are learning from Indigenous people

Dam violence against environmental defenders

The Zapatista women’s revolutionary law as it is lived today



Where we’re at: analysis

The ruin of the digital town square

The price of meat. And Two amputations a week: the cost of working in a US meat plant.

Far-right identity politics and the task for the Left

Time’s up for capitalism. But what comes next?

The problem of the Left is its reactive position in politics

It may not be fully visible, but we’re in the final years of the American Empire

The reason renewables can’t power modern civilization is because they were never meant to

Favelado’s diary. “The criminalization of poverty is the strategy to keep the system functioning against black populations in Brazil and in the world, because if the favela exists and is marked by the stigma of social violence, it does not come free or without interest.”



Just think about it…

The Blackfoot/Maslow connection. How Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was stolen from Indigenous Blackfoot spirituality.

New Yorkers’ poop will soon be used to fuel their own homes

How to make wind power sustainable again

Psychedelic socialism

Loving a vanishing world. I want to move this away from the instrumental question of what you can do about climate change, important though that is, and back to the intrinsic value of what it means to love the world.

Why green pledges will not create the natural forests we need

International Relations Theory and ‘Game of Thrones’ are both fantasies

AirPods are a tragedy. If AirPods are anything, they’re future fossils of capitalism.

Could you give up flying? Meet the no-plane pioneers

When climate change starts wars. Rising temperatures are bringing ethnic tensions to a boil in Central Asia.



New politics

For the love of winning: An open letter to Extinction Rebellion

How to build a sustainable food system

Solidarity economy: Case studies from Rojava and Jackson, Mississippi

Cymru burns, but Northern Syria may help us douse the flames

‘Now is the time of monsters’: The future at a crossroads in Rojava

Inside the growing Indonesian anarchist movement

Water democracy. Farmers in New Mexico have banded together to protect scarce water resources from developments that could end their way of life. Their collective activity is a model for grassroots politics in the age of climate change.



Radical municipalism

Can Barcelona rekindle its radical imagination? Barcelona En Comú narrowly lost the popular vote, and possibly the city government. But there is much more to life than governance.

Why America can’t solve homelessness

NYC’s segregation was carefully planned. Its integration must also be.

Dozens died from heat in Montreal, yet zero in Ontario. Here’s why

How parks help cities adapt to climate change

How communities are contesting green inequities

Rebel Cities 24: How Catalonia’s CUP party is helping reclaim towns, cities and nation

Mobile home residents are trying to save affordable housing

Why councils are bringing millions of pounds worth of services back in-house

Which US cities have concrete strategies for environmental justice?



Degrowth and the Green New Deal

A ‘Green New Deal’ needs to be global, not local

Plan, mood, battlefield – reflections on the Green New Deal

A Green New Deal beyond growth (II) – Some steps forward

How the Green New Deal happened: the view from 2030

Our obsession with growth is ruining the planet. A Green New Deal can save us

An Indigenous critique of the Green New Deal

The ‘green new deal’ supported by Ocasio-Cortez and Corbyn is just a new form of colonialism. And a prior companion piece: A Green New Deal must deliver global justice.

Between ecosocialism, extractivism, the future and the Left in power

Time for Europe to stop growing and grow up

Debate between Giorgos Kallis (Degrowth) and Ted Nordhaus (Ecomodernism)



Resources

Elements of the democratic economy

History from below: a reading list with Marcus Rediker

Global tapestry of alternatives. An initiative seeking to create solidarity networks and strategic alliances amongst radical alternatives to the dominant capitalist, patriarchal, racist, statist, and anthropocentric regime on local, regional and global levels.



This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi). Want to receive this as a newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

April readings

Source: Ecohustler

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

This month, we’ve focused on the ongoing debates over different takes on ecological politics in connection to Extinction Rebellion, the Green New Deal, and degrowth. And there are quite a few articles about how capitalists are reacting to climate change –  like blaming you for having children while they are continuing to spew out carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and prepping for disaster. You will also find the usual range of themes, including radical municipalism, Indigenous resistance, alternative politics, farming, and the limits to extractivism.


Uneven Earth updates

Degrowth is utopian, and that’s a good thing | Link | A response to Socialist Forum on degrowth by Giorgos Kallis


Top 5 articles to read

All crises, THE crisis (the industrial agri-food system is central to all of them)

It gets worse. What’s in store as the planet heats up.

Heaven or high water. Selling Miami’s last 50 years.

Climate chaos is coming — and the Pinkertons are ready

Degrowth vs. the Green New Deal



News you might’ve missed

Restoring forests rules out growing crops

Resource extraction responsible for half world’s carbon emissions

Major victory for Indigenous rights. On April 26th 2019, the Waorani people won a historic legal victory to protect 500,000 acres of their rainforest from oil extraction.

‘It’s a groundswell’: the farmers fighting to save the Earth’s soil

The mass movement that toppled Omar al-Bashir

Women are leading the protests in Sudan

Bolsonaro’s three-month rule is a disaster

‘Decades of denial’: major report finds New Zealand’s environment is in serious trouble

Half of England is owned by less than 1% of the population


Extinction rebellion

Let’s talk about Extinction Rebellion. What can we learn from it? And how can we build on its momentum?

Extinction Rebellion: inside the new climate resistance

The origins and rise of the Extinction Symbol

The life of Extinction Rebellion. The lifelike DNA, structure and story of Extinction Rebellion can be used to revive socialist organisation.

If politicians can’t face climate change, Extinction Rebellion will. “If real passion and vision are necessary, they will have to come from outside the system.”

Only rebellion will prevent an ecological apocalypse. Mass civil disobedience is essential to force a political response.


Where we’re at: analysis

Western industrial farming is eating our forests and accelerating climate change

How robots became a scapegoat for the destruction of the working class

What Karl Marx has to say about today’s environmental problems

Agrarian social movements: The absurdly difficult but not impossible agenda of defeating right‐wing populism and exploring a socialist future


Green New Deal

Between the devil and the Green New Deal

A comradely critique of Jasper Bernes’ “Between the devil and the Green New Deal” in Commune Magazine

It begins with the land

The Green New Deal must have a zero waste policy

What’s the deal with the Green New Deal?

Could a Green New Deal make us happier people?

Organizing to win a Green New Deal

How to build the zero-carbon economy. The Green New Deal sets an ambitious goal. Here’s how to get there.


Limits to extractivism

The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust

U.S. nuclear power plants weren’t built for climate change

Going 100% renewable power means a lot of dirty mining

Rotten eggs: e-waste from Europe poisons Ghana’s food chain

Political ecologies of waste: Salvaged livelihoods and infra-structural labour

No more Hoover dams: Hydropowered countries suffer higher levels of poverty, corruption and debt

The dirty truth about green batteries


Just think about it…

The story we’ve been told about America’s national parks is incomplete

What lies beneath: Robert Macfarlane travels ‘Underland’

Who owns the country? The secretive companies hoarding England’s land

When the hero is the problem.“Positive social change results mostly from connecting more deeply to the people around you than rising above them, from coordinated rather than solo action.”

Imagining social movements: from networks to dynamic systems

The tragedy of “the tragedy of the commons”

Uprooted: old tree transplants for China’s new cities – in pictures

A case for small climate stories

The real estate sector is using algorithms to work out the best places to gentrify

Don’t bother waiting for conservatives to come around on climate change

Don’t blame the babies. “It’s hard to think of a more neoliberal bit of gaslighting than telling a young woman to take responsibility for the crimes of capital by making a huge personal sacrifice — one that for some people would feel as unnatural and inhuman as giving up on love or sex — while letting those with all the money and power off the hook.”

Names and locations of the top 100 people killing the planet


Radical municipalism

A collective hub in Ridgewood wants to realign your gaze away from the abyss

Shade

These neighbors got together to buy vacant buildings. Now they’re renting to bakers and brewers

The anarchists who took the commuter train

The alarming state of civic space in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Sudan and Venezuela: a global trend

How gentrification impacts community bonds

Barcelona and urban planning: the ultimate potential of superblocks

Superblocks: Barcelona’s radical urban plan to take back streets from cars

The Airbnb invasion of Barcelona

Why grocery co-ops build strong towns and how to start your own

Where it hits, gentrification hits hard

New Orleans gentrification tied to Hurricane Katrina

This is how borrowing things from our neighbors strengthens society. A comic.

How to design our neighborhoods for happiness

How to make friends, build a community, and create the life you want

The healing power of gardens


New politics

Patterns for cooperative networks and associations

What’s in a just transition?

Youths strike for climate change

A new social contract for the 21st century

Gilets Jaunes may be the start of a worldwide revolt against climate action

A new chance for climate justice? New climate movements are demanding equity, not just urgent action. They need to get even bolder about global demands for climate justice.


Sci-fi and climate change

17 writers on the role of fiction in addressing climate change


Resources

Get up and get going: How to form a group

10 tips on receiving critical feedback: A guide for activists

The MappingBack network. Mapping has long been used as a tool for colonial dispossession; MappingBack seeks to reverse this by using mapping as a tool to fight back. Using maps as a weapon to resist extractive industries on Indigenous territories.

Learning: Exploring post-extractivism

Areas of the world where biodiversity collapse is being driven by US consumption patterns

A guide to climate violence


This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).Want to receive this as a newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

Degrowth is utopian, and that’s a good thing

by Giorgos Kallis

What we dream about the future affects how we act today. If utopias express our desires, dystopias distill our fears. Utopias and dystopias are images we invoke to think and act in the present, producing futures that often look very different from either our dreams or our nightmares.

An oft-repeated criticism against the green movement is that it is dystopian and catastrophist (some call this ‘Malthusian’) when it comes to its diagnosis, and utopian when it comes to its prognosis. On the one hand, greens warn of a scary future of planetary disaster, and on the other, offer a peaceful dreamland where people bike to their artisanal work and live in picturesque houses with well manicured food gardens and small windmills. Nowhere to see is a realistic political plan on how we could ever escape from the current capitalist nightmare, and move to something remotely close to an egalitarian and ecological future.   

I won’t deny that some green writings, especially in the 1970s and 80s (but also still today) merit this critique. But in the meantime, there has been a lot of new thought, under the labels of ecosocialism, degrowth, or environmental justice that cannot be caricatured and packaged in this simplistic mold. And yet this is what geographer Matt Huber does in a recent article published at the Socialist Forum, entitled Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific. Huber argues that there are two types of green socialism, one that is utopian and unscientific, and one that is realistic and scientific, his.

Tired dichotomies

Democratic socialism is a project in the making, and it is important to avoid tired dichotomies and divisions of the past, especially between green and not-so-green socialists. I find a lot to agree with in Huber’s socialist climate politics and would fully sign on to his concluding agenda in the Socialist Forum piece, where he defends an ‘inspiring and positive political program that can win the masses of the working classes … built on the decommodification and universal access to [their] needs, but also a more radical and democratic vision of organizing production to integrate ecological knowledge’ based on ‘public transport, green public housing … and public ownership of energy’. Yet, before that Huber argues that ‘degrowth oriented ecosocialists’ (his term), like us are too utopian, and not scientific. And here I disagree.

What I want to argue is that, first, being utopian is not a problem as Huber makes it seem it is, and second, we are scientific, at least as scientific as Huber can claim his position is.

Dialectical utopias

To begin with: what does Huber mean by ‘utopian’ and ‘scientific’?

By utopia, Huber, following Engels, understands a social arrangement that does not and cannot exist (a place that has no place, a u-topos). If such an arrangement cannot exist, then it is a waste and misdirection of our energies, Huber implies. 

Forgive me the heresy, but thinking about utopias has progressed – fortunately – a lot since Engels’ time.

Forgive me the heresy, but thinking about utopias has progressed – fortunately – a lot since Engels’ time. David Harvey, who Huber certainly reads, wrote a wonderful book on cities and utopias almost 20 years ago (Spaces of Hope). Harvey says we should oppose utopias that are meant as models or blueprints – not so much because they are unrealistic, but because the realization of a perfect ideal tolerates no objection and crushes everything that stands in its way. Harvey recognizes, however, the value of ‘dialectical utopias’ – contradictory and incomplete images that express desires about the future, that challenge and make us reflect, that generate conflict with prevalent visions and open up new syntheses.

Ernst Bloch famously called utopias the education of desire. As Hug March and I argued, the future prefigured in the degrowth literature is indeed a dialectical utopia that wants to reshape desires.  When French activists and intellectuals launched the word ‘degrowth’ in the early 90s, they intentionally meant it as a missile slogan that would generate a conflictual antithesis to the prevalent, and taken for granted, imaginary of growth-based development. The hope was – and is – that this conflict would catalyze a new synthesis – maybe not the bio-region of low-tech eco-communes utopia that Huber sees in degrowth writings, but at least some unpredictable new future other than one which would look exactly like capitalism, only with the workers in command.

Unscientific socialism?

Huber claims this vision is ‘unscientific’. A scientific socialism, Huber tells us, is one ‘grounded in analysis of what kind of socialist society is possible given historical and material conditions’. So far so good. Only one problem: who is to judge what is really ‘possible’?

Huber, for example, seems to think that something close to the energy or material consumption of an average American, secured for everyone in the world, is possible (Huber is against wasteful capitalism, and implies that unnecessary production and consumption could be curtailed, but is not clear what he classifies as waste –and in any case, insists on the point of ‘abundant energy’, which one can only think means at least as much energy as it is currently consumed, if not more). Energy should come from renewable energy, or why not 80% renewable and 20% nuclear, which is fine, Huber claims – and food from robotic agriculture. Moreover, we will do all this without exploiting anyone, taking everyone’s concerns democratically into account, somehow minimizing damage, or at least making those on the receiving side of such damage concede to it ‘democratically’.

I am a scientist too, and I think this vision is unrealistic. To use Huber’s terms, it is ‘materially impossible’.

I am a scientist too, and I think this vision is unrealistic. To use Huber’s terms, it is ‘materially impossible’. I explain why here or here in more detail. The emissions, land use and material extraction involved in a scenario like Huber’s make impossible a sort of American standard of energy abundance available for everyone (or more precisely, it can be possible but just for a few at the expense of many others, as it has been actually till now).

And if we were to take really into account everyone’s concerns (those who live next to mines where the lithium for the batteries and the uranium for the reactors will come from, those who will have to be relocated or see their landscape destroyed to put windmills, etc) and actually compensate them for the damages our consumption causes, then production would be inevitably much, much lower than it is today on average. (Not to mention how much the economy would slow down if we were to devote time to reach decisions on such matters truly democratically).

The past is not proof of the future

Granted, I might be wrong, and Huber right. But who is to judge whose science about what is possible is right and whose is wrong? And what makes Huber so sure that he is right and scientific while others are not? Any science—scientific socialism including—is bound to be incomplete, uncertain and debatable. There are different, contested views, of what is possible – crucially, these views cannot be separated easily from our desires about the future.

Huber, for example, thinks it is undesirable to live with less energy. His argument is that since agricultural work is drudgery and no one wants to do it, societies without fossil fuels to power tractors had to and will have to have slaves. First, it is questionable whether the historical and anthropological record supports the claim that all societies without fossil fuels were slave-based.

Second, even if many were, this does not mean that we cannot have a future society without fossil fuels, with more manual work and without slaves. The fact that something did not exist in the past is not proof that it cannot happen in the future – if it were, then we wouldn’t be discussing socialism to begin with.

The fact that something did not exist in the past is not proof that it cannot happen in the future – if it were, then we wouldn’t be discussing socialism to begin with.

Third, no one that I know in the ecosocialist, degrowth or other environmentalist communities that Huber seems to have in mind has argued for a total substitution of fossil fuels by manual labour. It doesn’t  help to take the arguments of others to their extremes just to prove that they are impossible and unscientific. The claim of those who support decentralized renewables or peasant agro-ecology for example is much more nuanced and is based on the recognition that a sustainable future would involve both cleaner energy and less energy use, as well as less use of chemicals in agriculture. Agro-ecological, lower-intensity models that would involve more human labour than is currently the case in countries such as the U.S., are advocated. But these arrangements are generally envisioned as a mix of old and new, peasant and industrial experiences, not a total overhaul of modern techniques or a return to a pre-capitalist mode of living.

Engels was right and it turned out materially possible for capitalism to produce plenty of goods at a fraction of the time they needed before. But that doesn’t mean that it is today possible to power ever-growing energy use with renewable and nuclear energy, with no harm done to others (or with harm done at levels that can be ‘democratically’ tolerated by others). These are different times and different arguments, and the fact that siding with a ‘pro-technology’ (so to speak) argument at one moment in time may have proved right, does not make all similar arguments always and everywhere right or ‘scientific’.

Degrowth: radical abundance

Capitalism produced (more than) enough, quite soon after Engels’s time, but there is still poverty amidst an overabundance of goods and productive possibilities. This should make us pause for a moment. The problem may not be that we are not producing enough, but as Marx and Engels were among the first to note, that we are not distributing equally what we are producing.

As Jason Hickel argues in ‘Degrowth. A call for radical abundance’, the continued enclosures and dispossessions that sustained capitalism have always been justified in the name of growth. The story we are constantly being told is, as Malthus first put it, in the service of his argument in defense of capitalist growth (yes, Malthus was a defender of growth, not of limits to growth), is that ‘there is not enough for everyone to have a decent share’. The artificial scarcity created in turn by enclosures makes everyone live in need, and therefore work harder to stay afloat, which is essential if the engine is to keep going and growing. So the problem isn’t that we don’t produce enough, but that we can’t share the abundance that we already have.  

Huber’s vision of sharing and public luxury is not as far as he thinks from a degrowth vision. I would only add that this has to take place in a context of private sobriety – a sobriety that actually socialist revolutionaries of all times have espoused and lived in their everyday lives. It is what Enrico Berlinguer, leader of the Italian Euro-communists called ‘revolutionary austerity’. It is the sort of personal austerity that real revolutionaries of all times have practiced in their personal lives.

Relative versus absolute scarcity

Defending Berlinguer’s revolutionary austerity does not make one accomplice to Thatcherite austerity. On the contrary, what is Thatcherite is the liberal assumption of a God-given right of each and everyone to mobilize all resources possible in their pursuit of their individual (or collective) goals. According to this ingrained liberal view, we cannot tell people that we could perhaps live better with less, because it is people’s god given right to want more and more, as much as those richer have. What is more revolutionary instead than Gandhi’s plea to ‘live simply so that others may simply live’?

Huber agrees that there is so much waste going on within capitalism, and so much work expended just to goods and services whose purpose is no other than to pay for rents and profits. Then just ending profits and rents could reduce resource use significantly. Why insist on robots and nuclear plants if we could live with less and sustain a decent material standard of living for everyone?

Note also that what counts as ‘decent’ living is always socially determined and it makes little sense to defend an average, or middle class standard of living. A poor person today does not die from diseases that royals died in bygone eras. But if your loved one dies from a curable disease that a rich person can pay to treat, this creates a real sense of scarcity.

Crucially, this scarcity is relative. If housing was public and cheap, Hickel argues, then people could live with well with a fraction of their salary – and produce and consume much less than they do now. To imagine an absolute scarcity, and use it as a justification for mobilizing ever more work and ever more resources in the name of making everyone have what the rich persons of their epoch happen to have, is a fundamental myth that sustains capitalism. 

Bending material reality is not scientific

Huber also has a second take on the meaning of ‘scientific’. He writes that ‘let’s get real, or ‘scientific’ … we are not going to win the masses of workers with a socialist program based on … ‘drudgery for all’. Science here seems to refer to realism about how can ‘we’ (sic) win the masses of workers. There are problems with this formulation too.

Even if there were a mass of workers that wouldn’t be mobilized to anything that sounds like ‘less’, that still wouldn’t make it materially possible to have ever more stuff.

First, even if Huber were right and there were a mass of workers that wouldn’t be mobilized to anything that sounds like ‘less’, that still wouldn’t make it materially possible to have ever more stuff. Huber argues that given that the workers will never buy into a degrowth utopia then ‘the key to an ecosocialist future is finding some way to replicate the labor-saving aspects of the fossil economy with clean energy’.

This actually seems to me a very unscientific, and utopian in the bad sense – having to ‘find some way’ to make something possible, independently of whether it is materially possible or not. Rather than consider integrating your political strategy to what is materially possible, the call here is to bend material possibility, one way or the other, to what you came to think as the only possible political strategy.

Fixed desires

But, second, like the statement on material possibility, the idea that some of us can know with certainty the limits of political possibility – that is, know what the workers really want – is also problematic. Who is to say that workers everywhere and always would only be attracted to visions of ‘more’?

Our mayor, Ada Colau won the municipal elections with the support of a substantial fraction of the working class. Her program emphasized dignity and equality, not growth and material affluence.

I live in Barcelona, and our mayor Ada Colau won the municipal elections with the support of a substantial fraction of the working class. Her program emphasized dignity and equality, not growth and material affluence. Colau wanted to stop evictions and secure decent housing for everyone, she did not have to promise air-conditions and cheap charter flights for all (I am not saying that Huber advocates these, but Leigh Phillips, a provocateur who Huber for some reason enthusiastically cites twice, does).  

Third, Huber implicitly assumes that what workers want is fixed, and that desires cannot be shaped through reflection and dialogue. This leaves no space for new ideas or new desires and makes one wonder, how is it that workers come to want what they want, and how does this ever change in time? If we follow Huber’s logic then we can only cater to what exists, never shape the possible – this to me seems a quite restricted view of the political.

Politics has a make-believe quality. Pre-defining what is possible leads to self-fulfilled prophecies. If we assume that we cannot even utter our dreams of a different future, because they are unrealistic and impossible, then of course ‘workers’ will want what they currently want and alternative dreams will remain unrealistic and impossible.

But fourth, and more importantly, it is not clear why, for Huber, ‘we’ who write these things are not part of the working class, and can’t understand what ‘they’ want. If the working class is those who have to sell their labour in order to survive, then it is not only coal miners and Joe the plumbers that make the working class, not even only nurses and teachers, but also we University professors and the precarious post-docs and students that read our musings. Those among us who desire some sort of a degrowth future are not some weird romantic animals, different from the rest of working people – we are not people who live from rents, we are workers like anyone else who have to work in order to make it from month to month.

Of course there are different experiences, and different power positions within a broadly defined working class, or the 99%. We shouldn’t be blind to our positionalities, for example, as academic urbanites, with a decent income, a health insurance, flying regularly and so on. But the desires of education workers or precarious youngsters are as legitimate as those of factory workers. And our desires do not necessarily have to be different either (actually keeping them different is essential for the hegemony of capitalism). And they are increasingly not different, as the incomes, social protections and privileges of the professional middle income groups are collapsing.

Chris Carlsson and Fransesca Manning write about a new ‘nowtopian‘ experience of class, shared among parts of the precariat which finds work and meaning outside wage labour, in urban gardens, social centres or pirate programming. Nowtopians formed the backbone of the occupied squares. Waving away dreams like theirs as unscientific (and implicitly, elitist) is not doing the building of a broad movement any service. 

Reducing complex debate into outdated binaries

In conclusion, both material and social conditions are much more complex and uncertain than Huber allows for. Huber, I am afraid, is reducing a complex debate into simple binaries of the sort ‘(post)-industrial future’ versus ‘back to slavery’ (if not back to the caves).

The choices ahead are much more nuanced than that and will involve different hybrids of advanced and simplified techniques and modes of living. Consumption will have to go down and production will need to be cleaner – fortunately this can be experienced as an improvement in living if the commons are reclaimed and shared equally. The discourses and visions that will mobilize the 99% to an eco-socialist future are bound to be context-specific, but I firmly believe they can be constructed in a Colau-style fashion around ideas of sufficiency and sharing the commons equally, while securing a dignified life for all.

If something disappoints me, and motivated me to write this essay, it is the feeling that no matter how hard some of us work to advance and refine a certain strain of green-left thought (call it degrowth, ecosocialism or else), we are bound to be caricatured as a blend of socialist utopians of the 19th century and neo-Malthusians of the 1970s (never mind the stark differences between these two sets of ideas).

We owe ourselves and the few people who might read us a more informed and refined debate than a repetition of tired dichotomies from the 1970s. Reality is complex, what is possible and what not is hard to know, and the roads to ecosocialism (or however else you might want to call an egalitarian and sustainable future) are many.

Aaron Vansintjan commented on a previous draft and helped me improve this text.

Giorgos Kallis is an ICREA professor of political ecology and ecological economics at ICTA-UAB in Barcelona. He is the author of Degrowth (2018, Agenda Publishing). A collection of his essays and media articles, ‘In Defense of Degrowth,’ can be downloaded free of cost.

February & March readings

Illustration by Paige Wickers.

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

We’ve all been swamped with work and life, so we decided to skip last month’s newsletter and combine February and March into one bigger reading list. It’s ok, because February is so short, right? That said, a lot has happened these past two months. From the Christchurch shooting to the flooding in Mozambique, to Amazon’s defeat in Queens, New York and the growing children’s climate strikes. In this newsletter, we’ve collected some of the best analyses of these events: talking about the need to understand how eco-fascist ideology drove the Christchurch shooter and the significance of local organizing against Internet giants. We highlight some critiques of development discourse, and a bibliography on “post-extractivism” in Latin America. We also include our usual collection of articles about alternative politics, radical municipalism, plastics and waste, and degrowth vs. the green new deal. And, yes, there’s a whole article about why lawns are bad.

 

Uneven Earth updates

Is Heidegger’s philosophy anti-semitic? | Link | Considering the new book, Heidegger and the Jews.

After mass mobilizations, what direction for the Belgian climate movement? | Link | A report from a participant.

 

Top 5 articles to read

Eco-fascism is undergoing a revival in the fetid culture of the extreme right. Some see looming ecological collapse as an opportunity to re-order society along their preferred, frankly genocidal, lines.

In mourning. We must pay attention to who we are not supposed to mourn, to what mourning is under-reported or discouraged.

Why science needs philosophy

Lessons from the history of environmentalism

The case against lawns

 

News you might’ve missed

WWF funds guards who have tortured and killed people

Most Europeans think the environment should be a priority even at the expense of growth

Study finds racial gap between who causes air pollution and who breathes it

SF considers ‘sweeping smart city’ installation of devices with cameras, microphones

China experiences a fracking boom, and all the problems that go with it

West Papua: The genocide that is being ignored by the world

The shells of wild sea butterflies are already dissolving

‘First-of-its-kind’ law will protect Lake Erie from pollution by granting it civil rights

Shipibo women healers on the challenges and opportunities of the Ayahuasca boom

 

Perspectives on well-being and development

The happiness-energy paradox: Energy use is unrelated to subjective well-being

The only metric of success that really matters is the one we ignore. “Regardless of one’s sex, country or culture of origin, or age or economic background, social connection is crucial to human development, health, and survival.”

Workism is making Americans miserable. For the college-educated elite, work has morphed into a religious identity—promising transcendence and community, but failing to deliver.

Well-being: a Latin American response to the socio-ecological crisis

Arturo Escobar: Farewell to development. Over the years, ‘development’ has undergone multiple modifications. All these approaches stay within the conventional understanding of development: they don’t constitute a radical departure from the prevailing paradigm. What we need to do is get rid of ‘development’ itself.

A letter to Steven Pinker (and Bill Gates, for that matter) about global poverty, from Jason Hickel.

 

Where we’re at: analysis

Congo’s miners dying to feed world’s hunger for electric cars   

Cyclone Idai lays bare the fundamental injustice of climate change

Guns, fire and violence in the name of conservation in Loliondo, Tanzania. Exploring the relationship between wildlife conservation and communities.

Why it’s so hard to trace the patterns of unsustainable fossil fuel use

The hidden environmental toll of mining the world’s sand  

What comes after extractivism? Reliance on resource rents keeps Latin American countries stuck in relations of dependency and undermines the core leftist goal of equality. The left must find another way.

Bolsonaro and the death of social housing

Bolsonarism and “frontier capitalism”

The Philippine left in a changing land

How the US has hidden its empire. The United States likes to think of itself as a republic, but it holds territories all over the world – the map you always see doesn’t tell the whole story.

Climate politics after the yellow vests. Far from being anti-environment, the gilets jaunes have exposed the greenwashing of Macron’s deeply regressive economic and social agenda.

How Google, Microsoft, and Big Tech are automating the climate crisis

Good enough to eat? The toxic truth about modern food

 

Degrowth and the Green New Deal

Climate breakdown is coming. The UK needs a Greener New Deal

A Green New Deal must not be tied to economic growth

Growthism: its ecological, economic and ethical limits

A bold new plan to tackle climate change ignores economic orthodoxy

Organizing to win a Green New Deal

“It’s eco-socialism or death”. Cooperation Jackson leader Kali Akuno on the Green New Deal, the need for mass civil disobedience, and the necessity of building an internationalist movement for eco-socialism.

How a Green New Deal could exploit developing countries

An ecosocialist Green New Deal: Guiding principles, from the DSA Ecosocialists.

 

White power and eco-fascism

The Christchurch massacre and the white power movement

Nature writing’s fascist roots. When the Christchurch shooter described himself as an “eco-fascist”, he invoked the age-old and complicated relationship between nature writing and the far right.

 

Plastics and waste

The Chernobyl syndrome. “Chernobyl should not be seen as an isolated accident or as a unique disaster, Brown argues, but as an “exclamation point” that draws our attention to the new world we are creating.”

Mapping USA electronics manufacturing pollution

As pollution gets worse, air-filtering face masks get fashionable

The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust

Manufacturers beware: The ‘right to repair’ movement is gaining ground

‘Moment of reckoning’: US cities burn recyclables after China bans imports

 

Just think about it…

Go home to your ‘dying’ hometown

Caretaking. Helena Norberg-Hodge and Wendell Berry, two giants of the local economy movement, sat down together for a far-reaching discussion.

The Reddit war. How the site became a front in the Syrian civil war.

BirthStrikers: meet the women who refuse to have children until climate change ends

The global South is changing how knowledge is made, shared and used

Indigenous knowledge has been warning us about climate change for centuries

Speak to the shoemaker. Philosophy need not be arcane, argued Aristotle, as he led by example, writing treatises for peers and public alike.

Don’t blame robots for low wages

Anthropocene doesn’t exist and species of the future will not recognise it

Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth

Native American Libertarian Socialism

Capitalism is destroying the Earth. We need a new human right for future generations

Human rights mean nothing unless we defend real, threatened people. “If we allow states to detain, abuse and bar migrants on the grounds that they are not citizens, if we permit authorities to vilify and discriminate against minorities on the grounds that they don’t truly belong, if we accept that governments can arbitrarily revoke citizenship on the grounds that some are politically unacceptable, we not only deny others their rights; we expose the fragility of our rights, too.”

 

Radical municipalism

Bottom-up socialism at a crossroads. Grungy, post-industrial, artsy, and cheap, Montreal has a bit of a “Berlin of the North” feel to it. But what many people don’t know is that it is one of the most politically vibrant cities in North America.

To save urban planners, cities need community organizers

The Green New Deal is already at work in one Portland neighborhood

How poor Americans get exploited by their landlords

To build the cities of the future, we must get out of our cars

The real estate sector is using algorithms to work out the best places to gentrify

The Amazon drama

Amazon’s defeat is local and global

Ownership as social relation: Nonprofit strategies to build community wealth through land

In defense of tenants: An interview with Omaha tenants united

Berlin’s grassroots plan to renationalise up to 200,000 ex-council homes from corporate landlords

 

New politics, hope, and visions for the future

New group looks to unite North America in a cooperative economy. The Symbiosis network is linking cooperative movements offering alternatives to hyper-capitalism.

Where do good organizers come from?

How to seize the means

Voices of Bakur

There’s just one way to confront neoliberalism: democratic ownership

We need to live differently. To end our fossil fuel addiction we need a fundamental technological change — but this cannot happen without changing our social and economic systems.

As the climate collapses, we ask: “How then shall we live?” The first part of a Truthout series that is intended to help us “come to terms, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, with where we are as a species, and how to plunge forward to face our future.”

By reconnecting with the soil, we heal the planet and ourselves

Why the world needs Barry Lopez. His new book, Horizon, is the crowning achievement of a writer whose eyes never stray from the long view.

Thank you, climate strikers. Your action matters and your power will be felt  

Can the imagination save us? Social movements are driven by imagination. I am not prepared to declare the death of dreams.

 

Resources

Enough is Enough: Full film on YouTube. Based on the book by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill, this film lays out a visionary but realistic alternative to the perpetual pursuit of economic growth — an economy where the goal is enough, not more.

A video introduction to Elinor Ostrom’s work

Decanonizing anthropology. Reworking the history of social theory for 21st century anthropology, a syllabus project.

Exploring post-extractivism. A library.

Bibliography of critical approaches to toxics and toxicity

 

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

Is Heidegger’s philosophy anti-Semitic?

by Rembrandt Zegers

I chose to read Donatella di Cesare’s Heidegger and the Jews and review it out of curiosity. However, as soon as I received the book and started to read it, I felt sorry for myself for having agreed to do this. Not only because of the book itself— the text is dense, chapter after chapter. The sheer amount of information is incredible. But the main reason for being sorry, however, is because of the topic and how ‘me being curious’ but not a real expert in matters concerning the philosopher Martin Heidegger, immediately felt that I could not justify myself to do this task. Still, my curiosity won.

In this review I will address why di Cesare wrote this book and what she hoped to achieve with it. I will also comment if I think she was successful in that. It is because of the ‘Black Notebooks’ recently having been published that she hoped to find the answer to the question, ‘Why did Heidegger remain silent about what happened with the Jews during World War two?’ Although in the book she is convincing about Heidegger’s anti-Semitism, it is this question about his silence that drives her.

 

Heidegger’s phenomenology
Understanding Heidegger’s philosophy is not easy. Di Cesare has not written this book for beginners. To appreciate her analysis of the recently published ‘Black Notebooks’, some overview or introduction to basic concepts is needed. Those notebooks are philosophical texts, by the way, not personal diaries. So, to begin with I provide some context here myself, through the work of another philosopher, namely Louiza Odysseos. Through her essay, ‘Radical Phenomenology, Ontology, and International Political Theory’, I try to give a picture of what Heidegger is about.

Heidegger was Edmund Husserl’s student. Husserl conceptualized phenomenology as a proposition to go back to the things themselves. It was clearly a response to the consequences of Descartes’ philosophy that had become too much of an ‘I can think it therefore I know it’, kind of idea. This was a very powerful idea as it emancipated philosophy from religion. Husserl meant to take a distance from immediate interpretation (so called ‘epoche’, meaning one ‘suspends’ oneself from one’s intentions). Another term introduced by Husserl, was ‘bracketing’. That means one puts aside what one already knows, in order to look afresh from the experience of what it is one is researching. However a big point of debate in Husserl’s philosophy is his idea of the transcendental ego. This means that even when you discard immediate interpretation, you still are left with some kind of self that looks upon the world, thinking about it (and thus interpreting).

Now Heidegger wasn’t happy with this transcendental ego and came up with a different version of phenomenology, as Husserl’s version (and others) meant falling back on ‘traditional definitions dividing man into reason and sense, soul and body, inner and outer, without a sense of what holds these realities together as a whole’ (Odysseos, 2002, p. 377). In fact, philosophers at the time posed two questions to Husserl, and Heidegger took upon himself to answer them. Here Odysseos quotes Kisiel 1on these fundamental questions: ‘How is the non-objectifiable subject matter of phenomenology to be even approached without already theoretically inflicting an objectification upon it? How are we to go along with life reflectively without de-living it?’ She continues: ‘Such a fundamental challenge was aimed at the very basis of phenomenology as a means of access to lived experience that guarded against the objectification imposed by reflection and theoretical constructs. The second objection voiced the doubt that, in addition to the first problem of accessibility, phenomenology was not able to express its purported access to its subject matter without recourse to theoretical construction’ (Odysseos, 2002, p. 378).

Heidegger formulated answers to these two most critical questions, through coming up with what he called existential analysis. ‘Existential analysis concerns itself with the structures of existence (Dasein / RZ: Being) in order to find out how Dasein is without assuming in advance, as was the case
with traditional ontology, what it is. The how and what are related since, as Heidegger has shown in his rejoinder to Natorp, there is an “initial” unity of method and subject matter in human experience. In rejecting the phenomenological isolation of the pure “I” from the perceptual objects, phenomenology and ontology become explicitly intertwined: in interpretative phenomenology, the “perceiving subject” turns to inquire about itself as the “perceptual object.” The analysis of Dasein shows it to be both the investigator and that which is interrogated. Hence, Heidegger’s phenomenological concern becomes the manner in which Dasein shows “itself to itself” (Odysseos, 2002, p. 382).
Many philosophers are quite happy with Heidegger’s work (not his anti-Semitism) because it implies that seeing and understanding everything in the world is relational. It also points at beings in a world that is already given, but at the same time holds potential. This is not necessarily from individual positions, but from positions of collectivity and mutual dependency, including dependency on the land. This is where Heidegger started to mix his philosophy of phenomenology with politics of anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitic roots
Now back to Di Cesare. She doesn’t fight the relevance of his thoughts on phenomenology still acknowledged today, for that would become an either-or kind of analysis of all good or all bad. Instead she focuses on the meta-level of philosophy and politics. Her book is an analysis of a philosopher and his responsibility for his published writing.
Her astonishment (and that of many others) is that he hardly did take any responsibility. Many others have written about Heidegger and the commentaries over the last decades had more or less come to a rest. However, as di Cesare states it is the recent publishing of the Black Notebooks that has renewed people’s interest in the man and generated a renewed debate about him, not only among philosophers, but also with a broader audience. Di Cesare explains her own interest in writing this book quite early on in the introduction, where she says:

‘For that matter, anti-Semitism is not an emotion, a feeling of hatred that comes and goes and can be circumscribed within a particular period. Anti-Semitism has a theological provenance and a political intention. In the case of Heidegger, it also takes on a philosophical significance’ (p. viii).

In other words, Di Cesare says that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in his philosophy (in the way he applied it himself). Her first problem is trying to understand this ‘application’. For that, Di Cesare explains that Heidegger and Judaism had many points in common, ranging from the concepts of nothingness, to the concept of time. But Heidegger took a different turn when putting ‘Being’ (RZ; Dasein) on the foreground. It is there where he ‘recoiled. Being was more important. The Jew was left aside’ (p.ix).
What was his problem with them? Di Cesare: ‘To the Jews, seen as the rootless agents of modernity, accused of machination to seize power, of the desertification of the earth, of uprooting peoples, condemned to be weltlos – worldless, “without world”- Heidegger imputed the gravest guilt: the oblivion of Being. The Jew was a sign of the end of everything, impeding (RZ: prohibiting) the rise of a new beginning’ (p.ix).

Heidegger’s silence
But then an even bigger question for Di Cesare is about Heidegger’s silence and the way he didn’t budge under the post war attempts to have him speak (many people tried) and comment on his thinking and responsibility. Does she find an answer to this question, ‘Why the silence?’ Let’s see.

In the second part of the book – Di Cesare illustrates the history of the hatred of the Jews in philosophy. This goes far beyond Heidegger. She goes back to Martin Luther and further illustrates that Judeophobia is not only a German phenomenon. However, Germany started looking for an identity from the Middle Ages on. The role played by Jews in the Enlightenment—while present in Germany in large numbers—created perhaps more of an entanglement for German identity than elsewhere in Europe. Di Cesare then discusses Hegel and Nietzsche who, both for different reasons, rejected the teachings of Judaism. From here she makes a connection to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, where rejection of Judaism has gone to absurd extremes with the argument that the fact that Judaism has not changed its essence over the course of centuries, shows a lack of the capacity to establish or initiate things (p.60). Di Cesare points at this argument coming back frequently in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks.
The third part of the book focusses on the question of ‘Being and the Jewish question’.

Here Di Cesare discusses extensively Heidegger’s concept of Being:

Thus, for Heidegger, being-in-the-world was the way in which being exists – constantly emerging – ex-isting – from the facticity [the quality or state of being a fact] into which it had been thrown. For him, Being was not simple presence: rather, it was always the potential of being. Being-in-the- world constantly goes beyond itself, projecting itself toward its own possibilities, starting not from a stable, objective base, but instead emerging from an abyss of nothingness, in which those possibilities threaten to disappear. In its projection, Being comports itself toward the things that it encounters in a praxis that has no cognitive velleitty [desire to be ‘what one is able to represent, conceive, and express] (p.162-163).

In this way, the world (der welt) depends on ‘Being’. Therefore, Heidegger thinks of animals as world poor (welt arm) and of the inanimate things as without world (welt loss). Then further on in the text Di Cesare says:

In Heidegger’s view, the Jew, a petrified and unassimilable remnant in the history of Being, threatens in turn to petrify Being. His a-cosmic, distorting inertia weighs upon the planet, already darkened and desertified; he darkens every light, precludes any clearing, cancels out any place on earth from which the world might spring forth, in an acceleration which, in the eschatological background [Christian eschatology is the study of the ultimate destiny of the individual soul and the entire order], infinitely reiterates the end (p. 164).

With Judaism, Jews became a metaphysical enemy. Di Cesare then states that in being drawn into metaphysics—looking to answer lives questions in terms of generalities—Heidegger was lead in complete darkness, wanting to find the answer to the question of the essence of the Jew. This was a philosopher’s error against his own phenomenological method where the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ could not be separated. But he did separate them.

 

After the war

In the fourth part of the book Di Cesare discusses the post-Auschwitz period. In this part, she further analyses Heidegger’s writing and teaching (although he was expelled from teaching at his University shortly after the war) and his public appearance. In an interview in Der Spiegel published September 1966, Heidegger states about his involvement with National Socialism that ‘I believed then that in my encounter with National Socialism a way could be opened, the only possible way’. Further down on the same page Di Cesare says: without admitting that that had been for him the path to revolution, the epochal event of Being, a philosophical path more than a political one; on the other hand, Heidegger did not attempt to pass himself off as a late-blooming democrat—he did not believe in, nor had he ever believed in, democracy—much less in the “technological age.” Even in the last pages that he wrote, Heidegger spoke of “the destiny of the Germans,” but he did not speak about any responsibility on their part. Not even one syllable about the extermination. Nothing’ (p.179). Heidegger died in 1976. But it is from the Black Notebooks (numbers II-XV were published in 2014, others in 2015 and more to follow) that Di Cesare manages to construct some answers to the questions he did not answer himself during his life. What astonishes and repels her (after having analysed the Black Notebooks, she gave up her membership of the Martin Heidegger Society) becomes clear from the next passage: In keeping with his metaphysical anti-Semitism, Heidegger interpreted the extermination of the Jews as a “self-annihilation”: the Jews would annihilate themselves. Agents of modernity, complicit with metaphysics, the Jews followed the destiny of technology, which was summed up in the word Verzehr (RZ: consumption): the usurers would lend themselves, the consumers would consume themselves, the destroyers would end up destroying themselves. If the Jews were being annihilated in the lagers, it was on account of the Gestell (RZ: frame), the technological framework to take over the world that they had promoted and fostered everywhere (p.201).

Di Cesare has given us an extensive analysis of Heidegger’s thinking about the Jews and his silence after Auschwitz, based on the Black Notebooks. The main reason for his silence according to Di Cesare is that the man himself identified with his metaphysical analysis of the Jews as well as believing that the Germans were the victims of the World (infected by Jewish nihilism and ‘gestell’). It is for the reader to decide for him or herself about Heidegger. What is relevant is to see if Di Cesare’s book, in the context of Heidegger taking responsibility for the publications of his thinking and his silence after Auschwitz, has given us valuable insights about him. I think so.
What do you think about this, as a PhD student interested in environmental philosophy? How does it affect your own understanding of his philosophy, and your possible use of it as a student? How does it relate to environmental philosophy (where Heidegger’s philosophy is common?)

Rembrandt Zegers is finishing his PhD on leading nature practices and what such practices tell us about relating to nature. He worked for Greenpeace International, Ernst & Young and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Currently he is promoting Earth Trusteeship as an innovation in governance, that bases itself on an inclusive relation with nature.

Heidegger and the Jews: The Black Notebooks is available from Polity.

After mass mobilizations, what direction for the Belgian climate movement?

“I put more work into this sign than you put into my future.” “I’d rather be a truant than have a climate disaster on my conscience.”

by Rafa Grinfeld

Tens of thousands of Belgian students have been leaving their classes to go on strike in defense of the climate. For almost two months now, every Thursday many of these students are striking. And they’ve been taking to the streets in mass protests.

One of the adult protesters is Karen Naessens of Rise4Climate, an organisation that has coordinated a recent demonstration in Brussels. Almost 100,000 people showed up for the protest. Never before did Belgium have such a large climate march. Naessens explains:

We’re protesting because we feel politicians still haven’t got it. We want to show these demands are held by the public at large and that people really care. It’s not only Belgium that should be more ambitious. It’s one of the worst performers in the EU. The EU should take a pioneering role. Europe should take the lead. It’s up to us to put it on the agenda!

Much of the Belgian media has been remarkably benevolent towards the climate protests. I have been wondering if this will change, when many climate truants will have been campaigning every Thursday for months. In my view, some of the students are obviously planning to do just that: to strike every Thursday.

Protests of young people have gathered force in Europe over the past weeks, especially in countries like the UK, The Netherlands and Germany. In France, Sweden, Switzerland and elsewhere, activists have also gathered in large numbers, the protests taking a different shape in each country. Nevertheless, the movement does have its common inspirations.

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swede, has drawn worldwide attention and inspired many of the protesters. She was the first to raise awareness of global warming through a school strike. In the beginning she was striking alone. Nobody expected her to become so influential . But her idea has taken hold among the youth, and not without reason: the strikers belong to a generation that will suffer immeasurably from climate change and its impacts.

In this text I am focusing on Belgium, where I live, and where climate protests have been larger than in any other country. Here, all age ranges are out on the street demanding for better climate policies, and youth is at the forefront of it. But, the movement does have its challenges. First, there is some danger from the Right. Second, many people don’t seem to really understand what is going on when it’s about climate change and what to do against it. And so, there are many who turn to experts to solve the problem. I argue that radical democracy, and the ideas of social ecology, are a much-needed antidote.

One of the reasons for the climate movement here becoming so big is the fact that it is very influenced by the ecological left. The ecological Right is small, but growing. Yes, the Right is slowly turning green – or so it seems. Amongst other things, they’re proposing “nuclear energy solutions” (like nuclear fusion or using thorium) and new climate technology (whether it already exists or not), stopping what they see as overpopulation, putting electric cars on the roads and setting up climate taxes (for the rich as well as the poor).

But is it really that green? After all, it has kept rather close connections with industrial lobby groups (investing in fossil fuels, for example) and climate skeptics. Arguably, the Right is just nervous after the large climate protests. Greenwashing their policies and proposals could simply be a response to feeling the wind turn under the impetus of the climate movement. The mainstream of the Right is only just trying to appear more ecological than it is in reality, to obtain more votes because there are important elections coming up in May.

What we especially need now in Belgium is a growing movement from below that puts good climate measures on the political agenda, not false or unwelcome solutions like those proposed by the “green” Right. If we look at all the climate protests of the past couple of months, we are doing quite well in that respect.

Beyond the challenge from the Right, Belgium is also facing another problem: the over-reliance on experts. Lately we have heard more and more pleas to have climate-related problems “solved” by experts. Experts, the argument goes, should sit around the table with policymakers, or should be given more money to do research on new technologies. Normal people are considered incompetent to find adequate solutions for climate change.

And so, the opinion of many people, even some of the students, has become that more power must be placed in the hands of experts. Experts who have to come up with a new type of nuclear power plant. Or experts who know a lot about the nature of climate change because they are climatologists, or architects, or … policy makers.

Experts are called in if people do not know how to solve problems. For example, when proposed solutions do not fit within their own ideological framework, or when they see themselves as not competent enough to come up with enough adequate solutions. Experts can help to solve problems, but their large power must be treated with some mistrust. If experts contradict each other a lot, like in Belgium for the moment, one soon has to deal with social stagnation and political immobility.

When it comes to climate change, Belgium has already looked at what experts do or do not advocate. Or what people do who are viewed as experts in a certain area (or whose expertise is questioned or even denied by some). There is therefore a battle going on when it’s about measures against climate change and choosing the experts that are fit for this.

So if not the experts, then who? If we leave measures against climate change to current policy makers, we will be setting ourselves up for a long wait. Power is nowadays mainly in the hands of large companies, as lobby groups they determine a large part of the Belgian and European policies. The large corporations generally are not much interested in ecological life, harmony or production. Their main raison d’être often is making profits and competing with other corporations. They want to keep their important positions within the contours of the market economy, and many principles have to be denied for that.

When experts obtain too much power we have elitist technocracy. This is really problematic, it’s disempowering and patronizing for most people. It’s especially a problem when the experts who have too much power are just politicians of top-down parties defending technocratic statecraft—like the case is now in Belgium and many other countries—and not at all climate experts trying to do something against climate change… well, then we really are in trouble. Then it becomes important for us to build counter-power and participation through grassroots movements.

The climate movement in Belgium needs to come to grips with the fact that the current ecological crisis cannot be solved by the market, or experts, alone. As Murray Bookchin wrote in 1993:

Unless we realize that the present market society, structured around the brutally competitive imperative of “grow or die,” is a thoroughly impersonal, self-operating mechanism, we will falsely tend to blame other phenomena — technology as such or population growth as such — for environmental problems. We will ignore their root causes, such as trade for profit, industrial expansion, and the identification of progress with corporate self-interest. In short, we will tend to focus on the symptoms of a grim social pathology rather than on the pathology itself, and our efforts will be directed toward limited goals whose attainment is more cosmetic than curative.” Ecology should not become dismal science or co-opted by the right, and therefore it should be infused with good social theory and interesting politics. Ecologists should be aware of the way the present market society is structured and the ills and disadvantages of industrial capitalism.

Taking advantage of the growing momentum in the climate movement, a new group of grassroots activists in Liège, a city in the south of Belgium, is planning a large international conference on what is called “social ecology” in September. In the words of Murray Bookchin once again, what defines social ecology is:

its recognition of the often-overlooked fact that nearly all our present ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems. Conversely, our present ecological problems cannot be clearly understood, much less resolved, without resolutely dealing with problems within society. To make this point more concrete; economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today — apart, to be sure, from those that are produced by natural catastrophes.

Projects like the conference on social ecology in Liège in September can help influence the climate movement to ask the hard questions about the role of capitalism and the need for alternative, direct democracy. We already have many climate protests now in Belgium. What we especially need now are some good debates and analyses about what direction the climate movement in Belgium (and other countries) should take.

Rafa Grinfeld has been studying social ecology for more than 25 years, and has been active in social and ecological activism, writing and traveling to meet and talk with social ecologists in Europe and North America.

 

January readings

Photo: Amber Bracken for The New York Times

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

This month, we’re once again featuring analysis about radical municipalism, degrowth and the green new deal. We’ve also published another piece about the Gilets Jaunes movement in France. Most importantly, though, we are featuring analysis about the Indigenous struggles against pipelines in Canada, the threat of a coup d’état in Venezuela, and farming politics. We’ve also collected some resources on Indigenous allyship. Enjoy!

 

Uneven Earth updates

Gilets Jaunes: A slap in the face of our vocabulary – Uneven Earth

 

Top 5 articles to read

Twelve Step Method to Conduct Regime Change | Vijay Prashad

Bill Gates says poverty is decreasing. He couldn’t be more wrong | Jason Hickel | Opinion | The Guardian

Her Left Hand, The Darkness | Alison Smith | Granta Magazine

An interview with Max Liboiron on what it means to do anti-colonial, feminist science

The Political Economy of Half-Earth | The Bullet

 

Venezuela

Venezuela crisis: Former UN rapporteur says US sanctions are killing citizens

There is nothing more undemocratic than a coup d’état. Former UN Rapporteur speaks to Democracy Now and talks about the threat of civil war.

US Coup in Venezuela Motivated by Oil and Corporate Interests – Militarist John Bolton Spills the Beans | The Grayzone

The Making of Juan Guaidó: How the US Regime Change Laboratory Created Venezuela’s Coup Leader | The Grayzone

Venezuela Speaks Out against the Coup | Venezuelanalysis.com

 

News you might’ve missed

The United Nations backs seed sovereignty in landmark small-scale farmers’ rights declaration | GreenBiz

Gilets Jaunes “Assembly of Assemblies” calls for massive strike | Roar Magazine

Brazil’s grief turns to anger as death toll from Vale disaster hits 60 | Reuters

Bolsonaro government reveals plan to develop the ‘Unproductive Amazon’

Poor southerners are joining the globe’s climate migrants | Scalawag

Vancouver City Council votes to declare ‘climate emergency’ | Globalnews.ca

How Police Are Preparing for a Standoff Over Enbridge Line 3

 

The future (and past) of farming and energy

How Aquaponics, A.K.A. Fish Poop, Can Grow Food Using Less Water And Land | HuffPost Canada

Can we ditch intensive farming – and still feed the world? | News | The Guardian

We need regenerative farming, not geoengineering | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian

What would Australia look like powered by 100% renewable energy? | Nicky Ison | Opinion | The Guardian

Mexico’s Energy Transformation? — THE TROUBLE. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has promised a “fourth transformation” of the Mexican state and is taking back control of the national oil and gas firm. Workers, indigenous groups, and the environmental movement in Mexico and internationally can push the agenda further.

Farm Women, Dairymaids, and the Welfare State: Story of an International Collaboration | Rural Women’s Studies

‘Freedom Farmers’ Tells the History of Black Farmers Uniting Against Racism | Civil Eats

 

Where we’re at: analysis

Headless populism and the political ecology of alienation | ENTITLE blog

Climate Change, Not Border Security, Is the Real National Emergency

The Problem Isn’t Robots Taking Our Jobs. It’s Oligarchs Taking Our Power

REDD+: A lost decade for international forest conservation | Heinrich Böll Foundation

The zombie technofix: Carbon capture and storage | The Ecologist

George Orwell said the world’s bureaucrats couldn’t take spring from us, but they are | Jeff Sparrow | Opinion | The Guardian

Davos and ‘capitalist time’

Vampire finance sucks the lifeblood out of the economy: An interview with Saskia Sassen | Red Pepper

A mad world: capitalism and the rise of mental illness | Red Pepper

Silvia Federici: Every Woman Is a Working Woman | Boston Review

 

Degrowth and the Green New Deal

Opinion: Sooner or later, we have to stop economic growth | Ensia

Discussing Degrowth with Giorgos Kallis – Plan A Academy

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘Green New Deal’ is actually an old socialist plan from Canada | Fox News

That Green Growth at the Heart of the Green New Deal? It’s Malignant – Resilience

Inequality and the ecological transition — Jason Hickel

Economic expansion boosts carbon emissions, despite green-tech gains

 

Indigenous struggles

The women fighting a pipeline that could destroy precious wildlife | US news | The Guardian

Canadian teen tells UN ‘warrior up’ to protect water | CBC News

‘The Nation Has Stood Up’: Indigenous Clans in Canada Battle Pipeline Project – The New York Times

Using Art to Explore Indigenous Rights, Activism and Environment | The Tyee

 

Just think about it…

Fascinating new map shows EVERY river basin on the globe with a different colour | Daily Mail Online

Scientists are working on a pill for loneliness | US news | The Guardian

PTSD is a western concept, says Palestine’s head of mental health services — Quartz

Collapse: You cannot prepare for what remains unthinkable – Jussi Pasanen

 

Radical municipalism

Fate of castles in the air in Turkey’s £151m ghost town | World news | The Guardian

Rebel Cities 18: Eight Years After Jasmine Revolution, Jemna Is Tunisia’s Oasis of Hope | Occupy.com

Did a green development project drive up the rent in a Montreal neighbourhood? | National Observer

‘Shared equity’ model for U.S. housing boosts home ownership for poorer families | PLACE

The municipalist revolution | International Politics and Society – IPS. The ‘new municipalism’ might just be the only really innovative process inside the European left.

Degrowth and the City – e-flux Architecture – e-flux

How Cities Make Money by Fining the Poor – The New York Times

Suburb Socialism – Dispatchula – Medium

 

New politics

Space the Nation: Dissing Utopia | SYFY WIRE. Conservatives aren’t just arguing against having to part with individual wealth, they’re arguing against change; they’re not just dismissing utopia, they’re rejecting the future itself.

Some Notes On Mass Refusal: Kim Kelly Interview with IGD – It’s Going Down

Remembering Erik Olin Wright | Dissent Magazine

A Black-Owned Food Co-op Grows in Detroit | CityLab

Chile’s feminists inspire a new era of social struggle | ROAR Magazine

Seeing Wetiko: An interview with Alnoor Ladha – Ecologise

If we want to solve complex environmental and social problems, we need to think in terms of systems | Ensia

 

Resources

When your research is attacked | Discard Studies

What Is Settler-Colonialism? | Teaching Tolerance

Montreal non-profit launches toolkit on how to be an Indigenous ally | CBC News

Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books with a Powerful Message of Social Justice – The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

An Annotated Bibliography on Structural Racism Present in the U.S. Food System, Sixth Edition – Center for Regional Food Systems

New book, Fearless Cities edited by Ada Colau and Debbie Bookchin. The first book written by and for the global municipalist movement.

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

Gilets Jaunes: A slap in the face of our vocabulary

Photo: Aurélien Adoue

by shrese

Since the 17th of November 2018, a very intriguing movement started in France: The Gilets Jaunes (GJ, or yellow vests, after the high visibility vests that participants have been wearing). Much has already been written about this uprising. I am French, but live abroad, and many friends have asked me for my take on it. This is an expanded version of what I have been sending them.

This is not a “history of the movement”, relating its inception and different stages. That can be found elsewhere (although mostly in French). I just want to list some ideas that I have found interesting along the way. You will probably find that some ideas are in contradiction with others. That’s ok. It’s mostly because I am still unsure what to think of this movement. I have not been part of the movement although I have paid a couple of visits to a small group of GJ on a roundabout in a French village I passed through in late December 2018. This was mainly written mid January 2019.


The demography of the movement and its consequences
I am aware of two studies (one by Centre Emile-Durkheim and the other by Collectif Quantité Critique, also see this interview by sociologist Yann Le Lann) on the GJ movement trying to understand who the GJ are and what they want. One of them has been strongly criticised for its methodology and biases. The other one seems more solid statistically but I haven’t come across reviews of it.

However, both of the studies agree that the main demographic component of the GJ are people constituting the “first layer of included”, that is to say, not the poorest in society, but the layer above: workers and employees. Somewhere between the lower middle class and the working class (classes populaires in French sociological jargon). It is notable that for a large number of people (50% according to one study), this is the first social movement they have participated in.

The other main interesting point from these studies is that all political sides are represented in the GJ movement. This seems to be quite a unique feature compared to past movements. The two studies disagree in the numbers, but the most solid one shows (see below): 15% of the participants identify to the Left (shades of red on the left hand side), 11.5% to the Right (blue), 3% in the centre (yellow) and 51% are a-political (neither Left nor Right, dark grey). On the right hand side is shown who the respondents voted for in the first round of the last presidential election. There has been much debate around the influence/role of the far right in the movement. My take on it is that (1) the Far-right (or at least people identifying with the Far-right) has been instrumental in getting the mobilisation off the ground, at least in some regions (2) there are indeed local groups of GJ that are explicitly far right, (3) the National Front (now Rassemblement National) was and still is very strongly supportive of the movement and (4) opinions on migrants usually associated with the far right seem to be widespread in the GJ1. For all these reasons, many who identify as left-wing were quite reluctant to join the GJ on the blockades (at least at the start). I will mention here (as people specifically asked me this question) that there were racialised people on the roundabout I went to visit, as well as in the demo I witnessed in another city. There was also a very interesting call from a decolonial group to join the GJ movement in Paris. So, as far as my experience is concerned, this did not seem to me to be a white-only movement ripe with racism.

Source: Collectif Quantité Critique


What it says about the outdated rhetoric/practices of the Left

I will summarize here (or just plainly translate) one main argument developed in an article especially helpful to decrypt this movement.

The GJ movement, rather than being based on ready-made ideas, or on a shared class consciousness, depends above all on local socialisations, historical or present day, in cafés, associations, sports clubs, housing blocks, the neighbourhood… There are no certainties nor ready-made interpretations of the world, it is constantly on the verge of explosion or dissolution, fluid and adapting, free from the Left’s pathological intellectualism and idealism, and their fantasies of proletariat, historic subject and universal class.

In the same way that the election of Macron was another signal of the crumbling of social-democracy, the GJ movement shows the crumbling of the “communistes, (in)soumis, gauchistes, anarchistes, membres de l’« ultra-gauche » et autres professionnels de la lutte de classes ou porte-paroles radicaux chic” (I wanted to leave the French version here, it reads better. It’s essentially a sarcastic list of the different sections of “the Left”). The tenacity and early victories of the movement reveal the ongoing decomposition of the leftist movements and their obsession and rigidity with their own heritage/practices/language/posture.
Far from being an obstacle, it is precisely the ideological impurity of the mobilisation (which has been decried so much) that has, until now, allowed its extension and rendered obsolete the calls to convergence and unification coming from specialised activists and organisations. To the professionals of the leftist order and of the insurrectionist disorder, the GJ movement simply answers with an invitation to a journey. An invitation to a free participation as whoever one may be, disentangled from the material heaviness and past ideologies of instituted collectives.

On a separate note, it is worth mentioning that this article also suggests a central theme to the movement, mobility. The GJ movement is the first mass politicisation of the ecological question in France. This is why “labor” should not be thought as being at the centre of the situation (as the outdated left keeps on trying to). It reveals the ecological injustices (the rich are way more responsible of the environmental catastrophe than the poor) but mostly, it reveals major differences in relation to mobilité (as in, mobility, circulation, flow or movement, it is a difficult term to translate): “Rather than expressing a social position, it brings up mobility (and its different regimes, constrained or chosen, spread or concentrated) as the principal aim of the mobilisation, and, in blocking it, as the principal instrument of the conflict.”

Photo: Thomas Bresson

Gilets Jaunes, a right wing movement?
Drawing on this last point of “ideological impurity”, some interesting arguments coming from the Left have been made in fierce criticism of the movement. I have found these analyses useful, but I am actually not sure I agree with them.

In essence, the idea goes like this:

  • This movement shows a strong rejection of political parties, unions and “the system” in general,

  • In the polls, as well as reclaimed by numerous GL themselves, the category defined as “a-political” (neither Right nor Left) has strongly emerged,

These two characteristics reproduce, or are reminiscent of, the neoliberal project, a project that:

  • Aims at delegitimising (and destroying) the institutions of regulations of the economy, the unions, the social security and the welfare state in general

  • Is hammering in our consciousness that politics is dead, ideologies are useless, there are no limits to anything (“nothing is real!” as the parody of postmodernism goes).

Another way to put it is that the GJ is the mirror response to Macron who, during his election campaign, presented himself as the theoretician of the “en même temps” (“at the same time”), as in: I am on the Left and on the Right at the same time, implying that these are old and useless categories, the “Old World” as he put it.

When there is no -ism, we adopt colours”: the yellow vests, the red hats (another past struggle in France), the Orange revolutions in Eastern Europe, the red scarves (the recent counter-GJ mobilisation in Paris)… This absence of political tradition could also explain why so much of the imaginary of the French revolution is called upon during the movement: a return to basics (ie, to the official history learnt at school).

A further interpretation is to find similarities between the GJ and what is now deemed as “populist” (commentators tend to put all sorts in this populist bag: “illiberal” democracies, Brexit, Trump, Orbán, Putin, Mélenchon, Podemos etc.). The similarity lies here in this shared narrative of the “good” people set against the corrupt elite/cast, the rejection of the “system”. What some see as problematic is that, here, the “people” is seen as some sort of a homogeneous group, and the main confrontation in society is between the people and this “elite”. The other lines of potential conflict (class, sex, race…) are not considered, hidden or consciously put to the side.

This is more or less what I was told on the roundabout: “We do not talk about the sensitive stuff”. In contradiction to that, I did witness discussions on “hot topics” (sexism for example) in that same group, and even though there were some quite contradictory points of views expressed, there was an amount of care, ability to listen, non-judgement and non-resentment that exceeded a lot of the activism-related spaces I have been into. The people I talked to said that they wanted to avoid arguing because they want to be as open as possible, and they do not want to be divided. As if the fact of being together on the roundabout meant much more than the political identity of the group and/or its demands.

These three aspects (the vision of the people as a homogeneous group where the only line of contradiction is with the “elite”, the self-identification as “a-political”, and the rejection of ideologies) is also problematic for another researcher, Samuel Hayat. For him, it is an imaginary where politics is replaced by a series of policies, the neoliberal dream. Both the GJ and neoliberalism are telling us that we should rid ourselves of ideologies, and that politics should be seen as a list of problems to solve, separated questions to answer, boxes to tick. Another problematic aspect of this is the denial of the positive role of conflicts and contradictions within a movement and for “democracy”. However, Hayat is on the whole very supportive of the movement and hopes it will find a way to use its internal contradictions to build power.

Some on the Left push this interpretation to the extreme, for example the Collectif Athéné Nyctalope. They see the GJ movement as essentially reactionary. They interpret the original impetus of the movement, and most of its demands (including the now most visible one: the inscription of a kind of Citizens’ referendum in the French constitution), as owing to the Far-right. Because portions of the Left are supporting/taking part in the movement, this would be tantamount to making alliances with the Far right and fascists, basically using the principle that “the end justifies the means”. As a support to this view, this collective draws extensive comparisons between the GJ movement and the M5S in Italy.

In this vein, the following point is also interesting. To increase one’s available income, there are two main options: increase your pay, or decrease your tax. The GJ have mostly focused on decreasing taxes, which could be argued is a typical right-wing demand, facilitating the kind of disturbing alliances seen on the ground (with shop owners, heads of small companies, local right-wing politicians, far-right…).

Its tactics, practices and “victories”

The blockades

As far as I know, these were used on the roads/highways, at tolls and, most famously, at roundabouts (which are very numerous in France). This tactic of blocking the fluxes (transport of goods, people, money, information…) was particularly pushed by the Invisible Committee (see The coming insurrection and the Chapter “Power is Logistic. Block Everything!” in To our friends), and it is now particularly interesting to see it taken up so “naturally”. So you could say: “the Invisible Committee was right!” or “the GJ are highly politically conscious of the situation and know what to do to influence it”.

Decentralisation

This has been the practice as much during the big national days of action in Paris (every Saturday since the start of the movement), as well as at the national scale. In Paris, as far as I could gather, there was no real central banner, no head of the demo, no core group, no stewards (this has actually changed recently, with main banners and some sort of stewarding in places, but the last Saturday in Paris still saw five independent demos). The level of militancy reached very high levels, including in previously untouched areas of Paris (even in the protests of 1968, the rich quarters of Paris stayed intact). But Paris has not been the centre of the movement by any stretch. All regions, cities and towns of France had their group of GJ, strongly anchored in their territory. It has so far been impossible to establish some kind of physical, organisational or even symbolic centre to this movement.

Refusal of representation

A reflection of this decentralisation is the knee-jerk reaction of hatred by the GJ for any attempts at representation (no legitimate representatives, no official spokespersons etc.). Despite many efforts, self-proclaimed leaders have so far been quickly de-legitimised and even threatened, unions and political parties very much pushed to the side. Some interesting calls for coordination (as in, not convergence nor unity nor centralisation) were proposed, but I don’t know how much they were followed and how big the risk of institutionalisation/recuperation would be if they were2.

Victories

Because of all this, the media don’t doesn’t know how to report on all this. Most of the GJ are not the usual suspects of social movements/unrests (lefty activists, students, trade unions, the youth of the banlieues etc.), so journalists are lost and cannot use their usual clichés. They don’t know what to say, nor how to understand it. The movement is really popular and enjoy large support (even after the very riotous Saturdays) so it’s difficult for them to completely bash it. As there is no central organisation or official spokespersons, the media need to go to random people to know what’s happening. So you end up hearing voices, accents, seeing bodies that you never find in the media. This is the case in terms of class, but also of gender. Indeed, official representatives of social movements tend to be mostly men, therefore women are more visible now than in previous movements. The previously cited studies show that there are as many women as men involved in this movement, there has even been a Women’s GJ demo on Sunday 7th January.

I have never seen a government showing so much fear. They talked about insurrection, an unprecedented crisis, a toppling of the republic, about risks of death during demos, they warned and even threatened people not to go to the national days of action in Paris. Of course, the rhetoric of fear could also just be an act, but it’s the first time I have witnessed this. The repression is extremely violent, fierce (many documented severe injuries due to shots of rubber bullets to the face, for example) and orwellian (thousands of pre-emptive arrests on charges such as “gathering with the intent of committing violence”), this could also be a sign of fear. The government also seems totally lost with the decentralised aspect of the movement: They tried to get delegates to come and negotiate with them. So some self-proclaimed people went, but were immediately repudiated online by other GJ. However, interesting to note, when these self-proclaimed spokespersons had their meetings with ministers and others, they filmed and livestreamed it, which was a first.

To stay on the subject of the repression, there is something with the GJ movement and its relation to the police that seems quite interesting to me. As already mentioned, the movement shows a wide diversity of political opinions, including far-right people. Therefore, a lot of people on the blockades do not necessarily share this natural hatred of the police, they may see them as their “comrades”, talk to them, feel connected to them (although I’m not sure how widespread this still is after the violent police repression). On top of that, as the GJ can hardly be perceived as the usual suspects of social movements, it must be confusing for some police to bash at people they would never expect to face (including other fascists). Is it possible that at some point some police will refuse to keep on gassing and beating them up?3 It is also interesting to hear police unions saying that they are at breaking point, exhausted etc. (they even threatened to start their own movement in December and got immediate pay rises).

Photo: Patrice Catalayu

Conclusions

To conclude, it could be argued that the GJ have a very acute strategic sense of the political situation. A first sign of this are the actual victories/retreats from Macron that the movement achieved. These are more impressive than most of the concessions secured by the social movements I can think of in the last three decades (even though, given what is at stake, they are of course pretty insignificant).

This is without mentioning the other kind of victories: the level of militancy and confrontational practices, the obvious fear instilled in the government and the state (hard to measure how much businesses and neoliberal proponents were scared), the social question put at the forefront of the ecological question (i.e., the ecological transition has to include the social question, not just increase tax on fuel that will mostly impact on the poorest without any systemic change), the significant and meaningful human relations (and “political consciousness” for lack of a better word) created during the movement.

Let’s focus a bit more on this latter point. This was very much confirmed by my visit to the roundabout. Not only were the local groups of GJ based on already existing relations (neighbourhood, village, social or sport clubs, families…), but what seemed to be essential to the people there was to finally get to talk to new people around them, break the isolation, discover each other: “I don’t know them but we talk to each other”. Anything that helps us filling the emotional desert we find ourselves in everyday… even better when it’s in confrontation with a system, or rather, a mode of life. One GJ said on a TV debate: “Mais tout est scandaleux ! – But everything is outrageous!” when asked what kind of reform the government should make to appease the movement. I loved this. It’s about everything, the way we live, the way we relate to others and the world around us… (I realise that I am here suggesting what could be “the” central question of the GJ movement, but actually I’m struggling to find the usefulness of debating this central question. Everything has already been said and proposed anyway: mobility, recognition of work, arrogance of the elite, feeling of not being listened to and humiliated, living in regions abandoned by the state, contraction of wages and “spending power”, populist/far right agenda…).

Following from this, a useful text argues that, because the spirit of a movement sits more in its tactics/practices than in its demands/ideas, the GJ movement has brought to the forefront the political potency of the localité (locality in English, the text also uses the term commune). As already mentioned, the localité is where the movement started, but the movement also “made it the central point of emancipatory politics again”. It is the “potential nucleus of a coming political subjectification, antagonist to the present and future spheres of representation”.

Shrese is from France, has lived abroad the last decade and is sometimes involved in the housing movement, amongst other things. He likes the Invisible Committee a lot and tries really hard to not treat their books as the bible.

1. This is based on a general impression and on one of the questions asked in the study of the Collectif Quantité Critique: 48% of respondents think that, when it comes to employment, priority should be given to a French person over a legal migrant. So all in all, my point (4) may not be so strong.

2. As an update, as of the 29th January 2019, it seems that this initiative was a success, at least in terms of number of collective present (75), but from the sound of it, the discussions sounded complicated.

3. There has already been signs of solidarity to the GJ by the police. Eric Hazan says that the successful uprisings are the ones where, at one point, some police/army forces have flipped in favour of the movement.

December readings

Photo by Abdulmonam Eassa, via ROAR Magazine

 

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

This list marks a full year of monthly readings! Thank you for all those who subscribed. We would like to take this moment to ask you if you have any feedback on this series. Is it too long? What do you like about it, what don’t you like about it? Let us know via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or at info@unevenearth.org.

We didn’t spend much time online during December festivities, so this list is shorter than usual, but we still found great reads to share. We once again saw an uptick in discussions on a “Green New Deal”, this time less so in lefty corners of the Internet, but in mainstream culture, with the launching of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into the spotlight. Of course, we highlight a few of the best “takes” on the yellow vest movement in France, including one we published. We also saw some interesting discussion, and criticism, of eco-primitivism.

 

Uneven Earth updates

A new North American network emerges from the grassroots | Link | Announcing a congress of municipal movements

Time for the subaltern to speak | Link | The movement against waste incineration in Can Sant Joan, Catalonia

The 8th of December, the end of the month, and the end of the world | Link | The yellow vest movement shows us the potential of a “convergence des luttes” to demand a just ecological transition

Why we need alternatives to development | Link | An excerpt from the forthcoming book Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary

 

Top 5 articles to read

The fallout.  “Dawn, this is the United States of America,” her husband said. “The government doesn’t just leave radioactive waste lying around.”

Which municipalism? Let’s be choosy

How millennials became the burnout generation. I couldn’t figure out why small, straightforward tasks on my to-do list felt so impossible. The answer is both more complex and far simpler than I expected.

How plastic is a function of colonialism

No collision. In the face of climate apocalypse, the rich have been devising escape plans. What happens when they opt out of democratic preparation for emergencies?

 

News you might’ve missed

How TigerSwan infiltrated Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline movement

Spiked online funded by the Koch Foundation. Why are the billionaire Koch brothers funding Spiked, whose origins lie in the Revolutionary Communist Party?

A ‘gold rush’ at the bottom of the ocean could be the final straw for ecosystems

The threat to Rojava: An anarchist in Syria speaks on the real meaning of Trump’s withdrawal

All out against Bolsonaro!: An appeal from Brazil

Norway stands accused of waging cultural war against Sami people by forcing them to reduce their reindeer herds (see also Pile o´Sápmi—an artwork against forced culling)

 

Radical municipalism

Reflections on Olympia Assembly: An experiment in popular power

Goma’s non-violent movement for water & peace in war-torn Congo

The suburbs are the spiritual home of overconsumption. But they also hold the key to a better future

 

New politics

Twelve uplifting stories from indigenous peoples in 2018

Decolonize the frontiers: The Mississippi Delta

Extinction Rebellion – in or out?

Extinction Rebellion: Notes from an old white man

Growth pessimism, but degrowth optimism

We need an ecological civilization before it’s too late

 

Where we’re at: analysis

Environmental populisms – alongside and beyond (state) authority. Rather than (only) critiquing and dismissing existing uses of ‘the people’ as insufficient, political ecology could contribute to a new international populism capable of upholding climate justice.

The new autocrats: How democracy helps leaders consolidate power

Do red and green mix?. Michael Löwy responds to roundtable on his essay, “Why ecosocialism: For a red-green guture.”

Fear of cultural loss fuelling anger with elites across Europe

 

Just think about it…

Unhinged GDP growth could actually destroy the economy, economists find

Wild and domestic. Wendell Berry on the language of “wilderness”.

The dark side of disarmament: Ocean pollution, peace, and the World Wars

 

Green new deal

We can pay for a Green New Deal

Winona LaDuke calls for Indigenous-led “Green New Deal” as she fights Minnesota Pipeline expansion

A Green New Deal must be rooted in a just transition for workers and communities most impacted by climate change

 

Yellow vest movement

“The gilets jaunes have blown up the old political categories”

Paris/Maidan

The guillotine: yellow vest protests in France and Cyntoia Brown

Five notes on the yellow vest movement

Macron’s climate tax is a disaster

 

Eco-primitivism and its critics

The unlikely new generation of unabomber acolytes

The ableist logic of primitivism: A critique of “ecoextremist” thought

The preppers are coming to town

 

Climate and culture

Why climate change is causing “eco-anxiety,” grief, and mental health issues

Hopepunk, explained: the storytelling trend that weaponizes optimism

Announcing “better worlds”. 10 original fiction stories, five animated adaptations, and five audio adaptations by a diverse roster of science fiction authors who take a more optimistic view of what lies ahead in ways both large and small, fantastical and everyday.

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

A new North American network emerges from the grassroots

 

Symbiosis, an expanding network of revolutionary organizers and local initiatives, is assembling a confederation of democratic community institutions across North America. This project has been gathering support over the past year and will be launched at a continental congress in Detroit from September 18-22.

The emerging network consists of diverse groups and member organizations, from Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi to Olympia Assembly in Washington, who are participating out of a recognition of the need to carry the movement for radical democracy beyond the local level. “It is imperative that any groups or organizations moving in a social or economic sense on the vision we share for a democratic and ecologically sound world not struggle on their own, but instead under a global support system aimed at both dismantling our exploitative socioeconomic system (Capitalism), and building a democratic, cooperative system in its place. Symbiosis is in a position to build this support system,” said Z of Black Socialists of America (BSA), one of BSA’s co-founders.

On January 7, Symbiosis released a launch statement announcing the congress, initially signed by 14 organizations. “Over the course of the past year,” it stated, “our organizations have been strengthening our relationships with one another, learning from each other, generating shared resources, and honing a common vision of how to create together the genuinely democratic world that we need.”

Beyond the shared vision of radical democracy and egalitarianism, what unites these groups is a common political strategy, of building institutions of popular power from below to challenge and replace the governing institutions of capitalist society. “We have to move beyond the limitations of bourgeois democracy, particularly its representative forms, which intentionally limit the agency and power of communities and individuals in our societies. To get beyond these limitations we have to build democratic formations and practices in every facet of our lives—where we work, live, play, and pray—and utilize these formations to exercise dual power, that is utilizing our own power and agency to govern our own lives beyond the limitations imposed upon us by the state and the forces of capital,” says Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson. A shared commitment to building ‘dual power’ unites the member organizations of Symbiosis.

At the 2019 congress, delegates from grassroots organizations across North America will gather to form a confederation between their groups, to grow and coordinate a movement that can bring about a just, ecological, and free society.

“The problems we face today require a bold and unified response,” said Brian Tokar of the Institute for Social Ecology, a member organization and sponsor of the event. “We face the rising threats of authoritarianism and inequality, structural forms of domination between the haves and the have-nots, and the scapegoating and oppression of immigrants and people of color. And we also know that the destabilization of the climate and the fossil-fueled destruction of the Earth’s life support systems play a central role in all the problems we face.”

The idea behind the confederation is that these formidable challenges are insurmountable for individuals and small groups. “By coming together, we can better recognize and organize the changes necessary to secure our future more than what any of us can do at the local level,” said Kelly Roache, a co-founder of Symbiosis. A common platform would also allow this growing movement to pool resources, raise their public visibility, and seed new organizing initiatives.

The congress will prioritize local, democratically-run movements and organizations that are building new economic and political institutions, such as people’s assemblies, tenant unions, and cooperatives. Local groups are invited to join the congress and sign on to the launch statement, and individuals can also join as members.

In April 2017, members of the Symbiosis Research Collective published the essay, “Community, Democracy, and Mutual Aid: Toward Dual Power and Beyond”, which won first prize in the Next System Project essay competition. Journalist and author Naomi Klein, who reviewed the essay, said that the Symbiosis vision “sketches out a flexible roadmap for scaling up participatory democracy”.

Over the past year, the network has grown to over 300 individual members, in addition to the 14 member and partner organizations who have signed onto the launch statement thus far. The Symbiosis Research Collective has also published an ongoing series of articles reaching an audience of over 23,000 readers. In July 2018, Symbiosis co-coordinated the Fearless Cities North America conference (NYC), which convened 300 municipalist activists from the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Europe, and Latin America. In December 2018, they started a crowdfunder to fund the congress.

Currently, members are working on developing resources and information for people who wish to begin organizing where they live and work. “By the time of the congress, the Symbiosis Research Collective will have put together an in-depth primer on community organizing and dual power institution-building, including important historical examples, practical guides, and the theoretical underpinnings of our revolutionary project,” said Mason Herson-Hord, another co-founder of Symbiosis and co-coordinator of the research collective.

In their launch statement, these authoring organizations write that the congress is only the beginning. “Ultimately, we will need such a confederation to carry our struggle beyond the local level. Ruling-class power is organized globally, and if democracy is to win, we must be organized at that scale as well. As this project advances, the possibilities are endless.”

Symbiosis is a network of community organizations across North America, building 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. Find out more and contact us at symbiosis-revolution.org or info@symbiosis-revolution.org.

Time for the subaltern to speak

Sergio Ruiz Cayuela

Protest against waste incineration in the Asland cement plant in Can Sant Joan. Source: www.ladirecta.cat

I will tell you something about stories,

[he said]

They aren’t just entertainment.

Don’t be fooled.

They are all we have, you see,

All we have to fight off

illness and death.

Leslie Silko, Ceremony (1977)

 

Developing a subaltern consciousness

The hazard does not disappear by sweeping the dust from their balconies and shutting the windows.

For the Can Sant Joan neighbors pollution is not anymore imagined as a visible dust cloud with clearly defined boundaries from which you can escape. The hazard does not disappear by sweeping the dust from their balconies and shutting the windows. The community perceives pollution as scattered around the neighborhood in multiple and mostly invisible forms. From the thick smoke clouds that are still released from the chimneys of the LafargeHolcim cement plant to the invisible dioxins and furans. From the rain that pours loaded with heavy metals to the tomatoes that were once grown in chemically contaminated soil. Pollution is not discrete anymore, but a continuous entity that not only impregnates everything but trespasses macroscopic physical boundaries. People in Can Sant Joan have developed a consciousness of their bodies’ constant interchange with their environments. Thus, the very place where they live their everyday lives—an environment that has been infected with hazardous toxic pollution for decades—has become a threat for the community members.

During years of tireless struggle against the cement plant—and other sources of pollution—Can Sant Joan neighbors have realized that they are fighting a very unbalanced battle. It is not just a factory that they are opposing, but a whole economic system that fosters inequalities and prioritizes growth before well-being. Political and economic elites dispose of the most marginal, powerless communities in order to increase profit and reinforce their social dominance. The Can Sant Joan community has become aware of this dynamics through first-hand experience. As a neighbor puts it: “they thought it was going to be very easy to pollute and kill a community of poor working-class people, but we fought back and won’t stop until the cement plant is shut”. By recognizing their marginal position—in economic, political, and social terms—and acknowledging lack of autonomy and political representation as the main shortages in to order leave marginality, the community has developed what is called a subaltern identity.

Can Sant Joan has been deliberately burdened with abnormally high environmental impacts.

The leakage in 1984 of the Cerrell Report, commissioned by the California Waste Management Board to a consulting firm, shed light on the relationship between subalternity and environmental health. The report sought to define the type of communities that were less likely to resist the siting of locally unwanted land uses (LULUs) in terms of race, income, class, gender, or religion. It proves that many times the placing of LULUs is deliberately based on political criteria. Since its creation, Can Sant Joan—a neighborhood that was born as a settlement for mainly unskilled migrant workers at the cement plant and the railroad track—has been incrementally burdened with polluting industries and infrastructures. This reinforcing pattern has created a vicious circle: the more LULUs were placed in the neighborhood, the less desirable it was to live in it. As a neighbor described: “people didn’t come to live here because we chose so, but because housing was cheap. Where else could we go?” Thus, Can Sant Joan has been deliberately burdened with abnormally high environmental impacts that pollute the environment, threaten the health of the community and, in short, make the area a sacrifice zone.

Sight of the LafargeHolcim cement plant from the Masia street. Source: AAV Can Sant Joan

The subaltern in Can Sant Joan are contesting this image of the passive and defeated subaltern through their resistance.

The situation for communities inhabiting sacrifice zones is often represented as hopeless. But the subaltern in Can Sant Joan are contesting this image of the passive and defeated subaltern through their resistance. The best way to understand why and to learn about the community and its struggle against waste incineration in the cement plant is, in the fashion of what the Toxic Bios project proposes, through the personal story of a neighbor who has been deeply affected by living in such a polluted environment. It’s time for the subaltern to speak!

 

Toxic storytelling: Manolo Gómez “el zapatero” (“the cobbler”)

I am 74, I was born on January 24th 1943 in a little village in Granada called Benalúa. All my family members were republicans. Two of my uncles were distinguished soldiers during the Spanish Civil War and they went to France into exile, but Franco’s regime had a deal with Gestapo and they were still prosecuted during those years. My family was part of the lowest class. I saw a man starve to death at my doorway, I will never forget that. He came begging for some food while my mom was cooking a stew. But the moment he took the first bite, his body had a bad reaction and it was as if he had been struck by lightning. I came to Can Sant Joan when I was 16 because my family was being punished extremely hard by Francoist local authorities in Benalúa. They were making our lives impossible and we had no possibilities to survive there. I didn’t come to Catalonia voluntarily, I was expelled from my land. I went to the school of Franco until I was 16, ruled by the Catholic church, very Catholic. When I was 9 years old I started working and I combined it with school. I was working at a projection booth in a cinema, because I am a qualified projectionist. Then I also started working as a cobbler. So, during the daytime I supplied footwear to my neighbors and during the nighttime I entertained them. Since I arrived in Can Sant Joan I joined the neighborhood association and I was involved in the struggles. I was also member of a revolutionary left political group during 15 years, in the 1960s and 1970s. We fought the regime and our main goal was to kill Franco. I don’t know if I would call myself an environmentalist… definitely not an “abstract” one, but maybe I could be called a radical environmentalist.

I don’t know if I would call myself an environmentalist… definitely not an “abstract” one, but maybe I could be called a radical environmentalist.

The current Can Sant Joan neighborhood was born in the 1960s migration boom. We all came from different places, we didn’t know each other, but there were a core of people who started bringing the neighborhood together and convincing ourselves that we shouldn’t accept our living conditions. We were always the most working-class, leftist, united and open neighborhood. We never had problems with anyone, even now that people from abroad keep coming here. We are an open neighborhood. The most tenacious neighborhood has always been Can Sant Joan, and it’s not me saying that, but all the other neighborhoods in Montcada. The neighborhood has been changing for the better during the years by dint of all the struggles that the community has carried out. But nobody ever gave us anything for free in this neighborhood, everything we have achieved has been through constant struggle. The Can Sant Joan neighborhood is everything to me, it has given me everything that was denied to me in other places. I always said that the day that I retire I will keep working for the neighborhood. And after 60 years working, fixing shoes for three generations and screening movies at the Kursaal (the former cinema of the neighborhood, that was abandoned for 26 years and then turned into a popular auditorium after a strong mobilization, author’s note), here I am. I am very grateful to the neighborhood. Then we started to build a real community and today this is not just a neighborhood but a close community. We have a theater association, a poetry group… we were even able to bring the Basque poet Silvia Delgado to the Kursaal. I put a lot of effort into it, because I love poetry. Even if most people work in the city, there is a core group that always organizes public events. Especially around the school and the parents’ association, but also the storekeepers’ association organizes a handicraft fair, we also have a group of gegants i capgrossos, the castellers… (groups that perform different acts related to Catalan culture, a.n.), everyone is involved!

I usually feel a very unpleasant smell from the cement plant and from the sewage treatment plant that is across the river. It is terrible, it is massive, the smell that we feel from time to time is suffocating. In Can Sant Joan there are many people with respiratory problems, especially cancer. This is our biggest problem right now in the neighborhood. And all these sick and deceased people are a consequence of the toxic environment we live in. It’s not just me saying that, it’s everyone here. I have a chronic disease—asthma—because of the cement plant. I have claimed that on TV, on the radio, and wherever I can. I will repeat it 30,000 times if needed: living under that chimney for 74 years is terrible. I don’t even know how I’m still alive.

Montcada hill in 1928. The exploitation of the quarry has almost reached the Mare de Déu de Montcada chapel on top, that was finally destroyed in 1939 in a landslide. Source: AVV Can Sant Joan

The cement plant, which is about to turn 100 years old, was first owned by the Asland company. It was ruled by the Catalan bourgeoisie, who started the company in Castellar de N’Hug, but they didn’t find enough raw material there so they came here. Another reason was the railroad, because they built a branch that connected the cement plant with the main railroad line and they were able to transport their products more efficiently. I still remember years ago that every noon there were terrible explosions in the quarry. Every day at noon a siren would sound off and then a huge blast would follow. Enormous dust clouds would come off the hill, that once was about double the current height. We had to hold the windows with our hands or otherwise they would just blow up. That was every day at 12 a.m. during the 1960s… Moreover, there was a small chapel on top of the hill, owned by the clergy, who made a pontifical Bull and gave the chapel for free to the Catalan bourgeoisie. They just tore it down in order to extract more material. Later on the multinational company came and bought the business, and they still own it. There used to be 40 or 50 regular Asland workers at the neighborhood, and a lot of indirect workers as well. Most of the people at the neighborhood used to work either for the Asland or the Renfe (the railroad company, a.n.). A few years ago we went through all the people we knew from Can Sant Joan who used to work at the Asland and we found out that all of them are already dead, from cancer. There’s nobody left. Currently there are barely 30 or 40 workers at the cement plant. They have a terrible technology, they don’t need people anymore. Trucks get loaded and unloaded automatically. The plant only needs a cheap labor force when they do maintenance tasks, but those people are only employed a few days. The company does whatever is needed in order to avoid paying wages.

We know very well that we are getting into the heart of capitalism, but we are not scared.

The Asland (the cement plant is still nowadays popularly known as Asland, in reference to the former owner, a.n.) has a strong presence in the neighborhood, very strong. These splendid factories know how to buy people, and some people like being sold. The managers even tried to bribe us (us refers to the neighborhood association, a.n.) when we started to say that they shouldn’t start burning waste, that we’d had enough. After 30 years suffering a waste incinerator (the first urban waste incinerator of the Spanish state started to operate in Can Sant Joan in 1974. See next paragraph for further clarification, a.n.) we already knew what was going to happen. They called me and my mate (both members of the direction board of the neighborhood association, a.n.) to the manager’s office, and he asked us what were our demands to stop saying that what they were going to do was dangerous to the people. It was just before they started burning waste. And the Asland also used to have a terrific relationship with the municipality. For example, when the Socialists (in reference to the Catalan Socialist Party, a.n.) were in power they used to organize fireworks contests during the town festival. That costed a fortune, but it was all paid by the cement plant. They even paid the municipal newspaper, which is called La Veu. It used to be financed by Lafarge, you can still see many Lafarge adverts in it. The cement plant also finances all the football teams in Montcada, the chess club, and whoever goes asking for money. The company used to donate 3,000€ every year to our neighborhood association for the annual neighborhood festival. Now the relationship with the municipality seems very different, but we’ll see what happens… Because politicians fear these big companies. We don’t fear them, but politicians are scared because these companies have huge economic power and can buy everything. We know very well that we are getting into the heart of capitalism, but we are not scared.

We already suffered a waste incinerator here, and many people got sick and died because of it. We succeeded in closing that incinerator after a long-time struggle. After that, local politicians assured that waste was never again going to be incinerated in our town. A motion was even signed in 1999 by all the political parties banning waste incineration in the Montcada i Reixac municipality. And when 10 years ago we learned that they were going to start that atrocity again in the neighborhood, we sounded the alarm. I had already been involved in the struggle against the waste incinerator, which was the first one in the whole Spanish state—like a pilot project. We organized a huge demonstration when there were no highways getting into Barcelona yet, and we blocked the only Northern access to the city. We were a buttload of people from the neighborhood, we walked from here to the cement plant and we came back. It was a great day! We also mobilized against the big chimney at the cement plant, which was releasing huge dust clouds 24 hours per day. We forced the Asland to install the first cement filters and the amount of dust decreased. And from those past struggles comes my current involvement.

Jose Luis Conejero (right) and Manolo Gómez (center), members of the neighborhood association of Can Sant Joan, during their presentation at the I European Gathering Against Waste Incineration in Cement Kilns held in Barletta (Italy) in 2014. Source: www.ladirecta.cat

We are realizing that this is a common problem, and that everywhere they tell the same lies.

Now I am at the direction board of the neighborhood association, I attend all the mobilizations, I am the secretary of the neighborhood association, and especially, I am just one more in the movement. We have organized demonstrations with up to 3,000 people but there is something even more important. We have been able to raise awareness among the community so when someone gets cancer, and everyday there are more people—especially young—getting sick, they point out to the cement plant and the environment. This is very important. We thought that we were alone in this, but now we are realizing that in the Spanish state there are 36 cement plants and the same thing is happening everywhere. And not only in the Spanish state but also in Europe, in America… They are perpetrating atrocities. They are ruining our lives, poisoning our water and air… and nobody can live without water and air! It is terrible and they are perfectly conscious of what they’re doing. They are criminals. And we are realizing that this is a common problem, and that everywhere they tell the same lies. The politicians, the cement companies… they say the same thing everywhere! They are scoundrels, criminals. We are ruled by criminals. We have had some problems with the local authorities. Not with the new mayor, but with Socialists and Convergents (referring to politicians from the Socialist Catalan Party and from the nationalist electoral alliance Convergence and Union; a.n.) we had some problems. I was prosecuted by the local police. We were calling the neighbors with a megaphone for an assembly, when the mayor sent the police to frisk me. The officer, who was a good person and a casual acquaintance of mine, told me: “look, I’m sorry, but I was ordered to frisk you and ask for your documentation”. But they could not find anything against me.

There are experts of many kinds in this country! I call some of them mercenaries for hire. There are also very honest and professional people, practitioners and scientists who have dared and still dare to talk against this scum. But others… there are some mercenaries for hire and those are horrible. There is a mercenary called Domingo, from the Rovira i Virgili university who says that it is more dangerous living beside a highway than under a waste incinerator. And these mercenaries are those who are hired by the public administration and they make their reports to measure. But we have also been helped by many experts, I could tell you a long list of names. I think they also take something positive from the experience, and they are being very helpful for our movement. Nobody dares to contradict them. And they collaborate in a completely unselfish way, they just fight for the health of the community. There was one, though, whose name I prefer not to reveal, who got scared and gave up. He helped us a lot, but there was a huge dispute with the cement companies and he got scared.

 

Subaltern voices and resistance in guerilla narratives

Manolo’s story shows that sacrifice zones are not only geographical places, but also subaltern human—and non-human—bodies. The toxicity concentrated in these sacrifice zones—whether geographical or organic—is not only embodied in the obvious ecological way, but it is spread beyond. Toxic stories that deliberately distort reality develop in order to boost ignorance about the real environmental health impacts, in a process that constitutes narrative violence. Sacrifice zones thus carry a double burden: they are subjected to accumulative environmental impacts that harm humans and non-humans, and they are usually invisibilized in official narratives. Concerns about narrative violence are easily found in Can Sant Joan, where the neighbors bitterly complain about the wide presence that the cement plant has historically had in local press and municipal leaflets, and where the Asland is portrayed as a valuable contributor to the Can Sant Joan community.

Front and back covers of a booklet distributed by the municipality announcing public activities for the Christmas season. Source: own scan of the original booklet.

Storytelling can become a powerful weapon to sabotage the mainstream toxic narrative and occupy it with counter-hegemonic knowledge.

But above all, Manolo’s autobiography shows how storytelling can become a powerful weapon to sabotage the mainstream toxic narrative and occupy it with counter-hegemonic knowledge based on physical and cultural experiences of everyday life. It can be compared to such an iconic image of sabotage and resistance as the monkey wrench in its twofold purpose: on the one hand it can be used to undermine the mainstream narrative, and on the other hand it can be used in a constructive way in order to build autonomous spaces where the subalterns take back control of their stories and their bodies. The very action of the subaltern telling their own stories of toxicity—described by Armiero and Iengo as “guerrilla narrative”—is loaded with political meaning, as they decide to reject the passive role that they have been given in the mainstream narrative. This kind of toxic storytelling has the power to bring together subaltern communities trapped beyond mainstream concern and redefine environmentalism towards a broader and more inclusive movement that eventually influences political agendas.

 

Sergio Ruiz Cayuela is a Catalan scholar-activist and Marie Skłodowska Curie PhD fellow at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University. His research interests include alternative environmental movements and the political potential of the commons for empowering subaltern communities. 

 

The 8th of December, the end of the month, and the end of the world

“End of the world, end of the month, same struggle. Photo: Il Est Encore Temps on Twitter

by Anya Verkamp and Riccardo Mastini

Saturday 8 December 2018 is a day that will likely go down in history for many social movements. The streets of many European cities were filled with demonstrations against the most pressing social issues of our time: growing inequality, useless mega infrastructural projects, and climate breakdown. While these issues may seem unrelated, they have common origins in neoliberalism.

The demonstrations that most captured the collective imaginary and the headlines are those of the gilets jaunes – or ‘yellow vests’ – in France. The past five weekends have seen protests rising against Macron’s government. Although the movement was sparked by a new tax on petrol, the ‘fuel’ keeping the movement alive is  resentment towards ‘the President of the rich’ who recently reduced the solidarity tax on wealth, an iconic policy of French socialism.

Other notable resistance protests marking that weekend include those in Italy against the ‘useless mega infrastructural projects’ such as the TAV, TAP and the MUOS military antenna – major proposals of private industrial infrastructure that devastate ecosystems and the health of citizens. The TAV is an example of how transport becomes a threat to ecology and society when privatized rather than run as a public service. The TAV is the result of a historic wave of the neoliberalization of transport, energy and telecommunications industries, through the privatization and deregulation of publicly-owned enterprises.

The Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Jackets”) taking over the Champs-Elysées, Paris. Photo: Christophe Becker on Flickr

At the same moment, international policy-makers convened in Katowice, Poland to negotiate how to implement the Paris Agreement at the COP24 UN climate conference. Or, in the case of some parties, such as the US, Russia, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, the conference was about negotiating how not to implement the Paris Agreement. For delegates of poorer nations and small island states in the Pacific that are on the frontlines of climate change, the objective was to negotiate their own survival. This year could be the last opportunity for international policy-makers to take the necessary measures to avoid climate apocalypse. The result has been an unprecedented wave of climate marches in recent weekends, including the biggest some countries have ever seen.

It is therefore evident that ecological issues are an ever-stronger underlining force for many social movements. Ironically, it is precisely in France – whose President was recently recognized as a UN “Champion of the Earth” – where it has become evident how the neoliberal establishment privileges the wealthy through climate policy while neglecting the working class.

As human ecologist Andreas Malm argues, Macron is today the champion of neoliberal rhetoric on climate change in upholding the tenet that all individuals are indiscriminately responsible for climate change and must be encouraged to consume sustainably through the imposition of value-added taxes (VAT). Such is the logic behind the fuel tax initially proposed by the French government. However, an increase in VAT is the most regressive way to drive the ecological transition we need. This is because the tax assumes that purchasing power is equal for all citizens. The real impact of the tax would be felt in the wallets of the poorest citizens who cannot afford to abandon their old vehicles – their only lifeline to access work and services in rural areas where public transport is sorely lacking.  Meanwhile, overall C02 emissions would remain substantially unchanged since the wealthy can afford the tax and the poor have no other transport option but to keep driving.

Police firing tear-gas on protestors in Paris. Photo: Olivier Ortelpa on Flickr

This is why the streets of Paris have been ringing with the chant “The end of the world and the end of the month, same perpetrators, same struggle”. In response to the protests, Naomi Klein tweeted, “Neoliberal climate action passes on the costs to working people, offers them no better jobs or services + lets big polluters off the hook. People see it as a class war, because it is.”  As an example of how taxes should target the big polluters, we need only consider aviation transport in France. , While the car is the most widespread means of transport among all social classes, 75% of French people never fly and half of the total domestic flights in France are made by just 2% of the population, presumably the upper classes. Yet kerosene, the fuel used for commercial airliners, is not taxed. Higher taxes on kerosene would be a way to reduce emissions quickly and more fairly.

The climate crisis has its roots in the rapid accumulation of capital wealth associated with burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. Continued centralization of decision-making within a neoliberal order can only offer solutions such as the construction of new pipelines for natural gas, the TAV, and the fuel tax.  Instead, the ecological transition must also be a social transition, and a quick one at that. The IPCC special report on 1.5°C warming warns us we must halve global emissions in the next 12 years and reduce them to zero by the middle of the century.

TAV street protests in Turin, Italy. Photo: EYE DJ on Flickr

Maybe we can give Macron some hints in the right direction. To ensure mobility and energy access in times of transition, we must return them to public oversight with devoted resources commensurate to the urgency of climate breakdown. This requires a massive expansion of affordable public transport in the urban, semi-urban periphery, and rural areas, with support of alternative forms of transport, such as bicycles and electric carpooling. We must also bring the electrical grid under democratic control through nationalization, or still better municipalization, to encourage the supply of renewable, locally-managed energy sources. Preferably, this public management would be coupled with advances in participatory democracy at the municipal level. A great example is Barcelona Energía, the city’s new publicly owned grid of renewable energy soon to supply 20,000 homes, implemented under the municipalist politics of Barcelona en Comú. 

It would be useful if the automotive industry was ordered to transform its industrial production for what we need: wind turbines, solar panels, electric bicycles, trams, etc. Just as the American automobile factories were converted to churn out tanks in World War II by order of the Roosevelt administration, so today they could be converted to supply the technology needed for a renewable energy transition.

More and more progressives around the world – from Corbyn to Sanders – are already following Roosevelt’s footsteps by calling for a Green New Deal, as a government led investment in low-carbon infrastructure, providing training and employment so that the energy transition simultaneously tackles income inequality. To finance this new era of large public investments, we need more progressive taxation since a close correlation exists between wealth and quantity of emissions. This will be necessary to take back the private wealth accumulated in recent decades to avoid the socio-economic and ecological collapse that climate change guarantees. 

But these issues won’t be a priority for the European ruling class, unless the people force a change in the agenda of the ruling class. Another important lesson of the past few weeks is that any progress on the climate front will only come from public pressure. This does not refer only to street demonstrations, but acts of civil disobedience like those carried out in central London in November by the Extinction Rebellion movement. As long as Macron or other European leaders of the current neoliberal ruling class are unwilling to implement the measures required for system change, mass direct action must continue to demand it. A convergence des luttes is essential for shaping a common vision and catalyzing political action.

Anya Verkamp is an activist and media producer on environmental justice, political ecology, and a just transition. You can follow her on Twitter.

Riccardo Mastini is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Why we need alternatives to development

by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta

The seductive nature of development rhetoric, sometimes called developmentality or developmentalism, has been internalized across virtually all countries. Decades after the notion of development spread around the world, only a handful of countries that were called ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’, now really qualify as ‘developed’. Others struggle to emulate the North’s economic template, and all at enormous ecological and social cost. The problem lies not in lack of implementation, but in the conception of development as linear, unidirectional, material and financial growth, driven by commodification and capitalist markets.

Despite numerous attempts to re-signify development, it continues to be something that ‘experts’ manage in pursuit of economic growth, and measure by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a poor and misleading indicator of progress in the sense of well-being. In truth, the world at large experiences ‘maldevelopment’, not least in the very industrialized countries whose lifestyle was meant to serve as a beacon for the ‘backward’ ones.

A critical part of these multiple crises lies in the conception of ‘modernity’ itself – not to suggest that everything modern is destructive or iniquitous, nor that all tradition is positive. Indeed, modern elements such as human rights and feminist principles are proving liberatory for many people. We refer to modernity as the dominant worldview emerging in Europe since the Renaissance transition from the Middle Ages to the early modern period. The cultural practices and institutions making up this worldview hold the individual as being independent of the collective, and give predominance to private property, free markets, political liberalism, secularism and representative democracy. Another key feature of modernity is ‘universality’– the idea that we all live in a single, now globalized world, and critically, the idea of modern science as being the only reliable truth and harbinger of ‘progress’.

Among the early causes of these crises is the ancient monotheistic premise that a father ‘God’ made the Earth for the benefit of ‘his’ human children. This attitude is known as anthropocentrism. At least in the West, it evolved into a philosophic habit of pitting humanity against nature; it gave rise to related dualisms such as the divide between humanity and nature, subject and object, civilized and barbarian, mind and body, man and woman. These classic ideological categories both legitimize devastation of the natural world, as well as the exploitation of sex-gender, racial and civilizational differences.

There is no guarantee that development will resolve traditional discrimination and violence against women, youth, children and intersex minorities, landless and unemployed classes, races, castes and ethnicities. As globalizing capital destabilizes regional economies, turning communities into refugee populations, some people cope by identifying with the macho power of the political Right, along with its promise to ‘take the jobs back’from migrants.. A dangerous drift towards authoritarianism is taking place all over the world, from India to USA and Europe.

Development and sustainability: matching the unmatchable

The early twentieth-century debate on sustainability was strongly influenced by the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth argument. Regular conferences at a global level would reiterate the mismatch between ‘development and environment’, with the report Our Common Future(1987) bringing it sharply into focus. However, the UN and most state analyses have never included a critique of social structural forces underlying ecological breakdown. The framing has always been on making economic growth and development ‘sustainable and inclusive’ through appropriate technologies, market mechanisms and institutional policy reform. The problem is that this mantra of sustainability was swallowed up by capitalism early on, and then emptied of ecological content.

In the period from 1980s on, neoliberal globalization advanced aggressively across the globe. The UN now shifted focus to a programme of ‘poverty alleviation’ in developing countries, without questioning the sources of poverty in the accumulation-driven economy of the affluent Global North. In fact, it was argued that countries needed to achieve a high standard of living before they could employ resources into protecting the environment. This watering down of earlier debates on limits opened the way for the ecological modernist ‘green economy’ concept.

At the UN Conference for Sustainable Development in 2012, this hollow sustainability ideology was the guiding framework for multilateral discussions. In preparation for Rio+20, UNEP published a report on the ‘green economy’, defining it ‘as one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities’. In line with the pro-growth policy of sustainable development advocates, the report conceptualized all living natural forms across the planet as ‘natural capital’ and ‘critical economic assets’, so intensifying the marketable commodification of life-on-Earth.

The international model of green capitalism carried forward in the declaration Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development reveals the following flaws:

  • No analysis of how the structural roots of poverty, unsustainability and multidimensional violence are historically grounded in state power, corporate monopolies, neo-colonialism, and patriarchal institutions;
  • Inadequate focus on direct democratic governance with accountable decision-making by citizens and self-aware communities in face-to-face settings;
  • Continued emphasis on economic growth as the driver of development, contradicting biophysical limits, with arbitrary adoption of GDP as the indicator of progress;
  • Continued reliance on economic globalization as the key economic strategy, undermining people’s attempts at self-reliance and autonomy;
  • Continued subservience to private capital, and unwillingness to democratize the market through worker–producer and community control;
  • Modern science and technology held up as social panaceas, ignoring their limits and impacts, and marginalising ‘other’ knowledges;
  • Culture, ethics and spirituality sidelined and made subservient to economic forces;
  • Unregulated consumerism without strategies to reverse the Global North’s disproportionate contamination of the globe through waste, toxicity and climate emissions;
  • Neoliberal architectures of global governance becoming increasingly reliant on technocratic managerial values by state and multi-lateral bureaucracies.

The framework of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), now global in its reach, is thus a false consensus

We do not mean to belittle the work of people who are finding new technological solutions to reduce problems, for instance, in renewable energy, nor do we mean to diminish the many positive elements contained in the SDG framework. Rather, our aim is to stress that in the absence of fundamental socio-cultural transformation, technological and managerial innovation will not lead us out of the crises. As nation-states and civil society gear up for the SDGs, it is imperative to lay out criteria to help people identify what truly is transformative. These include a shift to well-being approaches based on radical, direct democracy, the localization and democratization of the economy, social justice and equity (gender, caste, class etc), recommoning of private property, respect for cultural and knowledge diversity including their decolonisation, regeneration of the earth’s ecological resilience and rebuilding our respectful relationship with the rest of nature.

This article is an excerpt of the introduction to the forthcoming book Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta (editors).

Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam in India, and co-editor of Alternative Futures: India Unshackled.

Ariel Salleh is an Australian scholar-activist, author of Ecofeminism as Politics and editor of Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice.

Arturo Escobar teaches at University of North Carolina, and is author of Encountering Development.

Federico Demaria is with Autonomous University of Barcelona, and co-editor of Degrowth: A Vocubalary for a New Era.

Alberto Acosta is an Ecuadorian economist and activist, former President of the Constituent Assembly of Ecuador.

November readings

Photo illustration by Matt Dorfman. Source photograph: Bridgeman Images.


Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

This month had no shortage of good writing from around the web. The migration debate and the Green New Deal dominated the news, as well as some of the fallout from Jair Bolsonaro’s recent election. We also saw many articles advancing the debate on whether livestock can be sustainable. As usual, we collected the latest news in degrowth and radical municipalism, and found some fun stories on and by science fiction writers.

 

Uneven Earth updates

How circular is the circular economy? | Link | Why this proposed solution is little more than a magic trick

Why libertarian municipalism is more needed today than ever before | Link | To fight fascism and climate change, the left must rebuild political life

Techno-fantasies and eco-realities | Link | What role does technology play in our ecologically sustainable future, and how do we get there?

 

Top 5 articles to read

Legacies crucial for the commons. Why Gandhi and Marx are more relevant now than ever before, by Ashish Kothari.

The typical workplace is a dictatorship. But it doesn’t have to be. Socialists and progressives have a variety of ideas to bring democracy into the workplace.

Maintenance and care. A working guide to the repair of rust, dust, cracks, and corrupted code in our cities, our homes, and our social relations.

Apocalyptic climate reporting completely misses the point. Recent news commentary ignored the UN climate report’s cautiously optimistic findings.

Escaping the iron cage of consumerism. “If consumption plays such a vital role in the construction and maintenance of our social world, then asking people to give up material commodities is asking them to risk a kind of social suicide.”

 

News you might’ve missed

Modern slave ships overfish the oceans. “Seafood caught illegally or under conditions of modern slavery is laundered by mixing it with legally caught fish before it enters the supply chain.”

After a long boom, an uncertain future for big dam projects. The rise of wind and solar power, coupled with the increasing social, environmental and financial costs of hydropower projects, could spell the end of an era of big dams. But even anti-dam activists say it’s too early to declare the demise of large-scale hydro.

Invisibility is the modern form of racism against Native Americans. “I’ve never seen Native people in media at all.”

Policies of China, Russia and Canada threaten 5C climate change, study finds. Ranking of countries’ goals shows even EU on course for more than double safe level of warming

Denmark plans to isolate ‘unwanted’ migrants on remote island. Taking inspiration from the Australian immigration system, the Danish centre-right government together with the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party have proposed yet another anti-migrant measure.

Mapping Europe’s war on immigration. Europe has built a fortress around itself to protect itself from ‘illegal’ immigration from the South, from peoples fleeing civil war, conflict and devastating poverty. The story is best understood through maps.

Inside geoengineers’ risky plan to block out the sun. Some scientists say it’s necessary to save the climate. An indigenous-led opposition says it will only save the fossil fuel economy.

The insect apocalypse is here. What does it mean for the rest of life on Earth?

Exclusive: The Pentagon’s massive accounting fraud exposed. “In all, at least a mind-boggling $21 trillion of Pentagon financial transactions between 1998 and 2015 could not be traced, documented, or explained, concluded Skidmore. To convey the vastness of that sum, $21 trillion is roughly five times more than the entire federal government spends in a year. It is greater than the US Gross National Product, the world’s largest at an estimated $18.8 trillion.”

Extremes of heat will hit health and wealth. A new and authoritative study warns of an “overwhelming impact” on public health just from extremes of heat as the world continues to warm.

Why covering the environment is one of the most dangerous beats in journalism. “In both wealthy and developing countries, journalists covering these issues find themselves in the cross-hairs. Most survive, but many undergo severe trauma, with profound effects on their careers.”

 

Migration

New maps of land destruction show why caravans flee Central America. Detailed maps show worldwide land degradation, including the deforestation that is now forcing migrants to leave Guatemala and Honduras.

A century of U.S. intervention created the immigration crisis. Those seeking asylum today inherited a series of crises that drove them to the border

If we want to survive on this planet, we need to abandon the cause of the nation state. If we really care for the fate of the people who comprise our nation, our motto should be: America last, China last, Russia last, says Slavoj Zizek.

 

Resistance in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Brazil’s next president threatens the people and forests of the Amazon. Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil’s presidential election could be a disaster for the Amazon, but his opponents can unite.

Stop eco-Apartheid: The Left’s challenge in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. The horrors threatened by Brazil’s new president are compounded by a potential war on the Amazon. It is up to the left to build a coalition capable of overcoming it.

In the Amazon rainforest, this tribe may just save the whole world. The Surui in Brazil are fending off illegal ranchers, gold miners and loggers. Their weapons: boots on the ground, satellite images and smartphones.

Tax havens and Brazilian Amazon deforestation linked: study

4 indigenous leaders on what Bolsonaro means for Brazil

 

The great grazing debate

In these times has published a series of articles discussing whether cattle can be sustainable:

We can fight climate change and still eat beef. How grass-fed cattle can sequester carbon and rebuild soil.

Climate-friendly beef is a myth. Don’t buy it. There’s no way around it: Take on the meat industry or face ecological disaster.

Anything cows can do, elk can do better. Most sustainable food models rely on domesticated animals. They don’t need to—and shouldn’t.

From Dayton Martindale, editor at In these times: “Paige Stanley argues that it is imprecise to demonize the meat industry with a broad brush, given that carefully managed grazing can provide certain ecological benefits; Jennifer Molidor that this is mostly irrelevant to the actually existing meat industry in this country, including the vast majority of grass-fed beef–the situation requires collective action against animal agriculture; and Nassim Nobari that even if Paige Stanley is right about the benefits of grazing, there are ethical and ecological reasons not to commodify those grazers and breed them for slaughter–the solution, she says, is a mix of rewilding and vegan agroecology.”

And from around the web…

The landscape of the U.S. could be part of its climate solution

Livestock’s contribution to the 1.5˚C Pathway. Where transformation is needed

 

Radical municipalism

A government from below. Political revolution is a process, not an event – and we can start it now by creating new institutions wherever we live and work.

Rebel Cities 16: Cape Town housing movement uses Occupy tactics to battle Apartheid’s legacy

How local communities can transition to sustainable energy systems

The suburbs are changing. But not in all the ways liberals hope. Though Democrats dominated the suburbs in the midterms, some of those gains may be fragile.

Single-family housing upholds the patriarchy and hurts moms

Automated vehicles can’t save cities.

Triumph of the commons: how public spaces can help fight loneliness. A decline in common, community space is helping drive social isolation

On the frontline: Loneliness and the politics of austerity.

California’s “Yimbys”. The growth machine’s Shock Troops

 

Degrowth

The politics of post-growth. The Post-Growth 2018 conference at the European Parliament marked a milestone in the history of the post-growth debate, which has predominantly been contained within academic circles. In the first part of a two-part interview, Riccardo Mastini discusses the possibilities and challenges for imagining a world beyond growth with two key post-growth thinkers at the conference. In part two, they trace the history that led to growth being prized above all else and discuss how to conceptualise a future beyond growth. What does this mean for capitalism as we know it?

An economy that does not grow? While it may be clear that the wager on endless growth is a bad one, a more difficult question arises: “what would be the characteristics of an economy that does not grow?”

Faustian economics. Hell hath no limits.

Degrowth as a concrete utopia. Economic growth can’t reduce inequalities; it merely postpones confronting exploitation, a review of Giorgos Kallis’ book, Degrowth.

Here’s a simple solution to the green growth / degrowth debate. The evidence piles up.  And in the face of this evidence, proponents of green growth begin to turn to fairy tales.

Giorgos Kallis’ Degrowth. Rethinking our economic paradigms is an urgent and fundamentally important task. Giorgos Kallis’ new book Degrowth is adding to a joint endeavour of postgrowth thinking, CUSP PhD candidate Sarah Hafner finds. It offers both, a justification as well as a vision and new imaginary for the degrowth agenda.

Degrowth is the radical post-Brexit future the UK needs

 

New politics

A complete idiot’s guide to the Imaginary Party. At the current moment, the size of the Imaginary Party in the US is nearly 200 million people, constituting the vast majority.

The ‘new’ climate politics of Extinction Rebellion? Creating a movement that can have the impact XR aims for will require confronting the political as well as the moral challenges posed by climate change.

The illegitimacy of the ruling class. Americans are losing faith in governance by the elite.

Libertarian municipalism & Murray Bookchin’s legacy

Be careful with each other. How activist groups can build trust, care, and sustainability in a world of capitalism and oppression

I used to argue for UBI. then I gave a talk at Uber.

Why we need alternatives to development

 

Green new deal

Ocasio-Cortez-backed Green New Deal sees surprising momentum in House.

With a Green New Deal, here’s what the world could look like for the next generation

Canada needs its own Green New Deal. Here’s what it could look like. An Indigenous perspective.

Beyond the Green New Deal

To slow down climate change, we need to take on capitalism. When widely read Anglophone climate fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson tries to imagine non-fossil post-capitalism through a Green New Deal, his imagination takes him to a romanticized version of present-day Scandinavia.

An agro-ecological Europe by 2050: a credible scenario, an avenue to explore

 

Where we’re at: analysis

The writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the culture-shifting courage to speak inconvenient truth to power

Don’t get fooled again! Unmasking two decades of lies about Golden Rice

Fascism, ecology, and the tangled roots of anti-modernism

Populism without the people. On Chantal Mouffe’s latest book.

But see also… Exiting the ‘realm of facts’: A plea for climate agonism, “Why would anyone make an argument based on premises they themselves do not hold? Providing the answer is Chantal Mouffe, a Belgian political theorist largely credited with helping foster the intellectual renaissance currently taking place on the European left.”

David Attenborough has betrayed the living world he loves. By downplaying our environmental crisis, the presenter’s BBC films have generated complacency, confusion and ignorance. But… David Attenborough: collapse of civilisation is on the horizon. Naturalist tells leaders at UN climate summit that fate of world is in their hands.

 

Just think about it…

China’s Silk Road is laying ground for a new Eurasian order

Why the Enlightenment was not the age of reason

A vexing question: why do men recycle less than women?

Blockchain study finds 0.00% success rate and vendors don’t call back when asked for evidence. Where is your distributed ledger technology now?

They thought they were free: The Germans, 1933-1945. An excerpt from the 1955 book by Milton Mayer about the gradual rise of fascism: “To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop.”

Here’s why focusing on money misses the big climate picture. If an asteroid was going to hit the Earth in 2030, we wouldn’t be justifying the cost of the space mission to blast it out of the sky. We’d be repurposing factories, inventing entire new industries, and steering the global economy toward solving the problem as quickly and as effectively as we can — no matter the cost.

The concept creep of ‘emotional labor’. The term has become a central part of an important conversation about the division of household work. But the sociologist who coined it says it’s being used incorrectly.

Culture and nature in the epic of Gilgamesh

The case against cruises. Cruises are increasingly popular, but they raise safety and environmental concerns.

Indian folklore and environmental ethics. Storytelling and collective reflection can enrich efforts in environmental restoration.

Modern life is rubbish. We must recognize excessive waste for what it is: a shocking loss of resources at the cost of our environment, engineered by the very system we are living under.

Why racism is so hard to define and even harder to understand

What to do once you admit that decentralizing everything never seems to work

 

Climate change and the role of art

The influence of climate fiction: An empirical survey of readers

Why we need utopian fiction now more than ever

N.K. Jemisin is trying to keep the world from ending

Weathering this world with comics

What really happens after the apocalypse. The myth that panic, looting, and antisocial behavior increases during the apocalypse (or apocalyptic-like scenarios) is in fact a myth—and has been solidly disproved by multiple scientific studies.

Dystopias Now. The end of the world is over. Now the real work begins, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

“Eco grime” artists blend natural sounds & electronics to depict a polluted world

Why everyone should read The Dispossessed

 

Resources

Citation matters: An updated reading list for a progressive environmental anthropology.

A syllabus for radical hope

Inhabit: Instructions for autonomy

Land acknowledgements: uncovering an oral history of Tkaronto

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

How circular is the circular economy?

Illustration: Diego Marmolejo.

by Kris De Decker

The circular economy has become, for many governments, institutions, companies, and environmental organisations, one of the main components of a plan to lower carbon emissions. In the circular economy, resources would be continually re-used, meaning that there would be no more mining activity or waste production. The stress is on recycling, made possible by designing products so that they can easily be taken apart.

Attention is also paid to developing an “alternative consumer culture”. In the circular economy, we would no longer own products, but would loan them. For example, a customer could pay not for lighting devices but for light, while the company remains the owner of the lighting devices and pays the electricity bill. A product thus becomes a service, which is believed to encourage businesses to improve the lifespan and recyclability of their products.

The circular economy is presented as an alternative to the “linear economy” – a term that was coined by the proponents of circularity, and which refers to the fact that industrial societies turn valuable resources into waste. However, while there’s no doubt that the current industrial model is unsustainable, the question is how different to so-called circular economy would be.

Several scientific studies (see references) describe the concept as an “idealised vision”, a “mix of various ideas from different domains”, or a “vague idea based on pseudo-scientific concepts”. There’s three main points of criticism, which we discuss below.

 

Too complex to recycle

The first dent in the credibility of the circular economy is the fact that the recycling process of modern products is far from 100% efficient. A circular economy is nothing new. In the middle ages, old clothes were turned into paper, food waste was fed to chickens or pigs, and new buildings were made from the remains of old buildings. The difference between then and now is the resources used.

Before industrialisation, almost everything was made from materials that were either decomposable – like wood, reeds, or hemp – or easy to recycle or re-use – like iron and bricks. Modern products are composed of a much wider diversity of (new) materials, which are mostly not decomposable and are also not easily recycled.

For example, a recent study of the modular Fairphone 2 – a smartphone designed to be recyclable and have a longer lifespan – shows that the use of synthetic materials, microchips, and batteries makes closing the circle impossible. Only 30% of the materials used in the Fairphone 2 can be recuperated. A study of LED lights had a similar result.

The large-scale use of synthetic materials, microchips, and batteries makes closing the circle impossible.

The more complex a product, the more steps and processes it takes to recycle. In each step of this process, resources and energy are lost. Furthermore, in the case of electronic products, the production process itself is much more resource-intensive than the extraction of the raw materials, meaning that recycling the end product can only recuperate a fraction of the input. And while some plastics are indeed being recycled, this process only produces inferior materials (“downcycling”) that enter the waste stream soon afterwards.

The low efficiency of the recycling process is, on its own, enough to take the ground from under the concept of the circular economy: the loss of resources during the recycling process always needs to be compensated with more over-extraction of the planet’s resources. Recycling processes will improve, but recycling is always a trade-off between maximum material recovery and minimum energy use. And that brings us to the next point.

 

How can you recycle energy sources?

The second dent in the credibility of the circular economy is the fact that 20% of total resources used worldwide are fossil fuels. More than 98% of that is burnt as a source of energy and can’t be re-used or recycled. At best, the excess heat from, for example, the generation of electricity, can be used to replace other heat sources.

As energy is transferred or transformed, its quality diminishes (second law of thermodynamics). For example, it’s impossible to operate one car or one power plant with the excess heat from another. Consequently, there will always be a need to mine new fossil fuels. Besides, recycling materials also requires energy, both through the recycling process and the transportation of recycled and to-be-recycled materials.

To this, the supporters of the circular economy have a response: we will shift to 100% renewable energy. But this doesn’t make the circle round: to build and maintain renewable energy plants and accompanied infrastructures, we also need resources (both energy and materials). What’s more, technology to harvest and store renewable energy relies on difficult-to-recycle materials. That’s why solar panels, wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries are not recycled, but landfilled or incinerated.

 

Input exceeds output

The third dent in the credibility of the circular economy is the biggest: the global resource use – both energetic and material – keeps increasing year by year. The use of resources grew by 1400% in the last century: from 7 gigatonnes (Gt) in 1900 to 62 Gt in 2005 and 78 Gt in 2010. That’s an average growth of about 3% per year – more than double the rate of population growth.

Growth makes a circular economy impossible, even if all raw materials were recycled and all recycling was 100% efficient. The amount of used material that can be recycled will always be smaller than the material needed for growth. To compensate for that, we have to continuously extract more resources.

 Growth makes a circular economy impossible, even if all raw materials were recycled and all recycling was 100% efficient. 

The difference between demand and supply is bigger than you might think. If we look at the whole life cycle of resources, then it becomes clear that proponents for a circular economy only focus on a very small part of the whole system, and thereby misunderstand the way it operates.

 

Accumulation of resources

A considerable segment of all resources – about a third of the total – are neither recycled, nor incinerated or dumped: they are accumulated in buildings, infrastructure, and consumer goods. In 2005, 62 Gt of resources were used globally. After subtracting energy sources (fossil fuels and biomass) and waste from the mining sector, the remaining 30 Gt were used to make material goods. Of these, 4 Gt was used to make products that last for less than one year (disposable products).

Circular-economy-diego
Illustration: Diego Marmolejo.

The other 26 Gt was accumulated in buildings, infrastructure, and consumer goods that last for more than a year. In the same year, 9 Gt of all surplus resources were disposed of, meaning that the “stocks” of material capital grew by 17 Gt in 2005. In comparison: the total waste that could be recycled in 2005 was only 13 Gt (4 Gt disposable products and 9 Gt surplus resources), of which only a third (4 Gt) can be effectively recycled.

About a third of all resources are neither recycled, nor incinerated or dumped: they are accumulated in buildings, infrastructure, and consumer goods. 

Only 9 Gt is then put in a landfill, incinerated, or dumped – and it is this 9 Gt that the circular economy focuses on. But even if that was all recycled, and if the recycling processes were 100% efficient, the circle would still not be closed: 63 Gt in raw materials and 30 Gt in material products would still be needed.

As long as we keep accumulating raw materials, the closing of the material life cycle remains an illusion, even for materials that are, in principle, recyclable. For example, recycled metals can only supply 36% of the yearly demand for new metal, even if metal has relatively high recycling capacity, at about 70%. We still use more raw materials in the system than can be made available through recycling – and so there are simply not enough recyclable raw materials to put a stop to the continuously expanding extractive economy.

 

The true face of the circular economy

A more responsible use of resources is of course an excellent idea. But to achieve that, recycling and re-use alone aren’t enough. Since 71% of all resources cannot be recycled or re-used (44% of which are energy sources and 27% of which are added to existing stocks), you can only really get better numbers by reducing total use.

A circular economy would therefore demand that we use less fossil fuels (which isn’t the same as using more renewable energy), and that we accumulate less raw materials in commodities. Most importantly, we need to make less stuff: fewer cars, fewer microchips, fewer buildings. This would result in a double profit: we would need less resources, while the supply of discarded materials available for re-use and recycling would keep growing for many years to come.

It seems unlikely that the proponents of the circular economy would accept these additional conditions. The concept of the circular economy is intended to align sustainability with economic growth – in other words, more cars, more microchips, more buildings. For example, the European Union states that the circular economy will “foster sustainable economic growth”.

Even the limited goals of the circular economy – total recycling of a fraction of resources – demands an extra condition that proponents probably won’t agree with: that everything is once again made with wood and simple metals, without using synthetic materials, semi-conductors, lithium-ion batteries or composite materials.

This article first appeared on Low-tech Magazine.

Kris De Decker is editor of Low-Tech Magazine and lives in Barcelona, Spain.

 

References:

Haas, Willi, et al. “How circular is the global economy?: An assessment of material flows, waste production, and recycling in the European Union and the world in 2005.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 19.5 (2015): 765-777.

Murray, Alan, Keith Skene, and Kathryn Haynes. “The circular economy: An interdisciplinary exploration of the concept and application in a global context.” Journal of Business Ethics 140.3 (2017): 369-380.

Gregson, Nicky, et al. “Interrogating the circular economy: the moral economy of resource recovery in the EU.” Economy and Society 44.2 (2015): 218-243.

Krausmann, Fridolin, et al. “Global socioeconomic material stocks rise 23-fold over the 20th century and require half of annual resource use.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017): 201613773.

Korhonen, Jouni, Antero Honkasalo, and Jyri Seppälä. “Circular economy: the concept and its limitations.” Ecological economics 143 (2018): 37-46.

Fellner, Johann, et al. “Present potentials and limitations of a circular economy with respect to primary raw material demand.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 21.3 (2017): 494-496.

Reuter, Markus A., Antoinette van Schaik, and Miquel Ballester. “Limits of the Circular Economy: Fairphone Modular Design Pushing the Limits.” 2018

Reuter, M. A., and A. Van Schaik. “Product-Centric Simulation-based design for recycling: case of LED lamp recycling.” Journal of Sustainable Metallurgy 1.1 (2015): 4-28.

Reuter, Markus A., Antoinette van Schaik, and Johannes Gediga. “Simulation-based design for resource efficiency of metal production and recycling systems: Cases-copper production and recycling, e-waste (LED lamps) and nickel pig iron.” The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 20.5 (2015): 671-693.

Why libertarian municipalism is more needed today than ever before

People’s assembly in Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Jisakiel

by Tyler Anderson

We are entering dire times. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released their 2018 report that has only reassured what many of us know is true. We need to take immediate decisive action on climate change or face a dismal future of increasingly powerful natural disasters, economic instability and reactionary violence.

According to the report, we have 12 years to stop inalterable climate change and that is going to require massive global infrastructure projects aimed at transforming our archaic fossil fuel system to one rooted in sustainable development and ecological understanding. Such a project will clearly be one of the largest developmental efforts in human history and will require global collaboration on a scale never seen before.

Yet, in the face of almost certain annihilation, the transnational ruling class are in a desperate struggle to maintain and profit from the ruin and disaster of their own system. For progress to occur, we need to build a mass movement of millions across the world united behind a call for a new system. And, threatened by new despotic right wing authoritarian regimes worldwide, we need to scale up fast!

According to Abdullah Öcalan, we can understand almost all of today’s crises to be crises of democracy. While the ideal of democracy was used to legitimize imperialist interventions across the developing world since the 1950s, it was never a lived reality even in the West. Instead we were sold shallow representative republicanism in place of real face-to-face direct democracy where individuals have actual power over society.

Representative ‘democracy’ ultimately turns people from empowered citizens to alienated constituents. It turns democracy—a lived, empowering and involved process—into a spectacle of rooting for one’s chosen team. And so it lends itself  to oligarchy and, ultimately, dictatorship and imperialist expansion.

In fact, since the end of the Second World War we have witnessed a massive decline of civic engagement, with far lower in-person participation in community associations, clubs and groups of all kinds. Not to mention a decline in wages and an increase in inequality—both in the West and internationally. As society and political structures have been increasingly centralized in the hands of a wealthy few, they have also closed people off from access to power.

Representative ‘democracy’ ultimately turns people from empowered citizens to alienated constituents. It turns democracy—a lived, empowering and involved process—into a spectacle of rooting for one’s chosen team. And so it lends itself  to oligarchy and, ultimately, dictatorship and imperialist expansion. This has been the case of representative democracies from the time of Rome.

 

A politics of empowerment

Libertarian municipalists argue for a reinvigoration of the civic and political sphere. In place of representative forms of democracy they argue for an inclusive participatory system where every community member has equal power over the matters of governance that impacts them.

Libertarian municipalism is a politics of empowerment. It recognizes democracy as an almost universal value. It begs the question, will we as a society finally embrace actual democracy or accept dictatorship? Libertarian municipalists absolutely reject the representative republicanism that has been peddled to us as “democracy”, a form of government that, in practice, is only a democracy for the rich.

At the core of the libertarian municipalist strategy for change is the creation of the popular assembly and its eventual empowerment as a dual power. Dual power is a situation where two powers coexist with each other and compete for legitimacy.

Libertarian municipalists seek to either create extra-parliamentary assemblies that increasingly gain governing power from local governments or seek to change city charters to legally empower popular assemblies as the primary policy making bodies over representative and hierarchical structures such as mayors and city councils. They envision the municipalization of the economy, where  productive assets are held by the community collectively. They strive to build a global network of communities, neighborhoods and cities interlinked through confederal bonds. According to Murray Bookchin,

In libertarian municipalism, dual power is meant to be a strategy for creating precisely those libertarian institutions of directly democratic assemblies that would oppose and replace the State. It intends to create a situation in which the two powers—the municipal confederations and the nation-state—cannot coexist, and one must sooner or later displace the other.

The popular assembly thus acts as a place that gives any individual in a community direct access to power, shaping policy and the world around them. This is in direct conflict with the hierarchical nation-state and transnational capitalist firms which seek to control the labor, land and resources of communities across the world.

In Minneapolis, protestors demand the city defend Muslims, accept immigrants, welcome refugees, and support workers. Photo: Fibonacci Blue

Cities and towns at the forefront

Today the tensions between cities and state entities couldn’t be more pronounced. The sanctuary city movement provides a stark example of the way cities across the country are already moving towards increased local autonomy and sovereignty over the federal government. Sanctuary cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans are just a few of the over 39 cities across the US who have joined forces to limit collaboration with federal authorities. According to Vojislava Filipcevic Cordes,

Sanctuary cities in the U.S. represent a feat against the hostile state and “provide a territorial legal entity at a different scale at which sovereignty is articulated” [18]. Sanctuary cities exemplify what Lippert has termed “sovereignty ‘from below’” [19] (p. 547) and are shaped by local legal and political contexts and the solidarity with social movements.

In the wake of an increasingly illegitimate federal government, urban areas take leadership on issues ranging from immigration to raising minimum wages, even if it is in direct conflict with the federal government. Along with this trend, we see growing political divides between urban and rural communities. After the 2018 election, Republicans lost their last congressional urban district in the country.

 As the cultural and political divide between rural and urban, local and federal become more pronounced in an era of increasing authoritarianism, it seems that the revolutionary alternatives provided by libertarian municipalism could have the wide appeal and potential support of millions of Americans needed to create political change. 

As the cultural and political divide between rural and urban, local and federal become more pronounced in an era of increasing authoritarianism, it seems that the revolutionary alternatives provided by libertarian municipalism could have the wide appeal and potential support of millions of Americans needed to create political change. But what will that mass movement look like? How can we build the power to force politicians to stop pandering to the fossil fuel industry and the fascist right, and bring about real change?

 

The left must rebuild political life

Bookchin was one of the key theorists behind libertarian municipalism. In his essay, “Thoughts on Libertarian Municipalism, he put forward a strategic vision for this kind of movement that we can still learn from today.  He begins by describing libertarian municipalism as  “ a confrontational form of face-to-face democratic, anti statist politics…that is decidedly concerned with the all-important question of power, and it poses the questions: Where shall power exist? By what part of society shall it be exercised?”.

For Bookchin, the decline of civic and political life is of paramount concern. With its decline, Bookchin sees a vacuum forming in mainstream political discourse where leftist positions have increasingly degraded and shrunk into insular and subcultural discourses while broader society continues to be trapped in an Overton window swiftly moving towards the right.

Bookchin felt it was essential that the left find ways of reaching the broader society with its ideals. He envisioned the institutionalization of popular assemblies not only as an end but as a means. Assemblies would work to level the playing field for the left by giving it a place to both voice its vision for a new world to the public and to reinvigorate a american political life through the popularization of civic ethics rooted in valuing democracy, ecology, and social justice.

Bookchin was interested in the whole revolutionary pie, not just crumbs. As such, libertarian municipalism is a political framework that intentionally engages with that essential political question of: who has power and how should it be wielded? It is a politic that centers the conflict over who has power in society and mobilizes for popular control over existing institutions. As such, Bookchin went to great lengths to distinguish the libertarian municipalist organizing philosophy from other tendencies. He describes one tendency which is often confused with libertarian municipalism, sometimes called communitarianism:

“Communitarianism is defined by movements and ideologies that seek to transform society by creating so-called alternative economic and living situations such as food cooperatives, health centers, schools, printing workshops, community centers, neighborhood farms, “squats,” unconventional lifestyles, and the like”

While such efforts may benefit the people they directly work to serve, they often rely  on donations or self funding by their organizers and only serve small numbers of people. The amount and time required to maintain these programs often leads to burnout and massive resource sucks. They inevitably compete with existing social services or capitalist enterprises, leading many to eventual collapse.

While some argue that such programs are necessary to “attune” people to participation in democratic assemblies, or to gain their interest, Bookchin argues that people by and large are already ready for direct democracy, all that is missing is the incentive of such institutions offering people real power over their daily lives.

 

Legitimacy crisis

As states across the world abandon the enlightenment values of liberal humanism, they only rely on the principle of might as a right, cult of personalities, and populist white supremacy.

Some argue that the rise of the right across the world means that we have to reassert the power of the state—and build up those services it has started to abandon. However, the legitimacy crisis of the state in this country is not the result of it providing less services—it is the result of the complete denigration of moral authority invested in the halls of government. As states across the world abandon the enlightenment values of liberal humanism, they only rely on the principle of might as a right, cult of personalities, and populist white supremacy.  As such, we must diligently develop popular assemblies and organizations, training people in the art of civic engagement and duty. We need to put our arguments forward and we need to create space for other people to do the same. We need to advance our ethics. To acquire actual power is an utmost priority in our increasingly authoritarian and hierarchical society that denies us it. The goal of libertarian municipalism is thus total community control over an entire municipality.

By focusing on gaining popular control of the instruments, resources, and institutions currently wielded by the ruling class or local economic elites, communities could gain access through redistribution to the necessities of life in much longer-lasting and meaningful ways. For Bookchin, municipalism must center a redistributive political strategy. While much left strategy today prioritizes the creation of alternative economic institutions such as cooperatives or mutual aid programs, libertarian municipalism emphasizes the creation of the alternative political institution of the popular assembly. By focusing our time and energy on the creation and empowerment of these alternative political institutions working class people would eventually be able to gain access to an entire cities economic resources rather than the simply what can be collectively shared from the wage labor of other exploited peoples.  

In South Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo organizes shack dwellers into locally based, direct democratic assemblies. Photo: Enough is Enough

An example from South Africa

A great example of a political organization that advances these principles is Abahlali baseMjondolo, a.ka., the South African Shack Dwellers Movement. This organization is based in the struggle of South Africa’s most impoverished, and emerged out of struggles for poor peoples’ right to construct improvised dwellings to live in. They are oriented around a directly democratic assembly model. They regularly engage in direct action through land occupations where they give people control of the land. Their movement has been successful in arguing for a form of democratic development where all peoples have a voice over urban development. Despite harsh repression, including the murder of many of their activists by state forces, they are quickly becoming one of South Africa’s largest left organizations with over 30,000 members, and chapters and elected officials in cities and towns across the country. They are pushing the imagination of what a directly democratic society could look like, while prioritizing political confrontation.

They describe their organizational model as a “party non-party”, for the way it engages in the political sphere, of running candidates and legislation as a normal political party yet different considering their organizational model and tactics, and in the sense that such candidates must have the mandate of popular assemblies while running only in local elections. The South African Shack Dwellers movement is agitating around that essential political question of “Where shall power exist and who shall exercise it?” in ways that put the question to the public at large. Its combination of direct democracy, direct action, and strategic local electoralism has made Abahlali baseMjondolo one of the most prominent political organizations in one of the worlds’ only countries where the left seems to be winning. As the rest of the world fears fascism, socialist land redistribution is being discussed in South Africa and Abahlali baseMjondolo has a prominent voice in leading this process. This South African movement shows the power of running insurgent candidates who are beholden to expressing the immediate necessity of establishing directly democratic dual power situations in our communities, cities, and municipalities.

The MST (Movimento Sem Terra), Brazil’s landless workers movement, at a rally before the occupation of a 13,000 acre farm. Photo: Paul Smith

Fighting fascism with full democracy

 In times of fascist dictatorship, we are likely to find broad appeal in fighting to salvage and develop an actual democracy. 

As a movement, libertarian municipalism is a marginal tendency even within the left. For these ideas to hit the grander stage, we need to communicate them in bigger ways, develop local assemblies, build a base through engaging in local fights and run insurgent candidates on our revolutionary platform. Simply put, we need assembly-based municipalist platformist organizations like the South African Shack Dwellers Movement, that are able to elevate our political positions and make them visible. Where our ideas enter into mainstream public discourse and where our organizations give people real access to power over their daily lives and existing institutions.  

We need to build on the cultural fabric of an America that values a certain conception of democracy through bringing the term’s contradiction into full light while offering our alternative. In times of fascist dictatorship, we are likely to find broad appeal in fighting to salvage and develop an actual democracy. Further, there is a need to prepare ourselves for the inevitable dark and trying times we face, as our political situation in the United States has become increasingly volatile and unpredictable.

Our very survival over the coming years is at stake. In the face of a completely hostile fascist state and a growing right wing militia movement who very soon could begin purges against the left as Steve Bannon’s friend Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian dictator-in-waiting is promising, we should be developing self defense programs to protect not just our organizing communities but our communities at large from persecution.

The establishment of a popular direct democracy would imply the popular control, radical reform or the outright abolition of police forces in favor of some form of volunteer defense forces who would be under the jurisdiction of the new popular government. Such a force could fill the essential duties of community defense and safety, while allowing our communities to address many of the systemic issues with our current racist, white supremacist policing and criminal justice system.

Unless we rapidly begin communicating coherent programs for libertarian municipalist dual power I fear that we will have little real ability to stop this inevitable fascist creep. In times of dictatorship, rising fascism and hopelessness we need to offer people real lived examples of direct democracy, give them access to power and boldly put these ideas into public discourse. We can win the legitimacy battle by building a base through engaging in local campaigns that give people more power and control over their lives and communities.  We can do this alongside running candidates with revolutionary municipalist platforms, even if we don’t think they have a chance. If our ideas are true and we are true to ourselves we might just end up winning!

We shouldn’t fear putting our ideas out there, communicating our desired world and our utopia, even if we don’t have all of the organizational bits and pieces put together to prefigure it. We never will until we abolish these systems. We have to get comfortable with that and stay true to our ethics and vision and communicate that in bigger and better ways while giving others inspiration to join in, shape it and work with us to push the world off its tracks to oblivion.

Tyler Anderson is a community organizer based in Portland Oregon. They were a key outside support organizer with the Sept. 9th international prison strike and have co-founded several communalist projects including Demand Utopia.

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Techno-fantasies and eco-realities

by Corporate Watch

As part of Not the Anarchist Bookfair in London, Corporate Watch along with Uneven Earth and Plan C London organized a discussion on technology, ecology and future worlds. The event, named Techno Fantasies and Eco Realities, was attended by about 20 people and included some wide ranging and at times lively discussion around the role of technology and ecology in future worlds. In particular it focused on how we can free our imaginations from the grip of capitalist realism (the idea that capitalism is the only option for organizing society), picturing possible future worlds and the role that technology will play in them, while keeping our imagined worlds grounded in social and ecological realities. For example, not forgetting that we are living on a planet with limited natural resources or that we have to consider how to make these imagined futures real.

Participants were invited to read three short pieces ahead of the discussion:

Fully Automated Green Communism” by Aaron Bastani, “Accelerationism.. and Degrowth? The Left’s Strange Bedfellows” by Aaron Vansintjan and “Pulling the Magic Lever”, by Rut Elliot Blomqvist.

Although initially a tongue in cheek provocation, Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC) has morphed into a serious proposition of how technology and automation could be used to provide for everyone’s needs and free people from the drudgery of wage labour. Bastani’s piece attempts to counter some of the ecological critiques of the idea, arguing that FALC can be green. Instead of trying to halt the progress of technological development, and reduce energy consumption, Aaron argues that we should ride the technological horse to move beyond scarcity, proposing a kind of accelerationism where technology is rapidly advanced in order to bring about radical social change.

In “Accelerationism.. and Degrowth? The Left’s Strange Bedfellows”, Aaron Vansintjan looks at accelerationist ideas like FALC and compares them to ‘degrowth’, evaluating the similarities and differences between the two frameworks. Degrowth is a movement that has emerged from environmentalism and alternative economics and is focused on theorising and creating non-growth based economies and societies.

Although accelerationism and degrowth are apparently opposed, Vansinjtan finds some shared ideas, including their recognition of the need for deep, systemic change, their calls for democratisation of technology and their rejection of ‘work’ (or at least the idea that work is inherently good). The key differences centre around accelerationism’s focus on reappropriating technology to achieve a resource-unlimited society, versus degrowth’s aim of limiting the development of certain forms of technology and staying within resource constraints. Degrowth also seeks to slow the metabolism of society, whereas accelerationism aims to increase the pace of social change. Ultimately, while supportive of accelerationism’s inspiring vision, Vansinjtan finds it seriously lacking in dealing with ecological critiques.

Rut Elliot Blomqvist examines three different visions of possible future worlds and the role that technology plays in them. ‘Pulling the Magic Lever’ is a reference to how technology is used to answer social or ecological problems without explaining how it will do so: you simply ‘pull the magic lever’ of technology and hey presto, it’s all solved. It’s a running theme in all three of the imagined futures Blomqvist chooses to analyse. The first is in The World We Made, a novel by environmentalist Jonathon Porrit, then The Venus Project, a technology based political proposition, and finally Fully Automated Luxury Communism. In their analysis, Blomqvist uses a World Systems Theory approach to evaluate the ideas, critiquing the story of modernisation by framing it around colonialism.

The World We Made is based on Design Fiction, where fiction inspires possibilities of new designs. It sees the human species in general as the villain responsible for destroying the environment. In the novel’s fantasy scenario, however, humans manage to turn things around and start to use technology and various existing world institutions for the common good. As Elliot points out, this book flags up an important discussion around the idea of the ‘anthropocene’ (a proposed name for a new human-affected geological epoch), which may support the view that the human species in general is the problem, rather than certain humans or, say, a capitalist growth-based economy. They also describe the book’s tendency towards technological optimism: it presents technology as providing the answers, without explaining how, and ignores the socio-cultural-political reasons for current ecological destruction.

The Venus Project is found to be even further along the techno-optimist spectrum and again ignores how its proposed technological utopia might be brought into existence. As well as highlighting its fetishisation of the scientific process, Elliot explains how The Venus Project often engenders conspiracy theories, a number of which are dangerously close to anti-Semitism.

Continuing the trend, FALC is found to involve similar techno-utopianism, where the working classes seize the means of production and use automation to create a world of plenty. Elliot points to a blind spot, as FALC doesn’t consider the limits of post-industrialism beyond the western world. Elliot describes how all three rely heavily on ‘pulling the magic lever’. While they show imagination, they are limited by the fossil-fuelled mentality they seek to criticise.

In our discussion at Not the Anarchist Bookfair, we asked participants to discuss two questions:

  • What role does technology play in our ecologically sustainable future, and how do we get there?

and

  • How can we move beyond the techno-optimist versus primitivist dichotomy? (I.e. beyond  viewing technology as either the solution to or source of all our problems).

The questions were discussed in pairs, in small groups and then with everyone participating, and led to a broad discussion of the various themes raised. Some key points that came out included:

  • The importance of considering the social power necessary to make futures, and how human agency is often missing in visions of techno utopias.
  • The need to change who makes technology, how it is produced and the inherent politics of technologies.
  • The need to highlight and develop technology’s potential within the ecological movement, including within degrowth discussions.
  • The need to positively promote ecological future visions, and how to counter environmentalism’s ‘hair shirt’ image.
  • Considering whether we should assume that technologies will inevitably be developed, and so ride the tech bandwagon, or try to intervene and prevent or hinder certain developments.
  • Thinking about if/how we can change the basis on which automation takes places and is implemented. E.g. is non-capitalist automation possible, and if so, how could it be made non-capitalist?
  • Thinking about ways of bringing ecological and technologically based visions of the future back together.

A number of participants were keen to continue discussions and we are considering further forums to hold related future discussions. Corporate Watch is currently working on a technology project, if you are interested in knowing more or collaborating on future work, please email contact@corporatewatch.org. To get involved with discussions as part of the Plan C Climate cluster contact london@weareplanc.org

This article was also published on the Plan C blog, here.

 

 

October readings

Art by Jocine Velasco. Source: Commune Mag

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

Yet again, we’ve collected a wealth of news and worthwhile readings from last month. October brought us material on the situation in Brazil, responses to the apocalyptic IPCC report, and Sveriges Riksbank’s prize in economics (what some call the ‘Nobel Prize in Economics’) won by Paul Romer and William Nordhaus; and as usual you’ll find articles on degrowth, radical municipalism, and new technologies and false solutions.

 

Uneven Earth updates

Meet catabolic capitalism: globalization’s gruesome twin | Link | We’ll soon discover that capitalism without globalization is much, much worse.

Dark municipalism | Link | The dangers of local politics

 

Top 5 articles to read

A subaltern perspective on China’s ecological crisis. The path of modernization has left China deeply mired in the mud of ecological and socioeconomic injustice.

Beyond the Green New Deal. One of the issues is not so much producing solutions as it is one of institutionalizing the capacity to listen and learn from those who already have good solutions, but whose solutions are almost always ignored. It is time to start listening. Not before it is too late. But precisely because it is already very late.

The freedom of real apologies

The automation charade. The rise of the robots has been greatly exaggerated. Whose interests does that serve?

Eco-pioneers in the 1970s: how aerospace workers tried to save their jobs – and the planet

 

News you might’ve missed

Mexico is on the verge of a major human disaster. Mexico City’s controversial new airport promises growth at the expense of human progress and the environment.

White House drops scheme to bail out coal, nukes

Surprise acquittal in Enbridge pipeline protesters’ case

New outlook on global warming: Best prepare for social collapse, and soon

‘Adults in the room’: Greens surge across Europe as centre-left flounders

Cuba embarks on a 100-year plan to protect itself from climate change

Changing climate forces desperate Guatemalans to migrate

Rise of the ‘megafarms’: how UK agriculture is being sold off and consolidated

World Bank and IMF guilty of promoting land grabs, increasing inequality

Europe’s dirty air kills 400,000 people every year

Mining crisis in Kiruna, Sápmi/Northern Sweden. The world’s largest underground iron ore mine and a cornerstone in the Swedish capitalist economy will soon be depleted. “The ore deposit in Kiruna has a more complex geometry at depth than was previously assumed. … This has to do with LKAB’s future, with mining beyond the life expectancy of the current main level, which extends to about year 2035. One could say that LKAB is now a mining company like any other and must search diligently for new ore volumes in order to survive.”

Google abandons Berlin base after two years of resistance. Kreuzberg residents were concerned about tech giant’s unethical practices and gentrification driving up rents

A 14-year-long oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico verges on becoming one of the worst in U.S. history

Indigenous suicide in Canada. This article provides some context, analysis, and profiles of initiatives working to address the severe ongoing crises of Indigenous suicide in the country.

“Catastrophic” effect of climate change on mental health found in new study

 

We’ve got 12 years: responses to the IPCC

There’s no time for gradualism. The urgency of climate change has never been clearer. We need a bold vision of a good and livable future — and a political program to match.

The uses of disaster. Climate change is here. In the midst of the storm, an opportunity arises to break with capitalism and its vicious inequality. Let’s seize it while we can. The alternatives are unthinkable.

The hope at the heart of the apocalyptic climate change report. Along with their latest dire predictions, the world’s leading climate scientists offered a new path forward—but will anyone take it?

To fix the climate crisis, we must face up to our imperial past.

Why catastrophic climate change is probably inevitable now. How capitalism torched the planet by imploding into fascism.

IPCC report: First thoughts on next steps by Sydney Azari

Who is the we in “We are causing climate change”?

Climate breakdown, capitalism and democracy

Fossil fuels are a threat to civilization, new U.N. report concludes

Billionaires are the leading cause of climate change

The case for climate pessimism. A frightening report on climate change has some experts pondering the perils of optimism about the future.

It’s already here. Left-wing climate realism and the Trump climate change memo

Burnout: Arguing the case against addressing Climate Change purely on Leftist terms

 

Sveriges Riksbank’s prize in economics

Why call it the Nobel prize in economics? Anyway, this year, William Nordhaus and Paul Romer won it for their work on the costs of climate change, which stirred quite a bit of controversy. We’ve collected a bunch of articles, blogs, and essays that lay out the dispute.

A Nobel Prize in honor of economic growth. William Nordhaus and Paul Romer have spent their careers studying ways to make and keep economies strong.

Nobel Prize for the economics of innovation and climate change stirs controversy. “I would say [this prize] is the last hurrah of a certain old guard of the economics profession that want to preserve the idea of growth at all costs,” says Julia Steinberger, an ecological economist at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

Nobel Prizes in economics, awarded and withheld

The Nordhaus Nobel. Perhaps that is the greatest irony here – that even the most Neoclassical view of climate that economics has to offer still recommends action.

Climate change and growth – Nordhaus and Romer

Why economists can’t understand complex systems

The Secret of Eternal Growth. The physics behind pro-growth environmentalism. “The award of the Nobel Prize in Economics to Paul Romer and William Nordhaus (i), in the same week as the IPCC report, can only be interpreted as a huge slap in the face for the champions of “degrowth”.

 

Bolsonaro in Brazil

Why Bolsonaro won: beyond the cliches. If  mind-stopping cliches of violence and corruption do not correspond with voting patterns or Bolsonaro’s governmental plan why did he win the election? It was not a free or fair process.

Glenn Greenwald on Bolsonaro: Brazil has elected “most extremist leader in the democratic world”

“The proletariat of Brazil was defeated by democracy, not dictatorship.”

Neo-fascist Bolsonaro followers attack people throughout Brazil

Crisis in Brazil. An older analysis by Perry Anderson laying out what got Brazilians where they are now.

Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil is a disaster for the Amazon and global climate change

Understanding the global rise of the extreme right, by Walden Bello

 

Radical municipalism

Anatomy of a rent strike in Los Angeles. “It was amazing,” Camero recalled. “It felt like God was in our favor.”

LATU rent strikes and the geography of extraction in LA’s housing market

The EU’s obstacle course for municipalism. Radical democratic programmes face obstacles from both EU and national neoliberal legislation. Despite this, cities can and are finding ways to bypass these obstacles.

The mayors and the movements. In 2015, a wave of social movements lifted left-wing mayors to power in Spain. Their experience in office shows the importance of linking institutional power to bottom-up mobilization.

Spain to close most coalmines in €250m transition deal

Václav Havel’s lessons on how to create a “parallel polis”

Organizing the suburbs. The electoral success of the right is the result of decades of disengagement by the left and sophisticated politicking by right-wing politicians.

How real estate segregated America. Real-estate interests have long wielded an outsized influence over national housing policy—to the detriment of African Americans.

The housing revolution we need. A decade after the crash of 2008, a growing movement has thrust our prolonged housing crisis to the center of the national agenda. Could this generation finally make the right to housing a reality?

 

Degrowth

Beyond visions and projects: the need for a debate on strategy in the degrowth movement

Degrowth in the suburbs

Economic growth: The party’s over, says IMF

Degrowth: A call for radical abundance. One of the core claims of degrowth economics is that by restoring public services and expanding the commons, people will be able to access the goods that they need to live well without needing high levels of income.  

Gathering degrowth in the American pluriverse. A report on the 2018 DegrowUS Gathering

Degrowth: closing the global wealth divide

What’s the point of growth if it creates so much misery?

 

New technologies and false solutions

Half-Earth: A biodiversity ‘solution’ that solves nothing

Against geoengineering. Geoengineering is a risky business. It is so risky, in fact, that it should be banned. Avoiding climate imperialism: A leftist vision of geoengineering

We need to talk about technology: Now is the time for experts, activists and workers to collaborate on well-designed, affordable and energy-positive buildings.

“What lasted for 3000 years has been destroyed in 30”: the struggle for food sovereignty in Tunisia. Today is the International Day of Action for Peoples’ Food Sovereignty, organised by La Via Campesina. In this article, Max Ajl reports from Tunisia on the struggles for food sovereignty there, and on what it means for the Global South.

Farms race. Advocates of “open-source agriculture” say they can build a better food system. Should we believe them?

Universal basic income Is Silicon Valley’s latest scam. The plan is no gift to the masses, but a tool for our further enslavement

Jacques Ellul: A prophet for our tech-saturated times

 

Plastics and waste

Are the days of recycling with a clear conscience over? Our whole recycling culture is an illusion masking a growing problem of unsustainable manufacturing and consumerism.

Microplastics are turning up everywhere, even in human excrement

Japan bursting with plastic garbage in the wake of China’s 2017 waste import ban.

 

New politics

Taiwan is revolutionizing democracy

Rojava: Between city and village, between war and ecology

Communism might last a million years. Two giants of revolutionary thought passed from this world in 2018. Through them, we can glimpse the distant shores of a classless society.

Aggressive advertising is bad for us – we must fight back like Sydney. The decision to project a horse-race ad on the Sydney Opera House has triggered a huge backlash. It’s a reminder of why we should all be protesting against the effects of late capitalism

The communes of Rojava: A model in societal self direction. This amazing video and documentary, produced by Neighbor Democracy, details the evolving communal organs within the Rojava Revolution, from security to health care.

Land and labour. When we understand that settler-colonialism and capitalism are inextricable, we might begin to see that workers and Indigenous land defenders have more affinity in struggle than we previously thought.

Baby steps on the road to basic income. Seven Dutch towns and cities are beginning experiments with versions of a ‘basic income light’.

 

Where we’re at: analysis

A people’s rebellion is the only way to fight climate breakdown

How to restore Florida’s dammed waterways

A critical look at China’s One Belt, One Road initiative

Landgrabbing, illicit finance and corporate crime: an update. Land grabbing is now considered a crime against humanity, but few land grabbers end up in jail. Instead, if you search the specialised website farmlandgrab.org for news about law suits, court proceedings, convictions or imprisonment related to land deals, what you will largely find are reports of local communities being accused of wrongdoing for defending their own territories against powerful companies! Yet the links between crime, corruption and those engaging in agricultural land deals are real.

Flipping the corruption myth. Corruption is by far not the main factor behind persisting poverty in the Global South.

Fracking democracy, criminalising dissent

I was jailed for my fracking protest. But others face much worse

Colonialism can’t be forgotten – it’s still destroying peoples and our planet

The rise of border imperialism

Tribalism isn’t our democracy’s main problem. The conservative movement is. In the real world, the conservative movement — and the economic elites that it serves — have an interest in perpetuating both social polarization, and the unresponsive governance that it produces.

A Greek tragedy: how the EU is destroying a country. The problem could be solved tomorrow through the usual remedy of significant debt write-offs

Why the distribution of wealth has more to do with power than productivity

 

Just think about it…

Welcome to Jurassic Art. That’s where we were in the early 1960s — dinosaurs were sad, cold blooded, dead ends in the history of life… But paleontology was about to go through a spectacular shift.

Why do we feel so busy? It’s all our hidden ‘shadow work’

Can’t sleep? Perhaps you’re overtired

Far right, misogynist, humourless? Why Nietzsche is misunderstood. The German philosopher has been adopted by the alt-right, but he hated antisemitism. He has been misappropriated and misread, argues his biographer.

If you’re suffering from climate grief, you’re not alone

The real seeds producers: Small-scale farmers save, use, share and enhance the seed diversity of the crops that feed Africa.

How to write about a vanishing world. Scientists chronicling ecological destruction must confront the loss of their life’s work and our planet’s riches.

Racial purity is “scientifically meaningless,” say 8,000 geneticists

No future: From punk to zapatismo and connected multitudes

Endgame: how Australian preppers are bugging out and hunkering down. “We all have different skills and, in a real-life situation, how much better to talk to each other and pool our resources. Society would have to rearrange. We couldn’t all just lock ourselves away and, if we did, we wouldn’t last for very long.” 

 

Resources

An interactive map of China’s wildcat strikes

UNDER WATER: How rising waters cost us all

A gorgeous visualization of commutes around the world

America is warming fast. See how your city’s weather will be different in just one generation.

A podcast and blog dealing with the anti-capitalist permaculture movement.

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

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Meet catabolic capitalism: globalization’s gruesome twin

by Craig Collins

“Out of the frying pan, into the fire” is an apt description of our current place in history. No matter what you think of globalization, I believe we’ll soon discover that capitalism without it is much, much worse.

No one needs to convince establishment economists, politicians and pundits that the absence of globalization and growth spells trouble. They’ve pushed globalization as the Viagra of economic growth for years. But globalization has never been popular with everyone. Capitalism’s critics recognize that it generates tremendous wealth and power for a tiny fraction of the Earth’s seven billion people, makes room for some in the middle class, but keeps most of humanity destitute and desperate, while trashing the planet and jeopardizing human survival for generations to come.

Around the world, social movements voice their opposition to voracious growth and unite around the belief that “Another World Is Possible!” They work toward the day when neoliberal globalization is replaced by a more democratic, equitable, Earth-friendly society. They assume that any future without globalization is bound to be an improvement. But it appears that this assumption may be wrong. In fact, future generations may someday look back on capitalism’s growth phase as the vigorous days of industrial civilization, a naïve time before anyone realized that the worst was yet to come.

 

Profit: the prime directive

Today, energy depletion, ecological disaster, debilitating debt, and economic inequity are suffocating globalization and growth. The Age of Fossil Fuels has reached its apex. The rapacious flight to the top was powered by the Earth’s dwindling hydrocarbon reserves. From these lofty heights, the drastic drop-off ahead appears perilous. As fossil fuel extraction fails to meet global demand, economic contraction and downward mobility will become the new normal and growth will fade into memory. But this new growth-less future may bear no resemblance to the equitable green economy activists have been calling for.

Optimistic green reformers like Al Gore, Jeremy Rifkin, and Lester Brown see a window of opportunity at this historic juncture. For years, they’ve jetted from one conference to another, tirelessly trying to convince world leaders to embrace their planet-saving plans for a sustainable, carbon-free society before it’s too late. They hope energy scarcity and economic contraction can act as wake-up calls, spurring world leaders to embrace their Green New Deals that promise to save capitalism and the planet.

Their message is clear: rapid, fossil-fueled growth is burning through the Earth’s remaining reserves of precious hydrocarbons and doing untold damage to the biosphere in the process. Businesses must lead the way out of this dangerous dead end by adopting renewable energy and other planet-healing practices, even if it means substantial reductions in growth and profits. But, despite their dire warnings, hard work, innovative proposals, and good intentions, most heads of state and captains of industry continue to politely ignore them.

Meanwhile, more radical activists also hope climate chaos, peak oil and economic contraction will become game changers. Many assume that globalization and growth are so essential that capitalism must fail without them. And, as it does, social movements will seize the opportunity to transform this collapsing system into a more equitable, sustainable one, free of capitalism’s insatiable need to expand at all costs.

Growth is not the primary driving force behind capitalism—profit is. Periods of crisis and collapse can generate huge profits as well.

Both the green growth reformers and anti-growth radicals misunderstand the true nature of capitalism and underestimate its ability to withstand—and profit handsomely from—the great contraction ahead. Growth is not the primary driving force behind capitalism—profit is. When the overall economic pie is expanding, many firms find it easier to realize profits big enough to continually increase their share price. But periods of crisis and collapse can generate huge profits as well. In fact, during systemic contractions, the dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism creates lucrative opportunities for hostile takeovers, mergers and leveraged buyouts, allowing the most predatory firms to devour their competition.

 

Can capitalism survive without growth?

One of capitalism’s central attributes is opportunism. Capitalism is not loyal to any person, nation, corporation, or ideology. It doesn’t care about the planet or believe in justice, equality, fairness, liberty, human rights, democracy, world peace or even economic growth and the “free market.” Its overriding obsession is maximizing the return on invested capital. Capitalism will pose as a loyal friend of other beliefs and values, or betray them in an instant, if it advances the drive for profit … that’s why it’s called the bottom line!

Growth is important because it tends to improve the bottom line. And ultimately, capitalism may not last without it. But those who profit from this economic system are not about to throw up their hands and walk off the stage of history just because boom has turned to bust. Crisis, conflict, and collapse can be extremely profitable for the opportunists who know where and when to invest.

But how long can this go on? Can capitalism’s profit motive remain the driving force behind a contracting economy lacking the vital energy surplus needed to fuel growth? Definitely, but the consequences for society will be grim indeed. Without access to the cheap, abundant energy needed to extract resources, power factories, maintain infrastructure, and transport goods around the world, capitalism’s productive sector will lose its position as the most lucrative source of profit and investment. Transnational corporations will find that their giant economies of scale and global chains of production have become liabilities rather than assets. As profits dwindle, factories close, workers are laid off, benefits and wages are slashed, unions are broken, and pension funds are raided—whatever it takes to remain solvent.

Declining incomes and living standards mean poorer consumers, contracting markets and shrinking tax revenues. Of course, collapse can be postponed by using debt to artificially extend the solvency of businesses, consumers, and governments. But eventually, paying off debts with interest becomes futile without growth. And, when the credit bubbles burst, the defaults, foreclosures, bankruptcies and financial fiascos that follow can paralyze the economy.

Without the capacity for re-energizing growth, the recessions and depressions of times past that temporarily disrupted production between long periods of expansion, now become chronic features of a contracting system. On the downside of peak oil, neither liberal programs to increase employment and stimulate growth nor conservative tax and regulatory cuts have any substantial impact on the economy’s descending spiral. Both production and demand remain so constricted by energy austerity that any brief growth spurts are quickly stifled by resurgent energy prices. Instead, periods of severe contraction and collapse may be buffered between brief plateaus of relative stability.

Catabolism: the final phase of capitalism

In a growth-less, contracting economy, the profit motive can have a powerful catabolic impact on capitalist society. The word “catabolism” comes from the Greek and is used in biology to refer to the condition whereby a living thing feeds on itself. Thus, catabolic capitalism is a self-cannibalizing system whose insatiable hunger for profit can only be fed by devouring the society that sustains it.[1] As it rampages down the road to ruin, this system gorges itself on one self-inflicted disaster after another.

The riotous train scene in the film The Marx Brothers Go West captures the essence of catabolic capitalism. The wacky brothers commandeer a locomotive that runs out of fuel. In desperation, they ransack the train, breaking up the passenger cars, ripping up seats and tearing down roofs and walls to feed the steam engine. By the end of the scene, terrified passengers desperately cling to a skeletal train, reduced to little more than a fast-moving furnace on wheels.

In the previous era of industrial expansion, catabolic capitalists lurked in the shadows of the growth economy. They were the illicit arms, drugs and sex traffickers; the loan sharks, debt collectors and repo-men; the smugglers, pirates, poachers, black market merchants and pawnbrokers; the illegal waste dumpers, shady sweatshop operators and unregulated mining, fishing and timber operations.

However, as the productive sector contracts, this corrupt cannibalistic sector emerges from the shadows and metastasizes rapidly, thriving off conflict, crime and crisis; hoarding and speculation; insecurity and desperation. Catabolic capitalism flourishes because it can still generate substantial profits by dodging legalities and regulations; stockpiling scarce resources and peddling arms to those fighting over them; scavenging, breaking down and selling off the assets of the decaying productive and public sectors; and preying upon the sheer desperation of people who can no longer find gainful employment elsewhere.

Scavengers, speculators, and slumlords buy up distressed and abandoned properties—houses, schools, factories, office buildings and malls—strip them of valuable resources, sell them for scrap or rent them to people desperate for shelter.

Without enough energy to generate growth, catabolic capitalists stoke the profit engine by taking over troubled businesses, selling them off for parts, firing the workforce and pilfering their pensions. Scavengers, speculators, and slumlords buy up distressed and abandoned properties—houses, schools, factories, office buildings and malls—strip them of valuable resources, sell them for scrap or rent them to people desperate for shelter. Illicit lending operations charge outrageous interest rates and hire thugs or private security firms to shake down desperate borrowers or force people into indentured servitude to repay loans. Instead of investing in struggling productive enterprises, catabolic financiers make windfall profits by betting against growth through hoarding and speculative short selling of securities, currencies and commodities.

Social benefits, legal and regulatory protections and modern society itself will also be sacrificed to feed the profit engine. During a period of contraction, venal catabolic capitalists put their lawyers and lobbyists to work tearing down any legal barriers to their insatiable appetite for profit. Regulatory agencies that once provided some protection from polluters, dangerous products, unsafe workplaces, labor exploitation, financial fraud and corporate crime are dismantled to feed the voracious fires of avarice.

Society’s governing institutions of justice, law, and order become early victims of this catabolic crime spree. Public safety is stripped down, privatized and sold to those who can still afford it. As budgets for courts, prisons, and law enforcement shrivel, private security firms hire unemployed cops to break strikes, provide corporate security, and guard the wealthy in their gated communities. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be forced to rely on alarm systems, dogs, guns and—if we’re lucky—watchful neighbors to deal with rising crime. Privatized prisons will profit by contracting convict labor to the highest bidders.

As tax-starved public services and social welfare programs bleed out from deep budget cuts, profit-hungry capitalists pick over the carcasses of bankrupt governments. Social security, food stamps, and health care programs are chopped to the bone. Public transportation and decaying highways are transformed into private thoroughfares, maintained by convict labor or indentured workers. Corporations scarf up failing public utilities, water treatment, waste management and sewage disposal systems to provide businesses and wealthy communities with reliable power, water and waste removal. Schools and libraries go broke, while exclusive private academies employ a fraction of the jobless teachers and university professors to educate a shrinking class of affluent students.

A dark alliance

Cannibalistic profiteers can thrive in a growth-less environment for quite some time, but ultimately, an economy bent on devouring itself has a dismal, dead-end future. Nevertheless, changing course will be difficult because, as the catabolic sector expands at the expense of society, powerful cannibalistic capitalists are bound to forge influential alliances, poison and paralyze the political system, and block all efforts to pull society out of its death spiral.

Catabolic enterprises are not the only profit-makers in a growth-less economy. Even an economy run on contracts and subcontracts must extract energy and other resources from the Earth. Unless the profit motive is removed by bringing these assets under public control, corporate real estate, timber, water, energy, and mining corporations will deploy their lobbying muscle to completely privatize these vital resources and enhance their bottom line with government subsidies, tax breaks and “regulatory relief.” The growing capital, energy and technology commitments needed to commodify scarce resources may cut deeply into profit margins. As less solvent outfits fail, the remaining politically connected resource conglomerates may maximize their profits by forming cartels to corner markets, hoard vital resources, and send prices soaring while blocking all attempts at public regulation and rationing.

The extractive and the catabolic sectors of capitalism have a lot in common. An alliance between them could put irresistible pressure on failing federal and state governments to open public lands and coastlines to unregulated offshore drilling, fracking, coal mining and tar sands extraction. Scofflaw resource extractors and criminal poaching operations proliferate in corrupt, catabolic conditions where legal protections are ignored and shady deals can be struck with local power brokers to maximize the exploitation of labor and resources. To pay off government debt, national and state parks may be sold and transformed into expensive private resorts while public lands and national forests are auctioned off to energy, timber, and mining corporations.

As globalization runs down, this grim catabolic future is eager to replace it. Already, an ugly gang of demagogic politicians around the world hopes to ride this catabolic crisis into power. Their goal is to replace globalization with bombastic nationalist authoritarianism. These xenophobic demagogues are becoming the political face of catabolic capitalism. They promise to restore their country to prosperity and greatness by expelling immigrants while carelessly ignoring the disastrous costs of fossil fuel addiction and military spending. Anger, insecurity and need to believe that a strong leader can restore “the good old days” will guarantee them a fervent following even though their false promises and fake solutions can only make matters worse.

 

Is catabolic capitalism inevitable?

So, what about green capitalism? Isn’t there money to be made in renewable energy? What about redesigning transportation systems, buildings and communities? Couldn’t capitalists profit by producing alternative energy technologies if government helped finance the unprofitable, but necessary, infrastructure projects needed to bring them online? Wouldn’t a Green New Deal be far more beneficial than catabolic catastrophe?

In a growth-less economy, catabolic capitalism is the most profitable, short-term alternative for those in power. This makes it the path of least resistance from Wall Street to Washington. 

Catabolic capitalism is not inevitable. However, in a growth-less economy, catabolic capitalism is the most profitable, short-term alternative for those in power. This makes it the path of least resistance from Wall Street to Washington. But green capitalism is another story.

As both radical greens and the corporate establishment realize, green capitalism is essentially an oxymoron. Truly green policies, programs and projects contradict capitalism’s primary directive—profit before all else! This doesn’t mean there aren’t profitable niche markets for some products and services that are both ecologically benign and economically beneficial. It means that capitalism’s overriding profit motive is fundamentally at odds with ecological balance and the general welfare of humanity.

While people and the planet can thrive in an ecologically balanced society, the self-centered drive for profit and power cannot. A healthy economy that encourages people to take care of each other and the planet is incompatible with exploiting labor and ransacking nature for profit. Thus, capitalists will resist, to the bitter end, any effort to replace their malignant economy with a healthy one.

Would the transition to a sustainable society be expensive? Of course. Our petroleum-addicted infrastructure of tankers, refineries, pipelines and power plants; cities, suburbs, gas stations and freeways; shopping centers, mega-farms, fast food franchises and supermarkets would have to be replaced with smaller towns fed by local farms and powered by decentralized, renewable energy. But the cost of making this green transition is a priceless bargain compared to the suicidal consequences of catabolic collapse.

Is resistance futile?

Before we decide that resistance is futile, it’s important to realize that the converging energy, economic and ecological disasters bearing down on us all have the potential to turn people against catabolic capitalism and toward a more just, planet-friendly future. The approaching period of catabolic collapse presents some strategic opportunities to those who would like to rid the world of this system as soon as possible.

For example, in the near future, energy scarcity and economic contraction may lead to a paralyzing financial meltdown. Interest-based banking cannot handle economic contraction. Without perpetual growth, businesses, consumers, students, homeowners, governments and banks (who constantly borrow from each other) cannot pay-off their debts with interest. If default goes viral, the banking system goes down.[2]

When the banking system finally implodes, credit freezes, financial assets vaporize, currency values fluctuate wildly, trade shuts down and governments impose draconian measures to maintain their authority. Few Americans have any experience with this kind of systemic seizure. They assume there will always be food in the supermarkets, gas in the pumps, money in the ATMs, electricity in the power lines and medicine in the pharmacies and hospitals.

During a financial meltdown, government officials find it difficult to retain public confidence; people blame them for running the economy into the ditch and suspect that their pseudo-solutions are actually self-serving schemes designed to keep themselves on top. Consequently, this crippling crisis could serve as a powerful wake-up call and a potential turning point if those who want to abolish catabolic capitalism are prepared to make the most of it.

But crises don’t necessarily incite positive responses. Power will be decisive in the unfolding struggle over the future of our species and the planet; and those that benefit from the status quo are bent on holding on to it. Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine warns us that those in power will exploit the traumas caused by major catastrophes to rally support for their own disastrous agenda (like invading Iraq after 9-11 or expelling the Black community from New Orleans after Katrina).

In the midst of shocking disasters those in power play upon our fears and prejudices to keep us passive, turn us against each other and under their control. If we resist all attempts to keep us apathetic, distracted, and divided, they won’t hesitate to use other ways to keep themselves on top, including intimidation, coercion, and brute force. Each time they succeed, life becomes more miserable for everyone but them.

Crisis only becomes our ally when popular anger is channeled into transformative insurrection against the system that causes it. How people respond to systemic disintegration will be pivotal. Who will be blamed? What “solutions” will gain support? Who will people listen to, trust and follow in times of extreme hardship, insecurity and unrest? To turn the tide against catabolic capitalism, activists must prepare people for the cascading crises that lie ahead. They must become trusted responders: defining the problem; organizing grassroots resilience and relief; and building a powerful insurrection against those who profit from disaster. But even this is not enough. To nurture the transition toward a thriving, just, ecologically stable society, all of these struggles must be interwoven and infused with an inspirational vision of how much better life could be if we freed ourselves from this dysfunctional, profit-obsessed system once and for all.

Climate chaos alone will impose many hardships, from extreme droughts, water scarcity, farm failures and food shortages to forest fires and floods, rising sea levels, mega-storms and acidified oceans. Movement organizers must help people anticipate, adapt to, and survive these hardships—but social movements cannot stop there. They must help people mount the kind of political resistance that can strip the fossil fuel industry of its power and leverage their own growing influence to demand that society’s remaining resources be re-directed toward a green transition.

Craig Collins Ph.D. is the author of Toxic Loopholes (Cambridge University Press), which examines America’s dysfunctional system of environmental protection.  He teaches political science and environmental law at California State University East Bay and was a founding member of the Green Party of California.  His forthcoming books: Marx & Mother Nature and Rising From the Ruins: Catabolic Capitalism & Green Resistance reformulate Marx’s theory of history & social change and examine the emerging struggle to replace catabolic capitalism with a thriving, just, ecologically resilient society.

All photos by Adam Cohn in the shipbreaking yards, Chittagong, Bangladesh

[1] The term “catabolic capitalism” used here is somewhat different from the theory of catabolic collapse developed by John Michael Greer. Greer looks at the demise of all civilizations (capitalist and non-capitalist) as a catabolic process. How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse <www.dylan.org.uk/greer_on_collapse.pdf>

[2] Banks’ retained earnings and shareholder capital only amount to 2-9% of their loan portfolio, so it doesn’t take much of a loss to put them under.

‘Dark municipalism’

From the New Orleans school desegregation crisis (1960), when white schoolchildren went on strike to protest the federal government’s order to desegregate New Orleans elementary schools.

by the Symbiosis Research Collective 

The Five Star Movement in Italy has been campaigning on a platform of direct democracy and environmentalism. This March, they won the largest percent of the vote and the most seats in Parliament. Sounds good, right?

Except that Beppe Grillo and Luigi Di Maio – the two foremost leaders of the party – have called for expelling all migrants from Italy and ending the flow of migrants to Europe. They entered into a coalition with the Lega Nord following the 2018 election, a party advocating full regional autonomy – and protecting the ‘Christian identity’ of Italy.

Direct democracy

Even as anti-authoritarian, anti-racist movements all over the world are working to take power where they live, self-described localist movements have also won elections with racist, and frankly fascist, platforms. New right movements like the Lega Nord have even adopted the more typically leftist, anti-authoritarian language of ‘autonomy’ and ‘direct democracy’.

Continuing our discussion of the potential pitfalls of radical municipalism, we want to address this toxic strain of localism – what we’ve termed dark municipalism – and why it is so dangerous.

If a diverse, egalitarian, and ecological local politics is to be successful, it must develop strategies for addressing and combating these tendencies.

Racism and Localism

The Nazis showed the world that it’s entirely possible to be both a back-to-the-lander and a genocidal racist. American militia movements have long fused struggle for local autonomy against the federal government with anti-immigrant hatred and white nationalism.

In the Pacific Northwest, fascist groups like the Northwest Front and the Wolves of Vinland have attempted to co-opt the vision of an independent Cascadia for the ends of white racial separatism.

Britta Lokting argues in The Baffler that there is a greater commonality between this white nationalist fringe and the other tendencies within Cascadian bioregionalism than we’d like to admit. “Ecologists, liberal hipsters, and the alt-right in the Pacific Northwest [all] resist some sort of outside taint.”

Movements for local control can easily slip towards racist and fascist politics by positioning a given community in opposition to outside threats. Oftentimes, savvy segregationists use the language of local control to mask the racial and class motivations behind their political projects.

Several European political parties like the Lega Nord have even begun to distort the term “direct democracy” to argue for “the people” (selectively defined) controlling national immigration policy as a means of achieving the authoritarian ethnonationalist system they envision.

Not all examples of reactionary localism are as extreme as Nazis and anti-government militias, however. It is also, for many people, very close to home, being central to the history of most American suburbs.

Suburban local control

When we think of racial segregation in the US, Jim Crow laws quickly come to mind. But localism—much of it in Northern cities—also played a big role in dividing US society along racial lines.

When urban rebellions rocked cities across the United States in the late sixties, millions of whites flocked to segregated suburbs. By forming new municipalities, sometimes across county lines, wealthy and middle-class whites were free to organise local policy around excluding people of color and the poor, while starving American cities of the tax revenue needed to sustain public services.

Suburban communities walled themselves off with more than gates. Local control over housing policy let them block the construction of affordable housing, to keep low-income people from ever moving in next door. By designing suburbs around cars rather than public transit, they ensured that no one without a car could even reach their communities.

Suburbanisation was both a social and ecological catastrophe. All across the US, urban areas were flattened outward into low-density, energy-intensive sprawl, swallowing up ecosystems and farmland. (To give a sense of how disastrous this has been for the climate: the average carbon footprint of suburban households is four times larger than the average household’s in dense cities.) Job centers were displaced and made harder to reach by transit, leaving many inner cities in a crisis of chronic unemployment.

Most importantly for this discussion, suburbanisation fortified racial segregation in the very political structure of many metro areas, with wealthy, mostly white suburbs governing themselves independently from and at the expense of communities of color.

This brought the gains of the civil rights movement to a halt, with incalculable human costs. Local political autonomy, as this example illustrates, can easily become a vehicle for segregation and defunding the public sphere, and has genuinely destructive potential.

Public education is another important terrain of reactionary localism.

Generally speaking, local funding for public schools has resulted in deeply unequal educational outcomes for non-white and poor children (which is why many states have taken over school funding from local property taxes, to be allocated more equitably).

Many school districts around the United States have taken educational inequality a step further, with segments breaking off to form wealthier, whiter districts, depriving less privileged children of essential public resources. Seventy-one communities have attempted to secede from their school districts since 2000, and forty-seven of them have succeeded. To quote one community member of a Chattanooga suburb advocating for this sort of entrenchment of school segregation: “Local control is power.”

From anti-immigrant movements to segregated schools, we’d do well to take these hard lessons to heart when rebuilding our society from the local level.

The language of “local control” is central to the political strategy of segregation and resegregation. It allows officials and advocates to apply a palatable, race-neutral framing to fundamentally racist policy. Power consolidated fully at the local level is potentially pernicious precisely because there is such deep inequality between local areas in our highly segregated society.

Local government is a terrain the right wing knows very well, and if empowered carelessly, one that can directly further reactionary agendas. The problem is deeper than an unfortunate correlation between localist movements and racism. Because suburban municipalities had political autonomy, they were able to realise and institutionalise this segregationist agenda.

So how should we deal with this?

We have some ideas: actively undoing bigotry through organising itself, building connections beyond the local into our political project, and developing a grassroots political system around the principles of democracy and interdependence over autonomy and local control.

Building Power, Bridging Divides

Building grassroots, democratic alliances to take back control over the places where we live is easier said than done. Organising with your neighbours can be rewarding, but also tiresome and depressing. In the little spare time each of us has, it often feels easier to talk to people we already know who share our own values.

The truth is that community organising is hard work. Organisers are confronted every day with resistance to their ideas, not only from political opponents but from other community members who have become resigned to the oppressive status quo as well.

Movement-building takes time, through years of real human connection. The simple fact is that there are no shortcuts to moving beyond bigotry either.

Community organising has traditionally aimed to overcome social divides—racial, sexual, cultural—through human relationships. Organising relies on building relationships to recognise common interests. These common interests let people identify the things they can organise around for their common good, and their relationships supply the power to actually win. Through recognising commonalities and taking collective action, bonds between people across difference are forged across differences, uprooting prejudices and fears.

Radical democracy is a framework for extending that process across all areas of life.

As we carve out space for participatory, collective decision-making, either in the workplace through cooperatives or where we live through neighborhood councils and tenant unions, we cultivate a more expansive understanding of shared interests across racial and sexual hierarchies, and of how those inequalities pose barriers to our own democratic struggle.

We can build a new commons together that meets the needs of everyone through this deep organising, a community interdependence held together by strong relationships.

Class conflict

But is stopping fascism as simple as making friends with your neighbours? We can’t lose sight of the fact that there are real, material, conflicts between people.

Friendship between a tenant and their landlord can’t erase the exploitative relationship between them. Only by pursuing an intersectional class politics can we piece apart the forces that divide us.

Hateful and discriminatory attitudes don’t operate in a vacuum. They have a history we can trace and material roots we can transform. Capitalists have spent centuries cultivating racist and nativist narratives to keep exploited people scapegoating each other.

The labour movement in the United States has historically hampered itself through its own racism. By refusing to fraternise with black, Latino, and Asian workers, white workers have undercut their potential power. We can’t afford to make these mistakes.

Visionary organisers need to make the case again and again, through their actions, words, and the resources they build, that ordinary people can only realize their deeper interests of freedom, a healthy life and planet, and real democracy by lifting up people at the margins.

Steps to expand participation—from translation to accessibility for disabled people to prioritizing childcare at meetings—can only make our movements more powerful. A socially transformative politics teaches more privileged people that their common cause lies with the oppressed, through democracy in everyday life.

Beyond building real relationships and making our movements more accessible, we need to make sure that we can create resources for everyone. Tenants rights action groups, community kitchens, and self-organized disaster response groups are all ways of offering people the things they need, all the while building alliances across race and class and addressing loneliness. Social isolation feeds a steady supply of alienated people to the far-right.

As we build a community economy beyond capitalism, we strike at the roots of all these things.

Beyond the Local

As we argued in our last column, radical municipalists must work to build power beyond the local in order to overcome capitalism and the state.

We have no hope of winning real power for our community without this wider network of popular struggle across municipal and national borders. This is also an important part of overcoming prejudices and inequalities between different communities.

Confederations of community councils and assemblies bring us into common cause with those we might otherwise consider outsiders. Even if your own neighborhood isn’t very diverse, scaling up the practice of radical democracy can have the same transformative impacts we discussed above on a much wider level.

Municipalism that is confederal is an antidote to xenophobic isolationism. It’s a localism which knows no national borders, yet retains the ability of citizens of every community to have a say in the affairs which affect them. The power of our strategy itself relies on building bridges rather than walls.

Building a New System

Lastly, as we develop new institutions of solidarity and democracy, we need to go beyond mere autonomy as an organisational principle. Autonomy is about securing freedom from an oppressive outside, but we’re not just trying to resist the system. We’re working to build a new system, a new society.

Anarchists and other anti-authoritarian leftists have long stressed the importance of autonomy. Bodily autonomy is a fundamental moral principle for a free, feminist society. Liberation struggles of all types have articulated their just vision in terms of autonomy.

Building autonomy for individuals and communities is clearly an essential aspect of resistance and dual power, but it is limiting as a framework for the reconstruction of a better world.

Autonomy is in essence a negative political value, being defined in terms of freedom from. It conveys nothing about the actual governance of an autonomous community, and defines its relations to other communities in exclusively negative terms. It amounts to non-interference by outsiders or outside sources of repression.

Given all the potential dangers of local political autonomy, we need to be intentional about the kind of democracy we are building from the ground up. This means thinking through how a future system would equitably solve specific problems beyond the local level.

In our previous columns, we’ve made the case for a system of directly democratic assemblies organised into confederations, which would come together through recallable delegates to coordinate activities regionally and beyond.

To prevent the rise of dark municipalism, however, confederations will have to be stronger than voluntary associations of autonomous communities.

We live in an unequal society, which we are trying to change by expanding the sphere of democracy. We undercut that goal if our conception of a truly democratic society is one where the wealthiest can wall themselves off without accountability to the wider human community.

Differing interests between particular neighborhoods, cities, and countries are inevitable on bigger questions—regional transit, watershed management, total decarbonisation of the economy, redistribution of wealth. None of these can be resolved through a confederation of fully autonomous communes where unanimous agreement is required for them to act together. We can theoretically educate away prejudice, but we can’t educate away conflicting economic interests. A deeper political relationship is necessary.

‘Confederation’ should be conceived as layers of democracy, from the neighborhood to the worldwide. The defining principle of a confederal system is not community autonomy, but interdependence. This is a much stronger basis for the protection of human rights and radical democracy.

Interdependence is what makes municipalism and democratic confederalism unique among locally oriented political ideas: they are not intended to be withdrawals from global affairs and obligations, but movements for radically restructuring the balance of power in how decisions are made towards ordinary people, be that locally, regionally, or globally.

 

Democracy All the Way Down

Many progressives see these forms of reactionary localism and conclude that we need a strong centralized government to better protect marginalised people. In particular, we as radical municipalists have to take seriously the history of federal power in securing greater freedoms for black people in America.

After the American Civil War, Reconstruction continued only as long as federal troops occupied the South. Desegregation and voting rights for African Americans were achieved through federal court cases and legislation. The very principle of “states’ rights” which helped uphold American apartheid and slavery is itself a form of more local autonomy.

But governments only gave in when forced by the power of popular movements. When the state is removed from the people it governs, through unaccountable bureaucracies, technocracies, or oligarchies, it gets a free pass for abuse, oppression, and exploitation. For instance, while suburbanisation in the United States was driven by racism, it was also a product of social engineering by federal policy, through redlining, freeway construction, and incentivizing industries to relocate from cities to suburbs. Many of the Trump administration’s ongoing crimes are only possible because the people do not exercise direct control over their government.

We can’t maintain an oligarchy in the hopes that the ruling class will force through needed changes with respect to racial and economic equality.

The consolidation of authority into a small ruling class necessarily tends toward more oppression. To keep this system of hierarchy in place, the powerful always seek to divide and control the less privileged.

Ordinary people are far from perfect. But it’s ordinary people, with all their differences and shortcomings, with whom we build a more perfect world.

It’s only through lived experience that any of us can learn that we share common ground with others. When we, as organisers, go to where people are, offer the resources they need, build bridges across racial and class differences, and make decisions together, we slowly build the foundations of a new society.

At the end of the day, it’s only democracy—all the way down—that can give us any hope of universal emancipation.

This article was originally published 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. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev. This article was written by Mason Herson-Hord (@mason_h2), Christian Bjornson (@VoxLibertate), Forrest Watkins (@360bybike), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

September readings

Source: Shareable

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

Over the past month we saw an uptick in conversations on degrowth in both mainstream and leftist media in the aftermath of two degrowth conferences in Sweden and Mexico and in connection to a “post-growth” conference in the EU Parliament in Belgium. We’ve also been reading about resistance, community building, and struggle for autonomy and control of land in cities and rural areas around the world—and about criminalization of this resistance. And as usual there are articles about environmental and climate injustice, socialism and the limits of “green” technologies, and new political organizing practices.

 

Uneven Earth updates

We’re excited to announce our new call for submissions for futuristic imaginaries! We are looking for science fiction, science fiction-inspired thoughts, and critical analyses of sci-fi, this time with a focus on pieces that engage with place-based histories and geographies.

The shock doctrine of the left | Link | New book by Graham Jones is part map, part story, part escape manual

How the world breaks | Link | Stan and Paul Cox describe the destructive force of nature in the context of climate change

How radical municipalism can go beyond the local | Link | Fighting for more affordable, accessible places to live means fighting for a less carbon-intensive future

 

Top 5 articles to read

Save us the smugness over 2018’s heatwaves, environmentalists. In this historically precarious moment, we need something more fundamental than climate strategies built on shame and castigation. But, note that there is no evidence that environmentalists are at all smug.

‘For me, this is paradise’: life in the Spanish city that banned cars

Rise of agri-cartel: Control of land drives human rights violations, environmental destruction

Where are the Indigenous children who never came home?

Disaster collectivism: How communities rise together to respond to crises

 

News you might’ve missed

Harvard’s foreign farmland investment mess. An article in Bloomberg highlights a new report by GRAIN on Harvard’s investment in land grabbing.

Modi’s McCarthyist attack on left-leaning intellectuals threatens India’s democracy

There’s been a worrying trend of criminalizing earth defenders around the world:

‘Treating protest as terrorism’: US plans crackdown on Keystone XL activists

Criminalization and violence increasingly used to silence indigenous protest, according to UN report

Fracking protesters’ ‘absurdly harsh’ jail sentences spark calls for judicial review backed by hundreds of scientists

After five years of living in trees, a protest community is being evicted. The German police is evicting activists who are occupying the 12,000 year old Hambach Forest to block the expansion of lignite coal mining. (The yearly Ende Gelände mass action of civil disobedience against the open-pit mine is coming up this month, on 25th-29th October.)

Declaration: No to abuse against women in industrial oil palm plantations  

 

New politics

Learning to fight in a warming world. Andreas Malm spoke at the Code Rode action camp against a gas pipeline in the Netherlands, addressing crucial questions for anti-fossil fuel organizing: Who are the political subjects in this struggle? How can people be mobilized? Should we think of the climate justice movement as a vanguard? Which methods and strategies should we use? What are the roles of non-violent and violent resistance?

Building food utopias: Amplifying voices, dismantling power

No justice without love: why activism must be more generous. I want to be a member of a thriving and diverse social movement, not a cult or a religion.

Resisting Development: The politics of the zad and NoTav

A story of the creation of the first commune in Kobane, and the struggle against authoritarianism within.

From Rojava to the Mapuche struggle: The Kurdish revolutionary seed spreads in Latin America

Seizing the means of reproduction. Unrecognized, often unpaid, and yet utterly necessary, reproductive labor is everywhere in our lives. Can it form the basis for a renewed radical politics?

Co-ops might not transform people, but the act of cooperation often does.

An interview with the Internationalist Committee of the Rojava revolution

The emerging idea of “radical well-being”. An interview with Ashish Kothari by Paul Robbins.

 

Radical municipalism

The radical solution to homelessness: no-strings homes

What should a 21st century socialist housing policy look like?

The city as a battleground. If cities are becoming amusement parks for tourists, a vehicle to earn money, what space is left for its citizens?

Radical democracy vs. retro social democracy: a discussion with Jeremy Gilbert

The labor movement once built thousands of low-cost co-op apartments for working class New Yorkers. It could do so again.

Internationalism and the New Municipalism

Bologna again takes center stage resisting fascism

First we take Jackson: the new American municipalism

The common ground trust: a route out of the housing crisis

Revitalizing struggling corridors in a post-industrial city

The persistence of settler colonialism within “the urban”. As long as the urban agenda is so tangled in the mess of capitalism, how can urban practitioners work to free the ever expanding and increasingly complicated field of urban studies from its colonial shackles? Is it even possible to think about the urban without colonialism?

 

Where we’re at: analysis

Five principles of a socialist climate politics. Overall it is quite surprising how well the challenge of climate change overlaps with some classical principles of socialism.

The Rise of the Robot: Dispelling the myth. The ‘march of the robots’ idea relies tacitly on the assumption that the limits to growth are negotiable, or indeed non-existent. It buys into the idea that there can be a complete – or at least near complete – decoupling of production from carbon emissions.

Ten years on, the crisis of global capitalism never really ended

Dirty rare metals: Digging deeper into the energy transition. “Western industries have deliberately offshored the production of rare metals and its associated pollution, only to bring these metals back onshore once cleansed of all impurities to incorporate them into intangible ‘green’ technologies.”

Farmers in Guatemala are destroying dams to fight ‘dirty’ renewable energy

The real problem with free trade. As trade has become freer, inequality has worsened. One major reason for this is that current global trade rules have enabled a few large firms to capture an ever-larger share of value-added, at a massive cost to economies, workers, and the environment.

A special issue in Meditations Journal on the link between the economy and energy

The environmentalism of the poor in the USA. A review of the book Environmental Justice in Postwar America: A Documentary Reader.

Half-Earth: A biodiversity ‘solution’ that solves nothing. A response to E. O. Wilson’s half-baked half-Earth.

Gender egalitarianism made us human: A response to David Graeber & David Wengrow’s ‘How to change the course of human history’

 

The growth debate

Following from the success of the two International Degrowth Conferences in Mexico and Sweden in August, scientists and politicians gathered at the EU Parliament in Brussels this month to discuss the need to move to a “post-growth” economy. Degrowth has always been a term meant in great part to provoke conversation. And that it did: what followed was a month careful commentary, knee-jerk responses, and thoughtful criticism.

The EU needs a stability and wellbeing pact, not more growth. 238 academics call on the European Union and its member states to plan for a post-growth future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP. Sign the petition based on this letter: Europe, it’s time to end the growth dependency.

Degrowth considered: A review of Giorgos Kallis’ book, In defense of degrowth

Why growth can’t be green. New data proves you can support capitalism or the environment—but it’s hard to do both. An article by Jason Hickel in Foreign Policy.

Saving the planet doesn’t mean killing economic growth. A response to the criticism of growth by Noah Smith, a columnist at Bloomberg.

Soothing Noah Smith’s fears about a post-growth world. A response to Noah Smith’s piece by Jason Hickel. “The whole thing is based on either awkward confusion or intentional sleight of hand.” For a similar analysis, see our 2015 article, Let’s define Degrowth before we dismiss it.

The degrowth movement challenges the conventional wisdom on economic health

Beyond growth. Imagining an economy based in environmental reality: an article featured in Long Reads.

The new ecological situationists: On the revolutionary aesthetics of climate justice and degrowth

Degrowth vs. a Green New Deal. An article in The New Left Review by Robert Pollin criticizing the degrowth position, and proposing an alternative. Is the ecological salvation of the human species at hand? A response to Pollin’s piece from an ecological economist. And New deals, old bottles: Chris Smaje responds to Pollin’s piece.

While economic growth continues we’ll never kick our fossil fuels habit. George Monbiot calls for degrowth.

The Singularity in the 1790s. A retrospective and enlightening analysis of the science fiction-tinged debate between William Godwin and Thomas Malthus.

 

Addressing climate change’s unequal impacts

Nature-based disaster risk reduction

Puerto Rican ‘anarchistic organizers’ took power into their own hands after Hurricane Maria

The unequal distribution of catastrophe in North Carolina

That undeveloped Land Could Be Protecting Your City from the Next Flood

Carbon removal is not enough to save climate

Climate action means changing technological systems – and also social and economic systems

 

Plastics, waste, and technology

Maria-Luiza Pedrotti is illuminating the unseen worlds of plastic-eating bacteria that teem in massive ocean garbage patches.

The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction

Forget about banning plastic straws! The problem is much bigger. A feature on the artist and scientist Max Liboiron.

The air-conditioning debate isn’t really about air-conditioning

 

Just think about it…

Pay your cleaner what you earn, or clean up yourself

Scientific publishing is a rip-off. We fund the research – it should be free

Humans are destroying animals’ ancestral knowledge. Bighorn sheep and moose learn to migrate from one another. When they die, that generational know-how is not easily replaced.

The agrarian origins of capitalism. This 1998 essay by Ellen Meiksins Wood is still worth a read (or re-read).

Searching for words in Indian Country. A non-Native journalist encounters a tribal-managed forest and an indigenous garden. “I had no idea how to use the English language to describe what I was seeing.”

Dead metaphors, dying symbols and the linguistic tipping point. An interview with Rob Nixon, author of Slow Violence.

W. E. B. Du Bois and the American Environment

Forget the highways: America’s social infrastructure is falling apart, and it’s hurting democracy.

 

Resources

A factsheet on global plastic pollution

A timeline of gentrification in the US

A blueprint for universal childhood

The best books on Moral Economy

An economy for the people, by the people. A report by the New Economics Foundation.

The anatomy of an AI system. The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources.

A YouTube channel with accessible, informational videos on political ecology and economy

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

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EXTENDED DEADLINE Not afraid of the ruins #2: Local science fictions

UPDATE: Call for submissions deadline is extended to January 31st, 2019!

Utopian dreamers, other-worldly explorers, and psychonautic adventurers; scholars, activists, students, and critics: drawing inspiration from the online political ecology magazine Uneven Earth (http://www.unevenearth.org/) and following the success of our 2017 round of submissions (http://unevenearth.org/not-afraid-of-the-ruins/), we are excited to announce the 2019 call for submissions for the collaborative writing project Not Afraid of the Ruins. The goal for this year’s call will be to once again 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.

Submission Criteria

This year, we are asking for more focused submissions with the goal of highlighting people, places, stories and characters that are not typically represented in the traditional Science Fiction canon. We are particularly interested in exploring ‘local science fictions’ through pieces that engage with place-based histories and geographies. Some examples for inspiration:

  • Aliens landing in Soweto, South Africa
  • Solarpunk in Belgrade, Serbia
  • The development of a sharing economy in a post-mining community, Northern Sweden
  • Local revolution against the soy plantation industry in the Cordoba Province, Argentina
  • Space colonisation, inter-planetary mining and a water-based economy in Singapore
  • Anti-petroleum activism in Al-Ahsa, Saudi Arabia

While we are not strict about word count, we strongly encourage writers to limit their submissions to approximately 2,500 words. Submissions can be either fiction or non-fiction.

Not Afraid of the Ruins is a collaborative project and all submissions are vetted and edited by our friendly NAOTR comrades; it is not a peer reviewed academic journal. As such, we hope that both fiction and non-fiction submissions alike are written in a clear and accessible style and we discourage strictly academic writing and excessive jargon. While we are unable to provide funding or financial compensation for submissions, we are hoping to create the possibility for publication opportunities beyond the blog.

This year, we are accepting full submissions only (no proposals). To submit, please send an email to ruins@unevenearth.org by January 15, 2019 January 31, 2019 which includes:

  • A short biographical paragraph about yourself (2 to 4 sentences)
  • A manuscript of the full submission
  • Any accompanying artwork or visuals (We highly encourage a number of visuals for each piece. These can be photographs, digital art, video, or anything else you can think of! Please be sure to follow proper copyright rules and cite sources when appropriate.)

If you are interested in submitting in a language other than English, we encourage you to contact us to check if we have the capacity to edit your piece.

In an age of unprecedented climatic, social and political change, we believe that such a project continues to be as relevant 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.

For a better idea about the NAOTR project as well as more submission inspiration, visit our online blog at http://unevenearth.org/not-afraid-of-the-ruins/ or feel free to contact us.

Much love and happy world building!

– Claire, Aaron, Hannah, Dylan, Elliot, Srđan, Freya, and Mario

The shock doctrine of the left

“Graham Jones argues that the systems we live within can be understood as bodies.” Photo: Lars Plougmann


by Derek Wall

Here in Britain we are living on the cusp of catastrophe. A bad break Brexit could lead to chaos, gridlocked lorries on the M25 because of a new customs regime and even food shortages. Ten years after the financial crisis, the world is due a new cyclical economic crisis. In turn, climate change is leading to increasingly chaotic weather. In fact the catastrophe is already here, living and breathing, spending cuts as part of Theresa May’s austerity programme, are pushing the heads of the poorest below the waterline. Graham Jones, a self-educated organic intellectual, hairdresser and exponent of radical mindfulness, has written a short guide to turning crisis into opportunity, called The shock doctrine of the left. The book is part map, part story, part escape manual. Easy and enjoyable to read, it provokes us to read more and will help us to be politically active in more effective ways.

The shock doctrine of the left ignores moralism and policy making. Neither does it come up with a blueprint for a better society, or a list of policies that might be introduced. 

The shock doctrine of the left ignores moralism and policy making. The obvious moral failures of 21st century capitalism are accepted but this provides a starting point rather than making up an agonized critique of what is wrong. Neither does it come up with a blueprint for a better society, or a list of policies that might be introduced. While concepts such as a universal basic income scheme are described, this book focusses on how those of us who are politically active can act strategically to make effective change.

Graham Jones clearly and, in my opinion, correctly, believes that part of the strategic processes of making practical change relies on having effective concepts. Concepts are tools that can be used to transform social reality. While this might sound a little abstract or unconvincing, the concept of the “shock doctrine”, used in the book’s title, is a good illustration.

In her book The shock doctrine, Naomi Klein, the Canadian political activist and writer, argued that sudden and dramatic change had been increasingly exploited by the right to make changes in society, moving things in a pro-corporate direction. For example, the second Iraq War, with its massive disruption of the country, was used to try to engineer Iraq society to be more neoliberal. By neoliberal, I mean a combination of, on the one hand, free market forces that reduce state intervention in social welfare and other forms of human care, combined, paradoxically, with a stronger state support for corporations along with military and police control. Klein argues that shocks can be used to restructure society to the benefit of the rich and powerful. This is not a conspiracy theory: the shocks are usually not deliberate, but, when they do occur, they are used by right-wing forces.

The financial crisis of 2008 is another example. Caused by reduced bank regulation under pro-market governments, it was used in Britain as a justification to introduce spending cuts that also moved British society in a more neoliberal direction. Climate disasters such as hurricanes may be used to restructure cities, remove social housing, and initiate pro-corporate urban development.

In this short book, however, Graham Jones looks at how increasing crisis can open up space for the left to promote a future that is friendly to social and ecological goals, rather than allowing for corporate control.

His book is very easy to read but at the same time extremely thought-provoking. He tends to produce ideas which seem new to those of us who have been politically active over several decades, but perhaps more familiar to a more recent political generation. He explains them with vivid images and interesting stories and suggests further reading we can use to deepen our knowledge.

Much of the book is based on ideas from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995). Deleuze is perhaps best known for the two-part book he co-wrote with Felix Guattari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Deleuze is popular amongst many activists and intellects on the left, but difficult to understand. Deleuze’s books on philosophy depend on the effects that they inspire in readers. One virtue of reading Jones’ book is that I understood a little more about Deleuze.

I may be misleading readers by giving the impression that the book is about philosophy and difficult to read or understand ideas. In fact it is very clear and takes a resolutely non-academic approach, concepts are, to repeat, illustrated by appealing stories.

The argument put forward is that there are different ‘logics of the left’. We are not talking about ‘dialectic materialism’ versus ‘Fabianism’ here. The logics of smashing, building, healing and taming are discussed, each in its own brief chapter. Finally the book ends with a chapter linking these under the title of meta-strategy.

The book suggests that to make change we need to understand systems. Social reality is based on processes that work within networks. Jones argues that the systems we live within can be understood as bodies which are made up of other bodies. Through various actions we can reshape these bodies. In this way, power is defused throughout a society. It is therefore not a matter of simply electing a government that will ‘take power’ and make better laws. Power isn’t found in one place. The notion of a traditional revolutionary party modeled by Lenin is also inappropriate: there is no Winter Palace to be stormed, as in the Bolshevik Revolution.

It’s not really like any book I have read on political strategy before, its both strange (but in a good way) and very easy to understand.

It’s not really like any book I have read on political strategy before. It’s both strange (but in a good way) and very easy to understand. I think if I wanted to capture its approach—not that it can really be captured—one sentence in the middle of book comes close to giving an idea of what The shock doctrine of the left is all about: ‘It involves mapping the bodies around us – their parts, relations and wholes, their paths and speeds – and developing interventions for altering them to our advantage.’ (page 37).

What we do—electioneering, supporting a strike, or getting involved in a social centre—is practical action. The simply and clearly outlined concepts developed in The shock doctrine of the left help us to put our action into context, so as to make it effective. We intervene informed by a map of how things are and how our intervention can shape them productively.

The book isn’t for everyone. It sometimes seems a little slight and to leave many questions left without an answer. However no book is the book to end all books. It is a charming look at social change that, for me, at least, reminds me of some core concepts I find useful and introduced me to others. It is a Deleuzian book, if I understand him at all ( which I may not!), in the sense that it aims to produce practical effects and these effects are not predetermined.

Derek Wall teaches political economy and is a former International Coordinator of the Green Party. His new book Hugo Blanco: A Revolutionary Life will be published in November by Merlin Press.

The shock doctrine of the left by Graham Jones is published by Polity Press, as part of the Radical Futures series. You can find it here

 

How the world breaks

In May 2006, an eruption of mud began to flow in Sdoarjo Indonesia. With the eruption, 40,000 villagers were displaced and 20 were killed. About a decade after the disaster began, these statues were placed to commemorate the lives lost and the lives interrupted. Photo: Adam Cohn

by Chellis Glendinning

The reader of How the World Breaks must be agile. The book demands that one navigate between several modes of consciousness in order to face the reality of human input into the “weather on steroids” that is routine these days. How the World Breaks takes us on a long tour, but not one launched with vacation or adventure in mind; rather it books us in at one disaster site, then another, and another. Led by our worthy guides, we visit the scene of 2013’s Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines in which entire settlements were washed away and some 6,300 people killed; Java where a mud volcano caused by gas drilling plastered 2.5 square miles of fields and villages with forty feet of wet clay, cost 40,000 people their homes, and caused property losses of more than a billion US dollars; Kansas where, in 2007, a 205 mile-per-hour tornado flattened an entire town, destroying 1000 buildings; and more. But surprise: just as the book takes us on this bleak journey, it also presents an electrifying, can’t-put-down detective novel exploring the whats, hows, whens, and whys of each catastrophe. And lest we become too diverted by intrigue, How the World Breaks is a sober investigation of the economics, politics, science, and psychology of a disaster’s origins, progression, and aftermath. Taken together, the landscape of climate change becomes a disquieting documentation of the mess we inhabit.

Taken together, the landscape of climate change becomes a disquieting documentation of the mess we inhabit.

Stan Cox is the perfect person to write such a tome. A former government wheat geneticist, he is now research coordinator at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. He is a fervent advocate for sustainable agriculture, plus the author of books that explore the environmental impacts of air conditioning and of corporate food/medicine production, as well as rationing as one answer to capitalism’s out-of-control consumerism.

The second perfect person to craft such a book is anthropologist and development/disaster writer Paul Cox. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he works for European and African development organizations while writing independently in such publications as Disasters and The New Inquiry. He also happens to be Stan’s son.

I delved into How the World Breaks on a spring day boasting brutal unseasonal rains in a small city in the Andes. I needed no more than to pull the blanket to my chin to know the magnitude of this book’s importance. I think we’ve got a classic here—so I asked Stan and Paul to join me for an online conversation.

 

What is How the World Breaks about? And how did you end up working on it as father and son?

Paul Cox: The title is a bit misleading—by design. The book is about how and why disasters happen, but the explanations aren’t all our own; we don’t have one big model or answer. Instead we were interested in all the explanations that spring up around disasters and, crucially, who embraces which explanations.

Stan Cox: It started after a disaster with many explanations: Superstorm Sandy. In 2012, following that calamity, my editors at The New Press asked me if I’d be interested in writing one on the increasingly unnatural nature of natural disasters. I had no direct experience in that world, but I knew there was much to be written about their increasingly human causation. I decided to write to Paul, who had studied the anthropology of disaster.

He started his response with, “Wow, that’s a pretty huge topic,” and discussed the debates among disaster researchers and policymakers about vulnerability, resilience, inequality, and adaptation, along with what he called “the big issue: climate change itself, or the whole complex of pressures and vulnerabilities that it fits into.” I thought, “Oh oh, this is going to be a much bigger book than I expected, and I don’t think I can do it without Paul.”

How did you start?

SC: We resolved not to restrict ourselves to just climatic events, but to include hazards that emerge from the ground, sky, and sea. Since so-called “natural disasters” are social/political/economic phenomena linked to increasingly unnatural hazards, we dropped the term “natural disaster.” We wrote of “geoclimatic” hazards and disasters instead, and we hope that term catches on. We also realized that this could turn out to be a boring book if we made it an armchair study of UN policy debates, studies on risk reduction, international climate negotiations, etc. Instead, we decided to build our analysis on stories from the scenes of actual disasters.

PC: The subtitle, “Life in Catastrophe’s Path, from the Caribbean to Siberia,” might represent the book better than the title does. Since this seems to be the life of the future, we wanted to consider what such a life looks like—for rich and poor.

Disasters are, of course, terrible by definition. All that ought to matter is how to reduce people’s vastly unequal vulnerabilities to them and how to stop creating more. But instead, some explanations have turned into normalizations of it. We tried to make the book an antidote to that normalization by choosing disasters mostly from the last decade and pulling out all the awful, sad, strange, funny, and infuriating details that make each irreducible to a simple explanation.

SC: So from mid-2013 through early 2015, we studied and visited a dozen or so communities around the world whose inhabitants were struggling to recover from disasters. We benefited from the help provided by my wife, Paul’s stepmother, Priti Gulati Cox—especially with the trips in India where she could translate not only language but much else. Priti also drew maps for each of the disasters.

My guess is that New Press doesn’t have the funds to send a couple of investigators around the world. How did you get to all those places?

SC: You guess right. We didn’t have big travel budgets ourselves, so we made modest travel plans. In 2013 Priti and I were already going to Mumbai, India, for a family visit, and we figured that if Paul joined us, we could talk with slum residents about the 2005 catastrophic flood they’d lived through. From there, we could go to the Philippines—which is famous for cultural adaptation to the world’s worst frequency and variety of geoclimatic hazards—and on to East Java, Indonesia, site of a human-caused mud volcano.

You can throw a dart at a map, and there has probably been—or will soon be—one or more terrible disasters somewhere near where the dart sticks.

Soon after we made those plans, the Indian Himalaya was ravaged by unprecedented monsoon floods and landslides. Two months before we set out for Asia, Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines in probably the most powerful storm landfall ever recorded. Were we superstitious, we might have decided at that point not to make any more travel plans! But the fact is that you can throw a dart at a map, and there has probably been—or will soon be—one or more terrible disasters somewhere near where the dart sticks. So we included Tacloban in the Philippines and the Garhwal region in India in our tour.

Paul had ridden out Superstorm Sandy when he was living in New Jersey and had helped with Occupy Sandy; then he found himself back in the area around the second anniversary of the disaster. For me, there were short drives to two tornado towns: Greensburg, Kansas, and Joplin, Missouri. And living in Copenhagen, Paul could easily get to the Netherlands and Russia.

PC:Our biggest concern was not to put ourselves in situations where we would be a burden on anyone. We worried most about that in Tacloban, where bodies were still being recovered when we arrived. We rode in on a public bus and spent the day in the city, staying out of the way of the relief activity and speaking only with people who were interested in talking with us.

Disaster writing can also be colonial, exoticizing, and self-centered. Our choice was to keep ourselves out of view.

The places we went and the people we met made this book what it is. But the one thing we didn’t want it to be, I think, was a travelogue. The literary scholar Graham Huggan has written, “Much of what passes for contemporary travel writing operates under the sign of the disaster.” Our book falls easily into that claim. But if accounts of disaster and climate change are taking over the role of travel writing—and I also have to give credit to Rune Graulund of Denmark for this observation—then there’s a huge amount of baggage that comes with the genre. Disaster writing can also be colonial, exoticizing, and self-centered. Our choice was to keep ourselves out of view.

The devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the city of Tacloban, 2013. Photo: DFID

Tell me about what happened on the island of Montserrat.

SC: Montserrat is a papaya-shaped island five by ten miles in size, located 250 miles southeast of Puerto Rico. It’s a British Overseas Territory—in other words, a colony. The first Europeans to settle there were Irish Catholics in 1632. By the early 1800s, the slave population was 6,500. Britain abolished slavery in 1833, but Montserrat remained under white minority rule until the 1960s.

In recent decades, the island has been the most disaster-plagued place in the Caribbean outside Haiti. Its residents were still recovering from 1989’s Hurricane Hugo when the long-dormant Soufrière Hills volcano exploded in 1995. For two years the island was punished with volcanic violence, including explosive eruptions, fast-moving floods of steam, ash, gravel, and rock; and downpours of ash that covered everything. The eruption remains active to this day, with continuous release of gases that have been punctuated by ashfalls in 2003, 2006, and 2010. Almost two-thirds of the island, including now-buried former capital Plymouth, remain uninhabitable. Before the eruption the population was more than 10,000. It’s now 4,000. Many people emigrated, and those who remained had to move up to the previously undeveloped northern part of the island.

I don’t recall even hearing about this.

SC: We first became interested in Montserrat because of a British-funded development project aimed at generating electricity with geothermal energy from beneath the same volcano that had almost destroyed the island—a classic case of a silver lining. But that turned out to be a minor story. The bigger part was the failure of both the British Parliament and a series of island governments to rebuild decent housing and good livelihoods and help the people get back on their feet.

Four months before our visit, the island’s new political party, a group of activists called the People’s Democratic Movement, had been voted into power. Hopes were rising that Montserrat could finally get unstuck from the unnatural disaster/development crisis plaguing it. The PDM’s leader is Donaldson Romeo. As a journalist and videographer during the long crisis of the ’90s, Romeo had exposed the consequences of British neglect, including the horrific conditions that people fleeing the south of the island had to endure in refugee housing and tent camps. In the 2000s he got into politics to challenge the negligence and failures; he led the PDM to victory in 2014.

It’s typical in the Caribbean for volcanoes to lie dormant for centuries, and then when they do start shooting sparks, steam, fiery rock, and sulphur/methane/carbon-dioxide gas, the episode can last for a year. But this volcanic activity has gone on for 20 years! How does detrimental human activity contribute to the activation of volcanic activity, particularly these irregular and unpredictable explosions?

SC: We talked with Rod Stewart of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, and he said that this volcano is unique for the length of its eruption. There’s no ready explanation for it, and he won’t hazard a guess as to when the eruption will end. Human activity is a factor in volcanic disasters generally. Volcanic slopes like the one where most Montserratians lived before 1995 are attractive places to settle: the soils are fertile, the landscape is beautiful, and there is often employment in tourism. People may be able to live and work on those slopes for 350 years without problem—but there’s always a risk.

Who else did you talk to?

SC: I had interviews lined up, but wanted most to talk with ordinary people and with Don Romeo. Over the next couple of days, in between interviews with government officials, I talked with local citizens. One was a woman named Janeen who had migrated to Montserrat from Jamaica just before the eruption began, had to evacuate homes twice, and now operates a run-down bar and grill on the island’s one main road. Simply by persevering through the past two decades, she has proven her resilience, but like everyone else, she is getting tired of being so resilient. She said she had high hopes for Romeo and the PDM. On the other hand, she feared that the government in London might never “step up.” She and other Montserratians had worn out their bootstraps long ago.

One thing that surprised me is the islanders’ desire to boost the economy with “disastourism.”

PC: Ha! We sort of made up that word, although I assume we aren’t the first. Unlike nearby islands like Antigua and St. Kitts, Montserrat has no good harbor, so it has never been a major cruise destination. But before Hugo and the Soufrière Hills eruption, ferries, small cruise boats, and private craft would visit the Plymouth pier. Many North Americans bought houses and spent winters there. Romeo and the local government want London to build a new port in the north that can bring some of that small-scale tourist traffic back—with an added attraction: tours of the volcano observatory and zone of destruction in the south.

Did you see the disaster area?

SC: Priti and I went into the zone in the south that had been opened to daytime entry. The volcano loomed above, belching huge clouds of steam and sulfur dioxide. Below we could see the area that people are barred from entering for safety reasons: a broad gray plain ringed by mangled, abandoned structures. Across that expanse there was no visible sign that the city center of Plymouth lay fifty feet below.

It sounds almost like a sacred place.

SC: Yes—we stood there in utter silence for a long while, as our minds struggled to piece together a rational image from the post-apocalyptic landscape. After that, we wandered into long-abandoned houses. In one, plates and pans, now covered in volcanic ash, were still sitting in dish drains where they’d been abandoned years ago. Another neighborhood was being reclaimed by tropical vegetation, and we noticed a man who was sweeping dust and ash out of a house. He wasn’t interested in talking. I decided that “disastourism” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

We stood there in utter silence for a long while, as our minds struggled to piece together a rational image from the post-apocalyptic landscape.

On our way back to the habitable north, we stopped at a shop to buy vegetables. As we were paying, in came none other than Don Romeo. “Heard you on ZJB Radio today,” he said. “When are you leaving?” I told him Sunday morning. “OK … what if I drop by on Saturday evening? There are some things I need to tell you.”

The admiring looks on the faces of the people in the shop confirmed what we already knew: Romeo is a heroic figure. But he knew he wouldn’t be a hero for long if Montserrat remained stuck in disaster time. His first words when he arrived at the cottage were: “I didn’t expect to become premier this soon.” He went on to talk about how he was having to metamorphose from an activist into the island’s leader and how he’d better not let people down. Then he told us how the British government had betrayed the people of Montserrat. He believed the refusal of the colonial power to restore housing and livelihoods after the eruption was not really a failure but a strategy. In the mid-1990s, having just finished rebuilding Plymouth after Hugo, the British had no interest in funding the island’s development again. Romeo believes they let conditions become intolerable so people would have no choice but to evacuate. He told us, “The idea was to get us off the island. But we’re still here.”

He became emotional when the conversation turned to the 1997 flash eruption that killed 19 people. He said those people had been pushed into risking their lives in the hazard zone by the deplorable conditions in the refugee camps and the lack of opportunity to earn a living in the north. “People were so desperate,” he said, “they would go back onto the volcano to grow food and keep animals.” Life on his island, he told us, will never be restored until the UK takes full responsibility for its “deliberate deception” and neglect of Montserrat. I’d been reading accounts of that era and the British betrayal with growing frustration, but to hear Romeo talk about the rawness with which he and other Montserratians view those events… I was boiling inside.

The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2013, New Jersey. Photo: Flickr.

You visited one scene of destruction after another. What was that like?

PC: What always confronted me first was awareness that what I feel is only a shadow of the experience of the disaster.

You felt a sort of timidity then? Or perhaps awe?

PC: More like caution: just as there is much more of the volcano down under the ground, there is so much more human experience wrapped up in a disaster than one can possibly know. Some things can’t be communicated if you weren’t there. But other things can. At least that was our assumption in writing a book.

There are patterns to how the ground can shift; that’s what makes seismology possible… Disasters knot these patterns up together, even if no two events are wholly alike.

Often my second feeling was déjà vu. That is to say: awareness of repetitions and patterns. This awareness can feel like a betrayal of the uniqueness of the pain and the place, but as writers it was essential to our job. There are patterns to how the ground can shift; that’s what makes seismology possible. There are only so many ways the roof can come off a house; that’s why we have engineering. And likewise there are certain ways people deal with pain and shock and re-establish hope; that’s the basis of psychology. Disasters knot these patterns up together, even if no two events are wholly alike.

In my work as a psychotherapist, I specialize in recovery from personal trauma. Some people say to me: “Isn’t it depressing?” Yet I never feel down because I am working with people who want to heal and therefore have the wherewithal and spirit to heal—so being their partner in the process becomes an uplifting experience. I am struck with how you begin the book with a testimony to renewal.

SC: That first story occurred in the Indian Himalaya, and our trip there was probably the most disturbing experience we had. Paul suggested we begin and end the book with it because the floods there were in many ways the most spectacular and tragic of all the disasters we wrote about. Those who survived have been put to the ultimate test of emotional strength and perseverance—with virtually no help from outside.

PC: It was depressing. Yet the story with which we begin the book, Ramala Khumriyal’s personal experience, was a hopeful one. In June 2013 a natural dam holding back a large lake 12,000 feet up in the Himalayas melted. The entire lake emptied within minutes, and the busy pilgrimage site of Kedarnath a mile down slope was buried by water, mud, and rock. Ramala barely escaped up the mountainside with his six children; as they fled, they looked back to see thousands being swept to their deaths. With roads and footpaths destroyed, they had to find their way home through the landslide-scoured mountains. It took them six days.

Once they had to cross a river on a fallen tree trunk, inches above the still-raging flood. Many people did not make the crossing, but Ramala’s family did. This, he said, was the last of many tests they’d received from Lord Shiva, who resides in these mountains and is worshiped at Kedarnath. Ramala and his children had passed all the tests, and in this he found the hope he expressed to us.

SC: By the time we arrived, Ramala had become co-owner of a new startup! Before he’d run a tea shop in Kedarnath, but he had no desire to return there. So with assistance from Adarsh Tribal, a young outsider working for the aid group iVolunteer, Ramala and another man started a soap-making business. Adarsh helped them get the necessary ingredients up to the mountain. It was a low-tech operation, and their product was top-notch. They used a vegetarian recipe—without tallow—and that was a selling point in a pious Hindu region.

PC: The closest we reached to Kedarnath was the village where the pilgrimage footpath begins, Gaurikund. The road having washed away, we had to cling to rocks and tree roots for the final kilometer to get even that far. We were talking to people who were playing carom in front of the only open shop on the half-main-street—the other half had fallen into a chasm along with a number of hotels. Our discussion paused when two outsiders came along the street leading a pair of donkeys. One was wearing a well-tailored wool jacket and the other was carrying a camera. They silently continued towards the start of the pilgrims’ footpath—and returned ten minutes later. As they passed the second time, the cameraman explained to a local that the visitor was on a government fact-finding mission from New Delhi. He was supposed to report on the state of things in Kedarnath, but he’d just gone to the trailhead so he could have his photo taken on the back of a donkey with snowy peaks in the background. Our hosts thought this was a fitting demonstration of the extent of their government’s sympathy; Adarsh, who was interpreting, couldn’t even translate the obscenities they used!

SC: The floods and landslides had not only cut Kedarnath and Gaurikund off from the rest of the world; they had wreaked ruin along the 100-mile road that leads up the valley from the plains.

PC: We experienced pure terror on the jeep ride up and back, especially where the road had become a thin shelf hanging off the mountain face and we could see right through potholes down to the valley floor!

SC: Before the flood, there’d been a burgeoning new industry that hauled well-heeled pilgrims up the mountain in helicopters. Like road-building, the construction of the 400 helipads serving that business worsened the landslides, and almost all of the helipads were damaged beyond usability. The tourism industry was crippled. Neither Adarsh nor the people in Gaurikund nor anyone else said they could foresee any potential economic activities that might provide the valley’s people the modest incomes they had derived from tourism. That was the tragedy: the only route anyone could see to local economic viability was to rebuild the very industry that had almost destroyed them once and could well destroy them in the future. Now three years after our visit, despite recurring monsoon floods, the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and raging forest fires in 2016, slow efforts to piece tourism back together have been the only official response.

Reading your book, I remembered the collective disasters I´ve endured—which include Hurricane Hazel in 1954, the 2001 Los Alamos fire catastrophe, and a rain-hail storm/flood in 2013 that laid flat the campesino community in Bolivia where I was living. Have you been through any such events?

SC: Well, I’m thankful that neither of us has had the wealth of experience of disasters-in-progress that you have!

PC: I remember filling sandbags there during the Great Midwest Flood of 1993, when I was nine. I remember the pizzas that someone delivered to the crews filling sandbags. That was an early taste of disaster solidarity.

SC: Pizza: the quintessential disaster food! What we both can say, though, is that a tornado 80 years ago had a profound impact on our family. Lucille Brewer Cox was my grandmother, Paul’s great-grandmother, and she was among 203 people killed by the Gainesville, Georgia tornado of April 6, 1936. It struck downtown in the middle of a business day. Lucille was working in a department store on the town square. My grandfather had a ground-coffee business just off the square. The tornado left him buried under sacks of coffee beans, which protected him from falling debris. He dragged himself out and ran over where Lucille’s store had been, and, tragically, recognized her shoes protruding from the rubble.

The catastrophe struck a population that was struggling to survive the Great Depression. So everyone in town went through severe times. But it was also the height of New Deal optimism. President Roosevelt visited twice, and his administration set out to make Gainesville an example of government as a positive force. Reconstruction aid poured in, and the town gained a lasting reputation as a vigorous, progressive city.

The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton spoke of a loss of belief in the future among survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, as the nuclear arms race grew to threaten the entire planet, generalized this response to include all of us. How do you feel now that you know intimately what so many still living in non-disaster bubbles “know” only by watching videos and reading newspapers? I ask this with a view towards the ultra-right presidency of Donald Trump, with his troupe of oil executives and climate-change naysayers.

PC: I don’t think we know that much more than people watching videos and reading newspapers.

I’m amazed to hear you say that.

PC: Reporters and videographers are good at communicating pain, and disasters are among their most powerful material. If someone can see all that pain and rationalize their way out of being affected, I don’t think it’s because they haven’t seen something that we’ve seen.

We write about various forms of rationalization, and about something like a loss of belief in the future, but that doesn’t always look the way you expect. Take the idea of resilience—which has been spectacularly popular in recent years. The resilience doctrine rationalizes that disaster is inherent in everything, and that the most people can hope for is to get better at bouncing back. At heart this attitude has little to promise for the future.

This discourse has been thoroughly critiqued, and we join that critique. But the resilience doctrine is really the stuff of global neoliberal governance, of UN conferences and development cooperation regimes. You could say it’s the sort of “globalist” project that the Clintons were accused of furthering.

The election happened in the middle of this conversation with you, Chellis, and we felt it like an earthquake. Or maybe it was more like a forest fire; the fuel had been building up for many years. Up until Election Day, we thought our biggest worries were well-intentioned international initiatives that would actually make life worse or be band-aids on the catastrophes of climate change. We were concerned about an abundance of optimism that says climatic disaster can be endured if our economies just keep growing.

Astonishing—and yet denial does help people feel better.

PC: Now it feels like we were the ones in denial! We wrote in the book that climate change optimism would be “what we will have to worry about when we don’t have to worry about climate-change denial anymore.” As it turns out, we still have to worry about it—and also about resurgent zero-sum nationalism, triumphant oligarchies, and fascism. We face a lack of regard for common humanity that’s based on forthright racism.

SC: We set out to share stories of communities on the front lines of the ecological crisis in hopes of influencing US citizens and our government’s policies. But far too many people don’t want to hear about anyone’s predicament but their own—enough of them to make the November 8 political temper tantrum succeed. Those angry Americans had no regard for the consequences to be suffered by vulnerable people and communities here or elsewhere.

The rest of the world has pledged to carry the Paris climate agreement forward without the US, but even if they do fulfill their emissions commitments, under the agreement those commitments would still allow warming of 2.7 to 3.5 degrees Celsius, which in itself would trigger planet-wide catastrophe. The past couple of years have shown that unforeseen political and social change can come suddenly and dramatically, and that’s certainly what we’re going to need now—but in the opposite direction.

PC:“Sudden and dramatic” are also the qualities that make a disaster a disaster, as distinct from the general, slower trend of climate change. And there is often a hope expressed that if a disaster comes along that’s just bad enough, it will shock societies into transformation. Please understand that it’s not what we are hoping for: we are anti-disaster! Besides, the scholarship on possible links between disasters and political change is tentative about shocks causing positive change. If we can draw a conclusion from our research, it is this: when positive change happens in the aftermath of a disaster, it’s because the people affected are ready for change and have the power to see it through.

SC: Until there is deep political and economic transformation to roll back climate change, communities like the ones we wrote about will keep paying the price. Remedies we put forward—like a fund to protect people in the global South from the disastrous impact of the North’s carbon dioxide—had no chance in the political world that existed even before November 8. But we weren’t devising a political strategy; we were saying, “Look, this is what it would take to deal with coming disasters. We have to talk about what’s necessary, not just what politicians and corporations will accept today.“

Likewise with emissions reduction. We have to insist that the only way to head off climate catastrophe is to eliminate fossil-fuel burning on a timetable much more rapid than Paris’s. Now, in this toxic political atmosphere, many on our side will stop discussing that necessity and seek small compromises instead.

Is there anything that heartens you?

SC: Yes. I’m heartened by declarations from cities and states around the world that commit to forging ahead on climate, no matter what Washington does. That, and a lot of rebellious political activity, will have to do for now.

This article was first posted on Alternet.

Chellis Glendinning is the author of seven books, including “Chiva: A Village Takes On the Global Heroin Trade.”

How the world breaks: Life in catastrophe’s path, from the Caribbean to Siberia is published by New Press and available here.

How radical municipalism can go beyond the local

 Municipalism

by the Symbiosis Research Collective

Climate change, global finance, the neoliberal state: today’s crises require action on a big scale. And yet fighting for local democracy is – perhaps counter-intuitively – the best chance we’ve got.

Throughout this series, we’ve argued that the best way to address today’s ecological, social, and political crises is to get people together where they live and work to provide resources that people need – eventually building up an alternative political and economic system that can replace the present, failing system. We need to build a democratic, just, and ecological world in the shell of the old.

In the previous installment, we argued that organising on the level of the neighborhood, town, and city is the most strategic approach to this today.

The rise of loneliness worldwide, the centrality of real estate speculation for global economic growth, and the breakdown of many large-scale factories that helped to bring workers together mean that we have to rethink the ways we demand change.

We can build community and force elites to listen to our demands at the same time. Radical municipalism is a project to take direct democratic control over the places where we live.

When we talk to people about this strategy, the same kinds of questions often come up. In this article, we highlight three common criticisms. Each one of them revolves around the complaint that radical municipalism is too local: it can’t deal with the ‘big stuff’.

1. Because of climate change, we don’t have time

Any call for a long-term vision for social change begs the response: the urgency of the present moment means we don’t have the time for the slow work of neighbourhood-level organising.

Impending climate disruption is a ticking time-bomb. Every year we delay will make the future worse. And as a global phenomenon, it takes immediate global action. Strategically, this argument goes, we’re better off pushing our leaders to take strong stances on climate change.

The situation is so dire that the progressive environmentalist website Grist and the socialist magazine Jacobin are publishing pieces asking us to seriously consider geo-engineering and scaling up nuclear energy – all in a bid to give us more time.

For many, the problem of climate change can only be addressed with big stuff: international agreements, renewable and nuclear energy on a massive scale, geo-engineering schemes that involve changing planetary weather systems.

Working with your neighbours doesn’t mean giving up on national electoral politics. It’s all part of the same strategy: building local democracy is the necessary ingredient for taking on the state.

This kind of response is understandable, but puts the cart before the horse. Without a coherent counter-power to corporate control over government, we have no chance of forcing policy into accordance with the public good. We’re relying on the assumption that leaders are kind enough to listen, and that they by themselves have the power to implement needed reforms.

Feet to the fire

Even if we elect the most principled people to power, and even if all politicians were to realise that it’s in their own interest to do everything they can to stop climate change through a ‘Green New Deal’, the system would still be dead against them. You can’t beg a system dependent on extraction, endless growth, and exploitation to change its ways. A systemic restructuring the economy is necessary to stop the ecological crisis.

What is clear is that those in power—the CEOs, the shareholders, the bankers, and the politicians that implement their laws—would suffer greatly from necessary action on climate change.

Government debts would need to be cancelled, the most powerful industries would need to be phased out. Production would need to be reordered along democratic lines, putting people and planet before profit. No matter what, we will still need the kind of popular power that hasn’t been seen in generations to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. It took the combined threats of national collapse, socialist revolution, and a massive workers movement during the Great Depression to get the New Deal. This kind of people power needs to be organized neighborhood by neighborhood, workplace by workplace.

Every step we take towards dual power and democracy from below puts us in a better position to force the hands of government. Extracting concessions from the state and building a new political system from the ground up aren’t opposing strategies—they should go hand in hand.

Climate change and the right to the city

There’s a second answer to this objection. The fight for the right to the city is the fight for climate justice. For example, research on São Paolo in Brazil shows that the fight for affordable housing is a fight against climate change, even if poor people’s movements don’t speak in those terms.

Making the center of the city accessible for everyone to live in and building social and cooperative housing reduces carbon impact. Urban social issues like transit justice are key components of moving beyond fossil fuels. By making the places where we live more equal and democratic, we’re simultaneously fighting for a greener future.

In fact, we’re already seeing that cities and towns with strong social movements are at the forefront of radical and innovative responses to climate change.

What’s more, they’re starting to work together to provide a common front to demand change on national and international scales—the Global Covenant for Mayors for Climate and Energy is already a force to be reckoned with in international climate talks. And cities globally are leading the fight to take the fossil fuel industry to task, even suing them for contributing to climate disasters.

All this comes down to the fact that we can’t actually make the necessarily large-scale changes without taking control over the places where we live and creating the alternatives necessary for a new system. It’s precisely these alternatives that force the hand of the state to act on climate change. They organize people power and show how things could be done otherwise.

In other words, radical municipalism is the best investment against climate change: our power together forces our leaders to act and buys us time, all the while developing a new ecological social order that can replace capitalism.

2. Local activism can’t address global capitalism

A common response to those who work to mobilise their neighbours and create local democracy is that localism can’t scale up. It’s always just stuck back-pedaling, unable to actually change the large-scale problems like predatory trade deals, foreign takeovers, the capacity of finance to make or break whole countries—the stuff that really shapes national decision-making.

Often, these same people argue that, to break out of this pattern, we need to engage with the big players. So they form think tanks, lobby groups, NGOs, and new media platforms, showing up to climate negotiations year after year and putting pressure on politicians through endless petitions. For them, the most important agents of change are well-worded policy briefs, expensive conferences, powerpoint presentations, and 40-page reports.

The key actors of social change aren’t think-tanks or lobby groups: they’re people, and people live and work somewhere. This kind of critique often forgets the fact that all successful international movements of the past were also intensely local.

For example, the labour movements of the 19th and 20th centuries were able to make demands of governments because they were so embedded in people’s day-to-day lives. Historically, unions weren’t just at the workplace; they ran dance halls, classes, cafeterias, and sports leagues.

It was only by broadening their reach to every aspect of life that unions were able to become indispensable to working class communities. This made it possible for them to organise effective strikes and, eventually, mount a significant challenge to their bosses and the state. It’s regular people that are the actors of world-historical changes.

What some people deride as ‘localism’ is actually the very foundation of transformative change.

A plan of action

That said, we shouldn’t forget that, without a long-term vision, a coherent plan of action, and trans-local alliances, every local movement is doomed to become a relic in the town museum.

Keep in mind that capitalism works at scale. That’s the genius of it. Stop one development in your neighbourhood, and investors just move their money elsewhere. Take on giants like Amazon, and they’ll just move to another city. So, in that sense, we agree that local action, on its own, will always fail.

This is why, for radical municipalism to be successful, it requires collaboration at higher level. This July, the Fearless Cities Summit in New York City will bring together municipalist movements around the world to share resources and action plans.

In our own work as Symbiosis, we hope to bring together radical municipalist movements from across North America to form a democratically run network of community organizations that can coordinate strategy beyond the local.

Confederation

In the short term, these kinds of movements are already proving to be a challenge to big corporations. In Seattle, the city council passed a law that would tax big companies like Amazon—money which would then go into subsidies for affordable housing. In Barcelona, the city is turning AirBnB apartments into social housing. Only local, democratic, and people-based movements can force politicians to bring transnational corporations to task. What we need to do now is learn from each other’s victories and work together to scale them up.

In the long term, a system of dual power would transform into what we call communalism or democratic confederalism: an allied network of interdependent communes or regions that work together in a directly democratic way.

On the local level, the neighbourhood assembly makes the decisions and decides the course of action. On a bigger level, these organisations band together in what is called a confederation: a body of recallable delegates with imperative mandates, directly accountable to their communities.

This body would allow communes to exchange resources, support each other, and make democratic decisions. Without this kind of networking, collaboration, and interdependence across borders, local movements are just that: local, isolated, and doomed to fail, again and again. But through international confederation, we can pose a real threat to global capitalism and the ruling class.

3. We can only make real change by taking over the state

For many, the state is the best vehicle for action to fight the major systemic problems of climate chaos, finance capital running amok, and global inequality.

Further, with the growing popularity of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, now seems like a bad time to redirect energy away from national politics. After all, conservative movements thrive off of voter apathy. If you ignore elections, then you cede the ground to the welfare-bashing, poor-blaming, and racist right.

How should radical municipalist movements engage with the state? First, it’s important to reframe the debate away from “should we try to take state power?”.

We’re trying to build democratic institutions that can, in the present, extract concessions from the state. These will inevitably exist within the current (statist) system and leverage available (state) institutions and resources toward that goal.

Eventually, these new institutions will form an ecosystem of dual power that can force a crisis within the state and dissolve its powers into confederal direct democracy. This is not a contradiction, it’s just to acknowledge that the state has embedded itself into almost every aspect of our lives and can’t be abolished in a day.

This process would amount to a fundamental restructuring of the public sphere, from a state—instruments of coercive violence under the control of a ruling class—into a democratic commons, a government from below.

Rewire its institutions

In the meantime, however, we can grow our movement through struggle for important expansions of the public sphere (social spending, halting carbon emissions, public transit) and drawdowns on the most socially and ecologically destructive features of the state (the police, the military, prisons, border security, surveillance).

As we gain greater power to extract concessions from the state through new institutions of communal democratic life, we can use strategic policy changes to improve our position. Non-reformist reforms like nationalized healthcare, job guarantee programs, and public childcare can enable more working-class people to participate in neighborhood organizing and movement work. Putting public funds into cooperative development, social housing, public banking, and participatory budgeting can speed along our transition to a democratic economy. With the support of municipal governments, solidarity economy initiatives developed in our communities can be dramatically expanded. Most importantly, we can secure radical changes to city charters that restructure political authority into direct rule by citizens through confederated community councils and assemblies.

It is never enough to simply “take the state” and wield it as a tool to reshape society, for the state is not a neutral institution to be held by one class or another. At a structural level, the state exists to enforce the will of a ruling elite, who make decisions on our behalf. Even if we replace horrible capitalist ones with working-class representatives of our own, we haven’t assured that the will of the public is governing society, for the public is not itself in power. Empowering ordinary people to have control over our collective future requires fundamentally transforming the way governance works.

This is why building power from below outside of the state is so essential. The mass organization of community councils, assemblies, tenant unions, labor unions, and cooperatives is what can (through its own growth) force governing elites to make the reforms we need right now, while creating the conditions for a more revolutionary restructuring of society.

It’s clear that we can’t depend on an electoral strategy alone to put these ideas into practice. Elections are an important platform to spread ideas and implement our program, but only vibrant social movements can actually hold elected representatives accountable.

What kinds of policies would a radical municipalist movement put on their electoral platform, if they had one? In each case, it helps to ask: how does this policy build popular power? What institutions can we strengthen through public policy to better hold the state accountable?

No matter what the state does, however, it’s crucial that people practice doing politics themselves. Building these kinds of institutions is the antidote to apathy and encourages civic engagement. Through this broader strategy of dual power from the neighborhood on up, we can effectively challenge the state and, at the same time, rewire its institutions—already running through every aspect of our lives—into something new.

Turning local action into global power

It’s easy to criticise everything under the sun as insufficient, not good enough. Organising in your own neighbourhood can sometimes feel distant from the important stuff happening around the world.

But while local action alone is not enough, organising should still be a part of people’s everyday lives: it should be place-based. Fighting for affordable housing means fighting climate change.

Taking on AirBnB or Amazon in your city means struggling against corporate control over politics. Working with your neighbours doesn’t mean giving up on national electoral politics. It’s all part of the same strategy: building local democracy is the necessary ingredient for challenging the ruling class’s grip on government.

How can we solidify these distant, local actions into an intentional power that can take on state, corporate, and global powers? Through learning from each other, networking, forming alliances, and, eventually, confederating. Without a democratic politics of scale, we’ll just stay stuck in the local.

In the next installment of this column, we’ll discuss another common objection—one that has become more and more pressing. Can radical municipalism avoid what we call ‘dark municipalism’: the rise of a fascist or reactionary localist movement that seeks to protect only its own and expel anyone who doesn’t fit the norm.

This article was originally published 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. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev. This article was written by Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi) with contributions by Mason Herson-Hord (@mason_h2).

August 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 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.

The summer has been slow, and we haven’t been publishing much. But the fall promises some exciting new initiatives, so stay in the loop. We received some feedback that our list just has too much good stuff. How to read it all? To address this, we’ll now start highlighting our top 5 must-reads for the month. Skip all the rest if you must, these are worth reading surreptitiously at the office.

This month, we invited Anthony Galluzzo to offer some of his favorite readings. He is an adjunct professor at New York University, specializing in 19th century literature and the history of utopia.

 

Anthony Galluzzo’s links

The editors at Uneven Earth asked me to collect those readings that stood out from August 2018. Both my recent work and political convictions focus on potential intersections between Marxism and the degrowth movement in the service of a decelerationist program. This puts me in what feels like a very lonely position these days, when much of the Anglo-American left, from social democratic near to sectarian Marxist far, is once again enamored of Prometheanism of various sorts—accelerationism, fully automated luxury communism, and “left” eco-modernism”—all of which can be subsumed under the rubric of Jetsonism.

Eco-modernism is largely the provenance of techno-utopian libertarians, associated with outfits like the Breakthrough Institute, whose adherents propose large-scale and scientifically dubious technological solutions to the climate crisis, such as geoengineering, the better to safeguard specifically capitalist patterns of ecologically ruinous and exploitative “growth.” Why would self-described socialists and communists push such a thing? We should not underestimate the dangerous marriage of ossified dogma—regarding the development of the forces of production—and puerile sci-fi fantasy—about weather control and terraforming Mars and building Star Trek—that we often find among many of today’s extremely online toy Bolsheviks.

Arctic fire. Richard Seymour offers a moving and powerful rejoinder to the ecomodernists, including various flavors of Jetsonian leftists, who minimize the ecological crisis in promoting unlikely technological “solutions” to anthropogenic global warming in lieu of a radical socio-ecological transformation (such as ecosocialist degrowth). These Jetsonians preach “anti-catastrophism” against the “hairshirts” in the midst of an actual catastrophe—all the while dreaming of how they’ll beam themselves up to some fully automated luxury Martian retreat—a socialist one of course! Against this dangerous whiggery, I say: if you aren’t a catastrophist, you aren’t a comrade.

Major plan to deal with climate change by geoengineering the Earth would not work, scientists reveal and Rain dancing 2.0′: should humans be using tech to control the weather? Speaking of “unlikely technological solutions” or schemes designed to protect capital’s growth imperative rather than our dying biosphere, precautionary principle be damned, geo-engineering and the interests that are driving it have come under scrutiny of late.

Also see the enduring nuclear boondoggle, even as various ecomodernist voices on the left are pushing it as THE solution to the energy crisis, once again: Scientists assessed the options for growing nuclear power. They are grim; and an older, but still relevant, piece on this matter: Socialists debate nuclear, 4: A green syndicalist view.

To freeze the Thames and If you want to save the world, veganism isn’t the answer. Troy Vatese offers an alternative model of decarbonization through what he calls “natural geoengineering”: rewilding farm land through a program of “compulsory veganism” in order to effect hemispheric cooling along the lines of the little ice age. But what if veganism, with its reliance on industrial farmed monocrops, such as soy, is part of the problem, as organic farmer Isabella Tree argues?

Artificial saviors. And speaking of Jetsonism, this essay on Silicon Valley solutionism, transhumanism, and techno-utopianism—by radical computer scientist tante—as theology is right on the mark, as is the entire special issue of boundary 2, “On The Digital Turn,” from which it comes.

The belly of the revolution: Agriculture, energy, and the future of communism and Logistics, counterlogistics and the communist prospect. Jasper Bernes’s critical appraisal of (capitalist) logistics and supply chains in Endnotes 3 is one of the more rigorous left communist explorations of the way our megatechnics embed exploitation and the capitalist value form in their very architectures, against those who argue for socialist or eco-socialist “repurposing.” Bernes grapples directly with the ecological crisis—and the central questions of energy and agriculture—in this latest essay, as he marries critical Luddism to ecocommunist critique.

Losing Earth, Capitalism killed our climate momentum, and How not to talk about climate change. Nathan Rich’s informative 70+ page NYT investigative piece “Losing Earth” on the failed attempt to stop climate change on the part of various US government scientists and policy-makers in the late 70s and 80s is just as notable for what it leaves out: the role of capitalism and its growth imperative.

Plastic straws and the coming collapse. In the same way that magical techno-solutions to the ecological crisis are a morbid symptom—weaponized wishful thinking—so too is the ethical consumerism most recently exemplified by the campaign against plastic straws, as Rhyd Wildermuth demonstrates in her piece.

Richard Powers: ‘We’re completely alienated from everything else alive’ and The king of climate fiction makes the Left’s case for geoengineering. At this point, I will take Richard Powers over Kim Stanley Robinson—despite Aurora’s definitive imaginative crystallization of the anti-Promethean position—who, drunk on his more ridiculous techno-fantasies, equates geoengineering and the ecomodernist fantasia with “science.” Powers, on the other hand, implicitly understands that a radically different set of eco-social relations is the only adequate way to begin devising a collective solution to our predicament.

 

Uneven Earth updates

Pulling the magical lever | Link | A critical analysis of techno-utopian imaginaries

The social ideology of the motorcar | Link | This 1973 essay on how cars have taken over our cities remains as relevant as ever

 

Top 5 articles to read

Engineering the climate could cost us the earth, by Gareth Dale. “Do leftist geoengineering fans pray that, in a cunning of chemistry, the molecular forces that bind CO2 will weaken under a socialist order, easing its capture?”

Eugene Odum: The father of modern ecology

The 2018 flood in Kerala is only a gentle warning. It will not be enough for us to rue the past, writes Arundhati Roy

What happened in the dark: Puerto Rico’s year of fighting for power.

Building the future. Innovative municipal projects are tackling local housing problems worldwide.

 

News you might’ve missed

Samir Amin has died. Don’t know who he was? Read Death of a Marxist, by Vijay Prashad and Revolution and the Third World, an interview with Ali Kadri.

Scientists warn the UN of capitalism’s imminent demise

New report warns dire climate warnings not dire enough.

Land grabbing companies becoming more powerful than countries

Platform Cooperativism Consortium awarded $1 million grant. “We talked to these 2,000 Uber drivers in Cape Town who wanted to drop out and start a platform co-op, we talked with trash pickers in the informal economy in Cairo, Egypt. There is no trash collection there and so through the Coptic Church these people get organized and want to start a platform where people can order trash pick-ups from them, and they would get paid for them.”

Community vs. company: A tiny town in Ecuador battles a palm oil giant

 

New politics

Rojava: frontline of capital’s war on the environment

What has caused the number of US worker co-ops to nearly double?

Should rivers have rights? A growing movement says it’s about time

What is democratic confederalism?

The 1.5 Generation. My generation is radically remaking climate activism. Will it be enough?

 

Radical municipalism

“The price on everything is love”: How a Detroit community overcomes a lack of city services. A range of neighbor-to-neighbor efforts address basic needs, from healthcare to food access, that are going unmet by local government agencies.

How do you build a new society, from local places, in the shadow of the old? Symbiosis Collective shows one way

These democratic socialists aren’t just targeting incumbent politicians. They’re going after slumlords and real-estate speculators.

How marginalized communities are getting control over development

Tenant organizing is picking up steam in Rochester

Public land is a feminist issue. Community housing groups across London are putting women and non-binary people at the forefront of their plans for building affordable housing.

Four reasons to consider co-housing and housing cooperatives for alternative living

Small and shared vs McMansions and slums? Degrowth housing experiments demonstrate a different future.

A call for socialists to connect the dots between housing, racial, migrant justice, and climate change.

 

Where we’re at: analysis

The lure of elections: From political power to popular power. “You don’t need the excuse of canvassing for a politician to knock on your neighbor’s door; you don’t need to cast a vote to influence an election; and we don’t need a campaign rally to advance our vision for a better world.”

Medicalizing society. The rise of psychiatry was funded by America’s Gilded Age industrialists. Their aim: to cast society’s ills as problems of individual “mental health.”

Ecomodernism and nuclear power: No solution for climate change. In ‘Energy: A Human History,’ Richard Rhodes trivializes the dangers of nuclear power and plunges into the abyss of ecomodernist technobabble.

How green groups became so white and what to do about it

Exiting the anthropocene and entering the symbiocene

Who really pulls the strings? The director of Global Witness asks who really is responsible for corruption and extractive industry crimes.

World poverty: capitalism’s crime against humanity

Only radicalism can prevent an irreversible “Hothouse Earth”

“Hothouse Earth” co-author: The problem is neoliberal economics

 

What is enough? On waste and sufficiency

A sufficiency vision for an ecologically constrained world.

Human waste is a terrible thing to waste. If major global cities repurposed human waste as crop fertilizer, it could slash fertilizer imports in some countries by more than half.

Almost everything you know about e-waste is wrong

The ugly truth of ugly produce by Phat Beets collective.

In India’s largest city, a ban on plastics faces big obstacles

 

Just think about it…

“Deindustrialization”: a word you virtually never hear in the debate around global warming. A call for public discussion of the role of deindustrialization in building an alternative to the catastrophic course of 21st century capitalism.

‘Eco-grief’ over climate change felt by generations of British Columbians

There is nothing green or sustainable about mega-dams like the Belo Monte

On the labor of animals. The place of animals in relation to left movements.

Bitcoin shows the scale of change needed to stop the climate crisis. The cryptocurrency produces as much CO2 a year as a million transatlantic flights – and that number is set to grow.

Why all fiction should be climate fiction: A conversation with Lauren Groff

How ‘natural geoengineering’ can help slow global warming. By preserving top predators to control populations of herbivores, we can limit grazing, which reduces CO2 absorbed by ecosystems.

Even the smallest urban green spaces can have a big impact on mental health

The 1680 Pueblo Revolt is about Native Resistance. As Pueblo People, how do we develop a common political consciousness around our unique history and present situation? The first step  is looking at the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and understanding its significance.

Meet the companies that are trying to profit from global warming

Science alone won’t save the world. People have to do that.

Imagining a world with no bullshit jobs

 

Resources

22 noteworthy food and farming books for summer reading

Seaside reads to change the world. 300 reads on topics ranging from social change, individual action, and new economy to women and feminism, collected and compiled by Lucy Feibusch and Kate Raworth.

The book Indigenous and decolonizing studies in education, edited by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Eve Tuck, and K. Wayne Yang is now available to read for free online.

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

Pulling the magical lever

Image: Pixabay

by Rut Elliot Blomqvist

Ideas about the importance of the imagination in an age of political and ecological crisis are popping up everywhere: in the arts, in activism and other forms of politics, and in a wide range of academic disciplines and fields. This blog is one example.

In addition to creative efforts to imagine other futures, we also need critical analyses of such visions. This is because imaginative responses to crises cover a broad spectrum of politics and worldviews—and even our dreams of a better future can be constrained by the political structure and ideologies of the present. A critical approach to utopian imaginaries is essential for any rethinking of political futures; without it, we risk being trapped in the same old stories even as we see ourselves as thinking outside the old story box.

Even our dreams of a better future can be constrained by the political structure and ideologies of the present.

In this essay, I discuss one category of future visions: techno-utopianism. There are plenty of techno-utopian fiction and nonfiction stories to choose from. Three that have caught my attention and that have some interesting similarities and differences are British campaigner and lobbyist Jonathon Porritt’s design fiction book The world we made, futurist Jacque Fresco’s The Venus project, and the movement for Fully Automated Luxury Communism.

To see how viable these visions are, I’ll analyze their narrative and argumentative logic and also connect the basic assumptions in these visions to the modernization hypothesis—the idea that human history is a process of evolution towards modernity through economic development and technological progress. Several schools of thought in the critical social sciences have emerged in reaction to this widespread conviction about progress. World-systems theory is one of them, and it retells the story of modernization (or of ‘the modern world system’) by taking the colonial expansion of Western Europe as a starting point. This expansion wasn’t driven by some automatic force of modernization but by the accumulation of resources in privileged areas and the consequent impoverishment of peripheries. This perspective should lead us to ask whether institutions and artefacts that are often taken for granted in attempts to reimagine politics—like the technologies that are central in techno-utopianism—are compatible with or inimical to environmental sustainability and social justice.

With this critical perspective in mind, we will now turn to the three stories and their connections to political movements.

The World We Made: Alex McKay’s Story from 2050

Jonathon Porritt, a British environmentalist with a background in the UK Green Party and Friends of the Earth, has written a 300-page design fiction imagining concrete steps from the year 2014 to an imagined sustainable future in 2050. Design fiction aims to inspire new forms of design and engineering (and sometimes also political policy), and its possible functions in relation to environmental issues  are currently being investigated by researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.

Porritt’s report from the future, which is divided into sections of a few pages each, is permeated by a positive rhetoric that emphasizes solutions and does not linger on conflicts. He motivates this in the postscript by stating that ‘yet more tales of doom and gloom are not going to make a difference’ (p. 275). Where ecological and political crises are acknowledged—for instance concerning droughts and mass protests in the once abundant Fertile Crescent (pp. 22-27), or issues with profit maximization (pp. 54-57)—the story always moves on to hopeful conclusions about how a united world comes to its senses and decides to act in the nick of time. The narrator Alex McKay, a male community college teacher in an unspecified anglophone country (presumably the UK), writes in the preface to the report that humanity has found ‘a renewed sense of purpose as a family of nations’ (p. 1). The book conceptualizes the agent of historical change, or the protagonist in a story of action for sustainability, as an abstract, united humanity which realizes its potential for goodness and acts through the existing political institutions of the 2010s. In terms of political change, we just need the general public to protest a bit (pp. 32-36) and ‘get today’s political classes to think beyond the next election’ (p. 275). Other institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, large corporations, and powerful industries—not to mention the underlying institutions of money and industrial technology, artefacts that are presented as natural phenomena and barely subject to cultural analysis—are conveniently tamed or turn out to work for the common good. This is emblematic of a tendency in many accounts of climate change (and is a central point of disagreement in the debate over the concept of the Anthropocene): to imagine a generalized human ‘we’ as first the villain causing climate change and environmental degradation and then the chastened hero who takes responsibility for the situation.

His wish to stay away from ‘doom and gloom’ means that he also stays away from a rigorous analysis of the political and ecological crises of the present.

In doing so, The World We Made fails to analyze the complex, intertwined political and economic causes behind global environmental change, climate change, global inequity, and the lack of transformative action in current political institutions. This is at least partly due to Porritt’s choice of rhetorical strategy. His wish to stay away from ‘doom and gloom’ means that he also stays away from a rigorous analysis of the political and ecological crises of the present. Consequently, as a work of fiction The World We Made can be criticized for poor characterization of both protagonists and antagonists and the lack of a coherent explanatory backstory. The cultural and material motivations of those who participate in ecological destruction and the exploitation of other people are absent, as are explanations for how institutions that are inimical to sustainability suddenly turn out to be useful tools for political change. To compare this to another well-known narrative in speculative fiction, it is as if Boromir in The Lord of the Rings were hailed for his brilliant idea of using the One Ring to do good and then everyone goes with him to Minas Tirith, they win the war with hardly any bloodshed—Sauron accepting to keep financial profits and slavery at a minimum—and the ominous aura surrounding the Ring turns out to be a stupid doom and gloom thing which luckily no one bought into.

The proposed solutions to ecological and political crises in Porritt’s design fiction take the form of leaps of faith—often faith in technology as a kind of magic—based on best-case scenarios. As six years have passed since The World We Made was published, some of those best-case scenarios have been literally disproven. The most absurd example is the contrast between Porritt’s imagined reformist and peaceful outcome of the Arab Spring (p. 22) and today’s situation with the Syrian civil war, ISIS, the political crisis in Libya after Gaddafi was ousted, enforced EU borders and the EU deal with Turkey to keep refugees out, and so on. To this criticism we can add a world-system understanding of the ‘green’ technologies which Porritt sees as our global salvation (pp. 15-21, 274-275): since industrial technologies in the past have been built on the exploitation of resources and labour in impoverished peripheries, we have no reason to believe that a non-exploitative force of technological progress will suddenly kick in and modernize us all out of this mess. As I will return to towards the end of this essay, these technologies need to be analyzed in connection to their role in the world system as a whole and not only on the basis of the local benefits they offer the people who control them.

The Venus Project

If there are tendencies to view technologies as magic in Porritt’s thinking, it is nothing compared to what is presented in the political vision of the Venus Project. The project was founded by futurist Jacque Fresco and is an important source of inspiration in some environmentalist circles.

The Venus Project is described on the website as ‘a single man’s vision of the future where war is obsolete, there’s no lack of resources, and our focus as a species is global sustainability and the preservation of the environment.’ The key to this is the progress of modern technology. In Fresco’s vision, humanity will use ‘the latest scientific and technological marvels’ to ‘reach extremely high productivity levels and create abundance of resources.’ The scientific method will guarantee progress in all areas, from energy to social relations. In an interview in The New American, Fresco explains how:

  ‘Nobody makes decisions in the Venus Project, they arrive at them,’ Fresco said. For example, a soil sample would go to ‘Central Agriculture’, which would analyze it, and make a determination as to what the best crop to grow in that soil would be. ‘We intend to use surveys to arrive at decisions rather than make decisions.’

This objective scientific analysis will unleash the full force of technological progress. It will give us clean nuclear power through the development of Thorium reactors. We can also expect a system of fully automated construction with gigantic 3D printers building everything humans need. We will live in circular cities planned and managed by computers and organised around a ‘central dome or theme center’ housing ‘the core of the cybernated system, … computerized communications, networking systems’ (which is reminiscent of the utopian tradition of imagining the ideal city). There will be permanent space stations, serving as gravity-free research environments and supplying information about the earth’s ecological status to the supercomputers which run human society. The complex transportation system of the united planetary civilization will include hovercars, hovering conveyors called transveyors replacing other vehicles in cities, and hovering aircraft ‘controlled by electro-dynamic means eliminating the need for ailerons, elevators, rudders, spoilers, flaps or any other mechanical controls.’

If the scientific method and technological progress are the heroes of Fresco’s story, the main villain is money. In an interview on the website of the Venus Project, Fresco says that he can’t see peace and equity happening ‘in a monetary-based system where the richest nations control most of the world’s resources.’ The proposed alternative is a ‘Resource Based Economy’ in which ‘all goods and services are available to all people without the need for means of exchange such as money, credits, barter or any other means.’ It will be achieved through the application of the scientific method and the declaration of all resources ‘as the common heritage of all Earth’s inhabitants.’

There doesn’t seem to be any need for rigorous arguments supporting the ability of technology to create resources or in other ways transcend the laws of physics. As a result, the Venus Project’s imagined technologies are a lot like the Star Trek Replicator: a machine creating matter out of pure energy, where neither the source of this energy nor the way the machine works is defined.

The term for this type of science fiction world-building, where no effort is made to prove the feasibility or viability of future technologies, is soft science fiction.

The term for this type of science fiction world-building, where no effort is made to prove the feasibility or viability of future technologies, is soft science fiction. On the pop-culture site tvtropes.org, soft science fiction is illustrated by how it would explain time travel: ‘You sit in this seat, set the date you want, and pull that lever.’ Techno-utopianism, it seems, is soft science fiction: you pull the lever of technological progress and post-scarcity comes about. In Global Magic: Technologies of Appropriation from Ancient Rome to Wall Street, the anthropologist and political ecologist Alf Hornborg describes this as a form of fetishism; he argues that ‘technology is our own [modern] version of magic’ as it is ‘widely imagined to have autonomous agency’. He also contends that this fetishism ‘serves to mystify social relations of exchange’. Only by disassociating modern technology from global relations of exchange, and viewing it as a quasi-living thing which can act and has a purpose in itself, can we conceive of globalized technologies as creating wealth rather than accumulating it for the few.

Fresco’s vision relies entirely on a fetishized conceptualization of technology and a disassociation of ‘technological marvels’ from the system of exchange which he sees as a root cause of injustice and environmental destruction. This is made possible by his viewing money as a social institution but technology as a natural—or even supernatural and magical—force. This ambiguous attitude to modern institutions, with a critique of modern political economy and a celebration of modern science and technology, makes the Venus Project a fascinating techno-utopian vision to study. Maybe Fresco’s critique of money can still be useful for environmentalist movement building?

Further research on similar political visions and the opinions of Fresco’s followers suggests otherwise: it seems Fresco’s cabalistic critique of the monetary system he would overthrow lends itself to conspiracy theories. The Zeitgeist Project, created by Peter Joseph, one of Fresco’s most passionate disciples, is a telling example. Peter Joseph has made three Zeitgeist films covering issues of debt, interest, and how banks create money—and affirming the conspiracy theory that the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks were an inside job. And that’s not the only connection between the Venus Project and conspiracy theories. In Sweden, where I live, many who swear allegiance to Fresco’s vision are involved in the movement Vaken (Awake) which believes in a number of conspiracy theories and is based on the idea that only a small group of spiritually enlightened people can access an ‘esoteric worldview’ and see through these conspiracies. Although neither the Zeitgeist project nor Vaken explicitly talk about banking and money in terms of a Jewish conspiracy, the step is not far from their combination of conspiracy theories and a critique of banking and money to the openly anti-semitic narrative told by many contemporary national socialists and ecofascists.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Source: Novara media

If we leave out the affinities with conspiracy theories, there are striking similarities between Fresco’s vision and the techno-utopian post-scarcity vision of a new trend in (predominantly Anglo-American) leftist thinking: Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC). The two basic premises for this vision are the concept of automation and, instead of Fresco’s critique of money, political change achieved through the seizing of the means of production by the working class.

The productive capacity of technologies is simply taken for granted—you just pull the lever.

In the same soft science fiction manner as in the Venus Project, the productive capacity of technologies is simply taken for granted—you just pull the lever. Aaron Bastani, co-founder of Novara Media and proponent of FALC, states matter-of-factly that ‘[t]here is a tendency in capitalism to automate labor, to turn things previously done by humans into automated functions’. In this same Guardian article, we learn that ‘[t]he ideology [of FALC] springs from a tangle of well-observed trends. Generally, the rate of technological progress and labour productivity is rising, but wages are stagnating and factories are shedding jobs’ (emphasis added). In a similar manner, an article in Forbes contends that ‘[t]he rate of technological progress and worker productivity is on the rise’ and that ‘[r]obots, AI, machine learning, big data, etc. could basically make human labor redundant and instead of creating even further inequalities it could lead to a society where everyone lives in luxury and where machines produce everything.’ In sum: technological progress is a fact, automation is a well-observed trend, and this is stating the obvious. We all know the Earth is not flat; we all know automation is coming and technology creates abundance.

But although ideas about automation and the end of work are spreading in Western and Westernized societies, these trends are in fact not as uncontested as it would sometimes seem. Both empirical research on the industrial energy technologies that are necessary for automation and theoretical analyses of ideas about the end of work and technological progress shed doubt on automation as an unstoppable natural force. I’ll return to the former topic in the next section.

Critical analyses of ideas about automation have been around since the concept began to spread in the 1990s. A central text is George Caffentzis’s ‘The End of Work or the Renaissance of Slavery? A Critique of Rifkin and Negri’ which argues that the ‘“end of work” literature of the 1990s … creates a failed politics because it ultimately tries to convince both friend and foe that, behind everyone’s back, capitalism has ended.’ Caffentzis concludes that this kind of politics is ‘hardly inspiring when millions are still being slaughtered’ by the same processes of accumulation that have supposedly been subverted by the liberatory power of industrial technologies. This analysis recasts so-called labour-saving technology as a tool for the control of labour rather than the liberation of it. In Fossil Capital, Andreas Malm identifies the same logic in the shift to steam power in the British empire: steam engines and fossil fuels were adopted by factory owners not because they saved labour but because they allowed for more efficient control of labour.

But FALC does not simply view technological progress itself as what brings about the end of capitalism—the movement demands socialization of the industrial means of production. In The utopia of rules: On technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy, David Graeber (though he subscribes to anarchist philosophy, not to statist luxury communism) provides a similar argument. He contends that capitalist ownership of the means of production means that automation has been used to save labour-time locally by displacing it to countries where unions are weaker and wages are lower. However, like FALC, he claims that it would be possible to use such machines to liberate labour if the means of production were owned collectively. The question is then whether the local benefits provided by industrial technologies can be made universally available.

The local accumulation of resources in places like Western Europe and North America becomes a universal historical trend of development towards ever more prosperous societies.

When the experience of automation and technological progress in privileged countries is situated in the larger context of the world system, there is reason to doubt this possibility. FALC relies on a Marxist version of the modernization hypothesis. It accepts theories about ‘post-industrial society’ as the stage of development that inevitably follows after industrialization and interprets the decline in domestic industrial production in privileged parts of the world as an indication that all countries can move to a post-industrial stage. The local accumulation of resources in places like Western Europe and North America becomes a universal historical trend of development towards ever more prosperous societies.

But to get a better idea of how feasible the visions of FALC, Fresco, and Porritt are, we need to unpack their ideas about societal production and reproduction. What gives life to these futuristic societies? By means of what energy are they constructed and maintained?

Three perspectives on change, one magical lever

Image: Pixabay

Solar energy is one of the most central animating powers in all three imagined futures. Bastani’s thinking is a case in point:

A world which has completely decarbonised production at some point in the twenty-first century is not the wet dream of tech optimists, but seemingly inevitable when you look at the falling cost of PV and wind technologies as a consequence of experience curves,

and therefore,

‘the idea that the answer to climate change is consuming less energy—that a shift to renewables will necessarily mean a downsizing in life—feels wrong.’

Falling prices and Bastani’s intuitions are the arguments offered for the viability of solar PVs as a replacement for fossil fuels. It is assumed that PVs are a fossil-free and practically unlimited source of energy. Such an assumption relies on the belief that the process of transforming the flow of energy from the sun into an electric current, storing that energy, and putting it to use in industrial production is at least as efficient as (or more efficient than) photosynthesis. This is the dominant view of solar PVs and it has been around at least since the Brundtland report on sustainable development, published in 1987. A contemporary leftist version of it is developed in ‘Solar Communism’ by David Schwartzman. This perspective on solar PVs has traction across the political spectrum.

If we want to create a ‘hard’ science fiction story about a solar-powered future, we would need to base the world-building on something more than vague statements about how abundantly the sun shines on the surface of this planet and how the wonders of technological progress will harvest this energy and create post-scarcity. We should instead consider the net energy that can be derived from solar power—or the energy return on energy invested (EROI). We should trace the sources of the energy that goes into the construction of the technology, and follow supply chains to investigate the resource extraction that is necessary for the construction and maintenance of the technology.

There is plenty of scientific controversy regarding the EROI of photovoltaics. The EROI is commonly calculated to around 11-12 to 1, meaning that you can get 11-12 times as much energy back from PVs as you have put into the construction of them. Some calculations (one article by Ferroni and Hopkirk and one by Ferroni, Gueko, and Hopkirk) suggest the EROI of PVs to be much lower—perhaps even lower than 1 to 1, which would make solar PVs a so-called ‘energy sink’ that costs more energy to construct than you can get in return. By comparison, the first oil fields which fuelled the booming industrial expansion of the 20th century had an EROI of around 100 to 1. (The energy investment amounted to little more than poking the earth with a stick, and the return was a high-energy fuel.)

In addition to the EROI, our hard science fiction story about solar power should include the sites of extraction and processes of refinement of the materials needed for solar panels and batteries (such as silicon, lithium, and rare earth metals). This would indicate that the construction of PVs generates pollution and CO2 emissions and exploits large areas of land somewhere in the world system—generally just not in the backyard of the privileged. A horrible story about one of the central locations in this extraction is told in an article in The Guardian: in Inner Mongolia, ‘China’s second-largest coal producing region, the main global supplier of rare earths and the site of large natural gas supplies’ (emphasis added), traditional Mongolian herders and their sheep are getting sick from pollution and are being displaced. When herders have protested, Malm writes in Fossil Capital, Chinese authorities have cracked down on them brutally, even murdering at least one herder.

Our hard science fiction story about solar power should also factor in that there is no such thing as perfect recycling and that many of the necessary materials are scarce, and hence consider that extraction should be expected to peak very fast in a solar-tech-powered version of present global civilization. This means that a high-tech luxury solar utopia modelled on the energy-intensive lifestyles of privileged groups in the current world system is not feasible. Solar-powered industrial techno-utopias should not be understood as alternatives to the current system but rather, with Hornborg, as ‘an expression of the global processes of capital accumulation which fossil fuels have made possible.’

Looking for non-magical utopias

Such soft science fiction imaginaries of magical sustainability and equity are examples not of a liberated imagination but of an imagination limited by the same fossil-fuel dependent system that it seeks to criticize.

The ideological positions may be very different in Porritt’s pro-capitalist sustainable development thinking, the Venus Project with its critique of money and possible affinities with nazism, and the movement for Fully Automated Luxury Communism, but the device of the fetishized magical lever of solar power (along with other magical industrial technologies) is equally central in all three stories. These techno-utopian imaginaries are constrained by a mainstream view of industrial technology as detached from social relations and resource flows, and the offered visions of the future can thereby conceptualize industrial technology as emancipatory. Such soft science fiction imaginaries of magical sustainability and equity are examples not of a liberated imagination but of an imagination limited by the same fossil-fuel dependent system that it seeks to criticize. Sadly, this means that the three techno-utopian visions that I have discussed here can’t be used as inspiration for the creation of anything but an upper-class gated community sucking out resources and labour from peripheries and keeping the unfortunate poor out. Their putative but ineffectual concern for the wellbeing of all people and all life makes them nice apologetic narratives to turn to for those of us who live in privileged parts of world society.

While there is a need for visions of a better future, these types of techno-utopian imaginaries—regardless of how well-meaning—will ultimately do more harm than good. In the face of current political and ecological crises, it is not comforting or empowering to be told to pull a magical lever. The rise of fascism, expanding neo-colonialism and extractivism, and runaway climate change and mass extinction call for more complex strategies and stories of change.

Rut Elliot Blomqvist is a co-editor at Uneven Earth, a musician and songwriter, and a PhD student at the University of Gothenburg. Elliot’s research explores the intersection between fiction and political theory in utopian and dystopian thinking about global environmental change.

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

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July 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.

For the summer months, we’re doing something a bit different. On top of sharing the usual editors’ picks, we’ve invited two scholars to contribute some of the best readings and resources in their respective fields. For July, political ecologist Salvatore De Rosa is joining us. Check out his list below, and scroll a bit further to find other worthwhile articles selected by us Uneven Earth editors! Oh, and follow our brand new Instagram account.

 

Salvatore’s links

I was asked by Uneven Earth to put together a list of my favorite readings in recent years, during which I deep-dove in Political Ecology and related fields and animated, with the fantastic ENTITLE Collective, a blog of collaborative writing around scholarly and academic takes and issues in Political Ecology.

Admittedly, this list does not follow a structure or predetermined path, rather reflecting my idiosyncrasies, the mutating focus of my interests and the associative links nurtured by a broadly defined interest in human-environment relations and in the eco-political performances of grassroots environmental activism.

Tentacular thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene

Let’s start with heavy thoughtful artillery. There’s a lot of talk on the Anthropocene lately, but few original and genuinely critical takes on the issue. Amazing exception, this piece of Donna Haraway that opens up the Anthropocene narrative and goes forward in thinking its implications towards politically enabling, culturally decentering and vertiginously uplifting connections.

David Rumsey map collection

Are you in search of maps to study, revisit, deconstruct or add to your presentation on spatial imaginaries? Nothing better than the David Rumsey map collection: thousands of maps from all ages, freely downloadable in hi-res.

The next wave of extremists will be green

Leaked documents reveal counterterrorism tactics used at Standing Rock to “defeat pipeline insurgencies”

A theme that has always interested me is the relation between grassroots environmental activism and repressive and delegitimizing techniques implemented by governments against it around the world. To get a sense of how environmental mobilizations from below are increasingly considered a ‘serious’ issue by state, and often a ‘threat’ to national interests, the above readings can surely help.

Climate depression is for real. Just ask a scientist

If you were wondering why a feeling of looming desperation settled in your thoughts when you have just been reading the news, the answer may be that you suffer from climate depression.

Age of grief

Proposing a similar diagnosis but from an entirely different standpoint, the anarcho-primitivist philosopher John Zerzan invites us to “face the loss”.

Here’s to unsuicide: An interview with Richard Powers

To recover and to fight back, maybe it is time to turn upside down some deep seated assumptions about nature. Maybe it is time to recognize that the gap between humans and all other living things is made and remade by our drive of dominion and destruction. Wise words can be heard on this from Richard Powers.

End the “green” delusions: Industrial-scale renewable energy is fossil fuel+

Did you think top-down, large scale renewable energies infrastructures, like windmills, will solve the world’s hunger for energy without hurting ecosystems? Think again…

Friday essay: recovering a narrative of place – stories in the time of climate change

For a bit of meaning and hope, here is a reading on how we should work on recovering narratively community and place, to have the “feet firmly on the ground while reaching for the stars”.

Why “Warning to Humanity” gets the socio-ecological crisis (and its solutions) wrong

Finally, one reading from our ENTITLE Blog, that criticizes the mainstream scientific diagnoses and solutions to the environmental crises spread by articles like the “warning to humanity”, and invites to join the fight right on the frontlines of ecological friction points!

Enjoy!

 

Uneven Earth updates

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July | Link | “She enjoys the way they fill the space with artificial flight; an awkward posture that makes their death seem comical.”

 

News you might’ve missed

Crops are dying. Forests are burning. This summer’s heat wave has fueled natural disasters around the world. Here’s a list of them.

Rising temperatures linked to increased suicide rates

The first ever feminist school in Uganda was held this year by The Rural Women’s Movement

A new report shows how the world’s 35 largest meat and dairy companies will increase their emissions and derail global efforts to prevent dangerous climate change.

As Indigenous peoples wait decades for land titles, companies are acquiring their territories

Investing in Indigenous communities is most efficient way to protect forests, report finds

Deadliest year on record for environmental land defenders: A report by Global Witness. Also covered in The Intercept here.

2,500 scientists warn against the border wall’s huge environmental cost

 

New politics

A “happy” world requires institutional change

Meet the anarchists making their own medicine. The Four Thieves Vinegar Collective is a network of tech-fueled anarchists taking on Big Pharma with DIY medicines.

Standing Rock medic bus is now a traveling decolonized pharmacy

Women’s fight to feed the world. Women Who Dig takes a global look at food, feminism and the struggle to make a future.

The teenagers fighting for climate justice

Here’s why we’re planting trees in northern Syria. This land was liberated from Bashar Al-Assad and Isis. Now we need help to keep it alive.

How to build a culture of good health. “If we wish to take full responsibility for health in our society, we must not only be vigilant guardians of our personal well-being, we must also work to change structures, institutions, and ideologies that keep us mired in a toxic culture.”

Out from emergency. Today’s crises call on humanity to act collectively, but this possibility seems more and more remote. How do we break the cycle? A dialogue between Katrina Forrester and Jedediah Purdy.

 

Radical municipalism

Seattle flirts with ‘municipal socialism’. The $15 minimum wage was just the beginning. Now Seattle is trying to build a whole safety net for workers—and triggering a war with its biggest companies.

Degrowth and Christiania – I saw how Copenhagen’s collective living experiment can work

Iceland’s slow-burning digital democratic revolution.

How community land trusts create affordable housing

Visions of a new economy from Detroit: A conversation with Malik Yakini. “That whole idea of private ownership of land, which in large part is how wealth is generated in capitalism, is problematic. The question of access to land is critical… The other flaw—which can exist in socialism, also—is the idea that the earth is a commodity, and what we need is more production, more extraction. I think a new way of looking at our relationship to the earth is required.”

Everything we’ve heard about global urbanization turns out to be wrong

Most public engagement is worse than worthless

‘Climate gentrification’ will deepen urban inequality, and Coastal cities are already suffering from “climate gentrification”.

Seattle and the Socialist: The battle raging between Amazon and the far left

A world class divide: Seattle vs. Vancouver on the housing crisis

A nationwide campaign to take back cities from the corporations that rule them

Barcelona’s experiment in radical democracy

Municipalism: The next political revolution?

 

Where we’re at: analysis

Losing Earth: the decade we almost stopped climate change. And an important response by Naomi Klein: Capitalism killed our climate momentum, not “human nature”.

Systems seduction: The aesthetics of decentralisation. “We don’t need totalizing visions but a proliferation of daydreams: lateral, experimental and situated within the localities of lived experience.”

Wildfires in Greece—the price of austerity

Science denialism is dangerous. But so is science imperialism. Calls for strict science-based decision making on complex issues like GMOs and geoengineering can shortchange consideration of ethics and social impacts.

The limits of green energy under capitalism

What are human rights good for?

Nature defends itself. Review of The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World by Andreas Malm.

The cashless society is a con – and big finance is behind it. Banks are closing ATMs and branches in an attempt to ‘nudge’ users towards digital services – and it’s all for their own benefit

Karl Polanyi and the formation of this generation’s new Left. As the democratic Left spirals ever downwards, the worrying forces of populism and neoliberalism seem to be emerging from the ashes. Could the visionary thinking of economic historian Karl Polanyi provide a feasible fix in the 21st Century? An open‐ended approach might be just the ticket to rescue global politics from a far right explosion – and it’s not rocket science…

Growth for the sake of growth. “Growth for the sake of growth” remains the credo of governments and international institutions, Federico Demaria finds. The time is ripe, he argues, not only for a scientific degrowth research agenda, but also for a political one.

 

Just think about it…

We can’t do it ourselves. How effective is individual action when it is systemic social change that is needed?

Is the global era of massive infrastructure projects coming to an end?

How to survive America’s kill list. “This is how America’s post-9/11 move toward authoritarianism has been executed: without massacres or palace coups, but noiselessly, on paper, through years of metronome insertions of bloodless terms in place of once-vibrant Democratic concepts.”

Intellectual extractivism: The dispossession of Maya weaving

What is metabolic rift? The ecosocialist idea you’ve never heard of and might need.

Think everyone died young in ancient societies? Think again

Conflict reigns over the history and origins of money. Thousands of years ago, money was a means of debt payment, archaeologists and anthropologists say.

In praise of doing nothing

The medium chill: a philosophy that asks the important questions. “We’re going to have to scale down our material expectations and get off the aspirational treadmill. So how can we do that? How can we make it okay to prioritize social connections over money and choice hoarding?”

Participatory budgeting increases voter likelihood 7%

Cesspools, sewage, and social murder. A riveting history of early environmentalism in 19th-Century London.

Steven Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed. These eight graphs show why.

The free speech panic: how the right concocted a crisis

How tech’s richest plan to save themselves after the apocalypse

The case for building $1,500 parks. A new study shows that access to “greened” vacant lots reduced feelings of worthlessness and depression, especially in low-resource neighborhoods.

 

Resources

The best books on Radical Environmentalism

After 30 years, Science for the People has relaunched!

Science for the People engages in research, activism, and science communications for the betterment of society, ecological improvement, environmental protection, and to serve human needs. Members of Science for the People consist of STEM workers, educators, and activists who are socially and ethically focused, and believe that science should be a positive force for humanity and the planet.

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn) and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter? Subscribe here.

July

Illustration: Ky Brooks

by Freya Johnson

The usual refrains tumble from the pharmacist’s lips all delicate and light. She fills out a prescription for a daily pill. “I really think you have made the right choice”, she says. “It’s so easy. I’ve heard it’s great for improving your credit score”.

Rowan kicks an empty can of Lucozade off the step as she exits the surgery and struggles to breathe in the air all clammy and close. It’s a sullen day: the sun stays stubborn behind July’s haze. She drifts toward home through the corporate smell that thickens around the buildings all imposing and walks by the man who sits daily outside the coffee shop, reluctantly ageing. At the pharmacy there’s that lady in there again, arms up in the air, howling neurasthenia with the full bellow of her exhausted lungs. It should be comforting to medicate a throbbing anxiety, but not for her. She thwacks her hands on the counter rap-rap-rap demanding something new that will hide her sickness better. Rowan turns “hypochondriac” on her tongue and receives her cheerily patented Temperanelle®.

“Seven days”, the pharmacist says as she dispenses, folding the info-leaflet with peculiar precision. “Seven days before full effect, and remember it is not a contraceptive”.

There’s no place for erratic ups and downs these days.

There’s no place for erratic ups and downs these days. This pill is meant to remedy a lack of aptitude for emotional control. A well-behaved cycle makes the body verifiable, more investable, at the appropriate points. It’s supposed to be great for improving your credit score.

From a digital-distributor Rowan takes a newspaper that she probably won’t read and crumples it under her arm, thinking of the times she’s heard that women are too unpredictable. Like petulant schoolchildren—she’d been told—they brood around with their shoulders slumped and then, without warning, they become garrulous; incessant.

It sounds like rubbish but then she remembers “psycho Sarah” in year five who pretended to be her friend before running at her three weeks later with a pencil in art class, so maybe it’s plausible.

She picks a spider off of her cheap cotton dress, and ambles her way home.

**************************************************************************

How is it that Rowan ended up here alone, in this quietly miserable place? The paint flakes off the threshold of the front door where she used to sit, picking her mosquito bites. It wasn’t long before the green hills that tumbled down from the cottage had been replaced with a sprawling labyrinth of concrete.

Hestonmere Green had arrived uninvited, and it had unfolded violently quickly as a panicked response to London’s burgeoning finance sector. Now, towers engulf the space; their necks reaching proudly to swallow the sky above, and their staunch figures offset only by the delicate cranes that cradle the whole area. As machines that had borne the structures, the cranes had been left behind to stand as silent witnesses of a tech-savvy financial future.

A dazzling prospect, perhaps, but the landscape had become unpalatable. It was never designed to be residential, not really.

A dazzling prospect, perhaps, but the landscape had become unpalatable. It was never designed to be residential, not really. “Welcome to our town, where people and finance thrive” the sign lies, now mired in grime. Vacuous gestures had been made in attempts to soften the intrusion, with few amenities interrupting the otherwise homogeneous and colourless landscape. A poorly stocked off-licence here. A ropey café there. All serviced by outdated and, for the most part, malfunctioning Tier-1 chatbots.

In truth, the land had been appropriated for the development of new biometrics for assessment, identification, and tracking. Hestonmere Green the Profiling Machine. Transparency in the name of financial inclusion was the championed motto.

Everyone who was able soon fled to Henley, Goring, or further. “Not in my back garden”, they had said. With them they had taken their families, their councils, and their schools.

Now, the town is quiet save for the tannoy that screeches the start of the working day, and the perpetual hum of the I-Droids as they trudge through their meticulous production of wearable techs, microchips, and pharmaceuticals.

Yes, Hestonmere Green has become a sulky little corner of England. Isolated, the town is as much the revered lifeline for the country’s thirst for financial-technologies as it is considered a repellent, noxious space; the kind to threaten small children with when they misbehave. The dark walkways absorb the sunlight. There is an acrid smell after the rain.

“I like my back garden just fine”, Rowan comforts herself, absently fingering a root that pushes aberrantly through a crack in the tarmac.

Rowan; as belligerent and obstinate as the rosacea that has peppered her skin since the earliest she can remember, tormenting her with a hot and angry redness, and winning all the jeers of the playground. She had been staunch in her resolve to stay firmly where she was. We had all grown up in the same meddling world. Leaving wouldn’t change that.

Left behind like tired furniture, they spend their time tracing patterns in the dust on the walls.

The ageing, the infirm, and the insane are her only company now, although she refuses to speak to them. Left behind like tired furniture, they spend their time tracing patterns in the dust on the walls, muttering halcyon days. A reticent army of misfits, not considered worth the bother of the residential Intels, they lurch dolefully along the streets, pausing only to listen to the crackle of the power lines, and to the clickety-click of the ones that mediate their lives, working indefatigably in the towers above them.

**************************************************************************

The pregnant silence in the room is punctuated by the fan whirring stale heat. Rowan coughs heavily which reminds her that she should have asked for a repeat of Keflex whilst at the pharmacy.

Curling the bud of her Smart-Set into her ear, she watches apathetically as the field of the MixR-Lens unrolls in front of her eyes. Groping around in the middle-distance, she taps thin air to pair the set with her microchip. Ouch! The chip always pinches somewhere near her thumb. It wriggles, she’s sure. She’s had to have it re-adjusted so many times. “A wilful little thing”, the nurse jokes. The same nurse who told her it would be “just like having your ear pierced, sweetie, nothing to worry about”.

The lull of the algorithm throbs ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum. Ignoring the GIF that loops ad nauseum in her newsfeed, Rowan taps again to unfold a calendar where a small circle highlights day twelve of her cycle.

Taking a moment to stand with arms outstretched, she tries to size up the field that is in front of her. How is it that I can’t reach the edges when it seems so close up, she thinks. Despite being almost immersive, and quadruple the pixel density of the now obsolete HoloLens, the veneer of the field is diaphanous. Rowan’s focus oscillates between jiggling interactive memes and the hazy shape of the green velvet sofa that somehow has always smelled of her mother’s old perfume.

It surprises her how detached she feels despite being triangulated, and articulated, by such an invasive system of monitoring. She is adorned with a glittering array of payment chips, identification tools, and health trackers. A heart rate monitor disguised as a lace bra. An oyster-shell effect compact that approves payment when you smile into it. All the data are sent straight to the Fin-Authorities who, “committed to increasing the financial inclusion of women”, use it to oversee her credit account.

Without credit, you can’t do anything. And that’s a fact.

Possession of these items is, of course, a matter of warped choice. But it’s a choice between being captured within an image of the creditworthy hyper-feminine, and being thrown out into the cold. There’s no such thing as “cash transactions”; not anymore. Without credit, you can’t do anything. And that’s a fact. There was a woman down the road who tried to go it alone, planning to grow her own vegetables and patch together clothes from old curtains and bed linen, until she realized she needed credit just to access the allotment.

**************************************************************************

The gentle bzzt of Rowan’s memo-watch prompts her to look up at a holographic whose impossibly white teeth, framed by coral pink, is eager to tell her about the latest available accessory: a silicon vaginal rod- appropriate for daily wearing- that sends data to your smart-set regarding the health of your discharge and menstrual blood. It has the added benefit of serving as a pelvic-floor exerciser.

Rowan smiles wanly, cocking her right shoulder forward and dropping her left hip in a copycat stance, and wonders what it would be like to have breasts so irritatingly buoyant.

A moth panics in the corner of the room, catching its wing on a curling piece of wallpaper.

**************************************************************************

Butterflies aren’t that common here anymore so she catches moths instead.

Rowan enjoys preserving and mounting insects; it’s a cathartic and candid practice. Butterflies aren’t that common here anymore so she catches moths instead.

Peeling the moth from its wallpaper snare, she scoops its flickering wings into a cage of fingers. Death must be produced without disfiguring them, and that’s a skill no question. She did try to learn how to stun them by squeezing the thorax but they would gyrate and she would squeeze too hard. A clumsy end. “I find that they relax quickly with a dreamy dose of ethanol”, she says.

Pausing to place the moth in a net—acquainting the creature with its temporary confinement—Rowan stolidly prepares the killing jar, pushing ethanol-soaked gauze in to the glass mouth. The moth follows, dropping to the bottom with a surprising thud. A struggle ensues as it scours the base of the jar, feelers catching in the gauze, legs pressing pleadingly against the glass. There’s one last protest before it crumples; listless. She places the jar next to the others on a creaking bookshelf, all lined up like prized little coffins.

Sitting at a folding pine table, Rowan looks up at the dusky canvases that tile the wall with her unfortunate little trophies, stuck through with dress pins; wings frigidly splayed. She enjoys the way they fill the space with artificial flight; an awkward posture that makes their death seem comical. It is advised to keep the moths framed to prevent the growth of mould, but she doesn’t bother. She says it’s because nothing ever stays the same anyway.

Thoughtfully admiring her work, Rowan wonders where she has hidden her Twin Peaks VHS collection. She’s noticed that there are some tapes missing from the otherwise indulgently full sideboard.

Something happens. The jar—perhaps precariously placed on the edge of the shelf—topples. The glass shatters, releasing the moth on to the floorboards. A moment passes. The tap drips sporadically, and someone outside sneezes loudly. Finally, the small, intoxicated corpse lying before Rowan’s feet begins to twitch. Groping around in an addled haze (with a sense of humiliation, she imagines) the moth stutters to regain composure. Encumbered by shards of glass it jerks fiercely left and right, dragging its sodden wings from sticky fibres of gauze.

Summoning all courage, the moth valiantly collects its legs into an upright position and begins the long lope toward an uncertain freedom. Rowan watches, placidly. One laboured step is made; then two; then three. The wretched thing comes to rest no more than a centimetre from where it began. Exhausted by such a Herculean journey, it collapses; surrendered.

She leaves the moth to its pitiful deathbed and rises urgently to her feet, summoned by the sound of the telephone ringing.

Rowan retreats in her chair, suddenly repulsed by this display of hopeless perseverance. Resisting the urge to stamp out its final moments, she leaves the moth to its pitiful deathbed and rises urgently to her feet, summoned by the sound of the telephone ringing.

**************************************************************************

Vzzt-bzzt vzzt-bzzt the telephone bullies the worktop.

“Can I speak with Mrs. Hatfield?”

“Who? No one by that name lives here. Can I…?”

The monotonous voice continues.

“Hi, Mrs. Hatfield, I am ringing to tell you that you have been successful in your application for finance from LiteStart. At LiteStart there are no gimmicks or deferred interest, so you can get right on and buy those—“

Rowan puts the receiver down gently. Chatbots are still so stupid, even these days.

Returning to the moth with an unexpected level of curiosity, she crouches in a mourning position, gathering her legs underneath her to get a better look. She examines with a strange pleasure the lifeless critter and traces a deliberate finger over its body, pausing at the spiny ridges to enjoy the rather queer, crackly texture. Glass burrows its way into the skin of her knee as she leans closer to the moth, drawing a steady stream of blood that trickles, soothingly warm, down her leg to meet the floor.

Rowan notices her injury, turning her head to identify the source of a dull pain. And that’s when the doorbell rings.

 

Post-amble

While “July” discusses dystopian possibilities that shiver with a sense of the too-close-for-comfort, it is not limited to imagining a possible future. Principally, I created this little tale in order to bring to life the ontological approach that my research follows. I draw this approach from Gilles Deleuze and his philosophy of difference. For Deleuze, there is a need to move away from thinking in terms of representation and identity in order to distinguish between difference that is defined by the characteristics of two distinct objects (“I know this is a cat because it is not a dog”), and pure difference, that is, affective intensities that escape identification. By working through this, it is possible—tentatively—to approach the idea that bodies are mobile and fluid, and should not be captured within illusions of fixity.

As such, “July” is an attempt to pay attention to moments that might otherwise be unheard, and to the in-between spaces of more easily recognised events, in order to make more visible the seemingly banal and ordinary forces of life. Think of the root that pushes through the tarmac, the tap that drips sporadically, or the moth that is panicking in the corner, and think of how these moments might lend texture and expressivity to the changing landscape of the story.

The stilted end to the story and the slightly jarring beginning are intentional, partly because “July” is one of many fabulation-vignettes that comprise my thesis. It is one fragmented moment in many moments; part of a patchwork of experiments with writing techniques.

 

Freya Johnson is a third year PhD candidate in Cultural Geography at the University of Bristol. Her research uses the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in order to explore the performativity and expressivity of creative writing, and to employ writing as a method for producing critically oriented, affective knowledges.

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

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June 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.

In June, we read stories about new political strategies, decolonial re-imaginings, community resilience, and revolutionary ideas around the world. We also included articles about the escalating climate crisis and the root causes of climate and environmental injustice.

 

Uneven Earth updates

The team expands: Anna Biren, who has been working on these newsletters for the past 6 months, is now on board as a new editor at Uneven Earth!

Science Fiction Belgrade | Link | Imagining different realities in the works of Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić

The promise of radical municipalism today | Link | Politics is about bringing people together and taking control of the spaces where we live

Science fiction between utopia and critique | Link | On different perspectives used in science fiction narratives, situated knowledge, and how discontent is useful

What’s it like for a social movement to take control of a city? | Link | For Barcelona En Comú, winning the election was just the first step

The swell | Link | “We were waiting to be accepted as refugees in Iceland, the only country left in the region with stable electricity from their geothermal resources, and the only place that would take UK citizens.”

 

News you might’ve missed

‘Carbon bubble’ could spark global financial crisis, study warns. Advances in clean energy expected to cause a sudden drop in demand for fossil fuels, leaving companies with trillions in stranded assets.

Meat and fish multinationals ‘jeopardising Paris climate goals’. New index finds many of the world’s largest protein producers failing to measure or report emissions, despite accounting for 14.5% of greenhouse gases.

World’s great cities hold key to fossil fuel cuts

San Francisco residents were sure nearby industry was harming their health. They were right.

State land grabs fuel Sudan’s crisis

Rural poor squeezed by land concessions in Mekong region: report

Andhra Pradesh to become India’s first Zero Budget Natural Farming state

India faces worst long term water crisis in its history. Droughts are becoming more frequent, creating problems for India’s rain-dependent farmers.

Trees that have lived for millennia are suddenly dying

The discovery of a map made by a Native American is reshaping what we think about the Lewis & Clark expedition. “We tend to think that [Lewis and Clark] were traveling blind into terra incognita. That is simply not true. Too Né’s map lifts the expedition’s encounter with the Arikara to new prominence.”

Why grandmothers may hold the key to human evolution. “While the men were out hunting, grandmothers and babies were building the foundation of our species’ success – sharing food, cooperating on more and more complex levels and developing new social relationships.”

How our colonial past altered the ecobalance of an entire planet. Researchers suggest effects of the colonial era can be detected in rocks or even air.

 

New politics

Tracking the battles for environmental justice: here are the world’s top 10

How the environmental justice movement transforms our world

5 ways indigenous groups are fighting back against land seizures

Occupy, resist, produce: The strategy and political vision of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement

The town that refused to let austerity kill its buses

A sense of place. “There are many historical and modern day examples of how human beings, all over the world, have managed to meet the needs of locally adapted, place-based communities within the limits of their local environment.”

Roadmap for radicals. Mel Evans and Kevin Smith interview US-based organiser and author Jonathan Smucker, whose new book Hegemony How-To offers a practical guide to political struggle for a generation that is still ambivalent about questions of power, leadership and strategy.

How my father’s ideas helped the Kurds create a new democracy

Building autonomy through ecology in Rojava

Cooperation Jackson’s Kali Akuno: ‘We’re trying to build vehicles of social transformation’

A socialist Southern strategy in Jackson

Rebel Cities 6: How Jackson, Mississippi is making the economy work for people

This land is our land: The Native American occupation of Alcatraz. How a group of Red Power activists seized the abandoned prison island and their own destinies.

The environment as freedom: A decolonial reimagining

Interview: Decolonization towards a well-being vision with Pablo Solon

A world more beautiful and alive: A review of The Extractive Zone. From Ecuador, Perú, Chile, Colombia, and Bolivia, Marcena Gómez-Barris describes “submerged perspectives,” the decolonial ways of knowing that unsettle colonial relationships to land and the forms of violence they reproduce.

Feeling powers growing: An Interview with Silvia Federici

Municipalism: an Icarian warning

What would we eat if food and health were commons? – Inspiration from indigenous populations

Introducing ‘systems journalism’: creating an ecosystem for independent media

Seeding new ideas in the neoliberal city

Worker-owned co-ops are coming for the digital gig economy

 

Where we’re at: analysis

Letter to America, by Rebecca Altman. Everything is going to have to be put back.

Our plastic pollution crisis is too big for recycling to fix. Corporations are safe when they can tell us to simply recycle away their pollution.

How the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals undermine democracy

The remaking of class. “Class is contaminated water and children with chronic pain and fatigue. It is living downhill of the pond where fracking fluids are stored.”

Richard Powers: ‘We’re completely alienated from everything else alive’

The Enlightenment’s dark side. How the Enlightenment created modern race thinking, and why we should confront it. And a brief history of race in Western thought.

The enlightenment of Steven Pinker: Eco-modernism as rationalizing the arrogance (and violence) of empire

Puerto Rico is a “playground for the privileged”: Investors move in as homes foreclose & schools close. While healthcare, the public school system and infrastructure in Puerto Rico are flailing nine months after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, wealthy investors have descended on the island to turn a profit. An interview with Naomi Klein and Katia Avilés-Vázquez, a Puerto Rican environmental activist.

How climate change ignites wildfires from California to South Africa

Feudalism, not overpopulation or land shortage, is to blame for Hong Kong’s housing problems

When New Delhi’s informal settlements make way for something ‘smarter’

The left in Syria: From democratic national change to devastation

A new era of uranium mining near the Grand Canyon? With scant data on risk, Republicans push to open a ‘perfect’ mining opportunity.

Rent strikes grow in popularity among tenants as gentrification drives up rents in cities like D.C.

Increased deaths and illnesses from inhaling airborne dust: An understudied impact of climate change.

‘Processing settler toxicities’ part 1 and part 2. An Indigenous feminist analysis of the connections between industrial capitalism and colonialism, imperialism, and the pollution and destruction of human and nonhuman worlds.

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things review – how capitalism works

Anthropocene? More like ‘Capitalocene’. Jason W. Moore on the human impact on the world ecology. “My hope is that this theoretical research may provide useful insights for the social movements around the world that are fighting not only the effects, but especially the root causes of climate change.”

Carbon Ironies: William T. Vollmann on the hot dark future. A review of William T. Vollmann’s Carbon Ideologies—a book that is rightly sarcastic and pessimistic about the prospects of “solving” the problem of climate change but stuck in the false either/or choice between solving everything and doing nothing whatsoever, argues Wen Stephenson.

Patterns of commoning: Commons in the pluriverse. An essay by Arturo Escobar.

The mask it wears. Pankaj Mishra reviews and compares the propositions about how to work for equality in The People v. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It by Yascha Mounk Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World by Samuel Moyn.

 

Just think about it…

Laziness does not exist, but unseen barriers do

The Transition Towns movement… going where? A critique.

The dark side of nature writing. The recent renaissance in nature writing also revives an overlooked connection with fascism.

Minimum wage? It’s time to talk about a maximum wage

It takes a village, not a European, to raise a child. White people, through systematic oppression, actively create, profit from and maintain a market that institutionalizes children throughout Africa.

The unbearable awkwardness of automation

The power of giving homeless people a place to belong

 

Sci-fi and the near future

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Science Fiction Belgrade

© Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

by Srđan Tunić

This essay is the second in a “mini-series” of two essays on the critical potential of science fiction. The first essay considered how science fiction can function as social critique and discussed different literary techniques and devices. This second one will expand the story in reference to concrete examples—works by Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić, grounding the analysis in the Balkan context. (And if you continue reading to the end, there may be a surprise waiting for you there … )

In an article (“Vreme kao ključna odrednica SF žanra”) written in the midst of the Yugoslav Civil War (1991-1995), the Serbian science fiction (SF) writer Milovan Milovanović stated that most local SF stories seemed disconnected from the everyday situation of most people in the Balkan region at that time. According to him, in order for elements of novelty in SF stories to be accepted by readers, you need a realistic historical background and not just escapism. Even though SF imagines the future and diverges from the present, it always springs from specific places and histories (see also this chart of how historical trends in SF have changed over time):

For example, when the threat of nuclear war hung over the world during the 50s of this [20th] century, what else could the favorite topic for SF writers have been? Later on, at the beginning of the 70s, it was raising ecological awareness, due to the widespread knowledge that the world was mostly disappearing into a vortex of a biological catastrophe. This is not just related to the frequency of specific topics at specific times; it refers to a way of thinking that was totally different at the beginning of the [20th] century, the 40s, 60s, or today. The world today is not the same as it was five or ten years ago and that is strongly mirrored in SF literature.

Belgrade, as the capital of all versions of the union of South Slavs in the twentieth century, holds a prominent place in representations of state power and as a battleground for diverse imaginings of the future.

This is where Belgrade (and the Balkans in general) enters the story. Belgrade, as the capital of all versions of the union of South Slavs in the twentieth century, holds a prominent place in representations of state power and as a battleground for diverse imaginings of the future. This text will discuss its images and interpretations through two contemporary comic book authors working in the SF genre—Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić. Whilst the former has been based in France for a long time, with Yugoslav heritage, the latter lives in Serbia. Both feature Belgrade in their comics and films, and both work predominantly for the French market. The artworks in question are Bilal’s Bunker Palace Hôtel (1989) and Le Sommeil du monstre (The Dormant Beast in English, aka the Hatzfeld tetralogy, 1998-2007), and Gajić’s Technotise (comic, 2001) and Technotise: Edit & I (film, 2009).

Back in 2023 Belgrade … © Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007.

The prominence of Belgrade as a setting in the authors’ works has been recognized by Gajić himself. In an interview with Deborah Husić from 2011 (in English), the use of Serbian language in the film Technotise: Edit & I was mentioned as one of the novelties (or what Darko Suvin would call novum), because, as the artist noted, “usually everything happens in Tokyo, Paris, Berlin or New York.” Aleksa Gajić responded that he did not want to make compromises for the market:

Usually, authors have this strong need to flatter the audience in order to be accepted. Meaning, they will answer to all ‘expected’ patterns from the public. As a matter of fact, most of the films we are watching today are made having these patterns in mind. I really wanted to run away from these things with Technotise. I wanted Belgrade to be like that, let them talk in Serbian, and let them express local jokes and natural urban expressions in an SF story (emphasis added).

Why are there no UFOs in Lajkovac?

SF was mostly associated with western geography and popular culture.

Zoran Živković, one of the pioneers of modern SF in Yugoslavia during the second half of the 20th century, famously stated that “leteći tanjiri ne sleću u Lajkovac”, meaning that UFOs do not come to a typical Serbian village. This came to be know among the sci-fi community as “Zoran’s law”. This metaphor indicates both that SF set in a local context was rare (or non existent) and that SF was mostly associated with western geography and popular culture (for a further discussion, check out Milovanović’s guide to SF, in Serbian). This, unfortunately, does not take into account contributions from the former USSR/Russia, or other non-western countries. In this geographical (or geopolitical) discussion the worlds of manga and anime, which originated in Japan but have spread to other parts of Asia, also play an important role today.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade in 2074. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise, 2001.

The world depicted and the context (reality) from which it departs (or reacts to) are tied together.

The lack of grounding in local history and settings—or the lack of UFOs in Lajkovac—pinpoints the escapist nature of many SF works of former Yugoslavia and Serbia. However, this “law” started to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s, simultaneous to the breakup of the SFR Yugoslavia (which is discussed in “Leteći tanjiri ipak sleću u Lajkovac” by Ivan Đorđević, and “American Science Fiction Literature and Serbian Science Fiction Film: When Worlds Don’t Even Collide” by Aleksandar B. Nedeljković). The example of UFOs in Lajkovac highlights two aspects of SF I consider relevant to this analysis. First, that SF narratives have their own internal structures and logic; and second, that there is a dynamic and productive connection to be made between a narrative and its author—and potentially between a narrative and its local historical and geographical origin as well. That is to say that the world depicted and the context (reality) from which it departs (or reacts to) are tied together.

This is closely related to the discussion in the previous essay, “Science fiction between utopia and critique,” of how authors can employ different perspectives and literary traditions—utopian, dystopian, alternative histories—to both imagine a different society and show a (critical) reflection of our own. With these concepts in mind, we will now look at the oeuvres of the two artists.

The dystopias of Enki Bilal

Enki Bilal’s work in general features darker SF topics and overtones, which could be identified as dystopian, often tackling issues such as totalitarian regimes (theocracy and fascism), colonialism, corruption, identity crisis, schizophrenia, and despair, but often with an ironic tone. A great source (in Serbian) on Bilal’s work is a special issue of the magazine Gradac, edited by Miroslav Marić; in the following, references to critical discussions and quotes from interviews with Bilal, unless specified differently, are derived from this special issue of Gradac.

Bunker Palace Hôtel (1989) is the first feature film Bilal directed, co-written with his long time collaborator Pierre Christin. It is set in Belgrade in an alternative reality, or the no-time of uchronia, with a combination of French and Yugoslav actors, but targeting the French market. Some commentators characterize this film as a critique of the socialist regime in Yugoslavia (which Bilal has denied), as well as an announcement of the overall breakup of the Eastern bloc in Europe. Initially, Bilal wanted the film to take place in the USSR, with Belgrade as his second option. In an interview from 1988, he clarifies his choice:

If you insist, the film talks about a [political] system that mostly resembles fascism. I wanted the film, where one cannot see which country or time is in question, to be filmed in a somewhat oriental, extraordinary setting for the French [audience]. To have a bit of exoticism. And I am very happy to film here, because the Yugoslav actors contribute to that exotic impression.

Following the (omnipresent) leader. © Enki Bilal, Bunker Palace Hôtel, 1989

Savamala part of Belgrade. © Enki Bilal, Bunker Palace Hôtel, 1989

Railway system, Savamala. © Enki Bilal, Bunker Palace Hôtel, 1989

He also incorporates a fictional Slavic language, used by the rebel characters, in this “exotic” feeling. People’s names vary between western and Slavic (Holm, Clara, Nikolai, Zarka, etc) however, there is no explicit naming within the narrative of the film of the rebels, the state, the city, languages, ideologies, nationalities or time. The film follows the SF trend of alternative histories (uchronia), with dystopian elements and an exploration of the question: What if the Nazis had won the Second World War (WWII)? (a question echoing in SF since Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle). If we accept this line of thinking, using the image of (the then) socialist Yugoslavia as a mirror/reference society becomes more complex and troubled.

Everything is retro, or “retro-futuristic”, which is a familiar setting within certain SF subgenres.

We need to understand the alternative history setting of the Bunker Palace Hôtel itself. Any reference to the then contemporary society is mostly avoided—cars, technology, architecture, clothing. Everything is retro, or “retro-futuristic”, which is a familiar setting within certain SF subgenres. In the film we can see well-known buildings from the pre-WWII decades, such as eclectic, art nouveau and modernist architecture: mainly the French Embassy, Svetozara Radića street, Savamala’s train system, and the BIGZ and Geozavod buildings. Additionally, one can see anachronistic technological inventions, post-dating the actual society, one of which is humanoid androids. Researcher Jelena Smiljanić calls this vision an “(…) onirist post-socialistic Belgrade, intermingled with Bodriarian (sic) simulacrums (…) creating a simulated hyper-reality” (Onirism was a surrealist literary movement in Romania during the 1960s, while in psychiatry it refers to a mental state in which visual hallucinations occur while fully awake). All of this taken together creates the retro-futuristic and surrealist setting of Bunker Palace Hôtel.

Different visions are present in Le Sommeil du monstre, or The Dormant Beast in English, also known as the Hatzfeld Tetralogy, which is one of Bilal’s latest comic series produced between 1998 and 2007. Set in 2026, it portrays what seems to now be a near future with advanced technologies in a dystopian, global setting. The narrative is revealed through two intertwined processes. Three main protagonists—Nike Hatzfeld, Leyla Mirković-Zohary and Amir Fazlagić, all orphans from the Yugoslav civil war—are trying to reunite with each other. The second narrative is Nike’s recollection of his childhood, taking us from the day of his birth in 1993 to the midst of the siege of Sarajevo. Bilal’s position shifts from one of the insider to a broader cosmopolitan global perspective; but it is his portrayal of the Balkans that I will primarily address here.

Belgrade: Hotel Moscow. © Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007

Belgrade: Terazije. © Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007

Sarajevo. © Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007

Belgrade and Sarajevo are two of the dystopian locations featured in Le Sommeil du monstre, presented (as in Bunker Palace Hôtel) in a retro-futurist mix where the old and the new are messily joined together. All cities in the series have a strong feeling of decay; as comic book author Zoran Penevski said related to Bilal, “it is the world of a narrative apocalypse.” In an interview for Serbian magazine Vreme, Bilal stated that Belgrade had changed little since when he moved to Paris in 1960. When he was asked in another interview why he avoided presenting contemporary times (war scenes in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina or the NATO bombing of Belgrade), he answered:

It is strange but when I’m portraying a brutal scene, I feel very uncomfortable placing it in the present. While if I position myself 20-30 years [into the future], then I can enjoy the creative process (…) I am visiting the future in order to come back to the past and the present. (emphasis added).

The narrative of a painful past and a not so optimistic future unwinds in the series, while the breakup of SFR Yugoslavia is still fresh.

The narrative of a painful past and a not so optimistic future unwinds in the series, while the breakup of SFR Yugoslavia is still fresh. Just after the Hatzfeld Tetralogy came out in 1998, Bilal said that his interest in Yugoslavia was triggered by the violent events of the war, the violence that triggered a “monster of remembrance”. The concept of reflective nostalgia coined by Svetlana Boym could be applied here, a nostalgia that does not tend to reconstruct the past but to instead be skeptical or critical of it, since the return to a imagined better past is impossible. In this case, it was the author’s creative way of purging the disturbances caused by the war.

A dystopian mode is prevalent in the Hatzfeld Tetralogy, where the future brings a continuation of conflicts, but there are also some utopian sparks. Among those, Bilal also plants a powerful image of human segregation according to religious affiliation (and nationalism). According to an essay by Aurélie Huz and Irène Langlet, the avoidance of national or religious categorization of the main heroes (storytellers) in this comic pinpoints not only a state of uncertainty about identities after the dissolution of the joint state, but also Bilal’s own critique of segregation. If one accepts the argument that those very divisions contributed to the violent dissolution of multicultural life and shared space in SFR Yugoslavia, embedding similar divisions into a future society, for example in Paris (“Catholics only”, “Salafists only” in the comic), Bilal voices concern and a warning that history may repeat itself. This is why the question “Are you Serb, Croat or Muslim?”, posed several times, remains unanswered in the story.

© Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007

The utopias of Aleksa Gajić

In contrast to Bilal, Gajić’s work has more humorous and light tones, a trademark of both his comics and animation work. He mostly works in the epic, fantasy, cyberpunk and SF genres, or something he calls “optimistična futuristika” (optimistic futuristic). These aspects of his work are discussed by Pavle Zelić and Anica Tucakov. Gajić’s bachelor degree project was a comic titled Technotise, with Darko Grkinić as a writer, and this later served as a starting point for Technotise: Edit & I (in Serbian: Tehnotajz: Edit i ja), which became known as the first Serbian feature-length animated film. In both works a utopian vision prevails, providing a predominant insider viewpoint of the portrayed societies.

State of Pobednik (the Victor) at Kalemegdan fortress, Belgrade. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise, 2001.

The Kula Sibinjanin Janka (The tower of Janos Hunyadi) or the Millennium tower, Zemun municipality. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise, 2001.

© Aleksa Gajić, Technotise, 2001.

The adolescents portrayed lead a hedonistic, middle-class life, centered around sex, drugs, hoverboard competitions and going out.

The Technotise comic (created in 1998, published in 2001) pays attention to two different time periods, both of which deviate from the present. At the very beginning there is a short episode from 1739, but most of  the comic is set in 2074. It traces the adventures of a group of adolescents, led by Edit, in Belgrade. It is mostly set on the Great War Island (Veliko ratno ostrvo), a natural reserve between rivers Sava and Danube which are surrounding the city from two sides, and in Zemun, an old municipality where Gajić lives. The adolescents portrayed lead a hedonistic, middle-class life, centered around sex, drugs, hoverboard competitions and going out. Their names are a combination of foreign (Edit, Broni, Herb, Woo) and local (Sanja, Bojan), their looks and habits are seemingly typical of (western) teenagers but they are also contextualized through Serbian language, backgrounds and references. The film Technotise: Edit & I (2009) kept the main characters and semi-utopian quality with a more developed retro-futuristic, cyberpunk image of Belgrade. Real locations were shot and then futuristic details were added. In an interview (in Serbian) for B92 portal Gajić explains:

Belgrade 2074 is a city where the future came without an urban plan. Yes, the buses are floating above the streets, but also run late, so there are traffic jams. Facades are futuristic but also run down. The locations are altered, but still recognizable, so you cannot mix our capital with some other city. I made an effort to give this SF film a dose of plausibility, because I think that’s the way for the viewers to believe the story (…) That’s why the main hero is a regular girl with common problems that anybody can identify with and understand. At the same time, I haven’t given up my desires—I made a film I would like to see myself.

Recalling the different “gaze” positions I developed in the previous essay in this mini-series, the worldbuilding technique used in the film can be seen as an example of the present projecting itself directly into the future. A not-so-perfect setting reveals the social awareness of the film, pushed to another plane. Whilst it triggers humor, it can also remind viewers of the unresolved issues present in the Serbian and Belgrade society of 2009: Roma people collecting garbage in the city (here competing with robots), robots begging for new graphic cards, “eternal students” using tricks to pass exams (“bubice”), adolescents living with parents, telenovelas, old buses and police cars (Zastava 101 models), a rural grandfather yelling that children need to go back to the countryside and so on. Gajić draws attention to these references to the present in interviews by Sonja Ćirić and Ivana Matijević. Through its projection of present issues into the future, the film turns these present issues into a heritage that weighs down on the future and shows that the future does not automatically free itself from the problems of the present. However, optimistic tones are still prevalent, echoing a tendency in feature films of the New Belgrade School in post-2000 Serbian society, where authors are grasping the “(…) opportunity of this new start, constructing a virtual city made up of cultural and genre idioms”, as Nevena Daković shows in “Imagining Belgrade: The Cultural/Cinematic Identity of a City on European Fringes”.

© Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

Kalemegdan fortress and riverside, the confluence of Sava and Danube rivers. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

The Post of Serbia at Savamala (pre WWII design of Momir Korunović). © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

Belgrade’s transformations triggered by the social upheavals of the 1990s and a feeling of a new start in the 2000s are most visible through film. Daković states that this cinematic cityscape is closely linked to space, time and matters of (transcultural) identity:

The cinematic cityscape is thus a complex identity performance. In the case of Belgrade, it presents a rich succession of identity conflicts and shifts, encompassing identities spanning from exotic Orientalism to virtual cosmopolitanism, with a nodal contrast articulated as Orient-rural-Balkan vs. Occident-urban-Europe. Belgrade’s city identity constantly vacillates between these poles, spilling over borders, moving between and among the times and spaces of the various identity constituents (emphasis added).

The cityscape changed from a socialist idyll, through the ghetto of the 1990s, to a “pure locus of the possible”—a cosmopolitan identity after the democratic elections in the 2000s.

In the context of post WWII Yugoslavia, and then Serbia, the cityscape changed from a socialist idyll, through the ghetto of the 1990s, to a “pure locus of the possible”—a cosmopolitan identity after the democratic elections in the 2000s. SF imaginings of Belgrade can therefore provide an understanding of contemporary positions and identities when the author’s projection is deeply grounded in the local context of Belgrade and Serbia, but also provide a means for temporary escape from the reader’s (or viewer’s) own body and society.

One of the major criticisms of Technotise in Serbia was that the film treated SF in a more humorous way, which was also a creative break with the majority of SF productions. Another critique was that it used youth slang and references to contemporary Serbian society. This situating of the film’s narrative, according to the author, was both a personal choice and a break from acknowledged patterns and habits of the genre, especially SF that is mostly set in highly developed technological societies in the West or Japan. A Serbian film critic, Dimitrije Vojnov, said in an interview that “in a (Serbian) cinematography so loaded with the past, the future rarely manages to reach the screen, and when it does, it is an ironic reflection of the present or past”, thus noting how Gajić diverged from a mainstream.

In preparation for his next film, Prophet 1.0 (Prorok 1.0), Gajić said that he wanted to present “the future in a Serbian, not American or Japanese, way.” And in explaining what is “Serbian” about Edit & I, he referred to the collaborators, financing, language, and topics. To this list, I would also add the Serbian locations. Curiously enough, this seemingly patriotic declaration does not include any loaded traditional or nationalist topics or statements within the artworks’ narratives. This mix between an international outlook and national (or local) grounding is connected to the affinity between SF and both “escapist” and critical situated knowledge, as I discussed in “Science fiction between utopia and critique.”

© Aleksa Gajić Prorok / The Prophet, 2016

The identity of the (future) city—the identity of its ma(r)kers

These two dimensions of SF—the escapist and the critical—are present in the works of both Bilal and Gajić. Around two decades have passed between the UFOs that do not land in Lajkovac and the emergence of locally grounded SF in a Serbian context. In the cases of Bilal and Gajić, it is important to understand why they decided to contextualize their narratives in locations that they are physically and/or emotionally attached to. In both cases the topics were mostly a matter of personal preferences, which led to works that differ from the ones that the two artists do for the (mostly) French market. Bilal had already made a name for himself in the 1970s and 1980s, allowing him to treat contemporary, more politically engaged and personal topics with greater ease. But Gajić’s work for the French market differs from Technotise, which departs from and clashes with the market’s popular tropes, and this made him pause his international work during the film’s production. In facing many challenges while making the film, he said: “If the film doesn’t succeed, the repentant son will go back to France. After all, swords, magic, slaughter and the rest… it’s not so bad at all!” and “If I wanted money, I would have probably made a movie about little animals and wizards” (interviews with Peđa Popović and for Domino magazine, in Serbian).

Comic relief—a village grandpa in the middle of futuristic city. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

Bilal and Gajić, in the narratives and messages of their artworks, have found ways to resist the official nationalist rhetoric that is so prominent in Serbian politics.

I would argue that both Bilal and Gajić, in the narratives and messages of their artworks, have found ways to resist the official nationalist rhetoric that is so prominent in Serbian politics. They are not, however, hiding their national identities in their work about Belgrade and the Balkans, into which they bring a strong sense of engagement and lack of concern for market pressure. The question then becomes: whose eyes are we looking through? What differentiates people from one another? The contextualization of stories takes place through specific characters, names, settings, cities, histories, and references, but at the same time avoids demonstrative national images, such as flags and other national symbols, religious affiliation of heroes and so on. In Bilal’s case, as already mentioned, characters refuse to identify with the causes of war, in protest, whilst Gajić finds politics overwhelming in Serbian society and prefers to find ways to create artworks that entertain and make people laugh. He views this as a more noble and honorable cause than being serious and scared.

Could this escapism embed in itself any Balkanism, as defined by Maria Todorova? In academia, the concept is defined as a discourse where the Balkans were (and sometimes still are) presented and constructed as the“other” of Europe, a negative stereotype, inverted mirror. In her book Imagining the Balkans, she states that creators of Balkan images from the Balkans itself are very self-conscious of the imposed discourse:

Unlike Western observers who, in constructing and replicating the Balkanist discourse, were (and are) little aware and even less interested in the thoughts and sensibilities of their objects, the Balkan architects of different self-images have been involved from the very outset in a complex and creative dynamic relationship with this discourse (…).

Hotel Moscow, Belgrade. © Enki Bilal, The Hatzfeld Tetralogy, 1998-2007

Another researcher, Maria Palacios Cruz states that “the Balkans seen from the Balkans” in film seem more concerned with being accepted than subverting the West’s images of the Balkans itself, thus reproducing criteria, stereotypes and divisions. Gajić’s escapism in the futuristic Technotise does not eliminate reality bites of SF Belgrade, nor does it avoid a sense of cosmopolitanism; after all, it provides a sort of hope. Bilal made a somewhat exotic Belgrade setting in Bunker Palace Hôtel, whilst in the comic series it is clear that the main characters are resisting nationalist narratives and paving an unstable road of their own, avoiding stereotypical media discourses. In Bilal’s own words:

I am not rejecting my own roots. When I say that it is dangerous to look inside oneself too much, in your own past, memories, remembrances, nation, religion, your territory, it is. That gaze is dangerous but I find it necessary. It is crucial to carry it with oneself and move with one’s own roots.

Conclusions: SF as cosmopolitanism?

Daković characterizes new film directors in post-2000 Serbia as employing escapism, cosmopolitanism and postmodernism. The cinematic cityscape of Belgrade is based on a “‘glocal’ identity [which] is made up of local elements with global appeal, local themes in a global expression and local events of inevitable global consequences”, quoting the definition by Paul Virilio. Or, as a beer ad in Serbia says: “global, but ours”.

Inside the Bunker Palace Hôtel. © Enki Bilal, Bunker Palace Hotel, 1989

Binarisms (local – global, national – international, patriot – cosmopolitan) come with a whole set of contextualized inclusions and exclusions. One’s attachment to a local stance might be seen as conforming to nationalism, even xenophobia, or as a resistance to the processes of globalization – or simply as staying faithful to the politics of location, as outlined by Donna Haraway in her theory of situated knowledge. Thus, one’s identification with a city might even be a means of resisting national identity (for more on this topic, see this study by Ivana Spasić in English). On the other side of an imagined pole stands cosmopolitanism, which is grounded in openness and universalism, criticized for being an elite stance associated with pro-Western and pro-European political ideologies in the Balkans.

In the Serbian context, after a global phase during socialist (or Tito’s) Yugoslavia, SF entered a (re-)traditionalist period grounded in nationalist political projects and imaginarium from the mid-1980s. This more traditional aspect of the genre contains many elements previously mentioned as characteristic of fantasy. Anthropologist Ivan Đorđević in his “Antropologija naučne fantastike: tradicija žanrovskoj književnosti” (Anthropology of Science Fiction: a Tradition in Genre Literature) says this production is in essence local, where certain traditional elements, taken selectively and strategically, create an image of how a culture sees itself at certain times (This perspective could be compared to Andrew Liptak’s article about nationalism in militaristic SF). Đorđević notes that a crucial distinction is made between Us and Them (Europe, the West, or the world in general), revealing the central gaze of traditional narratives as being nationally tailored. In this way, SF visions carry fears of losing one’s “roots”, or allowing cultural assimilation; that is, if the future is generally understood as cosmopolitan, with universal (most likely western) tendencies for humankind. This view of the imaginative role of SF echoes antiglobalization discourses.

Remembering 05th October 2001, The Parliament building. © Aleksa Gajić, Technotise: Edit & I, 2009

The imagining of science-fiction Belgrade operates between tensions and opposites.

Overall, the imagining of science-fiction Belgrade operates between tensions and opposites. Just as in general SF, it provides universal knowledge claims about the future (and our global present), while at the same time situating the narratives in local history, social issues and geography. On a geopolitical level, it it susceptible both to Balkanism—accepting the Balkans as the “other” of Europe—and to Europeanism or Westernism—the construction of universalist global imaginaries. However, it is also a space for personal narratives and alternative visions, offering locally grounded stories, enriching the SF field. As such, it offers utopian and dystopian settings, escapism and social critique.

As Nevena Daković writes, “The transcultural identity and imaging of Belgrade is the result of a fusion of Balkanism and Europeanism, of local and global aspects in a city that is multi-layered and multi-faceted”. Which identity of the city will be used, in which setting and time (dystopian or utopian), heavily depends on the need to escape or construct alternatives in the present moment.

Illustrations:

  • Technotise and Technotise: Edit & I courtesy of Aleksa Gajić.
  • Bunker Palace Hôtel from Pinterest.com and WorldCinema.org.
  • The Hatzfeld Tetralogy from TapaTalk.com, JogLikesComics.blogspot.com, Passion-Estampes.com, and Pinterest.com.

For more info on SF in Serbia (and Yugoslavia) available online:

 

APPENDIX

Belgrade Cooperative building—the center and mirror of city visions

Hey! (waving) Are you here for… HELLO! Are you guys here for the time travel tour?! Glad I found you so quickly, this place is crowded, follow me. Is it just you or are we expecting others to join us as well? Okay, good, we’ll have some extra space for us then, c’mon. Dobar dan – welcome to Experience Belgrade Through Time, the most popular time travel tour you can find in Serbia. As a promotional tour, we offer taking you to a selected point in the city and watch it how it changed during time. Once you book one of our full tours, you will be able to choose among other exciting programs going all the way back to the Roman times. Now please give me the vouchers, take a seat and put on the security bells. You learned a bit of Serbian already? Ah, rakija, of course. This tour will last for two hours and this time I’ll take you to a wonderful building you could find at Savamala district. Been there? Oh, it’s a must! Let’s go!

Stop 1: 1907

Source: Goethe-Institut Belgrade, Urban Incubator.

This is one of the city’s pearls, look at the beauty of it—decoration, monumentality, how it voluptuously imposes itself to the area, charming everyone. Let us have a glimpse inside… This building we usually call Geozavod, was actually made for the Belgrade Cooperative bank, by our famous architects Andra Stevanović and Nikola Nestorović, whose other works you could see in the area. It is one of the prime works of architecture in this period, mixing academic and Art Nouveau styles, Renaissance and Baroque decoration, and the first one using reinforced concrete in Serbia. Just move aside, izvinite… Saw these workers? The area was surrounded with new buildings, ponds and beaches, as one of the entry points where both merchandise and people arrived in Belgrade. Alas, after World War II, the cooperative bank was no more, the building had different and changing tenants, and underwent architectural changes. Luckily, it was never bombed! Speaking of bombs, let us go the our next stop

Stop 2: 1989

Source: Bac Films.

Čoveče, do you recognize this one? How could it be? The building really underwent a bit of a deterioration, like the whole Savamala district, becoming a place filled with old glory, noise, shady characters and almost forgotten. Or simply unpopular to hang out to. But this one is actually from a surreal movie by a French artist born in Belgrade, do you know who he is? I’ll give you a tip, he made comics… Nikopol? Immortel? (beep beep) What’s this? Nevermind, the movie Bunker Palace Hotel took place in an alternative reality, at the very end of socialism of Yugoslavia, Belgrade being its capital. In the movie, it’s a hotel, but actually a bunker for members of a ruling regime, hiding from a mysterious threat… I won’t tell you more, please do see the movie, and if you like film history, check out Kinoteka’s tours as well!

Stop 3: 2012

Source: Mapio.net

Look at the old lady, all run down, but still standing proudly. Nostalgic gem, memory of times passed, but not too long so nobody would remember its past glory. Ah, the building was used for rave and techno parties from the 1990s, imagine that – marble and electronic music, glass paintings and stroboscope. Somewhere from late 2000s, artists started coming to the area, making it present and interesting for Belgraders again. Do you hear the music? That’s one of the festivals, happening just behind the corner, do you see all the young people? Is the area coming back to life? I remember those times when I was young, thankfully nowadays we could live longer to testify about it. We were a bit afraid back then, afraid of the specter of gentrification, an army of yellow machines tearing down the area we we trying so much to nurture… Let us not interfere here, we need to follow the laws of time travel—stay unspotted, do not change anything.

Stop 4: 2016

Source: Dzodan

After years of being neglected, finally rise and shine! In 2014 the building underwent a major redevelopment as part of Belgrade Waterfront project, which has its seat there. What do you think, do you like the neglected charm or new life? During these years the area started changing drastically—many buildings were torn down and streets disappeared, while others, like Belgrade Cooperative gain a new chance, as part of the investment plan. These skyscrapers behind it are blocking the view towards the river, and many inhabitants found it very controversial—who would live here, when gentrification made it so expensive for all the local people? We… who? Security guard? Oh, do not pay much attention to that guy at the corner, there’s always a busybody at the corner… but we may still go further up the street a bit.

Source: Ne davimo Beograd

(beep beep) Why is this beeping again? Sranje, look at that mass of people, full trust upward… Huh, I’m sorry, I haven’t paid attention to what lies ahead. It seems I took us right in the middle of the protest against Belgrade Waterfront! These people are supporters of Don’t Drown Belgrade initiative. Yes, we’re safe on this altitude. And this was not a violent protest. You can find some data about it in the hand-outs. And that big yellow duck over there – that’s their symbol! “Duck” in Serbian could mean a joke, a scam. Let us move away from here, I can hear the helicopters approaching, and I need some space to maneuver to the next station.

Stop 5: 2074

Source: Black, White & Green studio

Huh, peaceful again. Watch out for the tram. You see, we’re in animated setting! Another artist, comic book author Aleksa Gajić, made a vision of Belgrade which is both old and new, with old-fashion, socialist trams, early 20th century architecture and futurist inventions. The trains are levitating, Belgrade Cooperative has a virtual reality dome, and the Belgrade looks… what do you think, familiar, nostalgic? Nicer than it really is? This was made in 2009, it is interesting to see how people back then imagined our times. (beep beep beep beep) Ok, this is it, the promo tour is ending, I wish to have spend more time with you, for that please do check our full tours, we’ll be able to travel for a whole day, there’s so much to tell about this city… If you have a half of minute of your time, check out the evaluation form and rate me as your guide… thank you, you too, vidimo se neki drugi put!

 

I would like to thank professor Nevena Daković at the University of Arts in Belgrade for her help in writing the original paper, Charlotte E. Whelan for proofreading and Rut Elliot Blomqvist for excellent editing.

Srđan Tunić is an art historian, freelance curator and cultural manager based in Belgrade, Serbia. A fan of science fiction, this is his first text about it. Contact: srdjan.tunic[at]gmail.com

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

To receive our next article by mailing list, subscribe here.

The promise of radical municipalism today

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

by the Symbiosis Research Collective

Our cities are being hollowed out. Real estate developers carve up downtown areas for profit, displacing the poor to the urban periphery. One by one, public spaces are disappearing; cafés and libraries are closing down, and parks are increasingly patrolled by private security. Metropolitan sprawl swallows the countryside, mega-agglomerations stretch across continents.

Urban transportation is dominated, even colonized, by the car. Small grocery stores get shuttered; life happens on strip malls and at gas stations. Neighbourhoods that once had a thriving street culture a generation ago are now quiet, and neighbours barely talk. Politics is reduced to a vote; there is little we can do to have a say and take control over our own future.

It’s no surprise that we are today more lonely than we’ve ever been. Around the world, people experience the steady erosion of community ties, loss of traditions, and a deep sense of alienation. The opioid crisis in the United States is just one symptom of a toxic epidemic of isolation.

A municipalist movement

Despite this bleak reality, a new kind of politics is emerging: a politics rooted in people’s everyday lives, which offers a sense of belonging and gives people a voice. This way of doing politics is materializing all around the world.

To take one example, Jeremy Corbyn put forward his party’s new economic platform this February. In his speech, he named an idea that has been simmering for a while now: socialist municipalism. What does this involve? For Corbyn, it means “the renaissance of local government for the many, not the few”.

The past decade has seen a steady shift toward municipalist-oriented politics on the UK left. The Radical Housing Network in London has been part of this shift, where activists in every neighborhood started sharing resources and linking people fighting eviction and increased rents.

When Grenfell tower rose up in flames, killing 72 people, this network was essential to the provision of much-needed support – and raised up the voices of the survivors who lost their home.

Plan C, another key group organising and coordinating leftist action, has also taken a decidedly municipal turn. In their pamphlet put out last June, Radical Municipalism: Demanding the Future, it states that “the ‘municipal’ – whether we’re talking about towns, cities or city-regions – might be a fundamentally important scale at which, and through which, to generate progressive movements towards post-capitalism.”

In the US, the recent wave of municipal and state-legislative wins of lefty and even socialist candidates was a small, but necessary, victory. Crucially, the growing Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) played a key role in these victories.

Across the country, tenant’s rights groups, often non-hierarchical and democratically organised, are self-organising and challenging a rampant real estate industry based on speculation and predatory lending. These movements and organisations have brought together people across racial and class divides, often becoming a site for people to organize for the first time and develop a political consciousness.

In Jackson, Mississippi, a growing movement for a just and democratic local economy has laid the groundwork for a new municipalism, led by black communities and revolutionaries. Their neighborhood-level base-building has fostered cooperative workplaces and housing, as well as the momentum that allowed them to take over city hall.

Beyond the UK and the USA, there are vibrant movements in Barcelona, Spain; Rojava, Syria; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Oaxaca, Mexico that have been organizing for decades to take direct control of their local government. These movements are helping to build a new vision for emancipatory politics.

Why municipalism now?

For socialists, power has always been in the workplace. This is where people can easily get together, where they have the most leverage against those who make the rules.

But the above campaigns and movements have taken place where people live, on their way to work, and in town halls. In the face of alienation, they bring people together. Against ever-expanding urbanisation, they create meaningful places for people to discuss what matters in community with one another.

 What is unique about the municipal level, and should a municipal strategy replace workplace organising as the primary tactic to leverage power against the state?

Why is this happening now? What is unique about the municipal level, and should a municipal strategy replace workplace organising as the primary tactic to leverage power against the state? Can they work together?

In the previous installments of this column, we laid out our framework of combining local democratic autonomy with creating networks of co-dependency and dual power at higher scales, and used the recent case of Barcelona as an example of such a social movement that has taken over their city.

In this piece, we reflect on the current global economic situation and why the city and town matter more than ever as sites for organising.

Planetary urbanisation

First, if we want to understand why municipalism is on the rise, we have to understand the present global economic reality. Increasingly, capital investments are being redirected from the production of material goods toward real estate and urban development.

The city has become the most profitable site of profit and speculation. The scale of this can be difficult to grasp. Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Shenzhen: these cities have outgrown New York City in mere decades. We can hardly call them cities: they are part of a continuous landscape of urban sprawl.

Even cities in the West are now being shaped by foreign direct investment, privatisation, and securitisation of public space.

Work is also changing. In the past, the factory floor was an active site of politics: the shared experience of work let people get together and block the flows of profit to the bosses. Especially in the deindustrializing and increasingly service-oriented economies of the global North, the workplace has become smaller and more surveilled, and jobs increasingly feel like useless bullshit.

 Today’s factories are fast food restaurants, diners, transportation, and customer service call centers.

Gone are the days of workers’ pride in their achievements: today’s factories are fast food restaurants, diners, transportation, and customer service call centers. At the same time, the economy is getting progressively more unequal, with a greater percentage of the profits going from the working class to the owners of capital. Given that work has become more isolated and fractured, the workplace is getting more difficult to organize in.

Globally, an intricate web of supply chains has solidified into what geographers are calling “planetary urbanisation”. What we usually call the city has become absorbed into what Andy Merrifield calls a “shapeless, formless, and apparently boundless” mesh.

Rural areas are being transformed into stockpiles or sacrifice zones for urban consumption—rainforests in Borneo turned into palm oil plantations, fishing villages on coasts globally decimated as factory-like fishing fleets have brought 30 percent of the world’s fisheries to the point of collapse.

Peasants are left destitute, with rampant farmer suicides and many forced into urban-rural migration, subject to the ebbs and flows of the global economy. Traditional ‘hinterlands’ are increasingly part of a globalised urban fabric.

For many, the urban core has also become inaccessible. Gentrification has “regenerated” areas that just a generation ago had been left to rot by the state. Through that same process, poor people are being forced to move to the suburbs—where there are inevitably fewer amenities like clinics, social centers, and public space.

At the same time, what Ray Oldenburg calls the “great good place”—the pub, the cafe, the library, where people could relax and mingle—is being shuttered everywhere. Through these rapid changes, life has become atomised, isolating. There is no one you can turn to for support, the parents are never home, and neighbours are worlds apart.

Urbanisation vs. cities

Cities have always been places of conflict: full of positive and negative potential. Historically, many cities were places where people experimented with and invented non-hierarchical forms of politics. The city, at its best, represents the ideal where every citizen can participate in the shaping of their own future.

At their worst, human settlements are tightly regulated spaces, controlled by an administrative elite separated from the population. In such spaces, people are no longer citizens, and policies are determined by technocrats and the elite.

The promise of the city is what Hannah Arendt, in one essay, called “the promise of politics”. Real politics is a promise because it remains an unrealised ideal. If politics is the ability of diverse people to come together and intentionally guide their own future, then the city is the space where people are able to do so.

Here it is useful to distinguish between the city and the urban. The promise of the city is what Hannah Arendt, in one essay, called “the promise of politics”. Real politics is a promise because it remains an unrealised ideal. If politics is the ability of diverse people to come together and intentionally guide their own future, then the city is the space where people are able to do so.

The urban, on the other hand, is managerial space. Being ruled by a central administrative body, it systematically undermines organic interactions—anything unplanned is abhorrent.

In the book Urbanization without cities: The rise and fall of citizenship, Murray Bookchin calls urbanization “a force that makes for municipal homogeneity and formlessness”. What should be dynamic and exciting, a space of organic possibility, becomes a space where all interactions are pre-programmed.

It is this kind of space that is now spreading across the world, from Singapore to Lower Manhattan. Urbanization relies on a vast interconnected network that systematically undermines people’s ability to be self-sufficient. As people lose the power over their own economic production they are forced to rely on goods and materials from elsewhere. The urban becomes a space that is unable to limit itself; it can only expand.

More than workers

We are at a key historical moment. The global deployment of hierarchical and undemocratic urban space, speculative urban real estate development, and increased social atomization all combine to disempower the citizen. At the same time, this urbanization of the planet through the undemocratic control of an elite class is a central feature of our impending planetary ecological crisis.

Marxist urban geographers like David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre have long identified these trends, and argued that socialists must go beyond organising on the basis of work alone, for class struggle extends far beyond the point of production.

As working-class people, we face a kind of double exploitation: at the workplace – increasingly fractured and alienating – and where we live – itself a site of profit and surveillance. By taking control over urban space, demanding the right to the city, we can force elites to make concessions and bring capitalism to heel.

People aren’t just workers: we are neighbours, citizens, strangers, acquaintances, and lovers. Without the spaces for meaningful relationships, the ability to practice conviviality, and the freedom to pursue our desires, we lose our humanity.

But it’s not just about taking elites to task. People aren’t just workers: we are neighbours, citizens, strangers, acquaintances, and lovers. Without the spaces for meaningful relationships, the ability to practice conviviality, and the freedom to pursue our desires, we lose our humanity. We become monads, atoms – free from responsibility, but alienated from each other.

The answer to planetary urbanisation, social isolation, the privatisation of our cities, and the ecological crisis is the building up of popular power – to make citizens of residents and consumers, of workers and neighbors. Radical municipalism is the idea that we can build popular assemblies and neighborhood councils, where people learn to manage their common life through face-to-face politics and develop the skills and the power to seize control: to take the city.

A repertoire of strategies

It is in this political and economic context that the worldwide turn to municipalist strategies makes sense. New economic and social conditions have led organisers to focus on the neighborhood level, going to where people are and building solidarity in a world of isolation. But that itself has led to new definitions of what socialism would mean.

With this has come a new repertoire of strategies. From cooperative housing to community gardens, land trusts to democratically-controlled renewable energy, spontaneously organised tenant strikes to social movements sweeping into power in city hall – all of these are part of a kind of bottom-up socialism, helping us to imagine a more ethical, democratic, and just economy.

While the workplace remains a crucial place for building solidarity, the municipality is increasingly at the center of political action. For us, the promise of municipalism is that it can bring people together where they live, and offer concrete resources to battle poverty, displacement, and isolation.

Radical municipalism carries the promise of real politics: through face-to-face interaction, we can undo the bureaucracy that structures and constricts our lives.

Radical municipalism carries the promise of real politics: through face-to-face interaction, we can undo the bureaucracy that structures and constricts our lives.

In this piece, we aimed to show how radical municipalism arises out of the material conditions of the present moment—at the intersection of the history of capitalism and the expansion of a ruling managerial class.

In the next instalment, we explore some of the limits of municipalism that our movements must overcome. In the face of world-scale crises like climate change and growing authoritarianism, can a municipal strategy scale up beyond the local?

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. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev. This article was written by Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi) and originally published on The Ecologist.

Science fiction between utopia and critique

by Srđan Tunić

This essay is the first in a “mini-series” of two essays on the critical potential of science fiction. The first part considers how science fiction can function as social critique and discusses different literary techniques and devices. The second part will expand the story in reference to concrete examples—works by Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić, grounding the analysis in the Balkan context.

Science fiction: offering critical possibilities or escape?

Science fiction (SF) as a genre of speculative fiction serves as a powerful tool in imagining different realities. Its creative potential lies in “estrangement and cognition”, creating a novum, in ideas and/or practical possibilities for the future, as defined by Darko Suvin. It also has potential to create narratives as mirror images and critique of our own societies, whether shaped as utopias, dystopias or alternative histories. It can trick us by thinking we went somewhere else in order to look back upon our own world with different eyes; therefore, this imagining is both real and contextualized. While many academics and writers, artists and critics have discussed the interconnectedness between our “real world” and (science) fiction, this text is primarily inspired by the works by Suvin, a prominent academic and critic, and the anthropologist Ljiljana Gavrilović.

According to Gavrilović, SF “worlds” talk about possibilities. In her book “Svi naši svetovi: o antropologiji, naučnoj fantastici i fantaziji” (All Our Worlds: About Anthropology, Science Fiction and Fantasy), she writes: “That is why observation of imagined worlds does not differ from observing ‘the real world’, the one that we live in. They may be even clearer, mirror all assurances, fears, hopes, dreams, constructions and prejudices which shape human behavior in the real world, their vision of that world, as well as that world itself”. What is real and what is imagined is connected in an interplay, demonstrating mutual dependence. Apprehension of the fiction often requires that the reader knows the context from which it came. One of the questions might then be: but why depart from the real world to begin with?

Fiction can offer both an escape to another world and inspire change in this world.

In a lecture, “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming”, the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman suggests that fiction can offer both an escape to another world and inspire change in this world: “Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds (…) you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.”

On a different (but not faraway) note, Darko Suvin has defined the genre as characterized by “the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition” and the creation of “an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment”. In other words, SF shows us something that is at the same time strange and feels real. SF, argues Suvin, needs to have a cognitive novum, a novelty that enables (scientifically plausible) innovations that also, I would add, provide grounds for curiosity. Therefore aliens, robots, different planets, time travel, genetics, and so on are central means for the creation of an alternative world—but should not be ends in themselves. A story with robots may philosophize on the limits of humanity or a future form of slavery, intergalactic travel could bear dangers of new colonialism, while dystopias tend to warn us about where we might find ourselves in the future if we continue with our current habitual ways.

Overall, much of SF aims to discuss alternatives and create a social critique, supporting (imaginary) escapism, quenching the thirst of our discontent and a desire for difference. Tom Moylan has explored this potential of SF labelling it “critical utopia”, standing somewhere between dreaming and criticizing the status quo, in Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. I would argue that the function of SF is twofold, as it transports the reader to other places while simultaneously grounding that same reader in a familiar context. In a restless neurosis, it both imagines and situates. In other words, by projecting itself into the future, it more or less visibly indicates what we are trying to depart from—contemporary society.

Imagining different realities—in this case, via SF—is never “objective”, ”universal”, but rather grounded in a certain context.

Whether we explore SF authors’ or their characters’ statements, here I find the feminist concept of situated knowledge useful in understanding a subject’s place in a more reflexive manner and with a better account of the world, avoiding claims of universality. In Donna Haraway’s words: “I am arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people’s lives. I am arguing for the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity. Only the god trick is forbidden”. Imagining different realities—in this case, via SF—is never “objective”, ”universal”, but rather grounded in a certain context (and author), which is reflected in the narrative itself. While there are of course also common elements in imaginings of the future through SF (AI, extraterrestrials, space travel, etc), I would emphasize that grounding SF can prove to be productive in social critique and prevent it from becoming mere escapism.

Grounding and contextualizing SF demonstrates that an imagined space is always a social space, meaning that space is a complex social product and construction. Philosopher Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space mentions that even technological utopias, simulations of the future or of the possible, are framed within existing modes of production: “The technological utopia [in question] is a common feature not just of many science-fiction novels, but also of all kinds of projects concerned with space, be they those of architecture, urbanism or social planning.” Architecture, urbanism and social planning in SF may be used as by-products of the story, but still visually and socially organize a given setting.

On literary techniques and perspectives

But not all SF stories mirror the real world in the same way; authors employ many different perspectives and literary techniques. One could understand some of the differences as built on different types of gazes, outlooks, or perspectives, commonly corresponding to the point of view of a story’s main characters (as storytellers) and contexts or settings in relation to the reader’s reality.

In film and visual studies, there has been a lot of theoretical discussion on spectator’s gazes. Gaze theory situates and provides critical edge towards how we see what we see, and how what is seen is presented to us and constructed visually. Through a museum or cinema as setting, a painter or director as our “eyes”, a film or photography camera as a tool, we as spectators are guided through the images in front of us. In SF, various gazes (or perspectives) provide starting points for fictional journeys and can help us ground and contextualize the story in question. I wish to propose three different “gazes” as structuring how SF worlds relate to the present. Two of these gazes occur in both utopian and dystopian stories, while the third is specifically related to alternative histories.

The utopian tradition has left a strong mark in the SF genre. Suvin finds SF and utopian fiction to share many key positions, stating that: “All imaginable intelligent life, including ours, can in the final instance only be organized more perfectly or less perfectly: there is no value-free wonder or knowledge. In that sense, utopia and anti-utopia are not only literary genres, but also horizons within which humanity and all its endeavours, including SF, is irrevocably collocated”. Utopia (Greek u-topos, no-place) although imagined, requires the construction of a believable community, space and laws, an “other world” immanent to the human one, but made more perfect.

The SF genre is still dominated not so much by utopias and visions of a better future as by a tendency to illustrate dark aspects of human futuristic ambitions.

Apart from Thomas More’s classical work Utopia which gave the genre its name, examples from SF include Arthur C. Clarke’s and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars trilogy”. An interesting current development is the solarpunk genre and movement, inspired by the idea that new utopias are needed in a time of ecological and political crisis. However, the SF genre is still dominated not so much by utopias and visions of a better future as by a tendency to illustrate dark aspects of human futuristic ambitions.

Dystopia (“bad place”)—a second variant of the literary template of utopia—is at the same time its polar opposite. Both words derive from Greek and follow the same structural assumptions. More critical viewpoints towards imagining utopias can take place in this “bad place”, like in the animated movie WALL-E by Walt Disney studios which builds on the thread of present ecological threats and people stupefied by technological comfort, clearly sending a warning to our present selves. Other examples include our problematic relations with machines/robots/cyborgs (the Matrix trilogy by the sisters Wachowski, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick and Bladerunner by Ridley Scott, the Ghost in the Shell media franchise, the Terminator series), space colonialism (The Word for World is Forest by LeGuin), the gaps between social classes and creating an ideal society (Elysium by Blomkamp, the Dispossessed by LeGuin, Divergent by Roth), among other. Dystopia is closely related to imaginings of our future downfall as humanity and apocalypse (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Studio Ghibli, etc).

Both utopia and dystopia can employ two different perspectives or “gazes”. It can be the present which is looking towards / imagining / projecting a certain future (were the utopian story template anticipates positive change and the dystopian one cautions the present about possible future consequences of present actions). Or it can be a future which is looking back at its past, our contemporaneity in a reversed gaze (criticizing the present for its flaws in relation to a possible utopia, or berating the present for leading to dystopia). I would argue that some of the best SF works are those that are based in the reader’s present and look forwards from there, often tricking the audience into believing that they have been transported somewhere else. Authors using this perspective often employ the mirror effect, juxtaposing imagined worlds with our own.

There is also a third variant of utopia, often taking the form of a kind of middle ground between utopia and dystopia, namely uchronia—meaning literally “(in) no time” and presenting a hypothetical parallel to our world and time. It corresponds to alternative histories. This perspective is based on “what if” assumptions from a certain point in time in the past. It often creates retro-futurist settings like for example in the steampunk genre, or cyberpunk which is situated in a more dystopian setting. Some examples are The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, District 9 by Neill Blomkamp, Laputa: Castle in the Sky by Hayao Miyazaki, Roadside Picnic by the brothers Strugatsky, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, etc.

This third literary technique can be related specifically to a third gaze position, which could be termed a hypothetical parallel to contemporary society. As such, it can however feature both utopian and dystopian themes. In most cases, it is easily recognized when anachronistic and technologically very advanced elements are present side by side – swords next to tanks, 1930s cars and cyborgs, 19th century Victorian age fashion and time travel machines, and so on.

SF as blank canvas of possibilities?

We would do well to remember that the worlds and perspectives presented in SF are situated knowledge springing from specific contexts, and that any escape—via fantasy or science fiction—can be a double-edged sword.

These different forms of SF could be said to be united by the way in which their imagined worlds are constructed, namely through cognitive estrangement, as I have previously suggested. In discussions of literary genres, SF is often seen as based on science and technology, in contrast to the fantasy genre which is seen as regressive, historical and myth-orientated, discussing questions of race, magic, destiny and gods. This division could be summarized as one where humans are at the mercy of supernatural agents outside of themselves (fantasy), vs. “everyone is the architect of their own fortune” (SF). Gavrilović argues that although seductive, this binary does not address how SF could replace old myths with new (technocratic) ones, or how technology becomes a new god. Even though it makes sense to some extent to view SF as united by the overall technique of cognitive estrangement, I therefore also have some reservations about this definition. We would do well to remember that the worlds and perspectives presented in SF are situated knowledge springing from specific contexts, and that any escape—via fantasy or science fiction—can be a double-edged sword.

From imagined to politically charged visions, SF, just as the media its authors use, is a global phenomenon and can have many different messages and usages. It provides grounds for imagining different realities, and sometimes also for discussing our own. This process of imagining other worlds and Others can’t be immune to politics (left or right, futuristic or retrograde). However, as Suvin contends, SF based on cognition has the potential to critique and clarify “mystified and obscured relationships”, “permit[ing] us a better orientation in our common world”. A given society (or city, as I will discuss in the next essay) provides a set of references and possibilities, serving as a canvas for projections of our own dissatisfactions and desires.

In relation to this discussion, my second text in this two-essay mini-series will consider the spatial and temporal dimensions of the artworks of two comic book authors from the Balkan region—Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić. While Gajić’s work constructs an optimistic future of a cosmopolitan, post 2000 Belgrade, less troubled with the past and very similar to the present, Bilal’s work takes both identity and past as its cornerstones. Their works will be used as regional examples that negotiate both the future and (g)local identities in a comparative analysis where I consider SF’s powerful potential in imagining futures and providing a critical lens for our present.

 

I would like to thank professor Nevena Daković at the University of Arts in Belgrade for her help in writing the original paper, Charlotte E. Whelan for proofreading and Rut Elliot Blomqvist for excellent editing.

Srđan Tunić is an art historian, freelance curator and cultural manager based in Belgrade, Serbia. A fan of science fiction, this is his first text about it. Contact: srdjan.tunic[at]gmail.com

All images: IMDB

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

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What’s it like for a social movement to take control of a city?

Ada Colau, Barcelona’s new mayor, and housing rights activist.
Source: Red Pepper

by Aaron Vansintjan

 

We proposed a broad vision of how to create a new world in the shell of the old in the last three installments of our column. We can chart a new path forward by grounding that vision in the lessons learned from past struggles and an understanding of how hierarchy is the shared root of oppression.

But this can all feel a bit intangible without clear examples. To get an idea of what we want the future to look like, we need to take inspiration from and learn from those already building the institutions of tomorrow, today. In the next few installments, we’ll be highlighting movements and initiatives that we think are some of the seeds of a new world, already sprouting.

In the summer of 2015, the streets of Barcelona pulsed with a victorious energy. Members of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), a grassroots organisation fighting to stop evictions in the wake of the 2008 housing crisis, had started what they call a ‘citizen platform’, Barcelona En Comú.

Popular movement

Though they were registered as a political ‘party’, all decisions would be approved by citizen assemblies and participatory processes.

A year later, they won the majority of votes in the municipal elections on a platform of participatory democracy, defending social justice and community rights, and reversing a neoliberal city government model.

Some old photos of Ada Colau, a prominent PAH activist, being handcuffed by the police in an occupation quickly circulated. Incredibly, she was now Barcelona’s new mayor.

Ada Colau was asked if she was surprised by their victory in an interview with Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman. Her response spoke volumes:

“It was a victory that was accomplished in a very short amount of time. It was a candidacy that was supported and driven by the people. With very few resources and with very little money, we achieved victory in the elections of such an important city as Barcelona. But partly it was not surprising, because there’s a strong popular movement and a strong desire for change.”

Transforming the city

For those living in Barcelona in 2015, it was obvious what Ada Colau meant. Winning City Hall seemed like a flexing of the muscles, an afterthought for a social movement so dynamic and alive that victory seemed almost inevitable.

The new way of doing politics was already prefigured in the streets: people intuitively knew what kind of city government they wanted, because they lived politics in the day-to-day at their neighborhood assembly, at the anarchist social centres, and in their self-run community gardens. It was only a matter of time before these new politics would enter City Hall.

Four years down the line, and Barcelona seems a different city. Self-organised neighbourhood assemblies send representatives to discuss and suggest new policies. Each policy is then put up for approval in an open online vote before it is brought to City Hall.

The brand new ‘citizen platform’ has carried out a well-publicised battle against AirBnB, changing the laws on short-term rentals and trying to minimise the impacts of tourism on residents’ lives.

Now they want to take control over the privatised water company, and build ‘super blocks’ that turn multiple blocks of the city into car-free areas.

Municipalist movements

But during the same time period, the Catalan independence movement cleaved society in two. The new municipalist party found itself in the center of the conflict: it was accused of either not outright supporting the independence movement, or of not doing enough to stop it.

This is a common problem faced by many social movements in modern liberal democracies. As radical urban movements grow, they become more and more integrated into people’s daily lives—providing basic needs, educating people, transforming public space into a site of politics.

But at a certain point, they have to choose to either directly confront, or enter, the government. And as soon as they do get elected, they are forced to deal with the contradictions and predicaments of liberal democracy: constitutions, political alliances, and nationalisms.

To get an inside look of what it’s like to be part of a social movement that has taken political power, Aaron Vansintjan interviewed Kate Shea Baird, an activist now working for Barcelona En Comú, spending much of her time on the international committee, Barcelona En Comú Global.

There, Kate works together with other municipalist movements globally, providing resources and organising public events, like the Fearless Cities conference coming up in New York City this summer.

Together, they discussed how decisions get made within the party and how it relates to the social movements, what makes Barcelona unique and how people elsewhere can learn from Barcelona En Comú’s victory, and how to go beyond the local in municipal politics.

We’ve been really inspired by Barcelona En Comú, but are curious to know how your relationship has changed over the past year with the social movement that brought you to power.

First, it’s useful to separate party and government. For one thing, we don’t really like the word ‘party’. A lot of people in Barcelona En Comú participate in both Barcelona En Comú, the electoral project, and in social movements.

So it’s not like they’re separate entities. They’re not officially in any way affiliated, and in fact people are careful to keep the official separation. A lot of people who participate in both feel a lot of confusion and tension about that role. On an individual basis it’s quite difficult to resolve sometimes.

The other thing that’s useful to think about is that those relationships depend on the issue. When the City Hall is advancing and making progress and the demands of social movements—often very long-term and historic demands—and there’s progress, then the relationship is very positive, in the sense that the social movements feel represented.

They keep the pressure on to keep pushing the government but it’s where the government wants to go anyway. Regulation of tourism is one. Re-municipalization of water is another. Sustainable mobility. The feminist agenda. On those issues, the activists who participate in both Barcelona En Comú and social movements feel much more comfortable.

Then on issues where, either, in a specific moment, there’s a decision that people in social movements are not happy with, then the people who participate in both act as bridges, so that we know immediately what the relationship is, what the reaction is from the social movement, and also we can try to explain the decision.

At least so it can be understood, or why it wasn’t possible to do what we wanted to do. Recently there was an example about the regulation of restaurant and bar terraces. The activist community, specifically the neighborhood associations, are really for strict regulation, because it’s private business taking up public space.

It’s really cheap to have tables in the streets. They want the prices to be raised and the tables to be reduced. It’s not actually a huge demand by the general population, but it’s a super-big issue in the activist community.

Then, just to have an agreement, our government made an agreement with the restaurant sector, which was far more liberal than the activist community wanted.

It’s impossible for the social movements to be involved in taking every single day-to-day decision that comes up in City Hall. So there’s moments where our people in City Hall make a decision and our organisation is like… “Why did that happen? We don’t understand. We don’t agree.”

Usually if the context is explained, people kind of understand what’s happened. But it’s a really complex ecosystem, basically.

Those are the kind of moments where there’s tension. I think it’s healthy and something we’re still learning how to manage. I think what’s most important is that it’s very much on an issue-by-issue basis.

 

Were there tensions between the party and the social movements when Barcelona En Comú entered government?

There was definitely a moment. When we were the activist underdogs in the campaign for municipal elections, it was relatively easy to get everyone on board campaigning to build the project.

And then in the election campaign, some of the most radical social movement people openly supported us, investing time and energy in the project.

And then when you go into government, there’s definitely a moment where a significant sector then steps back and says, ‘good luck, but I want to stay as an independent, non-partisan activist. My work here is done, and now I’m going to either do nothing or be super-critical or basically do opposition from outside’.

Or there’s people who stay involved, but then the first contradiction they encounter, or the first decision they don’t agree with, they can’t handle it, and they leave.

A lot of us have never been involved in party politics, let alone been in government, and our natural position is being anti-, being against, and protesting. It’s really difficult to suddenly have to be justifying the decision of the government, suddenly being ‘The Man,’ you know.

There’s people who are not happy or comfortable in that role, and they drop back. Which is completely understandable, but then at the same time, there’s part of me that thinks, you know, ‘Did you think it was going to be easy?’ Winning the election is going to be the first step. For a lot of people it seemed to be the last step.

That’s just where it begins, that’s when you start actually getting your hands dirty. Stepping out the moment you disagree is easier; it’s more comfortable; you could’ve maintained your ideological purity, or whatever. But if everyone did that, we’d be really screwed. I understand both decisions. I think anyone who stands for elections has to be aware that they’ll lose some people along the way.

You say the first step is winning the election. What’s the next step?

I was referring to really banal things: we went into government, but we have 11 councillors out of 41 in City Hall. Just trying to implement your manifesto when you need the vote of opposition parties to do it means that, inevitably, you’re not going to be able to do everything you wanted to do.

Or the fact that you get into City Hall, even a relatively powerful City Hall like Barcelona, and you realise that not all of the power is there. AirBnB has a lot of power. The Catalan government has a lot of power. The Spanish government has a lot of power. The media has a lot of power. Winning the election is the first step to getting anything done.

 

Barcelona is very different, isn’t it? There’s an inertia of social movements, the abundance of community spaces, and civil society is also really politicised. In North America and northern Europe, that’s all extremely rare. How would municipalist strategies differ in cities that have less of a vibrant political culture?

We had a different starting point. We had a crisis. I know the whole world had a crisis in 2008, but in Spain it was particularly bad and it was also combined with really scandalous political corruption on a scale that’s much more explicit than in the US, for example.

Politicians robbing public money, blatantly. Then we had the Indignados movement, which was in all of the major cities. You can do a map of the Indignados camps and the cities that the municipalist platforms won and they’re basically one-for-one.

Then even before that: there’s a political culture in Catalonia that is very participatory. In Barcelona there’s a decades-long tradition of neighborhood associations. The reason we were able to set up a candidacy and win the elections less than a year later is because all of the organisation was already there. It was just a question of diverting it into an electoral project.

The work of actual construction was already done. It’s very difficult for me to advise anyone who’s starting from a situation different to that. I think it’s important that people understand that it wasn’t built in a year from nothing. And that, surely, the idea of doing that anywhere would be unrealistic.

 

Why do you think there’s a global municipal moment now?

I think people are focusing on municipalist politics because, if you look around the world, it’s what’s working. The panorama is so bleak. Even if you see political projects at a national level that seem to capture the imagination or bring people together like Bernie Sanders, or Jean-Luc Melenchon, or Jeremy Corbyn, they’re not winning elections.

Podemos hasn’t won an election. And like I said, that’s only the first step. It’s not enough. Municipalist projects are winning elections, and they’re also doing it in a different way. They tend to be more democratic, horizontal, participatory, feminist than the national equivalents.

For someone who cares about the way politics is done as well as just winning and implementing a progressive agenda, that’s an extra appeal as well. But I don’t doubt there’s a lot of people who would happily take a top-down patriarchal authoritarian left project at national level if it won.

I’m sure there’s a lot of people who would be like, ‘If I can win the whole country, implement my left-wing agenda from the top-down, I’d much rather do that than spend all my life in local assemblies’. I think there’s a lot of people who are municipalists by necessity.

One critique I’ve seen floating around is that this is an inherently localist form of political action. You won’t really change the way global capital works or the way the larger legal structures work. What would your response be to that?

I would laugh hysterically. There’s a lot of people who think in these very black-and-white terms that you’re either going to overthrow global capitalism (how?), or it’s not worth doing anything. Tell me the project right now that’s overthrowing global capitalism because I’m not aware of it.

I would much prefer a local project that achieves some small victories that show that change is possible than a national or global project that achieves absolutely nothing but has the ambition of overthrowing global capitalism.

 

How do you see a municipal strategy that goes beyond the local?

There’s two things. The first is working as a network. But, to be honest, right now, the only place where there’s a strong enough place for that to work is within Spain. In Spain we have a situation where all of the major cities are governed by citizen platforms [see this report by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation about municipalism in Spain].

That’s a base you can work from. Until we have more countries or regions where there is a critical mass of citizen-run governments, it’s not really realistic to expect a kind of prefigurative global municipalist government.

The other thing is that as soon as you start winning local elections, there’s a huge pressure to stand for elections on other levels. People start saying things like, ‘oh, there’s limits to municipal government, there’s things we can’t do, we have to stand for regional elections, the national elections’.

Beware of that, because for all of the limits that municipalism has it has some very special things about it. You can win, you can make changes; however small, you can change the way politics is done.

As soon as you start to invest energy and time in levels where that kind of thing isn’t possible, thinking that you’re going to overcome the limits of municipalism, you might end up doing neither. Which has been the experience in a lot of regional elections in Spain.

When you try to jump levels within a very short time frame. Some people are against jumping levels ever, some people are not against it in principle but are very wary of doing it too quickly. And then there’s some people who are municipalists of convenience, who see it as a stepping stone to standing for other elections. It’s very much a live debate we have at the moment.

How do decisions get made in Barcelona En Comú?

Usually what happens is that the coordination team of forty people decides to take big decisions to the plenary. The plenary is all the activists who are involved in Barcelona En Comú. Then part of Barcelona En Comú decides, ‘yes, we’re going to start the process to build a Catalan-level party’.

Then the final decision is approved by some sort of wider group of supporters registered on an online participation platform, which gives the final rubber stamp. Usually, all of these debates are also held within each local assembly, or each smaller unit.

The debates are very multi-level and occur over a long period of time. The thing is that once you start a process like that, it’s very difficult, somewhere along the way, to say, ‘oh, this isn’t going how we thought it would go, let’s call the whole thing off’.

So that’s kind of what happened when we tried to scale up to the provincial level. We started with this idea of a Catalan organization that would reflect Barcelona En Comú, and what we ended up with is not exactly that. We’re now having another debate about whether it could be redirected and improved.

 

I’m not quite clear how the democratic institutions in Barcelona En Comú really work…

There’s two things. One is the relationship between Barcelona En Comú and the city government on issues of policy and the action of the government. The other is decisions that are more internal to the political organization that don’t necessarily impact what the people in government are doing.

So, our official link with City Hall is the coordination team: 40 people, four are from city hall. The big issues, we talk about there. Then we have an assembly of representatives just from the neighborhood assemblies, then we have an assembly of representatives just from the policy groups—which are alternative spaces of interaction with city hall.

The neighborhood assemblies are interesting because the City Hall is organised on the basis of districts, which don’t necessarily correspond to our neighborhood assemblies.

There’s an awareness that, to be able to get anything done, you can’t be in an assembly deciding things all day long with other people. It’s usually particularly controversial decisions. It’s working well, I would say. I think we tend to focus on the cases where it hasn’t worked- which is normal, because that’s what generates the most noise.

But if you compare Barcelona En Comú to other organizations in other cities in Spain, at least, we have a very healthy organisation of over a thousand activists and we have governing bodies that are plural and made up of people from different political parties, all working together, all kind of focused on building the organization, implementing our program.

In other cities, either they don’t have the human resources for that to be possible because basically everyone involved in the platform went into city hall, so what was left behind was nothing on the outside.

Or, they haven’t been able to create a new organisation, and they remained as a coalition with different parties and movements who are constantly in conflict with one another. Luckily here we’ve had the critical mass to sustain an organization.

 

You’ve written a lot about the feminisation of politics. What does the institutionalisation of that look like, and how is it working out?

(Sighs) Terrible. Um. No. It’s difficult implementing it in your own organisation. And I think in City Hall, it’s a lot more difficult, because you’re dealing with an institution of the state, with thousands of people working in it.

We’re 11 councillors, we’ve probably got 100 people working in various appointed roles, but the crisis is really the crisis of time, and the crisis of work-life balance of councillors, our mayor, and everyone who’s working in city hall because the challenges are so huge and people are so—it’s not just a job to them.

They’re also activists. And the work is never done, we’ve got people working ridiculous hours, barely seeing their children. Burning out, and getting ill. It’s something that we at an institutional level, in terms of work-life balance is terrible.

In terms of policy, we’re doing pretty well. One of the first things we did was to set up a department of gender mainstreaming. As well as our department of feminisms and LGBTI, we also have another department where all municipal policy has to be checked for its gender impact.

In terms of participation and inclusion, and taking decision-making out of the city council chamber, we’ve done a lot as well. We’ve done lots of participatory processes. Not just, ‘come and participate’, but going out to groups of sex workers, or groups of disabled women, to ask them what they need and want.

Now we’re starting to do some citizen initiative mechanisms, so we have some mechanisms where if you collect 30,000 signatures you can put your initiative to a public vote. So all of that kind of stuff is moving forward nicely.

We’re basically feminising politics apart from ourselves (laughs). By ourselves, I mean the people working in City Hall. I was talking to Ada [Colau], who said, sometimes I just feel like telling people, after 5pm, everyone go home. Live your life. But it’s just not possible. So that’s one of the many contradictions that we’re trying to wrestle with.

How do we take lessons from Barcelona En Comú and apply them where we live?

What I would say – and I don’t really feel qualified to give advice – is to start small—not to just think immediately, ‘I have to stand for elections’. Ada Colau started with the PAH, she didn’t start by standing for mayor.

Every time you can show people that there’s a concrete way that they can improve their own lives, that’s how you can get more people involved, and then more people involved.

Most people don’t want to be involved in abstract political debates. They’re willing to spend their time on stuff if they see concrete results, however small. So that’s where I would start.

In fact in a lot of countries where there are municipal platforms now starting to stand for elections, they started as single-issue campaigns.

Barcelona En Comú is the electoral result of the PAH, let’s be honest. Some other movements as well. In Belgrade, it was against a waterfront development project. In Poland, it was against reprivatisation of public housing.

And often, what enabled a movement to start has been a single issue that people could rally around; and people could say this is about our city; there are more things we need to do; now we feel so empowered because we stopped that thing happening that we didn’t want to happen, or we made that thing happen that we wanted to make happen; now let’s win the whole city.

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 Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

The swell

by Sophie Hoyle

I scanned the horizon—the faint outlines of hills in the dusk, above the rising waters—trying to focus, to concentrate. I fixed my gaze on a point in the near distance: a foamy scum had formed at the edges of the new outline of the river. It had become black, full of silt and debris from the land and buildings slowly subsiding into it. The swelling waters had easily shot over the Thames Barrier, and it still grew and sank with the tides, sometimes revealing the wrecks of car frames, broken fences and scattered bricks at its lowest levels.

I felt a hand softly steadying my forearm, and a lulling voice: ‘now, take a deep breath…’

*

Previously, we were hyperconnected—the flicker of screens waking up, eyes re-adjusting, then scrolling through information, piecing together what was happening to my family in different time zones of Beirut, Cairo, and friends in Athens. The background murmur of news from the wider world was reassuring, but it also made me keenly aware of being hyper-localised—stuck in one place, wedged in behind the computer desk, simmering in anxiety. Until I panic-bought a flight to go over and try to do something, however small.

I wanted to reach into the simulacra of high-definition images of people herded behind militarised borders; I wanted to be a counter-response to the states that were withdrawing and tightening, shrinking-themselves-small in defence.

My cousin Aziz seemed confused as to what help I could really be to the surge of refugees entering the Beqaa Valley, seeing as I wasn’t a doctor and could only communicate in broken Arabic. I had a sincere, but possibly misguided, sense of urgency. I wanted to reach into the simulacra of high-definition images of people herded behind militarised borders; I wanted to be a counter-response to the states that were withdrawing and tightening, shrinking-themselves-small in defence.

However, after I arrived, the British Embassy issued a warning not to enter the region after fights broke out between factions in the camps, and aid workers had got caught up in-between. So, I waited in the apartment in Beirut for more information, hemmed in by the mountains, the sprawl and the heavy air punctuated by clusters of beeps from below. I could see across the piles of garbage in Mar Mikhael to the new buildings with double-glazing and air-conditioning, left empty after their owners from the UAE returned back home. The sticky juice had saturated all permeable surfaces, and the litter that was swept into the sea had started to return. It piled up until it spilled over into even the private beaches with sea walls and concrete tetrapod breakwaters, and had to be removed each morning before they opened. Even if you didn’t have to wade through the festering rubbish directly, people were getting worried about the toxins leaking into the groundwater and the fish that people consumed caught from the sea. The price of bottled water had increased sharply, with people constantly refilling their tanks on the roofs, which started to evaporate after only a few hours. The random power-cuts meant I had to re-shift my workplace to somewhere with a generator, a micro-scale manifestation of the things that were possible-but just-out-of-reach. After searching the backstreets with a fellow student and journalist in the same apartment building also looking for Wifi, we finally found a cafe ready to capitalise on our addiction to connectivity. After scouring for networks, I managed to book a flight and re-routed my trip to Lesvos.

There were no official signposts as the situation was always changing, and no loudspeaker announcements other than the Greek police telling the crowds to push back.

People queued for days to register at the Moria camp, and even slept there overnight to hold their place, shivering in too-thin sleeping bags. Some had come overland as far as from Somalia and Pakistan, traversing the mountains of Iran and Turkey, soaked from clambering down from the boats onto the pebble shores. It was strange to see it up-close, in the always-hurried interactions at night: in the dark, dipping between torn-down fences, pitched tents and burning plastic. Other than death, starvation, or hypothermia, it seemed that the lack of information was the clincher: not knowing how long they’d be there, where they’d be sent next, and who gets chosen or why. There were no official signposts as the situation was always changing, and no loudspeaker announcements other than the Greek police telling the crowds to push back. I only saw once a piece of card tied to the razor-wire fences with the categories ‘Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan’ hand-scrawled in English, and then in their respective languages; but the red ink started to spread and splinter in the torrential rain.

*

We’re not sure how long we’d spent underground at that point. We had crowbarred up the creaking floorboards of the living room, and piled up old mattresses and turned-over tables in an attempt to seal ourselves in. Compulsively clicking through live news updates of world leaders threatening imminent attacks fuelled a moment of paranoia in which I’d purchased a small amount of foil blankets, 5 litre bottles of water and canned food. They’d been kept at the back of my bedroom cupboard, obscured by clothes on hangers, embarrassed at what my housemates might think.

There was a small sense of relief at having thought ahead; though, now, in the dark, in what must have been three days after the torch batteries gave out, we realised exactly how little we knew. No matter how much we tried to insulate the space, there was a far-reaching dampness pervading this area beneath the house: a gap, a link to the outside. Sheer terror had blocked all rational decision-making immediately after we heard the announcement, so we’d rushed and panicked, and were stuck underneath without a can-opener. We stabbed open cans with a pair of old scissors and scooped the cold contents out with our hands. The three of us could only lie horizontally, raising our heads a little before hitting or snagging them, shuffling along and crawling to the bin bags in the farthest corner, which was our makeshift bathroom.

It was hard to know diurnal the rhythms in the darkness, how many days or weeks had passed, but the stench was becoming unbearable.

We hesitated.

We tensely debated the options of emerging: Who would go first? What had even happened? If there was radiation, an outfall, how would we be able to discern the invisible symptoms, the chemical miasma?

Eventually, somehow, we made the decision.

Did they all have pre-paid bunkers? The ones we’d read about in newspaper columns, that elites had secured amidst threats of a social uprising; though these were in the back pages, buried deep under the fanfare of celebrity scandal and political controversies.

When we emerged, we felt ridiculous for having even tried to do anything at all. After the initial wave of relief that we were still alive and that our belongings were intact, we tentatively wandered through the shells of houses, mostly empty, cars gone. Did they all have pre-paid bunkers? The ones we’d read about in newspaper columns, that elites had secured amidst threats of a social uprising; though these were in the back pages, buried deep under the fanfare of celebrity scandal and political controversies. We rode around on bikes to scout out what was happening, but were met with days of silence.

I thought I was used to watching known worlds and delicately constructed identities collapse. Through infrequent childhood visits to extended family in the near-mythical homeland. It was built-up and given such emphasis and importance; then, simultaneously, over a lifetime, we watched it fall apart from afar: explosions tearing through homes and districts, mediated and abstract. I remember glancing to the side to see the suppressed emotions of family members staring tensely at the screen as the British newsreader gave a terse summary of events.  The anticipation of crackling phone-lines checking if they were still alive, —alhamdilluh— sighs of relief; but then agitations and gesticulations as if it were somehow their fault for incidentally living nearby the site of the bomb. Tracing the routes of spectacular wide-angle newspaper shots of places we’d once been, now obliterated. A slow grief.

Eventually, we heard some sirens. We approached cautiously with an ingrained distrust of authority, but also with hope, possibly of rescue, or at the very least, information. They didn’t have much. We’d caught up with the hazard cleaning truck as it was turning the corner to leave the neighbourhood. They’d been painting large black crosses on most of the houses with a thin, dripping paint, though they couldn’t reveal what this was for. They seemed surprised and impressed at our staying put; though as they stood there in biohazard suits replete with breathing apparatus and chemical resistant boots, we looked down at our sullied clothes and felt ridiculous. They mentioned that there was a help centre uphill of where south Croydon used to be. It was in the old London Biggin Hill airport which until then, I was unaware had even existed.

We went back to the house to look at what we could take, packing any remaining essential food, safety blankets, and thermals. I went back into my room, and saw an olive tree wooden bowl that my grandmother had taken across the border, fretting and worrying that they’d be seized by customs. It had made it across continents and decades, and was now sitting on my desk. It was positioned next to palm tree leaves, an ornamental camel figurine and an ankh necklace, the accretions of multiple lives over the years; but they all had to be left behind this time. I settled on taking a small cluster of photos that didn’t take up as much space, and got up to head out.

We followed the half-memorised directions, and were co-directed by other people that we met along the way. Some were better equipped, driving cars with stacks of belongings on the roof bound together with rope and cords, with some chair legs and pot handles poking out. One was a black van with a peeling plastic Zipcar sticker, either taken by the person currently renting it, or stolen from the street. Others were walking by foot, starved out from their hiding places.

We arrived at a site that we presumed to be the help centre, where people gathered in the flat, grassy areas of the take-off strip, now full of tents. New ones were being constructed, despite the strong winds leaving the thick tarpaulin sheets flapping and gasping in turns. The portaloos overflowed, uncontained by the shallow channels carved out to serve as makeshift drainage. The remaining cars were stuck in the mud, tracks gouged out and deepened by tires revving to leave.

We split to each join a different queue, where we stood for a few hours, each one hardly moving. We felt the disquiet growing, tensions spilling out into arguments, and looked up to see people shouting with a megaphone, not knowing how to handle the crowds, and looking more distressed than us. Someone was throwing small plastic containers off the back of a parked truck, many of which became stuck in the sludge. Inside were provisions: small packets of biscuits, cheese, shortbread, and some bottled water. It reminded me of primary school trips and packed lunches, the same herding of people with barks and exclamations to stand in line or hold hands to cross the road. It started to rain heavily and people dispersed back into the tents. They perched inside, necks tilted up at the skies, waiting until it ceased to start queuing again.

For the first week the queues remained orderly. There were people who’d waited years for referrals to doctors for life-saving treatments, to be rehoused to an accessible flat, or to get their asylum status granted: a patient tolerance with a quiet, hopeful desperation.

After the South Coastal Wall was built, numbers had dropped rapidly, and most people were sent to be processed on the Isle of Wight. To have made it to London means that they must have come far in the process of their application—near hope, but once again, out of reach.

There were many people in the queue that had been trying to register at the Croydon Immigration and Asylum Support Service (IASS), who were now two or three-times displaced. Though after the South Coastal Wall was built, numbers had dropped rapidly, and most people were sent to be processed on the Isle of Wight. To have made it to London means that they must have come far in the process of their application—near hope, but once again, out of reach. Their quiet acceptance was in contrast to the permanently-outraged middle classes, seemingly unused to inefficiency or disorganisation, and gesticulating and shouting with entitled demands. This was ignored by the bored youth, who made music by beat-boxing, or improvising instruments from discarded plastic water and oil drums.

Once every three days there was some hot food: a bland, anglicised curry. We couldn’t enter the kitchen, but from the small section I could see through the exit, it looked like those of homeless shelters and camps I’ve been in previously. These had giant metal pots, human-size sacks of lentils, whole crates of onions and garlic chopped and swept in and swirled with spoons requiring whole-body movements, steadying yourself on the sides of the large metal vats, at least a metre wide each way. Any food when cooked on such a large scale inevitably became reduced to the same consistency. We all slept in the largest tent, huddled on the floor, sleeping with our belongings tied round us and under our clothes, held close to our bodies as if in rigour mortis.

It took a few weeks of hearsay to figure out what the process might be. We were waiting to be accepted as refugees in Iceland, the only country left in the region with stable electricity from their geothermal resources, and the only place that would take UK citizens after many years of isolationist foreign policies since Brexit. I heard the same kind of statements that I had made to those newly arriving in Lesvos only a year before: ‘We don’t know exactly what’s happening… the situation is changing everyday… we’ll know later… we’re waiting for another aid delivery to arrive…’

Within the camp, a kind of self-sorting was occurring. Despite being stripped of a material base and all belongings, people moved towards others who were of a similar socioeconomic background, forming different niches. Somehow, the petite-bourgeoise politeness and niceties continued: a want of familiarity, a semblance of normality, the internalised body language and intonation. We caught the eyes of some squatters and ravers, who used the premise of talking to us about our bikes and our tools, among other signifiers that we may possibly be similar, if not the same. Over the months, once we’d built some basic trust, we were allowed into their discussions. We knew that some groups would be prioritised: the ill, families with young children… which none of us were. As supplies dwindled and tensions increased, they’d been considering moving farther out, to set up a community. Cynical, hardened, but also desperate, we went with them.

Soon after, the waters rose again, and all the camps had to move farther out, uphill, and re-settle.

Soon after, the waters rose again, and all the camps had to move farther out, uphill, and re-settle. I remember how we’d learned about the earlier settlers locating next to natural water sources in my primary school geography class, with pencil-shapes diagrammatically outlining the proximity of the shelter (round) to the river (parallel waving lines in blue). We built structures on elevations, slowly learning which ones would withstand the elements, aided by some anarcho-engineers who helped at the Calais Jungle before it was flattened. As a group of anarchists, squatters, artists and a nurse, we could mostly make and fix things ourselves. We had some basic knowledge of the woods we were surrounded by, and some basic medical supplies. We’d scavenged further necessities from the camp, and by sifting through the water when we forayed down to the new edge of the Thames.

Occasionally, we could still smell the back-wind. It was hard to stand the stench of the dispersed water becoming marshy with dead bodies, building remains, abandoned vehicles, and giant flocks of seagulls pecking at the slimed surfaces. It easily stretched across to the former-Netherlands, and sometimes the EU boats came with emergency supplies they’d been safeguarding in waterproof warehouses. They were equipped with solar panels, and things that looked clean, neat and technical. Though they were often mobbed, so now they just threw parcels off the sides, which bobbed along until they reached the shore of hysteric crowds.

*

We spent a lot of the time learning to wait. There was no longer an abundance of white-noise-images filling the gaps, the seconds were hanging, minutes turning into frustration. We had to double-back and go over old memories, to retrieve nostalgic go-to stories stuck in deeply sedimented neural pathways. Thinking about the boats reminded me of relaxation, leisure, holidays… things that were once within reach. How the clear, salty water had trickled underneath the hulls in the ports, the smell of sun-warmed concrete and tarmac, soft to stand on.

I read that veterinary scientists were slicing open the stomachs of dead camels they’d found by the roads, and had extracted from the slopping organs large balls of plastic debris.

I thought of my uncle who lived in Dubai, who I’d last seen during my shortened trip to Beirut. I’d visited him 5 years earlier: cruising along endless highways that by bad design circled around and back into each other. They passed disconnected sites and vague signs—‘Internet City’— that promised different kinds of pre-packaged progress. You could see the burnt grass by the highways under the 45 °C summer heat, where newly implanted patches of soil had shrivelled up already, shrinking back from the squared templates. He prided himself on not living in the extra-luxury high-rises or highly-guarded gated communities, though he was still complicit; I guess that now I was too. In the more expensive end of town there were fake islands constructed by dredging the shores and dumping sand from the desert, forcing them into the shape of a palm tree (only visible from helicopters and private jets I imagine). However, in between the fake-sand palm-fronds the water had started to stagnate without a natural flow to clear it, so sea snakes had proliferated and populated these tiny lagoons. I’d smiled inwardly when I imagined the starts and shouts of entitled people being bitten or taken aback, that despite the glossy real-estate brochures and censored-media versions they could afford, this hadn’t worked out for them. Despite these clear signs of slow-implosion, there was still mass migration to the UAE, the supposed source of stability and employment in the region, but the sandy city of glass towers and construction sites gave way. I read that veterinary scientists were slicing open the stomachs of dead camels they’d found by the roads, and had extracted from the slopping organs large balls of plastic debris. They’d been nibbling on shreds of plastic bags piled up in rubbish heaps, covered by sand outside the city, which had cumulatively tangled and calcified inside them like weights.

Remembering riding a camel as a child in Giza, I asked my uncle how my second-cousins were in Cairo, where he’d recently been. He was initially confused why they hadn’t moved out of the cluttered centre with teeming traffic, to the newer, better satellite cities: New Cairo in the east, or outside of the ring-road in the south-westerly sprawl. But now that the pipes stopped pumping and their cars ran out of petrol, people were already walking in hoards back into the centre, thirsty and starving. Some had driven most of the way on emergency petrol, and then had to push the vehicle for the remaining amount: the hot metal frame slicing through their outwardly spread palms as they gave their whole bodyweight into moving it a few metres more. Others rode bicycles only previously used by their children and domestic staff, struggling with the downsized frames or the unfamiliar physical actions. They stopped over in the half-built apartment blocks for shelter, and looked out onto empty frames of advertising billboards along the motorway; most of the metal had been scavenged, and the once-glossy paper burning on open fires producing an acrid smoke. Some scraps had been hurled by winds into the desert and onto arterial roads, re-grounded in sand or skewered on small rusted fences; they were faded, bearing the faint outlines of cosmopolitan young families enjoying their new villas in the exclusive private compounds. The group finally arrived at the ashwa’iyat in the centre, a dense network of dwellings. Many of the people that lived here had once constructed those isolated compounds. Whole families were employed to construct foundations, crossing slivers of timber that looked like balsa splints to make temporary cages, and laying bricks and plaster to surround them, packing them in tight. They were not happy to see the return of the elites who had unceremoniously abandoned them years ago.

This was all reported back to the shocked heads of the Emmar construction company in Oct 6th City, Dubai. They’d been able to fly their most senior staff back to the UAE, and this information was kept from going public, citing unspecified political reasons for their withdrawal if required. After the achievement of the global corporate monument of the Burj Khalifa, this was hard to take. ‘But,— insh’allah—that wouldn’t happen here, not in the much more developed, politically stable Dubai’ they’d said. The seeds of colonial modernity accelerated by oil production produced a disordered, mismanaged growth of atomised communities. It ate into all corners of life, relentlessly; until no one knew how to survive the sweltering heat outside of these air-conditioned, serviced apartments.

I remember hearing all this, scattered among other things, and spoken of casually as if it were interchangeable, replaceable with other hearsay and minutiae that didn’t affect them directly. While I was leaving for the airport to fly back to London, I saw a series of loader trucks tipping clumps of soil into square excavations, with palm trees to be planted held on standby. They were trying to make the barren landscape seem ordered and pristine, though you could already tell from how the dirt fell loosely, with a fine, powdery dust, that it was drying-out fast in the desert heat.

*

A young child had come up to the nurse next to me, ‘It’s the dirt again’. ‘The dirt’ was contact dermatitis, thousands of tiny blisters that swelled on the skin of her hands and arms, sometimes seeping a sticky, clear fluid. Perhaps some tree sap or another irritant caused it, and strangely it made a similar-looking substance through reacting on human skin, generating until it swelled, burst and flaked off over the next few weeks.

A number of years must have passed, though even the people meant to be marking the time had slacked; either through apathy, or a reluctance to accept this as the situation, a refusal: this was only temporary. We tried to bide the time in a way that could be useful; making paper out of compounded substances, mashing and drying different fibres, flattening them with heavy objects, and learning to not be impatient and flick up the corners just to see if they were ready.  We washed everything in the upper part of the river, but despite rinsing over and over again an oily residue coated everything that could never be gotten rid of. Things were never really clean—not like before. We spent most of daylight hours outside, as people had either forgotten or didn’t seem convinced by the previous public health warnings, and because of the effects of these dangers were immediate.

My own drawing reminded me of book illustrations and graphic novels of the monstrous: the unreal and unflesh. But here it was in front of me; so I added a few figurative lines to indicate movement of the face, eyes, and body, gently tugging in different directions.

One day, I was requested to draw, with precision. What I was drawing were medical conditions, what may have been considered ‘oddities’, which reminded me of 18th century anatomical drawings, stretched out and skewed, next to over-stylised botanical depictions and foetuses in jars at the museum. ‘Can you draw?’, would previously have felt like a conservative and anachronistic comment, but was now a genuine question. I was unused to it and it felt like I was learning my fine motor co-ordination skills all over again. I tried to be impartial in the way that they wanted, but to draw the baby as a dumb, inert object seemed unfair. Its eyes were wet and moving, lolling around in its head as it made slight movements and jerks that the neck and back couldn’t support, instantly falling back to how it was before. Looking back between the child and the drawing there was a disjuncture. The baby’s head did have three eyes, a congenital deformity, but it still seemed much more live, curious, in need of being nurtured, and it was hard to see outside of that as it looked directly at me with a wonky smile. My own drawing reminded me of book illustrations and graphic novels of the monstrous: the unreal and unflesh. But here it was in front of me; so I added a few figurative lines to indicate movement of the face, eyes, and body, gently tugging in different directions.

The mother seemed to want something to be done about the extra eye, even though we all knew this was highly improbable as major surgery was life threatening in itself. We sent the drawing to another commune we were in contact with, to be sent along the chains until it reached somewhere that perhaps had a doctor or surgeon. We drew the plants we now knew to be poisonous and placed them on the trees for all to see. I was embarrassed at my own lack of artistry, and how the ink spread through and blotted the bumpy paper, so their outlines were sometimes indeterminable. I don’t truly believe that I could have identified any of these plants from the drawings I’d just made, but it was all we had left after the Big Electric went down.

It was a sharp tug at the skin that made me look back at my hand. By now I’d spent so long—hours, days—dissociating and practising switching my mind to a different channel.

They were trying to extract an xNT bioglass capsule that had been subdermally embedded. It no longer worked to open doors as most buildings had collapsed or their systems were down, my old passport had by now expired, and the smartphones and tablets we’d been charging by portable solar power panels had broken. A capsule injector had punctured the surface and shot it into place, to where it now nested under a pinch of skin between the forefinger and the thumb. But it had missed the mark by a hairline and was too close to the bone, which had now begun to grow around it. The physical labour of repairing the roofs of the shelters, cleaning pipes and filtering wastewater had made it gratingly painful, and rendered me less useful; as comparatively younger and able-bodied person I was required to undertake basic tasks to maintain our collective survival. They had scraped the rust off another tool, boiled it to sterilise it, and tried to sharpen it as much as possible to try and disentangle the capsule from my hand.  The deep pit in the skin pooled with blood, and I looked away again—trying to concentrate, focussing on elsewhere— looking out over the horizon.

Sophie Hoyle is a writer and artist currently based in London, UK. Their artwork and research explores an intersectional approach to post-colonial, queer, feminist and disability issues. They work in text, moving-image and installation to look at the relation of the personal to (and as) political, individual and collective anxieties, and how alliances can be formed where different kinds of inequality and marginalisation intersect. Recent projects include: Constellations (between UP Projects and Flat Time House, 2017-18), Sheer-Naked-Aggression, Chalton Gallery (2017), Off to Mahagonny, Rye Lane, London, a text for The 3D Additivist Cookbook, Inner Security for Transmediale (2016), We Cannot Unsee (no.w.here, BFI and Wellcome Trust), and Psychic Refuge for The New Inquiry (2015).

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

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May 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.

This month, we’re highlighting articles on radical municipal politics—cities that are at the forefront of social change—and food justice. The question of whether nature should have rights was discussed both on our site and the wider web.

 

Uneven Earth updates

The post-Columbian exchange | Link | How content creators continue to misuse Indigenous culture, and how they can do better

Blueprint for an Earth jurisprudence economy | Link | A speech presented at the UN General Assembly

Endless life | Link| A post from a future

Odetta, Odessa | Link | “The sisters slow their rocking and let the man walk back to his car. They know what has to be done to keep him away.”

Creation | Link | “Their only constraints now were the limitations of imagination”

 

News you might’ve missed

According to a study at Harvard, Hurricane Maria killed nearly 5,000 Puerto Ricans

U.S. moves forward with geo-engineering experiments, defying global moratorium

Costa Rica will ban fossil fuels and become world’s first decarbonised society

Cities are suing oil companies for climate change

The UK government wants to put a price on nature – but that will destroy it. Natural Capital thinking leads us astray.

War criminal Erdoğan gears up for a power-grab. Europe rolls out the welcome mat for the Turkish leader, while Kurds are ethnically cleansed.

The making of a Kurdish Mandela. By keeping a key challenger in jail, Turkey’s government risks making Selahattin Demirtas an even more popular and formidable opponent.

How fracking’s appetite for sand is devouring rural communities. Small towns in western Wisconsin are being divided by a little-known mining boom.

What it’s like surviving in Nigeria’s city of soot. Port Hartcourt residents are protesting against the unregulated oil refineries that have polluted their entire city.

Urban nomads: Mongolian herders battle a new future as they leave the land for the city. As climate-driven drought takes hold, Mongolia’s nomads are retreating to the city – and facing choking pollution.

Growing movement builds unity to defend Indigenous Brazil

How Lula’s imprisonment is uniting workers in Brazil

Why the Herero of Namibia are suing Germany for reparations

New politics

In this Truthout series, Visions of 2018, activists address the questions: What would you like to see created, built or begun this year? What should we work to bring into being? Each of the pieces in this series focus on an idea for transformation, to give us fuel on the journey of 2018.

To be or not to be the change. The first of a series of posts on Chris Smaje’s blog Small Farm Future on the hows and whys of social transformation towards more sustainable societies, particularly in relation to the discussion about individualism and collectivism.

We need a new politics of ecology, write Matt Hern and Am Johal – one which transforms our relationships to each other, to other species, to the land, and to the future.

The emergence of an ecological Karl Marx: 1818 – 2018. “No longer can Marx be read as a cheerleader for economic growth or material progress.”

The global south is rich in sustainability lessons that students deserve to hear

Systems thinking. Fritjof Capra explains why ecoliteracy and systems thinking are crucial in building resilient and sustainable human communities that work with the patterns, structures and limitations of the natural environment: ‘The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community’. Richard Heinberg on Systems thinking, critical thinking, and personal resilience.

Solidarity economy: Building an economy for people and planet. “To survive, we need a fundamental transformation from an economy that is premised on homo economicus—calculating, selfish, competitive, and acquisitive—to a system that is also premised on solidarity, cooperation, mutualism, altruism, generosity, and love.”

The tiny country of Fiji has a big plan to fight climate change

Indigenous women built these tiny houses to block a pipeline—and reclaim nomadic traditions. The houses are affordable and energy-efficient, and are bringing back elements of the Secwepemc’s hunter-gatherer culture.

Local environmentalists fighting pipelines and perceptions in the heart of oil country

Trashopolis! Storytelling, waste research and glocal conflicts

518 Years Later: Rio’s Indigenous peoples launch state council for Indigenous rights

Radical municipalism

Check out this series on Rebel Cities:

Rojava shows pathway to common humanity.

In Warsaw, “Rights to the city” means clean air and affordable homes.

Zapatistas are blazing a world beyond neoliberalism.

Bologna resists Italian fascism through participatory politics.

Jackson rising. In June 2017, the young black attorney Chokwe Antar Lumumba was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, with 93 per cent of the vote. He pledged to make the capital of this former slave state ‘the most radical city on the planet’. Kali Akuno describes the grassroots mobilisation that launched him to office.

These community groups are transforming Rio de Janeiro into a Sharing City

Seattle just showed how to rein in Amazon—and the company is going to war

Meet the rising new housing movement that wants to create homes for all

Gentrifying the Los Angeles river. Once marginalized by the city’s elite, LA’s riverside neighborhoods are now facing revitalization — and displacement.

If you’re in the New York City area, head on over to the Fearless Cities summit this July 27-29.

Lessons from the First Palestinian Intifada: Recent Gaza demonstrations fall into a long tradition of mass unarmed protest and direct democracy.

Why high-density living isn’t the answer to urban sprawl

Community land trust model taking off in Vancouver. 1,039 housing units will house over 2,000 people via a mix of affordable rental buildings and two new self-sustaining housing cooperatives financed by Canadian non-profit Community Land Trust. It is the largest investment into non-market-rate housing of any city in Canada.

Diomcoop Cooperative was formed by Barcelona’s street vendors, mostly African migrants, to break free from the informal economy through training and support in applying for their papers. Read how they organized.

Food justice

Food apartheid: the root of the problem with America’s groceries

How the chicken nugget became the true symbol of our era

A bag of cheap groceries is no substitute for political power. We can’t ignore the economic system, policies, and incentives that encourage 40 percent of all food to go to waste.

Grass-fed beef — The most vegan item in the supermarket

But then again, Avoiding meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth

Decolonising food: Recentering traditional foods in the fight for climate justice. “Subsistence hunting does not decimate species like industrial-scale hunting and fishing. For thousands of years Indigenous Peoples have had a relationship with eating traditional game and fish that includes a spiritual kinship, a connection to the territory, and a responsibility to protect the ecosystems in which the species live.”

Two giants of the local economy movement, Helena Norberg-Hodge and Wendell Berry, discuss human nature, technology, experiential knowledge, agriculture policy, happiness, wildness, and local food systems in this episode of the Local Bites Podcast.

Where we’re at: analysis

Why you can’t have free trade and save the planet. “The economy is not insulated from nature, just as engineering is not insulated from world society. Global challenges of sustainability, justice and resilience all demand much more integrated thinking.”

Margaret Atwood: women will bear brunt of dystopian climate future

How the rich fuel climate change

Our laws make slaves of nature. It’s not just humans who need rights.

The ideology of fossil fuels

End the “green” delusions: Industrial-scale renewable energy is fossil fuel+. Industrial-scale renewable energy does nothing to remake exploitative relationships with the earth, and instead represents the renewal and expansion of the present capitalist order.

Indigenous communities are reworking urban planning, but planners need to accept their history

Rethinking the city through the commons

What is “the Local”? Exploring grassroots justice systems as a means of understanding the local

Inside the controversial world of slum tourism

Why we need to rethink climate change, with Timothy Morton. An audio conversation.

A friendly critique of George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage. “The sustainability problem cannot be solved unless we abandon affluence and growth. Just getting rid of neoliberal doctrine and exploitation is far from sufficient. Even a perfect socialism ensuring equity for all would bring on just about the same range of global problems as that we face now if the goal was affluence for all.”

David Graeber’s long-awaited book on bullshit jobs, jobs that don’t seem to add anything to society other than keeping us all working, is finally here. Here’s a selection of reviews, interviews and articles exploring the topic:

Bullshit jobs: why they exist and why you might have one

‘I had to guard an empty room’: the rise of the pointless job

The more valuable your work is to society, the less you’ll be paid for it

Is your job bullshit? David Graeber on capitalism’s endless busywork

Are you in a BS job? In academe, you’re hardly alone

Why are so many white-collar professionals in revolt?

And the original 2013 essay that started it all.

Barbara Ehrenreich just published a book critiquing the North American culture of wellness, self-improvement, overtesting and overdiagnosis. Read about it here: Why I’m giving up on preventive care and Mind control: Barbara Ehrenreich’s radical critique of wellness culture.

How neoliberalism colonised feminism, and what you can do about it

Just think about it…

Capitalism is collectivist.Get past the well-crafted agitprop, and we see that corporate capitalism is all about subsuming the particular will of an individual to that of the institution.”

Is cyclical time the cure to technology’s ills? “We should recognize that the vast majority of people on Earth today believe time is linear, with one direction leading from past to present to future. But that’s a recent cultural construct.”

A new study finds climate change skeptics are more likely to behave in eco-friendly ways than those who are highly concerned about the issue.

In a grand experiment, California switched on a fleet of high-tech greenhouse gas removal machines last month. They’re called plants.

Do you know where your healing crystals come from? These spiritual stones purportedly help people connect with the Earth, but few sellers will say where on Earth their products are from.

I watched an entire Flat Earth Convention for my research – here’s what I learnt. On science, trust, and declining faith in expert knowledge.

The real reason we’re searching for another Earth. These planets present us with the idea that although an Edenic and unspoiled life isn’t possible on Earth anymore, it could perhaps exist somewhere else—a somewhere else for which we’re homesick.

The Dreamtime, science and narratives of Indigenous Australia

The danger of leadership cults

Almost everything you know about e-waste is wrong

We’re here. You just don’t see us. There’s a common misconception that black people don’t love wild places. Latria Graham, a southerner with deep connections to farms, rivers, and forests, says the problem isn’t desire but access—and a long history of laws and customs that have whitewashed our finest public lands.

Coming to terms with a life without water. For some residents of Cape Town, the memory of the drought is already fading. But, in an increasingly parched world, will the anxiety ever really end?

Technology and society

How Facebook binds—and shatters—communities. “This relatively recent interest in… privacy was a result of industrialization, rapidly growing cities, and the fraying of a local social fabric that once enmeshed (to not say ensnared) everyone within a set of expectations and possibilities.”

New technologies won’t reduce scarcity, but here’s something that might. “As the global community becomes more aware of how their abundance is dependent on other human beings and the stability of environments, more and more will see commons-based businesses as the way of the future.”

Also by Vasilis Kostakis: Utopia now. “In 1890 William Morris imagined a world free from wage slavery. Thanks to technology, his vision is finally within reach.

Sci-fi, literature, and culture

James Bradley recommends the best Climate Change Fiction

Ten years in the making, a documentary about Ursula K. Le Guin drops its first trailer.

The new primitives. “There are myriad peoples across the globe struggling and fighting to maintain forms of social organization that have neither been co-opted into regular capitalist activity nor exist in some always imperiled state “beyond” civilization. These struggles do not need random voluntary acts of “rewilding” or fly-over videos of pristine nature. They need material support and political solidarity.”

Resources

Diversifying the economic toolkit. A free introduction to pluralist economics which looks at Post-Keynesian, Marxist, Austrian, Institutional, Feminist, Behavioral, Complexity, Cooperative and Ecological economics.

Shipmap. An interactive visualization of global shipping.

A list of publications devoted in large part to eco-literature: essays, articles, short stories, and poetry.

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn) and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter? Subscribe here.

The post-Columbian exchange

When Indigenous and pop cultures meet, as in Civilization VI, subconciously colonial mindsets can cause conflict. Source: Sid Meier’s Civilization VI

 

by Travis McKay Roberts

Grandpa’s voice was weak, forced. I’d never heard him like this, not in the first round of chemo, nor in the weeks after he’d decided that enough was enough and he would let the cancer take its course. Years later, after advanced radiation therapies and hormone treatments and inexorable time, he and I were talking together for what would become the last time.

‘I’m working on a story,’ I told him. I had never told him about any of my writing before. ‘It’s sort of a re-telling of Cherokee history but fictionalized. There’s a seed of a story this anthropologist recorded, and I want to dive into it a little bit.’

‘I always thought the story of Louis Riel would make a good movie,’ he told me. That script would be one of the last that my grandpa would work on before he passed away.

Raoul McKay was a documentarian, historian, and a champion of Indigenous education in Canada. He was also Metis, and passionate about sharing our people’s stories with the world. Time was, you could see an exhibit he helped put together at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. I would make the pilgrimage every other month or so, from my home in the northwest of the city. There’s a new exhibit there now. I haven’t been.

What I have been doing is continuing on my grandfather’s work from a different perspective. Over the past few years, I have been blessed enough to pursue passions in both fantasy worldbuilding and Indigenous representation via prose, tabletop game design, and conversations in conferences and forums like this. Through it all has run a single thread: while the culture and history of native North America has been repressed, it cannot be forgotten.

We can imagine the stories of Indigenous peoples burning like bonfires across the Americas. Each one distinct, with its own fuel, smoke, and flame. Many have been dashed to embers when colonists rolled across the continents like a wave. But despite displacement, forced assimilation, and even genocide, there are embers yet alive. They have been handed down from elder to child, again and again – and now, they are being relit.

But from time to time, just as a fire is starting to go, someone powerful comes in, admiring the flame and wanting to make it their own. So, in it goes, into a great heap of other torches, and a unique glow is lost amidst a pyre of a hundred thousand stories.

When Indigenous stories are separated from the communities that made them, they often lose what made them special in the first place.

To the untrained eye, the act of appropriation might look like salvation. A tiny flame is coaxed into something much bigger, even more significant and impactful by western standards. But a closer look betrays the truth: when Indigenous stories are separated from the communities that made them, they often lose what made them special in the first place.

JK Rowling illustrated this for us in 2016, when she published a brief history of magic in the Americas on Pottermore. The most controversial part of the passage had to do with Skinwalkers, or as they are known to the Diné (Navajo), yee naaldlooshii. The Diné have traditionally taught their people about this shape-shifting witch as a stark contrast to what is held as good and proper in Navajo society. In JK Rowling’s retelling, she writes:

The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation. In fact, the majority of Animagi assumed animal forms to escape persecution or to hunt for the tribe. Such derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.

The outcry was instantaneous. Dr. Adrienne Keene, a Cherokee academic who writes on Indigenous appropriation summed up the general outcry well:

What you do need to know is that the belief of these things has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave, it’s much deeper than that… What happens when Rowling pulls this in, is we as Native people are now opened up to a barrage of questions about these beliefs and traditions (take a look at my twitter mentions if you don’t believe me)–but these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems “unfair,” but that’s how our cultures survive.

Navajo writer Brian Young responded to the Pottermore piece with anguish, tied to the vital role traditional Navajo culture has played in his survival:

I’m broken hearted. Jk Rowling, my beliefs are not fantasy…. my ancestors didn’t survive colonization so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.

Young responded with more than critique. He also took the moment as an opportunity to self-reflect and live out a best practice, writing:

I’ve decided to seek advice from the diné medicine men association for their opinion on how I depict my culture in my young adult book.

Young demonstrated the antithesis of what Rowling practiced. Rowling’s writing lumped the hundreds of nations, tribes, and bands Indigenous to North America into a single people group, and took a vital piece of their culture out of context without consultation. Young went to the source of the stories. Doing so allowed him to ensure that when he took real cultural practices into a fictional setting, he was doing so with humility and respect.

Of course, JK Rowling hasn’t been the only one to take a stray step in terms of appropriation. Last year, when Firaxis announced the inclusion of the Cree chief Poundmaker in Rise and Fall, the latest expansion to the 4x strategy game Civilization 6, a headman from Poundmaker’s own band responded in force. In an interview with the CBC, Milton Tootoosis lambasted the game, saying that it ‘perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land. That is totally not in concert with our traditional ways and world view’. He also noted that Firaxis hadn’t approached Cree peoples as they developed the character and associated nation, but didn’t seem surprised, saying ‘This is not new. Hollywood has done a job for many decades of portraying indigenous people in a certain way that has been very harmful’.

To understand Tootoosis’s critique, you need to understand a little bit about the Civilization franchise, and the 4x genre. 4x games are strategy games, built on four core mechanics: exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination. Civilization plays this out by having players control a nation, exploring a blank map, conquering rogue barbarian tribes, extracting resources, and developing a network of cities that allow the nation to exert cultural, scientific, religious, or military dominance over the world. To many Indigenous observers, these mechanics are rooted in the same colonial mindset that brought European colonizers into ‘the New World’, and lead to the breaking of treaty bonds in pursuit of oil extraction in places like the Athabascan oil sands in Canada’s Treaty 8 land today.

For Tootoosis, placing Poundmaker in this genre was inherently counter to the man’s legacy of striving against colonialism. Although the game’s mechanics encourages a player controlling Poundmaker to develop alliances with other players, those alliances are still created in the context of the 4x genre, and lead to eventual global domination.

However, there were in fact positive aspects to the portrayal, which were done via a process of consultation. Each civilization is given a unique, unfolding, soundtrack that develops over the course of the game and is rooted in a traditional song of the nation. In order to develop the Cree theme, Geoff Knorr worked with the Poundmaker Singers, including one Clyde Tootoosis. The CBC reports that Clyde saw his work with Knorr as ‘an awesome experience’, though he ‘felt sorry that certain people were offended’. In contradiction to Milton, Clyde sees the game as an opportunity to share the name and culture of Poundmaker and his Cree – a clear sign that consultation can go a long way towards making a people feel heard and respected.

The balance between Clyde and Milton’s views has led me to the unique challenge of attempting to tell my own stories inspired by the cultures of the Americas, while still respecting the communities who made them in the first place.

Atohi and Nanye

The story I told my grandfather about has grown into my own story of Atohi and Nanye. In this work, I seek to retell a traditional Cherokee story, but in the fantasy genre (a similar pattern was followed by George RR Martin when he plopped the War of the Roses into Westeros). In it, a woman named Nanye roots out a corrupting force at the heart of the priestly clan’s power, and her beloved Atohi starts a revolution to bring her safely home. I first learned of this bit of history through American anthropologist James Mooney, who in turn learned it from the Cherokee:

The people long brooded in silence over the oppressions and outrages of this high caste, whom they deeply hated but greatly feared. At length a daring young man, a member of an influential family, organized a conspiracy among the people for the massacre of the priesthood. The immediate provocation was the abduction of the wife of the young leader of the conspiracy. His wife was remarkable for her beauty, and was forcibly abducted and violated by one of the Nicotani while he was absent on the chase. On his return he found no difficulty in exciting in others the resentment which he himself experienced. So many had suffered in the same way, so many feared that they might be made to suffer, that nothing was wanted but a leader. A leader appearing in the person of the young brave whom we have named, the people rose under his direction and killed every Nicotani (Ni-go-ta-ni), young and old. Thus perished a hereditary secret society, since which time no hereditary privileges have been tolerated among the Cherokee (Myths of the Cherokee, James Mooney, p. 393).

The events described here are ripe for fiction. There is romance, corruption, and revolution. A chosen one defeats his enemies utterly and brings lasting salvation for his people. A story grows out of such fertile ground quickly. But it has never been my goal to simply tell a good story. I want to tell a good story that illuminates the better story about the people behind it. I want to guide readers towards the living people who have inherited the legacies of my inspirations, and let those people speak for themselves. To do so, I must avoid stereotype and colonialist tropes. As much as possible, I must allow the Indigeno