Political ecology

Photo credit: Stephanie Salazar

by Panagiota Kotsila, Salvatore Paolo De Rosa & Ilenia Iengo

The relationship between nature and society is one of coevolution in which the question of how power is distributed is central. Political Ecology can untangle how the structuring of socio-ecological relations may reproduce injustice or afford openings towards emancipation. Like a toolbox to unpack and understand the complexity of the socio-ecological crises we live in, political ecology is dedicated to a more just and inclusive world. 

As a field of inquiry, Political Ecology has many roots and branches united by the common endeavour of observing, analysing, reflecting upon, and communicating how environments are produced by the interaction of social and biophysical processes. Political ecologists document the power struggles that make and remake “the environment”. They provide an understanding of the environment as a dynamic material reality, with exchanges between human and non-human actors, as well as a symbolic arena where different (and often clashing) knowledges, desires and ideologies are cast. Political ecologists claim that the natural and the social spheres are inseparable in practice. Nature and society are constantly co-constituted through processes of coevolution, and their relationship is fundamentally shaped by power and meaning. 

Political ecologists document the power struggles that make and remake “the environment”.

Political ecology is the child of human geography, cultural ecology and development studies. In its infancy (1980s-90s), it was concerned mostly about environmental degradation, rural development and the global South, where it examined the uneven distribution of ecological costs and benefits, and the resulting socio-environmental conflicts and grassroots resistance. Later on, it attracted attention from fields such as anthropology, science and technology studies, feminism and public health. In a nutshell, political ecology developed as an approach that could tackle complex socio-natural phenomena in a novel, encompassing and transversal way. 

Many have called it a trans-disciplinary, supra-disciplinary, or even un-disciplined field, due to its incorporation of theories, methodologies and practices from different academic and non-academic arenas. From a rather elusive area of study, political ecology is becoming a strong, ever-evolving and diverse field of its own, of central importance and reference in the contemporary times of climate emergency and socio-environmental injustices, democracy crisis, planetary ecological degradation and widening inequalities. 

Political ecology’s main pillars are two (anti-)claims: 

1. The anti-Malthusian argument: Resource degradation is not due to general population increase, but to the relentless extraction of resources for the (over-)production and consumption of commodities, which benefits some while threatening the livelihoods and survival of others. Furthermore, in a globalising world, attention needs to be paid to how different scales meet, i.e. to the connections between proximate causes of environmental change and degradation, and the more distant but powerful processes that contribute to such changes. Extreme floods, for example, are not only due to local forest clearing and land use change which might include unauthorized construction, but are also reinforced by increasingly abrupt weather events as part of global climatic change, which in turn is exacerbated by those same land use changes and uncontrolled urbanisation patterns. Political ecologists recognise these connections and underline the powerful interests that motivate and perpetuate such changes. In this vein, the discipline resists declaring this era simply as the “Anthropocene”, which represents the human species acting as one in the process of degrading the planet’s resources and altering its biophysical processes. Instead, it places attention to the political and economic histories and specific actors that produced the current global ecological crisis. This means paying attention to how unevenly distributed are the responsibilities and adverse outcomes of such crises, in turn reflecting  power relations in society (hence claims for the Capitalocene, Chthulucene, Anthropo-obscene, Wasteocene or even White (M)Anthropocene). 

2. The anti-apolitical ecologies: Or in other words, nothing in “nature” is simply natural. While political ecology relies on strong ecological thinking, it also recognises that what we know of nature, and the imaginaries we hold of it, is a result of historical power/knowledge asymmetries. These include colonial views and conceptualisations of the biophysical environment (e.g. wilderness, pristine forests, etc.), which have come about, survived to this day and become hegemonic through violent practices of injustice and domination over indigenous populations of both humans and non-humans. Urban Political Ecology brings this “nature-cultures” understanding to the urbanization process. In opposition to the interpretation of cities as unnatural spaces, urban political ecology claims otherwise. It focuses on the socio-environmental injustices that come along with processes of altering, (re)producing, negotiating, (re)distributing and (re)imagining socio-ecological configurations in the process of urbanization, urban planning and urban life. This means paying attention to the lived experiences of environmental racism, grassroots claims for the right to live in healthy environments and the growing coalition politics of emancipatory feminist, environmental and decolonial commoning experiences in urban contexts and beyond.

Nothing in “nature” is simply natural.

What politics?

For those doing Political Ecology, scientific research is not detached from knowledge/power relations and this recognition has multiple repercussions on how most political ecology is being carried out, or at least, the goals it sets for itself. First, political ecologists believe that considerations of justice, equity and fairness in relation to race, gender, class, ethnicity and other socio-cultural and material inequalities, should be put at the center of research practice and should constitute a shared horizon of values towards collective emancipation. Second, political ecologists often take a position of solidarity with movements that defend humans’ and nature’s rights, and with disenfranchised and often marginalised people that struggle for their voices and claims to be heard. Third, attention is paid to critically reflect on how one’s own position in terms of geography, class, gender, cultural background and interests, influences observations and the whole research practice. Researchers often align and engage with movements but are careful not to romanticize or misrepresent them, as well as not to over-exploit them as informants without giving back.

At the same time, a recent wave of post-/de-colonial thought has increasingly informed political ecology, pushing for the decolonization of political ecology literature, the recognition of non-white and non-western authors, including the doing away with barriers between “researcher” and “research subject”, recognizing various forms of knowledge making, and visibilising the valuable contributions of thinkers outside strict academic silos and outside of academia tout court. Along the same lines, a powerful feminist “turn” in the field is paying attention to intersectionality of power subjection (that includes but is not only about gender or women).

A more serious account of the affective, emotional and embodied experiences of people with/in nature can help to understand socio-environmental conflicts and movements. 

Feminist Political Ecology accentuates the importance of decolonising what we know of the world, revisiting knowledge gathered and generated by white western men in powerful institutions during and beyond colonisation, and open up to voices, words and meanings offered by subordinated cultures, non-binary subjectivities and minority peoples. Feminist Political Ecology is further advocating for a more serious account of the affective, emotional and embodied experiences of people with/in nature and in projects of ‘being in common’. This will help to understand the nitty-gritty of socio-environmental conflicts and movements, focusing on how different, ever-changing and interdependent the lives of humans and non-humans really are. This is, as Feminist Political Ecology asserts, what can give space for situated knowledges to replace colonial and universalizing accounts of the complex worlds we are part of.

What ecology?

Political ecology, however, is confronted with a number of internal tensions, much of which boils down to the question of what constitutes “ecology” and thus, what ecology do we stand for and imagine for the future? If nature cannot be seen separately from society and power relations, what are the environmental principles and ethics that the field goes by? While much of Political Ecology offers a deep analysis of the why and how in socio-natures and related conflicts, only some goes as far as sketching a more concrete way forward. 

Aligned with pertinent debates in Political Ecology, degrowth is a movement of activists and intellectuals which inspires, and is inspired by, grassroots practices reflecting on and experimenting with post-growth ways of individual and collective lives. Degrowth offers alternative visions for socio-ecological relations, which are different to capitalism and real socialism, both of which are based on environmental devastation for the final aim of profit accumulation and competitive power over other states. Degrowth articulates an analytical vocabulary of practice around concepts such as ‘autonomy’, ‘conviviality’, ‘care’ and ‘dépense’. On the opposite side of the spectrum there are the ecomodernist and ecosocialist movements, both considering the public control of the means of production through democratic and horizontal processes of decision making to be the way out of the ecological and social crisis. While according to ecomodernists technological progress will be instrumental in this process, ecosocialists focus on the political and social formations that could bring about such changes. 

Degrowth focuses on a radical critique of the growth and productivist imperative demanding a clear, voluntary, democratic and equitable reduction of extraction, processing, transport, consumption and disposal of materials and energy. According to “degrowthers” this is the only way to reduce emissions and abandon environmentally catastrophic processes, while also addressing aspects of inequality and injustice connected to such processes. Ecomodernists and ecosocialists alike, on the other hand, maintain a positivist perspective towards technological innovation and progress, beyond neoliberal propositions of green/blue growth and towards a return to projects that environmentalists had long stood against, such as nuclear power, centralized planning and industrial agriculture. Political ecologists recognise that ideas of nature are social constructions, but they also stand strongly against Western/anthropocentric  notions of complete control and domination over “nature”, as this is denying agency both to non-human beings and to non-western understandings of socionatural dependencies and value systems. 

Some key resources and readings:

Peet, R. and Watts, M. (2004) Liberation ecologies: environment, development and social movements. Routledge.

Heynen, N., Kaika, M. and Swyngedouw, E. (eds) (2006) In the Nature of Cities. Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism. Routledge.

Di Chiro, G. 2008. Living Environmentalisms: Coalition Politics, Social Reproduction and Environmental Justice. Environmental Politics. 17(2): 276-298. 

Rocheleau, D., Thomas-Slayter, B. and Wangari, E. (2013) Feminist political ecology: Global issues and local experience. Routledge.

D’alisa, G., Demaria, F. and Kallis, G. (2014) Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era. Routledge.

Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Perreault, T., Bridge, G. and McCarthy, J. (eds) (2015) The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology. Routledge.

Svarstad, H., Benjaminsen, T. A. and Overå, R. (2018) ‘Power theories in political ecology’. University of Arizona Libraries.

Álvarez, L., & Coolsaet, B. (2018). Decolonizing Environmental Justice Studies: A Latin American Perspective. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 1-20.

Escobar, A. (2008). Territories of difference: place, movements, life, redes. Duke University Press.

Political Ecology for Civil Society: a “manual” developed by Entitle fellows 

Ecologia Politica – Cuadernos de debate internacional

Kothari, A., Salleh, A., Escobar, A., Demaria, F., Acosta, A. (2019). Pluriverse a Post-Development Dictionary. Columbia University Press.

Plumwood, V. (1993). Feminism and The Mastery of Nature. Routledge, New York and London. 

Panagiota Kotsila is a post-doctoral researcher at the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability, ICTA, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Her work looks into political ecologies of health, the politics of urban sustainability and environmental justice from an intersectional and feminist perspective. 

Salvatore Paolo De Rosa is a researcher at the Environmental Humanities Lab of KTH (Stockholm). His interests are in political ecology, geography and anthropology while his work focuses on environmental conflicts, socioecological metabolisms and grassroots eco-politics. Currently, he is investigating climate politics in Malmö.

Ilenia Iengo is a scholar activist PhD fellow in Feminist Political Ecology, member of the Marie Sklodowska Curie WEGO ITN at the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability, ICTA UAB. Her action research is situated in the Southern European city of Naples where she focuses on emancipatory urban politics and imaginaries sprouting at the intersection of transfeminism and environmental justice.

Development

A snapshot of growth-led development in Delhi-NCR, India. Photo by the author.

by Vandana

The term ‘development’ perhaps needs no introduction. To develop is to improve the conditions in which we live. But what should be the path of development? Can there be only one way to develop? What are the prevalent ways of thinking about development and what have they meant for the majority of people in the world? The dominant means of development have largely been counterproductive, wreaking ecological damage and social inequality in most parts of the world. To understand where to go from here, it is crucial to understand that development processes and the goals of prosperity are politically determined.

The dominant means of development have largely been counterproductive, wreaking ecological damage and social inequality in most parts of the world.

The modern model of development grew out of the end of the colonial period, when colonial empires assumed the duty of developing the former colonies. Since then, colonial-era power relations have continued to play out under the guise of economic development. Institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) formed in the 1940s with the promise of stabilizing the economy and rebuilding war-torn Europe. Their strategies centered Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a key indicator of development. At the same time, with their deep-seated colonial ambitions, the triumphant Allied Forces—France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union—came to define development. US President Harry Truman used the word ‘underdeveloped’ for the first time in his inaugural address in January 1949, dividing the world according to regional poverty and prosperity. High levels of poverty coincided with low levels of industrialization, bolstering the belief that Western-style development would be inevitable for these ‘underdeveloped’ countries. 

Countries like Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, and later on the US, saw an improvement in living conditions as a result of the Industrial Revolution. At the same time, a hierarchical relationship developed between business owners and workers. Within this new relationship, peasants lost their relationship to the land and became workers who sold their labour in return for a wage. Increased production set the stage for mass consumption, which signaled improved access to material goods for the workers themselves. But the perceived success of the Industrial Revolution was mainly due to the extractive colonial expeditions that boosted Western economies through the supply of enslaved people and the import of goods.  As this model of industrial production proved its ability to generate an abundance of profits and products, it came to serve as a paradigm for development around the globe. By the mid 20th century, many countries in Asia, Africa, and South America were finally liberated from colonial rule, but pursued this Western model of development due to its perceived success. 

In the 50s and 60s, dominant economic theory emphasized the need for countries to modernize by moving their labour force away from agriculture and towards sectors like manufacturing and services. This was called ‘structural transformation,’ and was made popular by the works of economists W. Arthur Lewis and Walt W. Rostow. So-called ‘primitive’ sectors like agriculture underwent a complete overhaul to improve productivity, efficiency, and incomes. This theory of development—which proposed that GDP growth would lead to the improvement of living conditions—faced a challenge in the 70s and 80s. The ‘Limits to Growth’ report, published in 1972, brought ecological concerns to the forefront, while environmental movements gained momentum all around the world. The report argued that unlimited material and population growth would not be possible because the planet’s resource pool is limited. By the end of the 1980s, the United Nations released ‘Our Common Future,’ a report that gave rise to the idea of sustainable development. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), launched in 2015, are based on this report’s definition of sustainability. 

Another framework, called the capabilities approach, proposed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, suggested expanding the scope of existing goals of poverty alleviation programs. By expanding the focus beyond income improvement alone, the capabilities approach proposed that an expansion in the opportunities and freedoms available to those experiencing poverty is essential for overall development. This approach eventually led to the conception of the Human Development Index—a measure of whether a country is capable of ensuring good health, education, and income for its residents. However, while the goals of development expanded, the mechanism for achieving them—GDP growth—largely continued unscathed.

Proponents of growth-centric economic development—namely world leaders and policymakers—argue that access to healthcare, education, and basic freedoms will grow once incomes begin to grow. They also assume that economic growth based on the principles of the free market—which had triumphed by the 1980s—will provide solutions to ecological degradation. The claim made in ‘Our Common Future’ that ‘poverty places unprecedented pressures on the planet’s land, water, forests, and other natural resources,’ brought the alleviation of poverty to the center of sustainability and human development discourse. 

In the past few decades, poverty alleviation programs have helped move millions of people out of extreme poverty, but they have not done much to increase the freedoms or opportunities afforded to them. This is due to several reasons. First, the threshold which determines extreme poverty is set very low, at an income of less than 2 dollars a day. Any movement above this level does not guarantee an improvement in people’s lives. Second, World Bank data confirms that the poverty reduction rate has slowed down recently, and that the absolute number of people living below the poverty line has barely declined since the 1990s despite the goals of these programs. The third, and most important problem lies in the relations of production that this path of development creates as it actualizes.

Growth-driven development triggers a process of dispossession. It plays out through the loss of access to land and resources and through the experience of the environment’s continuous degradation.

In the case of India, this path of development has led to a significant change in land use, from forestry and agriculture to industry and mining. It has also altered human-nature relations and power relations between the State, the market, and communities. This shift has triggered a process of dispossession that plays out in two ways: one, through the loss of access to land and resources (soil, water, forest, foliage, etc.), and second, through the experience of the environment’s continuous degradation. In response, people move out of rural agricultural areas and migrate to industrialized cities with the hope of earning higher incomes. However, the work they find does not necessarily ensure good health, access to education, or the ability to make savings. With neither the private sector nor the State investing in programs that provide decent living conditions, the majority of the population is left feeling betrayed and stranded. This dissatisfaction has given rise to numerous resistance movements. The Chipko movement (1973), Narmada Bachao Andolan (1985), Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (2003), and Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (2009) are a few examples of movements that have resisted the crucial features of the mainstream development model like the construction of big dams and mining projects. These struggles foreground the underlying violence of growth-driven development. 

It’s time to rethink the idea of development, and to create alternative relationships to production.

These conflicts among communities and different agents of development—namely, the State, NGOs, and private industries—have deepened in the recent past, indicating the growing desperation among all stakeholders. The sharp increase in the level of inequality in the past three decades confirms that this development model only supports the interests of business owners and landowners at the expense of workers and the environment. It’s time to rethink the idea of development, and to create alternative relations of production. The future of development thought must focus on the creation of more meaningful and ecologically sensitive work. It should give more space to the knowledge and ideas of the subaltern groups in India—the Dalits, bahujans and adivasis—in defining the idea of sustainability. For development to truly deliver on its promise—the betterment of life for all—it must engage a multidimensional understanding of poverty. As we’ve learned, poverty manifests not only through financial hardship, but also through the loss of access to life-sustaining resources, the degradation of one’s environment, lack of healthcare, diminishing leisure time, and a scarcity of meaningful work for the majority of people in the world. A new approach to development must address the increasing precarity in the lives of people confronted with industrialization and conservation policies.  

Further resources

Philip Alson, Philip Alston Condemns Failed Global Poverty Eradication Efforts, July 2020.
A recent report and commentary by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (2014-2020), on the false promise of the existing approach toward poverty alleviation.

Demaria, F., & Kothari, A. (2017). The Post-Development Dictionary agenda: paths to the pluriverse. Third World Quarterly, 38(12), 2588-2599.
A crucial resource for understanding the conceptualization of future development paths. 

Shiva, V. (2013). How economic growth has become anti-life. The Guardian, 1.
A critical overview of the growth-driven economic model that elucidates how growth-driven development impoverishes farmers. 

Escobar, A. (2011). Encountering development: The making and unmaking of the Third World (Vol. 1). Princeton University Press.
This book offers a political understanding of the process of development. It describes the ways in which expert-led knowledge originating in the West came to define poverty and development in the so-called developing world.    

Gerber, J. F., & Raina, R. S. (Eds.). (2018). Post-growth thinking in India: Towards sustainable egalitarian alternatives. Orient Blackswan.
This book discusses post-growth theories, from the perspective of a developing nation. It argues that moving beyond growth-led thinking is not a privilege of the Global North/developed world but also a requirement for the Global South/developing world. 

Goldman, M. (2005). Imperial nature: The World Bank and struggles for social justice in the age of globalization. Yale University Press. 
This book explains how the projects funded by the World Bank really work at the ground level and why community activists struggle against its brand of development .  

On resistance and alternative ideas of wellbeing:

Transformations – Wellbeing by Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, September 2020.
The story of Korchi taluka, in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra State in India, on creating transformative alternatives to challenge mainstream ideas of development.   

A folk song sung by the subaltern resisting industrialization in India. Released on Youtube in 2018.
This song is inspired by a song by Bhagwan Majhi, leader of adivasi struggle against bauxite mining in Kashipur, Odisha.

A Ted Talk by Ashish Kothari held at FLAME University, Pune, Maharashtra. March 2019.
The founder of Kalpavriksh speaks on alternative theories of development.

Vandana is Lecturer at Jindal Global Business School, in Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India. She is about to finish her PhD at Indian Institute of Management Calcutta with specialization in Public Policy and Management. As a development professional working with an international NGO prior to her doctoral studies, she has extensive experience in working with government agencies, NGOs and indigenous communities. Her current research works lie in the intersection of multiple fields of study like Political Ecology, Sustainable Development and Ecological Economics with a focus on food systems and tribal communities in India. Twitter: @Vanni_vandana

September & October readings

Illustration: Roy Boney/The Guardian

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

Unfortunately, we were forced to skip our newsletter last month due to low capacity and poor health — but we’ll make it up this time by bringing you two months’ worth of readings to mull over and learn from! As this year’s World Mental Health Day fell on the 10th of October, we decided to include a section dedicated to political analyses and the social determinants of mental health. We also compiled a list on the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic, and particularly highlighted what we can learn from non-Western countries and philosophies. As usual, you will find plenty of material on Indigenous struggles, degrowth, cities and radical municipalism, food politics, and the dangerous rise of eco-fascism; as well as alternative perspectives on conservation, sci-fi, and fire ecology.

A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!



Uneven Earth updates

Make life, not work: democratizing, decommodifying and remediating existence | Emancipation from labour requires us to democratize and decommodify the economy as a whole

Renewable energy | To provide the conditions for a sustainable technology, we must begin by establishing a sustainable economy

Structural violence and the automobile | The intertwined legacy of fascism and the motorcar

Degrowth | Degrowth is not a passive critique but an active project of hope



Top 5 articles to read

This is my message to the western world – your civilisation is killing life on Earth

The tenants who evicted their landlord

Feral Atlas invites you to explore the ecological worlds created when nonhuman entities become tangled up with human infrastructure projects

The lost forest gardens of Europe

In the Navajo Nation, anarchism has Indigenous roots



News you might’ve missed

World fails to meet a single target to stop destruction of nature – UN report

Banks lent $2.6tn linked to ecosystem and wildlife destruction in 2019 – report 

Fifth of countries at risk of ecosystem collapse, analysis finds 

Polluted air killing half a million babies a year across globe, Small increases in air pollution linked to rise in depression, and Air pollution linked with 15% COVID-19 deaths worldwide. Also, don’t forget: Pollution is a racial justice issue. Let’s fight it that way.

A historic victory in Bolivia. Fireworks exploded across the night sky in the Bolivian capital of La Paz on Sunday evening, October 18th, as the projected results came through showing a near-landslide victory for the left-wing Movimiento al socialismo (MAS) and its presidential candidate, Luis Arce, in the country’s national elections.

Chile’s latest steps towards true democracy are a beacon for the world. Hopes are high that the overwhelming vote to overturn the Pinochet-era constitution marks the beginning of a new era.

Land defenders are killed in the Philippines for protesting Canadian mining

Indonesia mass strikes loom over cuts to environmental safeguards and workers’ rights

The world celebrated Kurdish women’s fight against ISIS. Now it’s silent as they’re raped and tortured

Nuclear power hinders fight against climate change

Barbarians at the barn: private equity sinks its teeth into agriculture



Learning from COVID-19

Covid-19 shows factory food production is dangerous for animals and humans alike 

Covid-19 has exposed the catastrophic impact of privatising vital services 

The pandemic case for the two-day workweek 

What developing countries can teach rich countries about how to respond to a pandemic

Reimagining the post-pandemic “normal”: Learning from Indigenous peoples about reconciling culture and nature

Africa has defied the Covid-19 nightmare scenarios. We shouldn’t be surprised.

How Africa fought the pandemic — and what coronavirus has taught the world

Barcelona’s radical response to Covid-19. While governments around the world have allowed inequality to increase during Covid-19, Barcelona’s left-wing municipality has fought back – introducing measures to support workers, women, migrants and the environment.



Where we’re at: analysis

“Colonizing the atmosphere”: How rich, Western nations drive the climate crisis

There’s no such thing as “we”

Mutual aid is essential to our survival regardless of who is in the White House 

The challenge of reclaiming the commons from capitalism

Seize and resist

Thai imperialism and colonisation

Andreas Malm: “The likely future is escalating catastrophe”

The stories Michael Shellenberger tells

We can’t mine our way out of the climate crisis

Controlling oil, controlling development

Towards a working-class environmentalism for South Africa

On the #BeirutBlast and the environmental violence of capital



Just think about it…

The vine and the fish. Does the language of invasive biology contribute to xenophobia? An interactive comic.

Why the world can get worse by constantly saying it’s getting better

We can use less energy and still have good lives

Blue sky thinking: is it time to stop work taking over our lives? 

Hidden cameras and secret trackers reveal where Amazon returns end up

To save the climate, give up the demand for constant electricity

On being an octopus

Cruise ships dismantled for scrap after pandemic sinks industry

Land as a social relationship

Is plastic recycling a lie? Oil companies touted recycling to sell more plastic



Fire ecology

Our burning planet: Why we must learn to live with fire

California’s apocalyptic ‘second nature’

California and Australia look to Indigenous land management for fire help



The politics of mental health

Mental health and hope, from the second issue of the New Economics Zine on the connections between mental health and the economy.

For Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism is rooted in loneliness 

Self-help hacks at the end of the world. Everything is pretty terrible right now. A glut of pop psych advice wants you to think you can muscle your way out of it alone.

’Investing’ in mental health is doomed to fail because humans aren’t stocks. The World Health Organization focused on investing in mental health as the theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day. That might sound sensible, but it’s precisely this language of ‘investment’ that is taking the mental health conversation backwards. 

‘Solastalgia’: Arctic inhabitants overwhelmed by new form of climate grief 



Indigenous struggles

One of the best climate solutions is giving Indigenous people their land back

Respect for Indigenous land rights key in fight against climate change

Native tribes are being poisoned by pesticides made by U.S. companies

Land-grabbing in Asia displaces indigenous people: UN expert



Degrowth

After growth. A review of Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa by Julie Livingston.

Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World by Jason Hickel. A book review.

Climate change is accelerating because of rich consumers’ energy use. Here are some solutions. 

Reflecting on the emerging strategy debate in the degrowth movement

Ecosocialism and/or degrowth?

Degrowth and MMT: A thought experiment

Climate crisis: Is it time to ditch economic growth?

The macroeconomics of degrowth: can planned economic contraction be stable?



New politics

The ecology of feminism and the feminism of ecology 

We can’t have billionaires and stop climate change 

4 key ways to build strong social justice movements

Building, not branding. Instead of creating individual brands, we can aim to build collectivities in struggle.

A plan to cool us down without burning up the planet



Eco-fascism

How COVID and Syria conspiracies introduce fascism to the Left, part 1 and part 2

Nazi hippies: when the New Age and Far-Right overlap

How Far-Right extremists are using wildfires to go mainstream

Neo-nazis are using eco-fascism to recruit young people

Blood and vanishing topsoil

The rise of eco-fascism: The environmental case for taking a tougher stance against online hate



Cities and radical municipalism

Public power in a green city

How Philly’s Black Lives Matter protests revitalized the affordable housing movement

Building eco-paradise in end times: Lessons from ecoaldeas (ecovillages) in Mexico

Mutual aid response during fires shows Black Lives Matter is building community

Communes – the building block of democratic confederalism. An explainer.

Responding to global crises with low-carbon social housing

Building regional autonomies for a small farm future



Food politics

‘Agricultural jihad’: A hungry Lebanon returns to family farms to feed itself

Junk agroecology

Can agroecology feed the world?

Digital fences: the financial enclosure of farmlands in South America

Vandana Shiva: The pandemic is a consequence of the war against life

Whose agriculture drives disease?

Max Ajl: Does the Arab region have an agrarian question?



Conservation vs capitalism

Capitalism – not ‘humanity’ – is killing the world’s wildlife

Conservation without colonialism

Setting out the principles of post-growth conservation

Losing ground: How are India’s conservation efforts putting the local communities in peril?



Sci-fi and the near future

To build a future without police and prisons, we have to imagine it first. A strain of science fiction called visionary fiction empowers activists, artists, and organizers to seed a better future.

Imagining the end of capitalism with Kim Stanley Robinson



Resources

An Indigenous abolitionist study guide 

Complicity in destruction III: How global corporations enable violations of Indigenous people’s rights in the Brazilian Amazon. The full report by the Brazilian Indigenous people’s alliance – APIB & Amazon Watch.


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Make life, not work: democratizing, decommodifying and remediating existence

Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

by Stefanie Gerold, Ernest Aigner, Maja Hoffmann and Louison Cahen-Fourot

In May this year, a group of well-known academics launched an initiative to reform work in light of the Coronavirus pandemic and the environmental crisis. The manifesto, Work: Democratise, Decommodify, Remediate, has so far been published in newspapers around the world, and signed by more than 6,000 people. Referring to the essential contribution of workers to society and the economy – made ever more apparent during the pandemic – the manifesto argues that employees should be involved in decision-making processes in firms. It further raises the problem of leaving key human needs such as health to market forces, and therefore demands publicly funded job guarantees. In light of the environmental crisis, the manifesto calls for conditioning state bail-outs on certain environmental standards and on the presence of democratic principles within firms. It considers democratically governed firms best suited to achieve a transition towards sustainable business.

We hope that this initiative stimulates the much-needed public debate on the role of work in society. We fully share the demands to democratize firms, decommodify work, and remediate the environment in principle. However, certain suggestions point in the wrong direction and fall short of the progressive potential in current debates on work. The authors also draw an uncritically positive picture of work and are surprisingly silent about the many problems associated with work.

Democratization. The letter rightly points to the exclusion of workers from most decision-making processes in firms. Extending the principle of democracy into the realm of work is long overdue, and implementing co-determination in firms is therefore important. This does not, however, change the major purpose of privately-owned businesses: generating profit for capital owners. Placing workers’ interests at centre stage requires different business models altogether, such as cooperatives that are owned and self-managed by their workers.

Nonetheless, the implied vision of a future where you need a job in order to have a say in economic decision-making is exclusionary and fundamentally undemocratic. It leaves out large parts of the population and continues to marginalize unemployed persons and unpaid (care) activities. A true democratization of work needs to go much further and encompass the democratization of the entire economy, whereby society as a whole decides on what is being produced, how and for whose benefit.

Collective deliberation about, for example, the purpose of the financial sector, or the necessity of jobs in the weapons industry, might also question the rising number of ‘bullshit jobs’ that are considered useless, or even destructive, for society. The Coronavirus pandemic has clearly revealed the rather limited list of jobs and sectors that are essential for meeting society’s basic needs.

Decommodification. The second claim of the letter demands that work be partly exempted from market mechanisms. We fully agree that essential areas of life should be taken out of the realm of markets.

However, “ensuring that all people have access to work” would potentially exacerbate, rather than solve, the problem. The pandemic has clearly shown our dependency on work in order to make a living. Regardless of whether our job is useful to society or grants dignity, we are required to sell our labour in order to earn money to meet our needs.

A “right to work” scheme, as proposed by the letter, might indeed tackle the unemployment issue, and it might also help to ensure that basic social needs are met. However, implemented in a society equating work with personal achievement and access to social rights, it would also reinforce people’s material and cultural dependency on work. To be truly emancipatory, a “right to work” scheme needs to be mirrored by a “right to live well” that is granted to all – independent of one’s capacity to work, and independent of economic or health crises setting large parts of the labour force free. A “right to live well” scheme would make access to social welfare institutions independent from work and provide the necessary infrastructure to live a meaningful life independent of work. Such a scheme could take the form of an in-kind universal basic income providing health, education, housing, energy, transportation and food through full socialization of these sectors.

Moreover, the idea of grounding “citizenship in firms” because “one’s mind and body, one’s health – one’s very life” is invested in work, seems a rather dystopian vision of the future, whereby the wage relation becomes ever more central to social life. We believe an emancipatory and desirable vision would instead limit the personal and societal relevance of work, so that it is one aspect of life but does not determine life entirely.

Environmental remediation. The letter rightly argues that any response to the Coronavirus-induced economic crisis needs to include environmental considerations. It finds that democratically led firms are best able to achieve such a transition.

Although this is true in some cases, fractions of organized labour have also repeatedly opposed needed changes. Especially in inherently unsustainable industries, such as coal, steel, or aviation, workers’ rights for participation would most likely not result in the required changes – namely a significant downsizing of these industries and therefore the phasing out of most jobs.

It is important to understand that work, whether in industry or services, is always a process that consumes energy and resources, and currently at clearly unsustainable levels. As scientific studies have pointed out, we need to reduce the overall amount of work in order to stay on trajectories compatible with ecological limits. Why should we try to come up with new tasks to keep everyone busy? Instead, we could reduce work hours and redistribute the remaining necessary work more evenly across society, accompanied by a broad, democratic debate about the usefulness and harmfulness of work.

Democratizing and decommodifying work, and remediating the environment are essential to sustain life on this planet. However, this cannot be done through limiting ourselves to well-worn social democratic thinking. Nor can it be done through uncritically considering work as inherently positive, or without reflecting on the role of work in contemporary capitalism. Societies, rather than markets or firms, should decide what kind of work is done and considered useful and valuable. Emancipation from labour requires us to democratize and decommodify the economy as a whole, to transform it to become sustainable, and to enable us to live well independent of work. It requires us to democratize, decommodify and remediate our very existence.

The Work: Democratise, Decommodify, Remediate manifesto was further developed into a book. The French version of this book was released on October 1, 2020.


Note: a French version of this commentary on the manifesto was published on May 23, 2020 in Le Monde online. A German version was published on July 24, 2020 as a blog article in Der Freitag.

Stefanie Gerold is a researcher at Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin), Ernest Aigner, Maja Hoffmann and Louison Cahen-Fourot are researchers at Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Vienna).

Renewable energy

Photo: Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

by Alf Hornborg

The concept of renewable energy is generally used for electric power that is not derived from finite sources such as stocks of fossil fuels or uranium. It includes the harnessing of flows such as direct sunlight, wind, and water. Harnessing such flows for electricity production requires technologies that are fundamentally different from the technologies used for deriving mechanical power from burning stocks of coal, oil, or gas. This applies to wind turbines and hydroelectric dams as much as it does to photovoltaic panels, but the focus here will be on solar power.

The rise of the fossil economy

The burning of fossil fuels as sources of mechanical power began with the steam engine in Britain in the 1760s. This innovation was essential to the Industrial Revolution. It marked a transition from relying on organic and flow-based energy sources propelled by current sunlight—such as human labour, draft animals, watermills, and windmills—to the combustion of subterranean mineral stocks. These mineral stocks—coal, oil, and gas—contain energy from ancient sunlight accumulated in organisms and deposited as sediments in the Earth’s crust.

The energy transition of the Industrial Revolution was not simply a discovery of how mineral energy could be converted into mechanical power. The harnessing of mineral energy required capital, that is purchasing power. As the wealthy core of the world’s greatest colonial empire, Britain was able to invest in steam technology. The expansion of steam technology in late eighteenth-century Britain was thus a process linked to the British appropriation of African slave labour and American plantation land. It saved Britain substantial quantities of labour time and agricultural land, but at the expense of great amounts of African labour and American land.

Energy technology – part nature, part society

The experience of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and other wealthy areas of the world was interpreted as a miraculous achievement of engineering. This is undeniable but does not tell the whole story. Technologies are not merely ingenious ideas or blueprints applied to nature. For them to materialize, engineers must have access to specific physical components—and at specific ratios of exchange (that is, prices). Engineering was certainly a necessary condition for the establishment of steam technology in early industrial Britain, but it was not a sufficient condition. The technology for harnessing the energy of coal was contingent on the market prices of raw cotton, African slaves, the labour of coal miners, Swedish iron, lubricants, and other inputs in relation to the market prices of exported cotton textiles. The physical existence of the machine, in other words, hinged not only on the revelation of nature, but also on social processes of exchange. However, this hybrid essence of technology—part nature, part society—has largely escaped the modern conception of engineering.

Across the political spectrum, there is a general faith in the capacity of modern society to shift to renewable, non-fossil energy sources without substantially reducing its levels of energy use.

By the end of the twentieth century, natural scientists had recognized that the combustion of fossil fuels is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. There have also been concerns about the depletion of finite mineral energy stocks and the decreasing net energy return on energy expended on extraction, also referred to as ERO(e)I (Energy Return On energy Investment). Moreover, the huge global disparities in per capita energy use are no longer easily rationalized as uneven development but suggest structural and increasing gaps between wealthier and poorer parts of world society. Given the dominant understanding of energy technology, however, these problems have generally not informed mainstream visions of the prospects of an increasingly globalized modern society. In these visions, the growing per capita use of energy continues to be fundamental to social progress, regardless of energy source. The problems with fossil energy are viewed as challenges of engineering. Across the political spectrum, there is a general faith in the capacity of modern society to shift to renewable, non-fossil energy sources without substantially reducing its levels of energy use.

Will renewables replace fossil fuels?

The main candidates for replacing fossil with renewable energy are solar and wind power. Experts are divided regarding their potential to replace fossil fuels. Some see no technical or economic obstacles to such a transition. Skeptics have argued that renewable energy technologies applied at such a scale would require impractically huge amounts of materials, space, or energy. Some have emphasized that the production and maintenance of infrastructure for production of renewable energy is based on fossil energy to such an extent that the energy derived from it is very far from carbon-free. This is particularly obvious where the manufacture of solar panels is conducted in coal-powered factories, as in China. Given that the world economy is currently propelled by fossil energy to about 90%, some have concluded that economic investments in renewable energy represent a fossil energy subsidy of similar proportions. Also, given this reliance on fossil fuels, a rise in prices of fossil energy cannot simply be hailed in terms of an increasing competitiveness for solar, as it will translate into higher production costs for alternative technologies. More centrally, given the fact that the cheapening of solar panels in recent years to a significant extent is the result of shifting manufacture to China, we must ask ourselves whether European and American efforts to become sustainable should really be based on the global exploitation of low-wage labor and abused landscapes elsewhere. The global, societal conditions for energy technologies tend to be equally overlooked whether we are accounting for the eighteenth-century shift to fossil energy or deliberating about how to abandon it. Both steam engines and solar panels have relied on asymmetric global flows of biophysical resources such as embodied labor, land, energy, and materials.

A transition to renewable energy generally focuses on electricity production, but most of the total global energy use occurs in other contexts, such as non-electric transports. Electricity globally represents about 19% of total energy use. In the year 2017, only 0.7% of global energy use derived from solar power and 1.9% from wind, while over 85% relied on fossil fuels. In March 2018, Vaclav Smil estimated that as much as 90% of world energy use derives from fossil sources, and that the share is actually increasing. Solar power is not displacing fossil energy, only adding to it. The pace of expansion of renewable energy capacity has stalled—it was about the same in 2018 as in 2017. Meanwhile, the global combustion of fossil fuels continues to rise, as do global carbon emissions.

We have every reason to dismantle most of the global, fossil-fueled infrastructure for transporting people, groceries, and other commodities around the planet.

Downscaling energy needs

How should we understand and transcend this impasse? To continue burning fossil fuels cannot be an option, but to believe that modern, high-energy society can be maintained based on renewable energy is similarly deluded. We shall certainly continue to need electricity, for example to run our hospitals and computers. But we have every reason to dismantle most of the global, fossil-fueled infrastructure for transporting people, groceries, and other commodities around the planet. This means making human subsistence independent from fossil energy and substantially reducing our mobility and consumption. Solar power will no doubt be an indispensable component of humanity’s future, but this will not happen as long as we allow the logic of the world market to make it profitable to transport essential goods halfway around the world. In order to provide the conditions for a sustainable technology, we must begin by establishing a sustainable economy. Crucially, also, we must modify our understanding of the very idea of technology. Contrary to our modern worldview since the Industrial Revolution, technology is not a neutral way of revealing and harnessing the forces of nature. A better way to define technology is to acknowledge that it is a global social phenomenon and a moral and political question rather than simply one of engineering. If we forget about this distributive aspect of technology, it will likely continue to save time and space for a global elite at the expense of human time and natural space appropriated elsewhere.

Further resources

Alf Hornborg. Nature, society, and justice in the Anthropocene: Unraveling the money-energy-technology complex. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Argues that modern energy technologies, in exploiting global differences in the price of labor and resources, are based not only on politically neutral revelations of natural forces but crucially also on accumulation of the capital invested in harnessing them.

Dustin Mulvaney. Solar power: Innovation, sustainability, and environmental justice. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019.
Discusses what changes would be required in the life cycle of photovoltaic solar power technology to make it just and sustainable.

Vaclav Smil. Power density: A key to understanding energy sources and uses. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015.
Compares different energy sources in terms of the amount of energy that can be derived from them per square meter of space.

Alf Hornborg is an anthropologist and Professor of Human Ecology at Lund University, Sweden. His research focuses on theorizing the cultural and political dimensions of human-environmental relations in different societies in space and time. His books include The Power of the Machine (2001), Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange (2011), Global Magic (2016), and Nature, Society, and Justice in the Anthropocene (2019).

Structural violence and the automobile

Photo by Margaret Bourke-White for Time & Life Pictures

by Owen Watson

If the chalk memorials wash away on the downtown road, formerly Fourth Street, in Charlottesville, Virginia, it may seem like any ordinary block with a cafe and bookshop. Today, Heather Heyer Way remembers the life lost when a white supremacist crashed his car through the antifascist lines celebrating after they successfully drove off far-right and neo-Nazi groups at the 2017 Unite the Right rally. This individual act of violence, which injured 28 and killed one, draws from a long history of the automobile serving to protect spaces for whiteness.

The car remains a weapon of choice against anti-racist protestors as the uprisings against systematic racism ignited by the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor stretch into their fourth month. On May 28th in Los Angeles, police officers drove their car through a group of protestors, speeding up to throw a man off the hood; the next day in Denver, a woman intentionally turned around to hit a protester with her SUV; the day after that, in Brooklyn, the officer riding in the passenger seat of a patrol car opened their door to strike a protester as they drove past. Further examples in Brooklyn (again), Portland, Tulsa, and San Jose make this a disturbing trend with over 69 such attacks occuring since Geroge Floyed was murdered in late May. 

Fascism and the Automobile

The connection between automobiles, violence, and fascism begins in the 20th century. An investigation by The Nation uncovered how Ford Motor Company and Nazi high command were intimately linked. Henry Ford, a known anti-Semite, built a factory in Cologne, Germany in 1931 and provided support for the Nazi state into 1942, almost a year after the United States declared war on Germany. General Motors was also complicit in the Nazi war effort, obfuscating their ownership of German-made Opel while they knowingly allowed their factories to switch to military armament production for the Wehrmacht.

In Italy, the automobile itself became a symbol in the blending of the futurist and fascist movements in their  shared rejection of history and chauvinistic desires for speed and social ‘purity’. The fingerprints of futurism can be found in the Nazi warfare tactic of blitzkrieg (prizing speed and suprise) which used Ford trucks for about one third of the vehicles involved. 

The car was used as a social tool for white interests in the United States following the war, as the automobile commute enabled a new form of segregation in sprawling suburbs. ‘White flight,’ the mid-century process of white populations moving out of American cities, occurred alongside the systematic divestment of inner-cities which were increasingly populated by Black communities migrating north, away from the Jim Crow South. Through racist policies like redlining, discriminatory bank lending and zoning practices, Black communities were largely excluded from the post-war affluence while much of the white working class gained access to financial services to start building generational wealth. As wealthy tax bases shifted to the suburbs, city budgets and services stagnated while ‘urban renewal’ projects often meant highways would be built on top of Black communities.

The automobile, therefore, represents two inextricable forms of violence: the slow process of gutting the public city for racialized private wealth, and the acute violence of fascist car attacks. These are mirrors, reflecting and feeding back the images of one another. The logic of the car in America is implicit in the logic of white supremacy. On a mass scale, the automobile works to emotionally and physically separate groups from the unequal violence of a racialized system. This logic also extends to the individual in the emotional separation from the mechanisms of fast, immediate violence. 

Marketing violence

The ‘alpha male’ mentality fascists are obsessed with informs the marketing strategy for many car models. The specific car driven in the Charlottesville attack was the 2010 model of the reissued Dodge Charger, a muscle car marketed as a hyper-masculine vision of an allegedly bygone age of American liberty. The current tagline for the Charger is ‘Domestic, not domesticated,’ a nod to the patriarchal embodiment of masculinity against the ‘globalist’ economy of foreign manufacturing. 

The Charger is also the country’s best selling model of police sedan. With no hint of irony, Dodge even created a small fleet of stormtrooper-themed Chargers to celebrate the release of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens film in 2015, mimicking the foot soldiers of the fictional fascist Galactic Empire. A year before that, the head of government fleet sales for Dodge explicitly connected police intimidation with its marketing to a wider consumer base: ‘You hate to see a Charger Pursuit grille in your rearview mirror. …we think there’s a lot of carry-over in terms of the macho appeal of the vehicle.’ 

The message here is simple: the Charger is an embodiment of white, male, state-sponsored violence. This aesthetic marketing of a police vehicle to the masses is another example of the militarization of civilian spaces, one of the dominant features of post-9/11 America. It is also a classic marker of the advance of fascism where violence and militarism are normalized in everyday life. Charlottesville’s right-wing murderer tapped into all of these forces, namely the nexus of a patriarchal capitalism and statist militarism that continues to guide an implicit understanding of who violence should be directed against, and who it should be wielded by.

American Violence and the Anti-Martyr

Dependence on the car obscures the everyday violence of driving. In 2018, 36,560 people died in car crashes in the United States alone, making driving the second-leading cause of accidental death. In India, almost 150,000 people died in traffic accidents during 2017. Nigeria has one of the highest rates in the world with over one death per year per 100 cars. Driving is the largest normalized risk in modern life. While often acting as a site of insulation for white individuals, the car can be a site of racial profiling where non-white drivers are stopped by police at higher rates, too often leading to fatal violence in the US. 

As one of the ultimate status symbols in capitalist society, the car is an embodiment of social atomization and private enclosure of individuals, families, and groups. To drive is to intentionally hold death at arm’s length; by the risk of driving itself, and the physical and emotional insulation of the cabin from the outside world — a degree of separation between a potential killer, their killing tool, and those to be killed.

This, finally, is the concrete connection between the car and right-wing violence that neatly fits in the white American psyche. For the maintenance of settler ideology, a physical and emotional separation from the justification for structural violence and the violence itself is needed. This degree of separation is a constant in American state violence, from the drones that fire silent death in Syria to the American streets where police run over protestors. And, not surprisingly, it is expressed in both American right-wing acts of violence and police brutality through a desire by the attackers to be as physically protected as possible.

Consumer vehicle ramming attacks began in earnest during the late 1990s in occupied Palestine and have expanded worldwide, taken up by different ideological forces including ‘Jihadists, anti-Islamists, right-wing Christians, and unbalanced members of the public.’ When the assailant is non-white and acting without institutional power, they are usually portrayed with the broad strokes of ‘terrorism’ by Western media. Meanwhile, white supremacists like the Charlottesville attacker are often depicted as ‘lone wolves’ or ‘bad apples,’ despite the clear structural roots of their action. In the months after Black Lives Matter protests in 2016, six states considered laws to protect drivers who run over protestors from prosecution, referring to demonstrations that block traffic as ‘terrorism’. As systematic racism is being directly challenged, reactionary forces use violence to subvert public opinion while police are more explicitly acting in line with the larger neo-fascist project in defense of the status-quo. Seeing themselves as firebreak between ‘order’ and ‘chaos,’ a thin blue line which is drawn deadly on the pavement and unaccountable to democratic processes. This is the logic of fascism and is being encouraged by the President of the United States who claims the suburban way of life is under attack and brands anti-fascism as terrorism. 

Scholar Achille Mbembe’s ideas around martyrdom are particularly illuminating when it comes to the issues of insulation and vehicular violence. Contrasted with the figure of the ‘suicide bomber,’ the American far-right and police vehemently protect their own bodies with armor and vehicles. Fitting with American’s elevation of ‘heroes’ amid the desire to uphold a certain social order — an inherent flattening, widening, and depersonalizing of the martyr. The right-wing propagator of violence and the police officer alike are part of imagined ‘brotherhoods’ on an invented battlefield made manifest only by the violent actions they carry out.

What this truly represents is an anti-martyrdom: a feature of a country that glorifies endemic and ‘heroic’ bodily sacrifice while deeply fearing death or any major change that would challenge those systems. Mbembe describes how the logic of survival and heroism intersect:

“[The] moment of survival [is] a moment of power. In such a case, triumph develops precisely from the possibility of being there when the others (in this case the enemy) are no longer there. Such is the logic of heroism as classically understood: to execute others while holding one’s own death at a distance.”

These acts of violence we see, whether in Charlottesville or in the ongoing protests against police brutality, are laden with the power of historic white supremacy. The power of mismatched tools of violence between attacker and subject (the car vs. the protestor), and the one-sided power to deal death and to survive. This is the type of unequal violence that the ruling class carries out against the underclasses, a deadly enforcement of the racial, economic, and social status-quo.

If neo-fascist violence in America is about preserving the mythological ‘White Christian Nation,’ it should not be surprising to see police adopting the tactics of neo-fascist violence. The police themselves trace their roots back to slave patrols. The car is a shared tool in the merger. Its rise intertwined with evolving racial oppression, and fits into the psychology of white racial terror by distancing and protecting its perpetrators from the violence of their actions while reinforcing social categories of an ultraconservative worldview. The car, the most defining object in 20th century American prosperity, is now a viscerally violent encapsulation of the failed 21st century American state.

There’s no way like the American way

Margaret Bourke-White, the first woman to take photographs for Life Magazine, took a depression-era snapshot of an all-Black bread line standing in front of a billboard featuring a smiling white family in a car. “There’s no way like the American way,” the billboard reads, as the white nuclear family drives through the idealized suburban countryside and straight into the reality of the bread line. This is a symbolic photograph for our time, though it was taken in 1937. The car operates as a tool for acute white violence and flight as well as the insulation of whiteness through physical and metaphorical mediums, “world’s highest standard of living,” emblazoned over a strict racial separation in a country of destitution for so many. It has been over 80 years since the photograph was taken. The car as a symbol of freedom, safety, and violence may have evolved in small ways, but the American racial landscape remains unequal and violent.

The current protests against police brutality are not simply a symbolic challenge to the structural violence that the American street embodies. They are also processes of a physical recapturing of public space – for solidarity, grief, anger, and celebration. It should come as no surprise that centuries of white supremacy should so violently respond to that challenge with a tool – the automobile – that has been so central to fulfilling its goals. Yet even in the face of terror so often committed by vigilantes and the state, the unwavering numbers of protestors are a source of hope: that one day, our children will walk safely down carless avenues, knowing of the struggles that tore down and replaced the violence and injustice of the old world.

Owen Watson is a writer working in political ecology and the environment, especially as they relate to political economy, extremism, and power. He recently completed a graduate program at the University of Michigan, where he concentrated in Environmental Justice. Follow him @elementsofguile.

Degrowth

Photo: Flickr.

by François Schneider and Joanna Pope

Degrowth is a movement that explores another direction for society, one where ecological and social justice become possible, along with more meaningful lives. While there is no single definition for degrowth, this entry attempts to offer some guidance for understanding degrowth in all its diversity.

First, degrowth is a variety of challenges to the current status quo. Secondly, degrowth is not just a form of critique, but also encompasses diverse and interrelated positive utopian visions for the world. Thirdly, degrowth offers a set of paths for societal transformation in order to make these utopias possible.

1. From a missile word to other narratives: Degrowth as objection

Degrowth is a rigorous objection to dominant ideas about how economies and societies function. In this line, degrowth has been described as a ‘missile word’. Degrowth targets in particular two beliefs.

First, degrowth challenges the idea that economic growth is the only way to achieve prosperity and wellbeing for all. Growth does not improve our lives. Instead, the pursuit of infinite economic growth on a finite planet has led to both vast social inequality and ecological destruction. Degrowth also rejects claims (for which there is no empirical evidence or theoretical justification) that we would be able continue to pursue infinite economic growth without accelerating the global ecological crisis.

Degrowth is not a passive critique, but an active project of hope, with vivid utopian visions of another, better world with equality, decolonization, reparations and social justice as its foundation.

Secondly, degrowth challenges the pessimistic belief that ecological collapse is inevitable, that all we can do now in response to the global climate crisis (and many other crises) is to close our communities and borders to those in need. As we will see in the next section, degrowth is not a passive critique, but an active project of hope, with vivid utopian visions of another, better world with equality, decolonization, reparations and social justice as its foundation.

The idea of degrowth as a missile word, a stone thrown, helps us grasp the radical intent of those who use it as a slogan. But degrowth is not a singular missile. Rather, it has transformed, after nearly twenty years of discussion and activism, into an entire web of guerilla narratives. These degrowth counter-narratives challenge the ideology of economic growth from a range of different perspectives, from political economy, sociology and happiness studies, to ecofeminism, social ecology and post-development theory.

2. Other worlds are possible: Degrowth as utopia(s)

Degrowth goes beyond a mere critique of the current system. It also offers genuine alternatives through theory and practice. Degrowth is not afraid to envision a utopian future for our world. The degrowth society is just, ecological, sustainable, democratic, participatory, internationalist and localized with rich cultural, ethnic and ecological diversity in each locality, and simultaneously open and global.

Like its web of counternarratives, degrowth utopias are not determined by doctrine or set in stone. They are multiple, flexible and continuously redefined based on new insights, critique and dialogue.

Who are the people who help imagine and invent degrowth utopias? Degrowth’s utopian vision has been supported by scholars and researchers from around the world. Together, their work amounts to hundreds of peer-reviewed publications, numerous special issues, and a wide range of academic and accessible books on the subject.

But it was activists and practitioners who first brought the degrowth movement into existence. For degrowth practitioners, utopias do not exist only as long term visions, but also take shape as microcosms in the here and now. The creators and inhabitants of degrowth nowtopias seek to live in the society that they believe should exist, and demonstrate that other worlds are possible. Examples of nowtopias include community gardens, cooperatives, open source technology projects, repair cafes, mutual aid networks and more. Each year, conferences in cities around the world bring degrowth theory and practice together, as participants from different fields and backgrounds debate current challenges and future visions for the movement.

There is a tendency to think that these degrowthers are a small minority. But in fact, they are in good company. The political movement of degrowth emerged in France in the early 2000s but degrowth sources like voluntary simplicity have wide and old recognition. We find traces of degrowth in the philosophies of Lao Tse, Diogenes and Epicurus, for example. On the contrary the idea of economic growth was put forward with the rise of capitalism which is relatively recent. In spite of the incredible media/political push of this idea of growth, the idea of degrowth is becoming the favored emerging utopia these days.

Many different Indigenous cultures offer practices, philosophies and ways of life that resonate with degrowth and its long term vision. Degrowthers can also look to resistance movements in the Global North and South, from MOVE to the Zapatistas for insight and inspiration as they imagine a radically different world. Beyond this, there is a wide range of social movements whose practical and theoretical knowledge, and critiques of degrowth, can help utopian degrowthers expand their own understanding of what is possible.

3. Degrowth of some things, expansion of others: Degrowth as paths of socio-ecological transformation

How can we make degrowth utopias a reality, and strengthen and expand existing degrowth nowtopias? To address this challenge, degrowth articulates practical and diverse roadmaps to a better world. It is in this way that the word ‘degrowth’ takes on a third meaning—degrowth as paths of transformation.

Rather than presenting a silver bullet solution, degrowth proposes a web of change across housing, urban planning, transport, agriculture, energy systems, money, redistributive taxation, biodiversity, supply chains, manufacturing, software, hardware and technology governance, employment and working conditions,welfare, healthcare, education, democracy and more. Together, these proposals can guide an equitable, planned downscaling of production and consumption.

But these paths do not demand that we downscale everything. Rather, the task is to shrink some sectors, while simultaneously expanding and transforming others for the better, while the sum is a move to the reduction of material and energy flow and to simpler and more meaningful lives. Degrowing aviation, for example, means reducing unnecessary flying while also making travelling by train, bike, sailboat and on foot more accessible. Similarly, advocates of housing for degrowth or degrowing tourism, propose not only doing less but also doing things differently, that is, not only reducing ecologically and socially harmful practices and models, but also fostering and expanding existing alternatives that center both the environment and human needs.

Instead of the rebound effect that accompanies attempts at eco-innovation under the growth paradigm, degrowth pathways promote debound, creating an interlinked web of technical and non-technical solutions that fulfill human needs.

These pathways also contribute to a decolonization of imaginaries—by challenging commodification, consumerism, the pursuit of profit, the Western model of development and the destructive, growth-dependent system of capitalism itself. In this way, degrowth seeks to bring about not just material and political change, but cultural change too, allowing us to understand the world, ourselves and our desires through an entirely different lens.

4. Linking diversity: Fulfilment of needs and non-violence at the core of degrowth?

Degrowth thrives on diversity, embracing a wide range of different perspectives. These diverse perspectives are actually about fulfilling diverse profound needs, material ones like food or shelter for all but also many non-material needs. Degrowth is thus a proposition to meet these multiple concomitant needs by creating the conditions for a society where cooperation becomes possible, where sources of violence dwindle. To do so involves a fundamentally non-violent approach, on the one hand through cooperative approaches within the movements for social transformation but also conflicting ones as it involves non-violent civil disobedience in the face of a highly unequal society destroying, among others, natural resources, cultures, and biomes. Responding to deep needs, whether we are talking about material needs, or needs for well-being, community, recognition outside the growth dogma requires dialogue and listening to emotions and feelings. Degrowth is thus a vast collective project in which we empathize with the deep needs of everyone. To this end we need highly democratic processes to give voice to what is not expressed in order to build degrowth narratives: narratives which make us realize that meeting the needs of all is part of the realm of what is possible.

Further resources

François Schneider, Giorgos Kallis, Joan Martinez-Alier, 2010. Crisis or opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability. Introduction to this special issue. Journal of Cleaner Production, 18(6), 511-518
An introduction to degrowth.

Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, Giorgos Kallis. Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era. Routledge, 2015.
A great collection of many topics relating to degrowth, challenging the status quo.

Federico Demaria, François Schneider, Filka Sekulova, Joan Martinez-Alier. What is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement, Environmental values, 22(2):191-215. 2013
A good overview of sources and actors of degrowth – degrowth as a frame.

Anitra Nelson & François Schneider, Housing for degrowth, Routledge, 2019. The introduction of “spiralling narratives” for degrowth in the area of housing

Chris Carlsson, Nowtopia, AK Press: 2008
A great review of the idea of living our utopias now.

Serge Latouche. Farewell to Growth. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.
Where Latouche develops the notion of degrowth society.

François Schneider. Let’s degrow up and grow down!
https://entitleblog.org/2017/01/10/lets-degrow-up-and-grow-down/
Why degrowth is the right word to use, and why meaning “degrowth” by saying “growth” is inappropriate.

François Schneider is a Doctor in industrial ecology and a degrowth researcher since 2001. Founder and former president of Research & Degrowth (http://degrowth.org/), and initiator and main organiser of the first international degrowth conferences, he teaches degrowth at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. In 2012 he started the experiential project Can Decreix, the “house of degrowth”. His work on degrowth focuses on the themes of material flows, allocation problems, rebound effect, transport, housing, lifestyles, frugal innovation, open-localism and identification of pathways.

Joanna Pope is a researcher with a focus on degrowth and ecocritical theory. She is based at Trust, an incubator for platform design and utopian conspiracy in Berlin, and works as an editor and researcher at The Syllabus and is a contributing editor for Uneven Earth.

August readings

Photo credit: hansfoto

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

We’re back with a new reading list, this time highlighting a discussion about the sustainability of growing the service sector, an Internationalist take on reparations, and a Leftist critique of the Green New Deal, among others. As usual, we also center Indigenous and global land struggles, food politics, radical municipalism, and degrowth.

While we were putting together this list, the influential anthropologist and activist David Graeber died unexpectedly and far too early. We want to honor him here by featuring some of his best work, so we can keep it close as we continue our fight for the better world he spent his life imagining.

A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!



Uneven Earth updates

Unequal exchange | Global trade conceals ecological and human exploitation in peripheries and maintains an unjust world order

Offsetting | A policy tool that allows us to imagine a world in which everything is replaceable, and where there are no limits

Extractivism | One of the most expansionist global enterprises—squashing any other ways of living with the land

Extractivismo | Uno de los proyectos globales más expansionistas, que aplasta cualquier otra forma de vivir con la tierra



Top 5 articles to read

Big Oil is in trouble. Its plan: flood Africa with plastic

Fermentation, rot, and power in the early modern Atlantic

Can we save the planet by growing the service sector?

Climate reparations: An Internationalist approach for the twenty-first century

‘Either you are fighting to eliminate exploitation or not’: A leftist critique of the Green New Deal



In memoriam: David Graeber

Radical anthropologist David Graeber tragically passed away on September 2nd, 2020 at the age of 59. His work and activism was, and will continue to be, formative and inspirational for Uneven Earth’s editors and mission. We have compiled a best of including his articles, talks and books below, with our Twitter followers’ input (please add any suggestions to this thread). 

Essays

Are you an anarchist? The answer may surprise you!

On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs

Of flying cars and the declining rate of profit

How to change the course of human history

On the phenomenology of giant puppets: broken windows, imaginary jars of urine, and the cosmological role of the police in American culture

Concerning the violent peace-police

Revolution in reverse

Against economics

The truth is out: money is just an IOU, and the banks are rolling in it

What’s the point if we can’t have fun

It is value that brings universes into being

Dead zones of the imagination: On violence, bureaucracy, and interpretive labor

Radical alterity is just another way of saying “reality”: A reply to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

The new anarchists

Caring too much. That’s the curse of the working classes

The center blows itself up: Care and spite in the ‘Brexit election’ 

David Graeber left us a parting gift — his thoughts on Kropotkin’s “mutual aid”

Democracy is possible in Syria. My friend knew how

There was never a West (from the collection Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire by AK Press)

Talks & podcasts

Where did money REALLY come from?

Graeber and Wengrow on the myth of the stupid savage

Debt: The first 5,000 years

BBC Podcast “Promises, Promises: A History of Debt”. In this 12-part series, David explores the ways debt has shaped society over 5,000 years.

Books

Did you know David’s books are available as free PDFs? We linked them for you here: Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Direct Action – An Ethnography, Debt: The First 5000 Years, The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement, The Utopia of Rules, and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.



News you might’ve missed

Behind the Beirut explosion lies the lawless world of international shipping

Virus resurgence could plunge emerging economies into debt crisis, warns IMF

Global deforestation accelerates during pandemic

From genocide to resistance: Yazidi women fight back

Summary executions and widespread repression under Bolivia’s interim government reports rights advocates



Indigenous struggles

‘Green’ colonialism is ruining Indigenous lives in Norway

‘The Amazon is the entry door of the world’: why Brazil’s biodiversity crisis affects us all

Meet the people saving Canada’s native grasslands

A message from the most bombed nation on earth

To save a way of life, Native defenders push to protect the Arctic refuge



Global land struggles

For the people of the river, not investors: Guaranteeing farmers’ rights to the waters of the Nile

Land grabs at gunpoint: Thousands of families are being violently evicted from their farms to make way for foreign-owned plantations in Kiryandongo, Uganda



Where we’re at: analysis

Does nuclear power slow or speed climate change?

False Alarm by Bjorn Lomborg; Apocalypse Never by Michael Shellenberger – review

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature debunked

Climate apartheid is the coming police violence crisis

Africa says, “I can’t breathe”: An African civil society perspective on systemic racism

Decolonial feminism and Buen Vivir

How the world’s largest garbage dump in Staten Island became a green oasis

Lebanon, forever colonised?



Just think about it…

Emancipation in the neoliberal era: Rethinking transition with Karl Polanyi

The fantasy and the Cyberpunk futurism of Singapore

‘We’ve already survived an apocalypse’: Indigenous writers are changing sci-fi

Towards a non-extractive and care-driven academia

The world to come: What should we value?

The term “development” makes false promises and perpetuates colonial dominance thinking



Degrowth

The case for degrowth

Deliberate degrowth

We are doomed if, in the post-Covid-19 world, we cannot abandon non-essentials

Four principles of degrowth and why they matter



Food politics

The roots of food crisis in Pakistan

‘One thing I’ve learned about modern farming – we shouldn’t do it like this’

Looking beyond the pandemic: Agroecology, and the need to rethink our food system

Animal Farms. The industrial pig, garden pig, and wild boar lead us through the rise and fall of East German industrial agriculture, but also foreshadow changes around the world where such large-scale schemes are imposed without regard for people, animals, or environments.

The strategic case for animal liberation



Cities and radical municipalism

Municipalist politics and the specter of emancipation

Killing a neighbourhood

Tenant unions for the future

Moving Jackson forward: Opposing visions of a People’s Assembly



Resources

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin: The full film

40 ways to fight fascists: Street-legal tactics for community activists

Trinational toolkit for international workers’ solidarity

9 ways you can help save the Amazon rainforest from imminent destruction by boycotting Brazil



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Unequal exchange

by Rikard Warlenius

The global exchange of commodities and money through trade appear as balanced when we measure it in money, but this conceals very unequal exchanges of labour time, raw materials, and energy and an unequal distribution of Earth’s capacity to absorb environmental waste such as carbon dioxide. These uneven net flows of labour and natural resources and appropriation of sink capacities are what the notion of Ecologically unequal exchange (EUE) conceptualizes, and a common assumption is that they contribute to ecological and human exploitation in peripheral areas as well as to the maintaining of an unjust world order.

Unequal exchange: an academic theory with deep rootlets

The concept has deep rootlets in political economy and ecology. Unequal exchange—basically the notion that more labour is exchanged for less labour through international trade—was discussed by for instance the political economists David Ricardo and Karl Marx in the 19th century, and was later further developed by the Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer, the dependency theorist Arghiri Emmanuel, world system analyst Samir Amin, and neo-Marxist Ernest Mandel, to mention some of the more important contributors. Explanations for why unequal exchange happen vary, from viewing different levels of productivity or wages as the cause to associating unequal exchange with—in more Marxist phrasing—the organic composition of capital. This has to do with the distribution of capital, divided into two categories, in an economy: on the one hand constant capital—investments such as machinery and buildings—and on the other hand variable capital—mainly paid as wages for labour. In advanced, highly industrialized economies, the share of constant capital is normally higher than in ‘developing’ economies. Investments in machines, for instance, substitute for labour and thus less labour is needed to create a certain amount of value. In other words, if a lot of labour time goes into commodity production in one area, like Africa, and much less goes into production in another area, like Western Europe, an exchange of commodities from those two areas is likely give rise to unequal net flows of labour time. The commodity produced in Africa is likely to embody more labour time per unit of value (e.g. dollar) than the European.

Biophysical resources with high exergy (energy with high ability to perform work) are extracted in the peripheries of the world system and exported to the cores, where they are dissipated/consumed.

Ecologically unequal exchange: theoretical developments and critical discussions

Starting in the 1980s, the concept of unequal exchange was further broadened to include not only unequal exchange of labour but also of natural resources—matter and energy. A pioneering study was Stephen Bunker’s (1985) Underdeveloping the Amazon, in which theories of unequal exchange were first applied to ecological extraction. Alf Hornborg (1998) coined the concept ecologically unequal exchange and in a series of articles and books gave it theoretical depth by combining world system analysis with thermodynamic concepts from physics. Biophysical resources with high exergy (energy with high ability to perform work) are extracted in the peripheries of the world system and exported to the cores, where they are dissipated/consumed either directly or as inputs to industrial products. From an economic point of view, these final products (cars, cell phones, washing machines …) are considered as more valuable than the input, but from a thermodynamic perspective they are actually of less value. The raw materials have high exergy, with great potentials, that becomes dissipated as it is turned into finished products. The deterioration will then continue as the product is used, worn and finally thrown away. What is more, the low exergy final products are often returned to the peripheries together with waste. According to Hornborg, industrial production is nothing but a displacement of labour, matter, and environmental loads: he regards technology as a mystification of appropriation. The world-economic cores extract labour and high-exergy matter from the peripheries, and spit back waste.

Hornborg has developed a way of assessing and measuring EUE: time-space appropriation (Hornborg 2006). To understand the industrial revolution in England, he quantified the unequal exchange of labour time and hectare yields in the trade exchange of raw cotton and manufactured garments between England and its former North-American slave colonies in the mid 19th century. The result strengthened the idea that England’s superiority was not mainly technological, but rather an effect of its ability to appropriate land and labour from its (former) colonies. Another study has used the same methodological approach to test the global-historical theory that the early modern world system was Sinocentric or polycentric, rather than Eurocentric, and the results seemed to confirm this (Warlenius 2016a). EUE has also been operationalized and applied on more recent statistical data, mainly by the American sociologists Andrew Jorgensen (e.g. 2009) and James Rice, strengthening hypotheses that unequal exchanges maintain a world divided in cores and peripheries.

More recently, attempts have been made to widen the concept to not only encompass the effects of international trade, but of the entire global social metabolism—that is, of societies’ use of natural resources and ecosystems as both source and sink—of which the latter is seldom formally traded. Warlenius (2016b) launched the concept of unequal sink appropriation as a part of the wider notion of EUE and measured how unequally the global carbon sinks, which should be regarded as a ‘common good’, have been distributed historically. In the same article, EUE is linked to another important concept used by the environmental justice movement: ecological debt. Net flows of e.g. natural resources and other commodities, as well as waste and sink appropriation, are referred to as ecologically unequal exchange, while the cumulative stock resulting from these flows are ecological debt. In a similar way, continuous carbon sink appropriation builds up climate debt.

The often quantitative and methodological focus of the concept—its emphasis on the practice of measuring flows of resources—has provoked a critique about EUE being under-theorized. Brolin (2007) advocates a stronger connection to Emmanuel’s theory on unequal exchange, Warlenius (2017) has suggested to employ the Marxist economic geographer David Harvey’s historical-geographical materialism and the concept of uneven development, while Holleman and Foster (2014) suggest a footing on the ecologist Howard Odum’s emergy approach (which basically means to translate all productive inputs—labour, matter and energy—into a unit used to measure energy (e.g. kWh), and use this total “emergy” as a measure of value of a product). Hornborg (2015) has, on the other hand, criticized this latter approach for mixing apples and pears in its attempt to define an objective measure of value: value is culturally produced—people hold different things to be valuable depending on their shared cultural believes—while emergy (as well as land or labour that are the foundation of other materialist theories of value) is physics.

Several of the demands of the environmental justice movements that are related to ecological or climate debt are also relevant to address ecologically unequal exchange.

From academia to political movements

While it was the environmental/climate justice movement that developed the concepts of ecological debt and climate debt and these concepts have generated several policy proposals, the background of (ecologically) unequal exchange is academic and used for analysis rather than politics. Yet, linking these concepts together is also a way of building a bridge between environmental justice as academic tradition and as political praxis. Several of the demands of the environmental justice movements that are related to ecological or climate debt, such as the famous outcomes from the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, are also relevant to address EUE. These include ways of acknowledging the debt as well as repaying it: by reversing unequal net flows through radical emission cuts in high-emitting advanced economies; by compensating peripheral countries in the global South for adaptation costs; through sharing of technologies; and through reparations—concrete transfer of financial resources. Although such global redistribution would mainly be the result of changing balances of power, solid theories and data on past inequalities could encourage struggles for environmental justice.

Further resources

As previously discussed, central texts in the development of theories on ecologically unequal exchange include Bunker (1985), Hornborg (1998 & 2006), Holleman & Foster (2014), and Warlenius (2016b). Brolin (2007) is an encompassing history over the development of the concept unequal exchange, including EUE. Other—much briefer—introductions to the concept are Hornborg’s (2017) chapter in The Routledge handbook of ecological economics and an entry in the online EJOLT glossary. For the latest empirical support for EUE, see this article by Christian Dorninger and colleagues (2021).

References

Brolin, J (2007): The bias of the world. Theories of unequal exchange. Diss. Lund: Human Ecology Division. Online at: https://lup.lub.lu.se/search/ws/files/4378178/26725.pdf

Bunker, S (1985): Underdeveloping the Amazon: Extraction, unequal exchange, and the failure of the modern state. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dorninger, C et al (2021): “Global patterns of ecologically unequal exchange: Implications for sustainability in the 21st century”. Ecological Economics 179 (pre-print).

Holleman, H & Foster, J (2014): “The theory of unequal ecological exchange: a Marx-Odum dialectic”. Journal of Peasant Studies 41(2) 199-233.

Hornborg, A (1998): “Towards an ecological theory of unequal exchange: articulating world system theory and ecological economics”. Ecological Economics 25(1) 127-136.

Hornborg, A (2006): “Footprints in the cotton fields: The industrial revolution as time-space appropriation and environmental load displacement”. Ecological Economics 59: 74-81.

Hornborg, A (2015): “Why economics needs to be distinguished from physics, and why economists need to talk to physicists: a response to Foster and Holleman”. Journal of Peasant Studies 42(1) 187-192.

Hornborg, A (2017): “Political ecology and unequal exchange”. Routledge handbook of ecological economics. Ed: CL Spash. Abingdon and New York: Routledge. 39-47.

Jorgensen, AK (2009) “The sociology of unequal exchange in ecological context: a panel study of lower‐income countries, 1975–2000”, Sociological Forum 24(1) 22-46.

Rice, J (2007): “Ecological unequal exchange: consumption, equity, and unsustainable structural relationships within the global economy”, International Journal of Comparative Sociology 48(1) 43-72.

Warlenius, R (2016a): “Core and periphery in the early modern world system: A time-space appropriation assessment”. In Jarrick, A, Myrdal, J, & Wallenberg Bondesson, M (eds.): Methods in world history: A critical approach. Lund: Nordic Academic Press.

Warlenius, R (2016b): “Linking ecological debt and ecologically unequal exchange: Stocks, flows, and unequal sink appropriation”. Journal of Political Ecology 23: 364-380

Warlenius, R (2017): Asymmetries. Conceptualizing environmental inequalities as ecological debt and ecologically unequal exchange. Diss. Lund: Human Ecology Divison. Online at: https://lup.lub.lu.se/search/ws/files/19721188/Asymmetries_Introductory_chapter.pdf

Rikard Warlenius is a senior lecturer in Human Ecology at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. His PhD dissertation (2017) focused on concepts such as Ecologically unequal exchange and Ecological debt. Currently, he is doing research on urban grassroots initiatives for climate transition in Gothenburg and Berlin.

Offsetting

by Danika Drury

Sometimes you really need to take a flight. Even though you are all-too aware of the toll that flying exerts on the environment. If only there were a way to make up for that damage, to get along in this economy without doing harm.

This dilemma between environmental and economic necessities is what environmental offsetting attempts to solve. The basic premise behind offsetting is intuitive and appealing: that you can counteract a loss with a gain. Environmental offsetting schemes have been widely adopted by governments and corporations over the last three decades, most commonly in the form of carbon or biodiversity offsets, which seek to counteract carbon emissions and habitat loss, respectively, by investing in environmentally beneficial projects. They operate in many different forms and at different scales, from the little check box that lets you offset the emissions of your flight, to multinational forestry projects funded by mining and oil companies.  Offsetting’s appeal is in its simplicity, allowing us to redress some of the harm done by our activity on the planet without throwing too big a wrench in the economy, but this same simplicity is also its downfall. While offsetting projects can include worthwhile environmental work, the very idea of like-for-like exchange is premised on a logic that falls short in the face of the unique ecosystems and meaningful places that make up the world we live in. This is a world that is much more complicated, dynamic, and alive than what is accounted for by offsetting schemes.  

Lost in translation

A key premise of offsetting is that a net gain can compensate for a local loss. Environmental offset schemes make no demand on corporations to limit their economic activity, instead hoping to balance it out through positive environmental contributions. Offsetting projects usually operate as part of a larger framework that sets a target for acceptable levels of carbon emissions or biodiversity; for instance, cap-and-trade systems, the Paris Agreement targets, or the No Net Loss biodiversity policies that dozens of countries have now adopted. When corporations continue to exceed these limits, offsetting projects provide a way to cancel out this excess. So, if the construction of a condo will result in the disruption of a wetland, the property developer can compensate for this by investing in the improvement or protection of another wetland deemed to be equivalent. If a company’s shipping will result in some 13 million metric tonnes of carbon being emitted, they can invest in forestry or renewable energy projects that are accredited to save an equivalent amount. Companies such as airlines sometimes share this responsibility with individual consumers by providing an option – that familiar check box – to contribute to their offset projects. The idea is to incentivise environmental protection on the part of corporations by making it the route through which they are permitted to continue and even expand their operations. Offsetting is often lauded as a win-win between the economy and the environment. In reality, however, things have been a little more lopsided.

While there is important conservation work being carried out under the auspices of offsetting, the evidence thus far is that by and large these programs are not effective as offsets – that is, they do not cancel out the harmful actions of the companies behind them. Studies of biodiversity offset sites have found that they are not preventing the net loss of biodiversity. Up to 82% have a high probability of long term failure, and that even in cases where offset sites may succeed, time delays were far greater than what was being accounted for. In many cases, offset sites may support biodiversity, but not for the same combinations of species as in the site that was lost to development.

For example, one study of land reclamation under Australia’s No Net Loss policy found that attempting to offset the loss of forests cleared for farming by replanting other sections of the same farm led to some species, such as the eastern brown snake, doing well in the reclaimed sites, while many others such as the stone gecko and the common ringtail possum did not.  Tree-dwelling possums were actually negatively affected by new planting, as they rely on cavities in older trees for nesting sites. To add to the difficulty, researchers found that even reclamation projects where hollowed trees had been preserved could not provide the same homey landscape for the possums and small reptiles because subtle changes in factors like soil salinity and amount of woody debris shaped the development of the new forest. These minute differences changed the way possums, geckos, and their neighbours fed, sheltered, and reproduced. The result was landscapes that, though generally better for biodiversity than no reclamation at all, could not be considered a replacement or adequate compensation for what was lost.

The complex dynamics which are so difficult to control in biodiversity offsetting programs also underlie the carbon sequestration processes measured in many carbon offset programs, which show similar rates of failure. It is forests, rather than trees alone, that sequester carbon and forests are complicated biomes that take time to develop. The impact these sites do have is dependent on processes which take place over decades or even centuries, during which time the effects of the carbon already emitted and the habitat already lost are still felt.

The unexpected outcomes and time delays observed in offset sites demonstrate the difficulties of convincing ecosystems to go along with our plans. Offsetting programs attempt to account for these complexities by calculating a project’s value in the form of carbon and biodiversity credits, which quantify different attributes of a project: tonnes of carbon to be sequestered, the presence or absence of endangered species, and so on. These calculations necessarily simplify ecological processes in order to assign the kind of values that can be quantified, monetised, and transferred from one site to another. However, as the high failure rate of offsets attests, the ecological processes that underlie these values are difficult to control or predict. Ecosystems do not always develop in ways that are linear and uniform. Instead they are often patchy, proceeding in fits and starts and according to timelines well beyond human experience. While this doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to help our environment flourish, it does indicate that we cannot count on nature to behave in the precise ways we would like it to, which makes it extremely risky to trade an existent ecosystem for a hypothetical one.

A house is not a home

Not only are the services and attributes targeted by offsetting schemes difficult to maintain or recreate, they are an inadequate description of what is being lost. Environments are not just collections of species and things. They are places and homes, which are much harder to replace.

For example, the petroleum company Syncrude, operating in the Canadian tar sands, recently purchased $2.4 million in offset credits towards the protection of 1.4 million hectares of boreal forest – making this the largest protected boreal forest on the planet. This helped them secure permission to develop a new mine, a move vehemently opposed by local Chipewyan and Cree First Nations communities. The environmental footprint of the protected boreal forest is calculated to be larger than that of the mine in terms of carbon sequestration as well as conservation impact. As far as offsetting goes, this is considered a Net Positive, a fact that was used rhetorically by Syncrude to legitimise the expansion of their operations and silence critics.

Environments are not just collections of species and things. They are places and homes, which are much harder to replace.

However, the destruction wrought by Syncrude’s industrial activities goes beyond what can be quantified, it forever damages the relationships that both humans and non-humans have to land that has been their home for millennia. As Chipewyan Chief Adam Allan put it: “I remember as a kid, you could drink water from the Athabasca River, you could eat the fish. I remember those days. But now, today, you can’t do it.” Feeling at home is always entangled with a particular place, and the damage done to the Indigenous peoples of Athabasca’s sense of belonging cannot be repaired by protecting another swathe of land elsewhere.  The situation in the Canadian tar sands is not unique. From the Arctic to the South Pacific, Indigenous and other vulnerable communities are losing the landscapes that not only provide them with a means of subsistence but have informed unique cultures and ways of life.

Offsetting not only fails to curb the extractive industrial activity that continually puts communities at risk, it may actually exacerbate the unequal distribution of harm that results. Decisions about what should be saved and what must be sacrificed are often taken out of the hands of the communities most directly affected by them. Instead, agency is concentrated in the very entities putting the environment under threat, which has led to decisions that further entrench class inequalities as well as colonial power dynamics. This can put vulnerable communities at risk not only through the condoned destruction of their environment, but in the attempts to save it. In the global South, conservation offsets funded and managed by corporations and NGOs based in the North often exclude local human communities from the nature to be protected, resulting in evictions, bans, and the criminalisation of activities once considered an essential part of life and culture. While most offsetting programs do include some form of consultation with local communities, foregrounding the voices of those most vulnerable to harm would contradict the basic assumption of offsetting: that a net gain can outweigh a local loss.

From Here to Eternity

Even if we accept the claim that restoration projects could turn these losses into net gains, a quantitative win does not remedy the qualitative losses suffered by local communities—human and non-human—nor does it guarantee a better world to come. Determining what constitutes net gain, what sacrifices are worth making, and who gets a say in the discussion, shapes the kind of world that will be built out of those sacrifices.

By the logic of offsetting, that world need not be very different from the one we currently have. It promises that not only will environmental well-being not conflict with economic growth, but they can support each other to the benefit of all. However, economic growth, conventionally measured by GDP, has thus far not been for the benefit of all. It has come with a host of unequally distributed social and environmental costs and has not translated into overall well-being. Instead, those who live and work in their communities are increasingly put at risk by the costs, while extraordinary wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a select few.

This is perhaps why offsetting has been such an easy sell to many of the world’s most powerful corporations: it allows them to continue being powerful. As long as the environment can be repaired and replenished, it can continue to be extracted from and profited off of, with no need for hard limits or radical restructuring. We could theoretically continue on like this indefinitely: infinite environmental gain supporting infinite economic growth.

The key word, however, is theoretically. In real life, as evidenced by the widespread failure of offsetting programs to deliver practical results, the environment as we know it cannot thrive indefinitely while at the same time having the energy, materials, and life needed to fuel increasing economic growth extracted from it. It will be, as it has been, damaged beyond what can be repaired in human lifetimes and more and more people will suffer because of that damage. Without significant structural change, the pursuit of net gain will continue to entrench the harm and inequality masked by that growth.

In reality, ecosystems are not made up of building blocks, which can be amalgamated or broken up and transferred at the convenience of those who would profit from it.

Only by assuming a neutral, detached view of an environment-in-general does it make sense to speak of trading one ecosystem for another, like switching money between accounts. In reality, ecosystems are not made up of building blocks, which can be amalgamated or broken up and transferred at the convenience of those who would profit from it. Both ecologically and culturally, ecosystems are composed of relationships, between humans and non-humans, living beings and their abiotic surroundings, all rooted in a particular time and place. The loss of these places is not just a loss of services or attributes, it is a loss of the unique perspectives and ways of living that come from being a part of these environments. It is a loss of worlds. Taking seriously the reality of being embedded in these relationships means recognising that there are limits to the kinds of activity we can undertake without causing irreparable harm, no matter how we try to make up for it.

Turning the ship around

Offsetting allows us to imagine a world in which there are no limits. The economic paradigm of eternal growth requires such an environment, one which is always replenishable, never fully exhausted. Like some fabled ghost ship, it can float on forever so long as we keep patching it up. In a way, it is comforting to imagine that whatever harm we do can be repaired. In the face of such vast problems, it is at least something. As one offsetting advocate puts it: “Perfection can be the enemy of delivery. There are a whole bunch of problems with it. … What is the alternative?”

But we are not yet ghosts and we can turn this ship around. Offsetting may be better than nothing, but nothing is not the only alternative. The alternative to offsetting it is to accept that there are limits, and to learn how to flourish within them. This means not presuming that ecosystems will follow our plans. It also means listening first and foremost to the communities who have been pushed beyond their limits by the machinations of extractive capitalism. Learning to live without the myth that we can keep sailing forever may be daunting, but it’s the only way to keep from drowning. In the end, it may not be so bad to live in a world that is more than the sum of its parts.

Further Resources

Apostolopoulou, Evangelia. & Adams, William. 2017 ‘Biodiversity offsetting and conservation: reframing nature to save it’, Oryx, 51(1), pp. 23–31.

Goldtooth, Tom. 2014. ‘Stopping the Privatization of Nature’ Bioneers Lecture.

Song, Lisa. 2019. ‘These 4 Arguments Can’t Overcome the Facts About Carbon Offsets for Forest PreservationProPublica.

Robertson, Morgan M. 2006 ‘The Nature That Capital Can See: Science, State, and Market in the Commodification of Ecosystem Services.’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 24, pp. 367-387.

Vyawahare, Malavika. 2020. ‘Raze here, save there: Do biodiversity offsets work for people or ecosystems?Mongabay.

Danika Drury is a writer and researcher currently working to combat food poverty in the UK. She’s a graduate of Birkbeck, University of London’s MSc program in Environment & Sustainability and previously studied Philosophy. You can talk to her about eels and sci-fi @DanikaJane.

Extractivism

by Diana Vela Almeida

La versión en español de este artículo está disponible aquí.

One could simply define extractivism as a productive process where natural resources are removed from the land or the underground and then put up for sale as commodities on the global market. But defining extractivism is not really this easy. Extractivism is related to existing geopolitical, economic and social relations produced throughout history. It is an economic model of development that transnational companies and states practice worldwide and that can be traced back more than 500 years all the way to the European colonial expansion. You can’t tell the history of the colonies without talking about the looting of minerals, metals, and other high-value resources in Latin America, Africa, and Asia—looting that first nourished demands for development from the European crowns and later from the United States, and more recently also from China.

Today this model of accumulation of wealth remains a key part of the structure of a globally dominant capitalistic system—a system where power is in the hands of those who control money and industry—that has extended the extractive frontier to the detriment of other forms of land and resource uses. Such exploitation has also appropriated human bodies in the form of slaves or, more recently, as labor-intensive precarious workers. Extractivism is entirely tied up with exploitation of people.

Today’s extractive industries such as gas, oil, and mining have an egregious reputation of violating human and environmental rights and supporting highly controversial political and economic reforms in poor countries.

Expanding the global frontiers of extraction

Since the mid-20th century, extractive frontiers have expanded around the planet as global demand for commodities has increased. Most non-industrialized countries (but also industrialized countries such as Norway, Canada, and the US) have activated their primary sectors of production to exploit landscapes that were previously inaccessible, such as in the case of fracking and tar sands extraction in the Artic or in the open sea.

Since the mid-20th century, extractive frontiers have expanded around the planet as global demand for commodities has increased.

The central idea behind such state-sanctioned extractivism is that extractive projects are strategic ventures for national development in resource-rich countries that can thereby strengthen their comparative economic advantages—that is, their economic power relative to the economic power of other nations. In other words, poor nations can exploit their natural resources as a means for economic growth, a source of employment, and ultimately a tool for poverty reduction.

This idea has been ingrained for many years in developing countries, and yet these countries have historically been unable to convert resource wealth into so-called development. Indeed, in some places that are rich in natural resources—typically in African countries with large oil or mineral deposits—there is an inverse relationship between poverty reduction and economic performance. This means that a lot of extractive activity is coupled with high levels of poverty, economic dependency on capital flows from developed countries, and political instability. This phenomenon is known as the “resource curse.”

In the last 20 years, several governments in Latin America, Africa, and Asia have challenged the “resource curse” by asserting national control over new forms of primary-production extractive industries. These are oriented around intensive and large-scale projects that cover previously inconceivable environments (again, like off-shore mining or fracking), as well as new forms of economic exploitation such as the agroindustry, fisheries, timber extraction, tourism, animal husbandry, and energy megaprojects.

These endeavours require national policy reforms. In Asia and Africa, extractivist national policies adhere to what is called “resource nationalism” and include the total or partial nationalization of extractive industries, renegotiation of contracts with foreign investment, increased public shareholding, new or higher taxation to expand resource rent, and value-added processing of resources.

In Latin America, the commodity boom at the beginning of the 2000s, marked by the increase in commodity prices together with transnational investments, led to great economic growth in what is called “neoextractivism”. Neoextractivism is a relative of resource nationalism and its emergence coincided with the rise to power of several progressive governments in the region that also seized more state control over natural resources within their national boundaries.

Advocates of neoextractivism claimed that new extractive practices would be “environmentally friendly” and “socially responsible”, thereby minimizing the disastrous impacts of extractivism as it was practiced throughout colonial and neoliberal history. Despite this, extractive industries have expanded and continue to expand in new frontiers with the negative effects of dispossessing people from their land, subjugating communal values to the values of extraction-driven development, and disrupting social structures, territories, and alternative forms of life.

In the debate over extractivism, there is no consensus about how to solve the problems caused by this mode of development. Some people think that extractivism should be viewed positively because of the economic growth and increased public spending that was accomplished during the early 2000s in Latin America. Others emphasise that most of the wealth produced is siphoned out of the producer countries to transnational investors, while negative impacts remain locally or regionally. And from the perspective of those who are directly affected by extractive industries, it is clear that economic revenues are not translated into socially just well-being and that these revenues are generated through the destruction of their lives and their land.

Not a neutral economic model

To further understand the complexity of the problem with extractivism, let us look at three interrelated dimensions of what makes up the extractivist economic model—and then consider how to go beyond the economic considerations of extractivism.

First, for extractivism to work, any biophysical “nature” becomes exclusively framed as a natural resource. That is, nature is conceived as an input (e.g. a resource like oil, soil, or trees) for the production of a commodity (e.g. gas, food, or timber). This simplifies the multiplicity of socionature relations with which such an economic model is entangled.  

When thinking about the environmental impacts of extraction, we surely need to consider what will happen to other elements in nature that are interconnected with the extracted resource, including water, air, soil, plants, and human and non-human animals. A cascading effect of environmental change indeed often occurs in ecosystems that are impacted by extraction, and thus interrelated elements of nature become irreversibly altered.

Second, extractive projects are normally located in or close to marginal, poor, and racialized (i.e. conceived as non-white) populations. Extractivism arrives with promises of improved life conditions, more jobs, and infrastructure development. But large-scale extractive industries are by no means necessarily interested in forwarding local employment and improving the livelihood of people. Instead, experience tells us that they often serve to diminish alternative economic activities and disrupt existing community networks and social structures. Extractive industries have frequently dispossessed people of land rights with the result of cultural disruption and violence.

Demands for social and environmental justice revolve around claims that the social and environmental costs of extractivism are higher than any economic benefit.

Marginal populations still bear the brunt of the social costs of extractivism and don’t necessarily reap any benefits. In response to this, demands for social and environmental justice revolve around claims that the social and environmental costs of extractivism are higher than any economic benefit but that these costs are not accounted for in the decisions.

New demands from feminist movements and women Indigenous defenders highlight the relation between extractivism and patriarchal and racial violence and how this disproportionately impacts women. Examples are the increase in prostitution and sexual violence in communities restructured by extractivism and the externalization the social costs—the transfer of responsibilities for caring that are pivotal for the functioning of any economy—to women. As women are primarily responsible for the reproduction of life, they are highly vulnerable to the rupture of community or loss of territory. Because of that, women organizations have become the frontline defenders of their territories in the resistance against extractivism.

Finally, extractivism is a highly political endeavour that maintains a model of capital accumulation and destruction. It has led to the increase of socio-environmental conflicts around the globe, involving measures by states and industry to control resistance and criminalize social protest.

So, in sum, one should define extractivism as far from neutral or apolitical; it is an economic model that reflects a specific political position that relies on a given, predefined understanding of growth-oriented development as the ultimate good. Extractivism thereby reinforces political-economic arrangements that are biased against marginalized people who are deprived of their power to influence political decisions.

From an extractivist political perspective, resistance against extractivism is naïve, obstinate NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard-ism), or ignorant of the economic needs of the countries that could be “developed” by extractive projects. In reality, actions of resistance are contestations that challenge the dominant extractivist worldview and the uneven power relations between actors who decide, actors who benefit, and actors who bear the negative consequences of extraction. Under these conditions, extractivism is in complete contradiction to social and environmental justice and care for nature and life itself.

All in all, extractivism as a single model of production remains one of the most expansionist global enterprises and it squashes any other ways of living with the land. The 500 years’ legacy of extractivism is part of ongoing imperialist interest from industrial powers in securing access and control over natural resources around the globe, even in today´s green energy transitions. As such, extractivism stands in sharp contrast to flourishing alternative forms of land use and livelihoods.

Opposition to extractivism does not mean that people can’t use a resource at all and by no means implies a binary choice between either extractivism or underdevelopment. Instead, anti-extractivism is about focusing on what type of life we want to achieve as a whole and how we build global systems of justice. We can nourish ourselves from several non-extractivist modes of production and reproduction that center on a dignified life for all.  

Further resources:

Bond, P. (2017). Uneven development and resource extractivism in Africa. In Routledge Handbook of Ecological Economics (pp. 404-413). Routledge.

  • This article explains the expansion of neoliberal environmentalism in the extraction of non-renewable natural resources in Africa. The author argues that if accounting the social and environmental costs, African countries end up poorer than before extraction.

Burchardt, H. J., & Dietz, K. (2014). (Neo-) extractivism–a new challenge for development theory from Latin America. Third World Quarterly35(3), 468-486.

  • An overview of key debates of ‘Neo-extractivism’ and the role of the state in Latin America.

Engels, B., & Dietz, K. (Eds.). (2017). Contested extractivism, society and the state: Struggles over mining and land. Palgrave Macmillan.

  • A presentation of several case studies around the globe on the conflicts between extractivism and other land uses.

Galeano, E. (1997). Open veins of Latin America: Five centuries of the pillage of a continent. NYU Press.

  • A classic essay on the history of the looting of natural resources, colonialism and uneven development in Latin America from the 15th century to the 20th century.

Svampa, M. (2015). Commodities consensus: Neoextractivism and enclosure of the commons in Latin America. South Atlantic Quarterly114(1), 65-82.

  • A critical analysis of neo-extractivism, capital accumulation, environmental conflicts and development. It ends up discussing proposals around ideas of post-extractivism and transitions.

Diana Vela Almeida is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Geography at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Diana combines political ecology, ecological economics and feminist critical geography to study extractivism, neoliberal environmentalism and socio-environmental resistance. Contact: diana.velaalmeida[at]ntnu.no

Extractivismo

por Diana Vela Almeida

An English version of this article is available here.

Alguien podría fácilmente definir al extractivismo como un proceso productivo donde los recursos naturales se remueven del suelo o del subsuelo y luego son vendidos como commodities en el mercado global. Pero definir el extractivismo no es tarea tan fácil. El extractivismo está asociado a relaciones geopolíticas, económicas y sociales producidas a lo largo de la historia. Este es un modelo económico de desarrollo practicado por las empresas transnacionales y los estados en todo el mundo y que se remonta a más de 500 años atrás desde la expansión colonial europea. No se puede hablar de la historia de las colonias sin mencionar el saqueo de minerales, metales y otros recursos de alto valor en América Latina, África y Asia- saqueo que primero alimentó las demandas de desarrollo de las coronas europeas y luego también de los Estados Unidos, y más recientemente de China.

Hoy este modelo de acumulación de riqueza es una parte fundamental de la estructura dominante del sistema capitalista global, un sistema donde el poder está en manos de quienes controlan el dinero y la industria, y el cual ha extendido la frontera extractiva en detrimento de otras formas de uso de la tierra y los recursos naturales. Dicha explotación también se ha apropiado históricamente de los cuerpos en forma de esclavos o, más recientemente, como trabajadores precarios de mano de obra intensiva. El extractivismo está completamente ligado a la explotación de las personas.

Las industrias extractivas de hoy en día, como el gas, el petróleo y la minería, tienen una reputación notoria de violar los derechos humanos y ambientales y de apoyar reformas políticas y económicas muy controvertidas en los países pobres.

Expandiendo las fronteras globales de extracción

Desde mediados del siglo XX, las fronteras extractivas se han expandido alrededor del mundo a medida que la demanda global de commodities aumenta. La mayoría de los países no industrializados (pero también países industrializados como Noruega, Canadá y los Estados Unidos) han activado sus sectores primario- productivos para explotar paisajes que antes eran inaccesibles; este es el caso del fracking y de la extracción de arenas bituminosas en el Ártico o en el mar abierto.

Desde mediados del siglo XX, las fronteras extractivas se han expandido alrededor del mundo a medida que la demanda global de commodities aumenta.

La idea central detrás del extractivismo promovido por los estados es que los proyectos extractivos son núcleos estratégicos para el desarrollo nacional de países ricos en recursos naturales, y que pueden por lo tanto fortalecer sus ventajas comparativas, es decir, mejorar su poder económico en relación con el poder económico de otras naciones. En otras palabras, las naciones pobres pueden explotar sus recursos naturales como un medio para crecer económicamente, mantener una fuente de empleo y, en última instancia, como una herramienta para la reducción de la pobreza.

Esta idea ha estado arraigada durante muchos años en los países en desarrollo, y sin embargo, la historia muestra que estos países no han podido transformar la riqueza de sus recursos naturales en el tal llamado desarrollo. De hecho, en varios lugares ricos en recursos naturales, generalmente en países africanos con grandes yacimientos de petróleo o minerales, existe una relación inversa entre la reducción de la pobreza y el desempeño económico. Es decir, las actividades extractivas se combinan con altos niveles de pobreza, dependencia económica de los flujos de capital desde los países desarrollados e inestabilidad política. Este fenómeno se conoce como la “maldición de los recursos”.

En los últimos 20 años, varios gobiernos en América Latina, África y Asia han desafiado la “maldición de los recursos” al afirmar el control nacional sobre nuevas formas de industrias extractivas de producción primaria. Estas industrias están orientadas a promover proyectos intensivos y a gran escala que alcanzan ambientes previamente inconcebibles (nuevamente, como la minería a mar abierto o el fracking), así como también incluyen nuevas formas de explotación económica como la agroindustria, la pesca, la extracción de madera, el turismo, la cría industrial de animales, y los megaproyectos energéticos.

Estos esfuerzos requieren reformas de política nacional. En Asia y África, las políticas nacionales extractivistas se adhieren a lo que se conoce como el “nacionalismo de los recursos” e incluyen la nacionalización total o parcial de las industrias extractivas, la renegociación de los contratos de inversión extranjera, el aumento de la participación pública, impuestos nuevos o más altos para ampliar la renta extractiva, y generar valor agregado sobre los recursos extraídos.

En América Latina, el boom de las commodities a principios de la década de 2000, marcado por el aumento de los precios de estos productos junto con mayores inversiones transnacionales, condujo a un gran crecimiento económico en lo que se conoce como “neoextractivismo”. El neoextractivismo es un pariente del nacionalismo de los recursos y su surgimiento coincidió con el ascenso al poder de varios gobiernos progresistas en la región, que también tomaron mayor control estatal sobre los recursos naturales dentro de sus fronteras nacionales.

Los defensores del neoextractivismo afirman que las nuevas prácticas extractivas son “ambientalmente amigables” y “socialmente responsables”, minimizando así los efectos desastrosos del extractivismo practicado a lo largo de la historia colonial y neoliberal. A pesar de esto, la industria extractiva se ha expandido y continúa expandiéndose hacia nuevas fronteras y está causando grandes efectos negativos como el despojo de las tierras de los habitantes, la subyugación de los valores comunitarios por valores desarrollistas impulsados por la extracción y la disrrupción de las estructuras sociales, de los territorios, y de las formas alternativas de vida.

En el debate sobre el extractivismo no hay consenso sobre cómo resolver los problemas causados ​​por este modelo de desarrollo. Algunas personas piensan que el extractivismo debe ser visto positivamente debido al crecimiento económico que genera y al aumento del gasto público logrado a principios de la década del 2000 en Latinoamérica. Otros enfatizan que la mayor parte de la riqueza producida se fuga de los países productores hacia los inversores transnacionales, mientras que los impactos negativos permanecen local o regionalmente. Y desde la perspectiva de quienes están directamente afectados por las industrias extractivas, los ingresos económicos no se traducen en bienestar social, además que son ingresos generados a través de la destrucción de sus vidas y de sus tierras.

No existe un modelo económico neutral.

Para entender mejor la complejidad del problema del extractivismo, veamos tres dimensiones interrelacionadas de lo que constituye el modelo económico extractivista, y luego consideramos cómo ir más allá de las cuestiones económicas del extractivismo.

Primero, para que el extractivismo funcione, éste debe tomar cualquier “naturaleza” biofísica y transformarla exclusivamente en un recurso natural. Es decir, la naturaleza se concibe como un insumo (por ejemplo, se toma un recurso como el petróleo, la tierra o los árboles) para utilizarlo en la producción de una commodity (por ejemplo, gasolina, alimentos o madera). Este fenómeno simplifica la multiplicidad de relaciones sociales existentes con la naturaleza, de las cuales dicho modelo económico también se encuentra entrelazado.

Al pensar en los impactos ambientales de la extracción, ciertamente debemos considerar qué sucederá con otros elementos de la naturaleza que están interconectados con el recurso extraído, incluidos el agua, el aire, el suelo, las plantas y los animales humanos y no humanos. De hecho, a menudo se produce un efecto en cascada de cambio ambiental en los ecosistemas que se ven afectados por la extracción, por lo que los elementos de la naturaleza que están interrelacionados son alterados irreversiblemente.

Segundo, los proyectos extractivos normalmente se ubican cerca o dentro de poblaciones marginales, pobres y racializadas (es decir, concebidas como no blancas). El extractivismo llega con promesas de mejores condiciones de vida, más empleos y mejor desarrollo de infraestructura. Pero las industrias extractivas a gran escala no están necesariamente interesadas en fortalecer el empleo local y mejorar el sustento de las personas. Al contrario, la experiencia nos dice que éstas a menudo reducen las actividades económicas alternativas e interrumpen las redes comunitarias y las estructuras sociales existentes. Las industrias extractivas con frecuencia han vulnerado los derechos de las personas a la tierra, resultando en fuertes disrupciones culturales y violencia.

Las demandas de justicia social y ambiental giran en torno a las afirmaciones de que los costos sociales y ambientales del extractivismo son más altos que cualquier beneficio económico.

Las poblaciones marginales aún cargan la peor parte de los costos sociales del extractivismo y no necesariamente cosechan algún beneficio. En respuesta a esto, las demandas de justicia social y ambiental giran en torno a las afirmaciones de que los costos sociales y ambientales del extractivismo son más altos que cualquier beneficio económico, pero estos costos no se tienen en cuenta en las decisiones.

Las nuevas demandas de los movimientos feministas y las defensoras indígenas resaltan la relación entre el extractivismo y la violencia patriarcal y racial y cómo esto afecta desproporcionadamente a las mujeres. Algunos ejemplos son el aumento de la prostitución y la violencia sexual en las comunidades transformadas por el extractivismo y la externalización de los costos sociales (la transferencia de responsabilidades de cuidado que son fundamentales para el funcionamiento de cualquier economía) a las mujeres. Como las mujeres son las principales responsables de la reproducción de la vida, ellas son muy vulnerables a la ruptura de la comunidad o la pérdida del territorio. Por eso, las organizaciones de mujeres se han convertido en la primera línea de la defensa territorial y de la resistencia contra el extractivismo.

Finalmente, el extractivismo es un proyecto claramente político que mantiene un modelo de acumulación de capital y destrucción. Este modelo ha causado un aumento de conflictos socioambientales en todo el mundo, resultando en medidas por parte de los estados y la industria para controlar la resistencia y criminalizar la protesta social.

En resumen, deberíamos definir al extractivismo como algo lejos de lo neutral o apolítico; éste es un modelo económico que refleja una posición política concreta, basada en una comprensión clara y predefinida del desarrollo, el cual está orientado al crecimiento como objetivo final. El extractivismo por lo tanto refuerza los arreglos político-económicos necesarios en contra de las personas marginalizadas que se ven privadas de su poder para influir sobre las decisiones políticas.

Desde una perspectiva política extractivista, la resistencia contra el extractivismo es vista como ingenua, NIMBYsmo (es decir, “No en mi patio trasero”), oposición obstinada o ignorante de las necesidades económicas de los países que podrían “desarrollarse” gracias a los proyectos extractivos. En realidad, las acciones de resistencia representan cuestionamientos que desafían el paradigma extractivista dominante y las relaciones desiguales de poder entre los actores que deciden, los actores que se benefician y los actores que soportan las consecuencias negativas de la extracción. Bajo estas condiciones, el extractivismo está en clara contradicción con la justicia social y ambiental y el cuidado de la naturaleza y la vida misma.

Con todo lo dicho, el extractivismo como modelo de producción sigue siendo uno de los proyectos globales más expansionistas y que aplasta cualquier otra forma de vivir con la tierra. El legado de 500 años de extractivismo es parte del continuo interés imperialista de las potencias industriales por garantizar el acceso y control sobre los recursos naturales en todo el mundo, incluso hoy en día, a través de intereses relacionados con transiciones hacia las energías verdes. Como tal, esto contrasta abiertamente con las formas alternativas de uso de la tierra y los medios de vida prósperos.

La oposición al extractivismo no significa que las personas no puedan utilizar un recurso en absoluto y de ninguna manera implica una elección binaria entre extractivismo o subdesarrollo. Al contrario, el anti-extractivismo se trata de enfocarse en qué tipo de vida queremos lograr integralmente y cómo construimos sistemas globales de justicia. Ahí, podemos nutrirnos de los saberes de varios modos de producción y reproducción no extractivistas que se centran en una vida digna para todas y todos.

Recursos adicionales:

Bond, P. (2017). Uneven development and resource extractivism in Africa. In Routledge Handbook of Ecological Economics (pp. 404-413). Routledge.

  • Explica la expansión del ambientalismo neoliberal en la extracción de recursos naturales no renovables en África. El autor argumenta que si se contabilizan los costos sociales y ambientales, los países africanos terminan siendo más pobres que antes de la extracción.

Burchardt, H. J., & Dietz, K. (2014). (Neo-) extractivism–a new challenge for development theory from Latin America. Third World Quarterly35(3), 468-486.

  • Proporciona una visión general de los debates clave sobre el “Neo-extractivismo” y el papel del estado en América Latina.

Engels, B., & Dietz, K. (Eds.). (2017). Contested extractivism, society and the state: Struggles over mining and land. Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Presenta varios estudios de caso alrededor del mundo sobre los conflictos entre extractivismo y otros usos de la tierra.

Galeano, E. (1979). Las venas abiertas de América Latina. Siglo xxi.

  • Un ensayo clásico sobre la historia del saqueo de los recursos naturales, el colonialismo y el desarrollo desigual en América Latina desde el siglo XV hasta el siglo XX.

Svampa, M. N. (2013). Consenso de los commodities y lenguajes de valoración en América Latina; Fundación Friedrich Ebert, Nueva Sociedad, 244; 4: 30-46

  • Proporciona un análisis crítico del neo-extractivismo, la acumulación de capital, los conflictos ambientales y el desarrollo en América Latina.

Diana Vela Almeida es una investigadora postdoctoral en el Departamento de Geografía de la Universidad Noruega de Ciencia y Tecnología. Diana combina ecología política, economía ecológica y geografía crítica feminista para estudiar el extractivismo, el ambientalismo neoliberal y la resistencia socio-ambiental. Contacto: diana.velaalmeida[at]ntnu.no

July readings

Indigenous Brazilians stand chained to a post in front of the Ministry of Justice in Brasilia, May 29, 2014, to demand a meeting with Justice Minister Eduardo Cardozo to discuss the demarcation of their ancestral land and respect for their rights. (Joedson Alves /REUTERS, via RCI)

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

This month, we are featuring articles illustrating what decolonial ecology could look like—and, in the corollary, analyses of racism in the environmental movement and climate denial by liberals. As real estate markets become unstable, investors are looking for safe places to put their money—farmland and extractive industries. So we are putting the spotlight on fights for land reform, anti-extractivist struggles, and Indigenous movements around the world. Finally, with the start of a new school year and online education, we noticed an uptick of radical syllabi for making sense of the world—we collected these in our resources section. 

A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!



Uneven Earth updates

Population | “Neo-Malthusian promotion of family planning as the solution to hunger, conflict, and poverty has contributed to destructive population control approaches, that are targeted most often at poor, racialized women.” 

Littoral Drift: Coastal currents and industrial echoes mingle to shape the landscape in Southern France | Photographer and filmmaker Neal Rockwell explores new natures on the Landes coast 

The Revolution Will Not Be “Green” | A truly equitable and sustainable conservation movement must abandon both green capitalism and the idea of pristine nature 



Top 5 articles to read

Cogs in the climate machine. A short course in planetary time, for planetary survival.

The coronavirus-climate-air conditioning nexus

Poultry and prisons

The dollar and Empire

Agro-imperialism in the time of Covid-19



News you might’ve missed

‘A critical situation’: Bangladesh in crisis as monsoon floods follow super-cyclone, and Monsoons slam South Asia, displacing millions in Bangladesh and India

Privatisation ‘wave’ hurts global poor as pandemic heightens risks

To fill vacant units, Barcelona seizes apartments

South Korea backtracks on green promise

Belgian Green parties introduce ecocide bill

Surprise discoveries in Mexico cave may double time of peopling of the Americas

Theoretical physicists say 90% chance of societal collapse within several decades. Deforestation and rampant resource use is likely to trigger the ‘irreversible collapse’ of human civilization unless we rapidly change course.



Global land struggles

New Brazilian map unmasks its illegal foresters

After the war, before the flood, in Colombia

An oil spill in the time of coronavirus

Land Back, the unheeded lesson of ‘Oka Crisis,’ 30 years on

Dakota Access Pipeline decision: The Standing Rock generation triumphs

The Supreme Court ruling on Oklahoma was welcome, but Indigenous people deserve more: To realize a complete vision of Indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice takes people power

Environmental activists face high risk of violence and assassination: study

Communities in West and Central Africa resist industrial oil palm plantations, even in times of Covid-19

Beyond biological warfare: Why COVID-19 is a matter of land distribution in Latin America 



Coronavirus

COVID-19 and border politics

How epidemics end

Ecology and economics for pandemic prevention

Lessons from the pandemic for the municipalists in Spain

Uneven development and the coronavirus crisis

It’s time to tell a new story about coronavirus—our lives depend on it



Where we’re at: analysis

Himalayan hydropower is not a green alternative 

The racist double standards of international development

‘Defund the police,’ ‘cancel rent’: The Left remakes the world

Has 2020 marked the end of progressive left electoralism?

Examining the wreckage

Beyond the Green New Deal: A review of Stan Cox’s new book

From neoliberalism to necrocapitalism in 20 years

Is Deep Adaptation flawed science?



Just think about it…

Automation is for the bosses

Towards the ‘Walden wage’

Twitter thread: “The summer heat continues. Let’s have a look at how the ancient Romans built themselves a cool, breezy, indoor climate

When France extorted Haiti – the greatest heist in history

Trump has brought America’s dirty wars home

In Mexico City, the coronavirus is bringing back Aztec-era ‘floating gardens’



Decolonial ecologies

The hungry people

Decolonizing ecology

The forest as farm

Growing sovereignty: Turtle Island and the future of food

Agroecology is solution to Nigeria’s food, farming challenges, say experts



Environmentalism, racism, and the right

Environmental group Sierra Club reckons with John Muir’s racism

Beware the rise of Far-Right environmentalism

Confronting the rise of eco-fascism means grappling with complex systems

The willful blindness of reactionary liberalism

Bad science and bad arguments abound in ‘Apocalypse Never’ by Michael Shellenberger. See also: ‘False Alarm’ and ‘Apocalypse Never’ book reviews



Cities and radical municipalism

I’ve seen a future without cars, and it’s amazing

Political organizing in the 21st century

Another town is possible: community wealth building in the Basque Country

Forget basic income—in Canada, the new normal should bring a public housing revolution

Cities versus multinationals

Green structural adjustment in the World Bank’s resilient cities

The “Camden model” for community policing is not a model. It’s an obstacle to real change.

Public transportation is a human right

Assembled in Detroit. An interview with Mason Herson-Hord about community organizing in Detroit, Michigan. 

Poppies. “The land we’re standing on was a golf course. Three years have passed since it was last used as one, and nature has made little headway in claiming it back.”

Why Miami is doomed—and what it would take to save it



Resources

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Mexie’s positive Leftist news roundup, a monthly series on YouTube

System change: A basic primer to the solidarity economy

Pandemic syllabus

Decolonising methods: A reading list

Green New Deal(s): A resource list for political ecologists



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Population

by Anne Hendrixson and Diana Ojeda

While often thought of as a given reality, definitions of population are highly political. They are most often negatively associated with notions of “overpopulation” or “too many” Black, Brown and Indigenous people, supposedly overly fertile women and poor people, as well as some religious and ethnic groups. These ideas about population serve the purpose of classifying people and marking them as in need of intervention, defining whose life and ways of life are valuable or worthy of reproduction. In this line, it is important to question how population numbers are calculated and how they are used, as they help shape possible futures.

In relation to the environment and environmental conflict, population is often defined as a problem in neo-Malthusian terms. Neo-Malthusianism builds on British economist Thomas Malthus’s predictions of population-induced resource scarcity and violence. Neo-Malthusian promotion of family planning as the solution to hunger, conflict, and poverty has contributed to destructive population control approaches, that are targeted most often at poor, racialized women.

Population control was an international development policy from the 1960s to mid-1990s. Its policies have been based on top-down, coercive interventions. Such interventions are tied with imperial strategies for restraining local populations. Examples include China’s one-child policy, sterilization abuses in 1970s India and 1990s Peru, and the wide-scale dissemination of long-acting reversible contraceptive methods in the global South as a condition of international aid, like Norplant implants in Indonesia and elsewhere. Although the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development foregrounded sexual and reproductive health and rights and women’s empowerment and moved away from population control, it continues in practice. Population control is part of a troubled present, and cannot be relegated to history as dated international development policy.

In the context of the global environmental crisis, neo-Malthusianism is on the rise. As we have seen recently, the alarmism around population growth mobilizes fear in ways that often promote fascist, racist and xenophobic discourses dressed in green. For example, human pressure on the environment is cited as the reason for international migration, and, for some, under this logic, walls, deportation and fertility control become desirable. It is not uncommon to see media coverage that portrays humanitarian and political crises as a population problem that is causing waves of migration to the global North, as can be noted in the case of Syria. Feminist political ecologists challenge neo-Malthusianism because it assumes that there are external limits to resources. This obscures the ways in which scarcity and conflict are shaped by social and political factors.

Recent feminist writing gives us insight into the current population control efforts which are promoted as a win-win for women and the environment. The Thriving Together campaign sponsored by the UK-based, Margaret Pyke Trust’s Population & Sustainability Network, is a case in point. The Population and Sustainability Network works to promote “family planning for the planet”. Its Thriving Together campaign aims to bring together international organizations that work on issues of human and environmental health. Their statement, signed by 150 organizations declares: “Increasing human pressures are among the many challenges facing planetary health. By harming ecosystems we undermine food and water security and human health, and we threaten habitats and species. Ensuring family planning is available to all who seek it is among the positive actions we must take to lessen these pressures”.

This quote is weighted with common assumptions about population and the environment. “Human pressures” refers largely to population numbers in “poor rural communities in developing nations” with “higher levels of fertility and more rapid rates of population growth”. This is where the purportedly neutral container of “population” becomes racialized, sexed, gendered, located, and classed. As is typical of population control conversations, the targets are poor, racialized women in the global South, largely in African nations.

Thriving Together instrumentalizes contraception as a tool for women’s empowerment, which they claim not only improves health but “advances education and life opportunities” while at the same time it “eases pressures on wildlife and ecosystems.” It is an unrealistic expectation that a contraceptive method could resolve serious structural issues such as these. As advocates for reproductive justice, including access to safe and free or affordable abortion, we are concerned that this approach has the potential to skew quality sexual and reproductive health services in the service of environmental and economic agendas. Further, when family planning is posed as a technical fix to multiple problems, it ignores the political, social and economic character of environmental issues. In a depoliticizing move, these kinds of statements downplay issues central to the current environmental crisis such as rising inequalities and land grabbing, among others.1 At the same time, it leaves unquestioned the abuses of carried out in the name of conservation, associated with sterilization, violence, and even death, as a recent report against WWF shows.

Thriving Together’s narrative leads to environmental conservation policies which too often consider people to be environmental threats and overly fertile. These ideas translate into tight restrictions on the actions and movements of people who live in places which are seen as ecologically strategic.

In contrast, a feminist take on population critiques the troubling ways in which some individuals and groups are targeted as the root causes of poverty, environmental degradation and conflict. As stated in A Renewed Call for Feminist Resistance to Population Control, we call for ways in which climate change can be tackled at the same time that we challenge racism and social injustice, including issues of sexual and reproductive health. There cannot be environmental justice, including climate justice, without social, racial and gender justice.

1 Note: Land grabbing is used to define the land transactions that followed the financial crisis of 2007-2008, as countries, private companies and individuals in the Global North started to acquire massive chunks of land in the Global South. Speculative trends and neoliberal policies worsened this situation, resulting in big changes in land use, tenure and ownership. The notion has expanded since then to include the multiple ways in which very few rich people have been appropriating natural resources (using diverse strategies such as debt, violence and public policy) at the expense of the rural and urban poor.

Further resources

Ian Angus and Simon Butler. 2011. Too Many People?: Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.

  • Systematically challenges the idea that “overpopulation” is the cause of environmental problems and climate change and calls to account the worst contributors to environmental destruction.

Betsy Hartmann. 2016. Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control, 3rd edition. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.

  • Critiques population control and alarmism from a feminist, social justice perspective.

Anne Hendrixson, Diana Ojeda, Jade S. Sasser, Sarojini Nadimpally, Ellen E. Foley & Rajani Bhatia (2019): Confronting Populationism: Feminist challenges to population control in an era of climate change, Gender, Place & Culture. DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2019.1639634

  • Argues for renewed feminist attention to population control in the context of climate change.

Diana Ojeda, Jade S. Sasser & Elizabeth Lunstrum (2019): Malthus’s specter and the Anthropocene, Gender, Place & Culture, DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2018.1553858

  • Confronts the discourses linking climate change and the idea of the Anthropocene, which often advance neo-Malthusianism and suggests population control to address the challenges of climate change.

Anne Hendrixson leads PopDev, a feminist program challenging population control in all its forms through critical research, publications, and social justice advocacy. Anne is a writer and teacher who seeks to uncover the ways that population bomb thinking manifests in environmentalism, security discourses and sexual and reproductive health advocacy today. Contact: popdevprogram [at] gmail.com

Diana Ojeda is Associate Professor at the Center for Interdisciplinary Development Studies at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. Diana is a feminist geographer who does research on the relation between environmental issues and dispossession. Her recent work pays closer attention to the role of gender in the expansion of oil palm plantations in the Colombian Caribbean. Contact: dc.ojeda [at] uniandes.edu.co.

Cover image made from an original photo by Jan Huber on Unsplash

Littoral Drift: Coastal currents and industrial echoes mingle to shape the landscape in Southern France

by Neal Rockwell

The Forest of Landes is the largest artificial forest in Western Europe. Located south of Bordeaux, it spans a triangle of nearly a million hectares in the south of the country, running from Soulac at its northernmost point, to Hossegor in the south and Nérac to the east, with its western boundary running along two hundred and twenty-five kilometers of sand dune bordering the Atlantic Ocean. It is by and large a monoculture – the entire forest is made up almost entirely of one species: the maritime pine. 

A New World

Before the arrival of the forests in the mid-nineteenth century, Landes was a region of wetlands and bogs. In French, lande means bog or heath. Shepherds tended their flocks wearing stilts to navigate the muddy pasturelands. 

The first efforts to create an artificial forest began in the 18th century as a way to control the windswept coastal dunes, which had a tendency to swallow nearby villages. The project to secure the dunes expanded after the revolution and carried on under Napoleon’s reign, but the project accelerated massively during the government of Napoleon III with the passing of the Law of the 19th of June 1857.  At the time the wetlands still suffered from malaria, and industry was pressuring the government to grow trees, not for the wood specifically but for the rosin and turpentine that could be produced from the sap. The law made provisions for the draining of swamps and the planting of pines both to attenuate disease and satisfy the needs of industrial expansion, but it was not without controversy. For one, local shepherds relied on an extensive commons to graze their sheep and the law required municipalities to auction the commons to private interests. As the land was privatized, locals were dispossessed of their traditional livelihoods. In the decades following the passage of this legislation many tree farms were burned in retaliation, though without seriously altering the trajectory of these modernizing tendencies. We visited Landes because my girlfriend’s father and his wife bought a retirement home. Nominally, we were helping them move in. The house is in Seignosse about six kilometers from the sea. It is a basic house dating from the 1980s, with a slightly asymmetrical, pitched terracotta tile roof, off-white stucco walls with reddish trim and matching shutters. This style is common to the area. It began in neighbouring Hossegor, where architects building the first vacation homes in the 1920s took inspiration from Basque architecture, the Basque border being situated several kilometers to the south. Hossegor is the main draw to the region, with its famous surfing and stately (and extremely expensive) houses built in the early part of the 20th century. The pines there are more mature, distributed in a more organic fashion around the houses, the hills, the golf course and the downtown high street.

The trees were the first thing I noticed when we first arrived in Landes. Pines planted in straight rows seemingly ad infinitum mark a distinct boundary from surrounding regions. They are pleasing if slightly surreal. The size, the expanse of the forest makes it feel natural, as though it has always been there, encroached upon in certain places by human development, but still standing, still present. But one can’t help but notice that there is almost exclusively only one species of tree, that they are planted quite deliberately in straight lines, the underbrush cut away to reduce risk of fire. A number of individuals I spoke to and websites I visited referred to this landscape as sauvage or wild. What impressed me most about this characterization was that people applied it with the full knowledge that the terrain was a plantation, that it had been manufactured – in a sense – by turpentine producers.

As we first entered the region, driving along the departmental highway, I tried to convince myself that it was wild, that I did not see straight rows, or that that what I was seeing was not the overweening hand of human intervention, but a quirk, perhaps, of European nature, European forests, that I was simply unfamiliar with in North America. By this I do not mean to insinuate the superiority of Canadian or American wild space – as some kind of unbounded wilderness signifying unbounded promise; that too is a fiction. I live in a major city whose corona – an amalgam of suburbia, industrial land and suburbanized rural space – extends outwards for hundreds of kilometers. The province of British Columbia, where I grew up, has fifty-seven million hectares of forest, of which less than five percent is primeval forest; the rest has been harvested at one point or another. This means that an area approaching the entirety of France, is some form of tree plantation. The Landes forest is quite small by comparison. I simply mean that my unfamiliarity allowed for the opening of a kind of fantasy space. I am uncertain why I tried to do this as I looked out the window of the car, as I knew it to be untrue beforehand. In that moment, I wanted it to be fact. It was as though my mind was seeking through imagination to make it so.  

It was the trees that made Hossegor possible, one of the rare instances where a spinoff of the development of heavy industry happened to make the region more appealing to tourists. Had the area remained a malarial marshland, fronted by mountains of sand pushed ever inland by the violent Atlantic winds, the area would have held less appeal to the developers and architects who first had the notion to build a beach resort town on the site.

As I explored the region I discovered that there were four distinct areas – four distinct types of area, each of which provoked in me a particular psychic experience, each one almost a self-contained dimension, self-contained from nearby, even adjacent terrain. In my mind I named these the following: the habitations, the forest, the beach and the dunes. 

The habitations are the built areas that weave spider webs through the tree farms. In effect they constitute one urbanized area, but are officially broken into a number of small villages: Hossegor, Capbreton, Seignosse, Seignosse Beach, and a small stripmall area called Pédebert, which was beside where we were staying.

When we arrived there was a liquidation sale (called a braderie in French) going on amongst all the businesses in Pédebert. This is a once a year, multi-day event where everything in every store in the area is fifty percent off. There was a constant flow of traffic along the departmental road that passed the house, which my girlfriend’s father described as “infernal.” The event is known across the region and is especially popular with Spanish people who come from as far away as Galicia to shop for low priced brands. The businesses hire a team of people to manage cars and shoppers, renting large fields for parking, putting up caution tape and barriers along the side streets and the supermarket parking lot, even temporarily rendering streets one way to produce at least a modicum of order and fluidity in the inevitable traffic jam this event creates. 

Capbreton is the only true port in the region. It dates to the Middle Ages. It is a fishing village (though now it harbours not only boats but also vacation properties).  Under a special permission granted to them by Louis XIV, the fishermen here have the right to sell fish directly to customers, avoiding the typical intermediary process which is required elsewhere in France. On the beach slightly to the south, the ruins of World War Two-era German bunkers are slowly being reclaimed by the sea. Between the port and this southern stretch of beach, there is a line of concrete vacation houses and apartments which in design carry on the bunker theme. People fish in the channel leading to the port and there is a bustling, convivial popular feeling to the area.

Hossegor, with its stately trees, elegant art nouveau and art deco homes, its golf course and salt-water lake is an attractive spot. Its beach offers world-famous surfing. The town itself exudes a sense of wealth, illustrated most visibly to me by a teenage boy walking with some friends wearing an ensemble of Balenciaga athleisure: hoodie, track pants and running shoes, an outfit, which after researching on the internet, I learned cost more than three thousand dollars. To the west of the golf course there is a short, one block street that stood out to me and puzzled me. It is named after Gabriele d’Annunzio, the decadent Italian poet and politician who is known as the father of fascism and gave the world, amongst other things, the gesture that would later come to be known as the Nazi salute. 

The waterfront of Hossegor is quite built-up. The buildings are concrete and mainly yellowish. It is hard to determine their age. Some are obviously more recent, and some, despite the high cost of property and the prestige of the area as a vacation spot, have an almost Soviet quality to them: square and artlessly brutal, weather-stained and sea-corroded. In the main plaza on the promenade there is a restaurant named Rock Food, which at first glance almost looks out of business, though it isn’t.

Seignosse is more inland, and generally more recent. It has developed in the last thirty years and has a more American feel: bungalow houses on cul-de-sacs with biggish garages on the side. At the center of the town there is an old church and a few old buildings surrounded by a number of pizza restaurants. Hossegor-Soorts, located further inland – the original Hossegor before it became a beach resort –  is similar: an old church and town hall, surrounded by a pizza restaurant and other buildings. 

Seignosse Beach is actually several beaches, which themselves are part of one long beach stretching up the coast almost to Bordeaux. Each one has a parking lot and a break in the dunes to get to the water, a self-cleaning toilet, a few restaurants, vacation rentals and places where one can rent surfboards and take surfing lessons. At one of the beaches there is a waterpark called Atlantic Park.

The Dunes

From the Atlantic Park waterslide complex, the dunes hide the view of the sea. The thought came to me that, protected by this barrier, the waterpark could exist in its own little world, could construct a vision of itself in which its waters reigned supreme, unchallenged by the devouring horizon of the ocean.

The self-cleaning toilets near the beach gave a sense of technology-driven efficiency and sanitation, but this was largely image. People had discovered how to hack their system. For instance, in one, somebody had defecated on the floor. After each new visitor the automated toilet went through its routine, thoroughly washing the bowl, but whatever process was meant to clean the floor simply misted on the pile of defecation, leaving a pool of fecal water expanding across the concrete surface, touching bare feet or splashing against the edges of sandals.

The dunes, running along the sea, dotted with grasses and succulents and fixed in place by the pines, as well as the Maginot Line of vacation properties, exude a rugged energy. They are a kind of wildspace that defies the boundary between nature and human engineering. 

I visited Atlantic Park at the end of April, while it was still closed for the off-season. The town itself – if it is a town exactly – was also not yet up and running. Things were still largely shut down. A banner strung across a road advertised an event called “American Crazy Week.” This week took place over only two days: the 4th and 5th of May, and as to what it entailed I could only imagine. Some people walked dogs and others drank beer on the patio of a bar called Le Pas Sage (The Not Wise) located at the passage through the dunes to the beach. Others drank beer with dogs in the local square or whatever one wants to call it – a kind of concrete strip between the waterpark and vacation apartments. 

The sun was strong and I felt dry, somewhat thirsty. My interest was to photograph the shuttered waterslides. Lacking clients, their tubular forms resembled some kind of industrial apparatus, like a refinery or chemical works. 

Looking through the metal bars and seeing the grounds, decorated with palm trees and manufactured rocks, reminded me momentarily of what pleasure these types of nakedly artificial, engineered landscapes engendered in my friends and I as children. I wanted to go up on the dunes to get a better vantage point. As I walked through the asphalt passage that leads to the shore there was an old woman standing by a blown over section of fencing. She was overdressed and staring silently at the sea.

A number of paths crisscross the sands between the scrub plants. I passed one man sitting, looking out, but then there was no one. At one point there are a series of posts driven into the ground suggesting a road almost. The breeze was fresh. The dune towers above the village and the sea, as well as the water slides. It is enormous. I could see far out to sea, the mountains in the distance, a ship that looked like a drillship had been anchored off the coast of Bayonne for at least the previous week. On the other side of the dune I looked down on the waterslides and the tiny people walking along the plaza.

After photographing for a few minutes I felt a strange discomfort. I looked up to see a man watching me in the distance. He had a shaved head and was wearing a white tank top. I tried not to make it seem as though I had just noticed him, but he stood there watching, not moving. At first I felt conspicuous, with my white, telephoto lens, on top of the dune, but as I looked around I wished I could be more conspicuous as I noticed that there was no one around. In fact the dunes concealed much more than they exposed. If one stepped back just slightly from the edge, people down below saw nothing, heard nothing, especially with the wind and the crashing surf. As a space it was strangely isolated, cut off from the heavily frequented beach and village, which in linear distance were not far off at all. It felt like a different kind of space altogether, a ribbon of solitary desert cutting through the center of holiday cheer.  The man stood in the distance still watching. My heart beat somewhat faster and I sweat. The sun made me slightly dizzy. If I hadn’t been carrying so much expensive camera gear I would have felt differently about everything, but an image came to my mind of how easy it would be to be robbed up there and then have the robber disappear into the dunes before I had time to find my way out. This was likely untrue, or maybe it wasn’t – slide out the edges and disappear into the pines. I have no idea, of course, what the man watching me was thinking, but I was affected by the implied threat of surveillance, the latent malevolence of the mysterious observer. It wasn’t lost on me that only moments earlier, that had been my role. Convincing myself that I was unsatisfied anyway with the angle, I hurried off towards the asphalt passage leading back to the settlement. As I walked, I was now more aware than before of the instability of sand and how it slowed my movements, but I took comfort in the thought that they would slow the watcher’s steps as well, who at any rate was not following me and had disappeared from view.

When I made my way back down the dune, the older woman who had been staring out to sea had returned closer to Le Pas Sage and was talking with some of the dog walkers. She was explaining to them how she had recently been forced to move eight times, but then said it was good to be living by the sea because the salt air “clears the nasal passages.”

As I walked around I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy. I don’t know why exactly. It was as if the discomfort I had felt at being watched had been passed from the man to the land itself, that the region had taken on a temporary taint of unease.

Everyone United Against Expensive Life

We did much of our shopping at the Intermarché, which is the large supermarket in the Pédebert area. Generally speaking, it is very American in its design: a large box fronted by an expansive parking area. Inside, it also much resembled a North American supermarket, with many products, broad aisles and so forth.

On one occasion as we were trying to enter, I was stopped by the concierge at the customer service desk. She informed me that I would not be able to access the store with my backpack – a precaution against shoplifting. I was uneasy with the idea of leaving my bag with her, however, as it contained all of my photographic equipment. My partner and I agreed that I would wait in the entrance while she procured the things we needed for that night’s dinner.

I milled about in the front. There was a glass window built into the floor, that allowed one to peer down into the wine cellar. This was where the expensive vintages were protected. The window looked down into a bright, white space, where the wine bottles were neatly arranged and displayed in such a way that they were visible, but I couldn’t quite make out the writing on the labels. I spent some time entertaining myself by trying and failing to read the dates and names written on them. The enclosure was accessible by a kind of robotic door, like an airlock, that an employee opened with a special key, and contributed to the general aura of spaceship conjured by the wine cave.

Presently I felt tired, however: the effects of the purportedly non-drowsy allergy medication I was taking. Slightly dizzy, I sat down on a bench near the automatic doors. In front of me was a display, which I stared at, finding the whole thing somewhat puzzling. The display featured two low-cost bicycles which had been branded as Interbikes. This part in and of itself was not particularly unusual; what I found more inscrutable was the banner hanging on the wall behind it. It read: “Tous Unis Contre La Vie Chère,” or Everyone United Against Expensive Life. It may have been the medication, but I stared absently for quite some time at this slogan. I was almost impressed with the kind of marketing emptiness it seemed to project. It managed to invoke a sense of unified political engagement, especially as it seemed to recall one of the talking points of the Gilets Jaunes protest movement (still ongoing at the time) which was a collective anger at the erosion of purchasing power and increasing poverty across the country, while managing at the same time to elide, and in fact erase the issue altogether, replacing complex political meanings with a bland and cheery exhortation to save. If I found the text of this banner strange, I found the imagery stranger still. It surely did not depict unrest or upheaval of any kind. Instead it showed a white, middle-aged couple in matching active-wear outfits, riding down a mountain slope in Africa. To say that it was in Africa is maybe not exactly even correct as it was an impossible Photoshop construct of sorts – more a map than a photograph even, but signifying what exactly? The riders seemed to be coasting down a slope, which I have to locate in South Africa, because spreading out in front of them was the entire African continent, as well as all of Europe and the Arabian Peninsula. Given the perspective, this mountain must have pierced the atmosphere, rising into the territory of low-earth orbit. It was the vantage point of a satellite, and yet these cyclists had no need for oxygen or protective suits.

My mind struggled to apply some kind of political meaning to this installation, but clarity escaped me. Instead my thoughts wandered to imagining the creative meetings – the conversations between artistic directors, copy-writers, photographers, illustrators and managers that must have come together to produce this banner – the layers of administrative process that are inherent to advertising –  and how it all came together to create this object before me. I closed my eyes, feeling the light warm tingling that Reactine generates in my fingertips. Opening them, I saw that my partner was now bagging grocery items at the checkout. I went over to aid her. We carried the bags to the car, went home and made dinner.

The Pines

Like the dunes, the pines are a distinct environment, a kind of space utterly unto itself. They are surrounded and cut through with roads and habitations, but to be in them feels utterly unlike being anywhere else, even when one has only entered a few hundred feet inside their boundary. In the morning it had rained, a light drizzling rain. By the afternoon the clouds were breaking apart and the sun came out, though it was one of those unsettled times when the day is peppered by moments which are both hot and cool. 

At the end of the street where we were staying there was a path that led into the trees. Perhaps it went to the beach; we were uncertain. I took this path that afternoon, when the sun began to come out. The path was sandy and in many places there were large puddles. Tree pollen formed iridescent patterns floating on the surface.

Once inside this area, there were no more houses. These are tree farms and building is not permitted. A variance must be granted from, I don’t know who, the department maybe, in order to construct buildings. That is what happened in Seignosse, Hossegor, Pédebert. Any surrounding noise was absorbed by the trees so that the noises I heard were the noises of a forest – birds and wind, but mostly wind, because bird populations have plummeted across Europe in recent years.

Once inside the trees I had the feeling that they could have gone on forever. I had no sense of geography or space. There were no people. In certain areas, all of the pines had been cut, exposing sand and brambles, and the odd cork or other species of oak tree that remained standing, which the companies seemed not to have the right to take. I imagined that possibly in the future, with the cutting of the pines and the leaving of the oaks, this might transform into an entirely different kind of forest, that the oaks might slowly take over and by a hiccup of regulation transform these forests into ones that no one any longer had the right to harvest. Probably not.

At one juncture I came upon two machines: a cutting and limbing machine and one used to stack logs. The entire cut-block could be serviced by only two people.

The path did not lead to the sea. It led to a golf course. I walked along the road that bisected it, hoping I would get the ocean, but it was too long, and eventually I had to turn around so as not to be too late in making dinner.

On the way back the sun was lower in the sky. Inside the trees it was hot and a bit airless now. The trees grow on sand, and these sands seem to shift and transform over time, over the cycles of cutting and regrowing. I took a wrong turn around a little valley and this brought me up around a kind of sand cliff. There were roads cut into the trees by big machines, machines which were now gone. It was a strange feeling, following the paths of these enormous but now invisible machines that cut through the forest like giant insects. These roads had a meandering, haphazard quality to them, so that they would twist and turn and then trail off into nothing. Where there weren’t trees there were gorse bushes, and I had to walk through a number of them to find the next winding road. 

In France there are people everywhere. It is rare to be in a spot and see no one, or more precisely to see no evidence of buildings or habitation. Even in the parks and hiking in mountains numerous people pass by. This was one of the most empty places I have seen in France, with the least sign of human construction (even though this forest itself was a kind of human construction). The lack of people gave the space a sense of vastness, as though it perhaps went on forever. It is interesting how entirely a space can be transformed, the feeling of the space and its sense of scale, by the presence of even one other person, or by the sight of any buildings.

I felt lost, even though abstractly I knew I was not lost. I knew to follow my shadow. I knew that no road was far away. The air was windless now and the light took on a warm rust colour. I was surrounded by a total emptiness, a total stillness. I kept walking and eventually came out at the road in Pédebert, near the Point point P building materials store and the wine outlet. An unseen dog barked behind a fence. It was nearing dinnertime. 

Web Design: Ali Bosworth
Photo Editing: Lise Latreille
Editors: David Ravensbergen & Daniel Horen Greenford

Neal Rockwell is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He is currently completing a masters’ degree in Documentary Media at Ryerson University where he is exploring the effects of financialization on rental housing, as well researching the use of documentary power in the economy and the law, with the goal of strengthening documentary practice as a form of radical truth-telling.

The Revolution Will Not Be “Green”

Photo by Wade Lambert on Unsplash

by Jordan G. Teicher

Our planet is dying, and conservation as we know it isn’t helping. In fact, it’s making things worse. Long imagined as a bulwark against ecological destruction, players in the mainstream conservation movement—think big NGOs like The Nature Conservancy and their corporate partners—have actually been complicit in that destruction by propping up a fundamentally unsustainable capitalist system and the nature-culture dichotomy it’s built upon.

According to Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, sociology professors at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, conservation has long been due for a wholesale update—and today, it’s getting not just one but two: “new conservation” and “neoprotectionism.” But in their tightly-argued book, The Conservation Revolution (Verso, February 2020) Büscher and Fletcher make the case that both of these emerging, radical movements contain “untenable contradictions” and that neither can save the planet or humanity from catastrophe. In their place, they propose a new conservation framework of their own, one that complements the variety of ongoing “hope movements” imagining ecologically-sound and democratic alternatives to capitalism. 

In the course of just over 200 pages, Büscher and Fletcher build up to this modest proposal swiftly yet methodically, combining history and theory to contextualize and, ultimately, critique their colleagues in the so-called “Anthropocene conservation debate” in a way that is both rigorous and accessible. While their own “convivial conservation” framework, by their own admission, needs further development, it is nonetheless an important addition to revolutionary thought in political ecology.

Their analysis begins with a critical but frequently overlooked fact: Conservation has been linked to capitalism from the very beginning. In 17th and 18th century Britain, they explain, elites “conserved” collectively-used lands by forcing rural people off them. That expulsion conveniently created a labor force for the rapidly industrializing economy. Ever since, capitalism and conservation have shared much of the same ideological DNA. Take the nature-culture dichotomy—the idea that nature is somehow external to humans. Capitalists have long used that idea to justify treating nature as an object to be manipulated in the pursuit of endless economic growth. Conservation organizations, meanwhile, have spread the same notion as they wall off humans from areas artificially transformed into “untouched” wilderness. 

And while conservation has long aided and abetted capitalism—through ecotourism, for example—conservation can now be said to have fully integrated into the machine. By putting a price on nature through market-based instruments such as payments for environmental services, organizations like the Natural Capital Coalition see conservation itself as a force for growing the economy.

Like those mainstream conservationists, many of the contemporary thinkers Büscher and Fletcher deem “new conservationists” have no trouble with capitalism. But they depart with their mainstream counterparts in one significant way: They don’t aim to separate nature from humans. Instead, thinkers like science journalist Emma Marris see the planet as a “rambunctious garden,” one that humans must fully inhabit with the rest of nature and manage through sustainable economic activity. As environmental scientist Peter Kareiva puts it: “Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures.” While Büscher and Fletcher see the movement’s rejection of the nature-culture dichotomy and focus on poverty alleviation as positive steps, they argue convincingly that the new conservationist alignment with—or, in some cases, ambivalence toward—capitalism undermines its goal of ecological and social harmony. Capitalism, they say, creates poverty, and its rapacious appetite for growth simply cannot last on a finite planet. 

Many neoprotectionists, Büscher and Fletcher argue, understand that essential fact, which is why their brand of conservation is at least nominally anti-capitalist. But unlike new conservationists, who reject the nature-culture dichotomy, neoprotectionists double down on it, campaigning for huge swaths of the globe to be made off limits to human beings. Perhaps the most well-known neoprotectionist—and a notable exception to the movement’s generally anti-capitalist stance— is the biologist E.O. Wilson, who calls for fencing off half the planet to “safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.” Putting hard boundaries between humans and nature, Büscher and Fletcher note, has, in fact, “saved important tracts of nature from previous waves of capitalist development,” but it has also routinely failed in the past due to corruption and weak enforcement. Enacting a similar scheme on an even grander scale, they argue, would not just require unprecedented militarization, but also likely plunge billions into poverty—making it immediately “socially, politically and culturally” illegitimate. 

So what does a feasible, equitable, and sustainable conservation look like? According to Büscher and Fletcher, it should combine the best elements of the two radical conservation movements by rejecting both capitalism and the nature-culture dichotomy. Their proposed “convivial conservation” promotes a dialectical relationship between humans and non-humans while working in “conjunction, connection, and spirit with the many proposed alternatives” to capitalism, including ecosocialism and doughnut economics. Under such a system,for instance, natural areas would be “promoted” for “long-lasting, engaging and open-ended” human use rather than protected from humans altogether. It would also feature a new form of community-based conservation, which would repudiate neoliberal market mechanisms and instead prioritize democratic decision-making, social justice, and the needs of non-human nature. Büscher and Fletcher float a host of other ideas, including a “conservation basic income” and reparations, as potential components of convivial conservation.

What Büscher and Fletcher are proposing is a revolutionary upheaval of the status quo, but they are by no means polemicists. At times, “The Conservation Revolution” is practically genteel. After unequivocally rejecting mainstream conservation as “part of the very problem it addresses,” for example, the authors are quick to dismiss the idea that “there is nothing good in mainstream conservation or that all people working on and in mainstream conservation are somehow ‘bad.’” They approach their differences with those in the conservationist community , meanwhile, knowing that their colleagues are generally “imbued with a great sense of crisis and responsibility” and live a “tense and pressurized” existence. That may be true, but at a time when ecosystems face imminent collapse and humanity is staring down the barrel of a gun, such a tone can come across as oddly unhurried. 

Convivial conservation is, the authors admit, “an exercise with many loose ends,” and indeed the “nascent” proposal only takes up about a quarter of an already slim book. At times, the program can seem not merely unfinished, but contradictory. This is perhaps most obvious in the authors’ list of “concrete actions” for achieving convivial conservation, which bend toward the technocratic. Why, for instance, bother proposing “convivial conservation departments” at conservation NGOs, when, as the authors themselves assert, many of those NGOs continue to work hand-in-hand with corporations? And if a sane conservation must be, first and foremost, rooted in overthrowing capitalism, why look to “new blockchain technologies” and “grants from international donors and individual patrons” to fund the movement? 

Convivial conservation may not be a silver bullet, and The Conservation Revolution may not be the last book one needs to read to help imagine a life-sustaining future. But if we’re lucky, the world to come will look more like the one Büscher and Fletcher describe than not.

Jordan G. Teicher is a New York-based writer and editor. He tweets at @teicherj

The Conservation Revolution by Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher is available from Verso Books

June readings

Illustration by Jamiel Law, via The New Yorker

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

Much as we might want it to be, the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. And the police are still racist. This month, we profile stories and analyses of the pandemic and of the Black Lives Matter protests. We tried to look for articles that take international and environmental justice approaches to these crises and struggles. There’s also plenty of great analysis coming out, reflecting on our current political moment. Finally, we highlight many articles on food politics, digging into the relationship between the food industry, race, and health – and the new political movements working in these intersections. 

A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!



Uneven Earth updates

Decoupling | “Given the historical correlation of market activity and environmental pressures, relying on decoupling alone to solve environmental problems is an extremely risky and irresponsible bet.” 

Jevons paradox | “Efficiency gains contribute to increasing production and consumption which increases the extraction of resources and the generation of wastes.”

NOlympics, everywhere | In LA, a coalition to stop the Olympics pairs localism with internationalism



Top 5 articles to read

‘Either you are fighting to eliminate exploitation or not’: A leftist critique of the Green New Deal

On technodiversity: A conversation with Yuk Hui

From rebellion to revolution

How do we change America?

We need to talk about racism in the climate movement



News you might’ve missed

Poor countries face a debt crisis ‘unlike anything we have seen’

Affluence is killing the planet, warn scientists

Turkey is bent on extinguishing a beacon of women’s liberation in northern Syria

Finland violates the rights of the Sámi people by allowing mining companies in Sámi homeland

How the legacy of colonialism built a palm oil empire



Where we’re at: analysis

Capitalist catastrophism

Neoliberalism is in critical condition

Indigenous peoples guard ‘the lungs of the planet’ for all of us

Beyond the stereotype: How dependency theory remains relevant

The world is in chaos. Embrace it.

Prolonged uprising is the new normal



Black Lives Matter

On Black women’s ecologies

Theses on the George Floyd rebellion

Black autonomy and lessons from the Black Power struggle

Black Lives Matter and the trap of performative activism

What Elinor Ostrom can tell us on defunding the police

The universal truth of Black Lives Matter — a view from Europe. Also: What Black America means to Europe, by Gary Younge.



COVID-19: where do we go from here?

In pandemic recovery efforts, polluting industries are winning big

COVID-19 broke the economy. What if we don’t fix it?

Reflections on the virus as an opportunity for radical societal change

Latin America reels as coronavirus pandemic gains pace

Pandemic municipalism, an interview with Kate Shea Baird



Food politics

Food sovereignty now and beyond COVID-19

The forest as farm

We can build a better food system through mutual aid

How red meat became the red pill for the alt-right

Socialise the food system

It’s not just meat: Covid-19 puts all food-system workers in peril

Selling out West Papua: An Al Jazeera special report on human rights abuses in billion-dollar land deals



Just think about it…

German far right infiltrates green groups with call to protect the land

Conservatism, racism, and fascism confused

Running to the now ‘reformed’ IMF would be a mistake



New politics

Constructive criticism of degrowth is NOT support for growth

What does self-reliance really mean? Amazing stories emerge from India’s villages

“To halt climate change, we need an ecological Leninism”

Life and times at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone

“A political form built out of struggle”: An interview on the Seattle Occupied protest 

Get in the zone: A report from the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle

Interview: Civil Defense Forces commanders on community policing in North and East Syria 

Police abolition and other revolutionary lessons from Rojava

The empty future of ecology. Extinction Rebellion has made waves in the mainstream media, but can it achieve its goals if it continues to whitewash climate justice?

Reclaiming the body of the witch. A review of Beyond the Periphery of the Skin from Silvia Federici.



Resources

Who will feed us? Report comparing industrial food system with peasant farming

The traumatic recent history of the Sámi. An online talk.

Read up on the links between racism and the environment

Prisons, policing, and punishment. A resource guide.



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Decoupling

by Timothée Parrique

Is economic growth compatible with ecological sustainability? To answer this question, we need to talk about decoupling. The term ‘decoupling’ refers to the possibility of detaching economic growth from environmental pressures. Economic growth is a measure of market activity, most often Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while environmental pressures include all the consequences an economy has on nature – a useful distinction being between resource use (materials, energy, water, and land) and environmental impacts (e.g. climate change, water pollution, biodiversity loss).

Generally speaking, two variables are said to be ‘coupled’ if one evolves in proportion with the other (e.g. more of A means more of B), and they decouple when they cease to do so. What matters for sustainability is the nature of that decoupling: its magnitude, scale, durability, and how effective it is in achieving environmental targets.

Relative or weak decoupling, for example between GDP and carbon emissions, refers to a situation where the emissions per unit of economic output decline but not fast enough to compensate for the simultaneous increase in output over the same period, resulting in an overall increase in total emissions. Said differently: even though production is relatively cleaner, total environmental pressure still goes up because more goods and services are produced. Absolute or strong decoupling, on the other hand, is a situation where, to stay with the same example, more GDP coincides with lower emissions.

Local decoupling refers to cases where decoupling is observed in one specific place (e.g. decoupling of water consumption and GDP in Australia), while global decoupling occurs at the planetary scale. Also, decoupling can be temporary or permanent –just as GDP and environmental pressures can decouple at one point in time, they can also recouple later on.

Finally, decoupling can be evaluated based on its magnitude and fairness. Decoupling can be either sufficient or insufficient in reaching a specific mitigation target. And following the principle of shared but differentiated responsibilities, decoupling needs to be sufficiently large in affluent countries in order to free the ecological space necessary for consumption in regions where basic needs are unmet.

Green growth vs. degrowth

The debate on decoupling has two main sides. Proponents of “green growth” expect efficiency to enable more economic activity at a lower environmental cost; on the other hand, advocates of “degrowth” appeal to sufficiency, arguing that less goods and services is the surest road to ecological sustainability.

Many proponents of the green growth narrative have put forward that economic growth inevitably leads to more efficiency and, therefore, to reduced environmental costs. In the 1990s several economists conducted empirical work that led them to believe that economic growth was negatively correlated with environmental pressures. Environmental damages would first grow but then decline. This inverted bell-shaped development came to be referred to as an Environmental Kuznets Curve, named after economist Simon Kuznets, who, in the 1950s, proposed that, as a society industrializes, it would first become more unequal, and then less. Over the years, scholars developed several theoretical reasons to explain such phenomena. For example, as income per capita grows, basic needs get satisfied and nations can afford to dedicate more of their attention and resources towards environmental protection. Another explanation is that richer nations’ industries are able to develop and afford cleaner and less resource-intensive technologies. They also transition from industrial activities to services, which are assumed to be less natural resource-intensive.

However, it is now widely recognised that decoupling does not occur naturally by the mere fact of a country increasing its GDP—thereby complicating the Environmental Kuznets Curve hypothesis. Responding to this, some argue that policies such as carbon taxes, quota markets, and other regulations could foster it. Many also argue that a shift to clean energies, the establishment of a circular economy, incentives for environmentally-friendly consumption, turning products into services, and ecological innovations like, for example, exhaust filters, water-saving irrigation systems, and carbon capture and storage could make decoupling happen.

For green growth advocates, decoupling is either inevitable or has not yet occurred because of lack of adequate policies and technological development. Degrowth proponents, however, argue that the reason why this long-awaited decoupling has not yet occurred is that because it is impossible. Here is a list of seven reasons why this is so:

(1) Rising energy expenditures. It takes energy to extract resources. The less accessible the resource, the higher the energy bill. Because the most accessible resources have already been used, the extraction of remaining stocks is a more resource- and energy-intensive process, resulting in a rising total environmental degradation per unit of resource extracted.

(2) Rebound effects. Efficiency improvements are often partly or totally compensated by a reallocation of saved resources and money to either more of the same consumption (e.g. using a fuel-efficient car more often), or other impactful consumptions (e.g. buying plane tickets for remote holidays with the money saved from spending on meat). It can also generate structural changes in the economy that induce higher consumption (e.g. more fuel-efficient cars reinforce a car-based transport system at the expense of greener alternatives, such as public transport and cycling).

(3) Problem shifting. Technological solutions to one environmental problem can create new ones and/or exacerbate others (e.g. the production of electric cars puts pressure on lithium, copper, and cobalt resources; nuclear power generation produces nuclear risks and logistic concerns regarding nuclear waste disposal).

(4) The underestimated impact of services. The service economy can only exist on top of the material economy, not instead of it. Services have a significant footprint that often adds to, rather than substitutes, that of goods.

(5) Limited potential of recycling. Recycling rates are currently low and only slowly increasing, and recycling processes generally still require a significant amount of energy and  raw materials. Most importantly, in the same way that a snake cannot build a larger skin out of the scraps of its previous, smaller one, a growing economy cannot rely on recycled materials alone.

(6) Insufficient and inappropriate technological change. Technological progress is not targeting the factors of production that matter for ecological sustainability (it saves labour and not natural resources) and not leading to the type of innovations that reduce environmental pressures (it is more profitable to develop new extraction techniques than it is to develop new recycling techniques); it is not disruptive enough as it fails to displace other undesirable technologies (solar panels are being used in addition to coal plants and not instead of it); and it is not in itself fast enough to enable a sufficient decoupling.

(7) Cost shifting. In competitive, growth-oriented economies, firms have incentives to relocate activities where environmental regulations are the lowest. What has been observed and termed as decoupling in some local cases was generally only apparent decoupling resulting mostly from an externalisation of environmental impact from high-consumption to low-consumption countries enabled by international trade.

Empirical evidence for decoupling

The validity of the green growth discourse relies on the assumption of an absolute, permanent, global, large and fast enough decoupling of economic growth from all critical environmental pressures. As Parrique et al. (2019) have recently showed, there is no empirical evidence for such a decoupling currently happening. Whether for materials, energy, water, greenhouse gases, land, water pollutants, and biodiversity loss, decoupling is either only relative, and/or observed only temporarily, and/or only locally. In most cases, decoupling is relative. When absolute decoupling occurs, it is only observed during rather short periods of time, concerning only certain resources or impacts, for specific locations, and with very small rates of mitigation.

Debunking the decoupling hypothesis

The decoupling hypothesis has played an important role in legitimating a growth-based economy with a disastrous record in terms of social-ecological justice. Its meagre achievements in the last two decades cast serious doubt as to whether prospects for the future are better. Given the historical correlation of market activity and environmental pressures, relying on decoupling alone to solve environmental problems is an extremely risky and irresponsible bet. Until GDP is actually decoupled, any additional production will require a larger effort in reductions of resource and impact intensity to stay away from resource conflicts and ecological breakdown. Decoupling should today be recognised as what it is, a figment of statistical imagination. This should prompt us to reframe the debate altogether: what we need to decouple is not economic growth from environmental pressure but prosperity and the good life from economic growth.

Further resources

Parrique et al., 2019. Decoupling debunked: Evidence and arguments against green growth. The European Environmental Bureau.A report reviewing the empirical and theoretical literature to assess the validity of the decoupling hypothesis.  

Mardani et al., 2019. ‘Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Emissions and Economic Growth: A Systematic Review of Two Decades of Research from 1995 to 2017’. Science of The Total Environment 649 (February): 31–49. The latest literature review of the empirical literature concerning the decoupling of economic growth from carbon dioxide emissions.

Smith et al., 2010. Cents and Sustainability: Securing Our Common Future by Decoupling Economic Growth from Environmental Pressures. The Natural Edge Project. Routledge: London. A good example of a case for decoupling and green growth

Hickel J. and Kallis, 2019. Is Green Growth Possible? New Political Economy. https://doi.org/10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964. A good example of a case against decoupling and green growth.

UNEP, 2011. Decoupling natural resources use and environmental impacts from economic growth. A Report of the Working Group on Decoupling to the International Resource Panel. Fischer-Kowalski et al.

UNEP, 2014. Decoupling 2: technologies, opportunities and policy options. A Report of the Working Group on Decoupling to the International Resource Panel. Von Weizsäcker et al. The two reports published by the United Nations Environment Programme, the first on the state of resource decoupling, and the second on policies to foster decoupling.

Timothée Parrique holds a PhD in economics from the Centre d’Études et de Recherches sur le Développement (University of Clermont Auvergne, France) and the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm University, Sweden). Titled “The political economy of degrowth” (2020), his dissertation explores the economic implications of the ideas of degrowth and post-growth. Tim is also the lead author of “Decoupling debunked – Evidence and arguments against green growth” (2019), a report published by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

Jevons paradox

by Sam Bliss

The Jevons paradox is that efficiency enables growth. New technologies that can produce more goods from a given amount of resources allow the economy as a whole to produce more. More resources get used overall.

This is the magic of industrial capitalism and the secret of growth. Economists have known it for a long time. So why is it called a paradox?

A question of scale

The paradox is that we tend to assume that the more efficiently we use a resource the less of it we will use.

This is the case in our personal lives. If you buy a more fuel-efficient car, you might drive a little bit more but overall you will likely burn less gasoline. Switching to a low-flow showerhead typically saves water at home.

This efficiency-for-conservation logic appears correct for most subsets of the economy. When a business switches to energy-efficient light bulbs, its electricity bills go down. Municipalities that require new buildings to meet energy efficiency standards might see energy use decrease within city limits. 

But at the level of the whole economy, the reverse is true. These efficiency gains contribute to increasing production and consumption, which increases the extraction of resources and the generation of wastes.

Energy-efficient technologies do not reduce carbon emissions.

This suggests that energy-efficient technologies do not reduce carbon emissions, that fertilizer-saving precision farming techniques do not decrease fertilizer applications overall, and that increasing agricultural yields does not spare land for nature. Real-world evidence supports these claims.

Environmental policy focused on efficiency gains does not by itself benefit the environment. Economies grow by developing and deploying increasingly efficient technologies. 

How growth happens

Consider a hypothetical example. If the owner of a tea kettle factory installs a new machine that can make one kettle from less raw copper than before, he might continue to produce the same amount of kettles at a lower cost, or he might choose to make more kettles overall from the same amount of copper. 

Either way, profits will go up. The factory owner can buy more machines to make even more kettles from even more copper. Or he can invest those profits elsewhere, increasing production in another sector of the economy and thus increasing the use of copper and other materials. 

As more tea kettle factories adopt the copper-saving technology, they might start selling kettles at lower prices to compete for customers. As tea kettles get cheaper, people will be able to buy more of them. Since more kettles can be sold, factories will make more—using more copper. 

Copper’s price might increase as factories increase their demand for it. When the price goes up, more potential copper mining sites become profitable, which further raises supply.

Or, even if all tea kettle factories end up using less copper with the new, copper-saving machines, copper’s price will fall and other sectors will be able to afford more copper and therefore demand more. 

Cheaper copper could make all copper-containing things cheaper, not just tea kettles, leaving people with more money to spend. They can demand more of the products of all economic sectors, further increasing the use of many materials, including copper. 

Cheaper copper might increase industrial profits, too, which capitalists either reinvest to increase production or spend on luxury things. 

Even if the initial factory owner decides to give his workers a raise rather than keeping the profit or increasing production, then the workers will have more money to spend on tea kettles and everything else. Even if they decide to save all that additional income, the banking sector will direct it toward investing in more new machinery to produce more things from more materials.

No matter what, it seems, copper consumption rises in the end, because efficiency increases kickstart the growth machine.

The more efficiently society can use copper, the more of it will generally be used. Unless, that is, society intentionally limits its use of copper. 

The same goes for just about any resource.

150 years of more

English economist William Stanley Jevons gets credit for being the first to point all this out. In 1865, Jevons found that as each new steam engine design made the use of coal more efficient, Britain used more coal overall, not less. 

In 1865, Jevons found that as each new steam engine design made the use of coal more efficient, Britain used more coal overall, not less. 

These efficiency improvements made coal cheaper, because steam engines, including the ones used to pump water out of coal mines, required less coal to produce a given amount of useful energy. Yet increasingly efficient steam engines made coal more valuable too, since so much useful energy could be produced from a given amount of coal. 

That might be the real paradox: the ability to use a resource more efficiently makes it both cheaper and more valuable at the same time.

In Jevons’ time, more and more coal became profitable to extract as more and more uses of coal became profitable. Incomes increased as coal-fired industrial capitalism took off, and profits were continually invested to expand production further. 

A century and a half later, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that as industrial processes have gotten more efficient at using dozens of different materials and energy sources, the overall use of these materials and energy sources has grown in nearly every case. The few exceptions are almost all materials whose use has been limited or banned for reasons of toxicity, like asbestos and mercury. 

In an economy designed to grow, the Jevons paradox is all but inevitable. Some call it the Jevons phenomenon because of its ubiquity. Purposefully limiting ourselves might provide a way out.

Fighting growth with collective self-limitation

To prevent catastrophic climate change, humanity must rapidly reduce the combustion of fossil fuels. But despite decades of policy efforts and international negotiations, emissions continue to rise every year.

The focus on making energy use more efficient is paradoxically worsening the problem, as efficiency gains facilitate increasing, not decreasing, carbon burning. And renewable energy sources are adding to fossil fuels, not replacing them. Earth’s limited sources of coal, oil, and gas will not run out in time to save the stable climate.

But what if governments around the world treated coal like they do asbestos? What if petroleum extraction and uses were subject to strict limits like those of mercury?

To limit the use of fossil fuels, or anything else, society must impose limits on itself, preferably democratically.

To limit the use of fossil fuels, or anything else, society must impose limits on itself, preferably democratically. We must set limits on our own activity.  

Once binding limits are in place, efficiency gains become one of several tools for staying within them. With a hard cap on the total amount of oil that can be burned, adopting increasingly fuel-efficient machinery cannot backfire and spark growth of oil-burning economic activity. Instead, fuel efficiency would allow more useful work to be done with the limited amount of oil that society permits itself to combust. 

Of course, we must also be skeptical of the maximizing mentality that considers efficiency and more to be good things as such. Collectively limiting ourselves offers not just an escape from capitalism’s endless loops of efficiency and growth; it also provides the constraints necessary to imagine and act out new ideas about what makes the good life, as well as revive and protect traditional lifeways. 

For many communities around the world, a global project to limit resource use could bring liberation from pollution, exploitation, and the one-way path toward Western-style development. To them, limits do not mean reductions or sacrifice but an opportunity to pursue goals other than growth.

Efficiency makes growth. But limits make creativity.

Once free from the efficiency mindset, we see that setting legal limits is not the only solution to the Jevons phenomenon. Society can also purposefully choose less-efficient production processes, setting the paradox in reverse by constraining the potential scale of the economy. If efficiency makes growth, maybe inefficiency makes degrowth.

Further reading suggestions:

David Owen. “The Efficiency Dilemma.The New Yorker, December 12, 2010. 
This
New Yorker piece captivatingly chronicles the history of the Jevons paradox as an idea and as a real material force

Christopher L. Magee and Tessaleno C. Devezas, “A Simple Extension of Dematerialization Theory: Incorporation of Technical Progress and the Rebound Effect,” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 117, no. Supplement C (April 1, 2017): 196–205.
This is the article in which MIT researchers show that the Jevons paradox applies to pretty much every material, energy source, and industrial process for which data exists.

Salvador Pueyo. 2020. “Jevons’ Paradox and a Tax on Aviation to Prevent the next Pandemic.” Preprint. SocArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/vb5q3.
The Jevons paradox holds that using a resource more efficiently leads to economic growth and thus more of that resource is used overall. In this article, Salvador Pueyo shows that, similarly, advances in disease control have enabled humans and livestock to live at higher densities, eventually bringing about more ferocious outbreaks. He argues that the aviation industry shifts costs onto society by spreading diseases around the world, and should thus be taxed.

Sam Bliss, “Why growth and the environment can’t coexist.Grist. 
This video explains degrowth in 4 minutes, starting from a Jevons-inspired explanation of how increasing efficiency in orange juice production leads to more oranges consumed, not less.

__________________

Sam Bliss is a wildly inefficient researcher, writer, gardener, and warehouse manager of Food Not Bombs Burlington. He participates in and studies non-market food systems in Vermont.

NOlympics, everywhere

Who can ignore that the Olympians of the new bourgeois aristocracy no longer inhabit. They go from grand hotel to grand hotel, or from castle to castle, commanding a fleet or a country from a yacht. They are everywhere and nowhere. That is how they fascinate people immersed into everyday life. They transcend everyday life, possess nature and leave it up to the cops to contrive culture.

Henri Lefebvre, “The Right to the City,” 1968

by Sasha Plotnikova

I first started hating the Olympics as a student in Montreal, a city filled with the carcasses of stadiums, pavilions, and decaying detritus of mega-events held there in the 60s and 70s. The year before I moved there marked the 30th anniversary of the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, as well as the year that the City finally repaid the $1.5 billion (CAD) of debt they were left with after the Games. 

For cities hosting the Olympics, debt is a matter of course, and the legacy of the Games is palpable: entire neighborhoods are ripped from the urban fabric so that hotels, empty stadiums, and Olympic villages may sit in their place. The social, cultural, and financial weight of these white elephants is shouldered by long-term residents. Two weeks of fame for starry-eyed local politicians and Olympic boosters amount to a pressure-cooker of exploitation and state violence for those whose lives, labour, and culture make city life possible. 

But a counterpart to this history of destruction is a lineage of struggle, survival, and solidarity. While the fight against the Olympics has historically taken place at an immediate, local scale, today’s anti-Olympics organizing is beginning to coalesce into an internationalist movement for the right to urban self-determination.

Bigger than the Olympics

In Los Angeles, a group of organizers working together under the banner of NOlympics LA are fighting for the cancelation of the 2028 LA Olympics and the abolition of all future Games. And that’s only their short-term goal. 

In NOlympians: Inside the Fight Against Capitalist Mega-Sports in Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Beyond, Jules Boykoff follows the work of NOlympics LA, contextualizing their fight against the 2028 Games in LA within a global movement to expose and combat the effects that transnational capital has on the daily lives of poor people living in cities.

As an active member of the LA Tenants Union (a supporting partner of NOlympics) and a hater of the Olympics myself, I’ve observed first-hand the group’s constant churn of actions, teach-ins, and community canvasses since their founding in 2017. But the larger significance of groups like NOlympics can be hard to see up close, and is often obscured by the fervour of organizing around immediate crises at the local scale. As I explore later, the NOlympics activists have developed an arsenal of popular education tactics that create a gateway to local organizing. Boykoff’s snappy yet poetic prose captures their spirit and teases out the long-term promise of mounting a campaign against specific, local issues. Ultimately, the book’s greatest contributions are the lessons it offers on the relationship between international solidarity and local action.

Himself a former Olympic soccer player, Boykoff has spent the past decade building critical analysis about the Games. This shows: the text weaves seamlessly in between interviews with the activists and the lessons that inform their politics. To underline the deep socioeconomic inequalities facing Angelenos, the book throws into stark relief the disparity between the priorities of the oligarchs behind the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the demands of the communities that are displaced and criminalized by the Olympics.

The book is written in four parts, moving from the history of the Games and the destruction they bring; to the origins of NOlympics and the significance of the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); to the way their local strategies fit into an internationalist movement; and finally to some conclusions for what is to be done about the Olympics. 

Throughout, Boykoff situates their organizing within the long-time work of adjacent grassroots organizations in LA and within the praxis of past and present social movements globally. Boykoff’s account of the NOlympians’ trip to Tokyo demonstrates that it’s only through building international connections that the activists are able to connect the local to the global. 

Seizing the means of the production of urban space

To understand why the Olympics are bad for LA, you have to understand why capitalism is bad for cities. As David Harvey explains in his book Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, urbanization — the visible arm of endless economic growth — was never anything other than a project of power. Cities develop as economic hubs, where what looks like an abundance of financial opportunities to politicians and investors, signals an ever-worsening quality of life for poor and middle-class residents. Each time the economy sees a boom, poor communities see an intensification of urban stress. As neoliberalism has dug in its heels over the past few decades, the gap between the rich and the poor has become most pronounced in cities

Perhaps more than any other city, Los Angeles embodies the economic order that has come to define what it means for a place to be urban. The process of urban growth goes in lockstep with the growing burden of rent; the planned obliteration of public housing; the demise of labour unions; the stagnant wages; the proliferation of ever-new forms of segregation; and booms in the most precarious and informal branches of the economy. The lived experiences of millions of Angelenos are proof that the very machinations that spur economic expansion and urban development are the ones that make it increasingly impossible to live in cities. 

Land speculators and real estate developers have been particularly pervasive throughout the city’s history. When they’re not at the helm of the city’s economy, they’re in the ears and pockets of politicians, laundering their projects through green-washing and transit-oriented gentrification policies. 

The history of urban uprisings in LA has kept pace with this history of injustice. The city’s growth has been enabled by its entrenched culture of white supremacy, which has incensed urban movements from the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots; to the Watts Rebellion in 1965; the 1966 high school boycotts; the Chicano Moratorium in the 70s; the 1992 uprisings in the wake of the brutal police beating of Rodney King; and today’s Black-led demonstrations against police violence.The economic crisis faced by low-income residents is growing steadily, and with it, more and more people are starting to organize to take back the cities they’ve built and made their lives in. Whether that fight coalesces in an alliance against the Olympics or manifests in the daily work of tenant organizing, it’s a fight for the right to the city.

Cyclists demand bike lanes for the unhoused residents of Skid Row during the Ride For Justice, jointly organized by NOlympics and the LA Community Action Network in 2018.

 The movement for the right to the city was first given its name by Henri Lefebvre, on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Capital and on the eve of the urban social movements of May 1968. Lefebvre’s writing presaged what would take place in the last decades of the 20th century: the global rise of urbanization and the concentration of capital in the world’s cities. Since his time, urban centers like LA have increasingly become the places where the effects of a profit-driven housing system are most deeply felt: urban planning policies are written with the intention of displacing the poor and replacing them with higher-income, whiter residents — all so that the economy can continue to grow and attract ever-wealthier tourists, investors, and residents to the city. This process has irreversibly changed the look, feel, and spirit of cities to embody the sterile, generic luxury that caters to the global elite. 

With this dark horizon in sight, Lefebvre wrote about the urgent need to fight for an urban life that centers poor communities, promotes a sense of belonging, and imbues the everyday with meaning and novelty—he called this the right to the city.

One of the most important takeaways of Henri Lefebvre’s “Right to the City” is the proposition that already in 1968, Marxism’s focus on the worker as the agent of social change no longer held the same ground as it did in the 19th century. In response, Lefebvre suggested that the task at hand is to seize the means of the production of space, updating the Marxist focus on seizing the means of industrial production. To claim their right to the city, tenants, street vendors, immigrants, service workers, artists, and those who care about and enliven public space would take back what they’ve created and nourished. 

Human rights, as they’re understood by most, are underwritten by the notion of private property, and this makes the proposition that the city, or even housing, is a human right, for instance, a difficult pitch. The right to the city complicates that understanding: it’s not just about a right to resources— it’s about a collective right to self-determination through the built environment and the urban social realm. 

For Lefebvre, the right to the city was the assertion of the right of low-/no-income residents to shape the city so that it might both fulfill their basic needs and better reflect their culture and desires. Without this right, anyone who isn’t identified as part of the white middle and upper class is targeted by social cleansing campaigns through evictions, rent gouging, policing, and surveillance. The right to the city is a fight for safe, affordable, and decent housing; for public amenities; for bountiful, accessible, unsurveilled and unrestricted use of public space; and ultimately, for avenues towards community control over the built environment.

A renewed interest in what Lefebvre articulated in 1968 has taken two paths. While it’s been embodied in the daily struggles of autonomous grassroots movements; it has also been opportunistically adopted by nonprofits as a brand. The nonprofit approach amounts to asking for a seat at the table by promoting community engagement and public meetings that in theory, offer an avenue for poor people to participate in urban planning. But even when long-time residents of gentrifying communities are invited to conversations between developers and city agencies, their presence is tokenized and their participation is superficial by design.

A grassroots right-to-the-city approach like that of NOlympics, on the other hand, offers an avenue for organizing against the abstract forces of neoliberalism by making clear demands for material changes that can improve the lives of poor people.

For an in-depth look at the renewed relevance of the right to the city in today’s anticapitalist movements, we can turn to David Harvey. He suggests that a primary obstacle to finding “our version of the [Paris] Commune,” might be the Left’s failure to collectively trace the connections between seemingly separate struggles, within our towns and cities and around the world. For him, it’s only through an internationalist movement that understands racial, environmental, economic, and spatial justice as facets of the same struggle, that we can begin to reclaim our cities. The promise of the global anti-Olympics movement is just that: an international, intersectional coalition rooted in local struggles for cities where the well-being of residents holds more weight than a two-week mega-event for the ultra-rich.

The long road to Olympic abolition

The Olympics produce a state of exception that allows municipal politicians around the world to usher in the version of the city they want but can’t get through a democratic process. Local police forces take advantage of this moment to acquire otherwise-unattainable funding, weapons, and legal protections. Host cities bend over backwards to accommodate a two-week mega-event, permanently altering their urban fabric and pricing out longtime residents. In Boykoff’s words, “It’s not just that poor people are not given a seat at the Olympic table — it’s that they’re the meal.” The same pattern plays out again and again, from Rio, to Sochi, Beijing, and LA. In the years leading up to the return of the Olympics to Los Angeles in 2028, we can expect nothing less than the exacerbation of the very demonstrations of white supremacy and aspirations for cosmopolitanism that have pushed communities of colour out of the neighbourhoods they’ve called home for generations. Already, we’re seeing the expansion of the LAPD; more transit-oriented displacement; hotel development; and rising rents.The 2028 Olympics represent the most recent incarnation of racist and anti-poor planning, and their arrival fans the flames of LA’s urban crises.

In 2017, NOlympics was born in the Housing and Homelessness committee of DSA’s Los Angeles chapter, which was unique in that it actively pursued coalitions with existing organizations led by long-term residents organizing with tenants and unhoused communities. This origin story is an important piece of the book, and Boykoff’s description of NOlympics’ relationship to DSA-LA further illustrates NOlympics’ commitment to long-time local struggles and international coalition-building. Since their founding, NOlympics has gained a relative autonomy from DSA, and gathered together a coalition of over 30 local grassroots organizations.

The day-to-day organizing of NOlympics LA is handled by a handful of dedicated, core activists, many of whom have been with the group since the beginning. But much of their base draws from the members of their coalition partners, which themselves benefit from having a shared forum for building solidarity, and a long-term goal to mobilize against. By strengthening those alliances, the group has planted roots in LA’s ongoing and wide-ranging struggles, from racial justice, to anti-imperialism, housing justice, and many more. 

In effect, the group has embedded itself into grassroots organizations outside of DSA, learning from them, supporting them, and funneling new DSA members into these movements—responding to a common critique that DSA lacks those kinds of connections. As I’ve seen for myself, NOlympics organizers consistently show up to support protests at the homes of slumlords organized by the LA Tenants Union. They help to monitor encampment sweeps and empower unhoused residents with Streetwatch LA (another DSA-LA working group with relative autonomy), and turn up for direct actions organized by Black Lives Matter against the city’s record-high rate of police murder.

NOlympics hosts a community canvass in LA’s Highland Park neighbourhood to raise awareness about the white-washing of community murals.

Similarly, NOlympics maintains a level of porosity and agility that welcomes new members on a regular basis and draws activists from different backgrounds to partake in their actions, which largely revolve around tactics of popular education: canvassing, polling, and teach-ins. By pulling together the already-existing expertise and analysis of local organizations, and setting out on a decade-long mission, NOlympics stands a chance of winning the cancelation of the LA2028 Games. More importantly, they’re ensuring that the city’s activist groups have a constant platform where they can come together, and that new members of DSA have an avenue for involvement in ongoing anticapitalist work in the city. 
Yet, for NOlympics, coalition-building is not just a tactic for mounting a localized intersectional critique of the effect of the Games on LA. It is also a project of international solidarity to end the Games for good: “No Olympics Anywhere.” The activists recognize that without lasting solidarity between host cities, all the work done in each host city is lost when the IOC moves on to its next victim. In response to the IOC’s globetrotting caravan of destruction, anti-Olympics activists around the world are beginning to strategically organize on a transnational scale. Fostering this coalition of global anti-Olympics groups has become a central initiative of NOlympics, responding to another shortfall of DSA, which is its lack of an anti-imperialist analysis.

Last summer, Boykoff traveled to Tokyo with NOlympics for the first major international anti-Olympics summit, where the activists from different cities around the world convened and marched with the local anti-Olympics organizers of HanGorin No Kai ahead of the Tokyo 2020 (now 2021) Summer Games. There, NOlympics organizers shared the particular ways that transnational capital manifests in LA. Boykoff, when narrating this trip, also observes the hurdles to this scale of organizing: if language barriers weren’t enough, different cultures of organizing can make collaboration difficult. But there were important lessons learned as well. Back in LA, the Nolympics organizers constantly remind local activists that their enemy is not just the LA City Council, but a transnational regime of neoliberalism.


As David Harvey notes, “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.”  NOlympics’ answer to this is building a coalition that unites antiracist, anticapitalist, anticarceral, and anti-displacement organizers in the fight for their right to continue to live in and to shape the city — from LA to Tokyo and beyond. It offers lessons about the importance of local, intersectional solidarity to activists abroad; and informs the work of local activists with an internationalist analysis. NOlympians depicts a coalition of organizations that prefigures a version of Los Angeles where none of us are free until all of us are free; where the city’s racist history is top of mind as we steer the ship towards racial justice; and where solidarity plays out in everyday acts of mutual aid.

A gateway to organizing

Like DSA, NOlympics takes an inside-outside approach, agitating politicians in the city hall chambers while building power by organizing with their coalition partners. However, NOlympics’ unabashedly abolitionist mandate sets it apart from what Boykoff identifies as the “socialism by evolution not revolution” mandate embraced by much of DSA — instead of reform, they want an obliteration of the capitalist mega-event. Their positioning creates a bridge for new members of DSA to get involved with community organizing beyond electoralism.
One way NOlympics has done this has been by perfecting the art of transfiguring cynical criticism into demands for positive change. They do this by exposing the failures of local government through gripping online satire, and pairing it with rambunctious, theatrical direct actions. Boykoff describes the ways in which NOlympics responds to the specific cruelties and political failures of contemporary Los Angeles. LA’s municipal government puts much of the city’s political power in the hands of the city council, while, as the NOlympians relentlessly point out, Mayor Eric Garcetti is often nowhere to be found. Before devoting much of his time in office in 2018 to courting a long-shot presidential bid, he signed the host-city contract for the 2028 Olympics without any input from the public—a clear tell that the 2028 Games were never intended to benefit the average resident of LA, but that they’re meant to serve the private interests of hotel developers, real estate speculators and international corporations that thrive on the tourist class.

NOlympics LA activists give Mayor Eric Garcetti a wake-up call at his mansion after his refusal to make LA a sanctuary city in 2018.

Garcetti and LA City Council have consistently upheld racist and anti-poor policies. White supremacy is deeply ingrained in the city’s planning history, and wealthy, white residents look to the city council for leadership. The summer of 2019 saw an uptick in anti-homeless white vigilante violence after the city council reinstated a ban on vehicle dwelling. Backed by the most murderous police force in the nation, politicians and vigilantes alike are already on a campaign to sanitize and pacify neighborhoods across Los Angeles. The decaying local media landscape only makes matters worse, with Pulitzer-prize nominated journalists writing poverty porn, and the chairperson of the 2028 Olympic bid holding a major stake in one of the few local outlets. 

In response, the NOlympians have produced their own media. Whether members are writing about the history of stadium-driven displacement in LA, making a guide for how to report on the Olympics, or making explicit the links between 1984 LA Olympics and the militarization of the LAPD, one of the central tenets of their work, according to activist Anne Orchier, is to “chip away at the Olympic movement as a whole.”

Boykoff describes NOlympics as a “perpetual praxis machine,” and their organizing takes many forms, ranging from performatively canceling the Olympics on the steps of LA’s City Hall; to holding auditions for actors to fill Garcetti’s shoes in his frequent absence; to doing outreach in public spaces and areas most impacted by hotel development ahead of the Olympics. Threading together all of these tactics is the activists’ trademark humour, which makes their cutting political criticism more approachable. While people may not know exactly how to critique something as abstract as global capital, NOlympics shows them how and empowers them to do so. Their propaganda pairs criticism of the profit-driven political economy with people-centered alternatives, all in plain language grounded in the specific issues facing Angelenos. 

Popular education is at the root of their approach to organizing, and as Boykoff observes, their regular meetings have become more about training people to organize, and less about report-backs and updates. Their organizing mandate seems to be not base-building, but creating an environment for organizers to grow and learn from one another, and connecting new DSA members with existing organizations working on specific issues in Los Angeles.

No Olympics are Good Olympics

If you ask any of the NOlympics LA organizers whether the Olympics could be reformed to better serve local communities, they would be quick to say that no Games are good Games. They would tell you that what powers the Olympic machine is the IOC’s determination to trample on poor communities in cities across the world, just to turn a profit, get back in their private jets, and do it all over again somewhere else. 

Yet, after chronicling the work of these organizers, and explicitly reiterating their abolitionist platform, Boykoff lays out some suggestions for Olympic reform. For one, he suggests an independent panel to review bids, and proposes higher environmental oversight. He imagines an Olympic machine turned on its head, so that funds that circulate up through the Games into the hands of oligarchs may be redirected into marginalized communities instead. He also proposes that the IOC follow the lead of FIFA, making votes for the Games public. 

It’s perplexing that after following the NOlympics organizers’ analysis so closely to their unapologetic, no-compromise demands for the eradication of the Olympic Games, Boykoff suggests reform. He implies that the IOC would be open to positive change; and furthermore that these reforms would not later be corrupted. It’s difficult, knowing what we’ve learned from his book, to imagine that a reorganized IOC would stage anything that truly benefits the no- and low-income communities of host cities. Boykoff’s propositions prompt an important question for the anti-Olympics movement and for the fight for the right to the city: How far can reform really go?

The NOlympians have rejected the premise of this question altogether. NOlympics is about ending much more than the Olympics, and spending energy on fighting for reforms to a system premised on the disenfranchisement of communities of colour and the banishment of the poor, might be something better left to the nonprofits. Instead, NOlympics has highlighted moments in sporting history when athletes got together to organize ethical, people-first events. For example, their video A Brief History of Swolecialism gives an overview of the Workers’ Sports Movement. The 1932 International Workers’ Olympiad famously drew more visitors and competitors than the concurrent 1932 LA Olympics. That legacy lives on today in CSIT (Confédération Sportive Internationale Travailliste et Amateur, or International Workers and Amateurs in Sports Confederation), which offers an alternative to the IOC that goes unmentioned in NOlympians. Boykoff writes about these alternatives elsewhere, but misses an opportunity to connect the dots between NOlympics LA’s fight to abolish the Games and their enthusiasm for the potential of a democratic sports culture led by poor people. 

Ultimately, the more important question at the end of this book remains unasked: what kind of city would it take to put people before profit, and to democratize sporting culture? What kind of city would it take to invest in and preserve bountiful public recreation space, provide clean water to swim in, and safe streets where kids can play — all without displacing long-time residents? It’s the kind of city that the partners of the NOlympics LA coalition are already fighting for and beginning to enact.

What the NOlympians are doing, and what Boykoff chronicles so well, is building a coalition of organizations in LA that are collectively fighting for their right — the right of regular people — to the city. In a global city like LA, this fight is up against the influence of transnational real estate investment, the tourism industry, and sportswashing. Though it’s difficult to measure the progress they’ve made towards getting the 2028 Games canceled, they’ve become a vital voice of dissent in our city hall chambers; a constant well of research and analysis while local media sleeps at the wheel; and an important common ground for groups fighting for environmental justice, tenants rights, Black liberation, and demilitarization. Boykoff illustrates not only the contemporary relevance of a right-to-the-city campaign; but the importance of far-reaching, collaborative, and coalition-based organizing that pairs single-issue struggles to general ones and local fights to the global fight against capitalism. The NOlympians are flipping the script, taking what engineer William Mulholland once said to the mayor at the opening of the Los Angeles aqueduct, and broadcasting it to the city instead: “There it is! Take it!”

All photos courtesy of NOlympics LA.

Sasha Plotnikova is a writer and design critic living in Los Angeles. She organizes with the LA Tenants Union and has taught architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. She tweets at @sashaplot_.

NOlympians: Inside the Fight Against Capitalist Mega-Sports in Los Angeles, Tokyo and Beyond by Jules Boykoff is available from Columbia University Press.

May readings

Illustration: Alexandra Bowman

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

Following the killing of George Floyd, one in a long line of brutal murders of Black people by police, anti-racism protests have swept across the US, and conversations about structural racism and police brutality have dominated the global media. We decided to use this momentum to highlight educational readings and resources on anti-racism, police abolition, and the connections between racism and environmental issues.

In other news, this month, we launched a new section on our site: the Resources for a better future glossary! We kicked it off with Eleanor Finley’s entry on Human nature, which we linked below. In this month’s list, we also included analyses of where we’re at and where we’re going with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, and, as usual, we collected a variety of readings and resources about new politics, cities and radical municipalism, degrowth, and activism.



Uneven Earth updates

We launched Resources for a better future – a glossary of crucial concepts in political ecology, alternative economics, and environmental justice. It offers easy-to-read, clear, and opinionated explainers of some of the most important political and ecological issues of our time.

Human nature | In the first entry of our new glossary, Eleanor Finley argues that there is no human nature, only human potential

Crisis Collage | How do we move ahead now?

Planet of the dehumanized | Environmentalism that does not center structural inequality is a dangerous nod to both eco-fascists and eco-modernists alike



Top 5 articles to read

Reimagining a world where justice is possible. “It was none other Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” We live in a world where robbing entire classes and societies; manufacturing and trading ever deadlier weapons; poisoning the air, earth, and water; torturing or wiping out entire species; etc. are the alphabet of power. The justice of such power cannot be anything but a hellish nightmare for those who are born into the margins. Such a world will always be racist, regardless of the humanist sentiments of the majority.”

Unlearning: From degrowth to decolonization

Racism, police violence, and the climate are not separate issues

We don’t farm because it’s trendy; we farm as resistance, for healing and sovereignty. Farming is not new to Black people.

We defend ourselves so we can all breathe in peace



News you might’ve missed

International Monetary Fund leverages COVID-19 economic fallout to create a land market in Ukraine despite widespread opposition

Brazil: Deforestation on Indigenous lands increases 59% in the first months of 2020

Brazilian Landless movement and economist Eduardo Moreira launch FINAPOP, a new community-supported investment fund, to support grassroots agroecological farming

East Africa facing ‘triple threat’ from coronavirus, locusts and flooding, Red Cross warns

Land conflicts flare across South-East Asia during coronavirus lockdowns



Resources on anti-racism and police abolition

Understanding structural racism, and how to fight back

Geographies of racial capitalism with Ruth Wilson Gilmore. A short film.

A Twitter thread filled with revolutionary books that can guide us during this time, a collection of Black revolutionary texts, and Frantz Fanon’s writings

Black Socialists of America resource guide 

‘Racism dictates who gets dumped on’: how environmental injustice divides the world, and more in this series: Our unequal earth

‘They chose us because we were rural and poor’: when environmental racism and climate change collide. The environmental movement has a long history in America’s south – yet people of color and impoverished communities continue to face dangerous pollution.

Black environmentalists on climate and anti-racism 

Coronavirus: its impact cannot be explained away through the prism of race. “Race is a social construct with no scientific basis. However, there are clear links between people’s racial groups, their socioeconomic status, what happens to them once they are infected and the outcome of their infection. And focusing on the idea of a genetic link merely serves to distract from this.” 

The violence of, and alternatives to, policing

The George Floyd killing in Minneapolis exposes the failures of police reform

The end of policing. According to Ruth Wilson Gilmore, this free eBook available on Verso “combines the best in academic research with rhetorical urgency to explain why the ordinary array of police reforms will be ineffective in reducing abusive policing. Alex Vitale shows that we must move beyond conceptualizing public safety as interdiction, exclusion, and arrest if we hope to achieve racial and economic justice.”

Reading towards abolition. A reading list on policing, rebellion, and the criminalization of Blackness.

Abolition study. A list of readings and resources.



Just think about it…

During coronavirus, is ‘wellness’ just being well-off? 

Why social isolation is part of Amazonian Shamanic practices 

My first lockdown was during the first Intifada. Living under a lockdown in Europe has brought back memories of my childhood in Gaza during the Palestinian uprising.

Internationalism in Vietnam, then and now. Building on the traditions established by Ho Chi Minh.

What is energy denial? A text from 2019 about “clean energy danger denial” – the tendency that we overlook the hazards of renewable energy production because fossil fuels are so bad.

The wildness is in me, too. People were excluded from the wild, historically, and in today’s rapidly digitizing West.

How ‘sustainable’ development ravaged the Congo Basin

The ugly underbelly of veganism in India

The final frontier. On why US culture is so obsessed with conquering space.

The wife glitch: Household tech makes women’s work profitable—for men



Where we’re at: analysis

Hope against hope. An Interview with Out of the Woods on COVID-19, climate crisis, and disaster communism.

Favela journalists debate ‘mistakes the press are making covering coronavirus in favelas’, the latest in RioOnWatch’s article series on Coronavirus in the favelas

The dangers of legalising public land theft in Brazil: agribusiness, deforestation, and the melting pot of future pandemics

Coronavirus in Rojava: Facing a pandemic without a state

Counting corona losses in Africa

The solution to the coronavirus recession is a global Green New Deal. A healthy, socially, and ecologically just world demands it.

How new is the Green New Deal for the Global South?

The ‘green’ new deal should not be a new imperial masterplan 

Real reconciliation starts with fair economics

Lawless ocean: The link between human rights abuses and overfishing

Canada’s forests remain under threat — and the clock is ticking for governments to step up

Food is power

The impulse to garden in hard times has deep roots



New politics

Public abundance is the secret to the Green New Deal 

Reviving Indigenous authorities in Guatemala

Indigenous leadership points the way out of the COVID crisis

Coronavirus and the life lessons from “ordinary” people to save the Earth and ourselves

Organizing is not about getting people to agree with radical ideas

Permanently organized communities



Cities and radical municipalism

How cities are clamping down on cars 

Emancipatory mutual aid: from education to liberation. A New Orleans radical mutual aid group organizes with and within communities to help transform the conditions that created the crisis in the first place.

The problem with forcing developers to provide open space. On urban design and failed green spaces.

Kowloon Walled City. In Hong Kong, it was the densest place on Earth.



Degrowth!

How GDP fetishism drives climate crisis and inequality. Jason Hickel discusses degrowth on the Citations Needed podcast.

Techno-socialism or de-growth? The second in a three-part interview on capitalism and climate breakdown from Political Economy for the End Times.

Fairytales of growth. A film on climate change, degrowth, and system change.



Resources

26 ways to be in the struggle beyond the streets

Mapping our social change roles in times of crisis

Ethnography and the struggle for social justice. Didactic video resources on how ethnographic research can be used to strengthen social justice struggles, with the Brazilian urban movement Lutas Pela Moradia no Centro da Cidade (with English subtitles).

A list of political ecology-themed podcast episodes

HackΑthens 2020 recommended readings on urbanism, cities, architecture, history, and arts from a degrowth perspective, and in the context of pandemics

22 films to watch after (or instead of) Planet of the Humans

Timothée Parrique’s Twitter account, where he shares lots of useful information and resources on degrowth

Food fermentation in Northeast India

Agroecology in Cuba, a film with English subtitles



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Human nature

by Eleanor Finley

Note from the Uneven Earth editorial team: This entry is the first to be published within Uneven Earth’s new Resources for a better future series: ​a glossary of crucial concepts in political ecology, alternative economics, and environmental justice.​ We are calling on experts and activists to help us put out easy-to-read, clear, and opinionated explainers of some of the most important issues. Anyone can write an entry, and we will help with editing to make them readable to wide audiences. The time is now to put forward concise definitions of key concepts, to explain our political position firmly and clearly.

What is “human nature”? How can we make sense of human beings as creatures which are part of the natural world? What makes our species distinct from others? People have been asking ourselves these kinds of questions for millennia. Aristotle, the classic Greek philosopher and harbinger of modern biology, famously characterized human beings as zoon politikon, a political animal that can deliberate collectively upon what should be in the world. Since the Industrial Revolution, it has become popular to define human beings in economic terms. So-called “man the toolmaker” alters his physical environment to suit his purposes. Yet, as we shall see, Aristotle’s ancient idea still resonates with much of what the science says about the human species today.

There is no single “human nature” or blueprint for organizing human life.

Anthropologists are scientists who study the human species from a holistic perspective, taking into account our biology, language, material culture (archaeology), social systems, and everyday life. Over the course of a century, anthropologists have amassed first-hand accounts of human societies from all over the world. We call this “ethnographic record”. The ethnographic record shows that within broad realms of “universals” like family and friendship, spirituality or religion, play and sports, politics, and production, the range of possibilities are endless. For this reason, anthropologists have long ceased trying to define “human nature” and instead focus on exploring the human potential. In other words, there is no single “human nature” or blueprint for organizing human life.

The idea of “human nature” nonetheless remains deeply lodged in our popular imagination about good and evil. Most often, people invoke the notion to justify an evil act or system of injustice. It is supposedly “human nature” to be greedy, for instance, or to exploit others. Although on the surface these expressions appear politically neutral, they are tautologies: “explanations” that merely repeat themselves. Why did men rape women, children, and other men? Why, because it was supposedly in their male nature to do so! Yet hardly explains why some men choose to rape and others don’t. It is equally in men’s capacity not to rape, so why bother blaming “nature” at all? Below the surface, statements about what is “natural” are really expressions about what we see as morally permissible. We invoke “human nature” as if to say, “These things will never change so don’t even try”.

We invoke “human nature” as if to say, “These things will never change so don’t even try”.

The debate about “human nature” is really a veiled way of talking about good and evil. To question the good of humankind is to question whether it is ethical to respect others. If we decide humans are bad, then we don’t feel bad treating them badly.

Thankfully, serious observation of human behavior points to precisely the opposite conclusion. Things are always changing, so you might as well try! While most species have evolved elaborate, yet confining physical adaptations like wings, beaks, or claws, human beings adapt through creativity and invention. Like dogs, cats, rats, pigeons, and many of the other species which have accompanied us across the globe, we are generalists who thrive in diverse environments. Flexibility is our hallmark as a species.

Flexibility is our hallmark as a species.

Despite our powerful plasticity, human beings remain primates with a distinctive set of physical features which shape our overall embodied experience and life cycle. As primates, our eyes situate themselves at the front of the skull, affording us an acute sense of sight and the ability to see at great distances. We possess opposable thumbs and long, agile fingers that allow us to tinker with fine and delicate objects. In distinction from all other primates, our posture is upright, a capacity gained through mind-bogglingly sophisticated skeletal adaptations in our feet, ankles, legs, and pelvis. These are just a few of the distinctive human features that anthropologist Julian Steward refers to as “the biological constant”.

Amid our many remarkable features, the human brain is exceptional. Each human possesses a highly-developed prefrontal cortex or “frontal lobe”, a highly flexible supercomputer overlaid by the patterns of symbols and associations we call “culture” (dolphins, porpoises, and other advanced mammals possess highly developed frontal lobes, however, without a common language, it is impossible to know in any detail what their culture might be like). The frontal lobe allows us to recognize, remember, reason, imagine, solve problems, and to project our mind’s eye into the past and future. For example, it is the frontal lobe which allows us to recognize the meaning of a traffic signal and predict what will happen if we do not stop. Most importantly, the prefrontal cortex allows us to alter what we’ve learned and invent new patterns. It is not only how we interpret the meaning of stories and metaphors, but also how we create new ones.

There is no human nature, only a human potential.

The uniqueness of the prefrontal cortex is significant to any discussion of “human nature” because it means there is no recognizable human life beyond the reach of culture. Human infants literally cannot survive without years of sustained stimulation, love, and affection from caretakers. There is no human “nature” that can be separated from the society in which we live. In 1961 Marxist historian Erich Fromm writes that for Marx, man is characterized by a “principle of movement”. Under the influence of early anthropology, Marx understood that history is a dance between invention and determination. There is no human nature, only a human potential.

Aristotle approaches the same point, but from the other direction. By describing humans as “political animals”, Aristotle correctly implies that even the most seemingly abstract inventions like ethics, philosophy, and debate have an objective basis in the way our bodies are constructed. Our biology equips us to understand not only what is, but also what could and what should be. We are ethical creatures; we are nature debating, rationalizing, and thinking with itself.


Further reading suggestions:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2001 [2018]. Aristotle’s Ethics. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/

Marshall Sahlins. 2008. The Western Illusion of Human Nature. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Nancy Holmstrom. 2017. “Chapter 28: Human Hature” in A Companion to Feminist Philosophy (edited by Alison M. Jaggar and Iris Marion Young). Blackwell Publishing Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781405164498.ch28

Jason Antrosio. 2011 [2018]. “Anthropology and Human Nature: Human Beings in Process” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/biological-anthropology/human-nature/

Erich Fromm. 1961. The Nature of Man. Marxists Internet Archives. https://www.marxists.org/archive/fromm/works/1961/man/ch04.htm

Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman, Peter Matthews Wright & Charlotte Witt. 2018 (7th edition). Thirteen Theories of Human Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


__________________

Eleanor Finley is a writer, teacher, activist and social ecologist. She is also associate editor at ROAR Magazine and a PhD student in anthropology the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Crisis Collage

by Maro Pantazidou

For years, things have been kicking off everywhere. In Argentina 2001, then in France 2005, then in Greece 2008, in Iran 2009, and then like a wave in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria to circle back to Spain, US, New Zealand, Turkey. Occupy Everywhere.

In Athens, in December 2008 the Mayor’s Christmas tree was set ablaze with the curse/wish ‘Merry Crisis and a Happy New Year’ until the Christmas tree in Hong Kong’s shopping mall caught fire too ten years later.

To then kick off again in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Sudan, in France. Till Chile consumed it all and spit it out ‘We will not return to normality because normality was the problem’.

Six months later, maybe we crave for some normality.

Maybe we could go back to that old normality with all its contradictions, oppressions, cancellations, exploitations, misrepresentations—but where, somewhere, one can carve out a small space where there is Touch and there is Movement and therefore maybe a bit of Freedom.

So cοuld we go back? The ghost of what-is-actually-normal is haunting our cities.

The crisis is a mirror.

The crisis is a portal.

The crisis is suspension.

The crisis is acceleration.

The crisis is an already-existing social condition, now mediated by viruses. Much of what was deemed impossible, invalid, invisible has been

laid bare, 

(we are as safe as the least protected among us)

validated, 

(the most important work is the work that maintains and reproduces life)

materialised

(even the market had to start washing its invisible hand).

The fairy of what-is-actually-possible is humming in between our screens.

So, the words appear again on a Hong Kong wall ‘We can’t go back to normal because normality was the problem’, only now they’ve taken on a meaning more dense yet more subtle, punctuated by all our interdependencies.

How do we move? One answer: ‘there is no need to destroy everything and to give birth to a world completely new — it suffices to change the position of this cup or this bush or this stone, and to do the same for every thing.

Maro Pantazidou likes to work on radical education and collaborative research. She is based in Athens.

Planet of the dehumanized

by Gert Van Hecken and Vijay Kolinjivadi

A new documentary entitled “Planet of the Humans” directed by Jeff Gibbs, and produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore, was recently released to coincide with Earth Day. The documentary was highly anticipated, given Moore’s previously engrossing anti-establishment and award-winning documentaries on crucial political issues. The documentary, narrated by self-proclaimed environmentalist Jeff Gibbs, was released online and received over 4 million views in less than a week. The filmmakers unpack some of the myths surrounding large-scale renewable energy production like solar, wind, and biomass, arguing that such technologies are themselves materially-intensive and dependent on fossil-fuel derived energy, including coal, oil, and natural gas.

The film rightly questions capitalism’s “addiction to growth,” as well as corporate quests for profitable opportunities made available through greenwashing, and exposes the “renewable energy scam” as an unsettling co-optation of environmentalism by fossil-fuel driven interests. This line of questioning is refreshing and highly welcome at a time when faith in green growth is proposed as the main solution by the private sector, and their government supporters, to address environmental issues. These messages from the film are extremely important, given that it has been scientifically shown that there is no such evidence that environmental degradation can be reversed through increasing economic growth.

Since its release, the film has already received considerable critique from renewable energy experts, climate scientists, and climate activists, who have decried the film as dangerously misleading and behind the latest developments in the renewable energy sector. While we are sympathetic to this critique on how the film throws the “baby out with the bathwater” on renewables, we believe these critiques gloss over the important point the film makes about corporate greenwashing around renewable energy. We also believe that the critique of the film’s position being climate-denialist is clearly inaccurate given the film’s central focus on the ecological crisis associated with economic expansion. Ultimately, “Planet of the Humans” demonstrates why massive-scale renewable energy is a false solution to meet the insatiable needs of industrial society – this is a valid point! Even if renewables were fully substitutable alternatives to fossil-fuels, an industrialized civilization predicated on endless economic growth is not sustainable.

Our concern lies with how the film superficially points to environmental problems being caused by an abstract capitalism without centering the analysis on the historical and structural inequalities of capital accumulation. “Planet of the Humans” powerfully and convincingly bursts the “eco-friendly” lifestyle bubble into which so many well-intentioned progressives pour their hearts, souls, and wallets. However, the film bypasses historically ingrained privileges and structural inequalities along class, gender, and racial lines that lie at the heart of environmental crises.

A film produced by white people for other well-meaning white people, which does not include voices from the most vulnerable, who bear the major brunt of climate change and ecological collapse, entirely misses the mark around why ecological concerns are a matter of humiliating injustice for many people rather than merely a lifestyle choice. If what counts as being a “lifelong environmentalist,” as Gibbs claims at the start of the film, means making the individual choice to move into an “eco-house” and become more sustainable, then we are left with a very narrow and privileged understanding of what environmentalism actually means. The absence of more than stock-photo imagery of the structural inequalities of ecological destruction is precisely what makes this film highly simplistic and therefore dangerous at this current conjuncture.

There are four key reasons why the film misses the mark on the intertwined social and ecological crises of capitalism.

  1. The film’s narrative groups humanity as a whole as the culprit for ecological degradation, as evoked in the film’s title, and as signaled by the Anthropocene trope as a universalizing explanation for our current predicament. This perspective neutralizes the powerful influence of historically transforming the world into standardized, calculable, and controllable landscapes to replicate Western imaginaries of the world. Not all humans are responsible for the current state of affairs. Some of us are forced to deal with the fallout of a particularly deadening vision of the world more than others. The consequence of activating the idea of the Anthropocene is that it allows big industries to convince us that “we”, the anthropos, are all equally responsible for climate change. 
  2. The film caters to Western views on environmentalism by those who do not have to deal with structural injustices of living in cities’ most polluted areas, dying from air pollution, having their land dispossessed, or whose life choices are determined by precarious migrant labour and remittance to families abroad. While the film artfully exposes the fallacy around so-called “green economy” illusions, it does so by focusing entirely on lifestyle choices like deciding whether to attend a solar-powered concert or to adopt a plant-based diet. This focus simplifies what environmentalism is meant to imply, even if the filmmakers may have had no intention of doing so. One consequence of the filmmaker’s one-sided Western environmentalist lens is its singular focus on renewable-energy supporters and activists. Environmentalism has less to do with having epiphanies of being inspired in the great outdoors, and more to do with supporting the autonomous decision-making of vulnerable communities in the face of egregious environmental pollution that no human being should ever be subjected to. Racialized environmental justice has a long history in the US. It is unfathomable that a film of this nature would blatantly side-step this, especially given Moore’s previous work on the racialized nature of environmental problems like the Flint water crisis. Only one female voice who defends the struggles of racialized people from so-called “developing” countries demanding environmental justice was offered space in the film, and even that for less than 1 minute.
  3. The film blames overpopulation as another problem alongside relentless economic growth as where “we” went wrong as humans. This perspective unduly places the blame on populations in so-called developing countries and aligns with Malthusian and ethno-nationalist perspectives of eco-fascists by “greening” hatred among people. These are blatantly dangerous and could even be considered racist viewpoints especially considering that some environmental movements are deeply rooted in anti-immigration sentiment and white supremacy. This is particularly problematic when the film’s audience is seemingly well-meaning middle-class progressives whose dreams of a renewable-energy fueled capitalism are dashed without offering any alternatives. The consequence is that white-supremacist media sources like Breitbart can easily hijack a film like “Planet of the Humans,” as they already seem to be doing.
  4. While perhaps not the intention of the filmmakers, the film paradoxically creates a narrative that is easy to co-opt by ecomodernists advocating for technological fixes to environmental problems. It essentially gives them a green light to irresponsibly advocate nuclear energy by laying claim to the failure of renewable technologies to power an industrial society. Indeed, given the lack of alternatives offered in the film, its silence on the matter essentially condones nuclear energy. Such a decontextualized view on the potential of energy alternatives like wind and solar shuts the door on renewable energy technologies without recognizing the crucial role they play as decentralized energy solutions, particularly those focused on ensuring energy democracy for communities around the world. In short, energy systems cannot be decontextualized from the kind of society that is democratically desired. Like fossil fuels, nuclear energy depends on powerful and hegemonic actors to drive and direct both energy demand and supply, but a sustainable future will require decentralized, autonomous communities that have control over their energy use and where their energy comes from.

Overall, the implications of the film and its responses extend beyond its specific strengths and weaknesses. Debates constructed around environmentalism more generally, especially in industrialized countries, have tended to fall into particular narratives that do not adequately share an ethical and political commitment towards social and environmental justice, reparations for historical acts of colonial violence, and alternative knowledges and ways of being. These narratives often advocate for a renewable-powered and industrialized green economy, support centralized techno-fixes like nuclear energy with potentially catastrophic social and ecological consequences, or advocate for population control in veering dangerously close to the side of eco-fascists.

Moreover, given that the film takes a North American focus, these positions amount to colonial settlers on stolen land debating what counts as a sustainable future. The striking absence of Indigenous land defenders, their history of struggle, and lessons to be learned from them is another missed opportunity to truly engage with what “sustainability” could mean. While these concerns extend beyond the film’s intentions and perhaps intended audience, it is impossible to ignore them given the totalizing characterisation of environmental problems, as clearly evident in the film’s title.

An intersectional understanding of ecological crises, as they weave through race, gender, and class, would have offered a more powerful portrait of the state of the planet’s ecological situation. Global social movements around the world such as La Via Campesina, as well as the degrowth movement in Western industrialized countries explicitly connect social and ecological struggles as one and the same struggle, and offer hope and inspiration into flourishing alternatives already existing to reimagine the world. “Planet of the Humans” does not reflect non-Western conceptions of justice nor non-mechanistic understandings of human-nature relations. Attempts being made to confuse the film’s message with degrowth are therefore inaccurate. The film’s impacts could not have come at a worse time, when people are seeking alternatives to capitalist crisis in the midst of a global pandemic.

Gert Van Hecken is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. For over fifteen years he has lived and worked in Nicaragua, both as a researcher on social-environmental conflicts in rural communities and as a representative for a development NGO.

Vijay Kolinjivadi is a Post-doctoral Researcher at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His research has focused on the socio-cultural and political outcomes around “payments for ecosystem service” policies with land-users in South and Central Asia as well as in Eastern Canada. His interests lie at the intersections of political ecology and ecological economics.

March & April readings

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

All of March and April, we’ve collected lots of articles on coronavirus. And we thought that, now, two months after the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic, is a good moment to reflect on where we are and take stock of where we are going. So, this reading list, we’re only featuring articles on coronavirus.

First, we’re highlighting guides and resources for how to organize during the crisis. Second, we highlight the political actions and movements that are responding to the crisis around the world. Third, we feature articles focusing on the wave of mutual aid that has emerged following the pandemic. We are also including analysis of what caused the pandemic. Other topics include: its effects in the Global South, the importance of care & care work, its impact on cities, degrowth as a key response to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, its effect on food systems, the emergence of eco-fascism in response, and analysis of what the world will look like after this all.



Uneven Earth updates

The only thing to last forever | An endless repetition had taken hold of the world

Where did coronavirus come from, and where will it take us? | An interview with Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu

Pandemic strike | Rob Wallace says we need new tactics to show that people’s lives matter more than profit

Exploring transformative change on the brink | In moments such as these, the landscape of possibility shifts. How can activists engage on the ground?

This pandemic IS ecological breakdown: different tempo, same song | Comparisons between the toll of COVID-19 and climate change are not helpful because they view each as two separate “things”

Our contributing editor Vijay Kolinjivadi also appeared on the podcast This Is Hell! to talk about his article.

Now is the time to end the climate emergency | Reading The Green New Deal and beyond in the middle of a global crisis

To organize in times of crisis, we need to connect the dots of global resistance against Imperialism | Moving beyond a politics of confusion towards Internationalism

When viruses shatter limits | Viruses are invisibly small, cause monumental pandemics, and force us to rethink our taxonomies



Top 5 articles to read

In light of the global pandemic, focus attention on the people. A 16-point list of demands from the International Assembly of the Peoples and Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

Within and beyond the pandemic, demanding a care income and a feminist Green New Deal for Europe

Social reproduction theory and why we need it to make sense of the coronavirus crisis

No new normal

Pandemic insolvency: Why this economic crisis will be different



Guides, how-tos, and resources

List of resources and guides on how to do mutual aid during a pandemic

Useful list of Covid-19-related information and explanatory guides

COVID-19 tenant organizing guide

Resources on strikes during COVID-19

How to fight fascism while surviving a plague

How to organize your workplace against COVID-19

COVID-19 Left perspectives: A reading list

Feminist resources on the pandemic

Food safety and coronavirus: A comprehensive guide

Post-capitalist reading in a time of pandemic



Political actions and demands

Call of the Indigenous peoples, afro-descendants and peoples’ organizations of Latin America

A call to action: Towards a general strike to end the COVID-19 crisis and create a new world

Organizing under lockdown: online activism, local solidarity

Imagining protest in a quarantined world

Defining a space for resistance: Countering the disempowering effects of social distancing 

Essential workers: Class struggle in the time of coronavirus 

Rent strike nation

Our towns: Public libraries respond to COVID-19

Social movements in and beyond the COVID-19 crisis: sharing stories of struggles

Coronavirus has transformed the climate movement into something new

To our friends all over the world from the eye of Covid-19 storm



Mutual aid

Five quick thoughts on the limits of Covid-19 mutual aid groups & how they might be overcome

Don’t forget: disasters and crises bring out the best in people

People are fighting the coronavirus with mutual aid efforts to help each other

Autonomous groups are mobilizing mutual aid initiatives to combat the coronavirus

From mutual aid to dual power in the state of emergency

Mutual aid groups respond to coronavirus and climate change threats

Amid coronavirus pandemic, neighbors delivering what government cannot

The global guardians: Volunteering in Milan’s neighborhoods



What caused the pandemic?

‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?

Profits above all: world’s largest pork company propagates global pandemics

Think exotic animals are to blame for the coronavirus? Think again.

New research suggests industrial livestock, not wet markets, might be origin of Covid-19

COVID-19 and circuits of capital

Ten theses on farming and disease from Rob Wallace

Is factory farming to blame for coronavirus?

‘A common germ pool’: The frightening origins of the coronavirus



The pandemic in the Global South

Coronavirus hits the Global South

IMF, World Bank urge debt relief for poor nations battling virus

For autocrats, and others, coronavirus is a chance to grab even more power

Indigenous groups in Canada, Australia, Brazil brace for coronavirus

Dispatch #6 from Palestine on COVID-19, curfews & mutual aid

Stories from Kerala’s spirited virus fight

The pandemic can be a catalyst for decolonisation in Africa

Negligence, injustice, and insensitivity – Peasant situation under coronavirus crisis



Thinking about the pandemic: analysis and theory

The coronavirus pandemic, capitalism, and nation-states 

Peter Linebaugh on the long history of pandemics

The coronation by Charles Eisenstein

Coronavirus and the world-economy: The old is dead, the new can’t be born

Coronavirus and the need for a social ecology

Oxana Timofeeva, Georges Bataille: A pandemic read

Academia in the time of Covid-19: Our chance to develop an ethics of care

How the world became place where we remembered breath

Mike Davis on COVID-19: The monster is finally at the door

#CoronaCapitalism: How corporations are responding to the coronavirus crisis

COVID-19 and the neoliberal state of exception

In conflict with disease



Care during a pandemic

On social reproduction and the covid-19 pandemic

Social reproduction and the pandemic, with Tithi Bhattacharya

COVID-19 pandemic: A crisis of care

Care in the time of covid-19 

A crisis like no other: social reproduction and the regeneration of capitalist life during the COVID-19 pandemic

Asian American feminist antibodies. A zine that makes meaning of the coronavirus crisis through long-standing practices of care that come out of Asian American histories and politics.

The coronavirus fallout may be worse for women than men. Here’s why

The coronavirus is a disaster for feminism



Coronavirus and our cities

How cities can adapt to Covid-19

‘Idiocy of our current urban systems’: Inequality, not high-density cities, to blame for COVID-19’s spread

Disinvestment made our cities a powder keg in a pandemic

For urban poor, the coronavirus complicates existing health risks

Coronavirus is revealing the harm Airbnb did to urban rental markets



Growth, degrowth, and corona-crisis

Pandenomics: a story of life versus growth

In the midst of an economic crisis, can ‘degrowth’ provide an answer?

Coronavirus and degrowth

Is the economic shutdown what degrowth advocates have been calling for?

A degrowth perspective on the coronavirus crisis

Jason Hickel on Twitter: “Just to be clear: the economic contraction that’s happening right now is *not* degrowth. If you’re ever confused, you can consult this handy list of questions.”

Or, if you’re still confused, check out this handy online quiz: Is this degrowth?



How are food systems affected?

Farmworkers are risking their lives to feed a nation on lockdown

IPES special report: COVID-19 and the crisis in food systems

5 lessons for food systems thinking from COVID-19



Eco-fascism and the pandemic

Fake animal news abounds on social media as coronavirus upends life

It’s not “ecofascism”—it’s liberalism

‘We’re the virus’: The pandemic is bringing out environmentalism’s dark side

What the ‘humans are the virus’ meme gets so wrong

Coronavirus and the radical right: conspiracy, disinformation, and xenophobia



What the world will look like after coronavirus

The coronavirus is rewriting our imaginations

Technocracy after COVID-19

The coming debt deluge

Will coronavirus signal the end of capitalism?

It was the virus that did it

Coronavirus will require us to completely reshape the economy

The coronavirus is leading to a whole new way of economic thinking

COVID19 is changing the ideas that we consider politically possible

Owning the future: After COVID-19, a new era of community wealth building

We can afford to beat this crisis

What will the world be like after coronavirus? Four possible futures



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When viruses shatter limits

All that is left to us, therefore, is to understand what the disaster is producing within us, to pay attention to the explosion of affects it reveals. Therein lie the complexity of the situation and its rare promises. –Sabu Kohso

by Shrese

Stories of viruses are mostly stories of surface breaking, membrane crossing, confinement evading, border shattering, punctuation changing.

During the 19th century, scientists like Pasteur and others articulated the Germ theory: diseases could be passed on by tiny living things (hence the name microbes, small biota) invisible to the eye. Bacteria, organisms made of a unique cell, were “discovered”. An object, the Pasteur-Chamberland filter, was created to filter out bacteria from water. First dedicated to research, it also became an industrial device in a world now, and forever, scared of microbes and infections. But still, stuff that seemed to be smaller than bacteria, i.e., that could pass through these filters, kept on causing diseases. “Filterable viruses”, later only “viruses” (from poison in Latin), became then known to humans.

Viruses came to our world by crossing a membrane of unglazed, or bisque, porcelain. Here their narration starts—as if they hadn’t been there all along. Kevin Buckland, a storyteller living in Barcelona, teaches us this about the virus: “[its] power is simple: it can change periods into commas. It can un-end sentences. What was sealed and solved, what was packaged and piled, what had already been swept away is now again unfinished; ready to be rewritten.”

These past weeks, our days have been filled with digressions about viruses. For example: are viruses alive? Yes, no, it depends on how you define “alive”… And it depends on who you ask: someone living through the Covid-19 pandemic, or the same person a couple months ago?

This question has been with us for as long as viruses came into our world. After they first crossed over the Pasteur-Chamberland filter, they were thought to be liquid entities. Then they became particulate. But what were they really, were they just toxins? Were they microbes? Nowadays, we talk of them as being at the edge of life, we ascribe them the gift of life only once they have crossed our cell membranes… The debate often follows a script:

—Viruses cannot self-generate their own body nor self-reproduce, therefore they are not alive.
—Don’t they, though?
—Well, yes, but they are not independent nor autonomous, they cannot do it on their own, they need to infect a cell to do it.
—But some organisms also need other organism-hosts to reproduce. —Ah?
—And how about you? would you be so independent and autonomous if you were in a world without any other living beings?
—…

Indeed, asking “is this alive?” forces us to think “what does it mean for something to be said to be alive?”. Another way to go at it is to come up with lists of criteria, checklists, so we can tick “yes” or “no” when it comes to viruses, and the debate is still not closed. All in all, this is a tale of defining a phenomenon “en creux”, that is by focusing on what is excluded by the definition. This debate of finding the limits of the domain of life does sound abstract, but it is quite a spectacular contribution by the virus.

If you ask “what does a virus do?”, any biologist would tell you: first, it attaches itself to some elements on the surface of the cells of animals or plants (bacteria have their own made up category of viruses called bacteriophages). Then, using a diversity of tactics, it will pierce through the surface membrane of the cell. Once inside the cell, the pathogenic type of viruses will generally hack what the cell does for a living (grow and reproduce) to reproduce itself to a vast amount. After some multiplication, the virus will often engage with borders again, this time to actually literally explode the membrane of the cell, rupturing all structural integrity, spreading its inside outside. The cell, at this stage, can safely be considered “dead”. See, it’s all about trespassing surfaces.

This is the official story. But there is some more unfinished business to it. We mostly think of viruses as pathogens that infect us, make us ill, kill us. They are defined and perceived solely from their function or from their way of life (a bit of DNA or RNA genome encapsulated that needs to infect a host to actually do anything). Does it make sense to lump all of them together under this single term? Their genomes can be of all kinds and shapes, their structures as well, also their rules of engagement with the cells. But above all, it seems that one important activity of theirs is to mix things up: they insert their genomes into their hosts, they pick up bits as well, they move these bits from one organism to the next, they may have got stuck into cells to make new kind of cells. We’re now in the world of Lynn Margulis and her symbiogenesis stories—evolution as unfinished digestion: biological entities attaching to or entering into other entities and sticking around. The most famous example is the organelles found inside cells, like the mitochondria or the chloroplasts, coming from bacteria that were “eaten” by other bacteria and stayed there. Some say that the first eukaryotic cell (a cell with a well-defined DNA nucleus) came from an actual virus entering a cell.

We should have listened to Lynn Margulis more. For one, she did offer a solution to the “what is life?” dilemma: life is not a thing, it’s a process. Indeed, what does an organism do? It grows. What for? To grow more. And Darwin was all well and good, but she insists the metaphor of the tree was terrible. Life is not made of independent branches of organisms, lineages that go their own paths separated from others. A more suitable metaphor would be the web: all these “lineages” bump into each other, cross each other, don’t respect the borders—neither the ones of the organisms, nor the ones of the taxonomists.

Taxonomy. This is another story of containment and packaging that got shattered. Taxonomy is the science of classification: ordering things into distinct categories, according to specific criteria. Essentially, compartmentalising, detaching, separating, confining… Taxonomists as border guards. Here, Debra Benita Shaw and her account of “promising monsters” is very telling. When she teaches us that “monsters are the necessary counterpart of taxonomy, [they] emerge both within the strata of the taxon and across its boundaries” and that “species are trapped in a taxonomic grid, but they are always struggling to escape/mutate”, it is almost like she’s telling us stories about viruses. Her monsters are both essential to the production of categories, taxonomies and hierarchies and to their undermining and challenge—they are mobilised to produce what is accepted as normal but they linger on, they proliferate. They are abnormalities that refuse to disappear, nagging us every now and then like a stone in a shoe; but they also are “unexpected formations that contain latent potential”, the deviations that hold the possibilities of future changes, evolutions and apparitions of new forms (such as the concepts of saltation and hopeful monsters in evolutionary biology).

It is easy to think of what is destructive about viruses, especially on Wednesday 1st of April at 21:04 in Barcelona, Spain. We are drowned in curves of new Covid-19 cases (is it flat yet?), sunny and tempting empty streets from our balconies, graphs of daily deaths, migrant persons fined for being out in the streets helping out others… And it is particularly telling that the answer to a virus, given its ability to plough through our established categories, was to multiply the confinements: lock downs, movement restrictions, imposed distancing and isolations, borders closing, modes of transport shut down. But what could be promising about all this? True, at the moment, there is no shortage of interesting propositions and analyses telling us that the coronavirus is an opportunity for social change, an indicator of the failure of capitalism, a tipping point from which we won’t turn back, a planet saviour, nature biting back… Funnily enough, one interesting contribution was proposed by the virus itself, in a monologue. The virus even managed to strip down the situation to the core bifurcation it offers us: “the economy or life?”. Here it is again, forcing us to think about life.

Writing from within the pandemic, and a very specific vantage point (pretty privileged: work from home, cheap rent, no family responsibilities, official European identity papers—borders again), days are of a new kind. Constantly in the background, coming and going, tensing my jaw, aching my shoulders, piercing my chest and shortening my breath, an “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahaaaaaaa!”—anxiety, fears and worries.

Not so differently to a couple of centuries ago, viruses are invisible to most of us. They travel in droplets, in aerosol, linger on surfaces, clothes… anyone contaminated and in their incubation period, not showing any symptoms, could potentially pass it on. Not even some indirect clue of the risk. So much hand washing. Our relation with our hands has changed completely, they are the vectors of the invisible threat. Our mouths, our eyes, our noses are the points of entry. Scared of our own bodies, we embody the neo-liberal conception of life described by Silvia Federici “where market dominance turns against not only group solidarity but solidarity within ourselves”. In this situation, we are in constant state of fear of what’s within, “we internalize the most profound experience of self-alienation, as we confront not only a great beast that does not obey our orders, but a host of micro-enemies that are planted right into our own body, ready to attack us at any moment. […] we do not taste good to ourselves.”

The invisible does not only carry the feared entities. This is also where capitalism relegates its waste: air, ocean, underground, “ex”-colonies… All tales told, viruses seem to fit the risk society pretty well. This is the idea that our contemporary society has shifted to an obsession with safety and the notion of risk, and has dramatically shaped its organisation in response to these risks. From a class society where the motto was “I’m hungry”, and where social struggles were organised around this, the risk society’s motto became “I’m afraid”. This created a different set of demands, mostly revolving around the need to feel safe. The risks are mostly invisible (as in, actively unseen: nuclear, chemical toxins, oil spills, terrorism etc.). What therefore becomes central is to decide what constitutes a risk. Because scientists are now the ones that are relied on to make this assessment, science became a particular battlefield. In this framework, risks are divided into external and manufactured risks. The former are “natural” risks that arise from the outside (drought, floods, earthquakes—what “nature” does to us) and the latter occur because of what humans do to “nature” through its techno-scientific practices. Rob Wallace begs us to keep in mind that plagues are manufactured risks. The multiplication of zoonoses (infectious diseases that spread from non-human animals to humans), he argues, is a direct result of the capitalist modes of production: intensive monocultures, reduction of diversity, destruction of habitats… To quote the virus again, the “vast desert for the monoculture of the Same and the More” that we created is responsible for this pandemic.

What could exemplify more these invisible manufactured risks than the nuclear complex and its associated irradiations? And how this reminds us of viruses. They are both hyperobjects, a term put forward by philosopher Timothy Morton to describe phenomena that imply things, temporalities and spatial scales that are beyond humans while intimately present—disproportionate, monumental and apocalyptic while mediated by minute invisible entities. Also, responding to these disasters is difficult. The true apocalyptic nature of these events is not that they will bring the end of the world, it’s precisely that they are never ending, one characteristic of the societies of control. Nuclear waste and viruses will of course survive countless generations of humans. The monumentality of this kind of catastrophe seems to call for a monumental solution, initiated by a superior power, discouraging all revolts. But above all, it is the virtual reality of radioactivity and viruses that throws us off. Impalpable, invisible, delayed effect… nuclides and viruses diffuse in our world and bodies through uncontrollable and unreliable movements. As hyperobjects, they are viscous: “they ’stick’ to beings that are involved with them”. In a nuclear explosion or a pandemic, we cannot stop our bodies from welcoming the radiations or the virus. They engage with our cells—manipulate, use, modify, hamper them and threaten their integrity. Suddenly, reminding us that we are made of cells, our own body integrity is at stake, and potentially the ones of our offspring, or our closest ones…

No wonder a lot of my fellow humans are lamenting “these days, I cannot think”. Cannot focus. Head in cotton, like when taken by the fear of heights. But it is known, this is not fear, it is a desire for heights. From my balcony on the 6th floor, peering over, I am both terrified and excited. Powerful craving to let go, to give in to the air and gravity. Fly, even for a few fractions; fall, finally free of the fear, warmly wrapped in the friction of the resisting atmosphere—a liberating suicide.

We are now petrified by the phenomenal amplitude of the situation. Confined, we are utterly confused when faced with the satisfaction of one of our deepest and most repressed cravings: stop. Take a breath and shut down the machine. Stand still, there, wrapped in all the muck that we did not want to be with, reminding us of the many ways we kept busy to avoid facing ourselves. Finally giving in to the temptation—that has never left us since the first day of school—to stay in bed, retreat, desert and abandon.

As Sabu Kohso reminds us when writing about the Fukushima disaster, we will not save the world. Our starting point could be to disassemble the totality that was sold to us as The World, relocate its membranes and change its punctuation, to recompose it offensively with new terrestrial relations that are already solutions to live the good life. “In this mix of affects—despair, joy, anger—that a lot of us share, we are tempering, quenching and forging new weapons, and we are elaborating strange tools and curious talismans, to lead ephemeral and intense lives on this earth.”

All images by Shrese.

Shrese is a carpenter and independent researcher based in Barcelona, Spain. Contact him at shrese at riseup dot net.

This article has now been republished in French by lundi.am.

To organize in times of crisis, we need to connect the dots of global resistance against Imperialism

Sallye Davis (organizer and mother of Angela Davis), Ann Bishop, Alimenta Bishop, and New Jewel movement leader Maurice Bishop, Grenada, 1982. Photo from The House on Coco Road, directed by Damani Baker, Array Films.

by Corinna Mullin and Azadeh Shahshahani

Writing in the aftermath of the US-led overthrow of the People’s Revolutionary Government of Grenada, the inimitable Audre Lorde lamented the absence of a strong anti-imperialist movement in her seminal essay “Grenada Revisited.” Lorde identified two main factors to explain the dearth of resistance to the blatant intervention by the US in a sovereign state’s internal affairs: 1. a deliberately confused public sphere as “doublethink has come home to scramble our brains and blanket our protest,” and 2. a desensitized “[white] america whose moral & ethical fiber is weakened by racism as thoroughly as wood is weakened by dry rot.” The years following the 1983 invasion of Grenada have witnessed a continuation, and in many ways, deepening, of both: the racism that underpins the violent dispossession to which marginalized communities at ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ are subjected, coupled with the discursive infrastructure of a capitalist dominated media and public sphere designed to obscure and normalize this dispossession as well as to delegitimize resistance.

We currently face a combined economic, ecological and health crisis that is in many ways a product of the forms of exploitation and dispossession that Lorde identified in her essay, making it more vital than ever to draw connections in our analysis of and resistance to racial capitalism and Imperialism. Rob Wallace has demonstrated the linkages between capitalist modes of agriculture and the ecological transformations that have enabled the spread of “the most virulent and infectious phenotypes” of pathogens such as those that resulted in the coronavirus.

These processes have accelerated in the neoliberal era, spurred on by imperialist circuits of finance capital whose penetration of the Global South was enabled by the removal of “restrictions on the global flows of commodities and capital.” Neoliberalism has entailed a set of social and economic policies rolled out over the past five decades as a response to the crises of racial capitalism, designed to reverse even limited post-Depression working class gains and redistribute wealth upwards. Neoliberal policies including repeated tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, the deregulation of various sectors of the economy (including finance, telecommunication, energy, etc.), and the marketization and privatization of public services (including in the domains of education, social welfare, prisons, etc.) resulted in deindustrialization and the dismantlement of many public institutions that would otherwise have helped to mitigate the current crisis, including health care. The state’s “organized abandonment” was accompanied by a retrenching of its repressive apparatuses, including prisons, borders, and police—or the state’s “organized violence” in the words of Ruth Gilmore.  This violence has targeted with criminalization the very Black, Brown, Indigenous, working class, poor and other marginalized and racialized communities who were the most impacted by neoliberal restructuring, extending already existing forms of exploitation, dispossession and exclusion in capitalist core states.

Many of the neoliberal policies behind the restructuring of the Global North’s welfare state were originally tested on—and resisted in—the periphery.

Many of the neoliberal policies behind the restructuring of the Global North’s welfare state were originally tested on—and resisted in—the periphery, via imperialist institutions like the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the World Bank, and the EU. As part of the attack on the post-independence assertion of Global South sovereignty, structural adjustment programs via enforced spending cuts and privatization engendered state disinvestment in public goods, contributing to the degradation of public institutions, including public health. They have also enforced capitalist patent regimes that limit these states’ abilities to provide affordable and accessible medicine to their populations, ensuring that the Global North benefits from the “monopoly rent…[and] an almost exclusive control of the world market of health.” Neocolonial debt further hinders Global South public health by diverting already limited state resources away from funding health care systems to servicing public debt. Similar to developments in the Global North, one of the few sectors that witnessed an increase in spending during the neocolonial assault on the state in the Global South were the repressive security institutions, also contributing the accumulation of public debt. This neoliberal restructuring combines with the colonial-capitalist assault on Global South ecologies and the destruction of imperialist wars and militarism, to produce “wasted lives”—contributing to an expansion of the “global reserve army of labor,” superexploitation of Global South labor and surplus value extraction.

While scholars like David Harvey argue that Imperialism is no longer useful as an analytic category, a look at any number of socio-economic indicators statistically mapped out onto an image of the globe makes clear that the north-south cleavage is still salient when it comes to patterns of accumulation and dispossession. Whether we look at it through the lens of public health, monopoly finance capital, global commodity chains, labor exploitation, unequal exchange, sanctions, climate disaster, or military interventions—there is a stark geographic dimension to how power is divided and exercised across the globe. As in the past, global inequalities today are also reflected and intimately connected to those within the metropole. In the current context, it is poor, undocumented, immigrant, Black and Brown communities hit the hardest by crisis. Not only in terms of being more susceptible to contracting and dying from the coronavirus, as a result of historical legacies of slavery and ongoing structural racism, resulting in a lack of access to adequate health care, nutrition and housing, as well as contributing to conditions as well as often limited capacity to “social distance,” but also because of the uneven impact of its socio-economic reverberations, including loss of employment and housing, as well as being subjected to state violence and surveillance as part of the state’s increasingly securitized response.

Similar to the Granada intervention conjuncture so incisively dissected by Lorde, the current moment has also laid bare the interconnections between the Imperialism and racial capitalism. Yet we still falling far short of the kind of political mobilization required, with the parallel analytical phenomenon that some interpretations of Imperialism have been stretched so thin that the concept has lost much of its meaning and urgency. Though there may be several factors that can account for this, central among them is what Lorde, referencing George Orwell, identified as “doublethink.” This refers to a deliberate and systematic politics of confusion that emerged in the late/post-Cold War period, providing a discursive cover for the neoliberal counter-revolution against post-colonial Global South sovereignty. This cover operates through several discursive mechanisms, including through the evasion and distortion of history to disrupt and reverse otherwise obvious connections between causes (settler-colonialism, slavery, racial capitalism, Imperialism) and effects (underdevelopment, de-development, inequality, dispossession). This doublethink equates imperialist violence with the responses it engenders, flattening out different forms of state power, (e.g. by conflating neoliberal and imperially aligned states such as Colombia and Peru with “Pink tide” governments such as Bolivia and Ecuador that have sought to nationalize resources and redistribute wealth, support the struggles of workers and Indigenous communities, and challenge imperialist geopolitical alignments, repeatedly referring to the latter as “authoritarian”). It also normalizes imperialist violence through discursive formations such as the ‘democratization’, ‘humanitarianism’, ‘development’, ‘war on terror’, ‘green transition’, and sets limits on what we are able to imagine in terms of liberation (e.g. whether or not international agreements can be broken and debt erased, regional integration, redistribution, ending private property regimes and reclaiming the commons). It is why for so many people it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Faced with this combined health-economic-ecological crisis, there is a renewed urgency to demystify and contest this politics of confusion by strengthening our anti-imperialist organizing. Just as we build solidarity through mutual aid in our communities to fill the gaps- as well as address root causes– left by the neoliberal, racial capitalist state, we must extend our solidarity to support mutual aid efforts in the Global South, where similar and much more severe gaps in the ability of the state to protect people in the face of coronavirus are intimately connected to US Imperialism. These include economic warfare against countries like Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, to the deepening and expansive tentacles of US military projection across the African continent through the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), including “46 various forms of U.S. bases” and other military interventions designed, in the words of the former deputy of AFRICOM himself to “Protec[t] the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market,” and including past and ongoing US directed or backed invasions, bombings, blockades, occupations, covert destabilization military operations and coups in places like Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Bolivia and Venezuela.

Conceptualizing Imperialism

At its base, Imperialism is a system of domination that blocks real self-determination for states and peoples. It is about externally determining and imposing, often together with the collaboration of elements of a domestic elite, particular modes of industrialization, socio-political forms of governance and border-making/border practices that facilitate labor exploitation and surplus drain in the Global South for the benefit of (largely Global North/western) capital. It is about blocking alternative ways of imagining and pursuing development, value, and of living with one another and with the Earth. The imperialist aim is to obstruct the pursuit of alternative socio-political-economic projects (and sabotage extant ones) that threaten capitalist power. As Ali Kadri reminds us, the state-led developmentalist projects of the post-independence era implemented across West Asia and Africa “did not fail on their own”; it was “implicit and explicit” forms of Imperialism “that shut them down.”

Imperialism is about blocking alternative ways of imagining and pursuing development, value, and of living with one another and with the Earth.

Imperialism is also always about violence. There is the structural violence that results from what Walter Rodney described as the “paradox” of underdevelopment, where “[m]any parts of the world that are naturally rich are actually poor.” There is also, of course, the material violence. Imperialism is backed up by the threat and often actual shock and awe of military might. We are all too familiar with the long list and typology of imperialist interventions, which include: the invasions, occupations and other forms of imperialist (largely US/French/British/Germany led)-military action witnessed over the past century in places from Vietnam to Iraq, North Korea to Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Chile, Syria and Mali to imperialist backed coups against leftist and/or nationalist governments across Africa and the Americas. Through destabilization, destruction, and currency devaluation, wars and occupations enable numerous forms of extraction and exploitation of natural and human resources. In that sense, they are primary mechanisms of “surplus value and power creation.” This is true not only, as Ali Kadri shows us, in the immediate aftermath of violence, but for years following, as they produce the socio-economic conditions of “underdevelopment” that enable Global North accumulation.

Returning to Grenada, Lorde pointed to the outcome (and aim) of the US invasion: “Ministries are silent. The state farms are at a standstill. The cooperatives are suspended…On the day after the invasion, unemployment was back up to 35 percent. A cheap, acquiescent labor pool is the delight of supply side economics.”

Imperialist mechanisms

Counted among the list of imperialist interventions are the 1,000 military bases and installations the US operates/and or controls across the globe, which have aided in the funding of death squads, coups, and other covert operations. This number far surpasses that of foreign military bases maintained by any other state in the world. There are also the more subtle forms of military domination and imperialist induced vulnerability that come from state dependence on US/European weapons and surveillance systems, training, as well as military “cooperation” with joint military operations, wherein the US outsources risky ventures to Global South “partners.”

While much is made of Russia and China as competing powers for global hegemony, it is telling that the US spends more on “national defense” than the other countries included on the list of top 8 military spenders combined

The US dominated military-industrial-complex continues to be one of the most visible mechanisms of Imperialism today. While much is made of Russia and China as competing powers for global hegemony, it is telling that the US spends more on “national defense” than the other countries included on the list of top 8 military spenders combined (including France, United Kingdom, Germany, India, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia).  The US dominated arms market also perpetuates financialization of the global capitalist economy as the top arms dealers are all publicly traded. The US continues to dominate with 42 of the Top 100 listed arms companies based in the United States. The speculative role of arms capital was once more on display as major US arms companies saw their stock prices jump following the Trump administration’s assassination of the leader of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Soleimani in January of this year In supplying their arms to the Global South, these merchants of death not only provide the conditions to alienate citizens from their states, but also alienate Global South states from one another as they find themselves caught up in conflicts that are not of their own making, nor in their own interest.

Perhaps even more pervasive than militarism, economic warfare is one of the most destructive forms of imperialist intervention. Currently, a third of humanity is impacted by US sanctions. Sanctions are a way of disciplining Global South self-determination, as is so clearly the case in Zimbabwe where sanctions first adopted in 2001 were designed to punish the government for its extensive land reform program. Not only do sanctions by design “cause untold death and devastation,” a reality laid bare in the current health crisis, but also, as Lauren Smith demonstrates, “economic sanctions serve to justify and conceal theft, through asset freezes and seizures, at a rate only previously accomplished through invasion and occupation.” US sanctions trigger currency devaluation, inflation, increased unemployment, prices and access to food, power, and industrial equipment, and, of course, medicine. In other words, sanctions are a neocolonial tool designed to “prevent countries from setting in place any form of economic development.”

Iran has been the target of one of the most significant and consistent US sanctions regimes, a punishment for asserting its sovereignty with the 1979 Iranian revolution. Though lifted for a short time following the 2015 nuclear deal, Trump’s re-imposition and expansion of sanctions have forced the Iranian economy to contract by 9.3 percent in 2019.  To convey a sense of the scale of the impact that the US enforced severing of Iran from the international financial system has had on the Iranian economy, Kevin Cashman and Cavan Kharrazian explain that it would be the equivalent to a 16 percent cut in the US federal budget, or $521 billion in 2018. With at least 58,226 cases of the coronavirus and at least 3,603 deaths recorded since the outbreak, there is no doubt that US sanctions have made it much harder to tackle the pandemic. The country is facing shortages of respiratory-assistance devices and basic medical equipment, such as gloves and masks.  With the sanctions impeding Iran’s ability to respond to the health crisis it is facing, the aims of the US’ economic warfare on the country are rendered even more apparent: destabilization and death.

In Venezuela, even before the coronavirus outbreak, a report by the Center for Economic and Policy research demonstrated a 31% increase in mortality in the country after the 2017 round of US imposed sanctions, causing an increase of 40,000 deaths in the country. The most recent ramping up of imperialist aggression towards Venezuela in the form of increased sanctions, the deployment of navy ships towards the country and the placement of a $15 million-dollar bounty on the head of President Nicolas Maduro, have all contributed to undermining Venezuela’s ability to confront the coronavirus, and will undoubtedly result in even more deaths. To add insult to injury, US Imperialism has created both the conditions in which Iran and Venezuela have been forced to turn to the IMF for emergency funds to confront the coronavirus as well as the reason for which the IMF continues to block these countries from accessing needed funds.

US Imperialism has created both the conditions in which Iran and Venezuela have been forced to turn to the IMF for emergency funds to confront the coronavirus as well as the reason for which the IMF continues to block these countries from accessing needed funds.

Sanctions are not only deadly in the sense of blocking access to the medicine, food and finance required by states to provide basic welfare for their population, but also in denying and distorting capital flows and economic transactions, and in enabling the investment of seized assets in Global North banks. They are a major mode of Global South-to-North wealth drain. As demonstrated by a recent report, the U.S. economic blockade has caused over US $138.8 billion in losses to Cuba since the 1960s. Of course, not everyone in the Global North benefits from this wealth drain. As with other examples of imperialist intervention, the inequalities of racial capitalism are in fact exacerbated by sanctions as an economy built on “plunder” is by design one that exploits, dispossesses and wastes lives.

Connecting the dots between racial capitalism and Imperialism

The above list of imperialist economic interventions includes debt colonialism, currency manipulations, structural adjustment programs, “free trade” deals, and other forms of economic intervention that block Global South development and facilitate Global South wealth drain and Global North accumulation. By dehumanizing, devaluing, and exploiting Global South lives and livelihoods, Imperialism perpetuates white supremacy both within the US and across what W.E.B. Du Bois described as the “global color line.” For Lorde, the seeming indifference of the US public to the imperialist violence committed against Grenada could only be grasped by understanding how “white america has been well-schooled in the dehumanization of Black people” and how such socialization enables accumulation through dispossession under racial capitalism.

By dehumanizing, devaluing, and exploiting Global South lives and livelihoods, Imperialism perpetuates global white supremacy both within the US and across what W.E.B. Du Bois described as the “global color line.”

The racialized forms of accumulation underpinning capitalism have always been international — from the foundational role of slavery and the dispossession of Indigenous lands and polities to the current formations and relations of power underpinning the globalized and hierarchically organized and racialized circuits of trade and production. These circuits of trade and production are kept in place by imperialist states and the multilateral institutions they dominate, from the IMF/World Bank to NATO, often including different organs of the UN and international law. These same interests, institutions, policies, and practices not only act outward to impact people around the world, but are responsible for criminalizing, exploiting and dispossessing Indigenous, migrant, Black, Brown, undocumented, and poor communities in the US itself.  Trump’s framing of Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus,” a framing that was readily echoed by a mainstream media and public sphere long schooled in anti-Asian racism and the (neo)colonial tradition of deploying “health and medical discourses [to] further racist projects of excluding and eliminating those deemed undesirable,” is a reminder of Imperialism’s and racial capitalism’s shared discursive infrastructure.

Resisting Imperialism

Both this global domination and the resistance to it have always been international. From early forms of radical Black internationalism, including such luminaries as W.E.B. Dubois, Claudia Jones, Paul Robeson, Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon and Angela Davis, to organizations like the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, the International African Service Bureau, and the Black Panthers, internationalism was an important base of struggles against colonial regimes and white supremacy. There is also the long tradition of what Nick Estes describes “Indigenous internationalism,” through which Indigenous peoples have “imagin[ed] themselves as part of Third World struggles and ideologies, and entirely renouncing the Imperialism and exceptionalism of the First World (while still living in it).” Internationalism informed various state initiatives (e.g. the 1955 Bandung Conference, and 1964 UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), as well as early hybrid state-popular forms of solidarity expressed through institutions such as the Cairo based Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization and its “antecedent,” the African Association, and the Tricontinental Conference. Today, the international peasant and ecological movement of Via Campesina coordinates global resistance to the ravages of capitalist agriculture for a food sovereign future, while the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Black for Palestine and The Red Nation carry forward the mantle of internationalism in the name of anti-colonial solidarity, Palestinian, Native and Black liberation and human emancipation. Much anti-imperialist organizing in the US today centers abolition, pointing to linkages between US interventions “abroad” and repression at “home,” with a focus on “racialized policing and prison systems” as well as connections between the conceptual and material underpinnings of the carceral-police state in the imperial core and the periphery.  The abolition project has assumed a new urgency in the current conjuncture as it is clear that communities targeted by the carceral-police state are the most vulnerable to the current combined crisis.

While the imperialist security state devises new mechanisms of control and capital figures out ways to profit from the crisis, resistance is also mounting. Already existing circuits and networks of solidarity are being mobilized, with organizations like the Red Nation calling for human solidarity “not just to stop the most catastrophic effects of COVID-19, but to end this inhumane and criminal capitalist system once and for all.” Others like Cooperation Jackson are building on the increasing radicalism of labor organizing in the face of the crisis to demand a “democratization of the means of production” as well as a redirection of funds spent on defending and expanding the US empire “to Health Care, Social Services, Universal Basic Income and Greening Public Infrastructure and the Economy.” There are also calls originating from the Global South for broad solidarity with demands for reparations and the cancellation of neocolonial debt. While the US practices public health Imperialism, Cuba is leading the way with its public health Internationalism, providing support to states in the Global South (and even Global North), which are struggling because of limited resources and the consequences of neoliberal cost-cutting of health-services to fight the spread and impact of the coronavirus.

International solidarity derives from the realization that our own liberation — and indeed, our survival — is fundamentally linked to the liberation and survival of the most oppressed people across the globe.

These past and present forms of internationalism have taught us that the struggle against racial capitalism and Imperialism can only succeed if undertaken as a collective. As rising temperatures and sea levels (as well as the rapid spread of the deadly coronavirus) remind us, international solidarity is neither an abstract nor intellectual duty. Rather, it derives from the realization that our own liberation — and indeed, our survival — is fundamentally linked to the liberation and survival of the most oppressed people across the globe. As internationalists, we also have a responsibility to educate ourselves to the greatest extent possible about the popular struggles unfolding in parts of the world where Imperialism is busy at work, in our names, and with our tax dollars. From Algeria, to Haiti, Chile, Ecuador, Lebanon, before the coronavirus health crisis gripped the globe, it seemed the entire world was on fire with popular uprisings resisting the ravages of capitalism and the apparatuses of “organized violence” that are designed to sabotage and manage dissent. Once the virus subsides, these struggles will undoubtedly reconvene with a vengeance, spurred on by the inequalities and injustices exposed and exacerbated by the combined crisis as well as by signaling from imperialist institutions such as the World Bank, which has called on states to “implement structural reforms to help shorten the time to recovery,” that business will continue as usual. Likewise the struggle for Palestinian liberation, where Imperialism and settler-colonialism combine to create the perfectly deadly mix for the unequal spread and impact of coronavirus, accelerating the Israeli project of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population. 

As we have learned from the successes and mistakes of the past, our anti-Imperialism cannot be a one size-fits-all mode of organizing. It must be based on sound analysis of the particular histories, socio-economic contexts, class composition, ideological underpinnings, and political alignments of both states and movements. Yet it always requires that we resist imperialist military and economic intervention as well as the so-called multilateral institutions that facilitate Global South dispossession and wealth drain. It often means standing in solidarity with Global South popular movements as they resist the collusion of their governments in the exploitation, extraction, dispossession and destruction of peoples, lands, and ecologies facilitated by US provisioned arms, training, and diplomatic cover. By virtue of our geographic location in the belly of the beast, we have a special responsibility to resist all attempts by the US and other imperialist actors to sabotage, divert, co-opt, or otherwise limit the will of popular struggles across the Global South. It also requires that we stand in solidarity with those Global South states that are punished for the threat they pose to status quo functioning of global capitalism because of their geopolitical alliances and support for anti-colonial and anti-imperial resistance. Finally, we must be wary of forms of critique that may have the perhaps unintended consequence of turning people away from anti-imperialist organizing at a time when they are needed the most by claiming that those who focus their analysis and organizing on the role of US power, ignore or undermine Global South agency when in fact the principal aim of anti-Imperialism is precisely to support the building of a context in which meaningful Global South self-determination can be realized. At a time when so much is at stake, we must be as careful as possible to ensure our analyses do not reproduce and reinforce imperialist discourses and power relations.

It is the working class, poor, racialized and criminalized communities both in the Global North and South who suffer the most and who are also at the forefront of resistance.

As we confront these interlocking health-economic-ecological crises, we must remember that it is the working class, poor, racialized and criminalized communities both in the Global North and South who suffer the most and who are also at the forefront of resistance. True liberation and survival—depends upon centering the needs, struggles and collective leadership of the most vulnerable among us. To do so requires that we continue building on the analysis and praxis of those Internationalists who have come before us. They have shown us that the best antidote to the politics of confusion is a politics that connect the dots between the political-economic systems of human and ecological domination that continue to exploit, dispossess, and kill us.

After a commenter’s feedback, some corrections have been made on the history of Grenada’s revolution.

The authors would like to thank the editors of Uneven Earth, including Natalie Suzelis and Vijay Kolinjivadi, for their extensive and insightful edits and suggestions, as well as Max Ajl and Setareh Ghandehari for their close readings of the article and feedback. They would also like to thank Zainab Khan, Ramin Zareian, and Chris Tidwell for their research help with the sanctions section of this article.

Corinna Mullin is an adjunct professor at the New School and John Jay College (CUNY) and researches on Imperialism, capitalism and the politics/political economy of Global South security states; she tweets @MullinCorinna.

Azadeh Shahshahani is Legal & Advocacy Director at Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild; she tweets @ashahshahani.

Now is the time to end the climate emergency

by Natalie Suzelis

In The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can, Stan Cox has a message for all who were counting on the Green New Deal to help save us from ecological and economic collapse: this legislation will not go far enough. Cox’s book comes at a sobering time, when the only two U.S. presidential candidates he mentions as being in favor of the Green New Deal—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—have fallen behind a ‘more electable’ candidate who has not expressed such enthusiastic support for GND policies. In light of such developments, and in light of the global health crisis now facing the world, a manuscript devoted to many of the GND’s shortcomings might seem untimely. Yet Cox provides important insights into how our intersecting crises—ecological, economic, and epidemiological—could lead to a positive restructuring of the economy, if we can push such legislation to meet them. To do so, Cox argues, requires expanding the GND’s restorative approach to environmental justice, a willingness to reinvent the economy at a scale not seen since World War II, and the prioritizing of people and the planet above economic growth.

There are a few assumptions of the Green New Deal with which Cox takes issue, given how far we have advanced on the climate clock. These include the legislation’s vision to build up ‘green’ energy capacity and its promise to maintain and even accelerate economic growth. First, Cox addresses the common assumption that clean energy will push out old, dirty energy, by showing that there is so far no evidence to support that this will happen. As Cox shows from previous cap-and-trade policies, new energy sources are more likely to add to the existing energy supply than replace it. So far, the attempt to phase out fossil fuel energy with solar and wind power has only served to supplement the energy market and, sometimes, even enhance the production and trade of fossil fuels. Therefore, the parts of the GND which promise to re-grow the economy by replacing fossil fuels with renewable or clean energy sources are simply not realistic. To reach the goal of clean energy by 2030 through solar and wind power, we would have to build infrastructure for such industries ‘at thirty-three times the highest rate of buildup ever achieved to date’ and at scale which would infringe upon land and water which we would do better to conserve. 

Cox urges us to accept that while we must phase out fossil fuels now with a strong cap on fossil fuel production, we must also accept that such a rapid phasing out of fossil fuels will shrink GDP.

Instead, Cox urges us to accept that while we must phase out fossil fuels now with a strong cap on fossil fuel production, we must also accept that such a rapid phasing out of fossil fuels will shrink GDP. This insight brings some of the Green New Deal’s aims in conflict with one another. In the legislation’s own language, the GND proposes to bring ‘unprecedented levels of prosperity’ and a new era of ‘domestic manufacturing in the United States,’ while also ‘restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems.’ Yet as Cox points out, land and soil restoration alone will take a massive amount of work and coordination. The GND would then have to choose between such restoration and the massive building of new industries. Cox argues that the choice should be clear for those who truly know what is at stake. Because the GND also aims to ‘promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth’ Cox argues that it cannot do so while also drastically reducing emissions and growing a new energy market. 

What’s new is also old

To help us understand how we might avoid some of these assumptions, Cox points to a few lessons learned from the old New Deal. What is not new about the Green New Deal, for example, is its ambitious goal to take on the task of essentially planning the entire economy as a necessary response to economic and ecological crisis. Although it may seem unthinkable after decades of neoliberalism, structural adjustment, and austerity, Cox reminds us that Roosevelt himself had introduced the New Deal by publicly acknowledging that ‘free market policies and resource extraction’ had created a fiscal and ecological emergency that required an entirely new — and entirely planned—economy (3). The government’s ability to take the reins from the free market was the first step in the New Deal’s success. The second, and more essential step, was that a national labor movement held this project accountable to workers. This labor pressure, which resulted in the passing of the National Labor Relations Act, helped ensure that the projects and stimulus packages meant to plan both production and consumption specifically addressed the rights struggles of working people along with the conservation and maintenance of the environment.

Yet what made the New Deal unsuccessful was its failure to implement its goals across racial lines. As Cox acknowledges, rather than helping Black workers in the South, for example, the New Deal cemented institutional racism by deferring to locally prevailing wages for occupations dominated by Black workers. Further, the Social Security Act of 1935 did not cover farm laborers nor domestic workers, which employed two-thirds of the Black population, and the New Deal’s housing policies perpetuated residential segregation. In order to learn from this history, Cox points us to the successful campaign of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which recruited thousands to stage a successful strike that demanded higher wages for Black and white farmworkers across northeast Arkansas. The goal of this organization was both a protest movement and a labor union: agitation and publicity, along with strikes and collective bargaining, aimed to put pressure on the New Deal and present radical alternatives to its policy. Similarly, no matter how progressive the Green New Deal’s goals, Cox argues that it must also face relentless pressure from unions, social movements, activists, and groups like Indigenous Climate Action, Sunrise Movement, Keep it in the Ground, and Fridays For Future, in solidarity with land and water protectors who are already struggling to defend some of the world’s largest carbon sinks. 

The GND does take some of the New Deal’s key mistakes into account, in arguing for the importance of protecting First Nations and marginalized communities. Yet more pressure will be required to recognize the hard truth that we have already overshot our shared limit of fossil fuel production and consumption, and that even the clean energy of new public infrastructure would rely upon dangerous extractive practices that threaten marginalized communities and the sovereignty of indigenous lands. Climate activists, scholars, and the public must therefore ask themselves: can the GND really ensure a just energy transition by building a roaring new ‘green’ economy and mining raw materials like cobalt, cooper, lithium from around the world, which, as Cox points out, are both notoriously associated with human rights abuses and harmful extraction (68)? What the optimism of the GND does not appear to be taking into account is that the mining of such materials—even those meant to produce ‘clean’ or ‘renewable’ energy—is going to remain a dirty business.

We must be willing to cut the wasteful parts of this economy in the same way that the War Productions Board of the 1940s cut, simplified, and restructured the U.S. economy of the 1940s. 

Further, what the GND seems to have not learned from the history of the New Deal is that a stimulus package by itself will not go far enough. In the case of the New Deal, as Cox points out, it was ultimately not the massive stimulus but the United States’ transition into a war economy that addressed both unemployment and overproduction. This is also why the United States, to this day, relies upon its military to help expand a GDP that is fundamentally linked to high carbon emissions. While the fact that the U.S. military is a bigger polluter than most countries is well known, what is less known, as Cox asserts, is that we must be willing to cut the wasteful parts of this economy in the same way that the War Productions Board of the 1940s cut, simplified, and restructured the U.S. economy of the 1940s. 

A rationing economy

In what has become a rather prescient observation, given the current state of emergency brought on by the spread of COVID-19, Cox reminds us that it was not the New Deal, but the ‘emergency’ of World War II which allowed the U.S. to entirely restructure its system of production and consumption. In 1936, when the Roosevelt administration began easing off stimulus support, unemployment leapt back up to 19% and remained above fourteen percent until the war effort redirected its production to war-related materials and projects. Having spent $62 billion on stimulating the economy over the last eight years, Congress then spent $321 billion over the next five years in its transitioning to a war economy. Cox points out that while this new form of spending worked in restructuring production and consumption, many forget the sacrifices that were made to ensure a successful transition. A key element often left out, for example, is the War Production Board’s mandatory clampdown on prices as well as its rationing efforts, which aimed to ensure adequate food, shelter, clothing, and other basic necessities for the entire population. To this end, the War Production Board shrank, standardized, and simplified the economy in order to reduce civilian rail travel, prohibit the shipping of retail packages, and reduce the number and varieties of most commercial products. 

Here Cox lingers on the point of the War Production Board’s tight rationing of goods, which included both food and fossil fuels. This is because, for Cox, proper rationing will be fundamental to a just energy transition. In making connections between the WPB’s tight regulation of the economy and what he argues should be a similar response to the emergency of ecological collapse, Cox chronicles how households were issued a monthly set of stamps for meats, cheeses, butter, sugar, fuel oil, kerosene, gasoline, tires, cars, bicycles, stoves, typewriters, shoes, coffee, canned fish and milk, fats, and other processed goods. Drivers began carpooling to work and families across the country planted 22 million ‘victory gardens’ to supplement the rationing system. Rather than being a hardship, Cox argues, rationing improved nutrition across economic classes and was met with overwhelming public approval. Even when ‘rationing was at its zenith,’ as Cox reports, approval outweighed disapproval by two to one, because civilians believed rationing was necessary to eliminate food shortages and conserve important raw materials. Cox insists that the same mindset must accompany the Green New Deal, which would entail a concerted effort on the part of national, state, and local legislation to ration electricity with the same zeal that this country has historically reserved for wartime.   

Rations but not population control

Rationing off of overblown production and consumption of fossil fuels will not be as difficult for some as for others. Eighty percent of the population, as Cox reminds us, does not fly. Yet for all of Cox’s attention to detail in how to redistribute equitable energy consumption, there is one part of his enthusiasm for rationing that might give us pause, however. At one point, Cox suggests that one possible rationing formula might be ‘equal numbers of credits per adult for each energy source, with an additional half-credit for up to two children per household’ (103). Readers who have been following eagerly along may experience some dismay here. Why only up to two children, why only a half-credit per child, and what about children with special needs, for example, who might require a certain amount of technology? At this point in the book, it would have been helpful for Cox to engage with critiques of Malthusian population control, which is a well-known slippery slope in seeing the violence of climate catastrophe—and even epidemics—as helping to lower carbon footprint by lowering population. Recent takes about the spread of COVID-19 being a kind of ‘vaccine’ for humanity, for example, operate in precisely this Malthusian vein. Such presumptions forget that it is the safest and wealthiest classes who are responsible for the most emissions and even the spread of global disease, and that those least responsible for ecological and epidemiological crises are most vulnerable in their lack of access to healthcare, fresh food, shelter, and a living wage. Cox cites Georgios Kallis and other degrowth scholars who explicitly critique the Malthusian position of overpopulation, but he does not bring up these critiques in his own account.

Despite the above sentence, which enters into Cox’s analysis at the end of a long discussion about solidarity rationing, Cox is committed to reminding readers that the GND aims to stop carbon emissions in ways that will fundamentally uplift the most vulnerable. To do this, he maintains, the GND must be willing to deliberately scale back the economy and completely phase out fossil fuels by 2030, curtail the production and consumption of cars, air travel, and other fossil-fuel related activities, degrow the military and militarized law enforcement, end mass incarceration, and stop giving subsidies to industries that overproduce of civilian and military products. As Cox writes, we need a lower-energy economy with fewer goods, shorter working hours, and a motto of ‘sufficiency for all.’ Standardization and simplification will help ensure equitable distribution of essential resources and cut out the most wasteful parts of the economy. 

The details of this kind of scaling back must be negotiated through local and participatory processes.

In thus countering the ‘eco-modernist’ approach of unhampered production in service of green luxury, Cox takes issue with those who do not see the need to deliberately scale back the economy. He argues instead that while many still believe that nuclear power or a battery-operated world will solve our problems, we must take a long, hard look at our ecological limits. If we are serious about meeting climate goals, for example, there can be no ‘high-speed rail’ as promised by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, because the concrete alone involved in such a project would contribute to an already-overshot cap of emissions. Rather, existing rail lines should be refurbished and extended in scaling back private transportation, while acknowledging that we need less—not more—energy use. The details of this kind of scaling back must be negotiated through local and participatory processes, but they would aim to include more public transportation, well-insulated and high-density housing, solar electric and water heating, and a new system of rationing not unlike that of the 1940s War Production Board. The good news is that the people responsible for the majority of emissions are in a relatively small class of consumers. The bad news is that we have to find a way to convince them to scale back the most.

In highlighting the above fact, Cox points out another common assumption: that simply taxing the 1% will be enough to stimulate the economy and re-build public infrastructure. Here the ambitious policies of both Sanders and Warren are called into question for not going far enough. Instead, Cox argues that the entire upper-middle class of the United States, which has a higher income than 96% of the world, will be adversely impacted by any ‘just transition’ that can equitably phase out fossil fuels. This is why Cox argues that a fair, effective climate policy will necessitate that ‘the 33% of American households with highest incomes will bear the greatest economic burden’ both in having to pay for economic restructuring, and in scaling back their own overblown consumption (109). The consumption of both its billionaire class and upper-middle class—the world’s 4%—must be heavily capped.

Restorative environmental justice

Instead of ‘leading the fight against climate change’ then, as the Green New Deal proposes, it would be more accurate to say that such legislation will begin to take some responsibility for centuries of uneven emissions, where the poorest parts of the world (who are responsible for only 15% of global emissions) feel the harshest and most brutal impacts of tropical storms, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and global migration. In fully recognizing the need for the U.S. to become accountable to these uneven causes and consequences, Cox acknowledges that there are many things which the Green New Deal gets right, or at least very close to right, in its vision of restorative environmental justice. Yet if the Green New Deal continues to rely upon the dream of a green energy economy to rival that of the fossil fuel industry, Cox warns, it will have to ignore this vision, as well as many of its own mandates to improve land use, preserve soil quality, and protect indigenous lands. Even if the U.S. refrains from further extractive practices on its own land, but continues mining precious metals across the world, it will still fail to enact this vision. Cox therefore suggests that the U.S. take part in a global fair-shares energy allocation that models the Green New Deal’s pro-worker and pro-poor economics, with the aim of globally ‘raising the floor and lowering the ceiling’ to put underdeveloped countries on par with developed ones.

Ultimately, Cox’s message is that, like the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which pushed the New Deal to ensure both workers’ rights and racial justice, the climate movement must stand in solidarity with indigenous climate struggles against market solutions, even and especially those alluded to in the Green New Deal. The good news is that those who are not already a part of the 33% of upper-class consumers will have less to sacrifice, and will likely benefit from the GND’s demands for worker’s rights, universal healthcare, housing, jobs, and universal access to clean air, water, and food. As Cox reminds us, the 40% at the bottom of the economic pyramid have a net worth of negative $22,000, which is why we must, as he says, raise the floor and lower the ceiling. Yet those who turn their noses up to a ‘sufficiency for all’ planned economy—which include, as Cox points out, the ‘fully automated luxury’ green modernists of the Left—must also be brought face-to-face with the reality that we are already approaching, at best, a future of more limited consumption.

In writing this book, Stan Cox could not have anticipated that the spread of COVID-19 may itself present an emergency situation requiring the restructuring and planning of the economy. The recently passed CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act in the U.S., which includes loan forgiveness and emergency funds for economic relief, has attempted to intervene in this emergency for the sake of stabilizing the economy. Cox would likely respond that such drastic intervention must become the new normal, but not for the sake of the market. Rather, he would argue that such an emergency should be an impetus for simplifying, standardizing, and restructuring production and consumption. Cox argues that this is not idealism, but necessity. By 2030 or 2040, if our aims and policies turn out to have been insufficient, as he points out, it will have been too late.

Natalie Suzelis is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. Her research analyzes the environmental and cultural history of capitalist development in early modern literature.

This pandemic IS ecological breakdown: different tempo, same song

“The coronavirus pandemic is like a chunk of ice falling off of a melting glacier. You can see the ice falling, but you can’t see the melting of the whole glacier.” Photo by Roland Seiffert

by Vijay Kolinjivadi

In late 2019, a novel coronavirus (SARS CoV-2) emerged from a wet market in Wuhan in the province of Hubei in China. At the time of writing, it has resulted in cases approaching 1 million and the deaths of over 42,000 people worldwide. Only a couple months ago, the world was taken aback by unprecedented bushfires in Australia, massive youth movements striking for stronger action to tackle climate change, and a groundswell of protests across the world demanding greater democracy, an end to state oppression, and against debilitating economic austerity in places ranging from Hong Kong, to India, to Chile, respectively.

In the midst of these events, COVID-19 felt like it came out of nowhere. The situation (and potentially the virus itself) is rapidly evolving, has taken world governments by surprise, and left the stock market reeling. Its emergence, however, makes self-evident the fault lines in global production systems and the ultra-connectivity of our globalized world. Like climate change, it affects everyone (ultimately), but unlike climate change, it occurs at a much faster rate and more severely impacts the most economically vulnerable, who cannot afford or have the possibility to engage in social distancing. Governments are walking on a tightrope, a balancing act between ensuring public safety and well-being and maintaining profit margins and growth targets. It’s the very same dilemma as climate change- just occurring at a faster rate, arising everywhere, and obliterating the possibility to ignore it and think about it later. In fact, one may argue that the pandemic is part of climate change and therefore, our response to it should not be limited to containing the spread of the virus. “Normal” was already a crisis and so returning to it cannot be an option. 

The coronavirus pandemic is like a chunk of ice falling off of a melting glacier. You can see the ice falling, but you can’t see the melting of the whole glacier. Similarly, climate change will keep dropping chunks of ice at humanity well after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. Unless we prioritize a diversity of alternatives that put well-being over growth forecasts and profit, ecological breakdown will forever remind us that societal death is just hanging over our shoulders, always ready to scale down the arrogance of human exceptionalism a peg or two…or ten. 

Different, but the same

The ease by which COVID-19 moves through human bodies, and the difficulty of containing it across any human-imposed border is a remarkable case of how humans are dependent on nature, and indeed are part of nature and cannot be separated from it. The study of world ecology for example sees the global and industrial production systems of capitalism as a very specific ecological relationship, without viewing humans as outside of nature. Industrial growth and production systems shape the ecological world and are in turn shaped by new and emerging ecological relations. Industrial production transforms relationships between people and their living and non-living world in ways that resemble a machine. The functioning of every machine requires resources (e.g. land, minerals, fossil fuels) and produces wastes (e.g. a car’s exhaust pipe, pollution, climate change). The consequences of these transformations result in all kinds of effects on life, mostly the loss of species, but also the emergence of new (unwanted) ones like viruses. COVID-19 emerged as a result of industrial production; the very same processes that global economic growth depends so crucially on. The massive-scale wildlife breeding of peacocks, pangolins, civet cats, wild geese, and boar among many others is a $74 billion-dollar industry and has been viewed as a get-rich quick scheme for China’s rural population. The emphasis here is not on the activity of wildlife trading itself (as distasteful as this may be). Rather, it is on capitalism’s relationship to life, which is to convert life into profit in the most efficient way possible, without thinking twice about the consequences, and irrespective of cultural and regional preferences. While out of immediate necessity, the public health focus is on managing the pandemic by flattening the curve of the virus’ propagation to save lives, it is ultimately necessary to understand how this happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. This latter question can be answered by seeing the coronavirus as a product of capitalism’s own making.

As socialist biologist Rob Wallace argues in his book Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science, increasing land-grabs by agribusiness from industrialized countries has pushed deforestation and land conversion into overdrive for faster and cheaper food production. The transformation of vast areas of land into rationalized production factories provides ideal conditions for well-adapted pathogens to thrive. Any argument that claims pathogens and plagues have always existed across history will neutralize the globalized nature of current land degradation and hyper-connectivity, allowing diseases to spread faster and further than ever before.

The transformation of vast areas of land into rationalized production factories provides ideal conditions for well-adapted pathogens to thrive.

The result of this process, combined with access roads and faster harvesting of non-timber forest products, unleashes once contained pathogens into immediate contact with livestock and human communities. The recent outbreaks of Ebola and other coronaviruses such as MERS for instance were triggered by a jump from virus to human communities in disturbed habitats amplified through animal-based food systems, such as primates in the case of Ebola, or camels in the case of MERS.

The economic pressure under capitalism coerces farmers in any country to cut corners, to rush, take risks, and exploit vulnerable people and decimate non-humans. Any safeguard is considered an obstacle to profit. Yet, somehow like magic, with the COVID-19 pandemic, safeguards in the way of protection for health care professionals, grocery store workers, personal protective equipment, and investment in health research that was non-lucrative just 3 months ago, is suddenly a societal priority. That is, for now; once the pandemic ends, rest assured capitalism has no intentions of keeping at bay. Indeed, it will come roaring back in the form of the most punitive structural adjustment the world may see since the 1980s. For example, The World Bank Group has recently stated that structural adjustment reforms will need to be implemented to recover from COVID-19, including requirements for loans being tied to doing away with “excessive regulations, subsidies, licensing regimes, trade protection…to foster markets, choice, and faster growth prospects.” Doubling down on neoliberal policies which encourage the unrestrained abuse of resources at a time of unprecedented inequality and ecological degradation would be a catastrophic prospect in a post-COVID world. In the discipline of our global economy, “time is money” and any divergence to this discipline means lost profits. The suspension of environmental laws and regulations in the USA is already a frightening sign of what returning to “normal” means for the establishment.

The unrelenting pursuits of economic development are also contributing to 2 degrees or more of global warming. This amount of warming is causing Arctic ice to melt at a breakneck pace, leading to the acidification of oceans, to massive die-off of insects, extreme storms, and rising sea levels. Just as economic growth requires resource inputs and generates wastes like greenhouse gas emissions that have unintended impacts to climate-regulating and other life-support systems, so to does industrial-scale wildlife harvesting generate the conditions for novel and virulent viruses to emerge.

Put differently,COVID-19 is both one and the same as any other ecological crisis (such as climate change) because its emergence is rooted in the same mode of production that has generated all other ecological crises and social inequalities of our times. Climate change plays itself out in different countries based on geographic and socio-economic factors. Similarly, COVID-19 will unfold in ways that reflect the age of populations, the capacity to inform people about and test for the virus, and to have invested sufficiently in health care and protective equipment before and during the pandemic. Finally, while climate change has disproportionate impacts on the economically vulnerable, on food providers (largely women), and on people of the global South, the response strategies to COVID-19 similarly weave through relations of class (e.g. those who are not afforded sick leave), gender (women thrust into roles as care-providers), and race (e.g. scapegoating people from China).

A temporal disconnect

So, if COVID-19 and climate change are one and the same, how are they different? A major distinction has to do with how we perceive time and the temporal effects of both.

A recent study raised an important concern of attempting to respond to climate change on a time scale that is convenient to society (e.g. clocks and calendars) but has absolutely no relation to the time scales of changes we are actually witnessing with climate change. The fact that whole ice sheets melting, 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and election years appear in unison as “daily news” stories illustrate the temporal disconnect with how society is responding to the changes occurring in our world. It is thoroughly arrogant to assume climate change, like COVID-19, is going to respond to our schedules.

The temporal disconnect of COVID-19 from society’s regularized temporal rhythms of work and leisure is becoming rapidly obvious, grinding the production of global society to a screeching halt within a matter of one week.

The fast progression and potential evolution of COVID-19 clearly defies all of society’s predictable and linear categories of time. Not only is the incubation period for infection hard to pin down, but so is the lag time between infection and when symptoms show up (if they do). Similarly, lockdowns will only manifest in reductions of cases weeks after they are implemented. This is because biological systems do not obey human-imposed rules. The temporal disconnect of COVID-19 from society’s regularized temporal rhythms of work and leisure is becoming rapidly obvious, grinding the production of global society to a screeching halt within a matter of one week. The same temporal disconnect of climate change impacts and its absolutely devastating consequences has not been similarly appreciated, and the consequences of failing to recognize just how fast impacts can take place is just beginning to be understood. For instance, ecologists have long claimed that ecological systems change in non-linear ways. There are thresholds of methane, insect loss, and permafrost melt that, once crossed, are irreversible.

Instead, society must reflect and react in time to the changes it is experiencing. To this extent, COVID-19 can serve as a lesson showing the interconnectedness of society’s impacts and actions on the planet and the immediacy of response required shift our relationships to the world. The lag time between when social distancing measures are put in place and impacts on the reduction of COVID-19 cases once again shows us that biological systems do not obey human-imposed rules. The rapid responses that some countries like South Korea have made to curb COVID-19 offer direction, but also others like Cuba that have developed an innovative biotech industry driven by public-demand rather than profit.  

In recent days, comparisons have been made between the number of deaths and suffering that climate change is causing in relation to the current suffering from the coronavirus, and that societal response to the virus has much swifter than that of climate change. Such comparisons are not helpful because they view climate change and COVID-19 as somehow juxtaposed to be two separate “things.” What if both are instead interpreted as by-products of industrial production systems, a tightly interconnected globalized world, and the struggle of modern society to effectively respond to crises it is actually living and experiencing? As Jon Schwarz writes here in reference to society’s stock market love affair: “Think about what we could have done to prepare for this moment, if we’d been less mesmerized by little numbers on screens and paid more attention to the reality in front of us.”

The orchestrated response to COVID-19 around the world illustrates the remarkable capacity of society to put the emergency break on “business-as-usual” simply by acting in the moment. Some argue that the fallout of grinding the system to a halt will have deleterious impacts to billions of livelihoods that we can scarcely comprehend at this stage. This is indeed true. But it is also only true if we go on presuming that the sanctity of squeezing profits out of every ounce of the earth and its people is a harmless process that naturally creates wealth for all. With ecological breakdown and social inequality reaching heaving proportions, society has truly arrived at a crossroads. Time and temporality take on a totally different meaning; there is no longer an attempt to make the world accommodate our needs and wants, but we must immediately accommodate to the world. In contrast, achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, carbon offsetting schemes, incremental eco-efficiencies, vegan diets for the wealthy and similar tactics operate by integrating the “irrationalities” of the world into “business-as-usual.” This will never work. The rapid halt of flights around the world might reduce greenhouse gas emission reductions more than the Paris Agreement or any round of climate negotiations ever could! The fact that CO2 emissions have declined so drastically in concert with the reduced flight demand and manufacturing activity in China provides striking evidence of how economic growth is directly responsible for the existential impacts that 2 and 3 degrees of warming would cause to society. 

Yet, despite this clear contradiction, powerful and irresponsible actors are still normalizing COVID-19 through a “keep calm, wash your hands, and get back to work” rhetoric. Indeed, as one market pundit claimed, the loss of stock values is more terrifying than millions of deaths and that maybe “we” would be better off just giving the virus to everybody. It is also important to note that self-isolation and “working from home” are recommended for some, while for billions of workers around the world, simply stocking-up and self-isolating are not options. Millions of migrant workers in India are at risk of starvation due to a 21-day lockdown that has provided no groundwork to account for the precarity of the country’s population.

A window of opportunity for a different kind of world?

Could response strategies to suppress COVID-19 be the impetus to actually respond to climate change, rather than as stop-gap measures to get back to “business-as-usual” as quickly as possible? The answer remains to be seen, but some measures have already been proposed that have been otherwise considered at worst anathema to capitalism, including the nationalization of private enterprise in France and a universal monthly income in the US. As some have argued, COVID-19 presents society with an opportunity to actually respond to climate change through “planned degrowth” that prioritizes the well-being of people over profit margins. This might occur by getting accustomed to lifestyles and work patterns that prioritize slowing down, commuting less, shorter work weeks, abolishing rents, income redistribution from the richest to the poorest, prioritizing workers health (especially for low-wage migrant workers who are substantially more vulnerable in the face of an economic downturn), and relying on more localized supply chains. Yet, the global slowdown caused by COVID-19 is not degrowth; it does not reflect the ethical and political commitment to development predicated on prioritizing well-being over profit. We need a just climate transition that ensures the protection of the poor and most vulnerable and which is integrated into our pandemic response. As warming temperatures continue to melt permafrost at alarming rates, the possibility for even more severe pandemics emerging from the melting ice is a very real risk. Acting on climate change is therefore itself a vital pandemic response.

It can also be facilitated by solidarity networks to support (especially elderly) neighbours in meeting their needs; a genuine “Love in the Time of Coronavirus” moment so to speak. Such groups have already spontaneously emerged in cities around the world, from Seattle, to Montreal, from Wuhan, to Gothenburg and London. In addition to this groundswell of support, now is the time to be bold and demand that our governments serve the interests of people and planetary survival. In our current capitalism-induced ecological and public health crises, this means freezing debt payments to the poorest and ensuring accessible and affordable health care for starters and not letting our governments bail out corporations , while letting everyone else fend for themselves. We’ve heard of “crony capitalism,” well now “corona capitalism” has become a thing. Obviously, the conditions surrounding COVID-19 are not ideal for the just climate transition that is so badly needed, but the rapid and urgent actions in response to the virus and the inspiring examples of mutual aid also illustrate that society is more than capable of acting collectively in time to what it is experiencing.

This piece is a long-form version of a piece that originally appeared in Al Jazeera.
Vijay Kolinjivadi is a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp and a contributing editor of Uneven Earth.

Exploring transformative change on the brink

Image by Stefan Christoff

by Stefan Christoff

Exploring ways for activists to engage on the ground during a global pandemic is extremely challenging.

Clearly there isn’t a quick and fast outline of how activists must respond to this unprecedented situation of social and economic upheaval caused by the most significant global pandemic since the 1918 Spanish influenza.

Ameal Peña, considered to the the last living Spanish survivor of the Spanish flu of 1918, recently was interviewed in El Mundo, saying, “be careful (…) I don’t want to see the same thing repeated. It claimed so many lives.”

Highlighting the term careful is important here: we can view the response of the state to this pandemic with care, we can be careful to see the gaps and address the ways that the state response is lacking. Careful in this context also means taking care and directly engaging with the crisis on a community based level in a safe way.

In Montreal, there have been a series of efforts to coordinate mutual aid networks around the city—organizing that has largely happened neighbourhood by neighbourhood, but also with coordination across the city landscape.

One focus has been building support for a #RentStrike on April 1st, coming up in just a couple days. As wallets are hit by the virus and related shut downs, an essential and direct action response is clearly mass collective action to refuse paying rent this upcoming month, allowing those resources to instead support survival and necessities. cancelrent.ca has been set up to build momentum and coordinate this.

Online, people have come together to address many urgent needs, including coordinating safe grocery deliveries for vulnerable populations in isolation, childcare offers, the general sharing of resources—all moves to explore ways to build solidarity within the context of incomes burnt by the pandemic.

Often, in a crisis, major media narratives are quick to switch to dominant social discourse in many areas, prioritizing the role and centrality of the state response. Clearly, without question, the state response is critical at this time, particularly the role of public institutions, including transit, but also clearly the public health care system is central.

In this moment, I feel it is important to support and celebrate public institutions, first for the brave public sector workers, doctors, nurses, cleaners, cooks and administrators that keep the hospitals going, but also to remember clearly that the public healthcare system emerged from social movement struggle.

Public healthcare in Canada didn’t miraculously occur due to a series of good will gestures by the Canadian government, it was born out of decades of largely working class struggle, including mass protests, first launched in Saskatchewan and then implemented nationally after a sustained social movement for a system of socialized medicine.

This example outlines exactly why critiques of state policy and also independent community organizing responses to a crisis are key. Firstly, due to the fact that the state simply doesn’t have the full capacity to address the extent of the pandemic in my city, Montreal, or others right now, which is why mutual aid networks are coming together in response to the situation. Secondly, because the landscape of possibility shifts in such moments, this is not a cynical argument for exploiting a crisis to push radical ideas, as we see in the framework of disaster capitalism, this point is simply to recognize that a moment like this underscores the deep failures of the contemporary global colonial capitalist model that has played an central role to get us to this point of under-prepared disaster.

Key to this model is, simply put, an economic vision that views the planet as a body for exploitation and the natural world as simply a system that needs to be compartmentalized and defined within free market terms that seek to place economic value on the Earth.

In this ideological framework, propelled by the Wall Street stock market vision, the earth isn’t a living being to be respected, but a fantasy land to be exploited for profit. The health of the earth, ecosystems and by extension human beings can’t fit into this vision.

The logic of the market is in a clash with the framework of science, which today tells us in stark scientific facts two critical things, first that climate change is real and that a significant change to our systems of energy use and economic is urgent and necessary, but second that the response to this pandemic needs time and that a true recovery can only happen when the work of true social distancing has happened, which in turn equals basically shutting down the global hyper speed economy.

In regards to science and listening to science, I share the words of astrophysicist Carlo Rovelli, who wrote in the concluding chapter of Reality Is Not What It Seems, “science is born from this act of humility: not trusting blindly in our past knowledge and our intuition. Not believing in what everyone says. Not having absolute faith in the accumulated knowledge of our fathers and grandfathers.”

Part of embracing this ever important role of autonomy and thinking critically about the institutional discourses of power, is embodied right now in the work of social movement activists, struggling to address direct needs, but also to point out the ways that neighbourhood organizing in this pandemic speaks to larger social movement critiques on the colonial economic system that have brought us to the brink.

Stefan Christoff is a musician, community activist and media maker living in Montreal, you can find Stefan @spirodon

Pandemic strike

It’s been two weeks since Rob Wallace conducted an interview on the underlying causes of the coronavirus that has since been read hundreds of thousands of times. Since then, also, the world has changed. As Wallace puts it, “What I noticed only after hitting the send button is that two weeks after the original interview, my answers here are taking a sharper tone. While before I addressed the outbreak with appropriately radical structural analysis, now, as the pandemic approaches, I’m beginning to feel the pinch of a gap in radical tactics.”

When translating his piece for Italian audiences, Luca de Crescenzo asked Wallace two more questions to account for the gap in time since the interview was first conducted. Here is their exchange, posted with permission.

I would like you to add a comment about the recent proposal of the UK authorities not to take drastic measures to contain the virus and to bet on the development of the herd immunity instead. You wrote: “this is a failure that pretends to be a solution.” Can you explain that?

The Tories are asserting joining the U.S. in effectively denying health care is the best active cure. The government is looking at parlaying its late response into letting Covid-19 work through the population to produce the herd immunity it says will protect the most vulnerable.

This is the utter opposite of “do no harm”, as the doctor’s oath goes. This is let’s do maximum damage.

This is the utter opposite of “do no harm”, as the doctor’s oath goes. This is let’s do maximum damage.

Herd immunity is treated in epidemiological circles as at best a dirty collateral benefit of an outbreak. Enough people carry antibodies from the last outbreak to keep the susceptible population low enough that no new infection could support itself, protecting even those who haven’t been previously exposed. It’s often no more than a passing effect, however, if the pathogen in question evolves out from underneath the population blanket.

We do better in inducing such immunity by campaigns in vaccination. Typically such an effect requires a wide majority of people vaccinated to work. Which, outside market failures in producing vaccines, is routinely no problem as nearly no one dies from them.

Given the trail of dead of a deadly pandemic, no public health system would actively seek out such a post-hoc epiphenomenon as an instrumental objective. No government charged with protecting a population’s very lives would allow such a pathogen to run unimpeded–whatever handwaving is made about “delaying” spread as if a government already a step behind in responding can exercise such magical control. A campaign of active neglect would kill hundreds of thousands of the very vulnerable the Tories claim they wish to protect.

Destroying the village to save it is the core premise of a State of the most virulent class character. It’s the sign of an exhausted empire.

But destroying the village to save it is the core premise of a State of the most virulent class character. It’s the sign of an exhausted empire that, unable to follow China and other countries in putting up a fight, pretends, as I wrote, that its failures are exactly the solution.

In Italy despite the quarantine and apart from the few who are working from home, a lot of workers still go to work everyday. Many shops are closed but most of the factories are open, even those which don’t produce necessary goods. Recently, the trade unions and the federation of the Italian employers have reached an agreement about safe and security measures at the workplace, which gives to the companies only “recommendations” about distance, cleanness, use of masks, without much specification. There are strong reasons to believe they will not be respected. What’s your take on that? Is workers’ strength an epidemiological variable?

Working people are treated as cannon fodder. Not only on the battlefield, but back home. Here you have a virus ripping through the Italian population at a rate that exceeds that of the pace it went through China, and capital is pretending it is business–their business–as usual. Negotiating a detente that permits this work to continue without biolab-level precautions is destructive to both workers’ standing–you’re signaling you’ll eat any bowl of shit they serve up–and to the very health of the nation.

If not for your unions’ very legitimacy, then for your very lives, and those of your most vulnerable co-workers and community members–shut those factories down! Italy’s spike in cases is so dizzying that self-quarantine and negotiated working conditions won’t be enough to quash the outbreak. Covid-19 is too infectious and under a medical gridlock too deadly for half-measures. Italy is being invaded by a virus that is kicking the country’s ass, with street fighting door-to-door and home-to-home.

What I’m getting at is that Italy needs to snap the fuck out of it already!

Yes, workers routinely hold up the sky during dark and dangerous days, including during a deadly outbreak. But if the work isn’t a matter of the day-to-day operations required during communal quarantine, shut it down. As in countries around the world, the government must then be held responsible for covering the salaries of the workers who have walked off the job in service of the nation’s public health.

If the work isn’t a matter of the day-to-day operations required during communal quarantine, shut it down.

It’s not my call, and my own country is totally botching its response to the pandemic, but should capital resist such efforts to protect the lives of millions, then working Italians, as working people elsewhere, should consider tapping into their proud history of labor militancy and find a means by which to wrestle operative command from the greedy and incompetent. If factories producing non-essential goods are still running, that means management and the moneybags behind them don’t give a fuck about you. Even now the chief financial officer upstairs is proving himself more than happy to fold in dead workers into the costs of production if he can get away with it.

It wouldn’t be the first time the people of the region pushed back during an outbreak. Historian Sheldon Watts noted one unexpected reversal in early disaster capitalism:

“In their rush to save themselves [from plague] by flight, Florentine magistrates worried that the common people left behind would seize control of the city; the fear was perhaps justified. In the summer of 1378 when factional disputes temporarily immobilized the Florentine elite, rebellious woolworkers won control of the government and remained in power for several months.”

Several months today might save many thousands of lives. With many countries ten days out from finding themselves in Italy’s predicament, working Italians can offer an example for the rest of the world that everyday people’s lives matter more than somebody else’s profit.

Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer. He is author of Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science and, most recently, co-author of Clear-Cutting Disease Control: Capital-Led Deforestation, Public Health Austerity, and Vector-Borne Infection

Where did coronavirus come from, and where will it take us?

Source: John Hopkins

In 2013, Rob Wallace, a professional epidemiologist and expert on big agriculture wrote, with some defeatism, “I expect it will be a long time before I address an outbreak of human influenza again other than in passing.” It wasn’t that he didn’t think it was serious, or that he thought nothing bad would happen soon. On the contrary, he was just exhausted by the certainty that something obviously would happen. He continued, “While an understandable visceral reaction, getting worried at this point in the process is a bit ass-backwards. The bug, whatever its point of origin, has long left the barn, quite literally.”

Those studying infectious disease have long said that it’s not a matter of if, but when will a big virus hit us. From swine flu to SARS, every five years or so we’re sitting on the edge of our seats, wondering: is this the big one?

By all measures, Covid-19 is already a big one. Upgraded to pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, it has infected at least 127,000 people (but likely many, many more), killed almost 5,000, and is present on all continents but Antarctica. The bug seems to have left the barn.

Beginning 2020, when reports of a new virus were emerging from Wuhan, China, Rob Wallace has been in overdrive. His prediction that it will be a long time before he gets embroiled in the debate again obviously didn’t hold up. Since then, friends and acquaintances have been coming to him for advice, proposals, reflections, and interviews. His posts on the subject have been shared widely. At this point, who else should we listen to but a progressive, activist scholar, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu (Monthly Review Press, 2016) who has been studying this issue closely for decades?

Accordingly, we are here republishing a crucial interview with Rob Wallace by Yaak Pabst for the German socialist magazine marx21, with permission from the magazine.

In the interview, Wallace, with his usual incisiveness and expansive knowledge, talks about the dangers of Covid-19, the role of agribusiness in the crisis, the importance of mending humanity’s broken relationship to ecosystems in order to get to the roots of the crisis, and what kind of demands people can, and should, make of their governments. Read a follow-up to this interview here.

How dangerous is the new coronavirus?

It depends on where you are in the timing of your local outbreak of Covid-19: early, peak level, late? How good is your region’s public health response? What are your demographics? How old are you? Are you immunologically compromised? What is your underlying health? To ask an undiagnosable possibility: do your immuogenetics, the genetics underlying your immune response, line up with the virus or not?

So all this fuss about the virus is just scare tactics?

No, certainly not. At the population level, Covid-19 was clocking in at between 2 and 4% case fatality ratio or CFR at the start of the outbreak in Wuhan. Outside Wuhan, the CFR appears to drop off to more like 1% and even less, but also appears to spike in spots here and there, including in places in Italy and the United States.. Its range doesn’t seem much in comparison to, say, SARS at 10%, the influenza of 1918 5-20%, avian influenza H5N1 60%, or at some points Ebola 90%. But it certainly exceeds seasonal influenza’s 0.1% CFR. The danger isn’t just a matter of the death rate, however. We have to grapple with what’s called penetrance or community attack rate: how much of the global population is penetrated by the outbreak.

Can you be more specific?

The global travel network is at record connectivity. With no vaccines or specific antivirals for coronaviruses, nor at this point any herd immunity to the virus, even a strain at only 1% mortality can present a considerable danger. With an incubation period of up to two weeks and increasing evidence of some transmission before sickness–before we know people are infected–few places would likely be free of infection. If, say, Covid-19 registers 1% fatality in the course of infecting 4 billion people, that’s 40 million dead. A small proportion of a large number can still be a large number.

These are frightening numbers for an ostensibly less than virulent pathogen…

Definitely. And we are only at the beginning of the outbreak. It’s important to understand that many new infections change over the course of epidemics. Infectivity, virulence, or both may attenuate. On the other hand, other outbreaks ramp up in virulence. The first wave of the influenza pandemic in the spring of 1918 was a relatively mild infection. It was the second and third waves that winter and into 1919 that killed millions.

But pandemic skeptics argue that far fewer patients have been infected and killed by the coronavirus than by the typical seasonal flu. What do you think about that?

I would be the first to celebrate if this outbreak proves a dud. But these efforts to dismiss Covid-19 as a possible danger by citing other deadly diseases, especially influenza, is a rhetorical device to spin concern about the coronavirus as badly placed.

So the comparison with seasonal flu is misplaced?

It makes little sense to compare two pathogens on different parts of their epicurves. Yes, seasonal influenza infects many millions worldwide each other, killing, by WHO estimates, up to 650,000 people a year. Covid-19, however, is only starting its epidemiological journey. And unlike influenza, we have neither vaccine, nor herd immunity to slow infection and protect the most vulnerable populations.

Even if the comparison is misleading, both diseases belong to viruses, even to a specific group, the RNA viruses. Both can cause disease. Both affect the mouth and throat area and sometimes also the lungs. Both are quite contagious.

Those are superficial similarities that miss a critical part in comparing two pathogens. We know a lot about influenza’s dynamics. We know very little about Covid-19’s. They’re steeped in unknowns. Indeed, there is much about Covid-19 that is even unknowable until the outbreak plays out fully. At the same time, it is important to understand that it isn’t a matter of Covid-19 versus influenza. It’s Covid-19 and influenza. The emergence of multiple infections capable of going pandemic, attacking populations in combos, should be the front and center worry.

You have been researching epidemics and their causes for several years. In your book Big Farms Make Big Flu you attempt to draw these connections between industrial farming practices, organic farming and viral epidemiology. What are your insights?

The real danger of each new outbreak is the failure or—better put—the expedient refusal to grasp that each new Covid-19 is no isolated incident. The increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations. Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. At present, few governments, and few scientists, are prepared to do so. Quite the contrary.

Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. At present, few governments, and few scientists, are prepared to do so.

When the new outbreaks spring up, governments, the media, and even most of the medical establishment are so focused on each separate emergency that they dismiss the structural causes that are driving multiple marginalized pathogens into sudden global celebrity, one after the other.

Who is to blame?

I said industrial agriculture, but there’s a larger scope to it. Capital is spearheading land grabs into the last of primary forest and smallholder-held farmland worldwide. These investments drive the deforestation and development leading to disease emergence. The functional diversity and complexity these huge tracts of land represent are being streamlined in such a way that previously boxed-in pathogens are spilling over into local livestock and human communities. In short, capital centers, places such as London, New York, and Hong Kong, should be considered our primary disease hotspots.

For which diseases is this the case?

There are no capital-free pathogens at this point. Even the most remote are affected, if distally. Ebola, Zika, the coronaviruses, yellow fever again, a variety of avian influenzas, and African swine fever in hog are among the many pathogens making their way out of the most remote hinterlands into peri-urban loops, regional capitals, and ultimately onto the global travel network. From fruit bats in the Congo to killing Miami sunbathers in a few weeks‘ time.

What is the role of multinational companies in this process?

Planet Earth is largely Planet Farm at this point, in both biomass and land used. Agribusiness is aiming to corner the food market. The near-entirety of the neoliberal project is organized around supporting efforts by companies based in the more advanced industrialised countries to steal the land and resources of weaker countries. As a result, many of those new pathogens previously held in check by long-evolved forest ecologies are being sprung free, threatening the whole world.

What effects do the production methods of agribusinesses have on this?

The capital-led agriculture that replaces more natural ecologies offers the exact means by which pathogens can evolve the most virulent and infectious phenotypes. You couldn’t design a better system to breed deadly diseases.

Agribusiness is so focused on profits that selecting for a virus that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk.

How so?

Growing genetic monocultures of domestic animals removes whatever immune firebreaks may be available to slow down transmission. Larger population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission. Such crowded conditions depress immune response. High throughput, a part of any industrial production, provides a continually renewed supply of susceptibles, the fuel for the evolution of virulence. In other words, agribusiness is so focused on profits that selecting for a virus that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk.

What!?

These companies can just externalize the costs of their epidemiologically dangerous operations on everyone else. From the animals themselves to consumers, farmworkers, local environments, and governments across jurisdictions. The damages are so extensive that if we were to return those costs onto company balance sheets, agribusiness as we know it would be ended forever. No company could support the costs of the damage it imposes.

In many media it is claimed that the starting point of the coronavirus was an “exotic food market”« in Wuhan. Is this description true?

Yes and no. There are spatial clues in favor of the notion. Contact tracing linked infections back to the Hunan Wholesale Sea Food Market in Wuhan, where wild animals were sold. Environmental sampling does appear to pinpoint the west end of the market where wild animals were held.

The focus on the wild food market misses the origins of wild agriculture out in the hinterlands and its increasing capitalization.

But how far back and how widely should we investigate? When exactly did the emergency really begin? The focus on the market misses the origins of wild agriculture out in the hinterlands and its increasing capitalization. Globally, and in China, wild food is becoming more formalized as an economic sector. But its relationship with industrial agriculture extends beyond merely sharing the same moneybags. As industrial production–hog, poultry, and the like–expand into primary forest, it places pressure on wild food operators to dredge further into the forest for source populations, increasing the interface with, and spillover of, new pathogens, including Covid-19.

Covid-19 is not the first virus to develop in China that the government tried to cover it up.

Yes, but this is no Chinese exceptionalism, however. The U.S. and Europe have served as ground zeros for new influenzas as well, recently H5N2 and H5Nx, and their multinationals and neocolonial proxies drove the emergence of Ebola in West Africa and Zika in Brazil. U.S. public health officials covered for agribusiness during the H1N1 (2009) and H5N2 outbreaks.

This is no Chinese exceptionalism. The U.S. and Europe have served as ground zeros for new influenzas as well, recently H5N2 and H5Nx, and their multinationals and neocolonial proxies drove the emergence of Ebola in West Africa and Zika in Brazil.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has now declared a pandemic. Is this step correct?

Yes. The danger of such a pathogen is that health authorities do not have a handle on the statistical risk distribution. We have no idea how the pathogen may respond. We went from an outbreak in a market to infections splattered across the world in a matter of weeks. The pathogen could just burn out. That would be great. But we don’t know. Better preparation would better the odds of undercutting the pathogen’s escape velocity.

The WHO’s declaration is also part of what I call pandemic theater. International organizations have died in the face of inaction. The League of Nations comes to mind. The UN group of organizations is always worried about its relevance, power, and funding. But such actionism can also converge on the actual preparation and prevention the world needs to disrupt Covid-19’s chains of transmission.

The neoliberal restructuring of the health care system has worsened both the research and the general care of patients, for example in hospitals. What difference could a better funded healthcare system make to fight the virus?

There’s the terrible but telling story of the Miami medical device company employee who upon returning from China with flu-like symptoms did the righteous thing by his family and community and demanded a local hospital test him for Covid-19. He worried that his minimal Obamacare option wouldn’t cover the tests. He was right. He was suddenly on the hook for US$3270.

An American demand might be an emergency order be passed that stipulates that during a pandemic outbreak, all outstanding medical bills related to testing for infection and for treatment following a positive test would be paid for by the federal government. We want to encourage people to seek help, after all, rather than hide away—and infect others—because they can’t afford treatment. The obvious solution is a national health service—fully staffed and equipped to handle such community-wide emergencies—so that such a ridiculous problem as discouraging community cooperation would never arise.

As soon as the virus is discovered in one country, governments everywhere react with authoritarian and punitive measures, such as a compulsory quarantine of entire areas of land and cities. Are such drastic measures justified?

Using an outbreak to beta-test the latest in autocratic control post-outbreak is disaster capitalism gone off the rails. In terms of public health, I would err on the side of trust and compassion, which are important epidemiological variables. Without either, jurisdictions lose their populations‘ support.

A sense of solidarity and common respect is a critical part of eliciting the cooperation we need to survive such threats together. Self-quarantines with the proper support–check-ins by trained neighborhood brigades, food supply trucks going door-to-door, work release and unemployment insurance–can elicit that kind of cooperation, that we are all in this together.

Conservatives and neo-Nazis like the AfD in Germany have been spreading (false) reports about the virus and demand more authoritarian measures from the government: Restrict flights and entry stops for migrants, border closures and forced quarantine…

Travel bans and border closures are demands with which the radical right wants to racialize what are now global diseases. This is, of course, nonsense. At this point, given the virus is already on its way to spreading everywhere, the sensible thing to do is to work on developing the kind of public health resilience in which it doesn’t matter who shows up with an infection, we have the means to treat and cure them. Of course, stop stealing people’s land abroad and driving the exoduses in the first place, and we can keep the pathogens from emerging in the first place.

Travel bans and border closures are demands with which the radical right wants to racialize what are now global diseases. This is, of course, nonsense.

What would be sustainable changes?

In order to reduce the emergence of new virus outbreaks, food production has to change radically. Farmer autonomy and a strong public sector can curb environmental ratchets and runaway infections. Introduce varieties of stock and crops—and strategic rewilding—at both the farm and regional levels. Permit food animals to reproduce on-site to pass on tested immunities. Connect just production with just circulation. Subsidize price supports and consumer purchasing programs supporting agroecological production. Defend these experiments from both the compulsions that neoliberal economics impose upon individuals and communities alike and the threat of capital-led State repression.

What should socialists call for in the face of the increasing dynamics of disease outbreaks?

Agribusiness as a mode of social reproduction must be ended for good if only as a matter of public health. Highly capitalized production of food depends on practices that endanger the entirety of humanity, in this case helping unleash a new deadly pandemic.

Agribusiness as a mode of social reproduction must be ended for good if only as a matter of public health. We must heal the metabolic rifts separating our ecologies from our economies. In short, we have a planet to win.

We should demand food systems be socialized in such a way that pathogens this dangerous are kept from emerging in the first place. That will require reintegrating food production into the needs of rural communities first. That will require agroecological practices that protect the environment and farmers as they grow our food. Big picture, we must heal the metabolic rifts separating our ecologies from our economies. In short, we have a planet to win.

See a follow-up to this interview here

A version of this interview originally appeared on marx21. Permission to republish granted by the author.

Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer. He is author of Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science and, most recently, co-author of Clear-Cutting Disease Control: Capital-Led Deforestation, Public Health Austerity, and Vector-Borne Infection

The only thing to last forever

Art by Sam Lubicz for Uneven Earth

by Joël Foramitti

The world had stopped changing, and yet it continued to move. It kept floating and spinning, circling the sun, cooling and heating as seasons passed by. Life flourished upon it, and people did, too. They created, destroyed, loved, and forgot — caught up in desire and lost in their fears. Though an endless repetition had taken hold of this world. There was, in a sense, no uncertainty left, nothing to dance with beneath the long rain. Except in the minds of those truly alive.

Amid the far-reaching fields and their colorful plants, there was a mighty machine. From its back hung a plough, heavy and wide, digging through the soil without hurry. Inside it, comfortably seated, there was an old farmer, dressed in long sheets of linen, and lost in her thoughts. As they were running along, the tractor added a quiet hum into the evening’s soft noises and filled its surroundings with an ambient light.

The farmer’s name was Nara. She had always been the one to take care of these fields. Her friends had fled from the droughts, her family had died from the rains, and her thoughts had dulled from the silence of their absence. But her work had remained. The fields were all that was left, and her life was tied to them like a tree to the ground. And over the decades, again and again, life had flourished through her hands in new colors and forms.

Nara was about to turn in for the day. She had ploughed the whole sector, which was now standing out like a brown patch on a colorful tapestry. Slowly, the tractor came to a stop. She got off and stroked its blue hull, praising it for being such a sturdy companion. Tomorrow she’d sow. A joyful pride filled her body when she looked over the fields, and so she kneeled down and touched the soil with her cheeks to thank it.

The farmer then left her machine and started to roam through the fields without aim. It was a beautiful night. The sky was painted in heavy strokes of ruby and blue with a few thin white lines stretched across the horizon. A slight breeze was blowing through Nara’s hair and the plants bent back and forth in a gentle rhythm. After some time, her thoughts started to fade into a comfortable trance until she was just listening to the sound of her feet.

Beyond the fields, one could see the distant towers glimmering in the falling darkness. To Nara, they were a reminder that the world was finally in good hands. She appreciated that such matters were far away and out of her reach. But when she was walking through the fields on that night, she made out something unusual that woke an old rusty feeling of excitement from deep within her heart. There was a person in the fields, first barely visible from afar, then increasingly clearer, running towards her and waving their hands.

It took a few minutes until the stranger came into Nara’s reach. It was a woman, dressed in a long cyan dress with two sturdy boots sticking out beneath. Much smaller than the old farmer, with a fair and spotless face and hair so short that it was barely visible. For a second, the woman looked at Nara with curious eyes before she dropped to the ground in exhaustion. Her body rose and fell with heavy breaths and it took a few minutes for her to come back to her feet. Then, in a tone that was careful but clearly excited, she started to speak:

“Are you from around here?”

Nara nodded slowly and muttered her name. She had not talked to anyone in a very long time, so her voice was brittle and rough.

“I take care of these fields.”

The strange woman looked around and praised the farmer on the beauty of her garden.

“My name is Yhi”, she added after a few seconds, “and I take care of people.”

This created some immediate sympathy in Nara, and they shook hands. After that, she asked the strange woman what had brought her all the way to her fields.

“I am searching for something”, she explained, “Something that is both old and new, that never breaks. Something always remains. Do you know what I mean?”

Instinctively, Nara looked back to her tractor, still visible as a slight blue glimmer on the horizon behind them. Following the farmers gaze, Yhi expressed in excitement:

“Of course! And you never had any trouble with it?”

“Not really, it’s been serving me well.”

The mysterious woman asked if she could see it up close. As there was no objection, they began to walk back to the plough. On the way, she started to ask about the old farmer’s life. About her town, her family, her past, her dreams, and so on. But Nara had little to say. So the stranger surrendered at some point and started to talk about herself instead. Nara learned that she was an artist. When she asked her how that takes care of people, Yhi started to laugh.

“Maybe it is more about taking care of myself. And what I want is just for others to discover the same. Think about it, when was the last time you saw someone dancing?”

Nara shook her head, and the woman explained to her that there were many such things that people had forgotten. But there were exceptions to every rule. And she would find it and spread it like a disease in order to return some uncertainty to the world. Nara stopped for a second at this remark, wondering what that woman had in plan for her tractor. But before she could say anything, Yhi had already figured out what was on her mind.

“Bah, this could be the most interesting thing to ever happen to you! Think about it!”

Her voice was raised, and Nara got the feeling that she was rather talking about her own life. After that, they continued to walk in silence for the rest of the way until they finally arrived at the freshly ploughed field, softly illuminated by the ambient light of the tractor. With Nara’s skeptical look fixed upon her, Yhi started to walk around the machine in amazement. How curious it was for the farmer not to know what would happen next. And how anxious it made her at the same time. It reminded her of the past.

Somewhere at the front of the machine, Yhi stopped her inspection and lifted a hood. Nara came closer and saw hundreds of pipes that went around and connected to each other without any clear system behind it. In the middle sat a white little box, as big as a fist, so seamless and perfectly formed that the old farmer was not sure whether she was seeing an actual object. There was an obvious connection between that box and the mysterious woman. They were like two pieces of a different world, lost out here in the wilderness.

After some careful investigation, Yhi removed the box from its slot and the humming noise of the tractor died down. They then sat down and opened the box. Nara held her breath and could hear the air fill the empty space within the object. There was nothing inside it, it was as empty as something can be. Just as seamless and perfect on the inside as it was on the outside.

Yhi looked devastated. All the strength and fire inside her had suddenly disappeared.

“I thought there would be something”, she muttered with tears in her eyes.

The old farmer wanted to console her new friend but still had little to say. So she offered her a hand. Yhi got up to her feet and they looked at each other for a while. Then, slowly, they started to turn in circles. Step by Step. One breath at a time. They continued for a long time, never going faster or slower, drawing circles into the freshly ploughed soil as the ambient light of the tractor slowly faded away and left them alone in the void of darkness.

When they came to a stop, Nara realized that the faraway towers, as well, had lost their light. Everything had become dark and silent. But something unavoidable was on its way. At first it was only a soft noise in the distance. As time passed, it became louder and uncomfortable. And then, suddenly, a glaring light was aimed on them from the sky.

Yhi began to tremble.

“We have to put it back”, she said faintly with almost no air in her voice.

The box was where they had left it on the ground, reflecting the light like a diamond. In rapid movements, Yhi jumped towards it, closed it again, and put it back into the tractor. Then she started to run. Her cyan clothes fluttered wildly, and the dirt started to swirl up from the ground as the helicopter started to follow behind her.

Nara, in the meantime, was completely paralyzed. She had grown too old for this and didn’t know what to do or how to react. Suddenly, a loud noise ripped through the air and she saw her new friend stumble and fall to the ground. But Yhi raised her body again and slowly turned towards Nara with a bitter smile on her face. Looking genuinely relieved but also clearly in pain, she shouted towards the farmer:

“Wasn’t that quite an irregular day?”

The old farmer stood there and looked as Yhi dropped back to the ground. And then, just as fast as the trouble had come, it went away again. The helicopter landed right next to Yhi’s body and a group of tall men appeared. They moved the body inside and, without sparing a second, the helicopter rose up again and disappeared into the darkness.

After a long time, the ambient lights and familiar humming of the tractor returned and reminded Nara of the present. When she started to move again, there were little feelings left in her heart, and no trace to remind her of what had happened. She told herself that the story would have ended this way with or without her. That this stranger had died because that was what she had set out to do in the first place. That death had been the only real change this person had possessed the freedom to bring about.

And so, there was nothing left to do for the old farmer but to keep doing her work as she had always done. In the days to follow, she started to plant new seeds on the field. And over time, the usual serenity slowly returned to her old mind. Only every once in a while, when the gleaming towers in the distance caught her eyes, she thought that she saw a shadow moving through the fields. But it would fade away every time, never to reach her again.

Thank you to Marlene Wagner and Aaron Vansintjan for helping out with this story.

Joël Foramitti is a researcher and activist from Barcelona and Vienna.

February readings

Left to right: Dinï ze’ Knedebeas, Warner William, Dinï ze’ Hagwilnegh, Ron Mitchell, Dinï ze’ Woos, Frank Alec, Dinï ze’ Madeek, Jeff Brown, Dinï ze’ Gisday’wa, Fred Tom. In back is Dinï ze’ Ste ohn tsiy, Rob Alfred. Wet’suwet’en territory near Houston, B.C. on Saturday, January 4, 2020. Amber Bracken (Source: macleans.ca)


Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

This February, we’ve collected–once again–articles that go beyond the front-page analysis of Covid-19, otherwise known as the ‘coronavirus’. Some excellent and useful pieces in there, including an intervention by Chuang, a radical Chinese journal. You might have also seen that Indigenous warriors in Wet’suwet’en were being forcibly removed from their land by Canadian armed forces–leading to blockades of key infrastructure by other Indigenous nations in solidarity with them. We’ve collected all kinds of pieces on the issue, including basic explainers, maps, background about Indigenous struggles in Canada, and deeper dives. We’re also featuring pieces on transportation and mobility, underlined by the growing call for free public transit around the world. Finally, this month, we’re highlighting rural struggles and politics



Uneven Earth updates

Remembering | Link | “I remember rent being low. But water was expensive. A lot of electricity went into the desalination plants.” 

A post-growth Green New Deal | Link | To decarbonize we must degrow, decommodify, and democratize the economy

A Wood Wide Web Story: an Apple Tree in Daegu | Link | “The surrogate mothers could only be married to the earth.” 

Who owns the Green New Deal? | Link | Making sense of remote ownership problems and place-based governance 



Top 5 articles to read

Centuries of fire: Rebel memory and Andean utopias in Bolivia

Staring at hell: The aesthetics of architecture in a ruined world

Water is life: Nick Estes on Indigenous technologies

Mapping the end of the world

Breaking development. Our concept of “development” is destructive and irrational.



News you might’ve missed

Planned fossil fuel production rise locks in dangerous levels of warming

‘History disappears’ as dam waters flood ancient Turkish town

Heathrow third runway ruled illegal over climate change

Renewable energy could power the world by 2050

Sweden’s indigenous groups report death threats after landmark court win and Reindeer tortured after threats towards Sámi community in northern Sweden (see this on the court case about land rights)

How Hindu supremacists are tearing India apart

A cobalt crisis could put the brakes on electric car sales

Fates of humans and insects intertwined, warn scientists

Is this the end of Rojava? Also: Rojava after Rojava

Agribusiness company with financial support from UK, US and Netherlands is dispossessing thousands

The quiet start of Brazil’s war on the Amazon

Europeans now have the right to repair – and that means the rest of us probably will too

Armed ecoguards funded by WWF ‘beat up Congo tribespeople’

Speeding sea level rise threatens nuclear plants



Everything you need to know about Wet’suwet’en actions

Explainers

Map of Wet’suwet’en solidarity actions

Country erupts into Wet’suwet’en solidarity demonstrations: A week in pictures

The Wet’suwet’en protest and the coastal GasLink pipeline

‘What cost are human rights worth?’ UN calls for immediate RCMP withdrawal in Wet’suwet’en standoff

In Kanesatake, women are the face of Mohawk resistance

Indigenous resistance shakes the Canadian state

Rail blockades are proving to be an effective non-violent response to state violence

GasLink, the Wet’suwet’en people and Canada’s ongoing colonialism

Background

Wet’suwet’en protests a revolutionary moment in Canada: Mohawk scholar Gerald Taiaiake Alfred

Beyond bloodlines: How the Wet’suwet’en hereditary system at the heart of the Coastal GasLink conflict works

Indigenous-led CN rail blockades could cost ‘billions’ and that’s the point: Pro-Wet’suwet’en organizers

The Wet’suwet’en are more united than pipeline backers want you to think

What does “land back” mean? A thread from âpihtawikosisân on Twitter.

Dive deeper

Being with the land, protects the land

Canada’s battle against First Nations shows slide toward authoritarianism

Here’s some resources on Indigenous rights in the context of Wet’suwet’en solidarity

‘Reconciliation is dead and it was never really alive’

Yellowhead Institute’s Land Back report delivers devastating critique of land dispossession in Canada

Wet’suwet’en: Why are Indigenous rights being defined by an energy corporation?

A short introduction to the Two Row Wampu

The ideology of reconciliation



Coronavirus

Preparing for coronavirus to strike the U.S.

Coronavirus + capitalism = sad face. Why the American capitalist system will make the coming coronavirus pandemic worse.

Social contagion: The production of plagues

Race, epidemics, and the viral economy of health expertise

Coronavirus: product of a sick system

The coronavirus’s lesson for climate change

The state of exception provoked by an unmotivated emergency

Coronavirus: China’s air pollution levels, smog show hit to the economy

Covid-19 will mark the end of affluence politics



Just think about it…

William Gibson — the prophet of cyberspace talks AI and climate collapse

The U.S. military is not sustainable

The Trump era is a golden age of conspiracy theories – on the right and left

Tech startups are flooding Kenya with apps offering high-interest loans

Biodiversity highest on Indigenous-managed lands

The war on food waste is a waste of time

A spider’s web is part of its mind, new research suggests

Crimea, Kashmir, Korea — Google redraws disputed borders, depending on who’s looking

We are drowning in a devolved world: An open letter from Devo

The volatile economics of natural vanilla in Madagascar

The climate crisis is like a world war. So let’s talk about rationing

The word ‘Anthropocene’ is failing us



Where we’re at: analysis

The illusion of centrist ecology

The EU’s green deal is a colossal exercise in greenwashing

Colonialism, the hidden cause of our environmental crisis

New Deal for Nature: Paying the emperor to fence the wind

White supremacy goes green

The fate of the planet rests on dethroning the IMF and World Bank

Feeding China is wrecking the Amazon

The struggle for democracy and socialism in Latin America



New politics

The growing global movement to end outdoor advertising

Puerto Rico’s energy insurrection

Planetary health and regeneration

Modern monetary theory in the periphery

Across the North, Indigenous communities are redefining conservation



Rural politics

An enormous land transition is underway. Here’s how to make it just.

What if we’re thinking about agriculture all wrong?

The youth are fleeing the farms: Aspiration and conflict in Kurram, Pakistan

How capitalism underdeveloped rural America

An Interview with Max Ajl on agrarian change in Tunisia

What if we only ate food from local farms?



Cities and radical municipalism

Cities fighting climate woes hasten ‘green gentrification’

Urbanist lessons from the densest neighborhoods across Europe

The case for truly taking back control – by reversing the privatisation of our cities

As sea level rises, Miami neighborhoods feel rising tide of gentrification

The ‘street food’ swindle: fake diversity, privatised space – and such small portions!

Housing discrimination made summers even hotter

Ancient ‘megasites’ may reshape the history of the first cities



Transportation

Luxembourg makes history as first country with free public transport 

In defence of fare evasion

The ride-hail utopia that got stuck in traffic

Cities turn to freewheeling public transport

Paris mayor pledges a greener ’15-minute city’



Degrowth!

Degrowth toward a steady state economy: Unifying non-growth movements for political impact

Why “de-growth” shouldn’t scare businesses

Beyond redistribution—confronting inequality in an era of low growth

India should stop obsessing about GDP, and start focusing on what matters



Resources

Extraction syllabus

Gender in academia resources

Documentary on the solidarity economy in Barcelona



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Remembering

The New River flowing into Imperial County, California from Baja California, Mexico

by James Banks

I remember when I was young, I wanted to go on a road trip real bad.  My mom said, “Maybe next summer”.  But I wanted to go that summer.  So she said, “We can’t go on a road trip, but we can pretend.”  I was six years old, so I was okay with that.  My sister was nine years old and she knew better.  But what was she going to do?  And my dad got into it.

They got us sitting in chairs next to each other.  And Dad started out driving, and he described us driving down Chase toward Avocado, and then getting on the 94.  We were taking the scenic route.  There were giant metal dinosaurs.  I knew which kind of dinosaurs they were.  And then we caught up to the 8 and drove down the twists into the Imperial Valley.

It was beautiful there, hot, humid, and beautiful, everything irrigated.  There were giant date groves, and fields full of alfalfa.  We stopped in El Centro to get some ice cream, my Dad pulling over and all of us unbuckling and getting out and walking over to the refrigerator.

We got back in the car.  Mom was driving.  She was the only one who could take over because me and my sister weren’t old enough to drive. 

We wanted to play music, so Mom pulled over and Dad hopped out of the passenger seat and got the boombox from the garage and dusted it off and we listened to the radio and Dad’s old CDs. 

It was a pretty good trip.  We went for four hours and then we got off at our motel room in Tucson.

I remember when I was in college.  We lived in the old house in El Cajon.  I walked to the El Cajon Transit Center to take a trolley to SDSU.  It was about a mile or a mile and a quarter walk.  I remember during that time my mom invited a mother and her son to live with us.  The mother lived in my sister’s room, and the son slept in mine.  They were from the Imperial Valley.  There used to be a big salt lake in the Imperial Valley called the Salton Sea, but it dried up for the most part and there were terrible dust storms from the exposed lake bed, and most people left around the time I was in college. 

I remember the son being a bully, and I remember how finally I couldn’t take it anymore.  I couldn’t get any sleep with him around.  I think he thought that since he and his mom didn’t have any place to go, and we were good people, that we would have to help them, but finally we confronted them.  He talked his mom into leaving instead of him changing.  I heard she got a job at the Viejas Solar Farm, and he started school at the community college out there.  I remember one day she came back to visit and she was talking about her son.  She was really worried because he had a gambling problem.  All his money went to the casino.

It’s a sad story.  Some years later they shut down the casino and remodeled it, and they use it for different things now. 

I remember one time there was a big protest.  “No More Ecosocialist Nightmare!” said one sign.  Another said “War is Peace.  Slavery is Freedom.  Poverty is Wealth.”  They were protesting in favor of personal liberty.  They said that climate change might be bad, but so would an “Orwellian sustainability”. 

The political science professors had theories of how to not have Orwellian sustainabilities, but I only had one political science class, so I wasn’t taught them.  One of my friends was a poli sci major.  He wanted to go into politics.  I asked him about it and he said “Basically, it comes down to whether people who end up in power are the kind of people who don’t want there to be Orwellian sustainability.  And, whether they’re the kind of people who can carry through that commitment.” I thought there should have been a better answer.

I remember rations.  I went to a hardcore concert with my friend once.  The singer was screaming about rations, complaining because they didn’t think they needed to be so tight.  I also used to go to stand up comedy back then and everyone talked about rations.  I think people still complain about rations.

Song of protest

We used to have FFDs (“fasting and frugality days”) where we tried to consume as little as possible.  Usually on a day we all had off.  We got out the CD player and put on some Indian music and we would sit there with our stomachs digesting themselves (or at least that’s what it felt like).  We would groan and make jokes about being hungry.

I remember my sister moving out to get married to her boyfriend.  First they moved into the master bedroom of a house in Rancho Peñasquitos, where the widower moved to the downstairs bedroom.  They had to work some shifts as caregivers to lower the rent.  Then after he passed on, they moved into a house with another couple they were close to, and the two couples started to have kids, and the kids grew up in one little mob.

I remember trying to find people to fit in our house.  We needed people we could really trust.  It took a few years, but I finally felt like one of my friends could share my room.  We adopted him into our family, but not legally.  My sister’s room was free by then so we invited some older people from church to stay there.  They were okay for me and my friend.  But then they had to move to a nursing home after about five years, and we had to find someone new.  Mom and Dad were also getting older, so they called up some old friends in another state, people they “never got to see enough these days”.  And they agreed to move in.  So my parents and their friends were having a good time all the time, but it was too much for me and my friend, so we started going out more.

There were a lot of people who didn’t work, or didn’t work much.  I remember spending whole days walking through El Cajon, looking at the people walking around.  There were some days I got real bored, and there were two days to get through before my next shift at my job.  I remember some people getting into mischief because they were bored, and that bothered me, so I decided to try to talk to those people.  I would tell them about imaginary places, and if they were bored enough, they would listen.

I remember one time we did take a road trip through Imperial Valley.  There were big signs that said “Dust storms likely next 45 miles.”  We saw an old house and wondered if anyone lived in it.

I remember rent being low.  But water was expensive.  A lot of electricity went into the desalination plants. 

Salt ponds by day, from above

When I was in college, some friends and I went out trespassing one night and ended up in the salt ponds at the end of San Diego Bay.  We walked along the paths at the edges of the pond.  Then we saw something lit up a little in the dark, a huge building. “Is that the desalination plant?” we wondered.  When we got close enough to read the sign, we were close enough to be seen by the guard who ran us off the property and warned us harshly to never do that again.

I remember when some people set fire to someone’s mansion.  They said it was for crimes against the environment, for hoarding resources.  The conservatives said, “I don’t know why you would burn down a house to protest resource waste.”

Looking back, I think the people who burned down the house had a point, and the conservatives had a point.  How can you stop someone without hurting them?  And how can you hurt people without destroying something good?  I can’t think of how to get some people out of their mansions, but maybe we can prevent people from becoming the kind of people who live in them, without burning anything down.

Our neighbors never took anyone in.  After the son left it was just the mom and dad.  “We’re fine the way things are”, they said.  They were nice neighbors, always brought us something good at Christmas-time.

Eventually my friend and I started sleeping in tents in the backyard and my parents let a couple of my cousins have our room.  When it rained, a few times a year, we slept inside in the living room.

I think I’m okay with my neighbors not taking anyone in.  Some people can do some things, other people other things.

I remember when the last homeless person got a place to stay.  It was on the news.  I heard that some of them messed up the places they moved into, because they weren’t used to having their own property.  I guess some of them had personality issues too.  The city of San Diego had a call for volunteers to be their friends, although they called it something other than “friends”.  You can’t hire people or force people to be friends, was their thinking.

I remember one night my friend was making too much noise getting into his bed and I said vicious things.  I needed my sleep and I had been around him too much anyway.  So my parents sent us out to have vacations at separate hotels.  We each had our own room in the hotels we stayed in.  We came back and found out from each other that both the hotels were on the beach and had amazing views.  They were both in Mission Beach.  We laughed when we realized that it wouldn’t have been hard for us to have run into each other by mistake, down there on the boardwalk.  He said “That would be a terrible mistake, to see someone when you shouldn’t”.

I remember when my father died, and then a few years later, my mother.  My sister and I sold the old house in El Cajon, and I left San Diego County for good.  I left everyone behind.  Time to try something new, I thought.  My friend waved goodbye to me. 

I took a train to Chicago and then one to New York City and then one up to Maine.  On the opposite end of the country, I got my own place to stay.  But there didn’t seem to be enough people inside my house, and I didn’t know anybody to live with me.  My friend had to stay in San Diego.  But I met a nice woman and we settled down, so that’s what kept me up there, for many years.

These are all some things I remember.  And what will you be remembering, as you live the life ahead of you?


James Banks lives in San Diego, CA and has written fiction and non-fiction about the sustainable future, being lost, development, trust, and (anti)romance. Website: 10v24.net

Photo credits:

Photo one:  Calexico New River Committee / public domain / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nrborderborderentrythreecolorsmay05-1-.JPG

Photo two:  by Dave Shearn / CC BY 2.0 / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dustin_Kensrue.jpg

Photo three:  by Pacific Southwest Region USFWS / CC BY 2.0 / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panoramic_aerial_of_completed_Western_Salt_Pond_Restoration_Project!_(6967928908).jpg

A post-growth Green New Deal

Image: Occupy Reno Media Committee CC BY-ND 2.0

by Riccardo Mastini

Over the past year the Green New Deal banner has been appropriated by so many different movements and political parties that it is difficult to agree on what it actually stands for. However, in its most radical articulations (such as the one presented in the book A Planet To Win) Green New Deal advocates prescribe the need for an active role of the State in the economy. In doing so, they heed Keynes’ advise formulated in the 1926 essay The end of laissez-faire: “The important thing for government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all.” This means moving beyond market-based environmental policy instruments (e.g. tax incentives and price signals) and fully embracing command and control regulation. Deploying the power of public investment and coordination is a historic break from the neoliberal dogma that has reigned over the world for the past 30 years. Thus, the Green New Deal is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

A truly transformative Green New Deal cannot simply be about returning to a welfare capitalist order of days of yore. It must move beyond capitalism’s growth imperative.

However, I argue that the vision sketched out above is inadequate to deal with the current ecological emergency. A truly transformative Green New Deal cannot simply be about returning to a welfare capitalist order of days of yore. It must move beyond capitalism’s growth imperative. This is not only because there is no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures anywhere near the scale needed to deal with the ecological crisis, but also because such decoupling appears unlikely to happen in the future. At least in affluent countries, therefore, a downscaling of production and consumption should be in order. But to ensure social well-being and equality in the face of a contracting economy, we need to develop a suite of post-growth policies.

Decreasing energy and material use

There is clear evidence that the deployment of renewable energy is insufficient on its own to displace fossil fuels in energy production. Historically, new energy sources have added more energy without removing older sources. The average trend in many nations around the world over the past 50 years shows that each unit of electricity generated by non fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity. What is, therefore, needed is a gradually declining cap on carbon emissions that a country is allowed to generate in line with its international commitments. This mechanism should be coupled with additional policies to equitably distribute the remaining national carbon budget across society and reduce energy poverty. To this end, we could think of adopting a system of carbon quotas.

Decarbonizing the energy system can be further facilitated by scaling down aggregate energy use. For instance, a recent study published in the journal Nature shows that successfully reducing emissions has historically required reductions in energy demand, which in turn was caused by a lesser growth in GDP. The objective of reducing energy use can also be pursued by decreasing material throughput since material extraction and consumption are major drivers of energy demand. This approach to reducing material throughput has the added benefit of releasing pressure on ecosystems. Post-growth policies that go in this direction include, for example, legislation for longer-lasting products, banning planned obsolescence, introducing right to repair, mandatory recyclability, mandatory long-term warranties, etc.

The decarbonization of these basic services should entail their decommodification: removing them from the market logic and subjecting them to the logic of the commons.

Decommodifying basic services

Climate change is class struggle as it forces us to rethink the material conditions of everyday life: how we move, what we eat, how we supply energy and heating to our homes. The decarbonization of these basic services should entail their decommodification: removing them from the market logic and subjecting them to the logic of the commons. One important reason why decommodification and decarbonization should proceed in lockstep is because the consumption of public services has a lower environmental impact than their private equivalents. Think of private cars vs public transportation. But even more crucial than that, reducing dependence on individual consumer goods mitigates competition for social status and, consequently, does a lot to counteract consumerism. For example, cities are being increasingly crammed with SUVs as drivers dump compact cars in a vicious race for keeping up with the trend of car-size increase. As other drivers’ cars get bigger, mine feels smaller and smaller in proportion. The proof of this is that more unequal societies tend to have higher levels of average emissions per capita. We know that purchasing power correlates with personal environmental impacts, hence we must reduce outlets in which its destructive power can be unleashed.

Some policy proposals for ensuring that everyone has their basic needs addressed in a fair and sustainable way are the following: a highly progressive tariff structure for water and electricity in which the first unit is free of charge, an enhanced and free public transport system, a large public housing plan with passive houses, public low-carbon amenities (swimming pools, libraries, community gardens, etc.).  It is time to reclaim housing, mobility, water, and energy as rights, not as commodities.

Democratising economic production

Many shades of the Green New Deal are about a return of industrial policies into the government’s toolbox. Such proposals vary considerably in boldness though: from the director of UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose Marianna Mazzucato’s mission-oriented innovation policy all the way to the leader of the climate campaign group 350.org Bill McKibben’s wartime-like mobilization. But we cannot content ourselves with a more direct role of the State in the economy, we must also democratize the workplace. It’s not enough to try and nudge consumption choices, we need to win social power over material production.

It is not so much demand that influences supply, but rather the concentration of the means of production that determines the demand.

The theory of ‘consumer sovereignty in production’, which postulates that it is up to consumers to change their spending habits to influence producers, is at the core of liberal environmentalism. But a transformative Green New Deal must reject this theory as it neglects that it is not so much demand that influences supply, but rather the concentration of the means of production that determines the demand. We have, therefore, to look for responsibilities upstream in the supply chain and put them on the shoulders of producers who have the greatest power to influence consumption options by restricting supply.

In this regard, the current shareholder model is problematic due to its concentration. Few large multinational companies and financial groups control the direction of the economy: they choose the activities in which to invest and those to be abandoned, the regions in which to place factories and those to be de-industrialized, the technologies to be used, contracts and wages to be offered, prices for consumers, and the environmental impacts from production. Hence, democratizing economic production means, first of all, involving in the decision-making processes all those who must live with the consequences of production choices, namely local communities and workers.

But even more problematic is the fact that shareholders are only concerned with a company’s ability to generate profits regardless of its social and environmental impacts. An alternative model is represented by not-for-profit cooperatives for which business activity is not an end in itself, but only a means of fulfilling the social mission of its corporate statute. This type of cooperatives are best placed to become the engine of a post-growth economy in which production decisions are taken democratically and the profit motive is impeded from acting as a pedal on the gas of productivism.

To summarize, from a post-growth perspective a Green New Deal must pursue three distinct but interrelated goals: decreasing energy and material use, decommodifying the basic necessities of life, and democratizing economic production. Any Green New Deal proposal that does not address head-on the drivers of economic growth is doomed to fall short of the challenge of steering away from the worst scenarios of ecological breakdown.

Riccardo Mastini is a PhD candidate in Ecological Economics and Political Ecology in the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He is also a member of the academic collective Research & Degrowth, of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, and of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and visit his website.

A Wood Wide Web Story: an Apple Tree in Daegu

Photo by Wendy Wuyts

by Wendy Wuyts

Once upon a time there was, and there was not, a French landscape architect named Judith. On this particular day she waited in a traditional tea house in Yangnyeongsi, Daegu. The Korean city of street trees, apples and oriental medicine.

She was always looking for a way to be “different”, “special” and “unique”. As a young woman, she tried to challenge the status quo by experimenting with alternative lifestyles and joining protests. She said she would devote her life to activism, art and travel. Even now, at the end of her thirties, she proclaimed to everyone that she will never marry and have children but will have loved ones in every corner of the world – even in the deserts of Mongolia. 

It was all the fault of author Simone de Beauvoir. Her interview with Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber in 1975 convinced Judith to never end up as a housewife, and to become a free woman. Judith wanted to be the next Simone. 

Though, she also desired a soul-mate. Judith knew she had met her “amour de ma vie” when she was 21. It was someone who inspired her, brought the best out of her and with whom she could experience endless love and adventures. But it didn’t last, as society didn’t allow  surrogate mothers to have partners. The surrogate mothers could only be married to the earth.   

***

Seven months ago, Judith was assigned by her boss to work out the e-plantification of this city.

“Daegu?” she had repeated. “Why Daegu?” 

“Because they have money,” her boss answered bluntly. She was Dutch. They are always honest. After her working day, Judith returned to her apartment feeling it was time to meet her former love, who lived in Daegu. She looked at the photo of Simone and her lover Sartre on her desk. They never lived together, but they were lovers until their deaths. Simone’s biggest success, she said herself, was Sartre. The promise of death, of separation evoked a certain curiosity from Judith. 

Judith reflected on her own former partner. In this world, Sartre didn’t exist anymore. Women’s successes were their own. Needing men were a thing of the past. Perhaps she could at least check in with her lover, even if society wouldn’t allow them to be together.

***

Seven months later, Judith was on the other side of the world. After a work inspection by contractors, Judith went to this famous district in Daegu, where you would find innumerable herbs and medicines. In oriental medicine, the point is not to cure a disease but to fix the body. People get sick because the dual powers of yin and yang are unbalanced. 

“Dong quai nourishes the blood and Omija juice reduces coughing.” A toothless woman told Judith. 

In response Judith bought some kudzu, because it would help her with a hangover. 

She  noticed that the women in the contracting company drank soju like mountain water. She joined them last night, to quell her nerves. She would soon find herself in a meeting akin to an interrogation. 

From the moment Judith left her hotel until she took a seat in the tea house, she hesitated a thousand times. From her bedroom to the taxi, the same thought echoed in her mind. “This has to be the craziest, if not the stupidest idea of my life.” But something in her –  whether it be female intuition, her guardian angel or the voice of her dead grandmother – told her that meeting Han-Sol is what she needed to be able to heal her. Perhaps she would realise the feelings were only memories and nothing more.  

Daylight shifted, and Han-Sol appeared. Judith held her breath. After all this time she had not changed from her time as an exchange student. 

They greeted each other, but it was awkward. They used polite gestures to greet one another, trying to hide their invisible relationship. On the day they met, they called themselves ecofeminists. They shaved their hair off as a protest against the “patriarchy that intoxicated the French minds.” They slept together that night. Han-Sol had come from Daegu. Among their many talks, she expressed topics as diverse as  K-Drama, beauty contests (which they also detested), and that Daegu produces so many beautiful women because of their apples. 

“We have changed so much,” Han-Sol said. “I became a housewife, and you an architect for one of the most powerful companies in the world.” 

Judith blushed. “We both do important work.”

Han-Sol continued, “Some women call me a Kim Yi Joung or a Mam’Chung, after a famous novel which was published ten years ago.”

“I’m not so familiar with Korean literature. Not since 2012, at least.” Judith admitted.

“Oh yes, 2012. What a year.” She looked down. They both recalled the painful memories which took place in that French village. “You know… It’s an insult for women who live easily by the money of the city to think my kind don’t work.”

“Really? That is ridiculous.” 

“Some people joke that we are yang-banged,” she said, “because we convert yang energy into yin through our bodies. That is our only function.”

Judith could not look her in the eyes anymore. She knew about the discrimination.  She also judged women who volunteered to be surrogate mothers. Or rather, she felt it was a pity. She felt their life was that of a machine. 

“So, how does it work?” Han-Sol asked. 

“What?” Judith was brought out from her thoughts. 

“The e-plantification of our light infrastructure.”

“Oh. Well, do you know the process of photosynthesis?”

“Yes. I recently helped my eldest child with her biology homework.”

Judith wondered how many children Han-Sol had produced, but she now preferred ease so she stayed on technology. 

“Plants convert CO2 into oxygen,” Han-Sol continued, “with the help of  chlorophyll in the leaves.” 

“That’s true,” Judith said, “but they also produce sugars. These sugars do not remain in the leaves. They are transported throughout the plant, and some of these sugars are excreted by the roots. There  are bacteria that surround the roots, and they break down these sugars, too. In this decomposition process, they release electrons. Our technology collects the electrons in the minus pole of our plant battery. When the electrons flow through the wire, they can be used as electricity.”

“But is it healthy for the street trees?”

“Yes, the electrons continue their journey to the plus pole, the cathode. We do not disturb the trees and plants.”

She paused to think. “I think I understand.” She smiled. “You really have found a purpose.”

Judith looked up. “Han-Sol, what is going on?” 

She hesitated, looking to her tea cup as if she was looking for advice, and then gazed right into Judith’s eyes. 

“I know how you think about us. I am sure that book of Simone de Beauvoir is still in your suitcase at your hotel.” 

Judith turned her eyes away. 

“I wanted this,” Han-Seol said. “I truly love my daughters, but sometimes… I don’t know. I feel so confused. I know the work of de Beauvoir is not relevant, or can’t be relevant anymore, in this world. However, sometimes it is… I think that becoming a caretaker was a mistake, and that I should have stayed with you. To make art…create amazing ideas…to build a regenerative economy. I feel so… invisible. While you are so… unique. You are visible. I am sure you look down upon me.”

“No.” Judith looked down. “Not anymore.”

“But you did?”

“…Yes,” Judith admitted. She felt as if a colony of termites were eating her stomach. 

“It is like I am struggling with ‘The Problem That Has No Name.’ Though, it has a slightly different nature than what Betty Friedan once described.” 

Judith craned her neck. “Han-Sol, what is going on?” she repeated. 

She hesitated. “I am confused… or maybe I need help. The insults that I hear make me mad. They do not know what it’s like to bear and take care of children.” She bit her lip, and her hands started to shake. “Actually, I think I lost my mind nearly seven months ago. I blame an old Korean novel that I found from the time before The Reckoning.” 

People did not talk about The Reckoning because everyone had lost loved ones in this war. The ones who had survived The Reckoning now had a better life than they did before.

Judith looked up. People did not talk about The Reckoning because everyone had lost loved ones in this war. The ones who had survived The Reckoning now had a better life than they did before. If only they could forget the feelings of loss, Judith wished. The earth is healthier… so are bodies, but the memories of pain were hard to forget. It was easier not to talk about it. Han-Sol had always believed that The Reckoning was inevitable, after all the pollution, terror and other crimes she had seen in Asia and Europe. 

Han-Sol paused before asking,“Have you ever read ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang?”

Judith shook her head.

“Han Kang wrote this after she was struck by an idea  from another writer who suggested that humans should be plants. I wish sometimes I could also be a plant. They probably have all the answers to the questions I have because they live for so long, witnessing so much.”

She sighed. 

“Yes, there is something wrong. Sometimes I feel I need a break from her children,” she whispered as if confessing to  first-degree murder. “Seven months ago, I had another episode. My sister took over. She advised me to take a long walk. Mountain air is the best medicine.” She hesitated. “…I had an  inner voice telling me to look up the eldest apple tree. Did you know that Daegu has the oldest apple tree in Korea?”

“Yes, you told me once. I remember you said that apple trees have an average lifespan of 30-40 years, but this tree produced  apples for more than 80 years.”

“ I realise now why I was so attracted to that tree. She keeps living, keeping society alive.”

Judith didn’t know what to say or do, other than to continue listening to her story.

“I was alone when I arrived at the apple tree… or not really. There were three young guys…” Suddenly Judith held her breath as Han-Sol turned down her eyes. The biggest victims of The Reckoning have been men. Judith had not seen any men since then.  

Han-Sol continued,  “… and they seemed to have expected me.” 

“Are they…” Judith did not finish her sentence, because she did not want to say it aloud. 

“Yes, they introduced themselves as… gods. But we know what they are.” She scanned Judith’s face. “Do you believe that I really saw them?”

“I believe that there are still free men on earth, and only those kinds of men would have survived The Reckoning.” 

Han-Seol smiled. “I knew you wouldn’t think I was crazy.”  She sighed, feeling relief rush over her. 

“What did they want from you?” Judith asked carefully.

“They wanted me as a judge in their beauty contest, ” she said.

Judith blinked, confused. 

“I thought they were all … the same. You know? And they realised soon that I did not become a surrogate mother because I love yang energy so much.” That remark gave Judith her first smile of the day. “So they tried to bribe me with their powers. One offered to make me queen of a forested island, and my daughters would all become princesses.”

“Do they really have that power?”

“I think there is probably a place where they hide and where they would like to have some women around. I think that was the dodgiest offering.”

“What about the second?”

“He offered me wisdom and skill in war.”

That took away Judith’s remark. “Do they expect another war?”

“I don’t know. But as my aunt once said to my mother, and my mother later to me, as long as some people are oppressed there is always a risk for an uprising.” She hesitated. “My aunt told my mother that before she went to Gwanju.”

Judith remembered the death of her youngest aunt in the democracy uprising of the eighties. She thought of how her grandparents fought for a long time against the plans of the governments to wipe away the bloody history of Gwanju. Han-Sol was not born in that time, but she was aware – from a young age –  of the memories of losses. They were intertwined in her family’s memories. 

The two women looked at each other and continued to conversation. 

“So what about the third?” Judith finally asked

“The third one offered me the love of my life. A love that  I could finally keep until my death.” 

Judith straightened her back. Her fingers were tingling, and it was not because of the medical herb tea. 

“So, this meeting was more than seven months ago?,” Judith asked with a smile. Han-Seol nodded.

Judith took her cup again and drank from her tea, feeling the medicine flow through her body. This was indeed what she needed.  

“Why don’t you ask me who I chose?” Han-Seol asked. 

Judith looked her deep in the eyes and already knew the answer. 

Wendy Wuyts is a Belgian PhD student in Environmental Studies at Nagoya University, Japan. She blogs about sustainability issues in Japan for Mo*, a Flemish magazine focusing on social and environmental matters globally, and has her own personal blog where she collects stories about trees, tree spirits and forest bathing (woodwidewebstories.com). In her free time she works on a second novel about tree spirits. This short story situates in the world of that novel, but is about other characters. In november 2019, Wendy’s first fiction book got published: ‘Als Meubels Konden Spreken’ (If Furniture Could Talk), which introduces the main character to the different dimensions and aspects of the circular economy. 

Special thanks goes to Andrew Winchester Greer for proofreading and editing.


Who owns the Green New Deal?

“A reindeer stands in silent protest in front of a hydro power plant” on Indigenous Sámi land in northern Scandinavia. Image: Tobias Herrmann CC BY-NC 2.0

by Geoff Garver

Green New Deal? People, we have a problem

You go into your Wall Street investment bank and ask, “What’s a hot investment these days?”  Your super sharp investment advisor says, “Farmland in Africa! People have to eat, right? And there are more and more people. Put your money in African farmland and you’ll double your money in no time!”  She doesn’t say a word about what makes that land unique and special or about the people and other beings that live, or lived, there.

That’s a big problem. It’s a remote ownership problem. In fact, it’s a whole bunch of justice problems related to the hard-wired legacies of colonialism that come together as a multi-faceted problem about remote ownership of land and resources. In a nutshell, remote owners or rights holders often cause serious harm to far away ecosystems they know and care little about, and grave injustice to the people and other life that know those ecosystems most intimately and depend on them. 

So, what about this Green New Deal (GND)? Is it merely the old wine of capitalist growth-driven development in a new bottle, or is it a recipe for socio-political and socio-ecological transformation that will right past wrongs and reshuffle political power in favor of historically disempowered people? Any Green New Deal (GND) framed as a “just transition” has to address problems of remote ownership and empower place-based governance.

Open questions about the remote ownership problem in AOC’s GND

Some say the GND in H.R. 109 introduced by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and others is merely a shift to green or climate colonialism, by which the greening—via decarbonization and other means—of wealthy, developed countries in a growth-driven, capitalist, and globalized world will worsen injustice in developing countries. This injustice includes not only increased exposure to environmental harms and health risks from extraction of materials needed for green technologies but also ongoing wealth inequality and social and cultural upheaval as the wealth-building potential of extracted resources (jobs, profits, etc.) is mostly exported along with them. 

The GND risks continuation of the crushing of long-standing place-based governance systems.

At the heart of this injustice are international companies and their stockholders and other remote owners—land and resource grabbers—that exert enormous political power from the local to the global scale. The GND risks continuation of the crushing of long-standing place-based governance systems, permanent displacement of people with the most intimate knowledge of local ecosystems and devastation of ecosystems and the life they support, all typical of land and resource grabbing around the world.  A particular concern is that land use reform is essential to success of the GND, yet the GND does not directly confront the hard wiring of the property rights regimes that must be addressed. Another is that the GND was conceived and announced with virtually no inclusion of Indigenous voices and that unless this lack of inclusion and the superficiality of references to Indigenous ideas is overcome, the GND could maintain “broken structures that perpetuate disconnection and individualism.”

Some cautiously, others more enthusiastically, see the GND as an opportunity to end and provide restitution for these injustices.  The openings for transformative change to scale back land and resource grabbing and empower place-based governance systems, including Indigenous ones, are signaled in support for “community-driven projects and strategies” to deal with pollution and climate change; locally-appropriate ecosystem restoration; and free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities with respect to matters of concern to them.  For these openings to fulfill their potential, justice activist Syed Hussan argues that the GND must foster “just transition in the broadest sense” and not just deal with displaced workers in fossil fuel industries and other discrete issues that decarbonizing the economy will entail.

Where to look for answers to remote ownership problems

The good news is that worthwhile ideas about how the GND can confront problems of remote ownership and promote locally-tailored place-based governance systems are already out there. Here are some of these sources of inspiration.

The degrowth movement. Degrowth is a forceful challenge to the growth-insistent sustainable development model, and a more hopeful approach to long-term perpetuation of a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship. Degrowth combines a commitment to respecting ecologically-based limits with a commitment to developing a comprehensive, practicable approach to building thriving human communities based on conviviality and human solidarity without consumerism or material and energy excess. The reforms associated with degrowth “emphasize redistribution (of work and leisure, natural resources and wealth), social security and gradual decentralization and relocalization of the economy, as a way to reduce throughput and manage a stable adaption to a smaller economy.” Giorgos Kallis’s nine principles of degrowth should be useful in making sure the GND adequately confronts remote ownership problems: 1) End to exploitation; 2) Direct democracy; 3) Localized production; 4) Sharing and the commons; 5) Provision of relational goods, through friendship, love, healthy relationships, kinship, good citizenry; 6) Unproductive expenditures geared to communal activities, such as festivals, games and the arts; 7) Care, and treating humans and other life as ends, not means; 8) Diversity; and 9) Decommodification of land, labor and value.

The G20.  What?!? Well, it’s useful to understand the key ideas of the global political apparatus that must be overcome for the GND to lead to radical social, political and ecological transformation.  At annual meetings, the G20 typically agree on the need to “further collective actions toward achieving strong, sustainable and balanced growth to raise the prosperity of our people.” The means to do so generally involve supporting global trade and investment (much of which is tied to remote ownership) and the role of the World Trade Organization as a means to create jobs and maintain growth, with weak or marginal actions or aspirations to address inequalities, corruption, climate change and environmental harm.  The G20 supports the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, with emphasis on sustainable, inclusive economic growth. A truly progressive GND should look past the SDGs!

The EJ AtlasThe Environmental Justice Atlas documents real cases of how remote owners have created social and environmental conflict.  These compelling narratives are a rich resource for understanding in detail the problem of remote ownership and the power dynamics that must be confronted and reshuffled in order to overcome them. 

Indigenous ways of thinking and being. In many Indigenous worldviews, attachment to place, founded on respect for all life and for deep appreciation of a reciprocal relationship with the Earth and its life community, is key to a more hopeful vision of the human-Earth relationship. Indigenous activist Eriel Deranger writes, “It is Indigenous communities, locally, nationally and internationally, that continue to push for an actualization of instilling deeper spiritual connections to Mother Earth to help us relearn what systems of colonization, capitalism, and extractivism have severed.” Connecting or reconnecting to the places that nourish our bodies and souls is at the heart of the long-term promise of a GND done well. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that “[f]or the sake of the peoples and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become indigenous to place.” But, inviting settler societies to become indigenous to place—and an invitation from Indigenous holders of knowledge of a place is essential—does not mean letting them “take what little is left.” Attaching to a place by carefully and respectfully seeking to become indigenous to it requires humility above all, and it requires direct experience with wise teachers, not merely book knowledge.

Indigenous peoples and other social groups that have been historically disadvantaged by colonization and land and resource grabbing must play a central role in developing and carrying out the GND.

Six mutually reinforcing proposals on remote ownership and place-based governance for the GND

First, Indigenous peoples and other social groups that have been historically disadvantaged by colonization and land and resource grabbing must play a central role in developing and carrying out the GND. Including Indigenous notions of justice, decolonization and self-determination through meaningful inclusion of Indigenous communities in decisions that affect them, which requires adequate time and resources, is essential.

Second, the GND should empower communities like those included in the EJ Atlas to develop strong place-based governance systems and communities of solidarity and mutual care in order to resist the social and environmental conflicts they face, often because of remote ownership. This means providing them with a determinative role in decisions affecting them directly and indirectly. It also means developing a global/international scope and strategy so remote ownership problems in one place aren’t just displaced elsewhere. Also, we should look for opportunities to scale up and out from local remote ownership problems that are avoided or justly resolved.

Third, the GND should end corporate giveaways that are tied to remote ownership problems and exclude carbon markets, offsets or emissions trading regimes, and geoengineering—all of which typically pose remote ownership problems. Instead, the Climate Justice Alliance is fighting for a GND that shifts “from global systems of production and consumption that are energy intensive and fossil fuel dependent to more localized systems that are sustainable, resilient and regenerative.”

Fourth, stocks and other investment instruments in land and resource grabbing ventures that cause social and environmental conflict and harm in faraway places should be prohibited. This may require profound restructuring, dismantling or abolition of the financial and corporate structures that allow for these kinds of investments. At the least, it would entail deep rethinking of the metaphor of corporate personhood

Fifth, the GND should explicitly reject economic growth as a rationale and driving objective. It should oppose perpetual economic growth and promote communities committed to solidarity, maximal sharing and minimal use of materials and energy.

Sixth, the GND should place limits on wealth, which would help minimize or end the remote ownership problem. The most obvious way to do this is through progressive income taxation or a tax on wealth. For this to be effective, there of course also has to be collaboration between communities worldwide against tax evasion, with the aim of abolishing tax havens. A more radical transformation would be to target the globalized currency system which makes it possible for Wall Street investors to buy African farmland with US dollars in the first place. Or, the international community could finally adopt taxes on financial transactions; already implemented in some countries, this could be expanded to more countries and international transactions.

Some tough questions to test these proposals

If the GND is a step toward post-capitalist societies where remote owners, if they still exist, are no longer able to adversely affect far away ecosystems and people, it nonetheless is starting off in a globalized capitalist economy. As John Bellamy Foster has written, “We have to go against the logic of the system while living within it.” Making the proposals above work will not be easy. It will require people power through mass organizing and consciousness building. And it will mean confronting some tough questions. Here are a few. 

Does the GND inevitably imply ongoing wealth and resource extraction in the global South to benefit the global North? If so, what are the implications for remote ownership and place-based governance? If not, what mechanisms are needed to minimize or end wealth and resource extraction in the global South to benefit the global North?

How can the GND address remote ownership in the form of ownership of financial stocks or other financial investments—keeping in mind how many people are counting on this type of investment for their retirement and long-term care?

What are some good examples that could be duplicated or scaled up of place-based governance systems that maintain fairness among humans and between humans and other life across generations? How should duplication and scaling up account for the unique features of different places and avoid one-size-fits-all approaches?

Can the GND adequately address, as Deranger puts it, the “intertwined roles of capitalism, consumerism, militarism and colonialism as foundations to the current crisis” if it remains “driven by White ENGOs, those with the resources and power, and mainstream political parties”?

Is re-establishing traditional labor protections and increasing unionization a long-term solution, or does it risk locking in an us-them worker-owner power dynamic—where the owners are often also remote owners and land and resource grabbers—that other alternatives could overcome?  What about more locally-committed, place-based employee-owned businesses or cooperatives?

Final thought

Questions like these need to be asked in relation to every single aspect of GND proposals in the advanced capitalist countries. Political organizers and activists should think about how to balance such critical questions with the visionary rhetoric that makes the GND so popular—all the while keeping in mind that the strength of a GND vision should be judged on the basis not only of its policy designs but also its ability to inspire and unite broad movement building for climate justice. Grappling with entrenched problems of remote ownership is one way to take a focused approach to building momentum for this movement.

Dr. Geoff Garver is an adjunct professor at Concordia and McGill Universities in Montreal and coordinates research on law and governance at McGill University for the Leadership for the Ecozoic initiative. He is on the steering committee of the Ecological Law and Governance Association and the board of the Quaker Institute for the Future and is active in the international degrowth movement.

January readings

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, via Counterfire


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

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

We’re back from our break with fresh new readings for you! The world moves fast, and a lot has happened over the past two months. Jane Goodall’s comment at the World Economic Forum that most of our environmental problems wouldn’t exist if human population growth were at the levels they were 500 years ago sparked another debate about the validity and dangers of ‘overpopulation’ arguments. We featured a critique of her claim here. We also collected resources around green colonialism: the push to ‘green’ the Global North at the expense of the Global South. And of course, we’re sharing a couple of articles about the Wuhan coronavirus which has been dominating the news, on top of the usual news and discussions about global and Indigenous struggles, cities and radical municipalism, and degrowth.



Uneven Earth updates

Energy and the Green New Deal | Link | The complex challenge of powering societies 

Swedish colonialist neutrality | Link | A tradition of double standards from historical colonialism to current environmental injustice 

Public money for environmental justice | Link | We’ll never fund a transformative Green New Deal with money designed for capitalism 

Hayashi-san’s Green Headband | Link | “In Tokyo, New York, Montreal, Rome, Paris, Beijing, Kinshasa, millions of people were wearing green headbands … this has made you a martyr and brought the environmental movement to a level never before reached.” 

Show me the money | Link | How will we pay for the Green New Deal?

A just food transition | Link | Why the Green New Deal should give farmers a Basic Income 

Birth | Link | “Maybe then we’ll regain the access to the river, the river that is now controlled by the insiders and their obsession with energy resources.” 



Top 5 articles to read

Why we should be wary of blaming ‘overpopulation’ for the climate crisis

What if Darwin’s ideas about competition aren’t as correct as we’ve long thought?

A repair manual for Spaceship Earth

Life under the algorithm

Back to the land



News you might’ve missed

Nuclear power ‘cannot rival renewable energy’

The plastics pipeline: A surge of new production is on the way

Our pathetically slow shift to clean energy, in five charts

It’s not just Australia — Indonesia is facing its own climate disaster

Perpetual debt in the Silicon Savannah



Coronavirus

Notes on a novel coronavirus

Bat soup didn’t cause the Wuhan virus. Racist memes target Chinese eating habits, but the real causes of the coronavirus are more mundane.



Global struggles

In Hong Kong, the art of resistance and erasure

‘This place used to be green’: the brutal impact of oil in the Niger Delta

Don’t mess with French pensions

The popular assemblies at the heart of the Chilean uprising

A Mexican indigenous town’s environmental revolt

COP25, social movements and climate justice 

Rojava is a laboratory that links the environment and society with municipalism

‘This movement is just beginning’: homeless moms evicted after taking over vacant house

  • The fight for mom’s house. This is the story of a group of homeless mothers who for 58 days occupied a vacant home in Oakland, and eventually claimed a historic victory in the struggle for housing justice.

Stories of global environmental justice

Zapatista update: Forum on Defense of the Territory and Mother Earth

How the Global North’s Left media helped pave the way for Bolivia’s right-wing coup

Can Extinction Rebellion survive?




Indigenous struggles

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs evict coastal GasLink from territory

Canada police prepared to shoot Indigenous activists, documents show

Indigenous Colombians escalate fight to rescue ancestral lands

The Wounded Knee massacre and the long tradition of Indigenous resistance

‘On my ancestors’ remains’: The fight for sacred lands

With a thousand ancestors front and back



Just think about it…

Climate change and deforestation: These 3 supertrees can protect us from climate collapse

The dark side of the Nordic model. Scandinavian countries may top every ranking on human development, but they are a disaster for the environment. 

Want to double world food production? Return the land to small farmers

Performative environmentalism won’t reverse climate change

Automation isn’t wiping out jobs. It’s that our engine of growth is winding down

Ganges River: Giulio Di Sturco’s photos capture environmental decline

A surge of new plastic is about to hit the planet

Nightmares on wax: the environmental impact of the vinyl revival

Humans will never colonize Mars

Library socialism: A utopian vision of a sustaniable, luxuriant future of circulating abundance

A future with no future: Depression, the Left, and the politics of mental health

Will Finland introduce a four-day week? Is it the secret of happiness?

Time, work and wellbeing. “Efforts to achieve decent work must encompass not just the quantity but also the quality of working time – not just time as a commodity but also as a lived complexity.”



Where we’re at: analysis

A Green New Jail

Europe’s Green Deal is a tepid response to the climate crisis 

When are we going to address the climate crisis?

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

Where is the rift? Marx, Lacan, capitalism, and ecology

Uber’s path of destruction

The palace of the future is nearly complete

Climate change and technology define the rural future. “No city is an autarky. For their survival, they rely on the countrysides they conveniently ignore.”



New politics

In 2030, we ended the climate emergency. Here’s how

Socialism, capitalism and the transition away from fossil fuels

The Lebanese Intifada, or the growth of an anti-capitalist mass movement 

Austria’s new anti-immigrant green government stokes fears of climate ‘nightmare’ 

What is the Green New Deal? A climate proposal, explained 

Portugal has found an antidote to right wing populism. Facing the policies of socialist Prime Minister António Costa, which include properly supporting the welfare state and investing in the public sector instead of austerity measures, right wing populists don’t stand a chance. 

The Hague must recognise ecocide 

Feminism and the social solidarity economy: A short call to action 

Moving towards low-carbon lifestyles: A question of collective action 



Green colonialism (and decolonialism)

What green costs. Deep in the salt flats of Chile lies the extractive frontier of the renewable energy transition.  

The coming green colonialism

The eco-fascists are coming

The path to net-zero emissions must include divestment, decolonization and resistance

Why a ‘Green New Deal’ must be decolonial

Decolonization requires a new economics

A view from the countryside. Contesting and constructing human rights in an age of converging crises.

Why stopping wars is essential for stopping climate change

Walls on a drowning world

Playing with fire, securing the borders of a Green New Deal

When the Green New Deal goes global

Development: A failed project 




Cities and radical municipalism

The case for making low-tech ‘dumb’ cities instead of ‘smart’ ones 

‘We’re setting a clear stop sign’: Berlin passes five-year rent freeze law

‘My Parkdale is gone’: how gentrification reached the one place that seemed immune

Study says rent control is good for cities, debunking conventional economists’ wisdom 

Tenant organizing when rising rent isn’t the (main) issue

Islands in the illiberal storm: central European cities vow to stand together 

Reclaiming the commons: The case for public bike libraries 

The case for cohousing: Where responsibilities are shared and life is a little less lonely

Time for public power for New York 

Should public transit be free? More cities say, why not? 

Ten zero-waste cities: How Thiruvananthapuram cleaned up its act 

When capital threatens to strike in your city 

The municipalist moment. Movements on the left are increasingly looking to build power at the local level. The question is how we can leverage municipal gains to transform the system at expanding scales.

Municipalism: the next political revolution? 

Heroes of the 2010s: Kshama Sawant, the socialist who beat Amazon 



Degrowth!

Ford v. Ferrari v. Malthus

Rethinking fashion: A confession of a degrowth advocate

Deadly growth: Capitalism versus life on Earth

Is degrowth an alternative to capitalism?



Resources

Case studies from The Rules about different topics related to environmental justice and alternative economics.

Economics for people. A free online lecture series from Ha-Joon Chang.

Degrowth of aviation. A report.

Regenerative farming and the Green New Deal. A policy memo.

Dual power: Issue 9 of ROAR Magazine

Diversify and decolonise your holiday reading list

How to follow the news without burning out  



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Energy and the Green New Deal

Image: Fiona Paton CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

by Tim Crownshaw

Nothing happens without energy. Literally. Lacking energy, there can be no heat, food, motion, information, or life. Commonly defined as ‘the capacity to do work’, energy has always been central to human societies, whether derived mechanically from moving wind or water, chemically from wood, oil, coal or other combustible fuels, or thermally from the sun. This is more than an abstract footnote—there are deep links between available energy and the very structure of civilizations, including their types of social organization and levels of complexity, as noted by anthropologist Leslie White [1]. While this relationship is obviously not deterministic, there are social, technological, and economic arrangements, such those we enjoy in privileged parts of the global North today, which are likely unattainable at significantly lower levels of energy consumption.

Much discussion and research in recent years has focused on the prospects for a global transition to renewable energy, motivated by growing awareness of the existential threat posed by global climate change as well as localized environmental issues attributable to the production and consumption of fossil and nuclear energy. The Green New Deal (GND), the subject of this essay, is the latest in a long line of ambitious plans aimed at accelerating this process, in addition to its social and economic goals. However, many of these energy transition plans are conceived teleologically: they start with the outcomes they seek to achieve, then fill in the gaps with implied (but uncertain) socio-technological capabilities. In the process, they typically sidestep irreducible uncertainties and fail to properly engage with the considerable challenges involved in fundamentally transforming our energy system. It must be asked whether the GND commits these same errors. Avoiding them requires recognition that the transition to renewable energy is not simply the eventual outcome of the right set of policy settings, but what systems scientists would call a complex, path-dependent, socio-metabolic process. In other words, the transition will be far more constrained in terms of what we can achieve than we often like to think and will necessarily transform the basic configuration of our societies [2, 3].

Many of these energy transition plans are conceived teleologically: they start with the outcomes they seek to achieve, then fill in the gaps with implied (but uncertain) socio-technological capabilities.

That we must one day rely solely on renewable energy is true by definition. The fossil and nuclear fuels are depleting resources and their use entails ecological harm on an immense scale. Therefore, this use will eventually become infeasible, unacceptable, and uneconomic. But how we get from here to there is radically uncertain. There is no guarantee that we will complete the transition while maintaining an industrial socio-metabolic regime (our current pattern of material and energy use and associated societal configuration). In fact, this appears highly unlikely [2, 3].

Alternative narratives

For most people in the developed world, modern energy services are so ubiquitous and ingrained in our daily lives that they have been rendered largely invisible (at least until they are interrupted). Nevertheless, understanding energy is critical to accurately discerning where we are going as a society and what we can hope to achieve. This understanding suffers from what Mario Giampietro has called a “clash of reductionism against the complexity of energy transformations” [4].

Energy is typically understood in loose terms as something produced and transported by large and highly visible infrastructures (of which there are ‘good’ kinds and ‘bad’ kinds, defined by one’s perspective). It is generally perceived that energy is used for various crucial purposes, such as moving people and things around, heating and cooling homes and workplaces, powering appliances and devices, and producing consumer goods. Beyond this, various emotionally charged and frequently oversimplified narratives come into play, which inform expectations of what lifestyles and society at large ought to look like. While the range of perspectives and positions on energy is vast, they can be broadly grouped into two opposed narratives:

  • Narrative one sees energy presenting an urgent moral duality: oil derricks, pipelines, smog-covered cityscapes, and corporate interests on one side and climate saving technologies, eco-friendly behaviours, and new political movements on the other. In this strain of thought, we already have the requisite technology to carry out the transition to renewable energy and the only serious barriers are political in nature. Nowhere is the first narrative more clearly depicted than in US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent ‘A Message From The Future’ video.
  • Narrative two considers fossil fuels to be miraculous, prosperity-building, and geo-politically important resources, which should not be disregarded in favour of unproven, unreliable alternatives. As for climate change, positions can range from “the science in not settled” to “no problem, we’ll have the tech for that”. This narrative is captured in PR communications from major oil companies (and even more transparently depicted here), frequently loaded with promises of jobs, technological breakthroughs, and nostalgia for an era of pioneering industrial vitality.

Neither of these narratives is totally correct, but neither is totally wrong either. The first rightly highlights the social and ecological imperatives we face and how some forms of energy production are significantly less harmful than others, but tends to downplay the challenges and implications of transforming the entire energy basis of modern economies. Meanwhile, the second accurately identifies the unique qualities of fossil energy resources and their role in reaching our current level of development, but fails to identify that these have a limited lifespan, both in terms of their physical abundance and the extent to which we can use them without unacceptable consequences. It is on this fraught ideological landscape that the GND must vie for influence against competing visions of our energy future.

The Green New Deal

The GND (a clear allusion to Roosevelt’s depression-era New Deal) burst onto the US political scene in 2018, emerging from the youth-led ‘Sunrise Movement’ and subsequently championed by freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and a growing list of progressive political figures. Its supporters now include Joseph Stiglitz, Ban Ki-Moon, Paul Krugman, US senators (Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Ed Markey), and numerous organizations (including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, 350.org, the New Economics Foundation, Extinction Rebellion, and the United Nations Environment Programme). The concept has quickly spread internationally to Canada, the UK, Australia, and the European Union due in large part to the advocacy of respective green parties in these places. A recent Yale survey found a strong majority in the US (81% of those surveyed and even 64% of republicans) ‘strongly support’ or ‘somewhat support’ the various proposals associated with the GND. With this impressive momentum, the time has come to translate zeal into workable policy.

In the US, the GND is often described with the tagline “decarbonization, jobs, and justice.” Policy proposals center around a green industrial revolution—a rapid, large-scale transition to renewable energy alongside vastly expanded public transportation and building retrofits for energy efficiency within a 10-year timeframe. The plan is to achieve near carbon-neutrality of the US economy and improved environmental quality through immense public spending initiatives, funded primarily via redistributive measures designed to tackle inequality. The draft text of the GND House Resolution includes the aim to “virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.” Variations often include increased minimum wages, universal health care, improved access to education, shorter working hours, and democratized workplaces. For a more complete description of the origin story and details of the GND, see this article or this one.

As the GND ultimately hinges on energy transition, the feasibility of its assertions in this area are crucial.

Although it’s not hard to see the appeal, no one would deny that this is an immense task. In fact, there is already a chorus of critical voices from right across the political spectrum on questions of cost, timeframe, technical assumptions, and policy design. As the GND ultimately hinges on energy transition, the feasibility of its assertions in this area are crucial. To go any further, we need to cover some energy basics.

Energy primer

The global energy system is by far the largest, most technologically advanced collection of built capital, supporting infrastructure, expertise, and organizational capacity that has ever existed. Despite the hype around renewables, the global energy system is still 96% non-renewable, while solar and wind—the two renewable energy sources with the greatest growth potential—supplied just a little over 1% of total world energy in 2018 [5].

Firstly, it is important to understand that each type of energy production can satisfy only some types of energy demand: energy resources and the flows derived from them are not interchangeable. Instead, the energy system comprises a series of distinct flows spanning four basic stages, from primary resources through to delivered energy services:

Figure 1: Flows of energy travelling through four stages of the energy system

To provide a bit more specificity to this picture, the table below shows common examples of each of the four stages and sequences of flows between them:

If fully enumerated, this would look more like a complex, multi-nodal network rather than a straight line, but this simplification serves to highlight some key features:

  • Changes at one stage require corresponding changes at all other stages in order to avoid supply bottlenecks or unused excess capacity. Each new increment of supply (primary resources plus secondary conversion) must be met with a corresponding increment of demand (end-use capital plus energy service demand) and vice versa. This means that investments needed to change the system are often larger than they first appear—investments in one part of the system require corresponding investments in others—and the ways societies use energy must evolve as supply changes.
  • The common lay concept of ‘energy’ as a homogeneous, aggregate quantity is a fiction. The various flows within the energy system are non-equivalent and non-substitutable (at least not directly). For example, gasoline is produced by a refinery and fuels your car, but this is not interchangeable with the electricity generated by a gas-fired turbine powering your laptop. In particular, the flows of ‘energy carriers’ between the second and third stages—consisting of electricity, liquid fuels, and heating fuels—must be considered separately, otherwise we risk overlooking constraints integral to the system.

The non-equivalence of energy carriers is an essential concept, analogous to the metabolism of living organisms requiring fats, proteins, and carbohydrates to survive. For most animals, diet can change with food availability, but there are limits to this. Humans can substitute one food group for another, at least for a period of time, but beyond certain boundaries severe physiological consequences begin to occur, including starvation and death. The energy system functions basically the same way. The composition of supply or demand can’t be changed arbitrarily and to the extent that it can be changed, this typically requires expensive and time-consuming adjustments at other stages in the energy system.

Energy for energy

Aside from the flows ultimately ending up as final energy services (or waste), a large part of the output of the energy system must be directed back into its own construction, operation, and maintenance. These flows represent the metabolism of the global energy system. As shown in Figure 2, energy carriers are utilized in an ‘autocatalytic loop’ (energy invested to produce energy) and a ‘capital hypercycle’ (energy invested to maintain the means of turning energy into services).

Figure 2: Energy carrier flows required for the construction, maintenance, and operation of the global energy system

Our current economic structure and resource dependencies ensure that we’ll burn a lot of fossil fuels to carry out a major shift towards renewable energy—a cost of the transition that we can’t afford to ignore. Among other things, this complicates discussions around the pace of the transition; it is not necessarily true that faster is better as large, short-term increases in fossil fuel demand for a renewable energy buildout may lead to significant excess capacity, wasting resources and frustrating the transition further down the line. Generally speaking, an ‘optimum’ timeframe in terms of what would limit greenhouse gas emissions or ecological impact will not likely align with the deadlines proposed to date by the advocates of rapid transition. Vaclav Smil notes that energy transitions on this scale typically occur over multiple decades or centuries, not years [6].

The manufacturing of silicon wafers in solar PV panels and advanced metal alloys in wind turbines requires a lot of high temperature heat, currently provided primarily by burning natural gas or coal.

Examining the energy system’s own metabolism also raises questions of residual non-renewable energy dependence that may be difficult to eliminate. The energy system’s autocatalytic loop and capital hypercycle are comprised of a mixture of energy carriers, meaning any attempt to shift the system towards a renewable basis will likely run into limits (due to energy carriers required to support the energy system not likely to be produced at scale via renewable means). For example, the manufacturing of silicon wafers in solar PV panels and advanced metal alloys in wind turbines requires a lot of high temperature heat, currently provided primarily by burning natural gas or coal. Will it be possible to run solar PV panel and wind turbine production lines using solar- and wind-generated electricity in the future? We don’t know, but there are reasons to be skeptical [7]. How about all of the remote access roads, transmission towers, substations, and supply depots required to create a renewable energy infrastructure? And the rare-earths, lithium, copper, iron, coltan, cadmium, and vast quantities of other minerals needed for the renewable energy buildout? It is hard to see how all of this can subsist on renewable energy flows alone.

Electricity

And then there’s electricity. Electricity is not like the other energy carriers in one critical sense: it is not a physical substance that can be produced and set aside for later use. In effect, this means supply must match demand at all times in order to maintain the stable, functioning electrical networks that distribute electricity to end users. Demand is stochastic—it changes as industrial production ramps up and down, and more erratically as households turn on or off light switches, run appliances, or do anything else that uses electricity. Consequently, supply must be ‘dispatched’ to meet demand on very short timescales as any temporary gap leads to changes in system frequency and large gaps can cause blackouts and damage vital electrical equipment (illustrated below).

Figure 3: The supply-demand ‘seesaw’ directly affects the frequency and stability of electrical networks (image source)

The key problem with most renewable electricity production (including production from solar and wind) is that it is intermittent and can’t be counted on when it is required most. Electricity systems needs to retain the ability to meet demand when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. There are ways to maintain this ability as the share of renewables increases, such as building enough spare dispatchable generation capacity to act as a backup (often gas- and coal-fired) or building storage and additional transmission capacity. All have significant costs, in both energetic and monetary terms, and face their own social and technical limitations. For example, while there is much discussion around building better batteries to unlock renewables, this is still an exceedingly expensive option that is suitable only for shorter timescales, not the summer to winter supply-demand gaps creating most of the need for system flexibility [8]. Returning to our diet analogy, pinning all of our hopes on storage is a bit like asking a someone to put on 300 lbs every fall to survive the winter months with very little food. We wouldn’t expect a human being to be capable of this for very long and the odds of the energy system pulling off the equivalent feat are not much better.

This difficulty only increases as renewables provide a larger share of total electricity. Figure 4 below shows how the mitigation investment required to maintain stable electricity grids increases non-linearly as the share of intermittent renewables grows [9, 10]. Technical and economic limitations in the electricity sector will manifest during any large-scale transition to renewable energy. Aside from a few fortunate regions with abundant dispatchable renewable energy resources (geothermal in Iceland, hydropower in Nicaragua, etc.), with current technology, this ceiling is far below the aspirational 100% renewable goal of the GND. The importance of these electricity system barriers is underscored by the fact that the provision of many of our energy services will need to be electrified in order to align with the growth of renewable energy.


Figure 4: The level of mitigation necessary to maintain stable electricity networks increases exponentially as intermittent generation rises

A story of limits

The crux of the problem is this: renewable energy typically produces forms of energy that are poor substitutes for the energy required to manufacture, transport, install, and operate renewable energy, at least without major investments into each stage of our energy system, significantly reducing or even erasing the net energy delivered. As such, these energy sources are dependent on the existing system and function less as a replacement for the fossil fuel economy and more as a temporary extension of it. The empirical evidence agrees—renewable energy investment does a poor job of displacing fossil fuels [11]. Of course, there are exceptions (such as traditionally produced biomass), but these have nowhere near the potential scale required to run today’s enormous globalized, industrialized economy.

Wherever the existing limit lies on the path to a 100% renewable energy system, we can and should push this limit through changes to consumption behaviours on the part of both industries and households, through things like shared utilization of end-use capital and energy services (think communal kitchens), a shift away from currently preferred but inefficient types of end-use capital (e.g. prioritizing public transit and micromobility over cars), greater alignment of demand to match intermittent supply, and overall demand reduction. However, it is precisely these kinds of changes which are more difficult to motivate, especially among those following the second narrative described above who may assume that high-energy, fossil-fuelled lifestyles represent ‘the good life’. Even at the extremes of practical behaviour change, the 100% target may still be unattainable.

Leaving aside the narrow concept of limits, a fundamental change in our energy basis and socio-metabolic regime would mean becoming a very different society from the one we know today. It is tempting to opine on our society’s wasteful habits and ask how much energy we really need, but the answer depends largely on the type of society we want to live in. Do we want to be able to build smartphones? How about MRI machines and water treatment plants? We may not be able to pick and choose what we want to keep from varying levels of socio-technical complexity (while it is certainly worth discussing what we might want to keep and what we can afford to lose). There is no demonstrated historical tendency for complex societies to voluntarily downshift their energy consumption on a large-scale [12].

When politicians and activists say “we have the technology” they vastly understate the challenges, potential barriers, and ultimate consequences involved in the transition.

The main point here is that the prospects and implications of shifting toward renewable energy extend far beyond present-day cost-benefit calculations, political maneuvering, or waging war on climate change. When politicians and activists say “we have the technology” they vastly understate the challenges, potential barriers, and ultimate consequences involved in the transition.

Raised stakes and political pushback

By forcing extensive change into an expedited timeframe, the GND raises the stakes and reduces the margin for error in the transition to renewable energy. If such a policy package were embraced, people everywhere would be subject to dramatically increased risks of misallocation of resources, misalignment of capacity between the various stages within the energy system, and of consequent economic and social fallout. The calls for radical action motivating the GND stem from a sense of desperation in the face of increasingly dire predictions regarding converging climate and ecological crises. That desperation is certainly justified, and yes, time is not on our side, but we must not dismiss the existential risks of a poorly executed GND.

The GND makes some very big promises and displays unmistakeable utopian elements. The problem is not so much the aspirational decarbonization goals, but the assurances of prodigious social benefits assumed to be attainable through or while pursuing them. Universal modern healthcare and higher education, job guarantees, raised minimum income, the elimination of poverty and inequality, significantly increased taxation of the wealthy—these goals proved elusive even during the period of greatest stability and economic surplus the world has ever seen. To achieve them during what will likely be a period of profound and growing ecological disruption, climate instability, and social unrest is rather optimistic to say the least. We will need to walk a long tightrope, balancing the pace of change, unforeseen challenges, impacts on communities, and necessary sacrifices. Perhaps the most dubious aspect is the overall ethical shift underscoring the kind of social cohesion necessary to achieve the GND in developed nations, from hyper-consumerism to environmental stewardship and the voluntary curtailment of discretionary consumption—essentially expecting everyone to spontaneously drop any differences of opinion and embrace the first narrative.

Owing to the existence of embedded conflicting perspectives, the GND will always have its opponents. Assuming we go ahead with it, any unintended consequence or local failure (of which there will be many) will be met with a backlash that risks eroding public confidence in the GND. This is a dynamic heightened in direct proportion to the level of ambition the GND embodies; the more utopian the stated goals, the starker the underwhelming reality, and the greater the negative reaction will be. How would we maintain broad political support for the GND, given the inevitability of broken promises? It may be that some of these promises need to be tempered against the requirement for achievable goals. A prime example can be seen in the German Energiewende, a planned national energy transition initiated in 2010 aimed at phasing out coal and nuclear energy. Promises of clean, renewable, reliable, and affordable energy clashed against the reality of Europe’s highest power prices and unconvincing progress on decarbonization [14]. This failure dampened public enthusiasm and made other countries hesitant to follow Germany’s example. The GND must learn this lesson—to promise more than you can deliver is to ensure failure.

There isn’t one unique, unambiguous end point to travel toward in response to the challenges we face.

One might reasonably ask whether too much ambition is really a weakness. Isn’t it better to have highly aspirational goals, even if they aren’t achieved, if only to carry us further than we would have gone otherwise? Well, not necessarily. It is important to note that there isn’t one unique, unambiguous end point to travel toward in response to the challenges we face. Time and our capacity for change are both limited. A last-ditch, herculean attempt to rebuild modernity anew would forestall the pursuit of other more credible and beneficial models of development.

First things first

So is the GND a good idea? Unfortunately, not in its present form. Given current levels of understanding of the complexities and trade-offs involved in a transition to renewable energy, and inflated expectations of future energy consumption, it would almost certainly result in a catastrophic failure. However, if guided by 1) an accurate and realistic understanding of the role of energy in society and 2) a willingness to honestly confront the profound socio-economic implications of a shift to a renewable energy basis, a reformulated GND might be able to point our global system toward a more sustainable paradigm.

Here are some additional principles for a truly transformative GND that I would propose:

  1. Energy literacy: energy transition is at the heart of the GND and its current assertions in this area are highly questionable. As such, there is a pronounced need for energy literacy, both in policy formulation and post-implementation general education. This energy literacy is needed to disarm simplistic narratives and enable transformative thinking.
  2. Demand side adaptation: to help bridge the gap between ambition and feasibility and unlock energy transition to the extent possible, the GND must embrace a radical rethinking of expectations for energy consumption. This must include overall demand reduction, but also greater demand flexibility, shared utilization of energy services, and shifting away from inefficient modes of energy service provision. Supply side interventions won’t cut it, we need to talk about the energy we use as a society.
  3. Evolving timeline: a complex, socio-metabolic process cannot be forced to conform to arbitrary deadlines and attempting to do so serves only to lock in unintended, suboptimal outcomes in terms of what we really want to achieve. The GND must abandon its stated 10-year timeframe and instead incorporate an informed, contingent, and evolving target for the pace of the transition.
  4. Political realism: assuming a forthcoming, sweeping alignment of perspectives on energy and social issues and subsequent unilateral action, as if in a political vacuum, is simply wishful thinking and must be rejected. The GND’s overall strategy must remain mindful of contrary narratives and the political pitfalls of excessive ambition. There should also be more discussion on who—from movements like Extinction Rebellion to environmental justice groups—can build the necessary political power for a truly transformative GND and how.
  5. Epistemic openness: new approaches are needed to navigate radical uncertainty and conflicting socio-technical narratives regarding energy transition. The GND must engage fields like Post-Normal Science—an approach to scientific decision-making for issues where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent” [15, 16]—as antidotes to reductionism and ideological echo chambers.

As a parting thought, ‘deal’ may not be the appropriate language given an overwhelming level of uncertainty. How can a deal be made and subsequently serve as the benchmark of success when the most relevant details are not yet known? In place of the GND, we might be better served by scaling back our ambition and embracing a Green New Direction. This alternative could preserve many of the same essential goals, but would need to forgo the use of enticing promises to motivate action and instead do the hard work of building solidarity and commitment to collectively face an energy future which will be more complex, more unpredictable, and more challenging than anything we’ve previously encountered.

References

  1. White, L.A., Energy and the evolution of culture. American Anthropologist, 1943. 45(3): p. 335-356.
  2. Krausmann, F., et al., The Global Sociometabolic Transition. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 2008. 12(5-6): p. 637-656.
  3. Haberl, H., et al., A socio-metabolic transition towards sustainability? Challenges for another Great Transformation. Sustainable Development, 2011. 19(1): p. 1-14.
  4. Giampietro, M., K. Mayumi, and A.H. Sorman, Energy analysis for a sustainable future: multi-scale integrated analysis of societal and ecosystem metabolism. 2013, London, UK: Routledge.
  5. BP, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019. 2019, BP. p. 64.
  6. Smil, V., Energy transitions : history, requirements, prospects. 2010, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
  7. Moriarty, P. and D. Honnery, Can renewable energy power the future? Energy Policy, 2016. 93: p. 3-7.
  8. Carbajales-Dale, M., C.J. Barnhart, and S.M. Benson, Can we afford storage? A dynamic net energy analysis of renewable electricity generation supported by energy storage. Energy & Environmental Science, 2014. 7(5): p. 1538-1544.
  9. Heard, B.P., et al., Burden of proof: A comprehensive review of the feasibility of 100% renewable-electricity systems. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 2017. 76: p. 1122-1133.
  10. Trainer, T., Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case. Energy Policy, 2010. 38(8): p. 4107-4114.
  11. York, R., Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels? Nature Climate Change, 2012. 2(6): p. 441-443.
  12. Smil, V., Energy in world history. 1994, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  13. Cai, T.T., T.W. Olsen, and D.E. Campbell, Maximum (em)power: a foundational principle linking man and nature. Ecological Modelling, 2004. 178(1): p. 115-119.
  14. Schiffer, H.-W. and J. Trüby, A review of the German energy transition: taking stock, looking ahead, and drawing conclusions for the Middle East and North Africa. Energy Transitions, 2018. 2(1): p. 1-14.
  15. Funtowicz, S.O. and J.R. Ravetz, Science for the post-normal age. Futures, 1993. 25(7): p. 739-755.
  16. Tainter, J.A., T. Allen, and T.W. Hoekstra, Energy transformations and post-normal science. Energy, 2006. 31(1): p. 44-58.

Tim Crownshaw is a PhD Candidate in the department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University in Canada and a student in the Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) research partnership. He studies global dynamic transition pathways from non-renewable to renewable energy resources using quantitative, systems-based modelling approaches.

Swedish colonialist neutrality

Engraved and hand coloured map of Scandinavia from the early days of the Swedish Empire in the 17th century. Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

by Roger Blomqvist

Old colonial relations cast a shadow over today’s environmental politics. But when accusations of historical abuse pop up, some nations manage to fly below the radar in spite of extensive colonial involvement. Due to their so-called higher standards of behaviour they may even gain advantages in the global competition for control of natural resources. ‘Neutral’ Sweden is one of those nations.

In this essay, I weave together depictions of Swedish colonial history with recent political events. I thus hope to shed light on the way that professed concerns with sustainability in Sweden and Northern Europe interact with postcolonial power structures today. Much of the historical research that I build on is derived from two recent books which have contributed to a rethinking of Swedish and Scandinavian involvement in colonialism: the research anthology Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena (2013), edited by Magdalena Naum and Jonas M. Nordin, and Våra kolonier, de vi hade och de som aldrig blev av (‘Our colonies, the ones we had and those never realized’; my translation), by Herman Lindqvist.

Double standards in Northern European environmental politics

An odd thing happened to the mainstream image of Northern European environmental politics following the wildfires in the Amazon rain forest last year. In August 2019 the G7, or Group of Seven, countries offered Brazil a $20 million relief effort—allegedly to reduce the risk of climate change by counteracting extensive forest fires in the Amazon. The offer was however turned down by the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who confronted the G7 leaders and said that they were treating Brazil ‘like a colony’. Bolsonaro eventually had second thoughts and accepted the aid, but the controversy nonetheless brought the question of colonial guilt and contemporary postcolonial power relations to wider public attention.

What makes Bolsonaro’s scoffing particularly interesting is that he directed it toward nations that tend to be depicted as humanitarian and climate heroes: Germany and Norway. Those two countries had withdrawn financial support from the Amazon Fund in order to pressure Bolsonaro’s administration to take action against the Amazon fires. While influential social scientists have celebrated Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Germany as ‘clean and green’ utopias, Brazil’s right-wing president unexpectedly—and even against his own anti-environmentalist politics—opens the door to an environmental justice critique of Northern European countries. He accurately ascribes double standards to Norway and Germany, Norway as a whaling country and Germany as needing reforestation. At the same time, his own administration engages in even more absurd forms of anti-environmentalism—as when the director-general of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research Ricardo Galvão was fired and labelled a ‘traitor’ after the Institute issued a report in 2019 on the acceleration of deforestation in the Amazon.

The clean and green façade of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is revealed.

Activists and NGOs used the attention which both the Amazon fires and Bolsonaro attracted to point out that the Brazilian president, although he himself wants to practice environmental destruction at home, does sort of hit the nail on the head when he criticizes Northern European countries for not wanting to change anything in their own backyards. As a Norwegian news site writes, ‘Norway’s rain forest preservation programs have not been without controversy, with critics suggesting Norway has opted to finance climate measures abroad instead of cutting more carbon emissions at home by curbing oil exploration and production.’ The clean and green façade of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is revealed. Also, the postcolonial interests of rich countries are still evident: the $20 million relief effort may contain a hidden agenda and climate care can serve as a perfect alibi for retaining economic influence—provided that the commitment to sustainability and fair distribution of welfare and resources is made credible. In 2018, the Brazilian vice president, general Hamilton Mourão, expressed suspicions about such professed commitments: ‘The rich world uses the climate debate to continue to dominate.’

There is a historical continuity to point to here: the poor have suffered the most from environmental impact and unjust conditions caused by the wealthy. And scientists project that this tendency will escalate with global warming, as a future scenario with extreme heat threatens the global South in particular, with consequences like decreased labour productivity, lower crop yields, and impoverished human health. And the ‘clean and green utopias’ of Northern Europe have a part in this unequal system. Equitable distribution of environmental load and economic benefits is not a core shareholder value in the global economy.

Sweden is one of the countries who are keen on business in Brazil. The Swedish Minister for rural affairs, Sven-Erik Bucht, went there in 2017 with major Swedish forestry actors and researchers, establishing relations for Swedish businesses under the guise of sustainability. The Amazon is a target for Swedish exports of technology and forestry know-how. Since Swedish forestry often includes criticized clearcutting, Greenpeace Sweden took the opportunity when the fires in the Amazon brought attention to deforestation to point to Swedish double standards when the country pressures Brazil to preserve the rain forest all the while replacing forests with tree plantations at a remarkable speed in Sweden. Since the same companies that are trying to gain access to Brazilian land are causing environmental harm back in Sweden, Greenpeace’s reaction against Swedish double standards could be taken even further. These double standards reside not only in the tendency to require better environmental protection in Brazil than at home, but also in how Swedish forestry actors would happily contribute to deforestation in the Amazon.

We can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.

So what is going on with all this? How can widely celebrated ‘clean and green utopias’ engage in such dubious practices? By looking at the role of Scandinavia, and in particular Sweden, in the colonial era, we can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.

Swedish colonialism in thegreat olden days and today

Sweden’s ‘free lane’ into business profit in formerly colonized areas depends on the common perception that Scandinavian colonial violations were marginal, if they occurred at all. But however negligible the Swedish exercise of power has been, it is paradoxically depicted with great glamour. A telling example is the Swedish national anthem from 1844, including the patriotic stanza which begins ‘Du tronar på minnen från fornstora dar, då ärat ditt namn flög över jorden(You are enthroned on memories of great olden days, when honoured your name flew across the Earth’).

Many Swedes probably tune into the song with a sense of pride—most commonly at sport events—and a vague notion of its references to the Swedish Era of Great Power in the years 1611-1718. Sweden was then a colonizer, although admittedly on a smaller scale than Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain or France—and allegedly of a benevolent type.

But the Swedish Crown and power sphere were in fact heavily involved in the European colonization project with all its atrocities. This is convincingly shown in the anthology on Scandinavian colonialism from 2013 edited by Naum and Nordin. In more than a dozen close-up descriptions of colonial encounters, a continuous whitewash of Scandinavian history is revealed. The anthology displays Swedish involvement on several continents: from expansion up North to the New World, Africa, and Asia. In 2015 this book was succeeded by Våra kolonier in which popular historian Herman Lindqvist uncovers a strong Swedish ambition to develop a colonial role. Conclusions in the two books align: dreams of gold, ivory, sugar, spices, and tobacco triggered the Swedish search for and foundation of colonies from the early 17th century in North America, West Africa, and later the West Indies. Ships were built to export iron, wood, and tar, financing increasing imports.

Swedish iron was a key ingredient—mainly for arms production—in the infamous triangular trade. Dutch-born entrepreneur Louis De Geer was an important figure in this as the Swedish Crown granted him a monopoly on copper and iron trade (he later got the epithet ‘the father of Swedish industry’). A curious fact is that iron in his forges was cast into bars that suited the backs of donkeys (!) used for transportation in Africa, as an adaptation to the slave economy: bent bars were replaced by slaves. With Royal Swedish support he also established a trading post in Cabo Corso at the African Gold Coast. 1,500-2,000 slaves were shipped by Swedes over the Atlantic. Ethics were no obstacle. The European colonial attitude depended on racial supremacy. A Swedish pastor doubted openly that African slaves were human beings. A Lutheran bishop in Copenhagen proclaimed that slavery was a natural state for heathens and punishment for their sins.

The word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources.

Sweden has successfully avoided scrutiny partly because of a widespread understanding that it never got any major colonies. The word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources, historical or popular. But Sweden did have several colonies for quite some time. Baltic provinces were annexed in wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, staying under Swedish control for 150 years. Regions in Germany and Poland were occupied. Swedish trade relied on indentured peasants in those areas. If the brutality of Swedes is absent in Swedish sources, it is all the more present in German, Polish, and Baltic ones.

An imagined peaceful meeting between Swedish settlers and Native Americans in New Sweden with warring Native American tribes in the background. Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

The Swedish leadership also aimed for America. A detailed colonial trade plan was formed and New Sweden was established in Delaware in 1638, challenging Spanish control. The Swedish governor got royal instructions to treat the ‘wild people’ well to gain their confidence. The Crown was hoping that ‘higher standards’ would convince them to withdraw from competing traders. And the Swedes managed to cooperate with the Lenape and Susquehannock nations for some time.

In New Sweden, forest Finns were forced (by updated legal restrictions in Sweden) to cultivate the colony with their ‘slash and burn’ practise. They were roughly treated and historians have even used the term ‘penal colony’. The use of indentured labour was similar to the infamous use of the same system in British plantations in the West Indies.

There is evidence that the Swedish governor actually wished to eliminate the Indigenous population in the barren colony. He applied for sufficient numbers of soldiers to do so. The proposal was however ignored by the Crown, probably because of the urgent need for war resources in Poland and elsewhere.

The Swedish Royal council also planned other settlements in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Asia in the 17th and the 18th century. But plans constantly failed, until Sweden at last obtained Saint Barthélemy from France in 1784. The Caribbean island became an important trade hub with slave trade as the main objective. This trade relied on Swedish ‘neutrality’ in European wars.

It is revealing as well that leading Swedish merchants sold iron (for weaponry) to rebellious forces in the American War of Independence.

Photo from Swedish Saint Bartholémy, circa 1865. Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

Back in Europe, the discovery of silver in Lapland in the 1630s triggered the Swedish Crown’s expansion north into Sápmi. In centuries to come, resources like fur, game, and minerals were extracted—and the Indigenous Sámi were ‘civilized’. The colonial attitude was obvious: Chancellor Oxenstierna referred to the northern parts of Sweden as ‘our India’. The ultimate purpose was to displace the Sámi people and deny them their independence and land rights.

The Swedish presence through settlers, bailiffs, entrepreneurs, and clerics in Lapland has not been seen as colonial domination by historians until the last few decades. Instead, terms like agricultural expansion, Forest Sámi assimilation, domestication, or civilizing have been used. But the compulsory boarding school attendance (with Christianity lessons) for Sámi children cut off from their families is not essentially different from the Belgian education of natives in the Congo or North American examples such as the Brafferton Indian School in Virginia.

Mining interests have repeatedly collided with reindeer herding and settlements.

Furthermore, the colonial legacy in Sápmi is still evident today. There are long-standing conflicts about land use in much of Sápmi, often in connection to the environmental impact of extractive industrial projects. For example, mining interests have repeatedly collided with reindeer herding and settlements. At the present time mining entrepreneurs, including several multinational companies, are searching for rare earth metals and iron, exploitation that is marketed by companies (and the government) as environmentally and socially beneficial because Swedish environmental protection and working conditions are superior to Chinese ones. In all this, the Sámi appear to have no say.

One land use conflict is currently tried in the Swedish Supreme Court. The dispute concerns who should administrate hunting and fishing rights on the grazing lands of the reindeer herding community of Girjas: the Sámi community or the Swedish government. Girjas has won in the District Court and the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court’s decision will likely serve as a precedent in similar cases, meaning that it can have far-reaching effects on how Indigenous land use and land rights are interpreted by Swedish courts in the future.

In the court proceedings, surprisingly blunt statements have been made by representatives of Swedish authorities about the Sámi as ‘inferior’, a characterization which echoes the old colonial depiction of Indigenous peoples. Throughout history many Sámi people have been hurt, humiliated, and oppressed by Swedish authorities. When the well-known Sámi public figure Johannes Marainen was recently interviewed in a Swedish newspaper, he concluded that ‘We Swedes are quick to engage when people in other countries are oppressed, but we have not really cleaned up in front of our own door.’ This is not the least apparent in the Swedish government’s continual restriction of who has the legal right to call themselves Sámi on ‘Swedish’ territory: reindeer owners of ethnic Sámi origin. All other Sámi people—like fishing and hunting Sámi—are by Swedish definitions not Sámi! The self-imposed governmental right to define, acculturate, and segregate the Sámi people is largely unbroken since colonial times.

The vast underground iron ore mine in Kiruna/Giron. Photo:
Arild Vågen, CC BY-SA 4.0

Scandinavian peculiarities within the European colonial project

In a discussion of colonialism in Scandinavia, it should be noted that Denmark maintained even more widespread presence in colonies around the world than Sweden did, in Africa, Asia, and the West Indies. Also, Denmark tried to control the North, with its whaling and fisheries, in a ‘colonial union’ with Iceland, North Atlantic Islands, and Greenland. The exploitation of Greenland has been similar to Swedish expansion in Sápmi. Greenland still remains Danish, with a restricted autonomy. American president Donald Trump recently made a surprising announcement of the intention to buy Greenland, demonstrating how strategically and economically attractive land areas still are seen as available for purchase. But the neocolonial bid was declined by the Danish prime minister. Following the old colonial pattern, the islanders themselves were not consulted.

Heavy violence was not a part of Scandinavian colonialism, at least not to the same extent as in British, Spanish, French and later German rule. But one of the most long-lived slave revolts in the Caribbean actually occurred in the Danish colony of St. John in 1733. For six months a group of slaves battled and killed Europeans and slaves of other origin, until French soldiers violently ended the revolt. Colonial competitors would often unite in this manner against enemies who threatened the colonialist structure.

Another difference between Scandinavian oversees colonies and those of other European nations was that the numbers of Scandinavian settlers in the colonies were on the whole few. However, this doesn’t mean—so Naum and Nordin write in the introduction to their anthology—that the colonies were negligible in geo-economic terms. The colonial purposes were similar to those of other European powers:

Scandinavia’s colonial expansion was motivated by and involved particular economic thinking, mercantilist drive for profit (to sell dear and buy cheap) and balancing national economies. Furthermore, it made use of the principles of natural law, which stipulated universal rights to trade, travel, explore and settle in foreign lands and justified violent actions if these rights were denied.

Naum and Nordin show how the quest for economic growth attracted Dutch capital and workforce to Scandinavia, bringing industrialization as well as capitalism. Books were written about the usefulness of trade and the need for founding colonies. Sugar refineries were built in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Swedish herring was traded as food for slaves. Merchants offered shipping of slaves to French colonies. Expeditions to America were made, even secretly in war time.

Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war.

The Swedish Crown, merchants, and political leadership shared a Eurocentric worldview and supported the right to conquer, dominate, and civilize in the name of superiority and technological advancement. But there was also a specifically Swedish twist to colonial ideology: Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war. When Britain and the Netherlands were fighting, Sweden exported cannons to the Dutch and iron for weaponry to the Brits. France could, when fighting Britain, rely on Swedish shipping of smuggled slaves, weaponry and other goods in the Caribbean. Also, hundreds of US trade ships managed to avoid customs by sailing under Swedish flag—and thus Sweden could maintain the lucrative Saint Barthélemy trade traffic.

There seems to be a line of continuity in Swedish ‘neutrality’ goodwill from colonial times up to this day. When defending delicate business agreements, Swedish rulers are well aware of the strong link between ‘nonprofit’ trademarks and the ability to secure market shares.

The self-image of Sweden as a peace-loving world conscience of human rights rhymes badly with Swedish arms exports. The last few decades there has been a public debate on exports to dictatorships and regimes at war—though it is at least not, unlike in the ‘great olden days,’ a question of illegal smuggling. On the contrary, the companies and the government take care to emphasise the morally responsible nature of the Swedish arms industry, using foreign policy watchwords like ‘equality,’ ‘freedom of speech,’ and ‘press freedom’. Trade is promoted by professing high standards of human rights and progressiveness.

But whatever ideals are invoked, Swedish exports of military equipment are frequent to countries where essential freedoms and rights are absent. The Swedish company SAAB recently delivered airborne systems of radar surveillance to United Arab Emirates. The suppression of human rights in the Arabic autocracy was never questioned. Amnesty noted that SAAB does little or nothing to check if delivered equipment is used in war crimes or oppression.

The ongoing SAAB delivery of 36 fighter aircraft to Brazil causes no troubling debate in Sweden. But when exports to warring countries are highlighted the government is forced to act; recently exports to Turkey were stopped because of the war in northern Syria (the contents of the exports were secret, however—protected by law).

Continuing on or contesting colonial relations

As suggested earlier, ‘climate action’ is becoming another useful sales argument for rich countries like Sweden. But when it comes to climate offsetting, rich countries gladly export it. Swedish funds support tree plantations in Kachung in Uganda in a project which has meant that local farmers have been forced to move, thus losing their small income. The project has even been considered a form of ‘landgrabbing.’ Now the farmers cannot afford to send their children to school; some even starve. Ugandan David Kureeba, chief at the National Association of Professional Environmentalists, called this ‘climate colonialism’ in a major Swedish newspaper. The colonial pattern is there, in compensations for emissions of carbon dioxide as well as in exports of garbage to Africa. In a similar case, it has been revealed that Swedish government agencies have bought carbon offsets in Brazil from a multinational corporation that has now been sued for poisoning the land of the Guarani people. The offsets were bought to compensate for air travel by employees at agencies like the Government Offices and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Another example of Swedish ‘high standards’ being more like double standards can be found in the story of the Ethiopian/Swedish cardiologist Fikru Maru. In 2013 he was imprisoned in Ethiopia, where he was detained for five years without a trial, falsely accused of bribery. His daughter—a Swedish resident—was informed by the Swedish Foreign Ministry that his prolonged detention time could not be questioned, since Swedish detention restrictions are lacking too (UN, the European Council, and several NGOs have criticized this). It would therefore be inconsistent to put pressure on Ethiopia. But alas, there were other reasons to be silent: Sweden was depending on Ethiopian support for a coveted seat on the UN Security Council and did not want to annoy Ethiopian colleagues by criticizing unlawfulness. This is revealed in a Fikru Maru biography which came out in October 2019.

As we have seen, there is reason to conclude that Swedish ‘higher standards’ to at least some extent have been tactical more than factual—a strategic colonialist neutrality. Some may even call Sweden’s world conscience rhetoric hypocritical. In any case, regardless of how one interprets Swedish neutrality, it is a fact that Sweden fully participated in the colonial expansion and supported it; colonies added to the power and glory of those ‘great olden days’ that are commemorated in the national anthem.

There has been no decolonizing moment during which Sweden has had to rethink its legacy. But some are trying to change this.

What differentiates Sweden from, for example, Britain and France is that there has been no decolonizing moment during which Sweden has had to rethink its legacy. But some are trying to change this. Swedish artist Carl Johan De Geer, a descendant of the industrialist Louis De Geer mentioned earlier, designed an art exhibition in 2019 (in Norrköping Art Museum) to discuss colonial guilt. De Geer wants to process the past in a way Swedish schools and art never have. For him, the triggering factor was his own encounter a few years before with a descendant of a slave sent to Brazil by his forefather (!).

The Church of Sweden also calls for a rewriting of history: ‘Sweden must deal with its historical debt to the Sámi,’ Archbishop Antje Jackelén officially declared in 2016, aware of the Swedish lack of international credibility due to the state’s and the Church’s treatment of the Sámi. As part of the Church’s self-examination several books have been published, including one with scientific white papers. The Church supports the Sámi Council’s request for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to the one in Canada, but the Swedish national parliament has as of yet failed to act on this.

Other states have at least partly begun to deal with their guilt. Germany is perhaps the best role model. Its World War II atrocities including the Holocaust have caused a processing in literature, art, education, and public debate. This has been termed ‘Vergangenheitsbemächtigung’, i. e. the processing of the past, and may be the key to Germany’s remarkable ethical recovery in the eyes of the world. But at the same time, the immense German colonial abuse in Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has largely remained unexposed. Germany’s unwillingness to owe up to its colonial past is evident in the strained relations between Germany and Namibia (formerly German Southwest Africa) as the countries are five years into unsuccessful negotiations of the terms of an official apology and compensation from Germany for the genocide of 1904-1908.

It is disheartening (although perhaps not surprising) that there is a similar absence of processing of historical crimes in current superpowers. In Russia, Stalin is idolized to this day by one-eyed history writing—spelled out even by president Putin, the new ‘tsar’—despite all Soviet atrocities. Notable literature by Nobel Prize winners Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Svetlana Alexievich uncovers a broader picture, but has not had an impact on the history that is told by the state. In China, the Communist Party nurtures a leadership cult around Mao Zedong as part of the government’s effort to legitimize continued power concentration and repression. And the one-sided description of the conquest of America, which glosses over genocide and traumatization of Indigenous peoples as well as the atrocities of the slave economy, plays a role in continued racism in the U.S. in the 21st century.

Any benefits that can come from the infrastructures and technologies of modern, globalized society will be effectively undermined by continued abuse and uneven distribution of wealth. In a world of increasing inequalities, where material wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and environmental load is placed disproportionately on the poorest, there is certainly a need for both processing of colonial guilt and a decolonization debate.

If history is unprocessed and allowed to repeat itself, ‘clean and green utopias’ like Sweden can continue to use their good reputation and depict themselves as ‘neutral’ actors to get strategic advantages in global trade. A scrutiny of historical roles in the colonial era shows how the same old patterns are at work. Although political control over vast colonies is history, economic structures ‘invisibly’ serve the same function (and in a way that is often cheaper than managing empires). Today formerly colonized regions largely depend on foreign company investments to develop a role in global trade. Differentiation of production is driven by market laws; cheap labour and access to raw materials are essential to make post-colonial wheels spin. Environmental harm is part of the equation. And in this postcolonial world economy, Sweden uses the same strategies to promote its economic interests as during the era of European colonial expansion.

Former colonial powers have a responsibility both for their material impact on the planet and the ideologies they enforce.

The possibilities of climate action

So where does all this leave us? Apart from scrutinizing their colonial history and identifying repetitions of historical patterns in the present, how might Scandinavian countries approach decolonization? This is a complex question which I can barely begin to answer here. I will say this though: we need to question the idea of economic growth as an ultimate bringer of welfare for all. In a world experiencing the devastating effects of climate change, this idea is less plausible than ever: as excessive consumption by a world minority threatens all of humanity’s existence, there can evidently be no equality unless wealth is distributed differently across the globe. This means that former colonial powers have a responsibility both for their material impact on the planet and the ideologies they enforce. Sweden—with its ‘higher standards’—is one of those countries. To advocate a greenwashed variety of ‘business as usual’ is to preserve existing power relations, instead of questioning vested interests. Selling Swedish fighter jets to Brazil and oppressing Sámi people at home while telling Bolsonaro to respect Indigenous rights—cashing in and washing our hands—is certainly not good enough.

But things can change. Slave trade and slavery were abolished as a result of widespread resistance and popular movements. It took centuries, but it happened.

We are now witnessing increasing pressure to change economic and political goals in an effort to counteract climate change. This may be the beginning of another dramatic shift of paradigms—if double standards hiding and justifying short-term profit interests do not stand in the way.

NOTE: Shortly after the publication of this text, the Swedish Supreme Court (Högsta Domstolen) ruled in favour of Girjas reindeer herding community against the state. The court’s decision was unanimous.

Many thanks to Rut Elliot Blomqvist for eminent editing and language revision.

Roger Blomqvist is a retired current affairs reporter/researcher and producer of “life philosophy” programs at Swedish public radio (Sveriges Radio), presently a university student of history and culture.

Public money for environmental justice

Fearless Girl statue, facing the Wall Street bull. Image: Alex Proimos CC BY-NC

by Joe Ament

The Green New Deal is perhaps the most audacious plan to ever seriously address the grave social and environmental challenges we face. By identifying “systemic injustice,” the plan is sweeping in its scope. Yet, while the plan discusses public banks in a reference to adequate capital, the plan fails to see the commercial banking sector as one of the structural causes of, and impediments to solving, the problems we face. Importantly, the Green New Deal fails to articulate exactly why a nationalized banking system is critical to the success of the programs its proposes.

Money is created in modern economies when commercial banks extend interest-bearing loans to individuals and corporations. The money in those loans does not exist before the loan is generated but is created when the bank marks up the borrower’s checking account. This is in stark contrast to the general notion that money is a finite resource, such as gold, that is allocated to its best economic use by the Central Bank.

When money is created by the private sector in the manner discussed above, it is seen as a private resource. Accordingly, public use of money for government spending is viewed as wasteful expenditure rather than productive investment. In the case of the Green New Deal, the massive price tag is seen as cannibalizing the productive private sector. It is for this reason that opponents of the Green New Deal argue that it will hurt the economy, and its proponents argue to “finance” the plan by moving money from one sector to another, e.g. from Wall Street to Main Street.

Money is a social relation. It is an abstract measure of what we all owe to one another.

Money, however, is not a private resource. And it is not a finite commodity. Money is a social relation. It is an abstract measure of what we all owe to one another. Think of it as a tally of everything you owe and are owed, for all the work you do and all the purchases you make. Now extrapolate that to the whole country, let the government manage it—just like it does with laws and other contracts—and you’ve got a monetary system!

The role of the government is crucial in managing the money system. Since money is a social relation, the government is responsible for the money system. Think of what happened in the Great Depression, the Savings and Loan crisis, and the 2008 Financial Crisis: the government always stepped in to repair the money system. And as guarantor of the social relation, it always will.

Monetary theorists understand the government’s monetary prerogative in three ways. First is the government’s ability to choose the unit of account that is used in the country—dollars in the United States and Canada. Second is the government’s ability to issue those units of account into circulation. Third is the benefit of first use that comes with issuing money. This last right is called seigniorage and can be thought of as the profit of creating money above the cost of printing and distributing that money.

Money has existed as a state-managed tally of owing and being owed (of credits and debts in theoretical parlance) for thousands of years. In fact, a lot of evidence suggests that such monetary systems existed for thousands of years before coins and markets—and might even be the reason humans began to settle in the first place! (See Money: The Unauthorized Biography.) Capitalism is a relatively new manner of social organization and is characterized by a transition from state-created money to bank-created money.

Think about that for a moment. Capitalism is about bank-created money! For thousands of years, the state, for better or worse, controlled three monetary prerogatives discussed above. The state created money by spending it into existence and guaranteed its value by levying taxes in the unit of account in which it spent. Beginning around the twelfth century, however, states began to expand beyond what their power to tax could justify and so they asked private merchants for loans. (See Brown 2013, p.111, and Davies 2002, p.261.) Slowly but surely, states lost the majority of their power to create money and the seigniorage benefit that came with that creation. States only kept the power to determine the unit of account. But with that power came the responsibility to manage the stability of the unit of account.

There has been precious little discussion on ending or reigning in the commercial banking industry’s money-creation power.

It is this strange conflict of interest with which this paper is most concerned. The state is forced to ensure a stable dollar, but it isn’t able to determine how—or for what—dollars enter society. So while much of the discussion surrounding the Green New Deal concerns ending or reigning in capitalism, there has been precious little discussion on ending or reigning in the commercial banking industry’s money-creation power.

While capitalism is often thought of as the private accumulation of surplus, the manner in which that accumulation is enabled is often ignored. Commercially created money means that production surpluses remain within the private sector. Were the state to take back the power to create money, and the seigniorage benefit that comes with such creation, it would severely limit the extent to which the private sector could accumulate surplus. In fact, nationalizing money creation would align the right of the state to create money with the responsibility it bears to manage money’s stability.

Perhaps most importantly, by regaining the monetary prerogative, the state could influence the direction of the economy by spending and lending money into existence in accordance with its goals. In the case of the Green New Deal, these goals would be social justice and environmental sustainability. This would mean that the tenets of the Green New Deal—from healthcare and education to healthy food and sustainable energy—would become structural components of a just and sustainable economy and not simply regulatory mechanisms of an extractive capitalism.

The Green New Deal, as currently written, is an end-of-pipe regulatory framework that relies upon taxing bank-created money to finance social and environmental spending.

This is a huge difference! By avoiding a discussion of a nationalized money supply, the Green New Deal, as currently written, is an end-of-pipe regulatory framework that relies upon taxing bank-created money to finance social and environmental spending. A nationalized money supply would transform government spending into the monetary creation mechanism and embed justice and sustainability as hallmarks of how we manage our national economy.

Joe Ament, PhD, is an ecological economist at The University of Vermont whose research explores monetary theory and policy in the context of socio-ecological equity.

Hayashi-san’s Green Headband


Philippe Caza, Hayashi-san’s Green Headband, 2019

by Yann Quero

Never for a moment would anyone have believed that Mr. Hayashi would become the most important person in the world, much less himself.

Mr. Hayashi, or Hayashi-san as one says in Japan, was ordinary in the extreme; average height, a barely expressive face, and dressed in an indistinguishable gray suit. Aged 37 years with a slightly stooped demeanor, he eked out an anonymous existence between an apartment in the distant Tokyo suburb of Machida and the headquarters of Yatohido Company. It was there that he was employed in the obscure but respectable profession of assistant accountant. His aged parents had retired several years earlier to their home prefecture of Kochi, far to the South leaving him alone in a capital city little friendly to young adults.

Nothing in the daily life of Hayashi-san would resonate with the ancient significance of his name meaning “forest”. On the contrary, he was dominated by the artificiality of this megacity of 26 million people which, in moments of reflection, makes one ponder at what point we are still actually human beings. The daily life of Hayashi-san had been upset several weeks prior by the arrival in his department of a trainee secretary, Miss Mariko – Mariko-san. Her smiles linked with the etymology of her traditional first name – “child of true reason” – were like a taste of sake to his parched throat reaching to his heart, even though he barely entertained the slightest possibility that she had actually noticed him with his middling status alongside the hundreds that made up the Yatohido social scene. Rumors circulating about her also suggested prudence, as the young woman was identified as a union type.

Proof of the matter came on one chilly day of 13 February.

Under a drizzle not quite rain, Mariko-san proudly appeared at the revolving door of the main entrance to the company headquarters, flanked by half a dozen strapping sumo wrestler types. A banner held above her head accused Yatohido Company of implication in illicit disposal of extremely toxic waste and called for a strike. Like all conscientious accountants, Hayashi-san was hardly implicated in the activities of his company. That is how the world is. The newspapers overflowed with evidence of increasingly serious environmental violations on the part of the company. He was not especially proud of it. However, his deeply-ingrained habits of meticulous labor rendered even the idea of protest virtually sacrilege.

Several employees had proceeded to the entrance, most of them indifferent to the troublemakers. Only a few donned head bands.

Strikes in the ex-empire of the rising sun differ significantly from those in the West.

For non-Japanese readers, it should be clarified that strikes in the ex-empire of the rising sun differ significantly from those in the West. Whereas Westerners gesticulate with vehemence, noisily yelling slogans and demonstrate outside of their workplace, the Japanese prefer to protest silently by wearing a white band tied around their head, before going to work, as a kind of symbolic protest. Sensitive to the code of honor as much as to the lure of gain, the Japanese bosses are generally resigned to grant concessions rather than see their employees express their discontent overtly in front of them, with the help of a cotton cloth of immaculate whiteness.

Hayashi-san had no will to participate in this demonstration. Yet, even when Miss Mariko turned her eyes upon him, he dared not look back at her. Even so, he committed the folly of turning his head towards her. Although petrified by the audacity of his act, Hayashi-san could not at the same time repress a frisson of wonderment at breathing the scent of jasmine exuded from the bodice of the young woman as she tied a cloth around the back of his head.

Despite this breach of the ordinary, the day began with metronomic regularity, reading departmental notes, checking bills, credits and debit accounts, all the little games that accountants play. At a quarter past eleven, as with all his colleagues, he placed a telephone order for a bento which was delivered at five minutes to twelve, with its heavy smell of perfumed rice and fried mackerel. Expertly wielding chopsticks, he carefully devoured the contents under the cover of a computer screen. It was at this moment he became aware that people were staring at him. The parade of company officials with scowling faces had not escaped him. It is true that very few of the accounting staff had participated in the strike action, but two tables further down, the grumpy Kazuki showed his opposition by wearing a white head band, without attracting the kind of sustained attention as himself. Even more surprisingly, Mr. Kosumi, the head of finance, entered the room in person with a mini-radio attached to his ear. The volume was sufficiently strong to indicate to Hayashi that the events associated with the strike now rippled through the company. The finance chief fixed upon him with an insistent stare before stifling a groan and turning on his heels.

In this atmosphere of general nervousness, Hayashi attributed the attention of which he was victim to the distinctive smell of the fish which he had just eaten. Struck with a certain shame, he disposed of the empty lunchbox in the bin near the elevator and not inside the office as usual. But the odor followed him for the rest of the day, at least he believed so given the searching eyes of those who observed in silence.

So many souls are prisoners of their illusions of success on which they have been lulled.

Hayashi-san’s stupefaction reached a height at the point when he exited the office at 6 PM. In order to economize on power, as is want in Japan, employees were no longer required to stay on in their offices until after dark. He really did not complain even if he sometimes wished to be able to finish off working on certain delicate documents.

His stupor was driven into fear at having nothing rational when he noticed a group of journalists entering through the revolving doors. It seemed unlikely but they appeared to be personally awaiting him. Some of them knew his name and interrogated him on the meaning of his actions.

Deeply embarrassed, poor Hayashi-san stammered out vague contrite explications on the legality of the strike process notwithstanding of its potential damage to national production. In the wake of these maladroit verbal pirouettes, and profiting from the crowd and the gathering darkness, Hayashi-san made his escape. However, the looks he received in the metro and then on the Odakyu-Odawara line appeared to him no less inquisitive and suspicious than those of his colleagues and the reporters. Attributing this sentiment to work stress, Hayashi plunged into reading the Nihon Keizai Shimbun to check up on the stock exchange where he had placed his meager savings.

First observing the scorn in the eyes of his landlady, Hayashi-san then discovered the terrible truth in the image he saw reflected in the mirror of his minuscule bathroom. In his troubles he had forgotten to take off his headband upon leaving work. But the gravity of that forgetfulness was hardly equal to the surprise of discovering that the headband was actually green in color, not white …

That evening, switching from TV Asahi to Fuji Television and to Nippon News, he gained some understanding although not of the full depth of the disaster. His “statement” had become newsworthy. All the commentators questioned this novel mode of protest vesting the strike with a profoundly new forceful claim. Wearing the colour green had not escaped anyone, yet a great ambiguity surrounded it.

Many foresaw an environmental action, which made good sense in the light of toxic waste cases including Yatohido Company’s. Others forecast that it could be a protest against the excesses of Japanese acculturation. In reality, in old Japanese there is no term to describe this colour. Since olden times the term ao signified “blue” as well as referring to “green.” Other analysts passed comment that green is equally the colour of Islam. The fact that Hayashi-san had worn the green headband outside of his workplace was perceived as an act to draw attention to the fact that the world could no longer live in peace until the great questions dealing with Islam were resolved, commencing with the Palestine problem, otherwise threatening Japan’s petroleum supplies.

Wearing the color green had not escaped anyone, yet a great ambiguity surrounded it.

Hayashi-san preferred to sleep rather than listening to these rambling discussions. He could not be prevented, however, from asking himself why Mariko-san had given him a green headband, when all his fellow strikers were provided with classic white headbands. Was it just an accident? A mistake? Or, was she playing a joke on him? Or perhaps was she helping a colleague to takeover his position?

Hayashi-san’s night was interrupted by interminable periods of insomnia and horrible nightmares devoid of sense, even if some of them led to proximity with Mariko whom he would not have needlessly displeased.

On the morning of 14 February, Hayashi-san put away the headband and sought to forget this painful episode. That was impossible. All the passengers on the Odakyu Odawara line and, in turn, the metro appeared to scrutinize him with insistence. Without doubt it was an illusion of his fatigued brain. Still, he could not help but note that several Tokyoites were wearing green headbands.

A crowd of journalists, cameramen, and onlookers hurried in front of the Yatohido Company quarters. Even though the crowd was too dense for him to discern whether the strikers were still there, Hayashi-san did not imagine for a second that this was on account of himself. Nevertheless, as a precaution he furnished himself with an anti-pollution cotton protection mask covering his mouth and nose, to which he had added a gray scarf and wide-brimmed hat. Incognito, he flowed with the crowd of company employees and managed to pass through the media barrage without being noticed. Watchmen awaited in the interior of the building. Apprehended, he was led to face the shacho or company president.

Never in his wildest dreams had Hayashi envisaged to meet Yatohido in person. At least a dozen echelons above him were ranged, commencing with the certified accountant, then the inspector, then the deputy chief of service, the chief, and right up to the head of finance who alone could be expected to talk to the great patron. The interview was of murderous brevity. Yatohido did not even address a word to him. He merely turned a scornful glance – more contemptuous than angry – allowing a junior executive to explain that his deportment was totally unacceptable for a respectable company. They didn’t even ask him to explain himself. He was dismissed without any other form of process and enjoined to leave by the side door, so as not to add a new scandal to the actual dishonorable confusion.

His return trip was interminable. With eyes lowered upon his carefully polished shoes, Hayashi was certain that, in spite of his anti-pollution mask and hat, everyone was looking at him with repugnance and contempt. In his misfortune, he nevertheless was lucky that the landlady was absent at the time he entered his premises. With her characteristic cheek, she would not have held back from publicly insulting him.

Such horror! Not a single channel avoided this new style of green headbands.

With trembling hands Hayashi-san closed his double locks and collapsed on the tatami. The enormity of the situation rendered him incapable of the slightest movement. More than an hour passed before he found the energy to drag himself in front of a television. He reduced the sound to a minimum level so as not to compromise his shameful return. Such horror! Not a single channel avoided this new style of green headbands. Even the window dressers had seized the opportunity. On all cotton goods either sophisticated or customized, they offered the following groups: a creepy headband for punks, emerald with pearls for the rich class, a jade/black ornament style for the goths, and a lace-olive version for romantics.

The debate now entered a new stage with the engagement of the Midori no Mirai, the Japanese green party, which claimed ownership of the movement. According to this organization, by a courageous act, Hayashi-san had given tone to a new era. It was time that, in the country of the Kyoto Protocol, the population ceased to conduct itself in an irresponsible manner. Japan would, at the same time, be able show to the world the path of real change. In a surprising manner, the phenomena took on significant amplitude, not only in the Japanese archipelago, but numerous foreign journalists also commenced to cover the subject.

Hayashi-san switched off the television. Not only had he been dismissed for a grave error, but the association of his name with the movement compromised all chance for him to recover stable employment. If Hayashi-san had had the force of character of his ancestors, he would undoubtedly have committed hara-kiri. Better death than dishonor. In like fashion, he admired the determination of the samurai and kamikaze of glorious times. They too frequently adorned themselves with pennants, as with the white flag enhanced with the symbol of the rising sun, signifying the glory of the Japanese empire, not green flags of which a single thought brought tears of regret to his eyes.

Why him? It remained to be established whether or not Mariko-san had deliberately done this and, in either case, towards what end. He really didn’t know. At this stage, his options were limited. The best was to strive to forget and to move from Tokyo and rejoin his parents in the distant Kochi prefecture hoping that they themselves would not die of shame and deign not even to acknowledge him as their son. In the meantime, best to remain where he was for a few days to let the affair settle down.

Stocked with rice, preserved food, and bean cakes, Hayashi-san had sufficient provisions to hold out for a week. On several occasions he heard noises at the door and the hectoring voice of the landlady. He was careful, however, not to make the slightest noise. He no longer turned on the light including the television and remained dispirited, plunged into morbid thoughts which he was unable to give meaning to.

“In just one week hundreds of millions of people have donned green headbands as a way of signaling to their leaders that they don’t want to continue on a suicidal course.”

More so than even his hunger, repeated knocks and insistent murmurs behind the door confirmed his sense of isolation and resignation. One particular voice convinced him to open the door. It was that of Mariko-san.

— Open, I beg you, she repeated barely above a whisper so as not to draw the attention of neighbors.

— Mariko-san, what have you done? he was obliged to ask while allowing her to enter the genkan.

— I am so happy to find you, Hayashi-san, I was certain that you were dead!

Complex thoughts entered his mind. He was happy that she had taken interest in him including her concerns that he may have committed suicide. However, he still misunderstood her intentions. As the young woman continued:

— The movement has taken on an incredible surge, all over the planet. In just one week hundreds of millions of people have donned green headbands as a way of signaling to their leaders that they don’t want to continue on a suicidal course, whether economic or environmental.

Hayashi-san was not certain if he understood her entirely. He nevertheless managed to query:

— But why did you give me a green bandana?

— It was an accident. My little sister wished to help me with my preparations for the strike. It was she who cut up the cotton cloth. Without paying attention, she also cut up a green strip.

— But why me?

Mariko explained to him that this also was by chance. In the gloomy morning light, she likewise did not pay attention to the green color of the headband. When she came to understand the kind of scandal it provoked in the company, she warned the union boss. It was he who had the bright idea to alert the press in order to exploit the event, without imagining that it would take on such a dimension.

“A new fight is just starting. There will still be hundreds if not thousands of battles.”

— You used me, you brought it on, he inveighed, horrified to discover what really happened. And what will become of me now? I hope you are going to restore the truth …

— What truth? she declared, innocently. That you have become a hero all over the world.

The young woman took him by hand to the living room where she turned on the television.

In Tokyo, New York, Montreal, Rome, Paris, Beijing, Kinshasa, millions of people were wearing green headbands to work, on the streets, in the restaurants … Millions of others lit candles in front of his portrait.

— What are they doing? choked Hayashi-san.

— Most of them believe that you are dead. They learned that you were called up to meet Mr. Yatohido. Then you disappeared. In the meantime, everyone was talking about it. The trade in toxic waste was confirmed uncovering even more serious breaches. The collusion between business, government, the triads and yakuza, has been revealed. Yatohido was sent to prison along with his entire top management, as well as several ministers and Diet members. They were looking for you everywhere. Your landlady confirmed that you had never returned. Your parents were without news. Everyone thought that the yakuza had done away with you to smother the affair.

— It’s horrible!

— But this has also made you a martyr and brought the environmental movement to a level never before reached. The shock has shaken all of Japan, even leading to indignation on the part of the emperor himself in public statements. It has unleashed a global movement of protest on the part of those who are fed up with the situation. The New York Times has published your photo, designating you as “man of the year.” Some have even nominated you for a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize.

— But I have done nothing. I don’t want it.

— No matter, you have hit at the right time, she said with a consoling tone while grazing his cheek with her hand to calm him down. You are now the spokesperson for an immense movement for hope. You must return to the scene to continue the fight.

— But can we change so quickly as that? he wondered, not complaining about another gesture from Mariko-san, giving way to a strange tingling in his spine.

— For sure not. A new fight is just starting. There will still be hundreds if not thousands of battles. The lobbies are powerful. They have such money and power at stake, and so many souls are prisoners of their illusions of success on which they have been lulled. But you bring a new wind and a novel mode of protest to humankind.

— I shall never be able, he bewailed.

— I beg of you Hayashi-san, we really have need of you. The planet needs you.

To be sure, Hayashi-san could never have believed that he would become an important person, much less one of the most important in the world. Nothing had prepared him for this. However, Mariko seemed so convinced and convincing. Maybe it was worth trying.

This short-story appeared initially in French in the Canadian Review: Solaris (n°183, 2013). It was translated into English by the author and Geoffrey C. Gunn (former Professor at Nagasaki University).


Yann Quero has studied Environment and Oriental civilizations. In a meandering path between Europe, America, Africa and Asia, he devotes most of his time to writing, mainly in the field of science fiction. He has published six novels in French: The Era of Cain (2004), The White Man’s Trial (2005) The Future Will No Longer Be What It Was (2010), Mozart’s Tempest (2012), Planet 7 (2017), The Devil’s Bubbles (2018). He is also the editor of several anthologies of short stories on: The Diseases of the Future, Global Warming, GMOs, among other topics, and of a special issue of “Galaxies” review on Science Fiction and Ecology. Many of his short stories have been published in various journals and reviews such as: Galaxies, Solaris, Lunatique, The Vagabonds’ dream, Liberation, and others.


Show me the money

Image: Flickr CC-BY 2.0

by Gwendolyn Hallsmith

Renewable energy, reparations to the descendants of former slaves and Native Americans, universal basic income, energy efficiency improvements, new transportation systems, job retraining for fossil fuel workers—the list of Green New Deal (GND) aspirations is long and expensive. Senator Bernie Sanders recently released a GND proposal estimated to cost $16 trillion. That’s 16 times the current annual U.S. defense budget, which is about $1 trillion. U.S. GDP was $20 trillion in 2018. How does the U.S. muster federal spending that requires a sum that’s 80 percent of our annual economic output? The Green New Deal requires a LOT of money, amounts that now look politically impossible. Why is money so scarce? Why is there never enough to meet our needs?

Some point to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as a path forward. MMT advocates say we need to stop worrying so much about deficits. The Treasury and the Federal Reserve can issue the money into existence to pay for it all. Inflation won’t be a problem because we can tax the money back out of existence if prices start to rise.

Unfortunately, for the system to work the way MMT imagines it does—that is, for the government to have the ability to simply print money into existence, for free—some critical legal changes are needed: 1) the prohibition Congress passed in 1935 ending the practice of the Treasury borrowing directly from the Fed without issuing bonds needs to be reversed, and 2) the legal requirement for money to be in the government’s account before they spend it needs to be eliminated. Otherwise the U.S. government would be required to borrow the money for the GND from the large, private banks and investors by selling government bonds, as they do now, pay the wealthiest class the added interest, and burden future generations with the astronomical costs of it all.

MMT overlooks the privileged role of the U.S. dollar in the current global economic paradigm. Recent changes in IMF reserve currency rules threaten this privilege, yet we still have monetary power that many nations do not. We could use our waning power in the world to spark a new wave of change in monetary systems and make a Global Green New Deal possible.

What monetary system changes are needed for a Green New Deal?

The monetary system conditions at the root of runaway inequality and environmental destruction are 1) private ownership, 2) debt-based issuance, 3) positive interest, 4) monoculture, and 5) monopoly. All these conditions need to change; the adverse impacts are an emergent property of a complex system, not a simple linear cause and effect relationship between one variable (like positive interest) and one impact (e.g. compulsory growth).

All the government icons and signatures on our dollar notes make us think that the U.S. government issues all the money, but this is not true.

Private Ownership. All the government icons and signatures on our dollar notes make us think that the U.S. government issues all the money, but this is not true. The Federal Reserve System is effectively owned and operated by the large private banks; the dividends they get paid for their capitalized ownership stake are guaranteed at 6% per year, right off the top of the bank’s earnings, tax free. On top of this, since the crash of 2008, the excess reserves the banks hold are also paid interest, decreasing their incentives to move that money into the normal economy with all its risks, shocks, booms, and busts.

We need to make money a public utility, not a private profit center. Strategies include the network of public banks at all levels of government outlined in the GND Congressional resolution introduced this year, and past efforts like the NEED Act and the Chicago Plan. If MMT worked as advertised, it might also be truly public money.

Debt Based Issuance. Between 90-95 percent of the money in circulation in the U.S. is issued by banks when they make loans. That’s right, private banks create money out of thin air as loans and reap the interest as profits. This means that virtually all the money we use is someone else’s debt and comes into existence with the built-in expectation that it will return a profit to its issuer in the form of positive interest. This is one of the reasons there is never enough money for all the things we need, because debt-based money tilts the scales so almost every aspect of human life must produce a return for the lenders, or it doesn’t get issued. If there were money enough to go around, no one would borrow it from the banks—they produce, control, and benefit from money’s artificial scarcity. The scarcity also comes from the fact that when all the money is debt, there is never enough to pay back all the interest.

Positive Interest. Positive interest on all the debt-based money drives the discounting/net present value calculation large investors use when they evaluate the long-term value of investments. Discounting systematically devalues the future, which undermines all the efforts we make to leave a better world for our grandchildren. One way to envision the unfortunate effect of discounting is to picture something simple, like a tree, and look at what net present value calculations do to warp the way we value it with money.[1]

Here is the tree’s physical reality. The seedling is planted, and after 10 years, we’ll assume the tree’s value has increased to $100. After 100 years, at this rate of appreciation, the grown tree would be worth $1,000. Both values are in current dollars.

Here is the same tree when viewed through the lens of net present value. The net present value of the tree after 10 years is a lot less (discounting $100 over 10 years), and looking out 100 years, it’s worth almost nothing (discounting $1000 over 100 years).

The following illustration shows how the assumed value of the tree would change dramatically if money did not come with inflationary added interest built in but rather had some kind of storage charge, or demurrage, for keeping the money idle (instead of the rewards we give the banks now for excess reserves).[2]

Money issuance needs to be a mix of debt and “grants” (for lack of a better word). Grants would not come with debt’s positive interest and could be used for public and private goods that do not promise a financial return. Education, health care, child and elder care, the arts, and democratic participation are all examples of human activity which cannot and should not be profit centers for either public or private banks.

Monoculture. Even though world currencies come in lots of flavors – Dollars, Euro, Yen, Pesos, Rubles, etc., the majority of them use the same bank debt issuance system. This creates a global monoculture of money in circulation. On a systemic level, this single type of money is as harmful as other monocultures. When the banks fail, the economy fails.

A key consideration for the Green New Deal is that creating different types of currencies could eliminate the artificial scarcity built into the money issued by banks.

Diversifying the types of money in circulation would mean adding public currencies and complementary currencies to the mix. A key consideration for the Green New Deal is that creating different types of currencies could eliminate the artificial scarcity built into the money issued by banks. We can have enough money for everything. We just need different kinds of money. There are already examples of complementary currencies which are used for food, time, care, carbon, data, and small businesses that don’t require bank money to provide a means of exchange to meet these needs. If every currency couldn’t be used to buy everything, this also reduces risks of inflation and accelerating overconsumption.

Monopoly. The laws that require all debts and taxes to be paid in a particular currency (like the Federal Reserve dollars in the U.S.) give the banks a monopoly on money issuance. We need to break the monopoly the private banks have on the money we use and accept public and complementary currencies for debts and taxes. Cryptocurrencies threaten banking monopolies but are still private currencies purchased with bank money. A truly public cryptocurrency accepted for taxes does not yet exist.

The systemic impacts of the current monetary regime have been well-documented in a report to the European Club of Rome by my late colleague, Bernard Lietaer, and others. In brief, these are 1) amplification of the boom and bust cycles, 2) short-term thinking, 3) compulsory growth, 4) concentration of wealth, and 5) devaluation of social capital. All of these exacerbate social and economic inequality, climate change, and other harmful environmental degradation. It is not sufficient to address these problems piecemeal, the solutions we propose must be socially and economically just as well as enabling a safe, healthy, and biodiverse environment. If we change the monetary system, we can transcend the values money has warped which now lead us to human extinction. We can change everything.

Gwendolyn Hallsmith is an author, musician, and activist who lives in an ecovillage she founded in Vermont. She writes and sings about sustainable communities and the new economy.


[1] This is not to say that valuing trees in money is even appropriate. They produce the air we breathe, they protect the water we drink, they offer shade and food and solace. To reduce them and the rest of nature to a dollar value is the main step that leads to economic exploitation, environmental degradation, climate change, and species extinction.

[2] Illustrations courtesy of Bernard Lietaer.

A just food transition

Abandoned homestead on a farm in Iowa. Image:
Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND

by Caitlin Bradley Morgan

Why include food and agriculture in the Green New Deal?

Our food system is inextricably linked with the climate crisis in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Agriculture is responsible for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions and the result, climate change, goes on to disrupt reliable food production. To combat climate change, we must shift how we produce, distribute, consume, and dispose of food. To adapt to climate change, we must build agricultural systems that are resilient to disruption. The timeliness of this move was evident recently as a national coalition of farmers and ranchers endorsed the Green New Deal.  

The Green New Deal mentions food in broad strokes. Its focus is on consumers obtaining food, which the bill says can be supported “by building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food.” The bill’s strength is in its acknowledgement of systemic injustices wrought on marginalized groups, and its goal for a “fair and just transition” to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. If these strengths are built into eventual policy mechanisms, they should influence not only food quality and access, but all levels of the food chain.

A Green New Deal must address capitalism’s food problems through goal-oriented, stakeholder-led process

Underlying many ills of our food system is the sometimes unexpected truth that a rational agricultural system is incompatible with capitalism. This is because the goals of healthy agriculture and the goals of capitalism are diametrically opposed. When capitalism’s logic governs agriculture, it affects all manner of management systems, making it difficult or impossible to implement ecological or humane practices that might decrease short-term profit margins. It also results in the kinds of outcomes the GND seeks to remedy: hunger surrounded by abundance, unnecessary waste, the systemic injustice of farmer displacement, labor abuses, and fossil fuel use.

Therefore, GND food policies should begin with identifying the overarching goals, because the goals of a system are some of the most powerful leverage points for change. All policy mechanisms should be guided and tested against the vision of a “just transition,” and it would be useful to identify sub-goals that support a just transition—for example, climate change mitigation; climate change resilience; an adequately fed and nourished human population; pay parity and economic justice for farmers; healthy and diverse agroecosystems; etc. 

Does “efficiency” change if we alter the timescale, i.e. if we think about resource efficiency in terms of decades or centuries, rather than single-year yields?

Similarly, during policy discussions, it is useful to question goals we might accidentally take for granted. For example, why do we need highly “efficient” agricultural production as it relates to labor? Does efficiency in this sense compete with goals of reduced fossil fuel use, biodiverse agriculture, or widespread employment? Does “efficiency” change if we alter the timescale, i.e. if we think about resource efficiency in terms of decades or centuries, rather than single-year yields? This process point can help avoid implementing policies that recreate problems driven by assumed, rather than intentionally adopted, goals.

Finally, GND policy discussions must incorporate, not ignore, the historical context of our current food system. Our food system is built on systematic wealth accumulation and the dispossession and cultural erasure of marginalized people in the United States. For GND policies to be “just,” they must account for and begin to reverse these patterns. To ensure that outcomes have integrity, and that mechanisms are well-crafted, policies must be developed directly with farmers, food systems workers, sustainability experts, and social justice advocates. As the Agroecology Research-Action Collective reminds us, “…the Green New Deal will only succeed if it helps rapidly eliminate the fossil-fuel economy, and transforms industrialized agriculture into agroecological, regenerative agriculture, with special attention to rural communities and inclusion of historically marginalized, and socially disadvantaged groups.”  

One goal-aligned solution: Basic Income for farmers

One solution, in line with a just transition in food and agriculture, is basic income for farmers. “Universal basic income,” recently brought into mainstream debate by Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, is a monthly stipend provided by the government to all citizens. While there is a compelling argument for UBI for everybody, basic income may be critical for especially for agriculture. Proponents of UBI argue that one of its essential functions is allowing people freedom to make choices based on what they truly want or need in life, without potential financial crisis dictating their options. For people who work in agriculture, that freedom is the freedom to farm.

Farmers in the United States are in historic levels of debt. In order to make enough money to continue, many farmers have to expand their farms—regardless of whether it is a sustainable or desirable choice—which usually means building or purchasing expensive infrastructure and equipment. The result is a race to increase profit margins and pay down debt, often prohibiting farmers from making choices based on land stewardship or care for workers. Over half of American farms earn negative income, losing more than they make, and rely on off-farm income for survival.

There is increasing recognition that agroecology, the science of farming in tune with local ecosystems, is one way forward for just and sustainable food systems. But in the United States, where land is expensive, industrial agriculture subsidized, environmental regulations minimal, and parity pricing absent, it can be economically untenable for people to start agroecological farms in a rabidly capitalist system. Young farmers interested in raising sustainable, healthy food cannot make enough money to do so. 

Thus, a basic income would be a way for people to produce food without needing to exploit themselves, their employees, or their land. (India recently announced that it will be providing UBI for farmers, expecting it to double farmer incomes.) Anyone working in agriculture should be eligible for this support, without making distinctions between farm owners and farm workers. Because up to half of farmworkers are undocumented, this policy would likely necessitate a corresponding reform in immigration policy, at least for the food sector, as put forth recently by the Sanders Campaign’s Green New Deal plan. It is also possible that another aspect of food justice—access to fresh and healthy foods, mentioned in the GND—would also benefit from basic income for farmers, by supporting agricultural livelihoods without astronomically raising the cost of their products.

Basic income would be one step toward creating safety for people who want to farm but lack financial security.

Furthermore, a basic income begins to address historic injustice. Reversing the trends of land theft and ongoing dispossession in the food system is difficult for many reasons, one of them being that farmers from marginalized communities do not have access to the same wealth, credit, and financial safety nets of more privileged farmers. Basic income would be one step toward creating safety for people who want to farm but lack financial security.

Yang’s UBI proposal, the “Freedom Dividend,” is $1,000 per month. This might not be enough for farmers. The Freedom Dividend is designed with the idea that it will encourage people to find jobs to supplement UBI that alone keeps them at the poverty line. But farmers already have jobs. We need a debate among stakeholders about the benefits of parity pricing—ensuring farmers are paid enough to cover their costs and living expenses—versus basic income, in terms of allowing farmers to stop overproducing to cover their debt, and make both environmentally and socially sustainable management choices. A just level for farmers might instead be the living wage for their area.

Other social programs that could make farming, and sustainable farming in particular, a more viable option: free childcare, free health care, free education, and a guaranteed farming pension. The latter could allow farmers to keep their land in agriculture, rather than selling it to cover retirement costs.

The bottom line: anyone growing food for other people, especially if they are growing it in ecologically-sound ways, should be able to provide for themselves and their employees. If we want to make sustainable farming desirable, viable, and just, we must support it by reorienting policy to support such worthy goals.

Caitlin Bradley Morgan is a doctoral candidate in Food Systems at the University of Vermont, studying the intersection of on-the-ground efforts and wider systems change.

Birth

by Miguel Ganzo Mateo

66.6070° N, 19.8229° E

Hello World

We had to start somewhere so we decided we would start from the beginning. From birth.

Let us first track who we are, I mean, exactly who we are, what we can do, or what we could do with some training.

We don’t have access to energy credits, that’s something we all have in common. And we live outside of the inside. Sounds kind of silly, outside of the inside, but English is not my language and I don’t know how to write it in a better way. Almost none of us have English as our mother tongue, but English is anyway the language we use every day here. Not so strange as this is a community of almost ten thousand people with more than a hundred (old) nationalities represented … The second language, quite unexpectedly but fortunately—and the tendency is clear as I see it—is becoming Lule Sámi, or julevsámegiella, the language of our hosts: the Sámi people of Jokkmokk. But the purpose of this message is to communicate our strategy to other outside communities all around the world, so English is the best choice.

Our strategy is, oh, it sounds very big to call it a strategy. I would fit better to say our first step. Yes. Our first step.

Our first step is to organize the safety of the births, of giving birth and of being born, the mum’s and the child’s perspective, health and well-being. How to handle it here on the outside? Most of the births go well with not much intervention, but “most of the births” still leaves lots of births in the risky zone, and we wanted to improve that.

You’ll find the technical and medical details in the attached file: a cost effective, low-tech and energy saving procedure, with ideas and input from doctors and nurses from more than ten (of the old) countries. In the other attached document, you’ll find the financial and organizational aspects of the project, the first act of our taking-back-the-public-services agenda.

– Alex, Alberto, Magda, Ibtisam, Ahmed, Rebecka, Eva! The text is almost ready, attachments included. Who wants to check my English? Alooo? Somebody at home? No? Really? Nobody at home? First time ever. Let’s have a look on the second floor. Somebody here? Ups! Yes, Alex and little Nico. Alex sleeping like a baby and you, Nico, awake with your eyes wide open, as if today were the first day of your life. Well, that was not so long ago, the first day of your life. You’re not older than a month, are you? Time flies. It feels that it was yesterday, but at the same time it feels like you’ve always been here. What are you looking at? What are you looking at? Do you like my glasses? Yes, they are red, like your trousers. Come with me to the kitchen so Alex can continue in sleeping mode. Let’s see if the cat is in the kitchen. We’re alone: you, me, Alex and maybe, just maybe, the cat. Where’s everybody? Do you know where everybody is? I’m sure they’ve told you where they’ve gone, but you’re not saying a word. And I’m sure they’ve also told me, but you know how distracted I am. Maybe we’ll find some clue written in the calendar in the kitchen? Oh yes, oh no! how could I forget that? And why didn’t anybody tell me? Of course, nobody told me because I’m always saying that I don’t like to be disturbed when I’m writing, especially if I’m writing in the basement with the door closed. But anyway, they should have told me! The Vidsel Test R.I.P., Nico, the day when we celebrate the closure of Vidsel Test Range. It seemed impossible to achieve, but we managed, somehow, we managed, and the big military companies finally left the area: no more bombs, no more tests with scary airplanes flying in the blue spring skies. We’re on the outside, yes, but this is becoming a good place to be outsiders. And maybe someday, maybe someday when you’re, I don’t know, twenty or twenty-five years old? Maybe then we’ll regain the access to the river, the river that is now controlled by the insiders and their obsession with energy resources. Or who knows, maybe we’ll not need to wait that long. Nico, what are you looking at? The window? The sun and the snow? Oh, that’s a fox. And here is Ninina, being a cat as usual. And you’re a little kid. Yes, you are. The first kid born in the new Birth House. You’ll be happy to hear about that when you are old enough to understand what that means. You know what? I’ve heard stories about the babies that are born on the inside, how they measure everything, and constantly! with thousands of tables of optimal progressions, graphs and percentiles left and right, up and down, and that was some years ago, who knows what they’re measuring nowadays. Don’t misunderstand me. Measuring in itself is not a bad thing, but getting obsessed with measurements is almost a disease, a disease that nobody is measuring. I guess they measure so much because they’re afraid. Afraid of life, afraid of death, afraid of things that they can’t control. And we? I mean, and I? Am I afraid too? Well, to an extent indeed I am. But there’s so many things that we can’t control, here on the outside, that finally you stop being afraid, there’s no point. And you never know when something bad can turn into something good, or even really good. Look at you! I remember how sad we were when the avalanche destroyed our house in Kvikkjokk. Luckily no one was injured but we needed a new place to live. We found this house, our house now, your house as well; this beautiful house with beautiful people living on it, and it was then that your parents met each other. Did you know that? Did you know that they met here? And here you are, looking at me, demanding milk, and of course your nonexistence is inconceivable. I’ve not read much philosophy, but I would call it Axiom of existence. Ok, I get it, you are really hungry, but how lucky we are, there’s plenty of mum’s milk in the fridge. I’ll warm up 120 ml right now. And after your lunch I’ll play a song for you.

*

Birth

If the way you look at me is the look of future days
If the lightness of your body, make us lighter
If the joy of being still with you sleeping in our arms
Is a joy that is contagious and incurable.
 
I will tell you all the fables that I could someday forget
I will walk with you to lakes that still are hidden
I will sing a thousand songs, I will talk with you in words
From the language that was used by our ancestors
And you tell me, that you’re hungry.
 
Not afraid of the ruins of the city that is gone
Not afraid of the future that has perished
‘Cos for you those would be stories, just some legends from the past
Like the Holy Roman Empire or the Soviet.
 
And surrounded by the whiteness of the boreal spring
And the quietness of the snow that still is falling
With the firewood on the fireplace and the rocking chair for us
It is time for you to eat, for me to wonder
Such an energy, when you’re hungry.

Photo and recording by the author.

Miguel Ganzo Mateo is a Spanish writer and songwriter who works as a math teacher in a secondary school in southern Sweden. In 2018 he published the novel Sesenta metros cuadrados (Sixty square meters), and with the short story “Birth”he returns to Jokkmokk, the area in northern Sweden where the novel takes place. More info at www.miguelganzomateo.com.

November readings

A protest in Hong Kong, November 2019.Dale De La Rey / AFP, via Haaretz


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

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

Welcome to the last newsletter of the decade! That’s right, we’re taking a break in December, to recalibrate and recharge. We’ve been running our monthly reading list for almost two years now, and nearly 1,000 of you seem to find it useful, so we’re excited to continue providing you with news and analysis in 2020. See you next year!



Uneven Earth updates

The technical assistant | Link | It had been a long time since human hands had touched grain bins

Trade governance will make or break the Green New Deal | Link | How the GND could, should, must redefine “protectionism” and transform international trade  

Rethinking education for the Green New Deal | Link | Governance for an eco-centered curriculum—or not?

Down Maria | Link | There was only one prisoner left, and he would not live forever



Top 5 articles to read

Extraction Rebellion. A Green Zone of hope. 

Land reform and the Green New Deal

Climate change’s great lithium problem

A Green New Deal between whom and for what?

Indonesia deforestation: The world’s demand for palm oil is igniting a climate bomb



News you might’ve missed

Climate crisis: 11,000 scientists warn of ‘untold suffering’

New land height metric raises sea level rise risk

Heat waves and floods shattered records. Fires ravaged the Arctic and the Amazon. This was the climate crisis in 2019.

Earth nears irreversible tipping points

Coal knew, too. A newly unearthed journal from 1966 shows the coal industry, like the oil industry, was long aware of the threat of climate change. And new paper reveals rail industry was leader in climate denial efforts.

Indigenous people blocked Ecuador oil auction in growing fight to save Amazon 

WA Indigenous group’s $290 billion compensation claim could become one of world’s biggest payouts

Fearing eviction, thousands of forest dwellers protest in India

More than 1,700 activists have been killed this century defending the environment

Indigenous people pay a high price for protecting the planet 

A gathering of guardians: Indigenous monitors convene for historic knowledge exchange

Farmer depression deepens as climate warms

Climate change poses threat to children’s health worldwide 

Psychologists from 40 countries pledged to use their jobs to address climate change 




Worldwide uprisings

Welcome to the global rebellion against neoliberalism. As distinct as the protests seem, the uprisings rocking Bolivia, Lebanon, and scores of other countries all share a common theme.

From Iran to Hong Kong, the world is becoming ungovernable

This wave of global protest is being led by the children of the financial crash

Hong Kong Protests: Inside the chaos

“Rifles, machine guns, El Alto will not fall!” Dual Power in Bolivia

Debt and neoliberalism: The global roots of Chile’s crisis

A few tips on how to understand Latin American coups

More than just a “Spring”: the Arab region’s long-term revolution

Lebanon’s revolution spawns ‘direct democracy’ with citizen assemblies and people’s parliaments

Iraq is healing: The October revolution, systemic change and intergenerational trauma

Now is the time to rise up for Rojava

Indonesia protests: Land bill at center of unrest

Thousands of Romanians protest against illegal logging, attacks on forest workers

Czechs say billionaire leader must resign in mass protests

Why aren’t people in the US rising up like those elsewhere in the world?



Just think about it…

Why are rich people so mean? Call it Rich Asshole Syndrome—the tendency to distance yourself from people with whom you have a large wealth differential.

Why we are all losing sleep. With longer work hours, the rise of the gig economy and smartphone apps competing for our every waking moment, sleep has become the final frontier of consumer capitalism.

To have or not to have children in the age of climate change

Robin Wall Kimmerer on the intelligence in all kinds of life

‘Every plant and animal is useful to us’: Indigenous professor re-thinking how we deal with invasive species

After climate change apocalypse, kindness will be most important survival skill

Imagination is such an ancient ability it might precede language

Plastic has a big carbon footprint — but that isn’t the whole story

The first map of America’s food supply chain is mind-boggling

Smartphones are killing the planet faster than anyone expected

Pointless emails: they’re not just irritating – they have a massive carbon footprint

Myths of the circular economy



Where we’re at: analysis

It’s time to retire metrics like GDP. They don’t measure everything that matters

Against economics. “Any new, viable science will either have to draw on the accumulated knowledge of feminism, behavioral economics, psychology, and even anthropology to come up with theories based on how people actually behave, or once again embrace the notion of emergent levels of complexity—or, most likely, both.”

It’s not thanks to capitalism that we’re living longer, but progressive politics

The hidden cost of gold: Birth defects and brain damage 

The Native American women who fought mass sterilization

What the West doesn’t get about the climate crisis

It bears repeating: Renewables alone won’t end the climate crisis

The climate case for working less

How mindfulness privatised a social problem

The time has come to take the self out of self-care

Emergenciocracy: why demanding the “climate emergency” is risky

Geoengineering: let’s not get it back-to-front

Humanity and nature are not separate – we must see them as one to fix the climate crisis



New politics

Sowing the seeds of post-extractivism. Communities around the world are demonstrating how we can move beyond extractivism to revive cultures of care and solidarity.

Direct democracy and the passion for political participation. For a radically democratic and ecological society we need to build democratic and resilient communities capable of deepening citizen participation at all levels of public life.

Worker-owned apps are trying to fix the gig economy’s exploitation

‘Fire the bosses’: Platform co-ops set out their radical stall

Imagine a future of distributed cooperatives, or disCOs

In depth with Clark Arrington, a pioneer for cooperatives and black economic power (Part 1)

Learning to see the commons

Gig workers rising: Foodora couriers and Uber drivers organizing for justice

The climate movement needs more creative tactics

Why climate action needs to target the border industrial complex

Eco-fascists and the ugly fight for ‘our way of life’ as the environment disintegrates

Italy’s green fascists

Accelerationism: the idea inspiring white supremacist killers around the world

Primitivism and ecofascism

The Red Deal is an Indigenous climate plan that builds on the Green New Deal

All organizing is magic: Reflections on Caliban and the Witch



Food politics

For a sustainable future, we need to reconnect with what we’re eating – and each other 

Meet the activists bringing urban farms to one of America’s most deprived cities 



Cities and radical municipalism

What if… cities became car-free?

Are community land trusts a way out of the system?

Against We. What the We Company offers is commune as commodity.

Berlin renters organize to expropriate the mega-landlords

How green gentrification is compromising Seattle’s last affordable neighborhood

Who is the “public” in public transportation?

Endgame Marxism (and urbanism)

Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez unveil $172 billion ‘Green New Deal for public housing’

Under the paving stones, a vegetable garden. Joëlle Zask explores how greening citizenship – through cultivation practices – offers an opportunity for self-government which may just restore this relationship to one of perpetual regeneration rather than mutually destructive exploitation.  

If progressives don’t try to win over rural areas, guess who will



Degrowth!

Defending limits is not Malthusian

Degrowth information

The myth of green growth. “Economic growth, democracy and CO2 have always been intertwined.”

Unraveling the claims for (and against) green growth

Heaven hath limits: a review of Limits by Giorgos Kallis

10 ideas for degrowth architecture from the Oslo Architecture Triennale



Reflections on Seattle, 1999

Remembering for the future: Learning from the 1999 Seattle shutdown

Globalize liberation

Seattle 1999 and its “This Changes Everything” energy

Remembering the battle for Seattle: Organizers launch project to reflect on 20 years of lessons



Sci-fi and the near future

Cyberpunk is dead

The real-world locations of 14 sci-fi dystopias 

Cherie Dimaline and Rebecca Roanhorse are embodying Indigenous futurisms

Jeff Bezos’s vision of the future is basically Blade Runner

Space ageing: why sci-fi novels shun the badass older woman

Library Socialism: a utopian vision of a sustainable, luxuriant future of circulating abundance

Hopepunk and Solarpunk: On climate narratives that go beyond the Apocalypse

Highway to hell: the rise and fall of the car

Free BBC documentary: The worlds of Ursula K Le Guin



Nuclear energy will come back to haunt us

Climate change is breaking open America’s nuclear tomb 

In Marshall Islands, radiation threatens tradition of handing down stories by song

Germany is closing all its nuclear power plants. Now it must find a place to bury the deadly waste for 1 million years

Our children await a radioactive legacy



Resources

What is ‘ecological economics’ and why do we need to talk about it?

How to fight antisemitism

Mapping social movements and conflicts around the world

Global petrochemical map

Mary Annaïse Heglar’s list of voices of color on the climate crisis




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The technical assistant

by A. Smoothness

1.

I died the way farm children used to die, suffocating at the bottom of a grain elevator. My last breaths were cut by corn kernels dried to commodity grade 15 percent moisture. It was not a work accident. It had been a long time since human hands had touched grain bins. Remote-controlled tractors and robotic machinery performed the entirety of production. But human labor still existed in concentrated pockets across the vast agricultural expanse, exhausted and exploited in climate-controlled slaughterhouses. The lives of the slaughterers persisted only marginally longer than those of the cows and hogs. Due to a rapid rise in evapotranspiration rates it was now too hot to maintain the corn and soybean plants that had dominated the landscape during my childhood. New forms of GM-adapted sorghum had replaced corn. Cotton fields stretched northward towards the Canadian border. Motivated by land prices and cooler temperatures, stockyards had moved to the tundra. In a stretch of dire years before the large relocations, catastrophic heat waves had caused massive cattle die-offs. Gates swung listlessly and feeding pens crumbled with rust and faded paint. Traveling across the production zone, piles of skeletons the size of garbage dumps lay bleached by the sun. The calcareous heaps in the brown dust mimicked the shimmery mirages of buffalo bones in the 1850s, a time when bookish boys from the East Coast would venture West to join in ritual slaughter with frontiersman. These were the idealistic foot soldiers of Indian removal treaties authored in Washington living rooms. The youth mindlessly constructed immense piles of desiccated vertebras, femurs, and skulls that gleamed like mirages in the boundless prairie. For several months the mob of maggots, buzzards, and coyotes was so thick that the carcasses would be invisible, a crawling mass of decomposers and parasites enshrouding the slain buffalo.

A long time ago. Not really long ago at all. Periods of killing separated by other moments. Without future, without sense.

Most visitors were now agri-tourists taking an air-conditioned trip to the evacuated, sticky cotton wastelands of central Iowa or southwestern Minnesota1. The clientele were mostly sad, bland men on ostensibly ‘morale boosting’ work trips traversing the landscapes of their grandfathers, celebrating the progressive depopulation and acceleration into remote management from tech centers. With the right credentials, they could move seamlessly among Bismarck, Santiago, and Nairobi. Apart from the flavorful decoration of local customs and the recreational offerings beyond the expansive slums, hyper-connectivity and global capital created interchangeable, interconnected, and identical spaces. The trips – ‘historical encounters’, ‘rugged adventures’, ‘team-building retreats’ – pulled the transnational merchants of machine-operated agriculture back to the soil. Their yearly ritual honored the wit and sweat of their ancestors and the superiority of modern science. The men would descend in the cooler months of October to April, silently crawling through the rainy gray mud in repurposed military tanks outfitted for luxury vacations. Inside the spacious cabins, the men kept tabs on grain futures and their children’s drug rehab programs. They exercised in pools and ate reheated cream of broccoli and ham dinners. The tanks stuck to fixed tracks easily navigated by satellites that changed the course according to weather and soil conditions. Occasionally they would pause to commemorate the vacated homesteads, corn breeding laboratories, and tractor dealerships. They never disembarked. The hazards were many – airborne pathogenic bacteria, scorching temperatures, automated harvesters – and the men were simply uninterested. It had been several generations since people walked outside, let alone in the production zone. 

I close my eyes and see the thin stalks of cotton plants, leftover wisps along gravel roadsides. The overly ripe, chemical stench of enzymatic digestion spilling from factories begins to make me nauseous. My esophagus burns from the hydrochloric acid rising from my stomach. Each time I try to roll over or prop myself up, the pit of corn shifts slightly and I sink deeper.

It is night and the pulsating light from nearby turbines creates beams on the interior of the silo. The red light mixes with the silo’s neon green elastomeric sealant to create a diffuse, sickly pink. My throat is dry and I am still drunk from the night before. I push my face against the cold car window, inhaling the pungent smoke curling from the front seat. The road is dark and the headlights are off. We crawl along, at any turnout an immigration checkpoint or patch of ice. Occasionally the car swerves to avoid deer fleeing the early morning shots of the slaughterhouse supervisors and county sheriffs. Cops and managers spend their vacation from their daily hunt to engage in a recreational one. My body rejects its insides and a thin smear of shit drips into my jeans. I roll onto my hip. I try to keep sleeping. We are headed towards the brightening sky. I toss over, accept a smoke, feel it mix with suspended ice crystals. Instantly my vision blackens. I vomit a slurry of mucus and blood onto the truck floor beneath me. I take another drag. Why do I feel so horny at moments of such total despair? I silently slip my hand under my belt buckle, calmly touching myself. I am myopically groping, coughing, squeezing, red, black, the faint beeping of a body cam, the flash of hazard lights, the lingering hangover of solar retinopathy from a lifetime of crushingly disappointing days spent wandering in and out of corn rows. I hear the small talk of colleagues and peers recounting ‘trips up north’, cheerily oblivious to the social turmoil, the policed meatpacking plants, the lurching line of cars at shift change. The temperature oscillates between 10 degrees below zero and 110 above. A trailer door clangs on its loose hinges at 4:30 AM. At all hours, cars snake to and from the fortress of death. The miles and miles of cattle chutes and rural traffic are visible from space, parallel traps colliding. In the single grocery store people are whatsappeando con sus tios and if you want to see a doctor you need to video chat with them. It’s just transnational company towns persisting on death.

From the bank buildings and boarded gas stations I see the maniacal ghost of General Sheridan screaming, “Kill, skin, sell, until the buffalo is exterminated, civilize!” Except what I hear is the optimistic voice of a colleague at a remote research site documenting the silent extinction of soil microbes and bubbling “innovate, digitize, synthesize”.

2.

I breathe in, cough and ingest bits of corn. A few I manage to spit out, others stay lodged in my throat. I am conscious of the small cuts the corn are making and wonder I have ever fully inhabited a reality. My mind wanders and I spit shards of corn in the place of memory. It had all been part of a plan, botched or misunderstood, that ultimately led me to sliding under barbed wire and towards the grain bin. The last grain bin, I guess. I had momentarily glanced at a text message on a burner phone at a lurid bar on the outskirts of Des Moines where the protected bubble cracked into fields of outdated farm machinery and trailers. Tidal pools of time colliding and mixing together across minute distances. All the surfaces of the bar were covered in screens. Years ago, a previous owner had ambitiously converted the private lap-dancing booths into VIP VR clubs with bottle service. Now, only the truly desperate used the cum-smeared headsets to momentarily get off. Wisps of peanut shells littered the floor. Maybe there had been a plan or maybe the excitement of moving the wrong direction in the grid and feeling the scrape of roadside plants against my softened, alcohol-soaked skin had brought me this far. Driving along crop rows desperately hunting for a pocket of loose gravel along an unplanned curve, a rotting hog carcass, but never anything of the sort.

A muscular man, maybe 70 years old and sweaty, reeking from days spent slurping warm cans of Natural Ice grabs my arm and tells me about being 19, heading to a state college in a larger farming town. He performed a few Tennessee Williams plays in a drama class. And then? Now I’m sitting next to you, kid. He slides his thick fingers over my city wrists and I want to lick the pooled, boozy sweat from his cheekbones and the folds of his neck. I want to suck the rows and rows of a single crop and the shiny leased truck and grain futures out of him and spit it into a roadside ditch where mutated frogs croon in painful harmony. But instead I lurch through hangovers pretending to visit production sites, my own reconnaissance for a project I never got around to conceptualizing. I’m a “technical assistant” and a cheap date for professors jostling for lunar agricultural extension positions and cattle breeding jobs north of Saskatchewan. We just pretend to breathe intention into this infernal heat, competing for oxygen with the few remnants of life on the American prairie.

The corn dust seeps into my eyelids, maddeningly itchy. Unable to move, I see myself from the rafters, receding into the mass of kernels and mycelial decay. I am being silently engulfed while my immobile flesh writhes inside. Was there a time when I actually managed to taste his sweat? Only a few disjointed images remain. I remember a few scenes from a summer long past when hordes rendered air-conditioned tractors inoperable across the fields. Night-time break-ins, fucking, pants bunched around ankles and work boots, enjoying the burn of neonicotoid seed coating transferred from fingers to genitals and into the wet interiors of our bodies. We shivered and spasmed and secretly smashed GPS units and automatic steering controls. What else did I suppress as I amnesically descended into the safe blinders of the scientific project?  

I struggle to breath and become hypoxic. I can’t keep my eyes open. I am in an airport where the walls are crawling with advertisements for FieldVision, a cloud computing software extolling the virtues of digital liberation for rural African farmers. Images of peasants in their cotton and bean fields are flashed at airport travelers. The colors are inverted. Bright red crops emerge from an indigo soil, bloody stalks moving rhythmically in a nighttime sea.

Suddenly the distinctions of the cloud and the terminal and the field all disintegrate. The contradictions maintained in virtual space spill out onto the clean airport corridors. Glyphosate runs through automatic soda machines and the stained soils overflow from computer projections and onto runways. A swirling dust storm descends. Eager vacationers, blistering scalps covered in c