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  



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

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.
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Tim Crownshaw is a PhD Candidate in the department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University in Canada and a student in the Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) research partnership. He studies global dynamic transition pathways from non-renewable to renewable energy resources using quantitative, systems-based modelling approaches.

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



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

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

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 corn-rows, are stranded on runways far from their securitized enclaves in suburban Atlanta. The orgiastic celebration of a thinly-veiled seizure of generational assets and communal modes of exchange. Apps that allow insurance companies to seep into shared life from the moments of planting and harvest to the deepest imagined intimacy. But now one could see the nefarious data pathways lighting the night sky, an acre of corn equalized as a particular data bit to be spent on Adderall or ski vacations in Dubai. 

3.

I can’t fucking breathe and the dust creates the deafening sensation of tinnitus in my ears. I crave a bump of cocaine underneath a bronze bust of Norman Borlaug. I want a strapping, bald geneticist to lightly tickle my prostrate while he bubbles bubblegum breath about gene assays and actionable partnerships. Each corn kernel surrounding my appendages becomes an enthusiastic conference-goer draped in lanyards. Pack your bags and roll up your posters! Plant-based jet fuel spews into the skies to transport the pragmatic, hard-working intellectual class to the massive annual Conference. I trip on a teal carpet unable to tell the moving walkway apart from the hordes of pale legs stuffed into dress pants and power suits. It’s fall in Florida and a hurricane warning has been issued outside. Winds lash at stormproof windows but the concrete bunker is impervious to climatic forces except for the drip-drip-drip from the ceilings. The noise of thousands of dress shoes splorching across  saturated carpets interrupt dry presentations on amalgamating Big Data for on-farm precision. Buckets overflow with tepid water warmed by the carbonated, dead oceans. The miasma of whale carcasses competes with the stench of Yankee Candle sour apple wafting through the HVAC system. My eyes tear and then bleed, the slides disappearing behind the flicker of lights.

Announcements sputter overhead to ONLY TAKE UNDERGROUND TUNNELS, TIKI BAR ON 3RD FLOOR CLOSED, SEVERE WEATHER WARNING but no-one seems to notice. People are in solution space. People are connecting. People are outlining meta-analyses. People are eating $18 pre-made tuna salad shipped in from a warehouse in Elizabeth, New Jersey. People are solving global problems. Weather insurance companies sponsor the meetings, host wine and cheese dinners, and raffle off vacations to gated mountainous islands where waves lap against the remnants of colonial fortresses, reclaiming fossilized rock. Underwater, the progressive myth of science reverts into a bubbling heap of pre-Cambrian forms metamorphosed into hydrocarbon. The gyre quickens. Trade booths advertise fertilizer sourced from seawater plastics. Scientists figure out new ways to accelerate the production of more calories. Extra soybeans are transported to coastal communities to fill sandbags stymying storm surges. Corn is pulverized and spread across icy highways and runways. Critical studies sub-committees have a place here too. Underground conference halls full of students exercise critique as normalization, critique as diverse viewpoint, critique as long as it is well-compensated and well-fed.

Science’s chief achievements are the consumption of artisanal cheeses and lukewarm Tinder hook-ups in the suburban hotels of sinking cities.

At the Conference, the most valuable currency is verbally promoting the pathological Project of keeping the landscape clean and controlled. Science’s chief achievements are the consumption of artisanal cheeses and lukewarm Tinder hook-ups in the suburban hotels of sinking cities. Students churn out studies on the contingent social basis of markets and the long-term impacts of conflict on female productivity. Thousands of technicians and masterminds, well-versed and brilliant, pontificate on polyurethane adhesion, lumber quality, and winches and grommets, except the ship has already sunk to the bottom of a toxic, turbulent sea, and the oxygen is running out.

Numb hands flail at substance. Resilience is the constant buzzword. Resilience for breakfast. Resilience for lunch. Resilience shapeshifts. A perfect ideological match for a capitalism tunneling through chaos, briefly adapting and consuming. A notion, a reference, a vocabulary in which the entire terrain of life can be collapsed. Static Newtonian physical models, state-based ecological energy flows, the tight cybernetic machinations of Cold War game theory giving way to complexity science, Big Data, machine learning normalizing the juxtaposition of slums drowning in saline wastewater and claw-foot tubs filled with reverse osmosis inside high-rise condos, the chaotic dynamism of the market, and the wealth of possibilities under mutant ecosystems well-guarded by planetary surveillance, yuppie urban regeneration, microloans, and participatory soil health solutions all tagged as ‘resilience’ to cloak the totalitarianism, economic precarity, the meaningless waiting game between no possibility and worst possibility.

As the elevator’s thick sea of grain engulfs the last parts of my body, the pressure creates a near boiling slime against my skin. I am rotting. The ink from my tattoos are infected and bubbling beneath pale skin. Threadbare jeans, the last beads of hypersaline sweat, cells atrophying. Or maybe a longer, more comfortable death. Hemorrhoidal discomfort while listening to slide shows on statistical regressions and machine learning revolutions to explore microbiological frontiers. Eating bland meals alone night after night, scrolling through transgressive online articles and YouTube grindcore channels and wringing my hands at the ever-constricted lives of what I used to call friends, confidants. Cops, parking tickets, skyrocketing rents in toxic cities, living gloriously defaulting on financial obligations stealing time esoteric wormholes and throaty kisses. On the other side sleepless nights hollowly masturbating chafed skin while working on a model to capture stochastic variability in soil bacterial populations, fried dinners at the craft breweries sponging up the un-taste of the new urban middle class. But now I’m just choking, having wandered off, it feels so small in here.

A. Smoothness flails in the academy by day and plays saxophone by night. He squandered most of his twenties in rural and urban parts of the West and Midwest and now lives in New York City. Most days, A. Smoothness dreams about the Cloud vaporizing in boiling seawater, mass cellular disintegration as collective politics, and saving money for drugs by cannibalizing Mark Zuckerberg for dinner. Some musical collages can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/repeatoffender

Photo by the author.

Trade governance will make or break the Green New Deal

by Shaun Sellers

‘The food that you buy will all be grown locally,’ says policy director at New Consensus, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, in a Vox video. This is stated simply, as an aspect of what it will be like to live in the time of a Green New Deal (GND). Yet it represents a fundamental challenge to international trade governance in ways that must be addressed if the GND is to be successful.

Green New Deals are currently being developed across Europe and North America, with policy initiatives ranging from regional to state to national levels. These Green New Deals vary in their details, but are generally an attempt to rally governments to address climate change, as opposed to letting the deregulated ‘free market’ decide if or which humans will survive the Anthropocene. GNDs are a forceful recognition that governments have a mandate to respond to the existential needs of the populace. In February of 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced a resolution to recognize the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal. It asserts that by 2030, the US needs to become a net-zero emissions economy, and to do this, a combination of green tech, ecological restoration, targeted growth in localizing economies and targeted degrowth in particular sectors of the economy need to all be undertaken together.

The language in the resolution is intentionally non-specific to leave room for interpretation and flexibility, yet that has not stopped conservative and centrist voices from calling it economically impractical. Others caution that the GND may be mere greenwashing of the current status quo. What is notable is that the Resolution chooses to emphasize economic security as opposed to economic growth. These are not the same thing at all. While the resolution could be read to be growth focused, it can also be read as a degrowth transition document—allowing for certain sectors to be targeted for growth but reducing the emissions of other sectors dramatically. The one place where economic development is promoted is in directing investment towards ‘deepening and diversifying industry and business in local regional economies’. And this is where trade governance comes in. To develop local economies with the goal of lessening emissions in trade is to effectively dismantle the international web of supply chains, and by extension, the current international trade regime.

To develop local economies with the goal of lessening emissions in trade is to effectively dismantle the international web of supply chains, and by extension, the current international trade regime.

Investing in local and regional economies would require a change from the ways in which our local economies function today. Nearly half of all global production today is destined for international trade. The food, goods, and services we use every day overwhelmingly come from farms and factories and call centres around the world, and government attempts to change this won’t go unanswered by the corporations that feel the effects of a changing economic climate. National and regional attempts to change the way that economic activity happens in local contexts have been regularly shut down through a process of investor state dispute resolution provisions, because these initiatives violate current international trade rules. In countries all over the world, if local or national policies appear to prevent a corporation from accessing a market—that is, selling their product ‘competitively’—that corporation can sue the government in question in the court at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The way that international trade happens today is both intentional by policy design and also particularly emissions intensive. The emissions from export-oriented production in the world economy are rising faster than global GDP, contributing to absolute increases of emissions over time. Yes, per capita GDP has risen around the world with the increases in international trade, but so too has social inequality  and environmental degradation, correlations that major trade organizations admit are concerning.

The GND Resolution calls for “enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments with strong labor and environmental protections to stop the transfer of jobs and pollution overseas; and to grow domestic manufacturing in the United States”. Internet commentators have pointed out the problems this would create with trade agreements and global trade governance, but they’ve missed the explicit framing of climate change as a national security threat: ‘by impacting the economic, environmental, and social stability of countries and communities around the world.’  This framing may offer insight into the policy pathway to enact such a challenging task as relocalizing economies through policy as suggested by the GND. Article XX and XXI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the core international trade governance document, allows for nations to be exempt from the free trade mandate if they are protecting the environment within their borders (though this is often hit or miss) or for reasons of national security. By declaring in the Green New Deal resolution that climate change is a national security issue, not just for the USA, but for many countries, we can envision a policy pathway to defend iterations of the GND at the WTO court of appeals.

A climate policy must change the way that the global economy works if it is to be successful, but if a policy is effective enough to disrupt global trade, it will violate global trade rules.

However, if we now enter into a world of global climate change discourse framed primarily as a national security issue, this threatens to entrench the military and security sectors at the very moment that people are calling for their drawing down. This also potentially has the power to challenge the fundamental mandate of the WTO, because economic growth through free flow of trade across borders is their goal, and emissions are intimately tied to GDP in today’s trade regime. The broad goal of indiscriminate growth in the world economy is incompatible with the goals of the GND, and with climate policy in general. It is an important climate policy paradox: a climate policy must change the way that the global economy works if it is to be successful (because decoupling of GDP and emissions is a mere myth), but if a policy is effective enough to disrupt global trade, it will violate global trade rules. If the relocalization of economies as proposed in the GND can be defended at the WTO appellate court on climate change as national security grounds, this argument is theoretically available to any country or state or municipality, which would render the WTO useless in managing trade in climate policy contexts. And because we have waited so long to act on climate change, almost everything will be within a climate change context from now on.

The trade and relocalization goals of the GND cannot be achieved without fundamentally challenging the mandate of the WTO, and today’s international trade regime oriented toward free trade and economic growth. This scenario is not a complete victory for those who protest free trade agreements, nor is it a universe-ender for those working in the WTO offices in Geneva (or elsewhere). It must be seen as an opportunity to ask what an international trade regime would look like if it were oriented towards ecological futurity. If the GND is successful in changing the way that international trade works without being clear about how, why, and who should be part of future international trade governance, we risk instability and power accumulation. We must not allow the inevitable clash between the GND and the international trade regime to be an unanticipated crisis. Planning for a GND at any scale must include larger visions for an international trade regime in which protectionism is actively redefined. Right now, protectionism means protecting domestic industry and interests, and language in the GND Resolution echoes this. But protectionism could and should reflect the goals of the GND itself, envisioning international trade governance in which protection of ecological integrity, well-being, and justice are the focus.

We must not allow the inevitable clash between the GND and the international trade regime to be an unanticipated crisis.

The Green New Deals around the world have the seeds of change within them; they are ambitious and important. But we must acknowledge that a new international trade governance approach is integral to any national or international Green New Deals. For the food we eat to be grown locally, we are going to have to do nothing less than restructure the global economy. Best to know this going in.

Shaun Sellers is a PhD Student at McGill University, studying ecological economics and trade theory.

Rethinking education for the Green New Deal

School strike in Hobart, Tasmania. Image: Flickr CC BY

by Gabriel Yahya Haage

The Green New Deal seeks expansive changes for society, from climate change mitigation to job creation. Education reform, while certainly not the focus, is also included, particularly in advocating for free higher education for all people who wish it. As stated in the 2019 United States House Resolution 109, which outlines the ambitions of the Green New Deal, society must provide ’resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education’.

Certainly, progressive movements in many nations are fighting for free, or at least affordable, higher education. However, it is in the lower levels of education—primary and secondary school—that change is most vital in working toward the vision of the Green New Deal. After all, younger generations will face direr consequences of climate change. In fact, youth are one of the ‘frontline and vulnerable communities’ discussed in the Green New Deal House Resolution. Young people are leading the climate movement—see Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future school strikes. A truly transformative Green New Deal must be for and by the youth.  

One may envision a classroom in a nation that embraces the Green New Deal with students being taught a government approved, eco-centered curriculum with a strong climate justice component.

The Green New Deal strives to put the government in charge of providing more social services, including government-funded healthcare and job training. But an important but largely undiscussed question for Green New Deal advocates is: What role should government policy play in determining what is taught in classrooms? One may envision a classroom in a nation that embraces the Green New Deal with students being taught a government approved, eco-centered curriculum with a strong climate justice component. Some may see this as a good way of creating the citizens needed for the current and future state of the world. To others, this would be an unacceptable overreach of government influence. Certainly, governments already influence primary and secondary school curricula as it is. Even where states do not control classroom content, teachers must still shape their lessons to standardized examinations. The Green New Deal’s vision may lean toward even greater influence, however.

In this piece, I do not take a stance regarding the ideal role of government in education. Rather, I offer examples to open a critical dialogue on the topic among proponents of the Green New Deal. As discussed below, governments could influence lower education indirectly by simply increasing access or more directly by ensuring accurate information, by reformulating disciplines and, most controversially, by setting moral education.  

Indirect influence on lower education in the Green New Deal

Even without targeting what is taught in classrooms, the Green New Deal can still have a strong influence in the school system and the lessons that are imparted to students. For instance, by offering affordable daycare and preschool, more young children could be exposed to the education system. Increasing access to early education would also increase the diversity of preschools. Putting kids from different races, classes, and even countries together early on in life could instill a greater multicultural spirit. Of course, this requires well-trained teachers who can ensure that students of different backgrounds are not marginalized or bullied.

Factual content and teaching students to think

If one believes the government should play a role in what is taught in the classroom, the least controversial target may be ensuring that the content taught in classrooms is supported by science. Curriculum on climate change, for example, should be evidence-based. Unfortunately, as discussed in a National Research Council workshop on climate change and education, some teachers do not teach climate change as it is considered too controversial and others feel pressure to teach ‘both sides’ of the issue.

Science education should move beyond facts and figures and teach students how to reason.

More generally, science education should move beyond facts and figures and teach students how to reason. In fact, critical thinking is important beyond the sciences. In a world where people on both the right and left call the other’s facts ‘Fake News,’ people need a cognitive toolbox to evaluate the credibility of what they’re told. The internet, especially social media, bombards kids with a plethora of claims every day. Students must learn to wade through them and determine which are accurate. 

For advocates of the Green New Deal, it is vital to discuss not just the importance of having the right information in school courses, but also potential policies to ensure this. This piece can not delve into specific policies, but, in general terms, how teachers are trained would be a good starting point.   

Reformulating disciplines

If one is okay with government shaping the classroom, one can move beyond content and target the disciplines themselves. Which disciplines should be rethought and how can we change them? A movement of university students, for example, calls for rethinking education in economics, which has become dangerously separated from the knowledge of social and natural sciences. However, these changes target adult students and experts. After all, economics, whether mainstream, Marxist, ecological, or otherwise, is not a field universally taught to elementary or high school students. And yet, it is at these lower levels that the push for an ecological future must occur.

Just as ecology and our understanding of the biophysical planetary limits can help reformulate economics, however, so could the linking of academic disciplines be used to reform primary and secondary education. For instance, education on the history of developed nations could include a discussion of the environmental impacts of the industrial revolution. Another example is the Climate Change and Environmental Education (CCEE) curriculum, which incorporates environmentalism in all areas of study, emphasizing how the most vulnerable are disproportionally impacted by environmental degradation. Examples such as these show how reformulating disciplines can be achieved by connecting concepts that, until now, where segregated into their own disciplines. Governments could, in principle, bring these changes to much broader swaths of society by forcing all public schools to adopt them.

Education and morality

Even those who feel governments should play a strong role in what is taught in the classroom may balk at the idea that governments should determine which moral lessons should be taught in school. Moral education, it may be argued, should be taught in the home, not in the classroom. But morality is already a part of US education at the lower levels. Religious instruction and the Pledge of Allegiance (a standardized recital meant to express one’s allegiance to the nation) are cases in point, even if the former is meant to instill the morals that the students’ parents are assumed to already espouse and the latter is not necessarily mandatory.

Several examples from the previous sections show how the current education system already has a moral component. For instance, teaching acceptance of students with different backgrounds helps develop empathy and inclusiveness. Teaching about the global environmental impacts of industry, which disproportionately target the most vulnerable in society, is unavoidably tied to the concept of moral responsibility.

In many cases, moral education may simply mean making the process more targeted and explicit. For instance, Child-Friendly Schools sometimes hold social cooperation and conflict resolution activities and seek to instill a ‘respect for nature’ in their students. As another example, the Humane Education movement advocates for activities explicitly meant to encourage empathy for others.

It will also hopefully stir a more general discussion on how much government influence proponents think an ideal Green New Deal should advocate in other fields, from healthcare to job training.

That morality is already inexorably tied to education does not mean that the government should be given a more expansive role in determining moral education in schools. There are always dangers in giving a central government too much control over its citizens, and this is particularly worrisome when its influence is related to young people. In terms of the Green New Deal, proponents must consider how expanding the influence of the government could have detrimental effects, particularly as the parties in power shift over time. Setting a precedent on how the government can intervene in education must be done with caution. There is no easy answer to the question of what role the government should play in determining what is taught in schools. A functioning Green New Deal proposal must wrestle with this issue and, hopefully, proponents can develop a position that is of benefit to both students and society in general.

Finally, while this piece focused on education, it will also hopefully stir a more general discussion on how much government influence proponents think an ideal Green New Deal should advocate in other fields, from healthcare to job training, and what such influence might mean to people needing those services, both now and in the future. It may even spark discussions for Green New Deal proponents on potential alternative modes of governance beyond centralized governmental control, both at the local, regional and international levels.

Gabriel Yahya Haage is a PhD candidate at the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University, Canada. His research focuses on freshwater systems and the methods of understanding water demands in the ecological, social and economic spheres.

Down Maria

Photo: Jenny Smith

by Martin Hensher

The fence looked somehow smaller. Francis was sure it was the same— standard chain-link and razor wire, and slightly faded “Australian Government: Prohibited Area” signs every twenty-five metres. Yet smaller —if only in the scale of the threat it promised, even if not in its physical dimensions. As their car pulled up at the gate, he realised it wasn’t the fence that had changed, but the entrance. The concrete strongpoint that had long guarded the only access route had gone, replaced by a neatly painted weatherboard guardroom and a matching sentry box by the barrier. They looked rather like they might be hired out for low-budget historical movies.  However, the figure that emerged from the sentry box was not an extra from a colonial scene, but an Australian Federal Police officer for whom admitting their vehicle was clearly the highlight of an uneventful morning.

She chatted as she checked his and the driver’s ID and filled in her register, so he felt bold enough to ask her, ‘What happened to the old bunker?’

The policewoman chuckled. ‘They broke it up last year.  The plumbing was crook, and when they came to fix it, they realised some genius had laid the drains under the concrete base.  No dunny, no guard house. So they thought they’d get ahead of the game and replace it with something that might be useful once the Island’s decommissioned. Been here before then?’

‘Yes. A few times.’ As he said the words, Francis suddenly felt much older than could reasonably be attributed to the jet lag he was still feeling. The truth was that he had been here twelve times in twenty years. The Island had become a constant in his life, a destination of strange, regular pilgrimage, as he travelled from London to this prison island at the ends of the Earth. And now the block house was gone, and they were thinking ahead to shutting up shop. Of course they were. There was only one prisoner left, and he would not live forever. But where did that leave Francis?

‘Better get going.’ said the policewoman.  ‘Boat’s leaving soon.’

He could have kissed her for breaking that particular train of thought.

***

Francis O’Riordan was sixty-five years old. Almost exactly. In fact, one of the particular benefits of this trip had been the chance it offered to spend his birthday with his daughter Annie and her family in Melbourne, a day of joyfully befuddled celebration that had started as soon as his grandchildren saw him walking out of the arrivals gate at the airport. The pleasure of seeing the children and Annie was intense, driving out all the fatigue of his long journey, and punctuated only occasionally by the stabbing pain of the remembrance that his wife Sylvie would never see them again. This wasn’t like his other trips to or from the Island, stopping to see Annie on the way, knowing that her mother was safely but jealously back in London, waiting to hang on Francis’ every word describing their growing band of grandchildren.  Now Sylvie was dead, and when the official government flight eventually took him back to Heathrow, he would return to an empty house, with no one to tell about the rampaging horde of hooligans clattering around the old rectory on the other side of the world. He had lain awake that night in a dry river of grief, from which he had thought he had escaped months earlier.  Only the clank and crash of the first tram of the morning in the Melbourne street outside had returned him gratefully to the world of the living. 

There was no space for grief the following night, as an angry Bass Strait crossing focused every waking thought on not losing the rather good dinner Francis had unwisely tucked into before the ferry had left its moorings in Melbourne.  The next morning, he had slept for most of the train ride from Devonport, waking as the train slowed to cross the Derwent on its way into Hobart’s northern suburbs. His tiredness and sadness were gone, his mind clear now. He spent the afternoon re-reading the case files he had brought with him from London, and reviewing the prison intelligence and psychologists’ reports that had awaited him at his Hobart hotel. O’Riordan had time to attend choral evensong at St. David’s Cathedral before enjoying a deep and uninterrupted sleep. Next day, the journey out to Triabunna was a pleasure to him – the paddocks green from the winter’s rains, and the rolling hillsides of forest rich and deeply shadowed in the spring sunshine.

So the realisation that the work of the Island might slowly and inexorably be coming to an end —and with it, his own relationship with this place —was deeply jarring. Francis couldn’t help but feel angry with himself for not having considered the obvious possibility that this might be his last trip to the Island. This bad mood was still with him as the catamaran docked at Darlington and he stepped onto the jetty.

***

This visit, the United Nations contingent guarding the facility were South Africans. It was something of a polite fiction; in truth, Australia operated the facility and provided the backbone of its staff — whether that was the correctional services officers and domestic staff who travelled across from Triabunna every day, or the navy and air defence units who quietly watched the waters and skies around Maria. Nevertheless, every six months a new detail of forty guards rotated through from another nation, visibly maintaining the world’s commitment to human-centred development. Being paid in Australian dollars for the duration of their tour helped make this an appealing posting for military prison staff the world over, needless to say.  

Francis was searched and screened by two guards who did a passable act as a comedy duo — a short and wiry coloured Capetonian with three gold teeth, and a tall, beefy Afrikaaner whose face looked like he’d had one too many rapid impacts on the rugby pitch. Their banter and childish double entendre cleared away the mood that had earlier seized him, and their elision of English with choice Afrikaans expletives transported him through the decades to the years he and Sylvie had spent in Pretoria when their children were tiny.

Processing complete, he stepped through the control door and was inside the prison. A woman of about forty in a Correctional Services uniform was waiting for him.

‘Professor O’Riordan? I’m Kylie Dunbar, the deputy psychologist for CST Maria.  May I?’

‘Thank you’, Francis said as he gratefully passed her the large folder of briefing documents he had been juggling with his bag after the Cape Town comics had finished searching him. He paused. You’re not Don Dunbar’s daughter, are you?’

She laughed. ‘Yes, I am. Dad said to say hello when he heard there was a Panel hearing coming up.’

‘How is he? Retired yet?’

‘A year ago. He’s good, thanks — making a nuisance of himself to Mum and generally not catching as many fish as he’d like to think he does.’

‘What made you go into the family business?’

Kylie laughed again. ‘The stylish uniform? No, there’s only one place on the East Coast of Tasmania with a job for an unemployed forensic psychologist who wants her kids to be close to family.  I studied psychology because I thought it would get me out of Triabunna forever, but after I graduated I realised that my dad worked at the world’s most interesting natural experiment. Take a group of certified geniuses who used to own the world and lock them up on a rock no one has successfully escaped from in two hundred years. Observe and discuss!’

Dunbar paused and looked at her watch. ‘We’d best get over to the Superintendent’s dining room. The rest of the Panel arrived last night, so there’s going to be some lunch and then the pre-Hearing discussion starts at 2.30. We’ll have your bag taken over to your room.’

***

He always enjoyed the lunches on Maria.  Running the facility was a curious mix of tedium and readiness, and the pattern had been set early that the staff needed to be well looked after. He was very pleased to see that the signs of winding down had not extended to the kitchens, and the food did not disappoint. Nor did the company.

Collins had been the Australian Superintendent for a good few years. He was a dour-looking man who defied expectations with his dry but sympathetic humour.  Next to him sat Mkhize, the South African Commandant. There were four other Panel members alongside O’Riordan, two of whom he knew well of old — Anand George, the Indian Supreme Court Justice, and Mariam Petrossian, chief of threat assessment from the Office of the UN Secretary General. The third was Jens Olstrom, a Danish behavioural psychologist whom Francis knew by reputation. Collins introduced him to the fourth — who, by convention, was furnished by the nation on rotation at the time of each Hearing.

‘This is Nonkonzo Mda, our South African member this year.’

‘Professor O’Riordan, it’s a pleasure to meet you after reading so much of your work.’

Mda was a small, slight woman, perhaps in her late fifties. Her face had a sleepy look, and her tightly locked hair was pepper-potted with grey. Yet her eyes twinkled slyly and she moved with a precision that spoke of anything  but sleepiness. She was seated next to him at the lunch table, so they chatted as the food was served.

‘Your accent, Nonkonzo – where is it from?’ Francis asked, not quite able to place the South African’s speech pattern.

She chuckled. ‘All over, Professor. I’m a child of exile. I was born in Zambia, primary school in Moscow, high school in London, university in Jo’burg when we returned after Democracy, doctorate in Heidelberg. I confuse myself if I’m not careful.’

‘And how did that road end up here?’

‘Ah’ She chuckled again, in a way that Francis found unaccountably pleasing.  ‘An unusual combination of specialisations and a very poor eye for the career choices that would get you to the top in Pretoria.’

He laughed, recognising the pattern of his own life in her description. They chatted about Pretoria and London for a while, before being drawn into an animated discussion between Kylie Dunbar and Olstrom on the merits of predictive profiling.  The Danish psychologist was clearly nostalgic for some of the tools no longer available to his trade.

After lunch they moved to the Hearing Room.  It was a large boardroom, internally like any other corporate meeting space — yet it was screened and insulated to make it impervious to penetration by any known eavesdropping technique. Not that anyone was trying now, to the best of their knowledge, but maintaining the old disciplines had served the facility well over the years.

Collins called them to order after they had taken their allotted places behind their name plaques around the table.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, let us commence the pre-Hearing procedures for the fourth parole application for Mark Franklin Rothko, prisoner number GZ037. Please identify yourselves for the record.’

After the Panel and the other attending officers had done so, the Australian continued. 

‘You all appreciate the significance of this hearing. Rothko is the last prisoner on the Island, since Wei Xu and Davenant’s deaths last year. I would remind you that — much as the Australian Government might be pained by my saying so — issues of cost must play no part in your deliberations. This facility was established by international treaty to incarcerate those convicted of crimes against humanity until they pose no further threat. That is the only factor you should give decisive weight in your discussions. There are those who argue Rothko’s continued detention is wasteful, and who would ask what possible threat a seventy-three year old man could pose to the world today. You, however, have the fullest possible evidence at your disposal, and are able to make the most informed decision on the real risks at play here.’

And so their discussion began. They had all consumed many hundreds of pages of briefing, and three of the five Panel members had, of course, heard at least one of Rothko’s previous parole applications. But the basic facts of Rothko’s case always made O’Riordan experience a flush of angry disbelief at his sheer arrogance.

Rothko had made an immense fortune in tech. At first, he had done so the traditional way – a social media start-up sold for a record price, and the establishment of a lavishly endowed foundation. Yet, unlike most of his peers, Rothko had quickly parlayed his first fortune into a set of companies that continued to make massive profits year after year, pumping ever more money into his “foundation for the future human”. So far, so good. But after the signing of the Dushanbe Protocols, rather than terminating his work on Artificial Intelligence, Rothko had doubled down on it — scarcely even in secrecy. More than that, when the police finally raided his Transcentis laboratories in five different countries, not only did they find AI installations that showed every sign of being fully active and connected off-site, but also human subjects with wetware connections to his AI networks. They were all willing and handsomely paid — mainly migrant workers sending large remittances home — but they had undergone neurosurgery and ongoing drug treatment, sometimes for years. And all were significantly changed, in ways that left their interviewers and investigators disturbed.

It was the human subject work which had really resulted in Rothko, Davenant and Wei Xu receiving the longest sentences of all the transhumanists. Surprisingly many firms had continued with AI research after Dushanbe, confident their will would prevail. It had been a great shock to them when coordinated raids across the globe had pulled them from their beds or their boardrooms; still more salutary when one corporation — perhaps tipped off in advance — chose to lock down their facility and resist arrest. The level of lethal force used by the Canadian authorities that day left no one in any doubt that the rules had changed beyond recognition. Yet only the owners of Transcentis could be shown to have used human surgical alteration in their illegal AI work. The Special Tribunal had reflected these ethics violations in its sentencing, handing down an additional ten years for each beyond the basic sentences all had received for (in the familiar words of the Tribunal’s verdict) ‘…defying international law while knowingly and willfully exposing all humanity to existential risk for the purposes of private profit.’

Ultimately, though, they all knew that Rothko, Davenant and Wei Xu had remained on the island far longer than the forty two others originally sentenced with them another reason — their defiance. All the others had settled in the end. They had recanted, publicly renounced the goals of Artificial Intelligence and transhumanism, and agreed to parole terms that essentially forbade them from any contact with anything remotely resembling a computing device for the rest of their lives. By the time most of them left Maria this hadn’t been hard; twenty years of degrowth and  ecological stabilisation had relegated their kinds of technology to niche functions in key public services — dull, utilitarian, and under tight, if discreet, control by the authorities to avoid unduly tempting enquiring minds.

These men had a hope; that they could return the world to its rightful path towards the Singularity and immortality.

The three old men of the island had been made of different stuff. They had refused to concede any wrongdoing. They railed at their confinement. They wrote prolifically and worked together every day on grand projects, doubling and redoubling their efforts as the number of their fellow convicts dwindled. They raged with contempt at each new parolee who accepted the inevitable and left Maria to make his or her peace with a new reality. Once only the three of them remained, their rage had settled, and they had established a way of life that might have been best described as monastic in its routines. Yet they remained incarcerated not because the authorities wished to punish their defiance, but because they feared it. Not in its spirit, but its implication. These men had a hope; they appeared to remain utterly convinced that they could return the world to its rightful path towards the Singularity and immortality. They shrugged off the delay caused by the Great Transition and its absurd insistence on the equality and beauty of unaugmented, unadorned humans as if it were nothing more than the irritating bites of insects. Of course, to the intelligence specialists who monitored their conversations and writings, this raised the very worrying question of why they remained so resolute. Did they know of secret resources, hidden away to await their release? Was there some remnant movement at large, biding its time until its leaders emerged from prison? Could there, almost inconceivably, still be AIs running quietly, sequestered out of sight, far better able to hide in a world of limited connectivity than their forebears had been before the Great Transition? The only possible risk management strategy must be to keep these anti-human prophets safely under lock and key.

Davenant and Wei Xu’s deaths had been unexpected. Davenant had succumbed to a highly aggressive brain cancer in just a few months, which autopsy suggested must have metastasised even before his first symptoms were visible. Some of the medical staff had insinuated that it may have been related to the unconventional anti-ageing therapies he had enthusiastically partaken of in the years before his conviction, but this assertion did not find its way into any official records. Wei Xu, by contrast, appeared almost to have chosen to die, retreating into himself after Davenant’s death and suffering a massive stroke only six weeks after his friend and former start-up partner had died. The emergency facilities on Maria were as good as any teaching hospital’s (better, as the Principal Medical Officer liked to joke, because there were no trainees to get in the way), but Wei Xu was dead within eight hours of collapsing.

That left only Rothko. But did it change the risk calculus?

***

The Panel was not without compassion. For ten months, Rothko had effectively been in solitary confinement, an old man whose last friends were now dead. But that in itself posed them a problem. There were no longer any transcripts of unguarded conversations between prisoners to provide insights. Kylie Dunbar and the prison psychologists noted an increasing withdrawal from his previous activities, and some evidence of depression, although Rothko was wholly unwilling to participate in any form of therapeutic regime. News of the birth of a grandchild appeared initially to have caused excitement, but this had rapidly given way to despondency. Rothko’s writings had decreased greatly in number and length, falling back to little more than weekly notes to his wife and daughter. Where once he was haughty and defiant with prison guards and welfare staff, now he was compliant and quiet.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Panel split down professional lines. George, the Indian judge, and Olstrom, the psychologist, clearly saw a broken man who had been incarcerated for twenty years, and had lost his only remaining friends. Patrossian and Mda, the intelligence specialists, saw a man who had nothing to lose, whose release might allow one last throw of the dice in the game of madness which had only narrowly been thwarted years before. And that, of course, left the decision to O’Riordan, as chair.

During afternoon tea, Francis left the Hearing Room for some fresh air.  He stood outside and breathed in the warm, dampening air. The sky to the East darkened over the Tasman Sea as a storm birthed itself, and the great mass of Bishop and Clerk brooded over him. O’Riordan wished he could slip past the chain-link fence and make his way up the mountain to hide as the cloud rolled in from the sea. He felt someone touch his arm, and turned slightly to see Mda standing beside him.

She looked up into his face, her eyes now sad rather than twinkling as they had at lunchtime. ‘This is hard’, she said.  ‘But it was hard when we fought them. You remember how hard. I know your story, Francis. It is the same as mine.  Neither of us chose to be revolutionaries, I think. Rather the Revolution chose us. And because we fought them hard and early, the Revolution was able to become a Transition, and not a river of blood.’

‘That old man in there is sad and suffering. But he is powerful too. We cannot let that power out when there is any chance his machines remain in the world. We do not speak of that risk in public any more, yet you and I both know we did not find all their machines, or even all their wetware. Just because he is old and filled with grief, does not mean he is safe. There is only one thing we can do.’

Her fingers brushed his as she turned and walked away. O’Riordan stood for several minutes, not wishing to release the memory of the comfort of her touch. As the first drops of rain hit his face, he realised that this would perhaps not be his last visit to the Island after all. Tomorrow he would tell that to Rothko. Then he might take that walk up Bishop and Clerk.

Maria Island Prison, c. 1880-90. Used with kind permission of the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, Item SD_ILS_686112

Martin Hensher has recently swapped the life of a public servant for full time academia, with a particular focus on preparing health care systems for the challenges of the Anthropocene. Born and educated in England, he has also spent many years in South Africa and, more recently, Australia, where he lived with his family for seven years in the island state of Tasmania. They have recently moved to Melbourne. Only you can judge whether his writing is dystopian or utopian, and his family would probably suggest he is able to hold simultaneously the positions of miserable bastard and incurable optimist with apparent effortlessness.

October readings

Source: ROAR Magazine


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

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

So much has happened around the world this month, it’s hard to keep up. From massive protests around the world that toppled whole governments and won people’s demands against austerity, to Turkey’s attack on Rojava, to massive wildfires in California (again). But that’s exactly why we put together this newsletter for you! This month, we feature some excellent analysis on what links these global protests against austerity, and on-the-ground analysis of protests in each country. We offer many stories that can help inform you about what’s going on in Rojava, and how we can respond to Turkey’s invasion and the US role. After Extinction Rebellion protesters tried to block commuters in London, a debate ensued about appropriate forms of direct action, which we feature here. Now that California is up in flames again, we offer some timely analyses on the economic system and built environment that have led to its current ecological crisis. We also highlight a few analyses from inside the movement for local democracy in North America, with several reflections on the Symbiosis Congress of Municipal Movements this September. There was also a lot of analysis about the role of corporations in the climate crisis, including Silicon Valley’s funding of climate change denial. 

On the whole, a thread running through this month’s events was the perceived conflict between working class demands and environmental policy. Reminding us of France’s Yellow Vest protests, in Ecuador, social movements rose up against rising gas prices; in London, Extinction Rebellion was mocked for blocking a commuter train in a working class area. In California, austerity has led to the failure of its energy companies to provide energy for millions of people, targeting the poor. What are the opportunities for environmental policies to meet people’s needs, and at the same time reconstruct the world system ecologically? How can environmentalists, especially those in the Global North, appeal to the global working class? These are some key questions going forward. 



Uneven Earth updates

Shrink the military, shrink injustice | Link | The US Green New Deal must be anti-imperialist

A Green New Deal for an ecological economy | Link | Introducing a series of proposals for a truly transformative GND

Designing for a world after climate catastrophe | Link | While architects are often told they will change the world, a new book fails to imagine what a world after capitalism could look like

Degrowth should be a core part of the just transition | Link | A review of Degrowth by Giorgos Kallis

Utopia, not futurism: Why doing the impossible is the most rational thing we can do | Link | This 1978 speech by Murray Bookchin is strikingly relevant today


Top 5 articles to read

The US city preparing itself for the collapse of capitalism

New bubbles, mounting debt: preparing for the coming crisis

Post-capitalists must understand the role of migration in global capitalism. “When reading and hearing of ambitious programmes for social transformation, it is our task to consider whether or not such programmes have a sense of the ‘real’ determinants of economic development that Marx recognised: international relations of production, the international division of labour in a world market, exploitation of resources and emigration of displaced people, and at the forefront of these processes, the inner structures of middle and working classes and relations between them.”

The stories we need: pan-African social ecology

Why mental health is a political issue, by Mark Fisher. “Depression is the shadow side of entrepreneurial culture, what happens when magical voluntarism confronts limited opportunities.”



News you might’ve missed

Unprecedented’ murder charges for loggers in deaths of indigenous activists. Two timber executives and three loggers charged in shooting deaths of activists who battled illegal logging in Peruvian Amazon.

Fishery collapse ‘confirms Silent Spring pesticide prophecy’ 

Indonesia finds one-fifth of palm oil plantations are illegal

Maquiladoras and the exploitation of migrants on the border 

Understanding extinction: humanity has destroyed half the life on Earth

Dutch development bank is financing land theft, intimidation and Landless: How the Dutch development bank marginalises farmers.

‘Consumers are not aware we are slaves inside the greenhouses’

Higher temperatures driving ‘alarming’ levels of hunger – report

Indigenous Mapuche pay high price for Argentina’s fracking dream

Cambodia’s Bunong reel from deforestation

History threatened as Turkey prepares to flood ancient city

Harvard and TIAA’s farmland grab in Brazil goes up in smoke 




Worldwide uprisings against austerity

Analysis of the common threads in global uprisings: 

The revolution isn’t being televised

Prole Wave: climate change, circulation struggles and the communist horizon

Hong Kong, Chile, Lebanon: Global protests are fueled by deeper discontent

Revolts against the neoliberal world order

The Interpreter: The global protest wave, explained

Why democracy is crumbling in the West

And analyses of protests in each country:

Massive protests in Chile force repeal of fare hikes and Chile doesn’t need to rebuild, it needs to be restructured. Also: Debt and neoliberalism: The global roots of Chile’s crisis

The Algerian Hirak: Young people and the non-violent revolution

Lebanon’s ‘October Revolution’ must go on!

As protests grow, Lebanese are ‘reclaiming’ public spaces

Lebanon is experiencing a social revolution

Update from Catalonia and “Be water”: Catalonia protesters learn from Hong Kong 

Social and political earthquake in Ecuador and a piece by Diana Vela Almeida, contributing editor at Uneven Earth: The fight against the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies in Ecuador: Lessons for environmental and social justice




Extinction Rebellion: Critique and defense

Resources on colonialism, racism, and climate justice for Extinction Rebels

The flawed social science behind Extinction Rebellion’s change strategy

How seven thousand Quebec workers went on strike against climate change

It is not just a bunch of flowers

Don’t use XR tube action to attack the climate rebels

Extinction Rebellion has a politics problem




Revolution in Rojava

Trump’s betrayal of Rojava

This Vermonter’s theories laid the groundwork for revolution in Rojava

The Kurds—a history of agony

PKK letter to the American people and President Trump

The Rojava revolution in peril

What the world loses if Turkey destroys the Syrian Kurds

New education system was central to the Kurds’ Rojava Revolution in northern Syria – now it’s under attack

Turkish attack on Syria endangers a remarkable democratic experiment by the Kurds

Not just ethnicity: Turkey v. Kurds and the great divide over political Islam v. the secular Left

This isn’t the first time the US has abandoned the Kurds

The annihilation of Rojava




Reflections on the Symbiosis Congress

Grassroots democracies form North American coalition

Symbiosis: federating municipalist movements in North America for real democracy and en français: L’émergence d’un municipalisme nord-américain

Of egg and chicken: A report back from the Symbiosis Federation Congress

Report back from the Symbiosis Congress of Municipal Movements

We do it badly, or not at all: reflections on the Congress of Municipal Movements




California’s wildfires and ecological crisis in the United States

It’s the end of California as we know it. “Our whole way of life is built on a series of myths — the myth of endless space, endless fuel, endless water, endless optimism, endless outward reach and endless free parking.” 

Ordinary life has vanished in fire-ravaged California

‘I’m standing right here in the middle of climate change’: How USDA is failing farmers

California’s power shutdown was primed by climate change




Corporations and climate injustice

Global climate laws threatened by rise in investor-state disputes

Revealed: the 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions

Fossil fuel firms’ social media fightback against climate action

Money to burn: How iconic banks and investors fund the destruction of the world’s largest rainforests

Revealed: Google made large contributions to climate change deniers

In its insatiable pursuit of power, Silicon Valley is fuelling the climate crisis

How to pay for climate justice? Tax the rich, say the rich

Free Trade Agreements are fueling and shaping the oppression and injustice against women




Just think about it…

The act of giving and the chance of life on a finite planet

Has capitalism become our religion?

Being busy is eliminating the joys of shared free time

The past is still present: why colonialism deserves better coverage

Digital dystopia: how algorithms punish the poor

Humans will not ‘migrate’ to other planets, Nobel winner says

The real reason scientists downplay the risks of climate change

Mining is destroying the planet

Ancient farmers irreversibly altered Earth’s face by 3000 years ago

Climate is missing the point. We have an ecosystem emergency

How capitalism ‘solved’ the nitrogen crisis




Where we’re at: analysis

‘Racism dictates who gets dumped on’: how environmental injustice divides the world. The Guardian launched a year-long series, Our Unequal Earth, investigating environmental injustices: how ecological hazards and climate disasters have the harshest impacts on people of color, native tribes and those on low incomes.

As sea levels rise, so do ghost forests

‘Like a sunburn on your lungs’: how does the climate crisis impact health? 

Against ‘consumption’ . We must shift our perspective from reducing consumption to radically reorganising society.

Professional-managerial chasm and On the origins of the professional-managerial class: An interview with Barbara Ehrenreich

Connecting trade and climate chaos

Reflections on Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, by Peter Linebaugh

Depoliticization is a deadly weapon of neoliberal fascism  




New politics

A growing anti-racist network takes on the rise of far-right politics in Germany

Uganda’s eco-feminists are taking on mining and plantation industries

Saving Aru: The epic battle to save the islands that inspired the theory of evolution

Burial ground acknowledgements. Land acknowledgments as acts of institutional inclusion obscure the antagonism that follows from genocide.

Farewell to the World Social Forum? And an oldie but goodie: Mzonke Poni on the World Social Forum

Germany’s big green mood lacks radicalism

For the sake of life on Earth, we must put a limit on wealth

The other Marx. Why the Communist Manifesto is obsolete

“Every time a civilization is in crisis, there is a return of the commons” – Interview with Michel Bauwens

‘One of the biggest, baddest things we did’: Black Panthers’ free breakfasts, 50 years on 

What living well means for the Tseltal and Tsotsil Maya of the Chiapas




Cities and radical municipalism

Property owners can do basically whatever they want to homeless people now. In San Francisco, they’re even getting the government’s help.

A new kind of housing co-op emerges in San Francisco

Can our ‘global city’ offer transnational solidarity?

‘Van homes’ aren’t romantic – they are proof of our horrifying housing crisis

India builds homes to resist climate-linked floods

An Athenian remedy: the rise, fall and possible rebirth of democracy

The urban shepherd of Paris – photo essay




Degrowth!

Techno-fix futures will only accelerate climate chaos – don’t believe the hype 

A Green New Deal between whom and for what?

Degrowth and the Green New Deal

Why degrowth is essential: A rejection of Left ecomodernists Phillips, Sharzer, Bastani, and Parenti

Climate futures: Renewable energy vs. technologies of degrowth




Sci-fi and the near future

Angela Davis, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Nikita Dhawan: Planetary utopias

Reclaiming sci-fi’s lost history

We need more imagination in the face of climate catastrophe

Comrades in deep future

The rise of Indigenous horror: How a fictional genre is confronting a monstrous reality




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

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

Shrink the military, shrink injustice

Somali people protesting at gate eight of the US Embassy in Mogadishu.
Image: Flickr CC BY

by Walter Keady

The climate crisis does not respect national borders, and neither should programs that respond to it. The Green New Deal, unlike most proposed climate legislation, addresses justice, not just emissions. But to be truly transformative, it must consider justice internationally, not just in the country implementing a GND.

United States House Resolution 109, the document that proposes a Green New Deal, focuses narrowly on the US. It threatens to create Green New Colonialism through increased extraction abroad. It also gives no mention of the US military’s environmental impact or its ability to maintain global injustice by force. 

The GND names social, political, and economic oppression as root causes of environmental injustice.

Happily, the GND holds a radical understanding of how environmental injustice comes to be. The GND names social, political, and economic oppression as root causes of environmental injustice. Traditional policy approaches for environmental justice, by contrast, focus on ‘disproportionate shares’ of ‘environmental consequences’ in a way that laments, rather than counteracts, underlying oppressions. 

The fact is, socially and economically marginalized people bear the brunt of environmental hazards. Speaking plainly, environmental injustice occurs along race and class lines. 2018’s Hurricane Michael hit poor counties in Florida and Georgia hardest, demonstrating a pattern where environmental hazards exacerbate existing inequalities. This injustice does not confine itself to the United States or other countries that have produced the lion’s share of the emissions causing climate chaos. Shortly after Hurricane Michael, two serious cyclones hammered the coast of Mozambique, with more frequent storms expected in the future. 

Climate mitigation and adaptation—not hazards alone—can also create or perpetuate injustice. For instance, implementing the GND’s call for net-zero emissions would require vast increases in production of renewable energy technologies and batteries. Accordingly, it would intensify mining in places such as China, Congo-Kinshasa, and Chile. This mining contributes to water toxification in Inner Mongolia, depends on child labor in Congo, and threatens to degrade Indigenous and peasant farmland in the Andes. The lack of attention to these energy and environmental injustices constitutes a ‘green colonialism,’ where the global north achieves a high standard of living and a sheen of carbon neutrality by exploiting the health, labor, and land of the global south.

It is true that renewable energy production can cut greenhouse gas emissions in the wealthiest countries, mitigating climate change’s most acute threats in the global south. Climate change is certainly a mortal threat and in itself an environmental injustice, but simply replacing one energy source with another would hardly be a just transition. Instead, as Elena Hofferberth writes, in order to prevent green colonialism, ‘[t]he acknowledgement of the global historical responsibility [for oppression and discrimination] must translate into true environmental justice…’ 

Accordingly, an internationally just GND must target the processes that generate global oppression. But what are those processes? Why are marginalized people at greater risk? And who marginalized them in the first place? The short answer is that state power determines who is protected from environmental injustice and who suffers it. Environmental hazards mostly result from economic processes, all of which require ecosystem destruction or disruption. Within a given state, non-marginalized people, those with economic means and social privileges, can protect themselves from these risks by influencing decisions or using legal processes to mitigate existing harms. Or they can simply pay to protect their land, often in the form of conservation easements.

But these people are usually playing a zero-sum game. If their communities avoid risks, others will not. Corporations have to grow or die, so they won’t surrender dirty projects if they do not have to. Rather, they will move them to where poor and marginalized people live. The state will thus favor industrial interests over people without political, economic, or social power who challenge them. In the US, this pattern concentrates pollution in low-income areas, especially those populated by people of color. Internationally, global south countries bear the brunt of resource extraction and waste disposal. 

Economic processes, especially raw material extraction, depend on international stability that results from military power. A central example is the US military’s tight link to major US fossil fuel corporations.

These conflicts also arise across international borders. Where no one state dominates, the political fights take the form of military competition. Without a global government, there is no single body that can back up or arbitrate economic processes, so economic processes, especially raw material extraction, depend on international stability that results from military power. A central example is the US military’s tight link to major US fossil fuel corporations. In other words, it is no coincidence that the US has the largest economy in the world and the largest military. 

A transformative GND, one committed to environmental justice and avoiding green colonialism, should therefore reduce American military capacity. This reduction would degrade one of the primary mechanisms on which injustice and exploitation depend. Thankfully, the current House Resolution already contains the seeds of that more transformative vision.

First and foremost, the GND already calls for justice through ‘stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of [I]ndigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth” (my emphasis). One only needs to go one step further to acknowledge that oppression based in militarism reproduces injustice on a global scale. 

Consider military bases. The US military operates approximately 800 bases around a globe composed of 206 UN-recognized countries. They amount to hundreds of “sites around the globe are where the military can store its weapons, station its troops, detain suspects, launch its drones, and monitor global affairs.” This storage, stationing, detaining, launching, and monitoring all comprise a mechanism for oppression, one that projects the interests of the United States and holds the rest of the world in check. But bases can also create direct environmental injustices themselves. Bases, current and former, have left a range of environmental hazards around the world, ‘[f]rom Agent Orange in Vietnam, depleted uranium in Iraq, and munitions dumps and firing ranges in Vieques, Puerto Rico, to a toxic brew of poisons along the Potomac River…’ Often, these hazards impact people along colonial lines, such as military bases’ impact on traditional Native American foods in Alaska.

The GND should halt oppression by significantly reducing the number of US military bases around the world.

Accordingly, the GND should halt oppression by significantly reducing the number of US military bases around the world. In doing so, the GND would weaken the capacity of the United States to inflict environmental injustice, while simultaneously directly mitigating existing environmental hazards. Of course, this process would not do away with the injustices of extractivism in and of itself. What it would do is decrease imperial power and shrink local sites of environmental injustice.

This process would easily fit with GND jobs. Decommissioning bases, managing their contents, and remediating their impacts would require a huge amount of work. A GND committed to base reduction would also significantly cut oil consumption. The US military itself is the world’s largest consumer of oil, and shrinking it would cut its huge greenhouse gas emissions. Reduced military expenditure could also free up federal funding to pay for other aspects of the GND.

Critics may rightfully ask why this proposal does not simply call for full demilitarization and the abolition of the armed forces. After all, why simply lessen the potential for environmental injustice rather than eliminate it? One response could be that it is not just militarism but imperialism which the GND must target. But the two are intricately linked, and tackling the latter would warrant a more radical opposition to the military. My only defense against that is tactical restraint. A major strength of the GND has been its popularity, and too strong of a critique of American militarism could decrease support. I admit this defense is based on speculation about public opinion, but limiting the worst dangers from climate change requires mitigation as soon as possible. Compromises on rhetoric are warranted to adopt a transformative GND within the existing political structure. Since the proposed GND is largely aspirational, the GND goals could perhaps be framed in a way that is sympathetic to public opinion while policies themselves could be more radical.

These issues need to be carefully worked through in the creation of an anti-imperialist GND. The conversation should start by recognizing that reduction of military capacity provides an effective means of combating imperialism and environmental injustices alike.

Walter Keady is a masters student at the University of Vermont studying energy, environmental justice, and just transitions. He is a member of the Champlain Valley Democratic Socialists of America’s Executive Committee.

A Green New Deal for an ecological economy

Image: Peg Hunter CC BY-NC

by Leah Temper and Sam Bliss

The Green New Deal is on everyone’s lips and policy platforms. Liberal pundit Thomas Friedman coined the term in 2007, and Left parties in the UK called for a Green New Deal during the recession that followed the 2008 global financial crash. Last year, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez rebooted the idea in the United States. Now progressive politicians from Canada to Australia are putting forward Green New Deals.

The proposals vary from place to place, but each GND is a package of policies designed to transform our economy to deal with the dual crises of climate change and social inequality. In this way they link environmental justice with economic justice in an all-encompassing vision for restructuring much of the existing social order.

It’s a tall task. The right has criticized the GND for being a laundry list of everything environmentally minded socialists have ever wanted anyway: not just publicly owned renewable energy and small-scale eco-agriculture but also universal healthcare, housing, and living-wage jobs. Centrists have argued that such a broad and deep policy package isn’t politically possible; only incremental, piecemeal changes can fight climate change successfully. Some leftists have expressed concern that the GND doesn’t go far enough: that it might cater to corporate and financial interests; that it threatens to intensify rich countries’ extraction of mineral wealth from the rest of the world (for solar panels, batteries, electric cars, and so on); that it could further marginalize Indigenous peoples; and that it risks being counter-productive by kickstarting economic growth, which would probably increase carbon emissions.

Seemingly every progressive and socialist espouses some version of the GND in part because it remains a vague outline of aspirations. Now its proponents must flesh out the details.

Despite these criticisms, the GND’s ambition has led to great excitement. The Left has been reanimated behind a common cause. Seemingly every progressive and socialist espouses some version of the GND in part because it remains a vague outline of aspirations. Now its proponents must flesh out the details. We need to publicly debate different visions of the GND. We must think strategically about how to make the GND a reality and how to ensure it is just and truly transformative.

We argue that ecological economists can play a leading role in this. In their textbook Ecological Economics, Herman Daly and Josh Farley list sustainability and justice as the field’s first two goals. If the GND’s goal is to facilitate, through policy, the transition to a socially equitable low-carbon economy, then ecological economics basically bills itself as the science of the Green New Deal. Of course, many fields have knowledge and ways of thinking to contribute to informing a GND. Part of ecological economics’ strength is its willingness to incorporate evidence, theory, methods, and perspectives from diverse disciplines.

Yet ecological economists haven’t engaged much with the GND, other than the pile of comments (compiled here) on how it might impede or enable degrowth—a downscaling of rich countries’ economies, and the global economy, that would also downscale emissions and exploitation. While making the GND compatible with degrowth is crucial (see point 2 below), we know that ecological economists have a lot more knowledge and ideas to offer to the design of such a transformative policy package.

To this end, this essay is the first in a series of articles that aim to inform the GND through the lens of ecological economics. The series will feature short position papers by students of the Economics for the Anthropocene program, a three-university collaboration to train graduate students in ecological economics, as well as by other invited experts.

These short articles will focus on thematic issues outlined in the GND, touching on questions such as: How can we pay for the GND? Would it break international trade law? What agricultural policies should an ecologically sound GND include? How do we organize to win a GND? And so on. The authors will propose specific principles and policies to ensure the GND lives up to its eco-revolutionary potential.

To introduce this series, we want to convince you that ecological economics is a science fit for scrutinizing, deliberating, and deepening the GND. That it can provide tools for exploring the intricacies of changing everything about how the economy works.

The following are just a few aspects of ecological economics—and the transdisciplinary research community it’s part of—that can enrich understandings around the GND:

1. Social-ecological perspective

Ecological economics, unlike any other school of economic thought, integrates its investigation of the biophysical, social, and financial aspects of economies. Most economists study these realms separately. Considering them as coevolving, mutually constitutive pieces of a more-than-human whole allows ecological economists to analyze policies that address climate and the economy together, as the GND endeavors to do. One emerging approach, that of ecological macroeconomics, combines modeling techniques to demonstrate how flows of money between economic sectors relate to flows of resources and pollution through the production process, and how changes in one part of this ecological economy affect the rest of the system. Such models can project how different versions of the GND might affect employment, inequality, carbon emissions, mineral extraction, and other variables. Ecological economists’ coevolutionary way of thinking about the economy within society as part of nature, moreover, allows us to consider change holistically, historically, and materially, whereas most other brands of economics study production and exchange as if they occurred separately from politics, beliefs, traditions, and ecosystems. A total social transformation like the GND cannot be reduced to its economic elements.

2. Thinking beyond growth

Ecological economists have continually shown that resource use and carbon emissions rise together with GDP, and that wealthy economies have grown beyond the capacity of society and ecosystems to support them. We have also proposed many ideas for degrowing the economy justly, in ways that do not harm vulnerable people and that enhance local autonomy. The GND could spark a degrowth transition by breaking growth’s link to employment: a government program that gives everyone a job who wants one would ensure people economic security even as the economy shrinks overall. But to avoid simply stimulating growth, a GND must provide jobs that are regenerative and reproductive rather than productive in the conventional sense: ecosystem restoration, caring for the elderly, ecological farming, and such. Ecological economists are already imagining post-growth economies that pursue plural values. Real flourishing means balancing society’s evolution toward a diverse array of worthy goals that cannot be reduced to a number next to a dollar sign. Beyond GDP, the monetary value of all production in an economy, ecological economists measure whether economies meet people’s material needs and use metrics that track the physical size of the economy—the resources used and wastes discharged. Multiple countries in Europe, as well as Japan and others have integrated these into their national accounting systems. This is a first step towards understanding economies otherwise.

The GND could spark a degrowth transition by breaking growth’s link to employment.

3. Understanding complexity and scale

Ecological economics is well positioned to reflect on the difficult-to-foresee consequences of GND policies because of its grounding in systems theory. Making big changes to any system brings unpredictable cascading effects. If economic degrowth or the transition to renewable energy decreases the amount of institutional complexity that society can maintain, it is imperative to make sure that the resultant simplification does not impinge upon democracy or the rights that marginalized people, women, and minorities have won through social movements, and that any increased labour burdens from decreasing energy use do not fall disproportionately on these groups. Managing the government programs of the GND will itself require a lot of materials and energy. If a simpler society powered by renewables cannot sustain sophisticated systems like centrally administered national healthcare as we know it, there is a need to guarantee that newly designed systems for care are based on principles of justice. Systems theory helps us think up policies and institutions that can ensure justice that’s resilient to changing conditions. Central governments can finance and oversee decentralized healthcare systems, for example, that communities construct and operate in ways that work for their local contexts. Our ideological systems might need to coevolve with social-ecological change, too. Women’s emancipation need not rely on professional employment made possible by state-funded childcare and birth control, but we can dream up alternative desirable feminisms only if our beliefs about empowerment and freedom transform along with the economy.

4. Emphasis on equity

Just distribution is a key principle of ecological economics. If we cannot solve poverty by growing the economy, then someone has to take from the rich to give to the poor. But a GND proposing that the government play Robin Hood is not enough. Ecological economists recognize that the economy is set up to continuously create inequality. Labor markets, financial markets, tax laws, property rights, inheritance, and a horde of other institutions continuously transfer wealth to the already wealthy. An economically just GND can’t merely redistribute income and capital, it must redesign the rules of society to dole out the goods more evenly in the first place, and to recognize and recompense historical injustices. Ecological economists go further than government transfers and employment programs, studying collective property systems and commons governance regimes through which people share benefits and make decisions collectively. And we devise programs that integrate equity and ecology—not just a universal minimum income but a maximum, too; a job guarantee that offers part-time work that’s enjoyable but not super productive; taxes on carbon-intensive luxury goods. Reducing inequality will itself likely lessen the competitive pressures that drive the expansion of extraction and emissions. Ecological economics can also help inform processes for recognition of ecological and colonial debts and support charting paths toward meaningful decolonization. Additionally, ecological-economic models estimate production’s effects in other places, such that policy making can account for people and ecosystems abroad. A just GND, even if implemented by one country, must be internationally equitable.

5. Justice beyond humans

Some ecological economists are beginning to adopt a broader understanding of justice, one that considers the fate of other animals, plants, and entire ecological communities. Such a perspective, in the words of our colleagues, “views maintaining the integrity of the web of biotic and abiotic processes and communities that mutually constitute the biosphere as the first principle of distributive justice.” Protecting earth’s biodiversity and life-support systems will be incredibly difficult but at least the goal is straightforward. Extending justice to non-human beings is trickier. How do we know what an individual coyote wants? How can we invite prairie grasses to the negotiation between rotational grazing and total rewilding to replace monoculture corn? This is new ground for ecological economists— to study these questions we’ll need to see worldviews in their plurality beyond the Western one and methodologies from other disciplines that may include rituals, arts-based approaches, and radical forms of listening. Yet analyzing the potential effects of different possible GNDs provides an opportunity to invent innovative methods for thinking about, say, whether wind turbines or hydropower are better for birds’ wellbeing, or if rivers and their inhabitants mind diverting some water for small-scale hydroelectricity.

The GND must be accompanied by a revolutionary movement.

6. Political framing

Ecological economists, like any critical social scientists, insist that all economics is political. Powerful actors take financial and environmental benefits for themselves while pushing burdens like difficult labor and toxic pollution onto those who are powerless to refuse them. We argue that the citizen movements from below can counteract this power with numbers, by acting together. The original New Deal, and most reforms historically, were essentially compromises authored by elites in the face of mass uprising. The GND must be accompanied by a revolutionary movement focused on the spirit as well as the details of a policy package that the ruling class will try to water down anyway. This means making big demands and taking to the streets, along with Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, and environmental justice activists around the world, rather than simply designing an “optimal” GND.

The GND can serve as a vehicle for dreaming up a desirable future, inspired by degrowth, environmental justice, and other visionary ideas about radically different societies than our own. Parallel to designing and fighting for a state-led Green New Deal we must continue self-organizing and engaging in projects of solidarity outside the market and state. A successful GND, by ensuring certain basic needs and even a livable climate, could in fact facilitate the creation of autonomous mutual aid networks for food, care, housing, and so on by freeing people from some precarity or wage labor.

This essay is a call for ecological economists to collaborate with grassroots movements to put forward ideas about a truly transformative and just Green New Deal that bridges political aspirations, justice, and material realities. We therefore launch this series with this think-piece in hopes that ecological economists and other radical thinkers will join the conversation and bring their expertise to bear on the ideas around the GND. What should a big government program to restructure society and create an ecological economy include? How do we hold them to account?

We hope these essays contribute to the radical reimagining of economic life.


We would like to thank Martin Sers, Katie Kish, Rut Elliot Blomqvist, Vijay Kolinjivadi, and Christopher Orr for comments that contributed to this piece.

Leah Temper is an ecological economist and filmmaker based at McGill University, Montreal and the Autonomous University of Barcelona. She is the founder and co-director of the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice.

Sam Bliss studies and organizes non-market food systems in Vermont. He also reads and writes about ecomodernism and degrowth.

Designing for a world after climate catastrophe

Sao Paulo, Brazil

by Sasha Plotnikova

This August, large parts of the Amazon rainforest were set on fire to make way for the exploitation of land for industrial agriculture, causing the loss of over 1300 square miles this year alone. 

It should come as no surprise that the destruction of the world’s most vital source of oxygen was incensed in part by the same private equity firm that has waged a global war on the human right to housing. What links these disasters is the fact that our political economy has redefined land as resource and therefore as potential capital: homes become real estate, the forests that replenish the earth’s atmosphere are seen as obstacles to agriculture. 

The myopia of this kind of thinking easily infiltrates the design fields, which have largely adopted a pro-market logic over the past century. Architecture and urban design specifically have suffered from lack of interdisciplinarity in practice and navel-gazing in their academic culture, resulting in an approach to today’s ecological and social justice crises that is overwhelmingly hands-off, or milquetoast at best. 

A new, new world

The project of imagining what the future looks like is as old as the practice of architecture. Architects are futurists by necessity: we occupy ourselves with projections of the shape of things to come. Often, these ideas surpass what’s possible in the present and live their lives on paper, never finding concrete expression in the real world. This so-called “paper architecture” makes up a stunning amount of what’s been canonized in architecture history books. But whether paper architecture can make a difference in the world outside academia hinges on its ability to challenge the preconditions for architecture. By identifying present shortfalls in our political, economic, social, and ecological systems and projecting the form of possible alternatives, speculative design can imbue the discipline with political agency. 

In StudioTEKA’s 2100: A Dystopian Utopia: The City After Climate Change, a Brooklyn-based architecture studio dives deep into a question the building industries have neglected to ask: how much longer can the world’s cities withstand the rapidly increasing frequency of disastrous climate events? And what happens when they no longer can? The writers estimate that 83% of the Amazon would be destroyed by 2100; today’s toll already brings that percentage to a tipping point of 15-17%. 80 years too soon, we realize that the issues addressed in this book are all the more pressing. 

It’s a fascinating thought experiment: can we pack up and reassemble this lifestyle in newly temperate climates? StudioTEKA seems to think so, given the proper technocracy.

2100 depicts a world in decay, and sheds light on what a possible post-decay world might look like. StudioTEKA’s proposal stems from the expectation that our politicians will do little, if anything at all, to bridle the destruction of the biosphere over the next 30 years. 

It’s a fascinating thought experiment: can we continue to consume resources at our current rate, and be able to pack up and reassemble this lifestyle in newly temperate climates? Will we be able to go back to business as usual after the climate collapse plays out over the next century? StudioTEKA seems to think so, given the proper technocracy.

The master plan in 2100 looks like this: if we can force politicians to take action by 2050, we’ll be able to limit warming temperatures to a 6-7 degree rise by the year 2100. By most measures, even a 3-4 degree rise would be monumental. The Earth’s middle band, which hosts most of the world’s population in 2019, will largely become uninhabitable due to drought, severe storms, rising sea levels, and catastrophic heatwaves. StudioTEKA predicts that 10 billion people will then move to inhabit 39 million square kilometers of newly-developed compact megacities near the Earth’s poles. 

To allow for this density, each megacity outsources its energy production and manufacturing to a sister “extraction city” in the middle band. There, renewable energy is harvested, natural resources are processed and both are exported to the corresponding megacity. The plants are staffed by temporary workers that travel to the middle band from the poles. The designers refer to these projections as the “new, new world.” 

Troll, Antartica

The servant and the served

Expanding on the architectural trope of the servant and the served, StudioTEKA suggests seven such pairings around the world, with densities 2.5 times that of present-day Manila, today’s densest city. Using methods of visual representation that are customary to architects, the predictions and solutions in 2100 convincingly spin a linear narrative out of the chaos that we’re about to see unfold in real time. Through compelling infographics, the authors script a future characterized by a harmonic relationship between humans and ecology, as a foil to our current pattern of reckless exploitation. 

In 2100’s Antarctica, three quarters of Ross Island are maintained as a nature reserve. Agriculture and recreation are housed in crystalline greenhouses on stilts, and artificial glaciers are farmed for water. This water is exported to Ross Island’s sister city Johannesburg and to other cities with water shortages. A rendering of Troll, Antarctica shows a neighbourhood-sized concrete dome housing a mossy sculpture park ringed by a river designed for indoor boating. During the dark polar winters, Troll’s residents travel to Sao Paolo to aid in mass reforestation efforts, sleeping in pods suspended above the urban forest’s understory. 

With the historic fabric of Manila projected to be underwater by 2100, the city is rebuilt on a linear plinth elevated above the water. The plinth is designed to harvest of storm energy, which is then loaded into large batteries and exported to Wellington. Wellington’s coast is also flooded, and the communities are moved up to a new megacity distributed amongst the mountaintops and linked by bridges.

As frequent hurricanes render New York uninhabitable, Greenland’s largest city, Nuuk, rises as the capital of global finance. In Nuuk, buildings bury themselves into cliffsides; and in New York the historic fabric is rehabilitated to house the temporary workers that come to work in carbon capture and energy-storage export.

A megastructure weaves through Moscow, stitching together the public space on the ground level with transit and bikeways up above, significantly densifying the city while maintaining open space on the ground level. Its partner city is found in the hostile desert landscapes of Kufra-Adjabiya, where extensive water evaporation infrastructure creates humid zones for agriculture and human habitation.

A top-down approach

StudioTEKA’s approach to designing this new, new world stems from a mix of utilitarianism and a biomorphic design sensibility. Every design move is based on how many functions it can make the architecture perform: building facades can no longer merely separate inside and outside and give buildings a face—they now also grow plants, harvest energy, and capture carbon. Parks not only provide recreation space, but act as carbon sinks, perform soil remediation, and provide a barrier against oceanic storm surges. Like the different organisms that make up an ecosystem, each element of the built world plays a muti-faceted and active role in its environment. 

There is no discussion of who will be left behind as millionaires buy up the hot new real estate of the compact megacities; no hint of universal rent control and no plan for the construction of public housing.

Uniting the fourteen sites is a single aesthetic language of twisting, white sinewy forms with parametrically-designed perforations that form megastructures, towers, or domes scaled much larger than the majority of the architecture we’re familiar with today. This design language has its roots in biomimicry—a desire for human-made forms to look like, or even imitate those of nature. Think of Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Oculus in New York, or Studio Gang’s Aqua Tower in Chicago for built examples of this tendency. The unintended consequence is that the forms proposed in 2100 could not look more unnatural in the historic city fabrics and cultures that they colonize. 

Zooming out to the urban plan, we see a top-down approach: in some cases, a new figure is superimposed over an existing street grid, while a series of clip-on developments colonize a historic city fabric in others. The architectural proposals are deliberately gestural and unresolved, acting as placeholders for the kinds of forms that this design ethic could produce. What’s missing is a clue towards the kind of society these places are meant to foster, and the political economy that we would need in order to get there without leaving anyone behind. 

Everything is the same, but on acid

Interestingly, 2100 was written during the last years of the Obama presidency and before the proposal of the Green New Deal (GND)— a model for “greening” the US economy that’s being pushed by leftist Democrats. Similarly to what’s depicted in 2100, the GND proposes a shift to renewable energy and the creation of “green” jobs. The dominant narrative amongst its proponents has paradoxically broadcast the GND as a growth-driven vision of a sustainable future. At their worst, both the GND and the world of 2100 enact a kind of common sense on acid; a sensibility held in common in a world dominated by capitalistic thinking. Already, Left critiques of the GND have articulated a GND that challenges the economic framework at the root of the climate crisis. Meanwhile, 2100  suggests that the right cocktail of new technologies, scientific research, and continued economic growth might allow us to keep living just the way we do.

What neither 2100 nor the GND address is the scale of production and natural resource extraction that would be required for a transition to renewable energy at this magnitude. Renewable energy has far-reaching material implications that will require the growth of mining operations across the globe. 

The scale of  construction proposed in 2100, too, has massive material implications. Given that real estate development is one of the world’s most most carbon-intensive industries, the proposed undertakings speak to our desperation in the midst of the climate catastrophe. In 2100, finding habitable environments takes on more urgency than reconfiguring the scale at which we extract, produce, import, and consume. As a chapter title poignantly asks, “Where in the world can we live?”

Futurism with class bias

The research that informs StudioTEKA’s specific design solutions, technologies, and site selections is remarkable for a design studio. But honing in on the technical makes the political the book’s weak point. 

While they note abnormalities in the effects of climate change (like the escalator effect, which will lower sea levels at poles while raising them around the middle band) and even suggest ways to address renewable energy’s intermittency problems (the gaps in energy supply that follow lulls in weather events); StudioTEKA never address what many fear to be an approaching climate apartheid—the poorest left behind in uninhabitable places while the rich flee to new eco-utopian enclaves

2100 is a world in which we have our cake and eat it too: where we can continue to grow the economy while lowering our energy use. How the current class war plays out in this dystopian utopia seems to be a question these designers won’t approach.

It’s crucial for designers to recognize the ways in which both the climate crisis and—ironically—“green” building solutions most negatively impact working class communities and the developing world. By largely limiting their research to scientific reports and big-picture population data, the designers have missed a huge opportunity. And so, the book reveals its class biases as it rolls out a long, intricately curated and site-specific list of technological and lifestyle-based solutions.

For example, 2100 hypothesizes that a unanimous shift to plant-based diets will occur, reducing the amount of land needed for farming by 36%. This kind of thinking ignores the integral role that sustainable, small-scale animal husbandry and meat consumption play in countless cultures in North America and around the world. It misses the mark. Instead of shifting the blame onto the individual, we must hold the Big Agriculture giants to account for their recklessness towards the environment. While the rate of meat consumption among non-Indigenous populations in the US and Canada poses a number of ethical issues, as well as public health and environmental concerns; so does a sudden, massive shift towards diets that depend on soy and nuts for protein. The industrial production of these plants depends on monocropping, which is already eroding away our biodiversity. The blind spot occurs again and again throughout 2100. It doesn’t attempt a critique of the market-based approaches to urban design that catapulted us into this crisis in the first place. There is no discussion of who will be left behind as millionaires buy up the hot new real estate of the compact megacities; no hint of universal rent control and no plan for the construction of public housing. The authors don’t acknowledge that the extraction cities will depend on a subjugated class of migrant labourers, while the bourgeoisie and the professional managerial class will be able to remain in the relative safety of the compact megacities year-round. 

Essentially, what’s proposed is a world of advanced capitalism and 100% renewable energy. Drawing on research by Ecofys, a renewable energy advocacy firm, the ideas in 2100 hinge on the idea that ”energy use can be lower while living standards and economic development continue to rise.”  For the most part, 2100 is a world in which we have our cake and eat it too: where we can continue to grow the economy while lowering our energy use. How the current class war plays out in this dystopian utopia seems to be a question these designers won’t approach. 

Moscow, Russia

A world without a middle scale

The world we’re shown is one that architectural renderings have become very good at depicting: brand-new, glassy, hyperbolic building forms tower over outsized green lawns and criss-crossing pathways populated by a parade of stock humans. There’s a lack of a middle scale in these proposals, which was also a major failure of Brasilia or of the contemporary dystopia of Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan. While it’s easy to copy and paste stock images of people milling about in an urban plaza; it’s much harder for a designer to create true community spaces. Much of what’s shown is a world of heavy-handed designs that impose a unified aesthetic across an entire landscape, ignoring the patchwork of vernacular buildings that characterizes the organic growth of our towns and cities.

In her introduction to the book, StudioTEKA principal Vanessa Keith suggests that the solution will be both bottom-up and top-down, quoting from Bossomaier and Green’s Patterns in the Sand, “…We have to focus on the local interactions: change these, and the rest will follow.”  

But where are these “local interactions” in 2100? Rather than offer a “trickle-up” ideology such as that of radical municipalism, the designs within the book offer a vision of top-down design and of a large-scale, global model of production. 

Saskia Sassen’s buoyant introduction speaks to the idea of “delegating back to the biosphere.” She sees cities, in all their complexity, as our best impression of the biosphere itself and applauds the book’s authors for moving “beyond mitigation and adaptation.” Reading between the lines, her words seem to beg for a new definition of what it means to be urban, not for an evolution of the techno-metropolises we already have. A sweeping shift to renewable energy means employing the biosphere in our systems of production rather than empowering the biosphere. The book ultimately maintains a dualism of human and land, in which land continues to be seen as a resource. 

The notion of urban growth is identified as a challenge in the foreword, but goes unquestioned for most of the book. Many of the designs echo the wistful refrains of architecture academia – more schools, more libraries – because spaces for community are inherently more engaging to design. But to be able to work on these kinds of projects, designers need to tackle the overhaul of the political economy head-on. We need to work with other disciplines to imagine and implement a culture of mutual aid needed to prioritize these institutions.

Beijing, China

Design for a world after capitalism

It’s fitting that this ambitious project was taken on by an architecture studio. On the first day of school, architects are told that we will change the world. We’re told we are generalists; that our work is the work of many disciplines, synthesized into its material form. But as real estate and resource extraction continues to drive our social and environmental ecologies into collapse, it would be a mistake to think we can simply design our way out in the traditional sense.  What we need are interdisciplinary approaches at the scale of what StudioTEKA has begun to do, but with a much more headstrong focus on reshaping our political economy—a conversation largely ignored in design circles. The sites in 2100 are chosen strategically, and they suggest a monumental mass migration but never once mention the ugly ways that the class system of capitalist nations rears its head in a “green” transition. 

The flaw of 2100 is not that it’s unrealistic—in fact, it follows the protocols of today’s neoliberal environmentalism quite realistically to their natural end. But it does not offer us a way out.

There is one proposal in the book that does stand out as a more sophisticated challenge to architecture’s habit of producing more stuff, and as a provocative step toward a new kind of city. In the Phoenix scenario, StudioTEKA propose a “green deconstruction” of a city that, in 2019, is the heart of the the fastest-growing metropolitan region in the US. In the plan, the region plummets into severe drought and experiences a mass exodus. It’s then transformed into one of the proposed extraction cities as its housing stock is hand-demolished in phases with the goal of salvaging building parts and making way for dew collectors, greenhouses, solar farms, and wind parks. This scheme implies a massive overhaul of the real estate market through the expropriation of homes to the city. In a beautiful display of what architect Keller Easterling has termed “subtraction,” a city is imagined to shrink to a scale that might allow for a more localized economy, and possibly for much stronger solidarity between its residents, largely seasonal renters who work in the city’s proposed renewable energy sector in the mild winter months. 

The flaw of 2100 is not that it’s unrealistic—in fact, it follows the protocols of today’s neoliberal environmentalism quite realistically to their natural end. But it does not offer us a way out from a system that privileges the few at the cost of the many. On the whole, the proposals in the book are bold, but prove to be flimsy as they reveal their failure to take into account that  the climate catastrophe arises from the ecology we have created for ourselves—a system of being in and understanding the world in which a capitalist political economy sets the terms. 

We need to ask: how will ecosystems withstand the increased mining of rare minerals needed for the capture of renewable energy? How will we organize a growing population in a way that is sustainable, while maintaining a connection to the land? 

We need to ensure that our innovations aren’t funneled into building “climate-proof” fortresses for the rich. We need to demand that frontline communities are prioritized; that real estate speculation is abolished; that with a reconstruction on this scale we can also overhaul our political economy into one that ensures what Donna Haraway calls the “ongoingness” of all. Designing for a post-climate crisis world inheres designing for a world after capitalism. 

All images by StudioTEKA.

 2100: A Dystopian Utopia: The City After Climate Change by StudioTEKA is published by UR (Urban Research) and is available for $48.

Sasha Plotnikova is a designer, writer, and activist living in Los Angeles. She is a proud member of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, the environmentalist study group OOLA, and the architecture faculty at Cal Poly Pomona. She tweets at @sashaplot_.

September readings

Illustration by Delcan & Company + Julia Grayson, via The New Republic


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

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

This month, we’re featuring a lot of analysis on climate politics: the climate strikes, climate apartheid, and the rise of fascism along with it. We are also featuring, as usual, many reports and articles documenting the ongoing Indigenous and land rights struggles around the world. We also highlight a debate that started with Jonathan Franzen’s article in the New Yorker, which mixes climate “realism” with a denial of the power of collective power, in favor of individual action.

We continued to collect analyses about the Amazon forest fires and Bolsonaro’s Brazil. A month after the crisis hit the news, articles coming out now are much more measured and well-researched, digging into the connections between global capital, our very own pension funds, and deforestation in the Amazon. 

Finally, analysis and debate about degrowth is picking up again. On the left, there was surprising coverage of the movement in The New Republic and Current Affairs. World-famous scientist and analyst, Vaclav Smil, has just released an authoritative book on the science of degrowth. There was also an interesting debate where Leigh Phillips, author of Austerity Ecology, published an article denouncing degrowth. In four separate replies to his piece, scientists and authors took apart each of his arguments and countered them pretty effectively. We feature the debate here. 



Uneven Earth updates

Last stand on Ménez Hom | Link | At the top of the Ménez Hom, between the earth and the sky, history had displayed the ability to repeat itself. 

Life in flames | Link | On pain and hope in the aftermath of catastrophic fires in Bolivia’s Chiquitanía and Amazon regions 

The vine underground | Link | “The unthinkable had happened. No one plans for the end of their own world.” 

Destructive space-time | Link | How war bombs and resource extractivism compress past, present, and future 



Top 5 articles to read

Indigenous people are already working “green jobs” — but they’re unrecognized and unpaid

Wendell Berry’s lifelong dissent

Rethinking cities, from the ground up – Whose society? Whose cohesion?

The Toxic Valley. How global industry turned a once green Turkish province into an environmental wasteland.

First as tragedy, then as fascism. Ecologist Garrett Hardin’s enduring gift to the nativist right.



News you might’ve missed

From Qatar to Vietnam, global heating is making the workplace deadly for millions

$1m a minute: the farming subsidies destroying the world – report

Suddenly, the world’s biggest trade agreement won’t allow corporations to sue governments

Nuclear cannot help against climate crisis

Jakarta’s sea level prompts a move – at a price. And also, where they are planning to build the new capital, there seems to be a conservation forest in the way… 

‘When is this going to end?’: Indonesians shrouded in toxic haze

The sinking class: the New Yorkers left to fight the climate crisis alone

Surveying archaeologists across the globe reveals deeper and more widespread roots of the human age, the Anthropocene



Where we’re at: analysis

Climate apartheid will only lead to more tragedies in the Mediterranean 

10 ways that the climate crisis and militarism are intertwined 

Open borders must be part of any response to the climate crisis

Naomi Klein: ‘We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism’

Dark crystals: the brutal reality behind a booming wellness craze. Demand for ‘healing’ crystals is soaring – but many are mined in deadly conditions in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Socialism with a bit of greenwash can’t save the planet either

What went wrong with African liberation?

Failed decolonisation of South African cities fuels violence



Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Brazil’s Amazon crisis is rooted in its fascist past

Blackstone CEO is driving force behind Amazon deforestation

Revealed: major banks and investors including Barclays, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, BlackRock are pouring money into global forest destruction

As the Amazon burns, students call on Harvard to divest from farmland holdings

Understanding the fires in South America

Amazon crisis: Warring tribes unite against Bolsonaro plans to devastate Brazil’s rainforests for cash

Amazon fires: Follow the money



Land and water protectors and Indigenous struggles

We can’t ‘drink oil’ Indigenous water activist tells UN 

‘Our water is our gold’: Armenians blockade controversial mine

Eco-protesters fight Moscow’s attempt to ‘trash’ Russia’s north

A Brazilian Indigenous leader shares his climate solutions

Revolutionary socialism is the primary political ideology of the Red Nation. Position paper from the Third General Assembly of the Indigenous organization The Red Nation.

Interactive: Plundering Cambodia’s forests

In 2003, a farmer killed himself to protest globalization. Little has changed.

Thai activists risk murder, abduction in fight for land rights

Communities in Africa fight back against the land grab for palm oil



Climate strikes

Twenty-five years before Greta, there was Severn and we ignored her. Time is running out to make transition to low-carbon future safe, just and inclusive.

The climate strikes are about so much more than green colonialism. Solutions to the environmental crisis won’t come in the shape of a battery – they come in the shape of justice, reparations and equity.

About the climate strike and the dark side of the ‘green new deal’ from Rojava.

Why citizens’ assemblies on climate change work

The potential for art as a vehicle for transformation



Climate de-nihilism versus climate rage

What if we stopped pretending? by Jonathan Franzen sparked an online debate about the merits of and issues with claims that it’s too late to take meaningful climate action. Franzen’s take: “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.” This Twitter thread by climate activist Dr. Genevieve Guenther takes apart Franzen’s article and argues for an activist approach. And Mary Annaïse Heglar writes that Home is always worth it and that “doomer dudes” are “climate de-nihilists.”



Green fascism

The far right’s eco-fascism — greenwashing hate

Ecofascism: When far-right ideology fuses with ecology

The dawn of climate fascism

Why white supremacists are hooked on green living

The regrowth of eco-fascism



Just think about it…

Humanity and nature are not separate – we must see them as one to fix the climate crisis

To decarbonize we must decomputerize: why we need a Luddite revolution

Capitalism ‘solves’ the nitrogen crisis: A brief history

The limits of clean energy

For Rachel Carson, wonder was a radical state of mind

The hellish future of Las Vegas in the climate crisis: ‘a place where we never go outside’



New politics

‘Development’ is colonialism in disguise. A review of the new book, Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary.



Cities and radical municipalism

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor says there is no housing crisis: ‘It’s just housing under capitalism’ 

Why are American homes so big? 

Barcelona’s car-free ‘superblocks’ could save hundreds of lives 

How the fight for this immigrant neighbourhood became a fight for all immigrant neighbourhoods

Mutual aid networks go beyond disaster relief. They offer community empowerment.

Notes on process for assemblies

French city of Dunkirk tests out free transport – and it works

What went wrong for the municipalists in Spain?

“Pan-African social ecology” illustrates liberation in direct democracy



Degrowth!

Vaclav Smil: ‘Growth must end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that’

‘Mindless growth’: Robust scientific case for degrowth is stronger every day

Önsketänkande med grön tillväxt – vi måste agera. An op-ed by earth-system scientist Johan Rockström of Stockholm Resilience Center cites the article “Is green growth possible?” by Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis. Rockström retreats from his earlier advocacy of green growth and argues that we need to act politically for more far-reaching change—starting with setting a final date for all fossil fuels.

We need a fair way to end economic growth. The recent mainstream endorsements of degrowth ideas might be a good thing, but: “The left should be monopolizing a controlled and deliberate degrowth strategy because if it doesn’t do it, the rich and their authoritarian, ideological vanguard will. And it will be ugly.” And a similar argument from The New Republic: The delusion and danger of infinite economic growth

The sequel: life after economic growth

The degrowth delusion. The critique of degrowth by Leigh Phillips as “unnecessary, unjust, and the end of progress”. 

And the four responses: 

Growing pain: the delusion of boundless economic growth

Is the degrowth movement delusional? 

Why degrowth is the only responsible way forward

In defence of degrowth



Utopia, sci-fi, and the apocalypse

Ursula K. Le Guin’s revolutions. Le Guin’s work is distinctive not only because it is imaginative, or because it is political, but because she thought so deeply about the work of building a future worth living.

We should all be reading more Ursula Le Guin

Latin American film series offers a decolonial look at science fiction



Resources

Minim Municipalist Observatory. A database with links to articles, reports and academic papers on municipalism, and updates on the municipalist movement.

Tracking your plastic: Exposing recycling myths. A CBC news documentary about the plastics recycling industry and its environmental impact in Malaysia.

A guide to disrupting white nationalists in your community

A blueprint for Europe’s just transition



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

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Degrowth should be a core part of the just transition

Photo: Bridgette Meinhold

by Dustin Mulvaney

What will it take for human civilization to thrive in a more equitable and sustainable existence on Earth? The enormous violence we see directed at the planet and amongst its inhabitants adds a tremendous sense of urgency to this question. There are many answers that seem compelling. Some answers are technological—we need to be more innovative and use science and technology to solve global problems. Other answers are economic—better pricing will be our ecological salvation. While others still suggest we build and maintain institutions and movements to regulate industries and the environmental bads that flow from the economy.

Too few look more fundamental answers or probe for deeper questions about solutions. Why do we extract and produce so much? Do we need all the consumer products that are produced from natural resources to live a happy life? What kind of economy can we build that allows us to live with better relations to each other and our planet?

Enter “degrowth”

Degrowth, by Dr. Giorgos Kallis of the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology (ICTA) of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, is an introduction to the ideas and genesis of a namesake concept in environmental studies that emphasizes dematerialization of the economy, but that also embodies a lot more. Kallis’ interdisciplinary scholarship contributes to the fields of political ecology and ecological economics, two fields that are heavily influential in shaping the main arguments of the book. I have used Kallis’ articles on degrowth in my courses for many years now, so it is a great privilege to have the opportunity to review this longer-form work.

The basic idea of degrowth is that there are laws of physics that dictate certain physical and natural resource limits on the economy. Most important are the laws of thermodynamics, notably the second law, which asserts that the quality of energy or its ability to do work in a closed system always declines with each transformation.

Accordingly, production—the material basis of the economy and economic growth—is entropic. The more we produce, the more we degrade our natural resources. This means there is an inherent contradiction between economic growth and ecological sustainability because eventually the energy in a system degrades in quality and there is none left that is capable of doing work. According to this theory, while resource efficiency and technological change are important to improving some environmental issues, economic growth ultimately has limitations. Either economic growth hits natural resource limitations that lead to its decline, or, eventually, as the global population begins to decline, the economy could contract.

Degrowth is just as much a prescription for scholar-activism to examine pathways towards sustainability and environmental justice, as it is a pathway for positive environmental change. In other words, when people hear degrowth, many only think only of the pathway from the material sense, as in degrowth means using less or dematerialization. But as Kallis clearly articulates degrowth embodies more than just the dematerialized pathway to sustainability, but as normative precepts that center values such as justice, equity, race, gender, and living wage work.

Degrowth as it refers to the material throughput of human civilization is a sobering reminder of the challenges ahead and the lack of progress on many environmental issues. There are examples of decarbonization of some electricity sectors around the world, for example in California. But the overall use of natural resource impacts from human civilization continues to increase.

Overview of the book

 Degrowth was coined in French scholarship in the early 1970s, where the ideas were brought into contact with theories of social change that emphasize autonomy and appropriate technology. Chapter 1 one describes these origins of degrowth as a topic of investigation and debate in environmental research. It opens with a short intellectual history of ecological economics and the emergence of the concept degrowth, drawing on contributions from Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Herman Daly, Serge Latouche, Cornelius Castoriadus, to contemporary work done with colleagues at ICTA.

Kallis’ narrative weaves together a number of influential social scientists, philosophers, and writers that offer insights on the ultimate roots of social and environmental problems such as Ursula Le Guin, J.K. Gibson-Graham, David Harvey, Hannah Arendt, Karl Polyani, Ivan Illich, André Gorz, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Joan Martinez-Alier, to name a few. The articulation of ideas from these thinkers and integration into the motivation and rationale for degrowth, illustrates the breadth of Kallis’ scholarship and quality of writing.

Tracing the intellectual roots of degrowth to The Limits To Growth, Kallis shows how several key themes emerged as ideas underlying ecological economics were read alongside theories of social change, anthropology, development studies, and interpreted through the lens of environmental justice and post-colonial theory. The resulting vision for degrowth is of social relations with reduced the extraction and pollution, that maintains diverse economies, that values leisure over growth for its own sake, and is based on strong empathetic socio-ecological ties.

What is the economy? Chapter 2 grapples with the idea of a socially-constructed economy. The chapter revisits the origins of the ideas underlying how we imagine the health of economy, for example the Dow Jones Index or gross domestic product (GDP). How did it come to be that the imperative of economic growth became a core motivation of nation states in modern capitalist economies?  

One core contention is that economic policies that use gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of well-being should be abandoned. The most widely known illustration of this general point is Daniel Kahneman’s “happiness-income paradox,” where people’s happiness is not linked to the amount of money they make. This finding, which garnered a Nobel prize in economics, was a challenge to Western ideas of progress, which have long used economic growth as a yardstick of development. GDP has some glaring problems including the fact that it includes spending on activities that are negative—storm damage, deforestation, hospital visits, asthma inhalers, for example. There are other indices attempting to move beyond GDP, including the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare and Human Development Index, but these too are not without gaps and shortcomings. Also challenging is the commensuration of complex, undifferentiated social processes into numbers in the first place, as Kallis notes.

Chapter 3 recounts the emergence of economic growth in the 20th century phenomena and puts it in the context of an increase in socio-ecological metabolism, i.e., the total use of materials and energy of society, which has ushered in extinction and climate crises. As economic growth marched on, so did ecological degradation and labor exploitation.

Are growth and ecological sustainability compatible? The case for degrowth is laid out in chapter 4 starting from the basic premise that material extraction and pollution increase with economic growth. Some environmental scholars, such as economists or sociologists adhering to ecological modernization, hold that we could maximize resource efficiency through technological change and/or accurate pricing (internalizing externalities). If this were possible, growth and ecological sustainability could be compatible.

Degrowth advocates like Kallis, instead argue that the two are incompatible. This is not to argue against trends towards resource efficiency. They are not against, for example, recycling solar panels, to utilize more sustainable materials use. Instead, they argue that much more than resource efficiency and technological change is needed to avoid the worst of our relations between the economy and its environmental impacts. For example, recycling solar panels would embody certain principles of a circular economy, but so would reusing old solar panels, which is not about technology, but instead requires building new institutions, policies, and practices. Transitioning to a sustainable economy according to the theory of degrowth will require changes to wants, values, institutions, and behaviors.

Chapter 5 presents the utopian vision that motivates degrowth, its ambitions and engagements with the material world. Kallis admits that degrowth is aspirational, but nonetheless believes these utopian ideals are critical to meeting the objectives in the policy and praxis of degrowth. The precepts of degrowth include (1) end to exploitation of nature, people, gender, (2) direct democracy, (3) localized production, (4) a sharing economy, (5) good socio-ecological relationships, (6) investments in unproductive expenditures (e.g., natural capital), (7) an ethics of care, alongside the redistribution of care work.

These appear to be radical reorientations from framings that say little about social change beyond changes to technologies. Table 5.1 lists policies for degrowth, revealing that while some of the policies and practices advocated are in fact transformative, but many are similar to those advocated by the environmental and climate action communities already—tax reforms, polluter pays principle, ethical banking, green jobs investments, environmental justice. So while degrowth seeks more wholesale social and personal change, its basket of policy options reflects much of the mainstream tools used in environmental policy-making. Degrowth seems to have some agnosticism to environmental policy tools, based on the list of policies in table 5.1, except of course those policies that involve green washing, commodification, dispossession, or land grabs.

Chapter 6 explores some of the key challenges to degrowth. It offers a response to some of the critics that suggest that degrowth would lead to decreased well-being. Kallis’ contention is that degrowth means capping resource use in some way, and does not advocate income loss or declines in well-being. The idea is that a radical shift in values and motivations will change the way that happiness and well-being is measured in the first place. Kallis brings together the foundation of ecological economics with a Gramscian model—using grassroots activism to use the tools of the state to benefit the population—of social change. Is degrowth compatible with capitalism? Liberal democracy? Is it Eurocentric? These tensions are discussed as Kallis summarizes arguments of critics of degrowth.

The main contention of critics of degrowth is the issue of decoupling. The green growth perspective argues that economic growth can be decoupled from natural resource use. So unlimited growth in this view is possible if there are ways to dissociate economic growth from any material basis. Kallis contends that there is still no evidence for decoupling, suggesting that substitutionism seen in the electricity sector (most notably coal to natural gas and renewables) involves a lot of one-offs that will lead to short-term reductions in greenhouse gases, but do not clearly show a sustained rate of decline overall, and do not consider other environmental issues (land, extractive industries, waste, etc.). Critics may still say, but what if evidence of decoupling did emerge? This is the question degrowth scholars will have to continue to contend with.

Conclusion: read the book, make your students read and think about it

Irrespective of whether the reader agrees with degrowth as a normative goal, one cannot ignore the observation that there are no real world examples of decoupling. Until examples of decoupling economic growth from natural resource impact can be demonstrated, ideas embraced by degrowth for how to enagage in a just transition deserve real engagement. Furthermore, given how growth depends on natural resources, and control over natural resources figures in geopolitical contests, the pursuit of growth will necessitate the continuation of militarized capitalism, with all of the tortured and unequal socio-ecological relations that tends to reproduce.

Degrowth is an important contribution to the environmental studies canon. It synthesizes an important strand of the intellectual history of degrowth and ecological economics and integrates ideas from development studies, political ecology, cultural studies. The book is highly accessible for college students or readers with an interest in society and the environment. Each chapter ends with a summary of the argument, which is helpful for many of us who will use the book in the classroom. Degrowth is essential reading for environmental studies, political ecology, and energy transition studies courses. I commend Kallis for producing such a concise and readable book on such a critical topic, and look forward to discussing its contents with my students.

Dustin Mulvaney is an Associate Professor in the Environmental Studies Department at San José State University. His research is on just transitions in the solar industry.

Degrowth by Giorgos Kallis is available from Agenda Publishing.

Utopia, not futurism: Why doing the impossible is the most rational thing we can do

Murray Bookchin at the Toward Tomorrow Fair, mid-1970s. All photos by Lionel Delevingne.

by Murray Bookchin

On August 24, 1978, Murray Bookchin gave a lecture at the Toward Tomorrow Fair in Amherst, Massachusetts. Also speaking at that year’s gathering were several prominent thinkers, including R. Buckminster Fuller and Ralph Nader. In his speech, Bookchin argues against the ideology of futurism and for ecological utopianism. In the Q&A session, he points out that he is not against technology itself, he is against technocracy, and he also describes, in detail, his political vision for the future.

The speech is surprisingly relevant in today’s context: it’s as if he predicted the rise of fascist ideology and lifeboat ethics in the 21st century, and it feels like a direct rebuttal of Elon Musk-esque technocratic futurism on both the right and the left.

Because his speech is so applicable today, we decided to republish it here, making it accessible to a wider audience. It has been transcribed and edited lightly for flow, brevity, and grammar, and we have divided it into sub-sections for ease of reading. The text is published with the permission of The Bookchin Trust.

This morning at eleven o’clock, I tried to explain to you why I was not an environmentalist, but rather was an ecologist. And I tried to give you some idea, at least from my point of view, what ecology meant, as distinguished from environmentalism. The point that I tried to make most fundamentally is that environmentalism tries to patch things up, applies band-aids, cosmetics, to the environment. It sort of takes hold of nature, strokes it, and says, ‘Produce!’ It tries to use soil, pour chemicals into it and if only they weren’t poisonous everything would be great. Whereas ecology believes in a genuine harmonization of humanity with nature. And that harmonization of humanity with nature depends fundamentally on the harmonization of human beings with each other. The attitude that we’ve had towards nature has always depended on the attitude we’ve had towards each other. Let’s not kid ourselves, there is no such thing as a ‘pure nature.’ 

The simple fact now is that I’m not only not an environmentalist, I’ve got some hot news—I’m not a futurist. I’m not a futurist at all. I’m a utopian. I want to see this word revived. I want to see us use it. I want to see us think utopian. Not think futurism. And it’s these questions that I’d like to talk about, if I may.

Murray Bookchin at the Toward Tomorrow Fair, 1977.

What is futurism?

What is futurism? Futurism is the present as it exists today, projected, one hundred years from now. That’s what futurism is. If you have a population of X billions of people, how are you going to have food, how are you going to do this… nothing has changed. All they do is they make everything either bigger, or they change the size—you’ll live in thirty story buildings, you’ll live in sixty-story buildings. Frank Lloyd Wright was going to build an office building that was one mile high. That was futurism.

The simple fact is, I just don’t believe that we have to extend the present into the future. We have to change the present so that the future looks very, very different from what it is today. This is a terribly important notion to convey. So a lot of people are walking around today who sound very idealistic. And what do they want to do? They want multinational corporations to become multi-cosmic corporations [laughter from the audience]—literally! 

They want to bring them up in space, they want to colonize the Moon, they can’t wait to go to Jupiter, much less Mars. They’re all very busy, they’re coming around, they even have long hair and they even have beards, and they come around and they say ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get into my first space shuttle!’—that is the future.

This is regarded as ecology and it’s not ecology. It’s futurism! It’s what Exxon wants to do. It’s what Chase Manhattan wants to do. It’s what all the corporations want to do. But it is not utopia, it is pure futurism. It is the present extended into the future.

A mass society, and how do we keep in touch with each other? We don’t even have to look at each other. We’ll look at television screens. I’ll press a button, I’ll see you on the television screen, you’ll be on Mars, for all I know, and we’ll have a wonderful conversation with each other, and we’ll say ‘Gee whiz! We’ve got an alternate technology!’ The point is it isn’t a liberatory technology. I may know people in the future for years and years—play chess games with them, have interesting intellectual conversations with them—and never touch them once. If that is what the future is going to look like, I’m glad I’m fifty-seven years old and don’t have that much to go. I don’t want it. [laughter from audience] I am very serious. 

The anti-nuclear movement.

Now I’d like to touch a few nerves. I don’t believe that the Earth is a spaceship.1 I’m asking you to think about what it means to think of the Earth as a spaceship. It does not have valves. It does not have all kinds of radar equipment to guide it. It is not moved by rockets. It hasn’t got any plumbing. We may have plumbing. But it is not ‘a spaceship’. It’s an organic, living thing, to a very great extent, at least on its surface, built of inorganic material. It is in the process of growth and it is in the process of development. It is not ‘a spaceship’.

We’re beginning to develop a language which has nothing whatever in common with ecology. It has a lot to do with electronics. We talk of input. ‘Give me your input. Plug in!’ [laughter] Well, I don’t ‘plug in’, I discuss [applause]. Machines ‘plug in’. Radar is the language that produced it and the military is the language that produced the words ‘plug in’.

‘Give me your input’. That is not what I want. I don’t want your output, I want you. I want to hear your words. I want to hear your language. I’m not engaged in ‘feedback’ with you [laughter], I’m engaged in a dialogue, a discussion. It isn’t your ‘feedback’ I want, I want your opinion. I want to know what you think. I don’t want to have a circuit plugged into me where I can get your ‘feedback’ and you can get my ‘input’. [laughter]

Please, I’m making a plea here, and if you think I’m talking about language, I think you would be wrong. I’m not talking about language, I’m talking about sensibility. A plant does not have ‘input’ or ‘output’. It does something for which electronics has absolutely no language—it grows! It grows! [applause]. And let me tell you another thing, it not only grows, it does more than change; it develops. We have a big problem with all these words which reflect a way in which we think, and that’s what bothers me.

This is the sensibility of futurism. It is the language of futurism, in which people themselves are molecularized and then atomized and then finally reduced to subatomic particles, and what we really have in the way of an ecosystem is not growth, and not development, what we have is—plumbing. We run kilocalories through the ecosystem. And we turn on valves here and we turn off valves there. 

Now, this may be useful, I don’t deny that. We should know how energy moves through an ecosystem. But that alone is not an ecosystem. We’re beginning to learn that plants have a life of their own and interact with each other. That there are subtle mechanisms which we cannot really understand. They can’t be reduced to energy, they can’t be reduced to kilocalories, we have to look at them from a different point of view. We have to view them as life, as distinguished from the non-living, and even that distinction is not so sharp and clear as many people think. 

Most futurists start out with the idea, ‘you got a shopping mall, what do you do then?’ Well, the first question to be asked is, ‘why the hell do you have a shopping mall?’

So this is the language of futurism, and the language of electronics, which reflects a very distinct sensibility, that bothers me very, very, much. It is not utopian—and I’ll get to that afterwards—it is the language of manipulation. It is the language of mass society. Most futurists start out with the idea, ‘you got a shopping mall, what do you do then?’ Well, the first question to be asked is, ‘why the hell do you have a shopping mall?’ [laughter] That is the real question that has to be asked. Not ‘what if’ you have a shopping mall, then what do you do.

Out there in the great vast distance, which people feel we should colonize, moving out into spacecraft, or somehow relate to the distant universe and listen to the stars, but we haven’t even begun to listen to our own feelings. We haven’t even begun to listen to our own locality. This planet is going down in ruin, and people are talking about means of projecting space platforms out there, talking of a global village,2 when we don’t have villages anywhere on this planet to begin with. We don’t have them. We don’t have any villages, we don’t have any communities, we live in a state of atomization, and we expect to electronically communicate with each other through global villages. This bothers me because it may be good physics, it may be good mechanics, it may be good dynamics, it may be good anything you wish, but it is not ecology. It is not ecology.

What is ecology?

The most fundamental mistake begins with the idea that things change. Now, you know, to change may mean something or may mean nothing. If I step away here and walk three feet away, I have ‘undergone change’. I’ve moved three feet away, but I haven’t done a damn thing so far as I’m concerned, or so far as you are concerned. It is not ‘change’ that I’m concerned about. What I’m concerned about is development, growth. I don’t mean growth in the business sense, I mean growth of human potentiality, I mean growth of human spirit. I mean growth of human contact. That is ecological. To develop is what is really ecological. To change can mean anything. The question is, what is the end toward which you want to develop? What is the goal you’re trying to realize, and then, afterward, whether or not you have developed to that goal. So mere input and output and feedback, mere motion means nothing—the real problem is discussion and dialogue, recognition of personality, growth and development, which is what biology is concerned with. It is not concerned merely with change.

Lastly, it must be made very clear that if you believe that the Earth is a spaceship, then you believe that the world is a watch. You and Sir Isaac Newton agree perfectly, the world is a clock, just as a spaceship is a lot of plumbing with a lot of rockets, with a lot of dials, with a lot of pilots, and all the rest of that stuff. And if you believe in addition that the beauty, today, of change is that you can move all over the place in a helicopter, which will pick up your geodesic dome,3 or use some type of electronic communications to relate to somebody who is three thousand miles away, whom you may never see, then we are not changing, in the developmental sense, anything at all, we’re making things worse, and worse all the time. And that is a matter, also, of very great concern to me.

Ecology—social ecology—must begin with a love of place. There must be home. Oikos—home—ecology—the study of the household. If we do not have a household—and that household is not an organic, rich community—if we do not know the land we live on, if we do not understand its soil, if we do not understand the people we live with, if we cannot relate to them, then at that particular point we are really in a spaceship. We are really out in a void. 

Ecology must begin with a very deep understanding of the interaction between people, and the interaction between people and the immediate ecosystem in which we live. Where you come from, what you love, what is the land that you love. I don’t mean the country or the state, I’m talking about the land that you may occupy. It may even be a village, it may be a city, it may be a farmstead. 

But first and foremost, without those roots that place you in nature, and in a specific form of nature, it is a deception to talk about cosmic oneness, it is a deception to talk about spaceships, it is a deception even to talk about ecosystems without having this sense of unity with your immediate locale, with your soil, with your community, with your home. Without that community and without that sense of home, without that sense of the organic—of the organic and the developmental rather than the mere inorganic and ‘change’ in which you merely change place—you are changing nothing, the problems are merely amplified or diminished, but they remain the same problems. 

What isn’t ecology?

It is for this reason that futurism today plays an increasingly very very reactionary role, because it works with the prejudice that what you have is given. You have to assume what exists today, and you extrapolate into the future, and you play a numbers game. And then you go around and you logistically manipulate here and there, and implicit in all of this is the idea that you are things to be manipulated. There are all kinds of technicians who are going to decide through their knowledge of electronics, through their ‘know-how’, through their ‘feedback’ and their ‘input’, where you go, what you should do: and this is becoming a very serious problem today, particularly when it is mistaken for ecology, based on the organic, on the growing, on the development as an individual, as a community and as a place.

You then finally reach the most sinister numbers game of all: who should live and who should die. The ‘population game’. The terrifying lifeboat ethic, in which now in the name of ecology, today views are being proposed that are almost indistinguishable from German fascism.

There are those who are made to drown, they happen to live in India. Conveniently, they happen to have black or dark skin, and you can identify them. And then there are those who occupy another lifeboat, that lifeboat is called North America. And in that lifeboat, you have to conserve what you have, you see? 

You have to be prepared to develop an ethic, you have to be prepared to develop the stamina to see people die. Of course you’ll regret it, but scarce resources and growing population, what can you do? You’re out there on the ocean, the ship is sinking, so instead of trying to find out what was wrong with the ship that makes it sink, and instead of trying to build a ship that will make it possible for all of us to share the world, you get into a lifeboat, just like you get into a spaceship, and at that particular point, the world be damned. And that is a very sinister ideology. 

I speak as one who comes from the thirties, and remembers, very dramatically, that there was the demographic ecology, if you like, in Germany, no different from some of the demographic ecology I have been witnessing today.4 Remember well that the implications of some of these conceptions are extremely totalitarian, extremely un-ecological, extremely inorganic, and tend, if anything, to promote a totalitarian vision of the future in which there is no human scale, in which there is no human control.

Another thing that troubles me very deeply is the enormous extent to which social ecology or ecological problems are reduced simply to technological problems. That is ridiculous. It’s absurd. The factory is a place where people are controlled, whether they build solar collectors or not. It makes no difference. [Applause] The same relationships will exist there as under any other circumstances of domination exist. If ‘household’ means that women take care of the dishes, and men go out and do the manly work such as make war and clean up the planet, and reduce the population, where have we gone? Nothing has changed. What will a ‘spaceship’ on earth look like? What will it be? Who will be the general to give the orders, who will be the navigator to decide which way the ‘spaceship’ goes?

Please bear in mind what the implications of these things are. If people live in cities that are one mile high, how the hell can you get to know each other? How can you have a feeling for the land in which you live, when the landscape that you see goes up to a horizon twenty, thirty, forty miles away? On top of the World Trade Center, I have no feeling for New York. If I were just an ordinary, simple product of the United States Airforce, and I were ordered from the World Trade Center, way up there, to bomb Manhattan, looking down upon it, I would see nothing. I would press the button and it would be meaningless. Up would go the great bomb, the great flash, the great cloud. It wouldn’t have any meaning to me. Down on the ground, when I look up at the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center, I feel oppressed. I feel that I have been reduced to a lowly ant. I begin to feel the demand for an environment that I can control. That I can begin to understand. But when I see plants growing around me, when I see life existing around me—human life, animal life of all its different forms, flora—then I can relate. This is my land.

Think human

What we have to do is not only ‘think small’, we have to think human.5 Small is not enough. What is human is what counts, not just what is small. What is beautiful are people, what is beautiful is the ecosystems and their integrity in which we live. What is beautiful is the soil which we share with the rest of the world of life. And particularly that special bit of soil in which we feel we have some degree of stewardship. It is not only what is small that is beautiful, it is what is ecological that is beautiful, what is human that is beautiful. 

What is important is not only that a technology is appropriate. As I have said before: the Atomic Energy Commission is absolutely convinced that nuclear power plants are appropriate technology—to the Atomic Energy Commission. The B1 bombers are very appropriate technology—to the Air Force. 

What I am concerned with is, again, what is liberatory, what is ecological. We have to bring these value-charged words, and we have to bring these value-charged concepts into our thinking, or else we will become mere physicists, dealing with dead matter and dealing with people as though they are mere objects to be manipulated, in spaceships, or to be connected through various forms of electronic devices, or subject to world games, or finally, set adrift on a raft or a lifeboat in which they kick off anyone who threatens to eat their biscuits or threatens to drink their distilled water—and that becomes ecofascism. That becomes ecofascism, and it horrifies me to think that anything ecological—even that word ‘eco’—could be attached to fascism.

First and foremost, we must go back to the utopian tradition, in the richest sense of the word. Not to the electronic tradition, not to the tradition of NASA, not to the tradition of Sir Isaac Newton, in which the whole world was a machine or a watch. 

You can travel all over the country and learn nothing, because you’re carrying something that’s very important with you, that will decide whether you learn or not, and that is: yourself. Move to California tomorrow, and if you’ve still got the same psychological and spiritual and intellectual problems, you’ll be sweating it out in San Francisco no differently than you do in Amherst or New York. That is the important thing—to recover yourself, to begin to create a community. And what kind of community imagination can begin to create. 

What does it mean to be utopian?

‘Imagination to power’, as the French students said. ‘Be practical, do the impossible’, because if you don’t do the impossible, as I’ve cried out over and over again, we’re going to wind up with the unthinkable—and that will be the destruction of the planet itself. So to do the impossible is the most rational and practical thing we can do. And that impossible is both in our own conviction and in our shared conviction with our brothers and sisters, to begin to try to create, or work toward a very distinct notion of what constitutes a finally truly liberated as well as ecological society. A utopian notion, not a futuristic notion. 

It finally means this: that we have to begin to develop ecological communities. Not just an ecological society—ecological communities, made up of comparatively small numbers of groups, and beautiful communities spaced apart from each other so that you could almost walk to them, not merely have to get into a car and travel sixty or seventy miles to reach them. It means that we have to reopen the land and reuse it again to create organic garden beds, and learn how to develop a new agriculture in which we’ll all participate in the horticulture. 

If you don’t do the impossible, we’re going to wind up with the unthinkable—and that will be the destruction of the planet itself.

We have to look into communities that we can take into a single view, as Aristotle said more than 2200 years ago—and we have yet to learn a great deal from the Greeks, despite all their shortcomings as slave-owners and as patriarchs—a community that we can take into a single view, so that we can know each other. Not a community in which we know each other not by virtue of sitting around and talking over the telephone, or listening to some honcho talk over a microphone, or listening to some bigger honcho talk over a television screen. It has to be done by sitting around in communities, in those town meetings, and in those structures which we have here in the United States as part of the legacy, at least—the best legacy of the United States—and start thinking utopian in the fullest sense of the word.

We have also to develop our own technologies. We can’t let other people simply build them for us. They can’t be transported from God knows where to us. We have to know how to fix our faucets, and create our own collectives. We have to become richly diversified human beings. We have to be capable of doing many different things. We have to be farmer-citizens and citizen-farmers. We have to recover the ideal that even a Ben Franklin—who by no means can be regarded, in my opinion anyway, as anything slightly more than a philistine—believed in the 18th century: you can both print and read, and when you printed, you read what you printed. That’s what we have to bring to ourselves. We have to think not in terms, merely, of change; we have to think in terms of growth. We have to use the language of ecology so that we can touch each other with the magic of words and communicate with each other, with the magic and the richness of concepts, not of catchphrases that are really snappy [snaps fingers]—’input’, ‘output’.’Dialogue’ is longer, but it has a beautiful ring to it. Dia logos, speech between two, talking between two. Logos—logic, reasoning out creatively, dialectically, and growing through conversation, and growing through communication. This is what I mean by utopia. We have to go back to Fourier, who said that measure of a society’s oppression could be determined by the way it treats its women. It was not Marx who said that, it was Charles Fourier…. We have to go back to the rich tradition of the New England town meeting, and all that was healthy in it and recover that and learn a new type of confederalism.

Today, the real movements of the future insofar as they are utopian in their outlook—insofar as they are trying to create not an extension of the present, but trying to create something that is truly new, that alone can rescue life, human spirit, as well as the ecology of this planet—must be built around a new, rich communication, not between leader and led—but between student and teacher, so that every student can eventually become a teacher, and not a dictator, a governor, a controller and a manipulator. 

And above all, we have to think organically. We have to think organically—not electronically. We have to think in terms of life and biology, not in terms of watches and physics. We have to think in terms of what is human, not what is merely small or big, because that alone will be beautiful. Any society that seeks to create utopia will not only be a society that is free, it also has to be a society that is beautiful. There can no longer be any separation—any more than between mind and body—between art and the development of a free society. We must become artists now, not only ecologists, utopians. Not futurists, not environmentalists. 

[applause]

Murray Bookchin was asked two relevant questions from the audience, which were inaudible in the recording. The first questioner asked if he was against technology. 

Murray Bookchin: No, that is not at all true. I see a very great use for technology. What I’m talking about is a technocracy. What I’m talking about is rule by technicians. What I’m talking about is the use of various types of technological devices that are inhuman to people and inhuman in their scale, and cannot be controlled by people. The beauty of an ecological technology—an ecotechnology, or a liberatory technology, or an alternative technology—is that people can understand it if they are willing to try to devote some degree of effort to doing so. It’s simplicity, wherever possible, it’s small-scale, wherever possible. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about going back to the paleolithic, I’m not talking about going back into caves. We cannot go back to that and I don’t think we want to go back to that. 

In the next question from the audience, Bookchin is asked to, very concretely, describe his political vision. There is laughter after the question. 

I’m going to be really hard rocks about this and get down to it and not just tell you that I’m giving you some vague philosophical principles. I would like to see communities, food cooperatives, affinity groups, all these types of structures—town meetings developed all over the United States. I’d like to see neighborhood organizations, non-hierarchical in their form, developed all over the United States, from New York City to San Francisco, from rural Vermont to urban California. When these particular organizations develop rapidly and confederate, at first regionally, and hopefully, nationally, and perhaps even internationally—because we are no longer talking about the United States alone, we’re even talking about what’s going on in the Soviet Union to a very great extent—I hope they will then, through one way or another, by example and through education win the majority of people to this sensibility. And having done this, demand that society be changed, and then afterward we’ll have to face whatever we have to face. The only alternative we have after that, if we don’t do that, will be as follows: we will be organized into bureaucracies, bureaucracies in the name of progress, as well as bureaucracies in the name of reaction, as well as bureaucracies in the name of the status quo. And if we’re organized in the form of these bureaucracies, whether we use solar power or nerve gas, it makes no difference, we’re going to wind up, ultimately, with the same thing. In fact, the idea that solar power or wind power or methane is today being used instead of fossil fuels, will merely become an excuse for maintaining the same multinational, corporate, and hierarchical system that we have today. 

So I propose that those types of organizations, and those types of social forms, be developed all over the country, and increasingly hopefully affect the majority of opinion, to a point where the American people, in one way or another, make their voices heard, because they are the overwhelming majority, and say they want to change the society. And if America turns over, the whole world will change, in my personal opinion. Because this happens to be the center, literally the keystone of what I would call the whole capitalistic system that today envelops the world, whether it be China, Cuba and Russia, or whether it be the United States, Canada and Western Europe. That is, very concretely, what I propose. 

Daydreams are dangerous. They are pieces of imagination, they are bits of poetry. They are the balloons that fly up in history.

I’d like to make this very clear, the American people first will begin to change unconsciously, before they change consciously. You’ll go around to them and you’ll say, what do you think of work? And they’ll say it’s noble. You’ll ask them what do you think of property? And they’ll say it’s sacred. And you’ll ask them, what do they think of motherhood, they’ll say it’s grand, it’s godly. What do you think of religion and they’ll say they belong to it and they are completely devoted to it. You’ll ask them, what do they think of America, and they’ll say, either love it or leave it.  You’ll say, what do you think of the flag and they’ll say it’s glorious, Old Glory.

But then one day something is going to happen. One day, the unconscious, the expectation, the dream, the imagination, the hope that you go to bed with as you sink into the twilight hours of sleep, or the early morning when you daydream, just after the alarm clock has gone off and you’ve shut it down—those expectations and dreams that lie buried in the unconscious mind of millions upon millions of American people are going to break right into consciousness. And when they break right into consciousness, heaven help this society. [audience cheers] I’m very serious. 

That is the strange catalysis, the strange process of education; everyone today is schizophrenic, we’re all leading double lives, and we know it. And not only are we leading double lives, those ordinary—so-called ‘ordinary’—people out there are also leading double lives. And one day, that double life is going to become one life. Maybe it’ll be for the worse. But maybe it’ll be for the better. At that particular point, maybe something like May, June 1968 in Paris will start. All over the place, all kinds of flags will go up that don’t look like the flag we’re accustomed to seeing. [laughter from audience] Maybe black or red, I don’t know. At that particular point, millions of people will stop working, and they’ll start discussing.

Then you’ll have that terrifying situation called mob rule. But that will happen, and that’s what happened here in 1776, they believed in the King, right up until July 1776. In the meantime, they were having doubts. They didn’t even know they didn’t like the monarchy. But one day they woke up and said, the hell with King George. And they ran ahead, and they wrote the Declaration of Independence, and it was read to the troops. At that particular point, the Union Jack went down and the Stars and Stripes went up. This is the way people actually change. People change unconsciously before they change consciously. They begin to float dreams—daydreams are dangerous. Daydreams are pieces of imagination, they are bits of poetry. They are the balloons that fly up in history. 

Transcribed and edited by Constanze Huther.

Murray Bookchin was a political theorist, philosopher, and activist. He developed the philosophy of social ecology and the political theory of libertarian municipalism, or communalism, which has influenced the growing ‘municipalist’ movement around the world. He was the co-founder of the Institute for Social Ecology, which is still active today. Bookchin died in 2006. The full audio version of this speech is available from the University of Massachusetts Special Collections and University Archives here.  

This text is ©2019 and published with the permission of The Bookchin Trust. For permission requests contact: bookchindebbie@gmail.com.

All photos are by Lionel Delevingne, taken between 1975-1978, reprinted with permission from the Lionel Delevingne Photograph Collection at UMass Amherst. Thank you to Eleanor Finley for obtaining the scans.

Last stand on Ménez Hom

by Efflam Mercier

Alwena walked along the black scorched hillside of the Ménez Hom. In the distance, she could see dark clouds accumulating over the Crozon peninsula. The constant rain that used to be so emblematic of the region had become increasingly rare. Each droplet was a welcome relief.

As a mountain, Ménez Hom did not impress by its height, but by the fact that it completely dominated the landscape. One could stand at the peak and survey a large amount of the north-western French coast.

The Wehrmacht, having observed that during World War II, built a large radar and artillery base on the peak. The French resistance paid a heavy price to take it back from the fifteen thousand German soldiers sworn to defend it with their lives.

Alwena walked slowly over the small path of sandstone and inspected the fire damages. There had been fires before, but each year they were more frequent and destroyed more of the ecosystem. She remembered the landscape of peat and marshes, with wildflowers that added bright red and purple over brown like a painter’s brush on canvas. It was left dark and fuming now. Droplets of rain freckled her skin as the unpleasant smell of wet ash reached her nose. It wasn’t her first survey; the scent had become familiar.

A patch of colour caught her eye. Right in the middle of the devastated landscape, in the ruins of a bunker, Sundew was growing back. Alwena approached and reached down to examine the small red plant. She smiled at it. “Brave little one,” she said, “I don’t see any insects left to catch.” 

After a few hours of searching for surviving plants by the mountain side, she noticed a pattern. June 11, 2043. Sundew survived on N flank but only near or inside bunkers, note: investigate passive cooling of concrete, she jotted down on her notepad with a pencil. 

The wind picked up and ash flew into her eyes. It reminded her of tear-gas. She started to cough and cursed herself for not bringing a mask. She ran back to the surveyor’s van, trying not to trip among the spiky shrubs as the winds began to whip around her. The van was almost out of gas and not going anywhere, but it made for a perfect base for the surveyors. The sliding door opened and they shouted at her to get in.

When her eyes adjusted to the dim interior, she could see the faces staring at her.“You ok?” Wassim asked, handing her a wet towel. She looked for a clean corner and wiped her face and eyes with it. It came out grey.
“I’ll be alright. That came out of nowhere,” she replied, “Find anything interesting?”
“Some traces of a mudslide, heather and gorse is growing back, sphagnum moss isn’t. You know… the usual,” he said with a sigh, “How about you?”
“Somehow sundew survived, near the bunkers.”
“Who would have bet that out of all plants, sundew would outlive buckwheat.”
“I’m going to look into how that happened though, maybe what worked for the sundew can work for the wheat.”
“Maybe,” Wassim replied. She couldn’t tell if he was lost in thought or simply disinterested as he stayed silently looking out the window.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Uh…? Oh. I’m… I’m losing hope.” 
His forced smile barely hid his despair.
“About the crops?”
“Yeah, I mean, the weather. One second it’s calm, the other there’s a storm. It’s probably what they felt like, in cities during the war.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re waiting for the airstrike, it could happen any time so there’s no point in hiding in a bunker. Same for the storms, the floods. It could happen anytime. Life has to go on, but deep down you know. You’re at the mercy of the climate, and the climate is at the mercy of crumbling ideologies.”

Life has to go on, but deep down you know. You’re at the mercy of the climate, and the climate is at the mercy of crumbling ideologies.

As a Zadist, Wassim spent years trying to build anarchist utopias while being under constant threat of expulsion. He knew what it felt like to keep hope when things could end in an instant. He had been labelled an extremist when he blocked airports and oil pipelines from being built. Now, years later, throwing a wrench in the gears of civilization was the new norm for young people. Quite often Alwena would get swept up by her group of friends into more trouble than she signed up for. She grew up in a world where she saw the damages of climate change in the news. They were raised in a world where the school’s cantina occasionally served moldy EU humanitarian aid rations.

Another surveyor in the van spoke, “Yeah I’m struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel here. I used to be an optimist like you, Alwena. I thought we could exit the system. Live on our own, demonstrate the alternative. But now with the floods and shitty soil, we can’t even do that anymore.”
Alwena took a deep breath. Outside of the van, the storm was raging. A small burned twig impacted the window and startled her.
“Guys, my optimism is fueled by the reality of the crisis. Yes, dozens of millions are going to die from famines, I know that. But when that’s done, the old world dies. I can guarantee you that we won’t be able to find a single person to defend industrial civilization when shelves and stomachs are empty. All we have to do is prepare to survive the next ten years.”

They waited for the storm to pass and rode bicycles down to the little town of Argol.

*

Alwena spent the next year down a rabbit hole to find out why the sundew survived in the bunkers. She obtained approval for the construction of multiple test greenhouses sunken ten feet deep in the limestone of the Ménez Hom. For Alwena, the way out was underground.

She walked down into the greenhouse and felt a strange satisfaction as she shut the door behind her. The carefully tended piece of microclimate was her pride. Many came to visit, perhaps to find hope. The fresh air almost made her shiver, or perhaps it was excitement. Many endangered flower species bloomed on the twenty meters of ground, while tomatoes grew on the side wall. The whole scene bathed in a serene and diffused sunlight.

The system was fairly simple and didn’t require any electricity. A few well-placed earth tubes would exchange warm air for cold using the massive thermal inertia of the mountain, smoothing out the sudden heatwaves. Alwena’s latest experiment was to tap into the cold air from the underground bunker complex. The structure of each greenhouse was twenty meters long but was almost invisible from the outside as it blended with the slope.

Alwena often called the greenhouse her “time-machinefor transporting crops to temperatures from before the Anthropocene. A time where scientists could still use radiocarbon dating to figure out the age of fossils. Alwena was still young, but the carbon isotopes in her bones appeared decayed, as if she were born nine hundred years ago.

She kneeled on a pad of wool and looked at the sensors. Temperature, moisture—she would record it all in a text file on her phone. Alwena angled the LCD screen towards the light to read the text better. “Phone” might be an overstatement—a mere hacked calculator capable of transmitting radio signals—but somehow it was so solid and the battery lasted for so long that she preferred it over anything else.

Just as she was about to finish reading all the sensors, she heard footsteps approaching.
“Is someone inside? We’re looking for Alwena Bihan,” a voice said from the outside. Through the blur of translucent plastic, she could see the silhouette of a man and a woman.
Alwena stood and opened the hermetic door. A camera and a notepad: news reporters. A large number of them showed up during the food shortages, but they soon lost interest in Alwena’s project.
“Yes?”
“We’re looking to get a few words from you about conservation efforts in light of the recent developments.”
“Sure… But first, get in there! I’m losing fresh air,” Alwena closed the door behind them.
The man threaded carefully through the plants to get both her and the reporter in the frame.
“What recent developments?”
“The construction of a phased array radar system on top of the Ménez Hom?”
“What… Why?”
The camera man lowered his camera, and the woman laughed nervously.
“We thought you would know. Since you’ve been so invested in the site. The radar and surface-to-air missiles will be part of the new nuclear security reinforcement program.”“So, do you want to comment about how the construction might affect the biodiversity of the Ménez Hom and your food security experiment? We’ve also seen a large mobilization of the green resistance on the internet after the announcement, what do you have to say about that?” She said, inching the microphone closer to Alwena’s face with every word.
“No, sorry. I need to think about it,” Alwena said, holding her head in her hand, “Please leave.”

Once the door closed, Alwena lowered herself to the ground. She had heard that countries throughout the world were boosting their anti-nuclear defense in preparation for famines. All the leading game-theorists said that it would end in threats of annihilation, or protection in exchange for food and oil. They said it could only result in the four biggest nuclear arsenal countries—France being one of them—dominating the flux of food and energy and escalating tensions. She didn’t think it would impact the Ménez Hom.

The vibration of her phone took her out of the storm in her brain. Wassim.
“Have you seen the news?” he asked.
“I heard it from some reporter who showed up just a second ago. It’s crazy. Does this have to do with L’Île Longue?” Alwena asked, fearing the worst.
L’Île Longue was the biggest stockpile of nuclear warheads and submarines in Europe, and it was right in her beloved peninsula.
“Exactly. The army wants to put some anti-air stuff, and an observation tower on top of the Ménez Hom.”
“Wait, it’s a protected site! I remember when I was a kid the regional government didn’t even authorize the army to install a mobile base for NATO exercises. How can they build a permanent base? That makes no sense.”
“Times have changed, I don’t think they care anymore. Countries with empty stomachs and an obese nuclear arsenal is not a good combo.”
“Also, are we talking about a local garrison or… the Cog?” She asked.
“The Cog, it’s the real stuff.”
Alwena’s head was spinning. What started as an ecological conservation experiment now put her in the centre of a massive conflict. Continuation of government or, as they called it, “The Cog” was both the boogeyman and the saviour. A plan originally designed to keep critical functions of the government running through any crisis. A plan that turned into a second government, operating in some secret bunker with no oversight. The Cog was always silent, but it sure kept the engine of the old civilization humming.

Continuation of government or, as they called it, “The Cog” was both the boogeyman and the saviour.

“So what’s your plan?” Wassim asked her.
“My plan?”
“Yeah. We’re not going to let the army build the base, are we?”
“I… I don’t know. Maybe Paris will see that prioritizing military security over food security is a self-fulfilling prophecy. But what can Paris really do?”
“But right now your thing is just an experiment, how many greenhouses do you have? Three?”
“Yeah three.”
“So we need to help you scale up then. It needs to become the embodiment of biodiversity, food security. Like a symbol, you know?”
“We?”
“The whole Zadist crew is talking about it, we’re ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“To make a stand, on the Ménez Hom.”

*

It didn’t take more than a week for word to spread, and soon Alwena was running around trying to explain to hundreds of Zadists how to build the greenhouses without harming the land. But that wasn’t why most people showed up. They showed up to defy the state’s authority once more, showing that another way of life was possible.

Alwena was torn, she resented Wassim for bringing all these people to the fragile landscape of the mountain. She changed her mind when someone working in l’Île Longue leaked the construction plans for the radar. They were going to dynamite entire parts of the mountain, drain out the marshes to make roads for armored transports.

Alwena had studied the plans and leaked photographs of the base, too. L’île longue was built on the side of a massive cliff, and the eastern side facing the Channel and the Atlantic was virtually indestructible granite. That also came at a big disadvantage; from inside the base, you couldn’t have a line of sight on enemy aircrafts coming from the west. The base was constructed before AI drones, assuming that a pilot couldn’t possibly fly below radar line of sight, or handle the g-forces from the hard turn required to strike the eastern side when coming from the west. This meant that enemy drones had a limited window to strike without being detected.

That was the flaw the Cog wanted to patch. The Ménez Hom had a line of sight over the entire peninsula, the perfect place to install surface to air missiles and radars pointed at the sea.

Alwena knew that none of that would save the country from starvation. The role of the Cog was to preserve the old world; its states, armies, and national identities. While many around her still believed in the concept of “the army” fueled by the passion of nationalism, for most people there was no choice but to feed the Cog in exchange for protection. More and more unemployed young men joined the military each year, when what the country needed was an army of farmers for the war effort of healing the land.

If they are going to destroy it all anyway, Alwena thought, might as well highlight the potential we’re losing.

She was surprised by how quickly the militants made caring about the mountain a social norm. Marginalized people who came to challenge the state stayed for the learning, food, and community. Alwena had always dreamed about this; a technological dystopia merged with a social utopia. The opposite of the world she resented.

Months passed in a blur, rhythmed by the attempted expulsions conducted by riot police. A trampled sign lay in the mud, it read “build farms, not nukes”. The riot police was ordered not to use tear gas or mortars up until that point.

Then came one day she could never forget. An early morning in August 2044.

*

The escalation of international nuclear threats eventually meant the end of roundtables and compromises. The Cog needed the mountain.

Alwena had heard rumors that local garrisons were ordered to finish the expulsions of militants and Zadists once and for all. Everyone shared one last beer and laughed nervously awaiting the deployment of more than five thousand men and armoured transport. This time, there was no way out.

One common tactic for Zadists was to chain themselves to a heavy object—a tree or metal pole—with handcuffs. She argued in vain with Wassim to not tie himself to that wooden beam. He tried to hand her the keys to the handcuffs but she refused, hoping that would dissuade him. Instead he gave the keys to a friend causing Alwena to instantly regret it.
“…Plus it’s stupid, they’ll just pull you off the beam and then you’re just handcuffed.”
“Good point,” he said, looking around him to people preparing for the expulsion, “Hey, you over here with the hammer! Mind nailing this plank up here?” he said, pointing to the top of the wooden beam.
Alwena stood there arms crossed while he was getting attached. Wassim was like the little brother she never had, always getting into trouble.
“Wait, where’s your mask?” Alwena asked, “You need to protect your eyes.”
“Oh shit, it’s in the greenhouse. Can you get it for me?”
Alwena instinctively dropped to the ground after hearing explosions in the distance.
“No time, take mine,” she said, fitting her gas mask onto his face.
“What about y…?” he tried to say before his voice became inaudible through the mask.
“I’ve got spare glasses,” Alwena said after taking out safety goggles from her vest, “They never use tear gas here, I should be fine.”
And before anyone could heed the screams of warning, mortars sprayed a barrage of tear gas canisters.

It all happened in a few seconds. Alwena groaned in pain as a rubber bullet hit her flank. She collapsed, out of breath under the impact. A canister fell near her and she saw the dry shrubs combust. Panicked, she looked side to side as she saw many more projectiles land in the shrubs. She ran towards the smoke grenades and threw her jacket over one of them to squelch the fire. She had begun to choke on the tear gas when sound grenades detonated.

Flashing images of heavily armored figures charged uphill and downhill in blinding coordination. It wasn’t just the police this time—the operation started with military precision.

She tried to look for Wassim but was already becoming disoriented. When her hearing finally returned, all she could hear were screams. Flames had quickly spread causing a wildfire that burned resistance and police alike. Those who chose to barricade themselves inside the greenhouses were caught in the fire and burned alive; others died after breathing the fumes of burned plastic. The finished greenhouses were completly fire-retardant, but many were in the middle of construction.

Alwena turned around and saw Wassim burning alive on his cross. She screamed as she was dragged away by the firefighters and handcuffed by the army. There was nothing she could do to save him. Neither the firefighters or the army managed to stop a small group of photographers from immortalizing the scene.

Alwena couldn’t witness any revolution from her prison cell, but she could hear it. The voices were loud, but that wasn’t enough to stop the Cog.
Then, the food simply stopped coming. Alwena heard it on the radio: A general food strike. All farmers would simply refuse to give, or sabotage any food meant for the military, even under threat of death. Any acts of brutality from the local garrisons or the Cog would paint them as they really were: a mafia at the nation scale, offering protection in exchange for food but destroying anyone who declined the deal.

Alwena ripped open the last emergency ration package with her emaciated hands when she heard the announcement that a garrison flipped. They made a deal with the local farmers: the garrison would continue to receive food, but in exchange they would receive orders from a citizen assembly and reject the Cog’s authority. One by one, not without its shares of skirmishes and scare-tactics, every unit, battalion, base, and vessel turned peacefully against their central command.

“Drink! This might be your last one” a guard said, his gaunt face startling her.
She took the glass and watched the bubbles.
“Champagne? Where did you find that?”
“It said ‘for a special occasion’ on the label, so we saved it until now,” the guard said with a faint smile crackling his lips.
“What’s the occasion?”
“We’ve been told there’s a submarine in the roadstead of Brest, with tactical nukes aimed at whoever flips.”
“…And?”
“We called bluff, so we’re flipping,” the guard replied, clinging his glass against hers.

*

Not long after that, she was free. A newly formed 6th republic built by Zadists and the food-strikers called for her help, to be a symbol against COGs and military rule in other countries, but first, Alwena wanted to see the Ménez Hom again.

A lot had changed in five months.

With streaks of burned earth barely visible under the layers of flowers, it seemed as if the surface of the mountain had already forgotten. The wind was ruthless and her locks were a tangly mess, but she felt alive. She placed blue thistles by a commemorative plaque. Red and blue wildflowers were scattered all around the base of a statue.

Wassim on the cross, a martyr in granite.

At the top of the Ménez Hom, between the earth and the sky, history had displayed the ability to repeat itself.

Granite remembered, as always.

*

In memory of my great-grandfather Jean Guennal, résistant on the Ménez Hom.

Efflam Mercier is a concept artist and writer with a passion for shining a spot-light on the effects of climate change. His upbringing in the French countryside of Brittany gave him a deep sense of responsibility to nature and its ecosystems. Efflam is currently working on a post-collapse painting series and resides in Los Angeles with his wife and two dogs.

All artwork by Efflam Mercier.

Life in flames

Sky obscured by smoke from forest fires, Cordillera (Bolivia), 2019

Photo: CIPCA Cordillera (Bolivia), 2019

by Elizabeth Peredo Beltrán

The Spanish version of this piece was originally published online by the Bolivian Observatory on Climate Change (OBCCD) on 25th August 2019 and translated by Mark Cramer. This version has already been published by the website Dismantle Corporate Power.

These days I am immersed in rage, pain and despair. The Amazon is in flames, the Chiquitanía region is gravely wounded and beneath the fires, many of our hopes for Bolivia and the world are turned to ashes.

I don’t know if these feelings can be transformed into some measure of hope. For the moment there is only pain and bitter tears that flow from my eyes as much as I’d like to contain them. This profound pain blends in a bitter concoction with the daily distress that comes from breathing in poisoned urban air, drinking uncertain and fragile water and knowing that the food on our table is contaminated with invisible chemicals. This feeling of vulnerability that seems to continuously grow includes crimes against women, trafficking of boys and girls, the spread of the violent ideology of machismo, readily observed in the surreal and cynical political theater that hangs like an absurd rope around our necks. I feel increasingly captive to ignorant, stupid and arbitrary decisions that surround our lives, my own life and the lives of those I love.

I would like to believe that our rage and pain today contain a thread of hope because they are born of empathy for a vast and suffering territory that connects to us through the Chiquitanía.

We have become victims of power imposed on us by pompous decrees and grotesque jokes, that sweeps us up with supposedly liberating speeches about a nation that no longer exists. This is because it is grounded in big moneyed interests with their craving for absolute rule, their ideal of infinite growth, and their yearning for a phallocentric and ego-derived modernity, immersed in ignorance, ambition and deceit. This is power elite that designs its landscapes of plunder from an easy chair or from the view of a private helicopter.  Destroyed landscapes “manufactured” in the apathy, in a life decoupled from life itself. Because the ignorance and power of capital constitutes an obscene desire to exert discipline and control “over all human bodies”, as Brazilian writer Eliane Brum argues, the bodies of women, men, children, of rivers, waters, forests, animals, of the land itself.

I would like to believe that our rage and pain today contain a thread of hope because they are born of empathy for a vast and suffering territory that connects to us through the Chiquitanía. Thousands of animals scorched, thousands of people under duress, millions of trees consumed. More than a million hectares reduced to ashes. Our Big House is in flames.

Fires raging through vegetation in El Deber, Bolivia (2019)
Photo: El Deber, Bolivia, 2019

The unrelenting destruction of the Chiquitano forest and the Amazon condemns us to a slow death, willfully ignored by those who have brought us to this fateful edge. The forest, the Gran Chaco Chiquitano and the rest of the Amazon region have been a source of life because they guarantee biodiversity cycles, water and the purification of the threatened air on our planet. Within the Amazon is a generous and magical source of water for the continent because the trees produce the moisture in the form of clouds that ‘fly’ with the winds to other regions, carrying rain, empathy and life to the earth. Antonio Nobre, passionate student of the Amazon, has affirmed for some time that these “flying clouds”, a product of the magic and generosity of the trees, could be endangered by the effects of deforestation and that these great lungs of air and vitality could begin a process of irreversible self-destruction if deforestation surpassed a certain limit.

In the case of Bolivia, the decisions of President Morales and Vice-President García Linera have led to unparalleled despoliation of the territory and its incredible social fabric.

This gift from the Earth – invisible like the Indigenous peoples who care for and protect the forest, invisible like the work of women in their caring for life, invisible like the collective force of peoples who join in unsung collaboration – has been destroyed.

In the case of Bolivia, the decisions of President Morales and Vice-President García Linera have led to unparalleled despoliation of the territory and its incredible social fabric. Their wager on ethanol, their permissiveness regarding GMOs and the resulting expansion of cultivation, their stimulation of large-scale cattle raising for meat exports to China at great scale, their deregulation of limits on small-scale farming, their policies to expand gas and oil extraction in Bolivia’s forests, including even their absurd consideration of fracking as an alternative, go hand in hand with their recently approval of Law 741 and Decree 3973 which authorize “controlled fires” to expand the agricultural frontiers in times of climate change.  The cumulative effect of all these actions has brought on this disaster.

A woman in manual labor clothes stands in the foreground. In the background, burn soil and tree stems suggest devastation and catastrophe.
Photo: Romaneth Hidalgo (Journalist – Bolivia)

Probably, never before in Bolivia have we experienced such violence against Nature.  And the administrators of these disastrous policies seem impervious to the consequences. Here resides the greatest danger: ignorance of the damage and destruction produced by their own actions and the consequent lack of limits due to the culture of impunity embedded in the bureaucracy of the Plurinational State, what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.”

We have been like the walking dead: “something happens to us”, people say, “and we no longer react, whereas before, a single cry against the imposters could trigger a rebellion.” Today we are eclipsed by the mechanisms of a power structure that bloats with impunity, abetted by the orators of manufactured populism. Now that almost everything has been destroyed, the main culprits of this tragedy elaborate an “alternative truth”, Hollywood style, to rearrange the pieces on the board. The tragedy of fire and devastation is blurred with the ostentatiousness of a rented Supertanker airplane now arriving from the USA to save a “small village” from fire. “Climate change” begins to dance in the mouths of the deniers, and yet will not have any consequences in their future decisions.

Our body contains sensations and it can transform the
sensation of being oppressed, immobilized and fearful into the opposite
sensation of rebelliousness and the search for new horizons in a
healing earth.

But history can be unforgiving and Morales will be sadly remembered from now on and forever as the greatest indigenous predator of the Amazon and the Chaco. This tragedy, provoked by his political and economic ambition, both ego-driven and authoritarian, must be documented and explained to subsequent generations. We should continue to make reference to this tragedy so that we learn to take care of, restore and protect the little that remains; so that what counts is not the fraudulent intellectualizing by the likes of García Linera, who disguises injustice and destruction, but instead, an awareness of limits, to know that fire burns, lack of water kills, machismo degrades, violence destroys, political calculation and ambition corrupt and that too much time wielding power is unhealthy and can become criminal.

We need limits, says the Brazilian theologian and ecofeminist Ivone Gebara, and I believe that the awareness of these limits must be constructed with love, but also with rebelliousness and disobedience, with the force of indignation that is born from an “ethos” of caring for life, today absent in the governments of the Americas. I don’t know if we still have any time left.

Perhaps the only hope is in our bodies, that have an intrinsic memory, and in movement itself, and in self-reflective and relational interconnections. Today the only possible rebellion is the body in connection with nature, an alliance with other species and the beings that were born together with humans, those beings that became captives to the capitalist, patriarchal and ecocidal rationality. Our body contains sensations and it can transform the sensation of being oppressed, immobilized and fearful into the opposite sensation of rebelliousness and the search for new horizons in a healing earth. From this sweet earth, still burnt and near death, covered by the bodies of trees and sacrificed animals, come the ashes that, in the profound pain of our being, are moving a vital connection in our internal waters: our mind, feelings and heart.

Feelings that the chiefs of plunder will never understand.

Elizabeth Peredo Beltrán is a social psychologist. She works as an independent researcher and writer, collaborates with the Bolivian Observatory on Climate Change and the Latin American Alliance against Fracking. She is also part of “Trenzando Ilusiones” (Weaving Hope), and she belongs the Food and Water Watch Board of Directors and the socio-scientific committee of the UITC.

Mark Cramer is an activist for Attac in France and one of a million volunteers in the Bernie Sanders campaign. He is also a writer and the author of Old Man on a Green Bike: Chronicles of a Self-Serving Environmentalist.


The vine underground

Art by Anya Verkamp

by Anya Verkamp

Victor and Violeta were sitting on their cots in a gymnasium 20 km from home when they got the news that everything was gone. 

They had lived in that farmhouse for nearly 30 years, since the economic crisis of 2020. The mud womb of the house cocooned them from the decay that spread across civilization. 

After the crisis, their friends had fled Barcelona for opportunities elsewhere; many human pawns on the chessboard of capital, hoping to catch falling crumbs of cash and get from them some kind of satisfaction. Barcelona had become too much for the couple anyway. The city fed their anxieties, as the people on the streets hunted for the next quick dopamine rush: the next touristic spectacle, the next purchase, the next digital notification. An addiction to stimulation and gratification ruined the city, like it had ruined the rest of the planet, and like it had corrupted the very soul of humanity. Luckily, Violeta’s elderly parents had a vineyard outside of Valencia, and were growing too old to tend to it. 

The wine became their blood. The grapes swelled every spring with the promise only fruit can offer. The rising temperatures didn’t make for fine wine, but it made for higher alcohol concentration in the grapes, and so much the better. Even as the Spanish economy crashed, as Catalonia seized independence via civil war, as the European Union broke up, and as the climate crisis brought refugees across the Mediterranean and wreaked havoc on global supply chains, people still needed to drink. 

Their farmhouse was a stage on which to improvise their dance through the song of collapse.

Their farmhouse was a stage on which to improvise their dance through the song of collapse. Disturbances to the electrical grid prompted them early on to invest in a wind generator, solar panels, and a wood-burning stove. They could exchange wine for the few staple foods they couldn’t grow. Violeta’s parents and the neighbors taught them what medicines they could make with the herbs around, how to preserve food, how to build and fix things by hand.

And they were not alone in their learning. After the crisis followed rural life. Groups of young, overeducated, and underemployed Europeans arrived to squat and fix up abandoned farmhouses in what historians would call the ‘urban exodus’ of the 2020s. Collectives popped up here and there, collectives of doctors, of carpenters, of mechanics; the farmers started tool and seed banks. Some of the couples had the courage to bring a few children into this challenging world, and the parents divided the days of child watching and teaching at the village school. It was almost too late for Violeta to have children when the couple finally had enough faith in the future of the community. Her belly swelled like a grape in spring, and Alazne was born in 2029.

The people of the Valencian countryside trusted and supported each other, because they had to, because they couldn’t do it alone. It was a great return to the collective way of life of the anarchist rural communities of Spain, and as their material lives became always more humble, their hands calloused, their fashions old, the people could take pride in knowing they had found the source of strength of their ancestors: the land and each other. Victor and Violeta were well loved wherever they went across the valleys around their home. “Victor i Violeta del vi!” the neighbors would greet them, as they pulled up to farms and taverns by horse drawn cart with bottles in the back. 

This had not been the first time they had been evacuated. As they had left the house, all they had grabbed were the suitcases that always sat ready in the closet with documents, cash, and the necessities for a few days.

A volunteer hung the map showing the path of the wildfire on the wall of the gymnasium. Violeta and Victor held hands as they watched their friends and neighbors approach the map. The people walked up all shoulders and straight backs; resilient women and men who had seen civilizations fall in their lifetimes. Violeta gasped; her neighbors’ faces aged in seconds when they saw their homes were gone. She held Victor’s hand, pulling him to stay seated next to her, but Victor shook with the need for certainty, and walked up to the map to confirm what he already knew. Where the sustenance of life once was, there was now an ashy vacuum. 

Under the empty weight of the loss, the people collapsed into each other’s arms. In embracing they could remember they still had their living bodies, ageing though they were, homeless and penniless though they were.

The next days in the shelter were a blur. The neighbors would gather to talk through their pain, to sing old songs. Some went back to where their houses once were to see what was left. It was mid July and the crops had been high, but there was nothing to salvage. For most, their preparation ended with the suitcases. The unthinkable had happened. No one plans for the end of their own world. 

Within a few days, as resources at the shelter grew scarce, they began to whisper to each other of what to do next. They were split between leaving to start life anew elsewhere and returning to rebuild. Many of the younger people were leaving to stay with nearby family for the winter, planning to sell their labor at larger farms for the rest of the season, and return next year to replant. The elders were stagnating in indecision, without the energy to rebuild the homes, and without the vision of a future anywhere else.

“Victor, I want to be with Alazne. We’ve lost everything. She’s the only thing in this world we haven’t lost.” said Violeta through a throat tight with longing for her daughter in the south of France.

“You know how far that journey is. We know this land, these people. Next year we will plant again and rebuild,” Victor thought himself the voice of reason.

“She’s written to us that life is good there. It rains often enough. She has found a good house with other young people. We can be of use to them; we can work for our keep.”

“We will be nothing but a burden to her. Let’s at least write to her first, to ask if they will take us.”

“It will take months for a letter to come back. What are we to do in the meantime? We will burn through our savings every day we wait for a reply.”

“And the borders?” Victor said it like he was asking, but he was really stating the situation. 

Border policy between the ex-EU countries changed often, and was subjectively enforced. The Spanish-French border required a visa, which could take years to grant, and the older the applicant, the less likely they would be granted one. Every country in Europe had too many old people, and not enough youth. Human labor was needed everywhere now that fossil fuels were banned and the capacities of renewables had failed to meet the energy demand. When Alazne was 18 years old with the happy feet and horizon gaze of every youth, her parents greatest concern was that she wouldn’t come back.

“We can try our luck through Catalonia. We must.” Violeta said. Catalonia issued temporary visas at the border for visiting Spaniards. They could apply at the border. 

“Victor, everything is gone. It’s gone. I just want to be with her. Next year we can come back with her and she can help us rebuild.”

Victor knew the tone of voice his wife was using. When she was this sure, it was like she had a compass in her gut, directing every atom in her body. She would go, with or without him. The next morning they said goodbye to their friends of 30 years and got on a train to Fraga, a small town on the Spanish border with Catalonia.

* * *

“Documents?” The clerk at the customs desk did not look up as he asked.

Victor and Violeta handed over their Spanish passports. The clerk shifted his eyes to their birthdays.

“What is the nature of your visit to Catalonia?”

“We’re visiting my sister, near Lleida.” Said Violeta. Victor turned to her incredulously. Violeta’s sister was near Lleida, but she was buried there. 

“I must see your proof of residency in Spain, and please write here your sister’s full name and address” the clerk asked. Violeta presented the deed to the vineyard first, as Victor began to write the information on the form they were given.

The clerk looked at the deed, and he gave them a sad smile. “Senyores, I’m sorry, but I can’t help you, we are no longer issuing travel visas for residents of this region of Spain over 50.”

“What, why?” Violeta spat.

“Do you want to see the decree?”

“No, I want to know why! Do you know my sister died so you can have this border?” Victor put his hand on her back. “Ungrateful little machine cog, do you know what’s happened to us?” she spat.

“Yes, and I’m sorry.”

“Oh, yes, very sorry.” She picked up their suitcases and walked out, Victor trailing behind her.

By the train station there was an inn. The patio had plastic chairs that looked like they were from before the collapse of the EU. They ordered red wine. When they looked up, they saw a familiar face staring down at them.

“How do I know you?” Violeta asked. It was a face she remembered from before Alazne was born; a foreign face.

“Oh senyora Violeta, hello, I’m Sayed. When I arrived to Europe I was a teenager then. You were very patient with me. Without you I would not have learned Spanish.”

The surreal spiral of old memories brought a hesitant affirmation to her. She remembered the flags they waved from the farmhouses that read “Volem Acollir” – we want to welcome – to signal to the climate refugees that the farms offered shelter and work. She didn’t quite remember this youth, but he remembered her. 

“Did I then? I taught you Spanish?” 

“But yes! I even speak Catalan now.” She smiled as he switched languages to show off. He was right to be proud. He was one little human of seven billion, and he had crossed the vast distance of cultures over the bridge of language. 

“Is this your inn?” She asked.

“Si, senyora. I fought in the civil war. ”

“You fought for the independence of Catalonia?” she asked with a disbelieving smile.

“No” Sayed looked down. He mumbled it, seeming nervous anticipating their reaction, but it was Violeta who was embarrassed. She had forgotten how the Spanish government had suddenly reversed its policy on refugees when Catalonia took up arms for independence. They promised refugees citizenship after a certain number of years of military service, offering a decent life to the desperate if they agreed to kill in the crown’s favor. Now she’d gone and forced this poor man to remember his war trauma.  

“Well, come now, Sayed.” Victor offered. “Tell us where you get your wine.”

The three of them talked into the night of their families, of the war, of how they’d gotten by these years, and of the situation at the border. Victor and Violeta told Sayed why they were there. 

“You lost your home to a wildfire?” Sayed repeated the thought to himself, mulling it over. 

Victor and Violeta held hands under the table. “Yes” she said. It was their turn to remember trauma. Violeta breathed deeply. The summer night air was heavy and humid. She imagined the crickets sounded the same as they had one thousand years ago.

“There is a path across the borders and even through France, a safe path, but it is secret. My brother took it to meet family in Marseille.”

Violeta must have had a look of doubt on her face. Sayed went on, “It’s only for people like us, people who are on the move because of the heat.”

“They only help climate refugees cross?” Victor clarified.

Sayed nodded, he looked pensive. 

“How will they believe us, that we are what we say we are?” Victor asked.

“It doesn’t work like that. They will trust you. They trust those who know of the path to only share it with others like them. It’s like… they call it an underground railroad.”

Los Del Vi smiled. 

“But it’s not a train, ah. You will have to walk very far.”

“We aren’t as old and useless as the border guards think” Victor said.

* * *

A few hours later, Victor and Violeta stood by the Ebro river in the dawn light, squinting through sleepy eyelids at the water. A boat pulled up. They gave a final hug to Sayed, wishing him well, and got on board. 

The fisherman that took them along explained the path. “You’re lucky. They’re people just like you, people who took to the countryside after the crash. Are you Catalans?”

“We’re Valencian” Violeta said. “But my sister died fighting for Catalonia.”

“Ah you’re fine then. They wouldn’t care if you were bullfighters, but some of the safe houses don’t take in neo-fascists.” 

Violeta laughed, a dry dark laugh. “Just some of them?”

“Some of them will take pity on anybody. Some don’t tolerate intolerance. Don’t worry about it. The point is that you will be expected to stick around a bit, stay a few days at each house to help out, pay your way for food and shelter, fix things, pick herbs. If you had a farm you must be good at some of that?” They nodded. 

While the fisherman navigated, their two grey heads hovered over a map of the paths between the safe houses. Some of the houses were two days’ walk from each other. Some were just a few hours. “How much do you think you can walk per day?” the fisherman sized them up with a look.

“Five hours but not going too fast. Not up and down hills.” Violeta said. The fisherman paddled forward, looking into the water like it was infinite. “You’ll have two options, to try to cross the border into the Spanish enclave at Llívia, or closer to the coast, towards Perpignan. It should take you 6-8 weeks. Depending on the conditions at the border, they’ll give you advice once you get here.” He set down the oar to point to a house marked in the middle of some lakes west of Vic. 

“It will help keep you covered that you speak Catalan. They aren’t patrolling for migrants really. It’s the French border that will be trickiest. Just don’t walk through fields in harvest, especially at night. Some farmers will shoot if they think you’re stealing food.”

The boat finally arrived at a humanless stretch along the river shore, no houses, just trees. The river itself marked the border here. Once it pulled up to the eastern side, they stepped onto Catalan territory. 

“This is what we could get ya. You’re lucky you’re fleeing in summer.” From under a seat of the boat the fisherman pulled a big hiking backpack. Inside it was a tent and two sleeping bags, empty canteens, a compass, and several lighters. The camping material looked very old and cheap to begin with. “It’s what we had last minute.” Violeta saw a mild embarrassment on the fisherman’s face that he couldn’t offer them something better. “Gracias” She said. She could say no more. She took his weathered hand with both of hers and kissed it. Her throat was hot and itchy. They had nothing in the world but a suitcase, and a stranger whose name they didn’t even know had just given them a place to sleep. The humble fisherman glanced at her husband and grew red in the face, shifting awkwardly as if to dodge the attention. Victor hugged the man, speechless as well. “But of course, but of course. There’s nothing to thank,” mumbled the fisherman into Victor’s shoulder. He got back on his boat, and waved to them as he paddled off.

There was only one overgrown path from this spot on the river shore, stomped and cleared before by people like them. Violeta imagined Alazne walking just in front, calling her parents along into the unknown land. The water behind them, there was no turning back. 

Anya Verkamp (@avercampo) is an American Peruvian professional communicator on political ecology and a rebel in the Extinction Rebellion. She is currently based in Brussels.

Destructive space-time

Ford Tri-Motor Spraying DDT, 1955. Photo by R.B. Pope

by Tina Beigi and Michael Picard

World War II ended more than half a century ago. Yet stumbling upon unexploded bombs in Germany is still a frequent occurrence. Of the roughly quarter million bombs that did not explode during the war, thousands are still buried underground all over Germany. One of these left-over bombs self-ignited recently in Limburg’s countryside. The blast of the 250kg explosive occurred in a field of barley in the middle of the night and was large enough to dig a crater 10 metres wide and 4 metres deep.

This accident is a welcome occasion to revisit the concept of slow violence coined by Rob Nixon. He describes this phenomenon as ‘a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.’ This concept reminds us that violence is not always what we expect it to be, explosive and sensationally visible but can be incremental and generate unpredictable outcomes across spatial and temporal scales. 

The buried past exploding in the present is a haunting metaphor for the bombing of the future through endless environmental exploitation.

One may ponder whether the detonation of a decade-long silent bomb is a powerful metaphor for the slow violence of time compression and space destruction. Whereas past bombs remain deadly decades after they were dropped, current techniques of industrial agriculture function like a buried bomb, threatening a sustainable future. When these ‘climate bombs’ explode, it could mean the annihilation of life itself on the planet. In this way we can see the past, present, and future colliding in explosive fury. In Germany, just as Allied bombing raids (from above) failed to detonate instantly, industrial agriculture (down below) will continue to distribute persistent pollutants into the future, eventually detonating beyond the spatial and temporal boundaries of the land. The entanglement of weapons of mass destruction and weapons of mass production ultimately compresses time and space into a forever impending catastrophe. In a strange inversion on the horizon of temporality, we could be reaching a point in history when the buried past exploding in the present serves as a haunting metaphor for the bombing of the future through endless environmental exploitation.

Historical entanglements of war, agriculture and climate change

The First Ammonia Reactor (1913). BASF Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When contemplating the detonation of a WW2 bomb in a German field, one is struck by the disorienting compression of history, in which war pollution caused by a 20th Century conflict returns to haunt the peaceful lives of 21st Century farmers. From a temporal perspective one generation of pilots’ aerial bombing time travels to reach another generation of peacetime farmers, blurring the temporal lines between war and peace. The legacy of warfare in peacetime extends far beyond the traumatic legacy imprinted on the social fabric and reaches the material foundations of welfare itself. From a spatial perspective, the explosive legacy of Allied strategic bombing over Germany parallels another type of aerial campaign, involving the heavy spraying of chemical fertilizers to improve agricultural yields. Just as war remnants explode upon industrial agricultural production today, fumigating raids have been systematically bombing crops since the inter-war years with pesticides and nitrogen-enriched fertilizers. One such toxic legacy that radically transformed the industry was developed by German scientist Haber-Bosch, whose process to produce ammonia was as critical in the manufacturing of plant fertilizers as it was in developing the Zyklon B poison gas used during the Holocaust. In a parallel twist, the development of chemical insecticide presently used for industrial-scale agricultural production is thus intimately related to transformations in chemical warfare designed for genocide.

Transfers between war and agriculture operated at both the technological and the ideological level. The co-production of techniques of agricultural and military control blurred the boundaries between insects and humans, friend and foe, domestic pest control in peacetime, and enemy annihilation in wartime. For instance, the development of chlorinated gases during WW1 demonstrated the insecticidal properties of certain organochloride compounds. After the conflict, the chemical industry, profiting greatly from war, promoted the conversion of its offensive poison gas arsenal to pesticide application. The same planes, which had spread poison gas over enemy lines, were used to spread herbicides, strengthening the alliance between the military and the budding post-war mechanization of agri-business. After WW2, Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as the chlorinated aromatic hydrocarbon DDT, emerged from the technical imaginary of modern warfare, while warfare legacies like nerve gases emerged from agricultural processes to protect crops from pests. Paralyzing gases, such as Sarin, demonstrated a similar effect on humans as on insects. After WW2, retired bomber pilots would indiscriminately shower the countryside with millions of tons of poisonous pesticides. Chemical warfare was successively waged as much on the battleground as on food crops, fuelling a reciprocated sociotechnical imaginary involving both the sanitization of food and the synthetization of war. The blurring of boundaries between war and peace was most apparent during the Cold War, when defoliants like Agent Orange, developed from agricultural herbicides, were sprayed on Communist enemies in South East Asia. In this case, the mutagenic effects on human populations persisted for decades later. 

The co-production of techniques of agricultural and military control blurred the boundaries between insects and humans, friend and foe, domestic pest control in peacetime, and enemy annihilation in wartime.

A remnant WW2 bomb, which randomly exploded in Germany’s countryside in 2019, symbolizes the indistinction between techniques of military destruction and techniques of industrial agricultural production, both predicated on eradication campaigns. Just as mass warfare indiscriminately kills soldiers and civilians alike, modern farming methods contribute to indiscriminate bombing of not only pests, but fragile and diverse ecosystems. Nitrogen fertilizers increase agricultural yields, yet accentuate global warming and pollute water-tables, rivers and estuaries with excessive nitrates. Whereas 3% of the human population perished in WW2, a recent study shows that over 40% of insect population have gone extinct through the intensive use of pesticides developed by the same war machines. Here, the warplane and aerial pesticide-spraying aircraft emblematically collide and violently explode in a dustbowl of ecological disaster.

At the risk of taking a shortcut, could military explosives have been detonated by the long-term effects of industrial chemicals? While the explosive devices used in war have an almost-guaranteed immediate effect upon impact, fertilizers and pesticides have gradually contaminated and decimated the biological diversity of landscapes over the span of a century. What is truly remarkable is that the incessant application of chemical fertilizers may well have been the powder keg responsible for the recent ignition of the rusty WW2 bomb in the German countryside. Recent reports suggest, idle undetonated bombs are triggered by heatwaves, which are in turn exacerbated by climate change, in large part due to industrial agriculture. Climate disruption and the recurrence of seasonal heatwaves have been amplified as a result of the compound effect of methane emissions from agriculture and of the heavy use of nitrogen-based fertilizers releasing nitrous oxide emissions. In turn, climate shocks like drought and heat waves exert enormous pressure on surface and ground-water levels. The entanglement of buried bombs and climate change intersects across the European countryside, illustrating feedback loops between war, industrial agriculture, climate change, and food insecurity. 

Military and climate disruptions mirror each other in what seems to be an endless feedback loop of fire and fury.

When buried bombs of the past detonate inside the boundaries of our present era, they parallel public concerns with the current ecological crisis. Increasingly frequent heatwaves and changing weather patterns are harming crop yields and raising concerns around animal welfare, indicating that climate shocks, such as drought threaten food production. European firefighters are now fighting a strange war on two fronts: a climate war with a firehose against wildfires and a war against explosive remnants of WW2, using battle tanks to shield themselves from the blaze. 

Analysts have recently drawn comparisons between WW2 and the climate crisis, claiming ‘global warming has heated the oceans by the equivalent of one atomic bomb explosion per second for the past 150 years.’ Further analogies between modern warfare and the climate crisis can be drawn from the emergency drop by a Swedish Air Force fighter jet of a 500-pound precision laser-guided bomb near a fire approaching a military firing range. Donald Trump made the uncanny quip recently of dropping nukes to stop increasingly killer hurricanes. Such extreme examples show how the perpetuation of war and climate change are undeniably linked. Since its carbon bootprint contributes to the greenhouse effect, the military fuels the very fire it attempts to extinguish, one bomb at a time. What the news headlines from Europe confirm is that military and climate disruptions mirror each other in what seems to be an endless feedback loop of fire and fury.

Fumigating the future

Warheads of a bomb. Photo via Archive.org

On the other side of Germany, in a strange coincidence, another event was taking place around the time of the WW2 bomb detonation in relating the past and future to the present state of environmental degradation. A surprise attack and partial occupation of a coal mine was organized by the environmentalist group End of the line in the Rhineland region. The occupation of the mine was motivated by its disapproval with the utility company RWE and their plan to cut down an old growth forest to make way for the enlargement of the mine. Such plans for expansion, protestors claim, would turn the Rhine district into one of the largest CO2 emitters in Europe. 

This time, the strategic site was not occupied by the Allied armies against the abrupt violence unleashed by a world conflict, but by peaceful climate activists protesting against the slow violence of mining expansions. By sundown, the police launched teargas to dislodge the activists out of the coal mine. Police literally fumigated the climate protesters in the same way farmers fumigate insects.

The strange, or maybe timely coincidence, of both events on German soil: the detonation of a WW2 bomb, and the surprise occupation of a coal mining crater by an army of green activists, highlights the overlapping toxic legacies of successive historical periods. While the first reveals how old war contamination may unpredictably creep out of the past, the second anticipates a massive climate shock looming in the future. 

In the same way that the legacy of WW2 bombing occasionally haunts the present, we are still haunted by one of the oldest and dirtiest resources of capitalism’s historical trajectory: coal. Why is that so? The history of energy usage is not one of transitions, but rather of successive additions of new sources of primary energy. Indeed, world energy markets never fully transitioned from coal to petroleum; similarly, it is highly improbable that a transition will entirely take place from petroleum to renewable energy. 

Police literally fumigated the climate protesters in the same way farmers fumigate insects.

Fossil fuel extraction and pollution is the legacy of the past taking effect in the present and locking-in possibilities for future decades to come. The Earth’s atmosphere is already damaged by the 1,500 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted by the coal economy. In a similar way in which war remnants caused by a 20th Century conflict impacts the lives of 21st Century farmers, 18th Century models of energy production are still operational in the 21st Century, with all their damaging effects across time and space. The hard divisions in the destruction of life between past and present and an always improving future is merely an illusion from this view. 

Tragedy or farce?

Pierre Mignard’s Time Clipping Cupids Wings (1694). Photo via Wikimedia Commons

To summarize, the ignition of bombs and the expansion of mines suddenly converged in the past months to illustrate a legacy of slow accumulative violence, transcending space and time in the German countryside. What does such an entanglement reveal about our era? The contemporary moment of social and environmental emergency synchronizes weapons of mass destruction with weapons of mass production. The synchronization of warfare and welfare has provoked, on the one hand, the destruction of geographic space, resulting in the displacement and contamination of human communities and natural habitat. On the other hand, their synchronization has meant the compression of time available for the Earth to regenerate from exploitation.

Bombs of the past haunt our present, while bombs of the present inevitably preordain our future. The real catastrophe, as German philosopher Walter Benjamin claimed, is not some isolated apocalyptic event but rather the perpetuation of the continuous flow of the logic of capital and its wake of destruction across time and space. The accidental detonation of a WW2 bomb interrupted only the routine of a farmer, whereas a perpetual fossil-fueled war predicated on capital accumulation is waged daily against the regenerative capacities of the Earth, threatening a sixth mass extinction.

The contemporary moment of social and environmental emergency synchronizes weapons of mass destruction with weapons of mass production.

Hegel claimed that history is cyclical and repeats itself. Marx added that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. As reflected in this piece we may add, in a strange succession of events, history is compressing time and eroding space, by accelerating the rate at which farce and tragedy repeat themselves simultaneously. The tragedy lies in the annulment of future life potentials by military planes and mining cranes; the farce is the destruction by the military and industry of the material conditions of their own reproduction. The tragedy is also in the fumigation of farms by industrial agriculture, while the farce is a regressive state-sanctioned police force fumigating activists who attempt to protect the very conditions for the maintenance of life on Earth.

Tina Beigi is an environmental engineer who is currently pursuing a PhD in Ecological Economics at McGill university. 

Michael Picard is a research fellow at the Institute for Global Law & Policy of the Harvard Law School and teaches International Law at Sherbrooke University.

The authors would like to thank Vijay Kolinjivadi and Elliot Blomqvist for their precious editorial feedback on preliminary drafts. The usual caveat applies.


August readings

People take part in a memorial for the victims of a shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, Aug. 14, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Jose Luis Gonzales

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

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

This month, we once again feature a debate on eco-fascism—in the limelight once again after the contents of the El Paso shooter’s manifesto were released. From The Guardian to the GQ, many authors sought to explain the phenomenon of white nationalist environmentalism. On the other hand, authors like Jesse Goldstein and Max Ajl called attention to the danger of eco-fascism under the guise of high-tech eco-modernism.

With the panic around the Amazon forest fires, we of course are also featuring some responses and news around it. Many readers may be unaware that their own governments are, despite international outcry, finalizing free trade agreements with Bolsonaro’s Brazilian government as we speak. We also encourage you to look through our past newsletters for more news and analysis on Brazil—we’ve been actively trying to feature the issue since Bolsonaro’s election. 

The good news is that there are some inspiring uprisings around the world. In Mexico, the Zapatistas have announced new rebel municipalities. In Puerto Rico, citizens’ assemblies are gathering to address their economic and political crisis. In Sápmi/Sweden, land defenders are setting up blockades against mining. In Indonesia, women and forest people are fighting together to resist land grabbing. And the Black Socialists of America have put together a map of autonomous spaces and initiatives in the United States.

As usual, we also feature articles on new politics around the world and radical municipalism, though news about degrowth was largely absent this August—because the whole movement is on holiday? 

 

Uneven Earth updates

Why a hipster, vegan, green start-up service economy lifestyle cannot be sustainable  | Essay

Report card on Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal  | Analysis

Micro effect | Not afraid of the ruins

A toy keyboard for a Coca-Cola bottle of gas: Amadeus’ story  | Not afraid of the ruins

The founding of New Crockett, Texas  | Not afraid of the ruins

In the land of the rising sun, climate efforts are falling behind | Report-back



Top 5 articles to read

Progress and its discontents A reasoned argument against Steven Pinker’s progress narrative. 

Potosí: the mountain of silver that was the first global city 

Fight for the Future On Mauna Kea hundreds are holding a refuge and defending land from the proponents of false progress.

The Misogyny of Climate Deniers

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally? An essay by Brian Tokar on contemporary strategies for local-based action and the political theory behind it, with responses by Helena Norberg-Hodge, Jackie Smith, Aaron Vansintjan, David Barkin, David Bollier, Arturo Escobar, Richard Heinberg, and others. 



News you might’ve missed

Mexico: EZLN Announces Creation of New Rebel Municipalities. And their statement.

Fracking Boom in U.S. and Canada Largely to Blame for Global Methane Spike, Study Finds

The struggle in Kallak/Gállok In Jokkmokk municipality in Sápmi/Sweden, land defenders protecting Indigenous land and old-growth forest set up a blockade camp to try to stop Beowulf Mining from prospecting for iron ore.

Enemies of the State? How governments and businesses silence land and environmental defenders, a new report by Global Witness. And Environmental Defenders—Often Fighting Agribusiness—Are Being Violently Silenced Around the World.

Climate crisis reducing land’s ability to sustain humanity, says IPCC

Indonesia will build its new capital city in Borneo as Jakarta sinks into the Java Sea

Farmers groan as Chinese firm grabs land in northern Nigeria

How the Women of Indonesia Rose up Against Land Grabbing



Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Thoughts from a political ecologist on the Amazon fires

Brazil’s indigenous Waiapi tribe guards the Amazon

Leaked documents show Brazil’s Bolsonaro has grave plans for Amazon rainforest

Current negotiations for Free Trade Agreements between Brazil and the West are highlighting the hypocrisy of Western nations in denouncing the wildfires in the Amazon.
EU piles pressure on Brazil over Amazon fires

Brazilian free trade deal ignites fury

Slovakia may block the EU-Mercosur deal over Amazon fires

Canada will continue trade negotiations with Mercosur, despite the current Amazon policy of Brazil



Eco-fascism(s)

In response to the eco-fascist manifesto of the El Paso, Texas shooter, there has been renewed attention to the phenomenon of eco-fascism. We compiled many of the analyses here, thanks to Peter Staudenmaier for the links.

‘Bees, not refugees’: the environmentalist roots of anti-immigrant bigotry

Eco-fascism: justifications of terrorist violence in the Christchurch mosque shooting and the El Paso shooting

What Is Eco-Fascism, the Ideology Behind Attacks in El Paso and Christchurch?

The El Paso Manifesto: Where Racism and Eco-Facism Meet

How Climate Change Is Becoming a Deadly Part of White Nationalism

White nationalism’s solution to climate change: fewer brown people

White nationalists’ extreme solution to the coming environmental apocalypse, by Alexandra Minna Stern, author of Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right Is Warping the American Imagination (Beacon 2019). 

Don’t Let the Far-Right Co-Opt the Environmental Struggle

The Eco-Fascism of the El Paso Shooter Haunts the Techno-Optimism of the Left

Eco-Fascisms and Eco-Socialisms by Max Ajl, whose “report card” on Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal was published in Uneven Earth this month.

And this older article by Kate Aronoff is still relevant: The European Far Right’s Environmental Turn



Where we’re at: analysis

Marx’s notebooks and the origins of Marxist ecology

Why Has the (Western) Notion of Progress Been Sanitized of Slavery, Colonization, and Exploitation? Or, How Do You Grieve For a Holocaust That Never Happened?

The Anthropocene Is a Joke: On geological timescales, human civilization is an event, not an epoch

Appropriating the Alien: A Critique of Xenofeminism



Just think about it…

Direct CO2 capture machines could use ‘a quarter of global energy’ in 2100

The machine always wins: what drives our addiction to social media

Nuclear power somehow always makes a loss

Unsavoury science behind lab-grown meat

The colonial origins of extractivism in Africa

After the wildfire: treating the mental health crisis triggered by climate change and this other piece on Greenlanders’ crisis of mental health: Life on thin ice: mental health at the heart of the climate crisis

Renewable energy and the power grid: the key is changing when we use energy

Why farming needs a regional planning approach



New politics

Cooperatives see revival amid growing demand for economic democracy

How the Women of Standing Rock Are Building Sovereign Economies

A Charter for the Social Solidarity Economy



Radical municipalism

Puerto Rico: The Shift from Mass Protests to People’s Assemblies. In the wake of the massive demonstrations that forced the resignation of Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rossello, dozens of people’s assemblies have sprouted across the island to discuss the critical next stage in the struggle for popular democracy.

Socialize the Grid. Energy companies are more concerned with raking in profits than delivering affordable, sustainable energy. We need to wrest control away from them — and socialize the electrical grid.

Montreal’s bottom-up social democracy

Report: high speed rail could help provide affordable housing

Inclusive cities start with safe streets

‘Capital City’ on How Planning Follows Real Estate

An Alternative History of the ‘Radical’ Suburbs

In Medias Res: Local Socialism and Civil Society

Urban flooding is a manmade disaster from top to bottom

‘Bizarre and Wonderful: Murray Bookchin, Eco-Anarchist’



Resources

African Philosophy & the Enlightenment Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob came up with philosophy that prefigured Enlightenment thinkers Hume, Descartes, Locke, Kant, and the US Founding Fathers

If You Hate Capitalism You Will Love This Map A feature in Vice Magazine of a map put together by Black Socialists of America of cooperative economy and autonomous democratic initiatives

Abolition in Canada Syllabus

Highway to Hell: a reading list for our time of climate crisis

Was Sweden Headed Toward Socialism in the 1970s? On the messy making of what is often seen as a Social Democratic utopia: from the post-war boom to the pressure from radical social movements in the 1960s and -70s.



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

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

Why a hipster, vegan, green start-up service economy lifestyle cannot be sustainable

Photo by Cinzia Orsina

by Vijay Kolinjivadi and Daniel Horen Greenford

This piece is a long-form version of a piece that originally appeared on Aljazeera and can be found here.

On the borderlands of Montreal’s well-to-do Outremont district and the ultra-hipsterized Mile End district lies an expanse of land near the Canadian-Pacific Railroad line. This space separates these two districts from Parc-Extension (Parc-Ex for short). One of Canada’s poorest and most densely populated neighbourhoods, Parc-Ex is a port of call for many newly arrived immigrants. This is a place where affordable housing is increasingly hard to come by, and where eviction rates are on the rise. Walking along Avenue du Parc and its adjacent streets, one begins by passing vegan chain restaurants, hip vintage clothing joints, and coffee shops jostling for space among long-time Greek and Hasidic Jewish community establishments, before eventually arriving at Parc-Ex, with its small immigrant-owned grocery stores, halal boucheries, and community centres of a very different kind of neighbourhood. 

It is here, on the periphery of these stark socio-economic separations, that the University of Montréal plans to construct its science campus MIL, with an emphatic commitment to ‘sustainable development’.

Sustainability for the new MIL campus means constructing LEED certified buildings to reduce environmental impact, establishing rainwater collection infrastructure, energy-efficient lighting and heat recycling, prioritizing electric vehicles and bikes, the planting of trees—all part of broader efforts to achieve carbon neutrality. This ethos of eco-efficiency is also shared by the new campus’ neighbours—tech firms, a Microsoft headquarters, and AI research laboratories loosely affiliated with the university. Fusing technological innovation with eco-efficiency, the MIL campus epitomizes the spirit of eco-modernism.

Underlying the emerald green image of this new campus development is the assumption that capital and economic growth will naturally follow suit. This means ‘revitalizing’ neighbourhoods with student housing, condominiums, hip bars with micro-brews and vegan nibbles, soy and almond milk latte bars designed for socioeconomically advantaged students and professors to enjoy. Green is gold within this logic, creating countless opportunities for advocates of Parc-Ex’s revitalization to pursue profit without the guilt.

But this modern ‘green’ vision of economic growth, hipness, and eco-conscious diets is far from regenerative. On the contrary, its success depends on creative destruction. This is what capitalism does best, and such destruction is anything but green. In what follows, we aim to highlight the dangers of a political-economic system that continues to profit under the veil of a greener, more efficient capitalism, all while reinforcing inequality and still harming the environment. In this way, projects like the revitalization of Parc-Ex are a continuation of Canada’s deeply colonial tradition of dispossessing First Nations of their ways of life and networks of community in favour of whatever the market dictates, however ‘green’ the market may be.

Graffiti at the Campus MIL construction site. Photo by Vijay Kolinjivadi

The myth of ‘green growth’ and the dematerialized service economy

The MIL campus at Parc-Ex is just one piece of the global story behind capitalism’s ‘greening.’ To understand how they connect, we need to retrace our steps back to 1992. Against the backdrop of Soviet Union’s recent fall, the UN Earth Summit that year opened up a new global frontier for unrestrained capital. Under the auspices of the term ‘sustainable development’ introduced at the summit, capitalism was able to tap into a panoply of ‘social’ and ‘green’ values and use them for its own ends. In the years that followed, governments, businesses and techno-optimists teamed up with would-be environmentalists to envision a greener world that nevertheless kept efficiency at the core of its growth-oriented mandate. Environmentalism became neutralized as a technical-managerial concern for an elite cadre of policy experts, economists, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, for whom new markets and techno-fixes would repeatedly affirm the exceptionalism of modern humanity. Soon enough, environmentalism was all but depoliticized for the purposes of expanding profit under a green economy.

This depoliticization of environmentalism is what drives today’s unquestioning acceptance of the idea of dematerializing ‘green’ economic growth through more efficient lifestyles, technologies, and service-based economies. While efficiency improvements in and of themselves are certainly to be applauded, they cannot be viewed in isolation from the economic and political structures of capital expansion from which they emerge.

For those unfamiliar with the technical details of the debate, green growth is predicated on ‘decoupling’, that is, our ability to disengage or detach economic growth from environmental impact, through things like dematerializing production or employing people in ‘cleaner’ industries (which we’ll soon explore in greater detail). Many who have scrutinized green growth closely have concluded that the potential for decoupling by making improvements in technology—how we produce, and recycle and dispose of waste from our economy—is highly limited. While relative improvements have been made and more are attainable still, there are hard physical limits to the extent to which our economy can be dematerialized. Far from being the panacea that would allow unabated ‘sustainable growth’ as many green capitalists so desperately cling to, decoupling is one more siren song advanced industrial economies need to resist if they’re to avoid collapse.

Under capitalism and its relentless pursuit of growth, environmental considerations are inevitably reduced to the question of maintaining efficiency, while still expanding productive and consumptive throughput. In turn, people concerned with minimizing their ecological footprint are led to believe that they only have one course of action: improving their own efficiency in their everyday lives by, for example, eating less meat, driving electric vehicles and biking to work. While all these choices are constructive, focusing our efforts for systemic change through atomized personal consumption choices undermines the transition. Indeed, what green capitalism doesn’t want you to realize is that collective action is more than a collection of individualized actions.

But is the service economy really any cleaner and greener? The creative class and the knowledge economy are sustained by the material basis of agriculture, housing, construction, manufacturing, and other sectors.

Depoliticized environmentalism is rife in the fabulously hipsterized startup enclaves emerging in cities around the world, especially in the Global North. Far from achieving ‘green’ efficiency, the jobs that fuel these high-tech start-ups, together with other professions of the creative class (artists, musicians, academics, graphic designers, among others), all rely on a high degree of resource demands whose impacts span the world over. Those who argue that growth can be accompanied by a dematerializing economy typically hold the assumption that these knowledge and creative classes of the service economy have somehow lower environmental impacts than those engaged in agriculture or manufacturing (so called ‘dirty’ jobs). But is the service economy really any cleaner and greener? The creative class and the knowledge economy are sustained by the material basis of agriculture, housing, construction, manufacturing, and other sectors. The technology that enables the knowledge economy is also far from immaterial. At the current rate of growth, internet-connected devices could consume one-fifth of global electricity demand in just 6 years from now. 

While the on-site impact of an office is comparatively low to a factory or field, the cars, gadgets and food being produced in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors are mostly consumed by those employed in services. A forthcoming study by Horen Greenford, student of Prof. Damon Matthews at Concordia University in Montreal, and colleague Tim Crownshaw at McGill, uses economic input–output modeling to reveal the impacts associated with the consumption of those employed in services. By treating household consumption by employees as an extension of the industries that employ people, in much the same way we might analyse the environmental consequences of car production by factoring in the steel used to build them, the far-reaching impact of the service economy becomes clear. When we observe the economy through this holistic lens, the service sector’s impact doubles in greenhouse gas emissions, triples in land use, and quadruples in water consumption, emerging as the primary driver of these three major environmental impacts. When measured in environmental impact per unit production (impact per dollar or euro), the service sector is no ‘cleaner’ than agriculture, manufacturing, or any other sector. Instead, all sectors approach similar levels of environmental impact per unit production when we take the household consumption of those employed in these sectors into consideration.

This isn’t to say people shouldn’t be employed in services, but that we must acknowledge the role of income and affluence as the main human driver of environmental degradation. To put it simply: Employing people means paying wages. The higher the wages, the higher the consumption. Since people consume roughly the same per unit income, high wage jobs with low on-site impact still contribute to resource depletion and pollution just as much as those ‘dirtier’ industries. It’s just a matter of whether you see the impact or whether you distance yourself from it. This forthcoming study hopes to dispel the illusion that there are cleaner, greener jobs found in things like high tech services. And it’s not the only one attempting to do so. An earlier study has also shown that there is no historical evidence that service-based economies are capable of decoupling from material throughput or environmental impact. The key takeaway here? If we continue to grow the service sector without reducing how much we collectively produce and consume, increasing the number of these high wage jobs can only lead to increased demand for material goods and services, in turn increasing their attendant environmental impacts.

Instead of decoupling, growth-oriented efficiency improvements are more likely to present us with textbook examples of the rebound effect. First described by economist Stanley Jevons in the 19th Century, rebound effects occur when improvements in efficiency lower prices, leading to an increase in demand that outpaces these gains in efficiency. In growth-oriented societies, the resources and energy we save through efficiency improvements are inevitably ploughed back into further growth. In other words, as airplanes, cars, and electronic devices become eco-efficient, demand for them increases, ultimately leading to greater consumption of energy and resources—a capitalist’s dream! The more we save, the more we can re-insert into new circuits of production. The more efficient we are, the cheaper consumption gets, and so the more we consume. The environment will always be at the losing end of this logic.

In spite of evidence that the dematerialized service economy is little more than an alluring myth, why do so many remain enthusiastic about eco-modernist visions of innovative green cities? Well, not only do our service economies fundamentally depend on the existence of manufacturing and intensive agriculture economies, but typically those that exist on the other side of the planet. The further away that almond milk production is from a central London coffee shop, the less guilty we feel—out of sight, out of mind. This is not only the case with the resource use of service economies, but also the waste they produce.  Exports of e-waste currently represent the fastest growing solid waste stream. As Giorgos Kallis argues: ‘Energy use in the US is not increasing, not because a peak is being reached due to technological efficiency and dematerialization, but because the US economy imports its garments from China and has its servers in Norway.’

Thus, while the service economy may appear to be materially light compared to manufacturing and agriculture, its reliance on these other sectors for its own existence (made easier to ignore by being pushed further away from where final consumption takes place) invalidates the claims that we can decouple our economy from environmental impacts via a shift to services. We also see that any actual efficiency improvements in the service economy are quickly swallowed up by shifting costs of increasing demand to other countries where labour and resources are cheaper to exploit. We need to get out of the habit of looking at only a small part of the whole system, often by remaining captivated by notions of national borders, for which we clearly know that neither resources, energy nor capital flows abide by. 

Once again, Kallis reminds us that we should not confuse declines in environmental impact per unit of production in a growing economy with absolute and per capita resource and energy demand increases over time. As Kris De Decker of Low-Tech Magazine informs us, global resource and energy use keeps increasing annually, growing at an average rate of 3% a year—more than double the rate of population growth. It is therefore crucial to recognize that being so far removed from actual production and consumption patterns around the world does not exonerate our service economies, meaning that their claims to embody ‘green’ principles are only very partially accurate if at all. Once we start paying attention to these tactics, we begin to see them in other places. Much like the dematerialized ‘green’ service economy, the purported eco-efficiency of veganism also deserves our scrutiny.

The dangerous allure of industrial veganism

Photo by Vijay Kolinjivadi

The rise of veganism in the last decade has been mind-boggling. From what began as a subversive and anti-establishment form of defying the global food industry and its horrific treatment of non-human animals, veganism has transformed into a cash cow. Mainstreaming veganism is ostensibly a ‘win-win-win’ situation, or so we’d like to believe—it’s good for your health, for the planet, and for animals too. Veganism, like innovations for urban eco-efficiency, is in itself a positive thing. But when we consider veganism from the perspective of rebound effects, things become a little more complicated. 

Oxford researcher Dr. Marco Springmann explored the potential benefits of the world going vegan. In a scenario where a tax on the consumption of animal products leads to them being phased out entirely by the year 2050, Springmann projected that economic benefits for the global economy would amount to US$1.6 trillion, comprised of savings in healthcare costs and, in cutting greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds, savings won by avoiding the disastrous effects of the global climate crisis.  But what happens to this US$1.6 trillion next? Under capitalism, such a surplus in savings would never simply be left idle, but reinvested into further growth elsewhere. Here, the rebound effect rears its head once again.

If we understand growth from the perspective of thermodynamics, we see that it will always require resource inputs and always produce waste. Regardless of how much more efficient food consumption can become if we stopped consuming animal products the world over, the reinvestment of overall cost-efficiencies into more growth of one sort or another will ultimately drive more resource inputs, in turn leading to more waste. In other words, increases in scale eventually negate and then outpace efficiency improvements. 

The same logic applies to organic agriculture. If overall health and environmental cost-efficiencies are internalized into economic growth forecasts, the surplus will most likely be invested into further growth, unless targeted efforts are made by national governments to deflect savings to pay down national debts or redistribute savings to enhance the well-being of the most marginalized in society. However, within a global capitalist economy, this would put the country at a competitive disadvantage—something it would likely attempt to compensate for at the expense of marginalized communities or the environment. Growth for the sake of growth is a zero-sum game; it negates every effort we collectively make to satisfy more with less. As Jason Hickel writes, ‘we might shift the economy to services such as education and yoga, but even universities and workout studios require material inputs.’ 

Unfortunately, the degree of material and energy reductions needed to respond to the climate crisis means that while veganism is important, it is simply not sufficient if it remains an avenue to continuously expand profit. A world of industrial vegan agriculture would be devastating both to the world’s biodiversity in its reliance on monoculture fruit and vegetable crops, but also in its failure to provide a dignified existence for its workers and its detrimental effects on the basic support system that the web of life depends upon. The cashew milk and dairy-free cheese one might find in their local ‘cruelty-free’ bakeries come at the expense of the cheap labour of women employed in southern India, enduring poor working conditions and painful injuries from the acids released in endlessly shelling cashews

Industrial veganism revolves around personal choice, personal gains, and convenience above all else. This reinforces the very same apolitical individualism that atomizes us and erodes our drive to engage politically with our world.

If this is the case, then why does industrial veganism retain its enduring appeal? Growth-oriented capitalism will tempt you by selling veganism as something that aligns with your values, your health, your conscience, and your lifestyle, as Cowspiracy co-director Kip Anderson suggests:

People feel empowered, it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. That’s a huge shift. Whereas before, veganism may have been viewed like you were giving up something, now it’s been reframed as what you gain: you gain health, you gain a greater sense of living in bounds with your values, you gain all the environmental benefits.

It is also worth noting that the failure to re-politicize veganism will not only lead to further ecological damage, but also perpetuates cultural-symbolic violence with deeply material effects. Though we might think of veganism as socioculturally and politically neutral, this is far from the case. On the contrary, veganism has a tendency to play into hegemonic logics of who is morally ‘pure’ and who isn’t. For one of the authors of this essay (Vijay Kolinjivadi), being raised vegetarian in an upper-caste Hindu family reveals how the moral policing of eating habits can be weaponized to condone unthinkable violence. Under a current right-wing Hindu fundamentalist government in India, street lynchings and brutal killings are being ‘justified’ by narratives of India as a nation only for ‘cow-loving’ Hindus. Vijay’s lived experience shows that the decision to go meatless is not neutral, but entangled in complex physical and social realities. As such, Western capitalism’s romanticization of elements of Eastern cultures to promote veganism is ultimately misguided. We have already witnessed the damaging effects of such colonial logics in the past. Their reproduction by vegan ‘saviours’ from the Global North is the last thing we need today.

In sum, industrial veganism revolves around personal choice, personal gains, and convenience above all else. This reinforces the very same apolitical individualism that atomizes us and erodes our drive to engage politically with our world. In this way, ethical consumption and the death of the politicized citizen emerge in tandem. The belief that ‘you can’t change the world, but you can change yourself’ is precisely what allowed neoliberalism to run rampant, and corporate capitalism to parasitize the state at the expense of public interests. Today, re-politicizing veganism is of paramount importance, ensuring that we don’t lose sight of the social, ecological and animal rights agendas at the heart of the vegan movement from its inception.

Power asymmetries and production of ‘cool’

A hipster hangout in Montreal. Photo by Vijay Kolinjivadi

Just as the cultural dimension of veganism reveals deeply problematic tendencies, there is perhaps something deeper, more pernicious and fundamentally cultural at the core of attempts to pair eco-efficiency with economic growth. Projects like the MIL campus and the ‘revitalization’ of Parc-Ex exclude working class and racialized communities through aesthetic preferences. It is no coincidence that hipsterized coolness comes with a hefty price tag. Vintage furniture, organic markets, tattoo parlours, or third wave coffee shops all seem relatively benign, but ultimately serve to reinforcing classist divisions in society. As academics living in a ‘hip’ area of a ‘hip’ city like Montreal, we constantly struggle with the ways in which our aesthetic preferences actively shape and are themselves shaped by a particular socioeconomic class. Our efforts to acknowledge our complicity here and thus act responsibly in the face of these classist mechanisms have forced us to pay closer attention to the violent impacts that status symbols have on those not afforded access to them.

On the one hand, coolness just is. It is imbued with all the things that reflect deep relational values of care, affection, creativity, connection, authenticity, and meaning. It should have no racial, gendered, or socioeconomic boundaries and likewise have no impacts on those fronts either. On the other hand, it is also the reproduction of a particular way of being which inevitably and invariably sets in motion new avenues for capital to expand, allowing for everything that has meaning to be hollowed-out and commodified for profit. Just as George Monbiot reminds us that celebrity culture is the ‘smiling face of the corporate machine’, coolness-making is not a culturally benign process. It goes hand-in-hand with historically-entrenched asymmetries of power between those who are (or have been) the forerunners of style and expression and those whose ‘foreignness’ (i.e. not rooted in Anglo-Saxon or broader Eurocentric worldviews) has seen them systematically excluded and isolated. These power asymmetries, with all of their racialized and gendered dimensions, are most obvious in the ways in which capital (i.e. profit-making) tends to most closely align with. 

Progressives who wish to do good but also promote a cultivated ‘cool’ aesthetic must reflect more seriously on the production of coolness and its deeper political consequences. The juxtaposition between Parc-Ex, one of Canada’s most economically impoverished and culturally diverse neighbourhoods, and the University of Montreal’s new MIL campus renders obvious the classist and racialized ways by which the emergence of coolness takes place. The question of who is permitted to participate in the aesthetics of hipness, eco-friendly chic, and health-conscious attitudes is inextricably associated both with class and inherited privilege. More problematic still is the fact that urban hipsters pride themselves on being ‘woke’ about sustainability issues, even as they simultaneously alienate the rural and overseas agricultural, peri-urban, and manufacturing classes, without whom such lifestyles in nominally ‘green’ and ‘dematerializing’ service economies would not be possible. 

Eco-efficiency does not emerge in a vacuum. The city as an organism has tendrils that stretch across every geography and country. This interdependence is an inconvenient detail overlooked by the urban progressive hipster, and one that we must place at the center of our understanding in moving toward more sustainable societies. 

At the MIL Campus construction site. Photo by Vijay Kolinjivadi

While privileged urban populations buy into aesthetics of sustainable ‘cool’, capitalism is literally burning up our planet, and burning through its resources. An aloof, detached, apolitical coolness driven by individualism and aesthetics cannot be the basis on which we fight for our future. While lifestyles appear marginally efficient, they are by and large a fabulous experiment of shifting social and ecological costs to those less privileged, both locally and globally. So how can we move forward from here?

Now is the time to abandon a singular focus on lifestyle choice, and to instead see resistance to externally-conceived and profit-driven developments as a moral and even survivalist imperative. We must work to reestablish community through solidarity economies to replenish those relations severed by growth-centred logic. This can start with simply getting to know your neighbours and generally being reflective and aware of the ways in which everyday actions impact those who live in very different circumstances. 

By rejecting individualistic ‘green’ lifestyles, we also reject their underpinning myth of material and energy decoupling in growth economies. Any gains in technological efficiency must be accompanied by an economy built not on growth, profit and self-interest, but care and responsibility if they are to be effective. This, not hipsterized eco-efficiency, is where we should channel our desires for sustainability—something that so many of us are so dearly committed to, and something that we all urgently need.

Vijay Kolinjivadi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Universite du Quebec en Outaouais (UQO). His research interests pivot around decolonial futures, political ecology, degrowth, and agri-environmental policies. He is based in Montreal, Canada.

Daniel Horen Greenford is a PhD student in Geography, Planning and Environment at Concordia University and the Economics for the Anthropocene program at McGill University. He is active in policy making and politicking in the climate movement. You can find him occasionally on Twitter @horengreenford.


Report card on Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal

Photo: Bradley Graupner

by Max Ajl

I would like to clarify, before tendering my take on Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal, that I am not and have never been a Bernie Bro. But history surprises us. We do not get to decide who moves us, nor where, nor when, nor how. Much like the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie is the unexpected child of the 2008 financial crisis. They are amongst many Euro-American candidates who express, channel, personify, and maybe limit popular unease with contemporary capitalism.

The Sanders campaign, should it win, cannot on its own put in place US social democracy, let alone move towards further horizons. The debacle of SYRIZA, whose election ended in disaster without a mobilized Greek working class, should be evidence enough of this reality. It will take a movement—and no, not a pre-packaged ersatz NGO-confected mass protest that evaporates into the ether after eight hours. A real one.

We who think words like communism are not free-floating signifiers but have fixed meanings—unalienated labor, non-capitalist ownership of the means of production, guaranteed access to a decent and humane life, and heaven forfend, all those things for the whole planet!—are right. But it’s not enough to be right. We have to interact with a political field in flux. People in the US who look towards further horizons need to be aware that we are not organized enough to present a compelling alternative to the tens of millions of people who identify Bernie as the avatar of a feasible socialism, and we need to know that he can reach people we cannot.

He and his campaign are part of what is moving. That does not mean Bernie’s GND, or stance on Palestine, should determine what we think is or is not possible, or that socialism or radicalism should be identified with or more to the point, reduced to the Bernie campaign or the Bernie program. In fact, I think there are a huge number of people who could be brought together around a considerably more radical program.

But it takes a lot of work to distil a political force from an atmosphere thick with anti-systemic feeling. And at the moment, the Bernie GND reflects the strengths and limits of the moment and the movement: what Bernie and Bernie’s advisers think can help craft a winning message for the primary and then general-body electorate, what they think will raise Bernie’s profile amongst the Black and working-class Latino communities which he needs to turn out to win, and what postures they hope won’t set off the alarm bells of the political-evaporation machines of the entire US capitalist class. They also are considering how some messaging might be hammer and chisel on seams within US capital, cleaving manufacturing sectors from the petroleum conglomerates—messaging which may also accommodate the capitalist-forged “way of life” which is actually a way of death for much of the planet.

Remember that a planetary people’s GND is not anti-industrial. It is a call for constrained industrialization and world-wide industrial convergence alongside re-centering agriculture in the South and North alike.

This is help and hindrance. Help, because willingness to compromise is what allows someone like Sanders, who is openly calling for “class warfare,” access to political architecture and media channels and financing not available to the Green Party (which has a fantastic and under-noticed GND of its own). Hindrance, insofar as this country’s poor, who in large measure are barred from voting, might be ready for something far more radical. How to bridge that gap is the work of politics. And some part of that is pointing out where Bernie’s GND needs to be far stronger – and especially more internationalist—and figuring out what kind of force is needed to give such critiques political heft.

And now, without further ado, my report card on Sanders’ GND:

A+ for rejection of geo-engineering and nuclear power. Geo-engineering is a scam, a genocide in the making, an excuse and thimblerig for fossil capital to keep plopping CO2 into the atmosphere. US nuclear awaits its Fukushima (and already had its Hiroshima, which on its own should have barred nuclear development on US soils for all time).

A on a just transition for workers in polluting industries. Politics ought always to aim to disarm and advance at the same time: in this case enfolding a potential enemy into your camp without giving up an inch of the idea that we need a socially and ecologically just transition.

A- on trying to enfold the working-class into a popular ecology movement. Home weatherization, mass jobs, mass transport and vital infrastructure investments are partial steps toward de-commodification of social-economic life and a hybrid Red-Green radical reform.

A- on investments in green jobs in ecological restoration. The apocalyptic assault on the Amazon from the US-supported Bolsonaro junta should remind us that many of the most dazzling and wondrous “natures” are the eons-old work of women and men in Indigenous communities which tended the Americas as a vast lush garden well before the Columbian cataclysm. That took hands-on work, and we need massive ecological restoration in the US to re-seed the country with native plants, to build berms, swales, earthworks, and to reforest—much of which can also supply human food and material for construction. Ecological restoration alongside non-commoditized access to human needs is a non-exploitative path of growth— or degrowth—for the twenty-first century in the wealthy nations.

A- on agriculture. Restorative agriculture is excellent, and this focus is the fruit of the invisible labor of an agriculture movement which has flourished over the last decades. Let’s keep shifting the window of political possibility. The West’s grasslands need to go back to sustainable grazing, which sows CO2 in the soil and creates far healthier land and soil alike. Concentrated animal feedlot operations are ecological and spiritual monstrosities and should be illegal. If we need to eat less red meat, no problem. And if necessary, we can explain why to a US population who would largely prefer a world for its children than 19 tons of barbecued steer every year. We also need more US investment in agro-ecology in state colleges, to eventually replace conventional agronomy. Such research and extension offers a neat place for internationalism: links with sovereign agro-ecology centers in Mexico, Colombia, Cuba, and elsewhere.

A-/B+ on the bite-by-bite elimination of fossil fuels. They should be expropriated without compensation and then decommissioned. Bans on imports and exports are good. But if you are picking a fight, aim for the head.

A- for linking anti-militarism and reduction of the military budget to spending on the GND (With US grade inflation). Although anti-militarism is a popular if not sloppily populist discourse, we need an anti-imperialist discourse – remember, the US judicial coup which ended up with Bolsonaro in power was imperialist but not militarist. Anti-imperialism reminds us that the issue is countries extracting value from one another through ecologically unequal exchange, with the US and the EU at the top. Militarism bodyguards such flows and the uneven development they ensure. But bodyguards come in all shapes and sizes, from sanctions to proxy wars to asymmetric blackouts. I inflated Bernie’s grade because we need to be a bit realistic here: I would not expect Bernie to articulate anti-imperialism. That is the job of a functional left, including its intellectual workers (US left gets a generous D in this regard).

B on what kinds of materials will be used in the new physical investments. Bernie calls for “public research to drastically reduce the cost of energy storage, electric vehicles, and mak[ing] our plastic more sustainable through advanced chemistry.” Instead, anything and everything possible needs to be procured renewably, which means a lot more wood and various sustainable composites for new construction. The more construction is done with bamboo instead of metal and as little plastic as possible, the better off we will be. Let’s save the metal for when we need it, and certainly until recycling procedures are considerably more advanced than they currently are. Plant-based materials also sequester CO2. We need more systems thinking from Bernie, and we need solutions that solve problems simultaneously, combining ecological remediation with solutions that don’t just displace problems from one strand of the web of life to another.

B- on the diluted acceptance of the idea of common-and-differentiated responsibility—the important idea, long-established and enshrined in international law, that poorer nations have less responsibility than richer ones for “risk-related global public goods.” The GND program states that “for over a century [the US] spewed carbon pollution emissions into the atmosphere” and so the US will reduce less-industrialized-countries’ emissions by 36 percent through a Green Climate Fund. This is a clear retreat from the internationalist and anti-colonial vernacular of climate debt which called for explicit reparations payments to the Third World to deal with the harm suffered and foregone cheap developmental pathways (climate debt was endorsed in 2009 by none other than Naomi Klein, now-champion of an even milder GND).

C on industrial-friendly “green” jobs. An excessively large plank of the GND program, maybe even enough to conk the ecological movement into unconsciousness, is state-private industrial renewal. There’s an awful lot of talk, to the tune of trillions, of subsidized car batteries and cars, and not nearly enough about sustainable city-planning to tamp down demand or need for cars. Likewise, calling for us to remain “competitive on all sustainable energy technology” is a nod to growth and accumulation. Here hovers the difficult-to-exorcise specter of green growth, alongside the daemon of green capitalism. While Bernie may indeed be trying to bring the large trade unions, pension funds, and fixed manufacturing capital over, in the process socialism is being re-defined to encompass state-corporate partnerships. That is the worst of the New Deal. No thanks.

I would not expect Bernie to articulate anti-imperialism. That is the job of a functional left.

D- for lack of attention to the sourcing of the inputs for the industrial-tech-heavy GND. This grade was a tough one. It is hard to blame Bernie when such electric sheep run through too many of the waking and sleeping hours of large currents of space-flying Anglo-US socialism. But inputs come from somewhere, whether tribal lands in the US, Western China, the Amazon, or whomever is too weak to insist that dirty water and desecrated land are not a price they wish to pay for the billion baubles which are being surreptitiously and absurdly recoded as socialist cornucopianism.

D- on addressing rather than accommodating consumerism. Extraction is occurring at a scale well beyond capacity for remediation or metabolism of its byproducts and waste. And the cheap cost of the rocks and ores and even cheap products is a function of the racist devaluation of non-US lives, political interventions – yes, that’s imperialism! – to keep their prices relatively low, including lack of cleaner but pricier extraction. It is past time to be frank and tell people that cheap (and designed to break quickly) and chintzy Chinese manufactures have cascading consequences up and down the trophic sphere. Allegedly “Chinese” consumption of soy from the Amazon is equally consumed in the US in the form of the flood of products which soy and meat-consuming Chinese workers make, and from which a very few corporations profit. Everything is connected, and less overall and more sustainable consumption, alongside safe-guarding the land and livelihoods of indigenous people in the Amazon, may be the only way to keep that human-crafted emerald bloom alive and not transmuted into a parched peneplain or scrubby savannah.

Some recommendations

What is to be done? Replace industry with sustainable manufacturing where possible and remember that a planetary people’s GND is not anti-industrial. It is a call for constrained industrialization and world-wide industrial convergence alongside re-centering agriculture in the South and North alike. Rework everything to the human scale.

And who is to do it? I do not necessarily expect Bernie to adopt these reformulated planks. I do expect an autonomous and self-aware people’s movement to take them up on a mass scale and push them upon Bernie or whomever sits in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That would also require a political strategy to build autonomous power and not reduce critical intellectual work to cheerleading for the Bernie campaign, as heartening as his policies may be. Bernie manifestly has a role, given massive popular investment in electoral politics. He can go places many of us cannot. But that does not mean surrendering autonomy of vision or the hard work of politics and strategy which goes along with it. Because when the gale force of capitalist reaction comes, it will be such a movement which can resist the storm winds, and not Bernie himself.

Max Ajl has a PhD in Development Sociology from Cornell University and works on Tunisian national liberation, post-colonial development, and alternative development trajectories. He is on twitter at @ajl_max, and is working on a book about the ecological politics of the Anthropocene.

A toy keyboard for a Coca-Cola bottle of gas: Amadeus’ story

Photo: Fairphone (Modified from original)

by Aaron Vansintjan

The meal was a bowl of thin soup with a piece of chewy brisket floating in it, served on top of mashed potatoes. These were made from a powder, gelatinous, and barely absorbed the soup. A biscuit was being passed around. Deenah broke off a piece. Before she put it in her mouth she looked at it—she immediately knew this was a bad idea. A small worm was wriggling out of the jagged edge. She closed her eyes and tried not to think about it as she chewed. This wasn’t the first time she’d forced herself to do this—there were so many it would be futile to pick them out—but it still revolted her. Best not to look.

When she finished her meal she felt drowsy and wanted to go to sleep, but she knew she couldn’t. Now they would talk, digest the day. For contractees, this was their only moment of calm in a day filled with work. This evening, Amadeus was telling his story.


I wasn’t born on the water. My family, always been on the land. I grew up in Mogadishu, what was left of it. I had two younger brothers—I don’t know where they are now. I spent my childhood picking chipboards. My father and mother ran an e-waste recycling center out of their home. We would drive to landfills and dumps, and we load in as much as the waste collectors had found. Then we drive them back home, spend most of the time taking apart electronics, harvesting what can be re-used. This we’d sell to traders and mercenaries, and they sell us gas.

Mogadishu was slowly dying, like an LED at low battery. It still had a port, but, boats came less and less often. Mostly, they traded for oil, and they’d buy anything useful that we harvested. 

When I was thirteen my father took us to the port. I had found an electronic keyboard, and my father, instead of telling me to take it apart to scavenge the chipboards, let me try to fix it. I got it working after two months. I re-routed the battery pack to our own, and built an adapter to change the voltage. The whole family gathered while I pressed the buttons. One said “Rock ’n’ roll” and a fast beat came on. We all laughed. I then pressed one of the large white keys and a song started playing. When I pressed a different white key, the song changed shape. I opened the back and touched part of the chipboard with a wire. The sounds coming from the keyboard bended and twisted… it was like pulling on a cat’s tail. Everyone laughed.

Photo: Jake Brown (Modified from original)

I knew my parents wanted me to be proud, but they weren’t that impressed. It was just a broken toy keyboard. They had other things on their mind, like how to feed their family. That night I told my parents I wanted to sell the keyboard. So when we got to the port the next day I walked up to the man at the trading shop. He looked at me and said, what’s this?

A keyboard, I said. 

I turned it on and played the song. The man stood there glaring at me. He offered two liters of gas for it. Normally we got one barrel of oil for a month’s worth of work.

Later, when we drove away without the keyboard and a Coca-Cola bottle of gas, everyone was silent. My brothers, they were so young but they knew something happened. My father, he didn’t know what to say.

From then on I started learning to help my mother. Together we worked on the garden plot, and she taught me about the different plants and how much water they needed, how some worked well with others, and some had to be planted far away from each other. She showed me how she used a filter system powered by the wind to desalinate water. I often liked to stay home and cook and garden while my brothers went to pick through waste.

Photo: Fairphone (Modified from original)

When I turned fifteen, a man came to our house. I recognized him from the port, he was the man who bought my keyboard. My parents told us to go play outside. 

Later that evening at dinner, my parents asked me if I wanted to work for that man. I would work on a boat, and the money I made would be sent back home and help raise my brothers. I didn’t know this that time, but I think my parents had a lot of debt to him. They said it would only be two years, after, I could come home. I would see the world, be part of a new free trade empire. Learn languages, help the Company grow. 

I went with the man. I cried when saying goodbye to my brothers and mother, my father drove me to the port. He was holding back tears. When I said goodbye to him, he told me: Amadeus, you’ll see much of the world, but know that we’ll always be here.


There was silence for a moment at the table. Deenah spoke first. 

What then? What happened then?

Well, I never saw my family again. You know what happens. I could tell you stories of my years on one sailing ship, then another, then, finally, this one. Decades of forced work. Cleaning the shit of scavengers and mercenaries. I’ve been a contractee for the Company now, ten years. No more talking tonight. Someone else talk.

This is part of a climate fiction story, From the Craven to the Mains, set 300 years in the future. Read the first piece in the series here.

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

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


Micro effect

Photo: Peter Besser

by Joannes Truyens

This is just wrong, Cariappa thought. The abstract had already tipped him off, but now that he had scrolled through the entire CDC report and compiled a mental list of all the inaccuracies and omissions along the way, he knew the conclusion was wrong. Even the writing was slipshod, superficial, like a homework assignment hastily completed five minutes before it was due. 

Cariappa put down his notepad and let his eyes glaze over while he considered the facts. An outbreak of naegleriasis with multiple clusters, all located in seven states and two former territories of the United States. In the space of a summer month, the outbreak had infected 109 people, with 82 dead so far. The spike in fatalities had alarmed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with agency investigators initially fearful of a novel strain of naegleriasis that could be transmitted between people. This was quickly dismissed by flagellation tests and molecular analyses, and Cariappa got the impression that those results had relaxed the investigation to the point of complacency.

The rest of the report was academic guesswork derived mainly from the geographic distribution of the outbreak. Since most clusters were located in coastal regions with poorly maintained (or a complete lack of) seawalls and surge barriers, CDC investigators had concluded that increased flooding had resulted in more stagnant pools of water and thus a more fertile ground for Naegleria fowleri, the free-living amoeba that causes naegleriasis. The ongoing continental heat wave was also marked as an environmental determinant, as N. fowleri are thermophilic and thrive in warm water sources.

It made sense at a cursory glance, but fell apart with even mild scrutiny. As he reached for his notepad, Cariappa briefly felt like a detective taking a closer look at a murder scene where the police had arrested an obvious patsy and summarily closed the case. He started reading the report a second time.

* * *

I don’t feel wrong, Sunil thought. He was sitting next to his parents in his teacher’s office when he realised they were talking about what was wrong with him. He had never been in this room before so he was counting the ceiling tiles (eleven down, fourteen across), but then his teacher mentioned something that made his dad a little angry. Now he paid attention to what was being said, with words like ‘preoccupied’ and ‘difficult’ coming up. One of the words he didn’t know was ‘autism’. He made a mental note to look it up as soon as he got home.

* * * 

N. fowleri cannot survive in seawater. It was right there on Wikipedia. Cariappa had already reacquainted himself with naegleriasis when news of the outbreak first reached him, but now that the CDC report had compelled him to get up to speed properly, that one simple fact undermined its conclusion more than any other. If an increased abundance of N. fowleri was the cause of the outbreak (and Cariappa believed it had to be), coastal flooding was at the very least not sufficient to explain it. Neither was the heat wave, which had started two months earlier.

Photo: Daniel Sturgess

Timescale discrepancies also complicated the other environmental determinants listed in the report, each of which had been in play since before the turn of the century. Thermal pollution and habitat disturbances that eliminated N. fowleri’s competitors for bacterial food supplies had already resulted in more documented cases of naegleriasis over the last two decades, but plotting that graph still produced a flat line with a steady slope. Under the conditions detailed in the report, the sudden spike in infections caused by the outbreak, which now turned the graph into a hockey stick, should have occurred much sooner or in a broader trend.

Next, Cariappa reviewed the two available appendices, the first of which included several interviews with infected people. They were at least treated as unreliable, given that naegleriasis tends to leave its victims in a state of confusion. This had led Cariappa down the roadmap of the infection’s pathogenesis, which affects the central nervous system. When water containing N. fowleri is inhaled through the nose, the amoebae are passed to the olfactory bulbs of the forebrain. Once there, they multiply by feeding on neurons and glial cells in lieu of bacteria, causing rapid neurodegeneration and death within two weeks. It was no surprise that N. fowleri was commonly known as ‘the brain-eating amoeba.’

The second appendix was a set of water microbiology analyses conducted at three of the cluster sites and then conveniently extrapolated to the other six. Besides a high abundance of N. fowleri and multiple bacterial concentrations, the results also confirmed that the samples came from freshwater instead of seawater sources. When he noticed that, Cariappa had to stand up and do anything else.

* * * 

The writers consulted with noted medical experts to develop an accurate perception of a pandemic event. Sunil was checking out the Wikipedia page for Contagion, which he had just seen for the eighteenth time since it was released on DVD. That fact stood out to him and he wanted to know who these experts were. The idea that there were people who professionally occupied themselves with charting the spread of diseases fascinated him. After having seen so many doctors, Sunil had thought about becoming one himself, but now he wanted to be an epidemiologist more than anything.

* * * 

352 million dollars. That was the CDC’s current annual budget, brought down from twelve billion since 2015. Cariappa had been aware of the agency’s decline over the years, mostly due to successive Republican administrations inflicting a chronic amount of deficit. He would occasionally commiserate with CDC officials and investigators on their stringent working conditions, which was the only reason the outbreak report had reached him in the first place. One of his CDC contacts had sent it to him attached to a mail that showed no subject line or body text.

Subsequent correspondence revealed that budgetary constraints had not been the only challenges plaguing the investigation. One of the cluster sites had to be written off because it was located in the Montana territory of a militarised secessionist cult, which abhorred all government interference and, according to surveillance findings, saw the naegleriasis infections as ‘“divine discipline.’” Media coverage of the outbreak was limited to a few local reports that only deemed it newsworthy because ‘brain-eating amoeba’ made for a juicy sound bite.

That made Cariappa think of a general correlation he had repeatedly written about. More funds and resources were allocated for visible, disaster-level consequences of anthropogenic climate change (like hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and mass displacements) because they still dominated headlines. The micro effects all but disappeared in the clutter, especially those related to diseases and infections. Even inside that particular box, tabloid stories about permafrost viruses and potential pandemics claimed all the attention, so an outbreak that killed less than a hundred people was lucky to be investigated at all.

Photo: Raza Ali

It was a familiar struggle for Cariappa, whose work at the Public Health Agency of Canada was mainly focused on the application of climate change studies to disease outbreak models and simulations. When his thoughts dwelled on that, he suddenly remembered a series of studies going back as far as 2018, which had demonstrated that bacteria cause stronger infections when they incubate at higher temperatures. He had no idea why his train of thought had brought him there until the report’s second appendix started tugging at him.

* * * 

30,363 Canadian dollars. If Sunil was going to enroll at McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine, that’s what his first year would cost. The irony of having to graduate as a Doctor of Medicine before he could tackle a course in Epidemiology was not lost on him. With his parents unable (and maybe even a bit reluctant) to put up that kind of money, Sunil had no other option than to qualify for an entrance scholarship. He was eligible for several ‘visible minority’ allowances, all of which required personal essays and in-person interviews. Only the latter frightened him.

* * * 

Pasteuria ramosa. It had to be the answer. Two of the three available water microbiology analyses noted a higher-than-average presence of the bacterium P. ramosa. The CDC investigators had ignored this anomaly because N. fowleri feeds on many different bacteria, and a slight predominance of one species was not nearly enough to explain the increased abundance of the amoeba. 

Cariappa too had dismissed this anomaly until he remembered that one of the studies on bacterial infections at higher temperatures had been conducted with P. ramosa and its preferred host organism: the water flea. After digging up and reviewing this study, a potential chain of events dawned on Cariappa and he started pacing around the room to let it settle. 

Water fleas are ubiquitous in freshwater habitats. P. ramosa, which is an obligate pathogen that needs a host to survive, infects water fleas by propagating inside their bodies and releasing endospores for further infections. At higher temperatures, bacteria cause stronger infections and reproduce through spores faster. This would imply that water fleas infected with P. ramosa could be serving as a novel food source for N. fowleri in a way that would not show up in a microbiology analysis. Since N. fowleri feeds on bacteria in the trophozoite stage, which is a stage in its life cycle where it can cause naegleriasis in humans, it would explain the spike in infectivity.

Cariappa went over it a few more times and laughed at the idea that this scenario was contingent on the heat wave after all, only now as a vector for bacteria rather than thermophilic amoebae. He sat down again, held up his notepad, and started dictating a mail to his CDC contact.

* * * 

Sunil “Gregory House” Cariappa. One news report had referred to him as such because of his astute diagnosis of the naegleriasis outbreak, and the moniker stuck. He should have been bothered by the fact that an American audience still needed to see him through the shorthand lens of something American. Instead he thought it was funny, and not because the show’s lead was played by a British actor. Cariappa used to love House and would consistently look up the diseases mentioned in each episode. That’s when he had first learned of naegleriasis, which featured in the show’s second season. He had always thought it was cool.

Joannes Truyens is a writer with a fondness for near-future hard science fiction. He is currently working on his first independent project after having written for various game studios and online publications. This story was expanded from one small corner of that project and found inspiration in the works of Australian sci-fi writer Greg Egan.

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

The founding of New Crockett, Texas

Photo: Tim Fleck

By Nancy Jane Moore

Evacuating early was the smartest thing she’d ever done, Dora Castillo thought as she stared at the ruins of her apartment. They’d left Pearland two weeks back, twelve hours before Galveston ordered mandatory evacuations and a day and a half before Houston tried to put in place staggered ones. I-45 had been slow as hell when she left, but it hadn’t been close to the twenty-four hour gridlock that happened when everyone else tried to leave at once.

Her friends told her she was crazy. ‘It never gets that bad here,’ one said. That person ended up leaving in a boat. Hurricane Elmer had blown all the other record storms — four new records in the twenty years since Harvey — off the map. Most of Houston and everything between the city and the Gulf had ended up under water.

Coming back wouldn’t make the list of smart things, though of course she’d had to do it, had to see if anything had made it through even though she’d heard floodwaters had risen to the level of second floor apartments. If they’d stayed, they’d have been lucky to get out at all and the truck would have been ruined. She had the truck and the kids and her tools and all the important papers and some clothes and food. No insurance on the apartment — tenant insurance cost too much and didn’t cover flooding anyway. No point in making a claim with FEMA; word was the federal government was tapped out. The state wasn’t even contributing to cleanup.

There was so little money for relief and rebuilding that there wasn’t work for carpenters. Getting some work was the other reason Dora had left her kids with a friend in Plano and come back down. Instead of landing a job, she’d done volunteer work alongside everyone else. The trip hadn’t even yielded enough money to pay her friend for watching the kids. She took one last look at the wrecked building, decided there wasn’t any point in trying to pull anything out of it, and headed north on I-45.

The truck had been another good decision. It had cost an arm and a leg, but the solar panels for charging in spots with no electricity and the locked tool chest under the camper cap had made it worth it. She’d scrimped on other things to pay it off and keep it in good shape.

When she’d called her folks to let them know she was safe, they’d told her to join them in Mexico. But there wasn’t work in Mexico, either. Besides, she wasn’t a Mexican citizen. Her folks had dual citizenship and U.S. Social Security checks; she needed a job.

The traffic this trip wasn’t as bad as it had been the day they’d evacuated. She passed the exit for state highway 19, the back road she’d taken to get out of five-mile-an-hour traffic that day. Traveling that road had led them to the Davy Crockett National Forest. That had been another good decision. It had been late afternoon when her daughter Tensia had spotted a weathered sign for the park that included the word ‘camping’. She’d decided it might be a good idea to stop for the night.

They’d taken one back road and then another before finally coming across a campground just as the sun began to disappear. At the entrance, they saw an old RV, a weatherbeaten sign saying ‘host’ in front of it. Dora’d figured there must be some check-in process, so she’d knocked on the door. A man who looked old enough to be her grandfather — silver hair curling above his dark brown face — had answered. ‘Nah, there’s no check-in these days. Ain’t seen any Forest Service folks in two years. Just pick any open spot you like. Y’all trying to get away from that hurricane?’

She nodded.

‘I ’spect a few more will straggle in over the next day or two. Gonna rain here, prob’ly, but likely not too bad. You should be able to sleep out tonight, you want to. Maybe not tomorrow.’

His name was Frank Jones and he’d been living there about three years. There were a few other long-term folks — the old rules about two-week stay had disappeared with the Forest Service — plus a couple of people living deep in the woods that he almost never saw. ‘Would rather not see, to tell the truth,’ he told her. ‘I’m a peaceable man, but I got my shotgun handy, just in case.’

Photo: Tim Fleck

Dora found a site with a solid picnic table and an intact grill about a hundred feet from the latrines and water faucet. Frank said the water hadn’t killed him yet and the toilets still flushed. She fed the kids peanut butter sandwiches and bedded them down on a soft spot of ground on top of the tarp from the truck. She lay there, staring up at the moon and stars in the gaps between the tops of the pine trees. It took her a long time to go to sleep.

The next day dawned cloudy, but the kids woke as excited as if this was a vacation. They bolted down some cereal and began to explore. By mid-morning they’d found three other kids staying there. Tensia — oldest of the group — was already leading them in exploring the old trails. Dora called out cautions about snakes and poison ivy, though she doubted they listened.

‘The rangers didn’t bother to cut nothing off when they pulled out,’ Frank told her. ‘But the electricity in the latrines and charging stations is kinda wonky and there are some leaks in the roof and in the pipes.’ He nodded toward the truck. ‘You do some of that kind of work?’

That first day she cleaned off some of the solar panels, patched some bad spots on the latrine roof, and put some gaskets in faucets to stop the leaks. Then the rain came, and everyone holed up under anything they could to wait it out. The hurricane had turned east, aiming for eastern Louisiana and maybe back down to New Orleans, so they didn’t get the brunt of it.

Missing the worst of the storm was cause for celebration. A couple of older women who lived in an old pickup camper on the edge of the site were growing vegetables, and they contributed some tomatoes and squash. The old man who was looking after his grandkids disappeared off in the woods and came back with a rabbit and some squirrels ready for the barbecue. Frank fired up a grill. 

Dora spent another day doing some more repairs and making sure her truck had a full charge before she headed on to Plano. Frank had been sorry to see her go. ‘I was kind of hoping you’d decide to settle in here. Nice having more kids around and someone who knows how to fix stuff.’

Dora had laughed and said she was a city girl. 

‘I’ll save you a space, just in case,’ he said. ‘Imagine we’re gonna get a few more refugees up here.’

The kids had cried when she said they were leaving and Tensia sulked all the way to Plano. It had been crowded at her friend’s house — another reason she’d gone back down to Houston to check out the apartment and the work options. She knew she’d have to find someplace else to go as soon as she got back.

But where was she going to go? She’d looked around Plano, but the ’62 depression had crippled the Dallas region worse than the Gulf Coast. Nothing to be had anywhere for a carpenter but odd jobs and cheap repair work. Nobody was building anything new.

Dora drove past the exit for 19, on into Huntsville. A few miles down the road, she saw the exit for another road, one that crossed 19. She’d had a late start and it was almost dark now. She might as well camp out, finish the drive to Plano tomorrow. The kids would be OK one more day. Where was she going to take them, anyway? No home to go back to. No work.

She got off the freeway, meandered around the back roads until she got to the campground and spotted Frank’s camper. Here. She was going to bring them here. She’d build them a tree house in one of the big oaks. They could do school online with their tablets – no one had turned the WiFi off when the Forest Service abandoned the place. She could get odd jobs in Lufkin or Nacogdoches, maybe. They could learn to gather nuts, hunt some game, maybe grow vegetables. 

Not forever, Dora told herself. Just for now.

A native Texan, Nancy Jane Moore grew up in the area flooded in the above story, and now lives in Oakland, California. She is the author of The Weave, and her short fiction has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies as well as in her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies. In addition to writing, Nancy Jane Moore is a fourth degree black belt in Aikido and teaches empowerment self defense.

In the land of the rising sun, climate efforts are falling behind

Sunset over Tokyo. Photo by Arto Marttinen.

by Imogen Malpas

Japan is no stranger to extreme weather events, nor to developing massive infrastructural defenses against them. At the beginning of the millennium, faced with a capital city susceptible to cataclysmic flooding, the Japanese government poured millions of dollars into the creation of Tokyo’s Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel, the largest underground water diversion system in the world. An impressive cathedral-like structure, the channel can divert the equivalent of an Olympic-sized swimming pool into the Edo River every two seconds. It is a masterpiece of civil engineering and a testament to sheer human determination to innovate our way out of any existential threat.

But even with the support of the Channel’s miles of tunnels, Tokyo today—not in some distant climate future, but right now—still faces the prospect of a flood severe enough to require the immediate evacuation of up to 1.78 million people. As climate change pushes Japan’s natural disasters to new extremes, efforts to out-design increasingly lethal weather patterns may be in vain. Rather than attempting to treat the symptoms of climate change, Japan must tackle its root causes.

This was the charge levelled at the Japanese government following the devastating events in the summer of 2018, which saw the country, which generates 83% of its energy from fossil fuels, brought to its knees by climate change-driven extreme weather. Over the month of July, huge swathes of southwestern Japan were inundated with water. Flash flooding and mudslides took the lives of over 200 people. Many regions set rainfall records by enormous margins.

As the rain fell, a heatwave was simultaneously gaining strength, burning through still-flooded prefectures and killing at least 65 people in a single week. 65 kilometres northwest of Tokyo, in the city of Kumagaya, the mercury had just hit 41.1 degrees Celsius—the highest temperature in Japan ever recorded. Just one month later, the Typhoon Jongdari made landfall, with 120 km/h winds injuring 24 and driving the evacuation of thousands. It was only a few short weeks before Typhoon Jebi—Japan’s strongest storm in 25 years—slammed into Kyoto, killing 7 and smashing a 2,591-tonne tanker into a road bridge. Completing a trilogy of destruction, Typhoon Trami followed hot on Jebi’s heels, cutting power to 750,000 homes and evacuating over 380,000. This time the winds reached 216 km/h.

This was record-breaking weather, and the media responded accordingly, running stories about the growing impact of climate change on Japan’s already storm-prone archipelago. Aired in an atmosphere of crisis, the stories ended with the familiar climate imperative: ‘Act now!’ But in the same year that unprecedented floods and rising temperatures wrought havoc on the country, the Japanese government released a report with a bizarre angle on climate change. Jointly produced by five government agencies, the report assured its readers of the opportunities for businesses to ‘take advantage’ of climate change. How? By building products to make heatwave-stricken homes and offices more comfortable, or designing sophisticated financial instruments to manage the economic risks of abnormal weather events.

Examples included Japan-based Dexerials Corporation’s heat-ray reflective window film, a product that promises to shield buildings from extreme heat, along with Kokusai Kogyo’s GPS technology that provides land management tools for farms struck by increasingly erratic weather-related disasters. The report made no mention of fossil fuels, carbon emissions or waste reduction, but did note that new varieties of oranges able to tolerate the heat are now being grown in Ehime, a prefecture that suffered 25 deaths and millions of dollars of damage in the 2018 floods. 

While such official responses to climate change are deeply out of touch with the urgency of the situation, it wasn’t long ago that Japan’s energy sector was poised to lead a worldwide energy transition. In 1997, when world leaders came together to sign the historic Kyoto Protocol, Japan was synonymous with fighting climate change. But its drive for clean energy faltered in 2011, when the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country’s eastern shores delivered a fatal blow to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant, in what would become the world’s biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

In the ensuing panic, the country’s nuclear reactors, which had been generating just under a third of Japan’s energy, were shut down immediately. The tide of public opinion seems to have turned against nuclear energy for good. In 2014, 59% of the public opposed switching the reactors back on. To date, nine reactors have been brought back online since the Fukushima disaster, bringing nuclear’s contribution to Japan’s energy mix up to 3%.

This disaster was a boon for the fossil fuel industry, as coal and oil were seen not only as safer than nuclear energy, but also a more reliable alternative to still-developing renewable energy sources. Japan’s reliance on imported oil and coal soared, and it took less than a year for Japan to become the world’s second biggest importer of fossil fuels. More than two decades after the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, just under 15% of Japan’s energy needs are met by non-carbon sources.

Comparing the Fukushima disaster with the even greater threat posed to Japan by climate change allows a certain irony to emerge. Not only were the Japanese government’s actions after Fukushima driven by all the urgency that has been so sorely lacking in their response to climate change, they also set the country on a path of self-destruction, as continued reliance on fossil fuels continues to warm our planet. But when it comes to Japan’s climate inertia, the impact of Fukushima is just one part of the story. To understand why the fossil fuel industry maintains its iron grip on Japan today, we need to look beyond the aftermath of this disaster and to ongoing conditions.

The long road to decarbonization

For many businesses, the decision to do without fossil fuels would doom them to a competitive disadvantage severe enough to threaten their existence. Instead, major Japanese corporations seek to place the burden of change on consumers.

Japan currently holds the most solar technology patents in the world, and is the leading manufacturer of photovoltaic devices, providing nearly half of the world’s quota. The islets and channels in its Western coastal regions offer significant tidal energy generation potential. Moreover, as a mountainous island surrounded by sea, Japan is perfectly placed for the development of wind technology. But the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry failed to award a single contract last year to a solar energy supplier to deliver energy to consumers, citing costs that exceeded government targets. Plans announced in 2013 to install tidal turbines along Japan’s coastline have not yet come to fruition, and public doubts about the reliability of wind power have been exploited by regional electricity companies who, citing variability issues with wind-generated electricity, are sticking to the ‘safe bets’ of oil and coal. 

Meanwhile, the Abe government refuses to take the lead on emissions reductions. The Japanese government’s ‘Long-Term Energy Supply and Demand Outlook’ pledged to increase the amount of energy supplied by renewables from 15% to 22-24% by 2030: a goal that was described as ‘modest’ by news outlets, and more bluntly by the country’s own Foreign Minister as ‘lamentable.’ In negotiations leading up to the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries were asked to present their own national emissions reduction plan. Each plan would work towards an overall global reductions target, while taking economic and infrastructural differences between countries into account. So far, so good—except Japan’s plan for a 26% reduction from 1990 levels by 2030 was widely criticized for falling far short of the plans produced by other industrialised nations. For comparison, the European Union is chasing a minimum target of 40%.

With the national climate strategy plagued by inertia, some Japanese businesses have begun mobilising to accelerate the energy transition. Last July, as floods swallowed the south of the country, a handful of companies, local governments and NGOs joined together to form the Japan Climate Initiative, a network independent of the national government and committed to fostering productive climate action. JCI’s mission statement is simple: ‘We believe that Japan can and should play a greater role in the world in realizing a decarbonized society.’

As of March 2019, the network includes 350 companies, and counts giants SoftBank and Fujifilm among its members. According to the network’s website, over 50 Japanese companies have committed to setting ‘science-based targets’ to reduce emissions. Many are signing on to RE100, the pledge to generate 100% of a company’s energy from renewables, and some local governments have even declared a goal of zero emissions.

But for many businesses, the decision to do without fossil fuels would doom them to a competitive disadvantage severe enough to threaten their existence. Instead, major Japanese corporations seek to place the burden of change on consumers. The Japanese technology giant Hitachi, for example, claims that since the majority of their emissions result from the use of their products by consumers, their hands might as well be tied. ‘It’s really a challenge,’ a Hitachi spokesman lamented, echoing Sony’s proclamation that the real problem lies in families’ failure to teach children about curbing carbon emissions. Never mind that in the last fiscal year, Sony Japan’s carbon dioxide emissions accounted for 75% of the company’s total global emissions—an increase from the previous year.

Such rhetoric serves to mask the driving force of ceaseless competition for profit that incentivizes the production of carbon-intensive and environmentally-destructive goods in the first place. This competitive logic prevails even as corporations are required to disclose their environmental impact. Revelations that Japanese carmakers Nissan, Suzuki Motor, Mazda and Yamaha have been faking vehicle emissions data could be just the tip of the iceberg of climate malfeasance. 

With the corporate sector at best an unreliable ally in the fight to reduce emissions, Japanese citizens have been working to pick up the slack. But this burgeoning climate movement faces its fair share of challenges too. 

Japan’s burgeoning climate movement 

Posing a defiant alternative to the Abe government and corporate sustainability, these protesters point to the only possible path forward: Japan must take responsibility for its historical emissions, and use its enormous wealth to help pull the planet back from the brink.

On February 22, 2019, 20 young people from Japan’s Fridays For Future chapter gathered in front of Tokyo’s Diet Building holding placards and shouting their support for climate justice. Though a far smaller spectacle than the crowds that gathered in Paris and Sydney, this act of rebellion marks a significant step forward in the fight to bring climate legislation to Japan. Public demonstrations in the country are uncommon, usually arising in response to only the most contentious social issues.

One of the largest gatherings of Japanese protestors took place in 2012, in response to the restarting of a nuclear reactor 16 months after the Fukushima disaster: around 100,000 people took to the street to protest the decision to bring the reactor back online. I spoke to a member of an online Japanese climate activist group, who put the numbers into perspective: ‘It was the largest demo in several decades… [and] it wasn’t that [big],” he noted. ‘Japan is a country of 127 million. Even considering the logistics, the greater Tokyo area is home to 30 million.’ But as it seeks to expand its reach into mainstream Japanese society, the climate movement will have to overcome a prevailing sense of apathy. Some see this apathy as unsurprising for a generation that came of age during Japan’s ‘lost years’ of economic decline.

This apparent lack of political engagement is compounded by the perceived social costs of protesting. A member of the group Climate Youth Japan suggested that ‘not only young people but also Japanese people generally feel that the hurdles to participating in [protest] actions are high.’ Views of social change in Japan tend to hew to tradition: let the government lead and citizens follow. In such a staid political climate, taking a stand as an activist means taking a serious risk. As the Japanese saying goes, ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.’ Street protests struggle to garner support in a culture that values adherence to the official channels of parliamentary politics.

As a member of an online Japanese climate activist group explained, ‘there’s a vote where everyone gets a chance to choose a representative. Then you should petition and call your representative. If a handful of people gather in the street to forcefully set the agenda on a topic, many see it as an unfair process.’ Those who do protest publicly will go to considerable lengths to cover their faces and preserve their anonymity. Police forces in Japan are known to keep databases on members of political movements, and participating in protest actions can spell significant legal and financial trouble.

While these risks are not unique to Japan, my activist contact pointed out that while some protests in Europe or America do find public support, in Japan, ‘you’d most likely just be labelled extremist or criminal, if you’re lucky enough for the media to pick up the story.’ My contact had touched on another barrier to the climate movement in Japan—awareness. 

The between awareness and action among Japanese youth remains a major obstacle for climate protests. Outside the Diet building during Fridays for Future protest, 18-year-old protestor Isao Sakai admitted that it was only thanks to an environmental science class he took during his time studying in the US that he was worried about the world’s projected future. Before then, he says he ‘didn’t care,’ nor do many of his peers. 

To turn this apathy into action, local activist groups are doing their best to tear down the status quo. Last month, young students and workers gathered in Saitama for the first ever ‘Power Shift Japan,’ a regional chapter of the worldwide climate summit network Global Power Shift. The event’s three days were filled with campaign brainstorming and strategising, culminating in the planning of two protest actions involving demonstrations in front of local landmarks. And it wasn’t only Japanese youth in attendance: activists from Hong Kong and Taiwan also showed up to participate, proving that the desire to mobilise against government inaction isn’t bound by national borders. The event, which many considered a test run, offered an outline of something new: a shining example of how online activism, institutional campaigns and street protests can fit together in a growing movement. It might just be the new blueprint for the next decade of Japan’s climate fight.

The Fridays for Future protest was organised via social media, where platforms uniting citizens around climate change are quickly spreading. Climate Youth Japan, Extinction Rebellion Japan, Fridays For Future Japan and 350.org Japan are just some of the spaces on Facebook where young activists post links offering advice on how to create a more environmentally-conscious workplace, or share news of school walkouts inspired by Greta Thunberg. The movement is age-inclusive: ‘Let’s move to action,’ a recent post on one group reads, ‘knowing that it’s not just young people but all generations who can work to combat global warming!’

These groups are not only passionate but increasingly direct in their demands. Climate Youth Japan’s ambitious five-point plan includes establishing a road map for the abolition of coal-fired energy and pushing clear goals for phasing in renewables. These plans are underpinned by two major goals: to achieve the Paris Agreement’s aim of keeping planetary warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and to ensure that youth ‘will be involved in the process of social decision-making’ to hold their country accountable for its climate contributions.

Posing a defiant alternative to the Abe government and corporate sustainability, these protesters point to the only possible path forward: Japan must take responsibility for its historical emissions, and use its enormous wealth to help pull the planet back from the brink. If this climate movement succeeds in catalyzing a dramatic political transformation, it might just save the land of the rising sun from a dark future. 

Imogen Malpas is a writer and teacher currently living and working in Nagasaki, Japan. Recently graduated from University College London with a degree in literature and neuroscience, her journalistic interests lie in the social and political responses to the environmental crisis.

July readings

Processing of local rice by a women’s cooperative in Dioro, Mali. Photo: FAO/Michela Paganini, via GRAIN


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 are back with a new list of readings! In July, we collected articles on Brazil under Bolsonaro, global land conflicts and the Plantationocene, agro-ecology and food politics, the fall of the discipline of economics, and activist academia. As usual, you’ll find plenty of material on new politics, radical municipalism, degrowth and the Green New Deal, and plastics and waste; and we’re featuring some good reads on utopia, sci-fi, and the apocalypse. We also launched an exciting new project we’ve been working on behind the scenes for a while: Resources for a better future, a glossary aimed at making the tools needed to build a just and ecological society accessible to people outside of academic and activist circles.

 

Uneven Earth updates

Resources for a better future. We launched a new series! We’re looking for people to write easy-to-read, clear, and opinionated entries defining some of the most important concepts in political ecology, alternative economics, and environmental justice.

Super glue | Link | ‘Fuck, he can do this every single day. Why the fuck does he have to do it? What are we going to do? There’s no point in rushing like this and trying to save him each time he gets into a dark mood’, Ivan said, looking out of the taxi window.

Redwashing capital | Link | Left tech bros are honing Marx into a capitalist tool



Top 5 articles to read

Indigenous maize: who owns the rights to Mexico’s ‘wonder’ plant?

The dark side of renewable energy

Five myths about Chernobyl, and, related: Radiation in parts of the Marshall Islands is far higher than Chernobyl, study says

101 notes on the LA Tenants Union

Food sovereignty is Africa’s only solution to climate chaos



News you might’ve missed

Why a fight to protect a volcano sacred to Native Hawaiians is our fight and Mauna Kea day 7 – crowd swells into the thousands

Hundreds of thousands demand Puerto Rico’s governor resign

Puerto Rico, the oldest colony in the world, gives the world a master class on mobilization

Why ocean acidification could make some geoengineering schemes irrelevant

Planting ‘billions of trees’ isn’t going to stop climate change

One climate crisis disaster happening every week, UN warns. Countries in the Global South must prepare now for profound impact. 

In Somalia, the climate emergency is already here. The world cannot ignore it. Increasingly severe and frequent droughts are threatening the lives of millions of Somalis.

Starvation deaths of 200 reindeer in Arctic caused by climate crisis, say researchers. Comparable death toll has been recorded only once before.

‘Protesters as terrorists’: growing number of US states turn anti-pipeline activism into a crime 



Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Bolsanaro stands by as 20,000 miners invade the Yanomami Amazon Reserve

Brazil: Amazon state’s new law enables land thieves, critics say

Amazon gold miners invade indigenous village in Brazil after its leader is killed

‘He wants to destroy us’: Bolsonaro poses gravest threat in decades, Amazon tribes say



Global land conflicts and the Plantationocene

Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing reflect on the Plantationocene

Heart of Ecuador’s Yasuni, home to uncontacted tribes, opens for oil drilling

Two groups of Cambodian villagers protest over land disputes

Cameroon’s palm oil of discontent

Report implicates Gov’t officials in massive land grabs

The World Bank lending strategy must aim to place people above profit

Central Africa’s rainforests and people suffering from the expansion of palm oil and rubber plantations

Land, environmental activist killings surge in Guatemala: report



Agro-ecology and food politics

Monica White on food justice in the past, present, future

Putting pigs in the shade: the radical farming system banking on trees

Landscape with beavers

How we can change our food systems: Integrated Food Policy

Venezuelan food houses: a last trench against US blockade

Dalit identity and food – memories of trauma on a plate

Agroecology as innovation and Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition

Our veggie gardens won’t feed us in a real crisis



Where we’re at: analysis

Dancing with grief

Political scenarios for climate disaster

On flooding: drowning the culture in sameness

AI applications, chips, deep tech, and geopolitics in 2019: The stakes have never been higher

The ‘giant sucking sound’ of NAFTA: Ross Perot was ridiculed as alarmist in 1992 but his warning turned out to be prescient

5 myths about global poverty



Just think about it…

The philosophy of low-tech: a conversation with Kris De Decker

The tyranny of lawns and landlords

Gardening games are blossoming in turbulent times

When ancient DNA gets politicized

‘Climate despair’ is making people give up on life

Farmers’ markets have new unwelcome guests: fascists

We should never have called it Earth

Elephants’ diets help forests to thrive… and store more carbon 



New politics

We can’t expand airports after declaring a climate emergency. Related: Seven strategies for the degrowth of aviation and To fly or not to fly? The environmental cost of air travel

Turn on, tune in, rise up

What role do cooperatives and the “solidarity economy” play in class struggle?

Ecological politics for the working class

Shifting ownership for the energy transition in the Green New Deal: a transatlantic proposal

The tactics Hong Kong protesters use to fortify the front lines

In the age of extinction, who is extreme? A response to Policy Exchange in defense of Extinction Rebellion

Remembering the Chipko movement: the women-led Indigenous stuggle



Radical municipalism

Why suburbia sucks

Cities are beginning to own up to the climate impacts of what they consume

The problem with community land trusts

Yesterday’s tomorrow today: what we can learn from past urban visions

Finding the future in radical rural America

I’m an engineer, and I’m not buying into ‘smart’ cities

Berlin buys 670 flats on Karl-Marx-Allee from private owner and The causes and consequences of Berlin’s rapid gentrification



Degrowth and the Green New Deal

Greenwashing the status quo: ‘European green deal’ falls woefully short of what’s needed

Decoupling is dead! Long live degrowth! Also see Decoupling debunked – Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability and The decoupling delusion: rethinking growth and sustainability



Plastics and waste

The plastic industry’s fight to keep polluting the world

What you think about landfill and recycling is probably totally wrong

‘The odour of burning wakes us’: inside the Philippines’ Plastic City



Utopia, sci-fi, and the apocalypse

Optimize what? How techno-solutionism begins in the classrooms where computer science is taught

Ursula K. Le Guin’s revolutions

In Tim Maughan’s dystopian novel, the web is dead

Like mechanization, AI will make us richer. But it may not help workers.

Revolutionary dreamwork



The fall of the discipline of economics

The tragedy of the tragedy of the commons

The quiet realization of Ivan Illich’s ideas in the contemporary commons movement

The myth of the tragedy of the commons

Trickle-up economics

The fall of the economists’ empire

Eight principles of a new economics for the people of a living Earth



Activist academia

Why we need a more activist academy

What it’s like to be a woman in the academy

Why ‘open science’ is actually pretty good politics



Resources

Essential books on Marxism and ecology

Green New Deals – the degrowth perspective. A compilation of articles on the Green New Deal from a degrowth framework—many of which have been featured in this newsletter already. 

The 2019 Atlas of Utopias. A global gallery of inspiring community-led transformation in water, energy, food systems and housing.

Decolonising the economy. A new ourEconomy series focusing on the global economy and global justice.



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

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

Super glue / Superlepak

Image: Ivan Šuković

by Srđan Miljević
translation into English by Svetlana Milivojević-Petrović

*Scroll down to read the story in Serbian*

Superglue

‘Milica!!! Come over here fast, please! I’m fucked up! I need to be fixed. Hurry up, pleeeeease!’

‘Oh, OK. Ivan and I’ll get a taxi now. Don’t move.’

‘Hey, I love you!’

‘Love you too, you fool, don’t move. We’re coming.’

*

‘Fuck, he can do this every single day. Why the fuck does he have to do it? What are we going to do? There’s no point in rushing like this and trying to save him each time he gets into a dark mood’, Ivan said, looking out of the taxi window.

‘Hey, please, let’s leave this for later. It pisses me off when you are acting smart while there’s a fire burning. We’ll be moralizing tomorrow. Cool it. Do you think I haven’t had enough of this? That I haven’t felt the impulse to hang up on him at least three times and ignore him? And yet, I can understand him. I don’t know…’

‘Fuck, it’s just… Do you think he’d have the guts to do himself in?’

‘Yes, turn right here and then take the second turning on the left. We’ll get out there and you’ll wait for us for a minute, and then we’ll go to the Emergency Department. Thank you’, Milica said to the taxi driver.

The spring evening in Belgrade was unusually hot, so the sweat stinking from the driver made the rescue mission even more dramatic.

‘I think he would. It makes no difference whether you’ll cut your leg off and call Milica or just cut your leg off and not call Milica. Does it?’, she added after talking to the taxi driver.

‘But he always calls Milica’, protested Ivan.

‘So far he has.’

*

The way they entered Jasmin’s apartment looked like an ambulance crew taking action. Milica and Ivan were so well-practiced there was no need for instructions. They lifted Jasmin, then Ivan carried him piggyback out of the apartment. Milica waded through the rubbish on the floor to the kitchen stove and turned off the burner. She swiftly turned off several other appliances that were turned on, picking up Jasmin’s leg from the floor in passing, that is the part of his left leg below the knee. She switched off the light and left the apartment.

*

In the ER, in the room Jasmin called the fix[1], there were body parts lying strewn around. Jasmin was sitting on the bench outside room 22, with the sign LNGH!7, which meant he was an emergency case and they were going to see him soon. Ivan looked around with curiosity, and the twinkle in his eyes confirmed what Milica already knew. He was amused by this. And all she wanted was to stay put in her crib tonight. To watch with Ivan that documentary about India in which, with the help of 6D glasses, you can feel the mud on your feet, the scent of an orchid stick getting into your nostrils, while Buddha himself is hugging you all the time.

The digital display on the screen changed, and it was Jasmin’s turn. He walked in by himself, out of habit. Milica was sitting, lost in her thoughts, while Ivan went on playing a mental game in his head in which he would attach legs, arms, ears and eyes, previously separated from their original owners, to mismatched owners. So the old man sitting opposite him, leaning his arm on the wall, ended up with a small turned-up nose that belonged to a girl on the other side of the corridor.

*

‘Jasmin, it’s you again.’

‘Again.’

‘Ok. Let’s put everything back in its place straight away.’

‘If necessary’, Jasmin said jokingly.

The doctor gave him a civil smile and then said to the technician:

‘Elena, please, the glue and fast sterilization of this leg. Well, Jasmin, is this your fourth or fifth time?’

‘The fifth time, Doc.’

‘You already know everything. The state only covers…’

‘I do, yes, Doc”, Jasmin interrupted him. “But I don’t want to kill myself.’

‘You said it last time. And the time before. And…’

‘Well, I didn’t want it then, either. I’ve already told you…’

‘Remember, next time we won’t be able to receive you or react’, the doctor said, applying glue below the knee with one hand, and on the free part of the leg with the other.

‘Agreed, Doc. Don’t worry. I say, it’s fascinating to me how you glue it for me so well each time that there’s no mark. And how everything functions properly.’

‘And this is why you’re playing with your fate and cutting yourself to see if the leg will be glued properly next time as well?’

‘You are quite a joker, Doc.’

‘Jasmin, please install the application My psychologist. Try it.’

‘Si, señor’, said Jasmin smiling at Elena, who was already getting ready for the next patient.

*

‘I feel brand new”, he exclaimed after leaving room 22 walking on both legs.

The doctor patted him on the shoulder and said to Milica:

‘You know that he can only take fluids today. From tomorrow, he’ll be functioning as if nothing had happened. Take care of him. We have agreed on the application. This has been his fifth time”.

‘I know doctor. Don’t worry. The three of us will be out all day tomorrow, that is sure to raise his spirits. Thanks a lot.’

‘Take care. And don’t forget that such procedures were almost impossible until recently. Jasmin, there won’t be glue forever. Goodbye.’

‘See you, Doc.’

*

The next day they enjoyed the spring sun.

He was alright.

They laughed, ran and had a short swim in the lake.

After three days Milica’s phone rang in the evening.

It was Jasmin.

[1] Abbreviation for Odeljenje za fizikalno i koštano spajanje (the Department for Physical and Bone Attachments). Fiks = fix. Translator’s note

Srđan Miljević is a short story writer from Belgrade, Serbia. His main topic is people facing different challenges and trying to overcome them. He does not write about progress, but about process.

***

Superlepak

„Milice!!! Brzo dođi kod mene, brzo, molim te! Sjebao sam se! Moram na fiks. Požuri, pleeeeeaaaaaaaseeeeee!”

„Joj, ajde. Sad ćemo Ivan i ja na taksi. Ne pomeraj se.”

„Ej, ljubim te”.

„I ja tebe, budalo, ne pomeraj se. Stižemo”.

*

„Jebote, on može tako svaki dan. Koji kurac više! Šta da radimo? Nije rešenje da ovako trčimo i spasavamo ga čim mu se smrači”, govorio je Ivan, gledajući kroz prozor taksija.

„Aj please da to ostavimo za posle. Smara me kad pametuješ dok gori. Sutra ćemo da morališemo. Iskuliraj. Misliš da meni nije muka više? Da mi bar triput nije došlo da mu spustim slušalicu i da ga iskuliram? A opet, mogu da ga razumem. Otkud znam…”

„Jebi ga, samo… Misliš da bi imao muda da se rokne?”

„E, da, skrenite tu desno i onda druga levo. Tu ćemo izaći a vi nas sačekajte koji minut, pa idemo u urgentni. Hvala vam”, rekla je Milica taksisti.

Prolećno beogradsko veče bilo je neuobičajeno toplo, pa je vonj znoja vozača ovu spasilačku misiju činio dramatičnijom.

„Mislim da bi. Isto je da l’ ćeš da otfikariš sebi nogu i nazoveš Milicu ili ćeš je samo otfikariti i nećeš nazvati Milicu. Zar ne?”, dodala je ona nakon obraćanja taksisti.

„Ali on uvek zove Milicu!”, bunio se Ivan.

„Dosad je zvao.”

*

Ulazak u Jasminov stan izgledao je kao  akcija službe hitne pomoći. Milica i Ivan bili su toliko uigrani da nije bilo potrebe za instrukcijama. Podigli su Jasmina, onda ga je Ivan stavio na krkače i izneo  napolje. Milica  je kroz krš na podu otišla do šporeta i isključila ringlu. Brzinski je protrčala i pogasila još nekoliko uključenih aparata, uzimajući u prolazu Jasminovu nogu s poda, tj. deo leve noge do ispod kolena. S nogom pod miškom ugasila je svetlo i izašla iz stana.

*

U urgentnom, u ambulanti koju je Jasmin zvao fiks[1], svuda su bili razbacani delovi tela. Jasmin je sedeo na klupi ispred sobe 22, s oznakom LNGH!7, što je značilo da je hitan slučaj i da će ga uskoro primiti. Ivan je radoznalo gledao oko sebe, a iskre u očima potvrđivale su ono što je Milica znala. Ovo ga je zabavljalo. A ona je samo želela da večeras ne mrda nigde s gajbe. Da Ivan i ona pogledaju taj dokumentarac o Indiji, gde uz pomoć 6D naočara na stopalima osetiš blato, u nos ti ulazi miris štapića orhideje, a sve vreme te grli Buda lično.

Displej se promenio i sada je bio Jasminov red. Ušao je sam, po navici. Milica je sedela zamišljena, a Ivan nastavio da se igra tako što je u svojoj glavi noge, ruke, uši i oči koje su bile odvojene od svojih vlasnika spajao s pogrešnim vlasnicima. Tako je dedi preko puta, čija je ruka bila naslonjena na zid, stavio mali prćasti nos devojke s one strane hodnika.

*

„Opet ti, Jasmine.”

„Opet.”

„Dobro. Hajde da odmah vratimo sve na svoje mesto.”

„Ako baš mora”, šeretski odgovori Jasmin.

Doktor se kurtoazno nasmešio, a onda se obratio tehničarki:

„Elena, molim vas lepak i brzu sterilizaciju ove noge. Pa, Jasmine, je l’ ovo četvrti ili peti?“

„Peti put, doco”.

„Sve već znaš. Država pokriva samo…”

„Znam, znam, doco”, prekinuo ga je Jasmin u pola rečenice. ”Ali, ja neću da se ubijem.”

„To si rekao i prošli put. I pre toga. I…”

„Pa, ni tada nisam hteo. Rekao sam vam već… “

„Zapamti, sledeći put nećemo moći da te primimo, a ni reagujemo”, rekao je doktor sad već nanoseći lepak na potkolenicu jednom, a na slobodni deo noge drugom rukom.

„Dogovoreno, doco. Ništa ne brinite. Mislim, meni je fascinantno kako mi je svaki put lepo zalepite da se baš ništa ne vidi. I da baš sve radi kako treba.”

„Pa se igraš sudbinom i seckaš se ne bi li video hoće li i naredni put biti dobro zalepljena, a?”

„Vi ste, doco, baš neki šaljivdžija.”

„Jasmine, molim te da ipak instaliraš aplikaciju Moj psiholog. Probaj.”

„Si, senjor”, rekao je Jasmin smeškajući se Eleni koja se već pripremala za sledećeg pacijenta.

*

„Ko nov”, uskliknuo je po izlasku iz sobe 22 hodajući na obe noge.

Doktor ga je potapšao po ramenu i obratio se Milici:

„Znate da danas sme da unosi samo tečnost. Od sutra će funkcionisati kao da se ništa nije desilo. Pripazite ga. Dogovorili smo se za aplikaciju. Već mu je peti put”.

„Znam, doktore. Ne brinite. Sutra ćemo nas troje ceo dan biti napolju, to će ga sigurno odobrovoljiti. Hvala vam mnogo.”

„Čuvajte se. I ne zaboravite da su ovakvi zahvati do skoro bili nemogući. Jasmine, lepka neće biti zauvek. Doviđenja”.

„Vidimo se, doco”.

*

Sutradan su uživali u prolećnom suncu.

Bio je dobro.

Smejali su se, trčali i kratko se okupali u jezeru.

Nakon tri dana Milici je uveče zazvonio telefon.

Bio je to Jasmin.

[1] skraćeno od Odeljenje za fizikalno i koštano spajanje

Srđan Miljević (Beograd, Srbija) piše kratke priče o ljudima koji se suočavaju s različitim izazovima i pokušajima da ih prevaziđu. Srđan ne piše o progresu, već o procesu.


Redwashing capital

by Rob Wallace

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Aaron Bastani, author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, called refusals to adapt capitalist technologies under anti-capitalism’s banner a failure of imagination:

Ours is an age of crisis. We inhabit a world of low growth, low productivity and low wages, of climate breakdown and the collapse of democratic politics. A world where billions, mostly in the global south, live in poverty. A world defined by inequality.

But the most pressing crisis of all, arguably, is an absence of collective imagination. It is as if humanity has been afflicted by a psychological complex, in which we believe the present world is stronger than our capacity to remake it—as if it were not our ancestors who created what stands before us now. As if the very essence of humanity, if there is such a thing, is not to constantly build new worlds.

If we can move beyond such a failure, we will be able to see something wonderful. The plummeting cost of information and advances in technology are providing the ground for a collective future of freedom and luxury for all.

There is much to unpack here, part and parcel of a futurism more social democratic than communist already critically reviewed here, here, and here.

Are democratic politics even possible under capitalism, as Bastani off-handedly presumes? Is high growth an appropriate economic marker even out of capitalist hands? And what of the apparent disconnect here between all the new toys Bastani stans and that poverty in the global South?

I’ll be confining my objections here to the analytical core of Bastani’s thesis, before briefly turning to what a science (and tech) for the people, tied to a truly transformative shift in human relations, is already looking like instead.

On its face, the thesis is simple enough. Karl Marx, Bastani argues, was a capitalist. He even wrote a book about it. It’s a line for which the internet fed billionaire Elon Musk through a digital woodchipper. Herman Melville was a white whale, one wag riposted.

Here, Bastani spins the reversal with a more erudite flair, claiming Marx’s affinities for capitalism were more utilitarian. Communism depends on capitalism, much as children depend on their parents. There must first be a means of production to seize, after all. The deduction capsizes the standard interpretation that Marx pursued his studies as a critique—right there in the subtitle of his major work—by which we might break from capitalism.

That doesn’t mean socializing capitalism is by definition the only option forward. Now that would be a failure of imagination.

It follows, Bastani continues, that a techno-optimism around the best of what capitalism produces is the only communist future possible. It’s a veritable truism that any new future will begin with where history to this point has left us off. To various degrees, all of us are presently slated inside capitalism’s historical moment. But, against Bastani, that doesn’t mean socializing capitalism is by definition the only option forward. Now that would be a failure of imagination.

It’s a notion that also opens a path to capitalizing socialism, exactly as Marx himself warned. Such strategy assumes capitalist power bends to good ideas and not, with enough cash and violence, the other way around. “In Amerika,” to reappropriate the prototypical Cold War sendup, “capital socializes you.”

Cyborg Marx vs Ecological Marx

In a follow-up on the Verso blog, Bastani paints Marx an out-and-out tech-utopian, ignoring the documented ecological Marx and more critical interpretations of the Grundrisse’s “Fragment on Machines” on which Bastani bases his argument:

An aspect of Marx’s thinking which remains underemphasised is how he recognised capitalism’s tendency to progressively replace labouranimal and human, physical and cognitivewith machines. In a system replete with contradictions, it was this one in particular which rendered it a force of potential liberation.

Media philosopher McKenzie Wark, for one, is sympathetically dismissive of this middle Marx:

Read as low theory, rather than philosophy, Marx’s 1858 “Fragment on Machines” turns out to be interesting but of its time. He is bamboozled by this new machine system form of tech. He describes it, in mystified form as “a moving power that moves itself”. Actually it isn’t. A whole dimension is missing here: the forces of production are also energy systems. Entirely absent from this text is the simple fact that industrialization had run through all the forests of Northern Europe and then switched to coal, which was in turn more or less exhausted by our time. This is connected, as we shall see, to Marx’s failure to think through the metaphor of metabolism in this text.

By way of human ecologist Andreas Malm and environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster, Wark argues that Bastani-like celebrations of communist cyberocracy, in which machines reduce labour time in favor of people’s leisure, omit a critical element. They miss our relationship with the environment, the other key component of human appropriation. “Notice,” Wark continues,

how energy finally appears here, but only the energy of human labor. [Marx] has not [yet] grasped the extent to which the replacement of human energy with fossil-fuel energy is very central to how capitalism unfolded.

A mature Marx concurred, placing the correction front and centre. Indeed, in terms that read as if directed at Bastani point-by-point, he begins the Critique of the Gotha Program by explicitly denouncing such an omission as a part of the bourgeois program:

“Labor is the source of all wealth and all culture.”

Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. The above phrase is to be found in all children’s primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that lone give them meaning. And insofar as man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labor, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labor becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth.

The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission.

Much else is missing. Bastani’s steampunk portraiture—Marx’s telescopic eye short-circuiting his own beard afire—sidelines the ways capitalist tech, and the limited problems its owners choose to solve, penetrate our social relations at their foundations. The modes of production Bastani celebrates in capitalism co-produce the relations of production—capital dominating the proletariat—to which he says he objects.

In agriculture, for instance, the gene editing Bastani champions isn’t really about solving problems presented in an albeit historicized natural economy still dependent on the sun, seasons, and organisms’ life cycles. These problems are dealt with in direct terms today by those agroecologies worldwide that haven’t been smashed by capitalist land grabs. The latest and greatest in genetic engineering aren’t needed where traditional breeding programs are perfectly capable even under rapid climate change. Proprietary GMOs are more about looping farmers into a ratchet of production that both subjects them to labour discipline and helps garnish the near-entirety of farm revenue.

Indeed—funny enough given Bastani’s tech fetish—capital is perfectly happy trashing research and development if its monopolies in economy and State power succeed in depressing competition and externalizing such costs of production to labour, consumer, government, and nature. In other words, the efficiencies for which capital incessantly searches, squeezing out every iota of surplus value, often have little to do with commodity production directly.

New tech can even get in the way of profit. Solar energy is only the most obvious example. But the drag is everywhere. Alongside reducing the number of breeding lines across plant and animal species, agribusiness consolidation reduces the numbers of geneticists working in the sector. Homogenization divorced from the biologies and behaviors of livestock extends to the science pursued.

Tech’s environmental hoaxes

By these trajectories, Big Ag, emblematic of other industries, corners itself into some darkly hilarious traps of its own making.

In the face of African swine fever, presently the world’s largest-ever livestock disease outbreak, the hog sector is pursuing suddenly fashionable facial recognition software to keep track of sick pigs (without changing the husbandry that sickens them). Despite efforts on the part of the sector to blame backyard producers, the outbreak is progressing hand-in-hoof with sharp increases in the numbers of total and per-farm head, declines in hog diversity, explosive growth in international exports shipping millions of head country-to-country, and a system design disallowing hybrid hogs who survive from breeding on-site and passing on their immunity. The incapacity to respond to African swine fever and other deadly diseases is built into the economic model before a single hog gets sick.  

In other words, the sources of liberation technology Bastani upholds in actuality embody the very alienation to which Marx objected, divorcing both nature and humanity from possible solutions as problems arise. I’m not the first to point this out. Rut Elliot Blomqvist directly addressed this gap in Bastani’s argument last year. But power, as apparently playacted by the ecomodernist Left, is found in refusing to respond to such counternarratives with anything other than tweeted insult.

There are other interactions between our two sources of wealth—labour and the environment—that belie tech’s easy payoff. The environment can destroy labour and machines; earthquakes, for instance, to choose what was up until fracking the least socialized “natural” disaster outside a meteor strike. Of course, choosing to build a nuclear facility on a major fault is entirely money over matter run amok.

By the second contradiction of capitalism, labour and tech, in the other direction, can destroy the environments upon which they depend. Much of colonialism involves spatial fixes by which this damage is externalized onto the Indigenous, up until imperial might or the resources themselves or both run out. The cycle of accumulation then retracts into internal colonization as capital cashes out, as in the case of fracking in the U.S. Unless the resulting damage just offers the next window of investment, as, for instance, with oil and sand opening up in a melting Arctic.

Should the chain of relative opportunities conclude in abandoning the planet, dead Mars, as even well-intended techno-optimism has cheered, somehow represents a happy ending and not a recursion spun off into space. A Hard Times headline summarized an analogous trap in all its dialectical tragicomedy: “Desperate Attempt to Escape Mosh Pit Looks Exactly Like Moshing.”

As Marxism has long observed, even under the neoclassical model, tech repeatedly drives itself into a ditch. Innovations score quick profits until the new fixed capital spreads, competition intensifies, and economic crises precipitate, to be alleviated, or, better put, reconstituted by exports, monopoly, and war.

And by out-and-out murderous fraud. As we learned earlier this year, why deliver a fully functioning plane when you can upsell basic safety features? With Big Pharma in a productivity crisis, and the number of new drug classes in secular collapse, Sackler-owned Purdue Pharma pursued a “Project Tango” by which it sold cures to the opioid addictions that company reps, “turbocharging sales,” pushed doctors to prescribe in the first place. The company, turning rent-seeking from land to body, aimed to make itself an “end-to-end pain provider.”

In promising fully automated communism, left technologism quietly factors out our present pace in tech evolution from the market cycles underlying it.

Another round of innovation isn’t necessarily about use value, as tech-optimists focus on, but on resetting such market grifts. As the payoff is the endpoint that matters, many an innovation is only tangentially related to what the commodity is used for by the consumer. In promising fully automated communism, left technologism quietly factors out our present pace in tech evolution from the market cycles underlying it. But planned obsolesce and other such sleights-of-hand shouldn’t be folded in as virtues in any vision of modern communism.

It isn’t just the resulting despoliation of land and sea that shows environmental conservation is antithetical to the rules of this game. Against the hype of green capitalism, more efficient production, say, growing more food per hectare, doesn’t save the environment. By the Jevons paradox, such successes only spread out, taking the lead eating through the “saved” resource. Along the way, as more of the resource is destroyed, what’s left of what once was part of our shared commons suddenly accrues value it never had. Under Lauderdale’s paradox, a decaying resource base isn’t grounds for good corporate governance but serves as the basis for a fight for the leftovers, as in the case of the multinational rush for the last of the world’s “virgin” farmland in Africa.

As if right off the pages of the National Review, left accelerationists square this circle by dismissing environmentalism as neo-Malthusian catastrophism. There are no ecological precipices, they claim. A boundless nature automatically cleans up after humanity’s expropriation. Water, for one, doesn’t disappear, Jacobin accelerationist and Verso author Leigh Phillips posted on a recent Facebook thread, it just transforms into another form something else in the food chain can use. It’s a Žižekian gambit, the philosopher’s lateral lisp ablazing: DEY VILL BE MORE ECOSOCIALISH DAN DA ECOSOCIALISH DEMSHELVE. With a neoclassical faith in Earth’s regenerative powers that outstrips the biosphere itself.

Back on this planet, on the other hand, with an uneven relational geography of per capita freshwater use largely driven by global North agriculture and industrial production alienated from the very ecological processes appealed to here, many a region’s quantifiable, and, yes, limited supply of potable water is crashing out.

History isn’t deterministic

The ecomodernist missteps track back to inception.   

Marx hypothesized capital originated in a similar if era-specific game of socioenvironmental whack-a-mole. To return to the very Grundrisse to which accelerationists appeal and, as excerpted here, in the earlier German Ideology he wrote with Engels, Marx traced capitalism’s genesis as a spiraling dialectic of population, machine, expropriation, and geography:

The labour which from the first presupposed a machine, even of the crudest sort, soon showed itself the most capable of development. Weaving, earlier carried on in the country by the peasants as a secondary occupation to procure their clothing, was the first labour to receive an impetus and a further development through the extension of commerce. Weaving was the first and remained the principal manufacture. The rising demand for clothing materials, consequent on the growth of population, the growing accumulation and mobilisation of natural capital through accelerated circulation, the demand for luxuries called forth by the latter and favoured generally by the gradual extension of commerce, gave weaving a quantitative and qualitative stimulus, which wrenched it out of the form of production hitherto existing.

Alongside the peasants weaving for their own use, who continued with this sort of work, there emerged a new class of weavers in the towns, whose fabrics were destined for the whole home market and usually for foreign markets too. Weaving, an occupation demanding in most cases little skill and soon splitting up into countless branches, by its whole nature resisted the trammels of the gild. Weaving was therefore carried on mostly in villages and market-centres without gild organisation, which gradually became towns, indeed the most flourishing towns.

That is, by its very own combos of due cause and historical chance, feudalism arrived upon the circumstances that prefigured capital. In a dizzying dance, the effects of one feudal process turned into the causes of another, to and fro.

So contrary to tales left and right of capitalism’s genesis, capital never sprang from Adam Smith’s or Milton Friedman’s (or Dr. Dre’s) head fully formed. The transition in the prevalent mode of production, as Marx and Engels tie it off here, emerged woven out of conditionally translated factors:

With gild-free manufacture, property relations also quickly changed. The first advance beyond natural, estate-capital was provided by the rise of merchants whose capital was from the beginning moveable, capital in the modern sense as far as one can speak of it, given the circumstances of those times. The second advance came with manufacture, which again made mobile a mass of natural capital, and altogether increased the mass of movable capital as against that of natural capital. At the same time, manufacture became a refuge of [free labour] peasants from the gilds which excluded them or paid them badly, just as earlier the gild-towns had served as a refuge for the peasants from the oppressive landed nobility.

Feudalism could very well have ended a different way. If we leap-frog forward into what we presume will be the far side of the age of capitalism, we should expect a similar storyboard, with cause and effect and happenstance pinballing back and forth. Facile determinism was, and will never be, the order of the day. Stochastic outcomes burble out from between social systems’ historical constraints.

Liberation, then, isn’t just a matter of seizing physical factories, as if the objects they produce, the ring of all rings, my precious, are revolution in a package. It’s fascinating the extent to which some liberals grasp this point better than our leftish techno-determinists. In encapsulating the grim scientific projections for climate change in his recent book, a David Wallace-Wells still bewitched with “our” present lifestyle hedged that

these twelve threats described in these twelve chapters yield a portrait of the future only as best as it can be painted in the present. What actually lies ahead may prove even grimmer, though the reverse, of course, is also possible. The map of our new world will be drawn in part by natural processes that remain mysterious, but more definitively by human hands. At what point will the climate change grow undeniable, un-compartmentalizable? How much damage will have already been selfishly done? How quickly will we act to save ourselves and preserve as much of the way of life we know today as possible?

For the sake of clarity, I’ve treated each of the threats from climate change—sea-level rise, food scarcity, economic stagnation—as discrete threats, which they are not. Some may prove offsetting, some mutually reinforcing, and others merely adjacent. But together they form a latticework of climate crisis, beneath which at least some humans, and probably many billions, will live.

The urban legend that Marx saw the most industrially advanced countries as necessarily the communist vanguard was dead wrong.

One can see why historian Eric Hobsbawm, bashing the arguments of Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara’s socialist manifesto before it was fashionable, insisted, as much as a matter of method as fact, that the urban legend that Marx saw the most industrially advanced countries as necessarily the communist vanguard was dead wrong. In fact, Hobsbawm continued, for better or worse, Marx and Engels placed early bets on a revolutionary (and decidedly agrarian) Russia:

No misinterpretation of Marx is more grotesque than the one that suggests that he expected a revolution exclusively from the advanced industrial countries of the West…

Engels records their hopes of a Russian revolution in the late 1870s and in 1894 specifically looks forward to the possibility of “the Russian revolution giving the signal for the workers’ revolution in the West, so that both supplement each other.”

Such a series of retroactive reversals—an ecological Marx, the gap between tech and problem-solving, and the possibility that communisms can emerge on the periphery out of a different combinatorial of production—is hard to assimilate if you’ve founded your political program upon radicalizing commodity fetishism at capital’s centre.

Turning outer space into Flint

The particulars are as goofy as they are galling.

If, as it appears in his Times piece, Bastani thinks food is only about basic nutrition or good taste (however important these both are), then he has bought exactly into an agribusiness productivism that making lots of (marketable) food is the task at hand.

No wonder lab meat and other examples of cellular agriculture ring his bell. Never mind food fully engulfed by industrial processing represents the next generation in expropriation. No peasant in the Amazon helping cultivate regenerative agroecologies need apply under Amazon’s (or Uber’s) business plan for drone-striking edible petri dishes to your shipping container’s door. Never mind such pellets are being produced by the very venture capital that helped bring about the environmental crises in the first place. It’s as if tech frisson alone is enough of a rationale to keep capital in power and objections to cease fire.

Food sovereignty, in contrast, extends beyond such vulgar food security to a people’s right to control their land and labour in the course of producing culturally appropriate food they—they!—wish to grow and eat, if under the constraints of regional planning and wider gyres of global circulation.

Bastani’s wanton oversimplifications extend to health and energy. In an age of poisoned water in Flint, Michigan and the opioid epidemics spreading across farming communities around the world, he calls for tech-led interventions into health that are grounded in commoditization-friendly preformationisms about human biology. Health and disease are inside you from the start. One just needs a pill or genetic intervention to cure you. But in reality, such reductionist medicine works for only some diseases and is conspicuous in its dearth of notions of shared public health outside pharmaceutical market shares.

Backing an anti-Marxist ecology, Bastani pegs our energy demands to mining asteroids. Marx’s “Theft of Wood” in outer space. At what cost to Earth will it take to get us up there? Who will control the mines across The Expanse? Does this political economist’s effort to think through the likely political economy to emerge out of such a program extend beyond the cheery engineering porn many such Left proponents can’t seem to understand as it is?

Philosopher Alain Badiou is scathing of such a cheap politics, in this case so literal in its actualization:

Blind worship of “novelty” and contempt for established truths. This comes straight out of the commercial cult of the “novelty” of products and out of a persistent belief that something is being “started” that has already happened many times before. It simultaneously prevents people from learning from the past, from understanding how structural repetitions work, and from not falling for fake “modernities.”

A Left actually working in the natural sciences is arriving at different conclusions, sketching out the horrific details of emerging capital-led tech.

Over a series of technical monographs (here, here, and here), mathematical epidemiologist Rodrick Wallace uses information theory and control theory to show efforts at developing artificial intelligence for driverless cars or electric grids are grounded upon badly supported models of human consciousness. The resulting fast-tracked experiments in silicon cognition, conducted on public roads with little regulatory supervision, are lining up as high-stakes demonstrations of what Wallace has described as machine psychopathology:

The asymptotic limit theorems of control and information theories make it possible to explore the dynamics of collapse likely to afflict large-scale systems of autonomous ground vehicles that communicate with each other and with an embedding intelligent roadway. Any vehicle/road system is inherently unstable in the control theory sense as a consequence of the basic irregularities of the traffic stream, the road network, and their interactions, placing it in the realm of the Data Rate Theorem that mandates a minimum necessary rate of control information for stability. It appears that large-scale [vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure] systems will experience correspondingly large-scale failures analogous to the vast, propagating fronts of power network blackouts, and possibly less benign but more subtle patterns of individual vehicle, platoon, and mesoscale dysfunction.

The moral calculus of the resulting accidents—who will driverless cars choose to kill—is giving even sociopaths such as Henry Kissinger the kind of pause that escapes our future-so-bright Left.

The information and tech revolutions Bastani presents as a cheap exit out of our present mess are proving costly even on days in which operations work perfectly.

The information and tech revolutions Bastani presents as a cheap exit out of our present mess are proving costly beyond such failures, even, much like infamous Bitcoin, on days in which operations work perfectly. Technology Review reports:

In a new paper, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, performed a life cycle assessment for training several common large AI models. They found that the process can emit more than 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent—nearly five times the lifetime emissions of the average American car (and that includes manufacture of the car itself).

The fully automated communist equivalent, sharing similar presumptions, much as Stalin and Cargill on industrialized agriculture or the convergent political ergonomics behind Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, would likely differ little in its catastrophic outcomes save perhaps who exactly picks up the tab.

In parallel to the misplaced magical thinking that disappears such inconveniences, the ecomodernist program is fitted with a political tin ear as if a single EarPod (the other lost at a boozy IPO launch). “Let’s leave Earth!” enthuses one of its planks.

Now there’s a rallying cry for the proletariat who are to be left behind. Space exploration extending beyond telescopy and into colonization represents the kind of innovation in accumulation that until now has given only more power to the Jeff Bezoses of the world. Or the Adam Dunkels, in the social democratic version. Through the guarded gate of a gravity well and with every canister of food, water, and air necessarily manufactured—and, as in Flint’s water, turned into a fictitious commodity—the powerful, already remote-programming on-the-spot firings, would be better able to control the people Bastani claims he aims to liberate.

Socializing sciences for the people

Even on their own terms, these phantasmagorias suck. Are other futures possible?

Ecosocialism and ecocommunism aim to transform society “away from socially and ecologically destructive systems.” Our capacity to socially reproduce ourselves as a species requires we integrate production, conservation, and human liberation—across labour, race, indigeneity, and gender, among other axes.

Against ecomodernist smears, alternatives in ecosocialism (here, here, and here, for a starter kit) aren’t organized around prelapsarian fantasies of returning to a mode of production that existed nowhere save in the minds of its critics. They are not, as left business observer Doug Henwood and other accelerationists repeatedly troll, neo-primitivisms championing eating twigs, living in huts, and reducing the human population by 90%.

“[Accelerationism’s] main shortcoming,” anarchist social theorist Kevin Carson rolls his eyes,

is a failure to understand the significance of the technologies it sees as the basis for the post-capitalist system. Although Accelerationism celebrates advances in cybernetic technology and network communications as the building blocks of post-scarcity communism, it is tone deaf when it comes to the specific nature of the promise offered by these technologies, and actually runs directly counter to them. This failure includes a lazy conflation of localism and horizontalism with primitivism and backwardness (to the point of treating ‘neo-primitivist localism’ as a single phrase), and a lionization of verticality, centralism and planning.

Dark ecologist Timothy Morton engages this position at its source:

[The] Severing [between the reality of a human-centric world and the real of ecological symbiosis across species] has produced physical as well as psychic effects, scars of the rip between reality and the real. One thinks of the Platonic dichotomy of body and soul: the chariot and the charioteer, the chariot whose horses are always trying to pull away in another direction. The phenomenology of First Peoples points in this direction, but left thought hasn’t been looking that way, fearful of primitivism, a concept that inhibits thinking outside agrilogistic parameters [of an industrial ecology without nature].

Agroecologies and other community-led models mind this gap, organizing their ethoses around nature’s intrinsic fecundity while regularly adapting to the latest that soil and other regenerative sciences have to offer when made available. Along the way, these ‘back road’ methods refuse to divorce modes and relations of production as a matter of first principle. Nor do they just hand over their land and labour to assuage the brand loyalties upon which the Henwoods of the world glom as if in existential terror. 

In something of an afterthought in the best annihilation of the ecomodernist program I’ve read this year, development sociologist Max Ajlexplains how new tech can indeed be used, but from the start must be folded into a recursively negotiated model of how we are to socially reproduce ourselves as a society:

A second potential course of action is devoting as much research as possible into lessening the difficulty of the [agriculture] labour involved, through—of course!—technology. In both [what is now capital’s] core and periphery, how much farming will be mechanized and, more importantly, which tasks should not be mechanized remain open questions. So, too, is the meaning of mechanization, and what kinds of tools can spare labour without excess energy-intensive extraction. How much we can replace hard labour with constant attention through human presence and careful intervention in natural cycles is another open question.

In describing a novel municipal food program in Brazil that central planning, without a single robot deployed, scaled up to feeding hundreds of thousands from forest-adjacent farm to city table, political agroecologist Jahi Chappell suggested our social institutions can be as unworldly an advance as any handheld gadget:

The truth is that the future will be based not on the promises of whiz-bang technology, but on the more mundane features of the decisions our societies make about what we will do, how we will do it, and who will get to decide. That is, our future fates are based on our institutions. “Institutions,” as a technical term, refers to the rules prevalent in a society. They are essentially about how we run our lives individually and collectively, and the many conscious, and unconscious, mechanics underneath the surface. Our ancestors would likely be just as shocked at these institutional foundations of our current societies as they would be at the tools and technology that support them. Institutions, in this way, are as much the stuff of sci-fi fantasy as bleeding-edge plant breeding techniques and the Dick Tracy wrist-radio/watches some of us now wear on our wrists. 

It’s as if, as environmental humanities scholar Anthony Galluzzo posted recently, humanity, not tech is—ha—the engine of history. Again, it’ll be people, not science alone, environmental scientist Erle Ellis wrote in another Times op-ed, who’ll save us from ecological collapse.

Tech bros win-winning the world away

So what to make of this fringe of Marxian tech bros with outsized access Chappell and Galluzzo dubbed the Jetsonian Left, beyond its recapitulating industry’s penchant for finding due cause in objects, rather than in an ecosocial scope capital can’t easily flip into commodities?

Given the generic corporate marketing in what presents itself as anti-capitalist doctrine, one of the few explanations that lines up the albeit scattered dots is that Bastani and his fellow Prometheans see something they like of themselves in their bourgeois enemies. It may explain in part why Bastani, hog-tying himself this way, got his ass whipped on TV by a doddering foursome of system apologists.

And capital, so skilled at such flattery, is happy to oblige. By historian Joseph Fracchia’s account, Marx saw materialism outside merely the “stuff” of the world. Capital also deploys innovations in the social and the semiotic—through many of Chappell’s institutions it’s captured—to help organize production and the greater cultural environment in its favor.

The resulting dynamics now playing out are textbook. Reformists, observed historian Doug Greene on Facebook, are demanding revolutionaries skip what was the centennial of an outdated communist revolution. Also, they continue, “‘We should adapt the exciting ideas of [long-dead social democrat] Karl Kautsky!‘”

When the spectre of revolution re-emerges—percolating today from the Yellow Vests to Sudan and it seems increasingly underneath elsewhere—there’s always room for Leftists who propose more of the establishment as the radical path forward. It’s a road their capitalist allies and even out-and-out employers—Galluzzo points out Jacobin author Leigh Phillips works for the nuclear industry—would never let them anywhere near commandeering. 

With capitalists scared sleepless by revolution, redwashing has re-emerged.

In other words, there’s always a future, even a communist futurism, for useful idiots too smart to fail. With capitalists scared sleepless by revolution, redwashing has re-emerged. While the term has been used to denote corporate donations to Indigenous causes or redbaiting progressives, in the face of growing public abjection, the capitalist class now appears searching for the shelter of left paraphernalia beyond selling back revolt.   

And the customer-centric talent that capital seeks, showing up as if incarnating an epochal process, is now offering to scale up these win-win deliverables. Just six months ago, his Fully Automated manuscript already in press at Verso, Bastani tweeted:

I’m a big fan of capitalism from 1800-1980. It’s just now that record is facing serious, sustained, and arguably secular challenges.

Just now, mind you. After Native American genocide, Black slavery, Victorian holocausts, child labour, the Great Depression and Nazi Germany, Vietnam and fifty years of other proxy wars, and environmental ruination across the global South. “Challenges,” he calls them, as if on spec, pitching some Silicon Valley moneybags. Because, yeah, those guys, biohacking their computer selves to liver failure or dying in line at the Mount Everest gift shop, should arbitrate the world’s next steps.

The automation pursued out of such base appeals may be increasing in extent and luxury, but there’s little communist about it. People and the planet deserve far better.

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

June readings

A Latvian ecovillage based on The Ringing Cedars of Russia. (Santa Zembaha/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA)

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.

Not Afraid of the Ruins is back! In June, we launched the second season of our series of science fiction with an environmental justice twist. And we have two excellent new articles for you, one on women’s organizing against extractivism in southern Africa, another continuing the debate on utopia and science, by Max Ajl. We also highlight more articles criticizing Fully Automated Luxury Communism, and feature a discussion on the merits of and problems with utopian thinking. Finally, we are featuring an older article by Peter Staudenmaier on fascist environmentalism—something every ecologist should be aware of. 

 

Uneven Earth updates

The right to say no | Link | Women organizing against extractivism in southern Africa

All the water | Link | “Everything was on autopilot; the only thing the operator had to do was push a virtual button to engage the missiles.”

Dispatch from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec | Link | What it will take to build alliances with our neighbors to the South

How much will the US Way of Life © have to change? | Link | On the future of farming, socialist science, and utopia


Top 5 articles to read

Ecofascism / fascist ideology: the “green wing” of the Nazi Party and its historical antecedents

Social collapse and climate breakdown

Climate change, dust bowls, and fishery collapse: metabolic rifts of capitalism and the need for socialism

“Batshit jobs” – no-one should have to destroy the planet to make a living

Why a hipster, vegan, green tech economy is not sustainable


News you might’ve missed

State projects leave tens of thousands of lives in the balance in Ethiopia

Dam in Ethiopia has wiped out indigenous livelihoods, report finds

Only 60 years of farming left if soil degradation continues

Climate change-fueled valley fever is hitting farmworkers hard

340+ organisations call on the EU to immediately halt trade negotiations with Brazil on the grounds of deteriorating human rights and environmental conditions.

Faces of war: Kurdistan’s armed struggle against Islamic State

Carbon emissions from energy industry rise at fastest rate since 2011

African city heat is set to grow intolerably

To stop destruction of Liberia’s rainforest, he put his life on the line. Alfred Brownell had to flee Liberia after challenging the powerful palm oil and other extractive industries that were clearing its forests. But he remains committed to seeing that the West African nation’s biodiverse lands be developed sustainably and the rights of its indigenous peoples respected.

Public concern over climate crisis reaches record high in UK



Indigenous struggles

Old neighbors, new battles

White allies, let’s be honest about decolonization

The shoreline still provides dinner, despite climate change and private property



Utopia, sci-fi, and the apocalypse

Change is divine: How sci-fi visionary Octavia Butler influenced this Detroit revolutionary

Utopia isn’t just idealistic fantasy – it inspires people to change the world

The end of the world will be a non-event

The empty radicalism of the climate apocalypse



Where we’re at: analysis

The Great Wheel.  A 2015 article debating accelerationism vs. autonomism. 

The dictatorship of the present

Touted as ‘development,’ land grabs hurt local communities, and women most of all

Largest animal epidemic in history is due to industrial farming

US military is a bigger polluter than as many as 140 countries – shrinking this war machine is a must

The significance of the Sudanese revolution

One hundred years after World War I, are we heading back to the abyss?

Connecting the dots: Insane trade and climate chaos

The roots of the French far right’s rise

The European far right’s environmental turn

How to truly decolonise the study of Africa

A Chernobyl guide to the future

Who owns tomorrow?



Just think about it…

Will climate change kill everyone — or just lots and lots of people?

Ancient water-saving can help modern Peru

Decentralized microgridding can provide 90% of a neighborhood’s energy needs, study finds

Carmageddon: it’s killing urban life. We must reclaim our cities before it’s too late

Why ‘Game of Thrones’ was about ecomodernism

The mindfulness conspiracy. It is sold as a force that can help us cope with the ravages of capitalism, but with its inward focus, mindful meditation may be the enemy of activism.

Training a single AI model can emit as much carbon as five cars in their lifetimes

The easy way out: How the pursuit of convenience produces new forms of inconvenience

How a ‘repair economy’ creates a kinder, more caring community

How ‘maintainers’, not ‘innovators’, make the world turn. “The vast majority of technologies that surround us and underpin our lives are not innovations, and the vast majority of labor in our culture is not focused on introducing or adopting new things, but on keeping things going.”

The Chinese government should support small scale agriculture for a green China

Think prairie grasslands are just “boring grass”? Think again

As climate change worsens, some people might decide to DIY a solution

The reason Australia doesn’t have nuclear power: the workers fought back

Steven Pinker is selling Reason™, not reason



Fully automated luxury communism—and its critics

Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Artificial stupidity

Gee Whiz! Communism is sure gonna be keen!

A utopian vision of communism’s techno-future



New politics

To free ourselves, we must feed ourselves. Leah Penniman on bringing people of color back to the land.

Building the new left economics: public-commons partnerships and new circuits of ownership

We don’t just need a Universal Basic Income, we need a Universal Basic Services System. Here’s what it would look like.

Agroecology: a systems approach. How scientists propose that we feed the future… and solve a host of other problems at the same time.

Modern Monetary Theory: meet the economists fighting the economy

Paper straws won’t save the planet – we need a four-day week

I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle. Fight the oil and gas industry instead.

The new left economics: how a network of thinkers is transforming capitalism

Why I’m no longer Vegan™. A video essay on why vegan activism needs to be anti-capitalist.



Radical municipalism

Is Strong Towns NIMBY, YIMBY, or what?

Every NIMBY’s speech at a public hearing

What if a city decides it can live without a freeway?

How a Montreal working-class neighbourhood’s activists changed Quebec and Canada 

Tenants won this round

From green gentrification to resilience gentrification: An example from Brooklyn

Berlin senate approves a five-year rent freeze

Follow the carbon. The case for neighborhood-level carbon footprints.



Degrowth and the Green New Deal

Is it time to end our fixation with GDP and growth?

Economic growth: a short history of a controversial idea

The Green New Deal: whither capitalism?

10 pillars of the Green New Deal for Europe

New study dismisses green growth policies as a route out of ecological emergency

Degrowth: a call for radical socio-ecological transformation

The “do more” mindset is ruining the planet. A video explainer.



Plastics and waste

We might not have enough materials for all the solar panels and wind turbines we need

The economy of wastefulness: the biology of the commons

The feminist, anti-colonialist scientific approach to micro-plastics and pollution

Where does your plastic go? Global investigation reveals America’s dirty secret

Boom goes the plastics industry

Humans have made 8.3bn tons of plastic since 1950. This is the illustrated story of where it’s gone



Resources

An alternative economics summer reading list

Against militarism on Mother Earth. A collection of readings.

Caring labor. An archive of resources.



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

Metamphynus baalis

Obra de Julian Bonequi

por Iliana Vargas

I

Por tercera vez durante cuarenta minutos, Olga daba vueltas entre la sala y la cocina buscando los anteojos. Era extraña su manera de buscar las cosas, pues aunque ya hubiera revisado dos o tres veces en el mismo lugar, lo volvía a hacer sabiendo que no encontraría nada. Para concentrarse mejor, subía el volumen de la música que estaba escuchando [estridente ya de por sí]. Pero nada. Los anteojos esta vez parecían haber desaparecido. Angustiada porque sin ellos no podría hacer la mayor parte de las actividades planificadas para ese día, se recostó un momento a lado de la puerta de entrada, donde sentía que el aire rozaba directamente su cuerpo [al menos más que por la ventana, donde las oleadas eran siempre breves y tibias]. Entonces escuchó los golpes.

Se sobresaltó un poco, porque siempre que se visita a alguien, se toca el timbre y no la puerta –a golpes– de la casa en cuestión. La extrañeza que sentía al saber que había alguien allá afuera era doble porque casi nadie llegaba hasta ese extremo del pueblo para ir a buscarla. Pensó que si no se movía, quienquiera que estuviera del otro lado de la puerta se iría pronto. Pero después de cinco minutos, algo dentro de su pecho empezó a tensarse, como si supiera que la inmovilidad era algo poco natural en esa posición. Los golpes seguían, cada vez más desesperados, y esa insistencia le produjo un choque eléctrico que le recorrió las vértebras, obligándola a levantarse y abrir, con violencia, la puerta.

– ¿Qué te pasa? ¿Por qué pegas así? ¿Qué no ves el timbre?

– ¡Lo he tocado ya muchas veces, pero quizá usted no lo ha escuchado! ¡Yo oigo perfectamente lo que suena ahí dentro! –dijo El Visitante, casi a gritos.

Olga se le quedó viendo, callada, atendiendo al sonido más que a él. Veinte segundos bastaron para darse cuenta de que los ruidos provenientes del estéreo envolvían no sólo todo el espacio tras su espalda, sino el jardín entero y la enramada que llevaba al pueblo.

– ¡Aaaaah…! A ver, espera, voy a bajar el volumen.

Pero él la tomó del brazo y le dijo que lo escuchara primero, antes de volver a entrar.

– Usted no me conoce, pero creo que debería asomarse a la habitación del primer piso de su casa y sacar de ahí al bisonte que acaba de entrar por la ventana.

– ¿Un bisonte?

– Es un bebé bisonte, no se asuste.

– ¿Pero qué tiene que hacer un bisonte –grande o chico– aquí, a la orilla de un acantilado patagónico, donde pega el aire térmico más denso del Sur del mundo?

– ¡Ah! Eso quisiera yo explicarle. Mire, esa especie de bisonte no es muy popular; de hecho sólo existen tres en el Cuadrante Cósmico Oriente, y usted tuvo la mala fortuna de encontrarse en las coordenadas donde ubicaron a Luly… así se llama…

Olga lo interrumpió con una mirada brusca, inquisitiva.

– No, a ver, espera. Más raro que rondar una zona por donde sólo se puede pasear de noche, lo que yo me pregunto es cómo hizo un bebé bisonte para subir al primer piso de mi casa y entrar por la ventana.

–  Justo eso es lo que estaba…

– ¡No! ¡Espera! En realidad, lo que no entiendo es para qué carajos va a querer entrar un bebé bisonte a mi cuarto, y cómo sabes que es un bebé y que trepó hasta ahí. Digamos… Si lo estás viendo trepar, ¿por qué no lo detienes, aventándole una piedra, o asustándolo a gritos, o algo? Y en vez de eso esperas hasta que esté dentro y entonces sí tocas la puerta, como desquiciado, sin pensar…

– Ahora espéreme usted a mí. No hay necesidad de exaltarse tanto. Bueno, es natural dada la situación; pero me parece que si escuchara lo que intento explicarle acerca de ese bebé bisonte, comprendería mejor por qué sólo debe subir y animarlo a salir de ahí, ofreciéndole un pedazo de carne roja cruda marinada en miel. Yo le ayudo a prepararla si quiere, señorita… ¿Cómo se llama?

El Visitante se animó a dar un paso, con la intención de cruzar el umbral de la puerta, pero Olga se le adelantó, saliendo al jardín y haciéndole un gesto con la cabeza, para que volteara hacia arriba:    

– Soy Olga… Me hablas como si te diera lo mismo que ahora yo te dijera “¡Mira, un tiburón atraviesa el cielo tragándose todas las nubes!”.

El Visitante se quedó callado, pensativo. El fondo del cielo se abrió de pronto ante sus  ojos y, sin poder evitarlo, sostuvo la mirada allá arriba, el tiempo suficiente para visualizar cualquier atrocidad entre  las nubes.

– Satisfacer el hambre de un tiburón debe ser mucho más terrible que lo que hay que hacer con el bebé bisonte. Y en realidad no es tan complicado –dijo El Visitante, mientras se asomaba al interior de la casa, decidido a entrar–, a menos que usted esté embarazada.

– ¿Embarazada?

– Sí. Si usted está embarazada, el bebé bisonte no se irá hasta que el feto muera y pueda sorberlo a través de su ombligo.

II

Entraron directo a la cocina. La música había terminado hacía rato, y era más fácil distinguir los ruidos dentro y fuera de la casa. En particular, estaban atentos a los movimientos que se adivinaban en el piso de arriba: el bebé bisonte parecía estar dando vueltas alrededor de la cama, pero los intervalos de sus pasos denotaban una pausa muy larga justo cuando llegaba a la cabecera… Es como si se detuviera a inspeccionar la almohada y luego siguiera adelante, pensaba Olga, sin apartar la mirada del techo, justo hacia el punto donde se encontraba su habitación, allá arriba.

– ¿Qué estará buscando el bicho ése en mi cuarto?

– Usted no sabe la cantidad de información que se desprende de su cuerpo mientras duerme, señorita Olga… Un bebé bisonte de la especie Metamphynus baalis es capaz de distinguir los humores fertilizados de las mujeres en los restos del sueño, y no me refiero tan sólo a la saliva, el sudor o los cabellos que se desprenden durante esos lapsos de inconsciencia, sino a lo que su cuerpo onírico exuda: muchas veces, la vida que transcurre en duermevela no llega a manifestarse en la vigilia, a la luz del día, pero algunos de sus pasajes suelen detonar sucesos que ocurren cuando usted despierta. O viceversa. En este caso, si usted está embarazada y aún no es consciente de ello, el bebé bisonte lo descubrirá después de olfatear o lamer tales exudaciones expuestas, evidentemente, en las sábanas y la almohada de su cama.

– Y si lo estoy, querrá pegárseme al ombligo y tragarse por ahí al óvulo fecundado… Es como si él supiera…

– Exacto: que usted no desea un hijo.

– Pero no me he realizado ninguna prueba… ¿Qué tal que no estoy embarazada y el bebé bisonte termina por sorberme el estómago y las vísceras; o le hacen daño mis jugos gástricos?

– Sólo hay una forma de averiguarlo. A ver, dígame una cosa: ¿usted ha expuesto su organismo al riesgo de ser incubado?

Ambos se quedaron en silencio, mirándose.

– Sí. Pero se suponía que el Exoesqueleto no quería eso. Ni yo. Ya sabes que sólo cuando ambos organismos comparten la visión reproductiva al momento del acto sexual, se puede dar una fertilización híbrida. De otra forma, no es posible que la información genética de ambas especies se configure en una sola… ¿Y entonces?

– Pues en este caso, el inconsciente de alguno de ustedes –o de ambos– transgredió los límites entre las leyes racionales de este mundo y las leyes naturales de alguno –o varios– mundos espejo.

– Pero yo no quiero un hijo. Nunca lo he querido; ni en esta vida ni en ninguna otra… No tiene sentido.

– Sí y no, señorita Olga: por eso el bebé bisonte está aquí.   

III

El silencio les hizo interrumpir la conversación. Al parecer, todo había vuelto a la calma allá arriba. Se miraron un momento y El Visitante hizo un gesto con la cabeza, indicándole que fueran a ver. Sin embargo, justo cuando iban a abrir la puerta de la cocina, él la tomó del brazo, deteniéndola otra vez, pero ahora con más fuerza. Un bramido como de agua borboteando era todo lo que se escuchaba, y ese todo, indicaba sólo una cosa: el bebé bisonte preparaba el camino entre sus fauces, su tráquea y su flora intestinal, asegurándose de salivar y humedecer bien la lengua y los labios de su inmenso hocico.

– Es importante que usted no tenga miedo. El bisonte, de cerca, le parecerá más grande de lo que es, y el proceso será incómodo, pero no dolerá. Si le teme, el bebé bisonte recibirá una señal confusa entre lo que debe y no debe hacer, y…

– ¿Y? ¿Has estado presente otras veces, mientras esto sucede, como ahora? No me has dicho qué pasará con mi organismo después de esto. ¡¿Cómo me pides que no tenga miedo ante un bisonte succionador?!

– Es la primera vez que una Incubada me abre la puerta y me escucha. Yo sólo he leído sobre estas cosas, y deseo atestiguarlo desde hace años. Pero no… nunca…

– ¿Y los textos? ¡¿Qué dicen los textos; cuáles son los resultados?!

– ¡No lo sé…! Siempre se habla de la culminación exitosa de este proceso; de lo bien que funciona el instinto del bebé bisonte; de lo importante que es no interponerse en su labor; de la necesidad de evitar el término de cualquier fertilización no deseada; de…

El Visitante no pudo decir más al ver la enorme cabeza del bebé bisonte que asomaba ya por la puerta de la cocina. Olga comprendió que aquello de bebé, como siempre, obedecía a una noción distinta dependiendo de la especie y del mundo espejo del que provenía. Intentó controlar la impresión de que el inmenso animal la tragaría entera, pero su reacción al miedo fue curiosa: empezó a escupir todos los dientes delanteros en la palma de su mano y se los entregó a El Visitante, para que tuviera constancia de lo que estaba a punto de atestiguar por primera, y quizá, única vez. 

Iliana Vargas (Ciudad de México, 1978). Estudió Letras Hispánicas en la Facultad de Filosofía y Letras de la UNAM. Narradora de ficción especulativa, es autora de Joni Munn y otras alteraciones del psicosoma (2012); Magnetofónica (2015) y Habitantes del aire caníbal (2017). Formó parte de The Mexicanx Initiative, para participar en la WorldCon76, en San José California. 

Este cuento fue editado por Diana Vela Almeida.

Este cuento es parte de Not afraid of the ruins, nuestra serie de ciencia ficción e imaginaciones utópicas.

The right to say no

Randfontein Mine, Johannesburg, South Africa. Image source: Flickr Creative Commons License

by Boniface Mabanza Bambu

Colonialism with its dominant patriarchal and racist ideologies did not accept alternative ways of living. Its faith in the superiority of Western ways of thinking justified the violent destruction of original economic, social and ecological balances in all the regions of the world it invaded. Colonialism propagated an alienation from nature and an ecocide which nowadays finds its continuation in extractivism. As German philosopher Ernst Bloch put it, humans think they have the right to relate to nature like an occupation army relates to enemy territory. In many parts of the world, governments and mining companies act as if they had the God-given right to exploit the land at the expense of local communities and women in particular. Extractivist actors form the greatest threat to rural communities and women today, in particular where women’s land ownership is inhibited by tradition.

The wealth leaves the country while the social and ecological destruction remains on site.

In southern Africa many communities are being robbed of their land. National governments most of the times condone this practice of land grabbing due to the pressure of the transnational corporations that are being granted the right to extract minerals from the earth. Almost everywhere in the region people are under the impression that local communities cannot deny governments and corporations access to the land if it is needed for mining purposes. The governments let themselves be persuaded by memoranda of understanding by the companies that always promise to not only contribute to the wealth of the countries but also to directly improve the situation of the local communities. They promise the creation of jobs and to enhance infrastructures for education, health and transport. In reality nothing or only very little actually happens. Mining companies reap the profits and leave behind environmental degradation and social disintegration. Whatever governments collect in the form of license fees and taxes, if they get paid, often disappears into the private accounts of the elite of the national governments who have no social connection to the communities in question. The wealth leaves the country while the social and ecological destruction remains on site.

I was born in DR Congo, a very rich country when it comes to natural resources. I have seen many of these cases in different parts of the country and they occur in many other African countries. Because extractivism particularly affects women this article wants to emphasize the importance of tying antiextractivism and feminism in a postcolonial perspective.

The negative effects of mining particularly affect women as they are the ones who carry the responsibility for the survival of the family, and families are dependent on access to the land and water that is polluted and destroyed by extractivism. In extractivist contexts, it is generally women who ensure the survival of socially disintegrated societies; the men working in the mines suffer the effects of unhealthy working conditions and become prone to alcoholism, and women consequently dedicate more time to care work—while also facing an increase in domestic violence.

In light of these developments it is important to understand the scope of many local initiatives against extractivism. They are campaigning for realizing their “Right to Say No.” In South Africa for example, there is the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA), a law that prescribes that mining companies must consult all concerned parties before starting their activities. Unfortunately, South Africa is not an exception to the general picture in which both national governments and transnational companies reduce the required consultation processes to mere formalities, which suggests that they hold colonialist beliefs about their unchallengeable right to access the land of local communities: landowners and users cannot refuse access. Faced with this existential threat, the communities affected by mining are rediscovering the value of solidarity. They are joining forces to claim their space in the centre of decision-making processes concerning their communities. Doing so they are discovering the integrative strength of women, whose voices have been marginalized for so long. Claiming space at the centre of decision-making means that they design their own options for developing their communities. They don’t see a future in extractivism.

The overcoming of extractivism and the dismantling of patriarchy must be understood as a joint struggle towards decolonization.

Not only does extractivism place a heavy burden on women and their local communities; it is also harmful to the environment. This combined assault on humanity and nature is not new, but rather indicates a continuation that dates back to the birth of the colonial project. Colonialism, understood as the commodification of the earth, its treasures, its flora and fauna and particularly its people for the economic benefit of the colonizing nations, still goes hand in hand with the domination over women and nature in the self-declared civilized nations. In the colonies people were alienated from nature and, by means of forced labor, induced to develop a violent relationship to nature. This relationship is being continued in extractivism. Therefore, the overcoming of extractivism and the dismantling of patriarchy must be understood as a joint struggle towards decolonization. Extractivism and its violent relationship with nature and people in the surrounding areas of the mines is a manifestation of skewed power relations, political structures, and economic dominance that maintain colonial logic and praxis. We can only successfully overcome the crises triggered by extractivism if the voices that have been marginalized up until now, especially those of women, claim a space in the center of the process of change.

Boniface Mabanza Bambu is a theologian, philosopher and literary scholar from DRC. He works for KASA, Kirchliche Arbeitsstelle Südliches Afrika/Ecumenical Service on Southern Africa in Heidelberg, Germany where the main focus of his work is on apartheid and post-colonialism.

All the water

by Adam R. Mathews

19th March 2051

Sierra de Carrascoy, Murcia Province, Spain.

The sun glinted its last over the peak of Majal Blanco and took with it the heat of the day. In the foothills of the Carrascoy mountains, Juanjo Cavernas shivered. He reached for the shirt he’d hung from the branch of a pine tree, and when he rolled his sleeves over the golden face of his watch, he unleashed a cloud of sand from the black matting of hair that covered his arms.

The air was infused with dirt; it ignited the sky in fiery oranges, and obscured the valley below. The Huerta de Murcia, as the land was known, had once been so fertile as to feed half of Europe. But it now lay beneath a reddened fog that hid all but the sounds of explosions and impacts of metal on stone.

Among the residents of the Carrascoy mountains, not one person knew that they were witnessing the construction of the largest advert ever conceived, that when the dust settled in a decade’s time it would reveal the word ‘PapPop’ written in glowing PapSolar laminate over a million acres of what had once been their home.

Among the residents of the Carrascoy mountains, not one person knew that they were witnessing the construction of the largest advert ever conceived.

Juanjo yanked on a rope and his muscles rippled as he rattled the cord over a pulley system he’d formed from old car parts. Again and again he tugged, until a bucket appeared splashing water from its rim. He unhooked it, knelt beside some lettuces, and dribbled liquid onto the soil with his hands.

As dusk fell, Juanjo was peeling black insect eggs from a tomato plant when he heard the rustle of tyres on tarmac. He cocked his head at the sound, dried his hands on his trousers, got up and made his way around the side of the house. At the sight of a bright yellow jeep pulling up outside, he threw himself flat against the whitewashed wall. He peeked around the corner and read the word ‘PapAqua’ printed in black over the bodywork.

Twelve-year-old Aliyá Talavera saw it all from the balcony of her house. That place had become her favourite hiding spot, where she would sit for hours on end with her knees pulled up to her chin. There she would try to forget the terror of being evicted from a city which now lay lost beneath a cloud of dust. But constant fear in her stomach would never let her be still, and the thought that kept spinning through her mind only tightened the knot of anxiety — would she ever feel normal again?

Aliyá watched the car pull up and a man get out wearing a dark suit and golden tie. His hair was slicked black against his scalp and he wore a pair of chunky PapDrive spectacles. She couldn’t make out the initials ‘PAq’ shining yellow from his lapels, nor could she hear what he said. But she peered over the railing and observed him coming through her neighbour’s gate with a single piece of paper in his hand.

“Juanjo Cavernas Galiano?” the man said.

Qué haces aquí?” asked Juanjo, coming out from the side of the house. ‘What are you doing here?’ “This is private land.”

The man smiled, and when he spoke it was with the guttural drawl so characteristic of this part of Spain. “You may have papers for this land,” he said. “But the water you are stealing is ours.”

“Says you!” Juanjo replied. “If the judges had been allowed to give their verdict, our water would still belong to the people and we wouldn’t have to live on the side of this mountain.”

“I’m not here to discuss politics, Señor Cavernas,” said the man, “I’m just doing my job. As you know, the terms of sale of Aguas de Murcia stipulated that all water in the Guadalentín watershed now belongs to PapAqua. All the water in all the rivers, all the lakes, and all the wells.”

“So, what are you going to do? Issue me with a letter?” The man held out the sheet of paper and Juanjo skimmed over it. He glanced at his watch and back at the note. “But that only gives me three minutes,” he said.

“That’s correct,” said the man. “In three minutes’ time, your property is scheduled to be destroyed in a coordinated aerial assault. Please place your finger here to acknowledge receipt.” He pointed to a corner of the letter.

“No,” said Juanjo. “If you don’t have proof that I’ve seen this letter, you have no legal way of evicting me. I did learn something in my twenty years as a solicitor.”

“The attack’s been scheduled,” said the man. “The fingerprint recognition was just for PapSec records.”

Juanjo glanced around at the darkening haze and back at the man. He took a breath and pounced, grabbing the man’s arm and forcing it up behind his back.

Juanjo glanced around at the darkening haze and back at the man. He took a breath and pounced.

“In that case,” he said, “I’ll make you stand here in front of this house like a human shield. They wouldn’t kill their own man, after all.” Juanjo forced the man’s wrist higher up his spine.

The man struggled. “Let me go!” he shouted. “If you hold me here, they’ll kill both of us!”

Juanjo thought for a moment. He glanced up at his balcony and bundled the man inside. The man flailed and kicked in resistance. “Let me go!” he yelled.

“I’m sorry for this,” said Juanjo, throwing the man to the floor and punching his face until he shouted no more. Juanjo grabbed a length of rope that he kept by the door, and lumped the PapAqua man upstairs.

Through the master bedroom they went, around the double bed with its white laundered sheets. Juanjo slid open the balcony door and dangled the man’s body over the railing. He wound the rope around the man’s legs and wrists, then tugged at the ends to make sure of the knots. Only when the man was hanging secured over the balcony did Juanjo look over the valley. In the murk, he could make out a faint light flashing in the sky. It was moving fast towards them.

Juanjo gave a final pull on the rope and dashed down the stairs. He ran outside and into the road, waving his arms and shouting. “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot! You’ll kill your own man!”

The missiles may have been speeding over southern Spain, but the operator could’ve been anywhere; his location was so secret that not even the young man himself knew that he was in a PapSec base inside the rock of Gibraltar. Through his PapDrive headset he saw only the view of the missile; if he’d looked down, he’d have seen the cloud of kicked up dirt over which he was flying, surrounded by blurry mountains and a sky that appeared grainy even to the augmented-definition cameras. But all he was watching were the numbers counting down in the corner of his sight — 2km, 1.9km, 1.8…

Everything was on autopilot; the only thing the operator had to do was push a virtual button to engage the missiles. When crosshairs appeared before him, he took aim as if his empty hands were holding a joystick with both thumbs on the trigger. As the target approached, he spotted a man on the roadway waving his hands and jumping up and down. “What the…?” the operator said to himself. But he had no time to finish the thought before the target blinked red and he clicked the projected button to crash a pair of missiles into the ground.

The blast rocked Aliyá’s house and engulfed it in black dust. She jumped to her feet, cried “Juanjo!” and charged down the stairs and out of the door, her parents close behind her.

The Talaveras weren’t the first to get to Juanjo’s body; his other neighbours were already there. Old Carmen Hueso was kneeling with Juanjo’s head in her hands. Her husband was standing over the scene in his suit and golf club tie.

“Is he okay?” asked Aliyá’s mother, Dolores. “What on Earth happened?”

“He’s breathing, at least,” said Carmen. “And I don’t think he’s broken anything.”

“There were two big explosions,” said her husband. “One right after the other, and now it’s all gone.” He glanced over the road, and the Talaveras followed his gaze. In the clearing dust, they could just make out a yellow SUV with ‘PapAqua’ printed on the side, and a great hole in the rock where Juanjo’s house once stood.

Juanjo stirred. “I killed him,” he muttered. “I killed a PapCorp employee. We have to leave. They’re going to come after me.”

“Who will come after you?” asked Eduardo Hueso, Juanjo’s one-time senior partner. “You’ve just been blown up. I don’t imagine you’re really in a state to go anywhere right now.”

Juanjo sat himself up. “We need to go up into the mountains,” he said. “Somewhere they can’t find us.”

“There are wolves up there,” said Carmen. “I’m not sure it’s safe.”

“There are also a lot of people,” said Dolores. “From those we’ve seen going past our window these past few weeks, there must be hundreds taking refuge there now.”

“And there’s safety in numbers,” Aliyá’s father added.

“We can’t live on the side of a mountain,” said Eduardo. “I didn’t work all my life to end up squatting like a caveman. We’ve got supplies here. We’ll open up our well and we’ll survive on that.”

“They’ll do the same to you,” said Dolores. “When you or anyone else takes water from a well, they’ll come after you, too. PapAqua own all the water in all the wells.”

“Then what are we going to do?”

Aliyá put her hand up to speak. “A friend of mine lives up there,” she said, “with his mum and dad. We go climbing together sometimes. He told me that they’ve built a system to collect the rain out of tree branches and bits of old pipe. They’re digging holes to keep the water and ditches in the forest to plant seeds. They make houses by cutting into the side of the hills, and then cover them with leaves and grass to hide themselves.”

“You see?” said Juanjo, unbuckling his watch. “We’ll survive up there, just as long as we’re left alone, that is.” He took hold of the soft leather strap and slammed the face against a rock.

“Hey!” said Eduardo, “I gave you that!”

“They can track us with it,” Juanjo responded, smashing the face again. “You should do the same, Eduardo.”

“I don’t think so,” said Juanjo’s former boss, fingering the timepiece on his own left wrist. “This watch is one of the very few things I have left. And who knows, I may need to trade it one of these days. What are you doing now?”

Juanjo had tossed the shattered watch into the overgrowth, unbuttoned his shirt, and was now loosening his trousers. “I don’t want them to find me,” he said. “From now on, I renounce all possessions. It’ll be like a return to Eden. Are you going to join me?”

Adam R. Mathews is a novelist and a teacher, an incessant traveller, and a keen localist. After the idea of a corporate dystopia came to him, he spent years living across Europe, immersing himself in the cultures, quirks, and social movements of his adopted homes. He weaves his experiences into his writing to make fiction that challenges the shortcomings of neoliberalism. His latest novel PapRise: ‘A Tale of Growth and Betrayal or How PapCorp came to rule the World’ will be released in the summer of 2019. He writes at aimlesswanderer.org.

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

Dispatch from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec

Photo: Francisco Dominguez

by Addison Winslow

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Max Ajl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May readings

Illustration by Annie Xing Zhao

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

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

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


Top 5 articles to read

Spadework. On political organizing.

The radical plan to save the planet by working less

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

How a beloved Bay Area bakery is tackling the housing crisis

Labor does you



News you might’ve missed

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

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

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

The Yellow Vests of France: six months of struggle

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

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

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

Corporate trade tribunals used by mining companies against communities and governments

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



Indigenous struggles

The long read: bullet ants and stolen land

The Yurok nation just established the rights of the Klamath river

Brazilian Indigenous peoples propose boycott

Native knowledge: What ecologists are learning from Indigenous people

Dam violence against environmental defenders

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



Where we’re at: analysis

The ruin of the digital town square

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

Far-right identity politics and the task for the Left

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

The problem of the Left is its reactive position in politics

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

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

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



Just think about it…

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

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

How to make wind power sustainable again

Psychedelic socialism

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

Why green pledges will not create the natural forests we need

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

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

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

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



New politics

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

How to build a sustainable food system

Solidarity economy: Case studies from Rojava and Jackson, Mississippi

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

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

Inside the growing Indonesian anarchist movement

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



Radical municipalism

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

Why America can’t solve homelessness

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

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

How parks help cities adapt to climate change

How communities are contesting green inequities

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

Mobile home residents are trying to save affordable housing

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

Which US cities have concrete strategies for environmental justice?



Degrowth and the Green New Deal

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

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

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

How the Green New Deal happened: the view from 2030

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

An Indigenous critique of the Green New Deal

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

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

Time for Europe to stop growing and grow up

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



Resources

Elements of the democratic economy

History from below: a reading list with Marcus Rediker

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



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

April readings

Source: Ecohustler

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

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

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


Uneven Earth updates

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


Top 5 articles to read

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

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

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

Climate chaos is coming — and the Pinkertons are ready

Degrowth vs. the Green New Deal



News you might’ve missed

Restoring forests rules out growing crops

Resource extraction responsible for half world’s carbon emissions

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

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

The mass movement that toppled Omar al-Bashir

Women are leading the protests in Sudan

Bolsonaro’s three-month rule is a disaster

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

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


Extinction rebellion

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

Extinction Rebellion: inside the new climate resistance

The origins and rise of the Extinction Symbol

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

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

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


Where we’re at: analysis

Western industrial farming is eating our forests and accelerating climate change

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

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

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


Green New Deal

Between the devil and the Green New Deal

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

It begins with the land

The Green New Deal must have a zero waste policy

What’s the deal with the Green New Deal?

Could a Green New Deal make us happier people?

Organizing to win a Green New Deal

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


Limits to extractivism

The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust

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

Going 100% renewable power means a lot of dirty mining

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

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

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

The dirty truth about green batteries


Just think about it…

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

What lies beneath: Robert Macfarlane travels ‘Underland’

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

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

Imagining social movements: from networks to dynamic systems

The tragedy of “the tragedy of the commons”

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

A case for small climate stories

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

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

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

Names and locations of the top 100 people killing the planet


Radical municipalism

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

Shade

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

The anarchists who took the commuter train

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

How gentrification impacts community bonds

Barcelona and urban planning: the ultimate potential of superblocks

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

The Airbnb invasion of Barcelona

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

Where it hits, gentrification hits hard

New Orleans gentrification tied to Hurricane Katrina

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

How to design our neighborhoods for happiness

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

The healing power of gardens


New politics

Patterns for cooperative networks and associations

What’s in a just transition?

Youths strike for climate change

A new social contract for the 21st century

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

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


Sci-fi and climate change

17 writers on the role of fiction in addressing climate change


Resources

Get up and get going: How to form a group

10 tips on receiving critical feedback: A guide for activists

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

Learning: Exploring post-extractivism

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

A guide to climate violence


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

Degrowth is utopian, and that’s a good thing

by Giorgos Kallis

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

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

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

Tired dichotomies

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

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

Dialectical utopias

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

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

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

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

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

Unscientific socialism?

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

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

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

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

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

The past is not proof of the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

Degrowth: radical abundance

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

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

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

Relative versus absolute scarcity

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

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

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

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

Bending material reality is not scientific

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

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

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

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

Fixed desires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reducing complex debate into outdated binaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

February & March readings

Illustration by Paige Wickers.

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

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

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

 

Uneven Earth updates

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

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

 

Top 5 articles to read

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

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

Why science needs philosophy

Lessons from the history of environmentalism

The case against lawns

 

News you might’ve missed

WWF funds guards who have tortured and killed people

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

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

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

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

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

The shells of wild sea butterflies are already dissolving

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

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

 

Perspectives on well-being and development

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where we’re at: analysis

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

Cyclone Idai lays bare the fundamental injustice of climate change