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).

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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).

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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

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

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

The hidden environmental toll of mining the world’s sand  

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

Bolsonaro and the death of social housing

Bolsonarism and “frontier capitalism”

The Philippine left in a changing land

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

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

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

Good enough to eat? The toxic truth about modern food

 

Degrowth and the Green New Deal

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

A Green New Deal must not be tied to economic growth

Growthism: its ecological, economic and ethical limits

A bold new plan to tackle climate change ignores economic orthodoxy

Organizing to win a Green New Deal

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

How a Green New Deal could exploit developing countries

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

 

White power and eco-fascism

The Christchurch massacre and the white power movement

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

 

Plastics and waste

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

Mapping USA electronics manufacturing pollution

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

The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust

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

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

 

Just think about it…

Go home to your ‘dying’ hometown

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

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

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

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

Indigenous knowledge has been warning us about climate change for centuries

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

Don’t blame robots for low wages

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

Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth

Native American Libertarian Socialism

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

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

 

Radical municipalism

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

To save urban planners, cities need community organizers

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

How poor Americans get exploited by their landlords

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

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

The Amazon drama

Amazon’s defeat is local and global

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

In defense of tenants: An interview with Omaha tenants united

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

 

New politics, hope, and visions for the future

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

Where do good organizers come from?

How to seize the means

Voices of Bakur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Resources

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

A video introduction to Elinor Ostrom’s work

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

Exploring post-extractivism. A library.

Bibliography of critical approaches to toxics and toxicity

 

 

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

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Is Heidegger’s philosophy anti-Semitic?

by Rembrandt Zegers

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

After the war

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Rafa Grinfeld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

January readings

Photo: Amber Bracken for The New York Times

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

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

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

Uneven Earth updates

Gilets Jaunes: A slap in the face of our vocabulary | LinkA report from an observer


Top 5 articles to read

Twelve step method to conduct regime change

Bill Gates says poverty is decreasing. He couldn’t be more wrong

Her left hand, the darkness

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

The political economy of Half-Earth


Venezuela

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

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

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

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

Venezuela Speaks Out against the Coup | Venezuelanalysis.com


News you might’ve missed

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

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

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

Bolsonaro government reveals plan to develop the ‘Unproductive Amazon’

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

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

How Police Are Preparing for a Standoff Over Enbridge Line 3


The future (and past) of farming and energy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Where we’re at: analysis

Headless populism and the political ecology of alienation | ENTITLE blog

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

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

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

The zombie technofix: Carbon capture and storage | The Ecologist

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

Davos and ‘capitalist time’

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

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

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

Degrowth and the Green New Deal

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

Discussing Degrowth with Giorgos Kallis – Plan A Academy

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

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

Inequality and the ecological transition — Jason Hickel

Economic expansion boosts carbon emissions, despite green-tech gains


Indigenous struggles

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

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

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

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


Just think about it…

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

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

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

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


Radical municipalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suburb Socialism – Dispatchula – Medium


New politics

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

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

Remembering Erik Olin Wright | Dissent Magazine

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

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

Seeing Wetiko: An interview with Alnoor Ladha – Ecologise

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


Resources

When your research is attacked | Discard Studies

What Is Settler-Colonialism? | Teaching Tolerance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilets Jaunes: A slap in the face of our vocabulary

Photo: Aurélien Adoue

by shrese

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

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


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

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

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

Source: Collectif Quantité Critique


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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Thomas Bresson

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

In essence, the idea goes like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Its tactics, practices and “victories”

The blockades

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

Decentralisation

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

Refusal of representation

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

Victories

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

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

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

Photo: Patrice Catalayu

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December readings

Photo by Abdulmonam Eassa, via ROAR Magazine

 

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

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

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

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

 

Uneven Earth updates

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

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

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

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

 

Top 5 articles to read

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

Which municipalism? Let’s be choosy

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

How plastic is a function of colonialism

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

 

News you might’ve missed

How TigerSwan infiltrated Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline movement

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

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

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

All out against Bolsonaro!: An appeal from Brazil

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

 

Radical municipalism

Reflections on Olympia Assembly: An experiment in popular power

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

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

 

New politics

Twelve uplifting stories from indigenous peoples in 2018

Decolonize the frontiers: The Mississippi Delta

Extinction Rebellion – in or out?

Extinction Rebellion: Notes from an old white man

Growth pessimism, but degrowth optimism

We need an ecological civilization before it’s too late

 

Where we’re at: analysis

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

The new autocrats: How democracy helps leaders consolidate power

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

Fear of cultural loss fuelling anger with elites across Europe

 

Just think about it…

Unhinged GDP growth could actually destroy the economy, economists find

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

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

 

Green new deal

We can pay for a Green New Deal

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

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

 

Yellow vest movement

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

Paris/Maidan

The guillotine: yellow vest protests in France and Cyntoia Brown

Five notes on the yellow vest movement

Macron’s climate tax is a disaster

 

Eco-primitivism and its critics

The unlikely new generation of unabomber acolytes

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

The preppers are coming to town

 

Climate and culture

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

Hopepunk, explained: the storytelling trend that weaponizes optimism

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

 

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

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

A new North American network emerges from the grassroots

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symbiosis is a network of community organizations across North America, building a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Find out more and contact us at symbiosis-revolution.org or info@symbiosis-revolution.org.

Time for the subaltern to speak

Sergio Ruiz Cayuela

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

I will tell you something about stories,

[he said]

They aren’t just entertainment.

Don’t be fooled.

They are all we have, you see,

All we have to fight off

illness and death.

Leslie Silko, Ceremony (1977)

 

Developing a subaltern consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Subaltern voices and resistance in guerilla narratives

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

by Anya Verkamp and Riccardo Mastini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why we need alternatives to development

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

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

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

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

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

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

Development and sustainability: matching the unmatchable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November readings

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


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

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

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

 

Uneven Earth updates

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

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

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

 

Top 5 articles to read

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

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

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

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

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

 

News you might’ve missed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Migration

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

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

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

 

Resistance in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

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

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

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

Tax havens and Brazilian Amazon deforestation linked: study

4 indigenous leaders on what Bolsonaro means for Brazil

 

The great grazing debate

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

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

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

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

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

And from around the web…

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

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

 

Radical municipalism

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

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

How local communities can transition to sustainable energy systems

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

Single-family housing upholds the patriarchy and hurts moms

Automated vehicles can’t save cities.

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

On the frontline: Loneliness and the politics of austerity.

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

 

Degrowth

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

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

Faustian economics. Hell hath no limits.

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

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

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

Degrowth is the radical post-Brexit future the UK needs

 

New politics

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

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

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

Libertarian municipalism & Murray Bookchin’s legacy

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

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

Why we need alternatives to development

 

Green new deal

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

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

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

Beyond the Green New Deal

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

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

 

Where we’re at: analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Just think about it…

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

Why the Enlightenment was not the age of reason

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

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

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

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

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

Culture and nature in the epic of Gilgamesh

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

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

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

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

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

 

Climate change and the role of art

The influence of climate fiction: An empirical survey of readers

Why we need utopian fiction now more than ever

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

Weathering this world with comics

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

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

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

Why everyone should read The Dispossessed

 

Resources

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

A syllabus for radical hope

Inhabit: Instructions for autonomy

Land acknowledgements: uncovering an oral history of Tkaronto

 

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

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

How circular is the circular economy?

Illustration: Diego Marmolejo.

by Kris De Decker

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

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

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

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

 

Too complex to recycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How can you recycle energy sources?

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

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

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

 

Input exceeds output

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

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

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

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

 

Accumulation of resources

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

Circular-economy-diego
Illustration: Diego Marmolejo.

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

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

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

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

 

The true face of the circular economy

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared on Low-tech Magazine.

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

 

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why libertarian municipalism is more needed today than ever before

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

by Tyler Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A politics of empowerment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cities and towns at the forefront

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

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

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

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

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

 

The left must rebuild political life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Legitimacy crisis

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

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

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

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

An example from South Africa

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

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

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

Fighting fascism with full democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Techno-fantasies and eco-realities

by Corporate Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

October readings

Art by Jocine Velasco. Source: Commune Mag

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

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

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

 

Uneven Earth updates

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

Dark municipalism | Link | The dangers of local politics

 

Top 5 articles to read

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

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

The freedom of real apologies

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

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

 

News you might’ve missed

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

White House drops scheme to bail out coal, nukes

Surprise acquittal in Enbridge pipeline protesters’ case

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

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

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

Changing climate forces desperate Guatemalans to migrate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

We’ve got 12 years: responses to the IPCC

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

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

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

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

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

IPCC report: First thoughts on next steps by Sydney Azari

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

Climate breakdown, capitalism and democracy

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

Billionaires are the leading cause of climate change

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

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

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

 

Sveriges Riksbank’s prize in economics

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

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

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

Nobel Prizes in economics, awarded and withheld

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

Climate change and growth – Nordhaus and Romer

Why economists can’t understand complex systems

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

 

Bolsonaro in Brazil

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

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

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

Neo-fascist Bolsonaro followers attack people throughout Brazil

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

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

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

 

Radical municipalism

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

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

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

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

Spain to close most coalmines in €250m transition deal

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

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

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

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

 

Degrowth

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

Degrowth in the suburbs

Economic growth: The party’s over, says IMF

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

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

Degrowth: closing the global wealth divide

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

 

New technologies and false solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacques Ellul: A prophet for our tech-saturated times

 

Plastics and waste

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

Microplastics are turning up everywhere, even in human excrement

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

 

New politics

Taiwan is revolutionizing democracy

Rojava: Between city and village, between war and ecology

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where we’re at: analysis

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

How to restore Florida’s dammed waterways

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

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

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

Fracking democracy, criminalising dissent

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

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

The rise of border imperialism

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

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

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

 

Just think about it…

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

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

Can’t sleep? Perhaps you’re overtired

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

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

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

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

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

No future: From punk to zapatismo and connected multitudes

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

 

Resources

An interactive map of China’s wildcat strikes

UNDER WATER: How rising waters cost us all

A gorgeous visualization of commutes around the world

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

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

 

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

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

Meet catabolic capitalism: globalization’s gruesome twin

by Craig Collins

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

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

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

 

Profit: the prime directive

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Can capitalism survive without growth?

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

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

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

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

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

Catabolism: the final phase of capitalism

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

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

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

However, as the productive sector contracts, this corrupt cannibalistic sector emerges from the shadows and metastasizes rapidly, thriving off conflict, crime and crisis; hoarding and speculation; insecurity and desperation. Catabolic capitalism flourishes because it can still generate substantial profits by dodging legalities and regulations; stockpiling scarce resources and peddling arms to those fighting over them; scavenging, breaking down and selling off the assets of the decaying productive and public sectors; and preying upon the sheer desperation of people who can no longer find gainful employment elsewhere.

Scavengers, speculators, and slumlords buy up distressed and abandoned properties—houses, schools, factories, office buildings and malls—strip them of valuable resources, sell them for scrap or rent them to people desperate for shelter.

Without enough energy to generate growth, catabolic capitalists stoke the profit engine by taking over troubled businesses, selling them off for parts, firing the workforce and pilfering their pensions. Scavengers, speculators, and slumlords buy up distressed and abandoned properties—houses, schools, factories, office buildings and malls—strip them of valuable resources, sell them for scrap or rent them to people desperate for shelter. Illicit lending operations charge outrageous interest rates and hire thugs or private security firms to shake down desperate borrowers or force people into indentured servitude to repay loans. Instead of investing in struggling productive enterprises, catabolic financiers make windfall profits by betting against growth through hoarding and speculative short selling of securities, currencies and commodities.

Social benefits, legal and regulatory protections and modern society itself will also be sacrificed to feed the profit engine. During a period of contraction, venal catabolic capitalists put their lawyers and lobbyists to work tearing down any legal barriers to their insatiable appetite for profit. Regulatory agencies that once provided some protection from polluters, dangerous products, unsafe workplaces, labor exploitation, financial fraud and corporate crime are dismantled to feed the voracious fires of avarice.

Society’s governing institutions of justice, law, and order become early victims of this catabolic crime spree. Public safety is stripped down, privatized and sold to those who can still afford it. As budgets for courts, prisons, and law enforcement shrivel, private security firms hire unemployed cops to break strikes, provide corporate security, and guard the wealthy in their gated communities. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be forced to rely on alarm systems, dogs, guns and—if we’re lucky—watchful neighbors to deal with rising crime. Privatized prisons will profit by contracting convict labor to the highest bidders.

As tax-starved public services and social welfare programs bleed out from deep budget cuts, profit-hungry capitalists pick over the carcasses of bankrupt governments. Social security, food stamps, and health care programs are chopped to the bone. Public transportation and decaying highways are transformed into private thoroughfares, maintained by convict labor or indentured workers. Corporations scarf up failing public utilities, water treatment, waste management and sewage disposal systems to provide businesses and wealthy communities with reliable power, water and waste removal. Schools and libraries go broke, while exclusive private academies employ a fraction of the jobless teachers and university professors to educate a shrinking class of affluent students.

A dark alliance

Cannibalistic profiteers can thrive in a growth-less environment for quite some time, but ultimately, an economy bent on devouring itself has a dismal, dead-end future. Nevertheless, changing course will be difficult because, as the catabolic sector expands at the expense of society, powerful cannibalistic capitalists are bound to forge influential alliances, poison and paralyze the political system, and block all efforts to pull society out of its death spiral.

Catabolic enterprises are not the only profit-makers in a growth-less economy. Even an economy run on contracts and subcontracts must extract energy and other resources from the Earth. Unless the profit motive is removed by bringing these assets under public control, corporate real estate, timber, water, energy, and mining corporations will deploy their lobbying muscle to completely privatize these vital resources and enhance their bottom line with government subsidies, tax breaks and “regulatory relief.” The growing capital, energy and technology commitments needed to commodify scarce resources may cut deeply into profit margins. As less solvent outfits fail, the remaining politically connected resource conglomerates may maximize their profits by forming cartels to corner markets, hoard vital resources, and send prices soaring while blocking all attempts at public regulation and rationing.

The extractive and the catabolic sectors of capitalism have a lot in common. An alliance between them could put irresistible pressure on failing federal and state governments to open public lands and coastlines to unregulated offshore drilling, fracking, coal mining and tar sands extraction. Scofflaw resource extractors and criminal poaching operations proliferate in corrupt, catabolic conditions where legal protections are ignored and shady deals can be struck with local power brokers to maximize the exploitation of labor and resources. To pay off government debt, national and state parks may be sold and transformed into expensive private resorts while public lands and national forests are auctioned off to energy, timber, and mining corporations.

As globalization runs down, this grim catabolic future is eager to replace it. Already, an ugly gang of demagogic politicians around the world hopes to ride this catabolic crisis into power. Their goal is to replace globalization with bombastic nationalist authoritarianism. These xenophobic demagogues are becoming the political face of catabolic capitalism. They promise to restore their country to prosperity and greatness by expelling immigrants while carelessly ignoring the disastrous costs of fossil fuel addiction and military spending. Anger, insecurity and need to believe that a strong leader can restore “the good old days” will guarantee them a fervent following even though their false promises and fake solutions can only make matters worse.

 

Is catabolic capitalism inevitable?

So, what about green capitalism? Isn’t there money to be made in renewable energy? What about redesigning transportation systems, buildings and communities? Couldn’t capitalists profit by producing alternative energy technologies if government helped finance the unprofitable, but necessary, infrastructure projects needed to bring them online? Wouldn’t a Green New Deal be far more beneficial than catabolic catastrophe?

In a growth-less economy, catabolic capitalism is the most profitable, short-term alternative for those in power. This makes it the path of least resistance from Wall Street to Washington. 

Catabolic capitalism is not inevitable. However, in a growth-less economy, catabolic capitalism is the most profitable, short-term alternative for those in power. This makes it the path of least resistance from Wall Street to Washington. But green capitalism is another story.

As both radical greens and the corporate establishment realize, green capitalism is essentially an oxymoron. Truly green policies, programs and projects contradict capitalism’s primary directive—profit before all else! This doesn’t mean there aren’t profitable niche markets for some products and services that are both ecologically benign and economically beneficial. It means that capitalism’s overriding profit motive is fundamentally at odds with ecological balance and the general welfare of humanity.

While people and the planet can thrive in an ecologically balanced society, the self-centered drive for profit and power cannot. A healthy economy that encourages people to take care of each other and the planet is incompatible with exploiting labor and ransacking nature for profit. Thus, capitalists will resist, to the bitter end, any effort to replace their malignant economy with a healthy one.

Would the transition to a sustainable society be expensive? Of course. Our petroleum-addicted infrastructure of tankers, refineries, pipelines and power plants; cities, suburbs, gas stations and freeways; shopping centers, mega-farms, fast food franchises and supermarkets would have to be replaced with smaller towns fed by local farms and powered by decentralized, renewable energy. But the cost of making this green transition is a priceless bargain compared to the suicidal consequences of catabolic collapse.

Is resistance futile?

Before we decide that resistance is futile, it’s important to realize that the converging energy, economic and ecological disasters bearing down on us all have the potential to turn people against catabolic capitalism and toward a more just, planet-friendly future. The approaching period of catabolic collapse presents some strategic opportunities to those who would like to rid the world of this system as soon as possible.

For example, in the near future, energy scarcity and economic contraction may lead to a paralyzing financial meltdown. Interest-based banking cannot handle economic contraction. Without perpetual growth, businesses, consumers, students, homeowners, governments and banks (who constantly borrow from each other) cannot pay-off their debts with interest. If default goes viral, the banking system goes down.[2]

When the banking system finally implodes, credit freezes, financial assets vaporize, currency values fluctuate wildly, trade shuts down and governments impose draconian measures to maintain their authority. Few Americans have any experience with this kind of systemic seizure. They assume there will always be food in the supermarkets, gas in the pumps, money in the ATMs, electricity in the power lines and medicine in the pharmacies and hospitals.

During a financial meltdown, government officials find it difficult to retain public confidence; people blame them for running the economy into the ditch and suspect that their pseudo-solutions are actually self-serving schemes designed to keep themselves on top. Consequently, this crippling crisis could serve as a powerful wake-up call and a potential turning point if those who want to abolish catabolic capitalism are prepared to make the most of it.

But crises don’t necessarily incite positive responses. Power will be decisive in the unfolding struggle over the future of our species and the planet; and those that benefit from the status quo are bent on holding on to it. Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine warns us that those in power will exploit the traumas caused by major catastrophes to rally support for their own disastrous agenda (like invading Iraq after 9-11 or expelling the Black community from New Orleans after Katrina).

In the midst of shocking disasters those in power play upon our fears and prejudices to keep us passive, turn us against each other and under their control. If we resist all attempts to keep us apathetic, distracted, and divided, they won’t hesitate to use other ways to keep themselves on top, including intimidation, coercion, and brute force. Each time they succeed, life becomes more miserable for everyone but them.

Crisis only becomes our ally when popular anger is channeled into transformative insurrection against the system that causes it. How people respond to systemic disintegration will be pivotal. Who will be blamed? What “solutions” will gain support? Who will people listen to, trust and follow in times of extreme hardship, insecurity and unrest? To turn the tide against catabolic capitalism, activists must prepare people for the cascading crises that lie ahead. They must become trusted responders: defining the problem; organizing grassroots resilience and relief; and building a powerful insurrection against those who profit from disaster. But even this is not enough. To nurture the transition toward a thriving, just, ecologically stable society, all of these struggles must be interwoven and infused with an inspirational vision of how much better life could be if we freed ourselves from this dysfunctional, profit-obsessed system once and for all.

Climate chaos alone will impose many hardships, from extreme droughts, water scarcity, farm failures and food shortages to forest fires and floods, rising sea levels, mega-storms and acidified oceans. Movement organizers must help people anticipate, adapt to, and survive these hardships—but social movements cannot stop there. They must help people mount the kind of political resistance that can strip the fossil fuel industry of its power and leverage their own growing influence to demand that society’s remaining resources be re-directed toward a green transition.

Craig Collins Ph.D. is the author of Toxic Loopholes (Cambridge University Press), which examines America’s dysfunctional system of environmental protection.  He teaches political science and environmental law at California State University East Bay and was a founding member of the Green Party of California.  His forthcoming books: Marx & Mother Nature and Rising From the Ruins: Catabolic Capitalism & Green Resistance reformulate Marx’s theory of history & social change and examine the emerging struggle to replace catabolic capitalism with a thriving, just, ecologically resilient society.

All photos by Adam Cohn in the shipbreaking yards, Chittagong, Bangladesh

[1] The term “catabolic capitalism” used here is somewhat different from the theory of catabolic collapse developed by John Michael Greer. Greer looks at the demise of all civilizations (capitalist and non-capitalist) as a catabolic process. How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse <www.dylan.org.uk/greer_on_collapse.pdf>

[2] Banks’ retained earnings and shareholder capital only amount to 2-9% of their loan portfolio, so it doesn’t take much of a loss to put them under.

‘Dark municipalism’

From the New Orleans school desegregation crisis (1960), when white schoolchildren went on strike to protest the federal government’s order to desegregate New Orleans elementary schools.

by the Symbiosis Research Collective 

The Five Star Movement in Italy has been campaigning on a platform of direct democracy and environmentalism. This March, they won the largest percent of the vote and the most seats in Parliament. Sounds good, right?

Except that Beppe Grillo and Luigi Di Maio – the two foremost leaders of the party – have called for expelling all migrants from Italy and ending the flow of migrants to Europe. They entered into a coalition with the Lega Nord following the 2018 election, a party advocating full regional autonomy – and protecting the ‘Christian identity’ of Italy.

Direct democracy

Even as anti-authoritarian, anti-racist movements all over the world are working to take power where they live, self-described localist movements have also won elections with racist, and frankly fascist, platforms. New right movements like the Lega Nord have even adopted the more typically leftist, anti-authoritarian language of ‘autonomy’ and ‘direct democracy’.

Continuing our discussion of the potential pitfalls of radical municipalism, we want to address this toxic strain of localism – what we’ve termed dark municipalism – and why it is so dangerous.

If a diverse, egalitarian, and ecological local politics is to be successful, it must develop strategies for addressing and combating these tendencies.

Racism and Localism

The Nazis showed the world that it’s entirely possible to be both a back-to-the-lander and a genocidal racist. American militia movements have long fused struggle for local autonomy against the federal government with anti-immigrant hatred and white nationalism.

In the Pacific Northwest, fascist groups like the Northwest Front and the Wolves of Vinland have attempted to co-opt the vision of an independent Cascadia for the ends of white racial separatism.

Britta Lokting argues in The Baffler that there is a greater commonality between this white nationalist fringe and the other tendencies within Cascadian bioregionalism than we’d like to admit. “Ecologists, liberal hipsters, and the alt-right in the Pacific Northwest [all] resist some sort of outside taint.”

Movements for local control can easily slip towards racist and fascist politics by positioning a given community in opposition to outside threats. Oftentimes, savvy segregationists use the language of local control to mask the racial and class motivations behind their political projects.

Several European political parties like the Lega Nord have even begun to distort the term “direct democracy” to argue for “the people” (selectively defined) controlling national immigration policy as a means of achieving the authoritarian ethnonationalist system they envision.

Not all examples of reactionary localism are as extreme as Nazis and anti-government militias, however. It is also, for many people, very close to home, being central to the history of most American suburbs.

Suburban local control

When we think of racial segregation in the US, Jim Crow laws quickly come to mind. But localism—much of it in Northern cities—also played a big role in dividing US society along racial lines.

When urban rebellions rocked cities across the United States in the late sixties, millions of whites flocked to segregated suburbs. By forming new municipalities, sometimes across county lines, wealthy and middle-class whites were free to organise local policy around excluding people of color and the poor, while starving American cities of the tax revenue needed to sustain public services.

Suburban communities walled themselves off with more than gates. Local control over housing policy let them block the construction of affordable housing, to keep low-income people from ever moving in next door. By designing suburbs around cars rather than public transit, they ensured that no one without a car could even reach their communities.

Suburbanisation was both a social and ecological catastrophe. All across the US, urban areas were flattened outward into low-density, energy-intensive sprawl, swallowing up ecosystems and farmland. (To give a sense of how disastrous this has been for the climate: the average carbon footprint of suburban households is four times larger than the average household’s in dense cities.) Job centers were displaced and made harder to reach by transit, leaving many inner cities in a crisis of chronic unemployment.

Most importantly for this discussion, suburbanisation fortified racial segregation in the very political structure of many metro areas, with wealthy, mostly white suburbs governing themselves independently from and at the expense of communities of color.

This brought the gains of the civil rights movement to a halt, with incalculable human costs. Local political autonomy, as this example illustrates, can easily become a vehicle for segregation and defunding the public sphere, and has genuinely destructive potential.

Public education is another important terrain of reactionary localism.

Generally speaking, local funding for public schools has resulted in deeply unequal educational outcomes for non-white and poor children (which is why many states have taken over school funding from local property taxes, to be allocated more equitably).

Many school districts around the United States have taken educational inequality a step further, with segments breaking off to form wealthier, whiter districts, depriving less privileged children of essential public resources. Seventy-one communities have attempted to secede from their school districts since 2000, and forty-seven of them have succeeded. To quote one community member of a Chattanooga suburb advocating for this sort of entrenchment of school segregation: “Local control is power.”

From anti-immigrant movements to segregated schools, we’d do well to take these hard lessons to heart when rebuilding our society from the local level.

The language of “local control” is central to the political strategy of segregation and resegregation. It allows officials and advocates to apply a palatable, race-neutral framing to fundamentally racist policy. Power consolidated fully at the local level is potentially pernicious precisely because there is such deep inequality between local areas in our highly segregated society.

Local government is a terrain the right wing knows very well, and if empowered carelessly, one that can directly further reactionary agendas. The problem is deeper than an unfortunate correlation between localist movements and racism. Because suburban municipalities had political autonomy, they were able to realise and institutionalise this segregationist agenda.

So how should we deal with this?

We have some ideas: actively undoing bigotry through organising itself, building connections beyond the local into our political project, and developing a grassroots political system around the principles of democracy and interdependence over autonomy and local control.

Building Power, Bridging Divides

Building grassroots, democratic alliances to take back control over the places where we live is easier said than done. Organising with your neighbours can be rewarding, but also tiresome and depressing. In the little spare time each of us has, it often feels easier to talk to people we already know who share our own values.

The truth is that community organising is hard work. Organisers are confronted every day with resistance to their ideas, not only from political opponents but from other community members who have become resigned to the oppressive status quo as well.

Movement-building takes time, through years of real human connection. The simple fact is that there are no shortcuts to moving beyond bigotry either.

Community organising has traditionally aimed to overcome social divides—racial, sexual, cultural—through human relationships. Organising relies on building relationships to recognise common interests. These common interests let people identify the things they can organise around for their common good, and their relationships supply the power to actually win. Through recognising commonalities and taking collective action, bonds between people across difference are forged across differences, uprooting prejudices and fears.

Radical democracy is a framework for extending that process across all areas of life.

As we carve out space for participatory, collective decision-making, either in the workplace through cooperatives or where we live through neighborhood councils and tenant unions, we cultivate a more expansive understanding of shared interests across racial and sexual hierarchies, and of how those inequalities pose barriers to our own democratic struggle.

We can build a new commons together that meets the needs of everyone through this deep organising, a community interdependence held together by strong relationships.

Class conflict

But is stopping fascism as simple as making friends with your neighbours? We can’t lose sight of the fact that there are real, material, conflicts between people.

Friendship between a tenant and their landlord can’t erase the exploitative relationship between them. Only by pursuing an intersectional class politics can we piece apart the forces that divide us.

Hateful and discriminatory attitudes don’t operate in a vacuum. They have a history we can trace and material roots we can transform. Capitalists have spent centuries cultivating racist and nativist narratives to keep exploited people scapegoating each other.

The labour movement in the United States has historically hampered itself through its own racism. By refusing to fraternise with black, Latino, and Asian workers, white workers have undercut their potential power. We can’t afford to make these mistakes.

Visionary organisers need to make the case again and again, through their actions, words, and the resources they build, that ordinary people can only realize their deeper interests of freedom, a healthy life and planet, and real democracy by lifting up people at the margins.

Steps to expand participation—from translation to accessibility for disabled people to prioritizing childcare at meetings—can only make our movements more powerful. A socially transformative politics teaches more privileged people that their common cause lies with the oppressed, through democracy in everyday life.

Beyond building real relationships and making our movements more accessible, we need to make sure that we can create resources for everyone. Tenants rights action groups, community kitchens, and self-organized disaster response groups are all ways of offering people the things they need, all the while building alliances across race and class and addressing loneliness. Social isolation feeds a steady supply of alienated people to the far-right.

As we build a community economy beyond capitalism, we strike at the roots of all these things.

Beyond the Local

As we argued in our last column, radical municipalists must work to build power beyond the local in order to overcome capitalism and the state.

We have no hope of winning real power for our community without this wider network of popular struggle across municipal and national borders. This is also an important part of overcoming prejudices and inequalities between different communities.

Confederations of community councils and assemblies bring us into common cause with those we might otherwise consider outsiders. Even if your own neighborhood isn’t very diverse, scaling up the practice of radical democracy can have the same transformative impacts we discussed above on a much wider level.

Municipalism that is confederal is an antidote to xenophobic isolationism. It’s a localism which knows no national borders, yet retains the ability of citizens of every community to have a say in the affairs which affect them. The power of our strategy itself relies on building bridges rather than walls.

Building a New System

Lastly, as we develop new institutions of solidarity and democracy, we need to go beyond mere autonomy as an organisational principle. Autonomy is about securing freedom from an oppressive outside, but we’re not just trying to resist the system. We’re working to build a new system, a new society.

Anarchists and other anti-authoritarian leftists have long stressed the importance of autonomy. Bodily autonomy is a fundamental moral principle for a free, feminist society. Liberation struggles of all types have articulated their just vision in terms of autonomy.

Building autonomy for individuals and communities is clearly an essential aspect of resistance and dual power, but it is limiting as a framework for the reconstruction of a better world.

Autonomy is in essence a negative political value, being defined in terms of freedom from. It conveys nothing about the actual governance of an autonomous community, and defines its relations to other communities in exclusively negative terms. It amounts to non-interference by outsiders or outside sources of repression.

Given all the potential dangers of local political autonomy, we need to be intentional about the kind of democracy we are building from the ground up. This means thinking through how a future system would equitably solve specific problems beyond the local level.

In our previous columns, we’ve made the case for a system of directly democratic assemblies organised into confederations, which would come together through recallable delegates to coordinate activities regionally and beyond.

To prevent the rise of dark municipalism, however, confederations will have to be stronger than voluntary associations of autonomous communities.

We live in an unequal society, which we are trying to change by expanding the sphere of democracy. We undercut that goal if our conception of a truly democratic society is one where the wealthiest can wall themselves off without accountability to the wider human community.

Differing interests between particular neighborhoods, cities, and countries are inevitable on bigger questions—regional transit, watershed management, total decarbonisation of the economy, redistribution of wealth. None of these can be resolved through a confederation of fully autonomous communes where unanimous agreement is required for them to act together. We can theoretically educate away prejudice, but we can’t educate away conflicting economic interests. A deeper political relationship is necessary.

‘Confederation’ should be conceived as layers of democracy, from the neighborhood to the worldwide. The defining principle of a confederal system is not community autonomy, but interdependence. This is a much stronger basis for the protection of human rights and radical democracy.

Interdependence is what makes municipalism and democratic confederalism unique among locally oriented political ideas: they are not intended to be withdrawals from global affairs and obligations, but movements for radically restructuring the balance of power in how decisions are made towards ordinary people, be that locally, regionally, or globally.

 

Democracy All the Way Down

Many progressives see these forms of reactionary localism and conclude that we need a strong centralized government to better protect marginalised people. In particular, we as radical municipalists have to take seriously the history of federal power in securing greater freedoms for black people in America.

After the American Civil War, Reconstruction continued only as long as federal troops occupied the South. Desegregation and voting rights for African Americans were achieved through federal court cases and legislation. The very principle of “states’ rights” which helped uphold American apartheid and slavery is itself a form of more local autonomy.

But governments only gave in when forced by the power of popular movements. When the state is removed from the people it governs, through unaccountable bureaucracies, technocracies, or oligarchies, it gets a free pass for abuse, oppression, and exploitation. For instance, while suburbanisation in the United States was driven by racism, it was also a product of social engineering by federal policy, through redlining, freeway construction, and incentivizing industries to relocate from cities to suburbs. Many of the Trump administration’s ongoing crimes are only possible because the people do not exercise direct control over their government.

We can’t maintain an oligarchy in the hopes that the ruling class will force through needed changes with respect to racial and economic equality.

The consolidation of authority into a small ruling class necessarily tends toward more oppression. To keep this system of hierarchy in place, the powerful always seek to divide and control the less privileged.

Ordinary people are far from perfect. But it’s ordinary people, with all their differences and shortcomings, with whom we build a more perfect world.

It’s only through lived experience that any of us can learn that we share common ground with others. When we, as organisers, go to where people are, offer the resources they need, build bridges across racial and class differences, and make decisions together, we slowly build the foundations of a new society.

At the end of the day, it’s only democracy—all the way down—that can give us any hope of universal emancipation.

This article was originally published in The Ecologist.

The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organizers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organizations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev. This article was written by Mason Herson-Hord (@mason_h2), Christian Bjornson (@VoxLibertate), Forrest Watkins (@360bybike), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

September readings

Source: Shareable

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

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

Over the past month we saw an uptick in conversations on degrowth in both mainstream and leftist media in the aftermath of two degrowth conferences in Sweden and Mexico and in connection to a “post-growth” conference in the EU Parliament in Belgium. We’ve also been reading about resistance, community building, and struggle for autonomy and control of land in cities and rural areas around the world—and about criminalization of this resistance. And as usual there are articles about environmental and climate injustice, socialism and the limits of “green” technologies, and new political organizing practices.

 

Uneven Earth updates

We’re excited to announce our new call for submissions for futuristic imaginaries! We are looking for science fiction, science fiction-inspired thoughts, and critical analyses of sci-fi, this time with a focus on pieces that engage with place-based histories and geographies.

The shock doctrine of the left | Link | New book by Graham Jones is part map, part story, part escape manual

How the world breaks | Link | Stan and Paul Cox describe the destructive force of nature in the context of climate change

How radical municipalism can go beyond the local | Link | Fighting for more affordable, accessible places to live means fighting for a less carbon-intensive future

 

Top 5 articles to read

Save us the smugness over 2018’s heatwaves, environmentalists. In this historically precarious moment, we need something more fundamental than climate strategies built on shame and castigation. But, note that there is no evidence that environmentalists are at all smug.

‘For me, this is paradise’: life in the Spanish city that banned cars

Rise of agri-cartel: Control of land drives human rights violations, environmental destruction

Where are the Indigenous children who never came home?

Disaster collectivism: How communities rise together to respond to crises

 

News you might’ve missed

Harvard’s foreign farmland investment mess. An article in Bloomberg highlights a new report by GRAIN on Harvard’s investment in land grabbing.

Modi’s McCarthyist attack on left-leaning intellectuals threatens India’s democracy

There’s been a worrying trend of criminalizing earth defenders around the world:

‘Treating protest as terrorism’: US plans crackdown on Keystone XL activists

Criminalization and violence increasingly used to silence indigenous protest, according to UN report

Fracking protesters’ ‘absurdly harsh’ jail sentences spark calls for judicial review backed by hundreds of scientists

After five years of living in trees, a protest community is being evicted. The German police is evicting activists who are occupying the 12,000 year old Hambach Forest to block the expansion of lignite coal mining. (The yearly Ende Gelände mass action of civil disobedience against the open-pit mine is coming up this month, on 25th-29th October.)

Declaration: No to abuse against women in industrial oil palm plantations  

 

New politics

Learning to fight in a warming world. Andreas Malm spoke at the Code Rode action camp against a gas pipeline in the Netherlands, addressing crucial questions for anti-fossil fuel organizing: Who are the political subjects in this struggle? How can people be mobilized? Should we think of the climate justice movement as a vanguard? Which methods and strategies should we use? What are the roles of non-violent and violent resistance?

Building food utopias: Amplifying voices, dismantling power

No justice without love: why activism must be more generous. I want to be a member of a thriving and diverse social movement, not a cult or a religion.

Resisting Development: The politics of the zad and NoTav

A story of the creation of the first commune in Kobane, and the struggle against authoritarianism within.

From Rojava to the Mapuche struggle: The Kurdish revolutionary seed spreads in Latin America

Seizing the means of reproduction. Unrecognized, often unpaid, and yet utterly necessary, reproductive labor is everywhere in our lives. Can it form the basis for a renewed radical politics?

Co-ops might not transform people, but the act of cooperation often does.

An interview with the Internationalist Committee of the Rojava revolution

The emerging idea of “radical well-being”. An interview with Ashish Kothari by Paul Robbins.

 

Radical municipalism

The radical solution to homelessness: no-strings homes

What should a 21st century socialist housing policy look like?

The city as a battleground. If cities are becoming amusement parks for tourists, a vehicle to earn money, what space is left for its citizens?

Radical democracy vs. retro social democracy: a discussion with Jeremy Gilbert

The labor movement once built thousands of low-cost co-op apartments for working class New Yorkers. It could do so again.

Internationalism and the New Municipalism

Bologna again takes center stage resisting fascism

First we take Jackson: the new American municipalism

The common ground trust: a route out of the housing crisis

Revitalizing struggling corridors in a post-industrial city

The persistence of settler colonialism within “the urban”. As long as the urban agenda is so tangled in the mess of capitalism, how can urban practitioners work to free the ever expanding and increasingly complicated field of urban studies from its colonial shackles? Is it even possible to think about the urban without colonialism?

 

Where we’re at: analysis

Five principles of a socialist climate politics. Overall it is quite surprising how well the challenge of climate change overlaps with some classical principles of socialism.

The Rise of the Robot: Dispelling the myth. The ‘march of the robots’ idea relies tacitly on the assumption that the limits to growth are negotiable, or indeed non-existent. It buys into the idea that there can be a complete – or at least near complete – decoupling of production from carbon emissions.

Ten years on, the crisis of global capitalism never really ended

Dirty rare metals: Digging deeper into the energy transition. “Western industries have deliberately offshored the production of rare metals and its associated pollution, only to bring these metals back onshore once cleansed of all impurities to incorporate them into intangible ‘green’ technologies.”

Farmers in Guatemala are destroying dams to fight ‘dirty’ renewable energy

The real problem with free trade. As trade has become freer, inequality has worsened. One major reason for this is that current global trade rules have enabled a few large firms to capture an ever-larger share of value-added, at a massive cost to economies, workers, and the environment.

A special issue in Meditations Journal on the link between the economy and energy

The environmentalism of the poor in the USA. A review of the book Environmental Justice in Postwar America: A Documentary Reader.

Half-Earth: A biodiversity ‘solution’ that solves nothing. A response to E. O. Wilson’s half-baked half-Earth.

Gender egalitarianism made us human: A response to David Graeber & David Wengrow’s ‘How to change the course of human history’

 

The growth debate

Following from the success of the two International Degrowth Conferences in Mexico and Sweden in August, scientists and politicians gathered at the EU Parliament in Brussels this month to discuss the need to move to a “post-growth” economy. Degrowth has always been a term meant in great part to provoke conversation. And that it did: what followed was a month careful commentary, knee-jerk responses, and thoughtful criticism.

The EU needs a stability and wellbeing pact, not more growth. 238 academics call on the European Union and its member states to plan for a post-growth future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP. Sign the petition based on this letter: Europe, it’s time to end the growth dependency.

Degrowth considered: A review of Giorgos Kallis’ book, In defense of degrowth

Why growth can’t be green. New data proves you can support capitalism or the environment—but it’s hard to do both. An article by Jason Hickel in Foreign Policy.

Saving the planet doesn’t mean killing economic growth. A response to the criticism of growth by Noah Smith, a columnist at Bloomberg.

Soothing Noah Smith’s fears about a post-growth world. A response to Noah Smith’s piece by Jason Hickel. “The whole thing is based on either awkward confusion or intentional sleight of hand.” For a similar analysis, see our 2015 article, Let’s define Degrowth before we dismiss it.

The degrowth movement challenges the conventional wisdom on economic health

Beyond growth. Imagining an economy based in environmental reality: an article featured in Long Reads.

The new ecological situationists: On the revolutionary aesthetics of climate justice and degrowth

Degrowth vs. a Green New Deal. An article in The New Left Review by Robert Pollin criticizing the degrowth position, and proposing an alternative. Is the ecological salvation of the human species at hand? A response to Pollin’s piece from an ecological economist. And New deals, old bottles: Chris Smaje responds to Pollin’s piece.

While economic growth continues we’ll never kick our fossil fuels habit. George Monbiot calls for degrowth.

The Singularity in the 1790s. A retrospective and enlightening analysis of the science fiction-tinged debate between William Godwin and Thomas Malthus.

 

Addressing climate change’s unequal impacts

Nature-based disaster risk reduction

Puerto Rican ‘anarchistic organizers’ took power into their own hands after Hurricane Maria

The unequal distribution of catastrophe in North Carolina

That undeveloped Land Could Be Protecting Your City from the Next Flood

Carbon removal is not enough to save climate

Climate action means changing technological systems – and also social and economic systems

 

Plastics, waste, and technology

Maria-Luiza Pedrotti is illuminating the unseen worlds of plastic-eating bacteria that teem in massive ocean garbage patches.

The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction

Forget about banning plastic straws! The problem is much bigger. A feature on the artist and scientist Max Liboiron.

The air-conditioning debate isn’t really about air-conditioning

 

Just think about it…

Pay your cleaner what you earn, or clean up yourself

Scientific publishing is a rip-off. We fund the research – it should be free

Humans are destroying animals’ ancestral knowledge. Bighorn sheep and moose learn to migrate from one another. When they die, that generational know-how is not easily replaced.

The agrarian origins of capitalism. This 1998 essay by Ellen Meiksins Wood is still worth a read (or re-read).

Searching for words in Indian Country. A non-Native journalist encounters a tribal-managed forest and an indigenous garden. “I had no idea how to use the English language to describe what I was seeing.”

Dead metaphors, dying symbols and the linguistic tipping point. An interview with Rob Nixon, author of Slow Violence.

W. E. B. Du Bois and the American Environment

Forget the highways: America’s social infrastructure is falling apart, and it’s hurting democracy.

 

Resources

A factsheet on global plastic pollution

A timeline of gentrification in the US

A blueprint for universal childhood

The best books on Moral Economy

An economy for the people, by the people. A report by the New Economics Foundation.

The anatomy of an AI system. The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources.

A YouTube channel with accessible, informational videos on political ecology and economy

 

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

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

EXTENDED DEADLINE Not afraid of the ruins #2: Local science fictions

UPDATE: Call for submissions deadline is extended to January 31st, 2019!

Utopian dreamers, other-worldly explorers, and psychonautic adventurers; scholars, activists, students, and critics: drawing inspiration from the online political ecology magazine Uneven Earth (http://www.unevenearth.org/) and following the success of our 2017 round of submissions (http://unevenearth.org/not-afraid-of-the-ruins/), we are excited to announce the 2019 call for submissions for the collaborative writing project Not Afraid of the Ruins. The goal for this year’s call will be to once again showcase new, original, creative, and critical reflections to foster intimate and productive conversations across the intellectual and creative arts.

The fertile ground between science fiction and social/environmental justice has long been an arena for speculation and exploration by academics, activists, and creative writers. From the academy to the field and beyond, the works of science fiction writers such as Octavia E. Butler, Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood (among many, many others) have presented unique corollaries to the diverse worlds and experiences we encounter in political ecology and social/environmental justice research and activism. Our goal with this project is to create a space explicitly open to exploring such convergences, a space that is neither formally academic nor wholly creative fiction, but instead, in the true spirit of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, seeks to tap the potential that exists in the liminal space between these otherwise isolated worlds of thought. We hope that such an endeavor will produce seeds for imagining that will go forward and populate unexpected places both far and near.

Submission Criteria

This year, we are asking for more focused submissions with the goal of highlighting people, places, stories and characters that are not typically represented in the traditional Science Fiction canon. We are particularly interested in exploring ‘local science fictions’ through pieces that engage with place-based histories and geographies. Some examples for inspiration:

  • Aliens landing in Soweto, South Africa
  • Solarpunk in Belgrade, Serbia
  • The development of a sharing economy in a post-mining community, Northern Sweden
  • Local revolution against the soy plantation industry in the Cordoba Province, Argentina
  • Space colonisation, inter-planetary mining and a water-based economy in Singapore
  • Anti-petroleum activism in Al-Ahsa, Saudi Arabia

While we are not strict about word count, we strongly encourage writers to limit their submissions to approximately 2,500 words. Submissions can be either fiction or non-fiction.

Not Afraid of the Ruins is a collaborative project and all submissions are vetted and edited by our friendly NAOTR comrades; it is not a peer reviewed academic journal. As such, we hope that both fiction and non-fiction submissions alike are written in a clear and accessible style and we discourage strictly academic writing and excessive jargon. While we are unable to provide funding or financial compensation for submissions, we are hoping to create the possibility for publication opportunities beyond the blog.

This year, we are accepting full submissions only (no proposals). To submit, please send an email to ruins@unevenearth.org by January 15, 2019 January 31, 2019 which includes:

  • A short biographical paragraph about yourself (2 to 4 sentences)
  • A manuscript of the full submission
  • Any accompanying artwork or visuals (We highly encourage a number of visuals for each piece. These can be photographs, digital art, video, or anything else you can think of! Please be sure to follow proper copyright rules and cite sources when appropriate.)

If you are interested in submitting in a language other than English, we encourage you to contact us to check if we have the capacity to edit your piece.

In an age of unprecedented climatic, social and political change, we believe that such a project continues to be as relevant and urgent as ever. We feel compelled, as academics and activists and human beings, to not only critically reflect upon our shared human and ecological condition, but to dare to dream otherwise; to imagine things not only as they are, but to reimagine them as they could be. It is our hope that this blog will provide both space and motivation for doing just that.

For a better idea about the NAOTR project as well as more submission inspiration, visit our online blog at http://unevenearth.org/not-afraid-of-the-ruins/ or feel free to contact us.

Much love and happy world building!

– Claire, Aaron, Hannah, Dylan, Elliot, Srđan, Freya, and Mario

The shock doctrine of the left

“Graham Jones argues that the systems we live within can be understood as bodies.” Photo: Lars Plougmann


by Derek Wall

Here in Britain we are living on the cusp of catastrophe. A bad break Brexit could lead to chaos, gridlocked lorries on the M25 because of a new customs regime and even food shortages. Ten years after the financial crisis, the world is due a new cyclical economic crisis. In turn, climate change is leading to increasingly chaotic weather. In fact the catastrophe is already here, living and breathing, spending cuts as part of Theresa May’s austerity programme, are pushing the heads of the poorest below the waterline. Graham Jones, a self-educated organic intellectual, hairdresser and exponent of radical mindfulness, has written a short guide to turning crisis into opportunity, called The shock doctrine of the left. The book is part map, part story, part escape manual. Easy and enjoyable to read, it provokes us to read more and will help us to be politically active in more effective ways.

The shock doctrine of the left ignores moralism and policy making. Neither does it come up with a blueprint for a better society, or a list of policies that might be introduced. 

The shock doctrine of the left ignores moralism and policy making. The obvious moral failures of 21st century capitalism are accepted but this provides a starting point rather than making up an agonized critique of what is wrong. Neither does it come up with a blueprint for a better society, or a list of policies that might be introduced. While concepts such as a universal basic income scheme are described, this book focusses on how those of us who are politically active can act strategically to make effective change.

Graham Jones clearly and, in my opinion, correctly, believes that part of the strategic processes of making practical change relies on having effective concepts. Concepts are tools that can be used to transform social reality. While this might sound a little abstract or unconvincing, the concept of the “shock doctrine”, used in the book’s title, is a good illustration.

In her book The shock doctrine, Naomi Klein, the Canadian political activist and writer, argued that sudden and dramatic change had been increasingly exploited by the right to make changes in society, moving things in a pro-corporate direction. For example, the second Iraq War, with its massive disruption of the country, was used to try to engineer Iraq society to be more neoliberal. By neoliberal, I mean a combination of, on the one hand, free market forces that reduce state intervention in social welfare and other forms of human care, combined, paradoxically, with a stronger state support for corporations along with military and police control. Klein argues that shocks can be used to restructure society to the benefit of the rich and powerful. This is not a conspiracy theory: the shocks are usually not deliberate, but, when they do occur, they are used by right-wing forces.

The financial crisis of 2008 is another example. Caused by reduced bank regulation under pro-market governments, it was used in Britain as a justification to introduce spending cuts that also moved British society in a more neoliberal direction. Climate disasters such as hurricanes may be used to restructure cities, remove social housing, and initiate pro-corporate urban development.

In this short book, however, Graham Jones looks at how increasing crisis can open up space for the left to promote a future that is friendly to social and ecological goals, rather than allowing for corporate control.

His book is very easy to read but at the same time extremely thought-provoking. He tends to produce ideas which seem new to those of us who have been politically active over several decades, but perhaps more familiar to a more recent political generation. He explains them with vivid images and interesting stories and suggests further reading we can use to deepen our knowledge.

Much of the book is based on ideas from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995). Deleuze is perhaps best known for the two-part book he co-wrote with Felix Guattari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Deleuze is popular amongst many activists and intellects on the left, but difficult to understand. Deleuze’s books on philosophy depend on the effects that they inspire in readers. One virtue of reading Jones’ book is that I understood a little more about Deleuze.

I may be misleading readers by giving the impression that the book is about philosophy and difficult to read or understand ideas. In fact it is very clear and takes a resolutely non-academic approach, concepts are, to repeat, illustrated by appealing stories.

The argument put forward is that there are different ‘logics of the left’. We are not talking about ‘dialectic materialism’ versus ‘Fabianism’ here. The logics of smashing, building, healing and taming are discussed, each in its own brief chapter. Finally the book ends with a chapter linking these under the title of meta-strategy.

The book suggests that to make change we need to understand systems. Social reality is based on processes that work within networks. Jones argues that the systems we live within can be understood as bodies which are made up of other bodies. Through various actions we can reshape these bodies. In this way, power is defused throughout a society. It is therefore not a matter of simply electing a government that will ‘take power’ and make better laws. Power isn’t found in one place. The notion of a traditional revolutionary party modeled by Lenin is also inappropriate: there is no Winter Palace to be stormed, as in the Bolshevik Revolution.

It’s not really like any book I have read on political strategy before, its both strange (but in a good way) and very easy to understand.

It’s not really like any book I have read on political strategy before. It’s both strange (but in a good way) and very easy to understand. I think if I wanted to capture its approach—not that it can really be captured—one sentence in the middle of book comes close to giving an idea of what The shock doctrine of the left is all about: ‘It involves mapping the bodies around us – their parts, relations and wholes, their paths and speeds – and developing interventions for altering them to our advantage.’ (page 37).

What we do—electioneering, supporting a strike, or getting involved in a social centre—is practical action. The simply and clearly outlined concepts developed in The shock doctrine of the left help us to put our action into context, so as to make it effective. We intervene informed by a map of how things are and how our intervention can shape them productively.

The book isn’t for everyone. It sometimes seems a little slight and to leave many questions left without an answer. However no book is the book to end all books. It is a charming look at social change that, for me, at least, reminds me of some core concepts I find useful and introduced me to others. It is a Deleuzian book, if I understand him at all ( which I may not!), in the sense that it aims to produce practical effects and these effects are not predetermined.

Derek Wall teaches political economy and is a former International Coordinator of the Green Party. His new book Hugo Blanco: A Revolutionary Life will be published in November by Merlin Press.

The shock doctrine of the left by Graham Jones is published by Polity Press, as part of the Radical Futures series. You can find it here

 

How the world breaks

In May 2006, an eruption of mud began to flow in Sdoarjo Indonesia. With the eruption, 40,000 villagers were displaced and 20 were killed. About a decade after the disaster began, these statues were placed to commemorate the lives lost and the lives interrupted. Photo: Adam Cohn

by Chellis Glendinning

The reader of How the World Breaks must be agile. The book demands that one navigate between several modes of consciousness in order to face the reality of human input into the “weather on steroids” that is routine these days. How the World Breaks takes us on a long tour, but not one launched with vacation or adventure in mind; rather it books us in at one disaster site, then another, and another. Led by our worthy guides, we visit the scene of 2013’s Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines in which entire settlements were washed away and some 6,300 people killed; Java where a mud volcano caused by gas drilling plastered 2.5 square miles of fields and villages with forty feet of wet clay, cost 40,000 people their homes, and caused property losses of more than a billion US dollars; Kansas where, in 2007, a 205 mile-per-hour tornado flattened an entire town, destroying 1000 buildings; and more. But surprise: just as the book takes us on this bleak journey, it also presents an electrifying, can’t-put-down detective novel exploring the whats, hows, whens, and whys of each catastrophe. And lest we become too diverted by intrigue, How the World Breaks is a sober investigation of the economics, politics, science, and psychology of a disaster’s origins, progression, and aftermath. Taken together, the landscape of climate change becomes a disquieting documentation of the mess we inhabit.

Taken together, the landscape of climate change becomes a disquieting documentation of the mess we inhabit.

Stan Cox is the perfect person to write such a tome. A former government wheat geneticist, he is now research coordinator at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. He is a fervent advocate for sustainable agriculture, plus the author of books that explore the environmental impacts of air conditioning and of corporate food/medicine production, as well as rationing as one answer to capitalism’s out-of-control consumerism.

The second perfect person to craft such a book is anthropologist and development/disaster writer Paul Cox. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he works for European and African development organizations while writing independently in such publications as Disasters and The New Inquiry. He also happens to be Stan’s son.

I delved into How the World Breaks on a spring day boasting brutal unseasonal rains in a small city in the Andes. I needed no more than to pull the blanket to my chin to know the magnitude of this book’s importance. I think we’ve got a classic here—so I asked Stan and Paul to join me for an online conversation.

 

What is How the World Breaks about? And how did you end up working on it as father and son?

Paul Cox: The title is a bit misleading—by design. The book is about how and why disasters happen, but the explanations aren’t all our own; we don’t have one big model or answer. Instead we were interested in all the explanations that spring up around disasters and, crucially, who embraces which explanations.

Stan Cox: It started after a disaster with many explanations: Superstorm Sandy. In 2012, following that calamity, my editors at The New Press asked me if I’d be interested in writing one on the increasingly unnatural nature of natural disasters. I had no direct experience in that world, but I knew there was much to be written about their increasingly human causation. I decided to write to Paul, who had studied the anthropology of disaster.

He started his response with, “Wow, that’s a pretty huge topic,” and discussed the debates among disaster researchers and policymakers about vulnerability, resilience, inequality, and adaptation, along with what he called “the big issue: climate change itself, or the whole complex of pressures and vulnerabilities that it fits into.” I thought, “Oh oh, this is going to be a much bigger book than I expected, and I don’t think I can do it without Paul.”

How did you start?

SC: We resolved not to restrict ourselves to just climatic events, but to include hazards that emerge from the ground, sky, and sea. Since so-called “natural disasters” are social/political/economic phenomena linked to increasingly unnatural hazards, we dropped the term “natural disaster.” We wrote of “geoclimatic” hazards and disasters instead, and we hope that term catches on. We also realized that this could turn out to be a boring book if we made it an armchair study of UN policy debates, studies on risk reduction, international climate negotiations, etc. Instead, we decided to build our analysis on stories from the scenes of actual disasters.

PC: The subtitle, “Life in Catastrophe’s Path, from the Caribbean to Siberia,” might represent the book better than the title does. Since this seems to be the life of the future, we wanted to consider what such a life looks like—for rich and poor.

Disasters are, of course, terrible by definition. All that ought to matter is how to reduce people’s vastly unequal vulnerabilities to them and how to stop creating more. But instead, some explanations have turned into normalizations of it. We tried to make the book an antidote to that normalization by choosing disasters mostly from the last decade and pulling out all the awful, sad, strange, funny, and infuriating details that make each irreducible to a simple explanation.

SC: So from mid-2013 through early 2015, we studied and visited a dozen or so communities around the world whose inhabitants were struggling to recover from disasters. We benefited from the help provided by my wife, Paul’s stepmother, Priti Gulati Cox—especially with the trips in India where she could translate not only language but much else. Priti also drew maps for each of the disasters.

My guess is that New Press doesn’t have the funds to send a couple of investigators around the world. How did you get to all those places?

SC: You guess right. We didn’t have big travel budgets ourselves, so we made modest travel plans. In 2013 Priti and I were already going to Mumbai, India, for a family visit, and we figured that if Paul joined us, we could talk with slum residents about the 2005 catastrophic flood they’d lived through. From there, we could go to the Philippines—which is famous for cultural adaptation to the world’s worst frequency and variety of geoclimatic hazards—and on to East Java, Indonesia, site of a human-caused mud volcano.

You can throw a dart at a map, and there has probably been—or will soon be—one or more terrible disasters somewhere near where the dart sticks.

Soon after we made those plans, the Indian Himalaya was ravaged by unprecedented monsoon floods and landslides. Two months before we set out for Asia, Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines in probably the most powerful storm landfall ever recorded. Were we superstitious, we might have decided at that point not to make any more travel plans! But the fact is that you can throw a dart at a map, and there has probably been—or will soon be—one or more terrible disasters somewhere near where the dart sticks. So we included Tacloban in the Philippines and the Garhwal region in India in our tour.

Paul had ridden out Superstorm Sandy when he was living in New Jersey and had helped with Occupy Sandy; then he found himself back in the area around the second anniversary of the disaster. For me, there were short drives to two tornado towns: Greensburg, Kansas, and Joplin, Missouri. And living in Copenhagen, Paul could easily get to the Netherlands and Russia.

PC:Our biggest concern was not to put ourselves in situations where we would be a burden on anyone. We worried most about that in Tacloban, where bodies were still being recovered when we arrived. We rode in on a public bus and spent the day in the city, staying out of the way of the relief activity and speaking only with people who were interested in talking with us.

Disaster writing can also be colonial, exoticizing, and self-centered. Our choice was to keep ourselves out of view.

The places we went and the people we met made this book what it is. But the one thing we didn’t want it to be, I think, was a travelogue. The literary scholar Graham Huggan has written, “Much of what passes for contemporary travel writing operates under the sign of the disaster.” Our book falls easily into that claim. But if accounts of disaster and climate change are taking over the role of travel writing—and I also have to give credit to Rune Graulund of Denmark for this observation—then there’s a huge amount of baggage that comes with the genre. Disaster writing can also be colonial, exoticizing, and self-centered. Our choice was to keep ourselves out of view.

The devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the city of Tacloban, 2013. Photo: DFID

Tell me about what happened on the island of Montserrat.

SC: Montserrat is a papaya-shaped island five by ten miles in size, located 250 miles southeast of Puerto Rico. It’s a British Overseas Territory—in other words, a colony. The first Europeans to settle there were Irish Catholics in 1632. By the early 1800s, the slave population was 6,500. Britain abolished slavery in 1833, but Montserrat remained under white minority rule until the 1960s.

In recent decades, the island has been the most disaster-plagued place in the Caribbean outside Haiti. Its residents were still recovering from 1989’s Hurricane Hugo when the long-dormant Soufrière Hills volcano explo