Cities across the world comprise only 2 percent of the land, but account for 70 percent of the global GDP, over 6 percent of global energy consumptions, and 70 percent of global greenhouse emissions. Their high economic and ecological impact coupled with unprecedented rates of urbanization prompted the New Urban Agenda adopted at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) to declare urban planning to be a critical driver and tool for achieving equity and sustainability and enhancing economies.
But in 2021, as the world’s cities struggle to contain and recover from COVID-19, the opposite is happening. Canonical urban planning is failing on all grounds. From Delhi to Lagos and from Jakarta to Rio De Janeiro, heightened inequality, displacement, lack of public health infrastructure, and land-grabbing have become common accompaniments of urbanization.
In India, which is the focus of my urban enquiries, the failures of canonical urban planning are playing out through Master Plans which have dictated cities’ development trajectories since colonization. But contrary to common critiques, most planning failures are not a result of improper or inadequate implementation of the Master Plan. Rather, as Gautam Bhan—an urban scholar and activist from Delhi—puts it, they are an intrinsic part of planning’s logics, conceptions, and practice. Master Plans, and canonical top-down urban planning by which they are dictated, produce retrospective illegality and promote mainstream development centred around economic growth and production over the needs of the urban majority.
For decades, planning was touted as an objective discipline—a means and method through which to anticipate, manage, and respond to urban growth. While it is considered a scientific-rational process that is free from politics, urban planning has in fact always been about the existence of power, as the power/knowledge analysis of political philosopher Michel Foucault can illuminate.
Urban planning in India: a colonial and imperial enterprise
Master Plans, which are developed by urban local governments, have emerged as the standard planning instrument in India since 1962. Mandated by the Town and Country Planning Acts of various Indian states, they conceive and dictate the physical and socioeconomic development of cities 20-25 years into the future. At present, around 2000 Indian cities—about half of total cities in India—have Master Plans. However, despite their popularity and supposedly new solutions to current problems, Master Plans have a rich colonial and imperial history that contributes to their failures.
Town planning in India was first introduced under the Bombay Planning Act of 1915 when colonial authorities were struggling to contain plague epidemics which, according to them, were a result of ‘insanitary labyrinths of the native city.’ As part of these acts, the British created trusts to lead large-scale demolitions, streamlined the process of land acquisition for commercial and infrastructural purposes, and laid provisions for financing urban development. While the Bombay Planning Acts of 1915 and its subsequent iterations did not create the Master Plan, the ‘town planning schemes being prepared today continue to follow a template laid out nearly a century ago by very different institutions operating in an entirely different context.’ Post-independence India’s planning frameworks with their emphasis on white-field development, order and beautification, are an adaptation of the British town planning systems that foremost served the economic and social concerns of the Crown.
In addition to colonial influences, Ford Foundation and American planners also played a great role in shaping planning ideologies in India after independence. Prompted by the jaundice epidemics of 1955-56 in Delhi, Amrit Kaur, the Minister of Health, approached the Ford Foundation and sought its help in managing the capital city’s ‘haphazard growth.’ According to historian Gyan Prakash, the focus on the epidemic was telling as it echoed the colonial discourse on urbanism and permitted the postcolonial elite to frame city planning as a biotechnical enterprise to clean the environment, rid it of diseased spaces, and configure it as a rationally ordered space.
Master Plans as methods of control
Against the backdrop of the Indian government’s demands for ‘rational land use’ and ‘clearance of slums’, the Ford Foundation created the first ever Master Plan for Delhi (MPD) that was adopted in 1962. This plan proposed to manage ‘sprawl’ with a green belt and strict zoning between commercial, residential, and industrial areas, to divide the city into cellular neighborhoods, and to establish satellite towns so as to limit the inflow of population into Delhi. Without any input from Delhi’s residents, many of whom lived where they worked and enjoyed the intimacy that came from densely populated neighborhoods, Delhi’s cityscape rapidly changed to propel the city into modernity. According to sociologist Amita Baviskar, Delhi’s first Master Plan ‘envisaged a model city, prosperous, hygienic, and orderly, but failed to recognize that this construction could only be realized by the labor of large numbers of the working poor, for whom no provision had been made in the plans.’
The anti-slum and anti-poor biases of MPD ’62 were especially sinister given the Partition of 1947 that displaced over a million people to Delhi who had to be accommodated in bastis (basti comes from the Hindustani word basna which means ‘to settle’ or ‘to inhabit’). By dividing the city into regulated and segregated use zones, many of these settlements were designated as unauthorized and sometimes illegal, which made their residents’ occupancy even more precarious. The Master Plan, thus, created illegality where it did not exist. In contrast to the slum, a settlement is considered authorized/planned only when it is built on land notified within the development area of the Master Plan and zoned as residential. Yet no new land was notified as an urban development area by the Delhi Development Authority—the apex planning body in Delhi that creates the Master Plans—between 1962 when MPD ’62 was issued, and 1990, when Delhi’s second Master Plan, MPD ’01, was issued. By the late 90s, the city’s population increased by 3.4 million people, well beyond MPD ’62’s demographic projections. This rising population could not wait for the plans to catch up and organically settled beyond the Plan’s notified areas. Yet, subsequent Master Plans of 2001 and 2021 still chose to not designate these already built-up areas as authorized development areas. It is for this reason that Gautam Bhan asserts that planning produces and regulates illegality as a ‘spatial mode of governance’, making it a part of its logics, conceptions, and practices.
Just as Master Planning is rooted in colonial history, discourses and practices, so are the ideas of development that they promote in Indian cities. This is well illustrated by Evita Das’ analysis of the 2035 Master Plan of Srinagar, the capital of Indian occupied Kashmir. The plan aims to remake Dal Lake—the most popular tourist site in Srinagar—and introduces Special Investment Corridors to kickstart the development of the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir. By envisioning Dal primarily as a tourist site, the plan aims at beautification via gentrification. It views Dal’s inhabitants as encroachers who need to be relocated away so that shikara—typical wooden boats found on the lake—gateways, cycle tracks, organic farms, and water sports facilities can be introduced to raise the lake’s stock as a tourist site. When viewed in the context of India’s occupation of Kashmir and the abrogation of the territory’s special rights, the 2035 Master Plan’s remaking of the Dal Lake and viewing of Kashmiri inhabitants as mere subjects that can be moved around for developmental goals are a clear exercise in colonization.
COVID-19 and planning’s contemporary relevance
In the way that the plague and jaundice epidemics played a crucial role in transforming urban planning, COVID-19 presents an opening to once again radically reconfigure urban planning. Twice over, because of the mismanaged and deadly first and second waves of COVID-19, Indian cities, peri-urban areas, and rural communities were thrown in disarray. But this chaos was exacerbated—not manufactured—as COVID-19 highlighted the broken logics of urban planning in India. Despite a nationwide lockdown that went into effect in March 2020, the enforcement of zoning laws continued unabated, further disregarding and marginalizing the lives of the urban poor. In April 2020, thousands of households in Delhi were demolished with some clusters even experiencing multiple rounds of eviction. Ironically, at the same time, the Delhi government was distributing ration and other necessities to offset the debilitating impact of COVID-19 containment strategies. Basti residents highlighted the State’s hypocrisy in providing them with gas services, ration, and voter-identity cards which strengthen their rootedness all the while serving them with eviction notices and demolishing their homes. This deliberate murkiness in urban planning adds to the challenges of those struggling to seek shelter, especially during a pandemic that necessitates staying home.
Unlike in the Global North, where life worlds can be easily divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’ the crisis, in the Global South, the everyday reality is not that much more different than the temporary health crisis. As stated in The Pandemic, Southern Urbanisms, and Collective Life, urbanism of the Global South inherently requires a constant movement and adaptation to micro and macro shifts, such as inconsistent income flow and changing government schemes. This urbanism of endless transformation creates a chronic sense of vulnerability. It means that while the urban majority was not made newly vulnerable, the pandemic and consecutive lockdowns added to the already debilitating vulnerability. The brutality of COVID-19 itself is well-documented but the design of lockdowns misrecognized every aspect of urban life in cities of the South where most inhabitants need to navigate the hustle to arrange water, food, work, waste or childcare on a daily basis. In doing so, lockdowns worsened already existing fault lines of inequality.
Layered atop pre-existing crises, including but not limited to flooding and excessive rains on both coasts in India, mass farmer dissatisfaction over the three exploitative farm laws, and heightened caste-based discrimination, this ‘new normal’ points to a grim and urgent reality. It reminds us that the time to act radically is now. As Naomi Klein recently said, ‘there is no such thing as a singular disaster anymore—if there ever was; from Covid to climate, every disaster contains every other disaster within it.’ To challenge the ways in which planning knowledge is held, and consequently the ways in which power is exercised and against whom, is an especially critical task in contemporary times of interrelated disasters.
Transforming urban planning
The inherent failure of planning to respond to the needs of the majority, aka the urban poor, necessitates a fundamental revisioning of what planning is, who it is controlled by, and how it is understood. Over the years, attempts have been made to reform planning in India, largely fostered by political action and technical interventions of civil society organizations and resident associations seeking rights to and in the city. Higher judicial courts increasingly intervene into urban governance by condemning unannounced and forced evictions without rehabilitation plans. The emergence of new forms of public-private partnerships in urban reforms have also, in certain cases, provided access to resources such as drinkable water or services and infrastructure, to the marginalized. But while these efforts have brought planning closer to democratization, they have not succeeded in diffusing power away from the technical planner/planning agency or in challenging planning’s subordination to the laws and/or the desires of the government.
To seriously build cities in which all people have equal rights and access to the benefits and opportunities of urbanization, as stated in the New Urban Agenda, there is a need to fundamentally alter how planning is understood, taught, and leveraged. Here, Foucault’s understanding of power as multi-directional and as bottom-up as top-down, helps us rethink planning’s agenda to induce resistance in groups with limited power against the dominance of greater State power.
To this end, as Urban Fellows at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), we supported anti-eviction housing activists in Indore, Madhya Pradesh by conducting workshops on the technicalities of urban planning. Our pedagogies were designed through an active collaboration between IIHS and activists fighting against illegal and forceful eviction, slum demolition, and caste dynamics in the urban space. We did the direct work of demystifying the Master Plan by deconstructing its statutory importance and introducing the concepts of land-use and zoning to the activists. Yet, the real resistance-building happened through our pedagogical approaches that emerged from two questions: can we view activism as a legitimate form of urban practice and not just a form of reactionary political engagement? Can there be a space for communities, activists, and universities to come together to inform and direct a pedagogical practice that recognizes the agency of learners and practitioners beyond the scope of formal planning education?
These provocations help us decenter the technically trained planner, the academy that produces them, and the institutions that absorb and legitimize them. This decentering—via recognizing basti residents and housing activists’ agency and knowledge—is necessary to transform planning into the broad-based, pluralistic, and democratic process that it should be.
Our second series of workshops in Indore focused on forms of tenure, government schemes, missions, and policies to support a new generation of activists in struggling against eviction. Through this, we wanted to not only support anti-eviction activists’ participation in discussions with the government on Master Plans, but to also recognize the urban activism of anti-eviction as a distinct mode of urban practice. This was especially critical as ‘public participation, even in the best situations, cannot imply the expansion of power as long as it is subordinate to laws and/or the desire of the government.’
Power relations are not static and symmetric and therefore, my aim is not to suggest universalizing the Global South’s theorization of urban planning. But by illustrating the failures of Global North-informed planning paradigms in India, I wish to challenge the notions of an ‘inadequately’ planned Global South. At a time when the spaces we inhabit determine whether we survive a deadly virus or not, urban planning becomes a critical tool in preparing for and responding to the disasters of the present and the future. For these reasons, by centring the needs of the urban poor, legitimizing activism as a form of urban practice, and demystifying the technicalities of planning, we can transform planning into an evolving and moving discipline instead of static theory.
Apoorva Dhingra is a writer and researcher based in Delhi, India. They are interested in urbanization, ecology, and climate adaptation and are passionate about building a better world. You can reach out to them at apoorvadhingra[at]pm.me.
A new documentary entitled “Planet of the Humans” directed by Jeff Gibbs, and produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore, was recently released to coincide with Earth Day. The documentary was highly anticipated, given Moore’s previously engrossing anti-establishment and award-winning documentaries on crucial political issues. The documentary, narrated by self-proclaimed environmentalist Jeff Gibbs, was released online and received over 4 million views in less than a week. The filmmakers unpack some of the myths surrounding large-scale renewable energy production like solar, wind, and biomass, arguing that such technologies are themselves materially-intensive and dependent on fossil-fuel derived energy, including coal, oil, and natural gas.
The film rightly questions capitalism’s
“addiction to growth,” as well as corporate
quests for profitable opportunities made available through greenwashing,
and exposes the “renewable energy scam” as an unsettling co-optation of
environmentalism by fossil-fuel driven interests. This line of questioning is
refreshing and highly welcome at a time when faith in green growth
is proposed as the main solution by the private sector, and their government
supporters, to address environmental issues. These messages from the film are
extremely important, given that it has been scientifically shown that
there is no such evidence that environmental degradation can be
reversed through increasing economic growth.
Since its release, the film has already received
considerable critique from renewable
energy experts, climate scientists, and climate activists, who
have decried the film as dangerously misleading and behind the latest
developments in the renewable energy sector. While we are sympathetic to this
critique on how the film throws the “baby out with the bathwater” on
renewables, we believe these critiques gloss over the important point the film
makes about corporate greenwashing around renewable energy. We also believe
that the critique of the film’s position being climate-denialist
is clearly inaccurate given the film’s central focus on the ecological crisis
associated with economic expansion. Ultimately, “Planet of the Humans”
demonstrates why massive-scale renewable energy is a false solution to meet the
insatiable needs of industrial society – this is a valid point! Even if
renewables were fully substitutable alternatives to fossil-fuels, an
industrialized civilization predicated on endless
economic growth is not sustainable.
Our concern lies with how the film
superficially points to environmental problems being caused by an abstract
capitalism without centering the analysis on the historical and structural
inequalities of capital accumulation. “Planet of the Humans” powerfully and
convincingly bursts the “eco-friendly” lifestyle bubble into which so many
well-intentioned progressives pour their hearts, souls, and wallets. However,
the film bypasses historically
ingrained privileges and structural inequalities along class,gender,
lines that lie at the heart of environmental crises.
A film produced by white people for other
well-meaning white people, which does not include voices from the most
vulnerable, who bear the major brunt of climate change and ecological collapse,
entirely misses the mark around why ecological concerns are a matter of
humiliating injustice for many people rather than merely a lifestyle
choice. If what counts as being a “lifelong environmentalist,”
as Gibbs claims at the start of the film, means making the individual
choice to move into an “eco-house” and become more sustainable,
then we are left with a very narrow and privileged understanding of what
environmentalism actually means. The absence of more than stock-photo imagery of
the structural inequalities of ecological destruction is precisely what makes
this film highly simplistic and therefore dangerous at this current
There are four key reasons why the film misses
the mark on the intertwined social and ecological crises of capitalism.
The film’s narrative groups humanity as a whole as the culprit for ecological degradation, as evoked in the film’s title, and as signaled by the Anthropocene trope as a universalizing explanation for our current predicament. This perspective neutralizes the powerful influence of historically transforming the world into standardized, calculable, and controllable landscapes to replicate Western imaginaries of the world. Not all humans are responsible for the current state of affairs. Some of us are forced to deal with the fallout of a particularly deadening vision of the world more than others. The consequence of activating the idea of the Anthropocene is that it allows big industries to convince us that “we”, the anthropos, are all equally responsible for climate change.
The film caters to Western views on environmentalism by those who do not have to deal with structural injustices of living in cities’ most polluted areas,dying from air pollution, havingtheir land dispossessed, or whose life choices are determined byprecarious migrant labour and remittance to families abroad. While the film artfully exposes the fallacy around so-called “green economy” illusions, it does so by focusing entirely on lifestyle choices like deciding whether to attend a solar-powered concert or to adopt a plant-based diet. This focus simplifies what environmentalism is meant to imply, even if the filmmakers may have had no intention of doing so. One consequence of the filmmaker’s one-sided Western environmentalist lens is its singular focus on renewable-energy supporters and activists. Environmentalism has less to do with having epiphanies of being inspired in the great outdoors, and more to do with supporting the autonomous decision-making of vulnerable communities in the face of egregious environmental pollution that no human being should ever be subjected to. Racialized environmental justice has a long history in the US. It is unfathomable that a film of this nature would blatantly side-step this, especially given Moore’s previous work on the racialized nature of environmental problems like the Flint water crisis. Only one female voice who defends the struggles of racialized people from so-called “developing” countries demanding environmental justice was offered space in the film, and even that for less than 1 minute.
The film blames overpopulation as another problem alongside relentless economic growth as where “we” went wrong as humans. This perspective unduly places the blame on populations in so-called developing countries and aligns with Malthusian and ethno-nationalist perspectives of eco-fascists by “greening” hatred among people. These are blatantly dangerous and could even be considered racist viewpoints especially considering that some environmental movements are deeply rooted in anti-immigration sentiment and white supremacy. This is particularly problematic when the film’s audience is seemingly well-meaning middle-class progressives whose dreams of a renewable-energy fueled capitalism are dashed without offering any alternatives. The consequence is that white-supremacist media sources like Breitbart can easily hijack a film like “Planet of the Humans,” as they already seem to be doing.
While perhaps not the intention of the filmmakers, the film paradoxically creates a narrative that is easy to co-opt by ecomodernists advocating for technological fixes to environmental problems. It essentially gives them a green light to irresponsibly advocate nuclear energy by laying claim to the failure of renewable technologies to power an industrial society. Indeed, given the lack of alternatives offered in the film, its silence on the matter essentially condones nuclear energy. Such a decontextualized view on the potential of energy alternatives like wind and solar shuts the door on renewable energy technologies without recognizing the crucial role they play as decentralized energy solutions, particularly those focused on ensuring energy democracy for communities around the world. In short, energy systems cannot be decontextualized from the kind of society that is democratically desired. Like fossil fuels, nuclear energy depends on powerful and hegemonic actors to drive and direct both energy demand and supply, but a sustainable future will require decentralized, autonomous communities that have control over their energy use and where their energy comes from.
implications of the film and its responses extend beyond its specific strengths
and weaknesses. Debates constructed around environmentalism more generally,
especially in industrialized countries, have tended to fall into particular narratives that do not adequately
share an ethical and political commitment towards social and environmental
for historical acts of colonial violence, and alternative
knowledges and ways of being. These narratives often advocate
for a renewable-powered and industrialized green economy, support centralized
techno-fixes like nuclear energy with potentially catastrophic social and
ecological consequences, or advocate for population control in veering
dangerously close to the side of eco-fascists.
that the film takes a North American focus, these positions amount to colonial
settlers on stolen land debating what counts as a sustainable future. The
striking absence of Indigenous
land defenders, their history of struggle, and lessons to be
learned from them is another missed opportunity to truly engage with what “sustainability”
could mean. While these concerns extend beyond the film’s intentions and
perhaps intended audience, it is impossible to ignore them given the totalizing
characterisation of environmental problems, as clearly evident in the film’s
Gert Van Hecken is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. For over fifteen years he has lived and worked in Nicaragua, both as a researcher on social-environmental conflicts in rural communities and as a representative for a development NGO.
Vijay Kolinjivadi is a Post-doctoral Researcher at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His research has focused on the socio-cultural and political outcomes around “payments for ecosystem service” policies with land-users in South and Central Asia as well as in Eastern Canada. His interests lie at the intersections of political ecology and ecological economics.
All that is left to us, therefore, is to understand what the disaster is producing within us, to pay attention to the explosion of affects it reveals. Therein lie the complexity of the situation and its rare promises. –Sabu Kohso
Stories of viruses are mostly stories of
surface breaking, membrane crossing, confinement evading, border shattering,
During the 19th century, scientists like Pasteur and others articulated the Germ theory: diseases could be passed on by tiny living things (hence the name microbes, small biota) invisible to the eye. Bacteria, organisms made of a unique cell, were “discovered”. An object, the Pasteur-Chamberland filter, was created to filter out bacteria from water. First dedicated to research, it also became an industrial device in a world now, and forever, scared of microbes and infections. But still, stuff that seemed to be smaller than bacteria, i.e., that could pass through these filters, kept on causing diseases. “Filterable viruses”, later only “viruses” (from poison in Latin), became then known to humans.
Viruses came to our world by crossing a membrane of unglazed, or bisque, porcelain. Here their narration starts—as if they hadn’t been there all along. Kevin Buckland, a storyteller living in Barcelona, teaches us this about the virus: “[its] power is simple: it can change periods into commas. It can un-end sentences. What was sealed and solved, what was packaged and piled, what had already been swept away is now again unfinished; ready to be rewritten.”
These past weeks, our days have been filled
with digressions about viruses. For example: are viruses alive? Yes, no, it
depends on how you define “alive”… And it depends on who you ask: someone
living through the Covid-19 pandemic, or the same person a couple months ago?
This question has been with us for as long as viruses came into our world. After they first crossed over the Pasteur-Chamberland filter, they were thought to be liquid entities. Then they became particulate. But what were they really, were they just toxins? Were they microbes? Nowadays, we talk of them as being at the edge of life, we ascribe them the gift of life only once they have crossed our cell membranes… The debate often follows a script:
—Viruses cannot self-generate their own body nor self-reproduce, therefore they are not alive. —Don’t they, though? —Well, yes, but they are not independent nor autonomous, they cannot do it on their own, they need to infect a cell to do it. —But some organisms also need other organism-hosts to reproduce. —Ah? —And how about you? would you be so independent and autonomous if you were in a world without any other living beings? —…
Indeed, asking “is this alive?” forces us
to think “what does it mean for something to be said to be alive?”. Another way
to go at it is to come up with lists of criteria, checklists, so we can tick “yes” or “no” when it
comes to viruses, and the debate is still not closed. All in all, this is a
tale of defining a phenomenon “en creux”, that is by focusing on what is
excluded by the definition. This debate of finding the limits of the domain of
life does sound abstract, but it is quite a spectacular contribution by the
If you ask “what does a virus
do?”, any biologist would tell you: first, it attaches itself to some
elements on the surface of the cells of animals or plants (bacteria have their
own made up category of viruses called bacteriophages). Then, using a diversity
of tactics, it will pierce through the surface membrane of the cell. Once
inside the cell, the pathogenic type of viruses will generally hack what the
cell does for a living (grow and reproduce) to reproduce itself to a vast
amount. After some multiplication, the virus will often engage with borders
again, this time to actually literally explode the membrane of the cell,
rupturing all structural integrity, spreading its inside outside. The cell, at
this stage, can safely be considered “dead”. See, it’s all about trespassing
This is the official story. But there is
some more unfinished business to it. We mostly think of viruses as
pathogens that infect us, make us ill, kill us. They are defined and perceived
solely from their function or from their way of life (a bit of DNA or RNA
genome encapsulated that needs to infect a host to actually do anything). Does
it make sense to lump all of them together under this single term? Their
genomes can be of all kinds and shapes, their structures as well, also their
rules of engagement with the cells. But above all, it seems that one important
activity of theirs is to mix things up: they insert their genomes into their
hosts, they pick up bits as well, they move these bits from one organism to the
next, they may have got stuck into cells to make new kind of cells. We’re now
in the world of Lynn Margulis
and her symbiogenesis stories—evolution as unfinished digestion: biological entities attaching to
or entering into other entities and sticking around. The most famous example is
the organelles found inside cells, like the mitochondria or the chloroplasts,
coming from bacteria that were “eaten” by other bacteria and stayed there. Some
say that the first eukaryotic cell (a cell with a well-defined DNA nucleus)
came from an actual virus entering a cell.
We should have listened to Lynn Margulis more. For one, she did offer a solution to the “what is life?” dilemma: life is not a thing, it’s a process. Indeed, what does an organism do? It grows. What for? To grow more. And Darwin was all well and good, but she insists the metaphor of the tree was terrible. Life is not made of independent branches of organisms, lineages that go their own paths separated from others. A more suitable metaphor would be the web: all these “lineages” bump into each other, cross each other, don’t respect the borders—neither the ones of the organisms, nor the ones of the taxonomists.
Taxonomy. This is another story of containment and packaging that got shattered. Taxonomy is the science of classification: ordering things into distinct categories, according to specific criteria. Essentially, compartmentalising, detaching, separating, confining… Taxonomists as border guards. Here, Debra Benita Shaw and her account of “promising monsters” is very telling. When she teaches us that “monsters are the necessary counterpart of taxonomy, [they] emerge both within the strata of the taxon and across its boundaries” and that “species are trapped in a taxonomic grid, but they are always struggling to escape/mutate”, it is almost like she’s telling us stories about viruses. Her monsters are both essential to the production of categories, taxonomies and hierarchies and to their undermining and challenge—they are mobilised to produce what is accepted as normal but they linger on, they proliferate. They are abnormalities that refuse to disappear, nagging us every now and then like a stone in a shoe; but they also are “unexpected formations that contain latent potential”, the deviations that hold the possibilities of future changes, evolutions and apparitions of new forms (such as the concepts of saltation and hopeful monsters in evolutionary biology).
It is easy to think of what is destructive
about viruses, especially on Wednesday 1st of April at 21:04 in
Barcelona, Spain. We are drowned in curves of new Covid-19 cases (is it flat
yet?), sunny and tempting empty streets from our balconies, graphs of daily
deaths, migrant persons fined for being out in the streets helping out others… And
it is particularly telling that the answer to a virus, given its ability to plough
through our established categories, was to multiply the confinements: lock
downs, movement restrictions, imposed distancing and isolations, borders
closing, modes of transport shut down. But what could be promising about
all this? True, at the moment, there is no shortage of interesting propositions
and analyses telling us that the coronavirus is an opportunity for social
change, an indicator of the failure of capitalism, a tipping point from which
we won’t turn back, a planet saviour, nature biting back… Funnily enough, one
interesting contribution was proposed by the virus itself, in a monologue. The
virus even managed to strip down the situation to the core bifurcation it
offers us: “the economy or life?”. Here it is again, forcing us to think about life.
Writing from within the pandemic, and a very specific vantage point (pretty privileged: work from home, cheap rent, no family responsibilities, official European identity papers—borders again), days are of a new kind. Constantly in the background, coming and going, tensing my jaw, aching my shoulders, piercing my chest and shortening my breath, an “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahaaaaaaa!”—anxiety, fears and worries.
Not so differently to a couple of centuries ago, viruses are invisible to most of us. They travel in droplets, in aerosol, linger on surfaces, clothes… anyone contaminated and in their incubation period, not showing any symptoms, could potentially pass it on. Not even some indirect clue of the risk. So much hand washing. Our relation with our hands has changed completely, they are the vectors of the invisible threat. Our mouths, our eyes, our noses are the points of entry. Scared of our own bodies, we embody the neo-liberal conception of life described by Silvia Federici “where market dominance turns against not only group solidarity but solidarity within ourselves”. In this situation, we are in constant state of fear of what’s within, “we internalize the most profound experience of self-alienation, as we confront not only a great beast that does not obey our orders, but a host of micro-enemies that are planted right into our own body, ready to attack us at any moment. […] we do not taste good to ourselves.”
The invisible does not only carry the feared entities. This is also where capitalism relegates its waste: air, ocean, underground, “ex”-colonies… All tales told, viruses seem to fit the risk society pretty well. This is the idea that our contemporary society has shifted to an obsession with safety and the notion of risk, and has dramatically shaped its organisation in response to these risks. From a class society where the motto was “I’m hungry”, and where social struggles were organised around this, the risk society’s motto became “I’m afraid”. This created a different set of demands, mostly revolving around the need to feel safe. The risks are mostly invisible (as in, actively unseen: nuclear, chemical toxins, oil spills, terrorism etc.). What therefore becomes central is to decide what constitutes a risk. Because scientists are now the ones that are relied on to make this assessment, science became a particular battlefield. In this framework, risks are divided into external and manufactured risks. The former are “natural” risks that arise from the outside (drought, floods, earthquakes—what “nature” does to us) and the latter occur because of what humans do to “nature” through its techno-scientific practices. Rob Wallace begs us to keep in mind that plagues are manufactured risks. The multiplication of zoonoses (infectious diseases that spread from non-human animals to humans), he argues, is a direct result of the capitalist modes of production: intensive monocultures, reduction of diversity, destruction of habitats… To quote the virus again, the “vast desert for the monoculture of the Same and the More” that we created is responsible for this pandemic.
What could exemplify more these invisible
manufactured risks than the nuclear complex and its associated
irradiations? And how this reminds us of viruses. They are both hyperobjects,
a term put forward by philosopher Timothy Morton to describe phenomena that
imply things, temporalities and spatial scales that are beyond humans while
intimately present—disproportionate, monumental and apocalyptic while mediated
by minute invisible entities. Also, responding to these disasters is difficult.
The true apocalyptic nature of these events is not that they will bring the end
of the world, it’s precisely that they are never ending, one
characteristic of the societies of control. Nuclear waste and viruses
will of course survive countless generations of humans. The monumentality of
this kind of catastrophe seems to call for a monumental solution, initiated by
a superior power, discouraging all revolts. But above all, it is the virtual
reality of radioactivity and viruses that throws us off. Impalpable, invisible,
delayed effect… nuclides and viruses diffuse in our world and bodies through
uncontrollable and unreliable movements. As hyperobjects, they are viscous: “they ’stick’ to beings that are
involved with them”. In a nuclear explosion or a pandemic, we cannot stop our
bodies from welcoming the radiations or the virus. They engage with our cells—manipulate,
use, modify, hamper them and threaten their integrity. Suddenly, reminding us
that we are made of cells, our own body integrity is at stake, and potentially
the ones of our offspring, or our closest ones…
No wonder a lot of my fellow humans are
lamenting “these days, I cannot think”. Cannot focus. Head in cotton, like when
taken by the fear of heights. But it is known, this is not fear, it is a desire
for heights. From my balcony on the 6th floor, peering over, I am
both terrified and excited. Powerful craving to let go, to give in to the air
and gravity. Fly, even for a few fractions; fall, finally free of the fear,
warmly wrapped in the friction of the resisting atmosphere—a liberating suicide.
We are now petrified by the phenomenal
amplitude of the situation. Confined, we are utterly confused when faced with
the satisfaction of one of our deepest and most repressed cravings: stop.
Take a breath and shut down the machine. Stand still, there,
wrapped in all the muck that we did not want to be with, reminding us of the
many ways we kept busy to avoid facing ourselves. Finally giving in to the
temptation—that has never left us since the first day of school—to stay in bed,
retreat, desert and abandon.
As Sabu Kohso reminds
us when writing about the Fukushima disaster, we
will not save the world. Our starting point could be to disassemble the
totality that was sold to us as The World, relocate its membranes and change
its punctuation, to recompose it offensively with new terrestrial relations
that are already solutions to live the good life. “In this mix of affects—despair,
joy, anger—that a lot of us share, we are tempering, quenching and forging new
weapons, and we are elaborating strange tools and curious talismans, to lead
ephemeral and intense lives on this earth.”
All images by Shrese.
Shrese is a carpenter and independent researcher based in Barcelona, Spain. Contact him at shrese at riseup dot net.
This article has now been republished in French by lundi.am.
Writing in the aftermath of the US-led overthrow of the People’s Revolutionary Government of Grenada, the inimitable Audre Lorde lamented the absence of a strong anti-imperialist movement in her seminal essay “Grenada Revisited.” Lorde identified two main factors to explain the dearth of resistance to the blatant intervention by the US in a sovereign state’s internal affairs: 1. a deliberately confused public sphere as “doublethink has come home to scramble our brains and blanket our protest,” and 2. a desensitized “[white] america whose moral & ethical fiber is weakened by racism as thoroughly as wood is weakened by dry rot.” The years following the 1983 invasion of Grenada have witnessed a continuation, and in many ways, deepening, of both: the racism that underpins the violent dispossession to which marginalized communities at ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ are subjected, coupled with the discursive infrastructure of a capitalist dominated media and public sphere designed to obscure and normalize this dispossession as well as to delegitimize resistance.
We currently face a combined economic, ecological and health crisis that is in many ways a product of the forms of exploitation and dispossession that Lorde identified in her essay, making it more vital than ever to draw connections in our analysis of and resistance to racial capitalism and Imperialism. Rob Wallace has demonstrated the linkages between capitalist modes of agriculture and the ecological transformations that have enabled the spread of “the most virulent and infectious phenotypes” of pathogens such as those that resulted in the coronavirus.
These processes have accelerated in the neoliberal era, spurred on by imperialist circuits of finance capital whose penetration of the Global South was enabled by the removal of “restrictions on the global flows of commodities and capital.” Neoliberalism has entailed a set of social and economic policies rolled out over the past five decades as a response to the crises of racial capitalism, designed to reverse even limited post-Depression working class gains and redistribute wealth upwards. Neoliberal policies including repeated tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, the deregulation of various sectors of the economy (including finance, telecommunication, energy, etc.), and the marketization and privatization of public services (including in the domains of education, social welfare, prisons, etc.) resulted in deindustrialization and the dismantlement of many public institutions that would otherwise have helped to mitigate the current crisis, including health care. The state’s “organized abandonment” was accompanied by a retrenching of its repressive apparatuses, including prisons, borders, and police—or the state’s “organized violence” in the words of Ruth Gilmore. This violence has targeted with criminalization the very Black, Brown, Indigenous, working class, poor and other marginalized and racialized communities who were the most impacted by neoliberal restructuring, extending already existing forms of exploitation, dispossession and exclusion in capitalist core states.
Many of the neoliberal policies behind the restructuring of the Global North’s welfare state were originally tested on—and resisted in—the periphery.
Many of the neoliberal policies behind the restructuring of the Global North’s welfare state were originally tested on—and resisted in—the periphery, via imperialist institutions like the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the World Bank, and the EU. As part of the attack on the post-independence assertion of Global South sovereignty, structural adjustment programs via enforced spending cuts and privatization engendered state disinvestment in public goods, contributing to the degradation of public institutions, including public health. They have also enforced capitalist patent regimes that limit these states’ abilities to provide affordable and accessible medicine to their populations, ensuring that the Global North benefits from the “monopoly rent…[and] an almost exclusive control of the world market of health.” Neocolonial debt further hinders Global South public health by diverting already limited state resources away from funding health care systems to servicing public debt. Similar to developments in the Global North, one of the few sectors that witnessed an increase in spending during the neocolonial assault on the state in the Global South were the repressive security institutions, also contributing the accumulation of public debt. This neoliberal restructuring combines with the colonial-capitalist assault on Global South ecologies and the destruction of imperialist wars and militarism, to produce “wasted lives”—contributing to an expansion of the “global reserve army of labor,” superexploitation of Global South labor and surplus value extraction.
While scholars like David Harvey argue that Imperialism is no longer useful as an analytic category, a look at any number of socio-economic indicators statistically mapped out onto an image of the globe makes clear that the north-south cleavage is still salient when it comes to patterns of accumulation and dispossession. Whether we look at it through the lens of public health, monopoly finance capital, global commodity chains, labor exploitation, unequal exchange, sanctions, climate disaster, or military interventions—there is a stark geographic dimension to how power is divided and exercised across the globe. As in the past, global inequalities today are also reflected and intimately connected to those within the metropole. In the current context, it is poor, undocumented, immigrant, Black and Brown communities hit the hardest by crisis. Not only in terms of being more susceptible to contracting and dying from the coronavirus, as a result of historical legacies of slavery and ongoing structural racism, resulting in a lack of access to adequate health care, nutrition and housing, as well as contributing to conditions as well as often limited capacity to “social distance,” but also because of the uneven impact of its socio-economic reverberations, including loss of employment and housing, as well as being subjected to state violence and surveillance as part of the state’s increasingly securitized response.
Similar to the Granada intervention conjuncture so incisively dissected by Lorde, the current moment has also laid bare the interconnections between the Imperialism and racial capitalism. Yet we still falling far short of the kind of political mobilization required, with the parallel analytical phenomenon that some interpretations of Imperialism have been stretched so thin that the concept has lost much of its meaning and urgency. Though there may be several factors that can account for this, central among them is what Lorde, referencing George Orwell, identified as “doublethink.” This refers to a deliberate and systematic politics of confusion that emerged in the late/post-Cold War period, providing a discursive cover for the neoliberal counter-revolution against post-colonial Global South sovereignty. This cover operates through several discursive mechanisms, including through the evasion and distortion of history to disrupt and reverse otherwise obvious connections between causes (settler-colonialism, slavery, racial capitalism, Imperialism) and effects (underdevelopment, de-development, inequality, dispossession). This doublethink equates imperialist violence with the responses it engenders, flattening out different forms of state power, (e.g. by conflating neoliberal and imperially aligned states such as Colombia and Peru with “Pink tide” governments such as Bolivia and Ecuador that have sought to nationalize resources and redistribute wealth, support the struggles of workers and Indigenous communities, and challenge imperialist geopolitical alignments, repeatedly referring to the latter as “authoritarian”). It also normalizes imperialist violence through discursive formations such as the ‘democratization’, ‘humanitarianism’, ‘development’, ‘war on terror’, ‘green transition’, and sets limits on what we are able to imagine in terms of liberation (e.g. whether or not international agreements can be broken and debt erased, regional integration, redistribution, ending private property regimes and reclaiming the commons). It is why for so many people it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Faced with this combined health-economic-ecological crisis, there is a renewed urgency to demystify and contest this politics of confusion by strengthening our anti-imperialist organizing. Just as we build solidarity through mutual aid in our communities to fill the gaps- as well as address root causes– left by the neoliberal, racial capitalist state, we must extend our solidarity to support mutual aid efforts in the Global South, where similar and much more severe gaps in the ability of the state to protect people in the face of coronavirus are intimately connected to US Imperialism. These include economic warfare against countries like Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, to the deepening and expansive tentacles of US military projection across the African continent through the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), including “46 various forms of U.S. bases” and other military interventions designed, in the words of the former deputy of AFRICOM himself to “Protec[t] the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market,” and including past and ongoing US directed or backed invasions, bombings, blockades, occupations, covert destabilization military operations and coups in places like Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Bolivia and Venezuela.
At its base, Imperialism is a system of domination that blocks real self-determination for states and peoples. It is about externally determining and imposing, often together with the collaboration of elements of a domestic elite, particular modes of industrialization, socio-political forms of governance and border-making/border practices that facilitate labor exploitation and surplus drain in the Global South for the benefit of (largely Global North/western) capital. It is about blocking alternative ways of imagining and pursuing development, value, and of living with one another and with the Earth. The imperialist aim is to obstruct the pursuit of alternative socio-political-economic projects (and sabotage extant ones) that threaten capitalist power. As Ali Kadri reminds us, the state-led developmentalist projects of the post-independence era implemented across West Asia and Africa “did not fail on their own”; it was “implicit and explicit” forms of Imperialism “that shut them down.”
Imperialism is about blocking alternative ways of imagining and pursuing development, value, and of living with one another and with the Earth.
Imperialism is also always about violence. There is the structural
violence that results from what Walter Rodney described as the “paradox” of underdevelopment,
parts of the world that are naturally rich are actually poor.” There is also, of course, the material
violence. Imperialism is backed up by the threat and
often actual shock and awe of military might. We are all too familiar with the
long list and typology of imperialist interventions, which include: the invasions,
occupations and other forms of imperialist (largely US/French/British/Germany
led)-military action witnessed over the past century in places from Vietnam to
Iraq, North Korea to Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Chile, Syria and Mali to imperialist
backed coups against leftist and/or nationalist governments across Africa and the
destabilization, destruction, and currency devaluation, wars and occupations enable
numerous forms of extraction and exploitation of natural and human resources.
In that sense, they are primary mechanisms of “surplus value and power creation.”
This is true not only, as Ali Kadri shows us, in the immediate aftermath of
violence, but for years following, as they produce the socio-economic
conditions of “underdevelopment” that enable Global North accumulation.
Returning to Grenada, Lorde pointed to the outcome (and aim)
of the US invasion: “Ministries are silent.
The state farms are at a standstill. The cooperatives are suspended…On the day
after the invasion, unemployment was back up to 35 percent. A cheap,
acquiescent labor pool is the delight of supply side economics.”
Counted among the list of imperialist interventions are the 1,000 military bases and installations the US operates/and or controls across the globe, which have aided in the funding of death squads, coups, and other covert operations. This number far surpasses that of foreign military bases maintained by any other state in the world. There are also the more subtle forms of military domination and imperialist induced vulnerability that come from state dependence on US/European weapons and surveillance systems, training, as well as military “cooperation” with joint military operations, wherein the US outsources risky ventures to Global South “partners.”
While much is made of Russia and China as competing powers for global hegemony, it is telling that the US spends more on “national defense” than the other countries included on the list of top 8 military spenders combined
The US dominated military-industrial-complex continues to be one of the most visible mechanisms of Imperialism today. While much is made of Russia and China as competing powers for global hegemony, it is telling that the US spends more on “national defense” than the other countries included on the list of top 8 military spenders combined (including France, United Kingdom, Germany, India, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia). The US dominated arms market also perpetuates financialization of the global capitalist economy as the top arms dealers are all publicly traded. The US continues to dominate with 42 of the Top 100 listed arms companies based in the United States. The speculative role of arms capital was once more on display as major US arms companies saw their stock prices jump following the Trump administration’s assassination of the leader of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Soleimani in January of this year In supplying their arms to the Global South, these merchants of death not only provide the conditions to alienate citizens from their states, but also alienate Global South states from one another as they find themselves caught up in conflicts that are not of their own making, nor in their own interest.
even more pervasive than militarism, economic warfare is one of the most
destructive forms of imperialist intervention. Currently, a third of humanity
is impacted by US sanctions. Sanctions are a way of
disciplining Global South self-determination, as
is so clearly the case in Zimbabwe where sanctions first adopted in 2001 were designed
to punish the government for its extensive land
reform program. Not
only do sanctions by design “cause untold death and devastation,”
a reality laid bare in the current health crisis, but also, as Lauren Smith
demonstrates, “economic sanctions serve to justify and conceal theft, through
asset freezes and seizures, at a rate only previously accomplished through
invasion and occupation.” US sanctions
trigger currency devaluation, inflation, increased unemployment, prices and access
to food, power, and industrial equipment, and, of course, medicine. In other
words, sanctions are a neocolonial tool designed to “prevent countries from setting
in place any form of economic development.”
has been the target of one of the most significant and consistent US sanctions
regimes, a punishment for asserting its sovereignty with the
1979 Iranian revolution. Though
lifted for a short time following the 2015 nuclear deal, Trump’s re-imposition
and expansion of sanctions have forced the Iranian economy to contract by 9.3
percent in 2019. To convey a sense
of the scale of the impact that the US enforced severing of Iran from the
international financial system has had on the Iranian economy, Kevin Cashman
and Cavan Kharrazian explain that it would be the equivalent to a 16 percent
cut in the US federal budget, or $521 billion in 2018. With at least 58,226 cases of the coronavirus and at least 3,603 deaths recorded since the outbreak, there is no doubt
that US sanctions have made it much harder to tackle
the pandemic. The country is facing shortages of respiratory-assistance
devices and basic medical equipment, such as gloves and masks. With the sanctions impeding Iran’s
ability to respond to the health crisis it is facing, the aims of the US’ economic
warfare on the country are rendered even more apparent: destabilization and death.
In Venezuela, even before the coronavirus outbreak, a report by the Center for Economic and Policy research demonstrated a 31% increase in mortality in the country after the 2017 round of US imposed sanctions, causing an increase of 40,000 deaths in the country. The most recent ramping up of imperialist aggression towards Venezuela in the form of increased sanctions, the deployment of navy ships towards the country and the placement of a $15 million-dollar bounty on the head of President Nicolas Maduro, have all contributed to undermining Venezuela’s ability to confront the coronavirus, and will undoubtedly result in even more deaths. To add insult to injury, US Imperialism has created both the conditions in which Iran and Venezuela have been forced to turn to the IMF for emergency funds to confront the coronavirus as well as the reason for which the IMF continues to block these countries from accessing needed funds.
US Imperialism has created both the conditions in which Iran and Venezuela have been forced to turn to the IMF for emergency funds to confront the coronavirus as well as the reason for which the IMF continues to block these countries from accessing needed funds.
are not only deadly in the sense of blocking access to the medicine, food and
finance required by states to provide basic welfare for their population, but also
in denying and distorting capital flows and economic transactions, and in
enabling the investment of seized assets in Global North banks. They are a major mode of Global South-to-North wealth drain. As
demonstrated by a recent report, the U.S.
economic blockade has caused over US $138.8 billion in losses to Cuba since the
1960s. Of course, not everyone in the Global North benefits from this wealth
drain. As with other examples of imperialist intervention, the inequalities of
racial capitalism are in fact exacerbated by sanctions as an economy built on “plunder” is by design one that
exploits, dispossesses and wastes lives.
Connecting the dots between racial capitalism and Imperialism
The above list of imperialist economic interventions includes debt colonialism, currency manipulations, structural adjustment programs, “free trade” deals, and other forms of economic intervention that block Global South development and facilitate Global South wealth drain and Global North accumulation. By dehumanizing, devaluing, and exploiting Global South lives and livelihoods, Imperialism perpetuates white supremacy both within the US and across what W.E.B. Du Bois described as the “global color line.” For Lorde, the seeming indifference of the US public to the imperialist violence committed against Grenada could only be grasped by understanding how “white america has been well-schooled in the dehumanization of Black people” and how such socialization enables accumulation through dispossession under racial capitalism.
By dehumanizing, devaluing, and exploiting Global South lives and livelihoods, Imperialism perpetuates global white supremacy both within the US and across what W.E.B. Du Bois described as the “global color line.”
The racialized forms of accumulation underpinning capitalism have always been international — from the foundational role of slavery and the dispossession of Indigenous lands and polities to the current formations and relations of power underpinning the globalized and hierarchically organized and racialized circuits of trade and production. These circuits of trade and production are kept in place by imperialist states and the multilateral institutions they dominate, from the IMF/World Bank to NATO, often including different organs of the UN and international law. These same interests, institutions, policies, and practices not only act outward to impact people around the world, but are responsible for criminalizing, exploiting and dispossessing Indigenous, migrant, Black, Brown, undocumented, and poor communities in the US itself. Trump’s framing of Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus,” a framing that was readily echoed by a mainstream media and public sphere long schooled in anti-Asian racism and the (neo)colonial tradition of deploying “health and medical discourses [to] further racist projects of excluding and eliminating those deemed undesirable,” is a reminder of Imperialism’s and racial capitalism’s shared discursive infrastructure.
Both this global domination and the resistance to it have always been international. From early forms of radical Black internationalism, including such luminaries as W.E.B. Dubois, Claudia Jones, Paul Robeson, Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon and Angela Davis, to organizations like the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, the International African Service Bureau, and the Black Panthers, internationalism was an important base of struggles against colonial regimes and white supremacy. There is also the long tradition of what Nick Estes describes “Indigenous internationalism,” through which Indigenous peoples have “imagin[ed] themselves as part of Third World struggles and ideologies, and entirely renouncing the Imperialism and exceptionalism of the First World (while still living in it).” Internationalism informed various state initiatives (e.g. the 1955 Bandung Conference, and 1964 UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), as well as early hybrid state-popular forms of solidarity expressed through institutions such as the Cairo based Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization and its “antecedent,” the African Association, and the Tricontinental Conference. Today, the international peasant and ecological movement of Via Campesina coordinates global resistance to the ravages of capitalist agriculture for a food sovereign future, while the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Black for Palestine and The Red Nation carry forward the mantle of internationalism in the name of anti-colonial solidarity, Palestinian, Native and Black liberation and human emancipation. Much anti-imperialist organizing in the US today centers abolition, pointing to linkages between US interventions “abroad” and repression at “home,” with a focus on “racialized policing and prison systems” as well as connections between the conceptual and material underpinnings of the carceral-police state in the imperial core and the periphery. The abolition project has assumed a new urgency in the current conjuncture as it is clear that communities targeted by the carceral-police state are the most vulnerable to the current combined crisis.
While the imperialist security state devises new mechanisms of control and capital figures out ways to profit from the crisis, resistance is also mounting. Already existing circuits and networks of solidarity are being mobilized, with organizations like the Red Nation calling for human solidarity “not just to stop the most catastrophic effects of COVID-19, but to end this inhumane and criminal capitalist system once and for all.” Others like Cooperation Jackson are building on the increasing radicalism of labor organizing in the face of the crisis to demand a “democratization of the means of production” as well as a redirection of funds spent on defending and expanding the US empire “to Health Care, Social Services, Universal Basic Income and Greening Public Infrastructure and the Economy.” There are also calls originating from the Global South for broad solidarity with demands for reparations and the cancellation of neocolonial debt. While the US practices public health Imperialism, Cuba is leading the way with its public health Internationalism, providing support to states in the Global South (and even Global North), which are struggling because of limited resources and the consequences of neoliberal cost-cutting of health-services to fight the spread and impact of the coronavirus.
International solidarity derives from the realization that our own liberation — and indeed, our survival — is fundamentally linked to the liberation and survival of the most oppressed people across the globe.
These past and present forms of internationalism have taught us that the struggle against racial capitalism and Imperialism can only succeed if undertaken as a collective. As rising temperatures and sea levels (as well as the rapid spread of the deadly coronavirus) remind us, international solidarity is neither an abstract nor intellectual duty. Rather, it derives from the realization that our own liberation — and indeed, our survival — is fundamentally linked to the liberation and survival of the most oppressed people across the globe. As internationalists, we also have a responsibility to educate ourselves to the greatest extent possible about the popular struggles unfolding in parts of the world where Imperialism is busy at work, in our names, and with our tax dollars. From Algeria, to Haiti, Chile, Ecuador, Lebanon, before the coronavirus health crisis gripped the globe, it seemed the entire world was on fire with popular uprisings resisting the ravages of capitalism and the apparatuses of “organized violence” that are designed to sabotage and manage dissent. Once the virus subsides, these struggles will undoubtedly reconvene with a vengeance, spurred on by the inequalities and injustices exposed and exacerbated by the combined crisis as well as by signaling from imperialist institutions such as the World Bank, which has called on states to “implement structural reforms to help shorten the time to recovery,” that business will continue as usual. Likewise the struggle for Palestinian liberation, where Imperialism and settler-colonialism combine to create the perfectly deadly mix for the unequal spread and impact of coronavirus, accelerating the Israeli project of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population.
As we have learned from the successes and mistakes of the past, our anti-Imperialism cannot be a one size-fits-all mode of organizing. It must be based on sound analysis of the particular histories, socio-economic contexts, class composition, ideological underpinnings, and political alignments of both states and movements. Yet it always requires that we resist imperialist military and economic intervention as well as the so-called multilateral institutions that facilitate Global South dispossession and wealth drain. It often means standing in solidarity with Global South popular movements as they resist the collusion of their governments in the exploitation, extraction, dispossession and destruction of peoples, lands, and ecologies facilitated by US provisioned arms, training, and diplomatic cover. By virtue of our geographic location in the belly of the beast, we have a special responsibility to resist all attempts by the US and other imperialist actors to sabotage, divert, co-opt, or otherwise limit the will of popular struggles across the Global South. It also requires that we stand in solidarity with those Global South states that are punished for the threat they pose to status quo functioning of global capitalism because of their geopolitical alliances and support for anti-colonial and anti-imperial resistance. Finally, we must be wary of forms of critique that may have the perhaps unintended consequence of turning people away from anti-imperialist organizing at a time when they are needed the most by claiming that those who focus their analysis and organizing on the role of US power, ignore or undermine Global South agency when in fact the principal aim of anti-Imperialism is precisely to support the building of a context in which meaningful Global South self-determination can be realized. At a time when so much is at stake, we must be as careful as possible to ensure our analyses do not reproduce and reinforce imperialist discourses and power relations.
It is the working class, poor, racialized and criminalized communities both in the Global North and South who suffer the most and who are also at the forefront of resistance.
As we confront these interlocking health-economic-ecological crises, we must remember that it is the working class, poor, racialized and criminalized communities both in the Global North and South who suffer the most and who are also at the forefront of resistance. True liberation and survival—depends upon centering the needs, struggles and collective leadership of the most vulnerable among us. To do so requires that we continue building on the analysis and praxis of those Internationalists who have come before us. They have shown us that the best antidote to the politics of confusion is a politics that connect the dots between the political-economic systems of human and ecological domination that continue to exploit, dispossess, and kill us.
After a commenter’s feedback, some corrections have been made on the history of Grenada’s revolution.
The authors would like to thank the editors of Uneven Earth, including Natalie Suzelis and Vijay Kolinjivadi, for their extensive and insightful edits and suggestions, as well as Max Ajl and Setareh Ghandehari for their close readings of the article and feedback. They would also like to thank Zainab Khan, Ramin Zareian, and Chris Tidwell for their research help with the sanctions section of this article.
Corinna Mullin is an adjunct professor at the New School and John Jay College (CUNY) and researches on Imperialism, capitalism and the politics/political economy of Global South security states; she tweets @MullinCorinna.
Azadeh Shahshahani is Legal & Advocacy Director at Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild; she tweets @ashahshahani.
Old colonial relations cast a shadow over today’s environmental politics. But when accusations of historical abuse pop up, some nations manage to fly below the radar in spite of extensive colonial involvement. Due to their so-called higher standards of behaviour they may even gain advantages in the global competition for control of natural resources. ‘Neutral’ Sweden is one of those nations.
In this essay, I weave together depictions of Swedish colonial history with recent political events. I thus hope to shed light on the way that professed concerns with sustainability in Sweden and Northern Europe interact with postcolonial power structures today. Much of the historical research that I build on is derived from two recent books which have contributed to a rethinking of Swedish and Scandinavian involvement in colonialism: the research anthology Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena (2013), edited by Magdalena Naum and Jonas M. Nordin, and Våra kolonier, de vi hade och de som aldrig blev av (‘Our colonies, the ones we had and those never realized’; my translation), by Herman Lindqvist.
Double standards in Northern
European environmental politics
An odd thing happened to the mainstream image of Northern European environmental politics following the wildfires in the Amazon rain forest last year. In August 2019 the G7, or Group of Seven, countries offered Brazil a $20 million relief effort—allegedly to reduce the risk of climate change by counteracting extensive forest fires in the Amazon. The offer was however turned down by the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who confronted the G7 leaders and said that they were treating Brazil ‘like a colony’. Bolsonaro eventually had second thoughts and accepted the aid, but the controversy nonetheless brought the question of colonial guilt and contemporary postcolonial power relations to wider public attention.
What makes Bolsonaro’s scoffing particularly interesting is that he directed it toward nations that tend to be depicted as humanitarian and climate heroes: Germany and Norway. Those two countries had withdrawn financial support from the Amazon Fund in order to pressure Bolsonaro’s administration to take action against the Amazon fires. While influential socialscientists have celebrated Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Germany as ‘clean and green’ utopias, Brazil’s right-wing president unexpectedly—and even against his own anti-environmentalist politics—opens the door to an environmental justice critique of Northern European countries. He accurately ascribes double standards to Norway and Germany, Norway as a whaling country and Germany as needing reforestation. At the same time, his own administration engages in even more absurd forms of anti-environmentalism—as when the director-general of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research Ricardo Galvão was fired and labelled a ‘traitor’ after the Institute issued a report in 2019 on the acceleration of deforestation in the Amazon.
The clean and green façade of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is revealed.
Activists and NGOs used the attention which
both the Amazon fires and Bolsonaro attracted to point out that the Brazilian
president, although he himself wants to practice environmental destruction at
home, does sort of hit the nail on the head when he criticizes Northern European
countries for not wanting to change anything in their own backyards. As a
Norwegian news site writes, ‘Norway’s rain forest preservation
programs have not been without controversy, with critics suggesting Norway has
opted to finance climate measures abroad instead of cutting more carbon
emissions at home by curbing oil exploration and production.’ The clean and green façade
of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is
revealed. Also, the postcolonial interests of rich countries are still evident:
the $20 million relief effort may contain
a hidden agenda and climate care can serve as a perfect alibi for retaining
economic influence—provided that the commitment to sustainability and fair
distribution of welfare and resources is made credible. In 2018, the Brazilian
vice president, general Hamilton Mourão, expressed suspicions about such professed
commitments: ‘The rich world uses the climate debate to continue to dominate.’
There is a historical continuity to point to here: the poor have suffered the most from environmental impact and unjust conditions caused by the wealthy. And scientists project that this tendency will escalate with global warming, as a future scenario with extreme heat threatens the global South in particular, with consequences like decreased labour productivity, lower crop yields, and impoverished human health. And the ‘clean and green utopias’ of Northern Europe have a part in this unequal system. Equitable distribution of environmental load and economic benefits is not a core shareholder value in the global economy.
Sweden is one of the countries who are keen on business in Brazil. The Swedish Minister for rural affairs, Sven-Erik Bucht, went there in 2017 with major Swedish forestry actors and researchers, establishing relations for Swedish businesses under the guise of sustainability. The Amazon is a target for Swedish exports of technology and forestry know-how. Since Swedish forestry often includes criticized clearcutting, Greenpeace Sweden took the opportunity when the fires in the Amazon brought attention to deforestation to point to Swedish double standards when the country pressures Brazil to preserve the rain forest all the while replacing forests with tree plantations at a remarkable speed in Sweden. Since the same companies that are trying to gain access to Brazilian land are causing environmental harm back in Sweden, Greenpeace’s reaction against Swedish double standards could be taken even further. These double standards reside not only in the tendency to require better environmental protection in Brazil than at home, but also in how Swedish forestry actors would happily contribute to deforestation in the Amazon.
We can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.
So what is going on with all this? How can widely celebrated ‘clean and green utopias’ engage in such dubious practices? By looking at the role of Scandinavia, and in particular Sweden, in the colonial era, we can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.
Swedish colonialism in the ‘great olden days’ and today
Sweden’s ‘free lane’ into business profit in
formerly colonized areas depends on the common perception that Scandinavian
colonial violations were marginal, if they occurred at all. But however negligible the Swedish exercise of
power has been, it is paradoxically depicted with great glamour. A telling
example is the Swedish national
1844, including the patriotic stanza which begins ‘Du tronar på minnen från fornstora dar, då ärat ditt namn flög över
jorden’ (‘You are enthroned on memories of great olden
days, when honoured your name flew across the Earth’).
Many Swedes probably tune into the song with a sense of pride—most commonly at sport events—and a vague notion of its references to the Swedish Era of Great Power in the years 1611-1718. Sweden was then a colonizer, although admittedly on a smaller scale than Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain or France—and allegedly of a benevolent type.
But the Swedish Crown and power sphere were in fact heavily involved in the European colonization project with all its atrocities. This is convincingly shown in the anthology on Scandinavian colonialism from 2013 edited by Naum and Nordin. In more than a dozen close-up descriptions of colonial encounters, a continuous whitewash of Scandinavian history is revealed. The anthology displays Swedish involvement on several continents: from expansion up North to the New World, Africa, and Asia. In 2015 this book was succeeded by Våra kolonier in which popular historian Herman Lindqvist uncovers a strong Swedish ambition to develop a colonial role. Conclusions in the two books align: dreams of gold, ivory, sugar, spices, and tobacco triggered the Swedish search for and foundation of colonies from the early 17th century in North America, West Africa, and later the West Indies. Ships were built to export iron, wood, and tar, financing increasing imports.
Swedish iron was a key ingredient—mainly for
arms production—in the infamous triangular trade. Dutch-born entrepreneur Louis
De Geer was an important figure in this as the Swedish Crown granted him a
monopoly on copper and iron trade (he later got the epithet ‘the father of
Swedish industry’). A curious fact is that iron in his forges was cast into bars
that suited the backs of donkeys (!) used for transportation in Africa, as an
adaptation to the slave economy: bent bars were replaced by slaves. With Royal Swedish support he also established
a trading post in Cabo Corso at the African Gold Coast. 1,500-2,000 slaves were
shipped by Swedes over the Atlantic. Ethics were no
obstacle. The European colonial attitude depended on racial supremacy. A
Swedish pastor doubted openly that African slaves were human beings. A Lutheran
bishop in Copenhagen proclaimed that slavery was a natural state for heathens
and punishment for their sins.
The word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources.
Sweden has successfully avoided scrutiny partly
because of a widespread understanding that it never got any major colonies. The
word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources, historical or popular. But Sweden did have several colonies for
quite some time. Baltic provinces were annexed in wars in the 16th
and 17th centuries, staying under Swedish control for 150 years.
Regions in Germany and Poland were occupied. Swedish trade relied on indentured
peasants in those areas. If the brutality of Swedes is absent in Swedish
sources, it is all the more present in German, Polish, and Baltic ones.
The Swedish leadership also aimed for America.
A detailed colonial trade plan was formed and New Sweden was established in
Delaware in 1638, challenging Spanish control. The Swedish governor got royal
instructions to treat the ‘wild people’ well to gain their confidence. The
Crown was hoping that ‘higher standards’ would convince them to withdraw from competing
traders. And the Swedes managed to cooperate with the Lenape and Susquehannock
nations for some time.
In New Sweden, forest Finns were forced (by
updated legal restrictions in Sweden) to cultivate the colony with their ‘slash
and burn’ practise. They were roughly treated and historians have even used the
term ‘penal colony’. The use of indentured labour was similar to the infamous
use of the same system in British plantations in the West Indies.
There is evidence that the Swedish governor
actually wished to eliminate the Indigenous population in the barren colony. He
applied for sufficient numbers of soldiers to do so. The proposal was however
ignored by the Crown, probably because of the urgent need for war resources in
Poland and elsewhere.
The Swedish Royal council also planned other
settlements in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Asia in the 17th
and the 18th century. But plans constantly failed, until Sweden at
last obtained Saint Barthélemy from France in 1784. The Caribbean island became
an important trade hub with slave trade as the main objective. This trade
relied on Swedish ‘neutrality’ in European wars.
It is revealing as well that leading Swedish
merchants sold iron (for weaponry) to rebellious forces in the American War of
Back in Europe, the discovery of silver in Lapland in the 1630s triggered the Swedish Crown’s expansion north into Sápmi. In centuries to come, resources like fur, game, and minerals were extracted—and the Indigenous Sámi were ‘civilized’. The colonial attitude was obvious: Chancellor Oxenstierna referred to the northern parts of Sweden as ‘our India’. The ultimate purpose was to displace the Sámi people and deny them their independence and land rights.
The Swedish presence through settlers,
bailiffs, entrepreneurs, and clerics in Lapland has not been seen as colonial
domination by historians until the last few decades. Instead, terms like
agricultural expansion, Forest Sámi assimilation, domestication, or civilizing
have been used. But the compulsory boarding school
attendance (with Christianity lessons) for Sámi children cut off from their
families is not essentially different from the Belgian education of natives in
the Congo or North American examples such as the Brafferton Indian School in
Mining interests have repeatedly collided with reindeer herding and settlements.
Furthermore, the colonial legacy in Sápmi is
still evident today. There are long-standing conflicts about land use in much
of Sápmi, often in connection to the environmental impact of extractive
industrial projects. For example, mining interests have repeatedly collided
with reindeer herding and settlements. At the present time mining
entrepreneurs, including several multinational companies, are searching for
rare earth metals and iron, exploitation that is marketed by companies (and the
government) as environmentally and socially beneficial because Swedish
environmental protection and working conditions are superior to Chinese ones.
In all this, the Sámi appear to have no say.
One land use conflict is currently tried in the Swedish Supreme Court. The dispute concerns who should administrate hunting and fishing rights on the grazing lands of the reindeer herding community of Girjas: the Sámi community or the Swedish government. Girjas has won in the District Court and the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court’s decision will likely serve as a precedent in similar cases, meaning that it can have far-reaching effects on how Indigenous land use and land rights are interpreted by Swedish courts in the future.
In the court proceedings, surprisingly blunt
statements have been made by representatives of Swedish authorities about the
Sámi as ‘inferior’, a characterization which echoes the old colonial depiction
of Indigenous peoples. Throughout history many Sámi people have been hurt,
humiliated, and oppressed by Swedish authorities. When the well-known Sámi
public figure Johannes Marainen was recently interviewed in a Swedish newspaper, he
concluded that ‘We Swedes are quick to engage when people in other countries
are oppressed, but we have not really cleaned up in front of our own door.’ This is not the least apparent in the Swedish
government’s continual restriction of who has the legal right to call
themselves Sámi on ‘Swedish’ territory: reindeer owners of ethnic Sámi origin.
All other Sámi people—like fishing and hunting Sámi—are by Swedish definitions
not Sámi! The self-imposed governmental right
to define, acculturate, and segregate the Sámi people is largely unbroken since
Scandinavian peculiarities within the European colonial project
In a discussion of colonialism in Scandinavia, it should be noted that Denmark maintained even more widespread presence in colonies around the world than Sweden did, in Africa, Asia, and the West Indies. Also, Denmark tried to control the North, with its whaling and fisheries, in a ‘colonial union’ with Iceland, North Atlantic Islands, and Greenland. The exploitation of Greenland has been similar to Swedish expansion in Sápmi. Greenland still remains Danish, with a restricted autonomy. American president Donald Trump recently made a surprising announcement of the intention to buy Greenland, demonstrating how strategically and economically attractive land areas still are seen as available for purchase. But the neocolonial bid was declined by the Danish prime minister. Following the old colonial pattern, the islanders themselves were not consulted.
Heavy violence was not a part of Scandinavian
colonialism, at least not to the same extent as in British, Spanish, French and
later German rule. But one of the most long-lived slave revolts in the
Caribbean actually occurred in the Danish colony of St. John in 1733. For six
months a group of slaves battled and killed Europeans and slaves of other
origin, until French soldiers violently ended the revolt. Colonial competitors
would often unite in this manner against enemies who threatened the colonialist
Another difference between Scandinavian oversees colonies and those of other European nations was that the numbers of Scandinavian settlers in the colonies were on the whole few. However, this doesn’t mean—so Naum and Nordin write in the introduction to their anthology—that the colonies were negligible in geo-economic terms. The colonial purposes were similar to those of other European powers:
Scandinavia’s colonial expansion was motivated by and involved particular economic thinking, mercantilist drive for profit (to sell dear and buy cheap) and balancing national economies. Furthermore, it made use of the principles of natural law, which stipulated universal rights to trade, travel, explore and settle in foreign lands and justified violent actions if these rights were denied.
Naum and Nordin show how the quest for economic growth attracted Dutch capital and workforce to Scandinavia, bringing industrialization as well as capitalism. Books were written about the usefulness of trade and the need for founding colonies. Sugar refineries were built in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Swedish herring was traded as food for slaves. Merchants offered shipping of slaves to French colonies. Expeditions to America were made, even secretly in war time.
Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war.
The Swedish Crown, merchants, and political leadership shared a Eurocentric worldview and supported the right to conquer, dominate, and civilize in the name of superiority and technological advancement. But there was also a specifically Swedish twist to colonial ideology: Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war. When Britain and the Netherlands were fighting, Sweden exported cannons to the Dutch and iron for weaponry to the Brits. France could, when fighting Britain, rely on Swedish shipping of smuggled slaves, weaponry and other goods in the Caribbean. Also, hundreds of US trade ships managed to avoid customs by sailing under Swedish flag—and thus Sweden could maintain the lucrative Saint Barthélemy trade traffic.
There seems to be a line of continuity in
Swedish ‘neutrality’ goodwill from colonial times up to this day. When
defending delicate business agreements, Swedish rulers are well aware of the
strong link between ‘nonprofit’ trademarks and the ability to secure market
The self-image of Sweden as a peace-loving
world conscience of human rights rhymes badly with Swedish arms exports. The
last few decades there has been a public debate on exports to dictatorships and
regimes at war—though it is at least not, unlike in the ‘great olden days,’ a
question of illegal smuggling. On the contrary, the companies and the
government take care to emphasise the morally responsible nature of the Swedish
arms industry, using foreign policy watchwords like ‘equality,’ ‘freedom of
speech,’ and ‘press freedom’. Trade is promoted by professing high standards of
human rights and progressiveness.
But whatever ideals are invoked, Swedish
exports of military equipment are frequent to countries where essential
freedoms and rights are absent. The Swedish company SAAB recently delivered
airborne systems of radar surveillance to United Arab Emirates. The suppression
of human rights in the Arabic autocracy was never questioned. Amnesty noted
that SAAB does little or nothing to check if delivered equipment is used in war
crimes or oppression.
The ongoing SAAB delivery of 36 fighter aircraft to Brazil causes no troubling debate in Sweden. But when exports to warring countries are highlighted the government is forced to act; recently exports to Turkey were stopped because of the war in northern Syria (the contents of the exports were secret, however—protected by law).
Continuing on or
contesting colonial relations
As suggested earlier, ‘climate action’ is
becoming another useful sales argument for rich countries like Sweden. But when
it comes to climate offsetting, rich countries gladly export it. Swedish funds
support tree plantations in Kachung in Uganda in a project which has meant that
local farmers have been forced to move, thus losing their small
income. The project has even been considered a form of ‘landgrabbing.’ Now the
farmers cannot afford to send their children to school; some even starve.
Ugandan David Kureeba, chief at the National Association of Professional
Environmentalists, called this ‘climate colonialism’ in a major Swedish
newspaper. The colonial pattern is there, in
compensations for emissions of carbon dioxide as well as in exports of garbage
to Africa. In a similar case, it has been revealed that Swedish government agencies
have bought carbon offsets in Brazil from a multinational corporation that has
now been sued for poisoning the land of the Guarani people. The offsets were
bought to compensate for air travel by employees at agencies like the
Government Offices and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Another example of Swedish ‘high standards’ being more like double standards can be found in the story of the Ethiopian/Swedish cardiologist Fikru Maru. In 2013 he was imprisoned in Ethiopia, where he was detained for five years without a trial, falsely accused of bribery. His daughter—a Swedish resident—was informed by the Swedish Foreign Ministry that his prolonged detention time could not be questioned, since Swedish detention restrictions are lacking too (UN, the European Council, and several NGOs have criticized this). It would therefore be inconsistent to put pressure on Ethiopia. But alas, there were other reasons to be silent: Sweden was depending on Ethiopian support for a coveted seat on the UN Security Council and did not want to annoy Ethiopian colleagues by criticizing unlawfulness. This is revealed in a Fikru Maru biography which came out in October 2019.
As we have seen, there is reason to conclude
that Swedish ‘higher standards’ to at least some extent have been tactical more
than factual—a strategic colonialist neutrality. Some may even call Sweden’s
world conscience rhetoric hypocritical. In any case, regardless of how one
interprets Swedish neutrality, it is a fact that Sweden fully participated in
the colonial expansion and supported it; colonies added to the power and glory
of those ‘great olden days’ that are commemorated in the national anthem.
There has been no decolonizing moment during which Sweden has had to rethink its legacy. But some are trying to change this.
What differentiates Sweden from, for example,
Britain and France is that there has been no decolonizing moment during which
Sweden has had to rethink its legacy. But some are trying to change this.
Swedish artist Carl Johan De Geer, a descendant of the industrialist Louis De
Geer mentioned earlier, designed an art
in 2019 (in Norrköping Art Museum) to discuss colonial guilt. De Geer wants to
process the past in a way Swedish schools and art never have. For him, the
triggering factor was his own encounter a few years before with a descendant of
a slave sent to Brazil by his forefather (!).
The Church of Sweden also calls for a rewriting
of history: ‘Sweden must deal with its historical debt to the Sámi,’ Archbishop
Antje Jackelén officially declared in 2016, aware of the Swedish lack of
international credibility due to the state’s and the Church’s treatment of the
Sámi. As part of the Church’s self-examination several books have been
published, including one with scientific white papers. The Church supports the
Sámi Council’s request for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to
the one in Canada, but the Swedish national parliament has as of yet failed to
act on this.
Other states have at least partly begun to deal
with their guilt. Germany is perhaps the best role model. Its World War II
atrocities including the Holocaust have caused a processing in literature, art,
education, and public debate. This has been termed
‘Vergangenheitsbemächtigung’, i. e. the processing of the past, and may be the
key to Germany’s remarkable ethical recovery in the eyes of the world. But at
the same time, the immense German colonial abuse in Africa in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries has largely remained unexposed. Germany’s
unwillingness to owe up to its colonial past is evident in the strained relations between Germany and
Namibia (formerly German Southwest Africa) as the countries are five years into
unsuccessful negotiations of the terms of an official apology and compensation
from Germany for the genocide of 1904-1908.
It is disheartening (although perhaps not
surprising) that there is a similar absence of processing of historical crimes
in current superpowers. In Russia, Stalin is idolized to this day by one-eyed
history writing—spelled out even by president Putin, the new ‘tsar’—despite all
Soviet atrocities. Notable literature by Nobel Prize winners Alexandr
Solzhenitsyn and Svetlana Alexievich uncovers a broader picture, but has not had an impact on the history
that is told by the state. In China, the
Communist Party nurtures a leadership cult around Mao Zedong as part of the
government’s effort to legitimize continued power concentration and repression.
And the one-sided description of the conquest of America, which glosses over
genocide and traumatization of Indigenous peoples as well as the atrocities of
the slave economy, plays a role in continued racism in the U.S. in the 21st
Any benefits that can come from the infrastructures and technologies of modern, globalized society will be effectively undermined by continued abuse and uneven distribution of wealth. In a world of increasing inequalities, where material wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and environmental load is placed disproportionately on the poorest, there is certainly a need for both processing of colonial guilt and a decolonization debate.
If history is unprocessed and allowed to repeat itself, ‘clean and green utopias’ like Sweden can continue to use their good reputation and depict themselves as ‘neutral’ actors to get strategic advantages in global trade. A scrutiny of historical roles in the colonial era shows how the same old patterns are at work. Although political control over vast colonies is history, economic structures ‘invisibly’ serve the same function (and in a way that is often cheaper than managing empires). Today formerly colonized regions largely depend on foreign company investments to develop a role in global trade. Differentiation of production is driven by market laws; cheap labour and access to raw materials are essential to make post-colonial wheels spin. Environmental harm is part of the equation. And in this postcolonial world economy, Sweden uses the same strategies to promote its economic interests as during the era of European colonial expansion.
Former colonial powers have a responsibility both for their material impact on the planet and the ideologies they enforce.
The possibilities of
So where does all this leave us? Apart from scrutinizing
their colonial history and identifying repetitions of historical patterns in
the present, how might Scandinavian countries approach decolonization? This is
a complex question which I can barely begin to answer here. I will say this
though: we need to question the idea of economic growth as an ultimate bringer
of welfare for all. In a world experiencing the devastating effects of climate
change, this idea is less plausible than ever: as excessive consumption by a
world minority threatens all of humanity’s existence, there can evidently be no
equality unless wealth is distributed differently across the globe. This means
that former colonial powers have a responsibility both for their material
impact on the planet and the ideologies they enforce. Sweden—with its ‘higher
standards’—is one of those countries. To advocate a greenwashed variety of
‘business as usual’ is to preserve existing power relations, instead of
questioning vested interests. Selling Swedish fighter jets to Brazil and
oppressing Sámi people at home while telling Bolsonaro to respect Indigenous
rights—cashing in and washing our hands—is certainly not good enough.
But things can change. Slave trade and slavery
were abolished as a result of widespread resistance and popular movements. It
took centuries, but it happened.
We are now witnessing increasing pressure to change economic and political goals in an effort to counteract climate change. This may be the beginning of another dramatic shift of paradigms—if double standards hiding and justifying short-term profit interests do not stand in the way.
NOTE: Shortly after the publication of this text, the Swedish Supreme Court (Högsta Domstolen) ruled in favour of Girjas reindeer herding community against the state. The court’s decision was unanimous.
Many thanks to Rut Elliot Blomqvist for eminent editing and language revision.
Roger Blomqvist is a retired current affairs reporter/researcher and producer of “life philosophy” programs at Swedish public radio (Sveriges Radio), presently a university student of history and culture.
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
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 carbonbootprint 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
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?
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.
a recent New York Timesop-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.
is much to unpack here, part and parcel of a futurism more social democratic
than communist already critically reviewed here,here, and here.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.”
An aspect of Marx’s thinking which remains underemphasised is how he recognised capitalism’s tendency to progressively replace labour—animal and human, physical and cognitive—with machines. In a system replete with contradictions, it was this one in particular which rendered it a force of potential liberation.
philosopher McKenzie Wark, for one, is sympathetically dismissive of this
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.
“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.
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
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.
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 Timesheadline summarized an
analogous trap in all its dialectical tragicomedy: “Desperate Attempt to Escape
Mosh Pit Looks Exactly Like Moshing.”
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
ecomodernist missteps track back to inception.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
particulars are as goofy as they are galling.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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%.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
“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. 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.
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
 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>
 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.
Sea levels are rising, fish stocks are depleted, temperatures may climb by 6% this decade. Inequality between us is growing, with the richest 1% owning half of global wealth.
We all know this so I won’t repeat it. Instead I would like to propose a collective thought experiment. Let us imagine that in this assembly that unites delegates from all the human nations of the world, delegates from the non-human world were also here with us. Let us welcome the delegates from the Animal nations, the Plant nations and the Rock nations. While we may not understand their language, let us try to listen to their claims and to hear their interests.
In this task we have of course much to learn from Indigenous communities in Turtle Island and elsewhere who have maintained such relationships with other life-forms for millennia. Nishnabeg scholar Leanne Simpson writes about how twice yearly “the fish nations and the fish clans gathered to talk, to tend to their treaty relationships and to renew life”. Their treaty included principles such as: take only what you need, waste nothing, respect cycles and seasons, and return fertility to the soil. These relations are founded on responsibility and reciprocity and ensure the health and flourishing of both parties.
We are here today in commemoration of Earth Day to discuss how we can rebuild these relationships with the community of life. How can we transform our systems of production and consumption in harmony with nature and other humans? How can we move from extraction to restoration? From overconsumption to reproduction? From domination to care? What would an Earth Jurisprudence economy look like?
Over the past 10 years my work has entailed examining these questions through the experiences of those defending the environment and their health and livelihoods. We have been collecting these stories in the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice (http://www.ejatlas.org), a participatory project which maps protests and mobilizations against life threatening extractive activities around the world. To date we have documented 2400 such ecological conflicts. Environmental justice includes the right not to be polluted, to have a safe environment to live, work, and play. It also includes justice for the greater web of life, acknowledging the inseparability between justice for nature and justice for humans.
This work has brought me to some of the most polluted and to some of the most pristine places on the planet, to the barricades with communities blocking pipelines, Indigenous groups defending sacred mountains against mining, pastoralists opposing land-grabbing, and recyclers fighting incinerators that would burn the waste they depend on. While some dismiss these communities on the frontlines as anti-development, they are stepping in and resisting because they feel their leaders are not taking the necessary actions. They often can’t be bought off, but are putting forward a vision for a radical transformation of our societies and economic system while engaging in experiments in diverse ways of living and new forms of collective organization.
Their call for systemic and structural change is not addressed in the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which fall short in arresting the driving forces that cause poverty, such as wealth concentration, corporate control and impunity, and ongoing racism and colonialism.
We know that the current economic paradigm constrains our ability to tackle these forces. Economic growth, resource efficiency, and the green economy cannot address the poverty caused by environmental damage and the commodification of life. Ecological economics, which is an economics grounded in biophysical reality that respects the laws of thermo-dynamics, rejects the possibility of limitless economic growth on a finite planet. We must acknowledge that the economy is embedded in nature and its expansion will always require fresh resources and new sinks for wastes. Thus the need to continually colonize new areas for extraction and waste disposal, leading to conflicts, environmental degradation and increased inequality. We must abandon growth because pursuing it mindlessly instead of focusing on equality, distribution and justice is a driving cause of poverty, not a corrective to it.
The good news is that a new paradigm is already emerging and citizen movements, North and South, as well as governments are already thinking beyond growth.
The good news is that a new paradigm is already emerging and citizen movements, North and South, as well as governments are already thinking beyond growth. There is a growing international movement for de-growth which argues that those countries who are occupying more than their fair share of environmental space must downscale production and consumption but that they can still increase human flourishing while devoting more time to nature, culture, and community.
Above you can see the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice. Each dot represents one case where the community has risen up to say we refuse to be polluted, we don’t want that mine, that highway, that nuclear power plant in our community. I invite the reader to go to the atlas and to see what is happening in your countries. The data is not complete, but it gives us a broad picture of who suffers the impacts stemming from the underside of economic growth. And it is primarily women, Indigenous communities, peasants, fishers and other marginalized people who are being polluted and dispossessed. While sometimes referred to as minorities, they represent the majority of the world’s and your countries’ populations. They do not all want to follow a single path to development. Together they constitute a global environmental justice movement.
The atlas also shows that it is possible to stop these life-threatening activities. That it is possible to find billions of barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there. There is the case of the Te Urewa Park in New Zealand. El Salvador, in consultation with the rock and water nations, has put in place a ban on metal mining under the world’s first such moratorium. Costa Rica, in defense of the plant and animal nations in that mega-biodiverse country, has decided that fossil fuel extraction is too great risk for their collective health and put in place a moratorium. France, Quebec, and Tunisia and some other territories have banned fracking.
What if instead of economically recoverable reserves of minerals we talked about ethically recoverable reserves? To reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change most fossil fuels reserves have to be kept underground. These unburnable fuels include 80% of coal, 50% of gas and 30% of oil. An Earth jurisprudence economy would include policies and laws to halt extraction of these reserves for both local and global well-being. An Earth jurisprudence economy would accept that there are places on Earth that should not be ripped open by mines or bulldozed for highways no matter the potential profits.
One path to restructuring our economy in harmony with nature is to shift the emphasis from production of things to the reproduction of life. A central element of this transformation is recognition of what has previously been considered free of charge and available for exploitation—the reproductive and care labour undertaken primarily by women, and nature’s gifts including air, water and soil fertility.
Reproductive labour includes work in the home, child-care but also the work of peasants, fishers and Indigenous peoples who work directly with nature to meet the everyday needs for the majority of people on Earth. This work, done mostly by women, is integral to the functioning of our economies and yet it is primarily unpaid and unrecognized. A new report estimates the value of unpaid childcare to Australia’s economy at $345 billion making it the single biggest sector. As the mother of a 5-month old newborn I can assure you that breastfeeding is a full time job on its own.
An Earth jurisprudence economy, instead of producing more consumer goods, would invest more resources in teachers, nurses, mothers and other care-workers.
An Earth jurisprudence economy, instead of producing more consumer goods, would invest more resources in teachers, nurses, mothers and other care-workers. Farmers would not be pushed off their lands to make way for industrial plantations. They would be supported to continue working alongside the Plant nations, Insect nations and the Soil microbe nations to feed 70% of the global human population while increasing seed and agro-biodiversity, and cooling the planet.
Yet it’s true, in an economy with less extraction and less consumption, there would be less jobs in some sectors. This is a concern. Yet instead of more consumption to remedy this, what if we began rethinking work? This would include diverse initiatives. Pilot studies such as one in Iran show that when guaranteed an unconditional basic income, workers don’t work less, instead they explore work that they want to do and is in line with their values and goals. They seek work which allows them to be creative, to improve their communities, to problem solve collectively. These are the jobs of an Earth jurisprudence economy.
I began this essay asking us to acknowledge the presence of the Animal, Plant and Rock nations with us in this room. My hope would be that henceforth politicians continue to include these nations in their thoughts and deliberations. But let’s remember that since these nations cannot speak, we must listen to the human voices who speak on their behalf. In closing I would therefore like to acknowledge those who dare to speak out for our more-than-human nations. Above you will see some of their faces. These are all environmental defenders killed in the last year murdered for their defense of the planet. According to Global Witness, four environmental defenders were killed per week in 2017.
I would like to applaud the recent regional Latin American and Caribbean Escazu accord which guarantees the right of environmental human rights defenders to carry out their activities without fear, restrictions or danger. This agreement will be open for signatures here at UN headquarters in September. I would urge world leaders to put forward such an initiative for all members and to ensure compliance. We are here to talk about living in Harmony with Nature but the reality is that we are murdering those who aim to defend life.
The journey towards an Earth jurisprudence economy, rather than being seen as an insurmountable challenge, can serve as a uniting force in our defense of the global commons. It can reawaken an ethic of care, reinforce livelihoods and create meaningful work. In these times of great divisions, the protection of our shared home can serve as a convergence issue where we can jointly challenge multiple forms of oppression, including racism, sexism, speciesism and violence and where new solidarities and new worlds can be born.
Leah Temper is a trans-disciplinary scholar-activist based at the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology (ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. She is the founder and co-director of the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice (www.ejatlas.org) and is currently the principal investigator of ACKnowl-EJ (Activist-academic Co-production of Knowledge for Environmental Justice, www.acknowlej.org) a project looking at how transformative alternatives are born from resistance against extractivism.
I am walking through town in the remote and charming mountain region in Vietnam, looking for the market. A young woman helps us out. She walks part of the way to the market, and we have a conversation on what brings us there, and what she does for a living. She works in the kitchen in one of the hotels. Her mother is in charge of the kitchen. She is off to buy groceries. What will be her future? In any major city of Vietnam, a bright woman like her with this level of English fluency would be expected to study. Here, I expect her to work at the hotel for most of her life and move up the hierarchy until she fills the place of her mother.
Tourism is a global phenomenon, an important economic sector, and it shapes how people promote their own national identity. Most articles on the economic effects of tourism look into the income it generates or the investment it brings to a region, the destruction and environmental damage that it causes, whether income from tourism is sufficiently returned to communities where tourism is landing, and the effects of tourism on public life and identity politics.
This article focuses on the income that will not be generated when there is a priority for economic development in the tourism sector because tourism crowds out other options. A region’s dependency on tourism inhibits development in other sectors—sectors with more productivity and development potential.
The first highway in Belgium was finished in 1956 and ran from Brussels, the capital, to Ostend, the place of the Royal Holiday Home on the coast. The highway was constructed to facilitate the summer holiday migration from the cities to the coast, as well as the flows of international tourism embarking to London from the port of Ostend. Developers constructed a wall of high rise apartment blocks along the coast destroying the dunes and wildlife. These investments did not lead to a more diversified economy and the coastline stayed a backwater, even with all this building and tourism. Still in 1980, the region needed special European funding for its development, notwithstanding its prime location between important ports in Belgium and France.
Due to the seasonal nature of tourism the highway was, and is, never wide enough in peak season, while below capacity during the low season. The same goes with all infrastructure: hotels, houses, high-rises, shops, restaurants, roads. As full capacity is needed during important stretches of time, alternative uses are difficult.
Often public infrastructure for tourism promotion is only singly-use: a highway to an economically unimportant city, a cable lift, a hotel. The private and public infrastructure for tourism is often exploitative: building a hotel in a prime landscape makes the landscape less prime for others, and inflation on investment leads to it becoming a typical tourist trap, as in Niagara falls, where the landscape is only a backdrop for tourist fleecing.
A region’s dependency on tourism inhibits development in other sectors—sectors with more productivity and development potential.
As a lot of private infrastructure for mass tourism is foreign or large, the focus is on fast returns on investment, without much attention to the needs and potential of the local communities and the local economy. The returns flow back to the investors, and the unschooled local population stagnates.
Low return on investment in education
In an economy dominated by tourism, the return on education is low, keeping people in a low income trajectory. Jobs are in hospitality or sales sectors, with limited educational needs, and wages are never high. Young people find a job, especially during high season, with a lot of unemployment between peaks. Why study? You can find a job without much schooling and have a lot of pocket money or even start a family. There is an advantage to speak some languages and know some basic skills, but higher education is not really needed. Even if higher education is available (which is often not the case) – there is no incentive to study for years instead of earning an income immediately.
The individual is stuck in a flat income trajectory, the family is stuck in a rut and the community is not developing.
Over a lifetime there is nearly no increase in productivity and salary. Service jobs require real skill—acquired by training or practice—but the limits on productivity are also real: you can only make a bed so fast (and honestly I cannot do it at all). The individual is stuck in a flat income trajectory, the family is stuck in a rut and the community is not developing.
As the employment options for higher education in the region are limited—and these jobs are often filled by people and employers coming from other regions—there are few role models for education. The role models for success would be rather the entrepreneur who, with luck and hard work, creates a successful business from scratch. It is fashionable to praise the entrepreneurial model, but for widespread growth, this maverick approach is definitely less reliable as a “one size fits all” solution than investment in human resources: education.
In industrial or postindustrial economies the return on investment in education is high. Unschooled labour is needed for the initial stages of industrialisation, but, very soon, schooled labour gets better opportunities. The menial jobs are done by immigrants from the periphery (yes the migrants from the poor, touristic regions). The difference in pay and status between a schooled and unschooled job is important enough to postpone income, marriage, and life until after university. Most industries suffer from Baumol’s cost disease: as wages rise in other industries, employees start to expect rising income, in line with the other sectors. This way a sector with low productivity becomes uncompetitive for labour and sheds jobs. The invisible hand at work. When tourism is a dominant sector in a region is isolated from other industries and does not suffer this effect. Normally the tourism industry, with its low wages, should shrink compared to the rest of the economy. But in a tourist trap, the salaries stay where they are.
In regions dominated by tourism, emigration remains the most efficient way to lift anyone and their family into prosperity. Getting out of the region with the family is an escape towards higher productivity and higher education.
The tourist trap
Tourist areas are not leading towards a diversified, sustainable economy. The tourist is a captive market, and the drive for better quality of products or services is low. The tourist will buy the only junk they can get once they are trapped at the tourist attraction. The “development” towards a more sophisticated economy does not happen, the products are, and stay, crap. Indeed, this is why we call it a tourist trap. With all respect for the painstaking manual craftwork of the Indigenous people, most will never earn more than around a dollar a day, even when cheating the tourist whenever they can (as they should).
Tourism makes people—most often women—exhibits in a human zoo. A museum piece to look at, to stare at, or to give a penny for a picture.
When tourism is the dominant sector, most jobs will be in “service” functions—as a servant to outsiders. When the lure of tourism is some exotic ethnicity, even the core identity makes people—most often women—exhibits in a human zoo. A museum piece to look at, to stare at, or to give a penny for a picture.
In touristic areas women will often be forced into sex work and face exploitation from their handlers or abusive behavior from customers—and even harassment from the police. Like in mining towns, shipping ports, and military bases—where the economy revolves around the constant influx of strangers with a lot of money to spend—authorities look the other way or even participate in and profit from exploitation in the sex industry.
How do you build a sense of community in a village if in every bar, restaurant, and square there are many more strangers than neighbours?
Overall, mass tourism involves low esteem jobs, low-quality trinkets, and overcrowded public places with little space for the local community life. How do you build a sense of community in a village if in every bar, restaurant, and square there are many more strangers than neighbours?
The charming resource curse
Tourism is a “charming resource” based economy. It shares elements of natural resource based economies described in the study “Urbanisation without industrialisation“. In this study the authors explain that cities in a natural resource economy are ‘consumption cities’, in contrast to ‘production cities’ with a mix of industry, agriculture and services. The composition of the workforce, poverty prospects, and long term growth are all different for each kind of city. A region with an economy dominated by tourism has characteristics of consumption cities, and the prospects for long term balanced development with rising productivity are low.
Unbridled one-sided industrial development can have the same effect: polluting industries crowd out all other activities. However, modern urban development thrives on diversity and synergy: the better a city is at creating a living environment for workers, managers and students, the better it becomes at attracting industries. As a bonus, a city becomes more interesting for tourists when it is more livable. A modern city becomes more and more diversified as it becomes more successful. It is the complexity of the social and economic network that leads to its success.
Tourism within limits
The growing resistance to touristification in cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam shows that the core of the problem is understood by the populations involved. As the conventional wisdom is that any development is good development, their resentment is normally ignored and ridiculed. However, cities with a “real” economy keep tourism within bounds. Sometimes they even revolt against it. The latest measures of the municipality of Barcelona show a revolt against tourism. In New York too, there is an ongoing debate to keep tourism within limits. Standards are proposed to limit the damage tourism does to a society and the environment.
Cities with a “real” economy keep tourism within bounds.
It is possible to maintain a proud identity and grow a developed and prosperous country, but not when tourism dominates. Japan has proven that it is possible, Singapore, France, and most European cities too. Tourists are welcome, but the city is there for the citizens, and the investments in the city are to make the quality of life better for their own population. Tourists enjoy these quality of live investments too, but they are not the main beneficiaries. This is possible if tourism is a sideshow, something mostly using available resources and adding income to local restaurants instead of being an economic focus in its own right.
To conclude, tourism should be considered as one option to complement other economic priorities that fully optimize the existing capacities of the physical, human, and economic infrastructure of a city or a region. Moreover, it can be a way to strengthen local identity and pay for maintenance of culture and beauty. It should not be pursued on its own as a gateway to economic and social development, because too many aspects of tourism skew the economy, present the local identity as “exotic” and act as a poverty trap.
Just as the one-industry city has been proven to be a bad idea for manufacturing or heavy industry, the one-industry region is a bad idea too, at least if that industry is tourism.
Geert Vansintjan is a development and humanitarian professional with field experience in Central and South Africa, Central America and Asia.
There are many misconceptions and popular expectations of science, industry and progress which haunt our cultural consciousness. These often manifest as a relentless anticipation for new human endeavours and technologies, fulfilling a wide range of imagined needs. Each of these is supposedly arriving any day now. At present, sentient AI, designer gene-editing, lab-grown meat and nuclear fusion are all mainstays. Just do a quick search for ‘futurology’ online and you’ll see a dizzying circus of techno-fantasies, each one promising to free us from some obligation, annoyance, or expense. All we could ever want, and more! Brought to us by… technology! Each decade brings with it a new range of curiosities. Most of these eventually lose their lustre when they turn out to be technically infeasible or commercially problematic. Ask yourself, is anyone talking about jetpacks, nanotechnology, or robot servants lately?
One of these fantasies is particularly powerful and has been bugging me for some time: human settlement of the red planet. This has been featured in numerous sci-fi novels and Hollywood movies, and covered in detail in publications such as Time and Scientific American. Public figures have taken it upon themselves to champion the supposedly noble cause of a manned Mars mission, including Elon Musk, Buzz Aldrin (he wrote a book about it) and Stephen Hawking. There’s even the Mars Society dedicated to the goal.
The Mars One project, probably the most visible settlement initiative, claims that a manned mission is feasible within a decade, using current technology. In fact, a recent comprehensive assessment of the immense challenges involved, carried out by the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, concludes that for the first intrepid settlers the trip would be both a one way ticket and an eventual death sentence. Imagine the places on Earth that are the most hostile to human life – Death Valley, the South Pole, the Mariana trench – Mars is worse. Far worse. There are reasons we don’t live in these places, and they are the same reasons we haven’t been back to the moon since 1972.
The primary barrier to building a colony on Mars is almost too obvious to notice, but it’s there in plain sight; it is a dead planet. And while the media talk a lot about how and when we might get to Mars, the question of why almost never comes up. Let’s put on our ecologist hats and look at it critically:
1. Zero carrying capacity for human life
In fact, one could argue that the carrying capacity on Mars is actually negative thanks to the cosmic radiation, extreme cold and low gravity (only 38% of Earth gravity!). Any settlers would simply struggle to stay alive in conditions vastly different than those we evolved in. Fighting the loss of bone density, novel cancers, immune dysfunction, and a range of psychological problems would be an inescapable and ultimately losing battle.
2. The fragility of artificial ecological systems
The biosphere we are embedded within on Earth is the supreme life support system, providing us with everything we need to survive. Mars doesn’t possess the amazingly complex feedback loops which regulate and maintain living communities. All attempts thus far to create viable closed ecological systems, such as the Biosphere experiments of the 1990s, have failed dramatically. The lesson to take from this is that any ‘designed’ ecological system, with technology substituting for natural processes (a likely prerequisite for a Mars settlement), is an inherently unstable thing. Even if a closed agricultural system could be established, peak equatorial solar irradiance on Mars is only a little over half what the surface of the Earth receives, which would make growing food a very challenging task.
3. The costs of a foothold on a barren world
On Earth, we are fortunate to be endowed with abundant low-entropy resources, the fundamental enabler of life, which life also creates by concentrating matter and energy into useful forms. With no forests or oceans, nearly all necessary materials would need to be transported to Mars. Mineral ore mining, the only extraction activity which could conceivably be carried out in situ, would face immense operational difficulties. Self-sufficient production of the enormous array of materials and components necessary to sustain a colony would require a significant industrial base and workforce, which would then in turn need to be supported. Taken together, this would be a very marginal prospect, relegating any Mars settlement project to a perpetual dependence on imports. The only exports the new Martians could manage would likely be various scientific data and footage of their daily lives for the entertainment of us Earthlings – not exactly a strong proposition for a long-term colony facing costs several orders of magnitude higher than any other in human history.
And when we consider extra-terrestrial settlement, Mars is the easy option! Anyone who claims we can find an Earth-like world in another solar system and make the voyage clearly isn’t familiar with the mind melting distances involved. The fastest spacecraft we have ever built, the New Horizons probe, would still take around 55,000 years to reach our closest neighbouring solar system. And if against all odds, we found a suitable world with a thriving ecosystem, upon arrival we would have an approximately 50% chance that the indigenous life is based on dextro amino acids (assuming it is carbon-based at all) which would render it useless to humans.
So, that’s it then. I think we can safely conclude that we’re not moving house any time soon. Not to Mars, and not anywhere else. To be clear, when I say ‘we’ aren’t going to Mars, I mean the collective we. I’ll admit there still may be an outside chance that some consortium will fund and execute a mission to send a few poor, intrepid souls on a one-way trip to live short lives on Mars in a gruesome experiment, televised for all to watch. If it happens, this will be another sad consequence of our nihilistic cultural stampede towards anything resembling a bad reality TV pitch (which by the way, includes a certain new US president).
Space exploration has significant co-benefits, of course. But no more than the co-benefits to be expected from any large, scientifically advanced venture. And given the existential threats we are facing here at home, would those resources not be better invested in directly tackling the issues at hand? We have an urgent need not only for new and innovative technology, which is often assumed to be the singular answer, but on ways to rehabilitate society to find a way of life that doesn’t entail brutally efficient ecocide.
The Mars delusion highlights a simple but uncomfortable truth: our exuberance for technology and progress has ceased to be rational, despite the touted rationalism of the physical sciences, from which new innovations emerge. This is not scientific but rather the pinnacle of Scientism: the belief that application of the scientific method coupled with increasing technological complexity is the necessary and sufficient answer to all problems. This type of thinking has become a dangerous evasion of responsibility and reveals a stark lack of understanding of what really supports societies. The modern world doesn’t run on ‘technology’ alone. Technology, impressive as it often is, is simply a collection of tools and techniques for turning flows (or stocks) of materials and energy from the natural world into valuable goods and services. Technology does not exist in a vacuum. Increasing technological complexity continues its slow march, yes, but often alongside diminishing returns, unforeseen consequences, hidden dependencies and externalised costs.
I’m not against technology on principle. It is important not to dismiss real and important technological advances. I’m not even against space exploration. There are likely more scientific insights to be gained by sending unmanned probes to the remote corners of our own cosmic backyard. But I am against any assertion that the future of our species is out there, somewhere else. Unfortunately, the romanticism of space exploration is a powerful force and won’t relinquish its grip on the popular imagination easily.
Some might accuse me of lacking ambition, of having given up on progress. Why pour cold water over this popular myth? Surely a dream is a good thing, uniting us towards a common goal and inspiring the scientists, engineers, and explorers of the future to aim for the stars? Well, daydreaming is a fine thing on a Sunday afternoon, but not such a good idea when standing at a precipice.
It’s true that the vastness of space evokes a deep awe, but the future of humanity lies right here. We need to wake up and face that reality. Technology is not going to insulate us from the consequences of our own actions. When the hype has faded and the marketing campaigns have wound down, we’ll be left standing in a damaged world with dwindling time left to affect real change. The sum of our future as a species, whatever that may be, is here, on this remarkable blue planet. It is only when we confront the empty promises of human space exploration that we can clearly reflect on how truly unique and precious our home really is.
This article originally appeared in the Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2017 report.
After more than a decade of processes that brought hope to the progressive world, several developments in Latin America in 2016 suggest we have reached the end of a cycle of left-wing victories in the region.
The collapse of left-wing governments in Argentina and Brazil, and the wave of environmental, democratic and political conflicts in others (Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela) raise critical questions about the viability of these models of social change.
Why are these important progressive processes that began with a huge degree of legitimacy now facing social resistance for departing from the ideals that inspired them?
This is a crisis that offers pointers and important lessons for us all, about the dynamics of social transformation and about ourselves as activists.
Bolivia and what it means to the world
Bolivia is an important learning laboratory with useful lessons not only for the local left but also to progressive and left-wing forces in the region and worldwide.
It was the first country in the Southern Cone to re-establish democracy in the 1980s, following a lengthy period of military dictatorships. It was the first in the region to experience significant anti-colonial indigenous rebellions in the late twentieth century.
Bolivia was in the vanguard in developing concepts on which the narrative of ‘Twenty-First Century Socialism’ is based, such as ‘living well’ and participatory democracy, summed up in the famous slogan ‘govern by obeying the people’.
Bolivia’s experience provides an exceptional opportunity for us to conduct an in-depth analysis of the unresolved ‘knots’ and challenges that the last few years have laid bare.
This essay is partly a personal testimony based on my recollections and assessment of the path Bolivia has taken, its process of emancipation and social change, and the attendant difficulties and frustrations.
My aim is to provide a perspective from the ‘inside’, drawing on the feelings and ideals of those of us who believed profoundly in the need for social change and committed our energy and convictions, our lives and our emotions, to these processes.
It is also a heartfelt response to a reality that pains and concerns us as we see a powerful process of social change collapsing and becoming more extreme (and dangerous) on issues of power, the environment, democracy, women, and a caring society. This represents a profound challenge to us in how we put our utopias into practice and make them effective and real.
Bolivia is an important learning laboratory with useful lessons not only for the local left but also to progressive and left-wing forces in the region and worldwide.
I still remember how deeply moved I felt in 2003, after President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada had been forced to flee the country as a result of mass street protests against his role in the October Massacre, when a woman in El Alto took off her ‘señorita’s [employer] clothes’ of blouse and trousers, burned them in the middle of the street and wearing the traditional clothes of the indigenous chola, proudly proclaimed: ‘now I am myself, the person I always was…’.
This was the beginning of a new and different time for Bolivian society. In the past, indigenous women were not allowed to enter the parliament building or the presidential palace. They were even banned from luxury hotels and theatres. Social exclusion and racism were deeply entrenched in everyday life and seen as a ‘natural’ component of social relations.
It was thanks to struggles by indigenous urban and rural unions, such as the union of domestic workers who fought long to have their rights legally recognized, that changes great and small penetrated the farthest reaches of Bolivian society.
They shook up the discriminatory practices of the white elites accustomed to expropriating their labour, as well as the mestizo and urban indigenous property owners who likewise exploited impoverished women in their homes, secure in the impunity that a deeply racist, neocolonial society protected them.
‘Imagine wanting to regulate the work of the domestic workers with new laws!’, said the elites. ‘It would be like stirring up a hornets’ nest – they’re only going to create turmoil in society!’ ‘We can’t allow them to unionise’, said others. ‘When they get together they just infect each other…’
But it was the domestic workers who won. Working as a unified alliance with rural and indigenous movements, workers, residents of low-income and even some middle-class neighbourhoods, they managed to impose their demands as part of a huge wave of social change that had been building up for decades.
It was the culmination of a mass social mobilization for indigenous territories and autonomy, respect for human rights, recognition and inclusion of their vision of the commons.
But it was also the result of the determination of broad swathes of the middle class, intellectuals and activists who took up these demands as a way of saving themselves, of escaping from the prison that discrimination and the exclusion of indigenous people meant for their own lives, in order to build a different Bolivia.
Signs of change
The recent progressive period in Bolivia – and in other countries too – was the result of a lengthy political build-up: almost 40 years of resistance, rebellion and proposal-making.
The recent progressive period in Bolivia – and in other countries too – was the result of a lengthy political build-up: almost 40 years of resistance, rebellion and proposal-making. It was nourished by the work of various groups of activists and collectives forged in different historical periods, such as those that resisted the dictatorships, neoliberalism, machismo and colonialism.
The wisdom accumulated in these protests and movement-building took political form and society was obliged to integrate them into new social pacts. These were expressed in the new Constitution (enacted in 2009 after being approved in a referendum) which led to the founding of a new state that finally put an end to republican-era colonialist ideas: the new Plurinational State of Bolivia, in which society’s expectations and ideals were distilled, shaping a new national horizon.
Capturing this historical moment of such transcendental importance was a new leader, an indigenous president who before taking office had said humbly: ‘With great respect, I want to ask our indigenous authorities, our organisations, our amautas (wise people) to control me, and if I am unable to move forward, please push me, brothers and sisters’ (Evo Morales, 2005).
From the process of change to the extractivist state
When Morales took office as President in 2006, he appointed Casimira Rodríguez, Executive Secretary of the Bolivian Federation of Domestic Workers, as the first indigenous Minister of Justice.
A woman who wore indigenous dress and spoke Quechua, she had spent almost all her life performing household chores for derisory wages. Nothing could be more symbolic than appointing an indigenous woman who was a cook and a worker to this post.
A series of progressive measures characterized the first years of the Morales government. These included the nationalization of the oil and gas industry, which restored the revenue from the sale of natural gas to the state, allowing the new government to develop redistribution policies that increased benefits for children, pregnant women and new mothers, and older people.
It also marked the start of a period of economic growth that moved Bolivia from the category of ‘low-income country’ to ‘middle-income country’. Support for the Morales government rose to as high as 81%.
Gaining access to power gradually became an end in itself.
Now, ten years after taking state power with the legitimacy of social struggles that demanded deep social change, things have changed a great deal. This is not simply a ‘revolutionary ebb’ but a change of direction that can be seen in the deteriorating social fabric and institutions, and the impact of its economic and political model in local territories. It also represents a failure to establish the necessary social oversight mechanisms to sustain the vision.
Gaining access to power gradually became an end in itself. Hundreds of trade union and social movement leaders became secretaries, vice-ministers, ambassadors or members of parliament, weakening these popular forces. The number of civil servants grew by more than 70% since 2005, with the consequent increase in expenditure and government infrastructure.
By 2009, the Morales government and its Movement for Socialism (MAS) long-term political and economic project was becoming more apparent. It involved so many concessions to the reactionary and racist forces of the Santa Cruz oligarchy (in the east of Bolivia), that its youth wings – such as the Juventud Cruceñista, which had committed violent racist attacks against indigenous people during the Constituent Assembly process – actually joined the MAS support base in eastern Bolivia.
Even though MAS leaders continued to use environmentalist and leftist rhetoric, in practice the leadership was opening up to the proposals of the agribusiness sector and conventional visions of development. It aligned itself with a vision that is industrialist (this has not been achieved), developmentalist (this has not produced much in the way of results either) and extractivist, in partnership with local trade unions and capital from Europe, China and Russia. This model carries a heavy environmental and social toll for Bolivian society.
The rebellious and anti-systemic legacy of the water and gas wars – led by peasants and working class Bolivians – ended up being expropriated by the government, which turned it into the emblem of its ‘crusade for gas and economic growth’. This became a dogma laid out in national development plans that nobody is allowed to criticize.
Even though MAS leaders continued to use environmentalist and leftist rhetoric, in practice the leadership was opening up to the proposals of the agribusiness sector and conventional visions of development.
The slogan ‘partners not bosses’, which was used to confront regional economic powers and transnational imperialism, had secured the government a high degree of legitimacy and enabled it to strengthen the state and to establish a basic system of social redistribution. However, it also fortified a process of plundering indigenous territories in the Altiplano (highlands) and the Amazon region, affecting the rights of indigenous peoples and rural communities around the country.
But the rhetoric was not matched by any consequent action within Bolivia. In fact, Bolivia was already wedded to a development model that, far from reflecting a vision of harmony with nature, sought to re-enact a populist modern industrialism and developmentalism.
This was evident in April 2010, when Bolivia organized the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, bringing together thousands of international activists in an edifying policy debate that produced one of the most interesting social movement declarations on climate change. Yet at the same time, the government was going ahead with gas and oil exploration in Bolivia’s national parks, mining projects and had already decided to build a road through the TIPNIS national park and indigenous territory.
The TIPNIS road, a government project to connect Villa Tunari (in the Chapare region of Cochabamba) with San Ignacio de Moxos (in Beni in the north of the country), would cross the Isiboro Sécure National Park and the territory of indigenous peoples, supposedly protected by the Constitution.
The people – still trusting in their power to change government decisions – took to the streets in September 2011 to oppose the government’s plans, without suspecting that this time their power to change things would not stop this new injustice. The government did not hesitate to harshly repress the lowland indigenous peoples as they began the 8th Indigenous March to La Paz.
In fact, Bolivia was already wedded to a development model that, far from reflecting a vision of harmony with nature, sought to re-enact a populist modern industrialism and developmentalism.
The conflict caused the resignation of Defence Minister and great desperation and outrage among people who had supported the process of change right from the start. Shortly afterwards, the indigenous authorities who had led the march were harassed and persecuted, and the indigenous organizations forcibly split and manipulated by the government, which would then go ahead with the road-building project.
The conflicts surrounding TIPNIS marked a turning point in the process of change in Bolivia. It split the social movements, breaking the unity of the indigenous and rural organizations that had driven the process of change and alienating many activists who were not in government.
The conflict over the TIPNIS road revealed the crudest side of the process of change: the use of power and a national project which – departing from constitutional principles – was imposing an unscrupulous developmentalism and breaking openly with the rhetoric of Mother Earth and the rights of indigenous peoples.
The government did not hesitate to harshly repress the lowland indigenous peoples as they began the 8th Indigenous March to La Paz.
It is hard to forget the way in which the government promoted this road using populism and the language of machismo and patriarchy. When the project began, Morales said to people in the Chapare region:
If I had time, I’d go and flirt with all the Yuracaré women and convince them not to oppose it [the TIPNIS road]; so, you young men, you have instructions from the President to go and seduce the Yuracaré Trinitaria women so that they don’t oppose the building of the road. Approved? (La Razón, 2011)
Although women’s movements criticized these statements, they did not cause much of a reaction in the left-wing circles that were part of the Morales government.
Consolidation of extractivist economy
It was with these contradictions that Bolivia consolidated its model, defending its decisions by celebrating the highest economic growth rate in the region, ignoring the fact that it increased the economy’s dependency on the primary sector and inherently unstable commodity prices.
The oil and gas industry currently accounts for 69.1% of Bolivia’s exports, while agriculture (timber, quinoa etc) contributes 3.3% and manufactured products – in which the National Institute for Statistics (INE) includes soya and gold – represents 26%.
Annual deforestation rates in Bolivia are extremely high, with roughly 270,000 hectares disappearing each year. The country’s main contribution to global emissions and climate change comes from this change in land use, and it now ranks 27 out of 193 countries on this count.
In the last year, the clearing of new land for agriculture has been legalized in an agreement with agroindustry and the farming sector, allowing four times more land to be deforested than in the past.
These agreements have also led to an exponential increase in the use of genetically-modified seeds and glyphosate. Ninety-seven per cent of the soya produced in Bolivia is now genetically modified, and although it is argued that this is justified in order to supply food to the Bolivian people, these crops are mainly destined for export.
In the last year, the clearing of new land for agriculture has been legalized in an agreement with agroindustry and the farming sector, allowing four times more land to be deforested than in the past.
Major mining TNCs such as Sumitomo, Glencore, Pan American Silver and others are operating in Bolivia in business deals with the state mining company.
And the government has done little to address the power of so-called ‘mining cooperatives’ – small informal local enterprises that make up most of the mining industry (115,000 miners, compared with the only 7,500 workers in the state mining company), known for exploitative working conditions and destructive environmental practices due to the lack of regulations for this sector.
The Mining Law approved by the government in 2013 did little to improve this situation, undermining principles of prior consultation mandated by ILO Convention 169 and even allowing water courses to be altered to benefit mining projects.
Even the huge revenues obtained from the sale of natural gas at better prices have not been able to generate value-added productive industries nor used to assist the transition to renewable energies that would be more in tune with the rhetoric of climate justice that Bolivia proclaims in UN negotiations.
Indeed, contrary to its discourse, Bolivia did not support proposals to limit fossil-fuel subsidies at the Rio+20 and UN Climate Change summits, and it continues to subsidize its oil industry without even considering transitional energy policies.
Worse still, in the National Development Plan for 2025, Bolivia proposes to become a major regional ‘energy power’ and supply energy to neighbouring countries, which hardly reflects the transitions recommended by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to avoid worsening the climate crisis:
The new idea coming from this government is that we’re going to be an energy power. The twenty-first century for Bolivia is to produce oil, industrialise petrochemicals, industrialise minerals. (Álvaro García Linera, Página Siete, 2015)
The plan is based on the commercial logic of selling electricity to Brazil to generate revenue expected to materialize in 10–15 years. Major hydroelectric dams, such as La Bala-Chepete and Rosita projects, take pride of place in the plan, even though this model has displaced indigenous peoples elsewhere in Central and South America, costing the lives of union leaders such as Berta Cáceres in Honduras.
Indeed, contrary to its discourse, Bolivia did not support proposals to limit fossil-fuel subsidies at the Rio+20 and UN Climate Change summits, and it continues to subsidize its oil industry without even considering transitional energy policies.
Vice-President García Linera appears to see no limits to their expansion:
That’s why, with President Evo (Morales), we’ve flown all over Bolivia in helicopters, looking for places where we could put a dam, and looking for gas. We’re seeking out the areas where there’s more gas, where there’s water, sites for dams. Where there is water, it’s like pure gold falling from the sky. Where there is water, where we can build dams, that’s where you’ll find the gold, the money.
These plans are clearly out of line with the energy transitions required to mitigate and adapt to climate change. They also fail to take into account that neighbouring countries may take advantage of falling prices for solar and wind energy in the near future, which would eliminate the market for Bolivia’s energy exports.
As part of the same aim to become a major energy power, the government has also proposed investing in research on nuclear energy in partnership with Russia, with an ambiguous proposal that includes research on health and food radiation and the building of an experimental generator.
The project was approved through an international treaty signed with Russia that has been criticized as illegal for contradicting constitutional restrictions that prohibit transit of nuclear waste in Bolivian territory.
This is a project that requires a vast amount of money and, in spite of protests, is being imposed on the people living in one of the country’s largest cities, El Alto. The project was approved through an international treaty signed with Russia that has been criticized as illegal for contradicting constitutional restrictions that prohibit transit of nuclear waste in Bolivian territory.
Change, culture and power
What has happened to Bolivia’s progressive and left-wing forces? What happened to the drive for change and the social narrative in favour of water rights and sovereignty against corporate and imperialist power, and that conceived the idea of ‘living well’ as the basis for a new society?
How is the left processing its government’s retreat from the ideals of emancipation and social change? What happened to the autonomy of the social movements? What happened to the indigenous peoples? What happened to women and feminisms? What happened to the rights of Mother Earth?
In short, what does this process tell us about ourselves?
Thinking about ‘where to start to change things’ and ‘how to bring about change’ is of paramount importance right now and leads us to the key question regarding power, culture, the state and society.
What is it that really changes a society? And which structures, processes or values should we strengthen in order to ensure a solid, progressive social change, with an ajayu (spirit) that stays firm over time despite the disagreeable ups and downs of politics and power plays?
How is the left processing its government’s retreat from the ideals of emancipation and social change? What happened to the autonomy of the social movements? What happened to the indigenous peoples? What happened to women and feminisms? What happened to the rights of Mother Earth?
What is the place of culture and ethics in this enquiry? Although it seemed to have it all, the left is now facing unresolved ‘knots’ or contradictions that have led to a significant weakening of the progressive field and a shocking rise of authoritarian populist leaders.
Based on Bolivia’s experience, we need to ask why the left’s political legitimacy has allowed the traps of power to become invisible. And ask how the left can continue on its path and resolve its relationship with essential aspects of processes of social change such as democracy, the notion of the ‘vanguard’ and the subjects of social change, ecology and nature, patriarchy, feminism and women, the diversity of indigenous peoples, and, finally, how it processes its relationship with power.
Extractivism and violence against women
One of the most meaningful terrains in the contradictions besetting the Bolivian political process is the patriarchal ideology that has been like a second skin in the MAS way of governing, based on an authoritarian, male-chauvinist discourse and a symbolically powerful link between patriarchal power and the cultural foundations of the extractivist model.
The argument that ‘we are using capitalism to arrive at socialism’ became officially enshrined in the narrative of the Bolivian state, permitting both the control of financial capital and extractivism. In the same way, the androcentrism expressed in Morales’ phrase ‘I am a feminist who tells sexist jokes’ became part of the content of government discourses and statements.
The ‘radical’ left that has accompanied this government from the beginning never challenged this ‘way of governing’ and permitted the spread of this heavily symbolic ideology. Those on the left who said they wanted to change the system ‘overlooked’ the patriarchal attitudes of their leaders and ‘forgave’ their unbridled machismo in the interests of a supposedly ‘higher purpose’ – the building of socialism.
Unmistakeable signs of a populist authoritarianism could be seen in the misogynistic remarks, sexist jokes, and homophobic statements such that made by Morales at the World Peoples’ Conference in April 2010: The chicken we eat is full of female hormones. That’s why when men eat that chicken they deviate from being men.
Or when Morales boasted of his ‘EVO CUMPLE’ (Evo Delivers) social programmes in villages using sexist jokes: When I go to a village, all the women end up pregnant and on their bellies it says: ‘Evo delivers’.
The argument that ‘we are using capitalism to arrive at socialism’ became officially enshrined in the narrative of the Bolivian state, permitting both the control of financial capital and extractivism. In the same way, the androcentrism expressed in Morales’ phrase ‘I am a feminist who tells sexist jokes’ became part of the content of government discourses and statements.
Or when he encouraged young men to do their military service as a way to ‘free’ themselves from the responsibility of paternity: As you generals, admirals, officers all know, when a youngster gets his girlfriend pregnant he prefers to escape to the barracks and when he gets there that soldier is untouchable.
Although laws and decrees have been passed in Bolivia to promote gender equality, eradicate violence and achieve parity in political representation, the repeated attacks on women in government speeches and the scant public investment to enforce stronger gender policies have weakened the process. This is yet another example of the dissonance between discourse and practice.
Patriarchy has features such as:
Devaluing the different ‘Other’ and making it invisible
The systematic practice of dividing the public from the private sphere, thus widening the distance between words and deeds
The denial of diversity and difference, negatively valuing difference as a deficit
Violence and subjugation as a means of self-assertion
These features have become consolidated in the government, together with the need to exercise power and control and demonstrate strength, authority and infallibility. This ended up co-opting leaders of the process of change from different walks of life.
When a comrade – a lifelong colleague – in a high-ranking political post said to me: ‘I am a good politician, because I am able to be cruel’, two things became clear to me. First, that the cycle of social change had come to an end because it had lost the ethical values that made the quest for social change worthwhile; and second, that power and machismo had become deeply embedded in this process as part of a structure that combined subjectivity and politics and reproduced a culture of violent, destructive power – exactly what extractivism is all about.
Among Morales’ most outrageous and widely criticized remarks was one he made while visiting an oilfield in April 2012. To laughter from other workers, he ‘jokingly’ asked two women professionals at the ‘Sísmica 3D’ camp in Chimoré: ‘Oil workers? Are you drillers? Or do you get drilled? Do tell me.’
Every three days a woman dies horribly in Bolivia in crimes of femicide. Although there are no official figures, the rates of violence are extremely high. Obviously, gender-based violence is worse in societies that do not see caring for life as a priority and have allowed gender-based violence and discrimination to be ‘normalized’. Alarmed by the way official discourse has legitimized violence, women’s movements have run many public information campaigns and demanded, among other things, that MAS exclude machistas from their lists of electoral candidates.
When a comrade – a lifelong colleague – in a high-ranking political post said to me: ‘I am a good politician, because I am able to be cruel’, two things became clear to me. First, that the cycle of social change had come to an end because it had lost the ethical values that made the quest for social change worthwhile; and second, that power and machismo had become deeply embedded in this process as part of a structure that combined subjectivity and politics and reproduced a culture of violent, destructive power – exactly what extractivism is all about.
Internationally, Bolivia is celebrated by multilaterals such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank for its economic model that has delivered the highest rate of economic growth in the region.
Yet at the same time, few of these institutions remark on the fact that Bolivia is one of the 12 countries in the world with the highest rates of femicide and violence against women. Moreover the government certainly does not re-invest – or rather redistribute – this money in policies that would effectively combat violence.
Investment (or ‘expenses’ as some prefer to call it) is less than 2% (1.91%) of municipal government budgets, while the funds allocated to specific programmes on violence eradication, prevention and victim protection amount to no more than 0.33%. Although a Law 348 against gender-based violence was approved, it has proved difficult to implement, partly because of the lack of investment in the institutional structure required to enforce it.
In contrast, investment in natural resource exploration and production in our forests is huge, as is investment in infrastructure for transport, energy and the oil and gas industry. Together, they amount to 65% of the government budget, invested in a national dream of turning Bolivia into a regional ‘energy power’ and, supposedly, making everyone more prosperous.
Exploitation and violence against women and exploitation and violence against nature are two sides of the same coin, two expressions of the same system, the empire of patriarchy governing in coalition with big business.
Notably in this plan, renewable energies (more likely to protect nature and human rights) only account for 2% of the energy structure, a figure quite similar to the investment in women. All these decisions are being taken unilaterally by the male politicians at the top who supposedly – like all good patriarchs – ‘know what’s best’. They even disregard the mechanisms for prior consultation with indigenous peoples, whom they seem to consider ‘subalterns’ who ought to submit to these plans at the cost of their territories and the survival of their cultures.
They take no heed of the feminist position, which demands sufficient resources and democratic, relevant, fair and inclusive policies not only to ensure effective justice systems but also to develop education programmes to put an end to the cultural patterns of machismo.
Exploitation and violence against women and exploitation and violence against nature are two sides of the same coin, two expressions of the same system, the empire of patriarchy governing in coalition with big business.
Women’s bodies (Mother Earth) has now become the metaphor of what is sacrificed to maintain the capitalist illusion of infinite, androcentric, ecocidal growth that is disdainful of nature and the lives of people and communities.
Deconstructing the predominant paradigm
Capitalist power is able to reproduce itself efficiently thanks to its alliance with very ancient systems of oppression such as patriarchy – which is much older than capitalism – and colonialism, which likewise predates forms of capitalist appropriation.
Its capacity to remain the dominant system of civilization is subjectively based on capitalist values that separate human beings from nature. It does this through science and philosophy and also through the economy, culture and the values of everyday life.
Modern capitalism survives because it feeds ideals, representations and subjectivities based on the domination of nature, over-consumption and the modern imagery of economic growth associated with happiness and wellbeing. The combination of these forms of domination is precisely what enables the exercise of power, and we see these patterns repeated again and again, even in attempts to subvert the capitalist order.
The alliance between patriarchy and extractivism naturalizes violence against women, devalues them and constructs a social mindset that endorses abuse and impunity. Indeed, a state that promotes extractivism has to base itself on an authoritarian rationale that discredits rights to territory, the rights of nature and indigenous peoples, and female otherness. Extractivism as proposed in our countries is exacerbating a violent mentality.
The thoughts I have set out here reveal how patriarchy is wholly at the service of the exercise of power and enables capitalist violence to take effect, becoming the linking mechanism through the power of the state.
The alliance between patriarchy and extractivism naturalizes violence against women, devalues them and constructs a social mindset that endorses abuse and impunity. Indeed, a state that promotes extractivism has to base itself on an authoritarian rationale that discredits rights to territory, the rights of nature and indigenous peoples, and female otherness. Extractivism as proposed in our countries is exacerbating a violent mentality.
Capitalist accumulation is essentially dependent on a mindset that reinforces the idea of the public sphere as the ‘property’ of the governing elites rather than a common good that belongs to everyone. Capitalist accumulation is ultimately based on the abuse and destruction of the values of caring and solidarity between human beings and with nature.
We need more critical thinking on social change, the state and power relations. The process in Bolivia and – as in-depth enquiry will surely find, many other processes that have sought to change society – are learning experiences about ourselves, our goals and our limits.
Although the MAS initially enjoyed a huge degree of social legitimacy and was sincere in its proposals on decolonization and overcoming capitalism, in the end it has replicated relations of domination and plunder.
We need to develop real emancipatory projects and unite against capital with a solid culture of social change that does not shy away from examining the ethical dimension of change. We need to engage in a self-critical debate on how power is exercised, the continuing presence of patriarchy in the ranks of progressive movements, and the pernicious effects of our movements’ dependence on unchallengeable, messianic leaders.
In the last few years, global challenges have multiplied, become more complicated and raised major questions about the values behind social transformation.
It is no longer a question of moving forward with an agenda of national sovereignty or controlling corporations and major powers.
We need to develop real emancipatory projects and unite against capital with a solid culture of social change that does not shy away from examining the ethical dimension of change. We need to engage in a self-critical debate on how power is exercised, the continuing presence of patriarchy in the ranks of progressive movements, and the pernicious effects of our movements’ dependence on unchallengeable, messianic leaders. We need to propose forms of power that change things from below and from everyday life; the power of healing, of solidarity; power that is embodied and built gradually over time. We need to get beyond the simplistic critique of what we oppose and turn our sights to our own practices to build alternatives to the system.
With that in mind, and focusing on the ethical dimensions of social change, here are some of the ideas emerging from the forces of change who refuse to admit defeat:
We do not need heroes or strongmen to bring about social change.
We oppose individualism with the values of community, the common good and solidarity, but without ceasing to be individuals ourselves.
We oppose the paradigm of infinite development or ‘sustainable development’ with the paradigm of restoration, of healing the planet, of care and regeneration.
We oppose the practice of plunder by developing the idea of cooperation with nature.
We oppose the idea of power as violent control and domination with the power of caring for life, the power of love, empathy and emotions.
We oppose the concentration of power and exclusion with the recognition of diversity and democracy in all its different forms.
We oppose notions of global power by strengthening local power and developing local systems resilient to the centralized politics of power.
We oppose the practice of patriarchal power that refuses to politicize the private sphere with the principle of ‘the personal is political’.
We oppose the culture of top-down change by reinforcing those constructive, restorative, healing practices that have the real power to bring about change.
Elisabeth Peredo Beltrán is a pyschologist, researcher and author. As a collaborator with TAHIPAMU (Workshop on Women’s history participation), she researched anarcho-sindicalist women’s movements in 20th Century La Paz, the rights of domestic women workers and the rights of water as a common good. She is on the Board of Food and Water Watch, the Scientific Committee of the Citizens Earth University, the Working Group on Alternatives to Development and belongs to various activist collectives working on water, climate change, women’s rights, and nuclear threats.
Since the 2014 Leipzig Degrowth Conference, the argument that climate justice cannot exist without degrowth has repeatedly been made. In a keynote at the Degrowth conference in Budapest, in September 2016, I developed this line of thinking further and argued that the opposite is equally important: There is not degrowth without climate justice. My argument, which I presented as someone involved not only at the theoretical level, but also in concrete efforts to bring degrowth and climate justice together in terms of practices and people, is presented here in a concise way.
After the degrowth conference in Leipzig two years ago, people in the organizational committee were considering next steps that would allow the degrowth community to move forward. Our analysis was that if we want degrowth to leave the ivory towers of academia and lecture halls, we need to enter into alliances with other social movements; and if we want degrowth to move beyond lofty visions for future societies and towards intervention and action, we need to enter into a conflictual political arena, thus forcing degrowth to take clear stances. Even though a vision of transformation and a good life for all is important, if degrowth is worth anything, it should make a difference by intervening in political struggles.
Our analysis was that if we want degrowth to leave the ivory towers of academia and lecture halls, we need to enter into alliances with other social movements; and if we want degrowth to move beyond lofty visions for future societies and towards intervention and action, we need to enter into a conflictual political arena, thus forcing degrowth to take clear stances.
Based on this analyses we decided to organize a degrowth summer school in 2015 in cooperation with the Rhineland climate camp. We thus entered a political field, in which concrete opponents – coal companies and their lobbies on the one hand and local communities and climate justice activists on the other – were struggling about the future of coal in the coming years. The summer school drew 500 people from around Germany and Europe who discussed degrowth and its relations to climate change, extractivism, justice, power, and capitalism. After the summer school, many participants took part in one of the hitherto largest actions of civil disobedience against lignite coal mining, in which more than 1000 people entered an open cast coal mine and blocked the operation of the huge diggers in Europe’s largest CO2 emitter. In 2016, Ende Gelände was repeated in Lusatia, and the 3000-participant strong blockade lasted two days. There was again a degrowth summer school under the title “Skills for System Change.” The summer of 2017 will see another degrowth-inspired summer school and a set of actions in the Rhineland that includes Ende Gelände, but will be much broader and possibly even bigger.
The climate summit Truman show
This decision to enter into alliances with the climate justice movement and into the conflicts around coal already illustrates much of our stance on the Paris Agreement reached at the COP in Paris in 2015. First, that it proved a disaster precisely because it did not address the real problems, mainly that fossil fuels must largely stay underground and that we need a deep socio-ecological transformation. Second, that the Paris Agreement could not address these issues, because it largely stayed within the framework of economic growth, extractivism, and accumulation – albeit in a new form. And finally, that real change must come from stopping the drivers of climate change through concrete policies, public opposition, the building of alternatives, and direct action.
From the perspective of degrowth and climate justice movements, the Paris Agreement was a deceitful spectacle with potentially disastrous effects. What actually happened in Paris in November last year has been adequately described as the climate summit Truman Show: around the world, media headlines were enthusiastically celebrating the deal as ‘historic’ and ‘successful’, as the miracle of Paris, or even as a „31 pages of recipe for revolution.“ Cameras were showing the chief negotiator French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in tears, the climate advocate Al Gore enthusiastically clapping, and the room of delegates seemed to be in a collective delirium – and with it the entire media circus. Even many larger NGOs did not want to disturb this picture with their gentle statements, and the online campaigning platform avaaz described it as a „massive turning point in human history.“
Through the technocratic prism of the framework laid out by the UN climate convention, the summit achieved much more than has otherwise been accomplished during the last 20 years and far more than most observers had expected: 195 states actually achieved an agreement; and to the surprise of many in the last minute the 1,5 degree target was included in the final text.
However, this enthusiasm is highly misleading. It only makes sense from a narrow perspective that only focuses on the UN framework of negotiations and not on the broader political and economic context. One can ignore reality, but this does not make it disappear. Diplomacy and a perfectly staged show do not save the climate – this can only be done by leaving the greater part of fossil fuel reserves in the ground, stopping deforestation, and ending industrialized agriculture. And all of this needs to happen quickly, which requires effective a set of measures and policies.
From the perspective of degrowth and climate justice movements, the Paris Agreement was a deceitful spectacle with potentially disastrous effects.
But the Paris Agreement does not include mechanisms and measures to ensure that this target is met. In fact, the Paris Agreement cements and strengthens the illusion of decoupling growth and emission and of green growth through a new level of utopian technocratic optimism – negative emissions. In fact, the agreement willingly accepts missing the 1.5-degree target, and it contains many recipes for a new wave of neo-colonialism in the name of green capitalism. Instead of redefining and changing the economy and the mode of production and consumption that cause climate change, it redefines nature by turning it into a tradable commodity. The market mechanisms embedded in the agreement serve to enable the continuation of high consumption lifestyles in rich countries, while offsetting this overconsumption in the Global South and thus continuing colonial exploitation.
Beyond green capitalism
Degrowth stands in stark opposition not just to the continuation of a „brown“ – fossil fuels-based and extractivist – capitalism, but also to the institutionalization of what seems the most likely alternative – a „green“ capitalism based on the massive investment in renewable energies, global carbon trading regimes, and the economization of nature.
For many of us, the belief that there is „no climate justice without degrowth“ is a fundamental motivation to engage in the degrowth community or movement. The climate justice perspective can inspire an understanding of degrowth that might be more appealing to some – an understanding of degrowth as the democratically-led transformation to societies that are not based on the extraction or import of disproportionate amounts of resources and on the disproportionate use of sinks.
There is no degrowth without climate justice, or – more comprehensively – ecological justice or even global justice.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that this is only one side of the coin, since it stipulates that degrowth is more fundamental and the necessary precondition to achieve climate justice. Of course, there is great potential for cooperation and alliances between the two movements. But in the spirit of what was termed „alliances without subordination“ at the Budapest conference in 2016, I want to turn this around and argue that the other side is equally important: There is no degrowth without climate justice, or – more comprehensively – ecological justice or even global justice.
If degrowth is not built on a comprehensive vision for global justice and fails to incorporate key elements that are clearer and more prominent in the climate justice movement than in degrowth discourses, it will not be the emancipatory project many wish it to be. What can the degrowth community learn from the climate justice movement? I want to highlight three key lessons.
First lesson, the focus on deep structural transformations, transformations in the economic, political, mental, and social structures of our societies. Of course, much has been written and said on this in the degrowth discussion – but it could move further. Beatrice Rodriguez Labajos said that activists in the global South generally think that degrowth is not radical enough, because it is not anti-capitalist and mainly focuses on individual lifestyle-change. Based on the discussions at the recent conferences, a consensus seems to be emerging that degrowth is indeed a proposal to overcome capitalism, and not just a new packaging for business as usual. Similarly, degrowth could be clearer on how to change political structures (for example in the discussions about global trade regimes such as TTIP and CETA, degrowth is largely absent), mental structures such as extractivism in all its forms, and social structures.
Based on the discussions at the recent conferences, a consensus seems to be emerging that degrowth is indeed a proposal to overcome capitalism, and not just a new packaging for business as usual.
If degrowth is understood as a heterogeneous and evolving social movement in the making, one can understand the great variety of approaches taken by degrowth actors in terms of its main critiques, proposed alternatives and transformational practices – ranging from sufficiency-oriented adepts of voluntary simplicity to social-reformists, anti-capitalists and feminists. The climate justice perspective can help in strengthening those parts of the degrowth community that are not blind to issues of structural transformations.
Second, the climate justice movement is very strong in articulating and opposing hierarchies and power. Degrowth could learn that opposing all forms of power and domination is key if we want to achieve a more just society. And because the degrowth community is so strongly homogenous – just look around at the degrowth conferences –, it really needs to listen to and learn from others, both in the North and the South. In fact, climate justice is a movement of some of the least privileged people resisting the immediate loss of their livelihoods. The term goes back to the notion of environmental justice, and the origin of this term is highly illuminating. When the largely white and privileged American environmental activists resisted the dumping of industrial waste in the 1960s, they basically only cared about their own communities. This resulted in pushing the environmental costs down the social ladder, onto communities of color and the poor. In opposing this, these communities used the term „environmental racism“ and “demanded environmental justice.” And in the 1990s, the term was then also used for the global problem of climate change.
In contrast to this, degrowth is a concept largely supported by some of the most privileged people on this planet – largely white, well-educated,, middle-class people with Western passports (on this, see a forthcoming study on the participants of the Leipzig Degrowth conference). It can even be conceptualized as the self-problematization of privileges in the context of what Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen have called “the imperial mode of living”. Because of this privileged homogeneity, degrowth needs to be particularly careful not to reproduce hierarchies, unequal distribution of power, and domination. We do not only need a decolonization of the economic imaginary – on which degrowth focuses – but, since they are all connected, we also need this decolonization in terms of sex and gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and all other forms of division and exclusion. How these and other hierarchies of the current capitalist, patriarchal, and (post)colonial societies can be overcome in a degrowth alternative and what they imply for degrowth strategies should be at the center of future degrowth and post-growth debates. To do this, degrowth needs to listen to and build alliances with the less privileged, not only in the global South, but also in the global North. In short, degrowth needs to become more intersectional and diverse.
Because of this privileged homogeneity, degrowth needs to be particularly careful not to reproduce hierarchies, unequal distribution of power, and domination. We do not only need a decolonization of the economic imaginary – on which degrowth focuses – but, since they are all connected, we also need this decolonization in terms of sex and gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and all other forms of division and exclusion
Let’s look at two examples: In a recent project called “Degrowth in movements” we collaborated with protagonists from more than 30 other social movements and alternative economic approaches to discuss their relation to degrowth and how from their perspective degrowth should develop. The resultant essays provide fascinating insights – for example from the perspective of refugee movements, queer-feminism, trade unions, care, or food sovereignty -, which provide some entry points for degrowth to enter into broader alliances, reach out to new social groups, and strengthen its own critique of power and hierarchies. In another project – which was actually one of the outcomes of the degrowth summer schools in 2015 and 2016 – the Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie will be organizing a conference together with the transnational refugee activist network Afrique-Europe-Interact that will bring degrowth and refugee activists together in October 2017 to discuss the connections between flight and migration, self-determined development, and ecological crises from a practical and political perspective.
The third lesson seems to me to be the most important one. Degrowth can learn from climate justice the struggle. So far, degrowth is largely an academic endeavor to formulate and debate about alternatives, and grassroots efforts to strengthen low-impact lifestyles here and now. Both are vitally important. However, degrowth sometimes appears to be somewhat vague on key political questions, in particular in terms of what the necessary struggles that need to be fought to achieve degrowth are, what this would entail, and who are allies and enemies. To develop meaningful strategies for political change, degrowth should become more confrontational. Degrowth should not shy away from but rather face and embrace the conflicts that are necessary to achieve its goals.
Degrowth should strive to engage more with on-the-ground struggles.
One very concrete situation that the degrowth-climate justice alliance needs to organize against is that, while global carbon majors – the largest oil, gas, and coal companies worldwide – own 5 times more reserves of fossil fuels that are still in the ground than those that can be burned if humanity wants to achieve only the less ambitious 2 degree target, these reserves have largely already been turned into financial assets that are owned by companies and traded on international markets. Thus, alleviating climate change – and thus achieving one key basis for a degrowth transformation – is only possible if these companies are expropriated of these assets. They’ll do anything to avoid this. What does this mean for degrowth strategies? Also in this regard, the climate justice movement is showing the way. One great example is the Break Free campaign in May 2016, in which tens of thousands of people on 6 continents did something that politicians did not: they took bold, courageous action to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Degrowth should strive to engage more with on-the-ground struggles.
Matthias Schmelzer works at the Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie and is a Permanent Fellow at the DFG-Research Group on “Post-Growth Societies” at the University of Jena. He has published on the ideology of economic growth, the history of economic ideas, and the degrowth movement and is currently involved in organising a conference about the relationships between migration, self-determined development and ecological crises.
Whether or not it is okay to punch a Nazi is the wrong question. Even those who say, No, it is not okay to punch a Nazi, would probably support waging all-out war against Nazis in certain situations. World War Two comes to mind.
The twittersphere hasn’t produced many interesting, intelligent discussions on the topic firstly because a social network of one-line postings never really hosts deliberative democracy, but also because the disagreeing factions are not necessarily arguing about the same thing. Of course it is okay to punch a Nazi, sometimes.
The more interesting question is this one: When is it okay to attack Nazis in what ways?
The person who socked well-known white nationalist leader Richard Spencer while he was being interviewed by a journalist in D.C. after the inauguration last Friday did not punch him just to punch him. If the black-clad individual had merely wanted to whack the bigot who coined the term “alt-right,” they would have done so at a moment when Spencer was not on camera surrounded by a small crowd.
The goal was to interfere with the interview, to stop Spencer from disseminating his anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, anti-Semitic hatred. Or rather, to stop the ignorant, click-hungry media from enabling the self-identified “identitarian” from spewing his anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, Semitic vitriol. The goal may also have been to humiliate him, and to get some laughs from those who agree that Spencer’s clean-shaven, contemptible face deserves a good, hard right hook to the face.
My opinion is that yes, it was a defensible punch. It shut Spencer up. Spencer states that the United States belongs to white men. He openly advocates black genocide and does not deserve a chance to speak. More on that in a minute.
This brings me to another interesting question: did the punch backfire? Some non-violence advocates insist that it makes anti-racists and anti-fascists look bad. We should not use the disrespectful tactics of the enemy, so the argument goes. Violence only breeds more violence. It is never justified, according to these anti-violence voices.
This is naïve—and possibly dangerous. From India’s independence from Britain to the end of U.S. slavery, racism has not been defeated with words, but by direct opposition. Anger may lead to the dark side, but Jedis do use light sabers. Non-violent anti-racism looks bad—when racists win.
To me, the punch might have backfired because now many more people have watched the interview than ever would have if not for the blow to the jaw. Giving airspace to people like Spencer gives them power. Look at what happened with President Trump. Or Adolf Hitler, for that matter. Repetitively communicating their despicable message is how people like them end up in the position to order the rest of us around. Both good press and bad press reward them with public attention.
From this perspective, the media should not have been interviewing Spencer in the first place. It will take a lot of restraint for the media to sacrifice traffic – and thus advertising revenue – by passing up click-worthy opportunities to shine the light on far-right extremists who feel empowered to organize and speak up in the age of Trump.
On the other hand, I learned that the alt-right is basically Nazism thanks to this incident. The popularity of the video—the internet has now set The Punch to various epic songs—has exposed people to the ridiculous racism of the alt-right. Because of it, we are more aware that this scary movement is gaining momentum. The chances have increased that we can stop the alt-right before we are forced to resort to violence much more serious than a sucker punch.
If the media ignores Nazis and Trump completely, then they can go about their evil ways hidden from public sight. But if the media gives them too much attention, it spreads their message.
So the question then becomes: when do we ignore Nazis, when do we report on them, and when do we punch them in the face? The media and non-media need to think hard about this one, every time. All three courses of action have their proper time and place.
Sam Bliss is a PhD student at the University of Vermont in the Economics for the Anthropocene research initiative. He loves reading, singing, and slow travel and strongly dislikes post-environmentalism.
For the past little while I’ve been involved with a group in Barcelona, which studies and advocates ‘degrowth’: the idea that we must downscale production and consumption to have a more equitable society, and that we therefore must dismantle the ideology of ‘economic growth at all costs’. As you can imagine, they spend much of their time trying to clear up misconceptions: “No, we’re not against trees growing. Yes, we also would like children to grow. Yes, we also like nice things like healthcare.”
But this last year I was living in London. There, activist ideology seemed to be permeated by the ‘accelerationists’—who argue that capitalism and its technologies should be pushed beyond their own limits, to create a new post-capitalist future. Accelerationism is almost like, having tried hard to evade a black hole, a ship’s crew decides that the best course of action would be to turn around and let themselves be sucked in: “Hey, there could be something cool on the other side!”
After a year of experiences in some of London’s activist circles, I now understand better where this is coming from. Decades of government cutbacks, squashing of unions, total financialization of the city, and lack of access to resources for community organizing has meant that London activists are systematically in crisis mode—exhausted, isolated, and always on the defensive.
These worlds of thought are best encapsulated in two recent books. In Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era, edited by Giacomo d’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis, its authors explain concepts such as care, environmental justice, basic income, commons—all of which are seen as part of degrowth’s “interpretive frame”. For them, degrowth is an umbrella term that houses a variety of movements, ideologies, and ideas for a more sustainable, and less capitalist, world.
Surprisingly, both books have a lot in common. You have the utopian imaginaries, a renewed focus on alternative economics, the willingness to think beyond both neoliberalism and Keynesianism, and the ability to grapple with contemporary technology’s effects on society and the environment.
But they are also quite different. These differences were made real to me on a dreary Saturday afternoon last winter at an event in London called “Future Society Forum”. After a short introduction by Nick Snricek, activists from around London were invited to brainstorm what a leftist utopia could look like.
The room was divided into different ‘themes’: work, health, environment and resources, education, etc. We were first asked to place post-its with ideas for “futures” particular to each theme. (Comically, someone had put ‘basic income’ on every single theme before the event had even started—an attempt at subliminal messaging?) Then, we were asked to split into groups to discuss each theme.
Given my background, I decided I could contribute most to the ‘environment’ theme—though I was certainly interested in joining the others. After a 15-minute discussion, the time came for each group to feed back to the larger collective. Unsurprisingly, the environment group envisioned a decentralized society where resources were managed by bio-region—a participatory, low-tech, low-consumption economy, where everyone has to do some farming and some cleaning up, and where the city is perfectly integrated with the country. I’m pretty sure I heard sniggers as our utopia was read out loud.
The ‘work’ group, on the other hand, envisioned a future with machines that would do everything for us—requiring big factories, where all labor (if there was any) was rewarded equally, where no one had to do anything they didn’t like, in which high-tech computer systems controlled the economy. Basically the “fully-automated luxury communist” dream.
Talk about selection bias.
Part of me had expected more than a snigger, though. But the direct challenge never came. The accelerationists begrudged the enviros their grub-eating utopia while they ruminated on their own techno-fetishes. Was it just an armistice to prepare for a bigger battle down the road, or was there really less animosity than I imagined?
Part of me had expected more than a snigger, though. But the direct challenge never came. The accelerationists begrudged the enviros their grub-eating utopia while they ruminated on their own techno-fetishes.
Of course such differences are not totally new on the left—similar opposing strands played their part in social movements of the past: should we smash the machines or take them into our own hands? Should we grab the reigns of the state or disown it outright? Friedrich Engels may have totally dismissed peasants as possible revolutionaries, but the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakhunin insisted that peasants could, and would, be crucial in creating a world beyond capitalism—and that the left could learn from peasant communes for an idea of what another world would look like.
These same tensions are competing in the accelerationist and degrowth ideologies. Accelerationists like Srnicek and Williams emphasize automation, the role of unions, and reduction in the working week as the primary variables in shifting the gears beyond capitalism. Their focus is on the big stuff (labor, global trade) and they argue a focus on small interventions by the left is part of the problem, not a solution to it. Degrowth scholars look toward small “nowtopias” and make alliances with those struggling against extractivism—often peasants, forest-dwellers, and indigenous peoples.
When I was done reading Srnicek and Williams’ book, I realized that degrowth and accelerationism (although I’ve since learned that Williams and Srnicek now distance themselves from the term, so as not to be confused with more right-wing strains of the movement) actually have more in common than I initially thought—both in practical terms (policies and strategy), and in their general ideological positions. And they have a lot to learn from each other.
What follows is a bit of a report: a conversation between the two proposals. There will be some critique, but also some cross-pollination. My discussion revolves around a couple of themes: the importance of utopian thinking, technology, economy, and political strategy.
If there is commonality there is also difference. How is it possible that, considering so many agreements, they have such an oppositional framing of the problem at hand? By way of a conclusion, I suggest that the notion of ‘speed’—and their divergent views of it—is fundamental to each position.
As David Graeber put it in yet another tasty essay, social movements today are experiencing a kind of “despair fatigue”: no longer content with merely commiserating about cuts to social services, there has been a rebirth in futuristic, positive thinking.
Indeed, it seems that a key uniting principle between accelerationism and degrowth is their promotion of utopian ideas. This might come as a surprise with those unfamiliar with the degrowth literature—recently, a whole book was dedicated to attacking the degrowth hypothesis as anti-modern and a form of “austerity ecology”.
However, the fact is that degrowth thinkers have put a lot of thought into how to go beyond primitivist flight from the modern and envision a future that is low-carbon, democratic, and just. Despite the negative connotations that may come with a word like ‘degrowth’, there have been many positive, forward-looking proposals within the movement. Key concepts here include “desire”—that is, the emphasis that a just transition should not be forced but should come from people’s own political will; “commoning”—in which wealth is managed collectively rather than privatized; the support of innovative policies such as basic and maximum income as well as ecological tax reform; the resuscitation of Paul Lafargue’s demand for ‘the right to be lazy’ (also picked up by the accelerationists); the embracement of ‘imaginaries’ inspired by ‘nowtopias’—actually existing livelihood experiments that point to different possible futures.
The same is true for the accelerationists. Indeed, the launching point of Srnicek and Williams’ book is that much of leftist activism in the past decades has forsaken the imaginative, creative utopias which characterized left struggles of the past. Progressive activism, to them, has largely been limited to what they call “folk politics”—an activist ideology that is small in its ambit, focuses on immediate, temporary actions rather than long-term organizing, focuses on trying to create prefigurative perfect ‘micro-worlds’ rather than achieving wide-ranging system change. This, they argue, is symptomatic of the wider political moment, in which a neoliberal consensus has foreclosed any ability to think up alternative policies and worlds. And so they propose a vision of the future that is both modern and conscious of current economic trends. Like the degrowth movement, they propose that the dominant pro-work ideology must be dismantled, but unlike degrowth, they take this in another direction: proposing a world where people don’t have to submit to drudgery but can instead pursue their own interests by letting machines do all the work —in other words “fully automated luxury communism.”
What unites the two is a counter-hegemonic strategy that sets up alternative imaginaries and ethics, that challenges the neoliberal moment by insisting that other worlds are possible and, indeed, desirable. For degrowth scholars like Demaria et al., degrowth is not a stand-alone concept but an interpretive “frame” which brings together a constellation of terms and movements. For accelerationists, part of the strategy is to promote a new set of “universal” demands that allow new political challenges to take place. In addition, they call for an “ecology of organizations”—think tanks, NGOs, collectives, lobby groups, unions, that can weave together a new hegemony. For both, there is a need to undermine existing ideologies by, on the one hand, providing strong refutations to them, and, on the other, through setting up new ones (e.g. post-work, conviviality). The result is two strong proposals for alternative futures that are not afraid of dreaming big.
Economic Pluralism, Political Monism?
Forty years after neo-conservative godfather Irving Kristol indicted the New Left for “refusing to think economically” in his well-known speech at the Mont Pelerin Society, it is interesting that these two emerging frameworks are once again centering economics in their analysis. Indeed, both frameworks propose startlingly similar economic policies. They share demands such as universal basic income, reduction in work hours, and the democratization of technology. However, they differ in other demands: Williams and Srnicek stress the potential of automation to address inequality and focus on the role of technological advances in either further driving precarity or liberating society. As part of this, they talk at length about the importance of state-led innovation and subsidies for research and development, and how this needs to be reclaimed by the left.
In contrast, Degrowth scholars such as Giorgos Kallis and Samuel Alexander have proposed a more diverse platform of policies, ranging from minimum and maximum income, working hour reduction and time-sharing, banking and finance reform, participatory planning and budgeting, ecological tax reform, financial and legal support for the solidarity economy, reducing advertising, and abolishing the use of GDP as an indicator of progress. These are only a few of the many policies proposed by Degrowth advocates—the point is, however, that Degrowthers tend to support a broad policy platform rather than a set of strategic, system-changing “easy wins”.
At multiple points in their book, Srnicek and Williams urge the left to engage with economic theory once again. They argue that, while mainstream economics does need to be challenged, tools such as modeling, econometrics, and statistics will be crucial in developing a revived, positive vision of the future.
Indeed, near the end of the book, they make a bid for “pluralist” economics. In the wake of the 2008 crisis, the left responded with a “makeshift Keynesianism”—because the focus had largely been on a critique of capitalism there was a severe lack of alternative economic theories available to draw from. They urge thinking through contemporary issues that are not easily addressed by Keynesian or Marxist economic theory: secular stagnation, “the shift to an informational, post-scarcity economy”, alternative approaches to quantitative easing, and the possibilities of full automation and a universal basic income, amongst others. They argue that there is a need for the left to “think through an alternative economic system” which draws from innovative trends spanning “modern monetary theory to complexity economics, from ecological to participatory economics.”
However, I was a disappointed by what they considered “plural” forms of economics. There was little discussion of the content of alternative economics such as institutional economics, post-Keynesian economics, commons theory, environmental economics, ecological economics, and post-development theory. It is these fields that have offered some of the strongest challenges to neoclassical economics, and present some strong challenges to their own political ideology as well. They would do well to engage with them more.
This gap is not minor. Rather, it reflects deeper issues within the whole accelerationist framework. For a book that mentions climate change as one of the foremost problems we face—also mentioned in the first sentence of their #Accelerate Manifesto—there is surprisingly little engagement with environmental issues. And yet it is these unmentioned heterodox economic fields that have provided some of the most useful responses to the current environmental crisis—even going so far as providing robust models and econometric analyses to test their own claims.
The same gap is not found in the Degrowth literature. Indeed, the movement has been inspired to a great extent by rebel economists such as Eleanor Ostrom, Nicholas Georgescu-Røegen, K. William Kapp, Karl Polanyi, Cornelius Castoriadis, Herman Daly, and J.K. Gibson-Graham. Degrowth sessions are now the norm at many heterodox economics conferences—just as degrowth conferences are largely dominated by discussions of the economy.
Taking the lessons from institutional economics in stride, degrowth thinkers have stressed that there are no panaceas: no single policy will do the trick, a diverse and complimentary policy platform is necessary to offset feedback loops that may arise from the interplay between several policies.
From this perspective, the strategic policies proposed by accelerationists—basic income, automation, reduction in working hours—start to look rather simplistic. Focusing on three core policies makes for elegant reading and simple placards, but also comes at a price: when these policies are implemented and result in unforeseen negative effects, there will be little political will to keep experimenting with them. I would rather place my bets on a solid, multi-policy platform, resilient enough to deal with negative feedback loops and not too dogmatic about which one should be implemented first.
From this perspective, the strategic policies proposed by accelerationists—basic income, automation, reduction in working hours—start to look rather simplistic.
A strong point of the accelerationists is their emphasis that economic policies are political—and thus must be won through political organizing. In doing so, they make the crucial step beyond economism—the term Antonio Gramsci used to refer to leftists who put counter-hegemonic activism on hold until “economic conditions” favor it. The same cannot always be said of the environmentalist left: scarcity, environmental limits—these are often imposed as apolitical spectres that override all other concerns.
And yet, for all their calls for a united, utopian vision, I remain apprehensive about the kind of utopia they proposed—and therefore the kind of politics they see as necessary. While ‘folk politics’ is in part a promising definition of activism that fails to scale up, it also easily becomes a way to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit their idea of what politics really is.
Take, for example, their take-down of the Argentinean popular response to the financial crisis. Under their gaze, the “large-scale national turn towards horizontalism” involving neighborhood assemblies after the 1998 recession “remained a localized response to the crisis” and “never approached the point of replacing the state”. Worker-run factories failed to scale up and “remained necessarily embedded within capitalist social relations”. In conclusion, they claim that Argentina’s ‘moment’ was “simply a salve for the problems of capitalism, not an alternative to it.” They maintain that it was simply an emergency response, not a competitor.
But this is a very problematic view of what constitutes ‘the political.’ Drawing on decades of reporting on Latin America’s popular struggles and involvement in them, Raùl Zibechi argues that, following neoliberal abandonment by the state, peasants, Indigenous peoples, and slum-dwellers are creating new worlds and resources that operate differently from the logic of the state and capital. These new societies make no demands from political parties and they do not develop agendas for electoral reform. Instead, they organize “con/contra” (with/against) existing institutions by ‘reterritorializing’ their livelihoods, building diverse and horizontal economies, and rising up in revolt at critical junctures.
Under Zibechi’s gaze, the very same Argentinean popular reaction is described as a moment when “the unfeasible becomes visible”. What was simmering under the surface is revealed “like lightning illuminating the night the sky”. Rather than being “emergency responses”, the Argentinean response was practiced and strategic—not quite as spontaneous and disorganized as Srnicek and Williams depict.
Likewise with gender politics; even as Williams and Srnicek acknowledge feminist economic theories around care and reproductive labor, what qualifies as ‘real’ politics falls into very hegemonic realms: lobbying, the formation of think-tanks, policy platforms, unions, and economic modeling. But what about other types of resistance, such as the ones Zibechi highlights: childcare collectives, squatted and autonomously organized settlements, community-organized schools and clinics, collective kitchens, and street blockades? How do such practices, now being referred to as ‘commoning,’ fit in their ‘ecology of organizations?’
I worry that accelerationists, like Friedrich Engels’ dismissal of peasants as revolutionary agents, implicitly reject the possibility that Indigenous and anti-extractivist struggles are important potential allies. If political success is measured solely by statist goals, then non-statist victories will remain invisible.
In contrast, degrowth thinkers have collaborated with post-development scholars like Ashish Kothari and Alberto Acosta, and have helped to create a worldwide environmental justice network—forming alliances with the very groups that would be the most affected by an increase in automation and the least likely to benefit from accelerationist policies like basic income.
What Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics’ ends up justifying their specific vision of the political—one that is quite strikingly a vision from the North
Unfortunately, what Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics’ ends up justifying their specific vision of the political—one that is quite strikingly a vision from the North, unable to break away from hegemonic ideas of the ‘right’ political actors. By this logic, the Argentinean movement ‘failed’ because it could not replicate or replace the state. To this end, they might find it useful to engage with subaltern theorists, decolonialization studies, post-development scholars—all of whom have in different ways challenged Western conceptions of what resistance, alternatives, and progress looks like. Further, they might engage with commons theorists who demonstrate how commoning practices open up very real alternatives to neoliberalism. Beyond theoretical alliances, this might help them not to dismiss “failed” movements simply because they do not seek to copy the state.
Technology, Efficiency, and Metabolism
For many on the left, technology is secondary to redistributive policies (welfare, health care, employment equity) and innovation is the realm of private companies, not the government.
In contrast, accelerationists recognize that technology is a key driver of social and economic change. For Srnicek and Williams, an important strategic goal within the left would be to politicize technology, to transform capitalist machines for socialist goals. We must take the reigns of technology, democratize it, if we are to deal with the multiple issues facing humanity today. This ‘modern’ gesture, which avoids primitivism and the wish to return to a ‘simpler’ past, is certainly appreciated.
Srnicek and Williams spend much of the book discussing how automation is transforming social and economic relations worldwide. Not only is the roboticization of the workplace rendering so many workers in the Global North useless, automation is starting to have its effects in rapidly developing countries like China. They go so far as to link the informalization of huge swathes of humanity—slum-dwellers, rural-urban migrants—as an indication that capitalism no longer even needs its “reserve army of labor”. The onset of automation means that we may once again enter a world of mass unemployment, where labor becomes cheap and all the power will be in the hands of the employer.
Their response to this is quite brave: rather than fleeing this modern ‘reality’, they suggest pushing for ever more automation—eventually ending the need for rote labor and bringing about “fully automated luxury communism”—their vision of a desirable future. As part of this, they argue that public investment in innovation will be key in achieving this goal.
As they try to show, automation is already helping to deindustrialize many countries (developed and developing), meaning that regardless of whether full automation happens or not, there is a critical need for social movements to fight for political advances to guarantee social safety nets. As a response to this, they argue that unions should actually be fighting for less working hours, not more, and that basic income will help address the mass unemployment that automation seems to be causing.
I agree that such political responses will be necessary in the years to come, and that automation certainly presents a predicament, but, for several reasons that I’ll list below, I’m not sure if it’s really the central predicament—as they seem to assert. First of all, is automation really occurring at such a rapid and destructive pace? It’s true that the rate of growth of employment worldwide is decreasing, but this could be explained by a number of factors, many of which are more and more being highlighted by mainstream economists: the onset of a ‘secular stagnation’ in Euro-America, the decline in conventional oil extraction, and the exhaustion of ‘easy’ growth that was already being felt in the 1970s. Indeed, once I dug into their citations, I didn’t find much research showing how automation’s role in current economic transformations compared to these other factors. However, not being a labor economist, I’m not well-versed enough in the numbers to discuss further. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.
Second, and more problematically, I follow George Caffentzis in his skepticism of the claim that soon Capital will not need workers in the future, and will therefore bring about its own demise:
Capital cannot will itself into oblivion, but neither can it be tricked or cursed out of existence… The “end of work” literature… creates a failed politics because it ultimately tries to convince both friend and foe that, behind everyone’s back, capitalism has ended.
This was a critique of Jeremy Rifkin and Antonio Negri in the 90s, but it might as well apply to the works of Paul Mason, Snricek, and Williams today. There’s something magical about letting automation do the anti-capitalist work for you. Unfortunately, there is no trick that will end capitalism. Even if they claim at multiple points that automation is not a technical but a political goal, they’re in many ways letting automation drive the cart of politics. I’ve already mentioned the dangers of economism. Today, something new seems to be emerging, which seems to very prevalent amongst “ecomodernist” progressives: technologism. The belief that a low-carbon future is only possible through ramping up innovation and technological advances, rather than a full-scale transformation of our social and political relations. Snricek and Williams try to skirt technologism, but their over-fascination with automation brings them dangerously close.
There’s something magical about letting automation do the anti-capitalist work for you. Unfortunately, there is no trick that will end capitalism.
Third, even if automation were on the rise, I’m skeptical as to how it could possibly limit capitalism’s outward expansion. As Peter Linebaugh has argued, the Luddites opposed automation not just because it was costing them their jobs, but because they knew the automation of textile manufacturing meant the enslavement, and drawing in to the capitalist system, of millions of slaves and indigenous people in the colonies.
Automation, from this viewpoint, is a local “problem” borne from a myopically Northern perspective: it will not do away with ever-expanding forest-clearing, enclosures, destruction of subsistence livelihoods, and the creation of itinerant classes forced into the extractivist economy. Regardless of whether automation is capitalist or communist, without being regulated, it stands to increase environmental conflicts globally. But rising rates of resource extraction are not mentioned as a problem in the book, nor do they propose a strategic alliance with those affected by the extractive industry.
This leads to what is perhaps the most frustrating gap in the whole book: their very weak environmental proposals.
Surprisingly, there are only two instances where they present ways to address the ‘environment problem’: when discussing why automation could actually be a good thing, they also mention that greater efficiency would decrease energy use. Elsewhere, they suggest that shifting to a four-day workweek would also limit energy use from commuting.
But efficiency doesn’t work that way. If you would take away one lesson from ecological economics, it is this golden rule, to be repeated to every techno-optimist you come across: without limiting in some way the use of resources and energy (e.g. by taxing it), any advance in efficiency will likely lead to progressively more resource use, not less. This is called the rebound effect, or Jevons’ Paradox.
It follows that there is no guarantee that truncating the workweek will be more environmentally friendly. Efficiency and more free time can just as easily lead to more ecological damage, not less. In any political regime where there are insufficient limits or regulations on total energy and material use in society (capitalist or communist), and the profits of investment are invested in more production, advances in efficiency will cause energy and material throughput to increase exponentially.
When discussing this issue with people in the degrowth community, Viviana Asara pointed out that this is not just a problem of environmental justice—who stands to loose by the increase in production—but also one of energetic limits.
The concept of EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) illustrates that, unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy has a very low return on investment. For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that a fully automated luxury economy has about the same total energy consumption as today’s economy—more efficient but producing more stuff. But because of renewable energy’s extremely low EROEI, such an economy might just require the total transformation of the Earth’s surface into solar panels—not just a hellish vision of the future, but also impossible.
We can argue at length about whether it is indeed possible to produce the same amount of energy using renewables alone, but the point is that Srnicek and Williams neglect to even hold that argument—something you might think necessary if you propose to scale up global industrial activity in times of climate change. As Asara put it to me in an email, “their ‘supposedly sustainable’ utopia of automation misses any sense of biophysical reality.”
This is where accelerationist and degrowth analyses differ the most. Degrowth takes as a key question the ‘metabolism’ of the economy—that is, how much energy and material it uses. As innovation enables the speeding up of this metabolism, and because an increase in metabolism has disastrous social and ecological impacts—too often offloaded on people who do not benefit from the technology—there needs to be collective decision-making on technology’s limits.
In this way, simply reappropriating technology, or making it more efficient, is not enough. In fact, without totally transforming how capitalism reinvests its surplus—requiring a fundamental transformation of financial systems—automation will unfortunately help expand capitalism, rather than allow us to overcome it.
If capitalism always seeks to collectivize impacts and privatize profits, then communism should not be about collectivizing profits and externalizing impacts to people far away or future generations.
If capitalism always seeks to collectivize impacts and privatize profits, then communism should not be about collectivizing profits and externalizing impacts to people far away or future generations. This is the danger of ‘fully automated luxury communism’. These dangers are not discussed by accelerationist texts—but they should be.
Perhaps this is the key ideological difference: accelerationists make such an extreme modernist gesture that they refuse the need to limit their utopia—there are only possibilities. In contrast, degrowth is predicated on politicizing limits that, until now, have been left to the private sphere. This might involve saying, in the words of one Wall Street employee, “I would prefer not to” to some technologies.
What is Speed?
It says something about the times when two important segments of the radical left have gravitated to the terms ‘degrowth’ and ‘accelerationism’—about as opposite as it could get.
In my opinion, there is something rather new here, which brings the discussion beyond peasants vs. workers, localism vs. taking over the state: the introduction of the question of speed into leftist thought.
They do so in very different ways. For degrowth, ‘growth’ is the acceleration of the energetic and material flows of the economic system at exponential rates, as well as the ideology that justifies it. Let’s call this socio-metabolic speed. Their political project then comes down to challenging that ideology head-on, as well as re-thinking economic theory to allow societies to ensure well-being but also transform how energy and material is used—necessary for a more just economic system.
Accelerationists, on the other hand, think of speed much more figuratively: they are referring to the Marxist concept of the material conditions of human relations—for them, acceleration means moving beyond the limits of capitalism, which requires a totally modern stance. This is socio-political speed: the shifting gears of social relations, as a result of changing technological systems.
Both, I think, have put their finger on a crucial question of our times, but from slightly different directions: can what gives us modernity—a colossal global infrastructural web of extraction, transportation, and fabrication—be democratized?
Both, I think, have put their finger on a crucial question of our times, but from slightly different directions: can what gives us modernity—a colossal global infrastructural web of extraction, transportation, and fabrication—be democratized? For accelerationists, this would require making that web more efficient and modifying political systems to make it easier to live with—shifting the gears of social relations beyond capitalism. For degrowthers, it would require slowing that system down and developing alternative systems outside of it. I don’t think these two aims are mutually exclusive. But it would require going beyond simplistic formulas for system change on one side, and anti-modern stances on the other.
But it’s also worth going one step further and asking whether that infrastructural system would really take kindly to these shifts in gears, or if it will it simply buck the passenger.
To navigate this question, it’s useful to briefly turn to the foremost “philosopher of speed”: Paul Virilio. In Speed and Politics, Virilio traces how changes in social relations were brought about through the increased velocity of people, machines, and weapons. Through Virilio’s eyes, the history of Europe’s long emergence out of feudalism into 20th century modernity was one of increasing metabolism of bodies and technologies. Each successive regime meant a recalibration of this speed, accelerating it, managing it. For Virilio, political systems—be they totalitarian, communist, capitalist, or republican—emerged both as a response to changes to this shift in speed and as a way to manage human-technologic co-existence.
What’s important for this discussion is that Virilio does not separate the two types of speed: changing social relations also meant changing metabolic rates—they are the same, and must be theorized simultaneously.
Doing so could be useful for both degrowth and accelerationism. While degrowth does not have a succinct analysis of how to respond to today’s shifting socio-technical regimes—accelerationism’s strong point—at the same time accelerationism under-theorizes the increased material and energetic flows resulting from this shifting of gears. Put another way, efficiency alone can limit its disastrous effects. As degrowth theorists have underlined, environmental limits must be politicized; control over technology must therefore be democratized; metabolic rates must be decelerated if Earth is to remain livable.
To conclude, accelerationism comes across as a metaphor stretched far too thin. A napkin sketch after an exciting dinner-party, the finer details colored in years afterwards—but the napkin feels a bit worn out.
Big questions need to be asked, questions unanswered by the simplistic exhortation to “shift the gears of capitalism.” When the gears are shifted, the problem of metabolic limits won’t be solved simply through “efficiency”—it must acknowledge that increased efficiency and automation has, and likely would still, lead to increased extractivism and the ramping up of environmental injustices globally. Or another: what does accelerationism mean in the context of a war machine that has historically thrived on speed, logistics, and the conquest of distance? Is non-violent acceleration possible, and what would class struggle look like in that scenario?
To be fair, degrowth doesn’t answer all the big questions either. There has been little discussion on how mass deceleration would be possible when, as Virilio shows, mass change has historically occurred through acceleration. Can hegemony decelerate?
If degrowth lacks a robust theory of how to bring about regime shift, then Williams and Snricek’s brand of accelerationism doesn’t allow for a pluralist vocabulary that looks beyond its narrow idea of what constitutes system change. And yet, the proponents of each ideology will likely be found in the same room in the decades to come. Despite their opposite ‘branding’, they should probably talk. They have a lot to learn from each other.
The English version of this article can be found here.
Het woord ‘Antropoceen’ is in het debat over klimaatverandering opgedoken, en de vraag is of het daarin zou moeten blijven. Deze term verwoordt mooi het idee dat het woord Holoceen – een wetenschappelijke term die verwijst naar het huidige geologische tijdperk – niet langer adequaat is. Want we leven momenteel in een tijdperk waarin de mens (anthropos) de geologie van de Aarde fundamenteel heeft veranderd en aanwezig is in bijna alle ecosystemen.
We hebben de temperatuur van de planeet laten oplopen, de zeespiegel laten stijgen, massale hoeveelheden aardkorst ontgonnen, de ozonlaag aangetast, en beginnen nu de oceanen te verzuren – ingrepen die over miljoenen jaren nog steeds zichtbaar zullen zijn in fossielen.
Het woord ‘Antropoceen’ is pas recent in het mainstream woordgebruik opgedoken, maar is heel snel een strijdkreet geworden, die voor veel mensen de hoogdringendheid van maatregelen tegen klimaatverandering uitdrukt. Terwijl de term reeds eerder gesuggereerd werd in verschillende vormen, was het Paul Crutzen, chemicus en winnaar van de Nobelprijs, die hem populariseerde in 2002 in een artikel van 600 woorden lang, getiteld “De geologie van de mensheid”, dat verscheen in het wetenschappelijke tijdschrift Nature. In dit artikel betoogt hij dat de realiteit van “de groeiende invloed van de mensheid op de planeet” met zich meebrengt dat wetenschappers en ingenieurs de “zware taak” hebben de “maatschappij te gidsen” – via grootschalige geoengineering projecten als het moet. Volgens hem is de term Antropoceen een sleutelconcept in het uitleggen van de ernst van onze huidige situatie. Daardoor werd deze term voor velen welhaast een openbaring, die er goed inpeperde dat we onloochenbaar hebben ingegrepen in het ecosysteem van de Aarde, dat we het hebben gedestabiliseerd, en dat we moeten handelen, onverwijld en snel.
Maar ondanks het feit er vanuit verschillende hoeken wordt gepleit voor deze term, is er ook enige weerstand, en niet van het soort mensen dat je zou verwachten: veel klimaatwetenschappers zijn terughoudend om hem te gebruiken, en er is ook kritiek van milieu en sociale historici. Waarom al deze ophef over een woord, en wat is het belang?
Zoals elke activist graag zal willen uitleggen, is het belangrijk welke woorden we gebruiken. Woorden beschrijven niet enkel de problemen, maar framen ook de oplossingen. En in het geval van klimaatverandering is er een grote nood aan goede oplossingen, wat betekent dat de framing juist moet zijn. Als we klimaatverandering willen aanpakken, moeten we zorgvuldig de woorden kiezen waarmee we de problemen beschrijven.
In wat volgt wordt een overzicht gegeven van het Antropoceen debat, waarbij de vraag gesteld wordt of we dit woord inderdaad moeten gebruiken om onze huidige problemen te beschrijven, of integendeel dit woord beter zouden droppen. Zoals je zal zien, ben ik beslist de ene optie genegen – ik denk niet dat de term zo bruikbaar is als zijn supporters beweren – maar zal ik mijn argumenten zo goed mogelijk aandragen zodat je een eigen standpunt kan bepalen.
Van early adopters naar wijdverbreid gebruik
De term Antropoceen werd gepopulariseerd door hard-core klimaatwetenschappers die wilden illustreren hoe onze wereld er tegenwoordig uitziet en hoe fundamenteel verschillend dit is van de wereld die we erfden. Vanuit dit standpunt gezien, kan het concept leiden tot een ‘aha-erlebnis’ bij oningewijden: de mensheid heeft de Aarde reeds fundamenteel veranderd. Daarom gebruikten early adopters dit woord vaak om de urgentie van het huidige tijdsgewricht over te brengen naar het brede publiek toe.
In de tien jaar nadat het concept werd gelanceerd in de moderne cultuur, heeft het nieuwe vormen aangenomen die de originele geologische bedoeling overstijgen, waardoor het een meme is geworden met de capaciteit om een enorm scala aan argumenten te stutten.
Het brede publiek nam de term graag over met headlines in grote mediakanalen als de BBC, The New York Times, en Newsweek. Hij begon regelmatig gebruikt te worden in rapporten (pdf) en campagnes van klimaatactivisten als Bill McKibben en milieugroeperingen als Friends of the Earth. Ook kunstenaars pikten de term op, en academici organiseren tallozeconferenties met ‘Antropoceen’ als leidraad.
Het soort opinies dat rond de term samenkoekt varieert. In het boek “The God Species” argumenteert de prominente milieu-schrijver Mark Lynas dat, aangezien we een nieuw tijdperk van ongeziene menselijke controle over het milieu binnentreden, we de verantwoordelijkheid, de plicht, en de mogelijkheden hebben om het milieu nog meer doorgedreven te controleren. Afstand nemend van traditionele milieustandpunten als anti-nucleair en anti-GGO, pleit hij ervoor om alle middelen waarover we beschikken te gebruiken, precies omdat we geconfronteerd worden met problemen op een grotere schaal dan ooit voorheen. Dit arsenaal omvat nucleaire energie en genetische manipulatie.
Recent vervoegde Mark Lynas een groep van pro-tech wetenschappers, schrijvers, en milieuactivisten, en schreef mee aan het “eco-modernist manifesto.” De auteurs claimen hierin dat “moderne technologieën, door meer efficiënt gebruik te maken van natuurlijke ecosystemen en diensten, een echte mogelijkheid bieden om de totale menselijke impact op de biosfeer terug te dringen. Deze technologieën omarmen, betekent het vinden van wegen naar een goed Antropoceen.”
Het probleem? Dat het Antropoceen openbaart dat de mensheid zich in een positie bevindt die ongezien netelig is. De oplossing? Drijf het op: gebruik meer, en betere, technologieën, om zo de natuur beter te controleren.
Richard Heinberg van het Post-Carbon Institute noemt dit de ‘we-zijn-in-commando-en-daar-houden-we-van’ houding. Volgens hem duidt dit ‘techno-Antropoceen’ argument op een soort wetenschappers dat het Antropoceen omarmt, eenvoudigweg omdat dit de mensheid het volledige mandaat geeft om de planeet te blijven terravormen. Zoals Heinberg aantoont, zal het opdrijven van het Antropoceen onontkoombaar op save-the-day technologieën steunen. Zoals het eco-modernist manifesto claimt: “Verstedelijking, intensiveren van de landbouw, nucleaire energie, aquacultuur, en ontzilting zijn allen processen met een bewezen potentieel om de menselijke impact op de omgeving te verkleinen, en zo meer ruimte te laten voor de niet-menselijke soorten.” Daartegen argumenteert Heinberg dat deze technologieën helemaal niet zo adequaat zijn als vaak wordt beweerd. De hierboven genoemde technologieën steunen ofwel op het gebruik van goedkope fossiele brandstoffen in veel grotere hoeveelheden dan wat ze vervangen, of deugen wetenschappelijk (en moreel) niet.
Heinberg stelt zijn eigen versie voor: het ‘slank-groene Antropoceen.’ Aangezien elke haalbare technologische oplossing aangedreven wordt door fossiele brandstoffen, ziet hij een meer wenselijke toekomst die low-tech is, arbeidsintensief, met lokale voedselproductie, en verantwoord watergebruik (dus bv. onafhankelijk van energie-intensieve ontziltingsinstallaties). Maar voor hem is het ook noodzakelijk om te erkennen dat de mens niet het centrum van het universum is: “Zoals de mensheid nu de toekomst van de Aarde vormgeeft, zal de Aarde de toekomst van de mensheid vormgeven.”
Ietwat verrassend werd de term ook gretig aangenomen door kritische theoretici – misschien te onkritisch. Bijvoorbeeld Bruno Latour gebruikt de term – en de realiteit van menselijke betrokkenheid in het klimaat – als een startpunt voor de discussie over het nieuwe beleid dat deze crises vereisen. Prominente politiek-ecologische wetenschappers als Laura Ogden, Paul Robbins, en Nik Heynen refereren naar de term om de eigen argumenten te onderbouwen dat grassroots organisaties de sleutel zijn tot veerkracht en politieke weerstand in dit nieuwe tijdperk. Slavoj Zizek suggereert dat het Antropoceen, en de wetenschappers die het voorstellen, ons nieuwe vragen doet stellen over de relatie van de mens met zijn omgeving, en over de obsessie die in onze cultuur bestaat voor de altijd-aanwezige apocalyps. In een ander essay daagt Dipesh Chakrabarty de term deels uit vanuit een postkoloniaal perspectief, maar eindigt hij met het onderschrijven ervan, aangezien, op een bepaalde manier, iedereen (de kolonisatoren en de gekoloniseerden, de rijken en de armen) zal geraakt worden door de komende rampen.
Ik zeg verrassend omdat dezelfde theoretici zouden aarzelen om woorden als democratie, ontwikkeling, of vooruitgang te gebruiken zonder ‘aanhalingstekens’ – ze specialiseren zich in het in vraag stellen van alles in het ondermaanse (en maar goed ook). Dat zij dit nieuwe woord accepteren zonder bevragen of terugblikken, vormt misschien wel de beste illustratie voor zijn wijdverbreide aantrekkingskracht.
Hoe dan ook, dit is het beeld: het concept Antropoceen wordt gesteund door mensen met zeer verschillende ideologische overtuigingen. De ene bepleit business-as-usual gedreven door technologische doorbraken, de ander roept op tot een totale transformatie van de relatie tussen mens en natuur, en nog een ander suggereert dat het betekent dat we onze verschillen aan de kant moeten zetten, en de uitdagingen samen tegemoet moeten treden.
In de tien jaar nadat het concept werd gelanceerd in de moderne cultuur, heeft het nieuwe vormen aangenomen die de originele geologische bedoeling overstijgen, waardoor het een meme1 is geworden met de capaciteit om een enorm scala aan argumenten te stutten.
Waarna de problematische fase volgt
Echter, in het voorbije jaar – en zeker tijdens de voorbije maanden – verscheen er een stroom van kritiek op het concept Antropoceen.
Het eerste kernprobleem is wetenschappelijk, met twee facetten. Ten eerste, ondanks het feit dat het concept zich goed heeft genesteld in onze woordenschat (“Welkom in het Antropoceen” titelde The Economist in 2011), is er nog steeds heel wat debat over zijn exacte betekenis, zelfs over zijn wetenschappelijke waarde. Ten tweede wordt de wetenschap meer en meer gepolitiseerd.
Het neologisme van Paul Crutzen bereikte het domein van de stratigrafie – een specifieke discipline die bepaalt wanneer elke geologische periode start en eindigt. En Crutzen is een atmosfeerwetenschapper, geen stratigraaf. Indien hij dat wel was geweest, dan had hij waarschijnlijk de bittere gevechten en spanningen die zijn voorstel veroorzaakte, kunnen voorzien.
Crutzen stelde oorspronkelijk voor dat het Antropoceen zou starten bij de industriële revolutie, meer specifiek de uitvinding van de stoommachine. Daarna veranderde hij van gedacht, en liet het Antropoceen starten bij het testen van de atoombom. Maar dit soort grillen houdt geen stand in het studiegebied dat beslist over geologische tijdperken – er was 60 jaar nodig om te beslissen over de definitie van het Kwartair, een tijdperk dat 2,6 miljoen jaar overspant. De wetenschappers die dit soort beslissingen nemen zijn streng, om niet te zeggen muggenzifters.
Dus beslisten ze een internationale werkgroep te vormen, om voor eens en altijd te beslissen of de term de tand des tijd zou kunnen doorstaan. Dit was behoorlijk moeilijk. Vooreerst bestaat er zelfs geen formele definitie van wat ‘Antropoceen’ echt betekent. Wat behelst een significante verandering in het geologische systeem van de Aarde, die ons zou toelaten om de lijn te trekken? En waar moeten we die lijn trekken?
Daartoe werden talrijke voorstellen gedaan. Het begon met de landbouw 5.000 jaar geleden, of mijnbouw 3.000 jaar geleden. Of nee: het begon met de genocide van 50 miljoen inheemse mensen in Amerika. Of: het begon met de ‘Grote Versnelling:’ de periode van de voorbije 50 jaar waarin plastics, chemische meststoffen, beton, aluminium, en petroleum de markt overspoelden, en het milieu. Of: we kunnen het nu nog niet bepalen, we moeten waarschijnlijk nog een paar miljoen jaar wachten.
Kort gezegd, de vaagheid van de term leidde ertoe dat het onmogelijk was vast te stellen wat deze eigenlijk zou moeten zijn, en hoe hij gemeten zou kunnen worden. Daardoor ontstonden conflicten in het domein van de stratigrafie, waar sommigen betreuren dat een zeer gepolitiseerd onderwerp een idealiter traag, zorgvuldig, en delicaat proces ontwricht: bepalen wanneer een geologisch tijdperk begint en eindigt. Leidende wetenschappers stelden de vraag (pdf) of Antropoceen in feite niet meer is dan een uitwas van de ‘pop cultuur,’ eerder dan een serieus vraagstuk voor stratigrafen.
Daardoor worden deze wetenschappelijke discussies zelf ook politiek. Bij veel betrokken wetenschappers leeft het gevoel dat zij die het concept door willen drukken eerder geïnteresseerd zijn in het in de verf zetten van de destructieve kracht van de mens om klimaatactie aan te moedigen, dan in het definiëren van een nieuwe wetenschappelijke term. Zoals Richard Monastersky zegt in een Nature artikel over de politiek achter het de pogingen om de term te definiëren: “Het debat heeft het gewoonlijk onopgemerkte proces waarbij geologen de 4,5 miljard jaar geschiedenis van de Aarde opdelen, in de schijnwerpers geplaatst.” De inspanningen om het Antropoceen te definiëren en het op de kaart van geologische tijdsschalen te plaatsen is een mijnenveld van politiek, gevestigde belangen, en ideologie geworden. Zodoende onthult het debat over het Antropoceen eens te meer dat de wetenschap – die zo vaak als objectief wordt beschouwd – gedreven wordt door, en onderhevig is aan, persoonlijke en politieke agenda’s.
De mens beschuldigen, de geschiedenis uitwissen
Maar het is niet omdat de term Antropoceen politiek beladen is en moeilijk te definiëren, dat we twee maal zouden moeten nadenken voor we hem gebruiken. Er zijn veel verontrustender kwesties samenhangend met het onderwerp, waarvan we ons bewust moeten zijn.
Vooreerst is er de bezorgdheid dat het concept Antropoceen de menselijke impact op de Aarde ‘vernatuurlijkt.’ Wat betekent dit? In essentie dat we door te spreken over het ‘tijdperk van de mens,’ suggereren dat alle mensen verantwoordelijk zijn. Anders gezegd, dat er iets intrinsieks slecht is aan de mens, waar we altijd en onontkoombaar onze stempel zullen drukken op het milieu.
Dit gaat over het (zeer Westerse) idee dat mensen losstaan van de natuur, en dat we dus ofwel moeten terugkeren naar de natuur ofwel erbovenuit stijgen. Vandaar de oproep van de ecomodernisten om ons te ‘ontkoppelen’ van de natuurlijke wereld door technologie. Vandaar ook de oproep van diepe ecologisten om de natuur an sich te appreciëren, zonder er onze menselijke noden en verlangens op te projecteren. En vandaar het idee dat alle mensen mee de oorzaak zijn van de huidige moeilijke situatie.
Het alternatief, zoals gesuggereerd door de milieutheoreticus Jim Proctor, is beseffen dat het Antropoceen er niet is ‘vanwege’ de mens. Dit vereist te erkennen dat zijn processen en gebeurtenissen talrijk zijn en onderling verweven – er is geen helder onderscheid tussen natuur en cultuur, menselijke verlangens en natuurkrachten.
Maar welke krachten zijn dan verantwoordelijk? In alle rapporten over klimaatverandering staat duidelijk dat de mens aan de basis ervan ligt. Hiertegen argumenteren kan ons gevaarlijk dicht bij de retoriek van de ontkenners brengen.
Het is op dit punt dat we zouden kunnen kiezen voor optie C: vraag het aan een historicus. James W. Moore, een professor milieugeschiedenis, heeft zich afgevraagd of we echt met een beschuldigende vinger moeten wijzen naar stoommachines, atoomwapens, of de mensheid als een geheel. Daarom pleit hij voor een totaal andere term: het ‘Capitaloceen:’ het geologische tijdperk van het kapitalisme. Kort gezegd, het is niet de stoommachine die geleid heeft tot een gebruik van fossiele brandstof dat zonder voorgaande is – het zijn veeleer het bestuurssysteem en de sociale organisatie die de huidige globale veranderingen veroorzaakt hebben. Vereist waren het uitvaardigen van innovatieve eigendomswetten geruggensteund door militaire macht en politie, en ook het opzetten van ongelijke machtsrelaties tussen een kleine klasse van kapitalisten en de werkende armen, vrouwen, inheemse culturen, en andere beschavingen. Het zijn deze instellingen, ontwikkeld en geperfectioneerd over honderden jaren, die het mogelijk maakten om culturen te vernietigen en de hulpbronnen van de Aarde te overexploiteren, wat culmineert in onze huidige crisis.
Het is vreemd in hoeverre dit soort bredere sociale dynamiek totaal onbelicht is in het debat over het Antropoceen. Zo wordt er bijvoorbeeld vaak beweerd dat de uitvinding van het vuur de eerste vonk was die onontkoombaar zou leiden naar de immense voetafdruk van de mens op de Aarde. Dit is niet zomaar een randpositie. Andreas Malm merkt in een artikel in Jacobin Magazine op dat het idee wordt onderschreven door Paul Crutzen, Mark Lynas, en andere opmerkenswaardige wetenschappers zoals John R. McNeill. Volgens hen volgt de afschuwelijke impact van klimaatverandering rechtstreeks uit het ogenblik waarop een groep hominiden vuur leerde maken.
Maar beweren dat de controle van het vuur een noodzakelijke voorwaarde was voor de menselijke vaardigheid om kolen te verbranden is één ding, argumenteren dat het de reden is waarom we momenteel met een klimaatcrisis worden geconfronteerd, is iets helemaal anders.
In een pittig artikel in The Anthropocene Review suggereren Malm en de prominente milieuhistoricus Alf Hornborg dat deze veronachtzaming voortkomt uit het feit dat de wetenschappers die de alarmbel luiden over het klimaat, getraind zijn in het bestuderen van de natuurlijke wereld, en niet van de mens. Om de echte oorzaken van de antropogene klimaatverandering te vinden volstaat het niet om de winden, de zeeën, de rotsen, en de bevolkingsgroei te bestuderen, maar moet ook gekeken worden naar de maatschappij en de geschiedenis. In het bijzonder, Moore echoënd, is het een vereiste te verstaan hoe technologische vooruitgang in de geschiedenis steeds weer aangedreven werd door ongelijke machtsrelaties tussen een minderheidselite en een onderworpen meerderheid. Malm en Hornborg zeggen hierover:
“Geologen, meteorologen, en hun collega’s zijn niet noodzakelijk goed toegerust om het soort dingen te bestuderen dat plaatsvindt tussen mensen (en noodzakelijkerwijs tussen hen en de rest van de natuur); de samenstelling van een rots of het patroon van een straalstroom verschillen nogal van fenomenen als wereldbeelden, eigendom en macht.”
Bijgevolg moet het idee dat het Antropoceen de ‘nieuwe realiteit’ is die iedereen treft, in vraag gesteld worden.
Bijgevolg moet het idee dat het Antropoceen de ‘nieuwe realiteit’ is die iedereen treft, in vraag gesteld worden. Inderdaad, gezien de bestaande machtsrelaties, zal de ‘nieuwe realiteit’ meer ‘reëel’ zijn voor de ene dan voor de andere. Voor de meeste mensen zal het meer ontbering en vechten voor het overleven betekenen, terwijl er voor enkelen comfortabele reddingsboten zullen zijn. Zo suggereren Malm en Hornborg dat Dipesh Chakrabarty, de wetenschapper die het concept vanuit een postkoloniaal perspectief omarmt, zijn positie zou moeten herdenken: klimaatverandering zelf is geen universele gelijkschakelaar, maar riskeert integendeel de kloof tussen rijk en arm te verdiepen.
Dit brengt ons bij een laatste probleem: de politiek. Indien, zoals veel Antropoceen-enthousiastelingen beweren, het concept helpt om mensen te laten begrijpen hoe diep de menselijke betrokkenheid in de Aardse systemen is, dan kan het ook leiden tot een beloftevolle politieke discussie die er de machtshebbers eindelijk op wijst dat er iets dient te gebeuren.
Echter, zoals Jedediah Purdy, professor aan de Duke University, opmerkt in het tijdschrift Aeon: “Beweren dat we leven in het Antropoceen is een manier om te zeggen dat we de verantwoordelijkheid voor de wereld die we creëren niet kunnen ontlopen. Tot daar alles goed. Het probleem begint wanneer dit charismatische, allesomvattende idee van het Antropoceen een universeel projectiescherm wordt en een versterker voor iedereens geprefereerde versie van het ‘verantwoordelijkheid nemen voor de planeet’.”
Voor veel mensen betekent het Antropoceen dat er ‘geen alternatief is.’ Afhankelijk van persoonlijke overtuiging, leidt de term Antropoceen tot verschillende conclusies en oproepen tot actie. Zoals Purdy zegt: “Het Antropoceen lijkt niet veel geesten te veranderen… Maar het draait hen op tot voorbij het maximum. ”
Is dit een probleem voor elk nieuw concept of is het inherent aan het Antropoceen? Gezien de vaagheid van het concept is dit volgens Purdy “een Rorschach vlek waarmee commentatoren onderscheiden wat de tijdperkbepalende verandering in de mens/natuur relatie is.” Met de grote diversiteit aan opinies die beschikbaar is, zullen zij met de meeste politieke en ideologische invloed het debat uiteindelijk domineren.
Neem bijvoorbeeld Peter Kareiva, chief scientist bij het Nature Conservancy, die argumenteert dat het Antropoceen betekent dat we nu, meer dan ooit, moeten stoppen met proberen wildernis te beschermen en het kapitalisme te beschuldigen, en dat we integendeel ondernemingen moeten aanmoedigen om verantwoordelijkheid op te nemen voor, en controle over, de milieudiensten van de Aarde.
Kareiva’s opinie is enorm populair geworden in het mainstream discours, maar impliceert ook dat de mens niet het huidige economische en politieke systeem zou moeten herdenken, maar voluit dient te gaan voor het verhandelbaar maken van alles. Hoe vager het concept, hoe gevoeliger het dus kan zijn voor coöptatie. De vaagheid van de term heeft deels geleid tot zijn kameleon-achtig vermogen om in ieders agenda te passen.
Meer nog, aangezien het concept Antropoceen impliceert dat de mensheid als geheel de eerste verantwoordelijke is – en niet de relaties tussen mensen – verhindert het vruchtbare discussies, eerder dan ze aan te moedigen. Zoals Malm en Hornborg schrijven: “Het effect is het afblokken van elk perspectief op verandering.”
Is de term nog nuttig?
Indien de kritieken hierboven steek houden, waarom denken klimaatwetenschappers en activisten dan nog steeds dat het Antropoceen concept nuttig is? Overtuigt het echt degenen die nog overtuigd moeten worden, of versluiert het veeleer de belangrijke discussies die we moeten hebben?
In discussies en gesprekken met vrienden en collega’s, wordt er vaak op gewezen dat de kritieken van Malm en Hornborg voorbijgaan aan het originele nut van het concept. Zoals een professor geografie het schreef in een e-mail: “Voor mij opent het Antropoceen eerder de weg naar het soort exploratie waartoe de auteurs lijken uit te nodigen, dan dat het die weg zou afsluiten.” Mijn vriend Aaron McConomy schreef het volgende op Facebook: “Ik heb het gevoel dat al deze discussies, theoretische beschouwingen zijn over wat er in de echte wereld gebeurt, maar niet echt weerspiegelen wat ik als actieve lezer en onderzoeker opvang… Het is zoals de meme der memen die reageert op andere memen, waarbij niemand exact schijnt te weten waarop ze eigenlijk aan het reageren zijn… Voor mij is de grotere vraag hoe we ‘derde weg’ discussies kunnen hebben. Waar de realiteit van het Antropoceen toe oproept is een diepgaand herwerken van sociaal-ecologische systemen. Weinig voorbeelden waarmee men komt aanzetten, zijn daarvoor geschikt.”
Punt genoteerd. In plaats van te kibbelen over de betekenis van het Antropoceen, zouden we beter oplossingen vinden voor de vraagstukken waarmee we geconfronteerd worden. En terwijl de term een echt nut heeft voor geologen, kan het de broodnodige discussie over politieke alternatieven stimuleren. Dit is een steekhoudend antwoord op de problematisering van de term: alles welbeschouwd, de term is bruikbaar gebleken in het op gang brengen van een belangrijk debat.
Maar welk soort debat? Aangezien het Antropoceen de mens aanduidt als de hoofdschuldige van de huidige situatie waarin de Aarde verkeert, wijst het niet echt naar de minderheid die de meeste schade heeft aangericht, noch verbreedt het de discussie naar hen die het meest geraakt worden door klimaatverandering maar wiens rol in het veroorzaken ervan werkelijk nul is.
Leunen op een alomvattende geologische (en biologische) term om onze situatie te beschrijven, houdt het risico in te helpen om alternatieve opinies, alternatieve verhalen, en alternatieve politiek monddood te maken. Zoals Malm en Hornborg benadrukken: “Indien klimaatopwarming het gevolg is van de kennis van het vuur, of van een andere eigenschap die de menselijke soort verworven heeft ergens lang geleden in zijn evolutie, hoe kunnen we ons dan zelfs nog maar het ontmantelen van de fossiele economie verbeelden? [Argumenteren dat de klimaatopwarming veroorzaakt is door één soort] bevordert de mystificatie en politieke verlamming.”
Het valt moeilijk te bepalen of de term een goed debat gemiddeld schaadt of het eerder aanmoedigt. Maar als we de talrijke wendingen in acht nemen die de term sinds zijn ontstaan heeft gekend, is het aan te raden de kritiek ernstig te nemen.
Het valt moeilijk te bepalen of de term een goed debat gemiddeld schaadt of het eerder aanmoedigt. Maar als we de talrijke wendingen in acht nemen die de term sinds zijn ontstaan heeft gekend, is het aan te raden de kritiek ernstig te nemen. Dit soort beladen termen moet met zorg gehanteerd worden, en we moeten goed nadenken wanneer en waarom we de term zouden gebruiken.
Ja, ‘Antropoceen’ kan nuttig zijn om de geschiedenis van het leven op Aarde te vertellen. Het kan ook illustreren hoe diep de mens de Aardse systemen heeft veranderd. Ook suggereert het dat we onmogelijk terug kunnen keren naar de ‘ongerepte’ natuur die bestond voor de mens, zoals cultuurcritici lang hebben beweerd. Vanuit een geologisch perspectief is de term ongelooflijk aantrekkelijk om aan te geven dat de impact van de mens op de aardkorst zo diep is dat toekomstige aardbewoners, wanneer ze aan het graven gaan, een aardlaag zullen ontdekken die helemaal doordrongen is van de mens. Dit geologische feit is een prachtig beeld om al het bovenstaande uit te drukken.
Maar de term helpt niet noodzakelijk, zoals uitvoerig beargumenteerd, om de systemen die klimaatverandering bestendigen in vraag te stellen. Omdat hij de mensheid als geheel aanduidt, toont hij niet dat ons probleem politiek is, steunend op een onevenwichtige machtsverdeling. Door de startdatum van het Antropoceen open te laten (sommigen zeggen 50 jaar geleden, anderen 400 jaar, nog anderen 10.000, en weer anderen 50.000), faalt het woord om de hoofdrolspelers van de huidige ecologische crisis aan te duiden.
Zoals ‘duurzaamheid,’ ‘ontwikkeling,’ ‘natuurlijk,’ of ‘groen,’ is de term zo vaag dat hij door om het even wie kan gebruikt worden, voor het uitdagen van de machthebbers, om een snel centje te verdienen, of om een onderzoeksbeurs te scoren. Terwijl de term kan gebruikt worden om te argumenteren voor actie tegen klimaatverandering, kan hij even goed gebruikt worden om het aanboren van bijkomende olievelden te steunen (“och wat maakt het ook uit, we leven toch in het tijdperk van de menselijke superioriteit!”)
Je kan je afvragen of dit niet het geval is met alle woorden? Dat is het niet. Er zijn veel termen in gebruik bij de klimaatbeweging die zowel krachtig als moeilijk te ontvreemden zijn: degrowth, klimaatgerechtigheid, ecocide, ecologische schuld, en 350 ppm zijn er maar enkele van.
Het punt is niet dat het gebruik van Antropoceen zou moeten opgegeven worden – de term heeft duidelijk zijn nut gehad. Maar moet het, zoals in de voorbeelden hierboven, een strijdkreet zijn van klimaatwetenschappers en activisten? Moet het gebruikt worden als gespreksopener, in de hoop dat het de machthebbers zal overtuigen hun politiek te veranderen? Moet het kritiekloos gebruikt worden als het hoofdthema van talrijke wetenschappelijke congressen? Misschien niet.
Besluit: waarheen met het Antropoceen?
Woorden zijn machtig.
Zoals veel klimaatactivisten weten, is klimaatverandering een strijdperk van woorden. ‘350.org’ is genoemd naar de concentratie van 350 parts per million CO2 in de atmosfeer die door wetenschappers als nog acceptabel wordt beschouwd. ‘Klimaatgerechtigheid’ refereert naar het feit dat klimaatverandering verschillende mensen ongelijk zal treffen, en dat de klimaatbeweging zij aan zij moet strijden met mensen die systematisch onderdrukt worden op andere manieren. ‘Klimaatchaos’ ontstond om de zaken duidelijk te stellen, dat klimaatverandering zal zorgen voor een ontwrichting van de normale weerpatronen, eerder dan, zoals ‘opwarming’ schijnt te suggereren, een globale trage verhoging van de temperatuur.
Elk begrip zag een cyclus van early adopters, een groeiend gebruik, paradigmaverschuivingen in de algemene discussie, en daarna vaak kritiek gevolgd door een traag opgeven van de term.
Sommige concepten geïntroduceerd door vroegere sociale bewegingen blijven in gebruik: sociale gerechtigheid, burgerlijke ongehoorzaamheid, mensenrechten. Deze termen verwoorden zowel het probleem als de strategie, zijn politiek zonder teveel af te schrikken, en kunnen moeilijk ontvreemd worden door apolitieke actoren. Daarom blijven ze ook bruikbaar voor de sociale bewegingen van vandaag. ‘Antropoceen’ is niet zo een woord: het is voldoende vaag om door om het even wie gebruikt te worden, het is angstaanjagend zonder een uitweg te suggereren. Het heeft flair, het is aantrekkelijk, maar het mist macht.
Waarom is dit van belang? Woorden kunnen bewegingen maken of kraken.Helaas faalt de term ‘Antropoceen’ om de huidige situatie adequaat te framen, en daarom laat hij iedereen toe om de term te gebruiken ter promotie van de eigen oplossingen.
Waarom is dit van belang? Woorden kunnen bewegingen maken of kraken. Wanneer een beweging verzamelen blaast rond één term – bijvoorbeeld burgerrechten – verandert de manier waarop het publiek en dus de politiek het probleem percipieert. De manier waarop een probleem wordt gedefinieerd, de slogans van de actiegroepen, zijn ongelooflijk belangrijk om de noodzakelijke politieke veranderingen te bewerkstelligen. Helaas faalt de term ‘Antropoceen’ om de huidige situatie adequaat te framen, en daarom laat hij iedereen toe om de term te gebruiken ter promotie van de eigen oplossingen. Waar de term zeker veel discussies in gang heeft gezet, is hij noch politiek, noch precies, en zal hij daarom nooit leiden tot een goede, uitdagende, discussie. En juist nu is er echt nood aan discussies die uitdagend zijn.
Maar, willen of niet, ‘Antropoceen’ is er en heeft de manier waarop we denken en praten over de wereld al veranderd. Wetenschappers zullen de term blijven citeren, sociale theoretici zullen hem bestuderen, en in de media opgevoerde specialisten zullen hem gebruiken om wat dan ook in het ondermaanse te verantwoorden. Het is een ‘meme der memen, reagerend op andere memen’ geworden.
Aaron Vansintjan bestudeert ecologische economie, voedselsystemen, en stedelijke verandering. Hij is co-editor van Uneven Earth en geniet van journalistiek, wilde fermentatie, dekolonisering, degrowth, en lange fietstochten.
Vertaling door Luc Geeraert, voor het tijdschrift van Aardewerk (www.aardewerk.be) en in het kader van de Aardewerk Zomerweek “Het ‘Tijdperk van de Mens’: Over Leven in het Antropoceen,” die zal doorgaan in “La Bavière” in Chassepierre van 10 tot en met 16 augustus 2016.
Om ons volgend artikel via email te ontvangen, klik hier.
We are now at the precipice of a new energy age: the limits of the oil-and coal-based economy are becoming more and more visible. As governments and corporations dig deeper to find unconventional sources, so are communities resisting endless extraction andblocking its flows. People left, right, and center are trying to figure out what can replace fossil fuels as the primary source of power.
Wind turbines and solar panels are primary contenders for replacing the dominance of fossil fuel. Proponents argue that they are clean, non-polluting, efficient, and cheap.
Detractors, as best exemplified by theecomodernists, argue that they can never provide as much power as other alternatives: hydro and nuclear. Respected environmentalists like James Hansen andGeorge Monbiot have put their weight behind nuclear, saying that it is the only source of energy powerful enough to stop climate change caused by carbon emissions.
Many experts are jumping into the fray, holding spiriteddebates on the merits and demerits of each source of power. Investments, efficiency, productive capacity, innovation: these have become the arena of the renewable energy conversation.
Unfortunately, these finer details will have very little to do with what kind of energy will replace fossil fuels. In the future, energy will be, as always, a source of political power—and it is every government’s prerogative to secure as much of it as possible. The best way to do so is to install massively concentrated energy supplies—no matter how efficient or relatively productive these megaprojects are.
Take for example the case of India. The country finds itself at a crossroads: with incredible growth, terrible inequality, and a sizeable chunk of carbon emissions, it needs to figure out adequate alternatives to its coal-powered economy. But instead of subsidizing small-scale renewable energy—which would, if implemented, be more than enough for much of India’s impoverished rural population—the government is ramping up its plans for giganticwind,thermal,solar, andhydro power plants, each of which are often met with resistance by local communities.
Why are governments in love with centralized forms of energy? A glance in the history books can give us some ideas.
In India, as with many rapidly developing economies, the government’s priority is tosupply centralized power to its cities and industrial zones rather than to its impoverished countryside. The irony is that these cities are growing so rapidly because of mass dispossession, indebtedness, and destruction of rural livelihoods—in many cases precisely due to construction of large infrastructure projects such as hydro dams, special economic zones, and foreign land acquisition.
For the same reason, the UK is borrowing money from China to invest heavily in nuclear options, even as they are scaling back funding to wind, biomass, and tidal alternatives, which necessarily function at a small, local scale. And yet, the UK hassome of the highest rates of energy poverty in Europe—something that could, in large part, be addressed by subsidizing small-scale renewables.
In very similar ways, the governments of countries like China, Vietnam, and Brazil are going full speed ahead with hydro and many are considering nuclear as a viable option. For these countries, efficiency, productive capacity, and new, innovative technological improvements are only secondary to whether they have control of the energy supplies.
Why are governments in love with centralized forms of energy? A glance in the history books can give us some ideas.
Before the age of renewables, governments rushed to control fossil fuels around the world, and worked to keep control of these resources as concentrated as possible. As Timothy Mitchell details in his book, Carbon Democracy, coal was an appropriate fuel for building nation-states because it was so centralized, easily extracted, and easily protected. In turn, the state was an excellent tool to help companies extract coal, because it had a monopoly over violence and therefore the power to control workers uprisings.
Consider the early stages of the industrial revolution. Just as Britain’s land was being enclosed—which involved the government formalizing property rights in favor of the elite—there was also a massive displacement of the rural population. Now dispossessed from their ancestral land, peasants flocked to cities in search of work. There were masses of “vagrants” who would do anything, if they could just have some bread. At the same time, Scotland and Ireland’s forests were just about exhausted: there was no more cheap fuel.
Coal’s concentrated energy allowed the first proper nation-state to emerge—or rather, coal mines and the British nation-state created each other.
Putting two and two together, English aristocrats and wealthy merchants opened coal mines, funneling labor into concentrated sites—which in turn powered the burgeoning textile, shipping, and agricultural industries. In order to encourage peasants to join this labor force, the role of the government was expanded to take account of the country’s population, count the “unemployed”, criminalize vagrancy, and outlaw foraging and subsistence hunting. Coal’s concentrated energy allowed the first proper nation-state to emerge—or rather, coal mines and the British nation-state created each other.
To demand living and working improvements, laborers in Europe and North America tried to block the sites and arteries of extraction through strikes and blockades. For this reason, oil was more useful for the British and American governments. Because it required even less workers to operate its extraction—most oil wells don’t need more than a few construction workers and engineers to be operated—the working class was less and less able to make demands, while the state had control of more and more energetic and political power.
Once again, the private sector and the state worked in concert to find alternative centralized energy sources. As the British Empire receded from the Middle East, American companies like Standard Oil made deals with newly-formed Middle Eastern governments, who were promised the benefits of oil extraction. In turn, when these governments tried to nationalize or democratize their natural resource, American and British governments would step in by threatening withdrawal of their support. In this way, the private sector’s profits have always been dependent on its alliance with states.
Historically, nation-states have always benefited from centralized forms of energy, and used it as a means to assert power over their people—and other people as well. Any control of energetic power by democratic movements was seen as threatening to states.
In the mid-twentieth century, social movements for democracy in the Middle East tried to overthrow governments imposed by the West, only to face oppression at the hands of Western-backed rebels and assassinations of their leaders. Attempts at taking democratic control over oil by the local population were constantly sabotaged. To preserve political control in the Middle East, Western countries supplied Saudi, Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian dictatorships with prodigious arms deals at rock-bottom prices.
Historically, nation-states have always benefited from centralized forms of energy, and used it as a means to assert power over their people—and other people as well. Any control of energetic power by democratic movements was seen as threatening to states.
Because the legitimacy of states largely relies on their control over resources, they also have a tendency to build infrastructure that centralizes the extraction of those resources. Now that oil and coal extraction is becoming less easy to justify (and the rate of oil extraction and discovery is steadily decreasing), nuclear has become prohibitively expensive and risky, and many countries have maxed out the amount of hydro power plans they could feasibly build, governments will tend to support large centralized wind and solar plants, rather than small, decentralized, and autonomously managed renewables.
Another way the state tends to maintain power is by controlling the electricity grid. While electricity providers may be privatized, in every country, the state legalizes, develops, and manages a centralized grid to power its economy. Take this infrastructure away—or alternatively, undermine it by using wind and solar technology not connected to the grid—and the state loses much of its power—energetic and political.
Once again, India is a good example of this process. To a great extent mimicking the early industrialization phase of Britain, mass rural dispossession (largely due to rising debts of smallholder farmers, but often also caused by the building of hydro-power dams and the creation of Special Economic Zones, meant to facilitate industrial development) has lead to unprecedented rural-to-urban migration—in turn creating the slum cities we are familiar with from the news and movies like Slumdog Millionaire.
In order to employ these newly unemployed—or informally employed—masses, the state is creating massive energy infrastructure that can power the Special Economic Zones. Like early British industrialists, it’s connecting the need for cheap energy and mass impoverishment to attract industry at rock-bottom prices. In turn, lacking a large middle class, industrial development supplies the state’s primary tax revenue, which it so desperately needs to keep growing.
Dispossession of the poor, centralization of energy, and centralization of the state go hand-in-hand. It would therefore be against the Indian government’s interest to supply renewable, decentralized energy to its rural and marginalized population: this would help break the cycle of rural-to-urban migration that it depends on so much to stay in power.
This explains why, even in the face of a climate crisis, politicians like Narendra Modi in India and David Cameron in the UK are refusing to subsidize localized energy systems that would be more than enough for India’s villages and much of the UK’s energy poor.
This explains why, even in the face of a climate crisis, politicians like Narendra Modi in India and David Cameron in the UK are refusing to subsidize localized energy systems that would be more than enough for India’s villages and much of the UK’s energy poor. It also helps us understand why Morocco is now building the largest solar power plant in the world, intended to power one million of its city dwellers—but not its most impoverished rural population.
It also explains why socialists like Leigh Phillipsadvocate turning to nuclear power because it increases the state’s power against neoliberalism.
If this is true, it has repercussions for what we call “renewable energy.” Decoupling energy supplies from the grid would present a challenge, not just to the energy companies, but also to the very basic structure of society, what some call “the establishment.”
A decentralized grid of renewable energy sources has the potential to take away power from the owning class, as long as the power structures that manage the decentralized grid also are decentralized. This would mean community-based management, allowing whole neighborhoods and towns to have a say over where their energy goes and how much they use. It could involve things likeparticipatory budgeting andbioregional resource management. Decentralized energy requires a totally different political system to exist.
But this is still a pipe dream. Despite all talk of globalization and austerity, nation-states continue to reign supreme, and are showing little sign of disappearing any time soon. Perhaps state-centered energy politics—and by extension, highly centralized energy power plants—are our only hope to address climate change. Then again, as Timothy Mitchell’s book shows, states have a very poor track record when it comes to democratic and fair centralized energy systems.
What drives power plants is not just energy—it’s the power needed to make them a reality. In other words, those who control society also control the flow of energy, and vise versa.
In any case, this angle presents a very different picture of the debate between nuclear/hydro and wind/solar environmentalists. What both sides rarely get is that at the root of the energy discussion is also a power struggle. What drives power plants is not just energy—it’s the power needed to make them a reality. In other words, those who control society also control the flow of energy, and vise versa. At stake is not just global warming; it’s also who has a hand on the thermostat and who does not.
In a way, being at the precipice of a new age of energy also means being at the precipice of a new social structure. If we were to successfully decentralize sources of energy, we would also need to decentralize decision-making power. But if we were to want to keep the current economy going in some form, we’d need to stick to highly centralized energy systems, managed by highly centralized power structures. In both scenarios, the kind of political power structure you have will determine the kind of energy solution you’re going to get.
Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.
This article originally appeared in the Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2016 report.
“The object is to change the heart and soul” – Margaret Thatcher
On the final day of the UN summit held in Paris in December 2015, thousands of people defied a ban on public gatherings by converging at a boulevard leading to the business district in La Défense to denounce the new climate agreement that government negotiators were about to sign and celebrate at the conference venue in Le Bourget, 20 kilometres away.
Hoping to counter governments’ attempts to control the narrative regarding the summit, they gathered behind giant inflatable ‘cobblestones’ and a red banner proclaiming “System change not climate change!” Departing from some other environmentalist groups, they held placards criticising the undemocratic ways in which decisions regarding our relationship to nature are ultimately made only by capitalists and other powerful groups in the current global capitalist system. In different ways, they put forward a more democratic alternative: a system in which ‘the people’ decide on important questions such as what sources of energy to use and what activities to power and for whose benefit, how many trees to fell and to produce what goods for whom or, more generally, how to organise our relationship to nature and in pursuit of what ends.
Broad and as defiant as the action turned out to be, however, it was still not as large or as confrontational as some of the organisers had hoped. Unable to rally more people behind them, the radical anti-capitalists had little choice but to abandon their original plan to barricade Le Bourget and also ruled out marching on La Défense. In the end, the protesters could only gather, lobbing their ‘cobblestones’ in the air, aimed at no targets. Meanwhile, the popping of champagne corks in Le Bourget or La Défense went undisturbed.
Why, as this particular but not uncommon episode indicates, are activists struggling for a more democratic system unable to attract more people to their side? Or why, despite the intensifying ecological crisis caused by capitalism, is the movement for radical system change still confined to the margins?
Part of the answer surely has to do with how the world’s elites have increasingly resorted to more coercive measures to keep people off the streets or prevent them from conceiving or expressing anti-systemic demands. But—as shown by the large number of people who refused to be cowed by the threat of force or to buy into the governments’ discourse in Paris and beyond—it is not merely the presence or absence of physical or ideological repression that determine people’s willingness to take on the powerful. Indeed, it pushes us to ask why more people are not willing to defy repression to fight for a democratic system.
This essay seeks to contribute to understanding the causes of the movement’s weakness by drawing attention to another, typically overlooked, way by which the dominant seek to contain challenges to their undemocratic rule other than by trying to repress people’s bodies in order to dissuade or restrain them from overthrowing the system: that of trying to mold people’s very subjectivities—how they see their identities, how they make sense of their life situations, what they aspire to, whom they consider their ‘friends’ or their ‘enemies’—in order to persuade people to actively defend the system.
By purportedly trying to ‘change the system’, a particular section of the world’s elites have achieved some success in countering radicals’ attempts to reshape people’s subjectivities, thus preventing them from fighting for a radically democratic system.
I argue that part of the reason why activists struggling for a democratic alternative to capitalism find it difficult to draw more people to their cause is because a section of the world’s dominant classes have been waging what we can think of, extending Gramsci, as a kind of global “passive revolution”: an attempt to re-construct or secure (global) hegemony by attempting to fundamentally reform global capitalism in order to partially grant the demands of subordinate groups. I show how, by purportedly trying to ‘change the system’, a particular section of the world’s elites have achieved some success in countering radicals’ attempts to reshape people’s subjectivities, thus preventing them from fighting for a radically democratic system.
A resurgent global counter-hegemonic movement
To better understand how world elites seek to contain counter-hegemonic challenges to their rule, it is useful to go back to the late 1960s when new radical movements, including those mobilising around ecological issues, burst onto the world stage as part of a broader resurgence of radicalism.
Even before then, a growing number of people in industrialised countries and also in the ‘Third World’ had been increasingly concerned about their deteriorating living conditions as a result of the ecological degradation that came with capitalism’s renewed post-war global expansion. Before the 1960s, many people still typically thought of these ecological problems and the impacts these had on their lives to be the result of others’ ‘bad personal habits’, ‘unscientific management’ of resources, or insufficient regulation of ‘big business’. They therefore generally thought that these problems could be solved and their suffering ended by the inculcation of better personal habits, more ‘scientific management’ of resources,’ or greater checks on big business. Consequently, few directed their anger at the world’s dominant classes in response to ecological degradation. While there would be a growing number of protests as people ‘spontaneously’ defended themselves against direct attacks on their wellbeing, they did not amount to the kind of organised and sustained resistance that threatened the ruling classes in earlier revolutionary upheavals in various countries.1
Starting in the 1960s, however, various intellectuals began to advance a different way of making sense of, and responding to, ecological problems. Herbert Marcuse, Barry Commoner, Murray Bookchin, or Chico Mendes, along with other scientists, journalists, writers, and organisers, began drawing not only from Marx but also from Morris, Kropotkin, Weber, and other critical thinkers to popularise new ways of looking at the world that challenged not just the dominant worldviews but even those propagated by so-called ‘Old Left’ activists.
Calling on ‘the people’ as members of exploited classes and other dominated groups whose interests were antagonistic to those of the world’s elites, they argued that deteriorating living conditions were not just because of bad habits, poor management, or the insufficient regulation of big business by governments, but because of the historically-specific property relations under capitalism. They revealed how capitalism drives capitalists, or those who own land, factories, power plants and other “means of production” and who therefore monopolise social decisions over production, to constantly intensify their exploitation of both workers and nature so as to maximise profits.
To overcome their suffering, they argued that reforms such as regulating big business—while not necessarily wrong—would not suffice; they needed to challenge nothing less than capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and other forms of domination. Though they did not necessarily agree on how to go about it, they urged them to end what Marx once called the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” or the system of rule in which only those who own the means of production ultimately make production decisions. This would involve fighting for the abolition of private property relations and building a society in which all people collectively and democratically own the means of production and therefore have a say in making decisions about how to organise production. Only then, they argued, would it be possible to prioritise people’s welfare and the planet’s well-being over the need to constantly maximize profits.
Through their myriad efforts to propagate these new ways of making sense of and acting upon ‘ecological’ problems, these radical intellectuals began to reshape people’s subjectivities by providing alternative ways of looking at the world, of understanding their identities, of diagnosing and overcoming their suffering.
With these changed subjectivities, people connected the struggle around ‘environmental’ problems to broader struggles for social justice and equality and channelled their anger about ecological degradation away from fighting other individuals or other subordinate groups towards the dominant classes, their allies in the state apparatus, and other influential groups.
As indicated by the growing membership and supporters of radical anti-capitalist ‘environmental’ organisations or movements that were concerned with ‘environmental’ questions, ever more people would begin to see themselves and the environmental problems they suffered in a new light.2 Many started to think of themselves as members of oppressed and exploited classes and also began to connect ‘environmental problems’ and their social impacts to capitalist, patriarchal, colonial, racial or other forms of domination. As one activist who came of age during this period put it: “a complete disaffection with ‘the system’… resonated deeply between East and West, North and South”.3 Protesters moved beyond critiques of particular aspects of capitalism and “challenged the very essence of capitalism”, according to the environmental historian, John McCormick. Many began to aspire to a post-capitalist, if not socialist, society. And they recognised the need to confront and overthrow the ruling classes and other dominant groups determined to perpetuate capitalism. “Whatever the cause”, notes McCormick, “by 1970, there had been a revolution in environmental attitudes”. 4
With these changed subjectivities, people connected the struggle around ‘environmental’ problems to broader struggles for social justice and equality and channelled their anger about ecological degradation away from fighting other individuals or other subordinate groups towards the dominant classes, their allies in the state apparatus, and other influential groups. Struggles around pollution, nuclear power, pesticides, and so on would become central to a reinvigorated global radical anti-capitalist bloc and re-ignited something that world elites thought they had ended: a “global civil war”.5
Although they did not necessarily succeed in—or did not even attempt to—seize state power, their actions, the historian Eric Hobsbawm argued, were still revolutionary “in both the ancient utopian sense of seeking a permanent reversal of values, a new and perfect society, and in the operational sense of seeking to achieve it by action on streets and barricades”.6 Or, as geographer Michael Watts noted of the uprisings that swept the world in 1968, they were revolutionary not “because governments were, or might have been, overthrown but because a defining characteristic of revolution is that it abruptly calls into question existing society and presses people into action”.7 Critical of ‘existing society’ and pressed into action, a growing number of people began fighting for what later activists called ‘system change’ to address ecological problems.
This resurgence of radical environmentalism in particular and of radicalism in general troubled those intellectuals drawn from or aligned with the world’s dominant classes in the United States and other advanced industrialised countries. Barraged with unrelenting criticism—pickets, protests, boycotts, direct actions—and besieged by demands for stronger regulation and ‘system change,’ many US business leaders felt under attack. One executive probably captured the mood when he said in jest: “At this rate business can soon expect support from the environmentalists. We can get them to put the corporation on the endangered species list”.8 Not since the Great Depression and the New Deal, notes political scientist David Vogel, did US capitalists feel so “politically vulnerable”. Although the exact conditions varied, the situation was similar in other countries where radical movements emerged.
One executive probably captured the mood when he said in jest: “At this rate business can soon expect support from the environmentalists. We can get them to put the corporation on the endangered species list”.
Under siege, many dominant intellectuals and corporate elites struggled to understand what was going on, how to define their interests in the face of it, and how to react. Many thought that the so-called ‘environmental problems’ were not ‘problems’ at all or that they could be solved through the normal workings of the market or through existing institutions.9 Insofar as they acknowledged the problem, many perceived only a threat to their company’s or their industry’s interests and sought to protect them by simply rejecting the grievances aired by subordinate groups, killing their proposals, and resorting to coercive measures to intimidate or discredit their proponents.10
But there were other intellectuals who pursued and advocated an altogether different response.
Unlike most reactionary elites, these reformists were typically from patrician or bourgeois families in their respective countries. Others were from less privileged backgrounds but had assumed high government office or positions in ‘civil society’ organisations, most notably the philanthropic foundations. But unlike government officials, they were what Weber called the “notables”: those who lived for rather than off politics.11
Among those from such backgrounds who would play leading roles on climate-related issues would be people like Laurence and David Rockefeller, of the famous dynasty’s younger generation; Robert O. Anderson, owner of the oil giant Atlantic Richfield; McGeorge Bundy, the former dean of Harvard and National Security adviser and later president of the Ford Foundation; Robert McNamara, former CEO of Ford Motors, Defense Secretary, World Bank President, and Ford Foundation trustee.
In other countries across Europe, Latin America and Asia, they included those with very similar backgrounds to their US counterparts. Among them were the likes of Giovanni Agnelli, chairman of Italian car company Fiat; Aurelio Peccei, former president of Olivetti and convenor of the Club of Rome; Alexander King, an influential British scientist; Maurice Strong, former president of a large Canadian oil company and later head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); Barbara Ward, a British economist and best-selling author, and adviser to numerous world leaders; Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau; Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India; Gamani Corea, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), from Sri Lanka; Mahbub ul-Haq, World Bank vice president from Pakistan; and numerous other ‘gentlemen lawyers’ and ‘learned cosmopolitans’.
Though they came from different countries, had their own specific interests, and pursued different and not always congruent projects, this loose network of elite intellectuals often pursued the same actions or took the same positions on particular issues. This was not because they were engaged in a ‘conspiracy’ but because their background meant that they generally thought about and acted upon global ecological issues through the lens of a common worldview.12
Unlike other elites, they were generally more open to the view that global warming and other ecological changes were indeed happening. Thus, for example, the oilman-turned-philanthropist who funded some of the key organisations that would push for action on climate change, Robert O. Anderson, called for a “steady mid-course between doom and gloom alarmists and those who resist acknowledging the clear danger to which the human environment is being subjected”.13 Similarly, the industrialists, executives, and scientists gathered in the Club of Rome would portray the environmental issue as nothing less than a “global crisis”.14
Breaking with other elites, they effectively concluded that in order to defuse such a threat, at least some of the grievances and demands of subordinate groups needed to be addressed—something that could be done only by fundamentally reforming global capitalism.
And, unlike other elites, they thought that the problem involved far larger threats than simply the diminution of specific firms’ prerogatives or countries’ economic competitiveness. They worried about pollution impairing their access to raw materials, intensifying international competition and prompting protectionism, and potentially even igniting inter-capitalist wars, such as World War I and World War II, that could once again fragment the global market and impede capitalist expansion. But more than that, they also worried that environmental degradation would further fuel public dissatisfaction and anger and therefore encourage support for radicalism.
Breaking with other elites, they effectively concluded that in order to defuse such a threat, at least some of the grievances and demands of subordinate groups needed to be addressed—something that could be done only by fundamentally reforming global capitalism.
Bound by these common views, these “enlightened reactionaries”—to use Karl Polanyi’s label—set out to build a transnational reformist movement or “bloc from above”, bringing together otherwise isolated elites and drawing in members of other classes to push for their project of ‘changing the system.’ They did this despite more conservative elites who wanted no change at all, and of course, against the radicals who wanted a very different kind of system change.
Undertaking parallel, sometimes even clashing initiatives, they deployed their vast economic resources and social connections—straddling the worlds of business, politics and science—to build this movement’s capacity to engage in ideological and political struggle on the world stage.
Radical language, reformist ends
To attract support, they advocated a different way of making sense of, and, thus, of thinking, talking, and acting about ‘global environmental change’ that absorbed certain elements proposed by radicals while departing from them on the most fundamental questions.
They studiously avoided calling them members of exploited or dominated classes whose interests are in conflict with those of the exploiting or dominant classes; instead, they preferred to emphasise their identity as members of one “mankind” whose interests are not at odds with the interests of the world’s elites—all inhabitants of “Only One Earth.”
Like radicals, they sometimes called upon or “interpellated” members of subordinate groups as belonging to the ‘poor’ as opposed to the ‘rich’, and sometimes even borrowed from radicals in designating them as part of the ‘periphery’ as opposed to the ‘core’. But they studiously avoided calling them members of exploited or dominated classes whose interests are in conflict with those of the exploiting or dominant classes; instead, they preferred to emphasise their identity as members of one “mankind” whose interests are not at odds with the interests of the world’s elites—all inhabitants of “Only One Earth”, as the title of Ward’s bestselling 1972 book for the first UN conference on the environment put it.
Echoing radicals, they told people that global ecological problems had less to do with ‘bad personal habits’ and more to do with the broader political and economic system. As the 1974 Cocoyoc Declaration, a follow-up to the 1972 Stockholm declaration written by Ward, ul-Haq, and others, put it: “[M]ankind’s predicament is rooted primarily in economic and social structures and behavior within and between countries”. But unlike radicals, they stressed that the problem was not the system as such but rather the lack of regulation and inadequate ‘scientific management’ of the system at the global level. Though they would disagree over what counts as “excessive”, all saw ecological problems as “evils which flow from excessive reliance on the market system”, in the words of the Cocoyoc Declaration.
Countering both conservatives and radicals, they argued for the need neither to keep the system nor to junk it altogether but to improve it by reducing the “excessive reliance on the market” and by moving towards what the Cocoyoc Declaration calls the “management of resources and the environment on a global scale”.
So, like radicals, they explained to people that they could only alleviate their suffering by pushing for what radicals called ‘system change’. But against radicals, they told people that changing the system did not entail overthrowing capitalism, but rather enhancing the global regulation of capitalism through what the Club of Rome called “radical reform of institutions and political processes at all levels”. Countering both conservatives and radicals, they argued for the need neither to keep the system nor to junk it altogether but to improve it by reducing the “excessive reliance on the market” and by moving towards what the Cocoyoc Declaration calls the “management of resources and the environment on a global scale”. The Club of Rome, for example, called for a “world resource management plan”15 while the Trilateral Commission advocated “international policy coordination” for managing the “global commons”16 in order to correct market failures, minimise inefficiencies, foster competition, and redistribute wealth in order to reduce poverty and mitigate ecological degradation. These proposals were what later scholars would call “international ecological managerialism”, or global “ecological modernization”.17
They urged the public to focus their anger only on particular members of the dominant group—i.e. ‘bad capitalists’ or those ‘bad elites’. At the same time, they called upon the public to join the moral, responsible elites as ‘partners’ in pushing for and bringing about ‘system change.’
Put differently, they told people that they should aspire not to the creation of a post-capitalist society but to a greener, more regulated, capitalist society. For only by perpetuating reformed ‘green’ capitalism, pursuing more trade, more growth and ‘sustainable development’ could ‘mankind’ solve ecological problems, address social grievances, and realise the vision of the good life. As the Founex Declaration put it: “development”—meaning capitalist development—is the “cure” for the environmental problems facing the poor.
Consequently, against radicals who urge people to view the dominant classes as their oppressors and the targets of opposition, they urged the public to focus their anger only on particular members of the dominant group—i.e. ‘bad capitalists’ or those ‘bad elites’ (variously, the USA, the advanced economies, big business, the oil corporations, the Republicans, and so on). At the same time, they called upon the public to join the moral, responsible elites as ‘partners’ in pushing for and bringing about ‘system change.’ Much of what succeeding reformists would say and prescribe from the 1970s through to the 2000s essentially built on these recurring discursive or ideological themes.
Building their movement’s capacity
Reformist intellectuals did not, however, stop at rallying people to their side and exhorting them to fight for their cause. Often in coordination, but also sometimes competing with each other, they mobilised to equip their supporters with cutting-edge knowledge on global environmental problems—and with ‘policy options’ for managing them—by funding or otherwise supporting hundreds if not thousands of universities and government or inter-governmental research departments and think-tanks.
Thus, for example, the Ford Foundation financed a whole battalion of academic centres, research departments and scientific networks such as the Aspen Institute, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the Brookings Institute, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Trilateral Commission “study groups”, and many other outfits. The Volkswagen Foundation funded the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study. McNamara transformed the World Bank into the world’s largest centre for research on the relationship between environment and development. As its first Executive Director, Maurice Strong established UNEP as one of the key initiators of large-scale collaborative research on the ozone hole, biodiversity loss, and climate change. Reformists in developing countries formed the South Centre, a think-tank that became a key source of analysis for government officials from the South.18
These ‘capacity-building’ efforts extended to a wide range of organisations, in part because of a deliberate strategy of taking risks and finding innovative people. Ford, even as it supported more moderate or even more conservative reformists, also funded ‘public interest’ organisations that were more critical of ‘big business’ and more inclined to raise questions of social justice.
This is not to say that they merely funded research with which they would agree. Indeed, probably as a result of their own lack of knowledge, uncertainties, or internal tensions, they chose, or at least strove, to ‘diversify their portfolios’ by supporting different researchers approaching the problem from dissimilar perspectives, including those they would subsequently disagree with.
To improve their ability to advocate for the reforms they wanted, they also undertook various initiatives to identify and groom scores of highly educated middle-class professionals—lawyers, economists and scientists—who were supportive of their reformist vision, and devoted considerable resources and energy towards promoting the ‘professionalisation’ of their activism. Ford, Rockefeller, Anderson and others, for example, bankrolled the formation of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC), and possibly thousands of other moderate or non-radical groups across the world. 19
These ‘capacity-building’ efforts extended to a wide range of organisations, in part because of a deliberate strategy of taking risks and finding innovative people. Ford, even as it supported more moderate or even more conservative reformists, also funded ‘public interest’ organisations that were more critical of ‘big business’ and more inclined to raise questions of social justice.
Through such investments in generating knowledge and building movements, they assembled a loose, decentralised, transnational network of highly-trained reformists, occupying strategic positions in various governments, international organisations and civil society groups worldwide, which then pushed the world’s governments to adopt a raft of far-reaching environmental measures to address global environmental problems at the local and global levels.
Thus, for example, equipped with research confirming global warming and with studies assessing possible policy options, this global network of reformists mobilised to raise the alarm and push for unprecedented global regulatory interventions to address climate change. It was UNEP, for example, that encouraged scientists to speak up and to push for an internationally coordinated response. Scientists and activists associated with EDF and other reformist groups organised a flurry of international conferences on the issue and pressed the world’s governments to commence negotiations on an agreement. And it was EDF and others that spearheaded the formation of the Climate Action Network (CAN), which would go on to be become the world’s largest network of NGOs calling for government “action” on climate change.20 Simply put, if it had not been for the independent but converging initiatives of these reformists—and the elites that supported them—the UN negotiations on climate change might never have happened.
Although they did not necessarily agree on all the details, they did converge in pushing for a strong, legally-binding international climate agreements. They united behind demands for unprecedented internationally coordinated interventions in the global economy that could oblige certain countries and industries to drastically reduce their emissions and for establishing a kind of de facto global ‘welfare scheme’ that could compel some countries to transfer finance and technology to others.
A global battle for hearts and souls
Thanks to all these investments in political and ideological mobilisation, the reformist movement was able to go on the offensive from the 1970s onwards. Effectively backed by the threat of the more radical alternatives posed by the movements to their left, it succeeded in overcoming conservative resistance and incrementally put in place a range of ambitious and far-reaching environmental regulatory measures in many countries, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act approved in the USA in the 1970s At the international level, this reformist bloc secured agreements tackling global environmental problems such as the ozone hole, biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change. These measures, as limited as they may have been, likely prevented even worse outcomes had reformists not pushed for them.
In so doing, reformist elites did more than just deliver limited relief and material concessions to members of the dominated classes; they also countered radicals’ attempts to reshape their subjectivities and succeeded in dispelling their attempts to channel people’s anger and anxiety towards fighting for radical system change.
By appearing to change the system and channelling limited benefits or advantages to subordinate groups, reformists undermined radicals’ capacity to convince people to diagnose their suffering as the inevitable result of capitalism.
This is because, by appearing to change the system and channelling limited benefits or advantages to subordinate groups, they undermined radicals’ capacity to convince people to diagnose their suffering as the inevitable result of capitalism and to see themselves as members of antagonistic classes whose interests are always incompatible with the dominant classes.
And, as an increasing number of people came to see themselves as members of harmonious communities, to believe that their suffering is caused only or primarily by the lack of regulation of capitalism, to conclude that they could improve their conditions without going so far as having to overthrow capitalism, and to view at least some elites as ‘partners’ or ‘leaders’ to support, so ever fewer would therefore be motivated to defy the powerful and to cast their lot with movements fighting for radical system change.
Once on the upsurge, radical anti-capitalist movements would consequently be on the defensive, continuing to organise but increasingly pushed to the margins.
For this and other reasons, radicals worldwide have not only found it harder to gain new adherents from the 1970s on, but even once-committed fighters would either lay down their arms or ‘defect’ altogether.21 Once on the upsurge, radical anti-capitalist movements would consequently be on the defensive, continuing to organise but increasingly pushed to the margins. In the USA, Europe, and probably in other countries where the radical environmentalist message had only a few years before gained traction, radical critique would “fizzle out” and anti-capitalist environmentalism would suffer a “precipitous decline”.22
Thus, without always deploying the violence they constantly keep in the background, the more forward-looking of the world’s elites have at the very least been able to dissuade people from struggling to replace capitalism with a different, radically democratic system; at most, they have been able to persuade or motivate them to actively fight to ‘improve’ an inherently undemocratic system in order to prevent it from being overthrown. By organising and mobilising a transnational movement from above to wage a global “passive revolution” in favour of regulating the market, they have been able to defuse the class antagonisms that the radical intellectuals had sought to kindle. By so doing, they have not only prevented or restrained people from expressing or venting their anger, but have been able to harness that anger towards tinkering with the system in order to keep it the same.
Our movement has not only survived the reformist offensive but in recent years, we have even become resurgent again. But whether we will do more than survive ultimately depends on whether we can counter these more forward-looking elites’ sophisticated and well-organised attempts to change the hearts and souls of those we seek to draw to our side.
Had these reformist elites not mounted this global passive revolution, it is unlikely that the world’s governments would have attempted to establish global-level regulation to address global ecological problems. And had the world’s governments not acted, it is unlikely that they would have staved off a global counter-hegemonic challenge to capitalism.
And yet, it is also important to stress that, as indicated by the willingness of a significant number of people to engage in mass civil disobedience action on the final day of the latest UN climate summit in Paris and the growing radicalisation of many climate activists worldwide, they still have not succeeded in completely defeating or eliminating this challenge altogether. For reasons that have to do in part with leading reformists’ decision to accommodate conservative elites’ demands to weaken their proposed reforms, our movement has not only survived the reformist offensive but in recent years, we have even become resurgent again.
But whether we will do more than survive ultimately depends on whether we can counter these more forward-looking elites’ sophisticated and well-organised attempts to change the hearts and souls of those we seek to draw to our side. This does not necessarily have to mean always just opposing the reforms and concessions that the more ‘radical’ among the reformists are promoting, or completely refusing to work with them in all circumstances. But it does mean constantly subverting their attempts to channel people’s anger to only their chosen enemies and to confine them to just aspiring for a greener, more ecologically-conscious ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.’ Put differently, it means pushing people to go beyond the horizon that the reformists seek to restrict them to, and to help empower them to dream of a democratic, socialist, alternative.
The alternative is that we just remain stuck in place without being able to march forward.
Herbert Villalon Docena is currently a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and a member of a workers’ group, Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (Solidarity of Filipino Workers), in the Philippines. Prior to pursuing graduate studies, he was a researcher and campaigner with Focus on the Global South.
When people take to the streets and demand climate justice, they expect their elected leaders to step up and address the drivers of what is clearly the largest global crisis humanity has ever faced. However, the so-called “solutions” that were brought to the table for COP 21 in Paris last week are anything but—instead they deflect attention away from consumption patterns linked to the burning of fossil fuels.
These strategies are devised by powerful corporations and government partners as a literal and metaphorical “smokescreen” for the real drivers of deforestation and carbon release to the atmosphere, including monoculture expansion of palm oil and soybean, oil and minerals extraction, industrial logging and mega-infrastructure projects.
REDD+ is a cost-shifting mechanism, a potential get-rich scheme for local elites, and a placating strategy to prepare the broader landscape for the accumulation of “new” capital.
One of the most subtle and sinister “solutions” promoted by the UN, the World Bank and other global development institutions is REDD+, which stands for (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). The “+” is meant to incorporate other environmental or development priorities, including biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. US$ 10 billion has been pledged for addressing climate change through REDD+, though not many have heard about what this strategy is all about.
Some people say REDD+ sends a signal that safeguarding forests through performance-based payments is key to combatting climate change. Maybe they are right, but the way in which REDD+ is framed also paves the way for appropriation of the landscape while reducing the capabilities of forest peasants to take control over their own development futures. While forests protection plays a vital role for maintaining critical ecological processes and the well-being of the people that depend on them, REDD+ does not place the forest at its heart. It is instead a cost-shifting mechanism, a potential get-rich scheme for local elites, and a placating strategy to prepare the broader landscape for the accumulation of “new” capital.
REDD+ is premised on reducing carbon emissions from deforestation. While it is true that deforestation amounts to 25-30 percent of carbon emissions and is a major factor influencing climate change, carbon sequestered by trees is vastly different from sequestering carbon by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Firstly, it is a challenging endeavour to measure carbon emissions in an accurate and transparent manner, with many measurements tens of thousands of tons of CO2 off the mark.
Secondly, trees are unstable and only temporary repositories of sequestered carbon, since the carbon they store will eventually be returned to the atmosphere. Re-release of carbon might occur much faster than “expected” due to climate-induced forest fires. Indeed, just three weeks of raging forest fires in Indonesia have released more CO2 than Germany’s entire annual emissions.
It’s as though we are placing the blame on (remaining) tropical forests for not sequestering enough carbon when it is in fact actual carbon emissions through the burning of fossil fuels which has brought us to the brink of the climate catastrophe we face. Of course, it is all the more easy to place the burden on tropical forests for solving our climate problems when they conveniently reside in countries out of sight and out of mind from where carbon-intensive development paths occur, and of course where costs of taking responsibility for climate change are the cheapest. This is an all too-convenient recipe for shifting environmental costs and accountability of actions.
REDD+ projects are carried out by businesses or development NGOs in industrialized countries who pay communities residing in tropical forest areas, mainly in the Global South, to prevent forest destruction from happening, whereby it must be evident that deforestation would otherwise happen if payments are not forthcoming. The amount of payment provided by the industrialized country partner reflects the tonnage of carbon, linked to its price on the global carbon market, which is saved from being released into the atmosphere due to forest protection.
Damage to the environment and rehabilitating the damage both become socially justifiable market opportunities to spur economic growth.
The stipulation that the payment provided for forest protection and carbon sequestration has prevented the forest from being destroyed and that the forest continuously be safeguarded from destruction is important for the industrial country funders, who aim to score carbon-credits from the deal. These credits serve as “rights to pollute”—something of a reward for having done a good deed, in this case for paying to supposedly prevent deforestation from occurring. The incredulous, almost farcical nature of this arrangement becomes disturbingly obvious. The polluting country or company, who has been responsible for the majority of carbon emissions up until now, suddenly has the right to continue burning fossil fuels and releasing CO2 as before.
The tropical forests of the Global South are a precious new commodity to squabble over, this time with billions of dollars backing the potential spoils and rich countries as new rights-holders of land locked away for carbon offsetting the continued economic development of rich countries. This is the same image of colonization that we’ve seen time and again, but this time with a surreptitiously green face.
As social anthropologist Melissa Leach and colleagues of the University of Sussex have argued, mainstream economics has successfully attributed value both in the exploitation of the environment and natural resources for growth in manufactured goods, but in recent times have also determined the potential for market creation in the repair of the environment in the name of “sustainability.”
This is the same image of colonization that we’ve seen time and again, but this time with a surreptitiously green face.
This new economic driver of environmental repair combined with the classical economic driver of resource extraction and resulting environmental degradation work in concert to extract the maximum value out of nature irrespective of whomever or whatever is in the way. In this way, damage to the environment and rehabilitating the damage both become socially justifiable market opportunities to spur economic growth.
REDD+ would be flawed even if the payments were targeted to major drivers of deforestation in the Global South, namely industrial-scale agriculture for commodities such as soybean and palm oil. This is because overall carbon stocks would not be reducing—which is ultimately what is so badly needed if we are to prevent dangerous climate change from occurring. Without underestimating the important role that tropical forests could play in storing carbon, it would make far greater sense to curtail the burning of fossil fuels and other carbon-emitting activities and prioritize actions to halt carbon emission at the source.
However, what is so heinous about this situation is that REDD+ projects do not target those responsible for large-scale deforestation, but instead target poor shifting cultivators whose forest-dwelling livelihoods and associated socio-cultural knowledge systems and practices become ‘priced-out’ by the market because they are too low to compete with, in this case, the value of carbon for Western countries to keep polluting.
For forest-dwelling communities who depend on forest areas for food security, housing, medicines and fodder, REDD+ projects mean that meeting basic human needs become all the more harder- a tough and very unfair price to pay for people who had very little to do with the climate crisis in the first place.
As a recent report by GRAIN highlights, REDD+ proponents place the blame for deforestation on peasants under the guise of “slash-and-burn” farming practices, yet conveniently ignore and even simultaneously support the industrial palm-oil plantations, infrastructure projects and intensified agriculture strategies that are the real drivers of tropical deforestation.
The gospel of neoclassical economics explain this apparent contradiction, since the “opportunity costs” of paying off peasants for deforestation is overwhelmingly lower than halting the real drivers of deforestation. As the report emphasizes, this is a way for industrialized countries to pay very little, yet say they are doing something to combat climate change, while failing to reduce their historical and continued contributions to deforestation through the export of commodity crops and for mega-infrastructure projects largely to service resource extraction operations.
For forest-dwelling communities who depend on forest areas for food security, housing, medicines and fodder, REDD+ projects which lock forests away for carbon mean that meeting basic human needs become all the more harder—a tough and very unfair price to pay for people who had very little to do with the climate crisis in the first place. Meanwhile, peasants desperate to feed their children continue venturing into the forest, risking fines and imprisonment. Where attempts, in response to donor requirements, are made by REDD+ project proponents to facilitate livelihood transitions to sustainable agriculture or ecotourism, project funds are often limited and short-lived, leaving communities with less capabilities than before the project started.
Just when you might wonder how this situation could get any more flawed, it doesn’t stop there! The strict contract obligations of REDD+ effectively immobilize peasant communities from achieving basic human needs of food and fodder for the duration of the project period (upwards of 10 years or more) while providing them “payment” which gets siphoned away through a cascading chain of carbon companies, auditors establishing certification standards, international consultants, conservation NGOs and “green” venture capitalists from primarily industrialized countries all seeking to grab a piece of the lucrative REDD+ pie before it ever reaches the community.
Contracted communities become legally bounded to follow suit with the terms of the carbon buyers in the West, even as many of the project documents are written in English rather than in local languages and introduce a seemingly foreign value of the forest for its ‘carbon’ which has little if any meaning for forest communities.
As this process unfolds, the already marginalized and now REDD-trapped forest communities are no longer a hindrance to the expansion of industrial agriculture, the mega-infrastructure projects, rare earth mineral exploration or commodity crop monocultures. Thus, despite having rights to the land, these rights become effectively weakened, since under REDD+, it is the carbon buyers who decide how the land is to be used and not the rightful owners of the land.
In essence, REDD+ sets the stage for a resource grab “free for all” under a swish green banner, while demonizing marginalized peoples as threats to the forest and ultimately inducers of climate change.
The “Cartel of the Parties”
So who are these REDD+ proponents who are advancing this climate “solution” at COP 21 in Paris? It is startling to note that those groups that society has tasked with solving humanity’s social and environmental crises are the foremost advocates for REDD+.
WWF, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are some of the leading proponents as they team up with some of the world’s most notorious climate polluters including Unilever, Syngenta, Monsanto, McDonalds, Walmart and Nestlé, whose business activities depend on actively promoting wholesale deforestation and depletion of soil fertility through dependence on commodity crops such as soybean and palm oils.
In this latest stage of capital accumulation, green is the new gold for the stock brokers of the global North who view tropical forest regions of the Global South as value that must be reaped and brought back home.
Another major player is the private investment arm of the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which paves the way for these corporations to access previously unexploited lands through promises of new markets and “environmental stewardship” for corporate social responsibility via carbon offsetting through REDD+ projects, among other similar ploys.
As James Fairhead and colleagues at the University of Sussex have suggested, the Conference of the Parties is in reality more of a “Cartel of the Parties” involving international development banks, conservation NGOs, the private sector and government agencies who are all dead-set on advancing the “green” economy, through which nature presents itself as a lucrative investment opportunity to permit market expansion and access deeper into the commodity frontier while paving the way for more traditional resource extractivist markets to gain a stronger foothold around the world. In this latest stage of capital accumulation, green is the new gold for the stock brokers of the global North who view tropical forest regions of the Global South as value that must be reaped and brought back home.
Demanding an end to neo-colonialism
What then does it take to demand action on climate change for COP 21? What should COP 21 really be about? Well, besides the fact that strong measures to curtail climate change should have been made at COP 1, rather than waiting for 20 years, here are five forgotten agendas:
1. Limiting land-use practices and industrial activities that add further Greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and which depend on industrial agriculture involving the over-application of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides that deplete soil nutrients and damage water sources. These practices originate from over-developed countries whose demand-driven development trajectories have meant outsourcing industrial food production and resource extractive activities throughout the world to satisfy grossly unsustainable domestic consumption.
2. By turns, this means that an overhaul of the current industrial food trading system must be at the heart of any climate deliberation. Agri-business corporations with their herbicide-infused genetically-modified seeds must be heavily regulated by governments to prevent dangerous climate change from occurring. As an important positive spinoff, regulating these companies would also diversify the food system and open opportunities to give living-wages back to millions of farmers around the world.
3. A climate solution must put the self-determination, food sovereignty and basic needs of resource-dependent communities at the forefront of any sustainable natural resource management initiative. This means resource use, access, and management rights must be prioritized for forest-dwelling communities to collectively manage their own resources, facilitated by domestic policies which encourage sustainable soil management. In order to achieve this aim, it is absolutely crucial to be clear as to who wins and who loses from strategies such as REDD+ or any other proposed “solution” that emerges from the Paris agreement. Rather than seeking climate policy panaceas, closer historical, socio-cultural and political scrutiny is required to understand when and where any given strategy can be successful and what kinds of unintended repercussions might occur as a result of its widespread promotion and implementation.
4. Dismantling the myth of the “green economy” that, rather than addressing the drivers of climate change, only serves to deflect blame away from those perpetuating climate crimes while permitting new opportunities to exploit marginalized communities as indentured labour to service new markets for nature. Falling under this strategy includes the increasing appropriation of agricultural land for biofuels, which creates the same alienating effects on communities who depend on their land for food security. Similarly problematic are investments in green start-up technologies by green venture capitalists who demand double-dividend returns in the name of financing an energy-efficiency revolution. Such an approach fails to come to terms with the Jevon’s Paradox: that increasing improvements in energy efficiencies become quickly over-compensated by ever-increasing consumptive demands fueled by unchecked economic growth.
5. Rather than permitting over-developed regions of the world to continue exploiting resources and people for their benefit, solutions that emerge through indigenous knowledge and non-Westernised knowledge systems are critical for re-balancing the social-ecological equilibrium of our planet. This socio-cultural conundrum is substantially more challenging than addressing the global climate crisis, as it requires an active process of “unlearning” what the West has taught the world, often through systems of oppression, as to what constitutes “development.”
Anything short of seriously considering these five points will once again result in a political circus that reinforces neoliberal strategies and colonial geo-political manoeuvres. If citizens of the world demand fair and just solutions to address climate change, we must not allow our elected leaders and national negotiators to blindly advocate for strategies such as REDD+. The devil is really in the details!
Vijay Kolinjivadi, PhD, is a researcher of the Ecological Economics research group at McGill University. His research has led him to report on the dangers of commodifying nature and to identify how and when human-nature relationships can be resilient in the face of inevitable change. He enjoys traveling and reading in grassy meadows among other things.
A version of this article was originally published on truthout.
The Dutch version of this article can be found here.
The term ‘Anthropocene’ has entered the climate change debate, and the question is whether it should stay there. It neatly encapsulates the idea that the Holocene—a scientific term referring to the present era—is no longer an adequate description. We now exist in an era when humans (anthropos) have fundamentally changed the geology of the earth and are present in almost all ecosystems.
We have raised the planet’s temperature, caused sea levels to rise, mined massive amounts of the earth’s crust, eroded the ozone layer, and are starting to acidify the oceans—all of these will be visible in fossil records millions of years from now.
While the word ‘Anthropocene’ has only recently entered the mainstream lexicon, it has become a rallying cry, to many signifying the urgency of action on climate change. While the term had been suggested previously in different variations, Paul Crutzen, a Nobel prize-winning chemist, popularized it in 2002 in a 600-word article, “The geology of mankind”, in Nature magazine. He argues that the reality of “mankind’s growing influence on the planet” means that scientists and engineers face a “daunting task” of “guiding society”—through massive geoengineering projects, if necessary. To him, the Anthropocene is a key concept to explain the gravity of our current situation. As a result, for many, the term came almost as a revelation, further hammering home the fact that we have undeniably intervened in the earth’s systems, destabilizing it, and that we have to act now, and fast.
But even though the term has been championed by a wide diversity of people, it is also seeing some backlash, and not from the types you’d imagine: many climate scientists are reticent to use it, and it has faced critique from environmental and social historians. Why all the fuss about a word, and what does it matter?
As any activist will be happy to explain, it matters what words we use. They don’t just describe our problems; they also frame the solutions. And in the case of climate change, there’s a big need for good solutions, which means they need to be framed well. If we want to address climate change, we need to consider carefully whether we’re using the right words to describe the problems we face.
The following is a review of the Anthropocene debate, asking whether we should stick to using the word to describe our current problems, or drop it. As you’ll see, I definitely lean one way—I don’t think the term is as useful as its champions claim—but I’ll lay out the evidence as best as I can so you can make up your own mind.
From early adoption to widespread use
The term Anthropocene was popularised by hard-core climate scientists who want to illustrate what our world looks like and how it is so vastly different from the world we inherited. From this perspective, the concept might lead to an ‘aha!’ moment for the uninitiated: humans have already fundamentally altered the earth. For this reason, early adopters often used the word to convey the urgency of the present moment to the public.
The public happily took it up with headlines in major news outlets like the BBC, The New York Times, and Newsweek. It became regularly employed by climate activists such as Bill McKibben and environmental groups like Friends of the Earth, who use it in their reports and campaigns. Artists are taking up the term, and academics organize endlessconferences with ‘Anthropocene’ as their guiding theme.
“Over a decade after its injection into modern culture, the concept has taken on new forms beyond its original geological intent, becoming a meme capable of propping up a huge variety of arguments.”
The types of opinions that cluster around the term vary. In the book The God Species, prominent environmental writer Mark Lynas argues that, since we are entering into a new, never-seen-before era of human control of the environment, we have the responsibility, duty, and possibility to control it further. Distancing himself from traditional environmental causes like anti-nuclear and GMOs, he argues that precisely because we are seeing unforeseen problems at a greater scale than anything we’ve ever seen, we will need to use all tools at our disposal. That includes nuclear power and genetic engineering.
Recently, Mark Lynas joined a cohort of other pro-tech scientists, writers, and environmentalists, and helped pen an “eco-modernist manifesto.” The authors claim that “modern technologies, by using natural ecosystem flows and services more efficiently, offer a real chance of reducing the totality of human impacts on the biosphere. To embrace these technologies is to find paths to a good Anthropocene.”
The problem? That the Anthropocene reveals that humanity is facing a never-seen-before predicament. The solution? Crank it up. Use more, and better, technologies, in order to better control nature.
Richard Heinberg at the Post-Carbon Institute calls this the “we’re-in-charge-and-loving-it” attitude. To him, this “techno-Anthropocene” argument signifies a brand of scientist who embraces the Anthropocene simply because it gives humans full license to keep terraforming the planet. As Heinberg demonstrates, cranking it up inevitably relies on save-the-day technologies. As the eco-modernist manifesto claims, “Urbanization, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, aquaculture, and desalination are all processes with a demonstrated potential to reduce human demands on the environment, allowing more room for non-human species.” In contrast, Heinberg argues that these technologies aren’t as up to snuff as is often claimed. All of the above either rely on the use of cheap fossil fuels at a far greater rate than what they replace, or are scientifically (and morally) unsound.
Heinberg proposes his own version: the “lean-green Anthropocene”. According to him, since any feasible techno-solution will be powered by fossil fuels, a more desirable future would involve low-tech, high-labour, local food chains, and responsible water use (e.g. not dependent on energy-intensive desalination plants). But to him, it also requires an acknowledgement that humans aren’t the center of the universe: “Just as humans are now shaping the future of Earth, Earth will shape the future of humanity.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the term has also been eagerly adopted by critical theorists—perhaps too uncritically. For example, Bruno Latour uses the term—and the reality of human involvement in the climate—as a launching point to discuss the new politics that these crises require. Prominent political ecology scholars such as Laura Ogden, Paul Robbins, and Nik Heynen reference the term to support their own arguments that grassroots organizations are the key to resilience and political resistance in this new era. Slavoj Zizek suggests that the Anthropecene, and the scientists that propose it, makes us ask new questions about humans’ relationship to its environment, and our culture’s obsession with the ever-present apocalypse. In another essay, Dipesh Chakrabarty, partly challenges the term from a postcolonial perspective, but ends up endorsing it, since it means that, in a way, everyone (the colonizers and the colonized, the rich and the poor) will be affected by the coming disasters.
I say surprisingly since these same theorists would hesitate to use the words democracy, development, or progress without “scare-quotes”—they specialize in questioning everything under the sun (and rightly so). For them to endorse this new word without a backward, questioning glance, is perhaps the best indication of its widespread appeal.
Anyway, you get the idea: the Anthropocene concept is supported by people of very different ideological persuasions. One advocates for business-as-usual driven by technological breakthroughs, another calls for a total transformation of humanity’s relationship with nature, yet another suggests that it signifies that we need to put our differences aside, and face this challenge together, as one.
Over a decade after its injection into modern culture, the concept has taken on new forms beyond its original geological intent, becoming a meme capable of propping up a huge variety of arguments.
Enter the problematization phase
Yet, in the past year—especially the past months—a flurry of critiques of the Anthropocene concept have appeared.
The first key issue is scientific. This has two facets. First, even though the concept is now well established in our vocabulary (“Welcome to the Anthropocene”, announcedThe Economist in 2011), there is still a whole lot of dispute on its exact meaning, and even its scientific validity. Second, the science is becoming more and more politicized.
Paul Crutzen’s neologism enters into the realm of stratigraphy—a specific subfield that decides when each geological epoch starts and ends. And Crutzen is an atmospheric chemist, not a stratigrapher. If he was, he might’ve been able to anticipate the kind of bitter fights and tensions his proposal would cause.
Crutzen originally proposed that the Anthropocene started with the industrial revolution, specifically, the design of the steam engine. Since then, he’s changed his mind, stating that it actually started with the testing of atomic bombs. But these kinds of whims do not pass in the field that actually decides geological epochs—they notoriously took 60 years to decide on a definition of the Quaternary, an age that spans 2.6 million years. The scientists that make these decisions are rigorous at best, meticulous at worst.
So they decided to form an international working group, to decide once and for all if the term could really stand the test of time. This was quite difficult. For one, there isn’t even a formal definition of what “Anthropocene” really means. What constitutes a significant enough change in the earth’s geological system, that allows us to draw the line? And where should we draw the line?
To this end, many proposals have been put forward. It started with agriculture 5,000 years ago, or mining 3,000 years ago. No: it starts with the genocide of 50 million indigenous people in the Americas. Or: it began with the ‘Great Acceleration’: the time period in the past fifty years when plastics, chemical fertilizers, concrete, aluminum, and petrol flooded the market, and the environment. Or: we have no way to tell yet, we might need to wait a couple more million years.
In short, the vagueness of the term led to the inability to pin down what it would actually look like, and how it could be measured. The result has been conflicts within the field of stratigraphy, where some are lamenting the fact that a highly politicized issue is skewing what is ideally a slow, careful, and delicate process: deciding when a geological era starts and ends. Leading scientists have posed the question whether the anthropocene is really just a ‘pop culture’ phenomenon, or a serious issue of concern for stratigraphers.
Consequentially, these scientific conversations are political in themselves. For many scientists involved, there is a feeling that those advancing the concept are interested more in highlighting the destructive qualities of humans to encourage action on climate change than to define a new scientific term. As Richard Monastersky notes in a Nature article tracing the politics of the attempt to define the term, “The debate has shone a spotlight on the typically unnoticed process by which geologists carve up Earth’s 4.5 billion years of history.” The effort to define the Anthropocene and place it on the map of geological timescales has become a minefield of politics, vested interests, and ideologies. As such, the Anthropocene once again reveals that science—often claimed to be objective—is driven by, and subject to, personal and political agendas.
Blaming humans, erasing history
But it’s not just because the Anthropocene is politically charged and difficult to pin down that we should think again about using it. There are more troubling issues with the concept that we should be aware of.
First is the concern that the Anthropocene concept ‘naturalizes’ human’s impact on the earth. What does this mean? Essentially, that by saying that this is the ‘epoch of humans’, we are suggesting that all humans are the cause. In other words, that there is something intrinsically bad about humans, where we will always and inevitably leave an imprint on our environment.
At play here is the (very Western) idea that humans are separate from nature, and that either we get back to it or we rise above it. Hence the call of the eco-modernists to ‘decouple’ from the natural world through technology. Hence, also, the call of the deep ecologists to appreciate nature “in itself”, without projecting our human needs and desires onto it. And hence the idea that all humans caused our current pickle.
The alternative, as environmental theorist Jim Proctor suggests, is appreciating that the Anthropocene is not ‘because’ humans. It requires acknowledging that these processes and events are many and intertwined—there is no clear separation between nature and culture, human desires and natural forces.
But what forces should we blame? In all of the climate change research, we are told that it is definitely ‘man-made’. Arguing against this could bring us dangerously close to the denialist road.
“We should question this idea that the Anthropocene is ‘the new reality’ affecting everyone. Actually, because of existing power relationships, the ‘new reality’ will be more ‘real’ for some than for others.”
It is at this point that we might want to select option (C): ask a historian. James W. Moore, a professor in environmental history, has asked whether we really ought to point the finger at steam engines, atomic bombs, or humanity as a whole. Instead, he argues for a different term altogether: the ‘Capitalocene’: the geological era of capitalism. In short, it is not because of the steam engine that we saw unprecedented use of fossil fuels—it is rather a system of governance and social organization that led to the global alterations we are seeing today. This required the establishment of innovative property laws backed up by military and police forces, as well as uneven power relations between a small class of capitalists and the working poor, women, indigenous cultures, and other civilizations. It was these institutions, developed and perfected over several hundred years, that allowed for the destruction of cultures and the over-exploitation of earth’s natural resources, culminating in our current crisis.
It is strange to see the extent to which these kinds of wider social dynamics are totally obscured in the Anthropocene debate. For example, many have argued that the invention of fire was the first spark that would inevitably lead to the immense footprint that humans place on the earth.
This is not just a fringe position. Andreas Malm, in an article in Jacobin Magazine, notes that this idea is endorsed by Paul Crutzen, Mark Lynas, and other noteworthy scientists such as John R. McNeill. To these scientists, we can trace the terrifying impacts of climate change to the moment when a group of hominids learned how to spark a flame.
But to say that the control of fire was a necessary condition for humanity’s ability to burn coal is one thing, to argue that it is the reason why we are currently facing a climate crisis is another.
In a snappy journal article published in The Anthropocene Review, Malm and prominent environmental historian Alf Hornborg suggest that this neglect is due to the fact that scientists ringing the alarm bells of climate change are trained in studying the natural world, not people. To really identify the causes of anthropogenic climate change requires not just studying the winds, seas, rocks, and population growth, but also society and history. In particular, echoing Moore, it requires understanding the way by which technological progress has historically been driven by unequal power relations between an elite minority and a subjugated majority. Quoting Malm and Hornborg, “Geologists, meteorologists and their colleagues are not necessarily well-equipped to study the sort of things that take place between humans (and perforce between them and the rest of nature), the composition of a rock or the pattern of a jet stream being rather different from such phenomena as world-views, property and power.”
It follows that we should question this idea that the Anthropocene is ‘the new reality’ affecting everyone. Actually, because of existing power relationships, the ‘new reality’ will be more ‘real’ for some than for others. For most people, it will mean increased hardship and a fight for survival, while for some there will be easy lifeboats. In this way, Malm and Hornborg suggest that Dipesh Chakrabarty, the scholar embracing the concept from a postcolonial perspective, should rethink his position: climate change is not, in itself, a universal leveling force, but may instead further exacerbate inequalities between the rich and the poor.
This leads to a final issue: the problem of politics. If, as many Anthropocene enthusiasts argue, the concept helps people understand the extent of human involvement in the earth’s systems, it also could lead to a promising political conversation, finally alerting those in power that something needs to be done.
Yet as Jedediah Purdy, a professor at Duke University, notes in the magazine Aeon, “Saying that we live in the Anthropocene is a way of saying that we cannot avoid responsibility for the world we are making. So far so good. The trouble starts when this charismatic, all-encompassing idea of the Anthropocene becomes an all-purpose projection screen and amplifier for one’s preferred version of ‘taking responsibility for the planet’.”
For many people, the Anthropocene means that ‘there is no alternative’. Depending on your personal beliefs, the Anthropocene concept will lead you to different conclusions and calls to action. As Purdy says, “The Anthropocene does not seem to change many minds…. But it does turn them up to 11.”
But is this a problem with any new concept or is it inherent to the Anthropocene? For Purdy, because the concept is so vague, it becomes “a Rorschach blot for discerning what commentators think is the epochal change in the human/nature relationship.” With the diversity of opinions available, those with more political and ideological clout inevitably end up dominating the conversation.
Take for example Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, who argues that the Anthropocene signifies that now, more than ever, we need to abandon trying to protect wilderness and stop blaming capitalism, and that instead we need to encourage corporations to start taking responsibility for, and control of, earth’s environmental services.
Kareiva’s opinions have become wildly popular in mainstream discourse, but they also imply that rather than reassessing the current economic and political system, we need to go full speed ahead with the commodification of everything. The more vague a concept, the more susceptible it can be to co-optation. The vagueness of the term has, in part, led to its chameleon-like ability to fit anyone’s agenda.
What’s more, because the Anthropocene concept implies that humans as a whole are primarily responsible—and not relationships between humans—it actually stymies fruitful conversation, rather than encourage it. As Malm and Hornborg note, “The effect is to block off any prospect for change.”
Is the term still useful?
If these critiques are valid, why do climate scientists and activists still think the Anthropocene concept is so useful? Does it really convince those that need convincing, or does it just obscure important discussions that we need to be having?
In discussions and conversations with friends and peers, people have pointed out several times that Malm’s and Hornborg’s critiques fail to highlight the concept’s original usefulness. As one geography professor said in an email exchange, “To me, the Anthropocene opens up the kind of inquiry these authors seem to invite, rather than shutting it down.” A friend, Aaron McConomy, noted the following on Facebook,
“I feel like all of these conversations are punditry around what’s going on in the field that don’t really represent anything that I’m hearing as someone actively reading and researching… It’s like a meme of memes reacting to memes in which no one seems to even understand what exactly they’re reacting to.
For me the bigger question is how to have ‘third way’ discussions. What the reality of the Anthropocene calls for is a profound reworking of social ecological systems. Very few of the examples that get trotted out are up to the task.”
Point taken. Instead of quibbling about the meaning of the Anthropocene, we need to be finding alternatives to the problems we face. And while the term has real use for geologists, it can incentivize necessary conversations about political alternatives. This is a valid response to the problematization the term has received: all else considered, the term has been useful in lighting the fuse of an important debate.
“It’s hard to say if the term is, on average, inimical to good debate or if it encourages it. But after considering the twists and turns the concept has taken since its inception until its current use, it’s worth taking the critics seriously.”
But what kind of debate? Because the Anthropocene points to humans as the primary culprit of the earth’s current situation, it doesn’t really point to the fact that a minority of the earth’s population has inflicted most of the damage, nor does it broaden the discussion to include those who may be most affected by climate change but whose role in causing it is, effectively, zero.
By resorting to a catch-all geological (and biological) term to describe the situation we’re in, there’s a risk that it helps shut down alternative viewpoints, alternative narratives, and alternative politics. As Malm and Hornborg emphasize,
“If global warming is the outcome of the knowledge of how to light a fire, or some other property of the human species acquired in some distant stage of its evolution, how can we even imagine a dismantling of the fossil economy? [Arguing that climate change is caused by one species] is conducive to mystification and political paralysis.”
It’s hard to say if the term is, on average, inimical to good debate or if it encourages it. But after considering the twists and turns the concept has taken since its inception until its current use, it’s worth taking the critics seriously. Care has to be taken around such loaded words, and we have to take a step back and ask when, and why, we use them.
Yes, ‘Anthropocene’ can be useful to tell the history of life on earth. It can also illustrate the extent to which humans have modified the earth’s systems. It also suggests that we can no longer go back to a ‘pristine’ nature that existed before humans, as cultural critics have long suggested. The term is incredibly appealing from a geological perspective, highlighting the fact that humans have made so deep an impact on the earth’s crust that future inhabitants of the earth, when digging, will come across a layer of soil that has ‘human’ written all over it. This geological fact is a useful tidbit to highlight all of the above.
But it doesn’t necessarily, as many have argued, help challenge the systems that perpetuate climate change. Because it applies to humans as a whole, it does not indicate that our problem is political, resting on the uneven distribution of power. In leaving the starting date of the Anthropocene undefined (some say 50 years ago, others say 400 years ago, yet others say 10,000, still others say 50,000), the word fails to highlight the primary actors of today’s ecological crisis.
Like ‘sustainability’, ‘development’, ‘natural’, or ‘green’, the term is so vague that it can be used by anyone, whether they want to challenge the powers that be, just want to make a quick buck, or score a research grant. While the term can be used to support arguments for action on climate change, it can just as well be used to support digging more oil wells (“oh what the heck, we live in the age of human superiority anyway!”).
You might ask, isn’t this the case with all words? Not true. There are plenty of terms that the climate movement is using that are both powerful and are not so easy to appropriate: degrowth, climate justice, ecocide, ecological debt, and 350ppm are just few.
The point is not that Anthropocene should be abandoned—clearly it’s had its uses. But should it, like the above examples, be calls-to-action of climate researchers and activists alike? Should it be used as a conversation-starter, in the hope that it will convince those in power to change their tune? Should it be used uncritically as the main theme of countless academic conferences? Probably not.
Conclusion: where does the Anthropocene go from here?
Words are powerful.
As many climate activists know, climate change is a battlefield of words. ‘350.org’ is named after the 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere that has been deemed acceptable by scientists. ‘Climate justice’ refers to the fact that climate change will affect different people unequally, and that the climate movement needs to align with people who are systematically oppressed in other ways. ‘Climate chaos’ was coined to dispel confusion, indicating that climate change will cause disruption in normal weather patterns rather than, as the term ‘global warming’ may lead one to think, causing a slow increase in temperature globally.
Each phrase has seen a cycle of early adopters, growing usefulness, paradigm shifts in the general discussion, and then often critique and slow abandonment.
Some concepts introduced by social movements of the past have stuck around: social justice, civil disobedience, human rights. These terms signify both the predicament and the strategy, remain political without being too scary, and are difficult to be appropriated by apolitical actors. For these reasons, they remain useful for social movements today. ‘Anthropocene’ is no such word: it is vague enough to be used by anyone, it is scary but doesn’t really suggest a way out. It has flair, it’s catchy, but lacks power.
“Why does this matter? Words can make or break whole movements…. Unfortunately, the term ‘Anthropocene’ fails to adequately frame the current situation, and in-so-doing allows anyone to co-opt it for their own solutions.”
Why does this matter? Words can make or break whole movements. If a movement rallies around a single term—say, civil rights—that changes the way the public, and therefore politicians, see the predicament at hand. The way a problem is defined, the slogans that movements use, are incredibly important in order to make necessary policy changes. Unfortunately, the term ‘Anthropocene’ fails to adequately frame the current situation, and in-so-doing allows anyone to co-opt it for their own solutions. While it has certainly got many people talking, it is neither political nor precise, and therefore may not lead to a very good, or challenging, conversation. And right now we need to have challenging conversations.
Yet, like it or not, ‘Anthropocene’ has already been let out of the box and changed the way we think and talk about the world. Scientists will keep citing it, social theorists will ponder it, artists will be inspired by it, and pundits will employ it to justify anything under the sun. It has become a “meme of memes reacting to memes.”
Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.
The first layer of the public conversation about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) has divided people along already existing lines of passionate disagreement, and has painted an overly simplified picture of the decisions we are facing as humanity. It has made a complex issue simple, through this inaccurate and delicate question: Are you for science, or anti science?
The media outlets ask this question both explicitly and implicitly, as they boil the discussion down to a false dichotomy. Unlike the cases of evolution and global warming (also dividing people along this line), it is not actually true that virtually all scientists agree on the issue. There is a real discussion happening about the effects of GMOs on the environment, the ethics of their testing, the sustainability of their outputs, the dangers of monoculture, etc. But by the time the discussion makes its way out of journals and jargon and into the public’s awareness, the nuance of the issue has been flattened and sculpted into a clear and superficial debate that has almost nothing to do with the issue at hand.
Since the false discussion has painted science as unanimously sided with the pro-GMO side, here is a short list of scientific arguments against GMOs.
We cannot fully predict the effects on the larger system which GMOs would affect if they spread, and it seems like we cannot fully control their spreading. Just as there are massive unintended effects with every introduction of a non-native organism into an ecosystem, GMOs could interact with the current network in unpredictable ways. They also present a serious risk of monoculture, which is dangerous.
There is a clear conflict of interest with the people and corporations who stand to benefit financially from GMOs. Additionally, there is often a long term strategy for those people to stay in power, as farmers become dependent on the less sustainable GMO crop.
It is not true that there is not enough food to feed all the people in the world, and GMOs are a silver bullet to fight world hunger. Rather, it is our systems that have organized food and power in such a way that keeps many people hungry.
Finally, with regard to calculating risk: absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. Assuming everyone conducting research on GMOs has no conflicts of interest and they’ve perfected the mechanisms that would keep GMOs from spreading to the larger ecosystem, where is the reasonable place to draw the line of what we consider safe? Europe and the US have decided on different positions on the spectrum of safety, and this part of the evaluation should not be glossed over, but should be discussed thoroughly.
Of course, the reasons many people who are against GMOs give are not the reasons listed above. The flat representation of the debate does in fact stem from real feelings of real people. They often do boil down to an aversion to things that feel “unnatural” and a distrust of science. On the other side, many of the reasons given in support GMOs are inaccurate: artificial selection and selective breeding over many years is in fact qualitatively different from cutting and pasting parts of the genome, and the confidence of knowing about the risk of long term effects is over-estimated and over-emphasized.
The more nuanced conversation would acknowledge that science is not an ideal process for revealing Truth with a capital T. It is conducted by people, and is subject to bias, power struggles, and flawed methodology. It does, however, do its best to be aware of its own biases and eliminate them, and it is meant to be viewed at a high level. That means that while each study might be flawed, overall the picture painted by science will be our best guess as to how to understand the world around us and the decisions we must make.
“Science progresses not because scientists as a whole are passionately open-minded but because different scientists are passionately closed-minded about different things.” — Henry Bauer
And of course, the media is not just evil — that is itself an oversimplification. Social science researchers such as Cass Sunstein have showed that we drift toward extremes when we interact with like-minded people. It is a well-observed emergent property of people in social groups. But that doesn’t mean it’s unavoidable.
If each side approaches the discussion genuinely seeking to understand what is right for humanity, and concedes to the other side the salient but superficial points used to create an us-them division in the media, we may be able to stop the whirlwind of polarization we have gotten swept up in. Only then will we sidestep the temptation of group-think, learn from each other, and survive as a species.
Maya Bialik is a contributor and editor at Uneven Earth. She is also the Associate Director at The People’s Science, working on bridging the gap between scientists and the public, and the Research Manager at The Center for Curriculum Redesign, where she synthesizes cognitive science and education research to create educational goals that meet the needs of the 21st century. She enjoys photography, social dancing, and is currently dabbling in improv comedy.
Two years ago a friend tweeted this article from the Mr. Money Mustache backlog. The author preaches a gospel that struck me as true – if you’re privileged, and you’re in a lucky position to have a steady income, and you can be comfortable in that knowledge, than through frugality, research, and understanding, you can reach financial independence fairly easily. When that happens, you can focus on the things that you think are really important.
The overall message: you too can curb your consumerism and finally be free of the system and the shackles.
I’ve been a fan of Mr. Money Mustache and I appreciate how he’s teaching people to game the system. It’s a philosophy of stripped-down needs, making do with what you have, and enjoying what is available to you. It’s stoicism as an antidote to the consumer rat-race we’re in.
When MMM enthusiastically talks about “the natural conclusion” of everyone becoming Mustachian – a breakdown of a system that relies and runs on consumerism – I happily cheer him on. Ultimately his focus on monetary wealth is only to get free of concerns from that monetary wealth – to pursue other, less financial, riches.
Yet it falls short. Mr. Money Mustache takes the same route many environmental activists and privacy proponents take – one that ultimately puts the blame and burden on us, the people, to individually break free from a culture and mindset that is destroying the world. While the heavy polluting is done by industry, the message is that we should drive our cars less. When the meat and food industry is proving to be unhealthy for the people, we have to become vegetarian and eat less meat. When companies are selling our data, it’s on us to make sure we’re using encrypted channels. When the industry is misogynist, it’s because women aren’t trying hard enough. When the economy was shaky after 9/11, Bush asked people to spend more money to get it going again.
The idea? “Consumers” have created a demand for something and are at fault if it goes wrong. This is blatantly untrue – much of the demand only exists because of the structure of our industry and because ads are incredibly effective.
Let me diverge on that point for a moment by looking at two products with “great consumer demand”.
The washing machine was first thought up in the 1750s, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that electric washing machines were actually viable. By 1903, ads and newspapers were already heavily discussing the use of washing machines, but it wasn’t until just before World War Two that a significant part of the US population had access to a personal washing machine. Why did it take almost 200 years for the washing machine to become a household staple? Because this so-called high-demand consumer product relied on an infrastructure of detergent use, gender and racial liberalization, consumer prepping through ads, and the development of factories and plants to cheaply produce such products on a large-enough scale that people would actually buy them. The invention of the washing machine was a great thing, but the idea that it was a consumer-driven take-up is false.
The combustion engine was invented in 1886, but the story of the car really starts in the late 1700s. Throughout this period the car industry came across an irritating stumbling-block: inner-city roads belonged to pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages, there was no separation of sidewalk and road, and there were no inter-city roads to drive on for cars. For cars to take off and be useful, the industry had to lobby governments to build roads and push against public dislike of cars (see the Locomotive Act of 1865). It wasn’t until this infrastructure was built and cars had existed within the public consciousness for over a century that they really started to take off, and become something beyond just a status symbol. Consumer driven? Hardly.
Whether it’s the car, the washing machine, smart phones, or social networks, our willingness to consume a product or live a certain way is the work of millions of dollars in ad campaigns, positive newspaper reviews and stories, and government lobbying.
When the environmentalists, the mustachians, and the privacy campaigners ask you to change your lifestyles – they’re still saying that you’re to blame if you don’t. You’re either a sucker (if you’re not Mustachian), you’re destroying the world (if you’re not an Environmentalist), or you’re giving up your privacy (if you don’t believe in an IndieWeb), etc. etc. etc.
My challenge to all of these people? I’ve checked all of those boxes, I’m not the only one, and yet here we are. We’re still tumbling towards environmental and privacy disasters driven by consumerism. Getting people to focus on changing their habits is great – but is the result that we’re being distracted from bigger problems? That our conversations are being pointed away from where they should be focused?
Individuals are much more powerful together than on their own. This is common sense, and easy to prove:
An individual that campaigns for and supports free and open source software development is more powerful than one who encrypts all of their data.
An individual that makes an effort to hire marginalized people into their company is more powerful than the one who takes a couple of days out to teach online.
An individual that joins their neighborhood to help the less privileged around them get to school is more powerful than the one who sets up an extensive library for their kids.
An individual that encourages their police officers to participate in community events for the areas they’re patrolling is more powerful than the one who teaches themselves about social justice.
An individual that helps turn industrial cow farms into wind turbines is more powerful than one who turns vegetarian.
An individual that politically pursues the construction of bike lanes is more powerful than one that bikes to work every day.
We’re much stronger as a group than as individuals. And this is true about environmentalism, the own-your-own-data-indie web, and Mustachianisms. By dividing our focus into individual efforts, we will never be able to challenge the structure imposed on us by the people who have the money to pummel us with ads and faux-journalism.
More than a change in our habits, we need a structural one.
Simon Vansintjan works as a user experience designer and developer on various open source projects – currently focusing on OpenFarm. He lives in Hanoi, Vietnam.
3. Smart phones were around for a long time before Apple “optimized” the experience, and even then, the first generation iPhone relied heavily on ads and Apple fans to become popular in the mainstream. Functionally it wasn’t until the second generation iPhone that it started to take off. Nevermind the military funded infrastructure that built the “internet” as we know it today.↩
In a children’s story by Beatrix Potter, Timmy Willie, a country mouse, ends up in the house of Johnny Town-Mouse after falling asleep in a wicker basket. Later, Johnny visits Timmy’s own home in the garden. Timmy doesn’t like the danger that the city mice live through daily, and the lavish meals don’t sit well with him. Johnny doesn’t like the modest and quiet life that Timmy lives.
The story has its origins in one of Aesop’s fables, “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.” Its moral advises that it is better to live in self-sufficient poverty than to be tormented by the worries of wealth. City life, while it promises instant gratification and worldly pleasures, does not give us independence and safety.
The tale was hugely popular with the ancient Greeks. Then, the polis reigned: city-states in which the majority of labour was done by slaves. Consequently, being from either the city or the country meant a whole lot. However, as the time of the polis came to an end, so did the interest in this story.
Centuries later and to the west, Europe was chaotically emerging from feudalism. City-states once again defined politics. As land was bought up by the wealthy, an itinerant and unemployed peasant class flooded the cities. Now, being from the country or from the city was more important than ever, and Aesop’s fable became common once again, with several new translations and interpretations. Yet despite their differences, all versions had one thing in common: a characterization of the country mouse as simple and boorish, and the city mouse as well-bred and well-mannered, perhaps a bit stuck up.
Both [Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina] bear a strong idealization of on the one hand the city, with its semblance of progress and riches; and on the other the country, with the fantasy of self-sufficiency.
Fast forward to 19th century France at the height of the industrial revolution. Most peasants had been kicked off their land, going on to crowd factories and mines at low pay. The nobility inhabited an increasingly precarious position, and the bourgeoisie was growing. In 1856, Gustave Flaubert published Madame Bovary, often considered the first modern novel.
In the novel, a doctor, Charles Bovary, marries the daughter of an impoverished farmer, Emma Rouault. They move to a small town. Now ‘Madame Bovary,’ Emma becomes bored and depressed, and she begins two different affairs. From this point onward, she becomes obsessed with city life, making trips to Rouen, the nearby town, frequently. Emma – spoiler alert – ends up in debt from living beyond her means, and finally commits suicide by eating arsenic.
Flaubert deftly depicted the struggle of a country woman to become a city woman, set during a time of unprecedented social transformation in France. As Stephen Heath put it, “The main impression [in the novel] is one of mobility, money on the move, an economic and social transformation in which a truly middle class is finding itself.”
The history of literature maps neatly onto the history of the changing dynamics between the city and the country.
Another famous novel, Anna Karenina, was written 20 years afterward. In the novel, Anna has an affair with Vronsky, a dapper military man. The affair goes sour, and Anna becomes ostracized by the rest of society. Tolstoy splices the story with imagery of progress – the train thunders throughout the novel, carrying the characters to the city and back again. Finally, Anna throws herself in front of it.
Another character in Anna Karenina, Levin, raises similar questions to Anna’s, struggling to balance his ideals with those of his society. His story ends in a way similar to Tolstoy’s own life: his hatred of the city and the idea of progress that accompanied it caused him to spend his final days running a farm, caring for his family, and writing in peace about art, religion, and anarchism.
Both novels bear a strong idealization of on the one hand the city, with its semblance of progress and riches; and on the other the country, with the fantasy of self-sufficiency. Both female characters are crushed by social forces: Emma is overburdened by debt; Anna is no longer accepted in high society. And modernity kills them: Emma swallows poison from her husband’s medicine room and Anna is crushed by a train. Meanwhile, trains, carriages, and money bring all the characters to their destinations, promising pleasure and privilege.
* * *
In a short story by Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, “Lessons from the country,” published in 1987, a boy from Hanoi escapes to the country to stay with his friend’s family, intending to work for his keep. There, he meets the village teacher, who asks him, “Do you feel superior to country people because you live in the city?”
The boy says he doesn’t. “Don’t despise them,” the teacher remarks, himself a former urbanite. “All city people and the educated elite carry a heavy burden of guilt when it comes to the villages. We crush them with our material demands. With our pork stew of science and education, we have a conception of civilization and an administrative superstructure that is designed to squeeze the villages.”
Vietnam, at the time of writing, had recently decolonized. This required reforming the European property rights that had been stamped all across the country by the French. Thiệp’s story was also written in the context of globalization, when the country opened itself up to foreign investment, eventually resulting in widespread uprooting of the rural class.
This passage from Thiệp’s story crystallized a jumble of ideas in my mind. First, literature is literally shaped by the divide between country and city. Everywhere you look, it defines characters and plot. The history of literature maps neatly onto the history of the changing dynamics between the city and the country, from Aesop to Thiệp.
There is something inherently oppressive in a society that prioritizes cosmopolitanism: the success of one class is dependent on the expropriation and labour of another, more marginalized class.
One historian, Immanuel Wallerstein, sees all politics in these terms: the richest societies – what he calls the “core” – extract a net positive of materials from the poorest – the “periphery.” In his view, development of one part of the world requires the extraction of resources, labour, and land from another. This, of course, requires transportation, and it’s no surprise that as cities grew, so did the reference to trains, roads, and vehicles in literature.
Additionally, the relationship between country and city is one of debt. Cityfolk owe all their material wealth to the country, while at the same time, countryfolk are seen as less civilized or boorish. There is something inherently oppressive in a society that prioritizes cosmopolitanism: the success of one class is dependent on the expropriation and labour of another, more marginalized class. This material oppression is then justified by social oppression: like the country mouse, countryfolk are ‘common,’ ‘peasants,’ ‘uneducated,’ or ‘uncivilized.’ Yet the life of the oppressed becomes idealized – Levin, of rich noble stock, dreams of self-sufficiency in the country.
This dynamic can also be seen between Indigenous people in America and European colonizers. While Indigenous land, necessary for the colonizer’s wealth, is taken at gunpoint, they are deemed uncivilized and simultaneously idealized for their peaceful, ‘more natural’ livelihood.
Finally, it drives home the realization that we should always remember what makes living in the city possible. Nowadays, visionary ideas of endless cities and utopian images of pristine cosmopolitan worlds abound. It becomes easy to forget – and therefore erase – how we are indebted to life beyond the edge of the city.
Currently, the world’s most materially impoverished people are farmers, peasants, and rural refugees. The most disenfranchised in North America are people who moved into cities to survive after their land was privatized or sold: migrants, Indigenous people or people whose ancestors were ripped from their rural livelihoods and themselves sold into slavery. The current economic system continues to most impact those uprooted from the country, causing shockwaves that ripple across the world, into literature and our cultural imagination.