Cuba between loss and perseverance

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Dodging new and antique cars alike while walking the narrow, cobbled streets in Old Havana. Photo: JC

by José Cienfuegos and Eliana Musterle

On a short but eventful trip to Cuba Eliana recently took – her first – she met José, an American researcher of Cuban descent. They met up several times that week and found themselves caught in engrossing conversations every single time. Because such conversational chemistry with strangers is both exhilarating and rare, and because both Cuba and the US have been experiencing fast political change in the past few months, they decided to recreate parts of their exchange in interview form. What follows is the result of their experiment.

EM: Can you tell me a bit about the way your family talked about Cuba and the Revolution as you were growing up? In what ways has that background shaped your interest in Cuba as a young researcher as well as your personal identity? Does your experience resonate with that of other Americans of Cuban descent1?

JC: I am not a fan of generalizations, and maybe this does not actually count as one, but I feel like the Cuban diaspora experience can be summed up with two seemingly paradoxical ideas: each family’s story is simultaneously completely distinctive, and yet, there is something specifically shared among them all. Cuba’s relation to its diaspora community is unique and has been for a long time in the sense that Cubans who have left developed a strong tradition of remaining intimately involved in the politics on the island. It seems like many of the Cubans I meet (and this is true of those who left before the revolution in 1959 and after) never planned on leaving forever. Whether exiled or voluntary (or somewhere in-between), the various periods of alternatively intense or trickling exodus has, throughout Cuban history, always been intended on a temporary basis. This is true of José Martí and the independence generation, this is true of Fidel Castro and his revolutionary generation, and it is also true of the modern generations that have left since the 1960’s.

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Persevering roots searching for soil among the concrete apartments of Centro Havana. Photo: JC.

For my family in particular, it was just that. My grandfather was born into a poor carpenter’s family from Santa Clara, one of 6 siblings (4 brothers, 2 sisters). He was born during the dictatorial years of the Machado era of the 1920’s and raised during the authoritarian age of Batista in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When he moved to the United States for an education in 1946, it was certainly not with a mind to leave forever. Then, history unfurled in a certain way and my grandfather eventually found himself coming home from serving in the US Army during the Korean war for a visit to Cuba in 1955–it was the last time he would visit home and see his parents alive, though no one was aware at the time.

When the revolution triumphed in 1959, there was no sense of its full geopolitical implications. For decades, Cuban governments had come and gone with such regularity that, up to that point in history, the notion of any particular regime lasting for 60 years would have been relatively unfathomable.

When the revolution triumphed in 1959, there was no sense of its full geopolitical implications. For decades, Cuban governments had come and gone with such regularity that, up to that point in history, the notion of any particular regime lasting for 60 years would have been relatively unfathomable. But for my grandfather and his two brothers who had left for the states, there was a moment when they realized that they would perhaps never return home. I have heard at least two of them (my grandfather and his youngest brother) recall that moment: it never entailed despair, but it did contained a profound sense of loss. The half of the family that remained in Cuba was never forgotten, but it seems for those who now made it to the US, that loss would have to be compensated for by investing heart and soul into family in the US.

Perhaps something else that seems an undercurrent in the story of my family is how intimately our lives have been tied to specific historical junctures and events, both things within our control, as a family and individuals, and things that were completely out of our control. For Cubans, this seems a particularly poignant reality. While my grandfather and his brothers realized that the US was now their home by default, it was always seen through the prism of being distinctly and undeniably Cuban.

Growing up, the stories I heard of Cuba from them imbued me with this almost mythical appreciation of the island. To me, Cuba was some amazing anti-paradise/paradise of a tough life but containing infinite beauty. Perhaps this is typical of Cuban culture–the paradox of life as being simultaneously both sides of a coin. The stories I heard of Cuba often contained plenty of strife–for instance, my grandfather’s story of the first girl he ever dated who lived a few kilometers out of town but whom he had to split up with because he was losing too much weight walking to and from her house–but always ended with humor and laughter. It was an attempt, through stories, passion and humor, to cope with the trials, uncertainty and absurdity of life. It is almost Sisyphean, in a way. I grew up hearing stories from my grandfather and inheriting the incredible, informal oral history of our family while also reading books from my father’s bookshelf about the revolution and Cuban history.

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A young girl walking home along the coast near Trinidad. Photo: JC

Which leads me to today: I have begun work as an adult doing research in Cuba. It seems inevitable now that I reflect: while I have travelled and lived abroad in many different places for much of the past decade, I have always gravitated back to Cuba. On one hand, it has been a great way to reconnect with family here, whom I see every time I visit. As my grandfather’s generation of the our family has gotten older, I feel this sort of familial responsibility–maybe keeping in line with generations of the Cuban diaspora before me–to maintain connections with my family in Cuba and with Cuba as a country. Just as well, it is also just such an incredible privilege to be able to show up in a country that, before 2012, I had never visited and to be treated like family, to be welcomed with such love and open arms.

Part of my Cuban family still lives in the same home my grandfather was born and raised in; they even use some of the same pieces of furniture my grandfather built with his brothers and father in the 1930’s. By working in Cuba and maintaining these connections, it is as if I can actually be a part of my grandfather’s life and through that, put images and memories to the stories I have been told that were otherwise just pieces of my imagination. It is a way for me to connect with him as much as the rest of my family.

Despite being on the periphery of many global events, Cuba has always had a way–through its own audacity and determination, and a sort of irreverence towards the pecking-order of global hierarchy–to force its way onto the world stage.

I had the amazing opportunity to bring my grandfather back to Cuba a few years ago as well. I really cannot begin to describe what that meant to me or what I learned from that experience, but it was another important chapter of this incredible puzzle that is my understanding of Cuba. No doubt, it is a puzzle that will never be complete, but it is also one to which I realize I am one small part. One could easily say that to understand contemporary Cuba, you must understand Cuban history, and to understand Cuban history, you must really understand the history of the world. Which is not to fall into the trap of a sort of Cuba-centric view of the world, only to illustrate the point that, despite being on the periphery of many global events, Cuba has always had a way–through its own audacity and determination, and a sort of irreverence towards the pecking-order of global hierarchy–to force its way onto the world stage.

Since we first met, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, which is certainly going to cause some radical changes in US trade and diplomatic relations. Fidel Castro, a hero of the Cuban Revolution and Cuba’s leader for many decades, passed away on November 25th 2016, and it seems unclear what will happen to Cuban leadership after his brother Raúl dies or gives up power. What outcomes do you anticipate as a result of these changes? For instance, what do you think are the possible effects of the end of the decades-long US embargo on Cuban farmers?

Certainly, for better or worse, it is an exciting time in Cuba. I remember standing in the airport when I got the news alert on my phone about Fidel. It was like a light had been turned off. But not because I idolize Fidel, but because this was like the ultimate way to punctuate a reality that has been confronted slowly by Cubans for the past decade or so: that the revolutionary generation will soon have passed away, literally and figuratively. This is underwritten even more by Raul’s announcement that he will formally turn over power to Manuel Diaz-Canel in 2018. Because time passes, the writing has been on the wall for quite a while now, but these recent developments (perhaps initiated by Fidel turning over power to Raul in 2008) including the Obama administration’s change of stance on Cuba in 2014 are all elements of potentially great change.

Camilo Cienfuegos, a Cuban revolutionary who disappeared in 1959, watches over Havana’s Revolution Square, where drivers of pre-Revolution era American cars wait for international visitors willing to pay for a ride. Photo: EM

It would be naïve to try and predict what will happen in Cuba–if Cuba has been anything, it has always been surprising and unpredictable. So to try and think of what this brave new world might look like in the future, I am of the opinion that it is best to look at the way things are right now. The reality in Cuba is that the population is very young and well educated–you have an entire generation of Cubans who are getting access to uncensored information (although this has always been true to an extent), made all the more widespread because internet and cell phones are becoming more common place. These are young people, full of energy and potential, and they want to see the world and travel and have a voice and express themselves. They are pushing against the boundaries of the cultural policing of the revolution and have been for some time now, especially in places like Santa Clara. They are the revolutionaries within the revolution; they are the ones making the revolution today and it will be done in their image. I find this a useful place to start when thinking about how things will begin to unfold in the next few years.

[Young Cubans] are the revolutionaries within the revolution; they are the ones making the revolution today and it will be done in their image.

Another reality, which will have more to do with the question on food and agricultural futures, is that Cubans have spent decades surviving hardship in spite of the US blockade (it is not called the embargo in Cuba, but instead, el bloqueo–the blockade) and economic crises. In a very Guervarian sense, there are strong cultural traditions of solidarity and community that have been the result of such strife (although, as my grandfather would say, this is as much if not more of a Cuban thing then it is a communist one). Far from the hyper-individualism of the capitalist economy more evident in places such as the US, Cuba’s sense of social capital and informal economic tradition will lend themselves very imperfectly to any model of an economy that any institution might try to impose. I am thinking specifically of places like the World Bank, IMF and WTO. Cuba’s economic heterogeneity–hardship is the mother of ingenuity, after all–will frustrate any attempts to manage the economy from the top-down (just ask the Cuban state, they have been trying to do so for 60 years). While this makes Cuba hard to predict, it might be safe to say that Cuba will continue to be unpredictable.

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One of Havana’s many urban gardens. Its workers are municipal employees and its street stalls provides local inhabitants with fresh produce from the garden itself and rural cooperatives outside Havana. Walking around Havana’s central area, one does not have to search for long to find such spaces, which seem to be central to local food security. Photo: EM.

One area in which these dynamics are on full display is within the agricultural sector. For many years, Cuban agriculture happened along Soviet-style industrial models that were incredibly unsustainable by virtue of huge petroleum- and input-dependency. Their focus was on producing massive quantities of sugarcane for export in exchange for other goods and food stuffs. In the 1990’s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered a phase of economic crises now called The Special Period in Time of Peace during which food availability on the island plummeted. Out of necessity, the government opened up the agricultural sector and turned to agroecological and organic models of food production. Such a shift on a national scale has since made Cuba a pioneer in these techniques, which have huge social and ecological implications, while also contributing to food security on the island.

Should the US blockade fall tomorrow, agriculture in particular will be one of the sectors most profoundly affected. Already, as my time in the conference circuit in Cuban has made all too clear, the forces of large agri-business, mostly corporate-owned, are already lining up on the US side of things, waiting for the day to pounce.

Should the US blockade fall tomorrow, agriculture in particular will be one of the sectors most profoundly affected. Already, as my time in the conference circuit in Cuban has made all too clear, the forces of large agri-business, mostly corporate-owned, are already lining up on the US side of things, waiting for the day to pounce. Not only would this threaten the great accomplishments of agroecology in Cuba in regards to food security, but it would entail massive social and ecological ramifications as well.

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Early morning on a small family farm west of Havana. Photo: JC.

This is not to say that the Cuban food system does not have issues: of course it does, as do food systems everywhere. But it seems that this alternative form of agriculture, in all its heterogeneity, would come into direct conflict with the priorities and understandings of the agrobusiness sector. In the end, it is my sincerest hope, that Cuban agroecology may continue to flourish and improve in the years ahead, no matter what happens geopolitically. In reality, however, it would be naive to ignore the serious threat posed by companies and interests that would seek to reform the agricultural sector to resemble the plantation-style production methods and exploitation that once made Cuba a sugarcane factory for the world.

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An agroecology farm in Pinar Del Rio overlooking the Valle de Vinales. Photo: JC.

As for Trump, he will try to do what he can to inflate his own ego and compensate for his own insecurities, perhaps reversing course on Cuba although he has made no indication of his intentions with Cuba as of yet. Ultimately, however, since the humiliation of the US imperialism that stole independence from Cubans at the turn of the last century, Cubans have insisted on being masters of their own destiny. Despite recent geopolitical changes in rhetoric and posturing, the changes that have been occurring on the Cuban side are still very slow, weary and cautious. Cuba has been down this road before with the US and they are well, well aware of where it can lead.

I cannot tell you how many people I have heard recite something along the lines of, “I want to visit Cuba before it changes forever,” which implies a few really frustrating things.

The fear many people have is that Cuba might potentially run the risk of becoming some retirement community for wealthy retired white people from the US, like some dystopic Caribbean Florida. I cannot tell you how many people I have heard recite something along the lines of, “I want to visit Cuba before it changes forever,” which implies a few really frustrating things.

First of all, it implies that foreigners feel as if, simply because Cuba has been isolated from the West for 60 years, that it somehow has not changed. That just because there are old cars in the streets, that Cuba has somehow been stuck in time. Perhaps change in Cuba looks quite different from the paradigms set forward by other post-independence colonies in the 20th century, but it has certainly changed radically, reinventing itself many times over. ABMTR should be the Cuban mantra: Always Be Making the Revolution. Not necessarily because of revolutionary fervor–there are not a lot of ideological Marxists out there plowing the fields–but because of the necessities of life. The “revolution” in whatever way you interpret that, must always be made and re-made as conditions change and time passes.

[Some people] feel, almost like conservationists look to National Parks as the refuge for wilderness in an age of unholy capitalist environmental destruction, that as long as Cuba can remain “as an alternative” in the world, there might still be hope for those alternatives. Few are willing to let those alternatives into their own lives.

Secondly, it also implies that people recognize the craven fallacies and gross contradictions in their own models of capitalist social and economic life, and feel Cuba represents some sort of saving grace from those fundamental flaws. Instead of addressing these issues within their own society, they instead project their idyllic anti-capitalist fantasies towards the island and see what they want to see instead of what really is. They feel, almost like conservationists look to National Parks as the refuge for wilderness in an age of unholy capitalist environmental destruction, that as long as Cuba can remain “as an alternative” in the world, there might still be hope for those alternatives. Few are willing to let those alternatives into their own lives. And most will be unwilling to stand up for Cuba’s right to continue to be alternative in the coming years. As has traditionally been the case, however, Cubans will continue forging their own path in the world, as imperfect and difficult as it may be, the US and any other imperial power be damned.

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A makeshift but very efficient irrigation control device, the Programador de riego Franchi, is shown at a model agroecological farm in the province of Mayabeque. It functions without electricity and is made from upcycled materials such as IV drips, a soda bottle, old pipes and metal scraps. The device allows farmers to “program” irrigation to certain crops in advance and eliminates the need for someone to do the thankless job of spending long hours watering each plant by hand. Photo: EM.

Cuba is not some pure utopia or ideal alternative. It is messy and complicated place. It is always changing in distinctly Cuban ways that are often illegible to outsiders (myself included). Whatever happens in the coming years, it will at the very least be exciting and interesting. All of which is not to say there are not real threats to Cuba from external forces that would seek to remake Cuba in certain ways to facilitate the siphoning of wealth and the capitalize upon the vulnerability of these transitions. But never underestimate Cuba’s potential, or I should say, never underestimate the Cuban people. Just as most Cubans who, even when not identifying as communistas, still identified as fidelistas after Fidel Castro’s death, it is the sense of national pride and anti-imperialism that is shared commonly more universally by Cubans than any political ideology. That is a powerful thing against any potentially domineering force.

We met in Varadero, which is in your own words a bubble within Cuba. The place is indeed mainly known for its high-end tourist resorts where Europeans and Canadians spend their winter holidays and whose luxury is unavailable to Cubans. A large percentage of the city’s working population has a job at a resort or hotel, or in the transportation industry, and many others offer rooms for rent and meals for sale in their private home. As Cuban people receive very small food rations from the government and salaries are low, you mentioned all kinds of exchanges, non-monetary trade and barter goes on behind closed doors as people try to get their hands on food items and everyday items. When I visited Havana, I also noticed a large part of the economy revolved around tourism and selling an „authentic“ image of Revolutionary Cuba to Westerners, which is pretty ironic given the Marxist ideology all of this officially operates under. Can you tell me more about the tensions and overlaps between dependence on capitalist tourism / foreign capital, Marxist state ideology and what we could call „Cuba’s secret anarchist economy“ in these places? How are things in other areas of the island that are less dependent on tourism but overall poorer – for example Santa Clara, where you mentioned you have family?

While my family straddles the Cuban-US divide, the half that remained in Cuba also straddles the economic divide within Cuba itself–perhaps somewhat of a contradiction in the nominally-classless Socialist country.

I was sitting on a park bench in Santa Clara one morning a while back having a coffee and smoking a cigar for breakfast when I was approached by a middle-aged black Cuban who asked to sit down on the bench with me. He did and we began the most interesting and intense conversation, especially for 8 in the morning. It was a conversation about the, “7 socio-economic classes in Cuba” during which he described each class in great detail. The short version of this conversation was that Cuba had class lines drawn along different contours, the most prominent of which is perhaps the divide between tourism and non-tourism. This divide is both geographic, with certain parts of the country having more tourism and therefore, more tourist money and investment, and also personal/familial with certain people having jobs in the tourist sector while others do not. In tourist areas, there is more flow of external capital, in no small part thanks to the implementation of the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), whose value is roughly pegged to the dollar (the CUC is called fula by Cubans) and the Cuban Peso, which is theoretically and typically only available to Cuban citizens.

The short version of this conversation [about social stratification] was that Cuba had class lines drawn along different contours, the most prominent of which is perhaps the divide between tourism and non-tourism.

Cuban citizens that have jobs in the tourist industry or who live in tourist areas have more contact with this form of external capital in the form of dollars and CUC. It is not uncommon to find fully licensed doctors driving taxis in tourist areas because they earn better money from tips than they do for practicing medicine.

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Inside one of Varadero’s high end resorts, rhetorical gratitude for Fidel Castro is one of the many elements included in an all-included vacation, whose material luxuries are however completely inaccessible to Cubans – except as employees. Photo: EM

Additionally, Cubans who work in the tourist industry can also conseguir (get their hands on) food and goods from hotels and restaurants, which are better stocked and have better quality items than the state run stores or markets. This is illegal of course, but it is also part of the economic lifeblood in certain areas. Illegal as well is the black market and various informal forms of exchange, including lots of direct bartering and gift-giving, which exists in parallel with all these other economic practices.

I don’t think that it would be even remotely an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons that Cuba and the revolution have been able to survive the hardships of the past half-century has been directly because of all the diverse, informal, and illegal things that Cuban citizens have been able to do for themselves in spite of the regulations of the state.

Of course, the government has tried to clamp down on these informal, illegal practices at various points throughout the revolution’s history, but the fact remains that, given the material limitations of the Cuban state, these alternative practices have kept the ship afloat for decades and underwritten much of the successes, solutions and triumphs in Cuba over the past 60 years. In fact, I don’t think that it would be even remotely an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons that Cuba and the revolution have been able to survive the hardships of the past half-century has been directly because of all the diverse, informal, and illegal things that Cuban citizens have been able to do for themselves in spite of the regulations of the state. In many ways, like all economies but particularly pronounced in Cuba, is the existence of this economic anarchy in a very Emma Goldman sense of the word. No state can completely colonize all spaces, physical and psychological, within its own territory; this is even truer for a centralized state such as Cuba.

No state can completely colonize all spaces, physical and psychological, within its own territory; this is even truer for a centralized state such as Cuba.

As such, in those spaces that are left, the Cuban people have learned to take advantage of and utilize their resources, particularly their social resources, to navigate the difficulties of life. Regardless of the ubiquity of these informal institutions of economics and exchange, however, serious socio-economic disparities still exist. For part of my family living in tourist areas, life is much more comfortable and manageable. For part of my family living elsewhere, such as Santa Clara, which has been traditionally poorer, especially when compared to nearby Havana, life is lived much closer to the chest.

1According to the 2010 US population census, there are roughly 1,8 million people of Cuban descent in the US, mostly living the Miami area.

José Cienfuegos is a researcher, freelance writer and consultant based in the US. He works on agriculture and development issues in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

Eliana Musterle is a feminist researcher based in Germany. She works on Latin American food sovereignty movements and is involved in the climate justice movement.

What’s really threatened by the mining dam break in Brazil?

O rompimento da barragem de rejeitos da mineradora Samarco, cujos donos são a Vale a anglo-australiana BHP, causou uma enxurrada de lama que inundou várias casas no distrito de Bento Rodrigues, em Mariana, na Região Central de Minas Gerais. Inicialmente, a mineradora havia afirmado que duas barragens haviam se rompido, de Fundão e Santarém. No dia 16 de novembro, a Samarco confirmou que apenas a barragem de Fundão se rompeu. Local: Distrito de Bento Rodrigues, Município de Mariana, Minas Gerais. Foto: Rogério Alves/TV Senado
Damage following the dam break in Bento Rodrigues, Mariana, Minas Gerais. Photo: Rogério Alves/TV Senado.

by  Lise Sedrez, Robert Emmett, Stephanie Hood and Claire Lagier

The mine tailing dam break in Minas Gerais, Brazil, on 5 November 2015 has been described by the Brazilian government as the country’s worst environmental catastrophe. It killed at least 17 people and released a wave of toxic plume which devastated the Rio Doce river basin. The dam rupture, which happened directly after the 13th November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, was only superficially covered in mainstream international news outlets, and has mostly disappeared from media newsfeeds, although its far-reaching ecological and political consequences will be felt for decades. Robert Emmett and Claire Lagier sat down with Brazilian environmental historian Lise Sedrez at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich on 19 November and recorded the following conversation, which was originally published as a series of three posts on Seeing the Woods. On 2 March 2016 the Brazilian federal government and the state governments of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo reached a deal with Samarco Mineração (the joint venture between Vale S.A and BHP Billiton which owns the dam) and the latter agreed to pay 4.4 billion reais – 1.5 billion US$ – towards a 20 billion US$ fund which will be administered by a company-managed private foundation with the official aim of restoring the Rio Doce ecosystem and supporting survivors and the local economy. While Samarco, whose activities had been suspended, is already planning its business comeback, Brazilian social movements and the Federal Public Ministry alike are denouncing an agreement that is seen as prioritizing private interests. This interview gives some important insights on the agreement, which is being finalized more than three months after the deadly catastrophe, and long after the toxic mud wave reached the Atlantic ocean.

Robert Emmett: Those of us who don’t read Portuguese have to rely on what the media in English is saying. I’m curious about the language used to describe the event. I like to think “Let’s start with the facts,” but of course that’s exactly what is up to debate. I read that some seismic activity was recorded?

Lise Sedrez: I just don’t buy that one. If we go for the facts, let’s say that Brazil is on a very old tectonic platform. We used to say “There [are] no natural disasters in Brazil,” which of course is not true. There have been very few cyclones. We had one in Santa Catarina [in 2004] and it was like “Oh my God, that never happens.” The last time something like this happened was about 170 to 200 years earlier. But there are no earthquakes. What they registered was seismic activity between 1 and 2 on the Richter scale. We had larger seismic activity in Minas Gerais in the past, with no effects whatsoever. And there is a strong possibility that this recorded seismic activity happened as a result of the breaking of the dam.

RE: So what happened?

LS: Actually, we don’t know what exactly happened to provoke the dam breaking; this is still under investigation, and that has to do with the political context. This company, Samarco, is a subsidiary of Vale do Rio Doce, or Vale for short, and the Australian mining company BHP Billiton. Vale has a particular story that makes things so complicated. It was a state-owned company until the late 1990s, and it had several monopolies guaranteed for mining—Carajas, everything in the Amazon that you can think about, was a monopoly of Vale do Rio Doce. Other companies, especially during the military period, had to negotiate mining rights with Vale. With the consensus of Washinghton and the neoliberal project carried out by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the late 1990s, Vale was privatized. There are still many questions about that process of privatization. Basically, it was sold for a fraction of its value. And that has also been part of the debate. If it was a public company, would that have happened? Would it be an appropriate penalization to nationalize the company again? There are people talking about that. On top of that, as a private company, Vale is a major employer in the region, so everybody is very concerned about the interruption of its activities because that means leaving everybody, and I mean everybody, without a job, since all the other activities in the region, like fishing, have been affected by the spill. And Vale has contributed to the political campaigns of every single politician in Minas Gerais. And both of the big parties—PSDB, which is a center-right party, and PT, which I would say is a center-left party—both parties received large amounts. So the entire debate of how we call this particular event is also tainted by this, in small symbolic things but also in more dramatic moments. For instance, the announcement of the disaster made by the governor of the state of Minas Gerais was made from the headquarters of the Samarco company. And he’s a PT governor, a center-left politician. The previous governor, who was governor for eight years, and therefore responsible for the fiscalization (the fining process) and maintenance, Aecio Neves, is also the former Brazilian presidential candidate of the opposition, the center-right. He was also one of the first ones to say [after the dam break] “this is not a time to try to place blame,” because it’s not very convenient for him. So everybody’s really walking on eggshells because the power of the company is so big. Even nonprofits are doing the same.

Everybody’s really walking on eggshells because the power of the company is so big. Even nonprofits are doing the same.

RE: How are nonprofits responding?

LS: For instance, the photographer Sebastião Salgado has work in that area with the recovery of the degraded springs, water springs, which was funded by the Vale do Rio Doce, the company. So on the one hand he’s saying “look, the company has to make good to this work, and take responsibility,” on the other hand he says “well I know they are going to do that because they are a good, responsible company.” The president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, has just issued a decree allowing workers to use their mandatory retirement savings, which normally you can only take when you’re actually retired or in very special circumstances, such as natural disasters. Now there is a special decree that allows you to take that money if you were a victim of a natural disaster. She amended the decree to include, for the purpose of taking away their money, breaking of dams as a natural disaster.

RE: The decree allows employees to take their retirement savings early?

LS: Yes. So the responsibility to deal with the immediate costs [of lost income] is put on the backs of the workers. It’s even more complicated than that. Legislation for environmental damage is about 15 years old in terms of setting penalties and fines. Samarco received several fines, each of them the maximum, but the total is still really low, because each of the fines has a legal ceiling. Overall, only in the state of Minas Gerais, there are over 200 unpaid environmental fines because companies appeal once, twice, and again, and another, and another, and can go on for ten or 15 years without paying.

RE: What would a meaningful fine be for a large transnational mining venture, in proportion to their daily profits?

LS: In this case the total fine that was given Samarco I’ve read is something around seven percent of its net profit. But I would be careful about that estimate for several reasons. First, the spill paralyzes all work in the area, which means a loss of profit for the company, which is large. Second, the fine does not exempt the company from cleaning up, so the fine comes on top of the entire cost of recovery for the area. However, this is also complicated because the public ministry has just signed an agreement for one billion reais for the clean-up. That may still be below what we need, and may be putting a ceiling on the liability of the company.

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Satellite images of Bento Rodrigues before and after the disaster. Source: NASA.

CL: And there are heavy metals in the floodwater, so there are potentially much longer-lasting costs.

LS: Well, this is also a bit complicated. It’s not clear as there are several small cities affected, and one large one, Governador Valadares, in the way of the river. Some of the mayors made their own water testing. One of the cities found so many heavy metals, so much above the levels of security, their experts said “oh, they threw the whole periodic table of the elements in the river.” However, the mayor of Governador Valadares showed a number of tests saying there [are] no heavy metals. Everybody is protesting that they don’t trust this kind of test. I’ve joined a group of over 2,000 volunteers including 700 scientists who are proposing to do an independent analysis of the environmental and social impact. It’s the first time that anything like this has happened in Brazil—not only the disaster but this kind of volunteer organization. The group has over 2,000 people right now, everybody from undergrad students to PhDs, and everybody wants to help, but it’s going to need lots of organization.

One of the cities [affected by the dam break] found so many heavy metals, so much above the levels of security, their experts said “oh, they threw the whole periodic table of the elements in the river.”

CL: Are they organizing with the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) in Brazil, which is gaining momentum?

LS: Yes, they are organizing with that, they are making connections, although the experience of the MAB is mostly with water dams (not mining dams) and people who are being . . .

CL: . . . displaced.

LS: Yes. We are talking here about biocontamination. Wherever the mud passes, nothing grows. We are talking about a mud that is full of iron and probably arsenic and silica, and some aluminum. It’s heavy and it’s impermeable, so it passes through the river, creating a layer at the bottom where nothing can grow. On top of that all the fish are dying, since they have no oxygen. And all the animals—dogs, cattle caught by the water—are dying and decomposing. So it alters the water even if you have dilution from the river tributaries, for instance. Some cities are trying to capture the water from the tributaries, hoping to bypass the river and find a new source of drinking water. We’re talking about a city like Governador Valadares, with close to 300,000 people. Drawing from tributaries upstream means less water diluting the river. Even before the disaster the springs were compromised. If there are heavy metals in the heavy layers at the bottom, people are talking about the possibility of some of these metals getting to the phreatic water sheet. So as you see it’s a disaster of incredible magnitude, not only in terms of what happens to the ecosystem, but also in terms of political, economic, and social impacts—it goes in all directions. And it is a big question mark. We have no experience with that. And the fact that it happened just before the Paris attacks made it disappear from the public eye.

We are talking here about biocontamination. Wherever the mud passes, nothing grows.

RE: This relative lack of exposure to the dam break is definitely something I hope we can talk about. It seems like there are several durations involved and also questions of how the media has covered or not covered the spill. Some of the coverage has focused on the company and the economic impact of closing down operations and has pointed out that the price for iron has been relatively low in the last ten years, because of the decreased demand for export. There has been a shift in the conversation from describing the event in concrete, biological terms to an abstract conversation about the commodity exports, iron pellets as raw material for industrialization. There is the time frame of the cost of the good that was extracted, and there is the other time frame, which is the life cycle of aquatic life [that] has been impacted for a generation, particularly larger forms of aquatic life, like fish, which won’t recover for a full lifetime.

LS: Some species that were endemic to the area are lost, gone forever.

RE: There is a sense that there is a longer emergency of climate change and then these punctuating events, sometimes described in the sense of industrial operations. When dams or pipelines fail, the consequences are so out of proportion, in the sense that we think a dam may last another five or ten years and then the life of a stream is wiped out suddenly and permanently, with species gone. Where does this incongruity show up in media?

LS: It also is true that it showed how we have changed the way we read. I mean, ninja media and the alternative media have been very important in the process because the big newspapers are putting t the disaster on the second or third page. They found out that they can’t ignore it completely because alternative media, and Facebook and ninja are keeping it alive.

CL: I also felt this very strongly. On my Facebook feed for example, Brasil de Fato, which is a main Socialist newspaper in Brazil, and Nova Democracia, which is another alternative newspaper, are covering this a lot, posting pictures and also getting people to tell their stories on social media. People are interacting with each other outside the mainstream media, taking things into their own hands.

LS: It is also true that environmental issues had become in recent years a theme for the left. However, this disaster, in the way that Vale ed may be connected to the current administration or of PT, brought it back as an issue for the right as well. I’ve heard about the disaster from Mariana from my friends on the left as well as my friends on the right. It’s one unifying point of protest. How they are going to read the disaster is very different, but it’s there, and it’s very strong. I found it interesting because the newspapers did try to kind of [suggest that] Paris is more important and this alternative media kept [the disaster] alive. I would like to go back, however, to the point about extension. One thing that was very interesting is to see some of the disciplinary boundaries and the different views of the disaster by scientists. Thus  you have engineers and geographers who are just saying “okay, calm down, the river is coming back,” while biologists and ecologists are in panic.

RE: I’ve heard that in Appalachia, where different scientists have totally different discourses around streams and tailing ponds in post-mining landscapes. I’m curious to hear how disciplinary differences in perception are working out in this case?

Maybe in 100 years this thing is going to be a new river, but it is not going to be the Rio Doce. And for me, as an environmental historian, this is absolutely shocking because the Rio Doce is a tributary of national history—for the gold, precious metals, and so on.

LS: I find that fascinating as well. We all joined this group of 2,000 volunteers, probably 400 or 500 PhDs from all areas of Brazilian academia, who all want to help and we all want the company to pay. The geologists and geographers are going to have this idea that the river is coming back. Biologists are furious: it’s over, it’s dead. Among all this mess, I’ve read about this very beautiful initiative by the fishermen, the Noah’s Arc. It was gorgeous but absolutely useless.

RE: Taking the fish from the spill area and transporting them to small aquariums?

LS: And to lakes, which have their own ecosystems and work at the optimal level of biomass. If you’re bringing an endemic species, although you can save some genetic material, the impact is mostly negative. What was important was for the communities of fishermen to feel they were doing something. It was much more a political, social activity. What we should be looking at is a new river, probably in the next 30 years. Water is going to find other areas to go. Even for geologists, even if you don’t consider the life of the river, we are talking about a game changer. Maybe in 100 years this thing is going to be a new river, but it is not going to be the Rio Doce. And for me, as an environmental historian, this is absolutely shocking because the Rio Doce is a tributary of national history—for the gold, precious metals, and so on. The Doce was the river through which so much of this material would pass. It was also the area where traditional populations from the colonial times would negotiate the space and dispute with the settlers. Right now you still have some of the communities like Krenak that depend on the river, and they are desperate. It’s a river that is really, really important for the communities. A famous biologist, Andre Ruschi, has a famous preservation area of  Colibri in the Atlantic Forest right by the margins of the Rio Doce. We are all expecting the mud to pass through and destroy it. Once arriving to the sea it’s not going to disperse easily so the marine reservation, the Parque Nacional dos Abrolhos, could also reach this platform. This particular disaster is going to pass through the heart of some of the remains of the Atlantic Forest. What are we going to do?

Contaminated_Rio_Doce_Water_Flows_into_the_Atlantic_(23414457121)
Contaminated Rio Doce water flowing into the Atlantic. Source: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

RE: Well, one thing you’re doing is going back to Brazil to work with SOLCHA, Sociedad Latinoamericana y Caribeña de Historia Ambiental, and I imagine this is going to be front and center for environmental historians in Latin America. Are there plans to have the 2,000 volunteers involved in citizen science, collecting data?

LS: Right. What I’m planning to do is to get volunteers from my University and organize a history of the area and of the river, and find out more about other examples of similar disasters. What we can offer to this group is the historical perspective.

RE: In May 2016 there is an event planned with Wisconsin’s Center for Culture, History and Environment focusing on the Mississippi River and the following year on the Danube. It’s a transatlantic environmental history workshop, histories of continents and nations through rivers. It’s similar to the project that you are describing and I think of these things as networked together. And the connections that scholars make who are looking at rivers and in the way you tell stories through the trajectory of a river.

[With the Rio Doce] we are talking about something that crosses biomes, crosses cities, crosses realities, it’s huge, and it has an impact: not only on two Brazilian states but also on the economy and politics.

LS: I think you are totally right. [With the Rio Doce] we are talking about something that crosses biomes, crosses cities, crosses realities, it’s huge, and it has an impact: not only on two Brazilian states but also on the economy and politics. Any step is very sensitive. Mining in the area may have slowed down, but this is an ongoing disaster. There are three dams in that particular mining area. The others are both below [safety] levels but if these two break, especially the largest one one . . . what we are seeing right now will look like a pre-disaster. They are going to have to consider the possibility of the breaking of these two other dams against the profit that they can make with a low price product. As for now, Samarco is placing itself a victim of the disaster.

CL: Mainstream media in Brazil is very much backing that image.

LS: Yes. I mean, this entire thing about a small seismic event being considered responsible for breaking the dam . . .

RE: The Brazilian media is coming to the company’s defense? Is that because the company has an economic monopoly?

LS: I think you are right in a sense, because of the power of the company in this area. I think it’s also because our media is [politically] right of center and the Vale until now was hailed as the big success of privatization. They would love to see this (privatization) happening to Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. But to see Vale lose value and be challenged as a company, as this model company, would also jeopardize the entire idea that private ownership is better than public ownership.

RE: In other words, you’re saying there is a deep public interest perceived in this single privatized mining company . . .

LS: Oh yeah.

RE: It’s hard for people to articulate the difference between what the interests of that company and the interests of the region. You see this in Appalachia for a long time, where coal companies would say “what is good for coal is good for Appalachia.” And it became difficult for anyone to actually have any space in which to critique that because to critique means you’re potentially also taking a job from neighbors or your relatives.

LS: Just yesterday there was a rally of the residents of Mariana, with the worker unions asking for the company to remain in Mariana. They had t-shirts written with slogans that said “Yes; No to Unemployment.”

RE: This is the miner’s union?

LS: Yes. But you have to understand that it’s not only the miners, it’s not only the direct workers, but everything in the region that is connected to the Vale Company. It’s like FIAT for Turin: I mean if you don’t work for FIAT, you work for the company that sells FIAT cars, or you work for the company that sells tires for FIAT cars. And I repeat: even environmental organizations. We don’t have the tradition like in the United States and in Europe of nonprofits supported only by the membership fees. I know very few nonprofits in Brazil that don’t depend on private company or government funding. Most cities like Mariana or the nearby cities can pay their employees just because of the fees and taxes paid by Vale. If Vale were to disappear from Mariana that would mean a loss of municipal taxes that would make it impossible to pay the public employees.

RE: Is Vale perceived as a company that takes risks or as a company that doesn’t value worker’s safety?

LS: I couldn’t say . . . no more or less than any other company in Brazil. People cut corners in Brazil. What is concerning, however, is that the mining code of Brazil is very strict. It’s just not enforced. Now there is discussion of a new mining code, and some politicians claim that the disaster is a good reason to speed up the approbation of the new mining code, which is way more industry-friendly.

RE: So the disaster is an excuse for pushing through the process?

LS: Measures that would never be accepted in normal times. The big problem is that the narrative that we have is neoliberal, the narrative that gave birth to the private Vale and that’s still going on today. The government is the problem in this narrative. Environmental regulations are the problem. There are other issues like for instance there are hundreds of unpaid fines in the environmental agency in Minas Gerais, still to be processed, and there’s no way the state government can process all of them. So they’re going now to give a huge amnesty to the companies, hoping to clear up the bureaucratic mess.

Some politicians claim that the disaster is a good reason to speed up the approbation of the new mining code, which is way more industry-friendly. The big problem is that the narrative that we have is neoliberal, the narrative that gave birth to the private Vale and that’s still going on today.

RE: Is this because the agency is understaffed or underfunded?

LS: They are understaffed, underfunded and in my opinion it’s a tactic from the companies to let the number of fines accumulate and then see what happens. Many of these fines are going to be amnestied because they are very close to the statute of limitation. This entire thing is a perfect storm. It shows us not only the connections between city and the countryside, but [also] the connections between environmental protection, ecosystems, and policies, national and local, the dispute between right and left in Brazil, the bureaucratic nightmare in terms of legislation and the huge lobbies for the relaxing of environmental laws. At the same time, everybody is an environmentalist in Brazil, everybody loves nature, or so they say. And these big lobby groups argue that the best way to help nature is by taking away environmental regulations. If you talk to each and every one of these guys arguing about the mining code, they’re going to say, “No, we are going to save nature.” Besides, we must remember that the lobby against environmental regulations is one of the strongest in Brazil because it’s so connected to ownership of land, and land disputes are the most common causes for which people are killed in the countryside of Brazil. Many environmentalists were killed because they were challenging the use of land. An event like this raises all these questions about media and politics without even having to go for to conspiracy theories. Why do you need conspiracy theories when reality is so much more!

RE: You described this river as at the heart of a certain national imaginary. Is it fair to say that what people have in mind when they’re saying “nature” has to do with a sense that Brazil has a particular natural heritage, biodiversity? So what you would be saving if you’re saving nature is something that’s only here, only in Brazil?

LS: It’s more complicated, as we are talking about a 800-kilometer river where there is everything from a city the size of Governador Valadares to groups of indigenous populations to areas that are natural reserves, and therefore, no large human population. It’s also one of the regions to have witnessed anthropogenic action for hundreds and hundreds of years. We’re not talking about a pristine area. Some of the images that have more impact in the media are people, fire-fighters for instance, saving a dog or a cow. It is a region where people and nonhumans have interacted in many ways for so long that is part of the identity. And that’s what I found so interesting about the fishermen trying to save the fish. They do see this connection. They are not saving the fish because they want the fish to live forever in the aquarium, but because it’s their livelihood. And I think the Krenak had it really well. They don’t differentiate so much between the river, the land, the fish. If the river is dead, we’re all dead. I know it sounds like some fake Chief Seattle story, but that’s what we are saying right now. It’s less one pristine area untouched for whatever species, it’s more this long built-up predatory relationship, if you want, but also a transformative relationship between nature and society that was going on along this river. And now it’s really threatened.

Credit for article’s featured image: Waldemir Barreto/Agência Senado.

Special thanks to Livia Jacobina for her transcription work.

Lise Sedrez is an environmental historian at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and is currently completing a fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich.

Robert Emmett is a cultural studies and ecocriticism scholar and coordinator of academic programs at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich.

Stephanie Hood is an editor at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich.

Claire Lagier is a PhD candidate at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich and an editor at Uneven Earth.

How neo-liberalism used the “limits to growth”

The Ecuador indigenous people’s uprising, August 2015. Source: IC Magazine.
The Ecuador indigenous people’s uprising, August 2015. Source: IC Magazine.

by Gabriel Levy

This article originally appeared on the blog, People and Nature.

 

Let’s start with your critique of the “Limits to Growth” arguments. And first – addressing ourselves to people demonstrating about the lack of action on climate change at the Paris talks – a very basic question: you are not saying, are you, that there are no natural limits, or that they are not important?

Yes, that’s correct. First, it’s not that material limits don’t exist, or are not significant, but what they mean at any given moment is a complicated socially- and politically-determined process. The question of what those limits are, and how they might be shifted – not transcended by some techno futurism, but how a different mode of social organisation or economic production might have different limits – suggests that speaking of ecological limits only makes sense if these are considered relative to any particular kind of social organisation. For instance, the idea of “peak oil” – which itself is a dubious proposition, given the recent transformation of shale and other porous rocks into “oil” resources through new fracking and drilling technologies) – is only a “limit” to an economic system that depends on cheaply-available fossil fuels. I am therefore against an absolute notion of limits, such as for instance a neo-Malthusian view that equates the scarcity of certain resources with a fundamental limit to human life on Earth. This approach still allows us, I think, to talk about a notion of relative limits at any given historical moment.

Second, I think that the way that the limits discourse has been mobilised in the past has not been politically productive. My view is consistent, I think, with the talk Sasha Lilley gave at the Planetary Natures conference: “limits” discourse tends towards a sort of left catastrophism, a left austerity plan that says “there is no alternative”, and that whatever political agenda we are advocating is a dictate of nature. This is true of some strands of eco-Marxism that in the 1960s and 1970s picked up some of the thinking of ecological economists and environmentalists about limits, and presented a sort of survivalist argument for the transition to socialism. I think this is in fact a deeply conservative position, and I am uneasy with the idea that a survivalist politics could lead to a liberatory programme. [Note. Sasha Lilley puts her case against left catastrophism in this interview here and this video here.]

 

Let me probe a little more what you mean by absolute limits and relative limits. Let’s take the most important example: there is a limit to the amount of greenhouse gases that can be put it into the atmosphere over the next few decades, if the serious damage to human society already implicit in rising sea levels and other outcomes of global warming is to be contained. Of course the climatologists don’t exactly know where it is because of the inexact nature of the science. But there is no doubt that that limit is out there. People try to quantify it e.g. by talking about 350ppm [i.e. 350 parts of carbon dioxide per million in the atmosphere] as a safe limit.

Yes, but even that limit is still being negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The commitments made by various countries don’t seem to offer much hope for actually staying below even a 2ºC increase in average global temperature since pre-industrial times, which is what many climate scientists think is an acceptable level of risk. But at the talks last year in Lima there were still countries demanding that warming stay under 1.5º. Small island states for example were saying that 1.5º or 2ºof temperature increase doesn’t look the same all over the world, that the 2ºmark privileges the interests of Northern countries. So the limits look very different depending on where you are. There are certainly tipping points, so reference to global average temperature, parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, etc. is a necessary way of marking those tipping points. But what our relationship is to that limit, how we deal with it – that’s a political question. (See for example the policy of the Climate Vulnerable Forum within the UNFCCC.)

Aside from the neo-Malthusian invocation of limits, there is a leftist discourse that says “capitalism will encounter its own limits, it will have a crisis due to these intractable biophysical boundaries”. And that becomes an anti-political argument that I’m very sceptical of.

There are limits, and some of them are absolute in the sense that, if we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we will experience unacceptable levels of global warming. But where talk about limits becomes problematic is when we look at that type of tipping point and suggest that it dictates a particular socio-political future. Aside from the neo-Malthusian invocation of limits, there is a leftist discourse that says “capitalism will encounter its own limits, it will have a crisis due to these intractable biophysical boundaries”. And that becomes an anti-political argument that I’m very sceptical of, and that underestimates the adaptability of capitalism at overcoming such limits. It may well be that capital can go on accumulating long after we’ve traversed certain thresholds that would make life on Earth intolerable for most humans and animals.

We therefore have to talk about what the limits are that bound our desirable conditions of existence. That’s a political question, although that doesn’t mean that humans are entirely in control of the answer to it.

 

You have been researching the political and social context of the 1970s, in which the Limits to Growth report appeared. Could you say something about this?

I have been doing some reading about how that report fitted into the broader conversations in the 1970s about the new international political order and what a multilateral order might to look like. One thing I have found interesting is the way that the idea of natural resources as a global commons, coupled with a notion of biophysical limits, cuts both ways politically. On one hand it can operate in a progressive register: it says that we all live on this earth and have some responsibility of stewardship. But in the 1970s, it also served a powerful political function against the interests of newly sovereign third world states that were trying to control both their conventional resources and also their environmental resources – for example the environment’s capacity to absorb pollution, which was only beginning to be discussed at that time, mainly in terms of “pollution havens” for corporations. The ability to enact environmental controls and to govern exhaustible resources was at stake for third world countries in many of those conversations.

The language of the global commons sounds very progressive. And the idea of “limits to growth” can serve to protect that vision, but it can also serve a neo-colonial purpose. Again, in the 1970s, the argument that scarce resources really belong to everyone – and so they shouldn’t be entrusted to national governments whose interests aren’t shared by the “global community” – was useful, for instance, to the industrial elite that made up the Club of Rome. The political implications of these types of ideas can therefore vary quite dramatically.

In the 1970s, the notion of biophysical limits also served a powerful political function against the interests of newly sovereign third world states that were trying to control both their conventional resources and also their environmental resources

 

The context was the so-called “energy crisis”, which was more than anything about a sudden increase in the price of energy sources, especially oil, for rich nations, who then had to adjust their strategy towards other nations, especially poor nations, who were producing it.

Yes. And that takes us back to the question of control. What level of control did those producing states – such as [the oil producing countries’ group] OPEC, in this example – have over their resources, vis-a-vis multinational corporations that might have different interests?

 

You have found some work by the Bariloche institute in Argentina, that offered an alternative to the Limits to Growth report produced by the Club of Rome. What was their approach?

Their critique of the original report, which was similar to those made by many different commentators, was that it had a very first-world-centric approach, one that located global problems in third-world population growth. The Bariloche model criticised this Western-centric and Northern-centric perspective, and the way that the Limits to Growth model was presented as a supposedly objective picture of global limits without a normative valence.

The Bariloche model was, in the words of one of its designers, intended to be a response from the South to the Limits to Growth report … to say look, modelling does not just give us an objective representation of the world; it is a technology to enact and explore the possibility for certain kinds of futures. They therefore proposed a counter-model oriented towards exploring the biophysical basis for an international socialism. However, they positioned their vision of socialism between state socialism, which was the dominant model at the time, and market capitalism, to say essentially – what would a democratic, decentralised socialist or egalitarian system look like, and what are its biophysical conditions of possibility? That is, what are the biophysical conditions for creating what they called an egalitarian world? The designers framed it as a Latin American model, but one that aspired to be a third world model, recognizing that Latin America didn’t stand in for the third world. But that was their goal – to use modelling as a technology for envisioning alternative political futures from a third world perspective.

 

You have looked at the emergence in the 1970s of ecological economics and resilience theory. Your conclusion on resilience theory is that it “was an important part of the neo-liberal counter-revolution”. But you are not saying, if I have understood correctly, that socialists or anti-capitalists should ignore or write off resilience literature. In the conclusions of your article on resilience you say that we should ask “how the forms of control exercised under the rubric of adaptability may present new possibilities for resistance”. I took that to mean that you suggest taking as a starting point the integration of social and ecological, the rejection of a dualism, in the resilience literature, but rejecting the way that that literature normalises capitalist social relations.

There is much to say about the relationship between ecological economics and resilience, which mainly came together in the Beijer Institute in Sweden and in some workshops in Stanford as well.

Both of those fields were quite heterodox in the 1970s. Ecological economics was articulating a vision which was not neo-liberal and not even fully market-oriented, but one that demanded state control to constrain resource use and population growth to certain kinds of limits, within which market activity can operate. Within those limits it wanted to say that prices would determine the best distribution of environmental goods and bads, and resources in general, but it didn’t advocate a wholesale marketisation of everything. I think that it registered a broader crisis in the economy and wanted to re-establish economic and ecological equilibrium on a global scale through a sort of capitalist planned economy – an interesting mix of planning and markets.

Resilience theory, for its part, has been critiqued by many people as having an analogous resemblance to neoliberalism. It advocates decentralised planning and adaptive management approaches that enable systems – whether ecological, economic, or social – to move through various equilibria. It therefore doesn’t try to stave off a crisis by maintaining stability, but by increasing the system’s flexibility or “resilience” to disturbance, and even its ability to absorb and redirect those disturbances to its own advantage. Many critics have argued that resilience takes this ecological metaphor and applies it to social systems in a way that naturalizes the experience of economic and ecological crisis. They have pointed out that, in its demand for decentralised control and flexible management under crisis conditions, it looks a lot like the neoliberal imaginary.

However, what interests me about resilience is that, especially in its earlier articulations, it really is developed as a universal theory. It’s not just an ecological theory that’s later applied to other things. From the very beginning of his work on resilience in the 1970s, Charles Holling, the ecologist who developed it, is interested in asking: how applicable are these principles to industrial planning, to organisations, to economic and social systems in general? He was working at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, exploring this.

I am interested less in locating in resilience the seed of a future neoliberal order, and more in looking at how certain pieces of resilience theory and its methodologies have been picked up and combined in different ways to create the modes of thought that are driving a lot of neoliberal environmental policy in the current moment.

In those conversations, which were very interdisciplinary, the relationship between planning and markets, and decentralised and centralised control, was still under discussion. I see resilience as a symptom of a broader crisis of management paradigms in both ecology and industry, and one whose basic conceptual framework does not necessarily lead to neoliberal policy proscriptions. In this way, I am interested less in locating in resilience the seed of a future neoliberal order, and more in looking at how certain pieces of resilience theory and its methodologies have been picked up and combined in different ways to create the modes of thought that are driving a lot of neoliberal environmental policy in the current moment.

 

You also argue, if I understood correctly, that the same driving forces that push capitalism at its current stage to disrupt and damage the ecological space in which humans live are essentially the same forces that spread into the sphere of social reproduction, and that we need an analysis that brings all these things together. In your article on Limits to Growth, you quote Suzanne Schultz, who wrote: “It is not that the boundary between production and reproduction has been effaced, but that it has been transformed, requiring new analytical approaches. Your conclusion: resilience theory “was an important part of the neo-liberal counter-revolution”.

Again, going back to the 1970s, Marxist feminists such as Silvia Federici, Mariarosa dalla Costa, and many others theorised the crisis of Fordist-Keynesianism in terms of a crisis of reproduction – among other things, a breakdown of the gender relations that ensured the reproduction of the labour force. Federici looked to the work of economists in that moment to argue that their efforts to quantify the contributions of housework to GDP [gross domestic product], alongside the expansion of the service economy, was a manifestation of this crisis of reproduction. I think we can certainly see a parallel development in economic thinking at the time concerning the environment. That is, both ecological and environmental economists are asking: how can we account for this other sphere of important productive activity – the “work” of biospheric reproduction, we might call it – that economics, in its narrow mode of looking at production in terms of GDP, can’t comprehend? We can therefore see environmental reproduction as the other side of the coin of social reproduction and the reproduction of labour power in the way that it is brought into economic thinking in the 1970s.

Much of this early work starts to describe biophysical functions such as absorption of pollution, the function of wetlands to mitigate flooding, or even the production of soils through composting, in sort of infrastructural terms – that is, as a whole array of systems whose functioning underpins the economy as it was formulated in mainstream economics.

This view I think is really the precedent for what we now think of as ecosystem services, which has become a dominant discourse in the present. Based on the idea that ecosystems perform “services” – such as carbon sequestration – that are useful to people, we have a whole generation of payment- and market-based programmes to finance conservation and, at times, to commodify these services, for instance through emissions markets. Sometimes this involves paying landowners to perform certain conservation activities based on the idea that these produce such services. That infrastructural conception of resources is being talked about in the 1960s and 1970s, in terms of “how do we account for these reproductive functions?” They don’t use those terms, but that’s my reading of it.

If we think of ecosystem services as a whole field of productive activity that is precisely devalued in capitalism, to my mind the issue is: how do we find a way of valorising it in a non-capitalist way, rather than insisting on its exceptionality or its non-economic nature?

What interests me, and what I mentioned in the article, is: if we think about this as a repositioning of the division between productive and reproductive labour, such that what was devalued and made invisible as reproductive labour is coming into view in a certain way, then it changes the political questions we can ask. For instance, the Wages for Housework movement made the basic point: “It’s not enough to say just that we don’t want to participate in the wage economy and have our labour alienated. What about those of us who are precisely excluded from that economy on the basis of our supposed natural instinct to be mothers, or to do housework, or whatever?” They really posed that problem. And there is a similar problem implicit in the critique of payments for ecosystems services, or other market-based conservation schemes.

Some critics suggest that payment programmes corrupt ecological values by paying people to do this work, or are concerned with how market-based conservation is implicated in further alienating people from nature. Those critiques are not wrong; they have their place. But if we think of this as a whole field of productive activity that is precisely devalued in capitalism, to my mind the issue is: how do we find a way of valorising it in a non-capitalist way, rather than insisting on its exceptionality or its non-economic nature?

That’s where I find the work of those Marxist feminist thinkers useful, in dealing with that problem. What would a critical abstraction of “ecosystem services” look like? What would a non-capitalist “ecosystem service” economy look like? That’s not a question that the critical literature has asked, but it’s one that I think is really interesting. I don’t have any answers for it!

Maybe it’s actually happening in some places, and I think there is some emerging research on case studies that has started to point to it. For instance Bolivia is trying to develop a compensation programme for stewardship of ecological resources in non-market ways. Not that Bolivia is a perfect example. But there is a lot of heterogeneity in payment for ecosystem services programmes – programmes for compensating people for “ecosystem services”, which might be in the form of direct payment for conservation work, in kind, compensation for not farming parts of their land –  and it’s worth trying to look at them and think about the differences between them. Proponents and critics alike see these as market-based programmes, but there is a great deal of difference among them.

 

An issue running through all these discussions on society and environment is the repeated re-appearance of different types of Malthusianism. In one of your articles you mentioned Herman Daly, one of the founders of ecological economics, advocating “transferable birth licences”, in line with this ideology of control. How significant is this?

Such ideas are hugely pervasive. In the 1970s, all these conversations were going on in the context of a real – or at least a perceived – crisis of the international order and the role of the US and Europe in that order. A big fear that came out was a xenophobic anxiety about the rise of the third world in the form of population growth as one really important vein in environmental thought. I taught a course on population in my department a couple of times, and I asked students to read the preface to Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb – it is a graphic description of his drive through Delhi and his horror at the masses of poor people. It shows an incredibly visceral response to the bodies of Indian people that Ehrlich perceives as being excessive and abundant.

 

I know the passage you mean. How strong do you think that is in environmentalism today?

I think a lot of it comes out in discourses about climate refugees, and about the causes of climate change. For instance, the idea that in order to address deforestation, we should offer certain incentives to small farmers, as if they are the main culprit and there are not much larger drivers behind their actions. A ton of market-based conservation programmes are targeted at individuals as drivers of ecological problems – and not at structural economic drivers. These programmes ask: “How do we incentivise the poor to change their behaviour?” Which is really the same paternalistic and anti-political attitude that informed early population control programmes. It’s just not quite as targeted at reproductive bodies; it’s in this ecologically reproductive mode. In that sense Malthusianism is still quite powerful.

Getting back to Daly’s original idea, however, there actually exists a UK organisation called Pop Offsets where you can purchase a carbon credit by financing the so-called “unmet need” for family planning – the idea is that you’re offsetting the carbon emissions associated with another human life on the planet. So it comes full circle.

 

To what extent has the left put together a convincing alternative? I completely agree with your complaints about catastrophism that says, “if we don’t overthrow capitalism tomorrow we’re all doomed”. But how far has the left gone in responding to these Malthusian logic?

That is a hard question! And I’m not equipped to answer it. But I will say that political actions alone do not necessarily articulate a viable alternative. Scholarship and political theory can asses the conditions of possibility for other alternatives and how do we might strategically build on those. But I don’t think political theorising, or even political action, has to come in the form of articulating a coherent vision of a future political order – it comes in the form of refusing the claim that there is no alternative and insisting that there are alternatives. Again, that’s where I see Malthusianism as disempowering, as it forecloses alternatives. What those alternatives are is worked out in an emergent political process.

As a side note, one reason that Malthusianism looks different in contemporary environmental movements – and is much less pronounced today – is that many formerly third world countries vehemently resisted that discourse. In fact the emergence of the environment as a political object was really mobilised very powerfully by poorer nations, to resist the neocolonial relations that still stucture the international order. The politics of the environment today is shaped by resistance on any number of fronts. The narrative that argues that in environmental crises we simply see capitalism playing out its contradictions really obscures that resistance, in a way that is not politically empowering.

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Indian agricultural workers’ protest in India. Photo from La Via Campesina South Asia

So are we talking about movements of landless farmworkers, or Bolivia’s refusal to go along with multinational companies?

There are a million examples in the past several decades: global indigenous organising, the landless peasants’ movement, and other grassroots movements. And also on the part of governments – taking seriously the internal political contradictions in Bolivia, in terms of its recognition of the “rights of Mother Earth” (Pachamama) in its constitution, while it also remains economically dependent on an extractive economy and grapples with land conflicts among various indigenous movements – Bolivia has been extremely active in international fora such as the UNFCCC and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services to use environmental discourse to articulate an anti-neoliberal agenda. Since the Stockholm Convention on the Environment in 1972, formerly third world nations have intervened in the politics of the environment in a way that has had real geopolitical implications. For instance, the Convention on Biological Diversity was something of a watershed moment for Southern countries gaining control over resources subject to biopiracy.

There are multiple logics at work in determining what the environment means as a political object, how it’s articulated, and how it’s mobilised. That’s sometimes overlooked in narratives that see only triumphant neo-liberalism doing its thing.

 

Sara Holiday Nelson is a PhD researcher at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities studying the politics of environmentalism in the 1970s.

Gabriel Levy is an activist in the workers’ movement from the UK. He writes the People & Nature blog that reflects his interest in the relationship of socialism and ecology. He has been visiting Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan since Soviet times.