Summer readings

Credit: balazs.sebok via Green European Journal

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

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

Long time no read! We’ve been taking a break from posting at Uneven Earth, but we’re slowly getting back to business – with lots of exciting changes to come, as we’re in the process of becoming an incorporated, salaried non-profit organization. Our editor Aaron Vansintjan also published a book on degrowth while we were inactive! You can find all the links in this newsletter.

We decided to make this a combined summer reading list – so these are articles we collected throughout May, June and July, with the occasional piece from earlier in the year that still seems relevant and worth sharing. Starting from next month, we’ll go back to our usual monthly model. We hope you’re still along for the ride, and thank you so much for your patience while we transition into this next phase of Uneven Earth.

If you find these lists useful, you can support us by sharing them on social media and with your friends and family!

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



Uneven Earth updates

Our co-editor Aaron Vansintjan published a book with colleagues Andrea Vetter and Matthias Schmelzer! The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism is now available to buy at Verso, or anywhere else you like to buy your books.

Uneven Earth contributed to this ephemera paper on alternatives to mainstream publishing within and beyond academia

Technology | Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us

A jaywalking manifesto | “Every step that is ‘jay’ is defiance in the face of the automobile machine.”



Top articles to read

Excerpts from The Future is Degrowth: Toward a post-capitalist future: On the growth of “degrowth” and Degrowth – not just Green New Deals! Also: a review.

On private jets: A 17-minute flight? The super-rich who have ‘absolute disregard for the planet’. Also: The celebs who have racked up the most CO2 emissions this year using their private jets, a Twitter thread, and an in-depth report.

Resisting the cost of living crisis in the UK could be the tipping point for socialist solidarity. Progressive movements should not focus on social issues in isolation. As we saw in countries like Colombia and Chile, solidarity builds collective power for sustained change.

The imperial core of the climate crisis and Transcending the ‘imperial mode of living’



News you might’ve missed

EU parliament votes to designate gas and nuclear as sustainable

Record number of dams removed from Europe’s rivers in 2021

Revealed: oil sector’s ‘staggering’ $3bn-a-day profits for last 50 years. Vast sums provide power to ‘buy every politician’ and delay action on climate crisis, says expert.

Big Oil is suing countries to block climate action 

Corporate carbon offset company accidentally starts devastating wildfire 

Big Oil has known for decades that carbon capture isn’t a solution

This climate guru is a celebrity in the US. In India, he’s accused of destroying a forest



Our burning planet

Why is it so hot in the UK and elsewhere in Europe and what are the dangers?

Europe is frying in devastating heat, yet is burning more coal

South Asia’s heatwave is only the beginning 

Death and despair after deadliest urban flood in India

Somalia: ‘The worst humanitarian crisis we’ve ever seen’

‘We just pray for rain’: Niger is in the eye of the climate crisis – and children are starving

How is the jet stream connected to simultaneous heatwaves across the globe?



Food politics

Raj Patel on agroecology, reparative approaches, and land reform 

Beef stakes. Climate activists have proposed an end to the livestock industry. But overhauling farming could have unintended consequences.

Report: Cash cow. How beef giant JBS’s links to Amazon deforestation and human rights abuses are aided by UK, US and EU financiers, importers and supermarkets.

How Germany is kicking its meat habit 

Farmland assets. International finance and the transformation of Brazil’s agricultural lands.

Heatflation: How sizzling temperatures drive up food prices 



Where we’re at: analysis

NFT scams, toxic ‘mines’ and lost life savings: the cryptocurrency dream is fading fast

We cannot adapt our way out of climate crisis, warns leading scientist 

The case for climate reparations is now irrefutable 

Air pollution kills 10 million people a year. Why do we accept that as normal?



Global struggles

A global just transition

The Global South has the power to force radical climate action. After all, Western economies – and their economic growth – depend utterly on labour and resources from the South.

The farmers restoring Hawaii’s ancient food forests that once fed an island 

Indonesian islanders sue cement producer for climate damages

‘Every year it gets worse’: on the frontline of the climate crisis in Bangladesh

Inside New York’s fight for public renewables 

Ecuador deal reached to end weeks of deadly protests and strikes 

Carbon commodification in the Peruvian Amazon: The Kichwa People’s struggle against territorial and climate destruction

‘People are waking up’: fight widens to stop new North Sea fossil fuel drilling 

What can other movements learn from Colombia’s elections?

Colombia’s shift to the left: A new ‘pink tide’ in Latin America?

On Ukraine-Syria solidarity and the ‘anti-imperialism of idiots’



Degrowth

Should rich countries degrow their economies to stop climate change?

This pioneering economist says our obsession with growth must end. “It’s a false assumption,” argues Herman Daly, “to say that growth is increasing the standard of living in the present world.”

Ask Prof Wolff: The case for degrowth 

What GDP does and doesn’t tell us

Beyond GDP: Alternatives to capitalism already exist 

No, let’s not call it something else 

The necessity of ecosocialist degrowth 

Toward an ecosocialist degrowth: From the materially inevitable to the socially desirable 

Degrowth & strategy: how to bring about social-ecological transformation. A new book, available to download for free.



Cities and radical municipalism

When cities made monuments to traffic deaths 

What I mean when I say ‘ban cars’ 

I wanted to share a bit about how amazing yet simple Barcelona’s Superblocks are, and Barcelona school and residents create solar energy community

Land power. Sustaining a community land trust requires radical commitment to housing justice and local self-determination — not to mention real estate savvy and political diplomacy. 

‘The beaches belong to the people’: inside Puerto Rico’s anti-gentrification protests

Here’s how rocketing rents and unaffordable house prices can be fixed



Just think about it…

‘The casino beckons’: my journey inside the cryptosphere. Not all cryptocurrency investors fit the cliches. Many are people looking to somehow claw their way out of a life of constant struggle.

Here’s why a border-free world would be better than hostile immigration policies

“Which coming flood?” Welcome to the Thunderdome of Ignorance 

The tricky politics of ecological restoration

Is tree planting a get-out-of-jail-free card on climate? 

Where should the climate movement go next? Andreas Malm thinks climate politics needs to reject pacifism for sabotage.

Is climate activism really about ‘sacrifice’? 

Body politics: the secret history of the US anti-abortion movement. The overturning of Roe v Wade is part of a wider movement entangled with nativism and white supremacy. 

The dangerous populist science of Yuval Noah Harari



Theory

A little bit of African thinking. The profound influence, often underplayed, that great African revolutionary Amílcar Cabral had on Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire. 

Japanese scholar looks to Marx’s theory to explain pandemic, climate change



Art and storytelling

Can an artists’ collective in Africa repair a colonial legacy? 

A list of films dealing with political ecology

A playlist of songs about the climate crisis 



Resources

D-Econ’s seasonal alternative reading list

Ecosocialist bookshelf, June 2022. Seven important new books on science, medicine, and socialism – including The Future Is Degrowth



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Technology

by Corporate Watch

Technology is everywhere. Its influence on our lives and the world around us is enormous. In this article we’ll explore the definition of technology, then see how it relates to two important areas: nature and society. We’ll also include some current examples of political debates and struggles in which technology figures central.

So what exactly is technology? Easy: it’s computers and hovercraft and steam engines and cyborgs and remotely operated sex toys and stuff, right? Well yes, but actually it’s not so straightforward. Although extremely common, the term technology is not as easily defined as its usage might suggest [1].

The term is also relatively new. Despite a very long history of tool use and ‘technological’ development, the word only became widely used in the 20th century. It is formed from a combination of Greek τέχνη, techne, “art, skill, cunning of hand”; and -λογία, -logia, roughly translating as “science of craft”, and originated as a translation of the German word technik [2].

In discussions around technology, certain ideas are frequently repeated. For example, most definitions refer to things (tools, machines or techniques) being used to solve problems or satisfy human needs or purposes. The tools and machines need not be physical; things such as organisational methods or computer software also fall under definitions of technology. The economist W. Brian Arthur, uses an extremely broad definition, extending the meaning of ‘a technology’ to include anything that can be considered “a means to fulfill a human purpose.” [3].

Science also often comes up in writing about technology and many definitions of technology refer to the application of scientific knowledge to accomplish a task. In fact, science and technology are so intimately connected that it is often difficult to distinguish between them. Stemming from this, the understanding of nature through observation and measurement, and the ability to influence or even control natural processes and our environment are other common themes in discussion around technology.

Technology also concerns the interaction between tools and techniques and the people and systems that create, use or are affected by them. The idea of technology includes a social context and there is a continually evolving relationship with other aspects of society or culture. Technologies are hugely influenced by ideologies and social structures, such as capitalism, and act as real world manifestations of the ideas behind them (more on this below).

So technology includes tools and machines, needs and desires; it involves science, society and nature, and it is inherently political. However, the dominant modern idea of technology treats it as apolitical and inevitable, as if it is an unquestioned representation of human progress. So where did these ideas come from? Looking to the history of this dominant ideology of technology-as-progress, we can see that it is based upon a worldview grounded in the domination of women and nature.

Nature

Many identify the European Enlightenment in the 18th Century as instrumental in shaping today’s understanding of technology and the role it plays in society. Science and reason were seen as driving forces throughout human history, progressing towards better, more ‘civilised’ societies. Importantly, this also combined with a view of nature as being something to control and dominate towards human ends, with explicit links made between the domination of nature and the domination of women.

Francis Bacon was a key figure in influencing these views on nature. He described how the use of science and technology would lead to the “Dominion of Man over the Universe” and render nature the “slave of mankind” (he probably wasn’t much fun on wildlife walks) [4].

However, since then, many other thinkers have pushed against this ideology, suggesting that instead of continuing a relationship of superiority and domination, technology has the potential to bring us closer to nature. For example, jumping to the 1970s, Murray Bookchin thought that technology had the potential to both free people from the toil of repetitive labour and to reconnect them with the environment [5].

In terms of current debates on nature and technology, there are two fairly distinct and competing views on how technologies relate to ecological crises such as climate change. One involves an acceptance that the immensity and imminence of ecological crises means there is no hope of making fundamental societal changes in time. It argues that democratic change or building the conditions for revolution would be too slow. Therefore, this position holds, people should harness the power of technology as it exists within the current capitalist, statist framework to find technological solutions to ecological crises (e.g. developing and using genetic engineering and geo-engineering, mining asteroids to overcome resource constraints, even populating other planets). Accelerationism and ecomodernism are both attitudes which fall within this kind of approach. Accelerationists believe we should enthusiastically embrace and accelerate both economic growth and technological advancement, saying that this will lead to the technologies we need to avert ecological disaster. Ecomodernists argue that humans should use technology to separate themselves further from the natural world, both reducing dependency on nature and preventing further environmental harm.

However, both represent a dangerous ‘technofix’ or ‘techno-optimist’ mentality, where people rely on technology to provide solutions to all manner of problems, while lacking a critical understanding of the role technology plays in creating the problems in the first place. They also fail to recognise how we are part of nature and the ecosystems that we rely on for survival, creating an illusion of independence.

On the other hand there are those that say relying on these sorts of technological solutions to environmental problems further entrenches the same kind of thinking that contributed to our current predicaments. They propose an approach of constraining certain (not all) technologies in an effort to undermine and subvert the growth paradigm. The degrowth movement, for example, seeks to end growth-based economics and replace it with a form of ecological economics that prioritises well-being for all and ecological sustainability. While adherents to the first paradigm often critique this second position for being “anti-technological”, what is actually at stake is not a question of being for or against technology in total, but disagreements as to which specific technologies are best suited to address our ecological crisis in just, equitable and effective ways.

Inspiration can also be found in ideas that have been around for a long time: indigenous knowledge, and worldviews and systems of thought from other cultures that have been overshadowed or deliberately undermined by colonialism and the predominance of modern ‘scientific-western’ thinking. How do they conceive of and relate to nature? What role did or does ‘technology’ or crafts play in these cultures? What systems and practices formed around their use of tools and how might we learn from them in shaping future technological relationships?

Argroecology is an example of how humans can use technology in a more harmonious relationship with the rest of nature, and has been practiced for millennia across the globe. Agroecological farming methods, such as diversifying farms and avoiding chemical inputs, strongly contrast with industrial agriculture and can help to address, rather than contribute to, ecological crises like climate change or habitat loss. As well as keeping carbon in the ground, supporting biodiversity and rebuilding soil fertility, they also provide the basis for secure farm livelihoods. Transnational social movements such as La Via Campesina (The International Peasant’s Movement) are championing agroecology in order to move towards a just, sustainable and viable food and agriculture system.

Society

Technologies are shaped by and shape society: they can originate from human needs and desires (social determination of technology) and they can also profoundly influence them (technological determinism). Technologies can have inherent politics, both wound up in the individual technologies themselves and in the specific way they are designed, distributed and implemented. As critical writer on technology, Langdon Winner, said:

Technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning. [6]

So how do forces such as capitalism and the state direct the development of technology?

One powerful illustration of this relationship can be found in the internet and digital communication technologies. The enhanced ability to share information and new modes of interaction offered by such technologies clearly have enormous potential to benefit society. However, they were created and exist in a social context that powerfully shapes their nature. Capitalism’s constant need to generate profit leads it to expand into new areas as others become exhausted or not sufficiently profitable. So the internet and the world of digital communication became a new sphere from which to extract profit. Just as workers are separated from the products of their labour and turned into consumers, now people are also separated from ‘their’ information: that which relates to them or is produced by them. It is extracted, processed and commodified by the corporate monoliths dominating the web. In exchange people are given the ‘free’ services offered by social media platforms, search engines, email accounts and the like. However, this goes deeper than just control of modes of communication and flows of information. Through digital communication technologies, capitalism’s insatiable appetite has pushed it further into the realm of people’s mental processes and their social ties [7].

Due to underlying systems of power, the tools and technologies designed to improve people’s ability to communicate have radically altered the way they communicate. The ideologies embedded within digital communication technologies have fundamentally shaped the new behaviours and cultures of communication that have emerged. For example the corporate/neoliberal influence on online social media is enormous. Individualist self-promotion and branding influence social identities and interactions. Clickbait instant gratification affects attention spans, the depth of content and critical thinking. The insidious influence of profit extraction can be seen throughout. Vast amounts of data are collected, stored, analysed and commodified, leading to huge intrusions on the privacy of billions of people and increasing the susceptibility of their behaviour to be modelled, predicted, profited from and controlled. This is an example of how the interests of corporate profitability and state social control intersect. They reinforce one another in shaping technological processes and aligning them to their priorities [8].

However, it doesn’t have to be that way. If the digital world is treated as another terrain of struggle and effective strategies adopted, it could shift the balance of power towards those who seek liberatory change rather than those seeking to control and exploit [9]. Social movements around the world fighting against authoritarian regimes have exploited digital communication platforms for rapid organisation and dissemination of information. In many cases they have been able to adopt and adapt to technologies faster than state institutions, out-manoeuvring those who seek to repress them.

Another example is the free, open source or ‘libre’ software movement. It aims to make software that can be freely used and modified by others (the Linux operating systems are perhaps the best known examples), as opposed to a proprietary model where the programming source code has a legal owner. The open content philosophy has been applied to a huge range of areas, including open hardware and there are now ‘open content’ text books and education materials, building designs, vehicles and medical equipment. Although it has been partially co-opted by capitalist interests, there is still a community resisting and fighting to maintain the original politicised principles of free/libre content [10].

Conclusion

While dominant attitudes towards technology are naively optimistic, technology (in the broad sense) can still be something to be celebrated and enjoyed; an expression of creativity and a powerful tool at our disposal. But it must be re-imagined so that it no longer embodies ideologies based on domination and exploitation of humans and nature.

Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us. We’re living in a world of connections — and it matters which ones get made and unmade [11].

– Donna J. Haraway

This text is taken and modified from ‘TECH: A guide to the Politics and Philosophy of Technology’ by Corporate Watch. Corporate Watch is a not-for-profit co-operative providing critical information on the social and environmental impacts of corporations and capitalism.

Recommended Reading

  • TECH: A Guide to the Politics and Philosophy of Technology by Corporate Watch (ISBN 978-1-907738-27-2)
  • Technology : critical history of a concept by Eric Schatzberg (ISBN 978-0226583976)
  • The death of nature: women, ecology, and the Scientific Revolution and Reinventing Eden : the fate of nature in western culture, both by Carolyn Merchant (ISBN 978-0062505958 and 978-0415644259)
  • The Social Shaping of Technology: How the Refrigerator Got Its Hum by Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman (ISBN 978- 0335150274)
  • Whose Streets? Anarchism, Technology and the Petromodern State by Michael Truscello and Uri Gordon (issn 0967 3393 )

References

1. See the Intro Essay in MacKenzie, Donald A., and Judy Wajcman. The Social shaping of technology : how the refrigerator got its hum. Milton Keynes Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1985. ISBN 978- 0335150274

2. For an extremely detailed explanation of the word’s origins see Schatzberg, Eric. Technology : critical history of a concept. Chicago London: The University of Chicago Press, 2018. ISBN 978-0226583976

3. Arthur, W B. The nature of technology : what it is and how it evolves. New York: Free Press, 2009. ISBN 978- 1416544050

4. Quotes from : Fideler, David R. Restoring the soul of the world : our living bond with nature’s intelligence. Chapter 8, “In the Name of Utility: The Exploitation of Nature and the Decline of Pleasure.” Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2014. Print

5. Bookchin, Murray (published under the pseudonym Lewis Herber). Towards a Liberatory Technology. Anarchos, no. 2 (Spring 1968) and No. 3 (Spring 1969)

6. Winner, Langdon. The whale and the reactor : a search for limits in an age of high technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Print. ISBN 978-0226902111

7. The Internet as New Enclosure. crimethinc.com 10/06/2013 <https://crimethinc.com/2013/06/10/the-internet-as-new-enclosure > [accessed 5 Sep 2020]

8. Return Fire. Caught in the Net. Return Fire vol.4. Autumn 2016 (Available at Anarchist Library <https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/return-fire-vol-4-supplement-caught-in-the-net?v=1501280195> [accessed 5 Sep 2020])

9. Karatzogianni, Athina. Firebrand Waves of Digital Activism 1994-2014: The Rise and Spread of Hacktivism and Cyberconflict. Houndmills, Basingstoke Hampshire New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print. ISBN 978-0230242463]

10. Technological Sovereignty, Vol. 2. <https://sobtec.gitbooks.io/sobtec2/content/en> [Accessed 5 Nov 2020]

11. Haraway, Donna. A Cyborg Manifesto. Socialist Review, 1985. (Full text available online here: <https://sites.evergreen.edu/politicalshakespeares/wp-content/uploads/sites/226/2015/12/Haraway-Cyborg-Manifesto-2.pdf> [accessed 4 Sep 2020])

A jaywalking manifesto

A sign in Manila that says “It is forbidden to cross [the road], people have died here.”

(1) The streets are the life-blood of the city—common areas used by all citizens.

(2) The history of industrial capitalism is also the history of enclosure and privatization of the commons. In 19th century England, common lands used by peasants and farmers for livestock to graze were enclosed for the benefit of a growing bourgeoisie, while those who lost access to the commons were forced to flock to the city to find employment in factories—the process of proletarianization. Similarly, streets that were once common spaces for use by the citizens of the city have become enclosed spaces reserved for a specific type of commodity: the automobile.

(3) Citizens1 of the city have been relegated to the well-defined spatial and temporal peripheries of the streets: the sidewalk, crosswalk, pedestrian overpass, the occasional street festival. In the Philippines, our sidewalks are even further subdivided by the abortive policy of pink or orange lines on some sidewalks—such as those on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue in Metro Manila—which denote where street vendors are allowed to set up.

(4) The vast majority of the street is reserved for the automobile commodity and its resulting car traffic. Thus, the life-blood of the city becomes the near-exclusive domain of the automobile commodity. To step outside these peripheries is to be subjected to the violence of the state through being punished for jaywalking, or the violence of the automobile commodity that kills millions across the globe. After all, automobiles kill 1.3 million people a year.

Jaywalking as invented

(5) To deviate from our defined spaces on the street is to become a “jaywalker.” “Jaywalking” was an invention by automobile capitalists to shift blame on accidents from cars and drivers to pedestrians. After all, the jaywalker shouldn’t have been on the road if they didn’t want to be run over!

(6) The creation of “jaywalking” then becomes part-and-parcel of the enclosure of the street reserved for automobile use.

(7) That is to say: to create a jaywalker, one must create jaywalking. Ursula Le Guin says it best: “‘To make a thief, make an owner; to create crime, create laws.’”—from The Dispossessed. (Le Guin, 1974).

(8) Thus, the enclosure of the streets needs no physical barriers (though these may still be used). The enclosure is ideological—its manifestation is the invention of jaywalking. This criminalization of jaywalkers is in turn enshrined through ordinances and enforced by the police.

(9) Yet the police are not actually necessary to enforce this enclosure. Michel Foucault’s reading of the panopticon reminds us that we do not have to be watched at all times to ensure that we police our own behavior. The very regime of enclosure, its ordinances, and its police has accustomed us to obey its delimitations, even if we are not actively policed. That, and of course, the very threat of death by automobile.

(10) Yet the invention of jaywalking itself is part of a larger logic of organizing our cities according to the logic of automobiles—an automobile urbanism (if it may be called that).

Automobile urbanism

(11) Automobile urbanism subordinates humans to the rule of capital and to the rule of a specific commodity—the automobile.

(12) Automobile urbanism is not just the enclosure of streets; automobile urbanism has ordered our cities around and for the automobile: parking lots, gas stations, widened roads and highways, bridges, underpasses, overpasses, and bypasses. An entire ecology is made for the automobile commodity wherein humanity are mere pedestrians. In a joke from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an alien wrongly assumes the dominant species of Earth is the automobile.

(13) Urban citizens are subordinated to this automobile urbanism and the neoliberalization of urban spaces. The urban citizen—particularly the working class—is out of sight and out of mind to the automobile urbanite.

(14) Automobile urbanism has gentrified and sequestered spaces that divide the city between those with automobiles and those without. In English, to gentrify is to reserve for the gentry class, but its French translation is perhaps more accurate for the scenario at hand: embourgeoisement, or to make bourgeois. After all, bourgeois referred originally to walled-off towns, set apart from the rest.

(15) Thus, the entire world is ordered under the bourgeois logic of the automobile commodity. To the automobile: the wide lanes. To the urban citizen: the spatial and temporal peripheries of the street: the sidewalk, crosswalk, pedestrian overpass, occasional street festivals, closed to cars on weekends. The urban citizen is thus demoted to a pedestrian.

(16) The enclosure of the streets from foot traffic is also an act of class warfare—dispossessing urban citizens of public spaces and the paving of homes for wider boulevards.

(17) This is literally true for Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s Paris (1850s), Robert Moses’ New York (1960s), (Harvey, 2008) and Metro Manila today. As David Harvey explains, Haussmann decimated the neighborhoods of Paris to build wide boulevards to make it easier to crush proletarian rebellions in the wake of the 1848 Revolutions. Similarly, Moses decimated the neighborhoods of New York for a new grand plan for the endless growth of capitalism. In Metro Manila, urban poor associations such as Kadamay or Save San Roque fight tooth and nail in resisting relocations against large developers that want to build more and more malls and high-rises. As an added bonus, the destruction of urban poor communities is a proven method of repression, as Harvey and Henri Lefebvre noted.

(18) Are streets made wider to accommodate more people or to accommodate more automobiles? It is well-noted that wider streets incentivize drivers to speed and drive faster, making our streets more dangerous and more hostile to citizens.

(19) Our streets have become dangerous for citizens. Commuting citizens risk life and limb to get to work and back. The road is a hostile place wherein the commodity of the car is king.

(20) Consider the cinematic trope of a car driving into a ball bouncing into the street, followed by a child dying from automobile impact: We have canonized the hostility of our streets in our imagination. This hostility is only a small part of the larger hostile world of capital that make up our environs. The hostility of the automobile is largely passive as well—who is it that has agency in the killing? The driver or the automobile?

(21) However, automobile urbanism was not inevitable. In the United States in particular, it was a product of a Keynesian growth-for-the-sake-of-growth economic ideology and cynical Fordist wage hikes to generate demand for automobiles. Automobile companies had to systematically destroy tram systems and force the phasing out of other transportation for urban citizens to adopt automobiles. After all, Henry Ford supposedly said “cars don’t buy cars.”

(22) In this sense, automobiles are spectacular needs, or needs that are illusionary. For if we are not forced by the world of capital to work and regulated to homes far from work and amenities, we do not actually need automobiles and their false mobility. Without the world of capital that marks us as proletarian, automobiles in their commodified forms have no real use. Automobile commodities are false needs imposed by the world of work.

(23) The Philippines has uncritically adopted automobile urbanism. This is partly as a result of neo-colonialism where peripheral countries become destinations for finished commodities such as the automobile. Just as in the United States, cars were privileged over trams and jobs and amenities were made more and more distant from homes.

The automobile and mobility

(24) Neoliberalism and its logic of marketization has exacerbated automobile urbanism in literally promoting automobility—mobility as an individual responsibility to be resolved by individual means. The solution, of course, is the market—buy a car!

(25) Yet the automobile is not just a commodity—it is capital in and of itself. Specifically, an automobile is a mode of transportation that enables the automobile owner to transport themselves, others, capital, and commodities.

(26) Automobility becomes a means of livelihood: transporting car-owners from work to home and back. Thus automobile urbanism has ordered cities beneath the ever-marching vroom of automobiles, rather than being ordered for the everyday needs of citizens.

Jaywalking is an offense to the capitalist order, pitting the mobility of the citizen against the mobility of the automobile, capital, and commodity.

(27) Mobility becomes a class issue. Those with cars can expect to cover more ground and thus more opportunities. Those without cars then have less options for finding work due to limitations of the commute and can access less amenities than they might otherwise.

(28) We have become second-class citizens in our own cities, with the first-class being the automobile owner. Automobile urbanism reserves the streets for them; the proletarian and commuters are after-thoughts.

Returning to jaywalking

(29) In the context of automobile urbanism, jaywalking is the act of entering spaces that have become reserved for automobiles.

(30) Jaywalking is framed as an issue of safety and discipline. Yet safety and discipline for whom? Safety for citizens walking on the street, or safety for the automobile to go about its way?

(31) The very concept of jaywalking puts the burden of safety on the pedestrian—an admittance that the streets are hostile for foot traffic.

(32) For whom is the disciplining of the pedestrian? Discipline for the preservation of order—to assure the streamlining of streets for the service of capital!

(33) Jaywalking is an offense to the capitalist order, pitting the mobility of the citizen against the mobility of the automobile, capital, and commodity. Jaywalking threatens to delay the otherwise smooth transportation of capital and commodities throughout the city.

(34) To restrict working-class mobility is class warfare—for mobility is how the worker can get from their rented home to their workplace to rent away their time through wage-labor.

(35) Thus increasing penalties for jaywalking is nothing less than a concentrated class war offensive. It is an attack on the mobility of the urban citizen, especially working-class citizens who do not usually own automobiles.2

(36) Those who do own automobiles quickly learn that the automobile is a colonizer of everyday life, to borrow a term from Henri Lefebvre. The automobile colonizes everyday life by forcing its owners into its zone of sheer consumption. This is manifested not just in the monetary cost of gasoline and of constant repairs, but also through deep costs to health and ecology.

(37) Automobiles—and of course, capitalism—are literally starving us of oxygen by increasing the parts per million of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrous oxide in congested and polluted cities.

(38) And who are even the so-called jaywalkers? Is this not yet another criminalization of homelessness, ambulant vending, and more—the criminalization of working class mobility itself. Is this not yet another case of creeping authoritarianism? Martial law is redundant—it is already here!

(39) And how is this working-class mobility punished? Another fine that cannot be paid? Unpaid community service—thereby foregoing wages for those hours? And for what? Is this not redistribution in favor of the state? State coffers that are then plundered by the corrupt public servants?

(40) Thus, the streets must be reclaimed. Every step that is “jay” is defiance in the face of the automobile machine. Honk away mga punyeta3—I am walking here.

Right to the City

(41) Yet it is not enough to jaywalk. It is not enough to reclaim streets as our streets for people. We must reclaim the whole city, to create a humanistic—nay, revolutionary—urbanism for the citizens of the city. A right to our streets—a right to the city!

(42) “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.”—David Harvey

(43) The Right to the City asks of us: whose city, and for whom?—for automobiles or for citizens? Jaywalking in this sense is to reclaim the streets as the life-blood of a humanist urbanism—a city for humans rather than automobile commodities.

(44) As Lefebvre, Harvey, and Murray Bookchin notes, urban spaces are where class conflict is most obvious. As minor as it seems, the invention of jaywalking is a means of control that capital has over the development of the city and its citizens.

(45) An assertion to our urban mobility will necessarily be connected to struggles in ecology, and for housing and work. For what is the point of mobility if we are denied housing, or if we go to work for meager pay? Or if our mobility is policed at every turn by the state?

(46) The struggle for our mobility as citizens of the city is thus a microcosm of the larger anti-capitalist struggle that revolts against the colonization of everyday life by capital and commodities. Indeed, it is a microcosm of a larger struggle against authority for an anarchy of movement.

(47) Jaywalking, then, is class war, as it defies the penalization of mobility as ordered by the automobile urbanism that divides our cities. Against the penalization of mobility is the anarchy of the streets that revolts against the authority of the automobile and for the possibility of the right to the city.

(48) Reclaim our streets, reclaim our cities! The struggle for a revolutionary urbanism for all is already underway!

1 “Citizen” here is used in its original term, a denizen of the city.

2 In some countries such as the United States, the working class do own cars, though this is not a global phenomena.

3 “you sons of bitches”

January readings

Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash

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

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

This month, we are thinking about animal rights. Many of us know that industrial, for-profit animal agriculture must end—but is eating animals, or animal byproducts, inherently wrong, and how do we organize for supporting animals? And what about ecosystem rights, versus animal rights in particular? We feature several articles on different sides of the debate, including those from feminist socialist, Indigenous, social ecology, and Global South perspectives. 

We also saw many articles about what Uneven Earth editor Vijay Kolinjivadi calls green gaslighting in an essay for Al Jazeera: ““climate solutions” that protect, if not boost, profits of big corporations are deployed and presented as the only way to combat climate change.” Finally, there has been some excellent discussion on climate reparations and what a truly global Green New Deal would look like. 

If you find these lists useful, you can support us by sharing them on social media and with your friends and family!

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



Uneven Earth updates

Exciting news from Uneven Earth: we have had our first ever Annual General Assembly, approved our new constitution, and are on the way to becoming a non-profit registered in Germany. Stay tuned: we’ll have some more big announcements in the coming months.



Top 5 articles to read

The fight for reparations cannot ignore climate change. Racial redress should be modeled on the global anticolonial tradition of worldbuilding, says Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò.

Why climate justice must go beyond borders. Harsha Walia on why we need a truly internationalist alternative. 

If the desert was green. Mass tree-planting programs in the desert often cause lasting damage to the ecosystems they are purportedly trying to repair.

​Re-learning the past to re-imagine the future. In his new book, Modibo Kadalie examines the convergence of maroon and Indigenous cultures in the US and rediscovers a lost history of intimate direct democracy.

Keeping the world alive and healthy: The radical realism of the “forces of reproduction”. An interview with Stefania Barca.



News you might’ve missed

Why Cuba’s extraordinary Covid vaccine success could provide the best hope for low-income countries

New nuclear power plants are unlikely to stop the climate crisis

How a married undercover cop having sex with activists killed a climate movement. Mark Kennedy spent seven years pretending to be a climate activist. People he deceived are still rebuilding their lives.

Cities under water. An incredible photo essay on the places in the world at risk from sea-level rise. 

‘The treeline is out of control’: how the climate crisis is turning the Arctic green

Wealth of world’s 10 richest men doubled in pandemic, Oxfam says



Animal rights

It’s time to challenge animal agriculture—without the “go vegan” campaigns

Our animals, ourselves. The socialist feminist case for animal liberation. 

Towards a universal animal rights approach

Oh friends, the forest burns. Does friendship between human communities and with the more-than-human realm offer a way forward in an age of climate crises and racial nationalisms?

Beings seen and unseen. Amitav Ghosh on decentering human narratives and re-centering stories of the land.



Green gaslighting

Carbon offsetting is not warding off environmental collapse – it’s accelerating it.

Resisting greenwashing in the Naqab. Israel’s relentless land theft as conservation is bringing Palestinians closer together.

Green gaslighting: Another face of climate denialism



Global struggles

Guardians of nature: How Samburu women are saving their forest

Esta todo incendiado. A conversation on the anti-mining struggle in Argentina.

Bulldozers, violence and politics crack an Indian dream of utopia

Solidarity with anti-mine struggle in Sweden. Plans for new iron ore mine in Gállok, Sweden, threaten Indigenous rights and the environment.

‘We are the power’: Canada’s Indigenous land defenders fight on

Waste colonialism in Bosnia and Herzegovina



Where we’re at: analysis

Here’s how to repay developing nations for colonialism – and fight the climate crisis

There is nothing past about historical land injustice.  Kenya still faces intractable land problems, including unequal concentration of land in the hands of the wealthy, land grabbing, landlessness, and unresolved historical land injustices.

How British colonizers caused the Bengal famine

Why climate change is inherently racist

Same old. What is the point of imagining new technologies without new ways of living?

What is going on? Thea Riofrancos on strategy, flexibility, and “green capitalism”

What the ‘Don’t Look Up’ action campaign gets so wrong



Degrowth

Degrowth: The future that fashion has been looking for?

How the Global South can lead the way to a post-growth future

Degrowth is about global justice 



Just think about it…

Economics is once again becoming a worldly science. After generations of ‘blackboard economics’, Berkeley and MIT are leading a return to economics that studies the real world.

The revolution is always already underway. Or, how your bowling league can matter.

Our ancestors worked less and had better lives. What are we doing wrong?

How vecindades design shaped Mexico City life

bell hooks and Thich Nhat Hanh on building a community of love 



Sci-fi and storytelling

What good can dreaming do? Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven reminds us of the radical power of collective imagination.

Can science fiction wake us up to our climate reality? Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels envision the dire problems of the future—but also their solutions.



Resources

Diversifying and Decolonising Economics alternative reading list (part 2)



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December readings

bell hooks via Wikipedia Commons

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

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

Happy new year! Tragically, another legend who was hugely influential on us editors passed away in December: Black feminist theorist, activist and professor bell hooks. We want to honour her incredible, rich life by featuring some of her work and legacy here. We also published a lot of articles after a long hiatus, and you’ll find sections on labor disruptions, planetary mines, and ‘nature-based’ colonialism. There’s a take on the very popular new climate satire Don’t Look Up, as well. Enjoy.

If you find these lists useful, you can support us by sharing them on social media and with your friends and family!

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



Uneven Earth updates

Subverting imperial greenwashing | Thinking with and beyond “A People’s Green New Deal” for anti-imperialist organizing

Blueprints for impossible futures | “A People’s Green New Deal” demands a different kind of impossible

Faith in a frail world | A journey through British Columbia this November showed how fragile the economy really is. Our editor Aaron Vansintjan also appeared on the This Is Hell podcast to talk about this article.

Making sense of our multispecies world: Body-Forest as community | The border between the human and the non-human is far less clear than we once believed. How might this impact the way we relate to the Earth?

Chester is choking | In the face of ongoing toxic pollution in Chester, Pennsylvania, Veronica Gomes and Kimberley Thomas untangle divergent explanations for the disproportionate harm inflicted on African Americans

An Italian city struggles against a century of pollution and political negligence | Environmental injustice and political failure take an unbearable toll on a local community. Yet, someone is now trying to make the city rise from its ashes



Top 5 articles to read

Ten ways to confront the climate crisis without losing hope

The earthly community. Achille Mbembe on the coloniality of infrastructure. 

The “White Saviour” Deal for Nature 

Why we need a decolonial ecology

From rural China, a fresh critique of global capitalism



News you might’ve missed

Gabriel Boric vows to ‘fight privileges of the few’ as Chile’s president

Rio Tinto lithium mine: thousands of protesters block roads across Serbia and Serbia suspends plans for lithium mine after environmental protests

Chilean environmental activist who opposed dam projects found dead

‘Like putting a lithium mine on Arlington cemetery’: the fight to save sacred land in Nevada

Remembering Standing Rock five years later: Importance of Indigenous journalism

Campaigners force Shell to halt oil exploration on South African coast

Netherlands announces €25bn plan to radically reduce livestock numbers



Where we’re at: analysis

The age of Imperialism is not over—but we can end it

‘Everything is burning and your house is gone’. The stories of survivors of British Columbia’s summer wildfires. 



Rest in power, bell hooks

A Twitter thread with free PDFs of bell hooks texts. Make sure to check out the comments as well. And bell hooks essays free on JSTOR 

To read bell hooks was to love her. An overview of some of her most influential works.

Remembering bell hooks and ‘All About Love’ 

A brilliant video series of bell hooks on cultural criticism and transformation: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4



Food politics

At an annual sustainability gathering, Big Ag describes its efforts to control the narrative

In southern Colombia, Indigenous groups fish and farm with the floods

‘An act of rebellion’: the young farmers revolutionizing Puerto Rico’s agriculture

Farming in the shadow of the shadow state



Labor disruptions

Why people are quitting jobs and protesting work life from the U.S. to China

Well, I quit. Anti-work discourse against the neoliberal utopia.

The supply chain disruption arrives ‘just in time’



New politics

Tanks to trains. Why we need a Green New Deal for Defense Conversion.

Puerto Rico’s shattered power grid could become a ‘big experiment’ for Biden

The art of mutual aid. Mutual aid is a political practice that sees collective care as permanent.



Planetary mines

Toxic legacy: The fight to end environmental racism in Canada

Canadian mining companies are devastating the Global South

Illegal gold mining booms in Brazilian Amazon, harming environment, health



‘Nature-based’ colonialism

Green energy push is contributing to forced labor, slavery

What is ‘green land grabbing’ – and why is it surging in Brazil?

Bram Büscher on Nature3



Cities and radical municipalism

Can a citizens’ assembly solve climate change? France decided to find out.

The new enclosure: how land commissions can lead the fight against urban land-grabs

Why the luster on once-vaunted ‘smart cities’ is fading

How removing asphalt is softening our cities

Fearless communes: An interview with two Chilean mayors



Just think about it…

Your attention didn’t collapse. It was stolen



Sci-fi and storytelling

Bambi: cute, lovable, vulnerable… or a dark parable of antisemitic terror? A new translation of Felix Salten’s 1923 novel reasserts its original message that warns of Jewish persecution.

Dune and the inhuman agency of commoning

I told you so. On the satirical Netflix movie Don’t Look Up



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Subverting imperial greenwashing

by Vijay Kolinjivadi

Max Ajl’s recent book published this year by Pluto Press, entitled A People’s Green New Deal, is a welcome and important contribution to an increasingly crowded and confused conversation on “green” futures. In the industrialized countries of the Global North, especially the USA, the European Union, Canada, and Australia, governments, social movements, and everything in between have proposed “Green Deals” of varying demands, generating much confusion as to what each of them stand for and the types of interests that underpin them. Ajl’s book places particular attention on the prospects of a US Green New Deal; as the US economy directly infiltrates nations and social classes around the world with its military, petrodollars, and monopolies, what it decides to do in the name of “greening” will have profound implications on the rest of the world under the current order.

The book offers a refreshing analysis, grounded in an ecosocialist lens for a global anti-imperialist class struggle. In doing so, it distinguishes itself from the distractions of rhetoric loosely being advanced under an amorphous “Green New Deal”. Ajl details these distracting narratives as they range from: a) liberal progressives and social democrats using all the right words but ultimately compromising to the interests of capital by advocating things like “greening” the US military; b) techno-modernist socialism unhinged from basic understandings of ecology while continuing to depend on exploitation of a Third World (e.g. “fully-automated luxury communism”); c) Euro-centric working-class solidarities for “greening” in the industrial core that conveniently ignore precarious and racialized labor forces both within and beyond the “Global North” (e.g. “Ecological Politics for the Working Class”); d) global veganism and half-earth nature conservation that have no qualms about embracing colonial logics against non-Western ideologies and affinities, and e) status-quo United Nations and World Bank-speak in support of the “Sustainable Development Goals”, furthering the myth of “green growth” and paying for nature’s “services”, which have thus far done little to halt or have even reinforced global inequalities and hastened ecological collapse. Of course, these narratives are not mutually exclusive, but hybridize into different shades. Common to all however are the silences in demanding climate reparations for historically uneven ecological exchange in which imperialist colonizers of Europe and North America looted the resources and life-energies of billions of people and displaced and shackled hundreds of millions in the Global South as a cheap laboring force to keep prices low and speculative finance afloat. It is this oppressive unequal ecological exchange that makes it possible for countries like Switzerland and Belgium to be considered chocolate connoisseurs, for the United States to foster and produce “innovative” tech hubs like Silicon Valleys that produce tax-evading billionaires, and for cities across Scandinavia, Canada, and Australia to be consistently distinguished with high standards of living.

There can be no such thing as an ecologically-conscious future unless it involves popular control over time, territory, and ways of living.

Put simply, there can be no such thing as an ecologically-conscious future unless it involves popular control over time, territory, and ways of living that Indigenous people, pastoralists, campesinxs, and artisans around the world demand as restitution for historical and repeated assaults on their autonomy. In this review, I assemble a series of quotations from the book under broad themes that highlight a few key take-away messages as well as an invitation to further dive into the details by reading the book. I conclude with some issues I felt the book left the reader to ponder.

Main take-aways

To control industrialization does not mean to eliminate industrialization, let alone modern social life with complex forms of economic interchange and interdependence. It means understanding how on the one hand, the North is gratuitously over-industrialized, and not to the benefit of working-class life. And it means accepting how much northern industrial capital, and the consumption which it encourages, rests on de-development or underdevelopment of the South.”

What is missing in the First World left is not an abstract commitment to solidarity and partnership but a committed internationalism which takes the anti-systemic struggles of the periphery as the fundamental departure point for solidarity…thus climate debt or ecological debt must be a fundamental part of any serious green transition.”

If capital is under pressure from social movements or political parties and needs to find a way to give something away to domestic middle classes, that something has to come from somewhere (my emphasis added). And that somewhere will be those not included in the social and political struggles: in other words, the South.

Ajl’s work offers a reality check reminding us that the influence of ecosocialism in contemporary global politics is at a historical low and indeed superseded by the more organized forces around pro-capitalist and techno-futurist versions of eco-fascism. The (often failed) electoral politics ambitions of recent legislators like Bernie Sanders in the US, Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK should not distract us from this reality. He also emphasizes the utter importance of placing agrarian reform for agroecology and peasant sovereignty at the core of what an anti-imperialist ecosocialism would require.

Modern industrial agriculture does not feed the world; it is incredibly wasteful and takes the capacity to produce food away from people who understand their territory the best. Instead, it forces everyone to be market consumers of pesticide-ladened and chemical fertilizer pumped monocultures that generate mass death of pollinators, birds, and soil life. It also heightens the risk of animal-human transfers of new epidemic diseases that lead to potential pandemics. With industrial agriculture, being fed is no longer something that every human deserves but something that reflects purchasing power and the capacity to absorb rising costs of food . These values neatly follow racial and class lines, with the vast majority of people unable to afford healthy and sustainable food production systems as these are re-branded into market consumption as “artisanal”, “organic”, or “heirloom”. Perhaps worst of all is the way modern industrial agriculture mines arable soils, stealing time, land, and knowledge from human societies and rendering current and future generations bereft of food-producing potential.

Why an internationalist, anti-imperialist politics is what being ecological should refer to

Colonialism itself is not over. As formal and legal decolonization gave way to neocolonialism, nations lost control over their economic sovereignty, the pot of gold they had hoped to find at the end of national liberation…Indeed, even during the brilliant noon of decolonization from 1947 to 1980, farmlands, forests, banks, currencies, factories, salt iron mines, quarries, and oil fields remained in the hands of the colonizers. Almost never was decolonization so successful as to allow peoples to fully determine their own histories, even within their own nation-states…the climate crisis is basically the child of northern imperialism, pure and simple.

Ajl reminds readers that it is impossible for the global ecological breakdown that we witness today, such as CO2 levels reaching their highest levels in 3 million years, to have occurred without past and present (and expected future) dehumanization of black, brown, and Indigenous people. It is consequently impossible and counterproductive to treat ecological crises like climate change as separate from those that perpetuate settler colonial land grabs, class divisions, and a military industrial complex. Tackling ecological crises requires structural transformation rejecting a militarized global police force (e.g. the US military) that justifies war-profiteering over the lives of Yemenis and Palestinians in the name of free markets.

Why other Green New Deal proposals based on “green” social democracy or domestic “green” Keynesianism are fundamentally flawed

There are four problems with green social democracy. First, it is not achievable through current strategies. Two, even if it were possible, it would be imperialist and rest on devastating the South. Third, it is being marketed as something it is not: namely, eco-socialism … and four, it limits our political imaginations.”

This does not mean it is bad to have anti-racist green left-liberals in office. It means that they will not implement eco-socialism unless massive movements and parties outside the state, and worldwide, are fighting for actual eco-socialism – which Ocasio-Cortez, 350.org, and the Sunrise Movement are not.”

Ajl historically contextualizes “green social democracy” as Keynesian concessions to labour that worked to stave off the spread of communism in the post-war era and were ultimately intended to reinforce capital accumulation. He highlights precisely why left-liberal politicians and journalists confound the terms of debate by ignoring this history. Instead, “green social democrats” tiptoe around very real uneven ecological exchange while superficially signalling support (largely by recourse to electoral politics) to anti-imperialist social movements and Indigenous demands around the world.

“Greening” as securitizing capitalism

Green Social Control aims to preserve the essence of capitalism while shifting to a greener model in order to sidestep the worst consequences of the climate crisis. [It] is a decision to avoid reparations [and] a blueprint for world management in which imperial loot remains in the North.”  

In relation to the confusing politics of Green Keynesianism as described above, a People’s Green New Deal explicitly rejects “green social control” or any eco-friendly attempt to maintain capitalism intact while deflecting or dismissing conversations around climate reparations for colonial violence and theft. Securing capitalism through greening takes the form of carbon offset purchases, eco-certification schemes, industrial and high-tech precision agriculture, “nature-based solution” projects and ecosystem service policies and others that co-opt intimate ecological relations as alienable forces of production.

On (green) technology

Those who argue in an absolute way for technology’s categorical social neutrality, especially from the left, forge one of the most dangerous, subtle, and effective instruments of ideological counterinsurgency: they accept the myth of progress and confuse opposition to the capitalist agenda. And this is dangerous, because capitalists do not choose technology willy-nilly, but in order to maximise power, as has been shown time and again by critical historians of technology.”

Amazon relies on a certain way of organizing the human relationship with the environment. Each item for sale on Amazon’s website, its energy-guzzling “cloud” data servers, its gossamer logistical systems which enable same-day delivery, is tied with a million threads to use of carbon sinks and the atmospheric space for CO2 emissions. These occur without the permission of humanity.”

To meet UK electric car targets in 30 years, the (British) Isles would need twice current world annual production of cobalt. It would swallow up current world production of neodymium, gobble three-fourths of world lithium production and at least half the world’s copper. If mileage did not shrink, to charge that monster fleet an additional 20% of current UK-generated electricity would be needed …. Cobalt, one necessary mineral, is kept cheap by a half century of neo-colonial massacre in the Congo, and lithium extraction turns on the mangling of Latin American water tables. Even now Microsoft, Tesla, and Dell are being sued for being party to child labor in the Congo mines that supply material for the batteries that keep their doodads cheap and briskly selling.”

Ajl emphasizes that technological futurism cannot be discussed in isolation from the interests and voices that fund and imagine it. Popular control of knowledge and deliberation of its impacts is dismissed in favor of techno-utopias dreamed up through visions of human exploitation, despite the window dressing of “fully-automated communism” or (white) working-class ecological politics. Technology, no matter how “green,” is therefore always political.

On the colonial violence of suggesting “global veganism”

Plant or culture-based meats … now rely on tremendous inputs of energy, and according to lifecycle assessments, may be more carbon-intensive than cows.” … “We have to keep in mind that the problem is not meat, but certain kinds of meat production: capitalist concentrated animal feeding operations.”

The demand that meat-eating cease … creates northern consensus around encouraging, coercively or otherwise, transformations of how people live. It also creates a justification for unnatural ‘climate solutions’ based around biofuels and bioenergy or ‘afforestation’ based on trash-tree plantations which will allow the great petroleum corporations to keep burning their assets, to great profit. And it will be the poor who will suffer.

A People’s Green New Deal would never impose universal cultural blueprints. It would not continue imposing imaginaries of human-nature relations from entitled Northern countries onto all people of the world through strategies like “compulsory global veganism” or “half-earth” conservation. Such tactics would scream colonialism and border on eco-fascism.

A People’s Green New Deal would never impose universal cultural blueprints.

On ways forward

Although we should embrace scientific advance in healthcare, from regrowing knee cartilage to organ transplants, the obstacle to world-class worldwide universal healthcare is not technological. It’s social. It demands a social revolution to shatter the capitalist organization of healthcare and to restructure it as primarily care-centered, preventative, and decentralized.

If social wealth is generally allocated based on labor inputs, relatively labor-intensive agroecology will receive more compensation…Command measures ought to extend to phase-outs of industrial agriculture, which has no justification for existing, and wholesale shifts in research spending away from conventional agricultural research and towards agroecology.”

Land should be redistributed everywhere. Each country should have total control over the food import and export trade, so that food dumping is impossible. Communities rather than farms should be in control of water, seed, and eventually land. This is the agenda of food sovereignty.

Intra-urban transportation would occur on bicycles, electronic bicycles, and mass transit, from trolleys to trains, where possible. Private cars would be most often reserved for ambulances and emergency transport – the times and places where society can collectively decide to use the fruits of inherently damaging industrial production in order to protect and convenience human life.”

Shifting from brick cladding, vinyl windows, asphalt shingles, and fiberglass insulation to a wood-frame house which substitutes those other products with cedar shingles and siding, wood windows, and insulation made from cellulose can convert such a home into a net absorber of CO2 emissions provided that when the house is demolished, the material is recycled instead of entering a landfill.

A People’s Green New Deal devotes its second half to sketching alternatives to the ‘Green Deal’ idea that put power back into the hands of workers, recognizing crucially how the production of “green” means exploitation of people especially in the Global South. It proposes several key improvements in terms of worker-controlled production; quality and anti-imperialist healthcare; urban re-design; large-scale agrarian reform and the dismantling of agri-business; intra-regional and collectively-controlled transportation systems, and locally-appropriating siting and construction of widespread social housing among other strategies.

In reflection: Thinking with and beyond A People’s Green New Deal for anti-imperialist organizing

Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal has enormous implications for many who have put their eggs in the basket of “green” environmental politics. It is a wake-up call (or perhaps a slap in the face) to eco-minded social democrats, left liberals, and Green Party followers in rich countries to reassess the colonial violence of their proposals. Ajl stresses that Green New Deals have failed to center the rising tide of dissent ranging from Indigenous sovereignty on Turtle Island to Palestine, to the abolition of systemic racism and carceral assaults as demanded by “Black Lives Matter”, to reproductive control over (femme) bodies, to material transfers of “Land Back” and ecological debt reparations. A People’s Green New Deal redefines (or perhaps defines more clearly) what a just transition implies. Thus far, it is only the degrowth movement in the Global North that makes advances to redirecting the violent processes of growth; though tweaking the machinery of “growth” requires an explicitly anti-imperialist emphasis. As Ajl makes resoundingly clear, “greening” must be redirected as an international class struggle and demand for Indigenous sovereignty. The only way to do this is to ensure transfer of wealth back to those it was stolen from in the form of payment of climate debt (and ecological debt more broadly).

It is a wake-up call (or perhaps a slap in the face) to eco-minded social democrats, left liberals, and Green Party followers in rich countries.

Yet, the means by which such a profound cultural shift can be accomplished leaves the reader somewhat wanting. Ajl notes that “being has a tendency to determine consciousness”, referring to the fact that Global North bodies are less likely to feel and experience the effects of imperialism due to the comforts that they’ve inherited and continue to obtain from an “imperial mode of living”. The problem is simple, yet difficult to overcome: the absence of crucial experience in the inherited comfort of middle-class bodies without which the true depth and nature of ecological crises as a class struggle is potentially not graspable nor perceivable. As Catherine Liu recently writes in Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class, we left progressives in electoral politics, academia, journalism, and other facets of the creative sectors and knowledge economy refuse to talk about class or class consciousness in proposing solutions to things like social and ecological crises. As a result of repeatedly masking questions of our class status with deference to increased gender and racial identity politics and tolerance, the outcome over the past four decades has been an ultimate boon to neoliberal capitalism. Moreover, the perfectionist tendency to “be” and embody anti-oppressiveness as the key to social change excludes people that do not live up to a constructed (though often unspoken) ideal depicting a sort of commitment to struggle. It has also resulted in alienating allies for changing their minds or making mistakes. These legacies of a neoliberal era occur due to a deeply individualizing ethos of personal responsibility that permeates palpably in spaces of well-meaning self-identifying left progressives. The consequence has been the generation of new forms of leftist accommodation within liberal market economies around knowledge generation, and more detrimentally, a pernicious intransigence to truly organize in solidarity across class divides. The potential of engaging in anti-imperialist eco-socialist politics without falling into the trap of an identitarian bourgeois politics of anti-oppression Olympics needs careful attention yet is all too often brushed aside.

For others in less comfortable positions but who are able to get a foot in the door to the fabled “American”, “Canadian”, or “European” dream (even in the abject exploitation of their labor they may experience), the pressure to prove oneself as an entrepreneurial and well-behaved visible or cultural minority enormously sets back the possibility for working class solidarity. Given this gulf of class difference, through what cultural means can class convergence take form in practice? How might this arise? What will it take for comfortable, even anti-racist eco-minded liberal progressive Westerners (and other privileged groups elsewhere) to recognize that Indigenous sovereignty, Third World working class struggle, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) peoples’ dreams for the future, and religious caste oppression are not side objectives, but fundamental for reversing ecological breakdown, generating and resurrecting alternative relations and relationships into being?

Alternatively, why should “greening” strategies direct attention to comfortable middle class Westerners at all? Why even (re)center voices of those who can’t possibly understand the material and everyday violence inflicted on countless people? Would it not make more sense for this demographic to cede place entirely and listen (for a change) by following the lead of those who have been and continue to be violently erased in the name of colonizer ecology? If this latter, what might this look like? These are questions that are left open in trying to imagine a “People’s Green New Deal” in action. It is here where thinking about organizing for anti-imperialist solidarity in the context of generational imperial living could benefit from both class- and region-specific context. What can liberal progressive-minded people in North America learn about “greening” from racial, labour, and decolonial struggles in their own communities? How have middle classes in places like Chile and Ecuador amplified voices and contributed through meaningful rather than performative allyship in anti-imperialist struggles?

Why should “greening” strategies direct attention to comfortable middle class Westerners at all?

Ajl raises some relevant points on the question of national sovereignty from imperialist resource and labour grabs, to reclaim popular control over the means of governing and administering resources in a society, and the role of a national governing body as an appropriate jurisdiction to ensure climate and ecological debts are transferred and appropriately administered. At the same time, he rightly stresses the “hierarchical international system organized around nation states.” Here, some greater clarification is needed. Since demands for national sovereignty often work in parallel to demands around land rights within capitalist political and economic relations, similar questions arise. Both have to do with understanding sovereignty not as a codifiable “right” but as a legitimate relationship. On the one hand, recognition of land rights and nation states are necessary to reclaim autonomy over cultural and economic lifeways; while on the other hand, they reduce diverse political subjectivities and relationships of territory to that of land or “national identity” as an entity to possess and enclose, to erect exclusionary borders around, to ally with or war against. How can overtly or indirectly socialist-oriented governments like Bolivia, Venezuela, and now Chile (under newly-elected Gabriel Boric) effectively reclaim popular control when they are at the same time imbricated within capitalist global markets for primary resources? What unintended effects does the stickiness of globalized markets and their infiltration into anti-imperialist ecosocialist national projects engender? Furthermore, how might the ‘national question’ support Indigenous sovereignty and demands for “Land Back” in different parts of the world? The potentially messy confluence between national sovereignty and a broader vision for an anti-imperialist (and thus anti-capitalist) internationalism needs some fleshing out. What comes first, a popular struggle to demand a fully internationalist anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist world order or nation states etching out sovereign ecosocialist agendas within an ossified and violently militarized capitalist world order? A People’s Green New Deal would require further guidance as to which of these strategies comes first as well as how they might interact or counteract each other.

Finally, Ajl argues that casting a glance away from these questions and instead turning to what is “feasible” or “pragmatic,” as liberal progressive professional managerial classes in the Global North all too often do, effectively confirms that the exploitation of people and nature from a fabricated Third World is an unquestioned necessity. But the questions of how to combat the always-present penchant for pragmatism, even among comrades on the Left, as well as the unexpected outcomes of trying to realize idealized forms of popular sovereignty and control among extremely heterogeneous and internally fractured societies remain open ones. Greater clarity is needed on how anti-imperialist local direct action or municipalisms can better align with an anti-imperialist internationalism, while perhaps reducing the role of the nation state to facilitating this convergence process.

Ajl rightly emphasizes that the “Left” is by no means organized enough. It is clear that status quo establishment has a firm hand in the driver’s seat of a melting planet when tax-evading fortune-500 companies own more wealth than entire countries (with politicians blithely casting their glance away and indeed participating in tax evasion schemes themselves), when stock market bros capitalize upon sophisticated machine learning to squeeze profits from Wall Street, or when eco-fascist elements carry on the legacy of systemic and historical Eurocentric imperialism in “solutions” like replacing (certain) human populations with pristine wilderness. Dislodging this cabal of eco-modernists (regardless of their capitalist or socialist inclinations) through popular revolt has never been more urgent and yet seemingly so far away. A global “People’s Green New Deal” therefore demands that our ecological practice is anti-colonial and anti-imperialist or nothing at all.

I’d like to thank Rut Elliot Blomqvist for helpful suggestions and edits to this piece. Also, many thanks to Gert Van Hecken for comments on an earlier draft.

Vijay Kolinjivadi is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp and writes about the politics and material contradictions of, and alternatives to, mainstream “greening” strategies. 

Blueprints for impossible futures

by Jesse Goldstein and Natalie Suzelis

Over the past two decades, a proliferation of “Green New Deal” literature has promoted various strategies for changing the structure of the global energy system to combat climate change.  While the term was first coined by the neoliberal economist Thomas Friedman, it has since been taken up by more progressive voices, from Keynesian social democrats to eco-socialists. Sadly, despite the promise of a new wave of climate-conscious legislation, from the European Green Deal and the UN Climate Agreement to the AOC-Markey legislation of 2019, each seems as unlikely as its predecessors to enact substantive change. At the recent COP 26 Climate Summit, for example, the United States failed to join 30 other nations in pledging to phase out sales of new gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040 worldwide. With the US federal government dominated by fossil-fuel friendly Democrats and climate-change denying Republicans, the chances of passing ambitious climate legislation appear bleak. In the absence of real political force, GND proposals often serve as blueprints that respond to a largely speculative question: what would we do if we were in a position of power to create meaningful, lasting, and necessary change? 

Instead of offering another blueprint for an impossible future, Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal levels a critique at the genre itself, raising significant questions about the way that plans are proffered, and how most green futures implicitly accept the ongoing violence of capitalist imperialism. Ajl’s work engages critically with a wide spectrum of GND proposals, from policy documents like the European Commission and European Environmental Agency’s “European Green Deal” and Senator Ed Markey and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s House Resolution 109 to Naomi Klein’s On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal and A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Batistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos. Such proposals generally offer pragmatic solutions that work towards a “sustainable” future while remaining “realistic” enough to credibly promise to break through political impasse. The political and ecological horizons of these proposals may vary, but they all position themselves on the progressive edge of an electoral landscape that is – or so the story goes – slowly pushing in the direction of eco-social democracy. Yet eco-social democracy is, as Ajl reminds us, not the same as ecosocialism. Accordingly, Ajl offers a compellingly simple provocation: if all of these visions are impossible in the current political climate, why not fight for the more radical vision of the future that everyone on earth deserves?  

A People’s Green New Deal has given us an opportunity to think with Ajl about the current state of aspirational, state-centered green politics, and to reflect on the supposed “pragmatism that drives the most prominent GND legislative agendas. Ultimately, pragmatism is a question of political strategy: is it better (more pragmatic) to embrace a liberal social democratic horizon in order to build a base of support in the Northern core? Or is it better to push even harder from below and to the left, with visions centered by the climate politics of the Global South? Which people should the people’s climate movement mobilize, fight for, and center? If the answer is “everyone,” Ajl argues, then any blueprints for a “green future” must necessarily include the dismantling of uneven development, uneven exchange, and uneven climate catastrophe, full stop. Here we suspect that many of those whom Ajl targets for critique would agree, but the likely rejoinder is: how can we “push harder” if we have so little power in the first place? Again, the question comes down to strategy.

For Ajl, the problem with green social democracy is that it is at once impossible and boring.

Are left-leaning platforms that envision a socially and environmentally just Keynesianism a means of nudging the “Overton window” of sentiment in the global North away from self-serving, business-as-usual climate denialism? Are these truly, as their adherents seem to hope, the sorts of “non-reformist reforms” proposed by the French ecosocialist André Gorz? Or are they simply reformist reforms, meant to incrementally improve without fundamentally transforming underlying systems of power, privilege, extraction, and ecocide? Ajl squarely situates himself with the latter position. For Ajl, the problem with green social democracy is that it is at once impossible and boring. This kind of pragmatism limits our political imagination instead of opening up new horizons of possibility that galvanize real movement.

In order to build effective political support, GND advocates propose a “big tent strategy” based on the promise of green capitalism (promising “green jobs” and a boost to the economy).  This vision fails to challenge, or even name, the unevenness that is necessary to sustain what has been termed the “imperial mode of living” of resource-intensive consumerism for predominantly Global North inhabitants. The result is a politics of “non-disruptive disruptions” that looks to techno-fixes that promise to change everything without changing anything at all. Implicit in the big tent strategy is a promise that the Global North can continue to benefit from uneven exchange and development, but in greener and cleaner ways. Here, Ajl draws upon classic theorists of dependency like Samir Amin, Walter Rodney, Amílcar Cabral, Walter Mignolo, Ali Kadri, along with more recent theorists like Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik, in centering ideas of “colonial drain” and unequal environmental exchange. This body of work illuminates how the integration of formerly colonized countries into the global capitalist economy positions them as appendages to imperial countries like the United States and United Kingdom through a systematic and ongoing drain of surplus. Left to accommodate environmental and economic harms –– including waste, seepage, exploitation, and exhaustion –– these countries are inevitably left out of any “deal” marketed as green, progressive, or environmentally sustainable. (For more discussion of this intervention see “A People’s Green New Deal Symposium” including A People’s Green New Deal – An Exercise in Just Knowledge Production, by Aravind Sakshi, Beyond Green Restoration: An Eco-Socialist GND, by Güney Işıkara, and Debunking the “Eco-Fortress Nationalism” of the AOC/Markey Green New Deal, by Sheetal Chhabria.)

In addition to being consistently inadequate at addressing the causes of climate change, Ajl sees in this so-called pragmatism an implicit defense of the ways in which petrocultures have shaped consumer desires in the Global North. Pragmatism, he writes, is “the watchword of reaction and a talisman of oppression … a cipher for identifying sacrificial victims for a great society that is only capacious enough to hold so many” (12). The pragmatic stance says: we have to build a broad base of support amongst the Northern electorate for a domestic environmental agenda that would eventually trickle down to address the uneven exchanges of the global energy system. Directly challenging imperialist relations and privileges, however, is a non-starter in the halls of Northern power. This is precisely the problem that such pragmatism risks.

So what might this mean for another possible approach, or means of engaging with viable and necessary Green New Deals? If social democratic pragmatism is a problem, then what is a more effective path forward? A People’s Green New Deal argues that left climate politics would benefit from a more robust conjunctural analysis that remains attentive to the uneven positions that various movement actors find themselves occupying, and to develop revolutionary strategy accordingly. While we are not quite sure Ajl’s work delivers on this loftier challenge of revolutionary strategy (and here we point readers to our companion review by Vijay Kolinjivadi for some examples), he does provide some incredibly important pieces of a broader, conjunctural analysis, and how it might suggest important shifts in left climate politics. Although we feel that the question of revolutionary strategy – beyond rejecting big tent pragmatism and standing in solidarity with third world eco-socialism – stands to to be further elaborated, we focus on what the book successfully contributes to these discussions in what follows.

Social democratic pragmatism or climate imperialism?

Ajl’s critique of political pragmatism is leveled most sharply at advocates for social democratic GND agendas that operate within existing networks of power, influence, and money to promote certain green futures while sidelining others. He is unimpressed with how these proposals gesture to “frontline communities” (evidenced in even those most progressive of GND proposals) while leaving imperial relations unchallenged. As Ajl writes, “‘Frontline and vulnerable communities’ are not classes. They are clay-like concepts easily molded into the framework of capitalist diversity efforts… where they will be hardened into decoration on the imperial agenda” (83).  His major example, the HR-109 legislation introduced by AOC-Markey in 2019, expresses concern for the legislation’s impact upon frontline and vulnerable communities, but never extends an invitation to these communities to play any substantive role in planning and envisioning their own green futures. Such concern disregards self-determination and sovereignty for these communities.  

We need an internationalism built upon decentering the imperial core, not reconstituting its dominance in greener ways.

Against this “pragmatism,” a truly radical – or a Peoples’ – Green New Deal must be premised upon the dismantling of the U.S. military and must address the “sovereignty deficit” that has stripped peripheral nations of any meaningful sense of self-determination. Instead of a trickle-down internationalism, in which core nations provide new green technologies on their own terms (as we’ve seen with COVID vaccines), we need an internationalism built upon decentering the imperial core, not reconstituting its dominance in greener ways. This is why Ajl suggests a strategic engagement with calls for imperial countries in the Global North (chiefly the United States and the European Union) to take “personal responsibility” in paying back their global climate debt, which includes trillions upon trillions owed for the cheap extraction of energetic and material resources over the past several centuries. As Ajl writes, “it is not enough to acknowledge that the US is disproportionately culpable” if such an acknowledgement “isn’t followed up with explicit efforts to make good on climate debt” (85). Climate debt, ecological debt, and sovereignty debt – or as Ajl terms it, the “sovereignty deficit” – directly address the core problem of global capitalist extraction, and therefore the actual problems at the root of the climate catastrophe. 

Here Ajl draws something of a line in the sand, arguing that decarceration, decolonization, and abolition are foundational blocks of any viable “green” future. We take these as crucial provocations for the climate left: what does it mean to not simply support decarceration, decolonization, and abolition, but to weave these political horizons into the very fabric of our climate politics? This is precisely the point made by the Red Nation in their powerful rejoinder to GND politics. To put this into terms of revolutionary strategy: vague gestures of support for and deference to “front line communities” don’t build the popular sovereignty needed to empower the most important transformations that GNDs promise to achieve.     

Decolonization, decarceration, demilitarization, abolition – these are all big ideas that still need to be fleshed out with details, including the social and technological specifics of when, where, and how to move towards such liberatory horizons. In other words, what are the truly “non-reformist reforms” that take us down these paths, which might oppose an assimilitive reformism more likely to protect the status quo than to subvert it? These are large, movement-defining questions, and while Ajl helps frame their importance, he doesn’t evenly deliver on concrete visions moving towards their realization. However, where Ajl’s text – and overall work – most succeeds is in addressing the question of technology.

Agroecology: A sociotechnical blueprint against climate imperialism 

Throughout his “Planet of Fields” chapter, Ajl reminds us that agroecology is a technologically sophisticated way of repairing human and nonhuman relations. His insistence on emphasizing the technological sophistication and sufficiency of agroecology is precisely a gesture along these lines – and one that he expertly pulls off, here and throughout his work. This is where we think Ajl’s voice matters most in global climate debates. Agroecology is not just a make-do set of vernaculars for the periphery. It is a robust and diverse platform of land management and food production practices that can – in a much more “feasible” or “pragmatic” way – take us far down the path of environmental rationality on a planetary scale. It is not smart “for them.” It is just smart. It is smarter. It is the cutting edge.

Technological change is a pre-occupation of most GND visions and debates: should we go for solar, wind or nuclear power? Electric vehicles or clean biofuels? Not only are most debates within GND discourses centered on technology, they are often preoccupied with questions of energy production. Ajl strongly critiques the current discourse around energy transitions, which remain mired in what he labels “ecomodernism.” Ecomodernism is not Ajl’s term, but a platform with roots in ecological modernization theory that has been resuscitated by the Breakthrough Institute’s extended network. Such ecomodernists create a strawman opponent of an antiquated left environmentalism that they paint as anti-technological and therefore out of step with progress, modernity, and everything that has made civilizational advance so bountiful. Their vision of a bright green future purports to use “humanity’s extraordinary powers in service of creating a good Anthropocene.” Ajl, instead, follows many decolonial and Marxist thinkers who have made abundantly clear that modernity and coloniality are two sides of the same coin. Modernity and coloniality cannot be decoupled because they are mutually constitutive. 

Ajl’s critique of GND ecomodernisms has to do with their liberal sense of internationalism, which we would call a trickle-down green politics. This kind of internationalism sidelines questions of self-determination and sovereignty, conceiving of internationalism in such a way that situates the Global North in a leading position. For many GND ecomodernists, internationalism is predicated upon tech transfers from north to south, with the assumption that the halls of innovation and entrepreneurship in the developed world will have all the solutions. The problem however, is that these halls of innovation are providing solutions for a lifestyle that is itself the problem. Or in Ajl’s words, “the good life in the North … [has] been based on the bad life in the South” (54). The primary focus lies in protecting a highly energetic and resource-intensive “good life” enjoyed by a minority in the global North, promising to “green” these lifestyles and the industrial base they depend upon, and eventually share this green developmentalism with the rest of the planet. 

The goal of a peoples’ GND should not be to accept and perpetuate capitalist imperialism in more sustainable ways, but to diagnose it as a core aspect of the crisis and to confront it accordingly. This means re-orienting our sociotechnical imaginaries away from those entrepreneurial innovators trying to sell us green capitalist lifestyles, and towards a different kind of innovation rooted in a vibrant and sustainable world of many worlds. 

Ajl’s turn towards agroecology is an effort to call attention to the assumptions of developmentalism that still linger in progressive GND programs. He mentions, for example, how Cuba has shown how agroecological techniques ranging from vermiculture, soil conservation, innovation of intercropping designs, seed saving, recovery of local varieties, participatory plant breeding, and the improvement of local animal feeds and pastures have helped to boost food production in a manner that is nonetheless more energy efficient and sustainable. Here, Ajl shifts focus from energy to food, arguing that any truly radical GND proposal must begin with the foodways and food needs of the Global South, as opposed to starting with the food desires of the global elite. A People’s Green New Deal, then, must include the dismantling or nationalization of agricultural corporations like Monsanto, as well as planetary agrarian reform, including the breaking up of big farms and the providing of individualized farming space for small-scale farmers. Such plans would include introducing parity pricing, and providing green transition subsidies and placing public investment in infrastructures that can localize food systems.

Ajl’s turn towards agroecology is an effort to call attention to the assumptions of developmentalism that still linger in progressive GND programs.

To illustrate this point, Ajl takes to task questions of meat production, and criticizes what he sees as a false dichotomy between, on the one hand, an ecomodernist excitement about lab-grown meat, and on the other hand, advocacy for global veganism. Ajl is dissatisfied with both, and reminds us that the true problem is not animal-derived proteins, but the environmentally devastating (and morally bankrupt) ways that animals are industrially bred and slaughtered. Such a view “obscures the ecological, political, and social differences between Sahelian herders, Kansan artisanal animal husbandrymen practicing intensive rotational grazing, and those sitting atop pyramidal monopoly-capitalist cow plantations” (136). The category of meat is over-simplified in the climate discourse of the global North, which fails to accept the ways that meat can function sustainably outside of industrial agriculture.

Such conceptual blockages are due to the predominance of ecomodernist narratives which center development in calls to develop the underdeveloped world, or even to conserve or “rewild” the world from the top down. Take, for example, calls for “half-earth socialism” and mandated global veganism from environmentalists like Troy Vettese, which ignore the fact that low-impact livestock agriculture across the global south uses rangelands and pastoral agriculture to support landscape protection and carbon sequestration. The problem is that such policies purport to further the imperialist relationship between developed and underdeveloped countries to impose a global fix that keeps imperialist dynamics intact. Worse, they do not acknowledge that some of the most environmentally sustainable practices already exist within low-impact agricultural systems. 

In this regard, lab meat and agroecology are two totally different sociotechnical possibilities addressing two totally different sociotechnical questions. They are interrelated, of course, but for the former it is a question of discovering new ways to feed (quite literally) imperial desires, and for the other it is about supporting and expanding existing ways of feeding the global majority. For Ajl, if we are to imagine an approach to climate politics coming from below and to the left, then it’s the latter, as opposed to the former, that needs to be centered.

From agroecology to food sovereignty: Ecological and social resilience through land reform and “Third World ecosocialism”

Agroecology is not new at all, and if implemented in the North, could entail silvopasturing (or integrating trees into pasture systems), planting forage under trees, alley cropping (which inserts trees into fields), windbreaks, riparian and upland buffers, and forest farming, which could absorb around eleven percent of 2019 carbon emissions. Lab meat, by contrast, is a perfect example of the inefficiency and environmental harm of “green” capitalist production, because it takes more energy to create artificial meat than it would to support agroecological pasture farming.

As many have pointed out, sociotechnical know-how matters, but it also matters where we look for it and who we empower as experts. That is both a function of sovereignty – in terms of land, labor, and resources – as well as in terms of knowledge and technocratic coordination. Instead of just a green technology transfer – from north to south – there needs to be reciprocal dialogues and transfers. Here Ajl pushes beyond some of the more radical GND proposals to envision new forms of abundance that are less dependent on resource-intensive patterns of production and consumption. Agroecology is one such form of abundance, where “animals can and should be a part of landscape management, helping store CO2 in soil, and enriching it and making it more resilient” (137). 

 This is why land reform takes such a central position in Ajl’s thought. It is what matters fundamentally to so many people on the front lines of the climate crisis, and why land back, reparations, and demilitarization are so important – and so intimately linked to self determination and food sovereignty. Food sovereignty, based upon radical land-to-tiller agrarian reforms, is “the cornerstone for Third World eco-socialism” (139). This is where Ajl turns back to the national question that decolonial thinkers were grappling with in the mid 20th century in reminding us that this question has not been answered and remains central today. In short, the climate question is still a colonial-imperialist question. As such, combating climate change means allowing for the ecological and social resilience that thinkers like Kyle Whyte call for in a true decolonial perspective of climate justice. 

So what might it actually mean to locate the technological vanguard in the countryside of the global south? What does it look like when innovation is centered by rural agronomy as opposed to venture capital? To what extent do we really need more technofutures arising from the imperial core that have largely contributed to dominant understandings of viable and liveable futures? This is the medicine Ajl prescribes to the Northern climate movement. 

Empowering, centering, and supporting the people and movements of the global periphery requires granting them power and autonomy to develop – on their own terms – and to give them resources to lead us into a socio-technical future that is neither new nor old (that’s a false distinction on a liberal timeline of progress) but simply otherwise. That “otherwise” is peaceful/anti-imperial, it is socialist/anti-capitalist, it is regionalized and rationalized with planetarily democratic input for the coordination and distribution of resources. This will only happen by fighting for and supporting sovereignty, self-determination, and national liberation via the acknowledgement of sovereignty deficits and ecosocialist reparations. 

The Cochabamba Agreement: A blueprint for our planetary future

Drawing upon decades of decolonial liberation movements, Ajl urges us to support “a movement of movements” of sovereignty struggles against the imperial core. He reminds us of the Cochabamba agreement, an international climate accord from below and far to the left of what is currently circulating as the social democratic vanguard of climate politics. The 2010 Cochabamba Agreement, he writes, gives us the “planks of a southern platform for ecological revolution” that are “absent or underemphasized in most northern Green New Deals” (11).  It shows how agrarian reform, combined with decolonial and national liberation struggles in Bolivia, demanded wide-ranging payments from the North to the South alongside a radical climate agenda. 

As Ajl suggests, it may not be mere accident or oversight that this climate accord has been jettisoned for language built around the nostalgic concept of an early 20th century social democratic policy platform in the industrialized North. Ajl also points to the Red Nation’s Red Deal, which shifts questions of social democracy to questions of broken treaties and the need to fight for sovereignty for the dispossessed nations of this world. All of these interventions, from Ajl, Cochabamba, and the Red Nation, center the “national question” and decolonial/anti-imperial politics, as the crux of climate politics. Here, the three elements of ecological debt, demilitarization, and struggles against settler-colonialism meet in places like the “Land Back” movement. A new land-tenure regime and swift changes in land management that center (rather than pay lip service to) Indigenous sociotechnical knowledge are, for Ajl, the shift which “makes the world big enough for all of us” (162). 

Ultimately, A People’s Green New Deal asks: should an ecosocialist Green New Deal govern capitalism or destroy it? In answering this question, Ajl’s book turns notions of social democratic liberalism – whether self-proclaimed eco-socialist or otherwise – on their heads. As he warns, “pragmatism and realism can become firehoses dousing in despair the flames of revolutionary hope” (4). Ajl argues that both should be dismissed as ideological counterinsurgency against those who not merely hope for, but need, a better world. 

We’d like to thank Rut Elliot Blomqvist for helpful suggestions on this piece.

Jesse Goldstein is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Associate Director of VCU’s Humanities Research Center. His book, Planetary Improvement, explores the unrealistic prospects of entrepreneurial solutions solving the climate crisis. His new work looks critically at ways that student creativity is narrowly supported and channeled in the entrepreneurial university.

Natalie Suzelis is an Assistant Professor of Literature at Antioch College and Associate Faculty with the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Her work synthesizes environmental and economic history with cultural theory in order to investigate how elements of capitalist culture are negotiated in literature. Her work has been published in Shakespeare Studies, Mediations, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1800, and Law, Culture, and Humanities.

Faith in a frail world

Flying over Vancouver, British Columbia. Photo: Aaron Vansintjan

by Aaron Vansintjan

In 1991, economist William Nordhaus argued that 87% of GDP would not be affected by climate change. Why? Most of the economy runs on things like manufacturing, finance, and services—all things that can be done indoors, safe from the weather. Nordhaus won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for this work. This line of argumentation is quite common today. This year alone, three papers published in top economics journals argued that climate change would only reduce global GDP by 4-7%.

I had this research on my mind as our plane lifted off from Vancouver International Airport on Monday, November 22nd at 7am. Sitting comfortably by the window in a 20-person cabin cruising over the Strait of Georgia, we veered off inland, and the rising sun illuminated the flooded rivers and roads below us. Orange and reds set the inundated areas in stark contrast to the brown land around them, highlighting, as if with a filter setting, where natural disaster had taken place.

For almost a week now, the Greater Area of Vancouver, population almost 2.5 million, had been separated from the rest of Canada because flooding and mudslides had ripped away key highways and railroads. 15,000 people were evacuated from their homes, four people and 700,000 farm animals died, there were up to USD 6 billion in damages, and a decline of 1.5% of GDP growth is expected.

A tale of two cities

And yet, the city of Vancouver seemed to be operating as normal the week we were there. Up above, cranes swung wildly, glassy condo towers were being built in fast-forward setting. Unaffected by the deluge, directed by the invisible strings of speculation and investment, developers kept building their vertical mirrors. Stores and billboards advertised wellness and cosmopolitan lifestyles, Hummers and tropical getaways. This city was buzzing along as if there was no flood.

Meanwhile, on the sidewalks and in the alleys, in the parks and in dark corners, a daily calamity of misery reigned amongst the homeless. Vancouver, often ranked as one of the best cities to live in in the world, also has more homeless people per capita than Toronto or Montreal. In 2021, British Columbia saw the highest number of deaths from overdose ever. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t expect the immiseration to be so shocking in contrast to the extreme wealth on display. Vancouver’s soggy wretched underclass seemed to be living in the real city, on which the city of mirrors was superimposed.

Vancouver’s soggy wretched underclass seemed to be living in the real city, on which the city of mirrors was superimposed.

One night, going back to our friends’ place after dinner, we passed by a railroad blockade set up by allies of the Wet’suwet’en. Members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation are blocking access to the construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline on their territory, and were being jailed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police just as we were eating dinner. We stopped and chatted with the activists there, asking them why they were doing what they were doing. The answer was: solidarity.

It was almost as if, in Vancouver, there were two cities: one visible to the workings of investment and finance: that 87% that seemingly does not get affected by the deluge. The second city was one where catastrophe had already happened: through decades of disinvestment in public housing and healthcare, centuries of land theft and Indigenous genocide.

My trip there was almost an entirely apolitical experience thus far. But seeing the protest, I felt as if it was there that these two cities met. Through blocking railroad access to the Port of Vancouver, these activists wanted the city to witness the calamity taking place on Indigenous land. Their disruption lifted the veil of the city of mirrors for a brief moment, revealing what lay underneath. Ironically enough, the railroad they were blocking was part of the very same network that had been washed away in a mudslide further inland only a week before.

Chokepoints

My partner Ky Brooks and I were in British Columbia visiting family and friends, hopping on the back of a conference my partner organized in Victoria. Little did we know that we would be travelling during a “once-in-every-500-years” flood. But then, who ever knows those things? After spending time in Victoria and Vancouver, we were meant to visit friends in Osoyoos, to the South. That trip was cancelled when it just became too complicated, with no bus routes available. The next step was to visit Ky’s brother, Eliot, in Revelstoke, a mountain town deep in the Rockies. The only way to get there with the current road conditions was in the air.

On landing in Kamloops, a small industrial city, our pilot chatted with a worker at the airport. The woman reported she couldn’t get milk anymore. Later, in town, we talked to our waiter. Gasoline was being rationed. Natural gas prices jumped by 40%. And all that on top of the catastrophic fires last summer in exactly the same region now affected by flooding—a traumatizing event that still scarred many people. And let’s not forget that we are in the middle of a pandemic. Things have been very hard, and the waiter was worried this was only going to make things a lot harder.

The next day, we took a bus to Revelstoke, which picked us up three hours late. The driver was stressed, calling his dispatcher in a panic: “I was lucky today. But anything happens—road conditions, a traffic accident—and it’ll all go down.” When someone getting on the bus started to complain that he was late, he responded brusquely, “we’re in a state of emergency, people.”

We only interact with an economy falling apart through chokepoints—places in the system that are quickly blocked when something unexpected happens.

We only interact with an economy falling apart through chokepoints—places in the system that are quickly blocked when something unexpected happens. As Kim Moody, a labor researcher, explains, “a single glitch in the production or movement of goods due to a shortage of labor or space can disrupt the supply chains crisscrossing the world.” So when the smallest bottlenecks happen in the supply chain, we get 0% milk instead of the 2% we usually buy, get no fries with our burger, forego the kewpie mayonnaise, fly instead of drive, or get on a bus that’s three hours late. Moody goes on: “Speed [in the supply chain] brings greater risks. Floods, power outages, computer glitches, roads in disrepair, labor disputes, or as we have now seen, pandemics and trade problems can bring a just-in-time system to a halt because there is no slack in the system.”

It’s true that the majority of British Columbia’s workforce is in manufacturing, trade, services, and healthcare—all of which happen not to be directly affected by an extreme weather event. And that’s where much of British Columbia’s economic revenue comes from. Yet, though most of British Columbia’s economic product skews toward “indoor” activities, the province and its workforce is indelibly shaped by its extractive industries. It is also one of the world’s top exporters of lumber, and exports large supplies of coal, copper, gold, and natural gas. When these jobs are affected by weather conditions, everyone is impacted. But it goes deeper still: this industry is itself the cause of some of those very same chokepoints that cause a blockage in the economy.

In conversations with strangers, friends, and family in those weeks, we talked about the connections between these different industries and the disaster that had occurred. Those we talked to agreed that logging—the same industry that was threatening old growth forests throughout the province—had ripped the roots from the soil, making mudslides more common. Wildfires had also increased the chance of mudslides, because forest soils become less absorbent after fires—water repels off them like waxed cloth. And that same logging industry had also made wildfires more likely, since loggers will leave behind logs, branches, and stumps that are very flammable.

The connections between industry, climate change, and disaster don’t stop there.  Industrial agriculture—which relies on chemical fertilizer and large machinery rather than maintenance of soil quality—leads to soil erosion and, by extension, more flooding. Urbanization into floodplains—driven by the speculation on real estate—further exposes people to deadly flooding. Meanwhile, the violent eviction of Indigenous peoples from their land has meant that Indigenous forest management practices—which involve regular burning of undergrowth—are no longer practiced.

“British Columbia” is an entity built with fossil fuels, dependent on unsustainably managed extractive industries, contingent on the theft of Indigenous land, and greased with the investments from a global market. Like sun rising over flooded land, calamities such as these illuminate the chokepoints between those intersecting dynamics.

Calamities draw attention to the fact that the real city and the city of mirrors are more connected than they might seem. When a calamity falls upon us, those who inhabit the city of mirrors start experiencing the shortages, the misery, the insecurity of the real city. When I saw this disaster play out during our journey, and seeing how it affected those we met, it became tangible how frail this economy truly is.

A disaster-in-the-making

After a week in Revelstoke, we were supposed to leave on Sunday morning at 6 a.m. Instead, after a long night of continuous snow, they closed the highway. Even though the ski hill had just opened for the season the day before, they announced that morning that they would close for the day, citing “historic”, “unprecedented”, and “extreme avalanche hazard”. Eliot, Ky’s brother, spent the day working as an avalanche patroller, triggering avalanches on the ski slope. He told us he had never seen anything like it. When they opened the highway at 3 p.m. we were in a pick-up truck, driving at a snail’s pace through Rogers’ Pass, in road conditions at the edge of impassable. Thanks to our excellent driver, Ren, we made it safely through to Calgary, where we were staying with friends for two nights before going home. All in all, we were glad that we had gotten through the journey safely, and that everyone we know was okay.

On November 30, we boarded a flight from Calgary to Montreal. When I was looking out from my window once again, what I saw was not a city, but straight lines of asphalt and concrete. Barely any sidewalks to speak of, row after row of suburban homes only accessible by car. Parking lots, driveways, highways, SUVs and trucks. Calgary’s wealth comes from the tar sands, but it is also the nation’s capital of homelessness, with a higher percentage of homeless people than any of Canada’s large cities.

Economists like William Nordhaus can only see certain parts of what makes up our world.

Flying over the edge of the city, I spotted a small futile nest of wind turbines. These only seemed to rub it in more: there was no way this city could exist without oil and the infrastructure it depends on—from the tar sands to highways to financial centers. Though it seems so solid, there is so much here that could break—the smallest crack in a supply chain, a highway swept aside by the rain.

Economists like William Nordhaus can only see certain parts of what makes up our world. For them, the economy looks like a global meshwork of exchange, woven according to the rules of supply and demand, strung together by individual rational choices and creative adaptation to crisis. The implication is, of course, that the system itself will withstand, and solve, any problem it faces. But what they don’t see is that their world exists like a net on top of another one—a material world, already suffused with calamity, already frail, already buckling under pressure.

The world we live in is a disaster-in-the-making. Its weave is held together in chokepoints that, with one 500-year-flood, can easily be washed away. Those who continue to practice faith in this frail world can’t see the relationships that make it possible, the knots that, when undone, unravel the whole thing.

It is up to those of us who can see the fragility of the world, and cannot abide by it, to put a stop to the calamity awaiting us. To do so, we’d need to cut ourselves loose from the net, while tending to our broken relationships, and forging new ones.

Thank you to Susanna Klassen for the edits and feedback.

Aaron Vansintjan is an editor of Uneven Earth and writes about cities, food, ecology, and science fiction.

Making sense of our multispecies world: Body-Forest as community

All photos by Jack Young.

by Jack Young

This essay was composed in conjunction with a year-long residency at Spike Island Gallery in Bristol, U.K., taking place throughout 2022. It is part of a larger project exploring the concept of the Body-Forest and how thinking of the body as an interconnected ecosystem, rather than the body-machine metaphor developed under capitalism, might shift the way we think about our human connection to the world. This idea was first introduced by the evolutionary biologist Pierre Sonigo in ‘The Robot and the Forest’ and further developed by Shrese. How might the Body-Forest de-centre the human? How might it change how we think about time? Or language? Or desire? The following piece explores the Body-Forest as community. 

I walk along the approach to Leigh Woods on the edges of Bristol, trudging up from the Cumberland Basin. The mud cakes my boots and hands and I accidentally smear soil across my face. I sense my body becoming something more than my body as the soil collapses the boundaries between myself and the woods. We merge in an oozing embrace. The path becomes a river. One misstep and I slip and slide in the rich hummus that streams down from the previous night’s rain. Without the grasp of a beech here or an oak there I risk tumbling toward the River Avon’s grey surge below.

I pass a jogger who has stopped to take photos in the woods. Their breath billows in the forest air as two ecosystems breathe as one: the woods and the jogger. Green breath meets green breath. Below my feet the fungal network surges with intricate connections, erupting out of the earth in arrays of glistening mushrooms among oak worms and darkling beetles. These woods make clear that our bodies are not merely our bodies. They are intimately connected with the bodies of trees and plants and fungi, with the bullfinches and marsh tits and fly orchids, all breathing separately, yet as one. My body is only my body in relation to the other bodies that surround it. The woods collapse the idea of a discrete body, throwing into question notions of the individual and community.

I keep clambering up the forest slopes, leaving room for the jogger to pass as we nod from afar—the best connection we can muster in this viral world of distance. The smells are dizzying in their variety: rotting fruit, decomposing bark, and pungent fox-piss. I can almost make out the birdsong, the trees rustling above, an unkindness of ravens. But the human noise—the whirr of cars—always supersedes the forest noise. This close to the city, the humming of the A-road is always audible. The human drowns out the non-human.

This near square mile of woodland that survived wealthy suburban development only did so due to the 1909 donation of the land to the National Trust by tobacco tycoon Sir George Alfred Wills. At this same historical moment, Wills was expanding his fortune into the British Empire in India. The name of his company—Imperial Tobacco—speaks volumes about the sources of his wealth, reflecting the deep and troubling ties in Bristol between the tobacco industry and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, involving merchants like notorious slave-trader Edward Colston. Colston (made internationally famous by the toppling of his statue in the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020) was, like Wills, known across the city for generous donations to civic buildings, yet such benevolence at home was a means to mask atrocities abroad.

As I climb, dwelling on this troubled history, I pass tents hidden in the undergrowth and limestone slabs where fire pits once blazed in the forest-dark. I also notice signs of less sustainable relations between the human and non-human. There are sheer drops in the gorge carved out by industrial quarrying. These quarries were dug into the ground near Bristol as the British Empire continued to pillage the rest of the world in the industrialisation of the 19th Century, when George Alfred Wills’ father, Henry Overton Wills III, was expanding his tobacco business with slave-produced tobacco from the USA. Brunel’s Suspension Bridge was built at the southern end of Leigh woods on the back of these kind of expansions, with a large part of its funding coming through The Society of Merchant Venturers, of which Colston had been a member. This Society controversially still exists today.

Nearby lies Ashton Court Estate, inhabited for centuries by the merchant Smyth family. Their expansion at home and abroad reflects this wider story of the wealth of this country. The Smyth’s vast woods, country garden and imperious buildings were partly funded by the plunder of African soil, of plants as well as humans, and an 18th Century marriage to the heiress of a Jamaican slave plantation.

I finally reach the top of the forest bank, breathless though breathheavy. Ancient copper beeches shiver all rust-red and magnificent. I encounter a sign:

PRIVATE PROPERTY: DO NOT TRESPASS BEYOND THIS POINT.

I look beyond the sign, the view bramble-thick and obscured, and can just make out spiked black railings and a huge mansion with seven luxury cars lined up outside. As I peer at the manicured lawn and cavernous multi-storeyed house, my body mud-smeared and lichen-fingered, I think about how the ‘public access’ of these woods belies the fact that those that can pay are allowed far more access than others. In the United Kingdom, less than one percent of the population owns more than half the land. A recent mapping by Guy Shrubsole showed that a third of our woods are owned by only a thousand landowners.

I sense how utterly alive and brimming with life the woods are—of how much life wants to live.

In addition, there is a marked racial disparity to land access in the U.K., where people of colour have much less access to green spaces. The widespread phenomena of rural racism is yet another barrier that occurs in the countryside. Groups like Land in Our Names (LION) have outlined the lesser ability to own land to develop food sovereignty among racially marginalised groups. For thousands of years, England has been a viciously bounded land in a process that was ramped into overdrive from the enclosures of the seventeenth century onwards. Leigh Woods itself is divided between north and south by an Enclosure Act of 1813, with the northern half formerly part of the Smyth’s Ashton Court estate. Yet this boundedness sits at odds with the fecundity of both the woods and our bodies.

I make my way down from the brambles, the shadow of Brunel’s Suspension Bridge just within sight through the trees. I pass fingered sedge and clusters of ferns, while squirrels scurry across the canopy. I sense how utterly alive and brimming with life the woods are—of how much life wants to live.

Then I stop dead in my tracks. A huge limestone crevice drops three metres to a cave system beneath me. I look around the crevice and notice a series of steps fashioned from branches and iron. I begin to make my way down, clinging to the mossy banks, roots and slabs for support. As I move around to the other side of the ad hoc staircase, I notice a gate inscribed in marker with the words:

COMMUNITY SPIRIT KEEPS US ALL GOING.

A quick glance shows that someone has been living here so I hold back, wary not to intrude. I dwell on how caves and forests have sheltered humans and provided food and resources throughout history. I think of the Kayapo and Xavante peoples forced to flee their millennia-old homes in the northern Amazon and the hundreds of Indigenous tribes in Colombia whose lands were plundered and seized by various government-backed paramilitaries and bombed from above by the US War on Drugs.

I imagine this cave system must weave beneath the foundations of the mansion and its no trespass sign, iron railings, and seven cars parked outside. Fence meeting fence. And in this moment, stuck between those two worlds—the gated communities of privilege and the evidence of another’s precarious shelter—I think about the different ways we have become disconnected from thinking of our bodies as an ecosystem, intricately connected to other bodies, not merely the human. And in this moment, I yearn for a shift in the way we think of our bodies and of community: I yearn for the community of the Body-Forest.

‘The forest moulds itself around the girls. More than something inanimate passed through by something living, the landscapes come to the humans and change their consciousness and form. Forest and humans are made equals: the girls walk through a transformable landscape, but they are also part of the transformation.’ ­- Jenny Hval, Girls Against God (2020)

The imaginary forest

Despite its role as a place of shelter, food, and resources, humans have often held an ambivalent relationship with the wild. They have been places of fear and trepidation; within Western imaginaries a place of warning for the “civilised” Western subject of how “wildness” leads to an unravelling of the self and the civilised world. This is captured by the Latin root silvestris, which means both wooded and wild.

In her hallucinatory Taiga Syndrome (English translation, 2018), Cristina Rivera Garza self-consciously nods toward The Brothers Grimms’ “Hansel and Gretel.” In her novel, the vastness of the boreal forest—the Taiga—is a site of horror and anonymity for the detective tasked with finding a missing couple within it. This forest is a place where things and people go missing, breadcrumbs lead nowhere, and the non-human refuses to bend its branches to aid humans.

The forest looms large in many folk-horror films, too, with Robert Egger’s VVitch (2015) being a salient example. Here, the protagonist’s family show a lack of understanding of the woods after they are banished from their white settler town. The threat of the woods to this family living on its fringes ultimately leads them to ruin, revealing the brittleness of their Christian systems of understanding, while carving out space for the revolutionary potential of women’s sexual power suggested by the film’s climax, as the protagonist embraces the expansiveness of her desires realigned through intimate dialogue with the power of the woods.  

VVitch is set around the same historical moment in the seventeenth century that saw the turbulence of the English Civil Wars, ultimately leading to the beheading of Charles I. Among this upheaval, the royalist elite held a deep fear of those that lived outside the state’s power in the cities. This same royalist elite included the parents of Edward Colston, among many other Bristol merchants. In The World Turned Upside Down (1972), Christopher Hill calls the groups that the elite so feared the ‘masterless men’ of woodland communities. The fear of that time was potently outlined by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651), where he wrote that life outside the safety of a sovereign’s power was one of ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ Such antagonism toward the ‘masterless men’ and the terror and mystery of the woods where they lived, acted as state propaganda for the enclosures of common lands that were rapidly accelerating.

As I move away from the cave, I think about the widespread working-class resistance to enclosure at that time, such as the working-class Northamptonshire poet, John Clare, and the visionary leader of the Diggers movement, Gerard Winstanley, who, in his True Levellers Standard Advanced of 1649, called for the common people to ‘break in pieces quickly the Band of particular Propriety, disown this oppressing Murder, Opression and Thievery of  Buying and Selling of Land, owning of landlords and paying of Rents and give thy free Consent to make the Earth a Common Treasury…’

In Winstanley and Clare, and in the contemporary narratives of Taiga Syndrome and VVitch, there is a deep respect for wild land such as the woods, and a revealing of the dangers that await those who fail to pay due respect. This dynamic of respect for the non-human is something people living in non-Western communities have been carrying out for thousands of years, from the Indigenous tribes of the Amazon to peoples of the First Nations, as well as closer to the U.K. with land justice movements mentioned above such as LION, and others such as Wild in the City.

‘Something is trying to tell me. That voice at the edge of things…. I tremble before the animal, the alien, the sub- or suprahuman, the me that has something in common with the wind and the trees and the rocks, that possesses a demon determination and ruthlessness beyond the human’ – Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera (1987)

The forest and difference

In Ciro Guerra’s film El Abrazo De La Serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent, 2016), the last member of the Cohiuano tribe in the Colombian Amazon must move through the jungle as part of his rites of passage. His tribe, too, fears the forest. ‘To become warriors, the Cohiuanos must abandon all and go alone to the jungle, guided only by their dreams. In this journey, he has to find out, in solitude and silence, who he really is. He must become a wanderer dream.’ Yet the Cohiuano’s fear of the forest’s difference does not lead to violence, but a deepened respect and understanding. To meet the jungle in ‘silence’ and ‘solitude’ is to listen to it on its own terms, which in turn shapes the people they can become if they heed its call. The forest moulds itself around the girls.

I’m drawn to the community theatre of Dwight Conquergood, whose work greatly influences my own. He argues that when encountering cultures, languages, and life experiences outside of one’s own, the aim should be for the deeply different to become deeply known, without becoming any less different. This is my goal when engaging with communities and people outside my own frames of reference. We can expand this to also think about how we engage with other living beings, such as plants and trees and animals. Like the Cohiuano tribe member in El Abrazo De La Serpiente, thinking within the Body-Forest as community would mean encountering difference and seeing it as a site of learning and respect—to deeply know that which is different, without collapsing the integrity of difference.

‘The Earth does not expect you to save her, she expects you to respect her’ – Nemonte Nenquimo

Our relationship and community with the woods is not a simple one. Nor should it be. But in the West, it is a relationship that has become defined by extraction and destruction, as shown by the fires ravaging through the ancient forest ecosystems of California, Greece, Italy, Turkey, Siberia and China, at the time of writing.

Humans, after all, are nature too, no matter how hard some try to transcend it.

Yet whenever there is a tilt toward understanding forests on their own terms, we find both the forest’s breath and our own breath moving longer and deeper. Robin Wall Kimmerer gives a prescient example of this in her book Braiding Sweetgrass (2013). She explores the difference in numbers of endangered black ash trees when in proximity to the Potawatomi peoples (who make their baskets with the ash). In areas where Potawatomi basket makers lived and worked, the ash numbers thrived. However, when the weavers were absent, the tree numbers were less plentiful. The forests were thicker, and less light reached the ash on the forest floor. Through sustainable cultivation, the Potawatomi people helped the black ash flourish again.

As I make my way along the limestone ridge, I notice that here in Leigh Woods there is also evidence of a more sustainable co-existence between the human and non-human. Up ahead I can hear the shuffling snaps of hoofs in the forest understory. Looking closer I see the ruddy shapes of North Devon Cattle among the cover of trees in the distance. They have been introduced here to help invigorate the pasture of this ancient woodland, as their grazing enables the clearing of bramble and scrub, allowing the herb-rich limestone grassland to survive, giving more space for veteran trees to breathe away from encroaching scrub, and helping to preserve the Iron Age Stokeleigh Fort found here. 

In writing about the forest, I do not want to create some kind of false wilderness void of human presence. Humans, after all, are nature too, no matter how hard some try to transcend it. But wherever we meet the woods on equal footing, in ways that are mutually beneficial, everyone thrives. What is good for the woods is good for us.

‘There’s a humour in the way they walk
Even a flower walks
But they don’t look for me
It walks just as it’s grown
It’s laughing so naturally
It tells me a tree’s a tree’
– Julia Holter, ‘In the Green Wild’

The forest and the border

As I take a last look back at the mansion behind me on the ridge, increasingly obscured by the deepening thicket, I see boundary after boundary after boundary. The railings, the high brick walls, the closed-circuit television cameras on the gates, the multitude of cars. Fence meets fence. Attempts to fix and lock the human in place. A gated community of individual power tucked away in high security houses, detached from the many people who live layered in the city centre over the bridge.

A man’s home is his castle, goes the old saying. But what if a person’s home was the forest? Remove the possessive and masculine ‘his.’ We could note the cave-dwellers beneath the mansion walls and the various tents in the undergrowth, pushed out by extortionate rents and chronically insufficient social housing in cities like Bristol. But taken in a wider sense, it would mean thinking of our bodies not as individual entities, shored up in walls and discrete houses set apart from others, but rather complex ecosystems as dependent on the non-human as the non-human is dependent on us. The Body-Forest as community.

‘No, no! I am nothing pure! My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man, light with darkness, nothing pure! I am mud and flame!’ – Penda’s Fen (1974)

The promiscuous forest

I frequently struggle with the demarcation of the ‘human’ and ‘non-human.’ It can create a misleading boundedness about our bodies and their relationship with other bodies. I’m far more drawn to the use of more-than-human. Rather than define anything that is not human by its negation—non-human—we see it as more, something to respect and view horizontally.

The woods endlessly trespass.

This interconnectedness of species, including humans, is indicated by the fact that more than half of the cells that make up our bodies are actually bacteria and fungi (traditionally seen as ‘non-human’). We are so much greater than the sum of our parts, if only we could change the way we see ourselves. Such manoeuvres within the Body-Forest as community could decentre the human from our privileged location in the world. It might begin to branch our thinking outward into horizontal structures of mutual benefit between humans and other living beings. Such thinking might desbordar our ideas of the human body as a closed and finite entity. Desbordar is a Spanish word, meaning to overflow limits or brim over. The woods desbordar too—constantly overflowing their ‘limits’ and making a mockery of ideas of PRIVATE PROPERTY and TRESPASS.

The woods endlessly trespass. I’m reminded of this as I see mushrooms erupting through a rotting ash down from the ridge, tinged acid-green at their gills and spreading wildly through the hollow. The fungi that comprise a large component of our own bodies also comprise a large part of the forest body. Tree roots, fungi, and bacteria exist symbiotically, sharing and distributing resources between one another and allowing the trees to communicate with each other. Dying trees can divest themselves of resources for the benefit of younger trees. Trees in the sun may give extra resources to trees in shady areas.

In the 1980s, the relationship between fungi and trees was commonly thought to be a reflection of the free-market economics championed by that era. As Margaret Thatcher declared that ‘there is no such thing as society’, merely individuals, many scientists went to the woods and decided that trees compete against each other for soil and light while fungi feed off them and cause disease. Yet rather than competition, that zero-sum game of one species dominating another (cue the mansion on the ridge, the Etonians in the government cabinet, the Western conquest of Indigenous lands), we find something far more complex and outside the limits of human language. While the implications of this phenomenon are astounding and far less simplistic than the free-market metaphors of old, we must also be wary of imposing another, but more collaborative, human structure on the world. In the Body-Forest we must sit with difference and unknowingness and see it as a location of learning and respect. The deeply different can become deeply known without becoming any less different.

Merlin Sheldrake, whose recent Entangled Life (2020) probes this mycorrhizal wonder in incredible detail, describes how the amorphous and streaming bodies of fungal networks exist as one,without ceasing to be many.’ Sheldrake compares this to the way polyphonic music works, where each individual voice has resonance without losing its relationship to the whole. I hear this when The Reykjavik Women’s Choir sings on Bjork’s Biophilia (2011), in the choral music of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, or in the dialogue of insect and human in the gorgeous Be-One album. I revel in this sense of being part of something that is bigger than me and becoming nourished through the experience of the collective. In the woods, I’m slipping in the sludge and I’m unsure if what I’m following is even a footpath anymore, the gorge seems to be getting steeper, and I have to concentrate all my attention to avoid stumbling down.

‘A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity. The environment is alive, a fluid changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other, flowers shape bees as much as bees shape flowers. Trees shape us as much as we shape trees. We’ve just forgotten how to see.’ – Richard Powers, The Overstory (2018)

The lonely forest 

We’ve just forgotten how to see. In this age of mass media, 24-hour news cycles, smashed-apart labour unions, the gutting of communities through gentrification and widespread state surveillance, we have become more atomised than ever. The modernist poet Jane Harrison termed the phrase holopsychosis to describe humanity’s lost familiarity with collective experience, which she saw as a state of being before existence was divided into subjects and objects. Holopsychosis captures something of what we have lost, or that which we cannot access, diminished by gated communities, exploitative work and zero-hour contracts, empty luxury builds rising in the wake of scorched-out council towers and billionaire-infested governments. I would say we are suffering from holopsychosis more than ever.

And yet, I’m reminded again and again of what the brilliant and dearly missed David Graeber, in his influential book Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011), called everyday communism. Graeber argued that communism is the foundation of all human sociability and makes society possible, giving instances such as the simple gesture of borrowing a cigarette and broader examples, such as the centrality of sharing food among many cultures across the world.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a renewed sense of this need for collective action, for properly funded public health care (and the tragic cost of its absence); a surge in interest in Green New Deals; of mutual aid groups popping up around the country and the timely reminder of those that had been around for decades, particularly among migrant populations in our cities. The powers that be will do all they can to divide us, systematically and without mercy, but the search for connection and community will continue to erupt through the cracks of stone walls and mansions, much like the ivy that drips down the walls of Ashton Court’s fallen empire on the other side of these woods, filling the cracks and splitting the stones, roots thick and creeping into the entrances of stately homes. All their castles will turn back to soil.

‘No matter how we are kept apart, humans always find each other. We will talk through walls if we have to, pass notes, write graffiti in the middle of the night.’ Anne Boyer

The forest and mutual aid

I stop for a moment to catch my breath and take a sip of water by the side of a fallen oak. In the stillness, held in the stirring wood, I notice the tiny shapes of ants making their way across the roughed ridges of the trunk, scuttling in tight formation, with torn leaves twice their size carried above their delicate bodies. I think of Peter Kropotkin, who explored the phenomena of cooperation among more-than-human species in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), ranging from the cohabitation of multiple animals in lake habitats to the mass-migration of fallow-deer on the Amur. He used his observations of mutual aid within the more-than-human world evolution to develop an understanding of how mutual aid could also be found within human societies:

‘It is not love, and not even sympathy (understood in its proper sense) which induces a herd of ruminants or of horses to form a ring in order to resist an attack of wolves; not love which induces wolves to form a pack for hunting; not love which induces kittens or lambs to play, or a dozen species of young birds to spend their days together in the autumn; and it is neither love nor personal sympathy which induces many thousand fallow-deer scattered over a territory as large as France to form into a score of separate herds, all marching toward a given spot, in order to cross there a river. It is a feeling infinitely wider than love or personal sympathy—an instinct that has been slowly developed among animals and men in the course of an extremely long evolution, and which has taught animals and men alike the force they can borrow from the practice of mutual aid and support, and the joys they can find in social life… It is not love and not even sympathy upon which society is based in mankind. It is the conscience—be it only at the stage of an instinct—of human solidarity. It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid; of the close dependence of everyone’s happiness upon the happiness of all; and of the sense of justice or equity which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own.’

In one of his last essays, David Graeber wrote about how it was through Kropotkin’s observations of various animals’ relationship to mutualism that he was able to refute the ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ evolutionary theories of the Social Darwinists of the nineteenth century—theories that were used to legitimise European colonialism’s genocides (and have been eagerly revisited today by the eugenics-crazed minds of Dominic Cummings and his cronies’ deep influence in the present U.K. government).

I take another sip of my water and turn from the scurrying line of ants, making for the gap in the canopy ahead which indicates I’m edging closer to Brunel’s bridge. I think about how there are acts of solidarity happening every day, visible evidence to discredit the ‘Selfish Gene’ of Richard Dawkin’s breed of evolutionary science. Dawkins argues that a gene’s ‘drive’ to replicate itself shows that selfishness is endemic to all living things. Yet his argument falls short by our clear capacity to self-sacrifice, as well as self-preservation. As Graeber indicated, cooperation, or communism, is the foundation of all social relationships, and we can see that such relationships as are forged in cooperatives and radical municipalities, enable the people involved to build resilience and deepen their ability to both give and receive.

‘Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking. Life forms multiplied and complexified by co-opting others, not just by killing them’ – Lynn Margulis, Microcosmos (1986)

The microbial forest

We find further interconnectedness at the microscopic level. The evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis discovered that all larger organisms (such as fungi, animals, and plants) evolved symbiogenetically. For Margulis, evolution arose through what she calls the intimacy of strangers, i.e., cells, bodies, and organisms coming together in mutually beneficial ways. In her work Symbiotic Planet (1998), she describes a worm often mistaken for seaweed. Photosynthesizing algae live within these translucent worms, making them appear green. They lie on the beach together and the algae produce food for both organisms. Each part of this pair performs parts of their shared functions—they remain genetically separate organisms, but they act as a single being, rendering it impossible to determine where one organism ends and the other begins. On a molecular level Margulis proved that we have relied on the intimacy of strangers—the networking between life organisms—throughout our long history of evolution. This networking still goes on today.

What kind of world might we move toward if we could bring to ruin the lie that places the sanctity of the individual over the power of the collective?  

I’m wary not to collapse Margulis’s microbial research into human concepts of organisation. I wish to acknowledge that neither genomes nor fungi cooperate in the way we understand humans can. Yet Margulis’s symbiotic organisms explode the idea that we are a bounded and somehow privileged species.

COMMUNITY SPIRIT KEEPS US ALL GOING

In the wake of the crises of both the climate and COVID, itself a climate crisis, and the rise of the far-right machismo of Trump, Bolsanoro, Modi, Johnson, and others like them, it is easy to feel trapped by the holopsychosis of the modern world. Yet beyond the headlines we can find the intimacy of strangers. We can choose to come across difference and refuse to meet it with distrust, but rather respect—the deeply different becomes deeply known without becoming any less different. We can choose to come across difference and see an opportunity for deeper understanding, for both ourselves and for others, for the human and more-than-human.

What kind of world might we move toward if we could bring to ruin the lie that places the sanctity of the individual over the power of the collective?  What if we could open ourselves to trust more in the intimacy of strangers?

I reach the edge of this part of the forest and find myself against the red sandstone wall which makes up the base of one of the gothic towers of Brunel’s bridge. I feel my way back up the slope to where an iron railing divides me from the road that runs across the bridge. I haul myself up and over the spikes and land on the pavement on the other side. My face near the floor, I notice clumps of groundsel and daisies erupting through the cracks in the concrete, reminding me of how porous the borders are between the woods and the city, as porous as the borders that exist between species.

As the fungal networks stream between and around the trees that tower from the forest floor into the canopy above, so too could we look at the ecosystem of the forest and learn how to build communities that rely not on borders and gates and violence and the rapacious pursuit of profit, but deep roots of equality and thriving shoots of solidarity.

I get to my feet and begin to cross the bridge back into the city.

Jack Young is a writer and participatory educator living in Bristol, U.K. His hybrid fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in Entropy, 3:AM, Burning House Press, The Grapevine, Caught by the River, and Epoque Press, among others. Big White Shed will publish his book Urth in 2022. He also co-hosts the literary podcast Tender Buttons. Visit www.jackmyoung.net for more information.

Chester is choking

by Veronica Gomes and Kimberley Thomas

Waste trucks rumbling through the residential neighborhood have become a commonplace scene in Chester City, Pennsylvania. These trucks make their way to the Covanta incinerator carrying tons of garbage from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and places as far as 115 miles away, like New York. It is the nation’s largest trash incinerator, has very few pollution controls, and has become infamous for burning an astonishing 3,510 tons of trash a day. Trucks disrupting the otherwise peaceful neighborhood have become an extension of the myriad ways in which Chester has been reduced to a burning furnace. The city’s 4.8 square miles are overburdened with trash incinerators, a medical trash burner, a sewage sludge incinerator, paper mills, and a multitude of chemical plants (Map 1). This hub of toxic facilities has disproportionately subjected the predominantly minority population, 70 percent of which is African American, to the perils of environmental pollution. Such environmental harm has been an unwelcome addition to the social ills and disinvestment that Chester residents continue to struggle with in their daily lives. The close proximity between the toxic facilities and neighborhoods with a high density of African Americans is unambiguous (Map1). Meanwhile, such facilities are notably absent from the areas that flank the core African American neighborhoods to the east and west.

Map 1. The demographic concentration of the African American population in and around Chester, Pennsylvania with the locations of polluting industries. E = Ethanol Refinery, G = Gas, I = Trash Incinerator, O = Oil Refinery and Red/Green markings = Others. Borrowed from Energy Justice Network. 

Map 2. A Google Maps image of the Chester city boundary.

Media coverage of the Chester case has uncovered the detrimental health consequences associated with residents’ prolonged exposure to pollution. While the sources of air pollution are varied and difficult to isolate, their attendant health problems have been very certain. Cases of asthma, lung cancer, stroke, and heart disease are rampant and exist alongside lead poisoning from deteriorated housing and air pollution. The pollution has reached the extent that even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is aware that the facilities violate national air quality standards. While current news articles uncover ‘pollution’, harmful air’, and dirty air’ as the major concerns of Chester, most of the systemic racism ingrained in the continued pattern of toxic facility siting largely goes missing. Only by placing Chester in a historical context does the environmental racism of the toxic dump come into view. 

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The Covanta Delaware Valley LP, located at Chester, Pennsylvania, USA. Credit: Veronica Gomes
A factory with smoke coming out of it

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The Monroe Energy LLP, located at Chester, Pennsylvania, USA. Credit: Veronica Gomes

Nations’ worst case of environmental racism

So, when did environmental racism start? What events positioned Chester as the nations’ worst case of environmental racism?’

Chester was once a flourishing ‘boom town’, according to Dr. Marilyn Howarth of the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology. During the 1960s, it was host to multiple manufacturing centers, namely Sun Ship, Scott paper, and Ford Motor Company. The site of the town along the Delaware River was attractive for industries that heralded the surge of the middle-class population. Chester boasted a good educational system, department stores and was a major music venue that hosted jazz concerts and live theatre. But the city’s heyday was short-lived.

A sign that has greeted people entering the city since the 1920s, ‘What Chester makes, makes Chester’ now serves as an apt parody for the flared pollution that characterizes the city today

A sign that has greeted people entering the city since the 1920s, ‘What Chester makes, makes Chester’ now serves as an apt parody for the flared pollution that characterizes the city today. Chester experienced economic and demographic restructuring after World War II due to technological advancements and competition from abroad that led to massive deindustrialization. The shift of the city’s core industries offshore follows the common trend of industries relocating for factors such as cheap labor and land values. Also typical of other cities in the American Rust Belt, the subsequent collapse of the economy and the deficit in manufacturing jobs led affluent residents to move to the suburbs, leaving behind the poor minorities. 

The evacuation of manufacturing jobs led to the transformation of the demographic make-up and ‘white flight’ out of Chester. Coupling the concept of ‘white privilege’ to ‘white flight’ as geographer Laura Pulido has demonstrated expands conventional understandings of racism. Namely, white residents secure relatively cleaner neighborhoods, through processes of suburbanization and decentralization. White privilege, which is embedded in our social, economic, and political system, thus reinforces discrimination between ‘whites’ and ‘nonwhites’ in creating forms of racism that are geographically distinct. The resulting segregation between whites in suburbs and nonwhites in the city core contributes to environmental racism through the uneven distribution of and exposure to toxic air, polluted water, and other environmental hazards. This phenomenon, termed the spatiality of racism’ applies to Chester’s process of deindustrialization, urban disinvestment, and demographic change that characterize its landscape of environmental racism. 

Racism and its consequences occur across multiple scales – individual, institution, society, and global. The concept of ‘spatiality of racism’ challenges us to look beyond Chester’s polluting activities of a single facility and instead address the larger industrial zone in its relation to the suburbs and the inner city. Meanwhile, a historical perspective helps us recognize the racialized process of suburbanization that created these regions in the first place. The clarification of the relationship between industrial zones, suburbs, inner-city, and race then becomes primary to understanding contemporary patterns of environmental racism. 

Attention to Chester’s broader history of class inequality and racial segregation implicates instead a suite of intersecting drivers of environmental racism

Most studies on Chester’s environmental racism till date have been conducted using inadequate scales of analysis – mainly by focusing on the polluting facilities and its immediate harm on the air quality. Accordingly, we encourage moving beyond those limited conceptions of scale and a narrow understanding of racism to identify linkages within the spatial units of Chester’s industrial zone, the suburbs, and the inner city that produce a toxic urban landscape. Where standard narratives blame the siting of toxic facilities as discreet acts of individual racism, this approach draws attention to Chester’s broader history of class inequality and racial segregation which implicates instead a suite of intersecting drivers of environmental racism.

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The contrastive skyline of Chester marking the power plants to the left and the resident’s neighborhood to the right. Credit: Veronica Gomes

Beyond environmental racism

Two dominant narratives have constrained the environmental racism discourse. As geographer Malini Ranganathan argues, environmental racism is often reduced to matters of individual intentional acts, in which a few ill-minded people misbehave in an otherwise race-neutral society, while race itself is assumed to be randomly correlated with the siting of toxic facilities. Both narratives constrain our thinking and treat racism as an unfortunate outcome of personal disposition. Accepting race as a random correlate of hazardous facility siting makes it difficult to raise questions about the broader structures that direct the siting process. Even when there is no intent to discriminate in the siting process, the market forces that trap ethnic minorities in such locations, for instance, should not be seen as ‘race-neutral’.

In the case of Chester, past policies of housing segregation remain intertwined with contemporary decisions about siting hazardous facilities. Zoning decisions made in the past to racially segregate residents and concentrate industries in African American communities have present-day effects. Even though the present decisions to place facilities in industrial zones may appear race-neutral, the outcomes discriminate against minority populations. This is so because polluting facilities end up in low-income African American communities due to the past discriminatory decisions to situate industrial zones around minority communities. The low-income, predominantly African American community in Chester is thus disproportionately subjected to industrial pollution and its attendant health impacts. This is an example of what Joe R. Feagin and Clairece Boojer Feagin term side-effect discrimination’, where discrimination in one area reinforces discriminatory outcomes in another even while the siting decision itself has no discriminatory intent. Identifying the factors that create disparities in the distribution of polluting facilities is critical towards understanding who is responsible for environmental harms and what can be done to reduce them. Towards this end, more attention needs to be given to understand how housing market policies confines people of color to hazardous areas and if those actions qualify as racist or discriminatory.

The toxic pollution of Chester and its myriad bodily effects on poor and minority residents serve as a vivid example of Rob Nixon’s concept of slow violence’. This idea captures the gradual environmental harm that affects marginalized residents, which, unlike spectacular disasters like Chernobyl or Hurricane Katrina, is usually difficult to witness and measure. Slow violence has both spatial and temporal components. While it welcomes attention to immediate destruction within a particular space, it also instigates us to delve into the past to uncover the structural processes that allow hazards to accumulate and defer their damage over time. 

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A quaint neighborhood, just 320 meters away from the Covanta Delaware Valley Facility. Location: Chester, Pennsylvania, USA. Credit: Veronica Gomes

The Department of Environmental Protection continues to make siting decisions based on the demography of Chester, which it perceives to be politically incapable of mounting strong opposition

So, why do toxic facilities continue to flourish in Chester? The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) distributes permits based on a ‘decision analysis’ that largely denies the cumulative impacts of past emissions in Chester and the active permits that enable pollution today. Deindustrialization decimated land values, which made it attractive for toxic plants to assume permanency on cheap land. The DEP continues to make siting decisions based on the demography of Chester, which it perceives to be politically incapable of mounting strong opposition. Recent environmental justice campaigns move beyond race to engage with people affected by such encroachment due to lack of economic presence and political power. This encourages us to move past previous debates about whether race or class is a better predictor of where toxic facilities are designated. The case of Chester shows how historical, political, social, and economic specificities intersect to produce a toxic landscape. Future research on these components would not only enable us to understand how such factors influence facility siting but also their implications for collective struggle and resistance.

Making the gradual harm visible

What might make the gradual harm of residents more visible and thus more amenable to change? 

The evident forms of ‘slow violence’ in Chester serve as a layered burden of poverty, environmental pollution, political repression, and inadequate education, which makes community activism and resistance challenging. While media narratives sensationalize Chester’s pollution and toxic air, it fails to initiate conversations about the structural discrimination inherent in the historical developments that Chester has witnessed. To grapple with a proper understanding of environmental racism we suggest moving past purely descriptive narratives and those that narrow the understanding of racism to individual acts. The recognition of the scale at which racism is prevalent and its interlinkages with the inner city, industrial zone, and suburbs then become instrumental for a broader conceptualization of racism. 

While we attach importance to the historical developments that shaped much of Chester’s toxic urban landscape, we also recognize the influence of past discriminatory housing policies on present-day facility siting in Chester. Documenting and narrating communities’ toxic experiences also provides a defined shape to the otherwise formless and invisible threats to residents and thereby helps confront slow violence. 

Towards this, Zulene Mayfield, a longtime resident of Chester, has been steadfast in her battle against the facility siting around minority neighborhoods. Active since 1992, her grass-roots organization, Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL) has made strides to fight against the issuance of new chemical permits to facilities with occasional successes. Additionally, Dr. Howarth and her colleagues are conducting a health study to investigate health outcomes among Chester residents. Besides the health study, they support community members in approaching the DEP to investigate the industries’ flawed practices. They also collaborate with the Chester Environmental Partnership to sustain community’s voice among regulatory agencies. According to Dr. Howarth, a monumental success for Chester would mean a fair regulatory process that decreases emissions and allows companies to operate in a manner that is not detrimental for its residents. Towards this, spreading awareness through public education, distribution of community resources, and monitoring indoor and outdoor air quality has been their other notable success to date.

“Don’t believe in myths” says the Covanta Incinerator. Credit: Veronica Gomes

A bigger question, however, remains – how can we interrupt the pattern of toxic harm done to African Americans in Chester? Thinking along the concepts of white privilege and slow violence – however, it makes sense for us to stop questioning why an incinerator was placed in an African American community but instead question why and how were the whites able to distance itself from the pollution in Chester? Moving forward, is it possible to correct the ‘flawed regulatory practices’ of the DEP in Pennsylvania which according to Dr. Howarth is an ‘extremely industry-friendly’ state? While temporary protective fixes of air filters and cautions about venturing outdoors are in place, when can we finally begin to think about institutional fixes that bring justice to residents who have aged breathing toxic air in the long-neglected city of Chester?

Veronica Gomes is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies, Temple University, Philadelphia. Her research focuses on the study of residential segregation and health outcomes of minority populations with a focus on understanding neighborhood-level exposures, community specific perceptions of health and the spatiality of deprivation.

Kimberley Thomas is an environmental social scientist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University. She takes a political ecology approach to questions about environmental justice, human vulnerability to hazards, and the multi-scalar politics of resource governance.

An Italian city struggles against a century of pollution and political negligence

Source: climatevisuals.org

by Antonio Salituro

This is the untold story of a city in the South of Italy, Crotone, which went from being a major hub of the Ancient Greek civilization to one of the most polluted and poorest sites of Europe. A tale that reveals how small communities are trying to fight back against the environmental wreckage inherited from big corporations’ wrongdoing.

Last August, while tourists and returning economic migrants dived into the refreshing Crotone seawater to escape the 40-degree smothering air, local people were fuming. And not just because of the unbearable heatwave. 

Every summer, urban overcrowding comes with a smelly side-effect: an invasion of garbage. As the landfills quickly saturate, garbage piles up outside the bins all around the city. 

On top of that, another major issue fuelled citizens’ rage. A prolonged dry spell combined with decaying infrastructure led to a water shortage for a few days – ironic when considering the deadly climate change-driven flash flood that drowned the city in 1996 and flushed 6 lives away. 

But the situation in Crotone has not always been so dramatic. Located along the East coast of Calabria—the “toe” of Italy’s “boot”—Crotone was an easy-to-reach anchor for the Achaean Greek conquerors living on the other side of the Ionian Sea. And still today, after over two thousand years, one can admire the marvel of that colonization. 

Just seven miles off Crotone city centre, lies one of the twenty-seven-foot tall forty-eight Doric columns which supported the sacred temple dedicated to Hera Lacinia. Under Greek rule, what was then called Kroton thrived as a cultural hub. Known for his famous theorem, Pythagoras founded his school there. But Kroton’s fame went beyond science. Besides victories on the battlefield, Milo gave the colony athletic prestige by winning the wrestling competition in the Olympics games six times.

From a vital industrial centre to a graveyard

Fast forward two millennia, there’s sadly not much left of the Hellenic era’s splendour other than the majestic column. 

In the 1920s, Crotone flourished again, but this time it was somewhat less splendid: the city became one of the major chemical manufacturing sites in Italy. Plants smelting zinc and producing phosphorous-based fertilizers were propelling the economy of the Calabria region.

While job opportunities boomed, the “progress” came at a high price. Unlike the Greek society, which left invaluable archaeological relics, the sprawling industrial centre left an unwanted gift to Crotone citizens. During 70 years of unregulated activity, harmful pollutants such as cadmium, argon, lead, and chromium were irresponsibly dumped into the environment. 

In a documentary shot by the Italian TV show “Le Iene”, an ex-worker of one of the industrial plants, handles the so-called “Pietra del diavolo”, i.e. the devil’s stone in Italian. As shown in the footage, one could easily light a fire by rubbing these rocks. Behind the mystic name there is a solid scientific explanation, as those stones are nothing but agglomerates of flammable compounds. In 1980s, Eni — an international oil and gas company boasting the third largest revenue of all Italian corporations, and one of the seven largest oil companies in the world — became the main shareholder of those polluting factories. 

With unforgiveable delay, the Italian government officially recognized the ex-industrial area as a contaminated “site of national interest” in 2001. This special “award” was granted because of the high level and hazard of the pollutants as well as the outstanding extent of its contamination (4,000 football pitches). After a whopping 16 years, the Italian Minister of Environment and spin-off company of Eni, Syndial, now called Eni Rewind, finally found an agreement to start the environmental remediation of a minor portion of the site. However, Eni’s project was dubbed inadequate and unacceptable by environmental activists.

The recklessness of the authorities is even more shocking when considering that in Crotone, the cancer mortality rate is 30% higher than the national average. Certainly, spreading toxic waste around the city didn’t help. Schools, houses and even the Crotone police headquarter was built over a pile of industrial rubbish. An epidemiological study published in 2000 suggests that the heavy metals in the air are a potential cause of the anomalous rise in respiratory pathologies and tumours affecting the local community over the last years.

Crotone: Italy’s bottom gem

While industrial pollution affected part of Crotone’s coastline, the city’s golden sandy beaches and protected marine reserves still attract many tourists over summer, which could easily last up to five months in Calabria.

And yet, Crotone is permanently ranking at the bottom of the national charts when measuring the quality of life. The lack of transport infrastructure and high-level services undermines the potential of its wonders. Most of the tourists are Calabrian residents and expats coming back to visit their family.This shows that, if not integrated with the development of other sectors and tailored to local economy, tourism could be a poverty trap.

Failing to convert polluting industries into sustainable projects, both local and national administrators fuelled the youth unemployment rate, which rose to around 64%. Other than  tourism, agriculture and small businesses, those who heroically remained rely one of the main employers, a call centre, to survive.

The result of this was another negative record for Crotone, who scored the highest emigration rate to the richer North as of 2019. 

An eco-warrior coming to the rescue

Intangible yet ubiquitous over the territory, ‘Ndrangheta—the most powerful mafia in Italy, if not globally—adds to the collusion, negligence and incompetence of local politicians. This poisonous cocktail spurred Crotone residents into a civic revolution in 2018. With nearly 50% of the votes, the ex-Hellenic settlement contributed to the unexpected victory of the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement at the last national elections. Crotone voters were enticed by two of their campaign’s main pillars — eradicating corruption from politics and a higher minimum income for poorer people. However, when forming a government with Lega — infamous for their anti-southerner and anti-migrant sentiments — many felt betrayed by the 5 star movement.

On the heel of this political turmoil, a chemistry professor and  environmental activist, Vincenzo Voce, formed a civic list to battle against left and right coalitions, which had been in power for what seemed to be forever. With the same vigour and bravery of his ancestor Milo, Voce became mayor on October 5th, 2020. Before being elected mayor, Vincenzo Voce had been on the front line of raising awareness on Crotone’s ecological disaster and so put the environment at the centre of his political agenda. This was a historic outcome, given no civic lists had ever conquered the council.  Local social movements like “Stanchi dei soliti” (fed up with the status quo) significantly contributed to Voce’s triumph. 

Will the eco-warrior make the Ancient Kroton rise from its ashes?

Voce’s term started with a bang. When forming his team, Voce included, for the first time, a Counsellor dedicated to protecting people’s health and acknowledging the environmental damage caused by former industries. In March 2021, the mayor requested 10 million Euros worth of royalties from Calabria’s regional government. These were to pay the city back for the waste that was unfairly dumped into Crotone landfills. In addition, last August, Voce raised his voice on Crotone’s environmental and sanitary emergency during an online meeting with representatives from the national and regional government and from Eni Rewind. After rejecting the company’s proposals in May, the mayor suggested a more appropriate (while not necessarily more expensive) remediation of the ex-industrial site to ensure a safer decontamination of the area, which would effectively protect the health of the local population. 

In the meantime, Voce and his team already won a fight against Eni on a different yet related battleground. The company had refused to pay the 2016 due taxes for keeping three methane extraction platforms off Crotone’s coastline. Back in April, after rejecting to negotiate with Eni, Crotone’s municipality appealed to local tax authorities, which, just this November, forced the oil giant to swell the city’s coffers with nearly 4 million Euros. According to Voce, this ground-breaking sentence will have a knock-on effect on other litigations Eni is engaged with on a national scale. Certainly, this is the least Eni could do to pay the Crotone community back after plundering its resources for 50 years. Tapping into 16% of the Italian methane production, the multinational firm did not give Crotone any compensation during the first 20 years of extraction. Instead, its activity increased the land’s subsidence, threatening more environmental issues such as mudslides or sinkholes. 

Besides challenging Eni on multiple fronts, the mayor also made a first step to address youth unemployment. Over the next three years, Crotone council is planning to hire 200 collaborators across several areas of expertise. Although this is encouraging, the new leadership should strive to design projects revolving around the circular economy that could attract sustainability-driven investors and unleash new green jobs.

As for waste disposal, this is still a pressing issue. In July, driven by frustration, someone brought the mayor a stinky present. Several rubbish bags were taken off the street and laid outside the council main entrance. Despite the fact that Crotone sidewalks are now largely cleared of rubbish, recycling, which was one of Voce’s priorities, is still not taking off because of delays in planning and a lack of infrastructure. Yet, in July, door-to-door collection of plastic and metals started in three areas of the city. In addition to that, Voce claims he will soon present a new project on recycling which aims to receive 2.2 million Euro in funding from the Calabria region. If the project was to be financed, recycling may become a reality for the entire city.

While Voce is trying to fulfil his environmental promises, one (pandemic) year of government can’t reverse the effect of toxic decades. Despite the garbage bravado, most people seem to understand that. In a recent poll, Voce ranked as the 13th most appreciated mayor of Italy.

Crotone is not the only community bearing the brunt of Eni’s negligence. The oil giant has left a 60-year toxic legacy in the Niger Delta — one of the most polluted places on Earth. Since the 1950s, Eni has been sucking dirty fuels out of Nigeria’s soil while soiling its land and waterways. What’s worse, local people often do not get compensated for oil spills because of a flawed analysis of root causes performed by the government. Yet, in 2017, the small Ikebiri community rose to its feet to fight for its rights. In what sounds like a David vs Goliath clash, they sued Eni in their home country for an oil spill caused by the failure of one of their pipelines in 2010. In an unprecedent court case in Italy, the Nigerian village put a spotlight on Eni’s environmental damage overseas. 

After months of negotiations, the oil corporation offered to upgrade local energy infrastructure and renovate the community’s health centre. When commenting on this outcome, the Ikebiri’s king said, “No individual community suffering from Eni’s crimes has been able to take Eni to court on an international level and get a result such as this. Only if the company keeps its promises, we have truly got justice.” Despite winning this battle, the village hasn’t won the environmental justice war yet. Through an out-of-court settlement, Eni took a shortcut to escape their liability without paying the 2m euro compensation initially asked for by the Ikebiri community. To add to that, Ikebiri’s fishponds and plants are still drenched in crude oil, thus affecting Indigenous’ livelihood. 

Whether in their own country or abroad, Eni still do not take full ownership of their environmental impact. There won’t be true justice until they pay their eco-victims back. Without rewinding to Greek times, Crotone and other places across the world could benefit from a transition to a zero-carbon economy. This is where big players like Eni could redeem themselves, investing in renewable energy and circular materials while ditching oil and harmful chemicals for good. Clearly, there’s a strong parallelism between what Crotone and Ikebiri experienced. And not only because they’ve been fighting against the same enemy. The common thread weaving the two cases together is that an uncontrolled pursuit of private interests comes with a detrimental legacy for people and their habitat. As this story hints, this won’t end until underdog small communities join forces to demand justice from mega profit-centred corporations. Be it an international class action or social media networking, global citizens should come together if they want Eni and the likes to promote a sustainable growth for the whole society.

Antonio Salituro is a freelance eco-friendly copywriter, blogger and journalist who specialises in the environmental sustainability niche. 

November readings

Protesters in Marseille set a model of Earth on fire during a demonstration where members of Extinction Rebellion were supported by gilets jaunes, in July. Photograph: Gerard Bottino/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock, via The Guardian

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

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

A lot happened this month. As always, while putting together this list, we tried to strike a balance between stressing how serious the state of the world is, while also elevating solutions, optimism, and better visions for the future. COP26 took place in Glasgow, and we collected a bunch of articles analysing and critiquing the conference itself and the various issues it raised. We’re highlighting discussions on technological colonialism and liberatory technologies, as well as Indigenous and decolonial perspectives on the future. We read an important article on how climate denial is being replaced by a dangerous ‘green-cloaked nativism’ on the Right. People did a lot of free advertising for Spotify, so we’re sharing an article on the costs of streaming music. And in the midst of all this chaos, Rebecca Solnit reminds us of the power of pleasure, art and beauty as forms of resistance.

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


Top 5 articles to read

Remembering the Ogoni Nine. In 1995, nine activists from the Ogoni region of Nigeria were hanged after a campaign against oil giant Shell – decades later, their struggle for environmental justice is more relevant than ever.

Rebecca Solnit on the politics of pleasure

Climate denial is waning on the right. What’s replacing it might be just as scary 

What would it look like if we treated climate change as an actual emergency?

The hidden costs of streaming music


News you might’ve missed

Delhi shuts schools as it mulls ‘pollution lockdown’

Land and life: Feudalism and environmental change in the Philippines

Life in Pakistan without a digital ID

Greenland’s government bans oil drilling, leads Indigenous resistance to extractive capitalism

Connecting the dots between B.C.’s floods, landslides and clearcut logging. And The cost of waiting

Lee Maracle, revolutionary Indigenous author and poet, dead at 71 Also read: Inspiring and uncompromising, Lee Maracle could raise you up or eviscerate you. Read one of her essays: The lost days of Columbus



Indigenous and decolonial perspectives on the future

How Indigenous peoples are fighting the apocalypse

Indigenous cultures must not be forced to bear the brunt of global climate adaptation

Rethinking the apocalypse: An Indigenous anti-futurist manifesto

Taking the fiction out of science fiction: A conversation about Indigenous futurisms

Also read: An Old New World. When one people’s sci-fi is another people’s past

Utopia’s settler colonialism problem 



COP26

COP is broken

At U.N.’s COP26 climate summit, Indigenous voices are calling for more than lip service

The climate crisis is about the Global South’s present

Never mind aid, never mind loans: what poor nations are owed is reparations

The US is blocking climate reparations

How ExxonMobil captured COP26

Technology fetishism reigns at COP26. It’ll keep us burning fossil fuels.

Q&A: Can ‘nature-based solutions’ help address climate change?



Where we’re at: analysis

The forgotten oil ads that told us climate change was nothing

More than 2 billion workers make up the informal economy

Western monopoly of climate science is creating an eco-deficit culture

What economists get wrong about climate change

Will climate change itself derail plans to reduce emissions?

The last great forests

Ruptured worlds: a photo essay on the Lower Se San 2 Dam, Cambodia 

Dead white man’s clothes. In Accra, Ghana, imported second-hand clothing—or “dead white man’s clothes”—represents a massive industry with complex environmental, social, and economic implications.



Just think about it…

Forgive humans, not oil companies. It might seem like prison abolition and fossil fuel abolition have nothing in common, but they couldn’t be more related.

‘Injecting poison will never make you healthy’: how the wellness industry turned its back on Covid science

Do we need to work? The history of what we call work.

Congested, contested, and competitive: Are we running out of room in outer space?

Why trying to clean up all the ocean plastic is pointless

The need to trespass: let people in to protect nature, says guerrilla botanist

The moral case for destroying fossil fuel infrastructure



On technological colonialism… 

Mining the planet to death: The dirty truth about clean technologies

Green hydrogen: The new scramble for North Africa 

The headache of ‘crypto colonialism’ 

What to know about the frantic quest for cobalt



…and liberatory technologies

On the movement for the right to repair: Opening this article voids warranty

Activists are designing mesh networks to deploy during civil unrest

A path to neighborhood power



Degrowth

Perpetual growth is an impossible fantasy – even if we wanted it

Infinite economic growth caused the environmental crisis. Degrowth will help us fix it

Sand and gravel: Rethinking aggregate consumption and distribution



Cities and radical municipalism

Where are the municipalists in the US and Canada?

Sindicat: evading eviction in one of Europe’s most densely populated cities – a documentary

Play the game: Can you get a city to zero emissions? 



Sci-fi and utopian imaginings

The metaverse: colonial fantasies of the wild West

The science fiction origins of the Metaverse

Artists must confront the climate crisis – we must write as if these are the last days. “If you knew you were at the last days of the human story, what would you write?”

Shifting the narrative. Music and storytelling for a future earth.

Kim Stanley Robinson on science fiction and reclaiming science for the Left



Resources

Global Indigenous newsletter: Chemicals, climate and consultation

Here’s how to support Wet’suwet’en land defenders

Managing mental health in the age of climate change: Diagnosing climate disorder, Diagnosing climate trauma, 7 resources to help manage climate anxiety, and Mental health professionals on processing climate anxiety



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September & October readings

Illustration by Rob Sato, via The New Yorker

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

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

We’re back! After a much-needed summer break, we’re going to share all noteworthy articles we read during September and October. Themes this time include global land struggles, food justice (including spicy takes on veganism and lab-grown meat), effective communication for environmental justice, degrowth, and re-readings of history, to name a few. Enjoy.

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



Uneven Earth updates

Radically rethinking urban planning in (and from) the Global South | At a time when the spaces we inhabit determine our chances to survive a deadly virus, it is crucial to challenge canonical urban planning and its deep failures in the Global South



Top 5 articles to read

Labors of love. The work of Ivan Illich can provide an antidote to fears about automation.

‘We’re all fighting the giant’: Gig workers around the world are finally organizing

Agroecology is the solution to world hunger

The coming green colonialism

Ecological multiplicity against capitalist hegemony in India



News you might’ve missed

COP26: Document leak reveals nations lobbying to change key climate report 

Today’s youth will face ‘unmatched’ climate extremes compared to older generations

Generational conflict over climate crisis is a myth, UK study finds

Access to a healthy environment declared a human right by UN rights council 

Chile is at the dawn of a new political era



Global land struggles

Murders of environment and land defenders hit record high

The industries causing the climate crisis and attacks against defenders 

Indigenous people of Brazil fight for their future

Study: Indigenous resistance has staved off 25% of U.S. and Canada’s annual emissions. And Forest people offer the best hope of saving them

Land acknowledgments meant to honor Indigenous people too often do the opposite – erasing American Indians and sanitizing history instead 

Black families passed their homes from one generation to the next. Now they may be lost.

Women on storm-hit Philippine island lead Indigenous effort to restore mangroves

‘We will be homeless’: Lahore farmers accuse ‘mafia’ of land grab for new city 

From Stroessner to Syngenta: Paraguay’s soy conflicts 

Norway court rules two windfarms harming Sami reindeer herders



Where we’re at: analysis

Think disasters are isolated? Think again, warns the UN

‘Pristine wilderness’ without human presence is a flawed construct, study says

The climate crisis is a colonial crisis

The extractive circuit

After Covid, Sankara’s lessons on debt are as relevant as ever

The dirty dozen: meet America’s top climate villains 

Permian climate bomb. A six-part series that explores the ongoing oil, gas, and petrochemical boom in the Permian Basin and Gulf Coast.

Is nuclear power our best bet against climate change? 

An energy transition at whose expense?



Food politics

Food justice files. A New Internationalist series.

The unsung Caribbean roots of the vegan food movement

Red vegans against green peasants

Lab-grown meat is supposed to be inevitable. The science tells a different story. And Giant meat and dairy companies are dominating the plant-based and cellular meat market

African agriculture without African farmers 

Can small-scale farming feed the world? A video essay.

Farmers don’t have to contribute to the environmental crisis – we can solve it

Agribusiness and big finance’s dirty alliance is anything but “green”

How food became the perfect beachhead for gentrification

The power of food



Just think about it…

Forget your carbon footprint. Let’s talk about your climate shadow.

The advertising industry is fuelling climate disaster, and it’s getting away with it

The billionaire space race reflects a colonial mindset that fails to imagine a different world

Why your internet habits are not as clean as you think 

Capitalism is making you lonely 

Do we live in a selfish world? An experiment on video.

Too much free time isn’t actually bad for you 

The dark side of wellness: the overlap between spiritual thinking and far-right conspiracies, and It’s shocking to see so many leftwingers lured to the far right by conspiracy theories

The co-option of mutual aid. “The reality is that mutual aid has its roots in community resistance by Black and Indigenous people.”

The class contradictions of scholar activism



Communicating (environmental) justice

Why we need a new local language of climate change reporting

The seven deadly sins of politi-speak  

Imagination, transformed. “As a movement who cares about climate justice and justice overall, we need to better leverage the power of culture because culture is what transforms the imagination—culture shows us what’s possible. And we can do that by including artists and culture makers in our organizing work.”

All Aboriginal art is political: you just need to learn how to read it

Stop trying to find magic words to convince climate opponents



New politics

A decolonial, feminist Global Green New Deal

The ZAD: between utopian radicalism and negotiated pragmatism

An Indigenous community land trust rises, making Land Back a reality

Climate reparations: The case for carbon removal 



Degrowth

Demystifying degrowth

Who is afraid of degrowth? A Global South economic perspective

GDP: A countdown to doom

Degrowth: why some economists think abandoning growth is the only way to save the planet – podcast 

Tailor made degrowth: How a localised clothing economy can contribute to a degrowth future

Futures beyond GDP growth: a report 

How shorter workweeks could save Earth 

Enough for everyone. “It is possible to satisfy humanity’s universal needs fairly—and keep the world livable.”

Degrowth and revolutionary organizing



Cities and radical municipalism

The inside story of how Berlin took on corporate landlords and won

Is it more sustainable to live off the land or in the city? 

A city without cars is already here, and it’s idyllic. Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana has been car-free for over a decade. Is it time to export their model?

Hundreds of kids and parents are biking to school together in Barcelona 

Democratic confederalism and movement building in South Africa

A billionaire wants to build a utopia in the US desert. Seems like this could go wrong

The real urban jungle: how ancient societies reimagined what cities could be

The grand crash. Some notes on housing markets in China, and what this tells us about wider economic realities.



History revisited

Early civilizations had it all figured out, The radical promise of human history, and check out a YouTube presentation of David Wengrow and David Graeber’s newly released The Dawn of Everything

Built on the bodies of slaves: how Africa was erased from the history of the modern world 

Amitav Ghosh explores the hidden history of climate change 

Un-sustaining sustainability? Tracing the colonial origins of India’s rising “sustainable” fashion industry.

How the Dutch are facing up to their colonial past



Sci-fi and utopian imaginings

Imagine 2200: Climate fiction for future ancestors. Short stories.

Why this gives me hope for the future. A video essay on the solarpunk movement. Also: Solarpunk is not about pretty aesthetics, it’s about the end of capitalism

The realism of our times: Kim Stanley Robinson on how science fiction works

‘Dune’ has a desert problem



Resources

New Socialist issue on Ecologies 

Earthcare fieldcast. A new podcast about struggles for ecology and care. 

Resources for working with climate emotions

A bullshit job title generator. David Graeber would love this. 



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Radically rethinking urban planning in (and from) the Global South

A board listing the housing demands of the residents of Sonia Gandhi Nagar, a Bahujan housing colony in Indore, India.

by Apoorva Dhingra

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.

July readings

The distribution of concentration of herbicide as it travels westward into Gaza. Source: Forensic Architecture and Dr Salvador Navarro-Martinez

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

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

This month, we were glued to our screen reading about the multiple climate disasters around the world. We also read careful critiques of “green” technology and their social costs, as well as incisive analyses of the problems with air conditioning. Along with that, we read about how we can make our cities more ecologically resilient, and the movements fighting to get us there. Finally, we are featuring several stories on food and water conflicts, from Gaza to South Africa. We’re taking August off, so see you in September!

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



Uneven Earth updates

We are looking for a treasurer! Uneven Earth is in the process of registering as a non-profit. Incorporating will enable us to develop the project further, and we’re really excited about this. We have everything ready for a constitutional meeting except one thing: we need a volunteer treasurer or accountant. If you or someone you know is interested, contact us for more information at info[at]unevenearth.org.



Top 5 articles to read

Herbicidal warfare in Gaza

AC feels great, but it’s terrible for the planet. Here’s how to fix that. “Ensuring that the most vulnerable among the planet’s human inhabitants can keep cool through better access to public cooling centers, shade-giving trees, safe green spaces, water infrastructure to cool, and smart design will not only enrich our cities overall, it will lower the temperature for everyone. It’s far more efficient this way.” Also: Cruelest summer: What is the cost of comfort? A review of After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort by Eric Dean Wilson.

Who holds the welding rod? “If we call a global minimum wage – or a global maximum working week, or a global minimum healthcare standard – pie in the sky, we’re saying that the green energy transition is the possible, necessary utopia, and fair pay and conditions the impossible, unnecessary one.”

Broader crises. Indian border-crossers illuminate the interconnectedness of mass migration.

In memory of Richard Lewontin: Profile of a dialectical biologist



News you might’ve missed

Mapuche woman to lead body drafting Chile’s new constitution 

‘Reckless’: G20 states subsidised fossil fuels by $3tn since 2015, says report

Whistleblowers expose corruption in EPA Chemical Safety Office

Berta Cáceres assassination: ex-head of dam company found guilty

Bitcoin power plant making part of glacial lake ‘feel like a hot tub,’ residents say

The smoke comes every year. Sugar companies say the air is safe.

‘The road to freedom lies ahead’. The humanitarian crisis in West Papua as people continue to struggle for self-determination.



Where we’re at: analysis

How the American South is paying the price for Europe’s ‘green’ energy

Britain’s new enclosure. Less than 1% of the population own half of England’s land, and with every passing year public right of access is diminishing – enclosing swathes of green spaces to be enjoyed by the rich alone.

The insect apocalypse: ‘Our world will grind to a halt without them’ 

Climate doom won’t save the planet

Nuclear Stockholm Syndrome and What nuclear waste can teach us about long-term thinking

Why neoliberalism needs neofascists



A summer of climate disasters

The climate connection behind a summer of floods in China, Europe and the US

Worst European floods in 100 years have left 120 dead, 1,300 missing

This year’s summer of climate extremes hits wealthier places 

Death toll rises and thousands flee homes as floods hit China

In flooded Ghatal, residents say ‘nobody cares about our misery

As frozen land burns, Siberia trembles 

Photos: Here are the 6 major regions literally on fire right now



Food politics

Food labels and the lies they tell us about grocery store ‘best before’ expiration dates

Workers transformed a McDonald’s in France into a food bank

Durban food riots turn the wheel of history

Bill Gates should stop telling Africans what kind of agriculture Africans need

‘It’s five years since a white person applied’: the immigrant workforce milking America’s cows 

Lake Mead, crucial water source in West, tips toward crisis. And Severe drought threatens Hoover dam reservoir – and water for US west



Just think about it…

In Indigenous knowledge, innovative solutions

After Tokyo, we should bring the Olympic charade to an end

Loneliness: coping with the gap where friends used to be, and Harare’s park bench grandmas: ‘I speak to them and feel a load is lifted off my heart’

The low-desire life: why people in China are rejecting high-pressure jobs in favour of ‘lying flat’

No, billionaires won’t “escape” to space while the world burns

Ban mansions

The pandemic could put an end to the five-day workweek

Did communism make us human?



Degrowth

Degrowth, explained.

Billionaire space race: the ultimate symbol of capitalism’s flawed obsession with growth

Beyond the growth imperative



Cities and radical municipalism

Public transit is a public good. It’s time to fund it that way.

Poor neighborhoods are up to 7 degrees hotter than rich ones

Uber and Lyft can’t find drivers because gig work sucks

Madrid building a huge urban forest in a bid to combat climate change 

Guerrilla gardening: Taking back the city one seed bomb at a time 

There are trees in the future, or, a case for staying

Death drives. Pedestrian fatalities are rising dramatically in the US, and Angie Schmitt’s Right of Way gives a rare look at why and what might be done about it.          



Resources

A history of the concept of race


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June readings

Image: A Growing Culture

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

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

Must-reads this June include GRAIN’s investigation into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and their outsized influence over global agriculture, Kai Heron on why ‘socialism or extinction’ isn’t quite accurate, a story on the Landless Workers’ Movement and the LGBTQIA+ community in Brazil, and a critique of the EU’s Green Deal. We also read a lot of articles about wildlife and species justice. Browse the list for more!

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



Uneven Earth updates

Why the National Páramo Day in Ecuador matters | The páramo is a wetland ecosystem found only in the Andes, but its future well-being has global implications

Discounting | Descriptive discount rates both reflect and sustain a highly unequal and myopic world



Top 5 articles to read

Extinction isn’t the worst that can happen. It’s much more likely that climate chaos will intensify existing processes than bring about the end times.

Pacific plunder: this is who profits from the mass extraction of the region’s natural resources, part of The Pacific project series

Climate colonialism and the EU’s Green Deal

How the Gates Foundation is driving the food system, in the wrong direction

Agrarian reform and queer rights go hand in hand. The Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil fights for LGBTQIA+ people who are being murdered at an alarming rate in a country besieged by racism, capitalist domination and exploitation.



News you might’ve missed

Reducing poverty can actually lower energy demand, finds research

The push to make ‘ecocide’ an international crime takes a big step forward

Revealed: ExxonMobil’s lobbying war on climate change legislation 

Big oil and gas kept a dirty secret for decades. Now they may pay the price

Hotter than the human body can handle: Pakistan city broils in world’s highest temperatures

‘The next pandemic’: drought is a hidden global crisis, UN says 

Iceland tried a shortened workweek and it was an ‘overwhelming success’ 

America’s continued move toward socialism. Just half of younger Americans now hold a positive view of capitalism — and socialism’s appeal in the U.S. continues to grow, driven by Black Americans and women, according to a new Axios/Momentive poll. 



Where we’re at: analysis

What exactly is the “system” that we are fighting?

If we can vaccinate the world, we can beat the climate crisis

Dust storms, green waves. A lattice of violent, global relations sustains China’s colonization of ‘Xinjiang’.

The WWF’s poaching war is killing innocent people

The connection between clearcut logging and Canada’s hottest day on record. With temperatures set to soar to 47 C in B.C., forests provide a cool, wet place for animals and people alike to seek shelter.

The rush to ‘go electric’ comes with a hidden cost: destructive lithium mining

Sixty years of climate change warnings: the signs that were missed (and ignored) 

We are on track for a planet-wide, climate-driven landscape makeover



Food and water politics

Imperial roots of the global food system

Inside the struggle for water sovereignty in Brazil

Oregon’s water crisis could have a quiet solution

What a water shortage is doing to some of America’s best farmland 

A kingdom from dust

A perfect storm: Climate change and overfishing

Farmworkers endure brutal conditions during historic heat wave / As the climate emergency grows, farmworkers lack protection from deadly heat 

How pesticide companies corrupted the EPA and poisoned America



Just think about it…

The case for letting Malibu burn

Mines produce more waste than metal

Modern medicine still has much to learn about women’s bodies

The struggle to be Nadleehi: A Two Spirit person

How to heal in the Anthropocene, part of the Climate emotions series

The problem with reinforced concrete

The tyranny of time



Species justice

Climate change and biodiversity loss must be tackled together – report

Species solidarity: Rediscovering our connection to the web of life

Did the pandemic really help wildlife? 

How fireworks harm nonhuman animals

When the bison come back, will the ecosystem follow? 

There’s a wolverine in my neighborhood. “Often, conservation communicators think in terms of educating around the big, global, complicated issues. But there’s a role for helping people understand and appreciate the local, the small, the overlooked.”



Degrowth

La política anticolonial del decrecimiento

Sozialismus oder Degrowth?

The delusion of infinite economic growth 

The poverty of ‘economic growth’



New politics

It’s time to nationalize Shell. Private oil companies are no longer fit for purpose

Making the world big enough for all of us: A review of Max Ajl’s ‘A People’s Green New Deal’

Building an anti-imperialist climate justice movement

Transformation is not a metaphor 



Cities and radical municipalism

An ambitious, radical Green-Left Coalition has won Zagreb’s elections. Here’s how they did it.

By bringing down Sweden’s government, the Left Party saved rent controls

A municipalist alternative for San Juan and Puerto Rico: An interview with Pablo Benson

If you sell a house these days, the buyer might be a pension fund

What if we designed cities for the safety of people, instead of the convenience of cars? 

Blue-sky thinking: how cities can keep air clean after coronavirus 




Sci-fi

Stories to save the world: the new wave of climate fiction

Solarpunk, climate change and the new thinkable 

Ministry for the Future with Kim Stanley Robinson. The science fiction writer discusses his Modern Monetary Theory-inspired “cli-fi” novel.



Resources

The People vs. Agent Orange. A new documentary that investigates the legacy of one of the most dangerous pollutants on the planet, a cover-up, and the fight for accountability. Read a review here.


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Why the National Páramo Day in Ecuador matters

The Ecuadorian páramo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

by Tristan Partridge

In early May, Ecuador’s National Assembly voted to declare June 23rdDía Nacional de los Páramos, or National Páramo Day. This designation at once recognizes the importance of these high mountain grasslands and underscores the need for improved conservation efforts. Indigenous and rural communities across the highlands have long fought to protect the páramo, but for many years such actions were localized and bereft of resources. The institutions may finally be listening.

While the special observance is of national scope, the páramo’s well-being, now and in the future, is a global concern.

High-altitude páramo moorlands comprise a wetland ecosystem that spans over 30,000 km2 of the northern Andes. Its unique soil structure and plant life play vital roles in the hydrological cycle, providing up to 85-90% of all drinking water in Colombia and Ecuador. The páramo functions by gathering rainfall and cloud moisture, which is then filtered through damp soils and slowly released into streams and rivers. Ultimately, it is a source of the greater Amazon watershed.

An estimated 60% of all páramo flora is endemic, meaning that most of these life forms are not found anywhere else on Earth. Ecuador, by virtue, is one of the world’s most megadiverse countries. Healthy páramo lands thrive on biodiversity and feed South American waterways, thereby supporting the vast forest ecosystems that sustain the planetary web of life as we know it. Indeed, the very ecosystems that are increasingly under existential threat from agricultural and industrial activities.

According to Luis Pachala Poma, the Representative who proposed the legislation, National Páramo Day is a time to celebrate the “cultural, ecological, economic, and historical importance” of this biome. June 23rd was selected because, on that date in 1802, the renowned naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and his team set out to climb Ecuador’s Chimborazo summit, at the time thought to be the world’s tallest mountain. The trek informed Humboldt’s “Essay on the Geography of Plants” and the accompanying “Chimborazo Map.” Illustrating the connections between climate conditions and plant distribution, the latter emphasized for his audience the dynamic interconnections that link overlapping natural processes. Humboldt studied the extreme meteorological conditions and physical diversity of tropical mountains, together with the multiple adaptations found in their flora and fauna. Embodying these characteristics, the páramo is now an ideal place for studying climate change

Climate change and the páramo: critically important and critically at risk

The páramo acts as a carbon sink, supremely important in helping to limit global warming. Because páramo lands are found above the tree line, cool and wet climate conditions have allowed their volcanic, water-rich soils to store enormous quantities of organic material. Coupled with tall-growing vegetation, this means the páramo holds more carbon per hectare than tropical lowland forests. 

At the same time, global warming is changing the páramo. Two particular impacts of climate change—increasing average temperatures and changing precipitation patterns—disrupt the páramo’s unique vegetation and soil characteristics. The result presents a grave threat to the ongoing existence of these ecosystems. 

The wider region where the páramo is found is particularly at risk, for the tropical Andes are warming faster than anywhere outside the Arctic Circle. Glaciers are melting; less rainfall is reaching high-altitude areas; wetland plants in the páramo are dying, among other effects. If National Páramo Day can help draw attention to these changes and lead to greater support for community actions that challenge destructive industrial activities, then the event cannot come soon enough.

Representative Pachala also stated that National Páramo Day will reaffirm the need to conserve, restore, and use Ecuador’s páramo in a “sustainable” way. That idea is still deeply contested. 

Ecuador’s economy continues to rely heavily on extractive industries. These industries have devastated Indigenous communities in Amazon regions, damaged biodiverse landscapes, and now, as a result, are facing increasing opposition from the population at large. In a February referendum in Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador, over 80% of the electorate voted to ban mining in the area, including in the Quimsacocha páramo. Yet mining companies with interests in the region have said they will not respect the referendum results.

While the newly-elected President of Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso, is associated with pro-mining policies and statements, environmental coalitions plan to keep up the pressure to ensure he honors a pre-election pledge to ban open-pit mining. Further political changes since May similarly suggest that Ecuador is on course to revise its relationship with extractive industries. The President of the National Assembly, Guadalupe Llori, is a member of the Indigenous political party (Pachakutik) and has herself faced persecution for participating in protests against oil companies. It remains to be seen whether and how the new legislature transforms Ecuadorian environmental policy.

While policy decisions are debated, those fighting to protect the páramo are among the first to point out that there is no sustainable mining. Many argue that the only “sustainable” future involves a political-economic system that looks beyond mineral extraction and, instead, protects Indigenous rights and the Rights of Nature, as recognized in the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador—the first in the world to do so. 

Indigenous leader Marisol Copara has worked to protect the páramo as a source of water not only for humans but also for crops and animals. Describing the páramo as a “source of life,” Olmedo Iza Quinatoa of the Kichwa Indigenous nationality emphasizes the spiritual importance of the páramo, alongside its carbon-storing and water-giving properties, and asks, “What would our life be without water, that is, without the páramo?”  The struggle for more equitable futures is ongoing.

Ivan Guamán shepherds his community’s small flock of alpacas in the páramo in Cotopaxi province, Ecuador. Credit: Tristan Partridge

In addition to the effects of climate change and mining, Ecuador’s páramo currently faces a number of other threats. These include industrial forestry, unregulated tourism, and land-use change as people are forced to seek grazing and arable lands at higher altitudes.

Robert Hofstede is an environmental consultant based in the capital city of Quito. For decades, Hofstede has collaborated with a network of regional scholars and activists to document biophysical characteristics of the páramo, as well as potential solutions to the changes that are placing this ‘regional biological corridor’ at risk. They note that positive steps have already been taken. 

Effective measures introduced so far include water funds to recompense good practice among community initiatives and economic support for small-scale production of high-value products linked to the páramo, like alpaca wool, mortiño blueberries, organic potatoes and tubers. According to Hofstede, such programs need to be upscaled together with both a strengthened policy/regulatory framework and an improved communication/education plan. National Páramo Day can play an important part in these processes, so long as it is provided the visibility and support that these one-of-a-kind landscapes deserve.

Like all environmental campaigns, protecting the páramo is a deeply social and political project. Páramo conservation is a (pluri)national and international concern that involves the protection of biodiversity and Indigenous rights as well as efforts to limit global warming. If National Páramo Day can generate increased political and financial backing for the many local conservation efforts currently underway, it will be a success year round, for all the years to come.

Tristan Partridge is an environmental justice researcher based at the University of California, Santa Barbara (USA). His work appears in NACLA; The Revelator; Toward Freedom; and openDemocracy / democraciaAbierta, among others. More information on his academic work is available here. Twitter: @TristanPartridg.

May readings

Palestinian demonstrators burn tires near the Israeli barrier surrounding Gaza in solidarity with Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem on 8 May. Mohammed Zaanoun ActiveStills, via The Electronic Intifada

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

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

This month, Palestine and Israel were all over the news. We collected some useful reading lists, essays and photo stories so you can dig deeper beyond the bite-size tweets and Instagram posts. Photography runs like a thread through our May readings: we featured a photo essay that documents the deep scars mining has left on our planet, and another on China’s ‘Cancer Villages’. We do have reasons to celebrate this month, though: a court in the Netherlands has ruled in a landmark case that the oil giant Shell must reduce its emissions, and Germany has formally recognized the atrocities committed against the Herero and Nama people of what is now Namibia as genocide, paying reparations of €1.1 billion ($1.3 billion). On top of that, we included our editor Aaron Vansintjan’s new piece on the insights on the imagination and the practice of democracy that the late David Graeber has left us with, an explainer on how Nigeria’s forests are being decimated to make charcoal for barbecues in Europe and the United States, and much more.

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



Uneven Earth updates

GDP | What is GDP, and why should we learn to live without it?

Brave New Normal | Cultivating cooperative, self-sustaining communities can undermine destructive economic systems and offer meaningful responses to social-ecological crises in the wake of the pandemic



Top 5 articles to read

Eye-catching abstract photos reveal mining’s scars on our planet

Do you know where your grilling charcoal comes from?

David Graeber: The power of the imagination. “For many people, Graeber turned the concept of democracy on its head. Rather than a bureaucratic process that must be engaged in every few years, democracy for Graeber was imaginative, active, and intensely personal. There is no inevitable arc of progress towards more or deeper democracy. Rather, democracy must be fought for, actively built into institutions, protected, and constantly renewed.”

Ancient Indigenous forest gardens still yield bounty 150 years later: study

COVID-19 could end our dependence on cars — if we ‘build back better’



News you might’ve missed

Rich countries drained $152tn from the global South since 1960

Germany will pay Namibia $1.3bn as it formally recognizes colonial-era genocide 

Shell: Netherlands court orders oil giant to cut emissions / Shell loses climate case that may set precedent for Big Oil 

Climate tipping points could topple like dominoes, warn scientists 

Four-day working week would slash UK carbon footprint, report says 

Cali takes on mantle of Colombia’s ‘capital of resistance’



Justice for Palestine

Resources

Decolonize Palestine reading list 

Palestine: Sheikh Jarrah, expulsion, occupation, and settler colonialism

The Fire These Times reading list on Israel-Palestine

Visualizing Palestine

Discard Studies reading list on waste colonialism and Palestine

Stories and explainers

Palestine in pictures: May 2021

Peaceful coexistence in Israel hasn’t been shattered – it’s always been a myth

‘To say goodbye is to die a little’: Palestinian farmers struggle for survival

Human waste spills on to Gaza’s blacked-out streets as crisis looms

The architecture of violence. A short film on architecture’s key role in the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the evolution of urban warfare.

The power of the cultural boycott of Israel 



Where we’re at: analysis

How Senegal fought Covid-19 with lessons learned from Ebola and HIV/AIDS prevention

A climate dystopia in Northern California

When climate disaster and mass incarceration collide

We still blow up mountains to mine coal: Time to end the war on Appalachia

The curse of white gold? An interview with political ecologists Francisco Venes and Stefania Barca explores debates around lithium mining in Portugal.

Brazil aerial photos show miners’ devastation of Indigenous people’s land

The brutal reality of life in China’s most polluted cities. A photographer documents China’s ‘Cancer Villages,’ telling the human story of pollution.

Johan Rockström: ‘We need bankers as well as activists… we have 10 years to cut emissions by half’ 



Food politics

Why aren’t we talking about farmers in India? They are fighting in a global war over the future of agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture needs a reckoning

Between promise and peril: Can fake meat save the planet? 



Just think about it…

Cottagecore, colonialism and the far-right

Naomi Klein on climate change and family life. Here she shares her ideas on the big question of whether to have children and how we might begin the monumental work of saving the planet—and maybe even one another.

Civilizations don’t really die. They just take new forms. 

For peat’s sake: How saving Scotland’s peatlands could be the key to saving the planet

The intellectual labour of social movements



Degrowth

Giving up on economic growth could make us cooler and happier

Global climate change cannot be tackled without addressing economic inequality 

There’s a simple answer to climate change. But will capitalism allow it? 

The climate crisis requires a new culture and politics, not just new tech 

Degrowth and the pluriverse: continued coloniality or intercultural revolution?

How we end consumerism. A video that looks at how degrowth and ecosocialism can work in tandem to stop consumerism and overconsumption.

The only way to hit net zero by 2050 is to stop flying



New politics

A People’s Green New Deal. Max Ajl’s new book is an overview of the various mainstream Green New Deals, and a vision of a radical alternative: a ‘People’s Green New Deal’ committed to degrowth, anti-imperialism and agro-ecology.



Cities and radical municipalism

New municipalism, property and freedom: The battle for rent regulation in Spain 

The New Isaan Movement in Thailand is igniting protests and change in the poorest region of the country 

Driving cars out of our cities. The Car Free Megacities campaign sets out to transform London, Paris and New York.

To save the planet, kill minimum parking mandates. California was a pioneer in minimum parking mandates, which drive up housing costs and climate emissions. Now the state is ready to lead the nation in reclaiming our cities from parking lots.

How ‘gendered’ city budgets aim to boost equality 

How Vienna built a gender equal city. “In practice, gender mainstreaming takes many forms, such as ensuring government bodies use gender-sensitive language to communicate, or that public transportation includes illustrations of men with children to signal seats reserved for parents. A visitor to the capital might also notice the wide pavements for mothers navigating the city with prams or children, or the fact that a large proportion of the city, including the whole public transportation network, is wheelchair accessible.” 

Wetter the better: Gothenburg’s bold plan to be world’s best rainy city

The race to reinvent cement. What if we could transform the material that built the modern world from a climate wrecker into a carbon sponge?


Resources

Feminist resources on the pandemic

The pedagogy of transition: Educating for the future we want

Midnight Sun. A new online magazine of socialist strategy, analysis and culture.

EARTHRISE Spring 2021 issue 

Open-access Funambulist issues on Reparations and Futurisms

20 quotes from “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”



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GDP

by Doug Banks

What is GDP?

Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, measures economic activity. Technically speaking, it equals the sum of all goods and services produced within an economy over a certain period. To oversimplify it, we could think of GDP as the sum total of all the price tags within a country’s borders. Metaphorically speaking, GDP is the only universally-recognised heart-rate monitor for determining the health of capitalist economies. Capitalism operates on economic growth, and GDP measures growth. 

Because of this, GDP has become the most influential political and economic metric in the modern world. Governments, corporations and institutions use it to direct resources, frame discussions, and inform crucial decision-making. 

And ever since GDP became our universal stand-in for social progress, it has had the effect of reshaping entire societies in its own image—which is problematic, as GDP is a very sexist, western-centric, careless, ecologically-destructive, and altogether bad image.

Where did GDP come from?

Before the 1930s, to paraphrase the sociologist Daniel Hirschman, the economy as we currently know it ‘did not exist.’ But that’s not to say that our ancestors didn’t act economically. People have been making, buying, and trading things basically forever. But it was only in the decade before World War II that our current understanding of the economy—as something that can be examined, diagnosed, prescribed and intervened upon—was conceived.

It was only in the decade before World War II that our current understanding of the economy—as something that can be examined, diagnosed, prescribed and intervened upon—was conceived

Gross National Product, the precursor to GDP, was invented by the economist Simon Kuznets to help the U.S. recover from The Great Depression. His logic was simple: their economy was obviously broken, but before they could fix it they needed to figure out how to measure it. GNP became the first widely-adopted method of measuring an economy, until the U.S. replaced it with GDP in 1988. (GNP measured all economic activity by a country’s citizens, regardless of where they were in the world. GDP measures all economic activity within a country’s borders, regardless of the nationalities of the people involved.)

How did GDP become important?

In 1944, as World War II was winding down, the leaders of the Allied Nations met in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to decide how the world would be rebuilt. They set in motion a few things that would change the course of history forever. First, they cemented GNP (and then GDP) growth as their standard tool for measuring economic progress and development. 

Then, to help reinforce this emerging world order, they established intergovernmental institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and later the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Promoted as the flag-bearers of international development, many of the programmes these institutions have overseen dismantled national sovereignty in the Global South to install Western-friendly and GDP-centric policies. 

Capitalism, by definition, must expand. For half a millennium private firms and individuals have been finding new ways to grow their wealth. But it’s only since the Bretton Woods Conference that pursuing a single, standardised metric of economic growth has become the primary public objective of almost all of the world’s most influential governments and institutions. From that moment onward, we have lived in a world religiously devoted to the pursuit of GDP growth—often at the expense of everything else.

Why is GDP a problem?

GDP was designed to measure an economy getting ready for war, but now it’s used to measure social progress in general. This mutation was already obvious during the Cold War, when GDP became the ideological benchmark for comparing the relative success of capitalism and state socialism. 

Today it’s no different. If a country grows its GDP faster than others, they can claim they’re ‘winning’ at the game of international development, and it’s implied that this will automatically improve the quality of life of its citizens. 

GDP serves as a ‘scorecard’ for political success, which means policymakers will generally favour and implement the policies that will increase it

GDP serves as a ‘scorecard’ for political success, which means policymakers will generally favour and implement the policies that will increase it. As time passes, societies transform to resemble GDP—which is a problem, because GDP resembles a very sexist, western-centric, careless, ecologically-destructive, and altogether bad way for a society to be structured. 

Sexist. By only counting activities that have a price tag, GDP completely ignores all manner of unpaid labour—like having and raising children, elderly care, housekeeping, etc.—that is traditionally undertaken by women. In this way, GDP has a sexist bias implying, mistakenly, that these essential services are less ‘productive’ than what is traditionally men’s work, and should therefore be less respected. 

Western-centric. GDP is, and always has been, rooted in the deeply colonial notion that Western nations have it all figured out, and everyone else would be much better off if they just followed in their footsteps. More often than not, they haven’t been given a choice. 

For example, during the debt crisis of the 1980s, many nations of the Global South were struggling to repay mounting debts to Western banks. In response, the IMF and World Bank forcibly imposed ‘structural adjustment programmes’ on their economies. In short, this meant their governments had no choice but to cut social spending, privatise public assets, dissolve labour and environmental protections, and focus single-mindedly on increasing GDP to repay their creditors in the Global North.

Careless. The rules of a game dictate how its players behave. If GDP is our social ‘scorecard,’ then the ways it measures success will, on an aggregate scale, have an effect on how people and organisations behave. Any brief examination of the activities that GDP registers as ‘good’ for an economy reveal it to be highly problematic and careless toward human wellbeing. As the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman noted, ‘If you were the GDP, your ideal citizen would be a compulsive gambler with cancer who’s going through a drawn-out divorce that he copes with by popping fistfuls of Prozac and going berserk on Black Friday.’

Ecologically-destructive. GDP has always been inseparable from resource consumption, emissions, and environmental degradation. Proponents of ‘green’ GDP growth maintain that with enough engineering, innovation and entrepreneurial flair, we’ll soon be able to ‘decouple’ economic growth from environmental pressures and keep growing happily forever. 

However, as seductive as it is, there’s a problem with decoupling: it has barely any empirical grounding in current or projected technologies. On concluding a series of highly optimistic decoupling models in 2016, the Australian scientist James Ward remarked that ‘growth in GDP ultimately cannot be decoupled from growth in material and energy use,’ and that it is ‘misleading to develop growth-oriented policy around the expectation that decoupling is possible.’

Altogether bad. Despite all of the above, one must assume that maximising GDP growth is, overall, necessary to produce good outcomes for people—otherwise why would governments pursue it so furiously? However, there is a strong scientific consensus that this simply not the case. 

According to the economic anthropologist Jason Hickel, ‘there are many countries that manage to achieve strikingly high levels of human welfare with relatively little GDP per capita.’ What’s more, research has found that above a certain level—a level which all nations in the Global North have long since passed—increasing GDP can actually cause human well-being to decrease.

Mounting evidence suggests that there is no automatic relationship between rising GDP and rising welfare. When it comes to improving citizens’ quality of life, the most important factor is not pursuing the maximum levels of GDP growth or wealth, but instead implementing policies that more justly distribute the benefits of new and existing wealth.

What alternatives exist?

GDP’s most enthusiastic critics typically fall into one of two broad categories (or both): those pushing to replace GDP as our metric for growth and progress in particular, and those advocating to abandon economic growth as humanity’s central goal altogether. 

For almost as long as it has existed, some economists have argued that GDP cannot, and should not, be used as a proxy for human progress. They’ve been mostly ignored. But as focus this century sharpens on social and ecological issues, mainstream appetites are increasing for ‘Beyond GDP’ alternatives such as the Better Life Index or Genuine Progress Indicator. Recently, in rapid succession, the governments of New Zealand, Scotland, and Iceland—all led by women—committed to exchange well-being for GDP as their main policy objective. 

While most agree that moving beyond GDP is essential, some economists, researchers, and activists believe it’s only the beginning of the change we need if we want to avert full-blown climate catastrophe and create a more egalitarian society. Because ‘green growth’ is empirically unrealistic—a fantasy, some would call it—many maintain that we should begin transitioning toward an economy capable of thriving without needing any more economic growth at all.

This philosophy takes form under the banner of ‘degrowth,’ a constellated, rapidly-growing movement advocating for the reduction of humanity’s overall resource and energy consumption, as well as the redistribution of income and resources. ‘In short,’ the organiser and activist Jamie Tyberg writes, ‘degrowth tells us to care for the earth’s systems, to care for the people, and to redistribute any surpluses back to the land and the people,’ with the ultimate goal of ending ‘capitalism-colonialism on a global level.’

Rethinking progress

In the span of less than a century, our search for social progress has been all but completely outsourced to an abstract measurement of ‘the economy’—which is itself a relatively recent abstraction of life itself. Leaning on metrics and abstractions isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Coordinating complex, interconnected societies would be unthinkable without them. But it becomes an issue when ever-expanding domains of human activity become folded into the pursuit of a problematic and inhumane conception of life. 

Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to sculpt our societies into an image of the economy from a bygone era. Maybe we should rethink our metrics, measurements, and very meanings of progress, and start reorganising our economies in ways that celebrate human and non-human nature, rather than constrict it. 



Further resources

Clifford Cobb, Ted Halstead, and Jonathan Rowe, ‘If the GDP is Up, Why is America Down?’ The Atlantic (October 1995).
Although it’s pretty dated, this 1995 Atlantic article is still a great introductory critique of GDP. 

Daniel Abramson Hirschmanm, Inventing the Economy Or: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the GDP (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2016).
A deeper exploration into the conception of our modern-day fetishism for GDP and the economy-at-large. Go here if you’re interested in how a vague idea became a world-swallowing reality. 

Maristella Svampa, Development in Latin America: Toward a New Future (Nova Scotia: Fernwood, 2019).
A thorough account of how contemporary narratives of economic development via GDP have enabled countries in the Global North to extract land, resources, and cheap labour from Latin America.

Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, and Alberto Acosta, Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary (New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2019).
A beautiful compilation of cultural visions, life philosophies and alternatives to GDP-centric development from across the globe that growth-based economics has either repressed or actively oppressed. 

Jason Hickel, Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save The World (London: Penguin Random House, 2020).
An accessible introduction to degrowth, with some really useful sections on the past and present of GDP growthism and how it incentivises human exploitation and ecological devastation on a mass scale.



Doug Banks is an Australian researcher, strategist, and writer exploring language, economics, culture, and the places they intersect. He is currently head of research & narrative at ArtRebels, a Copenhagen-based collective of cultural researchers and designers.

April readings

Source: Grist / Amelia Bates

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

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

This month’s list is a little shorter than usual, but maybe that’s not a bad thing! In April, we read stories about India’s Covid catastrophe, the dangers of the concept of net zero, toxic USA, an Aboriginal family beating back a fossil fuel conglomerate, the death and post-Covid comeback of “third spaces”, as well as a fact-check of the new Netflix documentary Seaspiracy and a general critique of nature documentaries, to name a few. There’s also been quite a bit of discussion around Malmology — a very serious term we coined to describe Andreas Malm’s work. And, as you probably know by now, degrowth, global environmental justice struggles, radical municipalism, and new politics are recurring themes in our readings.

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


Uneven Earth updates

We hit 5k followers on Twitter this month — join the party!

Is green growth happening? | The answer is no. Decoupling will not be enough to ensure ecological sustainability without a downscaling of production and consumption.

The commons | The commons opposes and transcends the logic of capitalism by building relations based on cooperation, solidarity, mutualism and direct democracy

Review of Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador by Thea Riofrancos | Resource Radicals marks an important contribution to burgeoning literature on resource politics and democratic practice

Well diggers tackling water woes in a megacity: The case of Bangalore, India | The ever-fast growing metropolis Bangalore is running out of groundwater. Yet traditional water practices might be key to a sustainable use of the blue gold below us.


Top 5 articles to read

Did climate change cause societies to collapse? New research upends the old story.

Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap

How an Aboriginal family beat back a fossil fuel conglomerate

How value weaponises the machine. In Breaking Things at Work, Gavin Mueller reminds us that the new antagonism between consumer and platform over data capture is not unlike the struggle between worker and capitalist over wages and the working day.

Arundhati Roy on India’s Covid catastrophe: ‘We are witnessing a crime against humanity’ 



News you might’ve missed

Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine research ‘was 97% publicly funded’

Rich countries are refusing to waive the rights on Covid vaccines as global cases hit record levels

Environment protest being criminalised around world, say experts 

A top U.S. seller of carbon offsets starts investigating its own projects

French lawmakers approve a ban on short domestic flights 



Toxic USA

‘No community should suffer this’: Florida’s toxic breach was decades in the making

The toxic legacy of the US military in the Pacific

Nuclear colonialism and the Marshall Islands



Global environmental justice struggles

Georgia: guardians of the Rioni Valley face off the dams

Land grabs and other destructive environmental practices in Cambodia test the International Criminal Court

Attacks on forest-dependent communities in Indonesia and resistance stories

Canada: hummingbirds succeed in halting controversial pipeline construction 



Where we’re at: analysis

SILENCE = DEATH, ACTION = LIFE: New relevance of HIV/AIDS organizing in COVID pandemic times

The rise and fall of multilateralism

Revenge of the plans. Why do we keep reviving technocratic climate politics when it has consistently failed?

Digital colonialism: the evolution of American empire 

Joe Biden’s new Climate Pledge isn’t fair or ambitious 



Just think about it…

Deepfake satellite imagery poses a not-so-distant threat, warn geographers

Why bitcoin is bad for the environment 

Learning a new language can help us escape climate catastrophe. Many Indigenous languages have been forcefully wiped out by white people. Turns out, they’re some of our main hopes for beating the climate crisis.

The problem with nature documentaries

What Netflix’s Seaspiracy gets wrong about fishing, explained by a marine biologist

The 7 reasons why nuclear energy is not the answer to solve climate change

To save the Earth, dismantle individuality



Malmology

The kaleidoscope of catastrophe – On the clarities and blind spots of Andreas Malm

Can sabotage stop climate change?

How to blow up a movement: Andreas Malm’s new book dreams of sabotage but ignores consequences

Andreas Malm’s Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency



Degrowth

Why Malthus’s gospel of growth was, and still is, wrong

Beyond the growth imperative 

Degrowth in demand. Lexie Smith and Jamie Tyberg on degrowth, decolonization, and agriculture.

On sacrifice



New politics

From fossil capitalism to green democracy

Book review: Enlightenment and ecology: The legacy of Murray Bookchin in the 21st century

A youth revolt is under way in South Korea

Farmers are using their stimmys to grow free food for their communities



Sci-fi

Born to rewild: Jeff VanderMeer on what it means to restore your own little part of the world



Cities and radical municipalism

The death and post-Covid rebirth of ‘third places’. “Third spaces” like coffeeshops, gyms and libraries are critical for building community ties and boosting social cohesion. What happens when they almost disappear for more than a year?



Resources

Gender bias in Academe: An annotated bibliography of important recent studies



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The commons

by Sergio Ruiz Cayuela 

The commons is a concept originally used in England during the Middle Ages to designate shared areas (mostly woods and pasture lands) that peasants collectively managed to access basic resources such as firewood, foraged food or grazing for their cattle. In a mostly rural society, peasants relied on the commons for survival. In fact, the appropriation and plunder of the commons by the nobility starting in the 12th century—a process known as enclosure—marked the beginning of a transition to capitalism. Common people were excluded from using the land, and were forced to either move to towns and become waged workers or establish serfdom relationships with landowners. 

The concept of the commons was popularised in academia in the late 20th century by a group of scholars (that we will call the ‘institutionalists’) who saw many similarities between the commons from feudal England and the ways in which communities all over the world interacted with their environment. The institutionalists aimed to find efficient and sustainable ways of managing natural resources. Elinor Ostrom, who was the most prominent figure of this current, dismantled liberal myths and prejudices against communal land tenure by presenting commons as a viable property regime. According to Ostrom, common property regimes were especially suited for resources with specific economic features: low rivalry and easy accessibility. She believed that the main drivers of success for commons were their internal design principles, namely the set of relations and strategies adopted by a community that would lead to the sustainable management of a specific resource. 

Elinor Ostrom dismantled liberal myths and prejudices against communal land tenure by presenting commons as a viable property regime

The turn of the 21st century saw an upsurge of the alter-globalisation movement, which opposed globalized trade and its social and environmental consequences. ‘Alter-globalizationist’ scholars and activists took an interest in the commons, but they were critical of the limitations of the ‘institutionalist’ perspective. George Caffentzis, for example, pointed toward the influence that the outside world has on the success of commons. Specifically, he argued that the ability of a commons to sustain itself is determined heavily by the distribution of power in a given society and the relationship that a commons has with external actors, such as private companies or public institutions. During this time, the work of Peter Linebaugh brilliantly captured a feature of the ‘alter-globalisationist’ understanding of the commons: a shift from commons as resources to ‘commoning’ as a practice. More than just an efficient way to manage resources, the commons became a political antagonist to the logic of capital. In the last few years, authors like Massimo de Angelis and Amanda Huron have suggested that the tension between the ‘institutionalist’ and the ‘alter-globalisationist’ approaches needs a productive articulation in order to generate a better understanding of the survival and expansion of the commons. The internal management of particular commons and how it relates to the structure of the outside world are factors that affect and modify one another.

Commons can be crucial tools in imagining a world after capitalism, but in order to do so, they need to be devised as forms of social organisation opposed to capitalism and the state. Under capitalism, the propertied class reproduces its wealth by exploiting nature, Indigenous people, women, workers, and landless people around the world but especially in the Global South. This exploitation is legitimised by the laws of the market, which understand the maximisation of economic profit as the motivating force behind human life, and normalise values such as individualism, competition and greed. The commons oppose this logic and mobilise cooperation, solidarity and mutualism as core values, which in turn affect the way people relate to each other and to the environment. 

The commons mobilise cooperation, solidarity and mutualism as core values, which in turn affect the way people relate to each other and to the environment

The development of capitalism advanced in parallel with the creation of a new institutional arrangement, that of the nation-state: a centralised accumulation of political power which has complete sovereignty and the monopoly of violence over a territory. The state is supposed to protect its citizens and act in their interests, but the last centuries have shown us that, whether in liberal democracies or in authoritarian political settings, it often ends up defending the interests of the elites and oppressing the majority of the population. The commons provide an alternative to centralization, the accumulation of power, and representative democracy. Regardless of the specific arrangements of particular commons, power always flows from the bottom up, which means that all commoners are entitled to directly affect the management of a commons. In short, the commons is based on practices of direct democracy, the horizontal distribution of power, and collective decision-making.

Although their core values are in direct opposition, commons currently exist alongside capital and the state. In fact, the three forms are codependent. Let’s take the example of a community garden organised as a commons. Commoners will need tools to work the soil. Those tools have probably been produced in capitalist factories, and they need to be purchased according to their exchange value (an arbitrary quantification based on the maximisation of price according to market laws). Also, even if things go well and the garden is productive, it might not be enough to fulfill the basic needs of the commoners involved (their social reproduction). They will probably need to complement their commoning activities with waged work for a capitalist enterprise. Moreover, the land where the community garden is sited might be public, or in other words, managed and owned by the state. Therefore, commoners can either squat (risking eviction which would undermine their garden), or negotiate the use of the land, accepting the regulations and rules imposed by the state (or its representative institutions). Deciding how to interact with external actors (in this case, the state) will be crucial to determining the longevity of the community garden. It is important to keep in mind, though, that commons are also threatened by their internal politics. What if members decide to divide the land into individual plots and reduce cooperation? In that case, we could claim that the garden is not a commons any more, since inherent commoning values such as collective management and mutualism would not be enacted.

The commons is based on practices of direct democracy, the horizontal distribution of power, and collective decision-making

Relationships of dependency between the commons and capitalism can lead to cooptation by the state or private actors, who may instrumentalise the commons in order to reproduce themselves. Going back to the case of the community garden, landowners and developers could see its pull as an opportunity to raise the rents of surrounding properties, develop new commercial ventures and, in short, make profit. This would in turn spark a process of gentrification, displacing the commoners who were involved in the garden. Cooptation can also be exercised by the state. For example, the austerity policies implemented by many countries since the 1970s, which were intensified after the 2008 crisis, instigated a gradual retreat of the state from the provision of basic social services. In many cases such as healthcare or education, this void is impossible to fill through community-based response in the short term, so communities suffer an immediate impoverishment of their well-being. In others, state functions are replaced by volunteer labour. In the UK, for example, it has become commonplace to see public libraries run by volunteers. However, we should be wary of celebrating these examples, as they emerge out of need, are imposed by urgency, and are usually closely monitored by institutions. Under the argument that they are using public buildings, communities usually need to follow strict rules and protocols imposed by the government. Lacking autonomy and decision-making power, these volunteer efforts fail to become emancipatory post-capitalist alternatives.

Autonomy refers to the capacity of a given system to self-manage. In other words, the more autonomy that a commons has, the less dependent it will be on external inputs. The issue of autonomy opens up another important discussion: that of scale. As we have seen in the case of the community garden, it is almost impossible for a specific commons to have a high degree of autonomy (commoners need tools, land, wages, etc). However, if several commons form what Massimo De Angelis calls a ‘commons ecology,’ it is much easier for them to collectively gain a certain degree of autonomy. What if the members of the community garden decide to expand their project and include a community kitchen? The kitchen will be able to use the produce from the garden, and gardeners will be able to get their food from the community kitchen, thus reducing their dependency on capitalist supermarkets and restaurants, or social services managed by the state. And what if they decided to add a tool recycling workshop and other projects to the newly formed commons ecology? They would be able to gradually reduce their dependence on capital, and therefore, their self-management capacity would expand. In conclusion, for the commons to become a viable alternative that can resist cooptation and offer a path to communities’ emancipation from capital and the state, they need to avoid isolation and come together in collaborative networks that allow for greater commons’ autonomy.


Further resources

George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici, Commons against and beyond capitalism (2014)
In this article, the authors encapsulate the discussion of how commons interact with capitalism. They also list the features that characterize the anticapitalist—and potentially emancipatory—commons.

Massimo de Angelis, Omnia sunt communia: on the commons and the transformation to postcapitalism (2017)
This book is probably the greatest effort in trying to articulate both commoning perspectives to date. It deals extensively with autonomy and social reproduction, and introduces the idea of commons ecologies. 

Elinor Ostrom, Governing the commons (1990)
This is Ostrom’s most popular book, in which she distilled her decades of research about common property regimes. It inspired a new generation of commons scholars, who continue to develop the topic into the present day.


Sergio Ruiz Cayuela is a member of Cooperation Birmingham, Plan C, and other self-organised community groups and organisations. Sergio is also a militant researcher interested in the expansion of the commons as a post-capitalist form of social organisation.

Review of Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador by Thea Riofrancos

Photographer: Ivan Castaneira

by Benjamin Brown

What does Left radicalism look like in an age of climate breakdown? Should the state assume control of subsoil resources to fund social spending and reduce inequality, or oppose extractive development at all costs? Such questions are interrogated in Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador by Thea Riofrancos, where we are invited to contemplate the tensions emerging between the ‘left-in-power’ and the ‘left-in-resistance’ through the lens of Ecuador’s recent political history. 

The triumphant election of socialist president Rafael Correa in 2006, on a promise to end the ‘long night of neoliberalism’ and reverse regressive structural reforms with support from the country’s powerful social movements, turned sour after the new government abandoned proposals to leave oil in the ground and accelerated mining projects. A discourse of radical resource nationalism, which decried US imperialism and the control of oil, gas and minerals by foreign corporations, previously united social and political movements and helped propel the Left to power. However, new cleavages opened up between a state seeking revenue to fund spending on infrastructure, public services, and cash transfers to the poor, and erstwhile indigenous and environmentalist allies who opposed the deepening structural dependency on ‘extractivism’ as a betrayal of their cause. Riofrancos, a political scientist at Providence College, draws on ethnographic and archival data to illuminate the ways in which these struggles unfolded, with lessons that hold relevance across Latin America and for the world at large. 

A discourse of radical resource nationalism, which decried US imperialism and the control of oil, gas and minerals by foreign corporations, previously united social and political movements and helped propel the Left to power

Departing from conventional state-centric analyses of resource governance, Resource Radicals foregrounds the collective agency of grassroots actors, pointedly rejecting an image of the state as a ‘monolithic dispenser of public policy’, unencumbered by internal division or broader popular support. The book also challenges the ‘resource curse’ thesis which has dominated scholarship, in which the revenues accrued from abundant resource wealth allows corruption and mismanagement to flourish, with detrimental effects for democracy and broader societal wellbeing. Instead, the book investigates how successive waves of social mobilisation and protest, spearheaded by Ecuador’s powerful indigenous movement, sought to challenge oil, gas and mining projects. Rather than transcending extractive capitalism, critics accused Correa of perpetuating Ecuador’s colonial status as an exporter of raw materials and its subordinate position within the world system, delivering ‘redistribution without structural change’. Resistance from indigenous communities, environmentalists, labour and anti-mining activists coalesced around an emergent discourse of anti-extractivism, juxtaposing the government’s radical rhetoric with its insistence on the development of indigenous territories, disregard for ecosystems, and repression of dissent. Drawing on indigenous philosophies of Sumak Kawsay or Buen Vivir (living well), activists rejected intensive exploitation of natural resources in favour of a radical, post-extractive civilisational model: ‘a total reordering of the relationship between individuals, communities, and nature, based on the principles of reciprocal collaboration’ (p.30). 

At the centre of contestations was the status of Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, an ‘ambivalent document’ that both included provisions for citizen participation, Buen Vivir and the ‘rights of nature’, and simultaneously asserted the ultimate authority of the state over subsoil resources. Despite such tensions, it was subsequently embraced by anti-mining activists as a tool to legitimate their claims. Riofrancos provides a vivid account of how the constitution was invoked at key moments of political struggle, including the ten day long ‘March for Water, Life and the Dignity of Peoples’ that brought thousands to the streets for a 700km march from the Mirador copper mine in the Amazon to the Andean capital city of Quito. This discursive struggle to legitimate or contest extractive development elevated local communities as central protagonists through their constitutional right to prior consultation and consent, referencing Ecuador’s status as a multi-ethnic ‘pluri-nation’, and catapulting resource conflicts to the heart of political debate.

Riofrancos provides a vivid account of how the constitution was invoked at key moments of political struggle, including the ten day long ‘March for Water, Life and the Dignity of Peoples’ that brought thousands to the streets for a 700km march from the Mirador copper mine in the Amazon to the Andean capital city of Quito

The latter half of the book discusses how the process of community consultation was gradually diluted, as accusations and counter accusations erupted between the government accusing foreign NGOs of manipulating communities on the one hand, and critics accusing the government of violating collective rights on the other. The Correa administration embraced the language of technocracy, mirroring the discourse of mining companies by discussing conflicts over resource extraction as a ‘technical’ matter that could be solved by supplying the ‘correct information’ to ‘misinformed’ communities. The authority of the state was itself contested by indigenous communities, who rejected the image of passive compliance and contrasted their own intimate knowledge of their territories as ‘a living ecological and cultural landscape’ (p.140) with the unreliability of official data, which was ‘systematically biased’ and reliant on corporate estimations of mineral reserves. Riofrancos offers important insight into internal conflicts that beset the state itself, with Correa’s vociferous pro-mining position moderated by critical bureaucrats more sympathetic to the anti-extractivist cause. Ecuador’s development trajectory was thus moulded by both external constraints, internal state dynamics, and pressure from below. 

As Ecuador elects a new president, there is much to be learned from Riofrancos’ account of how these events unfolded, which sheds light on the tense relationship between the state, social movements, and diverse political constituencies that all claim the mantle of the Left while offering starkly different visions of the future. Riofrancos avoids the pitfalls of binary thinking, providing an honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses of both state policies and social movement strategy. The book recognises the significance of rapid drops in poverty and inequality that occurred under the Correa administration while remaining alert to its failures, as it pursued development ‘without transforming the model of accumulation or the class relations that it generates’ (p.182). The vulnerabilities of this model – oil financed approximately one third of the state budget – were exposed with the abrupt end of the commodities boom that had generated resource rents, and contributed to the justification for austerity measures imposed under Correa’s successor Lenin Moreno. Yet as demand for metals and minerals intensifies to drive the renewable energy transition, mining remains an enticing prospect for future governments.

There is much to be learned from Riofrancos’ account of how these events unfolded, which sheds light on the tense relationship between the state, social movements, and diverse political constituencies that all claim the mantle of the Left while offering starkly different visions of the future

Resource Radicals marks an important contribution to burgeoning literature on resource politics and democratic practice, interrogating how ideological fragmentation exposed underlying ecological contradictions, evolving relationships between the state and citizens, and limits of prevailing development models. Despite the fallout between them, Riofrancos ultimately concludes that both ‘left-in-power’, and ‘left-in-resistance’ are essential to address the current planetary crisis in all its ecological and political dimensions.  Rather than view ‘socialism’ and ‘anti-extractivism’ as two irreconcilable political projects, the book gestures to another possibility: ‘a political programme that demanded both the redistribution of oil and mining revenues and a transition away from the extractive model of accumulation that generates those revenues.’ In doing so, it offers lessons on how to navigate politically difficult terrain as resource struggles intensify, bringing nuance and insight to debates that will shape the world to come.


Benjamin Brown is a researcher and activist based in Edinburgh, Scotland, with an interest in land rights, extractivism, and climate justice. He tweets at @_dead_reckoning.

Well diggers tackling water woes in a megacity: The case of Bangalore, India

by Dennis Schüpf

Bangalore was once called the city of lakes. In recent years not only has it been called the city of burning lakes due to dumping of toxic waste in the lakes, but also predictions show that severe water crisis will turn the city uninhabitable by 2025. Despite this, the overexploitation of groundwater and its socio-ecological consequences are overlooked by policy makers and users alike. The Mannu Vaddar community, with their traditional well-digging skills, can improve the urban resilience against water scarcity and offer a solution towards the shrinking groundwater levels of the booming city. 

This essay presents a glimpse into the water woes of one of Asia’s fastest growing cities, dubbed as India’s Silicon Valley, with a perspective on groundwater. It thereby seeks to highlight the interconnectedness of the urban and rural space by addressing traditional well-digging in the context of sustainable water management. A photographic documentary is added to witness the work of the Mannu Vaddar. Even though Bangalore might seem to be an isolated case, it is only one tiny piece of the whole struggle to cope with an exploitation driven growth agenda, demographically as well as economically, incompatible with finite resources. 

Historically, Bangalore was once considered a city of lakes with 285 lakes until hit by reckless urbanization fueled by the ever-growing IT industry. In comparison to the Bangalore of ten years ago, almost half of the lakes have dried up and been taken over as new spaces for modern settlements. The lakes which were originally made for irrigation helped to recharge groundwater levels. The metropolis does not lack rainfall at all, with about 972mm of average annual precipitation during April and November and around 60 rainy days in a year. The crucial point here is the city’s inability to make the rainwater percolate back into the ground. Unfortunately, an immense amount of rainwater that could recharge the aquifers, instead flows down the buildings and roads of Bangalore, which became a concrete jungle over the years. It is estimated that 93% of the city has been paved.

Bangalore’s water lifeline is the Cauvery river located 100km south of the city. The river supplies nearly 1,900 million liters of water on a daily basis for a growing population of around 13 million citizens. Nevertheless, about 3 million people struggle to access the municipal water supply especially during the severe dry months. As construction continues at an alarming pace, there is no assurance of either drinking water provision or other basic amenities in new building complexes. Consequently, the number of private borewells increased especially in the more populous periphery of the city, which is mainly suspended from the municipal water supply system. Groundwater, accessed through the digging of borewells, became the primary source of water for rapidly growing districts in the periphery and some parts completely depend on it already. At least 40% of the current total water demand of Bangalore is met by groundwater resources. But as the demand for groundwater increases borewells must dig deeper, since the water levels shrink to zero. In addition, there is no data to keep track of the number of borewells. It is estimated that the amount of borewells lies above 400 000 with a lot of wells that have already dried out. 

At the moment, Bangalore tackles its water scarcity with (private) tankers that supply water often at a high price and with a questionable water quality. In many areas of Bangalore groundwater is contaminated by industrial pollution, sewage, and high nitrate levels. But millions of citizens heavily rely on the truck delivered water. In conclusion, the mentioned dynamics contribute to a large extent to the depletion of groundwater and easily result in political conflicts with residents competing over access to the dwindling resource.

In this context where the (ground)water crisis makes the social consequences exceed the environmental costs; it is time to shift the focus from the urban to the rural landscape. Not even 50km away from Bangalore, quite on the outskirts of the megacity, live the Mannu Vaddar, a community of well-diggers, that traditionally provided people with the access to groundwater. For generations, the Mannu Vaddar are the keepers of the knowledge of how and where to dig wells. The tradition of well-digger communities in India, as well as the cultural well heritage, can be traced back more than 1000 years. Back then the first open wells allowed humans to explore inland away from the dependency on rivers and other water resources. However, in the early 1980s Cauvery water supply along with borewells replaced the culture of open wells in Bangalore, which at that time had been the main source of drinking water. 

This shift towards modern water management allowed the city to expand geographically, as well as economically, since more water was pumped. But the dramatic drop of overall water levels in the region in the past years has led to a corresponding decline in the demand for well-digging. In the current situation people are in a rush to dig deeper borewells to extract the last bits of water from the aquifers with mechanic pumps. The human-environmental gap widens and the disconnect between urban spaces and their water flows intensifies.

How could the revival of traditional well-digging contribute to solve Bangalore’s water woes?

The ability of the Mannu Vaddar comes into play exactly where Bangalore’s capacity to store rainwater ends. The low water levels correlate with too much concrete jungle, hence the fact that there is not enough rainwater percolating back into the ground. This is where the well-diggers enter the arena of urban water management. Wells, dug in the right location, can recharge the groundwater levels by connecting them to the shallow aquifers. These aquifers are an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock through which water can be stored in the ground. Hence, the Mannu Vaddar help to make water move through these different types of rocks and soil, which is crucial to tackle the depletion of groundwater resources.

Therefore, the Mannu Vaddar’s skill comprises more than mere physical labor. It includes the crucial knowledge on soil types, rocky layers, and other traits of the region’s aquifers to successfully strike water. ‘We feel and smell it in the soil’, says Venkatesh a 23 years old well-digger, who belongs to the Mannu Vaddar community. Mannu literally means soil. There is no doubt that their craft requires a deep knowledge and sensitivity to work the natural element. It is physical work combined with the human senses that make them reach the natural source of water under the surface. The technique and knowledge are passed on across generations when the young well-diggers work alongside with skilled elders. 

Pedhanna (52), an experienced member of the Mannu Vaddar, has been digging more than 3000 wells in his life. His son, Venkatesh (23), surpassed the sheer number of 1000 by the age of 23. Many young well-diggers do not seek for labor or a career in the metropolis, even though the constant fear for jobs is present. During the week, the Mannu Vaddar migrate from the rural outskirts to the city to look for work by knocking at the doors from house to house. Although the job opportunities today lie within Bangalore many young men still appreciate the natural surroundings of the village and prefer this way of life from the urban hustle.  

Their work is done by hand and with simple tools. With nothing but shovels and metal skewers the well is dug deep into the earth by one Mannu Vaddar. When the soil is softened by the skewer, two well-diggers pull it up with a bucket attached to two thick ropes. This process takes place even under hot climatic conditions. The Mannu Vaddar know very well when they are about to strike water. The smell of the soil and its consistency changes and when it lumps, the well-diggers can be sure that they reached for the edge of a shallow aquifer. Just a few centimeters deeper and water will fill up the dug pit. However, the security and the insurance of the well-diggers is poor, regarding the risk climbing up and down inside the wells. 

Unlike the extractive borewells, the wells of the Mannu Vaddar are not narrow, but open with the ability to recharge and access the higher aquifers. The aquifers in turn can fill up rapidly under Bangalore’s rich precipitation. The so-called recharge wells, typically 20ft. deep with 3 diameters, collect rainwater and revive the shallow aquifer. Apart from well-digging the Mannu Vaddar community is cleaning and  maintaining all types of wells across Bangalore. The input of the well-diggers supports the creation of a river below us in areas with aquifers in the city.

Coming back to the bigger picture the linkage between the overexploitation of groundwater and the recharge of the aquifers is fundamental to cope with Bangalore’s water woes. By law groundwater rights are attached to the land, so that the owners can extract as much water as desired without limitations. Apart from the right institutional response, wells, not borewells, can play a crucial role in the rejuvenation process of groundwater. An interview with a young well-digger makes it clear how the change in demand of work goes hand in hand with the water crisis in Bangalore. As the demand for typical open wells declined over the past years, recharge wells became increasingly important, since its owners want to recharge the borewells that already ran dry. 

In this context the Mannu Vaddar can play a crucial role towards rainwater harvesting and water self-sufficiency. The city’s capability to make the water percolate to the ground is crucial for a sustainable water management in the long run and the Mannu Vaddar bear the ancient knowledge to move towards this goal. 

Dennis Schüpf is a Master student in International Development studies with a focus on socio-environmental conflicts related to water resources. Based in Germany, his work as a documentary photographer spans from urban to rural perspectives on environmental and social issues with an emphasis on the stories of people. 

March readings

Phoebe Johnson for Noema Magazine

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

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

Our March reading list is ready for you to enjoy, be inspired by, learn from, and use in your teaching and activism! This month, we’re featuring a call by the late David Graeber for a better post-pandemic future, evidence that reducing inequality and solving our ecological crisis go hand in hand, and a beautiful multimedia piece on the ecological imagination of Hayao Miyazaki. We also collected quite a few articles rethinking and offering different insights or perspectives on science from various angles. And, as usual, you’ll find quite a bit of material on radical municipalism and cities, Indigenous struggles, food politics, and COVID-19.

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


Uneven Earth updates

Slow violence | This harm is slow, ill-defined, and often perceptible only in retrospect, when its perpetrators are long gone, if they were ever physically present at all

Permaculture | A design system that offers a radical reimagination of the possible


Top 5 articles to read

After the pandemic, we can’t go back to sleep. In an essay penned shortly before his death, David Graeber argued that post-pandemic, we can’t slip back into a reality where the way our society is organized — to serve every whim of a small handful of rich people while debasing and degrading the vast majority of us — is seen as sensible or reasonable.

Why a more equal world would be easier to decarbonise

Urban fish ponds: Low-tech sewage treatment for towns and cities

Apocalyptic infrastructures

The ecological imagination of Hayao Miyazaki


News you might’ve missed

Global heating pushes tropical regions towards limits of human livability

New study says Earth could see six-month summers 

Record heat, dust, and locusts are plaguing Kuwait

Gridlock at sea and chaos ashore as pandemic snarls trade network

Oil firms knew decades ago fossil fuels posed grave health risks, files reveal

Mining magnets: Arctic island finds green power can be a curse

Why ‘rebound effects’ may cut energy savings in half

Elite minority of frequent flyers ’cause most of aviation’s climate damage’ 

France tested nuclear weapons in Africa. Now radioactive dust is drifting back into France.

Garment workers win historic victory in effort to transform fashion industry

Sweden rejects pioneering solar geoengineering test, under pressure from Indigenous people and environmental groups

Lula is back — and he can save Brazil from Bolsonaro


Where we’re at: analysis

Exposed: The network of polluters funding international climate policy 

Extraction-driven devastation: an interview with Nnimmo Bassey

The victims of Agent Orange the U.S. has never acknowledged

Will the race for electric vehicles endanger the earth’s most sensitive ecosystem?

Is this the end of forests as we’ve known them?

This tiny fishing town was poisoned by a coal plant. The government is trying to replace it with a mine 

De Beers: Destruction is forever

In Suez Canal, stuck ship is a warning about excessive globalization

Want not, waste not. To save the biosphere, Vaclav Smil argues we should curb upstream consumption — not just downstream emissions.

Why more people than ever are living alone – and what this means for the environment


COVID-19

From the Anthropocene to the Microbiocene. The novel coronavirus compels us to rethink the modern concept of the political.

Sea of resilience: how the Pacific fought against Covid

Vaccine nationalism is patently unjust 


Just think about it…

Pablo Escobar’s hippos might be filling an ancient ecological niche

This TikTok star makes foraging a fun — and revolutionary — practice

Climate anxiety is an overwhelmingly White phenomenon

Bill Gates is the biggest private owner of farmland in the United States. Why?

Green investing ‘is definitely not going to work’, says ex-BlackRock executive

How economic behaviour drove witch hunts in pre-modern Germany

Bitcoin is a mouth hungry for fossil fuels

AI: Ghost workers demand to be seen and heard

What if…we banned the intensive farming of animals?


Science, epistemology, and (post-)colonialism

The long shadow of colonial science

How scientific taxonomy constructed the myth of race

Scientists need to face both facts and feelings when dealing with the climate crisis

Decolonizing the hunt for dinosaurs and other fossils

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

The future of postcolonial thought

Rethinking the social sciences with Sam Moyo


Degrowth

Stimulus is an environmental disaster waiting to happen

We’re hurtling toward global suicide


New politics

Why the environmental justice movement should think locally

A nearly true story: The tale of the Hamlet

Queer and feminist militants are shaping Tunisia’s protests

Building alternative futures in the present: the case of Syria’s communes


(Green) fascism

When futurism led to fascism—and why it could happen again

Ideology and far right ecologism. An episode of the Right Rising podcast in which Balsa Lubarda discusses the history and connections between environmentalism and Far Right ideology.


Indigenous struggles

LandBack: The Indigenous liberation movement. A video explainer.

The Indigenous Kinggo’s struggle to defend Papua’s customary forest

Biodiversity highest on Indigenous-managed lands

Pollution and patriarchy in tribal India


Cities and radical municipalism

US city of Evanston to pay reparation to Black residents

The secret ingredient in Paris’ green public housing 

Cycling is ten times more important than electric cars for reaching net-zero cities

High ground, high prices

Wildfires, housing crisis, fascist street violence, and an uprising: this municipalist organization in Portland, Oregon was in the middle of it all

All power to the neighborhoods: Greece rises against police barbarity

The coronavirus and a summer of mutual aid in Chicago


Food politics

Agroecology vs. climate chaos: Farmers leading the battle in Asia

Popular peasant feminism

After the flood, the forest. On planting bananas in the warming Gulf Coast.

Resistance against industrial oil palm plantations in West and Central Africa

In King Leopold’s steps: The investors bankrolling the PHC oil palm plantations in the Democratic Republic of Congo 

Pigeon towers: A low-tech alternative to synthetic fertilizers


Resources

Zero Covid networks from around the world working for a solidarian politics of COVID-19 elimination

1M Experiments. A place to browse community-based safety projects for inspiration.

Global Oneness Project. A library of multimedia stories and curricula about cultural, environmental and social issues.

Exploring economics. An open access e-learning platform on pluralist economics.

A material transition. A report by War On Want that sets out a pathway for a globally just energy future.

A blog that deals with decolonising global health


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Slow violence

by Ben Shread-Hewitt

Slow violence: Suffering, degradation, and pain inflicted upon people and communities by impersonal, dispersed forces; spread across time and space, with no defined point of impact, but nevertheless the result of a perpetrator/s’ actions.

In the Niger delta, the glowing flames of oil refineries rob the people of night. In northern Thailand, months of endless smoke seep silently through lungs and into bloodstreams. On the island of Tuvalu, the gentle waves creep implacably up the shoreline, set to consume it into the ceaseless ocean.

These are all forms of slow violence: induced environmental conditions that cause active harm to the people they affect. But this harm is slow, ill-defined, and often perceptible only in retrospect, when its perpetrators are long gone, if they were ever physically present at all.

There is a difficulty in conceptualizing, or locating, slow violence when compared to its ‘fast’ counterpart, and one of its most insidious aspects is that it is often not recognized as violence at all. When oil companies create populations so heavily poisoned their home becomes known as ‘Cancer Alley’, it is violence. But legally, if recognized at all, the act is not seen as an assault on the health of its victims, nor do those that suffer often perceive it as such. Even if the perpetrators come to justice, it will be for their negligent industrial practices, not for carcinogens they put into living bodies.

There is a difficulty in conceptualizing, or locating, slow violence when compared to its ‘fast’ counterpart, and one of its most insidious aspects is that it is often not recognized as violence at all

For the victims of slow violence, there is no punctual moment of disaster, there is no discernable beginning to their suffering and there is no end to hope for. The harm is environmental, their lifeworld becomes a weapon inflicted upon them. Furthermore, like the steady accumulations of poison in bloodstreams, slow violence is “not just attritional but also exponential” as Rob Nixon – the originator of the term – points out. It acts as “a major threat multiplier; it can fuel long-term, proliferating conflicts in situations where the conditions for sustaining life become increasingly but gradually degraded.”

Rob Nixon is a professor of English, and the importance of this becomes clear as one explores slow violence. It is ultimately a concept of narratives: what is harm? Who decides if it is or not? And who gets to claim it? In the neoliberal world, the story of progress is all pervasive, environmental issues are side effects to be managed, fixed, or superseded by innovation and entrepreneurship. This is a specific narrative at play, a framework which we use to piece the facts of reality into a coherent story. Silicone Valley and Peruvian lithium mines are both facts of global capitalism, but which one is the focus of the narrative? The poisoned waters and collapsing communities, or the shiny Tesla’s cruising financial district streets?

Nixon’s book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor is constructed on a series of mediations on different books or literary genres all focused on environmental degradation and the people caught in its wake. Whilst covering real world examples at points, it is largely a discussion of fictional – though by no means unrealistic – literature. At first glance, this focus on the narration of environmental disaster, rather than its empirical basis, might discourage us from its usage as a tool of political ecology. But as Erik Swyngedouw points out, environmental policy requires the choice of one narrative over another; so, to be acquainted with the narratives of slow violence, how they are constructed, viewed, or ignored, is one of the most integral lessons to be learned from Nixon’s work.

This narrative understanding is important because slow violence defies most conventional understandings of harm. Whilst its victims and perpetrators may be human, the way it plays out is environmental, it does not neatly fit into news cycles, election seasons, or economic quarters. Environments act on many timescales: seasonal, biological, hydrological, or geological, they are often connected, but not synchronized. Environmental phenomena rarely occur at ‘humans speeds’, and causes may not render their effects for decades; or they may manifest themselves slowly and unevenly, an imperceptible drip of the past into the present. Neither do they follow the pathways we are accustomed to. Ecological materials do not transmit through markets or cultural exchange, they dissolve through webs of interconnections until they appear hidden, only to rejoin and accumulate again far from their source in both space and time. When applied to environmental pollutants, the difficulty of connecting the human scale of polluters and polluted with the twisting ecological pathways that connect the two becomes plain to see.

Slow violence defies most conventional understandings of harm. Whilst its victims and perpetrators may be human, the way it plays out is environmental, it does not neatly fit into news cycles, election seasons, or economic quarters.

The last military spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam, for example, was in 1971, yet its poisonous effects persist half a century later, killing, maiming, and deforming thousands. It lingers, percolating, pooling, and welling in muds, soils, and water, biomagnifying through food chains and into populations. The cancers it inflicts can be as deadly and debilitating as any instantaneous bomb or bullet, but they act slowly and implacably, when the aggressions have long since disengaged, and (for some, at least) the political story has moved on. Agent Orange is a pertinent example of slow violence, but it is amongst the easiest to recognize. From the poisoned waters of Flint to Pacific Islanders living in the wake of nuclear testing, long-term, proliferating violence constructs and blights their futures in hidden and pervasive ways.

Narratively novel it may be, we must be careful not to depoliticize slow violence as some ethereal, inexplicable force. Rob Nixon often speaks about the ‘out of site’ character of slow violence, but as has been pointed out by Thom Davies, ‘out of sight’ is a relative term; to those afflicted by slow violence it is rarely unnoticed. What consigns it to the category of ‘out of sight’ is its lack of political recognition in the mainstream narrative; whether implicit or purposeful. News cycles come and go, but the poisons, cancers, and broken socioecological systems remain, as do the communities that bear them witness.

‘Out of sight’ is a relative term; to those afflicted by slow violence it is rarely unnoticed. What consigns it to the category of ‘out of sight’ is its lack of political recognition in the mainstream narrative; whether implicit or purposeful.

Nor, for that matter, should we take ‘out of sight’ to mean perpetrators of slow violence are only ever guilty of ignorance. When, in a confidential memo from the then-president of the World Bank Lawrence Summers, he describes the ‘impeccable… economic logic’ of “dumping toxic waste in lower wage countries”, there is not ignorance at play. When Summers described higher wage nations as ‘over-polluted’, he was implicitly acknowledging the negativity of pollution, but the narrative constraints of his worldview did not permit him to rally against it, but simply to manage it. The harm was acknowledged, but it was going to be put out of sight, rather than simply find its way there. The reason Summers could propose inflicting toxic waste upon faraway communities, even when all agreed upon its danger, was the narrative. In this way, it is not violence, but simply rational decision making; whether inflicting a substance that can harm, main, or even kill someone is construe as ‘violent’ all depends on who is telling the story.

Slow violence is a tool for overcoming these long-imposed barriers on what we can claim to be right or wrong, violence or not. It is a particularly important device for political ecologists in the era of the ‘Anthropocene’, where the seeming abstractness of global issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution can be used by the biggest perpetrators to forgo responsibility for the harm they inflict. If we are to strive for a more just ecological future, then recognizing what is to be overcome is one of the first challenges.


Further resources

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon (2011)
The original source of the term, it explores examples, both real and fictional, to help the reader understand the concept and its implications for environmental justice in the globalized world.

The Environmentalism of the Poor by Joan Martinez Alier (2002)
Exploring the parallel, but initially unconnected environmental justice movements of the Global South and how they differed from those the North.

Promises of the Political: Insurgent Cities in a Post-Political Environment by Erik Swyngedouw (2018)
Environmental questions are inherently political, but increasingly they are consigned to technocratic decision making. This book looks at how to overcome this thinking and bring back the democratic voice to our shared environmental futures.

The Political Ecology of the State: The Basis and the Evolution of Environmental Statehood by Antonio Ioris (2014)
This book is dense and philosophical, but if you want to understand why and how states theorize environmental issues (and those affected by them) in the way they do, then it’s worth the effort.

Green Politics for a Divided Planet: Toward a Postcolonial Environmentalism by Douglas Torgerson (2005)
A good introductory paper to postcolonial environmentalism to those with no background in it.


Ben Shread-Hewitt is a masters student at Cardiff University, studying Sustainability, Planning and Environmental Policy. Find him on Twitter.

Permaculture

by Rebecca Ellis

Permaculture is a design system that mimics the patterns of flourishing ecosystems to create ecologically regenerative human societies.  First developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s, permaculture takes inspiration from Indigenous and ‘traditional’ agrarian practices. Mollison and Holmgren created a philosophy and a set of principles for producing diverse and dynamic ecosystems in which humans play a positive role. 

Permaculture is strongly associated with specific practices, such as planting perennial polycultures. However, its most distinctive aspect is a focus on ecological design that is based on careful observation and deep interconnection. Through this design process, permaculturalists co-create, with non-human nature, spaces and lives that restore soil, build biodiversity, and allow for the flourishing of multiple species, including humans.

Permaculture emphasises that the Earth is full of abundance, not in commodities, but in energy from the sun, wind, water, food, and life itself. According to permaculture ethics, this abundance should be shared with other people, non-human animals, and the Earth. Permaculturalists do not view humans as inherently destructive or greedy. Within healthy ecosystems, animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria form cooperative, rather than competitive relationships, and humans can be an integral part of these ecosystems. As a system based on cooperation and solidarity among humans and non-human nature, permaculture offers a radical reimagination of the possible.

As a system based on cooperation and solidarity among humans and non-human nature, permaculture offers a radical reimagination of the possible

Permaculture has spread from Australia throughout the world and been interpreted in a variety of ways. This has led to some important debates within the international permaculture movement. Some proponents of permaculture aim to keep it de-politicized and professionalized as a system of ecological design only, while others seek to align with other social justice movements. The established way to become a permaculture practitioner is to attend a Permaculture Design Course (PDC). PDCs in North America are typically $800-1500 16-day immersive programs. People usually travel to attend PDCs and often live on-site for the duration. This limits PDCs to people who can afford the fee, the travel costs, and to be away from family or work for more than two weeks. After passing the course, one of the ways to be a permaculture practitioner, strongly emphasized in PDCs, is to start an ecological design business or farm. 

Some argue that permaculture should be professionalized in this way to establish mainstream legitimacy, respectability, and influence for a movement which has often been on the fringes of society. However, if only those with the time and money to obtain PDCs can practise, promote, or teach permaculture, then the transformative potential of the movement is greatly limited. Most working-class people do not have the capital to start small businesses or buy increasingly expensive farmland. Permaculture has thus been criticized for excluding racialized people, the poor, and the working class, as well as for the presence of sexism, especially since permaculture certification relies heavily on a teacher/student model with potential for serious abuses of power.

Lack of access to land can be a barrier to participation in permaculture. Land ownership in many parts of the world—both rural and urban—is prohibitively expensive.  Creating perennial gardens, food forests, major earth works such as berms, swales, and cob structures, all require land ownership or, at least, long-term land access. In urban centres, where public land can be sparse and highly contested, the creation of such projects necessitates sustained activist campaigns grounded in the complex connections between urban land, race, class, and gender. There is also the danger that such permaculture projects could displace long-term residents from their neighbourhoods. 

Permaculture has also been criticized for playing a role in continued colonialism toward Indigenous people and the Global South. Mollison and Holmgren, by their own admission, gleaned knowledge and skills from Indigenous and ‘traditional’ communities to create the principles of permaculture. Some of the knowledge and skills they gathered were developed by specific, identifiable communities and people, who are rarely acknowledged by practitioners. Practices and ideas associated with permaculture can then become commodities that are sometimes sold back to the Indigenous groups they were borrowed from. And when White permaculture practitioners from the Global North set up businesses and farms in poorer countries of the Global South, there is a danger that these initiatives will contribute to the dispossession of local people, a very similar danger to the urban projects discussed above. It is essential that permaculturalists acknowledge the origin of practices associated with permaculture, and support struggles for Indigenous land rights, globally and within their own region.

Permaculture has transformative potential when practitioners move away from promoting it as a depoliticized set of ecological design practices and principles. It should, instead, be viewed as a dynamic social movement that can provide a vision for radical transformation of human societies. The permaculture movement must explicitly concern itself with social and environmental justice, actively confronting racism, colonialism, classism and sexism within dominant society and within permaculture communities. The permaculture movement must find ways to become accessible and participatory. This entails decreasing the emphasis on land ownership and entrepreneurship. 

Permaculture should be viewed as a dynamic social movement that can provide a vision for radical transformation of human societies

There are already many initiatives that attempt to do this. Some of the most promising involve attempts to reclaim the commons, spaces governed collectively and democratically for the use and benefit of all. These include community food forests, community gardens and urban farms, reclaiming abandoned buildings as solidarity spaces, neighbourhood-based mutual aid and sharing initiatives, and worker-owned and neighbourhood-based cooperatives. These projects and initiatives can complement and strengthen activist organizing, creating what Adrienne Maree Brown describes as communities that are ‘miles deep and inches wide.’

A useful permaculture principle for understanding social change and transformation is ‘use edges and value the marginal.’ When applied to ecosystems, this principle reminds us that marginal life such as ‘weeds’ can play a role in healing soil and nurturing our bodies. It also highlights how ecological change often happens in the spaces in which two ecosystems meet and overlap. Within human societies, ways of living and organizing that have transformative potential are often marginalized when they threaten dominant power structures. These marginal spaces, the edges of capitalist society, are often where activists organize against capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. It is scary to be at the edges of society, risking or facing marginalization. It seems safer to be viewed as respectable and unthreatening by the status quo. Yet it is at the edges that the permaculture movement can have the most impact, joining with other social and ecological movements to create joyful and vibrant spaces in which people experience what it feels, sounds, smells, and tastes like to live differently with one another and the Earth. It is in these spaces that people can collectively imagine radical possibilities beyond capitalism, an essential step in allowing other worlds to take root and flourish. 


Further resources

The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature by Starhawk (HarperOne, 2005).
This is the book that introduced me to the concept of permaculture. Starhawk gives a description of permaculture philosophies and principles that is grounded in activism and feminist spirituality. 

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009).
One of the most useful and practical books for designing permaculture spaces in urban and suburban areas.

Farming while Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land by Leah Penniman (Chelsea Press, 2019)
An essential resource for anyone interested in socially just farming as well as a much-needed correction to attempts to ignore the contributions of Black farmers and farm workers in the creation of agricultural knowledge and innovation. Penniman makes very important critiques of racism and colonialism within permaculture. 

Embers of Hope: Embracing Life in an Age of Ecological Destruction and Climate Chaos by Bonita Ford (LivingEARTH, 2020)
A meditative book that gives guidance for creating a permaculture life within the uncertainty of ecological destruction and climate breakdown. 

The Re-enchantment (formerly Permaculture for the People)
This is my podcast and blog, where I present permaculture as part of a larger political project.


Rebecca Ellis is a permaculture practitioner, community activist, and beekeeper in London, Ontario, Canada. She is currently completing her PhD dissertation in Geography at Western University and working on a book about capitalist agriculture and pollinator health. In her spare time she likes to play the banjo, ride her bicycle and commune with bees.

January & February readings

A woman gets the coronavirus vaccine, at a vaccination centre in Westfield Stratford City shopping centre, amid the outbreak of COVID-19, in London, UK [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters], via Al Jazeera

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

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

Welcome to our first newsletter in 2021! It has been a slow few months here at Uneven Earth, but we’re back with a fresh list of environmental justice readings and resources for you that we’ve collected in the new year. Highlights include stories on extractive tourism, global vaccine justice, and the power of mutual aid, as well as a brilliant podcast series on social ecology.

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



Uneven Earth updates

A new book tells us what is really behind the ‘K-shaped recovery’ | A review of The Asset Economy by Lisa Adkins, Martijn Konigs, and Melinda Cooper

Rewilding | A growing movement repurposes the term rewilding to be a political and cultural project that is more than merely conservation biology

Blue neocolonialism | The Nature Conservancy is promoting “Blue bonds”—a market-based solution to fund conservation—as a new wave of neocolonialism in the Seychelles

Who owns the city? Cars and COVID-19 | Car-centred urbanisation is tied to the growing threat of deadly epidemics. Solutions lie beyond technocratic policy, instead we must look to the soul of the city.



Top 5 articles to read

A call for global vaccine justice

Texans were casualties in Republicans’ war on green energy. “Against an elemental force and a state that failed them, they recognized that the best way to survive was to band together, and practice mutual aid — supporting one another with what little they had.”

It is time to end extractive tourism

On social ecology. A Srsly Wrong podcast series that explores what a post-capitalist future might look like from a social ecology perspective, and how we might get there. Check out part 1, part 2, and part 3.

“The world has become weird”: crisis, natures and radical re-enchantment



News you might’ve missed

Residents of Jackson are nearing two weeks with no running water

Mexican feminists raise their voices against patriarchy

Argentina’s decades-long fight to legalize abortion ends in victory  

Sex trafficking sting nets Enbridge pipeline workers

Community in Trinidad says ‘No’ to quarry operator targeting area’s last untouched watershed

Nevada lithium mine kicks off a new era of Western extraction

Inuit hunters braved -30 C weather to block an iron mine 

Rio Tinto in Serbia: privatization of natural resources, obstruction of sustainable development 

A victory for farmers in a David-and-Goliath environmental case 

Sámi reindeer herders file lawsuit against Norway windfarm 



Where we’re at: analysis

How extractive industries manage to carry on harming the planet

Private planes, mansions and superyachts: What gives billionaires like Musk and Abramovich such a massive carbon footprint 

India’s farmers’ protests: “This is history in the making” 

Anti-extractivism and radical politics in Ecuador 

The Deep South has a rich history of resistance, as Amazon is learning

Child labour, toxic leaks: the price we could pay for a greener future 

Electricity needed to mine bitcoin is more than used by ‘entire countries’

The poison found in everyone, even unborn babies – and who is responsible for it

People buying SUVs are cancelling out climate gains from electric cars 

The Paris Agreement is already outdated



COVID-19

Cape Town’s response to COVID-19 shows that another kind of society is possible

Why I’m an invisible man in the global vaccine campaign

Despair and disparity: The uneven burdens of COVID-19. A Truthout series on the disparate impact and deep injustices that the crisis has wrought in the United States.

10 ways corporations have exploited COVID-19




Just think about it…

The climate crisis shows how rich people blow through their “fair share” of carbon emissions

Is thrift shopping good for the environment?

Humans may not be able to reproduce naturally much longer, scientist warns

Billionaires want to be the gatekeepers of the solar system

Mars is a hellhole

How to write about pipelines



Degrowth

Current L’Internationale issue on degrowth and progress

The urgent case for shrinking the economy 

Degrowth: Pushing social wellbeing and climate over economic growth 

Giving up capitalism doesn’t mean giving up pleasure

Socialism without growth. “People appear to understand the abstract concept of “limitless”, but it is more difficult to understand that the concept cannot and should not be applied to growth. Even socialists must shake off the idea that quantity can improve, when only quality counts.”

Ecosocialism is the horizon, degrowth is the way

Is the world poor, or unjust?



New politics

Anarchism in practice is often radically boring democracy

Mutual aid: Kropotkin’s theory of human capacity

Hiding in plain sight. Democracy’s Indigenous origins in the Americas.

Building power in a crisis of social reproduction 

The lockdown showed how the economy exploits women. She already knew. Silvia Federici on how strengthening the commons can revolutionize care work.

Current YES! Magazine issue on what an ecological civilization looks like 



Cities and radical municipalism

The city where cars are not welcome. As automakers promise to get rid of internal combustion engines, Heidelberg is trying to get rid of autos.

Two-way street: how Barcelona is democratising public space 

Squatting, rebellion, movement: An interview with Philadelphia Housing Action 

How ’15-minute cities’ will change the way we socialise 

The ‘revolutionary’ fight over California’s hidden oil and gas wells 



Food politics

Planet farm

The agrarian question in the 21st century 

Agrarian change and peasant struggles in colonial Pakistan




Resources

Introduction to political economy. A podcast hosted by Noaman G. Ali that looks at how politics and economics interrelate, but also how political economy can encompass a lot more than just politics and economics.

No job, no rent. A 30-page report by the Stomp Out Slumlords tenants rights project on 10 months of organizing the tenant struggle during a pandemic.

Books: 14 wellbeing books for a common good and good life, D-Econ’s 2020 alternative reading list, and What to read in the environmental humanities now 

The top 100 documentaries we can use to change the world

PLN. A monthly show on YouTube covering positive Leftist news stories. 

A Twitter thread exploring what meaningful work in a degrowth world might look like




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A new book tells us what is really behind the ‘K-shaped recovery’

West Lodge Towers in Toronto, owned by Hazelview, formerly known as Timber Creek Asset Management. The financialization of the rental market in real estate is a key component of the asset economy. Photo: Neal Rockwell.

by Neal Rockwell

Earlier on in the pandemic there was a good deal of talk about what letter best represents the economic crisis that resulted from the COVID-19 virus. The first (and overly optimistic) suggestion was the letter V – that is to say a rapid decline of the economy followed by a rapid rebound. Other suggestions were a U (like the V, but a little more drawn out), the W (two back to back Vs) and an L (steep drop off, slow recovery). 

None of these seemed, however, to accurately explain what was going on, so finally pundits and commentators introduced the idea of the K shaped recovery. This one is somewhat more difficult to understand than the others, partly because only the two diagonal strokes play into the visual metaphor, with the vertical stem being extraneous, but more importantly because it stretches the meaning of the word recovery itself. 

Essentially, it divides the economy into two portions, one which has seen its fortunes dramatically increased, the other which continues to slide further into poverty. For the former category there has effectively been a boom without crisis, for the latter there has been an ongoing crisis without recovery. The stock market and home prices are increasing rapidly, while many people watch their financial troubles multiply with alarming speed. It seems obvious that this should not qualify as a recovery at all, but what then is taking place?

The Asset Economy, a new monograph published by Polity Books may help shed some light on the economic structures that could provoke this unusual K-shaped economic phenomenon. This slim volume, written by three Australian sociologists, Lisa Adkins and Martijn Konigs of the University of Sydney and Melinda Cooper of the Australian National University,  focuses on the way asset ownership—primarily stocks and property—has become central to our economic system, but also to the ordering of social relations within our society. 

The central argument of the book is that asset price inflation (especially property) has been the main driver of wealth since about the beginning of the 1980s. As wages have stagnated, rising stock, property, and notably home equity has allowed net worth to increase, at least for those who have access to asset ownership. That idea by itself is not novel, nor even controversial. Since the election of Margaret Thatcher all governments in the English-speaking world (and many others) have pursued this policy of ‘asset based welfare’. 

In essence, this is a very individualistic strategy where social welfare programs are cut, unions are broken and people’s needs are met either by owning a stock portfolio or a home whose value increases over time, providing funds for retirement as well as life’s other needs. 

The downside to this welfare strategy, of course, is that it requires the constant inflation of asset prices in order to remain viable. Its value creation strategy is entirely dependent on inflating asset prices specifically in relation to the prices of consumer goods overall, and more importantly in relation to wages. That means that as time progresses this form of “welfare” becomes more and more unattainable to larger and larger numbers of people, increasing the poverty of non-asset owning people, and making cities ever more unliveable. 

Class is just not the same as it used to be

What is novel about the authors’ approach is the level of detail and attention they lend to this subject. One of the authors’ main ideas is that since the 1970s there has been a shift, where the main class antagonism in society is no longer centred around employment, i.e.: between people who labour and those who own the means of production, but instead between those who own assets and those who do not. As they state “[t]he key element shaping inequality is no longer the employment relationship, but rather whether one is able to buy assets that appreciate at a faster rate than both inflation and wages.” 

The main class antagonism in society is no longer centred around employment but instead between those who own assets and those who do not.

This may seem a little like Thomas Piketty’s now famous r > g (return on investments is greater than GDP growth). Piketty’s formula suggests that if return on investments is higher than growth, then investment incomes for the wealthiest are based on syphoning money from the rest of the population, more than they are grounded in actual new wealth creation. This necessitates widening income inequality.  

The authors explain, however, that Piketty tends to focus mainly on the very top of the economic hierarchy—those most heavily invested in the stock market, whereas their asset economy is more insidiously distributed throughout the upper and middle classes. Home ownership is particularly vital for entry into the asset economy by people below the very top of the wealth spread and as such “housing has become a significant generator of inequality.” The authors therefore argue that asset ownership is the primary engine of class distinction and inequality in the 21st century. 

The authors  also take care to distinguish the asset economy from rentier capitalism (which they claim focuses too much on the very top) and financialization (which they think focuses too heavily on making assets liquid, when a large part of the asset economy involves taking on large amounts of debt to buy illiquid housing assets). 

Rentier capitalism, for quick clarification, is the idea that as the economy becomes more monopolistic, the owning class makes more if its income from parasitically charging rents and fees for access to services, rather than producing actually valuable goods and services. A good example of this would be increasing bank service fees – they do not actually improve a customer’s experience, but act like a kind of private tax. 

Financialization refers to the growing way that financial activities and speculation have come to dominate the economy since the 1970s, replacing industrial production as the central driver of capitalism. In short this means that much more energy is devoted to playing the stock market, and loan markets in relation to investing in producing and selling products. A good example of this is how in the last ten years companies have invested profits into buying back their own stocks to drive up their prices, rather than investing in other more concrete, productive aspects of their businesses.

The authors also downplay the worker / boss relationship in relation to contemporary capitalist exploitation, in favour of the asset / no-asset dichotomy, partly because they believe the role of commodity production is now less important to the economy than long-term asset speculation, and also because class identity is now confused. There are white collar workers like journalists, magazine editors, NGO employees, etc… who are precarious and own no assets, while at the same time there are working class people who have managed to ascend on the asset-owning ladder (though they point out that this is rarer and rarer). 

Inflation is sneaky

For some time I have been puzzling over the way economic and business people tend to talk about inflation. Analysts and commentators frequently explain that we live in a period of very low inflation. 

This has always seemed somewhat absurd to me because the biggest expense in almost everyone’s life—the cost of housing—has seen prices skyrocket stratospherically in the past several decades. The authors make the same observation, noting that asset price inflation should today be considered part of inflation. As they state:

[T]he official story is that we live in a world without inflation… But this obscures the fact that inflation elsewhere has been central to the making of the neoliberal asset economy. Of course, we tend not to think of asset price inflation as inflation, but that is itself the product of a particular historical conjuncture and discursive configuration. It is therefore important to understand the transition from the Keynesian to the neoliberal era as a shift from price inflation towards asset inflation. 

The authors observe that in the 1970s there was an opposite dynamic at play: wage and price inflation was high and asset prices were stagnating. As they explain “[t]he wage and consumer price spiral of the 1970s was the symptom of an undecided struggle between different social groups who sought to maintain their respective shares of the national income.” 

What is most illuminating here is the idea that inflation is not simply a blunt process which either is or is not happening. On the contrary, as the authors show, it is a strategic battle between different actors in society. Different types of inflation benefit different portions of the population. Inflating asset prices is an indirect form of appropriation from those who do not hold assets because it erodes the value of their earnings, while increasing the value of asset owners’ holdings. 

Inflation is not simply a blunt process which either is or is not happening, but a strategic battle between different actors in society. Different types of inflation benefit different portions of the population.

In a crude sense this inflationary process is like printing money out of nothing. While overall it diminishes the value of everybody’s individual dollars it transfers a greater and greater portion of those dollars into the hands of the asset owning minority. The value that asset holders create for themselves outpaces whatever debasement of buying power this process may engender. 

The authors of the book are therefore at pains to show how asset wealth is different in character from other kinds of wealth. Key to this insight is the fact that assets don’t produce goods and services or surplus themselves. Rather, when the value of assets experience inflation, those who own assets are able to capitalise on them, while those who don’t see their buying power eroded. 

It’s in this sense that finance, banking, and the asset economy are actually part of a privatized system for creating money. This affords the asset-owning minority a greater and greater ability to leverage this ‘money creation’ power over the structure and direction of the real economy—the actions people perform and things people make, that are the actual measure of wealth. People who hold assets then have a unique kind of power over others, because they are able to capitalise on this specific form of inflation (which is at odds with traditional wage and price inflation), while the rest of the population is excluded from the means for a stable and secure future. The book is extremely useful in clarifying this dynamic. 

Overstating assets 

One of the weaker aspects of the book is to perhaps overstate the role of what the authors term the asset economy somewhat to the exclusion of the other frames that they outline their position against: rentier capitalism, financialization, and labour relations. 

To take one example, one of the major drivers of financialization is cheap debt. Loading up on low interest loans is one of the drivers of asset price inflation as the authors observe, but it also allows real estate to arguably become much more liquid. These loans help make ever more expensive housing accessible to investors, fast growing equity makes it easy to sell these properties quickly and painlessly. Stories of condos being sold multiple times before they are even built are a testament to this process. 

I would argue, somewhat against the assertions of the authors, that the asset economy is financialization. They are both part of a privatized money creation scheme (money is created in the form of cheap loans, inflating property prices, stocks, etc…), that shifts a greater and greater portion of the money (or if you prefer value) supply into the hands of a select few. 

This is maybe an argument for a basic income of some sort—not that it would not create inflation, in the long term it likely would—but that it would increase inflation in the right direction, away from the hands of the private money creation industry and into the pockets of poor and working people. Since asset inflation, banking and finance are part of a privatized system of money creation—one that benefits mainly the people who own and control it, state monetary policy can act as a counterweight to this process. Similar to the question surrounding inflation, the issue at stake around money creation is not simply how much is too much, but who has the right to do it and for the benefit of whom?  At any rate there is certainly more to consider in how these processes relate to contemporary class struggles.

Work relationships, assets, finance, rentier capitalism and other dynamics, I believe, all exist concurrently in a way that is somewhat more complicated than the vision laid out in this book. That said, the asset economy frame outlined by the authors is nonetheless very timely and does provide necessary clarification that gets missed from some of these other more widely discussed analyses. 

Understating production

This leads me to what I think is perhaps a bigger weakness in The Asset Economy: understating the role of production. The authors quite correctly observe that there is no “natural” way to measure prices—markets are contingent, arbitrary, socially constructed objects. They assert that inequality in society “works less and less through extraction and appropriation, and increasingly through the inflation and deflation of temporally situated claims.” 

This single sentence manages to capture both what I consider the strongest and weakest elements of the book’s argument. Personally I would not set these two dynamics against each other. I would state, to the contrary, that it is inflation and deflation of specific forms of value that drive extraction and appropriation in the 21st century. 

People doing and making things is still the basis of everything we consider valuable. The asset economy, like finance, has not supplanted real wealth. What it does is reorder cash distributions across different populations.

Further, some confusion arises from the way that the authors downplay the real economy and labour. People doing and making things is still the basis of everything we consider valuable. The asset economy, like finance, has not supplanted real wealth. What it does is reorder cash distributions across different populations. 

Organizing against the K-shaped recovery

Recently, housing has grown as a novel site for working class struggles—above and beyond traditional sites like factories or other workplaces. Since the pandemic, we have seen the building of tenants’ unions and neighbourhood groups organizing against evictions and rent increases. These groups themselves explicitly identify housing as a target of working class organizing. This is partly because the precarious, gig and service economies make workplace organizing more challenging versus, say, organizing a centralized factory, but also because rents and housing costs have become a main point of extraction of working people’s wealth. It is a major point of 21st century exploitation. 

This is a testament to the authors’ claim that neoliberalism has reordered traditional class relations. In the neighbourhood where I live, for example, many of the buildings where organizing is taking place are owned by asset management companies. This is not incidental, and it is part of why COVID-19 has been a crisis for some and a boon for others.

It may be worthwhile at this juncture to reiterate that a K-shaped recovery is no recovery at all. The image simply highlights the widening gulf of inequality between people who own assets and those who do not. We could think of the present-day wave of organizing around housing and rent as being a direct challenge to the inequality being wrought by asset price inflation.

A K-shaped recovery is no recovery at all. The image simply highlights the widening gulf of inequality between people who own assets and those who do not.

This transformation in class identity warrants greater consideration. At the same time,  we must be cautious not to overstate this conversion. It’s true that there is significant overlap between people who own assets and own businesses where people work. On the other hand, many non-asset owning people are also low-paid workers. While asset prices have reorganised monetary value and who controls it, the work done by people is still the backbone of our collective wealth.

This book offers an important and timely analytical lens by which we can better theorize the growth of contemporary inequality and exploitation. There is a good deal more work to be done. I think the answer lies not in setting asset price inflation against a labour theory of value and exploitation, but in exploring how these dynamics intersect and work together, which will give us, amongst other things, a deeper understanding of why housing has become so central to 21st century working class struggle.    

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

Rewilding

Photo: courtesy of Daniel Horen Greenford

by Joshua Sterlin

Conservation biology: rewilding for landscapes

The origins of the academic use of the term rewilding are in conservation biology. This interdisciplinary field is oriented towards the management of species, habitats, and ecosystems with the aim of protecting them. Current extinction rates are so high that we are likely living through the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet, rivaling the one that snuffed out the dinosaurs. Rewilding was turned to as a way to mitigate the stunning rates of biodiversity and habitat loss. Fundamentally it seeks to aide and allow natural systems to regenerate their processes through methods novel to conservation paradigms. So, what does rewilding mean to conservation biology?

In conservation biology, rewilding was turned to as a way to mitigate the stunning rates of biodiversity and habitat loss

First, its view is large in scale, to account for the connectivity and size necessary for supposedly intact ecosystems to flourish. Many animals travel thousands of kilometers in their natural rhythms. The fragmentation of the landscape resulting from industrial agricultural, extractive, and settlement activities have radically impacted their lives, cycles, and needs.

Second, this is often coupled with the reintroduction of predators at the top of food chains, and other (keystone) species that structure entire ecosystems. Many of these have been extirpated from their previous range. Often these are predators that have been perceived to compete with, and complicate, settled societies.

Third, sometimes nature cannot ‘auto-rewild’ as quickly or easily as desired, so restoration and engineering projects are used in its aide. The goal is to facilitate conditions which, to the eyes of the conservation biologist, will not require human management so that the environment can eventually return to being self-regulated.

Essentially, the notion is to let, encourage, and help, non-humans to return to living their self-willed lives, in large, and regenerating, ecosystems. This idea might appear to be yet more meddling by human beings in the environment, which has often resulted in degradation. However, rather than engineering or designing the landscape, the central motivation is to aide nature in its own direction towards rejuvenation and resiliency, through specific targeted actions. These kinds of rewilding projects are undertaken not only by scientists and states at large scales. Committed people all over the world, from communities to guerrilla rewilders, use methods like reintroducing native plant species or removing invasive ones to rejuvenate the landscapes they live within, and love best.

Yellowstone

The most cited example in North America is Yellowstone National Park. By 1926, settlers succeeded in exterminating and driving out the wolves from the park. In their absence, the numbers of browsers and grazers like elk reduced the vegetation dramatically, changing the landscape in radical ways that were only revealed again with the reintroduction of wolves in 1995. Their renewed presence in the park led to not only the reduction of elk population, but a shift in their behaviour. They now avoided places where they were most at risk of being predated upon, like valleys. The absence of their sustained feeding led to the regeneration of forests and vegetation. This then welcomed birds, and also beavers who dammed parts of the river, further changing the landscape. The river’s course also shifted because of the recovery of vegetation which stabilized the banks and led to a less meandering watercourse. This is called a trophic cascade, in which changes at the top of a food chain tumble all the way to the bottom.This almost hundred-year ecological saga shows how easily the baseline of what is perceived as ecologically normal, or ‘untouched’, can shift in a short period of time.

Conservation and coloniality

The history of Yellowstone is also deeply colonial. In 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant wrote the park into existence while simultaneously excluding the multiple groups of native peoples living there seasonally, like the Nez Perce, members of the Blackfoot confederacy, the Crow, and the Shoshone. In 1868 the latter negotiated a treaty with the United States government in which they ceded their lands in exchange for hunting rights. However, the government never ratified the treaty, nor formally recognized the Shoshone’s claims, merely taking the land and removing the Shoshone people. This theft was the end of 11,000 years of sustained human inhabitation of the area.

The notion of nature as a separate bounded entity that only flourishes in the absence of human touch prevented settlers from recognizing that what they saw as ‘wilderness’ was actually landscapes deeply shaped by people.

This context of conservation engenders a central criticism of this kind of rewilding. Conservation paradigms generally seek the removal of human impact on nature. This is an extension of an imagined separation of nature and culture within the Western mind that reaches, at least, as far back as the period dubbed the Enlightenment. Its colonial importation to what became the Americas therefore cast human impact on the stunning ‘new wilderness’ as negative. Therefore, the millions of inhabitants were either depicted as not human, or in need of removal, and often both. This deeply colonial and racist ideology led to the removal of both predators and millions of native peoples from their landscapes. The notion that nature is a separate bounded entity that only flourishes in the absence of human touch prevented settlers from recognizing that what they saw as ‘wilderness’ was actually already landscapes that were deeply affected, and shaped, by people. This revelation, that all the living beings that make up the landscape might flourish more because of human involvement is part of why the concept of rewilding has been taken up much more broadly outside of conservation sciences.

Rewilding for humans: what is our niche?

This forces us to ask the question: what is the appropriate place for the human animal in an ecology? We certainly are an ecosystem engineer like a beaver; and at times a top predator, like a wolf; and have cascading effects within any landscape we live in. With the aide of skills like symbolic language and technological capacity, we have been able to live in essentially every region and climate available, and have done so for millennia in sustainable ways. Yet, starting 10,000-12,000 years ago, many of us have lived in comparatively new agricultural civilizations based upon the settlement, and the domestication of animals and plants. That change in trajectory, in which the majority of humans shifted their relationship with nature and each other from a form of relational trust, to one of domination, accumulation, and instrumentalization, has built towards our present planetary crises. In the face of these conflicting histories, what might be the proper ecological role, the appropriate niche for human beings? What qualitatively set apart the way the Shoshone in Yellowstone lived from that of the colonialists and their descendants?

The question of how we might live in a manner that is mutually enhancing with the natural world is not only one of pressing survival, but of justice for humans and the rest of the living world.

These questions open onto long-standing debates about human nature (see the first contribution to this Resources series by Eleanor Finley) that are fraught with histories of colonialism, racism, and dispossession. Debates about human nature are deeply political and have been used as justification for a whole host of contradictory, and often disturbing, projects. However, the questions as to how we might live in a manner that is mutually enhancing with the natural world is not only one of pressing survival, but of justice, for humans, and the rest of the living world.

There is a growing movement, largely allied with anarchist, radical environmentalist, and decolonial practice, repurposing the term rewilding to be a political and cultural project that is more than merely conservation biology, one that thinks about nature with the people in. Many Indigenous peoples have been exemplars of sustainable lifeways, whose relation to nature has achieved durable ecological balance. Settler societies are beginning to glimpse this as they face burning forests and collapsing fisheries. Taking cues from, and in alliance with, Indigenous peoples, political and cultural rewilders are trying to enact decolonial practices by applying the ideas of rewilding to human beings. This is not looking backwards to an essentialized past but to a hybrid and flexible future of self-willed more-than-human communities, outside of, and after anthropocentric systems of domination.

Further resources

Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution by Caroline Fraser (2010)
This book gives a broad overview of the work being done all over the world in conservation that is inspired by the rewilding approach.

Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot (2013)
This is a more personal account of what rewilding might mean for the land, and for a modern Western person.

Rewild or Die: Revolution and Renaissance at the End of Civilization by Urban Scout (2008)
This book is a series of essays on the political and theoretical underpinnings of rewilding as a project much beyond merely conservation, expanding on what is written in the second half of this article. You can also visit rewild.com.

The Trouble With Wilderness by William Cronon (1995)
This is a seminal essay on the problematic Western conception of ‘wilderness’ and its implications for how we manage and treat the natural world.

How maverick rewilders are trying to turn back the tide of extinction by Patrick Barkham (2020)
A recent article in The Guardian describing the growing movement of those rewilders who are “secretly breeding endangered species and releasing them into the wild. Many are prepared to break the law and risk the fury of the scientific establishment to save the animals they love.”

This is my message to the western world – your civilisation is killing life on Earth’ by Nemonte Nenquimo
A recent article in The Guardian written by a Waorani woman, one of the many Indigenous groups who inhabit the Amazon rainforest, addressed to the political leaders of the world. The tagline reads: ‘We Indigenous people are fighting to save the Amazon, but the whole planet is in trouble because you do not respect it’.

As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2017)
Written by Anishinaabe scholar and activist Leanne Simpson, this book details the many Indigenous political resurgences as being rooted in place-based, uniquely Indigenous lifeways, and thinking.

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by Kat Anderson (2005)
This is a thorough exploration of the ways that Indigenous peoples interacted with, managed, and lived with, the more-than-human world in what is now called California.

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott (2017)
An excellent, accessible, and engaging summary of what recent research has revealed about the earliest days of our transitions in agricultural states, with a particular focus on Mesopotamia.


Joshua Sterlin is a PhD candidate in the Leadership for the Ecozoic program at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, having been trained previously in environmental anthropology. Visit him at jsterlin.org.

Blue neocolonialism

Photo from the Nature Conservancy

by Kendall Dix

Countries of the Global South are facing a modern form of economic domination from foreign interests. The story of Europeans plundering Black and brown nations to profit from their natural resources is probably a familiar one. But now that nature itself has become commodified through the tourist economy, environmentalism functions as  a justification for replicating the same old colonial power dynamics. 

Under the banner of conservation, green nonprofits in the United States have begun using the government debt of previously colonized nations as a bargaining chip to force governments to create new nature preserves. Just over two years ago, the U.S.’s richest environmental organization, The Nature Conservancy, partnered with big European banks to coerce Seychelles, a small island nation 1,000 miles east of Kenya in the Indian Ocean, to issue “blue bonds.” These bonds are a new debt instrument that are supposed to be good for the environment and attract investors who believe Wall Street can be a driver of public good. 

Blue bonds are modelled on “green bonds,” another market-based climate solution that can enable companies to claim they are engaging in environmentally friendly solutions while actually achieving little positive environmental benefit.

On October 29, 2018, the World Bank and The Nature Conservancy announced that the government of Seychelles would issue $15 million of blue bonds, “a pioneering financial instrument designed to support sustainable marine and fisheries projects.” Blue bonds function just like regular bonds. If a government or company wants to borrow money, it issues bonds that are sold in bond markets. The government gets a lump payment upfront and then pays the money with interest over time to the holders of the bonds, which can then be bought and sold on markets just like stocks are. Bonds are considered safe investments because governments rarely default on their debts. What makes blue bonds “blue” is that the issuer of the bond is supposed to use the money on ocean conservation. In the case of Seychelles, the nation issued the bonds to pay off some of its national debt and turn 30 percent of its coral reefs into marine protected areas (MPAs). 

The Nature Conservancy says blue bonds are “an audacious plan to save the world’s oceans” and “could unlock $1.6 billion for ocean conservation.” Blue bonds are modelled on “green bonds,” another market-based climate solution that can enable companies to claim they are engaging in environmentally friendly solutions while actually achieving little positive environmental benefit. For example, a Spanish oil and gas company sold green bonds to finance upgrades to their oil refineries, a project of dubious environmental benefit given that it facilitates continued greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the project was sold to investors as a “green” project because it promised to marginally reduce emissions within Spain’s existing oil industry.  

While the bulk of media coverage about the blue bonds deal heralded it as a win-win for conservation and Seychelles, nobody seemed to notice that a U.S. nonprofit used a sovereign nation’s foreign debt to leverage the closing of a huge portion of its fishing grounds. We should call the move to deliver conditional aid to Seychelles premised upon reordering its economy what it is: “neocolonialism.” Neocolonialism is the extension of colonial practices through the exertion of economic, political, or cultural pressures to control or influence previously colonized nations. 

No fishing

Fisherfolk tend to have mixed views on MPAs, and many are outright opposed. They argue that MPAs are overly restrictive and economically punish fisherfolk while showing limited conservation benefits. Fisherfolk argue that commercial fishing can be sustainable, and some would prefer limiting their days on the water or restricting certain types of destructive fishing practices.

In the United States, conservation initiatives have targeted small-boat seafood harvesters for decades now. Many of these small-scale harvesters are Indigenous peoples who have fished sustainably for centuries. For instance, in the 1960s, the Nisqually, Puyallup, and Muckleshoot nations had to fight the state of Washington for the right to catch salmon. Washington State’s salmon stocks had been declining since commercial fishing took off after World War II. Tribal communities had been partially blamed for the decline and were beaten and arrested by police for fishing that was guaranteed to them by treaties signed by the state. In the 1980s, environmental activist groups Greenpeace and Seashepherd targeted Indigenous tribes in Alaska and the Soviet Union for the legal harvesting of whales. When environmental groups are looking for easy victories to publicize, nonwhite people and developing nations such as Seychelles, with limited political power, seem to make for easy targets.

For Seychelles, where more than one in six people is employed in the fisheries sector, the potential hamstringing of the country’s second-most important industry could have lasting impacts on the autonomy of small-scale fisheries to determine their livelihoods and futures. It may be that Seychellian fisherfolk and the general public do prefer the creation of MPAs to limit commercial fishing, but there is nothing in the public record to indicate that they were even asked. If the people of Seychelles wanted to create MPAs, the nation already had democratic institutions to work through. Conditioning needed aid on the creation of nature preserves deprives them of their national sovereignty. 

Up to its neck in debt 

In 2008, Seychelles defaulted on its national debt to foreign banks. The nation owed significant amounts of money to banks in the European Union, largely to its former colonizers France and Britain. Seychelles’ debt had reached unsustainable levels due to two major factors. Firstly, the island nation has been on the losing end of uneven foreign trade in which it imports expensive goods such as oil and yachts while exporting relatively inexpensive natural resources such as tuna for canning. Secondly,  Seychelles has been limited in its ability to generate revenue because of overly generous tax breaks offered to foreign investors during its transition to a tourism-based economy and a tax haven. When nations cannot generate revenue through taxation or exports but still must import expensive goods to finance economic development, their governments have little choice but to borrow money from foreign banks. 

When the global economy collapsed in 2008, tourism to the Seychelles slowed down. At the same time, oil prices shot through the roof and further crippled a Seychellian economy reliant on oil imports.

From the EU’s economic perspective, Seychelles’ problems have resulted not from extractive global capitalism and coercive debt relationships but from overly generous domestic programs that support the second-longest living population in sub-Saharan Africa. This sentiment is illustrated by a statement from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that socialism had “eroded the work ethic” of the Seychelles, a statement that is shocking in its obfuscation of uneven debt relations, its McCarthyite redbaiting, and its placement of value on economic growth above the wellbeing of the people of Seychelles. 

In 2010, France forgave about five percent of Seychelles’ total debt, but the IMF had other plans for the remainder. In a move straight out of a playbook from Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine,” the IMF demanded that Seychelles further liberalize its economy and decrease welfare spending in exchange for restructuring its debt payments through 2017. Liberalization typically involves reducing trade barriers, rolling back financial and environmental regulations, slashing public benefits, and privatizing public resources. European countries and the United States have often strong armed developing nations to liberalize their economies in order to enable multi-national corporations to extract value from a nation’s natural resources.

As the debt restructuring deal expired, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) emerged from the nonprofit sector to leverage the debt to limit Seychelles’s fishing industry. TNC’s CEO at the time was Mark Tercek, a former managing director and partner at investment bank Goldman Sachs. Tercek wrote a book called “Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature,” detailing how big business could profit off of environmental conservation. Blue bonds are one instance of the realization of Tercek’s vision of banks and environmental groups profiting off conservation. 

The Nature Conservancy: A nonprofit with more money than some nations

TNC was founded in the United States in 1951 and is one of the largest environmental nonprofits in the world. TNC’s mission is to protect nature from human activity, an idea grounded in the belief that humans and nature cannot coexist. Its preferred tool for conservation is easements, which are restrictions on development that can attach to property through private sales contracts. These easements can provide big tax breaks for TNC’s wealthy donors and partners, which include oil companies, Dow chemical, and the charity arm of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co. TNC has a presence in 79 countries and an endowment of $6 billion. In contrast, The entire GDP of the Seychelles is less than $1.7 billion. TNC is funded by grants from large foundations and membership dues, but it also generates revenue through investment income and land gifts.

In 2001, TNC expanded its focus to include “debt for nature” swaps, where it used a similar scheme in Southeast Asian and Central American forests as in the Seychelles to buy the debt of struggling nations in exchange for the creation of more nature preserves. In the Seychelles deal, TNC worked directly with the World Bank (the IMF’s sister organization) to buy some of the country’s debt in exchange for the creation of 13 new MPAs. TNC gets to claim credit for protecting coral reefs from fisherfolk, but it’s also receiving 3% interest payments on the debt from the Seychellian government. 

The World Bank says it is backing the blue bonds because a healthier ocean will create a healthier economy. The stated commitment to a healthier ocean is admirable, but the World Bank’s implementation of the goal involves tactics that are paternalistic, coercive, and primarily benefit large corporations. Further, the economic value of MPAs is difficult to quantify. Some studies have found that MPAs don’t deliver environmental benefits, particularly when compared to conventional tools used for fishery management such as catch limits or gear restrictions.

So, if the environmental and economic benefits are dubious, then one has to wonder whether this deal is really supposed to benefit the Seychellian people. The Nature Conservancy and the big European banks holding their debt could simply have forgiven the Seychelles’ debt, but in the words of colonist Winston Churchill, that would have let a good crisis go to waste. With less debt pressure on its economy, Seychelles would have been more free to use its natural and financial resources how it sees fit. 

As the largest environmental nonprofit in the United States, TNC controls large swaths of land and brings in revenue at levels comparable to small nations, in part thanks to interest payments by Seychelles and other nations in the Global South. TNC’s money and its influence give it considerably greater options than other environmental nonprofits to influence the direction of environmental protection. When TNC embraces “market-based solutions,” politicians and other environmental groups begin to see those tactics as appropriate and effective. In other words, TNC’s considerable political and economic clout increases the perceived legitimacy of market-based solutions and directs others to jump onto the bandwagon. 

Again, the effectiveness of MPAs as environmentally beneficial is disputed. But even if MPAs offer the best protection from harms caused by fishing, MPAs still do nothing to protect marine areas from climate change or other environmental stressors on fisheries. MPAs don’t prevent damage to coral reefs caused by pollution that originates on land. Seychelles lost 90 percent of its coral reefs in 1998 not to overfishing but to coral bleaching, which is exacerbated by warming waters and climate change.

If MPAs don’t protect against climate change or development threats and may not even enhance fishery production, then blue bonds start to look a lot like coercive conservation designed to benefit wealthy outsiders. We also know that real estate development damages coral reefs, so it’s safe to assume that the hotels built during the tourism boom also played a role in the destruction of coral reefs that helped create the justification for issuing blue bonds. Ironically, one of the economic selling points of blue bonds is that protecting the reefs will keep the tourist economy afloat, which could create the demand for more hotels that would further damage the reefs. This creates a feedback loop where conservation may actually put more pressure on the environment, as documented in places such as Machu Picchu in Peru and in several U.S. national parks

A history of extraction 

The World Bank’s description of blue bonds as “pioneering” is telling. The word “pioneer” evokes a history of European colonial expansion, resource extraction, and domination of darker skinned people. For several centuries, Seychelles functioned as a European outpost that used the archipelago’s natural resources to benefit Europeans. It was supposedly uninhabited until it was colonized by the French in the 1700s. As first a French and later a British colony, Seychelles was primarily a source of spices, coconuts, and other agricultural products that were produced on plantations with slave labor. Today, most of its people are creole, or of mixed European and African descent.  

The original colonization of Seychelles occurred during the heyday of triangular trade, which was an early economic model of globalization in the 17th and 18th centuries. European and North American slavers extracted people from Africa for the slave market and sent them to the colonies in the so-called New World. The colonists used this forced labor to process the vast natural resources of North America and send value-added products back to Europe where they would command a higher price. European slavers could then trade these manufactured products in Africa for more slaves. The entire system was financed by European banks. It was in this context that Seychelles was colonized. The same model of resource-based extraction and plunder of Africa continues to this day through coercive conservation. 

In 1971, Seychelles was still under direct colonial control. The British constructed an international airport and tourism quickly replaced agriculture and fishing as the number one industry. Hotels sprouted all over the archipelago and soon dominated the local economy. In 1976, a socialist-led independence movement gained popular support, and (with the blessing of the United States government which was building a military base on one of the islands at the time), Seychelles finally broke free politically from the United Kingdom. 

The economy, though, continued to depend on support from foreign tourists and investment. By 2019, services such as tourism and banking accounted for more than 72 percent of Seychelles’ GDP. However, very little of the money stayed in Seychelles. From the beginning of the boom, profits from the tourism sector were captured by foreign hotel companies and booking agencies.

The future of conservation?

The blue bonds model may not be limited to the Seychelles for long. TNC continues to tout the benefits of blue bonds and marine reserves, but blue bonds could also play an increasing role in the climate and oceans policy of the next President of the United States. Heather Zichal, who was the vice president of corporate affairs for The Nature Conservancy when the blue bonds were first issued, advised the Biden campaign on environmental policy. She was also briefly the executive director of Blue Prosperity Coalition, an organization dedicated to limiting fishing to 30 percent of the oceans

The Nature Conservancy’s unholy alliance with fossil fuel companies and big banks represents everything that’s wrong with modern environmentalism.

Previously, Zichal said that she wanted to create an environmental policy that finds “middle ground” with oil and gas companies. It would seem incompatible for someone working on behalf of the ocean to find common cause with the businesses responsible for causing ocean acidification through the release of carbon emissions while actively preventing any meaningful climate action. However, Zichal also has financial connections to the oil and gas industry. She was paid more than $180,000 a year to serve on the board of Cheniere Energy, a natural gas company. She was appointed to Cheniere’s board shortly after leaving the Obama Administration where she served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change. Zichal had been identified as a top concern by progressive groups who don’t want Biden to involve her in the new administration.

Now that Biden is President, Zichal has been hired to head a new renewable energy lobbying firm that will seek to use her connections to the new administration to push for more support for wind and solar. Zichal’s career is a perfect example of the “revolving door” of politics, where high level government officials can leave administrative work for prominent positions in the corporate nonprofit/consulting world while also serving on the board of some of the world’s worst polluters.  

The Nature Conservancy’s unholy alliance with fossil fuel companies and big banks represents everything that’s wrong with modern environmentalism. A corporate approach to environmentalism that perpetuates systems of domination is not just flawed; it is doomed to fail in the long term because it continues to empower the very forces that view “nature” as something that can be used up until it’s no longer profitable. 

TNC is certainly not the only nonprofit that helps prop up a global economic system grounded in extraction, but it is one of the system’s largest nonprofit beneficiaries of money and land donations. And while a number of gifted scientists and advocates make up the rank and file of their 3,500 employees, the organization as a whole suffers from a lack of vision. 

Unfortunately there are two major problems with TNC and a large portion of the environmental movement:

  1. Many people within it are unable or unwilling to recognize that unfettered extraction of environmental resources is intrinsic to capitalism.
  2. Many environmentalists still hold Malthusian notions that human beings are incapable of coexisting with nature. 

TNC and similar groups’  missions to protect nature in its “wild” state is itself a problematic notion rooted in indigenous erasure. Prior to the rise of European colonization and triangular trade, hundreds of nations of people lived on the American continent. They lived, hunted, farmed, fished, and built things from the Arctic Circle to Patagonia. 

When we set up a society that says some places are for people and some places are for “nature,” we reinforce the idea that it’s okay to trash the places that are for people. It also justifies the expulsion of the people from spaces set aside for “nature”, and the denial of relatedness and kinship between the two. Instead, we need to recognize that humans and our habitats are inherently a part of nature and rebuild our systems accordingly. 

If the people at TNC and other environmental nonprofits are truly interested in living in harmony with nature, they would have to radically transform their own organizations to focus on disrupting an economic system that relies on exploiting natural resources. After all, it was the global imbalance of power and extractive model that originally generated Seychelles’ dependency on foreign tourists, foreign exports, and foreign fishing interests. 

But until TNC and the World Bank reckon with capitalism itself, blue bonds will just help reinforce the unequal global order that makes Seychelles reliant on foreign aid and debt. Whether the bonds are blue or green, neocolonialism with an environmental justification is still just neocolonialism.

Kendall Dix works on climate policy and lives on a farm outside of Charlottesville, VA.

Who owns the city? Cars and COVID-19

Claiborne Avenue underneath Interstate-10 in New Orleans. Photo: New Urbanism.

by Rob Persons

The degradation of the city by the car has come to a head as the lack of pedestrian space in urban centres has prevented safe social distancing throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Cities including Paris, San Francisco, London, New York City, Athens, Lima, Bogotá and many more are implementing plans to restrict and/or ban cars in designated areas to enable people to get outside, and to go spend money. In Milan, the Strade Aperte plan announced in April, will transform 35km of roads into cycling and walking space, including 8km of the Corso Buenos Aires, one of Milan’s main commercial streets. The deputy mayor of Milan said this is intended to make more room for people, especially people who shop. A similar plan is being mulled in New Orleans by Mayor Cantrell in concert with the city’s powerful business associations in an effort to ‘recoup revenues lost to the coronavirus’ in the historic French Quarter.

Recently, major publications have been publishing think pieces exalting the benefits of car free cities, lamenting the wasted space, pollution and accidents. In July, The New York Times Sunday Review ran such a piece as a cover article. It made some good points, especially as it rejects ride-sharing and electric cars as realistic solutions to climate change, but was misleading in that it portrays car centred development as a series of mistakes by urban planners or the unconscious result of ‘ethically neutral markets.’ A feature in Bloomberg on the ‘15-minute city’ is even more reason for hope as it focuses on the need for social equity and affordable housing in the transition to ecological cities. Missing from this growing discourse, however, is an examination of the political and economic factors which brought about this car-centred-world in the first place, and how those forces are still in power. In the past, seemingly progressive urban reforms have been used to further cement racial and economic hierarchies. In the United States, epidemics in the 19th century inspired reformers to establish municipal garbage collection, water waste systems, and public health boards meanwhile utilizing xenophobic and classist narratives blaming immigrants (especially Chinese communities), poor people, and the ‘morally corrupt’ for the outbreaks in the first place. Therefore, calls for car free cities should be celebrated with moderation, for if they lack a reconstructive egalitarianism and fail to address the root causes that led to this dubious status-quo, the underlying issues of social and ecological domination will continue to be left for future generations. As we will see, the same extractive economy that brought us the car-centred-world is also behind the growing ecological threat of deadly viruses in what could be a future of global pandemics.

Cars and COVID-19: a political ecology

Viral infection expert Rob Wallace explicitly points to capital backed agriculture, specifically monoculture plantations and livestock feedlots, as the driving proponent in the modern development of zoonotic diseases (like coronavirus) because they homogenize the world’s most biodiverse biomes thereby reducing resilience to disease transmutation. Though the threat of viral pathogens lies most pressingly in the deforestation of tropical regions, Wallace et al. warn,

‘Focusing on outbreak zones ignores the relations shared by global economic actors that shape epidemiologies. The capital interests backing development- and production-induced changes in land use and disease emergence in underdeveloped parts of the globe reward efforts that pin responsibility for outbreaks on Indigenous populations and their so-deemed “dirty” cultural practices.’

We must reject the nationalistic and sinophobic narratives employed by right-wing con artists and duplicitous finger pointers around the world hoping to hide their own complicity. It is vital that we investigate how the capitalist economy drives similar ecological simplifications wherever we are.

We must end our dependence on cars and irrational patterns of urbanisation because the arrogance of the extraction economy is leading us toward climate chaos and a potential future of global pandemics.

The car-centred-world perpetuates unsustainable land use and loss of natural habitat analogous to industrial agriculture. Compared to public transit or bicycles, the speed and individuality of the automobile requires an enormous amount of space to accommodate, as visualized here. From three lane roads, street parking, expansive parking lots, interstate highways, gas stations, and personal driveways, our built environment becomes an urban sprawl centred around the needs of the car. For example, between 1950 and 1995 land coverage increased by 165 percent in the Chicago metro area despite a 48 percent population increase; meanwhile on the United States eastern seaboard, a continuous sprawl now stretches from Boston all the way down to Washington DC. The car has clogged up and swollen the city, enabling the suburbs to proliferate and deforest the countryside. This type of development fractures ecosystems and communities, leading to a myriad of ecological consequences. The number one irrigated crop in the United States is currently suburban lawn grass, as homeowners are compelled to replace indigenous ecologies with non-native and unproductive grass. Thus suburbs not only increase distances, but also squander the invaded land as the lawn, home, and car consume heretofore unknown quantities from supply chains that stretch the globe. Modern cities and suburbs are designed for cars, rendering alternative transportation either seriously inconvenient or utterly impossible, thus creating a positive feedback loop where increased distances make more people reliant on cars which then require ever more space to accommodate and so on and so forth. Today, many jobs are not even accessible without a car so owning one becomes all but compulsory.

Urban sprawl driven by the automobile, like the plantation and feedlot, leads to fractured ecosystems, reduction of biodiversity, pollution and resource waste. The monoculture, slaughterhouse, city, and suburbs are materially linked by the goods produced at these inhumane institutions which furnish urban supermarkets and stores. But, more fundamentally, they operate under the economic assumption that land and animals are mere resource pools from which to extract value rather than a larger ecology of which humans are a part. Just as we must end the agricultural-industrial-complex, we must end our dependence on cars and irrational patterns of urbanisation because the arrogance of the extraction economy is leading us toward climate chaos and a potential future of global pandemics.

Cars and capitalism: a political economy

One of the most fundamental properties of capitalism is that growth and profit are necessary for its survival. Car-centred transportation is the opposite of cost-effective in terms of aggregate resource use, but it makes better business sense to sell individual cars than to maintain a robust public transit system from a growth and profit standpoint. Since protecting the environment is external to the profit motive, modern development lets the environment be damned. For the capitalist economy, the auto industry is a golden goose affecting so many different markets between steel, rubber, oil, glass, service/repairs, bank loans (debt), and insurance (auto and health). From the consumption standpoint, cars are ever-consuming as the tank must be refilled every 350 or so kilometres, the oil must be changed every 4000, insurance payments are due monthly, vehicle financing collects interest, leasing prevents outright ownership, and god forbid the driver gets into an accident. Much profit to be made.

Cars are useless without roads, making the auto-industry dependent on state funded infrastructure for its basic viability.

The state has played a major role in the creation of the car-centred-world. People often misunderstand the place of governments in the establishment and maintenance of capital markets, for it is commonly assumed that state interference is an opposing force to the so-called free market. In fact, free markets could never have been established without the state’s organization of violence and its funding of infrastructure and high-risk technological research that private firms seeking short-term profit would never undertake on their own. Most famously described by Karl Polanyi, the state plays a vital role in the process of enclosure and dispossession, in which Commons and other pre-capitalist relations are violently crushed and replaced by economic value exchange. In order to create consumers, alternative means of meeting needs must be liquidated.

Cars are useless without roads, making the auto-industry dependent on state funded infrastructure for its basic viability. Ted Steinberg details how the automobile enclosed cities in the United States through a coalition of the state and capital. In the 1930’s, General Motors put New York City’s trolley system out of business before forming National City Lines along with Standard Oil, Firestone Tire and Rubber, and other corporations that profit from car sales. Over the course of several years, National City Lines bought and sabotaged 40 transit companies across 14 states, stifling that ‘healthy competition’ mass transit presented to the automobile. In 1947 NCL was grand juried under the Sherman Antitrust Act and were found to have ‘entered into a “collusive agreement” to monopolize the transit market,’ though the consequences were innocuous fines. Meanwhile, the New Deal doubled road coverage throughout the 1930’s, outspending on roads over public transit 10:1, again tipping the scale of the market. Then in 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act sunk $25 billion taxpayer dollars to construct thousands of miles of interstate highways, all but solidifying the car’s spot as number one. These highways were often built on top of prosperous Black communities, like Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans where the I-10 expressway destroyed hundreds of homes and Black owned businesses in the Tremé neighborhood.

David Harvey draws a parallel between this effort to usher in the age of the car and Baron Haussman’s redesign of Paris as they both used the state to prevent dissent by creating jobs building infrastructure that also functioned to isolate the working class. Robet Moses, a major architect of the modern New York metropolitan area, studied Haussman in detail and in his own words ‘took a meat axe to the Bronx’, dividing and isolating many politically active Black and Latinx neighborhoods with the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Harvey points out that the Paris Commune of 1871 repudiated Haussman’s efforts. Today, we are eagerly anticipating a movement to surpass its magnitude in repudiation of capitalist modernity of the likes of Robert Moses.

The commodified city

Two metres of social distancing has exposed how little space there is left for people in cities. Andre Gorz points out in a 1973 essay that while the automobile may appear to provide the individual with transportation independence, it actually makes them more dependent than ever before on the global economy and harmful infrastructure. Many people who drive cannot even identify the basic components of the engine, a far cry from independence. The motorist resembles a perpetual consumer rather than an owner. Now it is not just the worker’s labor, but their very means of existence from which capital seeks to extract value in its unceasing quest for growth. Such commodification would have seemed unimaginable just 100 years ago.

In the city, the car encloses vast space, relegating pedestrians to the literal margins with the physical threat of being run over. Whereas in the past, enclosure of city space took the obvious form of legal segregation or extreme policing to keep the ‘unwashed masses’ out of rich neighborhoods, now obvious repression is obscured by car traffic and commodification (though racialised policing still plays a major role, especially in the United States). Dorceta Taylor explains that once elites realized their methods of racist and classist exclusion through restrictive covenant and court procedure were no longer as effective, ‘businessmen and [elite] urban planning activists collaborated on developing a comprehensive vision for city planning.’ Built infrastructure such as congested roadways and interstate highways were one of the tools used to spatially segregate the rich from poor, Black from white, thereby abstracting individual responsibility for segregation and inequality into the annals of bureaucracy. Systematic intentionality remains camouflaged as dysfunctional policy and poor planning. These impacts are still felt today as many cities in the US are effectively segregated. Now, downtowns are often places of driving, commercial administration, prohibitively expensive apartments (or de facto hotels with Airbnb), and shopping, since the elites who guarded them have moved out to mansions and gated communities in the outskirts of the suburbs. The carceral state enforces this social exclusion by, often racially, criminalizing homelessness, jaywalking, loitering, street art, partying, and other forms of human existence that do not conform to buying or selling. The comprehensive nature of this transition works to conceal alternative systems from the depths of public consciousness, as the niches where counter-hegemonic culture is reproduced like the street corner, independent bookshop, and DIY venue, are increasingly dispossessed by monopoly capital and state regulation (the Bezos and the boot). 

We can flip the script and create culturally vibrant, equitable, and ecological cities where human beings can flourish in participation with the natural world.

The city has been partitioned and impersonalised into sectors and sections of work and consumption so many people no longer know the names of their own neighbors. Of the many paradoxes Andre Gorz points out, one of the most tricky is that in order to defeat the car we must love our cities, but the car has killed the city so it becomes almost impossible to love. Meaning, it is not enough to invest in more public transit, bike lanes or ban cars in certain areas if the city has no soul. If people don’t take joy in being outside, if the communal ties which foster a multicultural society are not repaired and extended, if speed and quantified economic value remain prioritized over ecological and social well-being, then we will continue to choose the convenience and isolation of the automobile. Things do not have to be so bleak, however. Through a democratic process that centres human and ecological well-being, we can flip the script and create culturally vibrant, equitable, and ecological cities where human beings can flourish in participation with the natural world.

Which way forward: Cul-de-sac or community democracy?

Ground has been broken on Culdesac Temple, soon to be a completely car free community of up to 1000 people in Temple, Arizona. The $140 million, 16-acre development featuring 636 apartments and 24,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space is set to open in 2021. The website boasts a quaint design targeting young professionals looking for a living space without all the negatives of the automobile. Residents will have access to on campus grocery stores, hair salons, coworking spaces, retail stores, and even a wine bar. Without cars, there will be ample greenspace for residents to enjoy with access to commuter rails, shuttle busses, and bike shares making transportation easy. Located just east of the city of Phoenix, Culdesac appears to be an ecological heaven for people who want to live life to the fullest. This development shares some superficial similarities with the community described in Kate Aronoff’s visionary article about the potential future of a successful Green New Deal. The difference? Culdesac represents a future for those who can afford it, while Aronoff’s community represents a future for all.

It brings me no joy to point out that much of these so-called solutions wrapped in tech-industry branding and backed by venture capital are little more than marketing gambits designed to make people who can afford them feel less guilty about their own consumption habits. Plopping a development whose ‘goal might be termed instant gentrification’ and thrives on the ‘business climate of weak trade unions’ is never going to bring about ecological equity, cars or not. While developments like Culdesac may appear to be ‘green’, it is a fool’s gold as the ecological and economically exploitative impacts of the labor, electricity, food, building materials, water waste, plastics, exclusion of poor folks, et cetera are externalized, out of sight and out of mind. Yet mainstream media never misses a chance to laud the tech bro personality cult for their ‘innovative’ approaches to further commodification. Like electric cars and ride sharing, these false solutions do not touch the structural roots of the problem. Neither is it hard to imagine future such communities built behind walls with armed guards, reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s climate sci-fi novel Parable of the Sower.

As we rethink the city throughout this pandemic, we must ask: Do we want cities designed for the rich to enjoy restaurants, parks, shops, and lush bicycle greenways while the poor serve, sanitize, and enjoy not but the scraps? While I have been critical of the recent coronavirus inspired car restrictions as they fail to present comprehensive solutions, they have also led to some positive outcomes. At their worst, we see them oriented toward further commodifying social relations and creating space only for the enjoyment of those who pay. But at their best, these open street policies have given people who faced lonely weeks cooped up in their apartments the opportunity to go out and see friends, attend socially distanced events, and enjoy their neighborhoods. It has even inspired residents that may once have been strangers who happened to live near one another to become real communities. On 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights New York City, neighbors came together to organize to open up their block. Since then, they’ve connected with each other as they share skills and hobbies and just hang out, perhaps beginning to restitch the social fabric needed to overcome Gorz’s paradox to build the new world in the shell of the old.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, the increase of displaced peoples, infertile land, rising tides, severe weather events, and viral infections will create conditions which require institutions of pluralistic democracy and economic equality or else doom us to a future of climate apartheid and famine. The way we travel plays a major role in this. Shortening distances and making public transportation, cycling, and walking as convenient, reliable, and aesthetically pleasing as possible should be a central objective of urban policy. But it is more than a question of lifeless infrastructure. As space is increasingly privatized and locked away behind high-tech surveillance, reclaiming the city for all is a vital step toward a common future. Clearly, status-quo politics are perfectly happy to let the most vulnerable people suffer and die. The socio-political conditions in which an environmental disaster occurs have a significant bearing on the severity and distribution of the harm it causes, therefore we must ensure that our future hardships are dealt with by new revolutionary institutions based in social and ecological equity, integrity, and fairness. To achieve this, the city must be re-envisioned as a body politic rather than an impersonal amalgamation of infrastructure and isolated individuals in order to counter monopoly of capital as it commodifies existence and the Nation-State as it centralises and bureaucratises political decision-making for benefit of business interests over people and planet. It is imperative that we re-embed the social and productive functions of the economy back into a democratic and social realm, recovering the shards of humanity shattered by this fucked up capitalist economy with each passing day.

Rob Persons is a writer and construction worker based in New Orleans. You can find him reading books in the park.

November readings

Brett Gundlock/the Globe and Mail


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

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

Don’t tune out yet: the year 2020 is still full of great, much-needed analysis. This month, we are featuring work that is deeply challenging: against the idea that providing good jobs and protecting the environment are in opposition to each other; highlighting the moral depravity of for-profit, industrial agriculture; and on the revolutionary demand of giving Indigenous land back. Aside from this, there were several essential analyses of current anti-racist movements, and anti-black racist movements in particular, pieces on the power of Indigenous wisdom, and guides on organizing with tenants

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



Uneven Earth updates

Work | Work is drudgery for a lot of people, but it can be different and meaningful, if radically reorganised

Political ecology | Like a toolbox to unpack and understand the complexity of the socio-ecological crises we live in, political ecology is dedicated to a more just and inclusive world

Development | For development to truly deliver on its promise—the betterment of life for all—it must engage a multidimensional understanding of poverty



Top 5 articles to read

The industrial exploitation of pigs

Exiting the false “jobs versus environment” dilemma

A history of true civilisation is not one of monuments

Recovering antiracism

Traditional skills help people on the tourism-deprived Pacific Islands survive the pandemic



News you might’ve missed

Denmark to cull up to 17 million mink amid coronavirus fears

1% of farms operate 70% of world’s farmland

Why are Kashmiri Muslim nomads being evicted?

Africa′s debt crisis grows amid COVID-19 pandemic

Advertisements harm the planet, researchers say

The Maya built the Western Hemisphere’s first water filtration system



Where we’re at: analysis

Hoping for a return to normal after Trump? That’s the last thing we need

Joe Biden’s garbage career: A timeline, and Biden’s corporate cabinet: A breakdown 

Let a thousand fiefdoms bloom

No easy answers: a response to Alex Heffron and Kai Heron

Haemorrhaging Zambia: Prequel to the current debt crisis

Europe’s Green Deal offshores environmental damage to other nations

Climate populism & its limits

Andreas Malm’s corona, climate, chronic emergency



Just think about it…

It is time to revolutionise how we talk about the weather

Ecologically and culturally rich deserts, swamps and grasslands must not be labelled ‘wastelands’

Carbon dioxide removal sucks

Mixed farming beats intensive agriculture methods

How hundreds of small ‘Gardens of Eden’ guard against total deforestation in Ethiopia

Lithuania’s trade-in program is swapping people’s old cars for new e-bikes

Skywoman falling



Black Lives Matter

Cars, riots & Black liberation

Life, war, and politics: After the George Floyd rebellion



Indigenous struggles: #LandBack

What is the Indigenous landback movement — and can it help the climate?

Hunting the hunt

Land Back: The matrilineal descent of modern Indigenous land reclamation

‘Land Back’ is more than a slogan for a resurgent Indigenous movement



Degrowth

Sufficiency: the missing ingredient for sustainable digitalisation

Outgrowing growth: why quality of life, not GDP, should be our measure of success

Escaping the growth and jobs treadmill



New politics

Winning back the Internet by building our own

Why the Green New Deal needs mobility justice

What is libertarian socialism?

An economy that works for everyone

A caring economy: What would it take? The November-December 2020 New Internationalist issue asks: With the world in the midst of a deepening crisis of care, accelerated by Covid-19, what would it mean to have an economy that valued them and the people they care for?

Indigenous languages as cures of the Earth. This article is part of the #CuraDaTerra essay series, focused on Indigenous perspectives and alternatives to industrial capitalism.

Interrelations. Julian Brave NoiseCat has called eight expert witnesses to a tribunal to examine capitalist and colonial relationships to the land and one other. These testimonies endeavor to understand what has gone awry in our human societies, as well as to inquire into what other forms of knowledge, values, and interrelation might form the basis of a more just and reciprocal relationship between land and people.



Cities and radical municipalism

Barcelona launches 10-year plan to reclaim city streets from cars

Ontario is mass evicting tenants, in as little as 60 seconds

This is what energy transition looks like: L’Amassada eviction one year later

L.A. tenants union rejects legislative compromises, affirms dual power

Barricades, boulders, and how LA’s public space became a battleground for the commons

Democracy is in decline. Here’s how we can revive it

‘Covid created an opportunity’: Lisbon to turn tourist flats into homes

New Foundational Infrastructures: economic policies for a radical municipalism?

Finland ends homelessness and provides shelter for all in need



Food politics

Joel Salatin’s unsustainable myth

When beef testing is surveillance, sacred cows are tools of the state

Incubated futures



Resources

Wealth, shown to scale 

A copy editor’s education in Indigenous style

How to organize your building



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Work

Source: William Morris

by Ekaterina Chertkovskaya

Work is drudgery for a lot of people, whether physically or mentally, as they have to work a lot to make a living. Despite this, the work we do defines how we are perceived in society, while precarity of work has become the norm. A lot of work in capitalist growth-oriented economies is also environmentally and socially destructive. However, work can be different and meaningful, if radically reorganised. In what follows I will introduce the word, then proceed to addressing the problems with work, and finish by sketching how work could be transformed.

If you look for a general definition of work, it would usually be presented as an activity that involves physical or mental effort. Such a definition includes work of different kinds, for example, wage labor, unpaid care work or subsistence farming. It is the former, however, that we usually associate work with – i.e. work as a means to earn income, taking the form of wage labor. It is this kind of work that many have to do in a capitalist economy, whether they want to or not, and despite other kinds of work co-existing with it. 

What work looks like today: from modern slavery to alienation

The etymology of the word ‘work’ has negative connotations in some languages, including ‘torture’ (e.g. French) and ‘slavery’ (e.g. Russian). This is unfortunately the way work is experienced by many, metaphorically and literally. 

Work is extremely unjustly distributed within and across societies, defined by class, race, gender and other divisions. The hardest and most dangerous work is today done by people in the Global South – including children – in inhumane conditions. The earnings from this work are often not enough to live on, and yet this work creates wealth for global economies and powerful corporations. Mining for minerals in Congo to make modern technological devices possible, making cheap disposable clothes for renowned brands in Bangladesh or manually recycling plastic waste in Thailand are all examples of such work. 

Severe exploitation of people for commercial gain via, for example, forced labor and debt bondage, is called ‘modern slavery’. According to the ILO, about 16 million people were in forced labor in the private economy in 2016, with 51% of these being in debt bondage. Modern slavery is particularly present in agriculture, mining and extraction, construction, and some forms of manufacturing, as well as unregulated or poorly regulated service industries. New service-oriented sectors that have been expanding rapidly and relying on digital technology – epitomised by companies like Foodora and Amazon – also come with new forms of extremely tough, controlled, accelerated and low-paid work, some of which can also be characterised as modern slavery.

When work is done in safe environments and in more decent conditions, with better salaries and shorter working hours, it still remains alienating: it leads to deskilling and lacks meaning for many. As David Graeber observed, capitalism has been good at creating a lot of ‘bullshit jobs’ – the kinds of jobs that do not need to exist. Corporate rhetoric, in turn, has worked hard to promote work as attractive to potential employees. For example, glitzy graduate brochures pay attention to the employer’s brand, adventures, consumption and endless training opportunities that will come with work, rather than work itself. However, even the most prestigious and glamorous jobs often turn out to be mundane, boring and complicit in the problems of our times. 

Even the most prestigious and glamorous jobs often turn out to be mundane, boring and complicit in the problems of our times.

In response to this, we see a revival of the interest in work as craft, which is laborious but fulfilling – baking, beer brewing, small-scale agriculture, running a zero-waste store. People leave their work in corporate spaces to do something both for themselves and the society. However, these interests are often restricted by the very structure of the capitalist market, with interesting work being difficult to live from.

Work has become precarious over the past thirty years, with job security having been substituted by employability in labor market policies. Zero-hour and short-term contracts become never-ending for some, and even those in permanent positions can be made redundant fairly easily. This is expected to be exacerbated by the rise of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, which will substitute many jobs done by people. Employers today can hire and fire people to adapt to the situation on the market, while state employment agencies help one to search for work, rather than to actually get it. In other words, the responsibility for one’s situation with employment has been shifted from governments and employers to people themselves. 

Despite this precarity of work and many not identifying with what they do to earn a living, most societies are characterised by a culture of workerism, where people’s worth is defined by the status of the work they do. To receive financial support from the state, those who are unemployed have to engage in the often humiliating and disciplining process of proving that they are searching for work, for example, sending a particular number of job applications per week. The kind of work unemployed people have to apply for, however, is often far off from what they want to be doing.

The value of work

Beyond the ways that work is changing today, there is a fundamental problem with how and which work is valued. Wage labor is a key feature of capitalism. Most people have to engage in wage labor to survive. Following Marxist theory, what appears as value created by investors or entrepreneurs is actually built on workers’ labor. For example, a worker at a shoe factory makes the shoes, but doesn’t own the shoe she ends up making nor does she own the machines she uses to make it with. As a result the owners of “the means of production” (e.g. the shareholders and bosses) cash in on any surplus value created, while she only receives the minimum wage the bosses are required to provide. This separation of workers from the means of production drives both capitalist surplus value and alienation from work. Because of this, Karl Marx calls work the “hidden abode of production”, i.e., the source of capitalist value which is often made invisible. 

As further stressed by social reproduction theory, workers also need to be sustained in spaces outside production in order to continue working. Thus, capitalist surplus value relies on yet another “hidden abode” – a vast range of reproductive activities, which are, however, invisible and are not recognised in capitalist value creation. These activities, such as domestic labor, can be paid but are largely unpaid, and mostly fall on the shoulders of women. 

When products are sold, however, their exchange value comes across as independent from productive and reproductive activities – Marx referred to this as commodity fetishism. Furthermore, the capitalist system is oriented towards financial gain, rather than satisfaction of human needs, and work that brings higher profits is recognised much more than work that contributes to well-being and welfare.

As vividly demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, work that is most essential for the daily functioning of societies – care work, nursing, driving public transport, garbage collection, etc – is valued least. At the same time, economic sectors that are destructive or churning out bullshit jobs – financial and housing market speculation, advertising that pollutes public spaces or creating distractive social media technology – enjoy extreme levels of financial gratification and social status. They are able to create jobs, employ people, and pay them well. Moreover, some industries are directly responsible for environmental destruction and health deterioration. Bue Rübner Hansen calls work in these sectors ‘batshit jobs’, to denote the madness of the contradiction when making a living is also part of unmaking life. The fossil industry, which some of the world’s richest and most powerful companies belong to, is a case in point. It gives jobs to many people, but drives destruction. Such industries have to be phased out, but the workers in those industries would also need to be ensured a just transition to meaningful jobs in sectors that would be needed in the economy of the future – care, repair, and environmental regeneration.

Abolish work or liberate it? 

In response to the problems with work, anti-work theses have become popular, arguing, for example, for the abolition of work. Some believe that technology will help to liberate us from work, if only it could be reclaimed from the hands of capital and used in public interest. However, reliance on massive technological interventions requires a lot of energy and materials, and will likely create a lot of waste, too—thus bringing further environmental devastation. It is also likely to come with hierarchical systems of control and, ultimately, its own forms of injustice. For example, as Barbara Muraca and Frederike Neuber argue, complex technologies like BECCS (bio-energy with carbon capture and storage) will not be possible to manage in a decentralised way, while any side effects of these technologies – such as leakage of CO2 – will directly affect local communities. Furthermore, a lot of work, often hard, time-consuming, or unpleasant, is required for the daily life of societies – such as childrearing, caring for the sick, cleaning, and provision of services. Thus, work – done by humans – is here to stay. However, it needs to be transformed. 

The problem with work is not confined to ‘work’ only, but is structural. Capitalist economies are oriented towards continuous capital accumulation, economic growth, and profit by all means. So transformation of work should be part of a general reorganisation of societies and economies away from capitalism and towards socio-ecological transformation. This reorganisation would decentre work from the social pedestal it enjoys today and put life at the centre instead. As part of this transformation, we need to collectively rethink which work is essential for societies and contributes to well-being and environmental regeneration, and how much of it is needed. 

We need to liberate ourselves from work, but also liberate work itself.

As Stefania Barca argues, we need to liberate ourselves from work, but also liberate work itself. In general, we should be working less, at a slower pace, and have time for many things outside work – reproductive, social, political, but also rest, idleness and contemplation. There also needs to be a more equal distribution of work within and across societies, with everyone contributing to socially necessary work and also having spaces for more craft-based, creative and intellectual work. 

To liberate work itself, it should be organised differently. Collective forms of ownership and organising –  such as cooperatives and commons –  are key to the transformation of work. So are workplace democracy, non-hierarchical organisational structures and participatory decision-making. With such organisation of work, even work that is not pleasant in itself can acquire a different meaning. There are many ways to push for the transformation of work, starting from grassroots initiatives where work is organised differently, to institutional changes such as reduction of working time, job guarantee, universal basic income, and universal basic services.

Further resources

Critiques of work

On modern slavery

Crane, A. (2013) ‘Modern slavery as a management practice: Exploring the conditions and capabilities for human exploitation’, Academy of Management Review, 38: 49-69.

International Labor Office (ILO) (2017) ‘Global estimates of modern slavery: Forced labor and forced marriage’, Geneva: ILO.

On other problems with work: Boredom, lack of meaning, environmental destruction

Costas J. and D. Kärreman (2016) ‘The bored self in knowledge work’, Human Relations, 69(1): 61-83.

Graeber, D. (2018) Bullshit jobs. London: Penguin.

Hansen, B.R. (2019) ‘“Batshit jobs” – no-one should have to destroy the planet to make a living’, Open Democracy, 11 June. 

Hoffmann, M. and R. Paulsen (2020) ‘Resolving the “jobs-environment-dilemma”? The case for critiques of work in sustainability research’, Environmental Sociology, doi 

On discourses and qualities surrounding work: Consumption, employability, precarity

Chertkovskaya, E., Korczynski, M. and Taylor, S. (2020) ‘The consumption of work: Representations and interpretations of the meaning of work at a UK university’, Organization, 27(4): 517-536.

Chertkovskaya, E., P. Watt, S. Tramer and S. Spoelstra (2013) ‘Giving notice to employability’. ephemera: theory & politics in organization 13(4): 701-716.

Standing, G. (2011) The precariat: The new dangerous class. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Towards alternatives

Reclaiming work, visibilising social reproduction

Fraser, N. (2014) ‘Behind Marx’s hidden abode’, New Left Review, 86: 55-72.

Schleuning, N. (1995) “The abolition of work and other myths’, Kick it Over, 35 (Summer). Libcom.org.

Articulating and doing work differently (from critiques to alternatives)

Barca, S. (2019a) ‘An alternative worth fighting for: Degrowth and the liberation of work’, in E. Chertkovskaya, A. Paulsson and S. Barca (eds.) Towards a political economy of degrowth. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Chertkovskaya, E. and K. Stoborod (2018) ‘Work’, in B. Franks, L. Williams and N. Jun (eds.) Anarchism: A conceptual approach. Routledge.

Kokkinidis G. (2015) ‘Spaces of possibilities: workers’ self-management in Greece’, Organization, 22(6): 847-871.

New roots collective and 2000+ signatories (2020) ‘www.degrowth.info/en/open-letter’, degrowth.info, 13 May.

On organised labour as a transformative actor

Barca, S. (2019b) ‘The labor(s) of degrowth’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 30(2): 207-216.

Barca, S. and E. Leonardi (2018) ‘Working-class ecology and union politics: A conceptual topology’, Globalizations, 4: 487-503.

Ekaterina Chertkovskaya is a researcher in degrowth and critical organisation studies based at Lund University, with interests in the themes of alternative organising, work and technology. She co-edited Towards a political economy of degrowth (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and is a member of the editorial collective of ephemera journal.

Thanks to Aaron Vansintjan for his caring editing of this text.

Political ecology

Photo credit: Stephanie Salazar

by Panagiota Kotsila, Salvatore Paolo De Rosa & Ilenia Iengo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing in “nature” is simply natural

What politics?

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

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

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

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

What ecology?

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

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

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

Further resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecologia Politica – Cuadernos de debate internacional

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

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

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

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

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

Development

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

by Vandana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

On resistance and alternative ideas of wellbeing:

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

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

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

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

September & October readings

Illustration: Roy Boney/The Guardian

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

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

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

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



Uneven Earth updates

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

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

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

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



Top 5 articles to read

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

The tenants who evicted their landlord

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

The lost forest gardens of Europe

In the Navajo Nation, anarchism has Indigenous roots



News you might’ve missed

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

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

Fifth of countries at risk of ecosystem collapse, analysis finds 

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

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

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

Land defenders are killed in the Philippines for protesting Canadian mining

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

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

Nuclear power hinders fight against climate change

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



Learning from COVID-19

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

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

The pandemic case for the two-day workweek 

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

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

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

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

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



Where we’re at: analysis

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

There’s no such thing as “we”

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

The challenge of reclaiming the commons from capitalism

Seize and resist

Thai imperialism and colonisation

Andreas Malm: “The likely future is escalating catastrophe”

The stories Michael Shellenberger tells

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

Controlling oil, controlling development

Towards a working-class environmentalism for South Africa

On the #BeirutBlast and the environmental violence of capital



Just think about it…

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

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

We can use less energy and still have good lives

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

Hidden cameras and secret trackers reveal where Amazon returns end up

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

On being an octopus

Cruise ships dismantled for scrap after pandemic sinks industry

Land as a social relationship

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



Fire ecology

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

California’s apocalyptic ‘second nature’

California and Australia look to Indigenous land management for fire help



The politics of mental health

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

For Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism is rooted in loneliness 

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

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

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



Indigenous struggles

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

Respect for Indigenous land rights key in fight against climate change

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

Land-grabbing in Asia displaces indigenous people: UN expert



Degrowth

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

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

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

Reflecting on the emerging strategy debate in the degrowth movement

Ecosocialism and/or degrowth?

Degrowth and MMT: A thought experiment

Climate crisis: Is it time to ditch economic growth?

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



New politics

The ecology of feminism and the feminism of ecology 

We can’t have billionaires and stop climate change 

4 key ways to build strong social justice movements

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

A plan to cool us down without burning up the planet



Eco-fascism

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

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

How Far-Right extremists are using wildfires to go mainstream

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

Blood and vanishing topsoil

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



Cities and radical municipalism

Public power in a green city

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

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

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

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

Responding to global crises with low-carbon social housing

Building regional autonomies for a small farm future



Food politics

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

Junk agroecology

Can agroecology feed the world?

Digital fences: the financial enclosure of farmlands in South America

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

Whose agriculture drives disease?

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



Conservation vs capitalism

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

Conservation without colonialism

Setting out the principles of post-growth conservation

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



Sci-fi and the near future

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

Imagining the end of capitalism with Kim Stanley Robinson



Resources

An Indigenous abolitionist study guide 

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


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Renewable energy

Photo: Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

by Alf Hornborg

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

The rise of the fossil economy

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

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

Energy technology – part nature, part society

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

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

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

Will renewables replace fossil fuels?

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

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

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

Downscaling energy needs

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

Further resources

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

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

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

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

Structural violence and the automobile

Photo by Margaret Bourke-White for Time & Life Pictures

by Owen Watson

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

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

Fascism and the Automobile

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

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

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

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

Marketing violence

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

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

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

American Violence and the Anti-Martyr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s no way like the American way

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

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

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

August readings

Photo credit: hansfoto

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

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

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

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

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



Uneven Earth updates

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

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

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

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



Top 5 articles to read

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

Fermentation, rot, and power in the early modern Atlantic

Can we save the planet by growing the service sector?

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

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



In memoriam: David Graeber

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

Essays

Are you an anarchist? The answer may surprise you!

On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs

Of flying cars and the declining rate of profit

How to change the course of human history

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

Concerning the violent peace-police

Revolution in reverse

Against economics

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

What’s the point if we can’t have fun

It is value that brings universes into being

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

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

The new anarchists

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

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

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

Democracy is possible in Syria. My friend knew how

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

Talks & podcasts

Where did money REALLY come from?

Graeber and Wengrow on the myth of the stupid savage

Debt: The first 5,000 years

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

Books

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



News you might’ve missed

Behind the Beirut explosion lies the lawless world of international shipping

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

Global deforestation accelerates during pandemic

From genocide to resistance: Yazidi women fight back

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



Indigenous struggles

‘Green’ colonialism is ruining Indigenous lives in Norway

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

Meet the people saving Canada’s native grasslands

A message from the most bombed nation on earth

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



Global land struggles

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

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



Where we’re at: analysis

Does nuclear power slow or speed climate change?

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

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature debunked

Climate apartheid is the coming police violence crisis

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

Decolonial feminism and Buen Vivir

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

Lebanon, forever colonised?



Just think about it…

Emancipation in the neoliberal era: Rethinking transition with Karl Polanyi

The fantasy and the Cyberpunk futurism of Singapore

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

Towards a non-extractive and care-driven academia

The world to come: What should we value?

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



Degrowth

The case for degrowth

Deliberate degrowth

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

Four principles of degrowth and why they matter



Food politics

The roots of food crisis in Pakistan

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

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

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

The strategic case for animal liberation



Cities and radical municipalism

Municipalist politics and the specter of emancipation

Killing a neighbourhood

Tenant unions for the future

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



Resources

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin: The full film

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

Trinational toolkit for international workers’ solidarity

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



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July readings

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

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

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

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

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



Uneven Earth updates

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

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

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



Top 5 articles to read

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

The coronavirus-climate-air conditioning nexus

Poultry and prisons

The dollar and Empire

Agro-imperialism in the time of Covid-19



News you might’ve missed

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

Privatisation ‘wave’ hurts global poor as pandemic heightens risks

To fill vacant units, Barcelona seizes apartments

South Korea backtracks on green promise

Belgian Green parties introduce ecocide bill

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

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



Global land struggles

New Brazilian map unmasks its illegal foresters

After the war, before the flood, in Colombia

An oil spill in the time of coronavirus

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

Dakota Access Pipeline decision: The Standing Rock generation triumphs

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

Environmental activists face high risk of violence and assassination: study

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

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



Coronavirus

COVID-19 and border politics

How epidemics end

Ecology and economics for pandemic prevention

Lessons from the pandemic for the municipalists in Spain

Uneven development and the coronavirus crisis

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



Where we’re at: analysis

Himalayan hydropower is not a green alternative 

The racist double standards of international development

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

Has 2020 marked the end of progressive left electoralism?

Examining the wreckage

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

From neoliberalism to necrocapitalism in 20 years

Is Deep Adaptation flawed science?



Just think about it…

Automation is for the bosses

Towards the ‘Walden wage’

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

When France extorted Haiti – the greatest heist in history

Trump has brought America’s dirty wars home

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



Decolonial ecologies

The hungry people

Decolonizing ecology

The forest as farm

Growing sovereignty: Turtle Island and the future of food

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



Environmentalism, racism, and the right

Environmental group Sierra Club reckons with John Muir’s racism

Beware the rise of Far-Right environmentalism

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

The willful blindness of reactionary liberalism

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



Cities and radical municipalism

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

Political organizing in the 21st century

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

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

Cities versus multinationals

Green structural adjustment in the World Bank’s resilient cities

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

Public transportation is a human right

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

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

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



Resources

Interface special issue on organising amidst COVID-19

The Ecoversities Alliance is committed to radically re-imagining higher education to cultivate human and ecological flourishing

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

System change: A basic primer to the solidarity economy

Pandemic syllabus

Decolonising methods: A reading list

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



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

by Neal Rockwell

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

A New World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dunes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone United Against Expensive Life

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

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

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

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

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

The Pines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revolution Will Not Be “Green”

Photo by Wade Lambert on Unsplash

by Jordan G. Teicher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June readings

Illustration by Jamiel Law, via The New Yorker

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

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

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

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



Uneven Earth updates

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

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

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



Top 5 articles to read

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

On technodiversity: A conversation with Yuk Hui

From rebellion to revolution

How do we change America?

We need to talk about racism in the climate movement



News you might’ve missed

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

Affluence is killing the planet, warn scientists

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

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

How the legacy of colonialism built a palm oil empire



Where we’re at: analysis

Capitalist catastrophism

Neoliberalism is in critical condition

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

Beyond the stereotype: How dependency theory remains relevant

The world is in chaos. Embrace it.

Prolonged uprising is the new normal



Black Lives Matter

On Black women’s ecologies

Theses on the George Floyd rebellion

Black autonomy and lessons from the Black Power struggle

Black Lives Matter and the trap of performative activism

What Elinor Ostrom can tell us on defunding the police

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



COVID-19: where do we go from here?

In pandemic recovery efforts, polluting industries are winning big

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

Reflections on the virus as an opportunity for radical societal change

Latin America reels as coronavirus pandemic gains pace

Pandemic municipalism, an interview with Kate Shea Baird



Food politics

Food sovereignty now and beyond COVID-19

The forest as farm

We can build a better food system through mutual aid

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

Socialise the food system

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

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



Just think about it…

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

Conservatism, racism, and fascism confused

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



New politics

Constructive criticism of degrowth is NOT support for growth

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

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

Life and times at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone

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

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

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

Police abolition and other revolutionary lessons from Rojava

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

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



Resources

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

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

Read up on the links between racism and the environment

Prisons, policing, and punishment. A resource guide.



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NOlympics, everywhere

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

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

by Sasha Plotnikova

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

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

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

Bigger than the Olympics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seizing the means of the production of urban space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The long road to Olympic abolition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A gateway to organizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Olympics are Good Olympics

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos courtesy of NOlympics LA.

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

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

May readings

Illustration: Alexandra Bowman

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

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

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

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



Uneven Earth updates

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

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

Crisis Collage | How do we move ahead now?

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



Top 5 articles to read

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

Unlearning: From degrowth to decolonization

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

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

We defend ourselves so we can all breathe in peace



News you might’ve missed

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

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

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

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

Land conflicts flare across South-East Asia during coronavirus lockdowns



Resources on anti-racism and police abolition

Understanding structural racism, and how to fight back

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

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

Black Socialists of America resource guide 

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

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

Black environmentalists on climate and anti-racism 

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

The violence of, and alternatives to, policing

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

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

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

Abolition study. A list of readings and resources.



Just think about it…

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

Why social isolation is part of Amazonian Shamanic practices 

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

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

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

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

How ‘sustainable’ development ravaged the Congo Basin

The ugly underbelly of veganism in India

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

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



Where we’re at: analysis

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

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

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

Coronavirus in Rojava: Facing a pandemic without a state

Counting corona losses in Africa

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

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

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

Real reconciliation starts with fair economics

Lawless ocean: The link between human rights abuses and overfishing

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

Food is power

The impulse to garden in hard times has deep roots



New politics

Public abundance is the secret to the Green New Deal 

Reviving Indigenous authorities in Guatemala

Indigenous leadership points the way out of the COVID crisis

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

Organizing is not about getting people to agree with radical ideas

Permanently organized communities



Cities and radical municipalism

How cities are clamping down on cars 

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

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

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



Degrowth!

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

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

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



Resources

26 ways to be in the struggle beyond the streets

Mapping our social change roles in times of crisis

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

A list of political ecology-themed podcast episodes

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

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

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

Food fermentation in Northeast India

Agroecology in Cuba, a film with English subtitles



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Crisis Collage

by Maro Pantazidou

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

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