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.



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

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.

To then kick off again in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Sudan, in France. Till Chile consumed it all and spit it out ‘We will not return to normality because normality was the problem’.

Six months later, maybe we crave for some normality.

Maybe we could go back to that old normality with all its contradictions, oppressions, cancellations, exploitations, misrepresentations—but where, somewhere, one can carve out a small space where there is Touch and there is Movement and therefore maybe a bit of Freedom.

So cοuld we go back? The ghost of what-is-actually-normal is haunting our cities.

The crisis is a mirror.

The crisis is a portal.

The crisis is suspension.

The crisis is acceleration.

The crisis is an already-existing social condition, now mediated by viruses. Much of what was deemed impossible, invalid, invisible has been

laid bare, 

(we are as safe as the least protected among us)

validated, 

(the most important work is the work that maintains and reproduces life)

materialised

(even the market had to start washing its invisible hand).

The fairy of what-is-actually-possible is humming in between our screens.

So, the words appear again on a Hong Kong wall ‘We can’t go back to normal because normality was the problem’, only now they’ve taken on a meaning more dense yet more subtle, punctuated by all our interdependencies.

How do we move? One answer: ‘there is no need to destroy everything and to give birth to a world completely new — it suffices to change the position of this cup or this bush or this stone, and to do the same for every thing.

Maro Pantazidou likes to work on radical education and collaborative research. She is based in Athens.

Planet of the dehumanized

by Gert Van Hecken and Vijay Kolinjivadi

A new documentary entitled “Planet of the Humans” directed by Jeff Gibbs, and produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore, was recently released to coincide with Earth Day. The documentary was highly anticipated, given Moore’s previously engrossing anti-establishment and award-winning documentaries on crucial political issues. The documentary, narrated by self-proclaimed environmentalist Jeff Gibbs, was released online and received over 4 million views in less than a week. The filmmakers unpack some of the myths surrounding large-scale renewable energy production like solar, wind, and biomass, arguing that such technologies are themselves materially-intensive and dependent on fossil-fuel derived energy, including coal, oil, and natural gas.

The film rightly questions capitalism’s “addiction to growth,” as well as corporate quests for profitable opportunities made available through greenwashing, and exposes the “renewable energy scam” as an unsettling co-optation of environmentalism by fossil-fuel driven interests. This line of questioning is refreshing and highly welcome at a time when faith in green growth is proposed as the main solution by the private sector, and their government supporters, to address environmental issues. These messages from the film are extremely important, given that it has been scientifically shown that there is no such evidence that environmental degradation can be reversed through increasing economic growth.

Since its release, the film has already received considerable critique from renewable energy experts, climate scientists, and climate activists, who have decried the film as dangerously misleading and behind the latest developments in the renewable energy sector. While we are sympathetic to this critique on how the film throws the “baby out with the bathwater” on renewables, we believe these critiques gloss over the important point the film makes about corporate greenwashing around renewable energy. We also believe that the critique of the film’s position being climate-denialist is clearly inaccurate given the film’s central focus on the ecological crisis associated with economic expansion. Ultimately, “Planet of the Humans” demonstrates why massive-scale renewable energy is a false solution to meet the insatiable needs of industrial society – this is a valid point! Even if renewables were fully substitutable alternatives to fossil-fuels, an industrialized civilization predicated on endless economic growth is not sustainable.

Our concern lies with how the film superficially points to environmental problems being caused by an abstract capitalism without centering the analysis on the historical and structural inequalities of capital accumulation. “Planet of the Humans” powerfully and convincingly bursts the “eco-friendly” lifestyle bubble into which so many well-intentioned progressives pour their hearts, souls, and wallets. However, the film bypasses historically ingrained privileges and structural inequalities along class, gender, and racial lines that lie at the heart of environmental crises.

A film produced by white people for other well-meaning white people, which does not include voices from the most vulnerable, who bear the major brunt of climate change and ecological collapse, entirely misses the mark around why ecological concerns are a matter of humiliating injustice for many people rather than merely a lifestyle choice. If what counts as being a “lifelong environmentalist,” as Gibbs claims at the start of the film, means making the individual choice to move into an “eco-house” and become more sustainable, then we are left with a very narrow and privileged understanding of what environmentalism actually means. The absence of more than stock-photo imagery of the structural inequalities of ecological destruction is precisely what makes this film highly simplistic and therefore dangerous at this current conjuncture.

There are four key reasons why the film misses the mark on the intertwined social and ecological crises of capitalism.

  1. The film’s narrative groups humanity as a whole as the culprit for ecological degradation, as evoked in the film’s title, and as signaled by the Anthropocene trope as a universalizing explanation for our current predicament. This perspective neutralizes the powerful influence of historically transforming the world into standardized, calculable, and controllable landscapes to replicate Western imaginaries of the world. Not all humans are responsible for the current state of affairs. Some of us are forced to deal with the fallout of a particularly deadening vision of the world more than others. The consequence of activating the idea of the Anthropocene is that it allows big industries to convince us that “we”, the anthropos, are all equally responsible for climate change. 
  2. The film caters to Western views on environmentalism by those who do not have to deal with structural injustices of living in cities’ most polluted areas, dying from air pollution, having their land dispossessed, or whose life choices are determined by precarious migrant labour and remittance to families abroad. While the film artfully exposes the fallacy around so-called “green economy” illusions, it does so by focusing entirely on lifestyle choices like deciding whether to attend a solar-powered concert or to adopt a plant-based diet. This focus simplifies what environmentalism is meant to imply, even if the filmmakers may have had no intention of doing so. One consequence of the filmmaker’s one-sided Western environmentalist lens is its singular focus on renewable-energy supporters and activists. Environmentalism has less to do with having epiphanies of being inspired in the great outdoors, and more to do with supporting the autonomous decision-making of vulnerable communities in the face of egregious environmental pollution that no human being should ever be subjected to. Racialized environmental justice has a long history in the US. It is unfathomable that a film of this nature would blatantly side-step this, especially given Moore’s previous work on the racialized nature of environmental problems like the Flint water crisis. Only one female voice who defends the struggles of racialized people from so-called “developing” countries demanding environmental justice was offered space in the film, and even that for less than 1 minute.
  3. The film blames overpopulation as another problem alongside relentless economic growth as where “we” went wrong as humans. This perspective unduly places the blame on populations in so-called developing countries and aligns with Malthusian and ethno-nationalist perspectives of eco-fascists by “greening” hatred among people. These are blatantly dangerous and could even be considered racist viewpoints especially considering that some environmental movements are deeply rooted in anti-immigration sentiment and white supremacy. This is particularly problematic when the film’s audience is seemingly well-meaning middle-class progressives whose dreams of a renewable-energy fueled capitalism are dashed without offering any alternatives. The consequence is that white-supremacist media sources like Breitbart can easily hijack a film like “Planet of the Humans,” as they already seem to be doing.
  4. While perhaps not the intention of the filmmakers, the film paradoxically creates a narrative that is easy to co-opt by ecomodernists advocating for technological fixes to environmental problems. It essentially gives them a green light to irresponsibly advocate nuclear energy by laying claim to the failure of renewable technologies to power an industrial society. Indeed, given the lack of alternatives offered in the film, its silence on the matter essentially condones nuclear energy. Such a decontextualized view on the potential of energy alternatives like wind and solar shuts the door on renewable energy technologies without recognizing the crucial role they play as decentralized energy solutions, particularly those focused on ensuring energy democracy for communities around the world. In short, energy systems cannot be decontextualized from the kind of society that is democratically desired. Like fossil fuels, nuclear energy depends on powerful and hegemonic actors to drive and direct both energy demand and supply, but a sustainable future will require decentralized, autonomous communities that have control over their energy use and where their energy comes from.

Overall, the implications of the film and its responses extend beyond its specific strengths and weaknesses. Debates constructed around environmentalism more generally, especially in industrialized countries, have tended to fall into particular narratives that do not adequately share an ethical and political commitment towards social and environmental justice, reparations for historical acts of colonial violence, and alternative knowledges and ways of being. These narratives often advocate for a renewable-powered and industrialized green economy, support centralized techno-fixes like nuclear energy with potentially catastrophic social and ecological consequences, or advocate for population control in veering dangerously close to the side of eco-fascists.

Moreover, given that the film takes a North American focus, these positions amount to colonial settlers on stolen land debating what counts as a sustainable future. The striking absence of Indigenous land defenders, their history of struggle, and lessons to be learned from them is another missed opportunity to truly engage with what “sustainability” could mean. While these concerns extend beyond the film’s intentions and perhaps intended audience, it is impossible to ignore them given the totalizing characterisation of environmental problems, as clearly evident in the film’s title.

An intersectional understanding of ecological crises, as they weave through race, gender, and class, would have offered a more powerful portrait of the state of the planet’s ecological situation. Global social movements around the world such as La Via Campesina, as well as the degrowth movement in Western industrialized countries explicitly connect social and ecological struggles as one and the same struggle, and offer hope and inspiration into flourishing alternatives already existing to reimagine the world. “Planet of the Humans” does not reflect non-Western conceptions of justice nor non-mechanistic understandings of human-nature relations. Attempts being made to confuse the film’s message with degrowth are therefore inaccurate. The film’s impacts could not have come at a worse time, when people are seeking alternatives to capitalist crisis in the midst of a global pandemic.

Gert Van Hecken is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. For over fifteen years he has lived and worked in Nicaragua, both as a researcher on social-environmental conflicts in rural communities and as a representative for a development NGO.

Vijay Kolinjivadi is a Post-doctoral Researcher at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His research has focused on the socio-cultural and political outcomes around “payments for ecosystem service” policies with land-users in South and Central Asia as well as in Eastern Canada. His interests lie at the intersections of political ecology and ecological economics.

March & April readings

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.

All of March and April, we’ve collected lots of articles on coronavirus. And we thought that, now, two months after the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic, is a good moment to reflect on where we are and take stock of where we are going. So, this reading list, we’re only featuring articles on coronavirus.

First, we’re highlighting guides and resources for how to organize during the crisis. Second, we highlight the political actions and movements that are responding to the crisis around the world. Third, we feature articles focusing on the wave of mutual aid that has emerged following the pandemic. We are also including analysis of what caused the pandemic. Other topics include: its effects in the Global South, the importance of care & care work, its impact on cities, degrowth as a key response to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, its effect on food systems, the emergence of eco-fascism in response, and analysis of what the world will look like after this all.



Uneven Earth updates

The only thing to last forever | An endless repetition had taken hold of the world

Where did coronavirus come from, and where will it take us? | An interview with Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu

Pandemic strike | Rob Wallace says we need new tactics to show that people’s lives matter more than profit

Exploring transformative change on the brink | In moments such as these, the landscape of possibility shifts. How can activists engage on the ground?

This pandemic IS ecological breakdown: different tempo, same song | Comparisons between the toll of COVID-19 and climate change are not helpful because they view each as two separate “things”

Our contributing editor Vijay Kolinjivadi also appeared on the podcast This Is Hell! to talk about his article.

Now is the time to end the climate emergency | Reading The Green New Deal and beyond in the middle of a global crisis

To organize in times of crisis, we need to connect the dots of global resistance against Imperialism | Moving beyond a politics of confusion towards Internationalism

When viruses shatter limits | Viruses are invisibly small, cause monumental pandemics, and force us to rethink our taxonomies



Top 5 articles to read

In light of the global pandemic, focus attention on the people. A 16-point list of demands from the International Assembly of the Peoples and Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

Within and beyond the pandemic, demanding a care income and a feminist Green New Deal for Europe

Social reproduction theory and why we need it to make sense of the coronavirus crisis

No new normal

Pandemic insolvency: Why this economic crisis will be different



Guides, how-tos, and resources

List of resources and guides on how to do mutual aid during a pandemic

Useful list of Covid-19-related information and explanatory guides

COVID-19 tenant organizing guide

Resources on strikes during COVID-19

How to fight fascism while surviving a plague

How to organize your workplace against COVID-19

COVID-19 Left perspectives: A reading list

Feminist resources on the pandemic

Food safety and coronavirus: A comprehensive guide

Post-capitalist reading in a time of pandemic



Political actions and demands

Call of the Indigenous peoples, afro-descendants and peoples’ organizations of Latin America

A call to action: Towards a general strike to end the COVID-19 crisis and create a new world

Organizing under lockdown: online activism, local solidarity

Imagining protest in a quarantined world

Defining a space for resistance: Countering the disempowering effects of social distancing 

Essential workers: Class struggle in the time of coronavirus 

Rent strike nation

Our towns: Public libraries respond to COVID-19

Social movements in and beyond the COVID-19 crisis: sharing stories of struggles

Coronavirus has transformed the climate movement into something new

To our friends all over the world from the eye of Covid-19 storm



Mutual aid

Five quick thoughts on the limits of Covid-19 mutual aid groups & how they might be overcome

Don’t forget: disasters and crises bring out the best in people

People are fighting the coronavirus with mutual aid efforts to help each other

Autonomous groups are mobilizing mutual aid initiatives to combat the coronavirus

From mutual aid to dual power in the state of emergency

Mutual aid groups respond to coronavirus and climate change threats

Amid coronavirus pandemic, neighbors delivering what government cannot

The global guardians: Volunteering in Milan’s neighborhoods



What caused the pandemic?

‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?

Profits above all: world’s largest pork company propagates global pandemics

Think exotic animals are to blame for the coronavirus? Think again.

New research suggests industrial livestock, not wet markets, might be origin of Covid-19

COVID-19 and circuits of capital

Ten theses on farming and disease from Rob Wallace

Is factory farming to blame for coronavirus?

‘A common germ pool’: The frightening origins of the coronavirus



The pandemic in the Global South

Coronavirus hits the Global South

IMF, World Bank urge debt relief for poor nations battling virus

For autocrats, and others, coronavirus is a chance to grab even more power

Indigenous groups in Canada, Australia, Brazil brace for coronavirus

Dispatch #6 from Palestine on COVID-19, curfews & mutual aid

Stories from Kerala’s spirited virus fight

The pandemic can be a catalyst for decolonisation in Africa

Negligence, injustice, and insensitivity – Peasant situation under coronavirus crisis



Thinking about the pandemic: analysis and theory

The coronavirus pandemic, capitalism, and nation-states 

Peter Linebaugh on the long history of pandemics

The coronation by Charles Eisenstein

Coronavirus and the world-economy: The old is dead, the new can’t be born

Coronavirus and the need for a social ecology

Oxana Timofeeva, Georges Bataille: A pandemic read

Academia in the time of Covid-19: Our chance to develop an ethics of care

How the world became place where we remembered breath

Mike Davis on COVID-19: The monster is finally at the door

#CoronaCapitalism: How corporations are responding to the coronavirus crisis

COVID-19 and the neoliberal state of exception

In conflict with disease



Care during a pandemic

On social reproduction and the covid-19 pandemic

Social reproduction and the pandemic, with Tithi Bhattacharya

COVID-19 pandemic: A crisis of care

Care in the time of covid-19 

A crisis like no other: social reproduction and the regeneration of capitalist life during the COVID-19 pandemic

Asian American feminist antibodies. A zine that makes meaning of the coronavirus crisis through long-standing practices of care that come out of Asian American histories and politics.

The coronavirus fallout may be worse for women than men. Here’s why

The coronavirus is a disaster for feminism



Coronavirus and our cities

How cities can adapt to Covid-19

‘Idiocy of our current urban systems’: Inequality, not high-density cities, to blame for COVID-19’s spread

Disinvestment made our cities a powder keg in a pandemic

For urban poor, the coronavirus complicates existing health risks

Coronavirus is revealing the harm Airbnb did to urban rental markets



Growth, degrowth, and corona-crisis

Pandenomics: a story of life versus growth

In the midst of an economic crisis, can ‘degrowth’ provide an answer?

Coronavirus and degrowth

Is the economic shutdown what degrowth advocates have been calling for?

A degrowth perspective on the coronavirus crisis

Jason Hickel on Twitter: “Just to be clear: the economic contraction that’s happening right now is *not* degrowth. If you’re ever confused, you can consult this handy list of questions.”

Or, if you’re still confused, check out this handy online quiz: Is this degrowth?



How are food systems affected?

Farmworkers are risking their lives to feed a nation on lockdown

IPES special report: COVID-19 and the crisis in food systems

5 lessons for food systems thinking from COVID-19



Eco-fascism and the pandemic

Fake animal news abounds on social media as coronavirus upends life

It’s not “ecofascism”—it’s liberalism

‘We’re the virus’: The pandemic is bringing out environmentalism’s dark side

What the ‘humans are the virus’ meme gets so wrong

Coronavirus and the radical right: conspiracy, disinformation, and xenophobia



What the world will look like after coronavirus

The coronavirus is rewriting our imaginations

Technocracy after COVID-19

The coming debt deluge

Will coronavirus signal the end of capitalism?

It was the virus that did it

Coronavirus will require us to completely reshape the economy

The coronavirus is leading to a whole new way of economic thinking

COVID19 is changing the ideas that we consider politically possible

Owning the future: After COVID-19, a new era of community wealth building

We can afford to beat this crisis

What will the world be like after coronavirus? Four possible futures



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When viruses shatter limits

All that is left to us, therefore, is to understand what the disaster is producing within us, to pay attention to the explosion of affects it reveals. Therein lie the complexity of the situation and its rare promises. –Sabu Kohso

by Shrese

Stories of viruses are mostly stories of surface breaking, membrane crossing, confinement evading, border shattering, punctuation changing.

During the 19th century, scientists like Pasteur and others articulated the Germ theory: diseases could be passed on by tiny living things (hence the name microbes, small biota) invisible to the eye. Bacteria, organisms made of a unique cell, were “discovered”. An object, the Pasteur-Chamberland filter, was created to filter out bacteria from water. First dedicated to research, it also became an industrial device in a world now, and forever, scared of microbes and infections. But still, stuff that seemed to be smaller than bacteria, i.e., that could pass through these filters, kept on causing diseases. “Filterable viruses”, later only “viruses” (from poison in Latin), became then known to humans.

Viruses came to our world by crossing a membrane of unglazed, or bisque, porcelain. Here their narration starts—as if they hadn’t been there all along. Kevin Buckland, a storyteller living in Barcelona, teaches us this about the virus: “[its] power is simple: it can change periods into commas. It can un-end sentences. What was sealed and solved, what was packaged and piled, what had already been swept away is now again unfinished; ready to be rewritten.”

These past weeks, our days have been filled with digressions about viruses. For example: are viruses alive? Yes, no, it depends on how you define “alive”… And it depends on who you ask: someone living through the Covid-19 pandemic, or the same person a couple months ago?

This question has been with us for as long as viruses came into our world. After they first crossed over the Pasteur-Chamberland filter, they were thought to be liquid entities. Then they became particulate. But what were they really, were they just toxins? Were they microbes? Nowadays, we talk of them as being at the edge of life, we ascribe them the gift of life only once they have crossed our cell membranes… The debate often follows a script:

—Viruses cannot self-generate their own body nor self-reproduce, therefore they are not alive.
—Don’t they, though?
—Well, yes, but they are not independent nor autonomous, they cannot do it on their own, they need to infect a cell to do it.
—But some organisms also need other organism-hosts to reproduce. —Ah?
—And how about you? would you be so independent and autonomous if you were in a world without any other living beings?
—…

Indeed, asking “is this alive?” forces us to think “what does it mean for something to be said to be alive?”. Another way to go at it is to come up with lists of criteria, checklists, so we can tick “yes” or “no” when it comes to viruses, and the debate is still not closed. All in all, this is a tale of defining a phenomenon “en creux”, that is by focusing on what is excluded by the definition. This debate of finding the limits of the domain of life does sound abstract, but it is quite a spectacular contribution by the virus.

If you ask “what does a virus do?”, any biologist would tell you: first, it attaches itself to some elements on the surface of the cells of animals or plants (bacteria have their own made up category of viruses called bacteriophages). Then, using a diversity of tactics, it will pierce through the surface membrane of the cell. Once inside the cell, the pathogenic type of viruses will generally hack what the cell does for a living (grow and reproduce) to reproduce itself to a vast amount. After some multiplication, the virus will often engage with borders again, this time to actually literally explode the membrane of the cell, rupturing all structural integrity, spreading its inside outside. The cell, at this stage, can safely be considered “dead”. See, it’s all about trespassing surfaces.

This is the official story. But there is some more unfinished business to it. We mostly think of viruses as pathogens that infect us, make us ill, kill us. They are defined and perceived solely from their function or from their way of life (a bit of DNA or RNA genome encapsulated that needs to infect a host to actually do anything). Does it make sense to lump all of them together under this single term? Their genomes can be of all kinds and shapes, their structures as well, also their rules of engagement with the cells. But above all, it seems that one important activity of theirs is to mix things up: they insert their genomes into their hosts, they pick up bits as well, they move these bits from one organism to the next, they may have got stuck into cells to make new kind of cells. We’re now in the world of Lynn Margulis and her symbiogenesis stories—evolution as unfinished digestion: biological entities attaching to or entering into other entities and sticking around. The most famous example is the organelles found inside cells, like the mitochondria or the chloroplasts, coming from bacteria that were “eaten” by other bacteria and stayed there. Some say that the first eukaryotic cell (a cell with a well-defined DNA nucleus) came from an actual virus entering a cell.

We should have listened to Lynn Margulis more. For one, she did offer a solution to the “what is life?” dilemma: life is not a thing, it’s a process. Indeed, what does an organism do? It grows. What for? To grow more. And Darwin was all well and good, but she insists the metaphor of the tree was terrible. Life is not made of independent branches of organisms, lineages that go their own paths separated from others. A more suitable metaphor would be the web: all these “lineages” bump into each other, cross each other, don’t respect the borders—neither the ones of the organisms, nor the ones of the taxonomists.

Taxonomy. This is another story of containment and packaging that got shattered. Taxonomy is the science of classification: ordering things into distinct categories, according to specific criteria. Essentially, compartmentalising, detaching, separating, confining… Taxonomists as border guards. Here, Debra Benita Shaw and her account of “promising monsters” is very telling. When she teaches us that “monsters are the necessary counterpart of taxonomy, [they] emerge both within the strata of the taxon and across its boundaries” and that “species are trapped in a taxonomic grid, but they are always struggling to escape/mutate”, it is almost like she’s telling us stories about viruses. Her monsters are both essential to the production of categories, taxonomies and hierarchies and to their undermining and challenge—they are mobilised to produce what is accepted as normal but they linger on, they proliferate. They are abnormalities that refuse to disappear, nagging us every now and then like a stone in a shoe; but they also are “unexpected formations that contain latent potential”, the deviations that hold the possibilities of future changes, evolutions and apparitions of new forms (such as the concepts of saltation and hopeful monsters in evolutionary biology).

It is easy to think of what is destructive about viruses, especially on Wednesday 1st of April at 21:04 in Barcelona, Spain. We are drowned in curves of new Covid-19 cases (is it flat yet?), sunny and tempting empty streets from our balconies, graphs of daily deaths, migrant persons fined for being out in the streets helping out others… And it is particularly telling that the answer to a virus, given its ability to plough through our established categories, was to multiply the confinements: lock downs, movement restrictions, imposed distancing and isolations, borders closing, modes of transport shut down. But what could be promising about all this? True, at the moment, there is no shortage of interesting propositions and analyses telling us that the coronavirus is an opportunity for social change, an indicator of the failure of capitalism, a tipping point from which we won’t turn back, a planet saviour, nature biting back… Funnily enough, one interesting contribution was proposed by the virus itself, in a monologue. The virus even managed to strip down the situation to the core bifurcation it offers us: “the economy or life?”. Here it is again, forcing us to think about life.

Writing from within the pandemic, and a very specific vantage point (pretty privileged: work from home, cheap rent, no family responsibilities, official European identity papers—borders again), days are of a new kind. Constantly in the background, coming and going, tensing my jaw, aching my shoulders, piercing my chest and shortening my breath, an “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahaaaaaaa!”—anxiety, fears and worries.

Not so differently to a couple of centuries ago, viruses are invisible to most of us. They travel in droplets, in aerosol, linger on surfaces, clothes… anyone contaminated and in their incubation period, not showing any symptoms, could potentially pass it on. Not even some indirect clue of the risk. So much hand washing. Our relation with our hands has changed completely, they are the vectors of the invisible threat. Our mouths, our eyes, our noses are the points of entry. Scared of our own bodies, we embody the neo-liberal conception of life described by Silvia Federici “where market dominance turns against not only group solidarity but solidarity within ourselves”. In this situation, we are in constant state of fear of what’s within, “we internalize the most profound experience of self-alienation, as we confront not only a great beast that does not obey our orders, but a host of micro-enemies that are planted right into our own body, ready to attack us at any moment. […] we do not taste good to ourselves.”

The invisible does not only carry the feared entities. This is also where capitalism relegates its waste: air, ocean, underground, “ex”-colonies… All tales told, viruses seem to fit the risk society pretty well. This is the idea that our contemporary society has shifted to an obsession with safety and the notion of risk, and has dramatically shaped its organisation in response to these risks. From a class society where the motto was “I’m hungry”, and where social struggles were organised around this, the risk society’s motto became “I’m afraid”. This created a different set of demands, mostly revolving around the need to feel safe. The risks are mostly invisible (as in, actively unseen: nuclear, chemical toxins, oil spills, terrorism etc.). What therefore becomes central is to decide what constitutes a risk. Because scientists are now the ones that are relied on to make this assessment, science became a particular battlefield. In this framework, risks are divided into external and manufactured risks. The former are “natural” risks that arise from the outside (drought, floods, earthquakes—what “nature” does to us) and the latter occur because of what humans do to “nature” through its techno-scientific practices. Rob Wallace begs us to keep in mind that plagues are manufactured risks. The multiplication of zoonoses (infectious diseases that spread from non-human animals to humans), he argues, is a direct result of the capitalist modes of production: intensive monocultures, reduction of diversity, destruction of habitats… To quote the virus again, the “vast desert for the monoculture of the Same and the More” that we created is responsible for this pandemic.

What could exemplify more these invisible manufactured risks than the nuclear complex and its associated irradiations? And how this reminds us of viruses. They are both hyperobjects, a term put forward by philosopher Timothy Morton to describe phenomena that imply things, temporalities and spatial scales that are beyond humans while intimately present—disproportionate, monumental and apocalyptic while mediated by minute invisible entities. Also, responding to these disasters is difficult. The true apocalyptic nature of these events is not that they will bring the end of the world, it’s precisely that they are never ending, one characteristic of the societies of control. Nuclear waste and viruses will of course survive countless generations of humans. The monumentality of this kind of catastrophe seems to call for a monumental solution, initiated by a superior power, discouraging all revolts. But above all, it is the virtual reality of radioactivity and viruses that throws us off. Impalpable, invisible, delayed effect… nuclides and viruses diffuse in our world and bodies through uncontrollable and unreliable movements. As hyperobjects, they are viscous: “they ’stick’ to beings that are involved with them”. In a nuclear explosion or a pandemic, we cannot stop our bodies from welcoming the radiations or the virus. They engage with our cells—manipulate, use, modify, hamper them and threaten their integrity. Suddenly, reminding us that we are made of cells, our own body integrity is at stake, and potentially the ones of our offspring, or our closest ones…

No wonder a lot of my fellow humans are lamenting “these days, I cannot think”. Cannot focus. Head in cotton, like when taken by the fear of heights. But it is known, this is not fear, it is a desire for heights. From my balcony on the 6th floor, peering over, I am both terrified and excited. Powerful craving to let go, to give in to the air and gravity. Fly, even for a few fractions; fall, finally free of the fear, warmly wrapped in the friction of the resisting atmosphere—a liberating suicide.

We are now petrified by the phenomenal amplitude of the situation. Confined, we are utterly confused when faced with the satisfaction of one of our deepest and most repressed cravings: stop. Take a breath and shut down the machine. Stand still, there, wrapped in all the muck that we did not want to be with, reminding us of the many ways we kept busy to avoid facing ourselves. Finally giving in to the temptation—that has never left us since the first day of school—to stay in bed, retreat, desert and abandon.

As Sabu Kohso reminds us when writing about the Fukushima disaster, we will not save the world. Our starting point could be to disassemble the totality that was sold to us as The World, relocate its membranes and change its punctuation, to recompose it offensively with new terrestrial relations that are already solutions to live the good life. “In this mix of affects—despair, joy, anger—that a lot of us share, we are tempering, quenching and forging new weapons, and we are elaborating strange tools and curious talismans, to lead ephemeral and intense lives on this earth.”

All images by Shrese.

Shrese is a carpenter and independent researcher based in Barcelona, Spain. Contact him at shrese at riseup dot net.

This article has now been republished in French by lundi.am.

To organize in times of crisis, we need to connect the dots of global resistance against Imperialism

Sallye Davis (organizer and mother of Angela Davis), Ann Bishop, Alimenta Bishop, and New Jewel movement leader Maurice Bishop, Grenada, 1982. Photo from The House on Coco Road, directed by Damani Baker, Array Films.

by Corinna Mullin and Azadeh Shahshahani

Writing in the aftermath of the US-led overthrow of the People’s Revolutionary Government of Grenada, the inimitable Audre Lorde lamented the absence of a strong anti-imperialist movement in her seminal essay “Grenada Revisited.” Lorde identified two main factors to explain the dearth of resistance to the blatant intervention by the US in a sovereign state’s internal affairs: 1. a deliberately confused public sphere as “doublethink has come home to scramble our brains and blanket our protest,” and 2. a desensitized “[white] america whose moral & ethical fiber is weakened by racism as thoroughly as wood is weakened by dry rot.” The years following the 1983 invasion of Grenada have witnessed a continuation, and in many ways, deepening, of both: the racism that underpins the violent dispossession to which marginalized communities at ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ are subjected, coupled with the discursive infrastructure of a capitalist dominated media and public sphere designed to obscure and normalize this dispossession as well as to delegitimize resistance.

We currently face a combined economic, ecological and health crisis that is in many ways a product of the forms of exploitation and dispossession that Lorde identified in her essay, making it more vital than ever to draw connections in our analysis of and resistance to racial capitalism and Imperialism. Rob Wallace has demonstrated the linkages between capitalist modes of agriculture and the ecological transformations that have enabled the spread of “the most virulent and infectious phenotypes” of pathogens such as those that resulted in the coronavirus.

These processes have accelerated in the neoliberal era, spurred on by imperialist circuits of finance capital whose penetration of the Global South was enabled by the removal of “restrictions on the global flows of commodities and capital.” Neoliberalism has entailed a set of social and economic policies rolled out over the past five decades as a response to the crises of racial capitalism, designed to reverse even limited post-Depression working class gains and redistribute wealth upwards. Neoliberal policies including repeated tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, the deregulation of various sectors of the economy (including finance, telecommunication, energy, etc.), and the marketization and privatization of public services (including in the domains of education, social welfare, prisons, etc.) resulted in deindustrialization and the dismantlement of many public institutions that would otherwise have helped to mitigate the current crisis, including health care. The state’s “organized abandonment” was accompanied by a retrenching of its repressive apparatuses, including prisons, borders, and police—or the state’s “organized violence” in the words of Ruth Gilmore.  This violence has targeted with criminalization the very Black, Brown, Indigenous, working class, poor and other marginalized and racialized communities who were the most impacted by neoliberal restructuring, extending already existing forms of exploitation, dispossession and exclusion in capitalist core states.

Many of the neoliberal policies behind the restructuring of the Global North’s welfare state were originally tested on—and resisted in—the periphery.

Many of the neoliberal policies behind the restructuring of the Global North’s welfare state were originally tested on—and resisted in—the periphery, via imperialist institutions like the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the World Bank, and the EU. As part of the attack on the post-independence assertion of Global South sovereignty, structural adjustment programs via enforced spending cuts and privatization engendered state disinvestment in public goods, contributing to the degradation of public institutions, including public health. They have also enforced capitalist patent regimes that limit these states’ abilities to provide affordable and accessible medicine to their populations, ensuring that the Global North benefits from the “monopoly rent…[and] an almost exclusive control of the world market of health.” Neocolonial debt further hinders Global South public health by diverting already limited state resources away from funding health care systems to servicing public debt. Similar to developments in the Global North, one of the few sectors that witnessed an increase in spending during the neocolonial assault on the state in the Global South were the repressive security institutions, also contributing the accumulation of public debt. This neoliberal restructuring combines with the colonial-capitalist assault on Global South ecologies and the destruction of imperialist wars and militarism, to produce “wasted lives”—contributing to an expansion of the “global reserve army of labor,” superexploitation of Global South labor and surplus value extraction.

While scholars like David Harvey argue that Imperialism is no longer useful as an analytic category, a look at any number of socio-economic indicators statistically mapped out onto an image of the globe makes clear that the north-south cleavage is still salient when it comes to patterns of accumulation and dispossession. Whether we look at it through the lens of public health, monopoly finance capital, global commodity chains, labor exploitation, unequal exchange, sanctions, climate disaster, or military interventions—there is a stark geographic dimension to how power is divided and exercised across the globe. As in the past, global inequalities today are also reflected and intimately connected to those within the metropole. In the current context, it is poor, undocumented, immigrant, Black and Brown communities hit the hardest by crisis. Not only in terms of being more susceptible to contracting and dying from the coronavirus, as a result of historical legacies of slavery and ongoing structural racism, resulting in a lack of access to adequate health care, nutrition and housing, as well as contributing to conditions as well as often limited capacity to “social distance,” but also because of the uneven impact of its socio-economic reverberations, including loss of employment and housing, as well as being subjected to state violence and surveillance as part of the state’s increasingly securitized response.

Similar to the Granada intervention conjuncture so incisively dissected by Lorde, the current moment has also laid bare the interconnections between the Imperialism and racial capitalism. Yet we still falling far short of the kind of political mobilization required, with the parallel analytical phenomenon that some interpretations of Imperialism have been stretched so thin that the concept has lost much of its meaning and urgency. Though there may be several factors that can account for this, central among them is what Lorde, referencing George Orwell, identified as “doublethink.” This refers to a deliberate and systematic politics of confusion that emerged in the late/post-Cold War period, providing a discursive cover for the neoliberal counter-revolution against post-colonial Global South sovereignty. This cover operates through several discursive mechanisms, including through the evasion and distortion of history to disrupt and reverse otherwise obvious connections between causes (settler-colonialism, slavery, racial capitalism, Imperialism) and effects (underdevelopment, de-development, inequality, dispossession). This doublethink equates imperialist violence with the responses it engenders, flattening out different forms of state power, (e.g. by conflating neoliberal and imperially aligned states such as Colombia and Peru with “Pink tide” governments such as Bolivia and Ecuador that have sought to nationalize resources and redistribute wealth, support the struggles of workers and Indigenous communities, and challenge imperialist geopolitical alignments, repeatedly referring to the latter as “authoritarian”). It also normalizes imperialist violence through discursive formations such as the ‘democratization’, ‘humanitarianism’, ‘development’, ‘war on terror’, ‘green transition’, and sets limits on what we are able to imagine in terms of liberation (e.g. whether or not international agreements can be broken and debt erased, regional integration, redistribution, ending private property regimes and reclaiming the commons). It is why for so many people it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Faced with this combined health-economic-ecological crisis, there is a renewed urgency to demystify and contest this politics of confusion by strengthening our anti-imperialist organizing. Just as we build solidarity through mutual aid in our communities to fill the gaps- as well as address root causes– left by the neoliberal, racial capitalist state, we must extend our solidarity to support mutual aid efforts in the Global South, where similar and much more severe gaps in the ability of the state to protect people in the face of coronavirus are intimately connected to US Imperialism. These include economic warfare against countries like Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, to the deepening and expansive tentacles of US military projection across the African continent through the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), including “46 various forms of U.S. bases” and other military interventions designed, in the words of the former deputy of AFRICOM himself to “Protec[t] the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market,” and including past and ongoing US directed or backed invasions, bombings, blockades, occupations, covert destabilization military operations and coups in places like Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Bolivia and Venezuela.

Conceptualizing Imperialism

At its base, Imperialism is a system of domination that blocks real self-determination for states and peoples. It is about externally determining and imposing, often together with the collaboration of elements of a domestic elite, particular modes of industrialization, socio-political forms of governance and border-making/border practices that facilitate labor exploitation and surplus drain in the Global South for the benefit of (largely Global North/western) capital. It is about blocking alternative ways of imagining and pursuing development, value, and of living with one another and with the Earth. The imperialist aim is to obstruct the pursuit of alternative socio-political-economic projects (and sabotage extant ones) that threaten capitalist power. As Ali Kadri reminds us, the state-led developmentalist projects of the post-independence era implemented across West Asia and Africa “did not fail on their own”; it was “implicit and explicit” forms of Imperialism “that shut them down.”

Imperialism is about blocking alternative ways of imagining and pursuing development, value, and of living with one another and with the Earth.

Imperialism is also always about violence. There is the structural violence that results from what Walter Rodney described as the “paradox” of underdevelopment, where “[m]any parts of the world that are naturally rich are actually poor.” There is also, of course, the material violence. Imperialism is backed up by the threat and often actual shock and awe of military might. We are all too familiar with the long list and typology of imperialist interventions, which include: the invasions, occupations and other forms of imperialist (largely US/French/British/Germany led)-military action witnessed over the past century in places from Vietnam to Iraq, North Korea to Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Chile, Syria and Mali to imperialist backed coups against leftist and/or nationalist governments across Africa and the Americas. Through destabilization, destruction, and currency devaluation, wars and occupations enable numerous forms of extraction and exploitation of natural and human resources. In that sense, they are primary mechanisms of “surplus value and power creation.” This is true not only, as Ali Kadri shows us, in the immediate aftermath of violence, but for years following, as they produce the socio-economic conditions of “underdevelopment” that enable Global North accumulation.

Returning to Grenada, Lorde pointed to the outcome (and aim) of the US invasion: “Ministries are silent. The state farms are at a standstill. The cooperatives are suspended…On the day after the invasion, unemployment was back up to 35 percent. A cheap, acquiescent labor pool is the delight of supply side economics.”

Imperialist mechanisms

Counted among the list of imperialist interventions are the 1,000 military bases and installations the US operates/and or controls across the globe, which have aided in the funding of death squads, coups, and other covert operations. This number far surpasses that of foreign military bases maintained by any other state in the world. There are also the more subtle forms of military domination and imperialist induced vulnerability that come from state dependence on US/European weapons and surveillance systems, training, as well as military “cooperation” with joint military operations, wherein the US outsources risky ventures to Global South “partners.”

While much is made of Russia and China as competing powers for global hegemony, it is telling that the US spends more on “national defense” than the other countries included on the list of top 8 military spenders combined

The US dominated military-industrial-complex continues to be one of the most visible mechanisms of Imperialism today. While much is made of Russia and China as competing powers for global hegemony, it is telling that the US spends more on “national defense” than the other countries included on the list of top 8 military spenders combined (including France, United Kingdom, Germany, India, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia).  The US dominated arms market also perpetuates financialization of the global capitalist economy as the top arms dealers are all publicly traded. The US continues to dominate with 42 of the Top 100 listed arms companies based in the United States. The speculative role of arms capital was once more on display as major US arms companies saw their stock prices jump following the Trump administration’s assassination of the leader of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Soleimani in January of this year In supplying their arms to the Global South, these merchants of death not only provide the conditions to alienate citizens from their states, but also alienate Global South states from one another as they find themselves caught up in conflicts that are not of their own making, nor in their own interest.

Perhaps even more pervasive than militarism, economic warfare is one of the most destructive forms of imperialist intervention. Currently, a third of humanity is impacted by US sanctions. Sanctions are a way of disciplining Global South self-determination, as is so clearly the case in Zimbabwe where sanctions first adopted in 2001 were designed to punish the government for its extensive land reform program. Not only do sanctions by design “cause untold death and devastation,” a reality laid bare in the current health crisis, but also, as Lauren Smith demonstrates, “economic sanctions serve to justify and conceal theft, through asset freezes and seizures, at a rate only previously accomplished through invasion and occupation.” US sanctions trigger currency devaluation, inflation, increased unemployment, prices and access to food, power, and industrial equipment, and, of course, medicine. In other words, sanctions are a neocolonial tool designed to “prevent countries from setting in place any form of economic development.”

Iran has been the target of one of the most significant and consistent US sanctions regimes, a punishment for asserting its sovereignty with the 1979 Iranian revolution. Though lifted for a short time following the 2015 nuclear deal, Trump’s re-imposition and expansion of sanctions have forced the Iranian economy to contract by 9.3 percent in 2019.  To convey a sense of the scale of the impact that the US enforced severing of Iran from the international financial system has had on the Iranian economy, Kevin Cashman and Cavan Kharrazian explain that it would be the equivalent to a 16 percent cut in the US federal budget, or $521 billion in 2018. With at least 58,226 cases of the coronavirus and at least 3,603 deaths recorded since the outbreak, there is no doubt that US sanctions have made it much harder to tackle the pandemic. The country is facing shortages of respiratory-assistance devices and basic medical equipment, such as gloves and masks.  With the sanctions impeding Iran’s ability to respond to the health crisis it is facing, the aims of the US’ economic warfare on the country are rendered even more apparent: destabilization and death.

In Venezuela, even before the coronavirus outbreak, a report by the Center for Economic and Policy research demonstrated a 31% increase in mortality in the country after the 2017 round of US imposed sanctions, causing an increase of 40,000 deaths in the country. The most recent ramping up of imperialist aggression towards Venezuela in the form of increased sanctions, the deployment of navy ships towards the country and the placement of a $15 million-dollar bounty on the head of President Nicolas Maduro, have all contributed to undermining Venezuela’s ability to confront the coronavirus, and will undoubtedly result in even more deaths. To add insult to injury, US Imperialism has created both the conditions in which Iran and Venezuela have been forced to turn to the IMF for emergency funds to confront the coronavirus as well as the reason for which the IMF continues to block these countries from accessing needed funds.

US Imperialism has created both the conditions in which Iran and Venezuela have been forced to turn to the IMF for emergency funds to confront the coronavirus as well as the reason for which the IMF continues to block these countries from accessing needed funds.

Sanctions are not only deadly in the sense of blocking access to the medicine, food and finance required by states to provide basic welfare for their population, but also in denying and distorting capital flows and economic transactions, and in enabling the investment of seized assets in Global North banks. They are a major mode of Global South-to-North wealth drain. As demonstrated by a recent report, the U.S. economic blockade has caused over US $138.8 billion in losses to Cuba since the 1960s. Of course, not everyone in the Global North benefits from this wealth drain. As with other examples of imperialist intervention, the inequalities of racial capitalism are in fact exacerbated by sanctions as an economy built on “plunder” is by design one that exploits, dispossesses and wastes lives.

Connecting the dots between racial capitalism and Imperialism

The above list of imperialist economic interventions includes debt colonialism, currency manipulations, structural adjustment programs, “free trade” deals, and other forms of economic intervention that block Global South development and facilitate Global South wealth drain and Global North accumulation. By dehumanizing, devaluing, and exploiting Global South lives and livelihoods, Imperialism perpetuates white supremacy both within the US and across what W.E.B. Du Bois described as the “global color line.” For Lorde, the seeming indifference of the US public to the imperialist violence committed against Grenada could only be grasped by understanding how “white america has been well-schooled in the dehumanization of Black people” and how such socialization enables accumulation through dispossession under racial capitalism.

By dehumanizing, devaluing, and exploiting Global South lives and livelihoods, Imperialism perpetuates global white supremacy both within the US and across what W.E.B. Du Bois described as the “global color line.”

The racialized forms of accumulation underpinning capitalism have always been international — from the foundational role of slavery and the dispossession of Indigenous lands and polities to the current formations and relations of power underpinning the globalized and hierarchically organized and racialized circuits of trade and production. These circuits of trade and production are kept in place by imperialist states and the multilateral institutions they dominate, from the IMF/World Bank to NATO, often including different organs of the UN and international law. These same interests, institutions, policies, and practices not only act outward to impact people around the world, but are responsible for criminalizing, exploiting and dispossessing Indigenous, migrant, Black, Brown, undocumented, and poor communities in the US itself.  Trump’s framing of Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus,” a framing that was readily echoed by a mainstream media and public sphere long schooled in anti-Asian racism and the (neo)colonial tradition of deploying “health and medical discourses [to] further racist projects of excluding and eliminating those deemed undesirable,” is a reminder of Imperialism’s and racial capitalism’s shared discursive infrastructure.

Resisting Imperialism

Both this global domination and the resistance to it have always been international. From early forms of radical Black internationalism, including such luminaries as W.E.B. Dubois, Claudia Jones, Paul Robeson, Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon and Angela Davis, to organizations like the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, the International African Service Bureau, and the Black Panthers, internationalism was an important base of struggles against colonial regimes and white supremacy. There is also the long tradition of what Nick Estes describes “Indigenous internationalism,” through which Indigenous peoples have “imagin[ed] themselves as part of Third World struggles and ideologies, and entirely renouncing the Imperialism and exceptionalism of the First World (while still living in it).” Internationalism informed various state initiatives (e.g. the 1955 Bandung Conference, and 1964 UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), as well as early hybrid state-popular forms of solidarity expressed through institutions such as the Cairo based Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization and its “antecedent,” the African Association, and the Tricontinental Conference. Today, the international peasant and ecological movement of Via Campesina coordinates global resistance to the ravages of capitalist agriculture for a food sovereign future, while the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Black for Palestine and The Red Nation carry forward the mantle of internationalism in the name of anti-colonial solidarity, Palestinian, Native and Black liberation and human emancipation. Much anti-imperialist organizing in the US today centers abolition, pointing to linkages between US interventions “abroad” and repression at “home,” with a focus on “racialized policing and prison systems” as well as connections between the conceptual and material underpinnings of the carceral-police state in the imperial core and the periphery.  The abolition project has assumed a new urgency in the current conjuncture as it is clear that communities targeted by the carceral-police state are the most vulnerable to the current combined crisis.

While the imperialist security state devises new mechanisms of control and capital figures out ways to profit from the crisis, resistance is also mounting. Already existing circuits and networks of solidarity are being mobilized, with organizations like the Red Nation calling for human solidarity “not just to stop the most catastrophic effects of COVID-19, but to end this inhumane and criminal capitalist system once and for all.” Others like Cooperation Jackson are building on the increasing radicalism of labor organizing in the face of the crisis to demand a “democratization of the means of production” as well as a redirection of funds spent on defending and expanding the US empire “to Health Care, Social Services, Universal Basic Income and Greening Public Infrastructure and the Economy.” There are also calls originating from the Global South for broad solidarity with demands for reparations and the cancellation of neocolonial debt. While the US practices public health Imperialism, Cuba is leading the way with its public health Internationalism, providing support to states in the Global South (and even Global North), which are struggling because of limited resources and the consequences of neoliberal cost-cutting of health-services to fight the spread and impact of the coronavirus.

International solidarity derives from the realization that our own liberation — and indeed, our survival — is fundamentally linked to the liberation and survival of the most oppressed people across the globe.

These past and present forms of internationalism have taught us that the struggle against racial capitalism and Imperialism can only succeed if undertaken as a collective. As rising temperatures and sea levels (as well as the rapid spread of the deadly coronavirus) remind us, international solidarity is neither an abstract nor intellectual duty. Rather, it derives from the realization that our own liberation — and indeed, our survival — is fundamentally linked to the liberation and survival of the most oppressed people across the globe. As internationalists, we also have a responsibility to educate ourselves to the greatest extent possible about the popular struggles unfolding in parts of the world where Imperialism is busy at work, in our names, and with our tax dollars. From Algeria, to Haiti, Chile, Ecuador, Lebanon, before the coronavirus health crisis gripped the globe, it seemed the entire world was on fire with popular uprisings resisting the ravages of capitalism and the apparatuses of “organized violence” that are designed to sabotage and manage dissent. Once the virus subsides, these struggles will undoubtedly reconvene with a vengeance, spurred on by the inequalities and injustices exposed and exacerbated by the combined crisis as well as by signaling from imperialist institutions such as the World Bank, which has called on states to “implement structural reforms to help shorten the time to recovery,” that business will continue as usual. Likewise the struggle for Palestinian liberation, where Imperialism and settler-colonialism combine to create the perfectly deadly mix for the unequal spread and impact of coronavirus, accelerating the Israeli project of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population. 

As we have learned from the successes and mistakes of the past, our anti-Imperialism cannot be a one size-fits-all mode of organizing. It must be based on sound analysis of the particular histories, socio-economic contexts, class composition, ideological underpinnings, and political alignments of both states and movements. Yet it always requires that we resist imperialist military and economic intervention as well as the so-called multilateral institutions that facilitate Global South dispossession and wealth drain. It often means standing in solidarity with Global South popular movements as they resist the collusion of their governments in the exploitation, extraction, dispossession and destruction of peoples, lands, and ecologies facilitated by US provisioned arms, training, and diplomatic cover. By virtue of our geographic location in the belly of the beast, we have a special responsibility to resist all attempts by the US and other imperialist actors to sabotage, divert, co-opt, or otherwise limit the will of popular struggles across the Global South. It also requires that we stand in solidarity with those Global South states that are punished for the threat they pose to status quo functioning of global capitalism because of their geopolitical alliances and support for anti-colonial and anti-imperial resistance. Finally, we must be wary of forms of critique that may have the perhaps unintended consequence of turning people away from anti-imperialist organizing at a time when they are needed the most by claiming that those who focus their analysis and organizing on the role of US power, ignore or undermine Global South agency when in fact the principal aim of anti-Imperialism is precisely to support the building of a context in which meaningful Global South self-determination can be realized. At a time when so much is at stake, we must be as careful as possible to ensure our analyses do not reproduce and reinforce imperialist discourses and power relations.

It is the working class, poor, racialized and criminalized communities both in the Global North and South who suffer the most and who are also at the forefront of resistance.

As we confront these interlocking health-economic-ecological crises, we must remember that it is the working class, poor, racialized and criminalized communities both in the Global North and South who suffer the most and who are also at the forefront of resistance. True liberation and survival—depends upon centering the needs, struggles and collective leadership of the most vulnerable among us. To do so requires that we continue building on the analysis and praxis of those Internationalists who have come before us. They have shown us that the best antidote to the politics of confusion is a politics that connect the dots between the political-economic systems of human and ecological domination that continue to exploit, dispossess, and kill us.

After a commenter’s feedback, some corrections have been made on the history of Grenada’s revolution.

The authors would like to thank the editors of Uneven Earth, including Natalie Suzelis and Vijay Kolinjivadi, for their extensive and insightful edits and suggestions, as well as Max Ajl and Setareh Ghandehari for their close readings of the article and feedback. They would also like to thank Zainab Khan, Ramin Zareian, and Chris Tidwell for their research help with the sanctions section of this article.

Corinna Mullin is an adjunct professor at the New School and John Jay College (CUNY) and researches on Imperialism, capitalism and the politics/political economy of Global South security states; she tweets @MullinCorinna.

Azadeh Shahshahani is Legal & Advocacy Director at Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild; she tweets @ashahshahani.

Now is the time to end the climate emergency

by Natalie Suzelis

In The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can, Stan Cox has a message for all who were counting on the Green New Deal to help save us from ecological and economic collapse: this legislation will not go far enough. Cox’s book comes at a sobering time, when the only two U.S. presidential candidates he mentions as being in favor of the Green New Deal—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—have fallen behind a ‘more electable’ candidate who has not expressed such enthusiastic support for GND policies. In light of such developments, and in light of the global health crisis now facing the world, a manuscript devoted to many of the GND’s shortcomings might seem untimely. Yet Cox provides important insights into how our intersecting crises—ecological, economic, and epidemiological—could lead to a positive restructuring of the economy, if we can push such legislation to meet them. To do so, Cox argues, requires expanding the GND’s restorative approach to environmental justice, a willingness to reinvent the economy at a scale not seen since World War II, and the prioritizing of people and the planet above economic growth.

There are a few assumptions of the Green New Deal with which Cox takes issue, given how far we have advanced on the climate clock. These include the legislation’s vision to build up ‘green’ energy capacity and its promise to maintain and even accelerate economic growth. First, Cox addresses the common assumption that clean energy will push out old, dirty energy, by showing that there is so far no evidence to support that this will happen. As Cox shows from previous cap-and-trade policies, new energy sources are more likely to add to the existing energy supply than replace it. So far, the attempt to phase out fossil fuel energy with solar and wind power has only served to supplement the energy market and, sometimes, even enhance the production and trade of fossil fuels. Therefore, the parts of the GND which promise to re-grow the economy by replacing fossil fuels with renewable or clean energy sources are simply not realistic. To reach the goal of clean energy by 2030 through solar and wind power, we would have to build infrastructure for such industries ‘at thirty-three times the highest rate of buildup ever achieved to date’ and at scale which would infringe upon land and water which we would do better to conserve. 

Cox urges us to accept that while we must phase out fossil fuels now with a strong cap on fossil fuel production, we must also accept that such a rapid phasing out of fossil fuels will shrink GDP.

Instead, Cox urges us to accept that while we must phase out fossil fuels now with a strong cap on fossil fuel production, we must also accept that such a rapid phasing out of fossil fuels will shrink GDP. This insight brings some of the Green New Deal’s aims in conflict with one another. In the legislation’s own language, the GND proposes to bring ‘unprecedented levels of prosperity’ and a new era of ‘domestic manufacturing in the United States,’ while also ‘restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems.’ Yet as Cox points out, land and soil restoration alone will take a massive amount of work and coordination. The GND would then have to choose between such restoration and the massive building of new industries. Cox argues that the choice should be clear for those who truly know what is at stake. Because the GND also aims to ‘promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth’ Cox argues that it cannot do so while also drastically reducing emissions and growing a new energy market. 

What’s new is also old

To help us understand how we might avoid some of these assumptions, Cox points to a few lessons learned from the old New Deal. What is not new about the Green New Deal, for example, is its ambitious goal to take on the task of essentially planning the entire economy as a necessary response to economic and ecological crisis. Although it may seem unthinkable after decades of neoliberalism, structural adjustment, and austerity, Cox reminds us that Roosevelt himself had introduced the New Deal by publicly acknowledging that ‘free market policies and resource extraction’ had created a fiscal and ecological emergency that required an entirely new — and entirely planned—economy (3). The government’s ability to take the reins from the free market was the first step in the New Deal’s success. The second, and more essential step, was that a national labor movement held this project accountable to workers. This labor pressure, which resulted in the passing of the National Labor Relations Act, helped ensure that the projects and stimulus packages meant to plan both production and consumption specifically addressed the rights struggles of working people along with the conservation and maintenance of the environment.

Yet what made the New Deal unsuccessful was its failure to implement its goals across racial lines. As Cox acknowledges, rather than helping Black workers in the South, for example, the New Deal cemented institutional racism by deferring to locally prevailing wages for occupations dominated by Black workers. Further, the Social Security Act of 1935 did not cover farm laborers nor domestic workers, which employed two-thirds of the Black population, and the New Deal’s housing policies perpetuated residential segregation. In order to learn from this history, Cox points us to the successful campaign of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which recruited thousands to stage a successful strike that demanded higher wages for Black and white farmworkers across northeast Arkansas. The goal of this organization was both a protest movement and a labor union: agitation and publicity, along with strikes and collective bargaining, aimed to put pressure on the New Deal and present radical alternatives to its policy. Similarly, no matter how progressive the Green New Deal’s goals, Cox argues that it must also face relentless pressure from unions, social movements, activists, and groups like Indigenous Climate Action, Sunrise Movement, Keep it in the Ground, and Fridays For Future, in solidarity with land and water protectors who are already struggling to defend some of the world’s largest carbon sinks. 

The GND does take some of the New Deal’s key mistakes into account, in arguing for the importance of protecting First Nations and marginalized communities. Yet more pressure will be required to recognize the hard truth that we have already overshot our shared limit of fossil fuel production and consumption, and that even the clean energy of new public infrastructure would rely upon dangerous extractive practices that threaten marginalized communities and the sovereignty of indigenous lands. Climate activists, scholars, and the public must therefore ask themselves: can the GND really ensure a just energy transition by building a roaring new ‘green’ economy and mining raw materials like cobalt, cooper, lithium from around the world, which, as Cox points out, are both notoriously associated with human rights abuses and harmful extraction (68)? What the optimism of the GND does not appear to be taking into account is that the mining of such materials—even those meant to produce ‘clean’ or ‘renewable’ energy—is going to remain a dirty business.

We must be willing to cut the wasteful parts of this economy in the same way that the War Productions Board of the 1940s cut, simplified, and restructured the U.S. economy of the 1940s. 

Further, what the GND seems to have not learned from the history of the New Deal is that a stimulus package by itself will not go far enough. In the case of the New Deal, as Cox points out, it was ultimately not the massive stimulus but the United States’ transition into a war economy that addressed both unemployment and overproduction. This is also why the United States, to this day, relies upon its military to help expand a GDP that is fundamentally linked to high carbon emissions. While the fact that the U.S. military is a bigger polluter than most countries is well known, what is less known, as Cox asserts, is that we must be willing to cut the wasteful parts of this economy in the same way that the War Productions Board of the 1940s cut, simplified, and restructured the U.S. economy of the 1940s. 

A rationing economy

In what has become a rather prescient observation, given the current state of emergency brought on by the spread of COVID-19, Cox reminds us that it was not the New Deal, but the ‘emergency’ of World War II which allowed the U.S. to entirely restructure its system of production and consumption. In 1936, when the Roosevelt administration began easing off stimulus support, unemployment leapt back up to 19% and remained above fourteen percent until the war effort redirected its production to war-related materials and projects. Having spent $62 billion on stimulating the economy over the last eight years, Congress then spent $321 billion over the next five years in its transitioning to a war economy. Cox points out that while this new form of spending worked in restructuring production and consumption, many forget the sacrifices that were made to ensure a successful transition. A key element often left out, for example, is the War Production Board’s mandatory clampdown on prices as well as its rationing efforts, which aimed to ensure adequate food, shelter, clothing, and other basic necessities for the entire population. To this end, the War Production Board shrank, standardized, and simplified the economy in order to reduce civilian rail travel, prohibit the shipping of retail packages, and reduce the number and varieties of most commercial products. 

Here Cox lingers on the point of the War Production Board’s tight rationing of goods, which included both food and fossil fuels. This is because, for Cox, proper rationing will be fundamental to a just energy transition. In making connections between the WPB’s tight regulation of the economy and what he argues should be a similar response to the emergency of ecological collapse, Cox chronicles how households were issued a monthly set of stamps for meats, cheeses, butter, sugar, fuel oil, kerosene, gasoline, tires, cars, bicycles, stoves, typewriters, shoes, coffee, canned fish and milk, fats, and other processed goods. Drivers began carpooling to work and families across the country planted 22 million ‘victory gardens’ to supplement the rationing system. Rather than being a hardship, Cox argues, rationing improved nutrition across economic classes and was met with overwhelming public approval. Even when ‘rationing was at its zenith,’ as Cox reports, approval outweighed disapproval by two to one, because civilians believed rationing was necessary to eliminate food shortages and conserve important raw materials. Cox insists that the same mindset must accompany the Green New Deal, which would entail a concerted effort on the part of national, state, and local legislation to ration electricity with the same zeal that this country has historically reserved for wartime.   

Rations but not population control

Rationing off of overblown production and consumption of fossil fuels will not be as difficult for some as for others. Eighty percent of the population, as Cox reminds us, does not fly. Yet for all of Cox’s attention to detail in how to redistribute equitable energy consumption, there is one part of his enthusiasm for rationing that might give us pause, however. At one point, Cox suggests that one possible rationing formula might be ‘equal numbers of credits per adult for each energy source, with an additional half-credit for up to two children per household’ (103). Readers who have been following eagerly along may experience some dismay here. Why only up to two children, why only a half-credit per child, and what about children with special needs, for example, who might require a certain amount of technology? At this point in the book, it would have been helpful for Cox to engage with critiques of Malthusian population control, which is a well-known slippery slope in seeing the violence of climate catastrophe—and even epidemics—as helping to lower carbon footprint by lowering population. Recent takes about the spread of COVID-19 being a kind of ‘vaccine’ for humanity, for example, operate in precisely this Malthusian vein. Such presumptions forget that it is the safest and wealthiest classes who are responsible for the most emissions and even the spread of global disease, and that those least responsible for ecological and epidemiological crises are most vulnerable in their lack of access to healthcare, fresh food, shelter, and a living wage. Cox cites Georgios Kallis and other degrowth scholars who explicitly critique the Malthusian position of overpopulation, but he does not bring up these critiques in his own account.

Despite the above sentence, which enters into Cox’s analysis at the end of a long discussion about solidarity rationing, Cox is committed to reminding readers that the GND aims to stop carbon emissions in ways that will fundamentally uplift the most vulnerable. To do this, he maintains, the GND must be willing to deliberately scale back the economy and completely phase out fossil fuels by 2030, curtail the production and consumption of cars, air travel, and other fossil-fuel related activities, degrow the military and militarized law enforcement, end mass incarceration, and stop giving subsidies to industries that overproduce of civilian and military products. As Cox writes, we need a lower-energy economy with fewer goods, shorter working hours, and a motto of ‘sufficiency for all.’ Standardization and simplification will help ensure equitable distribution of essential resources and cut out the most wasteful parts of the economy. 

The details of this kind of scaling back must be negotiated through local and participatory processes.

In thus countering the ‘eco-modernist’ approach of unhampered production in service of green luxury, Cox takes issue with those who do not see the need to deliberately scale back the economy. He argues instead that while many still believe that nuclear power or a battery-operated world will solve our problems, we must take a long, hard look at our ecological limits. If we are serious about meeting climate goals, for example, there can be no ‘high-speed rail’ as promised by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, because the concrete alone involved in such a project would contribute to an already-overshot cap of emissions. Rather, existing rail lines should be refurbished and extended in scaling back private transportation, while acknowledging that we need less—not more—energy use. The details of this kind of scaling back must be negotiated through local and participatory processes, but they would aim to include more public transportation, well-insulated and high-density housing, solar electric and water heating, and a new system of rationing not unlike that of the 1940s War Production Board. The good news is that the people responsible for the majority of emissions are in a relatively small class of consumers. The bad news is that we have to find a way to convince them to scale back the most.

In highlighting the above fact, Cox points out another common assumption: that simply taxing the 1% will be enough to stimulate the economy and re-build public infrastructure. Here the ambitious policies of both Sanders and Warren are called into question for not going far enough. Instead, Cox argues that the entire upper-middle class of the United States, which has a higher income than 96% of the world, will be adversely impacted by any ‘just transition’ that can equitably phase out fossil fuels. This is why Cox argues that a fair, effective climate policy will necessitate that ‘the 33% of American households with highest incomes will bear the greatest economic burden’ both in having to pay for economic restructuring, and in scaling back their own overblown consumption (109). The consumption of both its billionaire class and upper-middle class—the world’s 4%—must be heavily capped.

Restorative environmental justice

Instead of ‘leading the fight against climate change’ then, as the Green New Deal proposes, it would be more accurate to say that such legislation will begin to take some responsibility for centuries of uneven emissions, where the poorest parts of the world (who are responsible for only 15% of global emissions) feel the harshest and most brutal impacts of tropical storms, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and global migration. In fully recognizing the need for the U.S. to become accountable to these uneven causes and consequences, Cox acknowledges that there are many things which the Green New Deal gets right, or at least very close to right, in its vision of restorative environmental justice. Yet if the Green New Deal continues to rely upon the dream of a green energy economy to rival that of the fossil fuel industry, Cox warns, it will have to ignore this vision, as well as many of its own mandates to improve land use, preserve soil quality, and protect indigenous lands. Even if the U.S. refrains from further extractive practices on its own land, but continues mining precious metals across the world, it will still fail to enact this vision. Cox therefore suggests that the U.S. take part in a global fair-shares energy allocation that models the Green New Deal’s pro-worker and pro-poor economics, with the aim of globally ‘raising the floor and lowering the ceiling’ to put underdeveloped countries on par with developed ones.

Ultimately, Cox’s message is that, like the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which pushed the New Deal to ensure both workers’ rights and racial justice, the climate movement must stand in solidarity with indigenous climate struggles against market solutions, even and especially those alluded to in the Green New Deal. The good news is that those who are not already a part of the 33% of upper-class consumers will have less to sacrifice, and will likely benefit from the GND’s demands for worker’s rights, universal healthcare, housing, jobs, and universal access to clean air, water, and food. As Cox reminds us, the 40% at the bottom of the economic pyramid have a net worth of negative $22,000, which is why we must, as he says, raise the floor and lower the ceiling. Yet those who turn their noses up to a ‘sufficiency for all’ planned economy—which include, as Cox points out, the ‘fully automated luxury’ green modernists of the Left—must also be brought face-to-face with the reality that we are already approaching, at best, a future of more limited consumption.

In writing this book, Stan Cox could not have anticipated that the spread of COVID-19 may itself present an emergency situation requiring the restructuring and planning of the economy. The recently passed CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act in the U.S., which includes loan forgiveness and emergency funds for economic relief, has attempted to intervene in this emergency for the sake of stabilizing the economy. Cox would likely respond that such drastic intervention must become the new normal, but not for the sake of the market. Rather, he would argue that such an emergency should be an impetus for simplifying, standardizing, and restructuring production and consumption. Cox argues that this is not idealism, but necessity. By 2030 or 2040, if our aims and policies turn out to have been insufficient, as he points out, it will have been too late.

Natalie Suzelis is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. Her research analyzes the environmental and cultural history of capitalist development in early modern literature.

This pandemic IS ecological breakdown: different tempo, same song

“The coronavirus pandemic is like a chunk of ice falling off of a melting glacier. You can see the ice falling, but you can’t see the melting of the whole glacier.” Photo by Roland Seiffert

by Vijay Kolinjivadi

In late 2019, a novel coronavirus (SARS CoV-2) emerged from a wet market in Wuhan in the province of Hubei in China. At the time of writing, it has resulted in cases approaching 1 million and the deaths of over 42,000 people worldwide. Only a couple months ago, the world was taken aback by unprecedented bushfires in Australia, massive youth movements striking for stronger action to tackle climate change, and a groundswell of protests across the world demanding greater democracy, an end to state oppression, and against debilitating economic austerity in places ranging from Hong Kong, to India, to Chile, respectively.

In the midst of these events, COVID-19 felt like it came out of nowhere. The situation (and potentially the virus itself) is rapidly evolving, has taken world governments by surprise, and left the stock market reeling. Its emergence, however, makes self-evident the fault lines in global production systems and the ultra-connectivity of our globalized world. Like climate change, it affects everyone (ultimately), but unlike climate change, it occurs at a much faster rate and more severely impacts the most economically vulnerable, who cannot afford or have the possibility to engage in social distancing. Governments are walking on a tightrope, a balancing act between ensuring public safety and well-being and maintaining profit margins and growth targets. It’s the very same dilemma as climate change- just occurring at a faster rate, arising everywhere, and obliterating the possibility to ignore it and think about it later. In fact, one may argue that the pandemic is part of climate change and therefore, our response to it should not be limited to containing the spread of the virus. “Normal” was already a crisis and so returning to it cannot be an option. 

The coronavirus pandemic is like a chunk of ice falling off of a melting glacier. You can see the ice falling, but you can’t see the melting of the whole glacier. Similarly, climate change will keep dropping chunks of ice at humanity well after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. Unless we prioritize a diversity of alternatives that put well-being over growth forecasts and profit, ecological breakdown will forever remind us that societal death is just hanging over our shoulders, always ready to scale down the arrogance of human exceptionalism a peg or two…or ten. 

Different, but the same

The ease by which COVID-19 moves through human bodies, and the difficulty of containing it across any human-imposed border is a remarkable case of how humans are dependent on nature, and indeed are part of nature and cannot be separated from it. The study of world ecology for example sees the global and industrial production systems of capitalism as a very specific ecological relationship, without viewing humans as outside of nature. Industrial growth and production systems shape the ecological world and are in turn shaped by new and emerging ecological relations. Industrial production transforms relationships between people and their living and non-living world in ways that resemble a machine. The functioning of every machine requires resources (e.g. land, minerals, fossil fuels) and produces wastes (e.g. a car’s exhaust pipe, pollution, climate change). The consequences of these transformations result in all kinds of effects on life, mostly the loss of species, but also the emergence of new (unwanted) ones like viruses. COVID-19 emerged as a result of industrial production; the very same processes that global economic growth depends so crucially on. The massive-scale wildlife breeding of peacocks, pangolins, civet cats, wild geese, and boar among many others is a $74 billion-dollar industry and has been viewed as a get-rich quick scheme for China’s rural population. The emphasis here is not on the activity of wildlife trading itself (as distasteful as this may be). Rather, it is on capitalism’s relationship to life, which is to convert life into profit in the most efficient way possible, without thinking twice about the consequences, and irrespective of cultural and regional preferences. While out of immediate necessity, the public health focus is on managing the pandemic by flattening the curve of the virus’ propagation to save lives, it is ultimately necessary to understand how this happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. This latter question can be answered by seeing the coronavirus as a product of capitalism’s own making.

As socialist biologist Rob Wallace argues in his book Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science, increasing land-grabs by agribusiness from industrialized countries has pushed deforestation and land conversion into overdrive for faster and cheaper food production. The transformation of vast areas of land into rationalized production factories provides ideal conditions for well-adapted pathogens to thrive. Any argument that claims pathogens and plagues have always existed across history will neutralize the globalized nature of current land degradation and hyper-connectivity, allowing diseases to spread faster and further than ever before.

The transformation of vast areas of land into rationalized production factories provides ideal conditions for well-adapted pathogens to thrive.

The result of this process, combined with access roads and faster harvesting of non-timber forest products, unleashes once contained pathogens into immediate contact with livestock and human communities. The recent outbreaks of Ebola and other coronaviruses such as MERS for instance were triggered by a jump from virus to human communities in disturbed habitats amplified through animal-based food systems, such as primates in the case of Ebola, or camels in the case of MERS.

The economic pressure under capitalism coerces farmers in any country to cut corners, to rush, take risks, and exploit vulnerable people and decimate non-humans. Any safeguard is considered an obstacle to profit. Yet, somehow like magic, with the COVID-19 pandemic, safeguards in the way of protection for health care professionals, grocery store workers, personal protective equipment, and investment in health research that was non-lucrative just 3 months ago, is suddenly a societal priority. That is, for now; once the pandemic ends, rest assured capitalism has no intentions of keeping at bay. Indeed, it will come roaring back in the form of the most punitive structural adjustment the world may see since the 1980s. For example, The World Bank Group has recently stated that structural adjustment reforms will need to be implemented to recover from COVID-19, including requirements for loans being tied to doing away with “excessive regulations, subsidies, licensing regimes, trade protection…to foster markets, choice, and faster growth prospects.” Doubling down on neoliberal policies which encourage the unrestrained abuse of resources at a time of unprecedented inequality and ecological degradation would be a catastrophic prospect in a post-COVID world. In the discipline of our global economy, “time is money” and any divergence to this discipline means lost profits. The suspension of environmental laws and regulations in the USA is already a frightening sign of what returning to “normal” means for the establishment.

The unrelenting pursuits of economic development are also contributing to 2 degrees or more of global warming. This amount of warming is causing Arctic ice to melt at a breakneck pace, leading to the acidification of oceans, to massive die-off of insects, extreme storms, and rising sea levels. Just as economic growth requires resource inputs and generates wastes like greenhouse gas emissions that have unintended impacts to climate-regulating and other life-support systems, so to does industrial-scale wildlife harvesting generate the conditions for novel and virulent viruses to emerge.

Put differently,COVID-19 is both one and the same as any other ecological crisis (such as climate change) because its emergence is rooted in the same mode of production that has generated all other ecological crises and social inequalities of our times. Climate change plays itself out in different countries based on geographic and socio-economic factors. Similarly, COVID-19 will unfold in ways that reflect the age of populations, the capacity to inform people about and test for the virus, and to have invested sufficiently in health care and protective equipment before and during the pandemic. Finally, while climate change has disproportionate impacts on the economically vulnerable, on food providers (largely women), and on people of the global South, the response strategies to COVID-19 similarly weave through relations of class (e.g. those who are not afforded sick leave), gender (women thrust into roles as care-providers), and race (e.g. scapegoating people from China).

A temporal disconnect

So, if COVID-19 and climate change are one and the same, how are they different? A major distinction has to do with how we perceive time and the temporal effects of both.

A recent study raised an important concern of attempting to respond to climate change on a time scale that is convenient to society (e.g. clocks and calendars) but has absolutely no relation to the time scales of changes we are actually witnessing with climate change. The fact that whole ice sheets melting, 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and election years appear in unison as “daily news” stories illustrate the temporal disconnect with how society is responding to the changes occurring in our world. It is thoroughly arrogant to assume climate change, like COVID-19, is going to respond to our schedules.

The temporal disconnect of COVID-19 from society’s regularized temporal rhythms of work and leisure is becoming rapidly obvious, grinding the production of global society to a screeching halt within a matter of one week.

The fast progression and potential evolution of COVID-19 clearly defies all of society’s predictable and linear categories of time. Not only is the incubation period for infection hard to pin down, but so is the lag time between infection and when symptoms show up (if they do). Similarly, lockdowns will only manifest in reductions of cases weeks after they are implemented. This is because biological systems do not obey human-imposed rules. The temporal disconnect of COVID-19 from society’s regularized temporal rhythms of work and leisure is becoming rapidly obvious, grinding the production of global society to a screeching halt within a matter of one week. The same temporal disconnect of climate change impacts and its absolutely devastating consequences has not been similarly appreciated, and the consequences of failing to recognize just how fast impacts can take place is just beginning to be understood. For instance, ecologists have long claimed that ecological systems change in non-linear ways. There are thresholds of methane, insect loss, and permafrost melt that, once crossed, are irreversible.

Instead, society must reflect and react in time to the changes it is experiencing. To this extent, COVID-19 can serve as a lesson showing the interconnectedness of society’s impacts and actions on the planet and the immediacy of response required shift our relationships to the world. The lag time between when social distancing measures are put in place and impacts on the reduction of COVID-19 cases once again shows us that biological systems do not obey human-imposed rules. The rapid responses that some countries like South Korea have made to curb COVID-19 offer direction, but also others like Cuba that have developed an innovative biotech industry driven by public-demand rather than profit.  

In recent days, comparisons have been made between the number of deaths and suffering that climate change is causing in relation to the current suffering from the coronavirus, and that societal response to the virus has much swifter than that of climate change. Such comparisons are not helpful because they view climate change and COVID-19 as somehow juxtaposed to be two separate “things.” What if both are instead interpreted as by-products of industrial production systems, a tightly interconnected globalized world, and the struggle of modern society to effectively respond to crises it is actually living and experiencing? As Jon Schwarz writes here in reference to society’s stock market love affair: “Think about what we could have done to prepare for this moment, if we’d been less mesmerized by little numbers on screens and paid more attention to the reality in front of us.”

The orchestrated response to COVID-19 around the world illustrates the remarkable capacity of society to put the emergency break on “business-as-usual” simply by acting in the moment. Some argue that the fallout of grinding the system to a halt will have deleterious impacts to billions of livelihoods that we can scarcely comprehend at this stage. This is indeed true. But it is also only true if we go on presuming that the sanctity of squeezing profits out of every ounce of the earth and its people is a harmless process that naturally creates wealth for all. With ecological breakdown and social inequality reaching heaving proportions, society has truly arrived at a crossroads. Time and temporality take on a totally different meaning; there is no longer an attempt to make the world accommodate our needs and wants, but we must immediately accommodate to the world. In contrast, achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, carbon offsetting schemes, incremental eco-efficiencies, vegan diets for the wealthy and similar tactics operate by integrating the “irrationalities” of the world into “business-as-usual.” This will never work. The rapid halt of flights around the world might reduce greenhouse gas emission reductions more than the Paris Agreement or any round of climate negotiations ever could! The fact that CO2 emissions have declined so drastically in concert with the reduced flight demand and manufacturing activity in China provides striking evidence of how economic growth is directly responsible for the existential impacts that 2 and 3 degrees of warming would cause to society. 

Yet, despite this clear contradiction, powerful and irresponsible actors are still normalizing COVID-19 through a “keep calm, wash your hands, and get back to work” rhetoric. Indeed, as one market pundit claimed, the loss of stock values is more terrifying than millions of deaths and that maybe “we” would be better off just giving the virus to everybody. It is also important to note that self-isolation and “working from home” are recommended for some, while for billions of workers around the world, simply stocking-up and self-isolating are not options. Millions of migrant workers in India are at risk of starvation due to a 21-day lockdown that has provided no groundwork to account for the precarity of the country’s population.

A window of opportunity for a different kind of world?

Could response strategies to suppress COVID-19 be the impetus to actually respond to climate change, rather than as stop-gap measures to get back to “business-as-usual” as quickly as possible? The answer remains to be seen, but some measures have already been proposed that have been otherwise considered at worst anathema to capitalism, including the nationalization of private enterprise in France and a universal monthly income in the US. As some have argued, COVID-19 presents society with an opportunity to actually respond to climate change through “planned degrowth” that prioritizes the well-being of people over profit margins. This might occur by getting accustomed to lifestyles and work patterns that prioritize slowing down, commuting less, shorter work weeks, abolishing rents, income redistribution from the richest to the poorest, prioritizing workers health (especially for low-wage migrant workers who are substantially more vulnerable in the face of an economic downturn), and relying on more localized supply chains. Yet, the global slowdown caused by COVID-19 is not degrowth; it does not reflect the ethical and political commitment to development predicated on prioritizing well-being over profit. We need a just climate transition that ensures the protection of the poor and most vulnerable and which is integrated into our pandemic response. As warming temperatures continue to melt permafrost at alarming rates, the possibility for even more severe pandemics emerging from the melting ice is a very real risk. Acting on climate change is therefore itself a vital pandemic response.

It can also be facilitated by solidarity networks to support (especially elderly) neighbours in meeting their needs; a genuine “Love in the Time of Coronavirus” moment so to speak. Such groups have already spontaneously emerged in cities around the world, from Seattle, to Montreal, from Wuhan, to Gothenburg and London. In addition to this groundswell of support, now is the time to be bold and demand that our governments serve the interests of people and planetary survival. In our current capitalism-induced ecological and public health crises, this means freezing debt payments to the poorest and ensuring accessible and affordable health care for starters and not letting our governments bail out corporations , while letting everyone else fend for themselves. We’ve heard of “crony capitalism,” well now “corona capitalism” has become a thing. Obviously, the conditions surrounding COVID-19 are not ideal for the just climate transition that is so badly needed, but the rapid and urgent actions in response to the virus and the inspiring examples of mutual aid also illustrate that society is more than capable of acting collectively in time to what it is experiencing.

This piece is a long-form version of a piece that originally appeared in Al Jazeera.
Vijay Kolinjivadi is a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp and a contributing editor of Uneven Earth.

Exploring transformative change on the brink

Image by Stefan Christoff

by Stefan Christoff

Exploring ways for activists to engage on the ground during a global pandemic is extremely challenging.

Clearly there isn’t a quick and fast outline of how activists must respond to this unprecedented situation of social and economic upheaval caused by the most significant global pandemic since the 1918 Spanish influenza.

Ameal Peña, considered to the the last living Spanish survivor of the Spanish flu of 1918, recently was interviewed in El Mundo, saying, “be careful (…) I don’t want to see the same thing repeated. It claimed so many lives.”

Highlighting the term careful is important here: we can view the response of the state to this pandemic with care, we can be careful to see the gaps and address the ways that the state response is lacking. Careful in this context also means taking care and directly engaging with the crisis on a community based level in a safe way.

In Montreal, there have been a series of efforts to coordinate mutual aid networks around the city—organizing that has largely happened neighbourhood by neighbourhood, but also with coordination across the city landscape.

One focus has been building support for a #RentStrike on April 1st, coming up in just a couple days. As wallets are hit by the virus and related shut downs, an essential and direct action response is clearly mass collective action to refuse paying rent this upcoming month, allowing those resources to instead support survival and necessities. cancelrent.ca has been set up to build momentum and coordinate this.

Online, people have come together to address many urgent needs, including coordinating safe grocery deliveries for vulnerable populations in isolation, childcare offers, the general sharing of resources—all moves to explore ways to build solidarity within the context of incomes burnt by the pandemic.

Often, in a crisis, major media narratives are quick to switch to dominant social discourse in many areas, prioritizing the role and centrality of the state response. Clearly, without question, the state response is critical at this time, particularly the role of public institutions, including transit, but also clearly the public health care system is central.

In this moment, I feel it is important to support and celebrate public institutions, first for the brave public sector workers, doctors, nurses, cleaners, cooks and administrators that keep the hospitals going, but also to remember clearly that the public healthcare system emerged from social movement struggle.

Public healthcare in Canada didn’t miraculously occur due to a series of good will gestures by the Canadian government, it was born out of decades of largely working class struggle, including mass protests, first launched in Saskatchewan and then implemented nationally after a sustained social movement for a system of socialized medicine.

This example outlines exactly why critiques of state policy and also independent community organizing responses to a crisis are key. Firstly, due to the fact that the state simply doesn’t have the full capacity to address the extent of the pandemic in my city, Montreal, or others right now, which is why mutual aid networks are coming together in response to the situation. Secondly, because the landscape of possibility shifts in such moments, this is not a cynical argument for exploiting a crisis to push radical ideas, as we see in the framework of disaster capitalism, this point is simply to recognize that a moment like this underscores the deep failures of the contemporary global colonial capitalist model that has played an central role to get us to this point of under-prepared disaster.

Key to this model is, simply put, an economic vision that views the planet as a body for exploitation and the natural world as simply a system that needs to be compartmentalized and defined within free market terms that seek to place economic value on the Earth.

In this ideological framework, propelled by the Wall Street stock market vision, the earth isn’t a living being to be respected, but a fantasy land to be exploited for profit. The health of the earth, ecosystems and by extension human beings can’t fit into this vision.

The logic of the market is in a clash with the framework of science, which today tells us in stark scientific facts two critical things, first that climate change is real and that a significant change to our systems of energy use and economic is urgent and necessary, but second that the response to this pandemic needs time and that a true recovery can only happen when the work of true social distancing has happened, which in turn equals basically shutting down the global hyper speed economy.

In regards to science and listening to science, I share the words of astrophysicist Carlo Rovelli, who wrote in the concluding chapter of Reality Is Not What It Seems, “science is born from this act of humility: not trusting blindly in our past knowledge and our intuition. Not believing in what everyone says. Not having absolute faith in the accumulated knowledge of our fathers and grandfathers.”

Part of embracing this ever important role of autonomy and thinking critically about the institutional discourses of power, is embodied right now in the work of social movement activists, struggling to address direct needs, but also to point out the ways that neighbourhood organizing in this pandemic speaks to larger social movement critiques on the colonial economic system that have brought us to the brink.

Stefan Christoff is a musician, community activist and media maker living in Montreal, you can find Stefan @spirodon

Pandemic strike

It’s been two weeks since Rob Wallace conducted an interview on the underlying causes of the coronavirus that has since been read hundreds of thousands of times. Since then, also, the world has changed. As Wallace puts it, “What I noticed only after hitting the send button is that two weeks after the original interview, my answers here are taking a sharper tone. While before I addressed the outbreak with appropriately radical structural analysis, now, as the pandemic approaches, I’m beginning to feel the pinch of a gap in radical tactics.”

When translating his piece for Italian audiences, Luca de Crescenzo asked Wallace two more questions to account for the gap in time since the interview was first conducted. Here is their exchange, posted with permission.

I would like you to add a comment about the recent proposal of the UK authorities not to take drastic measures to contain the virus and to bet on the development of the herd immunity instead. You wrote: “this is a failure that pretends to be a solution.” Can you explain that?

The Tories are asserting joining the U.S. in effectively denying health care is the best active cure. The government is looking at parlaying its late response into letting Covid-19 work through the population to produce the herd immunity it says will protect the most vulnerable.

This is the utter opposite of “do no harm”, as the doctor’s oath goes. This is let’s do maximum damage.

This is the utter opposite of “do no harm”, as the doctor’s oath goes. This is let’s do maximum damage.

Herd immunity is treated in epidemiological circles as at best a dirty collateral benefit of an outbreak. Enough people carry antibodies from the last outbreak to keep the susceptible population low enough that no new infection could support itself, protecting even those who haven’t been previously exposed. It’s often no more than a passing effect, however, if the pathogen in question evolves out from underneath the population blanket.

We do better in inducing such immunity by campaigns in vaccination. Typically such an effect requires a wide majority of people vaccinated to work. Which, outside market failures in producing vaccines, is routinely no problem as nearly no one dies from them.

Given the trail of dead of a deadly pandemic, no public health system would actively seek out such a post-hoc epiphenomenon as an instrumental objective. No government charged with protecting a population’s very lives would allow such a pathogen to run unimpeded–whatever handwaving is made about “delaying” spread as if a government already a step behind in responding can exercise such magical control. A campaign of active neglect would kill hundreds of thousands of the very vulnerable the Tories claim they wish to protect.

Destroying the village to save it is the core premise of a State of the most virulent class character. It’s the sign of an exhausted empire.

But destroying the village to save it is the core premise of a State of the most virulent class character. It’s the sign of an exhausted empire that, unable to follow China and other countries in putting up a fight, pretends, as I wrote, that its failures are exactly the solution.

In Italy despite the quarantine and apart from the few who are working from home, a lot of workers still go to work everyday. Many shops are closed but most of the factories are open, even those which don’t produce necessary goods. Recently, the trade unions and the federation of the Italian employers have reached an agreement about safe and security measures at the workplace, which gives to the companies only “recommendations” about distance, cleanness, use of masks, without much specification. There are strong reasons to believe they will not be respected. What’s your take on that? Is workers’ strength an epidemiological variable?

Working people are treated as cannon fodder. Not only on the battlefield, but back home. Here you have a virus ripping through the Italian population at a rate that exceeds that of the pace it went through China, and capital is pretending it is business–their business–as usual. Negotiating a detente that permits this work to continue without biolab-level precautions is destructive to both workers’ standing–you’re signaling you’ll eat any bowl of shit they serve up–and to the very health of the nation.

If not for your unions’ very legitimacy, then for your very lives, and those of your most vulnerable co-workers and community members–shut those factories down! Italy’s spike in cases is so dizzying that self-quarantine and negotiated working conditions won’t be enough to quash the outbreak. Covid-19 is too infectious and under a medical gridlock too deadly for half-measures. Italy is being invaded by a virus that is kicking the country’s ass, with street fighting door-to-door and home-to-home.

What I’m getting at is that Italy needs to snap the fuck out of it already!

Yes, workers routinely hold up the sky during dark and dangerous days, including during a deadly outbreak. But if the work isn’t a matter of the day-to-day operations required during communal quarantine, shut it down. As in countries around the world, the government must then be held responsible for covering the salaries of the workers who have walked off the job in service of the nation’s public health.

If the work isn’t a matter of the day-to-day operations required during communal quarantine, shut it down.

It’s not my call, and my own country is totally botching its response to the pandemic, but should capital resist such efforts to protect the lives of millions, then working Italians, as working people elsewhere, should consider tapping into their proud history of labor militancy and find a means by which to wrestle operative command from the greedy and incompetent. If factories producing non-essential goods are still running, that means management and the moneybags behind them don’t give a fuck about you. Even now the chief financial officer upstairs is proving himself more than happy to fold in dead workers into the costs of production if he can get away with it.

It wouldn’t be the first time the people of the region pushed back during an outbreak. Historian Sheldon Watts noted one unexpected reversal in early disaster capitalism:

“In their rush to save themselves [from plague] by flight, Florentine magistrates worried that the common people left behind would seize control of the city; the fear was perhaps justified. In the summer of 1378 when factional disputes temporarily immobilized the Florentine elite, rebellious woolworkers won control of the government and remained in power for several months.”

Several months today might save many thousands of lives. With many countries ten days out from finding themselves in Italy’s predicament, working Italians can offer an example for the rest of the world that everyday people’s lives matter more than somebody else’s profit.

Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer. He is author of Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science and, most recently, co-author of Clear-Cutting Disease Control: Capital-Led Deforestation, Public Health Austerity, and Vector-Borne Infection

Where did coronavirus come from, and where will it take us?

Source: John Hopkins

In 2013, Rob Wallace, a professional epidemiologist and expert on big agriculture wrote, with some defeatism, “I expect it will be a long time before I address an outbreak of human influenza again other than in passing.” It wasn’t that he didn’t think it was serious, or that he thought nothing bad would happen soon. On the contrary, he was just exhausted by the certainty that something obviously would happen. He continued, “While an understandable visceral reaction, getting worried at this point in the process is a bit ass-backwards. The bug, whatever its point of origin, has long left the barn, quite literally.”

Those studying infectious disease have long said that it’s not a matter of if, but when will a big virus hit us. From swine flu to SARS, every five years or so we’re sitting on the edge of our seats, wondering: is this the big one?

By all measures, Covid-19 is already a big one. Upgraded to pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, it has infected at least 127,000 people (but likely many, many more), killed almost 5,000, and is present on all continents but Antarctica. The bug seems to have left the barn.

Beginning 2020, when reports of a new virus were emerging from Wuhan, China, Rob Wallace has been in overdrive. His prediction that it will be a long time before he gets embroiled in the debate again obviously didn’t hold up. Since then, friends and acquaintances have been coming to him for advice, proposals, reflections, and interviews. His posts on the subject have been shared widely. At this point, who else should we listen to but a progressive, activist scholar, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu (Monthly Review Press, 2016) who has been studying this issue closely for decades?

Accordingly, we are here republishing a crucial interview with Rob Wallace by Yaak Pabst for the German socialist magazine marx21, with permission from the magazine.

In the interview, Wallace, with his usual incisiveness and expansive knowledge, talks about the dangers of Covid-19, the role of agribusiness in the crisis, the importance of mending humanity’s broken relationship to ecosystems in order to get to the roots of the crisis, and what kind of demands people can, and should, make of their governments. Read a follow-up to this interview here.

How dangerous is the new coronavirus?

It depends on where you are in the timing of your local outbreak of Covid-19: early, peak level, late? How good is your region’s public health response? What are your demographics? How old are you? Are you immunologically compromised? What is your underlying health? To ask an undiagnosable possibility: do your immuogenetics, the genetics underlying your immune response, line up with the virus or not?

So all this fuss about the virus is just scare tactics?

No, certainly not. At the population level, Covid-19 was clocking in at between 2 and 4% case fatality ratio or CFR at the start of the outbreak in Wuhan. Outside Wuhan, the CFR appears to drop off to more like 1% and even less, but also appears to spike in spots here and there, including in places in Italy and the United States.. Its range doesn’t seem much in comparison to, say, SARS at 10%, the influenza of 1918 5-20%, avian influenza H5N1 60%, or at some points Ebola 90%. But it certainly exceeds seasonal influenza’s 0.1% CFR. The danger isn’t just a matter of the death rate, however. We have to grapple with what’s called penetrance or community attack rate: how much of the global population is penetrated by the outbreak.

Can you be more specific?

The global travel network is at record connectivity. With no vaccines or specific antivirals for coronaviruses, nor at this point any herd immunity to the virus, even a strain at only 1% mortality can present a considerable danger. With an incubation period of up to two weeks and increasing evidence of some transmission before sickness–before we know people are infected–few places would likely be free of infection. If, say, Covid-19 registers 1% fatality in the course of infecting 4 billion people, that’s 40 million dead. A small proportion of a large number can still be a large number.

These are frightening numbers for an ostensibly less than virulent pathogen…

Definitely. And we are only at the beginning of the outbreak. It’s important to understand that many new infections change over the course of epidemics. Infectivity, virulence, or both may attenuate. On the other hand, other outbreaks ramp up in virulence. The first wave of the influenza pandemic in the spring of 1918 was a relatively mild infection. It was the second and third waves that winter and into 1919 that killed millions.

But pandemic skeptics argue that far fewer patients have been infected and killed by the coronavirus than by the typical seasonal flu. What do you think about that?

I would be the first to celebrate if this outbreak proves a dud. But these efforts to dismiss Covid-19 as a possible danger by citing other deadly diseases, especially influenza, is a rhetorical device to spin concern about the coronavirus as badly placed.

So the comparison with seasonal flu is misplaced?

It makes little sense to compare two pathogens on different parts of their epicurves. Yes, seasonal influenza infects many millions worldwide each other, killing, by WHO estimates, up to 650,000 people a year. Covid-19, however, is only starting its epidemiological journey. And unlike influenza, we have neither vaccine, nor herd immunity to slow infection and protect the most vulnerable populations.

Even if the comparison is misleading, both diseases belong to viruses, even to a specific group, the RNA viruses. Both can cause disease. Both affect the mouth and throat area and sometimes also the lungs. Both are quite contagious.

Those are superficial similarities that miss a critical part in comparing two pathogens. We know a lot about influenza’s dynamics. We know very little about Covid-19’s. They’re steeped in unknowns. Indeed, there is much about Covid-19 that is even unknowable until the outbreak plays out fully. At the same time, it is important to understand that it isn’t a matter of Covid-19 versus influenza. It’s Covid-19 and influenza. The emergence of multiple infections capable of going pandemic, attacking populations in combos, should be the front and center worry.

You have been researching epidemics and their causes for several years. In your book Big Farms Make Big Flu you attempt to draw these connections between industrial farming practices, organic farming and viral epidemiology. What are your insights?

The real danger of each new outbreak is the failure or—better put—the expedient refusal to grasp that each new Covid-19 is no isolated incident. The increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations. Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. At present, few governments, and few scientists, are prepared to do so. Quite the contrary.

Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. At present, few governments, and few scientists, are prepared to do so.

When the new outbreaks spring up, governments, the media, and even most of the medical establishment are so focused on each separate emergency that they dismiss the structural causes that are driving multiple marginalized pathogens into sudden global celebrity, one after the other.

Who is to blame?

I said industrial agriculture, but there’s a larger scope to it. Capital is spearheading land grabs into the last of primary forest and smallholder-held farmland worldwide. These investments drive the deforestation and development leading to disease emergence. The functional diversity and complexity these huge tracts of land represent are being streamlined in such a way that previously boxed-in pathogens are spilling over into local livestock and human communities. In short, capital centers, places such as London, New York, and Hong Kong, should be considered our primary disease hotspots.

For which diseases is this the case?

There are no capital-free pathogens at this point. Even the most remote are affected, if distally. Ebola, Zika, the coronaviruses, yellow fever again, a variety of avian influenzas, and African swine fever in hog are among the many pathogens making their way out of the most remote hinterlands into peri-urban loops, regional capitals, and ultimately onto the global travel network. From fruit bats in the Congo to killing Miami sunbathers in a few weeks‘ time.

What is the role of multinational companies in this process?

Planet Earth is largely Planet Farm at this point, in both biomass and land used. Agribusiness is aiming to corner the food market. The near-entirety of the neoliberal project is organized around supporting efforts by companies based in the more advanced industrialised countries to steal the land and resources of weaker countries. As a result, many of those new pathogens previously held in check by long-evolved forest ecologies are being sprung free, threatening the whole world.

What effects do the production methods of agribusinesses have on this?

The capital-led agriculture that replaces more natural ecologies offers the exact means by which pathogens can evolve the most virulent and infectious phenotypes. You couldn’t design a better system to breed deadly diseases.

Agribusiness is so focused on profits that selecting for a virus that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk.

How so?

Growing genetic monocultures of domestic animals removes whatever immune firebreaks may be available to slow down transmission. Larger population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission. Such crowded conditions depress immune response. High throughput, a part of any industrial production, provides a continually renewed supply of susceptibles, the fuel for the evolution of virulence. In other words, agribusiness is so focused on profits that selecting for a virus that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk.

What!?

These companies can just externalize the costs of their epidemiologically dangerous operations on everyone else. From the animals themselves to consumers, farmworkers, local environments, and governments across jurisdictions. The damages are so extensive that if we were to return those costs onto company balance sheets, agribusiness as we know it would be ended forever. No company could support the costs of the damage it imposes.

In many media it is claimed that the starting point of the coronavirus was an “exotic food market”« in Wuhan. Is this description true?

Yes and no. There are spatial clues in favor of the notion. Contact tracing linked infections back to the Hunan Wholesale Sea Food Market in Wuhan, where wild animals were sold. Environmental sampling does appear to pinpoint the west end of the market where wild animals were held.

The focus on the wild food market misses the origins of wild agriculture out in the hinterlands and its increasing capitalization.

But how far back and how widely should we investigate? When exactly did the emergency really begin? The focus on the market misses the origins of wild agriculture out in the hinterlands and its increasing capitalization. Globally, and in China, wild food is becoming more formalized as an economic sector. But its relationship with industrial agriculture extends beyond merely sharing the same moneybags. As industrial production–hog, poultry, and the like–expand into primary forest, it places pressure on wild food operators to dredge further into the forest for source populations, increasing the interface with, and spillover of, new pathogens, including Covid-19.

Covid-19 is not the first virus to develop in China that the government tried to cover it up.

Yes, but this is no Chinese exceptionalism, however. The U.S. and Europe have served as ground zeros for new influenzas as well, recently H5N2 and H5Nx, and their multinationals and neocolonial proxies drove the emergence of Ebola in West Africa and Zika in Brazil. U.S. public health officials covered for agribusiness during the H1N1 (2009) and H5N2 outbreaks.

This is no Chinese exceptionalism. The U.S. and Europe have served as ground zeros for new influenzas as well, recently H5N2 and H5Nx, and their multinationals and neocolonial proxies drove the emergence of Ebola in West Africa and Zika in Brazil.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has now declared a pandemic. Is this step correct?

Yes. The danger of such a pathogen is that health authorities do not have a handle on the statistical risk distribution. We have no idea how the pathogen may respond. We went from an outbreak in a market to infections splattered across the world in a matter of weeks. The pathogen could just burn out. That would be great. But we don’t know. Better preparation would better the odds of undercutting the pathogen’s escape velocity.

The WHO’s declaration is also part of what I call pandemic theater. International organizations have died in the face of inaction. The League of Nations comes to mind. The UN group of organizations is always worried about its relevance, power, and funding. But such actionism can also converge on the actual preparation and prevention the world needs to disrupt Covid-19’s chains of transmission.

The neoliberal restructuring of the health care system has worsened both the research and the general care of patients, for example in hospitals. What difference could a better funded healthcare system make to fight the virus?

There’s the terrible but telling story of the Miami medical device company employee who upon returning from China with flu-like symptoms did the righteous thing by his family and community and demanded a local hospital test him for Covid-19. He worried that his minimal Obamacare option wouldn’t cover the tests. He was right. He was suddenly on the hook for US$3270.

An American demand might be an emergency order be passed that stipulates that during a pandemic outbreak, all outstanding medical bills related to testing for infection and for treatment following a positive test would be paid for by the federal government. We want to encourage people to seek help, after all, rather than hide away—and infect others—because they can’t afford treatment. The obvious solution is a national health service—fully staffed and equipped to handle such community-wide emergencies—so that such a ridiculous problem as discouraging community cooperation would never arise.

As soon as the virus is discovered in one country, governments everywhere react with authoritarian and punitive measures, such as a compulsory quarantine of entire areas of land and cities. Are such drastic measures justified?

Using an outbreak to beta-test the latest in autocratic control post-outbreak is disaster capitalism gone off the rails. In terms of public health, I would err on the side of trust and compassion, which are important epidemiological variables. Without either, jurisdictions lose their populations‘ support.

A sense of solidarity and common respect is a critical part of eliciting the cooperation we need to survive such threats together. Self-quarantines with the proper support–check-ins by trained neighborhood brigades, food supply trucks going door-to-door, work release and unemployment insurance–can elicit that kind of cooperation, that we are all in this together.

Conservatives and neo-Nazis like the AfD in Germany have been spreading (false) reports about the virus and demand more authoritarian measures from the government: Restrict flights and entry stops for migrants, border closures and forced quarantine…

Travel bans and border closures are demands with which the radical right wants to racialize what are now global diseases. This is, of course, nonsense. At this point, given the virus is already on its way to spreading everywhere, the sensible thing to do is to work on developing the kind of public health resilience in which it doesn’t matter who shows up with an infection, we have the means to treat and cure them. Of course, stop stealing people’s land abroad and driving the exoduses in the first place, and we can keep the pathogens from emerging in the first place.

Travel bans and border closures are demands with which the radical right wants to racialize what are now global diseases. This is, of course, nonsense.

What would be sustainable changes?

In order to reduce the emergence of new virus outbreaks, food production has to change radically. Farmer autonomy and a strong public sector can curb environmental ratchets and runaway infections. Introduce varieties of stock and crops—and strategic rewilding—at both the farm and regional levels. Permit food animals to reproduce on-site to pass on tested immunities. Connect just production with just circulation. Subsidize price supports and consumer purchasing programs supporting agroecological production. Defend these experiments from both the compulsions that neoliberal economics impose upon individuals and communities alike and the threat of capital-led State repression.

What should socialists call for in the face of the increasing dynamics of disease outbreaks?

Agribusiness as a mode of social reproduction must be ended for good if only as a matter of public health. Highly capitalized production of food depends on practices that endanger the entirety of humanity, in this case helping unleash a new deadly pandemic.

Agribusiness as a mode of social reproduction must be ended for good if only as a matter of public health. We must heal the metabolic rifts separating our ecologies from our economies. In short, we have a planet to win.

We should demand food systems be socialized in such a way that pathogens this dangerous are kept from emerging in the first place. That will require reintegrating food production into the needs of rural communities first. That will require agroecological practices that protect the environment and farmers as they grow our food. Big picture, we must heal the metabolic rifts separating our ecologies from our economies. In short, we have a planet to win.

See a follow-up to this interview here

A version of this interview originally appeared on marx21. Permission to republish granted by the author.

Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer. He is author of Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science and, most recently, co-author of Clear-Cutting Disease Control: Capital-Led Deforestation, Public Health Austerity, and Vector-Borne Infection

The only thing to last forever

Art by Sam Lubicz for Uneven Earth

by Joël Foramitti

The world had stopped changing, and yet it continued to move. It kept floating and spinning, circling the sun, cooling and heating as seasons passed by. Life flourished upon it, and people did, too. They created, destroyed, loved, and forgot — caught up in desire and lost in their fears. Though an endless repetition had taken hold of this world. There was, in a sense, no uncertainty left, nothing to dance with beneath the long rain. Except in the minds of those truly alive.

Amid the far-reaching fields and their colorful plants, there was a mighty machine. From its back hung a plough, heavy and wide, digging through the soil without hurry. Inside it, comfortably seated, there was an old farmer, dressed in long sheets of linen, and lost in her thoughts. As they were running along, the tractor added a quiet hum into the evening’s soft noises and filled its surroundings with an ambient light.

The farmer’s name was Nara. She had always been the one to take care of these fields. Her friends had fled from the droughts, her family had died from the rains, and her thoughts had dulled from the silence of their absence. But her work had remained. The fields were all that was left, and her life was tied to them like a tree to the ground. And over the decades, again and again, life had flourished through her hands in new colors and forms.

Nara was about to turn in for the day. She had ploughed the whole sector, which was now standing out like a brown patch on a colorful tapestry. Slowly, the tractor came to a stop. She got off and stroked its blue hull, praising it for being such a sturdy companion. Tomorrow she’d sow. A joyful pride filled her body when she looked over the fields, and so she kneeled down and touched the soil with her cheeks to thank it.

The farmer then left her machine and started to roam through the fields without aim. It was a beautiful night. The sky was painted in heavy strokes of ruby and blue with a few thin white lines stretched across the horizon. A slight breeze was blowing through Nara’s hair and the plants bent back and forth in a gentle rhythm. After some time, her thoughts started to fade into a comfortable trance until she was just listening to the sound of her feet.

Beyond the fields, one could see the distant towers glimmering in the falling darkness. To Nara, they were a reminder that the world was finally in good hands. She appreciated that such matters were far away and out of her reach. But when she was walking through the fields on that night, she made out something unusual that woke an old rusty feeling of excitement from deep within her heart. There was a person in the fields, first barely visible from afar, then increasingly clearer, running towards her and waving their hands.

It took a few minutes until the stranger came into Nara’s reach. It was a woman, dressed in a long cyan dress with two sturdy boots sticking out beneath. Much smaller than the old farmer, with a fair and spotless face and hair so short that it was barely visible. For a second, the woman looked at Nara with curious eyes before she dropped to the ground in exhaustion. Her body rose and fell with heavy breaths and it took a few minutes for her to come back to her feet. Then, in a tone that was careful but clearly excited, she started to speak:

“Are you from around here?”

Nara nodded slowly and muttered her name. She had not talked to anyone in a very long time, so her voice was brittle and rough.

“I take care of these fields.”

The strange woman looked around and praised the farmer on the beauty of her garden.

“My name is Yhi”, she added after a few seconds, “and I take care of people.”

This created some immediate sympathy in Nara, and they shook hands. After that, she asked the strange woman what had brought her all the way to her fields.

“I am searching for something”, she explained, “Something that is both old and new, that never breaks. Something always remains. Do you know what I mean?”

Instinctively, Nara looked back to her tractor, still visible as a slight blue glimmer on the horizon behind them. Following the farmers gaze, Yhi expressed in excitement:

“Of course! And you never had any trouble with it?”

“Not really, it’s been serving me well.”

The mysterious woman asked if she could see it up close. As there was no objection, they began to walk back to the plough. On the way, she started to ask about the old farmer’s life. About her town, her family, her past, her dreams, and so on. But Nara had little to say. So the stranger surrendered at some point and started to talk about herself instead. Nara learned that she was an artist. When she asked her how that takes care of people, Yhi started to laugh.

“Maybe it is more about taking care of myself. And what I want is just for others to discover the same. Think about it, when was the last time you saw someone dancing?”

Nara shook her head, and the woman explained to her that there were many such things that people had forgotten. But there were exceptions to every rule. And she would find it and spread it like a disease in order to return some uncertainty to the world. Nara stopped for a second at this remark, wondering what that woman had in plan for her tractor. But before she could say anything, Yhi had already figured out what was on her mind.

“Bah, this could be the most interesting thing to ever happen to you! Think about it!”

Her voice was raised, and Nara got the feeling that she was rather talking about her own life. After that, they continued to walk in silence for the rest of the way until they finally arrived at the freshly ploughed field, softly illuminated by the ambient light of the tractor. With Nara’s skeptical look fixed upon her, Yhi started to walk around the machine in amazement. How curious it was for the farmer not to know what would happen next. And how anxious it made her at the same time. It reminded her of the past.

Somewhere at the front of the machine, Yhi stopped her inspection and lifted a hood. Nara came closer and saw hundreds of pipes that went around and connected to each other without any clear system behind it. In the middle sat a white little box, as big as a fist, so seamless and perfectly formed that the old farmer was not sure whether she was seeing an actual object. There was an obvious connection between that box and the mysterious woman. They were like two pieces of a different world, lost out here in the wilderness.

After some careful investigation, Yhi removed the box from its slot and the humming noise of the tractor died down. They then sat down and opened the box. Nara held her breath and could hear the air fill the empty space within the object. There was nothing inside it, it was as empty as something can be. Just as seamless and perfect on the inside as it was on the outside.

Yhi looked devastated. All the strength and fire inside her had suddenly disappeared.

“I thought there would be something”, she muttered with tears in her eyes.

The old farmer wanted to console her new friend but still had little to say. So she offered her a hand. Yhi got up to her feet and they looked at each other for a while. Then, slowly, they started to turn in circles. Step by Step. One breath at a time. They continued for a long time, never going faster or slower, drawing circles into the freshly ploughed soil as the ambient light of the tractor slowly faded away and left them alone in the void of darkness.

When they came to a stop, Nara realized that the faraway towers, as well, had lost their light. Everything had become dark and silent. But something unavoidable was on its way. At first it was only a soft noise in the distance. As time passed, it became louder and uncomfortable. And then, suddenly, a glaring light was aimed on them from the sky.

Yhi began to tremble.

“We have to put it back”, she said faintly with almost no air in her voice.

The box was where they had left it on the ground, reflecting the light like a diamond. In rapid movements, Yhi jumped towards it, closed it again, and put it back into the tractor. Then she started to run. Her cyan clothes fluttered wildly, and the dirt started to swirl up from the ground as the helicopter started to follow behind her.

Nara, in the meantime, was completely paralyzed. She had grown too old for this and didn’t know what to do or how to react. Suddenly, a loud noise ripped through the air and she saw her new friend stumble and fall to the ground. But Yhi raised her body again and slowly turned towards Nara with a bitter smile on her face. Looking genuinely relieved but also clearly in pain, she shouted towards the farmer:

“Wasn’t that quite an irregular day?”

The old farmer stood there and looked as Yhi dropped back to the ground. And then, just as fast as the trouble had come, it went away again. The helicopter landed right next to Yhi’s body and a group of tall men appeared. They moved the body inside and, without sparing a second, the helicopter rose up again and disappeared into the darkness.

After a long time, the ambient lights and familiar humming of the tractor returned and reminded Nara of the present. When she started to move again, there were little feelings left in her heart, and no trace to remind her of what had happened. She told herself that the story would have ended this way with or without her. That this stranger had died because that was what she had set out to do in the first place. That death had been the only real change this person had possessed the freedom to bring about.

And so, there was nothing left to do for the old farmer but to keep doing her work as she had always done. In the days to follow, she started to plant new seeds on the field. And over time, the usual serenity slowly returned to her old mind. Only every once in a while, when the gleaming towers in the distance caught her eyes, she thought that she saw a shadow moving through the fields. But it would fade away every time, never to reach her again.

Thank you to Marlene Wagner and Aaron Vansintjan for helping out with this story.

Joël Foramitti is a researcher and activist from Barcelona and Vienna.

February readings

Left to right: Dinï ze’ Knedebeas, Warner William, Dinï ze’ Hagwilnegh, Ron Mitchell, Dinï ze’ Woos, Frank Alec, Dinï ze’ Madeek, Jeff Brown, Dinï ze’ Gisday’wa, Fred Tom. In back is Dinï ze’ Ste ohn tsiy, Rob Alfred. Wet’suwet’en territory near Houston, B.C. on Saturday, January 4, 2020. Amber Bracken (Source: macleans.ca)


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 February, we’ve collected–once again–articles that go beyond the front-page analysis of Covid-19, otherwise known as the ‘coronavirus’. Some excellent and useful pieces in there, including an intervention by Chuang, a radical Chinese journal. You might have also seen that Indigenous warriors in Wet’suwet’en were being forcibly removed from their land by Canadian armed forces–leading to blockades of key infrastructure by other Indigenous nations in solidarity with them. We’ve collected all kinds of pieces on the issue, including basic explainers, maps, background about Indigenous struggles in Canada, and deeper dives. We’re also featuring pieces on transportation and mobility, underlined by the growing call for free public transit around the world. Finally, this month, we’re highlighting rural struggles and politics



Uneven Earth updates

Remembering | Link | “I remember rent being low. But water was expensive. A lot of electricity went into the desalination plants.” 

A post-growth Green New Deal | Link | To decarbonize we must degrow, decommodify, and democratize the economy

A Wood Wide Web Story: an Apple Tree in Daegu | Link | “The surrogate mothers could only be married to the earth.” 

Who owns the Green New Deal? | Link | Making sense of remote ownership problems and place-based governance 



Top 5 articles to read

Centuries of fire: Rebel memory and Andean utopias in Bolivia

Staring at hell: The aesthetics of architecture in a ruined world

Water is life: Nick Estes on Indigenous technologies

Mapping the end of the world

Breaking development. Our concept of “development” is destructive and irrational.



News you might’ve missed

Planned fossil fuel production rise locks in dangerous levels of warming

‘History disappears’ as dam waters flood ancient Turkish town

Heathrow third runway ruled illegal over climate change

Renewable energy could power the world by 2050

Sweden’s indigenous groups report death threats after landmark court win and Reindeer tortured after threats towards Sámi community in northern Sweden (see this on the court case about land rights)

How Hindu supremacists are tearing India apart

A cobalt crisis could put the brakes on electric car sales

Fates of humans and insects intertwined, warn scientists

Is this the end of Rojava? Also: Rojava after Rojava

Agribusiness company with financial support from UK, US and Netherlands is dispossessing thousands

The quiet start of Brazil’s war on the Amazon

Europeans now have the right to repair – and that means the rest of us probably will too

Armed ecoguards funded by WWF ‘beat up Congo tribespeople’

Speeding sea level rise threatens nuclear plants



Everything you need to know about Wet’suwet’en actions

Explainers

Map of Wet’suwet’en solidarity actions

Country erupts into Wet’suwet’en solidarity demonstrations: A week in pictures

The Wet’suwet’en protest and the coastal GasLink pipeline

‘What cost are human rights worth?’ UN calls for immediate RCMP withdrawal in Wet’suwet’en standoff

In Kanesatake, women are the face of Mohawk resistance

Indigenous resistance shakes the Canadian state

Rail blockades are proving to be an effective non-violent response to state violence

GasLink, the Wet’suwet’en people and Canada’s ongoing colonialism

Background

Wet’suwet’en protests a revolutionary moment in Canada: Mohawk scholar Gerald Taiaiake Alfred

Beyond bloodlines: How the Wet’suwet’en hereditary system at the heart of the Coastal GasLink conflict works

Indigenous-led CN rail blockades could cost ‘billions’ and that’s the point: Pro-Wet’suwet’en organizers

The Wet’suwet’en are more united than pipeline backers want you to think

What does “land back” mean? A thread from âpihtawikosisân on Twitter.

Dive deeper

Being with the land, protects the land

Canada’s battle against First Nations shows slide toward authoritarianism

Here’s some resources on Indigenous rights in the context of Wet’suwet’en solidarity

‘Reconciliation is dead and it was never really alive’

Yellowhead Institute’s Land Back report delivers devastating critique of land dispossession in Canada

Wet’suwet’en: Why are Indigenous rights being defined by an energy corporation?

A short introduction to the Two Row Wampu

The ideology of reconciliation



Coronavirus

Preparing for coronavirus to strike the U.S.

Coronavirus + capitalism = sad face. Why the American capitalist system will make the coming coronavirus pandemic worse.

Social contagion: The production of plagues

Race, epidemics, and the viral economy of health expertise

Coronavirus: product of a sick system

The coronavirus’s lesson for climate change

The state of exception provoked by an unmotivated emergency

Coronavirus: China’s air pollution levels, smog show hit to the economy

Covid-19 will mark the end of affluence politics



Just think about it…

William Gibson — the prophet of cyberspace talks AI and climate collapse

The U.S. military is not sustainable

The Trump era is a golden age of conspiracy theories – on the right and left

Tech startups are flooding Kenya with apps offering high-interest loans

Biodiversity highest on Indigenous-managed lands

The war on food waste is a waste of time

A spider’s web is part of its mind, new research suggests

Crimea, Kashmir, Korea — Google redraws disputed borders, depending on who’s looking

We are drowning in a devolved world: An open letter from Devo

The volatile economics of natural vanilla in Madagascar

The climate crisis is like a world war. So let’s talk about rationing

The word ‘Anthropocene’ is failing us



Where we’re at: analysis

The illusion of centrist ecology

The EU’s green deal is a colossal exercise in greenwashing

Colonialism, the hidden cause of our environmental crisis

New Deal for Nature: Paying the emperor to fence the wind

White supremacy goes green

The fate of the planet rests on dethroning the IMF and World Bank

Feeding China is wrecking the Amazon

The struggle for democracy and socialism in Latin America



New politics

The growing global movement to end outdoor advertising

Puerto Rico’s energy insurrection

Planetary health and regeneration

Modern monetary theory in the periphery

Across the North, Indigenous communities are redefining conservation



Rural politics

An enormous land transition is underway. Here’s how to make it just.

What if we’re thinking about agriculture all wrong?

The youth are fleeing the farms: Aspiration and conflict in Kurram, Pakistan

How capitalism underdeveloped rural America

An Interview with Max Ajl on agrarian change in Tunisia

What if we only ate food from local farms?



Cities and radical municipalism

Cities fighting climate woes hasten ‘green gentrification’

Urbanist lessons from the densest neighborhoods across Europe

The case for truly taking back control – by reversing the privatisation of our cities

As sea level rises, Miami neighborhoods feel rising tide of gentrification

The ‘street food’ swindle: fake diversity, privatised space – and such small portions!

Housing discrimination made summers even hotter

Ancient ‘megasites’ may reshape the history of the first cities



Transportation

Luxembourg makes history as first country with free public transport 

In defence of fare evasion

The ride-hail utopia that got stuck in traffic

Cities turn to freewheeling public transport

Paris mayor pledges a greener ’15-minute city’



Degrowth!

Degrowth toward a steady state economy: Unifying non-growth movements for political impact

Why “de-growth” shouldn’t scare businesses

Beyond redistribution—confronting inequality in an era of low growth

India should stop obsessing about GDP, and start focusing on what matters



Resources

Extraction syllabus

Gender in academia resources

Documentary on the solidarity economy in Barcelona



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Remembering

The New River flowing into Imperial County, California from Baja California, Mexico

by James Banks

I remember when I was young, I wanted to go on a road trip real bad.  My mom said, “Maybe next summer”.  But I wanted to go that summer.  So she said, “We can’t go on a road trip, but we can pretend.”  I was six years old, so I was okay with that.  My sister was nine years old and she knew better.  But what was she going to do?  And my dad got into it.

They got us sitting in chairs next to each other.  And Dad started out driving, and he described us driving down Chase toward Avocado, and then getting on the 94.  We were taking the scenic route.  There were giant metal dinosaurs.  I knew which kind of dinosaurs they were.  And then we caught up to the 8 and drove down the twists into the Imperial Valley.

It was beautiful there, hot, humid, and beautiful, everything irrigated.  There were giant date groves, and fields full of alfalfa.  We stopped in El Centro to get some ice cream, my Dad pulling over and all of us unbuckling and getting out and walking over to the refrigerator.

We got back in the car.  Mom was driving.  She was the only one who could take over because me and my sister weren’t old enough to drive. 

We wanted to play music, so Mom pulled over and Dad hopped out of the passenger seat and got the boombox from the garage and dusted it off and we listened to the radio and Dad’s old CDs. 

It was a pretty good trip.  We went for four hours and then we got off at our motel room in Tucson.

I remember when I was in college.  We lived in the old house in El Cajon.  I walked to the El Cajon Transit Center to take a trolley to SDSU.  It was about a mile or a mile and a quarter walk.  I remember during that time my mom invited a mother and her son to live with us.  The mother lived in my sister’s room, and the son slept in mine.  They were from the Imperial Valley.  There used to be a big salt lake in the Imperial Valley called the Salton Sea, but it dried up for the most part and there were terrible dust storms from the exposed lake bed, and most people left around the time I was in college. 

I remember the son being a bully, and I remember how finally I couldn’t take it anymore.  I couldn’t get any sleep with him around.  I think he thought that since he and his mom didn’t have any place to go, and we were good people, that we would have to help them, but finally we confronted them.  He talked his mom into leaving instead of him changing.  I heard she got a job at the Viejas Solar Farm, and he started school at the community college out there.  I remember one day she came back to visit and she was talking about her son.  She was really worried because he had a gambling problem.  All his money went to the casino.

It’s a sad story.  Some years later they shut down the casino and remodeled it, and they use it for different things now. 

I remember one time there was a big protest.  “No More Ecosocialist Nightmare!” said one sign.  Another said “War is Peace.  Slavery is Freedom.  Poverty is Wealth.”  They were protesting in favor of personal liberty.  They said that climate change might be bad, but so would an “Orwellian sustainability”. 

The political science professors had theories of how to not have Orwellian sustainabilities, but I only had one political science class, so I wasn’t taught them.  One of my friends was a poli sci major.  He wanted to go into politics.  I asked him about it and he said “Basically, it comes down to whether people who end up in power are the kind of people who don’t want there to be Orwellian sustainability.  And, whether they’re the kind of people who can carry through that commitment.” I thought there should have been a better answer.

I remember rations.  I went to a hardcore concert with my friend once.  The singer was screaming about rations, complaining because they didn’t think they needed to be so tight.  I also used to go to stand up comedy back then and everyone talked about rations.  I think people still complain about rations.

Song of protest

We used to have FFDs (“fasting and frugality days”) where we tried to consume as little as possible.  Usually on a day we all had off.  We got out the CD player and put on some Indian music and we would sit there with our stomachs digesting themselves (or at least that’s what it felt like).  We would groan and make jokes about being hungry.

I remember my sister moving out to get married to her boyfriend.  First they moved into the master bedroom of a house in Rancho Peñasquitos, where the widower moved to the downstairs bedroom.  They had to work some shifts as caregivers to lower the rent.  Then after he passed on, they moved into a house with another couple they were close to, and the two couples started to have kids, and the kids grew up in one little mob.

I remember trying to find people to fit in our house.  We needed people we could really trust.  It took a few years, but I finally felt like one of my friends could share my room.  We adopted him into our family, but not legally.  My sister’s room was free by then so we invited some older people from church to stay there.  They were okay for me and my friend.  But then they had to move to a nursing home after about five years, and we had to find someone new.  Mom and Dad were also getting older, so they called up some old friends in another state, people they “never got to see enough these days”.  And they agreed to move in.  So my parents and their friends were having a good time all the time, but it was too much for me and my friend, so we started going out more.

There were a lot of people who didn’t work, or didn’t work much.  I remember spending whole days walking through El Cajon, looking at the people walking around.  There were some days I got real bored, and there were two days to get through before my next shift at my job.  I remember some people getting into mischief because they were bored, and that bothered me, so I decided to try to talk to those people.  I would tell them about imaginary places, and if they were bored enough, they would listen.

I remember one time we did take a road trip through Imperial Valley.  There were big signs that said “Dust storms likely next 45 miles.”  We saw an old house and wondered if anyone lived in it.

I remember rent being low.  But water was expensive.  A lot of electricity went into the desalination plants. 

Salt ponds by day, from above

When I was in college, some friends and I went out trespassing one night and ended up in the salt ponds at the end of San Diego Bay.  We walked along the paths at the edges of the pond.  Then we saw something lit up a little in the dark, a huge building. “Is that the desalination plant?” we wondered.  When we got close enough to read the sign, we were close enough to be seen by the guard who ran us off the property and warned us harshly to never do that again.

I remember when some people set fire to someone’s mansion.  They said it was for crimes against the environment, for hoarding resources.  The conservatives said, “I don’t know why you would burn down a house to protest resource waste.”

Looking back, I think the people who burned down the house had a point, and the conservatives had a point.  How can you stop someone without hurting them?  And how can you hurt people without destroying something good?  I can’t think of how to get some people out of their mansions, but maybe we can prevent people from becoming the kind of people who live in them, without burning anything down.

Our neighbors never took anyone in.  After the son left it was just the mom and dad.  “We’re fine the way things are”, they said.  They were nice neighbors, always brought us something good at Christmas-time.

Eventually my friend and I started sleeping in tents in the backyard and my parents let a couple of my cousins have our room.  When it rained, a few times a year, we slept inside in the living room.

I think I’m okay with my neighbors not taking anyone in.  Some people can do some things, other people other things.

I remember when the last homeless person got a place to stay.  It was on the news.  I heard that some of them messed up the places they moved into, because they weren’t used to having their own property.  I guess some of them had personality issues too.  The city of San Diego had a call for volunteers to be their friends, although they called it something other than “friends”.  You can’t hire people or force people to be friends, was their thinking.

I remember one night my friend was making too much noise getting into his bed and I said vicious things.  I needed my sleep and I had been around him too much anyway.  So my parents sent us out to have vacations at separate hotels.  We each had our own room in the hotels we stayed in.  We came back and found out from each other that both the hotels were on the beach and had amazing views.  They were both in Mission Beach.  We laughed when we realized that it wouldn’t have been hard for us to have run into each other by mistake, down there on the boardwalk.  He said “That would be a terrible mistake, to see someone when you shouldn’t”.

I remember when my father died, and then a few years later, my mother.  My sister and I sold the old house in El Cajon, and I left San Diego County for good.  I left everyone behind.  Time to try something new, I thought.  My friend waved goodbye to me. 

I took a train to Chicago and then one to New York City and then one up to Maine.  On the opposite end of the country, I got my own place to stay.  But there didn’t seem to be enough people inside my house, and I didn’t know anybody to live with me.  My friend had to stay in San Diego.  But I met a nice woman and we settled down, so that’s what kept me up there, for many years.

These are all some things I remember.  And what will you be remembering, as you live the life ahead of you?


James Banks lives in San Diego, CA and has written fiction and non-fiction about the sustainable future, being lost, development, trust, and (anti)romance. Website: 10v24.net

Photo credits:

Photo one:  Calexico New River Committee / public domain / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nrborderborderentrythreecolorsmay05-1-.JPG

Photo two:  by Dave Shearn / CC BY 2.0 / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dustin_Kensrue.jpg

Photo three:  by Pacific Southwest Region USFWS / CC BY 2.0 / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panoramic_aerial_of_completed_Western_Salt_Pond_Restoration_Project!_(6967928908).jpg

A Wood Wide Web Story: an Apple Tree in Daegu

Photo by Wendy Wuyts

by Wendy Wuyts

Once upon a time there was, and there was not, a French landscape architect named Judith. On this particular day she waited in a traditional tea house in Yangnyeongsi, Daegu. The Korean city of street trees, apples and oriental medicine.

She was always looking for a way to be “different”, “special” and “unique”. As a young woman, she tried to challenge the status quo by experimenting with alternative lifestyles and joining protests. She said she would devote her life to activism, art and travel. Even now, at the end of her thirties, she proclaimed to everyone that she will never marry and have children but will have loved ones in every corner of the world – even in the deserts of Mongolia. 

It was all the fault of author Simone de Beauvoir. Her interview with Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber in 1975 convinced Judith to never end up as a housewife, and to become a free woman. Judith wanted to be the next Simone. 

Though, she also desired a soul-mate. Judith knew she had met her “amour de ma vie” when she was 21. It was someone who inspired her, brought the best out of her and with whom she could experience endless love and adventures. But it didn’t last, as society didn’t allow  surrogate mothers to have partners. The surrogate mothers could only be married to the earth.   

***

Seven months ago, Judith was assigned by her boss to work out the e-plantification of this city.

“Daegu?” she had repeated. “Why Daegu?” 

“Because they have money,” her boss answered bluntly. She was Dutch. They are always honest. After her working day, Judith returned to her apartment feeling it was time to meet her former love, who lived in Daegu. She looked at the photo of Simone and her lover Sartre on her desk. They never lived together, but they were lovers until their deaths. Simone’s biggest success, she said herself, was Sartre. The promise of death, of separation evoked a certain curiosity from Judith. 

Judith reflected on her own former partner. In this world, Sartre didn’t exist anymore. Women’s successes were their own. Needing men were a thing of the past. Perhaps she could at least check in with her lover, even if society wouldn’t allow them to be together.

***

Seven months later, Judith was on the other side of the world. After a work inspection by contractors, Judith went to this famous district in Daegu, where you would find innumerable herbs and medicines. In oriental medicine, the point is not to cure a disease but to fix the body. People get sick because the dual powers of yin and yang are unbalanced. 

“Dong quai nourishes the blood and Omija juice reduces coughing.” A toothless woman told Judith. 

In response Judith bought some kudzu, because it would help her with a hangover. 

She  noticed that the women in the contracting company drank soju like mountain water. She joined them last night, to quell her nerves. She would soon find herself in a meeting akin to an interrogation. 

From the moment Judith left her hotel until she took a seat in the tea house, she hesitated a thousand times. From her bedroom to the taxi, the same thought echoed in her mind. “This has to be the craziest, if not the stupidest idea of my life.” But something in her –  whether it be female intuition, her guardian angel or the voice of her dead grandmother – told her that meeting Han-Sol is what she needed to be able to heal her. Perhaps she would realise the feelings were only memories and nothing more.  

Daylight shifted, and Han-Sol appeared. Judith held her breath. After all this time she had not changed from her time as an exchange student. 

They greeted each other, but it was awkward. They used polite gestures to greet one another, trying to hide their invisible relationship. On the day they met, they called themselves ecofeminists. They shaved their hair off as a protest against the “patriarchy that intoxicated the French minds.” They slept together that night. Han-Sol had come from Daegu. Among their many talks, she expressed topics as diverse as  K-Drama, beauty contests (which they also detested), and that Daegu produces so many beautiful women because of their apples. 

“We have changed so much,” Han-Sol said. “I became a housewife, and you an architect for one of the most powerful companies in the world.” 

Judith blushed. “We both do important work.”

Han-Sol continued, “Some women call me a Kim Yi Joung or a Mam’Chung, after a famous novel which was published ten years ago.”

“I’m not so familiar with Korean literature. Not since 2012, at least.” Judith admitted.

“Oh yes, 2012. What a year.” She looked down. They both recalled the painful memories which took place in that French village. “You know… It’s an insult for women who live easily by the money of the city to think my kind don’t work.”

“Really? That is ridiculous.” 

“Some people joke that we are yang-banged,” she said, “because we convert yang energy into yin through our bodies. That is our only function.”

Judith could not look her in the eyes anymore. She knew about the discrimination.  She also judged women who volunteered to be surrogate mothers. Or rather, she felt it was a pity. She felt their life was that of a machine. 

“So, how does it work?” Han-Sol asked. 

“What?” Judith was brought out from her thoughts. 

“The e-plantification of our light infrastructure.”

“Oh. Well, do you know the process of photosynthesis?”

“Yes. I recently helped my eldest child with her biology homework.”

Judith wondered how many children Han-Sol had produced, but she now preferred ease so she stayed on technology. 

“Plants convert CO2 into oxygen,” Han-Sol continued, “with the help of  chlorophyll in the leaves.” 

“That’s true,” Judith said, “but they also produce sugars. These sugars do not remain in the leaves. They are transported throughout the plant, and some of these sugars are excreted by the roots. There  are bacteria that surround the roots, and they break down these sugars, too. In this decomposition process, they release electrons. Our technology collects the electrons in the minus pole of our plant battery. When the electrons flow through the wire, they can be used as electricity.”

“But is it healthy for the street trees?”

“Yes, the electrons continue their journey to the plus pole, the cathode. We do not disturb the trees and plants.”

She paused to think. “I think I understand.” She smiled. “You really have found a purpose.”

Judith looked up. “Han-Sol, what is going on?” 

She hesitated, looking to her tea cup as if she was looking for advice, and then gazed right into Judith’s eyes. 

“I know how you think about us. I am sure that book of Simone de Beauvoir is still in your suitcase at your hotel.” 

Judith turned her eyes away. 

“I wanted this,” Han-Seol said. “I truly love my daughters, but sometimes… I don’t know. I feel so confused. I know the work of de Beauvoir is not relevant, or can’t be relevant anymore, in this world. However, sometimes it is… I think that becoming a caretaker was a mistake, and that I should have stayed with you. To make art…create amazing ideas…to build a regenerative economy. I feel so… invisible. While you are so… unique. You are visible. I am sure you look down upon me.”

“No.” Judith looked down. “Not anymore.”

“But you did?”

“…Yes,” Judith admitted. She felt as if a colony of termites were eating her stomach. 

“It is like I am struggling with ‘The Problem That Has No Name.’ Though, it has a slightly different nature than what Betty Friedan once described.” 

Judith craned her neck. “Han-Sol, what is going on?” she repeated. 

She hesitated. “I am confused… or maybe I need help. The insults that I hear make me mad. They do not know what it’s like to bear and take care of children.” She bit her lip, and her hands started to shake. “Actually, I think I lost my mind nearly seven months ago. I blame an old Korean novel that I found from the time before The Reckoning.” 

People did not talk about The Reckoning because everyone had lost loved ones in this war. The ones who had survived The Reckoning now had a better life than they did before.

Judith looked up. People did not talk about The Reckoning because everyone had lost loved ones in this war. The ones who had survived The Reckoning now had a better life than they did before. If only they could forget the feelings of loss, Judith wished. The earth is healthier… so are bodies, but the memories of pain were hard to forget. It was easier not to talk about it. Han-Sol had always believed that The Reckoning was inevitable, after all the pollution, terror and other crimes she had seen in Asia and Europe. 

Han-Sol paused before asking,“Have you ever read ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang?”

Judith shook her head.

“Han Kang wrote this after she was struck by an idea  from another writer who suggested that humans should be plants. I wish sometimes I could also be a plant. They probably have all the answers to the questions I have because they live for so long, witnessing so much.”

She sighed. 

“Yes, there is something wrong. Sometimes I feel I need a break from her children,” she whispered as if confessing to  first-degree murder. “Seven months ago, I had another episode. My sister took over. She advised me to take a long walk. Mountain air is the best medicine.” She hesitated. “…I had an  inner voice telling me to look up the eldest apple tree. Did you know that Daegu has the oldest apple tree in Korea?”

“Yes, you told me once. I remember you said that apple trees have an average lifespan of 30-40 years, but this tree produced  apples for more than 80 years.”

“ I realise now why I was so attracted to that tree. She keeps living, keeping society alive.”

Judith didn’t know what to say or do, other than to continue listening to her story.

“I was alone when I arrived at the apple tree… or not really. There were three young guys…” Suddenly Judith held her breath as Han-Sol turned down her eyes. The biggest victims of The Reckoning have been men. Judith had not seen any men since then.  

Han-Sol continued,  “… and they seemed to have expected me.” 

“Are they…” Judith did not finish her sentence, because she did not want to say it aloud. 

“Yes, they introduced themselves as… gods. But we know what they are.” She scanned Judith’s face. “Do you believe that I really saw them?”

“I believe that there are still free men on earth, and only those kinds of men would have survived The Reckoning.” 

Han-Seol smiled. “I knew you wouldn’t think I was crazy.”  She sighed, feeling relief rush over her. 

“What did they want from you?” Judith asked carefully.

“They wanted me as a judge in their beauty contest, ” she said.

Judith blinked, confused. 

“I thought they were all … the same. You know? And they realised soon that I did not become a surrogate mother because I love yang energy so much.” That remark gave Judith her first smile of the day. “So they tried to bribe me with their powers. One offered to make me queen of a forested island, and my daughters would all become princesses.”

“Do they really have that power?”

“I think there is probably a place where they hide and where they would like to have some women around. I think that was the dodgiest offering.”

“What about the second?”

“He offered me wisdom and skill in war.”

That took away Judith’s remark. “Do they expect another war?”

“I don’t know. But as my aunt once said to my mother, and my mother later to me, as long as some people are oppressed there is always a risk for an uprising.” She hesitated. “My aunt told my mother that before she went to Gwanju.”

Judith remembered the death of her youngest aunt in the democracy uprising of the eighties. She thought of how her grandparents fought for a long time against the plans of the governments to wipe away the bloody history of Gwanju. Han-Sol was not born in that time, but she was aware – from a young age –  of the memories of losses. They were intertwined in her family’s memories. 

The two women looked at each other and continued to conversation. 

“So what about the third?” Judith finally asked

“The third one offered me the love of my life. A love that  I could finally keep until my death.” 

Judith straightened her back. Her fingers were tingling, and it was not because of the medical herb tea. 

“So, this meeting was more than seven months ago?,” Judith asked with a smile. Han-Seol nodded.

Judith took her cup again and drank from her tea, feeling the medicine flow through her body. This was indeed what she needed.  

“Why don’t you ask me who I chose?” Han-Seol asked. 

Judith looked her deep in the eyes and already knew the answer. 

Wendy Wuyts is a Belgian PhD student in Environmental Studies at Nagoya University, Japan. She blogs about sustainability issues in Japan for Mo*, a Flemish magazine focusing on social and environmental matters globally, and has her own personal blog where she collects stories about trees, tree spirits and forest bathing (woodwidewebstories.com). In her free time she works on a second novel about tree spirits. This short story situates in the world of that novel, but is about other characters. In november 2019, Wendy’s first fiction book got published: ‘Als Meubels Konden Spreken’ (If Furniture Could Talk), which introduces the main character to the different dimensions and aspects of the circular economy. 

Special thanks goes to Andrew Winchester Greer for proofreading and editing.


January readings

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, via Counterfire


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

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

We’re back from our break with fresh new readings for you! The world moves fast, and a lot has happened over the past two months. Jane Goodall’s comment at the World Economic Forum that most of our environmental problems wouldn’t exist if human population growth were at the levels they were 500 years ago sparked another debate about the validity and dangers of ‘overpopulation’ arguments. We featured a critique of her claim here. We also collected resources around green colonialism: the push to ‘green’ the Global North at the expense of the Global South. And of course, we’re sharing a couple of articles about the Wuhan coronavirus which has been dominating the news, on top of the usual news and discussions about global and Indigenous struggles, cities and radical municipalism, and degrowth.



Uneven Earth updates

Energy and the Green New Deal | Link | The complex challenge of powering societies 

Swedish colonialist neutrality | Link | A tradition of double standards from historical colonialism to current environmental injustice 

Public money for environmental justice | Link | We’ll never fund a transformative Green New Deal with money designed for capitalism 

Hayashi-san’s Green Headband | Link | “In Tokyo, New York, Montreal, Rome, Paris, Beijing, Kinshasa, millions of people were wearing green headbands … this has made you a martyr and brought the environmental movement to a level never before reached.” 

Show me the money | Link | How will we pay for the Green New Deal?

A just food transition | Link | Why the Green New Deal should give farmers a Basic Income 

Birth | Link | “Maybe then we’ll regain the access to the river, the river that is now controlled by the insiders and their obsession with energy resources.” 



Top 5 articles to read

Why we should be wary of blaming ‘overpopulation’ for the climate crisis

What if Darwin’s ideas about competition aren’t as correct as we’ve long thought?

A repair manual for Spaceship Earth

Life under the algorithm

Back to the land



News you might’ve missed

Nuclear power ‘cannot rival renewable energy’

The plastics pipeline: A surge of new production is on the way

Our pathetically slow shift to clean energy, in five charts

It’s not just Australia — Indonesia is facing its own climate disaster

Perpetual debt in the Silicon Savannah



Coronavirus

Notes on a novel coronavirus

Bat soup didn’t cause the Wuhan virus. Racist memes target Chinese eating habits, but the real causes of the coronavirus are more mundane.



Global struggles

In Hong Kong, the art of resistance and erasure

‘This place used to be green’: the brutal impact of oil in the Niger Delta

Don’t mess with French pensions

The popular assemblies at the heart of the Chilean uprising

A Mexican indigenous town’s environmental revolt

COP25, social movements and climate justice 

Rojava is a laboratory that links the environment and society with municipalism

‘This movement is just beginning’: homeless moms evicted after taking over vacant house

  • The fight for mom’s house. This is the story of a group of homeless mothers who for 58 days occupied a vacant home in Oakland, and eventually claimed a historic victory in the struggle for housing justice.

Stories of global environmental justice

Zapatista update: Forum on Defense of the Territory and Mother Earth

How the Global North’s Left media helped pave the way for Bolivia’s right-wing coup

Can Extinction Rebellion survive?




Indigenous struggles

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs evict coastal GasLink from territory

Canada police prepared to shoot Indigenous activists, documents show

Indigenous Colombians escalate fight to rescue ancestral lands

The Wounded Knee massacre and the long tradition of Indigenous resistance

‘On my ancestors’ remains’: The fight for sacred lands

With a thousand ancestors front and back



Just think about it…

Climate change and deforestation: These 3 supertrees can protect us from climate collapse

The dark side of the Nordic model. Scandinavian countries may top every ranking on human development, but they are a disaster for the environment. 

Want to double world food production? Return the land to small farmers

Performative environmentalism won’t reverse climate change

Automation isn’t wiping out jobs. It’s that our engine of growth is winding down

Ganges River: Giulio Di Sturco’s photos capture environmental decline

A surge of new plastic is about to hit the planet

Nightmares on wax: the environmental impact of the vinyl revival

Humans will never colonize Mars

Library socialism: A utopian vision of a sustaniable, luxuriant future of circulating abundance

A future with no future: Depression, the Left, and the politics of mental health

Will Finland introduce a four-day week? Is it the secret of happiness?

Time, work and wellbeing. “Efforts to achieve decent work must encompass not just the quantity but also the quality of working time – not just time as a commodity but also as a lived complexity.”



Where we’re at: analysis

A Green New Jail

Europe’s Green Deal is a tepid response to the climate crisis 

When are we going to address the climate crisis?

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

Where is the rift? Marx, Lacan, capitalism, and ecology

Uber’s path of destruction

The palace of the future is nearly complete

Climate change and technology define the rural future. “No city is an autarky. For their survival, they rely on the countrysides they conveniently ignore.”



New politics

In 2030, we ended the climate emergency. Here’s how

Socialism, capitalism and the transition away from fossil fuels

The Lebanese Intifada, or the growth of an anti-capitalist mass movement 

Austria’s new anti-immigrant green government stokes fears of climate ‘nightmare’ 

What is the Green New Deal? A climate proposal, explained 

Portugal has found an antidote to right wing populism. Facing the policies of socialist Prime Minister António Costa, which include properly supporting the welfare state and investing in the public sector instead of austerity measures, right wing populists don’t stand a chance. 

The Hague must recognise ecocide 

Feminism and the social solidarity economy: A short call to action 

Moving towards low-carbon lifestyles: A question of collective action 



Green colonialism (and decolonialism)

What green costs. Deep in the salt flats of Chile lies the extractive frontier of the renewable energy transition.  

The coming green colonialism

The eco-fascists are coming

The path to net-zero emissions must include divestment, decolonization and resistance

Why a ‘Green New Deal’ must be decolonial

Decolonization requires a new economics

A view from the countryside. Contesting and constructing human rights in an age of converging crises.

Why stopping wars is essential for stopping climate change

Walls on a drowning world

Playing with fire, securing the borders of a Green New Deal

When the Green New Deal goes global

Development: A failed project 




Cities and radical municipalism

The case for making low-tech ‘dumb’ cities instead of ‘smart’ ones 

‘We’re setting a clear stop sign’: Berlin passes five-year rent freeze law

‘My Parkdale is gone’: how gentrification reached the one place that seemed immune

Study says rent control is good for cities, debunking conventional economists’ wisdom 

Tenant organizing when rising rent isn’t the (main) issue

Islands in the illiberal storm: central European cities vow to stand together 

Reclaiming the commons: The case for public bike libraries 

The case for cohousing: Where responsibilities are shared and life is a little less lonely

Time for public power for New York 

Should public transit be free? More cities say, why not? 

Ten zero-waste cities: How Thiruvananthapuram cleaned up its act 

When capital threatens to strike in your city 

The municipalist moment. Movements on the left are increasingly looking to build power at the local level. The question is how we can leverage municipal gains to transform the system at expanding scales.

Municipalism: the next political revolution? 

Heroes of the 2010s: Kshama Sawant, the socialist who beat Amazon 



Degrowth!

Ford v. Ferrari v. Malthus

Rethinking fashion: A confession of a degrowth advocate

Deadly growth: Capitalism versus life on Earth

Is degrowth an alternative to capitalism?



Resources

Case studies from The Rules about different topics related to environmental justice and alternative economics.

Economics for people. A free online lecture series from Ha-Joon Chang.

Degrowth of aviation. A report.

Regenerative farming and the Green New Deal. A policy memo.

Dual power: Issue 9 of ROAR Magazine

Diversify and decolonise your holiday reading list

How to follow the news without burning out  



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Swedish colonialist neutrality

Engraved and hand coloured map of Scandinavia from the early days of the Swedish Empire in the 17th century. Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

by Roger Blomqvist

Old colonial relations cast a shadow over today’s environmental politics. But when accusations of historical abuse pop up, some nations manage to fly below the radar in spite of extensive colonial involvement. Due to their so-called higher standards of behaviour they may even gain advantages in the global competition for control of natural resources. ‘Neutral’ Sweden is one of those nations.

In this essay, I weave together depictions of Swedish colonial history with recent political events. I thus hope to shed light on the way that professed concerns with sustainability in Sweden and Northern Europe interact with postcolonial power structures today. Much of the historical research that I build on is derived from two recent books which have contributed to a rethinking of Swedish and Scandinavian involvement in colonialism: the research anthology Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena (2013), edited by Magdalena Naum and Jonas M. Nordin, and Våra kolonier, de vi hade och de som aldrig blev av (‘Our colonies, the ones we had and those never realized’; my translation), by Herman Lindqvist.

Double standards in Northern European environmental politics

An odd thing happened to the mainstream image of Northern European environmental politics following the wildfires in the Amazon rain forest last year. In August 2019 the G7, or Group of Seven, countries offered Brazil a $20 million relief effort—allegedly to reduce the risk of climate change by counteracting extensive forest fires in the Amazon. The offer was however turned down by the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who confronted the G7 leaders and said that they were treating Brazil ‘like a colony’. Bolsonaro eventually had second thoughts and accepted the aid, but the controversy nonetheless brought the question of colonial guilt and contemporary postcolonial power relations to wider public attention.

What makes Bolsonaro’s scoffing particularly interesting is that he directed it toward nations that tend to be depicted as humanitarian and climate heroes: Germany and Norway. Those two countries had withdrawn financial support from the Amazon Fund in order to pressure Bolsonaro’s administration to take action against the Amazon fires. While influential social scientists have celebrated Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Germany as ‘clean and green’ utopias, Brazil’s right-wing president unexpectedly—and even against his own anti-environmentalist politics—opens the door to an environmental justice critique of Northern European countries. He accurately ascribes double standards to Norway and Germany, Norway as a whaling country and Germany as needing reforestation. At the same time, his own administration engages in even more absurd forms of anti-environmentalism—as when the director-general of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research Ricardo Galvão was fired and labelled a ‘traitor’ after the Institute issued a report in 2019 on the acceleration of deforestation in the Amazon.

The clean and green façade of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is revealed.

Activists and NGOs used the attention which both the Amazon fires and Bolsonaro attracted to point out that the Brazilian president, although he himself wants to practice environmental destruction at home, does sort of hit the nail on the head when he criticizes Northern European countries for not wanting to change anything in their own backyards. As a Norwegian news site writes, ‘Norway’s rain forest preservation programs have not been without controversy, with critics suggesting Norway has opted to finance climate measures abroad instead of cutting more carbon emissions at home by curbing oil exploration and production.’ The clean and green façade of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is revealed. Also, the postcolonial interests of rich countries are still evident: the $20 million relief effort may contain a hidden agenda and climate care can serve as a perfect alibi for retaining economic influence—provided that the commitment to sustainability and fair distribution of welfare and resources is made credible. In 2018, the Brazilian vice president, general Hamilton Mourão, expressed suspicions about such professed commitments: ‘The rich world uses the climate debate to continue to dominate.’

There is a historical continuity to point to here: the poor have suffered the most from environmental impact and unjust conditions caused by the wealthy. And scientists project that this tendency will escalate with global warming, as a future scenario with extreme heat threatens the global South in particular, with consequences like decreased labour productivity, lower crop yields, and impoverished human health. And the ‘clean and green utopias’ of Northern Europe have a part in this unequal system. Equitable distribution of environmental load and economic benefits is not a core shareholder value in the global economy.

Sweden is one of the countries who are keen on business in Brazil. The Swedish Minister for rural affairs, Sven-Erik Bucht, went there in 2017 with major Swedish forestry actors and researchers, establishing relations for Swedish businesses under the guise of sustainability. The Amazon is a target for Swedish exports of technology and forestry know-how. Since Swedish forestry often includes criticized clearcutting, Greenpeace Sweden took the opportunity when the fires in the Amazon brought attention to deforestation to point to Swedish double standards when the country pressures Brazil to preserve the rain forest all the while replacing forests with tree plantations at a remarkable speed in Sweden. Since the same companies that are trying to gain access to Brazilian land are causing environmental harm back in Sweden, Greenpeace’s reaction against Swedish double standards could be taken even further. These double standards reside not only in the tendency to require better environmental protection in Brazil than at home, but also in how Swedish forestry actors would happily contribute to deforestation in the Amazon.

We can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.

So what is going on with all this? How can widely celebrated ‘clean and green utopias’ engage in such dubious practices? By looking at the role of Scandinavia, and in particular Sweden, in the colonial era, we can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.

Swedish colonialism in thegreat olden days and today

Sweden’s ‘free lane’ into business profit in formerly colonized areas depends on the common perception that Scandinavian colonial violations were marginal, if they occurred at all. But however negligible the Swedish exercise of power has been, it is paradoxically depicted with great glamour. A telling example is the Swedish national anthem from 1844, including the patriotic stanza which begins ‘Du tronar på minnen från fornstora dar, då ärat ditt namn flög över jorden(You are enthroned on memories of great olden days, when honoured your name flew across the Earth’).

Many Swedes probably tune into the song with a sense of pride—most commonly at sport events—and a vague notion of its references to the Swedish Era of Great Power in the years 1611-1718. Sweden was then a colonizer, although admittedly on a smaller scale than Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain or France—and allegedly of a benevolent type.

But the Swedish Crown and power sphere were in fact heavily involved in the European colonization project with all its atrocities. This is convincingly shown in the anthology on Scandinavian colonialism from 2013 edited by Naum and Nordin. In more than a dozen close-up descriptions of colonial encounters, a continuous whitewash of Scandinavian history is revealed. The anthology displays Swedish involvement on several continents: from expansion up North to the New World, Africa, and Asia. In 2015 this book was succeeded by Våra kolonier in which popular historian Herman Lindqvist uncovers a strong Swedish ambition to develop a colonial role. Conclusions in the two books align: dreams of gold, ivory, sugar, spices, and tobacco triggered the Swedish search for and foundation of colonies from the early 17th century in North America, West Africa, and later the West Indies. Ships were built to export iron, wood, and tar, financing increasing imports.

Swedish iron was a key ingredient—mainly for arms production—in the infamous triangular trade. Dutch-born entrepreneur Louis De Geer was an important figure in this as the Swedish Crown granted him a monopoly on copper and iron trade (he later got the epithet ‘the father of Swedish industry’). A curious fact is that iron in his forges was cast into bars that suited the backs of donkeys (!) used for transportation in Africa, as an adaptation to the slave economy: bent bars were replaced by slaves. With Royal Swedish support he also established a trading post in Cabo Corso at the African Gold Coast. 1,500-2,000 slaves were shipped by Swedes over the Atlantic. Ethics were no obstacle. The European colonial attitude depended on racial supremacy. A Swedish pastor doubted openly that African slaves were human beings. A Lutheran bishop in Copenhagen proclaimed that slavery was a natural state for heathens and punishment for their sins.

The word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources.

Sweden has successfully avoided scrutiny partly because of a widespread understanding that it never got any major colonies. The word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources, historical or popular. But Sweden did have several colonies for quite some time. Baltic provinces were annexed in wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, staying under Swedish control for 150 years. Regions in Germany and Poland were occupied. Swedish trade relied on indentured peasants in those areas. If the brutality of Swedes is absent in Swedish sources, it is all the more present in German, Polish, and Baltic ones.

An imagined peaceful meeting between Swedish settlers and Native Americans in New Sweden with warring Native American tribes in the background. Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

The Swedish leadership also aimed for America. A detailed colonial trade plan was formed and New Sweden was established in Delaware in 1638, challenging Spanish control. The Swedish governor got royal instructions to treat the ‘wild people’ well to gain their confidence. The Crown was hoping that ‘higher standards’ would convince them to withdraw from competing traders. And the Swedes managed to cooperate with the Lenape and Susquehannock nations for some time.

In New Sweden, forest Finns were forced (by updated legal restrictions in Sweden) to cultivate the colony with their ‘slash and burn’ practise. They were roughly treated and historians have even used the term ‘penal colony’. The use of indentured labour was similar to the infamous use of the same system in British plantations in the West Indies.

There is evidence that the Swedish governor actually wished to eliminate the Indigenous population in the barren colony. He applied for sufficient numbers of soldiers to do so. The proposal was however ignored by the Crown, probably because of the urgent need for war resources in Poland and elsewhere.

The Swedish Royal council also planned other settlements in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Asia in the 17th and the 18th century. But plans constantly failed, until Sweden at last obtained Saint Barthélemy from France in 1784. The Caribbean island became an important trade hub with slave trade as the main objective. This trade relied on Swedish ‘neutrality’ in European wars.

It is revealing as well that leading Swedish merchants sold iron (for weaponry) to rebellious forces in the American War of Independence.

Photo from Swedish Saint Bartholémy, circa 1865. Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

Back in Europe, the discovery of silver in Lapland in the 1630s triggered the Swedish Crown’s expansion north into Sápmi. In centuries to come, resources like fur, game, and minerals were extracted—and the Indigenous Sámi were ‘civilized’. The colonial attitude was obvious: Chancellor Oxenstierna referred to the northern parts of Sweden as ‘our India’. The ultimate purpose was to displace the Sámi people and deny them their independence and land rights.

The Swedish presence through settlers, bailiffs, entrepreneurs, and clerics in Lapland has not been seen as colonial domination by historians until the last few decades. Instead, terms like agricultural expansion, Forest Sámi assimilation, domestication, or civilizing have been used. But the compulsory boarding school attendance (with Christianity lessons) for Sámi children cut off from their families is not essentially different from the Belgian education of natives in the Congo or North American examples such as the Brafferton Indian School in Virginia.

Mining interests have repeatedly collided with reindeer herding and settlements.

Furthermore, the colonial legacy in Sápmi is still evident today. There are long-standing conflicts about land use in much of Sápmi, often in connection to the environmental impact of extractive industrial projects. For example, mining interests have repeatedly collided with reindeer herding and settlements. At the present time mining entrepreneurs, including several multinational companies, are searching for rare earth metals and iron, exploitation that is marketed by companies (and the government) as environmentally and socially beneficial because Swedish environmental protection and working conditions are superior to Chinese ones. In all this, the Sámi appear to have no say.

One land use conflict is currently tried in the Swedish Supreme Court. The dispute concerns who should administrate hunting and fishing rights on the grazing lands of the reindeer herding community of Girjas: the Sámi community or the Swedish government. Girjas has won in the District Court and the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court’s decision will likely serve as a precedent in similar cases, meaning that it can have far-reaching effects on how Indigenous land use and land rights are interpreted by Swedish courts in the future.

In the court proceedings, surprisingly blunt statements have been made by representatives of Swedish authorities about the Sámi as ‘inferior’, a characterization which echoes the old colonial depiction of Indigenous peoples. Throughout history many Sámi people have been hurt, humiliated, and oppressed by Swedish authorities. When the well-known Sámi public figure Johannes Marainen was recently interviewed in a Swedish newspaper, he concluded that ‘We Swedes are quick to engage when people in other countries are oppressed, but we have not really cleaned up in front of our own door.’ This is not the least apparent in the Swedish government’s continual restriction of who has the legal right to call themselves Sámi on ‘Swedish’ territory: reindeer owners of ethnic Sámi origin. All other Sámi people—like fishing and hunting Sámi—are by Swedish definitions not Sámi! The self-imposed governmental right to define, acculturate, and segregate the Sámi people is largely unbroken since colonial times.

The vast underground iron ore mine in Kiruna/Giron. Photo:
Arild Vågen, CC BY-SA 4.0

Scandinavian peculiarities within the European colonial project

In a discussion of colonialism in Scandinavia, it should be noted that Denmark maintained even more widespread presence in colonies around the world than Sweden did, in Africa, Asia, and the West Indies. Also, Denmark tried to control the North, with its whaling and fisheries, in a ‘colonial union’ with Iceland, North Atlantic Islands, and Greenland. The exploitation of Greenland has been similar to Swedish expansion in Sápmi. Greenland still remains Danish, with a restricted autonomy. American president Donald Trump recently made a surprising announcement of the intention to buy Greenland, demonstrating how strategically and economically attractive land areas still are seen as available for purchase. But the neocolonial bid was declined by the Danish prime minister. Following the old colonial pattern, the islanders themselves were not consulted.

Heavy violence was not a part of Scandinavian colonialism, at least not to the same extent as in British, Spanish, French and later German rule. But one of the most long-lived slave revolts in the Caribbean actually occurred in the Danish colony of St. John in 1733. For six months a group of slaves battled and killed Europeans and slaves of other origin, until French soldiers violently ended the revolt. Colonial competitors would often unite in this manner against enemies who threatened the colonialist structure.

Another difference between Scandinavian oversees colonies and those of other European nations was that the numbers of Scandinavian settlers in the colonies were on the whole few. However, this doesn’t mean—so Naum and Nordin write in the introduction to their anthology—that the colonies were negligible in geo-economic terms. The colonial purposes were similar to those of other European powers:

Scandinavia’s colonial expansion was motivated by and involved particular economic thinking, mercantilist drive for profit (to sell dear and buy cheap) and balancing national economies. Furthermore, it made use of the principles of natural law, which stipulated universal rights to trade, travel, explore and settle in foreign lands and justified violent actions if these rights were denied.

Naum and Nordin show how the quest for economic growth attracted Dutch capital and workforce to Scandinavia, bringing industrialization as well as capitalism. Books were written about the usefulness of trade and the need for founding colonies. Sugar refineries were built in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Swedish herring was traded as food for slaves. Merchants offered shipping of slaves to French colonies. Expeditions to America were made, even secretly in war time.

Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war.

The Swedish Crown, merchants, and political leadership shared a Eurocentric worldview and supported the right to conquer, dominate, and civilize in the name of superiority and technological advancement. But there was also a specifically Swedish twist to colonial ideology: Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war. When Britain and the Netherlands were fighting, Sweden exported cannons to the Dutch and iron for weaponry to the Brits. France could, when fighting Britain, rely on Swedish shipping of smuggled slaves, weaponry and other goods in the Caribbean. Also, hundreds of US trade ships managed to avoid customs by sailing under Swedish flag—and thus Sweden could maintain the lucrative Saint Barthélemy trade traffic.

There seems to be a line of continuity in Swedish ‘neutrality’ goodwill from colonial times up to this day. When defending delicate business agreements, Swedish rulers are well aware of the strong link between ‘nonprofit’ trademarks and the ability to secure market shares.

The self-image of Sweden as a peace-loving world conscience of human rights rhymes badly with Swedish arms exports. The last few decades there has been a public debate on exports to dictatorships and regimes at war—though it is at least not, unlike in the ‘great olden days,’ a question of illegal smuggling. On the contrary, the companies and the government take care to emphasise the morally responsible nature of the Swedish arms industry, using foreign policy watchwords like ‘equality,’ ‘freedom of speech,’ and ‘press freedom’. Trade is promoted by professing high standards of human rights and progressiveness.

But whatever ideals are invoked, Swedish exports of military equipment are frequent to countries where essential freedoms and rights are absent. The Swedish company SAAB recently delivered airborne systems of radar surveillance to United Arab Emirates. The suppression of human rights in the Arabic autocracy was never questioned. Amnesty noted that SAAB does little or nothing to check if delivered equipment is used in war crimes or oppression.

The ongoing SAAB delivery of 36 fighter aircraft to Brazil causes no troubling debate in Sweden. But when exports to warring countries are highlighted the government is forced to act; recently exports to Turkey were stopped because of the war in northern Syria (the contents of the exports were secret, however—protected by law).

Continuing on or contesting colonial relations

As suggested earlier, ‘climate action’ is becoming another useful sales argument for rich countries like Sweden. But when it comes to climate offsetting, rich countries gladly export it. Swedish funds support tree plantations in Kachung in Uganda in a project which has meant that local farmers have been forced to move, thus losing their small income. The project has even been considered a form of ‘landgrabbing.’ Now the farmers cannot afford to send their children to school; some even starve. Ugandan David Kureeba, chief at the National Association of Professional Environmentalists, called this ‘climate colonialism’ in a major Swedish newspaper. The colonial pattern is there, in compensations for emissions of carbon dioxide as well as in exports of garbage to Africa. In a similar case, it has been revealed that Swedish government agencies have bought carbon offsets in Brazil from a multinational corporation that has now been sued for poisoning the land of the Guarani people. The offsets were bought to compensate for air travel by employees at agencies like the Government Offices and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Another example of Swedish ‘high standards’ being more like double standards can be found in the story of the Ethiopian/Swedish cardiologist Fikru Maru. In 2013 he was imprisoned in Ethiopia, where he was detained for five years without a trial, falsely accused of bribery. His daughter—a Swedish resident—was informed by the Swedish Foreign Ministry that his prolonged detention time could not be questioned, since Swedish detention restrictions are lacking too (UN, the European Council, and several NGOs have criticized this). It would therefore be inconsistent to put pressure on Ethiopia. But alas, there were other reasons to be silent: Sweden was depending on Ethiopian support for a coveted seat on the UN Security Council and did not want to annoy Ethiopian colleagues by criticizing unlawfulness. This is revealed in a Fikru Maru biography which came out in October 2019.

As we have seen, there is reason to conclude that Swedish ‘higher standards’ to at least some extent have been tactical more than factual—a strategic colonialist neutrality. Some may even call Sweden’s world conscience rhetoric hypocritical. In any case, regardless of how one interprets Swedish neutrality, it is a fact that Sweden fully participated in the colonial expansion and supported it; colonies added to the power and glory of those ‘great olden days’ that are commemorated in the national anthem.