“I’m looking through the symbol for all that’s disgusting”

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by Aaron Vansintjan

There are people who don’t think twice about throwing something away that others might think very valuable. There are also people who are willing to give society’s discards value once again. Martin is one of those people. Martin collects trash for a living. He also runs the popular blog, Things I Find in the Garbage, which has 1,167,429 hits and 5,940 followers.

One winter night Martin drove me around the super-rich Montréal neighbourhood, Town of Mount Royal (TMR). We talked in the car—Martin shared some (dumpstered) tea from his (found) Thermos—and, once every so often, stopped at a promising pile of trash. We had to be careful to avoid getting in trouble with the security. It was two days before Christmas but there was no snow on the ground, and there was an occasional sprinkle of rain. After rooting through some trash bags and tossing anything we liked in the trunk we would hop back in the car, picking up where we had left off in the conversation. The following are excerpts from that discussion edited for clarity and flow, with some changes suggested by Martin.

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Why did you pass that pile?

Ummm. It just didn’t have a good vibe for some reason. It just seemed like, cardboard, or maybe they’re working on a new bathroom and bought some new shit. Renovation kind of stuff.

So you’re looking for the small things.

Yeah. Small things are good. Well, it’s also just the look of the pile. It’s hard to explain. If you see kind of vintage-ey stuff, that’s good. For sale signs, that’s very good. Because those people are moving, or whatever. There’s a lot of cost-benefit analyses going on my head. Trying to figure out what’s worth the time, you know?

What distinguishes you from others doing this kind of work?

The trash bag. That’s the thing that really makes me a pro, I guess. It’s the fact that I’ve realized that most of the good stuff is in trash bags. A lot of people when I tell them most of the stuff I find is inside bags, are very surprised. And then I’m surprised that they’re surprised. I wouldn’t be able to make a living just picking from open boxes.

I love the bag system. The bags give off a lot of information. You can tell by the shape of them, by the color of them, the quantity of them. But when you have these giant dumpsters, there’s not much information you can glean from that.

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What are some things you’ve learned from doing this?

I feel like I kind of know these people in a weird way. Even though I don’t really but I know parts of their story. Often times they’re passed on or whatever. It’s kind of a strange thing. To develop attachments to garbage or people who provide it. (There’s a long pause.) That’s the most interesting part about it, learning these stories and finding this cool old stuff. Because I’m also interested in history, and the history you find when trash picking is pretty interesting.

I’ve learned a lot about how much privilege rich people have. How much different the lifestyle is between rich and poor. Especially when I’m going through this kind of neighbourhood. The kind of things that rich people casually toss away is unbelievable for someone in my position. I remember when I was growing up we needed this special calculator for this high school class, the TI-83+.

They were so expensive!

Yeah. It was actually a stressful family expense, to buy these calculators. Then at a place in Westmount, I found two. Just thrown out. Just another world. The craziest thing to me might be the guy in Westmount who threw out a jar of change, of 56 bucks. This jar of change. This guy just didn’t have the time to… He worked at the bank, actually. He was a banker. At a certain point that’s just junk change to you. And I just can’t, it’s so hard to imagine a situation, where I would even throw out 50 cents. 50 dollars is just insanity.

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It’s like we live in a world of disposability.

And privilege. I can spend a dollar on something and not worry too much about it. If you’re making $2 million a year, you can spend $100 and not worry about it. It’s just different, a totally different scale. (A pause.) The only difference I guess is that I’m spending a dollar on candy instead of throwing it directly into the garbage.

[We pass by a street sign I recognize.]

That street is called Algonquin.

They used to live around here, didn’t they?

[We both think about the Indigenous people who continue to fight against the colonization of their unceded land, and how strange it is that a street was named after them in this rich neighbourhood.]

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Why do you think there aren’t more people who do this kind of thing?

I think anyone can do what I do, it’s just that there’s a lot of obstacles. A lot of it is social obstacles too. I guess for some people, it’s sort of a social stigma, people don’t want to be seen looking through trash bags at all.

Are you not concerned about that?

I’m not too concerned about it. [But] its pretty much the symbol for undesirable material. The black garbage bag. With some stink lines coming out. Like basically, I’m looking through the actual symbol for all that’s disgusting and filthy and all that. I’m sure there’s more to it, but people definitely get caught up in the symbol.

Are there moments when you do dig through stuff and are just like… oh my god this is the absolute worst.

(Laughs). Oh yeah. Once in a while people decide to mix in the good stuff with just kitchen waste or kitty litter and I’m just like “oh god.” If it looks interesting enough and I can clean it off then I’ll look through pretty much anything. I remember one person dumped a jewelry box into some kitchen waste and chicken bones so for the next half hour I was looking between the chicken bones and all that trying to hopefully find some gold.

Did you?

Ummm. I don’t think I did from that bag. I found some jewelry in a different bag that didn’t have chicken juice in it. That’s why I was so dedicated to that bag. I found some really nice gold cufflinks actually. But that particular bag wasn’t that great. (Long pause). Yeah you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. A lot of people don’t really want to get dirty at all. But I feel connected to it for whatever reason.

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Have you had any narrow escapes with the police or security?

There was this one time. I was checking out some trash and this security guard stopped. He asked me what I was doing. I said, “Well, I’m looking through the trash.” He was like, “I’m going to give you a ticket.” I was like, “Whatever, fuck you.” I just got into my car and drove away but he followed me and I left Hampstead and I’m pretty sure he can’t follow me out of Hampstead. (Laughs). That was my moment of badassery. I didn’t face any repercussions for that. I stopped going to Hampstead during the morning. Then I started going at night. Just to avoid that guy, who most certainly hates me now.

I think that’s the only reason why there’s not many trash pickers in TMR. One time I saw a guy. He was an Indian-looking guy, probably from Parc-Ex, on a bike. I never saw him again. I’m pretty sure TMR security takes care of them. (He laughs.) Anyone who doesn’t look like they belong. You know. You know all about power and all of that stuff.

Do you think doing this has kind of influenced or changed how you see those things?

Not too much. I already had kind of a picture. I think more I’ve just come to see the, uh, differentiation between rich and poor is more vivid in my mind now. Before I knew. But now I feel. I guess that’s the difference. I guess I always knew that authority was a weird thing. (He laughs.)

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What did we find, you ask? In an email, Martin broke down the proceeds from that night’s trash run:

“I didn’t have the cords for the PSPs, and the Gameboy had a pretty dark screen but I sold them ‘as is’ on eBay for a profit of 65$. The Expo 67 pamphlets (from that spot with the old books) sold recently for 50$ + shipping. The old books await yard sale season, though I did barter a few on the Bunz Trading Zone Facebook page for beer / food. All in all, a solid if unspectacular night (I find about 80$ worth of stuff on an “average” night, but sometimes I’ll find much more or nothing at all).”

(He doesn’t mention the electric can-opener, the solid metal vase, and the in-working-order brand-new stereo system I took home that night.)

Aaron Vansintjan is a co-editor at Uneven Earth and is currently pursuing a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. He writes about gentrification, food politics, environmental justice, and contemporary politics.

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Planting the seeds of degrowth in times of crisis

Photo: Marula Tsagkari
Photo: Marula Tsagkari

by Marula Tsagkari

We must look for man wherever we can find him. When on his way to Thebes Oedipus encountered the Sphinx, his answer to its riddle was: ‘Man’. That simple word destroyed the monster. We have many monsters to destroy. Let us think of the answer of Oedipus.

These words are from the Greek Poet Giorgos Seferis’ speech at the Nobel Banquet. Today they are more relevant than ever, as humanity fights against a ‘contemporary Sphinx’: the utopian ideal of an infinite growth defined by economic indicators and theories. This promethean way of living has sustained the idea that increased wealth was the ‘one pill to cure them all.’

However, in the past years, it has become more and more obvious that resources are finite and that the planet cannot sustain continued growth. And just like that, the utopian ideal started falling apart. The latest economic crisis showed the cruelest face of the unsustainable capitalistic system. It has become clear now, more than ever, that we live in an absurd world, that despite increased wealth, unemployment and poverty are increasing, conflicts are continuing, and inequality keeps rising. In this context, the idea of degrowth points to an alternative route, and establishes a vocabulary to describe a new world based on solidarity and cooperation.

While the idea of degrowth is rather old (seeds can be found in the 1970s), the movement has only started to gain ground in recent years, especially in the echoes of the recent economic crisis. The Conferences in Leipzig in 2014 and in Budapest in 2016 brought together thousands of scientists and citizens with different backgrounds and ideologies including sufficiency-orientated critics of civilization, reformists, pacifist idealists, and libertarian leftists. However, they all seem to share the common belief that the current economic model is unsustainable, as well as a vision of a different way of living.

Perhaps because the movement found its voice through people’s dissatisfaction following economic crisis, many confuse degrowth with the idea of ‘unsustainable degrowth’, which is often synonymous with economic recession and social instability. On the contrary, the core of ‘sustainable degrowth’ is the concept of ‘progress’, but a progress not related to an increase of the GDP, large-scale production, or over-consumption. As Tim Jackson puts it, ‘Every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth’. And exactly this is the myth that the degrowth movement seeks to demystify.

At the same time that the degrowth movement was gaining ground in the public discourse, my country, Greece, was living the most severe economic recession since the Second World War.

At the same time that the degrowth movement was gaining ground in the public discourse, my country, Greece, was living the most severe economic recession since the Second World War. Greece entered the Eurozone in 2001 and since then joined the privileges of being a member of the EU monetary union, which led to a rapid increase in GDP between 2002 and 2008. However, Greece was unable to recover from the global economic crisis and, in 2009, Greek debt peaked at €310.4 billion.

Since then, the country has been trapped in a vicious cycle of bailout programs and austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), under the watchful eye of the German government. These measures came with many costs. The austerity plans included strict public cuts (in health and education), measures in the private sector (massive dismissals), increased taxes, and reduced pensions. These decisions increased political instability and had a severe social cost. Unemployment was last reported to be at 23%, and 45.7% among young people (January 2017); while there are more than 20,000 homeless people (February 2016). Thus, the initial economic crisis has been transformed into a multifaceted social, political, and environmental crisis—what Geels calls a ‘triple crisis’, each of which is connected to the other.

In Greece, these interactions are now becoming clear. There was an increase in the number of smog events due to the increased price of oil, while it a rapid increase in illegal hunting and logging related to sharp budget cuts in conservation was also observed.

In the Chinese language the word crisis is represented by two symbols. The first means danger and, the second, opportunity.

In the Chinese language the word crisis is represented by two symbols. The first means danger and, the second, opportunity. It is true that economic crises are complex phenomena, and a form of exogenous shock in the society. On the other hand, they are also an opportunity to challenge the current way of thinking and they can open a door to a profound change.

As some supporters of degrowth have claimed, this new era will be born from the ashes of the present unsustainable system, or more specifically, active social movements can gradually pave the way for a bigger change. The work of Giorgos Kallis, Francois Schneider, and Joan Martinez-Alier offers a useful starting point. They claim that a crisis can be seen as an opportunity for alternative discourses and the seeds can be found in community-based initiatives that can form the pieces that, in the future, will fit into a bigger puzzle.

This idea triggered my interest, and I decided to focus my research on the question of a sustainable degrowth transition in Greece, and to what extent it could result from this increased civic engagement. And taking this as a starting point, the idea I want to put forward is that in Greece, despite the crisis (οr because of the crisis) one can find the seeds that can support the idea of degrowth.

The early seeds of a degrowth economy in Greece

Civic engagement was rather underdeveloped in Greece before the economic crisis. For instance, in 2005, the Civicus Survey pointed out that Greek civil society is anemic, as it was dominated by political parties and the family. However, in the wake of the economic crisis, civic activism appeared as a spontaneous response to increased social inequality and poverty. Aside from the increased number of NGOs, new, informal groups based on solidarity erupted and formed grassroots movements and networks. In times of crisis an ‘alternative, parallel’ economy was born.

But it would be a mistake to assume that this new economy came out of nowhere. Greece is a country with a strong sense of community and a culture of self-organization. The pharmacist, the butcher, and the fisherman of the neighborhood are integral figures of Greek culture. Everybody knows them and their stores are often a gathering point. Unfortunately, these small businesses are also the most harmed by the economic crisis and the austerity measures. Between 2008 and 2015, more than 20.000 small local businesses closed in Greece, according to the European Commission. As a response to the absence of local gathering points, and the loss of jobs, a number of social movements and cooperations emerged during the times of crisis.

The pharmacist, the butcher, and the fisherman of the neighborhood are integral figures of Greek culture. Everybody knows them and their stores are often a gathering point.

What’s more, the idea of cooperation has always been an important element of Greek tradition. In fact, Greek cooperative traditions may be the oldest in Europe. The idea of self-organization can be found in ancient Greek times in the form of trade unions. Cooperatives were also present, in a more advanced form, in the Byzantine Empire. These consisted of unions of land or livestock owners into common production and management systems. In this period they were recognized by the legislation of Leo VI the Wise and achieved increased autonomy—becoming a vital part of the economy.

Cooperatives were also present during the Ottoman rule (1453- 1821) and had an important role during the national liberation war of 1821. During this period new cooperatives popped up in small villages, where small groups of producers known as ‘syntrofies’ (companies or friendships) decided to cooperate to avoid competition. In some cases they were even able to export their products to other European countries.17 After Greece became an independent country the cooperations remained active, working for the establishment of a democratic regime.

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Photo: Marula Tsagkari

 

The revitalization of Greece’s cooperative movement

Coming back to the present, the Greek cooperative movement is still a vibrant part of the economy. The numbers speak for themselves, as there are currently more than 3000 agriculture cooperatives, 14 co-operative banks and 48 womens’ co-operatives. In addition, one can find 23 electrician, 33 plumber and 41 pharmacist co-operatives all around the country.

Lately, the idea of cooperatives has once again increased in popularity. People prefer products they can trust and remind them of their ‘grandmother in the village’. They also want to support local communities. Ιn this context, cooperatives offer products whose raw materials come directly from the land of the members of the cooperative or the village, they are often based on traditional recipes from the women in the villages, and in most cases they pack and promote their products by themselves.

On the island of Lesvos, more and more women who lost their job during the crisis joined the women’s cooperative. This increase in the number of memberships gave them the opportunity to augment their production and expand their network. They take advantage of the oranges produced in the area, which remained unused the previous years, to make desserts and jams. They also use ‘neratzath’, a type of rose water made from the leaves of the orange tree, to make cosmetics and perfumes. Nowadays, their products (sweets, jams, pasta, and cheese) can be found all around the country.

Even in big cities a number of cooperatives have sprung up. In Athens one can find the cooperative coffee shops Mantalaki, Pagkaki, Syggrouomeno; the Syn Allois shop, an importer of fair-trade products; the publisher Ekdoseis ton Sinaderfon; the computer repair shop Stin Priza; and the grocery store Lacandona, among others. Many of these stores operate under the umbrella of a bigger network, Kolektivas.

The ‘do you want milk’ cooperative started in 2011, and, despite the crisis, now counts more than 60 sell points, 50 farms, and, on a daily basis, they produce 10% of the domestic production.

One initiative is the ‘do you want milk’ (thes gala) cooperative. The cooperative is made up of milk producers from central Greece and supplies with fresh milk a number of ‘milk ATMs’ in Larissa, Athens, and Greece. Consumers can fill their bottles with fresh milk, produced less than 24 hours ago, with a cheaper price than can be found in the supermarket. The cooperative started in 2011, and, despite the crisis, now counts more than 60 sell points, 50 farms, and, on a daily basis, they produce 10% of the domestic production.

 

New consumption habits

Overall, consumption in Greece had been significantly reduced as a result of diminished wages and pensions. As documented by the Hellenic Statistical Authority in 2014, average household consumption expenditure went down by almost 32% since 2009.

As a response to this decrease in consumption and available funds, more and more second hand stores have popped up in the big cities

As a response to this decrease in consumption and available funds, more and more second hand stores have popped up in the big cities. One of the most famous is located in the neighborhood of Eksarcheia; a neighborhood known for its anti-establishment and anarchist character. In this store, one can trade old clothes for new ones. ‘Our store is a response to the overconsumption, which is one of the reasons that brought us into the present crisis,’ said one of the women who worked there:

Nowadays, more and more people prefer to buy second hand clothes, especially if they can exchange them with some of the clothes they don’t need anymore. Of course some of our clients are people who can’t afford buying new clothes but the past year we see more and more people who choose not to buy new clothes as a way of living.

In the same spirit one can find similar initiatives of book exchange, furniture exchange, and even exchange of mobile phones.

Another important element of the Greek tradition is the ‘100 km rule’ (before it became famous internationally as the ‘100 mile diet’). According to this principle, people should aim to consume products that are produced within 100km from the residence. Τhis concept was a pillar of the Greek diet between the 50s and 80s, however, due to increased urbanization and working hours, and the large variety of products available on supermarkets, it was replaced by the concepts of ‘easy’ and ‘quick food’. Recently, the idea of the ‘local farmers market’ aims to bring back this idea. Producers from all around the country gather in a different neighborhood every Sunday and sell their products without Intermediaries.

In one of my visits in a local farmers’ market in my neighborhood, I had the chance to speak with M.X., a cheese producer from northern Greece. ‘Because of the crisis people want to make sure they buy local products,’ she told me. ‘More and more people tell me that they avoid buying from big supermarkets, not only because the products are more expensive, but because they know that, in this way, international brands take advantage of the Greek producers and buyers,’ she added. ‘I talk with people and give them all the information they need about my products. I am even willing to negotiate the price when someone can’t afford it!’

Social solidarity groups are also rapidly growing these past years. The work of organizations like ‘Doctors without Borders’, ‘Doctors of the World’, which were active before the crisis, are now supported by new health care organizations like the ‘social infirmaries’ (koinonika iatreia). Acting at a municipal level, these groups consist of doctors and nurses who treat patients for free. Similar initiatives are organized by pharmacists, teachers, and even coffee shops, which offer a free cup of coffee to people who cannot afford it.

Last but not least, a number of more politically-oriented social movements emerged during the times of crisis as a response to the austerity measures and the dysfunctional democracy. The big protests of 2008, the movement in Sundagma square and the ‘I won’t pay movement’ (Kínima den Pliróno) are some examples. Squares and occupied public and private buildings were transformed into sites of political contestation and mobilization.

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Photo: Marula Tsagkari

From ‘a way of living’ to a way to ‘make a living’

The above examples illustrate an increased tendency around niches of social movements that can form an alternative model of growth, based on solidarity, cooperation, and mutual respect. Many of these initiatives form part of the tradition that is rooted in the Greek culture that did not fade completely in modern life. This can offer a comparative advantage towards a potential transition to a degrowth model, as many of the ideas this model embodies are neither new nor strange to the Greek society. Of course these former traditional societies had a number of limitations (e.g. racism, xenophobia) that are not in line with the ideas the degrowth movement puts forward. Thus it is essential to learn from the past and keep the positive elements that can pave the way for a new way of living.

These ideas are becoming popular mainly as an alternative to the economic crisis; however they need to form ‘a way of living’ instead of a way to ‘make a living’.

These ideas are becoming popular mainly as an alternative to the economic crisis; however they need to form ‘a way of living’ instead of a way to ‘make a living’. Nowadays, many of the people who choose to buy from second hand stores or to visit the farmers market are driven by need. On the contrary, this attitude should grow into a fundamental mentality. Most of the people I had the chance to interview pointed out that, in the past years, they observed a change in people’s attitude, mainly because of the ongoing crisis that made many question the success of the present system. But is this enough?

The answer is no. This is only a first step in a long path. These initiatives will not have a significant impact if they are not supported by adequate education and publicity. Such instruments can strengthen these alternatives by raising awareness—triggering the interest of more people and encouraging the formation of new projects.

State intervention is another factor that can shape social movements. In the case of Greece, the government seems to ignore the importance of these movements, and often threatens their existence through increased taxation and stricter legislation. In the present political situation, it is nearly impossible to picture a major movement that does not involve the state. At first glance, this seems to be a contradiction as it’s a common belief that the state is a unitary actor, and that social movements are a separate unity and often in opposition to the state. In this context one should realize that these initiatives, through their increased influence, can have the power to form a different political regime that, in turn, will also transform them. To use the words of Saturnino Borras, ‘societal actors attempt to influence and transform state actors, but in the process are themselves transformed—and vice versa.’ Thus, realizing the potential of these initiatives, especially at a municipal level, could be a crucial first step.

One should realize that these initiatives, through their increased influence, can have the power to form a different political regime that, in turn, will also transform them.

Today, we are participants in a complex and severe crisis, and a radical crisis requires radical solutions. Through a number of examples it became obvious that in Greece there is groundwork for a transition to sustainable degrowth. There are seeds in the numerous social movements, voluntary actions, and solidarity networks. What remains to be seen is if the seeds will flower. We should not forget that, as Rebecca Solnit says, ‘Change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.’

Many thanks to all the interviewees and to Brayton Noll for his useful comments.

Marula Tsagkari is a researcher, and environmental professional from Athens, Greece. She holds a BSc in Biology and she is currently enrolled in the Erasmus Mundus Master of Environmental, Science, Policy and Management. She lives in Athens, Greece and her research focuses on the areas of Environmental Politics, Policy and Justice especially in the European South.

 

Is tourism a poverty trap?

 

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Selling wares in Sapa, northern Vietnam. Source: Flickr

by Sam Gardner

I am walking through town in the remote and charming mountain region in Vietnam, looking for the market. A young woman helps us out. She walks part of the way to the market, and we have a conversation on what brings us there, and what she does for a living. She works in the kitchen in one of the hotels. Her mother is in charge of the kitchen. She is off to buy groceries. What will be her future? In any major city of Vietnam, a bright woman like her with this level of English fluency would be expected to study. Here, I expect her to work at the hotel for most of her life and move up the hierarchy until she fills the place of her mother.

Tourism is a global phenomenon, an important economic sector, and it shapes how people promote their own national identity. Most articles on the economic effects of tourism look into the income it generates or the investment it brings to a region, the destruction and environmental damage that it causes, whether income from tourism is sufficiently returned to communities where tourism is landing, and the effects of tourism on public life and identity politics.

This article focuses on the income that will not be generated when there is a priority for economic development in the tourism sector because tourism crowds out other options.  A region’s dependency on tourism inhibits development in other sectors—sectors with more productivity and development potential.  

The Belgian coast. Source: Flickr
The Belgian coast. Source: Flickr

Single-use infrastructure

The first highway in Belgium was finished in 1956 and ran from Brussels, the capital, to Ostend, the place of the Royal Holiday Home on the coast. The highway was constructed to facilitate the summer holiday migration from the cities to the coast, as well as the flows of international tourism embarking to London from the port of Ostend. Developers constructed a wall of high rise apartment blocks along the coast destroying the dunes and wildlife. These investments did not lead to a more diversified economy and the coastline stayed a backwater, even with all this building and tourism. Still in 1980, the region needed special European funding for its development, notwithstanding its prime location between important ports in Belgium and France.

Due to the seasonal nature of tourism the highway was, and is, never wide enough in peak season, while below capacity during the low season. The same goes with all infrastructure: hotels, houses, high-rises, shops, restaurants, roads. As full capacity is needed during important stretches of time, alternative uses are difficult.

Often public infrastructure for tourism promotion is only singly-use: a highway to an economically unimportant city, a cable lift, a hotel. The private and public infrastructure for tourism is often exploitative: building a hotel in a prime landscape makes the landscape less prime for others, and inflation on investment leads to it becoming a typical tourist trap, as in Niagara falls, where the landscape is only a backdrop for tourist fleecing.

 A region’s dependency on tourism inhibits development in other sectors—sectors with more productivity and development potential.

As a lot of private infrastructure for mass tourism is foreign or large, the focus is on fast returns on investment, without much attention to the needs and potential of the local communities and the local economy. The returns flow back to the investors, and the unschooled local population stagnates.

 

Low return on investment in education

In an economy dominated by tourism, the return on education is low, keeping people in a low income trajectory. Jobs are in hospitality or sales sectors, with limited educational needs, and wages are never high. Young people find a job, especially during high season, with a lot of unemployment between peaks. Why study? You can find a job without much schooling and have a lot of pocket money or even start a family. There is an advantage to speak some languages and know some basic skills, but higher education is not really needed. Even if higher education is available (which is often not the case) – there is no incentive to study for years instead of earning an income immediately.

The individual is stuck in a flat income trajectory, the family is stuck in a rut and the community is not developing.

Over a lifetime there is nearly no increase in productivity and salary. Service jobs require real skill—acquired by training or practice—but the limits on productivity are also real: you can only make a bed so fast (and honestly I cannot do it at all). The individual is stuck in a flat income trajectory, the family is stuck in a rut and the community is not developing.

As the employment options for higher education in the region are limited—and these jobs are often filled by people and employers coming from other regions—there are few role models for education. The role models for success would be rather the entrepreneur who, with luck and hard work, creates a successful business from scratch. It is fashionable to praise the entrepreneurial model, but for widespread growth, this maverick approach is definitely less reliable as a “one size fits all” solution than investment in human resources: education.

In industrial or postindustrial economies the return on investment in education is high. Unschooled labour is needed for the initial stages of industrialisation, but, very soon, schooled labour gets better opportunities. The menial jobs are done by immigrants from the periphery (yes the migrants from the poor, touristic regions). The difference in pay and status between a schooled and unschooled job is important enough to postpone income, marriage, and life until after university. Most industries suffer from Baumol’s cost disease: as wages rise in other industries, employees start to expect rising income, in line with the other sectors. This way a sector with low productivity becomes uncompetitive for labour and sheds jobs. The invisible hand at work. When tourism is a dominant sector in a region is isolated from other industries and does not suffer this effect. Normally the tourism industry, with its low wages, should shrink compared to the rest of the economy. But in a tourist trap, the salaries stay where they are.

In regions dominated by tourism, emigration remains the most efficient way to lift anyone and their family into prosperity. Getting out of the region with the family is an escape towards higher productivity and higher education.

The tourist trap

Tourist areas are not leading towards a diversified, sustainable economy. The tourist is a captive market, and the drive for better quality of products or services is low. The tourist will buy the only junk they can get once they are trapped at the tourist attraction. The “development” towards a more sophisticated economy does not happen, the products are, and stay, crap. Indeed, this is why we call it a tourist trap. With all respect for the painstaking manual craftwork of the Indigenous people, most will never earn more than around a dollar a day, even when cheating the tourist whenever they can (as they should).

Tourism makes people—most often women—exhibits in a human zoo. A museum piece to look at, to stare at, or to give a penny for a picture.

When tourism is the dominant sector, most jobs will be in “service” functions—as a servant to outsiders. When the lure of tourism is some exotic ethnicity, even the core identity makes people—most often women—exhibits in a human zoo. A museum piece to look at, to stare at, or to give a penny for a picture.

In touristic areas women will often be forced into sex work and face exploitation from their handlers or abusive behavior from customers—and even harassment from the police. Like in mining towns, shipping ports, and military bases—where the economy revolves around the constant influx of strangers with a lot of money to spend—authorities look the other way or even participate in and profit from exploitation in the sex industry.

How do you build a sense of community in a village if in every bar, restaurant, and square there are many more strangers than neighbours?

Overall, mass tourism involves low esteem jobs, low-quality trinkets, and overcrowded public places with little space for the local community life. How do you build a sense of community in a village if in every bar, restaurant, and square there are many more strangers than neighbours?

 

The charming resource curse

Tourism is a “charming resource” based economy. It shares elements of natural resource based economies described in the study “Urbanisation without industrialisation“. In this study the authors explain that cities in a natural resource economy are ‘consumption cities’, in contrast to ‘production cities’ with a mix of industry, agriculture and services. The composition of the workforce, poverty prospects, and long term growth are all different for each kind of city. A region with an economy dominated by tourism has characteristics of consumption cities, and the prospects for long term balanced development with rising productivity are low.

Unbridled one-sided industrial development can have the same effect: polluting industries crowd out all other activities. However, modern urban development thrives on diversity and synergy: the better a city is at creating a living environment for workers, managers and students, the better it becomes at attracting industries. As a bonus, a city becomes more interesting for tourists when it is more livable. A modern city becomes more and more diversified as it becomes more successful. It is the complexity of the social and economic network that leads to its success.

 

Tourism within limits

The growing resistance to touristification in cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam shows that the core of the problem is understood by the populations involved.  As the conventional wisdom is that any development is good development, their resentment is normally ignored and ridiculed. However, cities with a “real” economy keep tourism within bounds. Sometimes they even revolt against it. The latest measures of the municipality of Barcelona show a revolt against tourism. In New York too, there is an ongoing debate to keep tourism within limits. Standards are proposed to limit the damage tourism does to a society and the environment.


Cities with a “real” economy keep tourism within bounds.

It is possible to maintain a proud identity and grow a developed and prosperous country, but not when tourism dominates. Japan has proven that it is possible, Singapore, France, and most European cities too. Tourists are welcome, but the city is there for the citizens, and the investments in the city are to make the quality of life better for their own population. Tourists enjoy these quality of live investments too, but they are not the main beneficiaries. This is possible if tourism is a sideshow, something mostly using available resources and adding income to local restaurants instead of being an economic focus in its own right.

To conclude, tourism should be considered as one option to complement other economic priorities that fully optimize the existing capacities of the physical, human, and economic infrastructure of a city or a region. Moreover, it can be a way to strengthen local identity and pay for maintenance of culture and beauty. It should not be pursued on its own as a gateway to economic and social development, because too many aspects of tourism skew the economy, present the local identity as “exotic” and act as a poverty trap.

Just as the one-industry city has been proven to be a bad idea for manufacturing or heavy industry, the one-industry region is a bad idea too, at least if that industry is tourism.

Sam Gardner is a development and humanitarian professional with field experience in Central and South Africa, Central America and Asia.

Why we’re not going to Mars

Astronauts eat the first lettuce grown in space at the International Space Station. Source: NASA
Astronauts eat the first lettuce grown in space at the International Space Station. Source: NASA

by Timothy Crownshaw


There are many misconceptions and popular expectations of science, industry and progress which haunt our cultural consciousness.
These often manifest as a relentless anticipation for new human endeavours and technologies, fulfilling a wide range of imagined needs. Each of these is supposedly arriving any day now. At present, sentient AI, designer gene-editing, lab-grown meat and nuclear fusion are all mainstays. Just do a quick search for ‘futurology’ online and you’ll see a dizzying circus of techno-fantasies, each one promising to free us from some obligation, annoyance, or expense. All we could ever want, and more! Brought to us by… technology! Each decade brings with it a new range of curiosities. Most of these eventually lose their lustre when they turn out to be technically infeasible or commercially problematic. Ask yourself, is anyone talking about jetpacks, nanotechnology, or robot servants lately?

One of these fantasies is particularly powerful and has been bugging me for some time: human settlement of the red planet. This has been featured in numerous sci-fi novels and Hollywood movies, and covered in detail in publications such as Time and Scientific American. Public figures have taken it upon themselves to champion the supposedly noble cause of a manned Mars mission, including Elon Musk, Buzz Aldrin (he wrote a book about it) and Stephen Hawking. There’s even the Mars Society dedicated to the goal.

The Mars One project, probably the most visible settlement initiative, claims that a manned mission is feasible within a decade, using current technology. In fact, a recent comprehensive assessment of the immense challenges involved, carried out by the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, concludes that for the first intrepid settlers the trip would be both a one way ticket and an eventual death sentence. Imagine the places on Earth that are the most hostile to human life – Death Valley, the South Pole, the Mariana trench – Mars is worse. Far worse. There are reasons we don’t live in these places, and they are the same reasons we haven’t been back to the moon since 1972.

The primary barrier to building a colony on Mars is almost too obvious to notice, but it’s there in plain sight; it is a dead planet. And while the media talk a lot about how and when we might get to Mars, the question of why almost never comes up. Let’s put on our ecologist hats and look at it critically:

1. Zero carrying capacity for human life

In fact, one could argue that the carrying capacity on Mars is actually negative thanks to the cosmic radiation, extreme cold and low gravity (only 38% of Earth gravity!). Any settlers would simply struggle to stay alive in conditions vastly different than those we evolved in. Fighting the loss of bone density, novel cancers, immune dysfunction, and a range of psychological problems would be an inescapable and ultimately losing battle.

2. The fragility of artificial ecological systems

The biosphere we are embedded within on Earth is the supreme life support system, providing us with everything we need to survive. Mars doesn’t possess the amazingly complex feedback loops which regulate and maintain living communities. All attempts thus far to create viable closed ecological systems, such as the Biosphere experiments of the 1990s, have failed dramatically. The lesson to take from this is that any ‘designed’ ecological system, with technology substituting for natural processes (a likely prerequisite for a Mars settlement), is an inherently unstable thing. Even if a closed agricultural system could be established, peak equatorial solar irradiance on Mars is only a little over half what the surface of the Earth receives, which would make growing food a very challenging task.

3. The costs of a foothold on a barren world

On Earth, we are fortunate to be endowed with abundant low-entropy resources, the fundamental enabler of life, which life also creates by concentrating matter and energy into useful forms. With no forests or oceans, nearly all necessary materials would need to be transported to Mars. Mineral ore mining, the only extraction activity which could conceivably be carried out in situ, would face immense operational difficulties. Self-sufficient production of the enormous array of materials and components necessary to sustain a colony would require a significant industrial base and workforce, which would then in turn need to be supported. Taken together, this would be a very marginal prospect, relegating any Mars settlement project to a perpetual dependence on imports. The only exports the new Martians could manage would likely be various scientific data and footage of their daily lives for the entertainment of us Earthlings – not exactly a strong proposition for a long-term colony facing costs several orders of magnitude higher than any other in human history.

And when we consider extra-terrestrial settlement, Mars is the easy option! Anyone who claims we can find an Earth-like world in another solar system and make the voyage clearly isn’t familiar with the mind melting distances involved. The fastest spacecraft we have ever built, the New Horizons probe, would still take around 55,000 years to reach our closest neighbouring solar system. And if against all odds, we found a suitable world with a thriving ecosystem, upon arrival we would have an approximately 50% chance that the indigenous life is based on dextro amino acids (assuming it is carbon-based at all) which would render it useless to humans.

So, that’s it then. I think we can safely conclude that we’re not moving house any time soon. Not to Mars, and not anywhere else. To be clear, when I say ‘we’ aren’t going to Mars, I mean the collective we. I’ll admit there still may be an outside chance that some consortium will fund and execute a mission to send a few poor, intrepid souls on a one-way trip to live short lives on Mars in a gruesome experiment, televised for all to watch. If it happens, this will be another sad consequence of our nihilistic cultural stampede towards anything resembling a bad reality TV pitch (which by the way, includes a certain new US president).

Space exploration has significant co-benefits, of course. But no more than the co-benefits to be expected from any large, scientifically advanced venture. And given the existential threats we are facing here at home, would those resources not be better invested in directly tackling the issues at hand? We have an urgent need not only for new and innovative technology, which is often assumed to be the singular answer, but on ways to rehabilitate society to find a way of life that doesn’t entail brutally efficient ecocide.

The Mars delusion highlights a simple but uncomfortable truth: our exuberance for technology and progress has ceased to be rational, despite the touted rationalism of the physical sciences, from which new innovations emerge. This is not scientific but rather the pinnacle of Scientism: the belief that application of the scientific method coupled with increasing technological complexity is the necessary and sufficient answer to all problems. This type of thinking has become a dangerous evasion of responsibility and reveals a stark lack of understanding of what really supports societies. The modern world doesn’t run on ‘technology’ alone. Technology, impressive as it often is, is simply a collection of tools and techniques for turning flows (or stocks) of materials and energy from the natural world into valuable goods and services. Technology does not exist in a vacuum. Increasing technological complexity continues its slow march, yes, but often alongside diminishing returns, unforeseen consequences, hidden dependencies and externalised costs.

I’m not against technology on principle. It is important not to dismiss real and important technological advances. I’m not even against space exploration. There are likely more scientific insights to be gained by sending unmanned probes to the remote corners of our own cosmic backyard. But I am against any assertion that the future of our species is out there, somewhere else. Unfortunately, the romanticism of space exploration is a powerful force and won’t relinquish its grip on the popular imagination easily.

Some might accuse me of lacking ambition, of having given up on progress. Why pour cold water over this popular myth? Surely a dream is a good thing, uniting us towards a common goal and inspiring the scientists, engineers, and explorers of the future to aim for the stars? Well, daydreaming is a fine thing on a Sunday afternoon, but not such a good idea when standing at a precipice.

It’s true that the vastness of space evokes a deep awe, but the future of humanity lies right here. We need to wake up and face that reality. Technology is not going to insulate us from the consequences of our own actions. When the hype has faded and the marketing campaigns have wound down, we’ll be left standing in a damaged world with dwindling time left to affect real change. The sum of our future as a species, whatever that may be, is here, on this remarkable blue planet. It is only when we confront the empty promises of human space exploration that we can clearly reflect on how truly unique and precious our home really is.

Timothy Crownshaw is a PhD student in the department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill.

This article originally appeared on the Economics for the Anthropocene blog.

Power and patriarchy

by Elisabeth Peredo Beltrán

This article originally appeared in the Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2017 report

After more than a decade of processes that brought hope to the progressive world, several developments in Latin America in 2016 suggest we have reached the end of a cycle of left-wing victories in the region.

The collapse of left-wing governments in Argentina and Brazil, and the wave of environmental, democratic and political conflicts in others (Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela) raise critical questions about the viability of these models of social change.

Why are these important progressive processes that began with a huge degree of legitimacy now facing social resistance for departing from the ideals that inspired them?

This is a crisis that offers pointers and important lessons for us all, about the dynamics of social transformation and about ourselves as activists.

Bolivia and what it means to the world

Bolivia is an important learning laboratory with useful lessons not only for the local left but also to progressive and left-wing forces in the region and worldwide.

It was the first country in the Southern Cone to re-establish democracy in the 1980s, following a lengthy period of military dictatorships. It was the first in the region to experience significant anti-colonial indigenous rebellions in the late twentieth century.

It led the fight against neoliberalism, with major victories such as the expulsion of Bechtel (the US transnational corporation (TNC)) in the famous ‘Water War’ in 2000, the nationalization of its natural gas reserves in 2005 and the country’s withdrawal from the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).

Bolivia was in the vanguard in developing concepts on which the narrative of ‘Twenty-First Century Socialism’ is based, such as ‘living well’ and participatory democracy, summed up in the famous slogan ‘govern by obeying the people’.

Bolivia’s experience provides an exceptional opportunity for us to conduct an in-depth analysis of the unresolved ‘knots’ and challenges that the last few years have laid bare.

This essay is partly a personal testimony based on my recollections and assessment of the path Bolivia has taken, its process of emancipation and social change, and the attendant difficulties and frustrations.

My aim is to provide a perspective from the ‘inside’, drawing on the feelings and ideals of those of us who believed profoundly in the need for social change and committed our energy and convictions, our lives and our emotions, to these processes.

It is also a heartfelt response to a reality that pains and concerns us as we see a powerful process of social change collapsing and becoming more extreme (and dangerous) on issues of power, the environment, democracy, women, and a caring society. This represents a profound challenge to us in how we put our utopias into practice and make them effective and real.

Bolivia is an important learning laboratory with useful lessons not only for the local left but also to progressive and left-wing forces in the region and worldwide.

I still remember how deeply moved I felt in 2003, after President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada had been forced to flee the country as a result of mass street protests against his role in the October Massacre, when a woman in El Alto took off her ‘señorita’s [employer] clothes’ of blouse and trousers, burned them in the middle of the street and wearing the traditional clothes of the indigenous chola, proudly proclaimed: ‘now I am myself, the person I always was….

This was the beginning of a new and different time for Bolivian society. In the past, indigenous women were not allowed to enter the parliament building or the presidential palace. They were even banned from luxury hotels and theatres. Social exclusion and racism were deeply entrenched in everyday life and seen as a ‘natural’ component of social relations.

It was thanks to struggles by indigenous urban and rural unions, such as the union of domestic workers who fought long to have their rights legally recognized, that changes great and small penetrated the farthest reaches of Bolivian society.

They shook up the discriminatory practices of the white elites accustomed to expropriating their labour, as well as the mestizo and urban indigenous property owners who likewise exploited impoverished women in their homes, secure in the impunity that a deeply racist, neocolonial society protected them.  

‘Imagine wanting to regulate the work of the domestic workers with new laws!’, said the elites. ‘It would be like stirring up a hornets’ nest – they’re only going to create turmoil in society!’ ‘We can’t allow them to unionise’, said others. ‘When they get together they just infect each other…’

But it was the domestic workers who won. Working as a unified alliance with rural and indigenous movements, workers, residents of low-income and even some middle-class neighbourhoods, they managed to impose their demands as part of a huge wave of social change that had been building up for decades.

It was the culmination of a mass social mobilization for indigenous territories and autonomy, respect for human rights, recognition and inclusion of their vision of the commons.

But it was also the result of the determination of broad swathes of the middle class, intellectuals and activists who took up these demands as a way of saving themselves, of escaping from the prison that discrimination and the exclusion of indigenous people meant for their own lives, in order to build a different Bolivia.

Signs of change

The recent progressive period in Bolivia – and in other countries too – was the result of a lengthy political build-up: almost 40 years of resistance, rebellion and proposal-making.

It was nourished by the work of various groups of activists and collectives forged in different historical periods, such as those that resisted the dictatorships, neoliberalism, machismo and colonialism. It emerged after nearly two decades of bourgeois democracy that had focused on building an institutional framework under the mandates of neoliberalism to serve the class interests of Bolivia’s national elites in partnership with TNCs and international financial institutions (IFIs).

The recent progressive period in Bolivia – and in other countries too – was the result of a lengthy political build-up: almost 40 years of resistance, rebellion and proposal-making. It was nourished by the work of various groups of activists and collectives forged in different historical periods, such as those that resisted the dictatorships, neoliberalism, machismo and colonialism.

The wisdom accumulated in these protests and movement-building took political form and society was obliged to integrate them into new social pacts. These were expressed in the new Constitution (enacted in 2009 after being approved in a referendum) which led to the founding of a new state that finally put an end to republican-era colonialist ideas: the new Plurinational State of Bolivia, in which society’s expectations and ideals were distilled, shaping a new national horizon.

Capturing this historical moment of such transcendental importance was a new leader, an indigenous president who before taking office had said humbly: ‘With great respect, I want to ask our indigenous authorities, our organisations, our amautas (wise people) to control me, and if I am unable to move forward, please push me, brothers and sisters’ (Evo Morales, 2005).

From the process of change to the extractivist state

When Morales took office as President in 2006, he appointed Casimira Rodríguez, Executive Secretary of the Bolivian Federation of Domestic Workers, as the first indigenous Minister of Justice.

A woman who wore indigenous dress and spoke Quechua, she had spent almost all her life performing household chores for derisory wages. Nothing could be more symbolic than appointing an indigenous woman who was a cook and a worker to this post.

A series of progressive measures characterized the first years of the Morales government. These included the nationalization of the oil and gas industry, which restored the revenue from the sale of natural gas to the state, allowing the new government to develop redistribution policies that increased benefits for children, pregnant women and new mothers, and older people.

evomorales
President Evo Morales in 2009. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sebastian-baryli/3356940703/in/photostream/

It also marked the start of a period of economic growth that moved Bolivia from the category of ‘low-income country’ to ‘middle-income country’. Support for the Morales government rose to as high as 81%.

Gaining access to power gradually became an end in itself.

Now, ten years after taking state power with the legitimacy of social struggles that demanded deep social change, things have changed a great deal. This is not simply a ‘revolutionary ebb’ but a change of direction that can be seen in the deteriorating social fabric and institutions, and the impact of its economic and political model in local territories. It also represents a failure to establish the necessary social oversight mechanisms to sustain the vision.

Gaining access to power gradually became an end in itself. Hundreds of trade union and social movement leaders became secretaries, vice-ministers, ambassadors or members of parliament, weakening these popular forces. The number of civil servants grew by more than 70% since 2005, with the consequent increase in expenditure and government infrastructure.

By 2009, the Morales government and its Movement for Socialism (MAS) long-term political and economic project was becoming more apparent. It involved so many concessions to the reactionary and racist forces of the Santa Cruz oligarchy (in the east of Bolivia), that its youth wings – such as the Juventud Cruceñista, which had committed violent racist attacks against indigenous people during the Constituent Assembly process – actually joined the MAS support base in eastern Bolivia.

Even though MAS leaders continued to use environmentalist and leftist rhetoric, in practice the leadership was opening up to the proposals of the agribusiness sector and conventional visions of development. It aligned itself with a vision that is industrialist (this has not been achieved), developmentalist (this has not produced much in the way of results either) and extractivist, in partnership with local trade unions and capital from Europe, China and Russia. This model carries a heavy environmental and social toll for Bolivian society.

The rebellious and anti-systemic legacy of the water and gas wars – led by peasants and working class Bolivians – ended up being expropriated by the government, which turned it into the emblem of its ‘crusade for gas and economic growth’. This became a dogma laid out in national development plans that nobody is allowed to criticize.

Even though MAS leaders continued to use environmentalist and leftist rhetoric, in practice the leadership was opening up to the proposals of the agribusiness sector and conventional visions of development.

The slogan ‘partners not bosses’, which was used to confront regional economic powers and transnational imperialism, had secured the government a high degree of legitimacy and enabled it to strengthen the state and to establish a basic system of social redistribution. However, it also fortified a process of plundering indigenous territories in the Altiplano (highlands) and the Amazon region, affecting the rights of indigenous peoples and rural communities around the country.

On the international stage, President Evo Morales gave lengthy ecological speeches at the United Nations (UN) on the rights of nature and proclaimed an alternative view of development around the idea of ‘Living Well’ and ‘Mother Earth Rights’ that captivated everyone, at home and abroad

Contradictions in process of change unravel

But the rhetoric was not matched by any consequent action within Bolivia. In fact, Bolivia was already wedded to a development model that, far from reflecting a vision of harmony with nature, sought to re-enact a populist modern industrialism and developmentalism.

This was evident in April 2010, when Bolivia organized the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, bringing together thousands of international activists in an edifying policy debate that produced one of the most interesting social movement declarations on climate change. Yet at the same time, the government was going ahead with gas and oil exploration in Bolivia’s national parks, mining projects and had already decided to build a road through the TIPNIS national park and indigenous territory.

The TIPNIS road, a government project to connect Villa Tunari (in the Chapare region of Cochabamba) with San Ignacio de Moxos (in Beni in the north of the country), would cross the Isiboro Sécure National Park and the territory of indigenous peoples, supposedly protected by the Constitution.

The people – still trusting in their power to change government decisions – took to the streets in September 2011 to oppose the government’s plans, without suspecting that this time their power to change things would not stop this new injustice. The government did not hesitate to harshly repress the lowland indigenous peoples as they began the 8th Indigenous March to La Paz.

In fact, Bolivia was already wedded to a development model that, far from reflecting a vision of harmony with nature, sought to re-enact a populist modern industrialism and developmentalism.

The conflict caused the resignation of Defence Minister and great desperation and outrage among people who had supported the process of change right from the start. Shortly afterwards, the indigenous authorities who had led the march were harassed and persecuted, and the indigenous organizations forcibly split and manipulated by the government, which would then go ahead with the road-building project.

marchtolapaz2011
The 8th Indigenous march to La Paz in 2011. Source: Pablo Andres Rovero on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The conflicts surrounding TIPNIS marked a turning point in the process of change in Bolivia. It split the social movements, breaking the unity of the indigenous and rural organizations that had driven the process of change and alienating many activists who were not in government.

The conflict over the TIPNIS road revealed the crudest side of the process of change: the use of power and a national project which – departing from constitutional principles – was imposing an unscrupulous developmentalism and breaking openly with the rhetoric of Mother Earth and the rights of indigenous peoples.

The government did not hesitate to harshly repress the lowland indigenous peoples as they began the 8th Indigenous March to La Paz.

It is hard to forget the way in which the government promoted this road using populism and the language of machismo and patriarchy. When the project began, Morales said to people in the Chapare region:

If I had time, I’d go and flirt with all the Yuracaré women and convince them not to oppose it [the TIPNIS road]; so, you young men, you have instructions from the President to go and seduce the Yuracaré Trinitaria women so that they don’t oppose the building of the road. Approved? (La Razón, 2011)

Although women’s movements criticized these statements, they did not cause much of a reaction in the left-wing circles that were part of the Morales government.

Consolidation of extractivist economy

It was with these contradictions that Bolivia consolidated its model, defending its decisions by celebrating the highest economic growth rate in the region, ignoring the fact that it increased the economy’s dependency on the primary sector and inherently unstable commodity prices.

The oil and gas industry currently accounts for 69.1% of Bolivia’s exports, while agriculture (timber, quinoa etc) contributes 3.3% and manufactured products – in which the National Institute for Statistics (INE) includes soya and gold – represents 26%.

Annual deforestation rates in Bolivia are extremely high, with roughly 270,000 hectares disappearing each year. The country’s main contribution to global emissions and climate change comes from this change in land use, and it now ranks 27 out of 193 countries on this count.

In the last year, the clearing of new land for agriculture has been legalized in an agreement with agroindustry and the farming sector, allowing four times more land to be deforested than in the past.

These agreements have also led to an exponential increase in the use of genetically-modified seeds and glyphosate. Ninety-seven per cent of the soya produced in Bolivia is now genetically modified, and although it is argued that this is justified in order to supply food to the Bolivian people, these crops are mainly destined for export.

In the last year, the clearing of new land for agriculture has been legalized in an agreement with agroindustry and the farming sector, allowing four times more land to be deforested than in the past.

Major mining TNCs such as Sumitomo, Glencore, Pan American Silver and others are operating in Bolivia in business deals with the state mining company.

And the government has done little to address the power of so-called ‘mining cooperatives’ – small informal local enterprises that make up most of the mining industry (115,000 miners, compared with the only 7,500 workers in the state mining company), known for exploitative working conditions and destructive environmental practices due to the lack of regulations for this sector.

The Mining Law approved by the government in 2013 did little to improve this situation, undermining principles of prior consultation mandated by ILO Convention 169 and even allowing water courses to be altered to benefit mining projects.

Even the huge revenues obtained from the sale of natural gas at better prices have not been able to generate value-added productive industries nor used to assist the transition to renewable energies that would be more in tune with the rhetoric of climate justice that Bolivia proclaims in UN negotiations.

Indeed, contrary to its discourse, Bolivia did not support proposals to limit fossil-fuel subsidies at the Rio+20 and UN Climate Change summits, and it continues to subsidize its oil industry without even considering transitional energy policies.

Worse still, in the National Development Plan for 2025, Bolivia proposes to become a major regional ‘energy power’ and supply energy to neighbouring countries, which hardly reflects the transitions recommended by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to avoid worsening the climate crisis:

The new idea coming from this government is that we’re going to be an energy power. The twenty-first century for Bolivia is to produce oil, industrialise petrochemicals, industrialise minerals.  (Álvaro García Linera, Página Siete, 2015)

The plan is based on the commercial logic of selling electricity to Brazil to generate revenue expected to materialize in 10–15 years. Major hydroelectric dams, such as La Bala-Chepete and Rosita projects, take pride of place in the plan, even though this model has displaced indigenous peoples elsewhere in Central and South America, costing the lives of union leaders such as Berta Cáceres in Honduras.

Indeed, contrary to its discourse, Bolivia did not support proposals to limit fossil-fuel subsidies at the Rio+20 and UN Climate Change summits, and it continues to subsidize its oil industry without even considering transitional energy policies.

Vice-President García Linera appears to see no limits to their expansion:

That’s why, with President Evo (Morales), we’ve flown all over Bolivia in helicopters, looking for places where we could put a dam, and looking for gas. We’re seeking out the areas where there’s more gas, where there’s water, sites for dams.  Where there is water, it’s like pure gold falling from the sky. Where there is water, where we can build dams, that’s where you’ll find the gold, the money.

These plans are clearly out of line with the energy transitions required to mitigate and adapt to climate change. They also fail to take into account that neighbouring countries may take advantage of falling prices for solar and wind energy in the near future, which would eliminate the market for Bolivia’s energy exports.

As part of the same aim to become a major energy power, the government has also proposed investing in research on nuclear energy in partnership with Russia, with an ambiguous proposal that includes research on health and food radiation and the building of an experimental generator.

The project was approved through an international treaty signed with Russia that has been criticized as illegal for contradicting constitutional restrictions that prohibit transit of nuclear waste in Bolivian territory.

This is a project that requires a vast amount of money and, in spite of protests, is being imposed on the people living in one of the country’s largest cities, El Alto. The project was approved through an international treaty signed with Russia that has been criticized as illegal for contradicting constitutional restrictions that prohibit transit of nuclear waste in Bolivian territory.

Change, culture and power

What has happened to Bolivia’s progressive and left-wing forces? What happened to the drive for change and the social narrative in favour of water rights and sovereignty against corporate and imperialist power, and that conceived the idea of ‘living well’ as the basis for a new society?

How is the left processing its government’s retreat from the ideals of emancipation and social change? What happened to the autonomy of the social movements? What happened to the indigenous peoples? What happened to women and feminisms? What happened to the rights of Mother Earth?

In short, what does this process tell us about ourselves?

Thinking about ‘where to start to change things’ and ‘how to bring about change’ is of paramount importance right now and leads us to the key question regarding power, culture, the state and society.

What is it that really changes a society? And which structures, processes or values should we strengthen in order to ensure a solid, progressive social change, with an ajayu (spirit) that stays firm over time despite the disagreeable ups and downs of politics and power plays?

How is the left processing its government’s retreat from the ideals of emancipation and social change? What happened to the autonomy of the social movements? What happened to the indigenous peoples? What happened to women and feminisms? What happened to the rights of Mother Earth?

What is the place of culture and ethics in this enquiry? Although it seemed to have it all, the left is now facing unresolved ‘knots’ or contradictions that have led to a significant weakening of the progressive field and a shocking rise of authoritarian populist leaders.

Based on Bolivia’s experience, we need to ask why the left’s political legitimacy has allowed the traps of power to become invisible. And ask how the left can continue on its path and resolve its relationship with essential aspects of processes of social change such as democracy, the notion of the ‘vanguard’ and the subjects of social change, ecology and nature, patriarchy, feminism and women, the diversity of indigenous peoples, and, finally, how it processes its relationship with power.

Extractivism and violence against women

One of the most meaningful terrains in the contradictions besetting the Bolivian political process is the patriarchal ideology that has been like a second skin in the MAS way of governing, based on an authoritarian, male-chauvinist discourse and a symbolically powerful link between patriarchal power and the cultural foundations of the extractivist model.

The argument that ‘we are using capitalism to arrive at socialism’ became officially enshrined in the narrative of the Bolivian state, permitting both the control of financial capital and extractivism. In the same way, the androcentrism expressed in Morales’ phrase I am a feminist who tells sexist jokes became part of the content of government discourses and statements.

The ‘radical’ left that has accompanied this government from the beginning never challenged this ‘way of governing’ and permitted the spread of this heavily symbolic ideology. Those on the left who said they wanted to change the system ‘overlooked’ the patriarchal attitudes of their leaders and ‘forgave’ their unbridled machismo in the interests of a supposedly ‘higher purpose’ – the building of socialism.

Unmistakeable signs of a populist authoritarianism could be seen in the misogynistic remarks, sexist jokes, and homophobic statements such that made by Morales at the World Peoples’ Conference in April 2010: The chicken we eat is full of female hormones. That’s why when men eat that chicken they deviate from being men.

Or when Morales boasted of his ‘EVO CUMPLE’ (Evo Delivers) social programmes in villages using sexist jokes: When I go to a village, all the women end up pregnant and on their bellies it says: ‘Evo delivers’.

The argument that ‘we are using capitalism to arrive at socialism’ became officially enshrined in the narrative of the Bolivian state, permitting both the control of financial capital and extractivism. In the same way, the androcentrism expressed in Morales’ phrase ‘I am a feminist who tells sexist jokes’ became part of the content of government discourses and statements.

Or when he encouraged young men to do their military service as a way to ‘free’ themselves from the responsibility of paternity: As you generals, admirals, officers all know, when a youngster gets his girlfriend pregnant he prefers to escape to the barracks and when he gets there that soldier is untouchable.

Although laws and decrees have been passed in Bolivia to promote gender equality, eradicate violence and achieve parity in political representation, the repeated attacks on women in government speeches and the scant public investment to enforce stronger gender policies have weakened the process. This is yet another example of the dissonance between discourse and practice.

Patriarchy has features such as:

  • Devaluing the different ‘Other’ and making it invisible
  • The systematic practice of dividing the public from the private sphere, thus widening the distance between words and deeds
  • The denial of diversity and difference, negatively valuing difference as a deficit
  • Violence and subjugation as a means of self-assertion

These features have become consolidated in the government, together with the need to exercise power and control and demonstrate strength, authority and infallibility. This ended up co-opting leaders of the process of change from different walks of life.

When a comrade – a lifelong colleague – in a high-ranking political post said to me: ‘I am a good politician, because I am able to be cruel’, two things became clear to me. First, that the cycle of social change had come to an end because it had lost the ethical values that made the quest for social change worthwhile; and second, that power and machismo had become deeply embedded in this process as part of a structure that combined subjectivity and politics and reproduced a culture of violent, destructive power – exactly what extractivism is all about.

Among Morales’ most outrageous and widely criticized remarks was one he made while visiting an oilfield in April 2012. To laughter from other workers, he ‘jokingly’ asked two women professionals at the ‘Sísmica 3D’ camp in Chimoré: ‘Oil workers? Are you drillers? Or do you get drilled? Do tell me.’

Every three days a woman dies horribly in Bolivia in crimes of femicide. Although there are no official figures, the rates of violence are extremely high. Obviously, gender-based violence is worse in societies that do not see caring for life as a priority and have allowed gender-based violence and discrimination to be ‘normalized’. Alarmed by the way official discourse has legitimized violence, women’s movements have run many public information campaigns and demanded, among other things, that MAS exclude machistas from their lists of electoral candidates.

When a comrade – a lifelong colleague – in a high-ranking political post said to me: ‘I am a good politician, because I am able to be cruel’, two things became clear to me. First, that the cycle of social change had come to an end because it had lost the ethical values that made the quest for social change worthwhile; and second, that power and machismo had become deeply embedded in this process as part of a structure that combined subjectivity and politics and reproduced a culture of violent, destructive power – exactly what extractivism is all about.

Internationally, Bolivia is celebrated by multilaterals such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank for its economic model that has delivered the highest rate of economic growth in the region.

Yet at the same time, few of these institutions remark on the fact that Bolivia is one of the 12 countries in the world with the highest rates of femicide and violence against women. Moreover the government certainly does not re-invest – or rather redistribute – this money in policies that would effectively combat violence.

Investment (or ‘expenses’ as some prefer to call it) is less than 2% (1.91%) of municipal government budgets, while the funds allocated to specific programmes on violence eradication, prevention and victim protection amount to no more than 0.33%. Although a Law 348 against gender-based violence was approved, it has proved difficult to implement, partly because of the lack of investment in the institutional structure required to enforce it.

In contrast, investment in natural resource exploration and production in our forests is huge, as is investment in infrastructure for transport, energy and the oil and gas industry. Together, they amount to 65% of the government budget, invested in a national dream of turning Bolivia into a regional ‘energy power’ and, supposedly, making everyone more prosperous.

Exploitation and violence against women and exploitation and violence against nature are two sides of the same coin, two expressions of the same system, the empire of patriarchy governing in coalition with big business.

Notably in this plan, renewable energies (more likely to protect nature and human rights) only account for 2% of the energy structure, a figure quite similar to the investment in women. All these decisions are being taken unilaterally by the male politicians at the top who supposedly – like all good patriarchs – ‘know what’s best’. They even disregard the mechanisms for prior consultation with indigenous peoples, whom they seem to consider ‘subalterns’ who ought to submit to these plans at the cost of their territories and the survival of their cultures.

They take no heed of the feminist position, which demands sufficient resources and democratic, relevant, fair and inclusive policies not only to ensure effective justice systems but also to develop education programmes to put an end to the cultural patterns of machismo.

Exploitation and violence against women and exploitation and violence against nature are two sides of the same coin, two expressions of the same system, the empire of patriarchy governing in coalition with big business.

Women’s bodies (Mother Earth) has now become the metaphor of what is sacrificed to maintain the capitalist illusion of infinite, androcentric, ecocidal growth that is disdainful of nature and the lives of people and communities.

Deconstructing the predominant paradigm

Capitalist power is able to reproduce itself efficiently thanks to its alliance with very ancient systems of oppression such as patriarchy – which is much older than capitalism – and colonialism, which likewise predates forms of capitalist appropriation.

Its capacity to remain the dominant system of civilization is subjectively based on capitalist values that separate human beings from nature. It does this through science and philosophy and also through the economy, culture and the values of everyday life.

Modern capitalism survives because it feeds ideals, representations and subjectivities based on the domination of nature, over-consumption and the modern imagery of economic growth associated with happiness and wellbeing. The combination of these forms of domination is precisely what enables the exercise of power, and we see these patterns repeated again and again, even in attempts to subvert the capitalist order.

The alliance between patriarchy and extractivism naturalizes violence against women, devalues them and constructs a social mindset that endorses abuse and impunity. Indeed, a state that promotes extractivism has to base itself on an authoritarian rationale that discredits rights to territory, the rights of nature and indigenous peoples, and female otherness. Extractivism as proposed in our countries is exacerbating a violent mentality.

The thoughts I have set out here reveal how patriarchy is wholly at the service of the exercise of power and enables capitalist violence to take effect, becoming the linking mechanism through the power of the state.

The alliance between patriarchy and extractivism naturalizes violence against women, devalues them and constructs a social mindset that endorses abuse and impunity. Indeed, a state that promotes extractivism has to base itself on an authoritarian rationale that discredits rights to territory, the rights of nature and indigenous peoples, and female otherness. Extractivism as proposed in our countries is exacerbating a violent mentality.

Capitalist accumulation is essentially dependent on a mindset that reinforces the idea of the public sphere as the ‘property’ of the governing elites rather than a common good that belongs to everyone. Capitalist accumulation is ultimately based on the abuse and destruction of the values of caring and solidarity between human beings and with nature.

Norka-extrativismo
Mural by Knorke leaf, woman muralist and activist involved in the anti-nuclear movement in La Paz. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/knorke_leaf/

We need more critical thinking on social change, the state and power relations. The process in Bolivia and – as in-depth enquiry will surely find, many other processes that have sought to change society – are learning experiences about ourselves, our goals and our limits.

Although the MAS initially enjoyed a huge degree of social legitimacy and was sincere in its proposals on decolonization and overcoming capitalism, in the end it has replicated relations of domination and plunder.

We need to develop real emancipatory projects and unite against capital with a solid culture of social change that does not shy away from examining the ethical dimension of change. We need to engage in a self-critical debate on how power is exercised, the continuing presence of patriarchy in the ranks of progressive movements, and the pernicious effects of our movements’ dependence on unchallengeable, messianic leaders.

In the last few years, global challenges have multiplied, become more complicated and raised major questions about the values behind social transformation.

It is no longer a question of moving forward with an agenda of national sovereignty or controlling corporations and major powers.

We need to develop real emancipatory projects and unite against capital with a solid culture of social change that does not shy away from examining the ethical dimension of change. We need to engage in a self-critical debate on how power is exercised, the continuing presence of patriarchy in the ranks of progressive movements, and the pernicious effects of our movements’ dependence on unchallengeable, messianic leaders. We need to propose forms of power that change things from below and from everyday life; the power of healing, of solidarity; power that is embodied and built gradually over time. We need to get beyond the simplistic critique of what we oppose and turn our sights to our own practices to build alternatives to the system.

With that in mind, and focusing on the ethical dimensions of social change,  here are some of the ideas emerging from the forces of change who refuse to admit defeat:

  • We do not need heroes or strongmen to bring about social change.
  • We oppose individualism with the values of community, the common good and solidarity, but without ceasing to be individuals ourselves.
  • We oppose the paradigm of infinite development or ‘sustainable development’ with the paradigm of restoration, of healing the planet, of care and regeneration.
  • We oppose the practice of plunder by developing the idea of cooperation with nature.
  • We oppose the idea of power as violent control and domination with the power of caring for life, the power of love, empathy and emotions.
  • We oppose the concentration of power and exclusion with the recognition of diversity and democracy in all its different forms.
  • We oppose notions of global power by strengthening local power and developing local systems resilient to the centralized politics of power.
  • We oppose the practice of patriarchal power that refuses to politicize the private sphere with the principle of ‘the personal is political’.
  • We oppose the culture of top-down change by reinforcing those constructive, restorative, healing practices that have the real power to bring about change.

 

Elisabeth Peredo Beltrán is a pyschologist, researcher and author. As a collaborator with TAHIPAMU (Workshop on Women’s history participation), she researched anarcho-sindicalist women’s movements in 20th Century La Paz, the rights of domestic women workers and the rights of water as a common good. She is on the Board of Food and Water Watch,  the Scientific Committee of the Citizens Earth University, the Working Group on Alternatives to Development and belongs to various activist collectives working on water, climate change, women’s rights, and nuclear threats.

No degrowth without climate justice

Climatecamp3
Evening activities at the Climate Camp 2016. Source: Klimacamp 2016 Lars Jung (CC BY)

by Matthias Schmelzer

Since the 2014 Leipzig Degrowth Conference, the argument that climate justice cannot exist without degrowth has repeatedly been made. In a keynote at the Degrowth conference in Budapest, in September 2016, I developed this line of thinking further and argued that the opposite is equally important: There is not degrowth without climate justice. My argument, which I presented as someone involved not only at the theoretical level, but also in concrete efforts to bring degrowth and climate justice together in terms of practices and people, is presented here in a concise way.

After the degrowth conference in Leipzig two years ago, people in the organizational committee were considering next steps that would allow the degrowth community to move forward. Our analysis was that if we want degrowth to leave the ivory towers of academia and lecture halls, we need to enter into alliances with other social movements; and if we want degrowth to move beyond lofty visions for future societies and towards intervention and action, we need to enter into a conflictual political arena, thus forcing degrowth to take clear stances. Even though a vision of transformation and a good life for all is important, if degrowth is worth anything, it should make a difference by intervening in political struggles.

Our analysis was that if we want degrowth to leave the ivory towers of academia and lecture halls, we need to enter into alliances with other social movements; and if we want degrowth to move beyond lofty visions for future societies and towards intervention and action, we need to enter into a conflictual political arena, thus forcing degrowth to take clear stances.

Based on this analyses we decided to organize a degrowth summer school in 2015 in cooperation with the Rhineland climate camp. We thus entered a political field, in which concrete opponents – coal companies and their lobbies on the one hand and local communities and climate justice activists on the other – were struggling about the future of coal in the coming years. The summer school drew 500 people from around Germany and Europe who discussed degrowth and its relations to climate change, extractivism, justice, power, and capitalism. After the summer school, many participants took part in one of the hitherto largest actions of civil disobedience against lignite coal mining, in which more than 1000 people entered an open cast coal mine and blocked the operation of the huge diggers in Europe’s largest CO2 emitter. In 2016, Ende Gelände was repeated in Lusatia, and the 3000-participant strong blockade lasted two days. There was again a degrowth summer school under the title “Skills for System Change.” The summer of 2017 will see another degrowth-inspired summer school and a set of actions in the Rhineland that includes Ende Gelände, but will be much broader and possibly even bigger.

The climate summit Truman show

This decision to enter into alliances with the climate justice movement and into the conflicts around coal  already illustrates much of our stance on the Paris Agreement reached at the COP in Paris in 2015. First, that it proved a disaster precisely because it did not address the real problems, mainly that fossil fuels must largely stay underground and that we need a deep socio-ecological transformation. Second, that the Paris Agreement could not address these issues, because it largely stayed within the framework of economic growth, extractivism, and accumulation – albeit in a new form. And finally, that real change must come from stopping the drivers of climate change through concrete policies, public opposition, the building of alternatives, and direct action.

From the perspective of degrowth and climate justice movements, the Paris Agreement was a deceitful spectacle with potentially disastrous effects. What actually happened in Paris in November last year has been adequately described as the climate summit Truman Show: around the world, media headlines were enthusiastically celebrating the deal as ‘historic’ and ‘successful’, as the miracle of Paris, or even as a „31 pages of recipe for revolution.“ Cameras were showing the chief negotiator French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in tears, the climate advocate Al Gore enthusiastically clapping, and the room of delegates seemed to be in a collective delirium – and with it the entire media circus. Even many larger NGOs did not want to disturb this picture with their gentle statements, and the online campaigning platform avaaz described it as a „massive turning point in human history.“

Ouverture de la COP 21. Le 29/11/2015. Photo Benjamin Géminel.
Opening of COP 21 conference in Paris on 29 November 2015. Source: COP Paris Flickr – Public domain photo taken by Benjamin Géminel.

Through the technocratic prism of the framework laid out by the UN climate convention, the summit achieved much more than has otherwise been accomplished during the last 20 years and far more than most observers had expected: 195 states actually achieved an agreement; and to the surprise of many in the last minute the 1,5 degree target was included in the final text.

However, this enthusiasm is highly misleading. It only makes sense from a narrow perspective that only focuses on the UN framework of negotiations and not on the broader political and economic context. One can ignore reality, but this does not make it disappear. Diplomacy and a perfectly staged show do not save the climate – this can only be done by leaving the greater part of fossil fuel reserves in the ground, stopping deforestation, and ending industrialized agriculture. And all of this needs to happen quickly, which requires effective a set of measures and policies.

From the perspective of degrowth and climate justice movements, the Paris Agreement was a deceitful spectacle with potentially disastrous effects.

But the Paris Agreement does not include mechanisms and measures to ensure that this target is met. In fact, the Paris Agreement cements and strengthens the illusion of decoupling growth and emission and of green growth through a new level of utopian technocratic optimism – negative emissions. In fact, the agreement willingly accepts missing the 1.5-degree target, and it contains many recipes for a new wave of neo-colonialism in the name of green capitalism. Instead of redefining and changing the economy and the mode of production and consumption that cause climate change, it redefines nature by turning it into a tradable commodity. The market mechanisms embedded in the agreement serve to enable the continuation of high consumption lifestyles in rich countries, while offsetting this overconsumption in the Global South and thus continuing colonial exploitation.

Beyond green capitalism

Degrowth stands in stark opposition not just to the continuation of a „brown“ – fossil fuels-based and extractivist – capitalism, but also to the institutionalization of what seems the most likely alternative – a „green“ capitalism based on the massive investment in renewable energies, global carbon trading regimes, and the economization of nature.

For many of us, the belief that there is „no climate justice without degrowth“ is a fundamental motivation to engage in the degrowth community or movement. The climate justice perspective can inspire an understanding of degrowth that might be more appealing to some – an understanding of degrowth  as the democratically-led transformation to societies that are not based on the extraction or import of disproportionate amounts of resources and on the disproportionate use of sinks.

There is no degrowth without climate justice, or – more comprehensively – ecological justice or even global justice.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that this is only one side of the coin, since it stipulates that degrowth is more fundamental and the necessary precondition to achieve climate justice. Of course, there is great potential for cooperation and alliances between the two movements. But in the spirit of what was termed „alliances without subordination“ at the Budapest conference in 2016, I want to turn this around and argue that the other side is equally important: There is no degrowth without climate justice, or – more comprehensively – ecological justice or even global justice.

If degrowth is not built on a comprehensive vision for global justice and fails to incorporate key elements that are clearer and more prominent in the climate justice movement than in degrowth discourses, it will not be the emancipatory project many wish it to be. What can the degrowth community learn from the climate justice movement? I want to highlight three key lessons.

Changing structures

First lesson, the focus on deep structural transformations, transformations in the economic, political, mental, and social structures of our societies. Of course, much has been written and said on this in the degrowth discussion – but it could move further. Beatrice Rodriguez Labajos said that activists in the global South generally think that degrowth is not radical enough, because it is not anti-capitalist and mainly focuses on individual lifestyle-change. Based on the discussions at the recent conferences, a consensus seems to be emerging that degrowth is indeed a proposal to overcome capitalism, and not just a new packaging for business as usual. Similarly, degrowth could be clearer on how to change political structures (for example in the discussions about global trade regimes such as TTIP and CETA, degrowth is largely absent), mental structures such as extractivism in all its forms, and social structures.

Based on the discussions at the recent conferences, a consensus seems to be emerging that degrowth is indeed a proposal to overcome capitalism, and not just a new packaging for business as usual.

If degrowth is understood as a heterogeneous and evolving social movement in the making, one can understand the great variety of approaches taken by degrowth actors in terms of its main critiques, proposed alternatives and transformational practices – ranging from sufficiency-oriented adepts of voluntary simplicity to social-reformists, anti-capitalists and feminists. The climate justice perspective can help in strengthening those parts of the degrowth community that are not blind to issues of structural transformations.

Opposing hierarchies

Second, the climate justice movement is very strong in articulating and opposing hierarchies and power. Degrowth could learn that opposing all forms of power and domination is key if we want to achieve a more just society. And because the degrowth community is so strongly homogenous – just look around at the degrowth conferences –, it really needs to listen to and learn from others, both in the North and the South. In fact, climate justice is a movement of some of the least privileged people resisting the immediate loss of their livelihoods. The term goes back to the notion of environmental justice, and the origin of this term is highly illuminating. When the largely white and privileged American environmental activists resisted the dumping of industrial waste in the 1960s, they basically only cared about their own communities. This resulted in pushing the environmental costs down the social ladder, onto communities of color and the poor. In opposing this, these communities used the term „environmental racism“ and “demanded environmental justice.” And in the 1990s, the term was then also used for the global problem of climate change.

In contrast to this, degrowth is a concept largely supported by some of the most privileged people on this planet – largely white, well-educated,, middle-class people with Western passports  (on this, see a forthcoming study on the participants of the Leipzig Degrowth conference). It can even be conceptualized as the self-problematization of privileges in the context of what Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen have called “the imperial mode of living”. Because of this privileged homogeneity, degrowth needs to be particularly careful not to reproduce hierarchies, unequal distribution of power, and domination. We do not only need a decolonization of the economic imaginary – on which degrowth focuses – but, since they are all connected, we also need this decolonization in terms of sex and gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and all other forms of division and exclusion. How these and other hierarchies of the current capitalist, patriarchal, and (post)colonial societies can be overcome in a degrowth alternative and what they imply for degrowth strategies should be at the center of future degrowth and post-growth debates. To do this, degrowth needs to listen to and build alliances with the less privileged, not only in the global South, but also in the global North. In short, degrowth needs to become more intersectional and diverse.

Because of this privileged homogeneity, degrowth needs to be particularly careful not to reproduce hierarchies, unequal distribution of power, and domination. We do not only need a decolonization of the economic imaginary – on which degrowth focuses – but, since they are all connected, we also need this decolonization in terms of sex and gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and all other forms of division and exclusion

Let’s look at two examples: In a recent project called “Degrowth in movements” we collaborated with protagonists from more than 30 other social movements and alternative economic approaches to discuss their relation to degrowth and how from their perspective degrowth should develop. The resultant essays provide fascinating insights – for example from the perspective of refugee movements, queer-feminism, trade unions, care, or food sovereignty -, which provide some entry points for degrowth to enter into broader alliances, reach out to new social groups, and strengthen its own critique of power and hierarchies. In another project – which was actually one of the outcomes of the degrowth summer schools in 2015 and 2016 – the Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie will be organizing a conference together with the transnational refugee activist network Afrique-Europe-Interact that will bring degrowth and refugee activists together in October 2017 to discuss the connections between flight and migration, self-determined development, and ecological crises from a practical and political perspective.

Embracing struggles

The third lesson seems to me to be the most important one. Degrowth can learn from climate justice the struggle. So far, degrowth is largely an academic endeavor to formulate and debate about alternatives, and grassroots efforts to strengthen low-impact lifestyles here and now. Both are vitally important. However, degrowth sometimes appears to be somewhat vague on key political questions, in particular in terms of what the necessary struggles that need to be fought to achieve degrowth are, what this would entail, and who are allies and enemies. To develop meaningful strategies for political change, degrowth should become more confrontational. Degrowth should not shy away from but rather face and embrace the conflicts that are necessary to achieve its goals.

Degrowth should strive to engage more with on-the-ground struggles.

One very concrete situation that the degrowth-climate justice alliance needs to organize against is that, while global carbon majors – the largest oil, gas, and coal companies worldwide – own 5 times more reserves of fossil fuels that are still in the ground than those that can be burned if humanity wants to achieve only the less ambitious 2 degree target, these reserves have largely already been turned into financial assets that are owned by companies and traded on international markets. Thus, alleviating climate change – and thus achieving one key basis for a degrowth transformation – is only possible if these companies are expropriated of these assets. They’ll do anything to avoid this. What does this mean for degrowth strategies? Also in this regard, the climate justice movement is showing the way. One great example is the Break Free campaign in May 2016, in which tens of thousands of people on 6 continents did something that politicians did not: they took bold, courageous action to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Degrowth should strive to engage more with on-the-ground struggles.

water is sacred
Water is sacred protest which took place in May 2016 as part of the Break Free global campaign. Source: Backbone campaign flickr (CC BY)

Matthias Schmelzer works at the Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie and is a Permanent Fellow at the DFG-Research Group on “Post-Growth Societies” at the University of Jena. He has published on the ideology of economic growth, the history of economic ideas, and the degrowth movement and is currently involved in organising a conference about the relationships between migration, self-determined development and ecological crises.

Why we need a socialist spirituality

Lighting the candle at a Ferguson rally. Gerry Lauzon / Flickr.
Lighting the candle at a Ferguson rally. Gerry Lauzon / Flickr.

by Graham Jones

I have always been secretly spiritual. Growing up, it was difficult to avoid. Catholic ornaments scattered around the house by my mum. Sat on the pews of countless dusty, empty churches, listening to my dad as he repaired their organs. Playing the piano at Christmas: O Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in a Manger, Silent Night. The nativity scene under the tree. At school the Children’s Bible was my favorite book, my link to a magical past. I sat in assemblies, singing hymns with back straight and falsetto soaring over the other bored, slouching bodies around me. I would apologize silently to God for my impure thoughts.

And then I grew away from it. Hymns turned to pop songs. Bibles turned to novels. Thoughts of God turned to thoughts of the atom. Psychological submission turned to rebellion. Jesus stopped being real at about the same time as Santa.

I welcomed it. It felt like maturity, a release from authority and fantasy. Yet I never lost the yearning for … something. A greater purpose, a feeling of wonder. I felt snatches of it from time to time, but always fleeting—in a song, a film, or a moment of love. So I buried myself in rapturous, ethereal music. In quiet contemplative arthouse cinema. In romantic obsessions. In hindsight, I was longing for a secular divinity.

Atheists talk about replacing love of God with love of science – but where are the churches where we worship the infinite? Where are the hymns we sing to the glory of the electron? Where are the accepting scientific communities we can turn to for ethical guidance (that don’t require a PhD to engage in)? Just as the individual seeker of truth replaces the community of faith, our support systems have been increasingly privatized and individualized – to therapists, doctors, job centers, the nuclear family. And to ‘self-care’, which many have noted can play both a liberatory or an oppressive role. Freedom from religious dogma had its drawbacks: atomization, which in turn was integral to the success of neoliberalism.

Many people know, rationally, that global warming is bad. But it doesn’t hit them in the chest. The information they receive is divorced from a wider understanding of place in the universe, divorced from their bodies.

Our understanding of the universe has become divorced from our bodies. Far from increasing our awareness, the dominance of atheist rationalism has stripped people of their systems of explanation. Speculation and creativity in understanding the world is patronized and attacked. ‘No, you’re wrong. Trust the experts’. Yet as long as that expert knowledge is so safely guarded behind paywalls, university walls, cultural and language barriers, there is not and cannot be a public understanding of science. Capitalism fuels not just economic inequality, but educational inequality too.

Many people know, rationally, that global warming is bad. But it doesn’t hit them in the chest. The information they receive is divorced from a wider understanding of place in the universe, divorced from their bodies. You would scream at those who tried to burn down your house. Many have forgotten how to scream.

 

The left

The socialist left, at least in the West, tends to avoid spirituality, often seeing it as directly contradicting the materialist philosophy associated with communism. And yet those on the left most attracted to spirituality and its embodied practices – such as in the peace movement – tend to move away from what socialists would think of as a materialist analysis of society (sometimes even veering into pseudoscience and orientalism). This ambivalence toward spirituality has implications for how the left organizes in communities. Given that the vast majority of global workers are in some way religious, to lack a spiritual practice (or a proper appreciation of it) is a barrier to creating trust and solidarity, and hinders movement building.

Given that the vast majority of global workers are in some way religious, to lack a spiritual practice is a barrier to creating trust and solidarity, and hinders movement building.

So how do we move beyond this division and create a synthesis of socialism, science and spirituality? Can atheists reclaim spirituality without necessitating a return to religion (and without patronizing those who do)? It’s not enough to simply appeal to people to learn more about religions – we have to actually construct spaces in which people can come together to collectively explore these questions, to develop emotional bonds with one another. Rational inquiry alone is not enough; people need to see the relevance to their own lives and feelings. They need to experience spirituality and recognize it as such.

To begin with then, we need to define ‘spiritual’ more precisely. This will help us to show how religious and non-religious people share certain rapturous bodily experiences, regardless of the system they have for explaining it.

 

Pluralistic spirituality

Rather than merely being a synonym for ‘religious’, I take spirituality to be something distinct: the bodily experience associated with religiousness. In the eyes of theoretical physicist Fritjof Capra, spirituality conceived in this way is fully consistent with complex systems science, and particularly the theory of embodied cognition:

Spiritual experience is an experience of aliveness of mind and body as a unity. Moreover, this experience of unity transcends not only the separation of mind and body but also the separation of self and world. The central awareness in these spiritual moments is a profound sense of oneness with all, a sense of belonging to the universe as a whole.

With this in mind, I take spirituality to mean:

  • exploring the metaphysics of the infinite
  • which becomes expressed in ecstatic embodied experiences
  • and which informs our ethics at both the individual, collective and wider social scales

To put it simply, it involves asking three questions: What exists beyond my immediate perception? How does this make me feel? And what therefore does acting justly entail? This includes religious belief in the traditional sense, but also goes beyond it. The feeling of being humbled by the scale of the universe when staring into the night sky. The feeling of the weight of history and your debt to it when walking through an old building. The feeling of infinite power and possibility on a protest march, surrounded by your friends and community in joyful union. All of these are comparable to a ‘religious experience’.

Whilst this definition allows us to identify spirituality in secular experiences, it does not imply that all of these experiences are good. For example, nationalism might also fall within this understanding:

  • a metaphysics based on racial and cultural essentialism
  • becomes expressed in the embodied practices of singing anthems, pride in the flag, and love for the monarchy
  • and it informs the ethics and organizational principles of hierarchy, fear of difference, and violence seen as legitimate for protecting racial or cultural homogeneity

As a response to the rise of nationalism in Western countries today, some on the left have urged for nationalism with a progressive flavor. However, I would reject any suggestion that the left adopt elements of nationalism in order to be successful. Ash Sarkar from Novara Media details why English nationalism can never be disentangled from racism and imperialism. Nevertheless, it is instructive for us to ask why nationalism is so successful in the West, where the left currently is not.

It is instructive for us to ask why nationalism is so successful in the West, where the left currently is not. To actually succeed against nationalism we need to have something as emotionally powerful.

To actually succeed against nationalism we need to have something as emotionally powerful. And to do that we need shared practices for creating communal, embodied emotional connections, based around a shared ethics and metaphysics. A socialist spirituality, but one which is internationalist and intersectional.

What would a socialist spirituality look like? In my view, it would need to meet some key criteria. We firstly need a metaphysics which bridges the divide of spirituality, science and socialism. In my view, this requires acknowledging the constant motion and interconnectedness of everything.

Secondly, we need to take this framework and apply it to the body: how do we position ourselves in this world? What does it suggest about power and oppression? And what practices can help us to feel this knowledge? I call this radical mindfulness.

Lastly, we need look at the ethical and organizational principles and strategies that emerge from these practices. Let’s call this the care ethic, to contrast it with the work ethic.

Crucially, we need to keep socialist spirituality simple. For one thing, this will allow it to be more easily understood by non-academics – something which the theory-focused left often fails to do. It also gives space for the framework to adapt as our knowledge expands and changes. And also, most importantly for me, this allows for it to remain relatively consistent with differing beliefs as to whether any deity or supernatural force is involved. This can help form the basis of shared spaces – perhaps even organizations – that allow socialist collaboration across faith, without requiring people to divorce their spirituality from their organizing.

Because whatever your position on the ultimate nature of the universe, we need to be able to work together on earthly matters like capitalism and climate change – while we still have an Earth left to fight for.

This is the second article in a series on Spirituality, Science and Socialism, a version of which was originally published on Graham Jones’ blog, Life Glug. You can read the other parts here: 1, 2, 3, and (forthcoming) 4, 5.

Graham Jones is a writer and organizer based in London, and can be found on Twitter as @onalifeglug. If you would like to support their work, you can do so through Paypal or Patreon.

Accelerationism… and degrowth?

Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927).
Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

by Aaron Vansintjan

For the past little while I’ve been involved with a group in Barcelona, which studies and advocates ‘degrowth’: the idea that we must downscale production and consumption to have a more equitable society, and that we therefore must dismantle the ideology of ‘economic growth at all costs’. As you can imagine, they spend much of their time trying to clear up misconceptions: “No, we’re not against trees growing. Yes, we also would like children to grow. Yes, we also like nice things like healthcare.”

But this last year I was living in London. There, activist ideology seemed to be permeated by the ‘accelerationists’—who argue that capitalism and its technologies should be pushed beyond their own limits, to create a new post-capitalist future. Accelerationism is almost like, having tried hard to evade a black hole, a ship’s crew decides that the best course of action would be to turn around and let themselves be sucked in: “Hey, there could be something cool on the other side!”

After a year of experiences in some of London’s activist circles, I now understand better where this is coming from. Decades of government cutbacks, squashing of unions, total financialization of the city, and lack of access to resources for community organizing has meant that London activists are systematically in crisis mode—exhausted, isolated, and always on the defensive.

accel-degrow
Source: Institute for Social Ecology

These worlds of thought are best encapsulated in two recent books. In Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era, edited by Giacomo d’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis, its authors explain concepts such as care, environmental justice, basic income, commons—all of which are seen as part of degrowth’s “interpretive frame”. For them, degrowth is an umbrella term that houses a variety of movements, ideologies, and ideas for a more sustainable, and less capitalist, world.

In Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work—an extension of their viral #Accelerate Manifesto—authors Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek discuss the promise of basic income, increase in automation technologies and utopian thinking for creating a kind of “fully automated luxury communism”.

Surprisingly, both books have a lot in common. You have the utopian imaginaries, a renewed focus on alternative economics, the willingness to think beyond both neoliberalism and Keynesianism, and the ability to grapple with contemporary technology’s effects on society and the environment.

But they are also quite different. These differences were made real to me on a dreary Saturday afternoon last winter at an event in London called “Future Society Forum”. After a short introduction by Nick Snricek, activists from around London were invited to brainstorm what a leftist utopia could look like.

The room was divided into different ‘themes’: work, health, environment and resources, education, etc. We were first asked to place post-its with ideas for “futures” particular to each theme. (Comically, someone had put ‘basic income’ on every single theme before the event had even started—an attempt at subliminal messaging?) Then, we were asked to split into groups to discuss each theme.

Given my background, I decided I could contribute most to the ‘environment’ theme—though I was certainly interested in joining the others. After a 15-minute discussion, the time came for each group to feed back to the larger collective. Unsurprisingly, the environment group envisioned a decentralized society where resources were managed by bio-region—a participatory, low-tech, low-consumption economy, where everyone has to do some farming and some cleaning up, and where the city is perfectly integrated with the country. I’m pretty sure I heard sniggers as our utopia was read out loud.

The ‘work’ group, on the other hand, envisioned a future with machines that would do everything for us—requiring big factories, where all labor (if there was any) was rewarded equally, where no one had to do anything they didn’t like, in which high-tech computer systems controlled the economy. Basically the “fully-automated luxury communist” dream.

Talk about selection bias.

Part of me had expected more than a snigger, though. But the direct challenge never came. The accelerationists begrudged the enviros their grub-eating utopia while they ruminated on their own techno-fetishes. Was it just an armistice to prepare for a bigger battle down the road, or was there really less animosity than I imagined?

Part of me had expected more than a snigger, though. But the direct challenge never came. The accelerationists begrudged the enviros their grub-eating utopia while they ruminated on their own techno-fetishes.

Of course such differences are not totally new on the left—similar opposing strands played their part in social movements of the past: should we smash the machines or take them into our own hands? Should we grab the reigns of the state or disown it outright? Friedrich Engels may have totally dismissed peasants as possible revolutionaries, but the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakhunin insisted that peasants could, and would, be crucial in creating a world beyond capitalism—and that the left could learn from peasant communes for an idea of what another world would look like.

These same tensions are competing in the accelerationist and degrowth ideologies. Accelerationists like Srnicek and Williams emphasize automation, the role of unions, and reduction in the working week as the primary variables in shifting the gears beyond capitalism. Their focus is on the big stuff (labor, global trade) and they argue a focus on small interventions by the left is part of the problem, not a solution to it. Degrowth scholars look toward small “nowtopias” and make alliances with those struggling against extractivism—often peasants, forest-dwellers, and indigenous peoples.

When I was done reading Srnicek and Williams’ book, I realized that degrowth and accelerationism (although I’ve since learned that Williams and Srnicek now distance themselves from the term, so as not to be confused with more right-wing strains of the movement) actually have more in common than I initially thought—both in practical terms (policies and strategy), and in their general ideological positions. And they have a lot to learn from each other.

What follows is a bit of a report: a conversation between the two proposals. There will be some critique, but also some cross-pollination. My discussion revolves around a couple of themes: the importance of utopian thinking, technology, economy, and political strategy.

If there is commonality there is also difference. How is it possible that, considering so many agreements, they have such an oppositional framing of the problem at hand? By way of a conclusion, I suggest that the notion of ‘speed’—and their divergent views of it—is fundamental to each position.

 

Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Utopian Thinking

As David Graeber put it in yet another tasty essay, social movements today are experiencing a kind of “despair fatigue”: no longer content with merely commiserating about cuts to social services, there has been a rebirth in futuristic, positive thinking.

Indeed, it seems that a key uniting principle between accelerationism and degrowth is their promotion of utopian ideas. This might come as a surprise with those unfamiliar with the degrowth literature—recently, a whole book was dedicated to attacking the degrowth hypothesis as anti-modern and a form of “austerity ecology”.

However, the fact is that degrowth thinkers have put a lot of thought into how to go beyond primitivist flight from the modern and envision a future that is low-carbon, democratic, and just. Despite the negative connotations that may come with a word like ‘degrowth’, there have been many positive, forward-looking proposals within the movement. Key concepts here include “desire”—that is, the emphasis that a just transition should not be forced but should come from people’s own political will; “commoning”—in which wealth is managed collectively rather than privatized; the support of innovative policies such as basic and maximum income as well as ecological tax reform; the resuscitation of Paul Lafargue’s demand for ‘the right to be lazy’ (also picked up by the accelerationists); the embracement of ‘imaginaries’ inspired by ‘nowtopias’—actually existing livelihood experiments that point to different possible futures.

The same is true for the accelerationists. Indeed, the launching point of Srnicek and Williams’ book is that much of leftist activism in the past decades has forsaken the imaginative, creative utopias which characterized left struggles of the past. Progressive activism, to them, has largely been limited to what they call “folk politics”—an activist ideology that is small in its ambit, focuses on immediate, temporary actions rather than long-term organizing, focuses on trying to create prefigurative perfect ‘micro-worlds’ rather than achieving wide-ranging system change. This, they argue, is symptomatic of the wider political moment, in which a neoliberal consensus has foreclosed any ability to think up alternative policies and worlds. And so they propose a vision of the future that is both modern and conscious of current economic trends. Like the degrowth movement, they propose that the dominant pro-work ideology must be dismantled, but unlike degrowth, they take this in another direction: proposing a world where people don’t have to submit to drudgery but can instead pursue their own interests by letting machines do all the work —in other words “fully automated luxury communism.”

What unites the two is a counter-hegemonic strategy that sets up alternative imaginaries and ethics, that challenges the neoliberal moment by insisting that other worlds are possible and, indeed, desirable. For degrowth scholars like Demaria et al., degrowth is not a stand-alone concept but an interpretive “frame” which brings together a constellation of terms and movements. For accelerationists, part of the strategy is to promote a new set of “universal” demands that allow new political challenges to take place. In addition, they call for an “ecology of organizations”—think tanks, NGOs, collectives, lobby groups, unions, that can weave together a new hegemony. For both, there is a need to undermine existing ideologies by, on the one hand, providing strong refutations to them, and, on the other, through setting up new ones (e.g. post-work, conviviality). The result is two strong proposals for alternative futures that are not afraid of dreaming big.

metro_4
Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Economic Pluralism, Political Monism?

Forty years after neo-conservative godfather Irving Kristol indicted the New Left for “refusing to think economically” in his well-known speech at the Mont Pelerin Society, it is interesting that these two emerging frameworks are once again centering economics in their analysis. Indeed, both frameworks propose startlingly similar economic policies. They share demands such as universal basic income, reduction in work hours, and the democratization of technology. However, they differ in other demands: Williams and Srnicek stress the potential of automation to address inequality and focus on the role of technological advances in either further driving precarity or liberating society. As part of this, they talk at length about the importance of state-led innovation and subsidies for research and development, and how this needs to be reclaimed by the left.

In contrast, Degrowth scholars such as Giorgos Kallis and Samuel Alexander have proposed a more diverse platform of policies, ranging from minimum and maximum income, working hour reduction and time-sharing, banking and finance reform, participatory planning and budgeting, ecological tax reform, financial and legal support for the solidarity economy, reducing advertising, and abolishing the use of GDP as an indicator of progress. These are only a few of the many policies proposed by Degrowth advocates—the point is, however, that Degrowthers tend to support a broad policy platform rather than a set of strategic, system-changing “easy wins”.

At multiple points in their book, Srnicek and Williams urge the left to engage with economic theory once again. They argue that, while mainstream economics does need to be challenged, tools such as modeling, econometrics, and statistics will be crucial in developing a revived, positive vision of the future.

Indeed, near the end of the book, they make a bid for “pluralist” economics. In the wake of the 2008 crisis, the left responded with a “makeshift Keynesianism”—because the focus had largely been on a critique of capitalism there was a severe lack of alternative economic theories available to draw from. They urge thinking through contemporary issues that are not easily addressed by Keynesian or Marxist economic theory: secular stagnation, “the shift to an informational, post-scarcity economy”, alternative approaches to quantitative easing, and the possibilities of full automation and a universal basic income, amongst others. They argue that there is a need for the left to “think through an alternative economic system” which draws from innovative trends spanning “modern monetary theory to complexity economics, from ecological to participatory economics.”

However, I was a disappointed by what they considered “plural” forms of economics. There was little discussion of the content of alternative economics such as institutional economics, post-Keynesian economics, commons theory, environmental economics, ecological economics, and post-development theory. It is these fields that have offered some of the strongest challenges to neoclassical economics, and present some strong challenges to their own political ideology as well. They would do well to engage with them more.

This gap is not minor. Rather, it reflects deeper issues within the whole accelerationist framework. For a book that mentions climate change as one of the foremost problems we face—also mentioned in the first sentence of their #Accelerate Manifesto—there is surprisingly little engagement with environmental issues. And yet it is these unmentioned heterodox economic fields that have provided some of the most useful responses to the current environmental crisis—even going so far as providing robust models and econometric analyses to test their own claims.

The same gap is not found in the Degrowth literature. Indeed, the movement has been inspired to a great extent by rebel economists such as Eleanor Ostrom, Nicholas Georgescu-Røegen, K. William Kapp, Karl Polanyi, Cornelius Castoriadis, Herman Daly, and J.K. Gibson-Graham. Degrowth sessions are now the norm at many heterodox economics conferences—just as degrowth conferences are largely dominated by discussions of the economy.

Taking the lessons from institutional economics in stride, degrowth thinkers have stressed that there are no panaceas: no single policy will do the trick, a diverse and complimentary policy platform is necessary to offset feedback loops that may arise from the interplay between several policies.

From this perspective, the strategic policies proposed by accelerationists—basic income, automation, reduction in working hours—start to look rather simplistic. Focusing on three core policies makes for elegant reading and simple placards, but also comes at a price: when these policies are implemented and result in unforeseen negative effects, there will be little political will to keep experimenting with them. I would rather place my bets on a solid, multi-policy platform, resilient enough to deal with negative feedback loops and not too dogmatic about which one should be implemented first.

From this perspective, the strategic policies proposed by accelerationists—basic income, automation, reduction in working hours—start to look rather simplistic.

A strong point of the accelerationists is their emphasis that economic policies are political—and thus must be won through political organizing. In doing so, they make the crucial step beyond economism—the term Antonio Gramsci used to refer to leftists who put counter-hegemonic activism on hold until “economic conditions” favor it. The same cannot always be said of the environmentalist left: scarcity, environmental limits—these are often imposed as apolitical spectres that override all other concerns.

And yet, for all their calls for a united, utopian vision, I remain apprehensive about the kind of utopia they proposed—and therefore the kind of politics they see as necessary. While ‘folk politics’ is in part a promising definition of activism that fails to scale up, it also easily becomes a way to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit their idea of what politics really is.

Take, for example, their take-down of the Argentinean popular response to the financial crisis. Under their gaze, the “large-scale national turn towards horizontalism” involving neighborhood assemblies after the 1998 recession  “remained a localized response to the crisis” and “never approached the point of replacing the state”. Worker-run factories failed to scale up and “remained necessarily embedded within capitalist social relations”. In conclusion, they claim that Argentina’s ‘moment’ was “simply a salve for the problems of capitalism, not an alternative to it.” They maintain that it was simply an emergency response, not a competitor.

But this is a very problematic view of what constitutes ‘the political.’ Drawing on decades of reporting on Latin America’s popular struggles and involvement in them, Raùl Zibechi argues that, following neoliberal abandonment by the state, peasants, Indigenous peoples, and slum-dwellers are creating new worlds and resources that operate differently from the logic of the state and capital. These new societies make no demands from political parties and they do not develop agendas for electoral reform. Instead, they organize “con/contra” (with/against) existing institutions by ‘reterritorializing’ their livelihoods, building diverse and horizontal economies, and rising up in revolt at critical junctures.

Under Zibechi’s gaze, the very same Argentinean popular reaction is described as a moment when “the unfeasible becomes visible”. What was simmering under the surface is revealed “like lightning illuminating the night the sky”.  Rather than being “emergency responses”, the Argentinean response was practiced and strategic—not quite as spontaneous and disorganized as Srnicek and Williams depict.

Likewise with gender politics; even as Williams and Srnicek acknowledge feminist economic theories around care and reproductive labor, what qualifies as ‘real’ politics falls into very hegemonic realms: lobbying, the formation of think-tanks, policy platforms, unions, and economic modeling. But what about other types of resistance, such as the ones Zibechi highlights: childcare collectives, squatted and autonomously organized settlements, community-organized schools and clinics, collective kitchens, and street blockades? How do such practices, now being referred to as ‘commoning,’ fit in their ‘ecology of organizations?’

I worry that accelerationists, like Friedrich Engels’ dismissal of peasants as revolutionary agents, implicitly reject the possibility that Indigenous and anti-extractivist struggles are important potential allies. If political success is measured solely by statist goals, then non-statist victories will remain invisible.

In contrast, degrowth thinkers have collaborated with post-development scholars like Ashish Kothari and Alberto Acosta, and have helped to create a worldwide environmental justice network—forming alliances with the very groups that would be the most affected by an increase in automation and the least likely to benefit from accelerationist policies like basic income.

What Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics’ ends up justifying their specific vision of the political—one that is quite strikingly a vision from the North

Unfortunately, what Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics’ ends up justifying their specific vision of the political—one that is quite strikingly a vision from the North, unable to break away from hegemonic ideas of the ‘right’ political actors. By this logic, the Argentinean movement ‘failed’ because it could not replicate or replace the state. To this end, they might find it useful to engage with subaltern theorists, decolonialization studies, post-development scholars—all of whom have in different ways challenged Western conceptions of what resistance, alternatives, and progress looks like. Further, they might engage with commons theorists who demonstrate how commoning practices open up very real alternatives to neoliberalism. Beyond theoretical alliances, this might help them not to dismiss “failed” movements simply because they do not seek to copy the state.

 

Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Technology, Efficiency, and Metabolism

For many on the left, technology is secondary to redistributive policies (welfare, health care, employment equity) and innovation is the realm of private companies, not the government.

In contrast, accelerationists recognize that technology is a key driver of social and economic change. For Srnicek and Williams, an important strategic goal within the left would be to politicize technology, to transform capitalist machines for socialist goals. We must take the reigns of technology, democratize it, if we are to deal with the multiple issues facing humanity today. This ‘modern’ gesture, which avoids primitivism and the wish to return to a ‘simpler’ past, is certainly appreciated.

Srnicek and Williams spend much of the book discussing how automation is transforming social and economic relations worldwide. Not only is the roboticization of the workplace rendering so many workers in the Global North useless, automation is starting to have its effects in rapidly developing countries like China. They go so far as to link the informalization of huge swathes of humanity—slum-dwellers, rural-urban migrants—as an indication that capitalism no longer even needs its “reserve army of labor”. The onset of automation means that we may once again enter a world of mass unemployment, where labor becomes cheap and all the power will be in the hands of the employer.

Their response to this is quite brave: rather than fleeing this modern ‘reality’, they suggest pushing for ever more automation—eventually ending the need for rote labor and bringing about “fully automated luxury communism”—their vision of a desirable future. As part of this, they argue that public investment in innovation will be key in achieving this goal.

As they try to show, automation is already helping to deindustrialize many countries (developed and developing), meaning that regardless of whether full automation happens or not, there is a critical need for social movements to fight for political advances to guarantee social safety nets. As a response to this, they argue that unions should actually be fighting for less working hours, not more, and that basic income will help address the mass unemployment that automation seems to be causing.

I agree that such political responses will be necessary in the years to come, and that automation certainly presents a predicament, but, for several reasons that I’ll list below, I’m not sure if it’s really the central predicament—as they seem to assert. First of all, is automation really occurring at such a rapid and destructive pace? It’s true that the rate of growth of employment worldwide is decreasing, but this could be explained by a number of factors, many of which are more and more being highlighted by mainstream economists: the onset of a ‘secular stagnation’ in Euro-America, the decline in conventional oil extraction, and the exhaustion of ‘easy’ growth that was already being felt in the 1970s. Indeed, once I dug into their citations, I didn’t find much research showing how automation’s role in current economic transformations compared to these other factors. However, not being a labor economist, I’m not well-versed enough in the numbers to discuss further. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Second, and more problematically, I follow George Caffentzis in his skepticism of the claim that soon Capital will not need workers in the future, and will therefore bring about its own demise:

Capital cannot will itself into oblivion, but neither can it be tricked or cursed out of existence… The “end of work” literature… creates a failed politics because it ultimately tries to convince both friend and foe that, behind everyone’s back, capitalism has ended.

This was a critique of Jeremy Rifkin and Antonio Negri in the 90s, but it might as well apply to the works of Paul Mason, Snricek, and Williams today. There’s something magical about letting automation do the anti-capitalist work for you. Unfortunately, there is no trick that will end capitalism. Even if they claim at multiple points that automation is not a technical but a political goal, they’re in many ways letting automation drive the cart of politics. I’ve already mentioned the dangers of economism. Today, something new seems to be emerging, which seems to very prevalent amongst “ecomodernist” progressives: technologism. The belief that a low-carbon future is only possible through ramping up innovation and technological advances, rather than a full-scale transformation of our social and political relations. Snricek and Williams try to skirt technologism, but their over-fascination with automation brings them dangerously close.

There’s something magical about letting automation do the anti-capitalist work for you. Unfortunately, there is no trick that will end capitalism.

Third, even if automation were on the rise, I’m skeptical as to how it could possibly limit capitalism’s outward expansion. As Peter Linebaugh has argued, the Luddites opposed automation not just because it was costing them their jobs, but because they knew the automation of textile manufacturing meant the enslavement, and drawing in to the capitalist system, of millions of slaves and indigenous people in the colonies.

Automation, from this viewpoint, is a local “problem” borne from a myopically Northern perspective: it will not do away with ever-expanding forest-clearing, enclosures, destruction of subsistence livelihoods, and the creation of itinerant classes forced into the extractivist economy. Regardless of whether automation is capitalist or communist, without being regulated, it stands to increase environmental conflicts globally. But rising rates of resource extraction are not mentioned as a problem in the book, nor do they propose a strategic alliance with those affected by the extractive industry.

This leads to what is perhaps the most frustrating gap in the whole book: their very weak environmental proposals.

Surprisingly, there are only two instances where they present ways to address the ‘environment problem’: when discussing why automation could actually be a good thing, they also mention that greater efficiency would decrease energy use. Elsewhere, they suggest that shifting to a four-day workweek would also limit energy use from commuting.

But efficiency doesn’t work that way. If you would take away one lesson from ecological economics, it is this golden rule, to be repeated to every techno-optimist you come across: without limiting in some way the use of resources and energy (e.g. by taxing it), any advance in efficiency will likely lead to progressively more resource use, not less. This is called the rebound effect, or Jevons’ Paradox.

It follows that there is no guarantee that truncating the workweek will be more environmentally friendly. Efficiency and more free time can just as easily lead to more ecological damage, not less. In any political regime where there are insufficient limits or regulations on total energy and material use in society (capitalist or communist), and the profits of investment are invested in more production, advances in efficiency will cause energy and material throughput to increase exponentially.

When discussing this issue with people in the degrowth community, Viviana Asara pointed out that this is not just a problem of environmental justice—who stands to loose by the increase in production—but also one of energetic limits.

The concept of EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) illustrates that, unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy has a very low return on investment. For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that a fully automated luxury economy has about the same total energy consumption as today’s economy—more efficient but producing more stuff. But because of renewable energy’s extremely low EROEI, such an economy might just require the total transformation of the Earth’s surface into solar panels—not just a hellish vision of the future, but also impossible.

We can argue at length about whether it is indeed possible to produce the same amount of energy using renewables alone, but the point is that Srnicek and Williams neglect to even hold that argument—something you might think necessary if you propose to scale up global industrial activity in times of climate change. As Asara put it to me in an email, “their ‘supposedly sustainable’ utopia of automation misses any sense of biophysical reality.”

This is where accelerationist and degrowth analyses differ the most. Degrowth takes as a key question the ‘metabolism’ of the economy—that is, how much energy and material it uses. As innovation enables the speeding up of this metabolism, and because an increase in metabolism has disastrous social and ecological impacts—too often offloaded on people who do not benefit from the technology—there needs to be collective decision-making on technology’s limits.

In this way, simply reappropriating technology, or making it more efficient, is not enough. In fact, without totally transforming how capitalism reinvests its surplus—requiring a fundamental transformation of financial systems—automation will unfortunately help expand capitalism, rather than allow us to overcome it.

If capitalism always seeks to collectivize impacts and privatize profits, then communism should not be about collectivizing profits and externalizing impacts to people far away or future generations.

If capitalism always seeks to collectivize impacts and privatize profits, then communism should not be about collectivizing profits and externalizing impacts to people far away or future generations. This is the danger of ‘fully automated luxury communism’. These dangers are not discussed by accelerationist texts—but they should be.

Perhaps this is the key ideological difference: accelerationists make such an extreme modernist gesture that they refuse the need to limit their utopia—there are only possibilities. In contrast, degrowth is predicated on politicizing limits that, until now, have been left to the private sphere. This might involve saying, in the words of one Wall Street employee, “I would prefer not to” to some technologies.

 

What is Speed?

It says something about the times when two important segments of the radical left have gravitated to the terms ‘degrowth’ and ‘accelerationism’—about as opposite as it could get.

In my opinion, there is something rather new here, which brings the discussion beyond peasants vs. workers, localism vs. taking over the state: the introduction of the question of speed into leftist thought.

They do so in very different ways.  For degrowth, ‘growth’ is the acceleration of the energetic and material flows of the economic system at exponential rates, as well as the ideology that justifies it. Let’s call this socio-metabolic speed. Their political project then comes down to challenging that ideology head-on, as well as re-thinking economic theory to allow societies to ensure well-being but also transform how energy and material is used—necessary for a more just economic system.

Accelerationists, on the other hand, think of speed much more figuratively: they are referring to the Marxist concept of the material conditions of human relations—for them, acceleration means moving beyond the limits of capitalism, which requires a totally modern stance. This is socio-political speed: the shifting gears of social relations, as a result of changing technological systems.

Both, I think, have put their finger on a crucial question of our times, but from slightly different directions: can what gives us modernity—a colossal global infrastructural web of extraction, transportation, and fabrication—be democratized?

Both, I think, have put their finger on a crucial question of our times, but from slightly different directions: can what gives us modernity—a colossal global infrastructural web of extraction, transportation, and fabrication—be democratized? For accelerationists, this would require making that web more efficient and modifying political systems to make it easier to live with—shifting the gears of social relations beyond capitalism. For degrowthers, it would require slowing that system down and developing alternative systems outside of it. I don’t think these two aims are mutually exclusive. But it would require going beyond simplistic formulas for system change on one side, and anti-modern stances on the other.

But it’s also worth going one step further and asking whether that infrastructural system would really take kindly to these shifts in gears, or if it will it simply buck the passenger.

To navigate this question, it’s useful to briefly turn to the foremost “philosopher of speed”: Paul Virilio. In Speed and Politics, Virilio traces how changes in social relations were brought about through the increased velocity of people, machines, and weapons. Through Virilio’s eyes, the history of Europe’s long emergence out of feudalism into 20th century modernity was one of increasing metabolism of bodies and technologies. Each successive regime meant a recalibration of this speed, accelerating it, managing it. For Virilio, political systems—be they totalitarian, communist, capitalist, or republican—emerged both as a response to changes to this shift in speed and as a way to manage human-technologic co-existence.

What’s important for this discussion is that Virilio does not separate the two types of speed: changing social relations also meant changing metabolic rates—they are the same, and must be theorized simultaneously.

Doing so could be useful for both degrowth and accelerationism. While degrowth does not have a succinct analysis of how to respond to today’s shifting socio-technical regimes—accelerationism’s strong point—at the same time accelerationism under-theorizes the increased material and energetic flows resulting from this shifting of gears. Put another way, efficiency alone can limit its disastrous effects. As degrowth theorists have underlined, environmental limits must be politicized; control over technology must therefore be democratized; metabolic rates must be decelerated if Earth is to remain livable.

To conclude, accelerationism comes across as a metaphor stretched far too thin. A napkin sketch after an exciting dinner-party, the finer details colored in years afterwards—but the napkin feels a bit worn out.

Big questions need to be asked, questions unanswered by the simplistic exhortation to “shift the gears of capitalism.” When the gears are shifted, the problem of metabolic limits won’t be solved simply through “efficiency”—it must acknowledge that increased efficiency and automation has, and likely would still, lead to increased extractivism and the ramping up of environmental injustices globally. Or another: what does accelerationism mean in the context of a war machine that has historically thrived on speed, logistics, and the conquest of distance? Is non-violent acceleration possible, and what would class struggle look like in that scenario?

To be fair, degrowth doesn’t answer all the big questions either. There has been little discussion on how mass deceleration would be possible when, as Virilio shows, mass change has historically occurred through acceleration. Can hegemony decelerate?

If degrowth lacks a robust theory of how to bring about regime shift, then Williams and Snricek’s brand of accelerationism doesn’t allow for a pluralist vocabulary that looks beyond its narrow idea of what constitutes system change. And yet, the proponents of each ideology will likely be found in the same room in the decades to come. Despite their opposite ‘branding’, they should probably talk. They have a lot to learn from each other.

metropolis-metropolis-1927-15539888-2560-1804
Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

A version of this article originally appeared on the Institute for Social Ecology Blog.

Aaron Vansintjan is currently completing a PhD on food politics and gentrification at Birkbeck, University of London. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth. 

After Standing Rock, a new unity emerges

Photo: Dark Sevier
Photo: Dark Sevier

by Nancy Romer

After eight months, starting with a few hundred young Native Americans and swelling to up to 15,000 people in the sprawling encampments of Standing Rock, North Dakota, a victory was celebrated. President Obama’s US Army Corps of Engineers denied the request for an easement to allow Energy Transfer Partners (ETP)* and their “family” of logistics corporations to build the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) under Lake Oahe and the Missouri River, which that could threaten the water supply and sacred burial sites of the Standing Rock Sioux. The Army Corps of Engineers further required a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which usually takes months and sometimes years, to reconsider granting the easement.

DAPL is a $3.7 billion project that would link 1,200 miles of pipeline carrying over 500,000 barrels of crude oil every day from North Dakota through the mid-west and eventually to the east coast and south of the US. The sunny and wind-swept prairie of Standing Rock reveals the absurdity of building fossil fuel infrastructure that will further harm the planet when renewable energy is everywhere, waiting to be developed.

The December 4th decision came immediately after 2,500 US military veterans joined the “water protectors”, as they are called, at Standing Rock. The vets formed a human shield protecting the water protectors from the myriad local law enforcement officers who work on behalf of the interests of the private oil and gas industries. Several of the vets said that, after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, their effort to protect Standing Rock was the first time they actually felt they were protecting the American people.

After almost 500 years of white settlers and the US government stealing land from Native American tribes and forging divisions between them, over 200 Native tribes have coalesced to protect Standing Rock. The history of government-sanctioned genocide and colonialism are recurring themes in this struggle.

The main “road” in the encampment is Flag Row, a long dirt path lined with hundreds of colorful tribal flags from all over the Americas, signaling unity. Strict rules of decorum prevail—no drugs, alcohol, or weapons of any kinds, total non-violence, respect for decision-making by the tribal council and for elders, and dedicating the encampment to non-violent prayer. Their slogan is “Water is Life”. Thousands of Indigenous peoples from all over the world and tens of thousands of non-Indigenous peoples have come to Standing Rock to defend Indigenous rights and to protect Mother Earth. They want to kill the “black snake”: DAPL. There lie the seeds of unity and dissent.

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Photo: Dark Sevier

Mother Earth and/or Indigenous Rights

Indigenous activists such as Tara Houska, Anishinaabe lawyer for Honor the Earth and Tom Goldtooth, Navajo leader of the Indigenous Environmental Network, see fighting the pipeline as more than defending the tribes; they see it as defending Mother Earth. They see fossil fuel infrastructure as dangerous to the future of humans on earth. They want to see the development of renewable energy and the end of fossil fuels.

Dave Archambault, II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and primary spokesperson for the coalition of tribes, will be satisfied if the pipeline is re-routed away from the Sioux orbit. He has told the water protectors camping on the grounds to go home to their families for the winter: their jobs are done. He has repeatedly stated that he is not opposed to infrastructure projects or to “energy independence” but rather is opposed when Indigenous peoples are not consulted and when the pipelines go through their lands and waters. Native Americans, many of whom are desperately poor and denied opportunities, have sold mineral rights to their parcels of land to fossil fuel developers.

This is a basic contradiction for Indigenous peoples: those who see Mother Earth as their responsibility to protect for the next seven generations (a common saying for some Indigenous groups), versus those who want to address their own poverty which seems much more immediate. This is a global phenomenon.

Months of battles with brutal local law enforcement have left hundreds of water protectors facing arrests, rubber bullets, tear gas, concussion grenades, water cannons used in sub-freezing temperatures, serious injuries and brutal treatment when incarcerated. Images of this police brutality against Indigenous peoples and their supporters have galvanized support for the protests and brought thousands of people to the 5-6 camps that make up the sprawling Standing Rock encampment. Tribal elders often look askance at many of the “unofficial” actions advanced by the “Red Warrior Camp” and their allies because they have drawn so much violence against them. Nonetheless, the tribal leaders decry the violence and partisan nature of the “law enforcement’s” savage response. Red Warriors see these direct action confrontations as the reason that Standing Rock has gotten any publicity at all and has attracted the attention and won the hearts of radicals and human rights advocates across the world.

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Photo: Dark Sevier

Life at Standing Rock: Building liberated spaces

Standing Rock has developed massive camps, replete with many cooking tents each serving hundreds at every meal, large-scale donation operations, legal, medical, and psychological counseling services, schools, orientation sessions, and direct action trainings. Each morning and evening people gather around sacred fires and hear information, speeches, and music, and they dance and feel the power of unity.

They are creating a liberated space, a space where progressive people can come together to protect their ideas and their cultures together. The utopian feel of the place is immediately apparent.

Comparisons with Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs would reveal a much larger, more on-going, and much more disciplined space in Standing Rock. It has captured the imagination and support of hundreds of thousands of people across the planet, from the Indigenous Sami peoples of Norway to workers from all over the US who are angry at the lack of support from organized labor, specifically the AFL-CIO.

The presence of youth is immediately noticeable at the camps though there are plenty of elders and children as well. Supporters mostly camp out and help to winterize the teepee, yurts, army tents, recreational vehicles, camping tents, vans and school buses that create a small city of protest. They are creating a liberated space, a space where progressive people can come together to protect their ideas and their cultures together. The utopian feel of the place is immediately apparent. The pull of such a liberated space is all the more meaningful in the face of US President-elect, Donald Trump. The encampment is simultaneously a historic throwback and a futuristic village of care and commitment to a more egalitarian and caring world.

The parallels with Occupy Wall Street are many—both aiming to build a new way with progressive and humanistic values, addressing the oppression of our people. Both captured the hearts of progressive folks and engaged mostly young people but Standing Rock’s supporters include many more people of color of all backgrounds. The history of Indigenous tribes welcoming people of African descent, especially during slavery, is not forgotten in this solidarity. Standing Rock’s success is grounded in Indigenous cultural values of respect, formal representative decision-making, discipline, and work that is further expressed through a deep spirituality that connects our human activity to the earth. Standing Rock is orderly and behavioral norms are clearly articulated and encouraged, if not enforced.

Naomi Klein, in her groundbreaking book, This Changes Everything, asserts that the climate movement can only be successful if it addresses racial, gender, and economic oppression as its main strategy and if it takes leadership from those most affected by climate change and the savages of capitalism. Without so much explicit language this is evidently what is happening at Standing Rock. The power of this strategy impacts everyone who enters the camp and the movement; the pull of this approach is enormous.

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Photo: Dark Sevier

What lies ahead?

On December 4 and 5, over 15,000 people celebrated the Army Corps of Engineers decision to deny the permit to complete DAPL as planned, but the struggle is nowhere near over. Several factors make for a complex web of possibilities that underscore the necessity of the encampment and wide support to continue.

First, Trump can overturn Obama’s US Army Corps of Engineers’ decision and force them to grant an easement to ETP. That will be challenged in court as the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that federal agencies cannot change a settled ruling of a federal agency that is based on facts when a new administration takes over. The US Supreme Court declined to take up this ruling, leaving the Ninth Circuit decision to prevail. If Trump tried to get the permit without an environmental impact statement he would have an immediate lawsuit on his hands that would prevent the easement from taking effect, at least immediately. Additionally, Trump’s reported investments in DAPL of $500,000 to $1 million may create a conflict of interest he cannot navigate. Other lawsuits against ETP are already in the courts and proceeding, further slowing down the process.

Further, Trump has talked about privatizing over 56 million acres of Native American reservations in order to facilitate exploitation of the natural resources of those lands. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network, Indigenous reservations cover 2% of US land but contain an estimate 20% of its oil and gas plus vast coal reserves as well. That fight will ignite much more organizing and fight back.

Second, and perhaps most important, are the specifics of the contracts between ETP and Sunoco Logistics, their partner organization in this project, and the dozens of major financial institutions that have invested in DAPL. These contracts can be negated and/or open to re-negotiation if the pipeline is not completed by January 1, 2017. At that point the financial institutions will have the legal right to back out of or diminish their investments. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of groups in the US that are pressuring these very financial institutions to drop their investments in DAPL. Many of the pension funds of public workers and others are invested in these financial institutions and supporters are mounting campaigns to uncover them and demand divestment.

Supporters have been cutting up their credit cards and closing their accounts from banks investing in DAPL. The Sightline Institute did a study of DAPL financing and found them to be “rickety”. They found that the value of crude oil has declined by about 50% since these contracts were signed, making the windfall profits from this venture much less likely. They found a sharp decline in oil production that may signal no further need for the pipeline. For some of the investors, DAPL is looking risky on many levels.

Third, ETP has a way to sneak out of the job as well. Their contract indicates that they are not liable for project completion if “rioting” takes place. ETP along with their allies in local North Dakota law enforcement have been calling the direct action by water protectors “rioting”, setting the stage for a possible exit from liability. The demonstrators have been peaceful if sometimes provocative and a great deal of video evidence indicates that the violence has emanated from the law enforcement officers, not the protesters. But “rioting” is the language ETP and the cops use, and for a specific purpose.

Fourth, the popular support for Standing Rock seems to grow with each day and each report of violence against the water protectors. There are similar challenges of fossil fuel pipelines in many parts of the US and they are gathering people to protest in those places as well. The model of encampments, of creating liberated spaces that protect the activists, land, water, and movement, has taken hold. No force will hold that back. From the AIM Spectra Pipeline, slated to go under the Hudson River and immediately past the Indian Point Nuclear Power Station 10 miles from New York City, to the Black Mesa Water Coalition of the US southwest, the struggles to reject fossil fuel infrastructure and to build a sustainable energy economy are everywhere in the US as they are across the planet.

A new solidarity is emerging. A new world is conceived. Its home is everywhere, its people are many.

A new solidarity is emerging. One that has a great deal of potential to unite the left under the joint banners of the oppression of people, particularly people of color, and the oppression of the earth itself. The hope lies in navigating that unity with a vision of solving both oppressions simultaneously. A new world is conceived. Its home is everywhere, its people are many. While its opponents are on the ascent, the struggle continues. Compassion, respect, clear demands and decision-making and solidarity can guide the way.

*The “Energy Transfer Family” of corporations involved in the logistics behind building the Dakota Access Pipeline are: Enbridge, Inc., Energy Transfer Partners, Energy Equity Partners, Marathon Petroleum Corp., Sunoco LP and Phillips 66

Nancy Romer is a life-long social justice activist starting in the tenants rights movement, then the feminist, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, union, food justice and, now, climate justice movements. Nancy is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Brooklyn College and now writes primarily on climate movement-related efforts, with particular interest in agriculture and peasant movements in Latin America.

Climate change is the social reality now

by Aarne Granlund

We are in the middle of November and I am writing an extended paper on Arctic hydrocarbon resources. Carbon budgets, temperature targets. There’s a low pressure system off the coast, hurricane-strength winds were measured on the Lofoten Islands.

I can see the stormy Norwegian Sea from my student flat window. Gale force winds pound the glass and horizontal rain pops against the building. I just took an online course on weather forecasting by the Royal Meteorological Society and University of Reading. I know what is happening.

Visualisation of a cyclone which shrank and diminished sea ice in the Barents Sea in the winter of 2015–2016 (NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio/Alex Kekesi).
Visualisation of a cyclone that shrank and diminished sea ice in the Barents Sea in the winter of 2015–2016. Source: NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio/Alex Kekesi.

The cyclone I am under will move along the Norwegian Arctic coast toward the anomalously warm Barents and Kara seas. More warmth, more ice melt, more ice melt, more warmth.

Weather is erratic in other Nordic countries too. Friends tell me Helsinki just got almost half a meter of snow, earliest onset of winter in decades. Today I’ve learned that all of it melted in days.

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Recent temperature anomalies in Bodø, Northern Norway. Source: Norwegian Meteorological Institute and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.

Scientists are worried. The story on Arctic weather and climate anomalies runs through the press against international political turmoil on the United States election of a climate change-denying president.

All of this feels unreal, chaotic and imminent.

I think we are past both hope and despair here. This is it. Control of the earth system is way beyond human reach. Arctic climate change has taken on a life of its own.

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Snow on the coastal mountains. I was fishing on the Norwegian Sea coast during the week. Photo: Aarne Granlund

The complexity of telling a story about climate change is staggering. It seems that many people bargain with their emotions, trying to make sense of the situation, looking for leadership.

Yet, all the routines of life seem to go stubbornly on, almost untouched by the news cycle. Maybe this is psychological adaptation, perhaps denial, distancing.

Again, it is hard to tell the story about climate change. I go to student parties, people ask what I study. Climate change and politics. Conversations are long, winding towards the fuzzy territory of hope and despair.

Will our thinking shift and our action become guided by rationality or by emotion? Which option is preferred?

Today, on the 27th of November there is a blizzard going on and the university campus is covered in fresh snow.

This article was originally published on Medium.

Aarne Granlund (@granlund_aarne) is an MSc Student in Climate Change and Politics at Nord universitet (UArctic). His research focuses on polar climate change, evidence-based mitigation, adaptation, and security. He enjoys fly fishing.

Denmark’s political alternative

Source: DR
Source: DR

by Rune Wingaard

The Danish political party the Alternative (Alternativet) was officially established in November 2013 and was elected into Parliament in 2015 with 9 seats and 4,9 percent of the total votes. The party’s main goals are to achieve a ’serious sustainable transition’, a new political culture and better conditions for entrepreneurship. The Alternative is critical towards pursuit of economic growth as a primary goal for policy makers and aspire to a new understanding of progress.

The Alternative is aware of the existence of a number of relevant indicators for sustainable progress, yet we have not found one that is considered politically applicable. For example, the ‘five headline indicators for progress’ by the New Economics Foundation is compelling but we find the five headlines to be too complex to communicate to the public in the hyped speed of contemporary media.

Many Danes respond positively when we talk about economic, social, and ecological sustainability, and we wanted our indicator for progress to include these concepts. Accordingly, we decided to have one headline indicator for each type of sustainability in order to make it easily understandable.

We are still in a developing phase of our indicator, but it seems we will decide on the following: Economic sustainability is improving when the rate of employment on collective agreement terms and self-employed increases. The rate of employment has a significant impact on the public budget, so it is a key indicator to the health of the economy. Additionally, we want quality jobs and strong labour unions, hence we decided to only include jobs on collective agreement terms. Social sustainability is measured by improvements in economic inequality in terms of the income difference between the top 20 and the bottom 20 percent of the population. Research has found equal societies to have fewer social and health problems, so equality is a very important indicator of the well-being of citizens. Ecological sustainability is measured by the degree to which the Danish CO2-emissions are declining at a tempo where Denmark makes a fair contribution to securing the internationally agreed goal of avoiding more than 2 percent increases in global temperatures and aim at a 1,5 increase up till 2100. Climactic changes are likely the gravest danger to modern society and CO2 emissions are therefore a relevant indicator for ecological sustainability.

Our general idea is that the main indicators for economic, social, and ecological sustainability have to be positive if we are to propose a policy in Parliament. If we are to vote for a policy proposal from another political party, at least two indicators must be positive, and optimally all three. We will be able to communicate this very clearly to the public and be accountable with regards to these indicators of sustainability.

We are aware of the fact that many other indicators are needed for serious sustainable development. Therefore, each of these indicators will be supplemented with second-level indicators relevant to their area. Economic supplementary indicators could be job employment measured by gender and other ethnic background, job stability, job satisfaction, balance of payments and ratio of private investments to private savings. Social supplementary indicators could be happiness, children’s wellbeing, mental wellbeing, social trust, quality of health care, health inequality, inequality in wealth and income inequalities between gender and for ethnic minorities. Ecological supplementary indicators could be biodiversity, air quality, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, resource consumption and so forth. The supplementary indicators are considered important, and if a significant number of them are deteriorating or improving, this can affect our attitude towards a specific proposal.

We will decide on the main indicators shortly, and we will ask ecological sustainability experts to help us decide which supplementary indicators are relevant to their field. We will also host what we call political laboratories where we will invite citizens, experts and our own members to discuss the details of our new indicator for progress. This is in accordance with our vision on a new political culture with more democratic bottom-up processes.

We have discussed whether we should follow the headline indicator for New Economic Foundation’s indicator on ‘good jobs’. This includes the amount of the population with a secure job above the ‘living wage’. We are currently in favour of using the more simplistic percentage of the population with a job on collective agreement terms (and self-employed), since we wanted the indicator to be as simple and easy to communicate as possible.

If we vote for our own or a proposal by another political party in Parliament and the proposal passes, we can go to the media and evaluate whether the policy is improving the three main indicators for sustainability. If so, we can argue that it increases triple bottom line sustainability. When we participate in longer discussions we can discuss to which degree the policy improves or deteriorates relevant supplementary indicators.

Whether or not GDP increases is less relevant, the central goal is to ensure economic, social, and ecological sustainability.

We find this to be an accountable and transparent way of communicating with the public and participating in the political process. It matters to citizens whether new jobs are created and inequality and CO2-emissions are reduced. Also, we hope this approach can raise awareness of a triple bottom line understanding of sustainability in the public.

So is degrowth needed to ensure climate justice?

It is highly likely, but to us this is not the key question of our time. Whether or not GDP increases is less relevant, the central goal is to ensure economic, social, and ecological sustainability. Our indicator does not include GDP as we want to measure what really matters in relation to the wellbeing of mankind and nature. The public policy must be centered on achieving these goals and can only be successful via an intelligent cooperation with the private sector, civil society, and international actors.

Mother Teresa once said: “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”

The Alternative wants to communicate as clearly as possible that we are for a sustainable development rather than against growth, as we find this inspires and resonates deeper with the public.

Naturally, the main institutions of the current economic model will have to be reformed in order to ensure a serious sustainable development. Therefore, the Alternative proposes reforms of the financial sector, lower working hours, an ecological tax reform, increased investments in green research and infrastructure, more redistribution, increased financial transfers from the developed to the developing world partly focused on climate change mitigation and adaption, and a slowdown of the massive subsidies for conventional agriculture and the fossil fuel industry.

Rune Wingaard has a Masters degree in social science and international development studies from Roskilde University, where he also works and teaches economics, politics and quantitative methods. He is part of the Economic Council of the Danish political party the Alternative and is very engaged in co-creating a transition towards a much more sustainable, just and thriving society.

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What will spark a degrowth movement in the USA?

Source: Alan Huett

by Sam Bliss

Things are big in the United States of America. Returning home after a year away reacquaints me with big detached single-family homes, big single-occupant vehicles, and big single-species grass lawns. I find wider roads, longer distances, larger supermarkets, and more stuff everywhere.

As a student of ecological economics, it makes me a little anxious. Such individualistic extravagance isn’t ecological or economical. I remind myself: it is precisely why I came back.

I spent most of the past year in Barcelona, studying with a group of researchers who are interested in degrowth – the idea that humans and other species might live better if the former had a smaller economy. Degrowth is not recession. It is a purposeful, equitable slowing of the rate at which we transform nature into stuff.

Our politicians pledge economic growth like priests promising eternal paradise in heaven, as if producing and consuming 3 percent more smartphones, assault rifles, and bacon-flavored beverages this year than we did last year is our best bet to achieve the good life. According to a 2015 study, the United States’ yearly material footprint – the materials taken from farms, forests, mines, and other extraction sites to make the products Americans consume – measures about 27 metric tons per capita. In other words, 163 pounds of nature is extracted every day to feed, house, clothe, entertain, and satisfy the average U.S. resident. While the gadgets and garbage have piled up, the number of wild animals has halved over the last four decades. People, rich people in particular, have conquered the planet in the quest for more.

Degrowth means downscaling the human enterprise to share the world nicely with other species and our grandchildren. Degrowth means distributing wealth equitably and prioritizing needs over wants.

But why the word “degrowth” anyway? A lively, complex debate rages over whether the term is useful or harmful. I only want to make a few points that relate to the U.S. context.

Renouncing growth today has the potential of flipping every politician’s favorite narrative: that only growth can save the poor.


In the wake of elections that gave all three branches of government to the Republican party, the reeling American left must rethink, regroup, and rekindle the smoldering embers of the Bernie campaign. But Bernie Sanders, just like the politicians and financiers he rightly criticizes, is firmly pro-growth.

I cannot understand why. Growth over the last four decades has not brought substantial wage increases or a functioning healthcare system to the 99 percent, but it has made the U.S. economy unsustainably big in terms of resource use and carbon emissions. We must demand that leaders address inequality and other issues head-on instead of promising that a growing economy will make things better. Degrowth should be our rallying cry.

But degrowth has not yet caught on among academics or activists in the oversized United States. Don’t get me wrong, many initiatives here exhibit the values of the degrowth movement – simplicity, democracy, sharing, the rejection of economic growth as the goal for society. There’s a network of organizations fighting to create an economy based on justice and ecology, a campaign to work less, a scholarly groupfocused on downsizing consumption, and countless community-scale projects from urban food forests to bike cooperatives to tool-lending libraries. And there are the water protectors at Standing Rock, standing peacefully in the way of the growth economy’s ever-extending tentacles. Yet these projects lack a defiant unifying frame for their collective crusade to construct a socially and environmentally sustainable country.

Mostly, people suppose that degrowth is too negative a term for the American culture of optimism. Per social norms, people in the U.S. are not typically any less than “fine” when asked, “How are you?”

Why hasn’t degrowth spread in the United States? At September’s international degrowth conference in Budapest, I spoke with some other degrowthers living in the U.S. about why the word has not been adopted and how we might spark a movement.

Mostly, people suppose that degrowth is too negative a term for the American culture of optimism. Per social norms, people in the U.S. are not typically any less than “fine” when asked, “How are you?” A downward-oriented word like degrowth produces reflexive repulsion.

In response to Trump’s victory and the calls by many to “give him a chance,” Jelani Cobb, a professor in journalism at Columbia University, tweeted that he “had not fully appreciated until now how much the relentless American drive for optimism resembles abject denial.” Denying that a finite planet cannot sustain infinite growth is just another aspect of that abject denial.

Yet in other ways degrowth is too positive for the United States. Bear with me. Barbara Muraca, an Italian environmental philosopher who arrived at Oregon State University two years ago, says that ecological intellectuals in the U.S. urge rapidly transforming society to avoid imminent civilizational collapse, whereas the European school of degrowth tends to promote a slow revolution toward living well together with less. The deep-green environmentalists of this country foresee hardship accompanying the end of growth. Degrowth tends to look at the bright side of freeing ourselves from our current unsustainable, unjust economy.

As Muraca sees it, U.S. enviros do not fear the end of the world, but the end of the American Dream. The science on global environmental limits shows that all humans cannot drive gas-guzzling trucks and eat sausage every morning – which means it is unfair if some folks do get to live that way. The news is frightening, for its recipients and for the messenger.

To my friend Deric Gruen, who manages the Rethinking Prosperity project, it is simpler: Americans love growth! Emotional growth, sales growth, spiritual growth, crop growth, earnings growth, growth spurts, growth of my social network. People from the U.S. hear about degrowth and reply, “So you are kind of like redefining growth, right?”

So mainstream green groups refuse to renounce growth. Prominent voices from Silicon Valley to the Bible Belt reject the existence of any constraints on human activity. Muraca’s catastrophist colleagues counter this denial of limits with pleas to prepare for the post-fossil fuel world by consuming less.

Most folks do not want to hear these pessimistic-sounding appeals. So the earnest ecologists shout louder, which turns off everyone not already convinced. Who are we to tell our fellow citizens to restrain themselves, and be happier while doing so? Many residents of the highly unequal U.S. cannot comfortably afford to fill their trucks with gas to guzzle. Meanwhile, the plutocrats in charge of the nation jetset to important gatherings around the world where they discuss what to do about climate change and income inequality.

America doesn’t just need a wake-up call. We need new narratives about what the good life is and how to achieve it. Coming to the University of Vermont to take part in the Economics for the Anthropocene research initiative is a chance to bring degrowth home, as both a scholarly concept and an activist slogan. Perhaps one day it can be a social and political movement, too. Instead of boasting about the new wave of cancerous growth their policies will trigger, we need candidates that lay out plans to ensure everyone economic security and opportunities to flourish regardless what happens with GDP.

Last year I cycled across North America, talking about degrowth to anyone who would listen and listening to whomever had something to say about it. Now, in Vermont, I discuss degrowth with other graduate students, undergrads, faculty, and also with the woman who helps me fix my bicycle and the guy kneeling next to me as we dig carrots from the soil. Just mentioning it leads to dynamic and interesting conversations, especially among people previously unfamiliar with the concept.

In the end, it is not about the word, it is about sparking socio-ecological change toward a fairer, smaller, and simpler economy. Degrowth explicitly or by other names.

Sam Bliss suffers from an acute strain of the imposter syndrome that affects most first-year PhD students. He makes okay improvised salads from whatever he finds in dumpsters, though, and is hopeful about surviving his first Vermont winter.

Decolonisation in Europe

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Sofia Jannok at Standing Rock. Photo: Jeff Schad

by Rut Elliot Blomqvist

The European core nations have colonised the world. This system is not only based on the unequal exchange of land and labour—as the anthropologist Alf Hornborg has shown in Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange—it is also on the verge of making the planet uninhabitable. So the world must be decolonised. But what would it mean to decolonise Europe? How do we decolonise the core of the world system—the area of the world that gave birth to colonialism itself?

 

Another world exists

In the north of Scandinavia, there is an Indigenous culture that has persisted against colonisation. The land is called Sápmi. The Sámi, like all Arctic Indigenous peoples, are experiencing the severe effects of rapid global warming and decolonisation is now more than ever a matter of survival.

Sofia Jannok is a songwriter, yoiker (yoik is a traditional Sámi vocal style), and pop singer; activist, environmentalist thinker, and reindeer owner. Through her words, melodies, activism, and existence, Jannok pushes for decolonisation. The title of the last song on her latest album ORDA: This Is My Land is “Noaidi,” a Northern Sámi word that means shaman but that she also translates as “Decolonizer.” The noaidi drives out the colonisers and their mentality. The noaidi reveals another world, a story that has been silenced in the history of the Swedish nation state.

For me, the encounter with Sofia Jannok’s music and stories opened the door to a new world-view. I am an urban middle-class Swede brought up to think that industrialisation is necessary and that this mode of production combined with better welfare distribution means progress for all. I have always had a nudging feeling of something being wrong with the story I have been told but other narratives are rarely given space in the media, nor in the academic contexts or political organisations I have been part of.

I was able to interview Jannok to explore the connection between her music, the decolonisation of Sápmi and of Europe, and the necessity of Indigenous rights and Indigenous peoples’ perspectives for all of humanity. This article tells the story of the other world that already exists in Jannok´s Sápmi. I weave a pattern of our conversation, her songs, images of what her stories make me feel, and examples of colonisation past and present.

Jannok and I begin by talking about music. I ask her about the role of music in Sámi decolonisation work and she emphasises that the increased focus on Sámi musicians and artists in the Swedish media often misses the historical ties between artistic expression and political struggle in Sápmi:

The national media in Sweden are only now opening their eyes to what is happening in Sápmi, because music is bringing these things to the fore. But music has always been an essential part of the decolonisation work that Sápmi has undertaken for as long as I have lived and long before my time.

She tells me that she sees her voice as a continuation of the voices of the past. Some of her influences, or precursors, are the yoikers, musicians, and activists Áillohaš (Nils Aslak Valkeapää) and Mari Boine. She also mentions all the music that came out of the action in Alta in Norwegian Finnmark in 1981—a manifestation, Jannok says, that made Norway take Sámi politics seriously, leading them to open a Sámi parliament and sign ILO 169 (the UN convention on Indigenous peoples’ rights, which Sweden still has not signed).

I continue what previous generations started: mirroring the contemporary world—as art always does, or at least I think it should.

Indigenous art can be an important mirror: it reveals parts of reality that are obscured or distorted by the colonial mirrors that dominate many people’s view of the world:

It’s through art and culture that we can look back on what another time was like. From my perspective, neither history books nor the media are impartial. With regard to us in Sápmi, an efficient way of obscuring and oppressing is to say that we don’t exist at all. And because of that I think that art and culture and music gives a more fair and true image of reality, because it is told through the eyes of the ones who experience it. All over the world, the history of Indigenous peoples has mainly been told by the colonisers and of course that yields a pretty slanted image and a very short-term perspective too because the time that colonisation has been going on is only a second if we compare it to how long we have existed on the earth.

Through a decolonised picture of reality—this is how we can see the other world that is possible.

 

Colonial blindness and Indigenous grief

On her latest album ORDA: This is my land, Jannok has a song that contrasts these two reflections of reality—the colonial and the Indigenous one.

Grieving: Oappáide”

Not grieving the loss of you home sweet home

Not grieving your walls that for all times are gone

Not grieving, because they were already gone

Your house was built on an old woman’s home

 

I’m grieving the wide open wound that I see

When will they understand when to let be?

I’m grieving for her because she lost it all

Under your kitchen floor buried is her soul

The first time I heard this song, all illusions about the goodness and soundness of my society started to melt away. I felt that it spoke to me; that I was the “you” that this song is directed to:

I—the grieving Sámi.

She—our mother, the earth.

The kitchen—the food, energy, of the colonising world, which has buried our mother’s soul.

You—the blind people in the colonial state, who do not see what they have lost.

They—the core of the Swedish state, which colonised Sámi land and whose colonial project is ongoing.

Like the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (North America) who are right now protecting their home and the earth from the Dakota Access Pipeline and the expansion of the Tar Sands, Jannok and the Sámi see that the colonising industry wants to “steal our mother”—a line from Jannok’s song “We are still here”—and so they are protecting the land, water, air that we all depend on. Jannok was in fact part of a Sámi group that went to Standing Rock in North Dakota to show their support for the activists there.

But the core of colonial society in Sweden contests the parallels between the Sámi and other Indigenous cultures. On ORDA: This Is My Land, Jannok shows this very clearly by including excerpts from a hearing in a court case between the Sámi reindeer herding community Girjas and the Swedish state—a case that Girjas won, though the state has appealed and a new trial will be held in 2017.

In the hearing the State calls a witness, a non-Sámi resident of Finnish Sápmi, who voices the opinion that the Sámi are not an Indigenous people and that the colonial theories that have been developed “for North America and Australia” do not apply to “Lapland” (or Swedish Sápmi). Jannok explains why she contests this claim on her album:

I draw parallels to other Indigenous peoples precisely to debunk the opinion that Sámi people aren’t Indigenous. As if that was an opinion when it’s fact, and facts are facts and can’t be overlooked: the Sámi are an Indigenous people. The opposite is to claim that the earth is flat and try to discuss from the starting-point of the earth being flat when we have already agreed that the earth is round. Let’s start the discussion from there. We are an Indigenous people. Grant us our rights, that we have maintained for ourselves for thousands of years.

This fact does not stop the Swedish state from telling its own story about the Sámi. In one of Jannok’s samplings from the hearing, the state attorney questions the concept of ethnicity and its relevance to the description of the situation in Sápmi. Listening to this, I remember the music video to Jannok’s song “Viellja jearrá” (“Brother asks”) where the history of racial biological studies on the Sámi is shown. In the light of the history of Swedish eugenics, we can begin to understand the degree of disrespect shown by the state when it now refuses the Sámi the right to define themselves as an Indigenous community. The state in the past studied the Sámi as a “lower race” and now instead wants to do away with the concept of ethnicity. It is hard to find a better example of how Sámi politics are reframed to suit the political agenda.

The state attorney also says that “the State has done its utmost to regulate the reindeer husbandry trade in a generous way” and that “the Sámi have not been subjected to discrimination by the State”. These types of statements can feed widespread prejudices in Sweden about the Sámi as privileged—prejudices claiming that the Sámi both receive special privileges to keep reindeer and benefit from modern infrastructure and technology. What these claims entirely leave out is that the Sámi did not choose to be incorporated into this modern industrial society. The state never asked the Sámi if they would like to abandon a subsistence lifestyle for a professional, regulated reindeer trade.

Part of the decolonisation work is to confront this racist discourse about Sámi privilege. An example of this in Jannok’s music is one of her most fiercely political songs, “I Ryggen på min Kolt” (“In the back of my gákti”—gákti being the Sámi word for a traditional regalia) which is directed at the Swedish state and its double standards; when it wants to use Sámi culture for advertising in the tourism industry but not grant Sámi people their rights. She sings:

Du söndrar mellan grannar som lärt sig leva bredvid varandra

Sprider lögner om min familj, mitt folk

Dina ord en dolk

Rakt i ryggen på min kolt

 

You’re sundering neighbours who’ve learnt to live next to each other

Spreading lies about my family, my people

Your words, a knife

Right in the back of my gákti

The song reveals how, in a classic case of “divide and conquer,” the idea of Sámi privilege is used by elites to play out oppressed groups against each other. There are numerous examples of what this sundering of neighbours has led to today—ranging from racist comments on the internet, verbal harassment, and vandalisation of Sámi language road signs, to hate crimes such as assault and battery, killed reindeer, and arson of lávvu (the Sámi equivalent of the North American tipi).

But “I ryggen på min kolt” tells us that this racism was not always there, that we are all being told lies about the Sámi and the history of Sweden and that this is creating enmity. Decolonisation requires retelling history.

 

Decolonising history

The slanted colonial story of the past and present has been and is motivated to a large extent by the mining industry which has fed the modern Swedish economy, although colonisation through farming settlements goes back several hundred years before this as well. The “golden age” of social democracy and the welfare state was funded by the unequal exchange of land and labour between the core and periphery in the Swedish territory. Jannok, in her work, unearths this inconvenient truth:

Snölejoninna: Snow lioness”

Antirasist my ass,

när du inte ser från vem du snott all din cash

Han, hon, hen “son”

av oss stal du landet en gång

Urfolkskvinna, snölejoninna, jag är regnbågen på din näthinna

jag är allt det men jag är mer, “mon lean queer”,

har funnits här i tusentals years

 

An outspoken anti-racist, my ass

You don’t even recognize the people from whom you’ve stolen all your cash

Son”, he, she and ze;

Once you stole this land from me

A native empress, the rainbow you see, a snow lioness; well, all that is me

All of it, yes it can all be found here, yet I am something more, as I am queer

Residing here for thousands of years

(“Son” is the Northern Sámi third person singular pronoun, which is always gender neutral.)

This song shows the reality of the resource flows in the colonial-industrial economy, but its focus is on the Sámi as dynamic, as queer—without even a grammatical gender divide—and diverse. It is about telling her own story about who she is and can be, or could be. Jannok says:

“Snowlioness” is partly about how the box that society wants to squeeze me into doesn’t have to be a box. Instead I can be all of this and still have the right to be Sámi.

“Diverse” is a good word to describe both Jannok’s Sápmi and the history of northern Scandinavia. The nomadic Sámi population and the settlers of the north coexisted in the past and both groups benefited from their cooperation. Some non-Sámi people had reindeer and many farmers housed Sámi families on the move between summer and winter pastures.

This decolonised story of the past is slowly gaining space in mainstream media because of the music and activism of people like Jannok, and finally also in some history books. One of these books is Urfödan: Om självhushållets mat hos folk i Lappland (Ancient food: On the food of self-sufficiency among people in Lapland) in which Lillian Ryd interviews people from the last generations of both settlers and nomads who lived traditional, self-sufficient lives in northern Sweden before industrialisation all but erased these livelihoods. Through such stories about the past, we can begin to see that the people who benefited from the exploitation of land and labour in the north of Sweden were responsible both for the colonisation of Sápmi and for taking the land away from farmers through the 19th century enclosure movement (“Laga Skifte”).

What has happened to people’s livelihoods in this process is that they have been incorporated into the industrial structure of big society. This is true for both the Sámi and the settlers. One example of this that Jannok mentions in our conversation is the state’s regulation of reindeer herding:

The term “renskötsel” (reindeer husbandry) alone is a very clear example of how society has wanted to label a lifestyle to enter it into its laws and regulations, and then deciding who can do reindeer herding and not. To have zero experience, not even having seen a reindeer or visited a reindeer herder’s everyday life, and still regulate and make decisions that don’t match reality. So you only see the tip of the iceberg if you see a privilege.

The traditional lifestyle of the Sámi has in modern history been undermined by the establishment of national borders, mines, the forest industry, hydroelectric dams, military test ranges, and wind parks. It has also been attacked culturally through eugenics, boarding schools, forced sterilisation, and forced Christianisation—which among other things entailed a ban on yoik. Then, after these atrocities, the state came up with the term renskötsel—a word that, Jannok says, doesn’t even exist in Sápmi traditionally—in order to incorporate this lifestyle into an industrial-professional economy. Reindeer-owning Sámi people became professionals in the reindeer food business. Sámi people who did not own reindeer lost their legal right to be Sámi, Jannok adds:

This led to internal conflicts and differences between Sámi people and Sámi people, which has severe consequences even to this day.

If we look beneath the surface, what we see instead of privilege is the attempt by a colonial state to eradicate an Indigenous population:

For the Sámi, the equation doesn’t add up, and it will be the death of us unless someone listens soon. That’s the way it is. This is an Indigenous culture and it depends on the right to land and water and the reindeer and our settlements. Every day that you infringe on these rights it becomes a little harder for us to survive. We have nowhere to go anymore. That’s just how it is. And it doesn’t add up. It doesn’t add up.

Hearing these repeated words, I feel the grief that Jannok sings and yoiks in “Grieving”. I feel called on to share a decolonised story of our past with all those who still take out their sense of loss and their anger on the Sámi. Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki, or the world market should be the target of everyone’s anger, and we should work together to build other ways of living with the land—our mother.

 

Another world through consensus-based decision-making and Indigenous knowledge

There are alternative ways of living—we do not have to sabotage the home we live on in order to live good lives. In fact, if we exploit and pollute the earth, then none of us—like the Sámi now—will have anywhere to go. Colonial society is blind to this. Jannok explains that it is much clearer to her than to many others since she has had the benefit of growing up in a family that is entirely dependent on what nature gives.

The relationship to the earth, Jannok says, gives Indigenous peoples an insight that is lost in the industrial core countries of the West. So, as one decolonisation strategy, could we perhaps imagine a Sámi council in Sweden that advises on environmental issues and pushes back colonial-industrial values from decision-making?

Absolutely. We even have an example of this in the management of the Laponia world heritage area which is located in a very large part of Swedish Sápmi. Sápmi has fought seven hard years to get a majority on the board. Now every decision has to be reached through consensus, which is a typical way to reach decisions in reindeer herding communities.

Majority rule doesn’t work if you are Sámi you know, we’ll lose every vote. We are so few. There are alternative ways of solving it. I really believe in a council where Sápmi actually has the right to say something. Because as it is today there is supposedly consultation and dialogue around every infringement on Sámi land—with LKAB for instance, a large mining company, if they want to prospect for minerals, then the Sámi community is supposed to have a say—but that’s not how it is in reality.

You can voice your opinion but no one takes it into consideration. And that’s not dialogue. That’s information. So I think an influential Sámi council is a great idea. I don’t understand why it isn’t already like that, with Sápmi having an obvious role in saying how things affect life, nature, the water, the air, the earth. We are dependent on it and for us it is extremely clear but it’s actually for the benefit of everyone. We can’t drink poisonous water, that’s just how it is.

Jannok goes on to describe what has been lost to a great part of the world’s population, and to show that Indigenous rights are important not only for Indigenous peoples but for humanity and the earth itself:

A big part of the world’s population has lost the connection not only to the earth but also with the elders and the knowledge that generations before us had built up. People have been cut off from this, because of industrialism, individualism, egoism, greed. But it is still here, we are still here. Indigenous peoples exist all over the world and we have still got that connection, not least with the elders, the old generation. And with animals and the places we live in. We see how they change. I mean, it is not a coincidence that all the research reports that indicate evidence of climate change and that the gulf stream is changing, these are things that Indigenous peoples have already confirmed decades before. So there is already a lot of evidence that it can be for the good of all to actually listen to these people. This competence that you can find among Indigenous peoples should be used, and it doesn’t have to be proven in accordance with Western methods to be valid. We see, we listen, we feel, we can remind others about how you do this, because we all come from the earth so of course everyone has this ability. To listen.

standing-rock-43
Sofia Jannok at Standing Rock. Photo: Jeff Schad

Singing yourself and the new world into existence

To get more people to listen and reconnect with their own ability to see, hear, understand the earth and other living beings, Jannok has moved from singing primarily in Northern Sámi to singing mainly in English, and some Swedish as well. And the soundscape, production, and rap-inspired vocal style on her latest album also contribute to a sense of her music being more confrontational:

It is a more direct rhetoric. I have moved away from writing more poetically—I’ve always been critical in my songs but allowed art to be art, giving the listener a chance to interpret it in their own way. Now, on my latest album, I don’t want to do this, I want to be as direct as possible. I want to say things that for me have been like saying that the sun rises or something: It’s that it’s light all summer; it is that we are still here. For me it is self-evident, but it apparently isn’t to the ones who always go, ”hey, but, what do you mean with Sámi, do you even exist?” I also want to say “This is my land,” because the focus is always on something other than the fact that this is Indigenous land. Though it is described on every single map—there isn’t one map of Sweden that doesn’t have almost all names in Sámi in northern Sweden. So these self-evident things are what I want to write and I don’t want to leave any space for misinterpretation. It should be clear as daylight what I mean.

Jannok and others like her, from Sápmi and other parts of the world, are giving a voice to alternatives. These stories have the power to change people’s minds and dreams—and so they can also change the society we all build together.

Hope. But there will still always be doubt. Anxiety. We can never know if it will be enough. To find the will to live can be a struggle. All we can do is listen, understand, act, and pass the torch, the fire, on to the people who come after us:

Grieving: Oappáide”

What else can I do but to sing all these songs,

to sing and to hope that we’ll always belong?

I sing to the healing of ancestors’ soil

For future sisters I’m singing this song

 

What else can I do but to sing all these songs?

For future sisters, I hope they keep strong

To support these future sisters (oappáide means “to the sisters”), to help Sápmi stay strong, Jannok has donated money to the Sámi youth choir Vaajmoe—a choir that developed from the need for a meeting-space after the suicides of several young Sámi. And, of course, Jannok’s own music is part of that same movement of singing yourself into existence, making a place in the world for yourself and the people who walk with you. Jannok’s song “Áhpi: Wide as Oceans” is also about suicide; a tribute to those who have left and a comfort to the ones left behind.

Áhpi sheds light on a reality that exists and that has a taboo on it: mental health issues. To simply shed light on things that are real but invisible is to acknowledge people who live that life. To be seen.

 

Light, life, love—a land for everyone

Light. She constantly returns to this—to the bright summers with the midnight sun and to the fire that lights your way in the winter:

It’s not in the fight for my own existence that my fire has its source. It’s in life. And life is so beautiful, rich, full of laughter, hustle and bustle between bare mountains, forest lakes and cities. With strong ties to my people, both the ones who have passed and the ones who are and the ones who shall come. My inspiration for everything comes first and foremost from all the colours of life. From the riches of Sápmi; pride, power, and the indubitable fire of existence; from love for people and my beloved hoods. Everyone who claims that we’re a minority, on the verge of extinction, a disappearing part of world history, haven’t been to my world. Anyone who has seen it could never claim such a thing. We are fully alive as long as the earth breathes, because we are connected to our land and we will protect it as if it were a matter of protecting our own lives. Because that’s what it is.

Indigenous people are survivors, and they must survive for all our sakes—they are at the forefront of the struggle against the accelerating industrial-colonial society that would rather drive us all into the darkest abyss of collapse than to degrow, decolonise, scale down at a controlled pace and find the way back to the land. To survive, the Sámi gain strength through the yoik, through the words and melodies and stories of another world that is possible, a world that is not dead and must not be reinvented because it still lives in these people. Jannok’s yoik is the sound of the noaidi driving out the colonisers from the land and from people’s dreams.

Sápmi is the norm, power, beyond doubt. I sing about what I know. I sing about truths that have been censored, removed. But music, language, culture wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for the human beings. Us. Human beings keep fires alive. And fire in its turn keeps humanity alive. So I can but show respect and gratitude to those who’ve given me the chance to live with pride, all my forefathers and foremothers who have gone before us and shown the way. Mum, dad, family and sinewy ancestors. Without these people we wouldn’t exist, and the music wouldn’t exist. It comes from us. I honour the people who’ve clung to the tundra as the windswept mountain birches, and who never let go no matter how hard the wind blew in times far harder than these.

Sápmi as the norm is an alternative to the slanted, short-term perspective of colonial society. Through Jannok, the noaidi’s voice comes to bring a new world to both the minds of Indigenous peoples and the minds of the people in settler societies who may not even understand their own role in the world system. It tells the story of a diverse world where there is room for everyone and where we all know the land. I long for that world, for a place where I can exist. Jannok describes a home that I have been denied by my colonial-industrial culture.

Listening to this story of another world, looking at the world through the grieving eyes of Sámi people, we can find ways to decolonise everyone’s minds and the land we are part of—in Sápmi, Sweden, Europe, and the world.

Another world is not only possible. It already exists.

“This is my land: Sápmi”

This is my land, this is my country

and if I’d be the queen you’d see

that I’d take everyone by hand and sing it so it’s out there

that we’ll paint this land blue, yellow, red and green

 

If you say that this girl’s not welcome in this country,

if she must leave because her face is brown

Well, then I say you go first, ‘cause frankly this is my land

and here we live in peace, I’ll teach you how

 

This is my pride, this is my freedom,

this is the air that I breathe

and you’ll find no kings, no queens, here everybody’s equal –

men, women and all who are in between

 

This is my home, this is my heaven,

this is the earth where I belong

and if you want to ruin it all with big wounds in the mountains

then you’re not worthy listening to this song

 

This is my land, this is my country,

these lakes, rivers, hills and woods

If you open up your eyes you’ll see someone is lying

I’ve always been here, welcome to my hoods

standing-rock-49
Sofia Jannok at Standing Rock. Photo: Jeff Schad

Rut Elliot Blomqvist is a songwriter, musician, writer, and PhD student in literature and environmental humanities who thinks a lot about environmental justice, degrowth, and the mythologies of contemporary Western society. Ze particularly likes to combine storytelling, music and analysis with activism and farming in searching for ways to describe and build a good life for hirself and others.

Sofia Jannok’s new album, ORDA: This Is My Land, is available on DiscogsAmazon, iTunes, and Spotify. You can buy other merchandise on her website, www.sofiajannok.com.

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Hydro power projects as a resource curse

Indian Buddhist monks and nuns attend a special prayer session 'Avalokesteshvara Initiation' with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama at Yid-Gha-Choezin in Tawang, in the northwestern corner of Arunachal Pradesh state, on November 10, 2009. The Dalai Lama held a mass audience with tens of thousands of devotees on a "non-political" visit to a region near India's border with Tibet that has drawn shrill protests from China. AFP PHOTO/Diptendu DUTTA (Photo credit should read DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian Buddhist monks and nuns attend a prayer session with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in Tawang, in the northwestern corner of Arunachal Pradesh state, on November 10, 2009.  Source: AFP PHOTO/Diptendu Dutta.

by Soumik Dutta

On May 2nd, 2016, two people, including a Buddhist monk, were killed when police fired at a crowd of protestors in India’s Arunachal Pradesh state bordering China—injuring ten others. The protest was sparked by the arrest of Lama Lobsang Gyatso, a monk active against mega power projects in the Tawang district.

Anti-dam protesters in Arunachal include various student bodies, environmental groups, and civil society organisations. This January, hundreds of Buddhist lamas joined protests in Tawang, a smaller district in the province, to say no to large dams in the ecologically, culturally and strategically sensitive area. Various Indian national level media outlets reported the Tawang protests, and people’s Facebook news feeds were abuzz with the Tawang firing.

At the root of the protests are changes to India’s energy policies, said to be crucial for the country’s economic development. India’s National Hydro Power Policy of 2008 had identified a total capacity potential of 1, 48,701 MW of hydropower in the country, of which 50,328 MW was in Arunachal Pradesh alone. Of these, the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri hydro project 80% of the construction of which has been completed has been stuck since December 2012 following massive protests in downstream Assam.

At the root of the protests are changes to India’s energy policies, said to be crucial for the country’s economic development.

The Arunachal Pradesh government has signed several Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with various companies for over 100 big and small hydropower projects in the state, and 13 of these with a total installed capacity of 2791.90 Mega Watts (MW) are in Tawang. The abundance of rivers in the Himalayas and the nation’s ever-growing demand for power propelled the government of India to envision a national hydro power policy that would exploit the vast hydro power resources of Himalayan states like Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, and Arunachal Pradesh.

Energy is crucial to the economic development needs of every nation. Hydro power, which was considered clean energy with very negligible impact, has however turned out to be quite the opposite. Often, projects have socio-cultural impacts on communities dependent on the river and often have disastrous environmental results. In many cases, the myth about hydropower being cleanest and safest is turning out to be untrue. Human lust for more economic development and the consequent need for more power has created a situation where water, the most abundant natural resource, has become a bane—a resource curse.

The Arunachal firing is a case in point. Many other states in India have witnessed similar protests and ruthless oppression by the government. In fact, when it comes to hydro power projects globally, a politician-corporate development nexus that results in the oppression of civil protests has become a common scenario. International organizations, politicians, investors, and developers are uniting to participate in the systematic plunder of the most abundant natural resource, water, in the garb of economic and sustainable development of nations.

 

Sustainable energy or environmental conflict?

Hydro power is often put forward as a clean, sustainable form of energy. In the case of India’s Himalayan states, there are both public and private benefits. Apart from the incentive of generating revenues from sale of hydro power, the certified carbon reductions (CERs) from the United Nations framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC), under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) has worked as a strong factor for both the private project developers and the government for pursuing hydro power projects.

But NGOs like the Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF) are of the opinion that these proposed and upcoming hydro power projects would adversely impact the fragile Eastern Himalayan ecosystem, which is also a seismically vulnerable zone that has experienced several major earthquakes over the past few decades.

protest
Source: SANDRP

On April 7th, in response to a petition filed in 2012 by the SMRF, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) suspended the environment clearance granted by the Indian environment ministry for the $64 billion Nyamjang Chhu hydropower project in Tawang’s Zemingthang area. The NGT asked for new impact assessment studies and public hearings for local people.

The NGT also noted that the project promoted by the steel conglomerate LNJ Bhilwara Group did not consider its impact on the habitat of the endangered black-necked crane, which is endemic to the region. The bird is rated “vulnerable” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of endangered species and is listed in schedule 1 in India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972.

The black-necked crane also has significant cultural value to communities in the region. “We connect it with the sixth Dalai Lama who was from Tawang,” said Lama Lobsang Gyatso, the general secretary of SMRF, speaking to Uneven Earth. “He wrote poems on the bird. Apart from local sentiments, the bird has been labelled endangered by law. The Bombay Natural History Society selected Zemingthang [an area within Tawang] as an important bird area for this reason.”

As a result of its activities, the SMRF became unpopular with the government, which branded it as anti-development, leading to the subsequent arrest of its leader and the police firing.

As a result of its activities, the SMRF became unpopular with the government, which branded it as anti-development, leading to the subsequent arrest of its leader and the police firing. Undaunted, after his release on bail, Gyatso’s SMRF, along with another NGO, 302 Action Committee, submitted a memorandum to the deputy commissioner of Tawang demanding a probe by central bureau of investigation(CBI) New Delhi into the May 2nd killing at Tawang. The state government had constituted a magisterial inquiry and suspended several police officers involved in the incident.

Gyatso and his associates reiterated that if CBI investigation into the incident is not done, they will resort to demonstrations in front of the United Nations office New Delhi, apart from protest rallies in Itanagar and Tawang.

delhi_dharna_06
Affected Citizens of Teesta raising awareness against the dam projects on the Teesta river in Sikkim, another northern state. Source: ACT.

Cultural genocide: Sacred Buddhist River in peril in Sikkim

Protests against hydro power projects across India are not new. In Sikkim, communities have been protesting against the Rathong Chu hydropower projects since the mid-nineties, when the Sikkim Democratic Front Party (SDF) government, under Chief Minister Pawan Chamling, had decided to go ahead with a proposed 30 MW hydropower project on the Rathong Chu river, despite tremendous pressure against it, mainly on religious grounds.

Rathong Chu is considered to be a ‘sacred’ river according to Neysol and Neyig Buddhist texts, the water of which is used even today for an annual Buddhist festival – Bum Chu, at the Tashiding Monastery. This has been an important Buddhist tradition since the time of the erstwhile Chogyals (Kings) of Sikkim from the Namgyal dynasty.

Eventually in 1997, under scathing criticism of infringement on cultural and religious rights of Buddhist minorities, the Chamling government decided to scrap the project. Ironically, the same Chamling-led SDF government allotted another project on the Rathong Chu river, a little further downstream, in the year 2006. In fact, the project capacity now was enhanced from 30 MW to 97 MW! While the earlier project was called the Rathong Chu HEP project, it was now rechristened the Tashiding Hydro Power Project.

“We will not stop until we are able to stop attacks on Buddhist religious sites in the name of development.” -Tseten Tashi Bhutia, of Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee.

But local groups continue to fight against these proposals. “We will not stop until we are able to stop attacks on Buddhist religious sites in the name of development”, said Tseten Tashi Bhutia of Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC), an NGO fighting against the Tashiding and Panan projects, speaking to Uneven Earth.

As part of these protests, Sikkim witnessed the longest indefinite hunger strike in the province’s history. The action was called on 20 June 2007 by the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), an NGO formed to fight the government’s decision to build seven large-scale hydroelectric projects within the ancestral lands of the indigenous Lepcha community. Although the Lepcha are also found in other parts of India and in Nepal, around 86 percent of their 9000-strong population resides in Dzongu.

The Dzongu area was traditionally known as Myal Lyang in Lepcha language or Beyul Demazong in Bhutia – the latter meaning ‘land of sacred and secret treasures’ and the former meaning, essentially, paradise. It was here that, according to legend, the Lepcha god created the first Lepcha man and woman from the sacred snow of the mighty Khangchendzonga (Kanchenjunga)—the world’s third highest peak, which the Bhutia and Lepcha revere to this day as a protective deity.

In fact, within the core area of the proposed Panan hydroelectric project (300 MW) are a host of sacred sites: the Kagey Lha-Tso Lake, the Drag Shingye caves, and the Jhe-Tsa-Tsu and Kong-Tsa-Tsu hot springs, which are said to be endowed with healing properties. Indeed, the entire northern district of Sikkim has numerous such ‘treasures’, each of which was blessed by Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), the patron saint of Sikkim. Panan is one of the more disputed projects proposed for Dzongu – an area not only sacred but also falling dangerously close to the Khangchendzonga National Park, an area rich in flora and fauna.

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Source: Save The Teesta

The hydro bubble is bursting in India

Hydro-power projects are often proposed as a tool for profit generation, local economic development, and a renewable, sustainable source of energy generation. However, this win-win situation is turning out to be a nightmare of sorts with most of the ‘clean’ energy projects in these states failing to take off after several years of having signed the MoU with state governments. In many cases, the registration process they followed flouted the CDM norms, with project design documents often filled with blatant lies.

This is then coupled with delayed projects accruing huge debt—liability burdens which are being passed on to the respective states. After almost a decade of signing their MoUs, both the companies as well as the respective governments have accrued huge debt burdens due to inordinate delays in implementation with pretext after pretext—making many projects economically unviable due to the present day inflation and market rate of interest.

The returns on investments are bad, production cost high, and sale price of a unit of power low.

In the financial year 2015, India generated 1048.7 Billion Units (BU) of electricity, out of which only 133 BU was from the hydro power projects. Out of the 1048.7 BU electricity produced, 90% is sold through long-term power-purchase agreements, while the rest is traded on the short-term spot market. It is here that corporate power producers will have to make their profits.

But Sikkim, with an annual state budget of $315.86 million, has equity participation worth $230 million. Simply put, it took on huge debt to buy equity and with project delays and abandonment, leading to spiraling burdens that are then being passed on to the people. This has resulted in an absurd situation, where the production cost of one unit of electricity has become more costly than the sale price.

In March 2016, India’s ministry of power intervened to restore three stalled power projects in Sikkim; Panan (300 MW), Teesta VI (500 MW), and Rangit IV (120 MW) with total installed capacity of 920 MW. In a meeting held at New Delhi between the Sikkim government, the private developers of these projects, and the national hydro electric corporation of India (NHPC), Sikkim was asked to either incentivize the independent power producers, or cancel their MoUs after compensating them for investments in the projects.

The independent power producers are not keen on further investments, as breaking even will be impossible in the short term. The returns on investments are bad, production cost high, and sale price of a unit of power low.

 

The mega hydro power projects that fail

Hydro power projects all over the world are subject to widespread criticism for alleged human rights violations. Apart from the catastrophic environmental and geological disasters they trigger, they also resort to land acquisition—often forced—leading to displacement of people. These mega projects are most often imposed upon people in the garb of development; allowing a nexus of governments in collusion with corporate entities engage in this process of plunder. International funding agencies like the World Bank and private equity investors pump in huge quantities of money. Often, these companies or their front (shell) companies are based in tax haven countries and the money trail is obscure.

These mega projects are most often imposed upon people in the garb of development; allowing a nexus of governments in collusion with corporate entities engage in this process of plunder.

For example, in South America the Yacyretá Dam on the Parana River, which lies on the border between Argentina and Paraguay, generated controversy and criticism during its planning and construction, and is often referred to as a ‘monument to corruption’. While initially the construction costs of the dam were slated at $2.5 billion, eventually they escalated to $15 billion.

Environmental and social impacts run rampant. In China, the Three Gorges Dam project was held responsible by scientists and environmentalists for causing draughts in the upstream of Yangtze River and for increasing the frequency of landslides and earthquakes along areas next to the structure. The project also submerged a number of factories, mines and waste dumps, and a few industrial centres, which are alleged to have polluted the river. Biodiversity experts believe that the Three Gorges Dam has affected hundreds of animal and plant species in the Yangtze River and threatened the fisheries in the East China Sea.

Another glaring example would be in Brazil. Best known to the world for football and samba—and the upcoming Olympics, the country is now in the limelight for anti-dam protests against the Belo Monte Dam project which has been under construction since March 2011. The project, situated on the Xingu River in the state of Pará, faces fierce resistance from the Xingu’s Indigenous peoples and social movements, with support from international agencies.

With an expected 11,233 MW installed capacity, Belo Monte will be the world’s third biggest hydroelectric project when it starts full-fledged operation in 2019. The project was first proposed in 1975 but subsequently abandoned due to stiff opposition from environmental activists and local people. It was redesigned and revived in 2003, and received partial environmental license from the Federal Environmental Agency (IBAMA) in February 2010. The redesigned project, which is being constructed with an estimated investment of $13bn, is now battling at national and international tribunals against charges of displacing thousands of indigenous people and devastating over 1,500km2 of Brazilian rainforest in the Amazon basin.

In Tawang, hydro power projects have also failed to meet development promises by the government. While work on 13 hydro-electing projects in Tawang is currently going on, the government has planned a total of 28 mini- and micro-dams in the district. Even though the power requirement of the district is 6.5MW, if all these mini and micro projects were to produce the electricity as shown on paper, it would be more than 20MW. However, even after many of these projects were completed, they failed to produce adequate electricity, so much so that there are long hours of power cut even in Tawang’s sub-zero temperatures.

aapsu-candle-light-vigil-450x300
Source: Save Tawang

Conclusion

Development of every nation comes at a cost. The complex nexus and vested business interest of corporate groups, international funding agencies, private equity investors and powerful politicians have created a systematic plunder of natural resources, be it water or coal. However, development needs to be sustainable and not detrimental to the environment. The May 2nd killing in Tawang is a grim reminder to the policy makers that the development path chosen was fraught, to say the least. Globally, due to inflation, escalation of project costs and low returns on investments, many mega projects have failed to deliver as expectated, some have even failed to take off and too many have led to dissidence, socio-cultural rifts, and environmental disasters.

 

Soumik Dutta is a Graduate in Economics from Scottish Church College University of Kolkata, and a a freelance investigative journalist covering hydro power projects and protests by affected people, corruption of government and corporations, and environmental violation by infrastructure projects. He has published his stories in the likes of Outlook Magazine, Cobrapost, hundredreporters.org, and thirdpole.net. He loves travelling, music, reading, and good food.

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Het debat over het Antropoceen

One of the geo-engineering proposals to decrease global warming is to inject sulphur into the atmosphere. Source.
Bron: NASA.

door Aaron Vansintjan

vertaling door Luc Geeraert

The English version of this article can be found here.

Het woord ‘Antropoceen’ is in het debat over klimaatverandering opgedoken, en de vraag is of het daarin zou moeten blijven. Deze term verwoordt mooi het idee dat het woord Holoceen – een wetenschappelijke term die verwijst naar het huidige geologische tijdperk – niet langer adequaat is. Want we leven momenteel in een tijdperk waarin de mens (anthropos) de geologie van de Aarde fundamenteel heeft veranderd en aanwezig is in bijna alle ecosystemen.

We hebben de temperatuur van de planeet laten oplopen, de zeespiegel laten stijgen, massale hoeveelheden aardkorst ontgonnen, de ozonlaag aangetast, en beginnen nu de oceanen te verzuren – ingrepen die over miljoenen jaren nog steeds zichtbaar zullen zijn in fossielen.

Het woord ‘Antropoceen’ is pas recent in het mainstream woordgebruik opgedoken, maar is heel snel een strijdkreet geworden, die voor veel mensen de hoogdringendheid van maatregelen tegen klimaatverandering uitdrukt. Terwijl de term reeds eerder gesuggereerd werd in verschillende vormen, was het Paul Crutzen, chemicus en winnaar van de Nobelprijs, die hem populariseerde in 2002 in een artikel van 600 woorden lang, getiteld “De geologie van de mensheid”, dat verscheen in het wetenschappelijke tijdschrift Nature. In dit artikel betoogt hij dat de realiteit van “de groeiende invloed van de mensheid op de planeet” met zich meebrengt dat wetenschappers en ingenieurs de “zware taak” hebben de “maatschappij te gidsen” – via grootschalige geoengineering projecten als het moet. Volgens hem is de term Antropoceen een sleutelconcept in het uitleggen van de ernst van onze huidige situatie. Daardoor werd deze term voor velen welhaast een openbaring, die er goed inpeperde dat we onloochenbaar hebben ingegrepen in het ecosysteem van de Aarde, dat we het hebben gedestabiliseerd, en dat we moeten handelen, onverwijld en snel.

Maar ondanks het feit er vanuit verschillende hoeken wordt gepleit voor deze term, is er ook enige weerstand, en niet van het soort mensen dat je zou verwachten: veel klimaatwetenschappers zijn terughoudend om hem te gebruiken, en er is ook kritiek van milieu en sociale historici. Waarom al deze ophef over een woord, en wat is het belang?

Zoals elke activist graag zal willen uitleggen, is het belangrijk welke woorden we gebruiken. Woorden beschrijven niet enkel de problemen, maar framen ook de oplossingen. En in het geval van klimaatverandering is er een grote nood aan goede oplossingen, wat betekent dat de framing juist moet zijn. Als we klimaatverandering willen aanpakken, moeten we zorgvuldig de woorden kiezen waarmee we de problemen beschrijven.

In wat volgt wordt een overzicht gegeven van het Antropoceen debat, waarbij de vraag gesteld wordt of we dit woord inderdaad moeten gebruiken om onze huidige problemen te beschrijven, of integendeel dit woord beter zouden droppen. Zoals je zal zien, ben ik beslist de ene optie genegen – ik denk niet dat de term zo bruikbaar is als zijn supporters beweren – maar zal ik mijn argumenten zo goed mogelijk aandragen zodat je een eigen standpunt kan bepalen.

eng1
Het anthropoceen wordt vaak gebruikt om grootschalige geo-engingeering projekten te rechtvaardigen, dat leidt naar wat Richard Heinberg noemt ‘we-zijn-in-commando-en-daar-houden-we-van’ houding.

Van early adopters naar wijdverbreid gebruik

De term Antropoceen werd gepopulariseerd door hard-core klimaatwetenschappers die wilden illustreren hoe onze wereld er tegenwoordig uitziet en hoe fundamenteel verschillend dit is van de wereld die we erfden. Vanuit dit standpunt gezien, kan het concept leiden tot een ‘aha-erlebnis’ bij oningewijden: de mensheid heeft de Aarde reeds fundamenteel veranderd. Daarom gebruikten early adopters dit woord vaak om de urgentie van het huidige tijdsgewricht over te brengen naar het brede publiek toe.

In de tien jaar nadat het concept werd gelanceerd in de moderne cultuur, heeft het nieuwe vormen aangenomen die de originele geologische bedoeling overstijgen, waardoor het een meme is geworden met de capaciteit om een enorm scala aan argumenten te stutten.

Het brede publiek nam de term graag over met headlines in grote mediakanalen als de BBC, The New York Times, en Newsweek. Hij begon regelmatig gebruikt te worden in rapporten (pdf) en campagnes van klimaatactivisten als Bill McKibben en milieugroeperingen als Friends of the Earth. Ook kunstenaars pikten de term op, en academici organiseren talloze conferenties met ‘Antropoceen’ als leidraad.

Het soort opinies dat rond de term samenkoekt varieert. In het boek “The God Species” argumenteert de prominente milieu-schrijver Mark Lynas dat, aangezien we een nieuw tijdperk van ongeziene menselijke controle over het milieu binnentreden, we de verantwoordelijkheid, de plicht, en de mogelijkheden hebben om het milieu nog meer doorgedreven te controleren. Afstand nemend van traditionele milieustandpunten als anti-nucleair en anti-GGO, pleit hij ervoor om alle middelen waarover we beschikken te gebruiken, precies omdat we geconfronteerd worden met problemen op een grotere schaal dan ooit voorheen. Dit arsenaal omvat nucleaire energie en genetische manipulatie.

Recent vervoegde Mark Lynas een groep van pro-tech wetenschappers, schrijvers, en milieuactivisten, en schreef mee aan het “eco-modernist manifesto.” De auteurs claimen hierin dat “moderne technologieën, door meer efficiënt gebruik te maken van natuurlijke ecosystemen en diensten, een echte mogelijkheid bieden om de totale menselijke impact op de biosfeer terug te dringen. Deze technologieën omarmen, betekent het vinden van wegen naar een goed Antropoceen.”

Het probleem? Dat het Antropoceen openbaart dat de mensheid zich in een positie bevindt die ongezien netelig is. De oplossing? Drijf het op: gebruik meer, en betere, technologieën, om zo de natuur beter te controleren.

Richard Heinberg van het Post-Carbon Institute noemt dit de ‘we-zijn-in-commando-en-daar-houden-we-van’ houding. Volgens hem duidt dit ‘techno-Antropoceen’ argument op een soort wetenschappers dat het Antropoceen omarmt, eenvoudigweg omdat dit de mensheid het volledige mandaat geeft om de planeet te blijven terravormen. Zoals Heinberg aantoont, zal het opdrijven van het Antropoceen onontkoombaar op save-the-day technologieën steunen. Zoals het eco-modernist manifesto claimt: “Verstedelijking, intensiveren van de landbouw, nucleaire energie, aquacultuur, en ontzilting zijn allen processen met een bewezen potentieel om de menselijke impact op de omgeving te verkleinen, en zo meer ruimte te laten voor de niet-menselijke soorten.” Daartegen argumenteert Heinberg dat deze technologieën helemaal niet zo adequaat zijn als vaak wordt beweerd. De hierboven genoemde technologieën steunen ofwel op het gebruik van goedkope fossiele brandstoffen in veel grotere hoeveelheden dan wat ze vervangen, of deugen wetenschappelijk (en moreel) niet.

Een geoengineering projekt zou dure spiegels in de ruimte doen schieten om zonlicht te weerkaatsen. Bron: SCMP
Een geoengineering project zou dure spiegels in de ruimte doen schieten om zonlicht te weerkaatsen. Bron: SCMP

Heinberg stelt zijn eigen versie voor: het ‘slank-groene Antropoceen.’ Aangezien elke haalbare technologische oplossing aangedreven wordt door fossiele brandstoffen, ziet hij een meer wenselijke toekomst die low-tech is, arbeidsintensief, met lokale voedselproductie, en verantwoord watergebruik (dus bv. onafhankelijk van energie-intensieve ontziltingsinstallaties). Maar voor hem is het ook noodzakelijk om te erkennen dat de mens niet het centrum van het universum is: “Zoals de mensheid nu de toekomst van de Aarde vormgeeft, zal de Aarde de toekomst van de mensheid vormgeven.”

Ietwat verrassend werd de term ook gretig aangenomen door kritische theoretici – misschien te onkritisch. Bijvoorbeeld Bruno Latour gebruikt de term – en de realiteit van menselijke betrokkenheid in het klimaat – als een startpunt voor de discussie over het nieuwe beleid dat deze crises vereisen. Prominente politiek-ecologische wetenschappers als Laura Ogden, Paul Robbins, en Nik Heynen refereren naar de term om de eigen argumenten te onderbouwen dat grassroots organisaties de sleutel zijn tot veerkracht en politieke weerstand in dit nieuwe tijdperk. Slavoj Zizek suggereert dat het Antropoceen, en de wetenschappers die het voorstellen, ons nieuwe vragen doet stellen over de relatie van de mens met zijn omgeving, en over de obsessie die in onze cultuur bestaat voor de altijd-aanwezige apocalyps. In een ander essay daagt Dipesh Chakrabarty de term deels uit vanuit een postkoloniaal perspectief, maar eindigt hij met het onderschrijven ervan, aangezien, op een bepaalde manier, iedereen (de kolonisatoren en de gekoloniseerden, de rijken en de armen) zal geraakt worden door de komende rampen.

Ik zeg verrassend omdat dezelfde theoretici zouden aarzelen om woorden als democratie, ontwikkeling, of vooruitgang te gebruiken zonder ‘aanhalingstekens’ – ze specialiseren zich in het in vraag stellen van alles in het ondermaanse (en maar goed ook). Dat zij dit nieuwe woord accepteren zonder bevragen of terugblikken, vormt misschien wel de beste illustratie voor zijn wijdverbreide aantrekkingskracht.

Hoe dan ook, dit is het beeld: het concept Antropoceen wordt gesteund door mensen met zeer verschillende ideologische overtuigingen. De ene bepleit business-as-usual gedreven door technologische doorbraken, de ander roept op tot een totale transformatie van de relatie tussen mens en natuur, en nog een ander suggereert dat het betekent dat we onze verschillen aan de kant moeten zetten, en de uitdagingen samen tegemoet moeten treden.

In de tien jaar nadat het concept werd gelanceerd in de moderne cultuur, heeft het nieuwe vormen aangenomen die de originele geologische bedoeling overstijgen, waardoor het een meme1 is geworden met de capaciteit om een enorm scala aan argumenten te stutten.

 

Waarna de problematische fase volgt

Echter, in het voorbije jaar – en zeker tijdens de voorbije maanden – verscheen er een stroom van kritiek op het concept Antropoceen.

Het eerste kernprobleem is wetenschappelijk, met twee facetten. Ten eerste, ondanks het feit dat het concept zich goed heeft genesteld in onze woordenschat (“Welkom in het Antropoceen” titelde The Economist in 2011), is er nog steeds heel wat debat over zijn exacte betekenis, zelfs over zijn wetenschappelijke waarde. Ten tweede wordt de wetenschap meer en meer gepolitiseerd.

Het neologisme van Paul Crutzen bereikte het domein van de stratigrafie – een specifieke discipline die bepaalt wanneer elke geologische periode start en eindigt. En Crutzen is een atmosfeerwetenschapper, geen stratigraaf. Indien hij dat wel was geweest, dan had hij waarschijnlijk de bittere gevechten en spanningen die zijn voorstel veroorzaakte, kunnen voorzien.

Crutzen stelde oorspronkelijk voor dat het Antropoceen zou starten bij de industriële revolutie, meer specifiek de uitvinding van de stoommachine. Daarna veranderde hij van gedacht, en liet het Antropoceen starten bij het testen van de atoombom. Maar dit soort grillen houdt geen stand in het studiegebied dat beslist over geologische tijdperken – er was 60 jaar nodig om te beslissen over de definitie van het Kwartair, een tijdperk dat 2,6 miljoen jaar overspant. De wetenschappers die dit soort beslissingen nemen zijn streng, om niet te zeggen muggenzifters.

Dus beslisten ze een internationale werkgroep te vormen, om voor eens en altijd te beslissen of de term de tand des tijd zou kunnen doorstaan. Dit was behoorlijk moeilijk. Vooreerst bestaat er zelfs geen formele definitie van wat ‘Antropoceen’ echt betekent. Wat behelst een significante verandering in het geologische systeem van de Aarde, die ons zou toelaten om de lijn te trekken? En waar moeten we die lijn trekken?

Daartoe werden talrijke voorstellen gedaan. Het begon met de landbouw 5.000 jaar geleden, of mijnbouw 3.000 jaar geleden. Of nee: het begon met de genocide van 50 miljoen inheemse mensen in Amerika. Of: het begon met de ‘Grote Versnelling:’ de periode van de voorbije 50 jaar waarin plastics, chemische meststoffen, beton, aluminium, en petroleum de markt overspoelden, en het milieu. Of: we kunnen het nu nog niet bepalen, we moeten waarschijnlijk nog een paar miljoen jaar wachten.

Kort gezegd, de vaagheid van de term leidde ertoe dat het onmogelijk was vast te stellen wat deze eigenlijk zou moeten zijn, en hoe hij gemeten zou kunnen worden. Daardoor ontstonden conflicten in het domein van de stratigrafie, waar sommigen betreuren dat een zeer gepolitiseerd onderwerp een idealiter traag, zorgvuldig, en delicaat proces ontwricht: bepalen wanneer een geologisch tijdperk begint en eindigt. Leidende wetenschappers stelden de vraag (pdf) of Antropoceen in feite niet meer is dan een uitwas van de ‘pop cultuur,’ eerder dan een serieus vraagstuk voor stratigrafen.

Daardoor worden deze wetenschappelijke discussies zelf ook politiek. Bij veel betrokken wetenschappers leeft het gevoel dat zij die het concept door willen drukken eerder geïnteresseerd zijn in het in de verf zetten van de destructieve kracht van de mens om klimaatactie aan te moedigen, dan in het definiëren van een nieuwe wetenschappelijke term. Zoals Richard Monastersky zegt in een Nature artikel over de politiek achter het de pogingen om de term te definiëren: “Het debat heeft het gewoonlijk onopgemerkte proces waarbij geologen de 4,5 miljard jaar geschiedenis van de Aarde opdelen, in de schijnwerpers geplaatst.” De inspanningen om het Antropoceen te definiëren en het op de kaart van geologische tijdsschalen te plaatsen is een mijnenveld van politiek, gevestigde belangen, en ideologie geworden. Zodoende onthult het debat over het Antropoceen eens te meer dat de wetenschap – die zo vaak als objectief wordt beschouwd – gedreven wordt door, en onderhevig is aan, persoonlijke en politieke agenda’s.

De mens beschuldigen, de geschiedenis uitwissen

Maar het is niet omdat de term Antropoceen politiek beladen is en moeilijk te definiëren, dat we twee maal zouden moeten nadenken voor we hem gebruiken. Er zijn veel verontrustender kwesties samenhangend met het onderwerp, waarvan we ons bewust moeten zijn.

Vooreerst is er de bezorgdheid dat het concept Antropoceen de menselijke impact op de Aarde ‘vernatuurlijkt.’ Wat betekent dit? In essentie dat we door te spreken over het ‘tijdperk van de mens,’ suggereren dat alle mensen verantwoordelijk zijn. Anders gezegd, dat er iets intrinsieks slecht is aan de mens, waar we altijd en onontkoombaar onze stempel zullen drukken op het milieu.

Dit gaat over het (zeer Westerse) idee dat mensen losstaan van de natuur, en dat we dus ofwel moeten terugkeren naar de natuur ofwel erbovenuit stijgen. Vandaar de oproep van de ecomodernisten om ons te ‘ontkoppelen’ van de natuurlijke wereld door technologie. Vandaar ook de oproep van diepe ecologisten om de natuur an sich te appreciëren, zonder er onze menselijke noden en verlangens op te projecteren. En vandaar het idee dat alle mensen mee de oorzaak zijn van de huidige moeilijke situatie.

Het alternatief, zoals gesuggereerd door de milieutheoreticus Jim Proctor, is beseffen dat het Antropoceen er niet is ‘vanwege’ de mens. Dit vereist te erkennen dat zijn processen en gebeurtenissen talrijk zijn en onderling verweven – er is geen helder onderscheid tussen natuur en cultuur, menselijke verlangens en natuurkrachten.

Maar welke krachten zijn dan verantwoordelijk? In alle rapporten over klimaatverandering staat duidelijk dat de mens aan de basis ervan ligt. Hiertegen argumenteren kan ons gevaarlijk dicht bij de retoriek van de ontkenners brengen.

Het is op dit punt dat we zouden kunnen kiezen voor optie C: vraag het aan een historicus. James W. Moore, een professor milieugeschiedenis, heeft zich afgevraagd of we echt met een beschuldigende vinger moeten wijzen naar stoommachines, atoomwapens, of de mensheid als een geheel. Daarom pleit hij voor een totaal andere term: het ‘Capitaloceen:’ het geologische tijdperk van het kapitalisme. Kort gezegd, het is niet de stoommachine die geleid heeft tot een gebruik van fossiele brandstof dat zonder voorgaande is – het zijn veeleer het bestuurssysteem en de sociale organisatie die de huidige globale veranderingen veroorzaakt hebben. Vereist waren het uitvaardigen van innovatieve eigendomswetten geruggensteund door militaire macht en politie, en ook het opzetten van ongelijke machtsrelaties tussen een kleine klasse van kapitalisten en de werkende armen, vrouwen, inheemse culturen, en andere beschavingen. Het zijn deze instellingen, ontwikkeld en geperfectioneerd over honderden jaren, die het mogelijk maakten om culturen te vernietigen en de hulpbronnen van de Aarde te overexploiteren, wat culmineert in onze huidige crisis.

Het is vreemd in hoeverre dit soort bredere sociale dynamiek totaal onbelicht is in het debat over het Antropoceen. Zo wordt er bijvoorbeeld vaak beweerd dat de uitvinding van het vuur de eerste vonk was die onontkoombaar zou leiden naar de immense voetafdruk van de mens op de Aarde. Dit is niet zomaar een randpositie. Andreas Malm merkt in een artikel in Jacobin Magazine op dat het idee wordt onderschreven door Paul Crutzen, Mark Lynas, en andere opmerkenswaardige wetenschappers zoals John R. McNeill. Volgens hen volgt de afschuwelijke impact van klimaatverandering rechtstreeks uit het ogenblik waarop een groep hominiden vuur leerde maken.

Maar beweren dat de controle van het vuur een noodzakelijke voorwaarde was voor de menselijke vaardigheid om kolen te verbranden is één ding, argumenteren dat het de reden is waarom we momenteel met een klimaatcrisis worden geconfronteerd, is iets helemaal anders.

In een pittig artikel in The Anthropocene Review suggereren Malm en de prominente milieuhistoricus Alf Hornborg dat deze veronachtzaming voortkomt uit het feit dat de wetenschappers die de alarmbel luiden over het klimaat, getraind zijn in het bestuderen van de natuurlijke wereld, en niet van de mens. Om de echte oorzaken van de antropogene klimaatverandering te vinden volstaat het niet om de winden, de zeeën, de rotsen, en de bevolkingsgroei te bestuderen, maar moet ook gekeken worden naar de maatschappij en de geschiedenis. In het bijzonder, Moore echoënd, is het een vereiste te verstaan hoe technologische vooruitgang in de geschiedenis steeds weer aangedreven werd door ongelijke machtsrelaties tussen een minderheidselite en een onderworpen meerderheid. Malm en Hornborg zeggen hierover:

“Geologen, meteorologen, en hun collega’s zijn niet noodzakelijk goed toegerust om het soort dingen te bestuderen dat plaatsvindt tussen mensen (en noodzakelijkerwijs tussen hen en de rest van de natuur); de samenstelling van een rots of het patroon van een straalstroom verschillen nogal van fenomenen als wereldbeelden, eigendom en macht.”

Bijgevolg moet het idee dat het Antropoceen de ‘nieuwe realiteit’ is die iedereen treft, in vraag gesteld worden.

Bijgevolg moet het idee dat het Antropoceen de ‘nieuwe realiteit’ is die iedereen treft, in vraag gesteld worden. Inderdaad, gezien de bestaande machtsrelaties, zal de ‘nieuwe realiteit’ meer ‘reëel’ zijn voor de ene dan voor de andere. Voor de meeste mensen zal het meer ontbering en vechten voor het overleven betekenen, terwijl er voor enkelen comfortabele reddingsboten zullen zijn. Zo suggereren Malm en Hornborg dat Dipesh Chakrabarty, de wetenschapper die het concept vanuit een postkoloniaal perspectief omarmt, zijn positie zou moeten herdenken: klimaatverandering zelf is geen universele gelijkschakelaar, maar riskeert integendeel de kloof tussen rijk en arm te verdiepen.

Dit brengt ons bij een laatste probleem: de politiek. Indien, zoals veel Antropoceen-enthousiastelingen beweren, het concept helpt om mensen te laten begrijpen hoe diep de menselijke betrokkenheid in de Aardse systemen is, dan kan het ook leiden tot een beloftevolle politieke discussie die er de machtshebbers eindelijk op wijst dat er iets dient te gebeuren.

Echter, zoals Jedediah Purdy, professor aan de Duke University, opmerkt in het tijdschrift Aeon: “Beweren dat we leven in het Antropoceen is een manier om te zeggen dat we de verantwoordelijkheid voor de wereld die we creëren niet kunnen ontlopen. Tot daar alles goed. Het probleem begint wanneer dit charismatische, allesomvattende idee van het Antropoceen een universeel projectiescherm wordt en een versterker voor iedereens geprefereerde versie van het ‘verantwoordelijkheid nemen voor de planeet’.”

Voor veel mensen betekent het Antropoceen dat er ‘geen alternatief is.’ Afhankelijk van persoonlijke overtuiging, leidt de term Antropoceen tot verschillende conclusies en oproepen tot actie. Zoals Purdy zegt: “Het Antropoceen lijkt niet veel geesten te veranderen… Maar het draait hen op tot voorbij het maximum. ”

Is dit een probleem voor elk nieuw concept of is het inherent aan het Antropoceen? Gezien de vaagheid van het concept is dit volgens Purdy “een Rorschach vlek waarmee commentatoren onderscheiden wat de tijdperkbepalende verandering in de mens/natuur relatie is.” Met de grote diversiteit aan opinies die beschikbaar is, zullen zij met de meeste politieke en ideologische invloed het debat uiteindelijk domineren.

Neem bijvoorbeeld Peter Kareiva, chief scientist bij het Nature Conservancy, die argumenteert dat het Antropoceen betekent dat we nu, meer dan ooit, moeten stoppen met proberen wildernis te beschermen en het kapitalisme te beschuldigen, en dat we integendeel ondernemingen moeten aanmoedigen om verantwoordelijkheid op te nemen voor, en controle over, de milieudiensten van de Aarde.

Kareiva’s opinie is enorm populair geworden in het mainstream discours, maar impliceert ook dat de mens niet het huidige economische en politieke systeem zou moeten herdenken, maar voluit dient te gaan voor het verhandelbaar maken van alles. Hoe vager het concept, hoe gevoeliger het dus kan zijn voor coöptatie. De vaagheid van de term heeft deels geleid tot zijn kameleon-achtig vermogen om in ieders agenda te passen.

Meer nog, aangezien het concept Antropoceen impliceert dat de mensheid als geheel de eerste verantwoordelijke is – en niet de relaties tussen mensen – verhindert het vruchtbare discussies, eerder dan ze aan te moedigen. Zoals Malm en Hornborg schrijven: “Het effect is het afblokken van elk perspectief op verandering.”

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Richard Heinberg stelt voor dat we ons met een ‘slank-groen Antropoceen’ minder op high-tech oplossingen zouden moeten toeleggen, en in plaats daarvan simpelere dingen zouden moeten proberen zoals vruchtbare grond opbouwen, wat dat ook koolstof opslaat. Bron: Kwaad.net

Is de term nog nuttig?

Indien de kritieken hierboven steek houden, waarom denken klimaatwetenschappers en activisten dan nog steeds dat het Antropoceen concept nuttig is? Overtuigt het echt degenen die nog overtuigd moeten worden, of versluiert het veeleer de belangrijke discussies die we moeten hebben?

In discussies en gesprekken met vrienden en collega’s, wordt er vaak op gewezen dat de kritieken van Malm en Hornborg voorbijgaan aan het originele nut van het concept. Zoals een professor geografie het schreef in een e-mail: “Voor mij opent het Antropoceen eerder de weg naar het soort exploratie waartoe de auteurs lijken uit te nodigen, dan dat het die weg zou afsluiten.” Mijn vriend Aaron McConomy schreef het volgende op Facebook: “Ik heb het gevoel dat al deze discussies, theoretische beschouwingen zijn over wat er in de echte wereld gebeurt, maar niet echt weerspiegelen wat ik als actieve lezer en onderzoeker opvang… Het is zoals de meme der memen die reageert op andere memen, waarbij niemand exact schijnt te weten waarop ze eigenlijk aan het reageren zijn… Voor mij is de grotere vraag hoe we ‘derde weg’ discussies kunnen hebben. Waar de realiteit van het Antropoceen toe oproept is een diepgaand herwerken van sociaal-ecologische systemen. Weinig voorbeelden waarmee men komt aanzetten, zijn daarvoor geschikt.”

Punt genoteerd. In plaats van te kibbelen over de betekenis van het Antropoceen, zouden we beter oplossingen vinden voor de vraagstukken waarmee we geconfronteerd worden. En terwijl de term een echt nut heeft voor geologen, kan het de broodnodige discussie over politieke alternatieven stimuleren. Dit is een steekhoudend antwoord op de problematisering van de term: alles welbeschouwd, de term is bruikbaar gebleken in het op gang brengen van een belangrijk debat.

Maar welk soort debat? Aangezien het Antropoceen de mens aanduidt als de hoofdschuldige van de huidige situatie waarin de Aarde verkeert, wijst het niet echt naar de minderheid die de meeste schade heeft aangericht, noch verbreedt het de discussie naar hen die het meest geraakt worden door klimaatverandering maar wiens rol in het veroorzaken ervan werkelijk nul is.

Leunen op een alomvattende geologische (en biologische) term om onze situatie te beschrijven, houdt het risico in te helpen om alternatieve opinies, alternatieve verhalen, en alternatieve politiek monddood te maken. Zoals Malm en Hornborg benadrukken: “Indien klimaatopwarming het gevolg is van de kennis van het vuur, of van een andere eigenschap die de menselijke soort verworven heeft ergens lang geleden in zijn evolutie, hoe kunnen we ons dan zelfs nog maar het ontmantelen van de fossiele economie verbeelden? [Argumenteren dat de klimaatopwarming veroorzaakt is door één soort] bevordert de mystificatie en politieke verlamming.”

Het valt moeilijk te bepalen of de term een goed debat gemiddeld schaadt of het eerder aanmoedigt. Maar als we de talrijke wendingen in acht nemen die de term sinds zijn ontstaan heeft gekend, is het aan te raden de kritiek ernstig te nemen.

Het valt moeilijk te bepalen of de term een goed debat gemiddeld schaadt of het eerder aanmoedigt. Maar als we de talrijke wendingen in acht nemen die de term sinds zijn ontstaan heeft gekend, is het aan te raden de kritiek ernstig te nemen. Dit soort beladen termen moet met zorg gehanteerd worden, en we moeten goed nadenken wanneer en waarom we de term zouden gebruiken.

Ja, ‘Antropoceen’ kan nuttig zijn om de geschiedenis van het leven op Aarde te vertellen. Het kan ook illustreren hoe diep de mens de Aardse systemen heeft veranderd. Ook suggereert het dat we onmogelijk terug kunnen keren naar de ‘ongerepte’ natuur die bestond voor de mens, zoals cultuurcritici lang hebben beweerd. Vanuit een geologisch perspectief is de term ongelooflijk aantrekkelijk om aan te geven dat de impact van de mens op de aardkorst zo diep is dat toekomstige aardbewoners, wanneer ze aan het graven gaan, een aardlaag zullen ontdekken die helemaal doordrongen is van de mens. Dit geologische feit is een prachtig beeld om al het bovenstaande uit te drukken.

Maar de term helpt niet noodzakelijk, zoals uitvoerig beargumenteerd, om de systemen die klimaatverandering bestendigen in vraag te stellen. Omdat hij de mensheid als geheel aanduidt, toont hij niet dat ons probleem politiek is, steunend op een onevenwichtige machtsverdeling. Door de startdatum van het Antropoceen open te laten (sommigen zeggen 50 jaar geleden, anderen 400 jaar, nog anderen 10.000, en weer anderen 50.000), faalt het woord om de hoofdrolspelers van de huidige ecologische crisis aan te duiden.

Zoals ‘duurzaamheid,’ ‘ontwikkeling,’ ‘natuurlijk,’ of ‘groen,’ is de term zo vaag dat hij door om het even wie kan gebruikt worden, voor het uitdagen van de machthebbers, om een snel centje te verdienen, of om een onderzoeksbeurs te scoren. Terwijl de term kan gebruikt worden om te argumenteren voor actie tegen klimaatverandering, kan hij even goed gebruikt worden om het aanboren van bijkomende olievelden te steunen (“och wat maakt het ook uit, we leven toch in het tijdperk van de menselijke superioriteit!”)

Je kan je afvragen of dit niet het geval is met alle woorden? Dat is het niet. Er zijn veel termen in gebruik bij de klimaatbeweging die zowel krachtig als moeilijk te ontvreemden zijn: degrowth, klimaatgerechtigheid, ecocide, ecologische schuld, en 350 ppm zijn er maar enkele van.

Het punt is niet dat het gebruik van Antropoceen zou moeten opgegeven worden – de term heeft duidelijk zijn nut gehad. Maar moet het, zoals in de voorbeelden hierboven, een strijdkreet zijn van klimaatwetenschappers en activisten? Moet het gebruikt worden als gespreksopener, in de hoop dat het de machthebbers zal overtuigen hun politiek te veranderen? Moet het kritiekloos gebruikt worden als het hoofdthema van talrijke wetenschappelijke congressen? Misschien niet.

Besluit: waarheen met het Antropoceen?

Woorden zijn machtig.

Zoals veel klimaatactivisten weten, is klimaatverandering een strijdperk van woorden. ‘350.org’ is genoemd naar de concentratie van 350 parts per million CO2 in de atmosfeer die door wetenschappers als nog acceptabel wordt beschouwd. ‘Klimaatgerechtigheid’ refereert naar het feit dat klimaatverandering verschillende mensen ongelijk zal treffen, en dat de klimaatbeweging zij aan zij moet strijden met mensen die systematisch onderdrukt worden op andere manieren. ‘Klimaatchaos’ ontstond om de zaken duidelijk te stellen, dat klimaatverandering zal zorgen voor een ontwrichting van de normale weerpatronen, eerder dan, zoals ‘opwarming’ schijnt te suggereren, een globale trage verhoging van de temperatuur.

Elk begrip zag een cyclus van early adopters, een groeiend gebruik, paradigmaverschuivingen in de algemene discussie, en daarna vaak kritiek gevolgd door een traag opgeven van de term.

Sommige concepten geïntroduceerd door vroegere sociale bewegingen blijven in gebruik: sociale gerechtigheid, burgerlijke ongehoorzaamheid, mensenrechten. Deze termen verwoorden zowel het probleem als de strategie, zijn politiek zonder teveel af te schrikken, en kunnen moeilijk ontvreemd worden door apolitieke actoren. Daarom blijven ze ook bruikbaar voor de sociale bewegingen van vandaag. ‘Antropoceen’ is niet zo een woord: het is voldoende vaag om door om het even wie gebruikt te worden, het is angstaanjagend zonder een uitweg te suggereren. Het heeft flair, het is aantrekkelijk, maar het mist macht.

Waarom is dit van belang? Woorden kunnen bewegingen maken of kraken.Helaas faalt de term ‘Antropoceen’ om de huidige situatie adequaat te framen, en daarom laat hij iedereen toe om de term te gebruiken ter promotie van de eigen oplossingen.

Waarom is dit van belang? Woorden kunnen bewegingen maken of kraken. Wanneer een beweging verzamelen blaast rond één term – bijvoorbeeld burgerrechten – verandert de manier waarop het publiek en dus de politiek het probleem percipieert. De manier waarop een probleem wordt gedefinieerd, de slogans van de actiegroepen, zijn ongelooflijk belangrijk om de noodzakelijke politieke veranderingen te bewerkstelligen. Helaas faalt de term ‘Antropoceen’ om de huidige situatie adequaat te framen, en daarom laat hij iedereen toe om de term te gebruiken ter promotie van de eigen oplossingen. Waar de term zeker veel discussies in gang heeft gezet, is hij noch politiek, noch precies, en zal hij daarom nooit leiden tot een goede, uitdagende, discussie. En juist nu is er echt nood aan discussies die uitdagend zijn.

Maar, willen of niet, ‘Antropoceen’ is er en heeft de manier waarop we denken en praten over de wereld al veranderd. Wetenschappers zullen de term blijven citeren, sociale theoretici zullen hem bestuderen, en in de media opgevoerde specialisten zullen hem gebruiken om wat dan ook in het ondermaanse te verantwoorden. Het is een ‘meme der memen, reagerend op andere memen’ geworden.

Aaron Vansintjan bestudeert ecologische economie, voedselsystemen, en stedelijke verandering. Hij is co-editor van Uneven Earth en geniet van journalistiek, wilde fermentatie, dekolonisering, degrowth, en lange fietstochten.

Vertaling door Luc Geeraert, voor het tijdschrift van Aardewerk (www.aardewerk.be) en in het kader van de Aardewerk Zomerweek “Het ‘Tijdperk van de Mens’: Over Leven in het Antropoceen,” die zal doorgaan in “La Bavière” in Chassepierre van 10 tot en met 16 augustus 2016.

Om ons volgend artikel via email te ontvangen, klik hier.

 

Returning to Indigenous world governance

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In 1974, a group of Mohawk families occupied Moss Lake in New York state. After three years of heavy activism and high tensions, they signed an agreement with the state and were granted the area as a land trust. Source: Ganienkeh.net

by Kanenhariyo

I have a dream that our people will spread out from the reservations we call territories and establish new communities steeped in our languages, laws, traditions and clans. I have had this dream since I was a teenager. I have come to a point in my life where I believe the time for me to be a part of that movement has arrived.

For those of you with the same or similar dream I encourage you to let yourself be known. Let’s join forces and make our dreams of freedom and national independence our reality.

I also recognize community building takes committed people willing to work together to make possible the betterment of everyone’s future generations. I am ready to find solutions together with others to make this dream become reality.

I started to investigate if there was a way to establish a collective land holdings in a collective commons outside of a nation state. If that has been done before I wondered what examples exist and how a group or a collection of groups should go about structuring and organizing and protecting such a land holding.

What my research found was that in fact there are several examples of such land holdings. They are often referred to as “community land trusts” or “land trust protectorates.”

After World War Two several of these sorts of land trusts were established to assist lands and populations who had experienced colonization or relocation establish themselves with protection from other nation-states invading them.

Amazingly a structure and legal apparatus does exists at the international level.

I initiated the process to hire a lawyer prepared and willing to build the nessary legal apparatus to achieve ratification at The Hague. However at the time I had not reached out to others to assist in fundraising and adding to the discussion and development.

I had at the time been too worried about sabotage to put it out there in the world. I was always aware that this sort of project could not be pursued without help so I have come to accept that there will be negative people out there and that we must focus our attention and work with those that seek similar goals and like minded people and not worry about the saboteurs.

Although I do not agree with what has happened in Palestine and Israel, Israel was in fact set up as a collective land trust protectorate.

There currently are several land occupations occurring in Canada by Indigenous people reoccupying their territories. However there are no legal apparatuses protecting these people or their lands.

Thus the road map and international legal apparatus does in fact exist. I propose that we create an Indigenous land trust that we collectively govern together for the protection of the land and of the people living together. And that we hold lands through the globe as an international land protectorate.

There are several land trusts that hold lands in different countries that buy up or accept donations of lands for environmental protections. This is not a new concept. Except in this case we would link arms and hold each others lands and territories in common, and acknowledge each other’s land stewardship in the places across our Mother Earth where we have lived for thousands of years.

I started the process of paying for the legal work to get this done but I can not pay for this all on my own. I simply do not have the means.

Canada and other counties are still operating on the premise of the doctrine of discovery.

There currently are several land occupations occurring in Canada by Indigenous people reoccupying their territories. However there are no legal apparatuses protecting these people or their lands. I continue to hear word that plans for more reoccupations are in the works.

Canada and other counties are still operating on the premise of the doctrine of discovery. They also claim Indigenous people within the territory are citizens and therefore any and all Indigenous issues are perceived in the international community as internal issues. Therefore,  outside nation-states are not able by international law to intervene.

So I’m proposing that we build an international land protectorate forming alliances both with each other and nation-states willing to offer support politically, financially, and militarily. There would be many smaller nations, and a few larger ones that are willing to assist.

It’s not a huge jump—if a jump at all—to recognize that we all have the same Mother Earth. Building protective laws for our mother and the people that live with her isn’t a huge stretch either. I think we would be  wise to build a single collective that touches as many continents and people as possible.

In these  collective territories, we would all have a responsibility to support and protect each other, share resources, knowledge, and improve our collective internal trade.

In practice the land trust organization that would hold all the lands of its members in common would be  made up from all the stewards of each different territory.  Effectively this would be creating an Indigenous United Nations, where each group of Indigenous stewards selects their own representative to carry their interest within the collective land trust.

Together we can affirm each other’s stewardship of lands.  We can create stewardship agreements that ensure autonomy and governance over territory by the stewards so long as they continue to maintain certain “laws” to protect the people and the land.

And we hold these lands we live on and with in common. And we work together to create a constitution that ensures protection for the people and the land. With governance at the local level by the people, in accordance to their cultural practices and values that have protected the land for thousands of years.

Holding lands in trust in this sort of manner would make it harder for a nation-state or corporation to make a treaty with some sideliner or a group looking to forfeit their peoples’ rights to the land for a few bucks.

Right now many or most of us have few protections and continuously struggle with small numbers and the inability to raise the capital or people or defend ourselves against corporate interests and foolish nation-state leaders.

Creating a collective Indigenous land trust with stewardship agreements would greatly reduce this struggle by increasing our numbers, creating protectionary laws, and having the international community’s protections apply to the lands and people within the trust. There are several nation-states willing to support such an effort. It’s good for the Earth. And it’s a different model than the current global structure in many ways.

In a sense I suppose I am proposing a form of Indigenous world governance. Perhaps it is time that we return to it.

 

Kanenhariyo is a co-founder of Real People’s Media and the host of the podcast What’s Going On?  

 

A version of article originally appeared on Real People’s Media.

“Docs Not Cops”

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Photo: Emily Hatcher

by Sophie Lewis

Who works indirectly for the UK Border Agency? Volunteers help burn down migrant camps in Calais and elsewhere. In part due to cuts to its maritime services, bodies continue to wash up on EU shores. And as a result of recent policies, the government has made it clear that it would like the border control team to include landlords, neighbours, teachers, bank clerks, social workers, welfare administrators, and doctors. It is increasingly clear that the enforcement of the UK border is not limited to its ports of entry.

But the activists and medical trainees who go by “Docs Not Cops” are not going to comply.  In the context of the EU’s ongoing inadequate and even murderous response to migrants, I interviewed activists at DocsNotCops for Uneven Earth.* This group of medical workers and activists represent just one example – in Britain – of a struggle against border regimes that exclude and stigmatize migrants, to the detriment of everyone.

 

Why DocsNotCops?

The UK National Health Service (NHS), a system of socialized healthcare introduced in the aftermath of World War II, has been universally operative and “free at the point of use” since 1948. But advocates of privatizing public infrastructure (as pioneered by Margaret Thatcher) are gaining ground in their longstanding assault on the NHS.

In the years since, millions of people have taken to the streets to defend “Our NHS” against those who would tamper with it. The campaign of opposition to “our” NHS has been multi-pronged—involving de-funding, speculation, and propaganda—but the consensus is that it seeks to convert a public good currently organised along principles of universal welfare into a lucrative and stratified medical marketplace based on private care and insurance premiums, similar to that of  USA.

In 2015 and 2016, it is the NHS doctors on the “junior” contract, which Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is threatening with reform, who have occupied the bulk of the spotlight within the wider social conflict over healthcare provision. In his attempt to impose the exploitative new terms, Hunt has come up against a tireless wave of resistance he visibly did not expect. Although public sentiment in support of a fully public health service was known to be high, the junior doctors surprised many by handing their union, the British Medical Association, an extraordinarily strong mandate for taking strike action against the government: the ballot showed that 98% of more than 37,000 in England had voted in favour of full strike action. Perhaps even more surprisingly, doctors on strike have consistently been found to enjoy full support from a vocal majoritarian cross-section of society.

Most of those involved with DocsNotCops are also heavily involved in the junior doctors’ struggle. One interviewee, who asked not to be named, explained the current state of affairs for the fightback against Hunt’s reform: “The vast majority of its members have said they’re willing to escalate things. Unfortunately the BMA (our trade union) has been dragging its heels and not wanting to appear too militant. We’re seeing many medical staff talking about simply quitting the National Health Service, or even quitting the profession altogether. They’re still a minority, those suggesting a mass exodus, but it’s catching on, and it’s a terrible argument for many reasons—most of all because it would play right into the hands of privatizers. At this point, any “emergency meetings” the government tries to have with our BMA reps will be stormed by activists so as to ensure that continuous, 48-hour plus, strike action is on the table.”

The [Immigration Act] enlists doctors themselves in a closing of the borders.

But, specifically, DocsNotCops came into being in response to the passing of the UK Immigration Act. Hotly contested and repeatedly blocked prior to its approval in 2014, the Immigration Act was justified by a series of xenophobic discourses in mainstream newspapers (from the Daily Mail to the Guardian). These ill-substantiated anti-migrant narratives, fuelled by soundbites from politicians across the party spectrum, connected widespread ill-feeling generated by austerity policies and slow post-crisis economic recovery with a supposed immigration and asylum-seeking crisis. According to them, an unsustainable influx of both “medical tourists” and refugees has “swamped” Britain’s capacities to provide care at taxpayers’ expense: supposedly “stretching” the NHS to its breaking point.

The bill enlists doctors themselves in a closing of the borders, inside institutions. It changes the fundamentally unpoliced nature of public medical provision by introducing unprecedented screening, designed to identify those the state deems (as above) “undesirables” at the point of healthcare provision, in order to charge them fees, exclude them, or else dissuade them from seeing a doctor in the first place. In other words, the bill – as they see it – essentially turns civil, medical and caring professionals into agents of harm: “cops”; border agents; spies and debt collectors.

The policy changes have already produced tragic effects. Reem Abu-Hayyeh (DocsNotCops) cites, for example, “the sad case of Dalton Messam (44), an undocumented migrant who died in 2013 in East Ham from an unknown illness, too afraid to seek medical treatment in case he was deported, is testament to the potentially fatal consequences of limiting or cutting off access to healthcare for migrants.”

The energetic ad-hoc network came together to prevent this kind of shameful occurrence from ever being repeated. In their own words, the aim is “a society in which people aren’t scared of illness.” One trainee doctor and DocsNotCops activist observed: “As we move on with this fight, we’ve all been obliged to re-think the question ‘What is cost, in the NHS?’ Because we’re constantly confronting the fact that it’s the capitalists themselves who are putting the numerical value on what happens to people’s bodies under this system.”

The activists frequently point out in their written materials that Aneurin Bevan, the minister who founded the NHS, understood this profoundly. Bevan famously affirmed: “Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalized, but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by the community”. For these reasons as much as epidemiological ones, as DocsNotCops maintain, if a health system isn’t for everyone, it just won’t work.

 

The Immigration Act: paving the way for more austerity and privatization

As one of their first initiatives, DocsNotCops devised a consciousness-raising survey: How will the Visitor & Migrant NHS Cost Recovery Programme affect you?  By responding to the survey’s prompts, anyone can easily learn that the government’s proposed measures include the introduction of charges attached to accessing A&E and general practice. There is also now a £200 surcharge on work visa applications, even though the majority of migrants already pay for the NHS in various ways: taxes, VAT, National Insurance, tuition fees.

Are hospitals simply complying? No. Unofficial protocols, for now, still operate in most places to simply go ahead and provide care to those with the wrong documents (or none).

So, it’s not universal charges for the time being, but rather, charges for some of us—those of us who don’t meet certain residency and citizenship conditions. Rhetorically, this is justified in the language of ‘sacrifice’ with reference to overcrowding and balancing the budget. Yet it requires that hospitals work with the UK Border Agency’s data to scrutinize people – everyone, not just some of us – for their legal status, rather than just their illness. They must, of course, acquire the computer and bureaucratic staff capability to do so. DocsNotCops sees the introduction of this kind of administrative functionality as the thin end of a wedge that is designed to kill off any collective sense of entitlement to “no questions asked” medical care.

Are hospitals simply complying? No. Unofficial protocols, for now, still operate in most places to simply go ahead and provide care to those with the wrong documents (or none). To combat this resistance, as Sophie Williams (DocsNotCops) notes: “The Act states that NHS Trusts will receive ‘financial incentives’ to recoup costs. This could mean pressuring staff to racially profile patients … those deemed eligible for free care, and those not.” The ‘Overseas’ debt-collection teams now being introduced in many hospitals look set to start transforming UK healthcare into something more like the world’s infamously chaotic, ineffective, and inhumane for-profit models.

On a case-by-case basis, pro bono UK legal workers have argued for waiving medical fees on behalf of denied asylum-seekers awaiting appeal, and various other vulnerable people such as undocumented and mentally ill homeless migrants. Enormous quantities of time, money and energy have had to be invested for every individual in court in order to prove the principle: “can’t pay, won’t pay”. In 2015 DocsNotCops found out via a Freedom of Information request that one hospital’s eight such full-time staff, dedicated exclusively to recouping costs from migrants, succeeded with just 10% of invoices.

Perversely, increases in pointless salaried administrative staff, who are hostile to patient care and an encumbrance to those delivering it, are completely typical of ‘cost-cutting’ privatization drives across institutions.

Perversely, such increases in pointless salaried administrative staff, who are hostile to patient care and an encumbrance to those delivering it, are completely typical of ‘cost-cutting’ privatization drives across institutions. Similarly, both of the recent attempts to trial the type of computer system that is required to terrorize newly convalescing people in this way (linking the Home Office and NHS records), and thus supposedly enable savings, incurred a cost of around £10 billion and ended in complete failure. On the other hand, NHS workers found that the government had “inflated six-fold” the NHS ‘cost’ of migrants. These precedents make clear that, even if the figure for the “savings” represented by denying migrants free care were true, introducing the requisite computer system would likely be a financial fiasco that completely buried that sum.

With the advent of DocsNotCops, theatrical “border controls” (“Checkpoint Care” stunts) have appeared outside hospitals. Asylum-seeking Virgin Marys—unable to pay the £5,000 fee for maternity care for non-resident migrants—were symbolically prevented from giving birth at Christmas, and videos circulated in which a white coat is peeled off to reveal a border guard’s badge. These protests expose the introduction of selective charging in the NHS as racist, a perversion of care, and detrimental to all. As the manifesto states: “Instituting this scheme will drive vulnerable migrants away from NHS services. … No doctors should have to police the people they treat. … Charging migrants for healthcare is the first step to normalising charging for everyone”.

NHS workers found that the government had “inflated six-fold” the NHS ‘cost’ of migrants.

It is important to stress that the punitive UK border already existed to an extent within the National Health Service, insofar as it permeates British society in the form of immigration controls, raids, checks, and xenophobia. A 2015 report  by Doctors of the World found that, contrary to xenophobic tabloid narratives, the majority of migrants have felt deterred from using the NHS. And that’s before the Immigration Act had even been announced.

At a Docs Not Cops rally in April 2015, one doctor (active with Tower Hamlets Keep Our NHS Public, or KONP) was contemptuous of these reforms, which she referred to as racist: “This is an NHS which entirely depends on foreign workers. [Yet] a real hatred of foreigners is being stirred up in the country and in the NHS. … Our borders exist for rich people only when it suits them. … And they have the cheek to say that … people who come in to work in the country in poorly paid jobs are not entitled to healthcare! … We have to say no to this. We need to have humane care, we need people to come and work in our health services, and we need to have borders that are open for people.”

 

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Photo: Mark Boothroyd on Twitter

 

“Making both arguments at once”: Connecting migrant justice and politics of care

Belief in the possibility of universal welcome and care for all is not utopian. For decades, among the ranks of public health-workers, it’s been practiced and substantiated – and that includes all sorts of workers, not only those who swear to do no harm. Pitted against their values and experience are the border regimes that gratuitously detain hundreds of thousands of people every day, in prisons and detention centres which – perversely – rely on doctors to function.

By strategically refusing to collaborate with the immigration police, DocsNotCops is innovative but not unique. While the experience of a defensive “rear-guard” campaign to defend a public good from buy-out is, at this point, an all too familiar one for the Left, in many ways it is when activists are on the ‘offensive’, making impossible-deeming demands and affirming a positive transformation, that they are most united worldwide.

DocsNotCops say they have been inspired by acts of resistance by doctors on the other side of the world. In February 2016, for example, amid migrant solidarity demonstrations, one hospital in Brisbane, Australia refused to discharge a baby whose parents are seeking asylum. And when staff at Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital protested against Australian government policies in October 2015 of placing children in detention and denying sick asylum-seekers care “a thousand doctors, nurses and other workers [had] finally howled in protest”—as Dr. Ranjana Srivastava put it.

So, today, DocsNotCops and their allies (a vast network including Doctors of the World, SolFed, London Black Revs, London2Calais, Together Against Prevent, ACT UP, 999CallforNHS, and KONP),  have mounted a counter-offensive against migrant scapegoating and capitalist enclosure of common resources. As they make the case for no borders, their members are also taking part in the nationwide industrial dispute raging over the government’s attempts to squeeze more profits out of the national junior doctors’ contract.

While anti-migrant austerity narratives can be exposed on their own terms, the principle that ‘docs will not be cops’ also goes beyond the fiscal—gesturing toward logics of care outside of nationalism and capitalism. 

This double focus of their struggle requires DocsNotCops’ messaging to be more thoughtful than others when refuting their opponents’ arguments for surveillance and austerity. For instance, they often come up against false statistics which suggest that non-tax-paying migrants and ‘medical tourists’ greatly burden taxpayers, or that the NHS is ‘bust’ and requires private buy-out. While these frames can be exposed on their own terms, the principle that ‘docs will not be cops’ also goes beyond the fiscal—gesturing toward logics of care outside of nationalism and capitalism. As Sophie Williams (DocsNotCops) said to me, “it’s about making both arguments at once”. It is not enough to point out that non-British people in fact bring net income to the NHS – not to mention indispensable labour (although this is true). To stand in solidarity with migrants and asylum-seekers, and to centre them in NHS organising in the context of their persecution, cannot be conditional on their cost-effectiveness, usefulness or unobtrusiveness within the system.

The distinction breaks down anyway: diseases don’t make distinctions around visas or passports, and people who avoid health services, out of fear of questioning or deportation, won’t just die but will tend to spread them. Their suffering—from the viewpoint of the owners of capital—should represent false ‘savings’ that, as DocsNotCops activists have argued, lead to far more expensive outcomes for society.

But what they demand is an “expensive” imperative that is simultaneously ethical and medical: far more migrants in the UK should avail themselves of health services than currently do. DocsNotCops are unapologetic about the cost of both junior doctors and truly universal healthcare. To those who would turn health infrastructure and carers into a nationalist surveillance mechanism funneling the poor and marginalized onto deportation planes—or, who knows, highly profitable debtor’s prisons—demanding the very best of healthcare for literally everybody who needs it, literally everywhere, is the only conscionable response.

 

You can get in touch with DocsNotCops by visiting the website docsnotcops.co.uk, finding their Facebook page and events, joining the mailing-list docsnotcopsnhsgroup@googlegroups.com, or following them on Twitter @DocsNotCops.

 

*some DocsNotCops activists asked not to be named in this piece.

 

Sophie Lewis is researching the uneven geographies of reproductive technology and ‘outsourced gestation’ (aka surrogacy) at the University of Manchester. She pursues joy and feminist killjoyism in equal measure and enjoys dancing, writing (e.g. at Mute, The New Inquiry, Jacobin), mushrooms, and militancy. She tweets @reproutopia.

The growthocene

Degrowth demonstration, Leipzig, 2014. Source: Wikimedia.

 

by Ekaterina Chertkovskaya and Alexander Paulsson

Lately there has been a rising interest in degrowth – an umbrella term that critiques the centrality of economic growth in our societies and embraces various alternatives for ecological sustainability and social justice (see Kallis et al., 2015). This interest is shared not only by the proponents of degrowth, but also its critics, who often support many of the ideas behind degrowth, but have reservations about using the term.

It seems to us that these reservations at least to some extent arise from economic growth itself being an ambiguous and contested concept. For example, Kate Raworth suggests that it is not clear whether degrowth refers to the decrease of the economy’s biophysical throughput or its monetary value, measured in GDP, and argues that the difference matters. Or, John Bellamy Foster proposes that it is important to argue not “for degrowth in the abstract, but more concretely for deaccumulation – a transition away from a system geared to the accumulation of capital without end.”

These reservations about degrowth point to the need to clarify what growth traps to avoid when making a transition to sustainable degrowth. In what follows, we articulate three ways of understanding growth that should be challenged by degrowth: first, reliance on biophysical throughput; second, capital accumulation and productivism more generally; and third, the perpetual strive for quantitative expansion of national economies (measured in GDP). We also propose that growthocene can be a suitable way to characterise the epoch we live in, broadening the notion of capitalocene while opposing the now mainstream notion of anthropocene.

 

Biophysical throughput

Economies across the world rely on growth of biophysical throughput, which has led to severe ecological consequences for Earth and its ecosystems. In contrast, degrowth would involve descaling biophysical throughput. This critique of growth has been partially integrated into the mainstream discourse, as captured by the notion of anthropocene. However, this concept is deeply problematic as it suggests that all human beings are responsible for the ecological crisis. Differences related to class, gender, race, geopolitics or economic systems themselves are glossed over or totally disregarded.

While renewables are of course an important way forward, the transition to them does not automatically lead to sustainability or justice.

Green economy has become a buzzword that is often suggested as a solution to the world’s ecological problems, whether by the left or right. Such an economy, however, is neither sustainable nor just because it focuses on incorporating (supposedly) green solutions into the economy with all its flaws and divisions rather than changing the economy itself. For example, the economic valuation of nature is green only on paper, in reality, it enables continuous ecological destruction and the appropriation of local governance (see Kill, 2015).

And while renewables are of course an important way forward, the transition to them does not automatically lead to sustainability or justice. For instance, in Brazil, the way the shift to renewable energy is implemented—on top of challenging the biodiversity of the Amazon—often threatens the very way of being of indigenous communities and the livelihoods sustained and inhabited by them (e.g. as the case of Munduruku Indians demonstrates).

So in striving for sustainability and justice, degrowth goes beyond the question of biophysical throughput and the physical limits of our planet. It would need to involve challenging the problematic and potentially harmful solutions positioned as ‘green’, such as the carbon and biodiversity markets or nuclear energy. This also would also require problematising how these proposals have been promoted under appealing banners like ‘inclusivity’, ‘poverty reduction’ and ‘development’. Therefore, it is crucial to ask questions like: ‘what is at risk?’; ‘who benefits and who loses from the proposed solutions?’. Pushing this line of thinking further, we must also ask what societal divisions, injustices and inequalities are maintained, reproduced or enforced by such policy proposals.

 

Capital accumulation and productivism

This brings us to challenging growth understood as capital accumulation. Not only are the conditions under which capital accumulation occurs demarcated by class, gender, race, and other divisions, but when surpluses are reinvested in the economy, these divisions become amplified. As has been powerfully observed by a broad spectrum of critical theories, such as anarchism, feminism, Marxism, and postcolonial thought, the strive for surplus accumulation relies on maintaining injustices and inequalities. Some of this critique has been captured by the notion of capitalocene, which suggests that capitalism, and not all humanity, is responsible for the ecological and also social problems we are facing (see Haraway, 2015; Malm, 2015; Moore, 2014).

The popular slogan ‘system change not climate change’, then, should imply not only a systemic change in the way we deal with climate or ecology, but in the very way our societies are organised. Degrowth also problematises these forms of accumulation, including, commodified consumption with a ‘sustainable’ or community-oriented appearance. For example, the notion of the sharing economy often commodifies social and communal spaces and depends on  precarious labour conditions (see also Schor, 2014).

While capitalocene is a powerful idea to understand ecological and social problems without decoupling them, it does not capture the whole picture. For example, it struggles with how to grapple with the environmental history of the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, whose economic systems, too, had devastating ecological and social consequences. Industrial production was the key driving logic for organising these economies, if not in shaping their entire societies.

It is important to challenge not only capital accumulation, but more broadly productivism, that is, the growth of production as desirable in itself.

Therefore, it is important to challenge not only capital accumulation, but more broadly productivism, that is, the growth of production as desirable in itself. Apart from industrial production, this includes many other forms of production found in contemporary economies, such as production of information, knowledge, technology, and services.

However, it is also crucial to note that challenging productivism does not suggest descaling of all production as there are different types, ways, consequences and understandings of it. For example, it would be desirable to see more permaculture as a sustainable production practice in agriculture. Or the expansion of initiatives like platform cooperativism—as opposed to the ‘sharing economy’—would also be appealing to many.

In line with the argument that has been presented so far, we suggest using the notion of growthocene – i.e. the strive for perpetual growth—consisting of reliance on growth of biophysical throughput, continuous capital accumulation and productivism more generally—to describe the epoch we live in and the ecological and social problems we are facing. Degrowth, then, captures both the conditions and the consequences of the growthocene.

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Kto-kogo ? Dognat’ i peregnat’ [Translation: Who will (beat) whom? To catch up and overtake]. Soviet Poster, 1919-1930. Source: National Library of Scotland.

Quantitative expansion of national economies as measured in GDP

The perpetual striving for quantitative expansion of national economies is in line with prioritising production as desirable in itself, which is part of the growthocene. The assumption underlying this ideology is that quantitative expansion automatically leads to an increase in prosperity. Based on this assumption, GDP is being used as the dominant measure of the monetary value of national economies. It was introduced as a tool for the US government to deal with the Great Depression and then to plan production during the Second World War, but eventually became the central measure of almost every nation’s progress.

While degrowth is not aimed at shrinking GDP or the monetary value of the economy, we would also like to stress that degrowth should not be evaluated in light of GDP and similar measures as these are essentially flawed indicators of prosperity.

GDP and other similar measures, on top of being inadequate indicators of prosperity, have had problematic consequences. First, they produced a norm, which allowed countries with lower national incomes to be ‘analysed and framed in a way that suited their assumed future compliance with the industrialized model’ (Speich, 2011: 19). Second, gearing crucial public institutions—such as education and healthcare—towards increasing GDP has made them more exclusive and subordinated their core functions to economic demands.

So while degrowth is not aimed at shrinking GDP or the monetary value of the economy, we would also like to stress that degrowth should not be evaluated in light of GDP and similar measures as these are essentially flawed indicators of prosperity. GDP has been convincingly criticised by many scholars already (e.g. Fioramonti, 2013), but, due to its hegemonic status, this remains part of the task of degrowth as well.

Toward the notion of growthocene

To sum up, striving for growth – or the growthocene – is manifested in reliance on growth of biophysical throughput, continuous capital accumulation, and productivism more generally. Hence degrowth can be understood as descaling of biophysical throughput, deaccumulation and anti-productivism, and aimed at bringing together the alternatives that fit these principles.

Such an understanding does not decouple ecological and social problems. It acknowledges that capitalism bears a large share of the responsibility, but is not the only system that has led to the problems we face today. It also highlights that productivism itself is part of the problem and hence cautions against proposing solutions rooted in its logic.

A version of this article has been published in the blog of ENTITLE, a network of European Political Ecologists.

Ekaterina Chertkovskaya is part of the degrowth theme at the Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies and the Sustainability, Ecology and Economy research group at the School of Economics and Management, both at Lund University. She is also a member of the editorial collective of ephemera journal.

Alexander Paulsson is part of the degrowth theme at the Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies and the Sustainability, Ecology and Economy research group at the School of Economics and Management, both at Lund University. He is also a postdoctoral researcher at the Swedish Knowledge Centre For Public Transport.

Power = power

The Three Gorges Dam in China, the largest dam in the world. Source: Flickr
The Three Gorges Dam in China, the largest dam in the world. Source: Flickr

by Aaron Vansintjan

We are now at the precipice of a new energy age: the limits of the oil-and coal-based economy are becoming more and more visible. As governments and corporations dig deeper to find unconventional sources, so are communities resisting endless extraction and blocking its flows. People left, right, and center are trying to figure out what can replace fossil fuels as the primary source of power.

Wind turbines and solar panels are primary contenders for replacing the dominance of fossil fuel. Proponents argue that they are clean, non-polluting, efficient, and cheap.

Detractors, as best exemplified by the ecomodernists, argue that they can never provide as much power as other alternatives: hydro and nuclear. Respected environmentalists like James Hansen and George Monbiot have put their weight behind nuclear, saying that it is the only source of energy powerful enough to stop climate change caused by carbon emissions.

Many experts are jumping into the fray, holding spirited debates on the merits and demerits of each source of power. Investments, efficiency, productive capacity, innovation: these have become the arena of the renewable energy conversation.

Unfortunately, these finer details will have very little to do with what kind of energy will replace fossil fuels. In the future, energy will be, as always, a source of political power—and it is every government’s prerogative to secure as much of it as possible. The best way to do so is to install massively concentrated energy supplies—no matter how efficient or relatively productive these megaprojects are.

Take for example the case of India. The country finds itself at a crossroads: with incredible growth, terrible inequality, and a sizeable chunk of carbon emissions, it needs to figure out adequate alternatives to its coal-powered economy. But instead of subsidizing small-scale renewable energy—which would, if implemented, be more than enough for much of India’s impoverished rural population—the government is ramping up its plans for gigantic wind, thermal, solar, and hydro power plants, each of which are often met with resistance by local communities.

Why are governments in love with centralized forms of energy? A glance in the history books can give us some ideas.

In India, as with many rapidly developing economies, the government’s priority is to supply centralized power to its cities and industrial zones rather than to its impoverished countryside. The irony is that these cities are growing so rapidly because of mass dispossession, indebtedness, and destruction of rural livelihoods—in many cases precisely due to construction of large infrastructure projects such as hydro dams, special economic zones, and foreign land acquisition.

For the same reason, the UK is borrowing money from China to invest heavily in nuclear options, even as they are scaling back funding to wind, biomass, and tidal alternatives, which necessarily function at a small, local scale. And yet, the UK has some of the highest rates of energy poverty in Europe—something that could, in large part, be addressed by subsidizing small-scale renewables.

In very similar ways, the governments of countries like China, Vietnam, and Brazil are going full speed ahead with hydro and many are considering nuclear as a viable option. For these countries, efficiency, productive capacity, and new, innovative technological improvements are only secondary to whether they have control of the energy supplies.

Why are governments in love with centralized forms of energy? A glance in the history books can give us some ideas.

Before the age of renewables, governments rushed to control fossil fuels around the world, and worked to keep control of these resources as concentrated as possible. As Timothy Mitchell details in his book, Carbon Democracy, coal was an appropriate fuel for building nation-states because it was so centralized, easily extracted, and easily protected. In turn, the state was an excellent tool to help companies extract coal, because it had a monopoly over violence and therefore the power to control workers uprisings.

Consider the early stages of the industrial revolution. Just as Britain’s land was being enclosed—which involved the government formalizing property rights in favor of the elite—there was also a massive displacement of the rural population. Now dispossessed from their ancestral land, peasants flocked to cities in search of work. There were masses of “vagrants” who would do anything, if they could just have some bread. At the same time, Scotland and Ireland’s forests were just about exhausted: there was no more cheap fuel.

Coal’s concentrated energy allowed the first proper nation-state to emerge—or rather, coal mines and the British nation-state created each other.

Putting two and two together, English aristocrats and wealthy merchants opened coal mines, funneling labor into concentrated sites—which in turn powered the burgeoning textile, shipping, and agricultural industries. In order to encourage peasants to join this labor force, the role of the government was expanded to take account of the country’s population, count the “unemployed”, criminalize vagrancy, and outlaw foraging and subsistence hunting. Coal’s concentrated energy allowed the first proper nation-state to emerge—or rather, coal mines and the British nation-state created each other.

To demand living and working improvements, laborers in Europe and North America tried to block the sites and arteries of extraction through strikes and blockades. For this reason, oil was more useful for the British and American governments. Because it required even less workers to operate its extraction—most oil wells don’t need more than a few construction workers and engineers to be operated—the working class was less and less able to make demands, while the state had control of more and more energetic and political power.

Once again, the private sector and the state worked in concert to find alternative centralized energy sources. As the British Empire receded from the Middle East, American companies like Standard Oil made deals with newly-formed Middle Eastern governments, who were promised the benefits of oil extraction. In turn, when these governments tried to nationalize or democratize their natural resource, American and British governments would step in by threatening withdrawal of their support. In this way, the private sector’s profits have always been dependent on its alliance with states.

Historically, nation-states have always benefited from centralized forms of energy, and used it as a means to assert power over their people—and other people as well. Any control of energetic power by democratic movements was seen as threatening to states.

In the mid-twentieth century, social movements for democracy in the Middle East tried to overthrow governments imposed by the West, only to face oppression at the hands of Western-backed rebels and assassinations of their leaders. Attempts at taking democratic control over oil by the local population were constantly sabotaged. To preserve political control in the Middle East, Western countries supplied Saudi, Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian dictatorships with prodigious arms deals at rock-bottom prices.

Historically, nation-states have always benefited from centralized forms of energy, and used it as a means to assert power over their people—and other people as well. Any control of energetic power by democratic movements was seen as threatening to states.

Because the legitimacy of states largely relies on their control over resources, they also have a tendency to build infrastructure that centralizes the extraction of those resources. Now that oil and coal extraction is becoming less easy to justify (and the rate of oil extraction and discovery is steadily decreasing), nuclear has become prohibitively expensive and risky, and many countries have maxed out the amount of hydro power plans they could feasibly build, governments will tend to support large centralized wind and solar plants, rather than small, decentralized, and autonomously managed renewables.

Another way the state tends to maintain power is by controlling the electricity grid. While electricity providers may be privatized, in every country, the state legalizes, develops, and manages a centralized grid to power its economy. Take this infrastructure away—or alternatively, undermine it by using wind and solar technology not connected to the grid—and the state loses much of its power—energetic and political.

Once again, India is a good example of this process. To a great extent mimicking the early industrialization phase of Britain, mass rural dispossession (largely due to rising debts of smallholder farmers, but often also caused by the building of hydro-power dams and the creation of Special Economic Zones, meant to facilitate industrial development) has lead to unprecedented rural-to-urban migration—in turn creating the slum cities we are familiar with from the news and movies like Slumdog Millionaire.

In order to employ these newly unemployed—or informally employed—masses, the state is creating massive energy infrastructure that can power the Special Economic Zones. Like early British industrialists, it’s connecting the need for cheap energy and mass impoverishment to attract industry at rock-bottom prices. In turn, lacking a large middle class, industrial development supplies the state’s primary tax revenue, which it so desperately needs to keep growing.

Dispossession of the poor, centralization of energy, and centralization of the state go hand-in-hand. It would therefore be against the Indian government’s interest to supply renewable, decentralized energy to its rural and marginalized population: this would help break the cycle of rural-to-urban migration that it depends on so much to stay in power.

 This explains why, even in the face of a climate crisis, politicians like Narendra Modi in India and David Cameron in the UK are refusing to subsidize localized energy systems that would be more than enough for India’s villages and much of the UK’s energy poor.

This explains why, even in the face of a climate crisis, politicians like Narendra Modi in India and David Cameron in the UK are refusing to subsidize localized energy systems that would be more than enough for India’s villages and much of the UK’s energy poor. It also helps us understand why Morocco is now building the largest solar power plant in the world, intended to power one million of its city dwellers—but not its most impoverished rural population.

It also explains why socialists like Leigh Phillips advocate turning to nuclear power because it increases the state’s power against neoliberalism.

If this is true, it has repercussions for what we call “renewable energy.” Decoupling energy supplies from the grid would present a challenge, not just to the energy companies, but also to the very basic structure of society, what some call “the establishment.”

A decentralized grid of renewable energy sources has the potential to take away power from the owning class, as long as the power structures that manage the decentralized grid also are decentralized. This would mean community-based management, allowing whole neighborhoods and towns to have a say over where their energy goes and how much they use. It could involve things like participatory budgeting and bioregional resource management. Decentralized energy requires a totally different political system to exist.

But this is still a pipe dream. Despite all talk of globalization and austerity, nation-states continue to reign supreme, and are showing little sign of disappearing any time soon. Perhaps state-centered energy politics—and by extension, highly centralized energy power plants—are our only hope to address climate change. Then again, as Timothy Mitchell’s book shows, states have a very poor track record when it comes to democratic and fair centralized energy systems.

What drives power plants is not just energy—it’s the power needed to make them a reality. In other words, those who control society also control the flow of energy, and vise versa.

In any case, this angle presents a very different picture of the debate between nuclear/hydro and wind/solar environmentalists. What both sides rarely get is that at the root of the energy discussion is also a power struggle. What drives power plants is not just energy—it’s the power needed to make them a reality. In other words, those who control society also control the flow of energy, and vise versa. At stake is not just global warming; it’s also who has a hand on the thermostat and who does not.

In a way, being at the precipice of a new age of energy also means being at the precipice of a new social structure. If we were to successfully decentralize sources of energy, we would also need to decentralize decision-making power. But if we were to want to keep the current economy going in some form, we’d need to stick to highly centralized energy systems, managed by highly centralized power structures. In both scenarios, the kind of political power structure you have will determine the kind of energy solution you’re going to get.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.

To change the heart and soul

climate fo peace
Source: Flickr/did.van

by Herbert Docena

This article originally appeared in the Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2016 report

 

“The object is to change the heart and soul” – Margaret Thatcher

 

On the final day of the UN summit held in Paris in December 2015, thousands of people defied a ban on public gatherings by converging at a boulevard leading to the business district in La Défense to denounce the new climate agreement that government negotiators were about to sign and celebrate at the conference venue in Le Bourget, 20 kilometres away.

Hoping to counter governments’ attempts to control the narrative regarding the summit, they gathered behind giant inflatable ‘cobblestones’ and a red banner proclaiming “System change not climate change!” Departing from some other environmentalist groups, they held placards criticising the undemocratic ways in which decisions regarding our relationship to nature are ultimately made only by capitalists and other powerful groups in the current global capitalist system. In different ways, they put forward a more democratic alternative: a system in which ‘the people’ decide on important questions such as what sources of energy to use and what activities to power and for whose benefit, how many trees to fell and to produce what goods for whom or, more generally, how to organise our relationship to nature and in pursuit of what ends.

Broad and as defiant as the action turned out to be, however, it was still not as large or as confrontational as some of the organisers had hoped. Unable to rally more people behind them, the radical anti-capitalists had little choice but to abandon their original plan to barricade Le Bourget and also ruled out marching on La Défense. In the end, the protesters could only gather, lobbing their ‘cobblestones’ in the air, aimed at no targets. Meanwhile, the popping of champagne corks in Le Bourget or La Défense went undisturbed.

Why, as this particular but not uncommon episode indicates, are activists struggling for a more democratic system unable to attract more people to their side? Or why, despite the intensifying ecological crisis caused by capitalism, is the movement for radical system change still confined to the margins?

Part of the answer surely has to do with how the world’s elites have increasingly resorted to more coercive measures to keep people off the streets or prevent them from conceiving or expressing anti-systemic demands. But—as shown by the large number of people who refused to be cowed by the threat of force or to buy into the governments’ discourse in Paris and beyond—it is not merely the presence or absence of physical or ideological repression that determine people’s willingness to take on the powerful. Indeed, it pushes us to ask why more people are not willing to defy repression to fight for a democratic system.

This essay seeks to contribute to understanding the causes of the movement’s weakness by drawing attention to another, typically overlooked, way by which the dominant seek to contain challenges to their undemocratic rule other than by trying to repress people’s bodies in order to dissuade or restrain them from overthrowing the system: that of trying to mold people’s very subjectivities—how they see their identities, how they make sense of their life situations, what they aspire to, whom they consider their ‘friends’ or their ‘enemies’—in order to persuade people to actively defend the system.

By purportedly trying to ‘change the system’, a particular section of the world’s elites have achieved some success in countering radicals’ attempts to reshape people’s subjectivities, thus preventing them from fighting for a radically democratic system.

I argue that part of the reason why activists struggling for a democratic alternative to capitalism find it difficult to draw more people to their cause is because a section of the world’s dominant classes have been waging what we can think of, extending Gramsci, as a kind of global “passive revolution”: an attempt to re-construct or secure (global) hegemony by attempting to fundamentally reform global capitalism in order to partially grant the demands of subordinate groups. I show how, by purportedly trying to ‘change the system’, a particular section of the world’s elites have achieved some success in countering radicals’ attempts to reshape people’s subjectivities, thus preventing them from fighting for a radically democratic system.

 

A resurgent global counter-hegemonic movement
To better understand how world elites seek to contain counter-hegemonic challenges to their rule, it is useful to go back to the late 1960s when new radical movements, including those mobilising around ecological issues, burst onto the world stage as part of a broader resurgence of radicalism.

Even before then, a growing number of people in industrialised countries and also in the ‘Third World’ had been increasingly concerned about their deteriorating living conditions as a result of the ecological degradation that came with capitalism’s renewed post-war global expansion. Before the 1960s, many people still typically thought of these ecological problems and the impacts these had on their lives to be the result of others’ ‘bad personal habits’, ‘unscientific management’ of resources, or insufficient regulation of ‘big business’. They therefore generally thought that these problems could be solved and their suffering ended by the inculcation of better personal habits, more ‘scientific management’ of resources,’ or greater checks on big business. Consequently, few directed their anger at the world’s dominant classes in response to ecological degradation. While there would be a growing number of protests as people ‘spontaneously’ defended themselves against direct attacks on their wellbeing, they did not amount to the kind of organised and sustained resistance that threatened the ruling classes in earlier revolutionary upheavals in various countries.1

 

Starting in the 1960s, however, various intellectuals began to advance a different way of making sense of, and responding to, ecological problems. Herbert Marcuse, Barry Commoner, Murray Bookchin, or Chico Mendes, along with other scientists, journalists, writers, and organisers, began drawing not only from Marx but also from Morris, Kropotkin, Weber, and other critical thinkers to popularise new ways of looking at the world that challenged not just the dominant worldviews but even those propagated by so-called ‘Old Left’ activists.

Calling on ‘the people’ as members of exploited classes and other dominated groups whose interests were antagonistic to those of the world’s elites, they argued that deteriorating living conditions were not just because of bad habits, poor management, or the insufficient regulation of big business by governments, but because of the historically-specific property relations under capitalism. They revealed how capitalism drives capitalists, or those who own land, factories, power plants and other “means of production” and who therefore monopolise social decisions over production, to constantly intensify their exploitation of both workers and nature so as to maximise profits.

To overcome their suffering, they argued that reforms such as regulating big business—while not necessarily wrong—would not suffice; they needed to challenge nothing less than capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and other forms of domination. Though they did not necessarily agree on how to go about it, they urged them to end what Marx once called the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” or the system of rule in which only those who own the means of production ultimately make production decisions. This would involve fighting for the abolition of private property relations and building a society in which all people collectively and democratically own the means of production and therefore have a say in making decisions about how to organise production. Only then, they argued, would it be possible to prioritise people’s welfare and the planet’s well-being over the need to constantly maximize profits.

Through their myriad efforts to propagate these new ways of making sense of and acting upon ‘ecological’ problems, these radical intellectuals began to reshape people’s subjectivities by providing alternative ways of looking at the world, of understanding their identities, of diagnosing and overcoming their suffering.

With these changed subjectivities, people connected the struggle around ‘environmental’ problems to broader struggles for social justice and equality and channelled their anger about ecological degradation away from fighting other individuals or other subordinate groups towards the dominant classes, their allies in the state apparatus, and other influential groups.

As indicated by the growing membership and supporters of radical anti-capitalist ‘environmental’ organisations or movements that were concerned with ‘environmental’ questions, ever more people would begin to see themselves and the environmental problems they suffered in a new light.2 Many started to think of themselves as members of oppressed and exploited classes and also began to connect ‘environmental problems’ and their social impacts to capitalist, patriarchal, colonial, racial or other forms of domination. As one activist who came of age during this period put it: “a complete disaffection with ‘the system’… resonated deeply between East and West, North and South”.3 Protesters moved beyond critiques of particular aspects of capitalism and “challenged the very essence of capitalism”, according to the environmental historian, John McCormick. Many began to aspire to a post-capitalist, if not socialist, society. And they recognised the need to confront and overthrow the ruling classes and other dominant groups determined to perpetuate capitalism. “Whatever the cause”, notes McCormick, “by 1970, there had been a revolution in environmental attitudes”. 4

With these changed subjectivities, people connected the struggle around ‘environmental’ problems to broader struggles for social justice and equality and channelled their anger about ecological degradation away from fighting other individuals or other subordinate groups towards the dominant classes, their allies in the state apparatus, and other influential groups. Struggles around pollution, nuclear power, pesticides, and so on would become central to a reinvigorated global radical anti-capitalist bloc and re-ignited something that world elites thought they had ended: a “global civil war”.5

Although they did not necessarily succeed in—or did not even attempt to—seize state power, their actions, the historian Eric Hobsbawm argued, were still revolutionary “in both the ancient utopian sense of seeking a permanent reversal of values, a new and perfect society, and in the operational sense of seeking to achieve it by action on streets and barricades”.6 Or, as geographer Michael Watts noted of the uprisings that swept the world in 1968, they were revolutionary not “because governments were, or might have been, overthrown but because a defining characteristic of revolution is that it abruptly calls into question existing society and presses people into action”.7 Critical of ‘existing society’ and pressed into action, a growing number of people began fighting for what later activists called ‘system change’ to address ecological problems.

 

Intra-elite struggles

This resurgence of radical environmentalism in particular and of radicalism in general troubled those intellectuals drawn from or aligned with the world’s dominant classes in the United States and other advanced industrialised countries. Barraged with unrelenting criticism—pickets, protests, boycotts, direct actions—and besieged by demands for stronger regulation and ‘system change,’ many US business leaders felt under attack. One executive probably captured the mood when he said in jest: “At this rate business can soon expect support from the environmentalists. We can get them to put the corporation on the endangered species list”.8 Not since the Great Depression and the New Deal, notes political scientist David Vogel, did US capitalists feel so “politically vulnerable”. Although the exact conditions varied, the situation was similar in other countries where radical movements emerged.

One executive probably captured the mood when he said in jest: “At this rate business can soon expect support from the environmentalists. We can get them to put the corporation on the endangered species list”.

Under siege, many dominant intellectuals and corporate elites struggled to understand what was going on, how to define their interests in the face of it, and how to react. Many thought that the so-called ‘environmental problems’ were not ‘problems’ at all or that they could be solved through the normal workings of the market or through existing institutions.9 Insofar as they acknowledged the problem, many perceived only a threat to their company’s or their industry’s interests and sought to protect them by simply rejecting the grievances aired by subordinate groups, killing their proposals, and resorting to coercive measures to intimidate or discredit their proponents.10

But there were other intellectuals who pursued and advocated an altogether different response.

Unlike most reactionary elites, these reformists were typically from patrician or bourgeois families in their respective countries. Others were from less privileged backgrounds but had assumed high government office or positions in ‘civil society’ organisations, most notably the philanthropic foundations. But unlike government officials, they were what Weber called the “notables”: those who lived for rather than off politics.11

Among those from such backgrounds who would play leading roles on climate-related issues would be people like Laurence and David Rockefeller, of the famous dynasty’s younger generation; Robert O. Anderson, owner of the oil giant Atlantic Richfield; McGeorge Bundy, the former dean of Harvard and National Security adviser and later president of the Ford Foundation; Robert McNamara, former CEO of Ford Motors, Defense Secretary, World Bank President, and Ford Foundation trustee.

In other countries across Europe, Latin America and Asia, they included those with very similar backgrounds to their US counterparts. Among them were the likes of Giovanni Agnelli, chairman of Italian car company Fiat; Aurelio Peccei, former president of Olivetti and convenor of the Club of Rome; Alexander King, an influential British scientist; Maurice Strong, former president of a large Canadian oil company and later head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); Barbara Ward, a British economist and best-selling author, and adviser to numerous world leaders; Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau; Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India; Gamani Corea, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), from Sri Lanka; Mahbub ul-Haq, World Bank vice president from Pakistan; and numerous other ‘gentlemen lawyers’ and ‘learned cosmopolitans’.

Though they came from different countries, had their own specific interests, and pursued different and not always congruent projects, this loose network of elite intellectuals often pursued the same actions or took the same positions on particular issues. This was not because they were engaged in a ‘conspiracy’ but because their background meant that they generally thought about and acted upon global ecological issues through the lens of a common worldview.12

Unlike other elites, they were generally more open to the view that global warming and other ecological changes were indeed happening. Thus, for example, the oilman-turned-philanthropist who funded some of the key organisations that would push for action on climate change, Robert O. Anderson, called for a “steady mid-course between doom and gloom alarmists and those who resist acknowledging the clear danger to which the human environment is being subjected”.13 Similarly, the industrialists, executives, and scientists gathered in the Club of Rome would portray the environmental issue as nothing less than a “global crisis”.14

Breaking with other elites, they effectively concluded that in order to defuse such a threat, at least some of the grievances and demands of subordinate groups needed to be addressed—something that could be done only by fundamentally reforming global capitalism.

And, unlike other elites, they thought that the problem involved far larger threats than simply the diminution of specific firms’ prerogatives or countries’ economic competitiveness. They worried about pollution impairing their access to raw materials, intensifying international competition and prompting protectionism, and potentially even igniting inter-capitalist wars, such as World War I and World War II, that could once again fragment the global market and impede capitalist expansion. But more than that, they also worried that environmental degradation would further fuel public dissatisfaction and anger and therefore encourage support for radicalism.

Breaking with other elites, they effectively concluded that in order to defuse such a threat, at least some of the grievances and demands of subordinate groups needed to be addressed—something that could be done only by fundamentally reforming global capitalism.

Bound by these common views, these “enlightened reactionaries”—to use Karl Polanyi’s label—set out to build a transnational reformist movement or “bloc from above”, bringing together otherwise isolated elites and drawing in members of other classes to push for their project of ‘changing the system.’ They did this despite more conservative elites who wanted no change at all, and of course, against the radicals who wanted a very different kind of system change.

Undertaking parallel, sometimes even clashing initiatives, they deployed their vast economic resources and social connections—straddling the worlds of business, politics and science—to build this movement’s capacity to engage in ideological and political struggle on the world stage.

 

Radical language, reformist ends

To attract support, they advocated a different way of making sense of, and, thus, of thinking, talking, and acting about ‘global environmental change’ that absorbed certain elements proposed by radicals while departing from them on the most fundamental questions.

They studiously avoided calling them members of exploited or dominated classes whose interests are in conflict with those of the exploiting or dominant classes; instead, they preferred to emphasise their identity as members of one “mankind” whose interests are not at odds with the interests of the world’s elites—all inhabitants of “Only One Earth.”

Like radicals, they sometimes called upon or “interpellated” members of subordinate groups as belonging to the ‘poor’ as opposed to the ‘rich’, and sometimes even borrowed from radicals in designating them as part of the ‘periphery’ as opposed to the ‘core’. But they studiously avoided calling them members of exploited or dominated classes whose interests are in conflict with those of the exploiting or dominant classes; instead, they preferred to emphasise their identity as members of one “mankind” whose interests are not at odds with the interests of the world’s elites—all inhabitants of “Only One Earth”, as the title of Ward’s bestselling 1972 book for the first UN conference on the environment put it.

Echoing radicals, they told people that global ecological problems had less to do with ‘bad personal habits’ and more to do with the broader political and economic system. As the 1974 Cocoyoc Declaration, a follow-up to the 1972 Stockholm declaration written by Ward, ul-Haq, and others, put it: “[M]ankind’s predicament is rooted primarily in economic and social structures and behavior within and between countries”. But unlike radicals, they stressed that the problem was not the system as such but rather the lack of regulation and inadequate ‘scientific management’ of the system at the global level. Though they would disagree over what counts as “excessive”, all saw ecological problems as “evils which flow from excessive reliance on the market system”, in the words of the Cocoyoc Declaration.

Countering both conservatives and radicals, they argued for the need neither to keep the system nor to junk it altogether but to improve it by reducing the “excessive reliance on the market” and by moving towards what the Cocoyoc Declaration calls the “management of resources and the environment on a global scale”.

So, like radicals, they explained to people that they could only alleviate their suffering by pushing for what radicals called ‘system change’. But against radicals, they told people that changing the system did not entail overthrowing capitalism, but rather enhancing the global regulation of capitalism through what the Club of Rome called “radical reform of institutions and political processes at all levels”. Countering both conservatives and radicals, they argued for the need neither to keep the system nor to junk it altogether but to improve it by reducing the “excessive reliance on the market” and by moving towards what the Cocoyoc Declaration calls the “management of resources and the environment on a global scale”. The Club of Rome, for example, called for a “world resource management plan”15 while the Trilateral Commission advocated “international policy coordination” for managing the “global commons”16  in order to correct market failures, minimise inefficiencies, foster competition, and redistribute wealth in order to reduce poverty and mitigate ecological degradation. These proposals were what later scholars would call “international ecological managerialism”, or global “ecological modernization”.17

They urged the public to focus their anger only on particular members of the dominant group—i.e. ‘bad capitalists’ or those ‘bad elites’. At the same time, they called upon the public to join the moral, responsible elites as ‘partners’ in pushing for and bringing about ‘system change.’

Put differently, they told people that they should aspire not to the creation of a post-capitalist society but to a greener, more regulated, capitalist society. For only by perpetuating reformed ‘green’ capitalism, pursuing more trade, more growth and ‘sustainable development’ could ‘mankind’ solve ecological problems, address social grievances, and realise the vision of the good life. As the Founex Declaration put it: “development”—meaning capitalist development—is the “cure” for the environmental problems facing the poor.

Consequently, against radicals who urge people to view the dominant classes as their oppressors and the targets of opposition, they urged the public to focus their anger only on particular members of the dominant group—i.e. ‘bad capitalists’ or those ‘bad elites’ (variously, the USA, the advanced economies, big business, the oil corporations, the Republicans, and so on). At the same time, they called upon the public to join the moral, responsible elites as ‘partners’ in pushing for and bringing about ‘system change.’ Much of what succeeding reformists would say and prescribe from the 1970s through to the 2000s essentially built on these recurring discursive or ideological themes.

 

Building their movement’s capacity

Reformist intellectuals did not, however, stop at rallying people to their side and exhorting them to fight for their cause. Often in coordination, but also sometimes competing with each other, they mobilised to equip their supporters with cutting-edge knowledge on global environmental problems—and with ‘policy options’ for managing them—by funding or otherwise supporting hundreds if not thousands of universities and government or inter-governmental research departments and think-tanks.

Thus, for example, the Ford Foundation financed a whole battalion of academic centres, research departments and scientific networks such as the Aspen Institute, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the Brookings Institute, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Trilateral Commission “study groups”, and many other outfits. The Volkswagen Foundation funded the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study. McNamara transformed the World Bank into the world’s largest centre for research on the relationship between environment and development. As its first Executive Director, Maurice Strong established UNEP as one of the key initiators of large-scale collaborative research on the ozone hole, biodiversity loss, and climate change. Reformists in developing countries formed the South Centre, a think-tank that became a key source of analysis for government officials from the South.18

These ‘capacity-building’ efforts extended to a wide range of organisations, in part because of a deliberate strategy of taking risks and finding innovative people. Ford, even as it supported more moderate or even more conservative reformists, also funded ‘public interest’ organisations that were more critical of ‘big business’ and more inclined to raise questions of social justice.

This is not to say that they merely funded research with which they would agree. Indeed, probably as a result of their own lack of knowledge, uncertainties, or internal tensions, they chose, or at least strove, to ‘diversify their portfolios’ by supporting different researchers approaching the problem from dissimilar perspectives, including those they would subsequently disagree with.

To improve their ability to advocate for the reforms they wanted, they also undertook various initiatives to identify and groom scores of highly educated middle-class professionals—lawyers, economists and scientists—who were supportive of their reformist vision, and devoted considerable resources and energy towards promoting the ‘professionalisation’ of their activism. Ford, Rockefeller, Anderson and others, for example, bankrolled the formation of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC), and possibly thousands of other moderate or non-radical groups across the world. 19

These ‘capacity-building’ efforts extended to a wide range of organisations, in part because of a deliberate strategy of taking risks and finding innovative people. Ford, even as it supported more moderate or even more conservative reformists, also funded ‘public interest’ organisations that were more critical of ‘big business’ and more inclined to raise questions of social justice.

Through such investments in generating knowledge and building movements, they assembled a loose, decentralised, transnational network of highly-trained reformists, occupying strategic positions in various governments, international organisations and civil society groups worldwide, which then pushed the world’s governments to adopt a raft of far-reaching environmental measures to address global environmental problems at the local and global levels.

Thus, for example, equipped with research confirming global warming and with studies assessing possible policy options, this global network of reformists mobilised to raise the alarm and push for unprecedented global regulatory interventions to address climate change. It was UNEP, for example, that encouraged scientists to speak up and to push for an internationally coordinated response. Scientists and activists associated with EDF and other reformist groups organised a flurry of international conferences on the issue and pressed the world’s governments to commence negotiations on an agreement. And it was EDF and others that spearheaded the formation of the Climate Action Network (CAN), which would go on to be become the world’s largest network of NGOs calling for government “action” on climate change.20 Simply put, if it had not been for the independent but converging initiatives of these reformists—and the elites that supported them—the UN negotiations on climate change might never have happened.

Although they did not necessarily agree on all the details, they did converge in pushing for a strong, legally-binding international climate agreements. They united behind demands for unprecedented internationally coordinated interventions in the global economy that could oblige certain countries and industries to drastically reduce their emissions and for establishing a kind of de facto global ‘welfare scheme’ that could compel some countries to transfer finance and technology to others.

 

A global battle for hearts and souls

Thanks to all these investments in political and ideological mobilisation, the reformist movement was able to go on the offensive from the 1970s onwards. Effectively backed by the threat of the more radical alternatives posed by the movements to their left, it succeeded in overcoming conservative resistance and incrementally put in place a range of ambitious and far-reaching environmental regulatory measures in many countries, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act approved in the USA in the 1970s At the international level, this reformist bloc secured agreements tackling global environmental problems such as the ozone hole, biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change. These measures, as limited as they may have been, likely prevented even worse outcomes had reformists not pushed for them.

In so doing, reformist elites did more than just deliver limited relief and material concessions to members of the dominated classes; they also countered radicals’ attempts to reshape their subjectivities and succeeded in dispelling their attempts to channel people’s anger and anxiety towards fighting for radical system change.

By appearing to change the system and channelling limited benefits or advantages to subordinate groups, reformists undermined radicals’ capacity to convince people to diagnose their suffering as the inevitable result of capitalism.

This is because, by appearing to change the system and channelling limited benefits or advantages to subordinate groups, they undermined radicals’ capacity to convince people to diagnose their suffering as the inevitable result of capitalism and to see themselves as members of antagonistic classes whose interests are always incompatible with the dominant classes.

And, as an increasing number of people came to see themselves as members of harmonious communities, to believe that their suffering is caused only or primarily by the lack of regulation of capitalism, to conclude that they could improve their conditions without going so far as having to overthrow capitalism, and to view at least some elites as ‘partners’ or ‘leaders’ to support, so ever fewer would therefore be motivated to defy the powerful and to cast their lot with movements fighting for radical system change.

Once on the upsurge, radical anti-capitalist movements would consequently be on the defensive, continuing to organise but increasingly pushed to the margins.

For this and other reasons, radicals worldwide have not only found it harder to gain new adherents from the 1970s on, but even once-committed fighters would either lay down their arms or ‘defect’ altogether.21 Once on the upsurge, radical anti-capitalist movements would consequently be on the defensive, continuing to organise but increasingly pushed to the margins. In the USA, Europe, and probably in other countries where the radical environmentalist message had only a few years before gained traction, radical critique would “fizzle out” and anti-capitalist environmentalism would suffer a “precipitous decline”.22

state of climate emergency
Source: Flickr/did.van

Conclusion

Thus, without always deploying the violence they constantly keep in the background, the more forward-looking of the world’s elites have at the very least been able to dissuade people from struggling to replace capitalism with a different, radically democratic system; at most, they have been able to persuade or motivate them to actively fight to ‘improve’ an inherently undemocratic system in order to prevent it from being overthrown. By organising and mobilising a transnational movement from above to wage a global “passive revolution” in favour of regulating the market, they have been able to defuse the class antagonisms that the radical intellectuals had sought to kindle. By so doing, they have not only prevented or restrained people from expressing or venting their anger, but have been able to harness that anger towards tinkering with the system in order to keep it the same.

Our movement has not only survived the reformist offensive but in recent years, we have even become resurgent again. But whether we will do more than survive ultimately depends on whether we can counter these more forward-looking elites’ sophisticated and well-organised attempts to change the hearts and souls of those we seek to draw to our side.

Had these reformist elites not mounted this global passive revolution, it is unlikely that the world’s governments would have attempted to establish global-level regulation to address global ecological problems. And had the world’s governments not acted, it is unlikely that they would have staved off a global counter-hegemonic challenge to capitalism.

And yet, it is also important to stress that, as indicated by the willingness of a significant number of people to engage in mass civil disobedience action on the final day of the latest UN climate summit in Paris and the growing radicalisation of many climate activists worldwide, they still have not succeeded in completely defeating or eliminating this challenge altogether. For reasons that have to do in part with leading reformists’ decision to accommodate conservative elites’ demands to weaken their proposed reforms, our movement has not only survived the reformist offensive but in recent years, we have even become resurgent again.

But whether we will do more than survive ultimately depends on whether we can counter these more forward-looking elites’ sophisticated and well-organised attempts to change the hearts and souls of those we seek to draw to our side. This does not necessarily have to mean always just opposing the reforms and concessions that the more ‘radical’ among the reformists are promoting, or completely refusing to work with them in all circumstances. But it does mean constantly subverting their attempts to channel people’s anger to only their chosen enemies and to confine them to just aspiring for a greener, more ecologically-conscious ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.’ Put differently, it means pushing people to go beyond the horizon that the reformists seek to restrict them to, and to help empower them to dream of a democratic, socialist, alternative.

The alternative is that we just remain stuck in place without being able to march forward.

Herbert Villalon Docena is currently a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and a member of a workers’ group, Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (Solidarity of Filipino Workers), in the Philippines. Prior to pursuing graduate studies, he was a researcher and campaigner with Focus on the Global South.

Let’s define Degrowth before we dismiss it

Diverse commentators such as Samuel Farber, Paul Krugman, and Leigh Phillips are arguing that economic growth is necessary to protect existing, and future well-being.
Diverse leftist commentators such as Samuel Farber, Paul Krugman, and Leigh Phillips are arguing that economic growth is necessary to protect existing and future well-being. But rarely do they define what they mean by economic growth.

by Aaron Vansintjan

Recently there’s been a wave of arguments defending economic growth from a leftist perspective. People are increasingly reacting to the rise of ‘degrowth’: a diverse movement calling for, among other things, scaling back the total material and energy use of the global economy.

One particularly vigorous example is the work of Leigh Phillips, where he accuses degrowthers—who he claims have become “hegemonic” (file under: things I wish were true but aren’t)—of undermining classic leftist pursuits such as progress, well-being, and strengthening of social services. Similar arguments could be seen in a recent article that appeared in Jacobin Magazine, in which growth was posited as necessary for progress. And Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman have come out against degrowth, claiming that economic growth is actually necessary to address climate change, and lumping degrowthers together with the Koch Brothers, as they both seem to seek to dismantle the state.

When two sides of an argument have a totally different definition of the concept that’s being debated, and if one side even refuses to define it, constructive discussions tend to turn into uncompromising squabbles.

Many of their points have been valid and necessary—serving to complicate the simplistic ‘are-you-for-capitalism-or-a-Luddite?’ narrative. Preaching the benefits of technology and criticizing the current economic system are not mutually exclusive. But there are some recurring problems with these arguments that I want to highlight.

In this article, I argue that definitions of growth are either unclear or constantly shifting depending on the argument. The result is that authors often misunderstand and do not engage adequately with critiques of growth. When two sides of an argument have a totally different definition of the concept that’s being debated, and if one side even refuses to define it, constructive discussions tend to turn into uncompromising squabbles. In an effort to clear up some misunderstandings, I briefly explain what I see as some of the values of the degrowth position. 

 

Growth is everything and nothing: long live growth!

Perhaps the most emblematic—and unfortunate—leftist challenge to degrowth came from Paul Krugman, all the way back in October 2014.

This was a significant occasion. For the most part, mainstream economics ignores ecological economicsa “rogue” field that harbors many of the growth dissenters. But with this article, Krugman brought the challenge out into the open. In his words, the criticism of growth is “a marginal position even on the left, but it’s widespread enough to call out nonetheless.”

Weirdly, Krugman spent most of the article explaining how shipping companies reduced their energy expenditure in 2008 by slowing down their ships. Using this example, his defense of ‘economic growth’ waffled between two very different arguments: that an increase in efficiency can lead to less energy being consumed, and that, theoretically, it is possible to increase the total economic transactions while decreasing total energy use.

With respect to efficiency, Krugman waded into a discussion in which he seems to be out of his depth—other ships have sailed these waters for a long time now. From 19th-century English economists concerned with the decline of available coal to scientists investigating the impact of washing machines, people have long wrestled with problems like the one he raised: how an improvement in efficiency might nevertheless lead to a total increase in energy use. So from the perspective of ecological economics—which has sought to understand how the human economy is embedded within the physical environment—it’s not that hard to sink Krugman’s flimsy argument that an increase in efficiency necessarily increases economic growth while decreasing total energy consumption.

Krugman waded into a discussion in which he seems to be out of his depth—other ships have sailed these waters for a long time now.

What’s curious though about his article is that he not once defined economic growth. This definition remained latent—one can only assume that, whenever he used the term economic growth, he meant the increase in the annual monetary value of economic transactions over time, calculated using the GDP. The article could’ve been a chance for him to show exactly why economic growth is desirable. Instead, he spent most of the article fumbling to find some example that shows that economic growth can theoretically be decoupled from oil consumption.

Granted, if that was the only goal of his article, it would’ve been a good point: a rise in GDP is not the same as a rise in energy use, economic transactions could still take place in a low-carbon economy. The problem is that his argument claimed to go beyond this—seeking to contradict the degrowth claim that, until now, economic growth has been strongly coupled with increasing material and energy use. But his evidence remained purely theoretical, and therefore failed to settle the debate.

 

This tendency isn’t unique to neoclassical Keynesians—I’ve seen Marxists who’ve suffered from the same inability to explain what, exactly, they mean by economic growth, thereby misunderstanding the call for degrowth.

In Jacobin Magazine, Samuel Farber argues that notions of progress are actually essential for any leftist project. Improvements in technology, infrastructure, and material well-being are crucial for addressing inequality and injustice globally. Fair enough. But then he also explicitly criticizes the degrowth stance:

Many progressive activists today are skeptical of material growth, for ecological reasons and a concern with consumerism. But this often confuses consumption for its own sake and as a status symbol with the legitimate popular desire to live a better material life, and wasteful and ecologically damaging economic growth with economic growth as such.

So here, like Krugman, Farber argues that economic growth is not the same as what he calls ‘material growth.’ And like Krugman, he argues that economic growth is not, in itself, environmentally destructive. But what, then, is economic growth to him? He notes in the following paragraph:

Environmental policies that would make a real difference would require large-scale investments, and thus selective economic growth. This would be the case, for example, with the reorganization of the individualized and wasteful system of surface and air transportation into a collective and rational plan…

It seems that for Farber, defending economic growth is necessary to fight for progressive changes to well-being. What is not clear is exactly why this should be called economic growth. From his examples, there is no quantitative growth—unless you start counting the growth of things like trams and hospitals.

Interestingly, like Farber, many degrowthers might also argue for “more of the Good Things”—for example, increasing health care services, supporting care labor, creating infrastructure for public transportation, and incentivizing renewable energy—but they wouldn’t call them economic growth. Instead, they might prefer to use terms like ‘flourishing’ or ‘sufficiency’ or just ‘more of that good stuff’. They wouldn’t assume that it is total economic growth that allows the good stuff to come into being. Instead, more of the good stuff requires redirecting economic activity to better suit the needs of society—for which the primary ingredient is democratic deliberation, not increased production (social metabolism), larger money supply, or an increase in the transactions taking place in the market economy (GDP growth).

It seems that for Farber, defending economic growth is necessary to fight for progressive changes to well-being. What is not clear is exactly why this should be called economic growth. From his examples, there is no quantitative growth—unless you start counting the growth of things like trams and hospitals.

So there are two problems: the misidentification of what degrowthers are calling for, and a poor definition of economic growth as such. Farber seems to think that degrowthers are claiming that preventing (or reversing) environmental destruction necessitates “less Good Things”. As a result, his argument against degrowth, and for growth, amounts to a bait-and-switch between two definitions of growth: growth of Good Stuff and growth of total economic activity. This failure to define his terms then allows him to mischaracterize the claims of the degrowth movement.

 

This tactic is heightened to an extreme degree in Leigh Phillips’ recent anti-degrowth polemic, Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-porn Addicts: A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff. While reading his book I not once got an exact definition of what he meant by economic growth. Growth seemed to include a whole host of things, such as: growth = progress, growth = innovation, growth = increase in well-being, growth = increase in money supply, growth = increase in resource use. He tended to use these interchangeably.

In one instance, Phillips acknowledges this directly:

Of course, one might argue that I’m being far too loose with the terms growth, progress, and invention, which begin to blur here. But then, as well they should, as perhaps what it means to be human is to invent, to progress to grow. To constantly strive for an improvement in our condition. To overcome all barriers in our way.

As far as I could figure out, the logical reasoning here goes as follows:

Degrowthers argue that infinitely and exponentially increasing economic growth is bad for humans and the planet. But economic growth leads to Good Things as well. Therefore, degrowthers are against Good Things.

Phillips denies degrowthers the ability to realize the most basic fact: more good = good, more bad = bad. And if growth is simply Everything That Is Good In The World, it becomes a hard thing to argue against: we’ve reached a conversational impasse.

The problems with muddling the definition of growth come to the fore when Phillips tries to argue, in contrast to Naomi Klein’s recent book, that degrowth and anti-austerity are incompatible: “Austerity and ‘degrowth’ are mathematically and socially identical. They are the same thing.” To show this, he uses the example of the economic decline following a time of rapid growth immediately after the Second World War—which involved “high productivity, high wages, full employment, expanding social benefits…”. In contrast, he argues that after the 1970s, according to “whichever metrics we use”, there was a decline in prosperity for all Americans.

 Phillips denies degrowthers the ability to realize the most basic fact: more good = good, more bad = bad. And if growth is simply Everything That Is Good In The World, it becomes a hard thing to argue against: we’ve reached a conversational impasse. 

The implication is that economic growth is directly related to material and social well-being, and “degrowing” would limit that kind of progress. Actually, during this time, well-being decreased just as consumption and economic growth sky-rocketed—a fact which he conveniently doesn’t mention. To avoid this fact, he usefully switches from defining economic growth as increase in productivity and material use, to defining economic growth as decrease in inequality. But different kinds of things can grow or degrow at different rates—a decrease in consumption is not the same as a decrease in well-being. In fact, since the 1970s, the US has only increased its per capita material use, not decreased it. Austerity does not inherently lead to a decrease in total consumption, nor does a decrease in well-being inherently require a decrease in material consumption.

His argument reminds me of a recent New York Times article about degrowth. As fellow degrowth scholar Francois Schneider pointed out in an email, in this article, degrowth was defined simply as a reduction of income. Not only does this misinterpret what, exactly, needs to degrow (hint: not well-being), it also feeds into the tendency—symptomatic of the neoliberal era—to reduce all kinds of well-being to monetary indicators.

Phillips continuously makes the same error: conflating income with wealth, material production with material well-being. While this is standard practice in development circles—used to justify land-grabbing, exploitative industry, and privatizations—you would expect different discursive tactics from a staunch anti-capitalist austerity-basher. Part of the degrowth framework has been specifically to argue that well-being and income have been conflated for far too long, with very negative consequences (such as the wholesale destruction of indigenous livelihoods for the sake of development).

Finally, when trying to counter the degrowth position, you’re also going to have to deal with the now well-known catchphrase that “infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet”. To do this, Phillips calls upon a pretty quirky theoretical model:

Think of a single rubber ball. Like the Earth, it is bounded in the sense that very clearly there is an edge to the ball and there is only so much of it. It doesn’t go on forever. It is not boundless. And there is only one of them. But it is infinitely divisible in the sense that you can cut it in half, then cut that half in half again, then cut that quarter in half, then that eight in half, and so on. In principle, with this imaginary ball, you can keep cutting it up for as long as you like, infinitely extracting from this finite object.

Phillips counters the necessity to degrow with a variation of Zeno’s paradox, hoping to show that, theoretically, infinite growth is possible on a finite planet, as long as it decreases at a negative exponential rate. Basically, in a finite world, you can keep on growing infinitely as long as you grow less and less, all the way to infinity. But this also involves acknowledging that positive exponential growth (e.g. a 3-5% growth rate) is physically impossible. Funnily enough, in trying to prove the possibility of infinite growth on a finite planet, he trapped himself in an argument that looks very similar to that of the degrowthers.

Phillips argues that, since it’s possible to conceive of a socialist system where economic growth leads to a low-carbon economy, economic growth is inherently a Good Thing. It’s reminiscent of another classic sophist argument: since it’s possible to conceive of God, He therefore must exist. 

Similarly, later in the book, he concedes that we do need to move toward a low-carbon economy and that, within capitalism, this is impossible. But, rather than conceding that economic growth within capitalism is undesirable, he argues that, since it’s possible to conceive of a socialist system where economic growth leads to a low-carbon economy, economic growth (largely defined in capitalist terms, even as he rejects GDP elsewhere) is inherently a Good Thing. It’s reminiscent of another classic sophist argument: since it’s possible to conceive of God, He therefore must exist. 

 

So what needs to degrow?

Let’s be clear, even if defenders of economic growth rarely are. Historically, economic growth (defined as total increase in measured economic transactions, or GDP) has risen along with social metabolism: the total consumption of materials and energy of an economy. Increased material-energy throughput is what makes climate change and environmental destruction happen, and engenders environmental conflicts around the world. Therefore we have to downscale our total material-energy throughput to address environmental and social injustice. Most available evidence points to the fact that decreasing total economic activity is the best way to do this, while still being able to provide adequate social safety nets.

Critics of degrowth spend most of their time trying to convince readers that decoupling economic growth from “the Bad Things” is theoretically possible, even as they rarely define what they mean by economic growth.

Degrowth, then, is about challenging the idea that infinite and positive exponential growth in monetary transactions (GDP) is the main tool for achieving well-being, today and for future generations. Further, degrowth is about acknowledging that exponential GDP growth has been, and will likely be for the foreseeable future, linked with rising material and energy throughput, and that this increase in total consumption has disastrous effects on the earth and its people. This comes along with a critique of GDP: many argue that it is a terrible indicator for well-being in the first place. It also comes along with criticizing the neoliberal demand to increase economic growth at all costs, even if this means subjugating an entire population to decades of debt (more on this in another piece).

There are many definitions of degrowth out there, but a commonly cited one is “an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions”. Under most definitions, degrowth is about maximizing well-being while minimizing energy and resource consumption (particularly in the rich nations) which may be mutually beneficial, and can address climate change to boot.

So degrowth is not about decreasing the Good Things. Nor is its main thrust that decrease in total consumption is the only thing that must be done. And all degrowthers I know would happily concede Phillips’ point that a change in the mode of production—involving a critique of capitalism, better use of technology, and better democratic planning—is necessary to avoid environmental and social Bad Things.

But they would disagree that the prerequisite for more Good Things is increasing total economic activity. In fact, as I argue in my next piece, the ideology of economic growth actually waylaid struggles for better welfare, helping to shut down the political action necessary to provide more Good Things.

Now, it is theoretically possible to decouple exponential economic growth (be it positive or negative) from exponentially increasing metabolic rates, even if no such thing has, as far as is known, been successfully implemented. Arguments for decoupling, including those in Phillips’ book, fail to take into account the embedded material and energy consumption of economies that have, so far, ‘dematerialized’ while GDP has gone up.

Krugman’s proposal for how to decouple remains in the neoclassical camp: toggling consumer preferences—demand, and regulating undesirable economic activity—supply, while continuing to increase economic activity on the whole. Farber and Phillips’ approaches are in the Marxist camp: radically shift the mode of production to rationally plan an economy, limiting the Bads and upping the Goods, while (presumably) continuing to increase economic activity on the whole.

To make their case, these authors have conjured up magical scenarios involving a slow ship economy and a post-capitalist socialist world order. Neither economies exist today. To really support their points, they would need to point to extensive research and probably some robust models, rather than possible worlds.

Take the case of Austerity Ecology: Phillips argues that socialist economic growth has the potential to save us, even as he does not draw on any examples of situations where this has occurred. It’s a cheap argumentative trick to defend economic growth today just on the basis that it could theoretically work under socialism.

So if they really wanted to defend economic growth as it exists today, this would be where the conversation would need to go: determining whether, and how, economic growth could keep going without exponentially increasing material and energy use. Bonus points: showing exactly why economic growth—defined as the exponential increase in monetary transactions at 3-5% per year—is desirable in itself.

But it is exactly at these points that the defenders of growth remain obscure. Rarely do they explicitly concede that, in fact, current rates of economic growth have been historically tied to increasing environmental degradation. Rather, they spend most of their time trying to convince readers that decoupling economic growth from “the Bad Things” is theoretically possible, even as they don’t define what they mean by economic growth.

And yet this approach actually suggests that they are already on the defensive: they are trying to save economic growth from the accusation that it inevitably leads to more “bad stuff”. Without proper evidence, and by shifting the definition of growth constantly to suit the needs of their arguments, the positions of growth-defenders start looking more like denial than reasoned debate.

In contrast, degrowth starts from the reality of the current economy. In this economic system, decoupling is very difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, because climate change is now and a global socialist economic order is not yet in sight, a realistic short-term strategy is to limit exponential growth in metabolic rates, most easily achieved by limiting exponential economic growth. This should be paired by a long-term shift to a more equitable, democratic economic system. Then, theoretically, a new economic system could be constructed where equitable economic growth does not lead to more fossil fuel consumption.

Whether we should focus on creating a global socialist system instead of shifting to a low-impact economy is debatable, but perhaps, just to be on the safe side, we could give both a try.

Thanks to Sam Bliss, Grace Brooks, Adrian Turcato, and Giorgos Kallis for their comments and feedback.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food politics, and urban development. He is an editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.

The problem with REDD+

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A barge transporting logs in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Source: CIFOR

by Vijay Kolinjivadi

When people take to the streets and demand climate justice, they expect their elected leaders to step up and address the drivers of what is clearly the largest global crisis humanity has ever faced. However, the so-called “solutions” that were brought to the table for COP 21 in Paris last week are anything butinstead they deflect attention away from consumption patterns linked to the burning of fossil fuels.

These strategies are devised by powerful corporations and government partners as a literal and metaphorical “smokescreen” for the real drivers of deforestation and carbon release to the atmosphere, including monoculture expansion of palm oil and soybean, oil and minerals extraction, industrial logging and mega-infrastructure projects.

REDD+ is a cost-shifting mechanism, a potential get-rich scheme for local elites, and a placating strategy to prepare the broader landscape for the accumulation of “new” capital.  

One of the most subtle and sinister “solutions” promoted by the UN, the World Bank and other global development institutions is REDD+, which stands for (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). The “+” is meant to incorporate other environmental or development priorities, including biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. US$ 10 billion has been pledged for addressing climate change through REDD+, though not many have heard about what this strategy is all about.  

Some people say REDD+ sends a signal that safeguarding forests through performance-based payments is key to combatting climate change. Maybe they are right, but the way in which REDD+ is framed also paves the way for appropriation of the landscape while reducing the capabilities of forest peasants to take control over their own development futures. While forests protection plays a vital role for maintaining critical ecological processes and the well-being of the people that depend on them, REDD+ does not place the forest at its heart. It is instead a cost-shifting mechanism, a potential get-rich scheme for local elites, and a placating strategy to prepare the broader landscape for the accumulation of “new” capital.  

REDD+ is premised on reducing carbon emissions from deforestation. While it is true that deforestation amounts to 25-30 percent of carbon emissions and is a major factor influencing climate change, carbon sequestered by trees is vastly different from sequestering carbon by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Firstly, it is a challenging endeavour to measure carbon emissions in an accurate and transparent manner, with many measurements tens of thousands of tons of CO2 off the mark.

Secondly, trees are unstable and only temporary repositories of sequestered carbon, since the carbon they store will eventually be returned to the atmosphere. Re-release of carbon might occur much faster than “expected” due to climate-induced forest fires. Indeed, just three weeks of raging forest fires in Indonesia have released more CO2 than Germany’s entire annual emissions.

It’s as though we are placing the blame on (remaining) tropical forests for not sequestering enough carbon when it is in fact actual carbon emissions through the burning of fossil fuels which has brought us to the brink of the climate catastrophe we face. Of course, it is all the more easy to place the burden on tropical forests for solving our climate problems when they conveniently reside in countries out of sight and out of mind from where carbon-intensive development paths occur, and of course where costs of taking responsibility for climate change are the cheapest. This is an all too-convenient recipe for shifting environmental costs and accountability of actions.

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REDD+ implementation event at the FAO. Source: ©FAO/Roberto Cenciarelli

REDD+ projects are carried out by businesses or development NGOs in industrialized countries who pay communities residing in tropical forest areas, mainly in the Global South, to prevent forest destruction from happening, whereby it must be evident that deforestation would otherwise happen if payments are not forthcoming. The amount of payment provided by the industrialized country partner reflects the tonnage of carbon, linked to its price on the global carbon market, which is saved from being released into the atmosphere due to forest protection.

Damage to the environment and rehabilitating the damage both become socially justifiable market opportunities to spur economic growth.

The stipulation that the payment provided for forest protection and carbon sequestration has prevented the forest from being destroyed and that the forest continuously be safeguarded from destruction is important for the industrial country funders, who aim to score carbon-credits from the deal. These credits serve as “rights to pollute”—something of a reward for having done a good deed, in this case for paying to supposedly prevent deforestation from occurring. The incredulous, almost farcical nature of this arrangement becomes disturbingly obvious. The polluting country or company, who has been responsible for the majority of carbon emissions up until now, suddenly has the right to continue burning fossil fuels and releasing CO2 as before.

The tropical forests of the Global South are a precious new commodity to squabble over, this time with billions of dollars backing the potential spoils and rich countries as new rights-holders of land locked away for carbon offsetting the continued economic development of rich countries. This is the same image of colonization that we’ve seen time and again, but this time with a surreptitiously green face.

As social anthropologist Melissa Leach and colleagues of the University of Sussex have argued, mainstream economics has successfully attributed value both in the exploitation of the environment and natural resources for growth in manufactured goods, but in recent times have also determined the potential for market creation in the repair of the environment in the name of “sustainability.”

This is the same image of colonization that we’ve seen time and again, but this time with a surreptitiously green face.

This new economic driver of environmental repair combined with the classical economic driver of resource extraction and resulting environmental degradation work in concert to extract the maximum value out of nature irrespective of whomever or whatever is in the way. In this way, damage to the environment and rehabilitating the damage both become socially justifiable market opportunities to spur economic growth.

REDD+ would be flawed even if the payments were targeted to major drivers of deforestation in the Global South, namely industrial-scale agriculture for commodities such as soybean and palm oil. This is because overall carbon stocks would not be reducing—which is ultimately what is so badly needed if we are to prevent dangerous climate change from occurring. Without underestimating the important role that tropical forests could play in storing carbon, it would make far greater sense to curtail the burning of fossil fuels and other carbon-emitting activities and prioritize actions to halt carbon emission at the source.

However, what is so heinous about this situation is that REDD+ projects do not target those responsible for large-scale deforestation, but instead target poor shifting cultivators whose forest-dwelling livelihoods and associated socio-cultural knowledge systems and practices become ‘priced-out’ by the market because they are too low to compete with, in this case, the value of carbon for Western countries to keep polluting.

For forest-dwelling communities who depend on forest areas for food security, housing, medicines and fodder, REDD+ projects mean that meeting basic human needs become all the more harder- a tough and very unfair price to pay for people who had very little to do with the climate crisis in the first place.

As a recent report by GRAIN highlights, REDD+ proponents place the blame for deforestation on peasants under the guise of “slash-and-burn” farming practices, yet conveniently ignore and even simultaneously support the industrial palm-oil plantations, infrastructure projects and intensified agriculture strategies that are the real drivers of tropical deforestation.

The gospel of neoclassical economics explain this apparent contradiction, since the “opportunity costs” of paying off peasants for deforestation is overwhelmingly lower than halting the real drivers of deforestation. As the report emphasizes, this is a way for industrialized countries to pay very little, yet say they are doing something to combat climate change, while failing to reduce their historical and continued contributions to deforestation through the export of commodity crops and for mega-infrastructure projects largely to service resource extraction operations.

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COP 20 side event: REDD+ Emerging? What we can learn from subnational initiatives. Source: CIFOR

For forest-dwelling communities who depend on forest areas for food security, housing, medicines and fodder, REDD+ projects which lock forests away for carbon mean that meeting basic human needs become all the more harder—a tough and very unfair price to pay for people who had very little to do with the climate crisis in the first place. Meanwhile, peasants desperate to feed their children continue venturing into the forest, risking fines and imprisonment. Where attempts, in response to donor requirements, are made by REDD+ project proponents to facilitate livelihood transitions to sustainable agriculture or ecotourism, project funds are often limited and short-lived, leaving communities with less capabilities than before the project started.

Just when you might wonder how this situation could get any more flawed, it doesn’t stop there! The strict contract obligations of REDD+ effectively immobilize peasant communities from achieving basic human needs of food and fodder for the duration of the project period (upwards of 10 years or more) while providing them “payment” which gets siphoned away through a cascading chain of carbon companies, auditors establishing certification standards, international consultants, conservation NGOs and “green” venture capitalists from primarily industrialized countries all seeking to grab a piece of the lucrative REDD+ pie before it ever reaches the community.

Contracted communities become legally bounded to follow suit with the terms of the carbon buyers in the West, even as many of the project documents are written in English rather than in local languages and introduce a seemingly foreign value of the forest for its ‘carbon’ which has little if any meaning for forest communities.

As this process unfolds, the already marginalized and now REDD-trapped forest communities are no longer a hindrance to the expansion of industrial agriculture, the mega-infrastructure projects, rare earth mineral exploration or commodity crop monocultures. Thus, despite having rights to the land, these rights become effectively weakened, since under REDD+, it is the carbon buyers who decide how the land is to be used and not the rightful owners of the land.

In essence, REDD+ sets the stage for a resource grab “free for all” under a swish green banner, while demonizing marginalized peoples as threats to the forest and ultimately inducers of climate change.

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International Forum on Payments for Environmental Services of Tropical Forests. Source: FAO

The “Cartel of the Parties”

So who are these REDD+ proponents who are advancing this climate “solution” at COP 21 in Paris? It is startling to note that those groups that society has tasked with solving humanity’s social and environmental crises are the foremost advocates for REDD+.

WWF, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are some of the leading proponents as they team up with some of the world’s most notorious climate polluters including Unilever, Syngenta, Monsanto, McDonalds, Walmart and Nestlé, whose business activities depend on actively promoting wholesale deforestation and depletion of soil fertility through dependence on commodity crops such as soybean and palm oils.

In this latest stage of capital accumulation, green is the new gold for the stock brokers of the global North who view tropical forest regions of the Global South as value that must be reaped and brought back home.

Another major player is the private investment arm of the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which paves the way for these corporations to access previously unexploited lands through promises of new markets and “environmental stewardship” for corporate social responsibility via carbon offsetting through REDD+ projects, among other similar ploys.

As James Fairhead and colleagues at the University of Sussex have suggested, the Conference of the Parties is in reality more of a “Cartel of the Parties” involving international development banks, conservation NGOs, the private sector and government agencies who are all dead-set on advancing the “green” economy, through which nature presents itself as a lucrative investment opportunity to permit market expansion and access deeper into the commodity frontier while paving the way for more traditional resource extractivist markets to gain a stronger foothold around the world. In this latest stage of capital accumulation, green is the new gold for the stock brokers of the global North who view tropical forest regions of the Global South as value that must be reaped and brought back home.

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UNFF11 event: Strengthening finance for sustainable forest management. Source: FAO

 

Demanding an end to neo-colonialism

What then does it take to demand action on climate change for COP 21? What should COP 21 really be about? Well, besides the fact that strong measures to curtail climate change should have been made at COP 1, rather than waiting for 20 years, here are five forgotten agendas:

1. Limiting land-use practices and industrial activities that add further Greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and which depend on industrial agriculture involving the over-application of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides that deplete soil nutrients and damage water sources. These practices originate from over-developed countries whose demand-driven development trajectories have meant outsourcing industrial food production and resource extractive activities throughout the world to satisfy grossly unsustainable domestic consumption.

2. By turns, this means that an overhaul of the current industrial food trading system must be at the heart of any climate deliberation. Agri-business corporations with their herbicide-infused genetically-modified seeds must be heavily regulated by governments to prevent dangerous climate change from occurring. As an important positive spinoff, regulating these companies would also diversify the food system and open opportunities to give living-wages back to millions of farmers around the world.

3. A climate solution must put the self-determination, food sovereignty and basic needs of resource-dependent communities at the forefront of any sustainable natural resource management initiative. This means resource use, access, and management rights must be prioritized for forest-dwelling communities to collectively manage their own resources, facilitated by domestic policies which encourage sustainable soil management. In order to achieve this aim, it is absolutely crucial to be clear as to who wins and who loses from strategies such as REDD+ or any other proposed “solution” that emerges from the Paris agreement. Rather than seeking climate policy panaceas, closer historical, socio-cultural and political scrutiny is required to understand when and where any given strategy can be successful and what kinds of unintended repercussions might occur as a result of its widespread promotion and implementation.

4. Dismantling the myth of the “green economy” that, rather than addressing the drivers of climate change, only serves to deflect blame away from those perpetuating climate crimes while permitting new opportunities to exploit marginalized communities as indentured labour to service new markets for nature. Falling under this strategy includes the increasing appropriation of agricultural land for biofuels, which creates the same alienating effects on communities who depend on their land for food security. Similarly problematic are investments in green start-up technologies by green venture capitalists who demand double-dividend returns in the name of financing an energy-efficiency revolution. Such an approach fails to come to terms with the Jevon’s Paradox: that increasing improvements in energy efficiencies become quickly over-compensated by ever-increasing consumptive demands fueled by unchecked economic growth.

5. Rather than permitting over-developed regions of the world to continue exploiting resources and people for their benefit, solutions that emerge through indigenous knowledge and non-Westernised knowledge systems are critical for re-balancing the social-ecological equilibrium of our planet. This socio-cultural conundrum is substantially more challenging than addressing the global climate crisis, as it requires an active process of “unlearning” what the West has taught the world, often through systems of oppression, as to what constitutes “development.”

 

Anything short of seriously considering these five points will once again result in a political circus that reinforces neoliberal strategies and colonial geo-political manoeuvres. If citizens of the world demand fair and just solutions to address climate change, we must not allow our elected leaders and national negotiators to blindly advocate for strategies such as REDD+. The devil is really in the details!

 

Vijay Kolinjivadi, PhD, is a researcher of the Ecological Economics research group at McGill University. His research has led him to report on the dangers of commodifying nature and to identify how and when human-nature relationships can be resilient in the face of inevitable change. He enjoys traveling and reading in grassy meadows among other things.

A version of this article was originally published on truthout.

 

Cinco argumentos a favor del decrecimiento

A pig eating an old car, from the film Black Cat White Cat

Un cerdo comiendo un coche viejo, extraído de la película Gato negro, Gato blanco

 

Giorgos Kallis

The English version of this article is available here

El desarrollo sostenible y su reencarnación más reciente, el crecimiento verde, prometen la imposible hazaña de continuar el crecimiento económico sin dañar el medioambiente. Los defensores del decrecimiento, a diferencia, no pretenden apostar por un desarrollo mejor ni más verde, sino idear y aplicar una visión alternativa al desarrollo moderno basada en el límite al crecimiento.

El decrecimiento hace vacilar la mirada de sentido común que ve al crecimiento como algo bueno. Como decía la autora Estadounidense de ciencia ficción, Úrsula le Guin, se trata de “obstaculizar con un cerdo la vía del tren que nos lleva a un futuro de una única dirección, el crecimiento.” O, dicho de otra forma, el decrecimiento es un “concepto misil” que abre el debate silenciado debido al irrefutable consenso que existe en torno al desarrollo sostenible.

 

1. El decrecimiento es subversivo

La primera crítica común contra el decrecimiento es que este representa un punto de vista pesimista y limitado —más una pesadilla que un sueño—. Pero esto depende de la perspectiva personal. Para los 3 500 participantes que asistieron a la última conferencia sobre el decrecimiento, el crecimiento es una pesadilla, el decrecimiento, un sueño. El crecimiento tiene más coste social que beneficios, como documentó Herman Daly, y es actualmente anti-económico. Nos acerca al desastre climático como muestran Kevin Anderson y Naomi Klein. Siendo así, ¿por qué tendríamos que proteger las ideas de crecimiento como si se tratara de una visión optimista?

Principalmente por dos razones. La primera que el decrecimiento asusta a mucha gente que aún cree que el crecimiento es beneficioso. La segunda porque el decrecimiento es políticamente ‘imposible’. Muchos dicen que no se puede hablar de decrecimiento en medio de una crisis.

Si nuestro papel como científicos y educadores fuera complacer a la opinión pública y satisfacer a aquellos que están en el poder, la tierra seguiría siendo plana. El decrecimiento, tal y como lo plantea Serge Latouche, es una afirmación secular contra el dios del Crecimiento. El crecimiento ha sustituido a la religión en las sociedades modernas, dando así sentido a todos los esfuerzos colectivos. El decrecimiento está pensado para ser subversivo. El decrecimiento modifica la percepción de los bueno y la percepción de los malo. En un principio, puede que el término “decrecimiento” no suene bien en una u otra lengua. Entonces, el objetivo es hacer que suene bien. A juzgar por un artículo reciente en The Guardian, que sostiene que el decrecimiento es una “palabra preciosa”, los defensores del decrecimiento lo están consiguiendo.

El decrecimiento no es un objetivo final. La “economía solidaria”, los “bienes comunales” o la “convivialidad” son visiones optimistas impulsadas por la comunidad defensora del decrecimiento. Aun así, si este futuro llega, vendrá acompañado de una reducción drástica en la extracción de materiales y energía, junto con una “forma de vida” que se simplificará de forma radical. El obstáculo principal en el camino hacia una Gran Transición de este tipo es la obsesión por el crecimiento. Vencer el miedo al decrecimiento y revertir la aprensión a vivir con menos en alegría, es un primer paso. 

 

2. Menos de lo malo + más de lo bueno = Decrecimiento

La segunda crítica contra el decrecimiento afirma que lo malo no es el crecimiento en sí, sino el mal crecimiento económico actual. El cuidado medioambiental, las energías renovables y los alimentos orgánicos necesitarán crecer en una Gran Transición; “necesitamos menos de lo ‘malo’… y más de lo ‘bueno’, como argumentó cierto comentarista.

¿Y quién no estaría de acuerdo? Los problemas empiezan cuando lo que nosotros vemos como bueno, otros lo ven como malo. El liberalismo, agrupado en nociones generalmente aceptadas como la “sostenibilidad”, aboga por una neutralidad apolítica cuando se trata de intereses conflictivos. Por el contrario, el decrecimiento apuesta por una parcialidad transparente. Aquello que normalmente se considera “Crecimiento” (autopistas, puentes, ejércitos, presas) es malo para “nosotros” los defensores del decrecimiento. Por lo contrario, algunas realidades que se consideran anacronismos en el escalafón del progreso (instituciones comunales, comida local fresca, pequeñas cooperativas, o molinos de viento), son buenas. Quizá decrecimiento es un término imperfecto para denominar este fenómeno. Aun así, es mejor que términos neutrales como “sostenibilidad” o “transición” sin más detalle de las implicaciones a futuro.

Otro problema con este argumento es que “lo bueno” se calcula en términos de crecimiento. Un 2 % anual duplica “algo bueno” cada 35 años. Si Egipto empezase a contar sus bienes con un metro cuadrado, y los multiplicara cada año hasta un 4,5 %, para finales del año 3 000, su población necesitaría 2,5 mil millones de sistemas solares para guardar sus trastos. El crecimiento perpetuo, incluido el de comida orgánica, es absurdo. Ya es hora de dejar atrás la idea de expansión perpetua y el término crecimiento. Debemos centrarnos en cosas beneficiosas que florezcan en una cantidad y calidad suficientes para satisfacer las necesidades básicas de las personas.

También tengo mis dudas en cuanto a que una transición hacia una economía de “cosas beneficiosas” pudiera soportar el crecimiento económico de PIB. Paul Krugman recientemente ha sugerido que si este fuera el caso, esto implicaría que una escisión absoluta, donde el crecimiento de la actividad económica continúa y el uso de recursos se reduce, sería posible. Sin embargo, déjenme nombrar tres razones por las que esto es poco probable.

En primer lugar, una economía renovable produciría menos exceso de energía (tasa de retorno energético) que la economía del petróleo. Una economía con un nivel de superávit menor tendría más intensidad de trabajo y sería por lo tanto más pequeña.

En segundo lugar, en teoría, podría parecer que lograr incrementar el PIB en las energías renovables, educación y salud, y reducirlo en asuntos militares, haría crecer el PIN y reducir el consumo de recursos. Esto se llama la desmaterialización de la economía hacia la dirección de una economía inmaterial. Pero esto es una fantasía. Los paneles solares, los hospitales, los laboratorios universitarios, entre otros, no son inmateriales, sino más bien productos finales en cadenas largas que utilizan material intermedio y primario, y que utilizan la energía y los recursos intensamente. Aun arriesgándome a llevar mi ejemplo demasiado lejos, el emblemático servicio de salud nacional británico fue subvencionado por el petróleo que está protegido con armas en todo el Suez.

En tercer lugar, la transición de lo que llamamos una economía de todoterrenos, que explota las fuentes intensivamente, a una economía sin peso, de coches eléctricos o de libros electrónicos, reduciría la producción pero sólo momentáneamente. Una vez se complete la transición, un mayor crecimiento de la economía de coches eléctricos y libros electrónicos, por muy pocos recursos que se utilicen, seguirá aumentando la producción.

Por supuesto que todo esto es muy complicado. En teoría, no podemos descartar la posibilidad de un crecimiento verde y desmaterializado, especialmente si redefinimos qué entendemos como crecimiento. Me gustaría ser aún más incrédulo: estoy de acuerdo en que simplemente deberíamos ignorar el PIB y hacer más de lo bueno, independientemente del efecto que esto pudiera tener en el crecimiento.

El problema, sin embargo, es que el sistema actual no es incrédulo. Sin el crecimiento del PIB, el sistema se colapsaría (véase Grecia). Los intereses establecidos que controlan el sistema no tienen ninguna voluntad de dejar caer el PIB (véase la reacción ante la regulación del clima por parte de los lobistas y los foros conservadores, como el club del crecimiento en EE. UU.). Ser incrédulo no es una opción.

En otras palabras, no podemos permitirnos ser incrédulos en un sistema que sí depende del crecimiento del PIB: tenemos que actuar para cambiar los fundamentos del sistema, de modo que no dependa más del crecimiento del PIB. Necesitamos más instituciones para hacer sostenible y socialmente estable el inevitable decrecimiento.

 

3. Superar el PIB equivale a superar el crecimiento

La tercera crítica al decrecimiento es que el problema no es el crecimiento sino el PIB. Si pudiéramos medir solo los bienes que ofrece una economía, como los masajes, y descontar los perjudiciales, como los vertidos de aceite, entonces no habría razón para no querer crecer.

En primer lugar, el crecimiento continuo de cualquier bien, incluso el del PIB perfeccionado, es un objetivo absurdo. Yo no quiero una tierra donde la gente dé suficientes masajes para satisfacer a 2,5 billones de sistemas solares. Medir el éxito según una serie de indicadores fiables es una cosa, pero pedir que sigan creciendo de manera continuada va a ser siempre una postura sin sentido.

En segundo lugar, el Producto Interno Bruto cuenta lo que vale para el sistema económico actual: la circulación de capital, sea cual fuese su fuente. La decisión de la UE de incluir las drogas y la prostitución en el PIB, pero excluir los servicios de asistencia social no remunerados, es ilustrativo. El PIB cuenta el valor total monetizado. Esto es lo que produce beneficios corporativos y fondos públicos y esto es lo que los gobiernos quieren asegurar y estabilizar. La medición es un epifenómeno; es el resultado del sistema social, no su causa. Es por esto que el PIB persiste a pesar de las críticas de economistas prominentes.

 

4. Tenemos que disminuir nuestro crecimiento, pero no para que ellos” crezcan

A menudo se argumenta que el decrecimiento es irrelevante, incluso insultante, para la mayor parte del mundo que permanece en la pobreza. El argumento es que mientras “nosotros” (los ricos y sobrealimentados del norte) podríamos tener decrecimiento, “ellos” (los pobres, poco alimentados del sur) todavía quieren y necesitan crecer. Este es el discurso más poderoso que perpetúa la ideología del crecimiento que hay que descartar, pero con cuidado.

Todos nosotros, hasta cierto punto o durante algunas épocas, nos sentimos como ‘los del Sur’. Mis compatriotas griegos me dicen que el decrecimiento no es para nosotros, ya que ahora somos pobres y estamos en crisis. El 99 % de la población de EE. UU. tiene buenas razones para creer que es el 1 % el que debe decrecer para que ellos puedan crecer. Incluso cuando se encuesta a los millonarios sobre cuánto dinero necesitarían para sentirse económicamente seguros, normalmente aseguran que el doble de lo que ya tienen, independientemente de su salario en ese momento.

Las comparaciones de posición llevan a perseguir y perpetuar el crecimiento. La inseguridad económica, en todos los niveles de salario, hace que todos corran cada vez más rápido para no caerse. Y las crisis económicas, cuando los estándares de vida decaen repentinamente y la inseguridad se intensifica, son los momentos en los que la búsqueda de crecimiento resurge con más fuerza, y por lo tanto, como una causa progresiva en estos momentos. Nunca será un buen momento para decrecer.

La mayoría de los habitantes de este planeta no cuentan con acceso a los bienes básicos, como agua o salud pública, pero lo merecen, y esto puede llevar a un mayor uso de la energía y los recursos. No obstante, esto no se necesita formular en los términos absurdos del crecimiento perpetuo. Es una cuestión de distribución y suficiencia. En el Norte necesitamos decrecer para que las cosmologías y las políticas alternativas más cercanas al espíritu de suficiencia del sur (como Sumak Kawsay o Ubuntu) puedan florecer. Las alternativas del sur han sido colonizadas intelectualmente por el desarrollismo, y materialmente a través de industrias extractivas que en nombre del crecimiento traen destrucción y pobreza. Esta colonización tiene que acabar.

La misma lógica se puede aplicar a otros países en crisis económica. En Grecia no necesitamos “crecer” para salir de la crisis económica (como si fuéramos niños, que es la manera en que nos trata la Troika en la actualidad). Necesitamos elaborar modelos alternativos de suficiencia, algunos basados en el pasado griego, materializados en instituciones que nos dejarán prosperar sin crecimiento.

Desconfío de aquellos que hablan en nombre de otros, recordándome que, a diferencia de lo que yo, un intelectual elitista, creo, ‘la gente pobre’ sueña con televisiones de plasma y Ferraris, y no podemos negarles esos sueños. La mayoría de la gente que conozco, incluyéndome a mí mismo, sí que tienen sueños materialistas: nuestra sociedad de clases fuerza estas ideas en nosotros si queremos permanecer como miembros seguros y dignos de ella. Afortunadamente, también tenemos el anhelo de llevar una vida más sencilla, de vivir en comunidad, de contar con amistades, y muchas otras necesidades que van con el imaginario del decrecimiento. La pregunta es cómo cambiar las estructuras sociales y los contextos institucionales de forma que satisfagamos estas últimas aspiraciones y no nuestros peores deseos materialistas.

 

5. Dejar el crecimiento atrás es dejar el capitalismo atrás

El capitalismo es el conjunto de instituciones de propiedad, financieras y comerciales que crean competencia insaciable, y fuerzan de ese modo a las compañías a crecer o perecer. El exceso que esta dinámica genera se invierte constantemente en más crecimiento. Una sociedad sin crecimiento puede seguir teniendo mercados, propiedad privada o dinero. Pero como sostienen Edward y Robert Skidelsky, un sistema económico que no crece y en el que el capital deja de acumularse, deja de ser capitalismo, lo quieran llamar como lo quieran llamar. Las instituciones de propiedad, crédito o empleo tendrían que reconfigurarse de forma radical para que el sistema fuera estable aun sin crecimiento. Tales reformas radicales incluyen propuestas como la asignación de un salario básico por ciudadano o el control público del dinero.
Las compañías benévolas como Mondragon o Novo Nordisk, que combinan la apreciación económica social y del medioambiente, son excepciones poco comunes por una razón. En una economía capitalista el beneficio es el punto de partida. Las preocupaciones sociales y medioambientales pueden admitirse por unos pocos actores, que pueden aumentar sus mercados y hacer dinero gracias a consumidores socialmente responsables. Tal y como lo describía George Monbit, “el capitalismo puede vender muchas cosas, pero no puede vender menos”.
Si la corporación comprende la economía de crecimiento globalizada, las cooperativas son el emblema de una economía de decrecimiento localizada. En una economía que no va a crecer más, las cooperativas de trabajadores o consumidores que no dependen de beneficios en continuo crecimiento tienen una ventaja natural. Es evidente que no todas las cooperativas poseen las características que las hace aptas para una transición al decrecimiento. Distinguiré la economía colaborativa de la “economía de alquiler” de AirBnB y otras corporaciones capitalistas similares que, independientemente de lo innovadoras que sean, reproducen la búsqueda de rédito y la dinámica de crear un superávit constante.

 

En conclusión

En este apartado sería apropiado citar a Tim Jackson: “El crecimiento no es compatible con un medioambiente sostenible, pero el decrecimiento es socialmente inestable”. Curiosamente, esta afirmación a menudo se menciona en contra del decrecimiento, de manera que se insiste en plantear un futuro único en el que tenemos que hacer sostenible el crecimiento y esperar un milagro tecnológico o social. Los adeptos a este paraíso tecnológico a menudo hacen referencia a innovaciones como casas inteligentes, hidroponía, robótica, la energía de fusión y los superordenadores. Yo me excluyo. A lo que voy es a que este futuro es insostenible, innecesario e indeseable (al menos para aquellos que nos consideramos partidarios del decrecimiento). Las soluciones tecnológicas suponen un coste para otros, para el medioambiente y para las generaciones futuras, a una escala aún mayor. El cambio climático es el legado de nuestros logros tecnológicos pasados.

Yo leo a Tim Jackson desde otra perspectiva. Dado que continuar creciendo es insostenible, tenemos que poner en marcha los cambios institucionales y sistemáticos que estabilizarán el decrecimiento.

 

Giorgos Kallis es un economista ecológico, ecologista político y profesor en el Instituto de Ciencia y Tecnología Medioambientales de Barcelona. Es el coordinador de la red europea de ecología política y editor del libro ‘Decrecimiento: un vocabulario para una nueva era’ (Ediciones Icaria).

 

Traducción del Inglés: Santiago Forés-Barrachina

Revisión editorial: Diana Vela-Almeida

Going for Zero

Source: UN Climate Change

by Sam Gardner

The multilateral approach to climate change: denial and delay

The intergovernmental process to fight climate change leads up to COP 21, the upcoming meeting in Paris. This time, unlike all the last times, hopes are high that an agreement will be reached. It should limit the greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere to an amount that would cause a global warming to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius.  Nobody knows if this is a safe level, but the intergovernmental process concluded it might be safe enough.

The negotiations follow a pattern you might expect in a negotiation game where everybody wants to bargain a good deal for themselves: poor countries want to maximize support, the rich want promises from all the others, and there’s as little commitment on funding as possible.

National Contributions would only start in 2020. Another 5 years lost.

Most participants agree with what is in the documents of the International Panel on Climate Change. Yet this knowledge does not translate into drastic measures. Action is limited to long-term negotiations on the international level and prudent changes on the national policy level. In the day-to-day choices we make to frame our lives, the urgency isn’t there – it’s not even on the radar.

Roads for diesel or gasoline cars are still being built, public transport suffers from budget cuts, and coal power plant construction permits are still legal.

Roads for diesel or gasoline cars are still being built, public transport suffers from budget cuts, and coal power plant construction permits are still legal.

Investments in sustainable energy and alternative transport are not guided by the climate change imperative but by economic, strategic, and political arguments. Fossil fuel is still subsidized in most countries. Natural gas is a midway investment  to make the shift to fossil free more gradual. These investments will be guzzling gas for the next 30 years.

The current approach is seen as the reasonable and moderate pathway. Everything else is deemed unrealistic.

As a result, emissions will continue rising above current levels for some time to come.  But the total level of emissions required to stop heating the climate is less than zero.

 

Redefining moderation

If we keep going along this route, we will be in crisis mode within decades. The situation will be so urgent  that all use of fossil fuel will have to be taxed at prohibitive levels or banned. Denial will be impossible. Major powers will consider climate change as an existential, military threat, and may be ready to respond to it militarily if need be. After all, a country’s carbon footprint goes down after being bombed.

In an environment of strict rationing, massive use of private fossil fuel-powered cars will be unacceptable. The new highways that are planned now will be redundant before they are fully operational. Even those that are built right now will depreciate faster than calculated. Coal power plants and buildings needing heating or air conditioning will be considered extravagant in a strictly rationed world.  

In every part of the society, on every level of the administration, there are already people who fully realize what the crisis entails and have internalized it in their actions. However in general they are marginal: their “moderate”colleagues implore them to be “reasonable”.

In every part of the society, on every level of the administration, there are already people who fully realize what the crisis entails and have internalized it in their actions. However in general they are marginal: their “moderate”colleagues implore them to be “reasonable”.

Waiting until the crisis is acute is irresponsible. We need to redefine what is realistic.  Realistic planning is to go as quickly as possible – right now – to zero emissions. Every delay is irresponsible.

What we need is a mainstream acceptance that “There Is No Alternative” . Remember the Thatcherite revolution?  Her – ruinous – thinking on economics was accepted as mainstream and labelled as the only option in a couple of years. The same must  happen with “going for zero” climate change thinking. Unfortunately, this time there really is no viable alternative to going for zero, asap.

It is at this point that we should redefine “moderation” and “realism”:

Moderation is to accept reality and what has to be done to avoid a global humanitarian crisis.

Realism  is to  accept that any additional investment in a carbon world is a waste and a crime,  and act  accordingly.

The course we’re on now is the true extremism.

All current long-term fossil fuel-based investments (power plants, roads, ships, house heating) should be considered unacceptable.

There are millions of options of how we could get to zero carbon, but There Is No Alternative to the fact that we need to go to zero now. So we should redefine  “moderation” and “reasonable” as: going for zero now.

 

Turning the tables

Are the engineers who design, the bosses who approve, the politicians supporting policy changes, the people buying cars, the families buying houses in the suburbs, consciously choosing to make the wrong decision? Greenhouse gas emission growth is not the fruit of a big evil master plan. It  involves millions of individual decisions,  an environment of decisions. To roll back emissions it will be these decisions that make the difference.

The current approach to climate change is a negotiation where individual countries try to limit change for themselves and maximize it for the others. The incentive structure of these negotiations encourages minimizing change, rather than maximizing it.  It does not create an environment that  leads to exponential change beyond the agreed-upon indicators.

The complicated interrelations of the economy, the climate, political power, and society cannot be managed simply with top-down international agreements. Under the new definition of moderation, this is an extremist tactic, putting lives and livelihoods at risk. It stifles the imagination and flexibility needed to go to zero fast enough. Real change will be result from transformation of the political economy at the local level.

 

The strategy: going for zero

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. (Churchill)

Every single decision matters. Like in wartime, the theater is everywhere.

The battle against a coal power plant investment is never lost: construction could be planned, but the municipal permit can be revoked. The permit is given but the imminent domain procedure is not successful, it can be started and never finished as investors disinvest. It can be built and never used over environmental concerns. It can be taken out of production early.

As every investment is composed of a chain of decisions that need to be taken one after the other, by tackling the individual decisions, accumulatively, change can happen faster, as changes become exponential rather than linear.

Within a moral and long-term economical timeframe, every person anywhere must stop any investment in fossil fuel-heavy products now.

Realism makes every person who has internalised climate change an ally.  Office workers, like myself, will have to make alliances with politicians, communities, and action groups.  Like-minded groups will need to work together to bring down the traditional barriers and create a new normal.

The objective is to stop every single individual investment in fossil fuel use.  Most struggles will initially be lost. It is the war that counts.

The objective is to stop every single individual investment in fossil fuel use.  Most struggles will initially be lost. It is the war that counts. With every resistance it becomes more difficult to present business as usual as an option, as “moderation“.

Individuals will need the backing of a mass movement to find the strength to resist and to have access to the knowledge to make a case. As the powers that be in the energy sector will resist, other instruments, like manifestations, petitions, civil disobedience and boycotts will be necessary.

Every decision already taken can still be stopped, overturned, or postponed at every level. Losing a struggle is only a step in winning the war, and losing the war is beyond imagination.

Every person who is asked to sign, to design, to propose, to make concrete, to breathe the air, will need to act on the knowledge that it is not worth it to continue with the old model.  They will need to recognize that for the world, the children, for votes, and for their career, it is better not to do this.

 

The action plan for the Paris Agreement

Chances are there will be a binding agreement concluded at COP 21. The agreement will confirm the climate crisis, and the commitment to keep the temperature rise to only 1.5-2 degrees.  Attached to the agreement there will be Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) that will be insufficient.

These NDCs will be irresponsible and amount to climate terrorism. The proposed measures should happen now, not in 2020. The agreed principles in the agreement should be strong and binding enough to form the legal basis to reject every unacceptable investment and go directly for zero.

If the going for zero strategy is implemented, investments in alternatives have a future and fossil fuel-based infrastructure has none.

If the going for zero strategy is implemented, investments in alternatives have a future and fossil fuel-based infrastructure has none.

Going now for zero on every decision possible will lead to tipping points where fossil fuel investments become less attractive economically, environmentally, and politically. An exponential change will happen.

 

Postscript

As emissions plummet immediately, every cap and trade system would implode too.

 

Sam Gardner is a development and humanitarian professional with field experience in Central and South Africa, Central America and Asia.

Basic income is not a panacea

basic-income
Source: Crypto Coins News

I’ve recently seen a lot of excited talk about basic income. A bit over a year ago, it was announced that the Swiss would soon hold a referendum for its citizens. Then we were confronted with exciting stories of a small Canadian town that had experimented with the idea back in the 1970s. A couple of weeks ago, Finland’s government made it known that it would seek to implement it in the near future, with backing from the Right, Left, and the Greens. Then the Dutch city of Utrecht pitched in, claiming that they would give it a try. And now both mayors of two of the most conservative cities in Canada, Calgary and Edmonton, are trying to give it a go.

Each piece of news has been greeted with great enthusiasm. I’ve seen the words radical and progressive used many times to describe these announcements.

The idea of basic income–also referred to as guaranteed minimum income and universal income–isn’t new, but it is starting to see a large following. It is appealing for those on the right, who want to minimize the role of the state and end the abuse of welfare. Others think it is the best economic solution to the increasing replacement of workers by robots, and the simultaneous onslaught of bullshit jobs in the economy. It is attractive to the left because it would mean access to income for the most marginalized, and it would allow people to pursue their own interests, furthering democratic society. It would also help support those who mostly do care work, especially women, which is less economically valued in Western society. Because it is appealing to both conservatives and progressives, it is seen as a compromise even the far right and far left could agree on. Largely because of this, it is hoped that, if implemented, it could become a catalyst for a more just economic system.

And so major news sources are responding to this general excitement by publishing articles like “A guaranteed income for every American would eliminate poverty — and it wouldn’t destroy the economy“, “What you should know about the idea that could revolutionize the 21st century“, “Universal basic income, something we can all agree on?“.

As it is being proposed currently, basic income can make things worse: it can strengthen racist policies, increase environmental impacts of our current economic system, and increase wealth inequality between the rich and poor globally. Right now, at best, it seems more like a poor compromise–one that’s slanted toward the benefit of the elite.

But I’m not that excited. I agree that a compromise, if it is strategic, can help us get closer to our goals. But I don’t think this is a strategic compromise. Basic income can only be a strategic compromise if it is  proposed along with a host of other policies that would limit its negative effects. But it doesn’t seem like that’s what’s happening. To illustrate this, it might help to briefly provide some basic facts:

  • Yes, Switzerland is moving toward a basic income referendum. But Switzerland’s main business is providing a tax haven for the world’s richest people. It is also one of the most racist countries in Europe, with leading parties pursuing actively discriminatory electoral campaigns, and even green parties taking anti-immigration positions.
  • In the Canadian town, Dauphin, the experiment was cancelled when faced with an economic recession, caused by the collapse of Canada’s lumber and mining industries, which were predicated on the over-exploitation of one of the world’s largest forested areas–significantly driving climate change.
  • The party proposing basic income in Finland is centre-right, with neoliberal leanings. Other parties supporting the proposal are the Fins’ Party, which is anti-immigration and conservative.
  • Calgary and Edmonton make most of their money from the tar sands, one of the most environmentally catastrophic and socially unjust extraction projects in the world. This would fund their basic income schemes.

In each situation, it’s worth asking where the wealth that would sponsor it comes from, who it will benefit, and who it will exclude.

As it is being proposed currently, basic income can make things worse: it can strengthen racist policies, increase environmental impacts of our current economic system, and increase wealth inequality between the rich and poor globally. Right now, at best, it seems more like a poor compromise–one that’s slanted toward the benefit of the elite.

In this essay, I argue that current proposals of basic income can be problematic and help to further the goals of the elite. I also provide some suggestions of ways to address this problem while keeping the positive effects of basic income proposals intact.

 

switzerland
Source: Washington Post

Basic income: a tool for economic, social, and environmental exclusion?

J. M. Keynes’ ‘welfare economics’ was seen as the only satisfying compromise between the capitalist class and the increasingly powerful workers’ unions. But this was by no means a radical compromise–it guaranteed continued profits to the market system while making a deal with the poor. In this way, it remained in line with liberal economic thinking.

Liberal economics is based on the idea that the state ought to make it easier for the market to operate. The main way to do this is to build infrastructure that makes it easier for enterprises to conduct their business. A secondary role for the state is then to regulate the market’s negative impacts. Welfare liberalism is the extension of this role: to redistribute market surplus to, on the one hand, improve the livelihood of those who cannot participate in the market, and to further bolster the market by giving lower classes sufficient capital so that they too can become consumers, further driving economic growth.

Welfare in the minority world guaranteed consumption and production at a level never seen before. And while this really did raise the standard of living, many of the costs were eventually off-loaded onto the backs of the majority world.

A half-century later, and we now know the impacts that this has had. Welfare in the minority world guaranteed consumption and production at a level never seen before. And while this really did raise the standard of living, many of the costs were eventually off-loaded onto the backs of the majority world. Sweatshop labor, mining disasters, pollution, and now migration due to climate change–these are all rife in ‘Third World’ countries. Countless people are now forced to move from their land because it has either been privatized or their basic means of subsistence has been destroyed through free trade agreements.

These people will often strive for better lives and migrate to the ‘First World’, where they are faced with systemic racism, terrible working conditions, and a legal system that regards them as second-class citizens. At the same time, the increased political and financial power of the growing class gave rise to the ‘Not In My Backyard’ phenomenon, pushing polluting industries to the Global South, where states had less regulatory power and poor people have less ability to resist environmental injustice.

Add to this the fact that the money that made welfare programs possible was already derived from centuries of colonialism, which involved dispossession and resource-grabs backed by violence.

And even within countries welfare can be exclusive. Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward have argued that welfare in the US was designed primarily for quelling dissent in times of unrest, and for forcing the lower classes to enter the workforce in times of political stability. In this way, it can be seen as a mechanism for perpetuating the current economic system, not fixing it.At first sight, welfare liberalism might seem like a positive way to address the inequality inherent in capitalism. But if you zoom out, it starts to look more like a tool to placate the poor within rich countries, all the while justifying continued exploitation of the rest of the world. In this way, it remains simply a compromise, legitimating the power of the elite, while externalizing the costs of the economic system to those who don’t have the privilege of being citizens of a rich country.

BasicIncome (1)
Source: Katoikois

Let me use an example to illustrate why basic income can be a continuation of this. It is telling that the country that has advanced the most in bringing basic income into the policy discussion–Switzerland–is also one of the most racist and migrant-unfriendly places in Europe. In this case, the Swiss try to redistribute the profits from their banking system (which are derived from providing tax havens to world’s richest people) to a small and already privileged society, while excluding others. At the same time, as it would increase the finances available to the poorest Swiss, it would also increase spending and therefore consumption, driving up the costs unloaded on to society and the environment. These costs will mostly not be borne by the Swiss, but by people in the Global South, who are the most affected by climate change, work in far more dangerous conditions, and are forced to migrate when their land and livelihood is destroyed. Effectively, basic income in Switzerland would entail closure of the world’s riches, for the benefit of a small community.

As it is currently proposed, basic income simply redistributes the profits of already rich nations to its poorer classes. It keeps in place, and strengthens, the divide between the Global North and South.

In most policy proposals for basic income that I’ve seen so far, the pattern is the same. As it is currently proposed, it simply redistributes the profits of already rich nations to its poorer classes. It keeps in place, and strengthens, the divide between the Global North and South.

It’s true that basic income, if it were designed right, could potentially address Piven and Cloward’s concern that welfare has been inherently exclusionary within nations. In fact, they themselves supported basic income as a solution. But while it seems like basic income might create some sort of level economic playing-field, it could also be blind to any kind of structural inequality that already exists. That is, if black people in the US received basic income, they would still have to contend with a history of racism, which continues to be embedded within the US legal structure, housing, education, and financial system. And it wouldn’t necessarily take into account the fact that the money funding basic income schemes has been made mostly through unequal trade with the rest of the world.

There’s another reason why basic income could be a big problem, which I have rarely seen discussed by its proponents. Let’s say these countries and cities do end up creating such a program. Would they also extend it to migrant laborers and undocumented migrants?

Because if they don’t, one could well imagine a scenario where corporations just stop hiring legal citizens (because they would start making demands for better working conditions once they have basic income) and instead hire cheap migrants, who have very little legal support. They would also pressure their governments to change regulations to facilitate their reliance on precarious migrant labor. In this scenario, basic income would simply be a tool for more efficiently redistributing the profit from the exploitation of secondary citizens to rich countries.

I do acknowledge the potential of basic income to help reform the current economic system for the benefit of those who are the most affected by the current economic system–women, people of color, indigenous people, people with disabilities, and so on.

But basic income policies in countries like the Netherlands, Canada, Switzerland, and Finland could, potentially, make many of the world’s problems worse. By raising the average income, it would also help increase GDP and the spending power of the lower classes, as happened with welfare. Without adequate policies limiting environmentally destructive and socially unjust consumption, we would see a repeat of the negative effects of welfare, creating uneven burdens on the Global South. While it could give many a boost, because it gives everyone an equal amount of money, it would help make the system blind to existing oppressive institutions. It could help further the exploitation of migrants. In short, it would simply redistribute the profits of ongoing colonialism within the rich countries’ borders.

This may be due to the fact that basic income is, in each case, proposed by alliances between right, centrist, and leftist governments. But while this may look like a strategic compromise by the left, it can also become a way to further the goals of racist, neoliberal politicians, as well as the corporate elite. So when I see the news that Finland wants to experiment with basic income, I’m not that excited, because I know that it may just as well pave the way for more conservative policies shutting out, and legitimizing the exploitation of, the Global South.

As it stands, basic income is not a radical, progressive policy. It is more of a compromise between Keynesian welfare and neoliberalism, under the guise of economic equality within a nation’s borders. So no, it wouldn’t “eliminate poverty”, and it wouldn’t “revolutionize the 21st century”, but it would certainly help keep the current economy intact–with disastrous consequences down the line.

generation-basic-income-1024x682
Source: PBS

Beyond basic income: a more just proposal

So what would be necessary for basic income to be successful? It would mean not assuming that simply redistributing capitalism’s surplus will solve our problems. It requires a host of policies to be implemented, without which it may increase inequality globally. Here are some criteria for a more just basic income:

  • First and foremost, it should be seen as an end, not a golden ticket. It cannot substitute existing public services. For example, it cannot replace health insurance, since the key to a low-cost healthcare system is collective bargaining of medicine and equipment costs, which would no longer happen if it were assumed that basic income would replace this.
  • Limit environmental exclusion and externalization. This would require policies limiting consumption, specifically resource-and energy-intensive goods, as well as policies regulating environmental destruction and addressing environmental and social injustice, especially in the Global South.
  • Limit economic exclusion. Provide support for alternative economic enterprises that are less exploitative, especially in the Global South. Limit exploitative labor. Limit excessive working days, especially for low-income people. Raise minimum income. Put in place policies that allow (but not force) women, migrants, and people of color to be more involved in the economy.
  • Limit social exclusion. We need policies that guarantee accessibility of basic income for migrant workers, and/or ensure legal and financial support to migrants and refugees without status. In addition, policies must be put in place that better support historically marginalized groups within countries, such as black, indigenous people, or ethnic minorities. This would help address the social exclusion that would likely happen along with a basic income policy, which tends to be ‘blind’ to existing inequality.

As you can see, these are big demands. None of these can be implemented very easily, let alone at the same time. But, importantly, the list shows that basic income will not, by itself, bring about all the changes that the left is hopeful for. This requires strategic implementation of a wide platform of policies that are complementary and respond to existing inequalities, both within countries and outside of them.

When I’ve raised these concerns to others, many have responded that basic income might not be the be-all end-all, but it can get us a lot closer. People see it as a strategic stepping-stone, arguing that basic income could help facilitate a transition to these other policies.

But take again the example of Switzerland. These same proponents might argue that basic income could, potentially, free up time for people to get involved in politics and caring activities. In this way, it could be a crucial step toward a more democratic and just society.

But this is magical thinking. Without adequate research, it cannot be assumed that it would automatically lead to more democracy rather than, for example, an increase in protectionism, racism, and consumption. Creating a more just world is a lot of work, and there is no one policy that, somehow, paves the way for others. To do this, it must come hand-in-hand with other policies that limit its potential negative effects.

I want to stress that I’m hopeful for this policy to be part of a platform that may change our economic system for the better. But considering the type of parties that have proposed it so far, I’m worried that it could actually increase inequality between the North and the South and help drive economic growth and climate change. In particular, I would like to challenge basic income advocates to think a lot more about issues of citizenship and migration, and how basic income could contribute to the exploitation of migrants. This means that it can only be proposed as a part of a wider platform of policies.

I would like to challenge basic income advocates to think a lot more about issues of citizenship and migration, and how basic income could contribute to the exploitation of migrants.

Anything less would just help further close off the minority world–and drive the exploitation of the majority world. Getting excited about progressive policies is great, but only if they are actually progressive, not half-assed compromises between the existing elite and the middle and lower classes who already profit the most from the current economic system.

Thanks to Adrian Turcato for the title.

Thanks also to people at the Social Costs of Automation and Robotics group and the Degrowth reading group for the discussions on this topic.

 

“Trading one superstition for another”

Source: Thomas Allison - Daily Texan
Source: Huffington Post

by David Summerhays

My first thought on reading The Theology of Consensus by L. A. Kauffman—which recently appeared in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology, and then reached a wider audience in Jacobin Magazine—is that I have rarely read an article so important, thoughtful, and well-researched that nonetheless does little more than trade one superstition for another. The concerns she raises are critical and seldom discussed yet the author seemingly fails a test of basic critical thinking: she never asks if the problem she deftly analyzes might be pandemic. That is the fatal flaw of Kauffman’s well-researched article.

 

The Good

Kauffman’s article begins by tracing the origins of consensus decision-making within activist circles to two Quakers in the 1970s who adapted the practice from Quaker tradition.

Kauffman describes consensus decision-making as “a process in which groups come to agreement without voting… [G]roups that make decisions by consensus work to refine the plan until everyone finds it acceptable.” She adds that it “has been a central feature of direct action movements for nearly 40 years.”

The first crucial and thoughtful concern the author raises is the danger of moving practices from the religious realm to the secular realm. Kauffman points out that when this occurs such practices can become superstitious, a sort of magical technique, rather than the contemplative practice or symbol they were intended to be. I could not agree more with the author: taking religious material (e.g. myth) as a blueprint for practical action is a recipe for disaster. She writes: “Consensus can easily be derailed by those acting in bad faith. But it’s also a process that is ill-equipped to deal with disagreements that arise from competing interests rather than simple differences of opinion. The rosy idea embedded in the process that unity and agreement can always be found if a group is willing to discuss and modify a proposal sufficiently is magical thinking, divorced from the real-world rough-and-tumble of political negotiation.”

Indeed, Quakers do await a kind of “unity” to appear among us, but that unity is inseparable from the presence of the divine, so to speak. In other words, unity should be seen as a miracle. We could say symbolically that we have some control but not final say over unity happening. Unity is not literal, in the same way Christians should not read the Bible literally; nor should we expect unity to necessarily fully arise in reality, just as it would be unwise for a Christian such as my brother to hold his breath until Christ returns.

Any “faith” in consensus necessarily arising is indeed misplaced and would create quasi-magical expectations for consensus practice and occult its limitations. Like any superstition, this would lead to a lack of realism and therefore ineffective action that poorly serves the cause of justice. Rituals and prayer cannot replace thoughtful action. Nor can a superstitious view of consensus sustain hope and courage in the long-term. As superstitions are exposed, the only options are apathy, cynicism, or fanaticism.

Just as we must protest when an organized religion discourages us from acting on urgent social problems, Kauffman is right to call us to be just as critical and suspicious of superstition with regards to consensus. The symbolism concealed in these superstitions may provide necessary meaning and direction to our lives, and that is worth celebrating, but superstition as a plan for action does not ultimately serve the oppressed. Kauffman convincingly shows that superstitious understandings of consensus do exist within activist circles and do cause problems, even if she perhaps exaggerates how widespread the problem is.

The second concern the author raises is even more important: consensus process is an expression of middle-class, white culture and can be alienating to others. I could hardly agree more when Kauffman notes:

“[The consensus] tradition has been imbued with whiteness. The Clamshell Alliance was, after all, an overwhelmingly white organization, bringing together white residents of the New Hampshire seacoast with white Quakers and an array of mostly white radicals from Boston and beyond for action in a white rural region…

“Time and again, activists of color found the use of consensus in majority-white direct action circles to be alienating and off-putting, and white activists’ reverent insistence on the necessity and superiority of the process has exacerbated difficulties in multiracial collaboration and alliance-building.”

When white activists insist on decision-making practices that are a profound expression of white, middle-class culture, a kind of white supremacy results—a white supremacy that endlessly claims to stand for racial justice while viewing its own culture as universally valid and therefore refusing to negotiate its customs. This leads to strained relationships and low motivation for cooperation.

Kauffman’s critique of consensus correctly states, moreover, that this practice does not remove all lines of privilege. It favours people with the time, energy, and patience to deal with a consensus process. Particularly if these processes are poorly facilitated, they can be lengthy and draining.

Nonetheless, as a Quaker and environmental organizer, there are some less impressive parts of this article.

 

Source:  #Hashtagrevolution
Source: Beyond the Choir

The Bad

Something akin to consensus is a frequent practice in many North American aboriginal cultures (cf. the Iroquois Confederation). Even as a Quaker, I learned about consensus in a restorative justice training, heavily inspired by aboriginal cultures. It seems overwhelmingly likely that the development of consensus in activist culture was influenced by a few centuries of cohabiting North America with aboriginal peoples. Moreover, anarchists have been inspired by Quakers since the 19th century, so although I have not analyzed the author’s source material, it seems unlikely that consensus was helicoptered in—out of nowhere—by two Quakers in the 1970s as Kauffman claims.

The author also doesn’t mention that consensus seems to have been a reaction against relatively top-heavy organizing of the 1960s that, of course, also favoured people with privilege. The assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King reminded activists that charismatic organizing can be stopped cold by lopping off the heads of leaders and offending organizations. The challenges involved in organizing for justice in our world are immense. So although it is important to know the limitations of consensus, Kauffman’s article would have been much stronger if it included any reason to believe that the difficulties many experience when practicing consensus are inherent to consensus rather than inherent in the difficult nature of the problems activists seek to solve through consensus.

The author also claims that “better practices” than consensus exist but did not give any examples—which was unfair and I thought suspicious. She accuses consensus of magical thinking, but it would be magical thinking on her part if she believes that any quick-fix replacement for consensus will magically generate an egalitarian, multi-cultural revolution, or even necessarily get us one step closer. It is impossible to evaluate her claim that better practices exist without an example. This omission is fundamental, diminishing the value of her article, which is excellent in so many ways.

The activists I work with know that consensus isn’t magic. Nor have I been to many consensus sessions (or Quaker meetings) that lasted 4-8 hours… this concern does not seem entirely insurmountable and it is obvious that consensus benefits from training and reflection.

In addition, while her exposition of superstition inherent in consensus is excellent, her rejection of consensus-process generally seems exaggerated and polemical. It is quite possible to have a successful and efficient consensus process that has zero expectations of “unity” arising by magic. As Kauffman notes, consensus would be ill-advised when parties have differing material interests or a power imbalance (e.g. divorce proceedings in cases of domestic violence). But consensus is used every day, quite frequently to everyone’s satisfaction. My experience is that usually it works just fine, particularly in situations of relatively low diversity of opinion or when well-facilitated.

Nor have I met many people who seemed to have the dogmatic attachment to consensus the author seems to think is widespread. The activists I work with know that consensus isn’t magic. Nor have I been to many consensus sessions (or Quaker meetings) that lasted 4-8 hours. The long ones I can think of were, not surprisingly, poorly facilitated. Kauffman is correct that “consensus-specialists” can become arcane to outsiders, but this concern does not seem insurmountable and it is obvious that consensus benefits from training and reflection.

But let us move on to far larger problems.

 

Source: New Yorker
Source: New Yorker

 

The Ugly

Despite the misgivings above, I find the author makes a very interesting and plausible link between consensus and Quaker theology, but this raises the entire problem with the article: Kauffman is implying that every other activist practice besides consensus emanates from entirely secular and rational sources, having no religious roots and certainly no superstitions. She implies that it’s easy or even possible to find an activist practice that is free from the kinds of superstition and white culture brilliantly illustrated in her article. This assumption is fundamental to her article, for otherwise, if she was aware that activist practice was rife with superstition and almost inextricable from white culture, her article would simply be a baffling call for us to exchange one superstitious expression of white culture for another. Her implicit assumption is necessary for her article and it is wrong.

Kauffman has therefore put her finger on a whale of a problem: Enlightenment superstitions underlie a vast majority of leftist thought and activity. Enlightenment culture, the tragic bedrock of the radical left, is inextricable from white culture, and even white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchy.

We know that modern culture and activist culture in particular is filled with superstition and is a profound expression of white culture, and perhaps even white supremacy. Many historians, political scientists, and philosophers have already explored the problematic ways that ideals of democracy, freedom, equality, and even the modern project of “rationally remaking the world” are rooted in Christian myths, superstitious, and inextricable from those superstitions (cf. Hegel, Nietzsche, Weber, Schopenhauer, Paul Tillich, Charles Taylor, Adorno, etc.). They are equally inseparable from white culture. This work may not be well known and its implications for activist practice may be very little explored, but it is a solid and respected body of literature.

Kauffman has therefore put her finger on a whale of a problem: Enlightenment superstitions underlie a vast majority of leftist thought and activity. Enlightenment culture, the bedrock of the radical left, is inextricable from white culture, from superstition, and from white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchy.

To understand this, let’s take, for example, the Christian myth of the “end times,” the mythical events “after” the Last Judgment under the reign of Christ. In Christian theology, the mythical “end-times” remove the possibility for human reason to err and to sin but rather human reason is reunited with the ability to perfectly discern truth, justice, and love. Within this state of ecstasy, humanity could leave behind all symbol, ritual, and myth, freely discarding all its traditions, for they would no longer be necessary when God is “transparent” (symbolically speaking) to all through every bit of creation. Humanity would arrive at a fully Rational culture that is rich, inexhaustible, and totally liberated. A culture that is Rational would be universally valid, rather than particular and relative.

Although they did not say so explicitly, the thinkers of the Enlightenment, the intellectual founders of modern society, were in effect claiming that these “end-times” are nigh. The Enlightenment, with its optimism about the power of real-life reason to overcome error and selfishness, began a project of “rethinking everything,” a universal application of Reason. This is the modern project. They predicted that we have the power today to bring about the Kingdom of God. The coming of Reason would mean that the world’s cultures were unnecessary and could be discarded as part of a global (colonial) effort that was at first missionary before it was educative and liberatory. The European Christian traditions of white supremacist, cis-hetero-partriarchy were called Rational and universal; everything else was seen as inferior and irrational. “Liberation” and “education” has always meant some genuine liberation and genuine edification mixed with oppression and the undermining and destruction of traditions throughout the world. That is why the victims of this Enlightenment superstition have always primarily been the oppressed, be it through colonialism that sought to educate away other cultures or through a “liberation” that in fact ensures the domination of European tradition, e.g., the European economy or cultural norms.

It is therefore not easy to find any political ideal that is not drenched in this founding superstition of the Enlightenment, the confusion of Reason with reason.

For instance, the Enlightenment ideal of maximizing freedom (liberalism) makes no sense without the confusion of Reason with reason. When different actors are liberated to compete, freedom without Reason can just as easily lead to oppression and destruction as it can to harmony. Economic liberalism (commonly known as the ideal of capitalism) cannot be maintained without a faith that Reason will prevail once liberated. The same goes for social liberalism and even utopian anarchism: they depend on a faith in Harmony-through-freedom.

Many, when rejecting liberalism then turn to the Enlightenment ideal of a progressively more Rational state governed by “the People.” But meritocracy, linked to the ideals of democracy, equality, education, technology, objective science, and Rational policy, suffers the same problem: a faith in Progress as Reason begets greater Reason.

The problem of consensus is simply a subset of the superstition of Harmony arriving through the respectful and free competition of ideas, aided by Progressively more skillful facilitation and participation. Kauffman’s article seeks to “liberate” us from the hidden oppression of consensus or help us Progress to an improved practice. In other words, she trades one superstition for another. She correctly exposes one superstition but with seemingly zero awareness of how giant the problem is.

Kauffman’s article seeks to “liberate” us from the hidden oppression of consensus or help us Progress to an improved practice. In other words, she trades one superstition for another. She correctly exposes one superstition but with seemingly zero awareness of how giant the problem is.

It is as if she discovered dead the canary in a coal mine and suggested we replace the canary. In fact, we need to evacuate the mine before the fumes that killed the canary kill us. Certain understandings of consensus contain superstition, to be sure, but consensus-superstitions are only a tiny subset of Enlightenment superstition.

This leads us to Kauffman’s other point—that consensus contained white practices that were alienating to other races. We could make the exact same argument about the Enlightenment—that it took white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchal values and called them “Rational,” and therefore transcultural and universal. Any Enlightenment political ideal (freedom, democracy, Rational policy) contains some element of white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchy.

Dropping Enlightenment superstitions would be a gargantuan task for anyone and discarding one’s own culture is quite unlikely. The entirety of modern culture needs a radical reevaluation that keeps its truth but scraps its superstitions and supremacy, which is an enormously complex task.

The radical left needs a radical transformation. For the past century it has criticized liberalism but replaced it with the ideal of democracy (economic or political), which is inseparable from the superstition of Progress. But then it criticizes totalitarianism but replaces it with the ideal of liberalism, which is also inseparable from the superstition of Harmony-through-freedom.

In short, the radical left has been exchanging superstition for superstition for the past century but now we are stuck: socialism is widely viewed as an ideal that “doesn’t work” but liberalism is also an obvious failure. Now, nobody cares to listen to the radical left, and for good reason. This leads to articles such as Kauffman’s which correctly criticize current practice but are utterly unable to propose something free of superstition that is also equal to the massive problems of modernity.

What might this shift in the radical left look like? Although it would be out of the scope of this article to describe it in detail, we can look at how it would impact consensus. First of all, the shift needed would look nothing like what Kauffman proposes. Kauffman’s approach to consensus is typical of the Enlightenment: for her, practices involving superstitions are to be entirely dropped, since no symbol, myth, or ritual will be necessary in the Rational end-times, which apparently are nigh. Consensus for her is something to be entirely discarded. Certainly I agree with Kauffman that superstitions make a poor blueprint for practical action but superstitions do make excellent myths, symbols, and rituals—the type of meaning-making activity that gives order and direction to our lives and has the power to comfort us in difficult times in ways that literal language struggles to do. In the “meantime” we humans need myths, symbols, and rituals and so do activists. Communities, after all, are built on them. And a community of resistance, at least in my opinion, is precisely what we need.

The real solution to consensus, and for the radical left generally, is to explicitly transform superstitions into explicit rituals and symbols—rituals and symbols that express the ideals of white, middle-class culture. We must then affirm that many people need these symbols and defend them while firmly rejecting a purely literal understanding of them. We must equally reject white supremacy by affirming white symbols, ideals, and rituals as important to those who are moved by them but denying their universal validity.

Consensus needs to be finally recognized as having ritual elements, with its symbolic meanings expressed. Doing so clarifies that it is not only a blueprint for rational action but linked to meaning-making cultural activity through ritual and symbol. Saying it has ritual elements does not to deny that it also includes practical and technical function, in the same way that saying it has symbolic and metaphorical elements does not deny that it has literal elements. For instance, sitting in a circle symbolically expresses the white, Enlightenment ideal of equality but also practically arranges people so that they can hear and see each other. Seeking everyone’s opinion is a symbol for the kind of justice we seek to create within a world where billions simply don’t count, but also as practical within the goal of building power.

The superstitions that Kauffman mentions about consensus—that expecting Harmony to arise through “non-hierarchical space”—can be seen as a symbol for our shared ideals of liberation and caring for all of creation that we feel called to fight for. Although it would be utopian to expect such a world to ever come to pass, we are called in this moment to seize the opportunities around us to move toward such a world. Understanding the symbols and ritual involved in consensus is inextricable from rejecting any superstitious expectations about its results. No matter how perfect the world consensus symbolizes, consensus-practice will always be messy as a blueprint for rational action in the “meantime.”

Consensus needs to be affirmed as a beautiful and effective ritual of white culture, its history as appropriated from indigenous people must be recognized and thanks given. By recognizing consensus as an expression of white culture (and it is white culture now, even if the form was inspired by other cultures), a genuine negotiation of practices can happen when doing interracial or intercultural work. The intuitive appeal of consensus to white people—rooted in ritual and symbol—can finally be expressed humbly and without implicit white supremacy. Consensus would no longer be seen as Rational but rather white.

It’s a very worthwhile task to perform a religious analysis of modern culture and activist culture in particular. I’m glad to see the author doing it but she stopped about a light year short of finishing the job. I have rarely found an article that raises such important problems with such well-researched points that was so completely inadequate to the task of even beginning to resolve them. Yet I must say I am grateful for her very fruitful effort.

David Summerhays is a Quaker and environmental organizer who organizes community conversations and teaches piano.

An ethics of surplus and the right to waste?

Sign at the UConn Public Surplus Store.

by Max Liboiron

At the most recent Association of American Geographers (AAG) meeting in Chicago last month, Josh Lepawsky and I coordinated a pair of panels on discards, diverse economies, and degrowth. As a concept, degrowth has taken off since the last global recession. At its most basic level, degrowth is about production without economic or material growth, and it encompasses a great diversity of types of economies that might achieve this: steady-states, gift economies,community economies, solidarity economies, and so on. As such, degrowth is also a way to organize social life, including ethics, values, and norms, as well as the systems of worth and circulation at the core of economics. In Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, authors write that: “‘Simplicity’, ‘conviviality’, ‘autonomy’, ‘care’, ‘commons’ and ‘dépense’ are some of the words that express what a degrowth society might look like.”

Lepawsky and I are interested in degrowth because of what it means for waste. Accounting for and with waste will ground-truth new economic imaginaries: how do they deal with left overs, excess, externalities, and by-products? How do they manage toxicity that is already permanently on the planet, and how do they avoid creating new toxicants? At the same time, discussions of new systems of value and circulation can vitalize discussions already underway in discard studies around surplus, valuation, reuse, scale, and the social side of technical systems.

In this post, I want to focus on surplus and dépense in particular. Growth and surplus are two different things: sometimes it is a good idea to have a surplus of food or other materials such as in preparation for winter or drought. Growth is the idea that surplus, whether in the form of profit or production of goods (or both), is the goal of economies, rather than one of many ways of organizing goods in a variety of economies. There can be surplus without accumulation being the main driver of production.

This brings us to dépense. Let’s say you’ve saved up some food for the winter, and the winter was shorter and warmer than expected, leaving you with extra stored food at the end of the season. What do you do with it? Proponents of degrowth might say: “waste it!”

Historic Doukhobor 1895 Arms burning sketch by William Perehudoff, artist from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Historic Doukhobor 1895 Arms burning sketch by William Perehudoff, artist from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Source: Discard Studies

Originally signifying the expenditure of excess energy in the writings of George Bataille, under degrowth the term dépense has come to highlight how some forms of wasting can be celebratory, ethical, and at the very least thought about in terms of what positive social values wasting might engender. Authors of Degrowth mention the practice of potlatch by Indigenous peoples of the Northeast coast, a mix of consuming, gifting, and destroying goods in a celebratory feast. We could also consider the Freedomite Doukhobor‘s practice of burning all possessions, including houses and clothing, every few years as a protest against materialism. In Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Erathe point of thinking about dépense is that “The different patterns of excess energy use [or wasting] characterize and distinguish different types of societies across space and time. Excess can be spent on sacrifice or festival, in war or in peace. … How should we go about the removal of the problem of energy and excess?” (87). How should we waste?

What would happen if we paired an ethics of surplus, where accumulation was always temporary and not the goal of economic production, with processes of wasting that enacted social values? In this situation, we might have a right to waste. If human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of behaviour, and degrowth has ushered in a new ethics of surplus, then celebratory, ritualistic, generous, thoughtful wasting may very well become a social norm that would gain the status of a right.

Of course, this assumes that wasting doesn’t cause harm to health or environment. It also doesn’t address what to do with the already existing surplus of legacy wastes we have to manage from nuclear waste to plastics. Yet this is precisely the power of the concept of degrowth: it is an economic imaginary, a politics of possibility, that can allow us to look at old questions with new frameworks.

Max Liboiron is an activist, artist, and Assistant Professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland researching plastic pollution.

This piece was originally published on the Discard Studies website.

The Anthropocene debate

One of the geo-engineering proposals to decrease global warming is to inject sulphur into the atmosphere. Source.
Source: NASA

by Aaron Vansintjan

The Dutch version of this article can be found here.

The term ‘Anthropocene’ has entered the climate change debate, and the question is whether it should stay there. It neatly encapsulates the idea that the Holocene—a scientific term referring to the present era—is no longer an adequate description. We now exist in an era when humans (anthropos) have fundamentally changed the geology of the earth and are present in almost all ecosystems.

We have raised the planet’s temperature, caused sea levels to rise, mined massive amounts of the earth’s crust, eroded the ozone layer, and are starting to acidify the oceans—all of these will be visible in fossil records millions of years from now.

While the word ‘Anthropocene’ has only recently entered the mainstream lexicon, it has become a rallying cry, to many signifying the urgency of action on climate change. While the term had been suggested previously in different variations, Paul Crutzen, a Nobel prize-winning chemist, popularized it in 2002 in a 600-word article, “The geology of mankind”, in Nature magazine. He argues that the reality of “mankind’s growing influence on the planet” means that scientists and engineers face a “daunting task” of “guiding society”—through massive geoengineering projects, if necessary. To him, the Anthropocene is a key concept to explain the gravity of our current situation. As a result, for many, the term came almost as a revelation, further hammering home the fact that we have undeniably intervened in the earth’s systems, destabilizing it, and that we have to act now, and fast.

But even though the term has been championed by a wide diversity of people, it is also seeing some backlash, and not from the types you’d imagine: many climate scientists are reticent to use it, and it has faced critique from environmental and social historians. Why all the fuss about a word, and what does it matter?

As any activist will be happy to explain, it matters what words we use. They don’t just describe our problems; they also frame the solutions. And in the case of climate change, there’s a big need for good solutions, which means they need to be framed well. If we want to address climate change, we need to consider carefully whether we’re using the right words to describe the problems we face.

The following is a review of the Anthropocene debate, asking whether we should stick to using the word to describe our current problems, or drop it. As you’ll see, I definitely lean one way—I don’t think the term is as useful as its champions claim—but I’ll lay out the evidence as best as I can so you can make up your own mind.

eng1
The Anthropocene is often used to justify massive geo-engineering schemes, leading to an attitude that Richard Heinberg calls “we’re-in-charge-and-loving-it.”

 

From early adoption to widespread use

The term Anthropocene was popularised by hard-core climate scientists who want to illustrate what our world looks like and how it is so vastly different from the world we inherited. From this perspective, the concept might lead to an ‘aha!’ moment for the uninitiated: humans have already fundamentally altered the earth. For this reason, early adopters often used the word to convey the urgency of the present moment to the public.

The public happily took it up with headlines in major news outlets like the BBC, The New York Times, and Newsweek. It became regularly employed by climate activists such as Bill McKibben and environmental groups like Friends of the Earth, who use it in their reports and campaigns. Artists are taking up the term, and academics organize endless conferences with ‘Anthropocene’ as their guiding theme.

“Over a decade after its injection into modern culture, the concept has taken on new forms beyond its original geological intent, becoming a meme capable of propping up a huge variety of arguments.”

The types of opinions that cluster around the term vary. In the book The God Species, prominent environmental writer Mark Lynas argues that, since we are entering into a new, never-seen-before era of human control of the environment, we have the responsibility, duty, and possibility to control it further. Distancing himself from traditional environmental causes like anti-nuclear and GMOs, he argues that precisely because we are seeing unforeseen problems at a greater scale than anything we’ve ever seen, we will need to use all tools at our disposal. That includes nuclear power and genetic engineering.

Recently, Mark Lynas joined a cohort of other pro-tech scientists, writers, and environmentalists, and helped pen an “eco-modernist manifesto.” The authors claim that “modern technologies, by using natural ecosystem flows and services more efficiently, offer a real chance of reducing the totality of human impacts on the biosphere. To embrace these technologies is to find paths to a good Anthropocene.”

The problem? That the Anthropocene reveals that humanity is facing a never-seen-before predicament. The solution? Crank it up. Use more, and better, technologies, in order to better control nature.

Richard Heinberg at the Post-Carbon Institute calls this the “we’re-in-charge-and-loving-it” attitude. To him, this “techno-Anthropocene” argument signifies a brand of scientist who embraces the Anthropocene simply because it gives humans full license to keep terraforming the planet. As Heinberg demonstrates, cranking it up inevitably relies on save-the-day technologies. As the eco-modernist manifesto claims, “Urbanization, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, aquaculture, and desalination are all processes with a demonstrated potential to reduce human demands on the environment, allowing more room for non-human species.” In contrast, Heinberg argues that these technologies aren’t as up to snuff as is often claimed. All of the above either rely on the use of cheap fossil fuels at a far greater rate than what they replace, or are scientifically (and morally) unsound.

One geo-engineering proposal would see expensive mirrors launched into space to reflect sunlight. Source: SCMP

Heinberg proposes his own version: the “lean-green Anthropocene”. According to him, since any feasible techno-solution will be powered by fossil fuels, a more desirable future would involve low-tech, high-labour, local food chains, and responsible water use (e.g. not dependent on energy-intensive desalination plants). But to him, it also requires an acknowledgement that humans aren’t the center of the universe:  “Just as humans are now shaping the future of Earth, Earth will shape the future of humanity.”

Somewhat surprisingly, the term has also been eagerly adopted by critical theorists—perhaps too uncritically. For example, Bruno Latour uses the term—and the reality of human involvement in the climate—as a launching point to discuss the new politics that these crises require. Prominent political ecology scholars such as Laura Ogden, Paul Robbins, and Nik Heynen reference the term to support their own arguments that grassroots organizations are the key to resilience and political resistance in this new era. Slavoj Zizek suggests that the Anthropecene, and the scientists that propose it, makes us ask new questions about humans’ relationship to its environment, and our culture’s obsession with the ever-present apocalypse. In another essay, Dipesh Chakrabarty, partly challenges the term from a postcolonial perspective, but ends up endorsing it, since it means that, in a way, everyone (the colonizers and the colonized, the rich and the poor) will be affected by the coming disasters.

I say surprisingly since these same theorists would hesitate to use the words democracy, development, or progress without “scare-quotes”—they specialize in questioning everything under the sun (and rightly so). For them to endorse this new word without a backward, questioning glance, is perhaps the best indication of its widespread appeal.

Anyway, you get the idea: the Anthropocene concept is supported by people of very different ideological persuasions. One advocates for business-as-usual driven by technological breakthroughs, another calls for a total transformation of humanity’s relationship with nature, yet another suggests that it signifies that we need to put our differences aside, and face this challenge together, as one.

Over a decade after its injection into modern culture, the concept has taken on new forms beyond its original geological intent, becoming a meme capable of propping up a huge variety of arguments.

 

Enter the problematization phase

Yet, in the past year—especially the past months—a flurry of critiques of the Anthropocene concept have appeared.

The first key issue is scientific. This has two facets. First, even though the concept is now well established in our vocabulary (“Welcome to the Anthropocene”, announced The Economist in 2011), there is still a whole lot of dispute on its exact meaning, and even its scientific validity. Second, the science is becoming more and more politicized.

Paul Crutzen’s neologism enters into the realm of stratigraphy—a specific subfield that decides when each geological epoch starts and ends. And Crutzen is an atmospheric chemist, not a stratigrapher. If he was, he might’ve been able to anticipate the kind of bitter fights and tensions his proposal would cause.

Crutzen originally proposed that the Anthropocene started with the industrial revolution, specifically, the design of the steam engine. Since then, he’s changed his mind, stating that it actually started with the testing of atomic bombs. But these kinds of whims do not pass in the field that actually decides geological epochs—they notoriously took 60 years to decide on a definition of the Quaternary, an age that spans 2.6 million years. The scientists that make these decisions are rigorous at best, meticulous at worst.

So they decided to form an international working group, to decide once and for all if the term could really stand the test of time. This was quite difficult. For one, there isn’t even a formal definition of what “Anthropocene” really means. What constitutes a significant enough change in the earth’s geological system, that allows us to draw the line? And where should we draw the line?

To this end, many proposals have been put forward. It started with agriculture 5,000 years ago, or mining 3,000 years ago. No: it starts with the genocide of 50 million indigenous people in the Americas. Or: it began with the ‘Great Acceleration’: the time period in the past fifty years when plastics, chemical fertilizers, concrete, aluminum, and petrol flooded the market, and the environment. Or: we have no way to tell yet, we might need to wait a couple more million years.

In short, the vagueness of the term led to the inability to pin down what it would actually look like, and how it could be measured. The result has been conflicts within the field of stratigraphy, where some are lamenting the fact that a highly politicized issue is skewing what is ideally a slow, careful, and delicate process: deciding when a geological era starts and ends.  Leading scientists have posed the question whether the anthropocene is really just a ‘pop culture’ phenomenon, or a serious issue of concern for stratigraphers.

Consequentially, these scientific conversations are political in themselves. For many scientists involved, there is a feeling that those advancing the concept are interested more in highlighting the destructive qualities of humans to encourage action on climate change than to define a new scientific term. As Richard Monastersky notes in a Nature article tracing the politics of the attempt to define the term, “The debate has shone a spotlight on the typically unnoticed process by which geologists carve up Earth’s 4.5 billion years of history.” The effort to define the Anthropocene and place it on the map of geological timescales has become a minefield of politics, vested interests, and ideologies. As such, the Anthropocene once again reveals that science—often claimed to be objective—is driven by, and subject to, personal and political agendas.

 

Blaming humans, erasing history

But it’s not just because the Anthropocene is politically charged and difficult to pin down that we should think again about using it. There are more troubling issues with the concept that we should be aware of.

First is the concern that the Anthropocene concept ‘naturalizes’ human’s impact on the earth. What does this mean? Essentially, that by saying that this is the ‘epoch of humans’, we are suggesting that all humans are the cause. In other words, that there is something intrinsically bad about humans, where we will always and inevitably leave an imprint on our environment.

At play here is the (very Western) idea that humans are separate from nature, and that either we get back to it or we rise above it. Hence the call of the eco-modernists to ‘decouple’ from the natural world through technology. Hence, also, the call of the deep ecologists to appreciate nature “in itself”, without projecting our human needs and desires onto it. And hence the idea that all humans caused our current pickle.

The alternative, as environmental theorist Jim Proctor suggests, is appreciating that the Anthropocene is not ‘because’ humans. It requires acknowledging that these processes and events are many and intertwined—there is no clear separation between nature and culture, human desires and natural forces.

But what forces should we blame? In all of the climate change research, we are told that it is definitely ‘man-made’. Arguing against this could bring us dangerously close to the denialist road.

“We should question this idea that the Anthropocene is ‘the new reality’ affecting everyone. Actually, because of existing power relationships, the ‘new reality’ will be more ‘real’ for some than for others.”

It is at this point that we might want to select option (C): ask a historian. James W. Moore, a professor in environmental history, has asked whether we really ought to point the finger at steam engines, atomic bombs, or humanity as a whole. Instead, he argues for a different term altogether: the ‘Capitalocene’: the geological era of capitalism. In short, it is not because of the steam engine that we saw unprecedented use of fossil fuels—it is rather a system of governance and social organization that led to the global alterations we are seeing today. This required the establishment of innovative property laws backed up by military and police forces, as well as uneven power relations between a small class of capitalists and the working poor, women, indigenous cultures, and other civilizations. It was these institutions, developed and perfected over several hundred years, that allowed for the destruction of cultures and the over-exploitation of earth’s natural resources, culminating in our current crisis.

It is strange to see the extent to which these kinds of wider social dynamics are totally obscured in the Anthropocene debate.  For example, many have argued that the invention of fire was the first spark that would inevitably lead to the immense footprint that humans place on the earth.

This is not just a fringe position. Andreas Malm, in an article in Jacobin Magazine, notes that this idea is endorsed by Paul Crutzen, Mark Lynas, and other noteworthy scientists such as John R. McNeill. To these scientists, we can trace the terrifying impacts of climate change to the moment when a group of hominids learned how to spark a flame.

But to say that the control of fire was a necessary condition for humanity’s ability to burn coal is one thing, to argue that it is the reason why we are currently facing a climate crisis is another.

In a snappy journal article published in The Anthropocene Review, Malm and prominent environmental historian Alf Hornborg suggest that this neglect is due to the fact that scientists ringing the alarm bells of climate change are trained in studying the natural world, not people. To really identify the causes of anthropogenic climate change requires not just studying the winds, seas, rocks, and population growth, but also society and history. In particular, echoing Moore, it requires understanding the way by which technological progress has historically been driven by unequal power relations between an elite minority and a subjugated majority. Quoting Malm and Hornborg, “Geologists, meteorologists and their colleagues are not necessarily well-equipped to study the sort of things that take place between humans (and perforce between them and the rest of nature), the composition of a rock or the pattern of a jet stream being rather different from such phenomena as world-views, property and power.”

It follows that we should question this idea that the Anthropocene is ‘the new reality’ affecting everyone. Actually, because of existing power relationships, the ‘new reality’ will be more ‘real’ for some than for others. For most people, it will mean increased hardship and a fight for survival, while for some there will be easy lifeboats. In this way, Malm and Hornborg suggest that Dipesh Chakrabarty, the scholar embracing the concept from a postcolonial perspective, should rethink his position: climate change is not, in itself, a universal leveling force, but may instead further exacerbate inequalities between the rich and the poor.

Climate change won't affect everyone equally. More likely, it will mean that some get lifeboats and others do not. Source: ABC
Climate change won’t affect everyone equally. More likely, it will mean that some get lifeboats and others do not. Source: ABC

This leads to a final issue: the problem of politics. If, as many Anthropocene enthusiasts argue, the concept helps people understand the extent of human involvement in the earth’s systems, it also could lead to a promising political conversation, finally alerting those in power that something needs to be done.

Yet as Jedediah Purdy, a professor at Duke University, notes in the magazine Aeon, “Saying that we live in the Anthropocene is a way of saying that we cannot avoid responsibility for the world we are making. So far so good. The trouble starts when this charismatic, all-encompassing idea of the Anthropocene becomes an all-purpose projection screen and amplifier for one’s preferred version of ‘taking responsibility for the planet’.”

For many people, the Anthropocene means that ‘there is no alternative’. Depending on your personal beliefs, the Anthropocene concept will lead you to different conclusions and calls to action. As Purdy says, “The Anthropocene does not seem to change many minds…. But it does turn them up to 11.”

But is this a problem with any new concept or is it inherent to the Anthropocene? For Purdy, because the concept is so vague, it becomes “a Rorschach blot for discerning what commentators think is the epochal change in the human/nature relationship.” With the diversity of opinions available, those with more political and ideological clout inevitably end up dominating the conversation.

Take for example Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, who argues that the Anthropocene signifies that now, more than ever, we need to abandon trying to protect wilderness and stop blaming capitalism, and that instead we need to encourage corporations to start taking responsibility for, and control of, earth’s environmental services.

Kareiva’s opinions have become wildly popular in mainstream discourse, but they also imply that rather than reassessing the current economic and political system, we need to go full speed ahead with the commodification of everything. The more vague a concept, the more susceptible it can be to co-optation. The vagueness of the term has, in part, led to its chameleon-like ability to fit anyone’s agenda.

What’s more, because the Anthropocene concept implies that humans as a whole are primarily responsible—and not relationships between humans—it actually stymies fruitful conversation, rather than encourage it. As Malm and Hornborg note, “The effect is to block off any prospect for change.”

 

Is the term still useful?

If these critiques are valid, why do climate scientists and activists still think the Anthropocene concept is so useful? Does it really convince those that need convincing, or does it just obscure important discussions that we need to be having?

In discussions and conversations with friends and peers, people have pointed out several times that Malm’s and Hornborg’s critiques fail to highlight the concept’s original usefulness. As one geography professor said in an email exchange, “To me, the Anthropocene opens up the kind of inquiry these authors seem to invite, rather than shutting it down.” A friend, Aaron McConomy, noted the following on Facebook,

“I feel like all of these conversations are punditry around what’s going on in the field that don’t really represent anything that I’m hearing as someone actively reading and researching… It’s like a meme of memes reacting to memes in which no one seems to even understand what exactly they’re reacting to.

For me the bigger question is how to have ‘third way’ discussions. What the reality of the Anthropocene calls for is a profound reworking of social ecological systems. Very few of the examples that get trotted out are up to the task.”

Point taken. Instead of quibbling about the meaning of the Anthropocene, we need to be finding alternatives to the problems we face. And while the term has real use for geologists, it can incentivize necessary conversations about political alternatives. This is a valid response to the problematization the term has received: all else considered, the term has been useful in lighting the fuse of an important debate.

“It’s hard to say if the term is, on average, inimical to good debate or if it encourages it. But after considering the twists and turns the concept has taken since its inception until its current use, it’s worth taking the critics seriously.”

But what kind of debate? Because the Anthropocene points to humans as the primary culprit of the earth’s current situation, it doesn’t really point to the fact that a minority of the earth’s population has inflicted most of the damage, nor does it broaden the discussion to include those who may be most affected by climate change but whose role in causing it is, effectively, zero.

By resorting to a catch-all geological (and biological) term to describe the situation we’re in, there’s a risk that it helps shut down alternative viewpoints, alternative narratives, and alternative politics. As Malm and Hornborg emphasize,

“If global warming is the outcome of the knowledge of how to light a fire, or some other property of the human species acquired in some distant stage of its evolution, how can we even imagine a dismantling of the fossil economy? [Arguing that climate change is caused by one species] is conducive to mystification and political paralysis.”

It’s hard to say if the term is, on average, inimical to good debate or if it encourages it. But after considering the twists and turns the concept has taken since its inception until its current use, it’s worth taking the critics seriously. Care has to be taken around such loaded words, and we have to take a step back and ask when, and why, we use them.

Yes, ‘Anthropocene’ can be useful to tell the history of life on earth. It can also illustrate the extent to which humans have modified the earth’s systems. It also suggests that we can no longer go back to a ‘pristine’ nature that existed before humans, as cultural critics have long suggested. The term is incredibly appealing from a geological perspective, highlighting the fact that humans have made so deep an impact on the earth’s crust that future inhabitants of the earth, when digging, will come across a layer of soil that has ‘human’ written all over it. This geological fact is a useful tidbit to highlight all of the above.

But it doesn’t necessarily, as many have argued, help challenge the systems that perpetuate climate change. Because it applies to humans as a whole, it does not indicate that our problem is political, resting on the uneven distribution of power. In leaving the starting date of the Anthropocene undefined (some say 50 years ago, others say 400 years ago, yet others say 10,000, still others say 50,000), the word fails to highlight the primary actors of today’s ecological crisis.

Like ‘sustainability’, ‘development’, ‘natural’, or ‘green’, the term is so vague that it can be used by anyone, whether they want to challenge the powers that be, just want to make a quick buck, or score a research grant. While the term can be used to support arguments for action on climate change, it can just as well be used to support digging more oil wells (“oh what the heck, we live in the age of human superiority anyway!”).

You might ask, isn’t this the case with all words? Not true. There are plenty of terms that the climate movement is using that are both powerful and are not so easy to appropriate: degrowth, climate justice, ecocide, ecological debt, and 350ppm are just few.

The point is not that Anthropocene should be abandoned—clearly it’s had its uses. But should it, like the above examples, be calls-to-action of climate researchers and activists alike? Should it be used as a conversation-starter, in the hope that it will convince those in power to change their tune? Should it be used uncritically as the main theme of countless academic conferences? Probably not.

ZLim002
Instead of hi-tech high-input solutions, we could address climate change by building up topsoil with low-tech agriculture. Source: Kwaad.net

 

Conclusion: where does the Anthropocene go from here?

Words are powerful.

As many climate activists know, climate change is a battlefield of words. ‘350.org’ is named after the 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere that has been deemed acceptable by scientists. ‘Climate justice’ refers to the fact that climate change will affect different people unequally, and that the climate movement needs to align with people who are systematically oppressed in other ways. ‘Climate chaos’ was coined to dispel confusion, indicating that climate change will cause disruption in normal weather patterns rather than, as the term ‘global warming’ may lead one to think, causing a slow increase in temperature globally.

Each phrase has seen a cycle of early adopters, growing usefulness, paradigm shifts in the general discussion, and then often critique and slow abandonment.

Some concepts introduced by social movements of the past have stuck around: social justice, civil disobedience, human rights. These terms signify both the predicament and the strategy, remain political without being too scary, and are difficult to be appropriated by apolitical actors. For these reasons, they remain useful for social movements today. ‘Anthropocene’ is no such word: it is vague enough to be used by anyone, it is scary but doesn’t really suggest a way out. It has flair, it’s catchy, but lacks power.

“Why does this matter? Words can make or break whole movements…. Unfortunately, the term ‘Anthropocene’ fails to adequately frame the current situation, and in-so-doing allows anyone to co-opt it for their own solutions.”

Why does this matter? Words can make or break whole movements. If a movement rallies around a single term—say, civil rights—that changes the way the public, and therefore politicians, see the predicament at hand. The way a problem is defined, the slogans that movements use, are incredibly important in order to make necessary policy changes. Unfortunately, the term ‘Anthropocene’ fails to adequately frame the current situation, and in-so-doing allows anyone to co-opt it for their own solutions. While it has certainly got many people talking, it is neither political nor precise, and therefore may not lead to a very good, or challenging, conversation. And right now we need to have challenging conversations.

Yet, like it or not, ‘Anthropocene’ has already been let out of the box and changed the way we think and talk about the world. Scientists will keep citing it, social theorists will ponder it, artists will be inspired by it, and pundits will employ it to justify anything under the sun. It has become a “meme of memes reacting to memes.”

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.

This article has now been republished at Resilience.org and the Entitle Blog.

Should we force supermarkets to send food waste to charities?

Food bank staff member loads supplies from Canadas largest food bank warehouse, Moisson Montreal. Photo: Aaron Vansintjan
Food bank staff member loads supplies from Canadas largest food bank warehouse, Moisson Montreal. Photo: Aaron Vansintjan

by Aaron Vansintjan

I’ve been seeing a lot of news about food waste recently. In February, a report revealed that governments could save up to US$300 billion per year by cutting food waste. In March, it was announced that Loblaw’s, one of Canada’s major food retailers and supermarket chains, will start selling ‘ugly fruit’ at a discount. Then came the stories about start-ups in the US who are trying to source discarded vegetables from farmers, re-using them for other products.

And last week, many people excitedly posted the news from France: the government will force supermarket chains to send their food waste to charities. This announcement led several to suggest that the UK, and even the whole world, which tops EU in food waste, should follow France’s example. And now, I’m reading stories about a new ‘social movement’ in Germany, where people volunteer to pick up and redistribute food from grocery stores, food retailers, bakeries, and restaurants.

I recently completed a three-year research project where I studied the food waste system in Canada. Specifically, I interviewed food bank directors and researchers, trying to piece together the history of how food banks evolved. Knowing this, friends and family enthusiastically send me articles describing these new ‘solutions’ to food waste, thinking I’d also be excited. However, having studied the food waste system, I find it difficult to respond without being too much of a downer: it won’t work.

Don’t get me wrong, I think these are all promising developments. Sending surplus food to charities will mean that supermarkets will bear part of the costs of the food waste they produce, and that the poor get access to more food. Selling ugly vegetables will mean landfills don’t get filled with perfectly good produce. In short, they mean that we are in part succeeding at making our food system smarter. However, I don’t think this is really a cause to celebrate.

“If you care about changing the food system, then selling ugly fruit or forcing supermarkets to send the food to charities is not the answer.”

A story might help explain why I don’t think such efforts will address the food waste problem. Any discussion around food brings up a lot of feelings, so I’ll use a proxy. Say you own a major retail company, selling toys. You sell toys at really cheap prices, allowing as many kids as possible all over the world to get them. But some kids, because their parents don’t have any money, don’t get the toys. Meanwhile, because you try to produce as many toys as possible, for as many different kids (and parents) as possible, you will make a lot of toys that no one wants to buy. Also, accidents happen, and often. A pallett of dolls falls to the ground, breaking the boxes. A whole line of toys gets mislabeled. Because toys are quite cheap to make, it’s actually less expensive to dump these toys in the landfill than to pay someone to unbox them, sort them, re-label them, and so on.

But say a bunch of concerned citizens realize all these toys are being thrown out. This is ridiculous–kids all over the world are crying because they don’t get toys (and for many other reasons too, but let’s put that aside). So they approach one of your store managers and ask, can we take your broken toys and give them away for charity?

At first, your store manager isn’t into it. It will be annoying to let these people into the warehouse and rummage around. But they say they’ll make it easy for her: volunteers will drive in, pick up all the toys really fast, and drive out. She also concedes that, actually, it is a real shame that all these toys are being thrown out. So she agrees.

Pretty soon store managers at different locations are telling you the same thing. People are picking up toys and giving them away… all for free! You didn’t have to lift a finger. What’s more, they’re minimizing the costs of sending more things to the landfill–which often is calculated by weight. So you call in a bunch of these benevolent citizens and you tell them, “Listen, what you’re doing is great. We want to help you. We’ll give you funding, and all the broken toys you want. We’ll make it easier for you, so you don’t even have to ask a store manager anymore. We’ll also organize country-wide advertising so that consumers can give away their toys and know about all the good work you–and my company–are doing.”

This is an offer they can’t refuse–the toy-charities were quite expensive to maintain, since the amount of refused toys just seemed to keep increasing. Volunteers, many of whom take the toys home themselves, are tired, and any less work is appreciated. They are glad to get the extra support.

In order to cut costs even further, you put some of the broken and ugly toys in your store–advertising them as a new, smarter way to cut waste. You might also send some of your new designs to the charities as test products, to see if any of them catch on–a cheap way to do consumer product testing.

Eventually, your efforts are rewarded. The ugly toys campaign turns out to be an excellent public relations strategy, at very small costs to you. Soon enough, the government mandates that all toys should make their way to charities, which you helped create in the first place. While this will incur some costs–you’d have to make it easier for charities to pick up the toys, which will mean hiring more staff–you still benefit from the publicity you receive from the charity efforts, and you won’t really need to change your production line. So in the long run, not a big deal.

But what’s the problem here?

  1. Even if you sponsor these charities, the financial support they receive doesn’t nearly compare to the amount of labor involved. Essentially, you’re shifting toy-waste-processing costs onto volunteers, who are doing the work that your company really ought to do. In the field of ecological economics, this is called cost-shifting, and it is one of the primary tools corporations use to increase their profit margin at the expense of society.
  2. Many of these volunteers are there because they themselves can’t get access to toys. Or they need to fulfill community service hours because of a sentence. Or they don’t have anything else to do–they live lives of isolation. While you’re making the profits, these (mostly marginalized) people are paying the price of sorting your toys.
  3. It’s not the waste that’s the root of the problem. It’s the production line. You’re producing cheap toys that break easily (endangering children), paying your workers minimum wage, and you constantly produce new toy designs that may not be bought but fill up the shelves nonetheless–guaranteeing a satisfied customer who’ll keep coming back for more.
  4. While the government may mandate that you send your toys to charities, they do nothing to support the charities–already over-worked and under-budget–that have to process the toys. At the same time, the government gets to cut costs on its welfare programs, since it is argued that the poor now have access to the food they need from charities.
  5. Even if you were to send the toys to charities, and if you were to pay the charities to process these toys, would it make things better? We’d just be making an extremely wasteful system more cost-effective, essentially subsidizing the production of crappy and wasteful toys.

“Forcing supermarkets to donate their food waste is really just part of the neoliberalization of the food system — where both the food industry and the government cut costs, while society has to pick up the slack.”

Extend this situation to the food retail industry, and it gets much worse. Because of the highly efficient production line, the agricultural process is incredibly environmentally hazardous, relying both on high inputs of fossil fuels and the use of toxic pesticides. The food industry relies on unjust migrant labor to drive production costs lower. This industry makes most of its new products from all the same ingredients, just packaged and shaped differently. For this reason, most food donated to food banks is highly processed, and quite unhealthy. Unlike with toys, volunteers often rely on the food they hand out. Food rots, so it is incredibly difficult to store and sort. With little funding and no municipal support, food banks rely more and more on volunteer service, while being increasingly bound to the continued existence of the industrial food system.

Because of these combined problems, forcing supermarkets to donate their food waste is really just part of the neoliberalization of the food system–where both the food industry and the government cut costs, while society has to pick up the slack, leading to the privatization of social safety nets through the establishment of food charities.

If you care about changing the food system, then a ‘smart’ approach to food waste, such as selling ugly fruit or forcing supermarkets to send the food to charities, is not the answer. In addition to forcing supermarkets to send food to charities, there are several things that would be much smarter.

  1. Fine the corporations for the amount of food waste they produce. This will disincentivize a system that relies on charities to bear the costs of food waste processing. It will also ensure that the industry no longer makes most of its profit from endless lines of new products, which is one of the key drivers of food waste.
  2. Clarify governmental rules and regulations around food waste, in favor of community groups. This might involve legalizing dumpster-diving, encouraging networks of citizens who wish to harvest food waste, and allowing the safe and hygienic processing and sale of food waste by non-profit community organizations.
  3. This may sound crazy, but not only have food banks developed incredibly complex and efficient systems of dealing with food waste, they also aren’t just charities. They often are crucial spaces for poor, isolated people to meet others and break their loneliness, while learning how to cook food. But even though food banks have the will to run more community-oriented activities, they often don’t have enough funding, staff, or time. So create a fund that encourages food banks to start collective kitchens, cooking workshops for single mothers and migrants, urban gardens, compost programs, and community food events. This will generate local food systems and more inclusive, safe neighborhoods. It will give those who otherwise couldn’t buy at the supermarket support structures so that they too can access acceptable food. It will help shift food banks from disempowering, demeaning, top-down, bureaucratic organizations to ones that are engaged in their community, empowering, and fun. Furthermore, it may help deal with the other 95% of food waste not created by supermarkets.
  4. A bit more challenging: align the goals and activities of governmental departments. Why does one arm of the government fund employment in the community food sector for marginalized residents, when another agrees to free trade deals, leading to a food industry that relies on cheap migrant labor? Why does one department fund research on carcinogenic food, or ban toxic chemicals, when another turns a blind eye to destructive farming practices? In most countries, health, sanitation, agriculture, trade, and municipal policies are often misaligned and should be joined up, otherwise food waste–and injustices–will just keep piling up.

These policies–most of them quite simple to implement–would ensure a safer, efficient, more just, and smarter food system. They wouldn’t only force supermarkets to limit their food waste. They would allow for a transformation from a food system oriented towards the bottom line to one that responds to people’s needs.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.

Degrowth in Detroit?

 

detroit future city 9

by Seth Schindler

Speculative lending practices and the securitization of sub-prime mortgages were largely to blame for the 2008 financial crisis. The crisis was particularly severe in cities where the lack of liquidity in the financial system made it difficult for municipal governments to respond to the wave of foreclosures and resultant shrinking tax bases. With the worst of the crisis seemingly behind us it is time to reflect on its long-term impact on American cities.

Perhaps the most extreme example of a city in crisis is Detroit. The city’s beleaguered finances proved to be no match for the global economic meltdown and in 2013 Detroit filed for bankruptcy. This part of the story is well known, but much less attention has been paid to the vision of Detroit’s future development around which a consensus among local elites coalesced in the year-and-a-half since its declaration of bankruptcy.

While this plan retains some elements of out-of-the-box urban development programs, it dispenses with a growth-based strategy geared toward rejuvenating the city’s manufacturing base. Instead, it recognizes the likelihood of further economic decline and its emphasis is on improving the quality of life of Detroit residents, economic diversification and environmental sustainability.

In order to understand the willingness of policy makers in Detroit to relinquish the dream of returning to a golden era of Fordist manufacturing it is necessary to put the 2008 crisis in context. Like many American cities, Detroit is a casualty of the prolonged economic crisis that began in the 1970s. Auto manufacturers relocated production facilities to southern states and then overseas in an attempt to outflank organized labour and to counter a falling rate of return. The collapse of Detroit’s manufacturing base left the city’s finances in tatters, and policy makers responded by embracing market-oriented solutions that were in fashion in the 1980s.

detroit future city 3

There was a broad shift in the United States during the 1980s, in which the primary function of municipal government went from managing day-to-day service delivery to fostering economic growth. To this end “growth coalitions” emerged in many cities. These coalitions practiced “growth machine politics” aimed to augment land value and attracted inward investment. Public bodies assumed risk for large-scale urban development projects while private firms reaped the financial rewards.

This led to a perception among investors that municipal bonds were safe investments that offered lucrative rewards, so when Detroit’s municipal government sought to make up for its shrinking tax base by issuing bonds there was no shortage of willing investors. By 2012 Detroit’s deficit stood at $326 million while its tax base and population continued to shrink.

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The textbook response to crisis in many cities has been to intensify neoliberal policies. Thus, when growth coalitions failed to attract investment or augment land value, the response has oftentimes been to offer even more favourable terms to investors while cutting back on services. This has led many scholars and activists to despair that while neoliberalism is the cause of the current crisis it is also perversely embraced as its solution.

Many municipalities have indeed imposed fiscal austerity since the onset of the financial crisis as a means of attracting investment. Some of these cities may have fundamentally sound finances, and policy makers may view fiscal austerity as a short-term detour aimed at calming skittish investors. According to this reasoning the pain caused by austerity will be offset in the near future once the growth coalition is able to resume a cycle of development and growth.

In the case of Detroit this optimism would have most certainly be misplaced because even the most aggressive version of fiscal austerity would not have reversed the city’s decades-long decline. This begs an obvious question: Why should a city endure the pain of austerity if further decline is inevitable from the outset?

Detroit’s elites decided that, while austerity was in the best interest of extra-local creditors, it also promised to make life even more difficult for residents, and they decided to repudiate the city’s debt and take the historic step of declaring bankruptcy. By freeing the city of its debt burden, bankruptcy has allowed Detroit’s future to be re-envisioned.

detroit future city 8

A coalition among Detroit elites coalesced around this emergent vision, which is based on creative land-use, environmental sustainability and economic diversification. It is articulated in a 345-page document entitled Detroit Future City (DFC). It reads like a master plan and focuses on five “planning elements”: economic growth, land use, city systems, neighbourhoods, and land and buildings assets.

Unlike entrepreneurial urban policies whose time horizons are measured in quarters and election cycles, DFC aims to rejuvenate Detroit’s economy in the course of the next five decades. The first step is to make the city liveable in order to stem the tide of out-migration, and to this end the plan calls for investments in neighbourhoods. Residents in neighbourhoods characterized by high levels of abandonment are encouraged to relocate to neighbourhoods with high population densities. Fordist manufacturing is rejected in favour of economic diversity, the single-family detached home is rejected in favour of densely populated diverse neighbourhoods, and in a major shift for the Motor City the plan envisions an efficient public transportation network. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the DFC is “the re-imagination and reuse of vacant land for productive uses or, where there is excess vacant land, returning it to an ecologically and environmentally sustainable state.” The emphasis on sustainable land use is a significant departure from growth machine politics aimed at augmenting land value.

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It is too early to tell whether the vision articulated in the DFC will be realized or if it will indeed guide policy for the next fifty years. Nevertheless, it is important to note that bankruptcy gave Detroit the opportunity to chart a new path. I refer to this as degrowth machine politics because it takes the further shrinking of Detroit’s economy for granted, and rather than placate creditors policy makers are focused on improving the quality of life for city residents.

The concept “degrowth” is not new but it has historically been used primarily by activists and scholars because politicians do not win elections by campaigning for shrinking the economy. This is changing since the onset of the financial crisis because there are many places in which degrowth simply seems to be a reality that cannot be reversed by fiscal austerity.

For example, elements of degrowth are beginning to enter mainstream policy discourse in southern Europe. Voters in Greece recently rejected fiscal austerity, and the concept has begun to enter mainstream discourse elsewhere in southern Europe. In the United Kingdom the Scottish National Party has chided mainstream political parties – and most notably the Labour Party – for not repudiating austerity.

detroit future city 6

Thus, it is possible that we could see the emergence of other degrowth machine political coalitions, and this provides an answer for the pressing question: What comes after neoliberalism? The transition to degrowth is not a linear advancement to a new political system based on purportedly universal ideology. Instead it is a mixture of locally adapted policies whose coherence lies in their intended outcomes rather than ideological underpinnings. The objective is to simply do more with less and thereby improve the quality of life, and this will oftentimes (1) reduce the quantity of resources used and (2) put localities – and local elites who were hitherto part of multi-scaler growth coalitions with extra-local financiers – at odds with their creditors whose main priority is protecting their investment.

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Detroit may provide lessons for degrowth coalitions elsewhere. First and foremost, Detroit demonstrates that the intensification of fiscal austerity is not the only response available to policy makers faced with an economic crisis. In spite of declaring bankruptcy Detroit was not punished by creditors. On the contrary, the repudiation of debt transformed Detroit into an attractive destination for investors. For example, Goldman Sachs launched an initiative to invest $20 million in Detroit’s small businesses. Quite simply, an institution that is unburdened by debt seems like a better investment than one that cannot hope to repay its debt without the support of a guarantor (in this case the State of Michigan).

The reason why Detroit is able to attract investment is because its degrowth machine politics has clearly articulated an innovative plan for the city’s future. Thus, the rejection of austerity for austerity’s sake must be accompanied by a clear set of policies aimed at managing decline in a way that makes cities more liveable. In other words, the repudiation of debt should not be understood as a strategy to attract capital from different investors, but to rework with relationship with all investors so that any inward capital is leveraged toward the realization of a sustainable and equitable future.

 

Seth Schindler is a lecturer in human geography at the University of Sheffield.

Putting a pig on the tracks

A pig eating an old car, from the film Black Cat White Cat
A pig eating an old car, from the film Black Cat White Cat

La versión castellano está disponible aquí.

by Giorgos Kallis

Sustainable development and its more recent reincarnation, green growth, promise the impossible goal of perpetuating economic growth without harming the environment. Degrowthers argue that economic change is not about implementing better or greener development. It is about imagining and enacting alternative visions to modern growth-based development.

Degrowth unsettles the commonsensical gaze which sees growth as good. To quote Ursula Le Guin, the intention is to “put a pig on the tracks of a one-way future consisting only of growth.” Or, in other words, degrowth is a “missile concept” to open up a debate silenced by the “sustainable development” consensus.

Here I will respond to five common  critiques of Degrowth, which I hope can clarify and advance the case for the concept . For a detailed explanation of Degrowth, you can read our book here or a set of policy proposals derived from our book here.

1. Degrowth is subversive 

The first critique is that degrowth signifies a limited and negative viewpoint;  a nightmare, rather than a dream. This depends on the eyes of the beholder. For the 3,500 participants in the latest degrowth conference, growth is a living nightmare and degrowth, the dream. Growth has more social costs than benefits, as Herman Daly has documented. It brings us closer to climate disaster, as Kevin Anderson and Naomi Klein show. Then why do we still have to protect it as a positive vision?

For two reasons. The first is that degrowth scares many people who still think that growth is good. The second is that degrowth will be impossible to implement in a system that is against it. Well, if our role as scientists and educators were to please the public opinion and cater to the powers that be, then the earth would still be flat. Degrowth, as Serge Latouche puts it, is an atheist claim against the god of Growth. Growth has substituted for religion in modern societies, providing meaning to all collective endeavours. Degrowth is intentionally subversive; it inverts what is seen as good and what as bad. “Degrowth” initially may not sound nice in this or that language. The point is to make it sound nice. If I judge by a recent article in The Guardian, which argues that degrowth is a “cute word,” then we are succeeding.

Degrowth is not an ultimate objective. “Sharing,” “commons,” or “conviviality” are positive visions used by the degrowth community. Yet if these futures are to come, they will come with a dramatic reduction of material and energy throughput and a radically “simpler way” of living. The fixation with Growth is the main obstacle to a Great Transition. Overcoming the fear of degrowth, and turning the grief of living with less into joy, is a first step.

chalk degrowth

2. Fewer of the bad things + more of the good ones = Degrowth

The second criticism is that it is not growth per se that is bad, but the current un-economic growth. Care, renewables, and organically-grown food will need to grow in a Great Transition; we need “fewer of the ‘bad’ things…and more of the ‘good’ things,” as one commentator has argued. Who would disagree? Problems start when what we think is good, others think is bad. Liberalism, embodied in consensual notions such as “sustainability,” professes an apolitical neutrality to competing interests. Degrowth, instead, is a partisan claim: these things that typically count as “Growth” (highways, bridges, armies, dams) are bad for “us” degrowthers. Things that are considered anachronisms in the arrow of progress—communal institutions, fresh local food, small cooperatives, or windmills—are good. Perhaps degrowth is an imperfect term for signaling this. Still, it is better than neutral terms like “sustainability,” or “transition”.
Another problem with “the good things argument” is that it is couched in growth terms. 2% annual growth doubles a “thing” every 35 years. If Egypt started with one cubic metre of possessions and grew them by 4.5% per year, by the end of its 3,000-year civilization, it would need 2.5 billion solar systems to store its stuff. Perpetual growth, even of organic food, is an absurdity. It is time to abandon the idiom of growth and focus on good things that need to flourish to a quantity and quality sufficient for satisfying basic needs.

I doubt that transitioning to a “good things” economy could sustain growth.  But if  it could, then it would  mean that absolute decoupling—whereby the growth of economic activity continues and resource use declines—would be possible, as Paul Krugman has recently argued. Let me list three reasons why this is unlikely.

First, a renewable economy will produce less energy surplus (energy return on energy investment) than the fossil fuel economy. An economy with lower energy surpluses will be more labor-intensive, and hence smaller.
Second, a static, disaggregated snapshot of the economy is misleading. It might appear that more GDP from renewables, education, and health and less from the military will equal net GDP growth. This is wrong. Solar panels, hospitals, or university labs are end-products in long chains utilizing primary and intermediate inputs that are energy and resource-intensive. With the danger of overstretching my examples, Britain’s emblematic National Health Service was subsidized by oil secured with arms through the Suez.
Third, a transition from, say, a resource-intensive economy of SUVs to a “weightless” economy of Priuses and Kindles would reduce throughput, but only for a while. Once the transition is complete, any further growth of the Prius-Kindle economy, however resource-light, will still grow throughput. In other words, even if we attempt to ‘grow’ our supply of Priuses, we will still need to increase material and energy use.

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There is definitely room for empirical work here. I am willing to consider that a shift to “more good things” may increase GDP, especially if we devise and count a ‘greener’ GDP. I would like to be even more agnostic: I agree that we should simply ‘ignore GDP’, doing “more good things” independent of whatever effect they might have on GDP.

The problem however is that the current system is not “agnostic”. Without GDP growth it collapses (witness Greece). And the vested interests that govern the system are dead against falls in GDP (witness the reaction to climate regulation by lobbies or conservative forums such as ‘the Club for Growth‘ in the U.S).

In other words, we cannot afford to be agnostic in a system that does depend on GDP growth: we have to actively change the institutions of the system so that it no longer depends on GDP growth. We need new institutions to make the inevitable degrowth socially stable and sustainable.

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3. Beyond GDP means beyond Growth

The third critique is that the problem is GDP, not growth. If we could only measure the goods an economy provides, say “massages,” and count out the bads, say “oil spills,” then there would be no reason not to want growth.
First, perpetual growth, of whatever, even of a “perfected ” GDP, is an absurd objective. I do not look forward to an Earth with people frantically giving enough massages to satisfy 2.5 billion solar systems. Quantifying success through a set of reliable indicators is one thing, but demanding that they grow perpetually will always be a pointless undertaking.
Second, GDP counts what counts for the current economic system: capital circulation, whatever its source. The decision of the EU to count drugs and prostitution in GDP, but not unpaid care work, is illustrative. GDP counts total monetized value. This is what feeds corporate profits and public coffers, and this is what governments want to secure and stabilize. The metric is an epiphenomenon; it is the result of the social system, not its cause. This is why GDP persists despite criticisms from prominent economists.
Many argue that mainstream economics with its reductionist obsession with maximizing a homogeneous quantity called utility (aka “money”) is part of the problem. I would go further. The emergence and entrenchment of the neoclassical orthodoxy has to be situated within its social context: the triumph, first, of growthism and, then, of neoliberalism. Maximizing money is what the system cares about. As Serge Latouche puts it—tellingly, if somewhat exaggeratedly—”economists are the priests of the religion of growth.” A different type of economics will be part and parcel of a transition to a different social system.

"We" need to degrow so that "Southern" cosmologies and political alternatives can flourish. Source: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/apr/30/yasuni-campaigners-oil-drilling-petition-results-referendum
“We” need to degrow so that “Southern” cosmologies and political alternatives can flourish. Source: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/apr/30/yasuni-campaigners-oil-drilling-petition-results-referendum

4. “We” should degrow, but not so that “they” grow.

It is often argued that degrowth is irrelevant for the great part of the world still living in poverty. The argument is that while “we” (wealthy, overfed Northerners) may have to degrow, “they” (poor, underfed Southerners) still want and need to grow. This is the most powerful discourse that perpetuates the ideology of growthism. It has to be discarded.
We all—to some degree, or at some periods—feel like “Southerners.” My Greek compatriots tell me degrowth is not for us, for we are now poor and in crisis. The 99% in the US has good reasons to believe that it is the 1% that has to degrow so that it can grow. Even when millionaires are surveyed on how much money they need in order to feel economically secure, they typically state twice what they already have, irrespective of their actual income. Positional comparisons drive and perpetuate the quest for growth. Economic insecurity, at all levels of income, makes everyone run faster and faster so as not to fall. And economic crises, when standards of living suddenly fall and insecurity intensifies, are the moments where the quest for growth reappears most forcefully, as a progressive cause this time. There will never be a time for degrowth.
The people on this planet, perhaps a majority, who lack access to basic goods, such as water or public health, deserve them, and this might entail higher energy and resource use. This need not be couched though in the absurd terms of growth. It is a matter of redistribution and sufficiency. “We” need to degrow so that “Southern” cosmologies and political alternatives closer to the spirit of sufficiency (such as Sumak Kawsay or Ubuntu) can flourish. Southern alternatives are colonized intellectually by developmentalism and materially through the extractive industries that in the name of growth bring destruction and poverty.
I propose the same logic for countries in economic crisis. We do not need to grow our way out of economic crisis in Greece. We need to come up with alternative models of sufficiency rooted in Greek tradition, materialized into institutions that will let us prosper without growth.
I am wary of those talking in the name of others reminding me that unlike what I—an elite intellectual—think, “poor people” (sic) dream of plasma TVs and Ferraris and we can’t deny them their dreams. Most people that I know, including myself, do indeed have materialistic dreams: our positional societies force those on us if we are to remain its dignified and secured members. Fortunately, we also have a longing for a simpler life, for community, friendship, and many other needs that collide with the imaginary of growth. The question is how to change social structures and institutional contexts so that it is these latter aspirations that come to be fulfilled and not our worst acquisitive desires.

"Capitalism can sell many things, but it can't sell less." -George Monbiot
“Capitalism can sell many things, but it can’t sell less.” -George Monbiot

5. A transition beyond growth is a transition beyond capitalism

Capitalism is an ensemble of property, financial, and exchange institutions that create relentless competition, forcing enterprises to grow or die. The surpluses generated by this dynamic are constantly reinvested into further growth. A society without growth may still have markets, forms of private property, or money. But as Edward and Robert Skidelsky argue, an economic system which does not grow and in which capital no longer accumulates is no longer capitalism, whatever one might want to call it. Property, credit, or employment institutions will have to be reconfigured in radical ways so to make the system stable without growth. Proposals such as a basic citizen’s income or the public control of money are such radical reforms.
Benign enterprises such as Mondragon or Novo Nordisk, which combine economic with social and environmental considerations are rare exceptions for a reason. In a capitalist economy, the bottom line is profit. Environmental and social concerns can be accommodated by few players who can increase their market share by cashing on socially-responsible consumers. As George Monbiot put it, “capitalism can sell many things, but it can’t sell less.”
If the corporation signifies the globalized growth economy, the sharing cooperative is the emblem of a localized, degrowth economy. In an economy that will no longer grow, worker or consumer cooperatives, which do not depend on perpetually growing profits, have a natural advantage. Of course, not all sharing enterprises have features that make them apt for a degrowth transition. I distinguish the sharing economy from the “rental economy” of AirBnB and similar capitalistic corporations, which, however innovative, reproduces rent-seeking and the dynamics of perpetual surplus creation.

In conclusion

It is appropriate here to invoke Tim Jackson’s dictum that “growth is environmentally unsustainable, but degrowth is socially unstable.” Curiously, this dictum is often invoked against degrowth, insisting on a one-way future where we will make growth sustainable, by a technological, or social miracle. Adherents of this techno-paradise often appeal to innovations like smart housing, hydroponics, robotics, fusion, and supercomputers. Count me out. The point is that such a future is unsustainable, unnecessary, and undesirable (at least by those of us who consider ourselves proponents of degrowth ). Technological fixes shift costs to others, to the environment, and to future generations, at an ever-grander scale. Climate change is the legacy of our past technological achievements. I read Tim Jackson differently. Given that further growth is unsustainable, we have to bring forward the systemic and institutional changes that will make degrowth stable.

 

Giorgos Kallis is an ecological economist, political ecologist, and professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Barcelona. He is the coordinator of the European Network of Political Ecology and editor of the book Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era. His research is motivated by a quest to cross conceptual divides between the social and the natural domains, with particular focus on the political-economic roots of environmental degradation and its uneven distribution along lines of power, income, and class.

 

The GMO Conversation

Being for or against GMOs is all-too-often proclaimed as a matter of being for or against science.

by Maya Bialik

The first layer of the public conversation about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) has divided people along already existing lines of passionate disagreement, and has painted an overly simplified picture of the decisions we are facing as humanity. It has made a complex issue simple, through this inaccurate and delicate question: Are you for science, or anti science?

The media outlets ask this question both explicitly and implicitly, as they boil the discussion down to a false dichotomy. Unlike the cases of evolution and global warming (also dividing people along this line), it is not actually true that virtually all scientists agree on the issue. There is a real discussion happening about the effects of GMOs on the environment, the ethics of their testing, the sustainability of their outputs, the dangers of monoculture, etc. But by the time the discussion makes its way out of journals and jargon and into the public’s awareness, the nuance of the issue has been flattened and sculpted into a clear and superficial debate that has almost nothing to do with the issue at hand.

Since the false discussion has painted science as unanimously sided with the pro-GMO side, here is a short list of scientific arguments against GMOs.

  • We cannot fully predict the effects on the larger system which GMOs would affect if they spread, and it seems like we cannot fully control their spreading. Just as there are massive unintended effects with every introduction of a non-native organism into an ecosystem, GMOs could interact with the current network in unpredictable ways. They also present a serious risk of monoculture, which is dangerous.
  • There is a clear conflict of interest with the people and corporations who stand to benefit financially from GMOs. Additionally, there is often a long term strategy for those people to stay in power, as farmers become dependent on the less sustainable GMO crop.
  • It is not true that there is not enough food to feed all the people in the world, and GMOs are a silver bullet to fight world hunger. Rather, it is our systems that have organized food and power in such a way that keeps many people hungry.
  • Finally, with regard to calculating risk: absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. Assuming everyone conducting research on GMOs has no conflicts of interest and they’ve perfected the mechanisms that would keep GMOs from spreading to the larger ecosystem, where is the reasonable place to draw the line of what we consider safe? Europe and the US have decided on different positions on the spectrum of safety, and this part of the evaluation should not be glossed over, but should be discussed thoroughly.

Of course, the reasons many people who are against GMOs give are not the reasons listed above. The flat representation of the debate does in fact stem from real feelings of real people. They often do boil down to an aversion to things that feel “unnatural” and a distrust of science. On the other side, many of the reasons given in support GMOs are inaccurate: artificial selection and selective breeding over many years is in fact qualitatively different from cutting and pasting parts of the genome, and the confidence of knowing about the risk of long term effects is over-estimated and over-emphasized.

The more nuanced conversation would acknowledge that science is not an ideal process for revealing Truth with a capital T. It is conducted by people, and is subject to bias, power struggles, and flawed methodology. It does, however, do its best to be aware of its own biases and eliminate them, and it is meant to be viewed at a high level. That means that while each study might be flawed, overall the picture painted by science will be our best guess as to how to understand the world around us and the decisions we must make.

“Science progresses not because scientists as a whole are passionately open-minded but because different scientists are passionately closed-minded about different things.” — Henry Bauer

And of course, the media is not just evil — that is itself an oversimplification. Social science researchers such as Cass Sunstein have showed that we drift toward extremes when we interact with like-minded people. It is a well-observed emergent property of people in social groups. But that doesn’t mean it’s unavoidable.

If each side approaches the discussion genuinely seeking to understand what is right for humanity, and concedes to the other side the salient but superficial points used to create an us-them division in the media, we may be able to stop the whirlwind of polarization we have gotten swept up in. Only then will we sidestep the temptation of group-think, learn from each other, and survive as a species.

Maya Bialik is a contributor and editor at Uneven Earth. She is also the Associate Director at The People’s Science, working on bridging the gap between scientists and the public, and the Research Manager at The Center for Curriculum Redesign, where she synthesizes cognitive science and education research to create educational goals that meet the needs of the 21st century. She enjoys photography, social dancing, and is currently dabbling in improv comedy.

Mustachianism, environmentalism, me, and us

The washing machine, like all consumer goods, is a structural issue: blaming consumers alone won't help, we have to tackle the structures that hold them up. Source: Michel Szulc Krzyzanowski
Blaming consumers alone won’t help, consumption goods (like washing machines) are held up by much larger structures. Photo credit: michel szulc krzyzanowski, www.szulc.info

by Simon Vansintjan

Two years ago a friend tweeted this article from the Mr. Money Mustache backlog. The author preaches a gospel that struck me as true – if you’re privileged, and you’re in a lucky position to have a steady income, and you can be comfortable in that knowledge, than through frugality, research, and understanding, you can reach financial independence fairly easily. When that happens, you can focus on the things that you think are really important.

The overall message: you too can curb your consumerism and finally be free of the system and the shackles.

I’ve been a fan of Mr. Money Mustache and I appreciate how he’s teaching people to game the system. It’s a philosophy of stripped-down needs, making do with what you have, and enjoying what is available to you. It’s stoicism as an antidote to the consumer rat-race we’re in.

When MMM enthusiastically talks about “the natural conclusion” of everyone becoming Mustachian – a breakdown of a system that relies and runs on consumerism – I happily cheer him on. Ultimately his focus on monetary wealth is only to get free of concerns from that monetary wealth – to pursue other, less financial, riches.

Yet it falls short. Mr. Money Mustache takes the same route many environmental activists and privacy proponents take – one that ultimately puts the blame and burden on us, the people, to individually break free from a culture and mindset that is destroying the world. While the heavy polluting is done by industry, the message is that we should drive our cars less. When the meat and food industry is proving to be unhealthy for the people, we have to become vegetarian and eat less meat. When companies are selling our data, it’s on us to make sure we’re using encrypted channels. When the industry is misogynist, it’s because women aren’t trying hard enough. When the economy was shaky after 9/11, Bush asked people to spend more money to get it going again.

The idea? “Consumers” have created a demand for something and are at fault if it goes wrong. This is blatantly untrue – much of the  demand only exists because of the structure of our industry and because ads are incredibly effective.

Let me diverge on that point for a moment by looking at two products with “great consumer demand”.

The washing machine was first thought up in the 1750s, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that electric washing machines were actually viable. By 1903, ads and newspapers were already heavily discussing the use of washing machines, but it wasn’t until just before World War Two that a significant part of the US population had access to a personal washing machine. Why did it take almost 200 years for the washing machine to become a household staple? Because this so-called high-demand consumer product relied on an infrastructure of detergent use, gender and racial liberalization, consumer prepping through ads, and the development of factories and plants to cheaply produce such products on a large-enough scale that people would actually buy them. The invention of the washing machine was a great thing, but the idea that it was a consumer-driven take-up is false.[1]

The combustion engine was invented in 1886, but the story of the car really starts in the late 1700s. Throughout this period the car industry came across an irritating stumbling-block: inner-city roads belonged to pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages, there was no separation of sidewalk and road, and there were no inter-city roads to drive on for cars. For cars to take off and be useful, the industry had to lobby governments to build roads and push against public dislike of cars (see the Locomotive Act of 1865). It wasn’t until this infrastructure was built and cars had existed within the public consciousness for over a century that they really started to take off[2], and become something beyond just a status symbol. Consumer driven? Hardly.

Whether it’s the car, the washing machine, smart phones[3], or social networks, our willingness to consume a product or live a certain way is the work of millions of dollars in ad campaigns, positive newspaper reviews and stories, and government lobbying.

When the environmentalists, the mustachians, and the privacy campaigners[4] ask you to change your lifestyles – they’re still saying that you’re to blame if you don’t. You’re either a sucker (if you’re not Mustachian), you’re destroying the world (if you’re not an Environmentalist), or you’re giving up your privacy (if you don’t believe in an IndieWeb), etc. etc. etc.

My challenge to all of these people? I’ve checked all of those boxes, I’m not the only one, and yet here we are. We’re still tumbling towards environmental and privacy disasters driven by consumerism. Getting people to focus on changing their habits is great – but is the result that we’re being distracted from bigger problems? That our conversations are being pointed away from where they should be focused?

Individuals are much more powerful together than on their own. This is common sense, and easy to prove:

  • An individual that campaigns for and supports free and open source software development is more powerful than one who encrypts all of their data.
  • An individual that makes an effort to hire marginalized people into their company is more powerful than the one who takes a couple of days out to teach online.
  • An individual that joins their neighborhood to help the less privileged around them get to school is more powerful than the one who sets up an extensive library for their kids.
  • An individual that encourages their police officers to participate in community events for the areas they’re patrolling is more powerful than the one who teaches themselves about social justice.
  • An individual that helps turn industrial cow farms into wind turbines is more powerful than one who turns vegetarian.
  • An individual that politically pursues the construction of bike lanes is more powerful than one that bikes to work every day.

We’re much stronger as a group than as individuals. And this is true about environmentalism, the own-your-own-data-indie web, and Mustachianisms. By dividing our focus into individual efforts, we will never be able to challenge the structure imposed on us by the people who have the money to pummel us with ads and faux-journalism.

More than a change in our habits, we need a structural one.

Simon Vansintjan works as a user experience designer and developer on various open source projects – currently focusing on OpenFarm. He lives in Hanoi, Vietnam.


1. For an in-depth look at this, read The dynamics of willingness to consume ↩

2. A seriously good podcast about The Modern Moloch ↩

3. Smart phones were around for a long time before Apple “optimized” the experience, and even then, the first generation iPhone relied heavily on ads and Apple fans to become popular in the mainstream. Functionally it wasn’t until the second generation iPhone that it started to take off. Nevermind the military funded infrastructure that built the “internet” as we know it today.↩

4. The Indie Foundation. (https://ind.ie/foundation/) ↩

Could Energy East become just?

Source: Flickr Leadnow https://www.flickr.com/photos/leadnow/10896436383
Source: Flickr Leadnow
https://www.flickr.com/photos/leadnow/10896436383

TransCanada’ Energy East is a proposed pipeline for Alberta diluted bitumen that would be the biggest such pipeline on the continent, bigger than Keystone XL. Today, October 30th, 2014, TransCanada submits the Energy East proposal to the National Energy Board of Canada.

In Part 1 of this essay, the answer to the question “Is Energy East just?” was found to be no, not as currently proposed. In Part 2 of 2, David Gray-Donald explores the question, “could it become just?”

 

For TransCanada’s proposed Energy East pipeline project to be considered just it would have to:

1. Decolonize relations with indigenous peoples and First Nations

2. Be part of a climate change plan (mitigation and adaptation) that is comprehensive and mutually agreed to around the planet

3. Share wealth to undo the continuing unfair burdens and benefits

These steps are difficult but necesssary. The players pushing for Energy East –TransCanada, Irving, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Steven Harper – are powerful and could affect change in this direction.

These steps are necessary but not sufficient to to balance the scales of justice. Seeing as it is hard to imagine these basic necessary steps will be taken in the current political climate, one must conclude that the chances the Energy East project will be just are nearly nil.

The rest of this text expands on the three basic conditions and concludes with a discussion about how energy projects can be designed with justice front of mind.

 

1. Decolonize relations with indigenous peoples and First Nations

Background

Canada, and the corporations that operate with its permission like TransCanada, do not respect the treaties that exist with First Nations groups. Not in spirit nor by what was written in English words. Many treaties call for non-interference between the parties but Canada and its corporations continue to violate this basic agreement. This is unjust.

To start moving to justice

TransCanada must push for indigenous societies to be allowed to form their own governments, reversing the Government of Canada imposition of band council elections. This basic sovereignty is in the spirit of the treaties. While communities could choose to alter their governance from that of traditional ways (eg. Longhouse), it is unjust for Canada to impose a governance system on people where it has no such legitimate jurisdiction. TransCanada must work to undo this colonial interference before claiming it has free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous communities.

When speaking of indigenous communities it is necessary to speak of Indian Status. This sexist and racist Canadian legislation must be changed in order for First Nations communities to form as per the spirit of the treaties and in cases where no treaties exist. TransCanada must work to this end before it can claim Energy East is being agreed to in a just fashion.

Energy East, proposed to be the biggest such pipeline on the continent and designed primarily to allow bitumen extraction to expand greatly, directly affects peoples in nine provinces (mega-tankers will be travelling along the maritime coasts). Governance of land and waters in Canada is, as per the spirit of the treaties, to be a matter of shared responsibility between indigenous and settler communities. TransCanada would need to insist on this basic change in governance being made.

If the spirit of the treaties has changed for either side, they can be renegotiated in good faith.

Breaking treaties and using violence to control people is war. That is what has been happening across Canada for hundreds of years. Continuing this long war of broken promises and physical force in order to build a pipeline puts TransCanada on the wrong side of justice. To work toward peace, TransCanada must insist on Canada honouring its treaties or renegotiating them in good faith.

 

2. Be part of a climate change plan (mitigation and adaptation) that is comprehensive and mutually agreed to around the planet

Background

The current plan of TransCanada, CAPP, and the Canadian government is to get bitumen dug up, sold, and consumed as quickly as possible on the free capital market. This is a disaster for the planet’s climate.

To start moving to justice

TransCanada and CAPP would need to make a compelling and binding case that Energy East is part of the transition off of fossil fuels. As it is an expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure designed to expand the tar sands, this is a difficult case to make (expanded in step 3).

That being the case, TransCanada would need to hold off on the infrastructure expansion until a binding international plan is in place. TransCanada and CAPP are already lobbying governments around the world for specific goals. It is the nature of the goals that need to change. TransCanada and CAPP are in well-connected positions of authority to call for a just global climate plan. This may involve becoming B Corps or other types of organization where duty is to stakeholders, the citizens of the world, and not to a small number of shareholders.

This binding international plan may call for profits made on greenhouse gas-emitting activities to be used for mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Mitigation, reducing the impacts of climate change by reducing emissions, could involve dispersed efforts of a Manhattan Project scale. The Manhattan Project used public resources during Word War Two to put minds together with the goal of making major technological breakthroughs. What is needed now are many concerted efforts around the planet to reduce emissions (not make bombs). Support is needed to make major changes in energy efficiency, energy reduction through lifestyle change, new energy technologies, stopping release of non-combustion gases (eg. methane in agriculture), etc. Proposals in this vein are numerous. If CAPP sincerely focused on these solution strategies they could be a force for climate justice.

Adaptation would require supporting massive projects as well. TransCanada, CAPP, and Canada have the ability to make such supports available. These may include ensuring communities around the world are prepared for flooding, storms and drought (including good public facilities and services for during crises), and are resilient in terms of soil health and other ecosystem services.

TransCanada would need to demand that most of the profit from Energy East, and among CAPP members, are used to build this transition away from an increasingly high-carbon economy. Currently, without any hint of such a plan, TransCanada cannot move forward with a just Energy East project.

 

3. Share wealth to undo the continuing unfair burdens and benefits

Background

Those with least access to money and oil who benefit least from the project are often those most affected by climate change. Those who will make money from Energy East are those who already have wealth and use disproportionately more oil than the rest of the world.

To start moving to justice

Energy in the bitumen moved through Energy East could be for use by those who have traditionally benefited least from use of refined petroleum products. This would require a large shift in who has access to wealth and where it becomes concentrated. It is not as if the shipping of bitumen to India will mean quality of life improvements for India’s poorest. (Clean-oil rich Saudi Arabia does not see its poorest benefitting from major extractive projects, and neither does Canada.) TransCanada and CAPP can be a force for demanding that those who have the most to gain from access to oil get that access. They have the power to fight to ensure it is not used unjustly to uphold lifestyles of the rich around the world.

To break apart extreme wealth concentrations, profits from Energy East could be used to support dispersed mitigation and adaptation strategies. Step 2 describes some such efforts. These would need to not be led only by the elites of communities around the world, but ensure that the people are empowered everywhere. CAPP has the political energy and chemical energy to contribute to this massive transition.

 

 

Putting justice at the forefront of energy projects

Energy projects usually play with fire. Literally. Fire can inflict damage in many ways, and it is therefore a force with which we need to be very careful. As with fires in a community, it is impossible to know how damaging climate catastrophes will be.The earth’s reactions to change are unpredictable. Fire departments demand strong plans for preventing and putting out fires. In the same way, we need to collectively build strategies to get away from our current planet-disrupting ways of burning fossil energies. We need to talk about what is socially acceptable to do on – and to – this planet. Instead, a group of people who organize themselves under the name TransCanada Corporation have 26 lobbyists registered in the province of Quebec alone, many of them working on convincing people of the social acceptability of their project. In place of honest conversations as a human community, we hear from those paid to manufacture consent by whatever means necessary.

Energy projects can be designed with justice as their guiding principle. But TransCanada has not embraced that thinking with Energy East. It is indistinguishable from older energy projects, remarkable only in its size. The basics of justice are not to be found.

 

David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects. He is actively part of the struggle to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and is trying to educate himself on how to be a responsible adult male. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.

Is Energy East just?

Energy East is a project by TransCanada Corporation that will  extend existing pipeline infrastructure for Canada´s fossil fuel industry. Source: http://www.2b1stconsulting.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/TransCanada_Energy_East_Pipeline_Project.gif
Energy East is a project by TransCanada Corporation that will extend existing pipeline infrastructure for Canada´s fossil fuel industry.

TransCanada’ Energy East is a proposed pipeline for Alberta diluted bitumen that would be the biggest such pipeline on the continent, bigger than Keystone XL. Today, October 30th, 2014, TransCanada submits the Energy East proposal to the National Energy Board of Canada.

In this essay, part 1 of 2, David Gray-Donald asks, is Energy East a just project? If yes, why? If no, why, and what is stopping it from being so? 

This essay argues that because Energy East does nothing to undo the causes leading to its burdens and benefits being unfairly distributed at multiple scales it cannot be seen as just. TransCanada Corporation’s pipeline is proposed energy infrastructure that relies on and strengthens existing institutions of power. Proponents of projects like Energy East argue that oil is necessary or profitable or that we cannot live without it. However, a justice perspective [1] shows that the project is indistinguishable from extractive activities of the past and driven forward by the same root causes. Part I (this text) answers whether the project is just and Part II (forthcoming) will explore whether there are ways it could be made more just.

Oil sands crude production in 2012 was 1.9 million barrels per day. The Energy East pipeline, bigger than Keystone XL, would be able to transport 1.1 million barrels per day. The expansion of oil extraction in Alberta is constricted by lack of transportation infrastructure. The over 4400 km long Energy East, at 42” (1.07 m) diameter, would widen the neck of the bottle allowing bitumen to flow out faster. With official plans to triple the extraction of the oil sands[2] in coming years, there is little indication that oil traffic by rail would decrease as a result of this pipeline being built. The current plan is to get the oil out, fast. The analysis in this essay builds from the factual basis that (a) there are currently no plans beyond extracting and selling the oil as quickly as possible and (b) that Energy East is a centerpiece of that plan.

Extracting, transporting, altering, and burning matter from the oil sands has effects at many scales of time and space on Earth. Benefits and burdens of projects like Energy East are here first considered at an immediate time-scale looking at the whole planet. Analyzing the long-term effects with particular attention to climate change follows.

In the short term, there are people who receive money to work to physically make this work possible, to plan it, to advertise it, and to manage the operations. Some of these people, mostly in roles related to management and ownership, will acquire enough capital (i.e. wealth, money) to use is to accumulate more capital (i.e. capitalism) to such a degree that they reach a level of wealth far above the median and continue to accumulate more. For most workers and their families, the inflow of money they receive is temporary and insufficient for significant accumulation. Those with sufficient money, however obtained, can use the end product of this industrial process, oil, a versatile and concentrated mobile energy source, in vast amounts.

Those lacking wealth, including people living in Alberta, are less able to use such quantities of oil and often feel the effects of the industrial process in other ways. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that 94% of economic benefits from oil sands activities will be felt in Alberta. This leaves the vast majority of the world out. Those without wealth often find industrial sites located near them, like the Chemical Valley around Aamjiwnaang (Sarnia, ON) at a terminal of Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline, or the oil refineries in the east of Montreal, or downstream of coal mines in the Appalachians or of a Canadian gold mine in El Salvador. Poor folks often work at these sites doing the most dangerous jobs, like working on the rig floor on BP’s oil wells in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, or cleaning up TransCanada’s pipeline spills all over North America.

A similar pattern appears with people of colour. It is often the dark-skinned people of the world who are outside the circles of wealth and power, and are pushed to take the least safe and least rewarding industrial jobs. This is true from deconstructing ocean-liners by hand in coastal Bangladesh to building oil tanks in northern Alberta in deadly conditions as temporary foreign workers.

Along the proposed Energy East route, TransCanada is asking communities to support the project. Consent is sought out from indigenous communities in ways nearly indistinguishable from the past. Historically, the British, the churches and the Canadian government explicitly sought to destroy native governance systems. As of now Canada continues to force indigenous peoples to be represented by elected governments. When this started, positions could only be held and elected by men. Women, in many communities, had long held much of the decision-making power in their traditional governments. The Canadian-mandated system is the only one Canada acknowledges as legitimate, though in many communities the traditional governments still exist and this situation causes internal conflicts. Importantly from a justice perspective, it is an exercise in control over another based on the Canadian state’s ideology that indigenous forms of governance are inferior, that indigenous people can’t govern themselves, and that European ideas of democracy must be imposed and upheld though they may interfere with treaty obligations. The elected councils, who are given their salaries and money for the community[3]via Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs, have had money withheld or cut back when making decisions the Canadian government does not like. This puts the elected band in a conflict of interest type situation where they cannot easily say no to what the Canadian government wants nor can they act in the way their community would want a government to act.  TransCanada’s project continues this way of relating with indigenous communities. It is an approach that does not deviate from colonial Canada’s institutionalized racist past and present.[4]

In addition to women being pushed out of their roles in their communities, extraction projects are often sites of high rates of gendered violence, due to the combined factors of large numbers of male workers who move in without ties to the community, high rates of substance and alcohol use in isolated environments, and inflated housing prices that mean that women who are present in those communities have a harder time leaving abusive relationships,. In places like northern Alberta, there are often few supportive resources for these survivors of unfair violence.

Some unequal benefits and burdens of the pipeline project at a small time scale have been described. There is an absence of plans in the Energy East project to remedy any of these unfair dynamics. This is troubling, and the scales of justice would remain unbalanced if the project proceeded.

 

Now bringing the long-term into view we find that climate change brings new complex multitudes of concern around justice. The unequal burdens of climate change are unconsidered in the National Energy Board review process of pipeline projects, but are essential to investigate in discussing Energy East and justice.

Neither TransCanada, nor the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, nor the Albertan nor Canadian governments have a strategy to address climate change. Nor does the world. It could be argued Canada has a strategy as most recently formalized in the 1994 NAFTA (section 6), which is, to paraphrase, “get the USA as much oil as it wants”. Now, as American President Obama continues to block cross-border pipeline construction, transport transport, the oil industry strategy has changed slightly to getting the oil out of the ground and sold as fast as possible by whatever means. There is a curious economic calculation being made. It goes that if alternatives to oil or a high price on carbon are coming soon, the most profitable thing to do is sell the oil as quickly as possible before changes come. It is a “use it or lose it” situation. We are in free-for-all mode with no thought to saving the resource (which is a potent source of energy) for when it may be needed and not working towards a major transition away from oil dependence.

Who benefits and who is burdened by this approach of government and investors working together to facilitate a quick dig and burn of the resource? As mentioned earlier, the main beneficiaries are those who own and operate the oil industry. There is some trickle-down of money from this small group, but relying on a trickle-down theory of economics in part led us to the famous 1% and 99% division of wealth (as partially explained by Piketty’s r > g). The economic marketing of the oil industry corporations may at times hide from view that they are legally obliged to act in the best interests of their shareholders, i.e. owners, and no one else. The investors who own most of these corporations, and those they entrust to manage and direct the corporations they own, are wealthy people in the global north. They are the best prepared with physical and monetary resources to face the effects of climate change. They (and me among them) are the most responsible for emissions causing climate change.

Those who feel the heaviest burdens of climate change (which Energy East will accelerate by pushing open the sell!-sell!-sell! plan for carbon-intensive Alberta oil) are those least responsible for creating emissions and who benefit least from the use of fossil fuels. This includes women, people of the global south, migrants, people of colour, and the young & unborn.

While men are also affected by climate change, women, in their positions as caregivers, heads of households, farmers and water-fetchers must take on the extra work when necessities become more difficult to access.

Displacement and migration are well-documented effects of climate change. From fishermen on beaches of Sri Lanka displaced after floods by land prospectors setting up hotels to those whose productive lands have been become absorbed into the expanding Gobi Desert, there are millions of climate refugees per year and many end up in urban slums.

Looking at benefits and burdens from a race perspective, a trend similar to that of colonial times appears. Take, for example, the Philippines, which was a Spanish colony and then, until 1946, a territory of the USA. While some American investors benefit from oil sands transportation, people of colour in the Philippines suffered during Typhoon Haiyan which wreaked havoc on the south Asian nation in 2013. Americans of colour at home also bear the brunt of climate-related disasters, as seen by the treatment of various peoples during and after Hurricane Katrina around New Orleans in 2005.

Future generations of all demographics, but especially those described here, will bear the burdens of climate change. To put this in economics jargon, as Mark Carney did recently, we have had a high discount rate, meaning we are valuing the present very highly to the great detriment of the future. Ideas with more consideration for inter-generational justice are not new. For example, Kanien’keha:ka scholar Kahente Horn-Miller reminds us of the seven generations philosophy, popular on Turtle Island, “as inherently about accountability and respect for oneself and the future seven generations.” [5]

Energy East is not accompanied by any plan to undo these unfair allocations of benefits and burdens. Not on an immediate time scale, not at an international level, and not on the scale of climate change. The oil industry and the governments of Canada also entirely lack such a strategy. There is no semblance of a serious conversation to that end from the corporations or governments invested in the project. There is no effort being planned on the scale of a Manhattan Project of our time, one for a conscious, just, fossil-fuel free future instead of bombs. The Energy East project, like nearly all extractive projects to date, digs us deeper into the path we are on.

Lacking any change of direction and noticing the continued systematically lopsided allocation of benefits and burdens, Energy East as proposed would only continue and strengthen the systems that allow unfairness to persist. In conclusion, Energy East must be considered unjust.

Part 2 of this article, which will discuss how Energy East could be more just,  is forthcoming. 

With files from Justice Climatique Montreal / Climate Justice Montreal. Check out their analysis and call to action regarding Energy East (et version francaise)

 

David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects. He is actively part of the struggle to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and is trying to educate himself on how to be a responsible adult male. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.

 

A note about justice

There is one way that Energy East could be considered just. That would be if one considers justice to be doing good for one’s friends and doing harm to their enemies. In the case of Energy East, that would mean doing good for wealthy white people living in or able to live in safety, and the enemies who bad is done to are everyone else in the world. This is a thoroughly rejected and inadequate definition of justice. A strong definition of justice is based around fairness, a concept innately well-understood by primates. It is this sense of fairness and of remedying situations where unfairness persists that has resulted in the widely understood image of scales of justice (often held by Lady Justice) to be balanced.

 


 

[1] A discussion about what is in the best interests of Canadians can be found elsewhere, such as the Council of Canadians siteabout the project. TransCanada’s marketing on the subject cannot yet be categorized as a discussion.

[2] The term “oil sands” is used as there are many people in Canada who will not engage with content if they see it contains the word “tar sands”. This capitulates to the brainwashing of citizens that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and various levels of government have engaged it, but it is important to try to communicate with the humans working in and actively supporting the fossil fuel industry.

[3] As per many treaty agreements, this money was to come from trust funds set up when indigenous nations agreed to allow Canadians to use their lands. Most of these treaty agreements have been broken by Canada, such as the elimination of many such trust funds. This investigative piece looks at one example.

[4] Browse through this document for more information about settler-indigenous relations in Canada with a particular focus on seeing and understanding the treaties as non-native peoples.

[5] From “What Does Indigenous Participatory Democracy Look Like? Kahnawà:ke’s Decision Making Process” by Kahente Horn-Miller in Review of Constitutional Studies. Page 115. Available at http://www.trudeaufoundation.ca/sites/default/files/u5/05_horn-miller.pdf

 

 

Reversing the commodification trap

Polly Higgins is the superpower behind the movement to make ecocide illegal.
Polly Higgins is leading the charge to make ecocide illegal. Source: huckmagazine.com

by Vijay Kolinjivadi

The seemingly insurmountable ecological crisis and staggering inequality facing humanity requires a vision that links urgency with inspiration. In recent years, a number of calls for a ‘safe living space’ have been made. This refers to a civilization that addresses fundamental human needs but does not overstep biophysical limits. In other words, we need governance institutions that reside between a social ‘floor’ and a biophysical ‘ceiling’. While this has garnered increasing traction among academics, activists, policy-makers, and well…just about anyone who cares about the future of children, unfortunately, the centre of power (Washington, London, Ottawa etc.) has another future vision.

The supreme rationale of this vision is to forever fabricate new ways to create new wants (i.e. new commodities) from consumers in the so-called “developed” world. The creation of new markets for new ‘wants’ we didn’t even know we wanted does not appear without consequence. Resource inputs, cheap human labour and a repository for waste products become imperative as ever-growing markets become a touchstone of the global economy. No corner of the world is left unscathed in the search for new raw materials, cheap labour and waste dumps. Often these activities occur at the periphery of the global economy, where pristine environments and culturally unique yet marginalized societies offer new sources of “fodder” to assimilate back into the centre of global economic power.

What’s more, any attempt at solving this from within the system has continued on the same lines. To protect nature, we are told we need to turn it into a commodity, or trade it on the market. Hence cap and trade schemes and eco-tourism enterprises, which just makes it easier for the same systems to keep profiting. Conceiving of market solutions to solve this crisis created by markets only serves to reinforce this dangerous power which is destroying true wealth, the kind that cannot be bought back or retrieved when lost. It is clear that this process, which is oh so reminiscent of colonialism, is not the way we are going to arrive at a ‘safe living space’. It is no wonder why it is hard to be enthusiastic about the prospects of searching ‘within the system’ for a solution.

Recently, however, I was refreshingly surprised to find a glimmer of hope from the institutions of our own global governance system. At this August’s meeting of the International Society of Ecological Economics in Reykjavik, there was a lot of excitement sparked by the talk of one plenary speaker, Polly Higgins. Higgins was a barrister at the Royal Courts of Justice in the UK and has since devoted her life to demystify the law and provide a potential solution to curtail the destruction of our global commons. At the plenary, she explained her campaign to legitimize “ecocide” as an international criminal law against humanity. Yes, that’s right…a law! Is it possible to enact a law so global in its vision, that it would serve to cut off the dangerous feedback of new market creation and associated eco-social destruction?

Through skillful chicanery, the neoliberal agenda has greatly influenced conservation policy in recent years by turning the benefits of ecosystems into tradable commodities which can be allocated through the market to maximize individual utility (and hence aggregated to achieve social well-being). However, such an approach ignores the high costs of defining property rights for ecological benefits which simply cannot be owned. Instead, the recognition of ecocide and subsequent codification as an international law would sanctify ecosystem structure and resulting processes that ensure human well-being for present and future generations. Without recognition of the sanctity of the global commons for our collective welfare, continued economic growth will invariably result in local (and increasingly global) resource depletion, fueling more social conflict and war.

Ecocide refers to damage or destruction to ecosystems (either by direct human agency or climate catastrophes) to the extent that human well-being is negatively impacted. By invoking criminal implications, an international criminal law would trump national sovereignty and could set in motion a paradigm shift away from continuous economic growth on a planet of finite resources. Corporate leaders would not be liable to monetary fines; instead they would be tried in an international criminal court for committing ecocide. It may come as a bit of a stretch to make an argument for improving the law, given that law has undeniably advanced further ecological degradation under a dominant political economy in which corporations are legally bound to put profit first in responding to their shareholders. However, an ecocide law would supplant corporate obligations by imposing a higher normative obligation to address injustice and equality first in the stewardship of a ‘safe living space’.

One outcome of causing mass ecological damage and destruction has been manifested in climate change as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. In relation to floods, tsunamis, rising sea levels and other naturally-occurring forms of ecocide, all nations would have a legal duty of care under an ecocide law to give assistance to communities suffering directly or indirectly from the degradation of the global commons and the ecological services these resources provide. In the case of climate change, the loss of the beneficial climate regulation service, irreversibly degraded by industrial activity, results in impacts often far removed from the source of degradation. An international criminal law on ecocide would place the burden of proof directly on those most powerful to influence and direct human impacts on ecological structure. These include heads of state, ministers, heads of banks, and corporate executives who are in a position to make decisions that impact many millions of others. In this way, we can begin to prioritise decisions that put the well-being of the planet and society first above private interests.

Much to the disregard of most economists, there are inherent dangers of viewing the earth and its resources as property–in which an imposed value can be placed to hasten and facilitate trade and consumption. The insightful aspect of Higgin’s plenary talk on an ecocide law transmitted the often neglected yet fundamentally moral characteristic of the environmental problems we face. Pretending that these can be addressed objectively under a single value ethic (e.g. utilitarian welfare) through cap-and-trade or punitive taxes will continue to mask and even reinforce perceived climate and other environmental injustices in the world today. If a ‘safe living space’ is our collective goal, we need to look beyond national laws and appreciate the boundaries for which the earth is sovereign…for which no space exists for bargaining or buying time. A global law brings with it an unavoidable ethical decision to put an end to the self-serving driver which crashes the floor and shoots the ceiling way into the air, away from reality.

For more information on the proposed international criminal law on ecocide, have a look at: www.eradicatingecocide.com.

 

Vijay Kolinjivadi is a PhD student studying Ecological Economics at McGill University in Montréal, Canada. His research has led him to report on the dangers of commodifying nature and to identify how and when human-nature relationships can be resilient in the face of inevitable change. He enjoys traveling and reading in grassy meadows among other things.

 

Does The Climate Movement Have A Leader?

Bill McKibben during his "Do the Math" tour
Bill McKibben during his “Do the Math” tour.                 Source: rollingstone.com

by David Gray-Donald

Climate change is big. As is the climate movement seeking to confront the issue, though it is not yet as powerful as the fossil fuel industry. People all over the world are standing up in very different ways, as evidenced by a quick glance at the over-800 partner organizations for the Peoples’ Climate March in New York City on September 21. It’s a real challenge to bring together these very different groups.

In Canada alone examples abound of the diversity of people and range of strategies being used to address the problem. Many people at the Unist’ot’en camp are returning to their lands and effectively blocking pipelines. At universities, people like McGill Environment student & Divest McGill organizer Kristen Perry are demanding endowment funds become fossil fuel free. Shaina Agbayani and others are focusing on the relationship between migrant justice and climate change. In Toronto’s Bay Street offices people like Toby Heaps are selling low-carbon investment strategies. Amanda Lickers, a Haudenasaunee environmental organizer, is working to oppose fossil-fuel infrastructure (including pipeline) projects destroying native communities. The scale of the challenge has been responded to with many strategies from diverse groups that together are sometimes called the climate movement.

In this movement, there is no central leadership, no intelligentsia behind closed doors like in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. Ellison’s protagonist, an unnamed young black man who becomes a spokesperson for what could be called the civil rights movement, is told what to do and what to say by a small group of white men using supposedly scientific formulas that perfectly guide the movement. Thankfully this is not how the climate movement works: it is more decentralized and people have more autonomy to act as they see fit. This comes with its own set of challenges, as seen recently during Occupy and a few decades ago with the leaderless women’s liberation movement.

But wait, interacting with climate activism may give you the feeling that there is a centralized organization and a mastermind leader.

When someone hears “350” mentioned and asks what it is, I’ve often heard the response that 350.org is the climate movement and Bill McKibben its leader. This is easy to believe when articles on environmental news sites like Grist and RTCC announcing the Peoples’ Climate March include only McKibben and 350.org by name as leaders and planners. The RTCC article begins “Led by Bill McKibben…”, and it is his thoughtful articles that appear in youth-targeted Rolling Stone. The 350.org “Do The Math” tour description reads “In November 2012, Bill McKibben and 350.org hit the road to build a movement strong enough to change the terrifying math of the climate crisis.” The notion that McKibben is the leader and 350.org the movement is in large part due to the way the organization has framed itself from the start.

The story of 350.org is similar to that of many NGOs in that it began with a core dedicated group and a compelling call to action. As McKibben himself likes to point out, it started out at a college in Vermont with 7 people, and they decided to each take a continent and build a movement.

The organization has been acting out that global narrative ever since. They’ve gained prominence and power that most grassroots groups would never dream of through a combination of millions of dollars of support from the Rockefellers and others and a persistent mentality that they lead the worldwide movement-building process. Following a notable lack of discussion with other groups, 350.org called out for and selected 500 people to gather in June 2013 in Turkey for a Global Power Shift and claimed it as “the starting point for a new phase in the international climate movement.”

The well-intentioned Americans of 350.org venturing overseas to be the global umbrella for the movement have created an organization that has unfortunately bulldozed over other voices in the climate movement and has come to be seen by many as the movement itself. So while the movement is bigger and more complex than 350.org, having this unofficial and unaccountable focal point limits how we think about and interact with climate activism.

Take, for example, the problem that those who have the least wealth will likely face the worst of climate change-caused catastrophes including drought, flooding and storms. This means that those who already face deep injustices will have very different demands from those who simply want to preserve the earth as it is. We need spokespeople who can be accountable to these groups. Unfortunately, 350.org’s insistence that they represent the movement while they don’t actually respond to these diverse demands ultimately hurts the movement.

In fairness, considerable credit is due to 350.org and to Bill McKibben for building momentum. McKibbon is a good writer, if over-simplifying, as seen in his very widely read July 2012 Rolling Stone article. Recently he has been sitting down to have serious conversations with powerful people like university presidents to push the divestment agenda. As a celebrity in the climate world he is drawing big crowds to the Peoples’ Climate March in NYC, and at hype talks in recent months 350.org has used his draw to put the spotlight on some local groups and individuals. The staff of 350.org seem very motivated, with their hearts in the right place, and the problems of being a big international NGO are not unique to 350.org.

That said, constructive criticism is what will help the movement learn and improve. At a September 2 event in Montreal organized by 350.org and local campus groups, some issues were clearly visible. First, there were two lines of French spoken by all the speakers combined, a shame for an event happening in French-speaking Quebec, a hotbed of radicalism in North America. Thankfully the audience did hear some Kanien’keha (Mohawk), the language native to the area, from Ellen Gabriel. At one point McKibben attributed the initiation of the fossil fuels divestment campaign one half to journalist and 350.org board member Naomi Klein and one half to Nelson Mandela. Hopefully Klein, a thorough researcher, would dismiss such a claim outright as disinvestment is not a particularly new tactic for showing disapproval of an activity, even in the climate world. Throughout his talk, McKibben perpetuated the idea that 350.org was the movement, that it was the umbrella organization connecting everyone, that the 7 people from Vermont who went out build a worldwide movement had been more or less successful.

Near the end of his presentation, while he has talking about getting things right, Amanda Lickers, mentioned above, interrupted McKibben. He at no point tried to cut her off. She brought up the lack of acknowledgement of the centrality of indigenous contributions to the front-lines struggle to resist extraction and pipelines, the erasure of indigenous history in the planning of the upcoming much-hyped Peoples’ Climate March in New York City, concerns about inclusion of people most affected by climate change, and more. This drew many cheers of support from the audience. After she spoke, McKibben did not responded to her comments directly. He was visibly uncomfortable and while he briefly and generally mentioned the importance of front-line communities he unfortunately treated Amanda Lickers and everything she said as an interesting aside that was easy to ignore. In a place like North America, indigenous groups have been expressing and acting on their understanding of the earth for many centuries longer than the 25 years since McKibben’s first big book came out. In many ways, indigenous groups are at the front of the struggle here and in much of the rest of the world. They are more central than to the side, but they keep being pushed out, which is part of the injustice of worldwide colonialism. And if justice is not the goal in this movement, what is? A spokesperson better understanding the movement and the forces at play in our society, and conscious of the way they themselves perpetuate those forces, may have been able to better address Lickers’ comments and build a constructive dialogue with the audience.

It’s not that McKibben is a bad guy. It’s that he is currently not a good spokesperson for the climate movement, which is effectively what he is now given how he and 350.org project themselves and are seen by the media and general public. Naomi Klein will fully share the spotlight once her book is released. As with most of us (myself included), McKibben needs to undo his colonial mindset. As evidenced by Lickers’ interruption, when he speaks it is not on behalf of the whole movement and not on behalf of the most affected nor those fighting the hardest like the Unist’ot’en. The lack of confidence and imagination within the movement to put forward spokespeople intentionally but instead allow McKibben to remain at the front limits what it can do.

McKibben writes uncomplicated articles and speaks in ways comfortably relatable to American liberal-arts college audiences. While it is important to talk to those people, we need a movement with broader scope bringing forth dialogues about justice from different perspectives. We need to think hard about how the movement is represented, we need to listen to the voices in it, and to identify leaders intentionally. Being seen as spokespeople, McKibben and Klein could stress that they don’t represent anybody, that the main resistance is being done by others often completely separate from 350.org, and they can point to some of those struggles. 350.org can choose to stop over-extending itself in trying to be the movement and to not play the role of selecting who gets put forward as a leader. While not perfect, the Peoples’ Climate March appears to be a good collaboration between groups, and there are exciting possibilities for where the movement can go from here.

David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects. He is actively part of the struggle to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and is trying to educate himself on how to be a responsible adult male. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.

 

Country mouse, city mouse

by Aaron Vansintjan

In a children’s story by Beatrix Potter, Timmy Willie, a country mouse, ends up in the house of Johnny Town-Mouse after falling asleep in a wicker basket. Later, Johnny visits Timmy’s own home in the garden. Timmy doesn’t like the danger that the city mice live through daily, and the lavish meals don’t sit well with him. Johnny doesn’t like the modest and quiet life that Timmy lives.

The story has its origins in one of Aesop’s fables, “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.” Its moral advises that it is better to live in self-sufficient poverty than to be tormented by the worries of wealth. City life, while it promises instant gratification and worldly pleasures, does not give us independence and safety.

The tale was hugely popular with the ancient Greeks. Then, the polis reigned: city-states in which the majority of labour was done by slaves. Consequently, being from either the city or the country meant a whole lot. However, as the time of the polis came to an end, so did the interest in this story.

Centuries later and to the west, Europe was chaotically emerging from feudalism. City-states once again defined politics. As land was bought up by the wealthy, an itinerant and unemployed peasant class flooded the cities. Now, being from the country or from the city was more important than ever, and Aesop’s fable became common once again, with several new translations and interpretations. Yet despite their differences, all versions had one thing in common: a characterization of the country mouse as simple and boorish, and the city mouse as well-bred and well-mannered, perhaps a bit stuck up.

Both [Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina] bear a strong idealization of on the one hand the city, with its semblance of progress and riches; and on the other the country, with the fantasy of self-sufficiency.

Fast forward to 19th century France at the height of the industrial revolution. Most peasants had been kicked off their land, going on to crowd factories and mines at low pay. The nobility inhabited an increasingly precarious position, and the bourgeoisie was growing. In 1856, Gustave Flaubert published Madame Bovary, often considered the first modern novel.

In the novel, a doctor, Charles Bovary, marries the daughter of an impoverished farmer, Emma Rouault. They move to a small town. Now ‘Madame Bovary,’ Emma becomes bored and depressed, and she begins two different affairs. From this point onward, she becomes obsessed with city life, making trips to Rouen, the nearby town, frequently. Emma – spoiler alert – ends up in debt from living beyond her means, and finally commits suicide by eating arsenic.

Flaubert deftly depicted the struggle of a country woman to become a city woman, set during a time of unprecedented social transformation in France. As Stephen Heath put it, “The main impression [in the novel] is one of mobility, money on the move, an economic and social transformation in which a truly middle class is finding itself.”

The history of literature maps neatly onto the history of the changing dynamics between the city and the country.

Another famous novel, Anna Karenina, was written 20 years afterward. In the novel, Anna has an affair with Vronsky, a dapper military man. The affair goes sour, and Anna becomes ostracized by the rest of society. Tolstoy splices the story with imagery of progress – the train thunders throughout the novel, carrying the characters to the city and back again. Finally, Anna throws herself in front of it.

Another character in Anna Karenina, Levin, raises similar questions to Anna’s, struggling to balance his ideals with those of his society. His story ends in a way similar to Tolstoy’s own life: his hatred of the city and the idea of progress that accompanied it caused him to spend his final days running a farm, caring for his family, and writing in peace about art, religion, and anarchism.

Both novels bear a strong idealization of on the one hand the city, with its semblance of progress and riches; and on the other the country, with the fantasy of self-sufficiency. Both female characters are crushed by social forces: Emma is overburdened by debt; Anna is no longer accepted in high society. And modernity kills them: Emma swallows poison from her husband’s medicine room and Anna is crushed by a train. Meanwhile, trains, carriages, and money bring all the characters to their destinations, promising pleasure and privilege.

* * *

In a short story by Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, “Lessons from the country,” published in 1987, a boy from Hanoi escapes to the country to stay with his friend’s family, intending to work for his keep. There, he meets the village teacher, who asks him, “Do you feel superior to country people because you live in the city?”

The boy says he doesn’t. “Don’t despise them,” the teacher remarks, himself a former urbanite. “All city people and the educated elite carry a heavy burden of guilt when it comes to the villages. We crush them with our material demands. With our pork stew of science and education, we have a conception of civilization and an administrative superstructure that is designed to squeeze the villages.”

Vietnam, at the time of writing, had recently decolonized. This required reforming the European property rights that had been stamped all across the country by the French. Thiệp’s story was also written in the context of globalization, when the country opened itself up to foreign investment, eventually resulting in widespread uprooting of the rural class.

This passage from Thiệp’s story crystallized a jumble of ideas in my mind. First, literature is literally shaped by the divide between country and city. Everywhere you look, it defines characters and plot. The history of literature maps neatly onto the history of the changing dynamics between the city and the country, from Aesop to Thiệp.

There is something inherently oppressive in a society that prioritizes cosmopolitanism: the success of one class is dependent on the expropriation and labour of another, more marginalized class.

One historian, Immanuel Wallerstein, sees all politics in these terms: the richest societies – what he calls the “core” – extract a net positive of materials from the poorest – the “periphery.” In his view, development of one part of the world requires the extraction of resources, labour, and land from another. This, of course, requires transportation, and it’s no surprise that as cities grew, so did the reference to trains, roads, and vehicles in literature.

Additionally, the relationship between country and city is one of debt. Cityfolk owe all their material wealth to the country, while at the same time, countryfolk are seen as less civilized or boorish. There is something inherently oppressive in a society that prioritizes cosmopolitanism: the success of one class is dependent on the expropriation and labour of another, more marginalized class. This material oppression is then justified by social oppression: like the country mouse, countryfolk are ‘common,’ ‘peasants,’ ‘uneducated,’ or ‘uncivilized.’ Yet the life of the oppressed becomes idealized – Levin, of rich noble stock, dreams of self-sufficiency in the country.

This dynamic can also be seen between Indigenous people in America and European colonizers. While Indigenous land, necessary for the colonizer’s wealth, is taken at gunpoint, they are deemed uncivilized and simultaneously idealized for their peaceful, ‘more natural’ livelihood.

Finally, it drives home the realization that we should always remember what makes living in the city possible. Nowadays, visionary ideas of endless cities and utopian images of pristine cosmopolitan worlds abound. It becomes easy to forget – and therefore erase – how we are indebted to life beyond the edge of the city.

Currently, the world’s most materially impoverished people are farmers, peasants, and rural refugees. The most disenfranchised in North America are people who moved into cities to survive after their land was privatized or sold: migrants, Indigenous people or people whose ancestors were ripped from their rural livelihoods and themselves sold into slavery. The current economic system continues to most impact those uprooted from the country, causing shockwaves that ripple across the world, into literature and our cultural imagination.

This article was originally published in The McGill Daily.