GDP

by Doug Banks

What is GDP?

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

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

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

Where did GDP come from?

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

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

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

How did GDP become important?

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

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

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

Why is GDP a problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What alternatives exist?

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

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

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

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

Rethinking progress

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

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



Further resources

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

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

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

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

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



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

The commons

by Sergio Ruiz Cayuela 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further resources

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

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

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


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

Slow violence

by Ben Shread-Hewitt

Slow violence: Suffering, degradation, and pain inflicted upon people and communities by impersonal, dispersed forces; spread across time and space, with no defined point of impact, but nevertheless the result of a perpetrator/s’ actions.

In the Niger delta, the glowing flames of oil refineries rob the people of night. In northern Thailand, months of endless smoke seep silently through lungs and into bloodstreams. On the island of Tuvalu, the gentle waves creep implacably up the shoreline, set to consume it into the ceaseless ocean.

These are all forms of slow violence: induced environmental conditions that cause active harm to the people they affect. But this harm is slow, ill-defined, and often perceptible only in retrospect, when its perpetrators are long gone, if they were ever physically present at all.

There is a difficulty in conceptualizing, or locating, slow violence when compared to its ‘fast’ counterpart, and one of its most insidious aspects is that it is often not recognized as violence at all. When oil companies create populations so heavily poisoned their home becomes known as ‘Cancer Alley’, it is violence. But legally, if recognized at all, the act is not seen as an assault on the health of its victims, nor do those that suffer often perceive it as such. Even if the perpetrators come to justice, it will be for their negligent industrial practices, not for carcinogens they put into living bodies.

There is a difficulty in conceptualizing, or locating, slow violence when compared to its ‘fast’ counterpart, and one of its most insidious aspects is that it is often not recognized as violence at all

For the victims of slow violence, there is no punctual moment of disaster, there is no discernable beginning to their suffering and there is no end to hope for. The harm is environmental, their lifeworld becomes a weapon inflicted upon them. Furthermore, like the steady accumulations of poison in bloodstreams, slow violence is “not just attritional but also exponential” as Rob Nixon – the originator of the term – points out. It acts as “a major threat multiplier; it can fuel long-term, proliferating conflicts in situations where the conditions for sustaining life become increasingly but gradually degraded.”

Rob Nixon is a professor of English, and the importance of this becomes clear as one explores slow violence. It is ultimately a concept of narratives: what is harm? Who decides if it is or not? And who gets to claim it? In the neoliberal world, the story of progress is all pervasive, environmental issues are side effects to be managed, fixed, or superseded by innovation and entrepreneurship. This is a specific narrative at play, a framework which we use to piece the facts of reality into a coherent story. Silicone Valley and Peruvian lithium mines are both facts of global capitalism, but which one is the focus of the narrative? The poisoned waters and collapsing communities, or the shiny Tesla’s cruising financial district streets?

Nixon’s book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor is constructed on a series of mediations on different books or literary genres all focused on environmental degradation and the people caught in its wake. Whilst covering real world examples at points, it is largely a discussion of fictional – though by no means unrealistic – literature. At first glance, this focus on the narration of environmental disaster, rather than its empirical basis, might discourage us from its usage as a tool of political ecology. But as Erik Swyngedouw points out, environmental policy requires the choice of one narrative over another; so, to be acquainted with the narratives of slow violence, how they are constructed, viewed, or ignored, is one of the most integral lessons to be learned from Nixon’s work.

This narrative understanding is important because slow violence defies most conventional understandings of harm. Whilst its victims and perpetrators may be human, the way it plays out is environmental, it does not neatly fit into news cycles, election seasons, or economic quarters. Environments act on many timescales: seasonal, biological, hydrological, or geological, they are often connected, but not synchronized. Environmental phenomena rarely occur at ‘humans speeds’, and causes may not render their effects for decades; or they may manifest themselves slowly and unevenly, an imperceptible drip of the past into the present. Neither do they follow the pathways we are accustomed to. Ecological materials do not transmit through markets or cultural exchange, they dissolve through webs of interconnections until they appear hidden, only to rejoin and accumulate again far from their source in both space and time. When applied to environmental pollutants, the difficulty of connecting the human scale of polluters and polluted with the twisting ecological pathways that connect the two becomes plain to see.

Slow violence defies most conventional understandings of harm. Whilst its victims and perpetrators may be human, the way it plays out is environmental, it does not neatly fit into news cycles, election seasons, or economic quarters.

The last military spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam, for example, was in 1971, yet its poisonous effects persist half a century later, killing, maiming, and deforming thousands. It lingers, percolating, pooling, and welling in muds, soils, and water, biomagnifying through food chains and into populations. The cancers it inflicts can be as deadly and debilitating as any instantaneous bomb or bullet, but they act slowly and implacably, when the aggressions have long since disengaged, and (for some, at least) the political story has moved on. Agent Orange is a pertinent example of slow violence, but it is amongst the easiest to recognize. From the poisoned waters of Flint to Pacific Islanders living in the wake of nuclear testing, long-term, proliferating violence constructs and blights their futures in hidden and pervasive ways.

Narratively novel it may be, we must be careful not to depoliticize slow violence as some ethereal, inexplicable force. Rob Nixon often speaks about the ‘out of site’ character of slow violence, but as has been pointed out by Thom Davies, ‘out of sight’ is a relative term; to those afflicted by slow violence it is rarely unnoticed. What consigns it to the category of ‘out of sight’ is its lack of political recognition in the mainstream narrative; whether implicit or purposeful. News cycles come and go, but the poisons, cancers, and broken socioecological systems remain, as do the communities that bear them witness.

‘Out of sight’ is a relative term; to those afflicted by slow violence it is rarely unnoticed. What consigns it to the category of ‘out of sight’ is its lack of political recognition in the mainstream narrative; whether implicit or purposeful.

Nor, for that matter, should we take ‘out of sight’ to mean perpetrators of slow violence are only ever guilty of ignorance. When, in a confidential memo from the then-president of the World Bank Lawrence Summers, he describes the ‘impeccable… economic logic’ of “dumping toxic waste in lower wage countries”, there is not ignorance at play. When Summers described higher wage nations as ‘over-polluted’, he was implicitly acknowledging the negativity of pollution, but the narrative constraints of his worldview did not permit him to rally against it, but simply to manage it. The harm was acknowledged, but it was going to be put out of sight, rather than simply find its way there. The reason Summers could propose inflicting toxic waste upon faraway communities, even when all agreed upon its danger, was the narrative. In this way, it is not violence, but simply rational decision making; whether inflicting a substance that can harm, main, or even kill someone is construe as ‘violent’ all depends on who is telling the story.

Slow violence is a tool for overcoming these long-imposed barriers on what we can claim to be right or wrong, violence or not. It is a particularly important device for political ecologists in the era of the ‘Anthropocene’, where the seeming abstractness of global issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution can be used by the biggest perpetrators to forgo responsibility for the harm they inflict. If we are to strive for a more just ecological future, then recognizing what is to be overcome is one of the first challenges.


Further resources

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon (2011)
The original source of the term, it explores examples, both real and fictional, to help the reader understand the concept and its implications for environmental justice in the globalized world.

The Environmentalism of the Poor by Joan Martinez Alier (2002)
Exploring the parallel, but initially unconnected environmental justice movements of the Global South and how they differed from those the North.

Promises of the Political: Insurgent Cities in a Post-Political Environment by Erik Swyngedouw (2018)
Environmental questions are inherently political, but increasingly they are consigned to technocratic decision making. This book looks at how to overcome this thinking and bring back the democratic voice to our shared environmental futures.

The Political Ecology of the State: The Basis and the Evolution of Environmental Statehood by Antonio Ioris (2014)
This book is dense and philosophical, but if you want to understand why and how states theorize environmental issues (and those affected by them) in the way they do, then it’s worth the effort.

Green Politics for a Divided Planet: Toward a Postcolonial Environmentalism by Douglas Torgerson (2005)
A good introductory paper to postcolonial environmentalism to those with no background in it.


Ben Shread-Hewitt is a masters student at Cardiff University, studying Sustainability, Planning and Environmental Policy. Find him on Twitter.

Permaculture

by Rebecca Ellis

Permaculture is a design system that mimics the patterns of flourishing ecosystems to create ecologically regenerative human societies.  First developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s, permaculture takes inspiration from Indigenous and ‘traditional’ agrarian practices. Mollison and Holmgren created a philosophy and a set of principles for producing diverse and dynamic ecosystems in which humans play a positive role. 

Permaculture is strongly associated with specific practices, such as planting perennial polycultures. However, its most distinctive aspect is a focus on ecological design that is based on careful observation and deep interconnection. Through this design process, permaculturalists co-create, with non-human nature, spaces and lives that restore soil, build biodiversity, and allow for the flourishing of multiple species, including humans.

Permaculture emphasises that the Earth is full of abundance, not in commodities, but in energy from the sun, wind, water, food, and life itself. According to permaculture ethics, this abundance should be shared with other people, non-human animals, and the Earth. Permaculturalists do not view humans as inherently destructive or greedy. Within healthy ecosystems, animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria form cooperative, rather than competitive relationships, and humans can be an integral part of these ecosystems. As a system based on cooperation and solidarity among humans and non-human nature, permaculture offers a radical reimagination of the possible.

As a system based on cooperation and solidarity among humans and non-human nature, permaculture offers a radical reimagination of the possible

Permaculture has spread from Australia throughout the world and been interpreted in a variety of ways. This has led to some important debates within the international permaculture movement. Some proponents of permaculture aim to keep it de-politicized and professionalized as a system of ecological design only, while others seek to align with other social justice movements. The established way to become a permaculture practitioner is to attend a Permaculture Design Course (PDC). PDCs in North America are typically $800-1500 16-day immersive programs. People usually travel to attend PDCs and often live on-site for the duration. This limits PDCs to people who can afford the fee, the travel costs, and to be away from family or work for more than two weeks. After passing the course, one of the ways to be a permaculture practitioner, strongly emphasized in PDCs, is to start an ecological design business or farm. 

Some argue that permaculture should be professionalized in this way to establish mainstream legitimacy, respectability, and influence for a movement which has often been on the fringes of society. However, if only those with the time and money to obtain PDCs can practise, promote, or teach permaculture, then the transformative potential of the movement is greatly limited. Most working-class people do not have the capital to start small businesses or buy increasingly expensive farmland. Permaculture has thus been criticized for excluding racialized people, the poor, and the working class, as well as for the presence of sexism, especially since permaculture certification relies heavily on a teacher/student model with potential for serious abuses of power.

Lack of access to land can be a barrier to participation in permaculture. Land ownership in many parts of the world—both rural and urban—is prohibitively expensive.  Creating perennial gardens, food forests, major earth works such as berms, swales, and cob structures, all require land ownership or, at least, long-term land access. In urban centres, where public land can be sparse and highly contested, the creation of such projects necessitates sustained activist campaigns grounded in the complex connections between urban land, race, class, and gender. There is also the danger that such permaculture projects could displace long-term residents from their neighbourhoods. 

Permaculture has also been criticized for playing a role in continued colonialism toward Indigenous people and the Global South. Mollison and Holmgren, by their own admission, gleaned knowledge and skills from Indigenous and ‘traditional’ communities to create the principles of permaculture. Some of the knowledge and skills they gathered were developed by specific, identifiable communities and people, who are rarely acknowledged by practitioners. Practices and ideas associated with permaculture can then become commodities that are sometimes sold back to the Indigenous groups they were borrowed from. And when White permaculture practitioners from the Global North set up businesses and farms in poorer countries of the Global South, there is a danger that these initiatives will contribute to the dispossession of local people, a very similar danger to the urban projects discussed above. It is essential that permaculturalists acknowledge the origin of practices associated with permaculture, and support struggles for Indigenous land rights, globally and within their own region.

Permaculture has transformative potential when practitioners move away from promoting it as a depoliticized set of ecological design practices and principles. It should, instead, be viewed as a dynamic social movement that can provide a vision for radical transformation of human societies. The permaculture movement must explicitly concern itself with social and environmental justice, actively confronting racism, colonialism, classism and sexism within dominant society and within permaculture communities. The permaculture movement must find ways to become accessible and participatory. This entails decreasing the emphasis on land ownership and entrepreneurship. 

Permaculture should be viewed as a dynamic social movement that can provide a vision for radical transformation of human societies

There are already many initiatives that attempt to do this. Some of the most promising involve attempts to reclaim the commons, spaces governed collectively and democratically for the use and benefit of all. These include community food forests, community gardens and urban farms, reclaiming abandoned buildings as solidarity spaces, neighbourhood-based mutual aid and sharing initiatives, and worker-owned and neighbourhood-based cooperatives. These projects and initiatives can complement and strengthen activist organizing, creating what Adrienne Maree Brown describes as communities that are ‘miles deep and inches wide.’

A useful permaculture principle for understanding social change and transformation is ‘use edges and value the marginal.’ When applied to ecosystems, this principle reminds us that marginal life such as ‘weeds’ can play a role in healing soil and nurturing our bodies. It also highlights how ecological change often happens in the spaces in which two ecosystems meet and overlap. Within human societies, ways of living and organizing that have transformative potential are often marginalized when they threaten dominant power structures. These marginal spaces, the edges of capitalist society, are often where activists organize against capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. It is scary to be at the edges of society, risking or facing marginalization. It seems safer to be viewed as respectable and unthreatening by the status quo. Yet it is at the edges that the permaculture movement can have the most impact, joining with other social and ecological movements to create joyful and vibrant spaces in which people experience what it feels, sounds, smells, and tastes like to live differently with one another and the Earth. It is in these spaces that people can collectively imagine radical possibilities beyond capitalism, an essential step in allowing other worlds to take root and flourish. 


Further resources

The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature by Starhawk (HarperOne, 2005).
This is the book that introduced me to the concept of permaculture. Starhawk gives a description of permaculture philosophies and principles that is grounded in activism and feminist spirituality. 

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009).
One of the most useful and practical books for designing permaculture spaces in urban and suburban areas.

Farming while Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land by Leah Penniman (Chelsea Press, 2019)
An essential resource for anyone interested in socially just farming as well as a much-needed correction to attempts to ignore the contributions of Black farmers and farm workers in the creation of agricultural knowledge and innovation. Penniman makes very important critiques of racism and colonialism within permaculture. 

Embers of Hope: Embracing Life in an Age of Ecological Destruction and Climate Chaos by Bonita Ford (LivingEARTH, 2020)
A meditative book that gives guidance for creating a permaculture life within the uncertainty of ecological destruction and climate breakdown. 

The Re-enchantment (formerly Permaculture for the People)
This is my podcast and blog, where I present permaculture as part of a larger political project.


Rebecca Ellis is a permaculture practitioner, community activist, and beekeeper in London, Ontario, Canada. She is currently completing her PhD dissertation in Geography at Western University and working on a book about capitalist agriculture and pollinator health. In her spare time she likes to play the banjo, ride her bicycle and commune with bees.

Rewilding

Photo: courtesy of Daniel Horen Greenford

by Joshua Sterlin

Conservation biology: rewilding for landscapes

The origins of the academic use of the term rewilding are in conservation biology. This interdisciplinary field is oriented towards the management of species, habitats, and ecosystems with the aim of protecting them. Current extinction rates are so high that we are likely living through the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet, rivaling the one that snuffed out the dinosaurs. Rewilding was turned to as a way to mitigate the stunning rates of biodiversity and habitat loss. Fundamentally it seeks to aide and allow natural systems to regenerate their processes through methods novel to conservation paradigms. So, what does rewilding mean to conservation biology?

In conservation biology, rewilding was turned to as a way to mitigate the stunning rates of biodiversity and habitat loss

First, its view is large in scale, to account for the connectivity and size necessary for supposedly intact ecosystems to flourish. Many animals travel thousands of kilometers in their natural rhythms. The fragmentation of the landscape resulting from industrial agricultural, extractive, and settlement activities have radically impacted their lives, cycles, and needs.

Second, this is often coupled with the reintroduction of predators at the top of food chains, and other (keystone) species that structure entire ecosystems. Many of these have been extirpated from their previous range. Often these are predators that have been perceived to compete with, and complicate, settled societies.

Third, sometimes nature cannot ‘auto-rewild’ as quickly or easily as desired, so restoration and engineering projects are used in its aide. The goal is to facilitate conditions which, to the eyes of the conservation biologist, will not require human management so that the environment can eventually return to being self-regulated.

Essentially, the notion is to let, encourage, and help, non-humans to return to living their self-willed lives, in large, and regenerating, ecosystems. This idea might appear to be yet more meddling by human beings in the environment, which has often resulted in degradation. However, rather than engineering or designing the landscape, the central motivation is to aide nature in its own direction towards rejuvenation and resiliency, through specific targeted actions. These kinds of rewilding projects are undertaken not only by scientists and states at large scales. Committed people all over the world, from communities to guerrilla rewilders, use methods like reintroducing native plant species or removing invasive ones to rejuvenate the landscapes they live within, and love best.

Yellowstone

The most cited example in North America is Yellowstone National Park. By 1926, settlers succeeded in exterminating and driving out the wolves from the park. In their absence, the numbers of browsers and grazers like elk reduced the vegetation dramatically, changing the landscape in radical ways that were only revealed again with the reintroduction of wolves in 1995. Their renewed presence in the park led to not only the reduction of elk population, but a shift in their behaviour. They now avoided places where they were most at risk of being predated upon, like valleys. The absence of their sustained feeding led to the regeneration of forests and vegetation. This then welcomed birds, and also beavers who dammed parts of the river, further changing the landscape. The river’s course also shifted because of the recovery of vegetation which stabilized the banks and led to a less meandering watercourse. This is called a trophic cascade, in which changes at the top of a food chain tumble all the way to the bottom.This almost hundred-year ecological saga shows how easily the baseline of what is perceived as ecologically normal, or ‘untouched’, can shift in a short period of time.

Conservation and coloniality

The history of Yellowstone is also deeply colonial. In 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant wrote the park into existence while simultaneously excluding the multiple groups of native peoples living there seasonally, like the Nez Perce, members of the Blackfoot confederacy, the Crow, and the Shoshone. In 1868 the latter negotiated a treaty with the United States government in which they ceded their lands in exchange for hunting rights. However, the government never ratified the treaty, nor formally recognized the Shoshone’s claims, merely taking the land and removing the Shoshone people. This theft was the end of 11,000 years of sustained human inhabitation of the area.

The notion of nature as a separate bounded entity that only flourishes in the absence of human touch prevented settlers from recognizing that what they saw as ‘wilderness’ was actually landscapes deeply shaped by people.

This context of conservation engenders a central criticism of this kind of rewilding. Conservation paradigms generally seek the removal of human impact on nature. This is an extension of an imagined separation of nature and culture within the Western mind that reaches, at least, as far back as the period dubbed the Enlightenment. Its colonial importation to what became the Americas therefore cast human impact on the stunning ‘new wilderness’ as negative. Therefore, the millions of inhabitants were either depicted as not human, or in need of removal, and often both. This deeply colonial and racist ideology led to the removal of both predators and millions of native peoples from their landscapes. The notion that nature is a separate bounded entity that only flourishes in the absence of human touch prevented settlers from recognizing that what they saw as ‘wilderness’ was actually already landscapes that were deeply affected, and shaped, by people. This revelation, that all the living beings that make up the landscape might flourish more because of human involvement is part of why the concept of rewilding has been taken up much more broadly outside of conservation sciences.

Rewilding for humans: what is our niche?

This forces us to ask the question: what is the appropriate place for the human animal in an ecology? We certainly are an ecosystem engineer like a beaver; and at times a top predator, like a wolf; and have cascading effects within any landscape we live in. With the aide of skills like symbolic language and technological capacity, we have been able to live in essentially every region and climate available, and have done so for millennia in sustainable ways. Yet, starting 10,000-12,000 years ago, many of us have lived in comparatively new agricultural civilizations based upon the settlement, and the domestication of animals and plants. That change in trajectory, in which the majority of humans shifted their relationship with nature and each other from a form of relational trust, to one of domination, accumulation, and instrumentalization, has built towards our present planetary crises. In the face of these conflicting histories, what might be the proper ecological role, the appropriate niche for human beings? What qualitatively set apart the way the Shoshone in Yellowstone lived from that of the colonialists and their descendants?

The question of how we might live in a manner that is mutually enhancing with the natural world is not only one of pressing survival, but of justice for humans and the rest of the living world.

These questions open onto long-standing debates about human nature (see the first contribution to this Resources series by Eleanor Finley) that are fraught with histories of colonialism, racism, and dispossession. Debates about human nature are deeply political and have been used as justification for a whole host of contradictory, and often disturbing, projects. However, the questions as to how we might live in a manner that is mutually enhancing with the natural world is not only one of pressing survival, but of justice, for humans, and the rest of the living world.

There is a growing movement, largely allied with anarchist, radical environmentalist, and decolonial practice, repurposing the term rewilding to be a political and cultural project that is more than merely conservation biology, one that thinks about nature with the people in. Many Indigenous peoples have been exemplars of sustainable lifeways, whose relation to nature has achieved durable ecological balance. Settler societies are beginning to glimpse this as they face burning forests and collapsing fisheries. Taking cues from, and in alliance with, Indigenous peoples, political and cultural rewilders are trying to enact decolonial practices by applying the ideas of rewilding to human beings. This is not looking backwards to an essentialized past but to a hybrid and flexible future of self-willed more-than-human communities, outside of, and after anthropocentric systems of domination.

Further resources

Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution by Caroline Fraser (2010)
This book gives a broad overview of the work being done all over the world in conservation that is inspired by the rewilding approach.

Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot (2013)
This is a more personal account of what rewilding might mean for the land, and for a modern Western person.

Rewild or Die: Revolution and Renaissance at the End of Civilization by Urban Scout (2008)
This book is a series of essays on the political and theoretical underpinnings of rewilding as a project much beyond merely conservation, expanding on what is written in the second half of this article. You can also visit rewild.com.

The Trouble With Wilderness by William Cronon (1995)
This is a seminal essay on the problematic Western conception of ‘wilderness’ and its implications for how we manage and treat the natural world.

How maverick rewilders are trying to turn back the tide of extinction by Patrick Barkham (2020)
A recent article in The Guardian describing the growing movement of those rewilders who are “secretly breeding endangered species and releasing them into the wild. Many are prepared to break the law and risk the fury of the scientific establishment to save the animals they love.”

This is my message to the western world – your civilisation is killing life on Earth’ by Nemonte Nenquimo
A recent article in The Guardian written by a Waorani woman, one of the many Indigenous groups who inhabit the Amazon rainforest, addressed to the political leaders of the world. The tagline reads: ‘We Indigenous people are fighting to save the Amazon, but the whole planet is in trouble because you do not respect it’.

As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2017)
Written by Anishinaabe scholar and activist Leanne Simpson, this book details the many Indigenous political resurgences as being rooted in place-based, uniquely Indigenous lifeways, and thinking.

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by Kat Anderson (2005)
This is a thorough exploration of the ways that Indigenous peoples interacted with, managed, and lived with, the more-than-human world in what is now called California.

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott (2017)
An excellent, accessible, and engaging summary of what recent research has revealed about the earliest days of our transitions in agricultural states, with a particular focus on Mesopotamia.


Joshua Sterlin is a PhD candidate in the Leadership for the Ecozoic program at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, having been trained previously in environmental anthropology. Visit him at jsterlin.org.

Work

Source: William Morris

by Ekaterina Chertkovskaya

Work is drudgery for a lot of people, whether physically or mentally, as they have to work a lot to make a living. Despite this, the work we do defines how we are perceived in society, while precarity of work has become the norm. A lot of work in capitalist growth-oriented economies is also environmentally and socially destructive. However, work can be different and meaningful, if radically reorganised. In what follows I will introduce the word, then proceed to addressing the problems with work, and finish by sketching how work could be transformed.

If you look for a general definition of work, it would usually be presented as an activity that involves physical or mental effort. Such a definition includes work of different kinds, for example, wage labor, unpaid care work or subsistence farming. It is the former, however, that we usually associate work with – i.e. work as a means to earn income, taking the form of wage labor. It is this kind of work that many have to do in a capitalist economy, whether they want to or not, and despite other kinds of work co-existing with it. 

What work looks like today: from modern slavery to alienation

The etymology of the word ‘work’ has negative connotations in some languages, including ‘torture’ (e.g. French) and ‘slavery’ (e.g. Russian). This is unfortunately the way work is experienced by many, metaphorically and literally. 

Work is extremely unjustly distributed within and across societies, defined by class, race, gender and other divisions. The hardest and most dangerous work is today done by people in the Global South – including children – in inhumane conditions. The earnings from this work are often not enough to live on, and yet this work creates wealth for global economies and powerful corporations. Mining for minerals in Congo to make modern technological devices possible, making cheap disposable clothes for renowned brands in Bangladesh or manually recycling plastic waste in Thailand are all examples of such work. 

Severe exploitation of people for commercial gain via, for example, forced labor and debt bondage, is called ‘modern slavery’. According to the ILO, about 16 million people were in forced labor in the private economy in 2016, with 51% of these being in debt bondage. Modern slavery is particularly present in agriculture, mining and extraction, construction, and some forms of manufacturing, as well as unregulated or poorly regulated service industries. New service-oriented sectors that have been expanding rapidly and relying on digital technology – epitomised by companies like Foodora and Amazon – also come with new forms of extremely tough, controlled, accelerated and low-paid work, some of which can also be characterised as modern slavery.

When work is done in safe environments and in more decent conditions, with better salaries and shorter working hours, it still remains alienating: it leads to deskilling and lacks meaning for many. As David Graeber observed, capitalism has been good at creating a lot of ‘bullshit jobs’ – the kinds of jobs that do not need to exist. Corporate rhetoric, in turn, has worked hard to promote work as attractive to potential employees. For example, glitzy graduate brochures pay attention to the employer’s brand, adventures, consumption and endless training opportunities that will come with work, rather than work itself. However, even the most prestigious and glamorous jobs often turn out to be mundane, boring and complicit in the problems of our times. 

Even the most prestigious and glamorous jobs often turn out to be mundane, boring and complicit in the problems of our times.

In response to this, we see a revival of the interest in work as craft, which is laborious but fulfilling – baking, beer brewing, small-scale agriculture, running a zero-waste store. People leave their work in corporate spaces to do something both for themselves and the society. However, these interests are often restricted by the very structure of the capitalist market, with interesting work being difficult to live from.

Work has become precarious over the past thirty years, with job security having been substituted by employability in labor market policies. Zero-hour and short-term contracts become never-ending for some, and even those in permanent positions can be made redundant fairly easily. This is expected to be exacerbated by the rise of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, which will substitute many jobs done by people. Employers today can hire and fire people to adapt to the situation on the market, while state employment agencies help one to search for work, rather than to actually get it. In other words, the responsibility for one’s situation with employment has been shifted from governments and employers to people themselves. 

Despite this precarity of work and many not identifying with what they do to earn a living, most societies are characterised by a culture of workerism, where people’s worth is defined by the status of the work they do. To receive financial support from the state, those who are unemployed have to engage in the often humiliating and disciplining process of proving that they are searching for work, for example, sending a particular number of job applications per week. The kind of work unemployed people have to apply for, however, is often far off from what they want to be doing.

The value of work

Beyond the ways that work is changing today, there is a fundamental problem with how and which work is valued. Wage labor is a key feature of capitalism. Most people have to engage in wage labor to survive. Following Marxist theory, what appears as value created by investors or entrepreneurs is actually built on workers’ labor. For example, a worker at a shoe factory makes the shoes, but doesn’t own the shoe she ends up making nor does she own the machines she uses to make it with. As a result the owners of “the means of production” (e.g. the shareholders and bosses) cash in on any surplus value created, while she only receives the minimum wage the bosses are required to provide. This separation of workers from the means of production drives both capitalist surplus value and alienation from work. Because of this, Karl Marx calls work the “hidden abode of production”, i.e., the source of capitalist value which is often made invisible. 

As further stressed by social reproduction theory, workers also need to be sustained in spaces outside production in order to continue working. Thus, capitalist surplus value relies on yet another “hidden abode” – a vast range of reproductive activities, which are, however, invisible and are not recognised in capitalist value creation. These activities, such as domestic labor, can be paid but are largely unpaid, and mostly fall on the shoulders of women. 

When products are sold, however, their exchange value comes across as independent from productive and reproductive activities – Marx referred to this as commodity fetishism. Furthermore, the capitalist system is oriented towards financial gain, rather than satisfaction of human needs, and work that brings higher profits is recognised much more than work that contributes to well-being and welfare.

As vividly demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, work that is most essential for the daily functioning of societies – care work, nursing, driving public transport, garbage collection, etc – is valued least. At the same time, economic sectors that are destructive or churning out bullshit jobs – financial and housing market speculation, advertising that pollutes public spaces or creating distractive social media technology – enjoy extreme levels of financial gratification and social status. They are able to create jobs, employ people, and pay them well. Moreover, some industries are directly responsible for environmental destruction and health deterioration. Bue Rübner Hansen calls work in these sectors ‘batshit jobs’, to denote the madness of the contradiction when making a living is also part of unmaking life. The fossil industry, which some of the world’s richest and most powerful companies belong to, is a case in point. It gives jobs to many people, but drives destruction. Such industries have to be phased out, but the workers in those industries would also need to be ensured a just transition to meaningful jobs in sectors that would be needed in the economy of the future – care, repair, and environmental regeneration.

Abolish work or liberate it? 

In response to the problems with work, anti-work theses have become popular, arguing, for example, for the abolition of work. Some believe that technology will help to liberate us from work, if only it could be reclaimed from the hands of capital and used in public interest. However, reliance on massive technological interventions requires a lot of energy and materials, and will likely create a lot of waste, too—thus bringing further environmental devastation. It is also likely to come with hierarchical systems of control and, ultimately, its own forms of injustice. For example, as Barbara Muraca and Frederike Neuber argue, complex technologies like BECCS (bio-energy with carbon capture and storage) will not be possible to manage in a decentralised way, while any side effects of these technologies – such as leakage of CO2 – will directly affect local communities. Furthermore, a lot of work, often hard, time-consuming, or unpleasant, is required for the daily life of societies – such as childrearing, caring for the sick, cleaning, and provision of services. Thus, work – done by humans – is here to stay. However, it needs to be transformed. 

The problem with work is not confined to ‘work’ only, but is structural. Capitalist economies are oriented towards continuous capital accumulation, economic growth, and profit by all means. So transformation of work should be part of a general reorganisation of societies and economies away from capitalism and towards socio-ecological transformation. This reorganisation would decentre work from the social pedestal it enjoys today and put life at the centre instead. As part of this transformation, we need to collectively rethink which work is essential for societies and contributes to well-being and environmental regeneration, and how much of it is needed. 

We need to liberate ourselves from work, but also liberate work itself.

As Stefania Barca argues, we need to liberate ourselves from work, but also liberate work itself. In general, we should be working less, at a slower pace, and have time for many things outside work – reproductive, social, political, but also rest, idleness and contemplation. There also needs to be a more equal distribution of work within and across societies, with everyone contributing to socially necessary work and also having spaces for more craft-based, creative and intellectual work. 

To liberate work itself, it should be organised differently. Collective forms of ownership and organising –  such as cooperatives and commons –  are key to the transformation of work. So are workplace democracy, non-hierarchical organisational structures and participatory decision-making. With such organisation of work, even work that is not pleasant in itself can acquire a different meaning. There are many ways to push for the transformation of work, starting from grassroots initiatives where work is organised differently, to institutional changes such as reduction of working time, job guarantee, universal basic income, and universal basic services.

Further resources

Critiques of work

On modern slavery

Crane, A. (2013) ‘Modern slavery as a management practice: Exploring the conditions and capabilities for human exploitation’, Academy of Management Review, 38: 49-69.

International Labor Office (ILO) (2017) ‘Global estimates of modern slavery: Forced labor and forced marriage’, Geneva: ILO.

On other problems with work: Boredom, lack of meaning, environmental destruction

Costas J. and D. Kärreman (2016) ‘The bored self in knowledge work’, Human Relations, 69(1): 61-83.

Graeber, D. (2018) Bullshit jobs. London: Penguin.

Hansen, B.R. (2019) ‘“Batshit jobs” – no-one should have to destroy the planet to make a living’, Open Democracy, 11 June. 

Hoffmann, M. and R. Paulsen (2020) ‘Resolving the “jobs-environment-dilemma”? The case for critiques of work in sustainability research’, Environmental Sociology, doi 

On discourses and qualities surrounding work: Consumption, employability, precarity

Chertkovskaya, E., Korczynski, M. and Taylor, S. (2020) ‘The consumption of work: Representations and interpretations of the meaning of work at a UK university’, Organization, 27(4): 517-536.

Chertkovskaya, E., P. Watt, S. Tramer and S. Spoelstra (2013) ‘Giving notice to employability’. ephemera: theory & politics in organization 13(4): 701-716.

Standing, G. (2011) The precariat: The new dangerous class. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Towards alternatives

Reclaiming work, visibilising social reproduction

Fraser, N. (2014) ‘Behind Marx’s hidden abode’, New Left Review, 86: 55-72.

Schleuning, N. (1995) “The abolition of work and other myths’, Kick it Over, 35 (Summer). Libcom.org.

Articulating and doing work differently (from critiques to alternatives)

Barca, S. (2019a) ‘An alternative worth fighting for: Degrowth and the liberation of work’, in E. Chertkovskaya, A. Paulsson and S. Barca (eds.) Towards a political economy of degrowth. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Chertkovskaya, E. and K. Stoborod (2018) ‘Work’, in B. Franks, L. Williams and N. Jun (eds.) Anarchism: A conceptual approach. Routledge.

Kokkinidis G. (2015) ‘Spaces of possibilities: workers’ self-management in Greece’, Organization, 22(6): 847-871.

New roots collective and 2000+ signatories (2020) ‘www.degrowth.info/en/open-letter’, degrowth.info, 13 May.

On organised labour as a transformative actor

Barca, S. (2019b) ‘The labor(s) of degrowth’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 30(2): 207-216.

Barca, S. and E. Leonardi (2018) ‘Working-class ecology and union politics: A conceptual topology’, Globalizations, 4: 487-503.

Ekaterina Chertkovskaya is a researcher in degrowth and critical organisation studies based at Lund University, with interests in the themes of alternative organising, work and technology. She co-edited Towards a political economy of degrowth (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and is a member of the editorial collective of ephemera journal.

Thanks to Aaron Vansintjan for his caring editing of this text.

Political ecology

Photo credit: Stephanie Salazar

by Panagiota Kotsila, Salvatore Paolo De Rosa & Ilenia Iengo

The relationship between nature and society is one of co-evolution in which the question of how power is distributed is central. Political Ecology can untangle how the structuring of socio-ecological relations may reproduce injustice or afford openings towards emancipation. Like a toolbox to unpack and understand the complexity of the socio-ecological crises we live in, political ecology is dedicated to a more just and inclusive world. 

As a field of inquiry, Political Ecology has many roots and branches united by the common endeavour of observing, analysing, reflecting upon, and communicating how environments are produced by the interaction of social and biophysical processes. Political ecologists document the power struggles that make and remake “the environment”. They provide an understanding of the environment as a dynamic material reality, with exchanges between human and non-human actors, as well as a symbolic arena where different (and often clashing) knowledges, desires and ideologies are cast. Political ecologists claim that the natural and the social spheres are inseparable in practice. Nature and society are constantly co-constituted through processes of co-evolution, and their relationship is fundamentally shaped by power and meaning. 

Political ecologists document the power struggles that make and remake “the environment”

Political ecology is the child of human geography, cultural ecology and development studies. In its infancy (1980s-90s), it was concerned mostly about environmental degradation, rural development and the Global South, where it examined the uneven distribution of ecological costs and benefits, and the resulting socio-environmental conflicts and grassroots resistance. Later on, it attracted attention from fields such as anthropology, science and technology studies, feminism and public health. In a nutshell, political ecology developed as an approach that could tackle complex socio-natural phenomena in a novel, encompassing and transversal way. 

Many have called it a trans-disciplinary, supra-disciplinary, or even un-disciplined field, due to its incorporation of theories, methodologies and practices from different academic and non-academic arenas. From a rather elusive area of study, political ecology is becoming a strong, ever-evolving and diverse field of its own, of central importance and reference in the contemporary times of climate emergency and socio-environmental injustices, democracy crisis, planetary ecological degradation and widening inequalities. 

Political ecology’s main pillars are two (anti-)claims: 

1. The anti-Malthusian argument: Resource degradation is not due to general population increase, but to the relentless extraction of resources for the (over-)production and consumption of commodities, which benefits some while threatening the livelihoods and survival of others. Furthermore, in a globalising world, attention needs to be paid to how different scales meet, i.e. to the connections between proximate causes of environmental change and degradation, and the more distant but powerful processes that contribute to such changes. Extreme floods, for example, are not only due to local forest clearing and land use change which might include unauthorized construction, but are also reinforced by increasingly abrupt weather events as part of global climatic change, which in turn is exacerbated by those same land use changes and uncontrolled urbanisation patterns. Political ecologists recognise these connections and underline the powerful interests that motivate and perpetuate such changes. In this vein, the discipline resists declaring this era simply as the “Anthropocene”, which represents the human species acting as one in the process of degrading the planet’s resources and altering its biophysical processes. Instead, it places attention to the political and economic histories and specific actors that produced the current global ecological crisis. This means paying attention to how unevenly distributed the responsibilities and adverse outcomes of such crises are, in turn reflecting power relations in society (hence claims for the Capitalocene, Chthulucene, Anthropo-obscene, Wasteocene or even White (M)Anthropocene). 

2. The anti-apolitical ecologies: Or, in other words, nothing in “nature” is simply natural. While political ecology relies on strong ecological thinking, it also recognises that what we know of nature, and the imaginaries we hold of it, is a result of historical power/knowledge asymmetries. These include colonial views and conceptualisations of the biophysical environment (e.g. wilderness, pristine forests, etc.), which have come about, survived to this day and become hegemonic through violent practices of injustice and domination over indigenous populations of both humans and non-humans. Urban Political Ecology brings this “nature-cultures” understanding to the urbanization process. In opposition to the interpretation of cities as unnatural spaces, urban political ecology claims otherwise. It focuses on the socio-environmental injustices that come along with processes of altering, (re)producing, negotiating, (re)distributing and (re)imagining socio-ecological configurations in the process of urbanization, urban planning and urban life. This means paying attention to the lived experiences of environmental racism, grassroots claims for the right to live in healthy environments and the growing coalition politics of emancipatory feminist, environmental and decolonial commoning experiences in urban contexts and beyond.

Nothing in “nature” is simply natural

What politics?

For those doing Political Ecology, scientific research is not detached from knowledge/power relations and this recognition has multiple repercussions on how most political ecology is being carried out, or at least, the goals it sets for itself. First, political ecologists believe that considerations of justice, equity and fairness in relation to race, gender, class, ethnicity and other socio-cultural and material inequalities, should be put at the center of research practice and should constitute a shared horizon of values towards collective emancipation. Second, political ecologists often take a position of solidarity with movements that defend humans’ and nature’s rights, and with disenfranchised and often marginalised people that struggle for their voices and claims to be heard. Third, attention is paid to critically reflect on how one’s own position in terms of geography, class, gender, cultural background and interests, influences observations and the whole research practice. Researchers often align and engage with movements but are careful not to romanticize or misrepresent them, as well as not to over-exploit them as informants without giving back.

At the same time, a recent wave of post-/de-colonial thought has increasingly informed political ecology, pushing for the decolonization of political ecology literature, the recognition of non-white and non-western authors, including the doing away with barriers between “researcher” and “research subject”, recognizing various forms of knowledge making, and visibilising the valuable contributions of thinkers outside strict academic silos and outside of academia tout court. Along the same lines, a powerful feminist “turn” in the field is paying attention to intersectionality of power subjection (that includes but is not only about gender or women).

A more serious account of the affective, emotional and embodied experiences of people with/in nature can help to understand socio-environmental conflicts and movements

Feminist Political Ecology accentuates the importance of decolonising what we know of the world, revisiting knowledge gathered and generated by white western men in powerful institutions during and beyond colonisation, and open up to voices, words and meanings offered by subordinated cultures, non-binary subjectivities and minority peoples. Feminist Political Ecology is further advocating for a more serious account of the affective, emotional and embodied experiences of people with/in nature and in projects of ‘being in common’. This will help to understand the nitty-gritty of socio-environmental conflicts and movements, focusing on how different, ever-changing and interdependent the lives of humans and non-humans really are. This is, as Feminist Political Ecology asserts, what can give space for situated knowledges to replace colonial and universalizing accounts of the complex worlds we are part of.

What ecology?

Political ecology, however, is confronted with a number of internal tensions, much of which boils down to the question of what constitutes “ecology” and thus, what ecology do we stand for and imagine for the future? If nature cannot be seen separately from society and power relations, what are the environmental principles and ethics that the field goes by? While much of Political Ecology offers a deep analysis of the why and how in socio-natures and related conflicts, only some goes as far as sketching a more concrete way forward. 

Aligned with pertinent debates in Political Ecology, degrowth is a movement of activists and intellectuals which inspires, and is inspired by, grassroots practices reflecting on and experimenting with post-growth ways of individual and collective lives. Degrowth offers alternative visions for socio-ecological relations, which are different to capitalism and real socialism, both of which are based on environmental devastation for the final aim of profit accumulation and competitive power over other states. Degrowth articulates an analytical vocabulary of practice around concepts such as ‘autonomy’, ‘conviviality’, ‘care’ and ‘dépense’. On the opposite side of the spectrum there are the ecomodernist and ecosocialist movements, both considering the public control of the means of production through democratic and horizontal processes of decision making to be the way out of the ecological and social crisis. While according to ecomodernists technological progress will be instrumental in this process, ecosocialists focus on the political and social formations that could bring about such changes. 

Degrowth focuses on a radical critique of the growth and productivist imperative demanding a clear, voluntary, democratic and equitable reduction of extraction, processing, transport, consumption and disposal of materials and energy. According to “degrowthers” this is the only way to reduce emissions and abandon environmentally catastrophic processes, while also addressing aspects of inequality and injustice connected to such processes. Ecomodernists and ecosocialists alike, on the other hand, maintain a positivist perspective towards technological innovation and progress, beyond neoliberal propositions of green/blue growth and towards a return to projects that environmentalists had long stood against, such as nuclear power, centralized planning and industrial agriculture. Political ecologists recognise that ideas of nature are social constructions, but they also stand strongly against Western/anthropocentric  notions of complete control and domination over “nature”, as this is denying agency both to non-human beings and to non-western understandings of socionatural dependencies and value systems. 

Further resources

Peet, R. and Watts, M. (2004) Liberation ecologies: environment, development and social movements. Routledge.

Heynen, N., Kaika, M. and Swyngedouw, E. (eds) (2006) In the Nature of Cities. Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism. Routledge.

Di Chiro, G. 2008. Living Environmentalisms: Coalition Politics, Social Reproduction and Environmental Justice. Environmental Politics. 17(2): 276-298. 

Rocheleau, D., Thomas-Slayter, B. and Wangari, E. (2013) Feminist political ecology: Global issues and local experience. Routledge.

D’alisa, G., Demaria, F. and Kallis, G. (2014) Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era. Routledge.

Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Perreault, T., Bridge, G. and McCarthy, J. (eds) (2015) The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology. Routledge.

Svarstad, H., Benjaminsen, T. A. and Overå, R. (2018) ‘Power theories in political ecology’. University of Arizona Libraries.

Álvarez, L., & Coolsaet, B. (2018). Decolonizing Environmental Justice Studies: A Latin American Perspective. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 1-20.

Escobar, A. (2008). Territories of difference: place, movements, life, redes. Duke University Press.

Political Ecology for Civil Society: a “manual” developed by Entitle fellows 

Ecologia Politica – Cuadernos de debate internacional

Kothari, A., Salleh, A., Escobar, A., Demaria, F., Acosta, A. (2019). Pluriverse a Post-Development Dictionary. Columbia University Press.

Plumwood, V. (1993). Feminism and The Mastery of Nature. Routledge, New York and London. 

Panagiota Kotsila is a post-doctoral researcher at the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability, ICTA, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Her work looks into political ecologies of health, the politics of urban sustainability and environmental justice from an intersectional and feminist perspective. 

Salvatore Paolo De Rosa is a researcher at the Environmental Humanities Lab of KTH (Stockholm). His interests are in political ecology, geography and anthropology while his work focuses on environmental conflicts, socioecological metabolisms and grassroots eco-politics. Currently, he is investigating climate politics in Malmö.

Ilenia Iengo is a scholar activist PhD fellow in Feminist Political Ecology, member of the Marie Sklodowska Curie WEGO ITN at the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability, ICTA UAB. Her action research is situated in the Southern European city of Naples where she focuses on emancipatory urban politics and imaginaries sprouting at the intersection of transfeminism and environmental justice.

Development

A snapshot of growth-led development in Delhi-NCR, India. Photo by the author.

by Vandana

The term ‘development’ perhaps needs no introduction. To develop is to improve the conditions in which we live. But what should be the path of development? Can there be only one way to develop? What are the prevalent ways of thinking about development and what have they meant for the majority of people in the world? The dominant means of development have largely been counterproductive, wreaking ecological damage and social inequality in most parts of the world. To understand where to go from here, it is crucial to understand that development processes and the goals of prosperity are politically determined.

The dominant means of development have largely been counterproductive, wreaking ecological damage and social inequality in most parts of the world

The modern model of development grew out of the end of the colonial period, when colonial empires assumed the duty of developing the former colonies. Since then, colonial-era power relations have continued to play out under the guise of economic development. Institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) formed in the 1940s with the promise of stabilizing the economy and rebuilding war-torn Europe. Their strategies centered Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a key indicator of development. At the same time, with their deep-seated colonial ambitions, the triumphant Allied Forces—France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union—came to define development. US President Harry Truman used the word ‘underdeveloped’ for the first time in his inaugural address in January 1949, dividing the world according to regional poverty and prosperity. High levels of poverty coincided with low levels of industrialization, bolstering the belief that Western-style development would be inevitable for these ‘underdeveloped’ countries. 

Countries like Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, and later on the US, saw an improvement in living conditions as a result of the Industrial Revolution. At the same time, a hierarchical relationship developed between business owners and workers. Within this new relationship, peasants lost their relationship to the land and became workers who sold their labour in return for a wage. Increased production set the stage for mass consumption, which signaled improved access to material goods for the workers themselves. But the perceived success of the Industrial Revolution was mainly due to the extractive colonial expeditions that boosted Western economies through the supply of enslaved people and the import of goods.  As this model of industrial production proved its ability to generate an abundance of profits and products, it came to serve as a paradigm for development around the globe. By the mid 20th century, many countries in Asia, Africa, and South America were finally liberated from colonial rule, but pursued this Western model of development due to its perceived success. 

In the 50s and 60s, dominant economic theory emphasized the need for countries to modernize by moving their labour force away from agriculture and towards sectors like manufacturing and services. This was called ‘structural transformation,’ and was made popular by the works of economists W. Arthur Lewis and Walt W. Rostow. So-called ‘primitive’ sectors like agriculture underwent a complete overhaul to improve productivity, efficiency, and incomes. This theory of development—which proposed that GDP growth would lead to the improvement of living conditions—faced a challenge in the 70s and 80s. The ‘Limits to Growth’ report, published in 1972, brought ecological concerns to the forefront, while environmental movements gained momentum all around the world. The report argued that unlimited material and population growth would not be possible because the planet’s resource pool is limited. By the end of the 1980s, the United Nations released ‘Our Common Future,’ a report that gave rise to the idea of sustainable development. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), launched in 2015, are based on this report’s definition of sustainability. 

Another framework, called the capabilities approach, proposed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, suggested expanding the scope of existing goals of poverty alleviation programs. By expanding the focus beyond income improvement alone, the capabilities approach proposed that an expansion in the opportunities and freedoms available to those experiencing poverty is essential for overall development. This approach eventually led to the conception of the Human Development Index—a measure of whether a country is capable of ensuring good health, education, and income for its residents. However, while the goals of development expanded, the mechanism for achieving them—GDP growth—largely continued unscathed.

Proponents of growth-centric economic development—namely world leaders and policymakers—argue that access to healthcare, education, and basic freedoms will grow once incomes begin to grow. They also assume that economic growth based on the principles of the free market—which had triumphed by the 1980s—will provide solutions to ecological degradation. The claim made in ‘Our Common Future’ that ‘poverty places unprecedented pressures on the planet’s land, water, forests, and other natural resources,’ brought the alleviation of poverty to the center of sustainability and human development discourse. 

In the past few decades, poverty alleviation programs have helped move millions of people out of extreme poverty, but they have not done much to increase the freedoms or opportunities afforded to them. This is due to several reasons. First, the threshold which determines extreme poverty is set very low, at an income of less than 2 dollars a day. Any movement above this level does not guarantee an improvement in people’s lives. Second, World Bank data confirms that the poverty reduction rate has slowed down recently, and that the absolute number of people living below the poverty line has barely declined since the 1990s despite the goals of these programs. The third, and most important problem lies in the relations of production that this path of development creates as it actualizes.

Growth-driven development triggers a process of dispossession. It plays out through the loss of access to land and resources and through the experience of the environment’s continuous degradation.

In the case of India, this path of development has led to a significant change in land use, from forestry and agriculture to industry and mining. It has also altered human-nature relations and power relations between the State, the market, and communities. This shift has triggered a process of dispossession that plays out in two ways: one, through the loss of access to land and resources (soil, water, forest, foliage, etc.), and second, through the experience of the environment’s continuous degradation. In response, people move out of rural agricultural areas and migrate to industrialized cities with the hope of earning higher incomes. However, the work they find does not necessarily ensure good health, access to education, or the ability to make savings. With neither the private sector nor the State investing in programs that provide decent living conditions, the majority of the population is left feeling betrayed and stranded. This dissatisfaction has given rise to numerous resistance movements. The Chipko movement (1973), Narmada Bachao Andolan (1985), Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (2003), and Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (2009) are a few examples of movements that have resisted the crucial features of the mainstream development model like the construction of big dams and mining projects. These struggles foreground the underlying violence of growth-driven development. 

It’s time to rethink the idea of development, and to create alternative relationships to production

These conflicts among communities and different agents of development—namely, the State, NGOs, and private industries—have deepened in the recent past, indicating the growing desperation among all stakeholders. The sharp increase in the level of inequality in the past three decades confirms that this development model only supports the interests of business owners and landowners at the expense of workers and the environment. It’s time to rethink the idea of development, and to create alternative relations of production. The future of development thought must focus on the creation of more meaningful and ecologically sensitive work. It should give more space to the knowledge and ideas of the subaltern groups in India—the Dalits, bahujans and adivasis—in defining the idea of sustainability. For development to truly deliver on its promise—the betterment of life for all—it must engage a multidimensional understanding of poverty. As we’ve learned, poverty manifests not only through financial hardship, but also through the loss of access to life-sustaining resources, the degradation of one’s environment, lack of healthcare, diminishing leisure time, and a scarcity of meaningful work for the majority of people in the world. A new approach to development must address the increasing precarity in the lives of people confronted with industrialization and conservation policies.  

Further resources

Philip Alson, Philip Alston Condemns Failed Global Poverty Eradication Efforts, July 2020.
A recent report and commentary by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (2014-2020), on the false promise of the existing approach toward poverty alleviation.

Demaria, F., & Kothari, A. (2017). The Post-Development Dictionary agenda: paths to the pluriverse. Third World Quarterly, 38(12), 2588-2599.
A crucial resource for understanding the conceptualization of future development paths. 

Shiva, V. (2013). How economic growth has become anti-life. The Guardian, 1.
A critical overview of the growth-driven economic model that elucidates how growth-driven development impoverishes farmers. 

Escobar, A. (2011). Encountering development: The making and unmaking of the Third World (Vol. 1). Princeton University Press.
This book offers a political understanding of the process of development. It describes the ways in which expert-led knowledge originating in the West came to define poverty and development in the so-called developing world.    

Gerber, J. F., & Raina, R. S. (Eds.). (2018). Post-growth thinking in India: Towards sustainable egalitarian alternatives. Orient Blackswan.
This book discusses post-growth theories, from the perspective of a developing nation. It argues that moving beyond growth-led thinking is not a privilege of the Global North/developed world but also a requirement for the Global South/developing world. 

Goldman, M. (2005). Imperial nature: The World Bank and struggles for social justice in the age of globalization. Yale University Press. 
This book explains how the projects funded by the World Bank really work at the ground level and why community activists struggle against its brand of development.  

On resistance and alternative ideas of wellbeing:

Transformations – Wellbeing by Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, September 2020.
The story of Korchi taluka, in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra State in India, on creating transformative alternatives to challenge mainstream ideas of development.   

A folk song sung by the subaltern resisting industrialization in India. Released on Youtube in 2018.
This song is inspired by a song by Bhagwan Majhi, leader of adivasi struggle against bauxite mining in Kashipur, Odisha.

A Ted Talk by Ashish Kothari held at FLAME University, Pune, Maharashtra. March 2019.
The founder of Kalpavriksh speaks on alternative theories of development.

Vandana is Lecturer at Jindal Global Business School, in Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India. She is about to finish her PhD at Indian Institute of Management Calcutta with specialization in Public Policy and Management. As a development professional working with an international NGO prior to her doctoral studies, she has extensive experience in working with government agencies, NGOs and Indigenous communities. Her current research works lie in the intersection of multiple fields of study like Political Ecology, Sustainable Development and Ecological Economics with a focus on food systems and tribal communities in India. Her Twitter is @Vanni_vandana.

Renewable energy

Photo: Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

by Alf Hornborg

The concept of renewable energy is generally used for electric power that is not derived from finite sources such as stocks of fossil fuels or uranium. It includes the harnessing of flows such as direct sunlight, wind, and water. Harnessing such flows for electricity production requires technologies that are fundamentally different from the technologies used for deriving mechanical power from burning stocks of coal, oil, or gas. This applies to wind turbines and hydroelectric dams as much as it does to photovoltaic panels, but the focus here will be on solar power.

The rise of the fossil economy

The burning of fossil fuels as sources of mechanical power began with the steam engine in Britain in the 1760s. This innovation was essential to the Industrial Revolution. It marked a transition from relying on organic and flow-based energy sources propelled by current sunlight—such as human labour, draft animals, watermills, and windmills—to the combustion of subterranean mineral stocks. These mineral stocks—coal, oil, and gas—contain energy from ancient sunlight accumulated in organisms and deposited as sediments in the Earth’s crust.

The energy transition of the Industrial Revolution was not simply a discovery of how mineral energy could be converted into mechanical power. The harnessing of mineral energy required capital, that is purchasing power. As the wealthy core of the world’s greatest colonial empire, Britain was able to invest in steam technology. The expansion of steam technology in late eighteenth-century Britain was thus a process linked to the British appropriation of African slave labour and American plantation land. It saved Britain substantial quantities of labour time and agricultural land, but at the expense of great amounts of African labour and American land.

Energy technology – part nature, part society

The experience of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and other wealthy areas of the world was interpreted as a miraculous achievement of engineering. This is undeniable but does not tell the whole story. Technologies are not merely ingenious ideas or blueprints applied to nature. For them to materialize, engineers must have access to specific physical components—and at specific ratios of exchange (that is, prices). Engineering was certainly a necessary condition for the establishment of steam technology in early industrial Britain, but it was not a sufficient condition. The technology for harnessing the energy of coal was contingent on the market prices of raw cotton, African slaves, the labour of coal miners, Swedish iron, lubricants, and other inputs in relation to the market prices of exported cotton textiles. The physical existence of the machine, in other words, hinged not only on the revelation of nature, but also on social processes of exchange. However, this hybrid essence of technology—part nature, part society—has largely escaped the modern conception of engineering.

Across the political spectrum, there is a general faith in the capacity of modern society to shift to renewable, non-fossil energy sources without substantially reducing its levels of energy use

By the end of the twentieth century, natural scientists had recognized that the combustion of fossil fuels is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. There have also been concerns about the depletion of finite mineral energy stocks and the decreasing net energy return on energy expended on extraction, also referred to as ERO(e)I (Energy Return On energy Investment). Moreover, the huge global disparities in per capita energy use are no longer easily rationalized as uneven development but suggest structural and increasing gaps between wealthier and poorer parts of world society. Given the dominant understanding of energy technology, however, these problems have generally not informed mainstream visions of the prospects of an increasingly globalized modern society. In these visions, the growing per capita use of energy continues to be fundamental to social progress, regardless of energy source. The problems with fossil energy are viewed as challenges of engineering. Across the political spectrum, there is a general faith in the capacity of modern society to shift to renewable, non-fossil energy sources without substantially reducing its levels of energy use.

Will renewables replace fossil fuels?

The main candidates for replacing fossil with renewable energy are solar and wind power. Experts are divided regarding their potential to replace fossil fuels. Some see no technical or economic obstacles to such a transition. Skeptics have argued that renewable energy technologies applied at such a scale would require impractically huge amounts of materials, space, or energy. Some have emphasized that the production and maintenance of infrastructure for production of renewable energy is based on fossil energy to such an extent that the energy derived from it is very far from carbon-free. This is particularly obvious where the manufacture of solar panels is conducted in coal-powered factories, as in China. Given that the world economy is currently propelled by fossil energy to about 90%, some have concluded that economic investments in renewable energy represent a fossil energy subsidy of similar proportions. Also, given this reliance on fossil fuels, a rise in prices of fossil energy cannot simply be hailed in terms of an increasing competitiveness for solar, as it will translate into higher production costs for alternative technologies. More centrally, given the fact that the cheapening of solar panels in recent years to a significant extent is the result of shifting manufacture to China, we must ask ourselves whether European and American efforts to become sustainable should really be based on the global exploitation of low-wage labor and abused landscapes elsewhere. The global, societal conditions for energy technologies tend to be equally overlooked whether we are accounting for the eighteenth-century shift to fossil energy or deliberating about how to abandon it. Both steam engines and solar panels have relied on asymmetric global flows of biophysical resources such as embodied labor, land, energy, and materials.

A transition to renewable energy generally focuses on electricity production, but most of the total global energy use occurs in other contexts, such as non-electric transports. Electricity globally represents about 19% of total energy use. In the year 2017, only 0.7% of global energy use derived from solar power and 1.9% from wind, while over 85% relied on fossil fuels. In March 2018, Vaclav Smil estimated that as much as 90% of world energy use derives from fossil sources, and that the share is actually increasing. Solar power is not displacing fossil energy, only adding to it. The pace of expansion of renewable energy capacity has stalled—it was about the same in 2018 as in 2017. Meanwhile, the global combustion of fossil fuels continues to rise, as do global carbon emissions.

We have every reason to dismantle most of the global, fossil-fueled infrastructure for transporting people, groceries, and other commodities around the planet

Downscaling energy needs

How should we understand and transcend this impasse? To continue burning fossil fuels cannot be an option, but to believe that modern, high-energy society can be maintained based on renewable energy is similarly deluded. We shall certainly continue to need electricity, for example to run our hospitals and computers. But we have every reason to dismantle most of the global, fossil-fueled infrastructure for transporting people, groceries, and other commodities around the planet. This means making human subsistence independent from fossil energy and substantially reducing our mobility and consumption. Solar power will no doubt be an indispensable component of humanity’s future, but this will not happen as long as we allow the logic of the world market to make it profitable to transport essential goods halfway around the world. In order to provide the conditions for a sustainable technology, we must begin by establishing a sustainable economy. Crucially, also, we must modify our understanding of the very idea of technology. Contrary to our modern worldview since the Industrial Revolution, technology is not a neutral way of revealing and harnessing the forces of nature. A better way to define technology is to acknowledge that it is a global social phenomenon and a moral and political question rather than simply one of engineering. If we forget about this distributive aspect of technology, it will likely continue to save time and space for a global elite at the expense of human time and natural space appropriated elsewhere.

Further resources

Alf Hornborg. Nature, society, and justice in the Anthropocene: Unraveling the money-energy-technology complex. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Argues that modern energy technologies, in exploiting global differences in the price of labor and resources, are based not only on politically neutral revelations of natural forces but crucially also on accumulation of the capital invested in harnessing them.

Dustin Mulvaney. Solar power: Innovation, sustainability, and environmental justice. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019.
Discusses what changes would be required in the life cycle of photovoltaic solar power technology to make it just and sustainable.

Vaclav Smil. Power density: A key to understanding energy sources and uses. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015.
Compares different energy sources in terms of the amount of energy that can be derived from them per square meter of space.

Alf Hornborg is an anthropologist and Professor of Human Ecology at Lund University, Sweden. His research focuses on theorizing the cultural and political dimensions of human-environmental relations in different societies in space and time. His books include The Power of the Machine (2001), Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange (2011), Global Magic (2016), and Nature, Society, and Justice in the Anthropocene (2019).