Kitara is a Tuvaluan climate change activist and Carol Farbotko an Australian social scientist. They met in Tuvalu in 2005 and have collaborated on several writing projects to raise awareness about Tuvalu and climate change.
I am a Tuvaluan. I work in a gas factory and I am a climate change activist. I am not a climate refugee. I am a migrant in Australia. I want to share my story because it is a personal story about climate change.
In Tuvalu, fishing and growing food are very important. My family grew coconuts, taro, pulaka, pawpaw, breadfruit and bananas. I started to notice a lot of changes in the sea and land. Scientists seemed to be talking about the changes I was noticing in my islands. I knew that climate change was real. I learned that fossil fuels were causing the damage.
I was born on the island of Nui in Tuvalu, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, as were my parents and their parents. Nui is my fenua, my island and my people. On my island, land is communal – owned by families, not individuals. Those members of my family who still live on Nui look after our land. They make sure that crops are planted, although this is becoming more difficult with saltwater inundation and erosion. But on Nui, life is beautiful. Most people don’t have jobs, but they don’t really need much cash. Fish and coconuts are still plentiful, and with some taro, pawpaw and banana growing, and pigs. There is usually enough to eat.
When I was a teenager I was lucky to get a scholarship to go to boarding school in Australia. That was when I discovered that I liked Australian life. I also realised I liked travelling and learning about different people and different places. I went back to Tuvalu when I finished school. I trained and worked as a high school English and Geography teacher. Then I started working in community development. I helped Tuvaluan communities to do projects to protect the environment and improve their livelihoods. We planted mangroves and implemented pig farming and crop-growing techniques that were better suited to the changing climate.
There were other changes too. Droughts were worse than they used to be. The weather was changing. Houses were being flooded during king tides. Fish were no longer in the shallower waters when I went out fishing to feed my family. We had to go further out, into deeper cooler waters, which was more dangerous. Our marine conservation areas were being used properly, but it was hard to look after fish stocks when the water temperature was rising.
I knew I had to try and do something about climate change. The scientists were warning that one day, all the islands in Tuvalu would be so badly affected by sea level rise that nobody would be able to live there. All of our nine islands in Tuvalu, including Nui, are very very small. You could walk all around the biggest one in a single day. Some of the islands are actually comprised of several tiny islets. These islets are very skinny. You can walk from one side to the other in less than five minutes. If the sea levels rise, there really is nowhere to go.
So I signed up to represent Tuvalu’s civil society at the international climate change negotiations. I wanted the voice of the communities I worked with to be heard. I travelled to China, Germany and Denmark to attend COPs where I met activists from all over the world. I learned about the international Climate Action Network and helped to set up TuCAN. I worked with Tuvaluan government representatives to try and get the international community to listen. We needed serious global reductions in fossil fuel use. At the Copenhagen COP in 2009 I was one of the few civil society representatives to still have access to the negotiations when everyone else was banned. Protests against the lack of agreement were too much of a ‘security risk’ according to the organisers. But since everyone in Tuvalu works together, I was able to join the Tuvalu government delegation. We all worked such long hours, and so hard, but Copenhagen was a failure. Nothing real was achieved. I went home devastated.
It was around this time that I fell in love with an Australian and we got engaged. I migrated to Brisbane six years ago when we got married. My wife and I both love Tuvalu, but it would have been hard for her to find work there. We wanted our children to be dual citizens and attend school in Australia.
When we first got married, my wife worked full time. I could not work because I had entered Australia on a tourist visa, waiting for my permanent residency visa application to be processed. When my PR finally came through, it was time for me bring my mum and daughter from a previous marriage to Australia. They had been waiting in Tuvalu for their PR too, because they were my dependents. I made the choice that we would all migrate, even though a part of me wants to be on my island, Nui. After a lot of worrying about how strange Australia would be for my mum and daughter, I decided that they would, on balance, be safer in Australia than in Tuvalu. Climate change is real, and it will become harder for children and the elderly to be safe.
One month after my mum and daughter arrived, my wife and I welcomed our first baby together. After getting pregnant, my wife had applied for and was accepted into a permanent job, after many years of casual and contract work. But she had not been in her new job long enough for entitlement to maternity leave. So our only income was about to dry up for several months, and there was my mum, daughter and new baby to look after. I had to find a job fast. My teaching diploma was not recognised in Australia, and community development work is hard to find, and I didn’t have a university qualification anyway, which didn’t help.
A Tuvaluan friend who had lived in Brisbane for a while had a job at a local gas depot. He told me they were looking for workers. I applied and got a casual position straight away. There were a few Tuvaluans there and we all were known for working hard. I have now worked at this job for five years. I was one of only nine out of 28 plant workers to be granted the opportunity to change from a casual to a permanent position. I also was one of a few to survive a merger with another gas company. In 2017, I was a finalist for the national employee of the year, the only plant worker in the history of the company to be nominated. I am working on risk assessments and am now a trainer. However, I have never been promoted and my wage is almost the minimum that any adult worker in Australia is legally allowed to earn. It is physically hard work and I am often exhausted and sometimes sick with the effort I put in, especially when we do overtime starting at 4 in the morning.
My wife and I welcomed another baby. Between work and kids and going to church, I do not have much time or energy left for climate activism these days. I don’t even have much time to look for a different job so that I don’t have to work in the fossil fuel industry. I would love to do work in the social or environmental sector, working for what I believe is good and right. Sometimes I send off job applications where I think I might have a chance, but so far, I have not been able to find work elsewhere. I still hope to do further study and work in a very different industry one day. But for now, our daily worry is the struggle to meet the costs of daycare and healthy food for a growing family – things I never had to worry about in Tuvalu. I have to keep going to work at the gas factory. I have hopes that maybe I can do some change for good within the system. For example, I support my co-workers who are not well educated or are migrants like me, who do not necessarily know all their rights as workers. I educate myself and others on our contracts and industrial agreements.
I will always be a proud Tuvaluan, no matter where I live. I am not a climate refugee. I chose to move, I was not forced out of my country by climate change. But I know that one day life might be almost unbearable on my island because of climate change. I also know that no Tuvaluan wants to be a climate refugee. Refugees do not seem to have their human rights respected, even though they are among those who most need the protection that human rights should be able to offer. No Tuvaluan wishes to be treated poorly. We would rather make our own choices. In fact, for many people in Tuvalu, there is a strong wish to stay on the islands no matter what climate change brings. Many would rather stay and die, than to migrate to another country or to be forced to go as a refugee.
I want my daughter and sons to grow up knowing their Tuvaluan identity, and sharing in the rich multicultural life of Australia. I hope that when my daughter is a young adult, in maybe ten years’ time, she will return to Tuvalu to spend time with family there. Then she can decide for herself if she would like to stay for a while, maybe to work among Tuvaluan communities or teach as I used to do. Sadly, my mum will never go back now, as she passed away and was buried in Australia.
My life in Australia has many blessings, but it is not easy. It is hard to meet the daily challenges. I struggle financially, I miss Tuvalu, I work hard, I am tired, I love my family. I am not powerless in the fight against climate change, but I have to pay the bills too and look after my kids in the home I have chosen for them. One day, maybe when the little ones are a bit older, I can be a climate change campaigner again.
Taukiei Kitara worked for over 10 years helping communities in Tuvalu, a Polynesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean, to develop projects for sustainable livelihoods. He was a founding member of Tuvalu Climate Action Network and represented Tuvalu civil society at several meetings of the international climate change negotiations. In 2011 he migrated to Australia, where he now works as a trainer, assessor and cylinder tester and filler in a gas depot.
Carol Farbotko is a cultural geographer who has conducted research on the cultural politics of climate change, arguing for increased recognition of and dialogue about indigenous perspectives on climate change in the Pacific.
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Six months ago, a routine public hearing was scheduled in a nondescript gray government building in downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“Normally these hearings go over really quietly,” said Scott Eustis, the Wetlands Specialist for Gulf Restoration Network (GRN). “Usually it’s me, my associates, and like ten people.” Instead, over 400 people showed up to the Baton Rouge hearing, and stayed for nearly six hours.
The debate centered on the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, a proposed route that would run 163 miles from Lake Charles to St. James, forming the “tail” of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and effectively connecting oil fracked in North Dakota to Louisiana refineries. If built, Bayou Bridge would cross 11 parishes, 600 acres of wetlands, 700 bodies of water, and the state-designated Coastal Zone Boundary.
Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) is behind both the Bayou Bridge project and the more infamous DAPL, but the parallels run deeper than a mutual stakeholder. Just like in DAPL, those who resist the project are drawing connections between past wrongdoings, conditions today, and a future climate. Residents cite safety concerns, environmental racism, pollution, and threats to the region’s wetlands and seafood industries as reasons to oppose its construction. “It’s not one thing it’s everything. It’s the water, it’s the land, it’s the crawfish, it’s the people’s air in St. James, it’s the climate, it’s people’s houses flooding – it really is – it’s corruption, it’s Trump,” said Eustis.
By now the fight against Bayou Bridge is a familiar one: multinational conglomerate vs. the local little guys. The David vs. Goliath metaphor is obvious. But, Bayou Bridge is playing out in 2017, a time when Goliath has never seemed so large and so ruthless, and when the horrors and lessons in Standing Rock are still fresh.
“What we saw in Baton Rouge and Napoleonville at the hearings was hundreds and hundreds of people who had been inspired by people who had been kicked for eons, standing up to protect their water. You know what we can do that too, goddammit,” said Eustis.
That inspiration stands against the narrative of Standing Rock’s defeat. The camps suffered from a coordinated move to push the Dakota Access Pipeline’s approval through, and were forcibly evicted in February. Taylor Neck, a New Orleans activist who lived at Standing Rock through the winter who requested that her name be changed, said, “When I got home and so many people were like ‘Oh are you okay, I know it was such a loss,’ and ‘I’m sorry you guys lost’ and were saying things like that, it was kind of shocking to me at first because from my view and from the people that I was with, like my camp was all Lakota, it was such a win.”
In the DAPL’s migration south, the Great Plains of North Dakota have been substituted by hundreds of square miles of bayous and rivers and basins, one of the more romanticized segments of the Mississippi River, and finally the Gulf of Mexico. Water composes the very contents of Louisiana’s marshy soil and—with the threat of rising sea levels and natural disasters—is arguably the number one threat to its survival.
The spirit of an Indigenous-led environmental resistance has now come to a region wholly unique in culture and landscape. Cherri Foytlin, an Indigenous activist and the co-director of Bold Louisiana, called to the area’s strengths in a rally before the Baton Rouge hearing, “I’m sorry, Energy Transfer, if you don’t get it…but if you thought you saw some stuff up in North Dakota, you just get to the bayous,” she said, “our campers walk on water.”
Oil’s grip on the land
The Gulf South has a long and inextricable relationship with the oil industry. When including offshore drilling, Louisiana is second only to Texas in its production of crude oil, and its 18 refineries account for roughly 20% of the country’s refining capacity. Pipelines aren’t new to Louisiana. Approximately 50,000 miles already cover the state and maintain the industry’s century-long stronghold. For supporters of the pipeline, the attitude is often “Well, what’s one more?”
Set to deliver 280,000 barrels of heavy and light crude oil every day, Bayou Bridge is promoted as a way to bring jobs to the region at a time when the state’s budget is running close to a $943 million deficit and is, according to the Times-Picayune, “a hot mess.” The website for Bayou Bridge reads “Good for Louisiana” and promises 2,500 new jobs. A report prepared on behalf of ETP (by Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies) estimated the economic benefit to be $829 million. Yet in their permit application, the company promised just 12 permanent jobs, with most positions being temporary and tied to the physical construction of the pipeline.
Mark Koziorowski works offshore on a boat that runs supplies back and forth to the oil rigs in the Gulf, spending about a month at sea at a time. He grew up in California but came to Louisiana when his uncle promised him a lucrative career. But he noted that the oil industry has suffered in recent years due to cheap oil prices and increased regulations. “A lot of the older people, like the captains that are in their 50s and 60s, they’re getting really hurt by that because they’ve never had any other jobs, they don’t really have another skill set.”
While Koziorowski doesn’t plan on staying in the field long-term, that isn’t an option for everyone. “Being young and having the open air to be able to change careers gives me that power but if you’ve been stuck at one job it’s kind of hard to uproot,” he said. Of younger workers, “there’s definitely a few that are looking into other options but there’s also a diehard group of young people my age that are like ‘I’ll stick it out until it picks back up.’” Most people in the industry expect, and plan according to, boom-and-bust cycles.
Megan Falgout’s family is from Dulac, a small shrimping and fishing town in southern Louisiana. Though it sits off the proposed pipeline route, Dulac illustrates the cross-section of Louisiana industries, and the threats that climate poses to vulnerable communities. She described a childhood in which she wore shrimping boots to walk from the house to the car, “Dulac Reeboks,” she called them, “any bayou town they do that.”
“There was a shrimp factory and a Texaco factory and literally everybody down there made a living off of shrimping and fishing, all the families, that’s how they survived,” she said. Falgout lived on Shrimpers Row until she was 8, when Hurricane Andrew destroyed most of her town and her family moved to Houma.
Her father worked in the oil industry since he was a teenager, first doing pipeline construction and then working his way up to management until his job was moved to Texas and he was laid off. Despite her family ties, Falgout is against Bayou Bridge. “I just think that we’ve exhausted that energy source and we just keep getting greedier and greedier,” she said. Her father, on the other hand, is “for anything that will promote the oil industry in any kind of way, because of the job market down there,” she continued, “It’s crazy because it’s an area that’s affected but yet they’re so dependent on it.” Working in oil may come with its risks, but is one of the few opportunities to support a family on a high school diploma, and the high pay makes even temporary jobs welcome.
Supporters frame the debate as one of practicality, economic necessity, and, ironically, safety. Former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu testified at the January hearing on behalf of ETP, in a move that elicited jeers from the audience. “There’s millions and millions of gallons of crude oil and refined product moving through this country,” she said. “Now there are many people in this room that think we should outlaw it all right now and that might happen one day, but that is not today. So the question before us is how to move this product as carefully as possible.”
And yet safety is also the primary concern for opponents of the pipeline, who say the Gulf South has suffered at the hands of industry practices. The National Response Center tallied 144 pipeline accidents in Louisiana in 2016. Because spills in waterways are more difficult to contain than those on highways, groups such as GRN and Bold Louisiana warn that the pipeline will threaten wetlands, harm the region’s crawfishing industry, contribute to pollution and climate change, and place undue burden on communities that have been historically disenfranchised.
Standing Rock called attention to environmental racism, where minorities face disproportionate exposure to pollutants as a result of discriminatory planning policy. Similarly, Bayou Bridge’s proposed route runs through Bayou Lafourche, the drinking water supply for Houma Nation. It may also cut off the only evacuation route for St. James, a historically African-American community that is part of “Cancer Alley,” the 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River known for its numerous industrial plants and its numerous cancer patients. The town has already suffered 13 petrochemical accidents this year.
Rev. Harry Joseph, the pastor of St. James’ Mount Triumph Baptist Church, testified at the public hearing in Napoleonville. “St. James, I love it, but they have people in that place that are very sick from the plants that are already there. People are losing lives down there,” he said. “It’s a poor community, and the few rich people that they have down there, they’re gone already. They’re gone. The plants have bought them out…. But what’s going to happen to the poor people?”
Eustis notes that while for supporters of Bayou Bridge, this may be just another pipeline, the proposed projectis particularly serious. “You know I’ve seen a lot of pipelines because there are so many pipelines on the Gulf Coast, but this one is bad from a bad company with a large amount of impact, with a very diverse kind of impact on different communities in Louisiana affecting everyone in kind of a different way, at a time where we can’t really afford to lose more of our wetlands,” he said.
Oil pipelines act as small dams in the waterways, which disrupts the water flow, turns it stagnant, and kills off plants and wildlife. Jody Meche, a commercial crawfisherman, testified at the hearing in Baton Rouge on the impact Bayou Bridge would have on his industry. “There are hundreds of pipelines criss-crossing the Atchafalaya basin that have been put in in the past six or seven decades, and [they have] crippled our ability to make a living,” he said. “We’re to the point of having hypoxic stagnant areas where we have to make our traps so tall that the crawfish can come up out of the water to breathe because they will die in our traps.”
While wildlife and fishing industries are at risk due to the disappearance of wetlands, Louisiana faces the additional threat of natural disasters. During a hurricane wetlands absorb the impact of the storm; in heavy precipitation they act as a natural sponge. As climate change worsens and the surface temperature of the Gulf rises, water in the atmosphere increases and causes record precipitation. Last year Louisiana suffered devastating floods that resulted in 13 deaths and thousands of destroyed homes. A significant portion of that damage occurred outside a flood zone, indicative of the storms’ atypical patterns.
In a debate framed by economic necessity, the cost of such storms is noteworthy. A report commissioned by the Louisiana Economic Development office estimated the flooding damages last year to total $8.7 billion, the majority of which was due to damages to physical items such as housing structures, housing contents, and business inventories. $836 hundred million was lost due to interruption to business. Meanwhile, a 2008 study published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences found that wetlands provided an estimated $23 billion in protection from natural disasters countrywide, with that protection being dependent on storm severity. The dollar impact of storms can be ignored, however, for the promise of high-paying jobs.
The politics of industry
Alternative industries have yet to take hold in an economy with scarce well-paying blue-collar jobs and a culture in which tradition holds fast. In 2008 Louisiana promised tax credits for solar panels, spurring a mini-boom for the solar industry. In 2015, the state terminated the program after deciding it too costly, leaving residents who installed panels, expecting credit, in a lurch.
Koziorowski, the shipper running supplies to oil rigs, said there had been talk of windmill construction offshore when he began working in the industry. “I was kind of hoping seven years later that there’d be a little bit of business going into that but that doesn’t seem to be happening,” he said. When asked why that was the case he said, “It’s got to be politics.”
Representatives in Washington continue to vote repeatedly against environmental regulations in the name of small government and big business, and appear to have little to no interest in reducing their dependency on oil. Former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, is now a lobbyist for ETP. Former U.S. Congressman Chris John is now president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. Rep. Garrett Graves authored a bill to keep oil lease auctions private. Politicians continue to maintain the state’s literally toxic relationship with the oil industry, and in so doing, bet against Louisiana’s future.
Actions and allies
Even as the hot Louisiana summer sets in, activists are busy calling attention to the risks that Bayou Bridge poses. Cherri Foytlin is leading the charge in organizing direct action trainings for volunteers, and building a resistance camp along the proposed route. Organizers have plans for floating platforms and Indigenous structures to suit the area’s geography and have named the camp “L’eau est la vie,” French for “Water is life.”
Neck, the activist who participated in the Standing Rock encampment, is working with Foytlin, and she spoke of the camp’s strategic and spiritual importance. “It’s physically occupying the land that they want to construct on, it will give us a home that we can work from and conduct operations from, to non-violently stop the pipeline and stop ETP,” she said. “It’s a way for us to ask the Earth what she needs and what the community, what they need, because we’re living in it, we’re living with the water so…we can stay ‘prayered up’ as they said in Standing Rock.”
She said her priority is to maintain the camp as a safe space. “It’s such a hard fight against these giants that just getting to stand up for what’s right is so healing and my priority is that these people get to heal and get to fight like they want because they need it, and they deserve to do it.”
Pastor Joseph of St. James is another prominent community member leading the fight, and is using Mount Triumph Baptist Church as a hub for organizing efforts. He’s listed as a plaintiff in a lawsuit recently filed by the Tulane University Law Clinic, which seeks to overturn the coastal use permit issued by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Co-plaintiffs include Genevieve Butler, another resident of St. James, along with the organizations Humanitarian Enterprise of Loving People (HELP), Gulf Restoration Network, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, and Bold Louisiana.
The petition for judicial review filed against the DNR states that “the Department refused to consider potential adverse environmental impacts of the project on the majority African-American residents of St. James, who are surrounded by crude oil terminal facilities, pipelines, and associated industry.” It also claims the department failed to consider the impact of the pipeline on the community and “ignored evidence that the St. James community may be trapped in the event of an emergency and that no viable evacuation plan is in place for its safety.”
Activists across the state are working to connect affected residents in order to mount pressure against politicians and the industry itself. “More than any other oil resistance fight in Louisiana, people are going to show up for this, locals are going to show up because we’re mobilizing them,” Neck said, citing conservatives opposed to eminent domain, Catholics, and the restaurant and tourism industries as unlikely allies. In connecting with potential allies, “the first thing I do is learn from that person, learn what they’re going through or learn why they feel the way or what they’re passionate about, and I teach them how that is intricately connected to the fight,” a strategy which, she said, was informed by her experience in North Dakota.
Water protectors at Standing Rock rallied against the ‘black snake,’ the anthropomorphized symbol for the sinewy and serpentine Dakota Access Pipeline. Louisiana has had its own black snakes for decades, hiding out amidst the cypress stumps and tall grass, and fed by politicians and industry until they’ve fattened and coiled around the bayous. As the “L’eau est la vie” resistance camp is built out, and activists build their offense, the fight against Bayou Bridge is only just kicking into gear. The question now is if Louisiana residents can unite to break the snake’s grip, and protect their water, their wetlands, and themselves.
Nora Belblidia lives in Baltimore, MD, where she writes in her free time. She’s interested in science, politics, and environmental justice (amongst other things) and has previously lived in New Orleans, Montreal, and Los Angeles.
After eight months, starting with a few hundred young Native Americans and swelling to up to 15,000 people in the sprawling encampments of Standing Rock, North Dakota, a victory was celebrated. President Obama’s US Army Corps of Engineers denied the request for an easement to allow Energy Transfer Partners (ETP)* and their “family” of logistics corporations to build the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) under Lake Oahe and the Missouri River, which that could threaten the water supply and sacred burial sites of the Standing Rock Sioux. The Army Corps of Engineers further required a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which usually takes months and sometimes years, to reconsider granting the easement.
DAPL is a $3.7 billion project that would link 1,200 miles of pipeline carrying over 500,000 barrels of crude oil every day from North Dakota through the mid-west and eventually to the east coast and south of the US. The sunny and wind-swept prairie of Standing Rock reveals the absurdity of building fossil fuel infrastructure that will further harm the planet when renewable energy is everywhere, waiting to be developed.
The December 4th decision came immediately after 2,500 US military veterans joined the “water protectors”, as they are called, at Standing Rock. The vets formed a human shield protecting the water protectors from the myriad local law enforcement officers who work on behalf of the interests of the private oil and gas industries. Several of the vets said that, after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, their effort to protect Standing Rock was the first time they actually felt they were protecting the American people.
After almost 500 years of white settlers and the US government stealing land from Native American tribes and forging divisions between them, over 200 Native tribes have coalesced to protect Standing Rock. The history of government-sanctioned genocide and colonialism are recurring themes in this struggle.
The main “road” in the encampment is Flag Row, a long dirt path lined with hundreds of colorful tribal flags from all over the Americas, signaling unity. Strict rules of decorum prevail—no drugs, alcohol, or weapons of any kinds, total non-violence, respect for decision-making by the tribal council and for elders, and dedicating the encampment to non-violent prayer. Their slogan is “Water is Life”. Thousands of Indigenous peoples from all over the world and tens of thousands of non-Indigenous peoples have come to Standing Rock to defend Indigenous rights and to protect Mother Earth. They want to kill the “black snake”: DAPL. There lie the seeds of unity and dissent.
Mother Earth and/or Indigenous Rights
Indigenous activists such as Tara Houska, Anishinaabe lawyer for Honor the Earth and Tom Goldtooth, Navajo leader of the Indigenous Environmental Network, see fighting the pipeline as more than defending the tribes; they see it as defending Mother Earth. They see fossil fuel infrastructure as dangerous to the future of humans on earth. They want to see the development of renewable energy and the end of fossil fuels.
Dave Archambault, II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and primary spokesperson for the coalition of tribes, will be satisfied if the pipeline is re-routed away from the Sioux orbit. He has told the water protectors camping on the grounds to go home to their families for the winter: their jobs are done. He has repeatedly stated that he is not opposed to infrastructure projects or to “energy independence” but rather is opposed when Indigenous peoples are not consulted and when the pipelines go through their lands and waters. Native Americans, many of whom are desperately poor and denied opportunities, have sold mineral rights to their parcels of land to fossil fuel developers.
This is a basic contradiction for Indigenous peoples: those who see Mother Earth as their responsibility to protect for the next seven generations (a common saying for some Indigenous groups), versus those who want to address their own poverty which seems much more immediate. This is a global phenomenon.
Months of battles with brutal local law enforcement have left hundreds of water protectors facing arrests, rubber bullets, tear gas, concussion grenades, water cannons used in sub-freezing temperatures, serious injuries and brutal treatment when incarcerated. Images of this police brutality against Indigenous peoples and their supporters have galvanized support for the protests and brought thousands of people to the 5-6 camps that make up the sprawling Standing Rock encampment. Tribal elders often look askance at many of the “unofficial” actions advanced by the “Red Warrior Camp” and their allies because they have drawn so much violence against them. Nonetheless, the tribal leaders decry the violence and partisan nature of the “law enforcement’s” savage response. Red Warriors see these direct action confrontations as the reason that Standing Rock has gotten any publicity at all and has attracted the attention and won the hearts of radicals and human rights advocates across the world.
Life at Standing Rock: Building liberated spaces
Standing Rock has developed massive camps, replete with many cooking tents each serving hundreds at every meal, large-scale donation operations, legal, medical, and psychological counseling services, schools, orientation sessions, and direct action trainings. Each morning and evening people gather around sacred fires and hear information, speeches, and music, and they dance and feel the power of unity.
They are creating a liberated space, a space where progressive people can come together to protect their ideas and their cultures together. The utopian feel of the place is immediately apparent.
Comparisons with Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs would reveal a much larger, more on-going, and much more disciplined space in Standing Rock. It has captured the imagination and support of hundreds of thousands of people across the planet, from the Indigenous Sami peoples of Norway to workers from all over the US who are angry at the lack of support from organized labor, specifically the AFL-CIO.
The presence of youth is immediately noticeable at the camps though there are plenty of elders and children as well. Supporters mostly camp out and help to winterize the teepee, yurts, army tents, recreational vehicles, camping tents, vans and school buses that create a small city of protest. They are creating a liberated space, a space where progressive people can come together to protect their ideas and their cultures together. The utopian feel of the place is immediately apparent. The pull of such a liberated space is all the more meaningful in the face of US President-elect, Donald Trump. The encampment is simultaneously a historic throwback and a futuristic village of care and commitment to a more egalitarian and caring world.
The parallels with Occupy Wall Street are many—both aiming to build a new way with progressive and humanistic values, addressing the oppression of our people. Both captured the hearts of progressive folks and engaged mostly young people but Standing Rock’s supporters include many more people of color of all backgrounds. The history of Indigenous tribes welcoming people of African descent, especially during slavery, is not forgotten in this solidarity. Standing Rock’s success is grounded in Indigenous cultural values of respect, formal representative decision-making, discipline, and work that is further expressed through a deep spirituality that connects our human activity to the earth. Standing Rock is orderly and behavioral norms are clearly articulated and encouraged, if not enforced.
Naomi Klein, in her groundbreaking book, This Changes Everything, asserts that the climate movement can only be successful if it addresses racial, gender, and economic oppression as its main strategy and if it takes leadership from those most affected by climate change and the savages of capitalism. Without so much explicit language this is evidently what is happening at Standing Rock. The power of this strategy impacts everyone who enters the camp and the movement; the pull of this approach is enormous.
What lies ahead?
On December 4 and 5, over 15,000 people celebrated the Army Corps of Engineers decision to deny the permit to complete DAPL as planned, but the struggle is nowhere near over. Several factors make for a complex web of possibilities that underscore the necessity of the encampment and wide support to continue.
First, Trump can overturn Obama’s US Army Corps of Engineers’ decision and force them to grant an easement to ETP. That will be challenged in court as the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that federal agencies cannot change a settled ruling of a federal agency that is based on facts when a new administration takes over. The US Supreme Court declined to take up this ruling, leaving the Ninth Circuit decision to prevail. If Trump tried to get the permit without an environmental impact statement he would have an immediate lawsuit on his hands that would prevent the easement from taking effect, at least immediately. Additionally, Trump’s reported investments in DAPL of $500,000 to $1 million may create a conflict of interest he cannot navigate. Other lawsuits against ETP are already in the courts and proceeding, further slowing down the process.
Further, Trump has talked about privatizing over 56 million acres of Native American reservations in order to facilitate exploitation of the natural resources of those lands. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network, Indigenous reservations cover 2% of US land but contain an estimate 20% of its oil and gas plus vast coal reserves as well. That fight will ignite much more organizing and fight back.
Second, and perhaps most important, are the specifics of the contracts between ETP and Sunoco Logistics, their partner organization in this project, and the dozens of major financial institutions that have invested in DAPL. These contracts can be negated and/or open to re-negotiation if the pipeline is not completed by January 1, 2017. At that point the financial institutions will have the legal right to back out of or diminish their investments. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of groups in the US that are pressuring these very financial institutions to drop their investments in DAPL. Many of the pension funds of public workers and others are invested in these financial institutions and supporters are mounting campaigns to uncover them and demand divestment.
Supporters have been cutting up their credit cards and closing their accounts from banks investing in DAPL. The Sightline Institute did a study of DAPL financing and found them to be “rickety”. They found that the value of crude oil has declined by about 50% since these contracts were signed, making the windfall profits from this venture much less likely. They found a sharp decline in oil production that may signal no further need for the pipeline. For some of the investors, DAPL is looking risky on many levels.
Third, ETP has a way to sneak out of the job as well. Their contract indicates that they are not liable for project completion if “rioting” takes place. ETP along with their allies in local North Dakota law enforcement have been calling the direct action by water protectors “rioting”, setting the stage for a possible exit from liability. The demonstrators have been peaceful if sometimes provocative and a great deal of video evidence indicates that the violence has emanated from the law enforcement officers, not the protesters. But “rioting” is the language ETP and the cops use, and for a specific purpose.
Fourth, the popular support for Standing Rock seems to grow with each day and each report of violence against the water protectors. There are similar challenges of fossil fuel pipelines in many parts of the US and they are gathering people to protest in those places as well. The model of encampments, of creating liberated spaces that protect the activists, land, water, and movement, has taken hold. No force will hold that back. From the AIM Spectra Pipeline, slated to go under the Hudson River and immediately past the Indian Point Nuclear Power Station 10 miles from New York City, to the Black Mesa Water Coalition of the US southwest, the struggles to reject fossil fuel infrastructure and to build a sustainable energy economy are everywhere in the US as they are across the planet.
A new solidarity is emerging. A new world is conceived. Its home is everywhere, its people are many.
A new solidarity is emerging. One that has a great deal of potential to unite the left under the joint banners of the oppression of people, particularly people of color, and the oppression of the earth itself. The hope lies in navigating that unity with a vision of solving both oppressions simultaneously. A new world is conceived. Its home is everywhere, its people are many. While its opponents are on the ascent, the struggle continues. Compassion, respect, clear demands and decision-making and solidarity can guide the way.
*The “Energy Transfer Family” of corporations involved in the logistics behind building the Dakota Access Pipeline are: Enbridge, Inc., Energy Transfer Partners, Energy Equity Partners, Marathon Petroleum Corp., Sunoco LP and Phillips 66
Nancy Romer is a life-long social justice activist starting in the tenants rights movement, then the feminist, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, union, food justice and, now, climate justice movements. Nancy is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Brooklyn College and now writes primarily on climate movement-related efforts, with particular interest in agriculture and peasant movements in Latin America.
In this report, I will try to give you a sense of what being at Standing Rock is like. Tonight completes my third day here. The weather has been mostly cold but very sunny. The colors, the sky, but most of all the people are startlingly calm and beautiful. The Standing Rock encampment is defined as a prayer site, a place to contemplate and to appreciate nature, “the creator” (not my words), and each other. The Indigenous people here from just about every tribe in the US and some from Canada are so welcoming and warm to outsiders. They repeatedly say how much they appreciate the presence of non-Indigenous folks and how they want to share with us. They are strict on the rules: no violence of any kind, no drugs, alcohol or guns, respect for Indigenous ways, making oneself useful.
The vast encampment contains 4 or 5 separate but connected camps, some on the Sioux reservation land, others outside.The largest one is immediately off reservation land, Oceti Sakowin Camp; it is the one in which most of the activities happen. The others are either defined by age—elders or youth—or vary by activity. We spend most of our time at Oceti but today I took a long walk and visited two of the other camps just to get a flavor of them.
NO DAPL stands for No Dakota Access Pipeline and signs with the slogan are everywhere as is “water is life”. There is a religious feel to the camps and great respect all around. In many ways this is a very old-style Indigenous encampment and in many ways it feels like a post-revolutionary or post-apocalyptic future.
The pace is slow though everyone seems to move with great purpose. People jump in and do the tasks that seem to be needed: cooking, cleaning, helping each other to put up a yurt or a teepee, chopping wood, tending fires, washing dishes, offering legal, medical or psychological help. Cell and internet service is miserable and probably interfered with by the constant drones that fly above the camps.
For me the most impactful point was respect. They defined that as including slowing down, moving differently with clearer intention and less reactivity.
On Friday I attended a brilliantly presented orientation to the camp. One of the presenters was Maria Marasigan, a young woman who was active in the Brooklyn Food Coalition. It was the best anti-racist training for allies that I have witnessed: succinct, not guilt-trippy, and very direct. The three main rules are: Indigenous centered, build a new legacy, and be of use. They shared the Lakota values that prevail in the camp: prayer, respect, compassion, honesty, generosity, humility, wisdom.
For me the most impactful point was respect. They defined that as including slowing down, moving differently with clearer intention and less reactivity. They suggest asking fewer questions and just looking and learning before our hands pop up and we ask to take up space.
They clarified a gendered division of behavior and practice, including asking women to honor traditional norms of wearing skirts during the sacred rituals (including in the cooking tent) and for women “on their moons” to spend time in a tent to be taken care of and rest if they choose. Somehow it seemed okay, actually respectful, not about pollution and ostracism.
While I was helping out in the cooking tent—my main area of contribution—an Indigenous woman came by with about 10 skirts and distributed them to the mostly women in the cooking tent and we gladly put them on. It served as an extra layer of warmth over my long underwear and jeans. It was not what I expected but it seemed fine to all of us. We just kept chopping away at the veggies.
Later that day I attended a direct action training that was also quite thorough and clear. Lisa Fithian, an old friend from anti-war movement days, lead the training and explained how to behave in an action and how to minimize police violence. Lisa, along with two other strong, smart women, one Black and one Native, laid out a plan to do a mass pray-in in town the next day. My New York City travel companion and I both felt that we couldn’t risk arrest and decided not to join that direct action but to be in support in any way we could.
At 8 am the next morning about 100 cars lined up in convoy formation at the exit of the Oceti Sakowin Camp, each with lots of passengers—including some buses and minivans—and went into Manwan, the nearest town. The Indigenous folks formed an inner circle and the non-Indigenous formed a circle around them. The Indigenous folks prayed, sand and danced. The tactic was exercising freedom to practice their religion while protesting the Dakota Access Pipe Line. No arrests were made despite massive police and drone presence. One local man tried to run over a water protector but she jumped aside; the man had a gun but was subdued by the cops. Lots of videos were taken and the man was brought to the local jail.
On Saturday I finally got a press pass as I got a request to cover the encampment from New Politics, a print and online journal. That gave me the right to take photos (otherwise not allowed), but still limited—no photos of people without permission or of houses or horses, again without permission from the people with them. I set out to interview people at the various camps and to get a sense of what people were planning to do for the winter.
I spoke with Joe, a part Lakota from Colorado who had been raised Catholic and attended Indian residential schools, taken from his parents by the state because they doubted the ability of the native community to raise their own kids. He said it was brutal. When asked why he was here, he replied, “This is the first time since Little Big Horn that all the tribes are uniting against a common enemy—the black snake—the pipeline that will harm our water, our people. This unity is making us whole.”
At Rosebud camp just about a 1/2 mile from Oceti, I discovered a group of people building a straw-bale building that was destined to become a school. Multi took a break to tell me how they came to create this project with the full collaboration of parents and kids in the camp. Their project grew out of a team of people from Southern California who are builders and designers who use earth and straw as materials creating almost no carbon footprint and providing both strength of structure and extraordinary insulation—very important for a windy and cold winter ahead.
“We spent five days gathering ideas from people at the camp as to what they needed. They decided on building a school for the many kids who might stay the winter or come and go over time.The parents and kids helped to design the structure with the builders.”
Multi told me, “We didn’t want to bring the colonialist idea of what was needed and just tell people at the camp. We spent five days gathering ideas from people at the camp as to what they needed. They decided on building a school for the many kids who might stay the winter or come and go over time. The parents and kids helped to design the structure with the builders. All the decision-making was ‘horizontal’, engaging everyone with equal voice, avoiding hierarchy. It will be a one-room schoolhouse with nooks for specific tasks and will serve K-8th graders.” A teen center is being built nearby.
When I visited there were five women and one man working on the project and they welcomed any help they could get to finish the project before the cold sets in. When I asked Multi why she was doing this project she said, “For me this is about coming together as a global culture, a people who have the resources we need for future generations. We are here to protect our futures together. Building a schoolhouse is a manifestation of that ancient technology for our future together.”
“This is all about the water and who lives downstream. We are testing a new economic system that requires governance, self-governance from the ground up.”
Down the road I met Danielle who was helping to build a multi-purpose center housing a kitchen, dining area and meeting room. She told me that “This is all about the water and who lives downstream. We are testing a new economic system that requires governance, self-governance from the ground up. The needs must evolve for us to create a system that will fit them.” She is particularly excited about engaging people to serve and to be united, to be able to work together with their passions for service, to be happy together in this way. The materials for the building were donated by people from Ashville, NC and were deeply appreciated. All over the camps one sees evidence of creative problem-solving, cooperation and contributions brought from afar. The “donations” building is brimming with winter clothes (adults and kids), foods of all kinds and practical items.
I was particularly interested in the many families that were at the camps, including lots of kids of all ages, including infants. One family from Boulder, Colorado, with 8-year old Oscar and 11-year old Audrey, were unpacking their car when I came upon them. Their mother, Susan, said, “We are here to support the protest and to have our kids learn from it. I want my kids to understand that we do what we can to take care of the water and support the Indigenous people. To step it up these days we have to hold some ground. This is one of the places we can meet. It would be great if Obama would release the land and kill the pipeline.” Amen.
I encountered a father-son pair from Manhattan. Fourteen-year old Declan Rexer learned about the encampment from a single segment on MSNBC news but couldn’t find anything else about it in the corporate media. He was particularly upset by the police attacks on elderly protesters. He then went to alternative and social media and found an enormous amount of information. His interest grew and his father, William Rexer, decided to bring him out to North Dakota to learn for himself.
They plan to bring back lots of information for Declan’s classmates and encourage more people to come out to see for themselves. William, a media professional himself, connected with some of the young documentarians at the camp and will provide some material support to them in order to advance their work.
“I’ve been here from the beginning and I will stay to the end. All winter if that’s what it takes. We have been colonized and divided for 500 years.”
I spoke with Joseph, a Salish man from Montana. I asked him how long he was planning to stay at the camp. He told me, “I’ve been here from the beginning and I will stay to the end. All winter if that’s what it takes. We have been colonized and divided for 500 years. This is our time to unite and resist. We must protect our water and our tribes.” He thanked me for coming to Standing Rock and being an ally. He asked me to tell my friends to come out and join the encampment, to be water protectors.
Generosity is evident all over the camp. I particularly love working in the kitchen, a huge army tent with large tables, stoves and lots of equipment. On each of the two days that I worked in the kitchen there were about a dozen people busily working in happy unison. There was a chief organizer and then 4 or 5 people who were in charge of a particular dish, each with 1-3 assistants. I was an assistant, happy not to have to mastermind anything. The chatter amongst the workers reminded me of the Park Slope Food Coop squads where people work together with shared goals. As one man put it, “We come together here with one vision. We are building a new world together.”
I am moving slowly and deliberately and thinking about the world we need to build together, on a much larger scale.
While I attend trainings and sacred fire circles, chop veggies, talk with people, drive people around, and walk around the various camps, I am struck by how happy I feel. Sure, this is temporary. Sure, this is not my “real world”. But it is a lovely world, a loving world, a kind world, where each person is greeted with kindness. Young men and women ride through the camps on horseback, connect to ancient traditions, and bask in the glory of a shared culture of resistance. I don’t come from this culture but I do support their determination, their right to protect their land and water and people, their valiant attempt to build a better world. I am moving slowly and deliberately and thinking about the world we need to build together, on a much larger scale. Can we decide to be kind to each other, to collaborate, to try to remove ego from our day-to-day practice? I don’t know the answer to these difficult questions. But I do know that when people share a common struggle we can be beautiful. I bask in that beauty at Standing Rock.
Nancy Romer is a life-long social justice activist starting in the tenants rights movement, then the feminist, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, union, food justice and, now, climate justice movements. Nancy is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Brooklyn College and now writes primarily on climate movement-related efforts, with a particular interest in agriculture and peasant movements in Latin America. Read their first report on life at the camp here.
The English version of this article can be found here.
Het woord ‘Antropoceen’ is in het debat over klimaatverandering opgedoken, en de vraag is of het daarin zou moeten blijven. Deze term verwoordt mooi het idee dat het woord Holoceen – een wetenschappelijke term die verwijst naar het huidige geologische tijdperk – niet langer adequaat is. Want we leven momenteel in een tijdperk waarin de mens (anthropos) de geologie van de Aarde fundamenteel heeft veranderd en aanwezig is in bijna alle ecosystemen.
We hebben de temperatuur van de planeet laten oplopen, de zeespiegel laten stijgen, massale hoeveelheden aardkorst ontgonnen, de ozonlaag aangetast, en beginnen nu de oceanen te verzuren – ingrepen die over miljoenen jaren nog steeds zichtbaar zullen zijn in fossielen.
Het woord ‘Antropoceen’ is pas recent in het mainstream woordgebruik opgedoken, maar is heel snel een strijdkreet geworden, die voor veel mensen de hoogdringendheid van maatregelen tegen klimaatverandering uitdrukt. Terwijl de term reeds eerder gesuggereerd werd in verschillende vormen, was het Paul Crutzen, chemicus en winnaar van de Nobelprijs, die hem populariseerde in 2002 in een artikel van 600 woorden lang, getiteld “De geologie van de mensheid”, dat verscheen in het wetenschappelijke tijdschrift Nature. In dit artikel betoogt hij dat de realiteit van “de groeiende invloed van de mensheid op de planeet” met zich meebrengt dat wetenschappers en ingenieurs de “zware taak” hebben de “maatschappij te gidsen” – via grootschalige geoengineering projecten als het moet. Volgens hem is de term Antropoceen een sleutelconcept in het uitleggen van de ernst van onze huidige situatie. Daardoor werd deze term voor velen welhaast een openbaring, die er goed inpeperde dat we onloochenbaar hebben ingegrepen in het ecosysteem van de Aarde, dat we het hebben gedestabiliseerd, en dat we moeten handelen, onverwijld en snel.
Maar ondanks het feit er vanuit verschillende hoeken wordt gepleit voor deze term, is er ook enige weerstand, en niet van het soort mensen dat je zou verwachten: veel klimaatwetenschappers zijn terughoudend om hem te gebruiken, en er is ook kritiek van milieu en sociale historici. Waarom al deze ophef over een woord, en wat is het belang?
Zoals elke activist graag zal willen uitleggen, is het belangrijk welke woorden we gebruiken. Woorden beschrijven niet enkel de problemen, maar framen ook de oplossingen. En in het geval van klimaatverandering is er een grote nood aan goede oplossingen, wat betekent dat de framing juist moet zijn. Als we klimaatverandering willen aanpakken, moeten we zorgvuldig de woorden kiezen waarmee we de problemen beschrijven.
In wat volgt wordt een overzicht gegeven van het Antropoceen debat, waarbij de vraag gesteld wordt of we dit woord inderdaad moeten gebruiken om onze huidige problemen te beschrijven, of integendeel dit woord beter zouden droppen. Zoals je zal zien, ben ik beslist de ene optie genegen – ik denk niet dat de term zo bruikbaar is als zijn supporters beweren – maar zal ik mijn argumenten zo goed mogelijk aandragen zodat je een eigen standpunt kan bepalen.
Van early adopters naar wijdverbreid gebruik
De term Antropoceen werd gepopulariseerd door hard-core klimaatwetenschappers die wilden illustreren hoe onze wereld er tegenwoordig uitziet en hoe fundamenteel verschillend dit is van de wereld die we erfden. Vanuit dit standpunt gezien, kan het concept leiden tot een ‘aha-erlebnis’ bij oningewijden: de mensheid heeft de Aarde reeds fundamenteel veranderd. Daarom gebruikten early adopters dit woord vaak om de urgentie van het huidige tijdsgewricht over te brengen naar het brede publiek toe.
In de tien jaar nadat het concept werd gelanceerd in de moderne cultuur, heeft het nieuwe vormen aangenomen die de originele geologische bedoeling overstijgen, waardoor het een meme is geworden met de capaciteit om een enorm scala aan argumenten te stutten.
Het brede publiek nam de term graag over met headlines in grote mediakanalen als de BBC, The New York Times, en Newsweek. Hij begon regelmatig gebruikt te worden in rapporten (pdf) en campagnes van klimaatactivisten als Bill McKibben en milieugroeperingen als Friends of the Earth. Ook kunstenaars pikten de term op, en academici organiseren tallozeconferenties met ‘Antropoceen’ als leidraad.
Het soort opinies dat rond de term samenkoekt varieert. In het boek “The God Species” argumenteert de prominente milieu-schrijver Mark Lynas dat, aangezien we een nieuw tijdperk van ongeziene menselijke controle over het milieu binnentreden, we de verantwoordelijkheid, de plicht, en de mogelijkheden hebben om het milieu nog meer doorgedreven te controleren. Afstand nemend van traditionele milieustandpunten als anti-nucleair en anti-GGO, pleit hij ervoor om alle middelen waarover we beschikken te gebruiken, precies omdat we geconfronteerd worden met problemen op een grotere schaal dan ooit voorheen. Dit arsenaal omvat nucleaire energie en genetische manipulatie.
Recent vervoegde Mark Lynas een groep van pro-tech wetenschappers, schrijvers, en milieuactivisten, en schreef mee aan het “eco-modernist manifesto.” De auteurs claimen hierin dat “moderne technologieën, door meer efficiënt gebruik te maken van natuurlijke ecosystemen en diensten, een echte mogelijkheid bieden om de totale menselijke impact op de biosfeer terug te dringen. Deze technologieën omarmen, betekent het vinden van wegen naar een goed Antropoceen.”
Het probleem? Dat het Antropoceen openbaart dat de mensheid zich in een positie bevindt die ongezien netelig is. De oplossing? Drijf het op: gebruik meer, en betere, technologieën, om zo de natuur beter te controleren.
Richard Heinberg van het Post-Carbon Institute noemt dit de ‘we-zijn-in-commando-en-daar-houden-we-van’ houding. Volgens hem duidt dit ‘techno-Antropoceen’ argument op een soort wetenschappers dat het Antropoceen omarmt, eenvoudigweg omdat dit de mensheid het volledige mandaat geeft om de planeet te blijven terravormen. Zoals Heinberg aantoont, zal het opdrijven van het Antropoceen onontkoombaar op save-the-day technologieën steunen. Zoals het eco-modernist manifesto claimt: “Verstedelijking, intensiveren van de landbouw, nucleaire energie, aquacultuur, en ontzilting zijn allen processen met een bewezen potentieel om de menselijke impact op de omgeving te verkleinen, en zo meer ruimte te laten voor de niet-menselijke soorten.” Daartegen argumenteert Heinberg dat deze technologieën helemaal niet zo adequaat zijn als vaak wordt beweerd. De hierboven genoemde technologieën steunen ofwel op het gebruik van goedkope fossiele brandstoffen in veel grotere hoeveelheden dan wat ze vervangen, of deugen wetenschappelijk (en moreel) niet.
Heinberg stelt zijn eigen versie voor: het ‘slank-groene Antropoceen.’ Aangezien elke haalbare technologische oplossing aangedreven wordt door fossiele brandstoffen, ziet hij een meer wenselijke toekomst die low-tech is, arbeidsintensief, met lokale voedselproductie, en verantwoord watergebruik (dus bv. onafhankelijk van energie-intensieve ontziltingsinstallaties). Maar voor hem is het ook noodzakelijk om te erkennen dat de mens niet het centrum van het universum is: “Zoals de mensheid nu de toekomst van de Aarde vormgeeft, zal de Aarde de toekomst van de mensheid vormgeven.”
Ietwat verrassend werd de term ook gretig aangenomen door kritische theoretici – misschien te onkritisch. Bijvoorbeeld Bruno Latour gebruikt de term – en de realiteit van menselijke betrokkenheid in het klimaat – als een startpunt voor de discussie over het nieuwe beleid dat deze crises vereisen. Prominente politiek-ecologische wetenschappers als Laura Ogden, Paul Robbins, en Nik Heynen refereren naar de term om de eigen argumenten te onderbouwen dat grassroots organisaties de sleutel zijn tot veerkracht en politieke weerstand in dit nieuwe tijdperk. Slavoj Zizek suggereert dat het Antropoceen, en de wetenschappers die het voorstellen, ons nieuwe vragen doet stellen over de relatie van de mens met zijn omgeving, en over de obsessie die in onze cultuur bestaat voor de altijd-aanwezige apocalyps. In een ander essay daagt Dipesh Chakrabarty de term deels uit vanuit een postkoloniaal perspectief, maar eindigt hij met het onderschrijven ervan, aangezien, op een bepaalde manier, iedereen (de kolonisatoren en de gekoloniseerden, de rijken en de armen) zal geraakt worden door de komende rampen.
Ik zeg verrassend omdat dezelfde theoretici zouden aarzelen om woorden als democratie, ontwikkeling, of vooruitgang te gebruiken zonder ‘aanhalingstekens’ – ze specialiseren zich in het in vraag stellen van alles in het ondermaanse (en maar goed ook). Dat zij dit nieuwe woord accepteren zonder bevragen of terugblikken, vormt misschien wel de beste illustratie voor zijn wijdverbreide aantrekkingskracht.
Hoe dan ook, dit is het beeld: het concept Antropoceen wordt gesteund door mensen met zeer verschillende ideologische overtuigingen. De ene bepleit business-as-usual gedreven door technologische doorbraken, de ander roept op tot een totale transformatie van de relatie tussen mens en natuur, en nog een ander suggereert dat het betekent dat we onze verschillen aan de kant moeten zetten, en de uitdagingen samen tegemoet moeten treden.
In de tien jaar nadat het concept werd gelanceerd in de moderne cultuur, heeft het nieuwe vormen aangenomen die de originele geologische bedoeling overstijgen, waardoor het een meme1 is geworden met de capaciteit om een enorm scala aan argumenten te stutten.
Waarna de problematische fase volgt
Echter, in het voorbije jaar – en zeker tijdens de voorbije maanden – verscheen er een stroom van kritiek op het concept Antropoceen.
Het eerste kernprobleem is wetenschappelijk, met twee facetten. Ten eerste, ondanks het feit dat het concept zich goed heeft genesteld in onze woordenschat (“Welkom in het Antropoceen” titelde The Economist in 2011), is er nog steeds heel wat debat over zijn exacte betekenis, zelfs over zijn wetenschappelijke waarde. Ten tweede wordt de wetenschap meer en meer gepolitiseerd.
Het neologisme van Paul Crutzen bereikte het domein van de stratigrafie – een specifieke discipline die bepaalt wanneer elke geologische periode start en eindigt. En Crutzen is een atmosfeerwetenschapper, geen stratigraaf. Indien hij dat wel was geweest, dan had hij waarschijnlijk de bittere gevechten en spanningen die zijn voorstel veroorzaakte, kunnen voorzien.
Crutzen stelde oorspronkelijk voor dat het Antropoceen zou starten bij de industriële revolutie, meer specifiek de uitvinding van de stoommachine. Daarna veranderde hij van gedacht, en liet het Antropoceen starten bij het testen van de atoombom. Maar dit soort grillen houdt geen stand in het studiegebied dat beslist over geologische tijdperken – er was 60 jaar nodig om te beslissen over de definitie van het Kwartair, een tijdperk dat 2,6 miljoen jaar overspant. De wetenschappers die dit soort beslissingen nemen zijn streng, om niet te zeggen muggenzifters.
Dus beslisten ze een internationale werkgroep te vormen, om voor eens en altijd te beslissen of de term de tand des tijd zou kunnen doorstaan. Dit was behoorlijk moeilijk. Vooreerst bestaat er zelfs geen formele definitie van wat ‘Antropoceen’ echt betekent. Wat behelst een significante verandering in het geologische systeem van de Aarde, die ons zou toelaten om de lijn te trekken? En waar moeten we die lijn trekken?
Daartoe werden talrijke voorstellen gedaan. Het begon met de landbouw 5.000 jaar geleden, of mijnbouw 3.000 jaar geleden. Of nee: het begon met de genocide van 50 miljoen inheemse mensen in Amerika. Of: het begon met de ‘Grote Versnelling:’ de periode van de voorbije 50 jaar waarin plastics, chemische meststoffen, beton, aluminium, en petroleum de markt overspoelden, en het milieu. Of: we kunnen het nu nog niet bepalen, we moeten waarschijnlijk nog een paar miljoen jaar wachten.
Kort gezegd, de vaagheid van de term leidde ertoe dat het onmogelijk was vast te stellen wat deze eigenlijk zou moeten zijn, en hoe hij gemeten zou kunnen worden. Daardoor ontstonden conflicten in het domein van de stratigrafie, waar sommigen betreuren dat een zeer gepolitiseerd onderwerp een idealiter traag, zorgvuldig, en delicaat proces ontwricht: bepalen wanneer een geologisch tijdperk begint en eindigt. Leidende wetenschappers stelden de vraag (pdf) of Antropoceen in feite niet meer is dan een uitwas van de ‘pop cultuur,’ eerder dan een serieus vraagstuk voor stratigrafen.
Daardoor worden deze wetenschappelijke discussies zelf ook politiek. Bij veel betrokken wetenschappers leeft het gevoel dat zij die het concept door willen drukken eerder geïnteresseerd zijn in het in de verf zetten van de destructieve kracht van de mens om klimaatactie aan te moedigen, dan in het definiëren van een nieuwe wetenschappelijke term. Zoals Richard Monastersky zegt in een Nature artikel over de politiek achter het de pogingen om de term te definiëren: “Het debat heeft het gewoonlijk onopgemerkte proces waarbij geologen de 4,5 miljard jaar geschiedenis van de Aarde opdelen, in de schijnwerpers geplaatst.” De inspanningen om het Antropoceen te definiëren en het op de kaart van geologische tijdsschalen te plaatsen is een mijnenveld van politiek, gevestigde belangen, en ideologie geworden. Zodoende onthult het debat over het Antropoceen eens te meer dat de wetenschap – die zo vaak als objectief wordt beschouwd – gedreven wordt door, en onderhevig is aan, persoonlijke en politieke agenda’s.
De mens beschuldigen, de geschiedenis uitwissen
Maar het is niet omdat de term Antropoceen politiek beladen is en moeilijk te definiëren, dat we twee maal zouden moeten nadenken voor we hem gebruiken. Er zijn veel verontrustender kwesties samenhangend met het onderwerp, waarvan we ons bewust moeten zijn.
Vooreerst is er de bezorgdheid dat het concept Antropoceen de menselijke impact op de Aarde ‘vernatuurlijkt.’ Wat betekent dit? In essentie dat we door te spreken over het ‘tijdperk van de mens,’ suggereren dat alle mensen verantwoordelijk zijn. Anders gezegd, dat er iets intrinsieks slecht is aan de mens, waar we altijd en onontkoombaar onze stempel zullen drukken op het milieu.
Dit gaat over het (zeer Westerse) idee dat mensen losstaan van de natuur, en dat we dus ofwel moeten terugkeren naar de natuur ofwel erbovenuit stijgen. Vandaar de oproep van de ecomodernisten om ons te ‘ontkoppelen’ van de natuurlijke wereld door technologie. Vandaar ook de oproep van diepe ecologisten om de natuur an sich te appreciëren, zonder er onze menselijke noden en verlangens op te projecteren. En vandaar het idee dat alle mensen mee de oorzaak zijn van de huidige moeilijke situatie.
Het alternatief, zoals gesuggereerd door de milieutheoreticus Jim Proctor, is beseffen dat het Antropoceen er niet is ‘vanwege’ de mens. Dit vereist te erkennen dat zijn processen en gebeurtenissen talrijk zijn en onderling verweven – er is geen helder onderscheid tussen natuur en cultuur, menselijke verlangens en natuurkrachten.
Maar welke krachten zijn dan verantwoordelijk? In alle rapporten over klimaatverandering staat duidelijk dat de mens aan de basis ervan ligt. Hiertegen argumenteren kan ons gevaarlijk dicht bij de retoriek van de ontkenners brengen.
Het is op dit punt dat we zouden kunnen kiezen voor optie C: vraag het aan een historicus. James W. Moore, een professor milieugeschiedenis, heeft zich afgevraagd of we echt met een beschuldigende vinger moeten wijzen naar stoommachines, atoomwapens, of de mensheid als een geheel. Daarom pleit hij voor een totaal andere term: het ‘Capitaloceen:’ het geologische tijdperk van het kapitalisme. Kort gezegd, het is niet de stoommachine die geleid heeft tot een gebruik van fossiele brandstof dat zonder voorgaande is – het zijn veeleer het bestuurssysteem en de sociale organisatie die de huidige globale veranderingen veroorzaakt hebben. Vereist waren het uitvaardigen van innovatieve eigendomswetten geruggensteund door militaire macht en politie, en ook het opzetten van ongelijke machtsrelaties tussen een kleine klasse van kapitalisten en de werkende armen, vrouwen, inheemse culturen, en andere beschavingen. Het zijn deze instellingen, ontwikkeld en geperfectioneerd over honderden jaren, die het mogelijk maakten om culturen te vernietigen en de hulpbronnen van de Aarde te overexploiteren, wat culmineert in onze huidige crisis.
Het is vreemd in hoeverre dit soort bredere sociale dynamiek totaal onbelicht is in het debat over het Antropoceen. Zo wordt er bijvoorbeeld vaak beweerd dat de uitvinding van het vuur de eerste vonk was die onontkoombaar zou leiden naar de immense voetafdruk van de mens op de Aarde. Dit is niet zomaar een randpositie. Andreas Malm merkt in een artikel in Jacobin Magazine op dat het idee wordt onderschreven door Paul Crutzen, Mark Lynas, en andere opmerkenswaardige wetenschappers zoals John R. McNeill. Volgens hen volgt de afschuwelijke impact van klimaatverandering rechtstreeks uit het ogenblik waarop een groep hominiden vuur leerde maken.
Maar beweren dat de controle van het vuur een noodzakelijke voorwaarde was voor de menselijke vaardigheid om kolen te verbranden is één ding, argumenteren dat het de reden is waarom we momenteel met een klimaatcrisis worden geconfronteerd, is iets helemaal anders.
In een pittig artikel in The Anthropocene Review suggereren Malm en de prominente milieuhistoricus Alf Hornborg dat deze veronachtzaming voortkomt uit het feit dat de wetenschappers die de alarmbel luiden over het klimaat, getraind zijn in het bestuderen van de natuurlijke wereld, en niet van de mens. Om de echte oorzaken van de antropogene klimaatverandering te vinden volstaat het niet om de winden, de zeeën, de rotsen, en de bevolkingsgroei te bestuderen, maar moet ook gekeken worden naar de maatschappij en de geschiedenis. In het bijzonder, Moore echoënd, is het een vereiste te verstaan hoe technologische vooruitgang in de geschiedenis steeds weer aangedreven werd door ongelijke machtsrelaties tussen een minderheidselite en een onderworpen meerderheid. Malm en Hornborg zeggen hierover:
“Geologen, meteorologen, en hun collega’s zijn niet noodzakelijk goed toegerust om het soort dingen te bestuderen dat plaatsvindt tussen mensen (en noodzakelijkerwijs tussen hen en de rest van de natuur); de samenstelling van een rots of het patroon van een straalstroom verschillen nogal van fenomenen als wereldbeelden, eigendom en macht.”
Bijgevolg moet het idee dat het Antropoceen de ‘nieuwe realiteit’ is die iedereen treft, in vraag gesteld worden.
Bijgevolg moet het idee dat het Antropoceen de ‘nieuwe realiteit’ is die iedereen treft, in vraag gesteld worden. Inderdaad, gezien de bestaande machtsrelaties, zal de ‘nieuwe realiteit’ meer ‘reëel’ zijn voor de ene dan voor de andere. Voor de meeste mensen zal het meer ontbering en vechten voor het overleven betekenen, terwijl er voor enkelen comfortabele reddingsboten zullen zijn. Zo suggereren Malm en Hornborg dat Dipesh Chakrabarty, de wetenschapper die het concept vanuit een postkoloniaal perspectief omarmt, zijn positie zou moeten herdenken: klimaatverandering zelf is geen universele gelijkschakelaar, maar riskeert integendeel de kloof tussen rijk en arm te verdiepen.
Dit brengt ons bij een laatste probleem: de politiek. Indien, zoals veel Antropoceen-enthousiastelingen beweren, het concept helpt om mensen te laten begrijpen hoe diep de menselijke betrokkenheid in de Aardse systemen is, dan kan het ook leiden tot een beloftevolle politieke discussie die er de machtshebbers eindelijk op wijst dat er iets dient te gebeuren.
Echter, zoals Jedediah Purdy, professor aan de Duke University, opmerkt in het tijdschrift Aeon: “Beweren dat we leven in het Antropoceen is een manier om te zeggen dat we de verantwoordelijkheid voor de wereld die we creëren niet kunnen ontlopen. Tot daar alles goed. Het probleem begint wanneer dit charismatische, allesomvattende idee van het Antropoceen een universeel projectiescherm wordt en een versterker voor iedereens geprefereerde versie van het ‘verantwoordelijkheid nemen voor de planeet’.”
Voor veel mensen betekent het Antropoceen dat er ‘geen alternatief is.’ Afhankelijk van persoonlijke overtuiging, leidt de term Antropoceen tot verschillende conclusies en oproepen tot actie. Zoals Purdy zegt: “Het Antropoceen lijkt niet veel geesten te veranderen… Maar het draait hen op tot voorbij het maximum. ”
Is dit een probleem voor elk nieuw concept of is het inherent aan het Antropoceen? Gezien de vaagheid van het concept is dit volgens Purdy “een Rorschach vlek waarmee commentatoren onderscheiden wat de tijdperkbepalende verandering in de mens/natuur relatie is.” Met de grote diversiteit aan opinies die beschikbaar is, zullen zij met de meeste politieke en ideologische invloed het debat uiteindelijk domineren.
Neem bijvoorbeeld Peter Kareiva, chief scientist bij het Nature Conservancy, die argumenteert dat het Antropoceen betekent dat we nu, meer dan ooit, moeten stoppen met proberen wildernis te beschermen en het kapitalisme te beschuldigen, en dat we integendeel ondernemingen moeten aanmoedigen om verantwoordelijkheid op te nemen voor, en controle over, de milieudiensten van de Aarde.
Kareiva’s opinie is enorm populair geworden in het mainstream discours, maar impliceert ook dat de mens niet het huidige economische en politieke systeem zou moeten herdenken, maar voluit dient te gaan voor het verhandelbaar maken van alles. Hoe vager het concept, hoe gevoeliger het dus kan zijn voor coöptatie. De vaagheid van de term heeft deels geleid tot zijn kameleon-achtig vermogen om in ieders agenda te passen.
Meer nog, aangezien het concept Antropoceen impliceert dat de mensheid als geheel de eerste verantwoordelijke is – en niet de relaties tussen mensen – verhindert het vruchtbare discussies, eerder dan ze aan te moedigen. Zoals Malm en Hornborg schrijven: “Het effect is het afblokken van elk perspectief op verandering.”
Is de term nog nuttig?
Indien de kritieken hierboven steek houden, waarom denken klimaatwetenschappers en activisten dan nog steeds dat het Antropoceen concept nuttig is? Overtuigt het echt degenen die nog overtuigd moeten worden, of versluiert het veeleer de belangrijke discussies die we moeten hebben?
In discussies en gesprekken met vrienden en collega’s, wordt er vaak op gewezen dat de kritieken van Malm en Hornborg voorbijgaan aan het originele nut van het concept. Zoals een professor geografie het schreef in een e-mail: “Voor mij opent het Antropoceen eerder de weg naar het soort exploratie waartoe de auteurs lijken uit te nodigen, dan dat het die weg zou afsluiten.” Mijn vriend Aaron McConomy schreef het volgende op Facebook: “Ik heb het gevoel dat al deze discussies, theoretische beschouwingen zijn over wat er in de echte wereld gebeurt, maar niet echt weerspiegelen wat ik als actieve lezer en onderzoeker opvang… Het is zoals de meme der memen die reageert op andere memen, waarbij niemand exact schijnt te weten waarop ze eigenlijk aan het reageren zijn… Voor mij is de grotere vraag hoe we ‘derde weg’ discussies kunnen hebben. Waar de realiteit van het Antropoceen toe oproept is een diepgaand herwerken van sociaal-ecologische systemen. Weinig voorbeelden waarmee men komt aanzetten, zijn daarvoor geschikt.”
Punt genoteerd. In plaats van te kibbelen over de betekenis van het Antropoceen, zouden we beter oplossingen vinden voor de vraagstukken waarmee we geconfronteerd worden. En terwijl de term een echt nut heeft voor geologen, kan het de broodnodige discussie over politieke alternatieven stimuleren. Dit is een steekhoudend antwoord op de problematisering van de term: alles welbeschouwd, de term is bruikbaar gebleken in het op gang brengen van een belangrijk debat.
Maar welk soort debat? Aangezien het Antropoceen de mens aanduidt als de hoofdschuldige van de huidige situatie waarin de Aarde verkeert, wijst het niet echt naar de minderheid die de meeste schade heeft aangericht, noch verbreedt het de discussie naar hen die het meest geraakt worden door klimaatverandering maar wiens rol in het veroorzaken ervan werkelijk nul is.
Leunen op een alomvattende geologische (en biologische) term om onze situatie te beschrijven, houdt het risico in te helpen om alternatieve opinies, alternatieve verhalen, en alternatieve politiek monddood te maken. Zoals Malm en Hornborg benadrukken: “Indien klimaatopwarming het gevolg is van de kennis van het vuur, of van een andere eigenschap die de menselijke soort verworven heeft ergens lang geleden in zijn evolutie, hoe kunnen we ons dan zelfs nog maar het ontmantelen van de fossiele economie verbeelden? [Argumenteren dat de klimaatopwarming veroorzaakt is door één soort] bevordert de mystificatie en politieke verlamming.”
Het valt moeilijk te bepalen of de term een goed debat gemiddeld schaadt of het eerder aanmoedigt. Maar als we de talrijke wendingen in acht nemen die de term sinds zijn ontstaan heeft gekend, is het aan te raden de kritiek ernstig te nemen.
Het valt moeilijk te bepalen of de term een goed debat gemiddeld schaadt of het eerder aanmoedigt. Maar als we de talrijke wendingen in acht nemen die de term sinds zijn ontstaan heeft gekend, is het aan te raden de kritiek ernstig te nemen. Dit soort beladen termen moet met zorg gehanteerd worden, en we moeten goed nadenken wanneer en waarom we de term zouden gebruiken.
Ja, ‘Antropoceen’ kan nuttig zijn om de geschiedenis van het leven op Aarde te vertellen. Het kan ook illustreren hoe diep de mens de Aardse systemen heeft veranderd. Ook suggereert het dat we onmogelijk terug kunnen keren naar de ‘ongerepte’ natuur die bestond voor de mens, zoals cultuurcritici lang hebben beweerd. Vanuit een geologisch perspectief is de term ongelooflijk aantrekkelijk om aan te geven dat de impact van de mens op de aardkorst zo diep is dat toekomstige aardbewoners, wanneer ze aan het graven gaan, een aardlaag zullen ontdekken die helemaal doordrongen is van de mens. Dit geologische feit is een prachtig beeld om al het bovenstaande uit te drukken.
Maar de term helpt niet noodzakelijk, zoals uitvoerig beargumenteerd, om de systemen die klimaatverandering bestendigen in vraag te stellen. Omdat hij de mensheid als geheel aanduidt, toont hij niet dat ons probleem politiek is, steunend op een onevenwichtige machtsverdeling. Door de startdatum van het Antropoceen open te laten (sommigen zeggen 50 jaar geleden, anderen 400 jaar, nog anderen 10.000, en weer anderen 50.000), faalt het woord om de hoofdrolspelers van de huidige ecologische crisis aan te duiden.
Zoals ‘duurzaamheid,’ ‘ontwikkeling,’ ‘natuurlijk,’ of ‘groen,’ is de term zo vaag dat hij door om het even wie kan gebruikt worden, voor het uitdagen van de machthebbers, om een snel centje te verdienen, of om een onderzoeksbeurs te scoren. Terwijl de term kan gebruikt worden om te argumenteren voor actie tegen klimaatverandering, kan hij even goed gebruikt worden om het aanboren van bijkomende olievelden te steunen (“och wat maakt het ook uit, we leven toch in het tijdperk van de menselijke superioriteit!”)
Je kan je afvragen of dit niet het geval is met alle woorden? Dat is het niet. Er zijn veel termen in gebruik bij de klimaatbeweging die zowel krachtig als moeilijk te ontvreemden zijn: degrowth, klimaatgerechtigheid, ecocide, ecologische schuld, en 350 ppm zijn er maar enkele van.
Het punt is niet dat het gebruik van Antropoceen zou moeten opgegeven worden – de term heeft duidelijk zijn nut gehad. Maar moet het, zoals in de voorbeelden hierboven, een strijdkreet zijn van klimaatwetenschappers en activisten? Moet het gebruikt worden als gespreksopener, in de hoop dat het de machthebbers zal overtuigen hun politiek te veranderen? Moet het kritiekloos gebruikt worden als het hoofdthema van talrijke wetenschappelijke congressen? Misschien niet.
Besluit: waarheen met het Antropoceen?
Woorden zijn machtig.
Zoals veel klimaatactivisten weten, is klimaatverandering een strijdperk van woorden. ‘350.org’ is genoemd naar de concentratie van 350 parts per million CO2 in de atmosfeer die door wetenschappers als nog acceptabel wordt beschouwd. ‘Klimaatgerechtigheid’ refereert naar het feit dat klimaatverandering verschillende mensen ongelijk zal treffen, en dat de klimaatbeweging zij aan zij moet strijden met mensen die systematisch onderdrukt worden op andere manieren. ‘Klimaatchaos’ ontstond om de zaken duidelijk te stellen, dat klimaatverandering zal zorgen voor een ontwrichting van de normale weerpatronen, eerder dan, zoals ‘opwarming’ schijnt te suggereren, een globale trage verhoging van de temperatuur.
Elk begrip zag een cyclus van early adopters, een groeiend gebruik, paradigmaverschuivingen in de algemene discussie, en daarna vaak kritiek gevolgd door een traag opgeven van de term.
Sommige concepten geïntroduceerd door vroegere sociale bewegingen blijven in gebruik: sociale gerechtigheid, burgerlijke ongehoorzaamheid, mensenrechten. Deze termen verwoorden zowel het probleem als de strategie, zijn politiek zonder teveel af te schrikken, en kunnen moeilijk ontvreemd worden door apolitieke actoren. Daarom blijven ze ook bruikbaar voor de sociale bewegingen van vandaag. ‘Antropoceen’ is niet zo een woord: het is voldoende vaag om door om het even wie gebruikt te worden, het is angstaanjagend zonder een uitweg te suggereren. Het heeft flair, het is aantrekkelijk, maar het mist macht.
Waarom is dit van belang? Woorden kunnen bewegingen maken of kraken.Helaas faalt de term ‘Antropoceen’ om de huidige situatie adequaat te framen, en daarom laat hij iedereen toe om de term te gebruiken ter promotie van de eigen oplossingen.
Waarom is dit van belang? Woorden kunnen bewegingen maken of kraken. Wanneer een beweging verzamelen blaast rond één term – bijvoorbeeld burgerrechten – verandert de manier waarop het publiek en dus de politiek het probleem percipieert. De manier waarop een probleem wordt gedefinieerd, de slogans van de actiegroepen, zijn ongelooflijk belangrijk om de noodzakelijke politieke veranderingen te bewerkstelligen. Helaas faalt de term ‘Antropoceen’ om de huidige situatie adequaat te framen, en daarom laat hij iedereen toe om de term te gebruiken ter promotie van de eigen oplossingen. Waar de term zeker veel discussies in gang heeft gezet, is hij noch politiek, noch precies, en zal hij daarom nooit leiden tot een goede, uitdagende, discussie. En juist nu is er echt nood aan discussies die uitdagend zijn.
Maar, willen of niet, ‘Antropoceen’ is er en heeft de manier waarop we denken en praten over de wereld al veranderd. Wetenschappers zullen de term blijven citeren, sociale theoretici zullen hem bestuderen, en in de media opgevoerde specialisten zullen hem gebruiken om wat dan ook in het ondermaanse te verantwoorden. Het is een ‘meme der memen, reagerend op andere memen’ geworden.
Aaron Vansintjan bestudeert ecologische economie, voedselsystemen, en stedelijke verandering. Hij is co-editor van Uneven Earth en geniet van journalistiek, wilde fermentatie, dekolonisering, degrowth, en lange fietstochten.
Vertaling door Luc Geeraert, voor het tijdschrift van Aardewerk (www.aardewerk.be) en in het kader van de Aardewerk Zomerweek “Het ‘Tijdperk van de Mens’: Over Leven in het Antropoceen,” die zal doorgaan in “La Bavière” in Chassepierre van 10 tot en met 16 augustus 2016.
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(If you play the above video while reading the article, it can provide a nice soundtrack)
As we found out on May 3rd, 2016, coal comes in a variety of shapes, textures, and sizes. Yes, we had “invaded” an open-cast coal mine for the sake of the climate, we were calling for a more just economic system that is not based on extraction, exploitation, and pollution. But in the presence of this substance, we became children collecting shells and pebbles at the beach: we crawled on hands and knees, exclaimed “woah, look at all the layers!”, placed them gently in bags to give to our friends later.
Holding a chunk of coal in my hand, I thought: this is the stuff. This is what they want. This brittle, dark substance powers my computer, lights my living room, and makes our modern livelihood possible. This opaque matter, which sucks in all the light around it, has stood at the center of social and environmental struggles for the last two centuries. It has powered science and innovation, fueled wars, and helped build the cities we live in. These thoughts imbued the coal I was holding with a sort of enchantment, inspired a reverence I had not felt before.
I thought: this is the stuff. This is what they want. This brittle, dark substance powers my computer, lights my living room, and makes our modern livelihood possible.
Ffos-y-fran, the United Kingdom’s largest open-cast coal mine, is nestled in the hills just outside of Merthyr Tydfil, a Welsh community of just 65,000 people. Miller Argent, the owner of the mine, employs 200 people and has dug up 5 million tonnes of award-winning coal, and intends to extract 11 million tonnes more.
For decades, the community has resisted the coal mine, complaining about the proximity of the mine, pollution of their ground water and air, the noise from explosives, and that it’s really, really ugly. While the community was in favor of deepcast mining—which involves less visible impact on the environment and will often employ local residents—open-cast mining employs far less people, most of whom are specialized in operating specific machinery and will move on once the mine is exhausted. In 2007 Miller Argent proposed to start another site nearby. Once again, the community resisted.
Reclaim the Power (RTP) is a decentralized network of climate justice activists—they organize without central leadership, coming together for strategic actions to block further development of the fossil fuel economy in the United Kingdom. As part of a two-week global wave of actions against fossil fuels, RTP organized their largest action yet: to invade a coal mine and shut it down for a day, symbolically highlighting the need to shift to a more just, fossil fuel-free economy.
Working with some amazing local activists, the United Valleys Action Group, RTP meticulously planned a campsite with the facilities to support hundreds of people (food, water, even composting toilets), orchestrated a massive media campaign, and even used the opportunity to host workshops, art-making, and dance parties. The result was beyond a direct action: it involved celebration, education, and politicization.
At several points during the action, I heard people remark, “what matters is how this appears in the media”, or, “this is useless if it’s not covered in the news.” Now, a week after the action, I want to reflect, not on its media impact, not on its success or failure—all important concerns. Very simply, I’d like to tell the story of what it’s like to be in a coal mine, explore it, and play with its terrain.
Unearthing the logic of the mine
“In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.”
The Situationists argued that the alienation workers felt in the factory had extended to every aspect of modern life. Our cities have become depoliticized, commodified spaces primarily geared toward profit and social isolation.
To confront this, they developed tactics—games—that could repurpose the city and allow them to engage with it differently. To them, understanding how the city shapes our daily lives was paramount in overcoming alienation from our environment, and breaking down isolation between each other.
If the city is the site of our daily alienation, then the coal mine is its engine.
One of these games was the “dérive”, meaning “drift”, where a small group of people would navigate the city, letting its landscape and terrain guide their movements. This would allow them to come to new conclusions about their city and pin-point ways to counteract its commodification and estrangement.
If the city is the site of our daily alienation, then the coal mine is its engine. The growth of modern urban life is inseparable from the extraction of coal. London first outmatched Amsterdam economically when the peasantry, displaced from their land, were forced to work in the coal mines. Coal powered the textile mills and food processing factories, which in turn enabled the cotton and sugarcane industries, fueled by slave labor, to flourish in the Americas. Coal kick-started a new world order, just as it continues to be a key ingredient for the industrial development of East Asian countries today.
Since the 1960s—when the Situationists were most active—the world has globalized and urbanized. We are now faced with what geographers call “planetary urbanization”—in which even the “countryside” has been shaped in the likeness of, and for the purpose of, growing megacities, and it has become difficult to say exactly where the city begins and ends. Now, all types of terrains and landscapes have been transformed into an interconnected mesh, a standing reserve of resources, extractive flows, and sites of commodified value.
The coal mine is an essential component of urbanization, and a great place for a dérive.
So why not think of the action at Foss-y-fran as a mass dérive? The organizers realized this: one affinity group dragged around giant inflatable “cobblestones”—a direct and conscious reference to the Paris May ’68 slogan “under the cobblestones, the beach”. The slogan recalled the cobblestones lifted by students to throw at police and create barricades with, but it also suggested that capital could be subverted by engaging with your surroundings in new ways.
It was this sense of play that many brought to the coal mine. When we arrived at the mine, there was a moment of wonder, excitement. This required weaving our way past giant mounds of slag that had been “reclaimed”—in other words, they grew some grass on top of it and allowed sheep to graze on them. But once past these, we entered a different world: everything around us was black and grey, muddy, gritty. Tall cliffs surrounded us on all sides, and nestled in their shadows were a handful of massive yellow machines—the diggers and the trucks.
The access roads were made for and by these machines. We were told to be careful of the smaller heaps of slag on each side: these could collapse and endanger others below. Finally, we found ourselves in the belly of the beast: the place where coal was being actively mined.
Here we were, in the hundreds, in a landscape not intended for pedestrians, let alone crowds. It was no accident, then, that we tended to gravitate toward the large machines that shaped this landscape. We quickly climbed up them and appropriated them with our slogans and games.
If you string a banner—“NO NEW COAL”—between two large diggers, you can play a game of volleyball with the “cobblestones”. The arm of the digger—just over two meters long—creates a hollow space ideal for amplifying a portable sound-system. When it rains, several dozen people can hide under a digger and start a mini-rave.
Once the initial excitement receded, we took strolls around the site, picking up rocks, inspecting deep pools of water, clambering up ledges. At one point, we stopped in front of a steep cliff. From a crevice in the layers of rock bubbled a tiny stream, staining the rock around it with a bright, rusty red. Even within this site dedicated to excavation, wildness still found a way to seep through the cracks. Amongst several people that I talked to, there was an appreciation for this landscape that I hadn’t expected: we agreed that there was something sublime about it.
Activists are often worried about whether their direct actions really “make an impact” or “succeed”. At meetings in London I attended in the past year, people would often suggest that community-based (“local”) organizing was less effective than orchestrating a large media presence and announcing clear, attainable demands, achieved through mass movements with precise political platforms. I’ve heard people criticize temporary occupations because they fail to scale up beyond the local, and, without institutionalized resistance or well-defined goals, they are unable to address the root of our problems.
The action at Ffos-y-Fran was highly temporary in nature: a day later, the mine was operating perfectly, without a hitch. It did not change any government policies, nor did participants articulate a coherent policy platform. What’s more, for every coal mine shut down in the UK, there are ten new ones in China, Vietnam, and Australia.
But is this how we want to define success? Ende Gelaende, the Germany-based anti-coal group whose invasion of a German coal mine last year inspired the Ffos-y-Fran action, loudly proclaim: “we are the investment risk!” The joke is that activists are happy to speak in the language that the fossil fuel companies use. Today they are at it again, with 3,000 people occupying the largest coal mine in Europe.
But the joke is double-sided: they are also poking fun at that very same language. It acknowledges that success cannot just be defined according to the language of the status quo. If all we mean by success is a good media presence, divestment of stocks, or a shift in government policy, then anything that does not look like that is ignored.
If you measure success according to statist, market-based goals, you will miss the non-statist, non-market activity that lurks underneath the action.
In his book Territories in Resistance, Raúl Zibechi argues that blockades and spontaneous actions have much deeper roots and are less fragmented than they seem. Rather than measuring their success in terms of whether they were able to change the state structure, he instead sees them as “lightning illuminating the night sky”: the direct action is just the more visible part of much larger, non-institutionalized movements that are already creating a new world within, and outside of, the old.
How about this for success: for a whole day, 300 of the UK’s most active climate justice activists got the chance to be inside of a coal mine, to understand its logic, and to get a feel for what is one of the most integral cogs to the current economy. For a day, adults became children, they turned machines into playgrounds, and they formed new relationships with each other.
How about this for success: for a whole day, 300 of the UK’s most active climate justice activists got the chance to be inside of a coal mine, to understand its logic, and to get a feel for what is one of the most integral cogs to the current economy.
If you measure success according to statist, market-based goals, you will miss the non-statist, non-market activity that lurks underneath the action. You will miss the heaps of dishes, the hours of meetings, the work put into making food. You will miss the crucial elements of a new type of movement that sees cooking, cleaning, playing, and caring as forms of resistance. These elements are busy rehearsing new ways of doing things, new types of economies.
The nature of the dérive is open-ended: it requires a kind of receptivity to new experiences, to new realizations. In return, it provides fresh insight into the machinations of our world, it suggests strategic weak points that may have not been visible before. If we are to resist today’s economy and plan for a new one, we cannot allow the elite to define success for us. Just as we must imagine new worlds, we must learn to create life and play in the ruins of the old.
Lifting the spell
The action was nearing its end. By 2 p.m., many of us were getting tired, others were just anxious to move out of the site we had occupied for the past five hours.
As a group, we decided that some of us would guard the diggers, which had become so familiar to us, and others would go explore the rest of the mines and try to stop the works that were happening elsewhere.
On the way there, we were met with a convoy of white Land Rovers filled with roughly 80 fully-outfitted riot police. They gave us two minutes to leave the premises. Now about 70 ourselves, we gathered in a circle to make a quick decision. I split off from the group with about fifteen others—not wanting to risk arrest at this point—and we made our way up another excavation site, which then curved around and over the hillside, finally leading us to the jagged edge of the mine.
The day had turned dark. I felt a bit like Frodo in Lord of the Rings: in the very guts of Mount Doom, my thoughts transformed by the landscape, all willpower receding in face of the challenge ahead of me.
When I reached the edge, I felt a thick layer of moss under my feet and saw the rolling Welsh hills in front of me. I collapsed onto the green ground. All of a sudden the dark spell was lifted. The massive black coal pit, at one point so impressive, had shaped my mood, and it gave the impression that there was no escape. Hugging the moss, I realized the extent to which the mine had clouded my judgements, and knew that it could no longer affect me.
From this edge we could see the events unfolding below us. A group of activists stood aside from the police, who, having left their vehicles, marched in impressive formation down the road, toward the deepest part of the mine, toward those who were guarding the diggers. We stayed at this look-out spot for about an hour, sharing snacks, talking about the day, and observing the show-down between the police and the handful of activists that remained.
It was at that point that the action was mostly over. It would take about two more hours for everyone else to leave. Some successfully stopped activity in other parts of the mine. Others chained themselves to the diggers. No arrests were made. In groups, we arrived back in camp, and were met with a warm welcome from those who had stayed behind.
A couple of minutes outside of the camp, a red traffic light obstructed my path. An endless supply of trucks, loaded high with coal, rolled out of the mine. Business as usual.
The next day, I set off back to the city. A couple of minutes outside of the camp, a red traffic light obstructed my path. An endless supply of trucks, loaded high with coal, rolled out from the mine. Business as usual. It seemed like yesterday was an illusion, a trip into the Kingdom of Narnia. Waiting for the light to change, I reached into my pocket and my fingers found a small rock. I took it out and looked at it: it was black, the size of a coin. It glinted in the sun. The traffic light turned green, and I put the piece of coal back into my pocket.
Postscript: lessons learned
If our action was like a “dérive”, I’d like to contribute three small notes to its methodology, none of them particularly new but each reinforced by my experiences of the action.
First, the structure of the “affinity group”—developed by activists to maintain autonomy and decentralization within actions, while ensuring trust and cohesion among the participants—is also useful for drifting through the terrain of the coal mine. Guy Debord notes that a dérive works best when capped at 2-4 participants. We could say that the affinity group, which tends to be comprised of 2-10 people, and will often be broken down into “buddy groups” of 2-3 people, makes it possible to conduct a dérive en masse.
Second, anonymity—upheld by activists in these kinds of actions for fear of surveillance and political persecution—is a double-edged sword. Paranoia inhibited trust between us, deflating some of the potential for making connections with others and multiplying strong bonds. It also inhibited some from being more outgoing and honest in their opinions, and created a hierarchy between long-time activists who knew and trusted each other and newcomers, like myself. Then again, the necessity of anonymity in the action led to a new experiential relationship for those who didn’t already know each other: who a person is was stressed less than the interactions you have with them. In these fleeting interactions, you were judged by your immediate acts and not by your ideas, past, political stance, etc. Kind of like at a party—a mass trespassing party.
Third, problems of exclusivity and ableism were apparent throughout the action. I met an older man who was almost in tears because he had been excluded systematically. Whenever he had tried to join an affinity group, people turned away or stopped talking. As a result, he didn’t feel comfortable joining in the day of the occupation. His way of speaking and interacting was unusual, and I thought that many of these activists might have been uncomfortable engaging with someone who seemed like he was mentally unstable.
In addition, one of the participants of the action used a wheelchair, and she constantly had to assert herself to make the action accessible to her. At one point, some people in her affinity group accompanied her to observe the edge of the mine: doing this could be seen, not as an inconvenience, but as an extremely radical action. It challenges both the world shaped by and for machines and the often inaccessible world of activist actions.
If an action is based on trust, it also means that the dominant group will define who is “trustworthy”, and not being member of that group or having mental health issues may increase the chance of not being trusted. Similarly, if an action is organized by mostly able, white folks, then the activities will likely feel alienating to those not part of those demographics, and they will need to work so much harder to be involved. A dérive can be so much more instructive if people excluded by this alienating, isolating society were to participate: they may be better equipped than anyone else to notice the weak points in the oppressive terrain.
All photos and videos by Aaron Vansintjan except for #17 (of the feet under the digger), which was taken by Anonymous.
Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, and long bicycle rides.
Drive through Northeastern Pennsylvania and you may see black hills of coal and orange water flowing near or through towns. What you’re witnessing is the legacy of historic anthracite coal mining, which fueled the USA’s industrial revolution and two world wars, had extremely dangerous labor practices, and lead to the destruction of its landscape. Diverse hardwood forests filled with wildlife were replaced with black mountains of coal waste with acidic soil that can only support birch trees, briar bushes, and scrub vegetation. Thriving cold-water fisheries were replaced with abandoned mine drainage (AMD), orange water devoid of oxygen and all aquatic life.
While mining issues are gaining national attention since the 2015 Gold King mine spill in Colorado, Pennsylvania sometimes seems like the forgotten state despite having more mining issues than any other state in the nation.
Anthracite mining once fueled the region’s economy, but after coal companies began to go bankrupt, once-thriving towns were left with nothing but devastated land & water and the scattered spines of abandoned coal breakers & mine shafts. Land reclamation projects and AMD treatment systems help to alleviate some of these problems, but these solutions are often expensive. While mining issues are gaining national attention since the 2015 Gold King mine spill in Colorado, Pennsylvania sometimes seems like the forgotten state despite having more mining issues than any other state in the nation. Perhaps it’s the fact that our mining heritage is in the past, while many other states continue to have active mineral and hardrock mining, allowing their issues to be more present.
The black hills of coal are more commonly known as culm piles. These piles are created by dumping coal waste, such as rock and shale, after separating it from the valuable anthracite coal. While these piles are large, they represent approximately 50% of what was taken out of the ground, revealing the massive size of mining voids lying beneath Pennsylvania’s valleys.
Land reclamation generally involves bringing the land back to a natural contour, adding a layer of topsoil to encourage vegetation, and seeding the land in order to begin the reclamation process.
Land reclamation projects are mostly funded through state and federal grants, with EPA Brownfield Grants and PA Department of Environmental Protection Growing Greener grants allowing non-profits to help recover devastated landscapes. Land reclamation generally involves bringing the land back to a natural contour, adding a layer of topsoil to encourage vegetation, and seeding the land in order to begin the reclamation process. While this process is straight-forward, mining pits can be incredibly steep, making the reclamation process take longer and be more costly.
AMD, or abandoned mine drainage, is another legacy of past mining. AMD flows from mine openings and drilled boreholes to relieve pressure from the underground mine pools. AMD forms when water reacts with pyrite, or ‘fool’s gold’, deep in the underground abandoned mine workings.
As pyrite is exposed to water and oxygen, the sulfides within the rock react and break down to form sulfuric acid and iron oxide. Other metals and minerals within the rock can also become exposed and pollute the water, with many discharges in PA and other states containing heavy metals such as iron and aluminum, and some discharges containing trace amounts of harmful metals such as lead and arsenic.
To put this into perspective, many mines were 500-1000 feet deep, with some mine shafts reaching approximately 2000 feet in depth. Like digging a hole in the sand at the beach, at a certain point water will keep filling the hole no matter how much you try to keep it out. It’s the same with mine water. Once mining companies hit the water table, they would always have to pump water out of the mines, continually increasing the cost to produce anthracite coal. After all of the coal companies went bankrupt, along with historic events such as the Knox Mine Disaster in 1959 and the Historic Agnes Flood of 1972, deep mining ended in most parts of the Coal Region.
The Knox Mine Disaster occurred on January 22, 1959 when the Knox Coal Company drilled within 20 feet of the Susquehanna River bottom. The immense water pressure caused the mine to collapse, creating a whirlpool that filled miles of underground tunnels with water. 12 miners died in the tragedy.
The Knox Mine Disaster occurred on January 22, 1959 when the Knox Coal Company drilled within 20 feet of the Susquehanna River bottom. The immense water pressure caused the mine to collapse, creating a whirlpool that filled miles of underground tunnels with water. 12 miners died in the tragedy. The disaster highlighted the dangers of irresponsible mining practice, with the ultimate consequence being the flooding of honeycombed mine workings throughout the Wyoming Valley causing working mines to be inundated with water, effectively ending the already struggling anthracite coal industry.
By the Agnes Flood of 1972 in which the Susquehanna River rose 40 feet and devastated the Wyoming Valley, most mining companies had claimed bankruptcy and as the pumps removing water were shut off, mine water began to spill out of any available opening leaving streets, basements, and streams filled with polluted mine water.
Furthermore, because mining companies were not required to treat abandoned mine drainage or reclaim mining land, once a company went bankrupt, the burden fell on taxpayers and government organizations to clean up the mess. Present-day active companies are required to reclaim land and treat any AMD discharges caused by their mining.
In Pennsylvania, AMD occurs in the Anthracite Region in the Northeast and the Bituminous Region in Western PA. In the Northern Anthracite fields, most AMD discharges have heavy concentrations of iron with relatively neutral pH’s around 6.5, the same pH as normal rainfall. In the Middle & Southern Fields and the Bituminous Region, discharges tend to be more acidic (4 pH) with heavy concentrations of aluminum. Treatment systems help remove AMD and restore water quality. There are 2 types of treatment, active and passive. Active treatment refers to the use of added components such as chemicals (limestone) and machinery (oxygenation machines and automatic chemical dosers) to treat AMD.
Overall, treatment systems are expensive to install and even after successful installation, long-term upkeep can become difficult to fund and maintain.
In general, active systems are more costly and require electricity and regular maintenance to remain efficient. Passive treatment refers to the use of natural settling in large ponds for oxygenation as well as natural growth of wetland plants to treat AMD. Passive methods include settling ponds and using gravity to move water through a treatment system. These systems are usually more cost effective and don’t have many long term maintenance or operation costs. Overall, treatment systems are expensive to install and even after successful installation, long-term upkeep can become difficult to fund and maintain.
While this pollution problem will take a lot of effort to remediate, dedicated watershed associations, local conservation districts, and environmental non-profits are working to fix this problem by installing treatment systems, restoring streams, and educating the public about this issue through community events such as illegal dump cleanups on minelands and environmental education projects with community organizations and local school districts.
Pennsylvania’s legacy of abandoned minelands and AMD have implications nationally as well as globally. While clean energy is an important goal to achieve in order to help move towards a new era of environmental stewardship, coal mining communities need to be supported in the form of mineland and AMD clean-ups as well as economic stimulation in order to successfully move towards a better future.
Pennsylvania’s mine land issues are a vast, far-reaching, and expensive problem. The effect can be seen nationwide, with other coal states such as Wyoming, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Illinois facing the same issues. Hardrock mining states also face similar issues, as seen with the Gold King Mine disaster in Colorado. Globally, countries like China, India, and Australia are just beginning to produce mass amounts of coal. Pennsylvania’s legacy of abandoned minelands and AMD have implications nationally as well as globally. While clean energy is an important goal to achieve in order to help move towards a new era of environmental stewardship, coal mining communities need to be supported in the form of mineland and AMD clean-ups as well as economic stimulation in order to successfully move towards a better future. Pennsylvania’s struggles can serve as an example for other communities throughout the United States and developing industrial countries.
All photos by Gabby Zawacki.
Gabby Zawacki is a Watershed Outreach Specialist for the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (EPCAMR), an environmental non-profit in Northeastern Pennsylvania. In her free time she enjoys hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, traveling, and photography.
This article originally appeared in the Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2016 report.
“The object is to change the heart and soul” – Margaret Thatcher
On the final day of the UN summit held in Paris in December 2015, thousands of people defied a ban on public gatherings by converging at a boulevard leading to the business district in La Défense to denounce the new climate agreement that government negotiators were about to sign and celebrate at the conference venue in Le Bourget, 20 kilometres away.
Hoping to counter governments’ attempts to control the narrative regarding the summit, they gathered behind giant inflatable ‘cobblestones’ and a red banner proclaiming “System change not climate change!” Departing from some other environmentalist groups, they held placards criticising the undemocratic ways in which decisions regarding our relationship to nature are ultimately made only by capitalists and other powerful groups in the current global capitalist system. In different ways, they put forward a more democratic alternative: a system in which ‘the people’ decide on important questions such as what sources of energy to use and what activities to power and for whose benefit, how many trees to fell and to produce what goods for whom or, more generally, how to organise our relationship to nature and in pursuit of what ends.
Broad and as defiant as the action turned out to be, however, it was still not as large or as confrontational as some of the organisers had hoped. Unable to rally more people behind them, the radical anti-capitalists had little choice but to abandon their original plan to barricade Le Bourget and also ruled out marching on La Défense. In the end, the protesters could only gather, lobbing their ‘cobblestones’ in the air, aimed at no targets. Meanwhile, the popping of champagne corks in Le Bourget or La Défense went undisturbed.
Why, as this particular but not uncommon episode indicates, are activists struggling for a more democratic system unable to attract more people to their side? Or why, despite the intensifying ecological crisis caused by capitalism, is the movement for radical system change still confined to the margins?
Part of the answer surely has to do with how the world’s elites have increasingly resorted to more coercive measures to keep people off the streets or prevent them from conceiving or expressing anti-systemic demands. But—as shown by the large number of people who refused to be cowed by the threat of force or to buy into the governments’ discourse in Paris and beyond—it is not merely the presence or absence of physical or ideological repression that determine people’s willingness to take on the powerful. Indeed, it pushes us to ask why more people are not willing to defy repression to fight for a democratic system.
This essay seeks to contribute to understanding the causes of the movement’s weakness by drawing attention to another, typically overlooked, way by which the dominant seek to contain challenges to their undemocratic rule other than by trying to repress people’s bodies in order to dissuade or restrain them from overthrowing the system: that of trying to mold people’s very subjectivities—how they see their identities, how they make sense of their life situations, what they aspire to, whom they consider their ‘friends’ or their ‘enemies’—in order to persuade people to actively defend the system.
By purportedly trying to ‘change the system’, a particular section of the world’s elites have achieved some success in countering radicals’ attempts to reshape people’s subjectivities, thus preventing them from fighting for a radically democratic system.
I argue that part of the reason why activists struggling for a democratic alternative to capitalism find it difficult to draw more people to their cause is because a section of the world’s dominant classes have been waging what we can think of, extending Gramsci, as a kind of global “passive revolution”: an attempt to re-construct or secure (global) hegemony by attempting to fundamentally reform global capitalism in order to partially grant the demands of subordinate groups. I show how, by purportedly trying to ‘change the system’, a particular section of the world’s elites have achieved some success in countering radicals’ attempts to reshape people’s subjectivities, thus preventing them from fighting for a radically democratic system.
A resurgent global counter-hegemonic movement
To better understand how world elites seek to contain counter-hegemonic challenges to their rule, it is useful to go back to the late 1960s when new radical movements, including those mobilising around ecological issues, burst onto the world stage as part of a broader resurgence of radicalism.
Even before then, a growing number of people in industrialised countries and also in the ‘Third World’ had been increasingly concerned about their deteriorating living conditions as a result of the ecological degradation that came with capitalism’s renewed post-war global expansion. Before the 1960s, many people still typically thought of these ecological problems and the impacts these had on their lives to be the result of others’ ‘bad personal habits’, ‘unscientific management’ of resources, or insufficient regulation of ‘big business’. They therefore generally thought that these problems could be solved and their suffering ended by the inculcation of better personal habits, more ‘scientific management’ of resources,’ or greater checks on big business. Consequently, few directed their anger at the world’s dominant classes in response to ecological degradation. While there would be a growing number of protests as people ‘spontaneously’ defended themselves against direct attacks on their wellbeing, they did not amount to the kind of organised and sustained resistance that threatened the ruling classes in earlier revolutionary upheavals in various countries.1
Starting in the 1960s, however, various intellectuals began to advance a different way of making sense of, and responding to, ecological problems. Herbert Marcuse, Barry Commoner, Murray Bookchin, or Chico Mendes, along with other scientists, journalists, writers, and organisers, began drawing not only from Marx but also from Morris, Kropotkin, Weber, and other critical thinkers to popularise new ways of looking at the world that challenged not just the dominant worldviews but even those propagated by so-called ‘Old Left’ activists.
Calling on ‘the people’ as members of exploited classes and other dominated groups whose interests were antagonistic to those of the world’s elites, they argued that deteriorating living conditions were not just because of bad habits, poor management, or the insufficient regulation of big business by governments, but because of the historically-specific property relations under capitalism. They revealed how capitalism drives capitalists, or those who own land, factories, power plants and other “means of production” and who therefore monopolise social decisions over production, to constantly intensify their exploitation of both workers and nature so as to maximise profits.
To overcome their suffering, they argued that reforms such as regulating big business—while not necessarily wrong—would not suffice; they needed to challenge nothing less than capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and other forms of domination. Though they did not necessarily agree on how to go about it, they urged them to end what Marx once called the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” or the system of rule in which only those who own the means of production ultimately make production decisions. This would involve fighting for the abolition of private property relations and building a society in which all people collectively and democratically own the means of production and therefore have a say in making decisions about how to organise production. Only then, they argued, would it be possible to prioritise people’s welfare and the planet’s well-being over the need to constantly maximize profits.
Through their myriad efforts to propagate these new ways of making sense of and acting upon ‘ecological’ problems, these radical intellectuals began to reshape people’s subjectivities by providing alternative ways of looking at the world, of understanding their identities, of diagnosing and overcoming their suffering.
With these changed subjectivities, people connected the struggle around ‘environmental’ problems to broader struggles for social justice and equality and channelled their anger about ecological degradation away from fighting other individuals or other subordinate groups towards the dominant classes, their allies in the state apparatus, and other influential groups.
As indicated by the growing membership and supporters of radical anti-capitalist ‘environmental’ organisations or movements that were concerned with ‘environmental’ questions, ever more people would begin to see themselves and the environmental problems they suffered in a new light.2 Many started to think of themselves as members of oppressed and exploited classes and also began to connect ‘environmental problems’ and their social impacts to capitalist, patriarchal, colonial, racial or other forms of domination. As one activist who came of age during this period put it: “a complete disaffection with ‘the system’… resonated deeply between East and West, North and South”.3 Protesters moved beyond critiques of particular aspects of capitalism and “challenged the very essence of capitalism”, according to the environmental historian, John McCormick. Many began to aspire to a post-capitalist, if not socialist, society. And they recognised the need to confront and overthrow the ruling classes and other dominant groups determined to perpetuate capitalism. “Whatever the cause”, notes McCormick, “by 1970, there had been a revolution in environmental attitudes”. 4
With these changed subjectivities, people connected the struggle around ‘environmental’ problems to broader struggles for social justice and equality and channelled their anger about ecological degradation away from fighting other individuals or other subordinate groups towards the dominant classes, their allies in the state apparatus, and other influential groups. Struggles around pollution, nuclear power, pesticides, and so on would become central to a reinvigorated global radical anti-capitalist bloc and re-ignited something that world elites thought they had ended: a “global civil war”.5
Although they did not necessarily succeed in—or did not even attempt to—seize state power, their actions, the historian Eric Hobsbawm argued, were still revolutionary “in both the ancient utopian sense of seeking a permanent reversal of values, a new and perfect society, and in the operational sense of seeking to achieve it by action on streets and barricades”.6 Or, as geographer Michael Watts noted of the uprisings that swept the world in 1968, they were revolutionary not “because governments were, or might have been, overthrown but because a defining characteristic of revolution is that it abruptly calls into question existing society and presses people into action”.7 Critical of ‘existing society’ and pressed into action, a growing number of people began fighting for what later activists called ‘system change’ to address ecological problems.
This resurgence of radical environmentalism in particular and of radicalism in general troubled those intellectuals drawn from or aligned with the world’s dominant classes in the United States and other advanced industrialised countries. Barraged with unrelenting criticism—pickets, protests, boycotts, direct actions—and besieged by demands for stronger regulation and ‘system change,’ many US business leaders felt under attack. One executive probably captured the mood when he said in jest: “At this rate business can soon expect support from the environmentalists. We can get them to put the corporation on the endangered species list”.8 Not since the Great Depression and the New Deal, notes political scientist David Vogel, did US capitalists feel so “politically vulnerable”. Although the exact conditions varied, the situation was similar in other countries where radical movements emerged.
One executive probably captured the mood when he said in jest: “At this rate business can soon expect support from the environmentalists. We can get them to put the corporation on the endangered species list”.
Under siege, many dominant intellectuals and corporate elites struggled to understand what was going on, how to define their interests in the face of it, and how to react. Many thought that the so-called ‘environmental problems’ were not ‘problems’ at all or that they could be solved through the normal workings of the market or through existing institutions.9 Insofar as they acknowledged the problem, many perceived only a threat to their company’s or their industry’s interests and sought to protect them by simply rejecting the grievances aired by subordinate groups, killing their proposals, and resorting to coercive measures to intimidate or discredit their proponents.10
But there were other intellectuals who pursued and advocated an altogether different response.
Unlike most reactionary elites, these reformists were typically from patrician or bourgeois families in their respective countries. Others were from less privileged backgrounds but had assumed high government office or positions in ‘civil society’ organisations, most notably the philanthropic foundations. But unlike government officials, they were what Weber called the “notables”: those who lived for rather than off politics.11
Among those from such backgrounds who would play leading roles on climate-related issues would be people like Laurence and David Rockefeller, of the famous dynasty’s younger generation; Robert O. Anderson, owner of the oil giant Atlantic Richfield; McGeorge Bundy, the former dean of Harvard and National Security adviser and later president of the Ford Foundation; Robert McNamara, former CEO of Ford Motors, Defense Secretary, World Bank President, and Ford Foundation trustee.
In other countries across Europe, Latin America and Asia, they included those with very similar backgrounds to their US counterparts. Among them were the likes of Giovanni Agnelli, chairman of Italian car company Fiat; Aurelio Peccei, former president of Olivetti and convenor of the Club of Rome; Alexander King, an influential British scientist; Maurice Strong, former president of a large Canadian oil company and later head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); Barbara Ward, a British economist and best-selling author, and adviser to numerous world leaders; Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau; Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India; Gamani Corea, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), from Sri Lanka; Mahbub ul-Haq, World Bank vice president from Pakistan; and numerous other ‘gentlemen lawyers’ and ‘learned cosmopolitans’.
Though they came from different countries, had their own specific interests, and pursued different and not always congruent projects, this loose network of elite intellectuals often pursued the same actions or took the same positions on particular issues. This was not because they were engaged in a ‘conspiracy’ but because their background meant that they generally thought about and acted upon global ecological issues through the lens of a common worldview.12
Unlike other elites, they were generally more open to the view that global warming and other ecological changes were indeed happening. Thus, for example, the oilman-turned-philanthropist who funded some of the key organisations that would push for action on climate change, Robert O. Anderson, called for a “steady mid-course between doom and gloom alarmists and those who resist acknowledging the clear danger to which the human environment is being subjected”.13 Similarly, the industrialists, executives, and scientists gathered in the Club of Rome would portray the environmental issue as nothing less than a “global crisis”.14
Breaking with other elites, they effectively concluded that in order to defuse such a threat, at least some of the grievances and demands of subordinate groups needed to be addressed—something that could be done only by fundamentally reforming global capitalism.
And, unlike other elites, they thought that the problem involved far larger threats than simply the diminution of specific firms’ prerogatives or countries’ economic competitiveness. They worried about pollution impairing their access to raw materials, intensifying international competition and prompting protectionism, and potentially even igniting inter-capitalist wars, such as World War I and World War II, that could once again fragment the global market and impede capitalist expansion. But more than that, they also worried that environmental degradation would further fuel public dissatisfaction and anger and therefore encourage support for radicalism.
Breaking with other elites, they effectively concluded that in order to defuse such a threat, at least some of the grievances and demands of subordinate groups needed to be addressed—something that could be done only by fundamentally reforming global capitalism.
Bound by these common views, these “enlightened reactionaries”—to use Karl Polanyi’s label—set out to build a transnational reformist movement or “bloc from above”, bringing together otherwise isolated elites and drawing in members of other classes to push for their project of ‘changing the system.’ They did this despite more conservative elites who wanted no change at all, and of course, against the radicals who wanted a very different kind of system change.
Undertaking parallel, sometimes even clashing initiatives, they deployed their vast economic resources and social connections—straddling the worlds of business, politics and science—to build this movement’s capacity to engage in ideological and political struggle on the world stage.
Radical language, reformist ends
To attract support, they advocated a different way of making sense of, and, thus, of thinking, talking, and acting about ‘global environmental change’ that absorbed certain elements proposed by radicals while departing from them on the most fundamental questions.
They studiously avoided calling them members of exploited or dominated classes whose interests are in conflict with those of the exploiting or dominant classes; instead, they preferred to emphasise their identity as members of one “mankind” whose interests are not at odds with the interests of the world’s elites—all inhabitants of “Only One Earth.”
Like radicals, they sometimes called upon or “interpellated” members of subordinate groups as belonging to the ‘poor’ as opposed to the ‘rich’, and sometimes even borrowed from radicals in designating them as part of the ‘periphery’ as opposed to the ‘core’. But they studiously avoided calling them members of exploited or dominated classes whose interests are in conflict with those of the exploiting or dominant classes; instead, they preferred to emphasise their identity as members of one “mankind” whose interests are not at odds with the interests of the world’s elites—all inhabitants of “Only One Earth”, as the title of Ward’s bestselling 1972 book for the first UN conference on the environment put it.
Echoing radicals, they told people that global ecological problems had less to do with ‘bad personal habits’ and more to do with the broader political and economic system. As the 1974 Cocoyoc Declaration, a follow-up to the 1972 Stockholm declaration written by Ward, ul-Haq, and others, put it: “[M]ankind’s predicament is rooted primarily in economic and social structures and behavior within and between countries”. But unlike radicals, they stressed that the problem was not the system as such but rather the lack of regulation and inadequate ‘scientific management’ of the system at the global level. Though they would disagree over what counts as “excessive”, all saw ecological problems as “evils which flow from excessive reliance on the market system”, in the words of the Cocoyoc Declaration.
Countering both conservatives and radicals, they argued for the need neither to keep the system nor to junk it altogether but to improve it by reducing the “excessive reliance on the market” and by moving towards what the Cocoyoc Declaration calls the “management of resources and the environment on a global scale”.
So, like radicals, they explained to people that they could only alleviate their suffering by pushing for what radicals called ‘system change’. But against radicals, they told people that changing the system did not entail overthrowing capitalism, but rather enhancing the global regulation of capitalism through what the Club of Rome called “radical reform of institutions and political processes at all levels”. Countering both conservatives and radicals, they argued for the need neither to keep the system nor to junk it altogether but to improve it by reducing the “excessive reliance on the market” and by moving towards what the Cocoyoc Declaration calls the “management of resources and the environment on a global scale”. The Club of Rome, for example, called for a “world resource management plan”15 while the Trilateral Commission advocated “international policy coordination” for managing the “global commons”16 in order to correct market failures, minimise inefficiencies, foster competition, and redistribute wealth in order to reduce poverty and mitigate ecological degradation. These proposals were what later scholars would call “international ecological managerialism”, or global “ecological modernization”.17
They urged the public to focus their anger only on particular members of the dominant group—i.e. ‘bad capitalists’ or those ‘bad elites’. At the same time, they called upon the public to join the moral, responsible elites as ‘partners’ in pushing for and bringing about ‘system change.’
Put differently, they told people that they should aspire not to the creation of a post-capitalist society but to a greener, more regulated, capitalist society. For only by perpetuating reformed ‘green’ capitalism, pursuing more trade, more growth and ‘sustainable development’ could ‘mankind’ solve ecological problems, address social grievances, and realise the vision of the good life. As the Founex Declaration put it: “development”—meaning capitalist development—is the “cure” for the environmental problems facing the poor.
Consequently, against radicals who urge people to view the dominant classes as their oppressors and the targets of opposition, they urged the public to focus their anger only on particular members of the dominant group—i.e. ‘bad capitalists’ or those ‘bad elites’ (variously, the USA, the advanced economies, big business, the oil corporations, the Republicans, and so on). At the same time, they called upon the public to join the moral, responsible elites as ‘partners’ in pushing for and bringing about ‘system change.’ Much of what succeeding reformists would say and prescribe from the 1970s through to the 2000s essentially built on these recurring discursive or ideological themes.
Building their movement’s capacity
Reformist intellectuals did not, however, stop at rallying people to their side and exhorting them to fight for their cause. Often in coordination, but also sometimes competing with each other, they mobilised to equip their supporters with cutting-edge knowledge on global environmental problems—and with ‘policy options’ for managing them—by funding or otherwise supporting hundreds if not thousands of universities and government or inter-governmental research departments and think-tanks.
Thus, for example, the Ford Foundation financed a whole battalion of academic centres, research departments and scientific networks such as the Aspen Institute, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the Brookings Institute, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Trilateral Commission “study groups”, and many other outfits. The Volkswagen Foundation funded the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study. McNamara transformed the World Bank into the world’s largest centre for research on the relationship between environment and development. As its first Executive Director, Maurice Strong established UNEP as one of the key initiators of large-scale collaborative research on the ozone hole, biodiversity loss, and climate change. Reformists in developing countries formed the South Centre, a think-tank that became a key source of analysis for government officials from the South.18
These ‘capacity-building’ efforts extended to a wide range of organisations, in part because of a deliberate strategy of taking risks and finding innovative people. Ford, even as it supported more moderate or even more conservative reformists, also funded ‘public interest’ organisations that were more critical of ‘big business’ and more inclined to raise questions of social justice.
This is not to say that they merely funded research with which they would agree. Indeed, probably as a result of their own lack of knowledge, uncertainties, or internal tensions, they chose, or at least strove, to ‘diversify their portfolios’ by supporting different researchers approaching the problem from dissimilar perspectives, including those they would subsequently disagree with.
To improve their ability to advocate for the reforms they wanted, they also undertook various initiatives to identify and groom scores of highly educated middle-class professionals—lawyers, economists and scientists—who were supportive of their reformist vision, and devoted considerable resources and energy towards promoting the ‘professionalisation’ of their activism. Ford, Rockefeller, Anderson and others, for example, bankrolled the formation of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC), and possibly thousands of other moderate or non-radical groups across the world. 19
These ‘capacity-building’ efforts extended to a wide range of organisations, in part because of a deliberate strategy of taking risks and finding innovative people. Ford, even as it supported more moderate or even more conservative reformists, also funded ‘public interest’ organisations that were more critical of ‘big business’ and more inclined to raise questions of social justice.
Through such investments in generating knowledge and building movements, they assembled a loose, decentralised, transnational network of highly-trained reformists, occupying strategic positions in various governments, international organisations and civil society groups worldwide, which then pushed the world’s governments to adopt a raft of far-reaching environmental measures to address global environmental problems at the local and global levels.
Thus, for example, equipped with research confirming global warming and with studies assessing possible policy options, this global network of reformists mobilised to raise the alarm and push for unprecedented global regulatory interventions to address climate change. It was UNEP, for example, that encouraged scientists to speak up and to push for an internationally coordinated response. Scientists and activists associated with EDF and other reformist groups organised a flurry of international conferences on the issue and pressed the world’s governments to commence negotiations on an agreement. And it was EDF and others that spearheaded the formation of the Climate Action Network (CAN), which would go on to be become the world’s largest network of NGOs calling for government “action” on climate change.20 Simply put, if it had not been for the independent but converging initiatives of these reformists—and the elites that supported them—the UN negotiations on climate change might never have happened.
Although they did not necessarily agree on all the details, they did converge in pushing for a strong, legally-binding international climate agreements. They united behind demands for unprecedented internationally coordinated interventions in the global economy that could oblige certain countries and industries to drastically reduce their emissions and for establishing a kind of de facto global ‘welfare scheme’ that could compel some countries to transfer finance and technology to others.
A global battle for hearts and souls
Thanks to all these investments in political and ideological mobilisation, the reformist movement was able to go on the offensive from the 1970s onwards. Effectively backed by the threat of the more radical alternatives posed by the movements to their left, it succeeded in overcoming conservative resistance and incrementally put in place a range of ambitious and far-reaching environmental regulatory measures in many countries, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act approved in the USA in the 1970s At the international level, this reformist bloc secured agreements tackling global environmental problems such as the ozone hole, biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change. These measures, as limited as they may have been, likely prevented even worse outcomes had reformists not pushed for them.
In so doing, reformist elites did more than just deliver limited relief and material concessions to members of the dominated classes; they also countered radicals’ attempts to reshape their subjectivities and succeeded in dispelling their attempts to channel people’s anger and anxiety towards fighting for radical system change.
By appearing to change the system and channelling limited benefits or advantages to subordinate groups, reformists undermined radicals’ capacity to convince people to diagnose their suffering as the inevitable result of capitalism.
This is because, by appearing to change the system and channelling limited benefits or advantages to subordinate groups, they undermined radicals’ capacity to convince people to diagnose their suffering as the inevitable result of capitalism and to see themselves as members of antagonistic classes whose interests are always incompatible with the dominant classes.
And, as an increasing number of people came to see themselves as members of harmonious communities, to believe that their suffering is caused only or primarily by the lack of regulation of capitalism, to conclude that they could improve their conditions without going so far as having to overthrow capitalism, and to view at least some elites as ‘partners’ or ‘leaders’ to support, so ever fewer would therefore be motivated to defy the powerful and to cast their lot with movements fighting for radical system change.
Once on the upsurge, radical anti-capitalist movements would consequently be on the defensive, continuing to organise but increasingly pushed to the margins.
For this and other reasons, radicals worldwide have not only found it harder to gain new adherents from the 1970s on, but even once-committed fighters would either lay down their arms or ‘defect’ altogether.21 Once on the upsurge, radical anti-capitalist movements would consequently be on the defensive, continuing to organise but increasingly pushed to the margins. In the USA, Europe, and probably in other countries where the radical environmentalist message had only a few years before gained traction, radical critique would “fizzle out” and anti-capitalist environmentalism would suffer a “precipitous decline”.22
Thus, without always deploying the violence they constantly keep in the background, the more forward-looking of the world’s elites have at the very least been able to dissuade people from struggling to replace capitalism with a different, radically democratic system; at most, they have been able to persuade or motivate them to actively fight to ‘improve’ an inherently undemocratic system in order to prevent it from being overthrown. By organising and mobilising a transnational movement from above to wage a global “passive revolution” in favour of regulating the market, they have been able to defuse the class antagonisms that the radical intellectuals had sought to kindle. By so doing, they have not only prevented or restrained people from expressing or venting their anger, but have been able to harness that anger towards tinkering with the system in order to keep it the same.
Our movement has not only survived the reformist offensive but in recent years, we have even become resurgent again. But whether we will do more than survive ultimately depends on whether we can counter these more forward-looking elites’ sophisticated and well-organised attempts to change the hearts and souls of those we seek to draw to our side.
Had these reformist elites not mounted this global passive revolution, it is unlikely that the world’s governments would have attempted to establish global-level regulation to address global ecological problems. And had the world’s governments not acted, it is unlikely that they would have staved off a global counter-hegemonic challenge to capitalism.
And yet, it is also important to stress that, as indicated by the willingness of a significant number of people to engage in mass civil disobedience action on the final day of the latest UN climate summit in Paris and the growing radicalisation of many climate activists worldwide, they still have not succeeded in completely defeating or eliminating this challenge altogether. For reasons that have to do in part with leading reformists’ decision to accommodate conservative elites’ demands to weaken their proposed reforms, our movement has not only survived the reformist offensive but in recent years, we have even become resurgent again.
But whether we will do more than survive ultimately depends on whether we can counter these more forward-looking elites’ sophisticated and well-organised attempts to change the hearts and souls of those we seek to draw to our side. This does not necessarily have to mean always just opposing the reforms and concessions that the more ‘radical’ among the reformists are promoting, or completely refusing to work with them in all circumstances. But it does mean constantly subverting their attempts to channel people’s anger to only their chosen enemies and to confine them to just aspiring for a greener, more ecologically-conscious ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.’ Put differently, it means pushing people to go beyond the horizon that the reformists seek to restrict them to, and to help empower them to dream of a democratic, socialist, alternative.
The alternative is that we just remain stuck in place without being able to march forward.
Herbert Villalon Docena is currently a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and a member of a workers’ group, Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (Solidarity of Filipino Workers), in the Philippines. Prior to pursuing graduate studies, he was a researcher and campaigner with Focus on the Global South.
Recently there’s been a wave of arguments defending economic growth from a leftist perspective. People are increasingly reacting to the rise of ‘degrowth’: a diverse movement calling for, among other things, scaling back the total material and energy use of the global economy.
One particularly vigorous example is the work of Leigh Phillips, where he accuses degrowthers—who he claims have become “hegemonic” (file under: things I wish were true but aren’t)—of undermining classic leftist pursuits such as progress, well-being, and strengthening of social services. Similar arguments could be seen in a recent article that appeared in Jacobin Magazine, in which growth was posited as necessary for progress. And Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman have come out against degrowth, claiming that economic growth is actually necessary to address climate change, and lumping degrowthers together with the Koch Brothers, as they both seem to seek to dismantle the state.
When two sides of an argument have a totally different definition of the concept that’s being debated, and if one side even refuses to define it, constructive discussions tend to turn into uncompromising squabbles.
Many of their points have been valid and necessary—serving to complicate the simplistic ‘are-you-for-capitalism-or-a-Luddite?’ narrative. Preaching the benefits of technology and criticizing the current economic system are not mutually exclusive. But there are some recurring problems with these arguments that I want to highlight.
In this article, I argue that definitions of growth are either unclear or constantly shifting depending on the argument. The result is that authors often misunderstand and do not engage adequately with critiques of growth. When two sides of an argument have a totally different definition of the concept that’s being debated, and if one side even refuses to define it, constructive discussions tend to turn into uncompromising squabbles. In an effort to clear up some misunderstandings, I briefly explain what I see as some of the values of the degrowth position.
Growth is everything and nothing: long live growth!
Perhaps the most emblematic—and unfortunate—leftist challenge to degrowth came from Paul Krugman, all the way back in October 2014.
This was a significant occasion. For the most part, mainstream economics ignores ecological economics—a “rogue” field that harbors many of the growth dissenters. But with this article, Krugman brought the challenge out into the open. In his words, the criticism of growth is “a marginal position even on the left, but it’s widespread enough to call out nonetheless.”
Weirdly, Krugman spent most of the article explaining how shipping companies reduced their energy expenditure in 2008 by slowing down their ships. Using this example, his defense of ‘economic growth’ waffled between two very different arguments: that an increase in efficiency can lead to less energy being consumed, and that, theoretically, it is possible to increase the total economic transactions while decreasing total energy use.
With respect to efficiency, Krugman waded into a discussion in which he seems to be out of his depth—other ships have sailed these waters for a long time now. From 19th-century English economists concerned with the decline of available coal to scientists investigating the impact of washing machines, people have long wrestled with problems like the one he raised: how an improvement in efficiency might nevertheless lead to a total increase in energy use. So from the perspective of ecological economics—which has sought to understand how the human economy is embedded within the physical environment—it’s not that hard to sink Krugman’s flimsy argument that an increase in efficiency necessarily increases economic growth while decreasing total energy consumption.
Krugman waded into a discussion in which he seems to be out of his depth—other ships have sailed these waters for a long time now.
What’s curious though about his article is that he not once defined economic growth. This definition remained latent—one can only assume that, whenever he used the term economic growth, he meant the increase in the annual monetary value of economic transactions over time, calculated using the GDP. The article could’ve been a chance for him to show exactly why economic growth is desirable. Instead, he spent most of the article fumbling to find some example that shows that economic growth can theoretically be decoupled from oil consumption.
Granted, if that was the only goal of his article, it would’ve been a good point: a rise in GDP is not the same as a rise in energy use, economic transactions could still take place in a low-carbon economy. The problem is that his argument claimed to go beyond this—seeking to contradict the degrowth claim that, until now, economic growth has been strongly coupled with increasing material and energy use. But his evidence remained purely theoretical, and therefore failed to settle the debate.
This tendency isn’t unique to neoclassical Keynesians—I’ve seen Marxists who’ve suffered from the same inability to explain what, exactly, they mean by economic growth, thereby misunderstanding the call for degrowth.
In Jacobin Magazine, Samuel Farber argues that notions of progress are actually essential for any leftist project. Improvements in technology, infrastructure, and material well-being are crucial for addressing inequality and injustice globally. Fair enough. But then he also explicitly criticizes the degrowth stance:
Many progressive activists today are skeptical of material growth, for ecological reasons and a concern with consumerism. But this often confuses consumption for its own sake and as a status symbol with the legitimate popular desire to live a better material life, and wasteful and ecologically damaging economic growth with economic growth as such.
So here, like Krugman, Farber argues that economic growth is not the same as what he calls ‘material growth.’ And like Krugman, he argues that economic growth is not, in itself, environmentally destructive. But what, then, is economic growth to him? He notes in the following paragraph:
Environmental policies that would make a real difference would require large-scale investments, and thus selective economic growth. This would be the case, for example, with the reorganization of the individualized and wasteful system of surface and air transportation into a collective and rational plan…
It seems that for Farber, defending economic growth is necessary to fight for progressive changes to well-being. What is not clear is exactly why this should be called economic growth. From his examples, there is no quantitative growth—unless you start counting the growth of things like trams and hospitals.
Interestingly, like Farber, many degrowthers might also argue for “more of the Good Things”—for example, increasing health care services, supporting care labor, creating infrastructure for public transportation, and incentivizing renewable energy—but they wouldn’t call them economic growth. Instead, they might prefer to use terms like ‘flourishing’ or ‘sufficiency’ or just ‘more of that good stuff’. They wouldn’t assume that it is total economic growth that allows the good stuff to come into being. Instead, more of the good stuff requires redirecting economic activity to better suit the needs of society—for which the primary ingredient is democratic deliberation, not increased production (social metabolism), larger money supply, or an increase in the transactions taking place in the market economy (GDP growth).
It seems that for Farber, defending economic growth is necessary to fight for progressive changes to well-being. What is not clear is exactly why this should be called economic growth. From his examples, there is no quantitative growth—unless you start counting the growth of things like trams and hospitals.
So there are two problems: the misidentification of what degrowthers are calling for, and a poor definition of economic growth as such. Farber seems to think that degrowthers are claiming that preventing (or reversing) environmental destruction necessitates “less Good Things”. As a result, his argument against degrowth, and for growth, amounts to a bait-and-switch between two definitions of growth: growth of Good Stuff and growth of total economic activity. This failure to define his terms then allows him to mischaracterize the claims of the degrowth movement.
This tactic is heightened to an extreme degree in Leigh Phillips’ recent anti-degrowth polemic, Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-porn Addicts: A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff. While reading his book I not once got an exact definition of what he meant by economic growth. Growth seemed to include a whole host of things, such as: growth = progress, growth = innovation, growth = increase in well-being, growth = increase in money supply, growth = increase in resource use. He tended to use these interchangeably.
In one instance, Phillips acknowledges this directly:
Of course, one might argue that I’m being far too loose with the terms growth, progress, and invention, which begin to blur here. But then, as well they should, as perhaps what it means to be human is to invent, to progress to grow. To constantly strive for an improvement in our condition. To overcome all barriers in our way.
As far as I could figure out, the logical reasoning here goes as follows:
Degrowthers argue that infinitely and exponentially increasing economic growth is bad for humans and the planet. But economic growth leads to Good Things as well. Therefore, degrowthers are against Good Things.
Phillips denies degrowthers the ability to realize the most basic fact: more good = good, more bad = bad. And if growth is simply Everything That Is Good In The World, it becomes a hard thing to argue against: we’ve reached a conversational impasse.
The problems with muddling the definition of growth come to the fore when Phillips tries to argue, in contrast to Naomi Klein’s recent book, that degrowth and anti-austerity are incompatible: “Austerity and ‘degrowth’ are mathematically and socially identical. They are the same thing.” To show this, he uses the example of the economic decline following a time of rapid growth immediately after the Second World War—which involved “high productivity, high wages, full employment, expanding social benefits…”. In contrast, he argues that after the 1970s, according to “whichever metrics we use”, there was a decline in prosperity for all Americans.
Phillips denies degrowthers the ability to realize the most basic fact: more good = good, more bad = bad. And if growth is simply Everything That Is Good In The World, it becomes a hard thing to argue against: we’ve reached a conversational impasse.
The implication is that economic growth is directly related to material and social well-being, and “degrowing” would limit that kind of progress. Actually, during this time, well-being decreased just as consumption and economic growth sky-rocketed—a fact which he conveniently doesn’t mention. To avoid this fact, he usefully switches from defining economic growth as increase in productivity and material use, to defining economic growth as decrease in inequality. But different kinds of things can grow or degrow at different rates—a decrease in consumption is not the same as a decrease in well-being. In fact, since the 1970s, the US has only increased its per capita material use, not decreased it. Austerity does not inherently lead to a decrease in total consumption, nor does a decrease in well-being inherently require a decrease in material consumption.
His argument reminds me of a recent New York Times article about degrowth. As fellow degrowth scholar Francois Schneider pointed out in an email, in this article, degrowth was defined simply as a reduction of income. Not only does this misinterpret what, exactly, needs to degrow (hint: not well-being), it also feeds into the tendency—symptomatic of the neoliberal era—to reduce all kinds of well-being to monetary indicators.
Phillips continuously makes the same error: conflating income with wealth, material production with material well-being. While this is standard practice in development circles—used to justify land-grabbing, exploitative industry, and privatizations—you would expect different discursive tactics from a staunch anti-capitalist austerity-basher. Part of the degrowth framework has been specifically to argue that well-being and income have been conflated for far too long, with very negative consequences (such as the wholesale destruction of indigenous livelihoods for the sake of development).
Finally, when trying to counter the degrowth position, you’re also going to have to deal with the now well-known catchphrase that “infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet”. To do this, Phillips calls upon a pretty quirky theoretical model:
Think of a single rubber ball. Like the Earth, it is bounded in the sense that very clearly there is an edge to the ball and there is only so much of it. It doesn’t go on forever. It is not boundless. And there is only one of them. But it is infinitely divisible in the sense that you can cut it in half, then cut that half in half again, then cut that quarter in half, then that eight in half, and so on. In principle, with this imaginary ball, you can keep cutting it up for as long as you like, infinitely extracting from this finite object.
Phillips counters the necessity to degrow with a variation of Zeno’s paradox, hoping to show that, theoretically, infinite growth is possible on a finite planet, as long as it decreases at a negative exponential rate. Basically, in a finite world, you can keep on growing infinitely as long as you grow less and less, all the way to infinity. But this also involves acknowledging that positive exponential growth (e.g. a 3-5% growth rate) is physically impossible. Funnily enough, in trying to prove the possibility of infinite growth on a finite planet, he trapped himself in an argument that looks very similar to that of the degrowthers.
Phillips argues that, since it’s possible to conceive of a socialist system where economic growth leads to a low-carbon economy, economic growth is inherently a Good Thing. It’s reminiscent of another classic sophist argument: since it’s possible to conceive of God, He therefore must exist.
Similarly, later in the book, he concedes that we do need to move toward a low-carbon economy and that, within capitalism, this is impossible. But, rather than conceding that economic growth within capitalism is undesirable, he argues that, since it’s possible to conceive of a socialist system where economic growth leads to a low-carbon economy, economic growth (largely defined in capitalist terms, even as he rejects GDP elsewhere) is inherently a Good Thing. It’s reminiscent of another classic sophist argument: since it’s possible to conceive of God, He therefore must exist.
So what needs to degrow?
Let’s be clear, even if defenders of economic growth rarely are. Historically, economic growth (defined as total increase in measured economic transactions, or GDP) has risen along with social metabolism: the total consumption of materials and energy of an economy. Increased material-energy throughput is what makes climate change and environmental destruction happen, and engenders environmental conflicts around the world. Therefore we have to downscale our total material-energy throughput to address environmental and social injustice. Mostavailableevidence points to the fact that decreasing total economic activity is the best way to do this, while still being able to provide adequate social safety nets.
Critics of degrowth spend most of their time trying to convince readers that decoupling economic growth from “the Bad Things” is theoretically possible, even as they rarely define what they mean by economic growth.
Degrowth, then, is about challenging the idea that infinite and positive exponential growth in monetary transactions (GDP) is the main tool for achieving well-being, today and for future generations. Further, degrowth is about acknowledging that exponential GDP growth has been, and will likely be for the foreseeable future, linked with rising material and energy throughput, and that this increase in total consumption has disastrous effects on the earth and its people. This comes along with a critique of GDP: many argue that it is a terrible indicator for well-being in the first place. It also comes along with criticizing the neoliberal demand to increase economic growth at all costs, even if this means subjugating an entire population to decades of debt (more on this in another piece).
There are many definitions of degrowth out there, but a commonly cited one is “an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions”. Under most definitions, degrowth is about maximizing well-being while minimizing energy and resource consumption (particularly in the rich nations) which may be mutually beneficial, and can address climate change to boot.
So degrowth is not about decreasing the Good Things. Nor is its main thrust that decrease in total consumption is the only thing that must be done. And all degrowthers I know would happily concede Phillips’ point that a change in the mode of production—involving a critique of capitalism, better use of technology, and better democratic planning—is necessary to avoid environmental and social Bad Things.
But they would disagree that the prerequisite for more Good Things is increasing total economic activity. In fact, as I argue in my next piece, the ideology of economic growth actually waylaid struggles for better welfare, helping to shut down the political action necessary to provide more Good Things.
Now, it is theoretically possible to decouple exponential economic growth (be it positive or negative) from exponentially increasing metabolic rates, even if no such thing has, as far as is known, been successfully implemented. Arguments for decoupling, including those in Phillips’ book, fail to take into account the embedded material and energy consumption of economies that have, so far, ‘dematerialized’ while GDP has gone up.
Krugman’s proposal for how to decouple remains in the neoclassical camp: toggling consumer preferences—demand, and regulating undesirable economic activity—supply, while continuing to increase economic activity on the whole. Farber and Phillips’ approaches are in the Marxist camp: radically shift the mode of production to rationally plan an economy, limiting the Bads and upping the Goods, while (presumably) continuing to increase economic activity on the whole.
To make their case, these authors have conjured up magical scenarios involving a slow ship economy and a post-capitalist socialist world order. Neither economies exist today. To really support their points, they would need to point to extensive research and probably some robust models, rather than possible worlds.
Take the case of Austerity Ecology: Phillips argues that socialist economic growth has the potential to save us, even as he does not draw on any examples of situations where this has occurred. It’s a cheap argumentative trick to defend economic growth today just on the basis that it could theoretically work under socialism.
So if they really wanted to defend economic growth as it exists today, this would be where the conversation would need to go: determining whether, and how, economic growth could keep going without exponentially increasing material and energy use. Bonus points: showing exactly why economic growth—defined as the exponential increase in monetary transactions at 3-5% per year—is desirable in itself.
But it is exactly at these points that the defenders of growth remain obscure. Rarely do they explicitly concede that, in fact, current rates of economic growth have been historically tied to increasing environmental degradation. Rather, they spend most of their time trying to convince readers that decoupling economic growth from “the Bad Things” is theoretically possible, even as they don’t define what they mean by economic growth.
And yet this approach actually suggests that they are already on the defensive: they are trying to save economic growth from the accusation that it inevitably leads to more “bad stuff”. Without proper evidence, and by shifting the definition of growth constantly to suit the needs of their arguments, the positions of growth-defenders start looking more like denial than reasoned debate.
In contrast, degrowth starts from the reality of the current economy. In this economic system, decoupling is very difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, because climate change is now and a global socialist economic order is not yet in sight, a realistic short-term strategy is to limit exponential growth in metabolic rates, most easily achieved by limiting exponential economic growth. This should be paired by a long-term shift to a more equitable, democratic economic system. Then, theoretically, a new economic system could be constructed where equitable economic growth does not lead to more fossil fuel consumption.
Whether we should focus on creating a global socialist system instead of shifting to a low-impact economy is debatable, but perhaps, just to be on the safe side, we could give both a try.
Thanks to Sam Bliss, Grace Brooks, Adrian Turcato, and Giorgos Kallis for their comments and feedback.
Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food politics, and urban development. He is an editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.
When people take to the streets and demand climate justice, they expect their elected leaders to step up and address the drivers of what is clearly the largest global crisis humanity has ever faced. However, the so-called “solutions” that were brought to the table for COP 21 in Paris last week are anything but—instead they deflect attention away from consumption patterns linked to the burning of fossil fuels.
These strategies are devised by powerful corporations and government partners as a literal and metaphorical “smokescreen” for the real drivers of deforestation and carbon release to the atmosphere, including monoculture expansion of palm oil and soybean, oil and minerals extraction, industrial logging and mega-infrastructure projects.
REDD+ is a cost-shifting mechanism, a potential get-rich scheme for local elites, and a placating strategy to prepare the broader landscape for the accumulation of “new” capital.
One of the most subtle and sinister “solutions” promoted by the UN, the World Bank and other global development institutions is REDD+, which stands for (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). The “+” is meant to incorporate other environmental or development priorities, including biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. US$ 10 billion has been pledged for addressing climate change through REDD+, though not many have heard about what this strategy is all about.
Some people say REDD+ sends a signal that safeguarding forests through performance-based payments is key to combatting climate change. Maybe they are right, but the way in which REDD+ is framed also paves the way for appropriation of the landscape while reducing the capabilities of forest peasants to take control over their own development futures. While forests protection plays a vital role for maintaining critical ecological processes and the well-being of the people that depend on them, REDD+ does not place the forest at its heart. It is instead a cost-shifting mechanism, a potential get-rich scheme for local elites, and a placating strategy to prepare the broader landscape for the accumulation of “new” capital.
REDD+ is premised on reducing carbon emissions from deforestation. While it is true that deforestation amounts to 25-30 percent of carbon emissions and is a major factor influencing climate change, carbon sequestered by trees is vastly different from sequestering carbon by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Firstly, it is a challenging endeavour to measure carbon emissions in an accurate and transparent manner, with many measurements tens of thousands of tons of CO2 off the mark.
Secondly, trees are unstable and only temporary repositories of sequestered carbon, since the carbon they store will eventually be returned to the atmosphere. Re-release of carbon might occur much faster than “expected” due to climate-induced forest fires. Indeed, just three weeks of raging forest fires in Indonesia have released more CO2 than Germany’s entire annual emissions.
It’s as though we are placing the blame on (remaining) tropical forests for not sequestering enough carbon when it is in fact actual carbon emissions through the burning of fossil fuels which has brought us to the brink of the climate catastrophe we face. Of course, it is all the more easy to place the burden on tropical forests for solving our climate problems when they conveniently reside in countries out of sight and out of mind from where carbon-intensive development paths occur, and of course where costs of taking responsibility for climate change are the cheapest. This is an all too-convenient recipe for shifting environmental costs and accountability of actions.
REDD+ projects are carried out by businesses or development NGOs in industrialized countries who pay communities residing in tropical forest areas, mainly in the Global South, to prevent forest destruction from happening, whereby it must be evident that deforestation would otherwise happen if payments are not forthcoming. The amount of payment provided by the industrialized country partner reflects the tonnage of carbon, linked to its price on the global carbon market, which is saved from being released into the atmosphere due to forest protection.
Damage to the environment and rehabilitating the damage both become socially justifiable market opportunities to spur economic growth.
The stipulation that the payment provided for forest protection and carbon sequestration has prevented the forest from being destroyed and that the forest continuously be safeguarded from destruction is important for the industrial country funders, who aim to score carbon-credits from the deal. These credits serve as “rights to pollute”—something of a reward for having done a good deed, in this case for paying to supposedly prevent deforestation from occurring. The incredulous, almost farcical nature of this arrangement becomes disturbingly obvious. The polluting country or company, who has been responsible for the majority of carbon emissions up until now, suddenly has the right to continue burning fossil fuels and releasing CO2 as before.
The tropical forests of the Global South are a precious new commodity to squabble over, this time with billions of dollars backing the potential spoils and rich countries as new rights-holders of land locked away for carbon offsetting the continued economic development of rich countries. This is the same image of colonization that we’ve seen time and again, but this time with a surreptitiously green face.
As social anthropologist Melissa Leach and colleagues of the University of Sussex have argued, mainstream economics has successfully attributed value both in the exploitation of the environment and natural resources for growth in manufactured goods, but in recent times have also determined the potential for market creation in the repair of the environment in the name of “sustainability.”
This is the same image of colonization that we’ve seen time and again, but this time with a surreptitiously green face.
This new economic driver of environmental repair combined with the classical economic driver of resource extraction and resulting environmental degradation work in concert to extract the maximum value out of nature irrespective of whomever or whatever is in the way. In this way, damage to the environment and rehabilitating the damage both become socially justifiable market opportunities to spur economic growth.
REDD+ would be flawed even if the payments were targeted to major drivers of deforestation in the Global South, namely industrial-scale agriculture for commodities such as soybean and palm oil. This is because overall carbon stocks would not be reducing—which is ultimately what is so badly needed if we are to prevent dangerous climate change from occurring. Without underestimating the important role that tropical forests could play in storing carbon, it would make far greater sense to curtail the burning of fossil fuels and other carbon-emitting activities and prioritize actions to halt carbon emission at the source.
However, what is so heinous about this situation is that REDD+ projects do not target those responsible for large-scale deforestation, but instead target poor shifting cultivators whose forest-dwelling livelihoods and associated socio-cultural knowledge systems and practices become ‘priced-out’ by the market because they are too low to compete with, in this case, the value of carbon for Western countries to keep polluting.
For forest-dwelling communities who depend on forest areas for food security, housing, medicines and fodder, REDD+ projects mean that meeting basic human needs become all the more harder- a tough and very unfair price to pay for people who had very little to do with the climate crisis in the first place.
As a recent report by GRAIN highlights, REDD+ proponents place the blame for deforestation on peasants under the guise of “slash-and-burn” farming practices, yet conveniently ignore and even simultaneously support the industrial palm-oil plantations, infrastructure projects and intensified agriculture strategies that are the real drivers of tropical deforestation.
The gospel of neoclassical economics explain this apparent contradiction, since the “opportunity costs” of paying off peasants for deforestation is overwhelmingly lower than halting the real drivers of deforestation. As the report emphasizes, this is a way for industrialized countries to pay very little, yet say they are doing something to combat climate change, while failing to reduce their historical and continued contributions to deforestation through the export of commodity crops and for mega-infrastructure projects largely to service resource extraction operations.
For forest-dwelling communities who depend on forest areas for food security, housing, medicines and fodder, REDD+ projects which lock forests away for carbon mean that meeting basic human needs become all the more harder—a tough and very unfair price to pay for people who had very little to do with the climate crisis in the first place. Meanwhile, peasants desperate to feed their children continue venturing into the forest, risking fines and imprisonment. Where attempts, in response to donor requirements, are made by REDD+ project proponents to facilitate livelihood transitions to sustainable agriculture or ecotourism, project funds are often limited and short-lived, leaving communities with less capabilities than before the project started.
Just when you might wonder how this situation could get any more flawed, it doesn’t stop there! The strict contract obligations of REDD+ effectively immobilize peasant communities from achieving basic human needs of food and fodder for the duration of the project period (upwards of 10 years or more) while providing them “payment” which gets siphoned away through a cascading chain of carbon companies, auditors establishing certification standards, international consultants, conservation NGOs and “green” venture capitalists from primarily industrialized countries all seeking to grab a piece of the lucrative REDD+ pie before it ever reaches the community.
Contracted communities become legally bounded to follow suit with the terms of the carbon buyers in the West, even as many of the project documents are written in English rather than in local languages and introduce a seemingly foreign value of the forest for its ‘carbon’ which has little if any meaning for forest communities.
As this process unfolds, the already marginalized and now REDD-trapped forest communities are no longer a hindrance to the expansion of industrial agriculture, the mega-infrastructure projects, rare earth mineral exploration or commodity crop monocultures. Thus, despite having rights to the land, these rights become effectively weakened, since under REDD+, it is the carbon buyers who decide how the land is to be used and not the rightful owners of the land.
In essence, REDD+ sets the stage for a resource grab “free for all” under a swish green banner, while demonizing marginalized peoples as threats to the forest and ultimately inducers of climate change.
The “Cartel of the Parties”
So who are these REDD+ proponents who are advancing this climate “solution” at COP 21 in Paris? It is startling to note that those groups that society has tasked with solving humanity’s social and environmental crises are the foremost advocates for REDD+.
WWF, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are some of the leading proponents as they team up with some of the world’s most notorious climate polluters including Unilever, Syngenta, Monsanto, McDonalds, Walmart and Nestlé, whose business activities depend on actively promoting wholesale deforestation and depletion of soil fertility through dependence on commodity crops such as soybean and palm oils.
In this latest stage of capital accumulation, green is the new gold for the stock brokers of the global North who view tropical forest regions of the Global South as value that must be reaped and brought back home.
Another major player is the private investment arm of the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which paves the way for these corporations to access previously unexploited lands through promises of new markets and “environmental stewardship” for corporate social responsibility via carbon offsetting through REDD+ projects, among other similar ploys.
As James Fairhead and colleagues at the University of Sussex have suggested, the Conference of the Parties is in reality more of a “Cartel of the Parties” involving international development banks, conservation NGOs, the private sector and government agencies who are all dead-set on advancing the “green” economy, through which nature presents itself as a lucrative investment opportunity to permit market expansion and access deeper into the commodity frontier while paving the way for more traditional resource extractivist markets to gain a stronger foothold around the world. In this latest stage of capital accumulation, green is the new gold for the stock brokers of the global North who view tropical forest regions of the Global South as value that must be reaped and brought back home.
Demanding an end to neo-colonialism
What then does it take to demand action on climate change for COP 21? What should COP 21 really be about? Well, besides the fact that strong measures to curtail climate change should have been made at COP 1, rather than waiting for 20 years, here are five forgotten agendas:
1. Limiting land-use practices and industrial activities that add further Greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and which depend on industrial agriculture involving the over-application of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides that deplete soil nutrients and damage water sources. These practices originate from over-developed countries whose demand-driven development trajectories have meant outsourcing industrial food production and resource extractive activities throughout the world to satisfy grossly unsustainable domestic consumption.
2. By turns, this means that an overhaul of the current industrial food trading system must be at the heart of any climate deliberation. Agri-business corporations with their herbicide-infused genetically-modified seeds must be heavily regulated by governments to prevent dangerous climate change from occurring. As an important positive spinoff, regulating these companies would also diversify the food system and open opportunities to give living-wages back to millions of farmers around the world.
3. A climate solution must put the self-determination, food sovereignty and basic needs of resource-dependent communities at the forefront of any sustainable natural resource management initiative. This means resource use, access, and management rights must be prioritized for forest-dwelling communities to collectively manage their own resources, facilitated by domestic policies which encourage sustainable soil management. In order to achieve this aim, it is absolutely crucial to be clear as to who wins and who loses from strategies such as REDD+ or any other proposed “solution” that emerges from the Paris agreement. Rather than seeking climate policy panaceas, closer historical, socio-cultural and political scrutiny is required to understand when and where any given strategy can be successful and what kinds of unintended repercussions might occur as a result of its widespread promotion and implementation.
4. Dismantling the myth of the “green economy” that, rather than addressing the drivers of climate change, only serves to deflect blame away from those perpetuating climate crimes while permitting new opportunities to exploit marginalized communities as indentured labour to service new markets for nature. Falling under this strategy includes the increasing appropriation of agricultural land for biofuels, which creates the same alienating effects on communities who depend on their land for food security. Similarly problematic are investments in green start-up technologies by green venture capitalists who demand double-dividend returns in the name of financing an energy-efficiency revolution. Such an approach fails to come to terms with the Jevon’s Paradox: that increasing improvements in energy efficiencies become quickly over-compensated by ever-increasing consumptive demands fueled by unchecked economic growth.
5. Rather than permitting over-developed regions of the world to continue exploiting resources and people for their benefit, solutions that emerge through indigenous knowledge and non-Westernised knowledge systems are critical for re-balancing the social-ecological equilibrium of our planet. This socio-cultural conundrum is substantially more challenging than addressing the global climate crisis, as it requires an active process of “unlearning” what the West has taught the world, often through systems of oppression, as to what constitutes “development.”
Anything short of seriously considering these five points will once again result in a political circus that reinforces neoliberal strategies and colonial geo-political manoeuvres. If citizens of the world demand fair and just solutions to address climate change, we must not allow our elected leaders and national negotiators to blindly advocate for strategies such as REDD+. The devil is really in the details!
Vijay Kolinjivadi, PhD, is a researcher of the Ecological Economics research group at McGill University. His research has led him to report on the dangers of commodifying nature and to identify how and when human-nature relationships can be resilient in the face of inevitable change. He enjoys traveling and reading in grassy meadows among other things.
A version of this article was originally published on truthout.
The multilateral approach to climate change: denial and delay
The intergovernmental process to fight climate change leads up to COP 21, the upcoming meeting in Paris. This time, unlike all the last times, hopes are high that an agreement will be reached. It should limit the greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere to an amount that would cause a global warming to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius. Nobody knows if this is a safe level, but the intergovernmental process concluded it might be safe enough.
The negotiations follow a pattern you might expect in a negotiation game where everybody wants to bargain a good deal for themselves: poor countries want to maximize support, the rich want promises from all the others, and there’s as little commitment on funding as possible.
National Contributions would only start in 2020. Another 5 years lost.
Most participants agree with what is in the documents of the International Panel on Climate Change. Yet this knowledge does not translate into drastic measures. Action is limited to long-term negotiations on the international level and prudent changes on the national policy level. In the day-to-day choices we make to frame our lives, the urgency isn’t there – it’s not even on the radar.
Roads for diesel or gasoline cars are still being built, public transport suffers from budget cuts, and coal power plant construction permits are still legal.
Roads for diesel or gasoline cars are still being built, public transport suffers from budget cuts, and coal power plant construction permits are still legal.
Investments in sustainable energy and alternative transport are not guided by the climate change imperative but by economic, strategic, and political arguments. Fossil fuel is still subsidized in most countries. Natural gas is a midway investment to make the shift to fossil free more gradual. These investments will be guzzling gas for the next 30 years.
The current approach is seen as the reasonable and moderate pathway. Everything else is deemed unrealistic.
As a result, emissions will continue rising above current levels for some time to come. But the total level of emissions required to stop heating the climate is less than zero.
If we keep going along this route, we will be in crisis mode within decades. The situation will be so urgent that all use of fossil fuel will have to be taxed at prohibitive levels or banned. Denial will be impossible. Major powers will consider climate change as an existential, military threat, and may be ready to respond to it militarily if need be. After all, a country’s carbon footprint goes down after being bombed.
In an environment of strict rationing, massive use of private fossil fuel-powered cars will be unacceptable. The new highways that are planned now will be redundant before they are fully operational. Even those that are built right now will depreciate faster than calculated. Coal power plants and buildings needing heating or air conditioning will be considered extravagant in a strictly rationed world.
In every part of the society, on every level of the administration, there are already people who fully realize what the crisis entails and have internalized it in their actions. However in general they are marginal: their “moderate”colleagues implore them to be “reasonable”.
In every part of the society, on every level of the administration, there are already people who fully realize what the crisis entails and have internalized it in their actions. However in general they are marginal: their “moderate”colleagues implore them to be “reasonable”.
Waiting until the crisis is acute is irresponsible. We need to redefine what is realistic. Realistic planning is to go as quickly as possible – right now – to zero emissions. Every delay is irresponsible.
What we need is a mainstream acceptance that “There Is No Alternative” . Remember the Thatcherite revolution? Her – ruinous – thinking on economics was accepted as mainstream and labelled as the only option in a couple of years. The same must happen with “going for zero” climate change thinking. Unfortunately, this time there really is no viable alternative to going for zero, asap.
It is at this point that we should redefine “moderation” and “realism”:
Moderation is to accept reality and what has to be done to avoid a global humanitarian crisis.
Realism is to accept that any additional investment in a carbon world is a waste and a crime, and act accordingly.
The course we’re on now is the true extremism.
All current long-term fossil fuel-based investments (power plants, roads, ships, house heating) should be considered unacceptable.
There are millions of options of how we could get to zero carbon, but There Is No Alternative to the fact that we need to go to zero now. So we should redefine “moderation” and “reasonable” as: going for zero now.
Turning the tables
Are the engineers who design, the bosses who approve, the politicians supporting policy changes, the people buying cars, the families buying houses in the suburbs, consciously choosing to make the wrong decision? Greenhouse gas emission growth is not the fruit of a big evil master plan. It involves millions of individual decisions, an environment of decisions. To roll back emissions it will be these decisions that make the difference.
The current approach to climate change is a negotiation where individual countries try to limit change for themselves and maximize it for the others. The incentive structure of these negotiations encourages minimizing change, rather than maximizing it. It does not create an environment that leads to exponential change beyond the agreed-upon indicators.
The complicated interrelations of the economy, the climate, political power, and society cannot be managed simply with top-down international agreements. Under the new definition of moderation, this is an extremist tactic, putting lives and livelihoods at risk. It stifles the imagination and flexibility needed to go to zero fast enough. Real change will be result from transformation of the political economy at the local level.
The strategy: going for zero
We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. (Churchill)
Every single decision matters. Like in wartime, the theater is everywhere.
The battle against a coal power plant investment is never lost: construction could be planned, but the municipal permit can be revoked. The permit is given but the imminent domain procedure is not successful, it can be started and never finished as investors disinvest. It can be built and never used over environmental concerns. It can be taken out of production early.
As every investment is composed of a chain of decisions that need to be taken one after the other, by tackling the individual decisions, accumulatively, change can happen faster, as changes become exponential rather than linear.
Within a moral and long-term economical timeframe, every person anywhere must stop any investment in fossil fuel-heavy products now.
Realism makes every person who has internalised climate change an ally. Office workers, like myself, will have to make alliances with politicians, communities, and action groups. Like-minded groups will need to work together to bring down the traditional barriers and create a new normal.
The objective is to stop every single individual investment in fossil fuel use. Most struggles will initially be lost. It is the war that counts.
The objective is to stop every single individual investment in fossil fuel use. Most struggles will initially be lost. It is the war that counts. With every resistance it becomes more difficult to present business as usual as an option, as “moderation“.
Individuals will need the backing of a mass movement to find the strength to resist and to have access to the knowledge to make a case. As the powers that be in the energy sector will resist, other instruments, like manifestations, petitions, civil disobedience and boycotts will be necessary.
Every decision already taken can still be stopped, overturned, or postponed at every level. Losing a struggle is only a step in winning the war, and losing the war is beyond imagination.
Every person who is asked to sign, to design, to propose, to make concrete, to breathe the air, will need to act on the knowledge that it is not worth it to continue with the old model. They will need to recognize that for the world, the children, for votes, and for their career, it is better not to do this.
The action plan for the Paris Agreement
Chances are there will be a binding agreement concluded at COP 21. The agreement will confirm the climate crisis, and the commitment to keep the temperature rise to only 1.5-2 degrees. Attached to the agreement there will be Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) that will be insufficient.
These NDCs will be irresponsible and amount to climate terrorism. The proposed measures should happen now, not in 2020. The agreed principles in the agreement should be strong and binding enough to form the legal basis to reject every unacceptable investment and go directly for zero.
If the going for zero strategy is implemented, investments in alternatives have a future and fossil fuel-based infrastructure has none.
If the going for zero strategy is implemented, investments in alternatives have a future and fossil fuel-based infrastructure has none.
Going now for zero on every decision possible will lead to tipping points where fossil fuel investments become less attractive economically, environmentally, and politically. An exponential change will happen.
As emissions plummet immediately, every cap and trade system would implode too.
Sam Gardner is a development and humanitarian professional with field experience in Central and South Africa, Central America and Asia.
The Dutch version of this article can be found here.
The term ‘Anthropocene’ has entered the climate change debate, and the question is whether it should stay there. It neatly encapsulates the idea that the Holocene—a scientific term referring to the present era—is no longer an adequate description. We now exist in an era when humans (anthropos) have fundamentally changed the geology of the earth and are present in almost all ecosystems.
We have raised the planet’s temperature, caused sea levels to rise, mined massive amounts of the earth’s crust, eroded the ozone layer, and are starting to acidify the oceans—all of these will be visible in fossil records millions of years from now.
While the word ‘Anthropocene’ has only recently entered the mainstream lexicon, it has become a rallying cry, to many signifying the urgency of action on climate change. While the term had been suggested previously in different variations, Paul Crutzen, a Nobel prize-winning chemist, popularized it in 2002 in a 600-word article, “The geology of mankind”, in Nature magazine. He argues that the reality of “mankind’s growing influence on the planet” means that scientists and engineers face a “daunting task” of “guiding society”—through massive geoengineering projects, if necessary. To him, the Anthropocene is a key concept to explain the gravity of our current situation. As a result, for many, the term came almost as a revelation, further hammering home the fact that we have undeniably intervened in the earth’s systems, destabilizing it, and that we have to act now, and fast.
But even though the term has been championed by a wide diversity of people, it is also seeing some backlash, and not from the types you’d imagine: many climate scientists are reticent to use it, and it has faced critique from environmental and social historians. Why all the fuss about a word, and what does it matter?
As any activist will be happy to explain, it matters what words we use. They don’t just describe our problems; they also frame the solutions. And in the case of climate change, there’s a big need for good solutions, which means they need to be framed well. If we want to address climate change, we need to consider carefully whether we’re using the right words to describe the problems we face.
The following is a review of the Anthropocene debate, asking whether we should stick to using the word to describe our current problems, or drop it. As you’ll see, I definitely lean one way—I don’t think the term is as useful as its champions claim—but I’ll lay out the evidence as best as I can so you can make up your own mind.
From early adoption to widespread use
The term Anthropocene was popularised by hard-core climate scientists who want to illustrate what our world looks like and how it is so vastly different from the world we inherited. From this perspective, the concept might lead to an ‘aha!’ moment for the uninitiated: humans have already fundamentally altered the earth. For this reason, early adopters often used the word to convey the urgency of the present moment to the public.
The public happily took it up with headlines in major news outlets like the BBC, The New York Times, and Newsweek. It became regularly employed by climate activists such as Bill McKibben and environmental groups like Friends of the Earth, who use it in their reports and campaigns. Artists are taking up the term, and academics organize endlessconferences with ‘Anthropocene’ as their guiding theme.
“Over a decade after its injection into modern culture, the concept has taken on new forms beyond its original geological intent, becoming a meme capable of propping up a huge variety of arguments.”
The types of opinions that cluster around the term vary. In the book The God Species, prominent environmental writer Mark Lynas argues that, since we are entering into a new, never-seen-before era of human control of the environment, we have the responsibility, duty, and possibility to control it further. Distancing himself from traditional environmental causes like anti-nuclear and GMOs, he argues that precisely because we are seeing unforeseen problems at a greater scale than anything we’ve ever seen, we will need to use all tools at our disposal. That includes nuclear power and genetic engineering.
Recently, Mark Lynas joined a cohort of other pro-tech scientists, writers, and environmentalists, and helped pen an “eco-modernist manifesto.” The authors claim that “modern technologies, by using natural ecosystem flows and services more efficiently, offer a real chance of reducing the totality of human impacts on the biosphere. To embrace these technologies is to find paths to a good Anthropocene.”
The problem? That the Anthropocene reveals that humanity is facing a never-seen-before predicament. The solution? Crank it up. Use more, and better, technologies, in order to better control nature.
Richard Heinberg at the Post-Carbon Institute calls this the “we’re-in-charge-and-loving-it” attitude. To him, this “techno-Anthropocene” argument signifies a brand of scientist who embraces the Anthropocene simply because it gives humans full license to keep terraforming the planet. As Heinberg demonstrates, cranking it up inevitably relies on save-the-day technologies. As the eco-modernist manifesto claims, “Urbanization, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, aquaculture, and desalination are all processes with a demonstrated potential to reduce human demands on the environment, allowing more room for non-human species.” In contrast, Heinberg argues that these technologies aren’t as up to snuff as is often claimed. All of the above either rely on the use of cheap fossil fuels at a far greater rate than what they replace, or are scientifically (and morally) unsound.
Heinberg proposes his own version: the “lean-green Anthropocene”. According to him, since any feasible techno-solution will be powered by fossil fuels, a more desirable future would involve low-tech, high-labour, local food chains, and responsible water use (e.g. not dependent on energy-intensive desalination plants). But to him, it also requires an acknowledgement that humans aren’t the center of the universe: “Just as humans are now shaping the future of Earth, Earth will shape the future of humanity.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the term has also been eagerly adopted by critical theorists—perhaps too uncritically. For example, Bruno Latour uses the term—and the reality of human involvement in the climate—as a launching point to discuss the new politics that these crises require. Prominent political ecology scholars such as Laura Ogden, Paul Robbins, and Nik Heynen reference the term to support their own arguments that grassroots organizations are the key to resilience and political resistance in this new era. Slavoj Zizek suggests that the Anthropecene, and the scientists that propose it, makes us ask new questions about humans’ relationship to its environment, and our culture’s obsession with the ever-present apocalypse. In another essay, Dipesh Chakrabarty, partly challenges the term from a postcolonial perspective, but ends up endorsing it, since it means that, in a way, everyone (the colonizers and the colonized, the rich and the poor) will be affected by the coming disasters.
I say surprisingly since these same theorists would hesitate to use the words democracy, development, or progress without “scare-quotes”—they specialize in questioning everything under the sun (and rightly so). For them to endorse this new word without a backward, questioning glance, is perhaps the best indication of its widespread appeal.
Anyway, you get the idea: the Anthropocene concept is supported by people of very different ideological persuasions. One advocates for business-as-usual driven by technological breakthroughs, another calls for a total transformation of humanity’s relationship with nature, yet another suggests that it signifies that we need to put our differences aside, and face this challenge together, as one.
Over a decade after its injection into modern culture, the concept has taken on new forms beyond its original geological intent, becoming a meme capable of propping up a huge variety of arguments.
Enter the problematization phase
Yet, in the past year—especially the past months—a flurry of critiques of the Anthropocene concept have appeared.
The first key issue is scientific. This has two facets. First, even though the concept is now well established in our vocabulary (“Welcome to the Anthropocene”, announcedThe Economist in 2011), there is still a whole lot of dispute on its exact meaning, and even its scientific validity. Second, the science is becoming more and more politicized.
Paul Crutzen’s neologism enters into the realm of stratigraphy—a specific subfield that decides when each geological epoch starts and ends. And Crutzen is an atmospheric chemist, not a stratigrapher. If he was, he might’ve been able to anticipate the kind of bitter fights and tensions his proposal would cause.
Crutzen originally proposed that the Anthropocene started with the industrial revolution, specifically, the design of the steam engine. Since then, he’s changed his mind, stating that it actually started with the testing of atomic bombs. But these kinds of whims do not pass in the field that actually decides geological epochs—they notoriously took 60 years to decide on a definition of the Quaternary, an age that spans 2.6 million years. The scientists that make these decisions are rigorous at best, meticulous at worst.
So they decided to form an international working group, to decide once and for all if the term could really stand the test of time. This was quite difficult. For one, there isn’t even a formal definition of what “Anthropocene” really means. What constitutes a significant enough change in the earth’s geological system, that allows us to draw the line? And where should we draw the line?
To this end, many proposals have been put forward. It started with agriculture 5,000 years ago, or mining 3,000 years ago. No: it starts with the genocide of 50 million indigenous people in the Americas. Or: it began with the ‘Great Acceleration’: the time period in the past fifty years when plastics, chemical fertilizers, concrete, aluminum, and petrol flooded the market, and the environment. Or: we have no way to tell yet, we might need to wait a couple more million years.
In short, the vagueness of the term led to the inability to pin down what it would actually look like, and how it could be measured. The result has been conflicts within the field of stratigraphy, where some are lamenting the fact that a highly politicized issue is skewing what is ideally a slow, careful, and delicate process: deciding when a geological era starts and ends. Leading scientists have posed the question whether the anthropocene is really just a ‘pop culture’ phenomenon, or a serious issue of concern for stratigraphers.
Consequentially, these scientific conversations are political in themselves. For many scientists involved, there is a feeling that those advancing the concept are interested more in highlighting the destructive qualities of humans to encourage action on climate change than to define a new scientific term. As Richard Monastersky notes in a Nature article tracing the politics of the attempt to define the term, “The debate has shone a spotlight on the typically unnoticed process by which geologists carve up Earth’s 4.5 billion years of history.” The effort to define the Anthropocene and place it on the map of geological timescales has become a minefield of politics, vested interests, and ideologies. As such, the Anthropocene once again reveals that science—often claimed to be objective—is driven by, and subject to, personal and political agendas.
Blaming humans, erasing history
But it’s not just because the Anthropocene is politically charged and difficult to pin down that we should think again about using it. There are more troubling issues with the concept that we should be aware of.
First is the concern that the Anthropocene concept ‘naturalizes’ human’s impact on the earth. What does this mean? Essentially, that by saying that this is the ‘epoch of humans’, we are suggesting that all humans are the cause. In other words, that there is something intrinsically bad about humans, where we will always and inevitably leave an imprint on our environment.
At play here is the (very Western) idea that humans are separate from nature, and that either we get back to it or we rise above it. Hence the call of the eco-modernists to ‘decouple’ from the natural world through technology. Hence, also, the call of the deep ecologists to appreciate nature “in itself”, without projecting our human needs and desires onto it. And hence the idea that all humans caused our current pickle.
The alternative, as environmental theorist Jim Proctor suggests, is appreciating that the Anthropocene is not ‘because’ humans. It requires acknowledging that these processes and events are many and intertwined—there is no clear separation between nature and culture, human desires and natural forces.
But what forces should we blame? In all of the climate change research, we are told that it is definitely ‘man-made’. Arguing against this could bring us dangerously close to the denialist road.
“We should question this idea that the Anthropocene is ‘the new reality’ affecting everyone. Actually, because of existing power relationships, the ‘new reality’ will be more ‘real’ for some than for others.”
It is at this point that we might want to select option (C): ask a historian. James W. Moore, a professor in environmental history, has asked whether we really ought to point the finger at steam engines, atomic bombs, or humanity as a whole. Instead, he argues for a different term altogether: the ‘Capitalocene’: the geological era of capitalism. In short, it is not because of the steam engine that we saw unprecedented use of fossil fuels—it is rather a system of governance and social organization that led to the global alterations we are seeing today. This required the establishment of innovative property laws backed up by military and police forces, as well as uneven power relations between a small class of capitalists and the working poor, women, indigenous cultures, and other civilizations. It was these institutions, developed and perfected over several hundred years, that allowed for the destruction of cultures and the over-exploitation of earth’s natural resources, culminating in our current crisis.
It is strange to see the extent to which these kinds of wider social dynamics are totally obscured in the Anthropocene debate. For example, many have argued that the invention of fire was the first spark that would inevitably lead to the immense footprint that humans place on the earth.
This is not just a fringe position. Andreas Malm, in an article in Jacobin Magazine, notes that this idea is endorsed by Paul Crutzen, Mark Lynas, and other noteworthy scientists such as John R. McNeill. To these scientists, we can trace the terrifying impacts of climate change to the moment when a group of hominids learned how to spark a flame.
But to say that the control of fire was a necessary condition for humanity’s ability to burn coal is one thing, to argue that it is the reason why we are currently facing a climate crisis is another.
In a snappy journal article published in The Anthropocene Review, Malm and prominent environmental historian Alf Hornborg suggest that this neglect is due to the fact that scientists ringing the alarm bells of climate change are trained in studying the natural world, not people. To really identify the causes of anthropogenic climate change requires not just studying the winds, seas, rocks, and population growth, but also society and history. In particular, echoing Moore, it requires understanding the way by which technological progress has historically been driven by unequal power relations between an elite minority and a subjugated majority. Quoting Malm and Hornborg, “Geologists, meteorologists and their colleagues are not necessarily well-equipped to study the sort of things that take place between humans (and perforce between them and the rest of nature), the composition of a rock or the pattern of a jet stream being rather different from such phenomena as world-views, property and power.”
It follows that we should question this idea that the Anthropocene is ‘the new reality’ affecting everyone. Actually, because of existing power relationships, the ‘new reality’ will be more ‘real’ for some than for others. For most people, it will mean increased hardship and a fight for survival, while for some there will be easy lifeboats. In this way, Malm and Hornborg suggest that Dipesh Chakrabarty, the scholar embracing the concept from a postcolonial perspective, should rethink his position: climate change is not, in itself, a universal leveling force, but may instead further exacerbate inequalities between the rich and the poor.
This leads to a final issue: the problem of politics. If, as many Anthropocene enthusiasts argue, the concept helps people understand the extent of human involvement in the earth’s systems, it also could lead to a promising political conversation, finally alerting those in power that something needs to be done.
Yet as Jedediah Purdy, a professor at Duke University, notes in the magazine Aeon, “Saying that we live in the Anthropocene is a way of saying that we cannot avoid responsibility for the world we are making. So far so good. The trouble starts when this charismatic, all-encompassing idea of the Anthropocene becomes an all-purpose projection screen and amplifier for one’s preferred version of ‘taking responsibility for the planet’.”
For many people, the Anthropocene means that ‘there is no alternative’. Depending on your personal beliefs, the Anthropocene concept will lead you to different conclusions and calls to action. As Purdy says, “The Anthropocene does not seem to change many minds…. But it does turn them up to 11.”
But is this a problem with any new concept or is it inherent to the Anthropocene? For Purdy, because the concept is so vague, it becomes “a Rorschach blot for discerning what commentators think is the epochal change in the human/nature relationship.” With the diversity of opinions available, those with more political and ideological clout inevitably end up dominating the conversation.
Take for example Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, who argues that the Anthropocene signifies that now, more than ever, we need to abandon trying to protect wilderness and stop blaming capitalism, and that instead we need to encourage corporations to start taking responsibility for, and control of, earth’s environmental services.
Kareiva’s opinions have become wildly popular in mainstream discourse, but they also imply that rather than reassessing the current economic and political system, we need to go full speed ahead with the commodification of everything. The more vague a concept, the more susceptible it can be to co-optation. The vagueness of the term has, in part, led to its chameleon-like ability to fit anyone’s agenda.
What’s more, because the Anthropocene concept implies that humans as a whole are primarily responsible—and not relationships between humans—it actually stymies fruitful conversation, rather than encourage it. As Malm and Hornborg note, “The effect is to block off any prospect for change.”
Is the term still useful?
If these critiques are valid, why do climate scientists and activists still think the Anthropocene concept is so useful? Does it really convince those that need convincing, or does it just obscure important discussions that we need to be having?
In discussions and conversations with friends and peers, people have pointed out several times that Malm’s and Hornborg’s critiques fail to highlight the concept’s original usefulness. As one geography professor said in an email exchange, “To me, the Anthropocene opens up the kind of inquiry these authors seem to invite, rather than shutting it down.” A friend, Aaron McConomy, noted the following on Facebook,
“I feel like all of these conversations are punditry around what’s going on in the field that don’t really represent anything that I’m hearing as someone actively reading and researching… It’s like a meme of memes reacting to memes in which no one seems to even understand what exactly they’re reacting to.
For me the bigger question is how to have ‘third way’ discussions. What the reality of the Anthropocene calls for is a profound reworking of social ecological systems. Very few of the examples that get trotted out are up to the task.”
Point taken. Instead of quibbling about the meaning of the Anthropocene, we need to be finding alternatives to the problems we face. And while the term has real use for geologists, it can incentivize necessary conversations about political alternatives. This is a valid response to the problematization the term has received: all else considered, the term has been useful in lighting the fuse of an important debate.
“It’s hard to say if the term is, on average, inimical to good debate or if it encourages it. But after considering the twists and turns the concept has taken since its inception until its current use, it’s worth taking the critics seriously.”
But what kind of debate? Because the Anthropocene points to humans as the primary culprit of the earth’s current situation, it doesn’t really point to the fact that a minority of the earth’s population has inflicted most of the damage, nor does it broaden the discussion to include those who may be most affected by climate change but whose role in causing it is, effectively, zero.
By resorting to a catch-all geological (and biological) term to describe the situation we’re in, there’s a risk that it helps shut down alternative viewpoints, alternative narratives, and alternative politics. As Malm and Hornborg emphasize,
“If global warming is the outcome of the knowledge of how to light a fire, or some other property of the human species acquired in some distant stage of its evolution, how can we even imagine a dismantling of the fossil economy? [Arguing that climate change is caused by one species] is conducive to mystification and political paralysis.”
It’s hard to say if the term is, on average, inimical to good debate or if it encourages it. But after considering the twists and turns the concept has taken since its inception until its current use, it’s worth taking the critics seriously. Care has to be taken around such loaded words, and we have to take a step back and ask when, and why, we use them.
Yes, ‘Anthropocene’ can be useful to tell the history of life on earth. It can also illustrate the extent to which humans have modified the earth’s systems. It also suggests that we can no longer go back to a ‘pristine’ nature that existed before humans, as cultural critics have long suggested. The term is incredibly appealing from a geological perspective, highlighting the fact that humans have made so deep an impact on the earth’s crust that future inhabitants of the earth, when digging, will come across a layer of soil that has ‘human’ written all over it. This geological fact is a useful tidbit to highlight all of the above.
But it doesn’t necessarily, as many have argued, help challenge the systems that perpetuate climate change. Because it applies to humans as a whole, it does not indicate that our problem is political, resting on the uneven distribution of power. In leaving the starting date of the Anthropocene undefined (some say 50 years ago, others say 400 years ago, yet others say 10,000, still others say 50,000), the word fails to highlight the primary actors of today’s ecological crisis.
Like ‘sustainability’, ‘development’, ‘natural’, or ‘green’, the term is so vague that it can be used by anyone, whether they want to challenge the powers that be, just want to make a quick buck, or score a research grant. While the term can be used to support arguments for action on climate change, it can just as well be used to support digging more oil wells (“oh what the heck, we live in the age of human superiority anyway!”).
You might ask, isn’t this the case with all words? Not true. There are plenty of terms that the climate movement is using that are both powerful and are not so easy to appropriate: degrowth, climate justice, ecocide, ecological debt, and 350ppm are just few.
The point is not that Anthropocene should be abandoned—clearly it’s had its uses. But should it, like the above examples, be calls-to-action of climate researchers and activists alike? Should it be used as a conversation-starter, in the hope that it will convince those in power to change their tune? Should it be used uncritically as the main theme of countless academic conferences? Probably not.
Conclusion: where does the Anthropocene go from here?
Words are powerful.
As many climate activists know, climate change is a battlefield of words. ‘350.org’ is named after the 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere that has been deemed acceptable by scientists. ‘Climate justice’ refers to the fact that climate change will affect different people unequally, and that the climate movement needs to align with people who are systematically oppressed in other ways. ‘Climate chaos’ was coined to dispel confusion, indicating that climate change will cause disruption in normal weather patterns rather than, as the term ‘global warming’ may lead one to think, causing a slow increase in temperature globally.
Each phrase has seen a cycle of early adopters, growing usefulness, paradigm shifts in the general discussion, and then often critique and slow abandonment.
Some concepts introduced by social movements of the past have stuck around: social justice, civil disobedience, human rights. These terms signify both the predicament and the strategy, remain political without being too scary, and are difficult to be appropriated by apolitical actors. For these reasons, they remain useful for social movements today. ‘Anthropocene’ is no such word: it is vague enough to be used by anyone, it is scary but doesn’t really suggest a way out. It has flair, it’s catchy, but lacks power.
“Why does this matter? Words can make or break whole movements…. Unfortunately, the term ‘Anthropocene’ fails to adequately frame the current situation, and in-so-doing allows anyone to co-opt it for their own solutions.”
Why does this matter? Words can make or break whole movements. If a movement rallies around a single term—say, civil rights—that changes the way the public, and therefore politicians, see the predicament at hand. The way a problem is defined, the slogans that movements use, are incredibly important in order to make necessary policy changes. Unfortunately, the term ‘Anthropocene’ fails to adequately frame the current situation, and in-so-doing allows anyone to co-opt it for their own solutions. While it has certainly got many people talking, it is neither political nor precise, and therefore may not lead to a very good, or challenging, conversation. And right now we need to have challenging conversations.
Yet, like it or not, ‘Anthropocene’ has already been let out of the box and changed the way we think and talk about the world. Scientists will keep citing it, social theorists will ponder it, artists will be inspired by it, and pundits will employ it to justify anything under the sun. It has become a “meme of memes reacting to memes.”
Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.
TransCanada’ Energy East is a proposed pipeline for Alberta diluted bitumen that would be the biggest such pipeline on the continent, bigger than Keystone XL. Today, October 30th, 2014, TransCanada submits the Energy East proposal to the National Energy Board of Canada.
In this essay, part 1 of 2, David Gray-Donald asks, is Energy East a just project? If yes, why? If no, why, and what is stopping it from being so?
This essay argues that because Energy East does nothing to undo the causes leading to its burdens and benefits being unfairly distributed at multiple scales it cannot be seen as just. TransCanada Corporation’s pipeline is proposed energy infrastructure that relies on and strengthens existing institutions of power. Proponents of projects like Energy East argue that oil is necessary or profitable or that we cannot live without it. However, a justice perspective  shows that the project is indistinguishable from extractive activities of the past and driven forward by the same root causes. Part I (this text) answers whether the project is just and Part II (forthcoming) will explore whether there are ways it could be made more just.
Oil sands crude production in 2012 was 1.9 million barrels per day. The Energy East pipeline, bigger than Keystone XL, would be able to transport 1.1 million barrels per day. The expansion of oil extraction in Alberta is constricted by lack of transportation infrastructure. The over 4400 km long Energy East, at 42” (1.07 m) diameter, would widen the neck of the bottle allowing bitumen to flow out faster. With official plans to triple the extraction of the oil sands in coming years, there is little indication that oil traffic by rail would decrease as a result of this pipeline being built. The current plan is to get the oil out, fast. The analysis in this essay builds from the factual basis that (a) there are currently no plans beyond extracting and selling the oil as quickly as possible and (b) that Energy East is a centerpiece of that plan.
Extracting, transporting, altering, and burning matter from the oil sands has effects at many scales of time and space on Earth. Benefits and burdens of projects like Energy East are here first considered at an immediate time-scale looking at the whole planet. Analyzing the long-term effects with particular attention to climate change follows.
In the short term, there are people who receive money to work to physically make this work possible, to plan it, to advertise it, and to manage the operations. Some of these people, mostly in roles related to management and ownership, will acquire enough capital (i.e. wealth, money) to use is to accumulate more capital (i.e. capitalism) to such a degree that they reach a level of wealth far above the median and continue to accumulate more. For most workers and their families, the inflow of money they receive is temporary and insufficient for significant accumulation. Those with sufficient money, however obtained, can use the end product of this industrial process, oil, a versatile and concentrated mobile energy source, in vast amounts.
Those lacking wealth, including people living in Alberta, are less able to use such quantities of oil and often feel the effects of the industrial process in other ways. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that 94% of economic benefits from oil sands activities will be felt in Alberta. This leaves the vast majority of the world out. Those without wealth often find industrial sites located near them, like the Chemical Valley around Aamjiwnaang (Sarnia, ON) at a terminal of Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline, or the oil refineries in the east of Montreal, or downstream of coal mines in the Appalachians or of a Canadian gold mine in El Salvador. Poor folks often work at these sites doing the most dangerous jobs, like working on the rig floor on BP’s oil wells in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, or cleaning up TransCanada’s pipeline spills all over North America.
Along the proposed Energy East route, TransCanada is asking communities to support the project. Consent is sought out from indigenous communities in ways nearly indistinguishable from the past. Historically, the British, the churches and the Canadian government explicitly sought to destroy native governance systems. As of now Canada continues to force indigenous peoples to be represented by elected governments. When this started, positions could only be held and elected by men. Women, in many communities, had long held much of the decision-making power in their traditional governments. The Canadian-mandated system is the only one Canada acknowledges as legitimate, though in many communities the traditional governments still exist and this situation causes internal conflicts. Importantly from a justice perspective, it is an exercise in control over another based on the Canadian state’s ideology that indigenous forms of governance are inferior, that indigenous people can’t govern themselves, and that European ideas of democracy must be imposed and upheld though they may interfere with treaty obligations. The elected councils, who are given their salaries and money for the communityvia Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs, have had money withheld or cut back when making decisions the Canadian government does not like. This puts the elected band in a conflict of interest type situation where they cannot easily say no to what the Canadian government wants nor can they act in the way their community would want a government to act. TransCanada’s project continues this way of relating with indigenous communities. It is an approach that does not deviate from colonial Canada’s institutionalized racist past and present.
In addition to women being pushed out of their roles in their communities, extraction projects are often sites of high rates of gendered violence, due to the combined factors of large numbers of male workers who move in without ties to the community, high rates of substance and alcohol use in isolated environments, and inflated housing prices that mean that women who are present in those communities have a harder time leaving abusive relationships,. In places like northern Alberta, there are often few supportive resources for these survivors of unfair violence.
Some unequal benefits and burdens of the pipeline project at a small time scale have been described. There is an absence of plans in the Energy East project to remedy any of these unfair dynamics. This is troubling, and the scales of justice would remain unbalanced if the project proceeded.
Neither TransCanada, nor the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, nor the Albertan nor Canadian governments have a strategy to address climate change. Nor does the world. It could be argued Canada has a strategy as most recently formalized in the 1994 NAFTA (section 6), which is, to paraphrase, “get the USA as much oil as it wants”. Now, as American President Obama continues to block cross-border pipeline construction, transport transport, the oil industry strategy has changed slightly to getting the oil out of the ground and sold as fast as possible by whatever means. There is a curious economic calculation being made. It goes that if alternatives to oil or a high price on carbon are coming soon, the most profitable thing to do is sell the oil as quickly as possible before changes come. It is a “use it or lose it” situation. We are in free-for-all mode with no thought to saving the resource (which is a potent source of energy) for when it may be needed and not working towards a major transition away from oil dependence.
Who benefits and who is burdened by this approach of government and investors working together to facilitate a quick dig and burn of the resource? As mentioned earlier, the main beneficiaries are those who own and operate the oil industry. There is some trickle-down of money from this small group, but relying on a trickle-down theory of economics in part led us to the famous 1% and 99% division of wealth (as partially explained by Piketty’s r > g). The economic marketing of the oil industry corporations may at times hide from view that they are legally obliged to act in the best interests of their shareholders, i.e. owners, and no one else. The investors who own most of these corporations, and those they entrust to manage and direct the corporations they own, are wealthy people in the global north. They are the best prepared with physical and monetary resources to face the effects of climate change. They (and me among them) are the most responsible for emissions causing climate change.
Those who feel the heaviest burdens of climate change (which Energy East will accelerate by pushing open the sell!-sell!-sell! plan for carbon-intensive Alberta oil) are those least responsible for creating emissions and who benefit least from the use of fossil fuels. This includes women, people of the global south, migrants, people of colour, and the young & unborn.
While men are also affected by climate change, women, in their positions as caregivers, heads of households, farmers and water-fetchers must take on the extra work when necessities become more difficult to access.
Looking at benefits and burdens from a race perspective, a trend similar to that of colonial times appears. Take, for example, the Philippines, which was a Spanish colony and then, until 1946, a territory of the USA. While some American investors benefit from oil sands transportation, people of colour in the Philippines suffered during Typhoon Haiyan which wreaked havoc on the south Asian nation in 2013. Americans of colour at home also bear the brunt of climate-related disasters, as seen by the treatment of various peoples during and after Hurricane Katrina around New Orleans in 2005.
Future generations of all demographics, but especially those described here, will bear the burdens of climate change. To put this in economics jargon, as Mark Carney did recently, we have had a high discount rate, meaning we are valuing the present very highly to the great detriment of the future. Ideas with more consideration for inter-generational justice are not new. For example, Kanien’keha:ka scholar Kahente Horn-Miller reminds us of the seven generations philosophy, popular on Turtle Island, “as inherently about accountability and respect for oneself and the future seven generations.” 
Energy East is not accompanied by any plan to undo these unfair allocations of benefits and burdens. Not on an immediate time scale, not at an international level, and not on the scale of climate change. The oil industry and the governments of Canada also entirely lack such a strategy. There is no semblance of a serious conversation to that end from the corporations or governments invested in the project. There is no effort being planned on the scale of a Manhattan Project of our time, one for a conscious, just, fossil-fuel free future instead of bombs. The Energy East project, like nearly all extractive projects to date, digs us deeper into the path we are on.
Lacking any change of direction and noticing the continued systematically lopsided allocation of benefits and burdens, Energy East as proposed would only continue and strengthen the systems that allow unfairness to persist. In conclusion, Energy East must be considered unjust.
Part 2 of this article, which will discuss how Energy East could be more just, is forthcoming.
David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects. He is actively part of the struggle to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and is trying to educate himself on how to be a responsible adult male. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.
A note about justice
There is one way that Energy East could be considered just. That would be if one considers justice to be doing good for one’s friends and doing harm to their enemies. In the case of Energy East, that would mean doing good for wealthy white people living in or able to live in safety, and the enemies who bad is done to are everyone else in the world. This is a thoroughly rejected and inadequate definition of justice. A strong definition of justice is based around fairness, a concept innately well-understood by primates. It is this sense of fairness and of remedying situations where unfairness persists that has resulted in the widely understood image of scales of justice (often held by Lady Justice) to be balanced.
 The term “oil sands” is used as there are many people in Canada who will not engage with content if they see it contains the word “tar sands”. This capitulates to the brainwashing of citizens that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and various levels of government have engaged it, but it is important to try to communicate with the humans working in and actively supporting the fossil fuel industry.
 As per many treaty agreements, this money was to come from trust funds set up when indigenous nations agreed to allow Canadians to use their lands. Most of these treaty agreements have been broken by Canada, such as the elimination of many such trust funds. This investigative piece looks at one example.
 Browse through this document for more information about settler-indigenous relations in Canada with a particular focus on seeing and understanding the treaties as non-native peoples.