November readings

A protest in Hong Kong, November 2019.Dale De La Rey / AFP, via Haaretz


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

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

Welcome to the last newsletter of the decade! That’s right, we’re taking a break in December, to recalibrate and recharge. We’ve been running our monthly reading list for almost two years now, and nearly 1,000 of you seem to find it useful, so we’re excited to continue providing you with news and analysis in 2020. See you next year!



Uneven Earth updates

The technical assistant | Link | It had been a long time since human hands had touched grain bins

Trade governance will make or break the Green New Deal | Link | How the GND could, should, must redefine “protectionism” and transform international trade  

Rethinking education for the Green New Deal | Link | Governance for an eco-centered curriculum—or not?

Down Maria | Link | There was only one prisoner left, and he would not live forever



Top 5 articles to read

Extraction Rebellion. A Green Zone of hope. 

Land reform and the Green New Deal

Climate change’s great lithium problem

A Green New Deal between whom and for what?

Indonesia deforestation: The world’s demand for palm oil is igniting a climate bomb



News you might’ve missed

Climate crisis: 11,000 scientists warn of ‘untold suffering’

New land height metric raises sea level rise risk

Heat waves and floods shattered records. Fires ravaged the Arctic and the Amazon. This was the climate crisis in 2019.

Earth nears irreversible tipping points

Coal knew, too. A newly unearthed journal from 1966 shows the coal industry, like the oil industry, was long aware of the threat of climate change. And new paper reveals rail industry was leader in climate denial efforts.

Indigenous people blocked Ecuador oil auction in growing fight to save Amazon 

WA Indigenous group’s $290 billion compensation claim could become one of world’s biggest payouts

Fearing eviction, thousands of forest dwellers protest in India

More than 1,700 activists have been killed this century defending the environment

Indigenous people pay a high price for protecting the planet 

A gathering of guardians: Indigenous monitors convene for historic knowledge exchange

Farmer depression deepens as climate warms

Climate change poses threat to children’s health worldwide 

Psychologists from 40 countries pledged to use their jobs to address climate change 




Worldwide uprisings

Welcome to the global rebellion against neoliberalism. As distinct as the protests seem, the uprisings rocking Bolivia, Lebanon, and scores of other countries all share a common theme.

From Iran to Hong Kong, the world is becoming ungovernable

This wave of global protest is being led by the children of the financial crash

Hong Kong Protests: Inside the chaos

“Rifles, machine guns, El Alto will not fall!” Dual Power in Bolivia

Debt and neoliberalism: The global roots of Chile’s crisis

A few tips on how to understand Latin American coups

More than just a “Spring”: the Arab region’s long-term revolution

Lebanon’s revolution spawns ‘direct democracy’ with citizen assemblies and people’s parliaments

Iraq is healing: The October revolution, systemic change and intergenerational trauma

Now is the time to rise up for Rojava

Indonesia protests: Land bill at center of unrest

Thousands of Romanians protest against illegal logging, attacks on forest workers

Czechs say billionaire leader must resign in mass protests

Why aren’t people in the US rising up like those elsewhere in the world?



Just think about it…

Why are rich people so mean? Call it Rich Asshole Syndrome—the tendency to distance yourself from people with whom you have a large wealth differential.

Why we are all losing sleep. With longer work hours, the rise of the gig economy and smartphone apps competing for our every waking moment, sleep has become the final frontier of consumer capitalism.

To have or not to have children in the age of climate change

Robin Wall Kimmerer on the intelligence in all kinds of life

‘Every plant and animal is useful to us’: Indigenous professor re-thinking how we deal with invasive species

After climate change apocalypse, kindness will be most important survival skill

Imagination is such an ancient ability it might precede language

Plastic has a big carbon footprint — but that isn’t the whole story

The first map of America’s food supply chain is mind-boggling

Smartphones are killing the planet faster than anyone expected

Pointless emails: they’re not just irritating – they have a massive carbon footprint

Myths of the circular economy



Where we’re at: analysis

It’s time to retire metrics like GDP. They don’t measure everything that matters

Against economics. “Any new, viable science will either have to draw on the accumulated knowledge of feminism, behavioral economics, psychology, and even anthropology to come up with theories based on how people actually behave, or once again embrace the notion of emergent levels of complexity—or, most likely, both.”

It’s not thanks to capitalism that we’re living longer, but progressive politics

The hidden cost of gold: Birth defects and brain damage 

The Native American women who fought mass sterilization

What the West doesn’t get about the climate crisis

It bears repeating: Renewables alone won’t end the climate crisis

The climate case for working less

How mindfulness privatised a social problem

The time has come to take the self out of self-care

Emergenciocracy: why demanding the “climate emergency” is risky

Geoengineering: let’s not get it back-to-front

Humanity and nature are not separate – we must see them as one to fix the climate crisis



New politics

Sowing the seeds of post-extractivism. Communities around the world are demonstrating how we can move beyond extractivism to revive cultures of care and solidarity.

Direct democracy and the passion for political participation. For a radically democratic and ecological society we need to build democratic and resilient communities capable of deepening citizen participation at all levels of public life.

Worker-owned apps are trying to fix the gig economy’s exploitation

‘Fire the bosses’: Platform co-ops set out their radical stall

Imagine a future of distributed cooperatives, or disCOs

In depth with Clark Arrington, a pioneer for cooperatives and black economic power (Part 1)

Learning to see the commons

Gig workers rising: Foodora couriers and Uber drivers organizing for justice

The climate movement needs more creative tactics

Why climate action needs to target the border industrial complex

Eco-fascists and the ugly fight for ‘our way of life’ as the environment disintegrates

Italy’s green fascists

Accelerationism: the idea inspiring white supremacist killers around the world

Primitivism and ecofascism

The Red Deal is an Indigenous climate plan that builds on the Green New Deal

All organizing is magic: Reflections on Caliban and the Witch



Food politics

For a sustainable future, we need to reconnect with what we’re eating – and each other 

Meet the activists bringing urban farms to one of America’s most deprived cities 



Cities and radical municipalism

What if… cities became car-free?

Are community land trusts a way out of the system?

Against We. What the We Company offers is commune as commodity.

Berlin renters organize to expropriate the mega-landlords

How green gentrification is compromising Seattle’s last affordable neighborhood

Who is the “public” in public transportation?

Endgame Marxism (and urbanism)

Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez unveil $172 billion ‘Green New Deal for public housing’

Under the paving stones, a vegetable garden. Joëlle Zask explores how greening citizenship – through cultivation practices – offers an opportunity for self-government which may just restore this relationship to one of perpetual regeneration rather than mutually destructive exploitation.  

If progressives don’t try to win over rural areas, guess who will



Degrowth!

Defending limits is not Malthusian

Degrowth information

The myth of green growth. “Economic growth, democracy and CO2 have always been intertwined.”

Unraveling the claims for (and against) green growth

Heaven hath limits: a review of Limits by Giorgos Kallis

10 ideas for degrowth architecture from the Oslo Architecture Triennale



Reflections on Seattle, 1999

Remembering for the future: Learning from the 1999 Seattle shutdown

Globalize liberation

Seattle 1999 and its “This Changes Everything” energy

Remembering the battle for Seattle: Organizers launch project to reflect on 20 years of lessons



Sci-fi and the near future

Cyberpunk is dead

The real-world locations of 14 sci-fi dystopias 

Cherie Dimaline and Rebecca Roanhorse are embodying Indigenous futurisms

Jeff Bezos’s vision of the future is basically Blade Runner

Space ageing: why sci-fi novels shun the badass older woman

Library Socialism: a utopian vision of a sustainable, luxuriant future of circulating abundance

Hopepunk and Solarpunk: On climate narratives that go beyond the Apocalypse

Highway to hell: the rise and fall of the car

Free BBC documentary: The worlds of Ursula K Le Guin



Nuclear energy will come back to haunt us

Climate change is breaking open America’s nuclear tomb 

In Marshall Islands, radiation threatens tradition of handing down stories by song

Germany is closing all its nuclear power plants. Now it must find a place to bury the deadly waste for 1 million years

Our children await a radioactive legacy



Resources

What is ‘ecological economics’ and why do we need to talk about it?

How to fight antisemitism

Mapping social movements and conflicts around the world

Global petrochemical map

Mary Annaïse Heglar’s list of voices of color on the climate crisis



This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@annacbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

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Power = power

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

by Aaron Vansintjan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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