The Five Star Movement in Italy has been campaigning on a platform of direct democracy and environmentalism. This March, they won the largest percent of the vote and the most seats in Parliament. Sounds good, right?
Except that Beppe Grillo and Luigi Di Maio – the two foremost leaders of the party – have called for expelling all migrants from Italy and ending the flow of migrants to Europe. They entered into a coalition with the Lega Nord following the 2018 election, a party advocating full regional autonomy – and protecting the ‘Christian identity’ of Italy.
Even as anti-authoritarian, anti-racist movements all over the world are working to take power where they live, self-described localist movements have also won elections with racist, and frankly fascist, platforms. New right movements like the Lega Nord have even adopted the more typically leftist, anti-authoritarian language of ‘autonomy’ and ‘direct democracy’.
If a diverse, egalitarian, and ecological local politics is to be successful, it must develop strategies for addressing and combating these tendencies.
Racism and Localism
The Nazis showed the world that it’s entirely possible to be both a back-to-the-lander and a genocidal racist. American militia movements have long fused struggle for local autonomy against the federal government with anti-immigrant hatred and white nationalism.
In the Pacific Northwest, fascist groups like the Northwest Front and the Wolves of Vinland have attempted to co-opt the vision of an independent Cascadia for the ends of white racial separatism.
Britta Lokting argues in The Baffler that there is a greater commonality between this white nationalist fringe and the other tendencies within Cascadian bioregionalism than we’d like to admit. “Ecologists, liberal hipsters, and the alt-right in the Pacific Northwest [all] resist some sort of outside taint.”
Movements for local control can easily slip towards racist and fascist politics by positioning a given community in opposition to outside threats. Oftentimes, savvy segregationists use the language of local control to mask the racial and class motivations behind their political projects.
Several European political parties like the Lega Nord have even begun to distort the term “direct democracy” to argue for “the people” (selectively defined) controlling national immigration policy as a means of achieving the authoritarian ethnonationalist system they envision.
Not all examples of reactionary localism are as extreme as Nazis and anti-government militias, however. It is also, for many people, very close to home, being central to the history of most American suburbs.
Suburban local control
When we think of racial segregation in the US, Jim Crow laws quickly come to mind. But localism—much of it in Northern cities—also played a big role in dividing US society along racial lines.
When urban rebellions rocked cities across the United States in the late sixties, millions of whites flocked to segregated suburbs. By forming new municipalities, sometimes across county lines, wealthy and middle-class whites were free to organise local policy around excluding people of color and the poor, while starving American cities of the tax revenue needed to sustain public services.
Suburban communities walled themselves off with more than gates. Local control over housing policy let them block the construction of affordable housing, to keep low-income people from ever moving in next door. By designing suburbs around cars rather than public transit, they ensured that no one without a car could even reach their communities.
Most importantly for this discussion, suburbanisation fortified racial segregation in the very political structure of many metro areas, with wealthy, mostly white suburbs governing themselves independently from and at the expense of communities of color.
This brought the gains of the civil rights movement to a halt, with incalculable human costs. Local political autonomy, as this example illustrates, can easily become a vehicle for segregation and defunding the public sphere, and has genuinely destructive potential.
Public education is another important terrain of reactionary localism.
Generally speaking, local funding for public schools has resulted in deeply unequal educational outcomes for non-white and poor children (which is why many states have taken over school funding from local property taxes, to be allocated more equitably).
From anti-immigrant movements to segregated schools, we’d do well to take these hard lessons to heart when rebuilding our society from the local level.
The language of “local control” is central to the political strategy of segregation and resegregation. It allows officials and advocates to apply a palatable, race-neutral framing to fundamentally racist policy. Power consolidated fully at the local level is potentially pernicious precisely because there is such deep inequality between local areas in our highly segregated society.
Local government is a terrain the right wing knows very well, and if empowered carelessly, one that can directly further reactionary agendas. The problem is deeper than an unfortunate correlation between localist movements and racism. Because suburban municipalities had political autonomy, they were able to realise and institutionalise this segregationist agenda.
So how should we deal with this?
We have some ideas: actively undoing bigotry through organising itself, building connections beyond the local into our political project, and developing a grassroots political system around the principles of democracy and interdependence over autonomy and local control.
Building Power, Bridging Divides
Building grassroots, democratic alliances to take back control over the places where we live is easier said than done. Organising with your neighbours can be rewarding, but also tiresome and depressing. In the little spare time each of us has, it often feels easier to talk to people we already know who share our own values.
The truth is that community organising is hard work. Organisers are confronted every day with resistance to their ideas, not only from political opponents but from other community members who have become resigned to the oppressive status quo as well.
Movement-building takes time, through years of real human connection. The simple fact is that there are no shortcuts to moving beyond bigotry either.
Community organising has traditionally aimed to overcome social divides—racial, sexual, cultural—through human relationships. Organising relies on building relationships to recognise common interests. These common interests let people identify the things they can organise around for their common good, and their relationships supply the power to actually win. Through recognising commonalities and taking collective action, bonds between people across difference are forged across differences, uprooting prejudices and fears.
Radical democracy is a framework for extending that process across all areas of life.
As we carve out space for participatory, collective decision-making, either in the workplace through cooperatives or where we live through neighborhood councils and tenant unions, we cultivate a more expansive understanding of shared interests across racial and sexual hierarchies, and of how those inequalities pose barriers to our own democratic struggle.
We can build a new commons together that meets the needs of everyone through this deep organising, a community interdependence held together by strong relationships.
But is stopping fascism as simple as making friends with your neighbours? We can’t lose sight of the fact that there are real, material, conflicts between people.
Friendship between a tenant and their landlord can’t erase the exploitative relationship between them. Only by pursuing an intersectional class politics can we piece apart the forces that divide us.
Hateful and discriminatory attitudes don’t operate in a vacuum. They have a history we can trace and material roots we can transform. Capitalists have spent centuries cultivating racist and nativist narratives to keep exploited people scapegoating each other.
The labour movement in the United States has historically hampered itself through its own racism. By refusing to fraternise with black, Latino, and Asian workers, white workers have undercut their potential power. We can’t afford to make these mistakes.
Visionary organisers need to make the case again and again, through their actions, words, and the resources they build, that ordinary people can only realize their deeper interests of freedom, a healthy life and planet, and real democracy by lifting up people at the margins.
Steps to expand participation—from translation to accessibility for disabled people to prioritizing childcare at meetings—can only make our movements more powerful. A socially transformative politics teaches more privileged people that their common cause lies with the oppressed, through democracy in everyday life.
Beyond building real relationships and making our movements more accessible, we need to make sure that we can create resources for everyone. Tenants rights action groups, community kitchens, and self-organized disaster response groups are all ways of offering people the things they need, all the while building alliances across race and class and addressing loneliness. Social isolation feeds a steady supply of alienated people to the far-right.
As we build a community economy beyond capitalism, we strike at the roots of all these things.
We have no hope of winning real power for our community without this wider network of popular struggle across municipal and national borders. This is also an important part of overcoming prejudices and inequalities between different communities.
Confederations of community councils and assemblies bring us into common cause with those we might otherwise consider outsiders. Even if your own neighborhood isn’t very diverse, scaling up the practice of radical democracy can have the same transformative impacts we discussed above on a much wider level.
Municipalism that is confederal is an antidote to xenophobic isolationism. It’s a localism which knows no national borders, yet retains the ability of citizens of every community to have a say in the affairs which affect them. The power of our strategy itself relies on building bridges rather than walls.
Building a New System
Lastly, as we develop new institutions of solidarity and democracy, we need to go beyond mere autonomy as an organisational principle. Autonomy is about securing freedom from an oppressive outside, but we’re not just trying to resist the system. We’re working to build a new system, a new society.
Anarchists and other anti-authoritarian leftists have long stressed the importance of autonomy. Bodily autonomy is a fundamental moral principle for a free, feminist society. Liberation struggles of all types have articulated their just vision in terms of autonomy.
Building autonomy for individuals and communities is clearly an essential aspect of resistance and dual power, but it is limiting as a framework for the reconstruction of a better world.
Autonomy is in essence a negative political value, being defined in terms of freedom from. It conveys nothing about the actual governance of an autonomous community, and defines its relations to other communities in exclusively negative terms. It amounts to non-interference by outsiders or outside sources of repression.
Given all the potential dangers of local political autonomy, we need to be intentional about the kind of democracy we are building from the ground up. This means thinking through how a future system would equitably solve specific problems beyond the local level.
In our previous columns, we’ve made the case for a system of directly democratic assemblies organised into confederations, which would come together through recallable delegates to coordinate activities regionally and beyond.
To prevent the rise of dark municipalism, however, confederations will have to be stronger than voluntary associations of autonomous communities.
We live in an unequal society, which we are trying to change by expanding the sphere of democracy. We undercut that goal if our conception of a truly democratic society is one where the wealthiest can wall themselves off without accountability to the wider human community.
Differing interests between particular neighborhoods, cities, and countries are inevitable on bigger questions—regional transit, watershed management, total decarbonisation of the economy, redistribution of wealth. None of these can be resolved through a confederation of fully autonomous communes where unanimous agreement is required for them to act together. We can theoretically educate away prejudice, but we can’t educate away conflicting economic interests. A deeper political relationship is necessary.
‘Confederation’ should be conceived as layers of democracy, from the neighborhood to the worldwide. The defining principle of a confederal system is not community autonomy, but interdependence. This is a much stronger basis for the protection of human rights and radical democracy.
Interdependence is what makes municipalism and democratic confederalism unique among locally oriented political ideas: they are not intended to be withdrawals from global affairs and obligations, but movements for radically restructuring the balance of power in how decisions are made towards ordinary people, be that locally, regionally, or globally.
Democracy All the Way Down
Many progressives see these forms of reactionary localism and conclude that we need a strong centralized government to better protect marginalised people. In particular, we as radical municipalists have to take seriously the history of federal power in securing greater freedoms for black people in America.
After the American Civil War, Reconstruction continued only as long as federal troops occupied the South. Desegregation and voting rights for African Americans were achieved through federal court cases and legislation. The very principle of “states’ rights” which helped uphold American apartheid and slavery is itself a form of more local autonomy.
But governments only gave in when forced by the power of popular movements. When the state is removed from the people it governs, through unaccountable bureaucracies, technocracies, or oligarchies, it gets a free pass for abuse, oppression, and exploitation. For instance, while suburbanisation in the United States was driven by racism, it was also a product of social engineering by federal policy, through redlining, freeway construction, and incentivizing industries to relocate from cities to suburbs. Many of the Trump administration’s ongoing crimes are only possible because the people do not exercise direct control over their government.
We can’t maintain an oligarchy in the hopes that the ruling class will force through needed changes with respect to racial and economic equality.
The consolidation of authority into a small ruling class necessarily tends toward more oppression. To keep this system of hierarchy in place, the powerful always seek to divide and control the less privileged.
Ordinary people are far from perfect. But it’s ordinary people, with all their differences and shortcomings, with whom we build a more perfect world.
It’s only through lived experience that any of us can learn that we share common ground with others. When we, as organisers, go to where people are, offer the resources they need, build bridges across racial and class differences, and make decisions together, we slowly build the foundations of a new society.
At the end of the day, it’s only democracy—all the way down—that can give us any hope of universal emancipation.
The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organizers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organizations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev. This article was written by Mason Herson-Hord (@mason_h2), Christian Bjornson (@VoxLibertate), Forrest Watkins (@360bybike), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).
Climate change, global finance, the neoliberal state: today’s crises require action on a big scale. And yet fighting for local democracy is – perhaps counter-intuitively – the best chance we’ve got.
Throughout this series, we’ve argued that the best way to address today’s ecological, social, and political crises is to get people together where they live and work to provide resources that people need – eventually building up an alternative political and economic system that can replace the present, failing system. We need to build a democratic, just, and ecological world in the shell of the old.
In the previous installment, we argued that organising on the level of the neighborhood, town, and city is the most strategic approach to this today.
The rise of loneliness worldwide, the centrality of real estate speculation for global economic growth, and the breakdown of many large-scale factories that helped to bring workers together mean that we have to rethink the ways we demand change.
We can build community and force elites to listen to our demands at the same time. Radical municipalism is a project to take direct democratic control over the places where we live.
When we talk to people about this strategy, the same kinds of questions often come up. In this article, we highlight three common criticisms. Each one of them revolves around the complaint that radical municipalism is too local: it can’t deal with the ‘big stuff’.
1. Because of climate change, we don’t have time
Any call for a long-term vision for social change begs the response: the urgency of the present moment means we don’t have the time for the slow work of neighbourhood-level organising.
Impending climate disruption is a ticking time-bomb. Every year we delay will make the future worse. And as a global phenomenon, it takes immediate global action. Strategically, this argument goes, we’re better off pushing our leaders to take strong stances on climate change.
The situation is so dire that the progressive environmentalist website Grist and the socialist magazine Jacobin are publishing pieces asking us to seriously consider geo-engineering and scaling up nuclear energy – all in a bid to give us more time.
For many, the problem of climate change can only be addressed with big stuff: international agreements, renewable and nuclear energy on a massive scale, geo-engineering schemes that involve changing planetary weather systems.
Working with your neighbours doesn’t mean giving up on national electoral politics. It’s all part of the same strategy: building local democracy is the necessary ingredient for taking on the state.
This kind of response is understandable, but puts the cart before the horse. Without a coherent counter-power to corporate control over government, we have no chance of forcing policy into accordance with the public good. We’re relying on the assumption that leaders are kind enough to listen, and that they by themselves have the power to implement needed reforms.
Feet to the fire
Even if we elect the most principled people to power, and even if all politicians were to realise that it’s in their own interest to do everything they can to stop climate change through a ‘Green New Deal’, the system would still be dead against them. You can’t beg a system dependent on extraction, endless growth, and exploitation to change its ways. A systemic restructuring the economy is necessary to stop the ecological crisis.
What is clear is that those in power—the CEOs, the shareholders, the bankers, and the politicians that implement their laws—would suffer greatly from necessary action on climate change.
Government debts would need to be cancelled, the most powerful industries would need to be phased out. Production would need to be reordered along democratic lines, putting people and planet before profit. No matter what, we will still need the kind of popular power that hasn’t been seen in generations to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. It took the combined threats of national collapse, socialist revolution, and a massive workers movement during the Great Depression to get the New Deal. This kind of people power needs to be organized neighborhood by neighborhood, workplace by workplace.
Every step we take towards dual power and democracy from below puts us in a better position to force the hands of government. Extracting concessions from the state and building a new political system from the ground up aren’t opposing strategies—they should go hand in hand.
Climate change and the right to the city
There’s a second answer to this objection. The fight for the right to the city is the fight for climate justice. For example, research on São Paolo in Brazil shows that the fight for affordable housing is a fight against climate change, even if poor people’s movements don’t speak in those terms.
Making the center of the city accessible for everyone to live in and building social and cooperative housing reduces carbon impact. Urban social issues like transit justice are key components of moving beyond fossil fuels. By making the places where we live more equal and democratic, we’re simultaneously fighting for a greener future.
In fact, we’re already seeing that cities and towns with strong social movements are at the forefront of radical and innovative responses to climate change.
What’s more, they’re starting to work together to provide a common front to demand change on national and international scales—the Global Covenant for Mayors for Climate and Energy is already a force to be reckoned with in international climate talks. And cities globally are leading the fight to take the fossil fuel industry to task, even suing them for contributing to climate disasters.
All this comes down to the fact that we can’t actually make the necessarily large-scale changes without taking control over the places where we live and creating the alternatives necessary for a new system. It’s precisely these alternatives that force the hand of the state to act on climate change. They organize people power and show how things could be done otherwise.
In other words, radical municipalism is the best investment against climate change: our power together forces our leaders to act and buys us time, all the while developing a new ecological social order that can replace capitalism.
2. Local activism can’t address global capitalism
A common response to those who work to mobilise their neighbours and create local democracy is that localism can’t scale up. It’s always just stuck back-pedaling, unable to actually change the large-scale problems like predatory trade deals, foreign takeovers, the capacity of finance to make or break whole countries—the stuff that really shapes national decision-making.
Often, these same people argue that, to break out of this pattern, we need to engage with the big players. So they form think tanks, lobby groups, NGOs, and new media platforms, showing up to climate negotiations year after year and putting pressure on politicians through endless petitions. For them, the most important agents of change are well-worded policy briefs, expensive conferences, powerpoint presentations, and 40-page reports.
The key actors of social change aren’t think-tanks or lobby groups: they’re people, and people live and work somewhere. This kind of critique often forgets the fact that all successful international movements of the past were also intensely local.
For example, the labour movements of the 19th and 20th centuries were able to make demands of governments because they were so embedded in people’s day-to-day lives. Historically, unions weren’t just at the workplace; they ran dance halls, classes, cafeterias, and sports leagues.
It was only by broadening their reach to every aspect of life that unions were able to become indispensable to working class communities. This made it possible for them to organise effective strikes and, eventually, mount a significant challenge to their bosses and the state. It’s regular people that are the actors of world-historical changes.
What some people deride as ‘localism’ is actually the very foundation of transformative change.
A plan of action
That said, we shouldn’t forget that, without a long-term vision, a coherent plan of action, and trans-local alliances, every local movement is doomed to become a relic in the town museum.
Keep in mind that capitalism works at scale. That’s the genius of it. Stop one development in your neighbourhood, and investors just move their money elsewhere. Take on giants like Amazon, and they’ll just move to another city. So, in that sense, we agree that local action, on its own, will always fail.
This is why, for radical municipalism to be successful, it requires collaboration at higher level. This July, the Fearless Cities Summit in New York City will bring together municipalist movements around the world to share resources and action plans.
In our own work as Symbiosis, we hope to bring together radical municipalist movements from across North America to form a democratically run network of community organizations that can coordinate strategy beyond the local.
In the short term, these kinds of movements are already proving to be a challenge to big corporations. In Seattle, the city council passed a law that would tax big companies like Amazon—money which would then go into subsidies for affordable housing. In Barcelona, the city is turning AirBnB apartments into social housing. Only local, democratic, and people-based movements can force politicians to bring transnational corporations to task. What we need to do now is learn from each other’s victories and work together to scale them up.
In the long term, a system of dual power would transform into what we call communalism or democratic confederalism: an allied network of interdependent communes or regions that work together in a directly democratic way.
On the local level, the neighbourhood assembly makes the decisions and decides the course of action. On a bigger level, these organisations band together in what is called a confederation: a body of recallable delegates with imperative mandates, directly accountable to their communities.
This body would allow communes to exchange resources, support each other, and make democratic decisions. Without this kind of networking, collaboration, and interdependence across borders, local movements are just that: local, isolated, and doomed to fail, again and again. But through international confederation, we can pose a real threat to global capitalism and the ruling class.
3. We can only make real change by taking over the state
For many, the state is the best vehicle for action to fight the major systemic problems of climate chaos, finance capital running amok, and global inequality.
Further, with the growing popularity of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, now seems like a bad time to redirect energy away from national politics. After all, conservative movements thrive off of voter apathy. If you ignore elections, then you cede the ground to the welfare-bashing, poor-blaming, and racist right.
How should radical municipalist movements engage with the state? First, it’s important to reframe the debate away from “should we try to take state power?”.
We’re trying to build democratic institutions that can, in the present, extract concessions from the state. These will inevitably exist within the current (statist) system and leverage available (state) institutions and resources toward that goal.
Eventually, these new institutions will form an ecosystem of dual power that can force a crisis within the state and dissolve its powers into confederal direct democracy. This is not a contradiction, it’s just to acknowledge that the state has embedded itself into almost every aspect of our lives and can’t be abolished in a day.
This process would amount to a fundamental restructuring of the public sphere, from a state—instruments of coercive violence under the control of a ruling class—into a democratic commons, a government from below.
Rewire its institutions
In the meantime, however, we can grow our movement through struggle for important expansions of the public sphere (social spending, halting carbon emissions, public transit) and drawdowns on the most socially and ecologically destructive features of the state (the police, the military, prisons, border security, surveillance).
As we gain greater power to extract concessions from the state through new institutions of communal democratic life, we can use strategic policy changes to improve our position. Non-reformist reforms like nationalized healthcare, job guarantee programs, and public childcare can enable more working-class people to participate in neighborhood organizing and movement work. Putting public funds into cooperative development, social housing, public banking, and participatory budgeting can speed along our transition to a democratic economy. With the support of municipal governments, solidarity economy initiatives developed in our communities can be dramatically expanded. Most importantly, we can secure radical changes to city charters that restructure political authority into direct rule by citizens through confederated community councils and assemblies.
It is never enough to simply “take the state” and wield it as a tool to reshape society, for the state is not a neutral institution to be held by one class or another. At a structural level, the state exists to enforce the will of a ruling elite, who make decisions on our behalf. Even if we replace horrible capitalist ones with working-class representatives of our own, we haven’t assured that the will of the public is governing society, for the public is not itself in power. Empowering ordinary people to have control over our collective future requires fundamentally transforming the way governance works.
This is why building power from below outside of the state is so essential. The mass organization of community councils, assemblies, tenant unions, labor unions, and cooperatives is what can (through its own growth) force governing elites to make the reforms we need right now, while creating the conditions for a more revolutionary restructuring of society.
It’s clear that we can’t depend on an electoral strategy alone to put these ideas into practice. Elections are an important platform to spread ideas and implement our program, but only vibrant social movements can actually hold elected representatives accountable.
What kinds of policies would a radical municipalist movement put on their electoral platform, if they had one? In each case, it helps to ask: how does this policy build popular power? What institutions can we strengthen through public policy to better hold the state accountable?
No matter what the state does, however, it’s crucial that people practice doing politics themselves. Building these kinds of institutions is the antidote to apathy and encourages civic engagement. Through this broader strategy of dual power from the neighborhood on up, we can effectively challenge the state and, at the same time, rewire its institutions—already running through every aspect of our lives—into something new.
Turning local action into global power
It’s easy to criticise everything under the sun as insufficient, not good enough. Organising in your own neighbourhood can sometimes feel distant from the important stuff happening around the world.
But while local action alone is not enough, organising should still be a part of people’s everyday lives: it should be place-based. Fighting for affordable housing means fighting climate change.
Taking on AirBnB or Amazon in your city means struggling against corporate control over politics. Working with your neighbours doesn’t mean giving up on national electoral politics. It’s all part of the same strategy: building local democracy is the necessary ingredient for challenging the ruling class’s grip on government.
How can we solidify these distant, local actions into an intentional power that can take on state, corporate, and global powers? Through learning from each other, networking, forming alliances, and, eventually, confederating. Without a democratic politics of scale, we’ll just stay stuck in the local.
In the next installment of this column, we’ll discuss another common objection—one that has become more and more pressing. Can radical municipalism avoid what we call ‘dark municipalism’: the rise of a fascist or reactionary localist movement that seeks to protect only its own and expel anyone who doesn’t fit the norm.
This article was originally published in The Ecologist. The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organizers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organizations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev. This article was written by Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi) with contributions by Mason Herson-Hord (@mason_h2).
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’ll 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.
For the summer months, we’re doing something a bit different. On top of sharing the usual editors’ picks, we’ve invited two scholars to contribute some of the best readings and resources in their respective fields. For July, political ecologist Salvatore De Rosa is joining us. Check out his list below, and scroll a bit further to find other worthwhile articles selected by us Uneven Earth editors! Oh, and follow our brand new Instagram account.
I was asked by Uneven Earth to put together a list of my favorite readings in recent years, during which I deep-dove in Political Ecology and related fields and animated, with the fantastic ENTITLE Collective, a blog of collaborative writing around scholarly and academic takes and issues in Political Ecology.
Admittedly, this list does not follow a structure or predetermined path, rather reflecting my idiosyncrasies, the mutating focus of my interests and the associative links nurtured by a broadly defined interest in human-environment relations and in the eco-political performances of grassroots environmental activism.
Let’s start with heavy thoughtful artillery. There’s a lot of talk on the Anthropocene lately, but few original and genuinely critical takes on the issue. Amazing exception, this piece of Donna Haraway that opens up the Anthropocene narrative and goes forward in thinking its implications towards politically enabling, culturally decentering and vertiginously uplifting connections.
Are you in search of maps to study, revisit, deconstruct or add to your presentation on spatial imaginaries? Nothing better than the David Rumsey map collection: thousands of maps from all ages, freely downloadable in hi-res.
A theme that has always interested me is the relation between grassroots environmental activism and repressive and delegitimizing techniques implemented by governments against it around the world. To get a sense of how environmental mobilizations from below are increasingly considered a ‘serious’ issue by state, and often a ‘threat’ to national interests, the above readings can surely help.
To recover and to fight back, maybe it is time to turn upside down some deep seated assumptions about nature. Maybe it is time to recognize that the gap between humans and all other living things is made and remade by our drive of dominion and destruction. Wise words can be heard on this from Richard Powers.
Finally, one reading from our ENTITLE Blog, that criticizes the mainstream scientific diagnoses and solutions to the environmental crises spread by articles like the “warning to humanity”, and invites to join the fight right on the frontlines of ecological friction points!
How to build a culture of good health. “If we wish to take full responsibility for health in our society, we must not only be vigilant guardians of our personal well-being, we must also work to change structures, institutions, and ideologies that keep us mired in a toxic culture.”
Out from emergency. Today’s crises call on humanity to act collectively, but this possibility seems more and more remote. How do we break the cycle? A dialogue between Katrina Forrester and Jedediah Purdy.
Visions of a new economy from Detroit: A conversation with Malik Yakini. “That whole idea of private ownership of land, which in large part is how wealth is generated in capitalism, is problematic. The question of access to land is critical… The other flaw—which can exist in socialism, also—is the idea that the earth is a commodity, and what we need is more production, more extraction. I think a new way of looking at our relationship to the earth is required.”
Karl Polanyi and the formation of this generation’s new Left. As the democratic Left spirals ever downwards, the worrying forces of populism and neoliberalism seem to be emerging from the ashes. Could the visionary thinking of economic historian Karl Polanyi provide a feasible fix in the 21st Century? An open‐ended approach might be just the ticket to rescue global politics from a far right explosion – and it’s not rocket science…
Growth for the sake of growth.“Growth for the sake of growth” remains the credo of governments and international institutions, Federico Demaria finds. The time is ripe, he argues, not only for a scientific degrowth research agenda, but also for a political one.
How to survive America’s kill list. “This is how America’s post-9/11 move toward authoritarianism has been executed: without massacres or palace coups, but noiselessly, on paper, through years of metronome insertions of bloodless terms in place of once-vibrant Democratic concepts.”
The medium chill: a philosophy that asks the important questions. “We’re going to have to scale down our material expectations and get off the aspirational treadmill. So how can we do that? How can we make it okay to prioritize social connections over money and choice hoarding?”
Science for the People engages in research, activism, and science communications for the betterment of society, ecological improvement, environmental protection, and to serve human needs. Members of Science for the People consist of STEM workers, educators, and activists who are socially and ethically focused, and believe that science should be a positive force for humanity and the planet.
This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn) and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).
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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’ll 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.
In June, we read stories about new political strategies, decolonial re-imaginings, community resilience, and revolutionary ideas around the world. We also included articles about the escalating climate crisis and the root causes of climate and environmental injustice.
Uneven Earth updates
The team expands: Anna Biren, who has been working on these newsletters for the past 6 months, is now on board as a new editor at Uneven Earth!
Science Fiction Belgrade | Link| Imagining different realities in the works of Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić
The promise of radical municipalism today | Link| Politics is about bringing people together and taking control of the spaces where we live
Science fiction between utopia and critique | Link| On different perspectives used in science fiction narratives, situated knowledge, and how discontent is useful
What’s it like for a social movement to take control of a city? | Link| For Barcelona En Comú, winning the election was just the first step
The swell | Link| “We were waiting to be accepted as refugees in Iceland, the only country left in the region with stable electricity from their geothermal resources, and the only place that would take UK citizens.”
Why grandmothers may hold the key to human evolution. “While the men were out hunting, grandmothers and babies were building the foundation of our species’ success – sharing food, cooperating on more and more complex levels and developing new social relationships.”
A sense of place. “There are many historical and modern day examples of how human beings, all over the world, have managed to meet the needs of locally adapted, place-based communities within the limits of their local environment.”
Roadmap for radicals. Mel Evans and Kevin Smith interview US-based organiser and author Jonathan Smucker, whose new book Hegemony How-To offers a practical guide to political struggle for a generation that is still ambivalent about questions of power, leadership and strategy.
‘Processing settler toxicities’ part 1 and part 2. An Indigenous feminist analysis of the connections between industrial capitalism and colonialism, imperialism, and the pollution and destruction of human and nonhuman worlds.
Anthropocene? More like ‘Capitalocene’. Jason W. Moore on the human impact on the world ecology. “My hope is that this theoretical research may provide useful insights for the social movements around the world that are fighting not only the effects, but especially the root causes of climate change.”
Carbon Ironies: William T. Vollmann on the hot dark future. A review of William T. Vollmann’s Carbon Ideologies—a book that is rightly sarcastic and pessimistic about the prospects of “solving” the problem of climate change but stuck in the false either/or choice between solving everything and doing nothing whatsoever, argues Wen Stephenson.
The mask it wears. Pankaj Mishra reviews and compares the propositions about how to work for equality in The People v. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It by Yascha Mounk Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World by Samuel Moyn.
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’ll 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.
Uneven Earth updates
We’ve launched our series on sci-fi, near-futures, utopias, and dystopias, Not afraid of the ruins. The first three stories are now online! Expect a new piece every Friday.
Borne on a damaged planet | Link | Two books that do the hard work of thinking through the Anthropocene
Turkey, commanding the second-largest NATO army, has attacked the predominantly Kurdish region in Syria building a feminist & democratic governance system. The region under attack, Afrin, has gone the furthest in institutionalizing women’s liberation. You can follow any updates or find local protests via #DefendAfrin.
This is important. The International Organisation’s dealings often don’t get much scrutiny, but their reports can make or break a country. An informative Twitter thread here.
A victory for the movement against airports?
The Zone à défendre (ZAD) achieved a victory this month: France announced that it would no longer build the airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. But for ZADistas, it is a half-victory: “While we are trying to prevent the construction of an airport, more than 400 others are being planned or built around the world.”
Where we’re at: analysis
Happy new year! Essays on loneliness, happiness, and an accelerating world
Smart cities, green urbanism, livable cities. The catchy terms keep proliferating, but does it come with better policies? Maria Kaika, foremost theorist on cities, opens up a bag of worms in this interview.
“often current events are analyzed in a vacuum that almost never includes the context or history necessary to understand what is new, what is old and how we got to where we are.”
Two years of radical municipalism in Barcelona
A documentary about what happened in Barcelona and why it matters, including resources for discussing the video with your local group. An inspiring interview on the new politics in Spain, and how people have used the internet in creative ways. Eight lessons from the last two years of radical municipalism. A report on the first Fearless Cities conference last year held in Barcelona, and another report on the Catalan Integral Cooperative, which is experimenting with a new economic system in the shell of the old.
Editorial from the seventh issue of ROAR magazine, which examines the social and political nature of climate change. The issue also features an explainer on the relevance of Murray Bookchin’s work for today’s climate crisis.
“If we can resist the age-old impulse to define binary oppositions between ways of knowing—scientific versus humanistic, expert versus popular—we will be in a better position to join forces across those divides towards understanding and action”, argues Deborah Cohen.
“Haiti, not the US or France, was where the assertion of human rights reached its defining climax in the Age of Revolution.” In light of President Trump’s recent ‘shithole’ comments, this article from 2016 on Haiti’s revolutionary history is worth revisiting.
Aaron kicks off a new series of articles on the ENTITLE blog which questions the foundations of ‘eco-modernist socialism’ and ‘communist futurism’ as proposed in Jacobin’s climate change issue Earth, Wind, and Fire.
With increasing natural disasters and the retreat of the state, more and more people are getting involved with grassroots disaster response movements. Movement Generation has put out a document with a guiding framework for how to do people-based recovery. PDF here.
“It is with a certain feeling of urgency that I seek the nature, subject, words of the other story, the untold one, the life story.” Ursula K. Le Guin has died, and there are so many more worlds to explore. We’ll build them with her in our hearts. This is one of our favorite pieces by her, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”
“Entire landscapes, replete with designer insects and subscription seed stock, will have the potential to be recognised as protected intellectual property. The proprietary ecosystem will emerge, financially and biologically controlled by a particular hotel chain, property developer or private homeowner.”
For the past little while I’ve been involved with a group in Barcelona, which studies and advocates ‘degrowth’: the idea that we must downscale production and consumption to have a more equitable society, and that we therefore must dismantle the ideology of ‘economic growth at all costs’. As you can imagine, they spend much of their time trying to clear up misconceptions: “No, we’re not against trees growing. Yes, we also would like children to grow. Yes, we also like nice things like healthcare.”
But this last year I was living in London. There, activist ideology seemed to be permeated by the ‘accelerationists’—who argue that capitalism and its technologies should be pushed beyond their own limits, to create a new post-capitalist future. Accelerationism is almost like, having tried hard to evade a black hole, a ship’s crew decides that the best course of action would be to turn around and let themselves be sucked in: “Hey, there could be something cool on the other side!”
After a year of experiences in some of London’s activist circles, I now understand better where this is coming from. Decades of government cutbacks, squashing of unions, total financialization of the city, and lack of access to resources for community organizing has meant that London activists are systematically in crisis mode—exhausted, isolated, and always on the defensive.
These worlds of thought are best encapsulated in two recent books. In Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era, edited by Giacomo d’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis, its authors explain concepts such as care, environmental justice, basic income, commons—all of which are seen as part of degrowth’s “interpretive frame”. For them, degrowth is an umbrella term that houses a variety of movements, ideologies, and ideas for a more sustainable, and less capitalist, world.
Surprisingly, both books have a lot in common. You have the utopian imaginaries, a renewed focus on alternative economics, the willingness to think beyond both neoliberalism and Keynesianism, and the ability to grapple with contemporary technology’s effects on society and the environment.
But they are also quite different. These differences were made real to me on a dreary Saturday afternoon last winter at an event in London called “Future Society Forum”. After a short introduction by Nick Snricek, activists from around London were invited to brainstorm what a leftist utopia could look like.
The room was divided into different ‘themes’: work, health, environment and resources, education, etc. We were first asked to place post-its with ideas for “futures” particular to each theme. (Comically, someone had put ‘basic income’ on every single theme before the event had even started—an attempt at subliminal messaging?) Then, we were asked to split into groups to discuss each theme.
Given my background, I decided I could contribute most to the ‘environment’ theme—though I was certainly interested in joining the others. After a 15-minute discussion, the time came for each group to feed back to the larger collective. Unsurprisingly, the environment group envisioned a decentralized society where resources were managed by bio-region—a participatory, low-tech, low-consumption economy, where everyone has to do some farming and some cleaning up, and where the city is perfectly integrated with the country. I’m pretty sure I heard sniggers as our utopia was read out loud.
The ‘work’ group, on the other hand, envisioned a future with machines that would do everything for us—requiring big factories, where all labor (if there was any) was rewarded equally, where no one had to do anything they didn’t like, in which high-tech computer systems controlled the economy. Basically the “fully-automated luxury communist” dream.
Talk about selection bias.
Part of me had expected more than a snigger, though. But the direct challenge never came. The accelerationists begrudged the enviros their grub-eating utopia while they ruminated on their own techno-fetishes. Was it just an armistice to prepare for a bigger battle down the road, or was there really less animosity than I imagined?
Part of me had expected more than a snigger, though. But the direct challenge never came. The accelerationists begrudged the enviros their grub-eating utopia while they ruminated on their own techno-fetishes.
Of course such differences are not totally new on the left—similar opposing strands played their part in social movements of the past: should we smash the machines or take them into our own hands? Should we grab the reigns of the state or disown it outright? Friedrich Engels may have totally dismissed peasants as possible revolutionaries, but the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakhunin insisted that peasants could, and would, be crucial in creating a world beyond capitalism—and that the left could learn from peasant communes for an idea of what another world would look like.
These same tensions are competing in the accelerationist and degrowth ideologies. Accelerationists like Srnicek and Williams emphasize automation, the role of unions, and reduction in the working week as the primary variables in shifting the gears beyond capitalism. Their focus is on the big stuff (labor, global trade) and they argue a focus on small interventions by the left is part of the problem, not a solution to it. Degrowth scholars look toward small “nowtopias” and make alliances with those struggling against extractivism—often peasants, forest-dwellers, and indigenous peoples.
When I was done reading Srnicek and Williams’ book, I realized that degrowth and accelerationism (although I’ve since learned that Williams and Srnicek now distance themselves from the term, so as not to be confused with more right-wing strains of the movement) actually have more in common than I initially thought—both in practical terms (policies and strategy), and in their general ideological positions. And they have a lot to learn from each other.
What follows is a bit of a report: a conversation between the two proposals. There will be some critique, but also some cross-pollination. My discussion revolves around a couple of themes: the importance of utopian thinking, technology, economy, and political strategy.
If there is commonality there is also difference. How is it possible that, considering so many agreements, they have such an oppositional framing of the problem at hand? By way of a conclusion, I suggest that the notion of ‘speed’—and their divergent views of it—is fundamental to each position.
As David Graeber put it in yet another tasty essay, social movements today are experiencing a kind of “despair fatigue”: no longer content with merely commiserating about cuts to social services, there has been a rebirth in futuristic, positive thinking.
Indeed, it seems that a key uniting principle between accelerationism and degrowth is their promotion of utopian ideas. This might come as a surprise with those unfamiliar with the degrowth literature—recently, a whole book was dedicated to attacking the degrowth hypothesis as anti-modern and a form of “austerity ecology”.
However, the fact is that degrowth thinkers have put a lot of thought into how to go beyond primitivist flight from the modern and envision a future that is low-carbon, democratic, and just. Despite the negative connotations that may come with a word like ‘degrowth’, there have been many positive, forward-looking proposals within the movement. Key concepts here include “desire”—that is, the emphasis that a just transition should not be forced but should come from people’s own political will; “commoning”—in which wealth is managed collectively rather than privatized; the support of innovative policies such as basic and maximum income as well as ecological tax reform; the resuscitation of Paul Lafargue’s demand for ‘the right to be lazy’ (also picked up by the accelerationists); the embracement of ‘imaginaries’ inspired by ‘nowtopias’—actually existing livelihood experiments that point to different possible futures.
The same is true for the accelerationists. Indeed, the launching point of Srnicek and Williams’ book is that much of leftist activism in the past decades has forsaken the imaginative, creative utopias which characterized left struggles of the past. Progressive activism, to them, has largely been limited to what they call “folk politics”—an activist ideology that is small in its ambit, focuses on immediate, temporary actions rather than long-term organizing, focuses on trying to create prefigurative perfect ‘micro-worlds’ rather than achieving wide-ranging system change. This, they argue, is symptomatic of the wider political moment, in which a neoliberal consensus has foreclosed any ability to think up alternative policies and worlds. And so they propose a vision of the future that is both modern and conscious of current economic trends. Like the degrowth movement, they propose that the dominant pro-work ideology must be dismantled, but unlike degrowth, they take this in another direction: proposing a world where people don’t have to submit to drudgery but can instead pursue their own interests by letting machines do all the work —in other words “fully automated luxury communism.”
What unites the two is a counter-hegemonic strategy that sets up alternative imaginaries and ethics, that challenges the neoliberal moment by insisting that other worlds are possible and, indeed, desirable. For degrowth scholars like Demaria et al., degrowth is not a stand-alone concept but an interpretive “frame” which brings together a constellation of terms and movements. For accelerationists, part of the strategy is to promote a new set of “universal” demands that allow new political challenges to take place. In addition, they call for an “ecology of organizations”—think tanks, NGOs, collectives, lobby groups, unions, that can weave together a new hegemony. For both, there is a need to undermine existing ideologies by, on the one hand, providing strong refutations to them, and, on the other, through setting up new ones (e.g. post-work, conviviality). The result is two strong proposals for alternative futures that are not afraid of dreaming big.
Economic Pluralism, Political Monism?
Forty years after neo-conservative godfather Irving Kristol indicted the New Left for “refusing to think economically” in his well-known speech at the Mont Pelerin Society, it is interesting that these two emerging frameworks are once again centering economics in their analysis. Indeed, both frameworks propose startlingly similar economic policies. They share demands such as universal basic income, reduction in work hours, and the democratization of technology. However, they differ in other demands: Williams and Srnicek stress the potential of automation to address inequality and focus on the role of technological advances in either further driving precarity or liberating society. As part of this, they talk at length about the importance of state-led innovation and subsidies for research and development, and how this needs to be reclaimed by the left.
In contrast, Degrowth scholars such as Giorgos Kallis and Samuel Alexander have proposed a more diverse platform of policies, ranging from minimum and maximum income, working hour reduction and time-sharing, banking and finance reform, participatory planning and budgeting, ecological tax reform, financial and legal support for the solidarity economy, reducing advertising, and abolishing the use of GDP as an indicator of progress. These are only a few of the many policies proposed by Degrowth advocates—the point is, however, that Degrowthers tend to support a broad policy platform rather than a set of strategic, system-changing “easy wins”.
At multiple points in their book, Srnicek and Williams urge the left to engage with economic theory once again. They argue that, while mainstream economics does need to be challenged, tools such as modeling, econometrics, and statistics will be crucial in developing a revived, positive vision of the future.
Indeed, near the end of the book, they make a bid for “pluralist” economics. In the wake of the 2008 crisis, the left responded with a “makeshift Keynesianism”—because the focus had largely been on a critique of capitalism there was a severe lack of alternative economic theories available to draw from. They urge thinking through contemporary issues that are not easily addressed by Keynesian or Marxist economic theory: secular stagnation, “the shift to an informational, post-scarcity economy”, alternative approaches to quantitative easing, and the possibilities of full automation and a universal basic income, amongst others. They argue that there is a need for the left to “think through an alternative economic system” which draws from innovative trends spanning “modern monetary theory to complexity economics, from ecological to participatory economics.”
However, I was a disappointed by what they considered “plural” forms of economics. There was little discussion of the content of alternative economics such as institutional economics, post-Keynesian economics, commons theory, environmental economics, ecological economics, and post-development theory. It is these fields that have offered some of the strongest challenges to neoclassical economics, and present some strong challenges to their own political ideology as well. They would do well to engage with them more.
This gap is not minor. Rather, it reflects deeper issues within the whole accelerationist framework. For a book that mentions climate change as one of the foremost problems we face—also mentioned in the first sentence of their #Accelerate Manifesto—there is surprisingly little engagement with environmental issues. And yet it is these unmentioned heterodox economic fields that have provided some of the most useful responses to the current environmental crisis—even going so far as providing robust models and econometric analyses to test their own claims.
The same gap is not found in the Degrowth literature. Indeed, the movement has been inspired to a great extent by rebel economists such as Eleanor Ostrom, Nicholas Georgescu-Røegen, K. William Kapp, Karl Polanyi, Cornelius Castoriadis, Herman Daly, and J.K. Gibson-Graham. Degrowth sessions are now the norm at many heterodox economics conferences—just as degrowth conferences are largely dominated by discussions of the economy.
Taking the lessons from institutional economics in stride, degrowth thinkers have stressed that there are no panaceas: no single policy will do the trick, a diverse and complimentary policy platform is necessary to offset feedback loops that may arise from the interplay between several policies.
From this perspective, the strategic policies proposed by accelerationists—basic income, automation, reduction in working hours—start to look rather simplistic. Focusing on three core policies makes for elegant reading and simple placards, but also comes at a price: when these policies are implemented and result in unforeseen negative effects, there will be little political will to keep experimenting with them. I would rather place my bets on a solid, multi-policy platform, resilient enough to deal with negative feedback loops and not too dogmatic about which one should be implemented first.
From this perspective, the strategic policies proposed by accelerationists—basic income, automation, reduction in working hours—start to look rather simplistic.
A strong point of the accelerationists is their emphasis that economic policies are political—and thus must be won through political organizing. In doing so, they make the crucial step beyond economism—the term Antonio Gramsci used to refer to leftists who put counter-hegemonic activism on hold until “economic conditions” favor it. The same cannot always be said of the environmentalist left: scarcity, environmental limits—these are often imposed as apolitical spectres that override all other concerns.
And yet, for all their calls for a united, utopian vision, I remain apprehensive about the kind of utopia they proposed—and therefore the kind of politics they see as necessary. While ‘folk politics’ is in part a promising definition of activism that fails to scale up, it also easily becomes a way to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit their idea of what politics really is.
Take, for example, their take-down of the Argentinean popular response to the financial crisis. Under their gaze, the “large-scale national turn towards horizontalism” involving neighborhood assemblies after the 1998 recession “remained a localized response to the crisis” and “never approached the point of replacing the state”. Worker-run factories failed to scale up and “remained necessarily embedded within capitalist social relations”. In conclusion, they claim that Argentina’s ‘moment’ was “simply a salve for the problems of capitalism, not an alternative to it.” They maintain that it was simply an emergency response, not a competitor.
But this is a very problematic view of what constitutes ‘the political.’ Drawing on decades of reporting on Latin America’s popular struggles and involvement in them, Raùl Zibechi argues that, following neoliberal abandonment by the state, peasants, Indigenous peoples, and slum-dwellers are creating new worlds and resources that operate differently from the logic of the state and capital. These new societies make no demands from political parties and they do not develop agendas for electoral reform. Instead, they organize “con/contra” (with/against) existing institutions by ‘reterritorializing’ their livelihoods, building diverse and horizontal economies, and rising up in revolt at critical junctures.
Under Zibechi’s gaze, the very same Argentinean popular reaction is described as a moment when “the unfeasible becomes visible”. What was simmering under the surface is revealed “like lightning illuminating the night the sky”. Rather than being “emergency responses”, the Argentinean response was practiced and strategic—not quite as spontaneous and disorganized as Srnicek and Williams depict.
Likewise with gender politics; even as Williams and Srnicek acknowledge feminist economic theories around care and reproductive labor, what qualifies as ‘real’ politics falls into very hegemonic realms: lobbying, the formation of think-tanks, policy platforms, unions, and economic modeling. But what about other types of resistance, such as the ones Zibechi highlights: childcare collectives, squatted and autonomously organized settlements, community-organized schools and clinics, collective kitchens, and street blockades? How do such practices, now being referred to as ‘commoning,’ fit in their ‘ecology of organizations?’
I worry that accelerationists, like Friedrich Engels’ dismissal of peasants as revolutionary agents, implicitly reject the possibility that Indigenous and anti-extractivist struggles are important potential allies. If political success is measured solely by statist goals, then non-statist victories will remain invisible.
In contrast, degrowth thinkers have collaborated with post-development scholars like Ashish Kothari and Alberto Acosta, and have helped to create a worldwide environmental justice network—forming alliances with the very groups that would be the most affected by an increase in automation and the least likely to benefit from accelerationist policies like basic income.
What Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics’ ends up justifying their specific vision of the political—one that is quite strikingly a vision from the North
Unfortunately, what Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics’ ends up justifying their specific vision of the political—one that is quite strikingly a vision from the North, unable to break away from hegemonic ideas of the ‘right’ political actors. By this logic, the Argentinean movement ‘failed’ because it could not replicate or replace the state. To this end, they might find it useful to engage with subaltern theorists, decolonialization studies, post-development scholars—all of whom have in different ways challenged Western conceptions of what resistance, alternatives, and progress looks like. Further, they might engage with commons theorists who demonstrate how commoning practices open up very real alternatives to neoliberalism. Beyond theoretical alliances, this might help them not to dismiss “failed” movements simply because they do not seek to copy the state.
Technology, Efficiency, and Metabolism
For many on the left, technology is secondary to redistributive policies (welfare, health care, employment equity) and innovation is the realm of private companies, not the government.
In contrast, accelerationists recognize that technology is a key driver of social and economic change. For Srnicek and Williams, an important strategic goal within the left would be to politicize technology, to transform capitalist machines for socialist goals. We must take the reigns of technology, democratize it, if we are to deal with the multiple issues facing humanity today. This ‘modern’ gesture, which avoids primitivism and the wish to return to a ‘simpler’ past, is certainly appreciated.
Srnicek and Williams spend much of the book discussing how automation is transforming social and economic relations worldwide. Not only is the roboticization of the workplace rendering so many workers in the Global North useless, automation is starting to have its effects in rapidly developing countries like China. They go so far as to link the informalization of huge swathes of humanity—slum-dwellers, rural-urban migrants—as an indication that capitalism no longer even needs its “reserve army of labor”. The onset of automation means that we may once again enter a world of mass unemployment, where labor becomes cheap and all the power will be in the hands of the employer.
Their response to this is quite brave: rather than fleeing this modern ‘reality’, they suggest pushing for ever more automation—eventually ending the need for rote labor and bringing about “fully automated luxury communism”—their vision of a desirable future. As part of this, they argue that public investment in innovation will be key in achieving this goal.
As they try to show, automation is already helping to deindustrialize many countries (developed and developing), meaning that regardless of whether full automation happens or not, there is a critical need for social movements to fight for political advances to guarantee social safety nets. As a response to this, they argue that unions should actually be fighting for less working hours, not more, and that basic income will help address the mass unemployment that automation seems to be causing.
I agree that such political responses will be necessary in the years to come, and that automation certainly presents a predicament, but, for several reasons that I’ll list below, I’m not sure if it’s really the central predicament—as they seem to assert. First of all, is automation really occurring at such a rapid and destructive pace? It’s true that the rate of growth of employment worldwide is decreasing, but this could be explained by a number of factors, many of which are more and more being highlighted by mainstream economists: the onset of a ‘secular stagnation’ in Euro-America, the decline in conventional oil extraction, and the exhaustion of ‘easy’ growth that was already being felt in the 1970s. Indeed, once I dug into their citations, I didn’t find much research showing how automation’s role in current economic transformations compared to these other factors. However, not being a labor economist, I’m not well-versed enough in the numbers to discuss further. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.
Second, and more problematically, I follow George Caffentzis in his skepticism of the claim that soon Capital will not need workers in the future, and will therefore bring about its own demise:
Capital cannot will itself into oblivion, but neither can it be tricked or cursed out of existence… The “end of work” literature… creates a failed politics because it ultimately tries to convince both friend and foe that, behind everyone’s back, capitalism has ended.
This was a critique of Jeremy Rifkin and Antonio Negri in the 90s, but it might as well apply to the works of Paul Mason, Snricek, and Williams today. There’s something magical about letting automation do the anti-capitalist work for you. Unfortunately, there is no trick that will end capitalism. Even if they claim at multiple points that automation is not a technical but a political goal, they’re in many ways letting automation drive the cart of politics. I’ve already mentioned the dangers of economism. Today, something new seems to be emerging, which seems to very prevalent amongst “ecomodernist” progressives: technologism. The belief that a low-carbon future is only possible through ramping up innovation and technological advances, rather than a full-scale transformation of our social and political relations. Snricek and Williams try to skirt technologism, but their over-fascination with automation brings them dangerously close.
There’s something magical about letting automation do the anti-capitalist work for you. Unfortunately, there is no trick that will end capitalism.
Third, even if automation were on the rise, I’m skeptical as to how it could possibly limit capitalism’s outward expansion. As Peter Linebaugh has argued, the Luddites opposed automation not just because it was costing them their jobs, but because they knew the automation of textile manufacturing meant the enslavement, and drawing in to the capitalist system, of millions of slaves and indigenous people in the colonies.
Automation, from this viewpoint, is a local “problem” borne from a myopically Northern perspective: it will not do away with ever-expanding forest-clearing, enclosures, destruction of subsistence livelihoods, and the creation of itinerant classes forced into the extractivist economy. Regardless of whether automation is capitalist or communist, without being regulated, it stands to increase environmental conflicts globally. But rising rates of resource extraction are not mentioned as a problem in the book, nor do they propose a strategic alliance with those affected by the extractive industry.
This leads to what is perhaps the most frustrating gap in the whole book: their very weak environmental proposals.
Surprisingly, there are only two instances where they present ways to address the ‘environment problem’: when discussing why automation could actually be a good thing, they also mention that greater efficiency would decrease energy use. Elsewhere, they suggest that shifting to a four-day workweek would also limit energy use from commuting.
But efficiency doesn’t work that way. If you would take away one lesson from ecological economics, it is this golden rule, to be repeated to every techno-optimist you come across: without limiting in some way the use of resources and energy (e.g. by taxing it), any advance in efficiency will likely lead to progressively more resource use, not less. This is called the rebound effect, or Jevons’ Paradox.
It follows that there is no guarantee that truncating the workweek will be more environmentally friendly. Efficiency and more free time can just as easily lead to more ecological damage, not less. In any political regime where there are insufficient limits or regulations on total energy and material use in society (capitalist or communist), and the profits of investment are invested in more production, advances in efficiency will cause energy and material throughput to increase exponentially.
When discussing this issue with people in the degrowth community, Viviana Asara pointed out that this is not just a problem of environmental justice—who stands to loose by the increase in production—but also one of energetic limits.
The concept of EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) illustrates that, unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy has a very low return on investment. For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that a fully automated luxury economy has about the same total energy consumption as today’s economy—more efficient but producing more stuff. But because of renewable energy’s extremely low EROEI, such an economy might just require the total transformation of the Earth’s surface into solar panels—not just a hellish vision of the future, but also impossible.
We can argue at length about whether it is indeed possible to produce the same amount of energy using renewables alone, but the point is that Srnicek and Williams neglect to even hold that argument—something you might think necessary if you propose to scale up global industrial activity in times of climate change. As Asara put it to me in an email, “their ‘supposedly sustainable’ utopia of automation misses any sense of biophysical reality.”
This is where accelerationist and degrowth analyses differ the most. Degrowth takes as a key question the ‘metabolism’ of the economy—that is, how much energy and material it uses. As innovation enables the speeding up of this metabolism, and because an increase in metabolism has disastrous social and ecological impacts—too often offloaded on people who do not benefit from the technology—there needs to be collective decision-making on technology’s limits.
In this way, simply reappropriating technology, or making it more efficient, is not enough. In fact, without totally transforming how capitalism reinvests its surplus—requiring a fundamental transformation of financial systems—automation will unfortunately help expand capitalism, rather than allow us to overcome it.
If capitalism always seeks to collectivize impacts and privatize profits, then communism should not be about collectivizing profits and externalizing impacts to people far away or future generations.
If capitalism always seeks to collectivize impacts and privatize profits, then communism should not be about collectivizing profits and externalizing impacts to people far away or future generations. This is the danger of ‘fully automated luxury communism’. These dangers are not discussed by accelerationist texts—but they should be.
Perhaps this is the key ideological difference: accelerationists make such an extreme modernist gesture that they refuse the need to limit their utopia—there are only possibilities. In contrast, degrowth is predicated on politicizing limits that, until now, have been left to the private sphere. This might involve saying, in the words of one Wall Street employee, “I would prefer not to” to some technologies.
What is Speed?
It says something about the times when two important segments of the radical left have gravitated to the terms ‘degrowth’ and ‘accelerationism’—about as opposite as it could get.
In my opinion, there is something rather new here, which brings the discussion beyond peasants vs. workers, localism vs. taking over the state: the introduction of the question of speed into leftist thought.
They do so in very different ways. For degrowth, ‘growth’ is the acceleration of the energetic and material flows of the economic system at exponential rates, as well as the ideology that justifies it. Let’s call this socio-metabolic speed. Their political project then comes down to challenging that ideology head-on, as well as re-thinking economic theory to allow societies to ensure well-being but also transform how energy and material is used—necessary for a more just economic system.
Accelerationists, on the other hand, think of speed much more figuratively: they are referring to the Marxist concept of the material conditions of human relations—for them, acceleration means moving beyond the limits of capitalism, which requires a totally modern stance. This is socio-political speed: the shifting gears of social relations, as a result of changing technological systems.
Both, I think, have put their finger on a crucial question of our times, but from slightly different directions: can what gives us modernity—a colossal global infrastructural web of extraction, transportation, and fabrication—be democratized?
Both, I think, have put their finger on a crucial question of our times, but from slightly different directions: can what gives us modernity—a colossal global infrastructural web of extraction, transportation, and fabrication—be democratized? For accelerationists, this would require making that web more efficient and modifying political systems to make it easier to live with—shifting the gears of social relations beyond capitalism. For degrowthers, it would require slowing that system down and developing alternative systems outside of it. I don’t think these two aims are mutually exclusive. But it would require going beyond simplistic formulas for system change on one side, and anti-modern stances on the other.
But it’s also worth going one step further and asking whether that infrastructural system would really take kindly to these shifts in gears, or if it will it simply buck the passenger.
To navigate this question, it’s useful to briefly turn to the foremost “philosopher of speed”: Paul Virilio. In Speed and Politics, Virilio traces how changes in social relations were brought about through the increased velocity of people, machines, and weapons. Through Virilio’s eyes, the history of Europe’s long emergence out of feudalism into 20th century modernity was one of increasing metabolism of bodies and technologies. Each successive regime meant a recalibration of this speed, accelerating it, managing it. For Virilio, political systems—be they totalitarian, communist, capitalist, or republican—emerged both as a response to changes to this shift in speed and as a way to manage human-technologic co-existence.
What’s important for this discussion is that Virilio does not separate the two types of speed: changing social relations also meant changing metabolic rates—they are the same, and must be theorized simultaneously.
Doing so could be useful for both degrowth and accelerationism. While degrowth does not have a succinct analysis of how to respond to today’s shifting socio-technical regimes—accelerationism’s strong point—at the same time accelerationism under-theorizes the increased material and energetic flows resulting from this shifting of gears. Put another way, efficiency alone can limit its disastrous effects. As degrowth theorists have underlined, environmental limits must be politicized; control over technology must therefore be democratized; metabolic rates must be decelerated if Earth is to remain livable.
To conclude, accelerationism comes across as a metaphor stretched far too thin. A napkin sketch after an exciting dinner-party, the finer details colored in years afterwards—but the napkin feels a bit worn out.
Big questions need to be asked, questions unanswered by the simplistic exhortation to “shift the gears of capitalism.” When the gears are shifted, the problem of metabolic limits won’t be solved simply through “efficiency”—it must acknowledge that increased efficiency and automation has, and likely would still, lead to increased extractivism and the ramping up of environmental injustices globally. Or another: what does accelerationism mean in the context of a war machine that has historically thrived on speed, logistics, and the conquest of distance? Is non-violent acceleration possible, and what would class struggle look like in that scenario?
To be fair, degrowth doesn’t answer all the big questions either. There has been little discussion on how mass deceleration would be possible when, as Virilio shows, mass change has historically occurred through acceleration. Can hegemony decelerate?
If degrowth lacks a robust theory of how to bring about regime shift, then Williams and Snricek’s brand of accelerationism doesn’t allow for a pluralist vocabulary that looks beyond its narrow idea of what constitutes system change. And yet, the proponents of each ideology will likely be found in the same room in the decades to come. Despite their opposite ‘branding’, they should probably talk. They have a lot to learn from each other.
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.
Things are big in the United States of America. Returning home after a year away reacquaints me with big detached single-family homes, big single-occupant vehicles, and big single-species grass lawns. I find wider roads, longer distances, larger supermarkets, and more stuff everywhere.
As a student of ecological economics, it makes me a little anxious. Such individualistic extravagance isn’t ecological or economical. I remind myself: it is precisely why I came back.
I spent most of the past year in Barcelona, studying with a group of researchers who are interested in degrowth – the idea that humans and other species might live better if the former had a smaller economy. Degrowth is not recession. It is a purposeful, equitable slowing of the rate at which we transform nature into stuff.
Our politicians pledge economic growth like priests promising eternal paradise in heaven, as if producing and consuming 3 percent more smartphones, assault rifles, and bacon-flavored beverages this year than we did last year is our best bet to achieve the good life. According to a 2015study, the United States’ yearly material footprint – the materials taken from farms, forests, mines, and other extraction sites to make the products Americans consume – measures about 27 metric tons per capita. In other words, 163 pounds of nature is extracted every day to feed, house, clothe, entertain, and satisfy the average U.S. resident. While the gadgets and garbage have piled up, the number of wild animals hashalved over the last four decades. People, rich people in particular, have conquered the planet in the quest for more.
Degrowth means downscaling the human enterprise to share the world nicely with other species and our grandchildren. Degrowth means distributing wealth equitably and prioritizing needs over wants.
But why the word “degrowth” anyway? Alively, complex debate rages over whether the term isuseful orharmful. I only want to make a few points that relate to the U.S. context.
Renouncing growth today has the potential of flipping every politician’s favorite narrative: that only growth can save the poor.
In the wake of elections that gave all three branches of government to the Republican party, the reeling American left must rethink, regroup, and rekindle the smoldering embers of the Bernie campaign. But Bernie Sanders, just like the politicians and financiers he rightly criticizes, is firmly pro-growth.
I cannot understand why. Growth over the last four decades has not brought substantial wage increases or a functioning healthcare system to the 99 percent, but it has made the U.S. economy unsustainably big in terms of resource use and carbon emissions. We must demand that leaders address inequality and other issues head-on instead of promising that a growing economy will make things better. Degrowth should be our rallying cry.
But degrowth has not yet caught on among academics or activists in the oversized United States. Don’t get me wrong, many initiatives here exhibit the values of the degrowth movement – simplicity, democracy, sharing, the rejection of economic growth as the goal for society. There’s a network of organizations fighting to create an economy based on justice and ecology, a campaign to work less, a scholarly groupfocused on downsizing consumption, and countless community-scale projects from urban food forests to bike cooperatives to tool-lending libraries. And there are the water protectors at Standing Rock, standing peacefully in the way of the growth economy’s ever-extending tentacles. Yet these projects lack a defiant unifying frame for their collective crusade to construct a socially and environmentally sustainable country.
Mostly, people suppose that degrowth is too negative a term for the American culture of optimism. Per social norms, people in the U.S. are not typically any less than “fine” when asked, “How are you?”
Why hasn’t degrowth spread in the United States? At September’s international degrowth conference in Budapest, I spoke with some other degrowthers living in the U.S. about why the word has not been adopted and how we might spark a movement.
Mostly, people suppose that degrowth is too negative a term for the American culture of optimism. Per social norms, people in the U.S. are not typically any less than “fine” when asked, “How are you?” A downward-oriented word like degrowth produces reflexive repulsion.
In response to Trump’s victory and the calls by many to “give him a chance,” Jelani Cobb, a professor in journalism at Columbia University, tweeted that he “had not fully appreciated until now how much the relentless American drive for optimism resembles abject denial.” Denying that a finite planet cannot sustain infinite growth is just another aspect of that abject denial.
Yet in other ways degrowth is too positive for the United States. Bear with me. Barbara Muraca, an Italian environmental philosopher who arrived at Oregon State University two years ago, says that ecological intellectuals in the U.S. urge rapidly transforming society to avoid imminent civilizational collapse, whereas the European school of degrowth tends to promote a slow revolution toward living well together with less. The deep-green environmentalists of this country foresee hardship accompanying the end of growth. Degrowth tends to look at the bright side of freeing ourselves from our current unsustainable, unjust economy.
As Muraca sees it, U.S. enviros do not fear the end of the world, but the end of the American Dream. The science on global environmental limits shows that all humans cannot drive gas-guzzling trucks and eat sausage every morning – which means it is unfair if some folks do get to live that way. The news is frightening, for its recipients and for the messenger.
To my friend Deric Gruen, who manages theRethinking Prosperity project, it is simpler: Americans love growth! Emotional growth, sales growth, spiritual growth, crop growth, earnings growth, growth spurts, growth of my social network. People from the U.S. hear about degrowth and reply, “So you are kind of like redefining growth, right?”
So mainstream green groups refuse to renounce growth. Prominent voices from Silicon Valley to the Bible Belt reject the existence of any constraints on human activity. Muraca’s catastrophist colleagues counter this denial of limits with pleas to prepare for the post-fossil fuel world by consuming less.
Most folks do not want to hear these pessimistic-sounding appeals. So the earnest ecologists shout louder, which turns off everyone not already convinced. Who are we to tell our fellow citizens to restrain themselves, and be happier while doing so? Many residents of the highly unequal U.S. cannot comfortably afford to fill their trucks with gas to guzzle. Meanwhile, the plutocrats in charge of the nation jetset to important gatherings around the world where they discuss what to do about climate change and income inequality.
America doesn’t just need a wake-up call. We need new narratives about what the good life is and how to achieve it. Coming to the University of Vermont to take part in the Economics for the Anthropocene research initiative is a chance to bring degrowth home, as both a scholarly concept and an activist slogan. Perhaps one day it can be a social and political movement, too. Instead of boasting about the new wave of cancerous growth their policies will trigger, we need candidates that lay out plans to ensure everyone economic security and opportunities to flourish regardless what happens with GDP.
Last year I cycled across North America, talking about degrowth to anyone who would listen and listening to whomever had something to say about it. Now, in Vermont, I discuss degrowth with other graduate students, undergrads, faculty, and also with the woman who helps me fix my bicycle and the guy kneeling next to me as we dig carrots from the soil. Just mentioning it leads to dynamic and interesting conversations, especiallyamong people previously unfamiliar with the concept.
In the end, it is not about the word, it is about sparking socio-ecological change toward a fairer, smaller, and simpler economy. Degrowth explicitly or by other names.
Sam Bliss suffers from an acute strain of the imposter syndrome that affects most first-year PhD students. He makes okay improvised salads from whatever he finds in dumpsters, though, and is hopeful about surviving his first Vermont winter.
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.
When Aymara people in South-America look ahead they are facing the past. Literally. Researchers who investigated Aymara language and gestures have established that, unlike all the studied cultures and languages of the world, they refer to the past by gesturing ahead, while the future is situated behind oneself. The example of the Aymara indigenous people, when reflecting on how history can be useful for activists participating in socio-environmental conflicts, challenges our preconditioned views. We can put history into the foreground, not just as the background or the context of present events but as a central resource for the present and the future.
“All history is contemporary history”—Benedetto Croce.
But it is not only that we all write and research within the context of our own time. It is also that the stories and narrations that we unveil impact us now. They can affect how we look at the past—but especially, when it involves social movements, they can also shape how we look at the present and at the future, at what is conceived as possible and impossible today and tomorrow.
As the Zapatistas claim, it is necessary to “open a crack” in history. On January 1st 1994, the very same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force, the Zapatistas launched their revolt in the mountains of Southeast Mexico. From their very First Declaration, they emphasised they were the result of 500 years of resistance to colonialism.
A crack also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.
One of the expressions of such resistance is precisely their critique of how history has been written. A history that tells the story of the elites just makes the present state of things seem natural, leaves aside the subalterns and silences their past. Against this type of historical appropriation, Zapatistas claim the need to “open a crack”– to write the history of the exploited. A crack that also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. A crack that permits us to look to the past ahead—like the Aymara—as memories of the alternative non-disposable future. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.
Reclaiming silenced pasts is a task to be done both in the archives and the streets, both in libraries and mountains, listening to stories and reading dusty records. It can be about how a revolution was silenced and obliterated from history, as shown in the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot on the late 18th century in Haiti. And also about how dictatorships try to wipe out the memory and heritage of those who opposed them. When, like in Spain, elites have succeeded to remain in power for decades, the stories of disappeared workers and activists and their emancipatory projects frustrated by a 40-year long dictatorship risk being left aside and silenced forever.
The Case of the Segle XX building in Barceloneta
In December 2013, residents of La Barceloneta (Barcelona, Spain) announced a demonstration to reclaim the empty building of the El Segle XX (“The Twentieth Century”) cooperative for its public use. El Segle XX had been founded in 1901, but after years of decline during the Francoist dictatorship, the cooperative was dissolved in the late 1980s and the building was later abandoned.
The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories.
At least since 2008, the neighbourhood association La Òstia began collecting information about the history of the neighbourhood and interviewing veteran residents. The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories. Later, the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group (Grup de Recerca de la Memòria Cooperativa de la Barceloneta) continued the work of the association by diving into archives, recording interviews, organising guided tours, and other activities.Similar projects in other neighbourhoods of the city, such as Sants or Poblenou, supported by the cooperative La Ciutat Invisible, greatly contributed to the impulse of the project.
Barceloneta is historically a working-class neighbourhood with low salaries and few public and social facilities, but is now under high touristic pressure. And so the use of the El Segle XX building became a symbolic claim to the municipality.
Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, as part of a wider international movement, cooperatives grew in importance in Barcelona. In Catalonia, cooperatives had their heyday during the democratic period of the Second Republic (1931-1939) when thousands of families became members. Very often, they had their own theatres, bars, and shops. Consumption cooperatives allowed the avoidance of intermediaries between consumers and producers and thus brought urban space closer to the surrounding agricultural environment that fed it.
However, following the military coup that unleashed the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and with the victory of Franco over the Republicans, cooperatives never regained the activity hey had had before. In fact, during the conflict, Barcelona was on the Republican side and Barceloneta was bombed so heavily that it had to be evacuated. El Segle XX was hit by Fascist bombings and reduced to ashes. Although the building was rebuilt after the war, its activity languished during the dictatorship, and most cooperatives were dissolved and their buildings sold. After the cooperative slowly dissolved, the El Segle XX building passed to private hands in the 1990s.
Although the land on which the building is built was categorised by the City Council as a public facility, rumours of private commercial projects for the building started circulating. Already feeling increased pressure from gentrification and tourism, residents were getting uneasy.
In the final days of 2013, two weeks before a scheduled demonstration, an apparently fortuitous fire damaged part of the building. This event fostered a united front of the associations and residents of the quarter, and just a few weeks later, more than 30 organisations signed a statement asking the District to either expropriate or buy the Segle XX building. They also demanded a transparent investigation of the fire and the legal state of the building property, as well as the commitment of the City Council to keep the building categorized as a public facility.
Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.
At the end of the demonstration in front of the El Segle XX building, several residents intervened by emphasising the historical role of the cooperative in Barceloneta. The march ended with two posters plastered on the wall of the building. One vindicated the historical memory of cooperativism with a quote from 1899; the other was a blank poster to be filled by participants with their ideas for the future uses of the space, under the title “What do we want for El Segle XX?” (“Què volem per al Segle XX?”). In the same fashion, the website of the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group, whose members had an active role in the march, stated clearly their views on the uses of the memory of cooperativism:
“More than an exercise of historical memory, it comes to us as a memory of the future: the practices of cooperation give us a powerful tool to face a present of cutbacks in social services and to build a shared future”.
Unearthing stories of the past, reconnecting struggles for the future
In a rapidly changing barri (neighbourhood), with growing pressure from luxury tourism stimulating higher rents and pushing former residents out, associations have resorted to historical research to enhance their struggles. Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.
As highlighted by activist researcher Emma Alari, participatory mapping has been an essential tool in the neighbourhood’s struggles. Maps were used by Barceloneta’s residents to display the different threats suffered by the neighbourhood. The collaboration with mapping activists Iconoclasistas, who illustrated the dangers faced by the neighbourhood by creating a map for the residents, is a good example of this.
But mapping can also be a historical project. By mapping both long- and recently-disappeared places in “Geografia Esborrada de la Barceloneta” (“Barceloneta’s Deleted Geography”), residents not only narrate their history but configure an emotional geography of the barri, which binds together the stories of squatted houses already demolished with the story of buildings like El Segle XX or the Escola del Mar, a wood-constructed school on the seaside, which was burnt by Fascist bombings during the Spanish Civil War.
Such stories are disseminated by walking and talking together with residents (on organised guided tours), and through making audio recordings available online. These stories weave new connections between the past, the present, and the imagined futures. The guided tours in particular provide chances for interaction between those researching the history of the neighbourhood and their inhabitants, confronting and enriching each other’s stories. Residents’ relations to the space are connected with historical research about its uses by past social movements.
After years of actions and campaigns in the neighbourhood, the Barcelona City Council has finally committed to starting the process of expropriation of the El Segle XX building to give it back to the barri. The struggle, however, is far from over. As the recuperation of the building is close to becoming a reality, the neighbourhood association/assembly is designing its own project for the uses of the building through a grassroots process. In a major open meeting in the square, residents wrote their ideas for the future uses of the cooperative building on several large-size copies of the 1939 project drawings to rebuild the cooperative after the war, which had been located in the archives.
Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time.
This wasn’t just a practical way to collect all the ideas for the different floors of the building and a reminder of the building’s past. It was also a symbolic gesture: the maps of the project to rebuild El Segle XX after the Fascist bombings and the occupation of Barcelona in 1939 were recycled 76 years later to discuss an alternative future with the barri’s residents. The past can be a resource for imagining alternative futures—in a very material way.
While some would see a gloomy and nostalgic flavour in this struggle, activists explicitly state that they don’t intend to idealise, nor to romanticise, a return to a static lost past. They want to learn lessons about past experiences tried and failed, understand past hopes for imagined futures, explore the daily life and the problems of the neighbourhood in the past and its connections to today. Michael Löwy has suggested that Walter Benjamin used “nostalgia for the past as a revolutionary method for the critique of the present”. Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time. Stories like the one told by the El Segle XX building can be, as Italian authors Wu Ming and Vitaliano Ravagli have asserted, “axes of war to be unearthed”.
Santiago Gorostiza is a PhD candidate trained both as an Environmental Scientist and as a Historian. He investigates socioenvironmental conflicts during the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship. His research interests include urban geography, the environmental history of war and the role of historical research in political ecology.
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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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.