June readings

Image: A Growing Culture

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

Must-reads this June include GRAIN’s investigation into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and their outsized influence over global agriculture, Kai Heron on why ‘socialism or extinction’ isn’t quite accurate, a story on the Landless Workers’ Movement and the LGBTQIA+ community in Brazil, and a critique of the EU’s Green Deal. We also read a lot of articles about wildlife and species justice. Browse the list for more!

A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!



Uneven Earth updates

Why the National Páramo Day in Ecuador matters | The páramo is a wetland ecosystem found only in the Andes, but its future well-being has global implications

Discounting | Descriptive discount rates both reflect and sustain a highly unequal and myopic world



Top 5 articles to read

Extinction isn’t the worst that can happen. It’s much more likely that climate chaos will intensify existing processes than bring about the end times.

Pacific plunder: this is who profits from the mass extraction of the region’s natural resources, part of The Pacific project series

Climate colonialism and the EU’s Green Deal

How the Gates Foundation is driving the food system, in the wrong direction

Agrarian reform and queer rights go hand in hand. The Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil fights for LGBTQIA+ people who are being murdered at an alarming rate in a country besieged by racism, capitalist domination and exploitation.



News you might’ve missed

Reducing poverty can actually lower energy demand, finds research

The push to make ‘ecocide’ an international crime takes a big step forward

Revealed: ExxonMobil’s lobbying war on climate change legislation 

Big oil and gas kept a dirty secret for decades. Now they may pay the price

Hotter than the human body can handle: Pakistan city broils in world’s highest temperatures

‘The next pandemic’: drought is a hidden global crisis, UN says 

Iceland tried a shortened workweek and it was an ‘overwhelming success’ 

America’s continued move toward socialism. Just half of younger Americans now hold a positive view of capitalism — and socialism’s appeal in the U.S. continues to grow, driven by Black Americans and women, according to a new Axios/Momentive poll. 



Where we’re at: analysis

What exactly is the “system” that we are fighting?

If we can vaccinate the world, we can beat the climate crisis

Dust storms, green waves. A lattice of violent, global relations sustains China’s colonization of ‘Xinjiang’.

The WWF’s poaching war is killing innocent people

The connection between clearcut logging and Canada’s hottest day on record. With temperatures set to soar to 47 C in B.C., forests provide a cool, wet place for animals and people alike to seek shelter.

The rush to ‘go electric’ comes with a hidden cost: destructive lithium mining

Sixty years of climate change warnings: the signs that were missed (and ignored) 

We are on track for a planet-wide, climate-driven landscape makeover



Food and water politics

Imperial roots of the global food system

Inside the struggle for water sovereignty in Brazil

Oregon’s water crisis could have a quiet solution

What a water shortage is doing to some of America’s best farmland 

A kingdom from dust

A perfect storm: Climate change and overfishing

Farmworkers endure brutal conditions during historic heat wave / As the climate emergency grows, farmworkers lack protection from deadly heat 

How pesticide companies corrupted the EPA and poisoned America



Just think about it…

The case for letting Malibu burn

Mines produce more waste than metal

Modern medicine still has much to learn about women’s bodies

The struggle to be Nadleehi: A Two Spirit person

How to heal in the Anthropocene, part of the Climate emotions series

The problem with reinforced concrete

The tyranny of time



Species justice

Climate change and biodiversity loss must be tackled together – report

Species solidarity: Rediscovering our connection to the web of life

Did the pandemic really help wildlife? 

How fireworks harm nonhuman animals

When the bison come back, will the ecosystem follow? 

There’s a wolverine in my neighborhood. “Often, conservation communicators think in terms of educating around the big, global, complicated issues. But there’s a role for helping people understand and appreciate the local, the small, the overlooked.”



Degrowth

La política anticolonial del decrecimiento

Sozialismus oder Degrowth?

The delusion of infinite economic growth 

The poverty of ‘economic growth’



New politics

It’s time to nationalize Shell. Private oil companies are no longer fit for purpose

Making the world big enough for all of us: A review of Max Ajl’s ‘A People’s Green New Deal’

Building an anti-imperialist climate justice movement

Transformation is not a metaphor 



Cities and radical municipalism

An ambitious, radical Green-Left Coalition has won Zagreb’s elections. Here’s how they did it.

By bringing down Sweden’s government, the Left Party saved rent controls

A municipalist alternative for San Juan and Puerto Rico: An interview with Pablo Benson

If you sell a house these days, the buyer might be a pension fund

What if we designed cities for the safety of people, instead of the convenience of cars? 

Blue-sky thinking: how cities can keep air clean after coronavirus 




Sci-fi

Stories to save the world: the new wave of climate fiction

Solarpunk, climate change and the new thinkable 

Ministry for the Future with Kim Stanley Robinson. The science fiction writer discusses his Modern Monetary Theory-inspired “cli-fi” novel.



Resources

The People vs. Agent Orange. A new documentary that investigates the legacy of one of the most dangerous pollutants on the planet, a cover-up, and the fight for accountability. Read a review here.


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Why the National Páramo Day in Ecuador matters

The Ecuadorian páramo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

by Tristan Partridge

In early May, Ecuador’s National Assembly voted to declare June 23rdDía Nacional de los Páramos, or National Páramo Day. This designation at once recognizes the importance of these high mountain grasslands and underscores the need for improved conservation efforts. Indigenous and rural communities across the highlands have long fought to protect the páramo, but for many years such actions were localized and bereft of resources. The institutions may finally be listening.

While the special observance is of national scope, the páramo’s well-being, now and in the future, is a global concern.

High-altitude páramo moorlands comprise a wetland ecosystem that spans over 30,000 km2 of the northern Andes. Its unique soil structure and plant life play vital roles in the hydrological cycle, providing up to 85-90% of all drinking water in Colombia and Ecuador. The páramo functions by gathering rainfall and cloud moisture, which is then filtered through damp soils and slowly released into streams and rivers. Ultimately, it is a source of the greater Amazon watershed.

An estimated 60% of all páramo flora is endemic, meaning that most of these life forms are not found anywhere else on Earth. Ecuador, by virtue, is one of the world’s most megadiverse countries. Healthy páramo lands thrive on biodiversity and feed South American waterways, thereby supporting the vast forest ecosystems that sustain the planetary web of life as we know it. Indeed, the very ecosystems that are increasingly under existential threat from agricultural and industrial activities.

According to Luis Pachala Poma, the Representative who proposed the legislation, National Páramo Day is a time to celebrate the “cultural, ecological, economic, and historical importance” of this biome. June 23rd was selected because, on that date in 1802, the renowned naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and his team set out to climb Ecuador’s Chimborazo summit, at the time thought to be the world’s tallest mountain. The trek informed Humboldt’s “Essay on the Geography of Plants” and the accompanying “Chimborazo Map.” Illustrating the connections between climate conditions and plant distribution, the latter emphasized for his audience the dynamic interconnections that link overlapping natural processes. Humboldt studied the extreme meteorological conditions and physical diversity of tropical mountains, together with the multiple adaptations found in their flora and fauna. Embodying these characteristics, the páramo is now an ideal place for studying climate change

Climate change and the páramo: critically important and critically at risk

The páramo acts as a carbon sink, supremely important in helping to limit global warming. Because páramo lands are found above the tree line, cool and wet climate conditions have allowed their volcanic, water-rich soils to store enormous quantities of organic material. Coupled with tall-growing vegetation, this means the páramo holds more carbon per hectare than tropical lowland forests. 

At the same time, global warming is changing the páramo. Two particular impacts of climate change—increasing average temperatures and changing precipitation patterns—disrupt the páramo’s unique vegetation and soil characteristics. The result presents a grave threat to the ongoing existence of these ecosystems. 

The wider region where the páramo is found is particularly at risk, for the tropical Andes are warming faster than anywhere outside the Arctic Circle. Glaciers are melting; less rainfall is reaching high-altitude areas; wetland plants in the páramo are dying, among other effects. If National Páramo Day can help draw attention to these changes and lead to greater support for community actions that challenge destructive industrial activities, then the event cannot come soon enough.

Representative Pachala also stated that National Páramo Day will reaffirm the need to conserve, restore, and use Ecuador’s páramo in a “sustainable” way. That idea is still deeply contested. 

Ecuador’s economy continues to rely heavily on extractive industries. These industries have devastated Indigenous communities in Amazon regions, damaged biodiverse landscapes, and now, as a result, are facing increasing opposition from the population at large. In a February referendum in Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador, over 80% of the electorate voted to ban mining in the area, including in the Quimsacocha páramo. Yet mining companies with interests in the region have said they will not respect the referendum results.

While the newly-elected President of Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso, is associated with pro-mining policies and statements, environmental coalitions plan to keep up the pressure to ensure he honors a pre-election pledge to ban open-pit mining. Further political changes since May similarly suggest that Ecuador is on course to revise its relationship with extractive industries. The President of the National Assembly, Guadalupe Llori, is a member of the Indigenous political party (Pachakutik) and has herself faced persecution for participating in protests against oil companies. It remains to be seen whether and how the new legislature transforms Ecuadorian environmental policy.

While policy decisions are debated, those fighting to protect the páramo are among the first to point out that there is no sustainable mining. Many argue that the only “sustainable” future involves a political-economic system that looks beyond mineral extraction and, instead, protects Indigenous rights and the Rights of Nature, as recognized in the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador—the first in the world to do so. 

Indigenous leader Marisol Copara has worked to protect the páramo as a source of water not only for humans but also for crops and animals. Describing the páramo as a “source of life,” Olmedo Iza Quinatoa of the Kichwa Indigenous nationality emphasizes the spiritual importance of the páramo, alongside its carbon-storing and water-giving properties, and asks, “What would our life be without water, that is, without the páramo?”  The struggle for more equitable futures is ongoing.

Ivan Guamán shepherds his community’s small flock of alpacas in the páramo in Cotopaxi province, Ecuador. Credit: Tristan Partridge

In addition to the effects of climate change and mining, Ecuador’s páramo currently faces a number of other threats. These include industrial forestry, unregulated tourism, and land-use change as people are forced to seek grazing and arable lands at higher altitudes.

Robert Hofstede is an environmental consultant based in the capital city of Quito. For decades, Hofstede has collaborated with a network of regional scholars and activists to document biophysical characteristics of the páramo, as well as potential solutions to the changes that are placing this ‘regional biological corridor’ at risk. They note that positive steps have already been taken. 

Effective measures introduced so far include water funds to recompense good practice among community initiatives and economic support for small-scale production of high-value products linked to the páramo, like alpaca wool, mortiño blueberries, organic potatoes and tubers. According to Hofstede, such programs need to be upscaled together with both a strengthened policy/regulatory framework and an improved communication/education plan. National Páramo Day can play an important part in these processes, so long as it is provided the visibility and support that these one-of-a-kind landscapes deserve.

Like all environmental campaigns, protecting the páramo is a deeply social and political project. Páramo conservation is a (pluri)national and international concern that involves the protection of biodiversity and Indigenous rights as well as efforts to limit global warming. If National Páramo Day can generate increased political and financial backing for the many local conservation efforts currently underway, it will be a success year round, for all the years to come.

Tristan Partridge is an environmental justice researcher based at the University of California, Santa Barbara (USA). His work appears in NACLA; The Revelator; Toward Freedom; and openDemocracy / democraciaAbierta, among others. More information on his academic work is available here. Twitter: @TristanPartridg.

Discounting

Photo: Duncan Rawlinson.

by Paul Robert Gilbert

When we borrow money, interest rates determine how much we will repay, over and above the amount we originally borrowed. Or, for those of us lucky enough to have savings, interest rates determine how much we will ‘earn’ on our deposits. A discount rate performs a similar task but in reverse. Like interest, discounting expresses the preference to have something sooner rather than later. Interest rates are used to estimate how much the value of a sum will be worth in the future, which a debtor would pay on a loan to compensate their creditor (and offset the risk of them defaulting on their loan), or what an investor expects to make on money they tie up in the market. Discount rates invert the calculation, and are used to determine the present value of possible future wealth.

Investors use discount rates to determine what a sum owed to them in the future might be worth today. The process of discounting makes it possible to value a diverse range of ‘things’ – from land to patents – in terms of the cash flows they will produce over their lifetime. The more uncertain you are that those cash flows will materialize, the more you ‘discount’ them, and the lower their worth (or ‘net present value’) is today. The more possibilities there are to ‘de-risk’ an investment through insurance or government guarantees, the higher the likelihood that the cash will arrive in the future – and the lower the discount rate and the higher the net present value.

Policymakers also practice discounting. Borrowing from financial decision-making strategies, cost-benefit analysis attempts to weigh the future benefits against the costs of a project (say, a dam, a nuclear power plant, or an emissions reduction project) before deciding to go ahead. In the process, they usually assign a discount factor that devalues future cash flows, and then see whether the sum of discounted costs and discounted benefits is positive or negative. The project goes ahead if the net present benefits outweigh the net present costs. The ‘social’ discount rate at work here denotes the importance that present generations give to costs and benefits in the future, i.e. to the ‘well-being’ of future generations (though well-being here is usually equated with consumption). If your social discount rate is zero, then you place an equal weight on the fate of future generations and those around today. If you use a positive discount rate, you are effectively placing a greater weight on impacts in the immediate term than those in the more distant future. A high positive discount rate effectively renders future considerations inconsequential. Conversely, a negative discount rate expresses long-term priorities.

There is, however, no consensus among economists on how to determine the social discount rate (or even what sign it should have). The broadest division is perhaps between those who believe the discount rate ought to be determined based on normative or ethical considerations (how much should we care about the future?), and those who believe it should be derived from existing patterns of economic behaviour. Clashes between adherents to these two broad approaches came to the fore in disputes about discounting that followed the publication of the Stern Review in 2006. The Stern Review, a report to the government of the UK in 2006, made the case that investing 1% of global GDP now was required to avoid an enormously costly impact from climate change in the future. Stern and his colleagues used fairly low discount rates (close to 1%), and this meant that impacts of climate change in the distant future registered as fairly ‘costly’ today, underpinning the argument that it was necessary to spend a significant amount today in order to mitigate future harms. Writing in Science in 2007, Yale economist William Nordhaus criticised Stern for being overly ‘prescriptive’ and deriving his discount rate (and hence his policy recommendations) from ethical commitments rather than ‘market data’. Nordhaus advocates more for what he terms a ‘descriptive’ approach, or for at least using discount rates that (seem to) reflect ‘standard returns to capital and savings rates’. We might wonder, of course, whether thinking like a private investor is appropriate to formulating macro-level policy decisions.

We might wonder, of course, whether thinking like a private investor is appropriate to formulating macro-level policy decisions

Advocates of descriptive approaches to discounting tend to treat market interest rates as ‘revealed preferences’ (i.e. the market interest rate is what people are willing to ‘tolerate’ as payment for forgoing consumption today). That is to say, the appropriate social discount rate can be read off market interest rates because this has already captured people’s ethical considerations about the future. This approach would involve arguing that ‘society’ should not invest in a ‘project’ like emissions reduction unless that project can deliver benefits equal to, or worth more than, the gains from investing a sum equivalent to that cost over the project’s proposed lifetime. 

Stern, in his 2007 response to Nordhaus, pushed back on this descriptive approach, and challenged the view that there is any ‘real economic market that reveals our ethical decisions on how we should act together on environmental issues in the very long term’. Given the events of recent decades, like the 2008-2009 financial crisis (the ‘Great Recession’), which brought to light the corruption and instability inherent to a highly financialized economy, it is absurd to suggest that public policy decisions should be premised on the supposed capacity of markets to accurately value preferences and ethical judgements. Rather, descriptive discount rates both reflect and sustain a highly unequal and myopic world. Even as a critic of the ‘market failures’ that he views as driving climate change, Stern’s report is still couched in cost-benefit logic. Stern and many others in the climate policy mainstream maintain that it is worth acting quickly to mitigate climate change and reduce emissions primarily because the monetary benefits will outweigh the costs. That said, even within a cost-benefit framework, defining social discount rates to reflect long-term priorities for a safe and equitable world is a radical departure from and challenge to hegemonic approaches. The neoclassical approach as epitomized by Nordhaus’s descriptive approach to climate policy is idealized as an apolitical and accurate representation of preferences, when in practice it only reflects the financial imperative for short-term profits – a priority just as normative as Stern’s prescriptive policymaking.

Even those committed to the cost-benefit approach to climate policy have criticized Nordhaus’s excessively high discount rate. Recall that any discount rate above zero essentially involves valuing the impacts of climate change on future populations less than the ‘costs’ of mitigation or abatement today. But why, as Adler and colleagues (2007) put it, should ‘harms and benefits to the members of later generations [be] downweighted by virtue of the ethically arbitrary fact that these individuals come into existence later in time’? Equally if not more concerning is the degree to which the ‘globally impartial decisionmaker’ assumed by most discounting models trades off impacts between different parts of the world, where existing inequalities are shaped by entrenched structural inequities in the global economy.

Underpinning contemporary models of the social cost of carbon are discounted measures of the costs and benefits of climate change impacts, which can be used to decide whether measures (like a carbon tax) are ‘worth it’. But how can the impacts of future and present consumption ‘loss’ be measured in an intensely unequal world? When applied uniformly, discounting privileges economies with higher GDPs – comprised of people with higher incomes and real estate with higher asset values – over the livelihoods and homes of the global poor. As ecological economists like Azar and Sterner (1996) have argued for some time, if discounting models are to be used, then the dollar costs of impacts and costs should be weighted higher when they impact upon poorer people in the countries of the Global South, rather than being treated as impacts borne by a ‘representative world consumer’. 

For those in the global North, discounting might be glossed over as a question of whether to ‘enjoy more now or pay for the future’. Yet asking policymakers in the Global South to front-load emissions reduction costs in order to ‘pay for the future’ will likely exacerbate existing international inequities. Financing development continues to place a burden on countries of the Global South, which are increasingly required to ‘de-risk’ private investments coming from the North, even as ‘capital flight’ from many parts of the South outstrips aid and debt inflows. Furthermore, focusing on the consumption choices and preferences of a stylized homo economicus as the basis for wellbeing – rather than, say, focusing on the provisioning of human life within a set of physical and social constraints – itself reflects an extraordinarily narrow set of neoclassical preoccupations, as feminist economists like Julie Nelson have long argued. 

Asking policymakers in the Global South to front-load emissions reduction costs in order to ‘pay for the future’ will likely exacerbate existing international inequities

Some ecological economists are critical of both Nordhaus and the self-identifying ‘normative’ opponents of Nordhaus who take issue with his excessively low choice of discount rate, precisely because both groups often share a neoclassical preoccupation with choice and substitutability. Nordhaus and many others assume that ‘natural capital’ (i.e. ecological systems that furnish commodifiable ‘resources’ and ‘services’) is substitutable for ‘economic capital’. That is, in Neumayer’s terms, the idea that ‘large-scale damage to natural capital caused by global warming can be compensated for by higher consumption levels’. This commitment to the idea that ‘natural capital’ and economic capital are substitutable is increasingly popular among policymakers and business leaders alike. As Stuart Kirsch notes, it is this notion of substitutability that underpins claims to ‘sustainable mining’ by corporations like BHP Billiton and Anglo American, who explicitly frame their contributions to economic capital and consumption as a partial offset to ecologically destructive extraction.

The extent to which discounting reflects the operation of power, entrenches existing inequalities, and relies on the notion that ‘natural capital’ depletion can be offset by increased (marketized) consumption levels is made particularly clear in Leah Temper and Joan Martinez-Alier’s analysis of a long-running dispute in India’s courts over compensation payments for the conversion of forest land. An expert committee tasked with determining the appropriate discount rate for calculating the ‘net present value’ of forests made its report to the courts in 2006, advocating for a discount rate of 5%. Some had, however, advocated a social discount rate of zero ‘so as to give equal weight to the consumption of all generations, including the unborn’ whereas industry representatives ‘employing a paper published by the Asian Development Bank, argued for a social discount rate in India of 12%.’ Through all this, as Temper and Martinez-Alier note, the ‘benefits’ of converting forest land were boosted by wealthy tourists’ willingness to pay for visits, while non-market relations with and uses of the forest disappeared altogether from their net present value. 

Ostensibly ‘value neutral’ tools like cost-benefit analysis and discounting in reality have definite normative implications.  Wedding decision-making tools like cost-benefit analysis to modes of valuation like discounting can privilege the wealthy today over the poor tomorrow, legitimizing decisions that take for granted structural inequalities as ‘natural’ features of a world made up of individuals with different ‘preferences’. Both cost-benefit analysis and discounting involve either implicitly or explicitly comparing outcomes that may not be comparable (what ecological economists flag as value incommensurability) and these outcomes themselves are subject to high levels of uncertainty inherently associated with the complexity of the earth and socioeconomic systems and their nexus.

The tools that we use to calculate value – and, in turn, to make things valuable – ultimately reshape the world in the process. Discounting models that posit representative world consumers, or even ‘globally impartial decision makers’ attentive to global inequalities, remain wedded to neoclassical understandings of economics that reduces human life to a matter of individual consumption choices, and reduces the nonhuman world to substitutable ‘natural capital’. Tethering discounting procedures to such cost-benefit analyses will inevitably steer policymakers towards decisions that reflect and intensify existing inequalities. 


Further resources

Collectif CSI. 2017. Capitalization: A Cultural Guide. Paris: Presses des Mines.
This volume presents a wide-ranging survey of the various arenas in which value has come to be understood in terms of future revenue streams – reliant in part on discounting models. The authors focus on the spread of this ‘cultural syndrome’ of valuation in relation to venture capital, forestry, business models and public budgeting. The book allows us to follow how discounting models have become key to valuation practices and decision-making in both finance and public policy, with a focus on how these models do not just measure, but shape, the world we live in. 

Hanke, Steve H. and Anwyll, James B. (1980) ‘On the discount rate controversy’ Public Policy 28 (2): 171-183.
If you want to go deeper into some of the public policy debates around discounting from the mid-twentieth century, Hankey and Anwyll’s paper analyses an earlier discounting dispute regarding water policy under President Carter. 

Kelleher, J. Paul. 2012. Energy policy and the social discount rate. Ethics, Policy and Environment 15: 45-50.
This is a very accessible and useful introduction to debates underpinning the choice of social discount rate (including the Stern/Nordhaus debates) and Kelleher’s blog is well worth a visit for more on this issue.

Temper, Leah & Martinez-Alier, Joan. 2013. The god of the mountain and Godavarman: Net Present Value, indigenous territorial rights and sacredness in a bauxite mining conflict in India. Ecological Economics 96: 79-87.
This paper by two of the political ecologists behind the Environmental Justice Atlas analyses the role played by disputes over discount rates in the context of forest peoples’ struggles with bauxite mining concerns in India.

Additional resources

Adler, M., Anthoff, D., Bosetti, V. et al. Priority for the worse-off and the social cost of carbon. Nature Clim Change 7, 443–449 (2017). 

Azar, C. and Sterner, T. (1996) Discounting and distributional considerations in the context of global warming. Ecological Economics, 19(2): 169-184.

Kirsch, S. (2010) Sustainable Mining. Dialectical Anthropology 34, 87–93

Neumayer, Eric (2007) A missed opportunity: the Stern review on climate change fails to tackle the issue of non-substitutable loss of natural capital. Global Environmental Change, 17 (3/4). [Available online]

Nordhaus, W. (2007) Critical assumptions in the Stern Review on Climate Change. Science 317 (5835): 201-202Stern, N. (2006) The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review [see https://www.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/publication/the-economics-of-climate-change-the-stern-review/]


Paul Robert Gilbert is a Senior Lecturer in International Development at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. His research focuses on environmental defenders, and on aid flows to for-profit development contractors.  

May readings

Palestinian demonstrators burn tires near the Israeli barrier surrounding Gaza in solidarity with Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem on 8 May. Mohammed Zaanoun ActiveStills, via The Electronic Intifada

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

This month, Palestine and Israel were all over the news. We collected some useful reading lists, essays and photo stories so you can dig deeper beyond the bite-size tweets and Instagram posts. Photography runs like a thread through our May readings: we featured a photo essay that documents the deep scars mining has left on our planet, and another on China’s ‘Cancer Villages’. We do have reasons to celebrate this month, though: a court in the Netherlands has ruled in a landmark case that the oil giant Shell must reduce its emissions, and Germany has formally recognized the atrocities committed against the Herero and Nama people of what is now Namibia as genocide, paying reparations of €1.1 billion ($1.3 billion). On top of that, we included our editor Aaron Vansintjan’s new piece on the insights on the imagination and the practice of democracy that the late David Graeber has left us with, an explainer on how Nigeria’s forests are being decimated to make charcoal for barbecues in Europe and the United States, and much more.

A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!



Uneven Earth updates

GDP | What is GDP, and why should we learn to live without it?

Brave New Normal | Cultivating cooperative, self-sustaining communities can undermine destructive economic systems and offer meaningful responses to social-ecological crises in the wake of the pandemic



Top 5 articles to read

Eye-catching abstract photos reveal mining’s scars on our planet

Do you know where your grilling charcoal comes from?

David Graeber: The power of the imagination. “For many people, Graeber turned the concept of democracy on its head. Rather than a bureaucratic process that must be engaged in every few years, democracy for Graeber was imaginative, active, and intensely personal. There is no inevitable arc of progress towards more or deeper democracy. Rather, democracy must be fought for, actively built into institutions, protected, and constantly renewed.”

Ancient Indigenous forest gardens still yield bounty 150 years later: study

COVID-19 could end our dependence on cars — if we ‘build back better’



News you might’ve missed

Rich countries drained $152tn from the global South since 1960

Germany will pay Namibia $1.3bn as it formally recognizes colonial-era genocide 

Shell: Netherlands court orders oil giant to cut emissions / Shell loses climate case that may set precedent for Big Oil 

Climate tipping points could topple like dominoes, warn scientists 

Four-day working week would slash UK carbon footprint, report says 

Cali takes on mantle of Colombia’s ‘capital of resistance’



Justice for Palestine

Resources

Decolonize Palestine reading list 

Palestine: Sheikh Jarrah, expulsion, occupation, and settler colonialism

The Fire These Times reading list on Israel-Palestine

Visualizing Palestine

Discard Studies reading list on waste colonialism and Palestine

Stories and explainers

Palestine in pictures: May 2021

Peaceful coexistence in Israel hasn’t been shattered – it’s always been a myth

‘To say goodbye is to die a little’: Palestinian farmers struggle for survival

Human waste spills on to Gaza’s blacked-out streets as crisis looms

The architecture of violence. A short film on architecture’s key role in the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the evolution of urban warfare.

The power of the cultural boycott of Israel 



Where we’re at: analysis

How Senegal fought Covid-19 with lessons learned from Ebola and HIV/AIDS prevention

A climate dystopia in Northern California

When climate disaster and mass incarceration collide

We still blow up mountains to mine coal: Time to end the war on Appalachia

The curse of white gold? An interview with political ecologists Francisco Venes and Stefania Barca explores debates around lithium mining in Portugal.

Brazil aerial photos show miners’ devastation of Indigenous people’s land

The brutal reality of life in China’s most polluted cities. A photographer documents China’s ‘Cancer Villages,’ telling the human story of pollution.

Johan Rockström: ‘We need bankers as well as activists… we have 10 years to cut emissions by half’ 



Food politics

Why aren’t we talking about farmers in India? They are fighting in a global war over the future of agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture needs a reckoning

Between promise and peril: Can fake meat save the planet? 



Just think about it…

Cottagecore, colonialism and the far-right

Naomi Klein on climate change and family life. Here she shares her ideas on the big question of whether to have children and how we might begin the monumental work of saving the planet—and maybe even one another.

Civilizations don’t really die. They just take new forms. 

For peat’s sake: How saving Scotland’s peatlands could be the key to saving the planet

The intellectual labour of social movements



Degrowth

Giving up on economic growth could make us cooler and happier

Global climate change cannot be tackled without addressing economic inequality 

There’s a simple answer to climate change. But will capitalism allow it? 

The climate crisis requires a new culture and politics, not just new tech 

Degrowth and the pluriverse: continued coloniality or intercultural revolution?

How we end consumerism. A video that looks at how degrowth and ecosocialism can work in tandem to stop consumerism and overconsumption.

The only way to hit net zero by 2050 is to stop flying



New politics

A People’s Green New Deal. Max Ajl’s new book is an overview of the various mainstream Green New Deals, and a vision of a radical alternative: a ‘People’s Green New Deal’ committed to degrowth, anti-imperialism and agro-ecology.



Cities and radical municipalism

New municipalism, property and freedom: The battle for rent regulation in Spain 

The New Isaan Movement in Thailand is igniting protests and change in the poorest region of the country 

Driving cars out of our cities. The Car Free Megacities campaign sets out to transform London, Paris and New York.

To save the planet, kill minimum parking mandates. California was a pioneer in minimum parking mandates, which drive up housing costs and climate emissions. Now the state is ready to lead the nation in reclaiming our cities from parking lots.

How ‘gendered’ city budgets aim to boost equality 

How Vienna built a gender equal city. “In practice, gender mainstreaming takes many forms, such as ensuring government bodies use gender-sensitive language to communicate, or that public transportation includes illustrations of men with children to signal seats reserved for parents. A visitor to the capital might also notice the wide pavements for mothers navigating the city with prams or children, or the fact that a large proportion of the city, including the whole public transportation network, is wheelchair accessible.” 

Wetter the better: Gothenburg’s bold plan to be world’s best rainy city

The race to reinvent cement. What if we could transform the material that built the modern world from a climate wrecker into a carbon sponge?


Resources

Feminist resources on the pandemic

The pedagogy of transition: Educating for the future we want

Midnight Sun. A new online magazine of socialist strategy, analysis and culture.

EARTHRISE Spring 2021 issue 

Open-access Funambulist issues on Reparations and Futurisms

20 quotes from “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”



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GDP

by Doug Banks

What is GDP?

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

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

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

Where did GDP come from?

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

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

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

How did GDP become important?

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

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

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

Why is GDP a problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What alternatives exist?

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

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

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

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

Rethinking progress

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

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



Further resources

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

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

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

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

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



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

Brave New Normal

The Poor People’s Campaign rallies in Washington D.C., continuing the work undertaken 50 years earlier. Photo credit to Steve Pavey.

by Tomasz Falkowski

As upwards of ten million Texans faced a utilities crisis caused by record-low temperatures, Joe Biden signed the Paris Climate Agreement, reversing Trump’s abandonment of the same amid what was the most destructive wildfire season on record in California. While many applauded the retournement, others regarded the move as merely symbolic given the treaty’s shortcomings. These gestures of political theatre have typified Biden’s first months in office. It seems that peeling back the genteel veneer of a return to normal where “science is real…[and] kindness is everything” reveals an unwillingness to seriously consider the sweeping changes required this decade to avert global climate catastrophe. 

Biden’s embrace of the status quo is as disappointing as it was predictable. U.S. politicians serve primarily at the pleasure of America’s capitalist class rather than advocate for the common good of the populace and the planet we all inhabit. Although popular support is rising for bold climate action, the corporations disproportionately responsible for the majority of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have wielded their economic power to stymie regulation and spread misinformation. Their noncompliance overshadows the individual actions we take to reduce our personal carbon footprints. 

Environmental destruction is not an unfortunate side-effect of mismanagement but an inherent manifestation of an economic system operating by design. Capitalism’s internal logic demands infinite growth, and the neoliberal tendency toward deregulation and privatization makes averting climate change in a capitalist context impossible. Most governments, however, remain undeterred and continue implementing watered-down, market-driven half-measures. Such “eco-capitalism” provides the illusion of restraining capitalism’s destructive tendencies without confronting any of its structural failures. 

Proponents argue this approach is more reasonable than severe regulation because it requires only limited economic changes. Cultural hegemony—a process by which those in power shape social norms and values to impose a particular mode of production—presents capitalism as the most practical and effective way to address the problems we face rather than one of their ultimate causes. Even worse, it is painted as inevitable, as opposed to the human construct that it is. Like fish unaware they swim in water, capitalism has become a hyperobject that pervades our lives and subsumes threats to its primacy. Its boundlessness seems to exceed our capacity to conceptualize what it is and precludes us from reasonably considering alterations to its fundamental structures. For many, it seems easier to imagine a future devoid of either a functioning ecology or human society than one free of capitalism. 

However, the milquetoast incrementalism of eco-capitalist reforms also renders them impotent. The old adage, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” resonates with the inability of moderate measures to avert the present crisis. Eco-capitalism’s primary directive remains maximizing profits for shareholders, which fundamentally conflicts with our finite world’s limits to growth. Presuming that small tweaks to the existing system will suffice only serves to overestimate their potential impact and underestimate the scale of the problem they purport to address. At present, we face ecological tipping points that are unavoidable without a wholesale shift in our society’s use and sourcing of energy—a solution that is utterly incompatible with market mechanisms. 

No wonder then that, in devouring ever more of Earth’s gifts to fuel the engines of economic growth, the Moloch of globalized capitalism has helped create the conditions to unleash and exacerbate pandemics. Governments have concentrated on regulating wet markets and providing public money to fund private ventures’ vaccine and testing development. By contrast, calls from the scientific community to curb deforestation and biodiversity loss, and to regulate transnational, monocultural, industrial agriculture in the hopes of preventing the emergence of zoonotic diseases have largely gone unheeded. In March 2020, however, the consequences of avoiding these vital changes became apparent.

It’s life, that’s all

In the wake of COVID-19, immutable givens seemed to waver. In the early days of the pandemic, our expectations had to adjust to a sobering new reality. Lockdowns limited travel and social encounters. Teachers, children, and their parents adapted to online learning. Non-essential businesses closed. Millions were furloughed or lost their jobs. Even seemingly inexorable institutions faltered. Contrasting the very tangible dangers of a global pandemic with the illusory exigence and false promises of capitalism encouraged us to let the gears of economic engines grind to a halt to protect ourselves and others from the virus. 

Like all crises, the pandemic has been revelatory, exacerbating pre-existing cracks in the fragile systems we had accidentally overlooked or willfully ignored. COVID-19 has illuminated the inefficiency and indignity of for-profit healthcare; the precarity of pauperized social safety nets; the suicidality of environmental management that values profitability over sustainability; the indecency of wasteful food systems amid commonplace hunger; the cruel inequity of social systems that value some lives over others by race, class, gender, and sexual identity; the villainy of economic systems that facilitate 1% of the world’s population to acquire almost 50% of humanity’s wealth and produce 15% of global carbon emissions. 

Initially, this international health emergency appeared to be the catalyst for implementing popular changes to the entrenched status quo. The pandemic had already shifted our lives in ways that were previously unimaginable. If ever there was an opportunity to begin living a prefigurative future, this was it. Death’s caprices jolted us from our slumber, reminding us that the question of being and not-being is far more fickle than we would like to imagine. Whiplashed by the change of pace after so many years of doing more and moving faster, some deeply ingrained inertia turned us toward the steadying constancy of what we needed most: the comforting embrace of the human and ecological communities upon which we depend. 

After rousing us, however, the pandemic has begun to wear us down. The preposterous has become mundane. The political, economic, and social ramifications of the pandemic will continue even as the pandemic eventually winds down. Eager to remain dominant, big businesses have lobbied for generous corporate bailouts. Faustian governments have devoted $12 trillion to stimulate economies, yet they have not allocated a fraction of that to redesign low-carbon energy systems. Betrayed by austerity-tattered social safety nets and forced to choose between their health and livelihoods, millions of people have been coerced to return to work. 

Even so, many employers have not provided adequate personal protective equipment, healthcare, or paid sick leave for workers, while others have rejected COVID-related benefit claims. Working from home has converted every waking hour into potential work time, allowing employers to appropriate even more labor value from their employees. Disjointed from any pretext of realism, the stock market is once again operating in the black. Health insurance companies have raked in record profits, and as more middle- and lower-income families teeter on bankruptcy or eviction, the wealthiest individuals’ net worth continues its unfettered rise. Even as farmers dumped food that they could not sell while store shelves lay bare, suggestions to promote local foodways and curb the waste of globalized food systems have been disparaged as “the worst possible response.” Beguiled by a return to some semblance of normalcy, we show signs of once again willing to believe that capitalism, despite its flaws, is actually our best defense. After all we have gone through, the new normal does not appear all that different from the old. 

Perhaps we can be forgiven for capitulating to capitalism’s sweet nothings. Capitalism’s legacy is sold as one of freedom, wealth and comfort, while its less glamorous products, like rampant poverty, inequality and environmental destruction, are conveniently ignored. Critiques of capitalism are repressed or misrepresented as totalitarian, regimented, and austere, despite the many alternatives to capitalism which are not inherently authoritarian. After being hit incessantly over the head with this false dilemma in our schools, advertising, news, and entertainment, a collective cultural amnesia has developed that prevents us from imagining different futures. By finding new narratives into which many stories fit, we can expand our perspective of the possible.

Invincible dreamers

The Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico have been cultivating a truly “new normal” for the better part of three decades. Their philosophy of Neozapatismo is rooted in the traditional lifeways of Indigenous Maya peoples, interwoven with anarchism and Marxism. It is a modern manifestation of the resilience they have honed over centuries of colonization, dispossession, and marginalization. For the Zapatistas, socioecological crises have never been some vague, future threat, but a present, brutal reality. Climate change and neoliberal markets have undermined the viability of the agricultural systems they adapted over centuries. Megaprojects funded by international capital like hydroelectric dams and intercity railways threaten to forcibly displace dozens of communities and devastate the ecosystems upon which they depend. Lacking the political or financial means to defend their communal interests thousands of Maya—pushed to the brink—occupied government buildings, freed Indigenous prisoners, and destroyed land records, declaring “Ya basta!” (Enough!) on the day NAFTA went into force in 1994. Systemic change, sowed and reaped by their own hands, was imperative for safeguarding their culture and supporting both their human and non-human neighbors alike.

Zapatistas celebrating in one of their caracoles. Photo credit to Dawson Weehunt.

Hagiography is not my intention. Like all messengers, the Zapatistas are imperfect. Inequality and poverty are still rampant. Some compañer@s are content to accept government aid, reflecting an economic pragmatism that tempers their political idealism. Smallholder farmers have contributed to deforestation, though less than other forms of land management, including large-scale agriculture. Despite attempts at participatory democracy, patriarchal structures prove difficult to dismantle. These contradictions do not necessarily belie the value of this vanguard’s unique vision for “a revolution that makes possible the Revolution.” The Zapatistas’ struggle against the power of global capital still serves as a vital and vitalizing inspiration for creating parallel lifeways in the cracks and along the margins. 

From the onset of the pandemic, the Zapatistas distributed thousands of reusable masks, initiated a program for sewing additional face coverings, and provided hygiene products among their communities. Meanwhile, many in the U.S. hoarded basic household items, betraying a lack of trust either in our communities’ capacity for cooperation or our government’s willingness to serve its citizens. Then, when U.S. states rushed to open commercial spaces and beckoned their citizens to return to business as more-or-less usual, the Zapatistas instead closed their caracoles—centers of resistance and rebellion that organize collectivist programs—and continue to avoid urban areas as much as possible. Furthermore, a common practice amongst Zapatistas has been to quarantine anyone who has had contact with sick individuals. Such people are ensured food and resources are delivered to them so that the farms and forests upon which all depend are not compromised. By contrast, workers throughout the U.S. often face the Sophie’s choice of defaulting on bills or risking infection. 

Despite a lack of government resources or support, such as access to any testing whatsoever, as few as 12 compañer@s died of symptoms related to COVID-19 during the first six months of the pandemic. Ultimately, the Zapatistas attribute their rapid response and caregiving capacity not to any medical technology, but to their unity. In refusing to be divided (at a healthy distance), they are coping with the pandemic not as individuals but as a collective

The Neozapatismo maxims of “para todos todo, para nosotros nada [everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves]” and “un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos [a world where many worlds fit]” also infuse the Zapatistas’ environmental philosophy and practices. Ever since the initial uprising, direct actions have been coordinated to highlight how top-down economic development—even when it is greenwashed as “sustainable”—invariably leads to environmental devastation. Any attempts to promote “development” or address ecological degradation must be framed in opposition to the annihilatory regimes of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, militarism, and colonialism. Maya do not consider themselves parasitic or passive towards nature, but as an enlivening, life-giving force. Fostering ecological growth and diversity through regular and respectful interactions, including use and ceremony, they defend against attempts to privatize their communal lands, maintain traditional agroecosystems honed over centuries of sustainable management, and cultivate culturally-important food and medicinal plants in cooperative tree nurseries for grassroots restoration efforts. 

Such “glocal” responses highlight one of the paradoxes at the heart of Zapatismo. On the one hand, Zapatista communities celebrate their autonomy and self-sufficiency, ensuring they can remain independent from the hegemony of globalized economies and western culture. However, they also acknowledge a direct dependency on networks of immediate relationships in the human and non-human world. Their revolution is largely centered on building community, well aware that their social cohesion and rich cultural knowledge compensates for what they lack in political or financial capital. 

By contrast, environmental discourse in the U.S. has historically been dominated by a mild misanthropy, articulated in Pogo’s aphorism: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” We attempt to buffer the environment from humans’ polluting influence by separating the two. E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth proposal goes so far as to suggest that half the planet be preserved—devoid of humans. Of course, the human species bears a large ecological footprint, and conserving ecological integrity is laudable, but environmental destruction is more a function of a perverse economic system controlled by and benefiting a particular subset of humanity than fundamental human nature writ large. Laying the blame for environmental destruction at the feet of humankind as one unified Anthropos absolves the true culprits and delays the actions necessary to address its ultimate drivers. 

Perhaps the greatest lesson we may learn from the Maya is how to become, as Robin Kimmerer suggests, “Indigenous to place.” To address the epic crises at hand, we need to move beyond simplistic human-nature binaries. Restoring the land requires us to restore our relationship to it, as evidenced by the intimate connection between exposure to nature and stewardship. Sustainability is less a technical question of properly controlling natural processes and resources; rather, it is a collective social responsibility of controlling ourselves. Sustainability is not merely a question of how much we consume; it is about the ways in which we contribute. We must break the cycle of separation, objectification, and exploitation to transcend the false dichotomy that sets human culture at odds with nature. Instead, we must allow our human cultures to be reflections of nature—a part of rather than apart from. When we accept the earth’s gifts with gratitude and reciprocate with our own, we shape the land into cultural landscapes that reflect our nature of restraint and generosity. 

Walking together

Re-learning how to participate as equal members in the gossamer web of life is no easy task. Thankfully, many examples have endured and may show us how to restore these relationships in full. These teachers range from Indigenous communities around the world; to fishers, foresters and farmers who have learned to work with the land, not just on it; as well as the plants and animals with whom we share this planet. 

A primary obstacle hampering many contemporary social movements in the U.S. is their focus on individuals and personal responsibility. While the likes of Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Robert Marshall, and John Muir certainly played a role in catalyzing enviornonmental movements in their times, the nigh-messianic legends enshrouding them too often efface the relationships of everyday people essential to effecting change. Absent mutual struggle, any individual (prophetic though they may be) is an easily-silenced voice in the wilderness.     

Furthermore, while small, personal acts can be noble when facing the seemingly Sisyphean challenge that is climate change, we must also recognize their impact is limited at best. The idea that individual consumer choices can manifest meaningful social change is informed by institutions who would prefer to maintain the present state of affairs (the plastic industry’s ardent support for ineffective recycling programs being a textbook example). Stark inequality alone undermines any consumer power we could wield against financial elites. Buying into the notion that our individual consumer choices can advance social justice merely permits certain businesses a greenwashed façade. These amount to nothing more than veneers of social awareness when, in fact, the companies remain complicit in and benefit from systems of oppression. The scope of capitalism’s institutionalized greed demands a coordinated response at a societal level. Collective action and communal organization are the answer.

The histories of the New Deal and Great Society programs; the Fair Labor Standards and National Labor Relations Acts; the Civil and Voting Rights Acts; and the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Endangered Species Protection Acts have demonstrated that necessary, sweeping changes do not manifest as a result of individual, privately-funded crusades. Progressive legislation is the product of diverse coalitions of environmental, labor, civil rights, and faith organizations sustaining significant pressure on the local and federal governments. Our survival is dependent on community; our strength is forged by our relationships; and our success is predicated on balancing sovereignty with solidarity. 

In the U.S., the Poor People’s Campaign epitomizes these principles. Continuing the work that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was undertaking before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the Campaign is uniting a diverse coalition of disenfranchised communities to “confront the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.” Noting the immorality of the want of so many amid the abundance for so few, and reflecting the intersectional nature of the ecological and social crises we face, their demands for change are broad and deep, ultimately aiming to restore human dignity.

Foregoing the peculiarly American mythology of rugged individualism, the Campaign reminds us that we are braver and more hopeful when we join together than when we are divided and alone. Our society is only as successful as the least among us, and if we are to rise to meet the challenges we face, then we must do so together. In restoring our faith in the multiplicative power of we, the illusory division between us falls away and reveals, as King so eloquently put it, our “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

The 2020 U.S. presidential election reflected a demand for change. However, given the choice between a “neoliberal disaster and a neofascist catastrophe,” our efforts must continue. Participating in protests and boycotts promotes solidarity, but the real challenge is transforming that collective power to subvert capitalism in our daily lives. To cultivate a community garden is to foster food sovereignty and develop social networks. Working with locally-organized food distribution organizations like Food Not Bombs rescues food waste and grants dignity to hungry neighbors in a heathy, fun, and communal manner. Joining or facilitating labor unions helps reduce the gender pay gap, ensure workplace safety, and fight for worker benefits. Frequenting and supporting your local library encourages community cohesion and educational equity. Helping grassroots organizations that promote public investment in mass transit improves air quality and enhances equal access to transportation. 

One year into the pandemic and counting, many of us are attempting at last to make plans for an all too uncertain future. Joe Biden’s administration has named climate change a national security threat and revised national emissions reduction goals. At present, these are toothless and insufficient to avert the 1.5°C of warming expected in the next decade. While the National Security Council sets its aim at climate change, ignoring its own central role in environmental and humanitarian catastrophe, the Zapatistas have set sail to share in the struggles with compañer@s in Europe, and the Poor People’s Campaign continues to mobilize citizen blockades of oil pipelines and virtual mass assemblies of low-wage workers. Which stories will we help write?   

Every day, we choose how we face the coupled menace of climate change and COVID-19. Capital’s champions have rallied to argue that systemic change can wait for a more convenient time after this immediate emergency. But, as James Baldwin asked, “How much time do you want for yourprogress’?” Indeed, how tragic would it be if the world as we know it remained on its slouching course toward a broken normal in the wake of a global event so often described in eschatological terms? Considering the socioeconomic and ecological crises ahead, none of us, least of all the most marginalized, can afford to wait. 

Tomasz Falkowski is an assistant professor in the Department of Forestry at New Mexico Highlands University. Over the past decade, he has collaborated with milperos in Mexico to research traditional agroforestry management and how it could facilitate socioecological restoration. He is also investigating forest restoration in New Mexico and adaptive management of community gardens. When not working, Tomasz escapes to the mountains and cultivates a garden with his partner.

April readings

Source: Grist / Amelia Bates

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

This month’s list is a little shorter than usual, but maybe that’s not a bad thing! In April, we read stories about India’s Covid catastrophe, the dangers of the concept of net zero, toxic USA, an Aboriginal family beating back a fossil fuel conglomerate, the death and post-Covid comeback of “third spaces”, as well as a fact-check of the new Netflix documentary Seaspiracy and a general critique of nature documentaries, to name a few. There’s also been quite a bit of discussion around Malmology — a very serious term we coined to describe Andreas Malm’s work. And, as you probably know by now, degrowth, global environmental justice struggles, radical municipalism, and new politics are recurring themes in our readings.

A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!


Uneven Earth updates

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Is green growth happening? | The answer is no. Decoupling will not be enough to ensure ecological sustainability without a downscaling of production and consumption.

The commons | The commons opposes and transcends the logic of capitalism by building relations based on cooperation, solidarity, mutualism and direct democracy

Review of Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador by Thea Riofrancos | Resource Radicals marks an important contribution to burgeoning literature on resource politics and democratic practice

Well diggers tackling water woes in a megacity: The case of Bangalore, India | The ever-fast growing metropolis Bangalore is running out of groundwater. Yet traditional water practices might be key to a sustainable use of the blue gold below us.


Top 5 articles to read

Did climate change cause societies to collapse? New research upends the old story.

Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap

How an Aboriginal family beat back a fossil fuel conglomerate

How value weaponises the machine. In Breaking Things at Work, Gavin Mueller reminds us that the new antagonism between consumer and platform over data capture is not unlike the struggle between worker and capitalist over wages and the working day.

Arundhati Roy on India’s Covid catastrophe: ‘We are witnessing a crime against humanity’ 



News you might’ve missed

Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine research ‘was 97% publicly funded’

Rich countries are refusing to waive the rights on Covid vaccines as global cases hit record levels

Environment protest being criminalised around world, say experts 

A top U.S. seller of carbon offsets starts investigating its own projects

French lawmakers approve a ban on short domestic flights 



Toxic USA

‘No community should suffer this’: Florida’s toxic breach was decades in the making

The toxic legacy of the US military in the Pacific

Nuclear colonialism and the Marshall Islands



Global environmental justice struggles

Georgia: guardians of the Rioni Valley face off the dams

Land grabs and other destructive environmental practices in Cambodia test the International Criminal Court

Attacks on forest-dependent communities in Indonesia and resistance stories

Canada: hummingbirds succeed in halting controversial pipeline construction 



Where we’re at: analysis

SILENCE = DEATH, ACTION = LIFE: New relevance of HIV/AIDS organizing in COVID pandemic times

The rise and fall of multilateralism

Revenge of the plans. Why do we keep reviving technocratic climate politics when it has consistently failed?

Digital colonialism: the evolution of American empire 

Joe Biden’s new Climate Pledge isn’t fair or ambitious 



Just think about it…

Deepfake satellite imagery poses a not-so-distant threat, warn geographers

Why bitcoin is bad for the environment 

Learning a new language can help us escape climate catastrophe. Many Indigenous languages have been forcefully wiped out by white people. Turns out, they’re some of our main hopes for beating the climate crisis.

The problem with nature documentaries

What Netflix’s Seaspiracy gets wrong about fishing, explained by a marine biologist

The 7 reasons why nuclear energy is not the answer to solve climate change

To save the Earth, dismantle individuality



Malmology

The kaleidoscope of catastrophe – On the clarities and blind spots of Andreas Malm

Can sabotage stop climate change?

How to blow up a movement: Andreas Malm’s new book dreams of sabotage but ignores consequences

Andreas Malm’s Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency



Degrowth

Why Malthus’s gospel of growth was, and still is, wrong

Beyond the growth imperative 

Degrowth in demand. Lexie Smith and Jamie Tyberg on degrowth, decolonization, and agriculture.

On sacrifice



New politics

From fossil capitalism to green democracy

Book review: Enlightenment and ecology: The legacy of Murray Bookchin in the 21st century

A youth revolt is under way in South Korea

Farmers are using their stimmys to grow free food for their communities



Sci-fi

Born to rewild: Jeff VanderMeer on what it means to restore your own little part of the world



Cities and radical municipalism

The death and post-Covid rebirth of ‘third places’. “Third spaces” like coffeeshops, gyms and libraries are critical for building community ties and boosting social cohesion. What happens when they almost disappear for more than a year?



Resources

Gender bias in Academe: An annotated bibliography of important recent studies



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Is green growth happening?

Source: Cabinet Office | Flickr

by Timothée Parrique

If you follow discussions about climate change, you must have heard of decoupling. The term refers to the possibility of detaching Growth Domestic Product (GDP) from environmental pressures. The green growth everyone talks about these days presumes that economic activities can be decoupled from ecological damage. 

Studies on decoupling don’t usually become viral, but one did. In March 2019, Corinne Le Quéré from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK and nine other scholars published an article in Nature titled “Drivers of declining CO2 emissions in 18 developed economies.” 

This is one among many – 835 to be precise – according to an exhaustive review of the literature. What makes this study special is how often it has been cited online to acclaim green growth. A careful reading of the article, however, gives a more nuanced impression. 

The decoupling rates are minuscule

The study analyses 18 developed economies (Sweden, Romania, France, Ireland, Spain, UK, Bulgaria, The Netherlands, Italy, United States, Germany, Denmark, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Finland, and Croatia) between 2005 and 2015, finding that emissions decreased by a median -2.4% per year during that decade. 

This is tiny – three times smaller than the yearly 7.6% cut of global emissions that would be necessary to meet 1.5°C Paris target (and this number is from 2019; the cuts would need to be even larger today). One striking example is France. The study indicates that France decreased its consumption-based emissions by a yearly -1.9% over the period with barely any GDP growth (+0.9%). Now compare this to the French climate target, which is to reach 80 MtCO2 by 2050, an 80% reduction compared to 2019 levels of emissions.     

The UK is another case in point. The country is often lauded to have achieved the fastest experience of decoupling on Earth. In the Le Quéré study, its consumption-based emissions decreased by -2.1% per year between 2005 and 2015 with positive GDP rates of around 1.1%. This is not much in the way of decoupling; the country has pledged to reduce emissions by twice that amount (5.1% per year). To actually comply with the Paris Agreement, the UK must achieve a yearly 13% cut in emissions, starting now and for the decades to come. This is much – much – more than what green growth can provide.   

The authors themselves err on the side of caution: “as significant as they have been, the emissions reductions observed […] fall a long way short of the deep and rapid global decarbonization of the energy system implied by the Paris Agreement temperature goals, especially given the increases in global CO2 emissions in 2017 and 2018, and the slowdown of decarbonization in Europe since 2014.” Data from this year supports the authors’ precaution: de-carbonisation in many high-income economies has slowed down after 2015.  

The fact that these rates are so small is worrying because we’re dealing here with the supposedly best country cases of decoupling. Assuming these rates can now suddenly accelerate would be like expecting Usain Bolt to triple his running speed. Even more unlikely, we would need all countries in the world to match the triple of these record levels.  

A “sustainable” economy in any meaningful understanding of the term must consider all the complex interactions it has with ecosystems, and not only carbon

Minuscule is a long way from enough   

In March 2021, the authors published a new study showing that 64 countries managed to cut their CO2 emissions by 0.16 GtCO2 every year between 2016 and 2019. This is good, but again, not good enough. And not good enough has dire consequences. To be precise, this is one tenth of what would be needed at the global level to meet the Paris climate goals; and if 64 countries managed to reduce emissions, 150 others did not. The latter increased their emissions by 0.37 GtCO2 each year. Put the two numbers together and you realise that global emissions have actually been growing by 0.21 billion tonnes per year. 

This puts pressure on high-income economies. For developing countries to be able to increase their ecological footprint, affluent nations must reduce theirs as much as possible. Climate-neutrality at the national level by 2050 is not enough if we want today’s poorest to have the option of increasing their material consumption. And rates of reduction in rich nations of 1-3% are far from enough to compensate for the surge in resource use currently taking place in the global South.

This is only fair considering historical emissions. The global North is responsible for 92% of excess global CO2 emissions (the ones past the 350ppm threshold). For example, France has already overshot its fair share of the climate budget by 29.4 GtCO2. The Le Quéré study shows that it has decreased its emissions by 10 MtCO2 every year between 2005 and 2015. At that pace, and assuming carbon neutrality, it would take almost three millennia for France to resorb its climate debt.  

Green growth without growth 

Emissions in the 18 studied countries decreased by -2.4% each year, but how big was GDP growth during that period? The answer: small. These economies grew by a median +1.1%. Denmark, Italy, and Spain are leading the decoupling pack with yearly carbon reductions of -3.7%, -3.3%, and -3.2% respectively. This, however, can hardly be called green growth because these economies barely grew – or actually receded (+0.6% of GDP in the case of Denmark, -3.3% for Italy, and -3.2% for Spain).  

The authors acknowledge that this period is nothing extraordinary: “These reductions in the energy intensity of GDP in 2005-2015 do no stand out compared to similar reductions observed since the 1970s, indicating that decreases in energy use in the peak-and-decline group could be explained at least in part by the lower growth in GDP.” 

So, the paper most popularly cited to assert that carbon-free economic growth is possible also shows that part of the decarbonisation is due to the fact that there was little or no growth. It comes as no surprise then that, using simulations, the authors estimate that “if GDP returns to strong growth in the peak-and-decline group, reductions in energy use may weaken or be reversed unless strong climate and energy policies are implemented.” 

Sustainability is more than just carbon 

The authors’ study is about carbon, but carbon is one environmental problem among many others. Unfortunately, it is the only one that is adequately researched, with 80% of decoupling studies focusing on primary energy and greenhouse gases. This leaves only a few studies that have been conducted on other aspects of ecological breakdown, including material use, water use, land change, water pollution, waste, and biodiversity loss. 

While there are a few inspiring stories of decoupling concerning carbon emissions, studies that track other indicators tell us a different story, one in which the economy is still strongly coupled with biophysical throughput. Materials are a good case in point. If the world economy was gradually de-materializing in the 20th century, this trend has since been reversing in the last two decades. This alone should temper optimism concerning an assumption of endless supplies of renewable energy, which after all, are dependent on the mining of finite quantities of minerals.

My point is that a “sustainable” economy in any meaningful understanding of the term must consider all the complex interactions it has with ecosystems, and not only carbon. A genuinely sustainable economy should not only be carbon neutral, but also remains within the regenerative capacities of all renewable resources, within the acceptable stocks of non-renewable resources, and within the assimilative capacities of ecosystems. Although sustainability ought to be understood as being about much more than only the condition of the biophysical environment, it seems evident that living within planetary boundaries is a minimum, non-negotiable condition for any kind of long-lasting prosperity.  

Since GDP remains significantly coupled with carbon emissions and other environmental pressures, a good way of limiting ecological wreckage is to put limits on the scale of the economy

Temporary decoupling

Mitigating environmental pressures in a growing economy not only implies achieving absolute decoupling from GDP, but also requires maintaining such decoupling in time for as long as the economy grows (recalling that emissions must be reduced by at least 7.6% every year from now on). Said differently, continuous economic growth requires a permanent absolute decoupling between GDP growth and environmental pressures. Yet, in the same way that economic growth and environmental pressures can decouple at one point in time, they can just as easily recouple later on. 

This happens more often than we think. Let’s reflect upon the time when the International Energy Agency declared that decoupling was “confirmed” after observing a levelling of global emissions in 2015 and 2016. Yet, this decoupling was short-lived. In fact, it was mainly due to China moving from coal to oil and gas at the same time that the United States was shifting to shale gas. The shift was temporary. After that, economic growth recoupled with carbon emissions.

Situations of recoupling can also happen with renewables. In the decade between 2005 and 2015, Austria, Finland, and Sweden greened their energy mix and, as a result, lowered their emissions. But once this shift is complete, further growth will require an expansion of the energy infrastructure, which will imply additional environmental pressures. In fact, this is what happened after the studied period. Austria decreased its emissions by -0.6% in 2006-2010 and -1.6% in 2011-2015, but emissions returned  positive by +0.3% in 2016-2019. A similar story took place in Finland and Sweden; the rates of reduction accelerated between 2006 and 2015 but slowed down after that.

Some commentators hypothesized that the return of economic growth after the pandemic would be green, or at least, greener. Yet, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are on course to surge by 1.5 billion tons in 2021 – the second-largest increase in history – reversing most of the decline caused by the pandemic. The lesson from the corona crisis is this: slight oscillations from light to heavy ecological beating are not enough – we need to radically and immediately transform the economy.  

Do we need environmental policies? 

Yes, we do and the Le Quéré paper is clear on that. We need energy and climate policies, “particularly if GDP growth increases,” the authors write. But what if capping GDP was itself considered an acceptable climate policy? This is the idea of degrowth. Since GDP remains significantly coupled with carbon emissions and other environmental pressures, a good way of limiting ecological wreckage is to put limits on the scale of the economy. If carbon emissions decreased by -2.4% with a +1.1% rise in GDP growth, imagine how faster they could be reduced if economic growth was not prioritised above the unthinkable risks of runaway ecological breakdown. 

We know that stopping the growth machine leads to drastic emissions cuts because it happened during the pandemic. The slowdown of economic activity led to a historical reduction of global emissions: -7% compared to 2019. What happened through crisis could also take place in a more managed fashion in the form of a prosperity without growth in countries consuming more than their fair share of the global carbon budget. Of course, GDP is an indicator, not a policy button. There is thus a need for a diversity of sufficiency-oriented policies that will limit production and consumption, and speculative finance, especially in natural resource intensive sectors. 

We should target emissions where they currently are, while ensuring that efficiency gains are not cancelled by more demand through rebound effects. For example, we could degrow aviation by setting airport quotas on the number of flights per day, restricting the construction of new airports and runways, and introducing a Frequent Flyer Levy (i.e. you get one levy-free first flight every three or four years, but the second flight bears a levy, with its amount doubling for each additional flight). Instead of hoping that the expansion of the aviation sector decouples from planetary damage, we could limit the scale of that sector to directly lower its emissions.  

Decoupling is not enough

In sum, Le Quéré et al. (2020) report an observed decoupling in 18 developed countries between 2005 and 2015. But there are a few caveats. First, the rates of decoupling are a long way short of reaching even the most modest of national climate targets. Second, they are even more insufficient considering redistributive efforts required to achieve climate justice. Third, part of that decoupling is explained by low rates of economic growth. Fourth, the study period is limited and there is little to guarantee that what decoupling may have occurred will not recouple later on. And finally, the analysis is only about carbon and does not account for other environmental pressures.

So, is green growth happening? The answer is no, not really. As of today, economic growth is still a vector of resource use and environmental degradation. In high-income countries, the pursuit of additional growth might not even be socially beneficial, and particularly so if accompanied by widening inequality. Considering the increasing demand for resources in the most disadvantaged regions of the world, the continued obsession with growth in already affluent nations is becoming untenable. 

Decoupling is simply not enough. Instead of struggling to “green” expanding economies, we should reroute the task by mobilizing sufficiency-oriented strategies like degrowth and post-growth. Eventually, both efficiency and sufficiency are dearly needed. One thing is resoundingly clear, what we need to do away with is the growth-at-all-cost mentality that sacrifices social-ecological health to prioritize GDP above all else.

Timothée Parrique holds a PhD in economics from the Centre d’Études et de Recherches sur le Développement (University of Clermont Auvergne, France) and the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm University, Sweden). Titled “The political economy of degrowth” (2020), his dissertation explores the economic implications of the ideas of degrowth and post-growth. Tim is also the lead author of “Decoupling debunked – Evidence and arguments against green growth” (2019), a report published by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

The commons

by Sergio Ruiz Cayuela 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further resources

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

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

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


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

Review of Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador by Thea Riofrancos

Photographer: Ivan Castaneira

by Benjamin Brown

What does Left radicalism look like in an age of climate breakdown? Should the state assume control of subsoil resources to fund social spending and reduce inequality, or oppose extractive development at all costs? Such questions are interrogated in Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador by Thea Riofrancos, where we are invited to contemplate the tensions emerging between the ‘left-in-power’ and the ‘left-in-resistance’ through the lens of Ecuador’s recent political history. 

The triumphant election of socialist president Rafael Correa in 2006, on a promise to end the ‘long night of neoliberalism’ and reverse regressive structural reforms with support from the country’s powerful social movements, turned sour after the new government abandoned proposals to leave oil in the ground and accelerated mining projects. A discourse of radical resource nationalism, which decried US imperialism and the control of oil, gas and minerals by foreign corporations, previously united social and political movements and helped propel the Left to power. However, new cleavages opened up between a state seeking revenue to fund spending on infrastructure, public services, and cash transfers to the poor, and erstwhile indigenous and environmentalist allies who opposed the deepening structural dependency on ‘extractivism’ as a betrayal of their cause. Riofrancos, a political scientist at Providence College, draws on ethnographic and archival data to illuminate the ways in which these struggles unfolded, with lessons that hold relevance across Latin America and for the world at large. 

A discourse of radical resource nationalism, which decried US imperialism and the control of oil, gas and minerals by foreign corporations, previously united social and political movements and helped propel the Left to power

Departing from conventional state-centric analyses of resource governance, Resource Radicals foregrounds the collective agency of grassroots actors, pointedly rejecting an image of the state as a ‘monolithic dispenser of public policy’, unencumbered by internal division or broader popular support. The book also challenges the ‘resource curse’ thesis which has dominated scholarship, in which the revenues accrued from abundant resource wealth allows corruption and mismanagement to flourish, with detrimental effects for democracy and broader societal wellbeing. Instead, the book investigates how successive waves of social mobilisation and protest, spearheaded by Ecuador’s powerful indigenous movement, sought to challenge oil, gas and mining projects. Rather than transcending extractive capitalism, critics accused Correa of perpetuating Ecuador’s colonial status as an exporter of raw materials and its subordinate position within the world system, delivering ‘redistribution without structural change’. Resistance from indigenous communities, environmentalists, labour and anti-mining activists coalesced around an emergent discourse of anti-extractivism, juxtaposing the government’s radical rhetoric with its insistence on the development of indigenous territories, disregard for ecosystems, and repression of dissent. Drawing on indigenous philosophies of Sumak Kawsay or Buen Vivir (living well), activists rejected intensive exploitation of natural resources in favour of a radical, post-extractive civilisational model: ‘a total reordering of the relationship between individuals, communities, and nature, based on the principles of reciprocal collaboration’ (p.30). 

At the centre of contestations was the status of Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, an ‘ambivalent document’ that both included provisions for citizen participation, Buen Vivir and the ‘rights of nature’, and simultaneously asserted the ultimate authority of the state over subsoil resources. Despite such tensions, it was subsequently embraced by anti-mining activists as a tool to legitimate their claims. Riofrancos provides a vivid account of how the constitution was invoked at key moments of political struggle, including the ten day long ‘March for Water, Life and the Dignity of Peoples’ that brought thousands to the streets for a 700km march from the Mirador copper mine in the Amazon to the Andean capital city of Quito. This discursive struggle to legitimate or contest extractive development elevated local communities as central protagonists through their constitutional right to prior consultation and consent, referencing Ecuador’s status as a multi-ethnic ‘pluri-nation’, and catapulting resource conflicts to the heart of political debate.

Riofrancos provides a vivid account of how the constitution was invoked at key moments of political struggle, including the ten day long ‘March for Water, Life and the Dignity of Peoples’ that brought thousands to the streets for a 700km march from the Mirador copper mine in the Amazon to the Andean capital city of Quito

The latter half of the book discusses how the process of community consultation was gradually diluted, as accusations and counter accusations erupted between the government accusing foreign NGOs of manipulating communities on the one hand, and critics accusing the government of violating collective rights on the other. The Correa administration embraced the language of technocracy, mirroring the discourse of mining companies by discussing conflicts over resource extraction as a ‘technical’ matter that could be solved by supplying the ‘correct information’ to ‘misinformed’ communities. The authority of the state was itself contested by indigenous communities, who rejected the image of passive compliance and contrasted their own intimate knowledge of their territories as ‘a living ecological and cultural landscape’ (p.140) with the unreliability of official data, which was ‘systematically biased’ and reliant on corporate estimations of mineral reserves. Riofrancos offers important insight into internal conflicts that beset the state itself, with Correa’s vociferous pro-mining position moderated by critical bureaucrats more sympathetic to the anti-extractivist cause. Ecuador’s development trajectory was thus moulded by both external constraints, internal state dynamics, and pressure from below. 

As Ecuador elects a new president, there is much to be learned from Riofrancos’ account of how these events unfolded, which sheds light on the tense relationship between the state, social movements, and diverse political constituencies that all claim the mantle of the Left while offering starkly different visions of the future. Riofrancos avoids the pitfalls of binary thinking, providing an honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses of both state policies and social movement strategy. The book recognises the significance of rapid drops in poverty and inequality that occurred under the Correa administration while remaining alert to its failures, as it pursued development ‘without transforming the model of accumulation or the class relations that it generates’ (p.182). The vulnerabilities of this model – oil financed approximately one third of the state budget – were exposed with the abrupt end of the commodities boom that had generated resource rents, and contributed to the justification for austerity measures imposed under Correa’s successor Lenin Moreno. Yet as demand for metals and minerals intensifies to drive the renewable energy transition, mining remains an enticing prospect for future governments.

There is much to be learned from Riofrancos’ account of how these events unfolded, which sheds light on the tense relationship between the state, social movements, and diverse political constituencies that all claim the mantle of the Left while offering starkly different visions of the future

Resource Radicals marks an important contribution to burgeoning literature on resource politics and democratic practice, interrogating how ideological fragmentation exposed underlying ecological contradictions, evolving relationships between the state and citizens, and limits of prevailing development models. Despite the fallout between them, Riofrancos ultimately concludes that both ‘left-in-power’, and ‘left-in-resistance’ are essential to address the current planetary crisis in all its ecological and political dimensions.  Rather than view ‘socialism’ and ‘anti-extractivism’ as two irreconcilable political projects, the book gestures to another possibility: ‘a political programme that demanded both the redistribution of oil and mining revenues and a transition away from the extractive model of accumulation that generates those revenues.’ In doing so, it offers lessons on how to navigate politically difficult terrain as resource struggles intensify, bringing nuance and insight to debates that will shape the world to come.


Benjamin Brown is a researcher and activist based in Edinburgh, Scotland, with an interest in land rights, extractivism, and climate justice. He tweets at @_dead_reckoning.

Well diggers tackling water woes in a megacity: The case of Bangalore, India

by Dennis Schüpf

Bangalore was once called the city of lakes. In recent years not only has it been called the city of burning lakes due to dumping of toxic waste in the lakes, but also predictions show that severe water crisis will turn the city uninhabitable by 2025. Despite this, the overexploitation of groundwater and its socio-ecological consequences are overlooked by policy makers and users alike. The Mannu Vaddar community, with their traditional well-digging skills, can improve the urban resilience against water scarcity and offer a solution towards the shrinking groundwater levels of the booming city. 

This essay presents a glimpse into the water woes of one of Asia’s fastest growing cities, dubbed as India’s Silicon Valley, with a perspective on groundwater. It thereby seeks to highlight the interconnectedness of the urban and rural space by addressing traditional well-digging in the context of sustainable water management. A photographic documentary is added to witness the work of the Mannu Vaddar. Even though Bangalore might seem to be an isolated case, it is only one tiny piece of the whole struggle to cope with an exploitation driven growth agenda, demographically as well as economically, incompatible with finite resources. 

Historically, Bangalore was once considered a city of lakes with 285 lakes until hit by reckless urbanization fueled by the ever-growing IT industry. In comparison to the Bangalore of ten years ago, almost half of the lakes have dried up and been taken over as new spaces for modern settlements. The lakes which were originally made for irrigation helped to recharge groundwater levels. The metropolis does not lack rainfall at all, with about 972mm of average annual precipitation during April and November and around 60 rainy days in a year. The crucial point here is the city’s inability to make the rainwater percolate back into the ground. Unfortunately, an immense amount of rainwater that could recharge the aquifers, instead flows down the buildings and roads of Bangalore, which became a concrete jungle over the years. It is estimated that 93% of the city has been paved.

Bangalore’s water lifeline is the Cauvery river located 100km south of the city. The river supplies nearly 1,900 million liters of water on a daily basis for a growing population of around 13 million citizens. Nevertheless, about 3 million people struggle to access the municipal water supply especially during the severe dry months. As construction continues at an alarming pace, there is no assurance of either drinking water provision or other basic amenities in new building complexes. Consequently, the number of private borewells increased especially in the more populous periphery of the city, which is mainly suspended from the municipal water supply system. Groundwater, accessed through the digging of borewells, became the primary source of water for rapidly growing districts in the periphery and some parts completely depend on it already. At least 40% of the current total water demand of Bangalore is met by groundwater resources. But as the demand for groundwater increases borewells must dig deeper, since the water levels shrink to zero. In addition, there is no data to keep track of the number of borewells. It is estimated that the amount of borewells lies above 400 000 with a lot of wells that have already dried out. 

At the moment, Bangalore tackles its water scarcity with (private) tankers that supply water often at a high price and with a questionable water quality. In many areas of Bangalore groundwater is contaminated by industrial pollution, sewage, and high nitrate levels. But millions of citizens heavily rely on the truck delivered water. In conclusion, the mentioned dynamics contribute to a large extent to the depletion of groundwater and easily result in political conflicts with residents competing over access to the dwindling resource.

In this context where the (ground)water crisis makes the social consequences exceed the environmental costs; it is time to shift the focus from the urban to the rural landscape. Not even 50km away from Bangalore, quite on the outskirts of the megacity, live the Mannu Vaddar, a community of well-diggers, that traditionally provided people with the access to groundwater. For generations, the Mannu Vaddar are the keepers of the knowledge of how and where to dig wells. The tradition of well-digger communities in India, as well as the cultural well heritage, can be traced back more than 1000 years. Back then the first open wells allowed humans to explore inland away from the dependency on rivers and other water resources. However, in the early 1980s Cauvery water supply along with borewells replaced the culture of open wells in Bangalore, which at that time had been the main source of drinking water. 

This shift towards modern water management allowed the city to expand geographically, as well as economically, since more water was pumped. But the dramatic drop of overall water levels in the region in the past years has led to a corresponding decline in the demand for well-digging. In the current situation people are in a rush to dig deeper borewells to extract the last bits of water from the aquifers with mechanic pumps. The human-environmental gap widens and the disconnect between urban spaces and their water flows intensifies.

How could the revival of traditional well-digging contribute to solve Bangalore’s water woes?

The ability of the Mannu Vaddar comes into play exactly where Bangalore’s capacity to store rainwater ends. The low water levels correlate with too much concrete jungle, hence the fact that there is not enough rainwater percolating back into the ground. This is where the well-diggers enter the arena of urban water management. Wells, dug in the right location, can recharge the groundwater levels by connecting them to the shallow aquifers. These aquifers are an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock through which water can be stored in the ground. Hence, the Mannu Vaddar help to make water move through these different types of rocks and soil, which is crucial to tackle the depletion of groundwater resources.

Therefore, the Mannu Vaddar’s skill comprises more than mere physical labor. It includes the crucial knowledge on soil types, rocky layers, and other traits of the region’s aquifers to successfully strike water. ‘We feel and smell it in the soil’, says Venkatesh a 23 years old well-digger, who belongs to the Mannu Vaddar community. Mannu literally means soil. There is no doubt that their craft requires a deep knowledge and sensitivity to work the natural element. It is physical work combined with the human senses that make them reach the natural source of water under the surface. The technique and knowledge are passed on across generations when the young well-diggers work alongside with skilled elders. 

Pedhanna (52), an experienced member of the Mannu Vaddar, has been digging more than 3000 wells in his life. His son, Venkatesh (23), surpassed the sheer number of 1000 by the age of 23. Many young well-diggers do not seek for labor or a career in the metropolis, even though the constant fear for jobs is present. During the week, the Mannu Vaddar migrate from the rural outskirts to the city to look for work by knocking at the doors from house to house. Although the job opportunities today lie within Bangalore many young men still appreciate the natural surroundings of the village and prefer this way of life from the urban hustle.  

Their work is done by hand and with simple tools. With nothing but shovels and metal skewers the well is dug deep into the earth by one Mannu Vaddar. When the soil is softened by the skewer, two well-diggers pull it up with a bucket attached to two thick ropes. This process takes place even under hot climatic conditions. The Mannu Vaddar know very well when they are about to strike water. The smell of the soil and its consistency changes and when it lumps, the well-diggers can be sure that they reached for the edge of a shallow aquifer. Just a few centimeters deeper and water will fill up the dug pit. However, the security and the insurance of the well-diggers is poor, regarding the risk climbing up and down inside the wells. 

Unlike the extractive borewells, the wells of the Mannu Vaddar are not narrow, but open with the ability to recharge and access the higher aquifers. The aquifers in turn can fill up rapidly under Bangalore’s rich precipitation. The so-called recharge wells, typically 20ft. deep with 3 diameters, collect rainwater and revive the shallow aquifer. Apart from well-digging the Mannu Vaddar community is cleaning and  maintaining all types of wells across Bangalore. The input of the well-diggers supports the creation of a river below us in areas with aquifers in the city.

Coming back to the bigger picture the linkage between the overexploitation of groundwater and the recharge of the aquifers is fundamental to cope with Bangalore’s water woes. By law groundwater rights are attached to the land, so that the owners can extract as much water as desired without limitations. Apart from the right institutional response, wells, not borewells, can play a crucial role in the rejuvenation process of groundwater. An interview with a young well-digger makes it clear how the change in demand of work goes hand in hand with the water crisis in Bangalore. As the demand for typical open wells declined over the past years, recharge wells became increasingly important, since its owners want to recharge the borewells that already ran dry. 

In this context the Mannu Vaddar can play a crucial role towards rainwater harvesting and water self-sufficiency. The city’s capability to make the water percolate to the ground is crucial for a sustainable water management in the long run and the Mannu Vaddar bear the ancient knowledge to move towards this goal. 

Dennis Schüpf is a Master student in International Development studies with a focus on socio-environmental conflicts related to water resources. Based in Germany, his work as a documentary photographer spans from urban to rural perspectives on environmental and social issues with an emphasis on the stories of people. 

March readings

Phoebe Johnson for Noema Magazine

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

Our March reading list is ready for you to enjoy, be inspired by, learn from, and use in your teaching and activism! This month, we’re featuring a call by the late David Graeber for a better post-pandemic future, evidence that reducing inequality and solving our ecological crisis go hand in hand, and a beautiful multimedia piece on the ecological imagination of Hayao Miyazaki. We also collected quite a few articles rethinking and offering different insights or perspectives on science from various angles. And, as usual, you’ll find quite a bit of material on radical municipalism and cities, Indigenous struggles, food politics, and COVID-19.

A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!


Uneven Earth updates

Slow violence | This harm is slow, ill-defined, and often perceptible only in retrospect, when its perpetrators are long gone, if they were ever physically present at all

Permaculture | A design system that offers a radical reimagination of the possible


Top 5 articles to read

After the pandemic, we can’t go back to sleep. In an essay penned shortly before his death, David Graeber argued that post-pandemic, we can’t slip back into a reality where the way our society is organized — to serve every whim of a small handful of rich people while debasing and degrading the vast majority of us — is seen as sensible or reasonable.

Why a more equal world would be easier to decarbonise

Urban fish ponds: Low-tech sewage treatment for towns and cities

Apocalyptic infrastructures

The ecological imagination of Hayao Miyazaki


News you might’ve missed

Global heating pushes tropical regions towards limits of human livability

New study says Earth could see six-month summers 

Record heat, dust, and locusts are plaguing Kuwait

Gridlock at sea and chaos ashore as pandemic snarls trade network

Oil firms knew decades ago fossil fuels posed grave health risks, files reveal

Mining magnets: Arctic island finds green power can be a curse

Why ‘rebound effects’ may cut energy savings in half

Elite minority of frequent flyers ’cause most of aviation’s climate damage’ 

France tested nuclear weapons in Africa. Now radioactive dust is drifting back into France.

Garment workers win historic victory in effort to transform fashion industry

Sweden rejects pioneering solar geoengineering test, under pressure from Indigenous people and environmental groups

Lula is back — and he can save Brazil from Bolsonaro


Where we’re at: analysis

Exposed: The network of polluters funding international climate policy 

Extraction-driven devastation: an interview with Nnimmo Bassey

The victims of Agent Orange the U.S. has never acknowledged

Will the race for electric vehicles endanger the earth’s most sensitive ecosystem?

Is this the end of forests as we’ve known them?

This tiny fishing town was poisoned by a coal plant. The government is trying to replace it with a mine 

De Beers: Destruction is forever

In Suez Canal, stuck ship is a warning about excessive globalization

Want not, waste not. To save the biosphere, Vaclav Smil argues we should curb upstream consumption — not just downstream emissions.

Why more people than ever are living alone – and what this means for the environment


COVID-19

From the Anthropocene to the Microbiocene. The novel coronavirus compels us to rethink the modern concept of the political.

Sea of resilience: how the Pacific fought against Covid

Vaccine nationalism is patently unjust 


Just think about it…

Pablo Escobar’s hippos might be filling an ancient ecological niche

This TikTok star makes foraging a fun — and revolutionary — practice

Climate anxiety is an overwhelmingly White phenomenon

Bill Gates is the biggest private owner of farmland in the United States. Why?

Green investing ‘is definitely not going to work’, says ex-BlackRock executive

How economic behaviour drove witch hunts in pre-modern Germany

Bitcoin is a mouth hungry for fossil fuels

AI: Ghost workers demand to be seen and heard

What if…we banned the intensive farming of animals?


Science, epistemology, and (post-)colonialism

The long shadow of colonial science

How scientific taxonomy constructed the myth of race

Scientists need to face both facts and feelings when dealing with the climate crisis

Decolonizing the hunt for dinosaurs and other fossils

Half-Earth: A biodiversity ‘solution’ that solves nothing

The future of postcolonial thought

Rethinking the social sciences with Sam Moyo


Degrowth

Stimulus is an environmental disaster waiting to happen

We’re hurtling toward global suicide


New politics

Why the environmental justice movement should think locally

A nearly true story: The tale of the Hamlet

Queer and feminist militants are shaping Tunisia’s protests

Building alternative futures in the present: the case of Syria’s communes


(Green) fascism

When futurism led to fascism—and why it could happen again

Ideology and far right ecologism. An episode of the Right Rising podcast in which Balsa Lubarda discusses the history and connections between environmentalism and Far Right ideology.


Indigenous struggles

LandBack: The Indigenous liberation movement. A video explainer.

The Indigenous Kinggo’s struggle to defend Papua’s customary forest

Biodiversity highest on Indigenous-managed lands

Pollution and patriarchy in tribal India


Cities and radical municipalism

US city of Evanston to pay reparation to Black residents

The secret ingredient in Paris’ green public housing 

Cycling is ten times more important than electric cars for reaching net-zero cities

High ground, high prices

Wildfires, housing crisis, fascist street violence, and an uprising: this municipalist organization in Portland, Oregon was in the middle of it all

All power to the neighborhoods: Greece rises against police barbarity

The coronavirus and a summer of mutual aid in Chicago


Food politics

Agroecology vs. climate chaos: Farmers leading the battle in Asia

Popular peasant feminism

After the flood, the forest. On planting bananas in the warming Gulf Coast.

Resistance against industrial oil palm plantations in West and Central Africa

In King Leopold’s steps: The investors bankrolling the PHC oil palm plantations in the Democratic Republic of Congo 

Pigeon towers: A low-tech alternative to synthetic fertilizers


Resources

Zero Covid networks from around the world working for a solidarian politics of COVID-19 elimination

1M Experiments. A place to browse community-based safety projects for inspiration.

Global Oneness Project. A library of multimedia stories and curricula about cultural, environmental and social issues.

Exploring economics. An open access e-learning platform on pluralist economics.

A material transition. A report by War On Want that sets out a pathway for a globally just energy future.

A blog that deals with decolonising global health


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Slow violence

by Ben Shread-Hewitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further resources

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

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

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

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

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


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

Permaculture

by Rebecca Ellis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further resources

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

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

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

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

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


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

January & February readings

A woman gets the coronavirus vaccine, at a vaccination centre in Westfield Stratford City shopping centre, amid the outbreak of COVID-19, in London, UK [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters], via Al Jazeera

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

Welcome to our first newsletter in 2021! It has been a slow few months here at Uneven Earth, but we’re back with a fresh list of environmental justice readings and resources for you that we’ve collected in the new year. Highlights include stories on extractive tourism, global vaccine justice, and the power of mutual aid, as well as a brilliant podcast series on social ecology.

A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!



Uneven Earth updates

A new book tells us what is really behind the ‘K-shaped recovery’ | A review of The Asset Economy by Lisa Adkins, Martijn Konigs, and Melinda Cooper

Rewilding | A growing movement repurposes the term rewilding to be a political and cultural project that is more than merely conservation biology

Blue neocolonialism | The Nature Conservancy is promoting “Blue bonds”—a market-based solution to fund conservation—as a new wave of neocolonialism in the Seychelles

Who owns the city? Cars and COVID-19 | Car-centred urbanisation is tied to the growing threat of deadly epidemics. Solutions lie beyond technocratic policy, instead we must look to the soul of the city.



Top 5 articles to read

A call for global vaccine justice

Texans were casualties in Republicans’ war on green energy. “Against an elemental force and a state that failed them, they recognized that the best way to survive was to band together, and practice mutual aid — supporting one another with what little they had.”

It is time to end extractive tourism

On social ecology. A Srsly Wrong podcast series that explores what a post-capitalist future might look like from a social ecology perspective, and how we might get there. Check out part 1, part 2, and part 3.

“The world has become weird”: crisis, natures and radical re-enchantment



News you might’ve missed

Residents of Jackson are nearing two weeks with no running water

Mexican feminists raise their voices against patriarchy

Argentina’s decades-long fight to legalize abortion ends in victory  

Sex trafficking sting nets Enbridge pipeline workers

Community in Trinidad says ‘No’ to quarry operator targeting area’s last untouched watershed

Nevada lithium mine kicks off a new era of Western extraction

Inuit hunters braved -30 C weather to block an iron mine 

Rio Tinto in Serbia: privatization of natural resources, obstruction of sustainable development 

A victory for farmers in a David-and-Goliath environmental case 

Sámi reindeer herders file lawsuit against Norway windfarm 



Where we’re at: analysis

How extractive industries manage to carry on harming the planet

Private planes, mansions and superyachts: What gives billionaires like Musk and Abramovich such a massive carbon footprint 

India’s farmers’ protests: “This is history in the making” 

Anti-extractivism and radical politics in Ecuador 

The Deep South has a rich history of resistance, as Amazon is learning

Child labour, toxic leaks: the price we could pay for a greener future 

Electricity needed to mine bitcoin is more than used by ‘entire countries’

The poison found in everyone, even unborn babies – and who is responsible for it

People buying SUVs are cancelling out climate gains from electric cars 

The Paris Agreement is already outdated



COVID-19

Cape Town’s response to COVID-19 shows that another kind of society is possible

Why I’m an invisible man in the global vaccine campaign

Despair and disparity: The uneven burdens of COVID-19. A Truthout series on the disparate impact and deep injustices that the crisis has wrought in the United States.

10 ways corporations have exploited COVID-19




Just think about it…

The climate crisis shows how rich people blow through their “fair share” of carbon emissions

Is thrift shopping good for the environment?

Humans may not be able to reproduce naturally much longer, scientist warns

Billionaires want to be the gatekeepers of the solar system

Mars is a hellhole

How to write about pipelines



Degrowth

Current L’Internationale issue on degrowth and progress

The urgent case for shrinking the economy 

Degrowth: Pushing social wellbeing and climate over economic growth 

Giving up capitalism doesn’t mean giving up pleasure

Socialism without growth. “People appear to understand the abstract concept of “limitless”, but it is more difficult to understand that the concept cannot and should not be applied to growth. Even socialists must shake off the idea that quantity can improve, when only quality counts.”

Ecosocialism is the horizon, degrowth is the way

Is the world poor, or unjust?



New politics

Anarchism in practice is often radically boring democracy

Mutual aid: Kropotkin’s theory of human capacity

Hiding in plain sight. Democracy’s Indigenous origins in the Americas.

Building power in a crisis of social reproduction 

The lockdown showed how the economy exploits women. She already knew. Silvia Federici on how strengthening the commons can revolutionize care work.

Current YES! Magazine issue on what an ecological civilization looks like 



Cities and radical municipalism

The city where cars are not welcome. As automakers promise to get rid of internal combustion engines, Heidelberg is trying to get rid of autos.

Two-way street: how Barcelona is democratising public space 

Squatting, rebellion, movement: An interview with Philadelphia Housing Action 

How ’15-minute cities’ will change the way we socialise 

The ‘revolutionary’ fight over California’s hidden oil and gas wells 



Food politics

Planet farm

The agrarian question in the 21st century 

Agrarian change and peasant struggles in colonial Pakistan




Resources

Introduction to political economy. A podcast hosted by Noaman G. Ali that looks at how politics and economics interrelate, but also how political economy can encompass a lot more than just politics and economics.

No job, no rent. A 30-page report by the Stomp Out Slumlords tenants rights project on 10 months of organizing the tenant struggle during a pandemic.

Books: 14 wellbeing books for a common good and good life, D-Econ’s 2020 alternative reading list, and What to read in the environmental humanities now 

The top 100 documentaries we can use to change the world

PLN. A monthly show on YouTube covering positive Leftist news stories. 

A Twitter thread exploring what meaningful work in a degrowth world might look like




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A new book tells us what is really behind the ‘K-shaped recovery’

West Lodge Towers in Toronto, owned by Hazelview, formerly known as Timber Creek Asset Management. The financialization of the rental market in real estate is a key component of the asset economy. Photo: Neal Rockwell.

by Neal Rockwell

Earlier on in the pandemic there was a good deal of talk about what letter best represents the economic crisis that resulted from the COVID-19 virus. The first (and overly optimistic) suggestion was the letter V – that is to say a rapid decline of the economy followed by a rapid rebound. Other suggestions were a U (like the V, but a little more drawn out), the W (two back to back Vs) and an L (steep drop off, slow recovery). 

None of these seemed, however, to accurately explain what was going on, so finally pundits and commentators introduced the idea of the K shaped recovery. This one is somewhat more difficult to understand than the others, partly because only the two diagonal strokes play into the visual metaphor, with the vertical stem being extraneous, but more importantly because it stretches the meaning of the word recovery itself. 

Essentially, it divides the economy into two portions, one which has seen its fortunes dramatically increased, the other which continues to slide further into poverty. For the former category there has effectively been a boom without crisis, for the latter there has been an ongoing crisis without recovery. The stock market and home prices are increasing rapidly, while many people watch their financial troubles multiply with alarming speed. It seems obvious that this should not qualify as a recovery at all, but what then is taking place?

The Asset Economy, a new monograph published by Polity Books may help shed some light on the economic structures that could provoke this unusual K-shaped economic phenomenon. This slim volume, written by three Australian sociologists, Lisa Adkins and Martijn Konigs of the University of Sydney and Melinda Cooper of the Australian National University,  focuses on the way asset ownership—primarily stocks and property—has become central to our economic system, but also to the ordering of social relations within our society. 

The central argument of the book is that asset price inflation (especially property) has been the main driver of wealth since about the beginning of the 1980s. As wages have stagnated, rising stock, property, and notably home equity has allowed net worth to increase, at least for those who have access to asset ownership. That idea by itself is not novel, nor even controversial. Since the election of Margaret Thatcher all governments in the English-speaking world (and many others) have pursued this policy of ‘asset based welfare’. 

In essence, this is a very individualistic strategy where social welfare programs are cut, unions are broken and people’s needs are met either by owning a stock portfolio or a home whose value increases over time, providing funds for retirement as well as life’s other needs. 

The downside to this welfare strategy, of course, is that it requires the constant inflation of asset prices in order to remain viable. Its value creation strategy is entirely dependent on inflating asset prices specifically in relation to the prices of consumer goods overall, and more importantly in relation to wages. That means that as time progresses this form of “welfare” becomes more and more unattainable to larger and larger numbers of people, increasing the poverty of non-asset owning people, and making cities ever more unliveable. 

Class is just not the same as it used to be

What is novel about the authors’ approach is the level of detail and attention they lend to this subject. One of the authors’ main ideas is that since the 1970s there has been a shift, where the main class antagonism in society is no longer centred around employment, i.e.: between people who labour and those who own the means of production, but instead between those who own assets and those who do not. As they state “[t]he key element shaping inequality is no longer the employment relationship, but rather whether one is able to buy assets that appreciate at a faster rate than both inflation and wages.” 

The main class antagonism in society is no longer centred around employment but instead between those who own assets and those who do not.

This may seem a little like Thomas Piketty’s now famous r > g (return on investments is greater than GDP growth). Piketty’s formula suggests that if return on investments is higher than growth, then investment incomes for the wealthiest are based on syphoning money from the rest of the population, more than they are grounded in actual new wealth creation. This necessitates widening income inequality.  

The authors explain, however, that Piketty tends to focus mainly on the very top of the economic hierarchy—those most heavily invested in the stock market, whereas their asset economy is more insidiously distributed throughout the upper and middle classes. Home ownership is particularly vital for entry into the asset economy by people below the very top of the wealth spread and as such “housing has become a significant generator of inequality.” The authors therefore argue that asset ownership is the primary engine of class distinction and inequality in the 21st century. 

The authors  also take care to distinguish the asset economy from rentier capitalism (which they claim focuses too much on the very top) and financialization (which they think focuses too heavily on making assets liquid, when a large part of the asset economy involves taking on large amounts of debt to buy illiquid housing assets). 

Rentier capitalism, for quick clarification, is the idea that as the economy becomes more monopolistic, the owning class makes more if its income from parasitically charging rents and fees for access to services, rather than producing actually valuable goods and services. A good example of this would be increasing bank service fees – they do not actually improve a customer’s experience, but act like a kind of private tax. 

Financialization refers to the growing way that financial activities and speculation have come to dominate the economy since the 1970s, replacing industrial production as the central driver of capitalism. In short this means that much more energy is devoted to playing the stock market, and loan markets in relation to investing in producing and selling products. A good example of this is how in the last ten years companies have invested profits into buying back their own stocks to drive up their prices, rather than investing in other more concrete, productive aspects of their businesses.

The authors also downplay the worker / boss relationship in relation to contemporary capitalist exploitation, in favour of the asset / no-asset dichotomy, partly because they believe the role of commodity production is now less important to the economy than long-term asset speculation, and also because class identity is now confused. There are white collar workers like journalists, magazine editors, NGO employees, etc… who are precarious and own no assets, while at the same time there are working class people who have managed to ascend on the asset-owning ladder (though they point out that this is rarer and rarer). 

Inflation is sneaky

For some time I have been puzzling over the way economic and business people tend to talk about inflation. Analysts and commentators frequently explain that we live in a period of very low inflation. 

This has always seemed somewhat absurd to me because the biggest expense in almost everyone’s life—the cost of housing—has seen prices skyrocket stratospherically in the past several decades. The authors make the same observation, noting that asset price inflation should today be considered part of inflation. As they state:

[T]he official story is that we live in a world without inflation… But this obscures the fact that inflation elsewhere has been central to the making of the neoliberal asset economy. Of course, we tend not to think of asset price inflation as inflation, but that is itself the product of a particular historical conjuncture and discursive configuration. It is therefore important to understand the transition from the Keynesian to the neoliberal era as a shift from price inflation towards asset inflation. 

The authors observe that in the 1970s there was an opposite dynamic at play: wage and price inflation was high and asset prices were stagnating. As they explain “[t]he wage and consumer price spiral of the 1970s was the symptom of an undecided struggle between different social groups who sought to maintain their respective shares of the national income.” 

What is most illuminating here is the idea that inflation is not simply a blunt process which either is or is not happening. On the contrary, as the authors show, it is a strategic battle between different actors in society. Different types of inflation benefit different portions of the population. Inflating asset prices is an indirect form of appropriation from those who do not hold assets because it erodes the value of their earnings, while increasing the value of asset owners’ holdings. 

Inflation is not simply a blunt process which either is or is not happening, but a strategic battle between different actors in society. Different types of inflation benefit different portions of the population.

In a crude sense this inflationary process is like printing money out of nothing. While overall it diminishes the value of everybody’s individual dollars it transfers a greater and greater portion of those dollars into the hands of the asset owning minority. The value that asset holders create for themselves outpaces whatever debasement of buying power this process may engender. 

The authors of the book are therefore at pains to show how asset wealth is different in character from other kinds of wealth. Key to this insight is the fact that assets don’t produce goods and services or surplus themselves. Rather, when the value of assets experience inflation, those who own assets are able to capitalise on them, while those who don’t see their buying power eroded. 

It’s in this sense that finance, banking, and the asset economy are actually part of a privatized system for creating money. This affords the asset-owning minority a greater and greater ability to leverage this ‘money creation’ power over the structure and direction of the real economy—the actions people perform and things people make, that are the actual measure of wealth. People who hold assets then have a unique kind of power over others, because they are able to capitalise on this specific form of inflation (which is at odds with traditional wage and price inflation), while the rest of the population is excluded from the means for a stable and secure future. The book is extremely useful in clarifying this dynamic. 

Overstating assets 

One of the weaker aspects of the book is to perhaps overstate the role of what the authors term the asset economy somewhat to the exclusion of the other frames that they outline their position against: rentier capitalism, financialization, and labour relations. 

To take one example, one of the major drivers of financialization is cheap debt. Loading up on low interest loans is one of the drivers of asset price inflation as the authors observe, but it also allows real estate to arguably become much more liquid. These loans help make ever more expensive housing accessible to investors, fast growing equity makes it easy to sell these properties quickly and painlessly. Stories of condos being sold multiple times before they are even built are a testament to this process. 

I would argue, somewhat against the assertions of the authors, that the asset economy is financialization. They are both part of a privatized money creation scheme (money is created in the form of cheap loans, inflating property prices, stocks, etc…), that shifts a greater and greater portion of the money (or if you prefer value) supply into the hands of a select few. 

This is maybe an argument for a basic income of some sort—not that it would not create inflation, in the long term it likely would—but that it would increase inflation in the right direction, away from the hands of the private money creation industry and into the pockets of poor and working people. Since asset inflation, banking and finance are part of a privatized system of money creation—one that benefits mainly the people who own and control it, state monetary policy can act as a counterweight to this process. Similar to the question surrounding inflation, the issue at stake around money creation is not simply how much is too much, but who has the right to do it and for the benefit of whom?  At any rate there is certainly more to consider in how these processes relate to contemporary class struggles.

Work relationships, assets, finance, rentier capitalism and other dynamics, I believe, all exist concurrently in a way that is somewhat more complicated than the vision laid out in this book. That said, the asset economy frame outlined by the authors is nonetheless very timely and does provide necessary clarification that gets missed from some of these other more widely discussed analyses. 

Understating production

This leads me to what I think is perhaps a bigger weakness in The Asset Economy: understating the role of production. The authors quite correctly observe that there is no “natural” way to measure prices—markets are contingent, arbitrary, socially constructed objects. They assert that inequality in society “works less and less through extraction and appropriation, and increasingly through the inflation and deflation of temporally situated claims.” 

This single sentence manages to capture both what I consider the strongest and weakest elements of the book’s argument. Personally I would not set these two dynamics against each other. I would state, to the contrary, that it is inflation and deflation of specific forms of value that drive extraction and appropriation in the 21st century. 

People doing and making things is still the basis of everything we consider valuable. The asset economy, like finance, has not supplanted real wealth. What it does is reorder cash distributions across different populations.

Further, some confusion arises from the way that the authors downplay the real economy and labour. People doing and making things is still the basis of everything we consider valuable. The asset economy, like finance, has not supplanted real wealth. What it does is reorder cash distributions across different populations. 

Organizing against the K-shaped recovery

Recently, housing has grown as a novel site for working class struggles—above and beyond traditional sites like factories or other workplaces. Since the pandemic, we have seen the building of tenants’ unions and neighbourhood groups organizing against evictions and rent increases. These groups themselves explicitly identify housing as a target of working class organizing. This is partly because the precarious, gig and service economies make workplace organizing more challenging versus, say, organizing a centralized factory, but also because rents and housing costs have become a main point of extraction of working people’s wealth. It is a major point of 21st century exploitation. 

This is a testament to the authors’ claim that neoliberalism has reordered traditional class relations. In the neighbourhood where I live, for example, many of the buildings where organizing is taking place are owned by asset management companies. This is not incidental, and it is part of why COVID-19 has been a crisis for some and a boon for others.

It may be worthwhile at this juncture to reiterate that a K-shaped recovery is no recovery at all. The image simply highlights the widening gulf of inequality between people who own assets and those who do not. We could think of the present-day wave of organizing around housing and rent as being a direct challenge to the inequality being wrought by asset price inflation.

A K-shaped recovery is no recovery at all. The image simply highlights the widening gulf of inequality between people who own assets and those who do not.

This transformation in class identity warrants greater consideration. At the same time,  we must be cautious not to overstate this conversion. It’s true that there is significant overlap between people who own assets and own businesses where people work. On the other hand, many non-asset owning people are also low-paid workers. While asset prices have reorganised monetary value and who controls it, the work done by people is still the backbone of our collective wealth.

This book offers an important and timely analytical lens by which we can better theorize the growth of contemporary inequality and exploitation. There is a good deal more work to be done. I think the answer lies not in setting asset price inflation against a labour theory of value and exploitation, but in exploring how these dynamics intersect and work together, which will give us, amongst other things, a deeper understanding of why housing has become so central to 21st century working class struggle.    

Neal Rockwell is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He is currently completing a masters’ degree in Documentary Media at Ryerson University where he is exploring the effects of financialization on rental housing, as well researching the use of documentary power in the economy and the law, with the goal of strengthening documentary practice as a form of radical truth-telling.

Rewilding

Photo: courtesy of Daniel Horen Greenford

by Joshua Sterlin

Conservation biology: rewilding for landscapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yellowstone

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

Conservation and coloniality

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

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

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

Rewilding for humans: what is our niche?

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

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

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

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

Further resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Blue neocolonialism

Photo from the Nature Conservancy

by Kendall Dix

Countries of the Global South are facing a modern form of economic domination from foreign interests. The story of Europeans plundering Black and brown nations to profit from their natural resources is probably a familiar one. But now that nature itself has become commodified through the tourist economy, environmentalism functions as  a justification for replicating the same old colonial power dynamics. 

Under the banner of conservation, green nonprofits in the United States have begun using the government debt of previously colonized nations as a bargaining chip to force governments to create new nature preserves. Just over two years ago, the U.S.’s richest environmental organization, The Nature Conservancy, partnered with big European banks to coerce Seychelles, a small island nation 1,000 miles east of Kenya in the Indian Ocean, to issue “blue bonds.” These bonds are a new debt instrument that are supposed to be good for the environment and attract investors who believe Wall Street can be a driver of public good. 

Blue bonds are modelled on “green bonds,” another market-based climate solution that can enable companies to claim they are engaging in environmentally friendly solutions while actually achieving little positive environmental benefit.

On October 29, 2018, the World Bank and The Nature Conservancy announced that the government of Seychelles would issue $15 million of blue bonds, “a pioneering financial instrument designed to support sustainable marine and fisheries projects.” Blue bonds function just like regular bonds. If a government or company wants to borrow money, it issues bonds that are sold in bond markets. The government gets a lump payment upfront and then pays the money with interest over time to the holders of the bonds, which can then be bought and sold on markets just like stocks are. Bonds are considered safe investments because governments rarely default on their debts. What makes blue bonds “blue” is that the issuer of the bond is supposed to use the money on ocean conservation. In the case of Seychelles, the nation issued the bonds to pay off some of its national debt and turn 30 percent of its coral reefs into marine protected areas (MPAs). 

The Nature Conservancy says blue bonds are “an audacious plan to save the world’s oceans” and “could unlock $1.6 billion for ocean conservation.” Blue bonds are modelled on “green bonds,” another market-based climate solution that can enable companies to claim they are engaging in environmentally friendly solutions while actually achieving little positive environmental benefit. For example, a Spanish oil and gas company sold green bonds to finance upgrades to their oil refineries, a project of dubious environmental benefit given that it facilitates continued greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the project was sold to investors as a “green” project because it promised to marginally reduce emissions within Spain’s existing oil industry.  

While the bulk of media coverage about the blue bonds deal heralded it as a win-win for conservation and Seychelles, nobody seemed to notice that a U.S. nonprofit used a sovereign nation’s foreign debt to leverage the closing of a huge portion of its fishing grounds. We should call the move to deliver conditional aid to Seychelles premised upon reordering its economy what it is: “neocolonialism.” Neocolonialism is the extension of colonial practices through the exertion of economic, political, or cultural pressures to control or influence previously colonized nations. 

No fishing

Fisherfolk tend to have mixed views on MPAs, and many are outright opposed. They argue that MPAs are overly restrictive and economically punish fisherfolk while showing limited conservation benefits. Fisherfolk argue that commercial fishing can be sustainable, and some would prefer limiting their days on the water or restricting certain types of destructive fishing practices.

In the United States, conservation initiatives have targeted small-boat seafood harvesters for decades now. Many of these small-scale harvesters are Indigenous peoples who have fished sustainably for centuries. For instance, in the 1960s, the Nisqually, Puyallup, and Muckleshoot nations had to fight the state of Washington for the right to catch salmon. Washington State’s salmon stocks had been declining since commercial fishing took off after World War II. Tribal communities had been partially blamed for the decline and were beaten and arrested by police for fishing that was guaranteed to them by treaties signed by the state. In the 1980s, environmental activist groups Greenpeace and Seashepherd targeted Indigenous tribes in Alaska and the Soviet Union for the legal harvesting of whales. When environmental groups are looking for easy victories to publicize, nonwhite people and developing nations such as Seychelles, with limited political power, seem to make for easy targets.

For Seychelles, where more than one in six people is employed in the fisheries sector, the potential hamstringing of the country’s second-most important industry could have lasting impacts on the autonomy of small-scale fisheries to determine their livelihoods and futures. It may be that Seychellian fisherfolk and the general public do prefer the creation of MPAs to limit commercial fishing, but there is nothing in the public record to indicate that they were even asked. If the people of Seychelles wanted to create MPAs, the nation already had democratic institutions to work through. Conditioning needed aid on the creation of nature preserves deprives them of their national sovereignty. 

Up to its neck in debt 

In 2008, Seychelles defaulted on its national debt to foreign banks. The nation owed significant amounts of money to banks in the European Union, largely to its former colonizers France and Britain. Seychelles’ debt had reached unsustainable levels due to two major factors. Firstly, the island nation has been on the losing end of uneven foreign trade in which it imports expensive goods such as oil and yachts while exporting relatively inexpensive natural resources such as tuna for canning. Secondly,  Seychelles has been limited in its ability to generate revenue because of overly generous tax breaks offered to foreign investors during its transition to a tourism-based economy and a tax haven. When nations cannot generate revenue through taxation or exports but still must import expensive goods to finance economic development, their governments have little choice but to borrow money from foreign banks. 

When the global economy collapsed in 2008, tourism to the Seychelles slowed down. At the same time, oil prices shot through the roof and further crippled a Seychellian economy reliant on oil imports.

From the EU’s economic perspective, Seychelles’ problems have resulted not from extractive global capitalism and coercive debt relationships but from overly generous domestic programs that support the second-longest living population in sub-Saharan Africa. This sentiment is illustrated by a statement from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that socialism had “eroded the work ethic” of the Seychelles, a statement that is shocking in its obfuscation of uneven debt relations, its McCarthyite redbaiting, and its placement of value on economic growth above the wellbeing of the people of Seychelles. 

In 2010, France forgave about five percent of Seychelles’ total debt, but the IMF had other plans for the remainder. In a move straight out of a playbook from Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine,” the IMF demanded that Seychelles further liberalize its economy and decrease welfare spending in exchange for restructuring its debt payments through 2017. Liberalization typically involves reducing trade barriers, rolling back financial and environmental regulations, slashing public benefits, and privatizing public resources. European countries and the United States have often strong armed developing nations to liberalize their economies in order to enable multi-national corporations to extract value from a nation’s natural resources.

As the debt restructuring deal expired, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) emerged from the nonprofit sector to leverage the debt to limit Seychelles’s fishing industry. TNC’s CEO at the time was Mark Tercek, a former managing director and partner at investment bank Goldman Sachs. Tercek wrote a book called “Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature,” detailing how big business could profit off of environmental conservation. Blue bonds are one instance of the realization of Tercek’s vision of banks and environmental groups profiting off conservation. 

The Nature Conservancy: A nonprofit with more money than some nations

TNC was founded in the United States in 1951 and is one of the largest environmental nonprofits in the world. TNC’s mission is to protect nature from human activity, an idea grounded in the belief that humans and nature cannot coexist. Its preferred tool for conservation is easements, which are restrictions on development that can attach to property through private sales contracts. These easements can provide big tax breaks for TNC’s wealthy donors and partners, which include oil companies, Dow chemical, and the charity arm of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co. TNC has a presence in 79 countries and an endowment of $6 billion. In contrast, The entire GDP of the Seychelles is less than $1.7 billion. TNC is funded by grants from large foundations and membership dues, but it also generates revenue through investment income and land gifts.

In 2001, TNC expanded its focus to include “debt for nature” swaps, where it used a similar scheme in Southeast Asian and Central American forests as in the Seychelles to buy the debt of struggling nations in exchange for the creation of more nature preserves. In the Seychelles deal, TNC worked directly with the World Bank (the IMF’s sister organization) to buy some of the country’s debt in exchange for the creation of 13 new MPAs. TNC gets to claim credit for protecting coral reefs from fisherfolk, but it’s also receiving 3% interest payments on the debt from the Seychellian government. 

The World Bank says it is backing the blue bonds because a healthier ocean will create a healthier economy. The stated commitment to a healthier ocean is admirable, but the World Bank’s implementation of the goal involves tactics that are paternalistic, coercive, and primarily benefit large corporations. Further, the economic value of MPAs is difficult to quantify. Some studies have found that MPAs don’t deliver environmental benefits, particularly when compared to conventional tools used for fishery management such as catch limits or gear restrictions.

So, if the environmental and economic benefits are dubious, then one has to wonder whether this deal is really supposed to benefit the Seychellian people. The Nature Conservancy and the big European banks holding their debt could simply have forgiven the Seychelles’ debt, but in the words of colonist Winston Churchill, that would have let a good crisis go to waste. With less debt pressure on its economy, Seychelles would have been more free to use its natural and financial resources how it sees fit. 

As the largest environmental nonprofit in the United States, TNC controls large swaths of land and brings in revenue at levels comparable to small nations, in part thanks to interest payments by Seychelles and other nations in the Global South. TNC’s money and its influence give it considerably greater options than other environmental nonprofits to influence the direction of environmental protection. When TNC embraces “market-based solutions,” politicians and other environmental groups begin to see those tactics as appropriate and effective. In other words, TNC’s considerable political and economic clout increases the perceived legitimacy of market-based solutions and directs others to jump onto the bandwagon. 

Again, the effectiveness of MPAs as environmentally beneficial is disputed. But even if MPAs offer the best protection from harms caused by fishing, MPAs still do nothing to protect marine areas from climate change or other environmental stressors on fisheries. MPAs don’t prevent damage to coral reefs caused by pollution that originates on land. Seychelles lost 90 percent of its coral reefs in 1998 not to overfishing but to coral bleaching, which is exacerbated by warming waters and climate change.

If MPAs don’t protect against climate change or development threats and may not even enhance fishery production, then blue bonds start to look a lot like coercive conservation designed to benefit wealthy outsiders. We also know that real estate development damages coral reefs, so it’s safe to assume that the hotels built during the tourism boom also played a role in the destruction of coral reefs that helped create the justification for issuing blue bonds. Ironically, one of the economic selling points of blue bonds is that protecting the reefs will keep the tourist economy afloat, which could create the demand for more hotels that would further damage the reefs. This creates a feedback loop where conservation may actually put more pressure on the environment, as documented in places such as Machu Picchu in Peru and in several U.S. national parks

A history of extraction 

The World Bank’s description of blue bonds as “pioneering” is telling. The word “pioneer” evokes a history of European colonial expansion, resource extraction, and domination of darker skinned people. For several centuries, Seychelles functioned as a European outpost that used the archipelago’s natural resources to benefit Europeans. It was supposedly uninhabited until it was colonized by the French in the 1700s. As first a French and later a British colony, Seychelles was primarily a source of spices, coconuts, and other agricultural products that were produced on plantations with slave labor. Today, most of its people are creole, or of mixed European and African descent.  

The original colonization of Seychelles occurred during the heyday of triangular trade, which was an early economic model of globalization in the 17th and 18th centuries. European and North American slavers extracted people from Africa for the slave market and sent them to the colonies in the so-called New World. The colonists used this forced labor to process the vast natural resources of North America and send value-added products back to Europe where they would command a higher price. European slavers could then trade these manufactured products in Africa for more slaves. The entire system was financed by European banks. It was in this context that Seychelles was colonized. The same model of resource-based extraction and plunder of Africa continues to this day through coercive conservation. 

In 1971, Seychelles was still under direct colonial control. The British constructed an international airport and tourism quickly replaced agriculture and fishing as the number one industry. Hotels sprouted all over the archipelago and soon dominated the local economy. In 1976, a socialist-led independence movement gained popular support, and (with the blessing of the United States government which was building a military base on one of the islands at the time), Seychelles finally broke free politically from the United Kingdom. 

The economy, though, continued to depend on support from foreign tourists and investment. By 2019, services such as tourism and banking accounted for more than 72 percent of Seychelles’ GDP. However, very little of the money stayed in Seychelles. From the beginning of the boom, profits from the tourism sector were captured by foreign hotel companies and booking agencies.

The future of conservation?

The blue bonds model may not be limited to the Seychelles for long. TNC continues to tout the benefits of blue bonds and marine reserves, but blue bonds could also play an increasing role in the climate and oceans policy of the next President of the United States. Heather Zichal, who was the vice president of corporate affairs for The Nature Conservancy when the blue bonds were first issued, advised the Biden campaign on environmental policy. She was also briefly the executive director of Blue Prosperity Coalition, an organization dedicated to limiting fishing to 30 percent of the oceans

The Nature Conservancy’s unholy alliance with fossil fuel companies and big banks represents everything that’s wrong with modern environmentalism.

Previously, Zichal said that she wanted to create an environmental policy that finds “middle ground” with oil and gas companies. It would seem incompatible for someone working on behalf of the ocean to find common cause with the businesses responsible for causing ocean acidification through the release of carbon emissions while actively preventing any meaningful climate action. However, Zichal also has financial connections to the oil and gas industry. She was paid more than $180,000 a year to serve on the board of Cheniere Energy, a natural gas company. She was appointed to Cheniere’s board shortly after leaving the Obama Administration where she served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change. Zichal had been identified as a top concern by progressive groups who don’t want Biden to involve her in the new administration.

Now that Biden is President, Zichal has been hired to head a new renewable energy lobbying firm that will seek to use her connections to the new administration to push for more support for wind and solar. Zichal’s career is a perfect example of the “revolving door” of politics, where high level government officials can leave administrative work for prominent positions in the corporate nonprofit/consulting world while also serving on the board of some of the world’s worst polluters.  

The Nature Conservancy’s unholy alliance with fossil fuel companies and big banks represents everything that’s wrong with modern environmentalism. A corporate approach to environmentalism that perpetuates systems of domination is not just flawed; it is doomed to fail in the long term because it continues to empower the very forces that view “nature” as something that can be used up until it’s no longer profitable. 

TNC is certainly not the only nonprofit that helps prop up a global economic system grounded in extraction, but it is one of the system’s largest nonprofit beneficiaries of money and land donations. And while a number of gifted scientists and advocates make up the rank and file of their 3,500 employees, the organization as a whole suffers from a lack of vision. 

Unfortunately there are two major problems with TNC and a large portion of the environmental movement:

  1. Many people within it are unable or unwilling to recognize that unfettered extraction of environmental resources is intrinsic to capitalism.
  2. Many environmentalists still hold Malthusian notions that human beings are incapable of coexisting with nature. 

TNC and similar groups’  missions to protect nature in its “wild” state is itself a problematic notion rooted in indigenous erasure. Prior to the rise of European colonization and triangular trade, hundreds of nations of people lived on the American continent. They lived, hunted, farmed, fished, and built things from the Arctic Circle to Patagonia. 

When we set up a society that says some places are for people and some places are for “nature,” we reinforce the idea that it’s okay to trash the places that are for people. It also justifies the expulsion of the people from spaces set aside for “nature”, and the denial of relatedness and kinship between the two. Instead, we need to recognize that humans and our habitats are inherently a part of nature and rebuild our systems accordingly. 

If the people at TNC and other environmental nonprofits are truly interested in living in harmony with nature, they would have to radically transform their own organizations to focus on disrupting an economic system that relies on exploiting natural resources. After all, it was the global imbalance of power and extractive model that originally generated Seychelles’ dependency on foreign tourists, foreign exports, and foreign fishing interests. 

But until TNC and the World Bank reckon with capitalism itself, blue bonds will just help reinforce the unequal global order that makes Seychelles reliant on foreign aid and debt. Whether the bonds are blue or green, neocolonialism with an environmental justification is still just neocolonialism.

Kendall Dix works on climate policy and lives on a farm outside of Charlottesville, VA.

Who owns the city? Cars and COVID-19

Claiborne Avenue underneath Interstate-10 in New Orleans. Photo: New Urbanism.

by Rob Persons

The degradation of the city by the car has come to a head as the lack of pedestrian space in urban centres has prevented safe social distancing throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Cities including Paris, San Francisco, London, New York City, Athens, Lima, Bogotá and many more are implementing plans to restrict and/or ban cars in designated areas to enable people to get outside, and to go spend money. In Milan, the Strade Aperte plan announced in April, will transform 35km of roads into cycling and walking space, including 8km of the Corso Buenos Aires, one of Milan’s main commercial streets. The deputy mayor of Milan said this is intended to make more room for people, especially people who shop. A similar plan is being mulled in New Orleans by Mayor Cantrell in concert with the city’s powerful business associations in an effort to ‘recoup revenues lost to the coronavirus’ in the historic French Quarter.

Recently, major publications have been publishing think pieces exalting the benefits of car free cities, lamenting the wasted space, pollution and accidents. In July, The New York Times Sunday Review ran such a piece as a cover article. It made some good points, especially as it rejects ride-sharing and electric cars as realistic solutions to climate change, but was misleading in that it portrays car centred development as a series of mistakes by urban planners or the unconscious result of ‘ethically neutral markets.’ A feature in Bloomberg on the ‘15-minute city’ is even more reason for hope as it focuses on the need for social equity and affordable housing in the transition to ecological cities. Missing from this growing discourse, however, is an examination of the political and economic factors which brought about this car-centred-world in the first place, and how those forces are still in power. In the past, seemingly progressive urban reforms have been used to further cement racial and economic hierarchies. In the United States, epidemics in the 19th century inspired reformers to establish municipal garbage collection, water waste systems, and public health boards meanwhile utilizing xenophobic and classist narratives blaming immigrants (especially Chinese communities), poor people, and the ‘morally corrupt’ for the outbreaks in the first place. Therefore, calls for car free cities should be celebrated with moderation, for if they lack a reconstructive egalitarianism and fail to address the root causes that led to this dubious status-quo, the underlying issues of social and ecological domination will continue to be left for future generations. As we will see, the same extractive economy that brought us the car-centred-world is also behind the growing ecological threat of deadly viruses in what could be a future of global pandemics.

Cars and COVID-19: a political ecology

Viral infection expert Rob Wallace explicitly points to capital backed agriculture, specifically monoculture plantations and livestock feedlots, as the driving proponent in the modern development of zoonotic diseases (like coronavirus) because they homogenize the world’s most biodiverse biomes thereby reducing resilience to disease transmutation. Though the threat of viral pathogens lies most pressingly in the deforestation of tropical regions, Wallace et al. warn,

‘Focusing on outbreak zones ignores the relations shared by global economic actors that shape epidemiologies. The capital interests backing development- and production-induced changes in land use and disease emergence in underdeveloped parts of the globe reward efforts that pin responsibility for outbreaks on Indigenous populations and their so-deemed “dirty” cultural practices.’

We must reject the nationalistic and sinophobic narratives employed by right-wing con artists and duplicitous finger pointers around the world hoping to hide their own complicity. It is vital that we investigate how the capitalist economy drives similar ecological simplifications wherever we are.

We must end our dependence on cars and irrational patterns of urbanisation because the arrogance of the extraction economy is leading us toward climate chaos and a potential future of global pandemics.

The car-centred-world perpetuates unsustainable land use and loss of natural habitat analogous to industrial agriculture. Compared to public transit or bicycles, the speed and individuality of the automobile requires an enormous amount of space to accommodate, as visualized here. From three lane roads, street parking, expansive parking lots, interstate highways, gas stations, and personal driveways, our built environment becomes an urban sprawl centred around the needs of the car. For example, between 1950 and 1995 land coverage increased by 165 percent in the Chicago metro area despite a 48 percent population increase; meanwhile on the United States eastern seaboard, a continuous sprawl now stretches from Boston all the way down to Washington DC. The car has clogged up and swollen the city, enabling the suburbs to proliferate and deforest the countryside. This type of development fractures ecosystems and communities, leading to a myriad of ecological consequences. The number one irrigated crop in the United States is currently suburban lawn grass, as homeowners are compelled to replace indigenous ecologies with non-native and unproductive grass. Thus suburbs not only increase distances, but also squander the invaded land as the lawn, home, and car consume heretofore unknown quantities from supply chains that stretch the globe. Modern cities and suburbs are designed for cars, rendering alternative transportation either seriously inconvenient or utterly impossible, thus creating a positive feedback loop where increased distances make more people reliant on cars which then require ever more space to accommodate and so on and so forth. Today, many jobs are not even accessible without a car so owning one becomes all but compulsory.

Urban sprawl driven by the automobile, like the plantation and feedlot, leads to fractured ecosystems, reduction of biodiversity, pollution and resource waste. The monoculture, slaughterhouse, city, and suburbs are materially linked by the goods produced at these inhumane institutions which furnish urban supermarkets and stores. But, more fundamentally, they operate under the economic assumption that land and animals are mere resource pools from which to extract value rather than a larger ecology of which humans are a part. Just as we must end the agricultural-industrial-complex, we must end our dependence on cars and irrational patterns of urbanisation because the arrogance of the extraction economy is leading us toward climate chaos and a potential future of global pandemics.

Cars and capitalism: a political economy

One of the most fundamental properties of capitalism is that growth and profit are necessary for its survival. Car-centred transportation is the opposite of cost-effective in terms of aggregate resource use, but it makes better business sense to sell individual cars than to maintain a robust public transit system from a growth and profit standpoint. Since protecting the environment is external to the profit motive, modern development lets the environment be damned. For the capitalist economy, the auto industry is a golden goose affecting so many different markets between steel, rubber, oil, glass, service/repairs, bank loans (debt), and insurance (auto and health). From the consumption standpoint, cars are ever-consuming as the tank must be refilled every 350 or so kilometres, the oil must be changed every 4000, insurance payments are due monthly, vehicle financing collects interest, leasing prevents outright ownership, and god forbid the driver gets into an accident. Much profit to be made.

Cars are useless without roads, making the auto-industry dependent on state funded infrastructure for its basic viability.

The state has played a major role in the creation of the car-centred-world. People often misunderstand the place of governments in the establishment and maintenance of capital markets, for it is commonly assumed that state interference is an opposing force to the so-called free market. In fact, free markets could never have been established without the state’s organization of violence and its funding of infrastructure and high-risk technological research that private firms seeking short-term profit would never undertake on their own. Most famously described by Karl Polanyi, the state plays a vital role in the process of enclosure and dispossession, in which Commons and other pre-capitalist relations are violently crushed and replaced by economic value exchange. In order to create consumers, alternative means of meeting needs must be liquidated.

Cars are useless without roads, making the auto-industry dependent on state funded infrastructure for its basic viability. Ted Steinberg details how the automobile enclosed cities in the United States through a coalition of the state and capital. In the 1930’s, General Motors put New York City’s trolley system out of business before forming National City Lines along with Standard Oil, Firestone Tire and Rubber, and other corporations that profit from car sales. Over the course of several years, National City Lines bought and sabotaged 40 transit companies across 14 states, stifling that ‘healthy competition’ mass transit presented to the automobile. In 1947 NCL was grand juried under the Sherman Antitrust Act and were found to have ‘entered into a “collusive agreement” to monopolize the transit market,’ though the consequences were innocuous fines. Meanwhile, the New Deal doubled road coverage throughout the 1930’s, outspending on roads over public transit 10:1, again tipping the scale of the market. Then in 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act sunk $25 billion taxpayer dollars to construct thousands of miles of interstate highways, all but solidifying the car’s spot as number one. These highways were often built on top of prosperous Black communities, like Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans where the I-10 expressway destroyed hundreds of homes and Black owned businesses in the Tremé neighborhood.

David Harvey draws a parallel between this effort to usher in the age of the car and Baron Haussman’s redesign of Paris as they both used the state to prevent dissent by creating jobs building infrastructure that also functioned to isolate the working class. Robet Moses, a major architect of the modern New York metropolitan area, studied Haussman in detail and in his own words ‘took a meat axe to the Bronx’, dividing and isolating many politically active Black and Latinx neighborhoods with the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Harvey points out that the Paris Commune of 1871 repudiated Haussman’s efforts. Today, we are eagerly anticipating a movement to surpass its magnitude in repudiation of capitalist modernity of the likes of Robert Moses.

The commodified city

Two metres of social distancing has exposed how little space there is left for people in cities. Andre Gorz points out in a 1973 essay that while the automobile may appear to provide the individual with transportation independence, it actually makes them more dependent than ever before on the global economy and harmful infrastructure. Many people who drive cannot even identify the basic components of the engine, a far cry from independence. The motorist resembles a perpetual consumer rather than an owner. Now it is not just the worker’s labor, but their very means of existence from which capital seeks to extract value in its unceasing quest for growth. Such commodification would have seemed unimaginable just 100 years ago.

In the city, the car encloses vast space, relegating pedestrians to the literal margins with the physical threat of being run over. Whereas in the past, enclosure of city space took the obvious form of legal segregation or extreme policing to keep the ‘unwashed masses’ out of rich neighborhoods, now obvious repression is obscured by car traffic and commodification (though racialised policing still plays a major role, especially in the United States). Dorceta Taylor explains that once elites realized their methods of racist and classist exclusion through restrictive covenant and court procedure were no longer as effective, ‘businessmen and [elite] urban planning activists collaborated on developing a comprehensive vision for city planning.’ Built infrastructure such as congested roadways and interstate highways were one of the tools used to spatially segregate the rich from poor, Black from white, thereby abstracting individual responsibility for segregation and inequality into the annals of bureaucracy. Systematic intentionality remains camouflaged as dysfunctional policy and poor planning. These impacts are still felt today as many cities in the US are effectively segregated. Now, downtowns are often places of driving, commercial administration, prohibitively expensive apartments (or de facto hotels with Airbnb), and shopping, since the elites who guarded them have moved out to mansions and gated communities in the outskirts of the suburbs. The carceral state enforces this social exclusion by, often racially, criminalizing homelessness, jaywalking, loitering, street art, partying, and other forms of human existence that do not conform to buying or selling. The comprehensive nature of this transition works to conceal alternative systems from the depths of public consciousness, as the niches where counter-hegemonic culture is reproduced like the street corner, independent bookshop, and DIY venue, are increasingly dispossessed by monopoly capital and state regulation (the Bezos and the boot). 

We can flip the script and create culturally vibrant, equitable, and ecological cities where human beings can flourish in participation with the natural world.

The city has been partitioned and impersonalised into sectors and sections of work and consumption so many people no longer know the names of their own neighbors. Of the many paradoxes Andre Gorz points out, one of the most tricky is that in order to defeat the car we must love our cities, but the car has killed the city so it becomes almost impossible to love. Meaning, it is not enough to invest in more public transit, bike lanes or ban cars in certain areas if the city has no soul. If people don’t take joy in being outside, if the communal ties which foster a multicultural society are not repaired and extended, if speed and quantified economic value remain prioritized over ecological and social well-being, then we will continue to choose the convenience and isolation of the automobile. Things do not have to be so bleak, however. Through a democratic process that centres human and ecological well-being, we can flip the script and create culturally vibrant, equitable, and ecological cities where human beings can flourish in participation with the natural world.

Which way forward: Cul-de-sac or community democracy?

Ground has been broken on Culdesac Temple, soon to be a completely car free community of up to 1000 people in Temple, Arizona. The $140 million, 16-acre development featuring 636 apartments and 24,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space is set to open in 2021. The website boasts a quaint design targeting young professionals looking for a living space without all the negatives of the automobile. Residents will have access to on campus grocery stores, hair salons, coworking spaces, retail stores, and even a wine bar. Without cars, there will be ample greenspace for residents to enjoy with access to commuter rails, shuttle busses, and bike shares making transportation easy. Located just east of the city of Phoenix, Culdesac appears to be an ecological heaven for people who want to live life to the fullest. This development shares some superficial similarities with the community described in Kate Aronoff’s visionary article about the potential future of a successful Green New Deal. The difference? Culdesac represents a future for those who can afford it, while Aronoff’s community represents a future for all.

It brings me no joy to point out that much of these so-called solutions wrapped in tech-industry branding and backed by venture capital are little more than marketing gambits designed to make people who can afford them feel less guilty about their own consumption habits. Plopping a development whose ‘goal might be termed instant gentrification’ and thrives on the ‘business climate of weak trade unions’ is never going to bring about ecological equity, cars or not. While developments like Culdesac may appear to be ‘green’, it is a fool’s gold as the ecological and economically exploitative impacts of the labor, electricity, food, building materials, water waste, plastics, exclusion of poor folks, et cetera are externalized, out of sight and out of mind. Yet mainstream media never misses a chance to laud the tech bro personality cult for their ‘innovative’ approaches to further commodification. Like electric cars and ride sharing, these false solutions do not touch the structural roots of the problem. Neither is it hard to imagine future such communities built behind walls with armed guards, reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s climate sci-fi novel Parable of the Sower.

As we rethink the city throughout this pandemic, we must ask: Do we want cities designed for the rich to enjoy restaurants, parks, shops, and lush bicycle greenways while the poor serve, sanitize, and enjoy not but the scraps? While I have been critical of the recent coronavirus inspired car restrictions as they fail to present comprehensive solutions, they have also led to some positive outcomes. At their worst, we see them oriented toward further commodifying social relations and creating space only for the enjoyment of those who pay. But at their best, these open street policies have given people who faced lonely weeks cooped up in their apartments the opportunity to go out and see friends, attend socially distanced events, and enjoy their neighborhoods. It has even inspired residents that may once have been strangers who happened to live near one another to become real communities. On 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights New York City, neighbors came together to organize to open up their block. Since then, they’ve connected with each other as they share skills and hobbies and just hang out, perhaps beginning to restitch the social fabric needed to overcome Gorz’s paradox to build the new world in the shell of the old.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, the increase of displaced peoples, infertile land, rising tides, severe weather events, and viral infections will create conditions which require institutions of pluralistic democracy and economic equality or else doom us to a future of climate apartheid and famine. The way we travel plays a major role in this. Shortening distances and making public transportation, cycling, and walking as convenient, reliable, and aesthetically pleasing as possible should be a central objective of urban policy. But it is more than a question of lifeless infrastructure. As space is increasingly privatized and locked away behind high-tech surveillance, reclaiming the city for all is a vital step toward a common future. Clearly, status-quo politics are perfectly happy to let the most vulnerable people suffer and die. The socio-political conditions in which an environmental disaster occurs have a significant bearing on the severity and distribution of the harm it causes, therefore we must ensure that our future hardships are dealt with by new revolutionary institutions based in social and ecological equity, integrity, and fairness. To achieve this, the city must be re-envisioned as a body politic rather than an impersonal amalgamation of infrastructure and isolated individuals in order to counter monopoly of capital as it commodifies existence and the Nation-State as it centralises and bureaucratises political decision-making for benefit of business interests over people and planet. It is imperative that we re-embed the social and productive functions of the economy back into a democratic and social realm, recovering the shards of humanity shattered by this fucked up capitalist economy with each passing day.

Rob Persons is a writer and construction worker based in New Orleans. You can find him reading books in the park.

November readings

Brett Gundlock/the Globe and Mail


Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

Don’t tune out yet: the year 2020 is still full of great, much-needed analysis. This month, we are featuring work that is deeply challenging: against the idea that providing good jobs and protecting the environment are in opposition to each other; highlighting the moral depravity of for-profit, industrial agriculture; and on the revolutionary demand of giving Indigenous land back. Aside from this, there were several essential analyses of current anti-racist movements, and anti-black racist movements in particular, pieces on the power of Indigenous wisdom, and guides on organizing with tenants

A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!



Uneven Earth updates

Work | Work is drudgery for a lot of people, but it can be different and meaningful, if radically reorganised

Political ecology | Like a toolbox to unpack and understand the complexity of the socio-ecological crises we live in, political ecology is dedicated to a more just and inclusive world

Development | For development to truly deliver on its promise—the betterment of life for all—it must engage a multidimensional understanding of poverty



Top 5 articles to read

The industrial exploitation of pigs

Exiting the false “jobs versus environment” dilemma

A history of true civilisation is not one of monuments

Recovering antiracism

Traditional skills help people on the tourism-deprived Pacific Islands survive the pandemic



News you might’ve missed

Denmark to cull up to 17 million mink amid coronavirus fears

1% of farms operate 70% of world’s farmland

Why are Kashmiri Muslim nomads being evicted?

Africa′s debt crisis grows amid COVID-19 pandemic

Advertisements harm the planet, researchers say

The Maya built the Western Hemisphere’s first water filtration system



Where we’re at: analysis

Hoping for a return to normal after Trump? That’s the last thing we need

Joe Biden’s garbage career: A timeline, and Biden’s corporate cabinet: A breakdown 

Let a thousand fiefdoms bloom

No easy answers: a response to Alex Heffron and Kai Heron

Haemorrhaging Zambia: Prequel to the current debt crisis

Europe’s Green Deal offshores environmental damage to other nations

Climate populism & its limits

Andreas Malm’s corona, climate, chronic emergency



Just think about it…

It is time to revolutionise how we talk about the weather

Ecologically and culturally rich deserts, swamps and grasslands must not be labelled ‘wastelands’

Carbon dioxide removal sucks

Mixed farming beats intensive agriculture methods

How hundreds of small ‘Gardens of Eden’ guard against total deforestation in Ethiopia

Lithuania’s trade-in program is swapping people’s old cars for new e-bikes

Skywoman falling



Black Lives Matter

Cars, riots & Black liberation

Life, war, and politics: After the George Floyd rebellion



Indigenous struggles: #LandBack

What is the Indigenous landback movement — and can it help the climate?

Hunting the hunt

Land Back: The matrilineal descent of modern Indigenous land reclamation

‘Land Back’ is more than a slogan for a resurgent Indigenous movement



Degrowth

Sufficiency: the missing ingredient for sustainable digitalisation

Outgrowing growth: why quality of life, not GDP, should be our measure of success

Escaping the growth and jobs treadmill



New politics

Winning back the Internet by building our own

Why the Green New Deal needs mobility justice

What is libertarian socialism?

An economy that works for everyone

A caring economy: What would it take? The November-December 2020 New Internationalist issue asks: With the world in the midst of a deepening crisis of care, accelerated by Covid-19, what would it mean to have an economy that valued them and the people they care for?

Indigenous languages as cures of the Earth. This article is part of the #CuraDaTerra essay series, focused on Indigenous perspectives and alternatives to industrial capitalism.

Interrelations. Julian Brave NoiseCat has called eight expert witnesses to a tribunal to examine capitalist and colonial relationships to the land and one other. These testimonies endeavor to understand what has gone awry in our human societies, as well as to inquire into what other forms of knowledge, values, and interrelation might form the basis of a more just and reciprocal relationship between land and people.



Cities and radical municipalism

Barcelona launches 10-year plan to reclaim city streets from cars

Ontario is mass evicting tenants, in as little as 60 seconds

This is what energy transition looks like: L’Amassada eviction one year later

L.A. tenants union rejects legislative compromises, affirms dual power

Barricades, boulders, and how LA’s public space became a battleground for the commons

Democracy is in decline. Here’s how we can revive it

‘Covid created an opportunity’: Lisbon to turn tourist flats into homes

New Foundational Infrastructures: economic policies for a radical municipalism?

Finland ends homelessness and provides shelter for all in need



Food politics

Joel Salatin’s unsustainable myth

When beef testing is surveillance, sacred cows are tools of the state

Incubated futures



Resources

Wealth, shown to scale 

A copy editor’s education in Indigenous style

How to organize your building



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Work

Source: William Morris

by Ekaterina Chertkovskaya

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

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

What work looks like today: from modern slavery to alienation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The value of work

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

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

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

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

Abolish work or liberate it? 

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

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

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

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

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

Further resources

Critiques of work

On modern slavery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards alternatives

Reclaiming work, visibilising social reproduction

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

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

Articulating and doing work differently (from critiques to alternatives)

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

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

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

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

On organised labour as a transformative actor

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

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

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

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

Political ecology

Photo credit: Stephanie Salazar

by Panagiota Kotsila, Salvatore Paolo De Rosa & Ilenia Iengo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing in “nature” is simply natural

What politics?

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

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

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

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

What ecology?

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

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

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

Further resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecologia Politica – Cuadernos de debate internacional

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

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

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

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

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

Development

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

by Vandana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

On resistance and alternative ideas of wellbeing:

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

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

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

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

September & October readings

Illustration: Roy Boney/The Guardian

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

Unfortunately, we were forced to skip our newsletter last month due to low capacity and poor health — but we’ll make it up this time by bringing you two months’ worth of readings to mull over and learn from! As this year’s World Mental Health Day fell on the 10th of October, we decided to include a section dedicated to political analyses and the social determinants of mental health. We also compiled a list on the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic, and particularly highlighted what we can learn from non-Western countries and philosophies. As usual, you will find plenty of material on Indigenous struggles, degrowth, cities and radical municipalism, food politics, and the dangerous rise of eco-fascism; as well as alternative perspectives on conservation, sci-fi, and fire ecology.

A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!



Uneven Earth updates

Make life, not work: democratizing, decommodifying and remediating existence | Emancipation from labour requires us to democratize and decommodify the economy as a whole

Renewable energy | To provide the conditions for a sustainable technology, we must begin by establishing a sustainable economy

Structural violence and the automobile | The intertwined legacy of fascism and the motorcar

Degrowth | Degrowth is not a passive critique but an active project of hope



Top 5 articles to read

This is my message to the western world – your civilisation is killing life on Earth

The tenants who evicted their landlord

Feral Atlas invites you to explore the ecological worlds created when nonhuman entities become tangled up with human infrastructure projects

The lost forest gardens of Europe

In the Navajo Nation, anarchism has Indigenous roots



News you might’ve missed

World fails to meet a single target to stop destruction of nature – UN report

Banks lent $2.6tn linked to ecosystem and wildlife destruction in 2019 – report 

Fifth of countries at risk of ecosystem collapse, analysis finds 

Polluted air killing half a million babies a year across globe, Small increases in air pollution linked to rise in depression, and Air pollution linked with 15% COVID-19 deaths worldwide. Also, don’t forget: Pollution is a racial justice issue. Let’s fight it that way.

A historic victory in Bolivia. Fireworks exploded across the night sky in the Bolivian capital of La Paz on Sunday evening, October 18th, as the projected results came through showing a near-landslide victory for the left-wing Movimiento al socialismo (MAS) and its presidential candidate, Luis Arce, in the country’s national elections.

Chile’s latest steps towards true democracy are a beacon for the world. Hopes are high that the overwhelming vote to overturn the Pinochet-era constitution marks the beginning of a new era.

Land defenders are killed in the Philippines for protesting Canadian mining

Indonesia mass strikes loom over cuts to environmental safeguards and workers’ rights

The world celebrated Kurdish women’s fight against ISIS. Now it’s silent as they’re raped and tortured

Nuclear power hinders fight against climate change

Barbarians at the barn: private equity sinks its teeth into agriculture



Learning from COVID-19

Covid-19 shows factory food production is dangerous for animals and humans alike 

Covid-19 has exposed the catastrophic impact of privatising vital services 

The pandemic case for the two-day workweek 

What developing countries can teach rich countries about how to respond to a pandemic

Reimagining the post-pandemic “normal”: Learning from Indigenous peoples about reconciling culture and nature

Africa has defied the Covid-19 nightmare scenarios. We shouldn’t be surprised.

How Africa fought the pandemic — and what coronavirus has taught the world

Barcelona’s radical response to Covid-19. While governments around the world have allowed inequality to increase during Covid-19, Barcelona’s left-wing municipality has fought back – introducing measures to support workers, women, migrants and the environment.



Where we’re at: analysis

“Colonizing the atmosphere”: How rich, Western nations drive the climate crisis

There’s no such thing as “we”

Mutual aid is essential to our survival regardless of who is in the White House 

The challenge of reclaiming the commons from capitalism

Seize and resist

Thai imperialism and colonisation

Andreas Malm: “The likely future is escalating catastrophe”

The stories Michael Shellenberger tells

We can’t mine our way out of the climate crisis

Controlling oil, controlling development

Towards a working-class environmentalism for South Africa

On the #BeirutBlast and the environmental violence of capital



Just think about it…

The vine and the fish. Does the language of invasive biology contribute to xenophobia? An interactive comic.

Why the world can get worse by constantly saying it’s getting better

We can use less energy and still have good lives

Blue sky thinking: is it time to stop work taking over our lives? 

Hidden cameras and secret trackers reveal where Amazon returns end up

To save the climate, give up the demand for constant electricity

On being an octopus

Cruise ships dismantled for scrap after pandemic sinks industry

Land as a social relationship

Is plastic recycling a lie? Oil companies touted recycling to sell more plastic



Fire ecology

Our burning planet: Why we must learn to live with fire

California’s apocalyptic ‘second nature’

California and Australia look to Indigenous land management for fire help



The politics of mental health

Mental health and hope, from the second issue of the New Economics Zine on the connections between mental health and the economy.

For Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism is rooted in loneliness 

Self-help hacks at the end of the world. Everything is pretty terrible right now. A glut of pop psych advice wants you to think you can muscle your way out of it alone.

’Investing’ in mental health is doomed to fail because humans aren’t stocks. The World Health Organization focused on investing in mental health as the theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day. That might sound sensible, but it’s precisely this language of ‘investment’ that is taking the mental health conversation backwards. 

‘Solastalgia’: Arctic inhabitants overwhelmed by new form of climate grief 



Indigenous struggles

One of the best climate solutions is giving Indigenous people their land back

Respect for Indigenous land rights key in fight against climate change

Native tribes are being poisoned by pesticides made by U.S. companies

Land-grabbing in Asia displaces indigenous people: UN expert



Degrowth

After growth. A review of Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa by Julie Livingston.

Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World by Jason Hickel. A book review.

Climate change is accelerating because of rich consumers’ energy use. Here are some solutions. 

Reflecting on the emerging strategy debate in the degrowth movement

Ecosocialism and/or degrowth?

Degrowth and MMT: A thought experiment

Climate crisis: Is it time to ditch economic growth?

The macroeconomics of degrowth: can planned economic contraction be stable?



New politics

The ecology of feminism and the feminism of ecology 

We can’t have billionaires and stop climate change 

4 key ways to build strong social justice movements

Building, not branding. Instead of creating individual brands, we can aim to build collectivities in struggle.

A plan to cool us down without burning up the planet



Eco-fascism

How COVID and Syria conspiracies introduce fascism to the Left, part 1 and part 2

Nazi hippies: when the New Age and Far-Right overlap

How Far-Right extremists are using wildfires to go mainstream

Neo-nazis are using eco-fascism to recruit young people

Blood and vanishing topsoil

The rise of eco-fascism: The environmental case for taking a tougher stance against online hate



Cities and radical municipalism

Public power in a green city

How Philly’s Black Lives Matter protests revitalized the affordable housing movement

Building eco-paradise in end times: Lessons from ecoaldeas (ecovillages) in Mexico

Mutual aid response during fires shows Black Lives Matter is building community

Communes – the building block of democratic confederalism. An explainer.

Responding to global crises with low-carbon social housing

Building regional autonomies for a small farm future



Food politics

‘Agricultural jihad’: A hungry Lebanon returns to family farms to feed itself

Junk agroecology

Can agroecology feed the world?

Digital fences: the financial enclosure of farmlands in South America

Vandana Shiva: The pandemic is a consequence of the war against life

Whose agriculture drives disease?

Max Ajl: Does the Arab region have an agrarian question?



Conservation vs capitalism

Capitalism – not ‘humanity’ – is killing the world’s wildlife

Conservation without colonialism

Setting out the principles of post-growth conservation

Losing ground: How are India’s conservation efforts putting the local communities in peril?



Sci-fi and the near future

To build a future without police and prisons, we have to imagine it first. A strain of science fiction called visionary fiction empowers activists, artists, and organizers to seed a better future.

Imagining the end of capitalism with Kim Stanley Robinson



Resources

An Indigenous abolitionist study guide 

Complicity in destruction III: How global corporations enable violations of Indigenous people’s rights in the Brazilian Amazon. The full report by the Brazilian Indigenous people’s alliance – APIB & Amazon Watch.


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Make life, not work: democratizing, decommodifying and remediating existence

Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

by Stefanie Gerold, Ernest Aigner, Maja Hoffmann and Louison Cahen-Fourot

In May this year, a group of well-known academics launched an initiative to reform work in light of the Coronavirus pandemic and the environmental crisis. The manifesto, Work: Democratise, Decommodify, Remediate, has so far been published in newspapers around the world, and signed by more than 6,000 people. Referring to the essential contribution of workers to society and the economy – made ever more apparent during the pandemic – the manifesto argues that employees should be involved in decision-making processes in firms. It further raises the problem of leaving key human needs such as health to market forces, and therefore demands publicly funded job guarantees. In light of the environmental crisis, the manifesto calls for conditioning state bail-outs on certain environmental standards and on the presence of democratic principles within firms. It considers democratically governed firms best suited to achieve a transition towards sustainable business.

We hope that this initiative stimulates the much-needed public debate on the role of work in society. We fully share the demands to democratize firms, decommodify work, and remediate the environment in principle. However, certain suggestions point in the wrong direction and fall short of the progressive potential in current debates on work. The authors also draw an uncritically positive picture of work and are surprisingly silent about the many problems associated with work.

Democratization. The letter rightly points to the exclusion of workers from most decision-making processes in firms. Extending the principle of democracy into the realm of work is long overdue, and implementing co-determination in firms is therefore important. This does not, however, change the major purpose of privately-owned businesses: generating profit for capital owners. Placing workers’ interests at centre stage requires different business models altogether, such as cooperatives that are owned and self-managed by their workers.

Nonetheless, the implied vision of a future where you need a job in order to have a say in economic decision-making is exclusionary and fundamentally undemocratic. It leaves out large parts of the population and continues to marginalize unemployed persons and unpaid (care) activities. A true democratization of work needs to go much further and encompass the democratization of the entire economy, whereby society as a whole decides on what is being produced, how and for whose benefit.

Collective deliberation about, for example, the purpose of the financial sector, or the necessity of jobs in the weapons industry, might also question the rising number of ‘bullshit jobs’ that are considered useless, or even destructive, for society. The Coronavirus pandemic has clearly revealed the rather limited list of jobs and sectors that are essential for meeting society’s basic needs.

Decommodification. The second claim of the letter demands that work be partly exempted from market mechanisms. We fully agree that essential areas of life should be taken out of the realm of markets.

However, “ensuring that all people have access to work” would potentially exacerbate, rather than solve, the problem. The pandemic has clearly shown our dependency on work in order to make a living. Regardless of whether our job is useful to society or grants dignity, we are required to sell our labour in order to earn money to meet our needs.

A “right to work” scheme, as proposed by the letter, might indeed tackle the unemployment issue, and it might also help to ensure that basic social needs are met. However, implemented in a society equating work with personal achievement and access to social rights, it would also reinforce people’s material and cultural dependency on work. To be truly emancipatory, a “right to work” scheme needs to be mirrored by a “right to live well” that is granted to all – independent of one’s capacity to work, and independent of economic or health crises setting large parts of the labour force free. A “right to live well” scheme would make access to social welfare institutions independent from work and provide the necessary infrastructure to live a meaningful life independent of work. Such a scheme could take the form of an in-kind universal basic income providing health, education, housing, energy, transportation and food through full socialization of these sectors.

Moreover, the idea of grounding “citizenship in firms” because “one’s mind and body, one’s health – one’s very life” is invested in work, seems a rather dystopian vision of the future, whereby the wage relation becomes ever more central to social life. We believe an emancipatory and desirable vision would instead limit the personal and societal relevance of work, so that it is one aspect of life but does not determine life entirely.

Environmental remediation. The letter rightly argues that any response to the Coronavirus-induced economic crisis needs to include environmental considerations. It finds that democratically led firms are best able to achieve such a transition.

Although this is true in some cases, fractions of organized labour have also repeatedly opposed needed changes. Especially in inherently unsustainable industries, such as coal, steel, or aviation, workers’ rights for participation would most likely not result in the required changes – namely a significant downsizing of these industries and therefore the phasing out of most jobs.

It is important to understand that work, whether in industry or services, is always a process that consumes energy and resources, and currently at clearly unsustainable levels. As scientific studies have pointed out, we need to reduce the overall amount of work in order to stay on trajectories compatible with ecological limits. Why should we try to come up with new tasks to keep everyone busy? Instead, we could reduce work hours and redistribute the remaining necessary work more evenly across society, accompanied by a broad, democratic debate about the usefulness and harmfulness of work.

Democratizing and decommodifying work, and remediating the environment are essential to sustain life on this planet. However, this cannot be done through limiting ourselves to well-worn social democratic thinking. Nor can it be done through uncritically considering work as inherently positive, or without reflecting on the role of work in contemporary capitalism. Societies, rather than markets or firms, should decide what kind of work is done and considered useful and valuable. Emancipation from labour requires us to democratize and decommodify the economy as a whole, to transform it to become sustainable, and to enable us to live well independent of work. It requires us to democratize, decommodify and remediate our very existence.

The Work: Democratise, Decommodify, Remediate manifesto was further developed into a book. The French version of this book was released on October 1, 2020.


Note: a French version of this commentary on the manifesto was published on May 23, 2020 in Le Monde online. A German version was published on July 24, 2020 as a blog article in Der Freitag.

Stefanie Gerold is a researcher at Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin), Ernest Aigner, Maja Hoffmann and Louison Cahen-Fourot are researchers at Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Vienna).

Renewable energy

Photo: Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

by Alf Hornborg

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

The rise of the fossil economy

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

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

Energy technology – part nature, part society

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

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

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

Will renewables replace fossil fuels?

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

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

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

Downscaling energy needs

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

Further resources

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

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

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

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

Structural violence and the automobile

Photo by Margaret Bourke-White for Time & Life Pictures

by Owen Watson

If the chalk memorials wash away on the downtown road, formerly Fourth Street, in Charlottesville, Virginia, it may seem like any ordinary block with a cafe and bookshop. Today, Heather Heyer Way remembers the life lost when a white supremacist crashed his car through the antifascist lines celebrating after they successfully drove off far-right and neo-Nazi groups at the 2017 Unite the Right rally. This individual act of violence, which injured 28 and killed one, draws from a long history of the automobile serving to protect spaces for whiteness.

The car remains a weapon of choice against anti-racist protestors as the uprisings against systematic racism ignited by the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor stretch into their fourth month. On May 28th in Los Angeles, police officers drove their car through a group of protestors, speeding up to throw a man off the hood; the next day in Denver, a woman intentionally turned around to hit a protester with her SUV; the day after that, in Brooklyn, the officer riding in the passenger seat of a patrol car opened their door to strike a protester as they drove past. Further examples in Brooklyn (again), Portland, Tulsa, and San Jose make this a disturbing trend with over 69 such attacks occuring since Geroge Floyed was murdered in late May. 

Fascism and the Automobile

The connection between automobiles, violence, and fascism begins in the 20th century. An investigation by The Nation uncovered how Ford Motor Company and Nazi high command were intimately linked. Henry Ford, a known anti-Semite, built a factory in Cologne, Germany in 1931 and provided support for the Nazi state into 1942, almost a year after the United States declared war on Germany. General Motors was also complicit in the Nazi war effort, obfuscating their ownership of German-made Opel while they knowingly allowed their factories to switch to military armament production for the Wehrmacht.

In Italy, the automobile itself became a symbol in the blending of the futurist and fascist movements in their  shared rejection of history and chauvinistic desires for speed and social ‘purity’. The fingerprints of futurism can be found in the Nazi warfare tactic of blitzkrieg (prizing speed and suprise) which used Ford trucks for about one third of the vehicles involved. 

The car was used as a social tool for white interests in the United States following the war, as the automobile commute enabled a new form of segregation in sprawling suburbs. ‘White flight,’ the mid-century process of white populations moving out of American cities, occurred alongside the systematic divestment of inner-cities which were increasingly populated by Black communities migrating north, away from the Jim Crow South. Through racist policies like redlining, discriminatory bank lending and zoning practices, Black communities were largely excluded from the post-war affluence while much of the white working class gained access to financial services to start building generational wealth. As wealthy tax bases shifted to the suburbs, city budgets and services stagnated while ‘urban renewal’ projects often meant highways would be built on top of Black communities.

The automobile, therefore, represents two inextricable forms of violence: the slow process of gutting the public city for racialized private wealth, and the acute violence of fascist car attacks. These are mirrors, reflecting and feeding back the images of one another. The logic of the car in America is implicit in the logic of white supremacy. On a mass scale, the automobile works to emotionally and physically separate groups from the unequal violence of a racialized system. This logic also extends to the individual in the emotional separation from the mechanisms of fast, immediate violence. 

Marketing violence

The ‘alpha male’ mentality fascists are obsessed with informs the marketing strategy for many car models. The specific car driven in the Charlottesville attack was the 2010 model of the reissued Dodge Charger, a muscle car marketed as a hyper-masculine vision of an allegedly bygone age of American liberty. The current tagline for the Charger is ‘Domestic, not domesticated,’ a nod to the patriarchal embodiment of masculinity against the ‘globalist’ economy of foreign manufacturing. 

The Charger is also the country’s best selling model of police sedan. With no hint of irony, Dodge even created a small fleet of stormtrooper-themed Chargers to celebrate the release of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens film in 2015, mimicking the foot soldiers of the fictional fascist Galactic Empire. A year before that, the head of government fleet sales for Dodge explicitly connected police intimidation with its marketing to a wider consumer base: ‘You hate to see a Charger Pursuit grille in your rearview mirror. …we think there’s a lot of carry-over in terms of the macho appeal of the vehicle.’ 

The message here is simple: the Charger is an embodiment of white, male, state-sponsored violence. This aesthetic marketing of a police vehicle to the masses is another example of the militarization of civilian spaces, one of the dominant features of post-9/11 America. It is also a classic marker of the advance of fascism where violence and militarism are normalized in everyday life. Charlottesville’s right-wing murderer tapped into all of these forces, namely the nexus of a patriarchal capitalism and statist militarism that continues to guide an implicit understanding of who violence should be directed against, and who it should be wielded by.

American Violence and the Anti-Martyr

Dependence on the car obscures the everyday violence of driving. In 2018, 36,560 people died in car crashes in the United States alone, making driving the second-leading cause of accidental death. In India, almost 150,000 people died in traffic accidents during 2017. Nigeria has one of the highest rates in the world with over one death per year per 100 cars. Driving is the largest normalized risk in modern life. While often acting as a site of insulation for white individuals, the car can be a site of racial profiling where non-white drivers are stopped by police at higher rates, too often leading to fatal violence in the US. 

As one of the ultimate status symbols in capitalist society, the car is an embodiment of social atomization and private enclosure of individuals, families, and groups. To drive is to intentionally hold death at arm’s length; by the risk of driving itself, and the physical and emotional insulation of the cabin from the outside world — a degree of separation between a potential killer, their killing tool, and those to be killed.

This, finally, is the concrete connection between the car and right-wing violence that neatly fits in the white American psyche. For the maintenance of settler ideology, a physical and emotional separation from the justification for structural violence and the violence itself is needed. This degree of separation is a constant in American state violence, from the drones that fire silent death in Syria to the American streets where police run over protestors. And, not surprisingly, it is expressed in both American right-wing acts of violence and police brutality through a desire by the attackers to be as physically protected as possible.

Consumer vehicle ramming attacks began in earnest during the late 1990s in occupied Palestine and have expanded worldwide, taken up by different ideological forces including ‘Jihadists, anti-Islamists, right-wing Christians, and unbalanced members of the public.’ When the assailant is non-white and acting without institutional power, they are usually portrayed with the broad strokes of ‘terrorism’ by Western media. Meanwhile, white supremacists like the Charlottesville attacker are often depicted as ‘lone wolves’ or ‘bad apples,’ despite the clear structural roots of their action. In the months after Black Lives Matter protests in 2016, six states considered laws to protect drivers who run over protestors from prosecution, referring to demonstrations that block traffic as ‘terrorism’. As systematic racism is being directly challenged, reactionary forces use violence to subvert public opinion while police are more explicitly acting in line with the larger neo-fascist project in defense of the status-quo. Seeing themselves as firebreak between ‘order’ and ‘chaos,’ a thin blue line which is drawn deadly on the pavement and unaccountable to democratic processes. This is the logic of fascism and is being encouraged by the President of the United States who claims the suburban way of life is under attack and brands anti-fascism as terrorism. 

Scholar Achille Mbembe’s ideas around martyrdom are particularly illuminating when it comes to the issues of insulation and vehicular violence. Contrasted with the figure of the ‘suicide bomber,’ the American far-right and police vehemently protect their own bodies with armor and vehicles. Fitting with American’s elevation of ‘heroes’ amid the desire to uphold a certain social order — an inherent flattening, widening, and depersonalizing of the martyr. The right-wing propagator of violence and the police officer alike are part of imagined ‘brotherhoods’ on an invented battlefield made manifest only by the violent actions they carry out.

What this truly represents is an anti-martyrdom: a feature of a country that glorifies endemic and ‘heroic’ bodily sacrifice while deeply fearing death or any major change that would challenge those systems. Mbembe describes how the logic of survival and heroism intersect:

“[The] moment of survival [is] a moment of power. In such a case, triumph develops precisely from the possibility of being there when the others (in this case the enemy) are no longer there. Such is the logic of heroism as classically understood: to execute others while holding one’s own death at a distance.”

These acts of violence we see, whether in Charlottesville or in the ongoing protests against police brutality, are laden with the power of historic white supremacy. The power of mismatched tools of violence between attacker and subject (the car vs. the protestor), and the one-sided power to deal death and to survive. This is the type of unequal violence that the ruling class carries out against the underclasses, a deadly enforcement of the racial, economic, and social status-quo.

If neo-fascist violence in America is about preserving the mythological ‘White Christian Nation,’ it should not be surprising to see police adopting the tactics of neo-fascist violence. The police themselves trace their roots back to slave patrols. The car is a shared tool in the merger. Its rise intertwined with evolving racial oppression, and fits into the psychology of white racial terror by distancing and protecting its perpetrators from the violence of their actions while reinforcing social categories of an ultraconservative worldview. The car, the most defining object in 20th century American prosperity, is now a viscerally violent encapsulation of the failed 21st century American state.

There’s no way like the American way

Margaret Bourke-White, the first woman to take photographs for Life Magazine, took a depression-era snapshot of an all-Black bread line standing in front of a billboard featuring a smiling white family in a car. “There’s no way like the American way,” the billboard reads, as the white nuclear family drives through the idealized suburban countryside and straight into the reality of the bread line. This is a symbolic photograph for our time, though it was taken in 1937. The car operates as a tool for acute white violence and flight as well as the insulation of whiteness through physical and metaphorical mediums, “world’s highest standard of living,” emblazoned over a strict racial separation in a country of destitution for so many. It has been over 80 years since the photograph was taken. The car as a symbol of freedom, safety, and violence may have evolved in small ways, but the American racial landscape remains unequal and violent.

The current protests against police brutality are not simply a symbolic challenge to the structural violence that the American street embodies. They are also processes of a physical recapturing of public space – for solidarity, grief, anger, and celebration. It should come as no surprise that centuries of white supremacy should so violently respond to that challenge with a tool – the automobile – that has been so central to fulfilling its goals. Yet even in the face of terror so often committed by vigilantes and the state, the unwavering numbers of protestors are a source of hope: that one day, our children will walk safely down carless avenues, knowing of the struggles that tore down and replaced the violence and injustice of the old world.

Owen Watson is a writer working in political ecology and the environment, especially as they relate to political economy, extremism, and power. He recently completed a graduate program at the University of Michigan, where he concentrated in Environmental Justice. Follow him @elementsofguile.

Degrowth

Photo: Flickr.

by François Schneider and Joanna Pope

Degrowth is a movement that explores another direction for society, one where ecological and social justice become possible, along with more meaningful lives. While there is no single definition for degrowth, this entry attempts to offer some guidance for understanding degrowth in all its diversity.

First, degrowth is a variety of challenges to the current status quo. Secondly, degrowth is not just a form of critique, but also encompasses diverse and interrelated positive utopian visions for the world. Thirdly, degrowth offers a set of paths for societal transformation in order to make these utopias possible.

1. From a missile word to other narratives: Degrowth as objection

Degrowth is a rigorous objection to dominant ideas about how economies and societies function. In this line, degrowth has been described as a ‘missile word’. Degrowth targets in particular two beliefs.

First, degrowth challenges the idea that economic growth is the only way to achieve prosperity and wellbeing for all. Growth does not improve our lives. Instead, the pursuit of infinite economic growth on a finite planet has led to both vast social inequality and ecological destruction. Degrowth also rejects claims (for which there is no empirical evidence or theoretical justification) that we would be able continue to pursue infinite economic growth without accelerating the global ecological crisis.

Degrowth is not a passive critique, but an active project of hope, with vivid utopian visions of another, better world with equality, decolonization, reparations and social justice as its foundation

Secondly, degrowth challenges the pessimistic belief that ecological collapse is inevitable, that all we can do now in response to the global climate crisis (and many other crises) is to close our communities and borders to those in need. As we will see in the next section, degrowth is not a passive critique, but an active project of hope, with vivid utopian visions of another, better world with equality, decolonization, reparations and social justice as its foundation.

The idea of degrowth as a missile word, a stone thrown, helps us grasp the radical intent of those who use it as a slogan. But degrowth is not a singular missile. Rather, it has transformed, after nearly twenty years of discussion and activism, into an entire web of guerilla narratives. These degrowth counter-narratives challenge the ideology of economic growth from a range of different perspectives, from political economy, sociology and happiness studies, to ecofeminism, social ecology and post-development theory.

2. Other worlds are possible: Degrowth as utopia(s)

Degrowth goes beyond a mere critique of the current system. It also offers genuine alternatives through theory and practice. Degrowth is not afraid to envision a utopian future for our world. The degrowth society is just, ecological, sustainable, democratic, participatory, internationalist and localized with rich cultural, ethnic and ecological diversity in each locality, and simultaneously open and global.

Like its web of counternarratives, degrowth utopias are not determined by doctrine or set in stone. They are multiple, flexible and continuously redefined based on new insights, critique and dialogue.

Who are the people who help imagine and invent degrowth utopias? Degrowth’s utopian vision has been supported by scholars and researchers from around the world. Together, their work amounts to hundreds of peer-reviewed publications, numerous special issues, and a wide range of academic and accessible books on the subject.

But it was activists and practitioners who first brought the degrowth movement into existence. For degrowth practitioners, utopias do not exist only as long term visions, but also take shape as microcosms in the here and now. The creators and inhabitants of degrowth nowtopias seek to live in the society that they believe should exist, and demonstrate that other worlds are possible. Examples of nowtopias include community gardens, cooperatives, open source technology projects, repair cafes, mutual aid networks and more. Each year, conferences in cities around the world bring degrowth theory and practice together, as participants from different fields and backgrounds debate current challenges and future visions for the movement.

There is a tendency to think that these degrowthers are a small minority. But in fact, they are in good company. The political movement of degrowth emerged in France in the early 2000s but degrowth sources like voluntary simplicity have wide and old recognition. We find traces of degrowth in the philosophies of Lao Tse, Diogenes and Epicurus, for example. On the contrary the idea of economic growth was put forward with the rise of capitalism which is relatively recent. In spite of the incredible media/political push of this idea of growth, the idea of degrowth is becoming the favored emerging utopia these days.

Many different Indigenous cultures offer practices, philosophies and ways of life that resonate with degrowth and its long term vision. Degrowthers can also look to resistance movements in the Global North and South, from MOVE to the Zapatistas for insight and inspiration as they imagine a radically different world. Beyond this, there is a wide range of social movements whose practical and theoretical knowledge, and critiques of degrowth, can help utopian degrowthers expand their own understanding of what is possible.

3. Degrowth of some things, expansion of others: Degrowth as paths of socio-ecological transformation

How can we make degrowth utopias a reality, and strengthen and expand existing degrowth nowtopias? To address this challenge, degrowth articulates practical and diverse roadmaps to a better world. It is in this way that the word ‘degrowth’ takes on a third meaning—degrowth as paths of transformation.

Rather than presenting a silver bullet solution, degrowth proposes a web of change across housing, urban planning, transport, agriculture, energy systems, money, redistributive taxation, biodiversity, supply chains, manufacturing, software, hardware and technology governance, employment and working conditions,welfare, healthcare, education, democracy and more. Together, these proposals can guide an equitable, planned downscaling of production and consumption.

But these paths do not demand that we downscale everything. Rather, the task is to shrink some sectors, while simultaneously expanding and transforming others for the better, while the sum is a move to the reduction of material and energy flow and to simpler and more meaningful lives. Degrowing aviation, for example, means reducing unnecessary flying while also making travelling by train, bike, sailboat and on foot more accessible. Similarly, advocates of housing for degrowth or degrowing tourism, propose not only doing less but also doing things differently, that is, not only reducing ecologically and socially harmful practices and models, but also fostering and expanding existing alternatives that center both the environment and human needs.

Instead of the rebound effect that accompanies attempts at eco-innovation under the growth paradigm, degrowth pathways promote debound, creating an interlinked web of technical and non-technical solutions that fulfill human needs.

These pathways also contribute to a decolonization of imaginaries—by challenging commodification, consumerism, the pursuit of profit, the Western model of development and the destructive, growth-dependent system of capitalism itself. In this way, degrowth seeks to bring about not just material and political change, but cultural change too, allowing us to understand the world, ourselves and our desires through an entirely different lens.

4. Linking diversity: Fulfilment of needs and non-violence at the core of degrowth?

Degrowth thrives on diversity, embracing a wide range of different perspectives. These diverse perspectives are actually about fulfilling diverse profound needs, material ones like food or shelter for all but also many non-material needs. Degrowth is thus a proposition to meet these multiple concomitant needs by creating the conditions for a society where cooperation becomes possible, where sources of violence dwindle. To do so involves a fundamentally non-violent approach, on the one hand through cooperative approaches within the movements for social transformation but also conflicting ones as it involves non-violent civil disobedience in the face of a highly unequal society destroying, among others, natural resources, cultures, and biomes. Responding to deep needs, whether we are talking about material needs, or needs for well-being, community, recognition outside the growth dogma requires dialogue and listening to emotions and feelings. Degrowth is thus a vast collective project in which we empathize with the deep needs of everyone. To this end we need highly democratic processes to give voice to what is not expressed in order to build degrowth narratives: narratives which make us realize that meeting the needs of all is part of the realm of what is possible.

Further resources

François Schneider, Giorgos Kallis, Joan Martinez-Alier, 2010. Crisis or opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability. Introduction to this special issue. Journal of Cleaner Production, 18(6), 511-518
An introduction to degrowth.

Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, Giorgos Kallis. Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era. Routledge, 2015.
A great collection of many topics relating to degrowth, challenging the status quo.

Federico Demaria, François Schneider, Filka Sekulova, Joan Martinez-Alier. What is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement, Environmental values, 22(2):191-215. 2013
A good overview of sources and actors of degrowth – degrowth as a frame.

Anitra Nelson & François Schneider, Housing for degrowth, Routledge, 2019.
The introduction of “spiralling narratives” for degrowth in the area of housing.

Chris Carlsson, Nowtopia, AK Press: 2008
A great review of the idea of living our utopias now.

Serge Latouche. Farewell to Growth. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.
Where Latouche develops the notion of degrowth society.

François Schneider. Let’s degrow up and grow down!
Why degrowth is the right word to use, and why meaning “degrowth” by saying “growth” is inappropriate.

François Schneider is a Doctor in industrial ecology and a degrowth researcher since 2001. Founder and former president of Research & Degrowth, and initiator and main organiser of the first international degrowth conferences, he teaches degrowth at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. In 2012 he started the experiential project Can Decreix, the “house of degrowth”. His work on degrowth focuses on the themes of material flows, allocation problems, rebound effect, transport, housing, lifestyles, frugal innovation, open-localism and identification of pathways.

Joanna Pope is a researcher with a focus on degrowth and ecocritical theory. She is based at Trust, an incubator for platform design and utopian conspiracy in Berlin, and works as an editor and researcher at The Syllabus and is a contributing editor for Uneven Earth.

August readings

Photo credit: hansfoto

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

We’re back with a new reading list, this time highlighting a discussion about the sustainability of growing the service sector, an Internationalist take on reparations, and a Leftist critique of the Green New Deal, among others. As usual, we also center Indigenous and global land struggles, food politics, radical municipalism, and degrowth.

While we were putting together this list, the influential anthropologist and activist David Graeber died unexpectedly and far too early. We want to honor him here by featuring some of his best work, so we can keep it close as we continue our fight for the better world he spent his life imagining.

A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!



Uneven Earth updates

Unequal exchange | Global trade conceals ecological and human exploitation in peripheries and maintains an unjust world order

Offsetting | A policy tool that allows us to imagine a world in which everything is replaceable, and where there are no limits

Extractivism | One of the most expansionist global enterprises—squashing any other ways of living with the land

Extractivismo | Uno de los proyectos globales más expansionistas, que aplasta cualquier otra forma de vivir con la tierra



Top 5 articles to read

Big Oil is in trouble. Its plan: flood Africa with plastic

Fermentation, rot, and power in the early modern Atlantic

Can we save the planet by growing the service sector?

Climate reparations: An Internationalist approach for the twenty-first century

‘Either you are fighting to eliminate exploitation or not’: A leftist critique of the Green New Deal



In memoriam: David Graeber

Radical anthropologist David Graeber tragically passed away on September 2nd, 2020 at the age of 59. His work and activism was, and will continue to be, formative and inspirational for Uneven Earth’s editors and mission. We have compiled a best of including his articles, talks and books below, with our Twitter followers’ input (please add any suggestions to this thread). 

Essays

Are you an anarchist? The answer may surprise you!

On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs

Of flying cars and the declining rate of profit

How to change the course of human history

On the phenomenology of giant puppets: broken windows, imaginary jars of urine, and the cosmological role of the police in American culture

Concerning the violent peace-police

Revolution in reverse

Against economics

The truth is out: money is just an IOU, and the banks are rolling in it

What’s the point if we can’t have fun

It is value that brings universes into being

Dead zones of the imagination: On violence, bureaucracy, and interpretive labor

Radical alterity is just another way of saying “reality”: A reply to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

The new anarchists

Caring too much. That’s the curse of the working classes

The center blows itself up: Care and spite in the ‘Brexit election’ 

David Graeber left us a parting gift — his thoughts on Kropotkin’s “mutual aid”

Democracy is possible in Syria. My friend knew how

There was never a West (from the collection Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire by AK Press)

Talks & podcasts

Where did money REALLY come from?

Graeber and Wengrow on the myth of the stupid savage

Debt: The first 5,000 years

BBC Podcast “Promises, Promises: A History of Debt”. In this 12-part series, David explores the ways debt has shaped society over 5,000 years.

Books

Did you know David’s books are available as free PDFs? We linked them for you here: Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Direct Action – An Ethnography, Debt: The First 5000 Years, The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement, The Utopia of Rules, and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.



News you might’ve missed

Behind the Beirut explosion lies the lawless world of international shipping

Virus resurgence could plunge emerging economies into debt crisis, warns IMF

Global deforestation accelerates during pandemic

From genocide to resistance: Yazidi women fight back

Summary executions and widespread repression under Bolivia’s interim government reports rights advocates



Indigenous struggles

‘Green’ colonialism is ruining Indigenous lives in Norway

‘The Amazon is the entry door of the world’: why Brazil’s biodiversity crisis affects us all

Meet the people saving Canada’s native grasslands

A message from the most bombed nation on earth

To save a way of life, Native defenders push to protect the Arctic refuge



Global land struggles

For the people of the river, not investors: Guaranteeing farmers’ rights to the waters of the Nile

Land grabs at gunpoint: Thousands of families are being violently evicted from their farms to make way for foreign-owned plantations in Kiryandongo, Uganda



Where we’re at: analysis

Does nuclear power slow or speed climate change?

False Alarm by Bjorn Lomborg; Apocalypse Never by Michael Shellenberger – review

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature debunked

Climate apartheid is the coming police violence crisis

Africa says, “I can’t breathe”: An African civil society perspective on systemic racism

Decolonial feminism and Buen Vivir

How the world’s largest garbage dump in Staten Island became a green oasis

Lebanon, forever colonised?



Just think about it…

Emancipation in the neoliberal era: Rethinking transition with Karl Polanyi

The fantasy and the Cyberpunk futurism of Singapore

‘We’ve already survived an apocalypse’: Indigenous writers are changing sci-fi

Towards a non-extractive and care-driven academia

The world to come: What should we value?

The term “development” makes false promises and perpetuates colonial dominance thinking



Degrowth

The case for degrowth

Deliberate degrowth

We are doomed if, in the post-Covid-19 world, we cannot abandon non-essentials

Four principles of degrowth and why they matter



Food politics

The roots of food crisis in Pakistan

‘One thing I’ve learned about modern farming – we shouldn’t do it like this’

Looking beyond the pandemic: Agroecology, and the need to rethink our food system

Animal Farms. The industrial pig, garden pig, and wild boar lead us through the rise and fall of East German industrial agriculture, but also foreshadow changes around the world where such large-scale schemes are imposed without regard for people, animals, or environments.

The strategic case for animal liberation



Cities and radical municipalism

Municipalist politics and the specter of emancipation

Killing a neighbourhood

Tenant unions for the future

Moving Jackson forward: Opposing visions of a People’s Assembly



Resources

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin: The full film

40 ways to fight fascists: Street-legal tactics for community activists

Trinational toolkit for international workers’ solidarity

9 ways you can help save the Amazon rainforest from imminent destruction by boycotting Brazil



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Unequal exchange

by Rikard Warlenius

The global exchange of commodities and money through trade appear as balanced when we measure it in money, but this conceals very unequal exchanges of labour time, raw materials, and energy and an unequal distribution of Earth’s capacity to absorb environmental waste such as carbon dioxide. These uneven net flows of labour and natural resources and appropriation of sink capacities are what the notion of Ecologically unequal exchange (EUE) conceptualizes, and a common assumption is that they contribute to ecological and human exploitation in peripheral areas as well as to the maintaining of an unjust world order.

Unequal exchange: an academic theory with deep rootlets

The concept has deep rootlets in political economy and ecology. Unequal exchange—basically the notion that more labour is exchanged for less labour through international trade—was discussed by for instance the political economists David Ricardo and Karl Marx in the 19th century, and was later further developed by the Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer, the dependency theorist Arghiri Emmanuel, world system analyst Samir Amin, and neo-Marxist Ernest Mandel, to mention some of the more important contributors. Explanations for why unequal exchange happen vary, from viewing different levels of productivity or wages as the cause to associating unequal exchange with—in more Marxist phrasing—the organic composition of capital. This has to do with the distribution of capital, divided into two categories, in an economy: on the one hand constant capital—investments such as machinery and buildings—and on the other hand variable capital—mainly paid as wages for labour. In advanced, highly industrialized economies, the share of constant capital is normally higher than in ‘developing’ economies. Investments in machines, for instance, substitute for labour and thus less labour is needed to create a certain amount of value. In other words, if a lot of labour time goes into commodity production in one area, like Africa, and much less goes into production in another area, like Western Europe, an exchange of commodities from those two areas is likely give rise to unequal net flows of labour time. The commodity produced in Africa is likely to embody more labour time per unit of value (e.g. dollar) than the European.

Biophysical resources with high exergy (energy with high ability to perform work) are extracted in the peripheries of the world system and exported to the cores, where they are dissipated/consumed

Ecologically unequal exchange: theoretical developments and critical discussions

Starting in the 1980s, the concept of unequal exchange was further broadened to include not only unequal exchange of labour but also of natural resources—matter and energy. A pioneering study was Stephen Bunker’s (1985) Underdeveloping the Amazon, in which theories of unequal exchange were first applied to ecological extraction. Alf Hornborg (1998) coined the concept ecologically unequal exchange and in a series of articles and books gave it theoretical depth by combining world system analysis with thermodynamic concepts from physics. Biophysical resources with high exergy (energy with high ability to perform work) are extracted in the peripheries of the world system and exported to the cores, where they are dissipated/consumed either directly or as inputs to industrial products. From an economic point of view, these final products (cars, cell phones, washing machines …) are considered as more valuable than the input, but from a thermodynamic perspective they are actually of less value. The raw materials have high exergy, with great potentials, that becomes dissipated as it is turned into finished products. The deterioration will then continue as the product is used, worn and finally thrown away. What is more, the low exergy final products are often returned to the peripheries together with waste. According to Hornborg, industrial production is nothing but a displacement of labour, matter, and environmental loads: he regards technology as a mystification of appropriation. The world-economic cores extract labour and high-exergy matter from the peripheries, and spit back waste.

Hornborg has developed a way of assessing and measuring EUE: time-space appropriation (Hornborg 2006). To understand the industrial revolution in England, he quantified the unequal exchange of labour time and hectare yields in the trade exchange of raw cotton and manufactured garments between England and its former North-American slave colonies in the mid 19th century. The result strengthened the idea that England’s superiority was not mainly technological, but rather an effect of its ability to appropriate land and labour from its (former) colonies. Another study has used the same methodological approach to test the global-historical theory that the early modern world system was Sinocentric or polycentric, rather than Eurocentric, and the results seemed to confirm this (Warlenius 2016a). EUE has also been operationalized and applied on more recent statistical data, mainly by the American sociologists Andrew Jorgensen (e.g. 2009) and James Rice, strengthening hypotheses that unequal exchanges maintain a world divided in cores and peripheries.

More recently, attempts have been made to widen the concept to not only encompass the effects of international trade, but of the entire global social metabolism—that is, of societies’ use of natural resources and ecosystems as both source and sink—of which the latter is seldom formally traded. Warlenius (2016b) launched the concept of unequal sink appropriation as a part of the wider notion of EUE and measured how unequally the global carbon sinks, which should be regarded as a ‘common good’, have been distributed historically. In the same article, EUE is linked to another important concept used by the environmental justice movement: ecological debt. Net flows of e.g. natural resources and other commodities, as well as waste and sink appropriation, are referred to as ecologically unequal exchange, while the cumulative stock resulting from these flows are ecological debt. In a similar way, continuous carbon sink appropriation builds up climate debt.

The often quantitative and methodological focus of the concept—its emphasis on the practice of measuring flows of resources—has provoked a critique about EUE being under-theorized. Brolin (2007) advocates a stronger connection to Emmanuel’s theory on unequal exchange, Warlenius (2017) has suggested to employ the Marxist economic geographer David Harvey’s historical-geographical materialism and the concept of uneven development, while Holleman and Foster (2014) suggest a footing on the ecologist Howard Odum’s emergy approach (which basically means to translate all productive inputs—labour, matter and energy—into a unit used to measure energy (e.g. kWh), and use this total “emergy” as a measure of value of a product). Hornborg (2015) has, on the other hand, criticized this latter approach for mixing apples and pears in its attempt to define an objective measure of value: value is culturally produced—people hold different things to be valuable depending on their shared cultural believes—while emergy (as well as land or labour that are the foundation of other materialist theories of value) is physics.

Several of the demands of the environmental justice movements that are related to ecological or climate debt are also relevant to address ecologically unequal exchange

From academia to political movements

While it was the environmental/climate justice movement that developed the concepts of ecological debt and climate debt and these concepts have generated several policy proposals, the background of (ecologically) unequal exchange is academic and used for analysis rather than politics. Yet, linking these concepts together is also a way of building a bridge between environmental justice as academic tradition and as political praxis. Several of the demands of the environmental justice movements that are related to ecological or climate debt, such as the famous outcomes from the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, are also relevant to address EUE. These include ways of acknowledging the debt as well as repaying it: by reversing unequal net flows through radical emission cuts in high-emitting advanced economies; by compensating peripheral countries in the global South for adaptation costs; through sharing of technologies; and through reparations—concrete transfer of financial resources. Although such global redistribution would mainly be the result of changing balances of power, solid theories and data on past inequalities could encourage struggles for environmental justice.

Further resources

As previously discussed, central texts in the development of theories on ecologically unequal exchange include Bunker (1985), Hornborg (1998 & 2006), Holleman & Foster (2014), and Warlenius (2016b). Brolin (2007) is an encompassing history over the development of the concept unequal exchange, including EUE. Other—much briefer—introductions to the concept are Hornborg’s (2017) chapter in The Routledge handbook of ecological economics and an entry in the online EJOLT glossary. For the latest empirical support for EUE, see this article by Christian Dorninger and colleagues (2021).

Brolin, J (2007): The bias of the world. Theories of unequal exchange. Diss. Lund: Human Ecology Division. Online at: https://lup.lub.lu.se/search/ws/files/4378178/26725.pdf

Bunker, S (1985): Underdeveloping the Amazon: Extraction, unequal exchange, and the failure of the modern state. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dorninger, C et al (2021): “Global patterns of ecologically unequal exchange: Implications for sustainability in the 21st century”. Ecological Economics 179 (pre-print).

Holleman, H & Foster, J (2014): “The theory of unequal ecological exchange: a Marx-Odum dialectic”. Journal of Peasant Studies 41(2) 199-233.

Hornborg, A (1998): “Towards an ecological theory of unequal exchange: articulating world system theory and ecological economics”. Ecological Economics 25(1) 127-136.

Hornborg, A (2006): “Footprints in the cotton fields: The industrial revolution as time-space appropriation and environmental load displacement”. Ecological Economics 59: 74-81.

Hornborg, A (2015): “Why economics needs to be distinguished from physics, and why economists need to talk to physicists: a response to Foster and Holleman”. Journal of Peasant Studies 42(1) 187-192.

Hornborg, A (2017): “Political ecology and unequal exchange”. Routledge handbook of ecological economics. Ed: CL Spash. Abingdon and New York: Routledge. 39-47.

Jorgensen, AK (2009) “The sociology of unequal exchange in ecological context: a panel study of lower‐income countries, 1975–2000”, Sociological Forum 24(1) 22-46.

Rice, J (2007): “Ecological unequal exchange: consumption, equity, and unsustainable structural relationships within the global economy”, International Journal of Comparative Sociology 48(1) 43-72.

Warlenius, R (2016a): “Core and periphery in the early modern world system: A time-space appropriation assessment”. In Jarrick, A, Myrdal, J, & Wallenberg Bondesson, M (eds.): Methods in world history: A critical approach. Lund: Nordic Academic Press.

Warlenius, R (2016b): “Linking ecological debt and ecologically unequal exchange: Stocks, flows, and unequal sink appropriation”. Journal of Political Ecology 23: 364-380

Warlenius, R (2017): Asymmetries. Conceptualizing environmental inequalities as ecological debt and ecologically unequal exchange. Diss. Lund: Human Ecology Divison. Online at: https://lup.lub.lu.se/search/ws/files/19721188/Asymmetries_Introductory_chapter.pdf

Rikard Warlenius is a senior lecturer in Human Ecology at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. His PhD dissertation (2017) focused on concepts such as Ecologically unequal exchange and Ecological debt. Currently, he is doing research on urban grassroots initiatives for climate transition in Gothenburg and Berlin.

Offsetting

by Danika Drury

Sometimes you really need to take a flight. Even though you are all-too aware of the toll that flying exerts on the environment. If only there were a way to make up for that damage, to get along in this economy without doing harm.

This dilemma between environmental and economic necessities is what environmental offsetting attempts to solve. The basic premise behind offsetting is intuitive and appealing: that you can counteract a loss with a gain. Environmental offsetting schemes have been widely adopted by governments and corporations over the last three decades, most commonly in the form of carbon or biodiversity offsets, which seek to counteract carbon emissions and habitat loss, respectively, by investing in environmentally beneficial projects. They operate in many different forms and at different scales, from the little check box that lets you offset the emissions of your flight, to multinational forestry projects funded by mining and oil companies.  Offsetting’s appeal is in its simplicity, allowing us to redress some of the harm done by our activity on the planet without throwing too big a wrench in the economy, but this same simplicity is also its downfall. While offsetting projects can include worthwhile environmental work, the very idea of like-for-like exchange is premised on a logic that falls short in the face of the unique ecosystems and meaningful places that make up the world we live in. This is a world that is much more complicated, dynamic, and alive than what is accounted for by offsetting schemes.  

Lost in translation

A key premise of offsetting is that a net gain can compensate for a local loss. Environmental offset schemes make no demand on corporations to limit their economic activity, instead hoping to balance it out through positive environmental contributions. Offsetting projects usually operate as part of a larger framework that sets a target for acceptable levels of carbon emissions or biodiversity; for instance, cap-and-trade systems, the Paris Agreement targets, or the No Net Loss biodiversity policies that dozens of countries have now adopted. When corporations continue to exceed these limits, offsetting projects provide a way to cancel out this excess. So, if the construction of a condo will result in the disruption of a wetland, the property developer can compensate for this by investing in the improvement or protection of another wetland deemed to be equivalent. If a company’s shipping will result in some 13 million metric tonnes of carbon being emitted, they can invest in forestry or renewable energy projects that are accredited to save an equivalent amount. Companies such as airlines sometimes share this responsibility with individual consumers by providing an option – that familiar check box – to contribute to their offset projects. The idea is to incentivise environmental protection on the part of corporations by making it the route through which they are permitted to continue and even expand their operations. Offsetting is often lauded as a win-win between the economy and the environment. In reality, however, things have been a little more lopsided.

While there is important conservation work being carried out under the auspices of offsetting, the evidence thus far is that by and large these programs are not effective as offsets – that is, they do not cancel out the harmful actions of the companies behind them. Studies of biodiversity offset sites have found that they are not preventing the net loss of biodiversity. Up to 82% have a high probability of long term failure, and that even in cases where offset sites may succeed, time delays were far greater than what was being accounted for. In many cases, offset sites may support biodiversity, but not for the same combinations of species as in the site that was lost to development.

For example, one study of land reclamation under Australia’s No Net Loss policy found that attempting to offset the loss of forests cleared for farming by replanting other sections of the same farm led to some species, such as the eastern brown snake, doing well in the reclaimed sites, while many others such as the stone gecko and the common ringtail possum did not.  Tree-dwelling possums were actually negatively affected by new planting, as they rely on cavities in older trees for nesting sites. To add to the difficulty, researchers found that even reclamation projects where hollowed trees had been preserved could not provide the same homey landscape for the possums and small reptiles because subtle changes in factors like soil salinity and amount of woody debris shaped the development of the new forest. These minute differences changed the way possums, geckos, and their neighbours fed, sheltered, and reproduced. The result was landscapes that, though generally better for biodiversity than no reclamation at all, could not be considered a replacement or adequate compensation for what was lost.

The complex dynamics which are so difficult to control in biodiversity offsetting programs also underlie the carbon sequestration processes measured in many carbon offset programs, which show similar rates of failure. It is forests, rather than trees alone, that sequester carbon and forests are complicated biomes that take time to develop. The impact these sites do have is dependent on processes which take place over decades or even centuries, during which time the effects of the carbon already emitted and the habitat already lost are still felt.

The unexpected outcomes and time delays observed in offset sites demonstrate the difficulties of convincing ecosystems to go along with our plans. Offsetting programs attempt to account for these complexities by calculating a project’s value in the form of carbon and biodiversity credits, which quantify different attributes of a project: tonnes of carbon to be sequestered, the presence or absence of endangered species, and so on. These calculations necessarily simplify ecological processes in order to assign the kind of values that can be quantified, monetised, and transferred from one site to another. However, as the high failure rate of offsets attests, the ecological processes that underlie these values are difficult to control or predict. Ecosystems do not always develop in ways that are linear and uniform. Instead they are often patchy, proceeding in fits and starts and according to timelines well beyond human experience. While this doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to help our environment flourish, it does indicate that we cannot count on nature to behave in the precise ways we would like it to, which makes it extremely risky to trade an existent ecosystem for a hypothetical one.

A house is not a home

Not only are the services and attributes targeted by offsetting schemes difficult to maintain or recreate, they are an inadequate description of what is being lost. Environments are not just collections of species and things. They are places and homes, which are much harder to replace.

For example, the petroleum company Syncrude, operating in the Canadian tar sands, recently purchased $2.4 million in offset credits towards the protection of 1.4 million hectares of boreal forest – making this the largest protected boreal forest on the planet. This helped them secure permission to develop a new mine, a move vehemently opposed by local Chipewyan and Cree First Nations communities. The environmental footprint of the protected boreal forest is calculated to be larger than that of the mine in terms of carbon sequestration as well as conservation impact. As far as offsetting goes, this is considered a Net Positive, a fact that was used rhetorically by Syncrude to legitimise the expansion of their operations and silence critics.

Environments are not just collections of species and things. They are places and homes, which are much harder to replace.

However, the destruction wrought by Syncrude’s industrial activities goes beyond what can be quantified, it forever damages the relationships that both humans and non-humans have to land that has been their home for millennia. As Chipewyan Chief Adam Allan put it: “I remember as a kid, you could drink water from the Athabasca River, you could eat the fish. I remember those days. But now, today, you can’t do it.” Feeling at home is always entangled with a particular place, and the damage done to the Indigenous peoples of Athabasca’s sense of belonging cannot be repaired by protecting another swathe of land elsewhere.  The situation in the Canadian tar sands is not unique. From the Arctic to the South Pacific, Indigenous and other vulnerable communities are losing the landscapes that not only provide them with a means of subsistence but have informed unique cultures and ways of life.

Offsetting not only fails to curb the extractive industrial activity that continually puts communities at risk, it may actually exacerbate the unequal distribution of harm that results. Decisions about what should be saved and what must be sacrificed are often taken out of the hands of the communities most directly affected by them. Instead, agency is concentrated in the very entities putting the environment under threat, which has led to decisions that further entrench class inequalities as well as colonial power dynamics. This can put vulnerable communities at risk not only through the condoned destruction of their environment, but in the attempts to save it. In the global South, conservation offsets funded and managed by corporations and NGOs based in the North often exclude local human communities from the nature to be protected, resulting in evictions, bans, and the criminalisation of activities once considered an essential part of life and culture. While most offsetting programs do include some form of consultation with local communities, foregrounding the voices of those most vulnerable to harm would contradict the basic assumption of offsetting: that a net gain can outweigh a local loss.

From Here to Eternity

Even if we accept the claim that restoration projects could turn these losses into net gains, a quantitative win does not remedy the qualitative losses suffered by local communities—human and non-human—nor does it guarantee a better world to come. Determining what constitutes net gain, what sacrifices are worth making, and who gets a say in the discussion, shapes the kind of world that will be built out of those sacrifices.

By the logic of offsetting, that world need not be very different from the one we currently have. It promises that not only will environmental well-being not conflict with economic growth, but they can support each other to the benefit of all. However, economic growth, conventionally measured by GDP, has thus far not been for the benefit of all. It has come with a host of unequally distributed social and environmental costs and has not translated into overall well-being. Instead, those who live and work in their communities are increasingly put at risk by the costs, while extraordinary wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a select few.

This is perhaps why offsetting has been such an easy sell to many of the world’s most powerful corporations: it allows them to continue being powerful. As long as the environment can be repaired and replenished, it can continue to be extracted from and profited off of, with no need for hard limits or radical restructuring. We could theoretically continue on like this indefinitely: infinite environmental gain supporting infinite economic growth.

The key word, however, is theoretically. In real life, as evidenced by the widespread failure of offsetting programs to deliver practical results, the environment as we know it cannot thrive indefinitely while at the same time having the energy, materials, and life needed to fuel increasing economic growth extracted from it. It will be, as it has been, damaged beyond what can be repaired in human lifetimes and more and more people will suffer because of that damage. Without significant structural change, the pursuit of net gain will continue to entrench the harm and inequality masked by that growth.

In reality, ecosystems are not made up of building blocks, which can be amalgamated or broken up and transferred at the convenience of those who would profit from it

Only by assuming a neutral, detached view of an environment-in-general does it make sense to speak of trading one ecosystem for another, like switching money between accounts. In reality, ecosystems are not made up of building blocks, which can be amalgamated or broken up and transferred at the convenience of those who would profit from it. Both ecologically and culturally, ecosystems are composed of relationships, between humans and non-humans, living beings and their abiotic surroundings, all rooted in a particular time and place. The loss of these places is not just a loss of services or attributes, it is a loss of the unique perspectives and ways of living that come from being a part of these environments. It is a loss of worlds. Taking seriously the reality of being embedded in these relationships means recognising that there are limits to the kinds of activity we can undertake without causing irreparable harm, no matter how we try to make up for it.

Turning the ship around

Offsetting allows us to imagine a world in which there are no limits. The economic paradigm of eternal growth requires such an environment, one which is always replenishable, never fully exhausted. Like some fabled ghost ship, it can float on forever so long as we keep patching it up. In a way, it is comforting to imagine that whatever harm we do can be repaired. In the face of such vast problems, it is at least something. As one offsetting advocate puts it: “Perfection can be the enemy of delivery. There are a whole bunch of problems with it. … What is the alternative?”

But we are not yet ghosts and we can turn this ship around. Offsetting may be better than nothing, but nothing is not the only alternative. The alternative to offsetting it is to accept that there are limits, and to learn how to flourish within them. This means not presuming that ecosystems will follow our plans. It also means listening first and foremost to the communities who have been pushed beyond their limits by the machinations of extractive capitalism. Learning to live without the myth that we can keep sailing forever may be daunting, but it’s the only way to keep from drowning. In the end, it may not be so bad to live in a world that is more than the sum of its parts.

Further resources

Apostolopoulou, Evangelia. & Adams, William. 2017 ‘Biodiversity offsetting and conservation: reframing nature to save it’, Oryx, 51(1), pp. 23–31.

Goldtooth, Tom. 2014. ‘Stopping the Privatization of Nature’ Bioneers Lecture.

Song, Lisa. 2019. ‘These 4 Arguments Can’t Overcome the Facts About Carbon Offsets for Forest PreservationProPublica.

Robertson, Morgan M. 2006 ‘The Nature That Capital Can See: Science, State, and Market in the Commodification of Ecosystem Services.’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 24, pp. 367-387.

Vyawahare, Malavika. 2020. ‘Raze here, save there: Do biodiversity offsets work for people or ecosystems?Mongabay.

Danika Drury is a writer and researcher currently working to combat food poverty in the UK. She’s a graduate of Birkbeck, University of London’s MSc program in Environment & Sustainability and previously studied Philosophy. You can talk to her about eels and sci-fi @DanikaJane.

Extractivism

by Diana Vela Almeida

La versión en español de este artículo está disponible aquí.

One could simply define extractivism as a productive process where natural resources are removed from the land or the underground and then put up for sale as commodities on the global market. But defining extractivism is not really this easy. Extractivism is related to existing geopolitical, economic and social relations produced throughout history. It is an economic model of development that transnational companies and states practice worldwide and that can be traced back more than 500 years all the way to the European colonial expansion. You can’t tell the history of the colonies without talking about the looting of minerals, metals, and other high-value resources in Latin America, Africa, and Asia—looting that first nourished demands for development from the European crowns and later from the United States, and more recently also from China.

Today this model of accumulation of wealth remains a key part of the structure of a globally dominant capitalistic system—a system where power is in the hands of those who control money and industry—that has extended the extractive frontier to the detriment of other forms of land and resource uses. Such exploitation has also appropriated human bodies in the form of slaves or, more recently, as labor-intensive precarious workers. Extractivism is entirely tied up with exploitation of people.

Today’s extractive industries such as gas, oil, and mining have an egregious reputation of violating human and environmental rights and supporting highly controversial political and economic reforms in poor countries.

Expanding the global frontiers of extraction

Since the mid-20th century, extractive frontiers have expanded around the planet as global demand for commodities has increased. Most non-industrialized countries (but also industrialized countries such as Norway, Canada, and the US) have activated their primary sectors of production to exploit landscapes that were previously inaccessible, such as in the case of fracking and tar sands extraction in the Artic or in the open sea.

Since the mid-20th century, extractive frontiers have expanded around the planet as global demand for commodities has increased

The central idea behind such state-sanctioned extractivism is that extractive projects are strategic ventures for national development in resource-rich countries that can thereby strengthen their comparative economic advantages—that is, their economic power relative to the economic power of other nations. In other words, poor nations can exploit their natural resources as a means for economic growth, a source of employment, and ultimately a tool for poverty reduction.

This idea has been ingrained for many years in developing countries, and yet these countries have historically been unable to convert resource wealth into so-called development. Indeed, in some places that are rich in natural resources—typically in African countries with large oil or mineral deposits—there is an inverse relationship between poverty reduction and economic performance. This means that a lot of extractive activity is coupled with high levels of poverty, economic dependency on capital flows from developed countries, and political instability. This phenomenon is known as the “resource curse.”

In the last 20 years, several governments in Latin America, Africa, and Asia have challenged the “resource curse” by asserting national control over new forms of primary-production extractive industries. These are oriented around intensive and large-scale projects that cover previously inconceivable environments (again, like off-shore mining or fracking), as well as new forms of economic exploitation such as the agroindustry, fisheries, timber extraction, tourism, animal husbandry, and energy megaprojects.

These endeavours require national policy reforms. In Asia and Africa, extractivist national policies adhere to what is called “resource nationalism” and include the total or partial nationalization of extractive industries, renegotiation of contracts with foreign investment, increased public shareholding, new or higher taxation to expand resource rent, and value-added processing of resources.

In Latin America, the commodity boom at the beginning of the 2000s, marked by the increase in commodity prices together with transnational investments, led to great economic growth in what is called “neoextractivism”. Neoextractivism is a relative of resource nationalism and its emergence coincided with the rise to power of several progressive governments in the region that also seized more state control over natural resources within their national boundaries.

Advocates of neoextractivism claimed that new extractive practices would be “environmentally friendly” and “socially responsible”, thereby minimizing the disastrous impacts of extractivism as it was practiced throughout colonial and neoliberal history. Despite this, extractive industries have expanded and continue to expand in new frontiers with the negative effects of dispossessing people from their land, subjugating communal values to the values of extraction-driven development, and disrupting social structures, territories, and alternative forms of life.

In the debate over extractivism, there is no consensus about how to solve the problems caused by this mode of development. Some people think that extractivism should be viewed positively because of the economic growth and increased public spending that was accomplished during the early 2000s in Latin America. Others emphasise that most of the wealth produced is siphoned out of the producer countries to transnational investors, while negative impacts remain locally or regionally. And from the perspective of those who are directly affected by extractive industries, it is clear that economic revenues are not translated into socially just well-being and that these revenues are generated through the destruction of their lives and their land.

Not a neutral economic model

To further understand the complexity of the problem with extractivism, let us look at three interrelated dimensions of what makes up the extractivist economic model—and then consider how to go beyond the economic considerations of extractivism.

First, for extractivism to work, any biophysical “nature” becomes exclusively framed as a natural resource. That is, nature is conceived as an input (e.g. a resource like oil, soil, or trees) for the production of a commodity (e.g. gas, food, or timber). This simplifies the multiplicity of socionature relations with which such an economic model is entangled.  

When thinking about the environmental impacts of extraction, we surely need to consider what will happen to other elements in nature that are interconnected with the extracted resource, including water, air, soil, plants, and human and non-human animals. A cascading effect of environmental change indeed often occurs in ecosystems that are impacted by extraction, and thus interrelated elements of nature become irreversibly altered.

Second, extractive projects are normally located in or close to marginal, poor, and racialized (i.e. conceived as non-white) populations. Extractivism arrives with promises of improved life conditions, more jobs, and infrastructure development. But large-scale extractive industries are by no means necessarily interested in forwarding local employment and improving the livelihood of people. Instead, experience tells us that they often serve to diminish alternative economic activities and disrupt existing community networks and social structures. Extractive industries have frequently dispossessed people of land rights with the result of cultural disruption and violence.

Demands for social and environmental justice revolve around claims that the social and environmental costs of extractivism are higher than any economic benefit

Marginal populations still bear the brunt of the social costs of extractivism and don’t necessarily reap any benefits. In response to this, demands for social and environmental justice revolve around claims that the social and environmental costs of extractivism are higher than any economic benefit but that these costs are not accounted for in the decisions.

New demands from feminist movements and women Indigenous defenders highlight the relation between extractivism and patriarchal and racial violence and how this disproportionately impacts women. Examples are the increase in prostitution and sexual violence in communities restructured by extractivism and the externalization the social costs—the transfer of responsibilities for caring that are pivotal for the functioning of any economy—to women. As women are primarily responsible for the reproduction of life, they are highly vulnerable to the rupture of community or loss of territory. Because of that, women organizations have become the frontline defenders of their territories in the resistance against extractivism.

Finally, extractivism is a highly political endeavour that maintains a model of capital accumulation and destruction. It has led to the increase of socio-environmental conflicts around the globe, involving measures by states and industry to control resistance and criminalize social protest.

So, in sum, one should define extractivism as far from neutral or apolitical; it is an economic model that reflects a specific political position that relies on a given, predefined understanding of growth-oriented development as the ultimate good. Extractivism thereby reinforces political-economic arrangements that are biased against marginalized people who are deprived of their power to influence political decisions.

From an extractivist political perspective, resistance against extractivism is naïve, obstinate NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard-ism), or ignorant of the economic needs of the countries that could be “developed” by extractive projects. In reality, actions of resistance are contestations that challenge the dominant extractivist worldview and the uneven power relations between actors who decide, actors who benefit, and actors who bear the negative consequences of extraction. Under these conditions, extractivism is in complete contradiction to social and environmental justice and care for nature and life itself.

All in all, extractivism as a single model of production remains one of the most expansionist global enterprises and it squashes any other ways of living with the land. The 500 years’ legacy of extractivism is part of ongoing imperialist interest from industrial powers in securing access and control over natural resources around the globe, even in today´s green energy transitions. As such, extractivism stands in sharp contrast to flourishing alternative forms of land use and livelihoods.

Opposition to extractivism does not mean that people can’t use a resource at all and by no means implies a binary choice between either extractivism or underdevelopment. Instead, anti-extractivism is about focusing on what type of life we want to achieve as a whole and how we build global systems of justice. We can nourish ourselves from several non-extractivist modes of production and reproduction that center on a dignified life for all.  

Further resources

Bond, P. (2017). Uneven development and resource extractivism in Africa. In Routledge Handbook of Ecological Economics (pp. 404-413). Routledge.
This article explains the expansion of neoliberal environmentalism in the extraction of non-renewable natural resources in Africa. The author argues that if accounting the social and environmental costs, African countries end up poorer than before extraction.

Burchardt, H. J., & Dietz, K. (2014). (Neo-) extractivism–a new challenge for development theory from Latin America. Third World Quarterly, 35(3), 468-486.
An overview of key debates of ‘Neo-extractivism’ and the role of the state in Latin America.

Engels, B., & Dietz, K. (Eds.). (2017). Contested extractivism, society and the state: Struggles over mining and land. Palgrave Macmillan.
A presentation of several case studies around the globe on the conflicts between extractivism and other land uses.

Galeano, E. (1997). Open veins of Latin America: Five centuries of the pillage of a continent. NYU Press.
A classic essay on the history of the looting of natural resources, colonialism and uneven development in Latin America from the 15th century to the 20th century.

Svampa, M. (2015). Commodities consensus: Neoextractivism and enclosure of the commons in Latin America. South Atlantic Quarterly, 114(1), 65-82.
A critical analysis of neo-extractivism, capital accumulation, environmental conflicts and development. It ends up discussing proposals around ideas of post-extractivism and transitions.

Diana Vela Almeida is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Geography at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Diana combines political ecology, ecological economics and feminist critical geography to study extractivism, neoliberal environmentalism and socio-environmental resistance. Contact: diana.velaalmeida[at]ntnu.no

Extractivismo

por Diana Vela Almeida

An English version of this article is available here.

Alguien podría fácilmente definir al extractivismo como un proceso productivo donde los recursos naturales se remueven del suelo o del subsuelo y luego son vendidos como commodities en el mercado global. Pero definir el extractivismo no es tarea tan fácil. El extractivismo está asociado a relaciones geopolíticas, económicas y sociales producidas a lo largo de la historia. Este es un modelo económico de desarrollo practicado por las empresas transnacionales y los estados en todo el mundo y que se remonta a más de 500 años atrás desde la expansión colonial europea. No se puede hablar de la historia de las colonias sin mencionar el saqueo de minerales, metales y otros recursos de alto valor en América Latina, África y Asia- saqueo que primero alimentó las demandas de desarrollo de las coronas europeas y luego también de los Estados Unidos, y más recientemente de China.

Hoy este modelo de acumulación de riqueza es una parte fundamental de la estructura dominante del sistema capitalista global, un sistema donde el poder está en manos de quienes controlan el dinero y la industria, y el cual ha extendido la frontera extractiva en detrimento de otras formas de uso de la tierra y los recursos naturales. Dicha explotación también se ha apropiado históricamente de los cuerpos en forma de esclavos o, más recientemente, como trabajadores precarios de mano de obra intensiva. El extractivismo está completamente ligado a la explotación de las personas.

Las industrias extractivas de hoy en día, como el gas, el petróleo y la minería, tienen una reputación notoria de violar los derechos humanos y ambientales y de apoyar reformas políticas y económicas muy controvertidas en los países pobres.

Expandiendo las fronteras globales de extracción

Desde mediados del siglo XX, las fronteras extractivas se han expandido alrededor del mundo a medida que la demanda global de commodities aumenta. La mayoría de los países no industrializados (pero también países industrializados como Noruega, Canadá y los Estados Unidos) han activado sus sectores primario- productivos para explotar paisajes que antes eran inaccesibles; este es el caso del fracking y de la extracción de arenas bituminosas en el Ártico o en el mar abierto.

Desde mediados del siglo XX, las fronteras extractivas se han expandido alrededor del mundo a medida que la demanda global de commodities aumenta.

La idea central detrás del extractivismo promovido por los estados es que los proyectos extractivos son núcleos estratégicos para el desarrollo nacional de países ricos en recursos naturales, y que pueden por lo tanto fortalecer sus ventajas comparativas, es decir, mejorar su poder económico en relación con el poder económico de otras naciones. En otras palabras, las naciones pobres pueden explotar sus recursos naturales como un medio para crecer económicamente, mantener una fuente de empleo y, en última instancia, como una herramienta para la reducción de la pobreza.

Esta idea ha estado arraigada durante muchos años en los países en desarrollo, y sin embargo, la historia muestra que estos países no han podido transformar la riqueza de sus recursos naturales en el tal llamado desarrollo. De hecho, en varios lugares ricos en recursos naturales, generalmente en países africanos con grandes yacimientos de petróleo o minerales, existe una relación inversa entre la reducción de la pobreza y el desempeño económico. Es decir, las actividades extractivas se combinan con altos niveles de pobreza, dependencia económica de los flujos de capital desde los países desarrollados e inestabilidad política. Este fenómeno se conoce como la “maldición de los recursos”.

En los últimos 20 años, varios gobiernos en América Latina, África y Asia han desafiado la “maldición de los recursos” al afirmar el control nacional sobre nuevas formas de industrias extractivas de producción primaria. Estas industrias están orientadas a promover proyectos intensivos y a gran escala que alcanzan ambientes previamente inconcebibles (nuevamente, como la minería a mar abierto o el fracking), así como también incluyen nuevas formas de explotación económica como la agroindustria, la pesca, la extracción de madera, el turismo, la cría industrial de animales, y los megaproyectos energéticos.

Estos esfuerzos requieren reformas de política nacional. En Asia y África, las políticas nacionales extractivistas se adhieren a lo que se conoce como el “nacionalismo de los recursos” e incluyen la nacionalización total o parcial de las industrias extractivas, la renegociación de los contratos de inversión extranjera, el aumento de la participación pública, impuestos nuevos o más altos para ampliar la renta extractiva, y generar valor agregado sobre los recursos extraídos.

En América Latina, el boom de las commodities a principios de la década de 2000, marcado por el aumento de los precios de estos productos junto con mayores inversiones transnacionales, condujo a un gran crecimiento económico en lo que se conoce como “neoextractivismo”. El neoextractivismo es un pariente del nacionalismo de los recursos y su surgimiento coincidió con el ascenso al poder de varios gobiernos progresistas en la región, que también tomaron mayor control estatal sobre los recursos naturales dentro de sus fronteras nacionales.

Los defensores del neoextractivismo afirman que las nuevas prácticas extractivas son “ambientalmente amigables” y “socialmente responsables”, minimizando así los efectos desastrosos del extractivismo practicado a lo largo de la historia colonial y neoliberal. A pesar de esto, la industria extractiva se ha expandido y continúa expandiéndose hacia nuevas fronteras y está causando grandes efectos negativos como el despojo de las tierras de los habitantes, la subyugación de los valores comunitarios por valores desarrollistas impulsados por la extracción y la disrrupción de las estructuras sociales, de los territorios, y de las formas alternativas de vida.

En el debate sobre el extractivismo no hay consenso sobre cómo resolver los problemas causados ​​por este modelo de desarrollo. Algunas personas piensan que el extractivismo debe ser visto positivamente debido al crecimiento económico que genera y al aumento del gasto público logrado a principios de la década del 2000 en Latinoamérica. Otros enfatizan que la mayor parte de la riqueza producida se fuga de los países productores hacia los inversores transnacionales, mientras que los impactos negativos permanecen local o regionalmente. Y desde la perspectiva de quienes están directamente afectados por las industrias extractivas, los ingresos económicos no se traducen en bienestar social, además que son ingresos generados a través de la destrucción de sus vidas y de sus tierras.

No existe un modelo económico neutral.

Para entender mejor la complejidad del problema del extractivismo, veamos tres dimensiones interrelacionadas de lo que constituye el modelo económico extractivista, y luego consideramos cómo ir más allá de las cuestiones económicas del extractivismo.

Primero, para que el extractivismo funcione, éste debe tomar cualquier “naturaleza” biofísica y transformarla exclusivamente en un recurso natural. Es decir, la naturaleza se concibe como un insumo (por ejemplo, se toma un recurso como el petróleo, la tierra o los árboles) para utilizarlo en la producción de una commodity (por ejemplo, gasolina, alimentos o madera). Este fenómeno simplifica la multiplicidad de relaciones sociales existentes con la naturaleza, de las cuales dicho modelo económico también se encuentra entrelazado.

Al pensar en los impactos ambientales de la extracción, ciertamente debemos considerar qué sucederá con otros elementos de la naturaleza que están interconectados con el recurso extraído, incluidos el agua, el aire, el suelo, las plantas y los animales humanos y no humanos. De hecho, a menudo se produce un efecto en cascada de cambio ambiental en los ecosistemas que se ven afectados por la extracción, por lo que los elementos de la naturaleza que están interrelacionados son alterados irreversiblemente.

Segundo, los proyectos extractivos normalmente se ubican cerca o dentro de poblaciones marginales, pobres y racializadas (es decir, concebidas como no blancas). El extractivismo llega con promesas de mejores condiciones de vida, más empleos y mejor desarrollo de infraestructura. Pero las industrias extractivas a gran escala no están necesariamente interesadas en fortalecer el empleo local y mejorar el sustento de las personas. Al contrario, la experiencia nos dice que éstas a menudo reducen las actividades económicas alternativas e interrumpen las redes comunitarias y las estructuras sociales existentes. Las industrias extractivas con frecuencia han vulnerado los derechos de las personas a la tierra, resultando en fuertes disrupciones culturales y violencia.

Las demandas de justicia social y ambiental giran en torno a las afirmaciones de que los costos sociales y ambientales del extractivismo son más altos que cualquier beneficio económico.

Las poblaciones marginales aún cargan la peor parte de los costos sociales del extractivismo y no necesariamente cosechan algún beneficio. En respuesta a esto, las demandas de justicia social y ambiental giran en torno a las afirmaciones de que los costos sociales y ambientales del extractivismo son más altos que cualquier beneficio económico, pero estos costos no se tienen en cuenta en las decisiones.

Las nuevas demandas de los movimientos feministas y las defensoras indígenas resaltan la relación entre el extractivismo y la violencia patriarcal y racial y cómo esto afecta desproporcionadamente a las mujeres. Algunos ejemplos son el aumento de la prostitución y la violencia sexual en las comunidades transformadas por el extractivismo y la externalización de los costos sociales (la transferencia de responsabilidades de cuidado que son fundamentales para el funcionamiento de cualquier economía) a las mujeres. Como las mujeres son las principales responsables de la reproducción de la vida, ellas son muy vulnerables a la ruptura de la comunidad o la pérdida del territorio. Por eso, las organizaciones de mujeres se han convertido en la primera línea de la defensa territorial y de la resistencia contra el extractivismo.

Finalmente, el extractivismo es un proyecto claramente político que mantiene un modelo de acumulación de capital y destrucción. Este modelo ha causado un aumento de conflictos socioambientales en todo el mundo, resultando en medidas por parte de los estados y la industria para controlar la resistencia y criminalizar la protesta social.

En resumen, deberíamos definir al extractivismo como algo lejos de lo neutral o apolítico; éste es un modelo económico que refleja una posición política concreta, basada en una comprensión clara y predefinida del desarrollo, el cual está orientado al crecimiento como objetivo final. El extractivismo por lo tanto refuerza los arreglos político-económicos necesarios en contra de las personas marginalizadas que se ven privadas de su poder para influir sobre las decisiones políticas.

Desde una perspectiva política extractivista, la resistencia contra el extractivismo es vista como ingenua, NIMBYsmo (es decir, “No en mi patio trasero”), oposición obstinada o ignorante de las necesidades económicas de los países que podrían “desarrollarse” gracias a los proyectos extractivos. En realidad, las acciones de resistencia representan cuestionamientos que desafían el paradigma extractivista dominante y las relaciones desiguales de poder entre los actores que deciden, los actores que se benefician y los actores que soportan las consecuencias negativas de la extracción. Bajo estas condiciones, el extractivismo está en clara contradicción con la justicia social y ambiental y el cuidado de la naturaleza y la vida misma.

Con todo lo dicho, el extractivismo como modelo de producción sigue siendo uno de los proyectos globales más expansionistas y que aplasta cualquier otra forma de vivir con la tierra. El legado de 500 años de extractivismo es parte del continuo interés imperialista de las potencias industriales por garantizar el acceso y control sobre los recursos naturales en todo el mundo, incluso hoy en día, a través de intereses relacionados con transiciones hacia las energías verdes. Como tal, esto contrasta abiertamente con las formas alternativas de uso de la tierra y los medios de vida prósperos.

La oposición al extractivismo no significa que las personas no puedan utilizar un recurso en absoluto y de ninguna manera implica una elección binaria entre extractivismo o subdesarrollo. Al contrario, el anti-extractivismo se trata de enfocarse en qué tipo de vida queremos lograr integralmente y cómo construimos sistemas globales de justicia. Ahí, podemos nutrirnos de los saberes de varios modos de producción y reproducción no extractivistas que se centran en una vida digna para todas y todos.

Recursos adicionales

Bond, P. (2017). Uneven development and resource extractivism in Africa. In Routledge Handbook of Ecological Economics (pp. 404-413). Routledge.
Explica la expansión del ambientalismo neoliberal en la extracción de recursos naturales no renovables en África. El autor argumenta que si se contabilizan los costos sociales y ambientales, los países africanos terminan siendo más pobres que antes de la extracción.

Burchardt, H. J., & Dietz, K. (2014). (Neo-) extractivism–a new challenge for development theory from Latin America. Third World Quarterly35(3), 468-486.
Proporciona una visión general de los debates clave sobre el “Neo-extractivismo” y el papel del estado en América Latina.

Engels, B., & Dietz, K. (Eds.). (2017). Contested extractivism, society and the state: Struggles over mining and land. Palgrave Macmillan.
Presenta varios estudios de caso alrededor del mundo sobre los conflictos entre extractivismo y otros usos de la tierra.

Galeano, E. (1979). Las venas abiertas de América Latina. Siglo xxi.
Un ensayo clásico sobre la historia del saqueo de los recursos naturales, el colonialismo y el desarrollo desigual en América Latina desde el siglo XV hasta el siglo XX.

Svampa, M. N. (2013). Consenso de los commodities y lenguajes de valoración en América Latina; Fundación Friedrich Ebert, Nueva Sociedad, 244; 4: 30-46
Proporciona un análisis crítico del neo-extractivismo, la acumulación de capital, los conflictos ambientales y el desarrollo en América Latina.

Diana Vela Almeida es una investigadora postdoctoral en el Departamento de Geografía de la Universidad Noruega de Ciencia y Tecnología. Diana combina ecología política, economía ecológica y geografía crítica feminista para estudiar el extractivismo, el ambientalismo neoliberal y la resistencia socio-ambiental. Contacto: diana.velaalmeida[at]ntnu.no

July readings

Indigenous Brazilians stand chained to a post in front of the Ministry of Justice in Brasilia, May 29, 2014, to demand a meeting with Justice Minister Eduardo Cardozo to discuss the demarcation of their ancestral land and respect for their rights. (Joedson Alves /REUTERS, via RCI)

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

This month, we are featuring articles illustrating what decolonial ecology could look like—and, in the corollary, analyses of racism in the environmental movement and climate denial by liberals. As real estate markets become unstable, investors are looking for safe places to put their money—farmland and extractive industries. So we are putting the spotlight on fights for land reform, anti-extractivist struggles, and Indigenous movements around the world. Finally, with the start of a new school year and online education, we noticed an uptick of radical syllabi for making sense of the world—we collected these in our resources section. 

A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!



Uneven Earth updates

Population | “Neo-Malthusian promotion of family planning as the solution to hunger, conflict, and poverty has contributed to destructive population control approaches, that are targeted most often at poor, racialized women.” 

Littoral Drift: Coastal currents and industrial echoes mingle to shape the landscape in Southern France | Photographer and filmmaker Neal Rockwell explores new natures on the Landes coast 

The Revolution Will Not Be “Green” | A truly equitable and sustainable conservation movement must abandon both green capitalism and the idea of pristine nature 



Top 5 articles to read

Cogs in the climate machine. A short course in planetary time, for planetary survival.

The coronavirus-climate-air conditioning nexus

Poultry and prisons

The dollar and Empire

Agro-imperialism in the time of Covid-19



News you might’ve missed

‘A critical situation’: Bangladesh in crisis as monsoon floods follow super-cyclone, and Monsoons slam South Asia, displacing millions in Bangladesh and India

Privatisation ‘wave’ hurts global poor as pandemic heightens risks

To fill vacant units, Barcelona seizes apartments

South Korea backtracks on green promise

Belgian Green parties introduce ecocide bill

Surprise discoveries in Mexico cave may double time of peopling of the Americas

Theoretical physicists say 90% chance of societal collapse within several decades. Deforestation and rampant resource use is likely to trigger the ‘irreversible collapse’ of human civilization unless we rapidly change course.



Global land struggles

New Brazilian map unmasks its illegal foresters

After the war, before the flood, in Colombia

An oil spill in the time of coronavirus

Land Back, the unheeded lesson of ‘Oka Crisis,’ 30 years on

Dakota Access Pipeline decision: The Standing Rock generation triumphs

The Supreme Court ruling on Oklahoma was welcome, but Indigenous people deserve more: To realize a complete vision of Indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice takes people power

Environmental activists face high risk of violence and assassination: study

Communities in West and Central Africa resist industrial oil palm plantations, even in times of Covid-19

Beyond biological warfare: Why COVID-19 is a matter of land distribution in Latin America 



Coronavirus

COVID-19 and border politics

How epidemics end

Ecology and economics for pandemic prevention

Lessons from the pandemic for the municipalists in Spain

Uneven development and the coronavirus crisis

It’s time to tell a new story about coronavirus—our lives depend on it



Where we’re at: analysis

Himalayan hydropower is not a green alternative 

The racist double standards of international development

‘Defund the police,’ ‘cancel rent’: The Left remakes the world

Has 2020 marked the end of progressive left electoralism?

Examining the wreckage

Beyond the Green New Deal: A review of Stan Cox’s new book

From neoliberalism to necrocapitalism in 20 years

Is Deep Adaptation flawed science?



Just think about it…

Automation is for the bosses

Towards the ‘Walden wage’

Twitter thread: “The summer heat continues. Let’s have a look at how the ancient Romans built themselves a cool, breezy, indoor climate

When France extorted Haiti – the greatest heist in history

Trump has brought America’s dirty wars home

In Mexico City, the coronavirus is bringing back Aztec-era ‘floating gardens’



Decolonial ecologies

The hungry people

Decolonizing ecology

The forest as farm

Growing sovereignty: Turtle Island and the future of food

Agroecology is solution to Nigeria’s food, farming challenges, say experts



Environmentalism, racism, and the right

Environmental group Sierra Club reckons with John Muir’s racism

Beware the rise of Far-Right environmentalism

Confronting the rise of eco-fascism means grappling with complex systems

The willful blindness of reactionary liberalism

Bad science and bad arguments abound in ‘Apocalypse Never’ by Michael Shellenberger. See also: ‘False Alarm’ and ‘Apocalypse Never’ book reviews



Cities and radical municipalism

I’ve seen a future without cars, and it’s amazing

Political organizing in the 21st century

Another town is possible: community wealth building in the Basque Country

Forget basic income—in Canada, the new normal should bring a public housing revolution

Cities versus multinationals

Green structural adjustment in the World Bank’s resilient cities

The “Camden model” for community policing is not a model. It’s an obstacle to real change.

Public transportation is a human right

Assembled in Detroit. An interview with Mason Herson-Hord about community organizing in Detroit, Michigan. 

Poppies. “The land we’re standing on was a golf course. Three years have passed since it was last used as one, and nature has made little headway in claiming it back.”

Why Miami is doomed—and what it would take to save it



Resources

Interface special issue on organising amidst COVID-19

The Ecoversities Alliance is committed to radically re-imagining higher education to cultivate human and ecological flourishing

Mexie’s positive Leftist news roundup, a monthly series on YouTube

System change: A basic primer to the solidarity economy

Pandemic syllabus

Decolonising methods: A reading list

Green New Deal(s): A resource list for political ecologists



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Population

Cover image made from an original photo by Jan Huber on Unsplash

by Anne Hendrixson and Diana Ojeda

While often thought of as a given reality, definitions of population are highly political. They are most often negatively associated with notions of “overpopulation” or “too many” Black, Brown and Indigenous people, supposedly overly fertile women and poor people, as well as some religious and ethnic groups. These ideas about population serve the purpose of classifying people and marking them as in need of intervention, defining whose life and ways of life are valuable or worthy of reproduction. In this line, it is important to question how population numbers are calculated and how they are used, as they help shape possible futures.

In relation to the environment and environmental conflict, population is often defined as a problem in neo-Malthusian terms. Neo-Malthusianism builds on British economist Thomas Malthus’s predictions of population-induced resource scarcity and violence. Neo-Malthusian promotion of family planning as the solution to hunger, conflict, and poverty has contributed to destructive population control approaches, that are targeted most often at poor, racialized women.

Population control was an international development policy from the 1960s to mid-1990s. Its policies have been based on top-down, coercive interventions. Such interventions are tied with imperial strategies for restraining local populations. Examples include China’s one-child policy, sterilization abuses in 1970s India and 1990s Peru, and the wide-scale dissemination of long-acting reversible contraceptive methods in the global South as a condition of international aid, like Norplant implants in Indonesia and elsewhere. Although the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development foregrounded sexual and reproductive health and rights and women’s empowerment and moved away from population control, it continues in practice. Population control is part of a troubled present, and cannot be relegated to history as dated international development policy.

In the context of the global environmental crisis, neo-Malthusianism is on the rise. As we have seen recently, the alarmism around population growth mobilizes fear in ways that often promote fascist, racist and xenophobic discourses dressed in green. For example, human pressure on the environment is cited as the reason for international migration, and, for some, under this logic, walls, deportation and fertility control become desirable. It is not uncommon to see media coverage that portrays humanitarian and political crises as a population problem that is causing waves of migration to the global North, as can be noted in the case of Syria. Feminist political ecologists challenge neo-Malthusianism because it assumes that there are external limits to resources. This obscures the ways in which scarcity and conflict are shaped by social and political factors.

Recent feminist writing gives us insight into the current population control efforts which are promoted as a win-win for women and the environment. The Thriving Together campaign sponsored by the UK-based, Margaret Pyke Trust’s Population & Sustainability Network, is a case in point. The Population and Sustainability Network works to promote “family planning for the planet”. Its Thriving Together campaign aims to bring together international organizations that work on issues of human and environmental health. Their statement, signed by 150 organizations declares: “Increasing human pressures are among the many challenges facing planetary health. By harming ecosystems we undermine food and water security and human health, and we threaten habitats and species. Ensuring family planning is available to all who seek it is among the positive actions we must take to lessen these pressures”.

This quote is weighted with common assumptions about population and the environment. “Human pressures” refers largely to population numbers in “poor rural communities in developing nations” with “higher levels of fertility and more rapid rates of population growth”. This is where the purportedly neutral container of “population” becomes racialized, sexed, gendered, located, and classed. As is typical of population control conversations, the targets are poor, racialized women in the global South, largely in African nations.

Thriving Together instrumentalizes contraception as a tool for women’s empowerment, which they claim not only improves health but “advances education and life opportunities” while at the same time it “eases pressures on wildlife and ecosystems.” It is an unrealistic expectation that a contraceptive method could resolve serious structural issues such as these. As advocates for reproductive justice, including access to safe and free or affordable abortion, we are concerned that this approach has the potential to skew quality sexual and reproductive health services in the service of environmental and economic agendas. Further, when family planning is posed as a technical fix to multiple problems, it ignores the political, social and economic character of environmental issues. In a depoliticizing move, these kinds of statements downplay issues central to the current environmental crisis such as rising inequalities and land grabbing, among others.1 At the same time, it leaves unquestioned the abuses of carried out in the name of conservation, associated with sterilization, violence, and even death, as a recent report against WWF shows.

Thriving Together’s narrative leads to environmental conservation policies which too often consider people to be environmental threats and overly fertile. These ideas translate into tight restrictions on the actions and movements of people who live in places which are seen as ecologically strategic.

In contrast, a feminist take on population critiques the troubling ways in which some individuals and groups are targeted as the root causes of poverty, environmental degradation and conflict. As stated in A Renewed Call for Feminist Resistance to Population Control, we call for ways in which climate change can be tackled at the same time that we challenge racism and social injustice, including issues of sexual and reproductive health. There cannot be environmental justice, including climate justice, without social, racial and gender justice.

1 Note: Land grabbing is used to define the land transactions that followed the financial crisis of 2007-2008, as countries, private companies and individuals in the Global North started to acquire massive chunks of land in the Global South. Speculative trends and neoliberal policies worsened this situation, resulting in big changes in land use, tenure and ownership. The notion has expanded since then to include the multiple ways in which very few rich people have been appropriating natural resources (using diverse strategies such as debt, violence and public policy) at the expense of the rural and urban poor.

Further resources

Ian Angus and Simon Butler. 2011. Too Many People?: Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
Systematically challenges the idea that “overpopulation” is the cause of environmental problems and climate change and calls to account the worst contributors to environmental destruction.

Betsy Hartmann. 2016. Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control, 3rd edition. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
Critiques population control and alarmism from a feminist, social justice perspective.

Anne Hendrixson, Diana Ojeda, Jade S. Sasser, Sarojini Nadimpally, Ellen E. Foley & Rajani Bhatia (2019): Confronting Populationism: Feminist challenges to population control in an era of climate change, Gender, Place & Culture. DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2019.1639634
Argues for renewed feminist attention to population control in the context of climate change.

Diana Ojeda, Jade S. Sasser & Elizabeth Lunstrum (2019): Malthus’s specter and the Anthropocene, Gender, Place & Culture, DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2018.1553858
Confronts the discourses linking climate change and the idea of the Anthropocene, which often advance neo-Malthusianism and suggests population control to address the challenges of climate change.

Anne Hendrixson leads PopDev, a feminist program challenging population control in all its forms through critical research, publications, and social justice advocacy. Anne is a writer and teacher who seeks to uncover the ways that population bomb thinking manifests in environmentalism, security discourses and sexual and reproductive health advocacy today. Contact: popdevprogram [at] gmail.com

Diana Ojeda is Associate Professor at the Center for Interdisciplinary Development Studies at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. Diana is a feminist geographer who does research on the relation between environmental issues and dispossession. Her recent work pays closer attention to the role of gender in the expansion of oil palm plantations in the Colombian Caribbean. Contact: dc.ojeda [at] uniandes.edu.co.

Littoral Drift: Coastal currents and industrial echoes mingle to shape the landscape in Southern France

by Neal Rockwell

The Forest of Landes is the largest artificial forest in Western Europe. Located south of Bordeaux, it spans a triangle of nearly a million hectares in the south of the country, running from Soulac at its northernmost point, to Hossegor in the south and Nérac to the east, with its western boundary running along two hundred and twenty-five kilometers of sand dune bordering the Atlantic Ocean. It is by and large a monoculture – the entire forest is made up almost entirely of one species: the maritime pine. 

A New World

Before the arrival of the forests in the mid-nineteenth century, Landes was a region of wetlands and bogs. In French, lande means bog or heath. Shepherds tended their flocks wearing stilts to navigate the muddy pasturelands. 

The first efforts to create an artificial forest began in the 18th century as a way to control the windswept coastal dunes, which had a tendency to swallow nearby villages. The project to secure the dunes expanded after the revolution and carried on under Napoleon’s reign, but the project accelerated massively during the government of Napoleon III with the passing of the Law of the 19th of June 1857.  At the time the wetlands still suffered from malaria, and industry was pressuring the government to grow trees, not for the wood specifically but for the rosin and turpentine that could be produced from the sap. The law made provisions for the draining of swamps and the planting of pines both to attenuate disease and satisfy the needs of industrial expansion, but it was not without controversy. For one, local shepherds relied on an extensive commons to graze their sheep and the law required municipalities to auction the commons to private interests. As the land was privatized, locals were dispossessed of their traditional livelihoods. In the decades following the passage of this legislation many tree farms were burned in retaliation, though without seriously altering the trajectory of these modernizing tendencies. We visited Landes because my girlfriend’s father and his wife bought a retirement home. Nominally, we were helping them move in. The house is in Seignosse about six kilometers from the sea. It is a basic house dating from the 1980s, with a slightly asymmetrical, pitched terracotta tile roof, off-white stucco walls with reddish trim and matching shutters. This style is common to the area. It began in neighbouring Hossegor, where architects building the first vacation homes in the 1920s took inspiration from Basque architecture, the Basque border being situated several kilometers to the south. Hossegor is the main draw to the region, with its famous surfing and stately (and extremely expensive) houses built in the early part of the 20th century. The pines there are more mature, distributed in a more organic fashion around the houses, the hills, the golf course and the downtown high street.

The trees were the first thing I noticed when we first arrived in Landes. Pines planted in straight rows seemingly ad infinitum mark a distinct boundary from surrounding regions. They are pleasing if slightly surreal. The size, the expanse of the forest makes it feel natural, as though it has always been there, encroached upon in certain places by human development, but still standing, still present. But one can’t help but notice that there is almost exclusively only one species of tree, that they are planted quite deliberately in straight lines, the underbrush cut away to reduce risk of fire. A number of individuals I spoke to and websites I visited referred to this landscape as sauvage or wild. What impressed me most about this characterization was that people applied it with the full knowledge that the terrain was a plantation, that it had been manufactured – in a sense – by turpentine producers.

As we first entered the region, driving along the departmental highway, I tried to convince myself that it was wild, that I did not see straight rows, or that that what I was seeing was not the overweening hand of human intervention, but a quirk, perhaps, of European nature, European forests, that I was simply unfamiliar with in North America. By this I do not mean to insinuate the superiority of Canadian or American wild space – as some kind of unbounded wilderness signifying unbounded promise; that too is a fiction. I live in a major city whose corona – an amalgam of suburbia, industrial land and suburbanized rural space – extends outwards for hundreds of kilometers. The province of British Columbia, where I grew up, has fifty-seven million hectares of forest, of which less than five percent is primeval forest; the rest has been harvested at one point or another. This means that an area approaching the entirety of France, is some form of tree plantation. The Landes forest is quite small by comparison. I simply mean that my unfamiliarity allowed for the opening of a kind of fantasy space. I am uncertain why I tried to do this as I looked out the window of the car, as I knew it to be untrue beforehand. In that moment, I wanted it to be fact. It was as though my mind was seeking through imagination to make it so.  

It was the trees that made Hossegor possible, one of the rare instances where a spinoff of the development of heavy industry happened to make the region more appealing to tourists. Had the area remained a malarial marshland, fronted by mountains of sand pushed ever inland by the violent Atlantic winds, the area would have held less appeal to the developers and architects who first had the notion to build a beach resort town on the site.

As I explored the region I discovered that there were four distinct areas – four distinct types of area, each of which provoked in me a particular psychic experience, each one almost a self-contained dimension, self-contained from nearby, even adjacent terrain. In my mind I named these the following: the habitations, the forest, the beach and the dunes. 

The habitations are the built areas that weave spider webs through the tree farms. In effect they constitute one urbanized area, but are officially broken into a number of small villages: Hossegor, Capbreton, Seignosse, Seignosse Beach, and a small stripmall area called Pédebert, which was beside where we were staying.

When we arrived there was a liquidation sale (called a braderie in French) going on amongst all the businesses in Pédebert. This is a once a year, multi-day event where everything in every store in the area is fifty percent off. There was a constant flow of traffic along the departmental road that passed the house, which my girlfriend’s father described as “infernal.” The event is known across the region and is especially popular with Spanish people who come from as far away as Galicia to shop for low priced brands. The businesses hire a team of people to manage cars and shoppers, renting large fields for parking, putting up caution tape and barriers along the side streets and the supermarket parking lot, even temporarily rendering streets one way to produce at least a modicum of order and fluidity in the inevitable traffic jam this event creates. 

Capbreton is the only true port in the region. It dates to the Middle Ages. It is a fishing village (though now it harbours not only boats but also vacation properties).  Under a special permission granted to them by Louis XIV, the fishermen here have the right to sell fish directly to customers, avoiding the typical intermediary process which is required elsewhere in France. On the beach slightly to the south, the ruins of World War Two-era German bunkers are slowly being reclaimed by the sea. Between the port and this southern stretch of beach, there is a line of concrete vacation houses and apartments which in design carry on the bunker theme. People fish in the channel leading to the port and there is a bustling, convivial popular feeling to the area.

Hossegor, with its stately trees, elegant art nouveau and art deco homes, its golf course and salt-water lake is an attractive spot. Its beach offers world-famous surfing. The town itself exudes a sense of wealth, illustrated most visibly to me by a teenage boy walking with some friends wearing an ensemble of Balenciaga athleisure: hoodie, track pants and running shoes, an outfit, which after researching on the internet, I learned cost more than three thousand dollars. To the west of the golf course there is a short, one block street that stood out to me and puzzled me. It is named after Gabriele d’Annunzio, the decadent Italian poet and politician who is known as the father of fascism and gave the world, amongst other things, the gesture that would later come to be known as the Nazi salute. 

The waterfront of Hossegor is quite built-up. The buildings are concrete and mainly yellowish. It is hard to determine their age. Some are obviously more recent, and some, despite the high cost of property and the prestige of the area as a vacation spot, have an almost Soviet quality to them: square and artlessly brutal, weather-stained and sea-corroded. In the main plaza on the promenade there is a restaurant named Rock Food, which at first glance almost looks out of business, though it isn’t.

Seignosse is more inland, and generally more recent. It has developed in the last thirty years and has a more American feel: bungalow houses on cul-de-sacs with biggish garages on the side. At the center of the town there is an old church and a few old buildings surrounded by a number of pizza restaurants. Hossegor-Soorts, located further inland – the original Hossegor before it became a beach resort –  is similar: an old church and town hall, surrounded by a pizza restaurant and other buildings. 

Seignosse Beach is actually several beaches, which themselves are part of one long beach stretching up the coast almost to Bordeaux. Each one has a parking lot and a break in the dunes to get to the water, a self-cleaning toilet, a few restaurants, vacation rentals and places where one can rent surfboards and take surfing lessons. At one of the beaches there is a waterpark called Atlantic Park.

The Dunes

From the Atlantic Park waterslide complex, the dunes hide the view of the sea. The thought came to me that, protected by this barrier, the waterpark could exist in its own little world, could construct a vision of itself in which its waters reigned supreme, unchallenged by the devouring horizon of the ocean.

The self-cleaning toilets near the beach gave a sense of technology-driven efficiency and sanitation, but this was largely image. People had discovered how to hack their system. For instance, in one, somebody had defecated on the floor. After each new visitor the automated toilet went through its routine, thoroughly washing the bowl, but whatever process was meant to clean the floor simply misted on the pile of defecation, leaving a pool of fecal water expanding across the concrete surface, touching bare feet or splashing against the edges of sandals.

The dunes, running along the sea, dotted with grasses and succulents and fixed in place by the pines, as well as the Maginot Line of vacation properties, exude a rugged energy. They are a kind of wildspace that defies the boundary between nature and human engineering. 

I visited Atlantic Park at the end of April, while it was still closed for the off-season. The town itself – if it is a town exactly – was also not yet up and running. Things were still largely shut down. A banner strung across a road advertised an event called “American Crazy Week.” This week took place over only two days: the 4th and 5th of May, and as to what it entailed I could only imagine. Some people walked dogs and others drank beer on the patio of a bar called Le Pas Sage (The Not Wise) located at the passage through the dunes to the beach. Others drank beer with dogs in the local square or whatever one wants to call it – a kind of concrete strip between the waterpark and vacation apartments. 

The sun was strong and I felt dry, somewhat thirsty. My interest was to photograph the shuttered waterslides. Lacking clients, their tubular forms resembled some kind of industrial apparatus, like a refinery or chemical works. 

Looking through the metal bars and seeing the grounds, decorated with palm trees and manufactured rocks, reminded me momentarily of what pleasure these types of nakedly artificial, engineered landscapes engendered in my friends and I as children. I wanted to go up on the dunes to get a better vantage point. As I walked through the asphalt passage that leads to the shore there was an old woman standing by a blown over section of fencing. She was overdressed and staring silently at the sea.

A number of paths crisscross the sands between the scrub plants. I passed one man sitting, looking out, but then there was no one. At one point there are a series of posts driven into the ground suggesting a road almost. The breeze was fresh. The dune towers above the village and the sea, as well as the water slides. It is enormous. I could see far out to sea, the mountains in the distance, a ship that looked like a drillship had been anchored off the coast of Bayonne for at least the previous week. On the other side of the dune I looked down on the waterslides and the tiny people walking along the plaza.

After photographing for a few minutes I felt a strange discomfort. I looked up to see a man watching me in the distance. He had a shaved head and was wearing a white tank top. I tried not to make it seem as though I had just noticed him, but he stood there watching, not moving. At first I felt conspicuous, with my white, telephoto lens, on top of the dune, but as I looked around I wished I could be more conspicuous as I noticed that there was no one around. In fact the dunes concealed much more than they exposed. If one stepped back just slightly from the edge, people down below saw nothing, heard nothing, especially with the wind and the crashing surf. As a space it was strangely isolated, cut off from the heavily frequented beach and village, which in linear distance were not far off at all. It felt like a different kind of space altogether, a ribbon of solitary desert cutting through the center of holiday cheer.  The man stood in the distance still watching. My heart beat somewhat faster and I sweat. The sun made me slightly dizzy. If I hadn’t been carrying so much expensive camera gear I would have felt differently about everything, but an image came to my mind of how easy it would be to be robbed up there and then have the robber disappear into the dunes before I had time to find my way out. This was likely untrue, or maybe it wasn’t – slide out the edges and disappear into the pines. I have no idea, of course, what the man watching me was thinking, but I was affected by the implied threat of surveillance, the latent malevolence of the mysterious observer. It wasn’t lost on me that only moments earlier, that had been my role. Convincing myself that I was unsatisfied anyway with the angle, I hurried off towards the asphalt passage leading back to the settlement. As I walked, I was now more aware than before of the instability of sand and how it slowed my movements, but I took comfort in the thought that they would slow the watcher’s steps as well, who at any rate was not following me and had disappeared from view.

When I made my way back down the dune, the older woman who had been staring out to sea had returned closer to Le Pas Sage and was talking with some of the dog walkers. She was explaining to them how she had recently been forced to move eight times, but then said it was good to be living by the sea because the salt air “clears the nasal passages.”

As I walked around I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy. I don’t know why exactly. It was as if the discomfort I had felt at being watched had been passed from the man to the land itself, that the region had taken on a temporary taint of unease.

Everyone United Against Expensive Life

We did much of our shopping at the Intermarché, which is the large supermarket in the Pédebert area. Generally speaking, it is very American in its design: a large box fronted by an expansive parking area. Inside, it also much resembled a North American supermarket, with many products, broad aisles and so forth.

On one occasion as we were trying to enter, I was stopped by the concierge at the customer service desk. She informed me that I would not be able to access the store with my backpack – a precaution against shoplifting. I was uneasy with the idea of leaving my bag with her, however, as it contained all of my photographic equipment. My partner and I agreed that I would wait in the entrance while she procured the things we needed for that night’s dinner.

I milled about in the front. There was a glass window built into the floor, that allowed one to peer down into the wine cellar. This was where the expensive vintages were protected. The window looked down into a bright, white space, where the wine bottles were neatly arranged and displayed in such a way that they were visible, but I couldn’t quite make out the writing on the labels. I spent some time entertaining myself by trying and failing to read the dates and names written on them. The enclosure was accessible by a kind of robotic door, like an airlock, that an employee opened with a special key, and contributed to the general aura of spaceship conjured by the wine cave.

Presently I felt tired, however: the effects of the purportedly non-drowsy allergy medication I was taking. Slightly dizzy, I sat down on a bench near the automatic doors. In front of me was a display, which I stared at, finding the whole thing somewhat puzzling. The display featured two low-cost bicycles which had been branded as Interbikes. This part in and of itself was not particularly unusual; what I found more inscrutable was the banner hanging on the wall behind it. It read: “Tous Unis Contre La Vie Chère,” or Everyone United Against Expensive Life. It may have been the medication, but I stared absently for quite some time at this slogan. I was almost impressed with the kind of marketing emptiness it seemed to project. It managed to invoke a sense of unified political engagement, especially as it seemed to recall one of the talking points of the Gilets Jaunes protest movement (still ongoing at the time) which was a collective anger at the erosion of purchasing power and increasing poverty across the country, while managing at the same time to elide, and in fact erase the issue altogether, replacing complex political meanings with a bland and cheery exhortation to save. If I found the text of this banner strange, I found the imagery stranger still. It surely did not depict unrest or upheaval of any kind. Instead it showed a white, middle-aged couple in matching active-wear outfits, riding down a mountain slope in Africa. To say that it was in Africa is maybe not exactly even correct as it was an impossible Photoshop construct of sorts – more a map than a photograph even, but signifying what exactly? The riders seemed to be coasting down a slope, which I have to locate in South Africa, because spreading out in front of them was the entire African continent, as well as all of Europe and the Arabian Peninsula. Given the perspective, this mountain must have pierced the atmosphere, rising into the territory of low-earth orbit. It was the vantage point of a satellite, and yet these cyclists had no need for oxygen or protective suits.

My mind struggled to apply some kind of political meaning to this installation, but clarity escaped me. Instead my thoughts wandered to imagining the creative meetings – the conversations between artistic directors, copy-writers, photographers, illustrators and managers that must have come together to produce this banner – the layers of administrative process that are inherent to advertising –  and how it all came together to create this object before me. I closed my eyes, feeling the light warm tingling that Reactine generates in my fingertips. Opening them, I saw that my partner was now bagging grocery items at the checkout. I went over to aid her. We carried the bags to the car, went home and made dinner.

The Pines

Like the dunes, the pines are a distinct environment, a kind of space utterly unto itself. They are surrounded and cut through with roads and habitations, but to be in them feels utterly unlike being anywhere else, even when one has only entered a few hundred feet inside their boundary. In the morning it had rained, a light drizzling rain. By the afternoon the clouds were breaking apart and the sun came out, though it was one of those unsettled times when the day is peppered by moments which are both hot and cool. 

At the end of the street where we were staying there was a path that led into the trees. Perhaps it went to the beach; we were uncertain. I took this path that afternoon, when the sun began to come out. The path was sandy and in many places there were large puddles. Tree pollen formed iridescent patterns floating on the surface.

Once inside this area, there were no more houses. These are tree farms and building is not permitted. A variance must be granted from, I don’t know who, the department maybe, in order to construct buildings. That is what happened in Seignosse, Hossegor, Pédebert. Any surrounding noise was absorbed by the trees so that the noises I heard were the noises of a forest – birds and wind, but mostly wind, because bird populations have plummeted across Europe in recent years.

Once inside the trees I had the feeling that they could have gone on forever. I had no sense of geography or space. There were no people. In certain areas, all of the pines had been cut, exposing sand and brambles, and the odd cork or other species of oak tree that remained standing, which the companies seemed not to have the right to take. I imagined that possibly in the future, with the cutting of the pines and the leaving of the oaks, this might transform into an entirely different kind of forest, that the oaks might slowly take over and by a hiccup of regulation transform these forests into ones that no one any longer had the right to harvest. Probably not.

At one juncture I came upon two machines: a cutting and limbing machine and one used to stack logs. The entire cut-block could be serviced by only two people.

The path did not lead to the sea. It led to a golf course. I walked along the road that bisected it, hoping I would get the ocean, but it was too long, and eventually I had to turn around so as not to be too late in making dinner.

On the way back the sun was lower in the sky. Inside the trees it was hot and a bit airless now. The trees grow on sand, and these sands seem to shift and transform over time, over the cycles of cutting and regrowing. I took a wrong turn around a little valley and this brought me up around a kind of sand cliff. There were roads cut into the trees by big machines, machines which were now gone. It was a strange feeling, following the paths of these enormous but now invisible machines that cut through the forest like giant insects. These roads had a meandering, haphazard quality to them, so that they would twist and turn and then trail off into nothing. Where there weren’t trees there were gorse bushes, and I had to walk through a number of them to find the next winding road. 

In France there are people everywhere. It is rare to be in a spot and see no one, or more precisely to see no evidence of buildings or habitation. Even in the parks and hiking in mountains numerous people pass by. This was one of the most empty places I have seen in France, with the least sign of human construction (even though this forest itself was a kind of human construction). The lack of people gave the space a sense of vastness, as though it perhaps went on forever. It is interesting how entirely a space can be transformed, the feeling of the space and its sense of scale, by the presence of even one other person, or by the sight of any buildings.

I felt lost, even though abstractly I knew I was not lost. I knew to follow my shadow. I knew that no road was far away. The air was windless now and the light took on a warm rust colour. I was surrounded by a total emptiness, a total stillness. I kept walking and eventually came out at the road in Pédebert, near the Point point P building materials store and the wine outlet. An unseen dog barked behind a fence. It was nearing dinnertime. 

Web Design: Ali Bosworth
Photo Editing: Lise Latreille
Editors: David Ravensbergen & Daniel Horen Greenford

Neal Rockwell is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He is currently completing a masters’ degree in Documentary Media at Ryerson University where he is exploring the effects of financialization on rental housing, as well researching the use of documentary power in the economy and the law, with the goal of strengthening documentary practice as a form of radical truth-telling.

The Revolution Will Not Be “Green”

Photo by Wade Lambert on Unsplash

by Jordan G. Teicher

Our planet is dying, and conservation as we know it isn’t helping. In fact, it’s making things worse. Long imagined as a bulwark against ecological destruction, players in the mainstream conservation movement—think big NGOs like The Nature Conservancy and their corporate partners—have actually been complicit in that destruction by propping up a fundamentally unsustainable capitalist system and the nature-culture dichotomy it’s built upon.

According to Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, sociology professors at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, conservation has long been due for a wholesale update—and today, it’s getting not just one but two: “new conservation” and “neoprotectionism.” But in their tightly-argued book, The Conservation Revolution (Verso, February 2020) Büscher and Fletcher make the case that both of these emerging, radical movements contain “untenable contradictions” and that neither can save the planet or humanity from catastrophe. In their place, they propose a new conservation framework of their own, one that complements the variety of ongoing “hope movements” imagining ecologically-sound and democratic alternatives to capitalism. 

In the course of just over 200 pages, Büscher and Fletcher build up to this modest proposal swiftly yet methodically, combining history and theory to contextualize and, ultimately, critique their colleagues in the so-called “Anthropocene conservation debate” in a way that is both rigorous and accessible. While their own “convivial conservation” framework, by their own admission, needs further development, it is nonetheless an important addition to revolutionary thought in political ecology.

Their analysis begins with a critical but frequently overlooked fact: Conservation has been linked to capitalism from the very beginning. In 17th and 18th century Britain, they explain, elites “conserved” collectively-used lands by forcing rural people off them. That expulsion conveniently created a labor force for the rapidly industrializing economy. Ever since, capitalism and conservation have shared much of the same ideological DNA. Take the nature-culture dichotomy—the idea that nature is somehow external to humans. Capitalists have long used that idea to justify treating nature as an object to be manipulated in the pursuit of endless economic growth. Conservation organizations, meanwhile, have spread the same notion as they wall off humans from areas artificially transformed into “untouched” wilderness. 

And while conservation has long aided and abetted capitalism—through ecotourism, for example—conservation can now be said to have fully integrated into the machine. By putting a price on nature through market-based instruments such as payments for environmental services, organizations like the Natural Capital Coalition see conservation itself as a force for growing the economy.

Like those mainstream conservationists, many of the contemporary thinkers Büscher and Fletcher deem “new conservationists” have no trouble with capitalism. But they depart with their mainstream counterparts in one significant way: They don’t aim to separate nature from humans. Instead, thinkers like science journalist Emma Marris see the planet as a “rambunctious garden,” one that humans must fully inhabit with the rest of nature and manage through sustainable economic activity. As environmental scientist Peter Kareiva puts it: “Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures.” While Büscher and Fletcher see the movement’s rejection of the nature-culture dichotomy and focus on poverty alleviation as positive steps, they argue convincingly that the new conservationist alignment with—or, in some cases, ambivalence toward—capitalism undermines its goal of ecological and social harmony. Capitalism, they say, creates poverty, and its rapacious appetite for growth simply cannot last on a finite planet. 

Many neoprotectionists, Büscher and Fletcher argue, understand that essential fact, which is why their brand of conservation is at least nominally anti-capitalist. But unlike new conservationists, who reject the nature-culture dichotomy, neoprotectionists double down on it, campaigning for huge swaths of the globe to be made off limits to human beings. Perhaps the most well-known neoprotectionist—and a notable exception to the movement’s generally anti-capitalist stance— is the biologist E.O. Wilson, who calls for fencing off half the planet to “safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.” Putting hard boundaries between humans and nature, Büscher and Fletcher note, has, in fact, “saved important tracts of nature from previous waves of capitalist development,” but it has also routinely failed in the past due to corruption and weak enforcement. Enacting a similar scheme on an even grander scale, they argue, would not just require unprecedented militarization, but also likely plunge billions into poverty—making it immediately “socially, politically and culturally” illegitimate. 

So what does a feasible, equitable, and sustainable conservation look like? According to Büscher and Fletcher, it should combine the best elements of the two radical conservation movements by rejecting both capitalism and the nature-culture dichotomy. Their proposed “convivial conservation” promotes a dialectical relationship between humans and non-humans while working in “conjunction, connection, and spirit with the many proposed alternatives” to capitalism, including ecosocialism and doughnut economics. Under such a system,for instance, natural areas would be “promoted” for “long-lasting, engaging and open-ended” human use rather than protected from humans altogether. It would also feature a new form of community-based conservation, which would repudiate neoliberal market mechanisms and instead prioritize democratic decision-making, social justice, and the needs of non-human nature. Büscher and Fletcher float a host of other ideas, including a “conservation basic income” and reparations, as potential components of convivial conservation.

What Büscher and Fletcher are proposing is a revolutionary upheaval of the status quo, but they are by no means polemicists. At times, “The Conservation Revolution” is practically genteel. After unequivocally rejecting mainstream conservation as “part of the very problem it addresses,” for example, the authors are quick to dismiss the idea that “there is nothing good in mainstream conservation or that all people working on and in mainstream conservation are somehow ‘bad.’” They approach their differences with those in the conservationist community , meanwhile, knowing that their colleagues are generally “imbued with a great sense of crisis and responsibility” and live a “tense and pressurized” existence. That may be true, but at a time when ecosystems face imminent collapse and humanity is staring down the barrel of a gun, such a tone can come across as oddly unhurried. 

Convivial conservation is, the authors admit, “an exercise with many loose ends,” and indeed the “nascent” proposal only takes up about a quarter of an already slim book. At times, the program can seem not merely unfinished, but contradictory. This is perhaps most obvious in the authors’ list of “concrete actions” for achieving convivial conservation, which bend toward the technocratic. Why, for instance, bother proposing “convivial conservation departments” at conservation NGOs, when, as the authors themselves assert, many of those NGOs continue to work hand-in-hand with corporations? And if a sane conservation must be, first and foremost, rooted in overthrowing capitalism, why look to “new blockchain technologies” and “grants from international donors and individual patrons” to fund the movement? 

Convivial conservation may not be a silver bullet, and The Conservation Revolution may not be the last book one needs to read to help imagine a life-sustaining future. But if we’re lucky, the world to come will look more like the one Büscher and Fletcher describe than not.

Jordan G. Teicher is a New York-based writer and editor. He tweets at @teicherj

The Conservation Revolution by Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher is available from Verso Books

June readings

Illustration by Jamiel Law, via The New Yorker

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

Much as we might want it to be, the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. And the police are still racist. This month, we profile stories and analyses of the pandemic and of the Black Lives Matter protests. We tried to look for articles that take international and environmental justice approaches to these crises and struggles. There’s also plenty of great analysis coming out, reflecting on our current political moment. Finally, we highlight many articles on food politics, digging into the relationship between the food industry, race, and health – and the new political movements working in these intersections. 

A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!



Uneven Earth updates

Decoupling | “Given the historical correlation of market activity and environmental pressures, relying on decoupling alone to solve environmental problems is an extremely risky and irresponsible bet.” 

Jevons paradox | “Efficiency gains contribute to increasing production and consumption which increases the extraction of resources and the generation of wastes.”

NOlympics, everywhere | In LA, a coalition to stop the Olympics pairs localism with internationalism



Top 5 articles to read

‘Either you are fighting to eliminate exploitation or not’: A leftist critique of the Green New Deal

On technodiversity: A conversation with Yuk Hui

From rebellion to revolution

How do we change America?

We need to talk about racism in the climate movement



News you might’ve missed

Poor countries face a debt crisis ‘unlike anything we have seen’

Affluence is killing the planet, warn scientists

Turkey is bent on extinguishing a beacon of women’s liberation in northern Syria

Finland violates the rights of the Sámi people by allowing mining companies in Sámi homeland

How the legacy of colonialism built a palm oil empire



Where we’re at: analysis

Capitalist catastrophism

Neoliberalism is in critical condition

Indigenous peoples guard ‘the lungs of the planet’ for all of us

Beyond the stereotype: How dependency theory remains relevant

The world is in chaos. Embrace it.

Prolonged uprising is the new normal



Black Lives Matter

On Black women’s ecologies

Theses on the George Floyd rebellion

Black autonomy and lessons from the Black Power struggle

Black Lives Matter and the trap of performative activism

What Elinor Ostrom can tell us on defunding the police

The universal truth of Black Lives Matter — a view from Europe. Also: What Black America means to Europe, by Gary Younge.



COVID-19: where do we go from here?

In pandemic recovery efforts, polluting industries are winning big

COVID-19 broke the economy. What if we don’t fix it?

Reflections on the virus as an opportunity for radical societal change

Latin America reels as coronavirus pandemic gains pace

Pandemic municipalism, an interview with Kate Shea Baird



Food politics

Food sovereignty now and beyond COVID-19

The forest as farm

We can build a better food system through mutual aid

How red meat became the red pill for the alt-right

Socialise the food system

It’s not just meat: Covid-19 puts all food-system workers in peril

Selling out West Papua: An Al Jazeera special report on human rights abuses in billion-dollar land deals



Just think about it…

German far right infiltrates green groups with call to protect the land

Conservatism, racism, and fascism confused

Running to the now ‘reformed’ IMF would be a mistake



New politics

Constructive criticism of degrowth is NOT support for growth

What does self-reliance really mean? Amazing stories emerge from India’s villages

“To halt climate change, we need an ecological Leninism”

Life and times at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone

“A political form built out of struggle”: An interview on the Seattle Occupied protest 

Get in the zone: A report from the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle

Interview: Civil Defense Forces commanders on community policing in North and East Syria 

Police abolition and other revolutionary lessons from Rojava

The empty future of ecology. Extinction Rebellion has made waves in the mainstream media, but can it achieve its goals if it continues to whitewash climate justice?

Reclaiming the body of the witch. A review of Beyond the Periphery of the Skin from Silvia Federici.



Resources

Who will feed us? Report comparing industrial food system with peasant farming

The traumatic recent history of the Sámi. An online talk.

Read up on the links between racism and the environment

Prisons, policing, and punishment. A resource guide.



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Decoupling

by Timothée Parrique

Is economic growth compatible with ecological sustainability? To answer this question, we need to talk about decoupling. The term ‘decoupling’ refers to the possibility of detaching economic growth from environmental pressures. Economic growth is a measure of market activity, most often Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while environmental pressures include all the consequences an economy has on nature – a useful distinction being between resource use (materials, energy, water, and land) and environmental impacts (e.g. climate change, water pollution, biodiversity loss).

Generally speaking, two variables are said to be ‘coupled’ if one evolves in proportion with the other (e.g. more of A means more of B), and they decouple when they cease to do so. What matters for sustainability is the nature of that decoupling: its magnitude, scale, durability, and how effective it is in achieving environmental targets.

Relative or weak decoupling, for example between GDP and carbon emissions, refers to a situation where the emissions per unit of economic output decline but not fast enough to compensate for the simultaneous increase in output over the same period, resulting in an overall increase in total emissions. Said differently: even though production is relatively cleaner, total environmental pressure still goes up because more goods and services are produced. Absolute or strong decoupling, on the other hand, is a situation where, to stay with the same example, more GDP coincides with lower emissions.

Local decoupling refers to cases where decoupling is observed in one specific place (e.g. decoupling of water consumption and GDP in Australia), while global decoupling occurs at the planetary scale. Also, decoupling can be temporary or permanent –just as GDP and environmental pressures can decouple at one point in time, they can also recouple later on.

Finally, decoupling can be evaluated based on its magnitude and fairness. Decoupling can be either sufficient or insufficient in reaching a specific mitigation target. And following the principle of shared but differentiated responsibilities, decoupling needs to be sufficiently large in affluent countries in order to free the ecological space necessary for consumption in regions where basic needs are unmet.

Green growth vs. degrowth

The debate on decoupling has two main sides. Proponents of “green growth” expect efficiency to enable more economic activity at a lower environmental cost; on the other hand, advocates of “degrowth” appeal to sufficiency, arguing that less goods and services is the surest road to ecological sustainability.

Many proponents of the green growth narrative have put forward that economic growth inevitably leads to more efficiency and, therefore, to reduced environmental costs. In the 1990s several economists conducted empirical work that led them to believe that economic growth was negatively correlated with environmental pressures. Environmental damages would first grow but then decline. This inverted bell-shaped development came to be referred to as an Environmental Kuznets Curve, named after economist Simon Kuznets, who, in the 1950s, proposed that, as a society industrializes, it would first become more unequal, and then less. Over the years, scholars developed several theoretical reasons to explain such phenomena. For example, as income per capita grows, basic needs get satisfied and nations can afford to dedicate more of their attention and resources towards environmental protection. Another explanation is that richer nations’ industries are able to develop and afford cleaner and less resource-intensive technologies. They also transition from industrial activities to services, which are assumed to be less natural resource-intensive.

However, it is now widely recognised that decoupling does not occur naturally by the mere fact of a country increasing its GDP—thereby complicating the Environmental Kuznets Curve hypothesis. Responding to this, some argue that policies such as carbon taxes, quota markets, and other regulations could foster it. Many also argue that a shift to clean energies, the establishment of a circular economy, incentives for environmentally-friendly consumption, turning products into services, and ecological innovations like, for example, exhaust filters, water-saving irrigation systems, and carbon capture and storage could make decoupling happen.

For green growth advocates, decoupling is either inevitable or has not yet occurred because of lack of adequate policies and technological development. Degrowth proponents, however, argue that the reason why this long-awaited decoupling has not yet occurred is that because it is impossible. Here is a list of seven reasons why this is so:

(1) Rising energy expenditures. It takes energy to extract resources. The less accessible the resource, the higher the energy bill. Because the most accessible resources have already been used, the extraction of remaining stocks is a more resource- and energy-intensive process, resulting in a rising total environmental degradation per unit of resource extracted.

(2) Rebound effects. Efficiency improvements are often partly or totally compensated by a reallocation of saved resources and money to either more of the same consumption (e.g. using a fuel-efficient car more often), or other impactful consumptions (e.g. buying plane tickets for remote holidays with the money saved from spending on meat). It can also generate structural changes in the economy that induce higher consumption (e.g. more fuel-efficient cars reinforce a car-based transport system at the expense of greener alternatives, such as public transport and cycling).

(3) Problem shifting. Technological solutions to one environmental problem can create new ones and/or exacerbate others (e.g. the production of electric cars puts pressure on lithium, copper, and cobalt resources; nuclear power generation produces nuclear risks and logistic concerns regarding nuclear waste disposal).

(4) The underestimated impact of services. The service economy can only exist on top of the material economy, not instead of it. Services have a significant footprint that often adds to, rather than substitutes, that of goods.

(5) Limited potential of recycling. Recycling rates are currently low and only slowly increasing, and recycling processes generally still require a significant amount of energy and  raw materials. Most importantly, in the same way that a snake cannot build a larger skin out of the scraps of its previous, smaller one, a growing economy cannot rely on recycled materials alone.

(6) Insufficient and inappropriate technological change. Technological progress is not targeting the factors of production that matter for ecological sustainability (it saves labour and not natural resources) and not leading to the type of innovations that reduce environmental pressures (it is more profitable to develop new extraction techniques than it is to develop new recycling techniques); it is not disruptive enough as it fails to displace other undesirable technologies (solar panels are being used in addition to coal plants and not instead of it); and it is not in itself fast enough to enable a sufficient decoupling.

(7) Cost shifting. In competitive, growth-oriented economies, firms have incentives to relocate activities where environmental regulations are the lowest. What has been observed and termed as decoupling in some local cases was generally only apparent decoupling resulting mostly from an externalisation of environmental impact from high-consumption to low-consumption countries enabled by international trade.

Empirical evidence for decoupling

The validity of the green growth discourse relies on the assumption of an absolute, permanent, global, large and fast enough decoupling of economic growth from all critical environmental pressures. As Parrique et al. (2019) have recently showed, there is no empirical evidence for such a decoupling currently happening. Whether for materials, energy, water, greenhouse gases, land, water pollutants, and biodiversity loss, decoupling is either only relative, and/or observed only temporarily, and/or only locally. In most cases, decoupling is relative. When absolute decoupling occurs, it is only observed during rather short periods of time, concerning only certain resources or impacts, for specific locations, and with very small rates of mitigation.

Debunking the decoupling hypothesis

The decoupling hypothesis has played an important role in legitimating a growth-based economy with a disastrous record in terms of social-ecological justice. Its meagre achievements in the last two decades cast serious doubt as to whether prospects for the future are better. Given the historical correlation of market activity and environmental pressures, relying on decoupling alone to solve environmental problems is an extremely risky and irresponsible bet. Until GDP is actually decoupled, any additional production will require a larger effort in reductions of resource and impact intensity to stay away from resource conflicts and ecological breakdown. Decoupling should today be recognised as what it is, a figment of statistical imagination. This should prompt us to reframe the debate altogether: what we need to decouple is not economic growth from environmental pressure but prosperity and the good life from economic growth.

Further resources

Parrique et al., 2019. Decoupling debunked: Evidence and arguments against green growth. The European Environmental Bureau.
A report reviewing the empirical and theoretical literature to assess the validity of the decoupling hypothesis.  

Mardani et al., 2019. ‘Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Emissions and Economic Growth: A Systematic Review of Two Decades of Research from 1995 to 2017’. Science of The Total Environment 649 (February): 31–49.
The latest literature review of the empirical literature concerning the decoupling of economic growth from carbon dioxide emissions.

Smith et al., 2010. Cents and Sustainability: Securing Our Common Future by Decoupling Economic Growth from Environmental Pressures. The Natural Edge Project. Routledge: London.
A good example of a case for decoupling and green growth.

Hickel J. and Kallis, 2019. Is Green Growth Possible? New Political Economy.
A good example of a case against decoupling and green growth.

UNEP, 2011. Decoupling natural resources use and environmental impacts from economic growth. A Report of the Working Group on Decoupling to the International Resource Panel. Fischer-Kowalski et al.
UNEP, 2014. Decoupling 2: technologies, opportunities and policy options. A Report of the Working Group on Decoupling to the International Resource Panel. Von Weizsäcker et al.
The two reports published by the United Nations Environment Programme, the first on the state of resource decoupling, and the second on policies to foster decoupling.

Timothée Parrique holds a PhD in economics from the Centre d’Études et de Recherches sur le Développement (University of Clermont Auvergne, France) and the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm University, Sweden). Titled “The political economy of degrowth” (2020), his dissertation explores the economic implications of the ideas of degrowth and post-growth. Tim is also the lead author of “Decoupling debunked – Evidence and arguments against green growth” (2019), a report published by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

Jevons paradox

by Sam Bliss

The Jevons paradox is that efficiency enables growth. New technologies that can produce more goods from a given amount of resources allow the economy as a whole to produce more. More resources get used overall.

This is the magic of industrial capitalism and the secret of growth. Economists have known it for a long time. So why is it called a paradox?

A question of scale

The paradox is that we tend to assume that the more efficiently we use a resource the less of it we will use.

This is the case in our personal lives. If you buy a more fuel-efficient car, you might drive a little bit more but overall you will likely burn less gasoline. Switching to a low-flow showerhead typically saves water at home.

This efficiency-for-conservation logic appears correct for most subsets of the economy. When a business switches to energy-efficient light bulbs, its electricity bills go down. Municipalities that require new buildings to meet energy efficiency standards might see energy use decrease within city limits. 

But at the level of the whole economy, the reverse is true. These efficiency gains contribute to increasing production and consumption, which increases the extraction of resources and the generation of wastes.

Energy-efficient technologies do not reduce carbon emissions

This suggests that energy-efficient technologies do not reduce carbon emissions, that fertilizer-saving precision farming techniques do not decrease fertilizer applications overall, and that increasing agricultural yields does not spare land for nature. Real-world evidence supports these claims.

Environmental policy focused on efficiency gains does not by itself benefit the environment. Economies grow by developing and deploying increasingly efficient technologies. 

How growth happens

Consider a hypothetical example. If the owner of a tea kettle factory installs a new machine that can make one kettle from less raw copper than before, he might continue to produce the same amount of kettles at a lower cost, or he might choose to make more kettles overall from the same amount of copper. 

Either way, profits will go up. The factory owner can buy more machines to make even more kettles from even more copper. Or he can invest those profits elsewhere, increasing production in another sector of the economy and thus increasing the use of copper and other materials. 

As more tea kettle factories adopt the copper-saving technology, they might start selling kettles at lower prices to compete for customers. As tea kettles get cheaper, people will be able to buy more of them. Since more kettles can be sold, factories will make more—using more copper. 

Copper’s price might increase as factories increase their demand for it. When the price goes up, more potential copper mining sites become profitable, which further raises supply.

Or, even if all tea kettle factories end up using less copper with the new, copper-saving machines, copper’s price will fall and other sectors will be able to afford more copper and therefore demand more. 

Cheaper copper could make all copper-containing things cheaper, not just tea kettles, leaving people with more money to spend. They can demand more of the products of all economic sectors, further increasing the use of many materials, including copper. 

Cheaper copper might increase industrial profits, too, which capitalists either reinvest to increase production or spend on luxury things. 

Even if the initial factory owner decides to give his workers a raise rather than keeping the profit or increasing production, then the workers will have more money to spend on tea kettles and everything else. Even if they decide to save all that additional income, the banking sector will direct it toward investing in more new machinery to produce more things from more materials.

No matter what, it seems, copper consumption rises in the end, because efficiency increases kickstart the growth machine.

The more efficiently society can use copper, the more of it will generally be used. Unless, that is, society intentionally limits its use of copper. 

The same goes for just about any resource.

150 years of more

English economist William Stanley Jevons gets credit for being the first to point all this out. In 1865, Jevons found that as each new steam engine design made the use of coal more efficient, Britain used more coal overall, not less. 

In 1865, Jevons found that as each new steam engine design made the use of coal more efficient, Britain used more coal overall, not less

These efficiency improvements made coal cheaper, because steam engines, including the ones used to pump water out of coal mines, required less coal to produce a given amount of useful energy. Yet increasingly efficient steam engines made coal more valuable too, since so much useful energy could be produced from a given amount of coal. 

That might be the real paradox: the ability to use a resource more efficiently makes it both cheaper and more valuable at the same time.

In Jevons’ time, more and more coal became profitable to extract as more and more uses of coal became profitable. Incomes increased as coal-fired industrial capitalism took off, and profits were continually invested to expand production further. 

A century and a half later, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that as industrial processes have gotten more efficient at using dozens of different materials and energy sources, the overall use of these materials and energy sources has grown in nearly every case. The few exceptions are almost all materials whose use has been limited or banned for reasons of toxicity, like asbestos and mercury. 

In an economy designed to grow, the Jevons paradox is all but inevitable. Some call it the Jevons phenomenon because of its ubiquity. Purposefully limiting ourselves might provide a way out.

Fighting growth with collective self-limitation

To prevent catastrophic climate change, humanity must rapidly reduce the combustion of fossil fuels. But despite decades of policy efforts and international negotiations, emissions continue to rise every year.

The focus on making energy use more efficient is paradoxically worsening the problem, as efficiency gains facilitate increasing, not decreasing, carbon burning. And renewable energy sources are adding to fossil fuels, not replacing them. Earth’s limited sources of coal, oil, and gas will not run out in time to save the stable climate.

But what if governments around the world treated coal like they do asbestos? What if petroleum extraction and uses were subject to strict limits like those of mercury?

To limit the use of fossil fuels, or anything else, society must impose limits on itself, preferably democratically

To limit the use of fossil fuels, or anything else, society must impose limits on itself, preferably democratically. We must set limits on our own activity.  

Once binding limits are in place, efficiency gains become one of several tools for staying within them. With a hard cap on the total amount of oil that can be burned, adopting increasingly fuel-efficient machinery cannot backfire and spark growth of oil-burning economic activity. Instead, fuel efficiency would allow more useful work to be done with the limited amount of oil that society permits itself to combust. 

Of course, we must also be skeptical of the maximizing mentality that considers efficiency and more to be good things as such. Collectively limiting ourselves offers not just an escape from capitalism’s endless loops of efficiency and growth; it also provides the constraints necessary to imagine and act out new ideas about what makes the good life, as well as revive and protect traditional lifeways. 

For many communities around the world, a global project to limit resource use could bring liberation from pollution, exploitation, and the one-way path toward Western-style development. To them, limits do not mean reductions or sacrifice but an opportunity to pursue goals other than growth.

Efficiency makes growth. But limits make creativity.

Once free from the efficiency mindset, we see that setting legal limits is not the only solution to the Jevons phenomenon. Society can also purposefully choose less-efficient production processes, setting the paradox in reverse by constraining the potential scale of the economy. If efficiency makes growth, maybe inefficiency makes degrowth.

Further resources

David Owen. “The Efficiency Dilemma.The New Yorker, December 12, 2010. 
This New Yorker piece captivatingly chronicles the history of the Jevons paradox as an idea and as a real material force.

Christopher L. Magee and Tessaleno C. Devezas, “A Simple Extension of Dematerialization Theory: Incorporation of Technical Progress and the Rebound Effect,” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 117, no. Supplement C (April 1, 2017): 196–205.
This is the article in which MIT researchers show that the Jevons paradox applies to pretty much every material, energy source, and industrial process for which data exists.

Salvador Pueyo. 2020. “Jevons’ Paradox and a Tax on Aviation to Prevent the next Pandemic.” Preprint. SocArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/vb5q3.
The Jevons paradox holds that using a resource more efficiently leads to economic growth and thus more of that resource is used overall. In this article, Salvador Pueyo shows that, similarly, advances in disease control have enabled humans and livestock to live at higher densities, eventually bringing about more ferocious outbreaks. He argues that the aviation industry shifts costs onto society by spreading diseases around the world, and should thus be taxed.

Sam Bliss, “Why growth and the environment can’t coexist.Grist. 
This video explains degrowth in 4 minutes, starting from a Jevons-inspired explanation of how increasing efficiency in orange juice production leads to more oranges consumed, not less.

Sam Bliss is a wildly inefficient researcher, writer, gardener, and warehouse manager of Food Not Bombs Burlington. He participates in and studies non-market food systems in Vermont.

NOlympics, everywhere

Who can ignore that the Olympians of the new bourgeois aristocracy no longer inhabit. They go from grand hotel to grand hotel, or from castle to castle, commanding a fleet or a country from a yacht. They are everywhere and nowhere. That is how they fascinate people immersed into everyday life. They transcend everyday life, possess nature and leave it up to the cops to contrive culture.

Henri Lefebvre, “The Right to the City,” 1968

by Sasha Plotnikova

I first started hating the Olympics as a student in Montreal, a city filled with the carcasses of stadiums, pavilions, and decaying detritus of mega-events held there in the 60s and 70s. The year before I moved there marked the 30th anniversary of the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, as well as the year that the City finally repaid the $1.5 billion (CAD) of debt they were left with after the Games. 

For cities hosting the Olympics, debt is a matter of course, and the legacy of the Games is palpable: entire neighborhoods are ripped from the urban fabric so that hotels, empty stadiums, and Olympic villages may sit in their place. The social, cultural, and financial weight of these white elephants is shouldered by long-term residents. Two weeks of fame for starry-eyed local politicians and Olympic boosters amount to a pressure-cooker of exploitation and state violence for those whose lives, labour, and culture make city life possible. 

But a counterpart to this history of destruction is a lineage of struggle, survival, and solidarity. While the fight against the Olympics has historically taken place at an immediate, local scale, today’s anti-Olympics organizing is beginning to coalesce into an internationalist movement for the right to urban self-determination.

Bigger than the Olympics

In Los Angeles, a group of organizers working together under the banner of NOlympics LA are fighting for the cancelation of the 2028 LA Olympics and the abolition of all future Games. And that’s only their short-term goal. 

In NOlympians: Inside the Fight Against Capitalist Mega-Sports in Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Beyond, Jules Boykoff follows the work of NOlympics LA, contextualizing their fight against the 2028 Games in LA within a global movement to expose and combat the effects that transnational capital has on the daily lives of poor people living in cities.

As an active member of the LA Tenants Union (a supporting partner of NOlympics) and a hater of the Olympics myself, I’ve observed first-hand the group’s constant churn of actions, teach-ins, and community canvasses since their founding in 2017. But the larger significance of groups like NOlympics can be hard to see up close, and is often obscured by the fervour of organizing around immediate crises at the local scale. As I explore later, the NOlympics activists have developed an arsenal of popular education tactics that create a gateway to local organizing. Boykoff’s snappy yet poetic prose captures their spirit and teases out the long-term promise of mounting a campaign against specific, local issues. Ultimately, the book’s greatest contributions are the lessons it offers on the relationship between international solidarity and local action.

Himself a former Olympic soccer player, Boykoff has spent the past decade building critical analysis about the Games. This shows: the text weaves seamlessly in between interviews with the activists and the lessons that inform their politics. To underline the deep socioeconomic inequalities facing Angelenos, the book throws into stark relief the disparity between the priorities of the oligarchs behind the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the demands of the communities that are displaced and criminalized by the Olympics.

The book is written in four parts, moving from the history of the Games and the destruction they bring; to the origins of NOlympics and the significance of the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); to the way their local strategies fit into an internationalist movement; and finally to some conclusions for what is to be done about the Olympics. 

Throughout, Boykoff situates their organizing within the long-time work of adjacent grassroots organizations in LA and within the praxis of past and present social movements globally. Boykoff’s account of the NOlympians’ trip to Tokyo demonstrates that it’s only through building international connections that the activists are able to connect the local to the global. 

Seizing the means of the production of urban space

To understand why the Olympics are bad for LA, you have to understand why capitalism is bad for cities. As David Harvey explains in his book Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, urbanization — the visible arm of endless economic growth — was never anything other than a project of power. Cities develop as economic hubs, where what looks like an abundance of financial opportunities to politicians and investors, signals an ever-worsening quality of life for poor and middle-class residents. Each time the economy sees a boom, poor communities see an intensification of urban stress. As neoliberalism has dug in its heels over the past few decades, the gap between the rich and the poor has become most pronounced in cities

Perhaps more than any other city, Los Angeles embodies the economic order that has come to define what it means for a place to be urban. The process of urban growth goes in lockstep with the growing burden of rent; the planned obliteration of public housing; the demise of labour unions; the stagnant wages; the proliferation of ever-new forms of segregation; and booms in the most precarious and informal branches of the economy. The lived experiences of millions of Angelenos are proof that the very machinations that spur economic expansion and urban development are the ones that make it increasingly impossible to live in cities. 

Land speculators and real estate developers have been particularly pervasive throughout the city’s history. When they’re not at the helm of the city’s economy, they’re in the ears and pockets of politicians, laundering their projects through green-washing and transit-oriented gentrification policies. 

The history of urban uprisings in LA has kept pace with this history of injustice. The city’s growth has been enabled by its entrenched culture of white supremacy, which has incensed urban movements from the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots; to the Watts Rebellion in 1965; the 1966 high school boycotts; the Chicano Moratorium in the 70s; the 1992 uprisings in the wake of the brutal police beating of Rodney King; and today’s Black-led demonstrations against police violence.The economic crisis faced by low-income residents is growing steadily, and with it, more and more people are starting to organize to take back the cities they’ve built and made their lives in. Whether that fight coalesces in an alliance against the Olympics or manifests in the daily work of tenant organizing, it’s a fight for the right to the city.

Cyclists demand bike lanes for the unhoused residents of Skid Row during the Ride For Justice, jointly organized by NOlympics and the LA Community Action Network in 2018.

 The movement for the right to the city was first given its name by Henri Lefebvre, on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Capital and on the eve of the urban social movements of May 1968. Lefebvre’s writing presaged what would take place in the last decades of the 20th century: the global rise of urbanization and the concentration of capital in the world’s cities. Since his time, urban centers like LA have increasingly become the places where the effects of a profit-driven housing system are most deeply felt: urban planning policies are written with the intention of displacing the poor and replacing them with higher-income, whiter residents — all so that the economy can continue to grow and attract ever-wealthier tourists, investors, and residents to the city. This process has irreversibly changed the look, feel, and spirit of cities to embody the sterile, generic luxury that caters to the global elite. 

With this dark horizon in sight, Lefebvre wrote about the urgent need to fight for an urban life that centers poor communities, promotes a sense of belonging, and imbues the everyday with meaning and novelty—he called this the right to the city.

One of the most important takeaways of Henri Lefebvre’s “Right to the City” is the proposition that already in 1968, Marxism’s focus on the worker as the agent of social change no longer held the same ground as it did in the 19th century. In response, Lefebvre suggested that the task at hand is to seize the means of the production of space, updating the Marxist focus on seizing the means of industrial production. To claim their right to the city, tenants, street vendors, immigrants, service workers, artists, and those who care about and enliven public space would take back what they’ve created and nourished. 

Human rights, as they’re understood by most, are underwritten by the notion of private property, and this makes the proposition that the city, or even housing, is a human right, for instance, a difficult pitch. The right to the city complicates that understanding: it’s not just about a right to resources— it’s about a collective right to self-determination through the built environment and the urban social realm. 

For Lefebvre, the right to the city was the assertion of the right of low-/no-income residents to shape the city so that it might both fulfill their basic needs and better reflect their culture and desires. Without this right, anyone who isn’t identified as part of the white middle and upper class is targeted by social cleansing campaigns through evictions, rent gouging, policing, and surveillance. The right to the city is a fight for safe, affordable, and decent housing; for public amenities; for bountiful, accessible, unsurveilled and unrestricted use of public space; and ultimately, for avenues towards community control over the built environment.

A renewed interest in what Lefebvre articulated in 1968 has taken two paths. While it’s been embodied in the daily struggles of autonomous grassroots movements; it has also been opportunistically adopted by nonprofits as a brand. The nonprofit approach amounts to asking for a seat at the table by promoting community engagement and public meetings that in theory, offer an avenue for poor people to participate in urban planning. But even when long-time residents of gentrifying communities are invited to conversations between developers and city agencies, their presence is tokenized and their participation is superficial by design.

A grassroots right-to-the-city approach like that of NOlympics, on the other hand, offers an avenue for organizing against the abstract forces of neoliberalism by making clear demands for material changes that can improve the lives of poor people.

For an in-depth look at the renewed relevance of the right to the city in today’s anticapitalist movements, we can turn to David Harvey. He suggests that a primary obstacle to finding “our version of the [Paris] Commune,” might be the Left’s failure to collectively trace the connections between seemingly separate struggles, within our towns and cities and around the world. For him, it’s only through an internationalist movement that understands racial, environmental, economic, and spatial justice as facets of the same struggle, that we can begin to reclaim our cities. The promise of the global anti-Olympics movement is just that: an international, intersectional coalition rooted in local struggles for cities where the well-being of residents holds more weight than a two-week mega-event for the ultra-rich.

The long road to Olympic abolition

The Olympics produce a state of exception that allows municipal politicians around the world to usher in the version of the city they want but can’t get through a democratic process. Local police forces take advantage of this moment to acquire otherwise-unattainable funding, weapons, and legal protections. Host cities bend over backwards to accommodate a two-week mega-event, permanently altering their urban fabric and pricing out longtime residents. In Boykoff’s words, “It’s not just that poor people are not given a seat at the Olympic table — it’s that they’re the meal.” The same pattern plays out again and again, from Rio, to Sochi, Beijing, and LA. In the years leading up to the return of the Olympics to Los Angeles in 2028, we can expect nothing less than the exacerbation of the very demonstrations of white supremacy and aspirations for cosmopolitanism that have pushed communities of colour out of the neighbourhoods they’ve called home for generations. Already, we’re seeing the expansion of the LAPD; more transit-oriented displacement; hotel development; and rising rents.The 2028 Olympics represent the most recent incarnation of racist and anti-poor planning, and their arrival fans the flames of LA’s urban crises.

In 2017, NOlympics was born in the Housing and Homelessness committee of DSA’s Los Angeles chapter, which was unique in that it actively pursued coalitions with existing organizations led by long-term residents organizing with tenants and unhoused communities. This origin story is an important piece of the book, and Boykoff’s description of NOlympics’ relationship to DSA-LA further illustrates NOlympics’ commitment to long-time local struggles and international coalition-building. Since their founding, NOlympics has gained a relative autonomy from DSA, and gathered together a coalition of over 30 local grassroots organizations.

The day-to-day organizing of NOlympics LA is handled by a handful of dedicated, core activists, many of whom have been with the group since the beginning. But much of their base draws from the members of their coalition partners, which themselves benefit from having a shared forum for building solidarity, and a long-term goal to mobilize against. By strengthening those alliances, the group has planted roots in LA’s ongoing and wide-ranging struggles, from racial justice, to anti-imperialism, housing justice, and many more. 

In effect, the group has embedded itself into grassroots organizations outside of DSA, learning from them, supporting them, and funneling new DSA members into these movements—responding to a common critique that DSA lacks those kinds of connections. As I’ve seen for myself, NOlympics organizers consistently show up to support protests at the homes of slumlords organized by the LA Tenants Union. They help to monitor encampment sweeps and empower unhoused residents with Streetwatch LA (another DSA-LA working group with relative autonomy), and turn up for direct actions organized by Black Lives Matter against the city’s record-high rate of police murder.

NOlympics hosts a community canvass in LA’s Highland Park neighbourhood to raise awareness about the white-washing of community murals.

Similarly, NOlympics maintains a level of porosity and agility that welcomes new members on a regular basis and draws activists from different backgrounds to partake in their actions, which largely revolve around tactics of popular education: canvassing, polling, and teach-ins. By pulling together the already-existing expertise and analysis of local organizations, and setting out on a decade-long mission, NOlympics stands a chance of winning the cancelation of the LA2028 Games. More importantly, they’re ensuring that the city’s activist groups have a constant platform where they can come together, and that new members of DSA have an avenue for involvement in ongoing anticapitalist work in the city. 
Yet, for NOlympics, coalition-building is not just a tactic for mounting a localized intersectional critique of the effect of the Games on LA. It is also a project of international solidarity to end the Games for good: “No Olympics Anywhere.” The activists recognize that without lasting solidarity between host cities, all the work done in each host city is lost when the IOC moves on to its next victim. In response to the IOC’s globetrotting caravan of destruction, anti-Olympics activists around the world are beginning to strategically organize on a transnational scale. Fostering this coalition of global anti-Olympics groups has become a central initiative of NOlympics, responding to another shortfall of DSA, which is its lack of an anti-imperialist analysis.

Last summer, Boykoff traveled to Tokyo with NOlympics for the first major international anti-Olympics summit, where the activists from different cities around the world convened and marched with the local anti-Olympics organizers of HanGorin No Kai ahead of the Tokyo 2020 (now 2021) Summer Games. There, NOlympics organizers shared the particular ways that transnational capital manifests in LA. Boykoff, when narrating this trip, also observes the hurdles to this scale of organizing: if language barriers weren’t enough, different cultures of organizing can make collaboration difficult. But there were important lessons learned as well. Back in LA, the Nolympics organizers constantly remind local activists that their enemy is not just the LA City Council, but a transnational regime of neoliberalism.


As David Harvey notes, “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.”  NOlympics’ answer to this is building a coalition that unites antiracist, anticapitalist, anticarceral, and anti-displacement organizers in the fight for their right to continue to live in and to shape the city — from LA to Tokyo and beyond. It offers lessons about the importance of local, intersectional solidarity to activists abroad; and informs the work of local activists with an internationalist analysis. NOlympians depicts a coalition of organizations that prefigures a version of Los Angeles where none of us are free until all of us are free; where the city’s racist history is top of mind as we steer the ship towards racial justice; and where solidarity plays out in everyday acts of mutual aid.

A gateway to organizing

Like DSA, NOlympics takes an inside-outside approach, agitating politicians in the city hall chambers while building power by organizing with their coalition partners. However, NOlympics’ unabashedly abolitionist mandate sets it apart from what Boykoff identifies as the “socialism by evolution not revolution” mandate embraced by much of DSA — instead of reform, they want an obliteration of the capitalist mega-event. Their positioning creates a bridge for new members of DSA to get involved with community organizing beyond electoralism.
One way NOlympics has done this has been by perfecting the art of transfiguring cynical criticism into demands for positive change. They do this by exposing the failures of local government through gripping online satire, and pairing it with rambunctious, theatrical direct actions. Boykoff describes the ways in which NOlympics responds to the specific cruelties and political failures of contemporary Los Angeles. LA’s municipal government puts much of the city’s political power in the hands of the city council, while, as the NOlympians relentlessly point out, Mayor Eric Garcetti is often nowhere to be found. Before devoting much of his time in office in 2018 to courting a long-shot presidential bid, he signed the host-city contract for the 2028 Olympics without any input from the public—a clear tell that the 2028 Games were never intended to benefit the average resident of LA, but that they’re meant to serve the private interests of hotel developers, real estate speculators and international corporations that thrive on the tourist class.

NOlympics LA activists give Mayor Eric Garcetti a wake-up call at his mansion after his refusal to make LA a sanctuary city in 2018.

Garcetti and LA City Council have consistently upheld racist and anti-poor policies. White supremacy is deeply ingrained in the city’s planning history, and wealthy, white residents look to the city council for leadership. The summer of 2019 saw an uptick in anti-homeless white vigilante violence after the city council reinstated a ban on vehicle dwelling. Backed by the most murderous police force in the nation, politicians and vigilantes alike are already on a campaign to sanitize and pacify neighborhoods across Los Angeles. The decaying local media landscape only makes matters worse, with Pulitzer-prize nominated journalists writing poverty porn, and the chairperson of the 2028 Olympic bid holding a major stake in one of the few local outlets. 

In response, the NOlympians have produced their own media. Whether members are writing about the history of stadium-driven displacement in LA, making a guide for how to report on the Olympics, or making explicit the links between 1984 LA Olympics and the militarization of the LAPD, one of the central tenets of their work, according to activist Anne Orchier, is to “chip away at the Olympic movement as a whole.”

Boykoff describes NOlympics as a “perpetual praxis machine,” and their organizing takes many forms, ranging from performatively canceling the Olympics on the steps of LA’s City Hall; to holding auditions for actors to fill Garcetti’s shoes in his frequent absence; to doing outreach in public spaces and areas most impacted by hotel development ahead of the Olympics. Threading together all of these tactics is the activists’ trademark humour, which makes their cutting political criticism more approachable. While people may not know exactly how to critique something as abstract as global capital, NOlympics shows them how and empowers them to do so. Their propaganda pairs criticism of the profit-driven political economy with people-centered alternatives, all in plain language grounded in the specific issues facing Angelenos. 

Popular education is at the root of their approach to organizing, and as Boykoff observes, their regular meetings have become more about training people to organize, and less about report-backs and updates. Their organizing mandate seems to be not base-building, but creating an environment for organizers to grow and learn from one another, and connecting new DSA members with existing organizations working on specific issues in Los Angeles.

No Olympics are Good Olympics

If you ask any of the NOlympics LA organizers whether the Olympics could be reformed to better serve local communities, they would be quick to say that no Games are good Games. They would tell you that what powers the Olympic machine is the IOC’s determination to trample on poor communities in cities across the world, just to turn a profit, get back in their private jets, and do it all over again somewhere else. 

Yet, after chronicling the work of these organizers, and explicitly reiterating their abolitionist platform, Boykoff lays out some suggestions for Olympic reform. For one, he suggests an independent panel to review bids, and proposes higher environmental oversight. He imagines an Olympic machine turned on its head, so that funds that circulate up through the Games into the hands of oligarchs may be redirected into marginalized communities instead. He also proposes that the IOC follow the lead of FIFA, making votes for the Games public. 

It’s perplexing that after following the NOlympics organizers’ analysis so closely to their unapologetic, no-compromise demands for the eradication of the Olympic Games, Boykoff suggests reform. He implies that the IOC would be open to positive change; and furthermore that these reforms would not later be corrupted. It’s difficult, knowing what we’ve learned from his book, to imagine that a reorganized IOC would stage anything that truly benefits the no- and low-income communities of host cities. Boykoff’s propositions prompt an important question for the anti-Olympics movement and for the fight for the right to the city: How far can reform really go?

The NOlympians have rejected the premise of this question altogether. NOlympics is about ending much more than the Olympics, and spending energy on fighting for reforms to a system premised on the disenfranchisement of communities of colour and the banishment of the poor, might be something better left to the nonprofits. Instead, NOlympics has highlighted moments in sporting history when athletes got together to organize ethical, people-first events. For example, their video A Brief History of Swolecialism gives an overview of the Workers’ Sports Movement. The 1932 International Workers’ Olympiad famously drew more visitors and competitors than the concurrent 1932 LA Olympics. That legacy lives on today in CSIT (Confédération Sportive Internationale Travailliste et Amateur, or International Workers and Amateurs in Sports Confederation), which offers an alternative to the IOC that goes unmentioned in NOlympians. Boykoff writes about these alternatives elsewhere, but misses an opportunity to connect the dots between NOlympics LA’s fight to abolish the Games and their enthusiasm for the potential of a democratic sports culture led by poor people. 

Ultimately, the more important question at the end of this book remains unasked: what kind of city would it take to put people before profit, and to democratize sporting culture? What kind of city would it take to invest in and preserve bountiful public recreation space, provide clean water to swim in, and safe streets where kids can play — all without displacing long-time residents? It’s the kind of city that the partners of the NOlympics LA coalition are already fighting for and beginning to enact.

What the NOlympians are doing, and what Boykoff chronicles so well, is building a coalition of organizations in LA that are collectively fighting for their right — the right of regular people — to the city. In a global city like LA, this fight is up against the influence of transnational real estate investment, the tourism industry, and sportswashing. Though it’s difficult to measure the progress they’ve made towards getting the 2028 Games canceled, they’ve become a vital voice of dissent in our city hall chambers; a constant well of research and analysis while local media sleeps at the wheel; and an important common ground for groups fighting for environmental justice, tenants rights, Black liberation, and demilitarization. Boykoff illustrates not only the contemporary relevance of a right-to-the-city campaign; but the importance of far-reaching, collaborative, and coalition-based organizing that pairs single-issue struggles to general ones and local fights to the global fight against capitalism. The NOlympians are flipping the script, taking what engineer William Mulholland once said to the mayor at the opening of the Los Angeles aqueduct, and broadcasting it to the city instead: “There it is! Take it!”

All photos courtesy of NOlympics LA.

Sasha Plotnikova is a writer and design critic living in Los Angeles. She organizes with the LA Tenants Union and has taught architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. She tweets at @sashaplot_.

NOlympians: Inside the Fight Against Capitalist Mega-Sports in Los Angeles, Tokyo and Beyond by Jules Boykoff is available from Columbia University Press.

May readings

Illustration: Alexandra Bowman

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

Following the killing of George Floyd, one in a long line of brutal murders of Black people by police, anti-racism protests have swept across the US, and conversations about structural racism and police brutality have dominated the global media. We decided to use this momentum to highlight educational readings and resources on anti-racism, police abolition, and the connections between racism and environmental issues.

In other news, this month, we launched a new section on our site: the Resources for a better future glossary! We kicked it off with Eleanor Finley’s entry on Human nature, which we linked below. In this month’s list, we also included analyses of where we’re at and where we’re going with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, and, as usual, we collected a variety of readings and resources about new politics, cities and radical municipalism, degrowth, and activism.



Uneven Earth updates

We launched Resources for a better future – a glossary of crucial concepts in political ecology, alternative economics, and environmental justice. It offers easy-to-read, clear, and opinionated explainers of some of the most important political and ecological issues of our time.

Human nature | In the first entry of our new glossary, Eleanor Finley argues that there is no human nature, only human potential

Crisis Collage | How do we move ahead now?

Planet of the dehumanized | Environmentalism that does not center structural inequality is a dangerous nod to both eco-fascists and eco-modernists alike



Top 5 articles to read

Reimagining a world where justice is possible. “It was none other Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” We live in a world where robbing entire classes and societies; manufacturing and trading ever deadlier weapons; poisoning the air, earth, and water; torturing or wiping out entire species; etc. are the alphabet of power. The justice of such power cannot be anything but a hellish nightmare for those who are born into the margins. Such a world will always be racist, regardless of the humanist sentiments of the majority.”

Unlearning: From degrowth to decolonization

Racism, police violence, and the climate are not separate issues

We don’t farm because it’s trendy; we farm as resistance, for healing and sovereignty. Farming is not new to Black people.

We defend ourselves so we can all breathe in peace



News you might’ve missed

International Monetary Fund leverages COVID-19 economic fallout to create a land market in Ukraine despite widespread opposition

Brazil: Deforestation on Indigenous lands increases 59% in the first months of 2020

Brazilian Landless movement and economist Eduardo Moreira launch FINAPOP, a new community-supported investment fund, to support grassroots agroecological farming

East Africa facing ‘triple threat’ from coronavirus, locusts and flooding, Red Cross warns

Land conflicts flare across South-East Asia during coronavirus lockdowns



Resources on anti-racism and police abolition

Understanding structural racism, and how to fight back

Geographies of racial capitalism with Ruth Wilson Gilmore. A short film.

A Twitter thread filled with revolutionary books that can guide us during this time, a collection of Black revolutionary texts, and Frantz Fanon’s writings

Black Socialists of America resource guide 

‘Racism dictates who gets dumped on’: how environmental injustice divides the world, and more in this series: Our unequal earth

‘They chose us because we were rural and poor’: when environmental racism and climate change collide. The environmental movement has a long history in America’s south – yet people of color and impoverished communities continue to face dangerous pollution.

Black environmentalists on climate and anti-racism 

Coronavirus: its impact cannot be explained away through the prism of race. “Race is a social construct with no scientific basis. However, there are clear links between people’s racial groups, their socioeconomic status, what happens to them once they are infected and the outcome of their infection. And focusing on the idea of a genetic link merely serves to distract from this.” 

The violence of, and alternatives to, policing

The George Floyd killing in Minneapolis exposes the failures of police reform

The end of policing. According to Ruth Wilson Gilmore, this free eBook available on Verso “combines the best in academic research with rhetorical urgency to explain why the ordinary array of police reforms will be ineffective in reducing abusive policing. Alex Vitale shows that we must move beyond conceptualizing public safety as interdiction, exclusion, and arrest if we hope to achieve racial and economic justice.”

Reading towards abolition. A reading list on policing, rebellion, and the criminalization of Blackness.

Abolition study. A list of readings and resources.



Just think about it…

During coronavirus, is ‘wellness’ just being well-off? 

Why social isolation is part of Amazonian Shamanic practices 

My first lockdown was during the first Intifada. Living under a lockdown in Europe has brought back memories of my childhood in Gaza during the Palestinian uprising.

Internationalism in Vietnam, then and now. Building on the traditions established by Ho Chi Minh.

What is energy denial? A text from 2019 about “clean energy danger denial” – the tendency that we overlook the hazards of renewable energy production because fossil fuels are so bad.

The wildness is in me, too. People were excluded from the wild, historically, and in today’s rapidly digitizing West.

How ‘sustainable’ development ravaged the Congo Basin

The ugly underbelly of veganism in India

The final frontier. On why US culture is so obsessed with conquering space.

The wife glitch: Household tech makes women’s work profitable—for men



Where we’re at: analysis

Hope against hope. An Interview with Out of the Woods on COVID-19, climate crisis, and disaster communism.

Favela journalists debate ‘mistakes the press are making covering coronavirus in favelas’, the latest in RioOnWatch’s article series on Coronavirus in the favelas

The dangers of legalising public land theft in Brazil: agribusiness, deforestation, and the melting pot of future pandemics

Coronavirus in Rojava: Facing a pandemic without a state

Counting corona losses in Africa

The solution to the coronavirus recession is a global Green New Deal. A healthy, socially, and ecologically just world demands it.

How new is the Green New Deal for the Global South?

The ‘green’ new deal should not be a new imperial masterplan 

Real reconciliation starts with fair economics

Lawless ocean: The link between human rights abuses and overfishing

Canada’s forests remain under threat — and the clock is ticking for governments to step up

Food is power

The impulse to garden in hard times has deep roots



New politics

Public abundance is the secret to the Green New Deal 

Reviving Indigenous authorities in Guatemala

Indigenous leadership points the way out of the COVID crisis

Coronavirus and the life lessons from “ordinary” people to save the Earth and ourselves

Organizing is not about getting people to agree with radical ideas

Permanently organized communities



Cities and radical municipalism

How cities are clamping down on cars 

Emancipatory mutual aid: from education to liberation. A New Orleans radical mutual aid group organizes with and within communities to help transform the conditions that created the crisis in the first place.

The problem with forcing developers to provide open space. On urban design and failed green spaces.

Kowloon Walled City. In Hong Kong, it was the densest place on Earth.



Degrowth!

How GDP fetishism drives climate crisis and inequality. Jason Hickel discusses degrowth on the Citations Needed podcast.

Techno-socialism or de-growth? The second in a three-part interview on capitalism and climate breakdown from Political Economy for the End Times.

Fairytales of growth. A film on climate change, degrowth, and system change.



Resources

26 ways to be in the struggle beyond the streets

Mapping our social change roles in times of crisis

Ethnography and the struggle for social justice. Didactic video resources on how ethnographic research can be used to strengthen social justice struggles, with the Brazilian urban movement Lutas Pela Moradia no Centro da Cidade (with English subtitles).

A list of political ecology-themed podcast episodes

HackΑthens 2020 recommended readings on urbanism, cities, architecture, history, and arts from a degrowth perspective, and in the context of pandemics

22 films to watch after (or instead of) Planet of the Humans

Timothée Parrique’s Twitter account, where he shares lots of useful information and resources on degrowth

Food fermentation in Northeast India

Agroecology in Cuba, a film with English subtitles



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Human nature

by Eleanor Finley

Note from the Uneven Earth editorial team: This entry is the first to be published within Uneven Earth’s new Resources for a better future series: ​a glossary of crucial concepts in political ecology, alternative economics, and environmental justice.​ We are calling on experts and activists to help us put out easy-to-read, clear, and opinionated explainers of some of the most important issues. Anyone can write an entry, and we will help with editing to make them readable to wide audiences. The time is now to put forward concise definitions of key concepts, to explain our political position firmly and clearly.

What is “human nature”? How can we make sense of human beings as creatures which are part of the natural world? What makes our species distinct from others? People have been asking ourselves these kinds of questions for millennia. Aristotle, the classic Greek philosopher and harbinger of modern biology, famously characterized human beings as zoon politikon, a political animal that can deliberate collectively upon what should be in the world. Since the Industrial Revolution, it has become popular to define human beings in economic terms. So-called “man the toolmaker” alters his physical environment to suit his purposes. Yet, as we shall see, Aristotle’s ancient idea still resonates with much of what the science says about the human species today.

There is no single “human nature” or blueprint for organizing human life

Anthropologists are scientists who study the human species from a holistic perspective, taking into account our biology, language, material culture (archaeology), social systems, and everyday life. Over the course of a century, anthropologists have amassed first-hand accounts of human societies from all over the world. We call this “ethnographic record”. The ethnographic record shows that within broad realms of “universals” like family and friendship, spirituality or religion, play and sports, politics, and production, the range of possibilities are endless. For this reason, anthropologists have long ceased trying to define “human nature” and instead focus on exploring the human potential. In other words, there is no single “human nature” or blueprint for organizing human life.

The idea of “human nature” nonetheless remains deeply lodged in our popular imagination about good and evil. Most often, people invoke the notion to justify an evil act or system of injustice. It is supposedly “human nature” to be greedy, for instance, or to exploit others. Although on the surface these expressions appear politically neutral, they are tautologies: “explanations” that merely repeat themselves. Why did men rape women, children, and other men? Why, because it was supposedly in their male nature to do so! Yet hardly explains why some men choose to rape and others don’t. It is equally in men’s capacity not to rape, so why bother blaming “nature” at all? Below the surface, statements about what is “natural” are really expressions about what we see as morally permissible. We invoke “human nature” as if to say, “These things will never change so don’t even try”.

We invoke “human nature” as if to say, “These things will never change so don’t even try”

The debate about “human nature” is really a veiled way of talking about good and evil. To question the good of humankind is to question whether it is ethical to respect others. If we decide humans are bad, then we don’t feel bad treating them badly.

Thankfully, serious observation of human behavior points to precisely the opposite conclusion. Things are always changing, so you might as well try! While most species have evolved elaborate, yet confining physical adaptations like wings, beaks, or claws, human beings adapt through creativity and invention. Like dogs, cats, rats, pigeons, and many of the other species which have accompanied us across the globe, we are generalists who thrive in diverse environments. Flexibility is our hallmark as a species.

Flexibility is our hallmark as a species

Despite our powerful plasticity, human beings remain primates with a distinctive set of physical features which shape our overall embodied experience and life cycle. As primates, our eyes situate themselves at the front of the skull, affording us an acute sense of sight and the ability to see at great distances. We possess opposable thumbs and long, agile fingers that allow us to tinker with fine and delicate objects. In distinction from all other primates, our posture is upright, a capacity gained through mind-bogglingly sophisticated skeletal adaptations in our feet, ankles, legs, and pelvis. These are just a few of the distinctive human features that anthropologist Julian Steward refers to as “the biological constant”.

Amid our many remarkable features, the human brain is exceptional. Each human possesses a highly-developed prefrontal cortex or “frontal lobe”, a highly flexible supercomputer overlaid by the patterns of symbols and associations we call “culture” (dolphins, porpoises, and other advanced mammals possess highly developed frontal lobes, however, without a common language, it is impossible to know in any detail what their culture might be like). The frontal lobe allows us to recognize, remember, reason, imagine, solve problems, and to project our mind’s eye into the past and future. For example, it is the frontal lobe which allows us to recognize the meaning of a traffic signal and predict what will happen if we do not stop. Most importantly, the prefrontal cortex allows us to alter what we’ve learned and invent new patterns. It is not only how we interpret the meaning of stories and metaphors, but also how we create new ones.

There is no human nature, only a human potential

The uniqueness of the prefrontal cortex is significant to any discussion of “human nature” because it means there is no recognizable human life beyond the reach of culture. Human infants literally cannot survive without years of sustained stimulation, love, and affection from caretakers. There is no human “nature” that can be separated from the society in which we live. In 1961 Marxist historian Erich Fromm writes that for Marx, man is characterized by a “principle of movement”. Under the influence of early anthropology, Marx understood that history is a dance between invention and determination. There is no human nature, only a human potential.

Aristotle approaches the same point, but from the other direction. By describing humans as “political animals”, Aristotle correctly implies that even the most seemingly abstract inventions like ethics, philosophy, and debate have an objective basis in the way our bodies are constructed. Our biology equips us to understand not only what is, but also what could and what should be. We are ethical creatures; we are nature debating, rationalizing, and thinking with itself.

Further resources

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2001 [2018]. Aristotle’s Ethics. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/

Marshall Sahlins. 2008. The Western Illusion of Human Nature. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Nancy Holmstrom. 2017. “Chapter 28: Human Hature” in A Companion to Feminist Philosophy (edited by Alison M. Jaggar and Iris Marion Young). Blackwell Publishing Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781405164498.ch28

Jason Antrosio. 2011 [2018]. “Anthropology and Human Nature: Human Beings in Process” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/biological-anthropology/human-nature/

Erich Fromm. 1961. The Nature of Man. Marxists Internet Archives. https://www.marxists.org/archive/fromm/works/1961/man/ch04.htm

Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman, Peter Matthews Wright & Charlotte Witt. 2018 (7th edition). Thirteen Theories of Human Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eleanor Finley is a writer, teacher, activist and social ecologist. She is also associate editor at ROAR Magazine and a PhD student in anthropology the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Crisis Collage

by Maro Pantazidou

For years, things have been kicking off everywhere. In Argentina 2001, then in France 2005, then in Greece 2008, in Iran 2009, and then like a wave in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria to circle back to Spain, US, New Zealand, Turkey. Occupy Everywhere.

In Athens, in December 2008 the Mayor’s Christmas tree was set ablaze with the curse/wish ‘Merry Crisis and a Happy New Year’ until the Christmas tree in Hong Kong’s shopping mall caught fire too ten years later.

To then kick off again in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Sudan, in France. Till Chile consumed it all and spit it out ‘We will not return to normality because normality was the problem’.

Six months later, maybe we crave for some normality.

Maybe we could go back to that old normality with all its contradictions, oppressions, cancellations, exploitations, misrepresentations—but where, somewhere, one can carve out a small space where there is Touch and there is Movement and therefore maybe a bit of Freedom.

So cοuld we go back? The ghost of what-is-actually-normal is haunting our cities.

The crisis is a mirror.

The crisis is a portal.

The crisis is suspension.

The crisis is acceleration.

The crisis is an already-existing social condition, now mediated by viruses. Much of what was deemed impossible, invalid, invisible has been

laid bare, 

(we are as safe as the least protected among us)

validated, 

(the most important work is the work that maintains and reproduces life)

materialised

(even the market had to start washing its invisible hand).

The fairy of what-is-actually-possible is humming in between our screens.

So, the words appear again on a Hong Kong wall ‘We can’t go back to normal because normality was the problem’, only now they’ve taken on a meaning more dense yet more subtle, punctuated by all our interdependencies.

How do we move? One answer: ‘there is no need to destroy everything and to give birth to a world completely new — it suffices to change the position of this cup or this bush or this stone, and to do the same for every thing.

Maro Pantazidou likes to work on radical education and collaborative research. She is based in Athens.

Planet of the dehumanized

by Gert Van Hecken and Vijay Kolinjivadi

A new documentary entitled “Planet of the Humans” directed by Jeff Gibbs, and produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore, was recently released to coincide with Earth Day. The documentary was highly anticipated, given Moore’s previously engrossing anti-establishment and award-winning documentaries on crucial political issues. The documentary, narrated by self-proclaimed environmentalist Jeff Gibbs, was released online and received over 4 million views in less than a week. The filmmakers unpack some of the myths surrounding large-scale renewable energy production like solar, wind, and biomass, arguing that such technologies are themselves materially-intensive and dependent on fossil-fuel derived energy, including coal, oil, and natural gas.

The film rightly questions capitalism’s “addiction to growth,” as well as corporate quests for profitable opportunities made available through greenwashing, and exposes the “renewable energy scam” as an unsettling co-optation of environmentalism by fossil-fuel driven interests. This line of questioning is refreshing and highly welcome at a time when faith in green growth is proposed as the main solution by the private sector, and their government supporters, to address environmental issues. These messages from the film are extremely important, given that it has been scientifically shown that there is no such evidence that environmental degradation can be reversed through increasing economic growth.

Since its release, the film has already received considerable critique from renewable energy experts, climate scientists, and climate activists, who have decried the film as dangerously misleading and behind the latest developments in the renewable energy sector. While we are sympathetic to this critique on how the film throws the “baby out with the bathwater” on renewables, we believe these critiques gloss over the important point the film makes about corporate greenwashing around renewable energy. We also believe that the critique of the film’s position being climate-denialist is clearly inaccurate given the film’s central focus on the ecological crisis associated with economic expansion. Ultimately, “Planet of the Humans” demonstrates why massive-scale renewable energy is a false solution to meet the insatiable needs of industrial society – this is a valid point! Even if renewables were fully substitutable alternatives to fossil-fuels, an industrialized civilization predicated on endless economic growth is not sustainable.

Our concern lies with how the film superficially points to environmental problems being caused by an abstract capitalism without centering the analysis on the historical and structural inequalities of capital accumulation. “Planet of the Humans” powerfully and convincingly bursts the “eco-friendly” lifestyle bubble into which so many well-intentioned progressives pour their hearts, souls, and wallets. However, the film bypasses historically ingrained privileges and structural inequalities along class, gender, and racial lines that lie at the heart of environmental crises.

A film produced by white people for other well-meaning white people, which does not include voices from the most vulnerable, who bear the major brunt of climate change and ecological collapse, entirely misses the mark around why ecological concerns are a matter of humiliating injustice for many people rather than merely a lifestyle choice. If what counts as being a “lifelong environmentalist,” as Gibbs claims at the start of the film, means making the individual choice to move into an “eco-house” and become more sustainable, then we are left with a very narrow and privileged understanding of what environmentalism actually means. The absence of more than stock-photo imagery of the structural inequalities of ecological destruction is precisely what makes this film highly simplistic and therefore dangerous at this current conjuncture.

There are four key reasons why the film misses the mark on the intertwined social and ecological crises of capitalism.

  1. The film’s narrative groups humanity as a whole as the culprit for ecological degradation, as evoked in the film’s title, and as signaled by the Anthropocene trope as a universalizing explanation for our current predicament. This perspective neutralizes the powerful influence of historically transforming the world into standardized, calculable, and controllable landscapes to replicate Western imaginaries of the world. Not all humans are responsible for the current state of affairs. Some of us are forced to deal with the fallout of a particularly deadening vision of the world more than others. The consequence of activating the idea of the Anthropocene is that it allows big industries to convince us that “we”, the anthropos, are all equally responsible for climate change. 
  2. The film caters to Western views on environmentalism by those who do not have to deal with structural injustices of living in cities’ most polluted areas, dying from air pollution, having their land dispossessed, or whose life choices are determined by precarious migrant labour and remittance to families abroad. While the film artfully exposes the fallacy around so-called “green economy” illusions, it does so by focusing entirely on lifestyle choices like deciding whether to attend a solar-powered concert or to adopt a plant-based diet. This focus simplifies what environmentalism is meant to imply, even if the filmmakers may have had no intention of doing so. One consequence of the filmmaker’s one-sided Western environmentalist lens is its singular focus on renewable-energy supporters and activists. Environmentalism has less to do with having epiphanies of being inspired in the great outdoors, and more to do with supporting the autonomous decision-making of vulnerable communities in the face of egregious environmental pollution that no human being should ever be subjected to. Racialized environmental justice has a long history in the US. It is unfathomable that a film of this nature would blatantly side-step this, especially given Moore’s previous work on the racialized nature of environmental problems like the Flint water crisis. Only one female voice who defends the struggles of racialized people from so-called “developing” countries demanding environmental justice was offered space in the film, and even that for less than 1 minute.
  3. The film blames overpopulation as another problem alongside relentless economic growth as where “we” went wrong as humans. This perspective unduly places the blame on populations in so-called developing countries and aligns with Malthusian and ethno-nationalist perspectives of eco-fascists by “greening” hatred among people. These are blatantly dangerous and could even be considered racist viewpoints especially considering that some environmental movements are deeply rooted in anti-immigration sentiment and white supremacy. This is particularly problematic when the film’s audience is seemingly well-meaning middle-class progressives whose dreams of a renewable-energy fueled capitalism are dashed without offering any alternatives. The consequence is that white-supremacist media sources like Breitbart can easily hijack a film like “Planet of the Humans,” as they already seem to be doing.
  4. While perhaps not the intention of the filmmakers, the film paradoxically creates a narrative that is easy to co-opt by ecomodernists advocating for technological fixes to environmental problems. It essentially gives them a green light to irresponsibly advocate nuclear energy by laying claim to the failure of renewable technologies to power an industrial society. Indeed, given the lack of alternatives offered in the film, its silence on the matter essentially condones nuclear energy. Such a decontextualized view on the potential of energy alternatives like wind and solar shuts the door on renewable energy technologies without recognizing the crucial role they play as decentralized energy solutions, particularly those focused on ensuring energy democracy for communities around the world. In short, energy systems cannot be decontextualized from the kind of society that is democratically desired. Like fossil fuels, nuclear energy depends on powerful and hegemonic actors to drive and direct both energy demand and supply, but a sustainable future will require decentralized, autonomous communities that have control over their energy use and where their energy comes from.

Overall, the implications of the film and its responses extend beyond its specific strengths and weaknesses. Debates constructed around environmentalism more generally, especially in industrialized countries, have tended to fall into particular narratives that do not adequately share an ethical and political commitment towards social and environmental justice, reparations for historical acts of colonial violence, and alternative knowledges and ways of being. These narratives often advocate for a renewable-powered and industrialized green economy, support centralized techno-fixes like nuclear energy with potentially catastrophic social and ecological consequences, or advocate for population control in veering dangerously close to the side of eco-fascists.

Moreover, given that the film takes a North American focus, these positions amount to colonial settlers on stolen land debating what counts as a sustainable future. The striking absence of Indigenous land defenders, their history of struggle, and lessons to be learned from them is another missed opportunity to truly engage with what “sustainability” could mean. While these concerns extend beyond the film’s intentions and perhaps intended audience, it is impossible to ignore them given the totalizing characterisation of environmental problems, as clearly evident in the film’s title.

An intersectional understanding of ecological crises, as they weave through race, gender, and class, would have offered a more powerful portrait of the state of the planet’s ecological situation. Global social movements around the world such as La Via Campesina, as well as the degrowth movement in Western industrialized countries explicitly connect social and ecological struggles as one and the same struggle, and offer hope and inspiration into flourishing alternatives already existing to reimagine the world. “Planet of the Humans” does not reflect non-Western conceptions of justice nor non-mechanistic understandings of human-nature relations. Attempts being made to confuse the film’s message with degrowth are therefore inaccurate. The film’s impacts could not have come at a worse time, when people are seeking alternatives to capitalist crisis in the midst of a global pandemic.

Gert Van Hecken is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. For over fifteen years he has lived and worked in Nicaragua, both as a researcher on social-environmental conflicts in rural communities and as a representative for a development NGO.

Vijay Kolinjivadi is a Post-doctoral Researcher at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His research has focused on the socio-cultural and political outcomes around “payments for ecosystem service” policies with land-users in South and Central Asia as well as in Eastern Canada. His interests lie at the intersections of political ecology and ecological economics.

March & April readings

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.

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

All of March and April, we’ve collected lots of articles on coronavirus. And we thought that, now, two months after the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic, is a good moment to reflect on where we are and take stock of where we are going. So, this reading list, we’re only featuring articles on coronavirus.

First, we’re highlighting guides and resources for how to organize during the crisis. Second, we highlight the political actions and movements that are responding to the crisis around the world. Third, we feature articles focusing on the wave of mutual aid that has emerged following the pandemic. We are also including analysis of what caused the pandemic. Other topics include: its effects in the Global South, the importance of care & care work, its impact on cities, degrowth as a key response to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, its effect on food systems, the emergence of eco-fascism in response, and analysis of what the world will look like after this all.



Uneven Earth updates

The only thing to last forever | An endless repetition had taken hold of the world

Where did coronavirus come from, and where will it take us? | An interview with Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu

Pandemic strike | Rob Wallace says we need new tactics to show that people’s lives matter more than profit

Exploring transformative change on the brink | In moments such as these, the landscape of possibility shifts. How can activists engage on the ground?

This pandemic IS ecological breakdown: different tempo, same song | Comparisons between the toll of COVID-19 and climate change are not helpful because they view each as two separate “things”

Our contributing editor Vijay Kolinjivadi also appeared on the podcast This Is Hell! to talk about his article.

Now is the time to end the climate emergency | Reading The Green New Deal and beyond in the middle of a global crisis

To organize in times of crisis, we need to connect the dots of global resistance against Imperialism | Moving beyond a politics of confusion towards Internationalism

When viruses shatter limits | Viruses are invisibly small, cause monumental pandemics, and force us to rethink our taxonomies



Top 5 articles to read

In light of the global pandemic, focus attention on the people. A 16-point list of demands from the International Assembly of the Peoples and Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

Within and beyond the pandemic, demanding a care income and a feminist Green New Deal for Europe

Social reproduction theory and why we need it to make sense of the coronavirus crisis

No new normal

Pandemic insolvency: Why this economic crisis will be different



Guides, how-tos, and resources

List of resources and guides on how to do mutual aid during a pandemic

Useful list of Covid-19-related information and explanatory guides

COVID-19 tenant organizing guide

Resources on strikes during COVID-19

How to fight fascism while surviving a plague

How to organize your workplace against COVID-19

COVID-19 Left perspectives: A reading list

Feminist resources on the pandemic

Food safety and coronavirus: A comprehensive guide

Post-capitalist reading in a time of pandemic



Political actions and demands

Call of the Indigenous peoples, afro-descendants and peoples’ organizations of Latin America

A call to action: Towards a general strike to end the COVID-19 crisis and create a new world

Organizing under lockdown: online activism, local solidarity

Imagining protest in a quarantined world

Defining a space for resistance: Countering the disempowering effects of social distancing 

Essential workers: Class struggle in the time of coronavirus 

Rent strike nation

Our towns: Public libraries respond to COVID-19

Social movements in and beyond the COVID-19 crisis: sharing stories of struggles

Coronavirus has transformed the climate movement into something new

To our friends all over the world from the eye of Covid-19 storm



Mutual aid

Five quick thoughts on the limits of Covid-19 mutual aid groups & how they might be overcome

Don’t forget: disasters and crises bring out the best in people

People are fighting the coronavirus with mutual aid efforts to help each other

Autonomous groups are mobilizing mutual aid initiatives to combat the coronavirus

From mutual aid to dual power in the state of emergency

Mutual aid groups respond to coronavirus and climate change threats

Amid coronavirus pandemic, neighbors delivering what government cannot

The global guardians: Volunteering in Milan’s neighborhoods



What caused the pandemic?

‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?

Profits above all: world’s largest pork company propagates global pandemics

Think exotic animals are to blame for the coronavirus? Think again.

New research suggests industrial livestock, not wet markets, might be origin of Covid-19

COVID-19 and circuits of capital

Ten theses on farming and disease from Rob Wallace

Is factory farming to blame for coronavirus?

‘A common germ pool’: The frightening origins of the coronavirus



The pandemic in the Global South

Coronavirus hits the Global South

IMF, World Bank urge debt relief for poor nations battling virus

For autocrats, and others, coronavirus is a chance to grab even more power

Indigenous groups in Canada, Australia, Brazil brace for coronavirus

Dispatch #6 from Palestine on COVID-19, curfews & mutual aid

Stories from Kerala’s spirited virus fight

The pandemic can be a catalyst for decolonisation in Africa

Negligence, injustice, and insensitivity – Peasant situation under coronavirus crisis



Thinking about the pandemic: analysis and theory

The coronavirus pandemic, capitalism, and nation-states 

Peter Linebaugh on the long history of pandemics

The coronation by Charles Eisenstein

Coronavirus and the world-economy: The old is dead, the new can’t be born

Coronavirus and the need for a social ecology

Oxana Timofeeva, Georges Bataille: A pandemic read

Academia in the time of Covid-19: Our chance to develop an ethics of care

How the world became place where we remembered breath

Mike Davis on COVID-19: The monster is finally at the door

#CoronaCapitalism: How corporations are responding to the coronavirus crisis

COVID-19 and the neoliberal state of exception

In conflict with disease



Care during a pandemic

On social reproduction and the covid-19 pandemic

Social reproduction and the pandemic, with Tithi Bhattacharya

COVID-19 pandemic: A crisis of care

Care in the time of covid-19 

A crisis like no other: social reproduction and the regeneration of capitalist life during the COVID-19 pandemic

Asian American feminist antibodies. A zine that makes meaning of the coronavirus crisis through long-standing practices of care that come out of Asian American histories and politics.

The coronavirus fallout may be worse for women than men. Here’s why

The coronavirus is a disaster for feminism



Coronavirus and our cities

How cities can adapt to Covid-19

‘Idiocy of our current urban systems’: Inequality, not high-density cities, to blame for COVID-19’s spread

Disinvestment made our cities a powder keg in a pandemic

For urban poor, the coronavirus complicates existing health risks

Coronavirus is revealing the harm Airbnb did to urban rental markets



Growth, degrowth, and corona-crisis

Pandenomics: a story of life versus growth

In the midst of an economic crisis, can ‘degrowth’ provide an answer?

Coronavirus and degrowth

Is the economic shutdown what degrowth advocates have been calling for?

A degrowth perspective on the coronavirus crisis

Jason Hickel on Twitter: “Just to be clear: the economic contraction that’s happening right now is *not* degrowth. If you’re ever confused, you can consult this handy list of questions.”

Or, if you’re still confused, check out this handy online quiz: Is this degrowth?



How are food systems affected?

Farmworkers are risking their lives to feed a nation on lockdown

IPES special report: COVID-19 and the crisis in food systems

5 lessons for food systems thinking from COVID-19



Eco-fascism and the pandemic

Fake animal news abounds on social media as coronavirus upends life

It’s not “ecofascism”—it’s liberalism

‘We’re the virus’: The pandemic is bringing out environmentalism’s dark side

What the ‘humans are the virus’ meme gets so wrong

Coronavirus and the radical right: conspiracy, disinformation, and xenophobia



What the world will look like after coronavirus

The coronavirus is rewriting our imaginations

Technocracy after COVID-19

The coming debt deluge

Will coronavirus signal the end of capitalism?

It was the virus that did it

Coronavirus will require us to completely reshape the economy

The coronavirus is leading to a whole new way of economic thinking

COVID19 is changing the ideas that we consider politically possible

Owning the future: After COVID-19, a new era of community wealth building

We can afford to beat this crisis

What will the world be like after coronavirus? Four possible futures



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When viruses shatter limits

All that is left to us, therefore, is to understand what the disaster is producing within us, to pay attention to the explosion of affects it reveals. Therein lie the complexity of the situation and its rare promises. –Sabu Kohso

by Shrese

Stories of viruses are mostly stories of surface breaking, membrane crossing, confinement evading, border shattering, punctuation changing.

During the 19th century, scientists like Pasteur and others articulated the Germ theory: diseases could be passed on by tiny living things (hence the name microbes, small biota) invisible to the eye. Bacteria, organisms made of a unique cell, were “discovered”. An object, the Pasteur-Chamberland filter, was created to filter out bacteria from water. First dedicated to research, it also became an industrial device in a world now, and forever, scared of microbes and infections. But still, stuff that seemed to be smaller than bacteria, i.e., that could pass through these filters, kept on causing diseases. “Filterable viruses”, later only “viruses” (from poison in Latin), became then known to humans.

Viruses came to our world by crossing a membrane of unglazed, or bisque, porcelain. Here their narration starts—as if they hadn’t been there all along. Kevin Buckland, a storyteller living in Barcelona, teaches us this about the virus: “[its] power is simple: it can change periods into commas. It can un-end sentences. What was sealed and solved, what was packaged and piled, what had already been swept away is now again unfinished; ready to be rewritten.”

These past weeks, our days have been filled with digressions about viruses. For example: are viruses alive? Yes, no, it depends on how you define “alive”… And it depends on who you ask: someone living through the Covid-19 pandemic, or the same person a couple months ago?

This question has been with us for as long as viruses came into our world. After they first crossed over the Pasteur-Chamberland filter, they were thought to be liquid entities. Then they became particulate. But what were they really, were they just toxins? Were they microbes? Nowadays, we talk of them as being at the edge of life, we ascribe them the gift of life only once they have crossed our cell membranes… The debate often follows a script:

—Viruses cannot self-generate their own body nor self-reproduce, therefore they are not alive.
—Don’t they, though?
—Well, yes, but they are not independent nor autonomous, they cannot do it on their own, they need to infect a cell to do it.
—But some organisms also need other organism-hosts to reproduce. —Ah?
—And how about you? would you be so independent and autonomous if you were in a world without any other living beings?
—…

Indeed, asking “is this alive?” forces us to think “what does it mean for something to be said to be alive?”. Another way to go at it is to come up with lists of criteria, checklists, so we can tick “yes” or “no” when it comes to viruses, and the debate is still not closed. All in all, this is a tale of defining a phenomenon “en creux”, that is by focusing on what is excluded by the definition. This debate of finding the limits of the domain of life does sound abstract, but it is quite a spectacular contribution by the virus.

If you ask “what does a virus do?”, any biologist would tell you: first, it attaches itself to some elements on the surface of the cells of animals or plants (bacteria have their own made up category of viruses called bacteriophages). Then, using a diversity of tactics, it will pierce through the surface membrane of the cell. Once inside the cell, the pathogenic type of viruses will generally hack what the cell does for a living (grow and reproduce) to reproduce itself to a vast amount. After some multiplication, the virus will often engage with borders again, this time to actually literally explode the membrane of the cell, rupturing all structural integrity, spreading its inside outside. The cell, at this stage, can safely be considered “dead”. See, it’s all about trespassing surfaces.

This is the official story. But there is some more unfinished business to it. We mostly think of viruses as pathogens that infect us, make us ill, kill us. They are defined and perceived solely from their function or from their way of life (a bit of DNA or RNA genome encapsulated that needs to infect a host to actually do anything). Does it make sense to lump all of them together under this single term? Their genomes can be of all kinds and shapes, their structures as well, also their rules of engagement with the cells. But above all, it seems that one important activity of theirs is to mix things up: they insert their genomes into their hosts, they pick up bits as well, they move these bits from one organism to the next, they may have got stuck into cells to make new kind of cells. We’re now in the world of Lynn Margulis and her symbiogenesis stories—evolution as unfinished digestion: biological entities attaching to or entering into other entities and sticking around. The most famous example is the organelles found inside cells, like the mitochondria or the chloroplasts, coming from bacteria that were “eaten” by other bacteria and stayed there. Some say that the first eukaryotic cell (a cell with a well-defined DNA nucleus) came from an actual virus entering a cell.

We should have listened to Lynn Margulis more. For one, she did offer a solution to the “what is life?” dilemma: life is not a thing, it’s a process. Indeed, what does an organism do? It grows. What for? To grow more. And Darwin was all well and good, but she insists the metaphor of the tree was terrible. Life is not made of independent branches of organisms, lineages that go their own paths separated from others. A more suitable metaphor would be the web: all these “lineages” bump into each other, cross each other, don’t respect the borders—neither the ones of the organisms, nor the ones of the taxonomists.

Taxonomy. This is another story of containment and packaging that got shattered. Taxonomy is the science of classification: ordering things into distinct categories, according to specific criteria. Essentially, compartmentalising, detaching, separating, confining… Taxonomists as border guards. Here, Debra Benita Shaw and her account of “promising monsters” is very telling. When she teaches us that “monsters are the necessary counterpart of taxonomy, [they] emerge both within the strata of the taxon and across its boundaries” and that “species are trapped in a taxonomic grid, but they are always struggling to escape/mutate”, it is almost like she’s telling us stories about viruses. Her monsters are both essential to the production of categories, taxonomies and hierarchies and to their undermining and challenge—they are mobilised to produce what is accepted as normal but they linger on, they proliferate. They are abnormalities that refuse to disappear, nagging us every now and then like a stone in a shoe; but they also are “unexpected formations that contain latent potential”, the deviations that hold the possibilities of future changes, evolutions and apparitions of new forms (such as the concepts of saltation and hopeful monsters in evolutionary biology).

It is easy to think of what is destructive about viruses, especially on Wednesday 1st of April at 21:04 in Barcelona, Spain. We are drowned in curves of new Covid-19 cases (is it flat yet?), sunny and tempting empty streets from our balconies, graphs of daily deaths, migrant persons fined for being out in the streets helping out others… And it is particularly telling that the answer to a virus, given its ability to plough through our established categories, was to multiply the confinements: lock downs, movement restrictions, imposed distancing and isolations, borders closing, modes of transport shut down. But what could be promising about all this? True, at the moment, there is no shortage of interesting propositions and analyses telling us that the coronavirus is an opportunity for social change, an indicator of the failure of capitalism, a tipping point from which we won’t turn back, a planet saviour, nature biting back… Funnily enough, one interesting contribution was proposed by the virus itself, in a monologue. The virus even managed to strip down the situation to the core bifurcation it offers us: “the economy or life?”. Here it is again, forcing us to think about life.

Writing from within the pandemic, and a very specific vantage point (pretty privileged: work from home, cheap rent, no family responsibilities, official European identity papers—borders again), days are of a new kind. Constantly in the background, coming and going, tensing my jaw, aching my shoulders, piercing my chest and shortening my breath, an “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahaaaaaaa!”—anxiety, fears and worries.

Not so differently to a couple of centuries ago, viruses are invisible to most of us. They travel in droplets, in aerosol, linger on surfaces, clothes… anyone contaminated and in their incubation period, not showing any symptoms, could potentially pass it on. Not even some indirect clue of the risk. So much hand washing. Our relation with our hands has changed completely, they are the vectors of the invisible threat. Our mouths, our eyes, our noses are the points of entry. Scared of our own bodies, we embody the neo-liberal conception of life described by Silvia Federici “where market dominance turns against not only group solidarity but solidarity within ourselves”. In this situation, we are in constant state of fear of what’s within, “we internalize the most profound experience of self-alienation, as we confront not only a great beast that does not obey our orders, but a host of micro-enemies that are planted right into our own body, ready to attack us at any moment. […] we do not taste good to ourselves.”

The invisible does not only carry the feared entities. This is also where capitalism relegates its waste: air, ocean, underground, “ex”-colonies… All tales told, viruses seem to fit the risk society pretty well. This is the idea that our contemporary society has shifted to an obsession with safety and the notion of risk, and has dramatically shaped its organisation in response to these risks. From a class society where the motto was “I’m hungry”, and where social struggles were organised around this, the risk society’s motto became “I’m afraid”. This created a different set of demands, mostly revolving around the need to feel safe. The risks are mostly invisible (as in, actively unseen: nuclear, chemical toxins, oil spills, terrorism etc.). What therefore becomes central is to decide what constitutes a risk. Because scientists are now the ones that are relied on to make this assessment, science became a particular battlefield. In this framework, risks are divided into external and manufactured risks. The former are “natural” risks that arise from the outside (drought, floods, earthquakes—what “nature” does to us) and the latter occur because of what humans do to “nature” through its techno-scientific practices. Rob Wallace begs us to keep in mind that plagues are manufactured risks. The multiplication of zoonoses (infectious diseases that spread from non-human animals to humans), he argues, is a direct result of the capitalist modes of production: intensive monocultures, reduction of diversity, destruction of habitats… To quote the virus again, the “vast desert for the monoculture of the Same and the More” that we created is responsible for this pandemic.

What could exemplify more these invisible manufactured risks than the nuclear complex and its associated irradiations? And how this reminds us of viruses. They are both hyperobjects, a term put forward by philosopher Timothy Morton to describe phenomena that imply things, temporalities and spatial scales that are beyond humans while intimately present—disproportionate, monumental and apocalyptic while mediated by minute invisible entities. Also, responding to these disasters is difficult. The true apocalyptic nature of these events is not that they will bring the end of the world, it’s precisely that they are never ending, one characteristic of the societies of control. Nuclear waste and viruses will of course survive countless generations of humans. The monumentality of this kind of catastrophe seems to call for a monumental solution, initiated by a superior power, discouraging all revolts. But above all, it is the virtual reality of radioactivity and viruses that throws us off. Impalpable, invisible, delayed effect… nuclides and viruses diffuse in our world and bodies through uncontrollable and unreliable movements. As hyperobjects, they are viscous: “they ’stick’ to beings that are involved with them”. In a nuclear explosion or a pandemic, we cannot stop our bodies from welcoming the radiations or the virus. They engage with our cells—manipulate, use, modify, hamper them and threaten their integrity. Suddenly, reminding us that we are made of cells, our own body integrity is at stake, and potentially the ones of our offspring, or our closest ones…

No wonder a lot of my fellow humans are lamenting “these days, I cannot think”. Cannot focus. Head in cotton, like when taken by the fear of heights. But it is known, this is not fear, it is a desire for heights. From my balcony on the 6th floor, peering over, I am both terrified and excited. Powerful craving to let go, to give in to the air and gravity. Fly, even for a few fractions; fall, finally free of the fear, warmly wrapped in the friction of the resisting atmosphere—a liberating suicide.

We are now petrified by the phenomenal amplitude of the situation. Confined, we are utterly confused when faced with the satisfaction of one of our deepest and most repressed cravings: stop. Take a breath and shut down the machine. Stand still, there, wrapped in all the muck that we did not want to be with, reminding us of the many ways we kept busy to avoid facing ourselves. Finally giving in to the temptation—that has never left us since the first day of school—to stay in bed, retreat, desert and abandon.

As Sabu Kohso reminds us when writing about the Fukushima disaster, we will not save the world. Our starting point could be to disassemble the totality that was sold to us as The World, relocate its membranes and change its punctuation, to recompose it offensively with new terrestrial relations that are already solutions to live the good life. “In this mix of affects—despair, joy, anger—that a lot of us share, we are tempering, quenching and forging new weapons, and we are elaborating strange tools and curious talismans, to lead ephemeral and intense lives on this earth.”

All images by Shrese.

Shrese is a carpenter and independent researcher based in Barcelona, Spain. Contact him at shrese at riseup dot net.

This article has now been republished in French by lundi.am.

To organize in times of crisis, we need to connect the dots of global resistance against Imperialism

Sallye Davis (organizer and mother of Angela Davis), Ann Bishop, Alimenta Bishop, and New Jewel movement leader Maurice Bishop, Grenada, 1982. Photo from The House on Coco Road, directed by Damani Baker, Array Films.

by Corinna Mullin and Azadeh Shahshahani

Writing in the aftermath of the US-led overthrow of the People’s Revolutionary Government of Grenada, the inimitable Audre Lorde lamented the absence of a strong anti-imperialist movement in her seminal essay “Grenada Revisited.” Lorde identified two main factors to explain the dearth of resistance to the blatant intervention by the US in a sovereign state’s internal affairs: 1. a deliberately confused public sphere as “doublethink has come home to scramble our brains and blanket our protest,” and 2. a desensitized “[white] america whose moral & ethical fiber is weakened by racism as thoroughly as wood is weakened by dry rot.” The years following the 1983 invasion of Grenada have witnessed a continuation, and in many ways, deepening, of both: the racism that underpins the violent dispossession to which marginalized communities at ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ are subjected, coupled with the discursive infrastructure of a capitalist dominated media and public sphere designed to obscure and normalize this dispossession as well as to delegitimize resistance.

We currently face a combined economic, ecological and health crisis that is in many ways a product of the forms of exploitation and dispossession that Lorde identified in her essay, making it more vital than ever to draw connections in our analysis of and resistance to racial capitalism and Imperialism. Rob Wallace has demonstrated the linkages between capitalist modes of agriculture and the ecological transformations that have enabled the spread of “the most virulent and infectious phenotypes” of pathogens such as those that resulted in the coronavirus.

These processes have accelerated in the neoliberal era, spurred on by imperialist circuits of finance capital whose penetration of the Global South was enabled by the removal of “restrictions on the global flows of commodities and capital.” Neoliberalism has entailed a set of social and economic policies rolled out over the past five decades as a response to the crises of racial capitalism, designed to reverse even limited post-Depression working class gains and redistribute wealth upwards. Neoliberal policies including repeated tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, the deregulation of various sectors of the economy (including finance, telecommunication, energy, etc.), and the marketization and privatization of public services (including in the domains of education, social welfare, prisons, etc.) resulted in deindustrialization and the dismantlement of many public institutions that would otherwise have helped to mitigate the current crisis, including health care. The state’s “organized abandonment” was accompanied by a retrenching of its repressive apparatuses, including prisons, borders, and police—or the state’s “organized violence” in the words of Ruth Gilmore.  This violence has targeted with criminalization the very Black, Brown, Indigenous, working class, poor and other marginalized and racialized communities who were the most impacted by neoliberal restructuring, extending already existing forms of exploitation, dispossession and exclusion in capitalist core states.

Many of the neoliberal policies behind the restructuring of the Global North’s welfare state were originally tested on—and resisted in—the periphery.

Many of the neoliberal policies behind the restructuring of the Global North’s welfare state were originally tested on—and resisted in—the periphery, via imperialist institutions like the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the World Bank, and the EU. As part of the attack on the post-independence assertion of Global South sovereignty, structural adjustment programs via enforced spending cuts and privatization engendered state disinvestment in public goods, contributing to the degradation of public institutions, including public health. They have also enforced capitalist patent regimes that limit these states’ abilities to provide affordable and accessible medicine to their populations, ensuring that the Global North benefits from the “monopoly rent…[and] an almost exclusive control of the world market of health.” Neocolonial debt further hinders Global South public health by diverting already limited state resources away from funding health care systems to servicing public debt. Similar to developments in the Global North, one of the few sectors that witnessed an increase in spending during the neocolonial assault on the state in the Global South were the repressive security institutions, also contributing the accumulation of public debt. This neoliberal restructuring combines with the colonial-capitalist assault on Global South ecologies and the destruction of imperialist wars and militarism, to produce “wasted lives”—contributing to an expansion of the “global reserve army of labor,” superexploitation of Global South labor and surplus value extraction.

While scholars like David Harvey argue that Imperialism is no longer useful as an analytic category, a look at any number of socio-economic indicators statistically mapped out onto an image of the globe makes clear that the north-south cleavage is still salient when it comes to patterns of accumulation and dispossession. Whether we look at it through the lens of public health, monopoly finance capital, global commodity chains, labor exploitation, unequal exchange, sanctions, climate disaster, or military interventions—there is a stark geographic dimension to how power is divided and exercised across the globe. As in the past, global inequalities today are also reflected and intimately connected to those within the metropole. In the current context, it is poor, undocumented, immigrant, Black and Brown communities hit the hardest by crisis. Not only in terms of being more susceptible to contracting and dying from the coronavirus, as a result of historical legacies of slavery and ongoing structural racism, resulting in a lack of access to adequate health care, nutrition and housing, as well as contributing to conditions as well as often limited capacity to “social distance,” but also because of the uneven impact of its socio-economic reverberations, including loss of employment and housing, as well as being subjected to state violence and surveillance as part of the state’s increasingly securitized response.

Similar to the Granada intervention conjuncture so incisively dissected by Lorde, the current moment has also laid bare the interconnections between the Imperialism and racial capitalism. Yet we still falling far short of the kind of political mobilization required, with the parallel analytical phenomenon that some interpretations of Imperialism have been stretched so thin that the concept has lost much of its meaning and urgency. Though there may be several factors that can account for this, central among them is what Lorde, referencing George Orwell, identified as “doublethink.” This refers to a deliberate and systematic politics of confusion that emerged in the late/post-Cold War period, providing a discursive cover for the neoliberal counter-revolution against post-colonial Global South sovereignty. This cover operates through several discursive mechanisms, including through the evasion and distortion of history to disrupt and reverse otherwise obvious connections between causes (settler-colonialism, slavery, racial capitalism, Imperialism) and effects (underdevelopment, de-development, inequality, dispossession). This doublethink equates imperialist violence with the responses it engenders, flattening out different forms of state power, (e.g. by conflating neoliberal and imperially aligned states such as Colombia and Peru with “Pink tide” governments such as Bolivia and Ecuador that have sought to nationalize resources and redistribute wealth, support the struggles of workers and Indigenous communities, and challenge imperialist geopolitical alignments, repeatedly referring to the latter as “authoritarian”). It also normalizes imperialist violence through discursive formations such as the ‘democratization’, ‘humanitarianism’, ‘development’, ‘war on terror’, ‘green transition’, and sets limits on what we are able to imagine in terms of liberation (e.g. whether or not international agreements can be broken and debt erased, regional integration, redistribution, ending private property regimes and reclaiming the commons). It is why for so many people it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Faced with this combined health-economic-ecological crisis, there is a renewed urgency to demystify and contest this politics of confusion by strengthening our anti-imperialist organizing. Just as we build solidarity through mutual aid in our communities to fill the gaps- as well as address root causes– left by the neoliberal, racial capitalist state, we must extend our solidarity to support mutual aid efforts in the Global South, where similar and much more severe gaps in the ability of the state to protect people in the face of coronavirus are intimately connected to US Imperialism. These include economic warfare against countries like Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, to the deepening and expansive tentacles of US military projection across the African continent through the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), including “46 various forms of U.S. bases” and other military interventions designed, in the words of the former deputy of AFRICOM himself to “Protec[t] the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market,” and including past and ongoing US directed or backed invasions, bombings, blockades, occupations, covert destabilization military operations and coups in places like Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Bolivia and Venezuela.

Conceptualizing Imperialism

At its base, Imperialism is a system of domination that blocks real self-determination for states and peoples. It is about externally determining and imposing, often together with the collaboration of elements of a domestic elite, particular modes of industrialization, socio-political forms of governance and border-making/border practices that facilitate labor exploitation and surplus drain in the Global South for the benefit of (largely Global North/western) capital. It is about blocking alternative ways of imagining and pursuing development, value, and of living with one another and with the Earth. The imperialist aim is to obstruct the pursuit of alternative socio-political-economic projects (and sabotage extant ones) that threaten capitalist power. As Ali Kadri reminds us, the state-led developmentalist projects of the post-independence era implemented across West Asia and Africa “did not fail on their own”; it was “implicit and explicit” forms of Imperialism “that shut them down.”

Imperialism is about blocking alternative ways of imagining and pursuing development, value, and of living with one another and with the Earth.

Imperialism is also always about violence. There is the structural violence that results from what Walter Rodney described as the “paradox” of underdevelopment, where “[m]any parts of the world that are naturally rich are actually poor.” There is also, of course, the material violence. Imperialism is backed up by the threat and often actual shock and awe of military might. We are all too familiar with the long list and typology of imperialist interventions, which include: the invasions, occupations and other forms of imperialist (largely US/French/British/Germany led)-military action witnessed over the past century in places from Vietnam to Iraq, North Korea to Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Chile, Syria and Mali to imperialist backed coups against leftist and/or nationalist governments across Africa and the Americas. Through destabilization, destruction, and currency devaluation, wars and occupations enable numerous forms of extraction and exploitation of natural and human resources. In that sense, they are primary mechanisms of “surplus value and power creation.” This is true not only, as Ali Kadri shows us, in the immediate aftermath of violence, but for years following, as they produce the socio-economic conditions of “underdevelopment” that enable Global North accumulation.

Returning to Grenada, Lorde pointed to the outcome (and aim) of the US invasion: “Ministries are silent. The state farms are at a standstill. The cooperatives are suspended…On the day after the invasion, unemployment was back up to 35 percent. A cheap, acquiescent labor pool is the delight of supply side economics.”

Imperialist mechanisms

Counted among the list of imperialist interventions are the 1,000 military bases and installations the US operates/and or controls across the globe, which have aided in the funding of death squads, coups, and other covert operations. This number far surpasses that of foreign military bases maintained by any other state in the world. There are also the more subtle forms of military domination and imperialist induced vulnerability that come from state dependence on US/European weapons and surveillance systems, training, as well as military “cooperation” with joint military operations, wherein the US outsources risky ventures to Global South “partners.”

While much is made of Russia and China as competing powers for global hegemony, it is telling that the US spends more on “national defense” than the other countries included on the list of top 8 military spenders combined

The US dominated military-industrial-complex continues to be one of the most visible mechanisms of Imperialism today. While much is made of Russia and China as competing powers for global hegemony, it is telling that the US spends more on “national defense” than the other countries included on the list of top 8 military spenders combined (including France, United Kingdom, Germany, India, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia).  The US dominated arms market also perpetuates financialization of the global capitalist economy as the top arms dealers are all publicly traded. The US continues to dominate with 42 of the Top 100 listed arms companies based in the United States. The speculative role of arms capital was once more on display as major US arms companies saw their stock prices jump following the Trump administration’s assassination of the leader of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Soleimani in January of this year In supplying their arms to the Global South, these merchants of death not only provide the conditions to alienate citizens from their states, but also alienate Global South states from one another as they find themselves caught up in conflicts that are not of their own making, nor in their own interest.

Perhaps even more pervasive than militarism, economic warfare is one of the most destructive forms of imperialist intervention. Currently, a third of humanity is impacted by US sanctions. Sanctions are a way of disciplining Global South self-determination, as is so clearly the case in Zimbabwe where sanctions first adopted in 2001 were designed to punish the government for its extensive land reform program. Not only do sanctions by design “cause untold death and devastation,” a reality laid bare in the current health crisis, but also, as Lauren Smith demonstrates, “economic sanctions serve to justify and conceal theft, through asset freezes and seizures, at a rate only previously accomplished through invasion and occupation.” US sanctions trigger currency devaluation, inflation, increased unemployment, prices and access to food, power, and industrial equipment, and, of course, medicine. In other words, sanctions are a neocolonial tool designed to “prevent countries from setting in place any form of economic development.”

Iran has been the target of one of the most significant and consistent US sanctions regimes, a punishment for asserting its sovereignty with the 1979 Iranian revolution. Though lifted for a short time following the 2015 nuclear deal, Trump’s re-imposition and expansion of sanctions have forced the Iranian economy to contract by 9.3 percent in 2019.  To convey a sense of the scale of the impact that the US enforced severing of Iran from the international financial system has had on the Iranian economy, Kevin Cashman and Cavan Kharrazian explain that it would be the equivalent to a 16 percent cut in the US federal budget, or $521 billion in 2018. With at least 58,226 cases of the coronavirus and at least 3,603 deaths recorded since the outbreak, there is no doubt that US sanctions have made it much harder to tackle the pandemic. The country is facing shortages of respiratory-assistance devices and basic medical equipment, such as gloves and masks.  With the sanctions impeding Iran’s ability to respond to the health crisis it is facing, the aims of the US’ economic warfare on the country are rendered even more apparent: destabilization and death.

In Venezuela, even before the coronavirus outbreak, a report by the Center for Economic and Policy research demonstrated a 31% increase in mortality in the country after the 2017 round of US imposed sanctions, causing an increase of 40,000 deaths in the country. The most recent ramping up of imperialist aggression towards Venezuela in the form of increased sanctions, the deployment of navy ships towards the country and the placement of a $15 million-dollar bounty on the head of President Nicolas Maduro, have all contributed to undermining Venezuela’s ability to confront the coronavirus, and will undoubtedly result in even more deaths. To add insult to injury, US Imperialism has created both the conditions in which Iran and Venezuela have been forced to turn to the IMF for emergency funds to confront the coronavirus as well as the reason for which the IMF continues to block these countries from accessing needed funds.

US Imperialism has created both the conditions in which Iran and Venezuela have been forced to turn to the IMF for emergency funds to confront the coronavirus as well as the reason for which the IMF continues to block these countries from accessing needed funds.

Sanctions are not only deadly in the sense of blocking access to the medicine, food and finance required by states to provide basic welfare for their population, but also in denying and distorting capital flows and economic transactions, and in enabling the investment of seized assets in Global North banks. They are a major mode of Global South-to-North wealth drain. As demonstrated by a recent report, the U.S. economic blockade has caused over US $138.8 billion in losses to Cuba since the 1960s. Of course, not everyone in the Global North benefits from this wealth drain. As with other examples of imperialist intervention, the inequalities of racial capitalism are in fact exacerbated by sanctions as an economy built on “plunder” is by design one that exploits, dispossesses and wastes lives.

Connecting the dots between racial capitalism and Imperialism

The above list of imperialist economic interventions includes debt colonialism, currency manipulations, structural adjustment programs, “free trade” deals, and other forms of economic intervention that block Global South development and facilitate Global South wealth drain and Global North accumulation. By dehumanizing, devaluing, and exploiting Global South lives and livelihoods, Imperialism perpetuates white supremacy both within the US and across what W.E.B. Du Bois described as the “global color line.” For Lorde, the seeming indifference of the US public to the imperialist violence committed against Grenada could only be grasped by understanding how “white america has been well-schooled in the dehumanization of Black people” and how such socialization enables accumulation through dispossession under racial capitalism.

By dehumanizing, devaluing, and exploiting Global South lives and livelihoods, Imperialism perpetuates global white supremacy both within the US and across what W.E.B. Du Bois described as the “global color line.”

The racialized forms of accumulation underpinning capitalism have always been international — from the foundational role of slavery and the dispossession of Indigenous lands and polities to the current formations and relations of power underpinning the globalized and hierarchically organized and racialized circuits of trade and production. These circuits of trade and production are kept in place by imperialist states and the multilateral institutions they dominate, from the IMF/World Bank to NATO, often including different organs of the UN and international law. These same interests, institutions, policies, and practices not only act outward to impact people around the world, but are responsible for criminalizing, exploiting and dispossessing Indigenous, migrant, Black, Brown, undocumented, and poor communities in the US itself.  Trump’s framing of Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus,” a framing that was readily echoed by a mainstream media and public sphere long schooled in anti-Asian racism and the (neo)colonial tradition of deploying “health and medical discourses [to] further racist projects of excluding and eliminating those deemed undesirable,” is a reminder of Imperialism’s and racial capitalism’s shared discursive infrastructure.

Resisting Imperialism

Both this global domination and the resistance to it have always been international. From early forms of radical Black internationalism, including such luminaries as W.E.B. Dubois, Claudia Jones, Paul Robeson, Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon and Angela Davis, to organizations like the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, the International African Service Bureau, and the Black Panthers, internationalism was an important base of struggles against colonial regimes and white supremacy. There is also the long tradition of what Nick Estes describes “Indigenous internationalism,” through which Indigenous peoples have “imagin[ed] themselves as part of Third World struggles and ideologies, and entirely renouncing the Imperialism and exceptionalism of the First World (while still living in it).” Internationalism informed various state initiatives (e.g. the 1955 Bandung Conference, and 1964 UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), as well as early hybrid state-popular forms of solidarity expressed through institutions such as the Cairo based Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization and its “antecedent,” the African Association, and the Tricontinental Conference. Today, the international peasant and ecological movement of Via Campesina coordinates global resistance to the ravages of capitalist agriculture for a food sovereign future, while the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Black for Palestine and The Red Nation carry forward the mantle of internationalism in the name of anti-colonial solidarity, Palestinian, Native and Black liberation and human emancipation. Much anti-imperialist organizing in the US today centers abolition, pointing to linkages between US interventions “abroad” and repression at “home,” with a focus on “racialized policing and prison systems” as well as connections between the conceptual and material underpinnings of the carceral-police state in the imperial core and the periphery.  The abolition project has assumed a new urgency in the current conjuncture as it is clear that communities targeted by the carceral-police state are the most vulnerable to the current combined crisis.

While the imperialist security state devises new mechanisms of control and capital figures out ways to profit from the crisis, resistance is also mounting. Already existing circuits and networks of solidarity are being mobilized, with organizations like the Red Nation calling for human solidarity “not just to stop the most catastrophic effects of COVID-19, but to end this inhumane and criminal capitalist system once and for all.” Others like Cooperation Jackson are building on the increasing radicalism of labor organizing in the face of the crisis to demand a “democratization of the means of production” as well as a redirection of funds spent on defending and expanding the US empire “to Health Care, Social Services, Universal Basic Income and Greening Public Infrastructure and the Economy.” There are also calls originating from the Global South for broad solidarity with demands for reparations and the cancellation of neocolonial debt. While the US practices public health Imperialism, Cuba is leading the way with its public health Internationalism, providing support to states in the Global South (and even Global North), which are struggling because of limited resources and the consequences of neoliberal cost-cutting of health-services to fight the spread and impact of the coronavirus.

International solidarity derives from the realization that our own liberation — and indeed, our survival — is fundamentally linked to the liberation and survival of the most oppressed people across the globe.

These past and present forms of internationalism have taught us that the struggle against racial capitalism and Imperialism can only succeed if undertaken as a collective. As rising temperatures and sea levels (as well as the rapid spread of the deadly coronavirus) remind us, international solidarity is neither an abstract nor intellectual duty. Rather, it derives from the realization that our own liberation — and indeed, our survival — is fundamentally linked to the liberation and survival of the most oppressed people across the globe. As internationalists, we also have a responsibility to educate ourselves to the greatest extent possible about the popular struggles unfolding in parts of the world where Imperialism is busy at work, in our names, and with our tax dollars. From Algeria, to Haiti, Chile, Ecuador, Lebanon, before the coronavirus health crisis gripped the globe, it seemed the entire world was on fire with popular uprisings resisting the ravages of capitalism and the apparatuses of “organized violence” that are designed to sabotage and manage dissent. Once the virus subsides, these struggles will undoubtedly reconvene with a vengeance, spurred on by the inequalities and injustices exposed and exacerbated by the combined crisis as well as by signaling from imperialist institutions such as the World Bank, which has called on states to “implement structural reforms to help shorten the time to recovery,” that business will continue as usual. Likewise the struggle for Palestinian liberation, where Imperialism and settler-colonialism combine to create the perfectly deadly mix for the unequal spread and impact of coronavirus, accelerating the Israeli project of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population. 

As we have learned from the successes and mistakes of the past, our anti-Imperialism cannot be a one size-fits-all mode of organizing. It must be based on sound analysis of the particular histories, socio-economic contexts, class composition, ideological underpinnings, and political alignments of both states and movements. Yet it always requires that we resist imperialist military and economic intervention as well as the so-called multilateral institutions that facilitate Global South dispossession and wealth drain. It often means standing in solidarity with Global South popular movements as they resist the collusion of their governments in the exploitation, extraction, dispossession and destruction of peoples, lands, and ecologies facilitated by US provisioned arms, training, and diplomatic cover. By virtue of our geographic location in the belly of the beast, we have a special responsibility to resist all attempts by the US and other imperialist actors to sabotage, divert, co-opt, or otherwise limit the will of popular struggles across the Global South. It also requires that we stand in solidarity with those Global South states that are punished for the threat they pose to status quo functioning of global capitalism because of their geopolitical alliances and support for anti-colonial and anti-imperial resistance. Finally, we must be wary of forms of critique that may have the perhaps unintended consequence of turning people away from anti-imperialist organizing at a time when they are needed the most by claiming that those who focus their analysis and organizing on the role of US power, ignore or undermine Global South agency when in fact the principal aim of anti-Imperialism is precisely to support the building of a context in which meaningful Global South self-determination can be realized. At a time when so much is at stake, we must be as careful as possible to ensure our analyses do not reproduce and reinforce imperialist discourses and power relations.

It is the working class, poor, racialized and criminalized communities both in the Global North and South who suffer the most and who are also at the forefront of resistance.

As we confront these interlocking health-economic-ecological crises, we must remember that it is the working class, poor, racialized and criminalized communities both in the Global North and South who suffer the most and who are also at the forefront of resistance. True liberation and survival—depends upon centering the needs, struggles and collective leadership of the most vulnerable among us. To do so requires that we continue building on the analysis and praxis of those Internationalists who have come before us. They have shown us that the best antidote to the politics of confusion is a politics that connect the dots between the political-economic systems of human and ecological domination that continue to exploit, dispossess, and kill us.

After a commenter’s feedback, some corrections have been made on the history of Grenada’s revolution.

The authors would like to thank the editors of Uneven Earth, including Natalie Suzelis and Vijay Kolinjivadi, for their extensive and insightful edits and suggestions, as well as Max Ajl and Setareh Ghandehari for their close readings of the article and feedback. They would also like to thank Zainab Khan, Ramin Zareian, and Chris Tidwell for their research help with the sanctions section of this article.

Corinna Mullin is an adjunct professor at the New School and John Jay College (CUNY) and researches on Imperialism, capitalism and the politics/political economy of Global South security states; she tweets @MullinCorinna.

Azadeh Shahshahani is Legal & Advocacy Director at Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild; she tweets @ashahshahani.