It is fair to say that most environmental books and political attention are centered on the climate crisis. And for good reason: for the vast majority of the world, a planet burning past 1.5℃ is existential. But for every article or text written about simply reducing CO2, audiences and the public are left thinking that if we just switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy it is enough to avert catastrophe. As the authors Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettesse of the new book Half-Earth Socialism argue, we have much more work to do than simply reducing carbon pollution.
Instead, the authors claim we need a holistic ecological program that puts the economy back into balance with the living world by respecting limits, nonhuman nature, and thinking at a planetary scale. Half-Earth Socialism seeks to do just that through a political program consisting of a variety of policies in the realm of worldwide conservation, vegan diets, and sufficient provisioning to the world’s population.
Where the book thrives in its utopian imagination, its originality in synthesizing disparate thinkers and traditions, and its criticisms of “prometheanism”, it also lacks a strong analysis of democracy, a more thorough argument against some its targets, and at times, can be found to concede to anticipated criticism regarding its more provocative ideas, especially as it concerns veganism.
An original synthesis
As a general summary of the book, the authors begin by describing a dystopian scenario where a solar radiation management (SMR) scheme fails, leading to species loss, acid rain, and reversing the environmental wins from the previous century. Following the introduction, the authors critique the promethean worldview that seeks to dominate nature, essentially making the nonhuman world a machine of inputs and outputs.
The authors then draw from biologist E.O. Wilson’s idea of conserving half the earth for wildlife and nonhuman nature as a counter to this promethean program. This means protecting large areas of the earth for wildlife to thrive, where Wilson identified thirty biomes across the globe that could largely contribute to this conservation effort. To achieve this rewilding, the authors suggest universal veganism is required due to the vast amount of land animal agriculture uses.
Unlike Wilson, who the authors describe as center-left, Half-Earth Socialism compliments worldwide conservation with socialist central planning. Here they engage with the work of theorists like Otto Neurath and the Soviet mathematician Leonid Kantorovich to explain how utopian socialist planning would work in a Half-Earth economy. The author’s vision for central planning is inspired by the socialist and designer William Morris who was interested in how socialism could offer fulfilling work by integrating labor with arts, nature, and leisure. They end the book describing a future of organic veggie farms, communal living, and life under a centrally planned economy. Half-Earth Socialism’s originality in synthesizing such disparate thinkers is laudable in and of itself.
Dominating the non-human
There are many things worth praising in the book. First, their critique of prometheans and ecomoderns who seek to subdue and dominate the natural world is arguably their strongest chapter. In “Binding Prometheus”, the authors take issue with this bipartisan worldview of convserative billionaires, centrist political parties, and sects of Marxism. Vettese and Pendergrass largely blame Hegel’s concept of “humanizing nature” for this ideology. Showing how Hegel’s concept was influenced by Christian theology, the authors describe this “humanizing” as “the process by which humanity overcomes its alienation from nature by instilling the latter with human consciousness through the process of labor.”
In other words, our relationship with nature is only good for what humans can put it to use for: nature becomes nothing more than an instrument, ignoring all the ways not putting nature “to use” is vital for our own species survival. Since the nonhuman world must be instilled with human consciousness (rather than species having their own), this is used as a justification to plunder and even exterminate the nonhuman world.
In this way, the authors tell us, the neoliberals and many Marxists aren’t so different in their attitude towards nonhuman nature. Each agrees nature is to be controlled, dominated, and capitalized: one just believes markets are the best mechanism, the other believes it is nation states. Both free marketers and state socialists fail to account for the agency of nonhuman nature, and they lack critical reflection on the ways this worldview has culminated in our present environmental crises and ultimately promote a secularized religiosity that believes humanity can take a god’s eye-view of nature. “Marxism”, the authors write, “cannot simply be greened by reading Capital with viridian-tinted glasses.” If religion is the opiate of the masses, as Marx said, then prometheanism is the opiate of Marxists.
Utopianism is good, actually
Another strong point of the text is its unabashed embrace of utopian socialism. Utopian socialism — used as a pejorative by Marxists (who are themselves called utopians by anyone not on the radical left) — has been defined as an early form of socialist thought that seeks to build socialism in the name of it being more desirable than capitalism, rather than as an inevitability, as Marx predicted.
Utopian socialists typically start from a place of what they would like the world to be and experiment in bringing about this better, more ideal society. It is no coincidence then that the authors end their book with a utopian future set in Massachusetts, itself a place of previous utopian socialist experiments.
The authors argue at length about utopian socialism being more than just idealistic dreamers wishing on a star for a better society. Instead, they advocate for a “scientific utopianism” as “blueprints for the future” that they believe can remedy many problems for both environmentalists and economic planners. For environmentalists, the utopian tradition allows the movement to project forward what kind of world we want to build in the ashes of capitalist ruins with a critically anticapitalist edge. Here, the authors tell us, is where we need to contemplate our blueprints for the future that help inspire and mobilize people.
For planners, and the socialist tradition more generally, the authors point out that centrally planned economies like the Soviet Union suffered from an immense lack of imagination and participation outside of the party line, resulting in the lifeless and bureaucratic state that it ultimately became. Utopian socialism in this way allows us to imagine and fight for a world not yet built with the flexibility and experimentation the utopian socialist tradition advocated for.
Given utopian socialism has been condemned by most Marxists, Vettesse and Pendergrass’ attempt to revive a tradition during troubling times is certainly welcomed. Marxism might have many answers, but the socialist tradition has too many layers to simply be narrowed to just what Marx, Engels, and their followers said over a hundred years ago. As a final note, the utopian socialist tradition, like many anarchists and libertarian socialists, has long championed an ecological sensibility and often much more than most Marxists. We can and should explore other options and schools of thought in times of ecological collapse.
A blueprint for utopia
Finally, the author’s exploration of socialist central planning history is fascinating, as well. Here, their planning philosophy is largely influenced by Soviet mathematician Leonid Kantorovich and linear programming (which itself was developed by the utopian theorist Charles Fourier). As the authors explain, the social engineers of “Gosplant” — a play on words the authors develop based off of the original Soviet state planning commission “Gosplan” — would receive information about the local conditions of the social and natural world in order to devise models about what kind of future could be planned. These planners might ask themselves what societal outcomes could be maximized while limiting ecological damage, such as the amount of land that can be used while delivering the necessary energy requirements for individuals and industry. This chapter is the author’s technical “blueprint” for utopia. To complement what can often be abstract and technical planning language, the authors help manifest what planning in practice is like through their own computer game. And beyond its originality, it is also fun! Half.earth helps the reader experience — from the position of the planner’s seat — what kind of impact certain policies, technologies, and forms of organization have on the climate, biodiversity, and social prosperity. It serves as an especially nice complement to the third chapter in order to help readers better understand programming, planning, and decision making.
Central planning or participatory planning?
Half-Earth Socialism makes many good arguments and interventions to expand the horizons of ecosocialism. With that said, it also suffers, at different points, from a lack of follow-through on some of their more ambitious plans. While the authors repeatedly emphasize the importance of democratic values, they fail to explore, on both a practical and conceptual level, what democracy would be in a centrally planned economy. Because the authors rely so heavily on Soviet thinkers, this oversight is hardly acceptable. Soviet society suffered from an extensive amount of technocracy, bureaucracy, and ultimately, autocracy due to a lack of democratic decision making. It would be wise of Vettese and Pendergrass to look at other utopian thinkers and their emphasis, not on central planning, but participatory planning. One of those utopians is Murray Bookchin.
Bookchin might be the thinker most responsible for making utopia an endearing term during the late 20th century and into today. But Bookchin’s utopian social ecology was predicated on a system of deep and direct democracy. Bookchin looked at Ancient Greece, despite its commitment to patriarchy and slavery, as an example of what democratic structures looked like. The ekklesia, or citizen assembly, was a major institution within Greek society where everyday men would directly contribute and decide the direction of the polis. Greek culture was also imbued with a democratic ethos in the sense that there were dedicated gathering places — the agora — for instilling democratic values in Athenian citizens.
Likewise, a contemporary example of this form of direct democracy comes in the New England Town Meeting. The Town Meeting is still practiced by a number of New England municipalities where at least once a year, town members come to debate and vote on things such as changes to the town charter, the municipal budget, and are able to offer up policies and proposals to be taken up by the town.
Such examples provide a counterweight to the lack of democracy prevalent in centrally planned economies. Contemporary citizens’ assemblies and participatory budgeting are other examples of direct and deep democratic systems being flirted with today and all over the world. Despite Marxists and democratic socialists saying they are committed to democracy, often their horizons end at representative government and unions. Here Bookchin’s distinction between administration—the technical and coordinating work planners would do, and policy-making, where people make decisions through democratic structures like popular assemblies or councils for the planners to enact—is helpful. With this in mind, it can feel like Vettese and Pendergrass view planning as an end in and of itself, rather than a deliberative outcome of democratic politics. Like too many Marxists, their political imaginations are stifled by ruminations about a benevolent Soviet State commanding and controlling from on high.
The issues with universal veganism
Readers might be turned off by some of the more upending policies Pendergrass and Vettesse propose like universal veganism. One of the book’s strongest arguments for veganism is the large-scale “humanization” of animals for food. The authors point out that, in the context of the 300,000 years humans have existed, zoonoses have only emerged within the last 10,000 years or so — the time period in which humans domesticated animals. With the Covid-19 pandemic originating in a meat market and, by at least one study’s account, at least 60% of infectious and 75% of “emerging” diseases originating from animals, there is more and more evidence pointing out that the “humanization of nature” is actually quite deadly.
While it’s increasingly clear that meat-heavy diets are not only morally problematic but also irrational, the prospects for universal veganism are slim, even in a world with improved plant-based “meats.” This presents a real political problem the authors don’t really address. Yes, we need to reduce meat consumption, but in order to build a coalition powerful enough to reduce current consumption rates, many will be turned off if the “planners’” demands are universal veganism. I respect and appreciate the principles of vegans, but this must be balanced with a proper political analysis that examines a more astute point regarding the unsustainability of Western diets: industrial farming and capitalism.
In this vein, the authors confusingly propose universal veganism but ask animal rights activists to temper their criticisms of Indigenous hunting practices, given that many Indigenous tribes have more sustainable and reciprocal relationships with the animals they eat. This seems to be a concession that there are at least some forms of sustainable animal consumption and that, on both a practical and political level, Indigenous people are vital to preserving the nonhuman world. Furthermore, Indigenous people are often viewed as relevant to protecting nature rather than as direct political participants in how decisions are made about nature—further relegating them to the colonial divide that subjects them to an “outside nature.” While the authors acknowledge that Indigenous people have a deeper relationship with the nonhuman world than western conservationists, a program in the name of “Half-Earth Socialism” is still in reference to one of the West’s most famous conservationists who has influenced the United Nations and other international conservation programs (like the 30×30 program), often at the expense of Indigenous perspectives, sovereignty, and stewardship.
With the lack of attention on democracy in the book and emphasis on top-down central planning, it is more than reasonable to expect already vulnerable Indigenous people to be victims of such a Half-Earth plan. Just because your Half-Earth is socialist, does not necessarily make it equitable, just, anti-racist or democratic given, by the authors’ own admissions, many centrally planned socialist societies were deeply undemocratic. It would be wise of the authors to tackle both the Indigenous and democracy problem together. The authors are correct that we need to vastly expand conservation efforts. It might just not be in the name of “Half Earth” or Western conceptions of centrally planned socialist economies.
Another issue is the author’s swift explanation for why nuclear energy does not belong within the environmental movement. While I share the author’s criticisms of nuclear energy being an unstable technology given an increasingly unstable climate, the author’s argument hinges on the practicality of not isolating environmentalists who previously formed the anti-nuclear movement. Here, they reveal themselves to be political strategists while the rest of the book is provocative and visionary.
With that said, I do not think ecologists should spend time or resources trying to shut down currently operating nuclear plants. For anyone familiar with the energy debate, you quickly learn how much nuclear advocates suffer from a sort of dogmatism and zealotry when it comes to nuclear power — believing it can power the majority of the world’s electricity needs despite few studies or institutions saying so. This archetype has been referred to as “Nuke-bros” due to their arrogance and chauvinism, oftening exhibiting authoritarian character traits as well (which shouldn’t be a surprise, as nuclear energy requires an authoritarian military). Nevertheless, decarbonization will largely fall on the shoulders of renewable energy, with or without an anti-nuclear movement, in my opinion. But because they move so quickly through their critiques of nuclear power, this, among other points (like the land sparing of nuclear power), is hardly addressed in any detail.
Following the example in arguably their strongest chapter, prometheanism should be critiqued and destroyed from leftist thought all together. And with that philosophy in retreat, we might expect a retreat of nuclear energy, geoengineering, and the senseless killing of animals as well.
Half-Earth Socialism sees the ecological landscape and makes its own unique intervention. Their critique and commitment to a Half-Earth economy is admirable and provocative, even if at times unclear and lacking details on how to form the political coalition powerful enough to bring about their vision.
Unlike many on the Left, Pendergrass and Vettese do not suffer from either carbon or Marxist-tunnel vision, offering their own synthesis and analysis of ideas and thinkers across ecological and leftist thought. Half-Earth Socialism is thinking at a planetary scale. Now we need to think about bringing these ideas to everyday people. To borrow and reword a phrase from the French students of the 1960’s: “Do the impossible! Plan utopia!”
Andrew Ahern is an ecological activist and freelance writer based in Massachusetts. You can follow him on Twitter @PoliticOfNature. Full disclosure: Andrew is a member of Boston DSA alongside author Drew Pendergrass.
In his recent book, Climate Change as Class War, Matthew Huber argues that the ecological crisis is primarily caused by the capitalist mode of production, especially the preponderant deployment of fossil capital, ‘the forms of capital that generate profit through emissions’. For many on the anti-capitalist left, this is a conclusion that hardly bears repeating. Nevertheless, Huber is right to centre the claim. Ecological collapse is accelerating and requires immediate action. While the global average of emissions must reach zero by 2050 to stay within 1.5–2 °C heating, in order to do this at pace, the parts of the world most responsible for emissions must reach net zero by 2030. But not only are we failing to make progress toward these goals, emissions continue to rise with no end in sight. Huber puts it bluntly: ‘We’re still losing.’
We’re still losing to capitalism—but why? Because, in the first instance, Huber emphasizes, we are not really fighting it. Capitalism is uniquely defined by its class structure: capitalists, the business owners and corporate boards of directors who organize production; and workers, those they hire to carry it out. While the capitalist class comprises a relatively tiny number of people, it dominates the working class in terms of property owned and legal authority over its use. In order to make a living, workers have no option but to sell their time to capitalists in the labor market. However, due to its relatively immense size and leverage at the point of production—through strikes and other forms of collective action—the working class has the potential to exercise its own form of power. This is where climate struggle must be located, Huber tells us: the sites of mass emissions. Capitalism can be fundamentally challenged by nothing other than class struggle, so only class struggle can fundamentally address the ecological crisis. In this historical moment, climate change is class war.
In addition to its strategic position in the production process, the working class has the most to gain from class struggle. Huber suggests that the point of building class power is to alleviate ‘the lack of control over the basics of life [that] defines working-class life’. In fact, this is how the struggle against the capitalist class ought to be framed. In a capitalist economy, even the means of subsistence—basic goods such as food, energy, and housing—are available only in markets that operate on the principle of profit. This makes access to them unreliable for the majority of workers, who live from paycheck to paycheck. From the perspective of the working class, resolution of the ecological crisis ought to be seen as ancillary to universal access to these means of subsistence—through a public guarantee of basic goods outside the marketplace. Huber then highlights the possibility of organizing around this goal in the electricity sector as the fastest route to mitigating the ecological crisis: ‘As the climate crisis intensifies and the technical case for electrifying everything becomes clearer, a “socialism in one sector” approach could be the core of a public sector–led decarbonization program.’ That is, electrifying everything would simultaneously begin to reverse ecological collapse and lead the way towards further public provisioning of basic goods.
However, in Huber’s estimation, climate ‘struggle’ is predominantly oriented around consumption rather than production: instead of building power at the point of production, climate struggle has focused on building knowledge about our individual carbon footprints. Unfortunately, Huber claims, ‘knowledge is not power’. Although he begins here with a critique of naive science communicators and technocratic policy experts, whose approaches assume that not enough of us are convinced of the reality of ecological crisis or that we are not properly taxed for emissive consumption choices, the primary targets of Huber’s antagonism are ‘anti-system radicals’, that is, proponents of the degrowth movement. For Huber, they are more egregious than the others because they attempt to critique capitalism yet alienate those actually capable of challenging it, the working class. Growth is not the problem with capitalism; capitalists are. Whereas the working class has a material interest in ‘more’, Huber maintains, degrowth is a politics of ‘less’ and therefore ultimately undermines itself.
Huber has already been criticized for his failure substantively to engage with degrowth, thereby missing any compatibility with his own position. The degrowth movement calls for an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that will reduce societies’ throughput of energy and raw materials. It does not implore us to take individualized responsibility for overconsumption. Furthermore, an equitable distribution of that downscaling would result in those with the least now having even more after. I would like to deepen the present critique by showing how Huber’s failure to engage with degrowth results in a failure to recognize tensions intrinsic to his own position. First, there is no empirical evidence that the plan to electrify ‘everything’ would sufficiently mitigate the ecological crisis. On the contrary, the material and energy requirements of such a project on the existing (and growing) scale of infrastructure would likely exacerbate the crisis. Second, Huber’s disregard for the problem inherent to growth rests on misunderstanding the capitalist mode of production as capitalists’ power to organize production. While this is certainly part of it, the ‘mode of production’ is more completely understood as the way life itself is organized within capitalism, which requires perpetual growth. Finally, without grasping the relationship between capitalism and growth, motivating class struggle solely on the grounds of material security will not necessarily lead to a greener future. The very meaning of ‘material interests’ is influenced by capitalism, so class struggle must coincide with efforts to interpret and advance our own desires beyond what life within capitalism conditions us to take for granted. For this reason, I underscore the significance of socialist political education for degrowth. A future beyond growth is one we can learn to freely associate with only through democratic pedagogy.
Evidence in favor of degrowth
An implicit point of contact between Huber and degrowth occurs early in the book where he centres capitalist production:
[LafargeHolcim, the largest cement company in the world] boasts of a new strategy called ‘Building for Growth,’ which ‘aims to drive profitable growth and simplify the business to deliver resilient returns and attractive value to stakeholders.’ The company does not seem to see a contradiction between this growth orientation and its stated goal of sustainability, which includes a ‘mission to cut its net CO2 emissions per tonne of cement.’ Of course, if you cut the ‘emissions per tonne’ but keep growing the tonnage you make, you still produce more emissions. [emphasis mine]
In the empirical literature surrounding degrowth, this fact is known as ‘relative decoupling’—when the amount of emissions per energy use decreases. But, as Huber observes, relative decoupling is not enough. If the amount of emissions per energy use decreases, but energy use does not decrease, then emissions still increase, albeit more slowly. Further, due to improved resource efficiency, relative decoupling often results in a price reduction of the produced goods. This creates the ‘rebound effect’, a rise in demand and energy use to the point where emissions increase even more quickly than before. What would be necessary is absolute decoupling, a decrease in overall emissions irrespective of energy use. Huber later says that ‘if we actually decarbonize energy, the need for aggregate reductions in energy consumption is less obvious’ [emphasis his]. This is the extent of his argument, but the consideration has already been made within the discourse on decoupling: there is evidence against the possibility that absolute decoupling from emissions can be achieved at the scale of the global economy quickly enough to mitigate the ecological crisis. There is also no evidence that absolute decoupling can be achieved with respect to ecological variables other than emissions if economic growth is sustained.
In this regard, Huber’s text lacks a broad ecological awareness. Rather than focus exclusively on CO2 emissions and climate change, degrowth is about several facets of ecology, such as the full range of planetary boundaries, various limits to things—from freshwater use to biodiversity loss—beyond which rapid or irreversible changes to the global ecosystem become more likely to occur. Huber continues:
Our energy system is currently bifurcated between those things that run on electricity … and those that run on other forms of energy …. Theoretically, many of these non-electric energy applications can be electrified, moving them for example, from gasoline to battery-powered automobiles, from natural-gas furnaces to electric heat pumps, and from combustion-based industrial heat to electric heat to replace such processes as steam reforming for hydrogen with electrolysis. [emphasis mine]
Setting aside just how theoretical this transition is (electricity itself is currently primarily generated through fossil fuels, so the transition to renewables will have to deal with the rate of decoupling of emissions and energy use), there is the question of how materially intensive such a process would be. Calculating from World Bank estimates, the global economy at its current rate of growth would need to increase lithium extraction by at least 2700% between now and 2050 in order to produce the batteries necessary to store energy at the grid level (not to mention the other rare metals required for renewable-energy infrastructure: copper, cobalt, silver, and so on). But even at existing levels of extraction, lithium mining devastates local communities and environments. Worse yet, most of this mining occurs in the Global South, exacerbating inequality between it and the North.
Yet Huber also takes issue with the North–South critique that ‘frames inequality as between the rich countries in the Global North and the poor countries in the Global South’. According to Huber, concepts such as ‘North’ and ‘South’ fail to articulate the inner dynamic of these political geographies, in particular their class dynamic: in both the North and South, the exploited masses are the working classes. Far from ignoring this, however, the critique conceives the North–South dynamic as the capitalist class dynamic recreated at a global scale. Northern countries use four times or more material per capita than planetary boundaries allow. In comparison, a majority of countries (mostly Southern) use less material per capita than could be safely allocated. This is the result of imperial, neo-colonial relations between the North and South, such as the structural adjustment programs implemented by the IMF since the latter half of the 20th century. Among other things, these relations have regimented access to valuable resources for the North, and the fact remains regardless of whether the ‘transnational capitalist class’ is to blame. In order to liberate the working classes within Southern countries, the dissolution of imperial relations between the North and South is prerequisite. Without the possibility of absolutely decoupling energy and material throughput from planetary boundary variables such as land-system change, aggregate consumption in the North will have to be significantly reduced—both to accommodate renewed exchange with the South and as a measure against ecological collapse.
This is just a glimpse of the research that undermines the idea that electrifying everything (or any other so-called ‘green growth’ approach) would successfully mitigate the ecological crisis, much less in an internationally egalitarian way. The evidence cannot be overstated, but I leave it here because I want to address the core of Huber’s critique of degrowth: the notion that a ‘politics of less’ will not win over the working-class who are struggling to make ends meet.
Capitalism and the mode of production
At the height of his critique of degrowth, Huber urges us to consider the literal meaning of the term: ‘the prefix “de” indicates less, or as an online dictionary defines the prefix: “used to indicate privation, removal, and separation.”’ It is therefore surprising that he fails to reflect on how versatile the meaning of ‘less’ is. When ‘degrowth’ means less of a bad thing, degrowth is a good thing. Huber practically acknowledges this when he states that ‘a class politics would articulate a confrontational approach where the capitalist class must degrow so that the working class can see growth in material security and basic human freedom’ [emphasis mine]. This is consistent with the entire framework of degrowth, which is oriented to the fact that the economy has outgrown, and is destroying, the Earth. The problem with economic growth in the abstract is that it is ‘infinite’—continuous, for its own sake, and ignorant of its material or ecological basis. When the economy ‘grows’, there is more production and thus more ‘value’ in circulation. But, for example, this can be the result of ‘planned obsolescence’, a general design strategy that ensures frequent consumption by artificially limiting the lifespan of products. The most infamous example concerns light bulbs designed to last 1000 hours, despite existing knowledge and capacity to produce bulbs that could last twice as long, but this practice manifests in various ways. It can be found in the production of technologies—from furniture and clothing to smartphones and home appliances—that are easier to trash and replace than to repair or upgrade. It is also evinced in a culture of advertising that facilitates desire for the ‘new’ even when it is only superficially different from the ‘old’. In all of these cases, the fact that we spend (or waste) more time and resources producing things overall is irrelevant to the resultant economic growth.
From this angle, Huber appears to side with the degrowth movement: ‘As we have seen since the 2008 financial crisis, we can have quite steady growth alongside wage stagnation and declining labor force participation. The mass of the working class is not really benefiting from growth.’ So what’s wrong with degrowth?
Capitalism does not require aggregate societal growth, but growth for capital (M-C-M’). It is private capital that controls investment, the profitability of which will determine whether capital grows …. It is true that economists have created all manner of statistical tools to track something called ‘growth,’ but this does not mean we live in a society where the owners of the means of production collectively devise strategies to grow the economy. … Thus, growth ideology creates the myth of a unified aggregate societal ‘system’ of capitalist growth.
Huber argues that degrowth misses the mark: by going after fictional aggregate societal growth, the degrowth movement ‘lets off the hook’ the capitalist class who controls and profits from growth for capital. It is true that the degrowth movement has historically comprised a wide variety of views, some of which have failed to centre the critique of capitalism—by one-sidedly critiquing consumerist culture or insufficiently appreciating the power dynamics of class, for example. As Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan recognize in their recent compendium, The Future is Degrowth, the movement must be ‘explicitly critical of capitalism’ and take on ‘systems of domination such as patriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, racism, and capitalism as the central, structural problems facing us today’ [emphasis mine]. While the degrowth movement is becoming more actively aligned with socialism of late, it has always been implicitly critical of capitalism through its critique of aggregate societal growth. Contrary to Huber’s statement above, capitalism does require such growth, and to see why requires investigation of the capitalist mode of production.
Several times throughout the book, Huber cites the formula M-C-M’, which abbreviates the ‘circuit of capital’, a representation of the capitalist mode of production. Some amount of money M (including what is distributed as wages) is invested in the production of commodity C, which upon consumption returns as a greater amount of money M’ (the difference being profit). If there were no consumption of C, there would be no return of M’. Now, the growth of any specific firm does not require aggregate societal growth. Huber is correct as far as this goes. One company may simply absorb the business of its competitors while the size of the economy remains the same. However, capitalist economy rests on a basis of growth for capital in general and therefore does require aggregate societal growth (when inferring from what applies to individual parts that it also applies to the whole, Huber’s reasoning falls into the ‘fallacy of composition’). Overall, capital cannot grow unless consumption keeps up with production to complete the circuit. If the aggregate value within society were not growing, then it could not be continually appropriated as growth for capital. If the capitalist mode of production conditionally requires growth for capital, it consequently requires aggregate societal growth.
There is no need for the process of aggregate growth to be collectively controlled by the capitalist class. It follows ‘on its own’ from the mechanisms of capitalist economy, for example, the system of compound interest on loans, which requires exponential growth for its debts to be reliably paid. Additionally, capitalism is structured against an equitable distribution of value. As Thomas Piketty statistically shows in Capital in the 21st Century, the rate of return on investment (growth for capital) is systematically greater than aggregate growth; that is, capitalists’ share of wealth tends to crowd out the workers’ share. Despite this, the promise of growth equalizes the tension between classes. Because workers’ livelihoods intimately depend on their incomes from capitalists, this promise is received simultaneously as an opportunity and as a threat. On the one hand, growth promises to improve workers’ lives with cheap, commercial goods or high wages (although, either of these are bought at the expense of intensified labor exploitation and material extraction in ‘periphery’ markets, such as those in the Global South). On the other hand, growth promises to destabilize workers’ lives when the circuit of capital is disrupted. The classical Marxian analysis of capitalism demonstrates the economy’s periodic tendency for consumption to be unable to keep up with production and therefore for the economy to collapse into recession, but the threat can also be wielded more locally and intentionally to quell working-class resistance and manufacture consent to the expansion of capital.
Because material well-being structurally hinges on the promise of growth, it is in many workers’ immediate interest to maintain the capitalist mode of production—especially, but not exclusively, those in the Global North. For this reason, the capitalist mode of production cannot be reduced to the power capitalists have to organize production. Whereas private ownership of the means of production is an historic premise and material condition of capitalism (making it necessary to overcome on the road to socialism), the essence of the capitalist mode of production is the capitalist form of value. In spite of his reference to M-C-M’, Huber’s exclusive focus on capitalists’ direction over the literal production of commodities ultimately fails to interrogate the circuit through which their value as capital is realized. This analysis of the mode of production is one-sided and elides the problematic of growth.
To take this investigation further, we need to ask what, in general, is meant by ‘mode of production’. In The German Ideology, Karl Marx equates a society’s mode of production [Produktionweise] with its way of life [Lebensweise]: ‘As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and how they produce.’ While this definition reinforces the idea that isolated critiques of consumption are wrong-headed, it is because such critiques are one-sided. If the way of life is the mode of production, then there is never a society in which consumption can be considered in isolation from production. Conversely, as we have seen, a critique of the mode of production isolated from consumption is one-sided as well. Neither side can be made sense of without the other.
A concrete example of this is located in the way that electricity is currently produced and consumed. As remarked upon in the first section, electricity is primarily generated through fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are considered high-energy ‘stocks’, meaning that they store large amounts of energy that can be released on demand, which allows electricity production to be continuous and intense. We are not a passive recipient of this fact: we actively construct the world around continuous, intense electricity production. It becomes normalized, feeding into the further development of an energy grid designed around high-energy stocks. This is why we would have to massively expand lithium mining for batteries if we were to convert the current energy grid to renewables. The ‘flow’ of energy—the rate at which energy can be produced—from wind turbines, solar panels, and so on is insufficient to power the grid. Renewable sources of energy are also intermittent: the wind does not always blow, and the sun does not always shine. Batteries would be necessary to convert these low-energy, intermittent flows into high-energy stocks. However, this uncritically assumes that we require continuous and intense energy production. Marx describes in the Grundrisse how production and consumption ‘create’ each other by ‘completing’ each other. Intermittency may be a problem for our current way of life, but that way of life is itself the source of the problem. Then, in Capital, Marx refers to the mode of ‘social reproduction’ to articulate how the immanent relationship between production and consumption perpetuates, or reproduces, the way of life. A critique of fossil capital that does not encompass the mode of consumption, including how we have used fossil fuels to design a world that is ‘always on’, is not a critique of the mode of production either.
This imbrication of production and social reproduction implies that economies are characterized by the production of not only things but forms of subjectivity as well. In Between Capitalism and Community, a study of the obstacles to transitioning out of capitalism, Michael Lebowitz provocatively calls the subjectivity of capitalism its ‘second product’, and he warns, ‘never forget the second product’. A well-known example of the second product is the subjectivity of the worker, who within the capitalist division of labor is another cost of production. Workers are therefore continually cheapened, guided by the production process rather than exercising agency over it, which ‘rationally’ results in disinterest and low thresholds of capacity. The subjectivity of the consumer is also affected. In the marketplace, consumers do not simply purchase goods but exchange ‘bourgeois right’ to them—the abstract right to what is yours and no one else’s (what we casually refer to as ‘private property’). This is conditioned by the competition that structures not only capitalists’ relations to profit but everyone’s relation to physical survival itself. Because markets exclusively supply access to everything, including the means of subsistence, capitalism naturalizes the ideal of bourgeois right to whatever it is one may want or need, regardless of why one may need or want it. Again, this is the ‘rational’ result.
Marx makes a note of this in Critique of the Gotha Programme: ‘What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.’ Although Marx references ‘morals’ in this passage, he does not mean to moralize—to patronize individual conscience. Rather, he acknowledges that the subjectivities of capitalism do not automatically dissolve within new material conditions but must be transformed by the possibilities they engender. Paulo Freire expands on a related point in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, saying that
almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or ‘sub-oppressors’. The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped. … At this level, their perception of themselves as opposites of the oppressor does not yet signify engagement in a struggle to overcome the contradiction; the one pole aspires not to liberation, but to identification with its opposite pole.
In the struggle of the working class to be liberated from the marketplace, there is no guarantee that it will desire a progressively different way of life than capitalism has offered. For example, without a critique of the ‘American Dream’ built into such liberation, residential developments structured around low-density housing, transportation networks structured around individual automobiles, and production structured around private wealth in general may expand under the proliferation of bourgeois right. Such a proliferation gave birth to the ‘middle class’ in the United States and Europe after World War II, but further expansion of the middle class remains the goal even of popular social-democratic leaders worldwide, such as Bernie Sanders. Once again, this is not a moralistic failure but speaks to the need for an explicit critique of the mode of social reproduction—a need that has been emphasized primarily by feminist and anti-colonialist critics of capitalism (whose voices are absent from Huber’s text). Without such a critique, ‘liberation’ may not in fact be revolutionary: even if it did not intensify imperial relations with the Global South, it would continue to drive ecological collapse, regardless of the success of decarbonization.
Even if this is not the future that Huber envisions, there is nothing in particular about his strategy that resists it. He admits in his conclusion that ‘shifting to public ownership [of utilities] does not guarantee decarbonization. … All public power does is to grant us a democratic opening for creating a comprehensive public sector–led transformation of the electricity sector.’ For the same reason, it does not guarantee subordination of capitalist growth to post-capitalist society. Of course, whereas there is never the guarantee that the future we are striving after will come to be, it would behoove us to understand better how to arrange for its possibility.
Class struggle, degrowth, and political education
I am faithfully sympathetic to Huber’s ecological concern and opposition to capitalism, but I have argued that his position is disoriented. On the one hand, the idea to electrify everything will not mitigate the ecological crisis. On the other hand, the idea appears appropriate because the logic of Huber’s argument does not sufficiently grasp the mode of production, which is not totally determined by material conditions but is caught up in the mode of social reproduction. A class struggle that reflexively accepts the current mode of social reproduction is therefore by itself incapable of leading us into a greener, more equitable future. Of this final fact, though, Huber is relatively aware—to continue the previous quote: ‘All public power does is to grant us a democratic opening for creating a comprehensive public sector–led transformation of the electricity sector in line with what climate science says is necessary. Actual movements need to do the rest’ [emphasis mine]. Ironically, this is where degrowth comes in: climate science says that infinite economic growth is unsustainable.
Furthermore, when it explicates an eco-socialist future, the degrowth movement stands to ‘write history backwards from the future’ and answer the question with which Lebowitz concludes Between Capitalism and Community: ‘What must we do in the present for the future to become what it must?’
Historical paths are inherently unstable; given the sensitivity of outcomes to the interaction of parts and wholes, any slight deviation in the starting point (for example, the disintegration of feudalism) might lead to someplace other than capitalism. The point is critical. If you write history forward, how can you understand the next system? If capitalism disintegrates, what system emerges in its place? … If we write history forward, it is assumed that the contradictions of capitalism … are sufficient to yield the movement to community. But are they?
Lebowitz shares Marx’s concern in Critique of the Gotha Programme about the different ways in which the new society might emerge from the old. As I adumbrated, it would be possible for a fledgling socialist society to unintentionally build upon the ‘metabolic rift’—the contradiction between capital and nature—in the transition from capitalism, even after it formally abolished the capitalist class. The way to intentionally prevent this possibility is to target the subjectivity of capitalism.
I agree with Huber that the material interests of the working class are objective. Stefania Barca affirms this in ‘The Labor(s) of Degrowth’: ‘Logically speaking, working-class people … have a vested interest in the subversion of [capitalism].’ To be working-class is to be systemically exploited and therefore to have an interest in subverting capitalism. However, Barca does not take this interest to be immediate: it is possible even as a worker for one to be subjectively—that is, from one’s own point of view—interested in the maintenance of capitalism. As seen in the previous section, this interest is self-perpetuating: it is socially reproduced through the promise (both opportunity and threat) of growth. Even though it is objective, an interest in subversion must still be subjectively grasped through understanding oneself as systemically exploited. Beyond that, there is the question of what exactly the working-class interest in subversion entails. Does it simply entail liberation from the capitalist class, through a livelihood independent from income, or more generally the freedom to determine new ways of life? This question directly bears on who ultimately is working-class. Barca suggests that ‘a good starting point is enlarging the concept of class relations beyond the wage labor relation and toward a broader conception of work as a mediator of social metabolism’. In that case, the working class would comprise anyone without the freedom to direct social reproduction, from traditional ‘industrial’ workers to homemakers and ‘meta-industrial’ workers outside the labor market. Whatever the extent of the working class may be, its members must recognize each other as such in order to take collective action against capitalism. Along these lines, class struggle would be best conceived as the project of the working class not only to be liberated from the domination of the capitalist class, but to recognize itself as free to determine its material interests for itself.
In light of this, those of us who believe in the necessity of degrowth would do well to incorporate it into the larger body of socialist political education (Huber himself discusses the significance of political education but mainly in the context of union campaigns). Lebowitz, channeling Freire, designates political education as the primary function of the ‘revolutionary political instrument’. Following the discussion above, this requires that it break with the ‘banking concept’ of education according to which teacher–leaders ‘deposit’ knowledge into the minds of student–followers. Such pedagogy presupposes a passivity on the part of students and is therefore antithetical to ‘protagonizing’ them—activating their understanding of their fundamental role in transforming the world. Instead, revolutionary pedagogy would provide a ‘problem-posing’ education that generates knowledge through dialogue. Similarly, Marta Harnecker argues in ‘Ideas for the Struggle’that ‘true popular pedagogues [are] capable of stimulating the knowledge that exists within the people … through the fusion of this knowledge with the most all-encompassing knowledge that the political organization can offer’. Barca connects this to degrowth when she states that
the degrowth movement must build a constructive dialogue with the alienated and exploited workers of the world. Here, in the messy reality of everyday re/productive work, complex contradictions arise that need to be addressed in fundamentally new ways. Different forms of metabolism clash with each other and produce environmental conflicts, which enter into communities’ and people’s lives, questioning identities, crushing certain life-forms, and turning them into cogs of the dominant social metabolism.
Another way the degrowth movement provides this education is through ‘the commons’, spaces that either implicitly resist or explicitly deny the logic of bourgeois right. In England before the rise of capitalism, the commons were primarily forests where villagers collected wood or pastures where they raised animals. In today’s commodified world, the commons are less common, but small-scale examples include communal gardens and libraries of things. Among other approaches, opening varieties of commons to people can be a part of what philosopher Barbara Muraca calls the ‘education of desire’. In the foreword to Degrowth in Movement(s), she writes: ‘In the alternative spaces of experience established through social experiments, one can learn to desire differently, better, and even more. Instead of repressing desire through a one-sided notion of voluntary simplicity, the point is rather to free oneself from the forces that limit the autonomy to demand more (in political terms).’ In such spaces, people may come to recognize the extent to which they feel alienated from their individual and communal capacities to direct their lives in broader society, discussing future commons and organizing with others around the subversion of capitalism for the sake of their own liberation. Further, these democratic forms of education would help not only to distance degrowth from, but to immunize it against, adjacent trajectories such as ‘eco-austerity’, the notion that Huber ostensibly takes issue with, which frames ecological transition around accepting lower levels of material comfort (‘voluntary simplicity’) without investigating the subjectivity of capitalism and its mode of social reproduction.
Huber’s belief that ‘we should appeal to a working-class interest in more—specifically, more access to the elements of a secure life’ is not a mistake. It should be the foundation of revolutionary pedagogy. The problem is that he rejects the rich vision of a democratic world that elaborates on this interest, in which not only could secure life be sustained, but the point of securing life—our own freedom—could be explored. The timeline of the ecological crisis requires that we transform the mode of production and the ‘second product’ at the same time by preparing ourselves for the world we want to create through our struggle against the world we have to inherit. Degrowth is a transitional program without which the metabolic rift will devour the Earth. Class struggle is a movement without which the emancipatory potential of degrowth will fail to be realized. We need both—and only a revolutionary pedagogy can unify them. Knowledge may not be power, but should the future ‘become what it must’, the process of building power will have been one of building knowledge.
Gray Maddrey is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He currently serves as his chapter’s political education director and chair of its ecosocialist working group.
Max Ajl’s recent book published this year by Pluto Press, entitled A People’s Green New Deal, is a welcome and important contribution to an increasingly crowded and confused conversation on “green” futures. In the industrialized countries of the Global North, especially the USA, the European Union, Canada, and Australia, governments, social movements, and everything in between have proposed “Green Deals” of varying demands, generating much confusion as to what each of them stand for and the types of interests that underpin them. Ajl’s book places particular attention on the prospects of a US Green New Deal; as the US economy directly infiltrates nations and social classes around the world with its military, petrodollars, and monopolies, what it decides to do in the name of “greening” will have profound implications on the rest of the world under the current order.
The book offers a refreshing analysis, grounded in an ecosocialist lens for a global anti-imperialist class struggle. In doing so, it distinguishes itself from the distractions of rhetoric loosely being advanced under an amorphous “Green New Deal”. Ajl details these distracting narratives as they range from: a) liberal progressives and social democrats using all the right words but ultimately compromising to the interests of capital by advocating things like “greening” the US military; b) techno-modernist socialism unhinged from basic understandings of ecology while continuing to depend on exploitation of a Third World (e.g. “fully-automated luxury communism”); c) Euro-centric working-class solidarities for “greening” in the industrial core that conveniently ignore precarious and racialized labor forces both within and beyond the “Global North” (e.g. “Ecological Politics for the Working Class”); d) global veganism and half-earth nature conservation that have no qualms about embracing colonial logics against non-Western ideologies and affinities, and e) status-quo United Nations and World Bank-speak in support of the “Sustainable Development Goals”, furthering the myth of “green growth” and paying for nature’s “services”, which have thus far done little to halt or have even reinforced global inequalities and hastened ecological collapse. Of course, these narratives are not mutually exclusive, but hybridize into different shades. Common to all however are the silences in demanding climate reparations for historically uneven ecological exchange in which imperialist colonizers of Europe and North America looted the resources and life-energies of billions of people and displaced and shackled hundreds of millions in the Global South as a cheap laboring force to keep prices low and speculative finance afloat. It is this oppressive unequal ecological exchange that makes it possible for countries like Switzerland and Belgium to be considered chocolate connoisseurs, for the United States to foster and produce “innovative” tech hubs like Silicon Valleys that produce tax-evading billionaires, and for cities across Scandinavia, Canada, and Australia to be consistently distinguished with high standards of living.
There can be no such thing as an ecologically-conscious future unless it involves popular control over time, territory, and ways of living.
Put simply, there can be no such thing as an ecologically-conscious future unless it involves popular control over time, territory, and ways of living that Indigenous people, pastoralists, campesinxs, and artisans around the world demand as restitution for historical and repeated assaults on their autonomy. In this review, I assemble a series of quotations from the book under broad themes that highlight a few key take-away messages as well as an invitation to further dive into the details by reading the book. I conclude with some issues I felt the book left the reader to ponder.
“To control industrialization does not mean to eliminate industrialization, let alone modern social life with complex forms of economic interchange and interdependence. It means understanding how on the one hand, the North is gratuitously over-industrialized, and not to the benefit of working-class life. And it means accepting how much northern industrial capital, and the consumption which it encourages, rests on de-development or underdevelopment of the South.”
“What is missing in the First World left is not an abstract commitment to solidarity and partnership but a committed internationalism which takes the anti-systemic struggles of the periphery as the fundamental departure point for solidarity…thus climate debt or ecological debt must be a fundamental part of any serious green transition.”
“If capital is under pressure from social movements or political parties and needs to find a way to give something away to domestic middle classes, that something has to come from somewhere (my emphasis added). And that somewhere will be those not included in the social and political struggles: in other words, the South.”
Ajl’s work offers a reality check reminding us that the influence of ecosocialism in contemporary global politics is at a historical low and indeed superseded by the more organized forces around pro-capitalist and techno-futurist versions of eco-fascism. The (often failed) electoral politics ambitions of recent legislators like Bernie Sanders in the US, Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK should not distract us from this reality. He also emphasizes the utter importance of placing agrarian reform for agroecology and peasant sovereignty at the core of what an anti-imperialist ecosocialism would require.
Modern industrial agriculture does not feed the world; it is incredibly wasteful and takes the capacity to produce food away from people who understand their territory the best. Instead, it forces everyone to be market consumers of pesticide-ladened and chemical fertilizer pumped monocultures that generate mass death of pollinators, birds, and soil life. It also heightens the risk of animal-human transfers of new epidemic diseases that lead to potential pandemics. With industrial agriculture, being fed is no longer something that every human deserves but something that reflects purchasing power and the capacity to absorb rising costs of food . These values neatly follow racial and class lines, with the vast majority of people unable to afford healthy and sustainable food production systems as these are re-branded into market consumption as “artisanal”, “organic”, or “heirloom”. Perhaps worst of all is the way modern industrial agriculture mines arable soils, stealing time, land, and knowledge from human societies and rendering current and future generations bereft of food-producing potential.
Why an internationalist, anti-imperialist politics is what being ecological should refer to
“Colonialism itself is not over. As formal and legal decolonization gave way to neocolonialism, nations lost control over their economic sovereignty, the pot of gold they had hoped to find at the end of national liberation…Indeed, even during the brilliant noon of decolonization from 1947 to 1980, farmlands, forests, banks, currencies, factories, salt iron mines, quarries, and oil fields remained in the hands of the colonizers. Almost never was decolonization so successful as to allow peoples to fully determine their own histories, even within their own nation-states…the climate crisis is basically the child of northern imperialism, pure and simple.”
Ajl reminds readers that it is impossible for the global ecological breakdown that we witness today, such as CO2 levels reaching their highest levels in 3 million years, to have occurred without past and present (and expected future) dehumanization of black, brown, and Indigenous people. It is consequently impossible and counterproductive to treat ecological crises like climate change as separate from those that perpetuate settler colonial land grabs, class divisions, and a military industrial complex. Tackling ecological crises requires structural transformation rejecting a militarized global police force (e.g. the US military) that justifies war-profiteering over the lives of Yemenis and Palestinians in the name of free markets.
Why other Green New Deal proposals based on “green” social democracy or domestic “green” Keynesianism are fundamentally flawed
“There are four problems with green social democracy. First, it is not achievable through current strategies. Two, even if it were possible, it would be imperialist and rest on devastating the South. Third, it is being marketed as something it is not: namely, eco-socialism … and four, it limits our political imaginations.”
“This does not mean it is bad to have anti-racist green left-liberals in office. It means that they will not implement eco-socialism unless massive movements and parties outside the state, and worldwide, are fighting for actual eco-socialism – which Ocasio-Cortez, 350.org, and the Sunrise Movement are not.”
Ajl historically contextualizes “green social democracy” as Keynesian concessions to labour that worked to stave off the spread of communism in the post-war era and were ultimately intended to reinforce capital accumulation. He highlights precisely why left-liberal politicians and journalists confound the terms of debate by ignoring this history. Instead, “green social democrats” tiptoe around very real uneven ecological exchange while superficially signalling support (largely by recourse to electoral politics) to anti-imperialist social movements and Indigenous demands around the world.
“Greening” as securitizing capitalism
“Green Social Control aims to preserve the essence of capitalism while shifting to a greener model in order to sidestep the worst consequences of the climate crisis. [It] is a decision to avoid reparations [and] a blueprint for world management in which imperial loot remains in the North.”
In relation to the confusing politics of Green Keynesianism as described above, a People’s Green New Deal explicitly rejects “green social control” or any eco-friendly attempt to maintain capitalism intact while deflecting or dismissing conversations around climate reparations for colonial violence and theft. Securing capitalism through greening takes the form of carbon offset purchases, eco-certification schemes, industrial and high-tech precision agriculture, “nature-based solution” projects and ecosystem service policies and others that co-opt intimate ecological relations as alienable forces of production.
On (green) technology
“Those who argue in an absolute way for technology’s categorical social neutrality, especially from the left, forge one of the most dangerous, subtle, and effective instruments of ideological counterinsurgency: they accept the myth of progress and confuse opposition to the capitalist agenda. And this is dangerous, because capitalists do not choose technology willy-nilly, but in order to maximise power, as has been shown time and again by critical historians of technology.”
“Amazon relies on a certain way of organizing the human relationship with the environment. Each item for sale on Amazon’s website, its energy-guzzling “cloud” data servers, its gossamer logistical systems which enable same-day delivery, is tied with a million threads to use of carbon sinks and the atmospheric space for CO2 emissions. These occur without the permission of humanity.”
“To meet UK electric car targets in 30 years, the (British) Isles would need twice current world annual production of cobalt. It would swallow up current world production of neodymium, gobble three-fourths of world lithium production and at least half the world’s copper. If mileage did not shrink, to charge that monster fleet an additional 20% of current UK-generated electricity would be needed …. Cobalt, one necessary mineral, is kept cheap by a half century of neo-colonial massacre in the Congo, and lithium extraction turns on the mangling of Latin American water tables. Even now Microsoft, Tesla, and Dell are being sued for being party to child labor in the Congo mines that supply material for the batteries that keep their doodads cheap and briskly selling.”
Ajl emphasizes that technological futurism cannot be discussed in isolation from the interests and voices that fund and imagine it. Popular control of knowledge and deliberation of its impacts is dismissed in favor of techno-utopias dreamed up through visions of human exploitation, despite the window dressing of “fully-automated communism” or (white) working-class ecological politics. Technology, no matter how “green,” is therefore always political.
On the colonial violence of suggesting “global veganism”
“Plant or culture-based meats … now rely on tremendous inputs of energy, and according to lifecycle assessments, may be more carbon-intensive than cows.” … “We have to keep in mind that the problem is not meat, but certain kinds of meat production: capitalist concentrated animal feeding operations.”
“The demand that meat-eating cease … creates northern consensus around encouraging, coercively or otherwise, transformations of how people live. It also creates a justification for unnatural ‘climate solutions’ based around biofuels and bioenergy or ‘afforestation’ based on trash-tree plantations which will allow the great petroleum corporations to keep burning their assets, to great profit. And it will be the poor who will suffer.”
A People’s Green New Deal would never impose universal cultural blueprints. It would not continue imposing imaginaries of human-nature relations from entitled Northern countries onto all people of the world through strategies like “compulsory global veganism” or “half-earth” conservation. Such tactics would scream colonialism and border on eco-fascism.
A People’s Green New Deal would never impose universal cultural blueprints.
On ways forward
“Although we should embrace scientific advance in healthcare, from regrowing knee cartilage to organ transplants, the obstacle to world-class worldwide universal healthcare is not technological. It’s social. It demands a social revolution to shatter the capitalist organization of healthcare and to restructure it as primarily care-centered, preventative, and decentralized.”
“If social wealth is generally allocated based on labor inputs, relatively labor-intensive agroecology will receive more compensation…Command measures ought to extend to phase-outs of industrial agriculture, which has no justification for existing, and wholesale shifts in research spending away from conventional agricultural research and towards agroecology.”
“Land should be redistributed everywhere. Each country should have total control over the food import and export trade, so that food dumping is impossible. Communities rather than farms should be in control of water, seed, and eventually land. This is the agenda of food sovereignty.”
“Intra-urban transportation would occur on bicycles, electronic bicycles, and mass transit, from trolleys to trains, where possible. Private cars would be most often reserved for ambulances and emergency transport – the times and places where society can collectively decide to use the fruits of inherently damaging industrial production in order to protect and convenience human life.”
“Shifting from brick cladding, vinyl windows, asphalt shingles, and fiberglass insulation to a wood-frame house which substitutes those other products with cedar shingles and siding, wood windows, and insulation made from cellulose can convert such a home into a net absorber of CO2 emissions provided that when the house is demolished, the material is recycled instead of entering a landfill.”
A People’s Green New Deal devotes its second half to sketching alternatives to the ‘Green Deal’ idea that put power back into the hands of workers, recognizing crucially how the production of “green” means exploitation of people especially in the Global South. It proposes several key improvements in terms of worker-controlled production; quality and anti-imperialist healthcare; urban re-design; large-scale agrarian reform and the dismantling of agri-business; intra-regional and collectively-controlled transportation systems, and locally-appropriating siting and construction of widespread social housing among other strategies.
In reflection: Thinking with and beyond A People’s Green New Deal for anti-imperialist organizing
Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal has enormous implications for many who have put their eggs in the basket of “green” environmental politics. It is a wake-up call (or perhaps a slap in the face) to eco-minded social democrats, left liberals, and Green Party followers in rich countries to reassess the colonial violence of their proposals. Ajl stresses that Green New Deals have failed to center the rising tide of dissent ranging from Indigenous sovereignty on Turtle Island to Palestine, to the abolition of systemic racism and carceral assaults as demanded by “Black Lives Matter”, to reproductive control over (femme) bodies, to material transfers of “Land Back” and ecological debt reparations. A People’s Green New Deal redefines (or perhaps defines more clearly) what a just transition implies. Thus far, it is only the degrowth movement in the Global North that makes advances to redirecting the violent processes of growth; though tweaking the machinery of “growth” requires an explicitly anti-imperialist emphasis. As Ajl makes resoundingly clear, “greening” must be redirected as an international class struggle and demand for Indigenous sovereignty. The only way to do this is to ensure transfer of wealth back to those it was stolen from in the form of payment of climate debt (and ecological debt more broadly).
It is a wake-up call (or perhaps a slap in the face) to eco-minded social democrats, left liberals, and Green Party followers in rich countries.
Yet, the means by which such a profound cultural shift can be accomplished leaves the reader somewhat wanting. Ajl notes that “being has a tendency to determine consciousness”, referring to the fact that Global North bodies are less likely to feel and experience the effects of imperialism due to the comforts that they’ve inherited and continue to obtain from an “imperial mode of living”. The problem is simple, yet difficult to overcome: the absence of crucial experience in the inherited comfort of middle-class bodies without which the true depth and nature of ecological crises as a class struggle is potentially not graspable nor perceivable. As Catherine Liu recently writes in Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class, we left progressives in electoral politics, academia, journalism, and other facets of the creative sectors and knowledge economy refuse to talk about class or class consciousness in proposing solutions to things like social and ecological crises. As a result of repeatedly masking questions of our class status with deference to increased gender and racial identity politics and tolerance, the outcome over the past four decades has been an ultimate boon to neoliberal capitalism. Moreover, the perfectionist tendency to “be” and embody anti-oppressiveness as the key to social change excludes people that do not live up to a constructed (though often unspoken) ideal depicting a sort of commitment to struggle. It has also resulted in alienating allies for changing their minds or making mistakes. These legacies of a neoliberal era occur due to a deeply individualizing ethos of personal responsibility that permeates palpably in spaces of well-meaning self-identifying left progressives. The consequence has been the generation of new forms of leftist accommodation within liberal market economies around knowledge generation, and more detrimentally, a pernicious intransigence to truly organize in solidarity across class divides. The potential of engaging in anti-imperialist eco-socialist politics without falling into the trap of an identitarian bourgeois politics of anti-oppression Olympics needs careful attention yet is all too often brushed aside.
For others in less comfortable positions but who are able to get a foot in the door to the fabled “American”, “Canadian”, or “European” dream (even in the abject exploitation of their labor they may experience), the pressure to prove oneself as an entrepreneurial and well-behaved visible or cultural minority enormously sets back the possibility for working class solidarity. Given this gulf of class difference, through what cultural means can class convergence take form in practice? How might this arise? What will it take for comfortable, even anti-racist eco-minded liberal progressive Westerners (and other privileged groups elsewhere) to recognize that Indigenous sovereignty, Third World working class struggle, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) peoples’ dreams for the future, and religious caste oppression are not side objectives, but fundamental for reversing ecological breakdown, generating and resurrecting alternative relations and relationships into being?
Alternatively, why should “greening” strategies direct attention to comfortable middle class Westerners at all? Why even (re)center voices of those who can’t possibly understand the material and everyday violence inflicted on countless people? Would it not make more sense for this demographic to cede place entirely and listen (for a change) by following the lead of those who have been and continue to be violently erased in the name of colonizer ecology? If this latter, what might this look like? These are questions that are left open in trying to imagine a “People’s Green New Deal” in action. It is here where thinking about organizing for anti-imperialist solidarity in the context of generational imperial living could benefit from both class- and region-specific context. What can liberal progressive-minded people in North America learn about “greening” from racial, labour, and decolonial struggles in their own communities? How have middle classes in places like Chile and Ecuador amplified voices and contributed through meaningful rather than performative allyship in anti-imperialist struggles?
Why should “greening” strategies direct attention to comfortable middle class Westerners at all?
Ajl raises some relevant points on the question of national sovereignty from imperialist resource and labour grabs, to reclaim popular control over the means of governing and administering resources in a society, and the role of a national governing body as an appropriate jurisdiction to ensure climate and ecological debts are transferred and appropriately administered. At the same time, he rightly stresses the “hierarchical international system organized around nation states.” Here, some greater clarification is needed. Since demands for national sovereignty often work in parallel to demands around land rights within capitalist political and economic relations, similar questions arise. Both have to do with understanding sovereignty not as a codifiable “right” but as a legitimate relationship. On the one hand, recognition of land rights and nation states are necessary to reclaim autonomy over cultural and economic lifeways; while on the other hand, they reduce diverse political subjectivities and relationships of territory to that of land or “national identity” as an entity to possess and enclose, to erect exclusionary borders around, to ally with or war against. How can overtly or indirectly socialist-oriented governments like Bolivia, Venezuela, and now Chile (under newly-elected Gabriel Boric) effectively reclaim popular control when they are at the same time imbricated within capitalist global markets for primary resources? What unintended effects does the stickiness of globalized markets and their infiltration into anti-imperialist ecosocialist national projects engender? Furthermore, how might the ‘national question’ support Indigenous sovereignty and demands for “Land Back” in different parts of the world? The potentially messy confluence between national sovereignty and a broader vision for an anti-imperialist (and thus anti-capitalist) internationalism needs some fleshing out. What comes first, a popular struggle to demand a fully internationalist anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist world order or nation states etching out sovereign ecosocialist agendas within an ossified and violently militarized capitalist world order? A People’s Green New Deal would require further guidance as to which of these strategies comes first as well as how they might interact or counteract each other.
Finally, Ajl argues that casting a glance away from these questions and instead turning to what is “feasible” or “pragmatic,” as liberal progressive professional managerial classes in the Global North all too often do, effectively confirms that the exploitation of people and nature from a fabricated Third World is an unquestioned necessity. But the questions of how to combat the always-present penchant for pragmatism, even among comrades on the Left, as well as the unexpected outcomes of trying to realize idealized forms of popular sovereignty and control among extremely heterogeneous and internally fractured societies remain open ones. Greater clarity is needed on how anti-imperialist local direct action or municipalisms can better align with an anti-imperialist internationalism, while perhaps reducing the role of the nation state to facilitating this convergence process.
Ajl rightly emphasizes that the “Left” is by no means organized enough. It is clear that status quo establishment has a firm hand in the driver’s seat of a melting planet when tax-evading fortune-500 companies own more wealth than entire countries (with politicians blithely casting their glance away and indeed participating in tax evasion schemes themselves), when stock market bros capitalize upon sophisticated machine learning to squeeze profits from Wall Street, or when eco-fascist elements carry on the legacy of systemic and historical Eurocentric imperialism in “solutions” like replacing (certain) human populations with pristine wilderness. Dislodging this cabal of eco-modernists (regardless of their capitalist or socialist inclinations) through popular revolt has never been more urgent and yet seemingly so far away. A global “People’s Green New Deal” therefore demands that our ecological practice is anti-colonial and anti-imperialist or nothing at all.
I’d like to thank Rut Elliot Blomqvist for helpful suggestions and edits to this piece. Also, many thanks to Gert Van Hecken for comments on an earlier draft.
Vijay Kolinjivadi is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp and writes about the politics and material contradictions of, and alternatives to, mainstream “greening” strategies.
Over the past two decades, a proliferation of “Green New Deal” literature has promoted various strategies for changing the structure of the global energy system to combat climate change. While the term was first coined by the neoliberal economist Thomas Friedman, it has since been taken up by more progressive voices, from Keynesian social democrats to eco-socialists. Sadly, despite the promise of a new wave of climate-conscious legislation, from the European Green Deal and the UN Climate Agreement to the AOC-Markey legislation of 2019, each seems as unlikely as its predecessors to enact substantive change. At the recent COP 26 Climate Summit, for example, the United States failed to join 30 other nations in pledging to phase out sales of new gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040 worldwide. With the US federal government dominated by fossil-fuel friendly Democrats and climate-change denying Republicans, the chances of passing ambitious climate legislationappear bleak. In the absence of real political force, GND proposals often serve as blueprints that respond to a largely speculative question: what would we do if we were in a position of power to create meaningful, lasting, and necessary change?
Instead of offering another blueprint for an impossible future, Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal levels a critique at the genre itself, raising significant questions about the way that plans are proffered, and how most green futures implicitly accept the ongoing violence of capitalist imperialism. Ajl’s work engages critically with a wide spectrum of GND proposals, from policy documents like the European Commission and European Environmental Agency’s “European Green Deal” and Senator Ed Markey and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s House Resolution 109 to Naomi Klein’s On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal and A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Batistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos. Such proposals generally offer pragmatic solutions that work towards a “sustainable” future while remaining “realistic” enough to credibly promise to break through political impasse. The political and ecological horizons of these proposals may vary, but they all position themselves on the progressive edge of an electoral landscape that is – or so the story goes – slowly pushing in the direction of eco-social democracy. Yet eco-social democracy is, as Ajl reminds us, not the same as ecosocialism. Accordingly, Ajl offers a compellingly simple provocation: if all of these visions are impossible in the current political climate, why not fight for the more radical vision of the future that everyone on earth deserves?
A People’s Green New Deal has given us an opportunity to think with Ajl about the current state of aspirational, state-centered green politics, and to reflect on the supposed “pragmatism“that drives the most prominent GND legislative agendas. Ultimately, pragmatism is a question of political strategy: is it better (more pragmatic) to embrace a liberal social democratic horizon in order to build a base of support in the Northern core? Or is it better to push even harder from below and to the left, with visions centered by the climate politics of the Global South? Which people should the people’s climate movement mobilize, fight for, and center? If the answer is “everyone,” Ajl argues, then any blueprints for a “green future” must necessarily include the dismantling of uneven development, uneven exchange, and uneven climate catastrophe, full stop. Here we suspect that many of those whom Ajl targets for critique would agree, but the likely rejoinder is: how can we “push harder” if we have so little power in the first place? Again, the question comes down to strategy.
For Ajl, the problem with green social democracy is that it is at once impossible and boring.
Are left-leaning platforms that envision a socially and environmentally just Keynesianism a means of nudging the “Overton window” of sentiment in the global North away from self-serving, business-as-usual climate denialism? Are these truly, as their adherents seem to hope, the sorts of “non-reformist reforms” proposed by the French ecosocialist André Gorz? Or are they simply reformist reforms, meant to incrementally improve without fundamentally transforming underlying systems of power, privilege, extraction, and ecocide? Ajl squarely situates himself with the latter position. For Ajl, the problem with green social democracy is that it is at once impossible and boring. This kind of pragmatism limits our political imagination instead of opening up new horizons of possibility that galvanize real movement.
In order to build effective political support, GND advocates propose a “big tent strategy” based on the promise of green capitalism (promising “green jobs” and a boost to the economy). This vision fails to challenge, or even name, the unevenness that is necessary to sustain what has been termed the “imperial mode of living” of resource-intensive consumerism for predominantly Global North inhabitants. The result is a politics of “non-disruptive disruptions” that looks to techno-fixes that promise to change everything without changing anything at all. Implicit in the big tent strategy is a promise that the Global North can continue to benefit from uneven exchange and development, but in greener and cleaner ways. Here, Ajl draws upon classic theorists of dependency like Samir Amin, Walter Rodney, Amílcar Cabral, Walter Mignolo, Ali Kadri, along with more recent theorists like Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik, in centering ideas of “colonial drain” and unequal environmental exchange. This body of work illuminates how the integration of formerly colonized countries into the global capitalist economy positions them as appendages to imperial countries like the United States and United Kingdom through a systematic and ongoing drain of surplus. Left to accommodate environmental and economic harms –– including waste, seepage, exploitation, and exhaustion –– these countries are inevitably left out of any “deal” marketed as green, progressive, or environmentally sustainable. (For more discussion of this intervention see “A People’s Green New Deal Symposium” including A People’s Green New Deal – An Exercise in Just Knowledge Production, by Aravind Sakshi, Beyond Green Restoration: An Eco-Socialist GND, by Güney Işıkara, and Debunking the “Eco-Fortress Nationalism” of the AOC/Markey Green New Deal, by Sheetal Chhabria.)
In addition to being consistently inadequate at addressing the causes of climate change, Ajl sees in this so-called pragmatism an implicit defense of the ways in which petrocultures have shaped consumer desires in the Global North. Pragmatism, he writes, is “the watchword of reaction and a talisman of oppression … a cipher for identifying sacrificial victims for a great society that is only capacious enough to hold so many” (12). The pragmatic stance says: we have to build a broad base of support amongst the Northern electorate for a domestic environmental agenda that would eventually trickle down to address the uneven exchanges of the global energy system. Directly challenging imperialist relations and privileges, however, is a non-starter in the halls of Northern power. This is precisely the problem that such pragmatism risks.
So what might this mean for another possible approach, or means of engaging with viable and necessary Green New Deals? If social democratic pragmatism is a problem, then what is a more effective path forward? A People’s Green New Deal argues that left climate politics would benefit from a more robust conjunctural analysis that remains attentive to the uneven positions that various movement actors find themselves occupying, and to develop revolutionary strategy accordingly. While we are not quite sure Ajl’s work delivers on this loftier challenge of revolutionary strategy (and here we point readers to our companion review by Vijay Kolinjivadi for some examples), he does provide some incredibly important pieces of a broader, conjunctural analysis, and how it might suggest important shifts in left climate politics. Although we feel that the question of revolutionary strategy – beyond rejecting big tent pragmatism and standing in solidarity with third world eco-socialism – stands to to be further elaborated, we focus on what the book successfully contributes to these discussions in what follows.
Social democratic pragmatism or climate imperialism?
Ajl’s critique of political pragmatism is leveled most sharply at advocates for social democratic GND agendas that operate within existing networks of power, influence, and money to promote certain green futures while sidelining others. He is unimpressed with how these proposals gesture to “frontline communities” (evidenced in even those most progressive of GND proposals) while leaving imperial relations unchallenged. As Ajl writes, “‘Frontline and vulnerable communities’ are not classes. They are clay-like concepts easily molded into the framework of capitalist diversity efforts… where they will be hardened into decoration on the imperial agenda” (83). His major example, the HR-109 legislation introduced by AOC-Markey in 2019, expresses concern for the legislation’s impact upon frontline and vulnerable communities, but never extends an invitation to these communities to play any substantive role in planning and envisioning their own green futures. Such concern disregards self-determination and sovereignty for these communities.
We need an internationalism built upon decentering the imperial core, not reconstituting its dominance in greener ways.
Against this “pragmatism,” a truly radical – or a Peoples’ – Green New Deal must be premised upon the dismantling of the U.S. military and must address the “sovereignty deficit” that has stripped peripheral nations of any meaningful sense of self-determination. Instead of a trickle-down internationalism, in which core nations provide new green technologies on their own terms (as we’ve seen with COVID vaccines), we need an internationalism built upon decentering the imperial core, not reconstituting its dominance in greener ways. This is why Ajl suggests a strategic engagement with calls for imperial countries in the Global North (chiefly the United States and the European Union) to take “personal responsibility” in paying back their global climate debt, which includes trillions upon trillions owed for the cheap extraction of energetic and material resources over the past several centuries. As Ajl writes, “it is not enough to acknowledge that the US is disproportionately culpable” if such an acknowledgement “isn’t followed up with explicit efforts to make good on climate debt” (85). Climate debt, ecological debt, and sovereignty debt – or as Ajl terms it, the “sovereignty deficit” – directly address the core problem of global capitalist extraction, and therefore the actual problems at the root of the climate catastrophe.
Here Ajl draws something of a line in the sand, arguing that decarceration, decolonization, and abolition are foundational blocks of any viable “green” future. We take these as crucial provocations for the climate left: what does it mean to not simply support decarceration, decolonization, and abolition, but to weave these political horizons into the very fabric of our climate politics? This is precisely the point made by the Red Nation in their powerful rejoinder to GND politics. To put this into terms of revolutionary strategy: vague gestures of support for and deference to “front line communities” don’t build the popular sovereignty needed to empower the most important transformations that GNDs promise to achieve.
Decolonization, decarceration, demilitarization, abolition – these are all big ideas that still need to be fleshed out with details, including the social and technological specifics of when, where, and how to move towards such liberatory horizons. In other words, what are the truly “non-reformist reforms” that take us down these paths, which might oppose an assimilitive reformism more likely to protect the status quo than to subvert it? These are large, movement-defining questions, and while Ajl helps frame their importance, he doesn’t evenly deliver on concrete visions moving towards their realization. However, where Ajl’s text – and overall work – most succeeds is in addressing the question of technology.
Agroecology: A sociotechnical blueprint against climate imperialism
Throughout his “Planet of Fields” chapter, Ajl reminds us that agroecology is a technologically sophisticated way of repairing human and nonhuman relations. His insistence on emphasizing the technological sophistication and sufficiency of agroecology is precisely a gesture along these lines – and one that he expertly pulls off, here and throughout his work. This is where we think Ajl’s voice matters most in global climate debates. Agroecology is not just a make-do set of vernaculars for the periphery. It is a robust and diverse platform of land management and food production practices that can – in a much more “feasible” or “pragmatic” way – take us far down the path of environmental rationality on a planetary scale. It is not smart “for them.” It is just smart. It is smarter. It is the cutting edge.
Technological change is a pre-occupation of most GND visions and debates: should we go for solar, wind or nuclear power? Electric vehicles or clean biofuels? Not only are most debates within GND discourses centered on technology, they are often preoccupied with questions of energy production. Ajl strongly critiques the current discourse around energy transitions, which remain mired in what he labels “ecomodernism.” Ecomodernism is not Ajl’s term, but a platform with roots in ecological modernization theory that has been resuscitated by the Breakthrough Institute’s extended network. Such ecomodernists create a strawman opponent of an antiquated left environmentalism that they paint as anti-technological and therefore out of step with progress, modernity, and everything that has made civilizational advance so bountiful. Their vision of a bright green future purports to use “humanity’s extraordinary powers in service of creating a good Anthropocene.” Ajl, instead, follows many decolonial and Marxist thinkers who have made abundantly clear that modernity and coloniality are two sides of the same coin. Modernity and coloniality cannot be decoupled because they are mutually constitutive.
Ajl’s critique of GND ecomodernisms has to do with their liberal sense of internationalism, which we would call a trickle-down green politics. This kind of internationalism sidelines questions of self-determination and sovereignty, conceiving of internationalism in such a way that situates the Global North in a leading position. For many GND ecomodernists, internationalism is predicated upon tech transfers from north to south, with the assumption that the halls of innovation and entrepreneurship in the developed world will have all the solutions. The problem however, is that these halls of innovation are providing solutions for a lifestyle that is itself the problem. Or in Ajl’s words, “the good life in the North … [has] been based on the bad life in the South” (54). The primary focus lies in protecting a highly energetic and resource-intensive “good life” enjoyed by a minority in the global North, promising to “green” these lifestyles and the industrial base they depend upon, and eventually share this green developmentalism with the rest of the planet.
The goal of a peoples’ GND should not be to accept and perpetuate capitalist imperialism in more sustainable ways, but to diagnose it as a core aspect of the crisis and to confront it accordingly. This means re-orienting our sociotechnical imaginaries away from those entrepreneurial innovators trying to sell us green capitalist lifestyles, and towards a different kind of innovation rooted in a vibrant and sustainable world of many worlds.
Ajl’s turn towards agroecology is an effort to call attention to the assumptions of developmentalism that still linger in progressive GND programs. He mentions, for example, how Cuba has shown how agroecological techniques ranging from vermiculture, soil conservation, innovation of intercropping designs, seed saving, recovery of local varieties, participatory plant breeding, and the improvement of local animal feeds and pastures have helped to boost food production in a manner that is nonetheless more energy efficient and sustainable. Here, Ajl shifts focus from energy to food, arguing that any truly radical GND proposal must begin with the foodways and food needs of the Global South, as opposed to starting with the food desires of the global elite. A People’s Green New Deal, then, must include the dismantling or nationalization of agricultural corporations like Monsanto, as well as planetary agrarian reform, including the breaking up of big farms and the providing of individualized farming space for small-scale farmers. Such plans would include introducing parity pricing, and providing green transition subsidies and placing public investment in infrastructures that can localize food systems.
Ajl’s turn towards agroecology is an effort to call attention to the assumptions of developmentalism that still linger in progressive GND programs.
To illustrate this point, Ajl takes to task questions of meat production, and criticizes what he sees as a false dichotomy between, on the one hand, an ecomodernist excitement about lab-grown meat, and on the other hand, advocacy for global veganism. Ajl is dissatisfied with both, and reminds us that the true problem is not animal-derived proteins, but the environmentally devastating (and morally bankrupt) ways that animals are industrially bred and slaughtered. Such a view “obscures the ecological, political, and social differences between Sahelian herders, Kansan artisanal animal husbandrymen practicing intensive rotational grazing, and those sitting atop pyramidal monopoly-capitalist cow plantations” (136). The category of meat is over-simplified in the climate discourse of the global North, which fails to accept the ways that meat can function sustainably outside of industrial agriculture.
Such conceptual blockages are due to the predominance of ecomodernist narratives which center development in calls to develop the underdeveloped world, or even to conserve or “rewild” the world from the top down. Take, for example, calls for “half-earth socialism” and mandated global veganism from environmentalists like Troy Vettese, which ignore the fact that low-impact livestock agriculture across the global south uses rangelands and pastoral agriculture to support landscape protection and carbon sequestration. The problem is that such policies purport to further the imperialist relationship between developed and underdeveloped countries to impose a global fix that keeps imperialist dynamics intact. Worse, they do not acknowledge that some of the most environmentally sustainable practices already exist within low-impact agricultural systems.
In this regard, lab meat and agroecology are two totally different sociotechnical possibilities addressing two totally different sociotechnical questions. They are interrelated, of course, but for the former it is a question of discovering new ways to feed (quite literally) imperial desires, and for the other it is about supporting and expanding existing ways of feeding the global majority. For Ajl, if we are to imagine an approach to climate politics coming from below and to the left, then it’s the latter, as opposed to the former, that needs to be centered.
From agroecology to food sovereignty:Ecological and social resilience through land reform and “Third World ecosocialism”
Agroecology is not new at all, and if implemented in the North, could entail silvopasturing (or integrating trees into pasture systems), planting forage under trees, alley cropping (which inserts trees into fields), windbreaks, riparian and upland buffers, and forest farming, which could absorb around eleven percent of 2019 carbon emissions. Lab meat, by contrast, is a perfect example of the inefficiency and environmental harm of “green” capitalist production, because it takes more energy to create artificial meat than it would to support agroecological pasture farming.
As many have pointed out, sociotechnical know-how matters, but it also matters where we look for it and who we empower as experts. That is both a function of sovereignty – in terms of land, labor, and resources – as well as in terms of knowledge and technocratic coordination. Instead of just a green technology transfer – from north to south – there needs to be reciprocal dialogues and transfers. Here Ajl pushes beyond some of the more radical GND proposals to envision new forms of abundance that are less dependent on resource-intensive patterns of production and consumption. Agroecology is one such form of abundance, where “animals can and should be a part of landscape management, helping store CO2 in soil, and enriching it and making it more resilient” (137).
This is why land reform takes such a central position in Ajl’s thought. It is what matters fundamentally to so many people on the front lines of the climate crisis, and why land back, reparations, and demilitarization are so important – and so intimately linked to self determination and food sovereignty. Food sovereignty, based upon radical land-to-tiller agrarian reforms, is “the cornerstone for Third World eco-socialism” (139). This is where Ajl turns back to the national question that decolonial thinkers were grappling with in the mid 20th century in reminding us that this question has not been answered and remains central today. In short, the climate question is still a colonial-imperialist question. As such, combating climate change means allowing for the ecological and social resilience that thinkers like Kyle Whyte call for in a true decolonial perspective of climate justice.
So what might it actually mean to locate the technological vanguard in the countryside of the global south? What does it look like when innovation is centered by rural agronomy as opposed to venture capital? To what extent do we really need more technofutures arising from the imperial core that have largely contributed to dominant understandings of viable and liveable futures? This is the medicine Ajl prescribes to the Northern climate movement.
Empowering, centering, and supporting the people and movements of the global periphery requires granting them power and autonomy to develop – on their own terms – and to give them resources to lead us into a socio-technical future that is neither new nor old (that’s a false distinction on a liberal timeline of progress) but simply otherwise. That “otherwise” is peaceful/anti-imperial, it is socialist/anti-capitalist, it is regionalized and rationalized with planetarily democratic input for the coordination and distribution of resources. This will only happen by fighting for and supporting sovereignty, self-determination, and national liberation via the acknowledgement of sovereignty deficits and ecosocialist reparations.
The Cochabamba Agreement: A blueprint for our planetary future
Drawing upon decades of decolonial liberation movements, Ajl urges us to support “a movement of movements” of sovereignty struggles against the imperial core. He reminds us of the Cochabamba agreement, an international climate accord from below and far to the left of what is currently circulating as the social democratic vanguard of climate politics. The 2010 Cochabamba Agreement, he writes, gives us the “planks of a southern platform for ecological revolution” that are “absent or underemphasized in most northern Green New Deals” (11). It shows how agrarian reform, combined with decolonial and national liberation struggles in Bolivia, demanded wide-ranging payments from the North to the South alongside a radical climate agenda.
As Ajl suggests, it may not be mere accident or oversight that this climate accord has been jettisoned for language built around the nostalgic concept of an early 20th century social democratic policy platform in the industrialized North. Ajl also points to the Red Nation’s Red Deal, which shifts questions of social democracy to questions of broken treaties and the need to fight for sovereignty for the dispossessed nations of this world. All of these interventions, from Ajl, Cochabamba, and the Red Nation, center the “national question” and decolonial/anti-imperial politics, as the crux of climate politics. Here, the three elements of ecological debt, demilitarization, and struggles against settler-colonialism meet in places like the “Land Back” movement. A new land-tenure regime and swift changes in land management that center (rather than pay lip service to) Indigenous sociotechnical knowledge are, for Ajl, the shift which “makes the world big enough for all of us” (162).
Ultimately, A People’s Green New Deal asks: should an ecosocialist Green New Deal govern capitalism or destroy it? In answering this question, Ajl’s book turns notions of social democratic liberalism – whether self-proclaimed eco-socialist or otherwise – on their heads. As he warns, “pragmatism and realism can become firehoses dousing in despair the flames of revolutionary hope” (4). Ajl argues that both should be dismissed as ideological counterinsurgency against those who not merely hope for, but need, a better world.
We’d like to thank Rut Elliot Blomqvist for helpful suggestions on this piece.
Jesse Goldstein is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Associate Director of VCU’s Humanities Research Center. His book, Planetary Improvement, explores the unrealistic prospects of entrepreneurial solutions solving the climate crisis. His new work looks critically at ways that student creativity is narrowly supported and channeled in the entrepreneurial university.
Natalie Suzelis is an Assistant Professor of Literature at Antioch College and Associate Faculty with the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Her work synthesizes environmental and economic history with cultural theory in order to investigate how elements of capitalist culture are negotiated in literature. Her work has been published in Shakespeare Studies, Mediations, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1800, and Law, Culture, and Humanities.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 videoA 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_.
In The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can, Stan Cox has a message for all who were counting on the Green New Deal to help save us from ecological and economic collapse: this legislation will not go far enough. Cox’s book comes at a sobering time, when the only two U.S. presidential candidates he mentions as being in favor of the Green New Deal—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—have fallen behind a ‘more electable’ candidate who has not expressed such enthusiastic support for GND policies. In light of such developments, and in light of the global health crisis now facing the world, a manuscript devoted to many of the GND’s shortcomings might seem untimely. Yet Cox provides important insights into how our intersecting crises—ecological, economic, and epidemiological—could lead to a positive restructuring of the economy, if we can push such legislation to meet them. To do so, Cox argues, requires expanding the GND’s restorative approach to environmental justice, a willingness to reinvent the economy at a scale not seen since World War II, and the prioritizing of people and the planet above economic growth.
There are a few assumptions of the Green New Deal with which Cox takes issue, given how far we have advanced on the climate clock. These include the legislation’s vision to build up ‘green’ energy capacity and its promise to maintain and even accelerate economic growth. First, Cox addresses the common assumption that clean energy will push out old, dirty energy, by showing that there is so far no evidence to support that this will happen. As Cox shows from previous cap-and-trade policies, new energy sources are more likely to add to the existing energy supply than replace it. So far, the attempt to phase out fossil fuel energy with solar and wind power has only served to supplement the energy market and, sometimes, even enhance the production and trade of fossil fuels. Therefore, the parts of the GND which promise to re-grow the economy by replacing fossil fuels with renewable or clean energy sources are simply not realistic. To reach the goal of clean energy by 2030 through solar and wind power, we would have to build infrastructure for such industries ‘at thirty-three times the highest rate of buildup ever achieved to date’ and at scale which would infringe upon land and water which we would do better to conserve.
Cox urges us to accept that while we must phase out fossil fuels now with a strong cap on fossil fuel production, we must also accept that such a rapid phasing out of fossil fuels will shrink GDP.
Instead, Cox urges us to accept that while we must phase out fossil fuels now with a strong cap on fossil fuel production, we must also accept that such a rapid phasing out of fossil fuels will shrink GDP. This insight brings some of the Green New Deal’s aims in conflict with one another. In the legislation’s own language, the GND proposes to bring ‘unprecedented levels of prosperity’ and a new era of ‘domestic manufacturing in the United States,’ while also ‘restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems.’ Yet as Cox points out, land and soil restoration alone will take a massive amount of work and coordination. The GND would then have to choose between such restoration and the massive building of new industries. Cox argues that the choice should be clear for those who truly know what is at stake. Because the GND also aims to ‘promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth’ Cox argues that it cannot do so while also drastically reducing emissions and growing a new energy market.
What’s new is also old
To help us understand how we might avoid some of these assumptions, Cox points to a few lessons learned from the old New Deal. What is not new about the Green New Deal, for example, is its ambitious goal to take on the task of essentially planning the entire economy as a necessary response to economic and ecological crisis. Although it may seem unthinkable after decades of neoliberalism, structural adjustment, and austerity, Cox reminds us that Roosevelt himself had introduced the New Deal by publicly acknowledging that ‘free market policies and resource extraction’ had created a fiscal and ecological emergency that required an entirely new — and entirely planned—economy (3). The government’s ability to take the reins from the free market was the first step in the New Deal’s success. The second, and more essential step, was that a national labor movement held this project accountable to workers. This labor pressure, which resulted in the passing of the National Labor Relations Act, helped ensure that the projects and stimulus packages meant to plan both production and consumption specifically addressed the rights struggles of working people along with the conservation and maintenance of the environment.
Yet what made the New Deal unsuccessful was its failure to implement its goals across racial lines. As Cox acknowledges, rather than helping Black workers in the South, for example, the New Deal cemented institutional racism by deferring to locally prevailing wages for occupations dominated by Black workers. Further, the Social Security Act of 1935 did not cover farm laborers nor domestic workers, which employed two-thirds of the Black population, and the New Deal’s housing policies perpetuated residential segregation. In order to learn from this history, Cox points us to the successful campaign of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which recruited thousands to stage a successful strike that demanded higher wages for Black and white farmworkers across northeast Arkansas. The goal of this organization was both a protest movement and a labor union: agitation and publicity, along with strikes and collective bargaining, aimed to put pressure on the New Deal and present radical alternatives to its policy. Similarly, no matter how progressive the Green New Deal’s goals, Cox argues that it must also face relentless pressure from unions, social movements, activists, and groups like Indigenous Climate Action, Sunrise Movement, Keep it in the Ground, and Fridays For Future, in solidarity with land and water protectors who are already struggling to defend some of the world’s largest carbon sinks.
The GND does take some of the New Deal’s key mistakes into account, in arguing for the importance of protecting First Nations and marginalized communities. Yet more pressure will be required to recognize the hard truth that we have already overshot our shared limit of fossil fuel production and consumption, and that even the clean energy of new public infrastructure would rely upon dangerous extractive practices that threaten marginalized communities and the sovereignty of indigenous lands. Climate activists, scholars, and the public must therefore ask themselves: can the GND really ensure a just energy transition by building a roaring new ‘green’ economy and mining raw materials like cobalt, cooper, lithium from around the world, which, as Cox points out, are both notoriously associated with human rights abuses and harmful extraction (68)? What the optimism of the GND does not appear to be taking into account is that the mining of such materials—even those meant to produce ‘clean’ or ‘renewable’ energy—is going to remain a dirty business.
We must be willing to cut the wasteful parts of this economy in the same way that the War Productions Board of the 1940s cut, simplified, and restructured the U.S. economy of the 1940s.
Further, what the GND seems to have not learned from the history of the New Deal is that a stimulus package by itself will not go far enough. In the case of the New Deal, as Cox points out, it was ultimately not the massive stimulus but the United States’ transition into a war economy that addressed both unemployment and overproduction. This is also why the United States, to this day, relies upon its military to help expand a GDP that is fundamentally linked to high carbon emissions. While the fact that the U.S. military is a bigger polluter than most countries is well known, what is less known, as Cox asserts, is that we must be willing to cut the wasteful parts of this economy in the same way that the War Productions Board of the 1940s cut, simplified, and restructured the U.S. economy of the 1940s.
A rationing economy
In what has become a rather prescient observation, given the current state of emergency brought on by the spread of COVID-19, Cox reminds us that it was not the New Deal, but the ‘emergency’ of World War II which allowed the U.S. to entirely restructure its system of production and consumption. In 1936, when the Roosevelt administration began easing off stimulus support, unemployment leapt back up to 19% and remained above fourteen percent until the war effort redirected its production to war-related materials and projects. Having spent $62 billion on stimulating the economy over the last eight years, Congress then spent $321 billion over the next five years in its transitioning to a war economy. Cox points out that while this new form of spending worked in restructuring production and consumption, many forget the sacrifices that were made to ensure a successful transition. A key element often left out, for example, is the War Production Board’s mandatory clampdown on prices as well as its rationing efforts, which aimed to ensure adequate food, shelter, clothing, and other basic necessities for the entire population. To this end, the War Production Board shrank, standardized, and simplified the economy in order to reduce civilian rail travel, prohibit the shipping of retail packages, and reduce the number and varieties of most commercial products.
Here Cox lingers on the point of the War Production Board’s tight rationing of goods, which included both food and fossil fuels. This is because, for Cox, proper rationing will be fundamental to a just energy transition. In making connections between the WPB’s tight regulation of the economy and what he argues should be a similar response to the emergency of ecological collapse, Cox chronicles how households were issued a monthly set of stamps for meats, cheeses, butter, sugar, fuel oil, kerosene, gasoline, tires, cars, bicycles, stoves, typewriters, shoes, coffee, canned fish and milk, fats, and other processed goods. Drivers began carpooling to work and families across the country planted 22 million ‘victory gardens’ to supplement the rationing system. Rather than being a hardship, Cox argues, rationing improved nutrition across economic classes and was met with overwhelming public approval. Even when ‘rationing was at its zenith,’ as Cox reports, approval outweighed disapproval by two to one, because civilians believed rationing was necessary to eliminate food shortages and conserve important raw materials. Cox insists that the same mindset must accompany the Green New Deal, which would entail a concerted effort on the part of national, state, and local legislation to ration electricity with the same zeal that this country has historically reserved for wartime.
Rations but not population control
Rationing off of overblown production and consumption of fossil fuels will not be as difficult for some as for others. Eighty percent of the population, as Cox reminds us, does not fly. Yet for all of Cox’s attention to detail in how to redistribute equitable energy consumption, there is one part of his enthusiasm for rationing that might give us pause, however. At one point, Cox suggests that one possible rationing formula might be ‘equal numbers of credits per adult for each energy source, with an additional half-credit for up to two children per household’ (103). Readers who have been following eagerly along may experience some dismay here. Why only up to two children, why only a half-credit per child, and what about children with special needs, for example, who might require a certain amount of technology? At this point in the book, it would have been helpful for Cox to engage with critiques of Malthusian population control, which is a well-known slippery slope in seeing the violence of climate catastrophe—and even epidemics—as helping to lower carbon footprint by lowering population. Recent takes about the spread of COVID-19 being a kind of ‘vaccine’ for humanity, for example, operate in precisely this Malthusian vein. Such presumptions forget that it is the safest and wealthiest classes who are responsible for the most emissions and even the spread of global disease, and that those least responsible for ecological and epidemiological crises are most vulnerable in their lack of access to healthcare, fresh food, shelter, and a living wage. Cox cites Georgios Kallis and other degrowth scholars who explicitly critique the Malthusian position of overpopulation, but he does not bring up these critiques in his own account.
Despite the above sentence, which enters into Cox’s analysis at the end of a long discussion about solidarity rationing, Cox is committed to reminding readers that the GND aims to stop carbon emissions in ways that will fundamentally uplift the most vulnerable. To do this, he maintains, the GND must be willing to deliberately scale back the economy and completely phase out fossil fuels by 2030, curtail the production and consumption of cars, air travel, and other fossil-fuel related activities, degrow the military and militarized law enforcement, end mass incarceration, and stop giving subsidies to industries that overproduce of civilian and military products. As Cox writes, we need a lower-energy economy with fewer goods, shorter working hours, and a motto of ‘sufficiency for all.’ Standardization and simplification will help ensure equitable distribution of essential resources and cut out the most wasteful parts of the economy.
The details of this kind of scaling back must be negotiated through local and participatory processes.
In thus countering the ‘eco-modernist’ approach of unhampered production in service of green luxury, Cox takes issue with those who do not see the need to deliberately scale back the economy. He argues instead that while many still believe that nuclear power or a battery-operated world will solve our problems, we must take a long, hard look at our ecological limits. If we are serious about meeting climate goals, for example, there can be no ‘high-speed rail’ as promised by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, because the concrete alone involved in such a project would contribute to an already-overshot cap of emissions. Rather, existing rail lines should be refurbished and extended in scaling back private transportation, while acknowledging that we need less—not more—energy use. The details of this kind of scaling back must be negotiated through local and participatory processes, but they would aim to include more public transportation, well-insulated and high-density housing, solar electric and water heating, and a new system of rationing not unlike that of the 1940s War Production Board. The good news is that the people responsible for the majority of emissions are in a relatively small class of consumers. The bad news is that we have to find a way to convince them to scale back the most.
In highlighting the above fact, Cox points out another common assumption: that simply taxing the 1% will be enough to stimulate the economy and re-build public infrastructure. Here the ambitious policies of both Sanders and Warren are called into question for not going far enough. Instead, Cox argues that the entire upper-middle class of the United States, which has a higher income than 96% of the world, will be adversely impacted by any ‘just transition’ that can equitably phase out fossil fuels. This is why Cox argues that a fair, effective climate policy will necessitate that ‘the 33% of American households with highest incomes will bear the greatest economic burden’ both in having to pay for economic restructuring, and in scaling back their own overblown consumption (109). The consumption of both its billionaire class and upper-middle class—the world’s 4%—must be heavily capped.
Restorative environmental justice
Instead of ‘leading the fight against climate change’ then, as the Green New Deal proposes, it would be more accurate to say that such legislation will begin to take some responsibility for centuries of uneven emissions, where the poorest parts of the world (who are responsible for only 15% of global emissions) feel the harshest and most brutal impacts of tropical storms, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and global migration. In fully recognizing the need for the U.S. to become accountable to these uneven causes and consequences, Cox acknowledges that there are many things which the Green New Deal gets right, or at least very close to right, in its vision of restorative environmental justice. Yet if the Green New Deal continues to rely upon the dream of a green energy economy to rival that of the fossil fuel industry, Cox warns, it will have to ignore this vision, as well as many of its own mandates to improve land use, preserve soil quality, and protect indigenous lands. Even if the U.S. refrains from further extractive practices on its own land, but continues mining precious metals across the world, it will still fail to enact this vision. Cox therefore suggests that the U.S. take part in a global fair-shares energy allocation that models the Green New Deal’s pro-worker and pro-poor economics, with the aim of globally ‘raising the floor and lowering the ceiling’ to put underdeveloped countries on par with developed ones.
Ultimately, Cox’s message is that, like the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which pushed the New Deal to ensure both workers’ rights and racial justice, the climate movement must stand in solidarity with indigenous climate struggles against market solutions, even and especially those alluded to in the Green New Deal. The good news is that those who are not already a part of the 33% of upper-class consumers will have less to sacrifice, and will likely benefit from the GND’s demands for worker’s rights, universal healthcare, housing, jobs, and universal access to clean air, water, and food. As Cox reminds us, the 40% at the bottom of the economic pyramid have a net worth of negative $22,000, which is why we must, as he says, raise the floor and lower the ceiling. Yet those who turn their noses up to a ‘sufficiency for all’ planned economy—which include, as Cox points out, the ‘fully automated luxury’ green modernists of the Left—must also be brought face-to-face with the reality that we are already approaching, at best, a future of more limited consumption.
In writing this book, Stan Cox could not have anticipated that the spread of COVID-19 may itself present an emergency situation requiring the restructuring and planning of the economy. The recently passed CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act in the U.S., which includes loan forgiveness and emergency funds for economic relief, has attempted to intervene in this emergency for the sake of stabilizing the economy. Cox would likely respond that such drastic intervention must become the new normal, but not for the sake of the market. Rather, he would argue that such an emergency should be an impetus for simplifying, standardizing, and restructuring production and consumption. Cox argues that this is not idealism, but necessity. By 2030 or 2040, if our aims and policies turn out to have been insufficient, as he points out, it will have been too late.
Natalie Suzelis is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. Her research analyzes the environmental and cultural history of capitalist development in early modern literature.
This August, large parts of the Amazon rainforest were set on fire to make way for the exploitation of land for industrial agriculture, causing the loss of over 1300 square miles this year alone.
It should come as no surprise that the destruction of the world’s most vital source of oxygen was incensed in part by the same private equity firm that has waged a global war on the human right to housing. What links these disasters is the fact that our political economy has redefined land as resource and therefore as potential capital: homes become real estate, the forests that replenish the earth’s atmosphere are seen as obstacles to agriculture.
The myopia of this kind of thinking easily infiltrates the design fields, which have largely adopted a pro-market logic over the past century. Architecture and urban design specifically have suffered from lack of interdisciplinarity in practice and navel-gazing in their academic culture, resulting in an approach to today’s ecological and social justice crises that is overwhelmingly hands-off, or milquetoast at best.
A new, new world
The project of imagining what the future looks like is as old as the practice of architecture. Architects are futurists by necessity: we occupy ourselves with projections of the shape of things to come. Often, these ideas surpass what’s possible in the present and live their lives on paper, never finding concrete expression in the real world. This so-called “paper architecture” makes up a stunning amount of what’s been canonized in architecture history books. But whether paper architecture can make a difference in the world outside academia hinges on its ability to challenge the preconditions for architecture. By identifying present shortfalls in our political, economic, social, and ecological systems and projecting the form of possible alternatives, speculative design can imbue the discipline with political agency.
In StudioTEKA’s 2100: A Dystopian Utopia: The City After Climate Change, a Brooklyn-based architecture studio dives deep into a question the building industries have neglected to ask: how much longer can the world’s cities withstand the rapidly increasing frequency of disastrous climate events? And what happens when they no longer can? The writers estimate that 83% of the Amazon would be destroyed by 2100; today’s toll already brings that percentage to a tipping point of 15-17%. 80 years too soon, we realize that the issues addressed in this book are all the more pressing.
It’s a fascinating thought experiment: can we pack up and reassemble this lifestyle in newly temperate climates? StudioTEKA seems to think so, given the proper technocracy.
2100 depicts a world in decay, and sheds light on what a possible post-decay world might look like. StudioTEKA’s proposal stems from the expectation that our politicians will do little, if anything at all, to bridle the destruction of the biosphere over the next 30 years.
It’s a fascinating thought experiment: can we continue to consume resources at our current rate, and be able to pack up and reassemble this lifestyle in newly temperate climates? Will we be able to go back to business as usual after the climate collapse plays out over the next century? StudioTEKA seems to think so, given the proper technocracy.
The master plan in 2100 looks like this: if we can force politicians to take action by 2050, we’ll be able to limit warming temperatures to a 6-7 degree rise by the year 2100. By most measures, even a 3-4 degree rise would be monumental. The Earth’s middle band, which hosts most of the world’s population in 2019, will largely become uninhabitable due to drought, severe storms, rising sea levels, and catastrophic heatwaves. StudioTEKA predicts that 10 billion people will then move to inhabit 39 million square kilometers of newly-developed compact megacities near the Earth’s poles.
To allow for this density, each megacity outsources its energy production and manufacturing to a sister “extraction city” in the middle band. There, renewable energy is harvested, natural resources are processed and both are exported to the corresponding megacity. The plants are staffed by temporary workers that travel to the middle band from the poles. The designers refer to these projections as the “new, new world.”
The servant and the served
Expanding on the architectural trope of the servant and the served, StudioTEKA suggests seven such pairings around the world, with densities 2.5 times that of present-day Manila, today’s densest city. Using methods of visual representation that are customary to architects, the predictions and solutions in 2100 convincingly spin a linear narrative out of the chaos that we’re about to see unfold in real time. Through compelling infographics, the authors script a future characterized by a harmonic relationship between humans and ecology, as a foil to our current pattern of reckless exploitation.
In 2100’s Antarctica, three quarters of Ross Island are maintained as a nature reserve. Agriculture and recreation are housed in crystalline greenhouses on stilts, and artificial glaciers are farmed for water. This water is exported to Ross Island’s sister city Johannesburg and to other cities with water shortages. A rendering of Troll, Antarctica shows a neighbourhood-sized concrete dome housing a mossy sculpture park ringed by a river designed for indoor boating. During the dark polar winters, Troll’s residents travel to Sao Paolo to aid in mass reforestation efforts, sleeping in pods suspended above the urban forest’s understory.
With the historic fabric of Manila projected to be underwater by 2100, the city is rebuilt on a linear plinth elevated above the water. The plinth is designed to harvest of storm energy, which is then loaded into large batteries and exported to Wellington. Wellington’s coast is also flooded, and the communities are moved up to a new megacity distributed amongst the mountaintops and linked by bridges.
As frequent hurricanes render New York uninhabitable, Greenland’s largest city, Nuuk, rises as the capital of global finance. In Nuuk, buildings bury themselves into cliffsides; and in New York the historic fabric is rehabilitated to house the temporary workers that come to work in carbon capture and energy-storage export.
A megastructure weaves through Moscow, stitching together the public space on the ground level with transit and bikeways up above, significantly densifying the city while maintaining open space on the ground level. Its partner city is found in the hostile desert landscapes of Kufra-Adjabiya, where extensive water evaporation infrastructure creates humid zones for agriculture and human habitation.
A top-down approach
StudioTEKA’s approach to designing this new, new world stems from a mix of utilitarianism and a biomorphic design sensibility. Every design move is based on how many functions it can make the architecture perform: building facades can no longer merely separate inside and outside and give buildings a face—they now also grow plants, harvest energy, and capture carbon. Parks not only provide recreation space, but act as carbon sinks, perform soil remediation, and provide a barrier against oceanic storm surges. Like the different organisms that make up an ecosystem, each element of the built world plays a muti-faceted and active role in its environment.
There is no discussion of who will be left behind as millionaires buy up the hot new real estate of the compact megacities; no hint of universal rent control and no plan for the construction of public housing.
Uniting the fourteen sites is a single aesthetic language of twisting, white sinewy forms with parametrically-designed perforations that form megastructures, towers, or domes scaled much larger than the majority of the architecture we’re familiar with today. This design language has its roots in biomimicry—a desire for human-made forms to look like, or even imitate those of nature. Think of Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Oculus in New York, or Studio Gang’s Aqua Tower in Chicago for built examples of this tendency. The unintended consequence is that the forms proposed in 2100 could not look more unnatural in the historic city fabrics and cultures that they colonize.
Zooming out to the urban plan, we see a top-down approach: in some cases, a new figure is superimposed over an existing street grid, while a series of clip-on developments colonize a historic city fabric in others. The architectural proposals are deliberately gestural and unresolved, acting as placeholders for the kinds of forms that this design ethic could produce. What’s missing is a clue towards the kind of society these places are meant to foster, and the political economy that we would need in order to get there without leaving anyone behind.
Everything is the same, but on acid
Interestingly, 2100 was written during the last years of the Obama presidency and before the proposal of the Green New Deal (GND)— a model for “greening” the US economy that’s being pushed by leftist Democrats. Similarly to what’s depicted in 2100, the GND proposes a shift to renewable energy and the creation of “green” jobs. The dominant narrative amongst its proponents has paradoxically broadcast the GND as a growth-driven vision of a sustainable future. At their worst, both the GND and the world of 2100 enact a kind of common sense on acid; a sensibility held in common in a world dominated by capitalistic thinking. Already, Left critiques of the GND have articulated a GND that challenges the economic framework at the root of the climate crisis. Meanwhile, 2100 suggests that the right cocktail of new technologies, scientific research, and continued economic growth might allow us to keep living just the way we do.
What neither 2100 nor the GND address is the scale of production and natural resource extraction that would be required for a transition to renewable energy at this magnitude. Renewable energy has far-reaching material implications that will require the growth of mining operations across the globe.
The scale of construction proposed in 2100, too, has massive material implications. Given that real estate development is one of the world’s most most carbon-intensive industries, the proposed undertakings speak to our desperation in the midst of the climate catastrophe. In 2100, finding habitable environments takes on more urgency than reconfiguring the scale at which we extract, produce, import, and consume. As a chapter title poignantly asks, “Where in the world can we live?”
Futurism with class bias
The research that informs StudioTEKA’s specific design solutions, technologies, and site selections is remarkable for a design studio. But honing in on the technical makes the political the book’s weak point.
While they note abnormalities in the effects of climate change (like the escalator effect, which will lower sea levels at poles while raising them around the middle band) and even suggest ways to address renewable energy’s intermittency problems (the gaps in energy supply that follow lulls in weather events); StudioTEKA never address what many fear to be an approaching climate apartheid—the poorest left behind in uninhabitable places while the rich flee to new eco-utopian enclaves.
2100 is a world in which we have our cake and eat it too: where we can continue to grow the economy while lowering our energy use. How the current class war plays out in this dystopian utopia seems to be a question these designers won’t approach.
It’s crucial for designers to recognize the ways in which both the climate crisis and—ironically—“green” building solutions most negatively impact working class communities and the developing world. By largely limiting their research to scientific reports and big-picture population data, the designers have missed a huge opportunity. And so, the book reveals its class biases as it rolls out a long, intricately curated and site-specific list of technological and lifestyle-based solutions.
For example, 2100 hypothesizes that a unanimous shift to plant-based diets will occur, reducing the amount of land needed for farming by 36%. This kind of thinking ignores the integral role that sustainable, small-scale animal husbandry and meat consumption play in countless cultures in North America and around the world. It misses the mark. Instead of shifting the blame onto the individual, we must hold the Big Agriculture giants to account for their recklessness towards the environment. While the rate of meat consumption among non-Indigenous populations in the US and Canada poses a number of ethical issues, as well as public health and environmental concerns; so does a sudden, massive shift towards diets that depend on soy and nuts for protein. The industrial production of these plants depends on monocropping, which is already eroding away our biodiversity. The blind spot occurs again and again throughout 2100. It doesn’t attempt a critique of the market-based approaches to urban design that catapulted us into this crisis in the first place. There is no discussion of who will be left behind as millionaires buy up the hot new real estate of the compact megacities; no hint of universal rent control and no plan for the construction of public housing. The authors don’t acknowledge that the extraction cities will depend on a subjugated class of migrant labourers, while the bourgeoisie and the professional managerial class will be able to remain in the relative safety of the compact megacities year-round.
Essentially, what’s proposed is a world of advanced capitalism and 100% renewable energy. Drawing on research by Ecofys, a renewable energy advocacy firm, the ideas in 2100 hinge on the idea that ”energy use can be lower while living standards and economic development continue to rise.” For the most part, 2100 is a world in which we have our cake and eat it too: where we can continue to grow the economy while lowering our energy use. How the current class war plays out in this dystopian utopia seems to be a question these designers won’t approach.
A world without a middle scale
The world we’re shown is one that architectural renderings have become very good at depicting: brand-new, glassy, hyperbolic building forms tower over outsized green lawns and criss-crossing pathways populated by a parade of stock humans. There’s a lack of a middle scale in these proposals, which was also a major failure of Brasilia or of the contemporary dystopia of Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan. While it’s easy to copy and paste stock images of people milling about in an urban plaza; it’s much harder for a designer to create true community spaces. Much of what’s shown is a world of heavy-handed designs that impose a unified aesthetic across an entire landscape, ignoring the patchwork of vernacular buildings that characterizes the organic growth of our towns and cities.
In her introduction to the book, StudioTEKA principal Vanessa Keith suggests that the solution will be both bottom-up and top-down, quoting from Bossomaier and Green’s Patterns in the Sand, “…We have to focus on the local interactions: change these, and the rest will follow.”
But where are these “local interactions” in 2100? Rather than offer a “trickle-up” ideology such as that of radical municipalism, the designs within the book offer a vision of top-down design and of a large-scale, global model of production.
Saskia Sassen’s buoyant introduction speaks to the idea of “delegating back to the biosphere.” She sees cities, in all their complexity, as our best impression of the biosphere itself and applauds the book’s authors for moving “beyond mitigation and adaptation.” Reading between the lines, her words seem to beg for a new definition of what it means to be urban, not for an evolution of the techno-metropolises we already have. A sweeping shift to renewable energy means employing the biosphere in our systems of production rather than empowering the biosphere. The book ultimately maintains a dualism of human and land, in which land continues to be seen as a resource.
The notion of urban growth is identified as a challenge in the foreword, but goes unquestioned for most of the book. Many of the designs echo the wistful refrains of architecture academia – more schools, more libraries – because spaces for community are inherently more engaging to design. But to be able to work on these kinds of projects, designers need to tackle the overhaul of the political economy head-on. We need to work with other disciplines to imagine and implement a culture of mutual aid needed to prioritize these institutions.
Design for a world after capitalism
It’s fitting that this ambitious project was taken on by an architecture studio. On the first day of school, architects are told that we will change the world. We’re told we are generalists; that our work is the work of many disciplines, synthesized into its material form. But as real estate and resource extraction continues to drive our social and environmental ecologies into collapse, it would be a mistake to think we can simply design our way out in the traditional sense. What we need are interdisciplinary approaches at the scale of what StudioTEKA has begun to do, but with a much more headstrong focus on reshaping our political economy—a conversation largely ignored in design circles. The sites in 2100 are chosen strategically, and they suggest a monumental mass migration but never once mention the ugly ways that the class system of capitalist nations rears its head in a “green” transition.
The flaw of 2100 is not that it’s unrealistic—in fact, it follows the protocols of today’s neoliberal environmentalism quite realistically to their natural end. But it does not offer us a way out.
There is one proposal in the book that does stand out as a more sophisticated challenge to architecture’s habit of producing more stuff, and as a provocative step toward a new kind of city. In the Phoenix scenario, StudioTEKA propose a “green deconstruction” of a city that, in 2019, is the heart of the the fastest-growing metropolitan region in the US. In the plan, the region plummets into severe drought and experiences a mass exodus. It’s then transformed into one of the proposed extraction cities as its housing stock is hand-demolished in phases with the goal of salvaging building parts and making way for dew collectors, greenhouses, solar farms, and wind parks. This scheme implies a massive overhaul of the real estate market through the expropriation of homes to the city. In a beautiful display of what architect Keller Easterling has termed “subtraction,” a city is imagined to shrink to a scale that might allow for a more localized economy, and possibly for much stronger solidarity between its residents, largely seasonal renters who work in the city’s proposed renewable energy sector in the mild winter months.
The flaw of 2100 is not that it’s unrealistic—in fact, it follows the protocols of today’s neoliberal environmentalism quite realistically to their natural end. But it does not offer us a way out from a system that privileges the few at the cost of the many. On the whole, the proposals in the book are bold, but prove to be flimsy as they reveal their failure to take into account that the climate catastrophe arises from the ecology we have created for ourselves—a system of being in and understanding the world in which a capitalist political economy sets the terms.
We need to ask: how will ecosystems withstand the increased mining of rare minerals needed for the capture of renewable energy? How will we organize a growing population in a way that is sustainable, while maintaining a connection to the land?
We need to ensure that our innovations aren’t funneled into building “climate-proof” fortresses for the rich. We need to demand that frontline communities are prioritized; that real estate speculation is abolished; that with a reconstruction on this scale we can also overhaul our political economy into one that ensures what Donna Haraway calls the “ongoingness” of all. Designing for a post-climate crisis world inheres designing for a world after capitalism.
Sasha Plotnikova is a designer, writer, and activist living in Los Angeles. She is a proud member of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, the environmentalist study group OOLA, and the architecture faculty at Cal Poly Pomona. She tweets at @sashaplot_.
What will it take for human civilization to thrive in a more equitable and sustainable existence on Earth? The enormous violence we see directed at the planet and amongst its inhabitants adds a tremendous sense of urgency to this question. There are many answers that seem compelling. Some answers are technological—we need to be more innovative and use science and technology to solve global problems. Other answers are economic—better pricing will be our ecological salvation. While others still suggest we build and maintain institutions and movements to regulate industries and the environmental bads that flow from the economy.
Too few look more fundamental answers or probe for deeper questions about solutions. Why do we extract and produce so much? Do we need all the consumer products that are produced from natural resources to live a happy life? What kind of economy can we build that allows us to live with better relations to each other and our planet?
Degrowth, by Dr. Giorgos Kallis of the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology (ICTA) of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, is an introduction to the ideas and genesis of a namesake concept in environmental studies that emphasizes dematerialization of the economy, but that also embodies a lot more. Kallis’ interdisciplinary scholarship contributes to the fields of political ecology and ecological economics, two fields that are heavily influential in shaping the main arguments of the book. I have used Kallis’ articles on degrowth in my courses for many years now, so it is a great privilege to have the opportunity to review this longer-form work.
The basic idea of degrowth is that
there are laws of physics that dictate certain physical and natural resource
limits on the economy. Most important are the laws of thermodynamics, notably
the second law, which asserts that the quality of energy or its ability to do
work in a closed system always declines with each transformation.
Accordingly, production—the material basis of the economy and economic growth—is entropic. The more we produce, the more we degrade our natural resources. This means there is an inherent contradiction between economic growth and ecological sustainability because eventually the energy in a system degrades in quality and there is none left that is capable of doing work. According to this theory, while resource efficiency and technological change are important to improving some environmental issues, economic growth ultimately has limitations. Either economic growth hits natural resource limitations that lead to its decline, or, eventually, as the global population begins to decline, the economy could contract.
Degrowth is just as much a prescription
for scholar-activism to examine pathways towards sustainability and environmental
justice, as it is a pathway for positive environmental change. In other words, when
people hear degrowth, many only think only of the pathway from the material
sense, as in degrowth means using less or dematerialization. But as Kallis
clearly articulates degrowth embodies more than just the dematerialized pathway
to sustainability, but as normative precepts that center values such as justice,
equity, race, gender, and living wage work.
Degrowth as it refers to the material
throughput of human civilization is a sobering reminder of the challenges ahead
and the lack of progress on many environmental issues. There are examples of
decarbonization of some electricity sectors around the world, for example in
California. But the overall use of natural resource impacts from human
civilization continues to increase.
of the book
Degrowth was coined in French scholarship in the early 1970s,
where the ideas were brought into contact with theories of social change that
emphasize autonomy and appropriate technology. Chapter 1 one describes these
origins of degrowth as a topic of investigation and debate in environmental
research. It opens with a short intellectual history of ecological economics
and the emergence of the concept degrowth, drawing on contributions from Nicholas
Georgescu-Roegen, Herman Daly, Serge Latouche, Cornelius Castoriadus, to
contemporary work done with colleagues at ICTA.
Kallis’ narrative weaves together a number of influential social scientists, philosophers, and writers that offer insights on the ultimate roots of social and environmental problems such as Ursula Le Guin, J.K. Gibson-Graham, David Harvey, Hannah Arendt, Karl Polyani, Ivan Illich, André Gorz, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Joan Martinez-Alier, to name a few. The articulation of ideas from these thinkers and integration into the motivation and rationale for degrowth, illustrates the breadth of Kallis’ scholarship and quality of writing.
Tracing the intellectual roots of
degrowth to The Limits To Growth,
Kallis shows how several key themes emerged as ideas underlying ecological economics
were read alongside theories of social change, anthropology, development
studies, and interpreted through the lens of environmental justice and
post-colonial theory. The resulting vision for degrowth is of social relations
with reduced the extraction and pollution, that maintains diverse economies, that
values leisure over growth for its own sake, and is based on strong empathetic
What is the economy? Chapter 2 grapples
with the idea of a socially-constructed economy. The chapter revisits the origins
of the ideas underlying how we imagine the health of economy, for example the Dow
Jones Index or gross domestic product (GDP). How did it come to be that the imperative
of economic growth became a core motivation of nation states in modern
One core contention is that economic
policies that use gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of well-being
should be abandoned. The most widely known illustration of this general point
is Daniel Kahneman’s “happiness-income paradox,” where people’s happiness is
not linked to the amount of money they make. This finding, which garnered a
Nobel prize in economics, was a challenge to Western ideas of progress, which
have long used economic growth as a yardstick of development. GDP has some
glaring problems including the fact that it includes spending on activities
that are negative—storm damage, deforestation, hospital visits, asthma inhalers,
for example. There are other indices attempting to move beyond GDP, including
the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare and Human Development Index, but
these too are not without gaps and shortcomings. Also challenging is the
commensuration of complex, undifferentiated social processes into numbers in
the first place, as Kallis notes.
Chapter 3 recounts the emergence of
economic growth in the 20th century phenomena and puts it in the
context of an increase in socio-ecological metabolism, i.e., the total use of
materials and energy of society, which has ushered in extinction and climate
crises. As economic growth marched on, so did ecological degradation and labor
Are growth and ecological
sustainability compatible? The case for degrowth is laid out in chapter 4
starting from the basic premise that material extraction and pollution increase
with economic growth. Some environmental scholars, such as economists or
sociologists adhering to ecological modernization, hold that we could maximize resource
efficiency through technological change and/or accurate pricing (internalizing
externalities). If this were possible, growth and ecological sustainability
could be compatible.
Degrowth advocates like Kallis, instead
argue that the two are incompatible. This is not to argue against trends
towards resource efficiency. They are not against, for example, recycling solar
panels, to utilize more sustainable materials use. Instead, they argue that much
more than resource efficiency and technological change is needed to avoid the
worst of our relations between the economy and its environmental impacts. For
example, recycling solar panels would embody certain principles of a circular
economy, but so would reusing old solar panels, which is not about technology,
but instead requires building new institutions, policies, and practices. Transitioning
to a sustainable economy according to the theory of degrowth will require
changes to wants, values, institutions, and behaviors.
Chapter 5 presents the utopian vision that
motivates degrowth, its ambitions and engagements with the material world. Kallis
admits that degrowth is aspirational, but nonetheless believes these utopian
ideals are critical to meeting the objectives in the policy and praxis of
degrowth. The precepts of degrowth include (1) end to exploitation of nature,
people, gender, (2) direct democracy, (3) localized production, (4) a sharing
economy, (5) good socio-ecological relationships, (6) investments in
unproductive expenditures (e.g., natural capital), (7) an ethics of care,
alongside the redistribution of care work.
These appear to be radical
reorientations from framings that say little about social change beyond changes
to technologies. Table 5.1 lists policies for degrowth, revealing that while
some of the policies and practices advocated are in fact transformative, but
many are similar to those advocated by the environmental and climate action
communities already—tax reforms, polluter pays principle, ethical banking,
green jobs investments, environmental justice. So while degrowth seeks more
wholesale social and personal change, its basket of policy options reflects
much of the mainstream tools used in environmental policy-making. Degrowth
seems to have some agnosticism to environmental policy tools, based on the list
of policies in table 5.1, except of course those policies that involve green
washing, commodification, dispossession, or land grabs.
Chapter 6 explores some of the key
challenges to degrowth. It offers a response to some of the critics that
suggest that degrowth would lead to decreased well-being. Kallis’ contention is
that degrowth means capping resource use in some way, and does not advocate income
loss or declines in well-being. The idea is that a radical shift in values and
motivations will change the way that happiness and well-being is measured in
the first place. Kallis brings together the foundation of ecological economics
with a Gramscian model—using grassroots activism to use the tools of the state
to benefit the population—of social change. Is degrowth compatible with
capitalism? Liberal democracy? Is it Eurocentric? These tensions are discussed
as Kallis summarizes arguments of critics of degrowth.
The main contention of critics of
degrowth is the issue of decoupling. The green growth perspective argues that
economic growth can be decoupled from natural resource use. So unlimited growth
in this view is possible if there are ways to dissociate economic growth from
any material basis. Kallis contends that there is still no evidence for
decoupling, suggesting that substitutionism seen in the electricity sector
(most notably coal to natural gas and renewables) involves a lot of one-offs
that will lead to short-term reductions in greenhouse gases, but do not clearly
show a sustained rate of decline overall, and do not consider other
environmental issues (land, extractive industries, waste, etc.). Critics may
still say, but what if evidence of decoupling did emerge? This is the question
degrowth scholars will have to continue to contend with.
read the book, make your students read and think about it
Irrespective of whether the reader
agrees with degrowth as a normative goal, one cannot ignore the observation
that there are no real world examples of decoupling. Until examples of
decoupling economic growth from natural resource impact can be demonstrated,
ideas embraced by degrowth for how to enagage in a just transition deserve real
engagement. Furthermore, given how growth depends on natural resources, and
control over natural resources figures in geopolitical contests, the pursuit of
growth will necessitate the continuation of militarized capitalism, with all of
the tortured and unequal socio-ecological relations that tends to reproduce.
is an important contribution to the environmental studies canon. It synthesizes
an important strand of the intellectual history of degrowth and ecological
economics and integrates ideas from development studies, political ecology,
cultural studies. The book is highly accessible for college students or readers
with an interest in society and the environment. Each chapter ends with a
summary of the argument, which is helpful for many of us who will use the book
in the classroom. Degrowth is essential
reading for environmental studies, political ecology, and energy transition studies
courses. I commend Kallis for producing such a concise and readable book on such
a critical topic, and look forward to discussing its contents with my students.
Dustin Mulvaney is an Associate Professor in the Environmental Studies Department at San José State University. His research is on just transitions in the solar industry.
I chose to read Donatella di Cesare’s Heidegger and the Jews and review it out of curiosity. However, as soon as I received the book and started to read it, I felt sorry for myself for having agreed to do this. Not only because of the book itself— the text is dense, chapter after chapter. The sheer amount of information is incredible. But the main reason for being sorry, however, is because of the topic and how ‘me being curious’ but not a real expert in matters concerning the philosopher Martin Heidegger, immediately felt that I could not justify myself to do this task. Still, my curiosity won.
In this review I will address why di Cesare wrote this book and what she hoped to achieve with it. I will also comment if I think she was successful in that. It is because of the ‘Black Notebooks’ recently having been published that she hoped to find the answer to the question, ‘Why did Heidegger remain silent about what happened with the Jews during World War two?’ Although in the book she is convincing about Heidegger’s anti-Semitism, it is this question about his silence that drives her.
Understanding Heidegger’s philosophy is not easy. Di Cesare has not written this book for beginners. To appreciate her analysis of the recently published ‘Black Notebooks’, some overview or introduction to basic concepts is needed. Those notebooks are philosophical texts, by the way, not personal diaries. So, to begin with I provide some context here myself, through the work of another philosopher, namely Louiza Odysseos. Through her essay, ‘Radical Phenomenology, Ontology, and International Political Theory’, I try to give a picture of what Heidegger is about.
Heidegger was Edmund Husserl’s student. Husserl conceptualized phenomenology as a proposition to go back to the things themselves. It was clearly a response to the consequences of Descartes’ philosophy that had become too much of an ‘I can think it therefore I know it’, kind of idea. This was a very powerful idea as it emancipated philosophy from religion. Husserl meant to take a distance from immediate interpretation (so called ‘epoche’, meaning one ‘suspends’ oneself from one’s intentions). Another term introduced by Husserl, was ‘bracketing’. That means one puts aside what one already knows, in order to look afresh from the experience of what it is one is researching. However a big point of debate in Husserl’s philosophy is his idea of the transcendental ego. This means that even when you discard immediate interpretation, you still are left with some kind of self that looks upon the world, thinking about it (and thus interpreting).
Now Heidegger wasn’t happy with this transcendental ego and came up with a different version of phenomenology, as Husserl’s version (and others) meant falling back on ‘traditional definitions dividing man into reason and sense, soul and body, inner and outer, without a sense of what holds these realities together as a whole’ (Odysseos, 2002, p. 377). In fact, philosophers at the time posed two questions to Husserl, and Heidegger took upon himself to answer them. Here Odysseos quotes Kisiel 1on these fundamental questions: ‘How is the non-objectifiable subject matter of phenomenology to be even approached without already theoretically inflicting an objectification upon it? How are we to go along with life reflectively without de-living it?’ She continues: ‘Such a fundamental challenge was aimed at the very basis of phenomenology as a means of access to lived experience that guarded against the objectification imposed by reflection and theoretical constructs. The second objection voiced the doubt that, in addition to the first problem of accessibility, phenomenology was not able to express its purported access to its subject matter without recourse to theoretical construction’ (Odysseos, 2002, p. 378).
Heidegger formulated answers to these two most critical questions, through coming up with what he called existential analysis. ‘Existential analysis concerns itself with the structures of existence (Dasein / RZ: Being) in order to find out how Dasein is without assuming in advance, as was the case
with traditional ontology, what it is. The how and what are related since, as Heidegger has shown in his rejoinder to Natorp, there is an “initial” unity of method and subject matter in human experience. In rejecting the phenomenological isolation of the pure “I” from the perceptual objects, phenomenology and ontology become explicitly intertwined: in interpretative phenomenology, the “perceiving subject” turns to inquire about itself as the “perceptual object.” The analysis of Dasein shows it to be both the investigator and that which is interrogated. Hence, Heidegger’s phenomenological concern becomes the manner in which Dasein shows “itself to itself” (Odysseos, 2002, p. 382).
Many philosophers are quite happy with Heidegger’s work (not his anti-Semitism) because it implies that seeing and understanding everything in the world is relational. It also points at beings in a world that is already given, but at the same time holds potential. This is not necessarily from individual positions, but from positions of collectivity and mutual dependency, including dependency on the land. This is where Heidegger started to mix his philosophy of phenomenology with politics of anti-Semitism.
Now back to Di Cesare. She doesn’t fight the relevance of his thoughts on phenomenology still acknowledged today, for that would become an either-or kind of analysis of all good or all bad. Instead she focuses on the meta-level of philosophy and politics. Her book is an analysis of a philosopher and his responsibility for his published writing.
Her astonishment (and that of many others) is that he hardly did take any responsibility. Many others have written about Heidegger and the commentaries over the last decades had more or less come to a rest. However, as di Cesare states it is the recent publishing of the Black Notebooks that has renewed people’s interest in the man and generated a renewed debate about him, not only among philosophers, but also with a broader audience. Di Cesare explains her own interest in writing this book quite early on in the introduction, where she says:
‘For that matter, anti-Semitism is not an emotion, a feeling of hatred that comes and goes and can be circumscribed within a particular period. Anti-Semitism has a theological provenance and a political intention. In the case of Heidegger, it also takes on a philosophical significance’ (p. viii).
In other words, Di Cesare says that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in his philosophy (in the way he applied it himself). Her first problem is trying to understand this ‘application’. For that, Di Cesare explains that Heidegger and Judaism had many points in common, ranging from the concepts of nothingness, to the concept of time. But Heidegger took a different turn when putting ‘Being’ (RZ; Dasein) on the foreground. It is there where he ‘recoiled. Being was more important. The Jew was left aside’ (p.ix).
What was his problem with them? Di Cesare: ‘To the Jews, seen as the rootless agents of modernity, accused of machination to seize power, of the desertification of the earth, of uprooting peoples, condemned to be weltlos – worldless, “without world”- Heidegger imputed the gravest guilt: the oblivion of Being. The Jew was a sign of the end of everything, impeding (RZ: prohibiting) the rise of a new beginning’ (p.ix).
But then an even bigger question for Di Cesare is about Heidegger’s silence and the way he didn’t budge under the post war attempts to have him speak (many people tried) and comment on his thinking and responsibility. Does she find an answer to this question, ‘Why the silence?’ Let’s see.
In the second part of the book – Di Cesare illustrates the history of the hatred of the Jews in philosophy. This goes far beyond Heidegger. She goes back to Martin Luther and further illustrates that Judeophobia is not only a German phenomenon. However, Germany started looking for an identity from the Middle Ages on. The role played by Jews in the Enlightenment—while present in Germany in large numbers—created perhaps more of an entanglement for German identity than elsewhere in Europe. Di Cesare then discusses Hegel and Nietzsche who, both for different reasons, rejected the teachings of Judaism. From here she makes a connection to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, where rejection of Judaism has gone to absurd extremes with the argument that the fact that Judaism has not changed its essence over the course of centuries, shows a lack of the capacity to establish or initiate things (p.60). Di Cesare points at this argument coming back frequently in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks.
The third part of the book focusses on the question of ‘Being and the Jewish question’.
Here Di Cesare discusses extensively Heidegger’s concept of Being:
Thus, for Heidegger, being-in-the-world was the way in which being exists – constantly emerging – ex-isting – from the facticity [the quality or state of being a fact] into which it had been thrown. For him, Being was not simple presence: rather, it was always the potential of being. Being-in-the- world constantly goes beyond itself, projecting itself toward its own possibilities, starting not from a stable, objective base, but instead emerging from an abyss of nothingness, in which those possibilities threaten to disappear. In its projection, Being comports itself toward the things that it encounters in a praxis that has no cognitive velleitty [desire to be ‘what one is able to represent, conceive, and express] (p.162-163).
In this way, the world (der welt) depends on ‘Being’. Therefore, Heidegger thinks of animals as world poor (welt arm) and of the inanimate things as without world (welt loss). Then further on in the text Di Cesare says:
In Heidegger’s view, the Jew, a petrified and unassimilable remnant in the history of Being, threatens in turn to petrify Being. His a-cosmic, distorting inertia weighs upon the planet, already darkened and desertified; he darkens every light, precludes any clearing, cancels out any place on earth from which the world might spring forth, in an acceleration which, in the eschatological background [Christian eschatology is the study of the ultimate destiny of the individual soul and the entire order], infinitely reiterates the end (p. 164).
With Judaism, Jews became a metaphysical enemy. Di Cesare then states that in being drawn into metaphysics—looking to answer lives questions in terms of generalities—Heidegger was lead in complete darkness, wanting to find the answer to the question of the essence of the Jew. This was a philosopher’s error against his own phenomenological method where the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ could not be separated. But he did separate them.
After the war
In the fourth part of the book Di Cesare discusses the post-Auschwitz period. In this part, she further analyses Heidegger’s writing and teaching (although he was expelled from teaching at his University shortly after the war) and his public appearance. In an interview in Der Spiegel published September 1966, Heidegger states about his involvement with National Socialism that ‘I believed then that in my encounter with National Socialism a way could be opened, the only possible way’. Further down on the same page Di Cesare says: without admitting that that had been for him the path to revolution, the epochal event of Being, a philosophical path more than a political one; on the other hand, Heidegger did not attempt to pass himself off as a late-blooming democrat—he did not believe in, nor had he ever believed in, democracy—much less in the “technological age.” Even in the last pages that he wrote, Heidegger spoke of “the destiny of the Germans,” but he did not speak about any responsibility on their part. Not even one syllable about the extermination. Nothing’ (p.179). Heidegger died in 1976. But it is from the Black Notebooks (numbers II-XV were published in 2014, others in 2015 and more to follow) that Di Cesare manages to construct some answers to the questions he did not answer himself during his life. What astonishes and repels her (after having analysed the Black Notebooks, she gave up her membership of the Martin Heidegger Society) becomes clear from the next passage: In keeping with his metaphysical anti-Semitism, Heidegger interpreted the extermination of the Jews as a “self-annihilation”: the Jews would annihilate themselves. Agents of modernity, complicit with metaphysics, the Jews followed the destiny of technology, which was summed up in the word Verzehr (RZ: consumption): the usurers would lend themselves, the consumers would consume themselves, the destroyers would end up destroying themselves. If the Jews were being annihilated in the lagers, it was on account of the Gestell (RZ: frame), the technological framework to take over the world that they had promoted and fostered everywhere (p.201).
Di Cesare has given us an extensive analysis of Heidegger’s thinking about the Jews and his silence after Auschwitz, based on the Black Notebooks. The main reason for his silence according to Di Cesare is that the man himself identified with his metaphysical analysis of the Jews as well as believing that the Germans were the victims of the World (infected by Jewish nihilism and ‘gestell’). It is for the reader to decide for him or herself about Heidegger. What is relevant is to see if Di Cesare’s book, in the context of Heidegger taking responsibility for the publications of his thinking and his silence after Auschwitz, has given us valuable insights about him. I think so.
What do you think about this, as a PhD student interested in environmental philosophy? How does it affect your own understanding of his philosophy, and your possible use of it as a student? How does it relate to environmental philosophy (where Heidegger’s philosophy is common?)
Rembrandt Zegers is finishing his PhD on leading nature practices and what such practices tell us about relating to nature. He worked for Greenpeace International, Ernst & Young and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Currently he is promoting Earth Trusteeship as an innovation in governance, that bases itself on an inclusive relation with nature.
Heidegger and the Jews: The Black Notebooks is available from Polity.
Here in Britain we are living on the cusp of catastrophe. A bad break Brexit could lead to chaos, gridlocked lorries on the M25 because of a new customs regime and even food shortages. Ten years after the financial crisis, the world is due a new cyclical economic crisis. In turn, climate change is leading to increasingly chaotic weather. In fact the catastrophe is already here, living and breathing, spending cuts as part of Theresa May’s austerity programme, are pushing the heads of the poorest below the waterline. Graham Jones, a self-educated organic intellectual, hairdresser and exponent of radical mindfulness, has written a short guide to turning crisis into opportunity, called The shock doctrine of the left. The book is part map, part story, part escape manual. Easy and enjoyable to read, it provokes us to read more and will help us to be politically active in more effective ways.
The shock doctrine of the left ignores moralism and policy making. Neither does it come up with a blueprint for a better society, or a list of policies that might be introduced.
The shock doctrine of the left ignores moralism and policy making. The obvious moral failures of 21st century capitalism are accepted but this provides a starting point rather than making up an agonized critique of what is wrong. Neither does it come up with a blueprint for a better society, or a list of policies that might be introduced. While concepts such as a universal basic income scheme are described, this book focusses on how those of us who are politically active can act strategically to make effective change.
Graham Jones clearly and, in my opinion, correctly, believes that part of the strategic processes of making practical change relies on having effective concepts. Concepts are tools that can be used to transform social reality. While this might sound a little abstract or unconvincing, the concept of the “shock doctrine”, used in the book’s title, is a good illustration.
In her book The shock doctrine, Naomi Klein, the Canadian political activist and writer, argued that sudden and dramatic change had been increasingly exploited by the right to make changes in society, moving things in a pro-corporate direction. For example, the second Iraq War, with its massive disruption of the country, was used to try to engineer Iraq society to be more neoliberal. By neoliberal, I mean a combination of, on the one hand, free market forces that reduce state intervention in social welfare and other forms of human care, combined, paradoxically, with a stronger state support for corporations along with military and police control. Klein argues that shocks can be used to restructure society to the benefit of the rich and powerful. This is not a conspiracy theory: the shocks are usually not deliberate, but, when they do occur, they are used by right-wing forces.
The financial crisis of 2008 is another example. Caused by reduced bank regulation under pro-market governments, it was used in Britain as a justification to introduce spending cuts that also moved British society in a more neoliberal direction. Climate disasters such as hurricanes may be used to restructure cities, remove social housing, and initiate pro-corporate urban development.
In this short book, however, Graham Jones looks at how increasing crisis can open up space for the left to promote a future that is friendly to social and ecological goals, rather than allowing for corporate control.
His book is very easy to read but at the same time extremely thought-provoking. He tends to produce ideas which seem new to those of us who have been politically active over several decades, but perhaps more familiar to a more recent political generation. He explains them with vivid images and interesting stories and suggests further reading we can use to deepen our knowledge.
Much of the book is based on ideas from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995). Deleuze is perhaps best known for the two-part book he co-wrote with Felix Guattari, Capitalism andSchizophrenia. Deleuze is popular amongst many activists and intellects on the left, but difficult to understand. Deleuze’s books on philosophy depend on the effects that they inspire in readers. One virtue of reading Jones’ book is that I understood a little more about Deleuze.
I may be misleading readers by giving the impression that the book is about philosophy and difficult to read or understand ideas. In fact it is very clear and takes a resolutely non-academic approach, concepts are, to repeat, illustrated by appealing stories.
The argument put forward is that there are different ‘logics of the left’. We are not talking about ‘dialectic materialism’ versus ‘Fabianism’ here. The logics of smashing, building, healing and taming are discussed, each in its own brief chapter. Finally the book ends with a chapter linking these under the title of meta-strategy.
The book suggests that to make change we need to understand systems. Social reality is based on processes that work within networks. Jones argues that the systems we live within can be understood as bodies which are made up of other bodies. Through various actions we can reshape these bodies. In this way, power is defused throughout a society. It is therefore not a matter of simply electing a government that will ‘take power’ and make better laws. Power isn’t found in one place. The notion of a traditional revolutionary party modeled by Lenin is also inappropriate: there is no Winter Palace to be stormed, as in the Bolshevik Revolution.
It’s not really like any book I have read on political strategy before, its both strange (but in a good way) and very easy to understand.
It’s not really like any book I have read on political strategy before. It’s both strange (but in a good way) and very easy to understand. I think if I wanted to capture its approach—not that it can really be captured—one sentence in the middle of book comes close to giving an idea of what The shock doctrine of the left is all about: ‘It involves mapping the bodies around us – their parts, relations and wholes, their paths and speeds – and developing interventions for altering them to our advantage.’ (page 37).
What we do—electioneering, supporting a strike, or getting involved in a social centre—is practical action. The simply and clearly outlined concepts developed in The shock doctrine of the left help us to put our action into context, so as to make it effective. We intervene informed by a map of how things are and how our intervention can shape them productively.
The book isn’t for everyone. It sometimes seems a little slight and to leave many questions left without an answer. However no book is the book to end all books. It is a charming look at social change that, for me, at least, reminds me of some core concepts I find useful and introduced me to others. It is a Deleuzian book, if I understand him at all ( which I may not!), in the sense that it aims to produce practical effects and these effects are not predetermined.
Derek Wall teaches political economy and is a former International Coordinator of the Green Party. His new book Hugo Blanco: A Revolutionary Life will be published in November by Merlin Press.
The shock doctrine of the left by Graham Jones is published by Polity Press, as part of the Radical Futures series. You can find it here.