The global exchange of commodities and money through trade appear as balanced when we measure it in money, but this conceals very unequal exchanges of labour time, raw materials, and energy and an unequal distribution of Earth’s capacity to absorb environmental waste such as carbon dioxide. These uneven net flows of labour and natural resources and appropriation of sink capacities are what the notion of Ecologically unequal exchange (EUE) conceptualizes, and a common assumption is that they contribute to ecological and human exploitation in peripheral areas as well as to the maintaining of an unjust world order.
Unequal exchange: an academic theory with deep rootlets
The concept has deep rootlets in political economy and ecology. Unequal exchange—basically the notion that more labour is exchanged for less labour through international trade—was discussed by for instance the political economists David Ricardo and Karl Marx in the 19th century, and was later further developed by the Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer, the dependency theorist Arghiri Emmanuel, world system analyst Samir Amin, and neo-Marxist Ernest Mandel, to mention some of the more important contributors. Explanations for why unequal exchange happen vary, from viewing different levels of productivity or wages as the cause to associating unequal exchange with—in more Marxist phrasing—the organic composition of capital. This has to do with the distribution of capital, divided into two categories, in an economy: on the one hand constant capital—investments such as machinery and buildings—and on the other hand variable capital—mainly paid as wages for labour. In advanced, highly industrialized economies, the share of constant capital is normally higher than in ‘developing’ economies. Investments in machines, for instance, substitute for labour and thus less labour is needed to create a certain amount of value. In other words, if a lot of labour time goes into commodity production in one area, like Africa, and much less goes into production in another area, like Western Europe, an exchange of commodities from those two areas is likely give rise to unequal net flows of labour time. The commodity produced in Africa is likely to embody more labour time per unit of value (e.g. dollar) than the European.
Biophysical resources with high exergy (energy with high ability to perform work) are extracted in the peripheries of the world system and exported to the cores, where they are dissipated/consumed
Ecologically unequal exchange: theoretical developments and critical discussions
Starting in the 1980s, the concept of unequal exchange was further broadened to include not only unequal exchange of labour but also of natural resources—matter and energy. A pioneering study was Stephen Bunker’s (1985) Underdeveloping the Amazon, in which theories of unequal exchange were first applied to ecological extraction. Alf Hornborg (1998) coined the concept ecologically unequal exchange and in a series of articles and books gave it theoretical depth by combining world system analysis with thermodynamic concepts from physics. Biophysical resources with high exergy (energy with high ability to perform work) are extracted in the peripheries of the world system and exported to the cores, where they are dissipated/consumed either directly or as inputs to industrial products. From an economic point of view, these final products (cars, cell phones, washing machines …) are considered as more valuable than the input, but from a thermodynamic perspective they are actually of less value. The raw materials have high exergy, with great potentials, that becomes dissipated as it is turned into finished products. The deterioration will then continue as the product is used, worn and finally thrown away. What is more, the low exergy final products are often returned to the peripheries together with waste. According to Hornborg, industrial production is nothing but a displacement of labour, matter, and environmental loads: he regards technology as a mystification of appropriation. The world-economic cores extract labour and high-exergy matter from the peripheries, and spit back waste.
Hornborg has developed a way of assessing and measuring EUE: time-space appropriation (Hornborg 2006). To understand the industrial revolution in England, he quantified the unequal exchange of labour time and hectare yields in the trade exchange of raw cotton and manufactured garments between England and its former North-American slave colonies in the mid 19th century. The result strengthened the idea that England’s superiority was not mainly technological, but rather an effect of its ability to appropriate land and labour from its (former) colonies. Another study has used the same methodological approach to test the global-historical theory that the early modern world system was Sinocentric or polycentric, rather than Eurocentric, and the results seemed to confirm this (Warlenius 2016a). EUE has also been operationalized and applied on more recent statistical data, mainly by the American sociologists Andrew Jorgensen (e.g. 2009) and James Rice, strengthening hypotheses that unequal exchanges maintain a world divided in cores and peripheries.
More recently, attempts have been made to widen the concept to not only encompass the effects of international trade, but of the entire global social metabolism—that is, of societies’ use of natural resources and ecosystems as both source and sink—of which the latter is seldom formally traded. Warlenius (2016b) launched the concept of unequal sink appropriation as a part of the wider notion of EUE and measured how unequally the global carbon sinks, which should be regarded as a ‘common good’, have been distributed historically. In the same article, EUE is linked to another important concept used by the environmental justice movement: ecological debt. Net flows of e.g. natural resources and other commodities, as well as waste and sink appropriation, are referred to as ecologically unequal exchange, while the cumulative stock resulting from these flows are ecological debt. In a similar way, continuous carbon sink appropriation builds up climate debt.
The often quantitative and methodological focus of the concept—its emphasis on the practice of measuring flows of resources—has provoked a critique about EUE being under-theorized. Brolin (2007) advocates a stronger connection to Emmanuel’s theory on unequal exchange, Warlenius (2017) has suggested to employ the Marxist economic geographer David Harvey’s historical-geographical materialism and the concept of uneven development, while Holleman and Foster (2014) suggest a footing on the ecologist Howard Odum’s emergy approach (which basically means to translate all productive inputs—labour, matter and energy—into a unit used to measure energy (e.g. kWh), and use this total “emergy” as a measure of value of a product). Hornborg (2015) has, on the other hand, criticized this latter approach for mixing apples and pears in its attempt to define an objective measure of value: value is culturally produced—people hold different things to be valuable depending on their shared cultural believes—while emergy (as well as land or labour that are the foundation of other materialist theories of value) is physics.
Several of the demands of the environmental justice movements that are related to ecological or climate debt are also relevant to address ecologically unequal exchange
From academia to political movements
While it was the environmental/climate justice movement that developed the concepts of ecological debt and climate debt and these concepts have generated several policy proposals, the background of (ecologically) unequal exchange is academic and used for analysis rather than politics. Yet, linking these concepts together is also a way of building a bridge between environmental justice as academic tradition and as political praxis. Several of the demands of the environmental justice movements that are related to ecological or climate debt, such as the famous outcomes from the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, are also relevant to address EUE. These include ways of acknowledging the debt as well as repaying it: by reversing unequal net flows through radical emission cuts in high-emitting advanced economies; by compensating peripheral countries in the global South for adaptation costs; through sharing of technologies; and through reparations—concrete transfer of financial resources. Although such global redistribution would mainly be the result of changing balances of power, solid theories and data on past inequalities could encourage struggles for environmental justice.
As previously discussed, central texts in the development of theories on ecologically unequal exchange include Bunker (1985), Hornborg (1998 & 2006), Holleman & Foster (2014), and Warlenius (2016b). Brolin (2007) is an encompassing history over the development of the concept unequal exchange, including EUE. Other—much briefer—introductions to the concept are Hornborg’s (2017) chapter in The Routledge handbook of ecological economics and an entry in the online EJOLT glossary. For the latest empirical support for EUE, see this article by Christian Dorninger and colleagues (2021).
Brolin, J (2007): The bias of the world. Theories of unequal exchange. Diss. Lund: Human Ecology Division. Online at: https://lup.lub.lu.se/search/ws/files/4378178/26725.pdf
Bunker, S (1985): Underdeveloping the Amazon: Extraction, unequal exchange, and the failure of the modern state. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dorninger, C et al (2021): “Global patterns of ecologically unequal exchange: Implications for sustainability in the 21st century”. Ecological Economics 179 (pre-print).
Holleman, H & Foster, J (2014): “The theory of unequal ecological exchange: a Marx-Odum dialectic”. Journal of PeasantStudies 41(2) 199-233.
Hornborg, A (1998): “Towards an ecological theory of unequal exchange: articulating world system theory and ecological economics”. Ecological Economics 25(1) 127-136.
Hornborg, A (2006): “Footprints in the cotton fields: The industrial revolution as time-space appropriation and environmental load displacement”. Ecological Economics 59: 74-81.
Hornborg, A (2015): “Why economics needs to be distinguished from physics, and why economists need to talk to physicists: a response to Foster and Holleman”. Journal of Peasant Studies 42(1) 187-192.
Hornborg, A (2017): “Political ecology and unequal exchange”. Routledge handbook of ecological economics. Ed: CL Spash. Abingdon and New York: Routledge. 39-47.
Jorgensen, AK (2009) “The sociology of unequal exchange in ecological context: a panel study of lower‐income countries, 1975–2000”, Sociological Forum 24(1) 22-46.
Rice, J (2007): “Ecological unequal exchange: consumption, equity, and unsustainable structural relationships within the global economy”, International Journal of Comparative Sociology 48(1) 43-72.
Warlenius, R (2016a): “Core and periphery in the early modern world system: A time-space appropriation assessment”. In Jarrick, A, Myrdal, J, & Wallenberg Bondesson, M (eds.): Methods in world history: A critical approach. Lund: Nordic Academic Press.
Warlenius, R (2016b): “Linking ecological debt and ecologically unequal exchange: Stocks, flows, and unequal sink appropriation”. Journal of Political Ecology 23: 364-380
Warlenius, R (2017): Asymmetries. Conceptualizing environmental inequalities as ecological debt and ecologically unequal exchange. Diss. Lund: Human Ecology Divison. Online at: https://lup.lub.lu.se/search/ws/files/19721188/Asymmetries_Introductory_chapter.pdf
Rikard Warlenius is a senior lecturer in Human Ecology at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. His PhD dissertation (2017) focused on concepts such as Ecologically unequal exchange and Ecological debt. Currently, he is doing research on urban grassroots initiatives for climate transition in Gothenburg and Berlin.
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.
You go into your Wall Street investment bank and ask, “What’s a hot investment these days?” Your super sharp investment advisor says, “Farmland in Africa! People have to eat, right? And there are more and more people. Put your money in African farmland and you’ll double your money in no time!” She doesn’t say a word about what makes that land unique and special or about the people and other beings that live, or lived, there.
That’s a big problem. It’s a remote ownership problem. In fact, it’s a whole bunch of justice problems related to the hard-wired legacies of colonialism that come together as a multi-faceted problem about remote ownership of land and resources. In a nutshell, remote owners or rights holders often cause serious harm to far away ecosystems they know and care little about, and grave injustice to the people and other life that know those ecosystems most intimately and depend on them.
So, what about
this Green New Deal (GND)? Is it merely the old wine of capitalist
growth-driven development in a new bottle, or is it a recipe for
socio-political and socio-ecological transformation that will right past wrongs
and reshuffle political power in favor of historically disempowered people? Any
Green New Deal (GND) framed as a “just transition” has to address problems of remote ownership and empowerplace-based governance.
Open questions about the remote ownership problem in
Some say the GND in H.R. 109 introduced by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and others is merely a shift to green or climate colonialism, by which the greening—via decarbonization and other means—of wealthy, developed countries in a growth-driven, capitalist, and globalized world will worsen injustice in developing countries. This injustice includes not only increased exposure to environmental harms and health risks from extraction of materials needed for green technologies but also ongoing wealth inequality and social and cultural upheaval as the wealth-building potential of extracted resources (jobs, profits, etc.) is mostly exported along with them.
The GND risks continuation of the crushing of long-standing place-based governance systems.
At the heart of this injustice are international companies and their stockholders and other remote owners—land and resource grabbers—that exert enormous political power from the local to the global scale. The GND risks continuation of the crushing of long-standing place-based governance systems, permanent displacement of people with the most intimate knowledge of local ecosystems and devastation of ecosystems and the life they support, all typical of land and resource grabbing around the world. A particular concern is that land use reform is essential to success of the GND, yet the GND does not directly confront the hard wiring of the property rights regimes that must be addressed. Another is that the GND was conceived and announced with virtually no inclusion of Indigenous voices and that unless this lack of inclusion and the superficiality of references to Indigenous ideas is overcome, the GND could maintain “broken structures that perpetuate disconnection and individualism.”
Some cautiously, others more enthusiastically, see the GND as an opportunity to end and provide restitution for these injustices. The openings for transformative change to scale back land and resource grabbing and empower place-based governance systems, including Indigenous ones, are signaled in support for “community-driven projects and strategies” to deal with pollution and climate change; locally-appropriate ecosystem restoration; and free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities with respect to matters of concern to them. For these openings to fulfill their potential, justice activist Syed Hussan argues that the GND must foster “just transition in the broadest sense” and not just deal with displaced workers in fossil fuel industries and other discrete issues that decarbonizing the economy will entail.
Where to look for answers to remote ownership problems
The good news is
that worthwhile ideas about how the GND can confront problems of remote
ownership and promote locally-tailored place-based governance
systems are already out there. Here are some of these sources of inspiration.
The degrowth movement. Degrowth is a forceful challenge to the growth-insistent sustainable development model, and a more hopeful approach to long-term perpetuation of a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship. Degrowth combines a commitment to respecting ecologically-based limits with a commitment to developing a comprehensive, practicable approach to building thriving human communities based on conviviality and human solidarity without consumerism or material and energy excess. The reforms associated with degrowth “emphasize redistribution (of work and leisure, natural resources and wealth), social security and gradual decentralization and relocalization of the economy, as a way to reduce throughput and manage a stable adaption to a smaller economy.” Giorgos Kallis’s nine principles of degrowth should be useful in making sure the GND adequately confronts remote ownership problems: 1) End to exploitation; 2) Direct democracy; 3) Localized production; 4) Sharing and the commons; 5) Provision of relational goods, through friendship, love, healthy relationships, kinship, good citizenry; 6) Unproductive expenditures geared to communal activities, such as festivals, games and the arts; 7) Care, and treating humans and other life as ends, not means; 8) Diversity; and 9) Decommodification of land, labor and value.
The G20. What?!? Well, it’s useful to understand the key ideas of the global political apparatus that must be overcome for the GND to lead to radical social, political and ecological transformation. At annual meetings, the G20 typically agree on the need to “further collective actions toward achieving strong, sustainable and balanced growth to raise the prosperity of our people.” The means to do so generally involve supporting global trade and investment (much of which is tied to remote ownership) and the role of the World Trade Organization as a means to create jobs and maintain growth, with weak or marginal actions or aspirations to address inequalities, corruption, climate change and environmental harm. The G20 supports the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, with emphasis on sustainable, inclusive economic growth. A truly progressive GND should look past the SDGs!
The EJ Atlas. The Environmental
Justice Atlas documents real
cases of how remote owners have created social and environmental conflict. These compelling narratives are a rich
resource for understanding in detail the problem of remote ownership and the
power dynamics that must be confronted and reshuffled in order to overcome
Indigenous ways of thinking and being. In many Indigenous worldviews, attachment to place, founded on respect for all life and for deep appreciation of a reciprocal relationship with the Earth and its life community, is key to a more hopeful vision of the human-Earth relationship. Indigenous activist Eriel Deranger writes, “It is Indigenous communities, locally, nationally and internationally, that continue to push for an actualization of instilling deeper spiritual connections to Mother Earth to help us relearn what systems of colonization, capitalism, and extractivism have severed.” Connecting or reconnecting to the places that nourish our bodies and souls is at the heart of the long-term promise of a GND done well. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that “[f]or the sake of the peoples and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become indigenous to place.” But, inviting settler societies to become indigenous to place—and an invitation from Indigenous holders of knowledge of a place is essential—does not mean letting them “take what little is left.” Attaching to a place by carefully and respectfully seeking to become indigenous to it requires humility above all, and it requires direct experience with wise teachers, not merely book knowledge.
Indigenous peoples and other social groups that have been historically disadvantaged by colonization and land and resource grabbing must play a central role in developing and carrying out the GND.
Six mutually reinforcing proposals on remote ownership
and place-based governance for the GND
peoples and other social groups that have been historically disadvantaged by
colonization and land and resource grabbing must play a central role in
developing and carrying out the GND. Including Indigenous notions of justice,
decolonization and self-determination through meaningful inclusion of
Indigenous communities in decisions that affect them, which requires adequate time
and resources, is essential.
Second, the GND should empower communities like those included in the EJ Atlas to develop strong place-based governance systems and communities of solidarity and mutual care in order to resist the social and environmental conflicts they face, often because of remote ownership. This means providing them with a determinative role in decisions affecting them directly and indirectly. It also means developing a global/international scope and strategy so remote ownership problems in one place aren’t just displaced elsewhere. Also, we should look for opportunities to scale up and out from local remote ownership problems that are avoided or justly resolved.
Third, the GND should end corporate giveaways that are tied to remote ownership problems and exclude carbon markets, offsets or emissions trading regimes, and geoengineering—all of which typically pose remote ownership problems. Instead, the Climate Justice Alliance is fighting for a GND that shifts “from global systems of production and consumption that are energy intensive and fossil fuel dependent to more localized systems that are sustainable, resilient and regenerative.”
Fourth, stocks and other investment instruments in land and resource grabbing ventures that cause social and environmental conflict and harm in faraway places should be prohibited. This may require profound restructuring, dismantling or abolition of the financial and corporate structures that allow for these kinds of investments. At the least, it would entail deep rethinking of the metaphor of corporate personhood
Fifth, the GND should explicitly reject economic growth as a rationale and driving objective. It should oppose perpetual economic growth and promote communities committed to solidarity, maximal sharing and minimal use of materials and energy.
Sixth, the GND should place limits on wealth, which would help minimize or end the remote ownership problem. The most obvious way to do this is through progressive income taxation or a tax on wealth. For this to be effective, there of course also has to be collaboration between communities worldwide against tax evasion, with the aim of abolishing tax havens. A more radical transformation would be to target the globalized currency system which makes it possible for Wall Street investors to buy African farmland with US dollars in the first place. Or, the international community could finally adopt taxes on financial transactions; already implemented in some countries, this could be expanded to more countries and international transactions.
Some tough questions to test these proposals
If the GND is a step toward post-capitalist societies where remote owners, if they still exist, are no longer able to adversely affect far away ecosystems and people, it nonetheless is starting off in a globalized capitalist economy. As John Bellamy Foster has written, “We have to go against the logic of the system while living within it.” Making the proposals above work will not be easy. It will require people power through mass organizing and consciousness building. And it will mean confronting some tough questions. Here are a few.
Does the GND inevitably imply ongoing wealth and resource extraction in the global South to benefit the global North? If so, what are the implications for remote ownership and place-based governance? If not, what mechanisms are needed to minimize or end wealth and resource extraction in the global South to benefit the global North?
How can the GND
address remote ownership in the form of ownership of financial stocks or other
financial investments—keeping in mind how many people are counting on this type
of investment for their retirement and long-term care?
What are some good
examples that could be duplicated or scaled up of place-based governance
systems that maintain fairness among humans and between humans and other life
across generations? How should duplication and scaling up account for the
unique features of different places and avoid one-size-fits-all approaches?
Can the GND adequately
address, as Deranger puts it, the “intertwined roles of capitalism, consumerism,
militarism and colonialism as foundations to the current crisis” if it remains
“driven by White ENGOs, those with the resources and power, and mainstream
traditional labor protections and increasing unionization a long-term solution,
or does it risk locking in an us-them worker-owner power dynamic—where the
owners are often also remote owners and land and resource grabbers—that other
alternatives could overcome? What about more locally-committed, place-based employee-owned businesses or
Questions like these need to be asked in relation to every single aspect of GND proposals in the advanced capitalist countries. Political organizers and activists should think about how to balance such critical questions with the visionary rhetoric that makes the GND so popular—all the while keeping in mind that the strength of a GND vision should be judged on the basis not only of its policy designs but also its ability to inspire and unite broad movement building for climate justice. Grappling with entrenched problems of remote ownership is one way to take a focused approach to building momentum for this movement.
Dr. Geoff Garver is an adjunct professor at Concordia and McGill Universities in Montreal and coordinates research on law and governance at McGill University for the Leadership for the Ecozoic initiative. He is on the steering committee of the Ecological Law and Governance Association and the board of the Quaker Institute for the Future and is active in the international degrowth movement.
Nothing happens without energy. Literally. Lacking energy, there can be no heat, food, motion, information, or life. Commonly defined as ‘the capacity to do work’, energy has always been central to human societies, whether derived mechanically from moving wind or water, chemically from wood, oil, coal or other combustible fuels, or thermally from the sun. This is more than an abstract footnote—there are deep links between available energy and the very structure of civilizations, including their types of social organization and levels of complexity, as noted by anthropologist Leslie White . While this relationship is obviously not deterministic, there are social, technological, and economic arrangements, such those we enjoy in privileged parts of the global North today, which are likely unattainable at significantly lower levels of energy consumption.
Much discussion and research in recent years has focused on the prospects for a global transition to renewable energy, motivated by growing awareness of the existential threat posed by global climate change as well as localized environmental issues attributable to the production and consumption of fossil and nuclear energy. The Green New Deal (GND), the subject of this essay, is the latest in a long line of ambitious plans aimed at accelerating this process, in addition to its social and economic goals. However, many of these energy transition plans are conceived teleologically: they start with the outcomes they seek to achieve, then fill in the gaps with implied (but uncertain) socio-technological capabilities. In the process, they typically sidestep irreducible uncertainties and fail to properly engage with the considerable challenges involved in fundamentally transforming our energy system. It must be asked whether the GND commits these same errors. Avoiding them requires recognition that the transition to renewable energy is not simply the eventual outcome of the right set of policy settings, but what systems scientists would call a complex, path-dependent, socio-metabolic process. In other words, the transition will be far more constrained in terms of what we can achieve than we often like to think and will necessarily transform the basic configuration of our societies [2, 3].
Many of these energy transition plans are conceived teleologically: they start with the outcomes they seek to achieve, then fill in the gaps with implied (but uncertain) socio-technological capabilities.
That we must one day rely solely on renewable energy is true by definition. The fossil and nuclear fuels are depleting resources and their use entails ecological harm on an immense scale. Therefore, this use will eventually become infeasible, unacceptable, and uneconomic. But how we get from here to there is radically uncertain. There is no guarantee that we will complete the transition while maintaining an industrial socio-metabolic regime (our current pattern of material and energy use and associated societal configuration). In fact, this appears highly unlikely [2, 3].
For most people in the developed world, modern energy services are so ubiquitous and ingrained in our daily lives that they have been rendered largely invisible (at least until they are interrupted). Nevertheless, understanding energy is critical to accurately discerning where we are going as a society and what we can hope to achieve. This understanding suffers from what Mario Giampietro has called a “clash of reductionism against the complexity of energy transformations” .
Energy is typically understood in loose terms as something produced and transported by large and highly visible infrastructures (of which there are ‘good’ kinds and ‘bad’ kinds, defined by one’s perspective). It is generally perceived that energy is used for various crucial purposes, such as moving people and things around, heating and cooling homes and workplaces, powering appliances and devices, and producing consumer goods. Beyond this, various emotionally charged and frequently oversimplified narratives come into play, which inform expectations of what lifestyles and society at large ought to look like. While the range of perspectives and positions on energy is vast, they can be broadly grouped into two opposed narratives:
Narrative one sees energy presenting an urgent moral duality: oil derricks, pipelines, smog-covered cityscapes, and corporate interests on one side and climate saving technologies, eco-friendly behaviours, and new political movements on the other. In this strain of thought, we already have the requisite technology to carry out the transition to renewable energy and the only serious barriers are political in nature. Nowhere is the first narrative more clearly depicted than in US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent ‘A Message From The Future’ video.
Narrative two considers fossil fuels to be miraculous, prosperity-building, and geo-politically important resources, which should not be disregarded in favour of unproven, unreliable alternatives. As for climate change, positions can range from “the science in not settled” to “no problem, we’ll have the tech for that”. This narrative is captured in PR communications from major oil companies (and even more transparently depicted here), frequently loaded with promises of jobs, technological breakthroughs, and nostalgia for an era of pioneering industrial vitality.
Neither of these narratives is totally correct, but neither is totally wrong either. The first rightly highlights the social and ecological imperatives we face and how some forms of energy production are significantly less harmful than others, but tends to downplay the challenges and implications of transforming the entire energy basis of modern economies. Meanwhile, the second accurately identifies the unique qualities of fossil energy resources and their role in reaching our current level of development, but fails to identify that these have a limited lifespan, both in terms of their physical abundance and the extent to which we can use them without unacceptable consequences. It is on this fraught ideological landscape that the GND must vie for influence against competing visions of our energy future.
The Green New Deal
The GND (a clear allusion to Roosevelt’s depression-era New Deal) burst onto the US political scene in 2018, emerging from the youth-led ‘Sunrise Movement’ and subsequently championed by freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and a growing list of progressive political figures. Its supporters now include Joseph Stiglitz, Ban Ki-Moon, Paul Krugman, US senators (Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Ed Markey), and numerous organizations (including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, 350.org, the New Economics Foundation, Extinction Rebellion, and the United Nations Environment Programme). The concept has quickly spread internationally to Canada, the UK, Australia, and the European Union due in large part to the advocacy of respective green parties in these places. A recent Yale survey found a strong majority in the US (81% of those surveyed and even 64% of republicans) ‘strongly support’ or ‘somewhat support’ the various proposals associated with the GND. With this impressive momentum, the time has come to translate zeal into workable policy.
In the US, the GND is often described with the tagline “decarbonization, jobs, and justice.” Policy proposals center around a green industrial revolution—a rapid, large-scale transition to renewable energy alongside vastly expanded public transportation and building retrofits for energy efficiency within a 10-year timeframe. The plan is to achieve near carbon-neutrality of the US economy and improved environmental quality through immense public spending initiatives, funded primarily via redistributive measures designed to tackle inequality. The draft text of the GND House Resolution includes the aim to “virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.” Variations often include increased minimum wages, universal health care, improved access to education, shorter working hours, and democratized workplaces. For a more complete description of the origin story and details of the GND, see this article or this one.
As the GND ultimately hinges on energy transition, the feasibility of its assertions in this area are crucial.
Although it’s not hard to see the appeal, no one would deny that this is an immense task. In fact, there is already a chorus of critical voices from right across the political spectrum on questions of cost, timeframe, technical assumptions, and policy design. As the GND ultimately hinges on energy transition, the feasibility of its assertions in this area are crucial. To go any further, we need to cover some energy basics.
The global energy system is by far the largest, most technologically advanced collection of built capital, supporting infrastructure, expertise, and organizational capacity that has ever existed. Despite the hype around renewables, the global energy system is still 96% non-renewable, while solar and wind—the two renewable energy sources with the greatest growth potential—supplied just a little over 1% of total world energy in 2018 .
Firstly, it is important to understand that each type of energy production can satisfy only some types of energy demand: energy resources and the flows derived from them are not interchangeable. Instead, the energy system comprises a series of distinct flows spanning four basic stages, from primary resources through to delivered energy services:
To provide a bit more specificity to
this picture, the table below shows common examples of each of the four stages
and sequences of flows between them:
If fully enumerated, this would look more like a
complex, multi-nodal network rather than a straight line, but this
simplification serves to highlight some key features:
Changes at one stage require corresponding changes at all other stages in order to avoid supply bottlenecks or unused excess capacity. Each new increment of supply (primary resources plus secondary conversion) must be met with a corresponding increment of demand (end-use capital plus energy service demand) and vice versa. This means that investments needed to change the system are often larger than they first appear—investments in one part of the system require corresponding investments in others—and the ways societies use energy must evolve as supply changes.
The common lay concept of ‘energy’ as a homogeneous, aggregate quantity is a fiction. The various flows within the energy system are non-equivalent and non-substitutable (at least not directly). For example, gasoline is produced by a refinery and fuels your car, but this is not interchangeable with the electricity generated by a gas-fired turbine powering your laptop. In particular, the flows of ‘energy carriers’ between the second and third stages—consisting of electricity, liquid fuels, and heating fuels—must be considered separately, otherwise we risk overlooking constraints integral to the system.
The non-equivalence of energy carriers is an essential concept, analogous to the metabolism of living organisms requiring fats, proteins, and carbohydrates to survive. For most animals, diet can change with food availability, but there are limits to this. Humans can substitute one food group for another, at least for a period of time, but beyond certain boundaries severe physiological consequences begin to occur, including starvation and death. The energy system functions basically the same way. The composition of supply or demand can’t be changed arbitrarily and to the extent that it can be changed, this typically requires expensive and time-consuming adjustments at other stages in the energy system.
Energy for energy
the flows ultimately ending up as final energy services (or waste), a large part
of the output of the energy system must be directed back into its own
construction, operation, and maintenance. These flows represent the metabolism
of the global energy system. As shown in Figure 2, energy carriers are utilized in an
‘autocatalytic loop’ (energy invested to produce energy) and a ‘capital
hypercycle’ (energy invested to maintain the means of turning energy into
Our current economic structure and resource dependencies ensure that we’ll burn a lot of fossil fuels to carry out a major shift towards renewable energy—a cost of the transition that we can’t afford to ignore. Among other things, this complicates discussions around the pace of the transition; it is not necessarily true that faster is better as large, short-term increases in fossil fuel demand for a renewable energy buildout may lead to significant excess capacity, wasting resources and frustrating the transition further down the line. Generally speaking, an ‘optimum’ timeframe in terms of what would limit greenhouse gas emissions or ecological impact will not likely align with the deadlines proposed to date by the advocates of rapid transition. Vaclav Smil notes that energy transitions on this scale typically occur over multiple decades or centuries, not years .
The manufacturing of silicon wafers in solar PV panels and advanced metal alloys in wind turbines requires a lot of high temperature heat, currently provided primarily by burning natural gas or coal.
Examining the energy system’s own metabolism also raises questions of residual non-renewable energy dependence that may be difficult to eliminate. The energy system’s autocatalytic loop and capital hypercycle are comprised of a mixture of energy carriers, meaning any attempt to shift the system towards a renewable basis will likely run into limits (due to energy carriers required to support the energy system not likely to be produced at scale via renewable means). For example, the manufacturing of silicon wafers in solar PV panels and advanced metal alloys in wind turbines requires a lot of high temperature heat, currently provided primarily by burning natural gas or coal. Will it be possible to run solar PV panel and wind turbine production lines using solar- and wind-generated electricity in the future? We don’t know, but there are reasons to be skeptical . How about all of the remote access roads, transmission towers, substations, and supply depots required to create a renewable energy infrastructure? And the rare-earths, lithium, copper, iron, coltan, cadmium, and vast quantities of other minerals needed for the renewable energy buildout? It is hard to see how all of this can subsist on renewable energy flows alone.
And then there’s electricity. Electricity is not like the other energy carriers in one critical sense: it is not a physical substance that can be produced and set aside for later use. In effect, this means supply must match demand at all times in order to maintain the stable, functioning electrical networks that distribute electricity to end users. Demand is stochastic—it changes as industrial production ramps up and down, and more erratically as households turn on or off light switches, run appliances, or do anything else that uses electricity. Consequently, supply must be ‘dispatched’ to meet demand on very short timescales as any temporary gap leads to changes in system frequency and large gaps can cause blackouts and damage vital electrical equipment (illustrated below).
The key problem with most renewable electricity production (including production from solar and wind) is that it is intermittent and can’t be counted on when it is required most. Electricity systems needs to retain the ability to meet demand when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. There are ways to maintain this ability as the share of renewables increases, such as building enough spare dispatchable generation capacity to act as a backup (often gas- and coal-fired) or building storage and additional transmission capacity. All have significant costs, in both energetic and monetary terms, and face their own social and technical limitations. For example, while there is much discussion around building better batteries to unlock renewables, this is still an exceedingly expensive option that is suitable only for shorter timescales, not the summer to winter supply-demand gaps creating most of the need for system flexibility . Returning to our diet analogy, pinning all of our hopes on storage is a bit like asking a someone to put on 300 lbs every fall to survive the winter months with very little food. We wouldn’t expect a human being to be capable of this for very long and the odds of the energy system pulling off the equivalent feat are not much better.
This difficulty only increases as renewables provide a larger share of total electricity. Figure 4 below shows how the mitigation investment required to maintain stable electricity grids increases non-linearly as the share of intermittent renewables grows [9, 10]. Technical and economic limitations in the electricity sector will manifest during any large-scale transition to renewable energy. Aside from a few fortunate regions with abundant dispatchable renewable energy resources (geothermal in Iceland, hydropower in Nicaragua, etc.), with current technology, this ceiling is far below the aspirational 100% renewable goal of the GND. The importance of these electricity system barriers is underscored by the fact that the provision of many of our energy services will need to be electrified in order to align with the growth of renewable energy.
A story of limits
The crux of
the problem is this: renewable energy typically produces forms of energy that are
poor substitutes for the energy required to manufacture, transport, install,
and operate renewable energy, at least without major investments into each
stage of our energy system, significantly reducing or even erasing the net energy
delivered. As such, these energy sources are dependent on the existing system
and function less as a replacement for the fossil fuel economy and more as a
temporary extension of it. The empirical evidence agrees—renewable energy
investment does a poor job of displacing fossil fuels . Of course, there are exceptions (such
as traditionally produced biomass), but these have nowhere near the potential scale
required to run today’s enormous globalized, industrialized economy.
the existing limit lies on the path to a 100% renewable energy system, we can and
should push this limit through changes to consumption behaviours on the part of
both industries and households, through things like shared utilization of end-use
capital and energy services (think communal kitchens), a shift away from
currently preferred but inefficient types of end-use capital (e.g. prioritizing
public transit and micromobility over cars), greater alignment of demand to
match intermittent supply, and overall demand reduction. However, it is
precisely these kinds of changes which are more difficult to motivate,
especially among those following the second narrative described above who may
assume that high-energy, fossil-fuelled lifestyles represent ‘the good life’. Even
at the extremes of practical behaviour change, the 100% target may still be unattainable.
Leaving aside the narrow concept of limits, a fundamental change in our energy basis and socio-metabolic regime would mean becoming a very different society from the one we know today. It is tempting to opine on our society’s wasteful habits and ask how much energy we really need, but the answer depends largely on the type of society we want to live in. Do we want to be able to build smartphones? How about MRI machines and water treatment plants? We may not be able to pick and choose what we want to keep from varying levels of socio-technical complexity (while it is certainly worth discussing what we might want to keep and what we can afford to lose). There is no demonstrated historical tendency for complex societies to voluntarily downshift their energy consumption on a large-scale .
When politicians and activists say “we have the technology” they vastly understate the challenges, potential barriers, and ultimate consequences involved in the transition.
The main point here is that the prospects and implications of shifting toward renewable energy extend far beyond present-day cost-benefit calculations, political maneuvering, or waging war on climate change. When politicians and activists say “we have the technology” they vastly understate the challenges, potential barriers, and ultimate consequences involved in the transition.
Raised stakes and political pushback
By forcing extensive change into an expedited timeframe, the GND raises the stakes and reduces the margin for error in the transition to renewable energy. If such a policy package were embraced, people everywhere would be subject to dramatically increased risks of misallocation of resources, misalignment of capacity between the various stages within the energy system, and of consequent economic and social fallout. The calls for radical action motivating the GND stem from a sense of desperation in the face of increasingly dire predictions regarding converging climate and ecological crises. That desperation is certainly justified, and yes, time is not on our side, but we must not dismiss the existential risks of a poorly executed GND.
The GND makes some very big promises and displays unmistakeable utopian elements. The problem is not so much the aspirational decarbonization goals, but the assurances of prodigious social benefits assumed to be attainable through or while pursuing them. Universal modern healthcare and higher education, job guarantees, raised minimum income, the elimination of poverty and inequality, significantly increased taxation of the wealthy—these goals proved elusive even during the period of greatest stability and economic surplus the world has ever seen. To achieve them during what will likely be a period of profound and growing ecological disruption, climate instability, and social unrest is rather optimistic to say the least. We will need to walk a long tightrope, balancing the pace of change, unforeseen challenges, impacts on communities, and necessary sacrifices. Perhaps the most dubious aspect is the overall ethical shift underscoring the kind of social cohesion necessary to achieve the GND in developed nations, from hyper-consumerism to environmental stewardship and the voluntary curtailment of discretionary consumption—essentially expecting everyone to spontaneously drop any differences of opinion and embrace the first narrative.
Owing to the existence of embedded conflicting perspectives, the GND will always have its opponents. Assuming we go ahead with it, any unintended consequence or local failure (of which there will be many) will be met with a backlash that risks eroding public confidence in the GND. This is a dynamic heightened in direct proportion to the level of ambition the GND embodies; the more utopian the stated goals, the starker the underwhelming reality, and the greater the negative reaction will be. How would we maintain broad political support for the GND, given the inevitability of broken promises? It may be that some of these promises need to be tempered against the requirement for achievable goals. A prime example can be seen in the German Energiewende, a planned national energy transition initiated in 2010 aimed at phasing out coal and nuclear energy. Promises of clean, renewable, reliable, and affordable energy clashed against the reality of Europe’s highest power prices and unconvincing progress on decarbonization . This failure dampened public enthusiasm and made other countries hesitant to follow Germany’s example. The GND must learn this lesson—to promise more than you can deliver is to ensure failure.
There isn’t one unique, unambiguous end point to travel toward in response to the challenges we face.
One might reasonably ask whether too much ambition is really a weakness. Isn’t it better to have highly aspirational goals, even if they aren’t achieved, if only to carry us further than we would have gone otherwise? Well, not necessarily. It is important to note that there isn’t one unique, unambiguous end point to travel toward in response to the challenges we face. Time and our capacity for change are both limited. A last-ditch, herculean attempt to rebuild modernity anew would forestall the pursuit of other more credible and beneficialmodels of development.
First things first
So is the
GND a good idea? Unfortunately, not in its present form. Given current levels
of understanding of the complexities and trade-offs involved in a transition to
renewable energy, and inflated expectations of future energy consumption, it would
almost certainly result in a catastrophic failure. However, if guided by 1) an
accurate and realistic understanding of the role of energy in society and 2) a
willingness to honestly confront the profound socio-economic implications of a shift
to a renewable energy basis, a reformulated GND might be able to point our
global system toward a more sustainable paradigm.
Here are some additional principles for a truly transformative GND that I would propose:
Energy literacy: energy transition is at the heart of the GND and its current assertions in this area are highly questionable. As such, there is a pronounced need for energy literacy, both in policy formulation and post-implementation general education. This energy literacy is needed to disarm simplistic narratives and enable transformative thinking.
Demand side adaptation: to help bridge the gap between ambition and feasibility and unlock energy transition to the extent possible, the GND must embrace a radical rethinking of expectations for energy consumption. This must include overall demand reduction, but also greater demand flexibility, shared utilization of energy services, and shifting away from inefficient modes of energy service provision. Supply side interventions won’t cut it, we need to talk about the energy we use as a society.
Evolving timeline: a complex, socio-metabolic process cannot be forced to conform to arbitrary deadlines and attempting to do so serves only to lock in unintended, suboptimal outcomes in terms of what we really want to achieve. The GND must abandon its stated 10-year timeframe and instead incorporate an informed, contingent, and evolving target for the pace of the transition.
Political realism: assuming a forthcoming, sweeping alignment of perspectives on energy and social issues and subsequent unilateral action, as if in a political vacuum, is simply wishful thinking and must be rejected. The GND’s overall strategy must remain mindful of contrary narratives and the political pitfalls of excessive ambition. There should also be more discussion on who—from movements like Extinction Rebellion to environmental justice groups—can build the necessary political power for a truly transformative GND and how.
Epistemic openness: new approaches are needed to navigate radical uncertainty and conflicting socio-technical narratives regarding energy transition. The GND must engage fields like Post-Normal Science—an approach to scientific decision-making for issues where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent” [15, 16]—as antidotes to reductionism and ideological echo chambers.
As a parting thought, ‘deal’ may not be the appropriate language given an overwhelming level of uncertainty. How can a deal be made and subsequently serve as the benchmark of success when the most relevant details are not yet known? In place of the GND, we might be better served by scaling back our ambition and embracing a Green New Direction. This alternative could preserve many of the same essential goals, but would need to forgo the use of enticing promises to motivate action and instead do the hard work of building solidarity and commitment to collectively face an energy future which will be more complex, more unpredictable, and more challenging than anything we’ve previously encountered.
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Tim Crownshaw is a PhD Candidate in the department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University in Canada and a student in the Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) research partnership. He studies global dynamic transition pathways from non-renewable to renewable energy resources using quantitative, systems-based modelling approaches.
Old colonial relations cast a shadow over today’s environmental politics. But when accusations of historical abuse pop up, some nations manage to fly below the radar in spite of extensive colonial involvement. Due to their so-called higher standards of behaviour they may even gain advantages in the global competition for control of natural resources. ‘Neutral’ Sweden is one of those nations.
In this essay, I weave together depictions of Swedish colonial history with recent political events. I thus hope to shed light on the way that professed concerns with sustainability in Sweden and Northern Europe interact with postcolonial power structures today. Much of the historical research that I build on is derived from two recent books which have contributed to a rethinking of Swedish and Scandinavian involvement in colonialism: the research anthology Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena (2013), edited by Magdalena Naum and Jonas M. Nordin, and Våra kolonier, de vi hade och de som aldrig blev av (‘Our colonies, the ones we had and those never realized’; my translation), by Herman Lindqvist.
Double standards in Northern
European environmental politics
An odd thing happened to the mainstream image of Northern European environmental politics following the wildfires in the Amazon rain forest last year. In August 2019 the G7, or Group of Seven, countries offered Brazil a $20 million relief effort—allegedly to reduce the risk of climate change by counteracting extensive forest fires in the Amazon. The offer was however turned down by the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who confronted the G7 leaders and said that they were treating Brazil ‘like a colony’. Bolsonaro eventually had second thoughts and accepted the aid, but the controversy nonetheless brought the question of colonial guilt and contemporary postcolonial power relations to wider public attention.
What makes Bolsonaro’s scoffing particularly interesting is that he directed it toward nations that tend to be depicted as humanitarian and climate heroes: Germany and Norway. Those two countries had withdrawn financial support from the Amazon Fund in order to pressure Bolsonaro’s administration to take action against the Amazon fires. While influential socialscientists have celebrated Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Germany as ‘clean and green’ utopias, Brazil’s right-wing president unexpectedly—and even against his own anti-environmentalist politics—opens the door to an environmental justice critique of Northern European countries. He accurately ascribes double standards to Norway and Germany, Norway as a whaling country and Germany as needing reforestation. At the same time, his own administration engages in even more absurd forms of anti-environmentalism—as when the director-general of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research Ricardo Galvão was fired and labelled a ‘traitor’ after the Institute issued a report in 2019 on the acceleration of deforestation in the Amazon.
The clean and green façade of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is revealed.
Activists and NGOs used the attention which
both the Amazon fires and Bolsonaro attracted to point out that the Brazilian
president, although he himself wants to practice environmental destruction at
home, does sort of hit the nail on the head when he criticizes Northern European
countries for not wanting to change anything in their own backyards. As a
Norwegian news site writes, ‘Norway’s rain forest preservation
programs have not been without controversy, with critics suggesting Norway has
opted to finance climate measures abroad instead of cutting more carbon
emissions at home by curbing oil exploration and production.’ The clean and green façade
of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is
revealed. Also, the postcolonial interests of rich countries are still evident:
the $20 million relief effort may contain
a hidden agenda and climate care can serve as a perfect alibi for retaining
economic influence—provided that the commitment to sustainability and fair
distribution of welfare and resources is made credible. In 2018, the Brazilian
vice president, general Hamilton Mourão, expressed suspicions about such professed
commitments: ‘The rich world uses the climate debate to continue to dominate.’
There is a historical continuity to point to here: the poor have suffered the most from environmental impact and unjust conditions caused by the wealthy. And scientists project that this tendency will escalate with global warming, as a future scenario with extreme heat threatens the global South in particular, with consequences like decreased labour productivity, lower crop yields, and impoverished human health. And the ‘clean and green utopias’ of Northern Europe have a part in this unequal system. Equitable distribution of environmental load and economic benefits is not a core shareholder value in the global economy.
Sweden is one of the countries who are keen on business in Brazil. The Swedish Minister for rural affairs, Sven-Erik Bucht, went there in 2017 with major Swedish forestry actors and researchers, establishing relations for Swedish businesses under the guise of sustainability. The Amazon is a target for Swedish exports of technology and forestry know-how. Since Swedish forestry often includes criticized clearcutting, Greenpeace Sweden took the opportunity when the fires in the Amazon brought attention to deforestation to point to Swedish double standards when the country pressures Brazil to preserve the rain forest all the while replacing forests with tree plantations at a remarkable speed in Sweden. Since the same companies that are trying to gain access to Brazilian land are causing environmental harm back in Sweden, Greenpeace’s reaction against Swedish double standards could be taken even further. These double standards reside not only in the tendency to require better environmental protection in Brazil than at home, but also in how Swedish forestry actors would happily contribute to deforestation in the Amazon.
We can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.
So what is going on with all this? How can widely celebrated ‘clean and green utopias’ engage in such dubious practices? By looking at the role of Scandinavia, and in particular Sweden, in the colonial era, we can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.
Swedish colonialism in the ‘great olden days’ and today
Sweden’s ‘free lane’ into business profit in
formerly colonized areas depends on the common perception that Scandinavian
colonial violations were marginal, if they occurred at all. But however negligible the Swedish exercise of
power has been, it is paradoxically depicted with great glamour. A telling
example is the Swedish national
1844, including the patriotic stanza which begins ‘Du tronar på minnen från fornstora dar, då ärat ditt namn flög över
jorden’ (‘You are enthroned on memories of great olden
days, when honoured your name flew across the Earth’).
Many Swedes probably tune into the song with a sense of pride—most commonly at sport events—and a vague notion of its references to the Swedish Era of Great Power in the years 1611-1718. Sweden was then a colonizer, although admittedly on a smaller scale than Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain or France—and allegedly of a benevolent type.
But the Swedish Crown and power sphere were in fact heavily involved in the European colonization project with all its atrocities. This is convincingly shown in the anthology on Scandinavian colonialism from 2013 edited by Naum and Nordin. In more than a dozen close-up descriptions of colonial encounters, a continuous whitewash of Scandinavian history is revealed. The anthology displays Swedish involvement on several continents: from expansion up North to the New World, Africa, and Asia. In 2015 this book was succeeded by Våra kolonier in which popular historian Herman Lindqvist uncovers a strong Swedish ambition to develop a colonial role. Conclusions in the two books align: dreams of gold, ivory, sugar, spices, and tobacco triggered the Swedish search for and foundation of colonies from the early 17th century in North America, West Africa, and later the West Indies. Ships were built to export iron, wood, and tar, financing increasing imports.
Swedish iron was a key ingredient—mainly for
arms production—in the infamous triangular trade. Dutch-born entrepreneur Louis
De Geer was an important figure in this as the Swedish Crown granted him a
monopoly on copper and iron trade (he later got the epithet ‘the father of
Swedish industry’). A curious fact is that iron in his forges was cast into bars
that suited the backs of donkeys (!) used for transportation in Africa, as an
adaptation to the slave economy: bent bars were replaced by slaves. With Royal Swedish support he also established
a trading post in Cabo Corso at the African Gold Coast. 1,500-2,000 slaves were
shipped by Swedes over the Atlantic. Ethics were no
obstacle. The European colonial attitude depended on racial supremacy. A
Swedish pastor doubted openly that African slaves were human beings. A Lutheran
bishop in Copenhagen proclaimed that slavery was a natural state for heathens
and punishment for their sins.
The word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources.
Sweden has successfully avoided scrutiny partly
because of a widespread understanding that it never got any major colonies. The
word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources, historical or popular. But Sweden did have several colonies for
quite some time. Baltic provinces were annexed in wars in the 16th
and 17th centuries, staying under Swedish control for 150 years.
Regions in Germany and Poland were occupied. Swedish trade relied on indentured
peasants in those areas. If the brutality of Swedes is absent in Swedish
sources, it is all the more present in German, Polish, and Baltic ones.
The Swedish leadership also aimed for America.
A detailed colonial trade plan was formed and New Sweden was established in
Delaware in 1638, challenging Spanish control. The Swedish governor got royal
instructions to treat the ‘wild people’ well to gain their confidence. The
Crown was hoping that ‘higher standards’ would convince them to withdraw from competing
traders. And the Swedes managed to cooperate with the Lenape and Susquehannock
nations for some time.
In New Sweden, forest Finns were forced (by
updated legal restrictions in Sweden) to cultivate the colony with their ‘slash
and burn’ practise. They were roughly treated and historians have even used the
term ‘penal colony’. The use of indentured labour was similar to the infamous
use of the same system in British plantations in the West Indies.
There is evidence that the Swedish governor
actually wished to eliminate the Indigenous population in the barren colony. He
applied for sufficient numbers of soldiers to do so. The proposal was however
ignored by the Crown, probably because of the urgent need for war resources in
Poland and elsewhere.
The Swedish Royal council also planned other
settlements in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Asia in the 17th
and the 18th century. But plans constantly failed, until Sweden at
last obtained Saint Barthélemy from France in 1784. The Caribbean island became
an important trade hub with slave trade as the main objective. This trade
relied on Swedish ‘neutrality’ in European wars.
It is revealing as well that leading Swedish
merchants sold iron (for weaponry) to rebellious forces in the American War of
Back in Europe, the discovery of silver in Lapland in the 1630s triggered the Swedish Crown’s expansion north into Sápmi. In centuries to come, resources like fur, game, and minerals were extracted—and the Indigenous Sámi were ‘civilized’. The colonial attitude was obvious: Chancellor Oxenstierna referred to the northern parts of Sweden as ‘our India’. The ultimate purpose was to displace the Sámi people and deny them their independence and land rights.
The Swedish presence through settlers,
bailiffs, entrepreneurs, and clerics in Lapland has not been seen as colonial
domination by historians until the last few decades. Instead, terms like
agricultural expansion, Forest Sámi assimilation, domestication, or civilizing
have been used. But the compulsory boarding school
attendance (with Christianity lessons) for Sámi children cut off from their
families is not essentially different from the Belgian education of natives in
the Congo or North American examples such as the Brafferton Indian School in
Mining interests have repeatedly collided with reindeer herding and settlements.
Furthermore, the colonial legacy in Sápmi is
still evident today. There are long-standing conflicts about land use in much
of Sápmi, often in connection to the environmental impact of extractive
industrial projects. For example, mining interests have repeatedly collided
with reindeer herding and settlements. At the present time mining
entrepreneurs, including several multinational companies, are searching for
rare earth metals and iron, exploitation that is marketed by companies (and the
government) as environmentally and socially beneficial because Swedish
environmental protection and working conditions are superior to Chinese ones.
In all this, the Sámi appear to have no say.
One land use conflict is currently tried in the Swedish Supreme Court. The dispute concerns who should administrate hunting and fishing rights on the grazing lands of the reindeer herding community of Girjas: the Sámi community or the Swedish government. Girjas has won in the District Court and the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court’s decision will likely serve as a precedent in similar cases, meaning that it can have far-reaching effects on how Indigenous land use and land rights are interpreted by Swedish courts in the future.
In the court proceedings, surprisingly blunt
statements have been made by representatives of Swedish authorities about the
Sámi as ‘inferior’, a characterization which echoes the old colonial depiction
of Indigenous peoples. Throughout history many Sámi people have been hurt,
humiliated, and oppressed by Swedish authorities. When the well-known Sámi
public figure Johannes Marainen was recently interviewed in a Swedish newspaper, he
concluded that ‘We Swedes are quick to engage when people in other countries
are oppressed, but we have not really cleaned up in front of our own door.’ This is not the least apparent in the Swedish
government’s continual restriction of who has the legal right to call
themselves Sámi on ‘Swedish’ territory: reindeer owners of ethnic Sámi origin.
All other Sámi people—like fishing and hunting Sámi—are by Swedish definitions
not Sámi! The self-imposed governmental right
to define, acculturate, and segregate the Sámi people is largely unbroken since
Scandinavian peculiarities within the European colonial project
In a discussion of colonialism in Scandinavia, it should be noted that Denmark maintained even more widespread presence in colonies around the world than Sweden did, in Africa, Asia, and the West Indies. Also, Denmark tried to control the North, with its whaling and fisheries, in a ‘colonial union’ with Iceland, North Atlantic Islands, and Greenland. The exploitation of Greenland has been similar to Swedish expansion in Sápmi. Greenland still remains Danish, with a restricted autonomy. American president Donald Trump recently made a surprising announcement of the intention to buy Greenland, demonstrating how strategically and economically attractive land areas still are seen as available for purchase. But the neocolonial bid was declined by the Danish prime minister. Following the old colonial pattern, the islanders themselves were not consulted.
Heavy violence was not a part of Scandinavian
colonialism, at least not to the same extent as in British, Spanish, French and
later German rule. But one of the most long-lived slave revolts in the
Caribbean actually occurred in the Danish colony of St. John in 1733. For six
months a group of slaves battled and killed Europeans and slaves of other
origin, until French soldiers violently ended the revolt. Colonial competitors
would often unite in this manner against enemies who threatened the colonialist
Another difference between Scandinavian oversees colonies and those of other European nations was that the numbers of Scandinavian settlers in the colonies were on the whole few. However, this doesn’t mean—so Naum and Nordin write in the introduction to their anthology—that the colonies were negligible in geo-economic terms. The colonial purposes were similar to those of other European powers:
Scandinavia’s colonial expansion was motivated by and involved particular economic thinking, mercantilist drive for profit (to sell dear and buy cheap) and balancing national economies. Furthermore, it made use of the principles of natural law, which stipulated universal rights to trade, travel, explore and settle in foreign lands and justified violent actions if these rights were denied.
Naum and Nordin show how the quest for economic growth attracted Dutch capital and workforce to Scandinavia, bringing industrialization as well as capitalism. Books were written about the usefulness of trade and the need for founding colonies. Sugar refineries were built in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Swedish herring was traded as food for slaves. Merchants offered shipping of slaves to French colonies. Expeditions to America were made, even secretly in war time.
Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war.
The Swedish Crown, merchants, and political leadership shared a Eurocentric worldview and supported the right to conquer, dominate, and civilize in the name of superiority and technological advancement. But there was also a specifically Swedish twist to colonial ideology: Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war. When Britain and the Netherlands were fighting, Sweden exported cannons to the Dutch and iron for weaponry to the Brits. France could, when fighting Britain, rely on Swedish shipping of smuggled slaves, weaponry and other goods in the Caribbean. Also, hundreds of US trade ships managed to avoid customs by sailing under Swedish flag—and thus Sweden could maintain the lucrative Saint Barthélemy trade traffic.
There seems to be a line of continuity in
Swedish ‘neutrality’ goodwill from colonial times up to this day. When
defending delicate business agreements, Swedish rulers are well aware of the
strong link between ‘nonprofit’ trademarks and the ability to secure market
The self-image of Sweden as a peace-loving
world conscience of human rights rhymes badly with Swedish arms exports. The
last few decades there has been a public debate on exports to dictatorships and
regimes at war—though it is at least not, unlike in the ‘great olden days,’ a
question of illegal smuggling. On the contrary, the companies and the
government take care to emphasise the morally responsible nature of the Swedish
arms industry, using foreign policy watchwords like ‘equality,’ ‘freedom of
speech,’ and ‘press freedom’. Trade is promoted by professing high standards of
human rights and progressiveness.
But whatever ideals are invoked, Swedish
exports of military equipment are frequent to countries where essential
freedoms and rights are absent. The Swedish company SAAB recently delivered
airborne systems of radar surveillance to United Arab Emirates. The suppression
of human rights in the Arabic autocracy was never questioned. Amnesty noted
that SAAB does little or nothing to check if delivered equipment is used in war
crimes or oppression.
The ongoing SAAB delivery of 36 fighter aircraft to Brazil causes no troubling debate in Sweden. But when exports to warring countries are highlighted the government is forced to act; recently exports to Turkey were stopped because of the war in northern Syria (the contents of the exports were secret, however—protected by law).
Continuing on or
contesting colonial relations
As suggested earlier, ‘climate action’ is
becoming another useful sales argument for rich countries like Sweden. But when
it comes to climate offsetting, rich countries gladly export it. Swedish funds
support tree plantations in Kachung in Uganda in a project which has meant that
local farmers have been forced to move, thus losing their small
income. The project has even been considered a form of ‘landgrabbing.’ Now the
farmers cannot afford to send their children to school; some even starve.
Ugandan David Kureeba, chief at the National Association of Professional
Environmentalists, called this ‘climate colonialism’ in a major Swedish
newspaper. The colonial pattern is there, in
compensations for emissions of carbon dioxide as well as in exports of garbage
to Africa. In a similar case, it has been revealed that Swedish government agencies
have bought carbon offsets in Brazil from a multinational corporation that has
now been sued for poisoning the land of the Guarani people. The offsets were
bought to compensate for air travel by employees at agencies like the
Government Offices and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Another example of Swedish ‘high standards’ being more like double standards can be found in the story of the Ethiopian/Swedish cardiologist Fikru Maru. In 2013 he was imprisoned in Ethiopia, where he was detained for five years without a trial, falsely accused of bribery. His daughter—a Swedish resident—was informed by the Swedish Foreign Ministry that his prolonged detention time could not be questioned, since Swedish detention restrictions are lacking too (UN, the European Council, and several NGOs have criticized this). It would therefore be inconsistent to put pressure on Ethiopia. But alas, there were other reasons to be silent: Sweden was depending on Ethiopian support for a coveted seat on the UN Security Council and did not want to annoy Ethiopian colleagues by criticizing unlawfulness. This is revealed in a Fikru Maru biography which came out in October 2019.
As we have seen, there is reason to conclude
that Swedish ‘higher standards’ to at least some extent have been tactical more
than factual—a strategic colonialist neutrality. Some may even call Sweden’s
world conscience rhetoric hypocritical. In any case, regardless of how one
interprets Swedish neutrality, it is a fact that Sweden fully participated in
the colonial expansion and supported it; colonies added to the power and glory
of those ‘great olden days’ that are commemorated in the national anthem.
There has been no decolonizing moment during which Sweden has had to rethink its legacy. But some are trying to change this.
What differentiates Sweden from, for example,
Britain and France is that there has been no decolonizing moment during which
Sweden has had to rethink its legacy. But some are trying to change this.
Swedish artist Carl Johan De Geer, a descendant of the industrialist Louis De
Geer mentioned earlier, designed an art
in 2019 (in Norrköping Art Museum) to discuss colonial guilt. De Geer wants to
process the past in a way Swedish schools and art never have. For him, the
triggering factor was his own encounter a few years before with a descendant of
a slave sent to Brazil by his forefather (!).
The Church of Sweden also calls for a rewriting
of history: ‘Sweden must deal with its historical debt to the Sámi,’ Archbishop
Antje Jackelén officially declared in 2016, aware of the Swedish lack of
international credibility due to the state’s and the Church’s treatment of the
Sámi. As part of the Church’s self-examination several books have been
published, including one with scientific white papers. The Church supports the
Sámi Council’s request for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to
the one in Canada, but the Swedish national parliament has as of yet failed to
act on this.
Other states have at least partly begun to deal
with their guilt. Germany is perhaps the best role model. Its World War II
atrocities including the Holocaust have caused a processing in literature, art,
education, and public debate. This has been termed
‘Vergangenheitsbemächtigung’, i. e. the processing of the past, and may be the
key to Germany’s remarkable ethical recovery in the eyes of the world. But at
the same time, the immense German colonial abuse in Africa in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries has largely remained unexposed. Germany’s
unwillingness to owe up to its colonial past is evident in the strained relations between Germany and
Namibia (formerly German Southwest Africa) as the countries are five years into
unsuccessful negotiations of the terms of an official apology and compensation
from Germany for the genocide of 1904-1908.
It is disheartening (although perhaps not
surprising) that there is a similar absence of processing of historical crimes
in current superpowers. In Russia, Stalin is idolized to this day by one-eyed
history writing—spelled out even by president Putin, the new ‘tsar’—despite all
Soviet atrocities. Notable literature by Nobel Prize winners Alexandr
Solzhenitsyn and Svetlana Alexievich uncovers a broader picture, but has not had an impact on the history
that is told by the state. In China, the
Communist Party nurtures a leadership cult around Mao Zedong as part of the
government’s effort to legitimize continued power concentration and repression.
And the one-sided description of the conquest of America, which glosses over
genocide and traumatization of Indigenous peoples as well as the atrocities of
the slave economy, plays a role in continued racism in the U.S. in the 21st
Any benefits that can come from the infrastructures and technologies of modern, globalized society will be effectively undermined by continued abuse and uneven distribution of wealth. In a world of increasing inequalities, where material wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and environmental load is placed disproportionately on the poorest, there is certainly a need for both processing of colonial guilt and a decolonization debate.
If history is unprocessed and allowed to repeat itself, ‘clean and green utopias’ like Sweden can continue to use their good reputation and depict themselves as ‘neutral’ actors to get strategic advantages in global trade. A scrutiny of historical roles in the colonial era shows how the same old patterns are at work. Although political control over vast colonies is history, economic structures ‘invisibly’ serve the same function (and in a way that is often cheaper than managing empires). Today formerly colonized regions largely depend on foreign company investments to develop a role in global trade. Differentiation of production is driven by market laws; cheap labour and access to raw materials are essential to make post-colonial wheels spin. Environmental harm is part of the equation. And in this postcolonial world economy, Sweden uses the same strategies to promote its economic interests as during the era of European colonial expansion.
Former colonial powers have a responsibility both for their material impact on the planet and the ideologies they enforce.
The possibilities of
So where does all this leave us? Apart from scrutinizing
their colonial history and identifying repetitions of historical patterns in
the present, how might Scandinavian countries approach decolonization? This is
a complex question which I can barely begin to answer here. I will say this
though: we need to question the idea of economic growth as an ultimate bringer
of welfare for all. In a world experiencing the devastating effects of climate
change, this idea is less plausible than ever: as excessive consumption by a
world minority threatens all of humanity’s existence, there can evidently be no
equality unless wealth is distributed differently across the globe. This means
that former colonial powers have a responsibility both for their material
impact on the planet and the ideologies they enforce. Sweden—with its ‘higher
standards’—is one of those countries. To advocate a greenwashed variety of
‘business as usual’ is to preserve existing power relations, instead of
questioning vested interests. Selling Swedish fighter jets to Brazil and
oppressing Sámi people at home while telling Bolsonaro to respect Indigenous
rights—cashing in and washing our hands—is certainly not good enough.
But things can change. Slave trade and slavery
were abolished as a result of widespread resistance and popular movements. It
took centuries, but it happened.
We are now witnessing increasing pressure to change economic and political goals in an effort to counteract climate change. This may be the beginning of another dramatic shift of paradigms—if double standards hiding and justifying short-term profit interests do not stand in the way.
NOTE: Shortly after the publication of this text, the Swedish Supreme Court (Högsta Domstolen) ruled in favour of Girjas reindeer herding community against the state. The court’s decision was unanimous.
Many thanks to Rut Elliot Blomqvist for eminent editing and language revision.
Roger Blomqvist is a retired current affairs reporter/researcher and producer of “life philosophy” programs at Swedish public radio (Sveriges Radio), presently a university student of history and culture.
The Green New Deal is perhaps the most audacious plan to ever seriously address the grave social and environmental challenges we face. By identifying “systemic injustice,” the plan is sweeping in its scope. Yet, while the plan discusses public banks in a reference to adequate capital, the plan fails to see the commercial banking sector as one of the structural causes of, and impediments to solving, the problems we face. Importantly, the Green New Deal fails to articulate exactly why a nationalized banking system is critical to the success of the programs its proposes.
in modern economies when commercial banks extend interest-bearing loans to
individuals and corporations. The money in those loans does not exist before
the loan is generated but is created when the bank marks up the borrower’s
checking account. This is in stark contrast
to the general notion that money is a finite resource, such as gold, that is
allocated to its best economic use by the Central Bank.
When money is created by the private sector in the manner discussed above, it is seen as a private resource. Accordingly, public use of money for government spending is viewed as wasteful expenditure rather than productive investment. In the case of the Green New Deal, the massive price tag is seen as cannibalizing the productive private sector. It is for this reason that opponents of the Green New Deal argue that it will hurt the economy, and its proponents argue to “finance” the plan by moving money from one sector to another, e.g. from Wall Street to Main Street.
Money is a social relation. It is an abstract measure of what we all owe to one another.
Money, however, is not a private resource. And it is not a finite commodity. Money is a social relation. It is an abstract measure of what we all owe to one another. Think of it as a tally of everything you owe and are owed, for all the work you do and all the purchases you make. Now extrapolate that to the whole country, let the government manage it—just like it does with laws and other contracts—and you’ve got a monetary system!
The role of the government is crucial in managing the money system. Since money is a social relation, the government is responsible for the money system. Think of what happened in the Great Depression, the Savings and Loan crisis, and the 2008 Financial Crisis: the government always stepped in to repair the money system. And as guarantor of the social relation, it always will.
Monetary theorists understand the government’s monetary prerogative in three ways. First is the government’s ability to choose the unit of account that is used in the country—dollars in the United States and Canada. Second is the government’s ability to issue those units of account into circulation. Third is the benefit of first use that comes with issuing money. This last right is called seigniorage and can be thought of as the profit of creating money above the cost of printing and distributing that money.
has existed as a state-managed tally of owing and being owed (of credits and
debts in theoretical parlance) for thousands of years. In fact, a lot of
evidence suggests that such monetary systems existed for thousands of years
before coins and markets—and might even be the reason humans began to settle in
the first place! (See Money: The Unauthorized Biography.) Capitalism is a relatively new
manner of social organization and is characterized by a transition from
state-created money to bank-created money.
Think about that for a moment. Capitalism is about bank-created money! For thousands of years, the state, for better or worse, controlled three monetary prerogatives discussed above. The state created money by spending it into existence and guaranteed its value by levying taxes in the unit of account in which it spent. Beginning around the twelfth century, however, states began to expand beyond what their power to tax could justify and so they asked private merchants for loans. (See Brown 2013, p.111, and Davies 2002, p.261.) Slowly but surely, states lost the majority of their power to create money and the seigniorage benefit that came with that creation. States only kept the power to determine the unit of account. But with that power came the responsibility to manage the stability of the unit of account.
There has been precious little discussion on ending or reigning in the commercial banking industry’s money-creation power.
It is this strange conflict of interest with which this paper is most concerned. The state is forced to ensure a stable dollar, but it isn’t able to determine how—or for what—dollars enter society. So while much of the discussion surrounding the Green New Deal concerns ending or reigning in capitalism, there has been precious little discussion on ending or reigning in the commercial banking industry’s money-creation power.
While capitalism is often thought of as the private accumulation of surplus, the manner in which that accumulation is enabled is often ignored. Commercially created money means that production surpluses remain within the private sector. Were the state to take back the power to create money, and the seigniorage benefit that comes with such creation, it would severely limit the extent to which the private sector could accumulate surplus. In fact, nationalizing money creation would align the right of the state to create money with the responsibility it bears to manage money’s stability.
Perhaps most importantly, by regaining the monetary prerogative, the state could influence the direction of the economy by spending and lending money into existence in accordance with its goals. In the case of the Green New Deal, these goals would be social justice and environmental sustainability. This would mean that the tenets of the Green New Deal—from healthcare and education to healthy food and sustainable energy—would become structural components of a just and sustainable economy and not simply regulatory mechanisms of an extractive capitalism.
The Green New Deal, as currently written, is an end-of-pipe regulatory framework that relies upon taxing bank-created money to finance social and environmental spending.
This is a huge difference! By avoiding a discussion of a nationalized money supply, the Green New Deal, as currently written, is an end-of-pipe regulatory framework that relies upon taxing bank-created money to finance social and environmental spending. A nationalized money supply would transform government spending into the monetary creation mechanism and embed justice and sustainability as hallmarks of how we manage our national economy.
Joe Ament, PhD, is an ecological economist at The University of Vermont whose research explores monetary theory and policy in the context of socio-ecological equity.
Renewable energy, reparations to the descendants of former slaves and Native Americans, universal basic income, energy efficiency improvements, new transportation systems, job retraining for fossil fuel workers—the list of Green New Deal (GND) aspirations is long and expensive. Senator Bernie Sanders recently released a GND proposal estimated to cost $16 trillion. That’s 16 times the current annual U.S. defense budget, which is about $1 trillion. U.S. GDP was $20 trillion in 2018. How does the U.S. muster federal spending that requires a sum that’s 80 percent of our annual economic output? The Green New Deal requires a LOT of money, amounts that now look politically impossible. Why is money so scarce? Why is there never enough to meet our needs?
Some point to Modern
Monetary Theory (MMT) as a path forward. MMT advocates say we need to stop
worrying so much about deficits. The Treasury and the Federal Reserve can issue
the money into existence to pay for it all. Inflation won’t be a problem
because we can tax the money back out of existence if prices start to rise.
Unfortunately, for the
system to work the way MMT imagines it does—that is, for the government to have
the ability to simply print money into existence, for free—some critical legal changes are needed: 1) the prohibition Congress passed in 1935
ending the practice of the Treasury borrowing directly from the Fed without
issuing bonds needs to be reversed, and 2) the legal requirement for money to
be in the government’s account before they spend it needs to be eliminated.
Otherwise the U.S. government would be required to borrow the money for the GND
from the large, private banks and investors by selling government bonds, as
they do now, pay the wealthiest class the added interest, and burden future
generations with the astronomical costs of it all.
MMT overlooks the privileged role of the U.S. dollar in the current global
economic paradigm. Recent changes in IMF reserve currency rules threaten this privilege, yet we
still have monetary power that many nations do not. We could use our waning
power in the world to spark a new wave of change in monetary systems and make a
Global Green New Deal possible.
What monetary system
changes are needed for a Green New Deal?
The monetary system
conditions at the root of runaway inequality and environmental destruction are
1) private ownership, 2) debt-based issuance, 3) positive interest, 4)
monoculture, and 5) monopoly. All these conditions need to change; the adverse
impacts are an emergent property of a complex system, not a simple linear cause
and effect relationship between one variable (like positive interest) and one
impact (e.g. compulsory growth).
All the government icons and signatures on our dollar notes make us think that the U.S. government issues all the money, but this is not true.
Private Ownership. All the government icons and signatures on our dollar notes
make us think that the U.S. government issues all the money, but this is not
true. The Federal Reserve System is effectively owned and operated by the large private banks; the dividends
they get paid for their capitalized ownership stake are guaranteed at 6% per year, right off the top of the bank’s earnings, tax free. On top of this, since the crash of 2008, the excess
reserves the banks hold are also paid interest, decreasing their incentives to move that money into the
normal economy with all its risks, shocks, booms, and busts.
We need to make money a
public utility, not a private profit center. Strategies include the network of
public banks at all levels of government outlined in the GND Congressional resolution introduced this year,
and past efforts like the NEED Act and the Chicago Plan. If MMT worked as advertised, it might also be truly public
Debt Based Issuance. Between 90-95 percent of the money in circulation in the
U.S. is issued by
banks when they make loans. That’s right, private banks create money
out of thin air as loans and reap the interest as profits. This means that
virtually all the money we use is someone else’s debt and comes into existence
with the built-in expectation that it will return a profit to its issuer in the
form of positive interest. This is one of the reasons there is never enough
money for all the things we need, because debt-based money tilts the scales so almost
every aspect of human life must produce a return for the lenders, or it doesn’t
get issued. If there were money enough to go around, no one would borrow it
from the banks—they produce, control, and benefit from money’s artificial
scarcity. The scarcity also comes from the fact that when all the money is
debt, there is never enough to pay back all the interest.
Positive Interest. Positive interest on all the debt-based money drives the
discounting/net present value calculation large investors use when they
evaluate the long-term value of investments. Discounting systematically
devalues the future, which undermines all the efforts we make to leave a better
world for our grandchildren. One way to envision the unfortunate effect of
discounting is to picture something simple, like a tree, and look at what net
present value calculations do to warp the way we value it with money.
Here is the tree’s
physical reality. The seedling is planted, and after 10 years, we’ll assume the
tree’s value has increased to $100. After 100 years, at this rate of
appreciation, the grown tree would be worth $1,000. Both values are in current
Here is the same tree when
viewed through the lens of net present value. The net present value of the tree
after 10 years is a lot less (discounting $100 over 10 years), and looking out
100 years, it’s worth almost nothing (discounting $1000 over 100 years).
The following illustration
shows how the assumed value of the tree would change dramatically if money did
not come with inflationary added interest built in but rather had some kind of
storage charge, or demurrage, for keeping the money idle (instead of the
rewards we give the banks now for excess reserves).
Money issuance needs to be
a mix of debt and “grants” (for lack of a better word). Grants would not come
with debt’s positive interest and could be used for public and private goods
that do not promise a financial return. Education, health care, child and elder
care, the arts, and democratic participation are all examples of human activity
which cannot and should not be profit centers for either public or private
Monoculture. Even though world currencies come in lots of flavors –
Dollars, Euro, Yen, Pesos, Rubles, etc., the majority of them use the same bank
debt issuance system. This creates a global monoculture of money in
circulation. On a systemic level, this single type of money is as harmful as
other monocultures. When the banks fail, the economy fails.
A key consideration for the Green New Deal is that creating different types of currencies could eliminate the artificial scarcity built into the money issued by banks.
Diversifying the types of
money in circulation would mean adding public currencies and complementary
currencies to the mix. A key consideration for the Green New Deal is that
creating different types of currencies could eliminate the artificial scarcity
built into the money issued by banks. We can have enough money for everything.
We just need different kinds of money. There are already examples of complementary currencies which are used for food, time, care,
carbon, data, and small businesses that don’t require bank money to provide a
means of exchange to meet these needs. If every currency couldn’t be used to
buy everything, this also reduces risks of inflation and accelerating
Monopoly. The laws that require all debts and taxes to be paid in a
particular currency (like the Federal Reserve dollars in the U.S.) give the
banks a monopoly on money issuance. We need to break the monopoly the private
banks have on the money we use and accept public and complementary currencies for debts and taxes. Cryptocurrencies threaten banking monopolies
but are still private currencies purchased with bank money. A truly public
cryptocurrency accepted for taxes does not yet exist.
The systemic impacts of
the current monetary regime have been well-documented in a report to
the European Club of Rome by my late colleague, Bernard Lietaer, and others. In
brief, these are 1) amplification of the boom and bust cycles, 2) short-term
thinking, 3) compulsory growth, 4) concentration of wealth, and 5) devaluation
of social capital. All of these exacerbate social and economic inequality,
climate change, and other harmful environmental degradation. It is not
sufficient to address these problems piecemeal, the solutions we propose must be
socially and economically just as well as enabling a safe, healthy, and
biodiverse environment. If we change the monetary system, we can transcend the
values money has warped which now lead us to human extinction. We can change
Gwendolyn Hallsmith is an author, musician, and activist who lives in an ecovillage she founded in Vermont. She writes and sings about sustainable communities and the new economy.
 This is not to say that valuing trees in money is even appropriate.
They produce the air we breathe, they protect the water we drink, they offer
shade and food and solace. To reduce them and the rest of nature to a dollar
value is the main step that leads to economic exploitation, environmental
degradation, climate change, and species extinction.
food and agriculture in the Green New Deal?
Our food system is inextricably linked with
the climate crisis in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Agriculture is responsible
for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions and the result, climate change, goes
on to disrupt reliable food production. To combat climate change, we must shift
how we produce, distribute, consume, and dispose of food. To adapt to climate
change, we must build agricultural systems that are resilient to disruption. The
timeliness of this move was evident recently as a national coalition of farmers
and ranchers endorsed
the Green New Deal.
The Green New Deal mentions
food in broad strokes. Its focus is on consumers obtaining food, which the bill
says can be supported “by building a more sustainable food system that ensures
universal access to healthy food.” The bill’s strength is in its acknowledgement
of systemic injustices wrought on marginalized groups, and its goal for a “fair
and just transition” to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. If these strengths
are built into eventual policy mechanisms, they should influence not only food
quality and access, but all levels of the food chain.
Green New Deal must address capitalism’s food problems through goal-oriented,
Underlying many ills of our food system is
the sometimes unexpected truth that a rational agricultural system is incompatible
with capitalism. This is because the goals of healthy agriculture and the goals
of capitalism are diametrically opposed. When capitalism’s logic governs
agriculture, it affects all manner of management systems, making it difficult
or impossible to implement ecological or humane practices that might decrease
short-term profit margins. It also results in the kinds of outcomes the GND
seeks to remedy: hunger surrounded by abundance, unnecessary waste, the
systemic injustice of farmer displacement,
labor abuses, and fossil fuel use.
Therefore, GND food policies should begin
with identifying the overarching goals, because the goals of a system are some
of the most powerful leverage
points for change. All policy mechanisms should be guided and tested
against the vision of a “just transition,” and it would be useful to identify
sub-goals that support a just
transition—for example, climate change mitigation; climate change resilience;
an adequately fed and nourished human population; pay parity and economic
justice for farmers; healthy and diverse agroecosystems; etc.
Does “efficiency” change if we alter the timescale, i.e. if we think about resource efficiency in terms of decades or centuries, rather than single-year yields?
Similarly, during policy discussions, it is
useful to question goals we might accidentally take for granted. For example,
why do we need highly “efficient” agricultural production as it relates to
labor? Does efficiency in this sense compete with goals of reduced fossil fuel
use, biodiverse agriculture, or widespread employment? Does “efficiency” change
if we alter the timescale, i.e. if we think about resource efficiency in terms
of decades or centuries, rather than single-year yields? This process point can
help avoid implementing policies that recreate problems driven by assumed,
rather than intentionally adopted, goals.
Finally, GND policy discussions must
incorporate, not ignore, the historical context of our current food system. Our
food system is built on systematic wealth accumulation
and the dispossession and cultural erasure of marginalized people in the United
States. For GND policies to be “just,” they must account for and begin to
reverse these patterns. To ensure that outcomes have integrity, and that mechanisms
are well-crafted, policies must be developed directly
with farmers, food systems workers, sustainability experts, and social justice
advocates. As the Agroecology Research-Action Collective reminds us, “…the Green New Deal will only succeed if it
helps rapidly eliminate the fossil-fuel economy, and transforms industrialized
agriculture into agroecological, regenerative agriculture, with special
attention to rural communities and inclusion of historically marginalized, and
socially disadvantaged groups.”
goal-aligned solution: Basic Income for farmers
One solution, in line with a just
transition in food and agriculture, is basic income for farmers. “Universal
basic income,” recently brought into mainstream debate by Democratic
presidential candidate Andrew Yang,
is a monthly stipend provided by the government to all citizens. While there is
a compelling argument for UBI for everybody, basic income may be critical for especially
for agriculture. Proponents of UBI argue that one of its essential functions is
allowing people freedom
to make choices based on what they truly want or need in life, without
potential financial crisis dictating their options. For people who work in agriculture,
that freedom is the freedom to farm.
Farmers in the United States are in historic
levels of debt. In order to make enough money to continue, many farmers
have to expand their farms—regardless of whether it is a sustainable or
desirable choice—which usually means building or purchasing expensive
infrastructure and equipment. The result is a race to increase profit margins
and pay down debt, often prohibiting farmers from making choices based on land
stewardship or care for workers. Over half of American farms earn negative
income, losing more than they make, and rely on off-farm income for
There is increasing recognition that agroecology, the science of farming in tune with local ecosystems, is one way forward for just and sustainable food systems. But in the United States, where land is expensive, industrial agriculture subsidized, environmental regulations minimal, and parity pricing absent, it can be economically untenable for people to start agroecological farms in a rabidly capitalist system. Young farmers interested in raising sustainable, healthy food cannot make enough money to do so.
Thus, a basic income would be a way for people to produce food without needing to exploit themselves, their employees, or their land. (India recently announced that it will be providing UBI for farmers, expecting it to double farmer incomes.) Anyone working in agriculture should be eligible for this support, without making distinctions between farm owners and farm workers. Because up to half of farmworkers are undocumented, this policy would likely necessitate a corresponding reform in immigration policy, at least for the food sector, as put forth recently by the Sanders Campaign’s Green New Deal plan. It is also possible that another aspect of food justice—access to fresh and healthy foods, mentioned in the GND—would also benefit from basic income for farmers, by supporting agricultural livelihoods without astronomically raising the cost of their products.
Basic income would be one step toward creating safety for people who want to farm but lack financial security.
Furthermore, a basic income begins to address historic injustice. Reversing the trends of land theft and ongoing dispossession in the food system is difficult for many reasons, one of them being that farmers from marginalized communities do not have access to the same wealth, credit, and financial safety nets of more privileged farmers. Basic income would be one step toward creating safety for people who want to farm but lack financial security.
Yang’s UBI proposal, the “Freedom Dividend,” is $1,000 per month. This might not be enough for farmers. The Freedom Dividend is designed with the idea that it will encourage people to find jobs to supplement UBI that alone keeps them at the poverty line. But farmers already have jobs. We need a debate among stakeholders about the benefits of parity pricing—ensuring farmers are paid enough to cover their costs and living expenses—versus basic income, in terms of allowing farmers to stop overproducing to cover their debt, and make both environmentally and socially sustainable management choices. A just level for farmers might instead be the living wage for their area.
Other social programs that could make
farming, and sustainable farming in particular, a more viable option: free
childcare, free health care, free education, and a guaranteed farming pension. The
latter could allow farmers to keep their land in agriculture, rather than selling
it to cover retirement costs.
The bottom line: anyone growing food for
other people, especially if they are growing it in ecologically-sound ways, should
be able to provide for themselves and their employees. If we want to make
sustainable farming desirable, viable, and just, we must support it by reorienting
policy to support such worthy goals.
Caitlin Bradley Morgan is a doctoral candidate in Food Systems at
the University of Vermont, studying the intersection of on-the-ground efforts
and wider systems change.
The Green New Deal seeks expansive changes for society, from climate change mitigation to job creation. Education reform, while certainly not the focus, is also included, particularly in advocating for free higher education for all people who wish it. As stated in the 2019 United States House Resolution 109, which outlines the ambitions of the Green New Deal, society must provide ’resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education’.
Certainly, progressive movements in many
nations are fighting for free, or at least affordable, higher education. However,
it is in the lower levels of education—primary and secondary school—that change
is most vital in working toward the vision of the Green New Deal. After all,
younger generations will face direr consequences of climate change. In fact,
youth are one of the ‘frontline and vulnerable communities’ discussed in the
Green New Deal House Resolution. Young people are leading the climate
movement—see Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future school strikes. A truly
transformative Green New Deal must be for and by the youth.
One may envision a classroom in a nation that embraces the Green New Deal with students being taught a government approved, eco-centered curriculum with a strong climate justice component.
The Green New Deal strives to put the government in charge of providing more social services, including government-funded healthcare and job training. But an important but largely undiscussed question for Green New Deal advocates is: What role should government policy play in determining what is taught in classrooms? One may envision a classroom in a nation that embraces the Green New Deal with students being taught a government approved, eco-centered curriculum with a strong climate justice component. Some may see this as a good way of creating the citizens needed for the current and future state of the world. To others, this would be an unacceptable overreach of government influence. Certainly, governments already influence primary and secondary school curricula as it is. Even where states do not control classroom content, teachers must still shape their lessons to standardized examinations. The Green New Deal’s vision may lean toward even greater influence, however.
In this piece, I do not take a stance regarding
the ideal role of government in education. Rather, I offer examples to open a
critical dialogue on the topic among proponents of the Green New Deal. As
discussed below, governments could influence lower education indirectly by
simply increasing access or more directly by ensuring accurate information, by reformulating
disciplines and, most controversially, by setting moral education.
Indirect influence on lower education in the Green New Deal
Even without targeting what is taught in
classrooms, the Green New Deal can still have a strong influence in the school
system and the lessons that are imparted to students. For instance, by offering
affordable daycare and preschool, more young children could be exposed to the
education system. Increasing access to early education would also increase the
diversity of preschools. Putting kids from different races, classes, and even
countries together early on in life could instill a greater multicultural spirit.
Of course, this requires well-trained teachers who can ensure that students of
different backgrounds are not marginalized or bullied.
Factual content and teaching students to think
If one believes the government should play a role
in what is taught in the classroom, the least controversial target may be
ensuring that the content taught in classrooms is supported by science. Curriculum
on climate change, for example, should be evidence-based. Unfortunately, as discussed in a National Research Council workshop on
climate change and education, some teachers do not teach climate change as it
is considered too controversial and others feel pressure to teach ‘both sides’
of the issue.
Science education should move beyond facts and figures and teach students how to reason.
More generally, science education should move
beyond facts and figures and teach students how to reason. In fact, critical
thinking is important beyond the sciences. In a world where people on both the right
and left call the other’s facts ‘Fake News,’ people need a cognitive toolbox to
evaluate the credibility of what they’re told. The internet, especially social
media, bombards kids with a plethora of claims every day. Students must learn
to wade through them and determine which are accurate.
For advocates of the Green New Deal, it is
vital to discuss not just the importance of having the right information in
school courses, but also potential policies to ensure this. This piece can not
delve into specific policies, but, in general terms, how teachers are trained would
be a good starting point.
If one is okay with government shaping the
classroom, one can move beyond content and target the disciplines themselves.
Which disciplines should be rethought and how can we change them? A movement of
university students, for example, calls for rethinking education in economics,
which has become dangerously separated from the knowledge of social and natural
sciences. However, these changes target adult students and experts. After all, economics,
whether mainstream, Marxist, ecological, or otherwise, is not a field
universally taught to elementary or high school students. And yet, it is at
these lower levels that the push for an ecological future must occur.
Just as ecology and our understanding of the biophysical planetary limits can help reformulate economics, however, so could the linking of academic disciplines be used to reform primary and secondary education. For instance, education on the history of developed nations could include a discussion of the environmental impacts of the industrial revolution. Another example is the Climate Change and Environmental Education (CCEE) curriculum, which incorporates environmentalism in all areas of study, emphasizing how the most vulnerable are disproportionally impacted by environmental degradation. Examples such as these show how reformulating disciplines can be achieved by connecting concepts that, until now, where segregated into their own disciplines. Governments could, in principle, bring these changes to much broader swaths of society by forcing all public schools to adopt them.
Education and morality
Even those who feel governments should play a strong role in what is taught in the classroom may balk at the idea that governments should determine which moral lessons should be taught in school. Moral education, it may be argued, should be taught in the home, not in the classroom. But morality is already a part of US education at the lower levels. Religious instruction and the Pledge of Allegiance (a standardized recital meant to express one’s allegiance to the nation) are cases in point, even if the former is meant to instill the morals that the students’ parents are assumed to already espouse and the latter is not necessarily mandatory.
Several examples from the previous sections show
how the current education system
already has a moral component. For instance, teaching acceptance of
students with different backgrounds helps develop empathy and inclusiveness. Teaching
about the global environmental impacts of industry, which disproportionately
target the most vulnerable in society, is unavoidably tied to the concept of
In many cases, moral education may simply mean
making the process more targeted and explicit. For instance, Child-Friendly Schools sometimes hold social cooperation
and conflict resolution activities and seek to instill a ‘respect for nature’
in their students. As another example, the Humane Education movement advocates for activities explicitly meant to
encourage empathy for others.
It will also hopefully stir a more general discussion on how much government influence proponents think an ideal Green New Deal should advocate in other fields, from healthcare to job training.
That morality is already inexorably tied to education does not mean that the government should be given a more expansive role in determining moral education in schools. There are always dangers in giving a central government too much control over its citizens, and this is particularly worrisome when its influence is related to young people. In terms of the Green New Deal, proponents must consider how expanding the influence of the government could have detrimental effects, particularly as the parties in power shift over time. Setting a precedent on how the government can intervene in education must be done with caution. There is no easy answer to the question of what role the government should play in determining what is taught in schools. A functioning Green New Deal proposal must wrestle with this issue and, hopefully, proponents can develop a position that is of benefit to both students and society in general.
Finally, while this piece focused on education, it will also hopefully stir a more general discussion on how much government influence proponents think an ideal Green New Deal should advocate in other fields, from healthcare to job training, and what such influence might mean to people needing those services, both now and in the future. It may even spark discussions for Green New Deal proponents on potential alternative modes of governance beyond centralized governmental control, both at the local, regional and international levels.
Gabriel Yahya Haage is a PhD candidate at the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University, Canada. His research focuses on freshwater systems and the methods of understanding water demands in the ecological, social and economic spheres.
The climate crisis does not respect national borders, and neither should programs that respond to it. The Green New Deal, unlike most proposed climate legislation, addresses justice, not just emissions. But to be truly transformative, it must consider justice internationally, not just in the country implementing a GND.
United States House Resolution 109, the document that proposes a Green New Deal, focuses narrowly on the US. It threatens to create Green New Colonialism through increased extraction abroad. It also gives no mention of the US military’s environmental impact or its ability to maintain global injustice by force.
The GND names social, political, and economic oppression as root causes of environmental injustice.
Happily, the GND holds a radical understanding of how environmental injustice comes to be. The GND names social, political, and economic oppression as root causes of environmental injustice. Traditional policy approaches for environmental justice, by contrast, focus on ‘disproportionate shares’ of ‘environmental consequences’ in a way that laments, rather than counteracts, underlying oppressions.
The fact is, socially and economically marginalized people bear the brunt of environmental hazards. Speaking plainly, environmental injustice occurs along race and class lines. 2018’s Hurricane Michael hit poor counties in Florida and Georgia hardest, demonstrating a pattern where environmental hazards exacerbate existing inequalities. This injustice does not confine itself to the United States or other countries that have produced the lion’s share of the emissions causing climate chaos. Shortly after Hurricane Michael, two serious cyclones hammered the coast of Mozambique, with more frequent storms expected in the future.
Climate mitigation and adaptation—not hazards alone—can also create or perpetuate injustice. For instance, implementing the GND’s call for net-zero emissions would require vast increases in production of renewable energy technologies and batteries. Accordingly, it would intensify mining in places such as China, Congo-Kinshasa, and Chile. This mining contributes to water toxification in Inner Mongolia, depends on child labor in Congo, and threatens to degrade Indigenous and peasant farmland in the Andes. The lack of attention to these energy and environmental injustices constitutes a ‘green colonialism,’ where the global north achieves a high standard of living and a sheen of carbon neutrality by exploiting the health, labor, and land of the global south.
It is true that renewable energy production can cut greenhouse gas emissions in the wealthiest countries, mitigating climate change’s most acute threats in the global south. Climate change is certainly a mortal threat and in itself an environmental injustice, but simply replacing one energy source with another would hardly be a just transition. Instead, as Elena Hofferberth writes, in order to prevent green colonialism, ‘[t]he acknowledgement of the global historical responsibility [for oppression and discrimination] must translate into true environmental justice…’
Accordingly, an internationally just GND must target the processes that generate global oppression. But what are those processes? Why are marginalized people at greater risk? And who marginalized them in the first place? The short answer is that state power determines who is protected from environmental injustice and who suffers it. Environmental hazards mostly result from economic processes, all of which require ecosystem destruction or disruption. Within a given state, non-marginalized people, those with economic means and social privileges, can protect themselves from these risks by influencing decisions or using legal processes to mitigate existing harms. Or they can simply pay to protect their land, often in the form of conservation easements.
But these people are usually playing a zero-sum game. If their communities avoid risks, others will not. Corporations have to grow or die, so they won’t surrender dirty projects if they do not have to. Rather, they will move them to where poor and marginalized people live. The state will thus favor industrial interests over people without political, economic, or social power who challenge them. In the US, this pattern concentrates pollution in low-income areas, especially those populated by people of color. Internationally, global south countries bear the brunt of resource extraction and waste disposal.
Economic processes, especially raw material extraction, depend on international stability that results from military power. A central example is the US military’s tight link to major US fossil fuel corporations.
These conflicts also arise across international borders. Where no one state dominates, the political fights take the form of military competition. Without a global government, there is no single body that can back up or arbitrate economic processes, so economic processes, especially raw material extraction, depend on international stability that results from military power. A central example is the US military’s tight link to major US fossil fuel corporations. In other words, it is no coincidence that the US has the largest economy in the world and the largest military.
A transformative GND, one committed to environmental justice and avoiding green colonialism, should therefore reduce American military capacity. This reduction would degrade one of the primary mechanisms on which injustice and exploitation depend. Thankfully, the current House Resolution already contains the seeds of that more transformative vision.
First and foremost, the GND already calls for justice through ‘stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of [I]ndigenous peoples, 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” (my emphasis). One only needs to go one step further to acknowledge that oppression based in militarism reproduces injustice on a global scale.
Consider military bases. The US military operates approximately 800 bases around a globe composed of 206 UN-recognized countries. They amount to hundreds of “sites around the globe are where the military can store its weapons, station its troops, detain suspects, launch its drones, and monitor global affairs.” This storage, stationing, detaining, launching, and monitoring all comprise a mechanism for oppression, one that projects the interests of the United States and holds the rest of the world in check. But bases can also create direct environmental injustices themselves. Bases, current and former, have left a range of environmental hazards around the world, ‘[f]rom Agent Orange in Vietnam, depleted uranium in Iraq, and munitions dumps and firing ranges in Vieques, Puerto Rico, to a toxic brew of poisons along the Potomac River…’ Often, these hazards impact people along colonial lines, such as military bases’ impact on traditional Native American foods in Alaska.
The GND should halt oppression by significantly reducing the number of US military bases around the world.
Accordingly, the GND should halt oppression by significantly reducing the number of US military bases around the world. In doing so, the GND would weaken the capacity of the United States to inflict environmental injustice, while simultaneously directly mitigating existing environmental hazards. Of course, this process would not do away with the injustices of extractivism in and of itself. What it woulddo is decrease imperial power and shrink local sites of environmental injustice.
This process would easily fit with GND jobs. Decommissioning bases, managing their contents, and remediating their impacts would require a huge amount of work. A GND committed to base reduction would also significantly cut oil consumption. The US military itself is the world’s largest consumer of oil, and shrinking it would cut its huge greenhouse gas emissions. Reduced military expenditure could also free up federal funding to pay for other aspects of the GND.
Critics may rightfully ask why this proposal does not simply call for full demilitarization and the abolition of the armed forces. After all, why simply lessen the potential for environmental injustice rather than eliminate it? One response could be that it is not just militarism but imperialism which the GND must target. But the two are intricately linked, and tackling the latter would warrant a more radical opposition to the military. My only defense against that is tactical restraint. A major strength of the GND has been its popularity, and too strong of a critique of American militarism could decrease support. I admit this defense is based on speculation about public opinion, but limiting the worst dangers from climate change requires mitigation as soon as possible. Compromises on rhetoric are warranted to adopt a transformative GND within the existing political structure. Since the proposed GND is largely aspirational, the GND goals could perhaps be framed in a way that is sympathetic to public opinion while policies themselves could be more radical.
These issues need to be carefully worked through in the creation of an anti-imperialist GND. The conversation should start by recognizing that reduction of military capacity provides an effective means of combating imperialism and environmental injustices alike.
Walter Keady is a masters student at the University of Vermont studying energy, environmental justice, and just transitions. He is a member of the Champlain Valley Democratic Socialists of America’s Executive Committee.
The Green New Deal is on everyone’s lips and policy
platforms. Liberal pundit Thomas Friedman coined the term in 2007, and Left
parties in the UK called for a Green New Deal during the recession that
followed the 2008 global financial crash. Last year, Congresswoman Alexandria
Ocasio Cortez rebooted the idea in the United States. Now progressive politicians
from Canada to Australia are putting forward
Green New Deals.
The proposals vary from place to place, but each GND is a
package of policies designed to transform our economy to deal with the dual crises
of climate change and social inequality. In this way they link environmental
justice with economic justice in an all-encompassing vision for restructuring
much of the existing social order.
It’s a tall task. The right has criticized the GND for being a laundry list of everything environmentally minded socialists have ever wanted anyway: not just publicly owned renewable energy and small-scale eco-agriculture but also universal healthcare, housing, and living-wage jobs. Centrists have argued that such a broad and deep policy package isn’t politically possible; only incremental, piecemeal changes can fight climate change successfully. Some leftists have expressed concern that the GND doesn’t go far enough: that it might cater to corporate and financial interests; that it threatens to intensify rich countries’ extraction of mineral wealth from the rest of the world (for solar panels, batteries, electric cars, and so on); that it could further marginalize Indigenous peoples; and that it risks being counter-productive by kickstarting economic growth, which would probably increase carbon emissions.
Seemingly every progressive and socialist espouses some version of the GND in part because it remains a vague outline of aspirations. Now its proponents must flesh out the details.
Despite these criticisms, the GND’s ambition has led to great excitement. The Left has been reanimated behind a common cause. Seemingly every progressive and socialist espouses some version of the GND in part because it remains a vague outline of aspirations. Now its proponents must flesh out the details. We need to publicly debate different visions of the GND. We must think strategically about how to make the GND a reality and how to ensure it is just and truly transformative.
We argue that ecological economists can
play a leading role in this. In their textbook Ecological Economics,
Herman Daly and Josh Farley list sustainability and justice as the field’s
first two goals. If the GND’s goal is to facilitate, through policy, the
transition to a socially equitable low-carbon economy, then ecological
economics basically bills itself as the science of the Green New Deal.
Of course, many fields have knowledge and ways of thinking to contribute to
informing a GND. Part of ecological economics’ strength is its willingness to
incorporate evidence, theory, methods, and perspectives from diverse
Yet ecological economists haven’t
engaged much with the GND, other than the pile of comments (compiled here) on how it might impede or enable degrowth—a downscaling of rich
countries’ economies, and the global economy, that would also downscale
emissions and exploitation. While making the GND compatible with degrowth is
crucial (see point 2 below), we know that ecological economists have a lot more
knowledge and ideas to offer to the design of such a transformative policy
To this end, this essay is the first in a
series of articles that aim to inform the GND through the lens of ecological
economics. The series will feature short position papers by students of the Economics for the Anthropocene program, a
three-university collaboration to train graduate students in ecological
economics, as well as by other invited experts.
These short articles will focus on thematic issues outlined in the GND, touching on questions such as: How can we pay for the GND? Would it break international trade law? What agricultural policies should an ecologically sound GND include? How do we organize to win a GND? And so on. The authors will propose specific principles and policies to ensure the GND lives up to its eco-revolutionary potential.
To introduce this series, we want to
convince you that ecological economics is a science fit for scrutinizing,
deliberating, and deepening the GND. That it can provide tools for exploring
the intricacies of changing everything about how the economy works.
The following are just a few aspects of ecological economics—and the transdisciplinary research community it’s part of—that can enrich understandings around the GND:
1. Social-ecological perspective
Ecological economics, unlike any other school of economic thought, integrates its investigation of the biophysical, social, and financial aspects of economies. Most economists study these realms separately. Considering them as coevolving, mutually constitutive pieces of a more-than-human whole allows ecological economists to analyze policies that address climate and the economy together, as the GND endeavors to do. One emerging approach, that of ecological macroeconomics, combines modeling techniques to demonstrate how flows of money between economic sectors relate to flows of resources and pollution through the production process, and how changes in one part of this ecological economy affect the rest of the system. Such models can project how different versions of the GND might affect employment, inequality, carbon emissions, mineral extraction, and other variables. Ecological economists’ coevolutionary way of thinking about the economy within society as part of nature, moreover, allows us to consider change holistically, historically, and materially, whereas most other brands of economics study production and exchange as if they occurred separately from politics, beliefs, traditions, and ecosystems. A total social transformation like the GND cannot be reduced to its economic elements.
2. Thinking beyond growth
Ecological economists have continually shown that resource use and carbon emissions rise together with GDP, and that wealthy economies have grown beyond the capacity of society and ecosystems to support them. We have also proposed many ideas for degrowing the economy justly, in ways that do not harm vulnerable people and that enhance local autonomy. The GND could spark a degrowth transition by breaking growth’s link to employment: a government program that gives everyone a job who wants one would ensure people economic security even as the economy shrinks overall. But to avoid simply stimulating growth, a GND must provide jobs that are regenerative and reproductive rather than productive in the conventional sense: ecosystem restoration, caring for the elderly, ecological farming, and such. Ecological economists are already imagining post-growth economies that pursue plural values. Real flourishing means balancing society’s evolution toward a diverse array of worthy goals that cannot be reduced to a number next to a dollar sign. Beyond GDP, the monetary value of all production in an economy, ecological economists measure whether economies meet people’s material needs and use metrics that track the physical size of the economy—the resources used and wastes discharged. Multiple countries in Europe, as well as Japan and others have integrated these into their national accounting systems. This is a first step towards understanding economies otherwise.
The GND could spark a degrowth transition by breaking growth’s link to employment.
3. Understanding complexity and scale
Ecological economics is well positioned to reflect on the difficult-to-foresee consequences of GND policies because of its grounding in systems theory. Making big changes to any system brings unpredictable cascading effects. If economic degrowth or the transition to renewable energy decreases the amount of institutional complexity that society can maintain, it is imperative to make sure that the resultant simplification does not impinge upon democracy or the rights that marginalized people, women, and minorities have won through social movements, and that any increased labour burdens from decreasing energy use do not fall disproportionately on these groups. Managing the government programs of the GND will itself require a lot of materials and energy. If a simpler society powered by renewables cannot sustain sophisticated systems like centrally administered national healthcare as we know it, there is a need to guarantee that newly designed systems for care are based on principles of justice. Systems theory helps us think up policies and institutions that can ensure justice that’s resilient to changing conditions. Central governments can finance and oversee decentralized healthcare systems, for example, that communities construct and operate in ways that work for their local contexts. Our ideological systems might need to coevolve with social-ecological change, too. Women’s emancipation need not rely on professional employment made possible by state-funded childcare and birth control, but we can dream up alternative desirable feminisms only if our beliefs about empowerment and freedom transform along with the economy.
4. Emphasis on equity
Just distribution is a key principle of ecological economics. If we cannot solve poverty by growing the economy, then someone has to take from the rich to give to the poor. But a GND proposing that the government play Robin Hood is not enough. Ecological economists recognize that the economy is set up to continuously create inequality. Labor markets, financial markets, tax laws, property rights, inheritance, and a horde of other institutions continuously transfer wealth to the already wealthy. An economically just GND can’t merely redistribute income and capital, it must redesign the rules of society to dole out the goods more evenly in the first place, and to recognize and recompense historical injustices. Ecological economists go further than government transfers and employment programs, studying collective property systems and commons governance regimes through which people share benefits and make decisions collectively. And we devise programs that integrate equity and ecology—not just a universal minimum income but a maximum, too; a job guarantee that offers part-time work that’s enjoyable but not super productive; taxes on carbon-intensive luxury goods. Reducing inequality will itself likely lessen the competitive pressures that drive the expansion of extraction and emissions. Ecological economics can also help inform processes for recognition of ecological and colonial debts and support charting paths toward meaningful decolonization. Additionally, ecological-economic models estimate production’s effects in other places, such that policy making can account for people and ecosystems abroad. A just GND, even if implemented by one country, must be internationally equitable.
5. Justice beyond humans
Some ecological economists are beginning to adopt a broader understanding of justice, one that considers the fate of other animals, plants, and entire ecological communities. Such a perspective, in the words of our colleagues, “views maintaining the integrity of the web of biotic and abiotic processes and communities that mutually constitute the biosphere as the first principle of distributive justice.” Protecting earth’s biodiversity and life-support systems will be incredibly difficult but at least the goal is straightforward. Extending justice to non-human beings is trickier. How do we know what an individual coyote wants? How can we invite prairie grasses to the negotiation between rotational grazing and total rewilding to replace monoculture corn? This is new ground for ecological economists— to study these questions we’ll need to see worldviews in their plurality beyond the Western one and methodologies from other disciplines that may include rituals, arts-based approaches, and radical forms of listening. Yet analyzing the potential effects of different possible GNDs provides an opportunity to invent innovative methods for thinking about, say, whether wind turbines or hydropower are better for birds’ wellbeing, or if rivers and their inhabitants mind diverting some water for small-scale hydroelectricity.
The GND must be accompanied by a revolutionary movement.
6. Political framing
economists, like any critical social scientists, insist that all economics is
political. Powerful actors take financial and environmental benefits for
themselves while pushing burdens like difficult labor and toxic pollution onto
those who are powerless to refuse them. We argue that the citizen movements
from below can counteract this power with numbers, by acting together. The
original New Deal, and most reforms historically, were essentially compromises authored
by elites in the face of mass uprising. The GND must be accompanied by a revolutionary
movement focused on the spirit as well as the details of a policy package that the
ruling class will try to water down anyway. This means making big demands and
taking to the streets, along with Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, and
environmental justice activists around the world, rather than simply designing an
The GND can serve as a vehicle for dreaming up a desirable future,
inspired by degrowth, environmental justice, and other visionary ideas about
radically different societies than our own. Parallel to designing and fighting for a state-led Green
New Deal we must continue self-organizing and engaging in projects of
solidarity outside the market and state. A successful GND, by ensuring certain basic
needs and even a livable climate, could in fact facilitate the creation of
autonomous mutual aid networks for food, care, housing, and so on by freeing
people from some precarity or wage labor.
This essay is a
call for ecological economists to collaborate with grassroots movements to put
forward ideas about a truly transformative and just Green New Deal that bridges
political aspirations, justice, and material realities. We therefore launch
this series with this think-piece in hopes that ecological economists and other
radical thinkers will join the conversation and bring their expertise to bear on the ideas around the GND. What
should a big government program to restructure society and create an ecological
economy include? How do we hold them to account?
We hope these essays contribute to the radical reimagining of economic life.
We would like to thank Martin Sers, Katie Kish, Rut
Elliot Blomqvist, Vijay Kolinjivadi, and Christopher Orr for comments that
contributed to this piece.
Leah Temper is an ecological economist and filmmaker
based at McGill University, Montreal and the Autonomous University of
Barcelona. She is the founder and co-director of the Global Atlas of
Sam Bliss studies and organizes non-market food
systems in Vermont. He also reads and writes about ecomodernism and degrowth.
Tens of thousands of Belgian students have been leaving their classes to go on strike in defense of the climate. For almost two months now, every Thursday many of these students are striking. And they’ve been taking to the streets in mass protests.
One of the adult protesters is Karen Naessens of Rise4Climate, an organisation that has coordinated a recent demonstration in Brussels. Almost 100,000 people showed up for the protest. Never before did Belgium have such a large climate march. Naessens explains:
We’re protesting because we feel politicians still haven’t got it. We want to show these demands are held by the public at large and that people really care. It’s not only Belgium that should be more ambitious. It’s one of the worst performers in the EU. The EU should take a pioneering role. Europe should take the lead. It’s up to us to put it on the agenda!
Much of the Belgian media has been remarkably benevolent towards the climate protests. I have been wondering if this will change, when many climate truants will have been campaigning every Thursday for months. In my view, some of the students are obviously planning to do just that: to strike every Thursday.
Protests of young people have gathered force in Europe over the past weeks, especially in countries like the UK, The Netherlands and Germany. In France, Sweden, Switzerland and elsewhere, activists have also gathered in large numbers, the protests taking a different shape in each country. Nevertheless, the movement does have its common inspirations.
Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swede, has drawn worldwide attention and inspired many of the protesters. She was the first to raise awareness of global warming through a school strike. In the beginning she was striking alone. Nobody expected her to become so influential . But her idea has taken hold among the youth, and not without reason: the strikers belong to a generation that will suffer immeasurably from climate change and its impacts.
In this text I am focusing on Belgium, where I live, and where climate protests have been larger than in any other country. Here, all age ranges are out on the street demanding for better climate policies, and youth is at the forefront of it. But, the movement does have its challenges. First, there is some danger from the Right. Second, many people don’t seem to really understand what is going on when it’s about climate change and what to do against it. And so, there are many who turn to experts to solve the problem. I argue that radical democracy, and the ideas of social ecology, are a much-needed antidote.
One of the reasons for the climate movement here becoming so big is the fact that it is very influenced by the ecological left. The ecological Right is small, but growing. Yes, the Right is slowly turning green – or so it seems. Amongst other things, they’re proposing “nuclear energy solutions” (like nuclear fusion or using thorium) and new climate technology (whether it already exists or not), stopping what they see as overpopulation, putting electric cars on the roads and setting up climate taxes (for the rich as well as the poor).
But is it really that green? After all, it has kept rather close connections with industrial lobby groups (investing in fossil fuels, for example) and climate skeptics. Arguably, the Right is just nervous after the large climate protests. Greenwashing their policies and proposals could simply be a response to feeling the wind turn under the impetus of the climate movement. The mainstream of the Right is only just trying to appear more ecological than it is in reality, to obtain more votes because there are important elections coming up in May.
What we especially need now in Belgium is a growing movement from below that puts good climate measures on the political agenda, not false or unwelcome solutions like those proposed by the “green” Right. If we look at all the climate protests of the past couple of months, we are doing quite well in that respect.
Beyond the challenge from the Right, Belgium is also facing another problem: the over-reliance on experts. Lately we have heard more and more pleas to have climate-related problems “solved” by experts. Experts, the argument goes, should sit around the table with policymakers, or should be given more money to do research on new technologies. Normal people are considered incompetent to find adequate solutions for climate change.
And so, the opinion of many people, even some of the students, has become that more power must be placed in the hands of experts. Experts who have to come up with a new type of nuclear power plant. Or experts who know a lot about the nature of climate change because they are climatologists, or architects, or … policy makers.
Experts are called in if people do not know how to solve problems. For example, when proposed solutions do not fit within their own ideological framework, or when they see themselves as not competent enough to come up with enough adequate solutions. Experts can help to solve problems, but their large power must be treated with some mistrust. If experts contradict each other a lot, like in Belgium for the moment, one soon has to deal with social stagnation and political immobility.
When it comes to climate change, Belgium has already looked at what experts do or do not advocate. Or what people do who are viewed as experts in a certain area (or whose expertise is questioned or even denied by some). There is therefore a battle going on when it’s about measures against climate change and choosing the experts that are fit for this.
So if not the experts, then who? If we leave measures against climate change to current policy makers, we will be setting ourselves up for a long wait. Power is nowadays mainly in the hands of large companies, as lobby groups they determine a large part of the Belgian and European policies. The large corporations generally are not much interested in ecological life, harmony or production. Their main raison d’être often is making profits and competing with other corporations. They want to keep their important positions within the contours of the market economy, and many principles have to be denied for that.
When experts obtain too much power we have elitist technocracy. This is really problematic, it’s disempowering and patronizing for most people. It’s especially a problem when the experts who have too much power are just politicians of top-down parties defending technocratic statecraft—like the case is now in Belgium and many other countries—and not at all climate experts trying to do something against climate change… well, then we really are in trouble. Then it becomes important for us to build counter-power and participation through grassroots movements.
The climate movement in Belgium needs to come to grips with the fact that the current ecological crisis cannot be solved by the market, or experts, alone. As Murray Bookchin wrote in 1993:
Unless we realize that the present market society, structured around the brutally competitive imperative of “grow or die,” is a thoroughly impersonal, self-operating mechanism, we will falsely tend to blame other phenomena — technology as such or population growth as such — for environmental problems. We will ignore their root causes, such as trade for profit, industrial expansion, and the identification of progress with corporate self-interest. In short, we will tend to focus on the symptoms of a grim social pathology rather than on the pathology itself, and our efforts will be directed toward limited goals whose attainment is more cosmetic than curative.” Ecology should not become dismal science or co-opted by the right, and therefore it should be infused with good social theory and interesting politics. Ecologists should be aware of the way the present market society is structured and the ills and disadvantages of industrial capitalism.
Taking advantage of the growing momentum in the climate movement, a new group of grassroots activists in Liège, a city in the south of Belgium, is planning a large international conference on what is called “social ecology” in September. In the words of Murray Bookchin once again, what defines social ecology is:
its recognition of the often-overlooked fact that nearly all our present ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems. Conversely, our present ecological problems cannot be clearly understood, much less resolved, without resolutely dealing with problems within society. To make this point more concrete; economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today — apart, to be sure, from those that are produced by natural catastrophes.
Projects like the conference on social ecology in Liège in September can help influence the climate movement to ask the hard questions about the role of capitalism and the need for alternative, direct democracy. We already have many climate protests now in Belgium. What we especially need now are some good debates and analyses about what direction the climate movement in Belgium (and other countries) should take.
Rafa Grinfeld has been studying social ecology for more than 25 years, and has been active in social and ecological activism, writing and traveling to meet and talk with social ecologists in Europe and North America.
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
This list marks a full year of monthly readings! Thank you for all those who subscribed. We would like to take this moment to ask you if you have any feedback on this series. Is it too long? What do you like about it, what don’t you like about it? Let us know via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or at email@example.com.
We didn’t spend much time online during December festivities, so this list is shorter than usual, but we still found great reads to share. We once again saw an uptick in discussions on a “Green New Deal”, this time less so in lefty corners of the Internet, but in mainstream culture, with the launching of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into the spotlight. Of course, we highlight a few of the best “takes” on the yellow vest movement in France, including one we published. We also saw some interesting discussion, and criticism, of eco-primitivism.
Uneven Earth updates
A new North American network emerges from the grassroots | Link | Announcing a congress of municipal movements
Time for the subaltern to speak | Link | The movement against waste incineration in Can Sant Joan, Catalonia
The 8th of December, the end of the month, and the end of the world | Link | The yellow vest movement shows us the potential of a “convergence des luttes” to demand a just ecological transition
Why we need alternatives to development | Link | An excerpt from the forthcoming book Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary
Top 5 articles to read
The fallout. “Dawn, this is the United States of America,” her husband said. “The government doesn’t just leave radioactive waste lying around.”
Announcing “better worlds”. 10 original fiction stories, five animated adaptations, and five audio adaptations by a diverse roster of science fiction authors who take a more optimistic view of what lies ahead in ways both large and small, fantastical and everyday.
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Saturday 8 December 2018 is a day that will likely go down in history for many social movements. The streets of many European cities were filled with demonstrations against the most pressing social issues of our time: growing inequality, useless mega infrastructural projects, and climate breakdown. While these issues may seem unrelated, they have common origins in neoliberalism. The demonstrations that most captured the collective imaginary and the headlines are those of the gilets jaunes – or ‘yellow vests’ – in France. The past five weekends have seen protests rising against Macron’s government. Although the movement was sparked by a new tax on petrol, the ‘fuel’ keeping the movement alive is resentment towards ‘the President of the rich’ who recently reduced the solidarity tax on wealth, an iconic policy of French socialism. Other notable resistance protests marking that weekend include those in Italy against the ‘useless mega infrastructural projects’ such as the TAV, TAP and the MUOS military antenna – major proposals of private industrial infrastructure that devastate ecosystems and the health of citizens. The TAV is an example of how transport becomes a threat to ecology and society when privatized rather than run as a public service. The TAV is the result of a historic wave of the neoliberalization of transport, energy and telecommunications industries, through the privatization and deregulation of publicly-owned enterprises.
At the same moment, international policy-makers convened in Katowice, Poland to negotiate how to implement the Paris Agreement at the COP24 UN climate conference. Or, in the case of some parties, such as the US, Russia, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, the conference was about negotiating how not to implement the Paris Agreement. For delegates of poorer nations and small island states in the Pacific that are on the frontlines of climate change, the objective was to negotiate their own survival. This year could be the last opportunity for international policy-makers to take the necessary measures to avoid climate apocalypse. The result has been an unprecedented wave of climate marches in recent weekends, including the biggest some countries have ever seen.
It is therefore evident that ecological issues are an ever-stronger underlining force for many social movements. Ironically, it is precisely in France – whose President was recently recognized as a UN “Champion of the Earth” – where it has become evident how the neoliberal establishment privileges the wealthy through climate policy while neglecting the working class.
As human ecologist Andreas Malm argues, Macron is today the champion of neoliberal rhetoric on climate change in upholding the tenet that all individuals are indiscriminately responsible for climate change and must be encouraged to consume sustainably through the imposition of value-added taxes (VAT). Such is the logic behind the fuel tax initially proposed by the French government. However, an increase in VAT is the most regressive way to drive the ecological transition we need. This is because the tax assumes that purchasing power is equal for all citizens. The real impact of the tax would be felt in the wallets of the poorest citizens who cannot afford to abandon their old vehicles – their only lifeline to access work and services in rural areas where public transport is sorely lacking. Meanwhile, overall C02 emissions would remain substantially unchanged since the wealthy can afford the tax and the poor have no other transport option but to keep driving.
This is why the streets of Paris have been ringing with the chant “The end of the world and the end of the month, same perpetrators, same struggle”. In response to the protests, Naomi Klein tweeted, “Neoliberal climate action passes on the costs to working people, offers them no better jobs or services + lets big polluters off the hook. People see it as a class war, because it is.” As an example of how taxes should target the big polluters, we need only consider aviation transport in France. , While the car is the most widespread means of transport among all social classes, 75% of French people never fly and half of the total domestic flights in France are made by just 2% of the population, presumably the upper classes. Yet kerosene, the fuel used for commercial airliners, is not taxed. Higher taxes on kerosene would be a way to reduce emissions quickly and more fairly.
The climate crisis has its roots in the rapid accumulation of capital wealth associated with burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. Continued centralization of decision-making within a neoliberal order can only offer solutions such as the construction of new pipelines for natural gas, the TAV, and the fuel tax. Instead, the ecological transition must also be a social transition, and a quick one at that. The IPCC special report on 1.5°C warming warns us we must halve global emissions in the next 12 years and reduce them to zero by the middle of the century.
Maybe we can give Macron some hints in the right direction. To ensure mobility and energy access in times of transition, we must return them to public oversight with devoted resources commensurate to the urgency of climate breakdown. This requires a massive expansion of affordable public transport in the urban, semi-urban periphery, and rural areas, with support of alternative forms of transport, such as bicycles and electric carpooling. We must also bring the electrical grid under democratic control through nationalization, or still better municipalization, to encourage the supply of renewable, locally-managed energy sources. Preferably, this public management would be coupled with advances in participatory democracy at the municipal level. A great example is Barcelona Energía, the city’s new publicly owned grid of renewable energy soon to supply 20,000 homes, implemented under the municipalist politics of Barcelona en Comú.
It would be useful if the automotive industry was ordered to transform its industrial production for what we need: wind turbines, solar panels, electric bicycles, trams, etc. Just as the American automobile factories were converted to churn out tanks in World War II by order of the Roosevelt administration, so today they could be converted to supply the technology needed for a renewable energy transition.
More and more progressives around the world – from Corbyn to Sanders – are already following Roosevelt’s footsteps by calling for a Green New Deal, as a government led investment in low-carbon infrastructure, providing training and employment so that the energy transition simultaneously tackles income inequality. To finance this new era of large public investments, we need more progressive taxation since a close correlation exists between wealth and quantity of emissions. This will be necessary to take back the private wealth accumulated in recent decades to avoid the socio-economic and ecological collapse that climate change guarantees.
But these issues won’t be a priority for the European ruling class, unless the people force a change in the agenda of the ruling class. Another important lesson of the past few weeks is that any progress on the climate front will only come from public pressure. This does not refer only to street demonstrations, but acts of civil disobedience like those carried out in central London in November by the Extinction Rebellion movement. As long as Macron or other European leaders of the current neoliberal ruling class are unwilling to implement the measures required for system change, mass direct action must continue to demand it. A convergence des luttes is essential for shaping a common vision and catalyzing political action.
Anya Verkamp is an activist and media producer on environmental justice, political ecology, and a just transition. You can follow her on Twitter.
Riccardo Mastini is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta
The seductive nature of development rhetoric, sometimes called developmentality or developmentalism, has been internalized across virtually all countries. Decades after the notion of development spread around the world, only a handful of countries that were called ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’, now really qualify as ‘developed’. Others struggle to emulate the North’s economic template, and all at enormous ecological and social cost. The problem lies not in lack of implementation, but in the conception of development as linear, unidirectional, material and financial growth, driven by commodification and capitalist markets.
Despite numerous attempts to re-signify development, it continues to be something that ‘experts’ manage in pursuit of economic growth, and measure by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a poor and misleading indicator of progress in the sense of well-being. In truth, the world at large experiences ‘maldevelopment’, not least in the very industrialized countries whose lifestyle was meant to serve as a beacon for the ‘backward’ ones.
A critical part of these multiple crises lies in the conception of ‘modernity’ itself – not to suggest that everything modern is destructive or iniquitous, nor that all tradition is positive. Indeed, modern elements such as human rights and feminist principles are proving liberatory for many people. We refer to modernity as the dominant worldview emerging in Europe since the Renaissance transition from the Middle Ages to the early modern period. The cultural practices and institutions making up this worldview hold the individual as being independent of the collective, and give predominance to private property, free markets, political liberalism, secularism and representative democracy. Another key feature of modernity is ‘universality’– the idea that we all live in a single, now globalized world, and critically, the idea of modern science as being the only reliable truth and harbinger of ‘progress’.
Among the early causes of these crises is the ancient monotheistic premise that a father ‘God’ made the Earth for the benefit of ‘his’ human children. This attitude is known as anthropocentrism. At least in the West, it evolved into a philosophic habit of pitting humanity against nature; it gave rise to related dualisms such as the divide between humanity and nature, subject and object, civilized and barbarian, mind and body, man and woman. These classic ideological categories both legitimize devastation of the natural world, as well as the exploitation of sex-gender, racial and civilizational differences.
There is no guarantee that development will resolve traditional discrimination and violence against women, youth, children and intersex minorities, landless and unemployed classes, races, castes and ethnicities. As globalizing capital destabilizes regional economies, turning communities into refugee populations, some people cope by identifying with the macho power of the political Right, along with its promise to ‘take the jobs back’from migrants.. A dangerous drift towards authoritarianism is taking place all over the world, from India to USA and Europe.
Development and sustainability: matching the unmatchable
The early twentieth-century debate on sustainability was strongly influenced by the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth argument. Regular conferences at a global level would reiterate the mismatch between ‘development and environment’, with the report Our Common Future(1987) bringing it sharply into focus. However, the UN and most state analyses have never included a critique of social structural forces underlying ecological breakdown. The framing has always been on making economic growth and development ‘sustainable and inclusive’ through appropriate technologies, market mechanisms and institutional policy reform. The problem is that this mantra of sustainability was swallowed up by capitalism early on, and then emptied of ecological content.
In the period from 1980s on, neoliberal globalization advanced aggressively across the globe. The UN now shifted focus to a programme of ‘poverty alleviation’ in developing countries, without questioning the sources of poverty in the accumulation-driven economy of the affluent Global North. In fact, it was argued that countries needed to achieve a high standard of living before they could employ resources into protecting the environment. This watering down of earlier debates on limits opened the way for the ecological modernist ‘green economy’ concept.
At the UN Conference for Sustainable Development in 2012, this hollow sustainability ideology was the guiding framework for multilateral discussions. In preparation for Rio+20, UNEP published a report on the ‘green economy’, defining it ‘as one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities’. In line with the pro-growth policy of sustainable development advocates, the report conceptualized all living natural forms across the planet as ‘natural capital’ and ‘critical economic assets’, so intensifying the marketable commodification of life-on-Earth.
The international model of green capitalism carried forward in the declaration Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development reveals the following flaws:
No analysis of how the structural roots of poverty, unsustainability and multidimensional violence are historically grounded in state power, corporate monopolies, neo-colonialism, and patriarchal institutions;
Inadequate focus on direct democratic governance with accountable decision-making by citizens and self-aware communities in face-to-face settings;
Continued emphasis on economic growth as the driver of development, contradicting biophysical limits, with arbitrary adoption of GDP as the indicator of progress;
Continued reliance on economic globalization as the key economic strategy, undermining people’s attempts at self-reliance and autonomy;
Continued subservience to private capital, and unwillingness to democratize the market through worker–producer and community control;
Modern science and technology held up as social panaceas, ignoring their limits and impacts, and marginalising ‘other’ knowledges;
Culture, ethics and spirituality sidelined and made subservient to economic forces;
Unregulated consumerism without strategies to reverse the Global North’s disproportionate contamination of the globe through waste, toxicity and climate emissions;
Neoliberal architectures of global governance becoming increasingly reliant on technocratic managerial values by state and multi-lateral bureaucracies.
The framework of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), now global in its reach, is thus a false consensus
We do not mean to belittle the work of people who are finding new technological solutions to reduce problems, for instance, in renewable energy, nor do we mean to diminish the many positive elements contained in the SDG framework. Rather, our aim is to stress that in the absence of fundamental socio-cultural transformation, technological and managerial innovation will not lead us out of the crises. As nation-states and civil society gear up for the SDGs, it is imperative to lay out criteria to help people identify what truly is transformative. These include a shift to well-being approaches based on radical, direct democracy, the localization and democratization of the economy, social justice and equity (gender, caste, class etc), recommoning of private property, respect for cultural and knowledge diversity including their decolonisation, regeneration of the earth’s ecological resilience and rebuilding our respectful relationship with the rest of nature.
This article is an excerpt of the introduction to the forthcoming book Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta (editors).
Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam in India, and co-editor of Alternative Futures: India Unshackled.
Ariel Salleh is an Australian scholar-activist, author of Ecofeminism as Politics and editor of Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice.
Arturo Escobar teaches at University of North Carolina, and is author of Encountering Development.
Federico Demaria is with Autonomous University of Barcelona, and co-editor of Degrowth: A Vocubalary for a New Era.
Alberto Acosta is an Ecuadorian economist and activist, former President of the Constituent Assembly of Ecuador.
We are entering dire times. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released their 2018 report that has only reassured what many of us know is true. We need to take immediate decisive action on climate change or face a dismal future of increasingly powerful natural disasters, economic instability and reactionary violence.
According to the report, we have 12 years to stop inalterable climate change and that is going to require massive global infrastructure projects aimed at transforming our archaic fossil fuel system to one rooted in sustainable development and ecological understanding. Such a project will clearly be one of the largest developmental efforts in human history and will require global collaboration on a scale never seen before.
Yet, in the face of almost certain annihilation, the transnational ruling class are in a desperate struggle to maintain and profit from the ruin and disaster of their own system. For progress to occur, we need to build a mass movement of millions across the world united behind a call for a new system. And, threatened by new despotic right wing authoritarian regimes worldwide, we need to scale up fast!
According to Abdullah Öcalan, we can understand almost all of today’s crises to be crises of democracy. While the ideal of democracy was used to legitimize imperialist interventions across the developing world since the 1950s, it was never a lived reality even in the West. Instead we were sold shallow representative republicanism in place of real face-to-face direct democracy where individuals have actual power over society.
Representative ‘democracy’ ultimately turns people from empowered citizens to alienated constituents. It turns democracy—a lived, empowering and involved process—into a spectacle of rooting for one’s chosen team. And so it lends itself to oligarchy and, ultimately, dictatorship and imperialist expansion.
In fact, since the end of the Second World War we have witnessed a massive decline of civic engagement, with far lower in-person participation in community associations, clubs and groups of all kinds. Not to mention a decline in wages and an increase in inequality—both in the West and internationally. As society and political structures have been increasingly centralized in the hands of a wealthy few, they have also closed people off from access to power.
Representative ‘democracy’ ultimately turns people from empowered citizens to alienated constituents. It turns democracy—a lived, empowering and involved process—into a spectacle of rooting for one’s chosen team. And so it lends itself to oligarchy and, ultimately, dictatorship and imperialist expansion. This has been the case of representative democracies from the time of Rome.
A politics of empowerment
Libertarian municipalists argue for a reinvigoration of the civic and political sphere. In place of representative forms of democracy they argue for an inclusive participatory system where every community member has equal power over the matters of governance that impacts them.
Libertarian municipalism is a politics of empowerment. It recognizes democracy as an almost universal value. It begs the question, will we as a society finally embrace actual democracy or accept dictatorship? Libertarian municipalists absolutely reject the representative republicanism that has been peddled to us as “democracy”, a form of government that, in practice, is only a democracy for the rich.
At the core of the libertarian municipalist strategy for change is the creation of the popular assembly and its eventual empowerment as a dual power. Dual power is a situation where two powers coexist with each other and compete for legitimacy.
Libertarian municipalists seek to either create extra-parliamentary assemblies that increasingly gain governing power from local governments or seek to change city charters to legally empower popular assemblies as the primary policy making bodies over representative and hierarchical structures such as mayors and city councils. They envision the municipalization of the economy, where productive assets are held by the community collectively. They strive to build a global network of communities, neighborhoods and cities interlinked through confederal bonds. According to Murray Bookchin,
In libertarian municipalism, dual power is meant to be a strategy for creating precisely those libertarian institutions of directly democratic assemblies that would oppose and replace the State. It intends to create a situation in which the two powers—the municipal confederations and the nation-state—cannot coexist, and one must sooner or later displace the other.
The popular assembly thus acts as a place that gives any individual in a community direct access to power, shaping policy and the world around them. This is in direct conflict with the hierarchical nation-state and transnational capitalist firms which seek to control the labor, land and resources of communities across the world.
Cities and towns at the forefront
Today the tensions between cities and state entities couldn’t be more pronounced. The sanctuary city movement provides a stark example of the way cities across the country are already moving towards increased local autonomy and sovereignty over the federal government. Sanctuary cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans are just a few of the over 39 cities across the US who have joined forces to limit collaboration with federal authorities. According to Vojislava Filipcevic Cordes,
Sanctuary cities in the U.S. represent a feat against the hostile state and “provide a territorial legal entity at a different scale at which sovereignty is articulated” . Sanctuary cities exemplify what Lippert has termed “sovereignty ‘from below’”  (p. 547) and are shaped by local legal and political contexts and the solidarity with social movements.
In the wake of an increasingly illegitimate federal government, urban areas take leadership on issues ranging from immigration to raising minimum wages, even if it is in direct conflict with the federal government. Along with this trend, we see growing political divides between urban and rural communities. After the 2018 election, Republicans lost their last congressional urban district in the country.
As the cultural and political divide between rural and urban, local and federal become more pronounced in an era of increasing authoritarianism, it seems that the revolutionary alternatives provided by libertarian municipalism could have the wide appeal and potential support of millions of Americans needed to create political change.
As the cultural and political divide between rural and urban, local and federal become more pronounced in an era of increasing authoritarianism, it seems that the revolutionary alternatives provided by libertarian municipalism could have the wide appeal and potential support of millions of Americans needed to create political change. But what will that mass movement look like? How can we build the power to force politicians to stop pandering to the fossil fuel industry and the fascist right, and bring about real change?
The left must rebuild political life
Bookchin was one of the key theorists behind libertarian municipalism. In his essay, “Thoughts on Libertarian Municipalism“, he put forward a strategic vision for this kind of movement that we can still learn from today. He begins by describing libertarian municipalism as “ a confrontational form of face-to-face democratic, anti statist politics…that is decidedly concerned with the all-important question of power, and it poses the questions: Where shall power exist? By what part of society shall it be exercised?”.
For Bookchin, the decline of civic and political life is of paramount concern. With its decline, Bookchin sees a vacuum forming in mainstream political discourse where leftist positions have increasingly degraded and shrunk into insular and subcultural discourses while broader society continues to be trapped in an Overton window swiftly moving towards the right.
Bookchin felt it was essential that the left find ways of reaching the broader society with its ideals. He envisioned the institutionalization of popular assemblies not only as an end but as a means. Assemblies would work to level the playing field for the left by giving it a place to both voice its vision for a new world to the public and to reinvigorate a american political life through the popularization of civic ethics rooted in valuing democracy, ecology, and social justice.
Bookchin was interested in the whole revolutionary pie, not just crumbs. As such, libertarian municipalism is a political framework that intentionally engages with that essential political question of: who has power and how should it be wielded? It is a politic that centers the conflict over who has power in society and mobilizes for popular control over existing institutions. As such, Bookchin went to great lengths to distinguish the libertarian municipalist organizing philosophy from other tendencies. He describes one tendency which is often confused with libertarian municipalism, sometimes called communitarianism:
“Communitarianism is definedbymovements and ideologies that seek to transform society by creating so-called alternative economic and living situations such as food cooperatives, health centers, schools, printing workshops, community centers, neighborhood farms, “squats,” unconventional lifestyles, and the like”
While such efforts may benefit the people they directly work to serve, they often rely on donations or self funding by their organizers and only serve small numbers of people. The amount and time required to maintain these programs often leads to burnout and massive resource sucks. They inevitably compete with existing social services or capitalist enterprises, leading many to eventual collapse.
While some argue that such programs are necessary to “attune” people to participation in democratic assemblies, or to gain their interest, Bookchin argues that people by and large are already ready for direct democracy, all that is missing is the incentive of such institutions offering people real power over their daily lives.
As states across the world abandon the enlightenment values of liberal humanism, they only rely on the principle of might as a right, cult of personalities, and populist white supremacy.
Some argue that the rise of the right across the world means that we have to reassert the power of the state—and build up those services it has started to abandon. However, the legitimacy crisis of the state in this country is not the result of it providing less services—it is the result of the complete denigration of moral authority invested in the halls of government. As states across the world abandon the enlightenment values of liberal humanism, they only rely on the principle of might as a right, cult of personalities, and populist white supremacy. As such, we must diligently develop popular assemblies and organizations, training people in the art of civic engagement and duty. We need to put our arguments forward and we need to create space for other people to do the same. We need to advance our ethics. To acquire actual power is an utmost priority in our increasingly authoritarian and hierarchical society that denies us it. The goal of libertarian municipalism is thus total community control over an entire municipality.
By focusing on gaining popular control of the instruments, resources, and institutions currently wielded by the ruling class or local economic elites, communities could gain access through redistribution to the necessities of life in much longer-lasting and meaningful ways. For Bookchin, municipalism must center a redistributive political strategy. While much left strategy today prioritizes the creation of alternative economic institutions such as cooperatives or mutual aid programs, libertarian municipalism emphasizes the creation of the alternative political institution of the popular assembly. By focusing our time and energy on the creation and empowerment of these alternative political institutions working class people would eventually be able to gain access to an entire cities economic resources rather than the simply what can be collectively shared from the wage labor of other exploited peoples.
An example from South Africa
A great example of a political organization that advances these principles is Abahlali baseMjondolo, a.ka., the South African Shack Dwellers Movement. This organization is based in the struggle of South Africa’s most impoverished, and emerged out of struggles for poor peoples’ right to construct improvised dwellings to live in. They are oriented around a directly democratic assembly model. They regularly engage in direct action through land occupations where they give people control of the land. Their movement has been successful in arguing for a form of democratic development where all peoples have a voice over urban development. Despite harsh repression, including the murder of many of their activists by state forces, they are quickly becoming one of South Africa’s largest left organizations with over 30,000 members, and chapters and elected officials in cities and towns across the country. They are pushing the imagination of what a directly democratic society could look like, while prioritizing political confrontation.
They describe their organizational model as a “party non-party”, for the way it engages in the political sphere, of running candidates and legislation as a normal political party yet different considering their organizational model and tactics, and in the sense that such candidates must have the mandate of popular assemblies while running only in local elections. The South African Shack Dwellers movement is agitating around that essential political question of “Where shall power exist and who shall exercise it?” in ways that put the question to the public at large. Its combination of direct democracy, direct action, and strategic local electoralism has made Abahlali baseMjondolo one of the most prominent political organizations in one of the worlds’ only countries where the left seems to be winning. As the rest of the world fears fascism, socialist land redistribution is being discussed in South Africa and Abahlali baseMjondolo has a prominent voice in leading this process. This South African movement shows the power of running insurgent candidates who are beholden to expressing the immediate necessity of establishing directly democratic dual power situations in our communities, cities, and municipalities.
Fighting fascism with full democracy
In times of fascist dictatorship, we are likely to find broad appeal in fighting to salvage and develop an actual democracy.
As a movement, libertarian municipalism is a marginal tendency even within the left. For these ideas to hit the grander stage, we need to communicate them in bigger ways, develop local assemblies, build a base through engaging in local fights and run insurgent candidates on our revolutionary platform. Simply put, we need assembly-based municipalist platformist organizations like the South African Shack Dwellers Movement, that are able to elevate our political positions and make them visible. Where our ideas enter into mainstream public discourse and where our organizations give people real access to power over their daily lives and existing institutions.
We need to build on the cultural fabric of an America that values a certain conception of democracy through bringing the term’s contradiction into full light while offering our alternative. In times of fascist dictatorship, we are likely to find broad appeal in fighting to salvage and develop an actual democracy. Further, there is a need to prepare ourselves for the inevitable dark and trying times we face, as our political situation in the United States has become increasingly volatile and unpredictable.
Our very survival over the coming years is at stake. In the face of a completely hostile fascist state and a growing right wing militia movement who very soon could begin purges against the left as Steve Bannon’s friend Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian dictator-in-waiting is promising, we should be developing self defense programs to protect not just our organizing communities but our communities at large from persecution.
The establishment of a popular direct democracy would imply the popular control, radical reform or the outright abolition of police forces in favor of some form of volunteer defense forces who would be under the jurisdiction of the new popular government. Such a force could fill the essential duties of community defense and safety, while allowing our communities to address many of the systemic issues with our current racist, white supremacist policing and criminal justice system.
Unless we rapidly begin communicating coherent programs for libertarian municipalist dual power I fear that we will have little real ability to stop this inevitable fascist creep. In times of dictatorship, rising fascism and hopelessness we need to offer people real lived examples of direct democracy, give them access to power and boldly put these ideas into public discourse. We can win the legitimacy battle by building a base through engaging in local campaigns that give people more power and control over their lives and communities. We can do this alongside running candidates with revolutionary municipalist platforms, even if we don’t think they have a chance. If our ideas are true and we are true to ourselves we might just end up winning!
We shouldn’t fear putting our ideas out there, communicating our desired world and our utopia, even if we don’t have all of the organizational bits and pieces put together to prefigure it. We never will until we abolish these systems. We have to get comfortable with that and stay true to our ethics and vision and communicate that in bigger and better ways while giving others inspiration to join in, shape it and work with us to push the world off its tracks to oblivion.
Tizz Bee is a community organizer based in Portland Oregon. They were a key outside support organizer with the Sept. 9th international prison strike and have co-founded several communalist projects including Demand Utopia.
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As part of Not the Anarchist Bookfair in London, Corporate Watch along with Uneven Earth and Plan C London organized a discussion on technology, ecology and future worlds. The event, named Techno Fantasies and Eco Realities, was attended by about 20 people and included some wide ranging and at times lively discussion around the role of technology and ecology in future worlds. In particular it focused on how we can free our imaginations from the grip of capitalist realism (the idea that capitalism is the only option for organizing society), picturing possible future worlds and the role that technology will play in them, while keeping our imagined worlds grounded in social and ecological realities. For example, not forgetting that we are living on a planet with limited natural resources or that we have to consider how to make these imagined futures real.
Participants were invited to read three short pieces ahead of the discussion:
Although initially a tongue in cheek provocation, Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC) has morphed into a serious proposition of how technology and automation could be used to provide for everyone’s needs and free people from the drudgery of wage labour. Bastani’s piece attempts to counter some of the ecological critiques of the idea, arguing that FALC can be green. Instead of trying to halt the progress of technological development, and reduce energy consumption, Aaron argues that we should ride the technological horse to move beyond scarcity, proposing a kind of accelerationism where technology is rapidly advanced in order to bring about radical social change.
In “Accelerationism.. and Degrowth? The Left’s Strange Bedfellows”, Aaron Vansintjan looks at accelerationist ideas like FALC and compares them to ‘degrowth’, evaluating the similarities and differences between the two frameworks. Degrowth is a movement that has emerged from environmentalism and alternative economics and is focused on theorising and creating non-growth based economies and societies.
Although accelerationism and degrowth are apparently opposed, Vansinjtan finds some shared ideas, including their recognition of the need for deep, systemic change, their calls for democratisation of technology and their rejection of ‘work’ (or at least the idea that work is inherently good). The key differences centre around accelerationism’s focus on reappropriating technology to achieve a resource-unlimited society, versus degrowth’s aim of limiting the development of certain forms of technology and staying within resource constraints. Degrowth also seeks to slow the metabolism of society, whereas accelerationism aims to increase the pace of social change. Ultimately, while supportive of accelerationism’s inspiring vision, Vansinjtan finds it seriously lacking in dealing with ecological critiques.
Rut Elliot Blomqvist examines three different visions of possible future worlds and the role that technology plays in them. ‘Pulling the Magic Lever’ is a reference to how technology is used to answer social or ecological problems without explaining how it will do so: you simply ‘pull the magic lever’ of technology and hey presto, it’s all solved. It’s a running theme in all three of the imagined futures Blomqvist chooses to analyse. The first is in The World We Made, a novel by environmentalist Jonathon Porrit, then The Venus Project, a technology based political proposition, and finally Fully Automated Luxury Communism. In their analysis, Blomqvist uses a World Systems Theory approach to evaluate the ideas, critiquing the story of modernisation by framing it around colonialism.
The World We Made is based on Design Fiction, where fiction inspires possibilities of new designs. It sees the human species in general as the villain responsible for destroying the environment. In the novel’s fantasy scenario, however, humans manage to turn things around and start to use technology and various existing world institutions for the common good. As Elliot points out, this book flags up an important discussion around the idea of the ‘anthropocene’ (a proposed name for a new human-affected geological epoch), which may support the view that the human species in general is the problem, rather than certain humans or, say, a capitalist growth-based economy. They also describe the book’s tendency towards technological optimism: it presents technology as providing the answers, without explaining how, and ignores the socio-cultural-political reasons for current ecological destruction.
The Venus Project is found to be even further along the techno-optimist spectrum and again ignores how its proposed technological utopia might be brought into existence. As well as highlighting its fetishisation of the scientific process, Elliot explains how The Venus Project often engenders conspiracy theories, a number of which are dangerously close to anti-Semitism.
Continuing the trend, FALC is found to involve similar techno-utopianism, where the working classes seize the means of production and use automation to create a world of plenty. Elliot points to a blind spot, as FALC doesn’t consider the limits of post-industrialism beyond the western world. Elliot describes how all three rely heavily on ‘pulling the magic lever’. While they show imagination, they are limited by the fossil-fuelled mentality they seek to criticise.
In our discussion at Not the Anarchist Bookfair, we asked participants to discuss two questions:
What role does technology play in our ecologically sustainable future, and how do we get there?
How can we move beyond the techno-optimist versus primitivist dichotomy? (I.e. beyond viewing technology as either the solution to or source of all our problems).
The questions were discussed in pairs, in small groups and then with everyone participating, and led to a broad discussion of the various themes raised. Some key points that came out included:
The importance of considering the social power necessary to make futures, and how human agency is often missing in visions of techno utopias.
The need to change who makes technology, how it is produced and the inherent politics of technologies.
The need to highlight and develop technology’s potential within the ecological movement, including within degrowth discussions.
The need to positively promote ecological future visions, and how to counter environmentalism’s ‘hair shirt’ image.
Considering whether we should assume that technologies will inevitably be developed, and so ride the tech bandwagon, or try to intervene and prevent or hinder certain developments.
Thinking about if/how we can change the basis on which automation takes places and is implemented. E.g. is non-capitalist automation possible, and if so, how could it be made non-capitalist?
Thinking about ways of bringing ecological and technologically based visions of the future back together.
A number of participants were keen to continue discussions and we are considering further forums to hold related future discussions. Corporate Watch is currently working on a technology project, if you are interested in knowing more or collaborating on future work, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. To get involved with discussions as part of the Plan C Climate cluster contact email@example.com
This article was also published on the Plan C blog, here.
“Out of the frying pan, into the fire” is an apt description of our current place in history. No matter what you think of globalization, I believe we’ll soon discover that capitalism without it is much, much worse.
No one needs to convince establishment economists, politicians and pundits that the absence of globalization and growth spells trouble. They’ve pushed globalization as the Viagra of economic growth for years. But globalization has never been popular with everyone. Capitalism’s critics recognize that it generates tremendous wealth and power for a tiny fraction of the Earth’s seven billion people, makes room for some in the middle class, but keeps most of humanity destitute and desperate, while trashing the planet and jeopardizing human survival for generations to come.
Around the world, social movements voice their opposition to voracious growth and unite around the belief that “Another World Is Possible!” They work toward the day when neoliberal globalization is replaced by a more democratic, equitable, Earth-friendly society. They assume that any future without globalization is bound to be an improvement. But it appears that this assumption may be wrong. In fact, future generations may someday look back on capitalism’s growth phase as the vigorous days of industrial civilization, a naïve time before anyone realized that the worst was yet to come.
Profit: the prime directive
Today, energy depletion, ecological disaster, debilitating debt, and economic inequity are suffocating globalization and growth. The Age of Fossil Fuels has reached its apex. The rapacious flight to the top was powered by the Earth’s dwindling hydrocarbon reserves. From these lofty heights, the drastic drop-off ahead appears perilous. As fossil fuel extraction fails to meet global demand, economic contraction and downward mobility will become the new normal and growth will fade into memory. But this new growth-less future may bear no resemblance to the equitable green economy activists have been calling for.
Optimistic green reformers like Al Gore, Jeremy Rifkin, and Lester Brown see a window of opportunity at this historic juncture. For years, they’ve jetted from one conference to another, tirelessly trying to convince world leaders to embrace their planet-saving plans for a sustainable, carbon-free society before it’s too late. They hope energy scarcity and economic contraction can act as wake-up calls, spurring world leaders to embrace their Green New Deals that promise to save capitalism and the planet.
Their message is clear: rapid, fossil-fueled growth is burning through the Earth’s remaining reserves of precious hydrocarbons and doing untold damage to the biosphere in the process. Businesses must lead the way out of this dangerous dead end by adopting renewable energy and other planet-healing practices, even if it means substantial reductions in growth and profits. But, despite their dire warnings, hard work, innovative proposals, and good intentions, most heads of state and captains of industry continue to politely ignore them.
Meanwhile, more radical activists also hope climate chaos, peak oil and economic contraction will become game changers. Many assume that globalization and growth are so essential that capitalism must fail without them. And, as it does, social movements will seize the opportunity to transform this collapsing system into a more equitable, sustainable one, free of capitalism’s insatiable need to expand at all costs.
Growth is not the primary driving force behind capitalism—profit is. Periods of crisis and collapse can generate huge profits as well.
Both the green growth reformers and anti-growth radicals misunderstand the true nature of capitalism and underestimate its ability to withstand—and profit handsomely from—the great contraction ahead. Growth is not the primary driving force behind capitalism—profit is. When the overall economic pie is expanding, many firms find it easier to realize profits big enough to continually increase their share price. But periods of crisis and collapse can generate huge profits as well. In fact, during systemic contractions, the dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism creates lucrative opportunities for hostile takeovers, mergers and leveraged buyouts, allowing the most predatory firms to devour their competition.
Can capitalism survive without growth?
One of capitalism’s central attributes is opportunism. Capitalism is not loyal to any person, nation, corporation, or ideology. It doesn’t care about the planet or believe in justice, equality, fairness, liberty, human rights, democracy, world peace or even economic growth and the “free market.” Its overriding obsession is maximizing the return on invested capital. Capitalism will pose as a loyal friend of other beliefs and values, or betray them in an instant, if it advances the drive for profit … that’s why it’s called the bottom line!
Growth is important because it tends to improve the bottom line. And ultimately, capitalism may not last without it. But those who profit from this economic system are not about to throw up their hands and walk off the stage of history just because boom has turned to bust. Crisis, conflict, and collapse can be extremely profitable for the opportunists who know where and when to invest.
But how long can this go on? Can capitalism’s profit motive remain the driving force behind a contracting economy lacking the vital energy surplus needed to fuel growth? Definitely, but the consequences for society will be grim indeed. Without access to the cheap, abundant energy needed to extract resources, power factories, maintain infrastructure, and transport goods around the world, capitalism’s productive sector will lose its position as the most lucrative source of profit and investment. Transnational corporations will find that their giant economies of scale and global chains of production have become liabilities rather than assets. As profits dwindle, factories close, workers are laid off, benefits and wages are slashed, unions are broken, and pension funds are raided—whatever it takes to remain solvent.
Declining incomes and living standards mean poorer consumers, contracting markets and shrinking tax revenues. Of course, collapse can be postponed by using debt to artificially extend the solvency of businesses, consumers, and governments. But eventually, paying off debts with interest becomes futile without growth. And, when the credit bubbles burst, the defaults, foreclosures, bankruptcies and financial fiascos that follow can paralyze the economy.
Without the capacity for re-energizing growth, the recessions and depressions of times past that temporarily disrupted production between long periods of expansion, now become chronic features of a contracting system. On the downside of peak oil, neither liberal programs to increase employment and stimulate growth nor conservative tax and regulatory cuts have any substantial impact on the economy’s descending spiral. Both production and demand remain so constricted by energy austerity that any brief growth spurts are quickly stifled by resurgent energy prices. Instead, periods of severe contraction and collapse may be buffered between brief plateaus of relative stability.
Catabolism: the final phase of capitalism
In a growth-less, contracting economy, the profit motive can have a powerful catabolic impact on capitalist society. The word “catabolism” comes from the Greek and is used in biology to refer to the condition whereby a living thing feeds on itself. Thus, catabolic capitalism is a self-cannibalizing system whose insatiable hunger for profit can only be fed by devouring the society that sustains it. As it rampages down the road to ruin, this system gorges itself on one self-inflicted disaster after another.
The riotous train scene in the film The Marx Brothers Go West captures the essence of catabolic capitalism. The wacky brothers commandeer a locomotive that runs out of fuel. In desperation, they ransack the train, breaking up the passenger cars, ripping up seats and tearing down roofs and walls to feed the steam engine. By the end of the scene, terrified passengers desperately cling to a skeletal train, reduced to little more than a fast-moving furnace on wheels.
In the previous era of industrial expansion, catabolic capitalists lurked in the shadows of the growth economy. They were the illicit arms, drugs and sex traffickers; the loan sharks, debt collectors and repo-men; the smugglers, pirates, poachers, black market merchants and pawnbrokers; the illegal waste dumpers, shady sweatshop operators and unregulated mining, fishing and timber operations.
However, as the productive sector contracts, this corrupt cannibalistic sector emerges from the shadows and metastasizes rapidly, thriving off conflict, crime and crisis; hoarding and speculation; insecurity and desperation. Catabolic capitalism flourishes because it can still generate substantial profits by dodging legalities and regulations; stockpiling scarce resources and peddling arms to those fighting over them; scavenging, breaking down and selling off the assets of the decaying productive and public sectors; and preying upon the sheer desperation of people who can no longer find gainful employment elsewhere.
Scavengers, speculators, and slumlords buy up distressed and abandoned properties—houses, schools, factories, office buildings and malls—strip them of valuable resources, sell them for scrap or rent them to people desperate for shelter.
Without enough energy to generate growth, catabolic capitalists stoke the profit engine by taking over troubled businesses, selling them off for parts, firing the workforce and pilfering their pensions. Scavengers, speculators, and slumlords buy up distressed and abandoned properties—houses, schools, factories, office buildings and malls—strip them of valuable resources, sell them for scrap or rent them to people desperate for shelter. Illicit lending operations charge outrageous interest rates and hire thugs or private security firms to shake down desperate borrowers or force people into indentured servitude to repay loans. Instead of investing in struggling productive enterprises, catabolic financiers make windfall profits by betting against growth through hoarding and speculative short selling of securities, currencies and commodities.
Social benefits, legal and regulatory protections and modern society itself will also be sacrificed to feed the profit engine. During a period of contraction, venal catabolic capitalists put their lawyers and lobbyists to work tearing down any legal barriers to their insatiable appetite for profit. Regulatory agencies that once provided some protection from polluters, dangerous products, unsafe workplaces, labor exploitation, financial fraud and corporate crime are dismantled to feed the voracious fires of avarice.
Society’s governing institutions of justice, law, and order become early victims of this catabolic crime spree. Public safety is stripped down, privatized and sold to those who can still afford it. As budgets for courts, prisons, and law enforcement shrivel, private security firms hire unemployed cops to break strikes, provide corporate security, and guard the wealthy in their gated communities. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be forced to rely on alarm systems, dogs, guns and—if we’re lucky—watchful neighbors to deal with rising crime. Privatized prisons will profit by contracting convict labor to the highest bidders.
As tax-starved public services and social welfare programs bleed out from deep budget cuts, profit-hungry capitalists pick over the carcasses of bankrupt governments. Social security, food stamps, and health care programs are chopped to the bone. Public transportation and decaying highways are transformed into private thoroughfares, maintained by convict labor or indentured workers. Corporations scarf up failing public utilities, water treatment, waste management and sewage disposal systems to provide businesses and wealthy communities with reliable power, water and waste removal. Schools and libraries go broke, while exclusive private academies employ a fraction of the jobless teachers and university professors to educate a shrinking class of affluent students.
A dark alliance
Cannibalistic profiteers can thrive in a growth-less environment for quite some time, but ultimately, an economy bent on devouring itself has a dismal, dead-end future. Nevertheless, changing course will be difficult because, as the catabolic sector expands at the expense of society, powerful cannibalistic capitalists are bound to forge influential alliances, poison and paralyze the political system, and block all efforts to pull society out of its death spiral.
Catabolic enterprises are not the only profit-makers in a growth-less economy. Even an economy run on contracts and subcontracts must extract energy and other resources from the Earth. Unless the profit motive is removed by bringing these assets under public control, corporate real estate, timber, water, energy, and mining corporations will deploy their lobbying muscle to completely privatize these vital resources and enhance their bottom line with government subsidies, tax breaks and “regulatory relief.” The growing capital, energy and technology commitments needed to commodify scarce resources may cut deeply into profit margins. As less solvent outfits fail, the remaining politically connected resource conglomerates may maximize their profits by forming cartels to corner markets, hoard vital resources, and send prices soaring while blocking all attempts at public regulation and rationing.
The extractive and the catabolic sectors of capitalism have a lot in common. An alliance between them could put irresistible pressure on failing federal and state governments to open public lands and coastlines to unregulated offshore drilling, fracking, coal mining and tar sands extraction. Scofflaw resource extractors and criminal poaching operations proliferate in corrupt, catabolic conditions where legal protections are ignored and shady deals can be struck with local power brokers to maximize the exploitation of labor and resources. To pay off government debt, national and state parks may be sold and transformed into expensive private resorts while public lands and national forests are auctioned off to energy, timber, and mining corporations.
As globalization runs down, this grim catabolic future is eager to replace it. Already, an ugly gang of demagogic politicians around the world hopes to ride this catabolic crisis into power. Their goal is to replace globalization with bombastic nationalist authoritarianism. These xenophobic demagogues are becoming the political face of catabolic capitalism. They promise to restore their country to prosperity and greatness by expelling immigrants while carelessly ignoring the disastrous costs of fossil fuel addiction and military spending. Anger, insecurity and need to believe that a strong leader can restore “the good old days” will guarantee them a fervent following even though their false promises and fake solutions can only make matters worse.
Is catabolic capitalism inevitable?
So, what about green capitalism? Isn’t there money to be made in renewable energy? What about redesigning transportation systems, buildings and communities? Couldn’t capitalists profit by producing alternative energy technologies if government helped finance the unprofitable, but necessary, infrastructure projects needed to bring them online? Wouldn’t a Green New Deal be far more beneficial than catabolic catastrophe?
In a growth-less economy, catabolic capitalism is the most profitable, short-term alternative for those in power. This makes it the path of least resistance from Wall Street to Washington.
Catabolic capitalism is not inevitable. However, in a growth-less economy, catabolic capitalism is the most profitable, short-term alternative for those in power. This makes it the path of least resistance from Wall Street to Washington. But green capitalism is another story.
As both radical greens and the corporate establishment realize, green capitalism is essentially an oxymoron. Truly green policies, programs and projects contradict capitalism’s primary directive—profit before all else! This doesn’t mean there aren’t profitable niche markets for some products and services that are both ecologically benign and economically beneficial. It means that capitalism’s overriding profit motive is fundamentally at odds with ecological balance and the general welfare of humanity.
While people and the planet can thrive in an ecologically balanced society, the self-centered drive for profit and power cannot. A healthy economy that encourages people to take care of each other and the planet is incompatible with exploiting labor and ransacking nature for profit. Thus, capitalists will resist, to the bitter end, any effort to replace their malignant economy with a healthy one.
Would the transition to a sustainable society be expensive? Of course. Our petroleum-addicted infrastructure of tankers, refineries, pipelines and power plants; cities, suburbs, gas stations and freeways; shopping centers, mega-farms, fast food franchises and supermarkets would have to be replaced with smaller towns fed by local farms and powered by decentralized, renewable energy. But the cost of making this green transition is a priceless bargain compared to the suicidal consequences of catabolic collapse.
Is resistance futile?
Before we decide that resistance is futile, it’s important to realize that the converging energy, economic and ecological disasters bearing down on us all have the potential to turn people against catabolic capitalism and toward a more just, planet-friendly future. The approaching period of catabolic collapse presents some strategic opportunities to those who would like to rid the world of this system as soon as possible.
For example, in the near future, energy scarcity and economic contraction may lead to a paralyzing financial meltdown. Interest-based banking cannot handle economic contraction. Without perpetual growth, businesses, consumers, students, homeowners, governments and banks (who constantly borrow from each other) cannot pay-off their debts with interest. If default goes viral, the banking system goes down.
When the banking system finally implodes, credit freezes, financial assets vaporize, currency values fluctuate wildly, trade shuts down and governments impose draconian measures to maintain their authority. Few Americans have any experience with this kind of systemic seizure. They assume there will always be food in the supermarkets, gas in the pumps, money in the ATMs, electricity in the power lines and medicine in the pharmacies and hospitals.
During a financial meltdown, government officials find it difficult to retain public confidence; people blame them for running the economy into the ditch and suspect that their pseudo-solutions are actually self-serving schemes designed to keep themselves on top. Consequently, this crippling crisis could serve as a powerful wake-up call and a potential turning point if those who want to abolish catabolic capitalism are prepared to make the most of it.
But crises don’t necessarily incite positive responses. Power will be decisive in the unfolding struggle over the future of our species and the planet; and those that benefit from the status quo are bent on holding on to it. Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine warns us that those in power will exploit the traumas caused by major catastrophes to rally support for their own disastrous agenda (like invading Iraq after 9-11 or expelling the Black community from New Orleans after Katrina).
In the midst of shocking disasters those in power play upon our fears and prejudices to keep us passive, turn us against each other and under their control. If we resist all attempts to keep us apathetic, distracted, and divided, they won’t hesitate to use other ways to keep themselves on top, including intimidation, coercion, and brute force. Each time they succeed, life becomes more miserable for everyone but them.
Crisis only becomes our ally when popular anger is channeled into transformative insurrection against the system that causes it. How people respond to systemic disintegration will be pivotal. Who will be blamed? What “solutions” will gain support? Who will people listen to, trust and follow in times of extreme hardship, insecurity and unrest? To turn the tide against catabolic capitalism, activists must prepare people for the cascading crises that lie ahead. They must become trusted responders: defining the problem; organizing grassroots resilience and relief; and building a powerful insurrection against those who profit from disaster. But even this is not enough. To nurture the transition toward a thriving, just, ecologically stable society, all of these struggles must be interwoven and infused with an inspirational vision of how much better life could be if we freed ourselves from this dysfunctional, profit-obsessed system once and for all.
Climate chaos alone will impose many hardships, from extreme droughts, water scarcity, farm failures and food shortages to forest fires and floods, rising sea levels, mega-storms and acidified oceans. Movement organizers must help people anticipate, adapt to, and survive these hardships—but social movements cannot stop there. They must help people mount the kind of political resistance that can strip the fossil fuel industry of its power and leverage their own growing influence to demand that society’s remaining resources be re-directed toward a green transition.
Craig Collins Ph.D. is the author of Toxic Loopholes (Cambridge University Press), which examines America’s dysfunctional system of environmental protection. He teaches political science and environmental law at California State University East Bay and was a founding member of the Green Party of California. His forthcoming books: Marx & Mother Nature and Rising From the Ruins: Catabolic Capitalism & Green Resistance reformulate Marx’s theory of history & social change and examine the emerging struggle to replace catabolic capitalism with a thriving, just, ecologically resilient society.
All photos by Adam Cohn in the shipbreaking yards, Chittagong, Bangladesh
 The term “catabolic capitalism” used here is somewhat different from the theory of catabolic collapse developed by John Michael Greer. Greer looks at the demise of all civilizations (capitalist and non-capitalist) as a catabolic process. How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse <www.dylan.org.uk/greer_on_collapse.pdf>
 Banks’ retained earnings and shareholder capital only amount to 2-9% of their loan portfolio, so it doesn’t take much of a loss to put them under.
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
Over the past month we saw an uptick in conversations on degrowth in both mainstream and leftist media in the aftermath of two degrowth conferences in Sweden and Mexico and in connection to a “post-growth” conference in the EU Parliament in Belgium. We’ve also been reading about resistance, community building, and struggle for autonomy and control of land in cities and rural areas around the world—and about criminalization of this resistance. And as usual there are articles about environmental and climate injustice, socialism and the limits of “green” technologies, and new political organizing practices.
Uneven Earth updates
We’re excited to announce our new call for submissions for futuristic imaginaries! We are looking for science fiction, science fiction-inspired thoughts, and critical analyses of sci-fi, this time with a focus on pieces that engage with place-based histories and geographies.
The shock doctrine of the left | Link | New book by Graham Jones is part map, part story, part escape manual
How the world breaks | Link | Stan and Paul Cox describe the destructive force of nature in the context of climate change
How radical municipalism can go beyond the local | Link | Fighting for more affordable, accessible places to live means fighting for a less carbon-intensive future
Learning to fight in a warming world. Andreas Malm spoke at the Code Rode action camp against a gas pipeline in the Netherlands, addressing crucial questions for anti-fossil fuel organizing: Who are the political subjects in this struggle? How can people be mobilized? Should we think of the climate justice movement as a vanguard? Which methods and strategies should we use? What are the roles of non-violent and violent resistance?
The persistence of settler colonialism within “the urban”. As long as the urban agenda is so tangled in the mess of capitalism, how can urban practitioners work to free the ever expanding and increasingly complicated field of urban studies from its colonial shackles? Is it even possible to think about the urban without colonialism?
The Rise of the Robot: Dispelling the myth. The ‘march of the robots’ idea relies tacitly on the assumption that the limits to growth are negotiable, or indeed non-existent. It buys into the idea that there can be a complete – or at least near complete – decoupling of production from carbon emissions.
Dirty rare metals: Digging deeper into the energy transition. “Western industries have deliberately offshored the production of rare metals and its associated pollution, only to bring these metals back onshore once cleansed of all impurities to incorporate them into intangible ‘green’ technologies.”
The real problem with free trade. As trade has become freer, inequality has worsened. One major reason for this is that current global trade rules have enabled a few large firms to capture an ever-larger share of value-added, at a massive cost to economies, workers, and the environment.
Following from the success of the two International Degrowth Conferences in Mexico and Sweden in August, scientists and politicians gathered at the EU Parliament in Brussels this month to discuss the need to move to a“post-growth” economy. Degrowth has always been a term meant in great part to provoke conversation. And that it did: what followed was a month careful commentary, knee-jerk responses, and thoughtful criticism.
Searching for words in Indian Country. A non-Native journalist encounters a tribal-managed forest and an indigenous garden. “I had no idea how to use the English language to describe what I was seeing.”
The reader of How the World Breaksmust be agile. The book demands that one navigate between several modes of consciousness in order to face the reality of human input into the “weather on steroids” that is routine these days. How the World Breaks takes us on a long tour, but not one launched with vacation or adventure in mind; rather it books us in at one disaster site, then another, and another. Led by our worthy guides, we visit the scene of 2013’s Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines in which entire settlements were washed away and some 6,300 people killed; Java where a mud volcano caused by gas drilling plastered 2.5 square miles of fields and villages with forty feet of wet clay, cost 40,000 people their homes, and caused property losses of more than a billion US dollars; Kansas where, in 2007, a 205 mile-per-hour tornado flattened an entire town, destroying 1000 buildings; and more. But surprise: just as the book takes us on this bleak journey, it also presents an electrifying, can’t-put-down detective novel exploring the whats, hows, whens, and whys of each catastrophe. And lest we become too diverted by intrigue, How the World Breaks is a sober investigation of the economics, politics, science, and psychology of a disaster’s origins, progression, and aftermath. Taken together, the landscape of climate change becomes a disquieting documentation of the mess we inhabit.
Taken together, the landscape of climate change becomes a disquieting documentation of the mess we inhabit.
Stan Cox is the perfect person to write such a tome. A former government wheat geneticist, he is now research coordinator at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. He is a fervent advocate for sustainable agriculture, plus the author of books that explore the environmental impacts of air conditioning and of corporate food/medicine production, as well as rationing as one answer to capitalism’s out-of-control consumerism.
The second perfect person to craft such a book is anthropologist and development/disaster writer Paul Cox. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he works for European and African development organizations while writing independently in such publications as Disasters and The New Inquiry. He also happens to be Stan’s son.
I delved into How the World Breaks on a spring day boasting brutal unseasonal rains in a small city in the Andes. I needed no more than to pull the blanket to my chin to know the magnitude of this book’s importance. I think we’ve got a classic here—so I asked Stan and Paul to join me for an online conversation.
What is How the World Breaks about? And how did you end up working on it as father and son?
Paul Cox: The title is a bit misleading—by design. The book is about how and why disasters happen, but the explanations aren’t all our own; we don’t have one big model or answer. Instead we were interested in all the explanations that spring up around disasters and, crucially, who embraces which explanations.
Stan Cox: It started after a disaster with many explanations: Superstorm Sandy. In 2012, following that calamity, my editors at The New Press asked me if I’d be interested in writing one on the increasingly unnatural nature of natural disasters. I had no direct experience in that world, but I knew there was much to be written about their increasingly human causation. I decided to write to Paul, who had studied the anthropology of disaster.
He started his response with, “Wow, that’s a pretty huge topic,” and discussed the debates among disaster researchers and policymakers about vulnerability, resilience, inequality, and adaptation, along with what he called “the big issue: climate change itself, or the whole complex of pressures and vulnerabilities that it fits into.” I thought, “Oh oh, this is going to be a much bigger book than I expected, and I don’t think I can do it without Paul.”
How did you start?
SC: We resolved not to restrict ourselves to just climatic events, but to include hazards that emerge from the ground, sky, and sea. Since so-called “natural disasters” are social/political/economic phenomena linked to increasingly unnatural hazards, we dropped the term “natural disaster.” We wrote of “geoclimatic” hazards and disasters instead, and we hope that term catches on. We also realized that this could turn out to be a boring book if we made it an armchair study of UN policy debates, studies on risk reduction, international climate negotiations, etc. Instead, we decided to build our analysis on stories from the scenes of actual disasters.
PC: The subtitle, “Life in Catastrophe’s Path, from the Caribbean to Siberia,” might represent the book better than the title does. Since this seems to be the life of the future, we wanted to consider what such a life looks like—for rich and poor.
Disasters are, of course, terrible by definition. All that ought to matter is how to reduce people’s vastly unequal vulnerabilities to them and how to stop creating more. But instead, some explanations have turned into normalizations of it. We tried to make the book an antidote to that normalization by choosing disasters mostly from the last decade and pulling out all the awful, sad, strange, funny, and infuriating details that make each irreducible to a simple explanation.
SC: So from mid-2013 through early 2015, we studied and visited a dozen or so communities around the world whose inhabitants were struggling to recover from disasters. We benefited from the help provided by my wife, Paul’s stepmother, Priti Gulati Cox—especially with the trips in India where she could translate not only language but much else. Priti also drew maps for each of the disasters.
My guess is that New Press doesn’t have the funds to send a couple of investigators around the world. How did you get to all those places?
SC: You guess right. We didn’t have big travel budgets ourselves, so we made modest travel plans. In 2013 Priti and I were already going to Mumbai, India, for a family visit, and we figured that if Paul joined us, we could talk with slum residents about the 2005 catastrophic flood they’d lived through. From there, we could go to the Philippines—which is famous for cultural adaptation to the world’s worst frequency and variety of geoclimatic hazards—and on to East Java, Indonesia, site of a human-caused mud volcano.
You can throw a dart at a map, and there has probably been—or will soon be—one or more terrible disasters somewhere near where the dart sticks.
Soon after we made those plans, the Indian Himalaya was ravaged by unprecedented monsoon floods and landslides. Two months before we set out for Asia, Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines in probably the most powerful storm landfall ever recorded. Were we superstitious, we might have decided at that point not to make any more travel plans! But the fact is that you can throw a dart at a map, and there has probably been—or will soon be—one or more terrible disasters somewhere near where the dart sticks. So we included Tacloban in the Philippines and the Garhwal region in India in our tour.
Paul had ridden out Superstorm Sandy when he was living in New Jersey and had helped with Occupy Sandy; then he found himself back in the area around the second anniversary of the disaster. For me, there were short drives to two tornado towns: Greensburg, Kansas, and Joplin, Missouri. And living in Copenhagen, Paul could easily get to the Netherlands and Russia.
PC:Our biggest concern was not to put ourselves in situations where we would be a burden on anyone. We worried most about that in Tacloban, where bodies were still being recovered when we arrived. We rode in on a public bus and spent the day in the city, staying out of the way of the relief activity and speaking only with people who were interested in talking with us.
Disaster writing can also be colonial, exoticizing, and self-centered. Our choice was to keep ourselves out of view.
The places we went and the people we met made this book what it is. But the one thing we didn’t want it to be, I think, was a travelogue. The literary scholar Graham Huggan has written, “Much of what passes for contemporary travel writing operates under the sign of the disaster.” Our book falls easily into that claim. But if accounts of disaster and climate change are taking over the role of travel writing—and I also have to give credit to Rune Graulund of Denmark for this observation—then there’s a huge amount of baggage that comes with the genre. Disaster writing can also be colonial, exoticizing, and self-centered. Our choice was to keep ourselves out of view.
Tell me about what happened on the island of Montserrat.
SC: Montserrat is a papaya-shaped island five by ten miles in size, located 250 miles southeast of Puerto Rico. It’s a British Overseas Territory—in other words, a colony. The first Europeans to settle there were Irish Catholics in 1632. By the early 1800s, the slave population was 6,500. Britain abolished slavery in 1833, but Montserrat remained under white minority rule until the 1960s.
In recent decades, the island has been the most disaster-plagued place in the Caribbean outside Haiti. Its residents were still recovering from 1989’s Hurricane Hugo when the long-dormant Soufrière Hills volcano exploded in 1995. For two years the island was punished with volcanic violence, including explosive eruptions, fast-moving floods of steam, ash, gravel, and rock; and downpours of ash that covered everything. The eruption remains active to this day, with continuous release of gases that have been punctuated by ashfalls in 2003, 2006, and 2010. Almost two-thirds of the island, including now-buried former capital Plymouth, remain uninhabitable. Before the eruption the population was more than 10,000. It’s now 4,000. Many people emigrated, and those who remained had to move up to the previously undeveloped northern part of the island.
I don’t recall even hearing about this.
SC: We first became interested in Montserrat because of a British-funded development project aimed at generating electricity with geothermal energy from beneath the same volcano that had almost destroyed the island—a classic case of a silver lining. But that turned out to be a minor story. The bigger part was the failure of both the British Parliament and a series of island governments to rebuild decent housing and good livelihoods and help the people get back on their feet.
Four months before our visit, the island’s new political party, a group of activists called the People’s Democratic Movement, had been voted into power. Hopes were rising that Montserrat could finally get unstuck from the unnatural disaster/development crisis plaguing it. The PDM’s leader is Donaldson Romeo. As a journalist and videographer during the long crisis of the ’90s, Romeo had exposed the consequences of British neglect, including the horrific conditions that people fleeing the south of the island had to endure in refugee housing and tent camps. In the 2000s he got into politics to challenge the negligence and failures; he led the PDM to victory in 2014.
It’s typical in the Caribbean for volcanoes to lie dormant for centuries, and then when they do start shooting sparks, steam, fiery rock, and sulphur/methane/carbon-dioxide gas, the episode can last for a year. But this volcanic activity has gone on for 20 years! How does detrimental human activity contribute to the activation of volcanic activity, particularly these irregular and unpredictable explosions?
SC: We talked with Rod Stewart of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, and he said that this volcano is unique for the length of its eruption. There’s no ready explanation for it, and he won’t hazard a guess as to when the eruption will end. Human activity is a factor in volcanic disasters generally. Volcanic slopes like the one where most Montserratians lived before 1995 are attractive places to settle: the soils are fertile, the landscape is beautiful, and there is often employment in tourism. People may be able to live and work on those slopes for 350 years without problem—but there’s always a risk.
Who else did you talk to?
SC: I had interviews lined up, but wanted most to talk with ordinary people and with Don Romeo. Over the next couple of days, in between interviews with government officials, I talked with local citizens. One was a woman named Janeen who had migrated to Montserrat from Jamaica just before the eruption began, had to evacuate homes twice, and now operates a run-down bar and grill on the island’s one main road. Simply by persevering through the past two decades, she has proven her resilience, but like everyone else, she is getting tired of being so resilient. She said she had high hopes for Romeo and the PDM. On the other hand, she feared that the government in London might never “step up.” She and other Montserratians had worn out their bootstraps long ago.
One thing that surprised me is the islanders’ desire to boost the economy with “disastourism.”
PC: Ha! We sort of made up that word, although I assume we aren’t the first. Unlike nearby islands like Antigua and St. Kitts, Montserrat has no good harbor, so it has never been a major cruise destination. But before Hugo and the Soufrière Hills eruption, ferries, small cruise boats, and private craft would visit the Plymouth pier. Many North Americans bought houses and spent winters there. Romeo and the local government want London to build a new port in the north that can bring some of that small-scale tourist traffic back—with an added attraction: tours of the volcano observatory and zone of destruction in the south.
Did you see the disaster area?
SC: Priti and I went into the zone in the south that had been opened to daytime entry. The volcano loomed above, belching huge clouds of steam and sulfur dioxide. Below we could see the area that people are barred from entering for safety reasons: a broad gray plain ringed by mangled, abandoned structures. Across that expanse there was no visible sign that the city center of Plymouth lay fifty feet below.
It sounds almost like a sacred place.
SC: Yes—we stood there in utter silence for a long while, as our minds struggled to piece together a rational image from the post-apocalyptic landscape. After that, we wandered into long-abandoned houses. In one, plates and pans, now covered in volcanic ash, were still sitting in dish drains where they’d been abandoned years ago. Another neighborhood was being reclaimed by tropical vegetation, and we noticed a man who was sweeping dust and ash out of a house. He wasn’t interested in talking. I decided that “disastourism” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
We stood there in utter silence for a long while, as our minds struggled to piece together a rational image from the post-apocalyptic landscape.
On our way back to the habitable north, we stopped at a shop to buy vegetables. As we were paying, in came none other than Don Romeo. “Heard you on ZJB Radio today,” he said. “When are you leaving?” I told him Sunday morning. “OK … what if I drop by on Saturday evening? There are some things I need to tell you.”
The admiring looks on the faces of the people in the shop confirmed what we already knew: Romeo is a heroic figure. But he knew he wouldn’t be a hero for long if Montserrat remained stuck in disaster time. His first words when he arrived at the cottage were: “I didn’t expect to become premier this soon.” He went on to talk about how he was having to metamorphose from an activist into the island’s leader and how he’d better not let people down. Then he told us how the British government had betrayed the people of Montserrat. He believed the refusal of the colonial power to restore housing and livelihoods after the eruption was not really a failure but a strategy. In the mid-1990s, having just finished rebuilding Plymouth after Hugo, the British had no interest in funding the island’s development again. Romeo believes they let conditions become intolerable so people would have no choice but to evacuate. He told us, “The idea was to get us off the island. But we’re still here.”
He became emotional when the conversation turned to the 1997 flash eruption that killed 19 people. He said those people had been pushed into risking their lives in the hazard zone by the deplorable conditions in the refugee camps and the lack of opportunity to earn a living in the north. “People were so desperate,” he said, “they would go back onto the volcano to grow food and keep animals.” Life on his island, he told us, will never be restored until the UK takes full responsibility for its “deliberate deception” and neglect of Montserrat. I’d been reading accounts of that era and the British betrayal with growing frustration, but to hear Romeo talk about the rawness with which he and other Montserratians view those events… I was boiling inside.
You visited one scene of destruction after another. What was that like?
PC: What always confronted me first was awareness that what I feel is only a shadow of the experience of the disaster.
You felt a sort of timidity then? Or perhaps awe?
PC: More like caution: just as there is much more of the volcano down under the ground, there is so much more human experience wrapped up in a disaster than one can possibly know. Some things can’t be communicated if you weren’t there. But other things can. At least that was our assumption in writing a book.
There are patterns to how the ground can shift; that’s what makes seismology possible… Disasters knot these patterns up together, even if no two events are wholly alike.
Often my second feeling was déjà vu. That is to say: awareness of repetitions and patterns. This awareness can feel like a betrayal of the uniqueness of the pain and the place, but as writers it was essential to our job. There are patterns to how the ground can shift; that’s what makes seismology possible. There are only so many ways the roof can come off a house; that’s why we have engineering. And likewise there are certain ways people deal with pain and shock and re-establish hope; that’s the basis of psychology. Disasters knot these patterns up together, even if no two events are wholly alike.
In my work as a psychotherapist, I specialize in recovery from personal trauma. Some people say to me: “Isn’t it depressing?” Yet I never feel down because I am working with people who want to heal and therefore have the wherewithal and spirit to heal—so being their partner in the process becomes an uplifting experience. I am struck with how you begin the book with a testimony to renewal.
SC: That first story occurred in the Indian Himalaya, and our trip there was probably the most disturbing experience we had. Paul suggested we begin and end the book with it because the floods there were in many ways the most spectacular and tragic of all the disasters we wrote about. Those who survived have been put to the ultimate test of emotional strength and perseverance—with virtually no help from outside.
PC: It was depressing. Yet the story with which we begin the book, Ramala Khumriyal’s personal experience, was a hopeful one. In June 2013 a natural dam holding back a large lake 12,000 feet up in the Himalayas melted. The entire lake emptied within minutes, and the busy pilgrimage site of Kedarnath a mile down slope was buried by water, mud, and rock. Ramala barely escaped up the mountainside with his six children; as they fled, they looked back to see thousands being swept to their deaths. With roads and footpaths destroyed, they had to find their way home through the landslide-scoured mountains. It took them six days.
Once they had to cross a river on a fallen tree trunk, inches above the still-raging flood. Many people did not make the crossing, but Ramala’s family did. This, he said, was the last of many tests they’d received from Lord Shiva, who resides in these mountains and is worshiped at Kedarnath. Ramala and his children had passed all the tests, and in this he found the hope he expressed to us.
SC: By the time we arrived, Ramala had become co-owner of a new startup! Before he’d run a tea shop in Kedarnath, but he had no desire to return there. So with assistance from Adarsh Tribal, a young outsider working for the aid group iVolunteer, Ramala and another man started a soap-making business. Adarsh helped them get the necessary ingredients up to the mountain. It was a low-tech operation, and their product was top-notch. They used a vegetarian recipe—without tallow—and that was a selling point in a pious Hindu region.
PC: The closest we reached to Kedarnath was the village where the pilgrimage footpath begins, Gaurikund. The road having washed away, we had to cling to rocks and tree roots for the final kilometer to get even that far. We were talking to people who were playing carom in front of the only open shop on the half-main-street—the other half had fallen into a chasm along with a number of hotels. Our discussion paused when two outsiders came along the street leading a pair of donkeys. One was wearing a well-tailored wool jacket and the other was carrying a camera. They silently continued towards the start of the pilgrims’ footpath—and returned ten minutes later. As they passed the second time, the cameraman explained to a local that the visitor was on a government fact-finding mission from New Delhi. He was supposed to report on the state of things in Kedarnath, but he’d just gone to the trailhead so he could have his photo taken on the back of a donkey with snowy peaks in the background. Our hosts thought this was a fitting demonstration of the extent of their government’s sympathy; Adarsh, who was interpreting, couldn’t even translate the obscenities they used!
SC: The floods and landslides had not only cut Kedarnath and Gaurikund off from the rest of the world; they had wreaked ruin along the 100-mile road that leads up the valley from the plains.
PC: We experienced pure terror on the jeep ride up and back, especially where the road had become a thin shelf hanging off the mountain face and we could see right through potholes down to the valley floor!
SC: Before the flood, there’d been a burgeoning new industry that hauled well-heeled pilgrims up the mountain in helicopters. Like road-building, the construction of the 400 helipads serving that business worsened the landslides, and almost all of the helipads were damaged beyond usability. The tourism industry was crippled. Neither Adarsh nor the people in Gaurikund nor anyone else said they could foresee any potential economic activities that might provide the valley’s people the modest incomes they had derived from tourism. That was the tragedy: the only route anyone could see to local economic viability was to rebuild the very industry that had almost destroyed them once and could well destroy them in the future. Now three years after our visit, despite recurring monsoon floods, the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and raging forest fires in 2016, slow efforts to piece tourism back together have been the only official response.
Reading your book, I remembered the collective disasters I´ve endured—which include Hurricane Hazel in 1954, the 2001 Los Alamos fire catastrophe, and a rain-hail storm/flood in 2013 that laid flat the campesino community in Bolivia where I was living. Have you been through any such events?
SC: Well, I’m thankful that neither of us has had the wealth of experience of disasters-in-progress that you have!
PC: I remember filling sandbags there during the Great Midwest Flood of 1993, when I was nine. I remember the pizzas that someone delivered to the crews filling sandbags. That was an early taste of disaster solidarity.
SC: Pizza: the quintessential disaster food! What we both can say, though, is that a tornado 80 years ago had a profound impact on our family. Lucille Brewer Cox was my grandmother, Paul’s great-grandmother, and she was among 203 people killed by the Gainesville, Georgia tornado of April 6, 1936. It struck downtown in the middle of a business day. Lucille was working in a department store on the town square. My grandfather had a ground-coffee business just off the square. The tornado left him buried under sacks of coffee beans, which protected him from falling debris. He dragged himself out and ran over where Lucille’s store had been, and, tragically, recognized her shoes protruding from the rubble.
The catastrophe struck a population that was struggling to survive the Great Depression. So everyone in town went through severe times. But it was also the height of New Deal optimism. President Roosevelt visited twice, and his administration set out to make Gainesville an example of government as a positive force. Reconstruction aid poured in, and the town gained a lasting reputation as a vigorous, progressive city.
The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton spoke of a loss of belief in the future among survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, as the nuclear arms race grew to threaten the entire planet, generalized this response to include all of us. How do you feel now that you know intimately what so many still living in non-disaster bubbles “know” only by watching videos and reading newspapers? I ask this with a view towards the ultra-right presidency of Donald Trump, with his troupe of oil executives and climate-change naysayers.
PC: I don’t think we know that much more than people watching videos and reading newspapers.
I’m amazed to hear you say that.
PC: Reporters and videographers are good at communicating pain, and disasters are among their most powerful material. If someone can see all that pain and rationalize their way out of being affected, I don’t think it’s because they haven’t seen something that we’ve seen.
We write about various forms of rationalization, and about something like a loss of belief in the future, but that doesn’t always look the way you expect. Take the idea of resilience—which has been spectacularly popular in recent years. The resilience doctrine rationalizes that disaster is inherent in everything, and that the most people can hope for is to get better at bouncing back. At heart this attitude has little to promise for the future.
This discourse has been thoroughly critiqued, and we join that critique. But the resilience doctrine is really the stuff of global neoliberal governance, of UN conferences and development cooperation regimes. You could say it’s the sort of “globalist” project that the Clintons were accused of furthering.
The election happened in the middle of this conversation with you, Chellis, and we felt it like an earthquake. Or maybe it was more like a forest fire; the fuel had been building up for many years. Up until Election Day, we thought our biggest worries were well-intentioned international initiatives that would actually make life worse or be band-aids on the catastrophes of climate change. We were concerned about an abundance of optimism that says climatic disaster can be endured if our economies just keep growing.
Astonishing—and yet denial does help people feel better.
PC: Now it feels like we were the ones in denial! We wrote in the book that climate change optimism would be “what we will have to worry about when we don’t have to worry about climate-change denial anymore.” As it turns out, we still have to worry about it—and also about resurgent zero-sum nationalism, triumphant oligarchies, and fascism. We face a lack of regard for common humanity that’s based on forthright racism.
SC: We set out to share stories of communities on the front lines of the ecological crisis in hopes of influencing US citizens and our government’s policies. But far too many people don’t want to hear about anyone’s predicament but their own—enough of them to make the November 8 political temper tantrum succeed. Those angry Americans had no regard for the consequences to be suffered by vulnerable people and communities here or elsewhere.
The rest of the world has pledged to carry the Paris climate agreement forward without the US, but even if they do fulfill their emissions commitments, under the agreement those commitments would still allow warming of 2.7 to 3.5 degrees Celsius, which in itself would trigger planet-wide catastrophe. The past couple of years have shown that unforeseen political and social change can come suddenly and dramatically, and that’s certainly what we’re going to need now—but in the opposite direction.
PC:“Sudden and dramatic” are also the qualities that make a disaster a disaster, as distinct from the general, slower trend of climate change. And there is often a hope expressed that if a disaster comes along that’s just bad enough, it will shock societies into transformation. Please understand that it’s not what we are hoping for: we are anti-disaster! Besides, the scholarship on possible links between disasters and political change is tentative about shocks causing positive change. If we can draw a conclusion from our research, it is this: when positive change happens in the aftermath of a disaster, it’s because the people affected are ready for change and have the power to see it through.
SC: Until there is deep political and economic transformation to roll back climate change, communities like the ones we wrote about will keep paying the price. Remedies we put forward—like a fund to protect people in the global South from the disastrous impact of the North’s carbon dioxide—had no chance in the political world that existed even before November 8. But we weren’t devising a political strategy; we were saying, “Look, this is what it would take to deal with coming disasters. We have to talk about what’s necessary, not just what politicians and corporations will accept today.“
Likewise with emissions reduction. We have to insist that the only way to head off climate catastrophe is to eliminate fossil-fuel burning on a timetable much more rapid than Paris’s. Now, in this toxic political atmosphere, many on our side will stop discussing that necessity and seek small compromises instead.
Is there anything that heartens you?
SC: Yes. I’m heartened by declarations from cities and states around the world that commit to forging ahead on climate, no matter what Washington does. That, and a lot of rebellious political activity, will have to do for now.
Climate change, global finance, the neoliberal state: today’s crises require action on a big scale. And yet fighting for local democracy is – perhaps counter-intuitively – the best chance we’ve got.
Throughout this series, we’ve argued that the best way to address today’s ecological, social, and political crises is to get people together where they live and work to provide resources that people need – eventually building up an alternative political and economic system that can replace the present, failing system. We need to build a democratic, just, and ecological world in the shell of the old.
In the previous installment, we argued that organising on the level of the neighborhood, town, and city is the most strategic approach to this today.
The rise of loneliness worldwide, the centrality of real estate speculation for global economic growth, and the breakdown of many large-scale factories that helped to bring workers together mean that we have to rethink the ways we demand change.
We can build community and force elites to listen to our demands at the same time. Radical municipalism is a project to take direct democratic control over the places where we live.
When we talk to people about this strategy, the same kinds of questions often come up. In this article, we highlight three common criticisms. Each one of them revolves around the complaint that radical municipalism is too local: it can’t deal with the ‘big stuff’.
1. Because of climate change, we don’t have time
Any call for a long-term vision for social change begs the response: the urgency of the present moment means we don’t have the time for the slow work of neighbourhood-level organising.
Impending climate disruption is a ticking time-bomb. Every year we delay will make the future worse. And as a global phenomenon, it takes immediate global action. Strategically, this argument goes, we’re better off pushing our leaders to take strong stances on climate change.
The situation is so dire that the progressive environmentalist website Grist and the socialist magazine Jacobin are publishing pieces asking us to seriously consider geo-engineering and scaling up nuclear energy – all in a bid to give us more time.
For many, the problem of climate change can only be addressed with big stuff: international agreements, renewable and nuclear energy on a massive scale, geo-engineering schemes that involve changing planetary weather systems.
Working with your neighbours doesn’t mean giving up on national electoral politics. It’s all part of the same strategy: building local democracy is the necessary ingredient for taking on the state.
This kind of response is understandable, but puts the cart before the horse. Without a coherent counter-power to corporate control over government, we have no chance of forcing policy into accordance with the public good. We’re relying on the assumption that leaders are kind enough to listen, and that they by themselves have the power to implement needed reforms.
Feet to the fire
Even if we elect the most principled people to power, and even if all politicians were to realise that it’s in their own interest to do everything they can to stop climate change through a ‘Green New Deal’, the system would still be dead against them. You can’t beg a system dependent on extraction, endless growth, and exploitation to change its ways. A systemic restructuring the economy is necessary to stop the ecological crisis.
What is clear is that those in power—the CEOs, the shareholders, the bankers, and the politicians that implement their laws—would suffer greatly from necessary action on climate change.
Government debts would need to be cancelled, the most powerful industries would need to be phased out. Production would need to be reordered along democratic lines, putting people and planet before profit. No matter what, we will still need the kind of popular power that hasn’t been seen in generations to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. It took the combined threats of national collapse, socialist revolution, and a massive workers movement during the Great Depression to get the New Deal. This kind of people power needs to be organized neighborhood by neighborhood, workplace by workplace.
Every step we take towards dual power and democracy from below puts us in a better position to force the hands of government. Extracting concessions from the state and building a new political system from the ground up aren’t opposing strategies—they should go hand in hand.
Climate change and the right to the city
There’s a second answer to this objection. The fight for the right to the city is the fight for climate justice. For example, research on São Paolo in Brazil shows that the fight for affordable housing is a fight against climate change, even if poor people’s movements don’t speak in those terms.
Making the center of the city accessible for everyone to live in and building social and cooperative housing reduces carbon impact. Urban social issues like transit justice are key components of moving beyond fossil fuels. By making the places where we live more equal and democratic, we’re simultaneously fighting for a greener future.
In fact, we’re already seeing that cities and towns with strong social movements are at the forefront of radical and innovative responses to climate change.
What’s more, they’re starting to work together to provide a common front to demand change on national and international scales—the Global Covenant for Mayors for Climate and Energy is already a force to be reckoned with in international climate talks. And cities globally are leading the fight to take the fossil fuel industry to task, even suing them for contributing to climate disasters.
All this comes down to the fact that we can’t actually make the necessarily large-scale changes without taking control over the places where we live and creating the alternatives necessary for a new system. It’s precisely these alternatives that force the hand of the state to act on climate change. They organize people power and show how things could be done otherwise.
In other words, radical municipalism is the best investment against climate change: our power together forces our leaders to act and buys us time, all the while developing a new ecological social order that can replace capitalism.
2. Local activism can’t address global capitalism
A common response to those who work to mobilise their neighbours and create local democracy is that localism can’t scale up. It’s always just stuck back-pedaling, unable to actually change the large-scale problems like predatory trade deals, foreign takeovers, the capacity of finance to make or break whole countries—the stuff that really shapes national decision-making.
Often, these same people argue that, to break out of this pattern, we need to engage with the big players. So they form think tanks, lobby groups, NGOs, and new media platforms, showing up to climate negotiations year after year and putting pressure on politicians through endless petitions. For them, the most important agents of change are well-worded policy briefs, expensive conferences, powerpoint presentations, and 40-page reports.
The key actors of social change aren’t think-tanks or lobby groups: they’re people, and people live and work somewhere. This kind of critique often forgets the fact that all successful international movements of the past were also intensely local.
For example, the labour movements of the 19th and 20th centuries were able to make demands of governments because they were so embedded in people’s day-to-day lives. Historically, unions weren’t just at the workplace; they ran dance halls, classes, cafeterias, and sports leagues.
It was only by broadening their reach to every aspect of life that unions were able to become indispensable to working class communities. This made it possible for them to organise effective strikes and, eventually, mount a significant challenge to their bosses and the state. It’s regular people that are the actors of world-historical changes.
What some people deride as ‘localism’ is actually the very foundation of transformative change.
A plan of action
That said, we shouldn’t forget that, without a long-term vision, a coherent plan of action, and trans-local alliances, every local movement is doomed to become a relic in the town museum.
Keep in mind that capitalism works at scale. That’s the genius of it. Stop one development in your neighbourhood, and investors just move their money elsewhere. Take on giants like Amazon, and they’ll just move to another city. So, in that sense, we agree that local action, on its own, will always fail.
This is why, for radical municipalism to be successful, it requires collaboration at higher level. This July, the Fearless Cities Summit in New York City will bring together municipalist movements around the world to share resources and action plans.
In our own work as Symbiosis, we hope to bring together radical municipalist movements from across North America to form a democratically run network of community organizations that can coordinate strategy beyond the local.
In the short term, these kinds of movements are already proving to be a challenge to big corporations. In Seattle, the city council passed a law that would tax big companies like Amazon—money which would then go into subsidies for affordable housing. In Barcelona, the city is turning AirBnB apartments into social housing. Only local, democratic, and people-based movements can force politicians to bring transnational corporations to task. What we need to do now is learn from each other’s victories and work together to scale them up.
In the long term, a system of dual power would transform into what we call communalism or democratic confederalism: an allied network of interdependent communes or regions that work together in a directly democratic way.
On the local level, the neighbourhood assembly makes the decisions and decides the course of action. On a bigger level, these organisations band together in what is called a confederation: a body of recallable delegates with imperative mandates, directly accountable to their communities.
This body would allow communes to exchange resources, support each other, and make democratic decisions. Without this kind of networking, collaboration, and interdependence across borders, local movements are just that: local, isolated, and doomed to fail, again and again. But through international confederation, we can pose a real threat to global capitalism and the ruling class.
3. We can only make real change by taking over the state
For many, the state is the best vehicle for action to fight the major systemic problems of climate chaos, finance capital running amok, and global inequality.
Further, with the growing popularity of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, now seems like a bad time to redirect energy away from national politics. After all, conservative movements thrive off of voter apathy. If you ignore elections, then you cede the ground to the welfare-bashing, poor-blaming, and racist right.
How should radical municipalist movements engage with the state? First, it’s important to reframe the debate away from “should we try to take state power?”.
We’re trying to build democratic institutions that can, in the present, extract concessions from the state. These will inevitably exist within the current (statist) system and leverage available (state) institutions and resources toward that goal.
Eventually, these new institutions will form an ecosystem of dual power that can force a crisis within the state and dissolve its powers into confederal direct democracy. This is not a contradiction, it’s just to acknowledge that the state has embedded itself into almost every aspect of our lives and can’t be abolished in a day.
This process would amount to a fundamental restructuring of the public sphere, from a state—instruments of coercive violence under the control of a ruling class—into a democratic commons, a government from below.
Rewire its institutions
In the meantime, however, we can grow our movement through struggle for important expansions of the public sphere (social spending, halting carbon emissions, public transit) and drawdowns on the most socially and ecologically destructive features of the state (the police, the military, prisons, border security, surveillance).
As we gain greater power to extract concessions from the state through new institutions of communal democratic life, we can use strategic policy changes to improve our position. Non-reformist reforms like nationalized healthcare, job guarantee programs, and public childcare can enable more working-class people to participate in neighborhood organizing and movement work. Putting public funds into cooperative development, social housing, public banking, and participatory budgeting can speed along our transition to a democratic economy. With the support of municipal governments, solidarity economy initiatives developed in our communities can be dramatically expanded. Most importantly, we can secure radical changes to city charters that restructure political authority into direct rule by citizens through confederated community councils and assemblies.
It is never enough to simply “take the state” and wield it as a tool to reshape society, for the state is not a neutral institution to be held by one class or another. At a structural level, the state exists to enforce the will of a ruling elite, who make decisions on our behalf. Even if we replace horrible capitalist ones with working-class representatives of our own, we haven’t assured that the will of the public is governing society, for the public is not itself in power. Empowering ordinary people to have control over our collective future requires fundamentally transforming the way governance works.
This is why building power from below outside of the state is so essential. The mass organization of community councils, assemblies, tenant unions, labor unions, and cooperatives is what can (through its own growth) force governing elites to make the reforms we need right now, while creating the conditions for a more revolutionary restructuring of society.
It’s clear that we can’t depend on an electoral strategy alone to put these ideas into practice. Elections are an important platform to spread ideas and implement our program, but only vibrant social movements can actually hold elected representatives accountable.
What kinds of policies would a radical municipalist movement put on their electoral platform, if they had one? In each case, it helps to ask: how does this policy build popular power? What institutions can we strengthen through public policy to better hold the state accountable?
No matter what the state does, however, it’s crucial that people practice doing politics themselves. Building these kinds of institutions is the antidote to apathy and encourages civic engagement. Through this broader strategy of dual power from the neighborhood on up, we can effectively challenge the state and, at the same time, rewire its institutions—already running through every aspect of our lives—into something new.
Turning local action into global power
It’s easy to criticise everything under the sun as insufficient, not good enough. Organising in your own neighbourhood can sometimes feel distant from the important stuff happening around the world.
But while local action alone is not enough, organising should still be a part of people’s everyday lives: it should be place-based. Fighting for affordable housing means fighting climate change.
Taking on AirBnB or Amazon in your city means struggling against corporate control over politics. Working with your neighbours doesn’t mean giving up on national electoral politics. It’s all part of the same strategy: building local democracy is the necessary ingredient for challenging the ruling class’s grip on government.
How can we solidify these distant, local actions into an intentional power that can take on state, corporate, and global powers? Through learning from each other, networking, forming alliances, and, eventually, confederating. Without a democratic politics of scale, we’ll just stay stuck in the local.
In the next installment of this column, we’ll discuss another common objection—one that has become more and more pressing. Can radical municipalism avoid what we call ‘dark municipalism’: the rise of a fascist or reactionary localist movement that seeks to protect only its own and expel anyone who doesn’t fit the norm.
This article was originally published in The Ecologist. The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organizers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organizations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev. This article was written by Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi) with contributions by Mason Herson-Hord (@mason_h2).
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
The summer has been slow, and we haven’t been publishing much. But the fall promises some exciting new initiatives, so stay in the loop. We received some feedback that our list just has too much good stuff. How to read it all? To address this, we’ll now start highlighting our top 5 must-reads for the month. Skip all the rest if you must, these are worth reading surreptitiously at the office.
This month, we invited Anthony Galluzzo to offer some of his favorite readings. He is an adjunct professor at New York University, specializing in 19th century literature and the history of utopia.
Anthony Galluzzo’s links
The editors at Uneven Earth asked me to collect those readings that stood out from August 2018. Both my recent work and political convictions focus on potential intersections between Marxism and the degrowth movement in the service of a decelerationist program. This puts me in what feels like a very lonely position these days, when much of the Anglo-American left, from social democratic near to sectarian Marxist far, is once again enamored of Prometheanism of various sorts—accelerationism, fully automated luxury communism, and “left” eco-modernism”—all of which can be subsumed under the rubric of Jetsonism.
Eco-modernism is largely the provenance of techno-utopian libertarians, associated with outfits like the Breakthrough Institute, whose adherents propose large-scale and scientifically dubious technological solutions to the climate crisis, such as geoengineering, the better to safeguard specifically capitalist patterns of ecologically ruinous and exploitative “growth.” Why would self-described socialists and communists push such a thing? We should not underestimate the dangerous marriage of ossified dogma—regarding the development of the forces of production—and puerile sci-fi fantasy—about weather control and terraforming Mars and building Star Trek—that we often find among many of today’s extremely online toy Bolsheviks.
Arctic fire. Richard Seymour offers a moving and powerful rejoinder to the ecomodernists, including various flavors of Jetsonian leftists, who minimize the ecological crisis in promoting unlikely technological “solutions” to anthropogenic global warming in lieu of a radical socio-ecological transformation (such as ecosocialist degrowth). These Jetsonians preach “anti-catastrophism” against the “hairshirts” in the midst of an actual catastrophe—all the while dreaming of how they’ll beam themselves up to some fully automated luxury Martian retreat—a socialist one of course! Against this dangerous whiggery, I say: if you aren’t a catastrophist, you aren’t a comrade.
To freeze the Thames and If you want to save the world, veganism isn’t the answer. Troy Vatese offers an alternative model of decarbonization through what he calls “natural geoengineering”: rewilding farm land through a program of “compulsory veganism” in order to effect hemispheric cooling along the lines of the little ice age. But what if veganism, with its reliance on industrial farmed monocrops, such as soy, is part of the problem, as organic farmer Isabella Tree argues?
Artificial saviors. And speaking of Jetsonism, this essay on Silicon Valley solutionism, transhumanism, and techno-utopianism—by radical computer scientist tante—as theology is right on the mark, as is the entire special issue of boundary 2, “On The Digital Turn,” from which it comes.
Plastic straws and the coming collapse. In the same way that magical techno-solutions to the ecological crisis are a morbid symptom—weaponized wishful thinking—so too is the ethical consumerism most recently exemplified by the campaign against plastic straws, as Rhyd Wildermuth demonstrates in her piece.
Platform Cooperativism Consortium awarded $1 million grant. “We talked to these 2,000 Uber drivers in Cape Town who wanted to drop out and start a platform co-op, we talked with trash pickers in the informal economy in Cairo, Egypt. There is no trash collection there and so through the Coptic Church these people get organized and want to start a platform where people can order trash pick-ups from them, and they would get paid for them.”
The 1680 Pueblo Revolt is about Native Resistance. As Pueblo People, how do we develop a common political consciousness around our unique history and present situation? The first step is looking at the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and understanding its significance.
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We’ll try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
In June, we read stories about new political strategies, decolonial re-imaginings, community resilience, and revolutionary ideas around the world. We also included articles about the escalating climate crisis and the root causes of climate and environmental injustice.
Uneven Earth updates
The team expands: Anna, who has been working on these newsletters for the past 6 months, is now on board as a new editor at Uneven Earth!
Science Fiction Belgrade | Link| Imagining different realities in the works of Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić
The promise of radical municipalism today | Link| Politics is about bringing people together and taking control of the spaces where we live
Science fiction between utopia and critique | Link| On different perspectives used in science fiction narratives, situated knowledge, and how discontent is useful
What’s it like for a social movement to take control of a city? | Link| For Barcelona En Comú, winning the election was just the first step
The swell | Link| “We were waiting to be accepted as refugees in Iceland, the only country left in the region with stable electricity from their geothermal resources, and the only place that would take UK citizens.”
Why grandmothers may hold the key to human evolution. “While the men were out hunting, grandmothers and babies were building the foundation of our species’ success – sharing food, cooperating on more and more complex levels and developing new social relationships.”
A sense of place. “There are many historical and modern day examples of how human beings, all over the world, have managed to meet the needs of locally adapted, place-based communities within the limits of their local environment.”
Roadmap for radicals. Mel Evans and Kevin Smith interview US-based organiser and author Jonathan Smucker, whose new book Hegemony How-To offers a practical guide to political struggle for a generation that is still ambivalent about questions of power, leadership and strategy.
‘Processing settler toxicities’ part 1 and part 2. An Indigenous feminist analysis of the connections between industrial capitalism and colonialism, imperialism, and the pollution and destruction of human and nonhuman worlds.
Anthropocene? More like ‘Capitalocene’. Jason W. Moore on the human impact on the world ecology. “My hope is that this theoretical research may provide useful insights for the social movements around the world that are fighting not only the effects, but especially the root causes of climate change.”
Carbon Ironies: William T. Vollmann on the hot dark future. A review of William T. Vollmann’s Carbon Ideologies—a book that is rightly sarcastic and pessimistic about the prospects of “solving” the problem of climate change but stuck in the false either/or choice between solving everything and doing nothing whatsoever, argues Wen Stephenson.
The mask it wears. Pankaj Mishra reviews and compares the propositions about how to work for equality in The People v. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It by Yascha Mounk Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World by Samuel Moyn.
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We’ll try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
It always feels like things are happening all at once: just as the global economy is transforming radically and we face an environmental crisis of global proportions, new social movements are rising up giving us new ways to think about the future. Weirdly, just at this moment, some are latching on to an idealized vision of modernity and the Enlightenment to defend the status quo. This month, we read articles that complicated the idea of modernity and offered ways to think about society and nature that incorporate, but go beyond, the Enlightenment tradition.
We also highlighted international environmental justice movements, showing that not everything is rosy—but people are fighting and thinking in creative ways, imagining different kinds of modernity and new kinds of internationalism. And lest we forget, March is women’s history month, and what better way to celebrate it than to highlight the—often undervalued—role that women play in global environmental justice movements?
Uneven Earth updates
How to navigate the disorientation of a seismic world | Link | Taking inspiration from past revolutions to build a new framework for the future
Krishna never looks up | Link | “Several tentacle-antennae coiled around his extended arm like Medusa’s hair.”
The migration crisis and the imperial mode of living | Link | Notes toward a degrowth internationalism
Dreaming spaces | Link | “Everywhere is filled with the dream of what could grow, slowly coming true”
Climate change mitigation and adaptation of the poor | Link | A call for decolonial responses to climate change
URGENT REPORT Protomunculus spp | Link | “If an infected robionic is discovered at any stage, universal mandate requires its immediate incineration”
Avatar revisited | Link | Gesturing at decolonization of the great epistemological divides
The young feminist who died for my people. “Despite scarcity, we do not want bullets, we do not want food, and we do not want money. All we are asking for is action that will stop Turkey from flying its warplanes over the heads of our children.”
Love in a hopeless place. A first-hand account from a German internationalist YPG fighter from the now nearly forgotten battle of Raqqa.
The wind of change: Renewables and self-determination. Katie Laing explores the fight for the right to community renewables on the island of Lewis. On one hand is a system that brings direct community control and builds a local economy, on the other one that extracts profit, control and resource from the islands.
An interview with David Bollier on the meaning of the commons for social transformation.
Carving out the commons. By now, you could be forgiven for assuming that “the commons” refers to another cocktail bar or coffee shop in yet another neighborhood people used to be able to afford. But Amanda Huron’s new book grounds the romantic notion of urban commons in the everyday struggles of working people.
Surveillance capitalism. Deleting our Facebook accounts following the recent privacy scandal is not enough: we need to challenge the structural problem of surveillance capitalism.On the digital and social networks supporting authoritarian populism, and what can be done to resist them.For those who are active on Facebook,an instruction on how to use it while giving it the minimum amount of personal data.
How American masculinity, by sending the message that needing others is a sign of weakness and that being vulnerable is unmanly, creates lonely men.
It’s easy to forget that activists fighting to eliminate injustice struggle with mental and physical health, too. A story on those who push, protest, and privately suffer as a result; and the personal account of an environmental professor whose battle with cancer helped her cope emotionally with the reality of climate change.
The necessary transience of happiness. “By selling a myth about the nature of happiness, capitalism creates atomistically-ambitious but socially-obedient individuals who can be distracted from collective values and aspirations.”
Why Americans should give socialism a try. Against the commodification of life and relationships: “Capitalism is an ideology that is far more encompassing than it admits, and one that turns every relationship into a calculable exchange. Bodies, time, energy, creativity, love — all become commodities to be priced and sold. Alienation reigns. There is no room for sustained contemplation and little interest in public morality; everything collapses down to the level of the atomized individual.”
Corporations do damage to poor women with their global philanthropy. Companies like to focus their corporate social responsibility work on girls because supporting women is, in theory, noncontroversial. But such charitable efforts actually harm girls and women in the Global South by depoliticizing their problems, which are inherently political.
Climate change and the astrobiology of the Anthropocene. “We will either make it across to the other side with the maturity to ‘think like a planet’ or the planet will just move on without us. That, I believe, is the real meaning of what’s happening to us now. It’s a perspective we can’t afford to miss.”
With the 8th of March being International Women’s Day, and Women’s History Month running through March in the US, UK and beyond, this month is a good time to turn the spotlight on women’s struggles and (often overlooked and undervalued) contributions to environmental justice.
Stories of women’s resistance. Women are on the frontlines of climate change around the world: they make up 80% of people displaced by it, are more vulnerable in the aftermath of disasters, and disproportionately face other risks described in this overview from the BBC. But they are also active agents in fighting back against the climate crisis and other forms of environmental injustice.
Finland’s reindeer-herding Sámi women, faced with a combination of weather changes and increased tree cutting that threatens their centuries-old tradition, fight climate change. Meet the “Polish Mothers at the Felling”: a grassroots group of mothers protesting intensified logging practices across Poland. In Nepal, women are running for office to protect traditional forests that belong to indigenous peoples and local communities, and they’re winning. The DRC mining industry is a prime example of how corporate power threatens women’s rights: this is why feminist activists are mobilising behind a proposed international treaty to regulate the impacts of transnational corporations. Indigenous activists of the Chaco movement – the most vital branch of which may be young, Native American women – try to quell a rising tide of oil and gas exploration in Chaco Canyon. In India, women resist plantations that uproot them from their customary forests. On International Women’s Day, a petition initiated by women in West and Central African countries demanded that oil palm companies give back community land and end violence against women living in and around large-scale oil palm plantations; a struggle that women in Guatemala and Colombia and Indonesia face as well.
Here is a women’s strike reader with socialist feminist highlights from the archives of Dissent Magazine, and a list of women activists from around the world taking up the fight for social justice.
Zafer Ülger discusses environmental issues in Turkey, and points to the need for movements that unite ecological struggles with other social struggles, including women’s liberation: “The crises experienced by labor, women or oppressed peoples are not separate from the crisis of nature and ecosystems; it is just the other side of the same coin.”
Female writers and naturalists. A list of nine women who are rewriting the environment from a female perspective; a beautifully intimate portrait of Rachel Carson and her life and work on the sea; and an exploration of Nan Shepherd’s work on the mountains, and what we can learn from it. “Shepherd does for the mountain what Rachel Carson did for the ocean — both women explore entire worlds previously mapped only by men and mostly through the lens of conquest rather than contemplation; both bring to their subject a naturalist’s rigor and a poet’s reverence, gleaming from the splendor of facts a larger meditation on meaning.”
Thinking ecologically: a dialectical approach. In this essay Murray Bookchin warns against overly spiritual, reductive, and mechanistic approaches in ecological thought, injecting a political analysis into the discussion of what it means to think ecologically. In particular, he directs his ire against various strains of new age environmentalism as well as systems thinking.
Kim Stanley Robinson, the author of sci-fi classics like Red Mars and the more recent New York 2140, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian arguing for a variation of E. O. Wilson’s ‘half earth’ proposal. The idea is that humans should be kicked out of half the planet and inhabit the rest in super-dense and ecological cities. Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, two political ecologists, wrote an essay at the time critiquing Wilson’s book: “Addressing biodiversity loss and other environmental problems must proceed by confronting the world’s obscene inequality, not by blaming the poor and trusting the ‘free market’ to save them.”
With the publishing of Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now!, there’s been a lot of talk about modernity and the Enlightenment, with accusations flying around of anyone who disagrees with the present state of things being accused of anti-modern and anti-Enlightenment. Here are a few rebuttals:
Downtown is for people. It’s always worth revisiting Jane Jacob’s classic 1958 essay. “If the downtown of tomorrow looks like most of the redevelopment projects being planned for it today, it will end up a monumental bore. But downtown could be made lively and exciting — and it’s not too hard to find out how.”
A nuclear warning designed to last 10,000 years. “Consider a wanderer 10,000 years in the future discovering a strange construction of granite thorns in the New Mexico desert, their points weathered by centuries, their shadows stretching at sinister angles. The wailing figure from Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream,” itself long ago turned to dust, appears on sporadic signs near these totems. It’s unclear for what this site was intended, or who created its menacing forms.”
Apocalypse soon. The science fiction of this century is one in which great existential threats are known: they are real, and terrible.
We are currently facing the most severe migration crisis in history. In Europe, the debate on how to tackle the root causes of migration, including forced migration, happens mainly amongst established political actors such as political parties, state institutions, and large international NGOs. This debate focuses on wars, catastrophes, arms trade, and terror, which are all framed as a state of emergency.
For these actors, it is difficult to find practical, immediate solutions to the problem, because this would require addressing the root causes of those wars, going against the immediate interests of European states and international organizations. In consequence, these actors propose “development aid“ as the panacea to address root causes of migration.This aid is then tied to bilateral agreements with Arabic or African countries to prevent migration from occurring in the first place, or which make the deportation of migrants from Europe to their country of origin easier. Left-leaning critical migration researchers rightly critique this approach for misusing development co-operation as a tool for migration management.
One common response on the left is to, on the one hand, highlight the hypocrisy of trying to solve the crisis through development aid while continuing to drive these crises through arms deals and Western involvement in regional wars, and, on the other hand, framing the migrant crisis in terms of the right to free movement and the human rights of migrants.
Addressing the refugee crisis requires questioning the dominant notions of what it means to live a good life, to think global when it comes to social welfare
But this responds to only one dimension of a broader civilizational crisis. Anti-racist and migrant justice movements should not focus solely on issues of human mobility rights, the failure or even adverse effects of development aid, or Western military involvements. They also need to question the colonial division of nature and labor and what has been called the ‘imperial mode of living.’ Doing so would involve building new paths of solidarity with societies in the geopolitical Global South. In this sense, addressing the refugee crisis requires questioning the dominant notions of what it means to live a good life, to think global when it comes to social welfare and to link up with movements such as eco-feminism or degrowth. This could open up new possibilities to address social relegation due to immigration, as they exist in the Global North.
It is urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South
The left focus on critiquing the mainstream discourse easily leads to an equally politically problematic counter-position, an attitude that principally welcomes migration as something positive without questioning its root causes or the deterioration of living conditions in the Global South. However, can migration be something principally unproblematic that is to be welcomed and even increased? Does the defense of the right to migrate necessarily have to lead us to ignore the manifold coercions that force people to migrate? Must we not, on the contrary, acknowledge the real-life scenarios in the geopolitical Global South and our historical, economic and political contribution to these?
Today, a counter-hegemonic project must necessarily result from a collective construction process between the global North and South, which understands their interdependencies. Of course we have to object when governmental institutions differentiate between “good“ or “legal” refugees on the one hand, and “bad“ or “illegal” refugees on the other hand. However, this should not lead us to ignore global power relations or to paint a naive and euphemistic picture of migration as a natural phenomenon with positive connotations of personal choice and self-determination.
It is just as urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South, as it is to fight for open borders and dignified living conditions for those who have already fled.
By relying only on a “right to move” framework, we fail to address what makes this current wave of immigration unique. The decision of a German who prefers to live in the USA is radically different from that of a Nigerian who faces the dangers associated with fleeing and entering the EU undocumented. At the end of 2015, over 65 million persons were displaced globally—a historical record. In light of this situation, it is just as urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South, as it is to fight for open borders and dignified living conditions for those who have already fled.
As already mentioned, this process is rooted in the international division of labor, and, more specifically, the exploitation of nature (‘resources’) and cheap labor in the Global South to ensure unlimited consumption options in the North. Because of this, the geopolitical South is increasingly faced with “accumulation by dispossession” as the Marxist geographer David Harvey put it, to satisfy the demand for commodities of the North and new middle and upper classes in some southern countries. This greed for raw materials has led to a massive expansion and acceleration of extractivism: the export of oil, minerals or cash crops is often the only possibility for Southern economies to integrate themselves into the existing world market. As the reports of several human rights organizations show, these processes destroy the material conditions necessary for the lives of increasing numbers of people. The destruction is not only environmental, but often includes the very social fabric of the concerned regions. People are forced to migrate, and are dispossessed of their social bonds and cultural contexts and knowledges. The so-called ‘green economy’, often mentioned as a ‘clean’ solution to combine ecological concerns with economic growth – for example wind or solar energy production or electric cars – also requires resources such as rare minerals, cobalt, lithium or copper, whose exploitation leads to destructive social-ecological conflicts elsewhere.
At the same time, the globalized world market ensures that production chains and power relations, and effects like environmental destruction and exploitation which are inscribed in all consumer goods, remain abstract or are systematically obscured. However, those global value chains and power relations constitute a causal link between the imperial mode of living in the geopolitical North and the root causes for flight and migration in the South. In most cases, migration is not a freely-chosen emancipated decision, but a reaction to a specific concurrence of constraints, for example capitalist, gender-specific, ecological and/or (neo)colonial ones. Many of those people who play cat and mouse with the European border-regime today would rather have stayed in their own cultural and socio-economic contexts, if this had been a viable option.
Who has the right to the imperial mode of living?
The imperial mode of living divides the North from the South, because the prosperity of the former is historically rooted in the exploitation of the living environments and (often unpaid) workforce of the latter
The term ‘imperial mode of living’, coined by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, does not seek to describe a certain lifestyle practiced by specific social milieus. Rather, it refers to the hegemonic patterns of production, distribution, and consumption in combination with related cultural imaginaries and subjectivities. These are deeply embedded in the day-to-day practices of the majorities in the global North and increasingly find their ways into the upper and middle classes of countries in the global South.
This mode of living is imperial insofar as it assumes unlimited access to all resources – the space, nature, cheap labor, and sinks of the entire planet – only for a small and privileged minority of the global population. This mode of living is only possible while such unlimited access is secured either by political and judicial means, or by military means and violence. The imperial mode of living connects the geopolitical North and South insofar as it represents their shared hegemonic ideal of a successful and good life under current capitalist conditions, an ideal closely related to the promise of ‘catch-up development’. But at the same time, it divides the North from the South, because the prosperity of the former is historically rooted in the exploitation of the living environments and (often unpaid) workforce of the latter.
Without doubt, open borders and global mobility have to be fought for, especially against nationalist or right-wing environmentalism. But new questions arise around these claims if we consider the global division of labor and nature and the imperial mode of living. Does the claim to open borders and the right to move translate into the right for every human to participate in this mode of living, including those from the global South, if necessary, via migration? This is impossible for two reasons: firstly, while the multidimensional ecological crisis is already threatening the material conditions for the reproduction of life on our planet, the ecological destruction necessary to sustain this mode of living would be intensified. Secondly, because the imperial mode of living always requires an ‘elsewhere’, a foreign space to where exploitation and destruction can be externalized. But when applied to everybody, such an ’elsewhere’ would no longer exist. Without a doubt, many migrants indeed come to Europe hoping to participate in the imperial mode of living, which in most cases reveals to be an illusion, due to the manifold mechanisms of a “selective inclusion“ in place. However, the real question should be: do they, do we, or does anybody at all have the right to a mode of living that exploits and destroys the livelihoods of other people?
New perceptions of the good life
A critical left perspective on refugees and migration that is in solidarity with the global South requires a comprehensive paradigm-shift. The hegemonic discourse of what is considered a good and successful life is based on a number of problematic assumptions: that life as it is today in the Western World represents the highest stage of development of human civilization, and that modifying it would necessarily constitute a loss; that happiness inevitably relies on mass consumption and the accumulation of material goods; that the path of history is one and linear and that other modes of living that are less permeated by capitalist logics and based on different world views are necessarily inferior, backward and underdeveloped on this path; that the advancement of technology is only possible via multinational corporations; that it is the state which has to provide social welfare in a centralized manner; and that – as the idea of socialism in the 20th century suggested – one single, universally applicable master plan is needed before we can initiate change.
Modes of living which require less material consumption do not necessarily mean a loss, but can give rise to genuine enrichment.
In my opinion, the key way to challenge this narrative lies in the connection between anti-racist struggles for the right to migrate and struggles for a different, less alienated, less accelerated, and individualized life. Such struggles do exist in Europe and the geopolitical North and have gained strength over recent years. The degrowth movement and ecofeminism undermine the basis of chauvinist feelings of ‘entitlement’ to prosperity and of widespread fears of being socially deprived by the presence of migrants or refugees, insofar as these struggles fundamentally question the narrative that the western, European way of life equals prosperity or a good life. As Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen puts it, “we inhabitants of the northern hemisphere are materially well-supplied or even over-supplied, but nevertheless we experience needs. The big problems of our times are individualistic isolation, loneliness and existential fears, as well as the recourse to racist, nationalist patterns of conviviality as we lack of emancipatory concepts.”
Movements such as degrowth and ecofeminism tackle consumption patterns of the imperial mode of living in their everyday dimension, thus opening up possibilities of active transformation for people in the geopolitical global North. These movements make it possible to collectively learn that modes of living which require less material consumption do not necessarily mean a loss, but can give rise to genuine enrichment.
Of course, our social reproduction and the fulfillment of our needs do have a material dimension. But this material dimension a) does not necessarily have to be governed exclusively by money – see for example the debate and practice around commons and commonism – and b) is not the only dimension there is to poverty and wealth. Notions of abundance, value, and wealth related to quality of relationships, self-determination, self-reliance, the ability to redistribute, the experience of finding meaning in life, and the effective power to act are systematically made invisible by the poverty indicators which dominate the development discourse: quality of life is reduced to money, consumption and, at best, access to public services.
In the last decade, the alternative paradigm of Buen Vivir(living well) – emerged from some Latin American countries as a counter-narrative to capitalist wellbeing. It considers humans as part of Nature, thus promotes harmonic relations with all other beings, and puts emphasis on communitarian construction from below in a territorial sense, leaving plenty of room for diversity. Other important principles are equilibrium, reciprocity and complementarity instead of accumulation, progress, growth and competition. Buen vivir, if it is developed from the bottom up and, above all, in democratic ways – will inevitably have different shapes in different contexts. This is why emancipatory debates in Latin America increasingly speak of los buenos vivires in plural.
Movements such as degrowth or the commons can connect with struggles around Buen Vivir, post-extractivism and post-development in the global South, opening up a perspective through which people in the geopolitical North and South can work together to overcome the hegemony of the imperial mode of living. These approaches also take on responsibility for challenging imperial day-to-day practices and can directly and simultaneously address the root causes of forced migration, often caused by compensatory mass-consumption elsewhere, and the roots of the global ecological crisis.
Considering social welfare globally
Finally, what about the alleged threat that migration poses to the welfare state? If we are consequently striving for social equity, we can only consider welfare or social security in a truly global manner. Although this might sound threatening at first, in my opinion nobody has a birth right to certain social benefits. Some of the feminist debates around care and commons are path-breaking here. If it is impossible to globally extend the social welfare state, as it has existed only in a small part of the world, and only for a few decades – on the basis of cheap energy and centuries of previous value transfer from the global South – then we need to replace the utopia of the social welfare state with alternative concepts. The commoning of care might be a possible pathway, while at the same time reducing the hours dedicated to paid labor – without abstaining from the state altogether, which would still need to provide the ideal conditions for this kind of commoning.
If it is impossible to globally extend the social welfare state then we need to replace the utopia of the social welfare state with alternative concepts.
Consequently, anti-racist movements and critical migration research cannot be content with fighting the European border regime by advocating open borders.. As an offensive strategy against racist prosperity-chauvinism, their critiques should just as much focus on the imperial mode of living and the associated uneven North-South relationships, as well as hegemonic perceptions of a good life. An up-to-date perspective on inter-peoples-relations should clearly tackle the root causes of forced migration by effectively reducing the energy and matter consumed in the global North, and, at the same time, develop new approaches for a global social welfare that do not consider welfare as a privilege related to one’s dwelling place or birth right.
A version of this article first appeared on Degrowth.de.
Miriam Lang is professor for Social and Global Studies at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, Ecuador. She studied Latin American Studies at Free University of Berlin and holds a PhD in Sociology. In the 1990s she was active in the anti-racist movement in Berlin. She has lived in Latin America since 2003, and for the last 12 years in Ecuador.
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The Paris Agreement, drawn up at COP 21 in 2015, clearly connects climate action to human rights, and in particular to the rights of marginalized groups—Indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities, and women. As mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change have accelerated, so have the critiques of currently dominant approaches (e.g. technical and large-scale infrastructural initiatives) to reduce climate change risks which are often justified through global benefits but ultimately have negative consequences at the local level. These critiques are important, as they can help a global movement for climate action learn from mistakes made by mitigation and adaptation responses in the past. This article re-issues a global call for pro-poor mitigation and adaptation responses now and into the future.
Climate change mitigation is about preventing future climate change and exposure to associated negative impacts and includes measures like increasing carbon sinks, transition to alternative energy sources, and storage mechanisms for carbon emissions. Adaptation activities seek to protect communities from the severe climate change impacts that are already programmed into the climate system, and range from engineering and policy to ecosystem- and community-based approaches.
Poor and marginalized communities and individuals are often the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. And many research studies have found that such groups are made more rather than less vulnerable as a result of mitigation and adaptation responses.
Poor and marginalized communities and individuals are often the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. And many research studies have found that such groups are made more rather than less vulnerable as a result of mitigation and adaptation responses. These “insults and injuries of intervention,” as put by Marino and Ribot, have to be understood and avoided for anyone who takes seriously the struggle for both an equitable and sustainable future. As such, the potential negative impacts of climate change mitigation and adaptation should be a crucial piece in any study of the linked climate-society system. This article highlights some of the key academic literature on the distribution of benefits and disadvantages of mitigation and adaptation efforts. We consider the ways in which this distribution of benefits and disadvantages is inequitable and damaging for marginalized communities, even though it also differs from business-as-usual development, and conclude with some recommendations on how to redress this imbalance.
Top-down actions justified by a global good
Mitigation projects driven by global and national-level priorities and donor agencies can have far-reaching negative implications at the local level. The global poor are often displaced by projects that seek to deliver alternative energy sources (de Sherbinin et al), particularly by wind turbine parks and agricultural production for bio-fuels. In both privileged and marginalized nation-states, the geographically and politically marginalized within the country are disproportionately exposed to the risks of radioactive waste from nuclear power generation (Shrader-Frechette), promoted as a form of clean energy by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Similar issues may arise with the proliferation of the much-disputed technology of carbon capture and storage, as geologically-stable sites are identified for storage of emissions, and better resourced local populations are more equipped (politically and financially) to resist projects based on perceived or actual risks (IPCC).
Technical and large-scale infrastructural initiatives which do not consider the perspectives and needs of local people continue to dominate the adaptation landscape around the world.
Adaptation, in contrast to mitigation, is not implemented at the local level for a ‘global good’ but for the assumed benefit of local socioenvironmental systems’ adaptation to climate change. Still, technical and large-scale infrastructural initiatives which do not consider the perspectives and needs of local people continue to dominate the adaptation landscape around the world (e.g. coastal protection, desalination plants, dam construction; see Kates et al). These engineering interventions are targeted at particular climate change impacts, most notably sea level rise. Many of these “hard” adaptation initiatives have come under increasing attack for not only their mixed success but also, as researchers Barnett and O’Neill argue in their article “Maladaptation”, for hampering rather than strengthening local capacity for adaptation. Often, the most vulnerable bear the brunt of these actions—by being displaced to make way for large-scale “protective” infrastructure (such as dams) or through diminishing livelihood resources as a consequence of large constructions (such as sea walls that change local environments).
In addition to technical and large-scale infrastructural adaptation, migration is increasingly drawn upon as an adaption option, and such initiatives often suffer from the same top-down approach as other adaptation strategies. For example, the previous Government in the Maldives used climate change as a way of justifying the unpopular government objective of consolidating the population from 200 dispersed islands to 15 to 20 population centres (Kothari). Funded by the UK Government, the recent Foresight project, which examined these issues globally, highlighted the potential for migration to be a positive adaptation solution and an “extremely effective way to build long-term resilience.” However, this position is problematic when one considers rights to land and place-based culture for those expected to leave their customary homelands, as McNamara and Gibson show in a study of how Pacific Island ambassadors to the United Nations resisted any notions of “climate refugees” or mass exodus from their homelands. The communities, and even entire countries, that are considered for this “positive ‘transformational’ adaptation to environmental change,” in the words of the Foresight project, are almost invariably the poorest communities on the planet. As Farbotko and Lazrus have shown, based on years of research in Tuvalu, the effect of such a position is to silence those affected who do not wish to relocate.
Reinforcing damaging power dynamics at the local scale
Partly as a reaction to the failure of some of these large infrastructural adaptation interventions, adaptation researchers and local communities in the Global South have proposed community-based adaptation projects for protecting wellbeing and livelihoods (Schipper et al). Such projects are often supported financially by affluent nations which indicates that institutions in the Global North also recognize marginalized communities as sites of knowledge and resilience. Community-based adaptation is an established academic field and recent publications have focused on “scaling-up” the lessons learned from such practices (Schipper et al). But attempts to scale up can be problematic: for example, centrally planned adaptation can be insensitive to the dynamics of specific communities (despite their direct focus on community) and lack critical analysis of the long-term success of such interventions (Buggy & McNamara).
Similar issues arise in mitigation projects for the Clean Development Mechanisms such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, conserving and enhancing forest carbon stocks, and sustainably managing forests). Research has shown that such projects are often driven by outside interests, not local users, and tend to lead to increased centralization of land entitlements (Beymer-Farris & Bassett). In Uganda, large REDD-funded projects from government-backed Norwegian companies exclude local communities and other actors from forestry resources that are necessary for local and national livelihoods (Lyons & Westoby). Marginalized populations with already precarious livelihoods are being further marginalized in order to offset the emissions of richer, heavily-polluting countries. Other research has shown that community-based adaptation projects often ignore unequal access to livelihood resources and land tenure, particularly in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America (Cannon), inequitable participation in decision-making processes (McDermott et al), and political disenfranchizement and elite capture (Dutta). As such, these projects often favour local elites, create community rifts, and deepen social differentiation and exclusion (Ensor & Berger).
Therefore, many attempts to emphasize communities as the scale for adaptation projects are flawed from the outset. Adaptation projects need to criticize and act to reverse the social dynamics, governance structures, and power relations that impact on and often cause vulnerability.
Blindness to the root causes of vulnerability
Adaptation responses are threatening rather than protecting marginalized people.
Responses to climate change driven by actors in the Global North, according to Pelling in his book Adaptation to climate change: from resilience to transformation, too often focus on “symptoms of vulnerability and risk”, rather than causes. Through adopting a simplified view of the complex causes of climate change, such actors can favour responses that reinforce the socio-political structures that have caused the conditions of vulnerability and risk in the first place (O’Brien & Leichenko). Pelling, again in his book, makes a poignant point: Privileged parts of global society thus shape responses to climate change into “limited to efforts that promote action to survive better with, rather than seek change to, the social and political structures that shape life chances”. In doing so, adaptation researchers and other actors are normalizing conditions of poverty and inequitable power relations (Ribot). This means that adaptation responses are threatening rather than protecting marginalized people.
Climate change responses at all scales are playing into and reinforcing ideas of the ‘Other’ (Said), conceptualizing certain groups of people as more deserving of suffering. Western nations with generally high adaptive capacity tend to take for granted that certain populations are vulnerable and exposed, rather than acknowledge that conditions of vulnerability are produced by uneven global systems of development, trade, and consumption (Ribot). There is even a tendency for Western governments to use the supposed resilience of local communities to justify unequal sociopolitical relations and shirk from their responsibility for climate change and poor communities’ vulnerability to its impacts.
Academic research on climate change mitigation and adaptation suggests various approaches to influencing policy, NGOs, development corporations, and climate finance institutions to responses to climate change that overcome, rather than deepen, current inequalities. However, as we have highlighted here, climate change responses at various scales have only deepened inequalities. We therefore want to propose a series of steps to address these issues.
No adaptation or mitigation response is neutral.
First, no adaptation or mitigation response is neutral, and this needs to be recognized at all scales and by all people working on mitigation and/or adaptation issues. Instead, such responses are highly politicized and involve trade-offs (mostly to the detriment of the most marginalized in society), which is recognized in the statement in the Preamble of the Paris Agreement. Researchers and practitioners need to find ways of improving the equity in conditions between and within countries. This will mean fewer top-down, technocratic approaches and more attention paid to the political processes justifying or enabling any intervention.
Second, researchers and practitioners must work to critically understand, respond to, and engage community-level social and power dynamics when designing and implementing adaptation projects. The impacts of climate change and responses to them, will lead to a redistribution of access to rights, land and resources, and thus there is a continued need to actively fight for an equitable redistribution of entitlements, not their further concentration in the hands of the already powerful.
Third, to achieve these above objectives, researchers, activists, and practitioners need to continue to make clear that the majority of climate change adaptation and mitigation responses are working to protect the consumption patterns of high-emitting, industrialized countries. What is required instead is a significant shift towards rights and responsibilities for action.
Mitigation and adaptation interventions present crucial opportunities for doing things better.
Until the aspirations and well-being of the poor and marginalized are placed centre stage in pro-poor mitigation and adaptation, the deeply-entrenched colonial legacies and inequitable hierarchical systems will mean that the most marginalized continue to suffer from both climate change and its “solutions.” Mitigation and adaptation interventions present crucial opportunities for doing things better, and as such can be used to radically alter the current distribution of power and access to livelihood resources. To do anything else is scratching the surface at best, and at worst endorsing and deepening pre-existing inequalities.
Karen E McNamara is a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland, Australia. As a human geographer, Karen examines how environmental change impacts people’s livelihoods throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Her research focuses on climate change adaptation, human mobility, and Indigenous knowledge.
Helen Adams is a lecturer at Kings College London, UK. Helen is an environmental social scientist working on the subjective dimensions of human interactions with environmental change, with a focus on marginal regions of low income countries. Helen is a Contributing Author on the Human Security chapter in the IPCC‘s Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group 2.
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We’ll try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
February is the shortest month, but holy crap we do have a lot of cool links for you. This month, we cover some new research about the limits of the good life, the impact of companies like AirBnB and Amazon on our cities, the changing Latin American politics, and the importance of Indigenous ways of seeing the world. The work of Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson has also triggered a new series of discussions on the importance of science and its links to colonialism and racism. In the sci-fi department, we’ve got a whole new slew of fiction for you, analysis from writers like China Miéville and Kim Stanley Robinson, and a feature on black science-fiction writers.
Uneven Earth updates
La Barceloneta’s Struggle Against (Environmental) Gentrification | Link
“A city-wide urban struggle that evolved in defense of the needs and rights of residents over capital and profit.”
The Transition: towards a psycho-social history | Link
“The facts revealed in the historical record are clear: most people were terrified of their neighbours.”
“After the Division, Avon split from Greater Thames and declared a matriarchy”
You might’ve missed…
Turns out that carbon capture is a pipe dream. Not many know that the fine print of the Paris Treaty relied on a dirty little secret: the advent of carbon capture technology. But it turns out that this is a pipe dream. The unavoidable fact is, we just have to make less stuff, burn less oil, and grow more trees. Read the stories from Wired, The Guardian, and the original report from EASAC.
You may have heard of Route 66, “the main street of America”, but Highway BR-163 in Brazil may be just as epic. This beautiful photo essay about this single highway tells the story of the complex political ecology of rainforest deforestation.
The Samarco dam collapse in 2015 was Brazil’s worst environmental disaster. What’s happened since, and who’s to blame? This investigative piece gives us the update.
Is it possible for everyone to live well? This study mapped indicators of well-being along with every country’s environmental impact. Turns out most don’t make the cut, and Vietnam comes closest to balancing the good life and environmental impacts. Though these numbers just tell part of the story, the study has had international impact, starting a much-needed discussion on what it means to live well today.
It’s behind the scenes, as always, but new rounds of trade negotiations are happening and they will affect the world for generations to come. Here’s an article dishing it out about the CEPA trade deal (EU-Indonesia), a perspective from Kenya by Justus Lavi Mwololo, a representative of small farmers, and an explainer about how the new NAFTA negotiations affect Mexican workers.
We’re over one month into Turkey’s invasion of the Kurdish canton Afrin in Syria, and since then, there’s been an international outcry. This piece in Jacobin lays out the stakes behind the attack, here’s an op-ed by the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy in the Wall Street Journal, another opinion piece by Rahila Gupta on CNN’s website, and a piece by David Graeber asking why world leaders are backing Turkey’s invasion. And here’s a piece on the ecological initiatives happening right now in Rojava.
Here’s a letter from Evin Jiyan Kisanak, the daughter of Gultan Kisanak, telling the story of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey and their oppression: “My mom, who still has traces on her body from the torture she suffered, always sees light in the face of profound despair. Today she is in prison again, but her belief in peace and equality is unrelenting. Her will is unyielding.”
In the face of our climate crisis, a group of five activists known asthe Valve Turners decided not to wait for the law to catch up and took matters into their own hands. This is a story on their direct action.
A striking piece in New York Magazine linking loneliness and the opioid epidemic: “This nation pioneered modern life. Now epic numbers of Americans are killing themselves with opioids to escape it.”
Another photo essay, this time an intricate story about industrial farming in California, the migrant workers who toil the fields and processing plants, and how it intersects with climate change.
Introducing vTaiwan: Citizens are pioneering new public participation methods through online civic involvement. They’ve become so successful that the government has been forced to listen.
What happened in Catalonia? This article explores how the roots of the independence movement was in based in the fight for neighborhood, not nationhood—and this is what most outside observers don’t seem to get.
Socialist organizing was never just about striking in the workplace. This article explores the vibrant dance halls, social clubs, Sunday schools, and film screenings of socialist movements, and why they declined starting in the 1950s. Today, as young people are once again becoming interested in socialism, they can stand to learn a lot from the block-by-block initiatives of the past.
Environmentalists are often caricatured as hippy-dippy young people, removed from common people’s interests. In this beautiful photo essay, we’re guided through the diversity of people resisting fracking in one village in North England.
Indigenous activism is seeing a resurgence, and, finally, growing interest amongst non-Indigenous and settler communities. What can the white left learn from Indigenous movements, and how can it build better alliances? This article explores what decolonization would mean in today’s context.
What’s wrong with the financial system? If you ask a banker or a politician, their ignorance of how money works, and how debt powers the whole system, will become immediately apparent. The organization Positive Money has been putting a lot of work into battling misconceptions and putting forward alternatives. They recently came out with a report on how we can escape the growth dependency that our money system forces us into. Here’s a summary of the report in The Independent.
The local initiatives happening around the world can be a bit overwhelming. How can we think of them all together, understand them as part of one big movement? In this report, titled Libertarian Municipalism, Networked Cities as Resilient Platforms for Post-Capitalist Transition, Kevin Carson highlights the diverse movements in cities globally and the theories that can help us understand them.
Have you heard of Cooperation Jackson? It’s a worker-owned cooperative in Jackson, Mississippi, but so much more. Through their efforts, they’ve successfully kick-started a movement led by black folks that eventually took over city hall. This video explains what’s going on and why it’s so important.
The new housing rights movements in the US have the real estate industry running scared. The Nation reports.
Have you heard of the Preston model? It’s helping to start a new conversation about the role of local government in locally-driven economic revitalization and transforming ownership towards democratic alternatives.
A new series was launched in the Guardian, ‘The alternatives’, in which Aditya Chakrabortty looks at ways to make the economy work for everyone.
Jason Hickel on why, by removing the walls that separate the causes and consequences of climate change, we can encourage constructive action.
“This is real politics. It’s personal. It’s a lived experience that you are a part of and implicated in, whether you had asked to be or not.” The staff strikes at Cambridge inspired Alice Hawkins to reflect on political engagement.
Where we’re at: analysis
Different perspectives on human history, the Anthropocene, and climate change
David Graeber and David Wengrow rethink world history as we know it: contrary to the popular narrative which conflates the origin of social inequality with the agricultural revolution, egalitarian cities and regional confederacies are historically quite commonplace, and inequalities first emerged within families and households (it’s worth mentioning that feminist scholars and other marginal voices have worked on stories of micro-scale inequalities for a long time). In an interview from 2016, Nancy Fraser discusses how the work involved in social reproduction is severely undervalued and taken for granted as ‘gifts’ in capitalist societies. This article highlights the need for thought on the Anthropocene to include African perspectives and scholarship, and a recent World Bank report provides new evidence of the massive ongoing extraction of the continent’s wealth by the rest of the word.
The fact that young people are opting out of having children because of climate change is an urgent call for action, and so is the alarming research on how it is worsening public health problems. During these times of crisis we’re facing, art can help us process what’s going on, intellectually and emotionally.
An analysis of Latin American politics.Against the backdrop of state and gang violence, some of Latin America’s most affected communities have taken radical measures to defend themselves and build new social counter-powers from below. Arturo Escobar discusses post-development and the fight for justice and pluralism in Latin America. “As inequality and environmental degradation worsen, the search is on not only for alternative development models but also for alternatives to development itself.” Elsewhere, Pablo Solón discusses the cosmovisions emerging from Latin America’s Indigenous movements, and Miriam Lang and Edgardo Lander talk about the slow demise of Latin America’s “pink tide”.
Just think about it…
“This exploitation by powerful men of women and girls in the most abject of circumstances has been misleadingly framed broadly in terms of “sex work” and “sex parties” in dominant narratives in the Western press.” Some good points and context on the Oxfam scandal and its aftermath.
The logic of consumerism has come to infect what we mean by gentrification. “The poor are still gentrification’s victims, but in this new meaning, the harm is not rent increases and displacement — it’s something psychic, a theft of pride.” When ‘Gentrification’ isn’t about housing.
Technology and the new economy
The capitalist work ethic and the fear of leisure
The conversation about how human work is impacted by new forms of industrial technology continues. Here is a podcast from the Guardianwhich introduces different ideas about alternatives to work as we know it.
As Silicon Valley entrepreneurs turn “the end of work” and basic income into their new hobbyhorses, one article instead suggests a new public sector to guarantee both jobs and leisure time. Another article says “the end of work” is a sham—since new technologies in industrial production are driven by controlling labour and not liberating it. Others focus on a critique of work: on the capitalist work ethic which makes people too busy to think and (conveniently for capital) to be engaged in politics; on working less as a solution to everything and the long history of elites fearing the leisure time of the poor; and on how Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers can help industrial societies rethink work.
For a historical perspective on the discussion and on different ways of looking at new technologies, Thomas Pynchon’s 1984 essay on Luddism is a must-read.
Is energy efficiency a good thing? Not especially. This feature in The Tyee takes us through some of the thinkers and researchers like Jacques Ellul, Stanley Jevons, and Elizabeth Shove on the problems with efficiency in an economy that just keeps growing.
What are “Western values”, really? Peter Harrison argues that the potential of a Western tradition lies “in the preservation of a rich and varied past that can continue to serve as on ongoing challenge to the priorities and “values” of the present.”
Part of the Zapatistas’ project of resisting indigenous genocide, capitalism, and political repression is their struggle to decolonize knowledge. This is an article on the discussions between Zapatistas and leading left-wing scientists during the second iteration of the ConCiencias conference in December 2017.
Indigenous knowledge is finally being recognized as a valuable source of information by Western archaeologists, ecologists, biologists, climatologists and others.
Even so, the relationship between traditional ecological knowledge and Western science remains problematic.
Massimo Pigliucci tackles scientism: “when scientistic thinkers pretend that any human activity that has to do with reasoning about facts is “science” they are attempting a bold move of naked cultural colonization, defining everything else either out of existence or into irrelevance.”
“Current environmental policy textbooks are all stuck in a liberal narrative of environmental progress through political consent.” Melanie DuPuis elaborates on the concepts that are missing from this narrative.
Race science—that we can prove the superiority of one race over another through science—is rearing its ugly head again, with Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker playing some unwelcome roles. But as Gavin Evans shows in this Guardian article, it’s still as bogus as ever.
“The utopia of togetherness is a lie. Environmental justice means acknowledging that there is no whole earth, no ‘we’, without a ‘them’. That we are not all in this together… There is hope. But for it to be real, and barbed, and tempered into a weapon, we cannot just default to it. We have to test it, subject it to the strain of appropriate near-despair. We need utopia, but to try to think utopia, in this world, without rage, without fury, is an indulgence we can’t afford.”
Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation has been turned into eco-thriller movie, and people are pretty stoked. For Laura Perry, it “offers a roadmap to understanding and living with aliens and other unsettling forms of life”. And there’s a feature in Macleans on Jeff VanderMeer and his “new weird”.
The future is now? Five science fiction writers speculate on what science fiction can do when the present seems more and more like a science fiction story. On the genre as social critique, an ethics of science, and a place to consider questions of meaning and value.
An interview with climate fiction and utopian science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson on the roles of science, fiction, and science fiction today, the limits of tech-only solutions to environmental problems, and sci-fi as the realism of our time.
In The progress of this storm, Andreas Malm both criticizes the increasingly popular environmentalist idea of the “death of nature” and imagines political change through an ecologically class-conscious popular movement. This interview covers the latter point and this review covers both.
A review of Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism by Melinda Cooper at Jacobin.
“Most resistance does not speak its name”: James C. Scott, author of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, talks about his work.
“How will we have enough resources to support those people sustainably and equitably? Should we develop new technologies to respond to those challenges? Or should we focus instead on trying to limit growth and develop more of a harmony with the nature around us?” Charles C. Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet is a testimonial to the art of the possible.
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Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We’ll try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
Uneven Earth updates
We’ve launched our series on sci-fi, near-futures, utopias, and dystopias, Not afraid of the ruins. The first three stories are now online! Expect a new piece every Friday.
Borne on a damaged planet | Link | Two books that do the hard work of thinking through the Anthropocene
Turkey, commanding the second-largest NATO army, has attacked the predominantly Kurdish region in Syria building a feminist & democratic governance system. The region under attack, Afrin, has gone the furthest in institutionalizing women’s liberation. You can follow any updates or find local protests via #DefendAfrin.
This is important. The International Organisation’s dealings often don’t get much scrutiny, but their reports can make or break a country. An informative Twitter thread here.
A victory for the movement against airports?
The Zone à défendre (ZAD) achieved a victory this month: France announced that it would no longer build the airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. But for ZADistas, it is a half-victory: “While we are trying to prevent the construction of an airport, more than 400 others are being planned or built around the world.”
Where we’re at: analysis
Happy new year! Essays on loneliness, happiness, and an accelerating world
Smart cities, green urbanism, livable cities. The catchy terms keep proliferating, but does it come with better policies? Maria Kaika, foremost theorist on cities, opens up a bag of worms in this interview.
“often current events are analyzed in a vacuum that almost never includes the context or history necessary to understand what is new, what is old and how we got to where we are.”
Two years of radical municipalism in Barcelona
A documentary about what happened in Barcelona and why it matters, including resources for discussing the video with your local group. An inspiring interview on the new politics in Spain, and how people have used the internet in creative ways. Eight lessons from the last two years of radical municipalism. A report on the first Fearless Cities conference last year held in Barcelona, and another report on the Catalan Integral Cooperative, which is experimenting with a new economic system in the shell of the old.
Editorial from the seventh issue of ROAR magazine, which examines the social and political nature of climate change. The issue also features an explainer on the relevance of Murray Bookchin’s work for today’s climate crisis.
“If we can resist the age-old impulse to define binary oppositions between ways of knowing—scientific versus humanistic, expert versus popular—we will be in a better position to join forces across those divides towards understanding and action”, argues Deborah Cohen.
“Haiti, not the US or France, was where the assertion of human rights reached its defining climax in the Age of Revolution.” In light of President Trump’s recent ‘shithole’ comments, this article from 2016 on Haiti’s revolutionary history is worth revisiting.
Aaron kicks off a new series of articles on the ENTITLE blog which questions the foundations of ‘eco-modernist socialism’ and ‘communist futurism’ as proposed in Jacobin’s climate change issue Earth, Wind, and Fire.
With increasing natural disasters and the retreat of the state, more and more people are getting involved with grassroots disaster response movements. Movement Generation has put out a document with a guiding framework for how to do people-based recovery. PDF here.
“It is with a certain feeling of urgency that I seek the nature, subject, words of the other story, the untold one, the life story.” Ursula K. Le Guin has died, and there are so many more worlds to explore. We’ll build them with her in our hearts. This is one of our favorite pieces by her, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”
“Entire landscapes, replete with designer insects and subscription seed stock, will have the potential to be recognised as protected intellectual property. The proprietary ecosystem will emerge, financially and biologically controlled by a particular hotel chain, property developer or private homeowner.”
Kitara is a Tuvaluan climate change activist and Carol Farbotko an Australian social scientist. They met in Tuvalu in 2005 and have collaborated on several writing projects to raise awareness about Tuvalu and climate change.
I am a Tuvaluan. I work in a gas factory and I am a climate change activist. I am not a climate refugee. I am a migrant in Australia. I want to share my story because it is a personal story about climate change.
In Tuvalu, fishing and growing food are very important. My family grew coconuts, taro, pulaka, pawpaw, breadfruit and bananas. I started to notice a lot of changes in the sea and land. Scientists seemed to be talking about the changes I was noticing in my islands. I knew that climate change was real. I learned that fossil fuels were causing the damage.
I was born on the island of Nui in Tuvalu, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, as were my parents and their parents. Nui is my fenua, my island and my people. On my island, land is communal – owned by families, not individuals. Those members of my family who still live on Nui look after our land. They make sure that crops are planted, although this is becoming more difficult with saltwater inundation and erosion. But on Nui, life is beautiful. Most people don’t have jobs, but they don’t really need much cash. Fish and coconuts are still plentiful, and with some taro, pawpaw and banana growing, and pigs. There is usually enough to eat.
When I was a teenager I was lucky to get a scholarship to go to boarding school in Australia. That was when I discovered that I liked Australian life. I also realised I liked travelling and learning about different people and different places. I went back to Tuvalu when I finished school. I trained and worked as a high school English and Geography teacher. Then I started working in community development. I helped Tuvaluan communities to do projects to protect the environment and improve their livelihoods. We planted mangroves and implemented pig farming and crop-growing techniques that were better suited to the changing climate.
There were other changes too. Droughts were worse than they used to be. The weather was changing. Houses were being flooded during king tides. Fish were no longer in the shallower waters when I went out fishing to feed my family. We had to go further out, into deeper cooler waters, which was more dangerous. Our marine conservation areas were being used properly, but it was hard to look after fish stocks when the water temperature was rising.
I knew I had to try and do something about climate change. The scientists were warning that one day, all the islands in Tuvalu would be so badly affected by sea level rise that nobody would be able to live there. All of our nine islands in Tuvalu, including Nui, are very very small. You could walk all around the biggest one in a single day. Some of the islands are actually comprised of several tiny islets. These islets are very skinny. You can walk from one side to the other in less than five minutes. If the sea levels rise, there really is nowhere to go.
So I signed up to represent Tuvalu’s civil society at the international climate change negotiations. I wanted the voice of the communities I worked with to be heard. I travelled to China, Germany and Denmark to attend COPs where I met activists from all over the world. I learned about the international Climate Action Network and helped to set up TuCAN. I worked with Tuvaluan government representatives to try and get the international community to listen. We needed serious global reductions in fossil fuel use. At the Copenhagen COP in 2009 I was one of the few civil society representatives to still have access to the negotiations when everyone else was banned. Protests against the lack of agreement were too much of a ‘security risk’ according to the organisers. But since everyone in Tuvalu works together, I was able to join the Tuvalu government delegation. We all worked such long hours, and so hard, but Copenhagen was a failure. Nothing real was achieved. I went home devastated.
It was around this time that I fell in love with an Australian and we got engaged. I migrated to Brisbane six years ago when we got married. My wife and I both love Tuvalu, but it would have been hard for her to find work there. We wanted our children to be dual citizens and attend school in Australia.
When we first got married, my wife worked full time. I could not work because I had entered Australia on a tourist visa, waiting for my permanent residency visa application to be processed. When my PR finally came through, it was time for me bring my mum and daughter from a previous marriage to Australia. They had been waiting in Tuvalu for their PR too, because they were my dependents. I made the choice that we would all migrate, even though a part of me wants to be on my island, Nui. After a lot of worrying about how strange Australia would be for my mum and daughter, I decided that they would, on balance, be safer in Australia than in Tuvalu. Climate change is real, and it will become harder for children and the elderly to be safe.
One month after my mum and daughter arrived, my wife and I welcomed our first baby together. After getting pregnant, my wife had applied for and was accepted into a permanent job, after many years of casual and contract work. But she had not been in her new job long enough for entitlement to maternity leave. So our only income was about to dry up for several months, and there was my mum, daughter and new baby to look after. I had to find a job fast. My teaching diploma was not recognised in Australia, and community development work is hard to find, and I didn’t have a university qualification anyway, which didn’t help.
A Tuvaluan friend who had lived in Brisbane for a while had a job at a local gas depot. He told me they were looking for workers. I applied and got a casual position straight away. There were a few Tuvaluans there and we all were known for working hard. I have now worked at this job for five years. I was one of only nine out of 28 plant workers to be granted the opportunity to change from a casual to a permanent position. I also was one of a few to survive a merger with another gas company. In 2017, I was a finalist for the national employee of the year, the only plant worker in the history of the company to be nominated. I am working on risk assessments and am now a trainer. However, I have never been promoted and my wage is almost the minimum that any adult worker in Australia is legally allowed to earn. It is physically hard work and I am often exhausted and sometimes sick with the effort I put in, especially when we do overtime starting at 4 in the morning.
My wife and I welcomed another baby. Between work and kids and going to church, I do not have much time or energy left for climate activism these days. I don’t even have much time to look for a different job so that I don’t have to work in the fossil fuel industry. I would love to do work in the social or environmental sector, working for what I believe is good and right. Sometimes I send off job applications where I think I might have a chance, but so far, I have not been able to find work elsewhere. I still hope to do further study and work in a very different industry one day. But for now, our daily worry is the struggle to meet the costs of daycare and healthy food for a growing family – things I never had to worry about in Tuvalu. I have to keep going to work at the gas factory. I have hopes that maybe I can do some change for good within the system. For example, I support my co-workers who are not well educated or are migrants like me, who do not necessarily know all their rights as workers. I educate myself and others on our contracts and industrial agreements.
I will always be a proud Tuvaluan, no matter where I live. I am not a climate refugee. I chose to move, I was not forced out of my country by climate change. But I know that one day life might be almost unbearable on my island because of climate change. I also know that no Tuvaluan wants to be a climate refugee. Refugees do not seem to have their human rights respected, even though they are among those who most need the protection that human rights should be able to offer. No Tuvaluan wishes to be treated poorly. We would rather make our own choices. In fact, for many people in Tuvalu, there is a strong wish to stay on the islands no matter what climate change brings. Many would rather stay and die, than to migrate to another country or to be forced to go as a refugee.
I want my daughter and sons to grow up knowing their Tuvaluan identity, and sharing in the rich multicultural life of Australia. I hope that when my daughter is a young adult, in maybe ten years’ time, she will return to Tuvalu to spend time with family there. Then she can decide for herself if she would like to stay for a while, maybe to work among Tuvaluan communities or teach as I used to do. Sadly, my mum will never go back now, as she passed away and was buried in Australia.
My life in Australia has many blessings, but it is not easy. It is hard to meet the daily challenges. I struggle financially, I miss Tuvalu, I work hard, I am tired, I love my family. I am not powerless in the fight against climate change, but I have to pay the bills too and look after my kids in the home I have chosen for them. One day, maybe when the little ones are a bit older, I can be a climate change campaigner again.
Taukiei Kitara worked for over 10 years helping communities in Tuvalu, a Polynesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean, to develop projects for sustainable livelihoods. He was a founding member of Tuvalu Climate Action Network and represented Tuvalu civil society at several meetings of the international climate change negotiations. In 2011 he migrated to Australia, where he now works as a trainer, assessor and cylinder tester and filler in a gas depot.
Carol Farbotko is a cultural geographer who has conducted research on the cultural politics of climate change, arguing for increased recognition of and dialogue about indigenous perspectives on climate change in the Pacific.
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Six months ago, a routine public hearing was scheduled in a nondescript gray government building in downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“Normally these hearings go over really quietly,” said Scott Eustis, the Wetlands Specialist for Gulf Restoration Network (GRN). “Usually it’s me, my associates, and like ten people.” Instead, over 400 people showed up to the Baton Rouge hearing, and stayed for nearly six hours.
The debate centered on the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, a proposed route that would run 163 miles from Lake Charles to St. James, forming the “tail” of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and effectively connecting oil fracked in North Dakota to Louisiana refineries. If built, Bayou Bridge would cross 11 parishes, 600 acres of wetlands, 700 bodies of water, and the state-designated Coastal Zone Boundary.
Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) is behind both the Bayou Bridge project and the more infamous DAPL, but the parallels run deeper than a mutual stakeholder. Just like in DAPL, those who resist the project are drawing connections between past wrongdoings, conditions today, and a future climate. Residents cite safety concerns, environmental racism, pollution, and threats to the region’s wetlands and seafood industries as reasons to oppose its construction. “It’s not one thing it’s everything. It’s the water, it’s the land, it’s the crawfish, it’s the people’s air in St. James, it’s the climate, it’s people’s houses flooding – it really is – it’s corruption, it’s Trump,” said Eustis.
By now the fight against Bayou Bridge is a familiar one: multinational conglomerate vs. the local little guys. The David vs. Goliath metaphor is obvious. But, Bayou Bridge is playing out in 2017, a time when Goliath has never seemed so large and so ruthless, and when the horrors and lessons in Standing Rock are still fresh.
“What we saw in Baton Rouge and Napoleonville at the hearings was hundreds and hundreds of people who had been inspired by people who had been kicked for eons, standing up to protect their water. You know what we can do that too, goddammit,” said Eustis.
That inspiration stands against the narrative of Standing Rock’s defeat. The camps suffered from a coordinated move to push the Dakota Access Pipeline’s approval through, and were forcibly evicted in February. Taylor Neck, a New Orleans activist who lived at Standing Rock through the winter who requested that her name be changed, said, “When I got home and so many people were like ‘Oh are you okay, I know it was such a loss,’ and ‘I’m sorry you guys lost’ and were saying things like that, it was kind of shocking to me at first because from my view and from the people that I was with, like my camp was all Lakota, it was such a win.”
In the DAPL’s migration south, the Great Plains of North Dakota have been substituted by hundreds of square miles of bayous and rivers and basins, one of the more romanticized segments of the Mississippi River, and finally the Gulf of Mexico. Water composes the very contents of Louisiana’s marshy soil and—with the threat of rising sea levels and natural disasters—is arguably the number one threat to its survival.
The spirit of an Indigenous-led environmental resistance has now come to a region wholly unique in culture and landscape. Cherri Foytlin, an Indigenous activist and the co-director of Bold Louisiana, called to the area’s strengths in a rally before the Baton Rouge hearing, “I’m sorry, Energy Transfer, if you don’t get it…but if you thought you saw some stuff up in North Dakota, you just get to the bayous,” she said, “our campers walk on water.”
Oil’s grip on the land
The Gulf South has a long and inextricable relationship with the oil industry. When including offshore drilling, Louisiana is second only to Texas in its production of crude oil, and its 18 refineries account for roughly 20% of the country’s refining capacity. Pipelines aren’t new to Louisiana. Approximately 50,000 miles already cover the state and maintain the industry’s century-long stronghold. For supporters of the pipeline, the attitude is often “Well, what’s one more?”
Set to deliver 280,000 barrels of heavy and light crude oil every day, Bayou Bridge is promoted as a way to bring jobs to the region at a time when the state’s budget is running close to a $943 million deficit and is, according to the Times-Picayune, “a hot mess.” The website for Bayou Bridge reads “Good for Louisiana” and promises 2,500 new jobs. A report prepared on behalf of ETP (by Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies) estimated the economic benefit to be $829 million. Yet in their permit application, the company promised just 12 permanent jobs, with most positions being temporary and tied to the physical construction of the pipeline.
Mark Koziorowski works offshore on a boat that runs supplies back and forth to the oil rigs in the Gulf, spending about a month at sea at a time. He grew up in California but came to Louisiana when his uncle promised him a lucrative career. But he noted that the oil industry has suffered in recent years due to cheap oil prices and increased regulations. “A lot of the older people, like the captains that are in their 50s and 60s, they’re getting really hurt by that because they’ve never had any other jobs, they don’t really have another skill set.”
While Koziorowski doesn’t plan on staying in the field long-term, that isn’t an option for everyone. “Being young and having the open air to be able to change careers gives me that power but if you’ve been stuck at one job it’s kind of hard to uproot,” he said. Of younger workers, “there’s definitely a few that are looking into other options but there’s also a diehard group of young people my age that are like ‘I’ll stick it out until it picks back up.’” Most people in the industry expect, and plan according to, boom-and-bust cycles.
Megan Falgout’s family is from Dulac, a small shrimping and fishing town in southern Louisiana. Though it sits off the proposed pipeline route, Dulac illustrates the cross-section of Louisiana industries, and the threats that climate poses to vulnerable communities. She described a childhood in which she wore shrimping boots to walk from the house to the car, “Dulac Reeboks,” she called them, “any bayou town they do that.”
“There was a shrimp factory and a Texaco factory and literally everybody down there made a living off of shrimping and fishing, all the families, that’s how they survived,” she said. Falgout lived on Shrimpers Row until she was 8, when Hurricane Andrew destroyed most of her town and her family moved to Houma.
Her father worked in the oil industry since he was a teenager, first doing pipeline construction and then working his way up to management until his job was moved to Texas and he was laid off. Despite her family ties, Falgout is against Bayou Bridge. “I just think that we’ve exhausted that energy source and we just keep getting greedier and greedier,” she said. Her father, on the other hand, is “for anything that will promote the oil industry in any kind of way, because of the job market down there,” she continued, “It’s crazy because it’s an area that’s affected but yet they’re so dependent on it.” Working in oil may come with its risks, but is one of the few opportunities to support a family on a high school diploma, and the high pay makes even temporary jobs welcome.
Supporters frame the debate as one of practicality, economic necessity, and, ironically, safety. Former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu testified at the January hearing on behalf of ETP, in a move that elicited jeers from the audience. “There’s millions and millions of gallons of crude oil and refined product moving through this country,” she said. “Now there are many people in this room that think we should outlaw it all right now and that might happen one day, but that is not today. So the question before us is how to move this product as carefully as possible.”
And yet safety is also the primary concern for opponents of the pipeline, who say the Gulf South has suffered at the hands of industry practices. The National Response Center tallied 144 pipeline accidents in Louisiana in 2016. Because spills in waterways are more difficult to contain than those on highways, groups such as GRN and Bold Louisiana warn that the pipeline will threaten wetlands, harm the region’s crawfishing industry, contribute to pollution and climate change, and place undue burden on communities that have been historically disenfranchised.
Standing Rock called attention to environmental racism, where minorities face disproportionate exposure to pollutants as a result of discriminatory planning policy. Similarly, Bayou Bridge’s proposed route runs through Bayou Lafourche, the drinking water supply for Houma Nation. It may also cut off the only evacuation route for St. James, a historically African-American community that is part of “Cancer Alley,” the 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River known for its numerous industrial plants and its numerous cancer patients. The town has already suffered 13 petrochemical accidents this year.
Rev. Harry Joseph, the pastor of St. James’ Mount Triumph Baptist Church, testified at the public hearing in Napoleonville. “St. James, I love it, but they have people in that place that are very sick from the plants that are already there. People are losing lives down there,” he said. “It’s a poor community, and the few rich people that they have down there, they’re gone already. They’re gone. The plants have bought them out…. But what’s going to happen to the poor people?”
Eustis notes that while for supporters of Bayou Bridge, this may be just another pipeline, the proposed projectis particularly serious. “You know I’ve seen a lot of pipelines because there are so many pipelines on the Gulf Coast, but this one is bad from a bad company with a large amount of impact, with a very diverse kind of impact on different communities in Louisiana affecting everyone in kind of a different way, at a time where we can’t really afford to lose more of our wetlands,” he said.
Oil pipelines act as small dams in the waterways, which disrupts the water flow, turns it stagnant, and kills off plants and wildlife. Jody Meche, a commercial crawfisherman, testified at the hearing in Baton Rouge on the impact Bayou Bridge would have on his industry. “There are hundreds of pipelines criss-crossing the Atchafalaya basin that have been put in in the past six or seven decades, and [they have] crippled our ability to make a living,” he said. “We’re to the point of having hypoxic stagnant areas where we have to make our traps so tall that the crawfish can come up out of the water to breathe because they will die in our traps.”
While wildlife and fishing industries are at risk due to the disappearance of wetlands, Louisiana faces the additional threat of natural disasters. During a hurricane wetlands absorb the impact of the storm; in heavy precipitation they act as a natural sponge. As climate change worsens and the surface temperature of the Gulf rises, water in the atmosphere increases and causes record precipitation. Last year Louisiana suffered devastating floods that resulted in 13 deaths and thousands of destroyed homes. A significant portion of that damage occurred outside a flood zone, indicative of the storms’ atypical patterns.
In a debate framed by economic necessity, the cost of such storms is noteworthy. A report commissioned by the Louisiana Economic Development office estimated the flooding damages last year to total $8.7 billion, the majority of which was due to damages to physical items such as housing structures, housing contents, and business inventories. $836 hundred million was lost due to interruption to business. Meanwhile, a 2008 study published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences found that wetlands provided an estimated $23 billion in protection from natural disasters countrywide, with that protection being dependent on storm severity. The dollar impact of storms can be ignored, however, for the promise of high-paying jobs.
The politics of industry
Alternative industries have yet to take hold in an economy with scarce well-paying blue-collar jobs and a culture in which tradition holds fast. In 2008 Louisiana promised tax credits for solar panels, spurring a mini-boom for the solar industry. In 2015, the state terminated the program after deciding it too costly, leaving residents who installed panels, expecting credit, in a lurch.
Koziorowski, the shipper running supplies to oil rigs, said there had been talk of windmill construction offshore when he began working in the industry. “I was kind of hoping seven years later that there’d be a little bit of business going into that but that doesn’t seem to be happening,” he said. When asked why that was the case he said, “It’s got to be politics.”
Representatives in Washington continue to vote repeatedly against environmental regulations in the name of small government and big business, and appear to have little to no interest in reducing their dependency on oil. Former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, is now a lobbyist for ETP. Former U.S. Congressman Chris John is now president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. Rep. Garrett Graves authored a bill to keep oil lease auctions private. Politicians continue to maintain the state’s literally toxic relationship with the oil industry, and in so doing, bet against Louisiana’s future.
Actions and allies
Even as the hot Louisiana summer sets in, activists are busy calling attention to the risks that Bayou Bridge poses. Cherri Foytlin is leading the charge in organizing direct action trainings for volunteers, and building a resistance camp along the proposed route. Organizers have plans for floating platforms and Indigenous structures to suit the area’s geography and have named the camp “L’eau est la vie,” French for “Water is life.”
Neck, the activist who participated in the Standing Rock encampment, is working with Foytlin, and she spoke of the camp’s strategic and spiritual importance. “It’s physically occupying the land that they want to construct on, it will give us a home that we can work from and conduct operations from, to non-violently stop the pipeline and stop ETP,” she said. “It’s a way for us to ask the Earth what she needs and what the community, what they need, because we’re living in it, we’re living with the water so…we can stay ‘prayered up’ as they said in Standing Rock.”
She said her priority is to maintain the camp as a safe space. “It’s such a hard fight against these giants that just getting to stand up for what’s right is so healing and my priority is that these people get to heal and get to fight like they want because they need it, and they deserve to do it.”
Pastor Joseph of St. James is another prominent community member leading the fight, and is using Mount Triumph Baptist Church as a hub for organizing efforts. He’s listed as a plaintiff in a lawsuit recently filed by the Tulane University Law Clinic, which seeks to overturn the coastal use permit issued by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Co-plaintiffs include Genevieve Butler, another resident of St. James, along with the organizations Humanitarian Enterprise of Loving People (HELP), Gulf Restoration Network, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, and Bold Louisiana.
The petition for judicial review filed against the DNR states that “the Department refused to consider potential adverse environmental impacts of the project on the majority African-American residents of St. James, who are surrounded by crude oil terminal facilities, pipelines, and associated industry.” It also claims the department failed to consider the impact of the pipeline on the community and “ignored evidence that the St. James community may be trapped in the event of an emergency and that no viable evacuation plan is in place for its safety.”
Activists across the state are working to connect affected residents in order to mount pressure against politicians and the industry itself. “More than any other oil resistance fight in Louisiana, people are going to show up for this, locals are going to show up because we’re mobilizing them,” Neck said, citing conservatives opposed to eminent domain, Catholics, and the restaurant and tourism industries as unlikely allies. In connecting with potential allies, “the first thing I do is learn from that person, learn what they’re going through or learn why they feel the way or what they’re passionate about, and I teach them how that is intricately connected to the fight,” a strategy which, she said, was informed by her experience in North Dakota.
Water protectors at Standing Rock rallied against the ‘black snake,’ the anthropomorphized symbol for the sinewy and serpentine Dakota Access Pipeline. Louisiana has had its own black snakes for decades, hiding out amidst the cypress stumps and tall grass, and fed by politicians and industry until they’ve fattened and coiled around the bayous. As the “L’eau est la vie” resistance camp is built out, and activists build their offense, the fight against Bayou Bridge is only just kicking into gear. The question now is if Louisiana residents can unite to break the snake’s grip, and protect their water, their wetlands, and themselves.
Nora Belblidia lives in Baltimore, MD, where she writes in her free time. She’s interested in science, politics, and environmental justice (amongst other things) and has previously lived in New Orleans, Montreal, and Los Angeles.
After eight months, starting with a few hundred young Native Americans and swelling to up to 15,000 people in the sprawling encampments of Standing Rock, North Dakota, a victory was celebrated. President Obama’s US Army Corps of Engineers denied the request for an easement to allow Energy Transfer Partners (ETP)* and their “family” of logistics corporations to build the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) under Lake Oahe and the Missouri River, which that could threaten the water supply and sacred burial sites of the Standing Rock Sioux. The Army Corps of Engineers further required a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which usually takes months and sometimes years, to reconsider granting the easement.
DAPL is a $3.7 billion project that would link 1,200 miles of pipeline carrying over 500,000 barrels of crude oil every day from North Dakota through the mid-west and eventually to the east coast and south of the US. The sunny and wind-swept prairie of Standing Rock reveals the absurdity of building fossil fuel infrastructure that will further harm the planet when renewable energy is everywhere, waiting to be developed.
The December 4th decision came immediately after 2,500 US military veterans joined the “water protectors”, as they are called, at Standing Rock. The vets formed a human shield protecting the water protectors from the myriad local law enforcement officers who work on behalf of the interests of the private oil and gas industries. Several of the vets said that, after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, their effort to protect Standing Rock was the first time they actually felt they were protecting the American people.
After almost 500 years of white settlers and the US government stealing land from Native American tribes and forging divisions between them, over 200 Native tribes have coalesced to protect Standing Rock. The history of government-sanctioned genocide and colonialism are recurring themes in this struggle.
The main “road” in the encampment is Flag Row, a long dirt path lined with hundreds of colorful tribal flags from all over the Americas, signaling unity. Strict rules of decorum prevail—no drugs, alcohol, or weapons of any kinds, total non-violence, respect for decision-making by the tribal council and for elders, and dedicating the encampment to non-violent prayer. Their slogan is “Water is Life”. Thousands of Indigenous peoples from all over the world and tens of thousands of non-Indigenous peoples have come to Standing Rock to defend Indigenous rights and to protect Mother Earth. They want to kill the “black snake”: DAPL. There lie the seeds of unity and dissent.
Mother Earth and/or Indigenous Rights
Indigenous activists such as Tara Houska, Anishinaabe lawyer for Honor the Earth and Tom Goldtooth, Navajo leader of the Indigenous Environmental Network, see fighting the pipeline as more than defending the tribes; they see it as defending Mother Earth. They see fossil fuel infrastructure as dangerous to the future of humans on earth. They want to see the development of renewable energy and the end of fossil fuels.
Dave Archambault, II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and primary spokesperson for the coalition of tribes, will be satisfied if the pipeline is re-routed away from the Sioux orbit. He has told the water protectors camping on the grounds to go home to their families for the winter: their jobs are done. He has repeatedly stated that he is not opposed to infrastructure projects or to “energy independence” but rather is opposed when Indigenous peoples are not consulted and when the pipelines go through their lands and waters. Native Americans, many of whom are desperately poor and denied opportunities, have sold mineral rights to their parcels of land to fossil fuel developers.
This is a basic contradiction for Indigenous peoples: those who see Mother Earth as their responsibility to protect for the next seven generations (a common saying for some Indigenous groups), versus those who want to address their own poverty which seems much more immediate. This is a global phenomenon.
Months of battles with brutal local law enforcement have left hundreds of water protectors facing arrests, rubber bullets, tear gas, concussion grenades, water cannons used in sub-freezing temperatures, serious injuries and brutal treatment when incarcerated. Images of this police brutality against Indigenous peoples and their supporters have galvanized support for the protests and brought thousands of people to the 5-6 camps that make up the sprawling Standing Rock encampment. Tribal elders often look askance at many of the “unofficial” actions advanced by the “Red Warrior Camp” and their allies because they have drawn so much violence against them. Nonetheless, the tribal leaders decry the violence and partisan nature of the “law enforcement’s” savage response. Red Warriors see these direct action confrontations as the reason that Standing Rock has gotten any publicity at all and has attracted the attention and won the hearts of radicals and human rights advocates across the world.
Life at Standing Rock: Building liberated spaces
Standing Rock has developed massive camps, replete with many cooking tents each serving hundreds at every meal, large-scale donation operations, legal, medical, and psychological counseling services, schools, orientation sessions, and direct action trainings. Each morning and evening people gather around sacred fires and hear information, speeches, and music, and they dance and feel the power of unity.
They are creating a liberated space, a space where progressive people can come together to protect their ideas and their cultures together. The utopian feel of the place is immediately apparent.
Comparisons with Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs would reveal a much larger, more on-going, and much more disciplined space in Standing Rock. It has captured the imagination and support of hundreds of thousands of people across the planet, from the Indigenous Sami peoples of Norway to workers from all over the US who are angry at the lack of support from organized labor, specifically the AFL-CIO.
The presence of youth is immediately noticeable at the camps though there are plenty of elders and children as well. Supporters mostly camp out and help to winterize the teepee, yurts, army tents, recreational vehicles, camping tents, vans and school buses that create a small city of protest. They are creating a liberated space, a space where progressive people can come together to protect their ideas and their cultures together. The utopian feel of the place is immediately apparent. The pull of such a liberated space is all the more meaningful in the face of US President-elect, Donald Trump. The encampment is simultaneously a historic throwback and a futuristic village of care and commitment to a more egalitarian and caring world.
The parallels with Occupy Wall Street are many—both aiming to build a new way with progressive and humanistic values, addressing the oppression of our people. Both captured the hearts of progressive folks and engaged mostly young people but Standing Rock’s supporters include many more people of color of all backgrounds. The history of Indigenous tribes welcoming people of African descent, especially during slavery, is not forgotten in this solidarity. Standing Rock’s success is grounded in Indigenous cultural values of respect, formal representative decision-making, discipline, and work that is further expressed through a deep spirituality that connects our human activity to the earth. Standing Rock is orderly and behavioral norms are clearly articulated and encouraged, if not enforced.
Naomi Klein, in her groundbreaking book, This Changes Everything, asserts that the climate movement can only be successful if it addresses racial, gender, and economic oppression as its main strategy and if it takes leadership from those most affected by climate change and the savages of capitalism. Without so much explicit language this is evidently what is happening at Standing Rock. The power of this strategy impacts everyone who enters the camp and the movement; the pull of this approach is enormous.
What lies ahead?
On December 4 and 5, over 15,000 people celebrated the Army Corps of Engineers decision to deny the permit to complete DAPL as planned, but the struggle is nowhere near over. Several factors make for a complex web of possibilities that underscore the necessity of the encampment and wide support to continue.
First, Trump can overturn Obama’s US Army Corps of Engineers’ decision and force them to grant an easement to ETP. That will be challenged in court as the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that federal agencies cannot change a settled ruling of a federal agency that is based on facts when a new administration takes over. The US Supreme Court declined to take up this ruling, leaving the Ninth Circuit decision to prevail. If Trump tried to get the permit without an environmental impact statement he would have an immediate lawsuit on his hands that would prevent the easement from taking effect, at least immediately. Additionally, Trump’s reported investments in DAPL of $500,000 to $1 million may create a conflict of interest he cannot navigate. Other lawsuits against ETP are already in the courts and proceeding, further slowing down the process.
Further, Trump has talked about privatizing over 56 million acres of Native American reservations in order to facilitate exploitation of the natural resources of those lands. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network, Indigenous reservations cover 2% of US land but contain an estimate 20% of its oil and gas plus vast coal reserves as well. That fight will ignite much more organizing and fight back.
Second, and perhaps most important, are the specifics of the contracts between ETP and Sunoco Logistics, their partner organization in this project, and the dozens of major financial institutions that have invested in DAPL. These contracts can be negated and/or open to re-negotiation if the pipeline is not completed by January 1, 2017. At that point the financial institutions will have the legal right to back out of or diminish their investments. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of groups in the US that are pressuring these very financial institutions to drop their investments in DAPL. Many of the pension funds of public workers and others are invested in these financial institutions and supporters are mounting campaigns to uncover them and demand divestment.
Supporters have been cutting up their credit cards and closing their accounts from banks investing in DAPL. The Sightline Institute did a study of DAPL financing and found them to be “rickety”. They found that the value of crude oil has declined by about 50% since these contracts were signed, making the windfall profits from this venture much less likely. They found a sharp decline in oil production that may signal no further need for the pipeline. For some of the investors, DAPL is looking risky on many levels.
Third, ETP has a way to sneak out of the job as well. Their contract indicates that they are not liable for project completion if “rioting” takes place. ETP along with their allies in local North Dakota law enforcement have been calling the direct action by water protectors “rioting”, setting the stage for a possible exit from liability. The demonstrators have been peaceful if sometimes provocative and a great deal of video evidence indicates that the violence has emanated from the law enforcement officers, not the protesters. But “rioting” is the language ETP and the cops use, and for a specific purpose.
Fourth, the popular support for Standing Rock seems to grow with each day and each report of violence against the water protectors. There are similar challenges of fossil fuel pipelines in many parts of the US and they are gathering people to protest in those places as well. The model of encampments, of creating liberated spaces that protect the activists, land, water, and movement, has taken hold. No force will hold that back. From the AIM Spectra Pipeline, slated to go under the Hudson River and immediately past the Indian Point Nuclear Power Station 10 miles from New York City, to the Black Mesa Water Coalition of the US southwest, the struggles to reject fossil fuel infrastructure and to build a sustainable energy economy are everywhere in the US as they are across the planet.
A new solidarity is emerging. A new world is conceived. Its home is everywhere, its people are many.
A new solidarity is emerging. One that has a great deal of potential to unite the left under the joint banners of the oppression of people, particularly people of color, and the oppression of the earth itself. The hope lies in navigating that unity with a vision of solving both oppressions simultaneously. A new world is conceived. Its home is everywhere, its people are many. While its opponents are on the ascent, the struggle continues. Compassion, respect, clear demands and decision-making and solidarity can guide the way.
*The “Energy Transfer Family” of corporations involved in the logistics behind building the Dakota Access Pipeline are: Enbridge, Inc., Energy Transfer Partners, Energy Equity Partners, Marathon Petroleum Corp., Sunoco LP and Phillips 66
Nancy Romer is a life-long social justice activist starting in the tenants rights movement, then the feminist, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, union, food justice and, now, climate justice movements. Nancy is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Brooklyn College and now writes primarily on climate movement-related efforts, with particular interest in agriculture and peasant movements in Latin America.
In this report, I will try to give you a sense of what being at Standing Rock is like. Tonight completes my third day here. The weather has been mostly cold but very sunny. The colors, the sky, but most of all the people are startlingly calm and beautiful. The Standing Rock encampment is defined as a prayer site, a place to contemplate and to appreciate nature, “the creator” (not my words), and each other. The Indigenous people here from just about every tribe in the US and some from Canada are so welcoming and warm to outsiders. They repeatedly say how much they appreciate the presence of non-Indigenous folks and how they want to share with us. They are strict on the rules: no violence of any kind, no drugs, alcohol or guns, respect for Indigenous ways, making oneself useful.
The vast encampment contains 4 or 5 separate but connected camps, some on the Sioux reservation land, others outside.The largest one is immediately off reservation land, Oceti Sakowin Camp; it is the one in which most of the activities happen. The others are either defined by age—elders or youth—or vary by activity. We spend most of our time at Oceti but today I took a long walk and visited two of the other camps just to get a flavor of them.
NO DAPL stands for No Dakota Access Pipeline and signs with the slogan are everywhere as is “water is life”. There is a religious feel to the camps and great respect all around. In many ways this is a very old-style Indigenous encampment and in many ways it feels like a post-revolutionary or post-apocalyptic future.
The pace is slow though everyone seems to move with great purpose. People jump in and do the tasks that seem to be needed: cooking, cleaning, helping each other to put up a yurt or a teepee, chopping wood, tending fires, washing dishes, offering legal, medical or psychological help. Cell and internet service is miserable and probably interfered with by the constant drones that fly above the camps.
For me the most impactful point was respect. They defined that as including slowing down, moving differently with clearer intention and less reactivity.
On Friday I attended a brilliantly presented orientation to the camp. One of the presenters was Maria Marasigan, a young woman who was active in the Brooklyn Food Coalition. It was the best anti-racist training for allies that I have witnessed: succinct, not guilt-trippy, and very direct. The three main rules are: Indigenous centered, build a new legacy, and be of use. They shared the Lakota values that prevail in the camp: prayer, respect, compassion, honesty, generosity, humility, wisdom.
For me the most impactful point was respect. They defined that as including slowing down, moving differently with clearer intention and less reactivity. They suggest asking fewer questions and just looking and learning before our hands pop up and we ask to take up space.
They clarified a gendered division of behavior and practice, including asking women to honor traditional norms of wearing skirts during the sacred rituals (including in the cooking tent) and for women “on their moons” to spend time in a tent to be taken care of and rest if they choose. Somehow it seemed okay, actually respectful, not about pollution and ostracism.
While I was helping out in the cooking tent—my main area of contribution—an Indigenous woman came by with about 10 skirts and distributed them to the mostly women in the cooking tent and we gladly put them on. It served as an extra layer of warmth over my long underwear and jeans. It was not what I expected but it seemed fine to all of us. We just kept chopping away at the veggies.
Later that day I attended a direct action training that was also quite thorough and clear. Lisa Fithian, an old friend from anti-war movement days, lead the training and explained how to behave in an action and how to minimize police violence. Lisa, along with two other strong, smart women, one Black and one Native, laid out a plan to do a mass pray-in in town the next day. My New York City travel companion and I both felt that we couldn’t risk arrest and decided not to join that direct action but to be in support in any way we could.
At 8 am the next morning about 100 cars lined up in convoy formation at the exit of the Oceti Sakowin Camp, each with lots of passengers—including some buses and minivans—and went into Manwan, the nearest town. The Indigenous folks formed an inner circle and the non-Indigenous formed a circle around them. The Indigenous folks prayed, sand and danced. The tactic was exercising freedom to practice their religion while protesting the Dakota Access Pipe Line. No arrests were made despite massive police and drone presence. One local man tried to run over a water protector but she jumped aside; the man had a gun but was subdued by the cops. Lots of videos were taken and the man was brought to the local jail.
On Saturday I finally got a press pass as I got a request to cover the encampment from New Politics, a print and online journal. That gave me the right to take photos (otherwise not allowed), but still limited—no photos of people without permission or of houses or horses, again without permission from the people with them. I set out to interview people at the various camps and to get a sense of what people were planning to do for the winter.
I spoke with Joe, a part Lakota from Colorado who had been raised Catholic and attended Indian residential schools, taken from his parents by the state because they doubted the ability of the native community to raise their own kids. He said it was brutal. When asked why he was here, he replied, “This is the first time since Little Big Horn that all the tribes are uniting against a common enemy—the black snake—the pipeline that will harm our water, our people. This unity is making us whole.”
At Rosebud camp just about a 1/2 mile from Oceti, I discovered a group of people building a straw-bale building that was destined to become a school. Multi took a break to tell me how they came to create this project with the full collaboration of parents and kids in the camp. Their project grew out of a team of people from Southern California who are builders and designers who use earth and straw as materials creating almost no carbon footprint and providing both strength of structure and extraordinary insulation—very important for a windy and cold winter ahead.
“We spent five days gathering ideas from people at the camp as to what they needed. They decided on building a school for the many kids who might stay the winter or come and go over time.The parents and kids helped to design the structure with the builders.”
Multi told me, “We didn’t want to bring the colonialist idea of what was needed and just tell people at the camp. We spent five days gathering ideas from people at the camp as to what they needed. They decided on building a school for the many kids who might stay the winter or come and go over time. The parents and kids helped to design the structure with the builders. All the decision-making was ‘horizontal’, engaging everyone with equal voice, avoiding hierarchy. It will be a one-room schoolhouse with nooks for specific tasks and will serve K-8th graders.” A teen center is being built nearby.
When I visited there were five women and one man working on the project and they welcomed any help they could get to finish the project before the cold sets in. When I asked Multi why she was doing this project she said, “For me this is about coming together as a global culture, a people who have the resources we need for future generations. We are here to protect our futures together. Building a schoolhouse is a manifestation of that ancient technology for our future together.”
“This is all about the water and who lives downstream. We are testing a new economic system that requires governance, self-governance from the ground up.”
Down the road I met Danielle who was helping to build a multi-purpose center housing a kitchen, dining area and meeting room. She told me that “This is all about the water and who lives downstream. We are testing a new economic system that requires governance, self-governance from the ground up. The needs must evolve for us to create a system that will fit them.” She is particularly excited about engaging people to serve and to be united, to be able to work together with their passions for service, to be happy together in this way. The materials for the building were donated by people from Ashville, NC and were deeply appreciated. All over the camps one sees evidence of creative problem-solving, cooperation and contributions brought from afar. The “donations” building is brimming with winter clothes (adults and kids), foods of all kinds and practical items.
I was particularly interested in the many families that were at the camps, including lots of kids of all ages, including infants. One family from Boulder, Colorado, with 8-year old Oscar and 11-year old Audrey, were unpacking their car when I came upon them. Their mother, Susan, said, “We are here to support the protest and to have our kids learn from it. I want my kids to understand that we do what we can to take care of the water and support the Indigenous people. To step it up these days we have to hold some ground. This is one of the places we can meet. It would be great if Obama would release the land and kill the pipeline.” Amen.
I encountered a father-son pair from Manhattan. Fourteen-year old Declan Rexer learned about the encampment from a single segment on MSNBC news but couldn’t find anything else about it in the corporate media. He was particularly upset by the police attacks on elderly protesters. He then went to alternative and social media and found an enormous amount of information. His interest grew and his father, William Rexer, decided to bring him out to North Dakota to learn for himself.
They plan to bring back lots of information for Declan’s classmates and encourage more people to come out to see for themselves. William, a media professional himself, connected with some of the young documentarians at the camp and will provide some material support to them in order to advance their work.
“I’ve been here from the beginning and I will stay to the end. All winter if that’s what it takes. We have been colonized and divided for 500 years.”
I spoke with Joseph, a Salish man from Montana. I asked him how long he was planning to stay at the camp. He told me, “I’ve been here from the beginning and I will stay to the end. All winter if that’s what it takes. We have been colonized and divided for 500 years. This is our time to unite and resist. We must protect our water and our tribes.” He thanked me for coming to Standing Rock and being an ally. He asked me to tell my friends to come out and join the encampment, to be water protectors.
Generosity is evident all over the camp. I particularly love working in the kitchen, a huge army tent with large tables, stoves and lots of equipment. On each of the two days that I worked in the kitchen there were about a dozen people busily working in happy unison. There was a chief organizer and then 4 or 5 people who were in charge of a particular dish, each with 1-3 assistants. I was an assistant, happy not to have to mastermind anything. The chatter amongst the workers reminded me of the Park Slope Food Coop squads where people work together with shared goals. As one man put it, “We come together here with one vision. We are building a new world together.”
I am moving slowly and deliberately and thinking about the world we need to build together, on a much larger scale.
While I attend trainings and sacred fire circles, chop veggies, talk with people, drive people around, and walk around the various camps, I am struck by how happy I feel. Sure, this is temporary. Sure, this is not my “real world”. But it is a lovely world, a loving world, a kind world, where each person is greeted with kindness. Young men and women ride through the camps on horseback, connect to ancient traditions, and bask in the glory of a shared culture of resistance. I don’t come from this culture but I do support their determination, their right to protect their land and water and people, their valiant attempt to build a better world. I am moving slowly and deliberately and thinking about the world we need to build together, on a much larger scale. Can we decide to be kind to each other, to collaborate, to try to remove ego from our day-to-day practice? I don’t know the answer to these difficult questions. But I do know that when people share a common struggle we can be beautiful. I bask in that beauty at Standing Rock.
Nancy Romer is a life-long social justice activist starting in the tenants rights movement, then the feminist, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, union, food justice and, now, climate justice movements. Nancy is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Brooklyn College and now writes primarily on climate movement-related efforts, with a particular interest in agriculture and peasant movements in Latin America. Read their first report on life at the camp here.
The English version of this article can be found here.
Het woord ‘Antropoceen’ is in het debat over klimaatverandering opgedoken, en de vraag is of het daarin zou moeten blijven. Deze term verwoordt mooi het idee dat het woord Holoceen – een wetenschappelijke term die verwijst naar het huidige geologische tijdperk – niet langer adequaat is. Want we leven momenteel in een tijdperk waarin de mens (anthropos) de geologie van de Aarde fundamenteel heeft veranderd en aanwezig is in bijna alle ecosystemen.
We hebben de temperatuur van de planeet laten oplopen, de zeespiegel laten stijgen, massale hoeveelheden aardkorst ontgonnen, de ozonlaag aangetast, en beginnen nu de oceanen te verzuren – ingrepen die over miljoenen jaren nog steeds zichtbaar zullen zijn in fossielen.
Het woord ‘Antropoceen’ is pas recent in het mainstream woordgebruik opgedoken, maar is heel snel een strijdkreet geworden, die voor veel mensen de hoogdringendheid van maatregelen tegen klimaatverandering uitdrukt. Terwijl de term reeds eerder gesuggereerd werd in verschillende vormen, was het Paul Crutzen, chemicus en winnaar van de Nobelprijs, die hem populariseerde in 2002 in een artikel van 600 woorden lang, getiteld “De geologie van de mensheid”, dat verscheen in het wetenschappelijke tijdschrift Nature. In dit artikel betoogt hij dat de realiteit van “de groeiende invloed van de mensheid op de planeet” met zich meebrengt dat wetenschappers en ingenieurs de “zware taak” hebben de “maatschappij te gidsen” – via grootschalige geoengineering projecten als het moet. Volgens hem is de term Antropoceen een sleutelconcept in het uitleggen van de ernst van onze huidige situatie. Daardoor werd deze term voor velen welhaast een openbaring, die er goed inpeperde dat we onloochenbaar hebben ingegrepen in het ecosysteem van de Aarde, dat we het hebben gedestabiliseerd, en dat we moeten handelen, onverwijld en snel.
Maar ondanks het feit er vanuit verschillende hoeken wordt gepleit voor deze term, is er ook enige weerstand, en niet van het soort mensen dat je zou verwachten: veel klimaatwetenschappers zijn terughoudend om hem te gebruiken, en er is ook kritiek van milieu en sociale historici. Waarom al deze ophef over een woord, en wat is het belang?
Zoals elke activist graag zal willen uitleggen, is het belangrijk welke woorden we gebruiken. Woorden beschrijven niet enkel de problemen, maar framen ook de oplossingen. En in het geval van klimaatverandering is er een grote nood aan goede oplossingen, wat betekent dat de framing juist moet zijn. Als we klimaatverandering willen aanpakken, moeten we zorgvuldig de woorden kiezen waarmee we de problemen beschrijven.
In wat volgt wordt een overzicht gegeven van het Antropoceen debat, waarbij de vraag gesteld wordt of we dit woord inderdaad moeten gebruiken om onze huidige problemen te beschrijven, of integendeel dit woord beter zouden droppen. Zoals je zal zien, ben ik beslist de ene optie genegen – ik denk niet dat de term zo bruikbaar is als zijn supporters beweren – maar zal ik mijn argumenten zo goed mogelijk aandragen zodat je een eigen standpunt kan bepalen.
Van early adopters naar wijdverbreid gebruik
De term Antropoceen werd gepopulariseerd door hard-core klimaatwetenschappers die wilden illustreren hoe onze wereld er tegenwoordig uitziet en hoe fundamenteel verschillend dit is van de wereld die we erfden. Vanuit dit standpunt gezien, kan het concept leiden tot een ‘aha-erlebnis’ bij oningewijden: de mensheid heeft de Aarde reeds fundamenteel veranderd. Daarom gebruikten early adopters dit woord vaak om de urgentie van het huidige tijdsgewricht over te brengen naar het brede publiek toe.
In de tien jaar nadat het concept werd gelanceerd in de moderne cultuur, heeft het nieuwe vormen aangenomen die de originele geologische bedoeling overstijgen, waardoor het een meme is geworden met de capaciteit om een enorm scala aan argumenten te stutten.
Het brede publiek nam de term graag over met headlines in grote mediakanalen als de BBC, The New York Times, en Newsweek. Hij begon regelmatig gebruikt te worden in rapporten (pdf) en campagnes van klimaatactivisten als Bill McKibben en milieugroeperingen als Friends of the Earth. Ook kunstenaars pikten de term op, en academici organiseren tallozeconferenties met ‘Antropoceen’ als leidraad.
Het soort opinies dat rond de term samenkoekt varieert. In het boek “The God Species” argumenteert de prominente milieu-schrijver Mark Lynas dat, aangezien we een nieuw tijdperk van ongeziene menselijke controle over het milieu binnentreden, we de verantwoordelijkheid, de plicht, en de mogelijkheden hebben om het milieu nog meer doorgedreven te controleren. Afstand nemend van traditionele milieustandpunten als anti-nucleair en anti-GGO, pleit hij ervoor om alle middelen waarover we beschikken te gebruiken, precies omdat we geconfronteerd worden met problemen op een grotere schaal dan ooit voorheen. Dit arsenaal omvat nucleaire energie en genetische manipulatie.
Recent vervoegde Mark Lynas een groep van pro-tech wetenschappers, schrijvers, en milieuactivisten, en schreef mee aan het “eco-modernist manifesto.” De auteurs claimen hierin dat “moderne technologieën, door meer efficiënt gebruik te maken van natuurlijke ecosystemen en diensten, een echte mogelijkheid bieden om de totale menselijke impact op de biosfeer terug te dringen. Deze technologieën omarmen, betekent het vinden van wegen naar een goed Antropoceen.”
Het probleem? Dat het Antropoceen openbaart dat de mensheid zich in een positie bevindt die ongezien netelig is. De oplossing? Drijf het op: gebruik meer, en betere, technologieën, om zo de natuur beter te controleren.
Richard Heinberg van het Post-Carbon Institute noemt dit de ‘we-zijn-in-commando-en-daar-houden-we-van’ houding. Volgens hem duidt dit ‘techno-Antropoceen’ argument op een soort wetenschappers dat het Antropoceen omarmt, eenvoudigweg omdat dit de mensheid het volledige mandaat geeft om de planeet te blijven terravormen. Zoals Heinberg aantoont, zal het opdrijven van het Antropoceen onontkoombaar op save-the-day technologieën steunen. Zoals het eco-modernist manifesto claimt: “Verstedelijking, intensiveren van de landbouw, nucleaire energie, aquacultuur, en ontzilting zijn allen processen met een bewezen potentieel om de menselijke impact op de omgeving te verkleinen, en zo meer ruimte te laten voor de niet-menselijke soorten.” Daartegen argumenteert Heinberg dat deze technologieën helemaal niet zo adequaat zijn als vaak wordt beweerd. De hierboven genoemde technologieën steunen ofwel op het gebruik van goedkope fossiele brandstoffen in veel grotere hoeveelheden dan wat ze vervangen, of deugen wetenschappelijk (en moreel) niet.
Heinberg stelt zijn eigen versie voor: het ‘slank-groene Antropoceen.’ Aangezien elke haalbare technologische oplossing aangedreven wordt door fossiele brandstoffen, ziet hij een meer wenselijke toekomst die low-tech is, arbeidsintensief, met lokale voedselproductie, en verantwoord watergebruik (dus bv. onafhankelijk van energie-intensieve ontziltingsinstallaties). Maar voor hem is het ook noodzakelijk om te erkennen dat de mens niet het centrum van het universum is: “Zoals de mensheid nu de toekomst van de Aarde vormgeeft, zal de Aarde de toekomst van de mensheid vormgeven.”
Ietwat verrassend werd de term ook gretig aangenomen door kritische theoretici – misschien te onkritisch. Bijvoorbeeld Bruno Latour gebruikt de term – en de realiteit van menselijke betrokkenheid in het klimaat – als een startpunt voor de discussie over het nieuwe beleid dat deze crises vereisen. Prominente politiek-ecologische wetenschappers als Laura Ogden, Paul Robbins, en Nik Heynen refereren naar de term om de eigen argumenten te onderbouwen dat grassroots organisaties de sleutel zijn tot veerkracht en politieke weerstand in dit nieuwe tijdperk. Slavoj Zizek suggereert dat het Antropoceen, en de wetenschappers die het voorstellen, ons nieuwe vragen doet stellen over de relatie van de mens met zijn omgeving, en over de obsessie die in onze cultuur bestaat voor de altijd-aanwezige apocalyps. In een ander essay daagt Dipesh Chakrabarty de term deels uit vanuit een postkoloniaal perspectief, maar eindigt hij met het onderschrijven ervan, aangezien, op een bepaalde manier, iedereen (de kolonisatoren en de gekoloniseerden, de rijken en de armen) zal geraakt worden door de komende rampen.
Ik zeg verrassend omdat dezelfde theoretici zouden aarzelen om woorden als democratie, ontwikkeling, of vooruitgang te gebruiken zonder ‘aanhalingstekens’ – ze specialiseren zich in het in vraag stellen van alles in het ondermaanse (en maar goed ook). Dat zij dit nieuwe woord accepteren zonder bevragen of terugblikken, vormt misschien wel de beste illustratie voor zijn wijdverbreide aantrekkingskracht.
Hoe dan ook, dit is het beeld: het concept Antropoceen wordt gesteund door mensen met zeer verschillende ideologische overtuigingen. De ene bepleit business-as-usual gedreven door technologische doorbraken, de ander roept op tot een totale transformatie van de relatie tussen mens en natuur, en nog een ander suggereert dat het betekent dat we onze verschillen aan de kant moeten zetten, en de uitdagingen samen tegemoet moeten treden.
In de tien jaar nadat het concept werd gelanceerd in de moderne cultuur, heeft het nieuwe vormen aangenomen die de originele geologische bedoeling overstijgen, waardoor het een meme1 is geworden met de capaciteit om een enorm scala aan argumenten te stutten.
Waarna de problematische fase volgt
Echter, in het voorbije jaar – en zeker tijdens de voorbije maanden – verscheen er een stroom van kritiek op het concept Antropoceen.
Het eerste kernprobleem is wetenschappelijk, met twee facetten. Ten eerste, ondanks het feit dat het concept zich goed heeft genesteld in onze woordenschat (“Welkom in het Antropoceen” titelde The Economist in 2011), is er nog steeds heel wat debat over zijn exacte betekenis, zelfs over zijn wetenschappelijke waarde. Ten tweede wordt de wetenschap meer en meer gepolitiseerd.
Het neologisme van Paul Crutzen bereikte het domein van de stratigrafie – een specifieke discipline die bepaalt wanneer elke geologische periode start en eindigt. En Crutzen is een atmosfeerwetenschapper, geen stratigraaf. Indien hij dat wel was geweest, dan had hij waarschijnlijk de bittere gevechten en spanningen die zijn voorstel veroorzaakte, kunnen voorzien.
Crutzen stelde oorspronkelijk voor dat het Antropoceen zou starten bij de industriële revolutie, meer specifiek de uitvinding van de stoommachine. Daarna veranderde hij van gedacht, en liet het Antropoceen starten bij het testen van de atoombom. Maar dit soort grillen houdt geen stand in het studiegebied dat beslist over geologische tijdperken – er was 60 jaar nodig om te beslissen over de definitie van het Kwartair, een tijdperk dat 2,6 miljoen jaar overspant. De wetenschappers die dit soort beslissingen nemen zijn streng, om niet te zeggen muggenzifters.
Dus beslisten ze een internationale werkgroep te vormen, om voor eens en altijd te beslissen of de term de tand des tijd zou kunnen doorstaan. Dit was behoorlijk moeilijk. Vooreerst bestaat er zelfs geen formele definitie van wat ‘Antropoceen’ echt betekent. Wat behelst een significante verandering in het geologische systeem van de Aarde, die ons zou toelaten om de lijn te trekken? En waar moeten we die lijn trekken?
Daartoe werden talrijke voorstellen gedaan. Het begon met de landbouw 5.000 jaar geleden, of mijnbouw 3.000 jaar geleden. Of nee: het begon met de genocide van 50 miljoen inheemse mensen in Amerika. Of: het begon met de ‘Grote Versnelling:’ de periode van de voorbije 50 jaar waarin plastics, chemische meststoffen, beton, aluminium, en petroleum de markt overspoelden, en het milieu. Of: we kunnen het nu nog niet bepalen, we moeten waarschijnlijk nog een paar miljoen jaar wachten.
Kort gezegd, de vaagheid van de term leidde ertoe dat het onmogelijk was vast te stellen wat deze eigenlijk zou moeten zijn, en hoe hij gemeten zou kunnen worden. Daardoor ontstonden conflicten in het domein van de stratigrafie, waar sommigen betreuren dat een zeer gepolitiseerd onderwerp een idealiter traag, zorgvuldig, en delicaat proces ontwricht: bepalen wanneer een geologisch tijdperk begint en eindigt. Leidende wetenschappers stelden de vraag (pdf) of Antropoceen in feite niet meer is dan een uitwas van de ‘pop cultuur,’ eerder dan een serieus vraagstuk voor stratigrafen.
Daardoor worden deze wetenschappelijke discussies zelf ook politiek. Bij veel betrokken wetenschappers leeft het gevoel dat zij die het concept door willen drukken eerder geïnteresseerd zijn in het in de verf zetten van de destructieve kracht van de mens om klimaatactie aan te moedigen, dan in het definiëren van een nieuwe wetenschappelijke term. Zoals Richard Monastersky zegt in een Nature artikel over de politiek achter het de pogingen om de term te definiëren: “Het debat heeft het gewoonlijk onopgemerkte proces waarbij geologen de 4,5 miljard jaar geschiedenis van de Aarde opdelen, in de schijnwerpers geplaatst.” De inspanningen om het Antropoceen te definiëren en het op de kaart van geologische tijdsschalen te plaatsen is een mijnenveld van politiek, gevestigde belangen, en ideologie geworden. Zodoende onthult het debat over het Antropoceen eens te meer dat de wetenschap – die zo vaak als objectief wordt beschouwd – gedreven wordt door, en onderhevig is aan, persoonlijke en politieke agenda’s.
De mens beschuldigen, de geschiedenis uitwissen
Maar het is niet omdat de term Antropoceen politiek beladen is en moeilijk te definiëren, dat we twee maal zouden moeten nadenken voor we hem gebruiken. Er zijn veel verontrustender kwesties samenhangend met het onderwerp, waarvan we ons bewust moeten zijn.
Vooreerst is er de bezorgdheid dat het concept Antropoceen de menselijke impact op de Aarde ‘vernatuurlijkt.’ Wat betekent dit? In essentie dat we door te spreken over het ‘tijdperk van de mens,’ suggereren dat alle mensen verantwoordelijk zijn. Anders gezegd, dat er iets intrinsieks slecht is aan de mens, waar we altijd en onontkoombaar onze stempel zullen drukken op het milieu.
Dit gaat over het (zeer Westerse) idee dat mensen losstaan van de natuur, en dat we dus ofwel moeten terugkeren naar de natuur ofwel erbovenuit stijgen. Vandaar de oproep van de ecomodernisten om ons te ‘ontkoppelen’ van de natuurlijke wereld door technologie. Vandaar ook de oproep van diepe ecologisten om de natuur an sich te appreciëren, zonder er onze menselijke noden en verlangens op te projecteren. En vandaar het idee dat alle mensen mee de oorzaak zijn van de huidige moeilijke situatie.
Het alternatief, zoals gesuggereerd door de milieutheoreticus Jim Proctor, is beseffen dat het Antropoceen er niet is ‘vanwege’ de mens. Dit vereist te erkennen dat zijn processen en gebeurtenissen talrijk zijn en onderling verweven – er is geen helder onderscheid tussen natuur en cultuur, menselijke verlangens en natuurkrachten.
Maar welke krachten zijn dan verantwoordelijk? In alle rapporten over klimaatverandering staat duidelijk dat de mens aan de basis ervan ligt. Hiertegen argumenteren kan ons gevaarlijk dicht bij de retoriek van de ontkenners brengen.
Het is op dit punt dat we zouden kunnen kiezen voor optie C: vraag het aan een historicus. James W. Moore, een professor milieugeschiedenis, heeft zich afgevraagd of we echt met een beschuldigende vinger moeten wijzen naar stoommachines, atoomwapens, of de mensheid als een geheel. Daarom pleit hij voor een totaal andere term: het ‘Capitaloceen:’ het geologische tijdperk van het kapitalisme. Kort gezegd, het is niet de stoommachine die geleid heeft tot een gebruik van fossiele brandstof dat zonder voorgaande is – het zijn veeleer het bestuurssysteem en de sociale organisatie die de huidige globale veranderingen veroorzaakt hebben. Vereist waren het uitvaardigen van innovatieve eigendomswetten geruggensteund door militaire macht en politie, en ook het opzetten van ongelijke machtsrelaties tussen een kleine klasse van kapitalisten en de werkende armen, vrouwen, inheemse culturen, en andere beschavingen. Het zijn deze instellingen, ontwikkeld en geperfectioneerd over honderden jaren, die het mogelijk maakten om culturen te vernietigen en de hulpbronnen van de Aarde te overexploiteren, wat culmineert in onze huidige crisis.
Het is vreemd in hoeverre dit soort bredere sociale dynamiek totaal onbelicht is in het debat over het Antropoceen. Zo wordt er bijvoorbeeld vaak beweerd dat de uitvinding van het vuur de eerste vonk was die onontkoombaar zou leiden naar de immense voetafdruk van de mens op de Aarde. Dit is niet zomaar een randpositie. Andreas Malm merkt in een artikel in Jacobin Magazine op dat het idee wordt onderschreven door Paul Crutzen, Mark Lynas, en andere opmerkenswaardige wetenschappers zoals John R. McNeill. Volgens hen volgt de afschuwelijke impact van klimaatverandering rechtstreeks uit het ogenblik waarop een groep hominiden vuur leerde maken.
Maar beweren dat de controle van het vuur een noodzakelijke voorwaarde was voor de menselijke vaardigheid om kolen te verbranden is één ding, argumenteren dat het de reden is waarom we momenteel met een klimaatcrisis worden geconfronteerd, is iets helemaal anders.
In een pittig artikel in The Anthropocene Review suggereren Malm en de prominente milieuhistoricus Alf Hornborg dat deze veronachtzaming voortkomt uit het feit dat de wetenschappers die de alarmbel luiden over het klimaat, getraind zijn in het bestuderen van de natuurlijke wereld, en niet van de mens. Om de echte oorzaken van de antropogene klimaatverandering te vinden volstaat het niet om de winden, de zeeën, de rotsen, en de bevolkingsgroei te bestuderen, maar moet ook gekeken worden naar de maatschappij en de geschiedenis. In het bijzonder, Moore echoënd, is het een vereiste te verstaan hoe technologische vooruitgang in de geschiedenis steeds weer aangedreven werd door ongelijke machtsrelaties tussen een minderheidselite en een onderworpen meerderheid. Malm en Hornborg zeggen hierover:
“Geologen, meteorologen, en hun collega’s zijn niet noodzakelijk goed toegerust om het soort dingen te bestuderen dat plaatsvindt tussen mensen (en noodzakelijkerwijs tussen hen en de rest van de natuur); de samenstelling van een rots of het patroon van een straalstroom verschillen nogal van fenomenen als wereldbeelden, eigendom en macht.”
Bijgevolg moet het idee dat het Antropoceen de ‘nieuwe realiteit’ is die iedereen treft, in vraag gesteld worden.
Bijgevolg moet het idee dat het Antropoceen de ‘nieuwe realiteit’ is die iedereen treft, in vraag gesteld worden. Inderdaad, gezien de bestaande machtsrelaties, zal de ‘nieuwe realiteit’ meer ‘reëel’ zijn voor de ene dan voor de andere. Voor de meeste mensen zal het meer ontbering en vechten voor het overleven betekenen, terwijl er voor enkelen comfortabele reddingsboten zullen zijn. Zo suggereren Malm en Hornborg dat Dipesh Chakrabarty, de wetenschapper die het concept vanuit een postkoloniaal perspectief omarmt, zijn positie zou moeten herdenken: klimaatverandering zelf is geen universele gelijkschakelaar, maar riskeert integendeel de kloof tussen rijk en arm te verdiepen.
Dit brengt ons bij een laatste probleem: de politiek. Indien, zoals veel Antropoceen-enthousiastelingen beweren, het concept helpt om mensen te laten begrijpen hoe diep de menselijke betrokkenheid in de Aardse systemen is, dan kan het ook leiden tot een beloftevolle politieke discussie die er de machtshebbers eindelijk op wijst dat er iets dient te gebeuren.
Echter, zoals Jedediah Purdy, professor aan de Duke University, opmerkt in het tijdschrift Aeon: “Beweren dat we leven in het Antropoceen is een manier om te zeggen dat we de verantwoordelijkheid voor de wereld die we creëren niet kunnen ontlopen. Tot daar alles goed. Het probleem begint wanneer dit charismatische, allesomvattende idee van het Antropoceen een universeel projectiescherm wordt en een versterker voor iedereens geprefereerde versie van het ‘verantwoordelijkheid nemen voor de planeet’.”
Voor veel mensen betekent het Antropoceen dat er ‘geen alternatief is.’ Afhankelijk van persoonlijke overtuiging, leidt de term Antropoceen tot verschillende conclusies en oproepen tot actie. Zoals Purdy zegt: “Het Antropoceen lijkt niet veel geesten te veranderen… Maar het draait hen op tot voorbij het maximum. ”
Is dit een probleem voor elk nieuw concept of is het inherent aan het Antropoceen? Gezien de vaagheid van het concept is dit volgens Purdy “een Rorschach vlek waarmee commentatoren onderscheiden wat de tijdperkbepalende verandering in de mens/natuur relatie is.” Met de grote diversiteit aan opinies die beschikbaar is, zullen zij met de meeste politieke en ideologische invloed het debat uiteindelijk domineren.
Neem bijvoorbeeld Peter Kareiva, chief scientist bij het Nature Conservancy, die argumenteert dat het Antropoceen betekent dat we nu, meer dan ooit, moeten stoppen met proberen wildernis te beschermen en het kapitalisme te beschuldigen, en dat we integendeel ondernemingen moeten aanmoedigen om verantwoordelijkheid op te nemen voor, en controle over, de milieudiensten van de Aarde.
Kareiva’s opinie is enorm populair geworden in het mainstream discours, maar impliceert ook dat de mens niet het huidige economische en politieke systeem zou moeten herdenken, maar voluit dient te gaan voor het verhandelbaar maken van alles. Hoe vager het concept, hoe gevoeliger het dus kan zijn voor coöptatie. De vaagheid van de term heeft deels geleid tot zijn kameleon-achtig vermogen om in ieders agenda te passen.
Meer nog, aangezien het concept Antropoceen impliceert dat de mensheid als geheel de eerste verantwoordelijke is – en niet de relaties tussen mensen – verhindert het vruchtbare discussies, eerder dan ze aan te moedigen. Zoals Malm en Hornborg schrijven: “Het effect is het afblokken van elk perspectief op verandering.”
Is de term nog nuttig?
Indien de kritieken hierboven steek houden, waarom denken klimaatwetenschappers en activisten dan nog steeds dat het Antropoceen concept nuttig is? Overtuigt het echt degenen die nog overtuigd moeten worden, of versluiert het veeleer de belangrijke discussies die we moeten hebben?
In discussies en gesprekken met vrienden en collega’s, wordt er vaak op gewezen dat de kritieken van Malm en Hornborg voorbijgaan aan het originele nut van het concept. Zoals een professor geografie het schreef in een e-mail: “Voor mij opent het Antropoceen eerder de weg naar het soort exploratie waartoe de auteurs lijken uit te nodigen, dan dat het die weg zou afsluiten.” Mijn vriend Aaron McConomy schreef het volgende op Facebook: “Ik heb het gevoel dat al deze discussies, theoretische beschouwingen zijn over wat er in de echte wereld gebeurt, maar niet echt weerspiegelen wat ik als actieve lezer en onderzoeker opvang… Het is zoals de meme der memen die reageert op andere memen, waarbij niemand exact schijnt te weten waarop ze eigenlijk aan het reageren zijn… Voor mij is de grotere vraag hoe we ‘derde weg’ discussies kunnen hebben. Waar de realiteit van het Antropoceen toe oproept is een diepgaand herwerken van sociaal-ecologische systemen. Weinig voorbeelden waarmee men komt aanzetten, zijn daarvoor geschikt.”
Punt genoteerd. In plaats van te kibbelen over de betekenis van het Antropoceen, zouden we beter oplossingen vinden voor de vraagstukken waarmee we geconfronteerd worden. En terwijl de term een echt nut heeft voor geologen, kan het de broodnodige discussie over politieke alternatieven stimuleren. Dit is een steekhoudend antwoord op de problematisering van de term: alles welbeschouwd, de term is bruikbaar gebleken in het op gang brengen van een belangrijk debat.
Maar welk soort debat? Aangezien het Antropoceen de mens aanduidt als de hoofdschuldige van de huidige situatie waarin de Aarde verkeert, wijst het niet echt naar de minderheid die de meeste schade heeft aangericht, noch verbreedt het de discussie naar hen die het meest geraakt worden door klimaatverandering maar wiens rol in het veroorzaken ervan werkelijk nul is.
Leunen op een alomvattende geologische (en biologische) term om onze situatie te beschrijven, houdt het risico in te helpen om alternatieve opinies, alternatieve verhalen, en alternatieve politiek monddood te maken. Zoals Malm en Hornborg benadrukken: “Indien klimaatopwarming het gevolg is van de kennis van het vuur, of van een andere eigenschap die de menselijke soort verworven heeft ergens lang geleden in zijn evolutie, hoe kunnen we ons dan zelfs nog maar het ontmantelen van de fossiele economie verbeelden? [Argumenteren dat de klimaatopwarming veroorzaakt is door één soort] bevordert de mystificatie en politieke verlamming.”
Het valt moeilijk te bepalen of de term een goed debat gemiddeld schaadt of het eerder aanmoedigt. Maar als we de talrijke wendingen in acht nemen die de term sinds zijn ontstaan heeft gekend, is het aan te raden de kritiek ernstig te nemen.
Het valt moeilijk te bepalen of de term een goed debat gemiddeld schaadt of het eerder aanmoedigt. Maar als we de talrijke wendingen in acht nemen die de term sinds zijn ontstaan heeft gekend, is het aan te raden de kritiek ernstig te nemen. Dit soort beladen termen moet met zorg gehanteerd worden, en we moeten goed nadenken wanneer en waarom we de term zouden gebruiken.
Ja, ‘Antropoceen’ kan nuttig zijn om de geschiedenis van het leven op Aarde te vertellen. Het kan ook illustreren hoe diep de mens de Aardse systemen heeft veranderd. Ook suggereert het dat we onmogelijk terug kunnen keren naar de ‘ongerepte’ natuur die bestond voor de mens, zoals cultuurcritici lang hebben beweerd. Vanuit een geologisch perspectief is de term ongelooflijk aantrekkelijk om aan te geven dat de impact van de mens op de aardkorst zo diep is dat toekomstige aardbewoners, wanneer ze aan het graven gaan, een aardlaag zullen ontdekken die helemaal doordrongen is van de mens. Dit geologische feit is een prachtig beeld om al het bovenstaande uit te drukken.
Maar de term helpt niet noodzakelijk, zoals uitvoerig beargumenteerd, om de systemen die klimaatverandering bestendigen in vraag te stellen. Omdat hij de mensheid als geheel aanduidt, toont hij niet dat ons probleem politiek is, steunend op een onevenwichtige machtsverdeling. Door de startdatum van het Antropoceen open te laten (sommigen zeggen 50 jaar geleden, anderen 400 jaar, nog anderen 10.000, en weer anderen 50.000), faalt het woord om de hoofdrolspelers van de huidige ecologische crisis aan te duiden.
Zoals ‘duurzaamheid,’ ‘ontwikkeling,’ ‘natuurlijk,’ of ‘groen,’ is de term zo vaag dat hij door om het even wie kan gebruikt worden, voor het uitdagen van de machthebbers, om een snel centje te verdienen, of om een onderzoeksbeurs te scoren. Terwijl de term kan gebruikt worden om te argumenteren voor actie tegen klimaatverandering, kan hij even goed gebruikt worden om het aanboren van bijkomende olievelden te steunen (“och wat maakt het ook uit, we leven toch in het tijdperk van de menselijke superioriteit!”)
Je kan je afvragen of dit niet het geval is met alle woorden? Dat is het niet. Er zijn veel termen in gebruik bij de klimaatbeweging die zowel krachtig als moeilijk te ontvreemden zijn: degrowth, klimaatgerechtigheid, ecocide, ecologische schuld, en 350 ppm zijn er maar enkele van.
Het punt is niet dat het gebruik van Antropoceen zou moeten opgegeven worden – de term heeft duidelijk zijn nut gehad. Maar moet het, zoals in de voorbeelden hierboven, een strijdkreet zijn van klimaatwetenschappers en activisten? Moet het gebruikt worden als gespreksopener, in de hoop dat het de machthebbers zal overtuigen hun politiek te veranderen? Moet het kritiekloos gebruikt worden als het hoofdthema van talrijke wetenschappelijke congressen? Misschien niet.
Besluit: waarheen met het Antropoceen?
Woorden zijn machtig.
Zoals veel klimaatactivisten weten, is klimaatverandering een strijdperk van woorden. ‘350.org’ is genoemd naar de concentratie van 350 parts per million CO2 in de atmosfeer die door wetenschappers als nog acceptabel wordt beschouwd. ‘Klimaatgerechtigheid’ refereert naar het feit dat klimaatverandering verschillende mensen ongelijk zal treffen, en dat de klimaatbeweging zij aan zij moet strijden met mensen die systematisch onderdrukt worden op andere manieren. ‘Klimaatchaos’ ontstond om de zaken duidelijk te stellen, dat klimaatverandering zal zorgen voor een ontwrichting van de normale weerpatronen, eerder dan, zoals ‘opwarming’ schijnt te suggereren, een globale trage verhoging van de temperatuur.
Elk begrip zag een cyclus van early adopters, een groeiend gebruik, paradigmaverschuivingen in de algemene discussie, en daarna vaak kritiek gevolgd door een traag opgeven van de term.
Sommige concepten geïntroduceerd door vroegere sociale bewegingen blijven in gebruik: sociale gerechtigheid, burgerlijke ongehoorzaamheid, mensenrechten. Deze termen verwoorden zowel het probleem als de strategie, zijn politiek zonder teveel af te schrikken, en kunnen moeilijk ontvreemd worden door apolitieke actoren. Daarom blijven ze ook bruikbaar voor de sociale bewegingen van vandaag. ‘Antropoceen’ is niet zo een woord: het is voldoende vaag om door om het even wie gebruikt te worden, het is angstaanjagend zonder een uitweg te suggereren. Het heeft flair, het is aantrekkelijk, maar het mist macht.
Waarom is dit van belang? Woorden kunnen bewegingen maken of kraken.Helaas faalt de term ‘Antropoceen’ om de huidige situatie adequaat te framen, en daarom laat hij iedereen toe om de term te gebruiken ter promotie van de eigen oplossingen.
Waarom is dit van belang? Woorden kunnen bewegingen maken of kraken. Wanneer een beweging verzamelen blaast rond één term – bijvoorbeeld burgerrechten – verandert de manier waarop het publiek en dus de politiek het probleem percipieert. De manier waarop een probleem wordt gedefinieerd, de slogans van de actiegroepen, zijn ongelooflijk belangrijk om de noodzakelijke politieke veranderingen te bewerkstelligen. Helaas faalt de term ‘Antropoceen’ om de huidige situatie adequaat te framen, en daarom laat hij iedereen toe om de term te gebruiken ter promotie van de eigen oplossingen. Waar de term zeker veel discussies in gang heeft gezet, is hij noch politiek, noch precies, en zal hij daarom nooit leiden tot een goede, uitdagende, discussie. En juist nu is er echt nood aan discussies die uitdagend zijn.
Maar, willen of niet, ‘Antropoceen’ is er en heeft de manier waarop we denken en praten over de wereld al veranderd. Wetenschappers zullen de term blijven citeren, sociale theoretici zullen hem bestuderen, en in de media opgevoerde specialisten zullen hem gebruiken om wat dan ook in het ondermaanse te verantwoorden. Het is een ‘meme der memen, reagerend op andere memen’ geworden.
Aaron Vansintjan bestudeert ecologische economie, voedselsystemen, en stedelijke verandering. Hij is co-editor van Uneven Earth en geniet van journalistiek, wilde fermentatie, dekolonisering, degrowth, en lange fietstochten.
Vertaling door Luc Geeraert, voor het tijdschrift van Aardewerk (www.aardewerk.be) en in het kader van de Aardewerk Zomerweek “Het ‘Tijdperk van de Mens’: Over Leven in het Antropoceen,” die zal doorgaan in “La Bavière” in Chassepierre van 10 tot en met 16 augustus 2016.
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(If you play the above video while reading the article, it can provide a nice soundtrack)
As we found out on May 3rd, 2016, coal comes in a variety of shapes, textures, and sizes. Yes, we had “invaded” an open-cast coal mine for the sake of the climate, we were calling for a more just economic system that is not based on extraction, exploitation, and pollution. But in the presence of this substance, we became children collecting shells and pebbles at the beach: we crawled on hands and knees, exclaimed “woah, look at all the layers!”, placed them gently in bags to give to our friends later.
Holding a chunk of coal in my hand, I thought: this is the stuff. This is what they want. This brittle, dark substance powers my computer, lights my living room, and makes our modern livelihood possible. This opaque matter, which sucks in all the light around it, has stood at the center of social and environmental struggles for the last two centuries. It has powered science and innovation, fueled wars, and helped build the cities we live in. These thoughts imbued the coal I was holding with a sort of enchantment, inspired a reverence I had not felt before.
I thought: this is the stuff. This is what they want. This brittle, dark substance powers my computer, lights my living room, and makes our modern livelihood possible.
Ffos-y-fran, the United Kingdom’s largest open-cast coal mine, is nestled in the hills just outside of Merthyr Tydfil, a Welsh community of just 65,000 people. Miller Argent, the owner of the mine, employs 200 people and has dug up 5 million tonnes of award-winning coal, and intends to extract 11 million tonnes more.
For decades, the community has resisted the coal mine, complaining about the proximity of the mine, pollution of their ground water and air, the noise from explosives, and that it’s really, really ugly. While the community was in favor of deepcast mining—which involves less visible impact on the environment and will often employ local residents—open-cast mining employs far less people, most of whom are specialized in operating specific machinery and will move on once the mine is exhausted. In 2007 Miller Argent proposed to start another site nearby. Once again, the community resisted.
Reclaim the Power (RTP) is a decentralized network of climate justice activists—they organize without central leadership, coming together for strategic actions to block further development of the fossil fuel economy in the United Kingdom. As part of a two-week global wave of actions against fossil fuels, RTP organized their largest action yet: to invade a coal mine and shut it down for a day, symbolically highlighting the need to shift to a more just, fossil fuel-free economy.
Working with some amazing local activists, the United Valleys Action Group, RTP meticulously planned a campsite with the facilities to support hundreds of people (food, water, even composting toilets), orchestrated a massive media campaign, and even used the opportunity to host workshops, art-making, and dance parties. The result was beyond a direct action: it involved celebration, education, and politicization.
At several points during the action, I heard people remark, “what matters is how this appears in the media”, or, “this is useless if it’s not covered in the news.” Now, a week after the action, I want to reflect, not on its media impact, not on its success or failure—all important concerns. Very simply, I’d like to tell the story of what it’s like to be in a coal mine, explore it, and play with its terrain.
Unearthing the logic of the mine
“In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.”
The Situationists argued that the alienation workers felt in the factory had extended to every aspect of modern life. Our cities have become depoliticized, commodified spaces primarily geared toward profit and social isolation.
To confront this, they developed tactics—games—that could repurpose the city and allow them to engage with it differently. To them, understanding how the city shapes our daily lives was paramount in overcoming alienation from our environment, and breaking down isolation between each other.
If the city is the site of our daily alienation, then the coal mine is its engine.
One of these games was the “dérive”, meaning “drift”, where a small group of people would navigate the city, letting its landscape and terrain guide their movements. This would allow them to come to new conclusions about their city and pin-point ways to counteract its commodification and estrangement.
If the city is the site of our daily alienation, then the coal mine is its engine. The growth of modern urban life is inseparable from the extraction of coal. London first outmatched Amsterdam economically when the peasantry, displaced from their land, were forced to work in the coal mines. Coal powered the textile mills and food processing factories, which in turn enabled the cotton and sugarcane industries, fueled by slave labor, to flourish in the Americas. Coal kick-started a new world order, just as it continues to be a key ingredient for the industrial development of East Asian countries today.
Since the 1960s—when the Situationists were most active—the world has globalized and urbanized. We are now faced with what geographers call “planetary urbanization”—in which even the “countryside” has been shaped in the likeness of, and for the purpose of, growing megacities, and it has become difficult to say exactly where the city begins and ends. Now, all types of terrains and landscapes have been transformed into an interconnected mesh, a standing reserve of resources, extractive flows, and sites of commodified value.
The coal mine is an essential component of urbanization, and a great place for a dérive.
So why not think of the action at Foss-y-fran as a mass dérive? The organizers realized this: one affinity group dragged around giant inflatable “cobblestones”—a direct and conscious reference to the Paris May ’68 slogan “under the cobblestones, the beach”. The slogan recalled the cobblestones lifted by students to throw at police and create barricades with, but it also suggested that capital could be subverted by engaging with your surroundings in new ways.
It was this sense of play that many brought to the coal mine. When we arrived at the mine, there was a moment of wonder, excitement. This required weaving our way past giant mounds of slag that had been “reclaimed”—in other words, they grew some grass on top of it and allowed sheep to graze on them. But once past these, we entered a different world: everything around us was black and grey, muddy, gritty. Tall cliffs surrounded us on all sides, and nestled in their shadows were a handful of massive yellow machines—the diggers and the trucks.
The access roads were made for and by these machines. We were told to be careful of the smaller heaps of slag on each side: these could collapse and endanger others below. Finally, we found ourselves in the belly of the beast: the place where coal was being actively mined.
Here we were, in the hundreds, in a landscape not intended for pedestrians, let alone crowds. It was no accident, then, that we tended to gravitate toward the large machines that shaped this landscape. We quickly climbed up them and appropriated them with our slogans and games.
If you string a banner—“NO NEW COAL”—between two large diggers, you can play a game of volleyball with the “cobblestones”. The arm of the digger—just over two meters long—creates a hollow space ideal for amplifying a portable sound-system. When it rains, several dozen people can hide under a digger and start a mini-rave.
Once the initial excitement receded, we took strolls around the site, picking up rocks, inspecting deep pools of water, clambering up ledges. At one point, we stopped in front of a steep cliff. From a crevice in the layers of rock bubbled a tiny stream, staining the rock around it with a bright, rusty red. Even within this site dedicated to excavation, wildness still found a way to seep through the cracks. Amongst several people that I talked to, there was an appreciation for this landscape that I hadn’t expected: we agreed that there was something sublime about it.
Activists are often worried about whether their direct actions really “make an impact” or “succeed”. At meetings in London I attended in the past year, people would often suggest that community-based (“local”) organizing was less effective than orchestrating a large media presence and announcing clear, attainable demands, achieved through mass movements with precise political platforms. I’ve heard people criticize temporary occupations because they fail to scale up beyond the local, and, without institutionalized resistance or well-defined goals, they are unable to address the root of our problems.
The action at Ffos-y-Fran was highly temporary in nature: a day later, the mine was operating perfectly, without a hitch. It did not change any government policies, nor did participants articulate a coherent policy platform. What’s more, for every coal mine shut down in the UK, there are ten new ones in China, Vietnam, and Australia.
But is this how we want to define success? Ende Gelaende, the Germany-based anti-coal group whose invasion of a German coal mine last year inspired the Ffos-y-Fran action, loudly proclaim: “we are the investment risk!” The joke is that activists are happy to speak in the language that the fossil fuel companies use. Today they are at it again, with 3,000 people occupying the largest coal mine in Europe.
But the joke is double-sided: they are also poking fun at that very same language. It acknowledges that success cannot just be defined according to the language of the status quo. If all we mean by success is a good media presence, divestment of stocks, or a shift in government policy, then anything that does not look like that is ignored.
If you measure success according to statist, market-based goals, you will miss the non-statist, non-market activity that lurks underneath the action.
In his book Territories in Resistance, Raúl Zibechi argues that blockades and spontaneous actions have much deeper roots and are less fragmented than they seem. Rather than measuring their success in terms of whether they were able to change the state structure, he instead sees them as “lightning illuminating the night sky”: the direct action is just the more visible part of much larger, non-institutionalized movements that are already creating a new world within, and outside of, the old.
How about this for success: for a whole day, 300 of the UK’s most active climate justice activists got the chance to be inside of a coal mine, to understand its logic, and to get a feel for what is one of the most integral cogs to the current economy. For a day, adults became children, they turned machines into playgrounds, and they formed new relationships with each other.
How about this for success: for a whole day, 300 of the UK’s most active climate justice activists got the chance to be inside of a coal mine, to understand its logic, and to get a feel for what is one of the most integral cogs to the current economy.
If you measure success according to statist, market-based goals, you will miss the non-statist, non-market activity that lurks underneath the action. You will miss the heaps of dishes, the hours of meetings, the work put into making food. You will miss the crucial elements of a new type of movement that sees cooking, cleaning, playing, and caring as forms of resistance. These elements are busy rehearsing new ways of doing things, new types of economies.
The nature of the dérive is open-ended: it requires a kind of receptivity to new experiences, to new realizations. In return, it provides fresh insight into the machinations of our world, it suggests strategic weak points that may have not been visible before. If we are to resist today’s economy and plan for a new one, we cannot allow the elite to define success for us. Just as we must imagine new worlds, we must learn to create life and play in the ruins of the old.
Lifting the spell
The action was nearing its end. By 2 p.m., many of us were getting tired, others were just anxious to move out of the site we had occupied for the past five hours.
As a group, we decided that some of us would guard the diggers, which had become so familiar to us, and others would go explore the rest of the mines and try to stop the works that were happening elsewhere.
On the way there, we were met with a convoy of white Land Rovers filled with roughly 80 fully-outfitted riot police. They gave us two minutes to leave the premises. Now about 70 ourselves, we gathered in a circle to make a quick decision. I split off from the group with about fifteen others—not wanting to risk arrest at this point—and we made our way up another excavation site, which then curved around and over the hillside, finally leading us to the jagged edge of the mine.
The day had turned dark. I felt a bit like Frodo in Lord of the Rings: in the very guts of Mount Doom, my thoughts transformed by the landscape, all willpower receding in face of the challenge ahead of me.
When I reached the edge, I felt a thick layer of moss under my feet and saw the rolling Welsh hills in front of me. I collapsed onto the green ground. All of a sudden the dark spell was lifted. The massive black coal pit, at one point so impressive, had shaped my mood, and it gave the impression that there was no escape. Hugging the moss, I realized the extent to which the mine had clouded my judgements, and knew that it could no longer affect me.
From this edge we could see the events unfolding below us. A group of activists stood aside from the police, who, having left their vehicles, marched in impressive formation down the road, toward the deepest part of the mine, toward those who were guarding the diggers. We stayed at this look-out spot for about an hour, sharing snacks, talking about the day, and observing the show-down between the police and the handful of activists that remained.
It was at that point that the action was mostly over. It would take about two more hours for everyone else to leave. Some successfully stopped activity in other parts of the mine. Others chained themselves to the diggers. No arrests were made. In groups, we arrived back in camp, and were met with a warm welcome from those who had stayed behind.
A couple of minutes outside of the camp, a red traffic light obstructed my path. An endless supply of trucks, loaded high with coal, rolled out of the mine. Business as usual.
The next day, I set off back to the city. A couple of minutes outside of the camp, a red traffic light obstructed my path. An endless supply of trucks, loaded high with coal, rolled out from the mine. Business as usual. It seemed like yesterday was an illusion, a trip into the Kingdom of Narnia. Waiting for the light to change, I reached into my pocket and my fingers found a small rock. I took it out and looked at it: it was black, the size of a coin. It glinted in the sun. The traffic light turned green, and I put the piece of coal back into my pocket.
Postscript: lessons learned
If our action was like a “dérive”, I’d like to contribute three small notes to its methodology, none of them particularly new but each reinforced by my experiences of the action.
First, the structure of the “affinity group”—developed by activists to maintain autonomy and decentralization within actions, while ensuring trust and cohesion among the participants—is also useful for drifting through the terrain of the coal mine. Guy Debord notes that a dérive works best when capped at 2-4 participants. We could say that the affinity group, which tends to be comprised of 2-10 people, and will often be broken down into “buddy groups” of 2-3 people, makes it possible to conduct a dérive en masse.
Second, anonymity—upheld by activists in these kinds of actions for fear of surveillance and political persecution—is a double-edged sword. Paranoia inhibited trust between us, deflating some of the potential for making connections with others and multiplying strong bonds. It also inhibited some from being more outgoing and honest in their opinions, and created a hierarchy between long-time activists who knew and trusted each other and newcomers, like myself. Then again, the necessity of anonymity in the action led to a new experiential relationship for those who didn’t already know each other: who a person is was stressed less than the interactions you have with them. In these fleeting interactions, you were judged by your immediate acts and not by your ideas, past, political stance, etc. Kind of like at a party—a mass trespassing party.
Third, problems of exclusivity and ableism were apparent throughout the action. I met an older man who was almost in tears because he had been excluded systematically. Whenever he had tried to join an affinity group, people turned away or stopped talking. As a result, he didn’t feel comfortable joining in the day of the occupation. His way of speaking and interacting was unusual, and I thought that many of these activists might have been uncomfortable engaging with someone who seemed like he was mentally unstable.
In addition, one of the participants of the action used a wheelchair, and she constantly had to assert herself to make the action accessible to her. At one point, some people in her affinity group accompanied her to observe the edge of the mine: doing this could be seen, not as an inconvenience, but as an extremely radical action. It challenges both the world shaped by and for machines and the often inaccessible world of activist actions.
If an action is based on trust, it also means that the dominant group will define who is “trustworthy”, and not being member of that group or having mental health issues may increase the chance of not being trusted. Similarly, if an action is organized by mostly able, white folks, then the activities will likely feel alienating to those not part of those demographics, and they will need to work so much harder to be involved. A dérive can be so much more instructive if people excluded by this alienating, isolating society were to participate: they may be better equipped than anyone else to notice the weak points in the oppressive terrain.
All photos and videos by Aaron Vansintjan except for #17 (of the feet under the digger), which was taken by Anonymous.
Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, and long bicycle rides.
Drive through Northeastern Pennsylvania and you may see black hills of coal and orange water flowing near or through towns. What you’re witnessing is the legacy of historic anthracite coal mining, which fueled the USA’s industrial revolution and two world wars, had extremely dangerous labor practices, and lead to the destruction of its landscape. Diverse hardwood forests filled with wildlife were replaced with black mountains of coal waste with acidic soil that can only support birch trees, briar bushes, and scrub vegetation. Thriving cold-water fisheries were replaced with abandoned mine drainage (AMD), orange water devoid of oxygen and all aquatic life.
While mining issues are gaining national attention since the 2015 Gold King mine spill in Colorado, Pennsylvania sometimes seems like the forgotten state despite having more mining issues than any other state in the nation.
Anthracite mining once fueled the region’s economy, but after coal companies began to go bankrupt, once-thriving towns were left with nothing but devastated land & water and the scattered spines of abandoned coal breakers & mine shafts. Land reclamation projects and AMD treatment systems help to alleviate some of these problems, but these solutions are often expensive. While mining issues are gaining national attention since the 2015 Gold King mine spill in Colorado, Pennsylvania sometimes seems like the forgotten state despite having more mining issues than any other state in the nation. Perhaps it’s the fact that our mining heritage is in the past, while many other states continue to have active mineral and hardrock mining, allowing their issues to be more present.
The black hills of coal are more commonly known as culm piles. These piles are created by dumping coal waste, such as rock and shale, after separating it from the valuable anthracite coal. While these piles are large, they represent approximately 50% of what was taken out of the ground, revealing the massive size of mining voids lying beneath Pennsylvania’s valleys.
Land reclamation generally involves bringing the land back to a natural contour, adding a layer of topsoil to encourage vegetation, and seeding the land in order to begin the reclamation process.
Land reclamation projects are mostly funded through state and federal grants, with EPA Brownfield Grants and PA Department of Environmental Protection Growing Greener grants allowing non-profits to help recover devastated landscapes. Land reclamation generally involves bringing the land back to a natural contour, adding a layer of topsoil to encourage vegetation, and seeding the land in order to begin the reclamation process. While this process is straight-forward, mining pits can be incredibly steep, making the reclamation process take longer and be more costly.
AMD, or abandoned mine drainage, is another legacy of past mining. AMD flows from mine openings and drilled boreholes to relieve pressure from the underground mine pools. AMD forms when water reacts with pyrite, or ‘fool’s gold’, deep in the underground abandoned mine workings.
As pyrite is exposed to water and oxygen, the sulfides within the rock react and break down to form sulfuric acid and iron oxide. Other metals and minerals within the rock can also become exposed and pollute the water, with many discharges in PA and other states containing heavy metals such as iron and aluminum, and some discharges containing trace amounts of harmful metals such as lead and arsenic.
To put this into perspective, many mines were 500-1000 feet deep, with some mine shafts reaching approximately 2000 feet in depth. Like digging a hole in the sand at the beach, at a certain point water will keep filling the hole no matter how much you try to keep it out. It’s the same with mine water. Once mining companies hit the water table, they would always have to pump water out of the mines, continually increasing the cost to produce anthracite coal. After all of the coal companies went bankrupt, along with historic events such as the Knox Mine Disaster in 1959 and the Historic Agnes Flood of 1972, deep mining ended in most parts of the Coal Region.
The Knox Mine Disaster occurred on January 22, 1959 when the Knox Coal Company drilled within 20 feet of the Susquehanna River bottom. The immense water pressure caused the mine to collapse, creating a whirlpool that filled miles of underground tunnels with water. 12 miners died in the tragedy.
The Knox Mine Disaster occurred on January 22, 1959 when the Knox Coal Company drilled within 20 feet of the Susquehanna River bottom. The immense water pressure caused the mine to collapse, creating a whirlpool that filled miles of underground tunnels with water. 12 miners died in the tragedy. The disaster highlighted the dangers of irresponsible mining practice, with the ultimate consequence being the flooding of honeycombed mine workings throughout the Wyoming Valley causing working mines to be inundated with water, effectively ending the already struggling anthracite coal industry.
By the Agnes Flood of 1972 in which the Susquehanna River rose 40 feet and devastated the Wyoming Valley, most mining companies had claimed bankruptcy and as the pumps removing water were shut off, mine water began to spill out of any available opening leaving streets, basements, and streams filled with polluted mine water.
Furthermore, because mining companies were not required to treat abandoned mine drainage or reclaim mining land, once a company went bankrupt, the burden fell on taxpayers and government organizations to clean up the mess. Present-day active companies are required to reclaim land and treat any AMD discharges caused by their mining.
In Pennsylvania, AMD occurs in the Anthracite Region in the Northeast and the Bituminous Region in Western PA. In the Northern Anthracite fields, most AMD discharges have heavy concentrations of iron with relatively neutral pH’s around 6.5, the same pH as normal rainfall. In the Middle & Southern Fields and the Bituminous Region, discharges tend to be more acidic (4 pH) with heavy concentrations of aluminum. Treatment systems help remove AMD and restore water quality. There are 2 types of treatment, active and passive. Active treatment refers to the use of added components such as chemicals (limestone) and machinery (oxygenation machines and automatic chemical dosers) to treat AMD.
Overall, treatment systems are expensive to install and even after successful installation, long-term upkeep can become difficult to fund and maintain.
In general, active systems are more costly and require electricity and regular maintenance to remain efficient. Passive treatment refers to the use of natural settling in large ponds for oxygenation as well as natural growth of wetland plants to treat AMD. Passive methods include settling ponds and using gravity to move water through a treatment system. These systems are usually more cost effective and don’t have many long term maintenance or operation costs. Overall, treatment systems are expensive to install and even after successful installation, long-term upkeep can become difficult to fund and maintain.
While this pollution problem will take a lot of effort to remediate, dedicated watershed associations, local conservation districts, and environmental non-profits are working to fix this problem by installing treatment systems, restoring streams, and educating the public about this issue through community events such as illegal dump cleanups on minelands and environmental education projects with community organizations and local school districts.
Pennsylvania’s legacy of abandoned minelands and AMD have implications nationally as well as globally. While clean energy is an important goal to achieve in order to help move towards a new era of environmental stewardship, coal mining communities need to be supported in the form of mineland and AMD clean-ups as well as economic stimulation in order to successfully move towards a better future.
Pennsylvania’s mine land issues are a vast, far-reaching, and expensive problem. The effect can be seen nationwide, with other coal states such as Wyoming, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Illinois facing the same issues. Hardrock mining states also face similar issues, as seen with the Gold King Mine disaster in Colorado. Globally, countries like China, India, and Australia are just beginning to produce mass amounts of coal. Pennsylvania’s legacy of abandoned minelands and AMD have implications nationally as well as globally. While clean energy is an important goal to achieve in order to help move towards a new era of environmental stewardship, coal mining communities need to be supported in the form of mineland and AMD clean-ups as well as economic stimulation in order to successfully move towards a better future. Pennsylvania’s struggles can serve as an example for other communities throughout the United States and developing industrial countries.
All photos by Gabby Zawacki.
Gabby Zawacki is a Watershed Outreach Specialist for the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (EPCAMR), an environmental non-profit in Northeastern Pennsylvania. In her free time she enjoys hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, traveling, and photography.
This article originally appeared in the Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2016 report.
“The object is to change the heart and soul” – Margaret Thatcher
On the final day of the UN summit held in Paris in December 2015, thousands of people defied a ban on public gatherings by converging at a boulevard leading to the business district in La Défense to denounce the new climate agreement that government negotiators were about to sign and celebrate at the conference venue in Le Bourget, 20 kilometres away.
Hoping to counter governments’ attempts to control the narrative regarding the summit, they gathered behind giant inflatable ‘cobblestones’ and a red banner proclaiming “System change not climate change!” Departing from some other environmentalist groups, they held placards criticising the undemocratic ways in which decisions regarding our relationship to nature are ultimately made only by capitalists and other powerful groups in the current global capitalist system. In different ways, they put forward a more democratic alternative: a system in which ‘the people’ decide on important questions such as what sources of energy to use and what activities to power and for whose benefit, how many trees to fell and to produce what goods for whom or, more generally, how to organise our relationship to nature and in pursuit of what ends.
Broad and as defiant as the action turned out to be, however, it was still not as large or as confrontational as some of the organisers had hoped. Unable to rally more people behind them, the radical anti-capitalists had little choice but to abandon their original plan to barricade Le Bourget and also ruled out marching on La Défense. In the end, the protesters could only gather, lobbing their ‘cobblestones’ in the air, aimed at no targets. Meanwhile, the popping of champagne corks in Le Bourget or La Défense went undisturbed.
Why, as this particular but not uncommon episode indicates, are activists struggling for a more democratic system unable to attract more people to their side? Or why, despite the intensifying ecological crisis caused by capitalism, is the movement for radical system change still confined to the margins?
Part of the answer surely has to do with how the world’s elites have increasingly resorted to more coercive measures to keep people off the streets or prevent them from conceiving or expressing anti-systemic demands. But—as shown by the large number of people who refused to be cowed by the threat of force or to buy into the governments’ discourse in Paris and beyond—it is not merely the presence or absence of physical or ideological repression that determine people’s willingness to take on the powerful. Indeed, it pushes us to ask why more people are not willing to defy repression to fight for a democratic system.
This essay seeks to contribute to understanding the causes of the movement’s weakness by drawing attention to another, typically overlooked, way by which the dominant seek to contain challenges to their undemocratic rule other than by trying to repress people’s bodies in order to dissuade or restrain them from overthrowing the system: that of trying to mold people’s very subjectivities—how they see their identities, how they make sense of their life situations, what they aspire to, whom they consider their ‘friends’ or their ‘enemies’—in order to persuade people to actively defend the system.
By purportedly trying to ‘change the system’, a particular section of the world’s elites have achieved some success in countering radicals’ attempts to reshape people’s subjectivities, thus preventing them from fighting for a radically democratic system.
I argue that part of the reason why activists struggling for a democratic alternative to capitalism find it difficult to draw more people to their cause is because a section of the world’s dominant classes have been waging what we can think of, extending Gramsci, as a kind of global “passive revolution”: an attempt to re-construct or secure (global) hegemony by attempting to fundamentally reform global capitalism in order to partially grant the demands of subordinate groups. I show how, by purportedly trying to ‘change the system’, a particular section of the world’s elites have achieved some success in countering radicals’ attempts to reshape people’s subjectivities, thus preventing them from fighting for a radically democratic system.
A resurgent global counter-hegemonic movement
To better understand how world elites seek to contain counter-hegemonic challenges to their rule, it is useful to go back to the late 1960s when new radical movements, including those mobilising around ecological issues, burst onto the world stage as part of a broader resurgence of radicalism.
Even before then, a growing number of people in industrialised countries and also in the ‘Third World’ had been increasingly concerned about their deteriorating living conditions as a result of the ecological degradation that came with capitalism’s renewed post-war global expansion. Before the 1960s, many people still typically thought of these ecological problems and the impacts these had on their lives to be the result of others’ ‘bad personal habits’, ‘unscientific management’ of resources, or insufficient regulation of ‘big business’. They therefore generally thought that these problems could be solved and their suffering ended by the inculcation of better personal habits, more ‘scientific management’ of resources,’ or greater checks on big business. Consequently, few directed their anger at the world’s dominant classes in response to ecological degradation. While there would be a growing number of protests as people ‘spontaneously’ defended themselves against direct attacks on their wellbeing, they did not amount to the kind of organised and sustained resistance that threatened the ruling classes in earlier revolutionary upheavals in various countries.1
Starting in the 1960s, however, various intellectuals began to advance a different way of making sense of, and responding to, ecological problems. Herbert Marcuse, Barry Commoner, Murray Bookchin, or Chico Mendes, along with other scientists, journalists, writers, and organisers, began drawing not only from Marx but also from Morris, Kropotkin, Weber, and other critical thinkers to popularise new ways of looking at the world that challenged not just the dominant worldviews but even those propagated by so-called ‘Old Left’ activists.
Calling on ‘the people’ as members of exploited classes and other dominated groups whose interests were antagonistic to those of the world’s elites, they argued that deteriorating living conditions were not just because of bad habits, poor management, or the insufficient regulation of big business by governments, but because of the historically-specific property relations under capitalism. They revealed how capitalism drives capitalists, or those who own land, factories, power plants and other “means of production” and who therefore monopolise social decisions over production, to constantly intensify their exploitation of both workers and nature so as to maximise profits.
To overcome their suffering, they argued that reforms such as regulating big business—while not necessarily wrong—would not suffice; they needed to challenge nothing less than capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and other forms of domination. Though they did not necessarily agree on how to go about it, they urged them to end what Marx once called the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” or the system of rule in which only those who own the means of production ultimately make production decisions. This would involve fighting for the abolition of private property relations and building a society in which all people collectively and democratically own the means of production and therefore have a say in making decisions about how to organise production. Only then, they argued, would it be possible to prioritise people’s welfare and the planet’s well-being over the need to constantly maximize profits.
Through their myriad efforts to propagate these new ways of making sense of and acting upon ‘ecological’ problems, these radical intellectuals began to reshape people’s subjectivities by providing alternative ways of looking at the world, of understanding their identities, of diagnosing and overcoming their suffering.
With these changed subjectivities, people connected the struggle around ‘environmental’ problems to broader struggles for social justice and equality and channelled their anger about ecological degradation away from fighting other individuals or other subordinate groups towards the dominant classes, their allies in the state apparatus, and other influential groups.
As indicated by the growing membership and supporters of radical anti-capitalist ‘environmental’ organisations or movements that were concerned with ‘environmental’ questions, ever more people would begin to see themselves and the environmental problems they suffered in a new light.2 Many started to think of themselves as members of oppressed and exploited classes and also began to connect ‘environmental problems’ and their social impacts to capitalist, patriarchal, colonial, racial or other forms of domination. As one activist who came of age during this period put it: “a complete disaffection with ‘the system’… resonated deeply between East and West, North and South”.3 Protesters moved beyond critiques of particular aspects of capitalism and “challenged the very essence of capitalism”, according to the environmental historian, John McCormick. Many began to aspire to a post-capitalist, if not socialist, society. And they recognised the need to confront and overthrow the ruling classes and other dominant groups determined to perpetuate capitalism. “Whatever the cause”, notes McCormick, “by 1970, there had been a revolution in environmental attitudes”. 4
With these changed subjectivities, people connected the struggle around ‘environmental’ problems to broader struggles for social justice and equality and channelled their anger about ecological degradation away from fighting other individuals or other subordinate groups towards the dominant classes, their allies in the state apparatus, and other influential groups. Struggles around pollution, nuclear power, pesticides, and so on would become central to a reinvigorated global radical anti-capitalist bloc and re-ignited something that world elites thought they had ended: a “global civil war”.5
Although they did not necessarily succeed in—or did not even attempt to—seize state power, their actions, the historian Eric Hobsbawm argued, were still revolutionary “in both the ancient utopian sense of seeking a permanent reversal of values, a new and perfect society, and in the operational sense of seeking to achieve it by action on streets and barricades”.6 Or, as geographer Michael Watts noted of the uprisings that swept the world in 1968, they were revolutionary not “because governments were, or might have been, overthrown but because a defining characteristic of revolution is that it abruptly calls into question existing society and presses people into action”.7 Critical of ‘existing society’ and pressed into action, a growing number of people began fighting for what later activists called ‘system change’ to address ecological problems.
This resurgence of radical environmentalism in particular and of radicalism in general troubled those intellectuals drawn from or aligned with the world’s dominant classes in the United States and other advanced industrialised countries. Barraged with unrelenting criticism—pickets, protests, boycotts, direct actions—and besieged by demands for stronger regulation and ‘system change,’ many US business leaders felt under attack. One executive probably captured the mood when he said in jest: “At this rate business can soon expect support from the environmentalists. We can get them to put the corporation on the endangered species list”.8 Not since the Great Depression and the New Deal, notes political scientist David Vogel, did US capitalists feel so “politically vulnerable”. Although the exact conditions varied, the situation was similar in other countries where radical movements emerged.
One executive probably captured the mood when he said in jest: “At this rate business can soon expect support from the environmentalists. We can get them to put the corporation on the endangered species list”.
Under siege, many dominant intellectuals and corporate elites struggled to understand what was going on, how to define their interests in the face of it, and how to react. Many thought that the so-called ‘environmental problems’ were not ‘problems’ at all or that they could be solved through the normal workings of the market or through existing institutions.9 Insofar as they acknowledged the problem, many perceived only a threat to their company’s or their industry’s interests and sought to protect them by simply rejecting the grievances aired by subordinate groups, killing their proposals, and resorting to coercive measures to intimidate or discredit their proponents.10
But there were other intellectuals who pursued and advocated an altogether different response.
Unlike most reactionary elites, these reformists were typically from patrician or bourgeois families in their respective countries. Others were from less privileged backgrounds but had assumed high government office or positions in ‘civil society’ organisations, most notably the philanthropic foundations. But unlike government officials, they were what Weber called the “notables”: those who lived for rather than off politics.11
Among those from such backgrounds who would play leading roles on climate-related issues would be people like Laurence and David Rockefeller, of the famous dynasty’s younger generation; Robert O. Anderson, owner of the oil giant Atlantic Richfield; McGeorge Bundy, the former dean of Harvard and National Security adviser and later president of the Ford Foundation; Robert McNamara, former CEO of Ford Motors, Defense Secretary, World Bank President, and Ford Foundation trustee.
In other countries across Europe, Latin America and Asia, they included those with very similar backgrounds to their US counterparts. Among them were the likes of Giovanni Agnelli, chairman of Italian car company Fiat; Aurelio Peccei, former president of Olivetti and convenor of the Club of Rome; Alexander King, an influential British scientist; Maurice Strong, former president of a large Canadian oil company and later head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); Barbara Ward, a British economist and best-selling author, and adviser to numerous world leaders; Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau; Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India; Gamani Corea, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), from Sri Lanka; Mahbub ul-Haq, World Bank vice president from Pakistan; and numerous other ‘gentlemen lawyers’ and ‘learned cosmopolitans’.
Though they came from different countries, had their own specific interests, and pursued different and not always congruent projects, this loose network of elite intellectuals often pursued the same actions or took the same positions on particular issues. This was not because they were engaged in a ‘conspiracy’ but because their background meant that they generally thought about and acted upon global ecological issues through the lens of a common worldview.12
Unlike other elites, they were generally more open to the view that global warming and other ecological changes were indeed happening. Thus, for example, the oilman-turned-philanthropist who funded some of the key organisations that would push for action on climate change, Robert O. Anderson, called for a “steady mid-course between doom and gloom alarmists and those who resist acknowledging the clear danger to which the human environment is being subjected”.13 Similarly, the industrialists, executives, and scientists gathered in the Club of Rome would portray the environmental issue as nothing less than a “global crisis”.14
Breaking with other elites, they effectively concluded that in order to defuse such a threat, at least some of the grievances and demands of subordinate groups needed to be addressed—something that could be done only by fundamentally reforming global capitalism.
And, unlike other elites, they thought that the problem involved far larger threats than simply the diminution of specific firms’ prerogatives or countries’ economic competitiveness. They worried about pollution impairing their access to raw materials, intensifying international competition and prompting protectionism, and potentially even igniting inter-capitalist wars, such as World War I and World War II, that could once again fragment the global market and impede capitalist expansion. But more than that, they also worried that environmental degradation would further fuel public dissatisfaction and anger and therefore encourage support for radicalism.
Breaking with other elites, they effectively concluded that in order to defuse such a threat, at least some of the grievances and demands of subordinate groups needed to be addressed—something that could be done only by fundamentally reforming global capitalism.
Bound by these common views, these “enlightened reactionaries”—to use Karl Polanyi’s label—set out to build a transnational reformist movement or “bloc from above”, bringing together otherwise isolated elites and drawing in members of other classes to push for their project of ‘changing the system.’ They did this despite more conservative elites who wanted no change at all, and of course, against the radicals who wanted a very different kind of system change.
Undertaking parallel, sometimes even clashing initiatives, they deployed their vast economic resources and social connections—straddling the worlds of business, politics and science—to build this movement’s capacity to engage in ideological and political struggle on the world stage.
Radical language, reformist ends
To attract support, they advocated a different way of making sense of, and, thus, of thinking, talking, and acting about ‘global environmental change’ that absorbed certain elements proposed by radicals while departing from them on the most fundamental questions.
They studiously avoided calling them members of exploited or dominated classes whose interests are in conflict with those of the exploiting or dominant classes; instead, they preferred to emphasise their identity as members of one “mankind” whose interests are not at odds with the interests of the world’s elites—all inhabitants of “Only One Earth.”
Like radicals, they sometimes called upon or “interpellated” members of subordinate groups as belonging to the ‘poor’ as opposed to the ‘rich’, and sometimes even borrowed from radicals in designating them as part of the ‘periphery’ as opposed to the ‘core’. But they studiously avoided calling them members of exploited or dominated classes whose interests are in conflict with those of the exploiting or dominant classes; instead, they preferred to emphasise their identity as members of one “mankind” whose interests are not at odds with the interests of the world’s elites—all inhabitants of “Only One Earth”, as the title of Ward’s bestselling 1972 book for the first UN conference on the environment put it.
Echoing radicals, they told people that global ecological problems had less to do with ‘bad personal habits’ and more to do with the broader political and economic system. As the 1974 Cocoyoc Declaration, a follow-up to the 1972 Stockholm declaration written by Ward, ul-Haq, and others, put it: “[M]ankind’s predicament is rooted primarily in economic and social structures and behavior within and between countries”. But unlike radicals, they stressed that the problem was not the system as such but rather the lack of regulation and inadequate ‘scientific management’ of the system at the global level. Though they would disagree over what counts as “excessive”, all saw ecological problems as “evils which flow from excessive reliance on the market system”, in the words of the Cocoyoc Declaration.
Countering both conservatives and radicals, they argued for the need neither to keep the system nor to junk it altogether but to improve it by reducing the “excessive reliance on the market” and by moving towards what the Cocoyoc Declaration calls the “management of resources and the environment on a global scale”.
So, like radicals, they explained to people that they could only alleviate their suffering by pushing for what radicals called ‘system change’. But against radicals, they told people that changing the system did not entail overthrowing capitalism, but rather enhancing the global regulation of capitalism through what the Club of Rome called “radical reform of institutions and political processes at all levels”. Countering both conservatives and radicals, they argued for the need neither to keep the system nor to junk it altogether but to improve it by reducing the “excessive reliance on the market” and by moving towards what the Cocoyoc Declaration calls the “management of resources and the environment on a global scale”. The Club of Rome, for example, called for a “world resource management plan”15 while the Trilateral Commission advocated “international policy coordination” for managing the “global commons”16 in order to correct market failures, minimise inefficiencies, foster competition, and redistribute wealth in order to reduce poverty and mitigate ecological degradation. These proposals were what later scholars would call “international ecological managerialism”, or global “ecological modernization”.17
They urged the public to focus their anger only on particular members of the dominant group—i.e. ‘bad capitalists’ or those ‘bad elites’. At the same time, they called upon the public to join the moral, responsible elites as ‘partners’ in pushing for and bringing about ‘system change.’
Put differently, they told people that they should aspire not to the creation of a post-capitalist society but to a greener, more regulated, capitalist society. For only by perpetuating reformed ‘green’ capitalism, pursuing more trade, more growth and ‘sustainable development’ could ‘mankind’ solve ecological problems, address social grievances, and realise the vision of the good life. As the Founex Declaration put it: “development”—meaning capitalist development—is the “cure” for the environmental problems facing the poor.
Consequently, against radicals who urge people to view the dominant classes as their oppressors and the targets of opposition, they urged the public to focus their anger only on particular members of the dominant group—i.e. ‘bad capitalists’ or those ‘bad elites’ (variously, the USA, the advanced economies, big business, the oil corporations, the Republicans, and so on). At the same time, they called upon the public to join the moral, responsible elites as ‘partners’ in pushing for and bringing about ‘system change.’ Much of what succeeding reformists would say and prescribe from the 1970s through to the 2000s essentially built on these recurring discursive or ideological themes.
Building their movement’s capacity
Reformist intellectuals did not, however, stop at rallying people to their side and exhorting them to fight for their cause. Often in coordination, but also sometimes competing with each other, they mobilised to equip their supporters with cutting-edge knowledge on global environmental problems—and with ‘policy options’ for managing them—by funding or otherwise supporting hundreds if not thousands of universities and government or inter-governmental research departments and think-tanks.
Thus, for example, the Ford Foundation financed a whole battalion of academic centres, research departments and scientific networks such as the Aspen Institute, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the Brookings Institute, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Trilateral Commission “study groups”, and many other outfits. The Volkswagen Foundation funded the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study. McNamara transformed the World Bank into the world’s largest centre for research on the relationship between environment and development. As its first Executive Director, Maurice Strong established UNEP as one of the key initiators of large-scale collaborative research on the ozone hole, biodiversity loss, and climate change. Reformists in developing countries formed the South Centre, a think-tank that became a key source of analysis for government officials from the South.18
These ‘capacity-building’ efforts extended to a wide range of organisations, in part because of a deliberate strategy of taking risks and finding innovative people. Ford, even as it supported more moderate or even more conservative reformists, also funded ‘public interest’ organisations that were more critical of ‘big business’ and more inclined to raise questions of social justice.
This is not to say that they merely funded research with which they would agree. Indeed, probably as a result of their own lack of knowledge, uncertainties, or internal tensions, they chose, or at least strove, to ‘diversify their portfolios’ by supporting different researchers approaching the problem from dissimilar perspectives, including those they would subsequently disagree with.
To improve their ability to advocate for the reforms they wanted, they also undertook various initiatives to identify and groom scores of highly educated middle-class professionals—lawyers, economists and scientists—who were supportive of their reformist vision, and devoted considerable resources and energy towards promoting the ‘professionalisation’ of their activism. Ford, Rockefeller, Anderson and others, for example, bankrolled the formation of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC), and possibly thousands of other moderate or non-radical groups across the world. 19
These ‘capacity-building’ efforts extended to a wide range of organisations, in part because of a deliberate strategy of taking risks and finding innovative people. Ford, even as it supported more moderate or even more conservative reformists, also funded ‘public interest’ organisations that were more critical of ‘big business’ and more inclined to raise questions of social justice.
Through such investments in generating knowledge and building movements, they assembled a loose, decentralised, transnational network of highly-trained reformists, occupying strategic positions in various governments, international organisations and civil society groups worldwide, which then pushed the world’s governments to adopt a raft of far-reaching environmental measures to address global environmental problems at the local and global levels.
Thus, for example, equipped with research confirming global warming and with studies assessing possible policy options, this global network of reformists mobilised to raise the alarm and push for unprecedented global regulatory interventions to address climate change. It was UNEP, for example, that encouraged scientists to speak up and to push for an internationally coordinated response. Scientists and activists associated with EDF and other reformist groups organised a flurry of international conferences on the issue and pressed the world’s governments to commence negotiations on an agreement. And it was EDF and others that spearheaded the formation of the Climate Action Network (CAN), which would go on to be become the world’s largest network of NGOs calling for government “action” on climate change.20 Simply put, if it had not been for the independent but converging initiatives of these reformists—and the elites that supported them—the UN negotiations on climate change might never have happened.
Although they did not necessarily agree on all the details, they did converge in pushing for a strong, legally-binding international climate agreements. They united behind demands for unprecedented internationally coordinated interventions in the global economy that could oblige certain countries and industries to drastically reduce their emissions and for establishing a kind of de facto global ‘welfare scheme’ that could compel some countries to transfer finance and technology to others.
A global battle for hearts and souls
Thanks to all these investments in political and ideological mobilisation, the reformist movement was able to go on the offensive from the 1970s onwards. Effectively backed by the threat of the more radical alternatives posed by the movements to their left, it succeeded in overcoming conservative resistance and incrementally put in place a range of ambitious and far-reaching environmental regulatory measures in many countries, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act approved in the USA in the 1970s At the international level, this reformist bloc secured agreements tackling global environmental problems such as the ozone hole, biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change. These measures, as limited as they may have been, likely prevented even worse outcomes had reformists not pushed for them.
In so doing, reformist elites did more than just deliver limited relief and material concessions to members of the dominated classes; they also countered radicals’ attempts to reshape their subjectivities and succeeded in dispelling their attempts to channel people’s anger and anxiety towards fighting for radical system change.
By appearing to change the system and channelling limited benefits or advantages to subordinate groups, reformists undermined radicals’ capacity to convince people to diagnose their suffering as the inevitable result of capitalism.
This is because, by appearing to change the system and channelling limited benefits or advantages to subordinate groups, they undermined radicals’ capacity to convince people to diagnose their suffering as the inevitable result of capitalism and to see themselves as members of antagonistic classes whose interests are always incompatible with the dominant classes.
And, as an increasing number of people came to see themselves as members of harmonious communities, to believe that their suffering is caused only or primarily by the lack of regulation of capitalism, to conclude that they could improve their conditions without going so far as having to overthrow capitalism, and to view at least some elites as ‘partners’ or ‘leaders’ to support, so ever fewer would therefore be motivated to defy the powerful and to cast their lot with movements fighting for radical system change.
Once on the upsurge, radical anti-capitalist movements would consequently be on the defensive, continuing to organise but increasingly pushed to the margins.
For this and other reasons, radicals worldwide have not only found it harder to gain new adherents from the 1970s on, but even once-committed fighters would either lay down their arms or ‘defect’ altogether.21 Once on the upsurge, radical anti-capitalist movements would consequently be on the defensive, continuing to organise but increasingly pushed to the margins. In the USA, Europe, and probably in other countries where the radical environmentalist message had only a few years before gained traction, radical critique would “fizzle out” and anti-capitalist environmentalism would suffer a “precipitous decline”.22
Thus, without always deploying the violence they constantly keep in the background, the more forward-looking of the world’s elites have at the very least been able to dissuade people from struggling to replace capitalism with a different, radically democratic system; at most, they have been able to persuade or motivate them to actively fight to ‘improve’ an inherently undemocratic system in order to prevent it from being overthrown. By organising and mobilising a transnational movement from above to wage a global “passive revolution” in favour of regulating the market, they have been able to defuse the class antagonisms that the radical intellectuals had sought to kindle. By so doing, they have not only prevented or restrained people from expressing or venting their anger, but have been able to harness that anger towards tinkering with the system in order to keep it the same.
Our movement has not only survived the reformist offensive but in recent years, we have even become resurgent again. But whether we will do more than survive ultimately depends on whether we can counter these more forward-looking elites’ sophisticated and well-organised attempts to change the hearts and souls of those we seek to draw to our side.
Had these reformist elites not mounted this global passive revolution, it is unlikely that the world’s governments would have attempted to establish global-level regulation to address global ecological problems. And had the world’s governments not acted, it is unlikely that they would have staved off a global counter-hegemonic challenge to capitalism.
And yet, it is also important to stress that, as indicated by the willingness of a significant number of people to engage in mass civil disobedience action on the final day of the latest UN climate summit in Paris and the growing radicalisation of many climate activists worldwide, they still have not succeeded in completely defeating or eliminating this challenge altogether. For reasons that have to do in part with leading reformists’ decision to accommodate conservative elites’ demands to weaken their proposed reforms, our movement has not only survived the reformist offensive but in recent years, we have even become resurgent again.
But whether we will do more than survive ultimately depends on whether we can counter these more forward-looking elites’ sophisticated and well-organised attempts to change the hearts and souls of those we seek to draw to our side. This does not necessarily have to mean always just opposing the reforms and concessions that the more ‘radical’ among the reformists are promoting, or completely refusing to work with them in all circumstances. But it does mean constantly subverting their attempts to channel people’s anger to only their chosen enemies and to confine them to just aspiring for a greener, more ecologically-conscious ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.’ Put differently, it means pushing people to go beyond the horizon that the reformists seek to restrict them to, and to help empower them to dream of a democratic, socialist, alternative.
The alternative is that we just remain stuck in place without being able to march forward.
Herbert Villalon Docena is currently a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and a member of a workers’ group, Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (Solidarity of Filipino Workers), in the Philippines. Prior to pursuing graduate studies, he was a researcher and campaigner with Focus on the Global South.
Recently there’s been a wave of arguments defending economic growth from a leftist perspective. People are increasingly reacting to the rise of ‘degrowth’: a diverse movement calling for, among other things, scaling back the total material and energy use of the global economy.
One particularly vigorous example is the work of Leigh Phillips, where he accuses degrowthers—who he claims have become “hegemonic” (file under: things I wish were true but aren’t)—of undermining classic leftist pursuits such as progress, well-being, and strengthening of social services. Similar arguments could be seen in a recent article that appeared in Jacobin Magazine, in which growth was posited as necessary for progress. And Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman have come out against degrowth, claiming that economic growth is actually necessary to address climate change, and lumping degrowthers together with the Koch Brothers, as they both seem to seek to dismantle the state.
When two sides of an argument have a totally different definition of the concept that’s being debated, and if one side even refuses to define it, constructive discussions tend to turn into uncompromising squabbles.
Many of their points have been valid and necessary—serving to complicate the simplistic ‘are-you-for-capitalism-or-a-Luddite?’ narrative. Preaching the benefits of technology and criticizing the current economic system are not mutually exclusive. But there are some recurring problems with these arguments that I want to highlight.
In this article, I argue that definitions of growth are either unclear or constantly shifting depending on the argument. The result is that authors often misunderstand and do not engage adequately with critiques of growth. When two sides of an argument have a totally different definition of the concept that’s being debated, and if one side even refuses to define it, constructive discussions tend to turn into uncompromising squabbles. In an effort to clear up some misunderstandings, I briefly explain what I see as some of the values of the degrowth position.
Growth is everything and nothing: long live growth!
Perhaps the most emblematic—and unfortunate—leftist (or leftish) challenge to degrowth came from Paul Krugman, all the way back in October 2014.
This was a significant occasion. For the most part, mainstream economics ignores ecological economics—a “rogue” field that harbors many of the growth dissenters. But with this article, Krugman brought the challenge out into the open. In his words, the criticism of growth is “a marginal position even on the left, but it’s widespread enough to call out nonetheless.”
Weirdly, Krugman spent most of the article explaining how shipping companies reduced their energy expenditure in 2008 by slowing down their ships. Using this example, his defense of ‘economic growth’ waffled between two very different arguments: that an increase in efficiency can lead to less energy being consumed, and that, theoretically, it is possible to increase the total economic transactions while decreasing total energy use.
With respect to efficiency, Krugman waded into a discussion in which he seems to be out of his depth—other ships have sailed these waters for a long time now. From 19th-century English economists concerned with the decline of available coal to scientists investigating the impact of washing machines, people have long wrestled with problems like the one he raised: how an improvement in efficiency might nevertheless lead to a total increase in energy use. So from the perspective of ecological economics—which has sought to understand how the human economy is embedded within the physical environment—it’s not that hard to sink Krugman’s flimsy argument that an increase in efficiency necessarily increases economic growth while decreasing total energy consumption.
Krugman waded into a discussion in which he seems to be out of his depth—other ships have sailed these waters for a long time now.
What’s curious though about his article is that he not once defined economic growth. This definition remained latent—one can only assume that, whenever he used the term economic growth, he meant the increase in the annual monetary value of economic transactions over time, calculated using the GDP. The article could’ve been a chance for him to show exactly why economic growth is desirable. Instead, he spent most of the article fumbling to find some example that shows that economic growth can theoretically be decoupled from oil consumption.
Granted, if that was the only goal of his article, it would’ve been a good point: a rise in GDP is not the same as a rise in energy use, economic transactions could still take place in a low-carbon economy. The problem is that his argument claimed to go beyond this—seeking to contradict the degrowth claim that, until now, economic growth has been strongly coupled with increasing material and energy use. But his evidence remained purely theoretical, and therefore failed to settle the debate.
This tendency isn’t unique to neoclassical Keynesians—I’ve seen Marxists who’ve suffered from the same inability to explain what, exactly, they mean by economic growth, thereby misunderstanding the call for degrowth.
In Jacobin Magazine, Samuel Farber argues that notions of progress are actually essential for any leftist project. Improvements in technology, infrastructure, and material well-being are crucial for addressing inequality and injustice globally. Fair enough. But then he also explicitly criticizes the degrowth stance:
Many progressive activists today are skeptical of material growth, for ecological reasons and a concern with consumerism. But this often confuses consumption for its own sake and as a status symbol with the legitimate popular desire to live a better material life, and wasteful and ecologically damaging economic growth with economic growth as such.
So here, like Krugman, Farber argues that economic growth is not the same as what he calls ‘material growth.’ And like Krugman, he argues that economic growth is not, in itself, environmentally destructive. But what, then, is economic growth to him? He notes in the following paragraph:
Environmental policies that would make a real difference would require large-scale investments, and thus selective economic growth. This would be the case, for example, with the reorganization of the individualized and wasteful system of surface and air transportation into a collective and rational plan…
It seems that for Farber, defending economic growth is necessary to fight for progressive changes to well-being. What is not clear is exactly why this should be called economic growth. From his examples, there is no quantitative growth—unless you start counting the growth of things like trams and hospitals.
Interestingly, like Farber, many degrowthers might also argue for “more of the Good Things”—for example, increasing health care services, supporting care labor, creating infrastructure for public transportation, and incentivizing renewable energy—but they wouldn’t call them economic growth. Instead, they might prefer to use terms like ‘flourishing’ or ‘sufficiency’ or just ‘more of that good stuff’. They wouldn’t assume that it is total economic growth that allows the good stuff to come into being. Instead, more of the good stuff requires redirecting economic activity to better suit the needs of society—for which the primary ingredient is democratic deliberation, not increased production (social metabolism), larger money supply, or an increase in the transactions taking place in the market economy (GDP growth).
It seems that for Farber, defending economic growth is necessary to fight for progressive changes to well-being. What is not clear is exactly why this should be called economic growth. From his examples, there is no quantitative growth—unless you start counting the growth of things like trams and hospitals.
So there are two problems: the misidentification of what degrowthers are calling for, and a poor definition of economic growth as such. Farber seems to think that degrowthers are claiming that preventing (or reversing) environmental destruction necessitates “less Good Things”. As a result, his argument against degrowth, and for growth, amounts to a bait-and-switch between two definitions of growth: growth of Good Stuff and growth of total economic activity. This failure to define his terms then allows him to mischaracterize the claims of the degrowth movement.
This tactic is heightened to an extreme degree in Leigh Phillips’ recent anti-degrowth polemic, Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-porn Addicts: A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff. While reading his book I not once got an exact definition of what he meant by economic growth. Growth seemed to include a whole host of things, such as: growth = progress, growth = innovation, growth = increase in well-being, growth = increase in money supply, growth = increase in resource use. He tended to use these interchangeably.
In one instance, Phillips acknowledges this directly:
Of course, one might argue that I’m being far too loose with the terms growth, progress, and invention, which begin to blur here. But then, as well they should, as perhaps what it means to be human is to invent, to progress to grow. To constantly strive for an improvement in our condition. To overcome all barriers in our way.
As far as I could figure out, the logical reasoning here goes as follows:
Degrowthers argue that infinitely and exponentially increasing economic growth is bad for humans and the planet. But economic growth leads to Good Things as well. Therefore, degrowthers are against Good Things.
Phillips denies degrowthers the ability to realize the most basic fact: more good = good, more bad = bad. And if growth is simply Everything That Is Good In The World, it becomes a hard thing to argue against: we’ve reached a conversational impasse.
The problems with muddling the definition of growth come to the fore when Phillips tries to argue, in contrast to Naomi Klein’s recent book, that degrowth and anti-austerity are incompatible: “Austerity and ‘degrowth’ are mathematically and socially identical. They are the same thing.” To show this, he uses the example of the economic decline following a time of rapid growth immediately after the Second World War—which involved “high productivity, high wages, full employment, expanding social benefits…”. In contrast, he argues that after the 1970s, according to “whichever metrics we use”, there was a decline in prosperity for all Americans.
Phillips denies degrowthers the ability to realize the most basic fact: more good = good, more bad = bad. And if growth is simply Everything That Is Good In The World, it becomes a hard thing to argue against: we’ve reached a conversational impasse.
The implication is that economic growth is directly related to material and social well-being, and “degrowing” would limit that kind of progress. Actually, during this time, well-being decreased just as consumption and economic growth sky-rocketed—a fact which he conveniently doesn’t mention. To avoid this fact, he usefully switches from defining economic growth as increase in productivity and material use, to defining economic growth as decrease in inequality. But different kinds of things can grow or degrow at different rates—a decrease in consumption is not the same as a decrease in well-being. In fact, since the 1970s, the US has only increased its per capita material use, not decreased it. Austerity does not inherently lead to a decrease in total consumption, nor does a decrease in well-being inherently require a decrease in material consumption.
His argument reminds me of a recent New York Times article about degrowth. As fellow degrowth scholar Francois Schneider pointed out in an email, in this article, degrowth was defined simply as a reduction of income. Not only does this misinterpret what, exactly, needs to degrow (hint: not well-being), it also feeds into the tendency—symptomatic of the neoliberal era—to reduce all kinds of well-being to monetary indicators.
Phillips continuously makes the same error: conflating income with wealth, material production with material well-being. While this is standard practice in development circles—used to justify land-grabbing, exploitative industry, and privatizations—you would expect different discursive tactics from a staunch anti-capitalist austerity-basher. Part of the degrowth framework has been specifically to argue that well-being and income have been conflated for far too long, with very negative consequences (such as the wholesale destruction of indigenous livelihoods for the sake of development).
Finally, when trying to counter the degrowth position, you’re also going to have to deal with the now well-known catchphrase that “infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet”. To do this, Phillips calls upon a pretty quirky theoretical model:
Think of a single rubber ball. Like the Earth, it is bounded in the sense that very clearly there is an edge to the ball and there is only so much of it. It doesn’t go on forever. It is not boundless. And there is only one of them. But it is infinitely divisible in the sense that you can cut it in half, then cut that half in half again, then cut that quarter in half, then that eight in half, and so on. In principle, with this imaginary ball, you can keep cutting it up for as long as you like, infinitely extracting from this finite object.
Phillips counters the necessity to degrow with a variation of Zeno’s paradox, hoping to show that, theoretically, infinite growth is possible on a finite planet, as long as it decreases at a negative exponential rate. Basically, in a finite world, you can keep on growing infinitely as long as you grow less and less, all the way to infinity. But this also involves acknowledging that positive exponential growth (e.g. a 3-5% growth rate) is physically impossible. Funnily enough, in trying to prove the possibility of infinite growth on a finite planet, he trapped himself in an argument that looks very similar to that of the degrowthers.
Phillips argues that, since it’s possible to conceive of a socialist system where economic growth leads to a low-carbon economy, economic growth is inherently a Good Thing. It’s reminiscent of another classic sophist argument: since it’s possible to conceive of God, He therefore must exist.
Similarly, later in the book, he concedes that we do need to move toward a low-carbon economy and that, within capitalism, this is impossible. But, rather than conceding that economic growth within capitalism is undesirable, he argues that, since it’s possible to conceive of a socialist system where economic growth leads to a low-carbon economy, economic growth (largely defined in capitalist terms, even as he rejects GDP elsewhere) is inherently a Good Thing. It’s reminiscent of another classic sophist argument: since it’s possible to conceive of God, He therefore must exist.
So what needs to degrow?
Let’s be clear, even if defenders of economic growth rarely are. Historically, economic growth (defined as total increase in measured economic transactions, or GDP) has risen along with social metabolism: the total consumption of materials and energy of an economy. Increased material-energy throughput is what makes climate change and environmental destruction happen, and engenders environmental conflicts around the world. Therefore we have to downscale our total material-energy throughput to address environmental and social injustice. Mostavailableevidence points to the fact that decreasing total economic activity is the best way to do this, while still being able to provide adequate social safety nets.
Critics of degrowth spend most of their time trying to convince readers that decoupling economic growth from “the Bad Things” is theoretically possible, even as they rarely define what they mean by economic growth.
Degrowth, then, is about challenging the idea that infinite and positive exponential growth in monetary transactions (GDP) is the main tool for achieving well-being, today and for future generations. Further, degrowth is about acknowledging that exponential GDP growth has been, and will likely be for the foreseeable future, linked with rising material and energy throughput, and that this increase in total consumption has disastrous effects on the earth and its people. This comes along with a critique of GDP: many argue that it is a terrible indicator for well-being in the first place. It also comes along with criticizing the neoliberal demand to increase economic growth at all costs, even if this means subjugating an entire population to decades of debt (more on this in another piece).
There are many definitions of degrowth out there, but a commonly cited one is “an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions”. Under most definitions, degrowth is about maximizing well-being while minimizing energy and resource consumption (particularly in the rich nations) which may be mutually beneficial, and can address climate change to boot.
So degrowth is not about decreasing the Good Things. Nor is its main thrust that decrease in total consumption is the only thing that must be done. And all degrowthers I know would happily concede Phillips’ point that a change in the mode of production—involving a critique of capitalism, better use of technology, and better democratic planning—is necessary to avoid environmental and social Bad Things.
But they would disagree that the prerequisite for more Good Things is increasing total economic activity. In fact, the ideology of economic growth actually waylaid struggles for better welfare, helping to shut down the political action necessary to provide more Good Things.
Now, it is theoretically possible to decouple exponential economic growth (be it positive or negative) from exponentially increasing metabolic rates, even if no such thing has, as far as is known, been successfully implemented. Arguments for decoupling, including those in Phillips’ book, fail to take into account the embedded material and energy consumption of economies that have, so far, ‘dematerialized’ while GDP has gone up.
Krugman’s proposal for how to decouple remains in the neoclassical camp: toggling consumer preferences—demand, and regulating undesirable economic activity—supply, while continuing to increase economic activity on the whole. Farber and Phillips’ approaches are in the Marxist camp: radically shift the mode of production to rationally plan an economy, limiting the Bads and upping the Goods, while (presumably) continuing to increase economic activity on the whole.
To make their case, these authors have conjured up magical scenarios involving a slow ship economy and a post-capitalist socialist world order. Neither economies exist today. To really support their points, they would need to point to extensive research and probably some robust models, rather than possible worlds.
Take the case of Austerity Ecology: Phillips argues that socialist economic growth has the potential to save us, even as he does not draw on any examples of situations where this has occurred. It’s a cheap argumentative trick to defend economic growth today just on the basis that it could theoretically work under socialism.
So if they really wanted to defend economic growth as it exists today, this would be where the conversation would need to go: determining whether, and how, economic growth could keep going without exponentially increasing material and energy use. Bonus points: showing exactly why economic growth—defined as the exponential increase in monetary transactions at 3-5% per year—is desirable in itself.
But it is exactly at these points that the defenders of growth remain obscure. Rarely do they explicitly concede that, in fact, current rates of economic growth have been historically tied to increasing environmental degradation. Rather, they spend most of their time trying to convince readers that decoupling economic growth from “the Bad Things” is theoretically possible, even as they don’t define what they mean by economic growth.
And yet this approach actually suggests that they are already on the defensive: they are trying to save economic growth from the accusation that it inevitably leads to more “bad stuff”. Without proper evidence, and by shifting the definition of growth constantly to suit the needs of their arguments, the positions of growth-defenders start looking more like denial than reasoned debate.
In contrast, degrowth starts from the reality of the current economy. In this economic system, decoupling is very difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, because climate change is now and a global socialist economic order is not yet in sight, a realistic short-term strategy is to limit exponential growth in metabolic rates, most easily achieved by limiting exponential economic growth. This should be paired by a long-term shift to a more equitable, democratic economic system. Then, theoretically, a new economic system could be constructed where equitable economic growth does not lead to more fossil fuel consumption.
Whether we should focus on creating a global socialist system instead of shifting to a low-impact economy is debatable, but perhaps, just to be on the safe side, we could give both a try.
Thanks to Sam Bliss, Ky Brooks, Adrian Turcato, and Giorgos Kallis for their comments and feedback.
Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food politics, and urban development. He is an editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.
When people take to the streets and demand climate justice, they expect their elected leaders to step up and address the drivers of what is clearly the largest global crisis humanity has ever faced. However, the so-called “solutions” that were brought to the table for COP 21 in Paris last week are anything but—instead they deflect attention away from consumption patterns linked to the burning of fossil fuels.
These strategies are devised by powerful corporations and government partners as a literal and metaphorical “smokescreen” for the real drivers of deforestation and carbon release to the atmosphere, including monoculture expansion of palm oil and soybean, oil and minerals extraction, industrial logging and mega-infrastructure projects.
REDD+ is a cost-shifting mechanism, a potential get-rich scheme for local elites, and a placating strategy to prepare the broader landscape for the accumulation of “new” capital.
One of the most subtle and sinister “solutions” promoted by the UN, the World Bank and other global development institutions is REDD+, which stands for (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). The “+” is meant to incorporate other environmental or development priorities, including biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. US$ 10 billion has been pledged for addressing climate change through REDD+, though not many have heard about what this strategy is all about.
Some people say REDD+ sends a signal that safeguarding forests through performance-based payments is key to combatting climate change. Maybe they are right, but the way in which REDD+ is framed also paves the way for appropriation of the landscape while reducing the capabilities of forest peasants to take control over their own development futures. While forests protection plays a vital role for maintaining critical ecological processes and the well-being of the people that depend on them, REDD+ does not place the forest at its heart. It is instead a cost-shifting mechanism, a potential get-rich scheme for local elites, and a placating strategy to prepare the broader landscape for the accumulation of “new” capital.
REDD+ is premised on reducing carbon emissions from deforestation. While it is true that deforestation amounts to 25-30 percent of carbon emissions and is a major factor influencing climate change, carbon sequestered by trees is vastly different from sequestering carbon by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Firstly, it is a challenging endeavour to measure carbon emissions in an accurate and transparent manner, with many measurements tens of thousands of tons of CO2 off the mark.
Secondly, trees are unstable and only temporary repositories of sequestered carbon, since the carbon they store will eventually be returned to the atmosphere. Re-release of carbon might occur much faster than “expected” due to climate-induced forest fires. Indeed, just three weeks of raging forest fires in Indonesia have released more CO2 than Germany’s entire annual emissions.
It’s as though we are placing the blame on (remaining) tropical forests for not sequestering enough carbon when it is in fact actual carbon emissions through the burning of fossil fuels which has brought us to the brink of the climate catastrophe we face. Of course, it is all the more easy to place the burden on tropical forests for solving our climate problems when they conveniently reside in countries out of sight and out of mind from where carbon-intensive development paths occur, and of course where costs of taking responsibility for climate change are the cheapest. This is an all too-convenient recipe for shifting environmental costs and accountability of actions.
REDD+ projects are carried out by businesses or development NGOs in industrialized countries who pay communities residing in tropical forest areas, mainly in the Global South, to prevent forest destruction from happening, whereby it must be evident that deforestation would otherwise happen if payments are not forthcoming. The amount of payment provided by the industrialized country partner reflects the tonnage of carbon, linked to its price on the global carbon market, which is saved from being released into the atmosphere due to forest protection.
Damage to the environment and rehabilitating the damage both become socially justifiable market opportunities to spur economic growth.
The stipulation that the payment provided for forest protection and carbon sequestration has prevented the forest from being destroyed and that the forest continuously be safeguarded from destruction is important for the industrial country funders, who aim to score carbon-credits from the deal. These credits serve as “rights to pollute”—something of a reward for having done a good deed, in this case for paying to supposedly prevent deforestation from occurring. The incredulous, almost farcical nature of this arrangement becomes disturbingly obvious. The polluting country or company, who has been responsible for the majority of carbon emissions up until now, suddenly has the right to continue burning fossil fuels and releasing CO2 as before.
The tropical forests of the Global South are a precious new commodity to squabble over, this time with billions of dollars backing the potential spoils and rich countries as new rights-holders of land locked away for carbon offsetting the continued economic development of rich countries. This is the same image of colonization that we’ve seen time and again, but this time with a surreptitiously green face.
As social anthropologist Melissa Leach and colleagues of the University of Sussex have argued, mainstream economics has successfully attributed value both in the exploitation of the environment and natural resources for growth in manufactured goods, but in recent times have also determined the potential for market creation in the repair of the environment in the name of “sustainability.”
This is the same image of colonization that we’ve seen time and again, but this time with a surreptitiously green face.
This new economic driver of environmental repair combined with the classical economic driver of resource extraction and resulting environmental degradation work in concert to extract the maximum value out of nature irrespective of whomever or whatever is in the way. In this way, damage to the environment and rehabilitating the damage both become socially justifiable market opportunities to spur economic growth.
REDD+ would be flawed even if the payments were targeted to major drivers of deforestation in the Global South, namely industrial-scale agriculture for commodities such as soybean and palm oil. This is because overall carbon stocks would not be reducing—which is ultimately what is so badly needed if we are to prevent dangerous climate change from occurring.