La urbanización global mantiene relaciones constituyentes mutuas con los principales patrones de dominación en nuestras sociedades, dando forma a su desarrollo. Sin embargo, las ciudades son lugares de intensas disputas políticas a medida que las poblaciones urbanas se han organizado para hacer frente a los desafíos de la vida cotidiana, resistir el despojo y defender sus derechos. ¿Qué condiciones y estrategias permiten una transformación radical en contextos urbanos? ¿Qué tipo de procesos económicos y políticos pueden sustentar transformaciones urbanas radicales?
En esta presentación de libro y sesión de diálogo, abordaremos estas y más preguntas, además de explorar el gran potencial transformador de las ciudades a través de casos concretos de diversas partes del mundo.
Moderación: Mabrouka M’barek (co-editora), Túnez / Estados Unidos Miriam Lang, Ecuador
Idiomas: inglés, traducción simultánea al español
Mary Ann Manahan y Maria Khristine Alvarez, Filipinas: Transformaciones urbanas alrededor del mundo
Asume Osuoka, Nigeria / Canadá: solidaridad, luchas y visiones de cambio social en los barrios marginales de Lagos
Aseem Mishra y Sandeep Virmani, India: Construyendo la democracia desde abajo en la ciudad de Bhuj
Bryce Detroit, Estados Unidos: El papel del arte en la lucha de las comunidades negras contra la gentrificación
Global urbanization maintains mutual constituent relationships with the main patterns of domination in our societies, shaping their development. However, cities are sites of intense political disputes as urban populations have organized to meet the challenges of everyday life, resist dispossession, and defend their rights. What conditions and strategies enable radical transformation in urban contexts? What kind of economic and political processes can sustain radical urban transformations? In this book presentation and dialogue session, we will deal with these questions and more, as well as explore the tremendous transformative potential of cities through concrete cases from around the world.
Moderators: Mabrouka M’barek (co-editor), Tunisia/USA and Miriam Lang, Ecuador
Languages: English and simultaneous translation to Spanish in zoom
Mary Ann Manahan and Maria Khristine Alvarez, Philippines: Urban transformations around the world
Asume Osuoka, Nigeria/Canada: Solidarity, struggles and visions of social change in the slums of Lagos
Aseem Mishra and Sandeep Virmani, India: Building democracy from the bottom up in the City of Bhuj
Bryce Detroit, USA: The role of art in the struggle of black communities against gentrification
Commentator: Juliana Goes Morais, Brazil
Date & Time: Thursday, December 3, 2020
8h30 AM Quito | 13h30 UTC | 14h30 Brussels | 19h00 New Delhi | 21h30 Manila
por Alberto Acosta , Esperanza Martinez , Miriam Lang
La historia de la Modernidad tiene dos caras: por un lado, es una historia de revoluciones y luchas por los derechos. Pero, por orto lado, a la vez está plagada de violencias, de injusticias y de abusos. Muchos de los filósofos políticos ilustrados e incluso héroes de la Independencia eran esclavistas en su época. Las declaraciones de derechos -en linea liberal de derechos- excluían a mujeres y hombres no-blancos, pueblos indígenas y pueblos afros La misma noción de la Europa conquistadora potenció la masacre, el saqueo y la explotación de trabajo gratuito. En tanto que se fue expandiendo la voracidad por acumular valores abstractos, se fueron marginando otros horizontes civilizatorios en las comunidades humanas y también las relaciones de armonía con la Madre Tierra. Las Diversas relaciones de dominación subyugaron a las mujeres, a la Naturaleza, a los pueblos en cuyos territorios habían “recursos” acumulables.
Deudas diversas comenzaron a forjarse a lo largo del tiempo. Deudas que, de una u otra manera, reflejan estas estructuras de dominación. Las desigualdades e inequidades se plasmaron de formas múltiples. Todo ese entramado de poder desembocó en la apropiación y subordinación de trabajadores y trabajadoras, de campesinos y campesinas, en la separación entre trabajo considerado “productivo” y otro considerado “reproductivo”, normalmente no remunerado. Así se establecieron violentamente esferas de lo femenino y lo masculino, y una separación entre sociedades humanas y la Naturaleza en la que éstas están insertas. La idea de “raza” sirvió para justificar “científicamente” la explotación diferenciada al trabajo de personas negras, indígenas o de color, expandiendo así el poder imperial por el mundo y estableciendo formas de control de los cuerpos y subjetividades diferentes para cada grupo y género humano.
Hubo épocas en las cuales las mujeres, los indígenas y los negros no tenían alma… al menos para el discurso del poder. Desde entonces hasta hoy, patriarcado, clasismo y racismo han sido de las más arraigadas y eficaces formas de dominación social, material, psicológica y por cierto política. Y con esas formas de dominación se consolidó la expropiación de tierras y el saqueo de la Naturaleza, a costa del exterminio de millares de pueblos, con sus conocimientos, lenguas, culturas. La apropiación de trabajo esclavo, forzado, además del despojo de materiales que nutrieron la industrialización de las potencias coloniales, devino en una gran deuda histórica de los países centrales del sistema mundo capitalista con estas periferias desangradas; para mencionar un ejemplo, se estima que Gran Bretaña habría obtenido unos 36 millones de millones de libras esterlinas en todo el período colonial. Ese saqueo dio vida al capitalismo que, desde entonces, se sostiene con la explotación laboral, con la precarización del trabajo, con la invisibilización del trabajo del cuidado y sostenimiento de la vida, con la ocupación y destrucción de los bienes comunes, y con el desprecio de todo aquello que no pueda volverse mercancía.
En la actualidad, como resultado de tanta explotación y violencia, el planeta está en crisis, con desastres vinculados a un colapso climático cuyo origen no es natural. Lo que configura otra deuda eterna. No se trata de una simple deuda climática. La deuda ecológica encuentra sus orígenes en la expoliación colonial –la extracción de recursos minerales, las plantaciones o la tala masiva de los bosques naturales, por ejemplo–, se manifiesta tanto en el “intercambio ecológicamente desigual”, es decir los siglos de transferencia de bienes naturales del Sur al Norte global para alimentar los procesos industriales con “materia prima”, como en el “aprovechamiento gratuito del espacio ambiental” de los países empobrecidos por efecto del estilo de vida depredador de los países industrializados. Con el tiempo, las industrias más contaminantes, los monocultivos más invasivos y la basura tóxica se han trasladado a los países periféricos y dependientes. A lo anterior cabe añadir la biopiratería, impulsada por transnacionales que patentan en sus países de origen múltiples plantas y conocimientos indígenas: ya no solo se saquean metales preciosos, se saquea hasta el alma de los pueblos expresada en su conocimiento ancestral. En esta línea de reflexión también caben los daños provocados a la Naturaleza y a las comunidades sobre todo campesinas, con las semillas genéticamente modificadas, para citar un caso. Por eso bien podemos afirmar que no solo hay un intercambio comercial y financieramente desigual, como plantean las teorías de la dependencia, sino que también existe un intercambio ecológicamente desequilibrado y desequilibrador (incluso en términos de los flujos de materiales que transitan de unas partes del planeta a otras).
En suma, hay una deuda ecológica de la Humanidad al conjunto planeta, pero hay que destacar que son las élites los mayores causantes de esos destrozos. Como referencia cabe notar que solo el 10% más rico de la Humanidad causa la mitad de las emisiones de CO2 que están a raíz del calentamiento global; mientras que la mitad de los habitantes del planeta -los pobres- son responsables de un 10% de dicha emisiones.
En la actualidad, de lo que se trata es de recuperar las posibilidades de que la especie humana se mantenga en el planeta, ya no como una plaga o una pandemia, sino como parte de las relaciones de armonía y cuidado de la casa común y de todas las formas de vida que aquí nos acompañan. Eso implica proteger selvas, territorios, mares, pero además transformar nuestros modos de vida, nuestras relaciones y nuestras formas de producción y consumo.
Para mantener el modelo dominante, se desarrolló un sistema económico sostenido en la expansión del capital financiero, que no solo se difundió con el comercio, sino con inversiones y créditos. Bajo el mandato de buscar el “desarrollo”, en el mundo se expandió un modo de vida, con sus formas de producción y de consumo, que apunta a sostener a cualquier costo las ruedas de acumulación del capital. Un modo de vida irrepetible a escala planetaria, ya que solo se puede sostener para una minoría destruyendo los hábitats y modos de vida otros en los sures del planeta. Pese a ello, cada vez más, se quiere fortalecer la vorágine consumista empujándonos masivamente hacia crecientes endeudamientos tanto individuales como a nivel de gobiernos que generan dependencia, destruyen la autonomía personal y las soberanías, destrozan los lazos comunitarios y de convivencia humana y con el resto de formas de vida; las élites que construyen fortunas vertiginosas en base a este sistema quieren que les sigamos suministrando recursos naturales, sin importar la destrucción que provocan los extractivismos; quieren que seamos mercado para sus productos, sin permitir que encontremos nuestras propias formas de organización productiva.
De lo anterior se desprende que la deuda externa -financiera- es parte de la dominación económica y política de nuestras repúblicas. Una y otra vez la subordinación se consolida en el marco de la estructura internacional de control imperial, ahora con el FMI y el Banco Mundial, apuntalada con los mal llamados tratados de libre comercio (nunca libres ni solo comerciales). Este sistema consolida permanentemente nuestra posición como países suministradores de materias primas baratas y de mano de obra de bajo costo y hasta desechable. Y en el marco de estas relaciones económicas, como parte de un sistema de explotación comercial y financiero desequilibrado y desequilibrador, se perpetúan las dominaciones. Por ejemplo, para atender los compromisos impuestos por estas deudas financieras, se amplían y profundizan los extractivismos minero, petrolero, agroindustrial o pesquero, ahondando aún más la deuda ecológica de la que nuestros países son los acreedores; en forma paralela, para conseguir mejorar los niveles de competitividad, como reza el mensaje dominante, se flexibilizan más y más las relaciones laborales, precarizando sobre todo el trabajo femenino y agudizando la crisis de cuidados, lo que directa o indirectamente termina por ahondar tanto la deuda patriarcal así como otras deudas históricas. Y para pagar estas deudas financieras se sacrifican inversiones sociales vitales, configurándose así otra deuda eterna, la deuda social, reflejada en la pobreza y en las desigualdades.
Es preciso, entonces, impugnar la deuda externa, la financiera, para establecer la justicia como referente básico, desde la doctrina de las deudas odiosas, usurarias y corruptas. Se requieren acciones para declarar injusta, ilegítima e impagable a la deuda existente, frenando simultáneamente los nuevos créditos que se están negociando para aumentar las inversiones en minería, petróleo, energía, agroindustria e incluso para activar modelos de privatización que cumplen con los condicionamientos y ajustes requeridos por la banca y los organismos internacionales. Tras todos estos procesos la corrupción manda. Por eso urge desmontar las tramas de corrupción inherentes a estas deudas. El coronavirus puso en la agenda internacional la urgencia de suspender los pagos de la deuda externa de los países del Sur, para atender la crisis sanitaria y alimentaria. Es decir, la deuda no se paga para poder salvar más vidas. Pero eso no es suficiente.
Esta realidad acumulada por siglos de explotación es un telón de fondo de la historia y de la realidad presente de nuestras sociedades, plagadas por DEUDAS ETERNAS: financieras, ecológicas, históricas, patriarcales, sociales. Estableciendo las correspondientes interconexiones entre estas deudas eternas, junto con la deuda financiera deben procesarse la deuda ecológica e incluso la deuda colonial, donde los países empobrecidos son los acreedores. Es el momento de poner todas las deudas sobre la mesa y redefinir a partir de ahí nuestro entendimiento de lo justo, en lugar de contentarnos con alivios temporales de mero carácter financiero.
El PACTO ECOSOCIAL DEL SUR propone abordar estas DEUDAS ETERNAS en su interconexión, en todas las discusiones sobre las transiciones para salir de la crisis actual, de otra manera, las inequidades se mantendrán y los problemas se acumularán… No basta hablar de la transición y la sustentabilidad, si se seguirá dependiendo del petróleo, la mineria o del trabajo precarizado de los sures del mundo, sosteniendo el patriarcado y la colonialidad. Proponemos discutir estas deudas en agendas post-pandemia, con claros horizontes postcapitalistas y postantropocéntricos, desde esquemas sustentados en la reciprocidad, el don y el intercambio, rescatando lo comunitario de la vida humana y no humana. Como se dice con claridad en el RAP que sintetiza esta lucha, es hora de gritar: deudas eternas… ¡basta!
White climate, white energy: a time for movement reflection?
by Larry Lohmann
One impressive thing about the new climate movements Fridays for Future (FFF) and Extinction Rebellion (XR) is that they do try to take the warnings of climatology seriously. Not only more seriously than ruling elites, but also, arguably, more seriously than the older generation of climate activists associated with the likes of Environmental Defense Fund, WWF, Greenpeace and the Climate Action Network.
Such organizations wasted two decades pushing climate policies that they imagined capitalist elites might accept (carbon pricing, energy “transition” schemes involving accelerated extractivism, and so on). From early on, it was evident that these policies could have no climate benefits whatever. Equally, they tended to alienate many of the grassroots movements most needed for a more powerful global climate alliance. Trapped by orthodox economic thinking, mainstream environmental organizations from the global North had failed to develop either their analysis or their organizing.
So campaigns like FFF and XR look to be embarking on a welcome return toward fundamentals. Nevertheless, they continue to be constrained – in a quite understandable way – by certain misunderstandings of what the climate crisis is and what is needed to mobilize politically around it. Ironically, this has come about partly as a result of the unexamined relationships that such movements maintain with the very climate and energy sciences that they rightly take so seriously.
There may be no way of putting this gently. The issue is not that movements like XR and FFF, like their more mainstream predecessors, tend to be largely white in their constitution, history and culture. That is something that they are obviously aware of and already struggling within their efforts to reach out and join themselves to broader-based climate movements.
The bigger challenge is what such movements plan to do about the fact that the main concepts that they work with at present – climate and energy, for example – are also white. And not only white, but also gendered and class-biased.
Here it may be necessary to pause for a moment. Decades of scholarly work notwithstanding (e.g., Smith and Wise 1989, Caffentzis 2013, Edwards 2013, Taylor 2015, Lohmann forthcoming), the idea that such concepts might be white still shocks many Western intellectuals.
Faces might be white; cultures might be white – but what could it mean, many white climate activists wonder, to say that today’s dominant concepts of climate and energy are also white? Surely those greenhouse gas molecules migrating across the border of a “climate system” computed by Global Circulation Models are colourless, no? And how could energy be anything but a universal, nonracial, genderless substance craved by generic humans from time immemorial – even if it did happen to originate in the ways 19th-century patriarchies and empires organized the mass interconvertibility of motion, heat and electricity, together with the resulting waste, across broad peasant, Indigenous and urban territories in the service of industrial exploitation (Hildyard and Lohmann 2014, Daggett 2019)?
Yet as the news about structural racism filters slowly toward the mainstream amid daily bulletins about algorithmic bias, worldwide George Floyd uprisings, and Covid-19 mortality patterns transparently shaped by centuries of white supremacy, now may be a good time to put in a bit of work to try to understand better the racial, patriarachal constitution of the climate and energy concepts that climate movements have inherited.
The Jamaican analytic philosopher Charles W. Mills (1998) writes of the “wonder and complaint” that his field provokes among minorities: not so much because so many academic philosophers have white faces, but because the subject matter itself is white. And more importantly, because so many white philosophers have a hard time even “seeing” the biases that their theoretical canon perpetuates (Eze 1994, Oyewumi 1997), or perceiving the prejudices implicit in the field’s habitual “reliance on idealization to the exclusion, or at least marginalization, of the actual” (Mills 2005: 168). Feminists know this as the “just add women and stir” approach. Because the philosophical canon is imagined to be unraced and ungendered, any concerns about patriarchy – or white supremacy – are supposed to be addressable just by getting more women – or Blacks – to recognize and contribute to it.
Is it too provocative to apply these lessons to climatology as well? Last April, a spokesman for XR America told his colleagues that we “don’t have time to argue about social justice … If we don’t solve climate change, Black lives don’t matter” (Dembicki 2020). Other leftist white activists and academics from both the US and Europe chimed in that Black Lives Matter, #metoo and other movements, important as they were, were in the end just playing around with “identity politics,” whereas the climate crisis required a more “universalizing” stance to organize a “unified, powerful, effective and sustained” movement capable of “getting past our differences” and “transforming the socio-ecological relations in which we live.” In the background, Bill McKibben continued to insist that in understanding the need for climate action, “350 is the most important number in the world” – apparently more important than, say, the number of humans and nonhumans sacrificed over the years for fossil fuel extraction and pollution or the number of nations subjected to imperial rule for the sake of cheaplymechanized labour (Malm 2016).
Not every climate activist in the global North may be aware of the extent to which such discourses are the object of lampoon and ridicule among climate movements in the global South. Which is why it might be worth spending some time exploring the deeper, climatological roots of what they often find problematic.
In 2014, Sir John Houghton, founding member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, gave an interview explaining that UN climatologists were not permitted to mention the carbon locked up in fossil fuels in their analysis of climate change, but only carbon that had become more mobile in the form of CO2 (Marshall 2014). To follow what happens when carbon atoms cross one of the internal borders of the earth’s geophysical system into the atmosphere is “science,” Houghton said. But to analyze their movements toward that border “is not a science question.” In other words, climatology is not allowed to ask why the climate is changing any more than a Donald Trump appointee is allowed to ask why Guatemalan slum dwellers might be compelled to jump on the train known as La Bestia in an attempt to reach the US border.
The consequence of this scientific methodology is to treat the climate crisis in more or less the same way that the far right treats immigration. If the problem is too many immigrant molecules of a certain kind, then any solution must naturally start with controlling immigrant numbers at the border.
This might help suggest why a Guatemalan climate activist, say, might find herself somewhat bemused by a white US climate activist’s earnest advocacy of carbon prices, carbon-neutral development, carbon-zero renewables, carbon-restrictive Green New Deals, carbon-centred Natural Climate Solutions or any other approach that hierarchically identifies the primary problem as immigrant carbon dioxide molecules rather than historically-rooted patterns of capital accumulation, white supremacy, unrelenting imperialism and ruthless patriarchy. Or that sees climate justice as a matter of starting with carbon controls (never mind what authority might be appointed to do the controlling) and then “stirring in” some green jobs or a bit of equitable energy distribution, without considering what that energy actually consists in.
Does that mean that Northern climate activists should reject, refuse or try to flee from their concepts of climate and energy? Not at all. That would be as fruitless as white anti-racist activists trying to reject, refuse or flee from their own whiteness (Sullivan 2014, Alcoff 2015). It would be to disrespect that very climatology and 19th-century energy science that networks like XR and FFF have justifiably committed themselves to taking so seriously. Because it would be to airbrush out the troubled histories of those sciences as well as to dismiss their capacity to change and become more scientific.
Instead of climate activists rejecting outright the white climate and white energy bestowed on them by their tradition, then, the point is to decide in a more self-aware fashion what kind of relationship they need to have with them, as objects in the making.
Like any relationship, that relationship is not given for all time. It is something that will always need work. As any social anthropologist knows who has ever joined discussions of climate change in places like Sierra Norte de Puebla (Smith 2007), Molo in West Timor, or the highlands of Scotland, there will always be other climates and other energies in dynamic relations with the capitalist climate and energy that up to now have dominated the world view of most Northern climate agitators. Helping to bring these practices into a less hierarchical dialogue with one another might be a first step toward building global climate movements that are stronger than those the past twenty years have witnessed.
The Corner House,
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Alcoff, L. R. 2015. The future of whiteness. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Caffentzis, G. 2013. In letters of blood and fire: work, machines and the crisis of capitalism. Oakland: PM Press.
Daggett, C. N. 2019. The birth of energy: fossil fuels, thermodynamics and the politics of work. Durham: Duke University Press.
Dembicki, G. 2020. ‘A debate over racism has split one of the world’s most famous climate groups’, Vice, 28 April, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/jgey8k/a-debate-over-racism-has-split-one-of-the-worlds-most-famous-climate-groups.
Edwards, P. 2013. A vast machine: computer models, climate data, and the politics of global warming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Eze, E. 1994. The Color of Reason: The Idea of ‘Race’ in Kant’s Anthropology, in K. M. Faull (ed.), Anthropology and the German Enlightenment: perspectives on humanity, 200-241. London: Bucknell and Associated University Press.
Lohmann, L. forthcoming. Bioenergy, Thermodynamics and Inequalities, in M. Backhouse and C. Rodriguez (eds.), Bioeconomy and global inequalities: knowledge, land, labor, biomass, energy, and politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, http://www.thecornerhouse.org.uk/resource/bioenergy thermodynamics-and-inequalities.
Lohmann, L. and N. Hildyard. 2014. Energy, work and finance. Sturminster Newton: The Corner House, http://www.thecornerhouse.org.uk/resource/energy-work-and-finance.
Malm, A. 2016, Fossil capital: the rise of steam power and the roots of global warming. London: Verso.
Marshall, G. 2014. Don’t even think about it: why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. New York: Bloomsbury.
Mills, C. W. 1998. Blackness visible: essays on philosophy and race. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
————– 2005. ‘“Ideal Theory” as Ideology’. Hypatia 20 (3): 165-184.
Oyewumi. O. 1998. The invention of women: making an African sense of Western gender discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Smith, A. D. 2007. Presence of Mind as Working Climate Change Knowledge: a Totonac Cosmopolitics, in M. Pettenger (ed.), The social construction of climate change: power, knowledge, norms, discourses. Aldershot: Ashgate, 217-34.
Smith, C. and M. N. Wise 1989. Energy and empire: a biographical study of Lord Kelvin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sullivan, S. 2014. Good white people: the problem with middle-class white anti-racism. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Taylor, M. 2015. The political ecology of climate change adaptation: livelihoods, agrarian change and the conflicts of development. New York: Routledge.
Remembering Elandria C. Williams
by Beyond Development collective
With deep sadness, grief, and heavy hearts, we learn of the passing of our friend, sister, and colleague, Elandria Williams.
Their untimely departure created an immediate feeling of sorrow, emptiness, and profound loss. Those who knew Elandria as we knew them would remember how they carried with them the urgency of the moment. Elandria kept us real and grounded, infused with the ideals of justice. And if we happened to disagree, Elandria would gently hold our hands and ground us even more. Memories of them, of their wisdom, their fierceness and tireless organizing, their impact in so many communities across the globe, take away some of that feeling of emptiness.
During a week-long seminar, Elandria would interrupt and take us all outside to soak up some sun, to breathe, to follow them for an impromptu yoga session. Elandria would sing, vibrating power, truth, and grace. Elandria would constantly decolonize language.
“What do you mean by ‘nature’?”
Elandria would remind us that race plays out in every aspect of our life.
“I want us to have some other conversations that actually put ‘real’ at the center! and if that’s not what you know, fine sit back and let other people who have this reality bring it, because the people I am trying to build an alternative solidarity economy for, are people who don’t have an economy now!
They’re swept away, locked up, and murdered every day.”
Elandria reminded us about the necessity to understand people’s material conditions before getting too caught up in imagining alternatives. Elandria never talked about themselves but always about their community.
Elandria constantly fought and acted to create spaces and processes of learning and solidarity. Their sincerity in asking questions that matter move us to appreciate that rootedness, reexistence, restoration, and reimagination are not empty words or frameworks but values to live by every day. Their many expressions of love and empathy would shake your world’s perspective to reflect more strategically on how our movements and communities could change the world with “beautiful” solutions. Their words still resonate today even as Elandria have transitioned to join the ancestors. Their work and their impact despite the many health challenges are uplifting.
Elandria were bigger than life, a constant reminder of what is possible and more despite dealing with health challenges all their life. In the recent piece, Elandria asked,
“Amid our twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, we’re building virtual gathering, grief, conference and educational spaces. Can we learn from this to create hybrid spaces that allow access for all?”
Elandria appealed to shift our perspectives, our minds and hearts into a different consciousness and a place of care, compassion, and genuine inclusion.
Elandria would want us to remember them not in sadness but in love, grounded power, and uplifting energy.
Dear beloved Elandria, we will remain inspired by your long-life career work as an educator, activist, and organizer from the South. We salute and admire your courage in the face of the many health challenges. We will miss you, Elandria. May you rest in power and eternal love.
David Fig, South Africa
Mary Ann Manahan, Philippines
Mabrouka M’Barek, Tunisia/US
Karin Gabbert, Germany
Ferdinand Muggenthaler, Ecuador
Ashish Kothari, India
Vinod Koshti, India
Raphael Hoetmer, Perú
Giorgos Velegrakis, Greece
Miriam Lang, Ecuador
Beatriz Rodriguez-Labajos, Barcelona/USA
Ansar Jasim, Iraq/Germany
Madhuresh Kumar, India
Ibrahima Thiam, Senegal
Mauro Castro, Barcelona
Ariel Salleh, Australia
Claus-Dieter König, Germany/Senegal
Isaac “Asume” Osuoka, Nigeria/Canada
Ivonne Yanez, Ecuador
Larry Lohmann, UK
Do we have the stomach for it?
by Ashish Kothari
“Worthless people live only to eat and drink; people of worth eat and drink only to live”, said Socrates. Wisdom, or a wisecrack?
In a world in which a couple of billion people don’t have adequate nutritious food, while another billion or more fall ill due to overconsumption or a diet of junk food, Socrates’ distinction makes deadly sense, though reality is not so black and white. Food, in all its ecological, economic, socio-cultural, and political dimensions, is one of the most serious issues of our time.
At no point has this become clearer than in the current Covid-related global crises. A July 2020 report by Oxfam warns that unless urgent measures are taken, starvation related to Covid-related disruption of food production and supply may kill more people than the virus itself. It said: “The pandemic is the final straw for millions of people already struggling with the impacts of conflict, climate change, inequality and a broken food system that has impoverished millions of food producers and workers.”
What this points to is a lesson that food and human rights activists have argued for decades: if there is hunger, it is not due to lack of food, but lack of justice. Whether the world can stave off the dire predictions that Oxfam has made, will depend on how seriously we take this observation.
Food is a multi-dimensional issue
While food is, first and foremost, a matter of survival for all species, it is also much more. It is fundamental to cultural life, with humans exhibiting an enormous diversity of procurement, processing, preparing and cooking it. In India, it is said that the cuisine may change subtly or dramatically every few kilometres. Language, rituals, behaviour, norms and so much more are associated with different cuisines; even what is “worth” eating is influenced by cultural (and social) beliefs or relations. Then, it is an economic issue, enbedded in relations of production, trade, and consumption. It is a deeply political issue, as in who takes decisions and how. It is an issue of technology and knowledge, with both of these becoming the means of asserting autonomy or, conversely, domination. Increasingly as we move toward automation and artificial substitutes for everything in our lives, the technological component becomes even more dominant. And finally, perhaps most important, it is an ecological issue, in that despite all the “promise” of technology, we remain fundamentally dependent on healthy ecosystems, land, and biological diversity for our food security.
In all the above, one comes face to face with the underlying structures of power – patriarchy, capitalism, statism, racism, casteism, and anthropocentrism – which determine decision-making regarding food. As there is no more powerful a way of subjugating people than by controlling its source of and access to food, these structures are implicated right from the individual family to the globe as a whole, in the inequalities that characterise relations around food.
And so if we want to move towards greater justice and ecological sustainability with regard to food, we need people’s movements and imaginaries that can both challenge the structures of injustice and unequal power, as also replace them with relations of equality and fairness. Not only amongst humans, but between humanity and the rest of nature also. Movements that assert (or re-assert) democratic control and sovereignty over food, sustain diverse food cultures, revive and conserve the ecosystems and biodiversity that sustains our food security, struggle for socially just relations, and ensure that everyone has access to adequate, nutritious and satisfying food.
In Nagaland, north-east India, the women’s organisation North East Network (NEN) has helped sustain or revive traditional farming practices, prioritising domestic food security; during Covid times this enabled communities to be resilient, as also reach local markets.
In Telangana, southern India, the Deccan Development Society (DDS), comprising about 5000 women belonging to Dalit and adivasi (indigenous) communities, amongst India’s most oppressed or marginalised, has achieved food sovereignty over the last three decades. In the Covid period none of these families had food shortage; instead, they contributed several thousand kilos of grains to the district relieft measures.
In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, the Karen indigenous community (migrated from Burma many generations back), are reviving their traditional food cultures, making them relevant again for the youth through various means including starting a slow food Karen cuisine restaurant with the help of the civil society organisation Dakshin.
Also in Telangana, the Food Sovereignty Alliance, India is facilitating farmers and pastoralists to challenge traditional caste and gender discrimination, reclaim land, assert food cultures (including eating beef in the midst of a right wing state-supported Hindu agenda which has made the cow a symbol for marginalising Muslims and Dalits), localise trade in milk and crops, and enable youth to do collective farming as a viable livelihood.
In tribal villages of Bhimashankar Sanctuary in Maharashtra, western India, local women’s groups with help from environmental action group Kalpavriksh have celebrated wild food festivals over the last few years; these and many other communities including DDS, NEN, and Living Farms are reviving the crucial role such foods play in the nutritional and cultural lives of people.
Complementing several other such movements and initiatives in India, are thousands around the world. In Bangladesh, for instance, several thousand farmers are part of the Nayakrishi Andolan, achieving food sovereignty and security, and faring well during the Covid lockdown. In Cuba, sustainable urban farming provides a substantial part of Havana’s food requirements, and several movements of “re-commoning” are providing opportunities for city-dwellers to grow food in shared plots. One of the world’s largest people’s organisations representing over 200 million farmers, La Via Campesina, stresses on small-holder, sustainable farming with domestic food sovereignty as the highest priority. An umbrella term for these and others is agroecology, though locally and nationally they have diverse terms and forms such as permaculture, natural farming, organic farming, and others. And then there is the global Slow Food movement, emphasising local food cultures and traditions, and awareness about the implications of food choices. These and many more, diverse approaches to food justice are embedded in a pluriverse of alternative movements of indigenous peoples and other local communities, or civil society, around the world. Importantly, such approaches are distinct not only from conventional, chemical-based, large-farmer oriented models (e.g. India’s Green Revolution), but also from “solutions” being put forward by international agencies and corporations like “climate smart agriculture”, a cleverly greenwashed form of corporate-controlled, high-tech farming. Many farmers movements and civil societies organisations, local to global, are resisting such greenwashing as also the unfair, unsustainable trade, production and consumption practices that undermine food justice.
The right to food
While assertions of food sovereignty and sustaining or reviving community level food cultures are the most important fulcrum of achiving food justice, it is also necessary to hold the state accountable to its responsibility for food provisioning to those who do not have the means to sustain their own food security. Across much of the global south (which includes millions of vulnerable people in so-called “developed” countries too, as we have seen all too painfully in Covid times), structural inequalities and short-term agricultural policies like the Green Revolution have in many cases increased the vulnerability of the poor. Millions of small and marginal farmers have been displaced or dispossessed, forced to abandon their lands. In India, the percentage of farmers with land has decreased, and that of landless farm labourers increased. Over 300,000 in India alone have committed suicide out of economic desperation.
Overall, with 90% of India’s workforce in the informal sector, the majority of whom have little economic security to fall back on, the impacts of economic lockdowns or other such crises are immediate and catastrophic, with food insecurity increasing. This is on top of a background situation in which a hefty section of the population in any case did not have enough to eat. In such a situation, the state has to fulfil its responsibility of providing for the most marginalised and impoverished. But since this cannot be left to the state alone, people’s movements have fought for a legal right to food. Such a right is internationally recognised, e.g. in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In India over a decade of people’s advocacy and judicial action as part of the Right to Food Campaign finally led to the National Food Security Act 2013, making it mandatory for the government to make arrangements to provide adequate food to the needy. Unfortunately both this, and the previous programme of the Public Distribution System (PDS), meant to make reasonably priced foodgrains available to the poor, have been plagued by inefficient, uncaring, and corrupt implementation.
In any case, it is important to realise that food security is a partial approach to the problem; food sovereignty goes beyond that to assert democratic control over food. Society has to move towards a just system in which people can either self-provision like the women of North East Network and Deccan Development Society, or have the economic means of purchasing or obtaining the food from the market or community linkages. And the more one localises these relationships, the more the possibility of people having control over such a basic need.
This then also means challenging and throwing out the kind of corporate or state control over food that has only grown manifold in the last few decades, and in particular monopolies over seeds and other agricultural inputs, knowledge, and credit, and the increasing concentration of political power in the hands of big corporations that are in collusion with the world’s governments. It also means urgent redistribution, for the world grows enough food to feed everyone, but tens of millions still do not have access to it. In India, about 80 million tonnes of foodgrains are stocked up in official storehouses, but their distribution to the hungry has remained limited by bureaucratic procedures and corruption, even during Covid lockdown time when hunger saw a spurt. And it means making global institutions like the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) accountable to the peoples of the world; its own role has been at times very progressive, e.g. in the passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, but also at times regressive, aligning with technocratic or corporate perspectives.
Re-imagining food justice
Based on the experience of the ground level movements mentioned above (and many thousands more across the world), one can posit the following points for a world that ensures food justice:
Continued and heightened resistance to the institutions destroying food cultures, commons and resilience, including the underlying structures mentioned above, and processes they give rise to such as unfair and unsustainable global trade, bilateral and multilateral agreements, and national policies;
Recognising the central role of women from the farm (or pasture or forest or wetland) to national and global policy, bringing in their knowledge, perspectives and capacity for prioritising care and solidarity;
Facilitating collectives especially at the level of communities, to share operations and knowledge, assert rights and decision-making powers, and sustain food cultures; Protecting the ecological, physical, and knowledge commons relevant to food, and re-commoning lands, biological and genetic resources, and knowledge that have been privatised;
Carrying out radical land reforms to redistribute land equitably, recognise women’s rights to land, and enable community governance over common lands; Converting all food growing to organic, ecologically sensitive, and biologically diverse methods, centred on the small producer;
Recognising and enshrining in law, community or collective rights to these commons, and the responsibility to sustain them;
Diversifying livelihoods, in every settlement and community, linked to food and agriculture, including opportunities for processing, and other manufacturing and service occupations, enabling self-reliance;
Sustaining (and reviving, where eroded) the diversity of food cultures (including those associated with uncultivated or wild foods), including associated people’s identity, and recognising that they are all worthy of respect so long as they are not impinging of others’ freedoms or leading to ecological havoc;
Localising, or re-localising, essential aspects of food production, trade and consumption, such that food needs (and livelihoods linked to food) are met for all from a limited region;
Eliminating social and cultural inequities and heirarchies associated with food, including those of gender, ethnicity, caste, and “race”;
Recognising, in constitutions and laws, the universal right to food as a fundamental and enforceable right, with mechanisms to hold governments accountable for this;
Ensuring democratic control of all technologies related to food, including for growing and processing, and promoting only those that are people-centred, ecologically responsible, and respectful of life;
Respecting and promoting cultures that enshrine ethical and/or spiritual relationship with the rest of nature, including the land and sea, natural ecosystems, seeds and breeds;
Integrating the above perspectives and approaches in all educational and learning processes, especially for children and youth;
Recognising the central role of youth in all matters related to food, including their visions and aspirations relating to food justice.
All the above, of course, are easier said than done. In a world where food matters are dominated by powerful corporations and nation-states, and where vast numbers of the public believe that its entirely legitimate for such a situation to exist, struggles for food justice are very, very uphill. But they are not impossible, as thousands of examples of resistance and alternatives around the world demonstrate. Ongoing global crises including Covid-19, have created opportunities for such initiatives to gain legitimacy, to challenge the deep faults in the system, and demand that food justice be made as central to human well-being as the stomach is to the body.
The article was first published by the Wall Steet International online magazine (Food and Wine section): https://wsimag.com/food-and-wine/63382-re-imagining-food.
Ashish Kothariis based in India. He is associated with Kalpavriksh, Vikalp Sangam, and Global Tapestry of Alternatives
Towards a non-extractive and care-driven academia
by Collective of critical geography and development scholars*
The white gaze permeates many aspects of even the most critical disciplines. In this piece, we offer some thoughts on how we might reclaim what the university could be – a place that equips people with the knowledge they need to unlearn/unmake/dismantle the framings and worldviews that lend themselves to white supremacy and other forms of oppression more broadly.
Around the world, people are coming out to denounce systemic racism in their institutions and in society more broadly. The Covid-19 pandemic has offered a magnifying lens to the deep-rooted inequalities and injustices prevalent in society. It has also shown how inequalities, such as those along racial, gender, and class lines, are reinforced and compounded in a relatively short time span in the efforts to return to “normal”. Returning to business-as-usual is precisely what institutions, governments, and corporations are so desperately seeking. Yet, the world before and during the pandemic was/is premised on white supremacy, colonial legacies of natural resource extraction and bondage of cheap labour. Consequently, returning to “normal” is not something that we should ethically and politically aspire for. As Indian writer Arundhati Roy writes, the pandemic should be a “portal” to deconstruct, and transform the world that we knew before. This does not mean making business-as-usual more comprehensive, holistic, or inclusive. Rather, it involves the harder work of “un-learning” and “un-doing” the current model of productivist and extractivist development disguised as modernity and “progress”. By prioritizing careful attention and consideration of multiple ways of knowing and relating to the world, we can be better positioned to support ongoing struggles in re-building a world premised upon justice above all else.
The Responsibility of Universities and other institutions of higher learning
Universities and institutions of higher-learning have an important responsibility in these “unlearning” and “rebuilding” processes as they offer privileged spaces for enhancing critical thinking in dialogue with constant societal change. Improving societies by prioritizing justice is a core task of universities in the advancement of science and technology as collective commons. After all, what good is generating knowledge if it cannot be (re)produced, accessed, and understood by all? Even if scholars have advanced many long and fruitful discussions on how to break free from colonial legacies and extractive development models, these initiatives risk losing their meaning if they are inscribed into an academic environment which is both principled and conditioned upon competition and a growth-oriented knowledge economy. Much of the wealth of academic insights get sucked into the aspirations of an expansionary university in competition within a globalized academic industry. This hollowing-out takes place due to the ways by which the process of generating knowledge (including the labour of researchers and their collaborators) gets parameterized and packaged into predetermined “outputs” as stipulated in grant proposals and departmental performance rubrics. These quantified metrics are then used to justify academic positions (and indeed whole departments). The pressure to aspire for growth within academia risks knowledge getting detached from its situated context, losing its meaning, and instead becoming an end-product in itself.
Worse still, this highly uneven process generates cultures of distrust, hierarchy, competition, and fast-scholarship in the race to produce more in the least amount of time. While obviously reflecting different contexts of privilege, the underlying mechanisms and logic behind this production process is no different from the discipline of a factory floor, in which researchers extract knowledge and are themselves the subject of extraction. This hierarchy of extraction can be seen when, for example, junior scholars, themselves engaged in extracting knowledge from third parties for their own projects, may be obliged to undertake menial tasks unrelated to their own research and which serve to benefit only their superiors. In addition, knowledge production in academia is reserved to those who are the best-placed to compete in this game, which is often to the disadvantage of women, people of colour and junior researchers, and those without academic credentials (including local community members who are often the “subjects” of research with whom especially social science scholars interact with in advancing either theoretical or applied knowledge).
This factory-floor model of academic production rooted in asymmetrical power relations replicates a singular way of shaping and understanding knowledge generation. It is premised upon optimizing knowledge products as outputs dependent upon the labour (e.g. academic faculty and support staff) and resources (e.g. grant funding, partnerships, networks, and research “subjects”) required to produce these outputs in the most efficient way. This extractive process of mobilizing labour and resources for knowledge production cannot be centred on any individual, but is situated within a cutthroat industry where peer-reviewed journal impact factors, publication numbers, successful grant applications, global partnerships, graduate programs and percentage of successful graduates and even the number of followers on twitter are all instrumentalized for the purposes of showcasing which university, which department, or which faculty member wins the ‘gold medal’ in the globalized academic Olympics. The competitive tendency here already takes extraction and instrumentalization of relationships in academic collaboration as a normalized starting point and then builds on this mode of operation as a way to gain a greater share within the knowledge economy.
The instrumentalization within academia extends beyond internal collaborations within the academia to historically colonial relations of academics and their research “subjects” in the field. The relationship between historical colonial legacies in the perpetuation of the knowledge economy is indeed a serious cause for concern. Indigenous Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith argues, for instance, that social science “research” is itself one of the “dirtiest words in the Indigenous world’s vocabulary” having been inextricably linked historically to European imperialism and colonialism in terms of how “knowledge about indigenous peoples was collected, classified, and then represented back to the West.” Bhambra and colleagues take this further by stating that “[t]he foundation of European higher education institutions in colonized territories itself became an infrastructure of empire, an institution and actor through which the totalizing logic of domination could be extended; European forms of knowledge were spread, local indigenous knowledge suppressed, and native informants trained” (p.5).
This white gaze of a singular understanding of the world then gets reproduced through the production metrics and standards imposed by the knowledge economy. Implicit extractivism in the academy operates by failing to recognize and then act upon the asymmetrical ways that knowledge extraction preys upon the precarious positions of more vulnerable scholars. As scholars in Development Studies in particular, we acknowledge how insights from the so-called “Global South” have historically served and continue to serve Northern universities and research institutes. This process of translating diverse knowledges into a singular easy-to-digest narrative is precisely how white supremacy circulates, even unconsciously, in reproducing the homogenizing and simplifying patterns that have shaped colonial development since the 15th century. The factory-house model of organizing and optimizing knowledge generation follows the tradition of resource exploitation since colonial times and as such, carries with it the white gaze of what counts (and doesn’t count) as legitimate knowledge. A white gaze extends to the built-in hierarchy of knowledge producers propagated by national research foundations, where non-academic knowledge producers and researchers from the Global South are accepted only as informants or field assistants, with an incredibly skewed scale of remuneration. Ultimately, the academy extracts wealth from marginalized communities and organizations and justifies these logics by making those not under the accepted institution marginal, invisible, underfunded and with limited access to knowledge production resources.
Academics can no longer be permitted to surf this wave of deeply extractivist practice in how knowledge is generated. Transforming the university requires not only turning the mirror upon ourselves as academics in reflecting upon our practice, but also more fundamentally in actively dismantling the knowledge economy that is structured in the constant prospection, appropriation, and standardization of intellectual labour. Decolonizing the university means collectively re-establishing “the terms upon which the university (and education more broadly) exists, the purpose of the knowledge it imparts and produces, and its pedagogical operations”. Such an effort requires fundamentally different ways of political organization in how knowledge gets generated. In other words, we academics must self-reflect at the same time as we act to transform the university and society more broadly away from systemic injustices. Academics have a notorious tendency to pensively sit back and comfortably theorize on ways to dismantle systems of inequality, even as we paradoxically benefit from those very same systems of inequality in perpetuating the knowledge economy. Consequently, our privileged capacity to self-reflect risks replicating the very structures some of us write so vehemently against, particularly in the competitive arena of instrumentalizing academic relationships for the purposes of career advancement. The professionalization of social justice critique becomes trapped within a “hall of mirrors” whereby the emancipatory potential of co-produced knowledge gets neutralized by the predatory tendencies of the academic industry in which “knowledge products” are continuously stacked as if on an endless pile.
“Decolonization” – the making of a Buzzword?
Having recognized these tendencies, the academy’s approach to responding to these challenges has been to performatively showcase universities as being “inclusive.” “Decolonization” becomes a topical buzzword for which academic pursuits can be channeled to tap into new sources of knowledge outputs for more socially-just economic growth in the knowledge economy. This new “decolonial frontier” is violently at odds with what decolonization is actually about; the frontier becomes a new way to extinguish any possibility of real transformation. As Tuck and Yang have argued, decolonization is not a metaphor; it must never be co-opted by being restricted to a checklist composed of “diversity and inclusion” statements by the university, institutionalized “codes of conduct”, or integrating “decolonial” curricula into more holistic graduate programs and the like. For Tuck and Yang, decolonization refers specifically to restoring native lands that were violently usurped in the process of settler colonialism. Elsewhere, it refers to dismantling the structures of European imaginaries that have come to shape how “development” is defined and understood.
If recognition exists about these structural problems so ever-present in the expansionary aims of the academic industry, why does it remain so hard to impart long-lasting change that goes beyond optics? Like broader society as a whole, the answer lies in the uneven ways that power operates to discipline those who complain or deviate from standard practice in the academic profession. For instance, speaking out about some of these concerns has disproportional implications for junior scholars, and especially women and people of colour, who risk compromising their future prospects in the academy by exposing any of its potential flaws. On a broader scale, many research participants in the generation of knowledge are not even afforded a space to enter into the academy’s walls. They remain as “missing co-authors”, perpetually denied legitimacy to change the academy from within. Rather, they are charged with being essential to the research enterprise; essentially inputs for the production of knowledge products. Moreover, it is they who must absorb the implications of these “products” that inevitably shape their own livelihood capacities and potentials.
To re-emphasize, this intervention is not targeted to the specific actions of individual scholars (though these do need to be held accountable), but is rather exposing a systemic problem. As academics ourselves, we are equally complicit, and feel that it is our duty to support any type of alternative that confronts the root-causes of extractive practices in the academy. While saying this, we also recognize that writing an intervention like this comes from a position of privilege, which would not be afforded to many others, but this is precisely why we do this. Just as remaining silent about one’s own racial privilege, while claiming to “not be a racist” is how white supremacy continues to thrive, remaining silent about one’s privilege in the academic class structure is complicity in its reproduction. Either we collectively take active steps to end these exploitative ways of doing research or we stop making performative claims that we are somehow making the university more just, inclusive, and diverse.
How do we then build counter-power to address the exploitative logics underpinning the academic endeavour and to subvert any attempt to tokenize what decolonization of academia is about? Changing current academic culture and its underlying perverse incentive structure requires us to collectively stand up against an unfair system, while taking into account that any type of fundamental change is slow, therefore placing the onus particularly on the more established scholars with more or less fixed positions to change the rules of the game. Given the privilege of established scholars, this is of course a delicate process that must be conducted with great transparency and accountability to avoid reproducing new forms of inequality. Building resistance to business-as-usual does not require reinventing the wheel. We must join with feminist scholars who unequivocally state that “cultivating space to care for ourselves, our colleagues, and our students is, in fact, a political activity when we are situated in institutions that devalue and militate against such relations and practices” (p.1239). Likewise, “slow scholarship”, which refers to transforming academic institutions from the ground-up, by actively resisting against “the culture of speed in the academy and ways of alleviating stress while improving teaching, research, and collegiality”, offers a path for fundamentally transforming the power relations of knowledge production.
There is an increasing wealth of resources, strategies, and alternatives that are being advanced to stimulate fundamental structural changes in how the academy operates. By no means an exhaustive list, below we identify some key examples of how to move forward. These examples are even more relevant in a context of deep uncertainty and increasing precarity as a result of the global pandemic.
Building meaningful, non-extractive, and care-ful partnerships and collaborations for engaged social research. This requires engaging different publics, being comfortable to refine or even reject earlier ideas, fostering safe spaces to be more vulnerable about fears and emotions in the research process, directly linking research outcomes with activism and advocacy in highly political arenas, and generally amplifying the potential impact of our scholarship rather than moving on to the next product that “counts” to administrators”;
Reparations and redistribution of research funding such that recognition of non-academics in general and academics of the Global South is not just symbolic. A systemic reorganization process is required within the academy to recognize the shared knowledge producing labour of all partners in the process – from cleaners within the walls of the institute to participants in research endeavours in all corners of the world and in contributing to the knowledge commons;
Being accountable to the responsibilities that come with privilege, for example by taking the lead in shaking up evaluation protocols and shifting how accountability and evaluation metrics are established at the university and departmental level (“good enough is the new perfect”) or by ceding place in the publication race and instead empower and embolden younger and more precarious scholars to advance this agenda in their institutes and from their own lived experiences;
Building counter power through Internationalist unions of intellectual workers, involving unionisation beyond the established Western trade unions which often just support the privileges of the few university employees with tenure;
Making the work of universities function as integrated parts in a very different social metabolism – meaning that social reproduction both of research and of the university upkeep itself becomes an integral responsibility for all those affiliated with the university. In other words, this implies that the work of maintaining the academic endeavour cannot be cost-shifted to cheaper or more precarious labour, but must be a core responsibility of those who live and breathe within the university.
*Vijay Kolinjivadi is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp.
Gert Van Hecken is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Development Policy (IOB), University of Antwerp (Belgium) and Research Associate at Nitlapán-Universidad Centroamericana (Nicaragua).
Jennifer Casolo is Research Associate at Nitlapán-Universidad Centroamericana (Nicaragua), and at the Pluriversidad Maya-Ch’orti’ (Guatemala).
Shazma Abdulla is a writer, innovator, and community organizer who focuses on social inequities, racial justice, and spatial justice. She is affiliated with the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University in Canada.
Rut Elliot Blomqvist is a doctoral candidate at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden exploring the transdisciplinary fields of utopian studies, environmental humanities, and political ecology to not only consider the structure and meaning of environmentalist political visions but also the role of literary and cultural theory in these fields.
**We are incredibly grateful toFrances Cleaver, Tomaso Ferrando, Frédéric Huybrechs, Nathalie Pipart, Hanne Van Cappellen, and Juan Sebastian Vélez Triana for useful comments and suggestions provided on earlier drafts.
Voices from the Field: The Need for Transformative Hybrid Online Spaces
Amid our twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, we’re building virtual gathering, grief, conference and educational spaces. Can we learn from this to create hybrid spaces that allow access for all?
by Elandria Williams
Since late 2018, I have been the executive director of PeoplesHub, an online social movement school that takes popular education online and makes it accessible and available for maximum participation. Of course, faced with COVID-19 and an ever increasing call for Black liberation, the content of our trainings and offerings has shifted too. We have learned a lot over the last three years—and we are also learning as we go. And we welcome your contributions to the discussion.
The initial spark for the school came from Sarah Van Gelder, founder of Yes! Magazine,who attended a workshop about online training led by Jeanne Rewa and Matt Guynn through Training for Change. A few years ago, Van Gelder traveled the country, logging over 12,000 miles while doing so, and published a book about what she learned about community practices in a book titled The Revolution Where You Live.
In reflecting on her travels, van Gelder identified the following as some of the key barriers that keep us from forming the practices of liberation we desire:
Meetings so boring you want to tear your hair out
Conflicts that exhaust everyone
Lack of focus and nothing gets done
The isolation that cuts us off from the support of our community
Lack of confidence, because we believe we aren’t up to the challenge or that others could do it better
Many of these barriers were lifted up by people that formed the initial advisory committee for People’sHub, including myself and a host of others. I have been involved in popular education and community organizing for much of my life, including many years that I spent at the Highlander Research and Education Center. Part of what motivated me to get involved in online education—long before I began to work at People’s Hub in 2017—were the health challenges that I have had during much of my life.
Back when I was a sophomore in college, I got really sick. I was working multiple jobs and going to school at the same time. One of my jobs was as a receptionist and then a tax preparer at H&R Block. I was at work in the back, printing out checks, and all of a sudden, my whole right side couldn’t move. And I looked down and my arms were three times the size everything’s supposed to be. I had to call my father to come get me and take me home because I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t move.
I had to leave the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Over the years, I have attended online university programs and have even come within a couple of classes from completing a degree or certificate. I have a ton of information, albeit none of the papers.
A lot of the things I have done have actually been online because I couldn’t drive, or I couldn’t be in places. Online learning has actually been a huge part of my life because that’s the only way I’ve been able to really deepen in, except, of course the experiential learning that has been a huge part of my life.
With People’s Hub, the training is asynchronous or at your own pace. We started with our collective knowledge around how anti-oppressive popular education methodologies and understandings are conducted and asked ourselves, how do we put it all in an online format where you don’t lose the richness of the relationship and knowledge building?
We’re not skimping on the work of learning, deepening, and growing in all ways. We root our work in PeoplesHub’s 4R Framework that of rootedness, resilience, restoration, and reimagination. And I have come to realize, “Oh, this is a way for the incredible organizers, solidarity economy practitioner/creators, trainers, and other people that we know from all around the world to come together and share with each other.”
People can really dig into questions such as, “How do we do really good methodology? How do we dismantle the Far Right and take down White Nationalism? How do we ask the right questions and not just do games and activities? Or, how do we get the money or practice shift we need so we are ready to truly create the world we wish to live in?
And it doesn’t matter if your kids are running around. That’s up to you. You don’t have to go anywhere. In our movement, if you can’t travel, if you can’t leave your house, if you can’t go to the rally, our movement has thrown people away and said you are not wanted or needed and that it is your problem. Here and in our work with disability justice activists, organizers and organizations we are saying no!! You do have a place and your insights, experiences, and just who you are is necessary and that’s okay.
Now of course, this requires a fight for internet access. We know that’s there and how in our fight for internet access we are also fighting for internet freedom, digital security, and privacy. The thing that I think is really important is that we’re at a moment where people that are disabled and are chronically ill are being listened to more.
I have also heard from people who really want to go back to the pre-COVID moment, when they could have their gatherings in inaccessible places with fragrances and scented spaces that people with scent allergies like me can’t go into.… they want to go back to a way of doing work and gatherings that has literally pushed a bunch of people out of our movement.
So, the question I’m sitting with is “How do we create spaces where everybody can be in?”
What needs to be considered and included? What needs to be let go? And really, it’s a question of hybridization and innovation. For me, it is not about being in person or not in person. It is about if we are “on-site” or “remote” because due to all of the incredible video technology we are mostly “in-person,” just remotely.
How do we do a both/and?
How can some people be on their devices remotely and other people be on site? It is really, really important for us to not think we’re going to go back to something because what we were doing wasn’t actually working for our movement. There’s no need to go back to unfunctionally. The question is, how do we use our radical imaginations to do what actually would be the most equitable, beautiful, liberating thing for everybody? Let’s craft that—and not have some random Pollyanna notion that what we had before was great.
I have had someone tell me, “Why would I want to join a movement of depressed people? If I already have a hard day, why do I want to go to meetings?”
That makes me want to run away. If your movement does not look fun, your thing does not look interesting. You’re not hospitable or welcoming and you use words that I literally don’t understand.
Like I’m tired. I’ve had a long day. If we’re going to craft different ways of moving, then we need to think about all the regular people we know. And if you don’t know any, go meet some, you know, all the regulars, people in our stores. How do we create something new? That actually allows for maximum participation, maximum joy, holding place.
Yes, we still have a fight on our hands and transformation needs to happen now. And we could have some beautiful implementations, rooted in wins. Let us dream of what’s possible.
What does transformative space online look like? To me, online transformative spaces are spaces in which, when we leave, we are actually more restored.
Here is an example. I remember doing a session, we were doing a workshop with some church leaders. They were of all ages—in their 70s, 30s, 20s, and 40s. The leaders who were in their 70s were saying, “I can’t do this, I don’t even know, I barely even joined on. I just I was going to just watch and not participate, you know.”
But, in the end, it was different. We started with spectrograms where people put down how they felt on a scale from 1-10—I totally agree, or I totally disagree. Participants got a chance to say: “I feel this way” or “I feel that way.”
We said to people that you can either say it out loud, or you can put it in chat, or you can move your little number—and tech support will be here to help you. There is no right way and no wrong way. You have got options. One woman, at first, she wasn’t comfortable using the slides. Then later on, she said, “Hold on, maybe I’ll try this.” By the end, she was posting pictures in the slides. She said, This is so much fun. But it was fun but because there was no one right way to do it. At the end, she said, “This was really fun. I’ve learned a lot. I feel more excited. I got to hear people share their stories. I wasn’t talked at for more than a couple of minutes, and I have ideas for what to do in my organization.”
We did some meditation. I got to really share what’s happening in my local community with about two other people. I got to journal. We had a dance break. We actually took a for-real bathroom break. We cut off the video some. We did lots of different things in an hour and 20 minutes. Who knew? Right?
But this to me gets to what it means for us to be proper educators. There are things we know as facilitators. There are things we know that are important. As popular educators, you know, the desired end result is action with reflection. It is not “I learned a thing.”
Everything we do right around online transformative space must have a direct impact on what you’re going to do when you go home. So, we’re in a moment where people have decided to skip everything but theory and information. People are bringing 500 people, 4,000 people, together—real people—and have we actually learned from each other what is possible?
We’re in a moment in which we have forgotten, in some ways, our own practice. This is a call to remember our own training and classes. We know how best we learn, share, and grow. Let’s go there.
One last thing I will say about hybrid spaces is what it means for us to create the spaces that our communities need. And for us to begin our gathering by asking people, “What do you need out of this space?” That is number one and most important.
So, when you begin, the call starts with the basics: “Do you need food? Do you need water? Do you need childcare? Do you just need to stay at the house? What do you need?”
Then it is up to us to create the spaces and the conditions necessary for all the things you need from that call. We can meet, and it may mean that the needs can’t all be met in one way.
It means we need multiple strategies to meet that need. It may mean we have to have two different meetings. It may mean that this part, this group is going to be all on their devices and all online, and others will be all in person.
The real question we should be asking is: How do we create the space and the conditions necessary for all the people that need and want to be here in our work, our lives, and in our communities to participate?
And that goes for the random gatherings we do as well. It goes for city council, county commission meetings, for the house party. It goes for everything, so that everybody has, feels like they have, a place to be. In that way, everybody can have community—a place where people are cared for by the people around them—and are not treated as disposable objects that are only good for the things they provide.
We cannot go back to the way were leading and doing before COVID-19. For the sake of chronically ill folks, people who are care givers, undocumented people. People working everyday jobs, folks that are houseless, we must shift into a whole other consciousness.
Elandria Williams is the executive director at PeoplesHub. They also provide development support to cooperatives, mostly in the southern United States, and is a co-editor of Beautiful Solutions. They are a member of two global working groups and the Movement for Black Lives Policy Table.
The article was first published in Nonprofit Quarterly.
No Harm Here is Still Harm There: The Green New Deal and the Global South (II)
A GND which fails to challenge the hegemony of growth-led development perpetuates the exploitation of the Global South and will be unable to prevent global ecological social collapse
In Part I of this two-part article, we discussed various proposals for a Green New Deal (GND) advanced by progressive forces in the Global North, in terms of their impact on the Global South. We discussed the cost-shifting imperative in capitalism, historical and ongoing practices of imperialist resource extraction and rising ecofascism. Here, in Part II, we discuss how a GND will reinforce “business-as-usual” if it fails to encompass the Global South, and if it does not take clear positions against capitalism, statism, and patriarchy. We also offer alternatives to development that a globally-integrated GND could draw inspiration from.
A more efficient Old Deal
The concerns mentioned in Part I about rising (eco)fascism, far-right movements and global capital’s response to the GND are interlinked. While collapsing these three interest groups risks masking some nuances, it also helps illustrate their common aim to “optimize” the world by violently erasing alternative ways of thinking or being. Let’s be clear: the private sector’s powerful gaze on the GND is purely to secure future profits and minimize risk. It has no interest in workers’ rights, demands for dignified jobs, wages, food security, housing, or health care, or in ecological sustainability, all of which are central aims of the GND advanced by social democrats like Bernie and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The existential (and Malthusian) fear of losing privileges as a result of unexpected social and ecological “externalities” of “business-as-usual” has (likely unwillingly) forced global elites from the far-right to the centre-left to reckon with climate change as an “investment risk.” From BlackRock CEO Larry Fink to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (the world’s richest man) to US President Donald Trump, throwing billions of dollars or planting a trillion trees is not only good PR but a good return on investment to stabilize risk. Until last year, Amazon had threatened to fire employees who spoke out about climate change. Indeed, maintaining business-as-usual could not have been made clearer than Microsoft’s recent commitment to become “carbon negative” by 2030 with CEO Satya Nadella stating that a “corporation’s purpose is to find profitablesolutions to the problems of people and planet.” This view resonates with the United Nations’, which has long espoused a triple bottom line, putting people and planet on the same plane as profits.
“The idea that profits can continue while protecting people and the planet is seductively dangerous”
The idea that profits can continue while protecting people and the planet is seductively dangerous at a time of unprecedented global inequality and climatic changes which are driven by precisely this logic. It suggests delusional and thermodynamically impossible myths of a world in which the entirety of human-nature relations can be manipulated according to “some calculus or algorithms.” Like a broken record, ecological economists have long argued that efficiency improvements in a profit-oriented enterprise will eventually run up against the Jevon’s Paradox – that increasing energy and material efficiencies lead to cheaper prices and greater demand, and thus will be instantly offset in a perpetually growing economy. There is zero evidence of any ecological decoupling from increased economic growth. The coronavirus pandemic – with ecological outcomes improving from decreased economic growth – could not have made the fallacy of decoupling more evident.
The irony here is that many of the same folks upholding a system responsible for untold death and destruction, are throwing billions of dollars of investment into “green” development. The EU’s GND, while sounding impressive on paper in offering €100 billion per year for “green investment”, is one of several proposals offering too little, too late, and with not-so-subtle ulterior motives. The issue is not the amount of financial support, but of shifting risk away from private enterprise (and wealthy individuals) onto the public and future generations. In a classic case of “having one’s cake and eating it too,” the EU has approved a multibillion dollar pipeline to transport natural gas to the apartheid-state of Israel.
“The social alienation, inequality, and ecological consequences of tech-induced “efficiencies” are increasingly visible”
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella claims that we must “trust in technology” and put a billion dollars in an “innovation fund.” Yet, it is the endless proliferation of hi-tech developments — from 5G to AI and deep learning — which has made capitalist development and expansion in the realms of food, energy, urban development, communication, and finance quicker and cheaper. The social alienation, inequality, and ecological consequences of these tech-induced “efficiencies” are increasingly visible, the uncertainties for future generations more palpable. These consequences often counter the potential improvements that these technologies promise.
Quick technical fixes inherently reproduce social disparities and are inadequate to generate the relational shifts needed between humans and our living and non-living environments. Technological innovation does not emerge out of a vacuum; it is embedded in structural power relations predicated upon a tendency for efficiencies to favour privileged, socially mobile, and wealthy groups and their government sponsors. Understanding and reversing the root causes of social inequality and ecological degradation, as they are based in systemic racism, class domination, and patriarchy was never meant to be part of the techno-fix strategy.
““Sustainable development”… is in fact an oxymoron, since nothing based on continuous expansion of material and energy use can possibly be sustainable on a finite planet. ”
Merely throwing scads of money into the air and expecting it to “trickle-down” to reach all hands equally is similarly naive. As Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, David Graeber, Medha Patkar, Alnoor Ladha and others noted in a short and sharp critique of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), current economic growth approaches which do not tackle inequality head-on, will take 100 years to remove poverty (not the 15 promised), if at all, and will in the process expand the global economy by a factor of 12. This is impossible for an already groaning earth to sustain, as economic growth always requires resource, energy and labour inputs and produces waste. “Sustainable development”, pushed aggressively by global developmental institutions on the Global South, is in fact an oxymoron, since nothing based on continuous expansion of material and energy use can possibly be sustainable on a finite planet. Unfortunately, none of the GNDs articulated so far, including that of Sanders, acknowledge this, or the need to substantially reduce (‘degrow’) the Global North’s already unsustainable consumption.
The SDGs are a useful case in point for the contradictions of ‘green economy’-style approaches. Despite a host of progressive elements that may reduce suffering and postpone ecological collapse, the SDG framework does not encompass the systemic transformations needed to address global crises. It does not contain an analysis of the structural roots of injustice and unsustainability, focuses on economic growth and globalization as a driver of development despite so much evidence of their unsustainable and iniquitous nature, remains dependent on nation-states rather than seeking more radical democratization, offers little to rein in the unregulated clout of big corporations, and ignores multiple knowledge systems, particularly from Indigenous populations.
A call for alternatives to development
“We must search for alternatives to development, rather than an alternative development.”
To find pathways that break from the dominant model of development, we must break from the socio-economic structures which undergird this model. We must search for alternatives to development, rather than an alternative form of development. This quest leads us inevitably to the realization that there is no one way, but rather a multiplicity of visions and paths, a pluriverse. This does not mean that anything and everything fits: approaches that undermine the possibilities of others to flourish cannot be part of this pluriverse.
Across the world, numerous initiatives are meeting human needs and aspirations without trashing the earth. They take form by respecting the diversity and resilience of nature and human cultures, reducing socio-economic inequities, and challenging and attempting to replace structures of oppression, injustice and unsustainability. Many of these initiatives are linked to movements resisting extractivist ‘development’; others are asserting the modern relevance of traditional practices and worldviews; yet others emerge from industrialised societies and challenge their exploitative nature.
A recent compilation of over 100 essays highlights many of these initiatives: global networks that bring together thousands of practical examples from agroecology, commons, slow food, community conservation, alternative currencies, and transition movements; worldviews and approaches building on indigenous, spiritual and other traditions such as swaraj, hurai, tao and kyosei (from Asia), buen vivir (and its many parallels across Latin America), ubuntu (and its parallels across Africa), caring for country (from Australia), minobimaatisiiwin (and other native North American cosmologies); radical reinterpretations of mainstream religions; and ideological and other approaches from industrialised or modern societies (such as degrowth, ecosocialism, ecofeminism, alter-globalisation, free software, and decolonial design).
While widely different from each other, such radical approaches show shared values and principles: commons and collectives over selfish individualism (but not denying individual identities and aspirations); autonomy and freedom with responsibility; respect for the rights of humans and non-human nature; self-reliance and localisation; simplicity or notions of “enoughness” and sufficiency; direct democracy enabling equitable participation by all; and so on. They attempt transformation in at least five spheres of life:
Ecological wisdom, integrity and resilience: maintaining eco-regenerative processes that conserve ecosystems, species, functions, cycles; respect for ecological limits at levels, local to global; and infusion of ecological wisdom and ethics in all human endeavours.
Social well-being and justice: ensuring lives are fulfilling and satisfying, physically, socially, culturally, and spiritually; realizing equity between communities and individuals in socio-economic and political entitlements, benefits, rights and responsibilities; realizing communal and ethnic harmony, where hierarchies and divisions based on faith, gender, caste, class, ethnicity, ability, and other attributes are replaced by non-exploitative, non-oppressive, non-hierarchical, and non-discriminatory relations.
Direct and delegated democracy: establishing a democracy where decision-making starts at the smallest unit of human settlement, in which every human has the right, capacity and opportunity to take part, and builds up from this unit to larger levels of governance by delegates that are downwardly accountable to the units of direct democracy; and where decision-making is not simply on a ‘one-person one-vote’ basis but rather consensual while being supportive of the needs and rights of those who are currently marginalized.
Economic democracy: developing economic frameworks in which local communities and individuals (including producers and consumers, wherever possible combined into one as ‘prosumers’) have control over the means of production, distribution, exchange, markets; where localization is a key principle, and larger trade and exchange is built on the principle of equal exchange; where private property gives way to the commons, removing the distinction between owner and worker.
Cultural diversity and knowledge democracy: respecting pluralist ways of living, ideas and ideologies; encouraging creativity and innovation; ensuring that the generation, transmission and use of knowledge (traditional/modern) are accessible to all, and making spiritual and ethical learning and deepening central to social life.
The GND has the potential to be a powerful challenge to the status quo. However, insofar as the GND remains confined within existing inequities of the Global North and South, insofar as it fails to fundamentally challenge the hegemony of growth-led ‘development’ and the unilinearity of modernist, “Western” ways of life, and insofar as it fails to take leadership from grassroots movements and struggles which demand political change, it will remain wholly insufficient and eventually unable to stave off global ecological and social collapse. Unless advanced as an approach to systemic transformation, the GND will not bring the lasting peace, justice, and ecological resilience we need.
Unprecedented lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the global economy screeching to a halt have placed enormous pressure on hundreds of millions of workers. While it remains to be seen whether a post-pandemic society can prioritize new relationships between humans and with nature, the rush of governments and corporations to “return to normal” threatens to plunge the world into unparalleled austerity and economic structural adjustments. This scenario must be resisted at all costs. The pressure to maintain work and rhythms of productivity under quarantine suggests that the time to respond is also slipping away.
As Bernie Sanders bowed out of the presidential race, his GND proposal has been sidelined. This could not be more unfortunate, as the pandemic demands nothing short of a radical economic transformation on a scale only Sanders’ GND had come remotely close to. As US unemployment soars to heights unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the bailout of banks, airline companies, and wealthiest segments of society by Trump’s $2 trillion “stimulus” package is a travesty. Ensuring secure access to food, shelter, and healthcare for people seems to be a distant priority.
In India, half a million migrants were forced to walk to their ancestral villages after a 21-day lockdown was imposed with no prior warning and no provisions for the poorest. It was many days later, facing unequivocal damage from this strategy that the government announced inadequate relief packages. War rhetoric against the virus as “humanity’s common enemy” and insistence on a quick return to “business-as-usual” growth directly implies a full-frontal attack on nature.
A GND in a post-pandemic recovery situation is unexpectedly even more reminiscent of the original post-1930s “New Deal”. However, a “green” deal this time around can only be ecologically-centred and relevant to social and ecological crises if grassroots organizations of mutual aid and social movements are both the means and the ends. It can only be new if “Green” is not just an embellishing prefix while maintaining a relationship which posits humanity as the supreme master set to once again conquer and tame the world. COVID-19 has taught us that such a relationship is ultimately futile and fatal.
A “Green New Deal” must fundamentally be about changing how humans treat each other along the lines of class, race, gender, and caste, as well as changing our relationships to the temporal and spatial connectivity of the living and non-living world. It is the hyper-connectivity of global capitalism that compresses space and time to exacerbate the voracity of disease, and heightens inequalities of life and death. There can be nothing “Green” or “New” if our response to the pandemic is restricted to a quick-fix vaccine.
As long as faith remains on a return to “normal,” — one which proved to be deadly — eco-modernists who champion Euro-centric rationality or Trump-style “Make America Great Again” rhetoric will be waiting in the wings behind a vaccine seeking to win another day. From their perspective, control over other humans, over nature, over the spatial and temporal rhythms of the living world is the raison d’être of progress. COVID-19 has blown this perspective out of the water, which is why every attempt will be made to expunge this episode from our collective minds.
We must not let that narrative be the lesson of this health crisis. Rather, we must build on this moment. The crisis has germinated numerous initiatives and solidarity networks to help those most affected, even in highly individualised societies. It has engendered a new search for ethical and spiritual reconnection with the earth, and created new legitimacy for radical alternative initiatives of open localization, self-reliance, and autonomy. These can be the basis for new, pluriversal pathways to an equitable and sustainable world.
Vijay Kolinjivadi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp in Belgium.
Ashish Kothariis based in India. He is associated with Kalpavriksh, Vikalp Sangam, and Global Tapestry of Alternatives
Ways Out of the Growth Trap
by Ulrich Brand
Trade Unions, Climate Crisis and the “Ecology of Work”
As the remarkable success of “Fridays for Future” and “Extinction Rebellion” shows, the climate crisis is pushing onto the agenda ever more strongly. Such a push is urgently needed because the window during which its worst effects could be prevented is closing rapidly.1 Accordingly, the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 90 per cent by the year 2050 is now widely accepted, although climate movements demand a significantly earlier drop in CO2 emissions toward zero. What needs more attention is that the consumption of natural resources must also be drastically addressed in the industrialized countries.
At this point, however, the ‘ever more and ever faster’ creed of constant production increasingly blocks an ecologically compatible mode of production and living. Currently, global resource and climate policy continue to point in an entirely different direction, namely that of unsustainable development. This tendency is related to the rise of emerging countries, such as China, and the enormous rise in material prosperity there, but also to the entirely insufficient course change in early industrialized countries.2 The imperial mode of production and living appears to be firmly anchored: The unsustainable patterns of production and consumption are based on an – in principle – unlimited appropriation of the resources and labour power of both the global North and the global South, and of a disproportionate claim to global sinks (like forests and oceans in the case of CO2). A core mechanism of the functioning of the imperial mode of living – more precisely: the imperial mode of production and living – is that worldwide relationships of domination, power and exploitation remain intact and at the same time invisible, i.e. that they are in a way normalized within Northern societies.3
However, young people’s discomfort with the attitudes of political elites and the older generation in general – attitudes that don’t even seriously confront these tasks – is currently politicized by the emerging Fridays for Future movement. However, an entirely different organization of the economy, politics and society, even the establishment of new relationships between humans and nature, is up for discussion – one that would achieve profound social-ecological transformations.
The social-ecological crisis causes an unequal social distribution of the negative effects on the environment, such as working conditions, noise or pollution and the allocation of the cost of climate policy. Additional questions are about the distribution of hours of paid work, as well as the allocation of other social – that is, unpaid but necessary – work to (re)produce social life. Questions of climate and environmental policy are strongly related to questions about the distribution of income and assets, but they are also about socio-political power and unevenly distributed opportunities for influencing and shaping policy.
So far, trade unions and employees have not played a central role in this discussion. Rather, the debate is focused on consumers that must be sensitized to ecological issues, on appropriate government policies, as well as on innovations by companies and management, and investment in “green” industries. In particular, trade unions are often seen more as obstacles on issues of environmental and climate policy. An example of this perception is the 420-page expert opinion on a “Great Transformation” issued by the German government’s Advisory Council on Global Change that has been discussed intently for a few years now. While it has much to say about “pioneers of change,” “global governance” and “forming state,” trade unions only show up briefly, and do so, of all things, under the subheading “Opposing Forces and Resistance: Lobbying and Special Interest Groups.” It criticizes, for example, employee representatives joining industry associations to successfully argue for the scrapping bonuses4 during the post-2008 crisis.5
From a politically progressive point of view, further weakening of trade unions cannot be accepted. Rather, a task of the century such as social-ecological transformations will only succeed if such relevant actors as trade unions are an active part of it. However, this also means conversely that socio-ecological tasks must become core issues for trade unions. This is true if only because the ecological crisis has a (global) class dimension: Wealthy people can protect themselves better from the effects of climate change and other environmental changes, while the lower classes are already directly impacted by its consequences.6
In this article, I deal with the central aspects of the more recent discussion about the role of trade unions in social-ecological transformations in Germany. I concentrate on recent discussions within IG Metall – with currently just under 2.3 million members, the largest individual trade union in the world. However, IG Metall’s political dilemmas are just an example of similar problems in trade unions in other industries and countries.
Here I start from the widely shared position that trade unions must assume a stronger social-ecological direction. However, the industrial trade unions, in particular, are faced with a dilemma regarding ecological questions.7 On the one hand, trade unions are “organizations fighting for their members” for their members and the members’ interest in good working conditions, income and job security. To this end they need, in addition to institutional embedding in the respective political system, a strong power to organize and mobilize, in particular. But that organizational power can be found mainly in industries that are not ‘future-proof’ from an ecological point of view. At the same time, the medium-term prospects for some industries are precarious, even despite the relatively stable economic situation in Germany. Above all, the automotive industry must be noted in this respect; in this country, more than 870,000 people work in that industry and at its suppliers. IG Metall organizes almost half a million people in this industry, which is a strong fifth of its membership. Since it, like all DGB [German Federation of Trade Unions] trade unions, is under political pressure during neoliberal times, these employees are an important support with which the union can achieve its demands.
On the other hand, specific industries are more likely to benefit from the social-ecological conversion. These industries include mechanical engineering or the electrical sector – and employees there are also trade union members.
Political Trepidation: What Will Have Happened in 2030?
I am motivated to make these observations because of a kind of political-historical trepidation. In trade union debates about West Germany, and since the 1990s about all of Germany – but this applies similarly also in other countries – there is a dominant narrative about the handling of environmental policy concerns.8 That narrative is more or less this: environmental policy topics were discussed in companies and trade unions already in the 1970s, but these topics were relegated to the background because of the global economic crisis that began in 1974, the start of mass unemployment and neoliberal strategies, along with the early stages of dismantling social safety nets.
The second half of the 1980s is viewed similarly. After the reactor accident in Chernobyl in 1986, a slow change in position was asserted in the trade unions, which until then had mostly supported atomic energy. Dangers to the environment and health, for example by materials that are especially harmful to the environment, also gained greater attention. However, in the course of German reunification, companies’ increasing focus on shareholders and the expansion of business segments to other countries, questions of job security and wages again became a stronger focus; a “lost decade” in terms of employment and environmental policy ensued.9
From the late 1990s on, the narrative continues, trade unions again raised ecological questions and achieved, for example, the anchoring of environmental protection within companies in the Works Constitution Act. The economic crisis of 2007/2008, however, returned trade unions to their “core mandates.”
For a few years now, social-ecological questions have again received greater attention, for example in the course of the diesel scandal, greater development of the climate crisis and electrical mobility topics or the international agreement on the UN Goals for Sustainable Development in 2015. But what happens – this is my trepidation – if by 2030, the then-current part of the narrative is more or less this: The uncertain perspectives of the conversion process, as well as the crisis starting in the mid-2020s, have returned trade unions to their “social core business,” defending jobs and representing interests in a narrow sense?
Against this background, I want to contribute to the discussion from a dedicated social-ecological perspective in order to help work against the weakening of trade unions. Hans-Jürgen Urban, elected member of the board of directors of IG Metall and one of the most important left trade union strategists in the German-speaking world, says the following: an “analytical understanding of the dimensions of ecological problems and a corresponding strategy are still missing (also) in trade unions.”10
“Ecology of Work”
Meanwhile, trade unions and employees are certainly (again) showing sensitivity about ecological and related social problems. At least within trade unions’ socially-ecologically sensitive sector, a consensus is increasingly possible that the point is “to find a development route that uses resources efficiently and is greenhouse gas-neutral and to actually go the route that allows the growing global population a good life and a fairer distribution of greater prosperity,” as Wolfgang Lemb, elected member of the board of directors of IG Metall, says.11 A transformation of the capitalist industrial society must proceed in a socially just manner, that is, it cannot be resolved on the backs of those who already have to struggle materially and live under uncertain conditions. However, this causes conflicts about goals, as Lemb’s further explanations highlight: “At the core of good industrial policy, therefore, are for IG Metall stable jobs and good working conditions that are secured by collective bargaining agreements.12 Currently, job security wins during this conflict in the trade unions. However, in view of ecological and climate policy requirements, this focus could be too narrow.
In trade union debates, I therefore find the term “ecology of work” interesting. It covers “operational, but also social and nature-related aspects of expenditure and regeneration of the human work capacity,” includes strategies for good (paid) work and is part of the context for a social-ecological conversion strategy.13 Natural material cycles and human labour power, says the correct diagnosis, all tend toward being overloaded and overly exploited, which endangers the reproduction of labour power and nature – and thus the functioning of society as a whole. The goal, therefore, is to establish, first, the “greening of production, consumption and distribution” and secondly “a new regime for the distribution of income, assets and social opportunities for livelihood,” as well as, thirdly, to democratize “economic decisions and structures.”14 This requires broad alliances that can handle conflicts and also endure them.15
These important impulses from the debate about an ecology of work point at the same time to a number of problems in progressive debates about social-ecological questions. For one, political perspectives are narrowed to an “ecological modernization” – and thus do too little justice to the social, and especially ecological, requirements of social-ecological transformations. This is because social institutions such as ownership structures or the capitalist state, as well as the competitive imperatives of capitalism, such as a drive toward profits and growth, must also be questioned and changed in a democratic process. Secondly, trade unions hold onto the German model of production – including its focus on exports – and accordingly barely question the orientation toward greater efficiency and a focus on international competition. Thirdly, the perspectives formulated with the intention of transformation significantly lag behind the important insights from debates that are critical of growth. And fourthly, trade unions – based on what currently exists and its corresponding contradictions as “children of industrial capitalism” – could become a space for ‘organic worker-intellectuals’ supporting a good life for people who depend on wages.
All four items listed, which I will discuss in more detail below, are covered by a fundamental consideration: trade unions often say that more radical social-ecological issues could turn off a large part of their membership, which, in turn, would cause the unions to weaken organizationally and politically. Conversely, however, we could ask whether and to what extent parts of the workforce have developed greater awareness of crisis and change than trade unions give them credit for. Furthermore, with credible social-ecological positions that are appropriate to the problems, trade unions would again become more visible and able to form coalitions – and thus increase their power in society. Thus, it is in the trade unions’ inherent interest to take leave of a static idea of their members’ interests. Rather, these interests are dynamic and can be affected by learning processes and personal experiences (actually, there is little research about what members think and feel).
Beyond Ecological-Capitalist Modernization
The first problem of progressive politics is the fact that trade unions remain very strongly attached to “ecological modernization.”16 This can be seen clearly in the positions that IG Metall takes, when it argues for further raising the efficiency of combustion engines and expanding electromobility. This, despite the fact that electric cars are not more sustainable in principle; they also require much energy and resources, they need road-centric infrastructures and therefore offer neither an answer to the climate crisis nor a solution for tight urban spaces.17
This problem can also be seen in the core diagnosis: trade unions mostly talk about a climate crisis. While this is correct, a second dimension is just as important for industrial production: the question of raw materials. These are mostly imported, there is enormous price pressure on the producers of raw materials and their extraction is to some extent accompanied by significant conflicts because of resistance from local residents, who are dispossessed of their basis for life, such as clean water or arable land. The national, and especially international, material input that the German model of production requires is given way too little consideration by trade unions. If unions addressed this situation more explicitly, they would have to conclude that industrial production – as well as industrial portions of services, such as flying – must be greatly reduced.
However, there is little reflection on this problem. For example, Wolfgang Lemb argues that in order to achieve the goal of 80 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, 90 per cent of German industry must be penetrated by efficient technologies and by 2050 two thirds of all cars – i.e., 26 million – must be powered electrically.18 Apart from the fact that the term “efficient technologies” is rather general, electrical engines will certainly not be enough to reduce raw material consumption, in addition to emissions. For resources are needed not only for manufacturing new products but also for maintaining the existing infrastructure. A drastic reduction in biophysical input is therefore required for ecological reasons.
How Will the Export Champion Be Converted Socially-Ecologically?
Another consideration is that economies that are internationalized to a high degree, such as the German one depend on the permanent influx of raw materials and stable sales markets. However, the international entanglements that accompany this direction and the ecological implications of such entanglements are an insufficiently important topic for trade unions – for example, discussions of ecological and social management along internationalized supply chains and corresponding legal regulations are only in their infancy. Trade unions do demand “competitive sustainability in terms of a political regulation of the transformation process, which does not ignore the manifest economic market and competitive pressures, but raises the needs of work, society and nature against these pressures.”19 But what does this mean on an international level and in relation to regions that are less competitive? How is the fact that value-added chains are often “value-destructed chains” (Stephan Lessenich) taken into account analytically and politically?
Trade unions do demand regulatory framework conditions within Germany that “lead to a competition for transformation and avoid a competition of displacement.”20 However, on the international level, companies from strong export countries put pressure on companies and industries elsewhere. Here the German export model is almost exclusively aligned with industrial production. For example, the automotive industry alone increased its proportion of the manufacturing sector’s gross value added from 13 per cent in 2002 to 18 per cent in 2016. While vehicle construction accounted for slightly over 16 per cent of overall exports in 1993, its proportion rose to 22 per cent by 2016.21
In this context, another rarely questioned assumption becomes a problem, namely, that production and distribution processes are “efficient” and that ecological problems must be handled with “efficient technologies.” However, there is a catch from an ecological perspective: profits from greater efficiency mean production costs trend lower and end products become cheaper. The income so freed is then used for additional consumption – a typical rebound effect that damages the environment.22
A similar effect is observed when work is divided in terms of space and functions. Industrial specialization and the tendency to expand spatial limits are “efficient,” because they lead to comparative cost savings. However, these savings are skimmed off and turned into additional output. An ecologically sustainable economy should instead significantly shorten value-added chains and assert societal control over them. Hence, the challenge is to achieve efficiency gains without material growth and still allow for redistribution. So far, however, the competition for innovation is more of a driver of growth. This has another effect: “If the responsibility for all consequences of the overall process is distributed across a sufficiently large number of competencies, it is essentially nullified.”23
Against the Capitalist Growth Imperative
Thirdly, the vast majority of socially-ecologically sensitive sectors in trade unions argue for “sustainable growth”24.25 However, growth, as the crucial economic policy point of reference and as an indicator of prosperity and quality of life, no longer holds. But today nothing less than fundamentally questioning the capitalist growth imperative is needed – in view of the obvious ecological problems, but also in view of declining growth rates in early industrialized countries. Moreover, for trade unions it is important that economic growth is not just a more and more exclusive process of material well-being and (re-)distribution. It is based upon and reinforces social relations in which life opportunities and spaces of action, assets and income are distributed unevenly. It guarantees economically, politically and culturally manifold social inclusion and exclusion, class and property relations, the asymmetrical relationship between men and women, between majority and minorities, as well as international inequalities.26
Therefore, trade unions might consider to more strongly adopt the impulses from the debate that criticise growth and not denounce these as “ecological austerity.”27 For the degrowth movement “presents as a problem at its core the technologically and institutionally supported escalation logic of the societies of the global North”28, in which trade unions certainly participate.
From a social-ecological perspective, by contrast, the point is that production, distribution and consumption quality must be compatible with society and nature. Whether the national economy grows in the process is a secondary question. It is more important to, for example, expand services of general interest, roll back industrial agriculture and, in the medium term, liberate society from automotive mobility, for example by reducing daily “forced” mobility and switching to public transportation. In the beginning, this leads to great investments and thus growth, but the question here is the extent to which this growth is driven by exchange value and profit or is, instead, aligned with use value.
The degrowth perspective here targets a model of prosperity that satisfies individual and collective needs in a manner compatible with social and ecological goals, i.e., not at the expense of other people or regions and nature. This model is ambitious because needs differ very substantially. Thus, in addition to redistribution, the question is mainly how wealth is produced. An elaborate critique of growth therefore deals with how the means of production are controlled and investments structured, and by whom: joint property is a necessary condition for reducing dependence on growth that is driven by capitalism.29
For trade unions, this critique of growth is also enriching because the question during collective bargaining increasingly is “more time or more money.” The desire to reduce working hours is rising, especially by getting more vacation days, not so much by reducing weekly working hours.30 IG Metall strongly embedded this desire into its current collective bargaining agreement from the autumn of 2018 – and thereby opened an important window. For higher incomes not only tend to lead to more consumption, but a solidary-working-hours policy is required in any case in view of the necessary dismantling of industrial manufacturing in sectors such as the automotive industry – and it also makes sense for many companies, given the shortage of skilled workers. In this respect, IG Metall is part of a progressive tradition: The trade union paper Die Mitbestimmung wrote already 40 years ago: “Work should be useful and its result should satisfy human needs. This is not always the case. While certain products are questionable, dangerous or unreasonable a priori, other products reach critical limits beyond a certain production volume (for example, cars). Switching to socially useful products, called product conversion, is a necessary partial answer to ecological and social crises and problems.”31
However, Steffen Liebig notes that while shorter working hours are an important topic both in more recent trade union and social-ecological discussions, “so far, there are hardly any significant points of contact between the two camps.” This is due to the problem of having very few assertive actors for a social-ecological transformation.32
However, a perspective that criticises capitalism and domination can certainly open up a space for thinking and acting on questions of industrial conversion – and thus structural policies.33 Trade unions would again become an active part of debates about the future with such strategic considerations, and would also pose an important question: which industries and services are wanted and needed going forward? Trade unions should consider not to leave the answer to management and company owners.
“Trade Unions for Future”?
Fourthly, within trade unions, it is a more corporate interest in maintaining the status quo that is prevailing at this time, often enough in the co-management mode. During union debates, “the” employees and their supposed interest in income and job retention are often mentioned. The tendency is to reduce questions of individual and societal room for manoeuvre to bargaining power, working conditions, income and job security. Company governance and social disciplining are rarely questioned here. Thus, trade unions are in danger of abandoning a more comprehensive perspective of participation or even emancipation. This has dramatic consequences. For a social-ecological transformation must be designed as a project in which societal and individual interests are sounded out, and comprehensive participation and democratization are encouraged.34
And who would, in principle, be better suited to this work than trade unions? In addition to direct representation of interests, active trade unionists are, after all, also “organic intellectuals” in terms of Antonio Gramsci. They can offer orientation, especially during confusing times, and contribute to processing contradictory requirements and experiences. In parts of the workforce, a pronounced awareness of crises and the need for change appears to be already forming. Active trade unionists could therefore politicize unredeemed societal and individual promises of freedom and a good living, which are usually drowned in subjugation and consumerism. The collective self-confidence of the workforce could thereby be strengthened. However, if this is not achieved, trade unions remain stuck in a representation mode and run the risk of unilaterally, or even exclusively, emphasizing the supposed interest of employees´ job retention instead of a broader understanding of the interests of workers in good working and living conditions and a healthy environment.
A blind spot of trade unions has so far been their insufficient interlinking of the modes of living and production. Consumption, an Austrian trade unionist remarked critically during a discussion, is still treated as a “private matter.” But without such a comprehensive view of interlinking, it is hardly possible to think about social-ecological perspectives. Such a broader view is furthermore crucial for giving the often-raised demand for expanded co-management or even economic democracy a social-ecological direction. Otherwise, there is no guarantee at all that more participation also leads to the necessary reduction in using natural resources.
Trade unions could therefore more openly follow cultural changes. They could support the climate strike movement as Trade Unions for Future or Workers for Future. Here they could emphasize that new streets lead to more car traffic and thus are not only a disaster for climate policy but also mean more noise and air pollution for those living nearby – often these are company employees. Through learning processes and also conflicts, trade unions could thus gain credibility if they supported necessary driving restrictions in cities or car-free Sundays – and thus the protection of health and quality of life. This support would not be primarily directed against the interests of those employed in the automotive industry but would strengthen the demand for a politically well-complemented conversion of the automotive sector.
Thus, trade unions could take social-ecological requirements more seriously – and could in the process also gain credibility and power in society. In capitalism, the needs of people have never been the focus; rather, the focus has been on profit and capital accumulation. Good, dignified living conditions for broad swaths of the population always had to be wrested from capital. This dynamic is aggravated in times of ecological crisis, which is mainly caused by the capitalist growth paradigm: A social-ecological turnaround must be fought for against capital and the politicians that support capital. A core issue here is the politicization of questions such as shorter working hours or production’s stronger direction toward use value, for example, in the form of a strong public sector. Thus, climate, degrowth and worker movements can converge.
To achieve this – and here trade unions’ criticism of many social movements is correct – environmentalists must also engage with the realities of life and the views of those who work in the coal, steel, chemicals or automotive industries. This is the only way to create a basis for a joint struggle to fundamentally convert the mode of production and living. And only such a conversion will ensure an adequate life, political participation and maintenance of the natural foundations of life. •
[I would like to thank Greg Albo, Éric Pineault, Nora Räthzel, Markus Wissen and the participants of Klaus Dörre´s Research Colloquium at the University of Jena, Germany, for useful comments and Barbara Jungwirth for the excellent translation – UB.]
Anke Schaffartzik et al., “The global metabolic transition: Regional patterns and trends of global material flows, 1950–2010,” Global Environmental Change 26, 2014, pp. 87-97.
Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen. The Imperial Mode of Living. On the Exploitation of Human Beings and Nature in Global Capitalism, London 2020.
As part of its 2009 “Recovery Package,” the German government promoted new auto purchases with an “environmental bonus” of €2500 (totalling €5-billion). Between January and September 2009, 1.75 million new cars were bought through this program.
Markus Wissen and Ulrich Brand, “Working-class environmentalism and social-ecological transformation. Contradictions of the imperial mode of living,” in Nora Räthzel et al., eds., Handbook of Environmental Labour Studies, Palgrave 2020 (forthcoming).
This is also true for trade unions in the service sector, which by no means support eco-friendly interests per se, if you think about airline travel or the tourism industry, for example.
For example, Nadine Müller, et al. “Ökologie der Arbeit – Impulse für einen nachhaltigen Umbau,” in Lothar Schröder und Hans-Jürgen Urban, eds., Ökologie der Arbeit. Jahrbuch Gute Arbeit 2018. Frankfurt/M. 2018, pp. 15-31.
Klaus Pickshaus and Maximilian Waclawczyk, “Arbeit und Ökologie in der Transformationsperspektive,” in Lothar Schröder and Hans-Jürgen Urban, eds., Transformation der Arbeit – Ein Blick zurück nach vorn. Jahrbuch Gute Arbeit 2019, Frankfurt/M. 2019, pp. 91-103.
Hans-Jürgen Urban, “Ökologie der Arbeit. Ein offenes Feld gewerkschaftlicher Politik?,” in Lothar Schröder, Hans-Jürgen Urban, eds., Transformation der Arbeit – Ein Blick zurück nach vorn. Jahrbuch Gute Arbeit 2019, pp. 329-349, p. 330; see also the overview by Stefanie Barca and Emanuale Leonardi, “Working-class ecology and union politics: a conceptual topology,” Globalizations 15 (4), 2018, pp. 487–503.
Wolfgang Lemb, “Perspektiven einer nachhaltigen Industriepolitik,” in Lothar Schröder, Hans-Jürgen Urban, eds., Transformation der Arbeit – Ein Blick zurück nach vorn. Jahrbuch Gute Arbeit 2019, pp. 74-84, p. 74.
Ibid., p. 74 and p. 77.
Lothar Schröder, Hans-Jürgen Urban, loc. cit.; Nadine Müller et al., loc. cit., p. 15.
Nadine Müller et al., loc. cit., p. 30.
Markus Wissen and Ulrich Brand, Handbook, loc. cit.
About the term “ecological modernization,” see Mol, A.P.J., Sonnenfeld, D.A., Spaargaren, G., eds.: The ecological modernization reader: environmental reform in theory and practice, London, New York 2009. Brand, Ulrich and Kathrin Niedermoser, ‘Overcoming the Impasse of the Current Growth Model and the Imperial Mode of Living. The Role of Trade Unions in Social-Ecological Transformation’, Journal of Cleaner Production 225, 2019 pp. 173-180.
Hawkins, Troy R., et al, ‘Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles’, Journal of Industrial Ecology 17 (1), 2018, pp. 53–64.
Input by Wolfgang Lemb during the discussion with Ulrich Brand on 15 March 2019 in Kassel “Transformation gestalten: sicher, gerecht und selbstbestimmt. Co-Management oder Gegenmacht?”
Tilman Santarius, Hans Jakob Walnum, Carlo Aall, eds.: Rethinking Climate and Energy Policies. New Perspectives on the Rebound Phenomenon, New York 2016.
Niko Paech, “Postwachstumsökonomik als Reduktionsprogramm für industrielle Versorgungssysteme,” in AK Postwachstum, eds., Wachstum – Krise und Kritik. Die Grenzen der kapitalistisch-industriellen Lebensweise. Frankfurt/New York 2016, pp. 135-157, p. 136.
Resolution by the 22nd Regular Trade Union Conference of IG Metall, 2011. Wolfgang Lemb, eds., Welche Industrie wollen wir? Nachhaltig produzieren – zukunftsorientiert wachsen, Frankfurt/M. 2016.
Hans-Jürgen Urban, loc. cit.
Ulrich Brand, “Growth and Domination. Shortcomings of the (De-)Growth Debate,” in: Stefan Gaarsmand Jacobsen, ed., Climate Justice and the Economy: social mobilization, knowledge and the political. London 2018, pp. 148-167.
Hans-Jürgen Urban loc. cit.
Dennis Eversberg, “Nach der Revolution. Degrowth und die Ontologie der Abwicklung,” in Martin Birkner und Thomas Seibert, eds., Kritik und Aktualität der Revolution. Vienna 2017, pp. 231-252, p. 232; see also Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie/DFG-Kolleg Postwachstumsgesellschaften, eds., Degrowth in Movement(s).
See, for example, Susanne Elsen, “Genossenschaften als transformative Kräfte auf dem Weg in die Postwachstumsgesellschaft,” in Carolin Schröder and Heike Walk, eds., Genossenschaften und Klimaschutz. Akteure für eine zukunftsfähige, solidarische Stadt, Wiesbaden 2014, pp. 31-47; Ines Peper, Iris Kunze and Elisabeth Mollenhauer-Klüber, eds., Jenseits von Wachstum und Nutzenmaximierung: Modelle für eine gemeinwohlorientirte Wirtschaft, Bielefeld 2019.
Steffen Liebig, “Arbeitszeitverkürzung für eine nachhaltigere Wirtschaft? Über mögliche Berührungspunkte zwischen sozial-ökologischen Arbeitszeitkonzepten und gegenwärtiger Tarifpolitik,” Berliner Journal für Soziologie, special issue “Große Transformation? Zur Zukunft moderner Gesellschaften,” Wiesbaden 2019, pp. 211-228.
Die Mitbestimmung, “Umschalten auf nützliche Produkte – Vorausschauende Produktkonversion – Teil einer gewerkschaftlichen Strategie gegen Massenarbeitslosigkeit und Umweltzerstörung,” Die Mitbestimmung December 1982.
On the compatibility of environmental requirements and current trade union demands, as well as strategies for the reduction of working hours, cf. Steffen Liebig, loc. cit, p. 212. Similarly: Hubert Eichmann, “Arbeitszeitverkürzung als Ansatzpunkt gewerkschaftlicher Klimapolitik?” in Ulrich Brand and Kathrin Niedermoser, eds., Gewerkschaften und die Gestaltung einer in sozial-ökologischen Transformation. Vienna 2017, pp. 93-127.
Katharina Grabietz and Kerstin Klein, “#FairWandel. Für eine Industriegewerkschaft, die weder Mensch noch Klima auf der Strecke lässt,” Sozialismus 6/2019, pp. 36-38; Kai Burmeister, “Auto – Umwelt – Verkehr: reloaded: Industrielle Transformation als konkreter Input für die gewerkschaftliche Zukunftsdebatte,” Sozialismus 1/2018, pp. 49-52.
Grabietz und Klein, loc. cit.
Ulrich Brand is professor of international policy at Vienna University. He is a member of the organizing committee of the “Degrowth Conference 2020. Strategies for Social-Ecological Transformation” taking place from May 29 to June 1st, 2020 in Vienna. His forthcoming book with Verso is The Imperial Mode of Living. On the Exploitation of Human Beings and Nature in Global Capitalism (co-authored with Markus Wissen).
No Harm Here is Still Harm There: The Green New Deal and the Global South (I)
by Vijay Kolinjivadi & Ashish Kothari
Without accounting for globalized production, a Green New Deal in the Global North will merely spur the imperialist quest for cheaper resources and labour to satisfy “eco-friendly” consumption.
The year 2019 and the first few months of 2020 have thrown up unprecedented ecological crises. Even before COVID-19, ecological crises were raging across the world: wildfires in the Brazilian Amazon, unheard-of summer temperatures in Antarctica, record floods in the American Midwest, Europe’s prolonged summer heatwaves, and countless deaths of animals in Australia’s bushfires.
At the same time, a spate of conflict flashpoints, violent coups, and increasingly visible economic inequalities gave rise to equally unprecedented mobilizations for social change, from Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America, to India, France, Lebanon, Haiti, Algeria, and Sudan. Across Europe and North America, youth movements on the streets every Friday have demanded climate justice and a future worth living in. India witnessed a general workers’ strike of 250 million people this year — the largest strike in world history. Currently, the world is grappling with a paralysis of activity on a scale never seen before, due to a microscopic virus.
While the causes of these social and ecological crises are varied and geographically-specific, there are common threads in the range of responses from citizens — calls for autonomy from oppressive states and a growing resistance to profit- and power-hungry global elites relentlessly pushing people and nature beyond the point of tolerance. Corresponding state responses have ranged from crackdowns and the vilification of movements by right-wing governments, to a semblance of positive policy moves by “green-friendly” wealthy governments like the Nordic countries. Only a few mainstream politicians have dared to fundamentally differ.
Among the most radical responses is undoubtedly the ‘Green New Deal’ (GND) manifesto of former US Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, and parallel statements and manifestos by former UK Prime Ministerial candidate Jeremy Corbyn. A similar proposal has also been advanced by the European Union. GNDs, in their different variations, claim to provide an alternative to the social and ecological destruction caused by the mainstream model of “development”, particularly to some of this model’s key architects, such as the fossil fuel industry. In particular, they target the devastation contributing to, and emerging from, the climate crisis.
However, it is insufficiently recognized that a GND which promises to transform economies in overly-developed regions of the world has significant implications for lives, livelihoods, and ecosystems in the “developing” world. Here, we examine the extent to which GNDs from the Global North can address systemic forces which rely on and perpetuate ecological degradation and inequality in the Global South. What do GND policies in North America or Europe imply for places like India, which continue to shoulder the costs of “progress” for privileged populations in the West and, increasingly, in cities of the Global South itself?
“What do GND policies in North America or Europe imply for places like India, which continue to shoulder the costs of “progress””
In this article, we first highlight what makes the GND unique in our current historical moment. We then describe what a GND within the Global North would imply for the Global South, unless a more internationalist outlook was adopted — both in terms of shifting the costs of development to marginalized regions of the world and the historical legacy of racialized patterns of resource extraction and wealth creation. We explain why any GND will reinforce “business-as-usual” if it fails to encompass the Global South and does not take clear positions against capitalism, statism, and patriarchy. Finally, we offer alternatives to development that a globally-integrated GND could draw inspiration from. Throughout, we draw on examples from India in particular.
How is the Green New Deal “new”?
Bernie’s version of the GND had a clear focus on both ecological and social justice issues. It heavily centred around the need to tackle the climate crisis, moving completely away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy, while explicitly supporting people’s movements demanding such measures. Importantly, unlike mainstream climate change proposals, it emphasized the need to address social justice issues in the transition period, especially for those most vulnerable (including low-income people, ‘people of colour’, children, seniors, and the disabled). It stressed the need to create dignified, ecologically-oriented jobs for workers likely to be affected, and to place transport infrastructure and energy systems in public hands (including worker-cooperatives) instead of the fossil fuel industry. Measures for conserving public lands for “ecologically regenerative and sustainable agriculture” and ecological restoration were also included, which would have generated millions of jobs (invaluable in a period of unprecedented joblessness). The renegotiation of international trade deals to “ensure strong and binding climate standards, labour rights, and human rights” was another positive commitment. Bernie’s GND also explicitly targeted the profiteering of greedy bigwigs of the fossil fuel industry.
Bernie’s campaign, though now called off, had gained momentum on the power of social movements demanding workers’ rights and environmental justice. It did not emerge because a visionary leader vied to single-handedly accomplish radical change — especially in an American political system that is fundamentally at odds with any meaningful and progressive systemic change. Relatively recent examples from Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Greece have shown that leftist parties which formed governments have to varying extents failed to maintain consistent and ongoing grassroots and democratically-driven political organization and socio-cultural transformation.
“A GND will only be successful to the extent that people’s movements rise up on an unprecedented scale to build sufficient autonomy and hold the state accountable to political and economic democracy.”
Left forces falling short of their political objectives risk a powerful backlash that right-wing forces (domestically and internationally) have often sought to exploit. Those rooting for progressive transformation need to know that a GND will only be successful to the extent that people’s movements rise up on an unprecedented scale to build sufficient autonomy and hold the state accountable to political and economic democracy. This is also known as dual power, the establishment of ‘counter-institutions’ that meet the needs of the marginalized while being run by those very people. Democracy must be re-invented in its original meaning — power of the people, not power of the people presumed to represent the people. As B.R. Ambedkar, one of the founders of the Indian Constitution and staunch defender of Dalit rights, eloquently stated in his last speech to the Constituent Assembly of India on November 25, 1949:
“[We must not] be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy.”
Additional crucial flaws would also severely hamper the GND’s potential for real change. Foremost, current variants of the GND retain a significant dependence on technological solutions to problems that are not necessarily technological in nature. They also say nothing about the need to reduce material consumption or energy demand overall (except ‘weatherization’ to reduce domestic consumption). Thus for example, they fail to acknowledge that even if the US transitioned completely to renewable energy and technologies like electric cars, it would still be engaging in unsustainable exploitation of nature and natural resources.
Moreover, by focusing heavily on carbon reductions, the GND ignores other major ecological crises, including those of biodiversity and ecosystem loss, driven by uncontrolled consumption in the Global North. Finally, while it commits to holding corporations accountable to domestic climate goals and labour standards, it does not ensure that they will also be held accountable globally (beyond carbon emissions). Similarly, while Bernie’s proposals were committed to ending rising inequality within the US, through taxes on fossil fuel billionaires and “green jobs” for low-income sectors, it is not clear how this inequality would be addressed in a way that does not just shift it outside the US.
As such, the GND cannot adequately challenge the structures of capitalism and patriarchy, and from a global perspective remains rooted in “green” colonialism. It effectively perpetuates the quest for cheap raw materials and black and brown labouring bodies to achieve “green” growth.
In the context of the Global South, then, the GND has failed to illustrate what is “new” about it. Put differently, it is simply inadequate, and indeed unjust, in our current hyper-connected world (laid bare by COVID-19) to limit a GND to the national policy of Global North countries.For instance, if a GND for Europe promises to be “climate neutral,” whose resources and labour will be deployed to power Europe’s unrestrained energy and consumption demands?
“The uneven playing field of resources and regulatory frameworks works in the favour of those who have not only historically usurped resources and labouring bodies around the world but also currently dictate the modus operandi of development…”
This is an especially salient question given how renewable technologies for “cleaner,” “greener” economies depend on the same socially and ecologically degrading land and labour practices as traditional energy sources. They are also conveniently located in countries of the Global South, such as Bolivia and DR Congo, where regulatory safeguards are more lax. The uneven playing field of resources and regulatory frameworks works in the favour of those who have not only historically usurped resources and labouring bodies around the world but also currently dictate the modus operandi of development, including its “greener and eco-friendly” varieties. What is easily forgotten in “eco-friendly” talk is just how development models of the Global North are structurally founded on dehumanization, in which hundreds of millions across the globe are seduced and stripped of their diverse ways of knowing the world, and dumbed down into passive consumerist onlookers and screen junkies, unable or unwilling to acknowledge (much less act upon) the consequences of their consumption patterns.
The Green New Deal as “cost-shifting” of capital?
The Torrent Power thermal power station in Sabarmati, Ahmedabad is one of India’s oldest coal-fired electricity generation plants. Ahmedabad, like many Indian cities, has some of the world’s worst air pollution levels. In Delhi, the air has been likened by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal as a “gas chamber” where simply breathing is akin to smoking upwards of 50 cigarettes a day. A transition to cleaner, renewable energy is needed more than ever, to combat the daily plight of billions in rapidly “developing” countries dealing with intolerable pollution and massive displacement and dispossession for mining, power stations, and transmission lines, and for the global fight against climate change.
Yet, in a world beholden to the imperatives of global capitalism and statism, “finance-rich, resource-poor” countries are increasingly looking to “resource rich” countries in the Global South to secure their food and energy needs. While traditional players (e.g. North America and Europe) that have been on the “frontier” of imperialist pursuits are still in the game, new players like India and China also want a piece of the pie. Indeed, the very notion of “national development” is becoming increasingly irrelevant in an era when state-backed transnational corporations are active in dispossessing people of their lands and their food and cultural sovereignty domestically, regionally, and globally. India, for example, is active both internally in ‘land grabbing’ strategies for biofuel, industrial development, business parks, and transport infrastructure, and abroad in fueling the investment boom in mineral deposits or agro-industrial projects. Indian companies (backed by their government) are involved in “green energy” production in Chile’s Atacama Desert under the aegis of “sustainable development” in the mining sector, and in grabbing enormous amounts of farm and pasture land in Ethiopia, ostensibly to help the local economy.
“GND must overhaul the “cost-shifting” culture that globalized development requires; this is very different from merely transitioning to a more efficient “green” energy economy.”
Without paying attention to the broader political economy of globalized economic production that transcends national borders, a GND in Europe, US, Canada, South Korea, and its variants in China (e.g. “Ecological Civilization”) will be mere window dressing to conceal an underlying imperialist quest for cheap nature and cheap labour to satisfy the (increasingly “eco-friendly”) demands of the wealthiest people. In other words, the GND must overhaul the “cost-shifting” culture that globalized development requires; this is very different from merely transitioning to a more efficient “green” energy economy.
In India, where solar energy generation has become the cheapest in the world, the transition to renewable energy generation could not be a greater blessing. But while decentralizing energy production to ensure clean energy sovereignty at the panchayat or urban municipal level is one ray of hope, transitioning entire coal-based mega-cities to maintain and enhance commerce and production through industrial renewable energy generation is an entirely different matter. The move towards more efficient transport infrastructure, like electric vehicles, and proliferating digitization and wifi-enabled devices across all sectors of the economy has offered opportunities to leapfrog away from dirty oil and gas industries. At the same time, it has spurred the quest to acquire land and mineral raw material domestically and abroad to secure such production.
India’s plan to transition all vehicles to electric power in a decade will require an extraction-oriented race “on a war footing” with China to acquire critical lithium and cobalt reserves in places like the Congo, Bolivia, and Chile. Lithium-ion batteries, cobalt, neodymium, silicon, and coltan are crucial for electric vehicle car-batteries, computers, and mobile devices. Increasing demand for these commodities from the world’s largest companies, including Google, Apple, and Microsoft, has resulted in some of the most deplorable working conditions in the world, where pregnant women are often powerless to prevent themselves and their children from working in the mines. It has also directly perpetuated one of Africa’s longest running armed conflicts.
Harm reduction in India, in its move away from polluting coal and unbreathable air towards a hi-tech society, fuelled by renewable energy, means harm creation in the Congo where lives deemed less valuable are made to shoulder the cost. It also means harm creation domestically, in the grasslands of Kachchh and Andhra Pradesh, the coasts of southern India, and the desert of Rajasthan, where wildlife, farmers and pastoralists face ever-increasing takeover of the territories they depend on.
Of course, we cannot draw direct comparisons between countries of the Global North and South in their capacity to adopt GND policies. As Alex Lenferna claims in arguing for a “Global Green New Deal,” the ability to enable large-scale stimulus packages that inject money into the economy is only viable for Global North countries who can do so at very low interest rates, backed by high credit ratings. In turn, this is enabled by historical wealth usurped from former colonies and more recently from multi-national corporations based in the North. In contrast, countries across Latin America, Africa, and Asia remain bonded by debt in a neoliberal economy, with IMF-imposed structural adjustment policies stifling any investment in public policies and infrastructure.
Racial capitalism, (eco)fascism, and the Green New Deal
The “no harm here is still harm there” narrative explained above reflects all the trappings of a global class war, with divisions along racial, class, and gendered lines. At the same time, rising border imperialism, justified increasingly in ethno-nationalist and xenophobic terms, is ensuring that these divisions of labour reinforce conditions perpetuating the precarity of lives on the margins. The recently established National Registry of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India, rooted in a Hindu supremacist vision of “development” and castigating any dissent against this vision as “anti-national”, is a case in point. The muscling up of Modi’s India to meet the resource-imperialist requirements of global capital allows India the space to not only extract global resources and labour, but also to close its eyes and victimize anyone suffering from the consequences. This is no different from the US under Trump, Brazil under Bolsonaro, Turkey under Erdogan, and other states under ruthless and plutocratic regimes.
Some have also pointed out that a GND which treats climate change as a ‘threat’ to security itself irresponsibly implies that the status quo (presumably without climate change) is somehow ‘secure’. For the billions of black and brown bodies that serve as the crude raw materials for production, for women whose regenerative and affective labour at home and in the workplace goes unrecognized, for those Indigenous populations whose worldviews have been systematically destroyed, and the millions of non-human species being pushed over the edge of extinction, the status quo is anything but secure.
This framing of ecological crises as security threats also risks opening the door to disturbing Malthusian implications. In the 1968 book, The Population Bomb, author and environmentalist Paul Ehrlich described a New Delhi slum from his taxi window as a “hellish mob,” describing his fear of being unable to return to his hotel and his recognition of “emotionally” experiencing what he called “over-population.”
This perception is rooted in the fear that more bodies seeking a “good life” would not be sustainable for those who already hold such privileges. This imagery around “threat” serves to erase the real burden of environmental destruction – the richest 10% of the population is responsible for 50% of global emissions; in India the richest person consumes 17 times the poorest. Thus, a GND which considers the climate crisis as a threat, without acknowledging stark inequality in global consumption, can be readily repackaged in ecofascist terms.
Vijay Kolinjivadi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp in Belgium.
Ashish Kothari is based in India. He is associated with Kalpavriksh, Vikalp Sangam, and Global Tapestry of Alternatives.
Let’s Use the Current Opportunity to Develop a Climate-Friendly Transport System
by Heinz Högelsberger & Ulrich Brand
Two transport policy topics were discussed the most over the last few days: On the one hand, how more space for movement can be secured for pedestrians during Covid-19 times; on the other hand, whether Austrian Airlines should be bailed out using taxpayer’ money. These questions have a deeply social component: Walking is the preferred mode of locomotion for poor people. But just in Vienna alone, 38 percent of sidewalks are narrower than two meters. Social distancing is impossible on all these sidewalks. By contrast, flying is a domain of the rich that damages the climate. This, in addition to climate policy considerations, makes it problematic if airlines are supported unconditionally with taxpayer money in the hundreds of millions of Euros.
Which social groups fly how often has been recorded in detail in Great Britain for decades: While the poorer half of the population on average accounts for half a flight per year, the frequency increases with income and for the richest five percent is at more than 3.5 flights. For many years, just barely a majority of Brits consistently negates the question: “Did you fly last year?” The rising market share of low-cost airlines thus did not “democratize” air travel, as has been argued frequently. Economical ticket prices simply cause frequent flyers to sit in an airplane even more often. In general, the richest tenth of all British households causes three times as much in greenhouse gas emissions as the poorest tenth. But when only transport emissions are taken into account, the factor increases to between 7 and 8. A similar picture emerges in Austria: In general, the household expenses of the richest tenth of the population are two and half times above those of the poorest tenth. In terms of the cost of vacations, this shear is increased to five-and-a-half-fold! The frequency of travel and the tendency to fly increase with income and educational level. A poll by VCÖ [Transport Club Austria] from 2017 also confirms the British data for Austria: According to the poll, a third of the population never flies. Half fly once a year or less, while only a sixth sits in an airplane several times a year.
Ecological aspects are added to these social ones to explain why strict conditions should be attached to support for the airline industry. That is so because the current crisis of the airline industry should be understood as an opportunity for climate policy, that is, for an urgently needed structural change towards climate-friendly mobility.
According to forecasts, the proportion of CO2 emissions due to airline travel is expected to increase dramatically over the next few years, unless political countermeasures are taken. Short-haul flights are a disaster in terms of climate policy. An airplane emits about forty times more greenhouse gases per passenger than an ÖBB [Austrian Federal Railways] train on the same route, according to calculations by the Umweltbundesamt [Environment Agency Austria].
The future of the airline industry must be clearly linked to alignment with the 1.5-degree goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to which Austria committed, as well.
This would also be consistent with the European Green Deal, which the new president of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, proposed last December. According to that deal, greenhouse gas emissions by the transport sector are to be reduced by 90 percent by 2050. Here air travel, at almost 15 percent of emissions across Europe, plays a central role. To accomplish that goal, the entire European transport system must be structured in a more environmentally friendly manner.
This means for the current discussions: Public funding for the airline industry in connection with the Corona crisis should be linked to specific conditions.
In return for supporting AUA [Austrian Airlines], the republic [of Austria] should receive a blocking minority of shares; this would, for one, ensure a desirable business policy in terms of social and climate policy and, for the other, let the republic benefit from future profits. The state and other stakeholders should develop joint strategies for the planned dismantling of airline companies and/or promote their conversion to transport service providers.
Unbridled liberalization in the airline industry leads to ruinous competition with many losers: The airlines are left with low margins, and are forced to save. For passengers this means worse service, for employees, worse working conditions. The latter, in particular, must be improved again, because social dumping is currently the lay of the land in the airline industry. Ryanair (= Laudamotion [Austrian low-cost airline]) is a particularly frightening example of this. An aid package must also be used to secure or improve affected employees’ income. Thus, the time of low-cost airlines would be over for good.
At the same time, the extensive tax-exemptions in airline travel should be removed. According to WIFO [Austrian Institute for Economic Research], the Austrian state loses half a billion Euros a year as a result. An appreciable increase of the airplane ticket fee and introduction of a kerosene tax would be first steps in that direction.
Already immediately after the Corona crisis, short-haul flights on routes where good train connections already exist should not be allowed to be offered. Three of the four destinations from Wien-Schwechat airport [Vienna airport] with the most passengers – that is, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Zürich – can already now be reached with several direct trains a day. In the medium term, flights within Europe must also be significantly reduced and at the same time massive investments in the European train network must be made.
The Corona crisis offers a unique opportunity to rethink how things are done in society. If we act responsibly now and employees are offered climate-friendly workplaces, we can achieve the necessary reduction in airplane travel. Re-trainings could already start during the current lock-down situation.
The political goal must be a climate-friendly transport sector. To achieve this, a drastic reduction of airplane travel in Europe and across the world is necessary. However, this does not limit the freedom to travel, but only the “license to destroy the climate” that a small group of people who fly a lot believes it has.
The point is to create a way of economic activity and living in which not so many goods are flown around the globe, businesspeople don’t jet around so much and the weekend trip from Vienna to Barcelona with a low-cost airline is no longer possible. Even the lobbyists for the airline industry must understand this.
Dr. Heinz Högelsberger and Univ.-Prof. Ulrich Brand currently work on a research project about the role of employees and trade unions in social-ecological restructuring which is funded by the Austrian climate and energy fund.