Grassroots democracy and peoples’ alternative practices in Southeast Asia

by Eduardo C. Tadem


Discourses on practices of grassroots democracy often focus on modes of popular participation centered on institutional avenues such as elections and local governance issues dealing with decentralization, devolution, and local autonomy (Mohanty 2007, 15–32). At the local level, consequent interests are on “restraining arbitrary and corrupt official behaviour and enhancing the accountability of grassroots authorities” (Perry and Goldman 2007, 1).

In the political arena where countervailing forces operate, grassroots democracy is often related to social movements and peoples’ organizations intervening in the political process through advocacies and campaigns on regime and systems change and/or devising strategies and practices that engage with the state. For instance, farmers and rural poor in Northeast Thailand “assert their rights and demand state compensations” and engage in “direct actions towards the state (and) press their demands for corrective action” (Prasartset 2004, 140).

Even when a less state-dependent perspective is raised in terms of “participatory governance through the empowerment of communities and grassroots, the process is ultimately depicted in terms of achieving “an increased ability of the poor to effect or influence state policy” and bring about “institutional reforms” (Angeles 2004, 184). Among “civil society” groups advocating “social transformation” in the Philippines, Franco (2004, 100–1) points to “a still unrealized institutional setting where effective access to democratic governance is available to the entire citizenry . . . (and) . . . aiming to promote change by exercising citizenship power in state policy-making and implementation.”

The exercise of grassroots democracy, however, need not focus on the state and its formal institutions. The role of the state is not intrinsic to the practice of grassroots democracy. Kaufman (1997, 1) describes grassroots democracy as that which “allow people in their communities and workplaces to control their lives and livelihoods (entailing) . . . grassroots mobilization and the development of community forms of popular democracy.” In its generic sense, grassroots democracy is often equated with “popular participation” and is seen as both a goal and a method of change.

Popular participation, moreover, has an economic character. Parameswaran (2008, 127), notes that participation can be strengthened by “(a) giving primacy to the primary sector and, fragmentation of ownership, and collectivization of operations; (b) relying on small-scale, but efficient industries, rather than on mega enterprises; (c) making small not only beautiful but also powerful and thus (d) making local economies strong enough to withstand the onslaught of global economies.” This dimension of grassroots democracy where the state and state-related matters recede in importance and focus remains relatively unexplored and have not been given the proper attention they deserve.

This alternative framework looks at how the poor and their communities have (through the ages) been able to manage their own lives through mechanisms that lie outside the formal systems of governance and economics. This sector encompasses political, economic, social, and cultural aspects. The list of alternative practices could be enormous and include, among others, (1) age-old but tried and tested production and distribution systems, (2) local decision-making processes, (3) informal land market mechanisms, (4) local credit systems (not usury), (5) concepts of common and individual property rights, (6) notions of justice and entitlement, (7) non-formal and folk education, (8) indigenous health care systems, (9) local cultural norms and belief systems, (10) everyday forms of resistance, etc. In contemporary times, there are efforts by poor and marginalized peoples sidestepping and even violating established legal processes and institutions, e.g., unilaterally taking control of land and other resources to create self-sustaining and viable socio-political and economic communities.

The Program on Alternative Development of the University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies (UP CIDS AltDev) recognizes the value of grassroots democracy as depicted in the alternative practices on the ground. For the past three years, UP CIDS AltDev has been researching case studies of practices in Southeast Asia and have documented and published around sixty of such cases.2)

More than simple documentation and publication, UP CIDS AltDev has brought practitioners together in three annual Southeast Asian regional conferences where experiences from the ground are shared, exchanges undertaken, challenges identified and lessons learned. The ultimate goal is to establish a new network based on regionalism and transnationalism from below that would challenge the dominant elite-centered and oligarchical-controlled regionalism as exemplified by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Southeast Asian Alternative Practices3)

The following three cases of alternative practices illustrate grassroots democracy at work in Thailand, Indonesia, and Timor Leste. They represent efforts by rural communities to practice grassroots democracy in all its dimensions and iterations while asserting their autonomy in building sustainable lives for the peoples.

Southern Peasants’ Federation of Thailand (SPFT).

Inequitable land distribution in Thailand has endured over the years because of the concentrated land management of the Thai state. In addition, capitalist development has commodified land to serve a market economy. The Thai state facilitated the private sector cultivation of cash crops such as oil palm on state-owned lands to respond to the global demand for industrial crops. In Surat Thani Province, Southern Thailand, landless and small-scale peasants have employed alternative economic, political, social, and cultural practices to counter state-centric land management.

In 2003, Thai farmers discovered that around 11,200 hectares of land concessions for oil palm plantations had already expired. Established in 2008, the SPFT has led landless peasants and workers in Surat Thani province, southern Thailand, to unilaterally occupy portions of these lands, establish new community settlements, and to demand equitable land distribution. Their community members, however, have been subjected to intimidation, illegal detention, eviction, death threats, and killings believed to be perpetrated by a real estate mafia and agribusiness interests.

Despite these challenges, they continue to apply their idea of a community land title deed underpinned by the concept of community rights to land and natural resources management. Alternative practices of land management including diversified farming employed by SPFT community members call for participatory development and governance. In alliance with the People’s Movement for a Just Society (P-Move), the SPFT continues to struggle for land rights and advocate redistributing land equitably among landless peasants in Thailand.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic tested SPFT’s self-reliance even as they were deprived of sufficient government relief measures and protective equipment due to the lack of household registration records. Their grassroots-level practices of alternative land management and sustainable food production consisting of collective farming of food crops, goat raising, dairy production, and establishing a rice bank enabled them to build a social safety net and remain food sufficient and resilient against the pandemic.

Serikat Petani Pasundan (Pasundan Peasant Union, SPP), Indonesia.

Officially established in 2000, the history of agrarian struggles by SPP actually goes back to the 1980s, when student movements in Garut, Indonesia were at the forefront of promoting the rights of the farmers on agrarian reform and environmental conservation. This eventually led to the formation of SPP, whose membership spread to Pangandaran, Tasikmalaya, and Ciamis in West Java (Pasundan is the historical name). The Union’s expansion enabled it to take on other issues, such as democratization and the promotion of people’s well-being in the community.

SPP’s vision is to “develop or build structures of economic social politics based on values and principles of humanity, infinity, and justice” (Kartini 2019). To attain this vision, SPP has adopted goals, strategies, and activities that promote grassroots democracy in the community and in the whole of society and, in particular, support the control and management by local communities over their common resources.

SPP staged land occupations and reclamation of publicly-owned rubber plantations in West Java and managed to undertake various economic and social projects including diversified farming, managing alternative schools (primary and secondary levels) that offer learning sessions on agriculture and on agrarian law, fair trade exchanges, a community-managed eco-tourism in Pasundan, as well as a local coffee shop in Jakarta that sources its coffee from its many coffee farming communities across the country.

During the COVID 19 pandemic, SPP co-organized the food solidarity movement called Gerakan Solidaritas Lumbung Agraria (Gesla) or Agrarian Food Barn Solidarity Movement. They distributed free food to members of fraternal organizations in Bandung and Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia. This is amplifying their local wisdom of cooperation based on the most common system called beras perelek, in which a farmer saves a cup of rice a week in a bamboo tube that is later collected by the community to help others or sell the accumulated rice savings to purchase communal facilities.

Uniaun Agrikultores Munisipiu Ermera (UNAER), Ermera District, Timor Leste

Under both Portuguese colonialism from the 16th century to November 1975 and Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999, the Timorese local communities were prevented from performing their own conservation management efforts and maintaining social cohesion. The Indonesian occupation not only depleted resources but also weakened traditional social structures that prioritize the communities’ capacity to manage and protect their land and natural resources. Bombings and forced resettlement also contributed to adverse environmental and social changes.

UNAER is an agricultural organization based in the Ermera municipality of Timor Leste. Founded in 2010, UNAER organizes farmers in the district for mobilizations and dialogues with government officials to defend their rights over the land as mixed-race (mestizo) families continue their claims over huge coffee farms in the area. They justify their unilateral land occupations due to the absence of a national agrarian reform policy and the fact that the occupied areas are part of their ancestral domain. The occupied lands were distributed among the community members.

In post-conflict Timor Leste, the customary practice known as the tara bandu, achieved strong resurgence for local decision making, collective action, enforcement system, and agrarian reform implementation. It was observed that community-based actions using the tara bandu were more effective in undertaking alternative development. The practice consists of organized rituals, building of altars, and the use of natural objects in implementing agroecology principles and enforcing local laws such as prohibition of harvesting of natural resources in protected areas. Ermera, the country’s largest area for coffee production, has become a model for tara bandu implementation at the district level.


The Thai, Indonesian and Timor Leste cases presented here are but a fraction of countless grassroots initiatives in Southeast Asia that demonstrate the capacities of empowered and organized communities to assert their rights to land, livelihood, and political decision-making that are exercised outside of the state framework. Utilizing principles of solidarity, sharing, cooperation, the commons, collectivity, and the judicious use of traditional customs, the communities are able to remain resilient even in pandemic times. Challenges from the state, rural elite, and corporate interests continually hound them but they have remained steadfast in their advocacies and campaigns.


Angeles, L.C. 2004. Grassroots democracy and community empowerment. In Democracy and civil society in Asia, Vol. 1, Globalization, democracy and civil society in Asia. F. Quadir, and J. Lele (eds). New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 182–212.

Franco, J.C. 2004. “The Philippines: Fractious civil society and competing visions of democracy.” In Civil society and political change in Asia: Expanding and contracting democratic space, M. Alagappa (ed). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 97–137.

Kaufman, M. 1997. Community power, grassroots democracy, and the transformation of social life. In Community power and grassroots democracy: The transformation of social life. M. Kaufman, and H.D. Alfonso (eds) London & New Jersey: Zed Books, 1–26.

Kartini, Erni. 2019. “Serikat Petani for Humanity, Infinity, and Justice.” Presentation at the 2nd International Conference on Alternatives: Building Peoples’ Movements in Southeast Asia, Quezon City, Philippines, October 22–24, 2019.

Mohanty, M. 2007. Introduction: Local governance, local democracy and the right to participate. In Grassroots democracy in India and China: The right to participate, ed. M. Mohanty, R. Baum, M. Rong, and G. Mathew. New Delhi: Sage, 15–32.

Parameswaran, M.P. 2008. Democracy by the people: The elusive Kerala experience. Bhopal: Alternatives Asia.

Perry, E.J., and M. Goldman, eds. 2007. Grassroots political reform in contemporary China. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.

Prasartset, S. 2004. “From victimized communities to movement powers and grassroots democracy: The case of the Assembly of the Poor.” In Democracy and civil society in Asia. Vol. 1, Globalization, democracy and civil society in Asia, ed. F. Quadir, and J. Lele. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 140–181.

Tadem, Eduardo C. 2012. “Grassroots Democracy, Non-State Approaches, and Popular Empowerment in Rural Philippines.” Philippine Political Science Journal. (Vol 33 No 2)

Tadem, Eduardo C., Karl Arvin F. Hapal, Venarica B. Papa, Ananeza P. Aban, Nathaniel P. Candelaria, Honey B. Tabiola, Jose Monfred C. Sy, and Angeli Fleur G. Nuque. 2020a. “Deepening Solidarities beyond Borders among Southeast Asian Peoples: A Vision for a Peoples’ Alternative Regional Integration.” UP CIDS Discussion Paper 2020-04. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies.

Tadem, Eduardo C., Ananeza P. Aban, Karl Arvin F. Hapal, Venarica B. Papa, Nathaniel P. Candelaria, Honey B. Tabiola, and Jose Monfred C. Sy. May 2020b. “A Preliminary Report on Southeast Asian Community and Grassroots Responses in Covid-19 Times.” Quezon City: University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies.

UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies Program on Alternative Development (UP CIDS AltDev). 2020. “Alternative Practices of Peoples in Southeast Asia Towards Alternative Regionalism.” UP CIDS Workshop Proceedings. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies.

Tadem, Eduardo C., Benjamin B. Velasco, Ananeza P. Aban, Rafael Vicente V. Dimalanta, Jose Monfred C. Sy, Micah Hanah S. Orlino, Ryan Joseph C. Martinez, and Honey B. Tabiola. 2022. “Southeast Asian Peoples in Pandemic Times: Challenges and Responses COVID-19 Grassroots Report Volume 2.” Public Policy Monograph Series 2022-03. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies. Quezon City.

The article was first published by Global Taperstry of Alternatives at https://globaltapestryofalternatives.org/newsletters:09:rivers

About Author(s)

Eduardo C. Tadem, Ph.D. is the convenor of the University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies, Program on Alternative Development (UP CIDS AltDev), and Professorial Lecturer at the UP Asian Center.

1) Excerpted with revisions from Tadem 2012.

2) The cases are published in UP CIDS AltDev’s Monographs on Alternatives (https://cids.up.edu.ph/program-on-alternative-development/).

3) Excerpted with revisions and updates from Tadem et al 2020a, Tadem et al 2020b, UP CIDS AltDev 2020, and Tadem et al 2022.

Nation-states are destroying the world. Could ‘bioregions’ be the answer?

From the border regions of South Asia to the Amazon rainforest, people are seeking new ways to organise societies that respect humans and nature

By Shrishtee Bajpai, Juan Manuel Crespo & Ashish Kothari

Panchi nadiya pawan ke jhonke

Koi sarhad na inhe roke

Sarhadein insaano ke liye hai

Socho tumne aur maine kya paaya insaan hoke”


“Birds, rivers and the gusts of wind

No borders can stop them

The borders are for humans

Just think, what have we got by being human?Javed Akhtar, Indian lyricist

It is becoming increasingly obvious that we need to think about the problems of the climate crisis and borders together. Environmental breakdown displaces millions of people every year, while states respond by militarising their borders, causing further suffering and death.

It is no accident that climate breakdown and state borders are linked. Historically, the nation-state was born out of a logic that also saw nature – and colonised peoples – as things to be conquered and dominated. Now, from the war-torn border regions of South Asia to the Amazon rainforest, people are questioning whether sustainability can ever be achieved through the framework of nation-states. They are turning to other ways of organising society based on Indigenous worldviews and practices that respect all humans and the rest of nature.

Colonialism, capitalism and the nation-state

In the last 500 years, colonial conquests of vast regions of the earth by European and North American powers, based on the capitalist profit drive and rapid technological development, resulted in the decimation of countless cultures and communities. This includes the death of over 50 million natives in what subsequently came to be known as Latin America, devastating famines in Asia and Africa caused by policies imposed by colonisers, and the conversion of millions of hectares of natural ecosystems into commercial plantations, logging estates, or livestock ranches to feed the consumer demands of Europe and North America.

In the same period, there emerged the idea and practice of the nation-state. Though its origins and nature are diverse and complex, the centralisation of power in the hands of the nation-state was one of the bases of capitalism: in practice, capitalism is carried out through the political, legal and military institutions of nation-states. Nation-state building was supported by an ideology asserting that capitalist modernity is the only way to organise lives, and that this justifies taking over territories of Indigenous peoples and local communities for national goals like development and security. Nation-state symbols such as one flag, one language and a single identity submerge and often disrespect diverse biocultures – combined biological and cultural human environments. We must see the nation-state, capitalism and colonialism as going hand in hand.

The ideology of the colonial-industrial age stated, deludedly, that humans were separate from nature and that human progress was contingent on conquering it. After the Second World War, old forms of colonialism were defeated in most parts of the world. In their place a new ideology was needed to continue the domination of the West. This was the ideology of development, or ‘developmentality’. We might assume that the idea of ‘development’ is progressive, but we would be mistakenDevelopmentality convinced the world that human progress was linked to ever-expanding material and energy growth. The ecological crises the world is facing today are largely a result of these five centuries of colonialism and developmentality.

It is in this context that there is now an intense search for radical alternatives which can meet the needs and aspirations of all peoples while living in harmony with the rest of nature.

Bioregionalism and radical democracy

In central India, 90 villages formed a mahagram sabha (federation of village assemblies) in 2017 and are asserting their decision-making over the entire region, brought together by a traditional sense of biocultural identity rather than current administrative or political boundaries. In 1999, 65 villages that were part of a river basin in the Indian state of Rajasthan, formed a people’s parliament that governed it for a decade, ignoring the administrative division of the basin. These and other examples are pointers to a radically different approach to governance: bioregionalism.

Bioregionalism is based on the understanding that the geographic, climatic, hydrological and ecological attributes of nature support all life, and their flows need to be respected. Bioregions, also known as biocultural regions, are areas with their own ecologies and cultures, in which humans and other species are rooted, actively participating at various scales beyond the immediate locale. While many current human-made boundaries disregard nature’s flows and territories – such as a mountain range or a river – many local communities and Indigenous peoples have long lived with deep understanding and respect for these. They understand the interdependence of all living beings across a landscape or seascape.

There are many examples of bioregional governance, both old and new. For thousands of years Nomadic pastoralists in Iran used large territories encompassing a diversity of ecosystems, their practices tuned to an acute understanding of which ecosystems could take how much and what kind of use. In more recent times, the Indigenous nation of Monkox of Lomerio, Bolivia, won territorial self-determination rights in 2006, and is attempting transformations in its economic, political, social and cultural life based on a life plan for the whole region. The Great Eastern Ranges project aims to protect, connect and restore habitats across a 3,600 km swathe of eastern Australia, by creating regional coordination channels among various actors. In many other parts of the world, Indigenous Peoples or other local communities are sustaining traditional landscape governance mechanisms, or creating new ones, as part of a global phenomenon now known as Territories of Life. Many of these projects cross political and administrative borders, respecting instead ecological and cultural flows and boundaries.

At their best, these bioregional projects are based in radical, direct democracy. Decision-making power is ultimately held at a local level, by which everyone is able to participate. For decisions affecting larger territories, delegates are sent to decision-making assemblies appropriate to that scale. There are close affinities between these movements and what Mahatma Gandhi called swaraj, a worldview that asserts autonomy, freedom and sovereignty, but in nonviolent ways that are responsible to the autonomy and well-being of all others.

Reimagining South Asia from a bioregional perspective

For various historical reasons including colonisation, South Asia is currently divided into several nation-states, with political borders that cut through ecosystems and cultures. For instance, the world’s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, is divided by the India-Bangladesh border. The high mountains of the Himalaya and the vast desert areas in the west are divided between India and Pakistan. The great high-altitude plateau north of the Himalaya is fenced off with Ladakh on one side and Tibet (governed by China) on the other. The waters of the Indian Ocean are partly partitioned amongst India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.

Here is a vision for South Asia that is very different from the current reality, adapted from an essay one of us co-authored. It is part of an imaginary address to inhabitants of South Asia by one Meera Gond-Vankar, in the year 2100:

“While India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and China still retain their ‘national’ identities, boundaries have become porous, needing no visas to cross. Local communities have taken over most of the governance in these boundary areas, having declared peace in previous conflict zones like Siachen, the Kachchh and Thar deserts, and the Sundarbans. The same applies to the Palk Strait, with fishing communities from both India and Sri Lanka empowered to ensure sustainable, peaceful use of marine areas. Greater Tibet has become a reality, self-governed, with both India and China relinquishing their political and economic domination over it. Both nomadic communities and wildlife are now able to move freely back and forth.

In all these initiatives, narrow nationalism is being replaced by civilisational identities, pride, and exchange, a kind of self-fashioned ethnicity that encourages respect and mutual learning between different civilisations and cultures. South Asia learnt from the mistakes of blocks like the European Union, with its strange mix of centralisation and decentralisation and continued reliance on the nation-state, and worked out its own recipe for respecting diversity within a unity of purpose.”

While this is a futuristic vision, some tentative pathways towards this are already being forged. In addition to the examples given above of villages coming together to democratically govern bioregions, peace-centred people-to-people dialogues are underway, such as the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy. The idea of a Siachen Peace Park in the intense conflict area between India and Pakistan has been proposed for many years, and even endorsed by former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Transboundary conservation cooperation exists between Manas Tiger Reserve in India and Royal Manas in Bhutan, aligning with several dozen such initiatives already established around the world. But of course, given the continuing atmosphere of distrust and conflict in the region, accompanied by periodically rising hypernationalistic discourses (currently, promoted by the party in power in New Delhi), there is a long way to go for these pathways to be trod.

Shaping a bioregional approach to the Amazon Sacred Headwaters

The Sacred Headwaters region in the Upper Amazon is one of the birthplaces of the Amazon river. It spans 35 million hectares (86 million acres) in Ecuador and Peru, and is home to nearly 600,000 indigenous people from 30 nationalities, including peoples living in voluntary isolation. It is the most biodiverse terrestrial ecosystem on the planet, and represents both the hope and the peril of our times. Indigenous peoples’ struggles have kept this region largely free of industrial extraction. Studies by international organisations such as the UN, Rainforest Alliance and Hivos have demonstrated how Indigenous peoples are the best guardians of nature, especially in the Amazon bioregion.

In response to new threats from the Ecuadorian and Peruvian states to expand oil, mining and intensive agro-industrial projects, Indigenous confederations from both countries banded together to form the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative (ASHI). In 2019, Sacred Headwaters made a public declaration:

“We call for the global recognition of the Amazon Rainforest as a vital organ of the Biosphere. We call on the governments of Ecuador and Peru, on the corporations and financial institutions to respect indigenous rights and territories and stop the expansion of new oil, gas, mining, industrial agriculture, cattle ranching, mega-infrastructure projects and roads in the Sacred Headwaters. The destructive legacy of this model of “development” has been major deforestation, forest degradation, contamination, and biodiversity loss, decimating Indigenous populations and causing human rights abuses. We challenge the mistaken worldview that sees the Amazon as a resource-rich region where raw materials are extracted in pursuit of economic growth and industrial development…”

Instead of a view of development that sees human progress as the conquest of nature, Sacred Headwaters understands the interdependence of all life across national borders. ASHI’s Bioregional Plan proposes Indigenous self-determination with effective participation of women; a highly diverse economy combining new with ancestral farming methods and food and energy sovereignty; intercultural health systems that respect gender and generational diversity; educational systems that combine formal with non-formal learning; and a thorough conservation and restoration program for the Amazon.

Making bioregionalism a reality

Bioregional approaches, encompassing radical democracy, offer communities the chance to rebuild and enhance their lives and livelihoods, free of the constant fear of conflict and violent extractive industries. In the Amazon they could help secure the ecological, economic and cultural sustenance of Indigenous nations and other local communities, at the same time providing all the local-to-global ecological benefits of the world’s largest rainforest. In South Asia, the withdrawal of armed forces and other police and paramilitary forces from land and sea would mean that the suffering such personnel go through could be eliminated, especially in the treacherous and freezing conditions of the Himalayan border areas between India, Pakistan and China. It would also mean that a substantial part of India’s US$72 billion defence expenditure could be reallocated.

This approach would also entail undoing past damages to bioregions, as far as feasible. The impacts of climate change in forms of droughts and floods are going to become worse. It is crucial to re-imagine how we govern wetlands, and entire bioregions. Some existing dams on trans-boundary rivers may need to be decommissioned, to re-establish water, ecological and biological flows. Any further damning and major diversions must be avoided. A healthy river is often a first line of defence against climate crises for communities, including its functions as it merges into the sea. A bioregional approach may also help cope with some of the worst impacts of climate change, such as the displacement of coastal communities – including a likely attempt by Bangladeshi climate refugees to enter India, which could become a huge humanitarian crisis without adequate foreplanning – or the movement of wildlife to higher altitudes.

Bioregional approaches face significant challenges, not least of which are nationalist notions that continue to support hard nation-state boundaries. And yet, the peace dialogues, transboundary conservation projects and Indigenous bioregional initiatives discussed above are sources of hope.

Another important stepping stone is the recognition of the rights of nature. In 2017, the New Zealand Parliament passed into law the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act, which gives the Whanganui river and ecosystem legal personhood and standing in its own right, guaranteeing its “health and wellbeing”, recognising the Iwi cosmology “we are the river and the river is us”, and acknowledging that rights extend to the entire bioregion, from mountain to sea.

Close on its heels, the Uttarakhand high court in India ruled in 2017 that the north Indian rivers Ganga and Yamuna, their tributaries, and the glaciers and catchment feeding these rivers in the state of Uttarakhand, have rights as a “juristic/legal person/living entity”.

Recognising such rights could enable management and governance based on the ecological realities of the region. This also opens up the opportunity for us to alter currently dominant anthropocentric and colonial law, towards a new legal framework that respects the ‘pluriverse’ – the beautiful diversity of the world. Taken beyond the law, recognising the rights of nature opens up the possibility of articulating Indigenous worldviews of nature as a living being, even within formal institutions; and of creating a mutually flourishing future for humans and more-than-humans, where people’s lives are rooted in territories that do not have arbitrary militarised borders but are ecologically and culturally defined, open and connected.

The article was first published by Open Democracy: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/nation-states-are-destroying-the-world-could-bioregions-be-the-answer/

Ecofeminism and a ‘Just Transition’

This interview follows a 2020 workshop on approaches to a ‘just transition’, held at the Institute for Global Development (IGD), University of New South Wales, Australia. Somali Cerise, IGD Research to Practice Associate asks Ariel Salleh to share ecofeminist ideas on redefining the relationship between humans and the environment and what a different system of power and economic relationships might look like[1].

IGD: At our workshop on Gender and Just Transitions you emphasised that a just transition requires fundamentally rethinking the relationship between human beings and nature. This means we stop seeing the environment as there simply to serve human interests, and instead, view humans as just one part of the ecosystem. Can you elaborate on why we must move from the West’s anthropocentric dualism of ‘Humanity over Nature’ to achieve a gender just transition?

AS: A broad public understanding that the global economy is ‘anthropocentric’ is critical to the survival of Life on Earth. Crises like climate change, biodiversity loss, and the 2020 pandemic, are each outcome of the dominant Eurocentric imaginary that positions Humanity over Nature. This dualist H/N assumption, derived from ancient Abrahamic religious cultures, was secularised by the European Enlightenment and scientific revolution. Modern science shifted from seeing nature as a living organism to a view of nature as a ‘machine’ that could be designed and improved by men. The dualist logic of Humanity over Nature also implied Subject over Object, Mental over Manual, Production over Reproduction, Man over Woman, White over Black. This life-alienated patriarchal ideology is closely tied into Eurocentric masculinist identities and indispensable to capitalism. It is not only women who are conventionally treated as ‘closer to nature than men’, but indigenous peoples, and children. This subconscious hierarchy of capability, entitlement, and power infuse everyday talk and political decision-making.

Most governments and multilateral agencies are now taking the global environment crisis seriously – the Anthropocene conversation is a marker of that. Yet the very term Anthropocene is part of the problem since like the mainstream international discourse, it too is anthropocentric. Academic disciplines say economics or Western legal constructs, are premised on the super-ordination of Humanity over Nature. But the anthropocentric lens blurs the fact that the choices, decisions, and actions of subjected populations – most women and colonised peoples around the world – have not been responsible for damaging the planetary system.

As an empirical fact, all humans are Nature; simply ‘nature-in-embodied form’. People involved in the labour of nurturing young bodies or growing their own food, know this very well. So it was, that 5 decades ago, women opposing polluted urban neighbourhoods in the global North or local deforestation in the global South, came to recognise the destructive arrogance of the dualist logic and its instrumental rationality. Working with natural processes means facilitating living metabolic transfers, so discovering complex skills and the need for a precautionary ethic[2]. From this vantage point, social and ecological crises clearly reflect competitive attitudes, embedded in the sex-gendered political economy of international institutions.

The politics and theoretical literature of Ecological Feminism developed from this insight. Ecofeminists also noted how in capitalist patriarchal societies, the resourcing and commodification of nature, occurred in parallel to the resourcing and commodification of their own generative reproductive bodies. The latter exploitation can be seen today in the existence of two parallel paradigms Public over Private: an individualistic monetised economy (ME), and a non-monetised relational economy (WE). The domestic WE economy materially maintains the ME economy but is generally treated as a ‘natural’ activity.

IGD: What does ecofeminism propose as an alternative to the dualism of ‘Humanity over Nature’? What would be some positive examples that we can learn from?

AS: Ecofeminist activism for Life on Earth responds to the interconnected injustices of neoliberalism, militarism, corporate capture of science, worker alienation, reproductive technologies, sex tourism, child molestation, neo-colonialism, extractivism, nuclear weapons, land and water grabs, deforestation, animal cruelty, genetic engineering, climate change, and the Eurocentric mythology of progress.

At its deepest level, ecofeminist thinking is an alternative epistemology, a way of knowing quite distinct from the capitalist patriarchal manipulation of people and nature. Yet it would be masculinist ideological nonsense to attribute women’s political insights to some inborn ‘feminine essence’. The source of ecofeminist judgments is neither biological embodiment nor cultural mores, although these will influence what is perceived. Rather, the source of an ecofeminist epistemology is labour, as people discover understandings and skills through intentional interactions with the material world. People like care givers, farmers, gatherers, are in touch with all their sensory capacities, so able to construct accurate and resonant models of how one-thing-joins-to- another.

Most women as caregivers have been historically positioned as labour right at the ontological margin where so-called Humanity and Nature meet. Unlike factory or clerical workers, culturally diverse groupings of women oversee biological flows and sustain matter/energy exchanges in nature. In fact, the entire thermodynamic base of capitalism rests on material transactions mediated by the labour of this unspoken ‘meta-industrial class’. Day by day, the global economic system is accruing a vast unacknowledged debt to these workers. In recent decades, women caregivers in the global North and colonised communities in the South have come together in a political ‘movement of movements’ charged by the knowledge that emancipation and sustainability are interlocking goals. The unique rationality of their meta-industrial labour is a capacity for economic provisioning without externalities – that is to say, without passing on a social debt to others or forcing natural processes into degradation and entropy.

– In Ecuador, women of Accion Ecologica www.accionecologica.org invented a concept of ‘ecological debt’ to describe the 500-year colonial theft of natural resources from their land; the ongoing modern theft of World Bank interest on development loans.

– In the USA, Code Pink activists work tirelessly for world peace; others focus on ending cruelty to animals.

– In Africa, women whose livelihoods are threatened by mining near their village homes have established WoMin www.womin.org.za a continental anti-extractivist network with its own ecofeminist manifesto on climate change presented to COP25 in Paris.

– In China, village women are refusing to use industrial fertilisers and pesticides, choosing to restore soil fertility by reviving centuries-old organic technologies, then modelling communal food sovereignty.

– In India, the Navdanya www.navdanya.org network organises schools for eco- sufficiency and ‘banks’ traditional seeds to save them from bio-piracy and corporate patenting by Big Pharma.

– In Australia, suburban housewives known as MADGE actively oppose genetically engineered foods.

– In France, young women and men are pioneering economic degrowth and rebuilding vibrant communities around permaculture.

IGD: What are the roles of different actors, for example, governments and social movements, in achieving this shift?

AS: At Rio+20 the business sector, politicians, World Bank, and UNEP stepped up with a Green New Deal proposition. This was later exposed as a public relations exercise for an emerging nanotech-based bio-economy. The capitalist patriarchal method of protecting Nature is to commodify ‘ecosystem services’, subsuming the living metabolic flows of forests, sunlight, or ground bacteria, under a pricing mechanism. Similarly, the International Monetary Fund and others advance a Green Economy built on free-market ideology. But intellectually, decision making by world leaders relies on a thoroughly confusing vocabulary of ‘financial capital’, ‘human capital’, ‘natural capital’, and ‘physical capital’.

Many well-meaning citizens in both global North and South believe technology transfer and digitisation is necessary to achieve ‘a just transition’ to sustainability. The preferred and tacitly masculinist response to the crises of globalisation is innovation. It is claimed that new technological efficiencies can de-materialise the number of resources used by industry. However, automated production does not avoid displacing self-sufficient rural communities for mineral extraction, nor does it avoid heavy energy drawdowns for manufacture. The said engineering ‘optimisation’ of material throughput rarely factors in all the relevant operational aspects of mining, smelting, manufacture, communications, transport, and waste disposal. When fully researched, ‘ecological modernist’ expectations of progress do not hold up.

UN agencies operating under the Eurocentric liberal political discourse tacitly sanitise environmental, decolonial, or sex-gender matters by departmentalising them as separate ‘single issues’. This piecemeal problem-solving policy inadvertently disguises existing, often intersectional, power relations because it stops people ‘joining the dots’. For sure, microloans are offered to poor Bangladeshi women, but this is hardly liberating. If thinkers at the UN are guided by liberalism, and people are processed through an anthropocentric divide and rule as ‘stakeholders’, progress towards ‘a gender just transition’ will be very slow. To paraphrase veteran Caribbean feminist Peggy Antrobus as she contrasted the Women’s Beijing Plan of Action with the UN Millennium Development Goals: MDGs = Most Distracting Gimmicks[3]!

IGD: What would a different system of power and economic relationships look like?

AS: The global economy already overshoots planetary capacities by 50% every year and the UN Sustainable Development Goals do not remedy that. Additionally, it is estimated by an anthropologist at the London School of Economics that it will take 207 years to eliminate poverty using the SDGs[4]. Again, the World Bank and UN SDGs promote privatised management of water supply. But since markets can only increase the value of a commodity by making it scarce, this method of water protection is a contradiction in terms. Similarly, environmental solutions like carbon trading, geo-engineering or climate-smart agriculture will not restore nature’s life-support systems once these are broken.

For the small producers, landless rural women, indigenes, youth, and farmworkers of the international peasant union Via Campesina, the Green Economy is just another structural adjustment program realigning national markets.

In response to imposts such as these, a global ‘movement of movements’ began to form after the 1999 Battle for Seattle against the World Trade Organization. This broad people’s alliance held its first World Social Forum in 2001 – and two decades later, WSF now remodelling itself, still believes Another Future is Possible! On the streets of Davos outside the World Economic Forum and at UN COP negotiations, activists are pursuing a tapestry of alternatives based on political subsidiarity and eco-sufficient bioregional commoning.

More recently, academics have met in Barcelona, Leipzig, and Budapest to discuss degrowth. The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is also working on Socio-Ecological Transformation. Yet in both North and South, among elites and movement cadres alike, there is a need for ‘capacity building’ to include sex-gender consciousness-raising.  It is time to hear women’s critique of the anthropocentric imaginary and its anti-Nature institutions. Ecofeminists are well qualified here since they are not ambitious for an equal piece of the toxic pie. Earlier feminisms, liberal and socialist, had anthropocentric framing, whereas ecofeminism, born in the environmental struggle was oriented to oikos from the start. As such, it was immediately transnational, cross-cultural, and decolonial in focus. The ecofeminist subsistence model complements and deepens European moves towards degrowth, South America’s buen vivir, India’s swaraj communities, the South African ethic of ubuntu, Oceania’s Kastom Ekonomi, and the goals of Via Campesina[5].

A deep sociological divide exists between the anthropocentric culture of business, governments, multilateral agencies, and transnational technocrats versus those whose livelihoods are destroyed by industrialising development models, inconsistent climate policy, militarised resource grabs; and closer to home, by domestic violence. If Life on Earth has a future, it inheres in disarmament and degrowth – a regenerative ethic.

[1] An early version of ‘A Regenerative Ethic for a Gender Just Transition’, Institute for Global Development Magazine, 28 January 2021 <https://www.igd.unsw.edu.au/ourinitiatives/equity- social-justice/gender-and-just-transitions>. Ariel Salleh is a Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Humanities, Nelson Mandela University, South Africa, a former Senior Fellow in Post-Growth Societies, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany and Honorary Associate Professor in Political Economy, University of Sydney. She taught in Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney for several years; and has lectured widely, including New York, Toronto, and Beijing. A long-time activist, she co-founded the Movement Against Uranium Mining; The Greens (reg. party); served on the Federal Government’s Gene Technology Ethics Committee, and was a governor of the International Sociological Association Research Committee for Environment & Society. She writes in the field of political ecology, extending the remit of political economy by focusing on the role of reproductive or meta-industrial labour in sustaining relations between humans and nature. She has three books – Ecofeminism as Politics; the anthology Eco Sufficiency and Global Justice; and Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary edited with Kothari et al. as well as some 200 chapters and articles. Her work can be found at www.arielsalleh.info.

[2] Ariel Salleh, ‘Ecofeminism’ in Clive Spash (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Ecological Economics. Oxford & New York: Routledge, 2017, pp. 48-56.

[3] Gigi Francisco and Peggy Antrobus, ‘Mainstreaming Trade and Development Goals’ in Ariel Salleh

(ed.), Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice: Women Write Political Ecology. London: Pluto Press,

2009, pp. 157-164.

[4] Jason Hickel, ‘The problem with saving the world’, Jacobin Magazine, 8 August 2015.

[5] Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, Alberto Acosta (eds.), Pluriverse: A Post-Development  Dictionary. New York: Columbia University Press & New Delhi: Tulika/AuthordsUpFront, 2019.

Ecuador: A victory against mining, and a dispute around meaningful policies of the left

by Miriam Lang

On Sunday 7 February 2021, not only presidential elections took place in Ecuador. Cuenca, the third-largest city in the South American country, voted against a series of mega-mining projects in the headwaters of five rivers that supply the urban area with water. In the area, which is directly adjacent to a national park that has been declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, there are over 4,000 large and small bodies of water in the sensitive Páramo ecosystem, which acts as a reservoir in the Andes. Nevertheless, corporations from Canada, Australia, Peru, Chile, etc. had already been granted a total of 43 concessions for the mining of various metals. Fourteen grassroots organizations had launched the referendum, approved by the Constitutional Court in September 2020, via the Cuenca City Council. On Sunday, over 80% of the electorate voted in favor of a ban for industrial mining in this part of the Andean highlands. A clear democratic mandate in line with the 2008 constitution, which stipulates the rights of nature.

Since the result of the referendum is legally binding under the constitution, the next president will have to implement it. Many of the 16 presidential candidates had clearly opted for an expansion of mining in the election campaign in order to lead the country out of the economic crisis. Only one of them has spoken out clearly against mining and an expansion of the oil frontier in the Amazon region: Yaku Perez Guartambel, the candidate of the indigenous movement and its political organization Pachakutik.
The presidential election will not be finally decided until a final ballot on April 11th. The political heir to ex-president Rafael Correa, Andrés Arauz, who received 32.2% of the votes in the first round, will certainly take part in April. But who will be his opponent is still fought over: after 99,31 % of the votes had been counted, Perez Guartambel (20,10%) was just ahead of the neoliberal banker Guillermo Lasso (19,50%) with 0,6 % of the votes – a tight scenario which still can bring surprises.

Yaku Perez Guartambel. Source: Wikipedia

For the first time in the country’s history, an indigenous candidate who comes from grassroots organizations has a chance of winning the election. This is already an enormous symbolic success for the indigenous movement of Ecuador, which last made headlines in October 2019 with an uprising against the liberalization of gasoline and diesel prices and the current Moreno government’s neoliberal policies. If Perez actually makes it to the final ballot, the election campaign will confront two different interpretations of what is defined as left in Latin America: one, a populist and authoritarian left in the wake of Rafael Correa who was in power from 2007 to 2017 and relied on an expansion of extractivism to finance infrastructure modernization and social programs. These programs promised more equality, but at the price of the destruction of nature and a de facto restriction of democratic rights. And two, an intercultural, plural, and ecological left that primarily appeals to the younger generations, puts issues such as climate change and the preservation of the rainforests at the forefront and refers to the great indigenous movement of the 90s and their communitarian form of politics. In this sense, the surge of Perez, ex-prefect of Cuenca, brings a breath of fresh air into the stale polarization between the old progressive left (represented by Arauz) and the most reactionary right (represented by Lasso) in a region in much need of political innovation.

But a broad international defamation campaign against Yaku Perez has started right away on election night, using media and international structures installed in previous years around the vision of a ‘socialism of the 21st century’. Especially Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador hat officially proclaimed to engage in a renewed socialist path during progressive governments in the first one and a half decades of the 21st century. This new variant of socialism, unfortunately, showed to have inherited some of the less desirable features of the 20th-century socialism, like a top-down and a rather authoritarian approach to transformation with a central role for the governing party, a centralization of state power overriding necessary checks and balances, and intolerance toward dissent which was often criminalized and judicially persecuted. This led to a climate of polarization which suffocated all the transformative energy which had grown in organized society during the plural anti-neoliberal struggles of the 90s and early 2000s and allowed for a silent return to free trade agreements and elite-friendly economic politics. Especially the expansion of extractivist and mega-project oriented modernization politics met increasing resistance from indigenous and peasant organizations, as well as affected communities. But also students, workers, and feminist organizations opposed them for manifold reasons. As some Ecuadorian organizations of this other, plural left express it in a recent open letter:

“The left is not a subject, a party, a movement, a government; It is a permanent human mobilization that reinvents and transforms society in search of the defense of life, affirming and expanding human dignity, justice and freedom without attacking other species and damaging the planet. (…) Ecuadorian progressivism was left when back in 2006, it expressed a social mobilization that sought to build a destiny different from that marked by the patriarchal and colonial capitalism prevailing in Ecuador and Latin America. However, at the moment that, contrary to expressing this social mobilization, it sabotaged it, suffocated it, persecuted it, silenced it, it ceased to be left. When the left is conservative, it ceases to be mobilization and social desire and becomes a party (Alianza País) with an ideological letterhead (Citizen Revolution) and a caudillo (Rafael Correa) that contains and destroys resistance and social mobilization, and stops history in its reinvention of more pleasant human worlds.”

Andean Highlands around Cuenca. Source: Wikipedia

Lately, former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, correista presidential candidate Andres Arauz and former Bolivian vice-president Alvaro García Linera played a role in the creation of a Progressive International, a plural global coordination space thriving toward systemic transformation, which unfortunately has taken sides in the ongoing harsh dispute about the definition of what is left in Latin America. Now, adding a new chapter to this same dispute on all sort of platforms, a wide range of arguments is deployed against Yaku Perez describing him as a coup-supporting, CIA-backed, imperialistic, oligarchic, and right-wing ecofascist or, alternatively, a greenwasher, if they do not dive into plainly racist arguments to delegitimize him. The campaign clearly triggers all the classical topoi which had helped the traditional left to construct a black and white, simplistic worldview during the Cold War. This strategy of aggressive polarization not only makes it impossible to engage seriously with Perez’s proposals for a future government, leaving Arauz with the monopoly of being “the leftist candidate” for the second electoral round by all means. It also avoids any critical engagement with or learning from the failure of progressive politics during its hegemony in recent Latin American history. But most importantly, it distracts from the really important themes that are at stake today, regarding new political strategies to face a multidimensional crisis (which includes political representation and liberal electoral democracy). It curtails any impulse to collectively co-create new societies in an open political space that allows trial and error and plural deliberation. The sterile you-are-either-with-me-or-against-me rhetoric closes the political space of creativity and spreads fear instead. It totally avoids engaging in a profound discussion about what meaningful leftist politics means today. The future we need will not be built on one candidate, anyway, regardless of his or her political orientation, but in a fertile interaction between strong social organizations and governments who learn to listen to their bases. In this sense, the open letter from Ecuador states:

The vote for Yaku Perez and the result of the Cuenca referendum shows that a significant share of Ecuadorian society shares these concerns. A new politics of the left both in Ecuador and Latin America must reconnect with the social effervescence of the 90s and early 2000s. It cannot be based on a triumphalist return of Socialism of the 21st Century but must acknowledge and learn from what has gone wrong during these years – a necessary auto-critical discussion that could also inspire many other transformative processes in the world. It must refocus on the rights of nature, which the policies of this ‘conservative progressive’ left have undermined when they were in government. Ecuador is one of the countries with the greatest biodiversity in the world. In times of massive species extinction, an economic policy course that relies on more mining and oil production could have incalculable consequences far beyond the small country. The pandemic has led to an expansion and acceleration of nature-destroying activities in a legal gray area throughout Latin America, as environmental controls have been largely suspended. At the same time, Covid-19 has made it very clear that the advance of capitalist overexploitation into fragile ecosystems harbors great dangers for humanity. In Cuenca, an entire urban population, and not just a rural community directly affected, has spoken out against mining. This popular decision paves the way to finally discuss the urgently needed fundamental change in economic policy, which puts life-sustaining aspects such as food sovereignty and clean water above the imperatives of the world market.

Miriam Lang is a Professor of Environmental and Sustainability Studies at the Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar, Quito

Covid in India : A Humanitarian Crisis, A Planned Disaster

by Madhuresh Kumar

India, a country with a population of 1.3 billion, has a terrible health infrastructure with an estimated 0.55 beds per 1,000 people in public hospitals and approximately 50,000 ventilator facilities. A global human development index rating of 129, the country has an infant mortality rate of 31 deaths per 1000 people and ranked 102 on the global hunger index despite having the most billionaires in the world. India is one of the most unequal countries in the world, ranking 122 in the global inequality index.

According to data released by the Ministry of Health and Family Affairs, as on 22 November 2020, the number of active Coronavirus cases is 4,40,962 and so far 85,21,617 people have been reported to have recovered from the disease. Overall, 1,33,227 deaths have been recorded so far in the hospitals, though many non-hospital deaths remain unrecorded. The government further claimed a recovery rate of 93.69 percent and a low fatality rate of 1.46 percent, taking credit for its effective handling of the crisis. These numbers have been challenged by health experts and non-government agencies largely due to non-reporting, faulty data collection mechanisms and an attempt at hiding the corona related deaths. For the first two months of the outbreak in India, the number of counted corona related deaths were extremely low because there were barely any testing facilities in the country, although today 1.2 million tests are done daily. The capacity has seen progressive rise from about 10,000 tests until 8 April, 1 million by 3 May; 5 million by 10 June; 10 million by 7 July; and now about 60.4 million tests, as per the government data. 

Government Response, Planned Chaos and Confusion 

With the prevention quarantine and lockdown measures in different parts of the world, India imposed strict lockdown measures on March 23rd, which was extended on April 14, May 3 and then on May 17. From June 1st the specifics of unlock and lockdown measures have been left to individual state governments. The lockdown measures completely failed to curb the spread of the virus. The unplanned manner in which it was imposed, with sheer brute force of police and security forces, that it resulted in massive violation of rights and numerous instances of police excesses. Added to this was the multiple notifications and rules, often contradicting each other causing confusion and chaos. As per reports, in first four months more than 4,000 instructions were issued by the Central and State governments. 

The whole country was put under severe lockdown at a short notice of 4 hours on March 24, causing massive difficulty to people, and millions stranded away from their place of residence or work. It also meant that a large section of the people living precariously on daily or very low monthly wages soon ran out of money and food and became desperate to return to their villages or towns. Leading to a massive humanitarian crisis and millions walking, cycling or hiding in storage or construction trucks in the peak of the summer heat, only to be met with hardship and police brutality on the way home, for being in violation of lockdown guidelines. Only after massive outrage and intervention in judicial courts, special shramik (workers) trains and buses were allowed to be run by the Central government. This was marred by a lack of information, amenities, water, basic health and sanitation and led to significant delays of trains, earning the tag of death traps. 

Hunger, Death, Unemployment 

As per the data compiled by Ministry of Labour and Employment and reported in the Parliament, more than 10.6 million migrant workers, including those who travelled on foot during the lockdown, returned to their home states. The Minister further added that 81,385 accidents occurred on the roads (including national highways) during the period March-June 2020 with 29,415 fatalities. This included the infamous incident of a speeding train mauling over 16 workers sleeping on the railway tracks, as they walked back to their homes. However, government also claimed that they had no data on loss of jobs, loss of deaths due to hunger and starvation of the migrant workers due to lockdown measures and ensuing unemployment. As on 4 July, as per a citizen tracker of a group of independent researchers, 971 non-virus deaths had occurred as against 7,135 Covid-19 related deaths.

India’s growth rate has been sliding for a while and lockdown due to the virus further exacerbated the crisis. The economic crisis has started unfolding with massive job losses in small, medium sector enterprises and big industries as well. The Consumer Pyramids Household Surveys carried out by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy show a sharp rise in unemployment rates in the range of 8.35% to 23.52% during April-August 2020. This was also reflected in the fact that  India’s GDP contracted by 23.9% on a yearly basis in the first quarter (April-June 2020) of the financial year ’21.

Source: https://pixabay.com/de/photos/corona-lockdown-patna-bihar-indien-5111911/

The virus has hit the poor and those with already a weaker immune system and pre-existing diseases the most. As new cases are emerging we are witnessing significant increase in infections amongst those engaged in anti-Covid operation, health care workers, police personnel, media, and health workers. One of the key reasons is lack of good number of the protective equipment and safety measures in place. Despite the mobilization of public and private health infrastructure, it is failing to meet the challenges, as a result the basic and regular healthcare is also affected.

Destroying Federalism, Dangerous Turn to Centralisation 

The  lockdown was announced by the central government without consulting with the federal states of India. Only after the crisis deepened, the Centre passed on the responsibility to the federal State governments, without providing adequate monetary resources, although the state’s revenue collection remains centralized. Although the federal states governments have pleaded the Centre for monetary support, not much has come through. As a result, State governments have resorted to relaxing the strict lockdown, leading to the further spread of the virus.    

An economic package of 2.7 billion USD announced by the government in May 2020, but was criticized by the opposition parties as farce, an exercise in economic jugglery and a play of numbers. Not every state government got their share from the Centre and even there BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) ruled states were treated favourably and opposition ruled states have suffered. 

In this time, BJP has also been active in toppling opposition governments in the federal state of Madhya Pradesh; creating defection within opposition ranks in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra; arresting political dissenters and specifically targeting rights activists, student leaders and Muslims engaged in protests around citizenship laws. They are kept in jail on terrorism charges, when the effort is to release prisoners for decongesting overcrowded jails. 

In addition, the Union government passed important legislation on issues related to agriculture and labour which has faced massive opposition from workers, farmers and opposition parties. These laws were passed bypassing pre-legislative processes, debates and discussions within the Parliament and without adequate presence of the legislators in the Parliament. 

Abdication of Responsibility by Judiciary and Media

The role of media and judiciary has come under extreme scrutiny from various sections of society and have faced criticism precisely because they have aided the government in their misdeeds. Judiciary failed to protect the rights of the citizens and stood on most occasions with the State arbitrariness and excesses rather than standing with the citizens in protecting their constitutional rights and holding the State accountable and remain independent. Even when they did stand up for providing relief and succour to the masses in important public interest litigation, it was already too late as the workers had already faced enough problems. 

Media, especially visual, which are to a large extent financed by the government, have not only led a complete disinformation campaign. But have also constantly deflected the debates from the real issues and shielded those responsible for  the mismanagement and poor handling of the corona crisis, distress of the migrant workers, the economic crisis and unemployment. Rather than reporting on citizens´ protest against the government’s excesses, human rights violations, arrests of the activists and political opposition and muzzling of dissent, they continued to talk on non-issues, have polarized the society in the name of the religion and built a narrative based on the nationalism. Furthermore they were maligning the opposition parties and those who have been raising questions to the government. Clearly, the media have shown no independence and submitted to the dictates of the government and often even gone a step ahead in defending the government. 

Weaving Solidarity Amidst Adversity

While the State has abandoned its responsibility in these dire times, civil society, people’s movements, trade unions, resident welfare associations and ordinary citizens rose up to the occasion and in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown. Tremendous efforts were made in terms of mobilising resources, food, rations, transport, medicines, shelter and so on for millions of migrant workers and the other poor and marginalised communities. A relief operation at an unprecedent scale was undertaken in a completely decentralised way, coordinated by various groups. Overnight community kitchens were set up, helplines for migrant workers in distress were organised, resting places for the migrants walking back to their homes were set up. Online fundraising campaigns set up inside and outside of the country. And until now thousands are volunteering at the health centres in several states.

While the government took its time to set up aid mechanisms, collective citizens’ mobilisation was at its best. Numerous human stories of help and solidarity emerged from different parts of the country and so did the stories of courage and grit shown by the poor and those on the margins who survived these harsh measures. Now that the unlock phase has started, even though the cases of new infections have been on the rise, the efforts of civil society are now focused on undertaking livelihood opportunities, regenerating rural economies etc. 

The government on the other side, in a completely undemocratic fashion, passed an amendment to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, which governs the organisations which receive funds from foreign organizations for their work, and has now penalised any collaborative work between organisations in the country. The amendments are not only going to hamper the work of the civil society but will stifle collaboration, innovation and increase their administrative workload.

Way ahead 

What the pandemic has taught everyone is that the current mode of development and consumption patterns are unsustainable and we need to rethink the priorities and also remodel the economy. A survey carried out by some civil society groups in rural areas amongst the migrant workers showed that if there was work within the villages, then a lot of them would prefer not to migrate. A huge part of India´s population is still dependent on agriculture and agriculture related activities. It would be prudent to build public infrastructure and invest in those, provide easy credit facilities and support to the small and marginal farmers, constituting 86% of India’s peasantry. However, in end September government without sufficient consultation with the farmers and other bodies, and debate within the Parliament rushed through three key legislations which will integrate the rural economy further into the market framework, promote contract and corporate farming, facilitate exploitation of their labour making them susceptible to the global market fluctuations. Even though the government has been claiming that it will boost investment, increase farmers income and so on, however, there have been massive protests across the country for months now.

However, the promotion of the agroecology projects, artisanal activity, revival of the rural economy and agro-processing, incentivisation of innovation, introduction of new technology which will save the farm input and so on, is what actually is required. Rural manufacturing, regenerating degraded land, commons, reviving the ponds, other water bodies and so on will lead to the diversification of activities within the traditional agriculture and a mix of associated agriculture related activities like dairy, poultry, fishery, etc will boost the rural economy and provide the necessary cash within the rural economy.

A fundamental reason for migration is the self-sufficient and seasonal nature of farming in the Indian context where the average land holding is small due to fragmentation and population rise over the years. Furthermore there is lack of cash in rural economy because of absence of other economic activities there, as the cash flow mainly relies on remittances. There are efforts being made by civil society actors but in the absence of the government support, it is going to be difficult to rebuild and reimagine the post-crisis economy and society. However, this is the opportunity for the government to institute welfare measures and not further destroy it. Social security measures, welfare schemes and stronger public and accountable institutions and enterprises are needed more than ever, and that’s a challenge we have in these market dominated world as a civil society as we move ahead in post-Covid times.

Madhuresh Kumar is National Convener of National Alliance of People’s Movements India and Resistance Studies Fellow at University of Massachusetts, Amherst USA

This article was written as part of a collective project on Covid situation in different countries for Heinrich-Boell-Foundation and was published in German here. 


Ciudades Dignas— transformación urbana alrededor del mundo

Registro: https://bit.ly/38S1lnJ

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 

Comentario: Juliana Goes Morais, Brasil 

Fecha y Hora

Jueves, Diciembre 3, 2020

8h30 AM Quito, 13h30 UTC, 14h30 Bruselas, 19h00 Delhi, 21h30 Manila


Global Working
Group Beyond Development
Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung
oficina Bruselas
Tejido Global
de Alternativas 


Cities of Dignity— Urban Transformations Around the World 

To join Please register here: https://bit.ly/38S1lnJ

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


Global Working
Group Beyond Development
Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung
Brussels Office
Tapestry of Alternatives 

Enfrentando las deudas eternas desde el Sur

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.

Esas mismas élites hasta quieren que recibamos sus inversiones, sus créditos e incluso su “ayuda al desarrollo” para que sigamos condenados a suministrarles Naturaleza, trabajo e incluso capitales. Así quieren mantener su bienestar a costa de nuestras miserias. Y todo esto teniendo como potente palanca de dominación la entrega de financiamiento vía inversiones extranjeras y vía endeudamiento financiero; en total fluyen como inversiones, créditos y “ayuda al desarrollo” cerca de 2 millones de millones de dólares al año del Norte Global al Sur Global, pero regresan al norte en forma de diversas transferencias vinculadas a los flujos mencionados o por fuga de capital o evasión tributaria por unos 5 millones de millones (trillions en inglés).

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.

Larry Lohmann

The Corner House,

Sturminster Newton UK.


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.

A COVID time doodle dedicated to Elandria by Ashish Kothari

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

Re-imagining food

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.

Source: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/freight-trains-bring-2500-tonnes-of-foodgrain-to-tamil-nadu-from-odisha/articleshow/74856124.cms

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.

Initiatives towards food justice

At a recent webinar on Food, Economy and Ecology, organised by several people’s networks and organisations in India as part of a series called Re-imagining the Future: towards a Post- Covid economy, a number of initiatives towards food justice were described:

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 Kothari is 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.

Princeton University (Credits: Creative Commons, https://bit.ly/31lNwcP)

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.

A recent protest to demand statue of slaveowner James McGill be taken down at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. (Credits: Vijay Kolinjivadi)

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.

Moving forward

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.

  • A manifesto for “building collectives of care rather than mere departments” by unlearning the boundaries of academic discipline;
  • Developing a ‘moral economy’ of knowledge co-creation that prioritizes the process over the end outcome and encourages timeless and caring spaces of interaction for genuine creativity, collegiality, and joy to be the drivers of knowledge generation;
  • Building an “ethics of mentorship” in which established scholars cede place to the learning trajectories of junior scholars and to prioritize quality and process over quantity;
  • Re-commoning knowledge for all by rethinking publication strategies to damage the pocket books of for-profit publishers and synchronously redefining and requalifying our “production”;
  • 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 to Frances 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 profitable solutions 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.

U.S. Representative for New York's congressional district, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks during a rally at Howard University May 13, 2019 in Washington, D.C. She has been one of the leading advocates for the GND. Image:    Alex Wong via Jacobin
U.S. Representative for New York’s congressional district, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks during a rally at Howard University May 13, 2019 in Washington, D.C. She has been one of the leading advocates for the GND. Image: Alex Wong via Jacobin

“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.

Technical solutions to the climate crisis have been offered by many large corporations. This is an illustration showing Microsoft’s “moonshot” plan to go carbon negative by 2030. Illustration:    Greg Betza via The Guardian
Technical solutions to the climate crisis have been offered by many large corporations. This is an illustration showing Microsoft’s “moonshot” plan to go carbon negative by 2030. Illustration: Greg Betza via The Guardian

““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 couple along with their baby walks hundreds of miles hoping to reach their home as New Delhi goes on lockdown. Tens of thousands of daily-wage migrant workers found themselves without jobs and unable to find transportation home when India announced a lockdown on 24 March. Image:    Huffpost
A couple along with their baby walks hundreds of miles hoping to reach their home as New Delhi goes on lockdown. Tens of thousands of daily-wage migrant workers found themselves without jobs and unable to find transportation home when India announced a lockdown on 24 March. Image: Huffpost

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.  

Note: A shortened version of this article was published in Undisciplined Environments.

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

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.]


  1. IPCC – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5°C, Summary for Policy-Makers, Geneva 2018.
  2. 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.
  3. Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen. The Imperial Mode of Living. On the Exploitation of Human Beings and Nature in Global Capitalism, London 2020.
  4. 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.
  5. Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen (German Advisory Council on Global Change, WBGU), World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability, Berlin 2011, p. 190.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Ibid., p. 74 and p. 77.
  13. Lothar Schröder, Hans-Jürgen Urban, loc. cit.; Nadine Müller et al., loc. cit., p. 15.
  14. Nadine Müller et al., loc. cit., p. 30.
  15. Markus Wissen and Ulrich Brand, Handbook, loc. cit.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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?”
  19. Hans-Jürgen Urban, loc. cit., p. 337.
  20. Wolfgang Lemb, loc. cit., p. 79.
  21. Statistisches Bundesamt [German Federal Statistics Office]: Produzierendes Gewerbe (Kostenstruktur der Unternehmen) 2016, Technical series 4, Series 4.3, Wiesbaden, 2018, (Calculations by Etienne Schneider).
  22. Tilman Santarius, Hans Jakob Walnum, Carlo Aall, eds.: Rethinking Climate and Energy Policies. New Perspectives on the Rebound Phenomenon, New York 2016.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. Hans-Jürgen Urban, loc. cit.
  26. 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.
  27. Hans-Jürgen Urban loc. cit.
  28. 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).
  29. 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.
  30. 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.
  31. Die Mitbestimmung, “Umschalten auf nützliche Produkte – Vorausschauende Produktkonversion – Teil einer gewerkschaftlichen Strategie gegen Massenarbeitslosigkeit und Umweltzerstörung,” Die Mitbestimmung December 1982.
  32. 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.
  33. 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.
  34. 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).