Thursday, 17 September 2020

Britain’s Food Imperialism, Climate Debt, and “Green” White Supremacy


First published at Red Fightback

The popular usage of “Anthropocene” to denote our current geological epoch is intended to highlight the negative impact of human activity on the climate, but in suggesting that all of humanity is equally culpable, it obscures the real cause of environmental devastation: the capitalist-imperialist destruction of nature. 

Francoise Vergès has proposed the term “racial Capitalocene” to foreground the historical development of capitalism through the blood and fire of European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade – which was accompanied by the felling of forests, commodification of fertile land and extraction of precious metals by bonded labour – and the ongoing neo-colonial exploitation of the Global South, mediated by the intertwined racial logics of anti-blackness, anti-indigeneity and caste oppression.

Today, the imperialist tentacles of Britain’s agribusiness and extractivist corporations extend throughout the oppressed world, undermining food autonomy and causing the mass displacement of peasant communities. The brunt of land expropriation and loss of common property resources is especially borne by rural women, who have further been subjected to Malthusian population control policies including forcible sterilisations.

Within the west, reformist social democratic responses to climate breakdown such as the “Green New Deal” promoted by the Labour Party (and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in America) merely represent new forms of neo-colonial extractivism and land theft. The green movement must internalise the anti-racist environmental critique advanced by the Black Lives Matter movement and Wretched of the Earth collective, and take up the demand for “climate reparations” to oppressed countries.

A serious challenge to ecosystem collapse will require a radical anti-imperialist environmentalism, drawing on the pioneering agroecological thought of Global South Marxists like Thomas Sankara, Walter Rodney, and José Carlos Mariátegui. The global fight for food sovereignty is a vital frontier in the struggle against the capitalist exploitation of land and labour – as former Chief of Staff to the Black Panther Party David Hilliard put it, “food is a very basic necessity, and it’s the stuff that revolutions are made of.”

Environmental Racism and the Green Revolution

Contemporary environmental racism is rooted in the history of colonialism and the thought of Thomas Malthus, an imperialist who advanced the idea of innate limits on population growth, so that agro-ecological catastrophes in exploited countries were deemed “natural”. During the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-9), the British colonisers shipped food out of the country while millions died of starvation. Charles Trevelyan, the administrator responsible for food relief, was a student of Malthus and claimed the problem was “not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the [Irish] people”.

 An estimated 10.3 million people died in the Indian famine of 1876-9, partly the result of arable land being requisitioned for cash crops such as opium, and again British colonial officials like Lord Lytton invoked Malthusian principles to justify their refusal to prevent these deaths. The 1943 Bengal famine took on catastrophic proportions when Britain continued exporting rice from the subcontinent and denied requests for emergency wheat supplies; echoing Trevelyan, Churchill was quoted as saying “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people, with a beastly religion”, and in a war cabinet meeting  attributed the famine itself to Indians “breeding like rabbits.” Mike Davis’ account of food crises in colonial India, China and Brazil in Late Victorian Holocausts emphasises how racial Malthusianism was bound up with capitalist “free trade” dogma:

“We not are dealing … with ‘lands of famine’ becalmed in stagnant backwaters of world history, but with the fate of tropical humanity at the precise moment (1870-1914) when its labor and products were being dynamically conscripted into a London-centered world economy. Millions died, not outside the ‘modern world system’, but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed, many were murdered … by the theological application of the sacred principles of [Adam] Smith, [Jeremy] Bentham and [John Stuart] Mill.”[1]

Environmental imperialism evolved in the post-WWII era, as direct colonisation was replaced by neo-colonialism, whereby officially “independent” countries of the Global South were integrated into the capitalist world-economy on unequal terms, and trapped in a relation of structural dependency upon imperialist nations like Britain. Marxist ecologist Robert Biel highlights the centrality of food dependency, as the neo-colonial ideology of “modernisation” justified destroying traditional ecologically-sound farming methods – essentially, pre-industrial societies were viewed as “backward” precisely because people were able to live sustainably off the land.

Through the so-called “Green Revolution” promoted by western governments and organisations like the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1960s, the adoption in the neo-colonies of hybridised high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of rice and wheat, as with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) later, entailed dependence on imperialist suppliers of overpriced specialist grains, machinery, and chemical pesticides and herbicides.[2] Mass farmer suicides in India, often by drinking pesticides, are “the extreme results of these policies of market freedom”.[3] 

Thomas Sankara, the great Marxist-Leninist leader of Burkina Faso who was murdered in a French-backed coup in 1987, identified food as a critical aspect of imperialism in his speeches: “Where is imperialism?’ Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn, and millet – that is imperialism.

The undermining of food autonomy via HYVs, combined with overspecialisation in cash crops, contributed to the African famines in the 1980s, while the loss of genetic variety exacerbated vulnerabilities to climate crises. Today, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which receives considerable British government support, lobbies extensively for the introduction and strengthening of monopolistic intellectual property regimes that underpin the Green Revolution.[4] The Foundation’s investments include British extractive corporations like BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, and Vedanta, agribusinesses such as Kraft, Nestle, and Unilever, and various chemical and pharmaceutical companies.

Dependency was further exacerbated in the neoliberal era. During the early post-war decades, oppressed countries had paid for industrial machinery from the imperialists through loans (import-substitution industrialisation), leaving them vulnerable to interest rate hikes by western financial institutions – which is exactly what happened in the 1980s. By 1992, “Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean were together paying Britain £2,493m more annually than they got in official grants, voluntary aid, export credits, bank loans and direct investments from the UK”.[5]

Financial blackmail has been used to enforce the deregulation of Global South economies to the benefit of western multinational corporations (MNCs). This has been combined with the more overt pressure of imperialist economic sanctions, for instance those targeting oil-rich Venezuela which have resulted in shortages of vital consumables, and emboldened middle class anti-government protestors in the country who have burned food intended for the poor and carried out murderous assaults on Afro-Venezuelans

Hundreds of thousands of civilians died of starvation in Iraq because of western sanctions in the 1980s and 2000s, and the sadistic American national security adviser Henry Kissinger openly boasted of using “food as a weapon”. An especially horrific example of food imperialism is the ongoing famine in Yemen, where the invasion led by Saudi Arabia – equipped with British planes and bombs – has put millions of children at risk of starvation.

Imperialist military and economic extortion has further facilitated the ongoing mass expropriation of land. As Eric Holt-Giménez explains in A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism, since the mid-2000s western investment firms have taken advantage of the exceedingly low price of land in Sub-Saharan Africa in the hopes of reaping speculative gains.[6] This land grab set the stage for the current intensification of Green Revolution practices in Africa through the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, launched in London in 2012 by the core imperialist nations and the African Union. Under the guise of “development aid”, African countries are being forced to change their land ownership systems and implement seed laws which criminalise farmers seeking to preserve their own diversified native grains.

Much of the land that has been bought up is used for giant animal feedlots as part of the Livestock Revolution. The Scottish Maoist Malcolm Caldwell (1931-78) referred to this as “protein imperialism”, as immense quantities of plant and fish-based proteins cultivated in the Global South are converted into meat (mostly cattle) consumed in the North, and thus “the peoples of the rich countries in a literal sense take food out of the very mouths and bellies of the poor”.[7]

As biologist Rob Wallace highlights, monocultures of genetically similar livestock have the further effect of eliminating disease resilience, which, coupled with deforestation, has caused the spread of new deadly pathogens such as Ebola, African swine fever (which wiped out over one-quarter of the world’s pig population last year), and now the devastating COVID-19 global pandemic.

In the neoliberal age unsustainable economic practices have been challenged by the environmental movement, but imperialism has responded to this pressure by adapting new forms of exploitation more palatable to the western public. Samir Amin, the late theorist of unequal development, explained how in this new paradigm “green capitalism” has become “part of the obligatory discourse of men/women in positions of power, on both the Right and the Left, in the [imperialist] Triad (of Europe, North America and Japan), and of the executives of oligopolies.”

A central example of this “green” capitalism is the rapid spread of biofuels which, far from being an environmentally friendly alternative to the dwindling fossil fuel reserves, entails a massive increase in deforestation and the commercialisation of fertile land, putting added pressure on food markets in underdeveloped countries. Government-sponsored “activist” NGOs have played a crucial role in promoting biofuels as ecologically viable.



Capitalist Extractivism and Peasant Dispossession

Capitalist extraction (of oil and natural gas, metals, and minerals) is also directly tied to the disruption of food sovereignty. Take the case of Shell in Nigeria, where from 1976-1991 2,976 incidents of oil spills occurred in Ogoniland, rendering farming, the primary source of villagers’ livelihood, unviable. Shell has also been implicated in the murders of Nigerian environmental activists, which the British government has endeavoured to cover up. Similar horror stories follow Britain’s investments across every continent of the Global South.

Recent Freedom of Information requests have revealed that British officials including Liz Truss met with Brazil’s far-right president Bolsonaro before and after his 2018 election victory, to discuss “free trade, free markets and post-Brexit opportunities”. Truss is a former Shell employee who works in the Department for International Trade, which was caught secretly lobbying the Brazilian government on behalf of Shell and British Petroleum in 2017.

BP also owns the largest biofuel plant in Brazil, responsible for mass deforestation and pollution, and its heavy use of resources contributed to the 2014 São Paulo water crisis. British mining giant Anglo American has made almost 300 requests for permission to explore 18 indigenous territories in the Amazon, some of which are home to uncontacted peoples; in many regions extractive activities have already driven out the animals and fish that indigenous communities rely on to subsist. Boris Johnson was personally thanked by the Brazilian government for refusing to support European action over the Amazon fires, fuelled by the destruction of forest to create pasture for cattle, and Britain has also engaged in security co-operation with the Bolsonaro administration, which is notorious for the brutal suppression of protestors and activists.

In India, the introduction of neoliberal capitalism has displaced peasants from their land en masse (a form of what Marx called “primary accumulation” of capital), to facilitate the creation of deregulated Special Economic Zones (SEZs). This new round of primary accumulation reflects the lasting impact of the colonial British administration, which reinforced the oppressive caste system and deemed hill-dwelling peoples who practiced shifting cultivation and shared communal property as “primitive” and lacking land ownership rights.

In the 1980s-90s, hill-dwelling Adivasi (“original people”) populations were the first victims of expropriation for dams and mining. In addition to land dispossession, the SEZs have also increased the costs of fruit, plant, and vegetable resources that were formerly gathered by rural communities from the forests. 

The British-based aluminium company Vedanta has been linked to the killings of Adivasi activists protesting the mining of bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills. In 2012 and 2018, protestors in London targeted the British government’s collusion with Vedanta’s atrocities, but the company, with government support, is now “diversifying into iron in Goa, Karnataka and Liberia, zinc in Rajasthan, Namibia, South Africa and Ireland, copper in Zambia and oil in Sri Lanka’s ecologically fragile Mannar region”.

Extractivism-driven peasant dispossession has also been a principle cause of what has been called the “feminisation of poverty”. Women bear the brunt of expropriation as the loss of common property resources increases their unpaid workload in acquiring water for households and fodder for animals. Displaced rural women, especially those whose oppression is compounded by caste such as landless Dalits (previously called “untouchables”), have also been forced into the lowest-paid waged work in sweatshops (often contracted to western multinationals like Topshop). 

The gendered nature of primary accumulation is reflected in the sexual violence against rural women perpetrated by the police and military – in rural Haryana, increasing violence against Dalit women is directly related to agricapitalist land dispossession.

Capitalist accumulation by dispossession has further been accompanied by an imperialist assault on the sexual-reproductive autonomy of rural Global South women, in the form of neo-Malthusian population control policies. Racial Malthusianism continues to influence mainstream environmentalism. David Attenborough, celebrated in Britain as a national treasure, has claimed there are “too many people” in Ethiopia (a country with a population density nearly 10 times lower than Britain’s), and is a patron of the Malthusian charity Population Matters which has campaigned to ban Syrian refugees from Britain.

As Sankara used to insist, Africa remains a relatively underpopulated continent – the problem is imperialist maldevelopment and ecological disruption. In recent years, the Gates Foundation has been especially influential in reviving both variables in Malthus’ original population equilibrium (human fertility and agricultural production). 

Malthus-inspired eugenics has a long history in the context of the Cold War, when western elites’ fears of global communism were meshed with images of “teeming hordes” and the “yellow peril”: a 1974 UN Security Council report warned of the propensity of people in “high fertility populations” to “attack such targets as multinational corporations”, and to “advocate a better distribution of the world’s wealth”.[8]

While women’s sexual-reproductive autonomy is a fundamental human right, neoliberal population policies have co-opted this feminist concern, as the mass provision of contraceptives in poor nations has often been tied to economic coercion and food imperialism. In population control discourses, black and brown women themselves are demonised for having an “excess” of fertility (i.e. having “too many” children), and essentially blamed for the social problems caused by imperialist underdevelopment.

During the 1970s-80s, “Forcible and coercive sterilisation of urban and rural poor women took place on a massive scale – in Bangladesh sterilisation was in many cases made a condition for food relief … In India, when central and state governments were unable to meet impossibly high targets, local administrations set targets for sterilisations for non-health personnel like teachers and forest officers.”

These kinds of policies have by no means relented. In 2011, British minister for international developments Stephen O’Brien announced a joint initiative with pharmaceutical corporation Merck to promote the long-lasting implant Implanon, discontinued within Britain due to safety concerns, to “14.5 million of the poorest women” by 2015.[9] Dalit and Adivasi women have protested against sterilisation camp deaths and coerced hysterectomies, as well as against toxifying pollution and chemical pesticides linked with reproductive health problems, increased rates of breast cancer, changes to immune systems, and developmental problems in children.[10]

The Global Fight for Food Sovereignty

The struggle for control of food and land is a vital frontier in the fight against capitalism, and it is black, indigenous, and other oppressed communities who are themselves taking the lead in combating environmental imperialism. As co-founder of the Black Panther Party Huey Newton wrote in his 1974 essay “Dialectics of Nature”, the “rising expectations of the Human Rights revolution in the exploited world will violently disrupt the reactionary distortion of the chain of nature in its favor.”[11]

The Black Panthers themselves responded to the hunger that is disproportionately inflicted upon impoverished black communities by feeding tens of thousands of school children through their free breakfast programme. Exploited farmers around the world are resisting the commodification of land and natural resources – villagers in Sub-Saharan Africa have taken action against Green Revolution policies through courts and farmers’ forums, and a movement to defend caste-oppressed rural women’s food security has been launched by the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (the women’s wing of the Communist Party of India). In the occupied West Bank, Palestinian farmers have started a movement of sustainable and community-supported farming in response to the encroachment of agribusinesses and Israeli settlers’ monopolising of water resources.

In the Americas there has been both black and indigenous resistance to extractivism, a result of the intertwined colonial legacy of native genocide and the slave trade. In Brazil, historical societies of escaped slaves such as Palmares, which allied with indigenous peoples and launched guerrilla raids on coastal sugar plantations, continue to inspire resistance to the white supremacist, imperialist-allied Bolsonaro government and its agricapitalist and mining projects.

Bolsonaro has vilified the quilombos – marginalised Afro-Brazilian communities who are descended from fugitive slaves, and often also have indigenous ancestry – stating they are “not even fit for procreation, and threatening to expropriate their land. Taking inspiration from the transnational Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Afro-Brazilian activists have launched the campaign #VidasQuilombolasImportam (Quilombola Lives Matter).

The globalised agricapitalist industry is highly integrated, and all exploited sectors of society have been involved in resisting it. Urban protests took place globally in response to the 2007-8 food price crisis, caused by the spread of biofuels, financial speculation, imperialist conflicts, and extreme climate events including a drought in Australia. Agribusiness monopolies reaped huge profits while millions of poor people went hungry. Food insecurity has been further exacerbated in the immediate COVID context.

Already 135 million people world-wide experience critical food insecurity, and in Kenya the price of maize, a staple food, has risen over 60% since 2019. Globalised capitalist food supply chains, based on “just-in-time” production, have been heavily disrupted by trade restrictions, and by the end of 2020 an estimated 265 million people could be on the brink of starvation.

Enough food is produced globally to feed 14 billion people, but mountains of produce are being dumped and livestock culled to prop up prices. The UN World Food Programme has responded to the pandemic by calling for £1.6 billion of pledged food relief, but this would only reinforce the western “development aid” paradigm that forced the Global South into structural dependency in the first place. As happened a decade earlier, mass hunger amid skyrocketing economic inequality has sparked popular backlash, including food protests in Chile, Kenya, and South Africa.

Socialist responses to environmental imperialism have been especially effective when urban working-class mobilisation has been coupled with traditions of local peasant resistance. In Kerala, a state in India, the government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has sponsored self-sufficient farming collectives encompassing a quarter of a million women, and responded to the COVID crisis by issuing free food grains to poor communities.

Socialist Cuba is recognised as the most sustainably developed economy on the planet, and its Organopónico urban farms provide the majority of the fruit and vegetables consumed in cities like Havana, as well as growing plants important to traditional Afro-Cuban cultural expression. In South America, the emphasis placed by Peruvian communist José Carlos Mariátegui on respect for indigenous autonomy and traditions of resistance has been especially influential.

Before the imperialist coup in Bolivia, Evo Morales’ Movement for Socialism had begun progressive land reforms that helped cut poverty in half, and recognised Pachamama (Mother Earth) as a legal subject. Global South Marxists have also emphasised resisting the imperialist destruction of traditional knowledge systems, for instance the Guyanese revolutionary Walter Rodney pointed out the expertise of African peasants who had “familiarized themselves with the environment over centuries”, and noted that before colonialism the African diet had been “more varied, being based on a more diversified agriculture”.[12]

Environmental anti-imperialism has been brought right into the heart of the parasitic Global North by black radical movements, for example the “greening the ghetto” campaign in America targeting the dumping of toxic waste in working-class black communities. As Dorceta Taylor notes, it is particularly women of colour who “have been at the forefront of the struggle to bring attention to the issues that are devastating minority communities—issues such as hazardous waste disposal; exposure to toxins; occupational health and safety; lead poisoning, cancers, and other health issues; housing; pollution; and environmental contamination.”[13]

Again these issues are strongly tied to reproductive justice, for instance the lead contamination of water in Flint, Michigan (a predominantly black city) has resulted in miscarriages and reduced fertility. In Britain BLM UK, which in 2016 protested to stop flights at London City airport, has pointed out how air pollution in Britain disproportionately affects working-class black and brown people, while relating this local situation to the global imperialist reality:

The inequalities that turn an extreme weather event into a disaster or human catastrophe mirror the inequalities that cause the disproportionate loss of black and poor life globally – and the exact systems that Black Lives Matter fights against. … [And] due to rising global inequality – that remains part of the legacy of imperialism and colonialism, and part of the present reality of globalisation and capitalism – we also know that the resources required to respond to climate change’s impact are often not placed in the hands of the people who need them most.

BLM activists have also taken solidarity actions with indigenous struggles, including joining protestors at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation targeting the construction of a new oil pipeline. In Britain black, brown and indigenous grassroots organisations have coalesced in the Wretched of the Earth collective, whose article “Darkening the White Heart of the Climate Movement” highlights the chauvinism directed against the indigenous bloc at the 2015 London Climate March, which was attended by delegates from the Pacific Islands and the Sami Nation in Sweden.

The liberal NGOs at the march like Greenpeace tried to remove radical signs that charged “British Imperialism causes climate injustice” in favour of those projecting a more “positive message”, and attempted to replace the indigenous contingent with people dressed as animals; summoning police when this was resisted. It was only due to the resilience of the indigenous bloc that it regained its position at the head of the march. The mainstream climate movement is yet to recognise that the fight to save the environment and defend food sovereignty is necessarily a fight against capitalist white supremacy.


Against Social Imperialism with a Green Face

Social imperialism, as defined by Lenin, describes those sections of the “left” in rich countries who give tacit or active support for their national bourgeoisie’s colonialist plunder abroad, in exchange for “bribes” in the form of relatively higher standards of living for better-off layers of the working class.

Since the 1970s, particularly black feminists in the environmental and peace movements like Wilmette Brown have criticised the dominant NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) approach of the white western green left, meaning its indifference to issues of racism, imperialism, and gendered primary accumulation.[14] As the Sri Lanka-born British socialist and black radical intellectual Ambalavaner Sivanandan wrote, “to the extent that the Green movement is concerned more, say, with the environmental pollution of the western world than with the ecological devastation of the Third World caused by western capitalism, its focus becomes blinkered and narrow and its programmes partial and susceptible to capitalist overtures.”[15]

Things are no different today. As the Wretched collective reflects, “Greta Thunberg calls world leaders to act by reminding them that ‘Our house is on fire’. For many of us, the house has been on fire for a long time: whenever the tide of ecological violence rises, our communities, especially in the Global South are always first hit.”[16]

The concerns of the “international community” are primarily based on the forecasted impact of climate change within the Global North. For instance, the target global temperature increase limit of 2ºC set at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference is, in the words of the chair of the G77 group of developing countries Lumumba Di-Aping, “asking Africa to sign a suicide pact” because the 2ºC average increase (which the planet is currently set to hit within the next 15 years) would mean lethal rises in excess of 3.5ºC for many parts of Africa.

This whitewashing of climate justice is also typified by the Extinction Rebellion (XR) environmental movement, which has adopted a pro-police stance that has put migrants and racialised minorities at serious risk during demonstrations, while XR co-founder Gail Bradbrook has referred to “overpopulation and overconsumption” as the “ultimate” cause of climate breakdown. In the US, the “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders has argued for American aid to be funnelled to Malthusian population control projects as a response to climate change.

Social democratic responses to climate breakdown that go no further than attempting to “reform” imperialist-capitalism are wholly inadequate. Corbyn, for all his internationalist rhetoric, made no concrete pledges regarding material restitution for (neo-)colonialism, cancelling oppressed nations’ debt, banning extractivist activities by British corporations or ending unequal exchange. Nor should it be forgotten that the darling of the Labour “left”, Corbyn’s mentor Tony Benn, signed a contract with Rio Tinto to extract uranium from Namibia when it was illegally occupied by the South African apartheid regime.[17]

Labour’s Green New Deal, which the reformist Communist Party of Britain supports as an avenue for job creation within Britain, essentially represents a revamped state investment-driven extractivism. As director of War on Want Asad Rehman explained in The Independent, in this new “green” imperialism the “metals and minerals needed to build our wind turbines, our solar panels and electric batteries will be ripped out of the earth so that the UK continues to enjoy ‘lifeboat ethics’: temporary sustainability to save us, but at the cost of the poor.”

Resource extraction is responsible for 50% of global emissions, and as Rehman notes “behind each tonne of extraction is a story of contamination and depletion of water, destruction of habitats, deforestation, poisoning of land, health impacts on workers and hundreds of environmental conflicts – including the murder of two environmental defenders each and every week.” Bolivia is home to the largest known reserves of lithium (used for electric cars), which Morales had begun nationalising, and the coup has facilitated an imperialist scramble for these deposits by neo-conquistadors like Elon Musk of Tesla.

As we pointed out at the time, in the weeks leading to the coup the phony “socialists” at Novara Media (as well as XR) jumped on the bandwagon of the “#SOSBolivia” PSYOP campaign led by Jhanisse Vaca Daza, a graduate of a CIA-sponsored regime change academy, which essentially blamed Morales for damage to the Amazon caused by western MNCs and the fascistic Brazilian government. Under the new US-backed dictatorship in Bolivia there have been bloody pogroms against the indigenous population of which Morales was part.

All this raises important questions about the nature of socialist transition in an imperialist country like Britain. Since the 1990s, Britain’s food self-sufficiency has declined considerably – in the first half of 2018 alone, Britain imported £23 billion worth of consumable food, and the price of food imports will rise sharply due to Brexit. The national food industry is extremely inefficient, with nearly 10 million tonnes of food produced wasted annually (most of this waste occurs at the production, supply and retail stages), while hunger is rapidly on the rise among the poorest sections of the country.

Three weeks into the COVID lockdown, the Food Foundation charity reported that 1.5 million Britons had not eaten for a whole day because they had no money or access to food, and three million people were in households where someone had been forced to skip meals. In the immediate term, there is a pressing need to fight for diversified small-scale and community-supported food production (e.g. mixed livestock and cropping methods and urban Green Belt farms), and nationalise the big supermarkets, food processors and wholesaler monopolies under democratic workers’ control.

But these demands need to be coupled with a clear anti-imperialist perspective, including an end to biotech monopolies, and to the dumping of “excess” product on poor countries which depresses the prices of local produce.

The Landworkers’ Alliance, a union of small farmers in Britain, has made an important intervention in its recommendations for sustainable farming and food sovereignty, but there is a glaring omission in its failure to address the exploitation of migrant workers. The post-Brexit deregulation of the food industry threatens to take us back to the situation that led to the deaths of at least 21 Chinese cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay in 2004.

Britain’s ruling class exploits migrants as a low paid and flexible workforce, as with the Romanian workers flown in during the COVID lockdown to pick fruit, while upholding a repressive border regime of racist immigration controls, dehumanising asylum detentions and arbitrary deportations. As the Wretched collective points out, it is imperialist wars and “corporate climate genocidal mega-development” that are the main drivers of mass forcible population displacements, and according to the UN, climate breakdown could uproot up to 250 million people by 2050.

The imperialist bourgeoisie will respond to climate change by attempting to monopolise vital resources like water, and by further tightening the racist border regimes of the Global North. It is critical for socialists in Britain to fight to defend migrants’ rights, pay, and conditions, and for an end to racist hostile environment policies.

The green movement within the imperialist core must also take up the demand for reparations for slavery, indigenous genocide, and ongoing wealth drain through neo-colonial unequal exchange. The main demands for reparatory justice, as outlined by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), include imperialist debt cancellation; monetary compensation; and “technology transfer and science sharing”, which would include farming-related intellectual property.

Reparations should also be extended to encompass the “climate debt” owed by the Global North: imperialist maldevelopment has not only caused the degradation of agroecology in Global South countries, but also ensured they lack the infrastructure to cope with the environmental breakdown largely caused by rich nations – North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia have contributed around 61% of total CO2 emissions, compared to 13% for China and India together. As Leon Sealey-Huggins emphasises, “crucial to understanding the connections between structural racism and climate change is an acknowledgement that ‘vulnerabilities’ to extreme weather are not ‘natural’.”

Sealey-Huggins highlights the example of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere thanks to the legacy of slavery and the absurd post-independence debt payments extorted by France, which has undermined its ability to cope with extreme weather events like the 2010 earthquake. By contrast, “the Dutch – whose empire and industrialisation was built on the backs of unpaid slave labour – can afford €16 billion for flood defence schemes, while most countries in the Caribbean region have reported delays in accessing any of the resources required to implement their plans for responding to climate change.”[18]

As well as the immediate demand for reparations owed by the imperialist British government, revolutionaries in Britain must advance a vision of socialist construction that is uncompromising in its commitment to divesting from imperialist relations. Here we can draw on the historical example of the non-exploitative trade relations between Cuba and the industrialised Soviet Union, “based on the principle that relative prices be fixed to ensure the exchange of equal quantities of labor”.[19] 

As Che Guevara argued at the Afro-Asian Conference in Algeria in 1965: “There should be no more talk about developing mutually beneficial trade based on prices forced on the backward countries by the [capitalist] law of value and the international relations of unequal exchange … The [developed] socialist countries should help pay for the development of the underdeveloped countries”.

Reparative justice, like carceral abolitionism, doesn’t have to remain utopian if socialists place it firmly on their agenda. The working-class within Britain would also ultimately stand to benefit greatly in the long-term from the establishment of new, truly equitable relationships and knowledge sharing with anti-imperialist countries of the oppressed world – for instance, Britain’s decaying agricultural sector could be much improved by drawing on the innovative sustainable farming techniques developed in Cuba. The working-class movement in Britain needs to articulate a revolutionary eco-socialist project with an unyielding dedication to internationalist principles. As the Wretched collective stress:

“The fight for climate justice is the fight of our lives, and we need to do it right. We share this reflection from a place of love and solidarity, by groups and networks working with frontline communities, united in the spirit of building a climate justice movement that does not make the poorest in the rich countries pay the price for tackling the climate crisis, and refuses to sacrifice the people of the global South to protect the citizens of the global North. It is crucial that we remain accountable to our communities, and all those who don’t have access to the centres of power. Without this accountability, the call for climate justice is empty.”

Overcoming nationalist approaches to environmentalism in Britain, one of the oldest imperialist countries, will not be easy. To quote Sankara again: “As Karl Marx said, those who live in a palace do not think about the same things, nor in the same way, as those who live in a hut. This struggle to defend the trees and forests is above all a struggle against imperialism. Because imperialism is the arsonist setting fire to our forests and our savannas.”

The advent of XR, the involvement of trade unions in last year’s climate strikes, and the enthusiasm of many young people for environmental justice are all very encouraging developments, but presenting a serious challenge to climate collapse will necessitate a complete rupture from social imperialism. Decaying capitalism remains unrelenting in its extractivist death drive, and we must make no mistake: either the toiling classes and oppressed peoples of the world will inherit the Earth, or there will be no Earth to inherit.

Endnotes

[1] Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (Verso Press, 2001), p. 9.

[2] Robert Biel, Sustainable Food Systems: The Role of the City (UCL Press, 2016), pp. 74-77. Open access at https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/83490#

[3] Vandana Shiva and Kunwar Jalees, Seeds of Suicide: The Ecological and Human Costs of Seed Monopolies and Globalisation of Agriculture (Systems Vision, 2006), p. viii.

[4] Amanda Shaw and Kalpana Wilson, “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Necro-Populationism of ‘Climate-Smart’ Agriculture”, Gender, Place & Culture, 27:3 (2020), p. 376.

[5] Arun Kundnani, The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain (Pluto Press, 2007), p. 31.

[6] Eric Holt-Giménez, A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat (Monthly Review Press and Food First Books, 2017), pp. 102-3.

[7] Malcolm Caldwell, The Wealth of Some Nations (Zed Press, 1977), p. 14. Recognising Caldwell’s contributions to theorising imperialist unequal exchange should not be taken as an endorsement of his controversial views on Cambodia. Like many members of the “anti-revisionist” Marxist-Leninist movement of the 1970s, Caldwell’s perspective on international relations was warped by the Sino-Soviet split, which helps explain his support for the Khmer Rouge regime – an error of judgement Caldwell paid for with his life when he was shot dead after meeting with Pol Pot.

[8] Kalpana Wilson, Race, Racism and Development: Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice (Zed Books, 2012), pp. 91-4.

[9] Ibid., p. 85.

[10] Shaw and Wilson, “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation”, p. 374.

[11] Huey P. Newton, The Huey P. Newton Reader (Seven Stories Press, 2002), p. 312.

[12] Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (East African Educational Publishers Ltd, 2009), p. 40; p. 236.

[13] Dorceta E. Taylor, “Women of Color, Environmental Justice, and Ecofeminism”, in Karen J. Warren (ed.), Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature (Indiana University Press, 1997), p. 39.

[14] Wilmette Brown, Black Women and the Peace Movement (Falling Wall Press, 1984).

[15] Ambalavaner Sivanandan, “All That Melts into Air is Solid: The Hokum of New Times”, Race & Class, 31:3 (1990), p. 11.

[16] The whitewashing of the environmental movement is sometimes literal, as when Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate was blatantly cropped out of a photo of Thunberg and several other white activists by the Associated Press at the Davos 2020 climate summit.

[17] Katherine Yih, Albert Donnay, Annalee Yassi, A. James Ruttenber and Scott Saleska, “Uranium Mining and Milling for Military Purposes”, in Arjun Makhojami et al., Nuclear Wastelands: A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and Its Health and Environmental Effects (MIT Press, 2000), p. 142.

[18] Leon Sealey-Huggins, “‘The Climate Crisis is a Racist Crisis’: Structural Racism, Inequality and Climate Change”, in Azeezat Johnson et al. (eds), The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence (Zed Books, 2018), pp. 103-7.

[19] John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (Monthly Review Press, 2016), p. 210.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Impact of European policies on the Global South and possible alternatives


 First published at CADTM

The year 2020 was marked by two events that revealed, once again, the limits of the capitalist system. First, the CoViD-19 pandemic caused by the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, responsible for the deaths of several hundred thousand people and counting, highlighted the vulnerability of human societies in the absence of adequately funded public health services. It also served to highlight which activities are essential to the existence of human societies. 

Second, the pandemic precipitated the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s. By revealing the fragility of societies where exchanges are extremely rapid and production chains are internationalized, the pandemic also revealed the most irrational aspects of the economic system that governs and structures social relations in almost all parts of the world. Thus, capitalism appears to be incapable not only of providing for basic human needs but also of reproducing its own functioning. All governments that initially try to protect both the law of profit and their citizens’ lives inevitably find themselves tempted to defend the former against the latter. 

The neoliberal structural adjustment policies which have been pursued for decades have played an important role in increasing inequality and, ultimately, in the way the epidemic has spread. Contrary to widespread belief, the epidemic does indeed differentiate between origins and social classes, affecting in particular those at the bottom of the social ladder. It has also particularly affected countries that, on the pretext of maintaining strict fiscal discipline, have given up – or have been prevented from – building an efficient and accessible health care system. 

Thus, while many countries in the Global North are experiencing the harmful consequences of the privatizations and budget cuts that have been applied in recent decades, the countries of the South are for the most part prevented from developing efficient health care systems because of the heavy burden of debt on their public accounts. 

In the European Union, the crisis has again been marked by an inability of Member States to coordinate their responses and develop common strategies. While the small island nation of Cuba – which has been subjected to a US blockade for 60 years – sent medical teams to more than 20 countries including Italy, which was hard hit by the pandemic (this is in line with Cuba’s policy of international solidarity, as recently demonstrated in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake or in Africa against the Ebola virus), the policies of EU Member States in this area have been more than timid if not non-existent. No stockpiles of masks or medical equipment had been jointly agreed on in the EU. 

No European medical team was formed. The national retrenchment sought by the extreme right-wing forces scored a point when the various governments closed their borders (in a very disorderly manner). Only after months of prevarication do Eurozone Member States seem to have reluctantly agreed to pool a small share of their sovereign debt – a decision that the stronger states will surely make the weaker ones pay for by continuing the fierce competition that characterizes the Economic and Monetary Union. 

When it came to defending the interests of the capitalist class and their companies, on the other hand, the Member States of the EU, like the other countries of the Global North, were all able to develop a similar political orientation aimed, as in the case of the bank bailouts that took place from 2008 onwards, at socializing the losses of large companies (with no guarantee that jobs would be maintained) by injecting vast amounts of public money into them. 

In order to do this, the EU Member States did not hesitate to abandon the dogma of fiscal and budgetary discipline on the basis of which Greece and other countries on the European periphery had been designated as “bad pupils” and forced to adopt severe austerity measures during the previous crisis. European governments are thus once again agreeing to increase their public debt in order to help big capital and thus make the people pay for the crisis. 

The specific impact of the CoViD-19 pandemic in the countries of the Global South is a striking example of the accentuation of inequalities between different regions of the world. It is a situation in which the European Union and many European States have a major responsibility, because of past and present policies towards these countries of the Global South. Any force aspiring to break with the dominant capitalist order on the European continent must act to put an end to the exploitation of the peoples of the Global South.

The present work is the fruit of the ReCommonsEurope project, which we have been carrying on within the Citizens for Financial Justice consortium since 2019. 

Previously, from 2018 onwards, this project engaged the CADTM, in collaboration with the European Research Network on Social and Economic Policy (EReNSEP) and the Basque trade union Eusko Langileen Alkartasuna (ELA), in a project aimed at fuelling the debate on the measures that a popular government in Europe should prioritize. 

The present work is relevant for all social movements, peoples and political movements that seek a radical change in favour of the 99%. In line with our commitment to develop concrete proposals for dealing with immediate problems, we have chosen to call this project “Impact of European policies on the Global South and possible alternatives.” 

With this second phase, we seek to define a set of clear proposals that a popular government should implement in order to bring about real and profound change in the unjust relations between European states and the peoples of the Global South. To this end, we are engaged in a process of elaborating texts, based on joint work between activists, politicians and researchers from countries of the Global South and Global North. 

This work concerns the following areas: debts claimed by countries of the Global North – in particular European countries – from countries of the Global South; free trade agreements; migration and border management policies; militarism, the arms trade and wars; and reparation policies with regard to the spoliation of cultural property. 

In this brochure, in order to set out a general framework, we take up and adapt the chapter on international relations from the Manifesto for a New Popular Internationalism in Europe signed in 2019 by more than 160 people from 21 European countries. This manifesto was published in four languages (French, Castilian Spanish, English and Serbo-Croatian). It presents the most urgent measures concerning the following issues: money, banks, debt, labour and social rights, the energy transition in order to build eco-socialism, women’s rights, health and education, as well as more broadly international politics and the need to promote constituent processes. 

More than ever, we believe that it is essential to fuel and develop debate on alternatives to a system that increasingly shows its incompatibility with such a fundamental right as the right to lead a life of dignity.

Download the report. 

ReCommonsEurope was initiated by two international networks, the CADTM and EReNSEP, and the Basque trade union ELA, in order to contribute to the strategic debates taking place within the European popular Left today.

It was written in one year by sixteen people active in six different countries (Belgium, Bosnia, France, Greece, the Spanish State, and the United Kingdom); the authors are active in different organisations and movements (trade unions, political parties, activist movements) and bring together diverse and complementary expertise (economics, political science, philosophy, anthropology, law, ecology, unionism, feminism, North/South solidarity, and so on). Three generations are represented.

The Manifesto is supported by more than 160 signatories from 21 different European countries, among whom a majority of women.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Who will be best placed to defeat Emmanuel Macron in 2022 in France?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his guest Eric Piolle at the Summer Camp of “France Unbowed”.

August 2020

Written by Claire Fairbrother

In the absence of a clear challenger to president Emmanuel Macron - other than Marine Le Pen, the populist leader of the Front National - activists from Europe Écologie-les-Verts (EELV) and from La France Insoumise (LFI) or “France unbowed “were given the rare opportunity this Summer to explore the idea of bringing the two parties together with a single candidate for the 2022 presidential elections. 

Whether the purpose of the event held on Friday 21st August where the mayor of Grenoble Eric Piolle turned up as a guest of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of LFI was anything but a publicity stunt remains to be seen.

Cynicism aside, however, the significance of this very public meeting of minds between those two high profile French political figures coming from such different ideologies and political journeys should not be underestimated.

The friendship between the two men was forged in the course of Eric Piolle’s 2014 mayoral election in Grenoble, the dynamic and innovative capital of the French Alps. Bringing together members from the city’s civic society considerable network and five different progressive parties, including candidates from  Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s LFI, the 41 years old ecologist and former Hewlett Packard Manager ran a campaign based on an agreed programme of environmental and social justice pledges.

At the 2017 presidential elections, EELV and Eric Piolle called on voters to support Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s candidature. In 2019, the mayor of Grenoble and his cross parties list of candidates were re-elected with a 53% majority.

A life long socialist, 69 years old MP, MEP and leader of a 70,000 members strong France Unbowed, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has some experience as a candidate for the presidential elections. In 2012, he ran for the “Front de Gauche”, an electoral pact between socialists, communists and two minor left wing parties. He came fourth and achieved 11% of the vote in the first round. In 2017, he came third with 19.58% of the votes. Because of the two rounds system of voting, Mélenchon never reached the final presidential contest. Only the two candidates with the largest number of votes in the first round can enter the second round.

Since 2017, the list of candidates for Europe Écologie-les-Verts came third at the 2019 European Elections with 13.47% of the votes. At the municipal elections held in March this year, a historic green wave  swept up votes in 8 of the 10 major cities, including Lyon, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Tour, Annecy, and for the second time in  Grenoble.

Which brings us back to the significance of the capital of the Alps mayor Eric Piolle making a guest appearance at the France Unbowed summer camp on Friday 21st August. Jean-Luc Mélenchon welcomed his friend with these warm words: “His presence here means one thing. We have to get to what is fundamental. Yes, of course, we must talk about what we disagree about, but we must also make the most of what we are in agreement with”. And added “There is no doubt that we have a debt towards the historic ecology movement, but from where we stand, you cannot behave as if you could have it all”.

Eric Piolle proposed that for the regional elections in 2021 and this in 4 of the 13 regions, EELV and LFI could prove that, “together, we can win”, to which Mélenchon replied “Piolle is the only one from EELV who says that this is possible”. However, wishing to go much further, he added: “There are 13 regions, and we are for the same thing to apply everywhere”.

So, what are the chances of a green/red alliance as favoured by these two unlikely political companions of delivering future electoral successes beyond the municipal level?

What is clear is that LFI, with its disciplined democratic centralist model, well trained and committed cadres, a charismatic leader and an alleged membership of 500,000, it is a left wing party which can legitimately claim to have had the support of 7 million of the electorate at the first round of the 2017 presidential elections. It is a party machine designed to win elections and in particular, presidential ones.

With EELV, we are dealing with a much looser organisation - more like a mini-federation operating within the wider and diverse ecology movement.  It is difficult to know exactly how many people are members as people join, leave and rejoin and, invariably, on the internet.  A figure of 10,000 members has been quoted, but that may be an underestimation.

What does make EELV a strong organisation is therefore not so much its internal governance or actual membership, but its strong message about the imminent threat of global warming for future generations and its grass roots presence.  

It has been reported that 36% of French people support the “ecology movement”. One of the main weaknesses of EELV is its lack of a recognised leader who could possibly come second at the first round of the 2022 presidential elections and hope to defeat Emmanuel Macron at the second round.

By putting himself forward as the potential EELV presidential candidate for 2022, and by being seen actively engaged in a dialogue with the leader of France Unbowed, Eric Piolle is going where no one from the ecology movement has gone before. His very public appearance at the France Unbound summer camp and his show of friendship with Jean-Luc Mélenchon is not only challenging his own party leader, the more “liberal” MEP Yannick Jadot, but it is also laying the foundations for an eco-socialist alternative to neo-liberal capitalism and “politics as usual”.

Claire Fairbrother is an ecosocialist activist.

Links

https://france3-regions.francetvinfo.fr/auvergne-rhone-alpes/isere/grenoble/eric-piolle-jean-luc-melenchon-aux-amphis-ete-insoumis-ensemble-on-peut-gagner-1864848.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReC5DKetyPg

https://www.nouvelobs.com/politique/20200826.OBS32543/melenchon-montebourg-l-ecolo-eric-piolle-cultive-son-reseau.html

https://www.challenges.fr/politique/pour-sa-rentree-melenchon-tend-la-main-a-eelv-afin-de-continuer-a-peser_723915

https://www.leparisien.fr/politique/municipales-la-vague-verte-effet-vitrine-ou-acte-fondateur-29-06-2020-8344257.php

https://en-gb.facebook.com/ericpiolle/

https://melenchon.fr/

Monday, 31 August 2020

Where the Pandemic Leaves the Climate Movement


As the entire globe is in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic, with great economic, social, and environmental consequences, it is worth recalling mass mobilisations like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future which took the global scene in spring 2019. A year on, it is time to examine their claims and impact on public awareness of the climate emergency as well as current political discourse and policymaking.

Paolo Cossarini spoke with three scholars from different European countries who highlight fundamental themes these movements helped bring to the fore. What emerges is a nuanced theoretical and practical debate about citizens’ mobilisation, green transition, and the prospects of climate action.

First published at Green European Journal

Paolo Cossarini: A year ago, Extinction Rebellion (XR) shut down London’s streets, as did Fridays for Future (FFF) in cities across the globe, making headlines worldwide. In 2020, streets have been shut down once more to prevent a health crisis. One year on, how have these movements shifted the debate on climate change?

Manuel Arias-Maldonado: In my view, these movements have not been as important as the increase in extreme weather events that have shaken public opinions in the last years, creating a feeling of urgency the movements themselves can profit from. It is the sense that something is palpably changing that propels public awareness. Protest movements are relevant, among young people especially, but they would be helpless in the absence of such material conditions which are, admittedly, as much objective as they are mediated by mass media.

Susan Baker: The climate movement is positive. However, the emphasis on “listen to science” is potentially problematic in that it fails to grasp that science does not reveal the truth but aspects of what is known. Climate science is narrow: it defines the issue in the language and framework of the natural sciences, ignoring the main causes of and solutions to climate change which lie in the social world in general, and in our economic model in particular. Neither of these groups have a critical grasp of the fundamental causes of climate change.

While XR and FFF have promoted public awareness, both are very moderate voices and have, consequently, shrunk the space for radical ones. On climate action, their focus on transition favours technocratic responses as opposed to radical transformation. It is therefore likely that transition management (transition to low carbon futures that allows for business as usual), as opposed to transformation, will take centre stage in climate action.

Where do you think the Covid-19 pandemic leaves the climate movement? 

Anneleen Kenis: XR and FFF are remarkably absent in the current crisis though they seem to be slowly becoming more active again. The coronavirus pandemic might give the feeling that there are more important things to focus on now, but nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the Covid-19 crisis is instructive because it has unveiled how societies deal with emergencies, the place of science in the public debate, and human-nature relationships. Furthermore, the pandemic could nudge us in the direction of a radically different, much more sustainable society, but it could also lead us to a society characterised by authoritarian control, moralisation, and securitisation.

There is no neutral answer to the coronavirus crisis, just as there is no neutral answer to climate change. What’s more, the pandemic continues to raise crucial questions: who will foot the bill? Will large economic sectors like the airline industry be saved with taxpayers’ money? What conditions will these sectors have to meet? Will generating even more profit and growth be an indispensable mission? Will the coronavirus-induced economic crisis be used to demarcate certain sectors as crucial and others as not? Will we invest in healthcare and public schooling instead of (polluting) companies? 

Manuel Arias-Maldonado: Nobody knows. There are reasons to think that climate action may be encouraged after the pandemic – or even during the pandemic if it doesn’t end soon – as well as to fear that the return to normality will prioritise economic growth over sustainability concerns or climate mitigation. Mobilising the public all depends on how people will feel after this is over. 

In the meantime, it may be possible to seize temporary feelings to rally support for climate-friendly coronavirus response legislation as a way to ensure a cleaner exit from the crisis. The climate movement can play a role in this mobilisation process by framing the pandemic as the first true catastrophe of the Anthropocene. However, this card should not be overplayed since the link is not always clear. Alternatively, the pandemic can be portrayed as an expression of careless modernity, one that does not take into account, for example, food security. This depiction brings globalisation and the call to make it more sustainable centre stage.

Susan Baker: It is clear that government-imposed restrictions on social gatherings have impacted the activities of climate activist groups. So far, FFF has stopped their street presence and XR have ceased their highly visible forms of public protest. They nevertheless continued their activism online throughout the lockdown. These groups relied heavily on civil protest to raise public awareness, believing that this would force governments and other key stakeholders to act. It is harder to credit posting a selfie with a placard during lockdown with the same impact. Digital activism can be easily dismissed as an individualised activity while the marches that took place in the streets, often noisily, can hardly be written off. 

In the public arena, there is a danger that the voices that speak for nature and that seek climate action will once again become marginalised. There continues to be a great deal of attention paid to how to manage the pandemic, as we would expect. At the same time, there is a lack of discussion on the underlying causes – which lie in the destruction of ecosystems for trafficking of species – and how the problem will be addressed at source. 

Despite these challenges, the quietening of our streets and the cleaning of our air during lockdowns have allowed people to see and hear nature again. Here lies the hope that people can carry this experience forward to form a new political consciousness about the environmentally destructive nature of our economic activities and the possibility of an alternative future. 

Do you think an overhaul of the relationship between our economic systems and the environment is possible in the current moment? How can we make a green transition attractive to the economic and political forces desperately trying to stay afloat and return to business as usual?

Anneleen Kenis: I would start by questioning this question: do we really have to make sustainability attractive to economic forces and industry? Or should we rather put economic forces and industry under pressure to change? The environmental movement has bought too much into the idea that we can get everyone on board if we come up with an “attractive” vision. It reinforces the idea that we can save the world with technofixes, that nothing really has to change, and that air transport does not have to be fundamentally questioned after all. We need to apply pressure now that it is possible. Or refuse to rescue them: we should simply say “no” and take proper measures to ensure that future companies do not have all the tax and other advantages that the aviation sector has. 

While a certain level of “greening” the capitalist economy is possible (capitalists can make money selling solar panels just as they make money selling coal or oil), there is a fundamental clash. This clash has several aspects and dimensions, but the huge cleavage is between pursuing economic growth and reducing pressure on the ecosystems we are fundamentally a part of. 

Manuel Arias-Maldonado: Before the pandemic, I would have answered that winning the support of economic and political forces is possible by making a green transition both unnegotiable and profitable. The transition could be framed as something unavoidable but a possible source of innovation and value. 

Now, the world has stopped for some time and I think that public perception will be impacted for two reasons. Firstly, the dangers associated with the Anthropocene have been highlighted. Secondly, lockdowns have shown that life can be better: cleaner, healthier, slower.

Additionally, the economic situation may provide governments with the opportunity to foster new energy technologies, thus giving some unexpected momentum to the green transition. Emmanuel Macron has hinted that polluted air will not be tolerated anymore. Well, this is the time to start. 

There is no one way to stop climate change but several. Some are more capitalist-friendly – by way of technological innovation and productivity and efficiency gains – while others are more community-based and depend on reducing the size of the economy. 

Susan Baker: At present, there is a dynamic interplay between pressure for change and the return to old ways. Climate change has shown that it is no longer possible to see our economic activity in isolation from its ecological and social consequences. This realisation calls upon us to question equating human progress with the domination of nature. 

Economic actors need to take responsibility for their actions. It is not a question of “making it attractive to them”. Attractive, in the traditional economic sense, means that the activity can be the source of profits. This model that allows some in society to generate excessive wealth at the cost of others, including nature, needs to change. We must change what is produced, how it is produced, evaluate who benefits, and at what cost. It would be a moral hazard to make a green transition attractive when what we need is a green transformation of society.


Do you think that there’s the potential for a paradigm shift away from an economy based on growth? What about the balance between collective and individual action?

Anneleen Kenis: There are many consumer goods with huge ecological costs for which it cannot be sincerely argued that they are essential to lead a healthy and comfortable life. The global fashion industry contributes more to climate change than shipping and aviation together. This is no surprise considering that, in the UK for instance, 300 000 items of clothes are thrown away every year [read more on the impacts of fast fashion]. A first step to promoting degrowth is banning advertisement. People are told on an almost continuous basis that they need all this stuff.

Everyone who has the capacity to make personal changes should consider doing so. However, as Giorgos Kallis argues, it is much easier, much more motivating, and more impactful to do so collectively [read about Kallis’ insights on limits and autonomy]. I decided 10 years ago not to fly anymore, but what difference does it make? If we were to make a similar commitment collectively, the impact could be huge.

Manuel Arias-Maldonado: There is no consensus on degrowth as the way to go in terms of building a particular kind of society. It would be an accepted model if it was the only way to prevent planetary collapse – which it is not. There are alternative ways to promote decarbonisation and sustainability and governments should focus on those. What’s more, economic growth still matters as a way of producing welfare and wellbeing. Degrowth must, therefore, be defended as a morally valuable choice. If it were to persuade a majority, it would be the blueprint for a new way of living.

As I see it, relying on such collective sacrifice is utterly unrealistic. Nevertheless, people should be made aware of the fact that human habitation of the planet depends on the planet’s conditions, which in turn depend on how people behave. This understanding could bring our planetary impact into focus and potentially lead to better policy and technological innovation.

Susan Baker: The growth-oriented model of development pursued by Western industrial societies cannot be carried into the future, either in its present forms or at its present pace, as evidenced by climate change. We cannot have continuous growth in a system characterised by resource limits and planetary boundaries. Climate change has been caused by a growth-orientated model, achieved through ever-increasing levels of consumption. This artificially stimulated consumption brings untold wealth for the few and impoverishment for the many. Many now also reject the idea that consumption is the most important contributor to human welfare. This new value is not compatible with capitalism. Degrowth is no longer a radical alternative, but a necessity.

A healthy society and the wellbeing of its members rests on acts of services and the sense of community rather than on consumption. Adopting this model requires changing our values so that one’s social standing is not determined by what they consume and put on display, but by how they engage in society to protect the interests of others, including those of other life forms, in ways that promote justice and equity. 

While personal change is important, structural factors can make them unsustainable. To move to a new model of economy and society, everyday actions would need to be accompanied by structural changes. As we rethink, for example, the way we travel, our food and energy consumption, the structures underlying these – trade, financial, food systems and our economic system overall – must be transformed as well. 

Anneleen Kenis is a post-doctoral research fellow of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), affiliated with the Division of Geography and Tourism at KU Leuven and the Department of Geography at King’s College London. Her work centres around political ecology focusing in particular on processes of politicisation and depoliticisation in relation to climate change, air pollution and genetically modified organisms.

Manuel Arias-Maldonado is an associate professor in political science at the University of Malaga, Spain. He has worked extensively on environmental issues, from a sociopolitical as well as from a philosophical standpoint. His latest book is Rethinking the Environment for the Anthropocene (2019), co-edited with Zev Trachtenberg.

Susan Baker is a Professor Emerita in the School of Social Sciences and former co-director of the Sustainable Places Research Institute at Cardiff University. Her research concerns environmental governance in the European Union, ecofeminism, gender and the environment.