… for our sake, we need to look at the direct action of the blockade not as an action of pure resistance and opposition but as a positive expression of new relationships.
The Clarity of Catastrophe
The National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee recently released a draft of their report surveying the impacts of climate change in the US. It compiles the research from the past several years of over 240 authors in what is, as one might expect, a grim portrait of our future. In the Northwest, temperatures have averaged a warming of 1.5 F and over the period between 1970- ‘99 to 2070-‘99, it is projected that if emissions eventually decline in this period we will probably see an increase in annual average temperature of 3.3 F, or if emissions continue to rise we could see an increase of 9.7 F.
Some of what it details we are already familiar with from previous publication, but for the sake of good recitation we can recount some of the key findings. First, the timing of our streamflow is going to change dramatically. It is anticipated that by 2050 snow melt will begin about a month earlier due to warmer winters, combined with the fact that our winters will be wetter, this will put several basins at risk for seasonal flooding. This also means that several (of what are likely to be dry and drought prone) summer months will be also without much of their seasonal streamflows. Decreased flows and the warming of water temperatures also threaten the existence of many freshwater species. Increased ocean acidification will devastate marine life. Rising sea levels (major portions of Seattle being under water) and coastal erosion. Increased forest mortality as well with forest fires taking place in greater size and frequency. Increased disease and insect outbreaks.
Next do the imaginative work of understanding how this plays out socio-economically.
In addition to this, the Journal of Geophysical Research published a report that explained how black carbon, as from wood burning stoves, coal burning, and diesel emissions, was reevaluated as the second greatest contributor to climate change, with carbon dioxide still at first and methane being bumped to third. This is due to the fact that black particulate absorbs sunlight radiation rather than reflects it, which has had the profound noticeable effect in how it deposits within glaciers and augments the melt process. The recent documentary ‘Chasing Ice’ does well to capture this kind of event.
When dealing with rapid changes in complex systems, like our climate and ecosystems, there is going to be much uncertainty about what will happen or what to expect, but we do have certainty in what is already taking place, what is causing it, and some of the outcomes. When it comes to access to data and knowledge to inform necessary and proactive collective action we have an excess of what is necessary to inform that action. The problem is clear. There is a great variety of necessary responses that need to take place and many of these are far from any kind of secret either: The need to reduce our use and dependency on fossil fuels and automobiles, invest in renewable energies, reduce our energy and water use, rethink how we organize our urban environments and land use, build community resilience through food sovereignty, and so on. What these needs really amount to though is a complete renegotiation of our social and ecological relationships. When there is plenty of work to be done and yet unemployment is a problem, a new set of questions should be arising.
Those of us who have heard the clarion call to respond to this crisis have seen over the years the projected nightmare catastrophe slowly come into resolution. Monthly we are updated to new active feedback loops in our ecosystems that are accelerating crisis. Feeling over saturated with information we will often ask: what will it take to wake people up? What will be the essential bit of information or disaster that sparks that consciousness of concern? With each month of drought, famine, historical record temperature highs, floods, sinking countries, people dispossessed of land, and new publication that gives catastrophe clarity, we ask this question.
A recent study from Yale and George Mason University found that 70% of Americans believe climate change is happening with a increasing trend of 54% believing it is anthropogenic, and 88% believe the US should take action to reduce global warming even if it has economic costs. Consider that traditionally, a large percentage of a population is not required to instigate social change either. Awareness is not the issue. People don’t need anymore convincing, given the political dimensions that are often tied with developing shared knowledge, there exists significant popular political consensus, although this is hardly reflected in our representative political bodies. The question of ‘what will it take for people to wake up?’ though seems to be less and less the appropriate question and I think on ideology and what is said in Hardt and Negri’s recent essay, ‘It begins with Refusal’:
Information alone is not enough. The same is true of practices of ideology critique, more generally: revealing the truth about power does not stop people from striving for their servitude as if it were their liberation. And neither is it enough to open a space for communicative action in the public sphere. The mediatized is not a figure of false consciousness but rather one caught in the web, attentive, enthralled.
As I said before, the type of response this crisis demands is one that reexamines and renegotiates our social and ecological relationships, and since such things are profoundly existential and tied with ideology, it is not simply a coincidence that these questions are arising from a terribly concrete and existential planetary crisis. Certainly this has led many people to question the ideology of capitalism because as an organizing ideology it has proven to be completely inept in relating to the environment in any sustainable way.
The Reproduction of Crisis and the Bureaucratic Blockade
A central facet to the capitalist ideology is the alienability of relationships through the commodity form in service of the unmitigated flow of capital. In other words, it is premised that the flow of capital in an open market of commodity exchange will equitably empower those with the will to power and that social desirability of certain forms of production will be reflected in market demand. The accumulation of capital therefore outlines a justified hierarchy of productive power and from this efficient arrangement of power will spring forth the good of society.
In this arrangement, though, the natural circulation of ecosystem processes and the circulation of social activity, like mutual aid, are sacrificed at the altar of limitless capital accumulation. These circulations are mangled into production schemes that maximize the production of commodities purposed for the gain of capital and not the welfare of these systems. This is why we see much reform energy devoted to discovering ‘new’ schemes that incentivize the flow of capital towards social and ecological good.
Many people of the institutional political left have gone as far to say ‘capitalism needs to be reinvented’ or we need a ‘capitalism 2.0′ which is usually a call for a capitalism that is more humane and ecologically aware. Ideology functions to give a framework of meaning to our world and a stable core of ideology – especially capitalist ideology — will always work to find ways to reconfigure itself and explain its own contradictions or failures. With this in mind, we can always anticipate gentle ‘critiques’ that accept markets are logically pure, that its impure kinks can be worked out, and everyday life can go on without major behavioral and social alterations. So we see ourselves amidst trends towards the commodification of what are being deemed ‘ecological services’. Integral to the commodity form is establishing equivalences through exchange value and we have been seeing this with schemes like cap and trade, carbon offsets, REDD+ and so forth, where there is a presumption that certain qualities of environmental impacts can be equated with others and therefore balanced. However, as anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of ecology will immediately understand, nature does not operate on a ledger of debts and credits that can be balanced out. Destroying a forest to grow biofuels to offset carbon emissions is not in anyway a solution.
These reinventions of ‘capitalism’ are not reinventing anything, rather they seek to reinvent ways to impose the logic of capital accumulation into new spaces.
It is in the Marxist tradition to assume that capitalism is historically destined to confront its own contradictions and that the class struggle, produced from the pathologies of capital accumulation, will make its symptoms apparent eventually leading it to crisis, class antagonism and ultimately the working class seizure of the modes of production. The problem though is that symptoms of economic failure, inadequacy, and contradiction, when confronted, are going to be rationalized through the very lens of ideology that produced them, and the psychology of the mind has proven that it is very resilient in protecting our core ideologies. An economic ideology is going to do exceedingly well in rationalizing economic crisis.
Historically, capitalism has ignored the processes of our ecosystems very well by externalizing it from its rationale, which has resulted in a radical degradation of the planet. For the livability of this planet, it is simply essential that the foundations of capitalism as an organizing principle are jettisoned from it. This means for many people that climate change is a dual existential crisis and so it is important to demonstrate in our activism that they are one and the same.
When it comes to dealing with large scale problems like climate change that requires collective action individuals look to their public institutions and the state as the traditional source to facilitate this action. The knee jerk reaction we have in the process of representative democracy is to contacting ‘decision makers’ and pressuring public officials. We join coalitions of large environmental organizations for the financial girth to engage this process. What we have found though, to no surprise, is that our public institutions and state have been disappointingly ineffective in enacting policy and coordinating action to respond to the crisis.
The institutions of the state are shaped by the organizing principles it exists to protect and enforce. It is mistaken to conceptually view capitalist markets and the state as separate institutions although we find it useful to talk of them that way, especially when it comes to establishing political identity. Much of our legal-juridical institutional apparatus is built upon securing the rights to private property, to which the accumulation of capital depends, and incidentally less about the rights to securing the circulation or establishment of common property. In fact, in the past, the United States Government has spent significant resources simply to destroy common property ownership as with the Dawes Severability Act of 1887. Those who are in a position to increase their flow of capital accumulation because of their ownership of productive property stand to have greater power to use the state for the legal buttressing of their accumulation. Our public institutions and democratic process in turn become a reflection of that power. The state is not, nor has it ever been, a neutral force with relation to capital.
In a way we already know this very well. There is a pervasive political cynicism that acknowledges this. We know corporations have a powerful shaping influence on our laws, and that they pretty much write them. Our laws essentially serve, or at the least are tailored, to enforce and protect favorable flows of capital accumulation.
Likewise, our environmental agencies and the legal statutes they enforce are devoted primarily to the issuance of permits for environmental degradation and are completely inadequate in addressing the climate crisis. The protection of the environment is fractured into a multitude of ‘regulatory silos’, as is common with bureaucratic structures, and as such our environment is managed in the same fractured manner. Naturally, this is a very easy system that corporations can leverage influence into and have historically helped shape. Although corporate spokespersons may claim that the permitting process is a labyrinthine headache for their corporate schedules, the divided power of this system is to their complete advantage, due to the fact that permitting decisions are very narrow in their scope and do not account for the concerns or data that is assigned to other regulatory silos in the regulatory structure. This is why it is often the strategy of environmental groups that try to fill in the bureaucratic gaps of environmental advocacy, to attempt to keep destructive corporate projects in the labyrinth as long as possible to agitate the impatience of investors towards divestment.
Environmental regulatory protection in a state institutional sense lacks a positive stewardship in maintaining or promoting the health of our ecosystems and instead acts as a means to make the corporate spoiling of our environment socially palatable, conditioning us to seeking means to mitigate what is already destructive relationships with our environment, and through permitting, enshrine the right for a corporation to do so. The very institutions we expect to protect the environment from the destructive tendencies of capitalism instead legally protect and reinforce them. So in our activism, we ironically at times find ourselves mostly in defensive campaigns and often divided, and essentially engaged in the reproduction of the pathologies of capitalism.
For example, opponents of Pacific Northwest coal exports proposals have expressed some of their opposition, like many other campaigns, through attendance at public hearings with state agencies on permitting. Through both the mobilization efforts of many large environmental NGOs and grassroots organizations, these meetings have had a large oppositional attendance. At the Portland DEQ hearing in early December, which concerned the proposed permit application for the Port of Morrow coal barging project, around 800 people had showed up with a overwhelming majority in opposition. Of course many were frustrated to find out that the DEQ was mainly concerned with stormwater discharge, air emission, and pollution discharge permits at the facility site.
People came with questions and comments charged with concern ranging from coal dust pollution in transport, emergency response plans for accidents, strip-mining, and implications to climate change. For several hours these concerns were expressed and representatives from the DEQ tiredly reiterated the scope of the permit and how such concerns fell outside of it. A number of commentors had also spoke to the absurdity of the process taking place. At several points in the meeting the DEQ meeting facilitator had threatened to shut the meeting down due to a lack of respect for their process and what they called grand-standing. This meeting and the many other permit hearing meetings that have taken place with similar results are very telling of the role of the state and the power it reflects.
What these state agency hearings demonstrate is that there exists an overflow in public response and out
If you have nearly 800 people angry that they have no means of recourse except by banging on these kind of bureaucratic blockades with comment cards, this means there is also opportunity to channel this energy to new productive relationships that can empower 800 people to the action they want to see.
Fatalism of Power
The process of state regulatory agencies though is just a facet of
Funding for new technological research is heavily dependent on the interests of the state/market capital duopoly. Typically we see this in the form of state grants, corporate research and foundations; this means the appearances of most technologies in our society are expressions of already powerfully entrenched interests. The laboratorial development of technology incidentally is highly secluded and removed from society at large, which when this is not accounted for in its implementation, becomes highly problematic. The reasons for this kind of development varies from the needs of scientific procedure, where it is necessary to provide environments of controlled variables to the extraneous, such as the political, in where it is deemed necessary for competitive advantage in the market or state security. In the design process and to test implementation the technology goes through experimentation that deploys models of generalized conditions of the real world, accounting for performance in various generalized scenarios. This process tends to have a focus on the physical integrity of the technology in order to service certainty in its performance as a commodity. Often safety assessment is a matter not so much of understanding the uncertainty of safety but of understanding the uncertainty of legal costs that may arise from recourse resulting from issues of safety.
After final development, new technology is then released into the market and society at large and we are left to confront it and deal with the consequences. As said before, new technologies though have a tendency to radically change society for better or worse, but we let the consequences free to express themselves into decades of invisibility. We often view this as the magical procession of progress. It is usually with the assistance of the state in which technology is integrated and begins to constitute our society and often reconfigures it with new infrastructure and institutions that can reproduce and service it.
To contextualize this, looking at the automobile is useful. Its development has had a profound impact on the shape of our cities. Since around the 1950s the urban landscape has increasingly been in service of accommodating the automobile. We’ve seen the sprawl of the suburbs, freeways rammed through poor neighborhoods, the public space of streets turned into dedicated roads for automobile traffic, and vast swaths of land dedicated as parking lots. This has also meant increased mortality from car accidents and increased air pollution, and our urban environments planned as such to create a dependency on this mode of transportation which brings with it enormous private expense for individuals.
The point is that any new technology brings with it an amount of uncertainty and this is not to presume that we can take action with full predictability but that the implementation of technologies should include a diligence to collect the appropriate data for just and measured action. This belies the idea of the precautionary principle. There is a tendency to defer ourselves to the opinions of assigned expertise in the matters of technology and with them a full expectation that the production of knowledge from experts, whether they be corporate spokespersons or specialists from state agencies, will cover all matters of the social and ecological.
The oversight of this trend of secluded implementation is the lack of public input which translates into a major oversight in the production of knowledge. When it comes to addressing the uncertainty that surrounds a new technology, the public that is to interact with this technology must be involved in the production of knowledge that seeks to address this uncertainty. French Sociologist Michel Callon suggests the use of what are deemed hybrid forums. Hybrid forums provide a space and process for the public to become involved in the production of knowledge. The efficacy of these forums he asserts can be evaluated on two axes: 1) procedures for the reception and expression of identities and 2) procedures for public involvement in research. When people are allowed to voice their concern and identities are allowed to emerge in the addressing of uncertainty new avenues of possible research and exploration of uncertainty are enriched. When it comes to the question of wanting to explore how a new technology might effect a people, your best source of knowledge is asking them. People are their own best experts of themselves, their communities, and the environment they are engaged with daily. No scientist or deemed expert of any corporate research team or state agency has such powers of imagination and prediction to anticipate how new projects will impact communities and identities with the nuance that is deserved.
The Positivity of the Land Blockade
With this in mind, we can also make the argument that the hierarchy of power, when it comes to decisions of how our communities should be constituted, should not be in the hands of large state and corporate institutions that have neither the knowledge or direct relationships with the environment to manage its resources or determine healthy modes of production, especially in the project of capital accumulation. Rather it’s the people who hold the intimate relationships with the local environment and community that have the best knowledge of what is appropriate stewardship and production.
The antagonism between state agencies that facilitate corporate power and the communities to which corporate activity is inscribed has resulted in significant movements of resistance in the form of land blockades. Notably we have seen this in the Tar Sands pipeline blockades, the Unist’ot’en camp to stop the Pacific Trail Pipeline project, and the actions of the Via Compesina movement. The bureaucratic blockade of the state that I’ve pointed to is not only a means to manage opposition, a means to negate relationships between people and the means of production, but is also a positive relationship of corporate power. Likewise, for our sake, we need to look at the direct action of the blockade not as an action of pure resistance and opposition but as a positive expression of new relationships.
If we desire, as communities, to determine how to manage our environment, the blockade is an expression of that relationship. Stopping destructive activity from taking place is effective land management. To echo back to the Hardt and Negri essay mentioned earlier, the refusal to participate in these relations of power creates a space to renegotiate our relationships. So what do we do instead of going to a DEQ hearing? We form our own community forum, identify concerns democratically, receive the voices that need to be heard, then resolve to the power of our own collective action. There is solitude in this. When we can demonstrate the dual power of new relationships, ideological inaction becomes less of a problem. When there are avenues to participate in action and new habits of relations that reproduce a new ideology, instead of the old ones we feel entangled in, we find strength in liberation and not vulnerability. The good thing is these new expressions are taking place. In the housing justice movement people are resisting foreclosure and keeping people in their homes. Food sovereignty through not only land rights but also in the practice of permaculture and urban gardening makes people less dependent on wages for access to food. The more we can develop relations in which people can access their needs without wage and market dependency, achieve resilience through their community, and the act of untangling from old destructive relationships becomes less scary and so does the crisis.
The climate crisis though does require large collective action. Wealthy state actors have repeatedly demonstrated they are incapable of initiating that collective action at global climate summits, and can only suggest on behalf of our corporate stewards new forms of activity that will further oppress and dispossess the global poor. Collective action, though, doesn’t require a central coordination, but decentralized emergence from solidarity action. In the struggle for climate justice, solidarity action is going to be integral not only to bring awareness of struggle but to reproduce the positive relationships that we identify. The mass media may not cover these struggles, so we become louder than it, by not only producing our own, but through action as media. How much more potent is the live reproduction of struggle than then passivity of images. I suggest we strive then, as the form of the crisis of our climate becomes clearer and the fatalism of catastrophe that grows with it, that we, with exceeding measure demonstrate the new relationships and resistance that is necessary with greater clarity.