climate action cafe

A space for discussion and analysis within the global climate movement

Towards an unnatural economy

Posted by KM on November 6, 2009

by The Fearless Theorillas

In this piece I’m going to make four connected points about how the climate movement, as a large group of people acting against capitalism, can move our ideas forward collectively.

– The first point deals with where Nature fits into our politics.
– The second and third points look at some core components of any economic theory: production, distribution and consumption.
– Finally, based on these idea, I make some suggestion about how the movement relates to the Copenhagen climate treaty.

Frequently, we pretend as if the message we put out there and the process of bringing people into the movement are separate activities. Often, this leads us to hide some of our radicalism, or even to change our message in order not to ‘alienate’ people. But surely a movement of people who would be alienated by our radicalism isn’t a movement worth building?
Instead, the right message should bring people in: we must have faith in our politics, in the fact that what we are saying actually is for everyone. When we get our messages of democracy out there, people like them. What we often fail on is articulating alternative solutions when people finally do give us the time of day.
So below is a short way out of this, attempting to construct some ideas for how we could talk about the economy on our own terms, in our own words. In the immediate, this is a contribution to the discussion around Where Next? for the Camp for Climate Action UK network. But I hope that it also acts as a contribution to more general discussions within the movement.

The central question we face is how to really know, how to believe, that climate change is occurring, that ecological disaster is round the corner. How can we get a point where we don’t just stare at numbers and statistics, but – on mass – undertake climate change as the central challenge of our generation. What lies at the heart of this is our shared understanding of Nature.
Previous ‘green’ movements have focused on protection – of trees, fish, mountains. But with climate change it’s not so much a question of the piece by piece protection of plants and animals, but a question of international political will – whether grass-roots or top-down. In this way, the climate justice movement has more in common with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) than the green movements of the 1970s.
Odd as it may seem, the current blossoming of the ‘green’ movement isn’t really very green at all. ‘Nature’ is not inherently anti-capitalist; indeed, Capitalism can be ‘natural’. Or rather, capitalism has the ability to inhabit all the concepts of Nature which we share: it is cyclic (boom and bust); it cares for the status quo; it has large, inter-networked distribution chains… And it is these competing concepts of Nature which are forcing people from their homes in the names of forest protection.
This could mean that we should abandon Nature, and instead continue to abstract ourselves further and further away from what we conceive to be natural, in a desperate attempt to undermine the organic component of capital. But this would lead us into the strange territory of technological nodes and sci-fi cyborgs, interacting on a purely mathematical level. There are no black-blockers saving white bunnies here.
Alternatively, we implement the notion of the Commons, not just as a crudely nostalgic term, but as a serious economic and political idea. To elaborate: just as it is life, not peace, that is the opposite of war, so the opposite of the Commons is not Property, but Resource. It is this concept on which we can build an Ecology of People: we are bound up together not as natural resources for the capitalists to plunder, but as participants in the Commons.

To be in Commons concerns the creation and sharing of goods – in other words, production and distribution. These areas also reveal the central problems which are pushing us towards catastrophic climate change: we make too much stuff for the wrong people, and we also make too much of the wrong stuff.
In order to deal with ecological catastrophe, the imperialism of the technologies of the global North and new forms of apartheid, we must take these problems head on. To reformulate: How can we, in Common, create the right amount of stuff for the right people?
Our criticisms of distribution usually focus on the pattern of Waste in our society: freegans lapping up food-waste, squatters filling in housing-waste, carbon rationers clamping down on energy-waste. Waste, however, is not solely a post-capitalist concern: it’s very capitalist. Capitalists abhor waste: it’s really expensive. Dealing with waste can be dealt with by capitalists quite easily; indeed, it’s a prime concern. What they can’t deal with is the distribution of that which is not waste. In many ways, our concern should not be about the goods which we have access to through the inefficiency of supermarkets and governments, but the non-wasted things to which we do not have access.
But we should also be aware that consumption is, in itself, a form of distribution. Capitalism is not only creating goods intended for no-one (waste), but also goods intended for people who do not need them. Capital power does not provide individuals with the ability to make certain choices, but makes the choice for us. Rather than goods being distributed along lines of social utility/need, capital enables the invisibility of a skewed distribution system.
The distribution of money is, in effect, our collective system the distribution of goods. These concepts of distribution are being challenged in an effective and progressive manner by a number of NGOs, and through the lens of climate change. Sometimes activists try to distance themselves from NGOs, and I can understand the need to not want to act as the strong arm of the lobbyists, the threatening calling card. However, it’s not as if they don’t get their hands dirty: that ‘we’ often includes activists from these organisations.
Post-capitalism requires new economic ideas. And now is a time of economic reconstruction: there will be regulations along different modes. Much of this will involve climate change as a bargaining chip, and as an excuse. But rather than lament our lack of pure anarchy, we could embrace our ability to threaten the state based on the research and policy of progressive NGOs. In so doing we could help the radicals within these NGOs achieve certain goals, such as a progressive banking system, enable the efficient workings and influence of corporate watchdogs, etc.

The flip side of distribution is production. If nature is not a resource, but held in Common, then the way in which we produce goods must reflect that. The vast majority of energy use is for the production of goods: China may be constructing a coal fired power station every week, but a quarter of that energy makes good which we consume. Whereas with distribution we make too much stuff for the wrong people, when we examine production we can see that we also just make too much of the wrong stuff.
To deal with production we need a movement which relies on the tactics of workers’ movements, whether wild cat strikes or through an organised labour movement. This does not mean that workers are the only force of any relevance in our struggle, or that only workers can challenge production. Communities are intricately involved in processes of production. For example, unpaid labour of many women the world over supports the paid labour of male production.
What we can tell from Vestas, in terms of organising in and around the work place, is that while the vast majority of unions are actively discouraging their members taking action (for the same reasons as, and in the same manner as, the political parties), the remainder of the unions lack many of the skills necessary to support serious industrial action. The unions’ strengths are not, however, in effective media, legal and/or action support. It is in its membership and their ability to take mass action from the inside out.
There are some great Unions out there, building membership, radicalising disuptes. Those of relevance to the climate justice movement, as far as I can see, fall into 4 categories: Energy, Transport, Production and Information. In energy the main Union is the GMB, which has been organising disuptes at the Lindsey oil refinery, and the National Grid. Around Transport, we have the RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport workers Union), fervently progressive, leading the Tube workers’ strikes, and of course at Vestas (not really their sector, but they made a specious argument to do so). The production category could include Vestas, and certainly Visteon – the car parts factory that was occupied by its workers during the London G20, with suuport from climate activists.
Information might include the Communications Workers Union (CWU), except that their campaigns are really around banking, not progressive communications, strangely enough. This is the most difficult sector to organise around or talk about – in some ways, perhaps we’re not there yet. Open source internet projects perhaps show the way, as do Pirate Parties, the Open Knowledge Foundation, etc. But if we could organise as knowledge workers, employed as such or otherwise, we might have a way of fighting with the tool becoming most inherent to the functionings of Northern capital.

As said before, capitalism can be natural: Green Capitalism is here, it happened right in front of our eyes. The green New Deal as a phrase has been absorbed into the political vocabulary, and Obama crowned as green-banker-in-chief. As we approach Copenhagen, statements from politicians and the media continually focus on the potential commitment of China, the industrialisation of India, and the financial reparations from the Global North to the Global South.
The BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China – the fastest and largest industrializing states) should not be seen simply as some kind of inept and inconvenient phantom, a pawn used by the US and the EU to allow ever greater climate crimes. Instead, we should recognize the huge struggles within these countries and understand their relevance to our own resistance.
The same applies to the commitments of aid to countries threatened by climate change. Much of the time this so-called recognition of the needs of the Global South in adapting to climate change is a patronising way of denying the need for the Global North to adapt as well. Increasingly the calls for a sharing of information between North and South in how to deal with Climate change is actually a byword for a Northern imperialism.
As public awareness of the Copenhagen treaty grows ever greater, we should not stand back and simply join the throng of voices calling for greater and greater promises from the political elite (‘Can our leaders please be nicer! Can our leaders please be nicer!). Talk of 50, 60, 80% cuts in emissions deals neither with distribution not production – it deals with the idea of a treaty itself. Our voice should be a clear and loud ‘How?’, contrasting with the confused ‘What?’ of other groups. And in doing so, we should be confident that we do have the tools to express an alternative economy: one built not on Nature as a resource, but on participants living in Common.

Alex Foti, Climate Anarchists vs Green Capitalists:
David Graeber, Fragment of an Anarchist Anthropology:
k-punk, Anti-Organic Anti-Capitalism:
Larry Lohman, What Next?:
Slavoj Zizek, Ecology against Nature:
Tadzio Mueller and Alexis Passadakis, 20 Theses against green capitalism:
The Fearless Theorillas, Violence and red-green:
Toni Negri, Alma Venus (Poverty, Love):

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