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social ecology

Reimagine, don’t (just) seize, the means of production

By Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel - P2P, January 16, 2018

One of the most difficult systems to reimagine is global manufacturing. If we are producing offshore and at scale, ravaging the planet for short-term profits, what are the available alternatives? A movement combining digital and physical production points toward a new possibility: Produce within our communities, democratically and with respect for nature and its carrying capacity.

You may not know it by its admittedly awkward name, but a process known as commons-based peer production (CBPP) supports much of our online life. CBPP describes internet-enabled, peer-to-peer infrastructures that allow people to communicate, self-organize and produce together. The value of what is produced is not extracted for private profit, but fed back into a knowledge, design and software commons — resources which are managed by a community, according to the terms set by that community. Wikipedia, WordPress, the Firefox browser and the Apache HTTP web server are some of the best-known examples.

If the first wave of commons-based peer production was mainly created digitally and shared online, we now see a second wave spreading back into physical space. Commoning, as a longstanding human practice that precedes commons-based peer production, naturally began in the material world. It eventually expanded into virtual space and now returns to the physical sphere, where the digital realm becomes a partner in new forms of resource stewardship, production and distribution. In other words, the commons has come full circle, from the natural commons described by Elinor Ostrom, through commons-based peer production in digital communities, to distributed physical manufacturing.

This recent process of bringing peer production to the physical world is called Design Global, Manufacture Local (DGML). Here’s how it works: A design is created using the digital commons of knowledge, software and design, and then produced using local manufacturing and automation technologies. These can include three-dimensional printers, computer numerical control (CNC) machines or even low-tech crafts tools and appropriate technology — often in combination. The formula is: What is “light” (knowledge) is global, and what is “heavy” (physical manufacture) is local. DGML and its unique characteristics help open new, sustainable and inclusive forms of production and consumption.

Climate Crisis and the State of Disarray

By William C. Anderson - ROARMag, December 2017

We are indebted to the Earth. Our gracious host has provided us with more than enough resources to live, grow and prosper over time. But throughout history, and especially in the modern capitalist era, some have let their desire for more become a perilous dedication to conquest. The urge to make other humans, wildlife and all parts of nature submit to the will of markets, nations and empires is the rule of the day. Today, anything associated with nature or a true respect for it is regarded as soft. That which is not vulturous like the destructive economics of the reigning system is steamrolled to pave the road to unhinged expansion.

This logic of expansion and conquest undoubtedly changes the relationship between humans and their environment. In this context, the “debate” over climate change actually becomes a matter of human survival. Those who entertain climate change as a question at all have already, maybe unknowingly, chosen a side. The fact is that climate change will create more refugees and forced human migrations; it will lead to the murder of environmental activists around the world and start new resource wars; it will spread disease and destabilize everything in its path — and more. Unless capitalism’s unquenchable thirst for natural resources and the fossil fuel combustion that powers it is abandoned, the Earth will be forced to do away with humans cancerously plundering the carbon energy it has stored over millions of years of natural history.

What is most unfortunate is that capitalism, which has multi-layered discriminations encoded within it — racism, sexism, classism, and so on — affects how thoroughly people are capable of bracing for the damages wrought by climate change. Though nature is indiscriminate in its wrath, the sustained ability to protect oneself from rising temperatures and natural disasters is a privilege not all can afford. Those who are already harmed under the pitiless whims of capital are doubly hurt by the lack of protection afforded to them for life in an increasingly turbulent environment. The Global South is much more likely to feel the brunt of climate change, despite contributing much less to causing it. But even in the world’s wealthiest nations, the poor and working classes are much more vulnerable to ecological devastation.

If the people who understand the gravity of the situation want this state of affairs to cease, then the system of capitalism and the egregious consumption of the so-called First World itself must cease. That which puts all of us at risk cannot be tolerated. The vast satisfactions in wealth hoarded by a few does not outweigh the needs of the many suffering the consequences every day, as the Earth deals with malignant human behavior. The systemic drive towards excess that is pushing the planet’s carrying capacity to the brink must be brought to a halt throughout the world, but especially in the empire that exemplifies excess best: the United States of America.

Organizing on a Sinking Ship: The Future of the Climate Justice Movement

By Kevin Buckland - ROARMag, December 2017

Climate change rarely comes up at the top of the list when people are asked about issues that concern them most. While this is not surprising, it is nonetheless disturbing considering the gravity of the climate crisis. Yet the key problem of our collective negligence of the climate crisis is reflected in the question itself, rather than the answer. Let us be clear: climate change is not an “issue.” Rather, it is now the entirety of the biophysical world of which we are part. It is the physical battleground in which every “issue” is played out — and it is crumbling.

The global justice movement is one of the many actors trying to maneuver on this battlefield, and the direction it is headed in is reshaping the narratives, tactics and structures that comprise it, hinting at the future of social movement organizing on a radically transformed planet. The rules of the game have changed: welcome to the Capitalocene — goodbye to “activism-as-usual.” As the climate changes, so must movements if they are to withstand, even thrive, inside the coming cataclysm of winds, waves and wars.

Movement Cultures in the Capitalocene

As our planet rockets into a new geological epoch, we find ourselves on unfamiliar terrain. The only thing that is certain is that no one knows what will happen, and no one is in control. The rest of our lives will be defined by an exponential ecological entropy that will increasingly destabilize both the economic and political foundations upon which the modern world has been built. All bets are off. The collapse will be anything but boring.

The Capitalocene is defined partly by a disappearance of spaces of refuge: there is no escaping this problem, and nowhere to hide. We’re all in the same boat. But the boat has crashed into a drifting iceberg, and is sinking fast. Our response to the climate crisis has been to rearrange deckchairs on the Titanic, but whatever we are doing, it isn’t working. It’s time to try something new. On a sinking ship, one’s logic and frames of references must change, just as the traditional frames of the left must evolve in the emerging context of crisis. The struggle is no longer to organize the deck-chairs so that we can ensure equal access for all. Rather, the most critical question now becomes: “How can we best organize ourselves to turn as many of these deck-chairs into life rafts?”

Perhaps as obvious as the climate crisis itself has been the inability of social movements to properly organize around it. For years, the climate movement has been trapped between two discordant discourses: between changing light-bulbs and global revolution. On one hand, any action can seem minuscule and ineffective compared to a crisis as big as the entire world. On the other, deep systemic change can seem far too slow for the urgency of the crisis we face. Yet one cannot “fight climate change” in the absence of such structural transformations, for the climate crisis is itself the result of an extractivist logic based upon an exploitative relationship with the world around us. Long before the industrial revolution, the emerging capitalist world-system was fueled by the exploitation of women, people of color and entire ecosystems.

The climate crisis is the ultimate symptom of this extractivist dynamic, and is an entirely new species of crisis that requires our movements to enact an entirely different logic — including entirely different values, morals, assumptions and strategies — if we are to confront it. Confronting climate change means confronting the system and the culture that has caused it, and providing a scalable alternative. More than merely constructing a new politics to confront the “issue” of climate change, the task of the left in the Capitalocene is to cultivate new processes for engagement in politics. The culture of organizing itself becomes key.

If movements in the Capitalocene are to effectively confront this crisis, it means enacting an alternative set of values and organizational principles. The legacy may have less to do with solar panels and community gardens than with incubating scalable organizing cultures that can be shared with allies, volunteers and partners in ways that improve access to justice as we move together into an exponentially tumultuous future. It may just be these cultures, being incubated now inside globally connected movements, that will write the next chapter of human history.

Cultural revolution is not only desired; it is needed. If we fail to offer scalable discursive, tactical and structural alternatives to the extractivist logic that has created the climate crisis, capitalism may itself transform the coming wave of disruptions into its own benefit, exacerbating existent inequalities for every social and ecological “issue” as it strengthens its stranglehold of the future on a rapidly destabilizing battleground. History is speeding up. It’s time to play to win.

Defying Dystopia: Shaping the Climate Future We Want

By Nick Buxton - ROARMag, December 2017

We live in an age of dystopias on demand. Whether it’s Black Mirror, The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale, there is no limit to satiating our desires for dark, apocalyptic visions of the future. Unfortunately the scariest experience does not involve the world of the imaginary; it just requires reading the latest climate science.

In one such piece in July 2017, New York Magazine managed to pull together all the possible worst-case climate scenarios in a longread called “The Uninhabitable Earth.” Through interviews with climate scientists, it painted a world of bacterial plagues escaping from melting ice, devastating droughts and floods so frequent they are just called “weather,” and biblical-like tableaus of entire nations on the move. The piece is bleaker than the darkest of sci-fi, because there is no way of dismissing it as fiction.

Facing our fears of climate crisis is one of the biggest challenges we face as activists. Not a week goes by without warnings of an “ice apocalypse” or a “point of no return.” We are bombarded with bleak visions of the future. And it’s a challenge that we continue to struggle with — one we have mainly filled with demands for action. For a long time, the answer was to provide easy actions that people could take so they could feel empowered. But it was soon evident that no amount of energy-saving lightbulbs was going to halt the capitalist juggernaut. Now the answer, from the left at least, is that we must confront capitalism to overcome climate change. Yet this can hardly be described as an easy win, or likely to allay our fears of a dangerous future.

In the anxious void, we have often not engaged or challenged the visions of the future described by climate scientists or environmentalists. And I don’t mean questioning the science, but assessing their expectations of humanity’s response to those climate impacts. Do they accurately describe how people behave in the face of disaster? Do they countenance the idea that people might respond in a way that doesn’t fit the model of the dystopian dog-eat-dog world? Is it possible that their expectations actually serve the purpose of those determined to repress alternative futures?

Finding Pathways to a Better Future: Part 1: Where Have We Been?

By John Foran - Resilience, December 14, 2017

Unlike other ecosocialists, I have long argued that the path to radical social transformation called for the formation of the most inventive social movement the world has ever seen.  But as a scholar of twentieth-century revolutions and twenty-first century movements for radical social change, I have started to come around to the idea that the urgency of the crisis in which we find ourselves, and the lack of adequate action on all sides (myself very much included) means that we need to consider the necessity of imagining something akin to a new kind of party.  What if we rejected the binary between movement and party, elections and direct action, acted upon the urgency of the mandate for thinking in new ways, and embraced a creative synthesis of the two?  This essay will explore our predicament and the prospects for ways out of it along these lines.

The world as we know it is crashing around us.  The signs are evident, and they are everywhere:  intense, extreme storms, floods, drought, heat, rain, fire, and winds – nothing is as it was.  Politicians don’t know what to do, and the actions of so many of them seem downright cruel, vacuous, or incompetent.  The devastation of war, military operations, policing, lethal drones, and physical attacks roll over populations entirely innocent of any crime.  The slow grind of debt, privation, and daily exploitation wears on more than half of Earth’s human inhabitants.  Non-human creatures are dying out in record numbers as Earth’s systems are polluted, contaminated, and wracked by the endless extraction of fossil fuels, minerals, and the loss of healthy soil and water.

We are called, therefore.  To what, we do not know exactly.  In the face of the Anthropocene and the climate crisis, militarism and inequality, and a widespread lack of political voice it is hard to know what to do.  Very hard.

Yet it is precisely this question, this existential challenge, to which we must bring our imaginations and love, in search of the greatest transformation we are capable of conjuring up – a Great Transition of all our systems – to something whole and nourishing for the planet and for the generations of Earthly creatures to come.

The good news is that millions – perhaps billions – of us know the score, and are ready to rise or already rising to the call.  Transition initiatives, intentional communities, networks of educators, activists, and ordinary people, social movements large and small, streets of neighbors, and here and there political groupings have all emerged in recent years, determined both to block the machinery of death and to create the means of life.

It is to these beginnings of hope that we should now turn our attention.  To continue with business as usual is to slowly sink into chaos.  The time is now and the agents are us, and those around us, in every corner of the Earth.  To turn away is to go extinct. We must rise.

Market Economy: Deep Roots Of Dysfunction

By Jane Roelofs - Global Justice Center, December 2, 2017

There is nothing new in the disaster anticipated from NAFTA. The market  economy hasn’t “broken down,” or suddenly reached environmental limits. Its inherent faults are simply more clearly manifest in an age of mass communication and heightened consciousness. Here I will focus on the conflict between the market—the backbone of capitalism—and Green values.

Many people, even some socialists, believe that both trade and  commodification are beneficial. These processes, essential to the creation of a market economy, are considered progressive because they offer both more choice and a larger amount of stuff. While these effects cannot be disputed,  their hidden costs in human and environmental terms must be taken into account. In contrast to conventional economics, Green economics does not measure progress in terms of expanded production and consumption. A further supposed benefit of markets, saving of labor and increased leisure, is highly questionable. Even consumption becomes “work”: e.g., driving to a shopping mall to purchase an exercise bicycle to compensate for a sedentary lifestyle.

International markets intensify the dysfunctions, although these effects may occur whenever there is trade. We are less aware of the conditions abroad, and we feel little responsibility for the labor and environmental policies (or lack of them) of other countries. However, the practices of the developed countries, and UN agencies controlled by them (e.g., the World Bank) are often directly responsible for production conditions in other countries. An obvious example is the foreign-trained “death squad” which  targets labor organizers in Third World countries. Even without outside prodding, countries anxious for export growth will intensify exploitation of workers and destruction of the environment. The Quayle-headed “Council on Competitiveness” was an instance of this operating in a “developed” nation.

International trade, and the consequent competition for markets and raw materials, has historically been the occasion for militarism and war. This remains true today, and now includes covert actions and counter-insurgency warfare.

Time to Pull the Plugs

By Andreas Malm - ROARMag, December 2017

Our best hope now is an immediate return to the flow. CO2 emissions have to be brought close to zero: some sources of energy that do not produce any emissions bathe the Earth in an untapped glow. The sun strikes the planet with more energy in a single hour than humans consume in a year. Put differently, the rate at which the Earth intercepts sunlight is nearly 10,000 times greater than the entire energy flux humans currently muster — a purely theoretical potential, of course, but even if unsuitable locations are excluded, there remains a flow of solar energy a thousand times larger than the annual consumption of the stock of fossil fuels.

The flow of wind alone can also power the world. It has nothing like the overwhelming capacity of direct solar radiation, but estimates of the technically available supply range from one to twenty-four times total current energy demand. Other renewable sources — geothermal, tidal, wave, water — can make significant contributions, but fall short of the promises of solar and wind. If running water constituted the main stream of the flow before the fossil economy, light and air may do so after it.

Anything is possible when the multitude assembles

By Ben Trott - Red Pepper, October 25, 2017

From the Arab Spring and Occupy to the mass protests in Hong Kong in 2014, we have seen numerous recent movements and uprisings addressing people’s needs and desires, variously for democracy, for freedom, unshackling the people from the forces of reaction. And yet, they have failed to deliver on these radical desires; failed to create lasting change or a more democratic form of society. It is with this observation that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri open their compelling and provocative new book, Assembly. It confronts a history of failure that has dogged leftwing movements, often framed as a problem of ‘effectiveness’, and particularly the much-debated ‘problem of leadership’. Hardt and Negri root their analysis in contemporary social reality, asking the question – given these historic disappointments, what should a new left do if it is not altogether to abandon faith in social movements?

Hardt and Negri’s best-known book, Empire, was published at the turn of the century, just after the alter-globalisation movement had taken to the streets of Seattle, disrupting the World Trade Organisation’s ministerial meeting. It argued that nation-states had become unable to guarantee and regulate capitalist production and accumulation, which were becoming truly global following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of the Chinese economy. According to the authors, sovereignty itself was shifting to the global level of Empire itself: a network of supranational organisations (including the WTO), transnational corporations, state and non-state actors.

One of the book’s distinctive characteristics was its break with what Walter Benjamin, and more recently the political theorist Wendy Brown, have described as ‘left melancholia’. This is the tendency for some on the left to attach themselves to particular political ideas – and even to the failure of these ideas – rather than seizing the present possibilities for transformation. By offering a radical re-thinking of democracy, and indeed of communism, Empire served as an antidote to left melancholia at the supposed ‘end of history’ – the moment when all thought of political alternatives have been rendered useless or meaningless by the overwhelming power of the contention that ‘There Is No Alternative’ to capitalism.

It cast the emerging Empire as destructive, but resisted nostalgia for earlier forms of domination. Moreover, it argued that ‘the multitude’, or the labour that animated the ‘postmodern’ global economy, worked in increasingly creative and collaborative ways, and that the multitude itself could potentially become capable of creating a ‘counter-Empire’, inventing new democratic forms and ‘an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges.’

Assembly follows their books Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2009) in developing some of Empire’s arguments and conceptual categories, although it dedicates comparatively little space to geopolitics and global order. It offers instead the authors’ most detailed discussion of the present prospects for transformation, and in light of the movements that have emerged since the global crisis of 2007/8. Its chapters are punctuated by ‘calls’ and ‘responses’ that present an approach to thinking how the multitude can assemble more effectively. And indeed, how it can ‘take power’, not by winning elections but through the invention of new institutional forms, and through cooperation in social production.

Raj Patel on How to Break Away from Capitalism

By Chris Winters - Yes! Magazine, October 23, 2017

Capitalism has been the world’s dominant economic system for more than 700 years. And as it brings the planet to new crises, author Raj Patel believes it’s important to imagine what might replace it.

But reform won’t happen unless we understand capitalism’s appeal and historical rise, says Patel, a food justice activist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s remarkably resilient and can be traced to a process he calls “cheapness.”

Together with Binghamton University professor Jason W. Moore, he has written The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things (University of California Press, 2017), which aims to put it all together for us. The seven “things” of the title aren’t physical objects as much as they are a hidden social, ecological and economic infrastructure: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. The point being that cheapness is a process of responding to economic crises by devaluing each of those forces so that capitalism can continue to concentrate wealth in the hands of the already-wealthy. In that sense, “cheap nature” refers to the way in which land and its resources are systematically given away to businesses for exploitation, “cheap work” refers to slavery and other anti-worker tactics that keep wages low, and so on.

Capitalism values cheapness above all else. And through this lens, Patel and Moore explore the evolution of capitalism from its roots in the late medieval period with the collapse of feudalism in Western Europe caused by climate change and the Black Death to—now.

Raj Patel spoke with YES! Magazine senior editor Chris Winters in Seattle. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Let’s Own Everything Together

By Jacob Stringer - P2P Foundation, October 24, 2017

We live in times of high political turbulence. Surveying flailing governments from Spain to the United States, it seems a good moment to face up to the evidence of system failures that face us. Millions going to food banks or unable to afford decent housing in the richest countries in the world reveals a systems failure. An epidemic of mental health problems reveals a systems failure. An inability to deal with climate change reveals a systems failure. A constant anger at government and at the institutions of government, channelled – largely ineffectually – through ballot boxes, reveals a systems failure.

Why systems are failing

What is visibly failing is management of large scale societies, management of us, by those who seldom fully understand our problems, management regimes too big to adapt as needed. It is not stated often enough that we live in a heavily managed society. Yet people instantly understand what is meant by this: they have experience of being managed. Sometimes we are managed well, sometimes badly, but at some point in a large system, the former state will always give way to the latter. Eventually a sense of lost control comes over us all. We must take back control, we feel. It is hard to know how, hard to know who to target, for no leaders or parties seem to return power to us.

Many see that capital has become a dominant force in these large systems, re-shaping our cities, our very lives, flinging aside humans as detritus of the development process. As a solution we are constantly offered better management. We can keep casting around for better managers, but as the ‘Accidental Anarchist’ Carne Ross has been arguing, we live in complex systems that cannot successfully be controlled from the top down. The point is not to simply be angry with the managers for doing the wrong things, or for being the wrong managers, or for not advantaging us rather than others in these huge dynamic networks around us. Intention anyway becomes lost in such large systems. It’s true that some managers do transfer wealth from poor to rich, and others attempt to do the opposite. But each of the managers fails at some point, often fatally undermining any good work they have done. Perhaps it’s time to start entertaining a new line of thought: perhaps we should stop asking to be managed.

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