Written specially for Vikalp Sangam
With a focus on education centred around indigenous ecological knowledge while empowering children, their parents and the local community, the Kaigal Education and Environment programme (KEEP) is a unique community based environmental education programme. KEEP began as a programme under the Krishnamurti Foundation India (KFI) in the regions adjoining the Kaundinya Wildlife Sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district run by the Foundation for Education Ecology and Livelihood ( FEEL for Earth). Since 2002, KEEP has collaborated with the Yanadi tribal community in the region to work on education that is contextual to the community. Through FEEL for Earth’s programs, conservation is led by the community through Ex Situ Conservation and encouraging livelihoods that protect and nourish the local ecology of the region while nurturing the tribe’s rich knowledge of the forest.
As a former student of Dr Sudha Premnath, the founder of KEEP, and having visited the Sanctuary Schools and other Programmes run by KEEP, I explore the ingredients required for a successful education that is contextual to the community and education that is centred around a love for nature and protecting biodiversity. With the climate crisis, rampant environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and cultural erosion, programmes like KEEP give me hope about having a future where youth can celebrate nature, actively participate in democracy by being responsible citizens, practice stewardship of the land and protect the environment.
In 1997, the Government of India gave the Krishnamurthi Foundation of India 200 acres in the Kaigal village right outside the Kaundinya Wildlife Sanctuary. The land was a degraded scrub jungle by the Kaigal river that led to a beautiful waterfall. The Valley School in Bangalore took the responsibility to take care of the land and started learning initiatives there that encouraged forest conservation and environmental education in collaboration with the local community. In April 1999, after the final exams, Sudha aunty took 13 of her 11th standard environmental studies students on a field visit to Kaigal. While the students camped in a single hut without any electricity or basic amenities, little did they know that this trip would lead to a lifelong relationship with the people of Kaigal, a community conservation programme and a small business that empowers the youth and women of Kaigal.
The trip’s objective was to observe and understand basic environmental concepts practically like populations and communities in an ecosystem, tree diversity, species diversity and more. Sudha aunty was clear that for ecological studies and conservation to happen, the local people have to be at the centre of the project. “If you’re going to work in a forest area and are interested in rejuvenating degraded land and restoring a forest, local people need to be involved in the project.” The students undertook a 3-day door to door socio-economic survey and collected data through interviews with the community. This fieldwork enabled establishing a friendship and personal connection with the village. The villagers were enthusiastic that teachers and students had come to learn with and from the village.
Sudha aunty continued to take her students to Kaigal for projects that studied tree diversity, birds, water bodies, communities and livelihoods. The locals and students together participated in these projects to document the knowledge of the region’s biodiversity and develop solutions to improve life for the people and the ecosystem. The teachers, students, and villagers began a research project on non-timber forest resources and an afforestation project. One of the villagers, Subbarayappa from the nearby Mugilupodalarevu village, suggested, “See, I will tell you some important trees you must grow – I will bring the saplings from the forest. Jalarimanu (this has fragrant flowers, good to grow), Bajji manga (good for lactating mothers and cattle), Karakkai, Thandra (both medicinal), Dhupam, Errapolichi”. One of the field coordinators with the students and teachers loved this idea and went with the villagers to the forests and gathered saplings which led to the starting of the community afforestation and conservation programme. Over the years, the locals, students and teachers have worked with scientists and communities to document biodiversity, build germplasm banks and initiate a participatory conservation programme. The work has impacted 26000 people over ecosystems covering 14000 hectares across 60 villages in and around the Kaigal region.
Sudha aunty’s friends and colleagues encouraged her to submit a proposal and apply for grants from the United Nations Environment Programme to continue doing the work at a larger scale. In 2002, The Kaigal Education and Environment Programme (KEEP) was founded. It has a Conservation Center in Kaigal village on the fringes of the Kaundinya Wildlife Sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh, consisting of a Seed Bank, a Forest Nursery, an Educational Resource and Training Center. The centre is now located in a beautiful forested land with the Kaigal river flowing through. KEEP focuses on initiating conservation work, providing training to youth and women to acquire skills for a livelihood, and starting schools for marginalised communities.
When I visited Kaigal in 2017 as part of KEEP, my fondest memories of my time there was at the Kaligutta Sanctuary school where I spent days with tribal children as they taught me how to make balls from lantana flowers, pick Nongus (Ice Apples) and sing and dance to folk songs about nature spirits. I was in awe of these middle school children’s knowledge about their surrounding ecosystems, their food (where it can be foraged, how it can be grown, which season is it available), and their deep connection to and reverence for nature. This was in deep contrast to my city-dwelling self, my younger cousins or middle school children who are often discouraged or don’t have access to this knowledge and natural spaces.
J. Krishnamurthi said, “If you lose your relationship with nature, you lose your relationship with humanity.”
The Sanctuary Schools around Kaigal began after Subbarayapa asked Sudha aunty and her team in 2003, “You are talking to us about seeds and forests – can you do something for our children?”. Similarly, Duggeppa from Kaligutta, a village 17 kilometres away, requested, “Teach our children, well, teach them about the forests”. Duggeppa cleared his goat shed to make space for a learning corner for children, the Kaligutta Sanctuary School. The Sanctuary Schools began as non-formal learning centres in 5 villages, and they transformed themselves into registered primary schools in Mugilupodalarevu and Kalligutta in 2008. Nagamma, a healer and a wise elder of the Kaligutta village, shared that two pieces of land were available. One would be used for the school and the other for the temple. The local community believes that education is as sacred as the places of worship. The villagers cleared out goat sheds, made fences and walls with Lantana sticks, and these are used as the schools. With this prestigious responsibility, Sudha aunty and the teaching team envisioned the Sanctuary Schools to be a space that simultaneously affirms their knowledge and way of life and encourages a culturally responsive, inclusive, contextually relevant learning environment for the community. The Schools are believed to be community-owned spaces where children and individuals can go on a learning journey and a path of self-development in an environment free from fear.
The schools are called Sanctuary Schools. The name comes from how the schools cater to the children of remote tribal villages situated on the fringes of the only elephant inhabited forest in Andhra Pradesh, the Kaudinya Wildlife Sanctuary. The main goal was that tribal children who do not have school education should be provided with meaningful learning opportunities and quality education. When it comes to education, tribal children are often ignored, and their learning and childhood development is not prioritised. In the region, tribal children have also faced more discrimination in government and public schools. The Sanctuary Schools hope to help children grow into healthy, happy and responsible adults.
About 50 students in the age group of 3 to 14 attend the 2 Sanctuary Schools. The schools are registered under the Right to Education Act (2009) and are staffed by qualified teachers, and operate in two tribal villages of Kalligutta and Mugilupodarevu. Education is free, and all the teachers are from the locality. Youth who graduated from high school were trained to become teachers and obtained B.Ed college degrees. This training process facilitated livelihood creation as well.
Students are grouped according to their learning level, and classes are conducted in mixed-age groups. The child’s first language is the language of instruction, and the pedagogy is based on exploratory activities to construct knowledge. The curriculum and activities have been developed to draw from the child’s and the community knowledge of the local environment, and the classroom encourages peer learning rather than one-way teacher to student learning.
Experiential learning is prioritised, integrating local ecology with the subjects taught. Textbooks are utilised only in Grade 5. The child’s autonomy is respected, and child-centred approaches like the Montessori and Kindergarten method are adapted. The living world is used as the classroom and is not limited to the textbook. Activities like forest walks, seed collections, and documenting biodiversity structured into the children’s schedule allows students to share their knowledge with teachers and changed the direction of classroom discourse. Community members share their experiences and knowledge through scheduled resource activities with students. Creativity is encouraged among students and teachers through activities like art, craft, pottery, music for self-expression. The schools also encourage community service, silence, reflection, introspection and creative pursuits for children and adults alike. Parents take children to the forest and introduce them to plants in the forest study classes as part of the curriculum. Teachers have the autonomy and flexibility to learn and explore with the students. The curriculum evolves regularly based on the participatory design of the materials with teachers, resource persons and educators with similar learning experiences within a context. Children in the schools are encouraged to participate in events outside their village through structured academic experiences, arts, sports, and trips. Personalised learning plans and continuous individualised assessments are used to progress in their learning journey. Skill-based work like macrame, stitching connected to local women’s enterprises were introduced for students and teachers to understand the value of meaningful work.
Most of the children continue their studies after age 12 by joining a Government High School – day school. Few students complete their education through NIOS with support from the Sanctuary School teachers.
Sudha aunty believes that to address the challenges of sustainable development, we need a fresh perspective on education that offers opportunities to fall in love with nature and develop a sense of wonder. Feelings for forests and wonder are best created when children spend quiet time in nature and develop an understanding of the natural world. This also enables appreciation for the ways of life of different communities and creates an inclusive learning environment for learners. The Sanctuary Schools facilitate this kind of education through their educational principles.
Sudha aunty shared that “When children are educated in schools, they should feel proud of their parents, which empowers them. We have not been sensitive to children from tribal communities while writing textbooks, developing learning materials, and structuring lessons. Invariably you will find geography textbooks describing Indian farmers as uneducated, primitive, poverty-stricken as if they have no knowledge and don’t know natural farming. These farmers, especially tribals, have abundant knowledge about seeds, seasons, tubers, medicinal plants, herbs, wildflowers, millets and more. Children should be proud of their parents, and schools should facilitate this through education, and it is time education systems value this traditional knowledge.”
In 2008, the Environment Education Programme began for students from cities aged 6-18, who took 3-5 day trips to Kaigal, to bring new perspectives to environmental education apart from what is offered in the mainstream curriculums. Mainstream environmental studies curriculums are centralised and textbook-based rather than being experiential.
Sudha Aunty questioned why pollution is the first topic students in schools study under environmental studies. She shared, “Pollution is not the environment; pollution comes under sociology; it is man-made.” Textbook based ecological learning that is centralised often does more harm than good. She gives the example of how we learn about flowers in schools; we mostly see the photos of commercially grown flowers or invasive species in our textbooks rather than local endemic species like wildflowers. There is a disconnect for children, “The moment you go to school, you stop learning because you’re reading things you cannot relate to.”
She shares that “Instilling an environmental consciousness will never happen with textbooks and examinations. It will happen when schools and educators teach about beauty, the intricacy, the complexity of the environment, and nature’s rhythms. You cannot teach the rhythms of nature; you need to see, experience, feel, hear and be present with nature.”
In the environmental education programme, groups of 15-20 children and 2-3 teachers participate in forest walks and sessions on forest biodiversity with local tribal elders. Children learn activities like mapping land use, documenting biodiversity on nature walks, making seed balls from native species for dispersal and collecting seeds and saplings for a forest nursery. The importance of land stewardship is instilled through tending to the land, a day spent with local farmers on their farm, learning from women from their self-help groups supporting sustainable enterprises.
The programme is coordinated and facilitated by the teachers from the Sanctuary Schools, members from the Kaigal Trust – a community enterprise based on local bio-resources. This eclectic team manages the programme’s conservation and livelihood generation activities.
When I went to Kaigal for the Environmental Education Programme with my high school class, it was interesting how, in the beginning, my classmates felt fear because of being in the heart of nature without technology and the hustle-bustle of the city. This restlessness transitioned into calmness, wonder and awe as we participated in activities. Swimming in streams and waterfalls, hanging out with local farmers, playing with children who had an abundance of knowledge about their ecosystem, feeling the earth and making seed balls, eating locally grown food, spending quiet time under the moon or by the blue sky to reflect and introspect and deepen connections with nature.
The Kaigal Environmental Education Programmes are designed depending on the duration, age group of students, season, local conditions, and activities during the visit. Younger kids play and revel in nature and deepen their connection, and older children realise the threat to biodiversity and the impacts of the climate crisis. Children recognise the importance of conservation and connect the ties between environmental justice and social justice.
The programmes cater to students from 14 schools in India, including Peepal Grove, Bangalore Steiner School, Prakriya Green Wisdom School and Shibumi. Feel for Earth continues to work with the Yanadi knowledge holders who share their stories about their land, culture, and traditional livelihoods. The Yanadi people collaborated with teachers and students to document the vegetation diversity and deep understandings of the ecosystem. An extensive conservation programme ranging from Ex-situ conservation, collaborative knowledge building, biodiversity documentation and conservation in local governance has become part of the local community responsibility and life.
The Kaigal Education and Environment Programme is a fantastic example of an alternative that brings together knowledge systems and centres the community from the start. Education, Livelihood, Conservation, Skills, Ecology, Equity and Justice, must be at the heart of solutions protecting biodiversity and supporting indigenous communities.
Alternatives to the State- the march from the Kumanday and Cali-Colombia bio-territories for all the worlds
By Patricia Botero-Gómez
Youths, women, peoples fighting socio-territorial struggles and they all disobeyed the order imposed in the midst of the pandemic and took to the streets. In Colombia, the massive national strikes of young people and their mothers seems to indicate that we are starting to question the destructive structures that are ruining both the human and natural world. They also enable us to transit and re-imagine a world in which many worlds fit.
The theories of steps, Socioterritorial theories in movement (TStM), is a movement that is reformulating the questions and expanding the meanings of democracy, moving further from the configuration of alternative States to the transfiguration of alternatives to the State of things. It is working for the de-patriarchalization of the world and re-establishing the more than human relationship (Akomolafe, 2017, XXIII) .
In the face of biological and media warfare, mainly what is at stake is a war of imaginaries that mixes fictions and realities with sordid arguments. What is collapsing? How do we identify the roots and the machinery of the impoverishment and annihilation of the life of human and more than human generations? What factors would allow us to organize ourselves autonomously?
We could affirm, from the studies carried out with communities, collectives, peoples in re-existences, that generations in movement and generational movements anticipate the spirit of the time, announce new worlds while denouncing the crimes and tyranny of the global-nationalist-State, a model emptied of meaning for the peoples when it maintains the neoextractivist, alienating, patriarchal and recolonizing gear of the world. The grounded process assert the need of emergent processes that are making ® evolutions-re (in) volutions to de-patriarchalize the power taken for granted.
The gear of the system speaks in its own paradigmatic monologue that is putting any argument into the framework of growth and employment and strives to maintain the status quo. In this context, young people in Colombia are asking for more than reform. They are denouncing the political-electoral businesses that steal the educational, health, and work possibilities. Studying is useless; the networks affirm that it is easier to die young than to die old; and, in the midst of the lack of life expectancy for young people, the streak vindicates the institutional discredit that we have seen for more than three decades as apathy towards the State on the part of the new generations. In this way, their interpellations seem to make the collapse of the dominant power structures more visible than the assertion of Leviathan.
What strategies are being configured in the electoral plan of the so-called post-politics that creates chaos to become necessary in the maintenance of order and rotten power? How do we face the co-option of dreams reduced to employment and the Euro-centrist welfare state?
It is important to highlight that, despite the turn to the Latin American left between 2009-2021, no progressive government specified the aspirational contents of their plurinational constitutions and the socio-territorial state of law. The national development plans in a global network of neo-extractive politics are tools of the colonial State. The multicultural state offers the Prior-informed free consent but maintains the sale of the subsoil as a general interest over the communal.
Some practices that constitute examples of politics in everyday life have been manifested in the march, such as buying locally and directly from the peasant, without the intermediaries of the large supermarkets and monopolistic food agribusiness. This has made it possible to guarantee food autonomy and increase the urban gardens in the neighborhoods. It has also enabled people to care for the young people on the front line that the State is massacring.
The communities affirm that “employment is not the same as work”. We have seen that in the territories of life there is work and payment when there are seeds. The small-scale farming nurtures the collective and is life sustaining.
Currently, the deepest and most forceful sub-alternatives consist of returning to the earth to sow poly-cultures and to sow ourselves in eco-communities. These contemporary philosophical practices have called on us to create alternatives to the State. It can be done through weaving together peoples, collectives and our own organizations in order to find other ways to take care of ourselves and protect ourselves. It will be especially important to ally ourselves with the people who are sowing eco-communities in the middle of the destruction. They who invent new millenary worlds, weaving on a small scale , in the most intimate. This is the place where the deepest transformations take place .
It is easy, however, to make visible the insecurity produced by the ”security” offered by the State. For this reason “we all take care of each other“,”No one saves anyone, “we all save each other” . It also means that we must demolish any institutional form of subordination.
The alternatives to the State, to the electoral representative democracy, enable us to get new perspectives and inspiration. They allow us to see how the oppressive civilization model could be brought down, and with it the colonization, looting, usurpation and dispossession of local communities, indigneous peoples, and the rest of nature.
It smells of times of dictatorship in Latin America; Juvenicide, infanticide and massacres are all results of the unviable model that democracy at the ballot box has to offer. How do we create courts that do not merely judge individuals but the system that produces them? And more than that, what transformations our courts need to truly repair the damage caused by the series of historical injustices?
Communities on the margins and peripheries are precarious, usurped and dispossessed, but they also represent forms of resistance and re-existence. There are many examples of how they have managed to marginalize the system, expand the meanings of economy and democracy and move beyond an anthropocentric class society. Through networking, communal processes and through weaving together different political practices (Anzaldúa & Keating , 2002), communities continue to open the way for the politics of life and hope .
So we exist in small weavings, in different forms and in many places, in small revolutions of everyday life. You can create new possible ways of life that do not confront, but escape from the dominating powers.
We create a new place to live life not only because we do not agree with others, or because we live in many worlds and realities; but also, because there are no more ways to support the unsustainability in the relationship of subordinate power and power of domination. It is not a mere ontological conflict, but also a situation of exploitation and destruction which denies the possible existence of communities and the earth.
For these reasons, we found our way back to the ancestral word empalencarnos We flee from the power of domination to a creative power (divergent from thought, feeling and forms of life) that is able to dismantle the macrostructures of powers of domination.
There is a place to live in small tissues that do not go through the rights, disciplines, institutions and normative worlds that avoid the risk to yet again be assimilated, usurped, raped, eliminated or victimized.
These non-colonial languages come from the millenary philosophical practices of a non-colonized place that still survives and becomes contemporary by alternative ways of creating, feeling, thinking and being.
As we underline it with María Campo in the Tissue of Transients in the Geographical Valley of the Cauca River and the Group of Academics and Intellectuals in Defence of the Colombian Pacific (Gaidepac).
 The word more than human comes from the African philosophies and the diaspora in the world, in which the divinities are found on earth, in the same way, in the philosophical practices of the Abya Yala peoples, relationships with non-human beings They are part of the ancestral resistances that survive between times and between their own maps, see for example, minga of images in the PLMT (2020). To enlarge, see the page and the documentaries in The Process of Liberation of Mother Earth in the north of Cauca, Colombia. https://www.google.com/search?q=Minga+de+im%C3%A1genes+en+el+PLMT+(2020).&oq=Minga+de+im%C3%A1genes+en+el+PLMT+ (2020). & Aqs = chrome..69i57.2445949j0j7 & sourceid = chrome & ie = UTF-8
 We need to inhabit the State, and we build indicators from authonomic resistances, see Almendra (2017) and conversations in Unitierra (junio 1 y 2 de 2021).
 CCPLI, acronym for free and informed prior consultation and consent. From the community councils and popular demands, multiple sentences are reported that have been breached, such as T-227/17 (dispossession in the ex-garbage of Navarro), Anchicayá sentences that still in impunity.
 Marichuy mandate from the National Indigenous Council in the nude of electoral politics in Mexico, 2018. Unitierras Seminar (2017-current) “Beyond capitalism, patriarchy and democracy”.
 Weaving sentipensares, resonances from the heart of the Atis and their breeding practices in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. You talk with Nora Día, Maestro Narciso Ramos, Jesús Ortiz, Aldo Ramos, Natalia Giraldo in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Cosmos and ancestral poetics, animating the possibilities of pluriversity in the black line.
 See pluriversal Politics (Escobar, 2020).
Afro-descendant, black, palenqueras and raizales women in the Oriente Network, especially, mobilizations of the women of the Casa Cultural el Chontaduro in Santiago de Cali, see also,
CONPA Afro-descendant National Peace Council.
 As the weaving of Collectives from University of Land, Caldas and southwestern Colombian (2017) re-writings politics of life and hope.
 There are words that have no translation for the languages of the colonizer because in their world these realities do not exist. For example, the palenques are territories of freedom created as a place of escape-flight by Afro-descendant peoples, Palenqueros, Negroes, Raizal in times of enslavement, still updating themselves in deterritorialization in a new extractive model and collapse of civilizational ways of life.
Akomolafe, Adebayo C., Asante Molefi, Kate, & Nwoye, Augustine. 2017. We Will Tell Own Story. New York: Universal Right Publication.
Akomolafe, Adebayo C. 2017. These Wilds Beyond Our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home. California: North Atlantic Books.
Almendra, Vilma. 2017. Entre la emancipación y la captura. Memorias y caminos desde la lucha Nasa en Colombia. México, D. F.: Barricadas.
Anzaldúa, Gloria Evangelina, & Keating, Ana Louise. 2002. This Bridge We Call Home. Radical Visions of Transformation. New York: Routledge.
Anzaldúa, Gloria Evangelina. 1987. Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Escobar, Arturo. 2020. Pluriversal Politics. The Real and the Possible. Durham, Carolina del Norte, EE. UU.: Duke University Press.
Tejido de Colectivos-Unitierra escribanía por: Botero, P.,. Márquez, L., Duque, L., Pillimué, L. Rojas, S. (2017). Políticas de la esperanza: políticas de vida-políticas poéticas más acá del capitalismo y el estado. En: Encina, J. Et.al. Autogestión Autonomía e Interdependencia. Construyendo colectivamente lo común en el disenso. Autonomias, autogestión e independencias. Sevilla: Volapük. pp: 345-377
by Justin Kenrick1) and Eva Schonveld2), from Grassroots to Global Assemblies
Climate chaos is symptomatic of a system of domination—an expression of the violence of inequality. The climate chaos that we are witnessing makes it inescapably clear that dominating others harms oneself, and that this system of domination will inevitably end—whether through ecological disasters or our collective action.
The current global temperature rise is 1.2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and already, climate impacts are multiplying exponentially. To aim and limit global temperatures increase to 1.5 degrees C or 2 degrees C is to aim at runaway feedback loops. We need to get back as close as possible to the safe pre-industrial levels. This will be impossible if we continue with the same system that is destroying biodiversity and human lifeways (as it tries and fails to reduce our emissions). We need to rapidly abandon the current system which is based on the exploitation of others.
How do we rapidly and safely abandon this system of domination?
This isn’t a matter of needing new technologies or new policies, persuading politicians or identifying culprits, dreaming of utopias or imagining that realism means trying to tweak the system we have.
We need to start from somewhere else entirely.
This system has sold us a dream of a utopia that can never exist.
‘Utopia’ means non-place, and that is exactly the deception our current system is based on—exploiting others and dumping our waste in out-of-sight non-places. Of course, there are no non-places—all places are real and impacted, including the invisible atmosphere.
Recently, US climate envoy John Kerry said that 50 percent of the carbon emission reductions needed to get to net zero will come from technology not yet invented. The shiny new policy ‘Nature Based Solutions’ translates into realpolitik as ‘appropriate indigenous lands as emission dumps so we can continue business as usual’. It is clear that the system’s solutions are utopian. Meanwhile, its impacts are being faced by real people—the poorest are hit first and hardest.
The rapidly narrowing path to retaining and regaining a liveable earth starts from real places and from deepening the connections between them: To resist, subvert and compost the non-place utopianism of the ‘global’.
Grassroots to Global (G2G) assemblies emerged in Scotland out of our experience of trying to enable change within the current system. That engagement has taught us a lot about why the dominant system is incapable of making the changes so urgently needed, and also about how change really takes place.
Start from where you are: Scotland and Extinction Rebellion
We are writing from the perspective of our ‘place’, Scotland, and specifically from the small town of Portobello, long swallowed up by the city of Edinburgh but lately starting to reassert its autonomy.
For a couple of decades, we championed the Transition Town movement trying to help communities wean themselves off oil, as a contribution towards a society- and planet-wide transition. However, after realising over time that governments wouldn’t even recognise the emergency (let alone act), we were delighted to join others to form Extinction Rebellion (XR) Scotland. We took to the streets with our own democratically-decided demands for the Scottish Government to (1) tell the truth about the climate crisis (“and commit to enabling a rapid and just transition to a sustainable and fair society”), (2) reduce emissions to zero by 2025 (“including by replacing a system based on accelerating consumption with one based on ensuring the wellbeing of all”) and (3) create a Scottish climate citizens assembly to decide the changes (“as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose and a society that cares for all”).
Perhaps, unlike XR United Kingdom, which saw climate change as an existential threat that required buy-in from across the political spectrum, the three demands of XR Scotland were focused on utterly transforming the system.
And, to some degree, we were very successful.
Despite all other parties voting down a Scottish Green Party call for the declaration of a climate emergency in March 2019, the school strikes and XR Scotland’s April actions led to the Scottish Government declaring a climate emergency soon after. We campaigned for a climate citizens assembly, including by occupying the Scottish Parliament debating chamber, and in September 2019 we secured Government backing for the same.
Change from within? The Scottish Climate Citizens Assembly process
Between March and October 2020, two G2G organisers were the XR Scotland reps on the stewarding group shaping the Scottish Government’s Climate Citizens Assembly. We joined because we had agreement from the civil servants that the assembly would be able to listen to the science, decide what level of response was needed, and would be able to decide for themselves on the causes and solutions. We pulled out of the assembly in October 2020 as it became clear that assembly members were not going to be allowed to neither assess the science nor assess the economic drivers.
However, we still tried to have an impact from the outside—occupying the roof of the parliament to try and draw assembly members’ attention to our ten minute video summarising the evidence they had heard. In the end, their recommendations were a scattering of dozens of good ideas, rather than coherently directed at system change (as they might have been with a more enlightened process). This was no surprise, given that the Assembly was, in effect, shaped and chaperoned by civil servants and their advisers who—however well-meaning—are committed to upholding, rather than transforming, the status quo. In an interview after the assembly process was finished, the academic in charge of deciding what evidence the assembly should consider remarked that he was surprised they had only given members 10 or 20 minutes to assess the science (when we had been absolutely clear that they needed a full weekend of a seven weekend process); this reminded us just how deeply unconscious that bias towards retaining rather than challenging the status quo can be.
In contrast, climate scientist Kevin Anderson remarked on his experience of the assembly that, unlike experts, ordinary citizens are not biased towards one line of expertise, and so, is far better at assessing policy options. What became clear was that 100 ordinary citizens (a randomly selected representative sample of the population) were far better at deciding policy than experts and better at reaching agreement than politicians, albeit within the limits imposed on them:
“The fact that it’s random means you break the link with vested interests… If you choose people that aren’t the usual suspects, who aren’t typically politically engaged, what we find is that people are aware of their own lack of information and take their role very seriously. They’re really willing and open to change their minds and change their opinions.” – Brett Henning
De-traumatising Politics through Engaged listening
So, G2G emerged out of our experience in Scotland of making demands of government and finding them incapable of changing their ways. Alongside the Climate Assembly process, we were developing an approach to politics that is trauma-aware: Aware of the ways that our system traumatises those who become wielders of power as well as those on the receiving end of the violence that power wields.
Instead of seeking change within this trauma-driven system, and instead of reacting to it in a way that replaces it with yet another trauma-driven set of players, how can we create the safety to dismantle the system, and to decolonise our politics? Here, we are using ‘decolonisation’ to refer to the need to acknowledge and dismantle the ways a system of domination operates between us and within us.
This approach was encapsulated in an article ‘Politics, Trauma and Empathy: Breakthrough to a politics of the heart?’ Politics needs to meet our real needs and bring out the best in us, not be in thrall to a traumatised impotence wielding a fantasy of power. To enable this, we need to develop ways of meeting with each other and deciding together—ways that are not only anti-oppressive but trauma-aware.
To that end, in early 2020, we put our climate focus to one side, and reached out to understand how others experience the systemic crisis we face. We planned to reach out to others in all manners of unlikely ‘non-political’ spaces (including outside football grounds) to undertake an ‘engaged listening’ process. We did this in order to better-shape the invitations to local or city-wide Peoples Assemblies on our way to building towards an international Fractal Assembly just prior to COP26 (there’s a toolkit if you want to do your own here).
Then, COVID-19 swept in and we decided to preface the three questions we had intended to ask with one about what people would like to keep from the COVID-19 period, and what they would never like to experience again. The three questions we asked were “What are the biggest challenges facing us? Why are they happening? How can we tackle them?” The responses were profoundly honest about the crises, about inequality, about what work matters, about vulnerability, and about how fast society can change. The team we developed interviewed over a hundred people, a cross section of society in Scotland, and what was clear was that the early COVID-19 and lockdown period enabled peoples to see three things:
The inequality of a system where key workers are paid a pittance,
That health, care, community, and nature matter far more than excess money and status, and
That unimaginable change can happen overnight (even if lockdowns were badly handled).
Reworlding Gathering: assembling a politics of wholeness
While retaining our feet on the ground here in Scotland, we have reached out to learn from others struggles, including through developing strong links with Global processes such as Global Tapestry of Alternatives (GTA), and participating in GTA’s excellent events at the 2021 World Social Forum. From September 2020, we interviewed a huge range of people engaged in transformative politics, building international connections and developing a powerful methodology which shaped the ‘Reworlding Gathering’ (May 2021) on ‘assembling a politics of wholeness’. These brought together enduring indigenous and emerging transformative approaches, focused on how and why deliberative democracy can transform representative systems, as well as oppose authoritarian ones.
The learnings from the Reworlding process were at two levels: Process and Substance.
Process: In contrast to a normal activist, academic, campaigning or political conference gathering, where there are parallel sessions for people to choose between, punctuated by ‘more important’ single plenaries, the process and shape of Reworlding was 15 sessions (or ‘streams’) over 5 days, feeding into the 2-hour daily reflective sessions (the ‘river’) which received and processed the learning from the streams. Participants could attend everything, but if they were to attend the ‘river’ they needed to commit to attending it for all 5 days. So, instead of the crucial aspect being ‘important’ people only having the time to make it to the plenaries they are presenting in, the crucial aspect was determined simply by commitment to reflecting on the streams and deeply listening to each other.
Substance: Even over a month after ‘Reworlding’, it is very hard to summarise the multifaceted nature of the core extraordinary learning from both indigenous enduring and emerging experimental experience, which is that a politics that works is way simpler and more challenging than we had realised. A politics of wholeness is about:
Presence, patience and proximity: Not passing power to anyone else to decide for us, but instead gathering in place to deeply consider the issues, (i) being willing to bring our whole complex selves, gathering as whole human beings, not as representatives of anyone else—let alone a movement or party; (ii) having the patience to listen deeply to each other, to prioritise voices that are usually marginalised, to out-listen or work to defuse the trauma of those who seek to dominate, and to be aware of impacts on non-present others, until (iii) a clear and coherent response/way forward surfaces that everyone (except those generating division for their own ends) is in agreement with.
Place and Peoples assemblies: Recognising the importance of embodied experience, that the personal is utterly political, that everything happens in place, that locality is reality, and globalism is often a move to appropriate power. Key here was hearing about the anti-patriarchal struggle and peoples assemblies in Chile, and how when Chile voted earlier in May to elect members of a constitutional convention to decide the post-Pinochet constitution, so many of those elected came to prominence through the assemblies, and the majority were pro-feminist.
Time and making molten moments: One huge unexpected theme was the crucial role of time. For example, a seven-generations awareness of ancestors and future generations in indigenous decision-making can enable decisions to be made in the context of a far broader sweep of human experience. At the same time, the emerging focus on precarious future generations in historically colonizing societies opens up a similar awareness of the need and possibility of enabling a decision-making molten moment where protest against a politics of theft becomes a proactive replacement of it. This molten-ness of time is experiential: Each word and action resounds and aligns, and a vast amount can be achieved in an objectively short period. We will continue to explore the potential impacts of different experiences of time in assemblies.
Navigating Power: Stories of how success within the current system turns to dust the ability of the ‘successful’ to sustain real relationships (instead retreating into shrunken ego-based ones) abounded. In terms of navigating power within failing representative democracies, one strategy that emerged was to develop peoples assemblies at the local level that are built around genuine need-meeting (maintaining public services that are being closed, ensuring food or energy production and sharing, ensuring safety, child care or elderly care etc.) that may link with others to create city-wide or region-wide alliances. These assemblies also create parallel de-trauamatizing power structures that engage existing ones only in order to draw on the healthy aspects within them and to eventually replace them. Such processes within failing representative democracies could also help provide the leverage and support to those navigating power in increasingly authoritarian contexts. In the end, we cannot get through our current and near-future emergencies unless we all get through, by enabling a molten moment of decision making that ends a system based on the exploitation of others. There is no future for anyone without it being a future that takes care of everyone.
Next Steps: Local, city wide and international assemblies
Scotland: COVID-19 meant a delay in organising the face-to-face Peoples Assemblies we had planned, but ground-level preparation for these are now well underway as we enter an experimental phase with very different peoples assembly processes in parts of Aberdeen and Edinburgh, and in an exploratory way in Glasgow. The enforced delay has allowed us to further develop a facilitation approach that is anti-oppression and trauma-aware, and a decolonisation approach to meetings. In relation to navigating power, one possibility is that this experience might inform the creation of a Scottish Peoples Assembly in 2022, possibly in the run up to the May 2022 local elections.
International: During the clearances, vast swathes of communities in Scotland were cleared from their lands so that the powerful could make a bigger profit from the land. This often led to such poverty that the powerful could then use the same displaced people to clear other indigenous peoples from their lands in the Americas, Africa, Australia and Asia. There is now a strong movement in Scotland seeking to take back land into community ownership, and over 75 percent of the population of the Western Isles now lives on community lands. This position as colonised and coloniser gives Scotland a crucial resonance with everyone’s experience across the world when it comes to COP26 being held in Glasgow. By now, we all know that the 25 previous COPs have been very successfully used to delay any meaningful action on the climate, and we expect nothing else from this one.
Fractal Assembly: However, the world’s focus being on Glasgow and the climate makes Glasgow a perfect place to take our next step after the Reworlding gathering: an international Fractal Assembly. This Assembly aims to bring together frontline communities from the Global South and Global North (including those facing severe repression in eastern Europe) in an Autonomous Territory beside the River Clyde in Glasgow just prior to COP26 (27th to 30th October 2021).
It may include many of those who participated in ‘Reworlding’ (from Rojava, Zapatista, First Nations, rural and urban India, Kenya and Papua, as well as Municipalist movements in Europe and South America, and specifically Chilean resistance) bringing their experience of resisting colonialism and capitalism. All of them highlight the need to move from trying to impact a representative democracy (that becomes captured) to needing to enable direct democracy by the people (through peoples and citizens assemblies).
Part of the preparation for the Fractal Assembly involves a core group from GalGael, FPP, Centre for Human Ecology, Scottish Communities Climate Action Network and Enough who are focused on resourcing and developing effective, decolonial and detramautised intra- and inter-community decision-making. The shape of the Fractal Assembly has yet to emerge, but may involve holding a regenerative gathering of indigenous and other place-based communities: Rejoicing the life-giving places, grieving the destruction, and connecting to reimagine the future.
Instead of opposing and thereby strengthening the ‘disembodied global’, we are seeking to enable a reverberating, expanding and interconnecting meeting place. Instead of a ‘disembodied global’ non-place that steamrolls over our real places, we are seeking to enable meeting places where communities share what’s going right (learnings, innovation, rituals, creativity etc.) and what’s going wrong (intractable conflict, imposition of domination etc.) so that we help each other to not fall back into a dominating paradigm but prefiguratively model a politics of wholeness from the grassroots to the global.
We can crack the concrete with our blades of grass but we still need a molten moment to switch off the bulldozer’s engine. As one small part of a vast creative uprising—when the time is right—our ‘prefiguring’ needs to become a ‘replacing’. In such a molten moment, where time and events become fluid, we can collectively reclaim our world, so that the many worlds this world is made of can flourish and enable all others to flourish too. It needs to come soon, but it also needs deep preparation in place. To reclaim the future we need to relearn how to be fully present to each other.
Justin Kenrick: Justin is an anthropologist and activist from Edinburgh. He is a member of Extinction Rebellion Scotland. Since 2009, has worked with the Forest Peoples Programme, supporting communities to secure their community lands and determine their own futures.
The grand drama of national elections across the world, filled with promises that each party makes of bringing paradise on earth and promptly forgets them once elected to power, hide a deeply troubling phenomenon. There is something pathetic about the human condition, if our fate (and that of the planet) is dependent on a few individuals who rule over us with our willing consent.
Lets go back to basics. Democracy = demos + cracy, rule of (or by) the people. The power to take decisions is inherent to each one of us, it is part of being human. And if politics is about the relations of power, than being political beings is part of our human nature. And yet, the seduction of liberal democracy has been such that we are willing to give up our inherent power, ostensibly so we can go about living our lives while others take over the decision-making for us. In theory, we convince ourselves, we have the power to change them through elections if they don’t do what we want or need; but as we know, that is not necessarily the case. And even if we do manage to vote another person or party into state power, they too may fail to do what we want or need. The chances of this being the case if we are already on the margins of society, even if by dint of sheer numbers we form a substantial part of the population and manage to influence the elections, is especially high.
Some governments have been better than others at pro-public welfare policies, constitutional and legal reforms, and social safeguards (such as free or cheap healthcare and education) for many impoverished or marginalized people. Whatever I say below should not be taken to belittle such gains, and certainly not to argue that there is no difference between a progressive (leftist, feminist, green) party and a right-wing party being in power, all other things being equal.
The problem with electoral politics
But lets look at fundamentals again. A considerably reliance of liberal democracy is on elections, where those who get the majority (with variations on the theme) form the government.
Electoral politics reveals many faultlines, showing how elections can be actually undermine democracy in its true sense. In many other parts of the world such as India, politicians get elected even if they have only 20% of the vote, with the rest of the electorate split amongst several opponents; or even if they have no majority but, as in USA, gain enough voting blocks. Modern electoral processes are extremely costly (the 2020 USA elections were projected to cost about US$14 billion), and since most countries do not have a public fund for this, it is mostly really rich folks or parties who get voted in. In 2019 in India, for instance, out of the 542 members analysed, 437 (80%) have assets of Rs. 1 crore (10 million) or more, i.e. they were amongst the richest 5% of Indians.
Secondly, political elections bring out the most competitive aspects of our personality, that too in spiteful, divisive, often violent ways. Given the power that comes with the post, there are very high commercial stakes of winning. Elections have also encouraged or engendered the most blatant instances of fraud, manipulation (now increasingly on ‘social’ media), bribery, corruption, intimidation, across the world. A systematic review of Pakistan and India shows how much these are seeped into the very nature of electoral politics.
In many countries this hostile competitiveness also runs along historically prevalent lines of hierarchy and discrimination and division; race in USA, caste in India, and gender and class everywhere. This is not a distortion of electoral politics, it is hardwired into its DNA; after all, if its about winning at any cost, why not exploit available lines of division? Trumpism and the religious polarization in India’s 2019 polls are stark recent examples.
Elections also give credence to majoritarianism. The belief that the majority is right is a dubious proposition at best, downright dangerous and divisive at worst. The fact that minorities may have talents, knowledge, skills, and abilities to aid in decision-making and governance, and special needs that any decent society would have to be considerate towards, are ignored or set aside.
Parties that ‘capture’ power in liberal democracies, inevitably centralize power at central or provincial levels. The notion that the public is supreme, that the electorate is the one whose bidding is done by the elected, has rarely if ever actualized. Day to day decisions including crucial ones that impact a large number of people, are predominantly taken by elected politicians and the bureaucracy serving them, with little or no involvement of the electorate. Some countries have systems like referendums to provide greater public participation in crucial decisions, but these are limited, and suffer from the same problematic politics of majoritarianism.
Democracy, development and environment
Given that liberal democracy and the nation-state system that it supports has arisen and spread at the same time as modern capitalism gained a global foothold, there is a very close relationship. Indeed, such democracy is eminently suited to exploitative economic regimes and relations, providing a convenient garb of legitimacy. If the party running such a government then finds it ok to be funded by corporations, openly or in a hidden manner as in the case of India’s recently established electoral bonds, this too would seem to be entirely acceptable. No wonder than that social movements challenging the actions of corporations and their government cronies are automatically labeled not only anti-development but also anti-national, seditious, or in some cases, ‘extremists’ who can be legitimately thrown in jail (or, frequently, simply eliminated). This is the case not only in right-wing governments, but in left-wing ones too; for instance, Rafael Correa’s ‘revolutionary’ left party in Ecuador went hammer and tongs after civil society groups like Accion Ecologica and several indigenous people’s organisations, for opposing destructive mining operations in their territories.
Liberal democracies have pursued fundamentally faulty economic growth models that underlie modern ‘development’ and globalization, responsible for the ecological and climate catastrophe the planet faces. The money required to fight elections, and then to prop up centralized state systems, is not possible to generate in ecologically sustainable, socially non-exploitative ways. A global economy based on nation-state competitiveness, requires ruthless exploitation of nature and of labour, and the continuation of patriarchal, racist, and casteist relations. Finally, nation-state boundaries and the ‘nationalism’ they are founded on or engender, artificially block ecological and cultural linkages, and do not enable sensitive, sustainable governance of landscapes that are dependent on such linkages. In the South Asia region, for instance, the division of the subcontinent into several nations has severely disrupted river flows, or wildlife movements, or the nomadic patterns of pastoral communities, with negative consequences for millions of people and for future generations.
Is there an alternative to liberal democracy?
There are many alternatives, some building on ancient systems of governance such as amongst many indigenous peoples, others that advocate more radical, even anarchic people-centred power. Crucial to all such forms is the recognition of our inherent power, but also the distinction between ‘power to / with’, and ‘power over’. In other words, we harness power to do good, to benefit all (including the non-human), rather than dominate others.
Several initiatives around the world have attempted to establish such grounded, responsible power. Perhaps the largest in scale are the experiments in radical, distributed autonomy and self-governance amongst the Zapatista in Mexico, and the Kurdish people in west Asia. In varying forms, neighbourhood or commune assemblies and institutions run local affairs, and are federated across larger landscapes. Mechanisms like mandatory representation of women and multiple ethnicities or marginalized section, and frequent rotation of representatives, ensure widespread participation and less likelihood of power concentration.
In India one of the earliest to say ‘in our village we are the government’ was Mendha-Lekha village in central tribal heartland; more recently in the same area a federation of 90 villages, the Korchi Maha Gramsabha, has moved towards relative self-rule relative self-rule. Indigenous peoples and other local communities in many parts of the world have also struggled for self-determination and self-governance in diverse ways that build on traditional systems. Such governance is based on a pluriverse of worldviews that respect all humans and the rest of nature, most of which have been suppressed by authoritarian regimes or disempowered by liberal democracies. Many are making a come-back. A number of examples for localized governance along with accountable representative institutions, are also emerging in cities, such as in feminist municipalism.
Though by no means perfect, such direct democracy can provide far greater levels of participation in decision-making to ‘ordinary’ people than do predominantly representative democracies. But struggles for social justice and gender equality and against racism, casteism, etc have to go hand in hand with radical democracy. In the Korchi Maha Gramsabha process mentioned above, the recognition that men have traditionally dominated collective decision-making, has led to a self-empowerment process amongst women. Sometimes, progressive policies or global human rights and social justice instruments can help with this. Also crucial are forums of dialogue and healing. And the democratic control of the economy, with localization for basic needs and essential services, a stress on the commons rather than on private property, and the central role of caring and sharing, also have to be part of the transformation.
Radical democracy works best when people can deliberate face to face. At larger scales, there is a need for delegated or representative institutions; and indeed it is at times from these that checks against local caste, gender, and other repression can come. But even such larger scale institutions can be made more responsive and accountable to the units of direct democracy on the ground, e.g. through the right to recall, nomination of delegates rather than (or additionally to) election of representatives, their frequent rotation to discourage amassing of power and wealth, complete transparency of finances and decisions. Movements in several countries have brought in policy and legal changes towards such accountability, such as a fundamental right to information, and social audit processes. But more is needed, such as the Right to Participate, and enabling local rural and urban units of decision-making to have financial and law-making powers. Some kind of elections may still fit into such a system (e.g. multi-layered system in Switzerland), but are not the dominant core.
There are at least four conditions for successful democracy. First, everyone has to have the right to participate, in decisions affecting his/her life. Such a sweeping right does not exist anywhere in liberal democracies. Second, people need to have accessible forums for engaging in political decision-making – physically proximate, free from fear, in a language and atmosphere that is understandable. Third, the capacity to participate meaningfully has to be facilitated in everyone; over centuries of centralized decision-making this capacity has been systematically destroyed in most of us. Finally, the most important but most difficult, the maturity and wisdom of responsible decision-making has to be infused, which would make people sensitive to the marginalized, to minorities, to not only other humans but also other species. This would be a genuine radical ecological democracy.
Gandhi’s notion of swaraj, or some anarchist Marxist traditions, as also several utopian visions, have no centralized state as a governing principle. Such a future could be conceived of as millions of self-governing units, autonomous and self-reliant but also responsible for the autonomy and self-reliance of others (which necessarily means limits to consumption, and behavior oriented towards respecting the commons, the very essence of swaraj), inter-connected in cultural and material ways that do not undermine the self-reliance of any unit. Nation-state boundaries would dissolve, to be replaced by governance at biocultural landscape level. Such bioregionalism is gaining ground in various parts of the world.
But it is also important to look within ourselves. As citizens (especially those of us who are enfranchised, and privileged in some way), we need to examine our own responsibility for the mess democracy is in. Every few years, we willingly give over our inherent power to someone else to rule over us. If the Zapatistas and the Kurds and the Gond adivasis of central India have claimed, and in varying degrees achieved radical democracy, why are the rest of us not trying for this, including in cities? Admittedly, such governance is difficult, it needs our time and commitment, and we will then be squarely to blame if things go wrong. But we can also congratulate ourselves if the ends of justice are achieved. COVID, like all the other global crises we are going through, has shown us that self-reliance in all, with ecological sensitivity and social justice, is the only pathway to a just and sustainable future. Swaraj has to be an essential part of this, if, queuing up outside poll booths, we don’t want to keep deluding ourselves.
Johannes Dolderer 1, Christian Felber 2,* and Petra Teitscheid 3
1 Economy for the Common Good Baden-Wuerttemberg Association, c/o Impact Hub Stuttgart,
Quellenstraße 7a, 70376 Stuttgart, Germany; email@example.com
2 IASS Potsdam, Berliner Straβe 30, 14467 Potsdam, Germany
3 Institute of Sustainable Nutrition, University of Applied Sciences Münster, Corrensstr. 25, 48149 Münster, Germany; firstname.lastname@example.org
* Correspondence: email@example.com
Abstract: The economy for the common good (ECG) has been developed as a practical economic model, starting in Austria, Bavaria, and South Tyrol in 2010. Nowadays, ECG is considered a viable approach for sustainable transformation across Europe, and also worldwide. Within economic policy, ECG expands social market economy concepts; from a theoretical perspective of economics the question arises, of whether the implicit theoretical model refines the neoclassical paradigm or actually transcends it. During the first scientific conference on the ECG, at the end of 2019 at the University of Applied Sciences Bremen, some 150 participants concluded that an investigation of ECG practices was necessary, and that the fundamental theory needs to be developed in an explicit and systematic way. This article is a first attempt at contrasting the theoretical basis of the ECG model with neoclassical economics, using core concepts and cornerstones of the latter’s paradigm. The outcome is the
cornerstone of common good economics.
Keywords: heterodox economics; neoclassical economics; economy for the common good; common good economics; market economy; welfare
A study by Kai Kuhnhenn, Luis Costa, Eva Mahnke, Linda Schneider, Steffen Lange
To stop climate change, we have to limit global warming to 1.5°C. But can we still achieve this target? And if so, what pathways can society take in transiting towards a climate-just economy? One important yardstick emerging from it was the need for global emissions to reach net-zero by 2050, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says in his «Special Report on Global Warming to 1.5°C». One important problem with this and other scenarios is that virtually all rely on continued global economic growth.
The Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie realised the importance of broadening the discussion’s perspective and considering societal pathways that are currently not included in either the IPCC reports or the public debate. Together with researchers from engineering and the natural and social sciences, Heinrich Böll Foundation and Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie developed a «Societal Transformation Scenario» for this publication – a global climate mitigation scenario that explores the climate effects of limiting global production and consumptions and of envisioning a broader societal transformation to accompany these transformations to reach a good life for all.
Download the book here: A Societal Transformation Scenario
by ROBERT JENSEN
We know that capitalism is not just the most sensible way to organize an economy but is now the only possible way to organize an economy. We know that dissenters to this conventional wisdom can, and should, be ignored. There’s no longer even any need to persecute such heretics; they are obviously irrelevant.
How do we know all this? Because we are told so, relentlessly — typically by those who have the most to gain from such a claim, most notably those in the business world and their functionaries and apologists in the schools, universities, mass media, and mainstream politics. Capitalism is not a choice, but rather simply is, like a state of nature. Maybe not like a state of nature, but the state of nature. To contest capitalism these days is like arguing against the air that we breathe. Arguing against capitalism, we’re told, is simply crazy.
We are told, over and over, that capitalism is not just the system we have, but the only system we can ever have. Yet for many, something nags at us about such a claim. Could this really be the only option? We’re told we shouldn’t even think about such things. But we can’t help thinking — is this really the “end of history,” in the sense that big thinkers have used that phrase to signal the final victory of global capitalism? If this is the end of history in that sense, we wonder, can the actual end of the planet far behind?
We wonder, we fret, and these thoughts nag at us — for good reason. Capitalism — or, more accurately, the predatory corporate capitalism that defines and dominates our lives — will be our death if we don’t escape it. Crucial to progressive politics is finding the language to articulate that reality, not in outdated dogma that alienates but in plain language that resonates with people. We should be searching for ways to explain to co-workers in water-cooler conversations — radical politics in five minutes or less — why we must abandon predatory corporate capitalism. If we don’t, we may well be facing the end times, and such an end will bring rupture not rapture.
Here’s my shot at the language for this argument.
Capitalism is admittedly an incredibly productive system that has created a flood of goods unlike anything the world has ever seen. It also is a system that is fundamentally (1) inhuman, (2) anti-democratic, and (3) unsustainable. Capitalism has given those of us in the First World lots of stuff (most of it of marginal or questionable value) in exchange for our souls, our hope for progressive politics, and the possibility of a decent future for children.
In short, either we change or we die — spiritually, politically, literally.
1. Capitalism is inhuman
There is a theory behind contemporary capitalism. We’re told that because we are greedy, self-interested animals, an economic system must reward greedy, self-interested behavior if we are to thrive economically.
Are we greedy and self-interested? Of course. At least I am, sometimes. But we also just as obviously are capable of compassion and selflessness. We certainly can act competitively and aggressively, but we also have the capacity for solidarity and cooperation. In short, human nature is wide-ranging. Our actions are certainly rooted in our nature, but all we really know about that nature is that it is widely variable. In situations where compassion and solidarity are the norm, we tend to act that way. In situations where competitiveness and aggression are rewarded, most people tend toward such behavior.
Why is it that we must choose an economic system that undermines the most decent aspects of our nature and strengthens the most inhuman? Because, we’re told, that’s just the way people are. What evidence is there of that? Look around, we’re told, at how people behave. Everywhere we look, we see greed and the pursuit of self-interest. So, the proof that these greedy, self-interested aspects of our nature are dominant is that, when forced into a system that rewards greed and self-interested behavior, people often act that way. Doesn’t that seem just a bit circular?
2. Capitalism is anti-democratic
This one is easy. Capitalism is a wealth-concentrating system. If you concentrate wealth in a society, you concentrate power. Is there any historical example to the contrary?
For all the trappings of formal democracy in the contemporary United States, everyone understands that the wealthy dictates the basic outlines of the public policies that are acceptable to the vast majority of elected officials. People can and do resist, and an occasional politician joins the fight, but such resistance takes extraordinary effort. Those who resist win victories, some of them inspiring, but to date concentrated wealth continues to dominate. Is this any way to run a democracy?
If we understand democracy as a system that gives ordinary people a meaningful way to participate in the formation of public policy, rather than just a role in ratifying decisions made by the powerful, then it’s clear that capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive.
Let’s make this concrete. In our system, we believe that regular elections with the one-person/one-vote rule, along with protections for freedom of speech and association, guarantee political equality. When I go to the polls, I have one vote. When Bill Gates goes the polls, he has one vote. Bill and I both can speak freely and associate with others for political purposes. Therefore, as equal citizens in our fine democracy, Bill and I have equal opportunities for political power. Right?
3. Capitalism is unsustainable
This one is even easier. Capitalism is a system based on the idea of unlimited growth. The last time I checked, this is a finite planet. There are only two ways out of this one. Perhaps we will be hopping to a new planet soon. Or perhaps, because we need to figure out ways to cope with these physical limits, we will invent ever-more complex technologies to transcend those limits.
Both those positions are equally delusional. Delusions may bring temporary comfort, but they don’t solve problems. They tend, in fact, to cause more problems. Those problems seem to be piling up.
Capitalism is not, of course, the only unsustainable system that humans have devised, but it is the most obviously unsustainable system, and it’s the one in which we are stuck. It’s the one that we are told is inevitable and natural, like the air.
A tale of two acronyms: TGIF and TINA
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous response to a question about challenges to capitalism was TINA — There Is No Alternative. If there is no alternative, anyone who questions capitalism is crazy.
Here’s another, more common, acronym about life under a predatory corporate capitalism: TGIF — Thank God It’s Friday. It’s a phrase that communicates a sad reality for many working in this economy — the jobs we do are not rewarding, not enjoyable, and fundamentally not worth doing. We do them to survive. Then on Friday we go out and get drunk to forget about that reality, hoping we can find something during the weekend that makes it possible on Monday to, in the words of one songwriter, “get up and do it again.”
Remember, an economic system doesn’t just produce goods. It produces people as well. Our experience of work shapes us. Our experience of consuming those goods shapes us. Increasingly, we are a nation of unhappy people consuming miles of aisles of cheap consumer goods, hoping to dull the pain of unfulfilling work. Is this who we want to be?
We’re told TINA in a TGIF world. Doesn’t that seem a bit strange? Is there really no alternative to such a world? Of course there is. Anything that is the product of human choices can be chosen differently. We don’t need to spell out a new system in all its specifics to realize there always are alternatives. We can encourage the existing institutions that provide a site of resistance (such as labor unions) while we experiment with new forms (such as local cooperatives). But the first step is calling out the system for what it is, without guarantees of what’s to come.
Home and abroad
In the First World, we struggle with this alienation and fear. We often don’t like the values of the world around us; we often don’t like the people we’ve become; we often are afraid of what’s to come of us. But in the First World, most of us eat regularly. That’s not the case everywhere. Let’s focus not only on the conditions we face within a predatory corporate capitalist system, living in the most affluent country in the history of the world, but also put this in a global context.
Half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. That’s more than 3 billion people. Just over half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa lives on less than $1 a day. That’s more than 300 million people.
How about one more statistic: About 500 children in Africa die from poverty-related diseases, and the majority of those deaths could be averted with simple medicines or insecticide-treated nets. That’s 500 children — not every year, or every month or every week. That’s not 500 children every day. Poverty-related diseases claim the lives of 500 children an hour in Africa.
When we try to hold onto our humanity, statistics like that can make us crazy. But don’t get any crazy ideas about changing this system. Remember TINA: There is no alternative to predatory corporate capitalism.
TGILS: Thank God It’s Last Sunday
We have been gathering on Last Sunday precisely to be crazy together. We’ve come together to give voice to things that we know and feel, even when the dominant culture tells us that to believe and feel such things is crazy. Maybe everyone here is a little crazy. So, let’s make sure we’re being realistic. It’s important to be realistic.
One of the common responses I hear when I critique capitalism is, “Well, that may all be true, but we have to be realistic and do what’s possible.” By that logic, to be realistic is to accept a system that is inhuman, anti-democratic, and unsustainable. To be realistic we are told we must capitulate to a system that steals our souls, enslaves us to concentrated power, and will someday destroy the planet.
But rejecting and resisting a predatory corporate capitalism is not crazy. It is an eminently sane position. Holding onto our humanity is not crazy. Defending democracy is not crazy. And struggling for a sustainable future is not crazy.
What is truly crazy is falling for the con that an inhuman, anti-democratic, and unsustainable system — one that leaves half the world’s people in abject poverty — is all that there is, all that there ever can be, all that there ever will be.
If that were true, then soon there will be nothing left, for anyone.
I do not believe it is realistic to accept such a fate. If that’s being realistic, I’ll take crazy any day of the week, every Sunday of the month.
Original article, published on CounterPunch.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Leon Logothetis traded in his desk job to chase his dreams. He went to 40 places in nearly 20 countries in five months, with no money, food or places to stay. Logothetis joins “CBS This Morning” to discuss the book about his journey, “The Kindness Diaries: One Man’s Quest To Ignite Goodwill and Transform Lives Around the World.”
by Etelle Higonnet on 29 April 2020
- Etelle Higonnet has worked for years to reform the palm oil, rubber, soy, and cocoa industries, which are heavily involved in tropical deforestation.
- Pandemics like COVID-19 are linked with deforestation and the wildlife trade, and she’s married to a public health expert, so it was ironic that she nearly lost her life to the disease last month.
- Higonnet argues that ending the wildlife trafficking which seems to have caused the pandemic is of no use if animals’ forest homes continue to be bulldozed, sending them into contact with people.
- This post is a commentary and does not necessarily reflect the views of Mongabay.
I have been sick with COVID-19. When I started writing this, holed up in my New York apartment, I could feel the shakiness, sharp headache, muscle and joint pain that I came to associate with my coronavirus fever during the first week. As the writing and my illness progressed, the virus attacked tissue around my heart, sending me to the emergency room of the nearest hospital, where I was separated from my husband and contemplated the possibility of dying alone while I wrote my will.
My husband, who ironically enough is a public health expert specializing in pandemic preparedness, was also sick. In our regular lives, whilst he fights to provide better access to life-saving health systems for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, I try to protect rainforests. I conduct undercover investigations into deforestation, and campaign to hold major companies accountable for their role in destroying nature.
This infection had me reflecting with particular urgency on how his and my work intersect: a planetary binge-destruction of forests and the creatures in them is setting us up for one pandemic after another.
Most epidemics, as my husband ceaselessly reminds me, start with ‘zoonosis’: when an illness makes a leap from animal reservoirs to humans. The CDC estimates that three-quarters of humanity’s emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife–there are perhaps 1.6 million potentially zoonotic viruses. MERS likely came from dromedary camels; measles and TB from cows; AIDS from primates; avian flu from birds. SARS shared 99.8% of its genome with a civet coronavirus. (Many civets were massacred after SARS hit.) The 1918 “Spanish flu” is thought to have come from a US midwestern pig farm. COVID-19 appears to trace its origin from a bat via a pangolin.
In my case, I have COVID-19 because my husband kissed me. He contracted the virus from meeting with someone else who had it; the infection chain traces all the way back to a Chinese “wet market” where the fateful pangolin was sold after being wrenched from its forest home. If anyone ever thought health and environmental concerns are not connected, they should think again. Deforestation and wildlife trafficking are exactly how we got into this global COVID-19 pandemic.
The more we encroach into forests, the likelier it is we humans will come into contact with heretofore undisturbed animals, whose pathogens will have the exciting opportunity to penetrate new victims – us. And when we raze forests, their animal inhabitants stumble into our human strongholds. I’ve witnessed it firsthand in my work: disoriented, lost, homeless creatures seeking a last desperate toehold even in areas where humans abound.
This new proximity simply makes it more likely that pathogens will leap from wildlife to humans. I have documented devastation of rainforests cut down at vast scale for agricultural commodities, and have seen what this does to scattering wild creatures. Poaching, trafficking, and consuming wildlife just rolls the dice towards zoonosis again and again.
Right now, we are rightly consumed with social distancing, hand washing, and life-saving medical help. But for the future, a crucial step humanity must take to protect itself from new pandemics has got to be a total ban on wildlife trafficking worldwide, and an urgent end to tropical deforestation.
Unfortunately, President Trump has not only exhibited spectacular incompetence in managing testing (my husband and I went a week in New York without being able to get tested, embroiled in Kafkaesque calls galore) and other pandemic preparedness, and his administration has also embraced global forest destruction. By doing so, Trump and his ilk are creating ripe conditions for a pandemic like COVID-19 to hit us again.
Every nation should step up to champion a clear path to ending all wildlife trade at the next UN conference on the Convention on Biological Diversity. I hope that the representatives of nearly 200 countries there will realize they can simultaneously protect people from pandemics, and species like pangolins from mass extinction – via a robust ban on the wildlife trade, as it seems Vietnam and China may do.
But ending trafficking is of no use if animals’ forest homes are bulldozed, sending them fleeing to our back yards. We should go further and declare an end to deforestation for agriculture in the world’s most destructive commodities: beef, soy, palm oil, rubber, coffee, and cocoa. This would be a courageous and intelligent response to COVID-19. If you think it’s expensive, then just mull over the likely financial losses hitting us from this pandemic we are in. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
See related podcast interview: The links between COVID-19, wildlife trade, and destruction of nature with celebrated environmental journalist John Vidal
This is especially true for the coming summer. Every summer, vast swaths of the Amazon and Indonesian woods are burned in raging forest fires, largely driven by beef, soy, and palm oil industries. When forests burn, toxic smog billows out in quantities that can be seen from space. In 2015 alone, the toxic haze from Indonesian peat and forest fires led to an estimated 100,300 premature deaths and exposed 69 million people to unhealthy air pollution. What will happen when respiratory infections peak from COVID-19, at the same time as killer smog spreads across the Amazon and Southeast Asia, in already fragile health systems? Harvard scientists recently published a new nationwide study for the US linking pollution to COVID-19 death rates. If I was near a forest fire, I’m not sure my already overtaxed lungs and heart could have handled it. I might be dead now.
The smart answer for world political and corporate leaders is an immediate, strict zero-burning policy.
Limiting exposure to “exotic” animals and protecting their forest homes is key, but we ignore at our peril transmission from “conventional” domestic animals. Our world’s food systems must be reformed to make our planet more pandemic-proof. If poaching is rolling the dice with our lives, then livestock rearing is Russian roulette. Many concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, as the industry calls them, are festering cesspools of illness, including pathogens just waiting to make the leap to animal-to-human transmission.
With birds and pigs often held in unhygienic, atrocious, closely-packed conditions, small wonder that they get sick, or that bird flu and swine flu occasionally spiral out of control at warp speed, as pathogens rapidly recombine and mutate into novel viruses. With 3/4 of antibiotics administered annually to food-producing animals in the US, we also are on track to experience serious outbreaks of drug-resistant diseases like flesh-eating strains of bacteria that can leap from animals to humans. Our meat industry is essentially providing adventurous pathogens with vast banquets within which they can mutate and spread, all within close contact to us. Coincidentally, our meat industry is also one of the major global drivers of deforestation, which brings us back full circle.
Positive solutions and leadership on this challenge could involve making bailouts of the meat industry conditional on giving power and money back to small farmers instead of billionaires, favoring farms with fewer animals that are more safely raised. We need ‘social distancing’ for farm animals – i.e. more space, less crowding, smaller farms, cleaner spaces where animals don’t wallow in their own excretions and feces (which is often how viruses are shed), and help for any struggling farmer who is willing to transition out of animal husbandry. Carrots will never give us coronavirus, and there is no risk of “broccoli flu.”
COVID-19 has shown just how closely interwoven we are. Infecting one person can rapidly sicken millions. We humans sink or swim together. Viruses respect no borders between nations, and they aren’t limited to one species, either.
Our current plight sheds light on our interconnectedness with the natural world. I pray that coronavirus can teach us to open our hearts, to love the earth, and understand that treating one part of our planet ill endangers all of humanity.
Maybe it’s my fever dreams echoing in my waking ears, but I can almost hear the world’s forests whisper: if we burn, you burn with us.
Etelle Higonnet is a Senior Campaign Director at global environmental campaign organization Mighty Earth, where she has fought to reform the palm oil, rubber, soy, and cocoa industries. She was recently named a Chevalier of France’s Ordre National du Mérite (National Order of Merit) for her work to protect the environment.
See all of Mongabay’s coverage of COVID-19 pandemic here.
Banner image: Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest canopy. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.