By Movement Generation
The central challenge of our times is the crisis of disconnection. Many of us see ourselves as apart from, rather than a part of the living world. We see ourselves as a collection of individuals, rather than a complex of living, interdependent relationships. It is this disconnection—of soul and spirit from soil and story—that drives the erosion of biological and cultural diversity; compromising our capacity to exist on planet Earth.
Social inequity is a form of ecological imbalance, and it inherently leads to ecological erosion. It is this inequity that allows human work to be concentrated, controlled and then wielded like chainsaw against the rest of the living world. The landscape of struggle, then, is the economy (the management of home) and our goal must be to remake economy in alignment with ecological regeneration, reverence for creation and social justice. We cannot effectively tackle ecological erosion without dismantling white supremacy, patriarchy and militarism. The ideology that seeks to dominate, subjugate, and enslave our earth is the same ideology that justifies mass incarceration, the criminalization of black communities, and the existence of a militarized police state. It is the same ideology that says women and their bodies exist primarily to serve the sexual desires of men.
To address the crisis of ecological erosion, we have to take on every single aspect of economic organization, from how we acquire resources and organize labor, to what we produce and why we produce it. The first rule of ecological restoration must be the liberation of our labor, language and lifeways (cultures) from the chains of the market and their restoration back into the web of life. Addressing this challenge also means healing from and transforming the cultural paradigm that portrays and treats black lives, indigenous communities and others as dispensable. We must liberate our imaginations from the cultural and cognitive concrete that has paved over both our memory and our vision. Only with this cultural shift, will the structural shifts that liberate labor, language and lifeways become possible.
Teetering on the Tipping Points
Failure to change the economic system will force the planetary ecosystem past multiple tipping points, beyond which core cycles that sustain life as we know it will become unstable. Collapse of ocean fisheries, massive degradation of topsoil, shortages in freshwater supplies for irrigation and drinking, are becoming more frequent and are the predictable consequence of an economy based on exploitation. As climate change leads to ever intensifying extreme weather and resource wars, even more of the systems upon which life depends will become unstable.
We are in the midst of the sixth mass species extinction experienced on planet Earth – unique in three ways: it stands to be the fastest, most complete and is the only one caused by the activity of a single species.
A critical dimension of this mass extinction is the eradication of cultural and linguistic diversity through the endless growth of the extractive economy – what Vandana Shiva calls “the monocultures of the mind.” At current rates of extinction, the planet stands to lose 90% of living languages within a generation – from 7,000 to 700. Indigenous peoples account for 80-90% of the world’s imperiled cultural and linguistic diversity—and it is often those very cultures that remain connected to the natural fabric and may contain the seeds for a sustainable path for the human species.
The destabilization of living systems has been an urgent crisis for hundreds of years. Colonialism, slavery, imperialism, and globalization have driven an economic assault on the integrated relationships, cultures and economies that indigenous, land-based, and subsistence peoples have had with the ecosystems they are a part of.
We have been alienated from land, food and water; and from our ability to control, direct and benefit from our own work. This has forced most of us to live and labor in ways that destroy and degrade the rest of the natural world. Therefore, to understand the ecological crisis we cannot simply look up at the atmosphere and count carbon. We must look down at the growth-at-all-costs economy. To solve the climate crisis and the broader ecological crisis we must replace it with a regenerative economy.
Governance of this degenerative economy facilitates extractivism in all its forms, from mining for calories and drilling for oil to forcefully removing human labor from right relationship with ecosystems, to systematically dismantling families using race-based discrimination. The very same borders that fragment ecosystems divide communities and separate families. The greatest beneficiaries of this extractive economy—call them the 1 percent for short—recognize that their economic system is in danger of collapse. But because their objective is unconstrained accumulation of wealth and power they are unwilling to move towards ecological regeneration.
While extractive economics and growth at all costs have set in motion the crisis, the solution is not, as some environmentalists have argued, for humans to have a smaller footprint. Quite the contrary, we must have twice as great an impact on the planet over the next hundred years as we have had over past 500, but towards very different ends. Because of human cognition and the opposable digit, we can perform diverse and redundant ecological functions. We can pollinate, compost, build soil, rip out concrete, tear down borders, undam rivers and free our peoples like no other living thing. We can accelerate, though our work, the restoration and regeneration of living systems – all the while repairing our relations with each other - if we engage in thoughtful, concerted action. We are actually the keystone species in this moment so we have to align our strategies with the healing powers of Mother Earth – not by ourselves, but in alliance with and honoring all other living things.
Rights of Nature
The assertion of new sets of ecological and economic rights is a first step in beginning this essential re-alignment. Living systems have rights and we as communities have the right and responsibility to uphold and defend those rights.
Local “Rights of Nature” ordinances can provide a framework for people to assert their claim to such basic rights as clean water, clean air, and the power to stop destructive development on the basis of the inherent rights of nature and of communities to self-govern.
In the United States, cities as large as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania have passed Rights of Nature ordinances to reassert their sovereign rights to ban harmful activities such as hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Shasta, California used a Rights of Nature strategy to confront Pacific Gas and Electric plans for “cloud seeding” to increase rainfall, and Santa Monica, California is currently pursuing a broad Rights of Nature ordinance that will provide the legal mandate to redesign their city towards ecological resilience.
On the world stage, Bolivia is often held up as the first country to enshrine ecological rights in its 2010 “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth.” But if Bolivia actually stood for the rights of nature enshrined in this law, the ramifications would be enormous. Private property would be subordinated to the right of a community to self-govern. Of course, such actions would be revolutionary. They would pit Bolivia, as a state and as a people, against the rest of the nation states, particularly the U.S. Empire. In fact, despite its recognition of the rights of mother earth and its bold international rhetoric on climate change, the Bolivian state continues its role in the global economy and enables the extraction of natural resources and the exploitation of labor within its borders.
The assertion of new rights is being more successfully pursued without the power of a state in the Zapatista autonomous regions of Mexico.
Culturally, the Zapatista worldview and cosmology is rooted in indigenous traditions of connection to the land; a defense of the collective landholding system won in the Mexican revolution of the early 20th century; and a commitment to indigenous self-governance according to the “uses and customs” of the diverse peoples that live in Zapatista territory.
They have challenged the Mexican state through armed insurrection and have secured a degree of autonomy, but have not declared themselves a state. Their autonomous village system administers the communally owned lands and cooperatives. More broadly, the Zapatistas have resisted the land grabs and development schemes proposed in the “Plan Panama” promoted by the NAFTA combine.
The Zapatistas’ struggle has been, above all else, for territory. They want the simple right to work the land that they consider historically to be theirs. In this, their struggle has many parallels throughout the indigenous world.
While fighting for the Earth, the Zapatistas have never identified themselves, as “environmentalists.” Nor do they talk much, in their voluminous decade-and-a-half of communiqués, about “ecology” or “conservation.” And yet, as poet Gary Snyder once said, “The best thing you can do for the environment is to stay home.” As indigenous peasant farmers struggling for territorial autonomy, the Zapatistas’ struggle is precisely to “stay home.”
“If it’s the right thing to do, we have every right to do it.”
Occupying the Farm, the Gil Tract. Albany, California. Photo (cc) 2012 occupyoakland.org
The deeper problem of control of the land is at the root of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. Property inherently infringes upon freedom. Property represents the ability to create an enclosure; to restrict access or use or purpose. There are physical enclosures (fences, borders, property lines); financial enclosures (commodification of life, carbon markets, capital accumulation) and there are intellectual enclosures (intellectual property, internet search algorithms, etc.). The commons is exactly the opposite of an enclosure—it represents the preservation of shared use, rights, and access to the resources of the earth—and not just for humans.
Finance is currently organized to serve the ownership and accumulation of capital. If all peoples assert the right to the resources for a productive livelihood, then finance would have to be reorganized. Instead of paying interest and concentrating wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer owners, we would circulate capital into the commons so that it is a sustainable reflection of our collective wealth. Revolving community funds, for example, are an assertion of a new economic right, that when taken to scale and coordinated can challenge the existing interests of extractive finance.
Debt itself—as a form of control over future labor and future productive capacity of human beings and living systems—can be seen as a violation of our fundamental rights. Taken to its ultimate conclusion this reasoning could lead to a rejection of all debt service as theft, and lead to a refusal to pay the banks interest and the principal of the original loan—to challenge the very notion that private accumulation of wealth is wrong.
Up Against the State
There is no other way out of the ecological crisis. We either sit in the empire and watch the war happen someplace else, or we reorganize ourselves towards a revolution that puts us in direct conflict with state and corporate power. Because ultimately, that is the only way we’re going to ever assert any new rights.
And to win these clashes we will need to have developed our own economic basis. If we are still entirely dependent on the extractive economy, we will lack the capacity to move from passing resolutions to real revolution.
To transform this economy in a positive direction, we need to start at a very deep level.
The next revolution is going to be based on a vision of right relationship with each other and with the living world. It’s going to be based on the sacredness of our relationships—and that sacredness will be practiced through love in diverse ways that ultimately become the defining features of our identity.
For us, right now, our labor is organized through jobs and our identities are defined by our role in our job. However, if you ask people about their real identity, the vast majority will not name their job title as their primary identity. We identify in much more diverse ways: as parents, as queer, as artists, by our race, ethnicity or language. Through cooperative economics we will be able to embrace the diversity of roles we play in a community, the unique contributions of our labor and social identities that help us navigate the world.
When we say cooperative economics we are not simply talking about worker ownership. Cooperative economics needs to be implemented in the food system, in family life, in social organization.
The roles that will be needed to hold us through transition, the things that will matter the most, are actually the relational social roles: the healers, the mediators, the people who can hold space and facilitate social well-being in community. What has traditionally been thought of as women’s work and the role that women have played in societies as the holders of that—are going to be among the key roles of transition.
The question is: how do we spark this revolution?
If we only fight against what we don’t want, we will learn to love the fight and we will have nothing left but longing for our vision. Longing isn’t good enough. You don’t build a social movement around vision by talking about vision. We have to apply our labor towards directly meeting our needs. You build a social movement around vision by living it. You assert new ecological and economic rights by living those rights until you reach the limits of the system—and then break the rules that infringe upon that living vision. We must become ungovernable through our own loving, deeply democratic self-governance.
By building new centers of gravity in the economy based on resources acquired through regenerative practices and on labor organized through cooperation, we can build a broad movement with the common goals of creating social well-being and right relationship to each other and to home.
This article is adapted from Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project’s ‘in progress’ book The Politics of Home.(http://movementgeneration.org)