Het ecomodernisme en haar begripsverwarring

Ecomodernisme

Het gaat goed met de klimaatbeweging. In Duitsland wordt een bruinkoolmijn succesvol bezet door klimaatactivisten, in Parijs wordt een hoopvol klimaatakkoord gesloten en in de Nederlandse rechtszaal wordt zelfs de staat op de knieën gedwongen door een verontruste stichting met duurzame ambities. Hoewel dit allemaal klinkende overwinningen zijn, is misschien wel het meest veelzeggende wat betreft de opmars van de klimaatbeweging het feit dat de interne onenigheid steeds sterker op de voorgrond komt te staan. De Franse revolutie was een zaak van verschillende fracties die elkaar het licht niet in de ogen gunden en er was binnen de burgerrechtenbeweging in de Verenigde Staten hevige discussie over welke lijn gevolgd moest worden: Die van Martin Luther King of die van Malcolm X. Succesvolle actiebewegingen zijn eigenlijk altijd bonte verzamelingen van verschillende groepen die weliswaar een ideaal delen, maar hevige discussie voeren waarom en op welke manier dit ideaal bereikt moet worden.

Wat dat betreft is het ecomodernistisch manifest zoals dat vorig jaar is opgesteld een ontwikkeling die te verwelkomen valt. Dit document, dat voornamelijk door Amerikaanse wetenschappers is ondertekend, valt te lezen als een kritiek op de traditionele, holistische tak van de klimaatbeweging. Om het enigszins te chargeren, gaat deze holistische tak ervan uit dat moeder aarde een ziel heeft waarmee we in harmonie moeten leven. Ook wat hun kritiek hierop betreft is het ecomodernisme een aangename toevoeging aan het publieke debat. Het idee dat de aarde een essentie heeft die sommige mensen menen te begrijpen en die daarom kunnen bepalen hoe je hiermee in harmonie leeft, lijkt me een bedenkelijke gedachte. Het alternatief dat de ecomodernisten aanreiken is echter zo doorspekt van begripsverwarring dat de oplossingen die ze bieden veel gevaarlijker zijn dan de denkfout die de traditionele klimaatbeweging maakt.

Laat ik beginnen met het centrale uitgangspunt van het ecomodernistisch manifest, het idee dat we in het antropoceen leven. Deze term is de laatste jaren in zwang geraakt als een begrip dat aangeeft dat we in een epoch leven waarin niet meer natuurlijke processen, maar menselijke processen ons klimaat grotendeels bepalen (antropo komt van het Griekse woord voor mens). Als zodanig is het antropoceen de opvolger van het holoceen. Ecomodernisten zijn van mening dat we dit idee van de mens als demiurg van alles dat leeft volledig moeten omarmen willen we klimaatverandering te lijf gaan. Hoewel er veel voor te zeggen valt om vandaag de dag op deze manier ons klimaat te conceptualiseren, valt er iets wezenlijks buiten de beschouwing van deze terminologie van het antropoceen. De mensheid is namelijk geen homogene groep individuen. Dit wordt duidelijk wanneer we, hypothetisch, een inheemse stam in het amazoneregenwoud proberen te overtuigen van dit idee van het antropoceen. Het lijkt mij uiterst onrechtvaardig om tegen een gemeenschap te zeggen die al vanaf het begin der tijden zich aanpast aan de natuur om te overleven dat ze samen met de rest van de mensheid verantwoordelijk zijn voor klimaatverandering. De macht om beslissingen te nemen die consequenties hebben voor de hele planeet is oneerlijk op deze wereld verdeeld. Daarom kunnen bepaalde instituten binnen de mensheid eerder verantwoordelijk worden gehouden voor klimaatverandering dan andere instituten.

We hoeven trouwens niet naar de uithoeken van het amazoneregenwoud af te reizen om te zien dat dit zo is. Toen China in 2001 toetrad tot de Wereldhandelsorganisatie en ze makkelijker producten kon importeren en exporteren naar het buitenland nam de Co2-uitstoot daar met rasse schreden toe. Zie bijvoorbeeld de volgende tabel (die overigens alleen nog de Co2-uitstoot op basis van de consumptie in China laat zien):

Co2 China

Bron: US Energy Information Administration

Deze toetreding van China tot de Wereldhandelsorganisatie heeft nagenoeg geen enkele vakbond noch actiegroep voor het milieu om gevraagd. Sterker nog, wanneer we naar vrijhandelsverdragen als NAFTA en TTIP kijken, zijn deze groeperingen veelal de kartrekkers wanneer het gaat om het laten horen van een tegengeluid. Het lijkt me daarom dat we geen recht aan deze organisaties doen wanneer we zeggen dat we als mensheid in zijn geheel verantwoordelijk voor klimaatverandering zijn.

Het tweede begrip dat de ecomodernisten gebruiken maar dat ze niet goed begrijpen is de manier waarop ze over vooruitgang nadenken. Ecomodernisten prijzen de vooruitgang die de mens heeft doorgemaakt. Door innovaties hebben we de gemiddelde levensduur van een mens meer dan verdubbeld in de laatste paar eeuwen. De mens is tot de mooiste dingen in staat en daarom moeten we, volgens de ecomodernisten, technologische ontwikkelingen als kernenergie omarmen willen we de energietransitie doen slagen. Wat de ecomodernisten niet inzien met deze redenering is dat vooruitgang geen lineair maar een dialectisch proces is. Onze wereld wordt geen betere plek omdat de technologie en de economie vooruitgaan, onze wereld wordt een betere plek omdat we af en toe collectief in actie komen tegen deze vooruitgang. Om een simpel doch belangrijk voorbeeld te geven: Hoewel de industriële revolutie de massaproductie mogelijk maakte die een paar fortuinlijke fabriekseigenaren een kapitaal opbracht, kunnen we pas bij het ontstaan van de vakbonden en het afschaffen van de kinderarbeid echt spreken van vooruitgang. Let wel: Ik zeg niet dat economische- of technologische vooruitgang slecht zijn, het is juist altijd het samenspel tussen deze vormen van vooruitgang en de collectieve acties hiertegen die algehele vooruitgang mogelijk maakt.

Hoewel deze vooruitgang ook oneerlijk over de wereld verdeeld is, is het te kort door de bocht wanneer men stelt dat landen als China en India het recht hebben om qua consumptie op hetzelfde niveau als de VS en Europa te komen. Economische groei en consumptieniveau zijn iets anders dan maatschappelijke welvaart, althans, dat horen ze te zijn. De welvaart die we in Europa hebben opgebouwd heeft naar mijn mening weinig te maken met de dingen die we kopen maar veeleer met de collectieve vormen van actievoeren zoals ik die zojuist heb beschreven. Deze collectieve dimensie van de vooruitgang is nu juist wat vandaag de dag in onze globale economie verloren dreigt te gaan. Multinationals zijn in staat om hun productieproces op te delen en deze delen zo snel te verplaatsen naar de gunstigste regio’s (fabrieken in Azië, hoofdkantoor in een belastingparadijs) dat protestacties nagenoeg geen kans van slagen hebben. Het creëren van nieuwe vormen van globale collectiviteit die hiermee om kunnen gaan, hoort daarom bovenaan de agenda van de klimaatbeweging te staan. Het onkritisch omarmen van elke vorm van technologische innovatie staat wat dat betreft hier haaks op. Gezien de rampen met kernenergie die de geschiedenis kent zal een massale energietransitie op basis van deze technologie leiden tot het bevestigen van de huidige status quo. De risico’s die verbonden zijn aan kerncentrales zullen ertoe leiden dat deze gebouwen worden neergezet in gebieden die het minst in staat zijn om een tegengeluid te laten horen. Bovendien zijn vandaag de dag de mensen die voor hun voedselvoorziening het meest afhankelijk zijn van hun directe omgeving al de grootste slachtoffers wanneer het om ongelukken met dit soort schadelijke afvalstoffen gaat.

Doordat het ecomodernisme geen oog heeft voor de oneerlijke manier waarop macht binnen de mensheid is verdeeld en ze gebruik maakt van een foutief vooruitgangsconcept, is deze denkstroming  een voortzetting van de huidige globale klimaatonrechtvaardigheid in een ander jasje. Voor de armste mensen op deze wereld maakt het weinig uit of ze komen te overlijden door een stijgende zeespiegel of door radioactieve straling.

Rosa and the Parasite

Rosa Luxemburg

There goes a story that, when Che Guevara became the chairman of the central bank of Cuba, a journalist asked him if he didn’t need to be an economist for this new job. When confronted with this question, Guevara replied that this wasn’t necessary because: “he was a Marxist”. Arrogant as it may seem, this answer has some truth to it. Although derivates trading and other financial nonsense would probably make Marx himself dizzy, Marxism has a strong record of understanding the relation between production processes and its effects on society. I think that by looking at the bigger picture instead of focusing on minor details and easy answers, like blaming a crisis solely on the ethical attitude of bankers, it’s still possible to contribute to contemporary discussions from a Marxist perspective.

Take, for example, Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Accumulation of Capital’ which she wrote in 1913. One of the core ideas in this book is that capitalism will, by its nature, always remain parasitic on a non-capitalistic outside. What is meant by this idea becomes clear if we try to make capitalism work in a world which exists just of two people. In such a world, one of these people would have to be a capitalist who would produce a certain product by acquiring raw materials and labour power. The other person would have to be a worker who makes this product by selling his or her labour power to the capitalist. Although it would be perfectly possible for the capitalist to make a product this way, it starts to become difficult when the worker would need to be paid. This would only be possible if the capitalist knows how to realize the surplus value of the product in question. Instead of paying the worker with the product it just produced, which would mean that there’s no profit, the capitalist would need to trade the produced product for something with a bigger value. This can only be feasible when we add a third, non-capitalistic, party to our world. If the capitalist would be able to trade the product with a person who lives on a gold mine for a couple pieces of gold, the capitalist would be saved. Not only would he be able to pay his worker, he would also make a profit. This means that, not only does capitalism needs someone or something which is on the outside of capitalism, it will also integrate this outside into the capitalistic system. For capital to accumulate, it needs permanent investments into more forms of capital or labour. In our hypothetic world, the third person would be a worker as well in no time. To survive the fierce competition on the free market, production needs to become bigger and more efficient.

Today, the exploitation of the outsides of capitalism which are needed to keep the system going is so disgusting that it almost becomes funny. The outside of the financial crisis in 2008 for example, seems to have been the future. Surplus value was realized by issuing out pieces of paper which stated that added value will probably be realized in the future. I don’t think I need to tell how ridiculous this is. The biggest victim of the realization of surplus value has always been nature though. Planet earth has always been the easiest target to sustain economic growth. It doesn’t seem we can save precious rainforests and indigenous tribes without combating capitalism.

On Coal and Capitalism

Coal

Time flows. The only time in which time doesn’t flow is when you look on your watch. Whether digital or analogue, when you look on a clock, time will be cut up in different units. These units are known as: seconds, minutes and hours. The need to cut natural flows into measurable units which can be counted and controlled by humans is one of the most important characteristics of capitalism. We can see this process clearly when we’re talking about the division of labour. Before the industrial revolution, a shoemaker needed to know the area where he or she was living in to find the best wood and to know the shopkeepers around. When labour starts to become a commodity which can be bought and sold by the hour, this interrelationship with the environment starts to become obsolete. In a factory, workers don’t need to have any knowledge about their surroundings. It doesn’t even matter if they come from a different city or a different country. Although this logic opens up the possibility for the entire world to become one interconnected village, this interconnectedness doesn’t need people to take care of their environment anymore.

The opposition between flow and unit is an important theme in a recent publication of radical ecologist Andreas Malm. In his book ‘Fossil Capital’, Malm analyses the rise of coal-based steam power in Great-Britain during the industrial revolution. Before engines ran on coal, waterwheels based on waterpower were the main energy supplier for the industry. It’s a common misconception that during the industrial revolution coal won the battle against water to become the main source of energy because coal is better and cheaper, this was actually not the case. Instead, one of the main reasons why coal became more popular then water was because coal comes in production-units and water in a production-flow. It takes a form of collective action to maintain a production process based on a water flow: Dams have to be maintained and fair water schemes are needed to be drawn. For a capitalist who competes with other capitalists, this kind of cooperation can easily be seen as a time consuming distraction. Moreover, it’s difficult to run a natural production process based on a labour contract with steady hours. Luckily, even then it was impossible to sign contracts which stated that people could only work and get paid when the river was running forcibly enough.

Although not the only reason why our addiction to fossil fuels started during this period, the human need to cut up nature in countable and controllable parts has been one of the fundaments of climate change. If we want to understand the system which is destroying our communities and their environment, we need to recognize the way it expresses itself in our landscape.

 

Photograph by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo

Rights of the Scapegoat

lamb

Every stable social order is based on the sacrifice of a scapegoat. This is the bold statement in which the philosophy of René Girard can be summarized. Although seemingly completely uninteresting for anarchist and radical emancipatory politics – Girard is generally considered as a conservative thinker – I claim that his theory of the scapegoat deserves our attention. Picture yourself in a high school classroom full of insecure teenagers who are suffering by their overly active hormones. Girard would call this an unstable social order; there is no hierarchy, everybody can be attacked by everybody and everyone is looking to be recognized as a complete human being. In this teenage state of nature, the scapegoat mechanism will start to work. Because everybody wants to be recognized as a human being, but recognition always has to be done by someone else, the group will point out one scapegoat who doesn’t “deserve” this recognition. The out casting (and in this case bullying) of the scapegoat will allow the group to recognize itself and create a stable hierarchy.

It’s interesting to use this scapegoat theory to look at two contemporary examples of well known victims, namely: Jews and animals. First the Jews. Although anti-Semitism can be traced back to the third century before Christ, we will pick up its trail in the 18th and 19th century. A time in which most of the modern constitutions for nation states were drafted. The drafting of these constitutions happened only after long discussions about whether the rights these constitutions granted their citizens should also apply to Jews. These debates where mostly settled by making the compromise that these rights should apply to Jews only on the condition that they would never get their own nation state. As such, the Jews could be seen as the scapegoats on which the first modern nations where based. It’s for example telling that even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to a nationality. Although this seems a strange right – why should it matter to have a nationality for universal human rights? – it’s because only nation states are capable of guaranteeing these rights. What’s painful about this becomes clear if we realize that the first thing which happened to Jews once they were caught during the Holocaust was the stripping away of their nationality, Jewish victims of the Holocaust were stateless. It’s therefore discussable whether the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could have stopped the Holocaust.

The scapegoat theory got some validation from an unexpected disciple in recent years. Archaeologists had difficulty explaining why humankind shifted from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a society based on agriculture. Although it would have been logical if agriculture was a more efficient way to get your food compared to hunting, the problem is that this efficiency was only realized after a couple generations. Way too long to explain this shift. One promising explanation states that people started to live sedentary because that way they didn’t need to sacrifice their fellow human beings to their Gods, but could use the recently domesticated animals instead. This means that the only reason why animals where allowed a place within human culture was because they could be violently casted out again. If human civilization can be this fundamentally based on the sacrifice of both Jews and animals, the emancipation of these scapegoats may be more difficult then we realize.

‘In God we Trust’

In god we trust

Imagine the entire universe as being one single squat. Would people use money in this squat? Probably not. Most people who live together in such a small community, contribute to this community because they trust that the other members of this community will try to do the same. Each member of the squat would have different needs and each member would have different abilities to take care of these needs. As long as people trust each other there’s no need to put these needs and abilities on a scale which determines who contributed the most and who contributed the least. So, what would be needed before this one-single-squat-universe would start to use money?

Well, if people don’t use money because they trust each other, chances are that they will use money if they don’t trust each other. This makes sense in our squat-universe as well. If there would be a single member who consequently doesn’t contribute to the community, this member would probably not be trusted anymore. So there would start to arise a need to have some system which could count what people owe each other.

This teaches us a valuable lesson about money. The inauguration of money is always accompanied by a loss of trust in the community. Although it’s an interesting question which caused which (did money cause people to distrust each other or did distrust create the need for money), it’s a question which I will leave aside. What’s important to note at this point, is that this inauguration of money isn’t unambiguously good or evil. Yes, money means people don’t trust each other anymore, but the alternative may be far worse. If money wouldn’t be invented in the squat which has a free rider (someone who takes without ever giving in return) this free rider would probably be locked up in his or her room, being deprived of freedom.

Yet, money isn’t a neutral medium which solves the problem of distrust. It’s a politically biased medium which incorporates the problem of distrust on a more abstract level. What if the refrigerator in the squat-universe would only be filled if you write a slightly Marxist inspired essay? In a moneyless community where I would trust my fellow roommates I would ask if the writing of Marxist essays could be considered as just as important for the community as cleaning and doing the maintenance, since it’s now a form of labour which is needed to get food. If, on the other hand, I would be living in the  squat which uses money because people don’t trust each other,  I wouldn’t ask a thing. Eventually people would get hungry and come to me to offer their money to get food. If I would be the only one who could write a Marxist essay, I would not only ask a lot of money to write one, I would probably believe that I would be justified in asking a lot of money. These starving little beggars came to me to ask for help!

Sure, in real life there may be some better competition in the writing of Marxist essays or any other manner to produce something. Yet, the means of production are never justly spread out through any given society. We shouldn’t mistake the social-economic position we have in a society as being just as long as we live in a society which is based on distrust.

Waiting for the Barbarians

Barbarians

In 1980, the South-African writer J.M. Coetzee published his novel ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’. A story about a border town in an enormous empire. Officially, this border town functioned as the place where civilization stopped and where barbarism began. Beyond the gates of this town lived the barbarians. In reality however, the people in this town knew that the barbarians where peaceful beings which the town depended on. Weren’t it for the trade with the barbarians, the town wouldn’t have the necessary resources to sustain itself. Due to a misfortunate series of events, the empire decides to start a war with the barbarians. Although the army of the empire heavily outnumbers the strength of the barbarians, the war eventually starts to cause the decline of the empire because of its dependency on these barbarians.

A border determines what the inside is and what the outside is, but because a border ‘draws a line’ it also creates a relation of dependency: What is inside a border is inside because it isn’t outside, yet it does need this outside to claim a stable identity. The empire in Coetzee’s story needs the barbarians, not only to sustain itself economically, but also to think of itself as being civilized. We can see this phenomenon not only within literature but also within art. The framework of a famous artwork for example decides what should be considered as art and what should be considered as mere decoration or even as the museum wall. Of course, modern and contemporary art always plays with this frame. When an artist like Duchamp puts an urinal upside down in a gallery he automatically poses the questions: ‘what is art?’, ‘which boundaries are needed to define art?’, ‘are there boundaries needed to define art?’. This play with the boundary of what is included and what is excluded seems more relevant today than ever.

We live in the paradoxical situation that after the collapse of the long boundary which divided the world in two, the Iron Curtain, humanity has seen a rise in walls popping up all around the globe. While today’s economy seems more global and more interdependent than ever, people in Mexico, people in Palestine, even people at the borders of Europe are excluded because of a line which was drawn. The words and feelings that we use to separate people into different categories, the walls that we need to protect our sense of identity, the histories that haunt our prejudices on which we exclude people. These are all necessary topics to address if we want to understand these arbitrary lines in our landscape. So, although an upside-down urinal may have lost its originality, similar artistic gestures haven’t lost their relevance.

Waiting for the Messiah

Messiah

Supposedly there are Jewish families who, when they have dinner, serve an additional plate on their table. This additional plate is for in case the Messiah decides to come to earth and happens to be hungry. In that case he or she can always eat with the Jewish family in question. There is a deeply emancipatory logic in this idea that if the Messiah comes, it will be in the guise of a stranger, a traveller so to speak.

If the Messiah comes, he or she will be able to discern right from wrong, good from bad and justice from injustice. In short, he or she will be able to tell what the truth is. The fact that you wait for the Messiah thus automatically means that you acknowledge that you don’t know what the truth is now, in the present. Yet, the fact that you believe that he or she might show up one day makes you responsible to never stop asking these questions: What is right? What is good? What is just?

This logic is present in radical emancipatory politics as well. Although most activists would consider themselves to atheistic to believe in the coming of the Messiah, it could still be argued that activists consider their struggles as struggles for a better future, a future where their struggles will finally be rewarded. But, just as there is no guarantee that the Messiah will come, it is important to take into account that this better future should never be considered as a promised future. Something which is promised to you is something which you have a right to. The idea that someone has a more privileged right to the future than someone else seems profoundly totalitarian to me.

Walter Benjamin, one of the most creative and influential figures within twentieth century Marxism, once claimed that if the Messiah comes, it will be a historian. He or she will be able to tell the stories of all the victims which are now simply forgotten because history is written by the victors. Whereas the future will always be an abstract concept, history is at least something which happened. Although there must be victims of capitalism, of state-power, of patriarchy, of racism, of injustice which will always remain forgotten, some of these victims will have left traces. Traces which will help us think about the questions: What is right? What is good? What is just? Traces which will help us realize that if present day struggles will be beaten, there might always be a future where someone will find our traces and remember these struggles as they where meant.

Yet, this will always be a future which might be, there is no guarantee that it will come. It could very well be that these struggles where fought completely in vain. As such, it’s better to look at the past and leave the future open than to fight for a future while forgetting your past. Just as the waiting for the Messiah should be considered as more messianistic than the actual coming of the Messiah.