Decolonial Memory and Climate Debt

I’m in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for the American Studies Conference. While this is perhaps the most progressive, even radical, academic event, it’s heartening to hear how many people have heard of the Rolling Jubilee. And how many love it. At the same time, as ever, it’s useful to look back at our situation from the decolonial perspective. The realization follows that New York is just another North Atlantic island with many of the same problems as places like Puerto Rico or Martinique.

Outside the hotel, the sea comes right the way up to the building here in Condado. Trucked in sand tries to hold it back but where the main hotels are here, there’s somewhere between twenty and thirty years before it floods. Barrier islands are no longer places to live.

On a panel about Caribbean environmental politics, two familiar themes emerged. First, zones of flooding and poverty tend to coincide and diminish the social agency of those who live there. If, as urban ethnographers have argued, you can think of cities as bodies, they also have embodied memories that are revealed at times of crisis. In this sense, they occupy themselves by making visible what needs to be done.

In Martinique, we learned, environmental activists have no issue with seeing the resonances between the current attempts to use carcinogenic pesticides, turn uninhabited beaches into hotels or mangrove swamps to shopping centers and the colonial past, including slavery. In fact, the presentation began with the monument at Anse Diamant to enslaved Africans drowned off the coast of the island.

Anse Caffard. Martinique

The figures are white because that is the color of death in West Africa from where the enslaved probably came. They look forever at the place where the ship went down and, in traditional African belief, the departed would have traveled from there via the underwater world of the spirits to an eventual return to Africa.

On the island today, activists visualize two classes: the béké, or the descendants of the slave-owners and colonists, who control all economic activity; and the people or the MartiniquaisHere is the divide between the one per cent and the 99% in the decolonial context. By decolonial, I mean that the formal colonization is over and yet the influence of the colonizers and their allies is still dominant.

The next point was more thought provoking still. Although groups like Assaupamar, for the preservation of Martinique’s culture and ecology, use the slogan Pays-nous (our country), they also recognize that, whether of African or European descent, they are not the original inhabitants. They stress a politics of responsibility rather than ownership, which the béké class do not–perhaps cannot–recognize.

I know there are many differences but I am also struck by these similarities. Coalitions of the 99% seeking to work past historical differences against a common perception that it is not possible to have the one per cent recognize what is said. Highly racialized cities, with clear segregation that overlaps the flood zones. Remember that people of color were moved to the Far Rockaways in the first place to make way for Lincoln Center so the one per cent could go to the opera.

If we are to acknowledge the realities of climate debt, we have to provincialize New York and see that it is just another flood-prone former colonial port with a race and class problem. Wall Street was the site of a slave market and a wall to keep out the indigenous. The material practices have changed but there are clear resonances that we have to learn to hear. There has been so much discussion of the memories evoked by the boardwalks destroyed in Jersey and the Rockaways. We need to listen more closely.


Mining The Future

One way of thinking about debt is spending the future: a debt incurred today must be repaid with future earnings. In planetary terms, mining places us all in biosphere debt. To open a mine is to guarantee further primary extraction, incurring high energy use, new carbon emissions, destruction of the local environment, atmospheric and water pollution. It further sets in motion the commodity production process because new minerals will become new cars or girders or an iPhone. In short, any chance at moving away from neo-liberalism would have to begin with a slowdown or even cessation of mining. At present mining companies are all trying to expand, while also reducing still further their labor costs. It will take a co-ordinated global movement to push back.

Last week the transnational steel giant ArcelorMittal finally closed its Florange steel furnaces in France, having waited out the French elections and the Olympics (where ArcelorMittal was a major sponsor). 700 jobs were lost with the usual knock-on effects that such retrenchment entails. As in 1981, the Socialist administration is discovering that its room for maneuver is far more limited than they expected.

In South Africa yesterday, the Anglo-American Platinum corporation resolved a three-week strike by firing 12,000 workers. The standard pattern sees the company then hire back a fraction of its former staff and reduce output. At present, world platinum prices have recovered from their low-point of August, to 2011 trading highs of about $1700 an ounce, still far below 2008 levels of $2200. More than enough to pay the salary being demanded by the miners which, at 15,000 Rand is ironically about $1700, the price of a single ounce of platinum. Too much for Anglo-American. In a country where people are desperate for work, firing workers that have become militant and replacing them with a totally different workforce is an acceptable option.

Xstrata mining in Australia

Xstrata, the world’s largest extractor of thermal coal, is still trying to merge with a financial company called Glencore in a $32 billion deal. The Glencore-Xstrata merger is unusual in that it brings together financial capital with primary extraction in the same company:

Xstrata is very good at operating mines efficiently and at low cost, without upsetting local communities. Glencore is not.

But it does boast a global network of commodities traders who possess unrivalled intelligence on global demand trends that theoretically allows them to make money at any stage of the commodity cycle.

This will create what corporate-speak calls a “vertically-integrated” company. In fact, it will amount to a dramatic change in philosophy. Xstrata is a greedy, play-it-safe company that works cosy, inside deals in countries that are considered “safe,” meaning pliant to neo-liberal market world views. Glencore, according to business journalist Nils Prately, are altogether more aggressive:

The Glencore thesis is that the best returns come from extending so-called brownfield sites and that the political risk that goes with investing in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo is tolerable.

Translated into English, this means that expansion in under-regulated, low-wage regions is considered worth the risk of political upheaval. This is not to say that Xstrata are not in favor of biosphere devastation.

McArthur River zine mine, Australia

This August they won approval from the Australian government to convert an underground zinc mine into a massive open-cut operation in Northern Territory (above). It’s just that they like governments who can be relied on to jump to the precise height required with no foreseeable risk of change.

Ironically, it’s being held up not by concerns about the disastrous biosphere impact but about the egregious payday (even by Wall Street standards) that Xstrata management lined up for themselves. Merger and retention bonuses (cash for showing up on Monday to do the job you had on Friday) would amount to a whopping $233 million. Shareholders are now getting to vote on the compensation deal but the big investors like Qatar’s sovereign fund are now behind it.

So we can see that neither shareholder activism, as in the Glencore-Xstrata merger, or strikes by workers as in France and South Africa, have been able to restrain multi-national mining.

In Texas beginning on September 24, a group of activists have taken to the trees to prevent the Keystone XL pipeline from being completed. This pipeline is being built to bring the “carbon-bomb” of Alberta’s tarsands oil to the Gulf coast. If you look at the clear-cutting and construction going on, it’s hard to imagine that a “decision” seriously remains to be made after this kind of expenditure. After November, whoever wins the elections, this pipeline will be authorized. The Texas activists, like their predecessors in the logging struggles in Washington State, have taken to the trees.

So confident of their future are Big Oil, energy and mining that they’re not even giving that much money to Mitt Romney (relatively speaking). They rank only number nine, way behind the Wall Street firms and banks who have decided that the current docile administration is still far too hostile to them.
Nonetheless, there’s a palpable chance they have overplayed their hand. All the minerals were being mined for China, whose economy appears to be slowing down drastically. There are ongoing strikes in the diamond, iron, chrome, platinum and gold sectors of South Africa’s mining industry. They can’t replace all these people.. By placing their bodies in the way of the neo-liberal machine,  the tree-sitters have made the issues visible. If we want things to change, we have to make a similar effort.

The Extinction of Natural Time

Take a moment out of the beautiful fall day to mourn the passing of the biosphere. It seems to have barely registered on the global hive mind that the Arctic sea ice melted this year to an extent never seen before. In a matter of years, not decades, there will be no ice in the Arctic in summer. A world without a North Pole. A biosphere that no longer plays out according to its own rhythm and time but has become a by-product of the capitalist profit/loss cycle.

People often say this is too depressing to think about because it’s so overwhelming. Let’s try and come at it through a single detail. And get angry, not sad.

A scientist from the National Snow and Ice Data Center tried to document the change in the Arctic by measuring ice floes, pieces of ice floating in the sea.

She was unable to find one sufficiently dense to support her weight. In the nineteenth century, when British whaling ships went to exactly the same region of the Arctic, near Spitsbergen (Svalbard in Norwegian, as in the map), the ice was so dense and heavy that they moored their ships on ice floes. They would then use chains to lift whales out of the water to strip their blubber, while counterbalanced with the ice.


Visually, in a century we have gone from here, a whaling ship trapped in the ice with other ships operating nearby:

to here, a former whaling site in the summer of 2012, the whaling season:

Baffin Bay in 2012, former whaling site (AFP photo)

This isn’t long in human time. In what used to be geological time, it’s too short to measure. Capitalist time has now eliminated geological time, it’s extinct. This wasn’t supposed to happen until 2050 or later, according to projections made only five years ago.

The cause is the same as that which led the whalers to the Arctic in the first place: the relentless autoimmune destructive force of capitalism’s need for energy. Whalers first hunted commercially in the Bay of Biscay in the sixteenth century. Soon, the animals were extinct there. They turned to walruses and eliminated them. By the late eighteenth century an Arctic whaling boom was in full swing, as whale oil could be used in the textile and lighting industries. So the whales died to keep factories open after dark, as the oil produced by Arctic whales was low quality compared to sperm whale oil. The shift, the working day and the concept of separating time into “work” time and “leisure” time are by-products of the human conquest of diurnal time and space.

By the late nineteenth century, Arctic whales had disappeared in turn and the British industry went fallow for a few decades. Another time we’ll think about whaling as the first paradigm for globalization. The remnant of all this destruction is the continuing Norwegian insistence on hunting whales, despite their extensive oil reserves.

The message of the open Arctic is clear. Capitalism is constitutively incapable of restraining itself. It cannot be reformed or regulated in its quest for energy, as indicated by the insane efforts of governments and corporations to use the melting in the Arctic to drill for more oil. Its only measure of time is the profit cycle, which must always move forward and always creates “externalities,” such as the death of the biosphere.

So don’t mourn the biosphere: organize. It’s time.

Sense of Planet/Planet Sensing

What are the possibilities of imagining and knowing the planet? A symposium in Sydney addressed this question today at what it called “earth magnitude.” Can the planet be “sensed’? How do the new dynamics of human and non-human within globalized networks of communication change our understandings of life itself?

Ursula Heise drew on legends like Gilgamesh to show that we have always have been haunted by fears of mass extinction. She has developed the concept of “sense of planet” to supplement the better known assumption of “sense of place.” She has less interest in concepts of place, not least because as a German she is suspicious of the Nazi rhetoric of soil and locality. Her project promotes by contrast a concept of “eco-cosmopolitanism” in which our responsibility is to learn more about the way that others envisage place rather than cultivate our own gardens.

Her new project interestingly suggests that planetary awareness stems from databases. She argues that the database is the “primary planetary sense organ,” building on Lev Manovich’s ideas that the database is “a cultural form of its own.” In this context, the database is a paradigm that generates narratives.

Such databases as the Census of Marine Life, the Catalogue of Life, the Encyclopedia of Life, and the Consortium for the Barcode of Life allow us a new means to create a planetary paradigm of life. Heise showed how artists like Maya Lin have created database-generated projects, like her What Is Missing? (Click the link to play). Indeed, the Taronga Zoo at Sydney that I visited yesterday is a form of living taxonomy of scarcity, in which the wall text next to animal enclosures highlights the extent to which the species is threatened.

Such archives oscillate between minimalist and sublime aesthetics. As an example of the former, Joel Satore photographs and displays endangered and extinct species in distinctly anti-romantic form. By contrast, the TV generated ARKive featuring David Attenborough uses a familiar info-tainment sublime by generating high-resolution full color images of rare animals with an aesthetic of imminent disappearance. For Heise, such projects are modern epics that acknowledge an inevitable shortfall in their efforts to capture the world-system. Such work sees itself as part of an epic struggle to preserve life itself, a recuperation of the heroic out of the horizontal. Here then we find the “great man” theory of history re-entering the database as an organizing principle.

The eye of Avatar

Tim Morton talked about Avatar in the frame of his dark ecology. He stressed the way in which it addressed the need for an environmental politics without satisfying it. The Anthropocene provides a precision of dating that is uncanny in relation to geological time. Avatar is a fantasy of an organic Internet, an embodiment into the planet, which Morton calls “planet sense.” Ironically, present-day environmentalism shows precisely how we are necessarily always interactive with the planet. It’s worth remembering that the film centers on the desire for colonial mining, a representation of the existing global South. Avatar centers around such binaries, epitomized by Jake who is human and Navi at once.

For Morton, Avatar is an object in the sense of Object-Oriented Ontology, an animist vision making the film into a person. OOO places things at the center of its attention, a set whose members are not identical to themselves. Reality is, in this view, “profoundly disjointed.” It moves past the logic of non-contradiction. There is no vantage point outside the set, reality cannot be peeled away. Morton has a dense philosophical analysis that is hard to summarize, it must be said.

This sense that “we are not the world” troubles the relation between foreground and background: how can we bring together beings that cannot be reduced? There is no “world” in this view. So: doom. Doom is fate and a judgement, but it is also justice, the figure of deconstruction. Humans’s doom is to recognize the presence of the non-human.

Jennifer Gabrys talked about planet sensing in fieldwork she carried out in Lapland. Environmental monitoring takes place in the far North using computational sensors, where it is a key scientific activity. This sensing creates a database, rather than recording “how things really are.” She argues that there are many forms of sensing, quoting Alfred Whitehead

We are in the world and the world is in us.

The subject emerges from the world and vice-versa. Objects like rocks have experience insofar as they are affected by the world, and says Steven Shaviro

this being affected is its experience.

From this background, Gabrys argued for “citizen sensing” as a form of environmental monitoring and participation, using open-source software like Arduino. For example, Beatriz da Costa has used pigeons to monitor air quality in Los Angeles. Such projects questions who or what counts as a citizen, a question that resonates within the Occupy movement. Perhaps such environmental action might constitute citizenship, or becoming a sensing citizen?

Finally, Marco Peljhan presented his Arctic Perspective Initiative (together with many others) as a Constructivist Engagement. He noted that satellite sensing and its massive data sets are largely open source. He has used such data in the Makrolab projects that detailed migrations of capital and climate. Working with Inuit partners in the Arctic, however, it became clear that a longer-term approach was necessary. Under Stalin, the Arctic was part of the Gulag and subject to an “accidental” genocide. In Canada, major dislocation was common and culturally destructive. The theme became one of resilience, a key theme for life in the Arctic.

The Initiative created renewable and sustainable digital labs for the Arctic, including hydroponic gardens. The group offered local Inuit film makers courses in video editing using open source software, aerial maps, The current project is called Sinuni, a climate/weather and land recording device, using satellite imagery. This interface between indigenous oral knowledge and globalized digital military-industrial technology provides a means to repurpose military visualization for autonomous purposes.

Reflections to follow tomorrow with my own contribution.

[ps written on the fly so apologies for typos etc]


In Search of Wilderness

The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains National Park. Credit: WikiCommons

A thousand feet down, a flight of cockatoos makes its way across the green canopy, clearly visible through the bright mountain air. Loud calls of unseen birds echo across the forest. The sandstone cliffs are steep and challenging, plunging the walker from time to time into rainforest, where the footing is damp and muddy, only for the trail to then climb almost vertically.

I’m a city boy, born and bred, and I’ve lived in London or New York for the greater part of my life. So why do I find such moments so appealing? Even though I know that they are fake? There’s a learned urban desire for mental renewal by being outside, a middle-class Disneyland.

In the past year, those of us in the Occupy movement have spent a great deal of time outdoors. Radical politics in eighteenth century Britain was known as “out-of-doors.” So if the presumed “public sphere” is in fact largely indoors, in coffee houses, theatres, meeting halls, and the like, its radical supplement is often outdoors. We’ve drawn much energy from being outside in the urban interior–for cities, as Benjamin taught us, are all interior.

For the most part, however, conservation has been, as the name suggests, a conservative movement. It was tied to the sense of nation as the land and a particular kind of embodiment that resulted from having been born on that land. The obvious contradictions in such views, such as the exclusion of indigenous peoples from that nationhood, never troubled conservationist nationalism.

It is perhaps, then, no coincidence that the realignment of the environment as a “left” issue was contemporary with the Civil Rights Movement. In the U. S., the 1964 Wilderness Act, defined the condition poetically rather than quantitatively and to the exclusion of questions of belonging:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

Is there such a place? The Blue Mountains have been lived in by the Gundungurra, Darug, and Wiradjuri people for over 20,000 years. But when the British arrived in Australia, they declared the entire continent terra nullius, unclaimed or empty land–wilderness.

In 1813, a British surveyor noted coal in the region. Two years later, a group of convicts were compeled to build a road into the area. Actual mining began in the 1870s and continued until the end of the Second World War. The traces of mining are not apparent to the untrained eye but the shale oil formations give shape, I learned, to some of the distinctive topography. It was not until 1967 that the modern Aboriginal peoples gained full citizenship in what has become Australia around them.

Indeed, the walk that I took in the Blue Mountains was made possible by the Herculean construction of steps and paths in the cliffs, beginning with the Federal Pass walk created in 1900 to celebrate Australian Federation. While the Federal Pass is still celebrated, the “White Australia” policy that went along with it has been omitted from the story. Now the presence of the indigenous is well acknowledged and their account of the region’s history is presented to all visitors.

Like so many hilltops in colonized nations, the Blue Mountains were once a retreat for colonial administrators away from the summer heat of their domains. Recast as wilderness for tourism, the mountains still tell useful and important stories. Even the clear water that rushes past and falls so dramatically down waterfalls is, despite appearances, polluted with urban run-off and you are warned not to drink it.

Wilderness was a modernist fiction designed to create set-aside regions of physical space to provide mental contrast for urban workers. The very fact of its palpable “contamination,” its complex and challenging histories and consequent impossibility makes for a different kind of appeal. There’s no reason not to go, enjoy a walk or a climb. It’s just not “wilderness.” It’s outdoor Disneyland.


On Growth, Sugar and the Forest

Another day, another World Heritage Area. Today we headed through the Queensland sugar plantations to the rainforests of the Kuku Yalanji people. The experience was a direct clash between destructive but highly productive Western agriculture and indigenous no-growth stewardship of the land. For two centuries, this has been a history of the former defeating the latter. The Yalanji have been here for 40,000 years, though, so this little story is just a blip. What we saw was the contradiction between “globalization” and the planetary.

It was during the American Civil War that Queensland jumped into the business of sugar cane production to meet the fall in supply. Sugar cane was an immensely labor-intensive process and so indigenous labor from across the Pacific was brought in under compulsion.

Sugar planting in Queensland around 1870

Missionaries had no hesitation in calling it slavery (above). As a self-governing colony (until 1901), Queensland nonetheless had a free hand. The compeled labor was brought in from relatively close locations like ni-Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands and as far away as Polynesia. They were called “blackbirds,” and are still trying to get their story recognized.

In more recent times, the industry declined until the rise in demand for ethanol led to a massive revival. Although the cane growing is now highly mechanized, the square plantations of seven foot high plants, each as thick as a large finger, would be recognizable to any plantation owner or worker.

As ever, the grass (sugar cane is a grass) is visibly destructive. The crop rapidly denudes the soil because the indigenous tropical flora, although spectacular, are evolved to grow in the poor, sandy soil. Later we were shown a tree in the forest from whose seeds the Yalanji make bread. It’s eight hundred years old and only about twelve feet high. Sugar cane seedlings that I saw were therefore surrounded by black compost and white chemical powders. In between the fields, which are in all stages of production from planting to recently harvested, stand a few remnants of the forest.

Higher up, where the cane can’t grow, the rainforest and its people survive, protected now as a National Park and a UNESCO heritage site. Today the steep green slopes were shrouded in mist and cloud, looking more like Aotearoa New Zealand than the Sunshine State. The Kuku Yalanji people have recently begun to offer guided tours of their land and its culture.

Guides from the Kuku Yalanji people

Our walk, guided by Jenny, also known as Butterfly, was beautiful and informative. Apparently uninteresting plants were revealed to be means of cleaning, healing, or sources of food. Shelters were left for others to use, rather than being demolished. Few now live in this traditional way, but there’s a commitment to remembering and passing on the old ways. It’s easy to be naive and romanticize this way of life. But as Raymond (Kija/Moon) emphasized at the end of our tour, these people have survived in this place for millennia without rendering it unusable, as Europeans have managed in a couple of centuries.

Raymond performed the digeridoo for us, and showed the required technique of circular breathing, also used by some jazz players like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Wynton Marsalis. Accompanying himself with clapsticks, he gave a virtuoso performance, imitating the sounds of numerous animals above the drone-like beat. He also insisted that the instrument was forbidden to women, although there are many known instances to the contrary. It seems to be another instance where a reaction against European culture is producing a more conservative form of indigenous culture. For example, art works that were formerly permitted by Elders to be seen in galleries have recently been reclassified as secret.

It’s hard to be censorious. The cassowary bird is a key link in the rainforest ecosystem.

Cassowary bird

It eats fruits that are poisonous to humans and disseminates the seeds in its scat. Humans have now taken to feeding the flightless bird. The cassowary becomes accustomed to being fed and sometimes attacks people for food. Human food has altered its digestive system, so we were told, with the result that it is less able to digest the fruits it normally eats. It’s at these small intersections that things go out of joint and violence results.

If it’s a direct choice between sugar culture and indigenous conservation, it’s seems clear where we should go. But it isn’t. The Kuku Yalanji are not proposing that kind of return to a lost beginning, in part because the land could no longer support the numbers of people that there are here, and in part because electricity, health care and other such modern conveniences are not worth revoking. There are some people living traditionally off the coast of the island of Kauai, part of the Hawai’ian archipelago, it should be said, and traditional navigation is making a return across the Pacific. By the same token, we can’t choose modern-style growth as a solution because there aren’t enough resources for everyone to live in the Anglo-US-Australian way. This is the sharpest edge between the myth of “globalization” and the actual experience of the planetary. All the choices are bad.

Dare to Know?

I’m in Port Douglas, Australia. Like just about everyone else who visits here, I went today to see the Great Barrier Reef. It’s not unusual for people to finish sentences like that with the quip “while it’s still there.” Indeed, the Australian government has said that chances for coral reefs are very poor. Two hundred years ago, Westerners had no idea the Reef was even there. Now we’re exploring Mars, which is astonishing, but destroying our own habitat, which is worse. Have we dared to know too much?

Old Enlightenment hands will recognize Kant’s challenge in What is Enlightenment?:

sapere aude/dare to know

Who should do such daring? Kant was, among other accomplishments, the first to teach a course on anthropology, although he never traveled. In his various writings on the subject, he established what I take to be a fundamental distinction of Enlightenment between the modern North and the “islands of the South,” which were not only not modern, they could  not be modern by definition. For Kant, the South was impossible, out of time, and out of place.

When his contemporary Captain Cook was here at about the same time, he sailed right into the Barrier Reef. Despite his permanent accolade as the “greatest seaman of all time,” his navigation had no concept of such obstacles. The Endeavour had to be repaired and it took over three months. Let’s note that such bricolage would be far beyond any present-day vessel but also realize how much support Cook must have had from the indigenous population to survive, even if that support was compeled, or limited to not killing them. Now the Reef is widely known, a “trip of a lifetime” destination. Judging by the array of facilities here, many people take that trip.

Without lapsing into Romantic sublime, the Reef really is amazing. If you’ve seen Northern hemisphere corals in Florida or the Caribbean, the first thing you learn is how utterly devastated they are by comparison. I’m aware there’s no science in this statement but what I’ve seen is the best local people think they can find to sell to tourists. Although you do see Crown of Thorns starfish, which were the great threat to the Reef before global warming, what remains is nonetheless dazzling. It’s not just the color and the patterns but the interactive adaptation. A fish saw me coming and descended into an anemone, which then wrapped its stinging tentacles around it. It’s that kind of balance that carbon emissions have knocked permanently out of homeostasis by increasing water temperature and acidity. Everyone knows this. No person in a position to do anything asks how they would dare to explain to their grandchildren that, yes, there were such ecosystems but we stood by and let them die.

If you’ve seen bleached coral, it looks not unlike Mars.

Curiosity descending to Mars (artist impression)

Curiosity is the Endeavour of our time: sent for science but with hopes of gain, conquest and colonization not far behind. The sad thing is that, if we want a lifeless desert to explore, we’re making lots of them all over our own planet. What would it take for us to dare to know that? How can we learn, finally, that the South is fully and integrally part of Enlightenment, the modern, knowledge, or whatever you feel inclined to call it?

The Non-Human Hunger Games

In jet-lagged mode, you are always susceptible to odd feelings of paranoia. So it may not be totally advisable to watch The Hunger Games on the plane. Or perhaps it was. After all, its construct of a media-dominated society controlling dissent by spectacle is far from paranoid. On his legendary blog K-Punk, Mark Fisher compares the London Olympics to the Hunger Games:

The function of the Hunger Games is to suppress antagonism, via spectacle and terror. In the same way, London 2012– preceded and accompanied by the authoritarian lockdown and militarisation of the city– is being held up as the antidote to all discontent. The feelgood Olympics, we are being assured, will do everything from making good the damage done by last year’s riots to seeing off the “threat” of Scottish independence.

It would be interesting to discuss what the right parallel would be in the U. S. to suppress Occupy: is counterinsurgency and the endless threat of terror the Hunger Games? Or is politics, wildly divorced as it is from any actual needs that most people have, our version?

Here in Sydney where I have now arrived, I went like a good tourist first to the once legendary Acquarium. It’s been rebuilt to accomodate a zoo made into spectacle called Wildlife Sydney. Breathlessly promising “interactive adventure [and] encounter,” while advertising that the most dangerous animals in the world are found in Australia, it seems that  the real and present threat of the degenerating biosphere is transformed into bio-entertainment. Of course, what I’m seeing here is not about Australia, which I barely know, but the kind of spectacle that is so commonplace in the U. S. that I don’t usually even notice it. Think Sea World, and other marine “parks,” where the dolphins routinely commit suicide by drowning themselves.

As is all too common in zoos, the animals here are palpably distressed to be contained in small spaces designed so that they will be visible at all times. A wombat ran from one side to another of its small “outback” space, clearly looking to get out, as did a small nocturnal marsupial, whose name I can’t remember. The wallabies just sat, as if stunned to be so restrained. It’s not an interactive space for the non-humans, that’s for sure.

The star of this sad little show is Rex the crocodile, whose 25 foot long bulk extends all the way across his pool. In his case, it is clear that he is being held in prison. He was first captured after attacking domestic animals. Taken to a crocodile farm to breed, he responded by attacking female crocodiles brought to him (described as his “girlfriends”). So he was carted off to the Wildlife Spectacle as one guaranteed dangerous exhibit, fed a chicken a day. When they gave him a turkey for Christmas, he responded by splattering it all over not only his enclosure but the whole space. I would call that sending a message, wouldn’t you?

Zoos were created as a visible example of the “conquest of nature” as Hegelian naturalists and colonizers were happy to call it in the nineteenth century. With the rise of modern environmental consciousness, they changed their mission to preserving species that are otherwise being threatened with extinction. As there are up to 100,000 species becoming extinct a year, zoos are going to be very busy places in the decades ahead. Perhaps that’s why Wildlife Sydney never uses the word “zoo” anywhere.

I don’t want, however, to suggest that Australia is particularly to blame here. In fact, the front pages of Australia’s newspapers are full of discussions of the carbon tax that the Labor government has installed. I don’t know enough to say how good a policy it is, but at the very least the need to try and offset the damage done to life is being recognized. The damage to the ozone layer is a fact of daily life here, where hats and sunblock are year round necessities.

Of course, as a character points out in The Hunger Games, we could all stop watching the Olympics, going to zoos, or indeed the movies. But how would we occupy ourselves then?


In search of protest past

So I had this idea for Memorial Day weekend that it would be interesting to look back at past protest literature from the New York area and see what could be learned, in the manner of all those op-eds about nineteenth-century presidents and Greek wars. I looked again at Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities. For all the obvious differences, there’s one clear similarity: the NYPD were awful even then.

Carson’s very title depends on a conceit that I don’t think still works very much. It comes from the idea that because of bird death resulting from the use of the pesticide DDT, there might be a spring without bird song. Although I did have a friend go back to England because he missed the song of the thrushes (a small brown bird), I’m not sure that most of us would register the difference now. I rarely notice birds singing, except when starlings are massing for migration. As we now mostly travel in sealed vehicles, more often than not with ear-buds in place, that interface is less vital than it once was.

DDY being sprayed in 1948

On the other hand, Carson mentions that after the village of Setauket on the north shore of Long Island was sprayed with DDT, a horse drank from a trough in the high street–and died immediately. The toxicity of DDT was its selling point and Long Island was doused with it to try and eradicate the gypsy moth to no avail. In the years since there has been a notorious breast cancer hotspot on the Island. DDT is said not to be a carcinogen and all the studies made have failed to show a link between pesticide use and cancer–except it might be said for the one in real women’s bodies in real space. Rachel Carson died of breast cancer shortly after her book was published in 1962.

But if you Google Carson and DDT, half the entries you will see accuse her of being a murderer. The bizarre conceit is that malaria in the dominated world could be more effectively eradicated with widespread use of DDT and the fact that is not is Carson’s fault. There is a perfectly effective way to prevent malaria, which is to give people treated mosquito nets. It works, it’s cheap and it has no side-effects. But giving money for that would not have the fun of “demolishing” an environmental pioneer.

Jane Jacobs (center) in The White Horse, Hudson St

The New York City described by Jane Jacobs is perhaps even more remote than the world of horse troughs and bird song in Carson’s book. It’s a place where you can leave a key for a visiting friend at the local deli and everyone has an eye out for the kid in the street. In fact, this culture of what she directly calls “surveillance” is a bit creepy: when people encircle a man who is trying to get a child to follow him, it turns out he is her father. She talks off-handedly of a neglected park in Philadelphia becoming a “pervert park,” meaning a place for same-sex assignations in the era of the closet. There’s no street politics in this book, rather a permanent watchfulness that takes its pleasure in seeing that “all is well.”

Jacobs’ view of the mixed use, high density urban space has become canonical now, even if her follow-up thought that “slums” should be left alone has not. Much of her argument against the Le Corbusier influenced city planner now seems a bit slow-going, so thoroughly has the view reversed. On the other hand, she’s completely right when she says:

that the sight of people attracts still other people, is something that city planners and city architectural designers seem to find incomprehensible. They operate on the premise that city people seek the sight of emptiness, obvious order and quiet. Nothing could be less true. The presences of great numbers of people gathered together in cities should not only be frankly accepted as a physical fact – they should also be enjoyed as an asset and their presence celebrated.

You could apply this insight to see why Bloomberg et al. originally left Zuccotti alone to transform itself into Liberty Plaze: because it simply never occurred to them that anyone would be interested, still less want to join in or follow the Occupiers’ example.

Jacobs waged her campaigns by local petitions that she would then take to the Board of Estimate, a land-use body composed of the Mayor, the Comptroller, the Council President and the Borough Presidents. It met once a week and could be petitioned by citizens, until the Supreme Court abolished it in 1989. If this sounds like a democracy gone by, that’s certainly the case. On the other hand, look what happened to Jacobs in 1968:

Jane Jacobs, a nationally known writer on urban problems, was arraigned in Criminal Court yesterday and charged with second-degree riot, inciting to riot and criminal mischief. The police had originally charged that Mrs. Jacobs tried to disrupt a public meeting on the controversial Lower Manhattan Expressway. ‘The inference seems to be,’ Mrs. Jacobs said, ‘that anybody who criticizes a state program is going to get it in the neck.’”

The New York Times, April 18, 1968

Now that sounds familiar enough: being charged with rioting for trying to express an opinion at a public meeting. So it turns out that some things never change.

From Debt to Land: via the Farm and the Forest

Yesterday, I talked with friends about whether it might be possible to do for climate and food justice what David Graeber and others like Occupy Student Debt have done so powerfully with debt–transform it from a guilt-inducing issue to a mobilizing one. In Debt Graeber both refuses to accept that the modern has priority and more simply still talks about a one-word term that has resonance for all of us.

As I write a major university is evicting people who wanted to farm disused land: and I wondered if land might be that word for the set of issues around food, climate, animals, and so on? This is just the beginnings of an idea but here’s my train of thought, FWIW.

Quick background: in Albany, CA, Occupy the Farm took over some land owned by the University of California at Berkeley on Earth Day (April 22) and began to cultivate it as a local farm. Although you might want to see the name as a shortening of “occupy this land in order to make a farm.”

Occupy the Farm

Lesley Haddock, one of the occupiers, specifies:

Since taking over this land, the university has chopped up the original 104-acre plot and sold piece after piece to be developed. Now only 10 acres remain. That remaining plot has been transferred from the College of Natural Resources to U.C. Berkeley Capital Projects, the branch of the university responsible for securing development plans. Five of the remaining acres are already fated to be paved over for a high-end senior complex.

The occupiers have cleared and tilled the land and planted thousands of pre-prepared seedlings on about five acres of the plot. It’s a really beautiful action. The University is using the law and the police to get them out.

It’s easy to see that there is a direct link from debt to land here. UC needs to raise money because the state has cut its funding due to the Republican refusal to raise any form of taxation. Tuition is about as high as it can go, so the privatizing logic goes that it’s time to asset strip.

The land at Gill Tract happens to be Class One soil, perfect for farming. To put that in perspective, compare the urban farmers in Brooklyn, many of whom have to cultivate in planters because the soil is too contaminated, or plant sunflowers to help clean the soil of heavy metals. Even so, such land sells for about $180,000 a square foot, according to the NY Times. While the buildings that UC wants to create could in theory go anywhere, and good urban farmland like this is very scarce, it becomes highly valuable when it converts from land to “real estate.” One rumor has it that there are plans to build a Whole Foods on the site.

Now the cycle of escalating force has begun. First the UC police turned off the water. Today they locked the fence, so people are passing water and food for occupier/farmers over the fence.

Water over the fence at Gill Tract

All this reminded me Hardt and Negri’s reference to the Charter of the Forest in Peter Linebaugh’s Magna Carta Manifesto. So I looked it up and it is very intriguing. Magna Carta is so known because it was linked in 1217 to the Charter of the Forest. According to the British Library,

The Charter of the Forest, 1217

The Charter of the Forest restored the traditional rights of the people, where the land had once been held in common, and restrained landowners from inflicting harsh punishments on them. It granted free men access to the forest (though at this time only about 10 per cent of the population was free).


Free men could enjoy such rights as pannage (pasture for their pigs), estover (collecting firewood), agistment (grazing), or turbary (cutting of turf for fuel).

As Linebaugh puts it, the Charter defined the limits to the privatization of the commons. Against the conservative view of the commons as a disaster waiting to happen (because everyone would use them to the maximum), he cites a definition from 1598 that stresses that the common is

a Communitate, of communitie, participation or fellowship.

You might begin to think about this defense of (limited) rights as defining a long period of land use rights from the eleventh century to the eighteenth in which there were two notable attempts to scale them back

The first was back by King John, leading to the Charters of 1217 and then King Charles attempted to revive and extend his feudal rights in the 1630s, leading to the English Revolution. The Diggers and other radicals claimed that they were defending “Anglo-Saxon liberties” against tyranny and you could see the 1649 Digger slogan “the earth a common treasury for all” as being in the spirit of the Charter.

The Marxist historian Christopher Hill used to suggest that when the Diggers called for people to abstain from waged labor and instead till the common land, it was a call for a general strike. There were explicit calls for workers to take “holidays” during the English Commonwealth (1649-1660) that led to the Chartist call for a Grand National Holiday, or general strike, in 1839. Enclosure–the private occupation of common lands– has long been understood as a key moment in the agricultural and industrial revolutions alike. The larger farms produced more food, while the displaced tenants became factory workers.

So it’s perhaps less surprising than it might seem that during the 1999 global justice protests in London, banners were again seen with “the earth a common treasury for all.” Perhaps where the Earth, the global, the environment, ecology and so on have failed to become real abstractions that motivate social movements, land might do it. Just a thought.