“Saito’s work makes it even more difficult to argue that there is something fundamentally anti-ecological about Marx’s analysis of capitalism and his projections of communism.”
INTRODUCTION by Ian Angus. In a recent C&C article, Essential Books on Marxism and Ecology, I identified two books, Marx and Nature by Paul Burkett, and Marx’s Ecology by John Bellamy Foster, as foundational contributions to our understanding of Marx’s views on the relationship between society and nature. Those books, published in 1999 and 2000, initiated a new wave of work by scholar-activists who, in Burkett’s words, “consider people-nature relations from the standpoint of class relations and the requirements of human emancipation.”
Those important books are now joined by a third work from Kohei Saito, an associate professor at Osaka City University. Saito has been deeply involved in editing Marx’s previously-unpublished notebooks for the massive new Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, and his work on that project is the basis of his extension and deepening of the work begun by Burkett and Foster. His 2016 doctoral dissertation was the basis of his book Natur gegen Kapital: Marx’ Okologie in seiner unvollendeten Kritik des Kapitalismus, now published in English by Monthly Review Press as Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, nature, and the unfinished critique of political economy.
On the basis of his detailed study of Marx’s published and unpublished works, Saito argues convincingly that “Marx’s ecological critique possesses a systematic character and constitutes an essential moment within the totality of his project of Capital … it is not possible to comprehend the full scope of his critique of political economy if one ignores its ecological dimension.” His study shows not just what Marx thought about the relationship between society and nature, but how his views developed and changed over time, as he deepened his understanding of the latest findings in natural science.
Given the importance of this research, we were very pleased to receive Paul Burkett’s notes on Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, and even more pleased that he has allowed C&C to publish them. His insightful comments are both an introduction to Saito’s work, and an explanation of why it belongs on every ecosocialist’s list of must-read books.
Paul Burkett teaches economics at Indiana State University. In addition to Marx and Nature, he is the author of Marxism and Ecological Economics, and, with John Bellamy Foster, of Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique.
SOME NOTES ON KOHEI SAITO’S
KARL MARX’S ECOSOCIALISM
by Paul Burkett
This book contributes to the ongoing reconstruction of ecological Marxism, based on the study of how ecology entered into the development of Marx’s critique of political economy. Building on prior work by John Bellamy Foster and me, Kohei Saito provides a detailed textual exploration of the nexus between Marx’s value-based analysis of capitalism and Marx’s studies of natural science.
He shows that Marx’s interest in natural science was not a mere diversion from his main work completing Capital, but was rather crucial to Marx’s deepening emphasis, as his work proceeded, on the ecological and social unsustainability of a society dominated by the reified relations of wage-labor, money, and market exchange.
Saito also shows very clearly that Marx’s analysis of the metabolic rifts (violations of ecological sustainability conditions) created by capitalism was closely bound up with his growing interest in capitalism’s systematic underdevelopment of colonized and neo-colonized areas as it expanded around the globe. In other words, there is a tight connection between metabolic rifts and ecological imperialism in Marx’s thinking.
This, in turn, sheds new light on the “late Marx’s” interest in pre-capitalist formations such as the Russian mir (rural commune), as offering potential clues to a rational management of the human-nature productive metabolism under communism.
Saito shows that Marx’s coordination of his natural science and political-economy studies enabled him to move beyond the relatively non-historical concept of human alienation (from labor, nature, and society) that he had sketched out in his 1844 notebooks under the influence of Feuerbach’s generic anthropocentric notion of human species-being (and religion as an alienation of human-species capabilities).
It will surprise those familiar with standard ecological criticisms of Marx to discover that it was the materialist, natural-science based character of the mature Marx’s analysis of capitalism that moved his thinking further and further away from “Promethean” optimism regarding the potential for humanity to technologically overcome all natural limits to production. (Saito shows this most clearly for agricultural production, but the point is more general.)
Marx’s awareness of ecological sustainability conditions, of the tendency of capitalism to violate these conditions, and of the need for post-capitalist society to rationally manage its metabolic interactions with nature, became deeper and more serious as he moved away from the more heavily ethical and generic human-speciesist thinking of his younger period. In light of various charges of speciesism against Marx, it is interesting that his analysis became less generically speciesist as his political economy developed under the influence of natural science.
Saito also usefully points out that the nineteenth century context of industrializing capitalism was not as overwhelmingly optimistic on environmental issues as is commonly asserted by today’s social ecologists. Natural scientists such as Lieibig and Fraas, and even political-economists like Jevons, broached issues of agricultural and industrial sustainability, and even of human-caused climate change, in terms that many of today’s “climate deniers” would find quite alarming. Marx was acutely aware of such concerns in the scientific community and critically built them into his work on Capital.
Obviously, this made it more difficult for Marx to complete his magnum opus, which makes it all the more important to study his unpublished writings and notebooks to see how he attempted this grand synthesis — since this may provide some clues as to how such a methodology can be applied in our own time of planetary crisis.
This is exactly what Saito does, as he incorporates into his narrative not only the “standard” writings of Marx that were unpublished in his own times (such as the Grundrisse, and Theories of Surplus Value) but also some of Marx’s notebooks that have only recently become available under the rubric of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) project. Saito’s reconstruction is informed by Marx’s ecological and other notebooks through the year 1868, i.e. one year past the initial publication of Volume I of Capital.
But Saito’s narrative is not a one-sidedly “scientist” reading of Marx. He emphasizes that the element of human alienation present in the young Marx was not abandoned, but historically and materially deepened as Marx proceeded with his analysis of capitalism and projections of communism.
Despite the relatively non-historical character of alienation in his early thinking, the young Marx had emphasized that alienation was based on a social separation of workers from the land and other necessary conditions of production. Accordingly, the young Marx had insisted that communism must involve a communally organized reunification of workers with nature, as well as with their own labor and its products.
As Marx brought more and more natural science into his analysis of capitalism, this early conception of alienation from and reunification with nature was not abandoned but rather recast historically and materially. Marx now closely investigated how humanity’s metabolic interchange with nature was materially reshaped, and rendered unsustainable, by reified social relations of wage-labor, capital accumulation, and competition. Accordingly, these reified relations were now seen as the main barrier to a de-alienation of nature in line with sustainable human development.
In short, contrary to the assertions of many contemporary social ecologists, Marx’s pro-ecological thinking was not limited to his early writings. Although an important kernel of Marx’s ecology (alienation/de-alienation from nature) was indeed present in his early writings, this kernel was only developed substantively with Marx’s mature work on political-economy as informed by natural science and a detailed theorization of capitalism’s specifically reified relations of production, exchange, and distribution.
For example, Saito details how Marx became closely engaged with the work of Liebig and Fraas on agricultural sustainability, including the controversy between them concerning the relative importance of direct soil-fertility mismanagement (robbery of minerals from the soil and failure to recycle them) and climactic and topographical factors (deforestation and desertification).
It is in this context that Marx and Engels became increasingly interested in the question of climate change induced by human activities such as deforestation – as reflected, for example, in several references to deforestation in the manuscripts for Volumes II and III of Capital.
Saito clearly demonstrates how Marx’s engagement with agricultural science influenced his rent theory, his conception of capitalistic metabolic rift, his sketches of sustainable production under communism, and his later investigations of pre-capitalist communal forms of rural organization in his ethnological notebooks.
In sum, Saito’s work makes it even more difficult to argue that there is something fundamentally anti-ecological about Marx’s analysis of capitalism and his projections of communism. Saito’s book also establishes a framework for the further reconstruction of ecological Marxism at the methodological level, as more of Marx’s (and Engels’s) post-1868 notebooks become available through the MEGA project.
The light being shed on Marx’s pioneering investigations gives us important clues as to how we can critically integrate natural scientific developments into our analyses of and struggles against capitalism as it pushes the planet into multiple crises of sustainability.
More than ever, as Saito emphasizes, it is necessary for those engaged in ecological and social struggles to clearly distinguish the sustainability of capitalism from the sustainable development of human beings rationally managing their metabolism with nature.
As climate change and other biospheric tipping points are more and more clearly surpassed, it becomes obvious that the crisis we face is one in which capitalism can only sustain itself by expropriating, destroying, and eviscerating the conditions required for sustainable human development.
The struggle for non-capitalist alternatives is now synonymous with the struggle for human life-values, including a healthy co-evolution with non-human species, on a global scale.
Ecology and the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, John Bellamy Foster: “the human relation to nature lies at the heart of the transition to socialism” From Monthly Review, November 2008.
This article is a revised version of a keynote address delivered at the “Climate Change, Social Change” conference, Sydney, Australia, April 12, 2008, organized by Green Left Weekly.
The transition from capitalism to socialism is the most difficult problem of socialist theory and practice. To add to this the question of ecology might therefore be seen as unnecessarily complicating an already intractable issue. I shall argue here, however, that the human relation to nature lies at the heart of the transition to socialism. An ecological perspective is pivotal to our understanding of capitalism’s limits, the failures of the early socialist experiments, and the overall struggle for egalitarian and sustainable human development.
My argument has three parts.
First, it is crucial to understand the intimate connection between classical Marxism and ecological analysis. Far from being an anomaly for socialism, as we are often led to believe, ecology was an essential component of the socialist project from its inception — notwithstanding the numerous later shortcomings of Soviet-type societies in this respect.
Second, the global ecological crisis that now confronts us is deeply rooted in the “world-alienating” logic of capital accumulation, traceable to the historical origins of capitalism as a system.
Third, the transition from capitalism to socialism is a struggle for sustainable human development in which societies on the periphery of the capitalist world system have been leading the way.
Classical Marxism and Ecology
Research carried out over the last two decades has demonstrated that there was a powerful ecological perspective in classical Marxism. Just as a transformation of the human relation to the earth was, in Marx’s view, an essential presupposition for the transition from feudalism to capitalism, so the rational regulation of the metabolic relation to nature was understood as an essential presupposition for the transition from capitalism to socialism. Marx and Engels wrote extensively about ecological problems arising from capitalism and class society in general, and the need to transcend these under socialism. This included discussions of the nineteenth-century soil crisis, which led Marx to develop his theory of metabolic rift between nature and society. Basing his analysis on the work of the German chemist Justus von Liebig, he pointed to the fact that soil nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) were removed from the soil and shipped hundreds and thousands of miles to the cities where they ended up polluting the water and the air and contributing to the poor health of the workers. This break in the necessary metabolic cycle between nature and society demanded for Marx nothing less than the “restoration” of ecological sustainability for the sake of “successive generations.”
In line with this, Marx and Engels raised the main ecological problems of human society: the division of town and country, soil depletion, industrial pollution, urban maldevelopment, the decline in health and crippling of workers, bad nutrition, toxicity, enclosures, rural poverty and isolation, deforestation, human-generated floods, desertification, water shortages, regional climate change, the exhaustion of natural resources (including coal), conservation of energy, entropy, the need to recycle the waste products of industry, the interconnection between species and their environments, historically conditioned problems of overpopulation, the causes of famine, and the issue of the rational employment of science and technology.
This ecological understanding arose from a deep materialist conception of nature that was an essential part of Marx’s underlying vision. “Man,” he wrote, “lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.” Not only did Marx declare in direct opposition to capitalism that no individual owned the earth, he also argued that no nation or people owned the earth; that it belonged to successive generations and should be cared for in accordance with the principle of good household management.
Other early Marxists followed suit, although not always consistently, in incorporating ecological concerns into their analyses and embodying a general materialist and dialectical conception of nature. William Morris, August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and Nikolai Bukharin all drew on ecological insights from Marx. The Ukrainian socialist Sergei Podolinsky’s early attempt at developing an ecological economics was inspired to a considerable extent by the work of Marx and Engels.
Lenin stressed the importance of recycling soil nutrients and supported both conservation and pioneering experiments in community ecology (the study of the interaction of populations within a specific natural environment). This led to the development in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and early 1930s of probably the most advanced conception of ecological energetics or trophic dynamics (the basis of modern ecosystem analysis) in the world at the time. The same revolutionary-scientific climate produced V. I. Vernadsky’s theory of the biosphere, A. I. Oparin’s theory of the origin of life, and N. I. Vavilov’s discovery of the world centers of germplasm (the genetic sources of the world’s crop plants).
In the West, and in Britain in particular, leading scientists influenced by Marxism in the 1930s, such as J. B. S. Haldane, J. D. Bernal, Hyman Levy, Lancelot Hogben, and Joseph Needham, pioneered in exploring the dialectics of nature. It is even possible to argue that ecological science had its genesis almost entirely in the work of thinkers on the left (socialist, social democratic, and anarchist).
Obviously not all major figures or all developments in the socialist tradition can be seen as ecological. Soviet Marxism succumbed to an extreme version of the productivism that characterized early twentieth-century modernity in general, leading to its own version of ecocide. With the rise of the Stalinist system the pioneering ecological developments in the Soviet Union were largely crushed (and some of the early ecologically oriented Marxists such as Bukharin and Vavilov were killed).
Simultaneously, a deep antipathy to natural science emerging out of an extreme negation of positivism led to the abandonment of attempts to theorize the dialectics of nature in Western Marxism, seriously weakening its link to ecology — though the question of the domination of nature was raised by the Frankfurt School as part of its critique of science. If today socialism and ecology are once again understood as dialectically interconnected, it is due both to the evolution of the ecological contradictions of capitalism and the development of socialism’s own self-critique.
Capitalism’s World Alienation
The key to understanding capitalism’s relation to the environment is to examine its historical beginnings, i.e., the transition from feudalism to capitalism. This transition was enormously complex, occurring over centuries, and obviously cannot be fully addressed here. I shall focus on just a few factors. The bourgeoisie arose within the interstices of the feudal economy. As its name suggests, the bourgeoisie had its point of origin as a class primarily in the urban centers and mercantile trade. What was necessary, however, in order for bourgeois society to emerge fully as a system, was the revolutionary transformation of the feudal mode of production and its replacement by capitalist relations of production. Since feudalism was predominantly an agrarian system, this meant of course transformation of agrarian relations, i.e., the relation of workers to the land as a means of production.
Capitalism therefore required for its development a new relation to nature, one which severed the direct connection of labor to the means of production, i.e., the earth, along with the dissolution of all customary rights in relation to the commons. The locus classicus of the industrial revolution was Britain, where the removal of the workers from the land by means of expropriation took the form of the enclosure movement from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Under colonialism and imperialism an even more brutal transformation occurred on the outskirts or the external areas of the capitalist world economy. There all preexisting human productive relations to nature were torn asunder in what Marx called the “extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population” — the most violent expropriation in all of human history.
The result was proletarianization within the center of the system as masses of workers were thrown out of work and moved to the city. There they were met by the capital being amassed through organized robbery, giving rise to what Marx called “modern industry.” Simultaneously, various forms of servitude and what we now call precarious work were imposed on the periphery, where social reproduction was always secondary to the most rapacious imperialist exploitation. The surplus forcibly extracted from the periphery fed industrialization at the center of the world economy.
What made this new system work was the incessant accumulation of capital in one cycle after another, with each new phase of accumulation taking the last as its starting point. This meant ever more divided, more alienated human beings, together with a more globally destructive metabolism between humanity and nature. As Joseph Needham observed, the “conquest of Nature” under capitalism turned into “the conquest of man”; the “technological instruments utilized in the dominance of Nature” produced “a qualitative transformation in the mechanisms of social domination.”
There is no doubt that this dialectic of domination and destruction is now spiraling out of control on a planetary scale. Economically, overall inequality between the center and periphery nations of the world system is increasing together with the intensification of class inequality within each capitalist state. Ecologically, the world’s climate and the life-support systems of the entire earth are being transformed by a process of runaway global warming.
In addressing this planetary environmental problem it is useful to turn to Hannah Arendt’s concept of “world alienation,” introduced fifty years ago in The Human Condition. “World alienation” for Arendt began with the “alienation from the earth” at the time of Columbus, Galileo, and Luther. Galileo trained his telescope on the heavens, thereby converting human beings into creatures of the cosmos, no longer simply earthly beings. Science seized on cosmic principles in order to obtain the “Archimedean point” with which to move the world, but at the cost of immeasurable world alienation. Human beings no longer apprehended the world immediately through the direct evidence of their five senses. The original unity of the human relation to the world exemplified by the Greek polis was lost.
Arendt noted that Marx was acutely aware of this world alienation from his earliest writings, pointing out that the world was “denatured” as all natural objects — the wood of the wood-user and the wood-seller — were converted into private property and the universal commodity form. Original or primitive accumulation, the alienation of human beings from the land, as Marx described it, became a crucial manifestation of world alienation. However, Marx, in Arendt’s view, chose to stress human self-alienation rooted in labor rather than world alienation. In contrast, “world alienation, and not [primarily] self-alienation as Marx thought,” she concluded, “has been the hallmark of the modern age.”
“The process of wealth accumulation, as we know it,” Arendt went on to observe, depended on expanding world alienation. It “is possible only if the world and the very worldliness of man are sacrificed.” This process of the accumulation of wealth in the modern age “enormously increased human power of destruction” so “that we are able to destroy all organic life on earth and shall probably be able one day to destroy even the earth itself.” Indeed, “Under modern conditions,” she explained, “not destruction but conservation spells ruin because the very durability of conserved objects is the greatest impediment to the turnover process, whose constant gain in speed is the only constancy left wherever it has taken hold.”
Arendt had no final answers to the dire problem she raised. Despite tying world alienation to a system of destruction rooted in wealth accumulation, she identified it with the development of science, technology, and modernity rather than capitalism as such. World alienation in her view was the triumph of homo faber and animal laborans. In this tragic conception, her readers were called upon to look back to the lost unity of the Greek polis, rather than, as in Marx, toward a new society based on the restoration at a higher level of the human metabolism with nature. In the end world alienation for Arendt was a Greek tragedy raised to the level of the planet.
There is no doubt that the concrete manifestations of this world alienation are evident everywhere today. The latest scientific data indicate that global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels experienced a “sharp acceleration … in the early 2000s” with the growth rate reaching levels “greater than for the most fossil-fuel intensive of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emissions scenarios developed in the late 1990s.” Further, “the mean global atmospheric CO2 concentration” has been increasing “at a progressively faster rate each decade.” The most rapid acceleration in emissions has been in a handful of emergent industrializing countries such as China, but “no region” in the world is currently “decarbonizing its energy supply.” All ecosystems on earth are in decline, water shortages are on the rise, and energy resources are becoming more than ever the subject of global monopolies enforced by war.
The “man-made fingerprint of global warming” has been detected “on 10 different aspects of Earth’s environment: surface temperatures, humidity, water vapor over the oceans, barometric pressure, total precipitation, wildfires, change in species of plants and animals, water run-off, temperatures in the upper atmosphere, and heat content in the world’s oceans.” The cost now descending on the world if it doesn’t radically change course is a regression of civilization and life itself beyond comprehension: an economy and ecology of destruction that will finally reach its limits.
Socialism and Sustainable Human Development
How are we to meet this challenge, arguably the greatest that human civilization has ever faced? A genuine answer to the ecological question, transcending Arendt’s tragic understanding of world alienation, requires a revolutionary conception of sustainable human development — one that addresses both human self-estrangement (the alienation of labor) and world alienation (the alienation of nature). It was Ernesto “Che” Guevara who most famously argued in his “Man and Socialism in Cuba” that the crucial issue in the building of socialism was not economic development but human development. This needs to be extended by recognizing, in line with Marx, that the real question is one of sustainable human development, explicitly addressing the human metabolism with nature through human labor.
Too often the transition to socialism has been approached mechanistically as the mere expansion of the means of production, rather than in terms of the development of human social relations and needs. In the system that emerged in the Soviet Union the indispensable tool of planning was misdirected to production for production’s sake, losing sight of genuine human needs, and eventually gave rise to a new class structure. The detailed division of labor, introduced by capitalism, was retained under this system and extended in the interest of higher productivity. In this type of society, as Che critically observed, “the period of the building of socialism…is characterized by the extinction of the individual for the sake of the state.”
The revolutionary character of Latin American socialism today derives its strength from an acute recognition of the negative (as well as some positive) lessons of the Soviet experience, partly through an understanding of the problem raised by Che: the need to develop socialist humanity. Further, the Bolivarian vision proclaimed by Chávez has its own deep roots of inspiration drawing on an older pre-Marxian socialism. Thus it was Simon Bolívar’s teacher Simón Rodríguez who wrote in 1847: “The division of labour in the production of goods only serves to brutalize the workforce. If to produce cheap and excellent nail scissors, we have to reduce the workers to machines, we would do better to cut our finger nails with our teeth.” Indeed, what we most admire today with regard to Bolívar’s own principles is his uncompromising insistence that equality is “the law of laws.”
The same commitment to the egalitarian, universal development of humanity was fundamental to Marx. The evolution of the society of associated producers was to be synonymous with the positive transcendence of human alienation. The goal was a many-sided human development. Just as “all history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature,” so “the cultivation of the five senses is the work of all previous history.” Socialism thus appears as the “complete emancipation of the senses,” of human sensuous capacities, and their wide-ranging development. “Communism, as fully developed naturalism,” Marx wrote, “equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism.”
The contrast between this revolutionary, humanistic-naturalistic vision and today’s dominant mechanical-exploitative reality could not be starker. We find ourselves in a period of imperialist development that is potentially the most dangerous in all of history. There are two ways in which life on the planet as we know it can be destroyed — either instantaneously through global nuclear holocaust, or in a matter of a few generations by climate change and other manifestations of environmental destruction. Nuclear weapons continue to proliferate in an atmosphere of global insecurity promoted by the world’s greatest power. War is currently being waged in the Middle East over geopolitical control of the world’s oil at the same time that carbon emissions from fossil fuels and other forms of industrial production are generating global warming. Biofuels offered up today as a major alternative to pending world oil shortages are destined only to enlarge world hunger.
Water resources are being monopolized by global corporations. Human needs are everywhere being denied: either in the form of extreme deprivation for a majority of the population of the world, or, in the richer countries, in the form of the most intensive self-estrangement conceivable, extending beyond production to a managed consumption, enforcing life-long dependence on alienating wage labor. More and more life is debased in a welter of artificial wants dissociated from genuine needs.
All of this is altering the ways in which we think about the transition from capitalism to socialism. Socialism has always been understood as a society aimed at reversing the relations of exploitation of capitalism and removing the manifold social evils to which these relations have given rise. This requires the abolition of private property in the means of production, a high degree of equality in all things, replacement of the blind forces of the market by planning by the associated producers in accordance with genuine social needs, and the elimination to whatever extent possible of invidious distinctions associated with the division of town and country, mental and manual labor, race divisions, gender divisions, etc.
Yet, the root problem of socialism goes much deeper. The transition to socialism is possible only through a revolutionizing practice that revolutionizes human beings themselves. The only way to accomplish this is by altering our human metabolism with nature, along with our human-social relations, transcending both the alienation of nature and of humanity. Marx, like Hegel, was fond of quoting Terence’s famous statement “Nothing human is alien to me.” Now it is clear that we must deepen and extend this to: Nothing of this earth is alien to me.
Mainstream environmentalists seek to solve ecological problems almost exclusively through three mechanical strategies:
- technological bullets,
- extending the market to all aspects of nature, and
- creating what are intended as mere islands of preservation in a world of almost universal exploitation and destruction of natural habitats.
In contrast, a minority of critical human ecologists have come to understand the need to change our fundamental social relations. Some of the best, most concerned ecologists, searching for concrete models of change, have thus come to focus on those states (or regions) that are both ecological and socialistic (in the sense of relying to a considerable extent on social planning rather than market forces) in orientation. Thus Cuba, Curitiba and Porto Alegre in Brazil, and Kerala in India, are singled out as the leading lights of ecological transformation by some of the most committed environmentalists, such as Bill McKibben, best known as the author of The End of Nature.
More recently Venezuela has been using its surplus from oil to transform its society in the direction of sustainable human development, thereby laying the foundation for a greening of its production. Although there are contradictions to what has been called Venezuelan “petro socialism,” the fact that an oil-generated surplus is being dedicated to genuine social transformation rather than feeding into the proverbial “curse of oil” makes Venezuela unique.
Of course there are powerful environmental movements within the center of the system as well to which we might look for hope. But severed from strong socialist movements and a revolutionary situation they have been constrained much more by a perceived need to adapt to the dominant accumulation system, thereby drastically undermining the ecological struggle. Hence, revolutionary strategies and movements with regard to ecology and society are world-historical forces at present largely in the periphery, in the weak links and breakaways from the capitalist system.
I can only point to a few essential aspects of this radical process of ecological change as manifested in areas of the global South. In Cuba the goal of human development that Che advanced is taking on a new form through what is widely regarded as “the greening of Cuba.” This is evident in the emergence of the most revolutionary experiment in agroecology on earth, and the related changes in health, science, and education. As McKibben states, “Cubans have created what may be the world’s largest working model of a semisustainable agriculture, one that relies far less than the rest of the world does on oil, on chemicals, on shipping vast quantities of food back and forth….Cuba has thousands of organopónicos — urban gardens — more than two hundred in the Havana area alone.”
Indeed, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report, “Cuba alone” in the entire world has achieved a high level of human development, with a human development index greater than 0.8, while also having a per capita ecological footprint below the world’s average.
This ecological transformation is deeply rooted in the Cuban revolution rather than, as frequently said, simply a forced response in the Special Period following the fall of the Soviet Union. Already in the 1970s Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, one of the founders of Cuban ecology, had introduced arguments for “integral development, laying the groundwork” — as ecologist Richard Levins points out — for “harmonious development of the economy and social relations with nature.” This was followed by the gradual flowering of ecological thought in Cuba in the 1980s. The Special Period, Levins explains, simply allowed the “ecologists by conviction” who had emerged through the internal development of Cuban science and society to recruit the “ecologists by necessity,” turning many of them too into ecologists by conviction.
Venezuela under Chávez has not only advanced revolutionary new social relations with the growth of Bolivarian circles, community councils, and increased worker control of factories, but has introduced some crucial initiatives with regard to what István Mészáros has called a new “socialist time accountancy” in the production and exchange of goods. In the new Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), the emphasis is on communal exchange, the exchange of activities rather than exchange values.
Instead of allowing the market to establish the priorities of the entire economy, planning is being introduced to redistribute resources and capacities to those most in need and to the majority of the populace. The goal here is to address the most pressing individual and collective requirements of the society related in particular to physiological needs and hence raising directly the question of the human relation to nature. This is the absolute precondition of the creation of a sustainable society. In the countryside preliminary attempts have also been made to green Venezuelan agriculture.
In Bolivia the rise of a socialist current (though embattled at present) embedded in the needs of indigenous peoples and the control of basic resources such as water and hydrocarbons offers hope of another kind of development. The cities of Curitiba and Porto Alegre in Brazil point to the possibility of more radical forms of management of urban space and transportation. Curitiba, in McKibbens’s words, “is as much an example for the sprawling, decaying cities of the first world as for the crowded, booming cities of the Third World.”
Kerala in India has taught us that a poor state or region, if animated by genuine socialist planning, can go a long way toward unleashing human potentials in education, health care, and basic environmental conditions. In Kerala, McKibben observes, “the Left has embarked on a series of ‘new democratic initiatives’ that come as close as anything on the planet to actually incarnating ‘sustainable development.’”
To be sure, these are mainly islands of hope at present. They constitute fragile new experiments in social relations and in the human metabolism with nature. They are still subject to the class and imperial war imposed from above by the larger system. The planet as a whole remains firmly in the grip of capital and its world alienation. Everywhere we see manifestations of a metabolic rift, now extended to the biospheric level.
It follows that there is little real prospect for the needed global ecological revolution unless these attempts to revolutionize social relations in the struggle for a just and sustainable society, now emerging in the periphery, are somehow mirrored in movements for ecological and social revolution in the advanced capitalist world. It is only through fundamental change at the center of the system, from which the pressure on the planet principally emanates, that there is any genuine possibility of avoiding ultimate ecological destruction.
For some this may seem to be an impossible goal. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that there is now an ecology as well as a political economy of revolutionary change. The emergence in our time of sustainable human development in various revolutionary interstices within the global periphery could mark the beginning of a universal revolt against both world alienation and human self-estrangement. Such a revolt if consistent could have only one objective: the creation of a society of associated producers rationally regulating their metabolic relation to nature, and doing so not only in accordance with their own needs but also those of future generations and life as a whole.
Becket: It is not for me to win you round. I have only to say no to you.
King: But you must be logical, Becket!
Becket: No. That isn’t necessary, my liege. We must only do—absurdly—what we have been given to do—fight to the end.
—From the play “Becket,” by Jean Anouilh
The struggle against the monstrous radical evil that dominates our lives—an evil that is swiftly despoiling the earth and driving the human species toward extinction, stripping us of our most basic civil liberties and freedoms, waging endless war and solidifying the obscene wealth of an oligarchic elite at our expense—will be fought only with the belief that resistance, however futile, insignificant and even self-defeating it may appear, can set in motion moral and spiritual forces that radiate outward to inspire others, including those who come after us. It is, in essence, an act of faith. Nothing less than this faith will sustain us. We resist not because we will succeed, but because it is right. Resistance is the supreme act of faith.
During the Vietnam War, on the afternoon of May 17, 1968, nine Catholics, including two brothers, the radical priests Phil and Dan Berrigan, entered the draft board in Catonsville, Md., and seized Selective Service records. They carted them outside to the parking lot in metal trash cans and set them on fire with homemade napalm—the recipe was from the Special Forces Handbook of the U.S. Army. The men and women, many of whom were or had been members of Catholic religious orders, stood and prayed around the bonfire until they were arrested. They were protesting not only the war but, as Dan Berrigan wrote, “every major presumption underlying American life.” They acted, and eventually went to prison, Berrigan went on, “to set in motion spiritual rhythms whose outward influences are, in the nature of things, simply immeasurable.”
The group’s statement read:
Our apologies good friends
for the fracture of good order the burning of paper
instead of children the angering of the orderlies
in the front parlor of the charnel house
We could not so help us God do otherwise
For we are sick at heart
Our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children. …
We say: Killing is disorder
life and gentleness and community and unselfishness
is the only order we recognize. …
How long must the world’s resources
be raped in the service of legalized murder?
When at what point will you say no to this war?
We have chosen to say
with the gift of our liberty
if necessary our lives:
the violence stops here
the death stops here
the suppression of the truth stops here
this war stops here. …
The Catonsville protest sparked a wave of break-ins at draft boards in which files were burned, mutilated, stolen or destroyed. The Selective Service, in the first eight months of 1970 alone, recorded 271 “antidraft occurrences” at draft boards across the country.
The nature, power and cost of civil disobedience, along with the understanding that confronting evil is the highest form of spirituality, is the subject of the play “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” written by Dan Berrigan. Transport Group will present a production of the play at the Abrons Arts Center in New York City from Jan. 16 to Feb. 23. It will be performed with three actors, one of whom is my wife, Eunice Wong. Our daughter was baptized by Dan Berrigan (1921-2016).
The men and women who became known as the Catonsville Nine pleaded guilty to the charges leveled against them—theft and destruction of property of the U.S. government and “disrupting the official activities” of the Selective Service. The Catonsville Nine used the court to indict the now-omnipotent war machine, which as Berrigan wrote “has come to include the court process that serves it.” The courts, the presidency and the Congress, he noted, have calcified and turned to stone. “The ‘separation of powers’ is proving a fiction; ball and joint, the functions of power are fusing, like the bones of an aged body,” he wrote.
“For you cannot set up a court in the Kingdom of the Blind, to condemn those who see; a court presided over by those who would pluck out the eyes of men and call it rehabilitation,” Berrigan continued.
The defendants in the Catonsville Nine trial declined to question or challenge any potential jurors during the selection process. Later they would use their testimony not to attempt to prove their innocence—they freely admitted they were guilty of the prosecution’s narrow charges—but to put the nation on trial. They argued that to abide by a higher law they must confront the law. Breaking the law was a function of conscience.
“The law, as presently revered and taught and enforced, is becoming an enticement to lawlessness,” Dan Berrigan wrote in his book of essays, “No Bars to Manhood.” “Lawyers and laws and courts and penal systems are nearly immobile before a shaken society, which is making civil disobedience a civil (I dare say a religious) duty. The law is aligning itself more and more with forms of power whose existence is placed more and more in question. … So if they would obey the law, [people] are being forced, in the present crucial instance, either to disobey God or to disobey the law of humanity.”
“The courts, up to the U.S. Supreme Court itself, are unwilling, especially in wartime, to consider seriously the moral and legal questions of war itself,” Berrigan wrote. “So we felt that civilized [people] must seek to use the courtroom in order to achieve some public audibility about who we were and what we were about. The issues raised by the war—issues of constitutionality and morality of the war, of free speech and freedom of protest—might thereby be separated from our personal or corporate fates.”
The Nine understood that it was “spiritually absurd and suicidal to be pretending to help the poor at home while we bombed the poor abroad.”
The law, Berrigan saw, is used to strengthen “a corporate system bent in the direction of more and more American hegemony abroad, more and more firmly imbedded poverty and racism at home.” This capitalist machine, he said, had to be “taken apart, built over again.” The Nine understood that it was “spiritually absurd and suicidal to be pretending to help the poor at home while we bombed the poor abroad.” Mass incarceration and widespread poverty were the inevitable results of endless war and unchecked militarism. If this militarism was not curbed—and it has not been curbed—the Nine predicted it would exacerbate racism among dispossessed whites, expand lethal, militarized police forces and transform the Congress, the judiciary, the presidency and the press into handmaidens of the corporate state. The trajectory, Dan Berrigan wrote, would lead to “an interlocking dance of death, a celebration of horror.”
The Catonsville Nine were indifferent to their fate. “We were obliged in fact to attain some kind of personal liberation before acting at all,” Berrigan wrote, “a certain spiritual detachment from the fact of prison.” They did not expect miracles. They were not deceived by the roller coaster of emotional highs and lows that characterize a consumer culture. Patience, as the Vietnamese in Hanoi told Dan Berrigan, “is a revolutionary virtue.” It was the truth that was on trial. The point of civil disobedience, Berrigan said, is not that people will agree or even follow. It is that such actions foster among the wider population “a deepened consciousness.”
“Still,” Berrigan wrote in his autobiography, “this or that court, no matter what its crimes against justice, its stacked cards, its vindictive blindness, would never succeed in closing the dossier on conscience. And this was exactly our hope. Time would work in its imperceptible way, mysterious, invisible; other lives would be touched as the stories of the courageous and nonviolent were heard, often by word of mouth only. Time taking its own sweet time, so to speak, the motion and motive of a larger soul.”
The Berrigans, who identified as religious radicals, had little use for liberals. Liberals, they said, addressed only small, moral fragments and used their pet causes, in most cases, not to bring about systemic change, but for self-adulation. Liberals often saw wars or social injustices as isolated evils whose end would restore harmony.
“But the consciousness of the radical man is integrated,” Dan Berrigan wrote in “No Bars to Manhood.” “He knows that everything leads to everything else. So while he works for the end of the war, for the end of poverty, or for the end of American racism, he knows that every war is symptomatic of every other war. Vietnam to Laos and on to Thailand, and across the world to Guatemala, and across all wars to his own heart.”
“Our act was aimed, as our statement tried to make clear, at every major presumption underlying American life today,” he wrote. “Our act was in the strictest sense a conspiracy; that is to say, we had agreed together to attack the working assumptions of American life. Our act was a denial that American institutions were presently functioning in a way that good men [and women] could approve or sanction. We were denying that the law, medicine, education, and systems of social welfare (and, above all, the military-paramilitary styles and objectives that rule and overrule and control these others) were serving the people, were including the needy, or might be expected to change in accord with changing needs, that these could enlist or embody the sources of good men [and women]—imagination, moral suppleness, pragmatism, or compassion.”
Phil Berrigan (1923-2002), a highly decorated infantry officer who fought in Europe in World War II, was the driving force behind the Catonsville Nine. He had already broken into a draft board office in the Baltimore Customs House in October 1967 with three other protesters—they would become known as the Baltimore Four—and poured blood over draft files. The event was well publicized. He and the artist Thomas P. Lewis, one of the Baltimore Four, were awaiting sentencing for their Baltimore action when they participated in the act at Catonsville. Phil Berrigan and Lewis knew that their participation in Catonsville meant their sentences for the Baltimore protest would be harsher. But they understood that resistance cannot be reactive. It must be proactive. Phil Berrigan convinced his brother Dan to join the protest at Catonsville at a time when Dan believed that his work was “standing by the students [protesters] in their travail; nothing more.” “In comparison with him,” Dan wrote of Phil, “I was a coddled egg indeed.” But Dan Berrigan knew that “if I delayed too long, I would never find the courage to say no” to the war.
It was clear, Dan Berrigan wrote, that the government “would allow men like myself to do what we were doing almost indefinitely; to sign statements, to picket, to support resisters in court. Even if they did pick us up, it was the government who were choosing the victim and the time and place of prosecution. The initiative was entirely in their hands. But in the plan under discussion, the situation was entirely reversed. A few men [and women] were declaring that the initiative of actions and passion belonged to the peaceable and the resisting.”
The Berrigans excoriated the church hierarchy for sacralizing the nation, the government, capitalism, the military and the war.
The Berrigans excoriated the church hierarchy for sacralizing the nation, the government, capitalism, the military and the war. They argued that the fusion of secular and religious authority would kill the church as a religious institution. The archbishop of New York at the time, Cardinal Francis J. Spellman, in one example, sprinkled holy water on B-52 bombers and blessed the warplanes before their missions in Vietnam. He described the conflict as a “war for civilization” and “Christ’s war against the Vietcong and the people of North Vietnam.”
Phil Berrigan, the first priest to go to jail for protesting the war, celebrated Mass for his fellow prisoners. The services were, for the first time, well attended. The cardinal of Baltimore, in response, stripped Phil Berrigan of his priestly functions. The Masses celebrated later by an assigned outsider were boycotted by the prisoners. “There seemed to be some connection, too subtle for those in power to grasp, quite lucid to the imprisoned, between the Eucharist and a priest who was a fellow prisoner,” Dan Berrigan wrote.
“In sum, in a time of crisis, the Church had waited on the culture,” Dan Berrigan wrote in “No Bars to Manhood.” “When the war-making society had completed its case against a nonviolent, protesting priest, the Church moved against him too, sacred overkill added to secular. Indeed, Christ made common cause with Caesar; religion preached a new crusade, a dubious and savage war. The Church all but disappeared into the legions.” Those of faith, Berrigan wrote, should be content to “live and die ‘outside the walls’; they are men [and women] without a country and a church. They can flee the nation or languish in jail; the curse of the inquisitor will penetrate the jails to strike them there.”
It has been 50 years since Catonsville. And yet, often unheard and unheralded, the steadfast drumbeat of nonviolent religious protest against the war machine continues. Elizabeth McAlister, of Jonah House in Baltimore and the widow of Phil Berrigan, along with the Jesuit priest Steve Kelly and Catholic Worker Movement members Carmen Trotta, Clare Grady, Martha Hennessy (the granddaughter of Catholic Worker Movement co-founder Dorothy Day), Mark Colville and Patrick O’Neill, will be put on trial next spring for trespassing onto the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Marys, Ga., to protest our nuclear weapons arsenal.
The activists entered the base on April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who thundered against the “triple evils of militarism, racism and materialism.” They carried hammers and baby bottles of their own blood to defile the nuclear weapons storage bunkers. The Kings Bay naval facility is the largest nuclear submarine base in the world. Five of the group were released on bond and are forced to wear ankle monitors. McAlister, who turned 79 last month in jail, and Kelly remain incarcerated in the Glynn County Detention Center.
Dan Berrigan reflected on the burning of the Catonsville draft records in “To Dwell in Peace: An Autobiography”:
The act was pitiful, a tiny flare amid the consuming fires of war. But Catonsville was like a firebreak, a small fire lit, to contain and conquer a greater. …
For the remainder of our lives, the fires would burn and burn, in hearts and minds, in draft boards, in prisons and courts. A new fire, new as a Pentecost, flared up in eyes deadened and hopeless. …
“Nothing can be done!” How often we had heard that gasp: the last of the human, of soul, of freedom. Indeed, something could be done; and was. And would be.
We had removed an abomination from the Earth. It was as though, across the land, a series of signal fires had been lighted. The first was no larger than a gleam of an eye. But hill to hill, slowly at first, then like a wildfire, leaping interstices and valleys, the fires flared. …
In the following years, some seventy draft boards were entered across the land. Their contents variously shredded, sacked, hidden out of sight, burned, scattered to the winds. In one case, the files were mailed back to their owners, with a note urging that the inductee refuse to serve.
That morning! We stood in the breach of birth. We could know nothing. Would something follow, would our act speak to others, awaken their resolve? We knew only the bare bones of consequence. …
The act was done. We sat in custody in the back room of the Catonsville Post Office, weak with relief, grinning like virtuous gargoyles. Three or four FBI honchos entered portentously. Their leader, a jut-jawed paradigm, surveyed us from the doorway. His eagle eye lit on Philip. He roared out: “Him again! Good God, I’m changing my religion!”
I could think of no greater tribute to my brother.
- Karl Marx,Capital, vol. 3 (New York: Vintage, 1981), 959.
- Karl Marx,Capital, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage, 1976), 636–39,Capital, vol. 3, 754, 911, 948–49.
- Karl Marx,Early Writings(New York: Vintage, 1974), 328. Documentation of Marx and Engels’s ecological concerns listed above can be found in the following works: Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999); John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000); and Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster, “Metabolism, Energy, and Entropy in Marx’s Critique of Political Economy,” Theory & Society35 (2006): 109–56. On the problem of local climate change as it was raised by Engels and Marx in their time (speculations on temperature changes due to deforestation) see Engels’s notes on Fraas in Marx and Engels,MEGA IV, 31 (Amsterdam: Akadamie Verlag, 1999), 512–15.
- Marx,Capital, vol. 3, 911.
- On ecological insights of socialists after Marx see Foster,Marx’s Ecology, 236–54. On early Soviet ecology see also Douglas R. Weiner,Models of Nature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988). On Podolinsky seek John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, “Ecological Economics and Classical Marxism,” Organization & Environment 17, no. 1 (March 2004): 32–60.
- Karl Marx,Grundrisse(London: Penguin, 1973), 471–79, and Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 915.
- On precarious work see Fatma Ülkü Selçuk, “Dressing the Wound,”Monthly Review57, no. 1 (May 2005): 37–44.
- Joseph Needham,Moulds of Understanding(London: George Allen and Unwin, 1976), 301.
- Branko Milanovic,Worlds Apart(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); John Bellamy Foster, “The Imperialist World System,” Monthly Review, vol. 59, no. 1 (May 2007): 1–16.
- Hannah Arendt,The Human Condition(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 248–73; Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), vol. 1, 224–63.
- Michael R. Raupach, et al., “Global and Regional Drivers of Accelerating CO2 Emissions,”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences104, no. 24 (June 12, 2007): 10289, 10288; Associated Press, “Global Warming: It’s the Humidity,” October 10, 2007.
- See Paul Burkett’s “Marx’s Vision of Sustainable Human Development,”Monthly Review57, no. 5 (October 2005): 34–62.
- Ernesto “Che” Guevara, “Man and Socialism in Cuba”. Che was referring to bourgeois criticisms of socialist transition but it was clear that he saw this problem as an actual contradiction of early socialist experiments that had to be transcended. See also Michael Löwy,The Marxism of Che Guevara(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 59–73.
- Rodríguez quoted in Richard Gott,In the Shadow of the Liberator (London: Verso, 2000), 116; Simón Bolívar, “Message to the Congress of Bolivia,” May 25, 1826, Selected Works(New York: The Colonial Press, 1951), vol. 2, 603.
- Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy(New York: International Publishers, 1963), 146, andEarly Writings (New York: Vintage, 1974), 348, 353.
- István Mészáros,Socialism or Barbarism(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002), 23.
- A powerful critique of biofuel production has been authored by Fidel Castro Ruiz in a series of reflections over the past years. See http://www.monthlyreview.org/castro/index.php.
- See Paul M. Sweezy, “The Transition to Socialism,” in Sweezy and Charles Bettelheim,On the Transition to Socialism(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 112, 115; Michael Lebowitz, Build it Now (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006), 13–14.
- G. W. F. Hegel,Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics(London: Penguin, 1993), 51; Karl Marx, “Confessions,” in Teodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), 140.
- See Bill McKibben,Hope, Human and Wild(Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1995), and Deep Economy (New York: Henry Holt, 2007).
- Michael A. Lebowitz, “An Alternative Worth Struggling For,”Monthly Review60, no. 5 (October 2008): 20–21.
- McKibben,Deep Economy, 73. See also Richard Levins, “How Cuba is Going Ecological,” in Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins,Biology Under the Influence (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007), 343–64; Rebecca Clausen, “Healing the Rift: Metabolic Restoration in Cuban Agriculture,” Monthly Review 59, no. 1 (May 2007): 40–52; World Wildlife Fund, Living Planet Report 2006, http://assets.panda.org/downloads/living_planet_report.pdf, 19; Peter M. Rosset, “Cuba: A Successful Case Study of Sustainable Agriculture,” in Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster, and Frederick H. Buttel, eds., Hungry for Profit (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999), 203–14.
- Levins, “How Cuba is Going Ecological,” 355–56 in Lewontin and Levins,Biology Under the Influence, 367.
- Lebowitz,Build it Now, 107–09; On the theory of communal exchange that influenced Chávez see István Mészáros,Beyond Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995), 758–60. On “socialist time accountancy” see Mészáros’s Crisis and Burden of Historical Time (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008).
- David Raby, “The Greening of Venezuela,”Monthly Review56, no. 5 (November 2004): 49–52.
- McKibben,Hope, 62, 154
By Brad Hornick, reflection at a frontline indigenous resistance camp in Canada
After visiting and serving at the camp he concludes: “The Unist’ot’en camp is an invitation to reach down and take a camp cup, drink water from its flowing rivers for nourishment. Stand on the bridge and defend what divides the outside from life’s oasis. Embolden one’s spirit in the fight against the forces of death. It is a long way from the city. Be prepared for your own clumsiness in its midst.”
…I am not confident in the theory and politics of de-colonialization and identity. I am a socialist and environmental activist who organizes to resist the capitalist system and the fossil fuel culture that destroys the earth’s life support systems. The alienation of both labour and nature is rooted in the social relations and growth imperative of capitalist production and must be challenged at the points of extraction, production and transportation. First Nations are at the forefront of these struggles in my region of the world and many others. I respect them for their courageous positions and I believe (as we need them) they need us “settlers” as an urban front for this anti-capitalist enterprise. Should we not organize as allies and equals?
Somehow, I fear not.
Yes, there is a difference between me and my comrades against the “colonial elites”, and the powerful and wealthy ruling class that drive our economic and social priorities. But no matter what my class position or intent, or my desire to distinguish myself from the brutality of colonization, I am a privileged person within colonial institutions and customs. Because of that, I am connected to and complicit in the continued theft of Indigenous lands and the exploitation of Indigenous resources. I may not want to participate in subjugation, but I can’t change my history or who I am today. Does this mean I have become a self-accepting — or is it “self-rejecting” — colonizer, with the lifetime of ambiguity ahead of me that comes from rejecting my own status?
And what of the twenty-somethings here at the camp? Is it not important that they are intellectually and emotionally armed with the confidence in their own class agency, their own archetypal powers? Do they not divest their agency by accepting an admittedly impressive but passive second wheel to First Nations leadership? I go and talk to a couple of my socialist comrades in the settler camp. “We should lead a workshop on the confluence of anti-capitalism and anti-colonialism,” I argue. We almost conduct the session but are limited by time and our own hurried disorganization. It’s a good thing.
I walk to the kitchen, boxes full of gloriously miscellaneous food item donations sitting in boxes in the sun. “We must form a line and place the boxes in the forest adjacent to the cooking tent in the interest of preservation,” someone rallies the camp. We form a line and take care of our food. I join the small battalion of water carriers that transport river water to cisterns beside the kitchen. The meal is ready. We form a circle, a plate is prepared with a taste of each food item for an elder. The elder lifts the plate and prays to the ancestors and Mother Earth in thankfulness and blessings for the work of the camp. The elders, children and cooks move to the front of the line and begin the glorious food orgy that only comes from camp-site cooking and eating.
Tonight we meet as settlers. One of the main discussion topics is the “the impossibility of reverse racism.” “There is no such thing as reverse racism. Racism is a combination of discrimination and power. Without the power element, there is no racism,” the workshop leader exhorts. A legacy of the respectful protocol and ritual that punctuates the events at the camp, I find the discussion to be highly sensitive to each other’s viewpoints and levels of consciousness, especially those that are contrarian. I am still myself unclear, by the end of it, but I feel part of an intensely rich discussion.
News floats through the camp one day about an incident on the bridge. A couple of RCMP officers attempt to enter the camp but are at first slowed by the 24-hour guards and then halted by Freda and Toghestiy. I immediately clue into the fact that the heart of camp life is the bridge. I ask if there is a need and a time slot for guard duty and soon find myself in foul weather gear on site with another settler ally.
We talk about many, many things in rapid fire succession from his vast ex-military knowledge of firearms to the implications of emerging climate science and the impending global breakdown of economic, social and political order. There is no confusion over identity here. My new friend has come to construct some key architectural requirements of the new bunk-house that will house around-the-clock defenders of the bridge. We share some snacks as he sips water from a backpack and shows me some newly purchased pocket-knife gadgetry.
The camp decides to construct a workshop around a roleplay of an intervention on the bridge. Since I am the guy on bridge duty with the two-way radio, I conspire with the organizers. A mob of 30 come to play the role of police in riot gear. I radio to Toghesty that the gate has been breached and the armed phalanx is traversing the bridge. From the hill a rush of about 40 run and mobilize a non-violent defence, placing their bodies on the bridge and chanting “you shall not pass.” I feel my own body planting itself to place, empowered by the collective energy.
I leave the camp early. I need to get back to Monday’s work routine. I look forward to the awesome British Columbia mountains, forests, lakes and winding roads on my motorcycle. I greet Toghestiy. I have not attempted to develop a relationship. If I am honored by that at some future point, I would be happy, but it is not my place here and now. “I have been honoured and privileged to be welcomed into this camp and amongst your family,” I say. “I will make an effort to continue to support the camp in ways that I can.” After an uneventful good-bye to new friends I’ve made, I pass over the bridge, and the truck that is sealing one entrance to the bridge backs-up and I am off.
Back in the city, the listless experience of my own incompleteness, the notion that I could be more attuned to myself, the moment, and to the epic environmental struggle we all face, still pervades my daily life. I think back to the hard coldness waking up in my sleeping bag, the few days bereft of city comforts, the starkly fresh crisp air and immediate connectedness to nature (not least through constant mosquito bites). I think of the incessant whirl of frenetic city activity which then slows to a crawl in this self-conscious writing and reading.
On August 4, “B.C. Day”, not far from the Unist’ot’en camp, an Imperial Metals owned Mount Polley Mine tailings pond is breached. Massive devastation has ensued from the release of toxic sludge into the pristine waters, including threatening the salmon run protected by the Tsilhquot’in Nation for many decades. A couple days later, B.C. Premier Christy Clark travels to the area to assure the people that the water is fine. But there is no such thing as clean water downstream of this disaster for ever more.
The toxins that have been released (including mercury poisoning) and that have settled in the hillsides are there for every day’s rain to continue to wash into the water, into the fish, into the wildlife on which the First Nations survive. In 2001 when Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark and their government was elected, one of the first things they did was initiate the process of deregulation of many of the mining regulations that would have helped prevent this from happening. The Liberal government’s support for these corporations created the conditions for this disaster. They, along with the corporation executives should be forcefully held accountable. Canadian mining companies get away with this throughout the world.
The stand at the Unist’ot’en Camp is the expression of human imagination and emancipation in our dying world. It boldly evokes the centuries-old cries and exhortations of pain and triumph shared throughout the Americas in Indigenous communities that have fought the hollowed-out soul-less systems of colonial and capitalist power.
The Unist’ot’en camp is an invitation to reach down and take a camp cup, drink water from its flowing rivers for nourishment. Stand on the bridge and defend what divides the outside from life’s oasis. Embolden one’s spirit in the fight against the forces of death. It is a long way from the city. Be prepared for your own clumsiness in its midst.
Brad Hornick is a Vancouver based writer and activist and PhD candidate. He is active with Rising Tide Coast Salish Territories, the Vancouver Ecosocialists and System Change not Climate Change. He writes a regular article on rabble.ca. He will be present at the upcoming People’s Social Forum to talk about the camp and ecosocialist strategy.