The Out of the Woods collective have been publishing vital analysis investigating capitalism and its relationship to climate change on Libcom for over three years – all of which can be read at libcom.org/outofthewoods. We sat with them for a conversation that we hope will allow those who struggle to centre the importance of confronting climate change within their organising.
In much of your writing, you talk about the relationship between mass migration and climate change. How can climate change be more consciously linked to existing opposition to borders and everyday struggle against the border regime?
Out of The Woods – A One place to start would be the estimate of 200 million climate migrants by 2050, which Norman Myers devised over a decade ago. This is seen as a conservative projection, yet even this would mean that by 2050, 1 in every 45 people in the world would have been displaced by climate change. A report for the International Organisation for Migration notes ‘that on current trends, the capacity of large parts of the world to provide food, water and shelter for human populations will be compromised by climate change.’ The framing of this ‘capacity’ as a series of absolute, ‘natural’ limits is of course problematic: ‘carrying capacity’ is a product of racial heteropatriarchal capital as it works through nature, and of nature as it works through racial heteropatriarchal capital. However, climate change will certainly further erode people’s capacity to reproduce themselves, and in a manner that forces movement. The majority of these climate migrants will be racialised people, and it seems highly unlikely that those states least affected by climate change and/or most able to adapt to it (the white powers of Europe and America), will approach these climate migrants any differently to those racialised people already being murdered by their borders or imprisoned by their camps. Climate change is another reason to have to move, but it is not a reason for states to treat moving, racialised people any differently.
Out of The Woods – D When Black Lives Matter UK shut down London City Airport they were very clear in stating that climate crisis is racist. It disproportionately affects people of colour both because they can’t cross borders with the ease that white people do, for a whole host of reasons; and because they’re more likely to live in areas that are worst affected by climate change, both in the UK and elsewhere. Connecting up struggles that might be seen as ‘single issue’ in this sense is really important because, in a sense they are single issue: climate change and racism reproduce each other.
Since it features heavily already, and will likely appear again, could you speak a little more to the nature of the border – it’s composition and politics?
D The violence of the border isn’t just at ‘the border’ – schools become borders, hospitals become borders. I broke my knee recently, and whilst I – a white person who speaks English as their first language – was very well-looked after at A&E, a woman of colour who came in a few minutes after me – her English wasn’t great, she was not able to think clearly because of the pain she was in, and staff were insisting she gave an address – and she didn’t understand what they were saying. Whether that was the language barrier or the stress she was under, because we know the NHS will withhold treatment it becomes a form of violence – banal from the point of view of the people handing it out, but not for those on the receiving end of it. So struggles that might seem quite distant from ecological issues – hospital workers resisting the imperative to behave in this sort of way, for example – are really important for a transformative ecological politics.
A I think when it comes to climate change what we’re seeing is the way the border can be used to trap someone within an increasingly catastrophic present. Achille Mbembe has written extensively about necropolitics, of holding people within a situation where their life is more defined by their proximity to death. The border keeps people in places where they cannot find food or at the mercy of floods. This is coercive, conscious violence orchestrated by states.
That will persist, both in countries outside Europe and within it. I think we must also emphasise that there’s a globalised institution of anti-blackness, and the forms of violence which reproduce it are very much in common. The necropolitical obviously operates against black people in the US or the UK, as well as in Libya or the Mediterranean. In terms of the way climate change, and natural disasters might interact with this existing necropolitics, it is perhaps important to think of police operations in New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. On Danziger Bridge, seven police officers opened fire on a group of black people attempting to flee the flooded city, killing two of them and seriously injuring four more. To a certain extent, that event – black refugees being murdered by the state – encapsulates the necropolitical violence of attempting to hold people, and particularly black people, in a place where life is untenable, and then extinguishing that life as soon as anyone tries to move out of that place. That’s the murderous double bind of anti-black violence in the policing of crisis.
D I also think it’s really important that we challenge environmentalism’s history and ongoing complicity with racism (and outright white supremacy) – arguing for closed borders, population control, and sterilisation, for example. In the UK we’ve recently had prominent members of the Green Party arguing for reductions in migration in the name of the environment and a ‘sustainable economy’. There was a Paul Kingsnorth essay in the Guardian a couple of months ago that’s abhorrent: it repeats so many of these tropes.
Most of us know very little about climate science, and whilst a great many people work very hard to translate an overwhelming amount of data and field work into accessible writing, the point where trends and patterns meet the daily effects of climate change can feel elusive. Is there more that could be done to orientate the energies of existing struggles and how far into the future should we be looking? To what extent, to take just a single example, should a housing movement across London engaged in a project to defend access to housing take into consideration that it could soon find itself underwater?
D We often understand climate change as leading to a spectacular future event, and this is often understood visually: imaginaries of ruined, flooded and depopulated cities are really common. But I think this is flawed: it suggests climate change is heading towards a spectacular “event” that is going to happen in the future rather than something that is already happening, often in less visually perceptible forms: it becomes harder to grow certain crops, for example, and food becomes more expensive. That drives both migration and conflict: climate change has undoubtedly played a role in the Syrian Civil War.
So, it’s wrong on an empirical level to figure climate change as this thing that will happen in the future, but I think it’s also unhelpful politically, because that kind of future threat I don’t think works as a sufficiently motivating force to affect things in the present – I think, like you say, it can be disempowering. That parsing of climate change as spectacular future event affects how we behave politically as well, leading to a kind of fatalism whereby people just accept these things. I actually think they empower a certain white, male, heterosexual subject too: they can project themselves into that catastrophe thinking they can start anew – the sort of ‘cosy catastrophism’ that John Wyndham was (perhaps a little unfairly) accused of. You know – ‘oh well, all the poor people have died, but we can have a jolly nice time with our new community on the Isle of Wight.’
Public mistrust of experts is also a huge problem because the people we usually hear talking about climate change in the media fall into this category. I think a lot of that hostility is entirely understandable, but rather than get rid of ‘expertise’ in favour of a broad, cynical fatalism, we need to think how we expand the category of expertise, popularise it. We need to amplify the voices of those who live and struggle where climate change meets everyday life – migrants who’ve moved because they can’t afford to buy food, people who’ve worked the land and seen how changes in climate affect crop growth. They, too, are experts.
If these kind of analyses of disasters rooted in a distant future can instead give rise to a paralysis and fatalism – whereby with a long enough time scale, all activities become regarded as irrelevant and inconsequential, how then can these feelings be combatted, or even harnessed?
It’s not necessarily the time scale that’s the problem here, or that talking about the future is inherently wrong, but the function of thinking about the future. There is a difference between prediction and extrapolation. Beyond identifying broad trends that are highly likely and factoring them into our thinking as appropriate, I think prediction is really damaging: firstly because we know not to trust it, and secondly because it doesn’t leave room for agency. We all know that past futurologies, optimistic and pessimistic, religious, apocalyptic have all been terrible. They’re lots of fun, with the capacity to fascinate – we’ve all enjoyed images from the 60s of the year 2000 full of flying cars – and people have long clung to predictions about the imminent collapse of global population. But they’re just wrong and I think damaging to any attempt to challenge climate change.
I think extrapolation is different – it’s the mode of a lot of science fiction – and here I’m reminded of the claim made by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walida Imarisha in their editorial introduction to Octavia’s Brood – a collection of short stories from people of colour involved in social justice movements in North America/Turtle Island – that all organizing is science fiction. Perhaps we could think about dystopian fiction here. It’s had quite a bit of press recently, but the way much of this is framed is unhelpful, I think: dystopian fiction is positioned as something that can help us ‘understand’ the present in a narrowly empirical way (which denies agency), and the novels celebrated – Nineteen Eighty Four, Brave New World, Farenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale – are limited even in that sense because they disavow the role that race, in particular, plays in structuring our present; and in the first three of these the ‘victim’ is understood to be the abstract individual rather than collective subjects co-constituted by race, class, gender, sexuality and (dis)ability. So instead I think we need to engage with dystopian fiction that extrapolates from the white, able-bodied, colonial, heteropatriarchy that structures our world – here I’m thinking of writers like Octavia Butler, Stephen Graham Jones and Marge Piercy. This isn’t just a descriptive process – extrapolation doesn’t simply describe our world or even where it’s going but at its best gives us the opportunity to intervene in that through collective struggle. It tells readers that acting in the present can make a difference to the future. The science fiction scholar Tom Moylan talks about what he calls ‘critical dystopias’, and I think they’re particularly useful here, because they present collective organisation and struggle within the dystopian society depicted as well: even if things do continue to get worse, this won’t be the end: there is always room for collective struggle.
Having said that, I am a little skeptical about the power of literature, partly because we don’t generally read it together anymore – unless you’re part of a reading group, or reading at a university, you probably read fiction as an isolated individual. So I think the popularity of Octavia’s Brood is interesting: it’s got a large social media following, has been used by reading groups and seems to have opened up a space for collective discussion about the future, and how acting now can alter it. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be literary fiction that plays this role: ‘design fiction’ is a potentially powerful tool too, for example.
In an older issue of the Occupied Times, we asked Silvia Federici about surviving apocalypse(s). She told us: ‘The prospect of annihilation is a relative one. For many communities in the US – black communities whose children are murdered by the police in the street, indigenous communities like the Navajo that have to coexist with uranium mining, communities where unemployment is skyrocketing and the list goes on – apocalypse is now. In this context, we struggle for justice by refusing to separate the struggle against the destruction of the environment from the struggle against prisons, war, exploitation. You cannot worry about climate change if your life’s in danger every day, as is the case for so many people in this country.’ What do you recognise in these descriptions as possible points of engagement to building our capabilities to survive?
A I think it’s very interesting how Federici responds to that, and I think part of the response to it is in the way that you worded the question: “The consequences of climate change are forcing humanity to contemplate its own destruction in ways it hasn’t since the proliferation of nuclear weapons at the height of the cold war” and I think what that comes back to is what we were saying earlier about these images of universal catastrophe. Because that question very much sums up the way climate change is depicted in terms of this global, universal threat to the species and a particular framing of the human, but I think it’s very important to then pose the question that black studies has insisted on posing: who is the human? Who gets to be human? Sylvia Wynter’s work here is incredibly important.
I think what climate change actually requires us to do is to recognise that it’s not one apocalypse. What’s more terrifying to think about, but is perhaps more useful, is to realise that catastrophe and normality can coexist quite happily, that it’s not about some apocalyptic future, but a catastrophic present. This seems especially pertinent in the situation where we have 5000 migrants drowning in the Mediterranean last year, yet the current discussion is around the fiscal effects of Brexit – there is no squaring of that circle. In reality, Europe is experiencing a form of normality at the moment which is in complete contradiction to these catastrophes. I think what that question requires us to do, and what Federici starts to approach in her answer, is a differentiated vulnerability and the fact that catastrophe has always existed for some people. However, I don’t think I can agree with her saying you cannot worry about climate change if your life’s in danger every day, because I think the people who’ve been historically struggling against that vulnerability were the first people to experience climate change. The people who’ve been displaced – in Bangladesh, the Navajo Nation, the Standing Rock Sioux (who’re fighting the development of the Keystone Pipeline), I think those people have historical experiences, perhaps not always of climate change, but certainly of environmental destruction. When we think about the systematic and organised destruction of the ecosystems of the American Plains and the effect that had on the Indigenous peoples living there, you could say the Standing Rock Sioux have a historical experience of the destruction of the means to survive, not unconsciously as is happening with climate change but very deliberately and consciously. I think what’s important to say is that climate change is not unique in its destruction of one’s means for survival. To frame it in terms Federici might do herself, it’s all about the means by which we reproduce our daily lives. Climate change is the group differentiated destruction of the means of our survival. Sometimes, for some people, that’s going to be catastrophic, meaning the complete obliteration of the means to reproduce yourself, but for others it will be minimal. That’s exactly what we speak to when we talk of these false images of London underwater – one of the things that’s so cloying and disgusting about those images is the idea that climate change is a universal problem. What is perhaps more nightmarish about climate change is that it’s not, it’s a very particularised series of problems which will very differently affect a white, rich man who owns a house in Primrose Hill to a black, working class mother who lives on the floodplains of the Thames. I think there is an important distinction to embrace there. I think that’s almost the moment at which we must begin to talk of building our capabilities to survive against group differentiated vulnerabilities. What that forces us to comprehend is the capacity to organise ways to survive.
What I think Federici mentions is the fact that people have always been surviving catastrophes. Here Out of the Woods would probably talk about disaster communism. In historical disasters, not caused by climate change – earthquakes, volcanoes, or even the example of something as simple as a road accident, people will often operate on notions of mutual aid, social care, an elaboration of reproductive labour towards liberation which isn’t contained or constrained in the boundaries of colonial capital or hetero-patriarchal individualism. I guess what I’m trying to say is that what Federici gestures towards when she talks of those things like the struggle of black communities against the police, the struggle of the Navajo against uranium mining, is what Fanon would describe as a program of total disorder and I guess what we have to think about in terms of resisting climate change, is resistance not just to that but also resistance to the systems of order that differentiate violences. So we have to think about organising against climate change as mediated through a world dominated by colonial, heteropatriarchal capital. The violence is organised and differentiated by these structures and it is in the struggle to destroy those structures that we might also survive. It seems quite evident to me that we can draw learning and realise a particular imagination that has always been practiced in struggles against catastrophe – struggles founded on care, on reproduction and warmth. Those have always been the things which have made it possible to survive every catastrophe of the past 2000 years. Those people will still be fighting those battles even if white environmentalism does nothing about it – that’s another thing to insist on. This resistance will happen anyway, no matter what transpires in the corridors of power – it’s to what extent we can aid each other to go beyond the survival of a few people, and emerge from the current series of catastrophes into a world in which we would hope no-one experiences them. A world beyond catastrophe is possible.
Disaster communism is a concept we’ve featured in older publications and we’ve been talking about here again, but it seems that the manner in which it is evoked often relies on the kind of grand “event” which was warded against earlier – for instance, the organising in the wake of hurricane Sandy is often brought up as an example of disaster communism in action. The description of care and survival just mentioned now seems to be a far neater deployment of the idea – and that feels a very comfortable fit to the organising many of us who produce this publication are familiar with (for example, the struggle against the housing crisis and against abusive components of our own social movements). Could we talk more how if the catastrophe is now, how we survive it?
A I’ve been thinking about disaster communism in terms of what Fred Moten writes about as planning: this operation that’s always going on underneath the surface of social life because it’s the precondition of social life; it’s the means of a certain form of collective living. This is familiar for anyone who has had any experience with child care – there are certain points when someone else looks after your kid whilst you go to the shops or something, and it’s a moment which has to happen to make it possible for you to carry out any basic tasks. I guess what’s confusing about the way we’ve been thinking about disaster communism is that there’s an uncertainty or vagueness about whether we are calling for something to come into being, or whether we are observing something that’s already happening and merely recognising a certain way of extrapolating it. I think the complexity is that we do kind of use it as both
D There’s a distinction between the two modes – there’s the ‘communizing’ stuff that’s already happening that we can observe like the kinds of communities that form around disasters, collective relations of care, mutual aid, etc; and then there’s the idea that the term ‘communism’ also names the linking of those struggles on a much larger scale. So communism-as-movement connects these otherwise isolated communizing practices that can actually help reinforce capitalism because capitalism will co-opt the common: thanks for self-organising all this, now we don’t have to pay anyone to do it! Also, you’ve helped increase property values in the area!
A I guess that’s why I was thinking about Moten and planning because, as Moten is saying, against planning there is always policy – the attempt to extract value from planning, to strip mine the social commons. So all those forms of reproductive labour can easily be exploited by an increasingly desperate state or state-capital formation. This is really notable in frontline care in terms of people being discharged from the NHS early on the expectation that their family will just look after them – the policy formation of the state has turned towards care in the NHS being home-based rather than hospital based, which is in no small part a cloak for the incorporation of planning into policy, and the subsumption of a certain form of social life into the antithesis of that – state and capital. So, I guess this is the kind of ambiguity; that what already exists wouldn’t necessarily destroy the thing that we want to destroy, that’s the problem. And this is always the ambiguity of survival as well, you know, survival in a world that depends on your reproduction and your destruction or in holding you in some kind of ground between the two, and that’s massively differentiated by race, gender, class, and sexuality. I suppose what we have to do is survive in a way that’s antithetical to the survival of the forms of power that oppress us. I guess this is the ambiguity at the heart of disaster communism: how do we survive the disaster whilst also destroying the things that make it a disaster in the first place; it’s how do we become potent whilst rendering the threats to our lives impotent. This kind of constant contradiction or ambiguity is very hard to resolve in theory, but I think can often play itself out in practice.
To bring all of this back to climate change, I think this is what I disagree with fundamentally about Federici’s quote saying ‘you can’t worry about climate change if you are already struggling with the everyday’ is that it doesn’t actually take someone very long to realise that the destruction of their everyday life is based on something bigger than that – people tend to start looking for a pattern, and I think that’s the point at which some kind of disaster communism has to intervene and say that we can operate on the basis of a destruction of the things that are destroying us.
D Yes. To say ‘yes’ to what we want – and what is already created in cramped spaces – necessitates saying ‘no’ to the world that dominates save for those cracks or openings. I actually have a slight concern about the phrase ‘disaster communism’ though, which is partly to do with it being such a snappy phrase; I worry that it can travel without the meaning we’re trying to outline here] because when you hear ‘disaster communism’ one of the first things it can bring to mind is a communist take on that John Wyndham ‘cosy catastrophism’, like, ‘hey, if the world ends, we can build a kind of communism’.
A I would agree. I’d probably also go as far as to say that we should probably try to develop something else because I’m not even sure ‘disaster’ is quite the right kind of word for encapsulating what we are really trying to resist and survive given that it’s not one disaster or even a series of disasters, it’s a particularly potent mix of catastrophe and normality in which both are murderous. Perhaps the problem of coupling ‘disaster’ and ‘communism’ is that it implies a unified response to a unified crisis, when in fact we have different resistances, necessitated by a group-differentiated schism of normality and catastrophes.
I think something which has been the undercurrent to this conversation is the spectre of what has now quite openly and explicitly been called fascism. We have talked about it with Kingsnorth, and early on in relation to ‘Lifeboat Ethics’, and how it would be quite easy to imagine a response to climate change in which those at the top of systems of oppressive power, those empowered by capital, the state, gender, class, race, sexuality, do just basically live out a sort of super privileged version of what Rebecca Solnit is talking about. The classic vision of dystopian films recently has been that either the rich people go and live in the sky or a magic island etc, but that doesn’t seem realistic. Actually, what’s more likely to happen is that the city breaks up into increasingly small fragments in which extreme privilege and protected privilege is surrounded by a mass of those who don’t have the power to defend themselves, and that plays out around moments of disasters as well. There’s several accounts I remember reading after Hurricane Sandy of people watching the streets of New York, just as the hurricane was about to hit, filled with carloads of rich white New Yorkers going to the countryside or going to stay in hotels – they were being filmed by black and latino workers who had to stay at work. There’s something strong there about the nature of the disaster – some people literally in the absurd, nightmarish situation of not being able to escape the disaster because their boss wouldn’t let them.
As well as signing a raft of Presidential Memoranda and Executive Orders which reduce the scope of environmental protection oversight for ‘high priority’ infrastructure and energy projects, the Trump administration also imposed a gag order on offices within the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stop them releasing public facing documents. In response to the order, and freezes on resources, we’ve seen dissenting voices from authorities previously in alignment with the state – the National Park Service (@NotAltWorld), the EPA (@UngaggedEPA), and NASA (@RogueNASA) calling for people to #resist. In terms of media dissemination, do these alt formulations present any hint towards a valuable affordance or is the gesture, at best, a populist gimmick? Is there some unrealised application for the alternative channel from the authoritative (peer-reviewed) voice when it comes to information around climate change?
A I think the reaction to these accounts, and the supposedly ‘dissenting’ elements of the U.S state they represent, is dangerous to be honest. Celebrating these accounts occludes a lot of the fundamental problematics we have to engage with, and creates a fictional division between some form of rational, proper, scientific state, and an irrational, improper, populist perversion of the state.
I think that’s dangerous because it occludes a lot of the actual features of the American state which make it so lethal and which are responsible for the current series of differentiated catastrophes which people are experiencing. For example, it’s weird to see the National Park Service (NPS) become this embodiment of American liberalism given that the NPS is literally a protracted celebration of a form of wilderness made possible by genocide against Indigenous people. Then again, perhaps it’s a good icon for the liberal resistance, because the NPS sets out to preserve a certain kind of pristine purity from the devastation of modernity embodied by urban life (and its associations with blackness); it’s actually a colonial myth very similar to American liberalism itself.
I think you can also say related things about the Rogue NASA account – NASA’s history as part of the military-industrial complex, and its self-mythologising as a colonial ‘explorer’ makes it a depressing, if unsurprising, hero for the liberal #resistance. I guess that’s what I felt was dangerous about that particular moment in which people started fetishing a certain form of civil-service resistance. It occludes the nature of the American state and I think we should be careful not to allow populism, or Trump’s form of populism, to distract us from the nature of the American state as an organisation of forces of hetero-patriarchal, settler colonial, capitalist domination – that whole murderous configuration shouldn’t be occluded just because some civil service people don’t like Trump.
D The one thing I would say is that it remains to be seen what kind of forms these movements will take, and certainly in the science march there was a lot of very unhelpful exceptionalism of ‘we are scientists, we produce truth’, which kind of suggests that as scientists they should be protected and so they’re basically not joining up struggles with other movements: even exceptionalising themselves in relation other movements. That’s worrying, but I’m sure there are elements that do want to connect and do want to join up and are doing so. The NPS, of course, is massively colonial: it has literally forced people off their land and continues to do so. But there may be people who work for the NPS who would like to address this, are aware of this, would like to remedy it in some way, and just because they are struggling at the moment as rogue employees of the NPS, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are struggling for a return to what was – you can struggle against your own history as well. Whether that is happening or not I don’t know. We certainly saw it in the student movement around tuition fees and privatisation of higher education in the UK – that wasn’t just a struggle for the return of the university as a space where relatively privileged people could have a free education or even be paid to have an education, at its best it was a struggle for a fundamentally different kind of education. So perhaps those struggles will take that kind of direction. I’m sure elements of those struggles will and they are the ones I guess that will potentially have the most interest for radical politics, against and beyond the world as it is.
A And I guess this is the point in which it might be important to talk about a certain form of ‘treachery’ – a form of treachery against the manifestation of power that one is willingly and/or unwillingly incorporated into. I have been thinking a lot about treachery in the context of recent discussions around the term ‘ally’. I mean, I think a lot of people have come to realise that the term ally is problematic, but there seems to have just been an easy shift towards ‘accomplice’ instead, and I don’t think that has actually resolved the fundamental problem: both imply that there is some form of easy movement that one can make towards someone in quite a different structural position, which means that you can then unilaterally declare ‘okay I am an accomplice now’. I think what this actually often means, especially for people like myself who are in a particularly privileged position, is that I have to actually think about what it means to be traitorous or treacherous because I think the interesting thing about the figure of the traitor is that you never fully escape the thing that you are betraying – the traitor is always an ambiguous figure; they can never be fully trusted because they can always be drawn back into the form that they are betraying. So, I guess there is something interesting to think about in terms of these state workers. You know, whenever the police commit another atrocity, they usually pull out some policeman who has a critique of the police, but it never goes into a full betrayal of the police; it’s never treacherous, it’s always restrained in some way, and I guess it’s at that point in which you’re willing to start comprehending the abolition of yourself, that you might be a useful traitor, rather than a very dangerous ally who just seeks to incorporate.
So, I guess there is something about treacherous there and a willingness to be dangerous to the thing that reproduces you – simplistically speaking, to bite the hand that feeds you. I think if those rogue accounts do become dangerous, it will be if they leak things, if they cause a problem and then are willing to go beyond that. What would be interesting is if those people doing the rogue stuff started quietly talking to and helping Indigenous people reoccupy parts of the National Park Service that have been stolen from them. Maybe that would be a good form of treachery.
When it comes to activities to support and build on, people often point to the numerous struggles, many on indigenous / first nations land, aimed at preventing the extraction of resources which directly lead to climate change – but much of this seems far beyond the reach of this island. Meanwhile, similar UK based activity around anti-fracking seems also to have been rooted in a reactionary nationalism – somewhere between NIMBYism and a defence of the English countryside. How might we better confront and resist the causes and effects of climate change or, if the determining moments are to be far from these shores, how might we better offer solidarity
A Once when OoTW were doing a talk, someone from the audience raised this point about indigenous struggles and was like ‘We’ve seen these indigenous struggles elsewhere and they are really good, important and fundamental to any kind of environmental practice in the 21stC’. Which was cool, but then he went ‘So, what do we need to do in the UK? We need to do something around our local places, our local environments, do we need to become indigenous?’ And that’s the moment when you are like ‘Noooo!’ It’s ridiculous, but you can see this kind of thing comes up again in the Kingsnorth stuff. It is obviously a real problem and it’s interesting because it seems to spread across the political continuum. Kingsnorth is actually a properly dangerous ideologue who has all of these ideas which have been coalescing around a very fervent nationalism-fascism complex, and what’s dangerous is that it has been taken up by a lot of people who are much more on a liberal left, and these people seem to find something in it. So, I think part of the problem is that people start making easy equations with the land and start thinking about things in terms of ‘Nature.’ What we have always been trying to insist on in OoTW is that there is not some kind of pure nature to go back to, and that any implication of some kind of perfect wilderness is colonial dreaming, and a dreaming which will only vivify an incredibly dangerous form of enclosure of the wild as a means of preserving the world. And, what we’ve been talking about more in OoTW is the cyborg ecology or the cyborg Earth, in which there is no perfect nature to go back to, and in which we have to face up to the complexities of the inter-relation between human and non-human life – which ironically enough, is exactly what Kingsnorth says he is trying to resolve! Kingsnorth says he is doing it through the nation, but he can’t talk about human and non-human life without pitching non-human life as some kind of perfect and pure thing, and as soon as human life is removed from that, for Kingsnorth, it becomes dirty, polluted and corrupted because, for Kingsnorth, nature is what rejuvenates the nation.
The thing that we have to resist here is Western colonial romanticism – this absolutely has to be destroyed, and this isn’t some kind of abstract literary problem, it totally vivifies a vast proportion of the UK environmental movement at the moment. There is still a popular imaginary of some kind of pure nature which you find as much in RSPB members as you do in hardcore environmentalist activists, and it really must be refused. At the same time, we need to be certain that we don’t become some kind of ‘techno-futurists’ who’ll happily embrace a sort of technological invasion of everything existing, with no regard for the colonial paradigm, and the advent of European technology as both weapon and arbiter of colonial ‘progress.’ To a certain extent we are between a rock and a hard place here – between a romance of wilderness and a romance of technology, and both are worse.
D I think that binary is really important and you get it from both sides, so if you try and criticise the fetishisation of the slow, the local, the authentic and the romanticisation of nature, then you are often accused of being in love with the global, the fast, or of being a technological fetishist, and vice versa. It’s this kind of binary thinking that structures both the accelerationist-oriented, techno-futurist Left, and ‘back to nature’ leftism. I think unpicking that binary, in fact rejecting it as a structure, is really important. There is a case, sometimes, for organic food, there is also a case, sometimes, for using drones in farming. And sometimes there is a good case not to grow organic food – we talk about this in our piece on cyborg ecology. Indigenous ways of organising life in specific locations across the globe are important here – not so that we can apply them to a wholly different context, but because they often completely undercut those binaries – they are ‘local’, but have dynamic, relational understandings of ‘local’, or ‘place’ that eschews cosy romanticism.
On the appropriation of the term indigenous outside of the indigenous context, it’s important to be clear that there is no substantive indigenous population in Britain. I know some Crofters in the Scottish Islands and Highlands argue that crofting is an indigenous way of life: I don’t know enough to comment on that, but generally the way ‘indigenous’ is used in the political discourse of the UK is to suggest that white British people are the indigenous population of this island and so have a unique claim to live here. This is sometimes extended ‘greenwards’, so they are held to have a unique ability or right to cultivate its environment, or protect it from ‘overpopulation’. Against that, I would (cautiously) take indigeneity as a way of naming a particular co-constitution of identity with land and place: a way of life that cannot be separated from the dynamic, relational ecologies in which it developed, and that includes non-human life: animals, minerals and the land itself (and as I understand it this is an understanding that many, though not all, indigenous people use in organising their struggles). Now if you colonise that land, that way of life is marginalised or made impossible, and that simply does not happen in the UK – left leaning localists might point to Tesco coming into your high street and closing your local shop. That might be bad, but it’s not remotely comparable: your way of life is still fundamentally the same. So the term ‘indigenous’ just doesn’t translate.
I also think there is still a danger of white settler activists; or white activists in Europe or Britain – and it’s a tendency I recognise in myself – fetishising indigenous struggles and placing too much hope in them, or just abstracting bits of knowledge without attending to the need for decolonization as a political project. We saw it with the Zapatistas a lot: because things are so shit over here, something that looks brilliant, exciting and a little bit different (perhaps there was a degree of exoticism in it as well), people overly invest in it and overly identify with it, but of course it can’t be transplanted wholesale to a different context.
So it’s important to look at what’s happening more locally too, rather than depoliticising hope by displacing it onto an other, and thinking where the connections might be. We’ve got anti-fracking campaigns, migrant solidarity campaigns, and certainly with the anti-fracking campaigns I think the political content of them is yet to be determined – a lot of it is NIMBYism, a lot (though not all) of it is middle class [and white], but that’s what we’ve got. People don’t come into struggle with perfect positions, people get involved in struggle because something is affecting them [or something they care about], and through contact with a whole host of people – activists, other people struggling, people reading texts – their political positions can change. Green and Black Cross are doing some really important work in anti-fracking struggles, sending observers to villages in Sussex that perhaps haven’t seen a lot of political struggles or protest previously [and aside from the direct role they play in facilitating protest there’s a pedagogical function in that too]. Of course, not all of that struggle might take the direction we want it to, but I think it’s really important that we don’t give up on it as inherently flawed from the beginning because then it will be captured by the Kingsnorths. The BNP made great play of localist environmental policy and you could easily see the far-right jumping on anti-fracking campaigns.
A To add to this, it was very inspiring to see Black Lives Matter UK shutting down London City airport, and talking about breathability and atmosphere. That’s hugely linked to any environmental discussion of climate change in terms of pollution, but also in terms of the simple fact that London is rapidly becoming unbreathable. What was brilliant about the BLM statement that came out was that they insisted that that breathability is differentiated – it said that the problem with expanding London City is not that it affects the whole of London, but rather that it disproportionately affects the poor black communities in Newham, where the airport is located.
Something I was excited about was the opening of a discussion around atmosphere and breathability, which would bring in the environment, but the environment as a space which the effects are differentiated. So that was an exciting moment, which I hope hasn’t just stalled because no one else took it up. It seems like the environmental movement missed that, and it’s interesting that it has done very little about atmosphere and pollution in London. For me that seems like a really axiomatic struggle that could be acted on immediately, and would massively improve the welfare and livelihood of systematically oppressed peoples.
So, I think it’s very possible to already envisage what some kind of environmental activism in the UK might look like – it might not be as simple as resource extraction, but campaigns around pollution would be just as valid – and in terms of displacement by flooding, that’s going to be something we are going to perhaps see more of, but pollution is something that’s happening immediately. I would say that I remain deeply hopeful because people are making these moves towards realising that the environment is a context rather than some kind of sole cause and, as environment is contextualised, I think we begin to see something quite hopeful here. I don’t see it as a movement but as a series of deeply fragmented, local insurgencies – that’s what movements have always been. If you read Aldon Morris, who’s a great sociologist of the Civil Rights Movement, he says the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t a movement but a series of local insurgencies which came to be seen as a movement because they acquired a force great enough that it was possible to resist them. I don’t think we can model what we do now on the Civil Rights Movement, but it’s just important to remember that event, the archetypal movement, wasn’t a movement. So, on this basis, in thinking about anti-fracking campaigns, all of them have the capacity to become a very successful local insurgency in which the demand ceases to be just about ‘We’re going to stop this one thing’ and become about how we can determine our survival, or how we can begin to act in solidarity with those whose lives are determined by catastrophe.
D There’s a great article by Aufheben written in 1994 up on Libcom, called ‘The politics of anti-road struggle and the struggles of anti-road politics’. It outlines a lot of these issues in that movement: which sometimes was driven by NIMBYism, sometimes by environmental concerns, sometimes by moral concerns, sometimes by a more holistic marxism. What happens in those past movements, the historical memory, I think, is actually pretty important: in their struggles did they bring issues together to show how they were connected? How? That’s of real use in determining how we organize against environmental destruction in the UK without the proto fascist rhetoric of ‘Our England’.
A Yeah, and that refusal of ‘Spitfire Ecology’, of merry England and green fields with an old fighter plane flying over them is undoubtedly the danger. I think a refusal of the nationalist image of the land, as well as an embrace of the anti-nationalist possibility of the cyborg Earth – which simultaneously does not deny the possibility of an Indigenous nationhood – is the kind of contradiction we have to work through. This working through can’t be didactic; it can’t just be based in speaking, nor just in writing, nor can we just hope that if we fight hard enough it will all sort itself out in the end. I guess what I’m caught up in is some kind of social life where we practice speaking, writing and fighting as if they had never been separate in the first place. That’s why base makes me hopeful, it’s a good place for some regenerative conversation, for some kind of lovingly antagonistic chatter.