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Autocratic denial of the potential for individual human flourishing

capFrom David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, which I’m currently reading:

Marx’s position is that capitalism can probably continue to function indefinitely but in a manner that will provide progressive degradation of the land and mass impoverishment, dramatically increasing social inequality, along with the dehumanization of most of humanity, which will be held down by an increasingly repressive and autocratic denial of the potential for individual human flourishing (in other words, an intensification of the totalitarian police-state surveillance and militarized control system and the totalitarian democracy we are currently experiencing).

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Bleak, but not unexpected, news: capitalism is destroying the planet

greenland glacierBleak, but not unexpected, news today. According to a new report published in Nature, sea level rise over the last two decades has taken place at a significantly faster rate than previously reported. To be specific, the acceleration is 25% higher than so far assumed. Coasts from Florida to Bangladesh are threatened.

In a not-unrelated report, scientists also announced that 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded. The graphic to the right makes this point in quite stark terms.hottestyear2014

Finally, two studies by international teams of researchers have concluded that humans “are eating away at our own life support systems” at a rate not seen in the last 10,000 years. According to a summary article in The Guardian,

Of nine worldwide processes that underpin life on Earth, four have exceeded “safe” levels – human-driven climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land system change and the high level of phosphorus and nitrogen flowing into the oceans due to fertiliser use.

Near the conclusion of the article, the articles’ lead author, Professor Will Steffen of the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, is quoted as saying,

“It’s clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter’s generation will find it increasingly hard to survive. History has shown that civilisations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change. That’s where we are today.

A surprisingly direct indictment of capitalism, although the word is never directly mentioned by Steffen or by The Guardian.

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Regulate Synthetic Biology Now!

Patient DNA dataIn a triumph for the fight against the commodification of the global commons, the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity has voted to formally recommend nation states to regulate Synthetic Biology (SynBio).

SynBio is a powerful new form of genetic engineering through which biologists are capable of turning living organisms into man-made factories through the manipulation of their genomes. Organisms created using SynBio are increasingly looked at as private property, since they have supposedly been created through human ingenuity. The result is a potentially sweeping privatization of existing life forms, as well as the creation of all sorts of new creatures who will be the hapless property of global agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies.

The vote by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity is an important step in signalling that such Frankenstein-like acts must be regulated and subjected to strict ethical standards.

As this report by SynBio Watch notes, the vote at the UN meeting was resisted fiercely by nations with significant SynBio industries. This is, no doubt, one of many battles to come in the effort to challenge SynBio’s enclosure of the global genetic commons.

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Rhinos and Resource Extraction

white-rhino_755_600x450Rhinos are one of the oldest species of mammals on the planet.  Brought back in from the brink of extinction in southern Africa, they are once again under grave threat.

As a very strong article in The Guardian details, one of the world’s greatest preserves for rhinos, the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi park in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, is threatened by plans to permit the opening of an open-cast coal mine near the border of the park. The mines would draw large numbers of people to the area, many of whom would inevitably be enticed by the high prices of rhino horns on the international black market.

The question of what South Africa is doing opening so many coal mines is the gaping question that underlies current developments. The article in The Guardian mentions that the number of operating mines in South Africa has increased from 993 in 2004 to 1,579 in 2012. The government argues, the article suggests, that these mines are necessary to provide power to the country’s majority population, against whom apartheid policies discriminated in many ways, including energy provision.

But why is coal power, the most dirty form of fossil fuel, the dominant mode of energy generation in South Africa? To a certain extent, this seems like a misguided policy on the part of a national government – the ANC – desperate to provide resources to its people under constrained conditions.

But such an analysis ignores the significant boost that coal has gotten from international interests, including the World Bank. As Patrick Bond details in an account of the grievously misguided loan from the World Bank for the building of the coal-powered Medupi power station in northern South Africa, international lenders such as the World Bank have a long record of supporting the most purblind and environmentally destructive development policies in South Africa.

Among the many destructive impacts of such policies, then, we might think about how the support for coal mining contributes not just to climate change on a global plane, but also to the potential extinction of one of South Africa’s greatest natural treasures: the white rhino.


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An entire island nation is preparing to evacuate to Fiji before they sink into the Pacific

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The Liquidation of Cetacea

cetaceaWhales, it turns out, play a key role in mitigating climate change.

A recent article by Philip Hoare discusses the key role played by whale faeces in supporting rich communities of phytoplankton throughout the world’s oceans. These phytoplankton in turn absorb huge quantities of carbon dioxide.

Hoare’s article challenges the longstanding perception among humans that whales are their enemies – takers of their catch, scourges of the deep, embodiments of the devil. Instead, Hoare alludes to a recent study that shows that cetaceans immensely enrich the oceans on many levels, including by fertilizing them with their faeces.

Hoare challenges humanity’s hubris in scathing terms:

Such propositions speak to our own species’ arrogance. As demonstrated in the fantastical geoengineering projects dreamed up to address climate change, the human race’s belief that the world revolves around it knows no bounds. What if whales were nature’s ultimate geoengineers? The new report only underlines what has been suspected for some time: that cetaceans, both living and dead, are ecosystems in their own right. But it also raises a hitherto unexplored prospect, that climate change may have been accelerated by the terrible whale culls of the 20th century, which removed hundreds of thousands of these ultimate facilitators of CO2 absorption. As Greg Gatenby, the acclaimed Canadian writer on whales told me in response to the Vermont report, “about 300,000 blue whales were taken in the 20th century. If you average each whale at 100 tons, that makes for the removal from the ocean of approximately 30m tons of biomass. And that’s just for one species”.

These statistics concerning humanity’s genocidal war against order cetacea are chilling. whale huntThe best accounts I’ve found of the war on whales are in John Richards’ recently published The World Hunt and Callum Roberts’ Unnatural History of the Sea.

Pressure from environmental campaigners led to the suspension (with the exception of a few nations) of whale slaughter in the 1980s. Indeed, Hoare notes with satisfaction that cetaceans are on the rebound around the world. This increase, he suggests, might allow whales to once again play a significant role in mitigating climate change.

This optimistic prognosis unfortunately ignores the acidification of the oceans, one of the corollary effects of anthropogenic carbon emissions. As a result of the industrialized nations’ carbon emissions, the oceans are 30% more acidic than they were in 1800. If we continue with business-as-usual emissions, the oceans will be 150% more acidic by 2100 than they were at the start of the industrial revolution.

Ocean acidification impacts organisms that rely on calcium shells most dramatically. These include the krill and other microorganisms that whales feed on. As the oceans acidify, their numbers are likely to plummet, as Elizabeth Kolbert details in the “Sea Around Us” chapter of The Sixth Extinction.

Ocean acidification might be thought of as a form of violence that is both slow and microscopic, unfolding not simply across centuries but also on a scale so small that most humans are completely oblivious. Yet this microscopic violence is capable of devastating the lives of the largest and most majestic animals ever to have lived on Earth: the whales.

The planet’s cetaceans are on the rebound today. But in order for this new lease on life to be sustainable, the industrialized nations need to end their feckless policies of burning fossil fuels more or less immediately.

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Reflections on Professor Elizabeth DeLoughrey’s visit to York

Great account of talk by Elizabeth DeLoughrey on the topic of rising seas.

Resources of Resistance: Production, Consumption, Transformation

We were delighted to welcome Professor Elizabeth DeLoughrey (UCLA) to York earlier this week for what was a hugely enjoyable day of productive conversations on maritime and oceanic themes.

Professor DeLoughrey led a workshop based on a selection of readings, before giving a talk, entitled ‘The Sea is Rising: Visualizing Climate Change in the Pacific’, for which you can read an abstract here. What follows is an attempt to draw together some common themes from the day, which we hope to build on during the conference later in the month.

With the help of Professor DeLoughrey, we chose readings for the workshop which we thought reflected some of the most interesting scholarship taking place on the sea today. You can read the selections here.

The sea provides an underpinning element for many, if not most, of the resources we will be discussing at Resources of Resistance, given its fundamental role in systems of world…

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Sea level rise threatens future of Pacific and Indic islands peoples

Dire future

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The next generation of GM crops has arrived—and so has the controversy

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Capitalism’s bullets in Latin America: invisible empires, state power and 21st century colonialism

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