Tag Archives: David Harvey

Accumulation by Dispossession

imagesEarlier this week, David Harvey appeared on a panel about contemporary Land Grabs along with activists Somnath Mukherjee, Smita Narula, Kathy LeMons Walker. I unfortunately was not able to attend. In searching fruitlessly for a video of the event, I nonetheless came across some interesting materials online.

The first is a video of a talk David Harvey did with Medha Patkar, founder of the anti-dam organization Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Campaign), and founder of the National Coalition of People’s Movements. This was a fascinating dialogue between a key activist working to roll back land grabs and an theorist who provides an incredibly important overview of capitalism’s strategies of accumulation by dispossession, of which land grabs are a key strategy.  Here’s the video:

I also came across a really interesting blog post by Raj Patel that analyzes a 2010 World Bank report on Land Grabs.

Last of all, I came across my own transcript of the discussion between Harvey and Patkar (I attended the event, which was held in an Occupy-aligned space near Wall Street).  Here’s a link to my transcript.

From the perspective of a cultural critic, I want to ask what forms of hegemony need to be established in order for these sorts of land grabs to take place. Part of the problem may be that many of these activities remain invisible to most of the public in imperial nations such as the U.S.  In this context, it might be worth recalling Fredric Jameson’s argument in Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature that colonialism shifted a significant structural segment of the economic system overseas, beyond the metropolis, outside the quotidian experience of imperial subjects, rendering significant segments of everyday life unknown and unimaginable for these subjects.

But while Jameson’s point may make some sense in relation to land grabs, I think it’s important to see such strategies of accumulation by dispossession in a broader context, as part of an ensemble that includes free trade agreements, Structural Adjustment Policies, transnational flows of migrants, food riots, and uprisings such as the Arab Spring.  So ultimately I think a position such as Edward Said’s in the same volume as Jameson makes more sense: to see the anxiety that permeates much modernist (and contemporary) cultural production as a product of the troubling of fixed borders that results from empire. It is probably also worth thinking about land grabs as part of a broader cultural of uneven development. Bret Benjamin’s Invested Interests is an important investigation of the culture of contemporary accumulation by dispossession. I’m sure there are other examples of cultural studies work along these lines. I’d love to hear suggestions…

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Land Grabs

India has had 55 million people displaced by large dams built since Independence.  Medha Patkar is one of the founders of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, an organization that spearheads popular resistance against these displacements. The images that accompany this live blog of the conversation between Patkar and David Harvey, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center, show satyagrahis, demonstrators who remained on their land as the dam waters slowly rose, inundating villages and threatening protests with a watery grave.  This conversation between the two was moderated by Biju Mathew, Associate Professor at Rider University.

Biju Mathew (BM): This is a conversation that’s been waiting to happen for many years.  Both of our speakers today have played key roles in challenging neoliberalism for the last several decades.  I want to open with the issue of land.  Land didn’t seem to be an issue in the immediate postcolonial period, but began to be more important in the 1980s.

Medha Patkar (MP): It’s a great pleasure to be part of this conversation with Professor Harvey, who has played such an important role in struggles here.  Our struggles in India are no longer isolated but are part of a broader set of struggles around the globe.  Land has become a key issue for both neoliberal capitalism and for people’s movements.  British imperialists passed Land Acquisition Act of 1894; this same act is used to take over land of indigenous and rural peoples today in the name of the common good.  What is this common good?  If a piece of land is acquire by this act, then everything attached to the land – the surface water, the mountains, the fisheries, minerals, etc – are acquired along with that land.  So it’s really about commodifying the property, and then legitimizing the take-over using juridical means, and then killing the people who live on the land.  This take over is done in the name of progress.  Multinational corporations come with one kind of capital – market capital – and say that their capital is more important than natural capital of rural peoples.  Recent transformation of the Land Acquisition Act during the last three parliaments is to include defense, education, and other “infrastructural” projects.  So is 70% of the land is purchased, the other 30% passes automatically into private hands.

David Harvey (DH): It’s a great inspiration to be here with you.  And it’s also great to be in this space, so close to Wall Street.  We need more spaces like this – we need to surround Wall Street like the Maoists would advocate.  But let me begin by talking about land issue.  Dominant economic theory ignores land issues, focusing instead on macro-economic theory.  This carries over into Marxism, which ignores land-grabs.  Much of my work has been about rescuing this notion.  It turns out that the bourgeoisie has made more money out of land speculation than they have out of industrial production.  That’s particularly true today, when there’s a financial crisis and there’s nowhere for capital to go.  So a dominant strategy to deal with this crisis is to engage in land grabs: examples include Africa and internal Chinese affairs.  Another example is the proliferation of soy bean plantations in Latin America, which is part of agribusiness networks with China.  Such land-grabs are about trying to find secure sources of profitability.  One of theses I’m looking at right now is the idea that capital has run out of options for profitable production, and that the capitalist class is therefore trying to live the rest of its life as rentiers: land-owners, IPRs, etc.  So land-grabs are not just fortuitous, but are the product of a particular phase of capitalism in which shift into land is happening.  We’ve seen this before, for example when capital shifted into land and property markets after 1999 crash of dot.com bubble.  One economy that’s going strong right now is China: property prices have increased by more than 800% over last five years there.  Speculation in housing and land are crucial to what’s happening in China and elsewhere in capitalist system.  This connects with the economy of dispossession.  If land is going to become more significant, then you have to dispossess people residing on the land.  This has characterized India after neoliberal turn, but similar things are happening in Africa.  Indian boom is not one for the masses, but for a small elite.

BM: I want to go back to the question of law that you both brought up, and I’d like David to talk a little about the history of eminent domain in accumulation by dispossession or primitive accumulation.  To Medha, I’d ask you to point to both urban and rural cases, since you’ve been active with Garbacha Andolan.

DH: Eminent domain is simply taking over private land in the name of the public good.  But to be honest, I don’t think that this is the problem.  I wouldn’t mind using eminent domain down Park Avenue.  The issue is how it works.  When I worked at Johns Hopkins, the university was planning to expand.  Their trick was to use a subsidiary corporation to buy up properties around the university and then just board them up.  They could then argue that these areas were run down, and could use eminent domain to kick the rest of the people in the neighborhood out.  So eminent domain comes at the end of a broader process of destruction and displacement.

MP: When the land, the life-supporting matrix, in the hands of the so-called poor, who are rich in resources, is seen in both rural and urban areas.  In Mumbai, 60% of the population lives in slums, horizontal and vertical slums. Yet they live on only 6% of the land. And even that is taken over.  Planners chance policies, the World Bank comes in and sets up one kind of infrastructure that fulfills the agenda of the auto industry. This displaces the people who build, clean, and run the cities.  They don’t even have a place to sleep after they spend the day working to keep the city running. Slum dwellers from around the world have come together. We came together around slogan “save the houses and build the houses.” The only thing we can live on at the end of our lives is our resource base – our land and our labor. We challenged eviction of slums by rebuilding them after they were demolished. But we also challenged the builders and the construction firms, exposing the sweetheart deals they got to purchase land. We only went into the courts after long struggles in the streets. We climb up to the 4th floor of the building ministries and blockade the banks, and then the administrators have to come down. To release the land in India is just as difficult as establishing democracy in Iraq. When we can show linkage between big Western interests and land grabs (which are represented as “lawful occupations”), we get more traction. Who are the people in the so-called slums: the Dalits and others who were on the peripheries of the rural areas, and who are now on the peripheries of urban areas.  They are the real builders. Human rights are about legal rights.

BM: The picture you paint is of naked power of the corporate sector, so I’d argue that we’re in a situation where the politics of radical change is immediate.  Capital seems to be running into limits more and more.  What is your sense of these limits?  In Latin America, neoliberalism takes place a decade or so earlier than in South Asia.  Do you see similar social movements in opposition arising?

MP: One would like to say enough is enough. But we said this in Madrid at the 50th anniversary of the Bretton Woods Declaration. But communities in Narmada still have the sword of submersion hanging over them. The struggle continues. And not just armed struggle, which may shake the state to a certain extent. It’s really the long-term non-violent struggles, including reconstruction and bringing in theorization of living with resources, that are key. The state kills the poor – once in the name of caste, now in the name of development and progress.  What is happening today in India and elsewhere is the transfer of power. Popular sovereignty over resources such as the Bolivians asserted, in order to transform lifestyles, is a key goal. We’ve stopped dam building in Narmada. But beyond issue-based movements, the bigger effort is to build alliances, which give us strength. We need to explore non-electoral popular politics. The state must not totally wither away, but it must be limited, and its occupation, dispossession, commodification, and its killing must be controlled. So we need to create new people’s politics, which is beyond electoral politics but not distinct from it. We need to know what elite’s designs are to occupy power. I distinguish between NGOs and popular power. Beyond Dalits and other marginalized peoples, the mass middle classes in India are also becoming mobilized. The Free India of Corruption campaign is an example of such civil society mobilizations: 200 people fasting were very genuine. We strive to make our movements not just national but even global – this is obviously a huge challenge just in India. We need allies in the global North who can research the connections between corruption and land-grabs in India and powerful corporations or government organizations in places like London and New York. We look at the People’s Parliament as one such struggles.

DH: One of my favorite quotes from Marx is that the state is the executive committee of the bourgeoisie.  This is not true everywhere, as in Bolivia.  But it’s more and more true around the world over the last 30 years.  So you not only have to do battle with capital, but also with the state.  We see in the US how the Supreme Court belongs to the bourgeoisie.  All these institutions have been taken away from real democracy and the people, and isolated so that we don’t see how budgets are made.  How did this come about? It all goes back to neoliberalism and the crisis of the 1970s. out of this crisis a solution emerged.  There are two kinds of costs that capital doesn’t want to bear: environmental degradation & social reproduction (who raises children, cares for the sick, etc). Capital tries to turn these into externalities, so they don’t have to pay for them. Historically, social movements pushed the state to pay for some of these costs. By the 1970s, you have the establishment of the EPA, welfare, affordable housing, etc.  What neoliberalism was about was forcing externalization of these costs by dismantling the welfare state. the strategy behind this was interesting. When Reagan came to power, he cut taxes for the rich and launched a debt-financed arms race with the Soviet Union. Towards the end of his administarrtion, his budget advisor David Stockton admitted that his strategy was to creat a huge debt so that they could then go after social programs.  Bush Sr. and Jr. did the same thing, and now Republicans in Congress and in state governments are doing the same thing: arguing that social programs need to be cut to deal with debt. David Cameron in the UK is doing the same thing: you never let a good crisis go to waste. Same thing happening in Ireland, Portugal, and other places, and their standard of living is crashing.  This strategy was exported in the 1980s using IMF structural adjustment. The upshot is to create a global plutocracy, with about 400 families controlling a huge amount of the wealth around the world.  There’s something else crucial to put into the picture.  Capital is a growth machine; it’s committed to 3% compound growth annually. This was one thing in Manchester in 1800.  Today it’s another.  Capitalists have been running into difficulties finding profitable outlets.  So instead of investing in making things, you invest in owning them.  Which is why under neoliberalism you have an acceleration of accumulation by dispossession.  And it’s also a dispossession of rights: pension rights, health care rights, housing rights (which have been almost totally dismantled).  My argument would be that we need to think about a zero growth economy.  This is not a zero development economy.  But it is a state in which we no longer need 3% compound growth.  If we want to reject this 3% compound growth rate, we need to reject capitalism. We need a global anti-capitalist politics.  But this is hard to achieve, because we constantly hear the argument that we need more capitalism.  I say that people in anti-poverty organizations that they’re in the wrong organization: you should be in an anti-wealth organization.  You can’t solve the problem of poverty without destroying global plutocracy. People are realizing that we need a global anti-capitalist organization.

MP: Communal commons are being taken over, and so we question the present form of the polity.  Just like we question the present form of the economy, which is rule based on inequity.  We cannot look at the state as our ideal. Hence we are neither statist nor marketist. We want popular movements to be part of decision making. Here principles of self-reliance would be central: rights to resources and also human rights to life, biodiversity, etc.  We have to think about new forms of institutions, which are forms of new consciousness.  We’re also not in favor of notions of conservation that say that we can’t touch the forests etc., but we are in favor of collective responsible use of the commons. Our vision may sound utopian, but we have to be utopian today or we’re doomed.

BM: What we’re talking about is not just material change but also a change of consciousness in people. In the US, people think in terms of hyper-individualism. Such consciousness is being exported to India. How do we transform this attitude into a different sense?  Where would we look for answers?

MP: Our social identities being fragmented and atomized is worse than corporatization. In fact, what the trend towards marketization is doing is exactly this. Hence the revivalism that also sometimes takes a dangerous turn, towards fundamentalist assertion of identity at the cost of others, regionalism that excludes those who are from other areas. We need to question divisiveness. We have to be in struggles, but we also have to be in reconstruction. Creating schools so that children in Adivasi communities have a sense of identity. And even strategies like the alternative media are important.  And time is short.

DH: What I try to do in my work in works like The Enigma of Capital is to give an outline of how social change takes place.  There are 7 spheres in which change has to take place: 1) transformation in our relation to nature; 2) technology; 3) social relations; 4) production; 5) daily life and reproduction processes; 6) institutional arrangements (law, etc); 7) mental conceptions of the world.  Social theory tends to focus on only one of these spheres.  Paul Hawken for example stresses consciousness alone.  Orthodox Marxism focused on economics alone.  But Marx himself showed that end of feudalism involved all these spheres.  And this is what neoliberalism did as well.  Neoliberalism changed not just economics but also social relations: there were many more collective solidarities around in 1970 than there are today.  Social change happens by all of us collectively working on elements of this ensemble that we’re good at.  All these changes take place slowly.  The issue today is that there’s no radical new strategy emerging from the bourgeoisie.  The 1930s gave us Keynesianism etc.  The 1970s did the same, even if it was horrendous.  There’s no equivalent today.  Only strategy is to try to find an arc and ride out the storm.  So this is a moment when there’s a possibility of change.  One of the big difficulties today is that we have this huge infrastructure of universities that is almost entirely devoted to maintaining the status quo. In US, it’s totally impossible to get through to mainstream journals. And we can’t of course get through to mass media.  The Left also hasn’t done a good job since a lot of what we produce is incomprehensible.  But I recognize that no matter how much mind-changing we do, we also need institutional changes etc.

BM: Let me turn our discussion to ecology and the question of resources. In India, what we’re seeing right now is the imperative to just dig resources up and sell them to the world market.  The state and the bourgeoisie is in such collusion in this regard.  How do we deal with the ecological limits we’re up against?

MP: Our movements build not just on Marxism but also Gandhian and Ambedkarian thought. But all these ideological trends have to come together.  All these ideas are leading communities towards self-reliance. We oppose eminent domain of the state to eminent domain of the people; they would have right to use and conserve the natural world. They would know the stakes inherent in the resources at hand; these stakes are nothing short of survival. There’s a danger in addition that so-called renewable energies will continue to perpetuate dispossession.  Solar energy in India, for example, was to be a project of Enron’s.

DH: My approach to the environmental issue is based on idea not of technologies but on how social life and institutions would have to be arranged.  In the US, the attitude is that there will be a technological fix. This is totally false.  What we really need to do is to change social relations.  If we wanted to do something serious here, for example, we could just demolish the suburbs.  This would also be a big employment generator.  We need to think about a real transformation in our relation to nature.  The Cochabamba Declaration is an example of this.  Also, work is being done on challenging agribusiness and showing that more labor-intensive forms of agriculture are more productive.  This would again solve the employment problem.  There are ways we could start to reconstruct the agrarian base.  There’s also a big paradox: wind power, for example, requires rare earth metals.  Mining this is an environmental disaster, but it is also 90% controlled by China because they don’t care about environmental damage. So we’re faced with a situation in which a solution in one area creates problems in another.


1)    The rural-urban divide and the north-south divide: how do we theorize these?

2)    What struggles do you see that effectively challenge finance capital?

3)    What kinds of organizational innovations can we see that can bind together different struggles since we see a lot of local, molecular organizing but little more broad-based molar work?

4)    What other utopian solutions can you tell us about?

5)    What do you mean by zero growth and how is it different from development?

MP: cities are growing like mad at cost of communities that once occupied the land. The entire infrastructure is import-export based, taking a toll on both the rural and urban areas. We see no attempt to keep people on the land in India, and as a result the urban poor population is booming. There’s a huge shift of land from agriculture to non-agriculture going on in India.

DH: The tendency under capitalism is to industrialize the countryside, erasing the difference between rural and urban areas. Theoretically I prefer to use the concept of uneven geographical development, which is going on inside cities as well as between the city and the rural. In US, countryside is being taken over by the rich, who go to mansions in places like Long Island. But there’s a distinction between what’s happening in so-called emerging markets, where all the growth is taking place. As a result, there’s some geopolitical tension between the so-called BRICs, and older centers of finance capital.  The question of how to organize is a complicated one.  There’s a lot of movement going on around the world: factory occupations in Argentina, solidarity economies around the world, etc.  in part, this arises from the fact that capital doesn’t need most people any more. Some of these have been economically quite successful: eg. Mondragon in Spain. Biggest economic disparity in Mondragon is 1-3, whereas in typical US corporation disparities are 1-600. Mondragon’s genius was to not just produce, but to organize credit and retail. Having said this, I find that many radical organizations are plagued by the fetishism of organizational form: many insist on remaining totally local, are totally anti-hierarchical, and are completely opposed to any kind of negotiation with the state. The result is that you’re not in a position to scale up what you’re doing into anything that can go beyond the local.  If you say you should, you’re labeled a Leninist. There’s a strong appeal of anarchism, localism, etc. today.  But this is not to say that there aren’t organizations that put things together: Via Campesina is an example.  It has great ideas at the local level, but is also making a global movement that can deal with global environmental issues.  This seems like one of the big challenges the Left faces today.

MP: Our struggles may seem utopian today, but you never know when things may change. When we battled Enron, we never expected to see their CEO tearing his clothes in the streets here in NYC.

DH: One of the troubles with utopian plans is that they evoke a model of harmony that is static.  That’s why no Christians want to go to paradise, because it’s boring. Alfred North Whitehead talked about the perpetual pursuit of novelty as being a characteristic of humans. It seems to me that many human capacities and powers are denied by market culture.  Not that there needn’t be a material base.  But we could, in many part of the world, just freeze the economy and begin exploring human creativity, and not allow it to be channeled by corporate growth.

MP: We need to check the growth of capital, which brings in parasitic exploitation of the majority who are productive. Not that there should be no change, but change in the value framework of society. Who would define and decide what the change should be is the critical question. Zero growth and zero aid: we need self-reliance. We are struggling to set up popular tribunals, popular education, etc. to further this ideal of self-reliance. We cannot wait for this change, we have to make it now.

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The Rights of Mother Nature

This is a live blog of a panel convened by the Graduate Center’s Center for Place, Culture, and Politics in honor of Earth Day 2011.  It also happens to be the first year anniversary of the World People’s Conference on the Rights of Mother Nature in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Shannon Biggs: Nature is a system governing our well being.  Yet our culture treats nature as human property, like a slave.  When we talk about what it means to recognize rights for nature, a good place to start is to look at the BP oil spill and ask what would have been different if Nature had rights.  What would be different today?  The only people who can sue BP today are those with a property claim.  What if nature could sue BP to be made whole again?  We know that there are thousands of miles of dispersant lying beneath the surface.  Things would look very different.

Cormac Cullinan: I came to this work from a practical angle.  I was encountering difficulties generating legislation, and this made me realize that there was an underlying problem.  At this time I was fortunate enough to encounter Thomas Berry, who showed to me that our legal systems facilitate the exploitation of Earth.  I was shocked, because I’d practiced as an environmental lawyer for many years.  I felt that I was part of the solution.  But he was right.  What we call environmental law really isn’t working.  In the last three decades, we’ve seen an unprecedented increase in the amount of environmental legislation.  We’ve forgotten that we’re part of the natural order.  The idea that there’s a system of order out there, Nature, is not something that’s simply not considered.  I came to this through trying to find practical ways to deal with what we’re facing.

As someone brought up in South Africa, it was always clear to me that the law was a product of those in power.  But in this case we can see that our legal systems have entrenched an exploitative environment between our legal systems and Nature, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the outcome.  We’ve defined our system by Rights, but unless we can include Nature in this circle, we cannot include the natural world.  So we need to expand the Earth community to include such rights.

Vandana Shiva: Forty years ago I got involved in the Chipko Movement, which strove to challenge exploitation of forests.  Today, for the majority of people around the world, the notion that nature has rights is not strange.  The opposite is probably strange.  The idea that seeds can be treated as property by Monsanto is bizarre.  All they do is put toxins into seeds.

Some years ago, I got involved in the TRIPS agreement controversy.  All of this made me realize that for most cultures, humans are just one part of the Earth community.  But the scientific revolution changed things so that we saw the Earth as inert.  What corporate power has done is to make corporations into the only things that count.  We need to work to rebalance things.  Natural rights are not opposite to human rights.  Human rights are a subset of natural rights, because we’re a part of nature. An example is the legal battle I was involved in over limestone mining, which was going to destroy drinking water.  Today we’re involved in struggle over dams on the Ganges.  Our slogans are to allow the Ganges to flow freely.

Yesterday at the UN, Cormac reminded us that apartheid means “separation.”  Today, we have to overcome our sense of separation from nature.  This is a forced separation, something against our will.  This is something that affects everyday people, who are being displaced through landgrabs in places like Africa. The real thing we need to do is to build the Earth democracy that we’re a part of.  The corporations have such a stranglehold on power now.  We need Nature to rescue us from the corporate dictatorship.

Maude Barlow: Modern humans, not tribal peoples, tend to see Nature as a resource for our pleasure.  This has led to great damage and a crisis of huge proportions.  By 2030, demand for water is going to outstrip supply by 40%.  Right now we’re in a massive sixth wave of species extinction.  But all of our governments, with few exceptions – Bolivia among them – are still out there promoting free trade and the rights of corporations.  The environmental movement is left just negotiating with governments to lower the amounts of pollution. But it’s coming at it in such a debilitating way. And even the so-called green economy, the way our elites go about it, is a market solution to the crisis.  The idea is that you just replace bad technology with good ecology, and you don’t have to replace any of the current paradigms: growth, development, etc.  The only way to “save” nature is to bring it into the market. So ideas about the Rights of Nature seek to shift this paradigm.  Our whole mindset is based on human law; what would it be like to shift our mindset so that other species have the right to exist.  Does this mean that insect rights are equivalent to human ones?  No, but it does mean that we shouldn’t drive species to extinction.  We’re hoping that the Declaration of the Rights of Nature will one day take its place with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of the founding documents.  Every now and then, the human race takes an evolutionary step forward.

Pablo Solon: Last year, we managed to pass, in the UN, a declaration of the human right to water.  About 60 years after the Declaration of Human Rights, we finally got recognition that water was a human right.  This 29 of July, we’re going to celebrate the one year anniversary of this event.  But we’re also going to celebrate the Rights of Water.  If we don’t respect the rights of water, we cannot respect the rights of humans to water.  There are vital cycles in nature, and when we don’t respect these rights, we break the system and lose our place in it.

What exactly is nature?  A thing, a bunch of resources, or a system?  This system, does it have laws and rules?  If it does have laws, should the society respect those laws?  Are we respecting those rules?  This is the key question, from our point of view.  We believe that we’re just one part of the Earth system, and we humans, and in particular, the capitalist system, don’t respect these laws.  So we’re now facing a situation, as all scientists agree, in which we’ve broken the balance of nature.

How will we restore this balance?  We have two proposals on the table:

1) The green economy, which places monetary value on nature, not just on forests, but on environmental services provided by nature.  The Rio + 20 conference is intended to approve a series of market mechanisms that have to do with nature.  From this perspective, we’re facing a critical situation because nobody owns environmental services; once they’re in the market, balance will be restored.  This isn’t something hypothetical.  The third round of WTO negotiations is slated to be focused on environmental services.  We’re at the beginning of a third round of capitalist accumulation.

2) Our view is based on the Rights of Nature.  We have to respect the laws of Nature, or else we will no longer have any place.  If we want to have Rights of Nature, we have to fight against capitalism.  There is no way to begin a new relationship if we’re trapped in a system that tries to make profit out of everything.  Are we going to be able to transform this capitalist system?  That’s the key question.  We think that the only way for humankind to survive is to develop another system, with another relationship with nature.

David Harvey: We need to remember that there are laws of capital accumulation.  A basic law is that of compound growth.  Since capitalism took off, the basic trend has been an average of 3% compound growth; this is the minimum with which capitalists feel happy.  3% in Manchester in 1800 is one thing; 3% today is an astonishing prospect.  What we’re running into is that we’re at an inflection point in capital’s history at which the growth rate cannot be sustained.  In spite of the environmental movement’s vibrancy over last 30 years, things keep getting worse.  Christopher Stone’s argument (in “Should Trees Have Standing” in 1972) was the first example of the notion of the Rights of Nature that I came across.  But we should remember that we’ve already created fictitious rights for corporations, so why not for nature?  Capitalism has always been about more, and even more.  Capitalists have no choice; they have to accumulate or die.  The system has to grow or die.  The system has gotten to the point where it’s prepare to die, and to kill us and everyone else with it.  If we’re going to confront the present situation, we have to deal with two key things: 1: the environment (which is treated as an externality); 2: social reproduction (the Republicans want to gut the state and hive off social reproduction to individuals so that capital doesn’t have to bare these costs).  One of the answers is to come up with a market solution to social reproduction.  We’re told that the answer to global poverty is more capital accumulation, even though this produced poverty in the first place.  Carbon trading is a very nice market, but it just makes things worse.  One of the things you can’t talk about is what the alternatives to capitalism are going to be.  How many people in universities are working on such alternatives?  We have to be clear about the politics and the means by which we make change.  Nothing is really going to be changed unless there’s a mass social movement to change things.  Legal measures before the UN will not do it.  What was wonderful about Cochabamba was how many people were there.  We’re faced with a huge crisis, but in conventional circles there’s very little original thinking about how to deal with the crisis.  In the movement for Rights for Nature, there’s the beginning of this kind of original thought.

Cormac Cullinan: What we’re seeing in the world is a sense that we need to make an evolutionary leap, which starts off as shifting one’s perspective.  This is similar to the Copernican shift.  Unless we make a jump to seeing ourselves as part of the Earth, and recognize that we’re part of the system, and reshape our governance systems to reflect this reality, then we’ll not make the necessary changes and we’ll face a precipitous decline in human populations and possibly even become extinct as a species.  Now, for the first time, we have a global manifesto that can unite all the social movements: the Declaration of the Rights of Nature.  What we’re proposing is not some ideology, but a recognition that we must abide by natural laws.

Vandana Shiva: We’ve been sold a bill of goods.  We’ve been told that all we need is growth.  India has been growing like gangbusters, but we’ve got more hunger than ever.  We find that the more we follow the natural laws, the more food we have.  The UN has just submitted a report saying that agro-ecology produces enough food to sustain the human population.  We don’t need genetically engineered foods, we don’t need toxins.  In every sphere, we’ve been sold economic systems and technological systems that impoverish human life because they impoverish human nature.  Part of the liberation we need is to recognize that taking less from nature and giving more to her actually empowers us.

Maude Barlow: I think it’s worth exploring some specific examples.  One includes the question of whether to put water on the market.  Where it’s been done, it leads to terrible consequences.  An example is Australia, where they have one source of water: the Murray Darling aquifer.  It’s being exploited by large agricultural concerns, and is now dying.  In 1993, the conservative government of the time converted the licenses of big corporations to water rights.  The idea was that this would lead to more efficiency.  But what really happened was that big organizations bought up water rights and pushed small industries out of business.  The price of water went up like mad in one decade.  The government then couldn’t get water back into the system.  My prediction that big investors would move in has come true; hedge funds are buying up water rights and telling Australian farmers what to grow.  Compare this to exploitation of groundwater in Vermont. Four years ago, the state government passed a bill saying that water resources were common property.  They set up a licensing system saying that if you want to use over a certain amount, you need to pay.  In times of shortage, local food production gets preference.  So there’s a fundamental distinction in terms of outlook here.  What they mean is that Nature has rights.  This has fundamental consequences in our lives.

Shannon Biggs: How do we create social movements?  We’re all so much in agreement about fundamental principles.  But democracy is messy; there’s no one way to move forward.  Things can look very different in different places.  In the US, Global Exchange has been involved in Mt. Shasta, where communities have been battling water bottling companies.  Another issue that this community is fighting is cloud seeding.  If you seed clouds in one area, you create droughts in other areas.  The idea that we can geo-engineer solutions is folly.  The common thread here and in other places such as Pittsburgh, where fracking has destroyed drinking water, is that corporate rights have to be challenged legally.  Laws were made to protect and enshrine rights of people and ecosystems.  We’ve made such moves in the past: slavery is an example.  In Mt. Shasta and in Pittsburgh, laws have been passed to strip corporations of the right to remove water.

Pablo Solon: I agree that the key issue is how to build a social movement that is capable of defeating capitalism.  Our humble experience has shown that social movements develop when they are unified and when they win concrete victories.  Ten years ago in Bolivia, we were facing multiple defeats.  We focused on a specific issue: privatization of water.  We defeated the powerful Bechtel corporation.  Then we had the strength to challenge the privatization of gas.  We had to nationalize our gas.  Otherwise, how would we be able to share the revenues of our country with the population?  It’s not enough to have a movement that fights for specific goals; the movement has to fight to take over the government.  If you don’t gain power, all the victories that you achieve will be lost.  So we were able to build a movement that for the first time raised an indigenous person to president.  We were able to create a government through which we could develop our own strategies.  We don’t speak much about capitalism. We don’t want more and more, as capitalism does. But we want to live better.  This means that our growth has to satisfy basic needs, rather than be an example of rampant growth.  The problem though is that even if you manage to get power in a particular nation, you can’t solve the whole problem, because government is now global. We have to solve this at the world-wide level, or it won’t be solved.  If there isn’t a movement that goes beyond our borders and our continent, and that maybe comes to the key areas of capitalism, like the U.S. and E.U., we won’t survive.  So we look for the common thing that unites people around the world.  The key thing is that we all live on one planet, and we all face a common problem: our governments and our states are not respecting the laws of nature, and this is one of the main causes of why we are in this situation.  So, to build a movement requires having a paradigm that can open a way to a new way of thinking.  This is why the Rights of Nature is a key issue to build a movement to change the world.


What problems arise from the language of rights as extended to Nature?

What kinds of strategies of social networking do you foresee being implemented?

What should we make of the Limits of Growth and The Population Bomb today?

Comment on the food sovereignty movement, please?

What do you think of Zizek’s comments about it being good that Mother Earth is dead?

What does it mean to say that water has rights?  Aren’t you really talking about how an inert substance can support rights to live of other sentient beings?

In U.S., regulatory agency that enforces rights is EPA.  Problem here is that such agencies are subject to corruption.  Do you see alternatives to this model, or means of refining this model?

Can you comment on the role of spirituality in reconfiguring the world and the movement today?

What about the role of women in transforming the planet?

We as indigenous people have been caring for Mother Earth for centuries.  This concept of the Rights of Nature is not new.  It’s not enough to pass laws; we have to live with nature and respect nature.  We need to create our own indigenous nations to defend nature.  Do you support this?

We’ve seen language of natural rights used before – in quest to conquer New World. Isn’t there a danger of this language being used again in imperialist manner?

Cormac Cullinan: The notion of Rights may not be the best way for humans to regulate their affairs.  Rights tend to set up a conflictual relationship.  Interests might have been better.  But we’re faced with the situation that our legal systems are based on rights.  This means that for practical purposes we need to use the language of Rights, at least unless we’re in a position where we can scrap the entire language of rights.  Until then, we need to use legal machinery to get the state to enforce rights of nature.

David Harvey: Wouldn’t it be useful to think of other patterns of rights, such as common property rights?

Cormac Cullinan: No, we try to get away from property rights.  We prefer to emphasize that it’s about relationships.  The key thing to think about is that the ecosystems and the universe are held together by relationships.  The more intimate those relations, the more healthy the system.  We try to promote such intimate relations using the legal system, spreading the idea that this is a web of relationships.

Vandana Shiva: The language of a “population bomb” is totally obnoxious because it makes women’s wombs look like ticking bombs.  The point is that the resource and consumption question is key.  Industrial agriculture is the most wasteful system you could have.  The more you expand it, the more hunger you create.  US= 60% biofeed.  Where’s the food?  10 units of energy are put in to create one unit of food.  New data shows that in industrial agriculture systems, 50% of the food is wasted.  But in India, all food is used.  In nature, there’s no waste; there’s only recycling.  The more you work in decentralized systems and closed loops, the more you feed people.  Food sovereignty is the ability of local communities to feed themselves.  The current system is creating stuff that isn’t food.  The second reason that it’s so important to have food sovereignty and food justice is because the rights of nature is the cutting edge for creating a new world.  And the food sovereignty movement is the cutting edge in this cutting edge, because everyone needs to eat every day. Once we begin to change the emphasis from corporations dictating what we eat, we will be able to secure all sorts of other democracy.

As far as Zizek goes, he’s got it totally wrong.  Relating to the rights of Mother Earth IS a post-industrial idea.

Pablo Solon: When we speak about the rights of Mother Nature, we’re not speaking only about living beings.  We’re talking about the rights of all the components of the living system.  That means the rights of glaciers, forests, and all other aspects of ecosystems.  From our point of view, these are all part of one living system.  The Earth is a whole living system.  So it’s not just animal life that has rights.  No, the system as a whole has life.  And this is something that scientists agree on.  The UN told us that this was religion, Pachamama.  So we came with documentation from NASA showing that scientists looked at it this way.  Water has rights.  The cycle of water is something vital for water, but also for the whole system.  We can break it, or we can respect all these rights and all these rules that the system as a whole has.  Why rights?  When we began this discussion two years ago at UN, we were told to speak about “principles for responsible way of living with nature.”  But the key issue is to call it rights.  Why don’t people want to call it rights?  Because you can be sued if you infringe on rights.  This would mean that all citizens could stand up and defend the rights of nature when they’re affected.  I would agree that in theory it would be better not to have such a legal system, but this is what we have at the moment.  To speak about Mother Earth’s rights challenges the entire legal system that this capitalist system is based.  This is why we insist on talking about rights.  Someone who kills someone else goes to jail, but if you pollute a river, nothing happens to you.  We have to be accountable. The key issue is to make us accountable in relation to our Earth system.

Maude Barlow: We need to be careful about our language of decentralization.  Shifting responsibility down to local level is a form of power grab.  We need local empowerment, not simply decentralization.  We also need to be aware that the powerful have a right not to know – they are so powerful that they don’t have to think about the terrible situation we’re in.  In opposition to this, we need a right to care.

Shannon Biggs: The regulatory system was created to regulate citizens not corporations.  It was taken for granted that corporations could pollute in order to make profit.  This is what contemporary movements are challenging.

Cormac Cullinan: I’m very conscious of the fact that many of the ideas we’re talking about are ancient.  I tried to include many quotations from indigenous peoples around the planet in my work.  But the point is that we’re not proposing more environmental laws.  Such laws are already designed to regulate the rate at which we exploit.  Like a law that says you may only whip your slave twice a day.  The point is to challenge the entire system.  We’re trying to say that we need to use this language of rights because it forces us to look at Nature as a subject in a different way. We’re trying to map our human governance systems onto natural governance systems so that they’re consistent.  To the extent that they’re not, we need to change them.

Vandana Shiva: Just as feminism is about respecting women as independent subjects, ecofeminism enlarges that circle to all life on Earth.


Filed under environment, imperialism


Greece is in revolt.  Not surprisingly, though, the protests there are being totally misrepresented in the mainstream media.  Much attention in the U.S. press has focused on the spectacle of the riots and on the three tragic deaths in a bank in Athens.  Cogent analysis of the underlying crisis has been hard to find.

This relatively neutral sounding article in The Guardian is typical.  The article describes the sovereign debt crisis in Greece as a product of the fact that the Greek government relies on foreign loans in order to balance its debt.  In a thinly veiled racist reference that’s typical of these sorts of crises (remember the rhetoric about lack of fiscal discipline during the Asian crash in the late 1990s?), the article cites Greece’s unusually generous welfare state and its problem with tax evasion as an important ingredient in the current economic debacle.

To its credit, the article does also cite the role of U.S.- and U.K.-based credit ratings agencies, which recently downgraded the government’s debt to “junk” status, making it virtually impossible for the government to borrow any more money.  There’s mounting anger in Greece and the rest of continental Europe towards the decisive role such dubious “Anglo-Saxon” ratings agencies – which, after all, gave gold stars to the banks that were pushing dangerous mortgage-based derivatives to the hilt – are playing in stoking the crisis.

Little mention is made, in this or any of the other articles in the mainstream press, of the underlying crisis of capitalism.  There are no discussions, for instance, of the role of speculative capital flowing from banks in northern Europe and the U.S. into the (again thinly veiled racially demarcated) PIGS: Portugal, Ireland/Italy, Greece, and Spain.  No analysis can be found of the underlying crisis of overaccumulation that produces such inflows and wrenching withdrawals of speculative capital.  And nowhere can one find defiant rejections of the shifting of this burden onto the backs of the Greek working- and middle-classes.

Ironic, really, given the fact that exactly the same thing is happening now – although to a lesser degree – throughout the rest of the global North.  Here in NYC, for example, Mayor Bloomberg has just announced a budget in which 11,000 teachers are going to be fired in anticipation of draconian cuts in the state budget.  1,000 employees of the Metropolitan Transit Authority are going to be fired.  These cuts are a gut punch to average New Yorkers.  They’re also totally short-sighted since they are going to make it harder than ever to get the economy moving again.

Where to turn for adequate analysis of the crisis?  David Harvey has just published an incredibly (and characteristically) lucid new book called The Enigma of Capital.  He’s been out on the lecture circuit recently to promote the book, and some of his public presentations are now available online.  Check out the talk below.  Listen until the end, because Harvey discusses not just the roots of the crisis but also the solutions: we need to take public control of the economy in order to avoid the kind of destructive gyrations that we’ve been seeing with increasing frequency since the dawn of the neoliberal era, and, as recent posts of mine have I hope underlined, in order to forestall climate chaos.

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