Editor’s note: Albuquerque is in fact too large. It is a city. It is actually the cities that are the cause of all those problems. This article mentions: “This idea that we need to set aside places for wilderness comes from the idea that humans are not part of this world. That humans are above nature and generally destructive of nature.” The writers’ claim to the origin of the idea of wilderness is a false assumption. The point that we are in as a species demands we protect wilderness areas and any indigenous peoples living sustainably that are a part of it.
By Elizabeth Anker
A very typical response to my writing can be summarized as: “But… cities?!?” How are we going to fit cities into this future world? My feeling is that we can’t. Mostly.
I’ve never explicitly said that cities are not optimal, but I think it’s fairly obvious what my biases are. I will be honest, I don’t like urban environments. I don’t like the noise. I don’t like the smell. I don’t like the mess. Just everywhere mess! I’m not fond of the pace or the congestion. In 24-hour places like New York City, I can’t sleep. I am generally uncomfortable (translate: nauseous) in structures that I can feel moving, and I can feel the sway in tall buildings. I absolutely hate elevators. In the city, one can’t have goats. Rarely chickens. There’s no horizon. Few healthy old trees. Utterly insufficient gardens. And there are no stars.
Now, I know there are cities that are not this bad. Or I know one, anyway. Albuquerque is a city of about 750,000 people with maybe a half dozen moderately tall buildings downtown. Yet it’s not too horizontally sprawling, being held in check by mountains and volcanoes and Indigenous lands. And a water supply that is strictly tied to the river valley. But within the city, there are many farms and gardens and a wide wetlands, the bosque, along the banks of the Rio Grande. Chickens and goats and alpacas are everywhere (except in the Rio Rancho suburb, which is also the ugliest, sprawling-est part of New Mexico). The skies are brilliant all day, all night, all through the year. You can go wandering at 2am and feel safe. Nothing is open past 10pm, so apart from a sporadic teen in a loud car, it’s quiet. Sleepy even. There is never a rush. It’s called the land of mañana only somewhat jokingly. It is also a place where everyone knows everyone else; it’s the largest small town in the world. And it smells like chile, rain on parched earth, cedar smoke, and sage brush. With the odd dash of manure…
So cities can be accommodating places. It depends on the people, I suppose. Burqueans are Westerners — laconic and lazy and not terribly interested in your issues. But I haven’t been in many cities like that. And maybe Albuquerque doesn’t actually count as a city. There are horse hitches outside buildings. With hitched horses.
But my preferences are hardly average nor all that important. What is important is that cities make no ecological or biophysical sense. And to get out of this mess we need to bring our living back within the realm of good sense.
I could begin by pointing to the ridiculously fragile locations of many of the largest urban centers. No amount of techno-magical thinking is going to keep Boston above water. Or New York. Or Miami. I could fill pages with that list. Then add on those that might be marginally above water but currently rely upon groundwater or coastal rivers for drinking water — which will be contaminated with seawater long before the streets turn into canals. Ought to toss extreme fire danger onto the list also, taking out much of California, Greece, perhaps most of the Australian continent. And then there’s Phoenix which may quite literally run out of water. Of course, many other US Sunbelt cities — including Albuquerque — are going to discover that a desert location can not, by definition, provide water for millions of people. Once fossil groundwater is pumped dry (in about, oh, ten years…) there won’t be water coming out of the taps. Same goes for most of the cities in the two bands around 25-30° latitude away from the equator that get little moisture because planetary air flow is uncooperative (though this may change… in ways that might be good… maybe). Then there’s just pure heat. Adding a degree or so to the global average — which is inevitable at the current level of greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere even if we were to miraculously stop emissions today — will turn urban areas that are merely hot now into uninhabitable ovens, with atmospheric heat magnified by urban heating. Just for completeness, there are quite a few places that will simply collapse as ground water is depleted or as permafrost melts. Oh, and then there’s Detroit and other urban disaster zones — places so completely degraded by industrial mess-making that soil, water and air in these locations will be toxic to most life-forms for many human generations. So. Yeah. There are problems.
Let’s give it a different framing. There are large areas — most of which contain large cities — in which property is no longer insurable for at least one type of disaster. You can’t buy flood insurance in broad swaths of New Jersey or Florida. You can’t buy fire insurance in Orange County, California. Some actuary — a person whose job is calculating odds and putting a monetary value on risk — has determined that the odds are not in your favor. Full stop. More precisely the probability of an insurance claim paid by the company being greater than all the money you pay that company to buy the insurance is too high for the company to even begin taking your money. (And they really want to take your money!) There will be a disaster that creates a claim, and it will happen before you can pay much into your policy. Best you open a bank account and start dumping all your paychecks in there because that’s what it will cost to live in these uninsurable areas. (Though for now in this country, taxpayers are serving as the bank account for the most costly uninsurable properties.)
The risk of a flood happening in New Jersey is so high and immediate that you (and the insurance industry) can count on having a flooded house. And there are many houses that will be flooded. New Jersey is a densely populated region, especially so where risk of flood is greatest. This is not an anomaly. New Jersey is not unusually silly in siting urban areas. The urban areas in New Jersey grew up near water, rather than in a less flood-prone area further inland, just as urban areas grow near water everywhere else in the world — because water makes for easy transport of large volumes of stuff, lowering the costs of trade. There is and always was risk of flooding in these urban areas. But the floods happened infrequently before ocean warming made energetic storms that could throw large volumes of water up on the coast a regular — and predictable — occurrence. The same sort of calculations can be made for fire, for structural damages and I would imagine for sheer uninhabitability — though I doubt actuaries will have much to say about that. There are no insurance policies for putting property where humans simply can’t survive.
Because we’re supposed to be smarter than that. No, we’re supposed to be above all that, able to engineer our way forward in any unfavorable circumstance. (Witness the “let’s move to Mars” idiocy.) And in much urban development it’s not even about overcoming the likely risks. Risk-prone and degraded properties are developed by corporations who have no intention of owning the property long term. They build structures and sell those “improved properties” to others as quickly as they can. If they even bother to investigate the risks of living in that area, they don’t broadcast that information. They often take steps to conceal any qualities in a property that will lower the sale price. This is such a commonplace it’s a clichéd plot point in movies and novels.
Cities are located in the best places to move goods around and in the easiest, cheapest places to develop property for sale. This last is more a feature of former colonies which made wealth through this process of appropriating, “improving” and selling land. In the hearts of former empires, cities existed before wealth extraction turned to development of land. But a good number of them have caught up with their former colonies. Los Angeles has nothing on London sprawl. This method of making money — acquire, build and sell quickly at the highest profit — will necessarily create concentrated development in places that historically were either farmland or empty land. In the latter case, there were reasons that humans had not built things there. Many of those reasons were ecological. It made no sense to put a structure there, let alone a whole city of them. But empty lands are cheapest to develop, so the reasons were ignored. Wetlands were drained. Forests were cleared. Grasslands were paved over. Wells were drilled deep into desert rock to pull up the remnants of the last glacial meltwaters. Homes and businesses were plopped onto newly laid roads with no concern for long term durability. That was the point of building in this way. If the costs of locating structures in ecologically sustainable places were paid, then there would be no profit. So the last few hundred years has seen cities grow in places where they would always be under threat from natural processes and in fact magnify those threats by ignoring them. By cutting those costs.
But then cities have never been great. They’re good for concentrating and controlling the labor pool. That’s it. A city is now and always has been a warehouse for laborers. It is the cheapest warehouse. People are packed into cities with no accommodation for their actual lives. No space for anything. No way to produce anything except through market mechanisms of centralized production. This is by design. Because the laborers are also the market. If they are meeting their own needs, they aren’t buying stuff. Cities are very good at stripping all agency from a large group of humans, making them completely dependent on the market for every need. You can’t sneeze in a city without it profiting someone who is not you. And you can’t even begin to feed or house or clothe yourself. There are no resources for you to do any of this in a city.
Cities may be marginally better at leveraging concentrated capital into cultural institutions than a more dispersed settlement pattern. Maybe. Not that rich folk won’t fund their favorite arts wherever they live. Witness the magnificent theatre, music, and visual arts thriving in the wilds of Western Massachusetts. But cities absolutely suck at meeting our biophysical needs — from food to companionship to a non-toxic environment. Call me what you will, but when the choice is between a secure food supply and cultural attractions, I’m going with food.
Some people have noted this conflict between urban living and actual living. There are efforts to clean up the toxic messes we’ve created (created, again, by design… toxicity happens because business will not pay the full costs of doing things safely and cleanly). There are urban gardens sprouting in empty lots. There are calls for less car traffic and more travel by bike and foot. There is a return to the idea of neighborhood. People are attempting to meet their physical and emotional needs within the structures of a city. I am not sure any of this is going to work. Because that is not how a city works.
A city works by depriving most of its inhabitants of the means to meet their basic needs, forcing them to work for wages so that they can buy those needs and produce profits. That is what cities are designed for and that is what they do best. There is not even the space in a city to allow its citizens to provide for themselves. Everything must be produced elsewhere and shipped into the city. And shipping is increasingly a problem both because we have to stop spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and because it is increasingly expensive to acquire fossil fuels. All the plans I’ve seen so far do not address this basic problem.
Here is one example: vertical gardens, growing food in a tower to maximize growing area but minimize the horizontal footprint so that a “farm” will fit within the confines of a city. I don’t think these are well conceived. Half a minute’s thought on what actually goes into growing healthy plants reveals several fatal flaws in the design. Attempts to produce food where there is no soil, where water has to be pumped, and where sunlight has to be synthesized with electricity are costly if not futile. And all these tools and raw materials still have to be sourced and produced elsewhere and then shipped in. It may be that we use more resources in building a vertical farm than if we just grew a real farm. And we won’t be producing very much food in this resource-sucking system. We may be able to grow some leafy vegetables, but those vegetables will be lacking in nutrition relative to food grown in a living ecosystem. There isn’t even space for grains and pulses in a vertical garden unless it’s very vertical. Which seems expensive. Not a project we’re going to be able to maintain in a contracting economy that is generally out of resources.
Even if it were not expensive though, vertical farming is not producing food. Synthesizing a growing environment will always fail because we can’t make living systems, and that’s what is needed to grow food. Human attempts to manufacture biology fail because we don’t fully understand how biology works and maybe can’t know being embedded within biology. Further, I suspect most synthesized foods will not meet human nutrition needs even if all the building blocks we know about are included. There are emergent properties and interdependencies and entanglements that we can’t begin to understand, never mind create. The chemical compounds in a berry do not make a berry. A berry is a particular arrangement of its chemical composition along with a large number of microbes and other non-berry materials all of which make up the nutritional content of the berry when you pop the whole living thing in your mouth. And we don’t know what of all that berry and non-berry stuff is essential to our digestive tract to turn that berry into food for our cells. We can’t make a berry because we don’t know what a berry is. What we do know is that it is always more than the sum of its broken down parts. And that is what synthesizing is, a sum of brokenness.
But these ideas keep manifesting because we think rather highly of ourselves. We believe that we can engineer our way over any problem. We really haven’t done that though. We’ve thrown a huge wealth of the planet’s energy and resources into creating this style of living. Our technologies are useless without that resource flow. Just as importantly, our technologies are useless at containing the waste flowing out of that system. And most importantly, our technologies are designed to work within a profit-driven system. When that breaks down, when there is no profit, there is no technology. We aren’t going to put scarce resources and effort into maintaining the tools; we’ll produce what we need directly at scales that don’t require those costly tool systems.
And that’s the main reason I believe that we will be abandoning cities. They will break down. They are a technology that only works while there are abundant resources, while there is capacity for waste absorption, and while there are profits to be made on all those flows. We aren’t going to put effort into maintaining this tool if it no longer serves us. We won’t have the time or the wherewithal. We will need to produce what we need to live.
Some are bemoaning the idea of humans dispersing into the countryside. And maybe that’s a problem if those dispersed humans are also bringing along their wasteful, resource-sucking lifestyles. But I’m not sure that will be possible. There won’t be resources to waste or suck. Not only that, but most people are not inclined toward messing up their own homes. Degradation of the land happens when those resources are sucked out of the land to be used by people living elsewhere. Humans have lived in dispersed settlement patterns, integrated within our ecosystems, for a very long time, much longer than we’ve been “civilized”. This idea that we need to set aside places for wilderness comes from the idea that humans are not part of this world. That humans are above nature and generally destructive of nature. That humans uniquely have the potential to transcend nature and invent their way toward meeting biophysical needs independent of nature. None of this is in any way real. Putting a lot of humans in a confined space will not magically rewild the rest of the world. We will still be sucking those resources. More resources than if we lived in a place where we didn’t need to maintain an artificial living environment through transport and tools. More resources than if we lived within the carrying capacity of the lands we fully inhabit — as we have for most of our existence.
And make no mistake, the land is going to see that we do that. This is what is happening. We have exceeded carrying capacity at all scales. There are mechanisms in living systems that prevent this. We are experiencing those mechanisms. We are experiencing the consequences of exceeding carrying capacity for the planet. This will be fixed. And it will be completely out of our hands. Cities will be abandoned because we will be dealing with all the consequences of cities and returning to a way of living that we know works within nature. Lots of smallish towns and settlements surrounded by and interpenetrated with land that can produce our needs.
I suspect our urban centers will be very much like Albuquerque…
While the share of solar and wind power is tending to increase, overall energy consumption is rising from all sources — development, demography (a taboo subject that has been neglected for too long), and new uses, such as digital technology in all its forms (12% of the electricity consumed in France, and 3% worldwide, a figure that is constantly rising, with digital technology now emitting more CO2 than air transport⁴⁴). Digital technology also competes with vehicles, especially electric ones, in terms of the consumption of metals and rare earths. This is perfectly logical since the renewable energy industry, and to a lesser extent the hydroelectric industry (dams), requires oil, coal and gas upstream to manufacture the equipment. Solar panels look indeed very clean once installed on a roof or in a field and which will later produce so-called “green” electricity.
We almost systematically forget, for example, the 600 to 1,500 tons of concrete for the wind turbine base, often not reused (change of model or technology during its lifespan, lack of financing to dismantle it, etc.), which holds these towers in place. Concrete that is also difficult to recycle without new and consequent energy expenditures, or even 5,000 tons for offshore wind turbines⁴⁵. Even hydrogen⁴⁶, which inveterate techno-futurists are now touting as clean and an almost free unlimited energy of tomorrow, is derived from natural gas and therefore from a fossil fuel that emits CO2. Because on Earth, unlike in the Sun, hydrogen is not a primary energy, i.e. an energy that exists in its natural state like wood or coal and can be exploited almost immediately. Not to mention that converting one energy into another always causes a loss (due to entropy and the laws of thermodynamics; physics once again preventing us from dreaming of the mythical 100% clean, 100% recyclable and perpetual motion).
Consequently oil consumption, far from falling as hoped, has instead risen by nearly 15% in five years from 35 billion barrels in 2014 to 40 billion in 2019⁴⁷. Moreover, industry and services cannot resign themselves to the randomness of the intermittency inherent in renewable energies. We cannot tell a driver to wait for the sun to shine or for the wind to blow again, just as the miller in bygone days waited for the wind to grind the wheat, to charge the batteries of his ZOE. Since we can hardly store it in large quantities, controllable electricity production solutions are still essential to take over.
Jean-Marc Jancovici⁴⁸, an engineer at the École des Mines, has calculated that in order to charge every evening for two hours the 32 million electric cars, that will replace the 32 million thermal cars in the country⁴⁹, the current capacity of this electricity available on demand would have to be increased sevenfold from 100GW to 700GW. Thus instead of reducing the number of the most polluting installations or those considered rightly or wrongly (rather rightly according to the inhabitants of Chernobyl, Three Miles Island and Fukushima) potentially dangerous by replacing them with renewable energy production installations, we would paradoxically have to increase them. These “green” facilities are also much more material-intensive (up to ten times more) per kWh produced than conventional thermal power plants⁵⁰, especially for offshore wind turbines which require, in addition to concrete, kilometers of additional large cables. Moreover the nuclear power plants (among these controllable facilities) cooling, though climate change, are beginning to be made problematic for those located near rivers whose flow is increasingly fluctuating. And those whose water, even if it remains abundant, may be too hot in periods of heat wave to fulfill its intended purpose, sometimes leading to their temporary shutdown⁵¹. This problem will also be found with many other power plants, such as those located in the United States and with a number of hydroelectric dams⁵². The disappearance of glaciers threaten their water supply, as is already the case in certain regions of the world.
After this overview, only one rational conclusion can be drawn, namely that we did not ask ourselves the right questions in the first place. As the historian Bernard Fressoz⁵³ says, “the choice of the individual car was probably the worst that our societies have ever made”. However, it was not really a conscious and deliberate “choice” but a constraint imposed on the population by the conversion of the inventors/artisans of a still incipient automobile sector, whose limited production was sold to an equally limited wealthy clientele. The first cars being above all big toys for rich people who liked the thrills of real industrialists. Hand in hand with oil companies and tire manufacturers, they rationalized production by scrupulously applying Taylorist recipes and developed assembly lines such as Ford’s Model T in 1913. They then made cars available to the middle classes and over the decades created the conditions of compulsory use we know today.
Streetcars awaiting destruction. Photo: Los Angeles Times photographic archive.
It is this same trio (General Motors, Standard Oil and Firestone mainly, as well as Mack Truck and Phillips Petroleum) that was accused and condemned in 1951 by the Supreme Court of the United States of having conscientiously destroyed the streetcar networks and therefore electric public transport. They did so by taking advantage after the 1929 crash, of the “godsend” of the Great Depression, which weakened the dozens of private companies that ran them. Discredited and sabotaged in every conceivable way — including unfair competition, corruption of elected officials and high ranking civil servants, and recourse to mafia practices — streetcars were replaced first by buses, then by cars⁵⁴. This was done against a backdrop of ideological warfare, that began decades before the “official” Cold War, which an equally official History tells us about: socialist collectivism — socialist and anarchist ideas, imported at the end of the nineteenth century by immigrants from Europe and Russia, deemed subversive because they hindered the pursuit of private interests legitimized by Protestantism — countered, with the blessing of the State, by liberal individualism. This unbridled liberalism of a country crazing for the “no limits” way was also to promote the individual house of an “American dream” made possible by the private car, which explains so well the American geography of today, viable only thanks to fossil fuels⁵⁵.
Today not many people are aware of this, and very few people in the United States remember, that city dwellers did not want cars there. They were accused of monopolizing public space, blamed for their noise and bad odors. Frightened by their speed and above all they were dangerous for children who used to play in the streets. Monuments to those who lost their lives under their wheels were erected during demonstrations gathering thousands of people as a painful reminder⁵⁶. In Switzerland the canton of Graubünden banned motorized traffic throughout its territory at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was only after quarter of a century later, after ten popular votes confirming the ban, that it was finally lifted⁵⁷.
Left: Car opposition poster for the January 18th, 1925, vote in the canton of Graubünden, Switzerland. Right: Saint-Moritz, circa 1920. Photo: Sammlung Marco Jehli, Celerina.
The dystopia feared by the English writer George Orwell in his book 1984 was in fact already largely underway at the time of its writing as far as the automobile is concerned. In fact by deliberately concealing or distorting historical truths, although they have been established for a long time and are very well documented, it is confirmed that “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” A future presented as inescapable and self-evident, which is often praised in a retroactive way, because when put in the context of the time, the reticence was nevertheless enormous⁵⁸. A future born in the myth of a technical progress, also far from being unanimously approved, in the Age of Enlightenment. The corollary of this progress would be the permanent acquisition of new, almost unlimited, material possessions made accessible by energy consumption-based mass production and access to leisure activities that also require infrastructures to satisfy them. International tourism, for example, is by no means immaterial, which we should be aware of when we get on a metallic plane burning fossil fuel and stay in a concrete hotel.
With the electric car, it is not so much a question of “saving the planet” as of saving one’s personal material comfort, which is so important today, and above all of saving the existing economic model that is so successful and rewarding for a small minority. This minority has never ceased, out of self-interest, to confuse the end with the means by equating freedom of movement with the motorization of this very movement.
The French Minister of the Economy and Finance, Bruno Le Maire declared before the car manufacturers that “car is freedom⁵⁹”. Yet this model is built at best on the syllogism, at worst on the shameless and deliberate lie of one of the founders of our modern economy, the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste. He said: “Natural resources are inexhaustible, for without them we would not obtain them for free. Since they can neither be multiplied nor exhausted, they are not the object of economic science⁶⁰“. This discipline, which claims to be a science while blithely freeing itself from the constraints of the physical environment of a finite world, that should for its part submit to its theories nevertheless by exhausting its supposedly inexhaustible resources and destroying its environment. The destruction of biodiversity and its ten-thousand-years-old climatic stability, allowed the automobile industries to prosper for over a century. They have built up veritable financial empires, allowing them to invest massively in the mainstream media which constantly promote the car, whether electric or not, placing them in the permanent top three of advertisers.
To threaten unemployment under the pretext that countless jobs depend on this automobile industry, even if it is true for the moment, is also to ignore, perhaps voluntarily, the past reluctance of the populations to the intrusion of automobiles. The people who did not perceive them at all as the symbol of freedom, prestige and social marker, even as the phallic symbol of omnipotence that they have become today for many⁶¹. It is above all to forget that until the 1920s the majority of people, at least in France, were not yet wage earners. Since wage employment was born in the United Kingdom with the industrial revolution or more precisely the capitalist revolution, beginning with the textile industry: enclosure and workhouses transformed peasants and independent artisans into manpower. Into a workforce drawn under constraint to serve the private capital by depriving them of the means of their autonomy (the appropriation of communal property). Just as imported slaves were on the other side of the Atlantic until they were replaced by the steam engine, which was much more economical and which was certainly the true abolitionist⁶². It is clear that there can be no question of challenging this dependence, which is now presented as inescapable by those who benefit most from it and those for whom it is a guarantee of social stability, and thus a formidable means of control over the populace.
Today, we are repeatedly told that “the American [and by extension Western] way of life is non-negotiable⁶³. “Sustainable development,” like “green growth,” “clean energy” and the “zero-carbon” cars (as we have seen above) are nothing but oxymorons whose sole purpose is to ensure the survival of the industries, on which this way of life relies to continue enriching their owners and shareholders. This includes the new information and communication industries that also want to sell their own products related to the car (like artificial intelligence for the autonomous car, and its potential devastating rebound effect). To also maintain the banking and financial systems that oversee them (debt and shareholders, eternally dissatisfied, demanding continuous growth, which is synonymous with constant consumption).
Cheerful passengers above flood victims queing for help, their car is shown as a source of happiness. Louisville, USA, 1937. Photo: Margaret Bourke-White, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
All this with the guarantee of politicians, often in blatant conflicts of interest. And all too often with the more or less unconscious, ignorant or irresponsible acceptance of populations lulled into a veritable culture of selfishness, more than reluctant from now on to consent to the slightest reduction in material comfort. Which they have been so effectively persuaded can only grow indefinitely but made only possible by the burning of long-plethoric and cheap energy. This explains their denial of the active role they play in this unbridled consumerism, the true engine of climate change. Many claim, in order to relieve themselves of guilt, to be only poor insignificant creatures that can in no way be responsible for the evils of which they are accused. And are quick to invoke natural cycles, even though they are often not even aware of them (such as the Milankovitch cycles⁶⁴ that lead us not towards a warming, but towards a cooling!), to find an easy explanation that clears them and does not question a comfortable and reassuring way of life; and a so disempowering one.
Indeed people, new Prometheus intoxicated by undeniable technical prowess, are hypersensitive to promises of innovations that look like miracle solutions. “Magical thinking”, and its avatars such as Santa Claus or Harry Potter, tends nowadays to last well beyond childhood in a highly technological society. Especially since it is exalted by the promoters of positive thinking and personal development. Whose books stuff the shelves in every bookstore, reinforcing the feeling of omnipotence, the certainty of a so-called “manifest destiny”, and the inclination to self-deification. But this era is coming to an end. Homo Deus is starting to have a serious hangover. And we are all already paying the price in social terms. The “gilets jaunes” or yellow vests in France, for example, were unable to accept a new tax on gas for funding renewables and a speed reduction on the roads from 90km/h down to 80km/h. Paying in terms of climate change, which has only just begun, from which no one will escape, rich and powerful included.
Now everyone can judge whether the electric car is as clean as we are constantly told it is, even to the point of making it, like in Orwell’s novel, an indisputable established truth, despite the flagrant contradiction in terms (“war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength”). Does the inalienable freedom of individual motorized mobility, on which our modern societies are based, have a radiant future outside the imagination and fantasies of the endless technophiles who promise it to us ; just as they promised in the 1960s cities in orbit, flying cars, space stations on the Moon and Mars, underwater farms… And just as they also promised, 70 years ago, and in defiance of the most elementary principle of precaution, overwhelmed by an exalted optimism, to “very soon” find a definitive “solution” to nuclear waste; a solution that we are still waiting for, sweeping the (radioactive) dust under the carpet since then…
Isn’t it curious that we have focused mainly on the problem of the nature of the energy that ultimately allows an engine to function for moving a vehicle and its passengers, ignoring everything else? It’s as if we were trying to make the car as “dematerialized” as digital technology and the new economy it allows. Having succeeded in making the charging stations, the equipment, the satellites and the rockets to put them in orbit, the relay antennas, the thousands of kilometers of cables, and all that this implies of extractivism and industries upstream, disappear as if by magic (and we’re back to Harry Potter again). Yet all very material as is the energy necessary for their manufacture and their functioning, the generated pollution, the artificialization of the lands, etc.⁶⁵
Everlasting promises of flying cars, which would turn humans into new Icarius, arenearly one and a half century old. Future is definitely not anymore what it used to be…
Everyone remains free to continue to take the word of economists who cling like a leech to their sacrosanct infinite growth. To believe politicians whose perception of the future is determined above all by the length of their mandate. Who, in addition to being subject to their hyperactive lobbying, have shares in a world automobile market approaching 1,800 billion Euros per year⁶⁶ (+65% in 10 years, neither politicians nor economists would balk at such growth, which must trigger off climax at the Ministry of the Economy!). That is to say, the 2019 GDP of Italy. Moreover, in 2018 the various taxes on motor vehicles brought in 440 billion Euros for European countries⁶⁷. So it is implicitly out of the question to question, let alone threaten the sustainability of, this industrial sector that guarantees the very stability of the most developed nations.
It is also very difficult to believe journalists who most often, except a few who are specialized, have a very poor command of the subjects they cover. Especially in France, even when they don’t just copy and paste each other. Moreover, they are mostly employed by media financed in large part, via advertising revenues among other things, by car manufacturers who would hardly tolerate criticism or contradiction. No mention of CO2-emitting cement broadcasted on the TF1 channel, owned by the concrete builder Bouygues, which is currently manufacturing the bases for the wind turbines in Fécamp, Normandy. No more than believing startups whose primary vocation is to “make money”, even at the cost of false promises that they know very few people will debunk. Like some solar panels sold to provide more energy than the sun works only for those who ignore another physical fact, the solar constant. Which is simply like making people believe in the biblical multiplication of loaves and fishes.
So, sorry to disappoint you and to hurt your intimate convictions, perhaps even your faith, but the electric car, like Trump’s coal, will never be “clean”. Because as soon as you transform matter from one state to another by means of energy, you dissipate part of this energy in the form of heat. And you inevitably obtain by-products that are not necessarily desired and waste. This is why physicists, scientists and Greta Thunberg kept telling us for years that we should listen to them. The electric car will be at best just “a little less dirty” (in the order of 0 to 25% according to the various studies carried out concerning manufacturing and energy supply of vehicles, and even less if we integrate all the externalities). This is a meager advantage that is probably more socially acceptable but it is quickly swallowed up if not solely in their renewal frequency. The future will tell, at least in the announced increase of the total number of cars, with a 3% per year mean growth in terms of units produced, and of all the infrastructures on which they depend (same growth rate for the construction of new roads). 3% means a doubling of the total number of vehicles and kilometers of roads every 23 years, and this is absolutely not questioned.
Brittany, France, August 2021.
42 With 8 billion tons consumed every year, coal stands in the very first place in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. International Energy Outlook, 2019.
53 Co-author with Christophe Bonneuil of L’évènement anthropocène. La Terre, l’histoire et nous, Points, 2016 (The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, Verso, 2017).
54 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242431866_General_Motors_and_the_Demise_of_Streetcars & Matthieu Auzanneau, Or noir. La grande histoire du pétrole, La Découverte, 2015, p.436, and the report written for the American Senate by Bradford C. Snell, Public Prosecutor specialized in anti-trust laws.
55 James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, Free Press, 1994.
56 Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic. The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, The MIT Press, 2008.
57 https://www.avenir-suisse.ch/fr/vitesse-puanteur-bruit-et-ennuis/ & Stefan Hollinger, Graubünden und das Auto. Kontroversen um den Automobilverkehr 1900-1925, Kommissionsverlag Desertina, 2008
58 Emmanuel Fureix and François Jarrige, La modernité désenchantée, La Découverte, 2015 & François Jarrige, Technocritiques. Du refus des machines à la contestation des technosciences, La Découverte, 2014.
59 Journée de la filière automobile, Bercy, December 02, 2019.
60 Cours complet d’économie politique pratique, 1828.
61 Richard Bergeron, le Livre noir de l’automobile, Exploration du rapport malsain de l’homme contemporain à l’automobile, Éditions Hypothèse, 1999 & Jean Robin, Le livre noir de l’automobile : Millions de morts et d’handicapés à vie, pollution, déshumanisation, destruction des paysages, etc., Tatamis Editions, 2014.
62 Domenico Losurdo, Contre-histoire du libéralisme, La Découverte, 2013 (Liberalism : A Counter-History, Verso, 2014) & Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present, Longman, 1980 (Une Histoire populaire des Etats-Unis de 1492 a nos jours, Agone, 2003) & Eric Williams, Capitalism & Slavery, The University of North Carolina Press, 1943.
63 George H.W. Bush, Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro, 1992.
As a forestry scientist, I’m often asked how climate change is affecting fall foliage displays. What’s clearest so far is that color changes are occurring later in the season. And the persistence of very warm, wet weather in 2021 is reducing color displays in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. But climate change isn’t the only factor at work, and in some areas, human decisions about forest management are the biggest influences.
Longer growing seasons
Climate change is clearly making the Northeast warmer and wetter. Since 1980, average temperatures in the Northeast have increased by 0.66 degrees Fahrenheit (0.37 Celsius), and average annual precipitation has increased by 3.4 inches (8.6 centimeters) – about 8%. This increase in precipitation fuels tree growth and tends to offset stress on the trees from rising temperatures. In the West, which is becoming both warmer and drier, climate change is having greater physiological effects on trees.
My research in tree physiology and dendrochronology – dating and interpreting past events based on trees’ growth rings – shows that in general, trees in the eastern U.S. have fared quite well in a changing climate. That’s not surprising given the subtle variations in climate across much of the eastern U.S. Temperature often limits trees’ growth in cool and cold regions, so the trees usually benefit from slight warming.
In addition, carbon dioxide – the dominant greenhouse gas warming Earth’s climate – is also the molecule that fuels photosynthesis in plants. As carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere increase, plants carry out more photosynthesis and grow more.
More carbon dioxide is not automatically good for the planet – an idea often referred to as “global greening.” There are natural limits to how much photosynthesis plants can carry out. Plants need water and nutrients to grow, and supplies of these inputs are limited. And as carbon dioxide concentrations rise, plants’ ability to use it decreases – an effect known as carbon dioxide saturation.
For now, however, climate change has extended the growing season for trees in the Northeast by about 10-14 days. In my tree ring research, we routinely see trees putting on much more diameter growth now than in the past.
This effect is particularly evident in young trees, but we see it in old trees as well. That’s remarkable because old trees’ growth should be slowing down, not speeding up. Scientists in western states have even noted this acceleration in bristlecone pines that are over 4,000 years old – the oldest trees in the world.
Fall colors emerge when the growing season ends and trees stop photosynthesizing. The trees stop producing chlorophyll, the green pigment in their leaves, which absorbs energy from sunlight. This allows carotenoid (orange) and xanthophyll (yellow) pigments in the leaves to emerge. The leaves also produce a third pigment, anthocyanin, which creates red colors. A longer growing season may mean that fall colors emerge later – and it can also make those colors duller.
A changing mix of trees
Climate isn’t the only thing that affects fall colors. The types of tree species in a forest are an even bigger factor, and forest composition in the eastern U.S. has changed dramatically over the past century.
Notably, eastern forests today have more species such as red maple, black birch, tulip poplar and blackgum than they did in the early 20th century. These trees are shade-tolerant and typically grow in conditions that are neither extremely wet nor extremely dry. They also produce intense red and yellow displays in the fall.
There is evidence that some tree species in the eastern U.S. are migrating to the north and west because of warming, increasing precipitation and fire suppression. This trend could affect fall colors as regions gain or lose particular species. In particular, studies indicate that the range of sugar maples – one of the best color-producing trees – is shifting northward into Canada.
Forests under pressure
So far it’s clear that warming has caused a delay in peak colors for much of the East, ranging from a few days in Pennsylvania to as much as two weeks in New England. It’s not yet known whether this delay is making fall colors less intense or shorter-lasting.
But I’ve observed over the past 35 years that when very warm and wet weather extends into mid- and late October, leaves typically go from green to either dull colors or directly to brown, particularly if there is a sudden frost. This year there are few intense red leaves, which suggests that warmth has interfered with anthocyanin production. Some classic red producers, such as red maple and scarlet oak, are producing yellow leaves.
Other factors could also stress eastern forests. Climate scientists project that global warming will make tropical storms and hurricanes more intense and destructive, with higher rainfall rates. These storms could knock down trees, blow leaves off those left standing and reduce fall coloration.
Forests shade the earth and absorb carbon dioxide. I am proud to see an increasing number of foresters getting involved in ecological forestry, an approach that focuses on ecosystem services that forests provide, such as storing carbon, filtering water and sheltering wildlife.
Foresters can help to slow climate change by revegetating open land, increasing forests’ biodiversity and using highly adaptable tree species that are long-lived, produce many seeds and migrate over time. Shaping eastern forests to thrive in a changing climate can help preserve their benefits – including fall color displays – well into the future.
This week, governments from around the world will convene online for the first part of the UN Biodiversity Summit COP15 (the second part will take place partially in-person in Kunming in spring), which will agree on the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. Framed as a ‘stepping stone’ to the 2050 Vision of ‘Living in harmony with nature’ as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), ratified by 196 countries, this framework is intended to deal with runaway biodiversity loss over the next decade.
Increased attention is being paid to how Indigenous peoples have for centuries realised this aspiration of harmony. Indigenous peoples manage or have rights to 22% of the world’s land, yet this land supports 80% of the world’s biodiversity, even as they struggle to regain ancestral lands that were taken from them in many places. What is less recognised is how Indigenous understanding and perception of reality upholds this harmony.
The CBD meeting three years ago promised greater inclusion of Indigenous peoples and traditional knowledge, and there is much discussion of these issues ahead of COP15. The CBD developed the Akwé: Kon Guidelines in 2004 and further deepened involvement with the launch of a Traditional Knowledge Information Portal. Despite this progress, when mainstreaming of biodiversity into the energy sector was discussed by CBD parties in 2017, the negative impacts of hydropower dams were discussed in biodiversity and ecosystem terms, paying mere lip service to Indigenous rights.
A narrowly technical understanding of hydropower – passed off as “scientific” – underestimates how culture supports economies, conservation and utility for Indigenous peoples living in river basins. When external experts interpret Indigenous knowledge without the context of Indigenous perception of reality (ontology), they fail to grasp its importance. What is needed is an incorporation of Indigenous understanding of reality when discussing biodiversity in Indigenous territories, in order to manage ecosystems better.
The Salween through Indigenous eyes
The Salween River is one of the few major rivers in Asia who still flows freely and uninterrupted by large-scale dams. Roughly 2,400 kilometres long, the Salween flows from the Tibetan Plateau through Yunnan into Myanmar, briefly touching Thailand. The river supports some of the most biodiverse areas in the world and is home to diverse Indigenous groups including the Akha, Blang, Derung, Hmong, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Kokang, Lahu, Lisu, Mon, Nu, Palaung (T’arng), Pa’O, Shan, Tibetan, Yao, and Wa.
As custodians of the Salween River, community members maintain a spiritual relationship with the Salween, as our ancestors have done since they descended from the Tibetan Plateau many centuries ago. For us, the Salween is home to countless important spirits who are intermediaries between our human societies and the environment around us. She supports the sacred animal and plant species who populate our cosmos and carries the memories of our ancestors whose lives were intertwined with the river. Our relationship with the spirits is maintained and the memories of our ancestors kept alive by our continuous interaction with the Salween River. She is the backbone of our traditional knowledge and practices.
This is a wider understanding of the river than a mere provider of ‘ecosystem services’ that sustains our ‘livelihoods’. In our Indigenous understanding and perception of reality, developed over generations of living in the Salween basin, we don’t make a distinction between plants, animals, humans and more-than-humans such as spirits and ancestral spirits. This interconnectedness remains strong because the Salween is a free-flowing river.
These connections are reflected in Indigenous land, water and natural resource management across the Salween basin. As has been noted with reference to the Htee K’Sah guardian spirits of the water in S’gaw Karen ontology in the journal Pacific Conservation Biology,
“Karen environmental governance consists of social relations and ceremonial obligations with more-than-humans… It is through relations with the K‘Sah that Karen villagers relate to the water and land itself, and humans’ rights to use the land are contingent on maintaining these ritual obligations.”
Indigenous knowledge systems lead to better conservation
Our customary water governance traditions include stewardship practices, hunting and fishing restrictions, and ceremonial protocols that have fostered harmony with nature and safeguarded biodiversity. Our river is inhabited and protected by guardian spirits. In sanctuary areas, prayer ceremonies are performed to protect the fish and harm those who fish there. Our traditional watershed management systems designate ecologically sensitive areas such as ridges, watersheds and old growth forests, where the cutting back of forest is prohibited.
The benefits of traditional knowledge and practices for biodiversity thus come from the cultivation of a harmonious relationship between humans and more-than-humans, which is why sacred areas – an old tree or an entire mountain or river – must be protected. The ongoing relevance of such traditional knowledge and practices can be seen in the Salween Peace Park, an Indigenous initiative in Karen state that was awarded the 2020 UNDP Equator Prize. Around 75% of the forests, mountains and rivers that constitute the 1.4-million-acre area is managed according to traditional ‘kaw’ customary knowledge that combines spirituality, culture and conservation. This combination characterises Indigenous knowledge and is at the heart of Indigenous identity even when people have adopted ‘formal’ religions.
Indigenous knowledge and practices that are beneficial for biodiversity cannot be separated from Indigenous understanding and perception of reality. The inseparability of Indigenous ontology, Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous practices is hard to recognise for people living outside these ontologies. It is not possible to capture or preserve our Indigenous knowledge in a museum or a book. What meditation and prayer in a house of worship is for other religions, for us is the interaction with the Salween River. Our knowledge regenerates from our interaction with our environment, especially at the countless natural sacred sites and auspicious confluence points where the Salween meets its tributaries. We see her as a living entity.
Uninterrupted interconnectedness is key for the Salween
There are plans for seven Chinese-built dams along the Salween River, which has been a source of friction between Myanmar and China, as well as the current and previous governments and Indigenous groups. If the Salween River is dammed, it will strike at the heart of our cultures and beliefs. The severance of the river itself and the cascade of consequences will be the death knell for our traditional knowledge and practices for three reasons.
Firstly, the Salween responds to seasonal snowmelt and monsoon rains. Altering these variations in her flow affects the river’s ecology, severing people’s interdependency with the river by causing a decline in local river-linked livelihoods such as fisheries and agriculture. If these are disrupted, young people will have no choice but to take up professions disconnected from the river or move away. Less interaction and cohabitation with the river over time weakens Indigenous knowledge systems.
In the Karen context, Lu Htee Hta is one of the most important ceremonies performed as part of our relationship with the water, a ‘founders’ ritual’ which maintains a social contract with the more-than-human owners of the water and land. If the next generation is not able to conduct these rituals, the social contract will be broken. Without the continuous interactions between animals, humans and non-humans in the Salween basin, Indigenous knowledge will cease, and with it practices that have sustained the rich biodiversity we see today.
Secondly, dam-induced changes to the river’s rhythms, levels and nutrition will reduce the numbers and ranges of many sacred aquatic species that are strictly protected in the traditional management systems of the Salween, including the fish Nya Moo, Nya Ter Taw, and Nya Pla (Neolissochilus sp.). For instance, a reddish species of Nya P’tay is regarded as the king of all fish and killing them, we believe, will result in the extinction of fish species and water scarcity and drought. The Salween is home to a diversity of turtles greater than any other river in the world, and we regard a number of them as sacred.
Mainstream dams will also affect river-based sites considered sacred, such as the Thawthi Kho watershed area, threatening the effective protected status of waterbodies rich in biodiversity such as spring-fed pools, mud beds, waterfalls, rapids and islands. If these sacred natural sites run dry or flood in unusual ways, people will believe that the spirits may become angry and cause accidents and illness in nearby communities, or leave the river altogether, stripping these sites of protection.
Third, if our Salween is fragmented by dams, this will disrupt the flow, interconnection and relationship between all beings that depended on it. This upsets the balance in the river, which in turn upsets the balance between the river, humans and more-than-humans. It is the wholeness of the river – connecting beginning to end; past to present; humans to more-than-humans – that makes her the backbone of our belief systems. This gives her a sacred meaning as an indivisible living entity that supports our Indigenous cosmos.
Recognition and action for Indigenous ontologies
We draw hope from recent developments that have seen the central importance of free-flowing rivers in Indigenous ontologies being increasingly recognised, including by parties to the CBD. In 2017, New Zealand acknowledged the sacred status of the Whanganui River in Maori ontology by giving the river legal personhood. Through this act, New Zealand recognised the Whanganui as “an indivisible and living whole, comprising the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating its tributaries and all its physical and metaphysical elements”. New Zealand acknowledged “the enduring concept of Te Awa Tupua – the inseparability of the people and the River” thereby echoing the ancient Maori proverb: “The Great River flows from the mountains to the sea. I am the River and the River is me.”
According to the New Zealand attorney general in charge of the process, their most difficult challenge was getting the country’s European-descendant majority “to see the world through Maori eyes”. While rivers have since been recognised as living entities in CBD member countries such as Ecuador, Bangladesh and Canada, many other CBD members are still severing the flow of rivers sacred to Indigenous Peoples. In our own country, Myanmar, the military junta recently announced a fresh push to dam the Salween River.
Participants at the COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity should move beyond previous calls for ‘participation by’ and ‘consultation with’ Indigenous Peoples to recognise ontological diversity in order to safeguard biodiversity in Indigenous territories. To play an effective role in addressing the biodiversity crisis, we have to be able to sustain our own ‘Ecological Civilisation’.
Parties to the CBD should consider legislation that recognises legal personhood and rights of rivers considered sacred to Indigenous Peoples and incorporate Rights of Nature into the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. Parties should also translate the Akwé: Kon Guidelines into their national laws so that these guidelines become more relevant. Through enabling more research into Indigenous ontologies and their spiritual relationship with rivers, the CBD Secretariat should help to foster a better understanding of who a river is in the ontology of Indigenous Peoples.
Above all, parties to the CBD should, in their effort to mainstream biodiversity in the energy sector, commit to excluding large-scale hydropower as an energy option for rivers such as the Salween which are sacred and culturally significant to Indigenous Peoples.
Ending systems of domination: Reclaiming our bodies and politics from global trauma
By Eva Schonveld and Justin Kenrick
As the sun goes down on a system that cannot save us from itself, our only option is to bring that system to an end. But what is that system, and how do we replace it?
We begin from the understanding that systems of domination are, both, inside and between us, and that transforming social and political relations starts as much from our hearts and the personal as from the predicament of the earth, and all our societal relations. We begin from Scotland where we live, and where COP26 will yet again make grand promises but do nothing to stop us all hurtling off the climate cliff edge.
Colonization’s torment continues
Scotland has been both colonized and colonizer. Without the history of colonization of Scotland and England, there would have been no British Empire colonizing overseas. Without the vicious clearing of highland communities from their lands here, there would not have been the families desperate for food and a future, with no choice but to work for a pittance in the factories and furnaces of empire, or to fight its wars.
The mass murder wreaked by empire, the evisceration of others’ cultures and stealing of their lands, and the forced residential schooling of the youth, has viciously harmed indigenous peoples in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australasia, while being dressed up as a ‘civilizing mission’ or ‘progress’. The same is true of how this system treats the vast majority of those living precariously in the British Isles, who are told that they benefit from a system that blames them for the inequality they suffer. But do even the 1% who supposedly benefit, really benefit? Those whose empathy is broken through the boarding school system, and whose shallowness is groomed by a compliant fawning media perpetuating its life-destroying feudal, corporate and political world?
Finding a way through
It is not by chance that our system is stumbling us into extinction.
We need to find new ways to gather, to make decisions, to organize, and to take responsibility for each other, so that we can respect and nourish all life, since those tasked with this responsibility have so disastrously and inevitably failed, since the dominant system’s purpose is not to respect and nourish but to control, co-opt and exploit.
We also need to re-imagine how we rediscover, create and maintain the enduring or emergent alternatives. Too often they unintentionally include (or fail to challenge) assumptions based on our dominant lived experience of (mostly) patriarchal, racist, hierarchical cultures. The growing understanding of personal and cultural trauma – its ubiquity, its unconscious nature, its debilitating effects, and, most crucially, our ability to learn and heal from it, provide radical possibilities for uncovering and shifting those unconscious (traumatized) assumptions and for (re)discovering genuinely fresh and emancipatory ways of being and working together.
Trauma is a complex neurological process, but in brief it is the way our mind deals with events, which we experience as physically or emotionally overwhelming. These are not stored as memories, but are patterned into the nervous system: the unconscious: the body. These patterns can be ‘triggered’ when we are reminded of the initial experience. Because this triggering happens instantaneously and unconsciously, we rarely even notice that we have been plunged into an emotional state which now has little to do with what’s going on in the present.
We all accumulate some level of trauma during our childhood. This can show up in adulthood in disparate areas of life, for example public speaking, standing up for ourselves, managing our anger or coping with rejection, where we know we tend to act differently to how we would like. Dig a little into these uncomfortable feelings and the roots always lead back to childhood within a dominating system. Every one of us experiences our own versions of this, but the underlying reasons are rarely acknowledged. The socially condoned view is that because we largely forget them, these early experiences are over. In fact, unaddressed, they continue to shape our lives.
Imperialism, colonization, supremacy, stratification, capitalism… these are culture level traumas: legacies of past damage that continue to re-inflict it. They play out in the world in many forms: in the stratifications of class or caste, sexism and racism, in economic inequality, wars, biodiversity loss, climate change… and as with personal trauma, the root causes of our cultural traumas are obscured, making what are essentially breaks with reality seem absolutely normal and inevitable, at least to those experiencing it.
Power and society
This system of domination also lives inside of us, within our bodies, our emotions, our relationships, our attitudes, our social structures, the way we act towards those we see as different to ourselves, other species and the wider natural world. We can see it in the way we bring up our kids, in our family and work relationships, and also in our health, education, economic, and political systems.
The casualties of power by domination include those currently at its apex, many of whom have been through a traditional ruling class upbringing of distant or proxy parenting, separation, physical punishment and/or emotional denial combined with treats and rewards, sometimes with visibly crippling results, but intended to result in the smooth, controlled and controlling presentation of the elite. These child-rearing practices are designed to cauterize empathy in the next generation of the ruling class. This vicious cycle of unacknowledged intergenerational personal and cultural trauma, combined with a hereditary system of domination turbo charged by the neoliberal agenda over the past 40 years, is now running close to costing us everything.
Wherever any of us experience or perpetrate domination, it is traumatic and traumatizing. Our personhood, our capacity for loving connection, our innate health are defiled and traumatized by this system. The implications of this collective blind spot for our capacity to create collaborative, rather than dominating, cultures and social infrastructure is monumental: if we can’t name it, we can’t change it.
But at the same time as all this, that innate health (both personally and collectively) is still alive, active and accessible to us. And this is where hope lies. If we address the root cause of our problems – we may even yet be able to change some of our outcomes.
Changing the power dynamic
Given the rapid unraveling of the natural systems that all us living beings depend on to survive, only the deepest of change is enough. We don’t need system change, if that means some changes to this system. We need to turn the dominating system into compost that can nourish the living systems we are. Carbon emissions have never been the real problem; they are simply a consequence of the fact that our system leaves us too traumatized to act rationally, even in the face of possible extinction.
Personal and collective inner work is needed to unpick the systems of domination that play out in our bodies and psyches, in our personal and work relationships, in our organizations, our social systems, our relationships across cultures and with other species and ecosystems. Doing this difficult, often painful work is the only viable way out of this mess. Luckily, it is also the work of healing and liberation. It takes courage and determination to start, and it is not easy, but once we have begun it is a movement towards health and wholeness that brings with it increasing capacity for connection, pleasure, love and joy.
From shaming to learning
It is impossible to transform toxic power relations without venturing into the emotional realm. Without understanding and working to heal the unconscious drivers, which suppress our empathy, we inevitably end up disempowering others and ourselves, and often unintentionally replicate that which we are trying to change.
None of this is socially acceptable!
In dominating cultures we laugh at and judge harshly people who show their care too clearly – those who go to therapy (screw-ups), who show vulnerability (failures), who take care with language (politically correct) who work for the environment (tree huggers), who protest and get arrested (attention-seeking privileged, or dirty criminals), who dance (hippies), who cry (embarrassing), who try to make a difference (do-gooders).
Standing up to this can be tough, but we can support one another and know that the fact that we feel such social censure is a good indication that we’re successfully challenging the system. Transforming attempts to shame us into opportunities to learn more about the system we need to change is core to this work. We (collectively) need to be doing this work at every level: in ourselves and our relationships, in our families, in our workplaces, in our professions, in the way we do politics, education, healthcare, nature-care, but we also need to be sure that the changes we are making are genuinely coming from a different root and will give us different results.
Resisting, and trusting our guts
Much of the cultural genocide practiced during the (ongoing) colonial period was and is done by people convinced that they are acting well: freeing others from ignorance and ungodliness, bringing health, education and democracy, stimulating new markets.
So how can we tell what change is genuinely helpful?
There are no road maps, but there are processes and practices that can help guide us. Understanding how trauma works, and how to process and heal it is crucial. We know how to work with trauma in the personal mind-body. Working with trauma in our social and cultural systems is not all that different: what we know works in personal therapeutic processes we can apply out in the world.
We can bring curiosity, tenacity, compassion, generosity, sensitivity, honesty, courage, spaciousness and patience. We can look at the history and the painful triggers together. We can express and unwind our hurt, shame and loss together. We can open our hearts, practice mindfully, use our imaginations and our creativity to build new ways of doing things (pretty much everything), get comfortable with making mistakes (and learning from them), with not knowing, with showing our vulnerability, and also with showing the strength of our care.
We don’t have to shrink from hard truths. We can make a stand when we see domination in action, we can pay attention to and resist the old patterning, and we can pick ourselves up over and over again as we inevitably fail. We can apologize, make reparations. We can forgive, build relationship across all kinds of perceived differences, prioritize connection over performance, treasure the local, challenge the global, center the earth, and learn how to trust our collective guts.
We need to resist the cultural programming that says there’s nothing we can do, that those in power know best, that genuine social change is a myth. Let’s resist it by proving it wrong: facing our fears and doing it anyway. Let’s take whatever first small, wise steps we need to towards creating a world where we know and act on the truth that our well- being depends on ensuring the well-being of others, not on exploiting them.
We can’t now stop the reckoning that’s underway. We can only wake up, take responsibility, get over our egos and start working together for our collective, planetary healing. This is the ONLY work that matters now. We don’t necessarily need to change what we are doing. We simply need to do it with this in mind/ heart, in community/ society, in relationship with all.
The Sunset assembly
As the sun goes down on the 29th of October, a unique assembly will begin. It will continue for 24 hours, following the sunset around the world, passed from community to community.
Community members will speak and listen to one another from the heart. Each community will use different forms of meeting, as we collectively seek a path towards a politics of wholeness where our decisions are based on being deeply present to each other, rather than speaking at each other. Our common focus is on:
“How the system is impacting on me and my community, and how we are resisting, creating alternatives and maintaining connectedness in the face of it”
The timing is no coincidence: COP26 starts on 1st November and will be no different to the previous 25. The Climate COPs are mind-bogglingly successful at pretending they are tackling the climate crisis, while enabling the fossil fuel industry to receive billions in subsidies, emissions to rise exponentially, and corporate interests to perpetually delay real action.
Grassroots to Global, which has sparked this assembly, is working to build alternatives to our current collective decision making processes. Most of what democracy we have has been wrung from the hands of those with power who have given up only the absolute minimum amount of power they have had to in order to stay in power – most often followed by their rapidly retracting the real power to decide.
We need to rediscover enduring – and explore emerging – ways to gather, to deliberate and to decide together – developing a ‘relational democracy’ that can deepen and replace an easily captured ‘representational democracy’, and that can prevent democracies from sliding into outright authoritarianism.
Enabling the future
This is an ongoing area of exploration (you can read early thinking on that here and here) and will continue to develop as we learn through processes like Reworlding and the Sunset Assembly. Some essential elements of such relational decision-making processes include:
Building relationship: Ensuring all groups are included, specially those that are marginalized – ideally as partners in developing processes – to ensure the whole picture is addressed and that everyone is included. Given experiences of co-option and marginalization, people may start out skeptical, and the proof of inclusion will be in the practice not the promise.
Dealing with power: Having strategies for managing those who are conditioned to take, or give away, personal power, e.g. ensuring those used to speaking, to listen; and, those used to listening, to speak.
Centering empathy: Having strong input to support the development of relational skills e.g. listening, confidence, self-reflection and expression, emotional self-management, empathy.
Addressing trauma: Dealing early and well with conflict and trauma responses when they are triggered, and taking a transformative approach to trauma, reactivity and conflict (they are complex, nuanced and full of incredibly useful information) while also maintaining safety to ensure care for anyone re-experiencing trauma, and to limit triggering of others.
We have to become slow and deep enough to swiftly make the fundamental changes that are needed.
It is not our humanity that is the problem; it is an inhumane system of appropriation and exploitation that persuades us to rely on it for our survival and well being, while it devours both. Our wellbeing can only ever rely on ensuring, not exploiting, the well-being of others.
From few to many, we are everywhere
Groups who will join the Sunset Assembly include:
a diverse group of people from the Andes, the Amazon and the coast in Peru
a group in North Sulawesi, Indonesia who will be opening with a sunset ritual held by Minahasa elders
elders from West Papua reflecting on the devastation of palm oil and other colonial impacts
the Ogiek of Mount Elgon in Kenya, who are holding over part of a wider community meeting so that it can happen within this assembly
And more, including from Aotearoa, Scotland, Australia . . .
Alongside these assembly-holding groups, anyone from anywhere in the world is invited to join as witnesses at any point. Witnesses are invited to deeply experience and listen to the holding groups. We believe witnessing is an active process in which attention and intention make a real difference to the process.
In between each section, we will hold a “Sharing Circle’ which is open to all, taking turns to speak for a few minutes each, speaking from the heart without the need to prepare, bringing our own feelings and reflections, and hearing other Witnesses’ voices.
We hope this can be the beginning of a whole-globe check-in. If you would like to participate as a witness, please sign up here.
Beyond the sunset, we aim to hold a Sunrise Assembly after COP, hopefully joined by many new collaborators, focusing on how communities can gather locally and trans-locally to make heart-centered decisions, and so take responsibility for the future in a way that can replace a global decision-making system that is paralyzed by its own trauma.
These around-the-world assemblies are sparked by Grassroots to Global, building on the Reworlding gathering. Our river is joining with many others on different versions of the same journey, and we encourage everyone who is not already engaged to explore and develop their own streams of inspiration, so we can flow together towards a politics of wholeness, which confronts and overcomes the very real obstacles in our way.
Eva Schonveld is a climate activist, process designer and facilitator, supporting sociocratic system development, decision-making and facilitation. She co-founded Starter Culture and is currently working on Grassroots to Global, a project which asks: can we co-develop a more empathic, democratic, political system which could connect internationally in a global assembly to address the root causes of climate change?
Justin Kenrick co-founded Heartpolitics, is a Quaker, and trained in Buddhist psychotherapy. He is an anthropologist and a Senior Policy Advisor at Forest Peoples Programme where he works for community land rights in Kenya and Congo. He is a director of Life Mosaic, and also works on land reform in Scotland. He lives in Portobello, Edinburgh, where he chairs Action Porty which undertook the first successful urban community right to buy in Scotland. He writes in many contexts , and was on the Stewarding Group of the Scottish Government’s Climate Citizens Assembly which XR Scotland campaigned for but ultimately had to leave.