Occupy the Future: Re-envisioning economics in an ecological world

I’d like to invite you, dear reader, into a little thought experiment, if you would. Start by taking a deep breathe. Feel the air enter through your nostrils and travel down into your lungs. Stop reading for a second and just bring your awareness to that breathe, to the process of breathing that unites you with all other beings on this earth.

Who can be said to own the air which you just breathed? It seems a ludicrous question, but imagine a world in which clean air was a commodity that was bought and sold on the open market. A world where corporations effectively owned the rights to provide clean air to paying customers.

If this seems a completely unimaginable scenario, let’s think about it a little more. Already access to clean water, no less essential to life than clean air, is being privatized and sold as a commodity in many parts of the world. As clean water becomes ever more scarce due to industrial pollution and climate change, this is a trend that will most likely accelerate. It has long been accepted that food, another of our most basic survival needs, is distributed through market exchange; and ownership of the food supply has now even been extended to the genetic code of plants.

Is it now that hard to imagine a world where air too is a commodity? What kind of world would this be? How would this affect the way we relate to one another and to the rest of the living world if even the most fundamental act of existence – breathing – was regulated by the market?

Behold the commodification of the earth, a process begun several centuries ago with the enclosure of the commons and the structuring of a rigid system of private property. This process has been so written into our dominant cultural story in the industrialized world that its implications go completely unnoticed. It is the myth of progress, of human exceptionalism, of the rationalization and institutionalization of our reality.

But this story is beginning to change. Though it is the story being told by those with power, by the mainstream media, by our various cultural and political institutions, it grows increasingly apparent how far the chasm between this official story and the daily lived experience of billions of people. And as more people begin to hear the voice of the non-human world louder and more clearly, this story becomes evermore outdated and insufficient to deal with the problems now facing our planet.

This past weekend, I and several of my colleagues at Schumacher College ran a workshop at Occupy London’s Big Green Day entitled “Occupy the Future: Re-envisioning Economics in an Ecological World.” The theme of Big Green Day was to put economic inequality and instability into the context of the larger ecological world, a perspective that has not found as much voice in the global Occupy Movement just yet.

We began to explore several deep inquiries in our short workshop: how the dominant cultural narrative constrains our understanding of the type of future that is both possible and desirable; how humans are just one species in a vastly complex, interconnected and self-organizing system called Earth; and how to begin cultivating a vision of a sustainable, equitable, meaningful future based on a co-created alternative cultural story.

We found that the process of imagining life twenty years into the future (one potential future based on the shared values of our group) was an extremely empowering experience. Once we had begun to look at ‘the economy’ as one small part of the ecological whole, inherently constrained by the boundaries of the earth’s biocapacity, the vision that evolved was one of a human-scale, decentralized society moving to the rhythms of the biosphere; it was a future of hard but meaningful work, a future of participation and abundance.

Underlying the story we began to tell was a fundamentally different relationship to the land, one characterized by a deep appreciation for life in all in manifold forms. This co-evolving relationship was one of partnership with nature, not ownership or subservience. Indeed, the exclusively anthropocentric concept of private ownership found a very limited place in this story. Once we had collectively recognized the intrinsic value of the natural world, speaking of nature in terms of commodities seemed like a particular form of violence.

If that all sounds too utopian to you, its perhaps because most of us are not exposed to the many manifestations of this vision that are already being lived and created. In Transition initiatives across the globe, communities are already making the shift to more resilient local economies; the Slow Food movement is cultivating a vision of life at a more natural pace; cooperative business ventures like Mondragon in Spain are re-envisioning structures of ownership and demonstrating that there are viable alternatives in business; organizations like the Biomimicry Institute and Permaculture Institute are evolving ways to learn from and live with the nature world; places of learning such as Barefoot College and Earth University in India are co-creating truly sustainable models of education, and movements such as Free Skools and Democratic Education are empowering people to play a more participatory role in their own learning; time banks in places such as Rushey Green are validating people’s connections outside of the monetary economy; groups such as Embercombe and The Natural Step are nurturing a new model of visionary leadership; even governments like Bhutan are embracing a more holistic understanding of human wellbeing and cultural flourishing. And of course, the Occupy movement is demonstrating the power of direct participatory decision-making.

It is certainly true that the story being told by an increasing number of people across the globe is changing far more quickly than that of our institutions. But such is the nature of change that when a certain threshold is reached (in CO2 concentrations, in cultural values, or in consciousness) a rapid shift is impossible to stop.

Given the vision of a different future that a small group of strangers created in just over an hour on a cold  London evening last weekend, it seems to me that to be a pessimist is to deny the inherent uncertainty of the universe and the limitless potential of the future. As Arundhati Roy so eloquently said, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”


Ecocide: Giving name to violence against the earth

Joe Hall of Eradicating Ecocide on the case for making Ecocide the 5th international crime against peace. Speaking at Occupy London on 18 December as part of The Big Green Day,  a day of events highlighting the links between social and environmental injustice.

Eradicating Ecocide is an open-source, grassroots campaign. What are your thoughts about making ecocide an international crime? Does it address the systemic causes of environmental destruction? How might we as individuals get involved to support this cause? Share your thoughts if you fancy…

On energy systems and worldviews

According to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world has just 5 years in which to radically transform its carbon-intensive energy infrastructure before the “lock-in” effect will make runaway climate change inevitable. A rather somber and urgent warning from one of the world’s most respected – and conservative – energy bodies.

Given the scale and design of our industrial energy infrastructure, high-carbon energy generation – coal plants, oil refineries, natural gas fracking wells, and “unconventional” tar sands mining – will continue to emit large quantities of CO² for many years after they are built. This “lock-in” effect means that the emissions of already existing or newly built carbon-burning energy sources will persist in the environment for years – centuries in fact – even once switched off. All of this makes the recent debate over whether to further exploit dirtier, more carbon-intensive forms of energy such as tar sands all the more ludicrous.

The message from scientists and energy experts could not be clearer: according to Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, “if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”

An opportune time then, for the global Occupy Movement to focus on the links between a violent, unsustainable economic system and the continued exploitation and pollution of our environment. On Friday the general assembly of Occupy LSX reached preliminary consensus on an official acknowledgment of this link, adding a tenth point concerning climate change to the Occupy LSX Initial Statement. Along with the recent commitment to installing renewable energy sources such as solar panels and bicycle generators at the St. Paul’s camp, these actions go a long way towards emphasizing that it is the same underlying worldview which results in increasing concentration of wealth, corruption of the democratic process, and degradation of the one earth which all else relies upon.

People are starting to question and speak out against this entrenched economic materialism in increasing numbers. In a major victory, sustained non-violent actions against the Keystone XL pipeline in the US and Canada has resulted in the Obama administration delaying approval of the pipeline until at least next year, effectively killing the project according to Bill McKibben and 350.org. A network of activists and ordinary citizens worried about the health affects of fracking are currently organizing a large protest in New Jersey on November 21 to prevent fracking in the Delaware River Basin, the source of drinking water for 16 million people. And of course, the global Occupy Movement has galvanized action against the pervasive corporate influence that has so entrenched the fossil-fuel and finance industries perpetrating these crimes against the earth.

A solidarity action in front of the US Embassy in London protesting the Keystone XL pipeline (Nov 6)

What the mainstream media misses though, is that opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and other similar projects is not simply about avoiding potential environmental and economic disasters like oil spills; it’s about preventing inevitable environmental and social disasters like irreversible climate change and increased privatization of the commons. Even if the pipeline does its job perfectly, ‘safely’ transporting crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to the US gulf coast, in simply consuming the resulting oil we will knowingly and consciously do more harm to the environment than any single oil spill could ever do.

It is the fundamental set of assumptions behind this pipeline – that the earth is for our exploitation, that increasing consumption will lead to higher wellbeing, that neoliberal economic policies are what is best for all – that people are beginning to reject in critical numbers.

The fact that this pipeline, like all other carbon-intensive energy projects, is painted as a savior for unemployed workers proves how untenable our current economic system really is. Yes, millions of people desperately need jobs – but not ones that will systematically destroy job opportunities and the potential to flourish for all future generations. In fact, the rapacious and extractive capitalist economy which depends on these types of massive projects necessitates systemic unemployment to keep labor costs down and maintain a surplus of workers willing to compete for any task offered to them.

Ultimately, long-term solutions designed to prevent climate change and restore the environment are also the only long-term solution to the systemic unemployment embedded in our industrial economy. And more crucially, they are solutions that restore the intrinsic dignity and meaning of work.

The transition to local, distributed, and restorative energy systems will not only drastically reduce carbon emissions and reduce environmental degradation, it will also redistribute economic and political power away from corporations and large-scale bureaucracies to communities and bioregions. Already several Transition Towns across the UK, including an ongoing project where I live in Totnes, have funded and built their own community power stations using entirely renewable energy sources. This simultaneously frees communities from dependence on fossil fuels and gives them complete autonomy over their energy supply.  The installation and maintenance of small-scale, community-owned energy systems also keeps jobs and money in local communities.

What we are talking about is not simply a matter of reconfiguring our energy infrastructure or reforming the financial system though. In the words of Joanna Macy, this is about shifting from an industrial growth society to a life sustaining society – a shift in values which places people and planet over profits and recognizes the intrinsic value of all life. This is the shift at the heart of the Occupy Movement because it represents the deepest challenge to the status quo. When our energy systems (and all other social systems) reflect a different, life-sustaining worldview, we will live in a much more just and healthier world.