On Saturday 10 September, the Venice Lido will host a Climate March. A march demanding climate justice without ifs and buts. Abatement of emissions now, not in twenty years. The following text is an attempt to synthesise something that is difficult to synthesise, to trace the lines of intersection that capitalism has carved out by oppressing bodies and territories. Along these lines we want to build common embankments to the looming disaster, to face it united and altogether.
Zones of sacrifice
We have already dangerously overheated our planet and our governments refuse to take the necessary measures to halt this trend. Once upon a time, many could use ignorance as an excuse, but for at least thirty years (since the IPCC was born and since climate negotiations began) the refusal to reduce emissions has been accompanied by full awareness of its dangers.
Fossil fuels are not the only cause of global warming, but they are the major cause. The problem with fossil fuels is that they are by their very nature so polluting and toxic that they require the sacrifice of places and people. People whose bodies and lungs may be immolated in mines or whose land and water may be washed away by open-pit quarries or oil spills.
As early as the 1970s, US scientific advisors called parts of the country 'national sacrifice zones', such as the Appalachian Mountains, which were blown up because coal mining was cheaper than digging wells. Areas around power plants suffered the same treatment. Entire neighbourhoods, normally inhabited by African-American and Hispanic communities, were forced to bear the burden of our dependence on fossil fuels, a burden measured in cancers and respiratory diseases. To combat this 'environmental racism', the climate justice movement was born.
The sacrifice zones are scattered all over the planet. There is the Niger Delta, poisoned by Exxon and ENI, hit by a veritable 'ecological genocide', as the writer and activist Ken Sarò-Wiwa called it before being assassinated by his government. There is Alberta, Canada, where tar sands mining has destroyed First Nations lands and agreements. But the boundaries of sacrifice zones go beyond the concept of physical space and also apply to entire social groups, bodies, subjectivities. The exploitation of female and racialised bodies is one of the cornerstones of the division of labour in pre-capitalist societies and one of the founding components of original accumulation. The systematic oppression of women, mainly represented by the exploitation of reproductive labour, and of racialised and enslaved communities is the plastic reproduction of the transfer of the concept of the zone of sacrifice from the landscape to the body.
Nature and the body become battlefields for capitalism, places on which the most violent of games is played. Female and non-conforming bodies have been systematically excluded from the balance of power in all Western civilisations. Oppressed and exploited, these bodies have been forced to provide for the reproduction of the human species, the production of labour power, from a position of subalternity. The exploitation of care work has allowed - and continues to allow - the development of patriarchal, capitalist and neo-liberal societies. In the face of this awareness, the welding together of climate movements, decolonial movements, and transfeminist movements is spontaneous, as well as necessary, to confront capitalist society with adequate radicality. In the contexts in which extractivism manifests itself in its most colonial character - in South America, in Africa, in South Asia -, it is no coincidence that the response is very often led by women or non-binary subjectivities, whose bodies are considered zones of sacrifice by capital and battlefields by patriarchy. These are areas where violence against women is more frequent and more heinous, where their activism is punished with death and the torment of bodies. To these experiences, however, in the West, we must continue to look: to communities that have theorised, organised and constructed a system based on a different relationship between subjectivity and environment, in which radical feminism is political praxis inseparable and inseparable from any other plan of action or narrative. In South America, Ni Una Menos has completely overwhelmed society, imposing itself in public discourse on every level, forcing any political subject to come to terms with the need for a feminist rethinking of any analysis. On the same continent, indigenous peoples hand down a tradition of feminine knowledge that opposes extractivism with a praxis of ecosystemic balance, and which is configured as forms of knowledge free from the constraints and distortions of patriarchy. An example not unlike jineology, the science of Kurdish women, which within a revolutionary experience such as that of North-East Syria provides a clear indication of the alternative models of society to strive for.
The exploitation of reproductive labour has historically constituted itself as one of the pillars for the development of capitalism, for the process of initiating primary accumulation. Along with this, the exploitation of non-salaried productive labour has allowed for the weaving of the lie that is the paradigm of infinite growth. Again, it is no coincidence that this form of oppression took place on specific, clearly identifiable bodies through a centuries-old (when not millennia-old) process of othering social production. Non-white bodies, unworthy bodies, beastly bodies to be exploited on plantations, in mines, on construction sites. Bodies commodified, violated, dehumanised.
The material conditions of these subjectivities, however, have often been transformed in history into experiences of rebellion, into organisation, into claims. These stories are sometimes repressed - and therefore deleted from the books because they are irrelevant -, sometimes victorious - and therefore deleted from the books because they are potentially dangerous. Nonetheless, they are stories that exist, especially in the global south, and they are stories to look at by freeing ourselves from the colonial constructs that still plague our gaze. On the world chessboard, capitalism plays its pawns in the black boxes of the Global North, but loses ground in South America, Africa, and Asia. The effects of extractivism in these territories have marked the lives of indigenous communities far more severely, and the reaction is more radical and real here than elsewhere. It is in these contexts that we can observe revolutionary examples of anti-capitalist societies.
Oppression after oppression
Fossil fuels require the sacrifice of certain parts of the world, it has always been so. And it is false what we often hear, that climate change is the fault of 'human nature', of the greed and short-sightedness typical of our species. When it comes to environmental responsibility, human beings are not all the same, it was the systems created by some human beings, such as capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy that brought us to the situation we are in.
There are other societies that have organised life differently, based on assumptions other than infinite growth, such as the welfare of the seven generations to come or the need to be not just good citizens, but good ancestors. Every time the word anthropocene is uttered, these societies are erased. They are the societies most impacted by mega-projects: examples are unfortunately uncountable, but here we would like to mention the hydroelectric dams in Honduras, which cost the life of, among others, Earth champion Berta Caceres in March 2016.
There are no easy, cheap and clean methods of extracting fossil fuels, and this is undermining the Faustian pact made at the beginning of the industrial era, according to which the consequences and risks would be dumped on someone else, on the peripheries of our own and other countries. Areas of sacrifice are spreading everywhere: after the Global South, capitalism has treated its own peripheries, the poorest, most marginalised social groups, as a territory of conquest.
There is no safe, clean, non-toxic way to run a fossil fuel-based economy. Nor is there a peaceful way. Unlike renewable energies, fossil fuels are not evenly distributed, but are concentrated in certain regions, as are minerals, aquifers...
The Israeli architect Eyal Weizman had mapped a few years ago the interesting overlap between the aridity line, i.e. the meteorological boundary of lands affected by less than 200mm of rain per year, and the areas affected by some of the most violent conflicts of recent decades. Areas that are rich in fossil fuels but poor in water, where the effects of the climate crisis add up to the scenarios imposed by the war for resources.
An overlap, that between bombs and droughts, that forces millions of people to flee every year to the Global North, which repels them by applying the same rhetoric used for those territories. They are all areas of sacrifice: the lands as well as the communities that inhabit them. The sacrosanct need for a safe place to live is portrayed as a threat to our security, and the tactics honed in the West Bank are being borrowed in the West, be it Trump's wall, the bulldozers that razed the Calais camps to the ground, or the Australian camps on the islands of Nauru and Manus.
We are facing a current emergency, not a future one, but we are not acting like one. The Paris Agreement commits governments to keep global warming within +2°C. Agreement largely disregarded on an ill-considered target. In 2015, many African delegates called that resolution a 'death sentence' and the slogan of many low-lying populations is '1.5 degrees to stay alive'. But even the 2°C is a lie, because there are no real efforts to do so. Many of the governments that have signed up to the agreement in recent years have absolutely laughably decreased their investments in oil, while increasing their investments in gas, the biggest green lie of this century. And as if this were not enough, with the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the narrative around the need for ecological reconversion took an absurd turn. Instead of seizing the opportunity for a reconversion to renewable energy sources, for a rethinking of their energy needs, countries dependent on Russian gas have started regasification plant projects to import NGLs from the US, are investing in the reopening of coal-fired plants, or are reconsidering nuclear power.
Drawing lines of convergence
If up to now we have approached the climate crisis mainly by looking at climate-changing emissions from the extraction and processing of fossil fuels, this does not mean that the other symptoms are negligible.
Nature recently published a study in which it is hypothesised that, over the next 50 years, climate change could lead to more than 15,000 new cases of mammals transmitting viruses to other mammals. The study is one of the first to predict the shift in wildlife habitats in relation to global warming as a risk factor in the inter-species exchange of pathogens. According to this study, species will aggregate in new combinations at high altitudes, in biodiversity hotspots, and in areas of high human population density in Asia and Africa, increasing the rate of inter-species transmission of viruses by about 4,000-fold. Rising temperatures therefore expose us to an exponential increase in pandemics, but the risk is not solely related to the behaviour of wild animals. Intensive livestock farms are often under indictment when it comes to spillover - and rightly so. Mega-stalls and mega-farms are spreading not only in the USA and China, but also in Brazil and Africa, amplifying the strong historical link between animal farming and the spread of disease. In China, it seems that today 70% of the farms are 'landless farms' - and in fact in 40 years China has quadrupled its animal production and is the greedy feed market that is, not surprisingly, the subject of the Chinese-American tariff disputes.
The frightening growth of China's pig industry has already caused mutations: the porcine epidemic diarrhoea virus (Pedv) caused by a coronavirus turned into Porcine Acute Diarrhoea Syndrome (Sads-CoV) that slaughtered piglets in 2017. We were in the Guang Dong region, the same region from which the infamous SARS started in 2004. It is one of those where African Swine Flu (ASF) decimated the pig population last year, sending the global meat market into a frenzy. Following this track we inevitably arrive at Covid-19. After two years of pandemic there is evidence, or at least a robust scientific study, of a correlation between climate change and species jumping.
The climate crisis cannot be seen as a technical problem, it must be addressed in the contexts of neoliberalism, colonialism and militarism in which we live. The connections are obvious, but the resistance is still too often fragmented. Those who talk about income and labour rarely talk about climate change, those who talk about climate change rarely talk about wars and transfeminism. We rarely draw a connection between the weapons used against racialised communities in the US and those on board the patrol boats that sink or let sink dozens of boats in the Mediterranean Sea every year. Overcoming this disconnect is the most urgent task of anyone interested in social and economic justice. It is the only way to defeat the forces that protect a highly profitable and increasingly unsustainable status quo.
The extractivist and capitalist development model has generated a plethora of symptoms, crises that are too often perceived as independent, but which cannot be solved one at a time. We need integrated solutions that radically cut emissions by redistributing wealth, claiming unconditional universal income and valorising social cooperation from below.