The Limits of Utopia
By China Miéville
In 1985 the city government announced that it would locate a trash incinerator in South Central Los Angeles, a year after California Waste Management paid half a million tax-payers’ dollars to the consultancy firm Cerrell Associates for advice on locating such controversial toxic facilities. The Cerrell Report is a how-to, a checklist outlining the qualities of the ‘“least resistant” personality profile’. Target the less educated, it advises. The elderly. ‘Middle and higher-socioeconomic strata neighborhoods’, it says, ‘should not fall at least within the one-mile and five-mile radii of the proposed site.’
Target the poor.
That this is the strategy is unsurprising: that they admit it raises eyebrows. ‘You know,’ one wants to whisper, ‘that we can hear you?’
In fact the local community did resist, and successfully. But what are sometimes called the Big Ten green groups – The Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the National Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society, and others – refused the request to join the campaign. Because, they said, it was not an environmental, but a ‘community health’ issue.
The fallacies of Big Green. Start with heuristics like rural versus urban, nature versus the social, and in the face of oppressive power you easily become complicit, or worse, in environmental injustice, in racism. Such simplistic urbophobic utopianism can unite the most nostalgic conservative, seeking solace in a national park with the most extropian post-hippy touting an eco-start-up.
For Lactantius, it was God who would heal a broken nature. This is a more secular age – sort of. But not everyone leaves such messianism aside: some incorporate it into a new, and newly vacuous, totality.
In 1968, Stewart Brand opened the first Whole Earth Catalogue with an image of the Blue Planet, Spaceship Earth, a survival pod in which we mutually cuddle. Beside it the text read, ‘We are as gods and might as well get good at it.’
Here, says the image, is a beautiful Gaian totality. Here, say the words, is the ecological subject: ‘We’. Which obviously leaves unanswered, in the famous punchline to the blistering, uneasy joke, Tonto’s question to the Lone Ranger: ‘Who is “we”?’
Faced with the scale of what’s coming, there’s a common and baleful propriety, a self-shackling green politeness. ‘Anything’, the argument goes, ‘is better than nothing.’ Hence solutions to tempt business, and the pleading for ecologically-inflected economic rationality. Capitalism, we are told by Jonathan Porritt, an eminent British environmentalist, is the only game in town.
And businesses do adapt, according to their priorities. Whatever the barking of their pet deniers, the oil companies all have Climate Change Divisions – less to fight that change than to plan for profit during it. Companies extend into newly monetised territories. Thus the brief biofuels boom, and that supposed solution to the planet’s problems drives rapid deforestation and food riots, before the industry and market tanks. The invisible hand is supposed to clean up its own mess, with Emissions Trading Schemes and offsetting. Opportunities and incentives for shady deals and inflated baseline estimates increase, as, relentlessly, do the emissions. EU carbon bonds remain junk. New financial instruments proliferate: weather derivatives that make climate chaos itself profitable. What are called ‘catastrophe bonds’ change hands in vast quantities, because one of the minor casualties of capitalism is shame.
Citizens fret about their own refuse, which we should, absolutely, minimise. But in the UK only ten percent of waste is down to households. Recall that the very concept of litter was an invention of the American packaging industry, in 1953, in response to a local ban on disposable bottles. The caul of atomised and privatised guilt under which we’re encouraged to labour is a quite deliberate act of misdirection.
At a grander scale, the most conciliatory green organizations obfuscate the nexus of ecological degradation, capitalism and imperialism in which they’re caught up. In 2013 the US Environmental Protection Agency presented its National Climate Leadership Award, for ‘tackling the challenge of climate change with practical, common-sense, and cost-saving solutions’, to Raytheon.
It isn’t clear whether Raytheon’s drones will be embossed with the award’s symbol, so their commitment to sustainability can flash like a proud goldfish fin as they rain death on Afghan villages.
In the service of profit, even husbanding trees supposedly to counteract emissions can be violence. Far worse than merely a failure, UN-backed emission-reduction forest offsetting schemes – known as REDD – legitimate monocultures and seize land, in the name of the planet, all so corporations can continue to pollute. In Uganda, 22,000 farmers are evicted for the UN-Accredited New Forests Company plans. In Kenya, Ogiek people are threatened with violent expulsion from the Mau Forest, in a project blessed by the UN. And in case we need an unsubtle metaphor, the Guaraquecaba Climate Action Project in Brazil, bankrolled by Chevron, General Motors and American Electric Power, locks the Guarani people away from their own forest, and to do so it employs armed guards called ‘Forca Verde’ – Green Force.
This is environmentalism as dispossession, what the Indigenous Environmental Network calls Carbon Colonialism.
And stocks of heavy industry go up. The recent IPCC report left financial markets unmoved: the value such markets continue to grant oil, coal and gas reserves ignores the international targets according to which the bulk of such reserves not only are still in the earth, but mustremain so. This carbon bubble declaims that the choice is climate catastrophe or another financial one.
Or, of course, both.
Forget any spurious human totality: there is a very real, dangerous, other modern totality in commanding place, one with which too much environmentalism has failed to wrestle. As Jason Moore puts it, ‘Wall Street is a way of organizing Nature.’
The very term ‘Anthropocene’, which gives with one hand, insisting on human drivers of ecological shift, misleads with its implied ‘We’. After all, whether in the deforestation of what’s now Britain, the extinction of the megafauna in North America, or any of countless other examples, Homo sapiens, anthropos, has always fed back into its –cene, the ecology of which it is constituent, changing the world. Nor was what altered to make these previously relatively local effects planetary and epochal, warranting a new geochronological term, the birth (as if, in too many accounts, by some miracle) of heavy industry, but a shift in the political economy by which it and we are organised, an accelerating cycle of profit and accumulation.
Which is why Moore, among others, insists that this epoch of potential catastrophe is not the ‘Anthropocene’, but the ‘Capitalocene’.
Utopias are necessary. But not only are they insufficient: they can, in some iterations, be part of the ideology of the system, the bad totality that organises us, warms the skies, and condemns millions to peonage on garbage scree.
The utopia of togetherness is a lie. Environmental justice means acknowledging that there is no whole earth, no ‘we’, without a ‘them’. That we are not all in this together.
Which means fighting the fact that fines for toxic spills in predominantly white areas are five times what they are in minority ones. It means not only providing livings for people who survive by sifting through rejectamenta in toxic dumps but squaring up against the imperialism of garbage that put them there, against trash neoliberalism by which poor countries compete to become repositories of filth.
And it means standing directly against military power and violence. Three times as many land-rights and environmental activists were murdered in 2012 than a decade before. Environmental justice means facing down Shell not only for turning Nigeria’s Ogoniland into a hallucinatory sump, a landscape of petrochemical Ragnarok, but for arming the Nigerian state for years, during and after the rule of Sani Abacha.
Arms trading, dictatorships and murder are environmental politics.
Those punching down rely not on the quiescence, but on the weakness of those against whom they fight. The Cerrell Report is clear: ‘All socioeconomic groupings tend to resent the nearby siting of major facilities, but the middle and upper-socioeconomic strata possess better resources to effectuate their opposition.’
The poor should be targeted, in other words, not because they will not fight, but because, being poor, they will not win. The struggle for environmental justice is the struggle to prove that wrong.
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