Note: This blog post is the fourth of a seven-part series called Occupy, Connect, Create! Imagining Life Beyond 'The Economy' that will appear here over the course of the next few weeks. A complete version of the text, including downloadable versions, can be found at Grassroots Economic Organizing.
Principle 2. From Economy/Nature to a Community of Life
"The economy" is not a subset of ecology, and "nature" is neither a limit nor a source for an "economic system." We are fully members of a community of life on this planet.
How many more times will we be asked to choose between "jobs" and "the environment"? This choice is the insult added to the injury of enclosure. It is a demand that we choose between two forms of slow death: to starve our families one by one or to destroy the earthly base on which our lives depend.
Yet this is not an inevitable struggle between competing goods. It is a violent effect of the very concept of "the economy" as it has been historically constructed and justified. The process of conceptual enclosure that created the economy also created an ecology. Think of it this way: when you draw a square, you create not only an inside, but also an outside. Inside the economy are all the things that count. Outside the economy is everything else, including "nature," the living world from which all livelihoods are made.
It is a convenient separation: as long as "nature" is seen as a separate domain of life, a realm of valueless objects, a pool of resources to be mined (and made "valuable") or an empty space into which all waste can be dumped, then "the economy" can just get along with its business of exploiting everything in the name of profit and growth. Even more convenient is the way that certain humans, along with their cultures, communities and homelands, can be tossed into the realm of nature (as "savages" or as "primitive peoples") and then colonized or destroyed in the name of necessary economic development. Economics is for real humans, we are told; ecology is for everyone else.
But we rise up and resist. Mass social mobilizations, protests, strikes and occupations: we refuse to be ignored or exploited. Ecosystems, too, reach their limits and cease to be silent. Large-scale extinctions, fishery collapses, new emerging diseases, mass deforestation, devastating droughts and floods, soil nutrient depletions, rising food insecurity, and ever-increasing rates of cancer are all ways in which we are learning that no economy can get away for long with the systematic plunder of its own base. And perhaps no message could be clearer than the dawning collective realization that the spewing emissions of our economic monster are-as we speak-destabilizing the 10,000 year-old planetary climate pattern which has made agriculturally-based civilization possible.
There can be no doubt: the extent to which "jobs" appear at odds with "the environment" is precisely the extent to which we are trapped by the economic institutions of the status quo. We must make a creative and collective escape from this disastrous trap,as if our lives depended on it. Because, in fact, they do.
Yes, (anticipating the economists) there are always "tradeoffs." But these can no longer be posed as tradeoffs between an "economic system" that supports humans and an "ecological system" that supports life on earth. This is the logic that seeks to make exploitation and domination efficient and "sustainable." This is the logic that hopes to fix "the economy" so that business as usual can proceed, only in "green" form. This is the economic politics in which exploitative factories cranking out millions of toxic solar panels and corporate investors bulldozing fragile mountain habitats to build wind towers forms the limits of our imagination and creative action.
We face tradeoffs not between economy and ecology, or between human livelihoods and "the environment," but between different ways of living with each other and with our shared earth. Some ways of living systematically exploit and undermine the health of the people and landscapes they depend on. Others open up possibilities for relationships of solidarity and care, ways of living built on the recognition of our interdependence, on the cultivation of democratic politics, and on the making-visible of the effects of our choices. Economics must become the negotiation of livelihoods with those on whom we depend.
A new politics of ecological livelihood is calling us: to collectively refuse either form of slow death; the direct, and to confront not the question of "jobs or environment," but the absurd structure of the trap itself. This, then, is the work of defending our livelihoods and our ecological communities while, at the same time, imagining and building forms of life in which our economies and ecologies are no longer placed in opposition.
How do we do this? We are only beginning to explore the possibilities, but we can catch glimmers of emerging pathways: first, a collective refusal to accept the old choices, a defiant opposition to ecological destruction, and an emerging awareness that no economics can be taken seriously that does not place the work of ecological restoration at the very center of its theories and practices. Second, an emerging dedication to transforming our own needs and aspirations. We are learning that we-not just individually, but as communities- must come to want different lives, to make these lives possible for each other, and to find joy in these different ways of living. And third, the ongoing invention of new forms of production and provision: zero-waste, closed-loop manufacturing, bioregional re-localization of industry, principles of "permaculture" applied to broader economic processes,i forms of decentralized and distributed community-controlled production, ecological design through biomimicry, the defense and reclamation of local and indigenous livelihood practice and knowledge, the re-construction of shared and protected resource commons.ii
i See, for example, David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Holmgren Design Services, 2002; and Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future. Island Press, 1990.
ii Freya Mathews describes these various practices as pointing toward the possibility of economies of "biosynergy," that is, forms of livelihood that not only refrain from destroying ecosystems, but work to heal and enhance them. See Freya Mathews, "The Moral Ambiguities in the Politics of Climate Change." In Ven Nanda (Ed). Climate Change and Environmental Ethics. New York: Transaction Publishers, 2010.
Gratitude to Kate Boverman, who inspired this piece and provided crucial ideas and support, and to Michael Johnson, Annie McShiras, Cheyenna Weber, Len Krimerman and Anne O'Brien for their excellent thoughts and edits.