Radical geography with David Harvey

3 04 2009

David Harvey, a professor of anthropology and Marxist geographer, talks about global inequality, neo-liberalism, consolidation of power and capitalism after the crisis on Democracy Now.

Read the rest of this entry »





Chaos is a vacant space

31 03 2009

A world in flux

The world is changing. It always has been changing and always will be changing. But the distinctions between the changes that have occurred during past human existence and those of this century are their complexity, scale and rate. Human societies are highly dependent on the living environment to sustain development (1, 2, 3). Our ingenuity has enabled us to become highly effective at exploiting resources. These levels of resource use – mediated by the highly connected and efficient global capitalist economy – are destroying ecosystems and changing the climate (4, 5, 6). Added to this is exponential population growth that is generating serious pressure for water and arable land, and depleting ocean fisheries. The enormous scale of current human induced transformations has led scientists to describe the period since the late eighteenth century as the anthropocene. On the present trajectory, the likely direction of the world-system is one of major social, ecological, economic and political collapse.

The mainstream media is frequently bombarding us with stories about how the earth is irrevocably changing, but often fail to provide us with grounded solutions as how to successfully avoid this change. According to recent theoretical advances, a group of scientists are telling us to concentrate our resources on finding solutions that create adaptable systems, be it social, ecological or economic, capable of absorbing shocks.

Answers in the forest

This group is called The Resilience Alliance. An international network of social and natural scientists who are bringing new ideas on sustainability to policy- and decision-makers. Their work is guided by the concept of social and ecological resilience that was pioneered by a man called Buzz Holling. It emerged from experiments in boreal forest ecosystems, which allowed him to notice that healthy forests go through an adaptive cycle of growth, collapse and regeneration.

As a forest develops from shrubland to maturity, the number of species and abundance of individual plants and animals rises, allowing the ecosystem to accumulate nutrients and information in the form of genes. Decay allows these nutrients to form richer soil, supporting more trees and reproduction allows mutated genes to be inherited, potentially being of value for an organism in the future. For Buzz Holling these forest accumulations represent an increased “potential”, essentially its wealth that allow for unique and surprise situations to arise (7). As the forest grows, various components like the soil and its organisms become more closely linked. For example, bacteria, beetles and worms begin to decompose the organic molecules of plants to form useful nutrients for tree growth. The theory calls this link between micro-organisms and trees “connectedness”, which also represents the forest’s sensitivity to a change in circumstances. When the forest reaches the pinnacle stages of maturity, species evolve to become more adept and efficient at controlling energy and nutrients to produce biomass, in turn preventing external competitors from utilising them. An analogy of a highly connected system would be the human body, in which the brain controls the internal environment through homeostasis.

In the forest, efficiency ends up replacing redundancy, a gradual loss of diversity occurs as all ecological niches are occupied and new species are unable to find the necessary resources to sustain themselves. Growth is not infinite and with rising potential for novelty, increasing self-regulation and falling resilience, the ecosystem “becomes an accident waiting to happen”. Any surprise event like a fire, disease outbreak or drought can easily wreck havoc and destroy the forest. A collapse is known as “creative destruction” and can be beneficial for the forest – freeing up the ecosystem’s potential for creativity and allowing for a reorganisation of its many parts. For instance, a fire will release nutrients and open up spaces in which new species are able to establish themselves. At this point the forest is at its most resilient – capable of absorbing a shock without fundamentally changing its arrangement. When resilience is high the forest’s plants and animals are able to test certain behaviours and relationships, for example a bee might try collecting nectar from a different flower species. So this collapse essentially allows for innovation and the cycle of growth, destruction and reorganisation enables the forest to adapt to a changing environment.

Shocking vulnerability

What does all this abstract science mean to people with a desire to deal with environmental and social crises? Well the first is that no domain – ecological, social or economic – can be considered in isolation from another. We rely on healthy natural systems like wetlands, soils and forests, to produce clean water, grow nutritious food and absorb our wastes. But policy makers in rich countries continually prioritise economic growth, which increases resource use, pollution, instability (as seen by the current recession) and global inequality and fundamentally clashes with the priority of protecting ecosystems. This clash can be slightly alleviated through new technologies that enable more to be produced with less and improve efficiencies. But there is currently no indication that we are going to successfully disconnect economic production from resource consumption; essentially dematerialising the economy, while maintaining such high living-standards. For years ecological economist Herman Daly has presented his ‘Steady-State Economy‘ as a solution, but still those in power are not taking heed. So just like in the forest ecosystem, we are moving up through the growth stage of the adaptive cycle. Gathering potential in the form of a skilful populace and a wealthy economy. And becoming more connected through global economic flows and regulatory controls. Unfortunately, this also means that we are becoming more vulnerable to shock events.

This presents us with a serious challenge because we are driving earth’s natural systems to the edge of their resilience tipping points. Take the climate system, until now forests, bogs and oceans have had the capacity to absorb the slow shock of our rising CO2 emissions. But it is becoming apparent that if the climate warms by 2°C, between 20 and 40 percent of the Amazon rainforest could die off (8). This then adds the dimension of feedback effects, forests store huge amounts of carbon and if they were to collapse our atmosphere would be filled with even more CO2, in turn exacerbating global warming. Once these tipping points are passed it will be very difficult, more likely impossible, to push the climate system back to how it has been for millions of years.

Diverse adventures in living

Holling believes that the changes the world is now experiencing represent “a state of vulnerability that could trigger a rare and major ‘pulse’ of social transformation” (9). Humans have experienced similar stages in their development before: agricultural settlement, the industrial revolution and the global communications age. He tells us that “the immense destruction that a new pulse signals is both frightening and creative” and “the only way to approach such a period, in which uncertainty is very large and one cannot predict what the future holds, is not to predict, but to experiment and act inventively and exuberantly via diverse adventures in living”.

Adjoining much of the work on making ecosystems and societies more resilient is the field of ‘futurology’. Futures practitioners use scenarios, imaginative visions of the future, to explore possible and alternative pathways of human endeavours. These narratives can be used as templates upon which to spur visionary activity and design new experiments in life that are sustainable and adaptable. It is an approach that sits in stark contrast with the myopic policies adopted by many of the world’s governments.

What shape might these experiments take? Well many already exist, in the form of different political arrangements that engage more people and their ideas, networks that allow for the exchange of these ideas, open-source cultures that bring people together to solve problems collaboratively, low-impact developments that are independent of fossil fuels and urban gardens that stimulate food self-sufficiency through permaculture.

The resilience concept is by no means a panacea and conflicts over values and concentrations of power are undoubtedly formidable barriers to a sustainable reorganisation of society. Nonetheless, the essential ingredient needed for a sustainable future might well be the cultivation of a shared vision and desire for action that challenges the growth paradigm and transfers small-scale experiments in to a large-scale reality.

Read the rest of this entry »





BOMB IT – street art is revolution

26 03 2009

Some of humankind’s first artistic expressions were on walls and they still continue to this very day. After its birth in Philadelphia, the explosion of graffiti writing in New York between 1969 and 1974 immersed the city’s streets and subways with a wave of creative energy.  Empowered young people were able to occupy their own space in public space, emerging from the shadows of marginalisation and challenging authority. It was not long before this artform captured the imagination of people around the world and soon spread to become a global culture. Quickly criminalised and treated as mere vandalism by the state and property owners who saught to suppress freedom, hide protest and maintain sanitised “clean” streets.

“Bomb It” is a documentary on global graffiti culture, from the streets of Barcelona to the sewers of Sao Paulo. The filmmakers create a narrative that explores the motivations of these artists and delve a little deeper into what graffiti really means in modern society and its relationship to public space. It really is worth checking out.


Check their site here.

Graffiti writing started at the birth of human consciousness” – KRS-One





Summit protests and the economic crisis

15 03 2009

Pulled from shiftmag.co.uk

Summit-hopping is so last year. Or is it? When we began conceiving this issue a few months back, it seemed like everyone was gearing up for a busy 2009: NATO’s 60th anniversary party, the G20 summit in London, the G8 in Italy, the UN’s climate summit in Copenhagen… Ten years on from the ‘battle of Seattle’, 2009 was set to be the return of summit-hopping.

However, so far, anti-capitalists in Italy appear to have made little progress in mobilising against the G8 summit in July. What is more, everyone is talking about the UN’s climate change conference next December in Copenhagen. This comes with the awful package of environment minister Miliband calling for a mass movement for green capitalism and an austerity deal. The threat of another paralysing ‘Make Poverty History’-style mobilisation looms. On the other hand, there are, of course, some summits that continue to attract fundamental antagonism. The EU’s meeting on immigration in Vichy, France, last November was one example, despite a lack of mobilisation from the UK.

There is something that is fundamentally different from the previous decade of large anti-globalisation mobilisations: neo-liberalism itself is in crisis! The policies that were promoted by the anti-globalisation arch enemies (WTO, World Bank, IMF) are failing not only in Argentina and Mexico, but also in Europe and North America. The current financial crisis provides a platform for a systematic critique of the current economic system.

Maybe we should be excited that suddenly everyone is talking about the economy. Or should we? Many analyses of the crisis seem to be putting forward reactionary solutions. For a start, who we blame will define how we respond. Socialists blame bankers, government ministers and conservatives (and increasingly liberals) blame immigration, environmentalists and the middle classes blame the mass consumerism of the working class and the corporate media blames everyone. And what, then, will the response be? Anti-consumerism and austerity politics? Economy-boosting interest rate cuts? Tougher immigration controls? Urban riots? Blame creates hierarchies and characterises anti-globalisation protests. If we are to build a collective, emancipatory response to the crisis we need to be critical of any strategies that ignore the realities of life in capitalism, that fuel moral superiority and reinforce class divisions.

Furthermore, with every crisis comes a new conspiracy theory. The problem with these ‘explanations’ is that a capitalist crisis is not the result of the errors of a ‘small and elusive group of people’ as the conspiracy theorists want us to believe.

We live in a system that is antithetical to our needs, and importantly, our desires.

Crises are inherent in capitalism. There is no solution that will make capitalism free of crises. We can demand more regulation of the financial sector or the nationalisation and democratic ownership of banks. Still, capitalism’s crises are based in its inherent contradictory character with the desire to produce for profit-maximisation rather than social needs. And this will always be the central goal of capitalist production. A crisis won’t change that. There are more crises to come, with indications that speculation with raw materials and food could lead to much bigger misery than the bursting of the credit bubble. It is contradictory and irrational to produce, distribute and exchange resources as is done in a capitalist economy, thus capitalism without crises would be an oxymoron.

The left should take the crisis as an opportunity to push for more, to push for a system that puts our needs and desires above profit, to avoid limiting ourselves and scapegoating others. At a time where political leaders are making our demands seem reasonable (whether that’s the nationalisation of banks or a strong climate deal), we should not settle for compromise but demand the impossible!

Despite these new opportunities, there are few signs for a new wave of summit protests that can escape the attempts by governments to recuperate them. Protests are not happening outside summits now. As we write, they are happening in suburbs and big university towns. The migrant youths of St. Denis, the anti-CPE students, the Anomalous Wave movement and the Greek anarchist youth all dominate the headlines, rather than the plans for opposition to the G8 or G20. Also in Britain, radical anti-capitalist protest is no longer connected to the anti-globalisation movement, but is at the radical edge of the failed anti-war movement of 2003. Maybe in 2009 ‘suburb-hopping’ offers new opportunities for resistance?





Insight on Greek rebellion

5 01 2009

From The Real News Network:

On December 6th, 2008, conflict broke out across Athens as youths responded to the killing of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by the Greek police. Over the following four weeks, protests spread nationwide and the protesters continue to promise further activities, including the announcement of a nationwide day of action on January 9th. The Real News spoke to a freelance journalist in Greece’s second-largest city of Thessaloniki and a resident of Athens’ Exarcheia neighborhood, where many of the clashes between protesters and police have taken place. They provide a glimpse into the various factors that have created such a volatile situation.





Radical Geographies

13 11 2008

Vodpod videos no longer available.

What the man is about

Paul Chatterton teaches in the School of Geography at the University of Leeds where he and researches and teaches on: international protest movements mainly looking at the popular uprising in Argentina since 2001 and the Zapatistas autonomous communities of Mexico; the ways in which city centres are increasingly becoming privatised and corporatised; and alternative models of development focusing on self-management.

At the university, he is co-managing a grant funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (see www.autonomousgeographies.org) which explores the ways in which social activists and community groups are developing self-managed models for organising social and economic life beyond the welfare state. He is also working on a collaborative research project entitled ‘Who runs Cities?’ (see www.whorunsleeds.org.uk) which promotes citizen engagement in urban governance.

His recent publications include: a guide to the autonomous Argentinian social movements (http://www.geog.leeds.ac.uk/publications/TakingBackControl) and an activist handbook collaboratively written with the popular education collective Trapese published by Pluto Press called ‘Do It Yourself: A handbook for changing our world’ (see www.handbookforchange.org ).

Paul is also course director of a new Masters Programme at the University of Leeds called ‘Activism and Social Change’ (see www.activismsocialchange.org.uk). He is one of the founders of the Common Place social centre in Leeds (www.thecommonplace.org.uk), and is currently helping to start up an eco-village in Leeds.

What the lecture is about

Everyday, everywhere, through spontaneous and planned actions, people are changing the world, together. These everyday actions come from the growing desire to do it ourselves – planting vegetables, organising a community day to get people involved in improving where we live, exposing exploitative firms, taking responsibility for our health, making cups of tea in a social centre, figuring out how to install a shower powered by the sun, making a banner, supporting strikers, pulling a prank to make someone laugh, as well as think.

A whole range of groups from the Camp for Climate Action to No Borders and Social Centres are showing how people can take back control and organise to create a more just and sustainable world.

This talk is about this kind of DIY politics: a call to get involved in practical action and reflection to create more sustainable and fairer ways of living. It is based on the recent book called ‘DIY: a handbook for changing our world’ which I co-wrote with the Trapese Popular Education Collective.

The book is part handbook, part critique, and is designed to inform, inspire and enable people to take part in a growing movement for social change – which means you, the person sitting next to you on the train, your neighbour, your mother, your children. It is us that can make these changes and it is us that are going to have to. This book explores nine different themes where people are struggling to wrestle back control and build more equitable and just societies – sustainable living, decision making, health, education, food, cultural activism, free spaces, media and direct action.

The talk will present the main ideas in the book, offer some concrete advice for how you can get involved in the growing grassroots movement for change, and look at some of the pitfalls, critiques and ways forward.