There's More to Life than This! An argument for joy, against economism.

Technocratic policy fixes and sci-fi fantasies won’t save us—ecological collapse calls us to rethink our attitudes to extraction, exploitation, and interconnection.

This is the full text of a talk given at Southampton Transformed, 1865 Club, Southampton on Saturday 8 June 2019. The panel topic was ‘A Green New Deal for Southampton?’.

Roughly 900 metres below us, there’s an enormous geothermal aquifer: an underground reservoir of hot water, bubbling gently away. It’s called the Lower Greensand, and it extends across the south coast, through the Thames Basin, and up to East Anglia. Further down than that—about 3km, or 150m years ago, we move through oil shale (the stuff that gets extracted through fracking), and down down down into deep and ancient deposits of oil—the fossilised bodies of our earliest ancestors, who’ve been snuggled down in silt and mud and rock for millennia. The ExxonMobil refinery over at Fawley claims to process 270,ooo barrels of crude oil a day. That’s 75 million 540 thousand 202 pints of fossilised ancestors; 75 million 540 thousand 202 pints of world history; 75 million 540 thousand 202 pints of the things that make it possible for us to be here, now, on the surface of the earth. Weirdly, ExxonMobil’s website is keen to assure us that their crude oil refinery has been working hard to keep its carbon emissions down, even as it continues to extract, process, and profit from more of the fossil corpses that, not permitted to rest in peace, are revenging themselves on us all. Thank you, ExxonMobil, for your sacrifice. So I feel Southampton is well-positioned to consider the sorts of questions around extraction, exploitation, and interconnection that I want to raise today. I want to convince you, in short, that it isn’t enough to just enact some technocratic policy tweaks, or to drift off dreaming some fully automated sci-fi future. If we’re going to do this (and we don’t really have a choice) we need to transform how we think and how we live.

Cheap nature, cheap life.

In his 2015 book Capitalism in the Web of Life,1 Jason Moore writes:

‘The economy’ and ‘the environment’ are not independent of each other. Capitalism is not an economic system; it is not a social system; it is a way of organising nature.

What he means by this is not that capitalism doesn’t operate economically (it does), nor that capitalism doesn’t affect our social relations (it does). Moore is basically saying that the ways in which we relate to one another, and the ways in which we manage and govern our societies, are co-produced precisely by this organisation of nature. Capitalist thinking proposes a split between what’s considered ‘natural’ and what’s considered ‘social’ or ‘political’—between the ecological and the economic, we could say—and this split enables all sorts of exploitation, from the notion that women are “naturally” better at caring work (and thus do not deserve to be fairly paid for it), to the notion that the oilfields of the Wessex Basin or the forests of the Amazon are cheap “natural resources” (and thus can be exploited without consequence). This split often works to severely limit our abilities to deal with ecological crisis: suggestions that we continue to solar-panel the Sahara, for example, rely both on incorrect Western conceptions of the desert as a ‘dead’ place and on a weird, colonial sense of entitlement to land that, quite frankly, doesn’t belong to us. “Mastery of nature” is another way of saying “mastery of others”.

It’s all reminiscent of the 17th century philosopher John Locke’s labour theory of value—a masterpiece of justification for genocide. In his 1698 text Two Treatises of Government, Locke insists that ‘nature’ itself is of no value whatsoever. He then argues that value is created by the mixture of labour and property—or, in this case, land.2 On this view, all that white settlers had to do to claim ownership of the Americas was to assert that the Indigenous peoples who lived in and with the land—some in villages, some in great cities with running water—were ‘discovered’ in a pre-cultivated ‘state of nature’. Having established this, it remained solely for settlers to put that land to what they considered ‘productive’, recognisable (usually Christian) ‘use’. And just like that, ‘America’ became ‘Western’. To this day, white North American settlers make sincere Lockean arguments for the superior moral claim of white settlers to Indigenous land. And in a week where the Canadian National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People published its report, confirming that yes, the genocide of Indigenous North Americans is still happening, right now, I think we in the ‘imperial core’—the coloniser nations—have a duty not to propose “solutions” that rely upon productivism, or on the notion that we, and only we, know how best to ‘use’ the land. As the nêhiyaw governance scholar Emily Riddle says:

I am emphatically against building new pipelines. But when I see white environmental activists calling for pipelines to be shut down in my homelands, I wonder who from our communities, who from that land gave them the direction to do so. White environmentalists so often use our title to further their projects, abandoning Indigenous communities and bodies once they have achieved their goals.

Indeed, as Moore reminds us, this is a capitalist way of thinking: the idea that Nature is some external thing that can be “rationalised to serve economic growth, social development, or some other higher good.”3 Whether it’s solar-panelling the Sahara, marching uninvited into Indigenous territories, or (and I can’t believe this is being genuinely proposed by some on the left) space mining, it’s the same old colonial, capitalist schtick, fancily repackaged. It’s ExxonMobil reducing their emissions while helping the world burn. My term for this—and I’ve got a piece forthcoming that will expand on this—is ‘antipolitical ecology’. It’s the notion that ecological concerns don’t connect to, or somehow transcend political considerations like justice, liberation, or decolonisation. It’s the notion, expounded by many in the Global North, that we somehow don’t have time to worry about how we do it; that anything is justified in the name of “stopping climate change”, which always seems to mean, when one scratches the surface, “stopping climate change affecting the Global North”.4 As Rob Nixon points out in his book Slow Violence,5 climate change, for much of the world, is less a looming threat than a lived reality. So what might it mean for us, the lucky few not yet directly affected, to make a Faustian pact with certain aspects of capitalism in order to protect ourselves? Because capitalism probably can “solve” ‘climate change’, in a way—but that so-called solution will only work to absorb the problem into capital’s interminable cycles of crisis and threat, and always at the expense of those who cannot bear the cost, and do not bear the blame. Like Guilaine Kinouani says,

Any discourse based on the protection of Britain’s economic interests, and thus the maintenance of current north-south geopolitical configurations, is undeniably white supremacist & neo-colonial.

Dancing the rice.

So how do we shift our thinking? A starting-point might be to recognise that, as Moore says, “our breakfasts, our cars, and our working days [are] world-historical activity”,6 and to act accordingly. We might want to start to think outside of the economic obsession with growth and efficiency. There are precedents for this. Amelia Katanski, a scholar of Native American literatures, describes the traditional Anishinaabe manoomin (wild rice) harvest:

The particular processes of the manoomin harvest constitute a multifaceted ritual that contains its own aesthetic sensibility and requires varied and complex ecological, spiritual, and legal knowledge and skills… women would bind stalks of rice together approximately ten days before the rice field fully ripened… allowing the rice to ripen uniformly. This procedure, along with an elected ricing committee that ensured an ecologically sound and organised harvest, constitute what [Brenda] Child calls “an Indigenous legal system to protect wild rice in its unique ecosystem.” […] Once a member of the tribal government or committee, or an elder (sometimes called a “rice chief ”) declares the manoomin ripe and ready for harvest, ricers make an offering of asemaa (tobacco) before taking to the water. Partners move through rice beds in a boat, with one person poling it forward while the other uses cedar ricing sticks to knock the ripe kernels into the boat. The ricers allow some kernels to fall into the lake bed to reseed for the next year. The kernels are briefly dried on mats and then parched and stirred with a canoe paddle in a kettle over a wood fire, drying and toasting them. The twisting pressure of feet removes the seed from the hull… [This is] called dancing the rice.7

When, in 1899, a white settler called Albert Jenks witnessed a rice harvest, he wrote scornfully of “primitive Indians [not taking] production very seriously”.8 The Anishinaabe could gather more, said Jenks, “if they did not spend so much time feasting and dancing”9—rather missing the point that at least some of that dancing was both for joy and an element of food production. Indeed, as Katanski notes, the Anishinaabe writer Jim Northrup always insisted that labour-intensive, ritualised methods of production were ways of staying close to the food and all the relations—winds, lakes, rivers, animals and people—which had helped to produce it.10 Katanski refers to this point-missing as “the separation of seed and story”11 —and I think it’s the same thing as Moore’s Nature/Society split. The things that we can consume become commodities, and the rest of the world becomes nothing more than a context in which these commodities might be efficiently multiplied and grown.

But there’s more to life than this.

What if, instead of efficiency and productivity, we valued joy, slowness, interconnection? What if, when we say for the many, not the few, we think that ‘many’ on a global and a more-than-human scale? What would it mean, for example, to consider bees as world-creating workers, as world-historical actors? All things, as Jenny Holzer says, are delicately interconnected: neither you, nor I, nor Southampton, nor the UK, nor humanity itself exists in isolation, untouchable and pure. We’re all in relation, for better or for worse; and solidarity means finding a way to be in good relation—for better, not for worse. And so my plea here today is that, when we act (and we have to act) to halt the manifold ecological crisis into which a greedy few have plunged the planet—let’s not make the same mistakes all over again.

Thank you so much for listening.

Part of the Political Ecologies series.

  1. Moore, Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso. Ebook version. 

  2. Locke, John. 1698. Two Treatises of Government. Widely available. §25-28 

  3. Moore (2015), p.22 

  4. This usually means the white Global North: the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina & the responses to it somehow never seem to count… 

  5. Nixon, Rob. 2013. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 

  6. Moore (2015), p.40 

  7. Katanski, Amelia. 2017. ‘Stories that Nourish: Anishinaabe wild rice narratives’. In American Indian Culture and Research Journal 41:3, pp.71-91. 

  8. ibid. p.76 

  9. ibid. 

  10. ibid. p.78 

  11. ibid. p.74