Introduction by John Foran
Just a brief introduction to provide some context for this essay. Well before the catastrophic Australia fires and in the midst of the devastating burning of the Amazon, this essay was written as a final reflection in a graduate course I taught in the fall of 2019 at UC Santa Barbara with a small but wonderful group of students from a half dozen fields of study. The syllabus to Sociology 265EC: Earth in Crisis, can be found on the NXTerra digital platform, which teachers will also be interested in taking a look at.
Thinking through Fire: Climate Solidarity and Multispecies Regeneration
The Monday before thanksgiving (or thangs-taken), I packed up all my musical instruments, my favorite clothes, a couple stacks of my most-used books, my passport and my toothbrush and drove off with my housemate and two close friends as the red glow of flame glinted off the glass of the front door to my house. The wind was hellish. The smoke and flame were too high on the eastern horizon and too close. In the crazy commotion of evacuation there was little time for reflection, but later in the night as my body (sort of) relaxed into the reality that my house might be gone in the morning, a deepening sense of wonder began to settle in. Our society is so fragile – built upon expectations (demands) of stability, reliability, normalcy – and this is both beautiful and problematic. This relatively short-lived and small wildfire was a tiny event in the broader pattern. Even still, watching the flames leap across highway 154, my road home from the university, I felt my own fragility tethered to the fragility of our homes and cities and roads, tethered to the fragility of trees and hillsides and dry creek canyons.
In our seminar this quarter we have tried to grapple with the instability that defines global climate disaster and understand what this instability means for our human social systems. We have engaged with various perspectives and solution-oriented frameworks, from political-reformist to radical-revolutionary, from white-collar carbon traders to green-collar just-transitioners to green-thumb seed-savers. We have come to some understanding that this multi-form crisis demands a plurality of solutions, and that no one action plan can possibly succeed in confronting the unravelling of global ecosystems. Action is needed in courtrooms and in legislative buildings as much as it is needed in the fields and in the streets (is this not always the case? But the stakes are high). In one of our early readings, Adam Sacks decries what he calls “the fallacy of climate activism” (Sacks 2009) – the fascination with greenhouse gas levels and the inability or unwillingness to understand global warming as a symptom of fundamentally cultural problems. This was probably a wholly accurate and necessary admonishment in 2009 – ten years later, the critical perspective that Sacks represents (and he was of course not the only one saying this at this time) seems to have made significant ripples. For instance, Naomi Klein’s extensive reporting on global climate activism paints a very different picture of grassroots climate activism which explicitly targets capitalist forces and champions local sovereignty movements. Cultural, political, and economic frameworks are increasingly centered and called out as culpable and in need of either demolition or wholesale reform by mass movements such as Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise, Movement Generation, and others. For all its imperfections and controversial tangles, Extinction Rebellion has undeniably shifted legislative and political discourse through mass mobilization in the streets. Its successes have been partial and halting, spotted with hitches and setbacks (such as Roger Hallam’s insensitive remarks about the Holocaust), but XR remains a powerful symbol in that it is uncompromising in its stance that the root causes of climate change/disaster are cultural, political, and economic, and historical. This is one development, within “mainstream” climate justice discourse, that this seminar has charted out quite nicely – the increasing normalization of an understanding that political-economic-cultural relationships are causing global warming, and that these relationships demand attention before (Whyte 2019) greenhouse gas levels and other geological indicators.
The view today, February 2020. Photograph by the author.
Throughout our seminar, we grappled with the immensity of these political and cultural challenges; the ultimate corruptibility of social governance systems, the inertia of public opinion, the impossibility of corporate morality, the often irreversible facts of habitat destruction. Within this bleak discursive realm, it becomes easy and perhaps necessary to find fault with climate justice movements – they are doing the wrong thing, they are not radical enough (what might be said of Brecher 2019 or Hudis 2019) or they are too radical (what might be said of the Red New Deal or Charles Eisenstein’s “Earth Spirituality” (2019:157)). They put too much emphasis on the local over the global (a critique voiced of Ted Trainer’s “Eco-Anarchism” (2019: 160)) or they are too global in scope and lose sight of local lived experience (the celebration of renewables and the promotion of renewable infrastructure often falls into this trap (for example Arora-Jonsson 2019: 82). Any given climate solution seems to have limitations and problematic blind-spots. Furthermore, these solutions are not always in harmony with one another, and coalition building seems to proceed haltingly and precariously. The challenge that emerges from our brief and incomplete study of this dysfunctional pluriverse (Khothari et al. 2019) of solution-frames is paradoxical; it is the slow work of disentangling from corporatist systems, of deconstructing colonial/colonizing modes of awareness and thought, of achieving food sovereignty and horizontal, ecologically sustainable, resource flows. This kind of work, so far, seems to take a lot of time, and the patience that it requires is challenged in its juxtaposition with the speed and escalation of the destabilization of our planetary systems. Instability cannot be avoided—rather it needs to be incorporated into these long-term plans that are being envisioned and enacted (hopefully by us).
The road to my house is crossed with blackened earth, withered tree limbs, grey ash, and small burnt bones. The power of wildfire and the desolation which it leaves in its wake is terrifying. In its extreme volatility it epitomizes the instability that threatens (and ironically emerges from) our social lives. However, the fire is also a life force – the hillside will recuperate, ashes will nourish newly sprouting seeds that have been waiting specifically for the fire to awaken them. The regenerative power of the chaparral holds important lessons for us as we search for solutions to climate crisis, and as we search for new ways of relating and acting in the world. For instance, wildfires are at once extremely local events and also events relevant to broader distributed systems. In California, patterns of fire emerge in response to water politics and food politics, the draining of wetlands for industrial agriculture, the diversion of rivers through dam projects, restructuring the circulatory system of the land and leaving areas parched and vulnerable. The legal enforcement of “pristine wilderness” ideology and the criminalization of indigenous traditional ecological knowledge have led to unsafe build-ups of fuel in woodlands. Political histories of violence are brought to light, literally, in the escalation of wildfires in California. Patterns of resistance are also demonstrated in the wake of wildfire. The calamity of wildfire forces humans to reexamine relationships not just within our species but across our environments. I see this attention to multi-species assemblages as a defining feature of much of the climate justice literature we have read, but to a limited extent. For instance, in all of the solution-scheming, there is very little actual inclusion of more-than-human entities as agents in this process, or as consultants. Professor John Foran’s insightful response to Kyle Powys Whyte’s beautiful allegory (Whyte 2019: 11-20) is relevant here: what about all the creatures in the water? What about all the plants, animals, fungi, all the poly-corporeal amalgamations that persist, and perish, in our midst, and we in theirs? Are “we” so impoverished in our relational capacity that we cannot develop some kind of shared, collaborative framework for addressing climate change that listens to and takes seriously the abilities and perspectives of more-than-human beings?
Some parties within the climate justice world would reject this as politically or scientifically impossible (or both), while another growing contingent would embrace it (and perhaps have already). But the idea that the only creatures who are making decisions (or decisions worth considering) about climate change are humans seems to limit the capacity for creative response to disasters that inevitably involve a plurality of creatures. David Pellow, in his chapter contribution to Climate Futures draws on David Nibert’s concept of “entanglements of oppression” that link human and non-human communities (Pellow 2019: 142). If these communities are linked through entanglements of oppression, it seems necessary to also seek linkages in strategies of resistance/change. The multi-species environmental justice approach that Pellow gestures toward does not ignore questions of human oppression, violence, economic disparity, or political marginalization – these issues are indeed foregrounded in analysis of “the unequal burdens of anthropogenic socioecological violence” (ibid.). However, Pellow resituates these vectors of violence within an analytical framework that argues “for the abolition of inequality within human societies and between humans and the more-than-human world and across all spatial formations (including urban, rural, aquatic, aerial)” (ibid.: 143). Pellow maintains that “scholarship on environmental inequality can benefit from extending beyond the restrictive boundaries of the human to encompass and observe the modes through which humans and nonhumans are connected through discourses, policies, and practices of oppression and privilege making” (ibid.: 142).
Having acknowledged these connections, what steps can we take, as scholars, activists, and humans, to cultivate those connections in ways that empower more-than-human beings and ourselves in our collective struggle for Climate X (Wainwright and Mann 2018; Foran 2019)? What does it look/sound/feel like to build climate solidarity beyond the boundaries of the human species? It’s time to find out.
Arora-Jonsson, Seema. 2019. “Indigeneity and Climate Justice in Northern Sweden.” In Climate Futures: Reimagining Global Climate Justice. Edited by Kum-Kum Bhavnani, John Foran, Priya A. Kurian, and Debashish Munshi. London: Zed Books.
Brecher, Jeremy. 2019. “18 Strategies for a Green New Deal: How to Make the Climate Mobilization Work.” Labor Network for Sustainability. h ttps://www.labor4sustainability.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/18Strategies.pdf. Accessed 10/29/2019.
Eisenstein, Charles. 2019. “Earth Spirituality.” In Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary. Edited by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demeria, Alberto Acosta. New Delhi: Tulika Books.
Foran, John. 2019. “What is Climate X? An essay on Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann’s Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future. Distributed personally by the author.
Hudis, Peter. 2019. “The Green New Deal: Realistic Proposal or Fantasy?” h ttps://newpol.org/the-green-new-deal-realistic-proposal-or-fantasy/. Accessed 10/29/2019.
Kothari, Ashish, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demeria, Alberto Acosta, eds. Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary. New Delhi: Tulika Books.
Pellow, David. 2019. “Linking Environmental Justice and Climate Justice Through Academia and the Prison Industrial Complex.” In Climate Futures: Reimagining Global Climate Justice. Edited by Kum-Kum Bhavnani, John Foran, Priya A. Kurian, and Debashish Munshi. London: Zed Books.
Sacks, Adam. 2009. “The Fallacy of Climate Activism.” h ttps://grist.org/article/2009-08-23-the-fallacy-of-climate-activism/. Accessed 9/27/2019.
Trainer, Ted. 2019. “Eco-Anarchism.” In Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary. Edited by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demeria, Alberto Acosta. New Delhi: Tulika Books.
Wainwright, Joel and Geoff Mann. 2018. Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of our Planetary Future. London: Verso.
Whyte, Kyle Powys. 2019. “Way Beyond the Lifeboat: An Indigenous Allegory of Climate Justice.” In Climate Futures: Reimagining Global Climate Justice. Edited by Kum-Kum Bhavnani, John Foran, Priya A. Kurian, and Debashish Munshi. London: Zed Books.
The green shoots of regeneration (hope-in-action), February 2020. Photograph by the author.
Teaser photo credit: The Camp Fire in Santa Barbara, November 26, 2019. Photograph by the author.