Cultivating cooperative, self-sustaining communities can undermine destructive economic systems and offer meaningful responses to social-ecological crises in the wake of the pandemic
As upwards of ten million Texans faced a utilities crisis caused by record-low temperatures, Joe Biden signed the Paris Climate Agreement, reversing Trump’s abandonment of the same amid what was the most destructive wildfire season on record in California. While many applauded the retournement, others regarded the move as merely symbolic given the treaty’s shortcomings. These gestures of political theatre have typified Biden’s first months in office. It seems that peeling back the genteel veneer of a return to normal where “science is real…[and] kindness is everything” reveals an unwillingness to seriously consider the sweeping changes required this decade to avert global climate catastrophe.
Biden’s embrace of the status quo is as disappointing as it was predictable. U.S. politicians serve primarily at the pleasure of America’s capitalist class rather than advocate for the common good of the populace and the planet we all inhabit. Although popular support is rising for bold climate action, the corporations disproportionately responsible for the majority of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have wielded their economic power to stymie regulation and spread misinformation. Their noncompliance overshadows the individual actions we take to reduce our personal carbon footprints.
Environmental destruction is not an unfortunate side-effect of mismanagement but an inherent manifestation of an economic system operating by design. Capitalism’s internal logic demands infinite growth, and the neoliberal tendency toward deregulation and privatization makes averting climate change in a capitalist context impossible. Most governments, however, remain undeterred and continue implementing watered-down, market-driven half-measures. Such “eco-capitalism” provides the illusion of restraining capitalism’s destructive tendencies without confronting any of its structural failures.
Proponents argue this approach is more reasonable than severe regulation because it requires only limited economic changes. Cultural hegemony—a process by which those in power shape social norms and values to impose a particular mode of production—presents capitalism as the most practical and effective way to address the problems we face rather than one of their ultimate causes. Even worse, it is painted as inevitable, as opposed to the human construct that it is. Like fish unaware they swim in water, capitalism has become a hyperobject that pervades our lives and subsumes threats to its primacy. Its boundlessness seems to exceed our capacity to conceptualize what it is and precludes us from reasonably considering alterations to its fundamental structures. For many, it seems easier to imagine a future devoid of either a functioning ecology or human society than one free of capitalism.
However, the milquetoast incrementalism of eco-capitalist reforms also renders them impotent. The old adage, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” resonates with the inability of moderate measures to avert the present crisis. Eco-capitalism’s primary directive remains maximizing profits for shareholders, which fundamentally conflicts with our finite world’s limits to growth. Presuming that small tweaks to the existing system will suffice only serves to overestimate their potential impact and underestimate the scale of the problem they purport to address. At present, we face ecological tipping points that are unavoidable without a wholesale shift in our society’s use and sourcing of energy—a solution that is utterly incompatible with market mechanisms.
No wonder then that, in devouring ever more of Earth’s gifts to fuel the engines of economic growth, the Moloch of globalized capitalism has helped create the conditions to unleash and exacerbate pandemics. Governments have concentrated on regulating wet markets and providing public money to fund private ventures’ vaccine and testing development. By contrast, calls from the scientific community to curb deforestation and biodiversity loss, and to regulate transnational, monocultural, industrial agriculture in the hopes of preventing the emergence of zoonotic diseases have largely gone unheeded. In March 2020, however, the consequences of avoiding these vital changes became apparent.
It’s life, that’s all
In the wake of COVID-19, immutable givens seemed to waver. In the early days of the pandemic, our expectations had to adjust to a sobering new reality. Lockdowns limited travel and social encounters. Teachers, children, and their parents adapted to online learning. Non-essential businesses closed. Millions were furloughed or lost their jobs. Even seemingly inexorable institutions faltered. Contrasting the very tangible dangers of a global pandemic with the illusory exigence and false promises of capitalism encouraged us to let the gears of economic engines grind to a halt to protect ourselves and others from the virus.
Like all crises, the pandemic has been revelatory, exacerbating pre-existing cracks in the fragile systems we had accidentally overlooked or willfully ignored. COVID-19 has illuminated the inefficiency and indignity of for-profit healthcare; the precarity of pauperized social safety nets; the suicidality of environmental management that values profitability over sustainability; the indecency of wasteful food systems amid commonplace hunger; the cruel inequity of social systems that value some lives over others by race, class, gender, and sexual identity; the villainy of economic systems that facilitate 1% of the world’s population to acquire almost 50% of humanity’s wealth and produce 15% of global carbon emissions.
Initially, this international health emergency appeared to be the catalyst for implementing popular changes to the entrenched status quo. The pandemic had already shifted our lives in ways that were previously unimaginable. If ever there was an opportunity to begin living a prefigurative future, this was it. Death’s caprices jolted us from our slumber, reminding us that the question of being and not-being is far more fickle than we would like to imagine. Whiplashed by the change of pace after so many years of doing more and moving faster, some deeply ingrained inertia turned us toward the steadying constancy of what we needed most: the comforting embrace of the human and ecological communities upon which we depend.
After rousing us, however, the pandemic has begun to wear us down. The preposterous has become mundane. The political, economic, and social ramifications of the pandemic will continue even as the pandemic eventually winds down. Eager to remain dominant, big businesses have lobbied for generous corporate bailouts. Faustian governments have devoted $12 trillion to stimulate economies, yet they have not allocated a fraction of that to redesign low-carbon energy systems. Betrayed by austerity-tattered social safety nets and forced to choose between their health and livelihoods, millions of people have been coerced to return to work.
Even so, many employers have not provided adequate personal protective equipment, healthcare, or paid sick leave for workers, while others have rejected COVID-related benefit claims. Working from home has converted every waking hour into potential work time, allowing employers to appropriate even more labor value from their employees. Disjointed from any pretext of realism, the stock market is once again operating in the black. Health insurance companies have raked in record profits, and as more middle- and lower-income families teeter on bankruptcy or eviction, the wealthiest individuals’ net worth continues its unfettered rise. Even as farmers dumped food that they could not sell while store shelves lay bare, suggestions to promote local foodways and curb the waste of globalized food systems have been disparaged as “the worst possible response.” Beguiled by a return to some semblance of normalcy, we show signs of once again willing to believe that capitalism, despite its flaws, is actually our best defense. After all we have gone through, the new normal does not appear all that different from the old.
Perhaps we can be forgiven for capitulating to capitalism’s sweet nothings. Capitalism’s legacy is sold as one of freedom, wealth and comfort, while its less glamorous products, like rampant poverty, inequality and environmental destruction, are conveniently ignored. Critiques of capitalism are repressed or misrepresented as totalitarian, regimented, and austere, despite the many alternatives to capitalism which are not inherently authoritarian. After being hit incessantly over the head with this false dilemma in our schools, advertising, news, and entertainment, a collective cultural amnesia has developed that prevents us from imagining different futures. By finding new narratives into which many stories fit, we can expand our perspective of the possible.
The Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico have been cultivating a truly “new normal” for the better part of three decades. Their philosophy of Neozapatismo is rooted in the traditional lifeways of Indigenous Maya peoples, interwoven with anarchism and Marxism. It is a modern manifestation of the resilience they have honed over centuries of colonization, dispossession, and marginalization. For the Zapatistas, socioecological crises have never been some vague, future threat, but a present, brutal reality. Climate change and neoliberal markets have undermined the viability of the agricultural systems they adapted over centuries. Megaprojects funded by international capital like hydroelectric dams and intercity railways threaten to forcibly displace dozens of communities and devastate the ecosystems upon which they depend. Lacking the political or financial means to defend their communal interests thousands of Maya—pushed to the brink—occupied government buildings, freed Indigenous prisoners, and destroyed land records, declaring “Ya basta!” (Enough!) on the day NAFTA went into force in 1994. Systemic change, sowed and reaped by their own hands, was imperative for safeguarding their culture and supporting both their human and non-human neighbors alike.
Hagiography is not my intention. Like all messengers, the Zapatistas are imperfect. Inequality and poverty are still rampant. Some compañer@s are content to accept government aid, reflecting an economic pragmatism that tempers their political idealism. Smallholder farmers have contributed to deforestation, though less than other forms of land management, including large-scale agriculture. Despite attempts at participatory democracy, patriarchal structures prove difficult to dismantle. These contradictions do not necessarily belie the value of this vanguard’s unique vision for “a revolution that makes possible the Revolution.” The Zapatistas’ struggle against the power of global capital still serves as a vital and vitalizing inspiration for creating parallel lifeways in the cracks and along the margins.
From the onset of the pandemic, the Zapatistas distributed thousands of reusable masks, initiated a program for sewing additional face coverings, and provided hygiene products among their communities. Meanwhile, many in the U.S. hoarded basic household items, betraying a lack of trust either in our communities’ capacity for cooperation or our government’s willingness to serve its citizens. Then, when U.S. states rushed to open commercial spaces and beckoned their citizens to return to business as more-or-less usual, the Zapatistas instead closed their caracoles—centers of resistance and rebellion that organize collectivist programs—and continue to avoid urban areas as much as possible. Furthermore, a common practice amongst Zapatistas has been to quarantine anyone who has had contact with sick individuals. Such people are ensured food and resources are delivered to them so that the farms and forests upon which all depend are not compromised. By contrast, workers throughout the U.S. often face the Sophie’s choice of defaulting on bills or risking infection.
Despite a lack of government resources or support, such as access to any testing whatsoever, as few as 12 compañer@s died of symptoms related to COVID-19 during the first six months of the pandemic. Ultimately, the Zapatistas attribute their rapid response and caregiving capacity not to any medical technology, but to their unity. In refusing to be divided (at a healthy distance), they are coping with the pandemic not as individuals but as a collective.
The Neozapatismo maxims of “para todos todo, para nosotros nada [everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves]” and “un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos [a world where many worlds fit]” also infuse the Zapatistas’ environmental philosophy and practices. Ever since the initial uprising, direct actions have been coordinated to highlight how top-down economic development—even when it is greenwashed as “sustainable”—invariably leads to environmental devastation. Any attempts to promote “development” or address ecological degradation must be framed in opposition to the annihilatory regimes of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, militarism, and colonialism. Maya do not consider themselves parasitic or passive towards nature, but as an enlivening, life-giving force. Fostering ecological growth and diversity through regular and respectful interactions, including use and ceremony, they defend against attempts to privatize their communal lands, maintain traditional agroecosystems honed over centuries of sustainable management, and cultivate culturally-important food and medicinal plants in cooperative tree nurseries for grassroots restoration efforts.
Such “glocal” responses highlight one of the paradoxes at the heart of Zapatismo. On the one hand, Zapatista communities celebrate their autonomy and self-sufficiency, ensuring they can remain independent from the hegemony of globalized economies and western culture. However, they also acknowledge a direct dependency on networks of immediate relationships in the human and non-human world. Their revolution is largely centered on building community, well aware that their social cohesion and rich cultural knowledge compensates for what they lack in political or financial capital.
By contrast, environmental discourse in the U.S. has historically been dominated by a mild misanthropy, articulated in Pogo’s aphorism: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” We attempt to buffer the environment from humans’ polluting influence by separating the two. E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth proposal goes so far as to suggest that half the planet be preserved—devoid of humans. Of course, the human species bears a large ecological footprint, and conserving ecological integrity is laudable, but environmental destruction is more a function of a perverse economic system controlled by and benefiting a particular subset of humanity than fundamental human nature writ large. Laying the blame for environmental destruction at the feet of humankind as one unified Anthropos absolves the true culprits and delays the actions necessary to address its ultimate drivers.
Perhaps the greatest lesson we may learn from the Maya is how to become, as Robin Kimmerer suggests, “Indigenous to place.” To address the epic crises at hand, we need to move beyond simplistic human-nature binaries. Restoring the land requires us to restore our relationship to it, as evidenced by the intimate connection between exposure to nature and stewardship. Sustainability is less a technical question of properly controlling natural processes and resources; rather, it is a collective social responsibility of controlling ourselves. Sustainability is not merely a question of how much we consume; it is about the ways in which we contribute. We must break the cycle of separation, objectification, and exploitation to transcend the false dichotomy that sets human culture at odds with nature. Instead, we must allow our human cultures to be reflections of nature—a part of rather than apart from. When we accept the earth’s gifts with gratitude and reciprocate with our own, we shape the land into cultural landscapes that reflect our nature of restraint and generosity.
Re-learning how to participate as equal members in the gossamer web of life is no easy task. Thankfully, many examples have endured and may show us how to restore these relationships in full. These teachers range from Indigenous communities around the world; to fishers, foresters and farmers who have learned to work with the land, not just on it; as well as the plants and animals with whom we share this planet.
A primary obstacle hampering many contemporary social movements in the U.S. is their focus on individuals and personal responsibility. While the likes of Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Robert Marshall, and John Muir certainly played a role in catalyzing enviornonmental movements in their times, the nigh-messianic legends enshrouding them too often efface the relationships of everyday people essential to effecting change. Absent mutual struggle, any individual (prophetic though they may be) is an easily-silenced voice in the wilderness.
Furthermore, while small, personal acts can be noble when facing the seemingly Sisyphean challenge that is climate change, we must also recognize their impact is limited at best. The idea that individual consumer choices can manifest meaningful social change is informed by institutions who would prefer to maintain the present state of affairs (the plastic industry’s ardent support for ineffective recycling programs being a textbook example). Stark inequality alone undermines any consumer power we could wield against financial elites. Buying into the notion that our individual consumer choices can advance social justice merely permits certain businesses a greenwashed façade. These amount to nothing more than veneers of social awareness when, in fact, the companies remain complicit in and benefit from systems of oppression. The scope of capitalism’s institutionalized greed demands a coordinated response at a societal level. Collective action and communal organization are the answer.
The histories of the New Deal and Great Society programs; the Fair Labor Standards and National Labor Relations Acts; the Civil and Voting Rights Acts; and the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Endangered Species Protection Acts have demonstrated that necessary, sweeping changes do not manifest as a result of individual, privately-funded crusades. Progressive legislation is the product of diverse coalitions of environmental, labor, civil rights, and faith organizations sustaining significant pressure on the local and federal governments. Our survival is dependent on community; our strength is forged by our relationships; and our success is predicated on balancing sovereignty with solidarity.
In the U.S., the Poor People’s Campaign epitomizes these principles. Continuing the work that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was undertaking before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the Campaign is uniting a diverse coalition of disenfranchised communities to “confront the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.” Noting the immorality of the want of so many amid the abundance for so few, and reflecting the intersectional nature of the ecological and social crises we face, their demands for change are broad and deep, ultimately aiming to restore human dignity.
Foregoing the peculiarly American mythology of rugged individualism, the Campaign reminds us that we are braver and more hopeful when we join together than when we are divided and alone. Our society is only as successful as the least among us, and if we are to rise to meet the challenges we face, then we must do so together. In restoring our faith in the multiplicative power of we, the illusory division between us falls away and reveals, as King so eloquently put it, our “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
The 2020 U.S. presidential election reflected a demand for change. However, given the choice between a “neoliberal disaster and a neofascist catastrophe,” our efforts must continue. Participating in protests and boycotts promotes solidarity, but the real challenge is transforming that collective power to subvert capitalism in our daily lives. To cultivate a community garden is to foster food sovereignty and develop social networks. Working with locally-organized food distribution organizations like Food Not Bombs rescues food waste and grants dignity to hungry neighbors in a heathy, fun, and communal manner. Joining or facilitating labor unions helps reduce the gender pay gap, ensure workplace safety, and fight for worker benefits. Frequenting and supporting your local library encourages community cohesion and educational equity. Helping grassroots organizations that promote public investment in mass transit improves air quality and enhances equal access to transportation.
One year into the pandemic and counting, many of us are attempting at last to make plans for an all too uncertain future. Joe Biden’s administration has named climate change a national security threat and revised national emissions reduction goals. At present, these are toothless and insufficient to avert the 1.5°C of warming expected in the next decade. While the National Security Council sets its aim at climate change, ignoring its own central role in environmental and humanitarian catastrophe, the Zapatistas have set sail to share in the struggles with compañer@s in Europe, and the Poor People’s Campaign continues to mobilize citizen blockades of oil pipelines and virtual mass assemblies of low-wage workers. Which stories will we help write?
Every day, we choose how we face the coupled menace of climate change and COVID-19. Capital’s champions have rallied to argue that systemic change can wait for a more convenient time after this immediate emergency. But, as James Baldwin asked, “How much time do you want for your ‘progress’?” Indeed, how tragic would it be if the world as we know it remained on its slouching course toward a broken normal in the wake of a global event so often described in eschatological terms? Considering the socioeconomic and ecological crises ahead, none of us, least of all the most marginalized, can afford to wait.
Teaser photo credit: Poor People’s Campaign Revival, 14 May 2018, By Slowking4 – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290075