Ecological sustainability, economic sufficiency and the infinite beauty of cultural difference
So, where to start but with the Anthropocene, this nonsensical civilisation where the ‘means’ to life has overtaken ‘ends’?
The Eurocentric fantasy of mastering nature has always been a problematic ontology. Ecologically minded feminists believe this ancient drive to power re-enacts a sublimated form of ‘mother killing’, allowing men to ‘birth themselves culturally’ without dependence on mysterious natural flows. In any event, pandemic anxieties have released a shadow epidemic of terror by men on to the bodies of women. French statistics show a 30-per-cent rise in domestic violence; in Australia the figure is said to be 50 per cent.1
Traditionally, the same patriarchal dissociation, or ‘othering’ mindset, has been used to keep Black folk and children in line, and it remains essential to military roles and policing. But if othering sets up an externalised world of objects and abstractions, its mirror image is sensuous and might be called ‘holding’. This reflects the original moment of human self-formation in a mother’s arms. Holding speaks our embeddedness in the metabolism of nature. And when people sense themselves as ‘nature-embodied’, they understand how all Life-on-Earth is linked to everything else.
As a labour form, holding is reproductive as distinct from productive. It preserves the integrity of biophysical processes—say, the precautionary nurture of a child or life-affirming Indigenous commitment to a mountain forest. Holding is ‘a way of worlding’ that teaches an alternative epistemology.
Karin Amimoto Ingersoll describes this sensibility among Hawaiian fishermen:
a non-instrumental navigational knowledge about the ocean, wind, tides, currents, sand, seaweed, fish, birds, and celestial bodies, as an interconnected system that allows for a distinct way of moving through the world. In this oceanic literacy, the body and the seascape interact in a complex discourse…an alternative to the grand narrative of Western thought-worlds, which keep our ‘selves’ separate…
Seeing thus becomes a political process…a reading of all memories and knowledges learned within oceanic time and space but which have been effaced by rigid colonial constructions of identity, place, and power…
[Too] much of the world proceeds without memory, as if the spaces we inhabit are blank geographies, and thus available for consumption and development…2
Today, in our globally dominant civilisation, both political Right and Left assume that labour must be ‘productive’, which is a way of saying that it is about transforming material nature into something else—‘man made’ and thus having ‘value’. Usually, ecosocialists, Green New Dealers and political economists will argue quantitatively—for relocating care work under the formal economy. But the value of holding labour is qualitative, experienced directly as ecosystems regenerate, and human bodies with them. As distinct from exchange or even use value, the gift of reproductive labour is a ‘metabolic value’ and does not need to be measured.
The universities don’t teach that capitalism is simply the most recent incarnation of hyper-masculinity.3 In fact, patriarchy and capitalism are historically nested frames, with capital both protected inside and energised by the more ancient frame of sex-gendered relations.
But there are, on Earth, economic ways of worlding that can meet human needs without biodiversity loss and climate change—the devastating Humanity–Nature rift caused by the arrogant drive to master nature.
Thinking about the origins of COVID-19, there’s no doubt that the twentieth-century development model—land clearing, dam construction, transcontinental supply chains, global warming and threatened species—has scrambled planetary ecologies, opening up spaces for viral mobility. Suggestions that COVID-19 was an accidental by-product of genetic-engineering experimentation for medicinal purposes, or even particulate escape from a biological-weapons lab, can be read in the light of anxieties caused by such large-scale system breakdown. Some people claim that the outbreak has been an elite ploy to put in place profitable new Silicon Valley technologies for public surveillance and social control, but we do not have to go down that track to know, per Naomi Klein’s ‘shock doctrine’, that capitalism amorally exploits any disaster, as it most certainly has this pandemic.
One thing is certain: the world economy was already in free fall before the pandemic began. Now millions of displaced people have become a pliable labour resource for the next wave of capital growth. Is the trade-union movement up to the challenge? Workers aside, the pandemic has set loose a mood of outrage among women suffering government vacillation over support for the nameless reproductive sector. Already in the 1930s, Australia’s great feminist Jessie Street argued for economic recognition of women’s domestic labour time, and a wages-for-housework call was made again by 1970s autonomous feminists in Italy. Ninety years on from Street’s call, this materially embodied basis of production is still stymied by sex-gender discrimination. As the neoliberals will claim: ‘There are only individuals…[well], and families…’.
At the United Nations, and big multilateral summits, ‘the other’ experience of caregivers, smallholders and First Nations peoples is treated as cultural, not economic. This keeps their astute provisioning models—alternative ways of worlding—outside the white middle-class masculinist government and agency discourse. But since the Seattle People’s Caucus in 1999, that attitude has been challenged by movements like the World Social Forum, Via Campesina, the Indigenous Environment Network, World Women’s March and Extinction Rebellion, to name a few.
The book I co-authored in 2019, Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary, honours these initiatives, not to mention the decolonial inspiration of visionaries like Ivan Illich, Ashis Nandy and Wolfgang Sachs, and ecofeminists Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, with their powerful critiques of ‘maldevelopment’.4 The pluriverse project has since opened into a cross-cultural sharing among Andean buen vivir exponents, Indian swaraj communities, European de-growthers and others. The common call is that from now on ‘global is local’. In other words, the dissociated productivist values of capitalist development will be replaced with values that are ‘reproductive’ of Life-on-Earth.
To paraphrase the great Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef: self-managed local cultures are synergistic. They satisfy many needs at once. They’re not only environmentally benign but creatively social. Besides subsistence, they foster learning, participation, innovation, ritual, identity and belonging. A high quality of life can be enjoyed on three hours’ work a day. By contrast, the engineered satisfiers of urban industrial societies like cars, computers and bureaucracies cost much energy and time, sabotaging the very convenience they were designed for.5
Under the dominant global order, the 1 per cent tries to keep social-protest movements ‘single-issue’ and competing for recognition. The outcome is an identity politics, widespread in transatlantic democracies, and often made worse by sterile academic debates over intersectionality. The famous US environmental justice movement was captured by this ‘rights-based’ approach. Started by Black mothers in communities affected by industrial pollution along the Mississippi River, the initiative soon came to be managed by professional men. People struggling for alternatives need to be aware of the ever-present risk of ideological subsumption.
Looking at the worldwide ‘movement of movements’, the political choice for women in the Global North is the same as for colonised subjects in the Global South. There is either an option of emancipation via liberal individualism or self-realisation in communal reciprocity. But the path is fraught for both groupings. Women, for example, relied first on the mechanism of equal rights managed by the nation state, but this further legitimised the masculinist way of worlding. Thus feminists in that twentieth-century generation studiously avoided conceding any aspect of their experience to ‘nature’, in fear of the perennial patriarchal put-down that ‘like children, natives, and animals, women are closer to nature than men’.
Yet there were counter-trends. On every continent, women in urban or rural neighbourhoods organising to stop pesticide use, nuclear testing or water privatisation opted for an ecological feminism. They saw that the enclosure and commodification of natural resources in capitalist patriarchal economies paralleled the enclosure and commodification of women’s and Indigenous bodies. Some, like Evelyn Fox Keller, pioneering a gender-free science, even spoke of nature as a subject, with a heart that pulses through our own body cells.6
Now, in the twenty-first century, many more people are taking big civilisational steps to join humanity and nature back together. The New Water Paradigm and Peoples’ Tribunal on the Rights of Nature are significant here. But the dissociated idealism of global governance can easily slide such moves backwards by repressive tolerance. Too often, well-intended actions for change reinforce the abstract ‘universalising’ premises of modernity. Among these are the circular economy, climate-smart agriculture, digital tools, earth-system governance, reproductive engineering and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
In the Pluriverse book, each such reform is found to fracture living ecosystemic flows between town and country, what Marx called the ‘metabolic rift’.7 In the name of mastery and control, the Eurocentric imaginary diminishes most other natures—class, race, sex-gender, age, ableness, species. And non-capitalist patriarchal cultures are judged in need of ‘development’. Conversely, a pluriversal politics, inspired by the Zapatista practice of democracy, enjoys ‘a world in which many worlds fit’. This is the very definition of a pluriverse, and itcelebrates the practical creativity of peoples outside the global monoculture.
A pluriverse fosters alternatives that can ground political change in biophysical processes. It is responsive to the material limits of geographic place. A Pluriversal New Deal will look for local models of commoning that preserve social diversity and biodiversity together. This ‘peoples paradigm’ reaches for a Biocivilisation to replace the life-negating formulae of viral states—and the lonely high-tech individualism expanding so rapidly under Big Data. Against the rationalist cogito of ‘I think, therefore I am’, contrast the profoundly healing South African ubuntu ethic, premised on the conviction that ‘I am because you are’. Other ways of worlding that understand humans as nature-in-embodied-form are buen vivir, eco-villages, hurai, the gift economy, kyosei, sentipensar and swaraj. These onto-epistemologies are now in conversation together, weaving a global tapestry of alternatives.
In a Pluriverse entry on Oceania’s kastom ekonomi, anthropologist Kirk Huffman paraphrases the experience of Vanuatu villagers:
Foreigners used to tell us that we needed to Change; then they told us we needed Progress, and now they tell us we need Development. It usually means they are after something we have—either our forests or our land or what is under our land, or our souls, or language or culture, or our feeling of contentment with our way of life…
[S]mart Melanesians tend to see Kastom as protecting them from bad development and the disease that comes with it—Sick blong Mane—or money addiction.8
Not surprisingly, food sovereignty is a central goal of pluriversal activism. This is not to be confused with the regular UN Food and Agriculture Organization concept of ‘food security’, which simply means more agro-industrial profiteering. Its costs are land dispossession of peasant livelihoods, toxic petro-farmed monocrops, engineered seeds from Big Pharma, ever more planetary pollution from transcontinental Free Trade, and subsidised imports for unhealthy processed foods. The final stage of capitalist farming is, of course, the Dust Bowl.
Sadly, international awareness of these ‘externalities’ is unevenly developed. Activists from affluent metropolitan nations, even elites from the global periphery, continue to frame policy in ways that downplay the metabolic cost of their own—our own—urban consumer lifestyles. And I don’t deny the ethical dilemma I myself feel while using digital technologies to write and share this article with you. Increasingly, too, academic disciplines are tailored to the neoliberal university, with its deadly positivist culture of management by algorithm.
We are facing big questions here and they need big answers. Mainstream feminists and ecological economists, even some on the Left, and Greens, are confident that the dominant paradigm can be adjusted. But the idea of ‘a fair and sustainable distribution’ of the world’s social product makes no thermodynamic sense. The fact is that, to meet the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals, the global economy would have to grow to 175 times its present size, even as it already overshoots planetary capacities by 50 per cent each year.9
So what does it mean to talk about ‘metabolism’, metabolic rift and metabolic value? The word ‘metabolism’ covers the totality of human biophysical interchanges with the natural world. These can be extractive, as under capitalism, setting up a ‘metabolic rift’ between the Global North and Global South. But skillful small-scale provisioning, focused on needs rather than commodities, regenerates ‘metabolic value’.
As ecofeminists point out, such ‘gifting’ does not need to be measured, as in the usual economic fetish. Metabolic value is simply observable as children dance by, as trees bear down with fruit, as corn shoots up from the soil. Indigenous gatherers enjoy the wealth of metabolic value when clean river waters deliver new season’s fish. The ‘metabolic value’ form inheres in the circulation of Earth energies.
It is critical that humans cease firing up climate and sea rise and burning down species habitat. Could ecosocialists consider the political role of an ‘other’ labour class—‘meta-industrials’ from the domestic and geographic peripheries of capital? Here, at the edge of theory, are the unspoken workers who meet the material needs of all classes, effectively making today’s capitalist system possible. Their daily care of embodied and ecological energy flows tunes the humanity–nature metabolism. In the work of deliberative holding, this class comes to learn a systemic epistemology and ethic of nature as process. Such labour has no use for the abstractions of a dying Eurocentric era, the Anthropocene, with its psychological dissociations of subject over object, humanity over nature, man over woman, white over black, economy over ecology.
Meta-industrial workers are politically autonomous—and more, their tacit system principles can readily guide a Pluriversal New Deal, one that decolonises the notion of sustainability. There are twelve such vernacular principles, which you can read about in our 2009 Eco-Sufficiency book, but to give a few here:
- scale is intimate and hands-on, maximising responsiveness to matter/energy transformations in nature
- judgement is built up over time by trial and error, a cradle-to-grave assessment over a multigenerational time horizon
- in domestic, organic farm settings, or gathering livelihoods, multi-criteria decision-making is essential
- regenerative work patiently reconciles human time with unpredictable, non-linear timings in nature
- meta-industrial provisioning is eco-sufficient because it does not externalise costs through debt on to other humans, or on to nature as entropy.10
In the words of Australian Indigenous elder Jessie Wirrpa, ‘our way of life has good fit with country’. For Kombumerri philosopher Mary Graham, this sensibility resonates with First Peoples’ approach to community governance where Land is Law.11
To achieve eco-sufficiency and global justice simultaneously, the most effective ‘millennial goal’ for settler nations will be to restore Indigenous stewardship to territories stolen in the name of progress. And an enlightened nation state might also encourage bioregional self-reliance among post-pandemic refugees, unemployed youth and discarded older women, by giving out land parcels, instead of paper dollars in the service of GDP.
The template for re-worlding with a Pluriversal New Deal is clear: Indigenous science for grounding ecological sustainability; subsistence economies for nurturing equality and care; a pluriversal politics for celebrating the infinite beauty of cultural difference.
Only once people know themselves as nature-in-embodied-form will they be able to design a civilisation for generations to come.
- UN Women, ‘Violence Against Women and Girls: The Shadow Pandemic’, 6 April 2020: www.unwomen.org. See also: www.euronews.com.
- Karin Amimoto Ingersoll, ‘Sea Ontologies’, in Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria and Alberto Acosta (eds), Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary, New York: Columbia University Press, and New Delhi: Tulika/AuthorsUpFront, 2019, pp. 299–301.
- Ariel Salleh, ‘Editorial: Towards an Embodied Materialism’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 16(2), 2005, pp. 9–14.
- Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity, New York: Boyars, 1977; Ashish Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983; Wolfgang Sachs (ed.), The Post-Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power, London: Zed Books, 1992; Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, London: Zed Books, 1986; Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development, London: Zed Books, 1989.
- Manfred Max-Neef, Antonio Elizalde and Martin Hopenhyan, Human Scale Development. Development Dialogue, Uppsala: Cepaur-Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, 1989.
- Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism, San Francisco: Freeman, 1983.
- John Bellamy Foster, ‘Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology’, American Journal of Sociology, 5(2), 1999, pp. 366–405.
- Kirk Huffmann, ‘Oceania’s Kastom Ekonomi’, in Pluriverse, pp. 15–17.
- Jason Hickel, ’The Problem with Saving the World’, Jacobin Magazine, 8 August 2015.
- Ariel Salleh (ed.), Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice: Women Write Political Ecology, London: Pluto Press, 2009, pp. 302–3.
- Deborah Bird Rose, Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness, Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission, 1996; Mary Graham, ‘Some Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews’, Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion, 3(2), 1999, pp. 105–18.