Commoning Vulnerability? Towards a Radical Politics of Earthcare

While ecological and economic systems are collapsing, a battle for white supremacy is raging; it is not least a class war for (controlling) access to the shrinking living space on the planet. It is high time to counter this development with a radical politics of earthcare, Manuela Zechner argues in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism.”


For those of us concerned with radical, sustainable, and just ways out of our multiple intertwined crises, it matters a lot to develop a solid politics of care – in practice. I’ve written before about what it might mean to care radically and sustainably in the face of crisis, trying to find tools to analyze bullshit discourses of care and counter insufficient care. Because our ecological crisis is a deep impasse of care. What does this mean in our currently unfolding, new phase of crisis?

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

Ecological (entailing not just climate breakdown but many planetary boundaries) and social crises are today articulating with energetic, economic, and geopolitical crises in increasingly life-threatening ways. War, hunger, disaster, extinction, and racist-fascist violence are taking lives, while poverty, extractivism, toxicity, and sacrifice chip away on livelihoods and communities. Just as pandemic recovery was meant to bring normalization, we feel how a new war causes major tensions and shortages (in Europe but also Africa and beyond); we hear talk of nuclear weapons and see nuclear power plants under bombardment; we stand by dried up rivers (in Europe most recently); we witness new magnitiudes of wildfires, drought, and floods. What people in the Global South have long known to be real is now beginning to affect broad populations in the Global North, causing a shake-up in how we relate to the question of care.

One part of this is the realization of our affectedness as ‘safe’ populations. Even if we’re not being sacrificed, we can still be part of collateral damage in the class war that’s ruining our common world. This creeping realization is a big deal in terms of socio-political subjectivity and our capacity to relate and act. The scramble for a seat in the first-class section of the planet is intensifying, and it’s becoming clear to working and middle classes in wealthy countries that they too will be left unprotected – with less energy, with reduced mobility, in poverty. The increasing barriers to driving a car (due to high fuel prices rather than climate action) bring home ‘downward mobility’ in a painful way to many. An ironic way to encounter material limits, but then did we really think people would grapple with planetary boundaries in an unmediated or abstract way rather than as ‘resource crisis’?

Those planetary boundaries are always mediated through our management and understanding of ‘resources’ – or preferably of commons. Human, social stuff. All this requires social struggles: collective refusal to pay energy, campaigns for free public transport, and of course the many ongoing community struggles against toxicity, displacement, and extractivism.

Earthcare, anyone?

At the same time, some of us come to grasp that this critical moment is a matter not just of our human lives, but that we’re entangled and interdependent with all living beings and ecosystems. We sense that our lives and livelihoods are vulnerable, that death is always possibly near, that we need to take care as earthcare. Again, we’re late to this lesson in the rich industrialized countries, having forgotten our vulnerability during that spectacular colonial-capitalist historical intermezzo we may call modernity. Indigenous and subaltern people knew that all along. Over here in Europe, it’s still about grasping precarity as vital reality, and Fordism and the welfare state as exception. This realization of radical interconnectedness and vulnerability takes us into more-than-human struggles, last but not least redefining notions of collectivity.

(Eco)Feminists, ecologists, pacifists, scientists, indigenous people, and many others have long fought for a global recognition of interdependence, for a politics of interdependence and care, so that lives can be valued in their co-dependency and paths of extractivism and wastage abandoned. From that viewpoint, we observe the current moment with attention. There’s a window that’s been opened by the current social recognition of vulnerability – a window of opportunity, we sense. We know it won’t necessarily be open for long. What will it take for this feeling of vulnerability to translate into collective rather than individual care and self-defense? And can it translate into a subjectivity that understands itself as part of more than just human collectivity, so that our human lives may continue in their interdependency on nonhuman others?

With the window that opens, there’s a chance for a breath of fresh air and light, but also for high-tech alarm systems and closed shutters. There are two options, broadly speaking. A sense of threat may open us to vulnerability in a way needed for mutual care and defense, but it can also activate anxiety, mistrust and the kind of atomized prepping that limits its care to self, nuclear family, home (often as property), sometimes articulated with a very rigidly defined sense of community worth saving. 

Come for a walk with Octavia Butler (her incredibly visionary book Parable of the Sower is set in 2024, maybe we still have a couple years to avert her apocalypse?). We’re all thinking prepper thoughts sometimes, ‘what would we do if,’ but let’s get one thing straight: most preppers are men, in specific positions and places. When we prep as women or queer, trans and other, our prepping takes the form of: care. Boom! We’ve been at it for centuries, it’s called household management, community building, mental load, care networks, feminist self-defense. That defense is never about a solipsistic ‘me’ but draws on collective strength and resistance. It’s end point is never independence, sufficiency of self, surviving in a bunker. That’s for the patriarchy and for the rich.

Prep, sacrifice or care

So if our vulnerability activates anxiety and insecurity over an impulse to seek out others, we’re in trouble – see the alt right. On the other hand, we may simply not be able to lean out of that window if our experience of disaster is so direct and concrete that it pushes us into positions where we can only fight to survive – rather than be able to worry or prepare. As I’ve been saying elsewhere, our global care impasse is not just that some rich folks don’t really care (though they pretend to), but also that the people doing the work that sustains lives globally are so exploited they’re not even ascribed a capacity to care. A lot of folks in the rich world, especially those socialized as male, can’t even read people who care, identify their acts as care, and grapple with care that’s not just individually focused. And so someone recently asked on Twitter: “men prep in the face of societal collapse, but what do women do?” Well maybe they care.

Back to the conjunctural picture: looking at ‘those in power’ these days (markets, governments), we feel a new class war from above. This means: ever more willingness to sacrifice. The threat of martial war leads to the sidelining of socioecological narratives in favor of national narratives; industrial interests remain protected over lives, richer lives protected over poorer lives, northern lives over southern lives, through bullshit discourses claiming transition is impossible or needs to go slow (sometimes positing ‘social’ excuses for this protocolonialism). Current energy policies delay transition away from fossil fuels rather than serve as opportunities for quick and just transition; massive crisis profits are funnelled towards energy companies and other corporations whilst people suffer; etc.

There’s gobsmacking political support for the ongoing redistribution of wealth towards the very rich who are hell bent on destruction and indifferent to suffering, chilling political acceptance of ever more sacrifice zones and sacrifice populations, for production and energy, despite dwindling planetary life support systems. Sacrifice continues to be the name of the game, with the white wealthy male minority as its main purveyor and the rest of the living world as its continued object. And that logic of sacrifice is often as implied in “green” stuff (Green party politics, green tech, Green New Deal, green energy, …) as in standard neoliberalism. Whilst degrowth and sufficiency economics are often framed as untenable self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of others is actually ongoing – of communities, ecosystems, care networks, bodies, lives. Sacrifice zones are an expression of class war, ruining our common world.

Agents of transformation

What can we do in the face of fear, solipsism, and sacrifice? The simple answer is pretty radical – we can care. Stay with the trouble and sustain lives and worlds, fight for our interdependence. Here follows a quick list of hypotheses, based on what I’ve been learning from feminist agricultural struggles, through our Earthcare Fieldcast and Common Ecologies coursework (documented here).

There’s peasant struggles with organizations such as La Via Campesina which has over 200 million members worldwide and pushes for anticapitalist, feminist, antiracist, agroecological agriculture; there’s feminist and anti-racist campaigns to stop exploitation in the predatory capitalist agricultural system, fighting for justice and developing visions beyond this model; there’s cooperative farms and food coops developing radically democratic infrastructures for food production and distribution; there are urban gardens and field collectives that build grassroots knowledges of growing food and transform cities, etc.

Those who put food on our tables are rarely seen as agents of transformation, struggle, and care. Yet they are. Stay with them as patron saints against the apocalypse, goddesses of earthcare against the plantationocene, look out for them in your vicinity – and root also for others struggling on the frontlines of social and more-than-social reproduction.

We need to struggle across ecological and social matters. Those are inextricably linked: we needn’t separate farming and nature for instance. Humans are not extrinsically bad and don’t need to be cordoned off from the living world: it’s capitalist extractivism and the eradication of ecological knowledges and practices that makes our activities bad. Agroecology, for example, is a mode of farming, practiced one way or another for thousands of years, that’s sustainable and in tune with the living world. It’s open source and uses technology intelligently and socially, mindful of material boundaries and attentive to how stuff grows. Peasant farmers practicing traditional agriculture still feed most of the world – particularly if you count the production of actual food for human consumption (rather than biofuel crops and livestock feed).

The idea that we need to put industrial agriculture over here and nature protection over there – and what’s more, have both of them financialized – is a class war narrative that seeks to expropriate and proletarianize all of us in favor of corporate profit. It relies on tech solutions copyrighted and controlled by capital. The enjoyment of ‘pristine nature’ is for tourists and the rich – for the most part however, humans are part of ecosystems, and that’s good. At the same time, we must not let ‘social’ argumentation in rich countries stall rapid transformation at the expense of poor countries and ecosystems. Agroecology is a key form of earthcare labor.

We need to struggle and care across human and more-than-human worlds.This is a matter of survival, as we cannot live without the plants, animals, bacteria and fungi that are currently sustaining life. There is no technology that can enable human life without the more-than-human world, and this world cannot be encased in a lab. Life will only ever be possible based on ecosystemic interplay – and that interplay is always autopoietic rather than human-controlled.

Technology must aid interdependence rather than try eliminate it – it must enable mutualism and care. Fantasies of human supercontrol are as toxic as those of male dominance, part of the same ando-anthropocentric logics we must painstakingly undo. Struggling with the more-than-human world is not a second rate concern, it means understanding that we’re all in it together in our multispecies world.

We need to struggle across utopian and defensive dynamics, and link them. We can’t have struggles that don’t link the fights of those in the toxic-industrial-capitalist system with the fights and concerns of those who make alternative models work. Earthcare will not be possible without strong linkage between utopian-experimental work, traditional communities, and technologies (think peasants, indigenous people), and defensive struggles at the level of territory (think land rights, environmental defenders) and labor (think workers in industrial agriculture).

We need to push beyond individual defensiveness in our climate of destruction, and this means building networks of solidarity, support, and care across those who build and those who defend. When we make defense collective and know that we’re not up against forces of nature but rather against specific capitalist interests, we can fight harder and better. Anyone can contribute to forging those alliances – whether it’s relating to our everyday of housing, food, transportation, energy, etc.

We need to disarm technofixes, for they are instruments of class war.Climate smart agriculture” for instance brings new forms of extractivism and corporate control.Technofixes are instruments of accumulation. Climate-smart-agriculture is meant to “enhance development, reduce vulnerability, and finance the transition to low-carbon growth paths” according to the world bank. We must oppose development as a code word for capitalist accumulation, and financialization as a form of expropriation, and affirm rather than fear vulnerability.

Vulnerability is our basic condition. Starting from this we must (re)build life support – the only kind of sovereignty we can afford is that of collective autonomy as part of interdependence, as in food sovereignty. In our ecological struggles, this also means to go beyond any fixation on climate and carbon that ignores multiple boundaries, interdependences, systemic extractivist sacrifice, and the need for deep transformation.

We need commons for both survival and resistance. There’s a name for the systems and infrastructures we need: commons. These are historically and geographically prolific, full of experience of management and care, and treasure troves of the kinds of situated knowledges and common negotiations we’ll need to make it through the future that’s coming. When we invest things as commons, we become able to draw power from our vulnerability – collectively and concretely.

Commons and care help undo, in our hearts and relations, the very patriarchal-capitalist-anthropocentric ideology that frames interdependence as problem rather than solution. And they help us build territories, as lived spaces of reproduction, memory, and care. Community struggles and indigenous struggles foster consciousness of territory as socio-spatial living ecology. Commons enable us to cultivate life systems on the ruins of neoliberalism. There are many pathways – care and ecological municipalism, transition towns, land defense and habitat protection, community farming and peasant struggle, squatting and collective infrastructure building. Building material and embodied relations to where we live and what we live from is a way to foster trust and care.

We need to build memory and transgenerational power. Most of us were stripped of memory, of ancestral knowledge, by colonialism and capitalism. In the Global North too, even in Europe we may reach to find our roots of resistance, our peasant and gardening ancestors. So much knowledge of earthcare and interdependent vulnerability has been lost in the time of the few recent generations – but it’s not lost forever, and it matters that we find our elders and learn with them, be they linked to us by culture or biology. Older generations must step up and find ways to inhabit the paradoxes of their times, become allies in the struggle for just futures. And we must understand colonial history as our common predicament, reckon with the matricides and erasures of knowledges it has implied.

Finally, in this open-ended list, we need to open ourselves to new ways of being affected by others. To not panic in the face of being affected by disaster, not let the politics of fear take up all our attention and monopolize our bodies. A post-extractivist future is one where we break through the socio-affective boundaries set by class, race, species, religion, job, body type, etc. This is the only way of breaking the global chains of exploitation and extraction. Our mutual vulnerability and affectability is our strength, the basis of our lives in common.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.