Tackling the ecological-economic complex, green capitalism, and transition justice, the following text by Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki outlines the Berliner Gazette (BG) 2022 project “After Extractivism” and serves as an introduction to the text series BG is developing in this context in cooperation with more than 50 activists, researchers, and cultural workers.
Economic and ecological crises are increasingly devastatingly intertwined and fuel each other – an ecological-economic complex (or rather: vicious circle) that produces pandemics, extreme weather events, the slow violence of climate catastrophe, and outright wars. When governments (and companies) officially recognize that the realms of ecology and economy intertwine in increasingly disastrous ways, they promote ostensibly “sustainable” measures, but in fact advance mostly variants of the dominant capitalist mode as solutions to these problems.
However, isn’t said economic mode key to the problem? Does deploying it as part of the supposed solution not only reinforce and sustain disastrous tendencies? Thus, shouldn’t organizing transitions into a better world be inseparable from fundamentally questioning the dominant economic mode organized around the pursuit of endless growth, energy-hungry profit coercion, and, last but not least, resource-devouring extractivism?
Wishing to explore these questions, the BG 2022 project proposes we learn from the last big transition – the post-Cold War transition from “communism” to capitalism – and raise the question of transition justice. This means tackling what is usually denied in official accounts of post-1989 transitions: class struggles and the immense, long-lasting political, social, and, ultimately, environmental costs of transitions.
I. The Ecological-Economic Complex
The consequences of man-made “natural disasters” are borne by the weakest and most vulnerable members of global society. The ongoing climate catastrophe has reminded us of this fact. And the Covid-19 pandemic unsurprisingly shows that existing inequalities and injustices are further reinforced. Primarily a global health crisis, the pandemic’s fall-out is manifold. Besides a massive death toll (still growing), damaged health (e.g., long Covid), social atomization and desolidarization, the situation in the politico-economic realm also worsens: for instance, evictions, debt, and unemployment are on the rise. While the Global North can avert the worst repercussions, and even, both selectively and structurally, benefit from the crisis, not so resilient societies in the post-“communist” world and in the Global South at large are particularly affected, losing the benefits of progress they made in the past decades: mass poverty, gradually overcome, is quickly returning (Gilbert Achcar, 2020) and further fostering debt spirals (Zsuzsi Pósfai et al., 2021), to provide just two examples.
This challenges us, whoever “we” are, to critically scrutinize the very design of our systems. Accordingly, the BG 2022 project aims to open up possibilities for evaluating the pandemic differently from the prevalent narratives committed to back to normality and business as usual. The goal is not only to raise key questions about crisis management. Perhaps more importantly, the project will also investigate the causes of our dire predicament and discuss possible ways out of it. Inspired by environmentally-informed critiques of systems of politico-economic domination and exploitation (Donna J. Haraway, 2016), especially capitalism (Naomi Klein, 2014) and (neo-)imperialism and (neo-)colonialism (Sylvia Wynter, 2015), we wish to investigate how the crisis could be turned around, serving as a starting point for a planetary politics of just and sustainable transformation.
To begin with, epidemics have been occurring ever since humans started farming. As farming has become industrialized and social, political, and economic life on the planet increasingly interconnected, these outbreaks have taken the form of global pandemics: The relentless expansion of farming and other forms of industrialized utilization of nature has turned the entire world into contested zones of resource extraction; and the more deeply the extractive frontier penetrates the natural world, the more likely the spillover from, e.g., animals or insects to humans that could lead to a pandemic. This is what SARS, MERS, and avian influenza have taught us, and it can also be seen – at least in principle – as one of the major lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic (Rob Wallace, 2020). It is crucial to note that the aggressive extraction of the natural world is also the cause of global warming. One striking example here is high-intensity cattle and pig farming (Alex Blanchette, 2020), where thousands of animals are concentrated in a facility and force-fed for slaughter: It is extractive to the land (which is often destroyed in the process), not to mention the animals; the animals and the processing release tons of carbon; and the facilities breed many anthropogenic pathogens, despite the use of antibiotics and sanitizers to keep these at bay.
Hence, the question of how epidemics arise and why they spread globally and become pandemics is intricately related to the question of how the ongoing climate catastrophe – with its erratic outburstson the one hand and slow violence on the other – comes about. When looking for answers, it is key not to limit the inquiry to ecological entanglements, such as the circuits of spillover and spillback or so-called reverse zoonosis (Sonia Shah, 2022). More urgently, we need to explore how ecological and economic structures intertwine. After all, in absolutizing the market, in assuming the market’s logic as omnipotent, potentially ecocidal frameworks are being created, such as the lack of regulatory oversight in many extractive industries, blindly growth-oriented free trade agreements, profit-driven animal husbandry practices, and exploitative property relations. All this leads to disastrous developments, such as globally dwindling biodiversity, land overuse, and factory farming. Although these are the common causes of pandemics and the climate catastrophe, they are usually disregarded or not understood as such.
This is why the BG 2022 project aims to create an urgently needed space to reflect on collective possibilities for analyzing, criticizing, and challenging the ecological-economic complex. In the course of this, extractivism (from Latin ex-trahere “to draw out”; ex-tractum “that which is drawn out”) will serve as the project leitmotif. The term is derived from “extractive forms of economy,” and refers to the management of near-natural landscapes from which wild plants or animals are extracted. While extraction was originally considered a sustainable form of production, the term extractivism is used in more recent economic policy debates with a clearly negative connotation (Isaac ‘Asume’ Osuoka and Anna Zalik, 2020). Today, it stands last but not least for a politico-economic regime of dispossession that is based on the ever-expanding export of raw materials and often on overexploitation, largely forgoing the further processing of these resources, often to the detriment of local indigenous communities and of biodiversity, to give just two examples.
Unsurprisingly, the negative consequences of large-scale extractivism are becoming increasingly evident to political, economic, and civil society actors. But those responsible, namely governments and corporations, do not trace them back to their own imperial and neo-colonial practices, avoiding calling extractivism into question. Accordingly, radical alternatives are ruled out. The only options for change ostensibly available are painted in a deceptive shade of green.
II. Green Capitalism
As the consequences of raw material extractivism (coal, oil, gas, etc.) for the climate have become more apparent in recent decades, a fundamental shift away from fossil fuels has been seen as the centerpiece of sustainable climate policy. In the wake of the conversion of the economy, especially the energy industry, toward a lower turnover of carbon – keyword: decarbonization – lobby groups and complicit mass media have furnished digital technologies with a practically climate-neutral image. With the electric car as the symbol of a sustainable future, green capitalism is presented as the solution to all our problems. Of course, the word capitalism is usually avoided in this fanfare, as is extractivism. This is key to the “clean tech” myth.
Building on a decades-long tradition of greenwashing, the “clean tech” myth is supported by extensive advertising as well as costly and highly mediatized public performances by “green” entrepreneurs like Elon Musk. Isn’t his company Tesla rated so highly on the stock market because Musk’s public persona provides a projection surface for technological do-gooding coupled with environmental wokeness? And aren’t such escapist fantasies currently so successful because “green” companies like Tesla can appear detached from profit-making and ecological destruction, while, behind the scenes of collective awareness, the capitalist enterprise is being advanced?
Lithium mines are one of the many sites of mineral extraction needed to power “clean tech.” In South America’s so-called “lithium triangle” in northern Chile, southern Bolivia, and northeastern Argentina, for instance, the largely unadmitted, unexcused, and uncompensated impact that European settlement, imperialism, and slavery have had for hundreds of years (Eduardo Galeano, 1971) not only paved the way for European and later United States economic exploitation and political dominance over the region. It also prepared the ground for 21st-century neocolonialism and neoimperialism by voraciously energy-consuming states and corporations. In the course of this, lithium mines have become the sites of “rare metals wars” being fought over dominance and profits without attracting much public attention. Even worse, these extractivism wars take place practically beyond democratic accountability: Instrumentalizing the climate-neutral image of “clean tech,” governments of all kinds are creating legal and extra-legal frameworks for the (wannabe) billionaires of green capitalism. As a result, the rising “clean tech” market, almost exclusively structured according to economic prospects, is for the most part unregulated and disconnected from environmental policies (Guillaume Pitron, 2020).
Infrastructural and logistical networks of present-day accumulation regimes have been expanded across the globe under similar conditions. Making the so-called “cloud,” for instance, has involved the installation of undersea fiber optic cables providing a high-speed data connection between continents, the erection of data centers, and the maintenance of server farms, etc. The environmental damage caused by the cloud as a mineral resource-consuming and hence extractivism-driving technology (Tung-Hui Hu, 2015) is radically greenwashed or simply denied by the “clean tech” lobby. The disavowal, remarkably, is last but not least favored by the users, more precisely by the circumstance that cloud activities crucially form what could be called the “user unconscious” (Patricia Ticineto Clough, 2018) or the repressed of digital societies. While cloud activities, e.g., the habitual use of software to run social media applications, are being endorsed and readily pursued as (semi-)unconscious routines, the cloud itself, the hardware that almost imperceptibly ensures constant connectivity, is sold and willingly seen as something floating, gaseous, delicate, and, ultimately, clean; something outright natural without toxic man-made side effects on the environment (Kate Crawford, 2021). Now, as more social interactions have moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic, cloud activities have been given a substantial push (Marie Rosenkranz, 2020), ever more uncontrollably generating large amounts of heat. As a consequence, the violent return of the repressed, at least for the time being, remains hidden in plain sight: the rising heat of cloud server farms leads to higher temperatures enhancing global warming, while higher temperatures cause stress for cloud infrastructure that in turn requires additional energy-extensive maintenance and cooling. This vicious circle intensifies the climate catastrophe.
While all of the aforementioned goes for the most part unnoticed, the more or less subtle shifts in the political landscape are not really under the radar of public attention. In Europe, for instance, green parties have been continuously winning more seats in parliaments and city halls. Needless to say, this mirrors an increase in environmental wokeness among middle-class voters. Moreover, it also indicates that the arrival of green parties in the centers of political power goes hand in hand with their commitment to the dominant economy – as is well-known, this very commitment is the entry ticket to big politics in the first place (Benoît Bréville et al., 2021). Thus, partieslike the Greens,associated since the 1970s with radical alternatives, are now competing for the favor of business with parties traditionally associated with neoliberalism. And they have very good prerequisites to do well in this competition.
In Germany, for example, the political party predominantly in charge of the country’s post-WWII transformation into a neoliberal and neoimperial state – the CDU – lost the 2021 elections; the related rise of the Greens can also be attributed to their successful collection of campaign donations from the ranks of the business community. The Greens’ share of the total volume of campaign donations rose to a good 29 percent from just over three percent four years ago (Christina Deckwirth, 2021). This includes the donation of one million euros from bitcoin millionaire Moritz Schmidt, and indicates that the interests of capital are currently also in good hands with a party that holds out the prospect of making the dominant economy “fit” for the era of climate catastrophe, read also: the prospect of revamping the dominant economy with a green touch and seamlessly expanding its latitude along the way. Indeed, what the Greens are most credited with among capitalists is nothing less than developing and maintaining the capacity to “innovate” in the face of environmental disaster. The double standards of such “innovation” are strikingly revealed on a 2021 election campaign poster. The Greens’ promise read: “An economy from which everyone profits – including the environment. Sure, it can be done!” The use of the word “profit” is symptomatic because profiting, and profits in general, can only be achieved through systematic and excessive extractivism. And these cannot be the interests of capital and the common good at one and the same time, as the Greens suggest.
This shows that things will not easily change for the better – not, that is, without fundamentally questioning the dominant economic mode organized around energy-wasting profit coercion, the pursuit of endless growth, and, last but not least, resource-devouring extractivism. It is quite obvious that this economic mode is an expression of a centuries-old constellation of power structures, which have produced the climate catastrophe as a transgenerational problem and the disastrous stalemate we are in today. In this respect, we cannot avoid to also attribute to said economic mode the following: the supposed energy transition is becoming an energy expansion (Transnational Institute, 2021). In other words, the opposite of the conjured solution.
III. Transition Justice
When fundamental questioning of the dominant economic mode is avoided and obstructed by governments, corporations, and lobby groups advocating change along green capitalism lines, they, in so doing, create a discursive framework in which, implicitly or explicitly, radical alternatives such as eco-communism (Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, 2021) are categorically excluded. This immunization against everything that even remotely smells of anti-capitalism follows a conceivably simple logic: The group of actors in question ‘learned’ from the last big transition, initiated in Eastern Bloc countries after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, that “capitalism is invincible.” After all, “capitalism won the battle against ‘communism’ and now capitalists rule the entire world. And justifiably so! Because this victory has been a matter of civilizational superiority.”
The victory narrative serves capital’s predatory interests. Capitalism’s post-Cold War expansion in the East is obvious evidence of this, since the carrot of membership in the “free world” was used to encourage countries to adopt liberalization and “good governance” and align with the West’s political, economic and military interests. But it is even exemplified by the neoliberal restructuring of public transport systems by authorities from Moscow to Tashkent along the lines of “green” schemes imported from the West uncritically (Lela Rekhviashvili and Wladimir Sgibnev, 2021). In order to function as a symbolic tool of power, the victory narrative must disperse any doubt about the hegemony of capitalism. To this end it needs to indulge in self-aggrandizing for strategic reasons, denying the political, social, human, and, ultimately, environmental costs of transitions under which all post-“communist” societies are still suffering – a misery that has been almost impossible to hide during the COVID-19 pandemic (LevFem, 2021). It must also deny that the transitions in question have always been platforms for criticism, contestation, and conflict. Consequently, it must marginalize the wide-ranging echoes of social friction in Eastern European academia (Liviu Chelcea and Oana Druţǎ, 2016) and intellectual discourse at large. Last but not least, the victory narrative must gloss over the class struggles at play and abet a depoliticized notion of transition justice decoupled from the question justice for whom? (Raia Apostolova and Tsvetelina Hristova, 2021).
However, it is crucial to keep in mind that the victory narrative also functions as a compensation mechanism in moments of systemic crisis. In this sense the recent redeployment of the victory narrative in celebrations by (wannabe) beneficiaries of “30 years of transition” mirrors a crisis in the political economy of Eastern Europe (Agnes Gagyi and Ondřej Slačálek, 2021) that is affecting the EU at large, while further deepening structural inequalities. Although capitalists know best how to turn any given crisis into a business enterprise, one shouldn’t forget that this is an ambivalent situation: As the crisis reveals various cracks in the dominant power structures, these very cracks can also be repurposed as openings for emancipatory politics and spaces of hope. In other words, what seems preprogrammed is not inevitable: namely, that things are likely to get worse in the foreseeable future. It is therefore all the more important to keep a watchful eye on the paradoxes, dynamics, and dangers of the ecological-economic complex, and green capitalism as its socially acceptable front.
The so-called Western Balkan Countries, for example, are highly exposed to climate change and spend on average three times more on energy than the EU countries due to the deteriorated energy infrastructure, the inefficient structure of the industrial sector, and poorly insulated households (Andrea Mladen et al., 2019). But governments seem unwilling to take responsibility in face of the ongoing climate catastrophe. Strategies for a truly sustainable and just transition are practically non-existent in most post-“communist” states. Instead, opportunism prevails among the ruling classes: Privatization of state-owned resources, land, and infrastructure, one of the major top-down measures of post-1989 transitions, is nowadays sold to the public as “necessary green innovation,” further accelerating the abandonment of the common good for profit reasons. As in other parts of the world, such “disruption” is being perfidiously reconciled with the resurgence of authoritarian, patriarchal structures. This benefits foreign investors and regional elites alike, who encourage and normalize “resource nationalism” (Eszter Krasznai Kovács, 2021): a politico-economic regime that enables concentrating control over resources in the hands of few and, if not repressing, then ignoring grassroots approaches such as food sovereignty (Mihajlo Vujasin, 2021). The ruling class reacts to the growing desperation of the population with diversionary maneuvers, such as rehashing national myths. Meanwhile, struggles for political and economic participation are made invisible and forgotten (Damir Arsenijević, 2019). But never entirely so. In Serbia, to cite a recent case, Rio Tinto, the world’s second-largest metals and mining corporation, found lithium reserves in the Loznica region in 2006, and president Aleksandar Vučić’s government set the stage for extra-legal extractivism by introducing the Law on Expropriation that is intended to enable private companies to expropriate land and pave the way for extractive enterprises such as Rio Tinto’s lithium mines. However, a series of large-scale protests that in 2021 included blockades in about 50 towns across the country (Iskra Krstic, 2021) succeeded in at least temporarily halting the development of what is planned as “one of the largest greenfield lithium projects in the world.”
Now, what does it mean to learn from post-1989 transitions in an international context in which a transition from environmentally destructive to sustainable economies is considered the challenge for our planetary inter-species community? The BG project suggests taking the denied transition costs and class struggles as a starting point, because this could ‘unlock’ the otherwise blocked question of transition justice – a question that could crucially sharpen our perspectives for common(ist) futures. As used in this context, the term transition justice is deployed as a conceptual evolution of the just transition framework. Developed in recent years by the trade union movement, the just transition framework puts forward claims for social justice in the context of climate catastrophe adaptations, calling for interventions required to secure workers’ rights and livelihoods, e.g., in coal-dependent developing regions, when economies are shifting away from fossil fuels. Here, the idea of transition justice suggests going a step further, namely also taking into account ethical, legal, and political issues of accountability and responsibility for the slow violence of environmental havoc caused since modern colonial expansion and industrialization, as endorsed by the environmental justice movement. In short, transition justice proposes combining just transition claims with claims for environmental justice. Conceived thus, transition justice last but not least echoes indigenous concerns (Indigenous Environmental Network, 2017) and makes room for the interests of laborers not (yet) represented by unions (e.g., migrant workers or social reproduction workers). In so doing, it places an emphasis on the demand that progressive responses to disastrous consequences of the ecological-economic complex must undothepower structures of this complex and forge new paths into a just world – rather than reproducing structural ills with “green” transformation measures. After all, these power structures are based on “the conception of nature as constant capital and the fact that the organizers of the capitalist world system appropriated Black labor power as constant capital” (Cedric J. Robinson, 1983). This urges us to critically scrutinize the connection “between the Western conception of nature as ‘cheap’ and the global organization of a ‘cheap,’ racialized, disposable workforce” (Françoise Vergès, 2017).
The resulting demand to politicize extractivism along the lines of the critique of coloniality is all the more timely because extractive frontiers are being perpetually relocated to racialized sites, where, as capitalists believe, “extraction can still generate profits without one being held to account.” Needless to say, this relocation intensifies the climate catastrophe in regions that are already among the worst hit by, e.g., extreme weather events, floods, and drought – and the least prepared to deal with it. In short, serving as the matrix of the racial capitalocene,the power structures in question are the very source of grave injustices and inequalities, as well as the very cause of imperilment, poisoning, and destruction of lifeworlds. Moreover, the power structures can be said to produce the climate and thus the climate catastrophe, bringing about expulsions and mass flight (Sujatha Byravan and Harsha Walia, 2019) in post-“communist” states and in the Global South in particular.
Undoing the said power structures when working towards an energy transition and other climate catastrophe adaptation measures requires decolonizing climate production and removing it from capitalism’s grip. Such a multi-layered endeavor can crucially contribute to transition justice for our planetary inter-species community and the BG project 2022 challenges activists, scholars, and cultural workers to research, think, and imagine how we might go about this in solidarity: How can we wager our future on the legacies and claims of those who – yesterday as today – have been plunged into existential hardship by the ecological-economic complex? And how can we make such struggles a source of inspiration for a common cause?
The realms of ecology and economy intertwine in increasingly disastrous ways. When governments officially recognize this problem, ostensibly sustainable “green” measures that we in fact mostly greenwashed neoliberal schemes are promoted as solutions. Tackling the ecological-economic complex, the BG project launches its intervention at a critical juncture: currently two urgent transitions are being coupled with each other, namely the transition from pandemic misery to socio-economic “recovery” and that from climate collapse-accelerating to climate-neutral economies. Emphasizing the common causes of both man-made disasters and raising the question of transition justice, the project intends to create awareness of the multiple forms of extractivism and the various dangers that extractivism poses to the planet and our coexistence. Here, the project title “After Extractivism” designates the apocalypse – that is, the end of the world as we know it – both as a disaster overshadowing our era and a starting point for a new beginning (Déborah Danowski, 2019).
Against this backdrop, the question of what it means to reclaim the economy (J.K. Gibson-Graham et al., 2013) needs to be expanded to and focused on the following set of questions: if the required transition is not to reproduce existing power structures and reinforce cataclysmal tendencies, how can it be turned into a future-oriented project, in which those who have inherited the liabilities of past injustices (Olúfẹ̀mi O. Táíwò, 2022) are key to building a more just world? Since we are challenged on a planetary scale by the ecological-economic complex, how can we come up with planetary answers emerging from local grassroots and solidarity networks? How can we build up forces that are, last but not least, capable of putting pressure on governments to radically minimize both inter-state competition and dependence on extractivism? If this is how a basis for commonist futures could be created, we also need to ask: how can we make the inequalities and contradictions of our time productive, rather than allowing them to drown any effort to build cross-border transition movements?
Note from the editors: This outline of the Berliner Gazette (BG) 2022 project “After Extractivism” serves as an introduction to the text series BG is developing in this context in cooperation with more than 50 activists, researchers, and cultural workers. The references of this text are listed here. In addition to the text series, published in Berliner Gazette and its international media partners, the project will encompass a multimedia website, a three-day conference in Berlin in the fall, and partner events. More info here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de