The current crises are due in no small part to our failure to politicize personal problems as structural and systemic problems that affect the entire planet. Merging ecological thinking with an intersectional approach, and on this basis recognizing ourselves as climate workers, can help create a framework for action that allows us to address global issues without losing sight of the goal of ending the forms of injustice that shape our individual lives, argues Jaron Rowan in his contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series.
We live in an unprecedented historical moment. As a species deeply entangled in the world we have shaped as much as it has shaped us, we face a set of problems and challenges that are unprecedented in scope, scale, and complexity: Mass extinction of species, forced migrations, resource depletion, pollution of rivers and waters, unequal concentration of wealth, loss of biodiversity, political polarization, proliferation of microplastics, growth of fascism and extremism, spread of new forms of mental illness and civil unrest, extreme climate events, ocean acidification, precarization of work and life, to name just a few of the most notable trends. Many of these problems appear to be closely interrelated and interdependent, yet we face them separately. We have inherited a set of world views and epistemic categories that seem inadequate to face the present moment.
Paradoxically, in the face of the acute need to articulate forms of organization and struggle, we seem to lack political imagination. Despite the multiplicity of resistance movements and the sporadic creation of strategies and spaces from which to articulate conflicts and unrest, the years of exposure to a neoliberal regime have left their mark on the subjectivities of many people, leading us to confuse structural problems with individual discomfort. Systemic causes have been confused with personal failures, and structural and endemic forms of precariousness are lived as a form of personal failure and anxiety. This contributes to the growth of political disaffection. Faced with increasingly complex problems, it seems that we can only come up with individual responses. Techno-solutionism and the growth of corporate-based solutions seem to be the other side of the coin.
The personal vs. the universal
The neoliberal emphasis on the autonomy of the subject, the prominence of the idea of the person as independent of the environment, and the gradual erosion of forms of political organization in favor of narratives centered on the self and the individual identity of subjects have contributed to the particularization of many of our common problems. Massive problems can only be addressed at the micro level. Every problem seems to occur on a personal scale. As a result, larger frames of reference, the ability to understand the systemic nature of certain struggles or the structural nature of the inequalities we face, are lost. In this context, it is essential to reflect on new ways of understanding and dealing with current problems and challenges. We need to articulate these problems in broader contexts where we can see and understand the interconnections and structural causes that underlie them.
Materializing the problems by taking into account the structurality of power relations, the institutional frameworks that reproduce them, the infrastructural designs and production models on which they are based, are some of the necessary steps to overcome the limitation of focusing only on particular and individual effects and to address the full range and complexity of the problems unfolding before us. In what follows, I will suggest that this ability to see the particular as part of a dense web of relationships, connections, and determinants implies adopting an ecological perspective on reality. This is not new.
Merging multiple scales and temporalities
In 1989, the anti-psychiatrist, philosopher and activist Félix Guattari, inspired by the ideas of Gregory Bateson, published the book “The Three Ecologies”, in which he explored what he considered to be an ecosophical vision of reality, that is, “an ethical-political articulation (…) between the three ecological registers, that of the environment, that of social relations and that of human subjectivity.” The author wrote this book as a response to the ecological crisis facing planet Earth, which had not yet been named “climate change.” The intuition that guides Guattari’s work is that there is no solution to the ecological disaster we are facing that does not involve changes that take place at three different levels: the personal, the social and the environmental. Three ecologies that are deeply interconnected but imply different scales and temporalities.
For Guattari, the response to a problem of such magnitude “can only be made on a planetary scale and on the condition that an authentic political, social and cultural revolution is carried out that reorients the objectives of the production of other material and immaterial goods.” The author argues that this revolution can only come from the transformation of these three spheres: the personal, the social and the environmental. In doing so, he challenges two different traditions: the more traditional materialist ecological visions, which put all the emphasis on the transformation of production models, and the environmentalists, who yearn for a return to an idealized pre-industrial world. Thus, in the face of the ecological crisis, Guattari does not opt for environmentalism, but for the development of a way of thinking that is also ecological in its mode of operation. A way of thinking that is capable of articulating different spheres and realities that condition and determine each other.
It is important to take into account that this problem of articulating realities and problems has been attempted from other fields and perspectives, notably in the same year that Guattari’s book was published in France, in the United States, the activist and researcher Kimberlé Crenshaw published “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-Discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” (1989), in which she proposed intersectionality as a method of highlighting the different matrices of oppression that can traverse a subject.
Committed to developing a form of feminism capable of understanding and addressing the specific problems faced by racialized women, she developed a system that allowed forms of discrimination to be articulated and integrated into a single perspective. The author argued that people’s lives are intersected and determined by different axes of power, and that it is a mistake to analyze them separately; rather, we must be able to see how these axes reinforce each other, creating matrices of oppression that are not easily disentangled. We need to be aware of how the intersections between different systems work. This tool for exploring social justice processes has been widely used and discussed with the intention of undoing the effects of racism, sexism, classism, economic inequality, or colonialism that are prevalent in our societies.
Unfortunately, in the context of contemporary neoliberal subjectivation, intersectionality, instead of serving as a tool to make visible the power relations and mechanisms that structurally perpetuate inequality, can sometimes become an individual competition to accumulate supposed forms of oppression. This tendency to particularize the axis of domination that runs through our societies has been sarcastically described by Elizabeth Martínez in a 1993 conversation with activist Angela Davis as participating in the “Oppression Olympics.” When intersectionality deviates from its original purpose as a framework for analyzing forms of inequality and becomes a theory that legitimizes particularist identitarianism, it can lose its analytical and explanatory power. As mentioned earlier, neoliberalized subjectivities confuse the structural with the particular, the systemic with the individual. An inappropriate or self-serving use of intersectionality theory can exacerbate this problem, and instead of contributing to changing power dynamics, it reinforces neoliberal forms of identitarianism.
Developing an ecosophical vision of the world
We also encounter a problem in Guattari’s approach because, unlike the theory of intersectionality, which seeks to provide a clear method for analyzing and addressing specific problems, Guattari’s project operates at a more abstract level, sometimes even too poetic to be practical. The author understands that social problems are conditioned and intersected by personal and environmental problems, so he wants to develop ways of thinking that allow us to integrate these different spheres. He believes that we need to learn ecosophically. This means changing many of our assumptions and ways of being. To do this, he first suggests working at the level of the self, that is, influencing and inventing new ways of sensing and feeling. To do this, it is important to work at the level of desires, subjectivities, personal needs, or what the author calls the “existential territories.”
Likewise, he considers it necessary to develop a social ecosophy, that is, “specific practices that tend to modify and reinvent ways of being within the couple, within the family, in the urban context, at work, etc.” In other words, to develop an ecological perspective capable of transforming social life. Finally, he believes that struggles must be articulated at the environmental level, fighting against pollution, desertification, loss of biodiversity, etc. These three spheres of reality, or ecologies, are interrelated and, for the author, only by integrating them into a more general framework can we develop an ecosophical vision of the world. In this sense, he gives us some indications on how to approach these problems from a more than human perspective. A perspective capable of integrating the needs and limits of the environment, of non-human beings, and of more-than-human desires and energy flows.
Guattari, being a child of his time, spends much of his work focusing on personal transformation, leaving aside broader strategies for social transformation and the complex dynamics that govern the environment. Institutional transformation and how to deal with different path dependencies are not at the center of his work. For him, revolution begins at the “molecular level” and then extends to the “molar dimension.” Subjective transformation leads to social transformations, and these lead to productive changes and changes in relationships with the environment. Somehow, this hypothesis has never been proven. The focus on individual transformation has had its worst consequences in New Age cultures, where work on the self ends up reinforcing personal identity and disconnecting from the collective dimension of life. The first realm of the three ecologies can end up being a therapeutic space instead of a place of struggle.
Cooperating on “everything, everywhere, at the same time”
For this reason, we need to think about what it would be like to merge these two systems, the three ecologies, and an intersectionality perspective, with the aim of proposing a framework for action that allows us to address our current problems from a more complex perspective that does not lose sight of the goal of ending the forms of injustice that shape our lives.
We need to focus on developing models of intersectionality that can integrate injustices and systems of oppression that operate on more than human scales. We need to ask ourselves how to articulate specific labor or union struggles with matrices of oppression that operate on temporal scales far beyond institutional or human temporalities. And we need to ask ourselves how to extract the intersectional analysis of the second ecology, that of the social, to understand how it shapes and determines the set of the three ecologies analyzed.
Our aim should be to show that power relations are intertwined with structures of desire and aesthetic frameworks that condition their potential for transformation. For example, poor air or water quality affects both humans and nonhumans. Moreover, our goal should be to show that power and production relations determine human lives, social environments, and more than human societies. We must leave the narrow confines of individual identity, closed academic disciplines, and human-centered perspectives to learn to work on “everything, everywhere, at the same time” (to paraphrase the title of a famous movie).
It is important to learn to work on the structurality of problems in a context in which they are experienced as particular affronts. We need to understand that climate problems are also problems of forced migration and conflicts over access to basic resources; that modes of resource extraction determine working conditions that permeate people’s lives; that health is never a personal but a collective matter; that there is no problem of the self that is not intimately rooted in a we; that there is no form of life that is not determined and conditioned by the quality of the air, access to energy resources, or the fertility of the land; that resources exist only to the extent that they are densely embedded in systems of extraction and production; and, last but not least, we need to understand that, to quote Max Haiven and Alex Khasnabish, it is as important to generate new radical imaginaries as it is to collectively design institutions capable of thinking and operating in more than human times and scales.
The struggle against neoliberalism goes beyond challenging it not only as a system of production, but also as a regime of subjectivation and a model for the production and exploitation of nature. In other words: We have to challenge the means of production as means of climate production and question ourselves as climate workers. Adopting an ecological perspective can help us transcend the particular and begin to accept that, deep down, we have never been individuals, we have always been multiple, entanglements, assemblies, collectives, that we have always been multitudes.
Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series. For more content, visit the “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look: https://berlinergazette.de/projects/allied-grounds