29 Feb 2012

This plant will kill you, this idea will maim you....

I am thinking about culture and the commons, feedback welcome.

Culture is a vast, complex and shifting area of discussion, it is easier perhaps to ignore and any attempt to deal with it are likely to be incomplete at best.  Even defining the term 'culture' is difficult, indeed the literary theorist Terry Eagleton notes it, ‘is said to be one of the two or three most complex words in the English language’ (Eagleton 2000: 1).  In this context 'culture' deals with the beliefs and practices relating to the management and meaning of the commons.  However the writer and activist David Korten has developed a useful description, arguing:
Culture is the system of beliefs, values, perceptions, and social relations that encodes the shared learning of a particular human group essential to individual survival and orderly social function. It serves as the interpretive lens through which the human brain processes the massive flow of data from our senses to distinguish the significant from the inconsequential, assign meaning, and shape our behavior: 'This plant will kill you. That one is food.' [...]The processes by which culture shapes our perceptions and behavior occur mostly at an unconscious level. It rarely occurs to us to ask whether the reality we perceive through the lens of the culture within which we grew up is the “true” reality. We just take for granted that it is. (2011)

Cronon's account of the mutual incomprehension between indigenous and colonial peoples in New England in the 17th century is a good illustration of the significance of ‘culture’ (1983).  The indigenous with their commons were seen as impoverished by the arriving European population, who could not believe how few material goods they used in the midst of a fertile and apparently highly productive landscape.  The indigenous 'failure' to enrich themselves with material items was seen to legitimate European control of the landscape.   In summary, the colonialists argued that if the indigenous were not, apparently, maximizing their prosperity by using the land, Europeans were right to take the land and use it more productively to generate greater wealth.   Indeed as we have already noted this was the argument used by the philosopher John Locke to justify taking their land.  The indigenous, in turn, felt that the Europeans were foolish to work so hard and noted their failure, at least at first, to prepare for harsh winters by storing supplies.  They believed this would lead to disaster.  Indeed the lack of physical material possessions made it easier for the indigenous to move with seasonal changes and sustain themselves through cold winters.  The cultural contrast is based on what is seen to be 'sustainable' or 'good', the indigenous and the colonialists held different assumptions when it came to land use and economic benefit.  


William Cronon. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983; 20th anniversary edition, 2003).

23 Feb 2012

Occupy discussion at Green Party Conference

I am introducing a fringe session at Green Party Conference in Liverpool at 5pm on saturday to discuss how we can learn from and support the occupy movement.

Do come along if you are at conference and join the conversation.

22 Feb 2012

Derek Wall discusses commons and resistance to enclosure

From my meeting on monday....

Labour vote with Tories to defeat Brighton Green Party

So Labour have united with the Tories to vote down the Greens budget in Brighton, no doubt all part of Miliband's pro-cuts policy.

Labour need to stop uniting with the Tories.  Where Labour works for the British people all to the good but when they work for neo-liberal policies and priorities they must be opposed.

Its all to the good when Labour figures like Ken Livingstone work with the Green Party. 

We need to build the left and oppose the destruction of the welfare state in the UK.

Its not my party right or wrong, its about building for real change.

I hope Labour reverse their support for the Tories in Brighton.

Red-Green is better than Blue Labour!

19 Feb 2012

Speaking at doomed Willesden Green Library tomorrow

I am speaking at Willesden Green Library tomorrow, I am sad though that library is to be demolished, this seems to be the reality in Britain today, a symbol of a wider assault on culture.

Economics lecturer, writer and Green party activist, Derek Wall will be at the Willesden Green Library Centre on Monday 20th February at 7.30pm to talk about his book, the “No-Nonsense Guide to Green Politics” and a book he is currently completing on the history of the commons. This event is the fourth in a series of “Environmental Writers” meetings at the Willesden Green Library Centre, where authors read from their books with environmental themes and discuss them with the audience. The series is organised by the Brent Campaign against Climate Change in liaison with the Brent Library Service. Derek Wall is an economics lecturer and writer. He has been a member of the Green Party since 1980 and was Green Party Principal Speaker from 2006 to 2007. Derek is a founder of the Ecosocialist International and Green Left. He has written a number of books on green politics including the No Nonsense Guide to Green Politics and has a blog at http://another-green-world.blogspot.com/. He works closely with Hugo Blanco - the Peruvian green activist who publishes Luca Indigena (Indigenous fight). Derek is currently researching a book on the environmental history of the commons and is a parish councillor in North Ascot.  He lives in Berkshire and has three sons. Ken Montague, Secretary of the Brent Campaign against Climate Change says, “Derek is a stimulating and provocative speaker who is bound to stir up a debate about politics and the future of our planet. I am especially looking forward to hearing more about his new book, which I’m sure will make us look at British history in a new light.” The discussion will take place at 7.30pm on Monday 20th February in the Willesden Green Library, 95 High Road, Willesden, NW10 2SF. This is a free event and all are welcome. This meeting is in the tradition of stimulating public meetings at Willesden Green Library which will be demolished under regeneration plans. The rather sketchy proposals for the replacement Willesden Cultural Centre do not appear to include plans for public meeting rooms.

17 Feb 2012

'If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers"

 Questions for good ancestors is something I am working on feedback welcome!

the enclosure of the common more than to any other cause may be traced all the changes that have subsequently passed over the village. It was like knocking the keystone out of an arch. The keystone is not the arch; but, once it is gone, all sorts of forces, previously resisted, begin to operate towards ruin, and gradually the whole structure crumbles down. This fairly illustrates what has happened to the village, in consequence of the loss of the common. (Sturt 2010: 130)    

By the “common” we mean, first of all, the common wealth of the material world – the air, the water, the fruits of the soil, and all nature’s bounty – which in classic European political texts is often claimed to be the inheritance of the humanity as a whole, to be shared together. We consider the commons also, and more significantly those results of social production that are necessary for social interaction and further production, such as knowledges, languages, codes, information, affects, and so forth. This notion of the common does not position humanity separate from nature, as either its exploiter or its custodian, but focuses rather on the practices of interaction, care and cohabitation in a common world, promoting the beneficial and limiting the detrimental forms of the common. In the era of globalization, issues of the maintenance, production and distribution of the common in both these senses and in both ecological and  socioeconomic frameworks become increasingly central. (Negri and Hardt 2009: vii) 
Jared Diamond Collapse is a best selling environmental history book.  A popular, rather than an academic work, it is nonetheless well referenced and draws upon a wider literature.  Diamond uses historical examples of societies that have collapsed, he suggests, due to environmental factors to argue that we should learn from history to take care better care of our environment.  Its difficult to summarise Collapse however it does illustrate some of the difficulties of using the past to guide a future sustainable practice.  Amongst the historical examples he examines the most controversial has been Easter Island.  He argues that historical and archaeological evidence suggests that the once lushly forested but extremely remote Pacific Island was wrecked by over-exploitation.  He notes: “I have often asked myself, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?” Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”?

Diamond's conclusions have been debated at some length.  His argument that the islanders were living in poverty when Europeans arrived has been challenged.  It has even been suggested that the deforestation may have been a result of the introduction of rats rather than their thoughtless over-felling.  In turn his suggestion that islanders were so affected by self-induced environmental catastrophe they resorted to cannibalism has been strongly criticised  The debates around Easter Island's environment are complex, at the very least, Europeans incursions damaged the population after the supposed collapse.  

The researchers also dispute the claim that Easter Island's human inhabitants were responsible for their own demise. Instead, they think the culprits may have been Europeans, who brought disease and took islanders away as slaves, and rats, which quickly multiplied after arriving with the first Polynesian settlers.
"The collapse was really a function of European disease being introduced," Lipo said. "The story that's been told about these populations going crazy and creating their own demise may just be simply an artifact of [Christian] missionaries telling stories."
At a scientific meeting last year, Hunt presented evidence that the island's rat population spiked to 20 million from the years 1200 to 1300. Rats had no predators on the island other than humans and they would have made quick work of the island's palm seeds. After the trees were gone, the island's rat population dropped off to a mere one million.
Lipo thinks the story of Easter Island's civilization being responsible for its own demise might better reflect the psychological baggage of our own society than the archeological evidence.
"It fits our 20th century view of us as ecological monsters," Lipo said. "There's no doubt that we do terrible things ecologically, but we're passing that on to the past, which may not have actually been the case. To stick our plight onto them is unfair."


I would recommend  Rapa Nui/Easter Island: Blaming the victims -- Jared Diamond's myth of ‘ecocide’ which can be found at http://links.org.au/node/2591

Causation is problematic, even if the island did suffer degradation, was this self-induced and led to political collapse or did a failure of political institutions lead instead to less effective environmental management which caused deforestation.  Diamond should be commended for drawing attention to environmental problems in the past and he does briefly address the question of commons however right or wrong, he also illustrates, that environmental history is more than a parable of destruction.  Diamond's strong response to critics can be found here. Environmental sustainability throws up complex questions and the past while helping us to answer them does not automatically produce answers.

The word history implies a story and the stories historians tell can condition the ways they research history.  Narrative frames influence the questions asked and influence the conclusions made.  This book is of course conditioned by a narrative that of effective commons management and the enclosure of the commons by the rich and powerful.  Environmental sustainability has been treated using other narratives, for example, the notion of inevitable degradation as a result of growing population and exploitation is common.  Indeed Garrett Hardin's 'tragedy of the commons' is part of this view and is developed in Hardin's notion of 'lifeboat ethics'.  He argues that on a small planet like a small life boat, unless some passengers are thrown overboard the boat will sink and the planet with be wrecked.  Vicious exclusion is compassionate because compassion for all would mean extinction.  This bleak Malthusianism is countered by a narrative that of technological optimism, the assumption that market forces and scientific developments will allow more growth and sustained exploitation of the environment.  One of Diamond's critics, Benny Peiser is strong advocate of such an approach, suggesting that environmental concern is often exaggerated.  Such cornucopians argue that environmental problems have been over come by markets, technological advances and human ingenuity, therefore a laissez faire approach remains best.  Such an approach can be argued statistically as Lomborg has done in The Skeptical EnvironmentalistWilfred Beckermann uses the example of Victorian London to suggest that economic growth is sustainable and a market based approach is best.  He noted that the growth of traffic in the 19th century when horses where used for hackney cabs, the taxis of the day, should have led to the city being buried under horse dung.  But the move towards the combustion engine meant this fate was avoid.  Thus environmental problems are best left to the market and conscious intervention may be inappropriate.

Of course there are other ways of narrating environmental history.  While I would argue that there is good evidence of effective communal management of resources and a clear record of commons being destroyed with resulting environmental injustice, I am also aware that any narrative risks biasing the story told.  In turn, a neutral view, untainted by narrative is impossible

 I want to make suggestions for a more sustainable future but to also provide some healthy doubt.  The environmental history of the commons throws up useful questions we must ask ourselves if we are to enjoy a more sustainable future.  We need to discuss how environmental historians can continue to research the commons so we can learn more.  We need to ask why many environmental policies appear to be failing at present and the extent to which commons provide an alternative.  The question of a wider economy of social sharing which provides an alternative to extractivist capitalism is also a vital area of discussion.  Equally questions of how the threats to commons are countered and whether new commons can be sustained demands thought.  

Asking the right or at least better questions is important.

12 Feb 2012

Two events in Durham

Come along to the People's Bookshop to meet Derek Wall, eco socialist, writer and activist. It will be an informal gathering and a chance to quiz Derek about his latest book, 'The Rise of the Green Left' as well as discuss the future of green- left collaboration. Derek will be talking on 'Indigenous People and the Global Fight for Climate Justice' at Durham University in the evening (7.30, Elvet Riverside) and this is a not-to-be-missed be opportunity to nab him before, get a book or two signed and chew the fat with one of the foremost Green activists in the country.

I am book signing and drinking fair trade tea at the People's Bookshop, 69 Saddler Street, Durham tomorrow, 13th Feb from 4pm

And then on to Durham University to discuss 'indigenous and sustainability' with the Green Society.

Discussions may well continue in the pub after.

Catch some of you hopefully tomorrow.

7 Feb 2012

Lords could save squatting!

The artist Antony Gormley put forward a passionate defence of squattingat the launch of an exhibition in aid of the homeless on Tuesday morning.
Gormley, famous for his humanoid sculptures, notably the Angel of the North in Gateshead, said: "I'm very against the criminalisation of squatting – I think it's absolutely criminal that many inner city properties are empty.
"Squatting is a very good way of preserving properties while at the same time putting them to good use. It's a no-brainer that properties that are awaiting renovation or don't have commercial tenants can be of use for creative things, and indeed to provide shelter for the homeless."


Keeping property empty means that people go homeless.

Squatting of residential homes where people live, is of course, already illegal.

The Condems have worked up hysteria with the result that people will go on the streets and protest occupations could be made illegal.

Do lobby the Lords who will debate this on thursday.

I think the graphic while US based puts the point well!

This is from their briefing http://www.squashcampaign.org/docs/LASPO_Lords_Brief-SQUASH.pdf

Squatters’ action for Secure Homes is concerned about the impact on homeless and vulnerable people of criminalising squatting in residential properties, as proposed by Clause 130 of the LASPO Bill. We are joined by other organisations in thinking that Clause 130 is unjust, unnecessary, and unaffordable, and call on the Lords to oppose its inclusion in the Bill. Following a Ministry of Justice consultation in which 96% of respondents opposed criminalisation, the clause was added to the LASPO bill at the third reading in the House of Commons. It has not received proper scrutiny. Homeless Charity Shelter said: “we urge the government not to rush through new criminal laws in a knee-jerk reaction to high profile media stories”. We oppose Clause 130 on the following grounds: 1. unneceSSary People displaced from their homes by squatters are already fully protected by the existing law on squatting. The 1977 Criminal Law Act protects displaced residential occupiers (DROs) and protected intending occupiers (PIOs). Numerous groups, including the Law Society, the Metropolitan Police, and the criminal bar association, have stressed that further criminalisation is unnecessary. “The current law is comprehensive and effective   … the proposals in this consultation are based on misunderstandings by the media of the scale of the problem and a misunderstanding of the current law” Law Society “Repeated inaccurate reporting of this issue has   created fear for homeowners, confusion for the police and ill-informed debate among both the public and politicians on reforming the law”letter to The Guardian from 160 legal experts and lawyers. The coalition government have committed to “preventing the proliferation of unnecessary criminal offences.” SQuaSH believe that the criminalisation of squatting, provoked by media scare stories, contradicts this commitment.

5 Feb 2012

Vote Leanne Wood! Pleidleisiwch Leanne Wood

Leanne Wood would like Caroline Lucas and Salma Yaqoob count as a third brilliant women leader prepared to work for a green-left agenda.  I would urge all Plaid members to vote for her.

Hopefully the Green Party which works with Plaid as part of the same group in the European Parliament could work constructively to help put forward a joint agenda from anti-cuts to anti-war to pro-Welsh and environmental policies.

Mark Serwotka leader of the PCS union has like me endorse Leanne

Her leadership facebook page is here, go on give it a like.

Here is Leanne's pitch for leader from Red Pepper:

Our party has much of which it can be proud, including standing firm against Trident and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, delivering more devolved powers for Wales and providing an  alternative to the privatisation agenda. 
However, we still have much to do. I believe the time has now come to build the case for independence - not for its own sake, but in order to break the cycle of poverty and a weak economy which has left our nation as one of the poorest parts of Western Europe. In the current economic climate, this need is clearer than ever. 
Plaid Cymru is the only party that seeks independence for Wales. We know that there is a powerful economic argument for it, but we have not always communicated that case effectively. Only Plaid Cymru works to see Wales break out of its poverty and develop the inherent skills of our people in order to thrive and achieve our true potential. That ambition sets us distinctly apart from the British parties. I believe in our people, and am determined to offer leadership which fosters a sense of national confidence and ambition that is a precursor to renewed prosperity. 
The next step towards independence means placing Wales in a better position economically. In the short term, we must insist on financial fairness; in the long term, we need to put in place a robust economic infrastructure that can shelter us from future economic storms. 
Models from across the world show that we can create a thriving decentralised economy that is inherently Welsh, serving our people rather than the market; an economy in which co-operative and green ventures can thrive creating jobs for local people; an economy in which we can foster the enterprise of small businesses, community organisations and our workforce. Most importantly, a social economy that will distribute wealth fairly and combat crippling inequality. Devolving power and prosperity to our local communities is essential to ensuring true social justice. 
There has never been a better time for progressives in Wales to be in Plaid Cymru. For those who believe in economic justice, ecological resilience, true democracy, a bilingual Wales and independence, Plaid Cymru should be your home. By standing for the leadership I hope to lead and inspire a chorus of thousands of voices articulating a vision for our country. A vision of our Welsh nation speaking out confidently for our unique values, as an independent country, playing a constructive role in a family of nations across Europe and the world.

Imperialism Is the Arsonist: Marxism’s Contribution to Ecological Literatures and Struggles

Derek Wall ’s article entitled  Imperialism Is the Arsonist: Marxism’s Contribution to Ecological Literatures and Struggles , argues that Ma...