Open Letter on SFU Cafeteria Workers

March 13 2017

Dear President Petter,

On Friday, March 10, food service workers at SFU waited at the Diamond Alumni Centre for 45 minutes for representatives of SFU new food services provider, Sodexo, to show up for a meeting. Sodexo stood the workers up. When it became clear that reps from Sodexo would not show to the meeting, the workers, who received termination notices in February, were understandably distressed. Having received no commitment they would maintain their jobs, their union, or their contract from either the university or Sodexo, workers then decided to march to Strand Hall to see whether they might receive any assurances from you. You refused to meet them.

Under your leadership, SFU has branded itself as a socially compassionate and “engaged” institution. Yet in awarding the contract to Sodexo and not requiring successorship as part of the deal—which would have guaranteed workers their jobs, their union, and their contract—decisions taken at senior levels of the administration have imperilled the livelihoods and injured the dignity of some of the most vulnerable workers on our campus. While senior management in the upper echelons of the university administration make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year (partly thanks to contracts like Sodexo’s), these workers are among the lowest paid on campus. They have been forced to fight hard for whatever meagre security they used to have. Many have worked at SFU for decades, and most earn $16-$18 an hour (less than a living wage). More than half of these workers are women, a number of them are immigrants, and many are people of colour. If our university is genuinely committed to lifting people out of poverty, we need to start with workers in our community. As you yourself recently said, speaking at the “We are all SFU” event, it is “our common resolve to foster a university environment in which all members of our community feel valued and supported.”

You have the power to intervene and do the right thing, to make this statement more than mere rhetoric. Show us that you care. The university needs to see some “engagement” from you on this file.

Sincerely,

 

Daniel Ahadi, Communication

Robert Anderson, Communication

Ian Angus, Humanities

Ronda Arab, English

Yıldız Atasoy, Sociology

Jody Baker, Communication

Sam Black, Philosophy

Catherine Black, French

Nicholas Blomley, Geography

Enda Brophy, School of Communication

Jakub Burkowics, Sociology and Anthropology

John Calvert, Health Sciences

Elise Chenier, History

Marjorie Cohen, Political Science/Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies

Stephen Collis, English

Marela Dichupa, Education

Milena Droumeva, Communication

Samir Gandesha, Humanities

Carla Graebner, Librarian for Research Data Services and Government Information

Patricia Gruben, Contemporary Arts

Rick Gruneau, Communication

Robert Hackett, Communication

John-Henry Harter, History and Labour Studies

Holly Hendrigan, Liaison Librarian, Applied Sciences

Helen Hok-Sze Leung, Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies

Barry Honda, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry

Chris Jeschelnik, Communication

Sharon Koehn, Gerontology

Ena Lee, Education

Mark Leier, History

Carolyn Lesjak, English

Andrew Mack, International Studies

Gary McCarron, Communication

Kirsten McAllister, School Communication

Eugene McCann, Geography

Geoff Mann, Geography

Tamir Moustafa, International Studies

Gerardo Otero, International Studies

Roxanne Panchasi, History

Christopher Pavsek, School of Contemporary Arts

Stacy Pigg, Anthropology

Tony Power, Bennett Library

Lynne Quarmby, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry

Michael T Schmitt, Psychology

Jamie Scott, Molecular Biology & Biochemistry/Health Sciences

Ozlem Sensoy, Education

Malcolm Steinberg, Health Sciences

Kendra Strauss, Labour Studies Program

Rochelle Tucker, Health Sciences

Michele Valiquette, English

Habiba Zaman, Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies

 

 

In the name of what are we going to resist?

I am currently teaching a course on utopian literature. Considering the daily-updated, IRL dystopia we are presently living in, this is either the best timing possible, or the most ridiculous. Jury is out on that.

Opening social media right now is akin to peering through the gates of hell: all you can hear is the wailing of the tormented. Everyone I know is seriously freaking out—and for good reason. Legitimately, things in the U.S. look more and more like a white suprematist coup d’etat. There has been a purge in the State Department, with racist ideologues like Bannon appointed to the National Security Council. And then there’s the wall and the ban on Muslim immigration. Power is very clearly being centralized in a few hands, and these few would-be proto-dictators are testing the waters of ignoring the rule of law (i.e., ignoring the court ordered stay on the immigration ban). This is all too real, and must be fought tooth and nail.

But—in the name of what are we going to resist the current crisis? I hear again and again fears that we are in the “twilight of liberal democracy”—that liberal democratic systems and institutions are under attack, and must be staunchly defended. Due process, the rule of law, accountable government, etc. etc.—these are of course all good things, and they are indeed under threat—but are they our utopian hope in the face of the Trumpian dystopia?

The question is not only, are existing democratic systems enough to effectively combat Trump, but also, are they really what we cherish, value, depend upon and want?

Maybe I am being insensitive in even asking this, but Henry David Thoreau’s words have been on my mind of late:

“Is democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?”

Let’s remember a few things. A liberal democracy has been at war with much of the Muslim world for decades, created the Guantanamo Bay prison and has been conducting a covert drone war for years—extra judicial imprisonment and execution left and right. Liberal democracies oversaw the globalization of capitalism (further immiserating billions in the “developing world”), and drove the post-war “great acceleration” that has pushed the planet’s biosphere to the point of collapse (blissfully ignoring the global warming warnings that have grown louder and louder since the late 1980s). Liberal democracies have overseen the militarization of their police forces and rampant racial violence and draconian border policies.

So—I want to resist what’s happening here and now—I want to punch fascists in the face, really I do. But I think we need to take this opportunity to consider what it is we struggle in the name of, exactly. I think we need to consider Thoreau’s question again. And—it may turn out that asking what it is we struggle in the name of may also at once be a question about how, by what means, we go about this struggle.

As ever, what I am cheered by, inspired by, and truly find myself loving is the spontaneous, grass-roots resistance of the people taking to the streets and airports of this world, holding candlelight vigils outside beleaguered mosques, welcoming those seeking refuge whether their “democracies” allow this or not. The people united. The people engaged and enraged. The people finding the power, collectively, to organize a better world, from the ground up. This is where the thinking of for what and how we struggle can, and must, happen.

In my utopian lit class, we are reading William Morris’s News from Nowhere this week. I love Morris’s term for the historical transformation his utopia has undergone: “the clearing of the misery.” The social transformation has been a process of “clearing the misery”—the social and ecological “misery” the old world system built and depended upon (the new world order looks, pretty much, like an extensive project of “rewilding,” as well as being one in which such a thing as “government” more or less does not exist, as it is not needed).

If we can “clear the misery” of Trump’s America, we may find the misery we need to clear goes at lot deeper than what’s transpired in the past few weeks. I hope that’s the case. Meanwhile I will keep pondering Thoreau’s question.

We Knew This Was Coming

[Note: I assume there will be plenty of rational, measured, thoughtful commentary on and reaction to the Trudeau government’s decision on the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, when it finally comes. I’m choosing otherwise—I’m choosing poetry. But a poetry that exists somewhere between essay and poem, manifesto and elegy, screed and lament. I have for many years been writing poems entitled “Dear Common”—as addresses to a singularly plural everyone and no one, imagined as emanating from a similarly singularly plural everyone/no one (who sometimes nevertheless is, myself). I live near the sea. I thought of the whales. I began to write.]

*

DEAR COMMON: WATER IS LIFE

1

In a poem I will not have written sound waves bounce off ocean floor, acoustic disturbances of the undersound of tankers, propellers and engine noise. The whales and other marine creatures of this poem swim through, asking how do we keep the quotation marks around the “we” we proffer, temporary and tentative multiplicity we seem to keep needing, because of the blood some keep bleeding and too many ignore?

2

I am not writing about the US pipeline company which sued me last time I did so I don’t. I’m writing about the government which approves energy projects and momentarily will or won’t. I’m writing about the problem by which so-called democratic governance has been industry-captured, the problem which has seen all governments, more or less, take up the management of economic growth as the sole, or at least primary, function of government—to pre-empt all other areas of governmentality and administered social life. No one will really be surprised if the Government of Canada approves the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. It will still hurt though. The pain will be the clarity—government doesn’t care—not about us, not about Indigenous land claims, not about climate change. Pain is so often a form of clarity. I want to see clearly now.

3

In a poem I will not have written smoke will be a property of the sub marine world, oil will be everywhere like a second skin of the earth—this era would be a perpetual fire—even under water shells will dissolve and carapace be abandoned to sea flame flashing silver schools confused by blast ship detonations of deep sea seismic seabed testing—forced sonic waves on same frequency as whales and other marine mammals—sound from a single seismic blast (mapping fossil fuels beneath sea floor) can travel tens of thousands of kilometers under water blasts sound every ten seconds background submarine noise raised one hundred times disrupting foraging, avoiding predators, finding mates, navigating, communicating, the starving whales beaching whales tanker traffic and sound wave testing to get glittering plastic to get energy to get growth.

4

I want to hear what the whales are saying but they are drowned out and not part of the review process or what matters accumulating more matter. We are frightened. We are confused. We are torn. And “politics,” the media, social media feeds this and feeds on this.Amidst growing global environmental degradation, I feel our world spiralling towards some terrible conclusion. Waiting with baited breath for a government pronouncement that sounds more or less like “for your viewing pleasure we present—the apocalypse!” is no process we should engage in anymore. Here in Canada Trudeau cannot have “action on climate change” and any new fossil fuel pipeline. Period. They are mutually exclusive. This is not politics—it’s math. Let’s not wait hopeful or fearful for government decisions anymore. Let’s plan and make our own, k?

5

In a poem I will not have written every word I’ve ever spoken will return to my mouth from the most recent all the way back to the first word I ever spoke—at night the sea will look the same, its silence will be difficult to discern, is it a whale or a wail? Sound waves of our searching to burn will ricochet on long after all the little bangs we banged, no sexual light will foam a goddess ashore on clam shell skiff though tiny beasts may yet love us—the revolt of the living to its last dying days will be the story carried on sub sub frequencies I twist the dial of the poem I will not have written to tune in the under commons I have no access to but love is a radio too I’ll be up all night tuning.

6

The clarity of pain. The blood of the earth seemed to be flowing everywhere—train car, pipeline, drone attack. There were cries from stones, mountains and rivers. Cries for climate and the long, slow unfolding tangled living of everything folded together unending. There are now more clearly than ever two cultures I cannot help but see as irreconcilable. Two cultures—one saying some version of stay the course because, economy, vs one saying we have to make radical changes now because, environment and everything else. Limitless growth, vs limits to growth. The only ones really saying “we can have both” are the ones trying to persuade some of category 2 to go along with category 1, because greed is boundless and entirely un-self-aware.

I fear it’s that simple. Has become this stark. We can crash, or crash land. Choose. All our “leaders” are choosing crash, they are doubling down, the racists, misogynists, and billionaires winning election, appointing their billionaire, racist, misogynist buddies to posts of denial, deregulation, and lower taxation, and the mounting signs of rapid and extreme climate change, the unfolding sixth extinction, economic precarity and the precariousness of most economies, unfolding wars over oil and other resources, the growing numbers of the displaced and dispossessed—the “13  impossible crises,” all heralding the crash our “leaders” are either ignoring or inciting.

Maybe we, if we would be part of the other culture, will choose instead to crash land—our only other choice left. It’s too fearful to be chosen by our vote-manipulating “leaders”—but we, what have we left to lose? Begin immediate abandonment of fossil fuel energy system, replacement of this with renewable energy system on smaller local scale, necessitating as well the curbing of consumption and the re-localization of the vast majority of our economic activities and habits, food and otherwise. Re-localize as well our social power taking the important decisions into the hands of those most directly affected by said decisions—autonomy and the commune are life. Allow no new industry or development that does not pass the localized criteria: how does this project benefit those whose lands it immediately impacts? Return to the Indigenous what was once Indigenous, and the rest will find new collaborative and cohabitory possibilities as we build again from the land up, lighter and interdependently. Recall at every instant that this earth was not made for human life alone or especially for those with the biggest budgets but is a common treasury coevolved for all life to enjoy its full ecological extension to natural limits.

7

In a poem I will not have written I remain hopeful. From North Dakota the cry rises again—WATER IS LIFE! Marine creatures singing one to another between undersea noise of increasing tanker traffic and seismic testing of blast ships desperately looking for scarcer and scarcer fossil fuel deposits hear and call back WATER IS LIFE! From ocean and river, lake and stream-side so many creatures human and otherwise heed and shout WATER IS LIFE! In this poem I will not have to have written any government decision that thinks it knows what is best but is best so blatantly painfully and clearly only for business as usual will be drowned out by the cries of a new world crashing into existence shouting WATER IS LIFE!

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving to Remain: the Refugee Tales

I hardly know where to begin or what to say.

This past week I walked, with some days as many as 120 people, 60 miles from Canterbury to London, passing through Faversham, Rochester, Gravesend and Dartford. We were former detainees (refugees and asylum seekers) from various parts of Africa, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, China and Nepal. We were the supporters and friends of those former detainees. And we were people trying to understand a world of tightening borders, increasing precarity, and hostile environments.

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This was the Refugee Tales. The point was to be pilgrims together. To eat sleep and walk together day after day, sharing stories—stories of imprisonment, torture, slavery and escape—stories of survival, loss, persistence, and love. The stories are vessels, magic bags we put all the pain into and lightly sling on our backs, so we step softly, and the road, no matter how long hard or hot, is travelled in joy—collectively—by a community that knows it contains multitudes, can bear much together.

I’m shown a piece of paper—a form the ex-detainee must carry at all times, as he or she awaits an uncertain fate—imprisonment once again, deportation, or—possibly, occasionally—leave to remain. It informs you that this is “a person liable to be detained.” Liable. At any time. It takes its place amongst the history of such markers—brands on skin, yellow badges. It creates a category—the liable to be detained—that in our increasingly militarized states, in which a constant cut is being made between lives that matter and lives that do not—seems potentially limitless. Who, now, is not liable to be detained?

We know who is not. The white skinned, for the most part. The wealthy. But the ground is shifting quickly beneath our feet. The liable-to-be-out-of-work, the liable-to-be-impoverished, are turned by governments and media against the liable to be detained. Thus Brexit. Thus all the Trumps that are the swirling vortices of desperation and despair. The Refugee Tales project sets up its nightly camp, walks by day across this very territory that is being split—embodies a spirit that will not be split apart, turned one against another.

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One night as I made ready to bed down in a church hall with several dozen men, I stood talking to two of my companions. One, an Eritrean, told of his escape from military service, the desperate crossing of the Sahara, imprisonment and slave labour in Libya to “pay” for his “safe” passage. The terrible crossing of the Mediterranean months later, and his detention in the UK after he finally arrived there. “Eight months detained,” he said, “no sleep. Pills. No sleep. I come here—sleep well. No pills. Sleep. Here—I have brothers.” To be this gorgeous, strong, and joy-filled man’s brother—just for a week to be his brother—is all that I could wish for.

Of course, after this week I return to my home and family and “normal” life; he does not. There is no immediate way around this difference. From different sides, we must chip away at this border—at all borders. We must lift and carry each other’s stories forward. Stories and poems will not dissolve borders, but them may help us find a path across, help others find the path across, or lead us to the point at which we can and will stand up to those imposing borders, and collectively, with our hands, pull them down.

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Perhaps there is something of a paradox here, in the relationship between story and border. That the border is just a story in the end (the story that says we do not have enough, and that the other from without will take away the little we have, if we do not resist them), and that another story might unmake the border (the other is our guest and sharing with them means they will share with us and we will all grow stronger together). Leave to remain—another paradox at the heart of this issue. And another story. Everywhere in this world, throughout history, human beings have been leaving (where they were) in order to remain (alive). In our brief lives, it’s all we can do—leaving to remain a little longer together.

At the core of the Refugee Tales is a group of some of the most powerful, persistent, and generous women I have ever encountered. They are of all ages, though “mature” is perhaps the best word for most of them. They see the world for what it is, they feel its suffering deeply, and they act, warmly, firmly, without hesitation. They are the leaders of the Refugee Tales. Where could you possibly find women so consistently and unfathomably strong, I wondered? Everywhere, it turns out. Everywhere in social movements, women do the real work of holding borders open, of welcoming hosts, of pointing the way down the path. I want to name some of them here. I cannot remember them all, will not get all their names right, but want to name them here, haphazardly, because they are the movement, and this short note is just a dedication to them:

Anna and Avril and Chris and Christina and Rachael and Josephine and Sal and Nicky and Pi and Lucy and Sarah and Marieke and Thandu and Ufuoma and Patience and Alice and Jes and so many more.

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Walkers
why are there
country and
countries?

I mean—the rural
the spaces any of us
might strike out across
at any moment

Despite the countries
we may be nationed
in or from
and despite cities

If we walk far enough
we still find the
country if not
any countries

You see it is
the way boundaries
beget desires
to be unbound

That I am speaking of
in Kent—that greeny flower
that is no nation
but a pathway

For shared walking
escape across which
we strike out again
to be unbound we

All would be unbound
at the very moment
we tie ourselves one
to another once again

 

The Clearing of the Misery

When the National Energy Board of Canada approved Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion on May 19, like most people, I was far from surprised. But strangely, I was also somewhat uplifted that day. Buoyant even. Maybe I’m becoming deluded, I don’t know.

It’s just that the system did exactly what the system is designed to do: expand the web and capacity of fossil capital, regardless of public opposition, democratic process, infringed indigenous rights, or the science of climate change. Stupid is as stupid does, and I doubt there’s ever been anything in this world quite as dumb as the accumulation of more of everything for the sake of accumulating more of everything.

At that moment, it didn’t matter. The NEB, whichever government (Harper’s or Trudeau’s) hell bent on expanding the tar sands—it just didn’t matter. All this feels part of a world that is so patently of the past, redundant now, finished. I’m not saying pipelines won’t get built—they might still. I’m not saying fossil fuels are done like dinner—though they have never looked more vulnerable to system change. I’m just saying something feels different now, and this has an upside and a downside—no doubt a few other sides too.

On the UP SIDE, I’m reasonably confident that we are now indeed living in the early days of a transition away from fossil fuels and towards some amalgam of renewable energy sources. I’ve got no hard evidence for this—it’s a gut feeling—but it’s based on what feels like a tipping point in how the media is covering the issues, the sort of weary inevitability that reporters and even industry executives seem to be meeting the constant grass roots resistance and ever-present call for climate action. Maybe I’m in an alternative media bubble, but it seems different now. The Fort McMurray fires are part of this. Floods in Europe. Everything now is openly linked to acknowledged climate change, by both the majority of media outlets and even most government officials. Where climate change would have been ignored or angrily dismissed before, now it seems an inevitable part of our lives—not a ghost of summers to come, but a spectre haunting the hot and dry present. Again, maybe I’m deluded, but the nay-sayers seem to be losing.

Ok. DOWNSIDE NUMBER ONE. I think it’s too late. Climate change is already happening and no matter what we do now some amount of destructive warming is here and its effects will be a part of the rest of our lives, our children’s lives, and—if they have children—their children’s lives too. Global temperatures are hitting 1.5 already, sooner than expected, and should shoot past 2 degrees global warming before too long. Oceans will rise, inundating coastal communities. Deserts will expand at the hearts of continents. Food scarcity will be a real issue felt by almost everyone (though the most marginalized and impoverished will of course feel it first), and more and more people will be displaced, the number of those in search of climate refuge swelling into the many millions. Fires, storms, flooding, drought, etc. etc.

This even if my rosy prediction is right and we are indeed on the cusp of starting a transition away from our fossil fuel dependence. This even if we, in a few short decades (best case scenario—it really will take time), stop investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure and instead invest public funds in renewable energy, phase out the tar sands, replace fossil fuel driven cars with electric ones and light rail in our cities, etc. etc.

I think the beginning of a transition is probable largely because of DOWNSIDE NUMBER TWO: capitalism keeps doing what it’s doing as long as it finds a way to keep being profitable, and fossil fuels are on their way to not being profitable anymore (at least this appears to be the case in Canada already, a fact for now being ignored by irrational corporations and their elected supporters). Once the profit rate on business as usual falls low enough, business will move on to something more profitable (those electric cars are starting to look pretty good after all). So downside number two is that, even if we are managing to force the world towards an energy transition, and leaving aside downside number one for a minute, we may rid ourselves of fossil fuels but not the capitalist logic that led to the adoption of fossil fuels in the first place. This leads me to:

UPSIDE NUMBER TWO. As we struggle to deal with the effects of climate change—with food scarcity, mass displacement, extreme weather damage and avoidance of climate impacts (which may involve large scale migrations), the capitalist system will continue to show itself ill-equipped to deal with these challenges. Thus there is still—even if capital does what capital does, and rebuilds itself once again in its own image, only as “green capital” this time—there is still a real opportunity, even a demand, to toss private property, the profit motive, the wage and all the rest to the curb as we come together to deal collectively with the crisis capitalism has created. In other words, we are in the midst of being thrown from the frying pan into the fire; now, what mid-air acrobatics are we yet capable of? Who would rather some other landing place than the flames beneath the pan?

I’m sitting right now with an old book open in my lap. It is William Morris’s 1890 utopian novel News from Nowhere. In the future, after long social struggle and a revolution, our narrator is taken through a radically transformed London. Trafalgar Square has lost its imperial column and is now an orchard, as the city has gone through a sort of re-wilding known as “The Clearing of the Misery” (commemorated every May Day “in those easterly communes of London”)—a process which amounts to an erasure of the distinction between the urban and the rural, the town and the country—as in the absence of a “World-Market,” communities have had to learn how to be as locally self-sufficient, and thus as ecologically self-sustaining, as possible.

In short, Morris offers an image of entwined and interdependent social and ecological transformation. Trafalgar Square, we learn, was where the struggle really began—with a direct confrontation between the state and protestors. And now Trafalgar Square blooms with an orchard—rather than “beastly monuments of fools and knaves”—revealing its carefully managed provisioning of the local commune.

While the NEB does what the NEB is designed to do, and while the Trudeau government goes on doing what industry tells it to do, I find myself dreaming about those sites of struggle—the Burnaby Mountains, Westridge Marine Terminals, Burrard Inlets and tar sands—that may be the sites of future orchards—after the Clearing of the Misery that is fossil capital.

Field Notes: Boundary Bay

Boundary Bay Park—stretch of brush grassland and shrub alongside the sea. Ducks and ducklings in the slough. Poppies, beach pea and larkspur on the side of the dyke. Sky an argument between kinds of cloud and blue scraps of empty. Adult bald eagle pursued there by murder of crows—juvenile eagle follows shortly after, its slow flight over my head, wings scooping the air like it meant to dig a hole there. Tree swallows diving after bugs—and a single chipping or lark sparrow, black stripes slashing horizontal across its head, flits in bramble.

The honey red green gold glitter of the grasses is almost too much. Absolutely enamoured of the grass, its shimmering multiplicity this time of year. Wild apple finished bloom. Foxglove. Hardhack’s pink tufts rising up. A week or two ago the smell of the scotch broom overpowered. Now the air is more diverse. In some spots blackberry just beginning to bloom, bramble heaps everywhere, white froth atop curving canes. Rabbit’s round stillness in the grass fringe of bramble. Another tiny one startled, brown mottle and white tail, hops under low bramble. I squat to see the perfect round and miniature arch in dry grass that is her door.

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Another bird in near distance, white belly of a raptor flying low and slow—a peregrine? I scramble for better view but it is behind trees—birch and cottonwood—another small bird singing like mad up into the sky and then straight back down into brambles. Quailish sounds. Falcon/hawk again, closer. Low flyer, hunting. White or light brown under wings and belly. Small and snub. Wings up in V as she glides. Northern harrier? Gyrfalcon? I think harrier.

Bulrushes. Sandy patches of ground that mark the formerness of the moving sea edge. So much diverse birdsong I cannot identify—until the red winged blackbird’s song rises long and slow above the medley. Wild roses. Old driftwood tangled in the brush. Walking crow. Then a heron’s prehistoric honk. See the blackbird perched above low marshy swale full of bulrushes. He beeps, lifts a wing to preen, red shoulder flashed or flag held to follow. Blackberry blossoms beneath him. Takes flight to chase off a crow, then he and a female to ground beneath the bulrushes—nest?

Sign nearby credits Dr. Brink for the park’s formation. Brink Wildlife Preserve. Something about that—brink. Edge. Close to collapse. Blackbird horn and hoot. I start back.

Winding path of an earthworm on hard sandy trail at the end of which lies the worm, exhausted and cooked I imagine, like a link of chocolaty dough rolled in coarse sugar. I’ve missed the anthills, too busy with the birds. Another rabbit frozen by the trailside. We co-regard a good while. She begins to eat the grass.

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Earlier in life, my reading would have me thinking Tat Tvam Asi—thou art that. Interconnectedness. Later, my Marxist mind would be elsewhere, somewhere purely social, with a radical friend saying, to provoke, “I hate nature,” absorbed only in the human struggle. Now I think in terms of the Biotariat—that all life is now the material out of which capital fashions value, makes profit (whether human labour, the material of all and any species of flora and fauna, “natural resources,” ecosystems, any stretch of mineraled earth or underland), and that we must rise now as emissaries of life writ large, not its masters or separately ensconced social structures.

Walking in this tiny and unremarkable locale, haunt of my spring and summer days thinking and writing, place where Indigenous villages used to line the bay, and where many thousand year old midden heaps still stand, blackberries growing thick on their humps—place that then was a farm (some remnants of snake fence), then a park—a brink—this is where and why to decolonize and stop pipelines and abolish fossil fuels and the capitalism they have long powered. In the name of unremarkable, everyday, local and diverse life and the spaces life forms and is formed by.

Birds, rabbits, and rushes told me so. I move on in their company, this expanded commune.

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We didn’t start the fire: Some notes on Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital

The day Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was proclaiming that new oil pipelines will pay for the country’s transition to a green economy, I was just finishing reading Andreas Malm’s excellent Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (Verso 2016). Like many, the first analogy I drew upon in response to the Prime Minister’s words was that of someone announcing their plans to become a vegetarian, by eating as much steak as possible during their dietary “transition.”

Of course, the situation is more serious than that, and Malm’s book is an excellent place to dig into just how serious—in terms of the history of the structural problem we now face, and the drastic measures needed to do anything about it. I will offer a few notes here on Malm’s argument, before returning to Trudeau and our present “choice” (framed by many as “Paris or pipelines”).

Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital is the kind of book that should change the way the climate justice movement thinks, as well as the way we understand the entwined development of capitalism and the origins of global warming over the past two centuries. That’s certainly the ambition of a 400 page, thoroughly researched book of surprisingly readable and entertaining political economy. Let me summarize what I think are Malm’s main two points, before fleshing them out a little more.

  • First, the steam engine and the turn to fossil fuels did not ignite the Industrial Revolution; that transformation had already begun, largely based on water power, decades before steam power came to dominate production (in the 1830s and 40s—long after Watt’s supposedly epoch-marking invention in 1775). The shift to fossil fuels was a tactical choice made by capitalists seeking victory in their struggle with labour power.
  • Second, and following from this first point, fossil capital—the inextricable welding of capitalist property relations to fossil fuel energy, and thus climate change as well—is the result of a (relatively) few wealthy and powerful capitalists attempting to subdue the recalcitrant and riotous labouring masses through the parallel subjection of nature. This leads Malm to argue against the “Anthropocene narrative,” in which deadly climate change is the marker and fault of “human activity” writ large; to the contrary, and importantly, climate change is the marker and fault of inequality and the dominance of the few over the many: “Steam won because it augmented the power of some over others” (267). Power (energy) and power (social influence) are inextricably linked—“they constituted each other” (19)—and our energy system, and thus our speedy approach to the global warming abyss, has everything to do with who is at the wheel—despite and in fact regardless of the fact of our general “complicity” as consumers.

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Ok. I can’t possibly do justice to this nuanced argument in the space I’m allowing myself here, but let’s look just a little deeper.

First, on Malm’s somewhat counter-intuitive revelation that the industrial revolution did not begin its course powered by the steam engine and thus the burning of fossil fuels, but in fact began on entirely renewable water power. Coal powered steam engines did not triumph over water wheels in Britain until the economic crises, and attendant labour struggles, of 1825-1848. Water was neither scarce nor difficult to attain. It was free and plentiful (unlike coal, which had to be mined, bought, and transported). The advantage of the steam engine was its portability—to the city, where pools of surplus labour could be tapped, and where labour could be watched, organized, and disciplined—in other words, completely subsumed into the production process.

The “transition”—from the “flow” (wind and water) to the “stock” (coal and eventually oil and gas)—and this is the subject of much of Malm’s book—was not driven by necessity, scarcity, the profit margin or any other argument that has dominated this narrative. No—the choice had one deciding factor: the stock gave the capitalists a leg up on labour—allowed them in fact to better discipline, dominate and exploit labour—and that was the deciding factor in its triumph over the flow. “The transition to steam in the British cotton industry occurred in spite of the persistent superior cheapness of water” (91). Furthermore, the full exploitation of water as an industrial energy source required close cooperation between capitalists (in the building of shared reservoirs, canals, etc. etc.). But a system based on private property and strict, intense competition driven by the profit motive could not abide such cooperation. Coal, and the steam driven factory, allowed the capitalist independence, private ownership of power, and full-throttled competition. “Grow by burning or die” (257) became the imperative. Self-sustaining growth (growth the only purpose of which is further growth) was “an emergent property of capitalist property relations” (263), which latched onto fossil fuels as the chief means of guaranteeing this growth.

[C]apital prevailed over labour in the key industry of the British economy [cotton]—smashed the unions, re-established proper hierarchy, extracted more output out of fewer workers at lower cost—by means of power, in the dual sense of the word. Only the mobilization of that source [coal] made it possible for the cotton capitalists to begin the process of salvaging profits at the expense of labour (68).

Economic crises and quickly progressing urbanization meant there was a steady and desperate supply of labour in towns and cities, “radically enhancing the spatial advantage of steam” over water (150). Steam also bested water because of the demands of the machinery steam enabled: “the power loom demanded of its minders utter resignation to the diktat of the machine” (151). A water mill, typically situated on a river in the country, relied on labourers who often had better things to do than attend machinery (like tend their small vegetable plots, or take in the hay when the season came). Furthermore, to encourage labour to come to or stay near country water mills, employers often had to assist labourers with housing and the like, and pay them an attractive wage. In the town and city, the only connection between capital and labour was the wage, and labour could be dismissed or hired entirely at the capitalist’s whim.

There is, of course, a self-sustaining feedback loop between fossil fuels and mechanical/technological innovation—a feedback loop that has evolved to become the primary driver of capitalism and, naturally, one of Malm’s major concerns. “A shadow of resistance,” Malm writes, “followed virtually every new machine rolled out in the Industrial Revolution” (222). The more labour resisted, the more capital turned to the machine and steam power to subdue labour and intensify production.

“One of the great paradoxes of mechanization is that it always produces new dependencies on human labour” (264)—thus, while mechanization might lead to labour reduction at one level (the machine doing the work formerly performed by the human being), it increases it at another (humans still have to make the new machines). This impels capital to once again enter the struggle against labour (for instance, in recent decades moving most of global production to China—and then blaming China for the increased carbon it has pumped out while allowing global capital to exploit its incredibly cheap pools of captive labour). AND—this is crucial—capital’s mechanized struggle with labour leads directly to climate change:

Fossil capital … is self-expanding value passing through the metamorphosis of fossil fuels into CO2 (290).

For Malm—and I think he’s right—the “Anthropocene” masks the reality of class struggle behind global warming and leaves us unsure as to how to respond to the world “we,” supposedly, have created: “The trope of the undifferentiated we does violence to the historical record” (392). Malm prefers “Capitalocene,” which is a little awkward; I prefer the straightforward “Geophysical Capitalism.” The point is the same—our economic system has reached a phase of near total exploitation of human and natural “resources,” and thus simultaneously near total global environmental impact of the unequal and radically exploitative accumulation of capital.

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Let’s get back to Trudeau and the idea that we can build fossil fuel pipelines—and continue to tap the tar sands—while somehow “fuelling” the transition to renewables. Malm has a good explanation o the problem here too.

Because the outlay in fixed capital is so expensive, large mines (think: tar sands) and related infrastructure (think: pipelines) must be used for long periods of time before they become profitable. At a moment when what we absolutely do not have is a long time to continue burning fossil fuels, the financial locking-in of such infrastructures cannot happen. There is no “transition period” that includes expanded fossil fuel production, and anyone suggesting there is is either deluded or lying. The transition begins by replacing such infrastructure, now and on a very large scale, or it does not meaningfully happen at all. The choice is not even “Paris or pipelines.” It’s, the planet or the void. And the choice is ours.

The problem is that—and Trudeau, as Harper before him, is the mouthpiece for this view—“for the involved capital, that would be tantamount to an asteroid impact obliterating a whole planet of value” (359)—and capital cannot and will not “agree” to the sort of “planned recession” and massive re-structuring that is needed; it must be forced. And the governments speaking the language of growth, green or otherwise, must also be forced—because as long as they champion pipelines they are championing the wealth and power of the few at the expense of everyone else. A real and rapid transition is not inconceivable—“There are just some people standing in the way” (360).

All this is to say that Malm, like Naomi Klein, whose This Changes Everything he cites approvingly, points to a broad-based, expanding and global grassroots social movement as the only real way of forcing “an immediate return to the flow” (367). Climate change is “a lifting of the veil on two centuries of fossil capital”—and “global warming is itself the sum of lost causes” that have resisted capital’s rise and global expansion—commoners, luddites, unions, Zapatistas, Indigenous land defenders and all the rest—to whose struggles we can and must now once again return ourselves (393). The consequences of inaction are too terrible to entertain. Malm concludes by quoting Walter Benjamin: “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious”—because there will be none left living to remember the dead.