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Notes Towards a Manifesto of the Biotariat

In a poem called “Almost Islands” (which riffs off of John Donne’s famous “no man is an island” passage), collected in my book To the Barricades (Talon Books 2013), I proposed a new social body: the biotariat. Here’s the relevant part of the (rather long) poem.

People of earth
there are no islands now
the planet is peninsular
jutting in space
one blue-green growing
brown orb attached to
disease we’ve made in
threshold song no
isolato on genetic shores

How does the predator
become the trustee?
Musk gesture pheromone
or mode of socio-economic
production—no species
no island for flit
of swallow’s blue-green
back rustle of genetics
in the ditch we probably dug

The next revolution
is what culture will teach
we can and can’t do
as system’s feedback loop
grabbing the red flag
spore poppy claw
of the biotariat
and heading off into
the weeds developers
left back of decay

It’s easy enough to throw an invented term into a line of poetry. In this fairly philosophical and speculative post, I would like to take the opportunity to begin to flesh this idea out just a little.

1. When we compare humans to animals in terms of mistreatment (“they were treated like animals”—in Gaza or Syria or the Sudan or…), we mean no disrespect to animals; we mean only that animals, including human beings, are often mistreated, exploited, and accorded no dignity. These processes are increasingly systematized and totalized.

2. First, a provisional definition. The biotariat: that portion of existence that is enclosed as a “resource” by and for those who direct and benefit from the accumulation of wealth. So: workers and commoners; most animals and plants, including trees and forest and grassland ecosystems; water; land, as it provisions and enables biological life; minerals that lie beneath the surface of the land; common “wastes” and “sinks” too, into which the waste products of resource production and use are spilled—the atmosphere and the oceans. It’s that large. The enclosed and exploited life of this planet.

3. Is it possible to politicize life as such? To—even conceptually—imagine its “class composition”? To read it—cross biotically—as social? I believe that current world conditions push us in this direction—make this an unavoidable move.

4. This is the reason to propose a biotariat: the enclosure and exploitation of life, in all its manifold aspects (from boreal forests to sea turtles to Bangladeshi garment workers to the homeless of the world’s major cities to sex trade workers to the coral reefs and so forth and so on), has reached a stage in which “we”—all of life—are in the same desperate and drunken boat—constrained there by a system of total and planetary accumulation that even the term “capitalism” perhaps cannot adequately capture anymore. In what sense is this “economics”—this means of the production of financial inequality that systemically impacts and imperils life itself?

5. Some key terms. Commons: the shared, widely understood; that which life requires access to in order to persist; that limited resource which is “managed”—either through ecological checks and balances, or human-generated customs—in order to be available for continued use. Enclosure: the privatization of the commons for exclusive access and use, for purposes of private profit generation, typically in ways with little regard to the resource’s sustainability.

“The urban proletariat were commoners without a commons,” writes Peter Linebaugh—displaced by enclosure. So the biotariat is life without a common (shared, open, non-privatized) support for life itself.

6. Enclosure, Peter Linebaugh notes (in Stop, Thief!), involves at once the “taking of land and the taking of bodies.” Linebaugh is noting the historical convergence of the enclosure of common lands and the “body snatchers” who stole and murdered commoners and other poor people to provide cadavers for the burgeoning medical schools of early nineteenth century England. But we can extend this analysis to the “taking of land” from indigenous people under colonization (and the extension of colonization into the current era of extreme resource extraction) and the “taking of bodies” evident in both the residential school system and the vast numbers of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. Going even further, the “taking of land” becomes almost total under current conditions, where the entire surface of the earth and its atmosphere too functions either as “productive resource” or sink for waste products (including carbon emissions), and the “taking of bodies” includes the capture of nearly all animals in factory farms, zoos, or “nature reserves.”

But again—how can we politicize life as such?

7. The Gaia hypothesis proposes that the earth is a single, self-regulating complex system, integrating biological, atmospheric, and inorganic subsystems. With the biotariat, I would imagine a politicized version of this hypothesis—the earth as planetary commons, all life as constituting the commoners who depend upon access to the planetary commons. This would be to project not a divine earth goddess (Gaia), but earth as a repressed commons, lowly, leveled, and exploited. Not as singularity, but as the multitude of life, coming, under the impetus provided by globalization and climate change, into a new and necessary solidarity.

8. The politicization of life as such, and thus the calling to arms of the biotariat, depends upon a willingness to accept “a definition of politics as a political ecology and a notion of publics as human-nonhuman collectives that are provoked into existence by a shared experience of harm.” This is Jane Bennett, from her book Vibrant Matter. The perspective of the biotariat requires “taking the side of things” (parti pris des choses—Francois Ponge), or what Bennett describes as

“Dogged resistance to anthropomorphism…. I will emphasize, even overemphasize, the agentic contributions of nonhuman forces (operating in nature, in the human body, and in human artifacts) in an attempt to counter the narcissistic reflex of human language and thought.”

9. To recognize that the commons is more than a system of social reproduction—that it in fact is a system of ecological sustainability, writ large, into which human social reproduction fits. So—commoning, as a verb, is what all life does—a process and an action upon which all life depends. The proposition of a biotariat calls a new collective identity into being, a new common subjectivity formed by life itself.

10. To acknowledge the biotariat is to conjoin Marxist and ecological analysis (I’m obviously not the first to suggest this synthesis): not only workers are exploited in this system—all of life is exploited in its totality. “Natural resources,” just as much as the human resources of labour force, are the resources capitalism exploits in the accumulation process. As counterpoint, Linebaugh notes that “The activity of commoning is conducted through labor with other resources; it does not make a division between ‘labor’ and ‘natural resources.’” On the commons, human and natural resources are co-implicated in the process of ecological reproduction. Capitalism separates them and, anthropocentrically, even capitalism’s critics have maintained the separation of (human) labour and (natural) resources. We need to return to an analytic based in the common fact of life as such—its reproduction, human and (interdependently) otherwise.

11. From the enclosure of common lands and the dispossession of commoners, leaving them with no means of survival outside of the wage, to the colonization (i.e., outright theft) of indigenous territories the world over, the extent of capitalism’s enclosures has only grown. Next comes the industrialization of agriculture, the meat factories many animals now live short entire lives in, the rendering of much of the landscape outside of cities a single, giant “open pit” from which “resources” are stripped, to genetic modification and the introduction of “man-made” petroleum products, chemicals, and pesticides into all ecosystems and all life forms the planet over. The “class” threatened by this system now—the class that is repressed and exploited for profit—is, indiscriminately, all of life (both present and past, when we consider the extraction of fossil fuels).

12. What can “we”—the biotariat—do? How can you “organize” life as such in resistance to totalized, planetary capitalist exploitation? This isn’t Animal Farm, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, or a Tolkien tale in which an army of trees will join us on the battlefield. I don’t have an answer to these pressing questions—but I will offer some speculation in future posts. For now, I will only suggest that organizing on a common ground with all of life—resisting capitalism from the position of life itself (rather than one human class or social subsection)—draws together a number of strands of current global resistance—from indigenous land resistance through climate justice movements to new urban occupations and the organization of migrant rights—all of which might be reconceived and reinvigorated as the resistance of the commons of life to the new and massive enclosures of total subsumption and a totalized global capitalism.

13. William S. Burroughs once proclaimed, “Death needs life for what it kills to grow in.” Now we might say, capitalism needs life for what it kills to grow in. And so we—the biotariat—are now enclosed in one massive factory, our bodies ground into profit.

14. It’s the only way to end this first foray. Biotarians of the world unite—the only thing you have to lose is your chains!

Tent City Commons

Oppenheimer Park, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories, is currently being occupied by a tent city. The homeless and housing activists, led by indigenous activists, have taken the park amidst an ongoing housing crisis. Vancouver’s annual homeless count recently found its highest number of homeless people ever, and the city’s definition of “affordable housing” is, to put it mildly, a farce. This is quite simply a city in which living on welfare (or even being on employment insurance or being underemployed) is untenable. So—people have taken the park.

The city has served an eviction notice, and park rangers and police officers arrived early on the morning of July 21. In an interesting turn of events, First Nations representatives in turn served the City of Vancouver with their own eviction notice—to leave these unceded territories. Post haste.

When a city cannot, and in fact refuses, to deal responsibly with its most marginalized peoples, and when the very nature of “public space” becomes the heart of the discussion around social sustainability, I am reminded of the commons. Private/public becomes a dichotomy that the commons escapes—because the commons is neither public nor private—it’s common. And that means it’s part of the provisioning of life we collectively depend upon and are responsible for, and to which we all should have access as a human right (a right to decent housing, a right of access to the satisfaction of basic human needs). When neither the city’s private nor its public space is adequately providing for people, the absence of the common is most acutely felt.

In writing on the history of the commons and enclosure (the theft of the commons from people whose livelihoods depended upon it), Peter Linebaugh notes that the city was always at least in part enclosed already. Of necessity, it was the place of markets and potential profit making, of private homes and “stores” of “goods.” Linebaugh, in Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance, writes,

“The walls which once defended the city from enemies coming from the countryside now were interiorized to enclose urban wealth from the creation of commons in the city by workers who had lost their commons in the country” (26)

The Downtown Eastside has a disproportionate number of indigenous people who have indeed been thrown off their traditional lands “in the country”—suffering the enclosure of their territories for purposes of resource extraction—only to find themselves doubly enclosed in the city, where adequate jobs are scarce and rents are sky-high due to the generation of massive wealth through property speculation (often in waves of gentrification, displacing the marginalized from formerly “affordable” neighbourhoods). Where is the space for the commons in a city like Vancouver? That is, what can we share here, and what can we, collectively, have a share in? What space is there for such sharing, and for maintaining ourselves and our communities through such acts of mutual aid?

Or, as too often seems the case, is this a city for the rich only—a city in which no one shares, unless they can pay the exorbitant price of elite membership?

Day by day, the camp at Oppenheimer Park grows. There are more than 30 tents now. In the heart of this, one of the least affordable cities in the world, the demand for the commons has been raised again. Now, as the old saying goes, whose side are you on?

(Updated Wednesday July 23)

Reading Wordsworth in the Tar Sands

We were walkers
In a dangerous time
Of storm and thaw
Took damage in our
Stride—the vacant
Air the wildered mind
Ensnares—beat down
And scraped clean of the
Burden of overwhelming
Being—a voice here
Intervenes as if a
Common property of the
Formality of these lines—
The new garden relieves
The overburden of
Merely growing things
Scrapes the earth clean
Of organism—dirty paint
From used palettes scraped—
The new garden the voice
Proclaims—is a mine
Of ordered destructions
Hard boundless bounds
Of energy slaves—earth
From which bitumen’s ripped
To fuel a mind from which
Finance life has stripped

Wordsworth—I feel you too!
Though there is no mechanism
To nuance this conversation
Across the years—so I brought
Your ruined cottages your
Evening walks and Grasmere
Homing here to the Tar Sands
To stroll across northern desarts
Not knowing how well you fit—
The method of our walking
From seeing to contemplating
To remembering—is yours
Though no solitary haunts
Are here—no birds that scud
The flood—here we tread
Together the shadowy ground
Bright in the sun round
The darkest pits of vacancy
Scooped out sockets of eyes
Where skeletal holes of earth remain
Waterless and drained

1

The place from which I looked
The plane descending on Fort
McMurray or the road we walked
Around the bounds of one dry lake
And if I thought I thought of dying
Of stone and tombs and pits
No profit but one thought
The lot of others could be mine
And—aerial—we might business
Halt—tempting notions—wind
Over dead water—I thought of
Clouds where lay the land
Grey billows of moneyed dust
Nickel and naught—shadows
Brittle butterflies and the liquid
Depths of dry grass—benzene
And naphthenic acid sands
Without restraints or bounds
Blowing out and over this
Huge concave world the
Chemical truth extracts its
Word—it’s simple really—they
Tore the forest off fast like
A bandage over wounded earth
Walking—we were seeing
Silvered shunts of sand lakes
Like salt flats wondering what
Winkles out in yonder mercury
Sheen? No ponds pretend to
Lighten belief—air canon and
Scarecrow miners surround
These tailings are desolation’s
Dream of crumbling enamels
Whoever it was said boreal
Swept it clean in cold accounts
Before land wastes were
Fenced former forests of sand
Thick dark thoughts leaching
Heavy metal music machines
Or death metal bands screaming
Unfathomable ruination inside
A sealed steel cube in space

Dear imaginations—lighten up!
Your part is human protest
But there are no visionary scenes
Of lofty beauties uplifting to see
Even if Burtynsky might
Shoot them chromatic as
Abstract patterns of chemical dirt
No matter!—When in service
Of monetary gain and increasing
Industries of land liquidation
This world is anvil entertainment
Bashed first peoples flat land home
Still springing thrust midst the
Fossilized dead on whose ancestral
Heat we strange grammar feed
As strange accumulation folk
Pummel pores and veins of
Saturated soils coiled up in the
Barrage we make making roads
And the slow bombardment
Of never ending development

Perhaps I digress—the occasion
Is a public walk—but the aesthetics
Of the place is pure negativity—
Open maw is no landscape
There is no viewpoint despite
The signs and picnic tables of
Doom’s treeless playgrounds
No play of light at sunset on
Tumescent swaths of an earth
Heaving its golden breast towards
A slate sky where gawkers careen
In tin cans winged while in utter
Foundries of digital light
Pounding out templates of data
We break to browse disaster porn
Look death in its vertiginous eye
One house sized truck after another
Blanket ourselves in perspectival
Air of vanished relations—no
This is just the vast insides
Of machine whose impetus
Money tells—no point from which
To see it whole or unveil its grasp
On brow of yonder hill—just a
Moving power that moves itself
And us tempest tossed within it
Sloughing boreal off its bitumen back
The calculus which compels
Its animate limbs for alien power
Is assembled from our loathing
And slouches now towards Fort
McMurray and Fort McKay to
Deliver a world of dead birds
And unquenchable thirsts

2

Walking—we were old technology
Biotic and slowly evolving
Dropped into circuit
Pilgrims circling on a
Healing walk walking all day
Beating the bounds in
Circumference of a single
Tailings pond between still
Other tailings ponds edge
Of the largest mine in the
World—world-sized mine
Past Syncrude and Suncor
Refineries and the vast desart
Of the Tar Sands stretching
Beyond where the plants
One after another were

This is where we walked
This is where we swam
Some voice again humming
Drum and song to keep us
Moving beneath bullets of
Economic praise spraying
Billboards and the birdless
Lakes on our left not
Lakes but pools of poison
Doing what beneath their beds
We can only guess leaching
Towards the Athabasca
Flowing wide nearby on
To Fort Chip and the toxins
Captured in animal flesh there
The last human tenant imagined
Barren of all future good
Water scarred skin and wooden
Buffalo of Wood Buffalo
Cigar shop life and mines
And ponds where ancestors lie
Don’t let the new houses fool you
She said from the ruined cottage
Life of Fort Chipewyan First Nation
You can’t find the map of us
On their financial statements

It doesn’t smell as bad
As I thought it would
(though it does smell bad
or at least like a gas station world)
It is surrounded by fences
And canons and clearly owns
The police its money is heaped
In deep black banks
It has broken every treaty with life
Its ceremony is poison
It seems to have eaten the ducks
Its clime is coming fast
And is difficult to resist
So we circle in the sun
Round a wound thinking healing
Circling erasure and watching
As trucks erase erasure
Lingering over layers where
Trees are several destructions ago
Lines in flame earth—dust of the
Dead and dying collected and
Levelled by eager land movers
The great trucks of nether worlds
Dropping dead matter on top
Of dead matter where a lake
Once lay where boreal forest
And muskeg once stretched
To the horizon ringing round

This is where we walked
This is where we swam
And I can only poultice
The dry pieces of this
Crack my eyes over
Dry petrol glands of the
Land stretching white
Flat bright glare along
Thrust of bleak road round
Which trucks never cease
To turn in a carbon gyre

We are the species
That walked out of Africa
Walked everywhere
Found our fuel in forests
Then in the ground beneath
Forests—a widening gyre
Wrapped animal bone in
Sweet dry grass offering
And now stand in grass
Beside the road offering
Prayer on this first stop
First of four directions
We could still vindicate
A species of relent
Still unrelenting old sun
We pry up burning ground
Looking for more and movement
Where we should be less and still

Second stop—drumming and
Singing between two tailings
Ponds edged by sand dunes
The desart where the forest grew
Remembrance that came and went
Like a bird to its grave in the water

Third stop—past the refinery
Smoke and Syncrude tanks
The monster with its long metal
Arms pulling all to hell
Just don’t reach—arms—too
Deep into our dreaming
We’re not telling where
We’re going next nor revealing
The fact we have a where
To go next secret futures across
The shores of utopia we are
Walking to and upon nation
Leading drowsy nation

Fourth stop and fourth
Direction—still drumming
And still singing—just this
Just this—the elders praying
Should earth be wrenched
Throughout or fire wither all
Her pleasant habitations and
Dry up ocean left singed
And bare or the waters
Of the deep gather upon us
Fleet waters of the drowning
World—know that kindlings
Like the morning still
Foretell—though slow—
A returning day lodged
In the frail shrine of us aglow
Old technology of people together
Holding the line against changing weather

3

Wordsworth—if I on this occasion
Affirm anything—it is that I will
Seriously pursue the simple task
Of walking with those others of my time
Who also small and failing are trying
To walk against the traffic spilling
In out and through our cities
Out over and across the land—
The trafficless wastes of which we all
Together variously depend upon
The queer cool and resistant
Fields streams lakes and forests
That linger like old myths we once lived by
But are in fact facts we still test and try

It’s then—tired and hot after the
Long walk through the burnt land
Sitting at last having just jumped
With so many others into the
Murky waters of Willow Lake
That I suddenly recollected
The valet at the hotel
I stayed at this past May
Asking if I had any poems
About mountains—recalling
This here far from hotels
And far from mountains
Flat land of aspen and swamp
I had to admit I didn’t
Though I had a story
Never yet written down
How once young and too
Serious unhappy and searching
For I did not know what
I set out to climb a mountain
I’d passed many times driving
Through a high pass to the
Coast west of Port Alberni
And Sprout Lake—a sharp peak
Jutting through cloud tatter

It was evening already
Or at least late afternoon
I threw gear in my car
And westward took my way
Drove three hours intending
To set off in the dark
Camp and make the peak
In the morning hold communion
With the invisible world

It was stupid and compulsive
I wanted to hurt myself
Or have something outside
Myself hurt me or somehow
Lift myself up out of myself
Impossible weight of late
Capitalist life in velvet chains

Arriving at the mountain and
Parking on the side of the road
Fading light it was raining
And late fall or early spring
I forget but I could see
Through vapours shot tongues
And promontories it was
Snowing up on the peak above

Fuck it I said I took
My gear out got ready
In the rain beside the Volvo
One last check and I
Cannot find my keys

Instantly a light fell like
A flash they are in the
Ignition the car is locked

How many signs does one need
How many times do you
Have to fail at failing?

I knew I was beat knew
I’d return to my shitty
Apartment and shitty job
Maybe escape another day
Maybe never I turned
In the rain my boots
Crunching gravel stooped
And picked up the biggest
Rock nearby put it through
The car’s side window
The shower of small glass
Beads all over the seat
Drove home with the rain
Coming in beside me late
Into the night the car’s
Headlights fracturing the
Vapour not knowing it
Would be twenty years
Before I’d write a poem
About a mountain—sitting
Exhausted in the Tar Sands
And fulfilling at least one thing
That I had neglected doing

It was over reaching
All this desperate over
Reaching made me recall
My own insignificant and
Privileged hubris
Lost amidst the vast over
Reaching of this world
Wide mine tallying
Small drop in the human
Mind that accumulating
Feeds its imagined difference
Feeds though finite upon
Infinity only to hunger
Always for more
The world that beckons
Like an open pantry door

4

Dear common—lowest
Denominator—highest right
Lift light of future foliage
Here where bright burnt
Sands hinge chemical ponds
Over loosest leaves of boreal—
Burnt brooks and forests for
Fatter fuel in bitumen beds
Beneath everything we see—
Remove everything we see
To reveal it—paucity of
Ideas for making homes
Making lives led as ghosts
Already haunting doomed
Earth we split and devour

It’s elders brings us back
Living idea elders drumming
Singing and walking indigenous
To all the overburden which
Is no burden but carries
Itself echolocaic through
Leaves of this living and
Wakes while walking still
Breathing in dreamt shade

I could almost gather
Intuitive hopes for spring
Heap method of gleaning
Against Google Chrome of
Most expensive trucks
Or cheap flights to Vegas
Or the women who—bare
Commodities—travel here
Or the single yellow bus
Bringing migrants to clean
The factories of empty futures

So stop with me here
Burn out the day
Burn out the night
Then kindle dim mornings
To further this device—
What needs to die is
The refusal to die—it’s
Death that feeds life

If the old garden was
An aristocratic preserve
Of clockwork geometry
And the Romantic garden
A radical turn in open
Nature as pretend pasture
In an enamoured mind
Now we return to
Constructed enclosures
Open pit and tailings pond
A factory earth of engineered
Extractions to lay commodity
Paths in purchase and ensure
New aristocrats their
Helicopter lives—what we
Need now is a wild swerve
Away from arsenic mercury
And polycyclic hydrocarbons
Downstream in ducks and
Muskrats and moose meat
And the people of Fort Chip
Who feed on feeding the land—
A wild swerve out of entropy
To new free energies spooling
In what we can’t predict
And will not yet foretell
But will imagine not as
Trading futures or deposits
Speculated into asset mills

Stopped here near the
Blasted vale or just after
Lift off on gas wing south
Over seeming endless forest
I find I still need a little
Language of the Tar Sands
The knowing by walking
That tells how boreal grew
And gathered animal cohort
And plant polity over bitumen
Deposit and didn’t once think
Noxious profit gas even when
Bubbling surface bogs leached
And aspen trembled—even when
Drinking its life from waters
Just thin surfaces veiling the
Pitch coppered tight beneath

What strange adaptors we are!
That things will grow again
Is no consolation—the difference
Between this situation and
The situation of the old growth
On top of bitumen base is the
Difference between a happen
And the ecological capacity
To bear this happening and
A making and the ecological
Capacity to bear this human
Act and choice—what strange
Adaptors we are—moving
Swifter than old accumulations
To chemical our hues where we
Are still that vitality that springs
A weed beside the poison road
Banks of the poison pond
Beneath arch of poison sky
All remade by our adaptions

Will we—delimit—ourselves
Or—ova storm of digital increase
Uncap our climate and trade
Mere earth to reach residual heights
Of the value form and receive—
A new dispensation of finitude forced
From the very ground we have removed
And the sky we have spilt our angers on?

Let me walk a little longer at
Bodily scale—we have always been here—
Tomorrow—contemplating this
Landscape and letting the flood
Of memories of the future in
Recollecting that time to come
When none of us will be disposable waste
That time somewhere near
Where the road turns at the guarded
Edge of the refinery that this
However sketchy poem did at last
Become a poem I will have written
Circumambulating a common to come
Curling towards stillness at all scales
Having walked one amongst many
Through a dangerous time and place
The withering land turning towards
Each animal’s unrecountable face

—June 27-July 8 2014

Walkers in a Dangerous Time

It doesn’t smell as bad as I thought it would (though it does smell bad). It is surrounded by canons and clearly owns the police. Its money is heaped in deep black banks. It has broken every treaty with life. Its ceremony is a poison of ill-wishes. It seems to have eaten the ducks and buffalo. Its clime is coming and difficult to resist.

The first thing is how much is green. Flying in from the south and west, all I can see from the air is boreal—forest, bogs, large and small chocolate brown rivers winding—no devastation as the plane descends towards Fort Mac. Almost pristine. They dare not fly over the Tar Sands, of course. They don’t want you to think you’ve arrived on the moon.

Once we did make it onto the mining footprint, this is what sunk in: all that boreal beauty they had to scrape away to make this fabricated desert. And it was a desert—bleached white sand dunes stretching into the distance, a lifeless moonscape from which the “overburden” of every organic thing that naturally exists had been removed in its entirety.

The second thing is the water. This is a water world—rivers, lakes, bogs, everywhere you look. “Water is life.” We camped on the shores of Gregoire (or Willow) Lake. We followed the Athabasca River north to the mines. And there—despite the astonishing amount of water used in the extraction process—a desert of dry and drying tailings ponds, become a waterless white chemical sea of sand.

The Athabasca flows on—close by the mines and their poisonous tailings ponds—on into Lake Athabasca and to Fort Chip, where the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) can no longer safely drink the water that surrounds them—where their bodies are being ravaged by disease.

The third thing is the scale. We walked for 14 kilometers around the circumference of one former—now largely dry—tailings pond. This is apparently an older section of the Tar Sands, already part of a “reclamation” project. The furthest we travelled into the mining footprint—where Syncrude’s refinery stands, from a distance across the desert (that once was a boreal forest) looking every bit the Tower of Doom deep in Mordor—even then we could only imagine the scale of the active mining out there beyond Syncrude, where we weren’t allowed to go. Only 5% of the bitumen deposits have been developed to this point. What we saw was just one corner of that 5%. And still it was vast, disorienting. And lifeless.

IMG_0397

The fourth thing is that this is the part of the Tar Sands that they want you to see. A show room. To one side of the desert we circled, a “lake” with green replanted banks and small sparse trees and the occasional wildflower. A sign offering a scenic “view point.” But the give-away—dead waters. Air canons regularly sound, and floating orange scarecrows (looking like zombie miners), try to ward birds away from their deaths in the toxic ponds. Because the oil companies care. They actually think this makes them look good.

The fifth thing is the people. The people of this land. The people who came to this land from far away—from Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and many other places. The people who came from Idaho, Oregon, California, New York, Alabama and Texas. The indigenous land defenders from across Turtle Island—come to walk, come to pray, come to resist, come to bear witness, come to heal—and especially those whose territories these have long been. Their resilience. Their resolve. We lived in their words for three days. And when we walked, we walked to their drumming and singing—we kept going, despite the seven hours circling a scorching desert, because their drumming entered our bodies, lifting our feet and our hearts.

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The sixth thing is the future. ACFN Chief Allan Adam invoked the future anterior—a verb tense I think our efforts now depend upon—when he offered us the vision of our children and grand children one day asking, “what did you do…when all this was happening?” What will we have done, to stop the destruction, is a question we must imagine ourselves one day having to answer.

Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak invoked the future too: we must think in terms of seven generations, he advised, of which we are the fourth—behind us our parents, grandparents and great grandparents—ahead of us our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. These seven generations we carry with us all our lives—whether they are physically present or not. We walk for those who brought us here, and for “all those who are waiting to come into the world.” They are our abiding responsibility—to tend the world for them, in memory and anticipation.

The seventh thing is that healing is resistance. I say this because I think, for some settlers, “healing” sounds apolitical, the way sometimes we pathologize instead of politicize, or the way psychological analysis can take the place of material/structural analysis of capital and inequality. What I want to suggest is that, for frontline communities that have born the brunt of colonization and genocide, as well as for the lands upon which they have traditionally lived, and which have been expropriated and destroyed in the process of extraction, healing is absolutely the necessary first step in beginning the process of decolonization. Healing is part of the process of ongoing and reinvigorated resistance because, as Howard Caygill has written, resistance “assumes a capacity to resist,” and that capacity is in part dependent upon “the invention of resistant subjectivity.” Amidst renewed colonization driven by resources extraction, we are witnessing a resurgence of the warrior, the elder, and resolute female leadership that indicates the re-emergence of such a “resistant subjectivity.” Healing is crucial in this process—part of the “metamorphosis” of the volatility of trauma into the affirmation of resistance:

“The moment of reactive resistance is volatile and vulnerable and needs in some way to metamorphose into an affirmative, inventive resistance that does not just react to an intolerable predicament but transforms itself and its condition through the work of resistance, the actualizing of its capacity to resist.”

The eighth thing is bearing witness. In many ways a personal question—living and working at the endpoint of a bitumen pipeline, I needed to see its source. The Tar Sands was thumbnail pictures online and a dragon that haunted dreams. It’s good to see the reality—a desert in the north, where boreal forest once spread—the complete removal of everything that we might call “life”—a sore throat, irritated eyes, and a rash on my legs, likely from the chemical filled dust that swirled around our feet on the long, hot walk around the crumbling land.

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The ninth thing is the walking. We are the species that walked out of Africa, walked all over the planet. We are natural walkers. Now, some work hard to curtail further walking, to enclose and exclude, to reserve certain spaces for profitable private use—and destruction. You can’t walk off line in the Tar Sands—security and police are quickly on you. It is a highly regimented space—high fences, air canons, and prison block barracks. Huge trucks rumble in every direction. But we managed to beat the bounds of one firey ring of the Tar Sands.

We were walkers in a dangerous time.

Healing Walk (part 1)

I leave shortly for Fort McMurray Alberta, where I will walk, with hundreds of others, led by Athabasca First Nations and the Keepers of the Athabasca, around a massive tailings pond in the Tar Sands. We will pass between several other massive tailings ponds, and along the edge of a landscape scraped clean of its “overburden” (that’s everything that used to exist there—indigenous peoples and their cultural practices, trees and plants of every variety, animals of all kinds, naturally occurring bodies of water, etc.) and dotted with machinery and the silver towers of refineries. What follows are some brief thoughts about the politics of walking—before the walk. To which I will return after the fact as well.

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Walking, we move between renunciation and affirmation. In his recent A Philosophy of Walking, Frédéric Gros refers to renunciation as one of the “freedoms” of walking—a form of “perfect detachment.” Writing on Gandhi’s symbolic protest marches, Gros suggests that “the slowness of the march constitutes a rejection of speed”—which reminds me of the words of Jesse Cardinal, one of the organizers of the Healing Walk: the point is “to take time, slow down, and pray.”

In the face of the Tar Sands project—which has everything to do with speed, with fuelling the speed of our consumption, with the speed of economic development where the mindset, very clearly, is get as much as fast as possible, before the competition, the climate, or reason shuts the project down—the slowness of walking articulates an alternate world view.

I also think of the words of the Zapatistas—caminamos, no corremos, porque vamos muy legos—“we walk, we do not run, because we are going very far.” For activists, I think this is the difficult part. We feel the urgency of the problem in our very bones, and hear the frantic calls for action, even in our unsettled sleep. But the sort of transformation that must be managed—its scale—is so massive, there is simply no way to run there. We have to renounce the sprint, and affirm the long march. We will walk, because the distance to be travelled is so far. But we need to start walking now.

Walking, writes Gros, is also the “recognition of our finiteness.” Here is another renunciation and affirmation. A project like the Tar Sands is all about hubris—about the scale of human ambitions when it comes to material wealth and “development” (an entirely problematic concept). Against the scale of this project, we place our small and finite human bodies. We reject trucks the size of houses, oil sand reserves the size of England, and affirm the scale of the human body walking, the brevity of our lives against the long term effects of this “development” as it drives climate change into an untenable future we will not even live to see.

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Which brings us to walking and time. Gros notes the similarity between the repetitiveness of walking and Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return. Walking is performance and ceremony. I take the same walk, along the same route, almost every day. It fashions a sort of timelessness that heals, a sense, as Gros writes, in which “I have always been here, tomorrow, contemplating this landscape.” This is the future anterior—the temporality of what we will have done—a projection from now into tomorrow. We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for. And we are tomorrow’s ancestors (maybe…if we are lucky). “Walking makes time reversible,” Gros adds.

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Walking, we put a foot forward into tomorrow, claiming it as a continuation of today—not in the name of a featureless sameness, but in the name of there being a viable tomorrow in which our feet will fall on forgiving ground. Walking, we hold time in place—we make time, one step at a time, creating the world we are walking into. The politics of this walk are as yet unwritten.

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In Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit describes a protest march near a Nevada nuclear test site as bearing “a kind of bodily witness” to “the apocalypse being prepared nearby.” In the Tar Sands we will bear such witness, to another though very comparable “apocalypse.” “Every walker,” Solnit writes, “is a guard on patrol to protect the ineffable.”

That “ineffable” is in part the lived stories that make mere space a place—the culture we practice on the land, when we are able to be of the land, that enables our living there. Describing the wilderness trails of the Dene people, Allice Legat, in Walking the Land, Feeding the Fire, notes that such trails “are accessible only through stories that tell of what has gone before”—stories “that reside in and grow from places.” Legat continues,

“Walking is an action that implies not being cut off…. Instead, walking entails carefully considering one’s surroundings while thinking with the multitude of stories that one has heard.”

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What are we claiming, when we are walking? I think—that we will have a story to tell, and that that story will have a “place.”

I’m going to the Healing Walk to bear witness, to walk with others and listen to others—and to listen to the land. I’m going to the Healing Walk to renounce speed and development and affirm the pace at which we can really think and understand—the speed of walking, the speed of community. I’m going to the Healing Walk because massive systemic processes and changes, like capitalism and climate change, are often abstract and I want to see them up close and breathe their sharp petroleum air because we have made this air and should feel its sting in our eyes and lungs. I’m going to the Healing Walk because capitalism, which we’ve long known to be a mechanism for the production, protection, and escalation of inequalities, is now also revealed to be a doomsday device, a mechanism programmed for ecoside, set on self-destruct. And I’m going to the Healing Walk as one whose Marxist analysis doesn’t always leave room for grieving and loss and ceremony and because intellectual hubris is never too far from economic hubris and I want and need to get close to the ground.

 

 

 

Scenario Planning (for an open future)

Picking up where I left off in my last post—thinking of the financialization (and thus the enclosure) of the future—the jump in Enbridge stocks as the government of Canada approves construction of the Northern gateway Pipeline, spilling future fuel on rivers we’ve yet to wade, into harbours we’ve yet to swim across—as well as the link between climate change and such future-oriented market speculation—some notes (and I guess “poetic” musings) on “scenario planning.”

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Shell Oil has been using scenario planning “to explore the future since the early 1970s.” Shell’s “futurists” (yes, Shell employs “futurists”) develop these “what if” scenarios of “plausible futures” in order to make their business plans—ideologically palatable. Interestingly, these plans have increasingly come to accept climate change as a “plausible” future factor. Apparently, a future without oil, a future without Shell, is not—plausible. Futurists are investors too, “futures” fictions traded on markets. Time is money.

“What if” the future was not driven by the market—is not a scenario that can be considered at all.

There are only two scenarios, when it comes down to it, in the final solution of Shell’s shell game: “Scramble” and “Blueprint.” They basically map conceptually as free-for-all fight for the remaining planetary resources (that’s the “scramble”—like some kid throwing candy in the schoolyard), or planned and careful diversification of a range of fossil fuel and some limited alternative energy production as a response to civil society pressures to curb carbon emissions. We can do this the easy way, or the hard way—the choice is yours

is of course no choice at all.

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I’ve long been fascinated by Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Slim Pickens rodeo riding an atomic bomb down over a Soviet base. The idea of the “doomsday machine”—something once triggered we cannot turn off no matter how brainless we set our destruction in motion—all is lost until we meet again (I don’t know where, I don’t know when). Then all of us singing and dancing on our own graves—and those of other species less invested in our game of mutually assured destruction. Originally, the film was supposed to end with a pie fight in the US War Room.

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Near the end of the film the barely-reformed Nazi Dr. Strangelove (played brilliantly by Peter Sellers) proposes a “scenario” in which a select and eugenically-chosen few humans are preserved in deep mine shafts until the nuclear winter is over (in about 100 years, give or take, the good doctor estimates). Just in case the Soviets have the same idea, and sneak a bomb into their mineshaft, General Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) recommends the remnants of the American portion of the human race (the most powerful men and most beautiful women, of course) take a bomb or two beneath ground with them—to avoid a potential future “mine shaft gap.”

What was once parody has become allegory. Oil is now the bomb. Scenarios like Shell’s sneak carbon bombs into the mineshafts of futurity—just in case no one blinks on our way to three, four, of five degrees centigrade uptick in the century ahead.

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Scenario (2020): The Kinder Morgan Pipeline, having been “twinned,” is now carrying almost 900,000 barrels of oil per day as it sneaks through suburban Vancouver, filling 35 supertankers each month in the harbour of “the greenest city in the world.” One warm May, let’s say, there is a line rupture near the Pitt River Bridge, spilling massively into the Fraser River just east of the city. Oil quickly coats the surface of the river throughout its delta, winding through farms and the city [correction: diluted bitumen, upon coming into contact with air and water, separates into the rapidly evaporating toxins of its condensate and the heavier bitumen, which sinks to the river bed]. In this scenario, “oil that reaches the mouth of the river is discharged into the Straight of Georgia [comment: Salish Sea] with considerable momentum…it is likely that this oil will affect shorelines on the opposite side of the straight” [20 kilometers away] (Kinder Morgan blithely projects in its National Energy Board Application).

Response: Quote. “Pipeline spills can have both positive and negative effects on local and regional economies, both in the short- and long-term. … Spill response and clean-up creates business and employment opportunities for affected communities, regions, and clean-up service providers.” End quote. (Kinder Morgan National Energy Board Application)

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Scenario: extreme weather caused by anthropogenic climate change, drought and/or water polluted by fracking and/or oil spills, rising food prices and food scarcity, escalating unemployment or casual/temporary employment, extreme personal debt and rampant home foreclosures, escalating and aggressively visible economic inequality (my helicopter/your cardboard box “shelter”)—all leading to a general situation of unrest and a nothing-more-to-loose attitude amongst the ever-burgeoning underclass, manifesting as regular street demonstrations, occupations, riots and looting—on a scale rarely seen in North America.

Response: militarization and expansion of law enforcement; privatization and expansion of for-profit prison system (despite generally declining crime rates); legislative changes that largely criminalize dissent (including the wearing of masks, the photographing and filming of law enforcement personnel, the classification of most public gatherings as “unlawful,” and the categorization of certain speech acts as “terrorism”); an expansive and even pervasive web of on-line and urban/spatial surveillance to both dissuade and/or track/capture “trouble makers.”

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Scenario planning, despite the utopian veneer, is about maintaining state and corporate advantage into the future. It is about future increase and future stability for those to whose advantage more and more of the same unfolds. “Visualize how the future could unfold and create a new and different business ‘landscape.’” But the landscapes are all still business landscapes and no other landscapes exist or could plausibly come to be.

The future is not a scenario it’s what we will one day become, breathing or not, drinking clean water or not, dwelling in liveable communities—or not. We walk backwards with difficulty into an access no one sees no one possesses no one’s home. Go free but go carefully.

I want a scenario no company has purchased futurists to offer means of accumulation 1) or means of accumulation 2)—your choice either way we win no thanks no thanks I choose not to choose what’s on the table now. No pipelines. No future burnt and spilt.

“Forest perambulations existed since at least the time of Magna Carta. They were ceremonial walks about a territory for asserting and recording its boundaries, that is, ‘beating the bounds.’ A perambulation was a kind of peripatetic map, or walkabout, in which briar-scratched skin, stubbed toes, aching legs aided the memory. … The perambulation of the New Forest authorized by Charles II in 1671 resulted in a Latin document that, translated, comprises a single sentence over six pages long, of approximately one thousand nine hundred and eighty words, many hundreds of prepositional phrases (the grammatical unit most having to do with position and direction)—to, from, by, beyond, across, in—and human and natural landmarks—ditch, post, hedge, vale, pond, gate, rover, oak, beech, grave, croft, marsh, lane, road, ford—with current name, alias, former names, thus making the text layered with semantic history and compact with minute orientation”
—Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto

Commons—shared resources upon which communities depend, and upon which these communities practice stewardship, in part so the shared resource will still be there for future sharing—are everywhere in human history, the heart of social reproduction, only squeezed to the periphery since the rise of the capitalist mode of production and social relations. Commons are spaces marked not by fixed property lines but by active boundaries of customary use: they often depend upon regular perambulations by their users, who collectively reaffirm the extent, status and health of their shared life-line and responsibility, as they walk its fluctuating periphery.

I had thought I could perambulate the bounds of certain proposed mine sites (Catface Mountain, Ajax, Testan Biny), reclaiming them as commons before they could be carved up and destroyed. Make a poem from this—that tempting six-page sentence Linebaugh recounts in the quotation above. But a piercing light radiates from regret, and art and aspiration sometimes stand in stark contrast against backgrounds of lived realities. Burtynsky’s photographs of oil spills that are dark tears in iris-textured water, mines that are deep terraced bore-holes in the earth, like descending rings of ochery infernos—aestheticized into a new opacity on gallery walls or between hard covers balanced atop privileged coffee tables. Take for example Taseko Mines Ltd (TKO, what a knockout), which has for decades been attempting to develop a mine at Fish Lake (Testan Biny) in what is called central British Columbia, sacred to the Tsilhqot’in people whose traditional lands it is. Can you claim as commons what indigenous land defenders have claimed as—home? Can you claim it as—art? In what ways does the European idea of the commons overlap with indigenous notions of the sacredness and primacy of the land (it “owns” you, you don’t “own” it)? I walk off the end of a phrase, into the space companies have marked—portfolio.

It’s the future that frightens. Our access and “right” to a to-come, to a tomorrow, that seems to be being taken away from us right now. To morrow, as a verb—something we common, through our desiring dependence upon that spatio-temporality of the not-yet, but sweetly anticipated. What sort of space is the future though, and how might we perambulate its bounds, claiming it as common—a preserve we will need to depend upon in perpetuity?

“Locked-in” climate change is in part based on the fact that there is enough carbon still in the ground, and yet identified, calculated, speculated upon, given value form, sold and invested before it is even removed, to fry us all, well and truly. That is, it’s mining is financially a foregone conclusion, almost an after-thought, already an asset on the market, already part of the bottom line, enough there to push us past CO2 levels scientists have identified as limits to a liveable planet. The future has been enclosed, monetized, bought and sold and—already burnt. Mutually assured economic destruction. But in what way was “mutually assured destruction” ever—mutual? We are now already the future the past dreamt of—or are we? Are we the ones we’ve been waiting for? How to negate futures we don’t want to unfold—futures already being constructed all around us by doomsday market forces—and so open the future to other—scenarios?

These are some of the questions luring me right now. This doubt, this uncertainly, might somehow be the ground of a new writing “project” that I will use this blog to wander towards, haltingly, catching glimpses of past, present, and future commons, sighting along the peripheries of the present state of extraction, looking industry in its carboniferous eye, and finding hope in the eyes of those I march with, in city streets and rural fields.