Tag Archives: commons

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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Golfing St. George’s Hill with Sean Bonney

This poem is an addenda to the dialogue between myself and poet Sean Bonney in Toward. Some. Air. (Banff Press 2015). In 1649 the Diggers occupied enclosed common land on St. George’s Hill, declaring the world “a common treasury for all.” Today the site is occupied by a golf course and some of the most exclusive and expensive residential property in the world.

Remember what used to matter
Sean says sharing the tube the taxi
cab not fucking people over not
fucking off with each of our
needs to cauterize each of our
abilities look at this night
we have opened an angle of
unending ghost escapes
here is some furze
here is an assart
we will soon reverse
our desires unstinted and
shared with the moles
not dangling from farmers’
fence posts we dissolved with
our whisky spit look I say
here shall be my dwelling
because I have chosen it
I feare none because I stand
upon a saufe ground
if England could speake
would she not make such
and such complaints? If the walls
of such and such a citie
or towne had a tongue
would they not talk thus and thus?
For if any of these bee hindered
wee have a large fielde to walke in
perswading or disswading the
rehearsall of commodities
and heaping all the properties
which belong unto conclusion
into a bucket we dump out the window

So speaking we ascend George’s Hill
unbunkered but cameo light
along verges of Surreyed wastes
wearing what golfers might wear in
capering seventeenth century hells
Sean and I figure unreason to be
the reason we are here shout nary
or full-throttle you gobbled
last night’s liquor to free everyone
Dear Impossible and if you appear
all is useless empty lands
and the same projector ghost
on turgid ponds a regal apprentice
doffs his proper proprietorship
as tinctured incumbents count
votes we have not given to
subsume us with patriotic song
like if buying / own Florida
I open the gulf for you cursed
sports witch hazel and moor howl
you can tumble moneyward
at the steepled void juddering
politicos scare me where I love
and my meat is late for the sales
if we sup now genetic dissembling
spite song saying and unsaying
my spleen begat this Dear
Impossible development and
multi-million pound homes
ringing lanes acre by stolen acre
we may still rip up in our rage

We’ll have to dig in Sean
the sharper’s course marks
not commons but fair ways
exclude killing not killing
the care taken to trim these
greens like plush carpet surfaces
of indoors taken out I take
a club in hand and say
see here I’ll wedge us past
that prying tree clip a
bough or two sending mad
spin of leaf to earth but
land nevertheless hole high
in a rich shit’s right eye
and there proclaim the
work we are going about
is this and lift my club
high over head to bring down
smart on pleasant green table top
so we do begin to dig Sean and I
and Sean is singing stand up now
stand up now with spade and hoe
and plough or at least these
irons we’ve taken from posh
fucks out for millionaire rounds
because the club is all their law
the club is all their law Sean
and I sing as we dig without
a tee time into George’s Hill

 

 

When Democracy Becomes Controversial

[My portion of a lecture given at the SFU Centre for Dialogue, with Lynne Quarmby, for the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy]

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Our argument tonight, stated as simply as possible, is this: If what Lynne and I have done constitutes anything “controversial,” it is so only because of the problematic state of our current democracy, for all we have done, in our opinion, is exercise “normal” and supposedly long-standing democratic rights of assembly and public speech. Democracy, now, produces a fundamental contradiction which anyone engaging in the political must wrestle with: we feel we cannot help but participate in the current democratic system (there are so many urgent issues to address)—voting, supporting parties and candidates, participating in public debate, even running for office—at the same time, we can have little faith in the ability of our political system, as currently constituted, when it comes to the most pressing issues we face (such as climate change, the geographical displacement of populations, and Indigenous rights and land claims), and so we must also take direct action outside of the electoral and representative apparatus of governance. To live today is to live in a world of such contradictions. Go vote on Monday, but do not stop there, and do not stop demanding, and taking steps to build, a more just, more open, more equal and more participatory political system.

Another way of approaching this: controversy, however figured—along with informed, respectful argument and passionate disagreement, as well as acts that can be seen as confrontational or disruptive, acts which sometimes may involve non-violent civil disobedience—should really be understood as part of the healthy functioning of a democracy. They are evidence of the people taking autonomous control of and responsibility for their lives. If such acts themselves come to be characterized as “controversial,” rather than essential, then something is rotten in the state of our democracy.

Our discussion tonight of what, exactly, might be “controversial” about direct democratic action will pass through the lenses of our personal stories this past year, the particularity of our fields of research, and the critique we are levelling with our words and our actions.

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For me, my involvement in the Kinder Morgan resistance this past year was unavoidable. I had for a number of years been writing about and participating in social justice and environmental justice grassroots movements. I had been concerned about climate change, social inequality, Indigenous land claims, and our government’s seeming inability, or lack of interest in, doing anything about these issues. When Kinder Morgan came to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area, to cut trees and conduct seismic testing for their new pipeline last September, they came into my back yard. I have a 20-year relationship with Simon Fraser University, so this mountain is one of my homes, a place where I have spent a good portion of my life, and I care about it, as a place and as a community. I care about local First Nations title to this land upon which I am a settler. And I care about the state of this world, the natural environment upon which we all collectively depend, and the future my and your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will inherit. “Kinder Morgan,” it may be worth noting, in perhaps not the best German translation, can be taken to mean “tomorrow’s children.” This accident in corporate naming is telling.

I could, on my way to and from work, stop on the mountain and join others keeping watch in the forest. I could, and soon did, play the role of a spokesperson for what people were trying to achieve on the mountain. And I could write—and I did write—as Lynne did too.

For me personally, one of the most instructive, and chilling, moments was having my writing read aloud in the BC Supreme Court, by Kinder Morgan’s lawyers, accusing me of conspiring against their company. “Underneath the poetry,” the lawyer said of a blog I had written (and I quote), “is a description of how the barricade was made”—thereby unintentionally echoing the famous Situationist slogan: sous la plave, la plage (under the paving stones, the beach). It was a good day for poetry—it mattered enough to be cited in court—even if it was a bad day for this one poet.

That one sentence spoken by that lawyer on November 5 2014 continues to haunt and shape my work (including my forthcoming book of poetry, Once in Blockadia). Of course, I’ve always mostly been interested in what was “beneath the poetry”—the Real, the material world of exploitation and repression, and collective struggles for justice and freedom and our complicated social relations. But now that the two-headed monster of the corporate state has tipped its hat—that it, too, is very interested in what’s “beneath the poetry,” and the sort of veiling that literary and other cultural expressions may engage in—well, quite simply I’m still trying to process this new piece of information.

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The connection between poetry and politics, poetry and social justice and social movements, is primary to the work I do in my academic field. In a recent publication I referred to the sort of work I do as a form of “embedded poetry”—like an “embedded” journalist, I write from a position within groups undertaking certain actions in the social field. Obviously this is anything but dispassionate, distanced or objective research; it is a committed creative and critical practice. But the literature that doubles as social commentary and in fact at times as a form of social “action” also has a long tradition about which I teach and write, as well as engaging in it in my own creative practice.

This is what I find so useful and fascinating—both as a subject I study and a methodology I employ: poetry, especially, provides the generic wherewithal to imagine ourselves as vocal agents of change and actors on the stage of social transformation. Poetry is still shaped by speech and the oral imaginary. In a poem, we can say public things we otherwise do not have the opportunity or occasion (or perhaps even freedom) to say, and we can address situations, individuals, the body politic and even abstract entities in ways that would not otherwise make sense. And yet, this imaginary by which we speak to that which it is often impossible to speak is a crucial political imaginary too. Democracy, I would argue, is nothing less than a mechanism to allow impossible speech: the collective speech of and between communities, the speech of and to large and abstract forces that affect us all in the broadest, and therefore sometimes decidedly intangible, ways. Such speech is absolutely necessary to our social wellbeing, and while “publicness” seems to be something which has been steadily eroded over the past three or four neoliberal and austerity filled decades, poetry and other literary arts remain a place where the voice of honest indignation (as William Blake called it) is kept alive.

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Here’s perhaps a bit of controversy: we’re not living in a democracy. Not, at least, if we take seriously the idea that a democracy is a system of rights and freedoms enshrining the self-determination of a community’s constituents. As many thinkers are now pointing out, western democracies in fact function much more like oligarchies than anything else—as a recent Princeton study suggests of the United States:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

This is likely news to no one. Consider Bill C-51, a piece of legislation which the majority of legal experts in Canada deride as unconstitutional and, frankly, undemocratic. Consider the “close working relationship” between the current Conservative government of Canada and its “friends” in the fossil fuel industry—to the point at which, as documents have revealed, the government has over the past four years implemented exactly those policy and regulatory changes industry has asked for—down to each dotted i and crossed t. Then of course there is the denial of the will of the city and the majority of the citizens of Burnaby in the Kinder Morgan case on Burnaby Mountain, and the way various levels of government run roughshod over Indigenous rights and title in the rush to approve and develop multi-national fossil fuel extraction, infrastructure and trade deals.

I could of course go on. But consider this: a recent Fraser Institute report suggests that “democratic institutions are not relevant for an enhanced feeling of life control.” The report adds that economic freedom, specifically, “exerts a positive impact on life satisfaction, while democracy remains insignificant.” Here’s where we are heading under the current neoliberal phase of capitalism and governmentality: democracy is “insignificant”; you can find “life control” and “life satisfaction” through economic (as opposed here to social) freedom alone. Interesting. And who, we might ask, has access to this singularly significant “economic freedom”? Hmm…I wonder.

Let’s step back from the brink of democracy’s twilit last gleaming. The era in which modern democratic institutions developed, over the past two to three centuries, is also the era of capitalism’s full and eventually global development. It is also the era of colonialism—if we stretch this analysis back just slightly into the seventeenth century, when the British parliament, at least, began to exert more power, and in which global exploration and expropriation began to expand beyond Europe in earnest. All these socio-historical phenomena—capitalism, colonialism, and what we have come to refer to as “democracy”—are linked processes. They are phenomena unleashed by the drive of elites to increase their influence and wealth—and thus productive forces—supported by a rapidly developing ideology of limitless economic growth and competition—through the private ownership of land and labouring bodies (sometimes the bodies themselves, literally, at other times simply the labour time of those bodies—although it has often amounted to the same thing).

In the historical narrative I’m offering here, democracy—the “granting” of democratic rights and the gradual implementation of a slowly expanded franchise—functions as a “containment system,” intended to corral popular will and opinion—to cordon it off while the important business of colonization and capital accumulation proceeded and expanded (as indeed it continues to proceed and expand, in diverse ways). We might say that the rights and freedoms we do have were “granted” only because of popular unrest and resistance: the commons demanded change, and elites gradually offered various sops and allowances and “privileges” which were eventually stitched into a system (which we have deigned to call democracy), constantly modified, which allowed a semblance of the participation of the “will of the people” while continuing to serve the interests of the accumulation and radically uneven distribution of wealth.

If we, the commons, made some gains in the past through popular resistance, we can do so again. Indeed, I would argue that we have not yet gone nearly as far as we need to in this direction. In this regard, I recall the words of Henry David Thoreau, who in his essay Resistance to Civil Government, wrote: “Is a democracy, such as we have known it, the last possible improvement in government?”

So—maybe there’s something more important here that the word “democracy” obscures. Maybe what we really need to focus on is the demos, the commons, and the ability of the commons to manage and maintain its shared planetary resources. This is the controversial thing Lynne, and myself, and many others did: we stood on the remnant commons of public space and unceded territory and demanded that the commons be heard, be acknowledged, and be followed.

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I return to the question of controversy. Is it really controversial to act to protect our shared natural environment? Is it really controversial to place ecological values ahead of economic ones, or to demand economic practices that are in harmony with ecological values? IF it is, then we are truly in a bad way. And certainly legislation such as Bill C-51 attempts to mark out those who stand in the path of the economic’s triumphant parade over the body of the ecological—especially Indigenous land defenders—as controversial, deviant, even terrorists.

If Lynne and I have indeed participated in a controversy, it is largely, to my mind, a controversy centered on one aspect of our work as academics. It is not our research that is necessarily controversial, nor is it our teaching. Rather, it is our public outreach and service to the wider community—our functioning as “public intellectuals” (if such beasts are not yet extinct), and our taking of SFU’s mantra—engaging the world—perhaps a little more literally than intended. Advocacy is often a part of what academics do, both from within and outside their respective fields. You might also characterise what Lynne and I have done as to take our social analysis and critique—our understandings of the functioning of the physical and social worlds—and put them at the service not just of our disciplinary community, but at the service of the wider community as well. This is perhaps another form of “embedded” cultural practice—embedding knowledge production and dissemination not in the rarefied and disciplinarily bound institution alone, but in the very communities that are struggling for social change from below—and further, to actually form that knowledge in a collaborative and grassroots milieu.

We have without question desired to be of service. But again I have to ask, what here is controversial or even exceptional? In the kind of political life that I would see as living up to the concept of democracy—of real, participatory democracy—such “engagement,” such direct collective social action, would neither be controversial nor extraordinary. It would be expected. It would be a normal part of daily life—and indeed we would have to reconceive daily life so that it allowed and supported a more fulsome participation in a more autonomous, localized, and engaged form of community self-governance (a topic of discussion, perhaps, to reserve for another occasion). Now imagine—if engaging the world was taken to mean direct and active participation in our own collective self-governance, as well as the attendant ascendancy of the rights and responsibilities of citizens over corporations, we might have to redefine engagement—we might in fact have to rebrand SFU as having a new, more radical mandate—one of revolutionizing the world.

 

 

 

 

Refugee Tales and Common Rights

At first, my trip to England this June was mixed up with occasional thoughts of ancestry, of the vague awareness that my forebears had called this place home, had wandered this green land, restlessly moving about, looking for work. Eventually they came to Canada, to work in mines or marry coal miners. But in whatever sense my life has been shaped by migrations, it was nothing compared to the precarious and shifting sands walked by the people I travelled with for a week across the county of Kent.

What I was doing was this: walking across eighty miles of the south of England, from an “immigration removal centre” in Dover to another near Gatwick Airport. It was Refugee Week in the UK, and the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG), an English charity, had organized “The Refugee Tales”—a walk in solidarity with detainees and refugees. Loosely anchored in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century poem of pilgrimage, The Canterbury Tales, each night different authors (myself being one of them) told contemporary tales based upon interviews with former detainees, asylum seekers, and others traumatized by their experiences of displacement and the equally chilling confrontation with borders and detention. In the UK, as in Canada, there are no time limits on the detention of so-called “illegal” immigrants, and their lives become a nightmarishly endless limbo. The GDWG is calling for a maximum 28-day limit on detention. This would be a start.

What I was really doing was this: walking with a number of refugees, former detainees and asylum seekers—as well as many of their supporters—people whose company I will never forget. It was this—that we were together day after day—that we were humans together, laughing, touching, sharing meals, telling stories—that great burdens weighed down upon these people—but that we were able to share those burdens for a few days, and walk inside each others’ stories—this is what it was really all about. It was an extended visit with people for whom the entire world was a vast and Kafkaesque detention centre—where it should have been a refuge for all in need of shelter.

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I can only say so much about the refugees themselves. They suffered incredible persecution in their home countries—imprisonment, torture, beatings, attempted murder, the persistent terrors of war and precarity—only to arrive in the UK and find themselves once again jailed in closely surveilled solitary confinement, for months and sometimes for years. Or else they had been many years—in some cases even decades—living and working in the UK, integrated and contributing to society, only to have their “legality” called into question, at a border or through an “anonymous tip.” Detention and the loss of everything—jobs, homes, freedom, etc.—swiftly followed. Now they were in a perpetual limbo, unable to travel or work, forced to appear every other week to be fingerprinted, scanned, their identities confirmed—and then sent back to continue awaiting a decision that never seems to come.

One man was terrified of dogs met on the path we walked, so several of us would surround him every time we passed a dog walker. It didn’t matter how large or small, calm or excited the dog was. I was hesitant to ask what the source of this fear was. He would smile afterwards, but his brow would be furrowed from worry, his expression conveying embarrassment, helplessness, and an inability to talk about the situation.

What else can I say? They are the human wrecks of globalization, washing back up on Empire’s shores. But they are also some of the most human people I have ever met, their humanity laid bare through what they were enduring—their vulnerability, their need for friendship and hospitality, for a haven in the storm of their lives. They laughed easily, teasing each other. They were worried about hair loss and love. They wanted, more than anything else, to help, to be useful, part of a common cause. I found myself deeply admiring each and every one of them.

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One lunchtime break on our walk, sitting amongst tombstones on the grassy lawn of a medieval church, I spoke about the commons, past and present. I noted the close link between the drive to acquire and extract resources and the displacement of people from their traditional lands. I also noted the fact that this was happening not only in former colonies, but often now even in the heart of Empire, as evidenced by recent reports of the discovery of a large shale oil deposit under the Weald Basin, right under the “garden of England,” an area we were currently overlooking from our perch on the North Downs. One report noted that

The government … wants to speed up shale companies’ ability to get access to land. The current process is “time-consuming, uncertain and costly”. It says: “If we did nothing to address this issue, the commercial exploitation of shale gas and oil in Great Britain is unlikely to develop in a timely manner, or at all.”

This has of course been the tactic in Canada too (where extraction recently came home to roost for many settlers in the form of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline surveying in suburban Burnaby): change regulations in the name of economic expediency, double down on the process of enclosure, align everything so that extraction can proceed as swiftly as possible. In this moment of Geophysical Capitalism—the stage at which the globally organized accumulation of wealth negatively affects the entire Earth System—the capitalists will even dig up their own back yards. There can be no home anymore, not for anyone, anywhere.

At least, that’s where we are heading. For refugees and detainees, for Indigenous people living on top of or in the path of resource projects, that situation already exists. Peter Linebaugh, in Stop Thief!, directly connects the enclosure of land and bodies: “The commons is destroyed in two ways, by imprisonment and privatization. … Restorative justice therefore must include both the restoration of the commons and the restoration of liberty to the prisoner.”

Speaking in that churchyard in rural Kent, I connected these two processes through a call for two new and hypothetical forms of common right: common of refuge and common of future.

Common of refuge: the right of movement and resettlement; the right to claim refuge when driven from one’s homelands by social or economic persecution or environmental distress.

Common of future: the right to enjoy as healthy and sustainable an environment in the future as people have in the past; more generally, the right to a liveable future environment.

These are ideas and ideals that would obviously need to be fleshed out in full. But the reality is that the people arriving at the borders of “developed” nations are driven there by the wars, economic policies, and environmental degradation, sometimes indirectly but more often than not directly caused by those same “developed” nations. With climate change this will only continue and expand. Building walls is no option. We have to re-think the relationship between human beings and the land we live on, sometimes must travel across, and will require the support of in the future.

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I find myself drawing again and again upon what I continue to learn from Indigenous peoples. The idea for a common right of future, for instance, might be elaborated from the sort of language currently being deployed in Canada to define Aboriginal Title, specifically that land “cannot be … encumbered in ways that would prevent future generations of the group from using and enjoying it. Nor can the land be developed or misused in a way that would substantially deprive future generations of the benefit of the land.”

Indigenous protocols for entrance to their traditional territories might also be scaled up to help facilitate a common right of refuge. I am cautious here of appropriating certain aspects of Indigenous cultures, but I am also convinced that the wider human culture needs to learn sustainable practices from people who have long practiced them. I think this can be done in ways that avoid appropriation.

Walking in England, with people driven from their homelands and now forced into internal exile in the country they had sought refuge in, I wondered what, as a practice or mode of being, “Indigenous” might be taken to mean. Working from the example of Indigenous peoples around the world, I would in part define the word this way:

Long-term, multi-generational inhabitation of a territory, based on cultural practices geared towards a sustainable, interdependent relationship to the natural environment of that territory.

By this definition, almost no one in England (or any other capitalist country) has been “Indigenous,” despite countless generations of habitation, for several centuries now: a key part of the development of capitalism was the severing of long established ties to land, and the conversion of all lands into commodities (with attendant laws developed to protect such landed property—whether private or “national”). This occurred, as Marx argued, in waves of displacement: enclosure of common lands, the seizing of colonies. We cannot now go back—but we might yet pursue new relations to the earth (and each other) by picking up on paths that many abandoned (or were forced from) long ago. “The victory of the commons must bring with it new kinds of human beings,” Linebaugh argues. Such new human beings will only come into view once we can see our way to a new, nurturing, refuge-providing and sustainable relation to the lands we necessarily share.

 

 

Walking Backwards up a Mountain

Yesterday, I walked up a mountain backwards.

This could be a useful metaphor. It is also literally true: on one of the most moving days of this moving movement to protect the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area and to protect our global environment from the tar sands and more fossil fuel development, First Nations elders and chiefs—including Grand Chief Stewart Philip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Ian Campbell of the Skowmesh nation, and Amy and Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation—gathered with hundreds of supporters.

They spoke of their passionate commitment to their land, their communities, and the natural environment generally. They spoke of their determination to stop this pipeline and protect the oceans, animals, and trees. And then they marched, with the gathered throng behind them—up the mountain, into the forest, and towards the police lines.

I was the marker they were to follow, their guide to the forest frontline. I walked backwards in front of them, holding a sign high above my head for them to follow. In some ways it felt like these incredible elders were pushing me, backwards, up the hill, into the path of this pipeline. They were the driving force, the magnets around which we—settler allies and committed pipeline opponents, land defenders and grandmothers, Burnaby residents, university faculty and students—were arrayed.

Backing uphill, it seemed to me, was also indicative of our slow realization and maybe even reluctant awareness of what we need to do and where we need to go. It’s difficult—walking up slope towards an uncertain future. We can’t see it—but we slowly edge towards it. We have to have a little trust—that we won’t fall off a precipice or down a bottomless hole. We worry—but we go on, because we must go on. Really, we need to go a lot faster than this—but this is how we approach the changes we must make—we fear rushing right into their midst—so we edge slowly, backwards, towards them. It’s not perfect. But we are far from perfect. We go on.

An alternative, renewable energy system is feasible and achievable (as long as we get our consumerist, artificial wants under control). Meanwhile, oil and gas companies are running our government and ruining our environment. We have lost our sense of the common—of common responsibility to a common land for a common future on a common planet. We are relearning this—to the extent that we are—through the leadership of indigenous teachers and teachings.

When I think about this pipeline running under our feet, my mind runs up to its source. I think of the tar sands and the utter destruction being wreaked upon the land and indigenous communities there. I think of the desert we have made in the boreal forest, depriving it of water and life and leaving only poison behind. I think of the Athabasca Fort Chipewyan First Nation, their illnesses and the fact that they may have to abandon Fort Chip. I think of the tailings ponds, the diseased moose, the scale of deforestation.

We are directly connected to that here, at the other end of the pipeline. We are standing, right here in Coast Salish Territory, on one corner of the tar sands, on the edge of the destruction we have wrought. We are walking, backwards, up a mountain—to stop this devastation, and to fashion a new future we can as yet barely see, but which we must trust will be there, the other side of fossil fuels.

Kinder Morgan vs the Future: A Commoner’s Tale

In alder     in maple fern salal and salmonberry     near train &

bird sound     & plane sound     on mountain     on watch

 

Among stumps     red rounds     starling flocks bespeaking a theory

of the swarm     plane drone     train echo     mountain     on watch

 

Beside dead cut boughs their     drying leaf curl     by fallen

trunks & bear presence   on unceded territory     occupied     on watch

 

Over the inlet     down slope     attached to social media     over

proposed pipeline route     under capital     on mountain     on watch

 

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Since we learned, a few weeks ago, that Texas-based oil behemoth Kinder Morgan had entered the conservation area on Burnaby Mountain (in the middle of which sits the public university where I have taught for 15 years), a group of us have been keeping watch for the company’s re-appearance. I think of us as “citizen rangers.” We have chased them off more than once already. And if they return, we will make their attempts to work on the mountain…difficult, to say the least.

We hike downslope in the park, from a field where much of Vancouver and its harbour can be seen. Or we ascend from the base of the mountain. The trail is narrow, steep, muddy. We settle ourselves in the forest clearing Kinder Morgan made—illegally—there with our bodies to prevent their helicopters from landing equipment in the forest conservation area. This is their plan: drill and conduct seismic testing. Then re-submit their proposal to the National Energy Board of Canada.

Our bodies sitting in the forest tell a different story. This is grassroots resistance at its grassy and rootiest. The thing about massive energy projects—the devastation they can wreak on local ecosystems, and the global atmosphere as well—is that they have to pass through very small and localizable spaces. We are small. But a pipeline is narrow. The forest clearing just large enough to set down equipment. Or just small enough for a handful of volunteers to occupy.

Meanwhile, the struggle continues on other levels too. Community groups like BROKE (Burnaby Residents against Kinder Morgan Expansion) are organized, vocal, active. The City of Burnaby continues to pursue legal means of preventing Kinder Morgan from expropriating city parkland. Burnaby NDP MP Kennedy Stewart continues to pursue parliamentary means of opposition. And the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, stewards of these unceded lands, are also making their own constitutional challenge.

Kinder Morgan, with all its wealth and power, of course has the federal government in its back pocket. The National Energy Board, far from an objective arbiter, has provided Kinder Morgan with over $130 million of Canadian tax payer’s money to pursue its application.

And so—sitting on unceded land, in the middle of an urban park and conservation area (where we have on several occasions seen two black bears, amongst many other creatures), and under threat of a massively wealthy private (foreign owned) corporation flush with public Canadian funds—questions about the nature of publicness and the commons almost always come to my mind.

Fossil fuel production threatens the global commons—that shared material fact (I don’t like to say “resource”) of what all living beings depend upon: breathable air, drinkable water, a life-sustaining climate, a sustainable food supply. These things cannot be “owned,” and yet the activities of private corporations directly dispossess us of them, prevent access to them, and destroy them—for us and future generations. Thus what is coming to a head on public land on Burnaby Mountain is the very destruction of the common and public on a planetary scale.

But—and I keep coming back to this issue too—can we consider “common” what is also unceded (that is, never deeded or surrendered) indigenous territory? How does a concern for the global biospheric commons intersect with indigenous claims to traditional and long-occupied land?

My own answer is—delicately, and not unproblematically. The idea of the commons comes from the European (especially British) tradition of common lands as a system for sustaining local communities: much land was technically private (owned by various aristocrats), but people had local access and use rights to unoccupied (non-agricultural) land, which they depended upon for their survival. These rights were taken away, and common lands “enclosed,” between the 16th and 19th centuries—alongside the development of capitalism.

An indigenous sense of land use is not always easy to reconstruct, after 500 years of colonial occupation. Like the idea of the commons, the survival of indigenous communities depended upon access to and use of land—however, no system of property-based ownership seems to have existed. One did not own land: land owned you and your people. As such, you were responsible for the careful stewardship, and even defence, of the land to which you belonged.

Here is the overlap I want to note for now: both the European common and indigenous territorial systems were carefully managed with their extension into the future in mind. They didn’t only have to sustain the community now—they had to do so for generations to come. This is made clear in the recent and landmark Tsilhqot’in Supreme Court definition of aboriginal title:

“It is collective title held not only for the present generation but for all succeeding generations. It cannot be … encumbered in ways that would prevent future generations of the group from using and enjoying it. Nor can the land be developed or misused in a way that would substantially deprive future generations of the benefit of the land.”

Unlike capitalism, commons-based and indigenous senses of land use are premised upon the importance of future access and use. Companies like Kinder Morgan operate according to a logic of limitless accumulation of profits: the only sense they have of the future is future profit. Often, fossil fuel companies only need a short-term access to and use of land. After they are done, the land is often destroyed, irreparably. They move on—seeking something else to destroy in their pursuit of tomorrow’s gains on the stock market, the next-quarter’s returns.

So we sit in the forest—we small group of citizen rangers—trying to ward off tree-fallers, drill operators, and helicopters with our bodies occupying trails and clear-cuts. We are, I like to think, commoners too, one and all—keepers of future possibilities, future access and use of this green lung-space we all need to breathe—these waters we all need for provision. And when I say “we” I think of the black bears too, and the Pacific Sideband Snail, and the raven whose call echoes off the mountain slopes.

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!