Letter from the Editors
“This essential report reminds each of us of the obvious truth: the present generations have the responsibility to bequeath to future generations a planet that is not irreversibly damaged by human activity. Our local, indigenous and scientific knowledge are proving that we have solutions and so no more excuses: we must live on earth differently.”
– Audrey Azoulay, Director-General, UNESCO on a recent UN biodiversity assessment
“A person without culture is like a human being without land”
– Jon Bul-Dau, Sudanese Refugee
In the 2017 documentary Human Flow, director Ai Weiwei attempts to offer a portrait of the diffuse and shifting state of global migration. The film is an ambitious, roaming, and at times literally aerial view of uprooted groups of people searching for new places to live. Weiwei shows that these mass migrations are made up of a number of intimate moments: a family frustrated to tears with bureaucracy, groups of young men laughing and organizing games to stave off boredom, an elderly couple discussing the home they abandoned where they had always grown what food they needed. As the camera focuses in on an unsteady boat filled to the brim with passengers trying to dock on the Greek island of Lesbos, or pans over the sprawling, improvised architecture of the temporary refugee encampment known as “The Jungle” in Calais, France, or stands eerily still beneath the billowing smoke darkening the sky as people flee oil fields set on fire by ISIS militants, you get the feeling that something foundational to our world has begun to come apart.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the world is “now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.” As of June 2019, there are 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide: 41.3 million displaced within their countries of origin, 25.9 million refugees residing in a new country (over half of whom are children), and 3.5 million currently seeking asylum. More than half of the world’s refugees are from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan, and – in stark contrast to dominant media narratives, which emphasize impacts in the Global North – it is neighboring countries like Turkey, Uganda, and Pakistan that accept these refugees in the largest numbers.
In actuality, 85% of those displaced around the world are hosted in so-called developing nations, while wealthy countries like the United States by comparison take in a paltry amount of those seeking asylum. More has been done in these countries to stir up fear of migrant groups than to explain what drove them from their homes. In major media coverage of migration events like the current surge of Central American migrants arriving at the southern U.S. border, news outlets rarely give any background on the U.S.’s culpability in the violence that has forced people to flee their homes, despite its historical and ongoing penchant for state violence and regime change to obtain its objectives in the region.
Also neglected in most major media coverage of migration is the factor increasingly being cited as the number one cause of forced displacement worldwide: climate change. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, which attributed over 60% of new displacements in 2018 to extreme weather or natural disasters, recently released a report on “displacement in a changing climate,” examining the relationship between climate change and migration. The report finds that climate change, which it describes as a slow-onset event, interacts with and exacerbates rapid-onset events greatly increasing the likelihood of displacement. Consider, for example, a wildfire. Because of a warmer climate, a community is less prepared to withstand the fire, the fire itself is more intense, and the community's ability to recover is more strained, potentially prompting or further aggravating regional conflict and violence. All of these in turn contribute to the erosion of local ecosystems.
In fact, at the same time as global displacement has reached record levels, we are witnessing threats to the survival of an unprecedented number of ecosystems around the world. A recent UN report on biodiversity which describes the natural world as a “safety net stretched almost to [its] breaking point” finds that one million distinct species are on the verge of extinction. The report, organized by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and agreed upon by a consensus of 450 researchers from over 100 nations, found that, in the course of human history, nearly half of the world’s natural ecosystems have been destroyed, and that remaining ecosystems are now being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10 million years. The report urges that the fate of an incredible wealth of biodiversity, “within species, between species, and of ecosystems,” will be determined in the next few decades.
The convergence of these crises – of displacement and biodiversity – is no coincidence. Historians writing on the origins of capitalism, from Karl Polanyi to Silvia Federici, have shown that early capitalism tried to render labor and land – humans and nature – mobile and dynamic, able to mirror the constant and sometimes jarring movement of capitalist flows. In practice, during the early days of capitalism in post-feudal Europe, peasants witnessed rapid degradation of the natural environment and violent disruption of people's cultural bonds to their native lands. The result of this campaign to enclose common lands, break up cultural bonds, and create a class of people dependent on wage labor was a world of manufactured scarcity. Federici describes the period shortly before European expansion when colonizers would violently export this new economic way of life: “Indeed, the Europe that was preparing to become a Promethean world mover, presumably taking humankind to new technological and cultural heights, was a place where people never had enough to eat.” What we are witnessing today is a continuation of this logic, heightened by the frantic grasping of an economic system that requires perpetual growth but is running out of material sources to draw from.
We are facing a true ecological crisis. The Greek roots of this phrase are helpful here: eco from the Greek oikos, or home, and crisis from the Greek krisis, or the turning point in a disease when it is determined whether one will live or die. As industrial capitalism exports war, ecological degradation, and carbon emissions that are altering the global climate, life on our planet is increasingly finding itself without a home. We have reached a crucial juncture, the IPBES report warns, and our only hope for survival is “transformative change” in all aspects of society – first and foremost by steering “away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth.”
In trying to make sense of this moment, anthropologist Bruno Latour suggests that three distinctive features of the past few decades are worth examining together: neoliberalism (in the form of widespread deregulation and cuts to public services), corporate-funded climate change denial, and dizzying inequalities. All three, Latour proposes in his 2018 book Down to Earth, are signals that global elites, upon recognizing the approaching limits of capitalism, have thrown off any remaining “burdens of solidarity” with common people and are working to shore up their own survival. It is because this relatively small group of people has used an extraordinarily disproportionate amount of global resources that, in Latour's words, “the refugee crisis has been generalized.”
Central to the crisis we face, Latour argues, is a dominant understanding of nature and culture as separate. This conception allows people to feel they're at a safe distance even as they're watching the erosion of their very life support system. The widespread alienation from land which is inherent to capitalism has caused us to retreat from what Latour calls “the terrestrial” and to move instead towards more abstract ideas of a globalized world, one that holds out all the promises of modernity. This manifests both daily in the ways we sustain ourselves – through opaque commodity chains – and more subtly in the way we seem unconcerned about the destruction of the natural world – believing we will be saved by geo-engineering projects or the colonization of Mars as we inhabit a safe vantage point from which earth is just a small blue sphere floating in the void.
The IPBES report on biodiversity loss offers a fascinating study in current nature/culture beliefs. The authors of the report are clearly doing their best to emphasize the ways that humans are impacted by the loss of biodiversity, but after first acknowledging that we simply would not exist without nature, the descriptions of its additional benefits seem absurd. The report reads:
Nature is essential for human existence and good quality of life. Most of nature’s contributions to people are not fully replaceable, and some are irreplaceable. Nature plays a critical role in providing food and feed, energy, medicines and genetic resources and a variety of materials fundamental for people’s physical well-being and for maintaining culture.
As a reader, one is tempted to respond with a number of questions: “hold on, what was that first part?” or “which parts of nature are replaceable?” and “where exactly would I find these replacement materials?” Media coverage of the report's findings were equally telling, with articles lamenting a mass insect extinction, not because of the inherent value of insects or the fact that they're fundamental to sustaining life on this planet, but because "US$577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss."
Rather than thinking “from the vantage point of the universe to understand what's happening on this planet,” Latour argues for a recognition that the terrestrial – all that is vital to what constitutes life as we know it – “is in fact limited in a surprising way to a minuscule zone a few kilometers thick between the atmosphere and bed-rock. A biofilm, a varnish, a skin, a few infinitely folded layers.”
In contrast to those who have developed a detached perspective, Latour points to a number of groups that have maintained connections to the terrestrial, including the ZAD community – a group of activists in the French countryside who have fought off the development of a major airport for years, proclaiming “we are nature defending itself” – as well as subsistence farmers and indigenous communities who have maintained strong cultural ties to specific ecosystems. The IPBES report points to similar groups, noting that trends of biodiversity loss “have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities:”
Regional and global scenarios currently lack and would benefit from an explicit consideration of the views, perspectives and rights of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, their knowledge and understanding of large regions and ecosystems, and their desired future development pathways… Their positive contributions to sustainability can be facilitated through national recognition of land tenure, access and resource rights in accordance with national legislation, the application of free, prior and informed consent, and improved collaboration, fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use, and co-management arrangements with local communities.
In her 1998 book Cultural Memory and Biodiversity, anthropologist Virginia Nazarea writes that a large part of the planet's biodiversity is safeguarded by communities like these who have continued to follow traditional and indigenous farming practices. “Genes and cultures,” she writes, “have something very important in common: both are repositories of coded information essential to adaptation and survival.” The earth has inscribed itself on every form of life, in a diversity of genes and cultures – expressions of survival – shaped over countless generations. Tragically, the record numbers of people being forcibly displaced from familiar lands means that both biological and cultural diversity are increasingly being lost, and with them benefits that are not easily measured or enumerated, not the least of which are some of the world’s “most significant reservoirs of adaptive capability.” But Nazarea encourages her readers to remember that “the hegemony is never complete,” as farmers around the world find ways to continue their farming practices from the margins. Many forced to migrate even take beloved plants and seeds with them to continue farming in their new homes. Federici similarly writes about the tenacity of farmers, documenting the guerrilla gardening practices of women in Nigeria who, after losing farming commons, continued to garden in public spaces, wastelands, college campuses, roadside ditches, and basically any other unused spaces. Despite the overwhelming global trend towards land privatization and technology-intensive monoculture, Federici observes, “the bulk of the world's daily needs continue to be supplied by Third World women food growers outside the cash nexus."
In a time when a handful of the planet's most powerful elites take up so many resources, it is easy to believe in a world of scarcity. But, for now, there really is enough for everyone, and the single greatest threat to our planet’s abundance is our neglecting to appreciate and care for it. Certainly, those of us who live alienated from the land around us have much to learn from indigenous and other deeply rooted communities who have an unbroken connection with their ancestral home. But it may actually be those who have most recently been severed from their homelands – migrants searching for a place to simply live – who can most directly show us how to re-root ourselves in the earth: by repurposing urban space, reimagining land use in industrial landscapes, and re-cultivating ways of living that enrich rather than deplete the natural world.
Disregarding national borders and welcoming all people who are seeking refuge would be an appropriate first step in paying off a massive debt owed by the Global North. If we are willing to learn and share our lives, it may also be the shock to our system that we need to survive.