Monday, October 12, 2009
A Conversation about the Global Financial Crisis
Island 116 Autumn 2009, pp. 8-17.
SUSAN HAWTHORNE AND ARIEL SALLEH
THINKING BEYOND, THINKING DEEP
Over this past summer, Ariel Salleh and Susan Hawthorne have been discussing political frameworks, themes and concerns that are current in feminist, ecological, and socialist movements. Ideas which, they lament, are largely absent in mainstream political analysis. The outcome is that Australian politics and policy rarely step outside 'the box'. This myopia is obvious in global warming and biodiversity policy, in the business-as-usual response to the global economic meltdown. They conclude by asking if alternatives for Australia can be found in indigenous ways of 'being in country'.
Susan Hawthorne is an activist, a publisher, a poet and an aerialist. She came to environmental awareness on her parents' farm in the Riverina district where tree planting and water allocation were part of everyday life economics. But her main political focus is the feminist movement, in which she has been active for more than thirty-five years. In 1991, together with Renate Klein, she founded Spinifex Press, a publishing house that specialises in feminist writing and is dedicated to having indigenous women's voices heard. She has also worked on creating a political model drawing on the theoretical depth of radical feminism encountered over her years of activism. The results of this work appeared in her 2002 book, Wild Politics.
Ariel Salleh is also an activist of long standing. She and Marilyn Lake called Tasmania's first feminist gathering at Ariel’s Battery Point digs in 1971. Moving to Sydney a few years later, she co-convened the Movement Against Uranium Mining; spent the summer of 1982 on the Franklin; got into serious ecofeminist debate with deep ecologists; and helped form the Glebe Greens. In the early nineties she worked on the Earth Summit with the Women's Environment and Development Organisation in New York and Rio, returning home to a protracted catchment struggle on the NSW South Coast. Her current focus is on gene technology and en-gendering eco-socialist thought within the World Social Forum process.
SUSAN HAWTHORNE: You know, Ariel, I hear the news and think, well of course this has happened – the financial crisis, for example, or climate change. Why is it that governments, corporates, even mainstream NGOs, don't seem to have read any of the work that ecological thinkers, feminists, anti-globalisation activists and other critics of the system have written these past thirty years?
ARIEL SALLEH: The media has a lot to account for in the way it scatters and defuses political developments – hedge funds, the Murray River, football injuries, our Nicole, Sorry Day, and nanotech – everything equal to everything else. There's a very wide gap between this and the kind of contextualising you do, or say, my own efforts in Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice to bring sex-gender literacy into disciplines like political ecology. We are drawing lines between things not usually connected. But the small L-liberal tendency to keep treating social questions as separate issues is very pervasive, even in some smaller more freewheeling media publications. To take a case in point: in a time of global warming, it's crucial to spell out the links between ecology and women, North and South. Social science research from the European Union reveals that men's consumption choices in transport, electronics and recreation are far more heavily implicated in the causes of global warming than are women's activities. So too, the global North and South are interconnected when it comes to political decisions on climate. Australian commitments under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism may cause Indonesian women to lose their communal livelihood as forests are turned into externally financed carbon sinks. This kind of policy is neocolonial and regressive. It shifts the cost of our high-energy Australian lifestyle on to the backs of others. One-dimensional environmentalism leaves the big picture in the box.
SUSAN: That European study on men's consumption choices causing more global warming than women's, reminds me of very fine US research by Pat Hynes in which she found that when men spend, they buy luxuries – cigarettes, alcohol, petrol, pornography and women's bodies for their individual use. Whereas when women spend they buy survival goods – food, shelter, medicines and schooling for themselves, their children and others who depend on them, including male partners. There is a serious gap in economic research, one which feminists have been filling in over the last
couple of decades. But it seems that only feminists get to read this! Feminism is not only about wages being unequal, the impact of sex-gendered consumption patterns is highly relevant to unpacking what is happening in the global financial world, and the way in which climate is changing. I started having worries about the Kyoto Protocol around 2001 when I discovered that Toyota was investing in genetically engineered plantation trees to absorb carbon. These trees apparently are meant to grow at double the rate. But it’s a con, because all it does is create in the shape of trees a forest that will inevitably 'crash'. Such trees are like the fast growing market we’ve seen in recent years where there is no regulation and no attempt to think about growth as a process that has collapsibility rules. As Barney Foran notes: 'By saving the economic system that has propelled us to this point, we could lose the climate. We can’t grow and shrink at the same time. It’s not physically possible.'
ARIEL: Yes, the idea of genetically engineered trees as a panacea to climate change is truly shocking, and it too is a result of single-issue thinking. Feminists interested in the sociology of knowledge point to this linear logic as a particularly masculinist invention. It represents 'the master's' concept of his own line of intention or purpose in dominating and reorganising the world. Housewives know, and indigenous peoples know, that ecological and social relations are too complex and multilayered to be fully controlled by human beings. The precautionary principle is taken for granted by people who work hands-on with natural cycles. But the Western 'man of reason' does not concede to his own limitations. When his intention misses its target, it gets passed off as an unanticipated consequence or so-called ‘collateral damage’. A whole new academic field called risk science now papers over this unknown space between human cause and natural effect. The practice of genetic engineering demonstrates this at every phase of the industry. The corporation takes aim for profit from the new commodity – what this product is, or what it does is immaterial to the accountant. The scientist takes aim to break research ground, marking the name of his institute or firm on a patent. The government takes aim to be seen as up there with cutting-edge science – and all the while, keeping the pharmaceutical dollar in the party donation book. The end result in Australia has been a corner-cutting gene technology regulatory process, achieving precious little in terms of environmental or health protection. The irony is that even scientists do not agree among themselves on what a gene actually does, and the determinist single gene
models of molecular biology are already giving way to an understanding of reproduction as a complex 'epigenetic' interaction between multiple unknown forces in the cellular environment.
SUSAN: In relation to genetic engineering, if the global North is facing a financial crisis, ordinary people in Africa, Asia, Latin America and other poor communities are facing a food crisis through the loss of farmlands to World Bank-sponsored cash crop programs, so turning agriculture into an investment rather than a necessity of life. Think of export roses grown in Kenya and lilies in the Philippines; think of the biotechnology baskets offered by the financial brokers – with the adoption of genetically engineered crops food becomes just another 'product'. These moves in the name of development result in a cascading disconnection of economic reality from life processes. And the result is that it is mostly rural women and children who starve, while men in the global South take their chance in the cities. I wonder do the Australian government's gene technology deliberations weigh up the overseas impacts of its home-grown industry?
I like the idea that Julie Nelson puts forward in her book Economics for Humans. She proposes that policy advisers ditch the inexorable metaphor of society as machine and replace it with the metaphor of the beating heart. Economics concerns itself with circulation, so if the flow of essentials such as goods and money cease, then the economy is in danger of 'heart failure'. The recent global meltdown suggests that the recovery from myocardial infarction is going to take some time. Most importantly, the heart metaphor brings emotion into economics because the heart is the centre of love, of courage, care and respect. Nelson says that 'The image of the economy as a beating heart not only brings together body and soul, but points us toward action regarding the heartaches of poverty, hunger, injustice, empty consumerism, and ecological destruction.' More than this, Nelson's model reminds us that in fact the whole economy depends on human trust. When talking about finance, trust is a capital-T Trust, but as with most commercially appropriated language, this is a terrible distortion of the true sense of the word. When the banks began to wobble, as Barbara Rockefeller points out, they 'lost trust in one another'. Trust is, she says, something you can’t force. Which brings me back to the forced growth of genetically engineered trees, free markets, and unregulated derivatives.
ARIEL: Your image of forced-growth eucalypts, multiple piglets, and swollen udders as mirroring the economy of infinite loans and unregulated derivatives is stunning. And as you say, the whole thing is totally out of touch with real life needs. Moreover, every government's response to the financial meltdown has been single-issue and linear – more of the same – print more money, lend and spend, till the economy grows back again. Global elite decision makers don't seem to see that liquidity is not the same thing as solvency. Under neoliberalism, the divide of root from branch is total.
Looking at climate change, the failure of politicians to respond appropriately is frightening. What will the new dream team in Washington come up with, I wonder? I read a brilliant blog piece recently by Sharon Astyk, a critical exposé of the standard Al Gore formula. Gore's Obama List is likely to include: Congressional incentives for reduced deforestation; solar, wind, and geothermal spots in the deserts of the US south-west; construction of a national low-loss underground grid; plug-in hybrid cars; retrofitted buildings; household conservation advice; and replacement of the Kyoto Protocol at Copenhagen in 2009 with a treaty that caps carbon emissions ready for trade. A wish list like this is thoroughly masculinist in the way it relies on the tech fix and deflects attention from lived social and, indeed, natural thermodynamic realities. The capitalist economy dependent on permanent consumption remains unquestioned, as long as there is a conversion to green product. The trouble is that the construction of Gore's new high-tech cities in the US south-west, for example, will consume vast amounts of front-end fuels – in welding turbines and grids, road making, water supply, component manufacture for housing, air conditioning for supermarkets and schools. What is being offered is yet another mortgage – borrow now, pay later. Beyond this are the direct ecological costs of resettling Americans to the dry interior and south. Then there are the psychological costs of mass resettlement. Moreover, the new urbanisation will mean a loss of farmland, possibly replaced by agricultural leases in the Third World. And how then will the displaced peasants, presumably in Central America, feed themselves? And what global warming pollution will be generated by the long haulage of food back to the USA? UN development experts talk about 'capacity building' for the global South to train non-industrialised communities for the modernised world. I would argue that capacity building is actually needed for the global North – and the skill that is desperately wanted in societies such as ours is the ability to connect the dots.
SUSAN: The problem is that these so-called new ideas like Gore's contain the old entrepreneurial logic – the popular phrase ‘natural capitalism’ concedes as much! I see our capitalist society rather like an overgrown onion – the outside layer just gets bigger and bigger and less and less nutritious. An economy should reflect how nature operates. Some people may say this is corny, but what is the universe if not about pattern? And our existence arises out of particular kinds of patterning. You can see it when you look at a fractal. You can see it in the growth rings of trees. You can see it in the pattern of an economic crisis. Is it even possible to fund self-sustaining systems without supporting the polluters? I mean, carbon trading schemes can become all out green-washing machines. My alternative proposal would be a biodiversity tax – and within the term biodiversity I include cultural and social diversity. The tax would work in the following way. If a taxpayer – individual, organisation, or corporation – engaged in activities that enhanced biodiversity then they would gain credits on their tax. If they engaged in activities that reduce biodiversity they would pay tax. The activities that destroy biodiversity and cultural diversity would accrue the highest taxes. Gore's desert cities of the US south-west wouldn’t even get off the ground, precisely because the ecological and social costs are so high. Or to take the Australian example of Gunns' proposed pulp mill in Tasmania, the kind of forestry that is carried out for this wouldn’t get on to the drawing board. Furthermore, those who engaged in military action or corporate biotechnology and the like would be hit with massive taxes. Toyota could not use engineered trees to get carbon credits because gene technology is a homogenising process, reducing biodiversity. For a change, under my system of progressive taxation, artists, social activists, women who support communities, those involved in caring for children, the infirm and disabled, indigenous people maintaining land and culture would be recognised for the work they carry out and provided with support to allow them to continue – without ghettoising and entrenching such activities.
ARIEL: Well, your idea of biodiversity and cultural credits is a big improvement on the idea of carbon credits! Although, like the basic income scheme favoured by the UK Green Party, all such payments rely on the existence of a democratic state that is hardy enough to face down pressures from the corporate sector. Right now, the ubiquitous bail-out response to financial meltdown on the part of the industrialised democracies shows that most governments are simply looking after the interests of suits-as-usual and
keeping the revolving door turning. Even Anglican bishops in the UK have pointed to how the bail-outs repeat the same inconsequential reasoning as brought the system down a few months earlier. I like the sound of what you say, but then again, allocating taxes and credits depends on how much you think you can reform the capitalist state. Do you believe that a socially transparent capitalist system is really possible? And even if capitalism were made socially responsible, isn't an economy based on commodifying nature inherently anti-ecological?
SUSAN: In making such a suggestion, I agree that we need a wholesale transformation of the current system, overdetermined by the profit motive as it is. A biodiversity tax could only work where there was a general desire to get beyond commodification. I guess there is a need for transitional practices that help to shift public values, and such a tax would be that kind of intervention. As for spelling out the exact steps from Here to There, I'll leave that to the angels! Lilla Watson is interesting here, when she explains how for indigenous people the future extends as far forward as the past goes back – this means a 40,000-year plan. In Wild Politics I took this insight as a way of imagining a world in which politicians, economists, people running businesses, might begin to think about doing things differently. If you want to create societies that last, you don’t just have a three- or five- or even ten-year plan. You need to think about how to create stable and responsive practices. Stable – because risk, profit and all the capitalist paraphernalia are extremely unstable. Responsive – because people change; political, economic and ecological conditions change.
I really want to be part of a thought experiment. How far can we imagine? What are the most inventive ideas we can come up with? Imaginative inventiveness does not come from the mainstream. I am amazed and thrilled to see writers of fiction and poetry writing about economics: Kate Jennings’s essay 'American Revolution', for example, or Margaret Atwood, whose latest book, Payback, is about debt, economics, value, the environment and justice. It's time to be guided by something other than the textbooks for engineering, MBAs, corporate law and biotechnology!
ARIEL: This idea that the protection of biodiversity and cultural diversity are interrelated political objectives is fascinating – and thanks are due here to Vandana Shiva for her path-breaking ecofeminist book Staying Alive. Cultural diversity has become very salient now with the rise of the alternative
globalisation movement and its World Social Forum events. The movement brings together urban workers, peasants, environmentalists, women, indigenous peoples, as one great movement of movements questioning corporate globalisation. And in this multistranded unity, indigenous voices are offering a new kind of leadership on the environment – one that challenges the all too accommodationist politics of many big NGOs. For instance, I've been horrified to find that the Friends of the Earth moratorium on genetic engineering was converted by FOE International into an emphasis on product labelling and regulation – 'because that is where the game is at'. Whereas indigenous peoples are bringing a new awareness to the global North by modelling congruity between their cultural, economic, and ecological practices. There's a beautiful essay on this kind of 'meta-industrial' rationality by anthropologist Debbie Rose. Called 'Fitting into Country', it describes Deb's lessons in economic provisioning under her Aboriginal mentor Jessie Wirrpa of Victoria River country. I recommend this to anyone who cares about where Australia is going. I think the Ngarrindjeri women are also spelling out an alternative ecology for Murray country, no?
SUSAN: Yes, the Ngarrindjeri women of South Australia, are clear about what they want for the future. As Rita Lindsay, Ellen Trevorrow, Alice Abdulla, and Margaret Dodd emphasise: 'We want our young people to be educated so they can be part of managing our lands and waters, so they will have employment, so land and waters will be cared for according to Ngarrindjeri laws, for future generations'. Intergenerational sustainability and responsibility are what they are talking about, and Lilla Watson too. I don’t think there is any other way forward.
ARIEL: Big-picture thinking, I agree, outside the box; a way of seeing in which the ecosystem, laws of nature, are the bottom line – not profit. There was a time when feminism and ecology were converging around this – before so much environmentalism turned corporate, and worker's and women's movements got side-tracked into fighting for equality in corrupt and unsustainable institutions...
SUSAN: That history is a sad one, and it is important. We have seen all the radical movements co-opted, or at least split apart and weakened by co-option. But at risk of sounding naively optimistic, I still think there is cause for hope with the generational change that is taking place. It’s a wait-and-see
time. Can the behemoth of Bush’s and Howard’s ideology be moved on? Will Obama and Rudd live up to their 'can do' rhetoric? Now is a good time to stand our ground and regroup with all our political luggage (not baggage) around us. Time again for cutting-edge thinking, direct action, maybe even poetry will find a place in political activism again.
ARIEL: Yes, you are right about regrouping. My hope is that a deeper politics will emerge from the fusion of women's, ecological, worker and indigenous movements – but this leaves open the question of sharing that radical alternative with a bland mass media saturated public. Your emphasis on poetry, drama, and direct action may well be critical to breaking through. Like most activists we are in there for the long haul – and optimism is our kind of 'capital'!
ARTICLES AND BOOKS REFERRED TO IN THIS CONVERSATION:
Hawthorne, Susan, Wild Politics, Spinifex, 2002.
Salleh, Ariel (ed), Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice, Spinifex, 2009.
Salleh, Ariel, 'Is Australia's Climate Policy Gender Literate?', Insight Magazine, June 2008.
Hynes, H Patricia, ‘Consumption: North American Perspectives' in Jael Silliman and Ynestra King (eds), Dangerous Intersections: Feminist Perspectives on Population, Environment and Development, South End Press, 1999.
Foran, Barney, 'Now or Never: Correspondence', Quarterly Essay, 2008, No 32, p 120.
Salleh, Ariel, 'Organised Irresponsibility: Contradictions in the Australian Government's Strategy for GM Regulation', Environmental Politics, 2006, Vol 15, No 2, 388-416.
On Africa: Dani Nabudere, 'The Global Crisis of Capitalism and its Impact', Pambazuka News, No 412: http://www.pambazuka.org. On Asia: Farida Akhter, 'Seeds in Women’s Hands: The Fundamental Issue of Food Security' in Seeds of Movements. Dhaka: Narigrantha Prabartana, 2007, pp 231-246. Also see Wild Politics, 2002, pp 340-345.
Nelson, Julie, Economics for Humans, University of Chicago Press, 2006, p 60.
Rockefeller, Barbara, cited in Kate Jennings, 'American Revolution: The Fall of Wall Street and the Rise of Barack Obama', Quarterly Essay, 2008, No 32, p 63.
Astyk, Sharon, 'A New Deal or a War Footing? Thinking through Our Response to Climate Change', Ruminations for a New Future: Casaubon's Book, 11 November 2008.
Jennings, Kate, op. cit.
Atwood, Margaret Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, Bloomsbury, 2008.
Shiva, Vandana, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development, Zed Books, 1989.
Rose, Deborah Bird, 'Fitting into Country', Capitalism Nature Socialism, 2008, Vol 19, No 3, 117-21.
Trevorrow, Ellen, Abdulla, Alice, and Dodd, Margaret, in Diane Bell (ed), Listen to Ngarrindjeri Women Speaking: Kungun Ngarrindjeri Miminar Yunnan, Spinifex Press, p 15.
SUSAN HAWTHORNE is the author of Wild Politics (2002), and Earth’s Breath (2009) and forthcoming in 2010 Economies of Dissent (essays). A contributor to Ariel Salleh's anthology Eco-sufficiency and Global Justice (2009), she co-edited September 11, 2001: Feminist Perspectives (2002) with Bronwyn Winter. She is a Research Associate at Victoria University, Melbourne.
ARIEL SALLEH is a researcher in Political Economy at the University of Sydney. Former Associate Professor in Social Inquiry at UWS and co-editor of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, her publications include: Ecofeminism as Politics, Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice and many articles: www.ArielSalleh.net