“Facing structural difficulties derived from the climate crisis from the perspective of the peoples”

At short notice I have just spoken at the 1st thematic debate in a series of discussions leading up to a World Meeting of Peoples for Our Mother Earth and Against the Climate Crisis 2021. The online meeting was organised by The Government of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, the Social Organizations of the Pact of Unity of Bolivia and the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB). The intention is to support the ‘Global Fight against the Climate Crisis towards COP26’, the the 26th Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to take place in Glasgow, UK, in November 2021.

This 1st thematic discussion was titled Facing structural difficulties derived from the climate crisis from the perspective of the peoples and included three subtopics: “Living Well in balance and harmony with Mother Earth as a structural alternative”; “The multiple crises of capitalism and its impact on life systems and the culture of life”; and “The defense of Mother Earth through the non-commodification of nature and recognition of its rights”. All these topics are of course immense. They call for solidarity with each other, across differences of history and experience, so that we can really face up to the structural circumstances causing climate crisis, and the structural difficulties deriving from the climate crisis.

When I received the invitation to speak at this event, I was reminded that I shared a panel once before with one of the event organisers, Diego Pacheco, currently Head of the Bolivian delegation to the UNFCCC. This was at a large Conference on Biodiversity governance in 2013 in Norway.

One of the questions we were asked to respond to at that conference was “how biodiversity values might be better accounted for in national planning”? Several of the panelists spoke of the importance of developing tools for so-called “natural capital accounting”. And if I recall correctly, both Diego and I were very hesitant about this drive to reframe nature and the natural world as ‘natural capital’.

Our resistance to thinking about ‘nature’ as ‘natural capital’ cuts to the core of the ethos of this World Meeting of Peoples: namely, the desire to urgently shift human collective thinking about the natural world – about Pachamama, to use the powerful Andean name – so that human beings may amplify ways of living that are more harmonious with the diverse breathing and living entities with whom, miraculously, we share Earth.

It seems to me that when we use objectifying and implicitly monetising words to describe the other kinds of organisms dwelling with us here on Earth we deepen the disconnect that underlies many of the ills linked with the modern world. Yet it is precisely the pathology of this disconnect that needs to be made visible and to be healed, if we are collectively to walk a different future into being.

In learning to re-embed ourselves with the natural world – a world that it is in fact impossible for us natural beings to be separate from – we need to find ways of articulating, practicing and celebrating what human persons and communities can do for natures beyond-the-human. Acknowledging ‘nature’s contributions to people’ is crucial, as confirmed in the conceptual framework for the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). At the same time, what happens when we think instead about how people might contribute to the flourishing of nature?

In the present moment, responding to this question can feel difficult. We see all around that peoples’ contributions to “Nature” have been devastating. We see massive holes dug into the ground all over the planet to extract minerals and fossil fuels to fuel industrial growth, corporate wealth and consumerism. We see oil spills in the oceans, and plastic bags choking animals everywhere.

And we see exponentially rising industrial CO2 emissions warming the Earth’s atmosphere, in ways that affect all living beings on the planet.

We also see that the intrinsically expansionary capitalist economic system that underscores all these ‘innovations’ can only propose more of itself as a ‘solution’ to these interlocked crises. Hence we have market-based solutions to environmental damage, the creation of new tradable nature commodities such as carbon credits, and net zero projections based on fantasy capital-hungry technologies that are unproven and do not exist.

We also see that cultures who have known better how to ensure continuity and mutual flourishing are everywhere devalued, marginalised and destroyed. This context relates especially to Indigenous Peoples known to live in association with areas of the planet now valued because of the sustenance of biodiversity and ecological health in these localities.

Supporting structural alternatives for living well and in harmony with the life-force of Pachamama require structures that give space for listening to different views and perspectives and the rationalities that inform them. But this is a hard change to achieve, and I’m sure I do not need to persuade this audience of how hard it is.

It is hard because as we know from the past 500 years of history the capitalist system requires the silencing of these alternative perspectives, practices and ways of organising. It requires the separation of people from nature, and the reframing of nature as capital. It also requires concealment of the dissonance running through many proposed so-called solutions to environmental crises.

There is another dimension here that I feel I must voice. It is a response to the framing for this World Meeting of Peoples of the earth as female: as ‘our Mother’ – as beautiful and powerful Pachamama.

The first thing I want to note is that, for better or worse, in the UK it would be very unusual for an official meeting about environmental concerns to be framed in this way. We are not encouraged or supported to think about the Earth as a nurturing and nourishing, and sometimes challenging, mother.

The second thing to note is that Bolivia and the UK alike, as elsewhere in the world, seem to have a problem with the ‘female’. In the UK we are currently reeling from some of the worst cases of femicide – the murder of females by males – in an already dark history of this crime. In 2018, Bolivia had the highest rates of femicide in South America.

If our cultures do not treat female human beings well, how will they know how to treat well an Earth conceptualised as female?

This, for me, connects to another important question which is: how may we be able to include other entities as beings and persons, rather than as objects and commodities, if humans ­– and some humans in particular – are also treated as disposable objects and commodities?

In seeking to structurally face the climate crisis from the perspective of the peoples we must be prepared to ask these difficult questions. We must be prepared to listen to different perspectives and worldviews, especially the perspectives of those usually structurally silenced or made invisible. We must, somehow, find ways of creating structural spaces for these different views to be heard and acted upon within formal policy and governance contexts.


Connected peer reviewed publications

Böhm, S. and Sullivan, S. (eds.) 2021. Negotiating Climate Change in Crisis. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.

Sullivan, S. 2019 Reading ‘Earth Incorporated’ through Caliban and the Witch, pp. 119-134 in Barbagallo, C., Beuret, N. and Harvie, D. (eds.) Commoning with Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis. London: Pluto Press.

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