Introduction: Against the Green Screen
From the Series: Green Capitalism and Its Others
In 2001, the UK donated a medical waste incinerator to Macedonia. A gesture of environmental humanitarianism, the incinerator was to upscale the waste removal policies of a poor ex-Yugoslav state. However, it soon transpired that the same model would be forbidden in the EU, expensive filters for carcinogenic fumes unattached. The unevenness of such a “toxic gift” was familiar to Skopje residents. “In Paris, as soon as the PM 2.5 index reaches 80 points, it is called a state of emergency, and public transport is made free,” a friend argued. “In Skopje, 300 points means air is getting cleaner,” a friend complained. Increasingly topping the world air pollution charts, the winter smog of Balkan capitals is due both to heating with coal as well as to West European technology dumping—such as German second-hand cars—onto their streets.
At a time when the climate breakdown is becoming the new normal, this collection describes new divisions borne out of transition to green energy and ecological concern. It argues that, if the “double bind” of carbon democracies lies in the contrast between economic growth and environmental unsustainability (Eriksen 2016), new aporias hide precisely in the shift to green capitalism and its uneven effects. By attending to various “grey” residues behind green smokescreens—lives and processes hidden behind the authoritative figures of planetary crisis—we reflect on the emerging forms of dispossession and othering, submission, lie, and waste done in the name of greening the capital. As in Macedonia, geography is a curse and new green screens replace the preceding “curtains.” Environmental injustices sediment in the tidemarks of North–South colonialism and West–East allochronism, though many of them are new, shaped by the sheer lottery of planetary affliction and the risks and gains still to be mapped onto the lines of nation and race, class, gender, and age.
Half a century ago, leftist thinkers such as Ivan Illich (1974) and André Gorz (1980) warned us not to take ecology as an endpoint, but a part of wider struggle. They predicted that capitalism would eventually incorporate environmentalism in its reproduction, if unstopped by a “Third Revolution.” Such a scenario might seem delusional in the face of Amazon, Siberia, and Australia burning; polar melt; and other runaway processes of the last year. Yet it remains prophetic for the techno-optimism and financialization currently reigning the planet. Global policies now imagine economic growth in tandem with sustainability, an “ecological regime” based on taxation and technological fixes (Moore 2015). Entire ecosystems are on rent in the global carbon credit trade. Even if still unthwarted by Trump’s and Bolsanaro’s climate denial policies, the limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise proposed by the Paris Climate Agreement would mean scorching and drowning much of the Global South by 2100—entire ecosystems are already vanishing before our eyes. Transitioning to solar and wind energy frequently repeat preceding forms of extractivism, inducing new ecological conflicts and cryptocolonial relations (Martinez-Alier 2003; Argenti and Knight 2015; Howe and Boyer 2016; Franquesa 2018; Boyer 2019; Dunlap 2019; Howe 2019). Indeed it is lithium—the key component of electric cars’ batteries—that might be the new gold, as the Bolivian coup indicates. As the 2018 California wildfires have shown most vividly, environmental catastrophe does not stop precarious labor nor business as usual. Nor a AAA meeting, for that matter.
As the urgency of anthropogenic climate change unfolds in front of us, we take a moment to pull back from the “green screen” to examine the political, socioeconomic, and ethical work done in its name (cf. Jasanoff 2010; Mathur 2015). A part of this consists in “green grabbing”: opportunistic frontiers that cheapen nature, territories, and people in ways old and new (Fairhead, Leach, and Scoones 2012). And yet, as much as environmental doom presents itself as an opportunity for capital, it also acts as a frontier for new forms of state regulation and citizen organization. Take Joshua Clover’s treatise of gilets jaunes as an early example of the coming wave of climate rebellion, where citizens contest state outsourcing of energy transition to the population. That petrol price unrests sparked from Mexico through France to Chile and Zimbabwe supports his idea that we are witnessing the return of eighteenth-century-style “price riots,” where masses struggle neither for identity recognition nor for labor compensation but to set the costs of vital resources—water, food, energy—needed for social reproduction (Muehlebach 2017; Clover 2019; cf. Thompson 1971). With ecology becoming a new weapon of austerity, we follow various civic, indigenous, peasant, insurgent, and generational attempts to seize the green from the state–capital embrace. And yet we complicate this picture by showing the patchy alliances, unseen externalities, and nesting others that haunt resistance too. There are frictions in the Cosmopolis. There are jobs in Green New Deals. There are multiple indignants wearing yellow vests.
Such developments remind us of Bruno Latour’s (2019) notion of “the new climatic regime,” where migration, inequality and climate change become parts of the same threat. For him the Anthropocene is first of all a state of war, declared at a time when the very ground of globalization gives away. Therefore, the moderns are forced to come down to Earth, and “we are all in migration towards territories to be rediscovered and reoccupied” (Latour 2019, 5). Whether sharing this earthbound militancy or not, one cannot deny that ecology has become intrinsic elements of all politics. This often means a return of Malthusian specters of population and territory. For it is not only Greta Thunberg and the youth climate strikers who are proclaiming that “our house is on fire,” and speak in the name of wildlife and those still to be born. With a different take, so do the ecofascists, when—moved by deep ecology tenets and the fear of overpopulation and environmental doom—target racialized communities, as in the El Paso and Christchurch mosque shootings. Like all popular mobilizations, “ecopopulism” (Szasz 1994) has no predestined social subject, and can ally very different demands, actions and affects under the banner of “protecting life itself.” One of anthropology’s tasks in the coming decades will be to describe what forms of connection get struck as citizens turn to “Nature” as emancipatory ideal. Also, to see whose lives get protected in new vitalist politics.
Finally, to look behind the Green Screen means to admit the epistemological challenges of the moment. These are not only created by the overwhelming “hyperobjects” of planetary change, as much of the literature on the Anthropocene suggests (Chakrabarty 2009; Morton 2013). Rather, some very human (and very corporate) forms of greenwashing and gaslighting occur, blurring the basic conceptions of our predicament. As in Paul Schrader’s eco-Christian drama First Reformed, the biggest culprits come in the guise of the most generous benefactors, the reactions to which range from disbelief to radicalization. Chronicling the efforts of various groups to scientifically base, intuit, or divine the truth behind their fate, we describe how authority is claimed in the “New Dark Age” (Bridle 2019). For if being a contemporary has always meant being blinded by the “beam of darkness” of one’s moment, its hopes and despairs (Agamben 2009), being a contemporary today involves the trouble of deciding whom and how to believe in a green-screened present. Our interlocutors’ verdant dreams and apocalyptic paranoias have much to teach us in this. This series follows them in the practice of suspicious speculation.
Agamben, Giorgio. 2009. “What is the Contemporary?” In “What is an Apparatus?” and other Essays, 39–54. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Argenti, Nicolas, and Daniel M. Knight. 2015. “Sun, Wind, and the Rebirth of Extractive Economies: Renewable Energy Investment and Metanarratives of Crisis in Greece.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21, no. 4: 781–802.
Boyer, Dominic. 2019. Energopolitics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Bridle, James. 2019. New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. London: Verso.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2: 197–222.
Clover, Joshua. 2019. Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings. London: Verso.
Dunlap, Alexander. 2019. Renewing Destruction: Wind Energy Development, Conflict and Resistance in a Latin American Context. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2016. Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change. London: Pluto.
Fairhead, James, Melissa Leach, and Ian Scoones. 2012. “Green Grabbing: A New Appropriation of Nature?” Journal of Peasant Studies 39, no. 2: 237–61.
Franquesa, Jaume. 2018. Power Struggles: Dignity, Value, and the Renewable Energy Frontier in Spain. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Gorz, André. 1980. Ecology as Politics. Montreal: Black Rose.
Howe, Cymene. 2019. Ecologics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Howe, Cymene, and Dominic Boyer. 2016. “Aeolian Extractivism and Community Wind in Southern Mexico.” Public Culture 28, no. 2: 215–35.
Illich, Ivan. 1974. Energy and Equity. New York: Harper and Row.
Jasanoff, Sheila. 2010. “A New Climate for Society.” Theory, Culture and Society 27, no. 2–3: 233–53.
Latour, Bruno. 2019. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Martinez-Alier, Juan. 2003. The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Mathur, Nayanika. 2015. “‘It’s a Conspiracy Theory and Climate Change’: Of Beastly Encounters and Cervine Disappearances in Himalayan India.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5, no. 1: 87–111.
Moore, Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso.
Morton, Timothy. 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Muehlebach, Andrea. 2017. “The Price of Austerity: Vital Politics and the Struggle for Public Water in Southern Italy.” Anthropology Today 3, no. 5: 20–23.
Szasz, Andrew. 1994. Ecopopulism: Toxic Waste and the Movement for Environmental Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Thompson, E. P. 1971. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past and Present 50, no. 1: 76–136.