Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is a bestselling author, investigative journalist and international security scholar. He is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization among other books. That book was the basis for the excellent Crisis of Civilisation documentary.
He also writes for the Guardian on the geopolitics of environmental, energy and economic crises on his Earth insight blog. He wrote this article exclusively for our spring issue…
Illustration by Lucca Benney
Uprising: the crisis of civilisation and the struggle for the global commons by Dr Nafeez Ahmed
The last half decade has seen the persistence of social protests in various forms, including civil disobedience and mass demonstrations. From the Occupy movement across the Western world, to the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa; from riots in European capitals, to the current protests in Cyprus: uprisings have become a regular feature of life.
With the world reeling under the impact of banking collapses, austerity, environmental crisis, energy woes and rocketing food prices, it’s no wonder that people everywhere are rising up and demanding change.
But at the heart of these disparate uprisings is a single global struggle: between the people and profit, for access to the planet’s precious land, water, energy, raw materials and resources – a struggle for the global commons.
Over three hundred years ago, the struggle kicked-off in a major way when the seeds of English capitalism were planted amidst mass evictions of peasants from public lands. Formerly landed peasants, who were compelled by threat of force to pay tribute (a percentage of their produce), to local lords, now ended up as a new, landless proletariat. They had no choice but to sell their labour power for wages to the lords who now owned and controlled what was once their land. This process of enclosure gradually enforced a new social condition – the dispossession of people from access to the sources, means and technologies of production – that was, and remains, the fundamental basis of modern capitalism.
But in 1649, Gerrard Winstanley gathered together fifty-odd supporters to challenge the new order with a radical message: to make “the Earth a common treasury for all… not one lording over another, but all looking upon each other as equals in the creation”. Occupying vacant and public lands in Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Kent, and Northamptonshire, Winstanley’s rag-tag movement of ‘Diggers’ uprooted the centralisation of economic power with a call for equal access for all, growing their own food, and distributing it to the public for free. Until local landowners hired thugs and mercenaries to force them out; although the Diggers turned to the government for support, they were ignored and forced to disband.
But the struggle for the global commons had only just begun. Fast forward to the 21st century, and despite the wonders of modern industry and global communications, in many ways little has changed. In countless communities around the world – in the UK, in Spain, in Greece, in Africa, Latin America and India – the spirit of the Diggers lives on as poor people, farmers, workers, and peasants find themselves making a last stand between the common land they own collectively, and global corporations in pursuit of ever greater profits.
Ultimately what we are facing is a struggle between two visions of the world. Global civilizational crises of climate change, energy depletion, food scarcity, economic meltdown, and violent conflict are interconnected symptoms of a protracted collapse process of the broken, neoliberal model. As this model increasingly crumbles under the weight of its own sustainability, the battle for new, more viable alternatives intensifies.
At stake is a new, emerging paradigm of civilization based on a vision of a global commons for all; new only in the sense that such a notion has never been practiced before on a global scale, for it is rooted in ideas and norms that traditional peoples all over the world have implemented in different ways.
At the core of our current civilizational model is a dramatic inequality in access to the Earth’s resources, coupled with an ideology that sees those resources as nothing more than a playing field for a minority of members of the human species to accumulate material wealth without limits. The vast majority of the world’s resources – not just monetary wealth, but land, resources and raw materials – is owned and controlled by a tiny minority of states, monarchs, aristocratic families, banks and corporations.
It is no accident that the Queen of England (arguably the harbinger of contemporary global capitalism before its supersession by the United States) is the world’s largest landlord, owning about 6.6 billion acres of land. That is one-sixth of the Earth’s land surface. Put another way, 1,318 corporations own 80 per cent of the world’s wealth, and out of those, a tiny interlocking nexus of 147 ‘super corporations’ own half of that.
And as civilizational crises deepen, the response of this nexus of power has been to attempt to increasingly centralise its control of the Earth’s last remaining untapped resources. The last half decade alone has seen a dramatic acceleration of land grabs – largely in the less developed countries. In 2008-2009, about 22 million hectares were subject to acquisition, according to the World Bank, rising to about 80 million in 2011. Overall, the last decade has seen a total of 203 million hectares acquired or being negotiated. This process, driven by varying combinations of political patronage, violence and market forces, is leading to the escalating displacement of poor people from commonly owned lands, and the transfer of their land into centralised ownership of foreign corporations and investors.
What is driving this process? Short answer: a civilization in overshoot. Across the board, as resources are depleting, scarcity is increasing and prices are rising. Since 2005, the world food price index has doubled, and despite stabilising this year, remains at record levels. Simultaneously, the global oil index in the same period has roughly tripled, and despite promises about shale gas and fracking, even the International Energy Agency concedes that the age of cheap oil is well and truly over. Other commodities are also rocketing in value – from metals to timber to chemicals – with one study by Inverto AG noting a “systematic shortage” leading to “supply bottlenecks”, meaning companies raise prices and pass costs onto consumers.
Unfortunately, even those who claim to be at the vanguard of responding to these crises can be part of the problem. Chris Martenson, for instance, is a former executive of the giant pharmaceutical firm Pfizer and an ex Vice President at US defence conglomerate, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), who now devotes all his time to writing presciently about the “triple crisis” of environmental, energy and economic collapse – but has very few meaningful solutions. Instead of advocating systemic transformation, or challenging capitalism in its current form, he effectively advocates a strengthening of the most regressive neoliberal principles: Individuals should seek “resilience” by investing what remains of their wealth in high value stocks and shares – largely commodities like farming land, which we have seen are rocketing in price – based on Martenson’s strategic investment advice. This sort of ‘elitist survivalism’ is ultimately part of the problem: encouraging those with capital to maximise their control of the world’s wealth, as crises kick in, in order to remain safe amidst imminent civilizational collapse. Meanwhile, the rest of the world’s population can go to hell in a handbasket.
As the persistence of uprisings proves, of course, it won’t work – people will not simply lay back while power seals its destruction of the Earth.
And civilization is unlikely to collapse so imminently. Despite that, while things will get worse before they get better, the trends we are seeing today are illustrative of a fundamental and often forgotten reality: that the 21st century signals the unequivocal demise of the carbon age. The failure to come to terms with this fact and its implications is symptomatic of the delusion of our current era. Whatever happens, by the end of this century (if not far earlier), our civilization in its current form will not, cannot exist. We will either have overshot, drastically and fatally, with horrifying consequences for humanity, or we will have transitioned to something far more in parity with our environment – or somewhere in between.
That is why the choices we make now, the struggles we choose to partake in, will be critical in determining the course of our future. We do not have the option of pessimism and fatalism – there’s enough of that to go around. Our task is to work together to co-create viable visions for what could be, and to start building those visions now, from the ground up.
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