As the global climate justice movement has long emphasized, confronting the climate crisis means transforming neocolonial relations.
January 25, 2021
With Responses From
Jan 25, 2021
8 Min read time
Politics is the heart of the problem—and more lessons from Latin America.
YASunídos, an activist network against oil extraction in Ecuador.
Despite fatally slow progress on greening the economy, Charles Sabel and David G. Victor argue that we already have models for effective solutions, even where “intrusive and contentious” challenges arise with deep decarbonization. They are right that such a project requires “unseating powerful interests and transforming whole industries.” But with ground-level participation and top-down accountability “contextualized to local needs,” they contend, we can steer politics and investment toward clean development.
Politics is the heart of the problem, and no place has made this clearer in recent years than Latin America.
While this vision of experimentalist governance may find compelling examples in some contexts, it is naïve in its suggestion that successful experiments with policy or technological innovation alone can drive politics. Indeed, politics is the heart of the problem, and no place has made this clearer in recent years than Latin America.
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The pink tide, the wave of leftist governments that swept the region in the 2000s, both inherited and intensified a model of accumulation based on the extraction and export of natural resources. This model enabled important forms of socioeconomic inclusion and political empowerment for the masses, while simultaneously undermining more radical transformations including efforts to slow the pace of extraction and reverse environmental devastation. Between 2007 and 2017 in Ecuador, for example, leftist president Rafael Correa presided over a state that dramatically increased social spending and enjoyed widespread political support among the poor. His discourse resonated with a long history of popular calls for the nationalization of natural resources—and the use of resource rents to address social needs. Yet in 2011, four years into Correa’s administration, more than a hundred social movement organizations and leftist political parties gathered for the Meeting of Social Movements for Democracy and Life and penned a manifesto that condemned the “extractivist model” of development. Over the next six years, conflict between the state and movements escalated, hinging on the socio-environmental harms of oil and mining development. The politics of extraction thus pitted a leftist government against a leftist resistance.
Such conflicts carry important consequences for combatting global warming. Though countries such as Ecuador contribute little to global emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, the oil and mining extraction that dominates their economies contributes to deforestation in vital ecosystems such as the Amazon. Protecting and regenerating tropical forests, especially by enforcing the territorial rights of Indigenous peoples, is essential for mitigating emissions. Ecuador shows that militant anti-extractive movements are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Dismantling extractivism—and the deep inequalities of the global order that reinforces it—is part and parcel of achieving climate safety.
To think of solutions to the climate crisis and ecological devastation without a wholly new kind of radical politics would be impossible.
Popular movements in Ecuador had long rebuked prior governments for being antidemocratic and neoliberal, but the anti-extractivist critique was new. In May 2012, in an interview in the Chilean leftist magazine Punto Final, and during protracted political conflict with many of these same social movements, Correa charged that rejecting the extractive model was a “colossal error.” “Where in The Communist Manifesto does it say no to mining?” he asked. “What socialist theory says no to mining?” The fact that Correa felt compelled to mount such a defense reflects how central grassroots activists have been in the contentious politics of oil and mining. In dynamic conflict with state and corporate elites, popular mobilization shaped the political and economic consequences of resource extraction. And the stakes of these conflicts were high. Constitutional authority, democratic sovereignty, and the possibility of a post-neoliberal state hung in the balance. In this context, to think of solutions to the climate crisis and ecological devastation without a wholly new kind of radical politics would be impossible.
Indeed, just as the achievements of the left-in-power were limited by the contradictions of a particular political economic model, so the left-in-resistance came up against the contradictions of a critique and strategy centered on mobilizing those directly affected against extractive development. Anti-extractive movements can claim impressive accomplishments: they stalled specific extractive projects and reshaped the broader debate over resource extraction, forcing state actors and firms to respond to a new set of grievances and demands. But directly affected communities and allied environmental activists had difficulty assembling a popular sector coalition at the national scale with the power to articulate and enact an alternative to the extractive model. As a result, anti-extractivism has not yet succeeded in building a mass movement to match the scale and strength of the anti-neoliberal popular sector coalition that swept the leftist governments into office in the first place.
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This example illustrates how deeply politics matters. These two forms of leftism confronted one another in a dispute that became so polarized that each saw in the other a political enemy more dangerous than neoliberalism. Lost in this internecine dispute was the radical promise of twenty-first-century ecosocialism: collective, democratic control over the conditions of socio-natural existence.
Such a program could have coherently demanded both the redistribution of oil and mining revenues and a transition away from the extractive model of accumulation that generates those revenues. In fact, just such a vision inflected the 1994 political program of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, published amidst massive mobilizations against neoliberal land reforms, that called for a “planned ecological communitarian economy.” Yet two decades later, “socialism” and “anti-extractivism” had come to name two counterposed political projects. Socialism in Correa’s usage meant state investment and spending in the pursuit of national development without transforming the model of accumulation or the class relations that it generates. Anti-extractivism referred to the militant defense of communities and ecosystems against the threat of oil extraction and mining without mobilizing the majority not immediately affected by social and environmental destruction.
The history of Ecuador also demonstrates how deeply the entire world economic order is implicated in the reproduction of extractivism, consigning the Global South to the losing end of economic—and ecological—exchange. As the global climate justice movement has long emphasized, confronting the climate crisis means transforming neocolonial relations. The places and peoples least responsible for the climate emergency are bearing the brunt of its deadly consequences.
Consider just one example. Activists pressured the Correa administration to adopt a civil society proposal to not extract oil from the Yasuní National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and home to numerous Indigenous communities (some living in voluntary isolation), in exchange for $3.6 billion in donations from the international community to fund sustainable development (framed as the “ecological debt” owed by the Global North to the Global South). When the government failed to attract enough donations by the deadline, Correa decided to proceed with oil extraction, sparking the formation of the activist network YASunídos in 2013. Though the campaign did not achieve its goals, it drew huge protests in major cities far from the sites of extraction, and its size and reach rivaled the large protests against neoliberalism in the mid-2000s.
The history of Ecuador demonstrates how deeply the entire world economic order is implicated in the reproduction of extractivism.
It is noteworthy that the YASunídos campaign directly contested Correa’s claims that exploiting the Yasuní is necessary to fight poverty. By broadening the territorial base of anti-extractive protest and incorporating the historic economic concerns of other popular sectors, the campaign expanded the repertoire of anti-extractive resistance and drew connections across scales, from local ecosystem and communities to national policy and the international order itself. More recently, Latin American movements and left intellectuals have proposed a new “Ecosocial Pact” to transition the region to an economic model centered on socio-ecological flourishing—and have called for the cancellation of Latin America’s unsustainable debt levels.
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As I write, Latin America is teetering on the precipice between danger and hope. From Argentina’s Mauricio Macri to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, reactionary governments have slashed social spending and eliminated environmental, social, and labor protections. Even when the right is voted out—as happened with Macri last year—its legacies generate enduring effects. Investor-friendly reforms in the oil and mining sectors are already expanding extraction, devastating ecosystems, and displacing Indigenous populations. Meanwhile, states reliant on exporting to global markets for their revenues find themselves with vanishingly little room for fiscal maneuver during the COVID-19 pandemic, depriving them of the resources needed to support their populations. But the scene is not entirely grim. The region has seen an efflorescence of social uprisings, with massive and successful demonstrations in the fall of 2019 in Ecuador and Chile, and, in October 2020, two decisive victories: for the left in Bolivia’s elections, and for popular democracy in Chile’s resounding vote in favor of rewriting the constitution that is a legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
We need a new politics—not just new technologies and policies—to fight climate change and for a more just future.
At this moment of profound political uncertainty, it is worth highlighting the urgent necessity of both the left-in-power and the left-in-resistance. For the foreseeable future, achieving socioeconomic equality on a livable planet is the key political task for progressive movements everywhere. For all the limitations and contradictions of the Pink Tide, political, social, and economic inequalities will continue to reinforce one another without a left-in-power, denying a dignified life to the vast majority of the population and protecting the privileges of the few against the democratic will of the many. By the same token, for all of the challenges of building an anti-extractive mass movement, resistance against oil, coal, natural gas, and large-scale mining projects is absolutely vital if we are to avert the worst of climate chaos.
Despite the potential for conflict between them, these two projects are fundamentally intertwined. Global warming deepens inequality within and between countries, undermining a core goal of leftist governments. And wresting political power from fossil capital and democratizing state institutions is a prerequisite for meaningful action on climate change and other forms of environmental devastation. In other words, we need a new politics—not just new technologies and policies—to fight climate change and for a more just future.
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