What if…? Redefining research impact from an environmental humanities perspective.

Authors: Irma Allen, Jesse Peterson, Daniele Valisena, Anne Gough,
ENHANCE ITN – PhD Students, KTH – Environmental Humanities Laboratory, Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment

The following text has been conceived as an environmental humanities critique to research policy regarding what are considered  “research initiatives of excellence”.

What if ….? What if….? What if….?

All researchers want their work to have an impact and are increasingly under pressure to demonstrate it. But what does this mean? At present, research impact is largely defined in relation to dominant neoliberal economic frames. The language of excellence, innovation, development, marketability, knowledge economy, and the building of human capital are cornerstones to how funding agencies measure the value of academic outputs. But is this the best way to define impact? Critique of the research impact agenda by now is widespread, and we think that environmental humanities offers insightful ways to rethink what is meant by impact in radically alternative ways that address specifically environmental concerns.

Environmental Humanities (EH) takes as its starting point the idea that humans and nature are radically inseparable and that humanities subjects (literature, history, philosophy, arts, etc.) have the potential to provide key insights into the ways we live, why we do so, and how we can change. Environmental humanities research provides historical perspectives, situates scientific and technological change in cultural context, addresses ethical problems, interprets and provides new narratives, and works with local communities.

Humanities teaches about the power of words to make worlds. Storytelling as a way to generate alternative narratives is therefore at the heart of environmental humanities practice. This collaborative piece by four people undertaking a PhD in EH is a speculative attempt at what it means to redefine research impact through what we have learnt from doing environmental humanities research. Speculating means here supposing, hypothesising, venturing, or simply, imagining – asking ‘what if….’?. We speculate here from an EH perspective about ‘what if’ research impact was thought differently and how? What kinds of impact do we wish to be making? What do environmental humanities teach us about how we might measure research results, outcomes, and processes differently? Together we propose a story about the kind of research worlds we would like to inhabit.

We take four core concepts that are currently central to how research impact is understood – Mobility, Innovation, Employability, and Economic Growth – and rethink these. Instead, we propose that from an emphasis on mobility we shift to support for inhabited movement, that from a focus on innovation we switch to re-valuing innovative teaching that enhances ecological living, that from a concern with employability we highlight the building of ecological ability, and that from an obsession with economic growth we move towards degrowth as central ways that impact is defined. What if this was at the core of how research impact is measured..?

From employability to ecological-ability

Proposals for research funding illustrate their impact by describing how they will train researchers so that they be employable. Employability as a concept has become normalized, leading to funding opportunities, research projects, university courses and programs that survive only if they can promise to deliver a path to higher earnings. To meet this criteria, research projects train researchers in skills to capacitate them to work in a variety of academic and non-academic positions.

Employability–as a modified model of the linear career path model–is a reductive vision of a more ecologically-sound life path. By disregarding non-instrumentalist values within humanities scholarship, making researchers employable ignores different forms of training possibilities and opportunities. Satisfying employability as an impact criteria molds the researchers into marketable, tradable, commodities whom are personally responsible for their failures in employment and career. Because markets change, jobs increase or decrease, “employable” researchers can only find success in the terms of the market. In other words, universities bear little responsibility for providing researchers with jobs while they rely more heavily upon non-institutional funds. And, as a virtue of their employability, researchers are often uprooted, traded like sports players, and disincentivized to form lasting, meaningful relationships with local communities. Though a broader imagining of employability could take individual factors, personal circumstances, and external factors into account, employability negates the justification for actively cultivating skills and talents that do not serve the growth of the market economy. Employability serves globalized economic or political values over social or environmental ones.

From an EH perspective, researchers need ecological-ability. Rather than attempting to develop employability as a diverse set of skills that a researcher can pull out of his or her pocket like a swiss army knife or smartphone, funding could foment values and skills that extend outside economic logic to fulfill non-universalized ethical and ecological obligations. Impact could be measured by providing researchers with habits that contribute to the flourishing of lives and worlds, with an eye towards human health and well-being (an EU Environmental Policy objective). Training, therefore, ought to be provide researchers with life skills that enable them to improve the quality of life for themselves and other communities, including animals and environments. Qualities like reflexivity, community engagement, supporting alternative cosmologies, ethical action along with practical skills including gardening, holding an activist rally, foraging and hunting, writing a poem become as meaningful as one’s ability to publish an academic paper, plan a conference, or manage project finances.

From mobility culture to inhabited movement

Scholars’ mobility is considered to be one of the key factors in defining the quality of a research project. Internationalization of research, network-building, and human capital exchange all contribute to demonstrating the successfulness of an academic project. For example, in 2012 Swedish funding agency Vinnova launched the “Mobility for Growth” program, whose “overall objective is to support career development for individuals through mobility” (p. 2). Horizon 2020’s funding document underlines that in order to improve Europe’s “attractiveness for researchers […] research projects should encourage them to move between countries, sectors and disciplines to enhance their creativity and innovative potential” (p. 984). EU funded research programs also value the enhancing of mobility among academics as a concrete way of shaping European citizenship. But what kind of European citizenship does this produce? Although it is true that mobility of ideas and researchers has long been a fundamental component in the construction of an international scientific community – both for hard sciences as well as for human sciences – engaging with environmental humanities implies questioning the simplistic equation that mobility = good research and, more specifically, that increased mobility (hypermobility) = positive impact. Moving scholars’ bodies across borders and cultures entails moving and mixing cultures, habits, family and relational ties, ways of dwelling and ways of being together with other people, other environments and different ecologies of life.

Our carbon and ecological footprint should be considered when evaluating the impact of research projects. According to KTH’s Travelling Scientist, “researchers who want to contribute to a more sustainable world are on average emitting two tons of CO2-equivalents per year”. Imagine the increases in carbon usage for researchers required to be mobile. It’s counterintuitive for researchers aiming to reduce a local or global carbon footprint by increasing their own. Being hyper-mobile has its impacts; it boosts international connections — but perhaps at the expense of slower forms of engagement more locally, and also often to the detriment or risk to the researcher’s own wellbeing, sense of place, and capacity to build an ecological life. The very action of continuously moving between one country and another — be it to take part in training activities, perform multi-sited fieldwork, build a network, or participate in international conferences — contradicts basic knowledge about environmental harm.Thus, hyper-mobility cannot be part of any environmentalist agenda.

Environmental humanities research studies and supports experiences, livelihoods and research practices that promote a transnational and translocal sense of place without losing sight of the social and ecological relationships in various communities.

We need to be able to have the possibility to inhabit places as much move in and between spaces as scholars engaged in genuine transformative, environmental humanities work. Inhabiting takes time.

Environmental humanities as a research practice can and should contribute to preventing globalization from displacing de-rooted professionals across the globe, as well as criticizing the neo-liberal project (the flexibilization and causalization of academic laborers on the job market) behind the creation of intellectual placeless reservoirs.

Against economic value-producing and placeless citizenship fostered by hyper-mobility, environmental humanities promote community-based research practices, built around slow mobility, place, as well as human and more-than-human relations. As Ursula Heise framed it, environmental humanities helps retracing the sense of place (2008), while the hyper-mobility that informs many research agendas ends up loosening place-based ties. Trans-locality as an open form of dwelling should be a constituent of both research subjects as well as researchers’ lives. All those characteristics shape a form of ecological citizenship and awareness that should be the core mission of any environmental humanities projects.

From Innovation towards valuing innovative teaching inclusive of more-than-human worlds

The need to prove impact through innovation is a standard part of many research grant applications. But ‘innovation’ in this context most often means new products, services or technologies. Innovation can also be measured through publication output. But one area that has the biggest potential to create innovative impact within academic work is grossly undervalued or marginalized – that is, teaching. One reason for its low status in academia may be that teaching is a gendered practice – often treated as ‘women’s work’ because of its deployment of emotional labour and care. We propose that the concept of research innovation expands to include teaching, and innovations in teaching, as a central measure of impact on the kinds of students, or citizens, universities and research influences. ‘Students’ in this case should mean both those within the traditional boundaries of the university, but also, and more critically, those beyond.

Environmental humanities seeks to develop more equitable relationships among human and non-human communities. Rather than technology being the one-bullet answer to societal challenges, pedagogy allows for researchers to actively participate in shaping societal values, relations and responses to change, including building human-non-human engagement and the embedding of persons within an ecological world. Teaching is often the space where students can critique and imagine approaches to ways of living, justice, and environmental crisis, and learn to de-centre the human individual. Teaching changes the innovative product model to one where innovation is internalized in active subjects as students.

In particular, EH rests on the requirement that we participate in the world as we find it through learning and practice. It becomes about being ‘an effort to inhabit the difficult space of simultaneous critique and action’ (Rose, et al. 2012). Thus teaching should be understood ‘as action and the classroom as ‘the field’’ (Tripp, Muzzin, 2005; Hutchins 2012). Innovative teaching points towards the development of practice- and field-based learning particularly within the environmental humanities where experiential learning must be a central component if we are to apply our knowledge towards change.

From growth to degrowth

Research impact is often defined in relation to its contribution to economic growth measured in GDP. Yet the agenda of environmental humanities is at the very least critical of, if not outright oppositional to, economic growth as an overarching societal goal, since unfettered growth lies at the heart of the environmental crisis, including biodiversity loss, climate change, and resource depletion. So should the value of our research be measured in relation to it? Since, as economist Tim Jackson states, ‘Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries’, such a query is often deemed ridiculous. Particularly for researchers who must comply with the economistic boundaries of grant awarding bodies and funding agencies. Yet taking environmental humanities seriously points to the need to articulate this very question. The concept of ‘degrowth’ is emerging as one of the key modes by which environmental humanities is expressing this call for alternative practices (see Emmett and Nye 2017 and Nelson and Schneider 2018). This should apply to ways that research impact is defined too.

The ‘degrowth’ movement calls for relinquishing ambitions for growth, pursuing instead the aims of a steady-state economy. This is motivated both by the material reality of a drastic slowing-down of global economic growth as a contemporary sustained trend, combined with ecological and social limitations, including the fact that economic growth has increasingly failed to deliver on its promises of improving collective wellbeing, apparent in rising mental health issues, growing social inequality, and mounting ecological disaster. The Research and Degrowth community in Barcelona defines sustainable degrowth as a ‘downscaling of production and consumption that increases human wellbeing and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet’. What if research impact was measured in relation to contributing to such a downscaling of growth, producing happier, healthier, more productive and connected people and communities in the process? How would this redefine our research questions, practices and outputs? One of the main outcomes would be a refocus on a more expansive conception of wellbeing as intrinsic to the values of a degrowth economy, and therefore a central measure of our research impact.

The notion of human (and more-than-human) wellbeing is a cornerstone principle of degrowth economics. This is perhaps unsurprising since the degrowth movement has grown in traction alongside ideas of alternative measurements to economic growth, such as the ‘Gross National Happiness Index’, adopted also by the UN’s World Happiness Report. In June 2016, the OECD committed itself ‘to redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the centre of governments’ efforts’. At least rhetorically, wellbeing seems to be all the rage. This is also the case within the Higher Education sector. In August 2018, the UK Minister for Education, Sam Gymiah, said that the role of the University is no longer simply the ‘training of the mind’ but that promoting and ensuring the mental health and wellbeing of its students should be at the heart of its mission. Despite this focus on wellbeing as core to societal progress, research impact frameworks are yet to catch up. How might we think about research impact to focus on the wellbeing that it generates – from the wellbeing of the researcher themselves to the wellbeing of the organizations, communities, and societies that the researcher is part of – as part of a degrowth agenda? What cascade effects might this have on questions of precarity and the flexibilization of academic labour? Environmental humanities, that places questions of value, relationality, cultural ethos, and quality of life at the centre of its agenda, points urgently towards replacing growth with degrowth as an explicit research impact assessment framework to propel new practices to these ends.

Towards environmental humanities impact…

Our exercise in speculative engagement with the notion of research impact leaves us feeling hopeful and also alert to how things stand today. We recognise that currently we have to work within the boundaries of possibility which we inhabit. But as environmental humanities teaches us – imagination, wondering, posing the ‘what if…?’ question is the beginning of narrating new worlds into being. We look forward to a time where inhabited movement, ecological ability, innovative teaching, and degrowth – with their combined attention to wellbeing, care, relationality, and ethics – are core aspects of how we think about and measure the impacts researchers make on the world.


First published on the KTH EHL Blog 20th Sept 2018 – https://www.kth.se/blogs/hist/2018/09/what-if-redefining-research-impact-from-an-environmental-humanities-perspective/

Poland on fire: voices from the provinces

Thursday October, 19 at 16.30: An ordinary day, an ordinary man stands on the steps of the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science. He is reading something through a megaphone to inattentive passers by. Just another protesting voice in the Polish capital. Except, once finished, this 54 year old man, who would become known for some time simply as Piotr S., then sets himself ablaze, performing an act of self-immolation to the sound of a song by ‘Chłopcy Placu Broni’ coming from a tape-recorder.


The place in Warsaw where Piotr Szczęsny set himself on fire. Wikicommons/ Mateusz Opasiński. Some rights reserved.

‘Freedom. I love and understand freedom. I don’t know how to give it up…’ On the ground lie strewn the pieces of paper from which he had been reading – a manifesto outlining 15 points of protest against the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS). Ten days later, on October 29, he dies in hospital. It begins to sink in that this was a decisive, considered and dramatic political act. Where at first the media and politicians stay largely silent, following his death they now rush to assess his sanity, his past and his intentions.

All this he foresaw. He openly admitted that he struggled with depression for eight years – but this was nothing to do with that, though he knew politicians would try to make it so. Depression does not equal derangement. So how should he be understood?

*   *   *

Piotr Szczęsny, as his full name was revealed to be post-mortem, chemist, former youth Solidarity activist, and management trainer for NGOs, had on that grey ordinary day travelled up to Warsaw from his home in Niepołomic, a small town near Krakow in the South of Poland. 130km west, in a small town called Rybnik in Upper Silesia, a group of active citizens, known as the Silesian Pearls have for the last year been mobilizing local protest in order to try to hold back what they see as the ruling party’s authoritarian agenda. They were stunned by this event. ‘Poland is on fire’ reads one of their slogans. They did not think the metaphor would become personified. Yet Jola Jackiewicz, 57, co-founder of the Silesian Pearls, tells me she was less surprised, more deeply saddened; she had anticipated tragedy sooner or later. Piotr was far from a ‘provincial’ man – in the condescending, stereotypical sense – but maybe the environment in which he lived also played a part in making him feel isolated or perhaps suffocated. Outside of Warsaw, daily reality is too often treated as peripheral and insignificant. But it’s here where the tense effects of nationalist, hardline rhetoric can be felt most keenly.

Small towns and villages, like Rybnik and its environs, are the most difficult places to be active in, says Jola. People know one another and there is often stronger social pressure from the Catholic Church, which is known even to galvanize support for the ruling party with its pro-family, anti-abortion, anti-Muslim rhetoric. If you have opposing views to the government your job can now even be at stake if you voice them too loudly. While PiS’s popularity is not limited to small towns and villages – far from it – support for the government is strong here, explains Łukasz Kohut, 35-year-old Silesian Pearls member, because in the provinces people have felt marginalized for years. ‘Now there is a government that speaks plainly, supports people financially through social programmes, and feeds deep inner phobias while promising to protect us. The worst thing is how state media has become a tool for party political propaganda. Hearing their slogans repeated in daily conversations is frightening.’

Protests that have occurred in Rybnik, co-organised by Silesian Pearls and other pro-democracy groups. This is of a rally in defence of the Judiciary. Photo by Lukasz Kohut, quoted above. All rights reserved.

For Jola, the hardest part is how deeply divided people have become, even family and friends. There is a growing atmosphere of hatred in which anyone who opposes the current government is labeled the ‘worst sort’, or even ‘Soviet murderers’. Open and fair debate is impossible where public discourse has stooped so low. Silesian Pearls aims to change that by providing means for dialogue, political conversation and citizen education, something Jola feels has been neglected for too long. In order to love freedom, Jola says, you must understand what it means.

‘Now there is a government that speaks plainly, supports people financially through social programmes, and feeds deep inner phobias while promising to protect us.’

Jola is of the same generation as Piotr. Like him, she feels an unsettling sense of deja vu. She lived through the days of the Polish People’s Republic, the closed-in world, the dictatorial rule, she knows, like Piotr, what not having democratic freedom feels like.

While she could never conceive of such a choice of protest, she empathizes fully with his sense of despair, his helplessness, particularly after this Saturday’s fascist-led Polish Independence Day march attracting 60,000 people to Warsaw, which Piotr did not live to witness. ‘Traditional methods like going out on the streets or petitions don’t seem to be working. But we can’t just sit back and watch. People like us who have been there before, we can see the threats, the signs, the steady movements towards dictatorial rule, now creeping fascism – and it’s not just happening in Poland. It can happen bit by bit, while we are asleep, until it is too late. There is a very fine line we are approaching. That’s what he wanted to alert us to.’

Wake up! It’s not too late yet!

Piotr’s 15-point list of grievances is measured and articulate. It could have been written by the Opposition or by the stronghold of protestors, like the Silesian Pearls, who align themselves with his urgent perspective, drawing attention to the government’s increasing restrictions on civil liberties, attacks on the Constitutional Tribunal, attempts to politicise the judiciary, breaking of the Consitution, marginalisation of Poland on the international arena, destruction of the Bialowieza Forest, the rise of xenophobia, the political use of hateful language, discrimination of minorities, and the propagandisation of state television and radio.

‘I, an ordinary, grey man just like you, call upon you all – do not wait any longer!’, his letter to the Polish people reads. ‘I love freedom above all. That’s why I decided to perform this act of self-immolation, and I hope that my death will shake the conscience of many people, that society will wake up and that you will not wait until the politicians will do it for you – because they will not! Wake up! It’s not too late yet!’

Are things really so desperate as to come to this? Łukasz thinks they are and they aren’t. ‘It’s not yet that moment where there is violence on the street, but it could happen. Especially given Saturday’s march. What Piotr S. did is to highlight that there is a moment to say no – and this is it. I can completely relate to his sense of political depression, but I hope his action will spur us on towards regaining a Poland that is European, democratic, and open to the world through the next elections. The fear is of course that that won’t happen, but we must fight.’ What Piotr S. did is to highlight that there is a moment to say no – and this is it.

Another protest photo taken in Rybnik by Lukasz Kohut, this time of a women’s rights march against the anti-abortion law. All rights reserved. 

Renowned Polish film director, Agnieszka Holland, in a strong rebuke to the pejorative or absent media and political comment on Piotr S’s action, wrote in OKO.Press that ‘Fire destroys, but it also illuminates. Like anger.’ Jola, too, sees hope in his brave if awful message. ‘Fire also cleans – it prepares the ground for something new. While things may look dark, there are still many lights burning – us, people, citizens.’


(First published in Swedish in Dagens Nyheter – Polen – ett land som står i brandhttps://www.dn.se/kultur-noje/polen-ett-land-som-star-i-brand/. Also originally published in English on Open Democracy – https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/irma-allen/poland-on-fire-voices-from-provinces)

Solidarity according to Polish women in 2017

Women are playing a key role in the ongoing Polish protests – and this time they won’t be silenced.

Members of Polish Women Strike lie down on the road outside Parliament in silent protest at the moment “democracy died”, while fellow protestors hold up umbrellas to shield them from the rain. Photo by Łukasz Kohut. All rights reserved.

In 2014, the Polish documentary ‘Solidarity according to Women’ attempted to reinstate the key role that several women played in the rise and success of the 1980s Solidarity movement.Largely working behind the scenes, they left the visible leadership roles to the men who wanted them, and so were written out of history. Today, women are making history again in defense of Polish democracy, but this time they are the leaders we see – and they will not be forgotten this time.On Saturday 15 July, an urgent communiqué from the Polish Women’s Strike warned in clear terms: “Poland is burning down!” The rallying cry called on all opposition parties and pro-democracy forces to unite against the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s attempt to take control of the judiciary announced in a rush a few days before.

This latest anti-democratic move by an increasingly authoritarian government would see the destruction of the principle of tripartite division of power between the legislative, executive and judicial branches that underpin a functioning Polish democracy. PiS had already taken apart the Constitutional Tribunal in a crisis that paralysed the country last autumn. Now it sought to dismantle the independence of the judiciary.

Frustrated at the opposition’s fragmentation, civil society groups’ inability to collaborate, and lack of a united plan between them to block PiS, the Polish Women’s Strike took it upon themselves to organize an emergency coalition meeting on Sunday 16 July – to seek cooperation between groups on a strategy for resistance at least for the immediate future while on red alert. Their communiqué stated: “When our home is on fire, we do not discuss who did and did not do what eight years ago. We do not remember sins, we do not compete for beautiful words and looks, we do not beat our breasts in front of the camera, we do not go on holiday. We save what we can.”

After an intensely urgent meeting, a memorandum of agreement was signed between many allies to agree to create a pro-democratic coalition, at least for the upcoming days. Since then, large-scale mass protests have swept the country. Cooperation has been shaky at times, but largely intact. “We are not naive – we don’t think we’ve created a longterm reality, this political collaboration is for here and now – we don’t know how it will develop next,” – says 49-year-old Elżbieta Podleśna, a leading PWS activist and professional psychologist.

How and why did women, under the banner of Polish Women’s Strike, become a key mobilizing force and convening power in the struggle to defend democracy in a country where women have low political visibility and feminism is a bad word? I spent two nights at the tent village they, together with other civil society groups, have erected outside Parliament in Warsaw, and spoke with key members of PWS to learn there was a longer history at play.

Black protests

On 3 October 2016, in the dripping rain, 100,000 women from 149 different towns and cities in Poland took to the streets, dressed in black, in what became known worldwide as the ‘Black Protest’ or ‘Polish Women’s Strike’ against a proposed total ban on abortion. Many more women as well as men wore black to work in an act of solidarity.

Marta Lempart, who is now PWS’s formidable leader, was the main impetus behind this action, taking inspiration from Iceland’s 1975 women’s strike for equal pay. This was a lightning rod moment – a point at which many women stepped out onto the street to protest for the first time to say enough is enough. As one 73-year-old protesting woman told me “PiS has now got into bed with us! No more!” The result of the Black Protest was a retreat by PiS on the abortion law – at least for the moment.

While PiS was not the first government to strip away women’s rights, it has ramped up the attacks. In 1993 abortion law was restricted for the first time since the 1950s, putting Poland amongst the most conservative on this issue in Europe. This near-total restrictive law was known as the ‘compromise’ – ‘it had nothing to do with women’, says Elżbieta Podleśna, ‘and everything to do with a compromise between the Catholic church and the state’. As Kasia Narkowicz for openDemocracy wrote last year, people slowly came to accept this status quo, and only a small circle of feminists continued to battle a growing anti-women tide.

Our rights as women have never before been so threatened…this threat for us is so much more personal.

Journalist Joanna Solska writes in a recent Institute of IDEI report on womens rights, that in the last eight years, under the former government, headed by Civic Platform, ‘the cauldron wasn’t hot yet’. Women were discriminated against on the job market, had lower pay, and family policy aided their tie to the household, but, still, most women were taking it. “But after eight years in cooler water, now the frogs are starting to cook. And it’s the PiS government which is heating things up with increasing fervor. The church is supplying fuel too.”

On 8 March 2017, International Women’s Day, the newfound group ‘Polish Women’s Strike’ organised a second protest – this time international in scope. “We surprised the whole world!”, says Marta Puczyńska, a 26-year-old PWS activist who has just thrown in her whole ‘former life’, as she calls it, having quit her job in Poznań to move to Warsaw to be full-time at the picket-fence. “It was a historical moment – protests in 60 countries worldwide – a phenomenon!”

Direct action

Now in July, the government upped the anti by accelerating its attempts to tear apart the country’s democratic structures, motivated by a paranoid, conspiracy-theory led vision in which such institutions needed purging of communist relics. The sense of impending bodily threat spurs these women on yet further. “We, women, in particular are in great danger. Our right to safety and self-determination at the biological level is being undermined. We fight for life,” the Polish Women’s Strike wrote in their call to collaborate.

Around 75% of those currently sleeping at the protest tent village, keeping 24-hour watch over the goings-on in Parliament opposite, are female. “More women sleep here in the tents at night, even beneath the open sky, than men because we have greater determination”, Marta Puczyńska tells me. “Not only are we threatened right now by the ruling government’s dismantling of the tripartite division of power as citizens, but our rights as women have never before been so threatened – so we have twice the determination of men, because some things don’t affect them directly. This threat for us is so much more personal”.

Alicja Molenda, who at 51 lives and organizes in Berlin for PWS, notes that – “Women have everything to lose – in women an awareness has awoken that if I don’t fight for my own rights, then nobody will – neither politicians, men – nobody. Without democracy we will have no rights for women – and without women’s rights there is no democracy! So we are here because we must be.”

The success of the Women’s Strike also meant that PWS was catapulted into a leadership role at this critical time. “The one protest that had an effect was the Women’s Strike – so we are seen as people who can make things happen. We don’t just talk, we do”, Agnieszka Wierzbicka, a lawyer who actively supports PWS’s work, says. PWS have played a big part in mobilizing citizens, organizing actions, being vocal in the media, leading protests, and keeping a presence day in day out in the tent village opposite Parliament for the last eight days.

There is a sense that women offer a different kind of approach to protest and ways of working too – one that is more ‘effective’, Marta Lempart has said, and based on collaboration. Not all in PWS are sure whether this is innately to do with being a woman, or just because they are who they are as people.

With events moving fast, and Polish Women’s Strike being less than a year old, interpreting and understanding womanhood is still emerging, both individually and collectively. What feminism means to them is not a one-trick answer. Where there is at times a seeming impossibility of moving away from stereotypes, they are made use of, or drawn upon, as inspiration instead.

Agnieszka Wierzbicka recalls a moment of insight when she was proofreading the Polish Women’s Strike call for collaboration. The metaphor of the house burning down immediately reminded her of a poem by Władysław Broniewski called ‘Bayonets for Weapons’ which is a call to take up arms for Poland and starts ‘When they come to burn the house down…’

“The poem describes a male reaction to the burning down of one’s house – to go to war. PiS have set our house on fire and we are reacting like women – coming together. Those people in our house are family. These are not the relations of those mythical concepts of fatherland – which are also important – but of the home, and this speaks closely to people.”

Sitting by the barricades, Elżbieta Podleśna tells me – “I think women are capable of speaking in a different language – a language of nonviolence,” and Polish Women’s Strike attempts to embody that. At the moment when Parliament passed the proposed bill that politicizes the judiciary, women from PWS and supporters lay on the asphalt in the road outside Parliament, holding hands in silent protest to mark the point in time ”when democracy died”. A white rose – which has become a symbol of ’extreme hate’, according to Jarosław Kaczyński (PiS party Chair) and PiS – one of hope and anti-fascist resistance for the opposition – lay on each of their bodies.

Polish Women’s Strike members at basecamp in the tent village opposite Parliament having a moment’s rest. Photo by Łukasz Kohut. All rights reserved.

Fighting talk

This struggle over language has become central. At the meeting convened by Polish Women’s Strike it was on the agenda. ”We must change the language we are using to talk about one another – no talking about protestors causing ’scenes’, no talking about ’jumping over the barriers’. We are in this together”.

This discipline comes largely as a response to the toxic media environment in which public television has become a PiS propaganda machine. News headlines have included ’Peadophiles and child-support-payees the face of protestors’. Increasingly hate-filled, aggressive and crude attacks have emanated out of forums ranging from Parliament to the internet.

A part of Polish Women’s Strike’s vision is to contribute to changing this, to stem the tide of hate that many feel has reached never-before-seen proportions between opposing sides. Most recently, Kaczyński shouted at the opposition during a session in Parliament, saying that they are ’criminals’ who ’murdered his brother’ (who died in the Smoleńsk crash in 2010, which PiS believes was a Russian plot) and yelled at an opposition MP to ’shut his gob!’.

This has brought on a backlash from moderates. ”He has offended all of us Poles”, cry three women who’ve travelled to Warsaw to protest the reforms. ”We are here for that reason – we will not allow PiS to make a circus out of our Parliament!” Defending civility and ’parliamentary’ – which in Polish means polite – engagement is increasingly part of what many women see themselves as doing and the linguistic links with democratic functioning in those concepts is not a coincidence. With PiS enabling and encouraging hate-fuelled fascist groups like Mlodiez Wszechpolska (All-Polish Youth) and ONR (National Radical Camp), the stakes could not be higher.

Elżbieta Podleśna, whose own family has a traumatic war-time history and who lives in Warsaw, is very worried by what she is seeing. Recently she attended a counter-demonstration against fascist groups, and reflected in detail on her experience there.

”I cannot understand a situation in which a country in which concentration camps functioned, in which a huge proportion of society disappeared, in which our neighbours disappeared, can allow itself to have people marching with fascist symbols through its main streets in the capital city, who with their fists in the air call out for the death of enemies of the fatherland, for the death of anyone! I went up to those people and asked them – who are these enemies of the fatherland? Are you talking about me? And I heard – yes, we mean you, said directly into my eyes.”

In response, Elżbieta has taken to a vision inspired by Wiktor Ośiatynski, a Polish constituional lawyer and human rights advocate, who died recently. ”He said that our main obligation as people is ’the dissemination of kindness’. Only this way can we oppose fascism, obscurantism, defend the courts”, says Elżbieta. “We are trying to do this, but it’s very difficult, because in the current masculinist understanding that has prevailed for many years in government and its structures, the kindness of women means the submission of women. So it is very hard to understand that the kindness of women is a strength and not a sign of weakness.”

”I came to civil disodience slowly – but I saw what an amazing power there was in the use of non-violence. How when we sit down together and hold each others hands that there is so much energy. Once I read somewhere that love is a giant bomb, and that exactly spoke to me, that this kind of dignity and peace is indeed the biggest bomb. If you look at Kaczyński and those guys – his rage is greater when he is confronted by people who do not show rage. But it is very hard, very difficult not to show rage.”

One of the most devastating effects socially of the political rift and its toxic language has been at the inter-personal level. “PiS has killed my family”, writes one woman in chalk on the pavement outside Parliament – “For two years I have had no contact with my Mum and Dad. They love PiS – I don’t!”

Increasing suspicion and mistrust between people in daily life is another fatality. “I saw a man with a dog walking across the street from us as we put up our posters here at the tent village. Long ago I would have been afraid of his dog perhaps – but now I look at the man, and I look at his eyes and how he is looking at me. I really want to cry when I say this, because these are things that we will have to rise up from for many years to come. Perhaps the whole of Europe will have to. Fear is easy to create, easy to sow. I am thinking that kindness should also be that easy to sow. But kindness is not media-friendly – it is not sellable. Would somebody write about the fact, for example, that a 92-year old woman came to me, Mrs. Józefa, bringing us soup and asking us to do everything we can to make sure Poland doesn’t leave the European Union”?

Elżbieta’s voice breaks at this moment as she holds back tears after an exhausting and emotional few days. ”Does this interest anybody? No! And we have lost in this way. Because for the first time in my life I feel the values I believed in may have stopped meaning anything – and on such a big scale that it seems we dont have anyone to turn to – Mum! Dad! Europe! America!”

Umbrella groups

Often in return even for polite disobedience, women face harrassment, bullying, repression and discrimination in their communities. This is especially true in smaller towns, where the ability to be an anonymous face in a crowd is limited. Hate on the internet is merely an everyday occurence.

Beata Siemaszko, a key member of PWS, based in a small town north-east of Warsaw, addressed the Polish Women’s Strike emergency meeting to give her perspective. ”For participating in these actions we get called names in the street, our children are bullied at school.” Jola Jackiewicz, an active member of PWS and Silesian Pearls, based in Rybnik, a town of 140,000 people in Upper Silesia, mother and grandmother, shares the story of a female teacher who is regularly harassed by her pupils over the internet for her pro-women, pro-refugee views. She would like to organise actions to support disabled children, but is afraid, due to growing fascist sentiment. She worries about the repercussions for her children, but attends protests anyway.

Concerns are not unfounded: two female teachers in Zabrze, Upper Silesia, were dismissed from their work at a local school for wearing black on the day of the Polish Women’s Strike. There are reports of police intimidating participants and handing out fines for legal acts of protest. The Church also acts as a custodian of ultra-conservative, pro-government sentiment. Alicja confirms that ”representatives of some churches don’t want to give the sacrament to the children of those who participate in strikes”.

Across the border, where Alicja lives in Berlin, the Polish Catholic Church organized a counter ‘White Protest’, putting up photographs of the Black Protestors on their website denouncing them as women who promote the murder of children. For participating in the current demonstrations there are also fears of recrimination – it means being the face of the opposition – those ”of the worst sort”, as Kaczyński has labelled protestors, those ”communists”, ”animals”, ”pigs” and ”thieves”. With this in mind, PWS has also set up a citizens’ legal aid alliance called ’Little Umbrellas’. The name was inspired by the symbolism of the umbrellas women carried on that rainy day in October last year.

With the second week of protests against the politicisation of the judiciary underway, people gather not only in Warsaw, but also across country in nightly candlelit vigils outside local courts. President Duda’s recent promised double veto does not deter the crowds, especially since he has just signed the third bill which protestors were also seeking a veto for.

More and more people are coming out onto the streets. Young people are joining the throng of the older generation who remember life without freedoms. Those in smaller towns are finding they are not perhaps as alone as they thought, and this unity is one of the main positives in a toxic situation. Through organizing and participating in new relationships, alliances and bonds have been formed.

Marta Puczyńska sees hope in that “we are also becoming educated through what is happening not only as women but as citizens in this young democracy – we are learning that we can go out onto the streets, we have a right to protest, to speak out.”

Agnieszka Wierzbicka feels that “awareness of our strength as women is just awakening. This is a moment that has pushed women to the frontline and will be remembered in history. But we can’t go back and retreat, we can’t take up that subordinate role again that we have had for centuries. We must stay at the frontline – and we will learn how to do that.”


(First published on Open Democracy – https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/irma-allen/solidarity-according-to-polish-women-in-2017)

The trouble with rewilding…

A rewilding movement that bases itself on arguments around overpopulation, without interrogating the power structures that are enabling it, is in danger of failing to generate the kinds of solidarities, social justice outcomes and progressive visions of wildness that we so desperately need.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rewilding is big news in environmental conservation. At the Future of Wild Europe conference at the University of Leeds in September, where top conservation practitioners and academics met to share perspectives on all things wild, it was undoubtedly the key story. Rewilding has hit UK newspaper headlines and filtered through into global NGO strategies, spawning its own generation of institutional backing via new initiatives and organisations. Great news, you might think – and one would hope so.

But, just as environmental historian William Cronon in his now (in)famous essay The Trouble With Wilderness was perturbed by unexamined ideals of wild nature as untouched and inhuman within the environmental movement in the 1990s, I was troubled by things I was hearing at the conference in Leeds over twenty years later. In particular, I was troubled by echoes of a lingering and pernicious legacy of colonial, neo-Malthusianism that, for me, tainted the celebratory, go-getting tone.

It made me anxiously wonder – are we at risk of once again practicing conservation by dispossession, to borrow David Harvey’s well-known phrase? Have we dealt with the uncomfortable past of imperial ecology sufficiently to confidently move towards a more progressive vision of the wild as Cronon implored us to do? I worry the answer is yes to the first question, no to the second.

Before I carry on, I wish to raise the flag of unease with which I proceed and state upfront that I am a passionate supporter of wildlife conservation. The concept of rewilding intuitively appeals to me deeply. But I share William Cronon’s personal tension between “celebrat[ing] the protection of wild nature” and acting on this on the one hand (Cronon was himself a conservationist) and attending to the “task of self-criticism” and “deep reflection” on the other.

It is a tension I think we must uphold. Yet, like those who received William Cronon’s seemingly devastating critique with a sense of genuine anxiety as to which hands such an open questioning of the wilderness ideal and of environmentalism itself might fall into, I, too, proceed with trepidation. So here I attempt an affirmative critique – one that seeks to support not derail, but perhaps in other directions.

Pleistocene rewilding? Source: Pinterest

To return to the trouble (and staying with it): there are three main interlinked issues that I wish to raise about rewilding. The first deals with the problem of racialized neo-Malthusian preoccupations with carrying capacity that seem to have ongoing traction. When Toby Aykroyd, businessman and Founder of Rewilding Europe, spoke at the Leeds conference careers session to us budding ‘Early Career Scholars’, he described his post-business school personal journey into nature conservation as starting with getting involved in family planning in East Africa.

I have to say I was already quite surprised at this easy connecting of, in my mind, very historically uncomfortable terrains. I wanted to know more, to check my small alarm bell that started to ring. I discovered that Aykroyd is the co-founder of the Population and Sustainability Network in 2003, which exists to “increase the prominence of population dynamics in international development policy” promoting reproductive health and family planning services in the interests of a broader sustainable development agenda.

Provision of free family planning is a fantastic achievement in and of itself, yet when motivated by concern over natural resources and carrying capacities, and linked to power-laden development agendas, this shades into murkier territories and rationales that I find deeply uncomfortable.

Back at the conference, a panelist from Spain involved in a senior role in a Spanish conservation organization reportedly proposed (in no joking manner, were it possible to joke about such things) that one of two possible solutions to the “population problem” was either to “sterilize women” – or to educate them. I was not present at the time, but apparently he was neither challenged nor confronted on this by the audience.

Perhaps the silence was just out of unease or lack of attention. But the absence of further discussion on these threads, and a lack of desire to pull on them to see what unravels, I believe reveals a possible precarity on which some alliances are being built.

For the troubling link between nature conservation and colonial attempts to control populations has been well researched. Such ideologies have led to violent dispossession, racialized forms of controlled access and, yes, even forced sterilization. I am not saying that an involvement in family planning is similar to or the same as this in any way – but I am pointing to unnerving and deeply toxic trajectories of where such thinking can point or to what other kinds of thinking it can join up with.

Digging deeper into the genealogy of rewilding we confront further problematic ties. According to rewilding academics Jamie Lorimer et al and Dolly Jorgenson, the term was first coined in the US through a collaboration between the deep ecologist Dave Foreman and conservation biologist Michel Soule in the 1980s in the formation of the Wildlands Project.

Dave Foreman is the Founder of the controversial activist group Earth First!, author of Man Swarm: How Overpopulation is Killing the Wild World, and is current president of the US Rewilding Institute. However, Foreman has been quoted on his own organization’s website as saying

“The Aids epidemic, rather than being a scourge, is a welcome development in the inevitable reduction of human population… If [it] didn’t exist, radical environmentalists would have to invent [it].”

During the Ethiopian famine, eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin also quoted him as saying:

“The worst thing we could do in Ethiopia is to give aid [to the starving children] — the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let people there just starve.”

That was a long time ago, but can rewilding make a leopard change its spots?

Judging by echoes of this sort of logic creeping around and seeping through the sides of sincere and progressive discussion back at the academic-practitioner conference in Leeds, not so fast. As the Weeden Foundation (a previous grant-donor for The Rewilding Institute – TRI) writes on its website: “Dave Foreman… is an outspoken advocate of stabilizing population, and TRI works to integrate population and immigration issues into its environmental analysis and message.”

I am not sure I need to spell out the implications of such a stance in the US context at a time when Donald Trump has just become the next President.


Why is this sort of highly problematic thinking not being discussed and dissected in rewilding circles? A rewilding movement that basis itself on the overpopulation factor is in danger of failing to generate the kinds of solidarities, social justice outcomes, and progressive visions of wildness that we so desperately need. Fletcher, Breitling and Puleo highlight the problem:

“By conjuring the age-old image of animalistic barbarian hordes breeding inexorably and therefore overflowing their Third World confines to threaten the security – and enjoyment – of wealthier nations, the overpopulation bogeyman helps to displace attention from systemic issues within the political economy of development, namely, the futility of pursuing sustainable development within the context of a neoliberal capitalism that characteristically exacerbates both economic inequality and environmental degradation.”

Many overpopulation supporters argue that they do acknowledge the twin role of overconsumption – as does the Population and Environment Network. However, overconsumption usually is, attributed distant second place in policy focus, if at all. “In the process, inequality itself is actually defended in the interest of sustainability”, political ecologist Robert Fletcher writes.

This brings me onto my second concern. While on the one hand overpopulation theories were subtly present in the impetus behind at least some key people’s involvement in rewilding, at the same time we learnt at the conference that one of the main reasons why it has been able to gain so much traction within the European context is due to ‘depopulation’, particularly in rural areas, largely as a result of de-agrarianisation.

Europe is indeed experiencing a dramatic decline in population, most notably in the countryside. Why? One major reason is that we have exported much of our production, agricultural and otherwise, overseas, thus freeing up large tracts of land.

A comprehensive report published by Humbolt University of Berlin found that over the past 20 years, the EU has evolved into the single largest importer of agricultural commodities and food worldwide. In 2007/2008, for example, almost 35 million hectares of land beyond European borders, almost equivalent to the territory of Germany, was used for the benefit of Europeans. This makes the EU a net food importer of so-called “virtual agricultural land”, placing it at risk, the report says, of accusations of land grabbing, and contributing to “negative economic externalities in the form of reductions in natural habitats such as tropical rain forests and increasing greenhouse gas emissions from converting forests and grasslands into cropland”.

How can we build a rewilding movement that simultaneously resists and challenges these negative socio-ecological impacts? For it is here, I would argue, that the crisis lies most explicitly. I was disappointed to note that an engagement with the causes behind this freeing up of land does not seem to be present in rewilding literature. There seems, instead, to be a quiet celebration of this process. Dolly Jorgenson refers to the opportunities “declining agricultural production” opens for rewilding, yet does not investigate further. The journalist George Monbiot says:

“In Europe, between 2000 and 2030 we’ll see 30 million hectares of land being vacated by farmers, which is an area the size of Poland. It’s in places like these… where arable farming is much less viable, that I think we have enormous potential for rewilding”.

I am glad Monbiot mentions Poland. For one of the main drivers behind ‘depopulation’ in rural areas here is loss of livelihoods in the face of EU-backed capitalist industrialization of the countryside. Today, Poland is facing rising organized protest from farmers unable to compete on the market, facing imposed EU standards that favour large-scale agriculture, and unable to sell domestic produce even locally due to restrictive health and safety proscriptions. Mobilizations and sit ins have been the result. In February 2015, for example, 150 tractors blockaded the main motorway leading into Warsaw – the country’s largest farmer uprising.

Poland’s largest farmer uprising, February 2015. Source: Natural Society

One of their main concerns also relates to land grabbing. As a 2015 European Parliament report found, land grabbing is a “creeping phenomenon” that is not alien to the European mainland – indeed, it is occurring increasingly, often via a new asset class of banking, pension and insurance funds, and concentrated particularly within Eastern European states. The report finds:

“Against the backdrop of dramatic levels of land concentration and the rapid exit of Europe’s small farms, farmland grabbing, through its control, privatization and/or dispossession of natural resources, has become an active factor in the further weakening of the socio-economic and environmental vitality of the rural sector. It is leading to the further erosion of Europe’s model of family farming based on a sustainable and multifunctional form of agriculture and blocking the entry into agriculture of young and aspiring farmers.”

The key point here is that there is nothing neutral about processes of rural depopulation. Rather than passively celebrate their demise, should rewilding advocates not align themselves with small-scale farmers, whose practices, at least in Europe, can often encourage far greater biodiversity, and are themselves perhaps part of the very notion of ‘wild’ we might want to cultivate – non-homogenous, diverse, non-standardised, and self-willed?

We should also pause and reflect deeply on the paradox that, while we celebrate depopulation in enabling rewilding, we do so while seemingly claiming neo-Malthusian viewpoints on over-crowding and at a time when thousands of people have risked their lives to journey to Europe in search of refuge but are literally being fenced out and forced back with rhetoric of ‘swamping’, ‘inundation’ and ‘flooding’.

Are Malthusian arguments for ‘space for nature’ feeding into a lack of a European response to refugees? How does rewilding relate to growing European nationalist discourses? We must be at least asking such questions. What does it mean to talk about rewilding without interrogating the violent structures that are perhaps involved in making it possible? I fear a loss of the very enchantment and progressive hope that rewilding seeks to preserve.

This leads me to my third and final point.

Given the context I have just discussed, it is striking that Central and Eastern Europe seems to be becoming somewhat of a home for rewilding. Rewilding expert Jamie Lorimer himself commented on this back at the Leeds conference in his keynote presentation.

For example, Rewilding Europe, mentioned earlier, has become the leading European platform for rewilding and is trialing its activities so far in nine European areas across ten countries. Eight of these areas are listed on the website at present and shown in the map below. Six out of eight of these are located within Europe’s top twenty poorest countries (Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Croatia, and Portugal). One is located in northern Sweden in Lapland, home of the indigenous Sami peoples. The last is located in Italy.

Source: rewilding.com

Why are the historically marginalized regions of Central and Eastern Europe seemingly becoming centre stage for rewilding? This seems an important question to at least ask. Is it linked to de-agrarianization? Should we not interrogate the unequal power dynamics at play between West and East in this set up?

Funding for this initiative is coming from largely Western European-based organizations, including 3 million Euro startup money from the Dutch Postcode Lottery, support from WWF-Netherlands, and backing from London-based ‘conservation enterprise’ investment company, Conservation Capital. This latter organization has “raised and structured over 200 million Euros of private investment finance for conservation-based businesses across 26 countries” and interested in developing a “nature-based economy in key areas of rural Europe where declining forms of economic activity (primarily agriculture) will be replaced with new wildlife and wilderness-based businesses”.

What sorts of relationships of bio-capitalism are we witnessing here? Or should we more see this as a redistribution of resources in a positive light? Where is the debate on this?


In his recent book Extinction: A Radical History, Ashley Dawson explicitly ties the issue of extinction to capitalist modes of production, exploitation and histories of dispossession. As such he calls for an “anti-capitalist movement against extinction [that] must be framed in terms of a refusal to turn land, people, flora, and fauna into commodities” particularly when cloaked “in arguments about preserving biodiversity”.

I must agree, and yet Dawson seems to limit his critique too narrowly to relations between ‘Global North and South’. He bemoans the fact that “all too often rewilding schemes focus exclusively on wealthy areas of the planet”, such as Europe. While I support Dawson’s radical focus on distributive justice, I would caution that rewilding could come in capitalist guise itself.

Moreover, an indiscriminate lens on the ‘Global North’ does little to reveal the inequities and power relations occurring within Europe’s own borders, not to mention placing a generalized blame for colonialism on countries that have never been colonial powers, and indeed, recently, have themselves been explored through a post-colonial lens.

Once again, Eastern Europe gets invisibilized and erased from notions of ‘Europe’ and the ‘Global North’ more generally. Of course European countries are much wealthier than the world’s poorest, but that still does not alter the huge discrepancies between European countries in which many were only counted as ‘European’ very recently, and even then, precariously so.

To conclude – rewilding is not a return but a future-in-the-making. It is a wholly natural-cultural project in becoming-with. Imaginations of rewilded places must therefore be steeped in the recognition of what political ecologist Bruce Braun calls the “irreducible nature of experimentation at the heart of rewilding practices”. Where we make them, how come, with and without whom, all matter to the kinds of experiments we are carrying out. History itself is forgotten in this process at our peril.

(First blogged on entitleblog.org https://entitleblog.org/2016/12/14/the-trouble-with-rewilding/)



Fossil Capital: the rise of steam power and the roots of global warming

We all know that coal and steam vanquished over water power in Britain’s – and the world’s – industrial revolution. But as Andreas Malm sets out in his fascinating new book, the deciding factors in that victory were the unconstrained mastery over people and nature that coal provided mill owners. And so the model was set for the fossil age that may only now be coming to an end.
If global warming is the “unintended by-product par excellence”, as the opening of Andreas Malm’s potent new book states, what is it a by-product of?

The obvious answer is the burning of fossil fuels. But, why do we burn them at all and how did reliance on these substances come about?

Understanding the emergence of the ‘fossil economy’ – one in which economic expansion and fossil fuel consumption are united, resulting in an accelerating quantity of atmospheric CO2 – demands a return to history ‘eyes wide open’. As the book asks, “how did we get caught up in this mess?”

According to his thesis, British industry’s switch from waterwheels to coal-fired steam engines in the 19th century is the fundamental turning point upon which the climate crisis hinges. Understanding why this occurred goes to the “roots of global warming” as it reveals the vested interests of ‘business-as-usual’ today.

The canary in the coal mine warns of unseen danger – Malm’s warning is that a false understanding of climate change history is leading to flawed diagnosis, so failed remedies. Echoing her approach, it is no wonder Naomi Klein endorses the book as “essential reading”.

Dismantling of two main theories

Malm builds his argument gradually in quasi-detective fashion, applying Marxist critique to received wisdom. In doing so, he persuasively dismantles two theories, or ‘storylines’ as he tellingly calls them, which currently dominate on-going political and public reckoning of fossil economics.

The first is the ‘Ricardo-Malthusian paradigm’. According to this story, steam arose as a response to scarcity of good watering holes at which to quench the thirst of continued industrial expansion of Britain’s cotton mills. Rational actors, so this line of thinking goes, saw the logic and economic competitiveness of the steam engine straight away and set about installing the new technology to the benefit of society.

An intrinsic human pyromania – a love affair with fire – perhaps further spurred our fossil addiction. Malm, however, finds that the transition from water to steam actually “took the form of a protracted contest” without a clear winner over a number of decades. Contrary to wide-held belief, James Watt’s patenting of the steam engine in 1784 was not the inevitable start of the industrial revolution.

Early trials with steam engines in manufacturing ended badly, and most mill owners were uninterested years after its invention. This was because water was free and abundant, coal was expensive, while steam engines had frequent technical malfunctions and could even explode. Furthermore, water power was often more efficient than steam.

All this flies in the face of classical economic thinking. What, then, forced the leap?

In answering this, Malm critiques a second, increasingly dominating, storyline – that of the ‘anthropocene narrative’. This holds that humankind as a unified category has become a geological agent of environmental change, ushering in a new geologic epoch we must simply now manage, adapt to, or even make the most of, as some ‘eco-modernists’ insist.

The anthropocene camp blames the human species as a whole for global warming. Yet Malm shows that inequality and differentiated responsibility are central to its history, and it is time to confront that.

Industrial capitalism and the revolution

The early 1820s saw the first structural crisis of industrial capitalism. This was repeated in 1837 and again in the hyper-depression of 1841-2, creating waves of social unrest. In 1824 the Combination Laws, which made strikes and unionization illegal, were repealed.

The “mighty energies of the masses” were awakened. Large-scale protests over poor pay and working conditions were the result over the following two decades, just as industrial capital was struggling. The Chartist movement, seeking rights and a voice for workers, emerged in 1836. Britain was brought to the brink of “all-out revolution”, in Malms’s words. Industry was petrified. It was during this struggle between workers and capitalists that steam power was adopted.

Colonialism as a backdrop is not touched upon, although its machinations on distant shores would have fed into these tensions and vice versa. Malm’s theory, however, is that steam arose out of very specific social relations in Britain “as a form of power exercised by some people against others.” It offered a way to subordinate and control unruly labour that was refusing to cooperate.

In the cotton industry, striking spinners could bring factories to a standstill. In Preston, for example, all thirty factories came to a grinding halt when 650 spinners walked out in November 1836. Weavers, although home-based, also contributed to the malaise. Under conditions of worsening pay, due to rising urbanization and the low-skilled nature of the work, weavers were resorting to embezzlement – retaining a portion of the stock to sell on the black market.

Whereas in the industrial heyday this was an annoyance, under crisis conditions this was intolerable for capital. The solution to both was to install Iron Men (self-acting machines) and Power Looms in the factories – run on steam. This was further resisted by workers who feared knock-on implications for employment leading to a general strike in 1842 and ‘Plug Riots’ that literally ‘pulled the plug’ on steam engines.

Proletarian “steam demonology” battled the “steam fetishism” that increasingly preoccupied bourgeois fantasies. Yet by 1850 both steam – and capitalists – had won. Chartism had collapsed, and capitalism entered a period of “sustained renaissance”. Natural and social power became fused.

The lure of coal

Still the choice of coal, rather than water, as a source of fuel was not inevitable. At one point, large-scale engineering projects to construct artificial waterpower through levees and reservoirs were proposed. But this required coordination and inter-reliance between mill owners – something competitive industrialists were not keen on.

Coal-fired steam was divisible, privately operable and amenable to concentration. It suited capitalist desires well. A number of additional aspects contributed to coal’s pull. It offered spatial and temporal benefits over water. Freed from location by rivers, factories could be sited more centrally in cities, where urbanizing population growth offered cheap workers “trained to industrious habits”.

Steam powered by coal did not need to rely on the vagaries of natural cycles, such as weather, either. It was a prime mover that could be “whipped up by its master” taming both nature and bodies. The invention of high-pressure steam was the last nail in the coffin for waterpower – the steady expansion of coal-fired steam the result.

All these were accumulating “moment(s) in the emergence of the fossil economy”. Whilst it would have been useful to have a greater analysis of how these aspects intersected, each chapter provides a compelling overview of these eye-opening trends.

The quest for wealth caused climate change

The fossil economy was never a ‘species-wide project’ nor a democratic endeavor. The root of climate change is shown to lie with the power of some to put the private accumulation of wealth above all else. In particular, Malm argues that historical blame for climate change points at Britain.

More accurately, and more in line with a differentiated class analysis, he ought to say blame lies with Britain’s capitalists (and their supporters). Even more specifically – a handful of white British men appear to have pulled the levers. So, is climate change a man? as an article in the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter once asked, or a white British capitalist male? Malm does not speculate, but the implication is there.

In 1850, the year which marked the near complete shift from hand looms to power looms and thus the birth of the fossil economy, Britain “emitted nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as the US, France, Germany, Belgium combined. It emitted a thousand times more than Russia and two thousand times more than Canada.”

Sweden’s footprint was on a par with the latter. Today, the US and China, which gets its own later chapter, are of course competing for the title of total contributions to global warming, but Britain still ranks fifth in the world.

There is a sense of future reckoning ominously looming when he states that “the more coming generations are forced to upgrade the significance of matters of carbon, the more sharply will the British exception stand out and its history attract interest.” He reveals his own cards perhaps too much when he says that Britain should be smeared “in the soot it has bequeathed to humanity.”

Yet if environmental justice is to be taken seriously – and climate negotiations have been careful to avoid just that – he has a loaded point. His tract serves to blow open the myth that the human species are but one equal category. In the early twenty-first century, the poorest 45% of humanity generated 7% of current CO2 emissions, while the richest 7% produced 50%.

How can we declare the ‘anthropocene’ a neutral concept in light of this? Its politics of distributing equal blame are both laid bare and dismantled. In this human climate-change farm we are all equal, we are led to believe. But Malm shows that some are more responsible than others. How to resolve this is something he does not venture to tackle.

Future steps

What next? The book’s lessons for how we consider current discourse around the diffusion of renewable energy technologies today is striking. As is pointed out, we often hear that renewables are not competitive enough – that the market must decide. Yet if the fossil capital theory is correct, this is not how technological change occurs.

Technology serves social ends. To force the transition, we must challenge the power structures preventing this shift from happening. Malm rounds off the book with a look at how a renewable economy will only occur if it is planned and implemented against private interests whose investments are sunk in fossil capital.

Equally, to meet emissions reductions targets we’d need a “planned economic recession” tantamount to a “war on capital”. This is not about waiting for socialism, but a pragmatic, though uncomfortable, proposal to solve our present day mess.

Reworking a familiar refrain, Malm concedes “it has become easier to imagine large-scale intervention in the climate system” – by which he refers to business-as-usual attempts at geo-engineering – “than in capitalism”.

Resolving this paradox would be the work of a miracle, he says – but humans are the only ones capable of conjuring it up. With our eyes now wide open, we better get on with it.

The book:Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming‘ is by Andreas Malm and published by Verso Books.

(First published in Swedish in the culture section of the national daily Dagens Nyheter – https://www.dn.se/kultur-noje/kulturdebatt/sa-kan-angmaskinerna-lara-oss-att-forsta-klimatforandringarna/. Also published in English on TheEcologist.org as a book review https://theecologist.org/2016/apr/27/fossil-capital-rise-steam-power-and-roots-global-warming.)


Degrowth beyond environmentalism: Or shaking the temple of growthism, speaking the growth taboo, and sowing the seeds of generative doubt

Undisciplined Environments, a conference held in Stockholm 20 – 23rd March 2016, was an intensive four-day introduction to all things latest in political ecology. Not surprisingly, considering its exponentially growing significance, the degrowth movement got at least a couple of panels dedicated to it, plus I’m sure a good amount of corridor chat, mentions from speakers, and presence in the form of the Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era publication in the conference’s impromptu ‘bookshop’. Degrowth is growing. But do all agree on what ‘degrowth’ is about and does that matter for the movement?

Going along to one of the degrowth panels I found the papers presented very interesting in their breadth of original data. (Unfortunately I missed most of the first one – which was about degrowth as a movement for peace. Intuitively engaging but I won’t comment as I was not there!)We heard about research that had been conducted on the environmental values and attitudes of a sample of participants from the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth at Leipzig in 2014, pointing out via complex plotted axis on graphs the hypocrisies of probably many of us sitting in the room at the time (shamefully including in large part myself!) – so-called modernist rationalists who say ‘do as I say, not as I do!’  – i.e. fly to international conferences, eat a non-vegetarian diet, and consume technology like there’s no tomorrow (literally). Next up was impressively thorough statistical analysis on European ‘degrowth’ proneness in relation to a series of environmental actions that citizens of a wide number of EU countries might participate in, such as recycling, paying green taxes or using public transport. And finally there was a paper on working-class environments, looking at the cross-over of nine trade unions’ strategies across five or so countries in Europe with environmentally progressive agendas. All super interesting as examples of research into trends towards environmentalism, particularly the latter as working-class environmentalisms get lean attention. Yet – in connecting this to the movement, I found myself wondering what was specifically ‘degrowth’ about these actions? How were they different to other forms of environmental activism such as that propelled by Transition Towns, NGO campaigns, or even government-endorsed programmes to ‘green’ consumerism, the economy and capitalism itself?

It’s not that I think environmental behaviours and actions– such as being vegan, not flying, consuming less, recycling, being pro-renewables, and calling for green taxes – aren’t good things in themselves. They definitely are.  But, there are plenty of other groups and movements that are already focusing on these things. I was also left wondering if all those who advocate for the types of activities mentioned here are themselves aware that they are considered part of the degrowth movement? Would they all sign up to – and use – that term? That is important in considering how crystallized the movement is politically. For many of these actions are often still compatible with capitalist growth in both their individual and co-optable nature – particularly perhaps taxes and green lifestyle choices. It seems to me that degrowth needs to go beyond this, as I am sure many agree. But what does that mean?

Degrowth scholars Federico Demaria, Francois Schneider, Filka Sekulova and Joan Martinez-Alier (2013: 210) in their article ‘What is Degrowth?’ say that it ‘brings together a heterogeneous group of actors who focus on housing and urban planning, financial issues and alternative money systems, agroecology and food systems, international trade, climate justice, children’s education and domestic work, meaningful employment and cooperatives, as well as transport and alternative energy systems.’ They claim degrowth’s diversity as a strength of the movement. Networking networks, as the authors call it, I agree can be a powerful strategy for generating change. But like them, I also agree that these actions must form a greater sum of parts if they are to equal a broader and visionary ‘degrowth movement’. Campaigning for increased pedestrian or cycle facilities, frugal living, or experiments in sharing economies are positive steps in a useful direction – but, as individual actions they could steer us away from the progressive degrowth society we aspire to if not brought together into a more holistic and radical synthesis. As Demaria and colleagues say (ibid: 206): ‘Degrowth only makes sense when its sources are taken into account, meaning not just ecology and bioeconomics, but also meaning of life and well-being, anti-utilitarianism, justice and democracy. Taken independently they can lead to incomplete and reductionist projects fundamentally incompatible with the ideas of the degrowth movement’.

I would say that the concept of degrowth is a radically challenging and politicizing one. What makes it different (and uncomfortable) is that it is fundamentally anti-capitalist, since a no-growth society, even if not immediately non-capitalist, calls forth new modes of development and organization that are post-capitalist in nature. Unlike ‘sustainability’, ‘green economy’ or even ‘organic’, degrowth is perhaps the one concept that capitalism cannot co-opt and sell back to us. Therein lies its strength – it is a safe space for rethinking the politics of ecology. For some this makes the movement problematic – literally no one will ‘buy’ it (note the growth-centric turn of phrase). I think for sure many won’t – and that’s ok. Not all environmentalists or social activists will sign up to the cause. But by being present in the arena, degrowth can contribute hugely to changing the parameters of what is on and off the table for all involved. That in itself would be a substantial achievement that should not be underestimated

Since its de-politicization by the capitalist spirit of sustainability, the need to articulate what lies beyond environmentalism is a key task for degrowthers. I strongly believe it is a degrowth movement that aligns ecological and social visions, and yet I think if this is to succeed in building something new (even if for sure incorporating elements of the ‘old’) then I would agree with Demaria et al’s statement (which I think slightly contradicts their earlier emphasis on wide heterogeneity as strength) that ‘We need not only agreements within the movement on what it advocates, but also on how to implement the proposals.’ This sounds like a call for a strategy, or at least a number of overarching diagnostic approaches bringing together different insights. What kind? Here are a couple of interconnected initial thoughts…

First, we should view growth from a psychological perspective, seeking to understand why questioning it seems to be so painful. Growth forms a core to constructions of identities, perceptions of ontological security, frames of representation and sense of purpose for many. It is not just an economic process or structure – neither is it simply the accumulated sum of our individual or even collective actions. It is not a purely rational logic either (what is?), but a deeply emotional and subconscious one, even spiritual, with its own rituals, rites and incantations. Thus, I would suggest that growthism can be usefully viewed as a temple of faith with its own language, thought-processes, morals and practices and at which many faithful followers worship. The consequence of shaking faith in growth will be a psychological and existential fallout that is perhaps already occurring. And so, degrowthers must be prepared to be spirit doctors as well as system analysts.

Taking an anthropological perspective, we should also understand and then reframe growth’s wider cultural role. In many parts of today’s world, questioning growth is tantamount to a social and political taboo at many levels. Taboos serve a social function related to maintaining the distinctions between the sacred and profane, between clean and unclean. The taboo on questioning growth maintains a specific social order. Degrowth radically challenges that taboo by speaking its name, unflinchingly and persistently asking ‘does growth really equal progress and prosperity?’ A lot of research points to the negative consequences of growth on social and environmental impacts. Yet, I would suggest that beyond those likely to read this blog post, that negative correlation is not so readily called to mind. Decoupling growth from positive social, economic, environmental and political goods in the minds of many people is work that still very much needs doing. Mainstream party political manifestos tell us so. Championing that research, re-cycling it, re-inscribing it, communicating and re-communicating in amplified forms should be a central task of degrowth. Raising economic and ecological literacy are all part of that task.

Finally, we might wish to come at growth as skeptic philosophers. The degrowth movement should emphasize actions that increase the capacity and propensity to doubt growthism – and at all levels (individual, community, societal, government, transversal). We are here to sow the seeds of healthy doubt – many seeds, thousands, if not millions… To spread them, watch them grow, help to harvest them, tend to them. But the kind of doubt we should be spreading is a creative doubt, a generative one – not a fearful or alienating form of doubt.  One with new, hopeful visions on the other side that yes, draw on ‘old’ and ‘new’ environmentalisms and other progressive strands of thought.

Together, I think these complementary approaches, that could perhaps be more central strands of the movement, could serve to change the nature of the wider debate dramatically.

To this end, I was recently involved in setting up the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth – a cross-party group of UK MPs and Peers who sign up to the idea that ‘we need to talk about growth’. When the group was being created, the majority of those involved did not believe that it would get the requisite number of parliamentary members to make the group official (five), particularly not under the banner of any conception of ‘limits’ to growth. It did: the group has 13 members and it is being launched on April 19th 2016. Growth is being questioned even by those in positions of power. To prevent appropriation by any conservative forces, and, at the same time, bring on board new allies in non-traditional progressive champions, the degrowth movement is well-placed to provide the bottom-up leadership to direct attention towards possible democratic and progressive solutions as more begin to wake up to growthism’s limits. This I think requires more than a network of networks, or individual actions – but a strategy for collective change, including who or what counts as ‘in’ and ‘out’. Demaria et al (ibid: 207) argue that: ‘The movement has an urgent pending task: to elaborate a transition (better called a transformation) path in rich societies from the actual crisis of economic growth to socially accepted degrowth’. Perhaps a possible step for the next degrowth conference in Budapest this September?

(First blogged at The Seed Box Blog: https://theseedboxblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/02/response-to-undisciplined-environments-2016/)

Lambeth Living Well, or Making Ill?

housing debateAt the Lambeth Housing Crisis Question Time debate last month, organised by residents of Cressingham Gardens, an estate threatened by potential demolition, a tenant angrily questioned the six-strong panel of Councillors and academic experts “This is a community! Do you know about community? Do you live in a community?” Since recent research shows that around 1 in 10 people in Britain can’t name a single one of their neighbours, they perhaps did not. If decision-makers may have no first-hand experience of being part of a community, how can we expect them to value let alone protect this rare asset? We therefore might wonder, as another audience member rightly queried, is the impact of such ‘regeneration’ schemes on mental health and wellbeing being taken into consideration in decision-making? At present it seems not. Should it? Yes – here’s why, according to Lambeth’s own aims and ambitions.

Lambeth Council are facing severe and compounding housing, mental health, and social isolation problems. On top of this, their budget has been slashed by 50% since 2011;  no easy picture. The borough has one of the longest council housing waiting lists nationwide. 21,000 people are currently hoping to get a council owned property in the borough, a 210% increase since 1997. A further 1800 families are in temporary accommodation or homeless, while yet another 1300 are living in severely overcrowded conditions. If that wasn’t enough, half of the borough’s council stock is yet to meet the Decent Homes Standard.

Simultaneously, and very likely to  be linked, according to the 2010 Marmot Review, the number of people using mental health services in Lambeth is three times the national average. In 2007, Lambeth was spending £276 per capita on mental health care, the fourth highest amount in England. In 2013, it was reported to have the highest number of benefits claims for mental health problems of any London borough.

A further interlinked factor is social isolation. As a nation, we are reputedly the loneliest in Europe. Particularly, a reported 25% of Londoners say they feel lonely all or some of the time. For adults using social care services, according to a Health and Social Care Information Centre report last year, this is especially the case. While the percentage of users who said they had ‘little social contact with people and feel socially isolated’ is 5.5% in England, that rises to 7.7% in London. In Lambeth, the figure is 9.8%, one of the worst in the country. In addition to the mental health crisis, our growing (and co-morbid) loneliness crisis is one that councils should be striving to avoid, not contribute to, at all costs – for cost it does, socially and financially.

Yet, following heavily criticised evictions from its so-called ‘shortlife’ housing co-ops, and a growing number of unpopular redevelopment plans on yet other estates such as the Guinness Trust and Myatt’s Field, as well as sheltered housing in Leigham Court, Lambeth’s current destructive approach to housing and thus its own fragile social fabric will arguably result in heavy long-term costs, both economic and social. Perhaps Lambeth Council do not realise just how compounded these issues are? However, if we are to take at face value the remit of one of its flagship initiatives, set up in 2010, the ‘Lambeth Living Well Collaborative’, then, actually, they do. So why the lack of joined-up thinking?

The ‘Lambeth Living Well Collaborative’:

lambethlogoThe ‘Collaborative’ brings together commissioners, providers of health and social care services, service users and carers in order to implement the much-touted idea of ‘co-production’ to “radically improve the outcomes for people experiencing severe and on-going mental health problems”. It is intended to be a ‘demonstration site’ as part of Lambeth’s ‘Co-operative Council’ experiment; an experiment aimed at involving citizens more in designing and running services and  lampooned as a gross paradox considering the borough’s dismantling of many housing co-operatives. Leaving the much-commented-on irony of the ‘co-operative council’ aside, a further contradiction lies in the Collaborative’s own vision: “that The Lambeth Living Well Area will provide the context within which every citizen…can flourish, contribute to society and lead the life they want to lead.” This is to be achieved by taking a holistic “Total Place” approach – “because the wider determinants of health have the most significant impact on health outcomes” – including housing and community.

One of the most progressive aspects of the Collaborative, for whom I did some work during a short stint at the Innovation Unit back in 2012, is their recognition of the detrimental effects of social isolation, and therefore their emphasis on building people’s resilience and “community-based interdependence” as a preventative approach to tackling mental ill-health, moving away from medical models of treatment. Part of this involves pumping money and resources into creating “lasting and sustainable support” for those experiencing mental distress “in their own communities and networks”.

According to Collaborative figures, the Council’s spends £3.4 million annually on supporting ‘social inclusion’ in the Voluntary and Community Sector. A further £3.15 million is provided by NHS Lambeth’s Clinical Commissioning Group to support a range of third sector organisations, including many activities focused on developing people’s safety-nets through social links, such as via Certitude’s ‘Connected Communities’ initiative and peer support, as well as building their ability to live independently.  In 2012 Lambeth spent an additional £100,000 setting up three pilot ‘Timebanks’ in the borough – part of a nationwide campaign to “inspire a new generation of volunteers” in a reciprocal, and transactual, exchange system where time is the unit of currency given and received; the idea being that volunteering and being part of a social network is positive for mental wellbeing.  All similar to the sorts of well-meaning ‘palliatives’ that (as mentioned in my last blog) George Monbiot wrote are being thought up to banish our loneliness epidemic.

While I am not knocking these efforts on their own terms, it seems supremely negligent and self-destructive to be priming the pump on the one hand, attempting to re-connect broken community links through expensive, artificial, top-down incentives, while at the same time, being involved in ripping up and shredding well-functioning, sustainable, and organically developed communities that are in existence. Why are Lambeth currently in the process of destroying some of the very precious few genuine communities that do exist in its borders? In particular, why are a Labour council dismantling housing co-ops, which Tessa Jowell has said to be “Britian’s best kept secret”, stimulating “active community participation”?

Lambeth’s communities shattered:

As Jonathan Bartley, Green Party Parliamentary Candidate, pointed out at the Housing Crisis Question Time debate, rare communities that help and look after each other are under threat. Thanks to a campaign, one such community in Streatham, where elderly and terminally ill people cook for each other, and are involved in the day-to-day of each others’ lives, was recently saved. This was not the case for another man, already evicted from his ‘shortlife’ housing co-op on Somerleyton Rd to make way for re-developments, who spoke of the devastating effects on his life of having his community destroyed: “I ended up in SLAM (South London and Maudesley hospital) because my mental health deteriorated”. Yet it’s not just the effects on those displaced. The dismantling of such communities impacts on us all.


Rectory Gardens residents protest the sale of their homes. *Photo borrowed from Lambeth Save our Services: http://lambethsaveourservices.org/2012/10/31/rectory-gardens-protest-halts-auction-viewing/

Take the further example of Rectory Gardens ‘shortlife’ housing co-op in Clapham Old Town, about which I am currently involved in making a documentary film. Residents, who have made these council-owned properties their home since the 1970s, are being evicted so that Lambeth can sell off the street of 28 houses at auction to raise funds. As I have written about in another blog, it is solely down to self-directed, co-operative efforts to maintain and improve the once dilapidated houses, through sharing skills and investing their own time, money and labour into their renovation, that the houses could now be worth around £500,000 on the market. Yet, as an OHCR global report on forced evictions and human rights uncannily describes, these sorts of development processes almost always affect the poorest members of society, and tend to be justified on economic grounds or as a ‘public good’. All too familiarly, Lambeth have sought to do just that. Cllr. Matthew Bennett, Labour Cabinet Member for Housing in Lambeth, told our film crew that since they cannot afford to refurbish the houses, which he says are ‘unfit’ for habitation (despite people residing there for 40 years with the Council’s permission), the council’s only option is to sell them on the private market, putting the proceeds towards the building of “1000 new council homes”.

They have so far made £56 million on the sale of 120 other shortlife houses; money which, incidentally, has not been ring-fenced for direct spend on housing. But residents have never requested for the council to spend money refurbishing the properties they themselves have done up over the years. They have suggested they keep looking after them as part of a wider Super Co-op, becoming secure council tenants in the process. This solution, which would have preserved the community, has been rejected. Yet, according to Lambeth Collaborative’s own policy on building social resilience, Rectory Gardens housing co-op as it exists today is precisely the sort of ‘natural’ community that the Council should be rushing over to support, promote, and publicly champion.

The houses may not be tidy specimens of a pristine suburbia, epitomised by the modern, gated housing block next door; the paint is peeling; bricks are crumbling; nature is pushing through crevices. But it is precisely this organic, imperfect condition, which also characterises the self-help community, upsetting some neighbours for its untamed ‘messiness’, that makes Rectory Gardens of such immense value – and I don’t mean economic.

The real and costly tragedy lies in the destruction of that rare modern urban entity – an organically developed, self-supporting community of diverse people, including young and old, families and unique characters, looking out for and helping one another without top-down ‘incentives’. Neither friendship clubs nor so-called ‘community development’ are needed here. Some of the residents are elderly; others have physical and psychological disabilities. One co-op member explains to me that, as a result, some contribute more to the community than others, based on their ability – this is the nature of being in a ‘co-op’. It is not transactual, nor always equal – unlike the concept of Timebanking, marketed on the idea that you get as much as you give.

Let me be clear – it is by no means a utopia. There are internal politics and tensions, as within any of the most cohesive of families. Yet this is what makes it all the more genuine – not perfect, not pristine, but raw and uneven, not something that can be easily manufactured nor constructed. As one resident put it “it’s like a village in the city here. We aren’t all friends, but we all know each other, and have learnt to live together, and there’s always someone to help you.” Building new council homes is a fine thing to do. But at the expense of stable communities that constructively and independently absorb and support a range of vulnerable peoples? I don’t think we have the idea of ‘value’ right if so. Furthermore, the idea of other co-ops being formed to take its place elsewhere, as Cllr. Bennett has implied, reminds me of the notion of biodiversity offsetting – an ecosystem is inimitable in its complexity. Are we to understand this as a casualty of apparently fungible social capital?

A further danger lies in the effect of residualisation – as social housing stock declines, those who do end up being council tenants are those most in need. Fabians calls this ‘poverty tenure’. This in turn compounds ill-health, concentrating the likelihood of developing mental ill-health in ever ghetto-ised social housing, increasingly located in neighbourhoods characterised by greater poverty – Rectory Gardens is indeed one of the last remaining social housing stocks in Clapham Old Town, a neighbourhood now largely affordable only to the wealthiest individuals. Residents have been re-housed elsewhere. The co-op houses will become private property. This does little to contribute to genuinely diverse and mixed communities in a fast gentrifying borough, while increasing the chances of later mental health repercussions.

One house on Rectory Gardens has already been sold, apparently to a foreign investor who lives overseas and is renting it out to two young professionals on the private market. It is the only property to look ‘smartened-up’; freshly painted white, with a polished front door, and a Banham security alarm adorned on its front. I’ve been told that the new tenants do not stop to say hello to anyone on the street; nobody knows their names. In the other houses that are slowly being evicted one by one, property guardians from Camelot and VPS have moved in. They are friendly enough, but they will soon be in and out – a transient and shape-shifting community at best. Semi-aware of his own unfortunate, and technically blameless, role in turfing the community out, one says “this street will definitely just become another characterless, soulless street of posh, expensive houses, no doubt about it.” Welcome to the new Rectory Gardens, now next door to one of a growing number of Lambeth’s ‘gated communities’. Is this the future that Lambeth Council envision? Pursuing present policies, it sadly appears so.

The repercussions of losing that community forever are yet to be fully known, or accounted for. It reminds me of Labour Councillors Nigel Haselden, Christopher Wellbelove, and Helen O’Malley who, in their 2007 election leaflets, said “these communities provide a welcome permanence to the borough” and “it would be senseless as well as expensive to evict them”. Yet shortly after they were elected they reneged on these promises. The only one who remained supportive, O’Malley, was de-selected. I wonder who will be proved right in the long-term.

Yet, in an interview for the documentary, and once again at the housing debate, Cllr. Matthew Bennett, was extremely pejorative about the co-op, which he claims did not take the opportunity to formalise itself with the Council. In actual fact, the Council never gave them that option. This in itself is telling of an attitude that sees bottom-up, non-institutionalised initiatives as a potential threat to be eliminated. Over on Somerleyton Rd the Council are involved in “setting up” what Bennett calls a “genuine” co-op; presumably a Council-sanctioned and initiated one, and one which Carlton Mansions shortlife housing co-op had to make way for earlier this year… Hardly befitting the ‘co-operative council’s’ claim of wanting to “transfer power to its citizens”. MP Steve Reed, who initiated the co-operative council concept in Lambeth, writes “handing power to the people is not straightforward because it means taking power away from those who currently hold it; they will often resist this change both individually and organisationally. Councils are structured to provide top-down services, and these structures need to change if we want citizen-led services to thrive”. It seems the radical implications of their own policies have not yet filtered through into action. Transferring power means stepping back and making space for the unplanned and non-bureaucratised; of letting things sprout through and emerge in untidy ways, not ‘tidying up’ and out those who dare to think and do differently.

Lambeth Living Miserably?

Back at last month’s Lambeth Housing Crisis Question Time Debate, Dr. Paul Watt from Birkbeck University concluded that, in almost exact contradiction to the Collaborative’s stated aims, “many of these regeneration schemes are actually producing sickness” rather than delivering “decent conditions in which people can live healthy lives”. Perhaps this is because Lambeth fails to recognise the difference between a ‘house’, a roof over one’s head, and a ‘home’, a place full of a sense of belonging, meaning, identity and community. Pressured by their long council house waiting list combined with severe budget cuts, it is no wonder that the council are looking for quick-fix answers that fulfil the minimum need. But this is terribly short-sighted. Yes there is a housing crisis. But if Lambeth are to tackle the other most severe and critical issue it faces – that of rising mental health problems and associated costs – it must think about housing in terms of providing and supporting the concept of ‘homes’, not merely four walls and a ceiling. It must value community and wellbeing above short-term economic gain.

That we are unclear on the long-term repercussions of so-called ‘regeneration’ schemes is evident in the fact that, as panellist Michael Edwards from UCL pointed out, regrettably there are almost no long-term studies being done to follow through these processes and assess wellbeing impacts. One such rare example that I’ve sourced online – a 2011 briefing paper by the Glasgow-based 10-year research programme GoWell, investigating the impact of investment in housing, regeneration and urban renewal on health and wellbeing in the city – tellingly found that while “[t]argeted housing improvement has generally had a positive effect on mental health…the effects of area-led regeneration are either absent or shown to have negative consequences.” More research is required to corroborate and map this more widely. I would also add to the bigger question, that as these communities become rarer and rarer, what do we stand to lose as a broader society? Without these functioning, self-created examples, we are all the poorer in our collective social imagination and aspiration.

Neither the aims of the ‘cooperative council’ nor the ‘Lambeth Living Well Collaborative’ are being served by the current local government’s short-termist attitude to housing, epitomised by current struggles in the borough; an approach that means we all lose in the end.

Housing crisis, economic crisis, mental health crisis, loneliness crisis – how many crises does it take to change the ideological lightbulb?


To read more about Rectory Gardens, take a look at another recent (and apologies also lengthy/detailed!) blog by me on the Spectacle website, here.

If you want to listen to the full audio recording of the Lambeth Housing Crisis Question Time debate organised by Cressingham Garden residents, click here.

To learn more about housing campaigns in Lambeth, visit the Lambeth Housing Activists website.

To learn more about housing campaigns in London, visit the Radical Housing Network website.


(Blog republished on Brixton Buzz: http://www.brixtonbuzz.com/2015/01/lambeth-living-well-or-making-ill-housing-in-crisis/)

Cllr. Matthew Bennett’s Rectory Gardens slurs and errors

“We’d all like to live for free in million pound homes in Clapham”, Cllr. Matthew Bennett, Labour Cabinet Member for Housing in Lambeth, told Spectacle in a recent interview for our documentary about the eviction of residents from Rectory Gardens housing co-op. Yet, Spectacle’s film reveals that this statement, and numerous others Bennett made, is based on gross inaccuracies, calling into question the evidential basis for Lambeth’s decision to sell off the houses, a decision that Lambeth Labour MP Kate Hoey has told us “will go down in history as one of the worst the borough has made”.

Million pound homes?

In the mid-1970s, Lambeth Council Compulsory Purchase Ordered the L-shaped street of 28 Victorian terraced houses in the heart of Clapham Old Town for as little as £2000 – £4000 each under ‘slum clearance’. Along with numerous other ‘shortlife’ homes CPOd in the borough, the properties were effectively abandoned due to lack of funds to do them up. The only work ever to be carried out by the council since was to deliberately damage many of the interiors in order to prevent occupation. But a few years on, as was common at the time, squatters found a way to move into what had become derelict houses. Realising that this was a way to help them maintain the properties, the council then decided to welcome them as ‘short-life tenants’. Similar events took place across the city. “The Council were even handing out keys. They didn’t seem to care at all that we were there; in fact they seemed happy about it”, said one resident. Forty years later, and Lambeth are one of the last London boroughs to deal with their shortlife portfolio, having dithered about for decades, during which time a whole community and way of life has flourished. But in 2011, in the context an over-inflated London property market and government cuts, the Council decided to sell off what have become people’s long-standing homes at auction to raise cash. Evictions are currently in process.

Yet, if Lambeth are hoping to make one million pounds each on these houses, they must be dreaming. So far they have made £56 million on the sale of around 120 ‘shortlife’ houses. That’s around £466,000 for each one. There are now only around 50 shortlife properties remaining in the borough, and the Council aims to sell off the last remaining homes by the end of 2015. Rectory Gardens represents most of this tail-end stock. But rather than one million, the average sale price for a co-op property at auction is half that. Both houses already sold on Rectory Gardens went for under £500,000. It is unclear how much Lambeth anticipate making on the sale of the remaining houses; Spectacle have requested a figure.

How is this money to be spent? In our interview, Bennett said decisively that the money would be used to “build 1000 new council homes”, yet, a few moments later, he made more general statements about money going into a “pot” to pay for “road refurbishments, new primary school places” and seemingly other unspecified public services. His predecessor, Pete Robbins, said that the money raised from sales of co-op homes would plug a gap in the funding the council received for housing repairs. The money raised seems to be covering a lot of bases that it cannot possibly stretch to. Freedom of Information requests submitted by Lambeth United Housing Co-op (LUHC), (a campaigning group set up to protest similar borough-wide evictions), to find out exactly how the money will be spent have been unanswered. Spectacle has requested information regarding exactly where the new houses will be built, by when, and how much the total build is expected to cost.

Not only are these funds not being ring-fenced for housing, but the current £56 million windfall does not take into account the £1.8m spent so far on staffing and legal costs of eviction, nor the unknown additional sums spent on surveyors, auctioneers, vacant property managers, for which information Lambeth Council recently blocked another freedom of information request by LUHC. Neither does it factor in the added costs of re-housing people, which LUHC have estimated to be between £6 – £13m, nor the unknown long-term social welfare bill of caring for now isolated elderly and disabled residents, who had found support and care within the co-op community on the street, something the council seems keen to support in theory through its health and wellbeing policies and ‘Connected Communities’ project, but clearly not in practice when the community is already in situ.

Living for free?

Furthermore, the Council seems to refuse to acknowledge that it is thanks to the hard work, resources and energy of residents alone that houses that they once abandoned are now lucrative cash cows. Rather than living “for free”, in 1982, the majority of residents who came to settle in the houses formed a self-supporting co-op. Members paid into a pot, from which money was used to purchase materials or support substantial renovation works. These were carried out through a process of skill and labour sharing. Indeed, Labour Councillors Nigel Haselden, Christopher Wellbelove and Helen O’Malley in 2007 campaigning leaflets said: “Some of these homes would not be standing if it was not for the work of the people living in them.” Two of these Councillors, Wellbelove and Haselden, once elected did a complete U-turn on their promise to ‘fight for the rights of residents to stay in their homes’, now supporting the current eviction policy (O’Malley was deselected). Cllr. Bennett claimed no knowledge of this.

Correcting Bennett further on the matter of paying rent, he asked Spectacle to whom and how much were people paying. He then said “I heard it was no more than £1 a week. That’s almost nothing”, adding, as a different tack, “they’ve paid nothing to the Council”. First, the council never actually allowed any rent to be paid (more of which later), second, the actual membership fee was set at £5 a week (though rates varied across all co-ops), to reflect the low-income of those in the homes, all of whom were already on the council housing waiting list. This small fee was also designed to encourage residents to work on their own properties, which, contrary to Bennett’s claim that “people have not shown any willingness to spend the money necessary to bring [the houses] up to a decent condition”, they did, adding their own energy and labour. This included re-roofing, plastering, re-wiring, building new chimneys, installing windows and doors where there were none, putting new boilers into every house, building staircases, installing gas, and much more. Yet Bennett claims that “at least five properties are completely derelict” and that others have “fallen into disrepair” and “not been maintained”. He is clearly unaware, as he himself admitted during the interview, of the condition of the properties when they were initially purchased in the 1970s. Spectacle has sent him the below photographs to demonstrate the actual situation.


“Million pound” homes? The derelict condition of CPOd houses on Rectory Gardens in the 1970s before the co-op took over renovations.

In addition, Spectacle pointed out that since the residents have been paying council tax for years, according to the Valuation Office for England and Wales this legally qualifies them as ‘dwellings’ suitable for habitation, hence they could not possibly be “derelict”. A spate of recent articles concerning one property on the street said to have a tree growing through an illegal extension with dangerous electric wiring, rented out to sub-letters, is not a house that is part of the co-operative, yet it is being used to tarnish the community. Filming in a number of co-op homes, Spectacle found them to be comfortable, homely and safe. Having referred to a couple of other incidents with some houses in the street during his interview, Spectacle made the point to Bennett that crime is a social problem, not the fault of one set of people, neither should the actions of one mar the whole community, be that Rectory Gardens or ‘shortlife’ co-ops in Lambeth generally. He was unable to comment further.

Moreover, the idea that we should measure people’s contribution to society based on ‘how much they pay’ in monetary terms – (to the Council, in this case) – implied by Bennett’s statement, demonstrates an indefensible attitude of income-based prejudice. Looked at in entirely different way, the residents of Rectory Gardens have collectively done as much, if not more, to contribute to their community as many other rent-paying citizens do to theirs, and have a stable community that is not reflected by some of the highly transient ‘neighbourhoods’ that surround the street where occupants regularly move on and private rentals stay empty for long periods. The self-proclaimed ‘cooperative council’ should be falling over itself to recognise and reward those who voluntarily invest into making their ‘patch’ a positive place. Residents of Rectory Gardens have been behind numerous artistic and community-based initiatives in the area over the years, such as Cafe on the Common, the Tea Rooms, Studio Voltaire, and even the skate park on Clapham Common, activities which no doubt contributed hugely to making the area a now-desirable postcode, propping up the very market prices that Lambeth seek to capitalise on today.

There Is No Alternative?

Adding further insult to injury, despite the accusation of ‘living for free’, paying rent to the council was never given as an option. At no point since the establishment of the housing co-op have Lambeth Council sought any financial arrangements with residents. Bennett’s version of history is that “Other co-operatives took the opportunity to charge social rents and take a regularised position… Rectory Gardens did not go down the route [of] becoming a proper cooperative… We’ve spoken with the housing co-op on many, many occasions about ways in which they might want to finance taking their over as a co-op on their own, they haven’t been able to work with the money.” In fact, Rectory Gardens was not allowed to go down this route of ‘rationalisation’ and the council has never seemed to want to make them tenants – something that Tulse Hill Labour Councillor Mary Atkins said should have happened years ago. The Council has had opportunities of resolving the situation numerous times over the years, but has stopped deals going through, deciding not to come to a resolution and consistently using the threat of legal action as a first port of call. For example, the community embarked on years of without-prejudice negotiations with housing association Metropolitan Housing Trust and the Council, involving a lot of time, effort and money for the deal to evaporate because the council revalued the site.

On three occasions between 2012 and 2013, Lambeth United Housing Co-operative proposed to the council that residents begin to pay rent and become social housing tenants as a solution. They also came up with the idea of the ‘Super Co-op’, a proposal backed by housing experts that would see ex-council stock being recycled and refurbished by a borough-wide umbrella co-op while simultaneously skilling up local people. These solutions were rejected without being fully discussed. The Council even refused payment of their own legal charge, developed in-house; a so-called ‘use and occupation’ back fee seemingly designed to coerce people from the properties. A judge suggested a defendant pay in installments but Lambeth promptly declined this, presumably worrying that accepting payment could mean a case for tenancy rights in court.

As part of the eviction process, residents have been offered priority re-housing via the council’s Choice-Based Lettings system. Yet some of those that have accepted and found re-housing have reported damp, mould and asbestos, among other problems, not to mention the psychological difficulty of being forcibly displaced away from their community. Residents wish to remain in their homes, where they have raised families and built a robust community, and would be happy to pay council rents rather than needlessly displacing others on an already overburdened council housing waiting list. Yet Bennett argues that selling off this rare social housing stock will help the “21,000 people on our housing waiting list, the 1800 families in temporary accommodation and the 1300 living in severely overcrowded homes” because it is “not affordable” to spend money refurbishing them, money that could go towards new homes, or road refurbs, or primary school places… New council homes are of course welcomed, but should this be at the expense of existing council stock?

To top this off, at no point have residents asked the Council to spend money on the homes; rather they have proposed that they would take this on themselves via the Super Co-op. Bennett adds “It costs five times as much (£60 – £70,000) to refurbish a house on Rectory Gardens as it does to refurbish an existing council home.” Uncertain where these figures have come from, Spectacle have asked for the data used to make this claim. We have also written to Bennett to suggest that there are other options. The Super Co-op was one, but housing expert, and Director of Self-Help Housing, Jon Fitzmaurice has also told us he “continually comes up against large organisations who say it is uneconomic to do up houses but it is erroneous to take that view, as communities and small charities can make things happen for much less.” In Liverpool, a recent case he came across, saw a commercial builder estimate that a property would cost £30,000 to refurbish. It was finally done by a community group for £6,000, with the labour provided by co-op members and the only costs those of materials, a surveyor and building supervisor. Surely, as a ‘co-operative council’, Lambeth is aware that the co-operative way is often one of the most affordable and socially productive around. A bit more imagination, a bit less short-termism, might work wonders.

Pursuing the eviction policy, one of the worst outcomes would be, as housing expert Jon Fitzmaurice told us, that properties are ‘flipped’ and the council end up renting the properties back off a private landlord for social housing, which would be expensive, wasteful and self-destructive, as the eviction policy is already proving to be. Over in Southwark, campaigners have found that similar council promises to build ‘new’ ‘council’ homes, on closer inspection, have resulted in the selling off of public assets to purchase private land and build houses that are only partially available for social rents, the remainder being offered for private sale or shared ownership. Without a firm and open statement from the Council on exactly where the money is going, it is difficult to hold such promises to account.

Meanwhile, residents of Rectory Gardens are on the move, or in court, with some spending maybe one last Christmas in their self-created homes.

(Blog first published on Spectacle’s website – http://www.spectacle.co.uk/spectacleblog/rectory-gardens/cllr-matthew-bennetts-rectory-gardens-slurs-and-errors/)