Sustainability Means Attack

Land, Autonomy and Social Transformation

Graphic Sam Jones

Sustainability is about more than just riding your bike to work, eating less meat and composting.

It’s about transforming the social systems that have been imposed on us from models based on extraction, into ones based on mutual aid and reciprocity.

In an era where the rate of species extinction is 100 times higher than what it might be without man’s environmental impact—and climbing—it’s past the time for individualized solutions.

The biosphere is beginning to collapse. Our future—literally, our generation’s future—depends on taking action to prevent this.

If the movement for sustainability is going to be effective, first it needs to identify what it’s fighting against. It needs to recognize what is causing this crisis in the first place.

Drawing the Lines

Over the past few years, it has become increasingly obvious the blame for the climate crisis rests on the capitalist economic system. One of the foundational concepts of capitalism is endless growth.

On a planet with finite resources that are integral parts of ecological systems, that logic is bound to lead to catastrophe.

Capitalism recreates itself by subsuming individuals in different ways. In order to pay for food and shelter, people must earn a wage by working within the system.

Debt also serves as a powerful disciplinary mechanism, especially for students who are forced into the capitalist economy to pay back loans.

Consumerism socializes us to believe that happiness is achieved through purchase of products whose creation comes from environmental destruction.

The system is cyclical—need, work, buy, owe. All of these economic compliance mechanisms are ultimately backed by the state. How would a landlord evict tenants without the threat of police violence?

Why would a student pay back their debt without the threat of legal action?

Capitalism is a spatial phenomenon, where institutional agents—from the debt collector to the advertiser to the policeman—enforce a certain type of relationship between people and with nature.

An effective sustainability movement should seek to reclaim occupied space from those enforcement mechanisms, and put new relations
into place within the liberated area.

Sustainability Through Action

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas was one of the first modern autonomous movements to successfully transform their society from capitalism to autonomy.

The Mexican government, as a prelude to passing the North American Free Trade Agreement in the early 1990s, withdrew constitutional guarantees of indigenous land rights, which had been in place since 1910.

This ignited open conflict with the indigenous population of Chiapas. On Jan. 1, 1994, the day NAFTA came into effect, the Zapatistas staged an uprising, taking over much of Chiapas.

International solidarity poured in, and the Zapatistas negotiated a tense peace with the Mexican state that lasts to this day.

The territory is still autonomous from state, corporate and cartel power. Land, which would have been used for mega-projects, has been sustainably stewarded by the population. The Zapatistas inspired a wave of indigenous movements throughout Latin America.

The Kurdish revolution in Rojava is another autonomous movement, and is detailed in the article “Remembering the Father of Social Ecology” on page 15 of this special issue.

Autonomous movements have shown massive potential not only to prevent the collapse of the ecological systems, but also to actively construct a way of life based on cooperation and mutual aid.

In France, we see that these movements can take root in the global North as well.

When the French government wants to designate an area for development—often agricultural land—the area is termed a Zone d’Aménagement Différé, or “differed development zone.”

Environmental activists refer to them as Zones à Défendre, or “zones to be defended.” In order to defend land in state-targeted zones, the self-named zadistes establish themselves in the area and build semi-permanent structures for long-term occupation.

Zadistes explain their philosophy with a simple phrase: “we are not defending nature. We are nature defending itself.”

The largest ZAD, in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, has been described as “Europe’s largest post-capitalist land occupation.” This autonomous zone of 1,600 hectares has been occupied since 2009 to prevent the construction of the Nantes airport.

This ZAD recently declared formal autonomy in solidarity with the Kurds of Rojava. Other ZADs exist throughout France, from Sivens to Roybon.

In Canada, the indigenous sovereignty movement is making serious gains toward reclaiming land from the Canadian state and extractive corporations.

A very prominent example is that of the Unist’ot’en camp in the Northern interior of British Columbia. The Unist’ot’en are a clan within the Wet’suwet’en nation who began occupying their traditional territories in 2009, in order to prevent the construction of multiple oil and gas pipelines.

Like most of British Colombia, no treaty has ever been signed giving the Canadian state jurisdiction over the territory. This makes B.C. Canada’s equivalent of the occupied West Bank—a land where settlers have simply moved in without permission.

The Unist’ot’en camp is a permanent settlement which is autonomous of the Canadian state, and regularly but peacefully evicts RCMP officers and agents of fossil fuel companies. It aims not only to stop destructive infrastructure projects, but also to move towards full decolonization.

It has inspired a growth of indigenous resistance in this country since its emergence, including the 2013 Mi’kmaq fracking blockade at Elsipogtog in New Brunswick.

With the 2014 Tsilhqot’in decision at the Supreme Court legitimizing indigenous land claims, we can predict decolonization to proceed at an accelerated pace in the coming years.

Autonomous movements have shown massive potential—not only to prevent the collapse of the ecological systems we depend on for life, but also to actively construct a sustainable way of life based on cooperation and mutual aid.

Through the embrace of ideas such as these, the environmental movement has the potential to fundamentally transform our lives for the better.

A different world is not only possible, but necessary.