Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Radical Ecological Democracy"

David Barkin

This essay is a succinct restatement of the main thesis of the author’s book Churning the Earth, offering a wealth of information and examples about communities engaged in the process of taking control of various aspects of their communities and their environments to defend or improve their quality of life. Like much of Kothari’s work, it is optimistic and inspirational. But it is precisely this approach that also raises question for a project like the Great Transition Initiative, which seeks to chart “pathways to a planetary civilization rooted in solidarity, sustainability, and human well-being.”

Kothari’s vision of the possibility of change is firmly rooted in his conviction that people of good-will and existing institutional structures will somehow manage to collaborate and to cooperate, adjusting their goals and their ways of operating in the face of the profound challenges posed by the threats from heightening environment crises and social conflict. Firmly rooted in his ample experience with Indian communities which are managing to maintain age-old traditions and create mechanisms to generate new opportunities for their peoples, he goes on to assert that businesses will somehow be forced to “make adjustments” in response to changing consumer preferences and the active intervention of the State to guarantee social and political rights in the face of possible transgressions as a result of decided and decisive citizen mobilization. These forceful pressures will contribute, he continues, to advancing towards a steady state economy.

The problem with this approach is that it presumes the possibility of business transforming itself into a different institution without confronting the inherent need to grow that is the essence of the capitalist organization of production and private property. Furthermore, his proposal overlooks the very nature of the State, whose very essence is to shape its institutions to make them ever more responsive to the demands of a powerful elite amassing an ever growing share of society’s wealth. The question at hand is, what is the nature of the transition that he has in mind?

Kothari’s short presentation opens rich vein of promising examples of peoples who are organizing themselves to improve their lot on the margins of society, or, perhaps, with support from rogue governments trying to resist their full incorporation into the “international division of labor” or the Western “concert of nations.” His ample association with these communities and with people elsewhere contributes to the rich listing of cases where people are demonstrating that many “other worlds are possible.” He also has a deep-seated optimism that many of the examples he cites will successfully confront the powerful groups trying to disrupt their efforts.

In this sense, the proposal for a “radical ecological democracy” offers a promising framework for guiding people in their search for new activities and ways to improve their present practices. In our search for alternatives, we are better advised to understand and accompany peoples who are expanding their “niches of sustainability” rather than to aspire to the global transitions that underpin many of the grander proposals for constructing “real utopias” like those suggested by Erik Olin Wright or the GTI formulation in its inaugural publication. We can celebrate the extraordinary creativity of the millions of peoples around the world who are courageously forging these other worlds, creating opportunities, while generously dedicating themselves to taking care of the planet and repairing centuries of abuse.

In a world of growing inequality, abusive imposition of political power, and frightening exercise of military power, controlled by the ‘great powers’ for the benefit of the international centers of capital, the possibilities for any kind of democracy on a national or transnational scale seem to be rapidly fading. The arenas of action for peoples implementing the projects of “radical ecological democracy” are proliferating, but will have to be tenaciously defended from the tentacles of the terrible forces of destruction if we are to be able to accompany them in this valiant enterprise.

David Barkin
David Barkin is a professor at the Metropolitan University in Mexico City and an Emeritus member of the National Research Council and the Academy of Sciences in Mexico. His research focuses on ecological economics, alternative paradigms for society, and the problems of indigenous societies, with whom he collaborates in creating designs for alternative futures.

Cite as David Barkin, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Radical Ecological Democracy," Great Transition Initiative (July 2014), .

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