Aug 18 2010
1 Comment

Does Man Own Earth?

On Magma, Björk, the separation of philosophy and reality, xenophobia, green industry, false solutions, borders, Earth conservation and liberation. By Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson and originally published in The Reykjavík Grapvine, August 13th 2010.

There are countless reasons for Magma Energy not being allowed to purchase HS Orka. Those who have no idea why should quit reading this and get their hands on books like Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’ and documentaries like ‘The Big Sellout’ by Florian Opitz. They show how the privatisation of natural resources brings about increased class division and poor people’s diminished access to essentials—without exception.

People could also study the history of Ross Beaty, the man that wants to build Magma Energy to being ‘the biggest and best geothermal energy enterprise in the world.’ Ross is the founder and chairman of Pan American Silver Corporation, which operates metal mines in Bolivia, Mexico and Peru, where mining is done by the book: environmental disasters, human rights violations, low paid labour and union restrictions, to mention but a few of the industry standards.

Even though such facts are evident to all, the acceptance of this kind of critique is rare in Iceland. Those who criticise privatisation and marketisation from a radical perspective, analysing the global economic and power structures we live within (as well as institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank), are often dismissed and their words dismissed as only “one more argument against global capitalism”. Their pleading is thus supposedly belittled. The phenomenae ‘capitalism’ and ‘representative democracy’ have been normalised and recognised as ‘the only right way’ of social organisation; daring to criticise today’s ruling ideologies is seen as banal, uncool, even hysterical. After the collapse of Iceland’s bank casino and the nationalisation of private debts, it took months until the word “capitalism” appeared and was accepted in the critical debate of that winter’s resistance.

The fundamental questions that are never asked

In this discourse about the use of natural resources, the Earth and man, some people must wonder why the fundamental questions are never asked: Is man ‘supposed’ to ‘exploit’ nature just because he can? Is he ‘allowed’ to exploit nature like he does today? Does he ‘own’ nature or does he live with it? Is he not a part of it, does he not depend on it for his existence? These questions were asked at a public meeting on the Magma affair, recently hosted by Attac in Iceland. To begin with they were written off as theological reflections. After few objections the moderator changed his mind and called them philosophical, but did not want the panel to turn into a forum for philosophical reflection on man and his role on Earth. But objections rose again, both by guests and panellists, the latter trying to answer the questions, with uneven success.

God and the rational man

Considering these questions, theological and philosophical isn’t necessarily wrong. In the book of Genesis, God provides instructions for humanity: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Those words, like others in the Bible, have often been used as arguments of those in favour of man’s domination of the planet. Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson, Iceland’s most famous spokesman for free market policies and neo-liberalism, used them to criticize James Cameron’s Avatar, saying God’s message is clear: Man is ‘obligated’ to “[…] conquer drought and floods with irrigation and dams and bridging or damming big rivers; to keep whales, elephants and lions at bay with reasonable harvesting, and to exterminate vermin.”

A similar attitude is found widely within Western philosophy. Starting with the ancient philosophers of Greece, man has been placed higher than other living beings on this planet. For instance, French philosopher René Descartes, often referred to as ‘the father of modern philosophy’, claimed our species’ rationality and intellect is what makes us men and separates us from animals. ?These and similar ideas have been debated back and forth. Freethinking philosophy students ponder man’s purpose and existence in this world, tearing through schools of philosophy and re-entering society all erudite. But philosophy has smoothly been separated from reality. It is allowed to wallow in the whole world’s philosophy, asking complicated, challenging questions. But seeing it as a part of reality and as real element in the discussion—e.g. now when Magma’s purchase is being discussed—is not an option. Philosophers can simply dawdle between library shelves while pragmatists argue over the tiny difference between private and state ‘ownership’ of the Earth.

The ‘pragmatist premises’ that surface when philosophy and our alleged reality are separated prevent some of the discussion’s factors to be considered. “Aluminium has to be produced somewhere! Without genetically modified food, humanity will starve! ” With these premises, we jump over few of the debate’s steps so it starts in the middle of the stairway, instead of the beginning. This is called manipulating a debate.

Extremes? Or the real facts?

At the above-mentioned public meeting, the “green socialist” Mörður Árnason stated that independent from his favour of privatising ‘utilization rights’, he could not agree that the man ‘owns’ the Earth. Rather that he is its guardian—from God’s hands or another’s—and one that hasn’t done the job well enough so far. It is easy to agree with him that man has not protected the Earth during the last centuries. But on the other hand, there is a reason to doubt that the opposite is actually possible when the ideas of the man as the planet’s owner or guardian are in the foreground.

In his book ‘Violence’, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek asks if it is not time to stop ignoring the fact that organised religion is one of the main sources of murderous violence in the world today, by always defining the violence and murders as the work of violent extremists who abuse the noble spiritual message of their creed. The same question can be transferred to humanity’s destructive behaviour, since it is clearly not some extreme fundamental-heavy-industry-moguls who alone bear responsibility for the state of the planet. We are dealing with an entire culture, a whole system of destructive power structures and behaviour patterns that build on the premises of man’s domination over nature.

When Björk says that we should think in terms of the 21st century—which she says is free from heavy industry but full of nano- and biotechnologies—she assumes that lately, man has been on a wrong road but should now head somewhere else on full speed. “To a new place,” like her friend Ólöf Arnalds sang at Björk’s ‘Náttúra’ concert in 2008.

This is a misunderstanding. First of all, there is no new place. There is only one Earth, and it has to be liberated and protected. Secondly, the 21st century way of Björk, Mörður and other progressivists, is in full harmony with the dangerous ways in which humanity has been leading, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, at least. The innovation and high-technology that are offered as real solutions—the new green deal!—do not replace heavy industry and old-school polluting production. They are only additions to what is already there, forming a global, industrial, unsustainable economical system that constantly is built upon. But removing from the bottom is impossible. The system stands and falls with its foundations.

Solutions! But only those who produce money

So often the opponents of environmentalists try to bury the dispute by accusing the latter of not offering any solutions ‘instead’ of the industry they oppose. This is of course nonsense. Anybody who opposes one thing has another to offer. This is self-evident, though the solutions can differ. For instance, the solution to Iceland’s constitutional violence towards refugees could span everything from ‘more just laws’ to a world without borders. The solution to an abusive or violent family father could be him receiving assistance to reform, or him being exiled from his community.

The biggest flaw of the discourse is how it only assumes solutions that fit into the ruling system’s frame. There is no space for other solutions, even though are very obvious, e.g. a healthy culture thriving on a healthy planet.

Instead, opposing parties fight about where the money should go. It is not discussed whether unsustainable capital ‘should’ be produced, the debate is rather based on the premises that ‘capital production’ is fundamental. Money can be produced from whatever is at hand—Earth itself or the beings living on it. Within this culture—where jobs like entrepreneurial investment, treasury and human resources management have become as natural as a newborn’s breath—money is people’s biggest goal and the central point of all existence and discourse. No matter if there is no real value behind it. The market and industries might have found their ways to put a price ticket on every square centimetre of this planet and every second that passes. But when one comes to think of it, how can human lives be measured with money? And what about mountains, rivers and forests?

The myth about ‘green’ economy and industry

In connection with above-mentioned Coca-Cola-sponsored ‘Náttúra’ “nature concert” and the parallel opening of the Náttúra.info website, Björk stated that she and her comrades were not one more group of “angry environmental guerrillas”. These happy environmental entertainers’ project seemed to be about not challenging the status quo at all, rather to keep on the old track of industry and production—this time under the banner of institutionalised green flags and environmental certifications.

They went all over the country to find solutions in employment affairs, something that could replace heavy industry but still make money. The list became long, all the way from treatment-tourism and exported children’s food, to biotechnology, identification software for law enforcement and the production of solar panels.

In the magazine ‘Dealing with Distractions’, which was published in December of last year, parallel to the resistance to the UN’s climate change conference in Copenhagen, Mikko Virtanen writes about so-called ‘alternative industrialism’ and points at the self-evident facts that environmentalists seem to avoid recognising and discussing: “To build a new green infrastructure of such a massive scale would require a lot of energy and materials, which can only be provided through the use of already existing fossil fuel based infrastructure. […] The production of this new infrastructure will require a vast amount of raw materials, much of which are not renewable themselves, and are environmentally destructive to obtain. […] It has yet to be proven if we even have the raw materials available to make enough wind turbines and solar panels to keep up current levels of energy consumption or any significant level of industrial production at all.”

His result is that we “need to put wind energy, solar energy and other alternative industrial solutions on the list of false solutions along with agrofuels, nuclear energy, and clean coal technology. As soon as possible, we need to start doing the only thing that can halt the destruction of our life supporting systems: reducing our industrial production and consumption to the absolute minimum.”

What about bringing these ideas into the discourse on energy production and nature conservation here in Iceland?

Xenophobia or not xenophobia?

Magma’s opponents have been accused of xenophobia and refused it. But wait a minute… In his writing about Magma, former Morgunblaðið editor Styrmir Gunnarsson says that the Icelandic nation ‘has’ the right to reap profit from ‘its property’. His words mirror almost whatever party that opposes Magma’s purchase. Guðfríður Lilja Grétarsdóttir, group chairman of the Left Green party, says that “the resources should be used for the good of the community.” Though she notes that it does not matter if private pockets are Icelandic or foreign—they should not be filled with money that ‘should’ go into public pockets—she still assumes that nature within political borders belongs to the human beings inside it (or rather those who are accepted by the authorities).

At a recent press meeting, Björk and her comrades who started a petition against Magma’s purchase asked if ‘Icelanders’ should not level the country off and pay ‘their’ debts by keeping full dominance over resources and profit from them. In Reykjavík Grapevine’s last issue, Björk was interviewed and asked about the xenophobia accusations, which she says are an “attempt to sidetrack the discourse.” But she immediately criss-crosses and says: “The real question is whether it is a good idea to privatise and sell of our energy resources at this point. We as a nation are badly burnt after the collapse.” People might argue that the recognition of the political phenomenon ‘nation’ has nothing to do with xenophobia.

But when the discourse is about issues like ownership over the Earth, the actual sidetracking is recognising a nation that has right above others to decide the arrangement of nature. Here, Slavoj Žižek’s question applies again: Should we not stop ignoring the violence that consists in the separation of people into nations, by always focusing on those considered extreme nationalists and racists; Nazi skinheads and racist politicians like Sarkozy, Geert Wilders and Pia Kjærsgaard? While we only see the alleged extremes of political issues, but do not dig after their roots, those who on the surface keep themselves outside the extremes, get a change to build up their prejudiced and often hateful agenda without it being noticed.

The root is left untouched. Because of how extremely Bush Jr.’s stupidity and hatred was displayed, it was enough for Obama to be black to gain some sort of a respect from opponents of U.S. foreign affairs policies. Similarly, he only had to slip the word ‘green’ into his vocabulary, to gain similar recognition from environmentalists.

The Earth without borders

Björk says she cannot separate the protection of Iceland’s nature and her role as an Icelandic artist because of how connected they are. Then she says: “Iceland has given me so much, I feel as if Iceland’s nature was bestowed upon me and all the rest of us as a gift, and I feel a great need to defend it.” This enormous emphasis on this being ‘Iceland’s’ nature and that as ‘Icelanders’, people should protect it—an idea not at all limited to Björk and her partners—makes it impossible to dismiss accusations about xenophobia as sidetracking.

Certainly it is likely that libertarians, who in the same sentence talk about xenophobia and hostility towards foreign investment, are simply not capable of having a discussion about the ownership of the planet. Therefore they follow the footsteps of those who inserted accusations of anti-hedonism into their objection to the opponents of Kárahnjúkar dam. But that does not give Magma’s opponents permission to dismiss all criticism about the integration of environmentalism and nationalist chauvinism. Sigur Rós have especially stated that they are not a political band, but just cannot sit by and watch such heavy industry constructions in ‘their own backyard’. During Saving Iceland’s international conference in 2007, Ómar Ragnarsson—one of Iceland’s best-known environmentalists—said that compared to other nature, the “Icelandic one” is the equal to a Christmas meal in comparison to other meals of the year. And nobody would skip that dinner for another one! Do we really have to argue about if chauvinism and xenophobia are included in such pleadings?

In his 1922 book ‘At The Cafe: Conversations On Anarchism’, Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta simply but sharply explains his objection to nationalism: Why should a worker rather stand with a factory-owner within the same political borders, rather than another worker outside of them? Though the meaning is communistic and primarily regards social defects of borders, these words can simply be implemented with nature at front. Why should the struggle for the protection and liberation of the Earth, which constantly comes under persecutions by the culture of the ‘civilised’ man, be subjected to man-made borders?

It is time for the discussion about borders, states and nations, to be removed from internal debates amongst philosophers and anarchists—it needs to come to the surface as a real discourse.

We cannot eat money

Undoubtedly, some people will oppose internal arguments within the environmental movement, asking those who at least agree that Magma should not own HS Orka—that nature should never be owned by private party, independent from whatever premises that opinion is based on—to drop the debate on ideology, tactics and emphasis, now when the purchase has to be stopped. But that is not necessarily right. If we drop critical discourse, internally and externally, the environmental ideal is bound to stagnate and become one-sided.

Then again, we may ask if these really are internal fights.

The opponents of Magma are obviously not on the same side. On the one hand we have people who ask the public and authorities to do what they demand, so that they can start making music again. Instead of aluminium production they suggest all kinds of production requiring huge amounts of water, the design and production of identification software for law enforcement, nanotechnology solutions and long-term biotechnology researches.

On the other hand we have people who fight for a completely different culture. Free from overproduction. Free from overuse of water and other goods. Free from identification repression and law enforcement. Free from nano- and biotechnologies, which focus on making man even more of a sovereign than he already is. And between these two directions, there are endless views, opinions and facts. Sharing an enemy does not necessarily make us comrades in arms. Though anarchists and right-wingers share their objection to state communism, it is highly unlikely that they will ever stand together in a struggle. The same logic applies here.

In the discourse about Magma Energy, nature conservation, energy production and ownership, there is a need for much wider range of views and opinions. So far, hardly no-one has given convincing arguments, proving that nature is better set in state hands than private ones. So far, none of those who oppose the privatisation of nature have reasoned for the man’s ownership of the Earth to begin with.

An old American Indian proverb says that not until the last tree has fallen, the last river polluted, and the last fish caught, will people realise that they cannot eat money. These foreboding words are something we need to take seriously. We cannot dismiss them as philosophical reflections, important to keep in mind but never supposed to be brought into real discourse and actions regarding the Earth, its protection and liberation.

One Response to “Does Man Own Earth?”

  1. Karí says:

    Mjög góð grein og nauðsynleg

Leave a Reply