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The violence of othering

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on April 07, 2017
Ecosystem people: Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, waits to make his speech during the Human Rights Council meeting at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The Standing Rock affair is an example of the way governments and corporations collude to oppress indigenous people.

Ecosystem people: Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, waits to make his speech during the Human Rights Council meeting at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The Standing Rock affair is an example of the way governments and corporations collude to oppress indigenous people.   -  Reuters

Will the Flower Slip Through the Asphalt: Writers Respond to Capitalist Climate Change; Vijay Prashad (ed); Non-fiction; LeftWord Books; ₹175

Will the Flower Slip Through the Asphalt: Writers Respond to Capitalist Climate Change; Vijay Prashad (ed); Non-fiction; LeftWord Books; ₹175

A new anthology of essays on climate change locates capitalism and institutional racism as complementary forces of destruction

In the third chapter of Palestine, Joe Sacco’s classic book of graphic reportage, we meet a Palestinian family living near the Green Line (Israel’s pre-1967 border) whose olive trees had been cut by the Israeli army. Not a massive event, you’d think, in the larger scheme of things. But that’s before we meet the grandfather, who explains that the olive tree is the Palestinian’s “main source of income” — olive oil is sold to procure food for the family, since Palestinians are not allowed work permits in Israel. He tells us about the time Israeli soldiers cut down 17 of his olive trees — or rather, handed him a saw and asked him (at gunpoint) to do the deed himself. The man said, “I was crying. I felt I was killing my son when I cut them down.”

The most remarkable thing about this passage is that it highlights two distinct kinds of othering — racial and ecological — and hints at an intimate connection between the two. Will the Flower Slip Through the Asphalt: Writers Respond to Capitalist Climate Change, a recent anthology of essays edited and introduced by historian Vijay Prashad (of LeftWord Books), takes a deep dive into this connection, this interplay of capitalism, imperialism and climate change. Here you will find details of this connection, its historical and political idioms, and some ways in which it could be used to study the oppression of the marginalised.

The centrepiece of the book is Naomi Klein’s Edward Said lecture, which she delivered in London last year. Klein is and always has been a polemicist, never known for pulling punches. One of capitalism’s most astute critics, through books like The Shock Doctrine and No Logo, she has divided opinion like few others. Her lecture, reproduced here in its entirety, is called ‘Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World’. Despite Said’s initial dismissal of environmentalism as a bourgeois concern, Klein points out that there is much we can learn about our warming world by reading Said’s writings on homelessness, exile and the Arabic word sumud (“to stay put, to hold on”): “That steadfast refusal to leave one’s land despite the most desperate eviction attempts and even when surrounded by continuous danger”.

Klein argues that capitalism could not have gone about its plunder without imperial forces aiding and abetting corporations, keeping indigenous people (who are often examples of Raymond Williams’s “ecosystem people” whose way of life is heavily dependent upon their immediate surroundings) marginalised, relegating them to refugee camps and ghettos. As a thesis statement, it is irresistible precisely because it intuitively feels symmetrical and, therefore, probably true. There is certainly much greater overlap between governments and big corporations today than when Said began writing. It’s also true that the two often collude to push the aforementioned ecosystem people into a corner, so that they have no choice but to give up their land and consequently, their entire way of life. As Klein writes: “(…) this kind of recklessness would have been functionally impossible without institutional racism, even if only latent. It would have been impossible without Orientalism, without all the potent tools on offer that allow the powerful to discount the lives of the less powerful. These tools — of ranking the relative value of humans — are what allow the writing off of entire nations and ancient cultures.”

However, Klein avoids going into the question of India and China currently making up the bulk of carbon emissions worldwide. Also — and this is a criticism that has been made of Klein’s stand in the past — human beings have been wreaking havoc on the environment long before we came up with even the earliest prototype of capitalism.

The works of Said and other postcolonial theorists can answer the former point (at least partially). Albert Memmi wrote about “the implacable dependence” of the coloniser and the colonised. How, Memmi wondered, could the colonised “hate the colonisers and yet admire them so passionately?” A history of Indian legislative practices, to name just one example, certainly shows more than a passing admiration of Victorian morality and Raj-era administrative paranoia. Extrapolating this, one can locate India and China’s terrible carbon emissions record in the context of how the US and the UK behaved four or five decades ago, when their economies were at a comparable stage of development. In other words, we’re just taking our cues from the world champions.

The rest of the book is a series of fascinating tangents that shoot off from Klein’s argument, especially the concept of capitalism’s “sacrificial zones”, areas marked for the uninterrupted, often hazardous extraction of resources. Sacrificial zones generally end up screwing over their residents thoroughly. As a result, violent conflict becomes part of their reality. Rafia Zakaria, in particular, applies the concept perfectly in her essay ‘Empire and the Overpass’, which investigates the circumstances behind the construction of the Mai Kolachi overpass in Karachi.

Ghassan Hage’s ‘On the Relation between Racial and Environmental ‘Othering’’ is succinct and effectively brings out the strengths and weaknesses of Klein’s approach. The Palestinian novelist and poet Susan Abulhawa’s response to Klein is perhaps the most complete one here, as she uses North Dakota’s Standing Rock Protests to show how the complicity between governments and corporations is growing more monstrous by the day.

Will the Flower Slip Through the Asphalt ought to be required reading for everybody who thinks green tribunals, tribal rights and anti-pollution legislation are nothing but development roadblocks.

Published on April 07, 2017
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