A multi-scalar postcolonial political ecology of the commons in an era of climate crisis

As climate change rapidly moves from being an impending crisis to an ongoing planetary emergency, it is timely to critically assess the efforts that have been made by the international community and their reverberations at various sites and scales. I have argued that climate change is a crisis of the commons at multiple sites and scales, riven with struggles to control them for profit, well-being, or both. Since power dynamics are central to the struggles over the commons, political ecology offers a useful conceptual tool for assessing where we stand on our global efforts to address climate change. However, I have found it necessary to stretch the terrain of political ecology' both upwards/outwards to the international North/South frame of reference; on the ground to unpack the ‘local’ or ‘regional’ context with more granularity than it has been afforded for South Asia; and beyond economic determinism, in order to do justice to understanding more fully the connections between the atmospheric commons and one particular other commons — Nepal’s community forests. In the process I have found many confirmations and a few exceptions to commonly held truisms in the critical social sciences about understandings of colonialism and capitalism; about commons-commodity binaries; about modernization, development, and sustainability; and about the struggle for justice — as well as numerous opportunities for connecting theories, processes, and discourses across sites and scales. I have found Gramsci’s notion of hegemony to be useful across several contexts and suggest the desirability of exploring the connections between counterhe-gemonic struggles at multiple scales.

A geographical lens is particularly helpful in elucidating the politics of climate justice, since justice claims are made - and refuted — on the basis of spatial and scalar configurations. In this sense, the contested spatial categories in the context of climate treaty negotiations were North/South, represented by the Annex I/non-Annex I divide, which, after a valiant struggle on part of Global South negotiators, was nixed in the Paris Agreement. Since scale is socially constructed and — I argue — is made real by its institutionalization, the climate negotiations offer a case of how a particular scalar/spatial configuration of global inequality — North/South - has become invalidated, with implications for climate mitigation justice. Another scalar configuration, pertaining to nation-state, is reified — though contested — and continues to strongly shape imaginaries of climate justice, despite the global nature of the problem. I suggest that categories of social difference such as race/Indigeneity/caste, class, and gender also could be seen as scalar categories which may be institutionalized, as in the case of Chelibeti CFUG. As identity categories, they may be conceptualized at various scales — each with their internal core-periphery dynamics — and problems arise when justice claims assume homogeneity or equivalency across space or conflate the particular with the universal, enabling problematic extrapolations across space.

In theorizing a multi-scalar political ecology of climate justice, structures of patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism should be considered not only in a diffuse and general sense of the global - which is necessary and apposite to the global nature of GHG emissions, although not sufficient — but also at the site of institutions, both in the local-national context and the context of international relations, where the rules and norms of fairness in the relationships that bind the global community7 together are written, debated, and re-written, as we have seen with the movement from the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement. In addition to paying attention to the structural relations between core and periphery, we need to pay attention to the discursive politics of recognition and representation, their inherent politics of scale, and their resultant implications for distributive and participatory justice, as well as structural reforms at the site of institutions, since this is where decisions are made about the fate of the commons, local to global. The climate crisis has entrenched pre-existing inequalities at multiple scales, but it has also emboldened marginalized constituents at multiple scales to demand climate justice, understood in a variety of ways. A challenge and an opportunity moving forward is to support disparate efforts to seek justice while holding them accountable to the struggles of others. A successful counterhegemonic effort to destabilize the dominant paradigm of a patriarchal-modernist-capitalist-coloniality requires complementarity' across disparate counterhegemonic struggles and for the recognition of a plurality of struggles (Grosfoguel 2011; Laclau 1990) as well as their intersectionalities (Acha 2019; Sultana 2013). Since successful North-South counterhegemonic efforts seem to require the building of counterhegemonies to global coloniality within both the North and the South (Cox 1993), there is a need to scale up the politics of the local commons and to scale down the politics of the global.

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