Archives for February 2010

Critical Pedagogy, Ecoliteracy & Planetary Crisis

Richard Kahn
Peter Lang Publishing (2010)
Reviewed by Godfrey Mnubi




As globalization penetrates the hearts and souls of many lives and as transnational capitalist interests work beyond the sovereignty of many states to weaken both socioeconomic and environmental regulations, accelerating people’s impoverishment along with ecological catastrophe as a result, the world needs revised thinking and action. Richard Kahn offers a new paradigm for understanding and teaching against global corporatism’s foundational role in the current planetary crisis.

In Critical Pedagogy, Ecoliteracy & Planetary Crisis, Kahn describes some of the root causes and possible solutions for the socioeconomic and ecological disasters the planet is facing in great detail. Particularly, he examines the interconnectedness of planetary, nonhuman species, and human activities that have created ecological tension, as well as socioeconomic and political instability due to unsustainable economic exploitation of nature and unsound cultural practices that have a negative social impact overall.

Kahn warns planetary communities against the increased overuse and extraction of nature as a resource and the dangerous increase in carbon emissions largely responsible for global warming. He further chronicles the increased global desertification occurring as a result of agricultural practices, such as the planet has not seen during the last 150 years combined (p.2). Moreover, Kahn speaks to unsustainable fishing practices that have contributed to great losses of global mangroves, reducing them to approximately 35 percent during the second half of the twentieth century. These astonishing figures of grave natural exploitation and the extinction of life that corresponds with it fill page after page of the book’s opening salvo.

Yet, building an ecopedagogy upon great educational theories from people such as Ivan Illich, Paulo Freire, and Herbert Marcuse, Kahn challenges hegemonic thinking and demonstrates the missing link between global capitalism and the planet in peril. Further, he critically examines the dialectical link between our mainstream lifestyles and the dominant social structure, showing how this applies to education and its role in fomenting additional ecocrisis. In reply, he argues that we need a “more radical and more complex form of ecoliteracy than is presently possessed by the population at large” (p. 6). This requires a critical examination of cosmological, technological and scientific transformations as they apply to broad social illiteracies as regards the media, politics, and the potentials in play for a sustainable society.

In his own words, Kahn emphasizes that “the major goal for ecopedagogy must involve people in large scale resistance movements to actively transform mainstream understandings, policies, and practices of techno literacy through the politicization of the hegemonic norms that currently pervade social terrains” (p.63). This requires citizens to formulate ways to create and use technologies to realize a critical oppositional ecopedagogy that serves the interests of the oppressed, as they aim at the democratic and sustainable reconstruction of technology, education, and society itself (p. 79).

Kahn also urges educators to confront unsustainable ecological exploitation and corporate interests that work against the moral health of an emerging planetary community. This requires commitment and courage. Thus, he ends his book with a courageous citizenship parable of Judi Bari, the “ecofeminist, social justice leader and social change revolutionalist” who worked tirelessly on campuses and in grassroots communities to encourage sustainable political and socioeconomic involvement on the part of people. As he relates, even after Bari was car-bombed in 1990, which left her with a shattered pelvis and shrapnel in her body such that she lived out the rest of her life in severe pain, and even in the midst of great harassment and humiliation she encountered from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and police force, Judi Bari never gave up the fight she believed in.

As I read this book and relate it to the political and socioeconomic structures of developing countries in Africa, I see the relevance of the ecopedagogy’s paradigm. There, many political and socioeconomic conflicts are a result of the over-exploitation of nature, which is the foundation of survival in most of our African societies. Joining in this battle to save the planet will ultimately enhance the quality of life of many Africa states and build peace and stability for present and future generations.

In terms of understanding the challenges posed by the current ecological devastation and planetary crisis to sustainability, this is an important book that one should read. Whether you are a student, educator, social activist, or policy maker, this book will wake you up from your deep sleep and spark you to learn more and begin educating others on these issues in order to achieve change.

Direct Action: An Ethnography

David Graeber
AK Press (2009)

Reviewed by Jeffrey Panettiere




To many anarchists, the idea of an “ethnographic study of the global justice movement” may seem problematic. Whether it be matters of security culture or the question of an outsider coming into a culture and telling the rest of the world about them, people I’ve talked to, without knowing Graeber’s work, often seemed skeptical. In Direct Action: an Ethnography, however, David Graeber blurs the false dichotomy between theory and practice by writing both as a sincere participant in the global justice movement as well as an observer and theorist of it during the protests against the FTAA’s 3rd Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, 2001.

A furtherance of this theme, his book is not only intellectually stimulating and compelling, but activists get a lot of practical material from it too. His detailed reconstructions of consensus-based meetings, meeting structures, street actions, mini histories, revealing conversations and police tactics are of tremendous use to activists who wish to reassess and better their democratic processes, as well as their tactics for direct actions. Describing the platform of egalitarian decision making processes as a springboard for developing anarchist theory, he highlights the “theory-derived-from-practice” theme that anarchists have always had affinity with and the complications of organizing with undemocratic, hierarchically organized groups.

Having participated in similar actions and meetings, many of the issues of privilege, acceptable tactics and police repression ring true to my, and many other’s experiences during large direct action demonstrations against “Globalization” summits, and during the meetings up to and following them. Seeing how, in great detail and context, one particular action unfolds is something that activists would do well to pay attention to, especially because nothing as extensive and specific to one action, to my knowledge, exists. The entirety of the book, however, is not just about one particular action; it is the very idea of direct action, so central to anarchist practice, that is at the center of this study.

Whether it is the hostilities between primitivists, class-struggle anarchists and “small-a” anarchists, the revolutionary implications of blocking a street and throwing a party, or a history of radical community spaces and direct action in new york city, much insider information about this movement gives light to aspects many of its participants may not even be fully aware of.

Although it is touched upon briefly, what could be useful would be a history of direct action that theorizes the transition from direct action and sabotage as tools used by working people (working class, in the narrow sense) to tools used by generally college-educated middle class activists. Graeber does discuss the possibility that actions like the one detailed in this book might not even be classical definitions of direct action. An interesting, and much needed discussion, however, is a refutation of the idea that participants in the global justice movement are mostly angry, privileged white kids with too much time on their hands.

Graber suggests that revolutionary movements have always taken place at the intersection between upward and downward class and social mobility- as alliances form, both physical (in terms of resources, funding) and theoretical (dissemination, ideas, art) between artists, writers, theorists, and workers.

This case study, as much as the actions he describes, itself has radical implications- that one can be both an ethnographer and a participant who is not a faceless, subjective figure. Graeber has found a crucial intersection between radical politics and scholarship where neither are sacrificed for the sake of the other.

For further reading:

The Battle of the Story of the “Battle of Seattle” by David Solnit (Editor), and Rebecca Solnit (Editor). AK Press

Direct Action & Sabotage: Three Classic IWW Pamphlets from the 1910’s. By Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, Walker C. Smith, & William E. Trautman. Charles H. Kerr labor classics

The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life by George Katsiaficas. AK Press

Fragments Of An Anarchist Anthropology by David Graeber. Prickly Paradigm Press

Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water

Bloomsbury (2009)
Elizabeth Royte

Reviewed by Joseph Nevins




In mid-January, I received a mass email asking me to donate $10 for bottled water and other supplies for participants in an important immigrant rights march in Phoenix. Given the ever-repressive and cruel political climate in Arizona for immigrants (especially unauthorized ones), I was unequivocally in support of the mobilization. Nonetheless I was taken aback by a request to contribute even nominally to an effort to buy bottles of water for what turned out to be, according to some estimates, more than 20,000 people.

Certainly there are other ways—ecologically sustainable and less expensive ones—to provide water for such a multitude. How, why, and to what effects bottled water became the preferred way to do so for myriad people and places far beyond a single event in Phoenix is the focus of Elizabeth Royte’s powerful and compelling book, Bottlemania.

I’ve never been a fan of bottled water, considering it ecologically damaging—in the United States alone 30-40 million single-serve bottles per day end up as litter or in landfills—and economically foolhardy, another capitalistic trick to con us into purchasing  something from profiteers that we don’t shouldn’t have to. But as Royte powerfully illustrates, the increasing commodification of drinking water is far more complex, and dangerous, than at least I appreciated.

Until recently, the sale of single-serve bottles of water was rare. While the United States had regional bottled water companies as early as the nineteenth century, such entities mainly supplied homes and offices with large containers of the life-sustaining liquid (for water coolers, for instance). This situation began to change in the 1980s with the entry of Perrier into the U.S. market and its successful television advertising which stressed that a little luxury—a bottle of the French water—was available to everyone.

Other companies, like Evian and Vittel, followed, employing the likes of Madonna and fashion models, to help equate bottled water with personal health, fitness, and glamour. That, combined with the invention of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic—which made water easily portable—helped the U.S. bottled-water industry boom: between 1990 and 1997 its annual sales increased from $115 million to $4 billion. (By 2006, the figure was $10.8 billion; globally bottled water’s income was $60 billion.)

This dramatic increase is the outgrowth of “one of the greatest marketing coups of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” asserts Royte. What makes it all the more extraordinary is that in the vast majority of cases “tap water meets or exceeds federal health and safety standards, regularly wins in blind taste tests against name-brand waters, and costs 240 to 10,000 times less than bottled water.” Part of the reason it has succeeded, contends Royte, is “that bottled water plays into our ever-growing laziness and impatience.”

This corporate-driven success contributes to the demise of water as a public good. Take the increasingly rare public drinking fountain, for instance: Royte tells of visiting a Midwestern college where there is no drinking-water fountain in its gym.

Bottled water’s rise has changed behaviors even among those whom you might expect would have an alternative consciousness. While I was reading Royte’s book, I accompanied a group of students from my institution on a visit to a geography department at a university elsewhere in New York State, a department with a strong focus on issues of environmental sustainability. At the luncheon, the department offered bottled water as one of the beverage options.

The profound change in how so many of us consume water has consequences far beyond what we imbibe. Among other things, it increases our consumption of oil—and all its attendant detrimental impacts: Royte reports that it takes 17 million barrels of oil each year to make water bottles for the U.S. market alone—enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year. Meanwhile, according to one estimate, a quarter of a water bottle’s worth of oil is required to produce each bottle, transport and depose of it.

Royte focuses much of her energy on Poland Springs—the Nestlé-owned company that is the largest U.S. producer of bottled spring water—and the struggles and controversies surrounding its activities in and around Fryeburg, Maine, where it is based. However, her important and compelling book is much more than an examination of the bottled water industry.  It is first and foremost about the health and viability of drinking water and thus human society as a whole. As Royte points out, “We can live without oil, but we can’t live without water.”

Already for all-too-many across the planet, access to safe drinking water is far from assured. As Royte informs the reader, “only 3 percent [of the earth’s water supply] is fresh, and of that fraction only a third is available for human use,” with the rest stored in glaciers and the like.

Not surprisingly that fraction is not equitably distributed based on needs. As such, more than a billion people do not have sufficient access to potable water. And according to U.N. projections, increased demand and water pollution, combined with climate-change-induced drought and reduced recharge of groundwater supplies will lead to two of every three of the planet’s denizens lacking sufficient access by 2025. “Those two out of three won’t just be thirsty;” writes Royte. “[A]lready some 5.1 million people a year die from waterborne diseases, many of which stem from lack of sanitation and its resulting water pollution. That number is going to spike.”

Among the major culprits of water pollution is industrial agriculture with its heavy reliance on synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides, the runoff from which ends up in the water supply. Atrazine, for example, an herbicide that has been shown to cause birth defects, reproductive disorders, and cancer in lab animals, has contaminated, according to Royte, drinking water sources “in nearly every major Midwestern city, and well water and groundwater in states where the compound isn’t even used.”

The pernicious irony of the degradation of the water commons is that it helps to undermine trust in public water supplies and facilitate their neglect, thus driving more people—especially the relatively wheel-heeled who can afford it—to embrace the bottled water option. In 2001, La’o Hamutuk, a non-governmental organization in East Timor, for example, calculated that the United Nations mission in charge of governing the territory was spending more than $10,000 per day (almost $4 million annually) on bottled water. (And this was the figure just for the international peacekeeping troops present in the country—to say nothing of the water purchased for the non-military U.N. personnel.) According to various estimates, it would have cost $2-10 million at the time to rehabilitate the entire water purification and delivery system of Dili, the now-independent country’s capital, and provide potable water to nearly all of the city’s more than 100,000 residents.

Royte would see such behavior as part of an “insidious trend,” one in which it has become “normal to pay high prices for things that used to cost little, or nothing”—or to go the route of the private rather than the public. But ultimately, preserving or improving public water supplies is the option we must collectively pursue as “too many people can afford to drink nothing but.” Otherwise, Royte warns, we run the risk of a world in which there is “a two-tiered system—bottled for the rich, bilge for the poor.”

Given the ubiquity of bottled water, it might seem like it doesn’t matter if the organizers of one mass demonstration, a single geography department, or a particular U.N. mission choose bottled water, rather than embracing public water options that were the unquestioned norm in the very recent past. But these individual decisions add up and, as such, have a profound impact on people’s livelihoods and the environment. Given the necessity of water for life, do we really have a choice as to what we should do?



Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. His latest book is “Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid” (City Lights Books).

Colectivo Solidario, El anarcosindicalismo español. Una historia en imagenes

Confederación Sindical Solidaridad Obrera (2007)
Reveiwed by Chris Ealham, Lancaster University
Reprinted with Permission from Anarchist Studies Journal




Marking the centenary of Solidaridad Obrera (‘Workers’ Solidarity’), Spain’s most important anarcho-syndicalist newspaper, this extensive graphic history of the Spanish libertarian tradition is one of the most recent books published by the Confederación Sindical Solidaridad Obrera. In keeping with their previous publications, this volume is reasonably priced; as a pictorial history, it is lavishly illustrated, consisting of some 1,200 images, essentially photos, engravings, paintings, drawings, trade union stamps, magazine covers, newspaper headings, through which over 150 years of working-class struggle are narrated. It concludes with an appraisal of the anarcho-syndicalist movement in Spain today. Inevitably, the text generally plays a secondary role, largely introducing and contextualizing images; further context is provided by a useful introductory chronology preceding each chapter and section.

The story begins with the struggle to organise in Spain in 1835 and the intense repression that followed. The unrelenting readiness of the state and its lackeys to use all possible means to repress any challenge from below – whether real, potential or imagined – is a constant feature of this history. It is striking that the garrotte vil, the agonisingly protracted method of strangulation first used to execute a trade unionist in 1856, was still being used in the mid-1970s, when the young Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich was executed. Equal attention is given to repeated attempts at criminalizing the libertarian movement, from the Mano Negra frame-up, which resulted in 300 jailings and 8 executions in the 1880s, up to the Scala Affair of the late 1970s, when a police agent provocateur organised a petrol bombing – which tragically resulted in the deaths of 4 CNT activists – in an attempt to discredit the anarchist movement. The sight of troops on the streets during strikes is a recurring one, a reminder of how the army was frequently deployed as a tool of internal repression within a militarised system of industrial relations.

Yet official attempts to raise the cost of protest proved futile, essentially due to the sacrifices of thousands of anonymous, largely unknown activists who sustained the movement through their sacrifices, often giving up their freedom, even their lives; inevitably, only a fraction of these militants are seen here. From the images that provide a glimpse of social and working conditions, it is easy to see how the CNT became so deeply rooted within Spanish working-class society and resistant to state repression. Even before anarchist culture flourished in Spain, we see evidence here of popular traditions of direct action street protest and armed uprisings, rebellious acts that provided fertile ground for anti-state, anti-authoritarian ideology. The CNT’s resistance dovetailed with these traditions, and while driven underground soon after its birth, it surfaced during World War One on a wave of militancy, becoming the lodestar of the dispossessed, with a membership of over 700,000. By the 1930s, the union had come to organise over a million workers.

Inevitably, the approach here is essentially chronological, covering all the key moments and periods, while giving special attention to the Second Republic and the revolution, which saw the highest and lowest points in the history of the CNT and anarcho-syndicalism, the legendary short summer of liberation, the crisis opened up by wartime governmental collaboration, and then the long winter of Francoism. Considerable attention is given to what has been dubbed the ‘constructive work’ of the Spanish revolution – the achievements of collectivisation on the land and in factories – in what was western Europe’s most far-reaching and extensive exercise in workers’ self-management. We then see how members of the movement entered government: “with that abandonment of anarchist principles and of the lessons of more than 75 years of working class struggles the grave of the revolution was prepared”, initiating a process from which the Spanish anarchist movement would never fully recover (p. 236).

Chronological chapters are interspersed with themed sections in which the movements’ multi-faceted identifying marks are explored. Among the myriad cultural practices covered are radical education, vegetarianism, organised hikes, nudism, feminism, free love and sexual liberation, the promotion of Esperanto, all of which gave rise to a new sociability and way of being and fighting. What emerges is a clear sense of the deep moral and ethical thrust that made this movement so unique within the corrupt society in which it was formed. Several other observations can be made about the movement from this history. There is a discernible absence of great theoreticians: not a single Spaniard ranked among the intellectual elite of the international anarchist movement. It is similarly remarkable to see the monster rallies organised by the CNT immediately after the demise of the Franco dictatorship. Another outstanding attribute was the profound solidarity underpinning strikes, perhaps most vividly reflected in the way strikers’ children were periodically taken in by trade unionists from other areas during protracted industrial disputes.

At a time when growing numbers of people in Spain are concerned with historical memory, this book is a timely and extensive contribution to the recuperation of anarchist memory. It is also a reminder of the contemporary struggles relating to the past. While the current socialist administration in Spain pays lip service to righting the accumulated injustices from the Franco dictatorship, its approach is highly selective and partial, much the same as that of its conservative and centre-right predecessors. The CNT, which possessed a vast network of buildings and printing presses in the 1930s, has never been compensated for the assets that were seized during the Spanish civil war and subsequent dictatorship. The same is also true of Barcelona’s Ateneu Enciclopèdic Popular (AEP), a people’s athenaeum that served as a form of popular University for many workers and left-wingers prior to the civil war. Some of the AEP’s property is currently in the possession of the Generalitat, the Catalan autonomous government. Publicly, the Generalitat is keen to emphasise the repression of Catalan rights during the Francoist years and honour the victims of state terror. Nevertheless, the democratic authorities – whether Catalan or Spanish – are very selective and myopic when it comes to redressing Francoist piracy directed at the institutions of the popular classes of Catalonia.

This review originally appeared in Anarchist Studies Vol 16, 1

The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale

Karen Davis
Lantern Books (2005)

Reviewed by Ian Smith




Karen Davis’ The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale is a heretical book in the very best of senses.  Davis challenges the firmly held beliefs of a society that systematically devalues the lives of nonhuman animals as a means of justifying their exploitation but she does not stop there.  Her book is also likely to challenge animal liberation activists.

Davis’ principal claim is that “significant parallels can be drawn between the Holocaust and the institutionalized abuse of billions of nonhuman animals, and that there are lessons to be learned by viewing each of these evils through the lens of the other.”  It is not just possible to draw these parallels but “requisite.”

It is often thought that simply showing people images or videos of the extreme suffering that animals are routinely subjected to at the hands of humans should itself be sufficient to motivate large numbers of people to significantly change their behavior and to remove their support from industries that profit from abusing and killing animals. 

Yet Davis points out that “there is no clear evidence that the sight of suffering evokes sympathy or protest in the majority of people” and that this holds true regardless of whether the victims are human or nonhuman.  The slaughter of animals has frequently been conducted not necessarily behind glass walls but in equally transparent open air markets.  Furthermore those who do regularly pass behind the opaque walls of modern slaughterhouses are not generally moved to veganism in large numbers. 

Davis writes that “A major prerequisite for winning the attention of a particular group of people to the plight of others consists in the ability of the victims and their advocates to create a compelling narrative drama in an interpretive framework that unites the history and identities of both groups”.  The Holocaust has taken on an iconic status not necessarily because there has never been a case of genocide with a comparable degree of suffering but in large part due to this massive suffering combined with the writings of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Hannah Arrendt, and others who compellingly articulated the horror of the Nazi regime.

The victims of the animal holocaust do not have the ability to produce books and diaries to chronicle their suffering and therefore remain dependent on their human advocates.  By relating the suffering of animals which is not sufficiently understood to an event such as the Holocaust which is widely recognized as an atrocity of the grandest scale, advocates can effectively bridge a gap and transform the commonplace suffering of animals that does not always trouble observers into something more dramatic that demands action and intervention.

A refusal to compare atrocities is simply not tenable as it will often have the effect of preventing us from learning from past atrocities.