Posted on Thursday, 25 April 2013 16:37

The politics of ecological defence

Nnimmo Bassey

It cannot be denied that the multiple crises currently confronting humankind are intimately linked to our perception of nature's resources and that this perception drives the manner by which these are exploited and utilised.


The last century has been driven by the mindset that man can extract whatever is needed and if anything gets broken such can be easily fixed. This has been the path of limitless exploitation, limitless growth and limitless power. Unfortunately this exploitative system chooses to forget that the Planet Earth is finite and that most of what is being exploited is non-renewable.

For one, our concept of energy has been so shifted that what comes to mind when we think of energy is either electricity or the power to move objects and human beings. The faster we move objects or ourselves from one point to another convey a sense of satisfaction, achievement and even pleasure.

catastrophes are seen as opportunities for business

The development and ultimate unravelling of capitalism can be understood in its overall view of nature as something to be exploited and not to be nurtured, respected and protected. This mindset requires examination so that we see clearly that the nature-society dialectic generating and compounding the unfolding ecological crises is not accidental.

A review of literature on the origins of reckless despoliation of the environment as mankind's ambition to accumulate by cornering common goods for private enjoyment shows that this trend was visible even at the transition from feudalism to industrialisation in Europe. The reality is simply getting worse across the world today.

Some commentators point out that technology is not the primary driver of man's antagonistic relationship with nature "but rather the nature and logic of capitalism as a specific mode of production."

The concept of disaster capitalism has been well defined by writers like Naomi Klein and we increasingly have situations where catastrophes are seen as opportunities for business. When floods, earthquakes or tsunamis level the properties of the weak in society, the power brokers sweep in, demolish what may be left standing and then appropriate everything without any sense of accountability or responsibility. Some of these disasters have been termed "natural disasters" whereas they are clearly the result of the activities of humans.

Someone was quoted as saying that oil spills make economic sense in that they could generate new businesses for those who would handle the clean-ups. In fact this "witness" at an hearing even went as far as insisting that where fishermen are displaced from their trade they would have an opportunity of staring a new line of work perhaps with any compensations they may be paid.

It may sound crude, but this captures the basic sense in the drive for disposition, acquisition, accumulation for profit. In this context there is pretty little economic difference between activities that maintain the integrity of natural ecosystems and those that destroy people and their environment. The narrow pursuit of profit makes it impossible to see into the future, as whatever can be grabbed now is fair game.

The environment is the theatre of life. We are part of it and not apart from it. We do not own it and cannot reasonably appropriate it as private property. This is what makes the continued colonisation of the atmosphere through unmitigated pumping greenhouse gases unreasonable and utterly unacceptable. Defending the environment is an unavoidable political duty.

As the exploitation of nature draws to the zenith of unreasonableness, merchants are now seeing nature as an object for speculation and wholesale commodification. Good concepts such as sustainable development are being turned on their heads. The concept of Green Economy on which even the brownest sectors cling turns out to be a platform insisting that nature cannot be defended except it is assigned a monetary value and absolutely ignoring the intrinsic value of nature.

On the whole, the expansion of capital conveniently overlooks the ruination of nature. This is why the Nigerian environment, from the South to the North, has been so utterly abused and ignored. We are confronted with a situation where land is grabbed with brute force, forests have been chopped down, pollution is rife and wastes are not adequately taken care of.

The sorry state of the Nigerian environment is best seen through the lens of the impacts of the oil and gas sector. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) assessment of the Ogoni environment shows the level of ecocide inflicted by over five decades of reckless exploitation.

the Ogoni environment shows the level of ecocide

UNEP surmises that it would require about 30 years of work to detoxify the Ogoni environment where active oil extraction was shut down in 1993. Almost two years after the presentation of that report to the government of Nigeria little has been seen by way of responses to the clear situation of environmental emergency the report announces.

The system of nature is circular and these remain in a state of recycling and replenishment until man interferes with them. Current dominant production systems are linear and overload natural systems with excessive amounts of waste products. The governing creed appears to be that the more polluting the action, the more profitable they are. And, in a twisted sense, that is right because it extends the doctrine of pillage and brigandage in which environmental costs are externalised to the poor and to nature.

Transnational corporations are in the vanguard of the unrelenting assault on nature. By their mode of operation they are forever seeking ways to block the doors of justice and not to do what is right. State companies driven by similar neoliberal principles are just as bad.

What is to be done? Shall we throw up our hands in despair because the challenges are daunting? The simple answer is that this is not the time to despair. It is the time to organise!

We have the seeds for the growing of national as well as pan-African movements for ecological justice. These must be deepened, expanded and linked with the global wave of movements taking their stand on this. It is the right time to place the ecological question in the heart of our political debates and plans of action. We are the people of the environment: our lives, culture and production are embedded and intertwined with nature.

We must act to break the transactional relationship with nature by exploitative forces. It is time to take a clear stand and fight to build a real and radical path for change based on the empowerment of our people to defend their patrimony, ensure justice and equity.

In the struggle for environmental/ecological justice when we pretend to be neutral we simply show that we are accomplices in the despoliation of nature.

Nnimmo Bassey

Nnimmo Bassey

Nnimmo Bassey is an activist, poet/writer and architect. He is Executive Director of the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth in Nigeria and Chair of Friends of the Earth International. He also coordinates Oilwatch International, a global South network that campaigns against human and environmental abuses related to the oil and gas extractive activities. His poetry collections include We Thought It Was Oil But It Was Blood (2002) and I will Not Dance to Your Beat (Kraft Books, 2011). His book, To Cook a Continent (Pambazuka Press, 2012) deals with destructive extractive activities and the climate crisis in Africa. He was listed as one of Time magazine's Heroes of the Environment in 2009 and was a recipient of the 2010 Right Livelihood Award also known as the "Alternative Noble Prize." Nnimmo Bassey was awarded the prestigious Rafto Prize by by the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights.

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