Written by Zaina Alsous for Scalawag Magazine.
In early May, a U.N. committee, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released its findings in what is being called the most “comprehensive assessment of global nature loss ever conducted.” Notably, the findings include that one million species are currently threatened with extinction due to human activity. The same day these dire predictions came out, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a crowd in Rovaniemi, Finland that rapidly melting sea ice in the Arctic presented “new opportunities for trade,” mining for lucrative minerals, and expanded oil drilling. If nothing else, this announcement against a background of looming endings brings the stunning contradictions inherent to a system of insatiable violent extraction into its sharpest relief.
This IPBES report was not our first warning, and it certainly won’t be the last. Late last year the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a now infamous report urging nations to take concerted action over the next 12 years to slow down the rate of a warming planet or face catastrophic consequences of heat waves, food shortages, drought, flooding, and a mass die-off of the coral reefs. Put simply, in order for our children to inherit a habitable planet, we must right now collectively transform the world economy “at a speed and scale that has no documented historic precedent.” Those who live in the U.S. South, the region facing some of the highest risks associated with climate change, have seen firsthand in recent Hurricanes Harvey, Florence, and Maria how climate change dramatically increases flooding and storm severity.
Few are more directly on the frontlines of this climate crisis than prisoners. In 2018 prisoners in South Carolina and Virginia were left locked in cells while over a million residents evacuated during Hurricane Florence. Most prisons in the South also lack climate control inside, which means cells take on extreme and deadly temperatures. States with some of the highest rates of incarceration—Louisiana, Texas, and Florida—are also most likely to face the risks of extreme heat. In Phoenix, Arizona, during a hot August day in 2015, 25-year-old Cynthia Apkaw hung herself from her cell in Perryville Prison using a bedsheet. The guards did not intervene in time to save her life. They were sitting in the air-conditioned command center.
There is an indisputable link between the carceral state and climate change. As thousands more around the globe become climate refugees, many pundits in the U.S. and Europe are calling for increased or more “efficient” methods of border security, a polite call for eco-fascism: to double down on racist militarized policing rather than adjusting economic development to suit a sustainable and equitable global model. It is explained to Western audiences as more rational and realistic to imagine millions of people in cages or collapsing from dehydration while migrating through the desert than it is to take concerted steps to slow down impending mass extinction.
The Green New Deal emerges as a potential intervention. The popularized policy proposal, led by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and young organizers with the Sunrise Movement, promises to dramatically increase infrastructure spending to produce sustainable energy models, combat deforestation, and hold the state accountable in ending subsidies to large petrochemical corporations. While the GND suggests much to rally behind, what is required of us in this moment—alongside and in addition to adequate public investment—is the forging of a different kind of relation: one that enables co-dignity with each other and the land. Part of that imagination involves a reckoning with the fact that current dominant political and economic systems fundamentally rely on the idea that there are lives that are, and will be, disposable. This is the key logic and assumption that underlies colonial development—to advance the few at the expense of the many. In breathing opposition to this logic, it is the people we have been taught to most dismiss or despise who have the most to teach us about how we might be able to survive this moment. Migrants, refugees, prisoners, and indigenous organizers experiment at the most advanced level with forms of community governance, resource sharing, and improvisational methods of subsistence, all under the most extreme conditions of duress. There is no way to imagine a future in which we all survive without prioritizing abolition as a guide towards ecological sustenance.
In a recent New York Times profile on longtime abolitionist scholar and organizer Ruth Wilson Gilmore, she shares an anecdote about teaching youth about the environmental hazards of prisons, “Abolition is deliberately everything-ist; it’s about the entirety of human-environmental relations. So, when I gave the kids an example from a different place, I worried they might conclude that some people elsewhere were just better or kinder than people in the South San Joaquin Valley—in other words, they’d decide what happened elsewhere was irrelevant to their lives. But judging from their presentation, the kids lifted up the larger point of what I’d tried to share: Where life is precious, life is precious.”
In a 2018 interview with, Kali Akuno, a co-founder of Cooperation Jackson, he explains some of the founding questions and aspirations for creating Cooperation Jackson, an organization rooted within a theory of change attuned to the intersections of environmental sustainability, solidarity economics, popular democracy, and alternative collective infrastructure making, that empowers the working-class in Jackson, Mississippi:
We did a bunch of ‘what ifs.’ We framed it as: What if we could make the city fully sovereign by 2025? What if we could reorient the economy to work on all co-operative lines? What if we could create a human rights charter for restorative justice in the community? These were the ‘what if’ questions that were interlocking, intersecting and for each one of those we came up with corresponding programmatic demands [...] How do we ensure workers’ rights? What if we could have a broad participatory democracy? What would it look like? What voices would it lift up? What voices would it ask to play a different role? A deeper one, I think the ultimate one that we’re still working on is, What if we could create a truly equitable Mississippi? Could we make Mississippi a beacon of radical politics?
What if, what if, what if. Cooperation Jackson’s theory of change also rests on the assumption that the solutions to our problems live within our capacities to organize as workers and experiment together. Echoed in a recent Democracy Now interview with Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners on New Ground, one of the leading forces in the tactic of bailing out Black mothers from local jails in time for Mother’s Day, is the idea that the solutions to the issues happening in our community actually lie within our communities’ capacities to forge another kind of relation against and away from the punitive, the cell block, the cage, and the economies of death.
In Miami, a city projected to be under water in less than 50 years, in the state with an incarceration rate higher than every country on earth, two mothers were bailed out by organizers with Fempower and returned to their families in May. A small ripple in the pool. One of the first things a mother asked to do, less than 12 hours after leaving a cell, was to pick up her girlfriend’s 7-year-old child from school. As soon as he saw her, he ran into her arms without skipping a beat. As if she hadn’t ever been gone. What if we demand that all economic proposals cater to the generosity of children, returning to the ones they love? What if, what if?
In her collection M Archive: After the End of the World, queer Black feminist archivist Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes an eco-poetics for our time, a ring of sunlight and chlorophyll: “their yellow and green meant they could predict a world. their yoruba and akan meant they could feel a world coming. which is different from preparation. they didn’t prepare. they practiced. they played. the difference is important.”
Before there is an actionable policy that will assist life forms to thrive, there must be a belief system, a metaphor, a way of seeing. How to move away from the language of accumulation, development, and attainment towards a disposition of the generous—a generous revolt; not because we know exactly how, but because we must, because we owe it to one another. The closer we get to seeing the ominous edges, the greater our chorus of what if must become. At Scalawag, in this issue and beyond, we are committed to the idea that we can still imagine an otherwise. We can demand an everything that leaves no one behind.
Zaina Alsous is a writer, editor at Scalawag Magazine, and grad student worker at the University of Miami. Her work has appeared in The Boston Review, The Offing, and The New Inquiry.