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Amazonia on Fire: Extractive Frontierism & Armed Lifeboat Politics

Image based on data from NASA’s fire detection satelite MODIS
Image based on data from NASA’s fire detection satelite MODIS

Bolsonaro’s actions are vile but not irrational in the present global economic context. The problems for Rousseff’s government started with the drop in primary commodity prices on the world market (Brasil’s leading tradeable goods are iron, soy and oil, and Brasil is the largest exporter of beef in the world), which have buoyed Lula’s hugely successful social programs a decade earlier. Bolsonaro now wants to rollback the conservation efforts that would prevent the immediate and future expansion of farming, plantation and extraction in the Amazon. As we know, this is key to the interests of certain factions of national capital (large landholders, agribusiness, timber producers, sugar industry, mining enterprises) that directly support Bolsanaro. But also it is key to Brasil’s future competitive advantage in the global economy.

If we can ignore the fascistic aspects of Bolsonaro for a moment (rise to power through a coup-like sequence, cahoots with the military, his rabid rhetoric, repression against indigenous groups, environmentalists, political opponents…), we have to acknowledge that the attack on the Amazon stands against backdrop of US under Trump abandoning the Paris Agreement and lifting restrictions on coal, Russia under Putin getting ready for the exploration of the Arctic, China under Hu and Xi pursuing a landgrab across Asia and Africa. Even countries as insignificant as Croatia are handing out concessions for future oil and gas exploration over three-quarters of its territory. While we can to a degree trace back the fires to the actors in the case of Amazon, the actions and actors “behind” Greenland and Siberian fires are hard to individualise. However, the logic that drives both is the same.

The frontierism is a dominant process throughout the capitalist world, and particularly in the countries of the (semi-)periphery. This is, again, not irrational. Unequal terms of exchange in the global trade dictate that less affluent societies have to extract from nature and exploit labor at knock-down prices to obtain goods such as advanced technologies from affluent societies where nature is preserved and labor is much more expensive.1 They have to extract from their environments if they want to compete in the world market. Frontierism is thus part and parcel of free trade. However, now this frontierism is threatening to irreversibly destroy the planetary conditions that provided safety for humanity, whereas before it was only destroying particular ecosystems that provided safety for particular groups and communities. As people working on Amazonian cosmologies like to warn, some have seen their world end before.2 While we could easily choose not to appreciate that fact earlier, now we just can’t.

Returning to the fascistic aspects of Bolsonaro, while it might not be evident at first, this is part of the creeping armed lifeboat politics rearing its ugly head across the world. This is Trump’s wall, this is EU’s Frontex. These are eco-fascist supremacists that go around killing to preserve ‘our way of life’. Armed lifeboat politics is defined by a dynamic where those in a situation of affluence, privilege and safety resort to increasingly violent means to exclude those who are not in that situation. But it includes using military means to secure opportunities for extraction abroad. However, in Bolsonaro’s case, we see what the armed lifeboat politics looks like when it boomerangs inwards and people have to be repressed and driven out for the accumulation that reproduces systemic privilege to proceed.

This ties in well with reactionary conservativism: Anybody questioning systemic privileges of class, gender, race or territory, anybody protesting the hyperseparation of humans from nature,3 anybody saying that the system cannot go on like this - is bad for business, is bad for national interests, is bad for the system continuing to go on like this. This is why the resolve of Bolsonaro to unleash violent repression garnered so much conservative support, but also why it got the hopes up of the international business community. The nuisance of indigenous groups, environmentalists, social justice activists stands in the way of advancing in the “doing business” rankings. They have to be suppressed. And Bolsonaro promises to do this efficiently. But here again, Bolsanaro does not stand alone. The tendency of an authoritarian fix to economic competitiveness can be observed in many places. Internal repression, self-appointed vigilantism and clericalism are needed to secure competitive edge.

Multirateralist neoliberalisation on which treaties such Paris Agreement have been built has run its course. Its popular legitimation collapsed with the failure to deliver on the promise to produce an economic tide that would lift all boats. Authoritarian neoliberalism is now its crisis and its completion. There’s no doubt that Bolsonaro and his ilk have to be protested now, the products of the economies they command stopped in transit, boycotted, refused. But there is so much more that needs to be stopped, boycotted, refused now in each of our midsts. Grieving and despairing might motivate us to stop and not to get on with our lives for a moment, to consider where our efforts are best spent to act collectively. In all the likelihood, it’s not on what we are doing now (myself included). If the underclasses of the peripheral France can persist for months in protesting politics producing inequality (of which regressive carbon taxes are but a continuation), if thousands can march to stop open-pit coal mines, if indigenous groups can stop pipelines and litigate oil exploration projects, if port workers can refuse to load weapons destined for Saudi Arabia, if non-reformist reforms of radical ecological transformation can be worked out, articulated and fought for in the political arena, if others can be helped in doing that, then there is so much to do and so much more to discover to do…

Politically and ecologically having available ever greater quantities of cheaper consumer goods whose globally organised production accrues wealth to the few is not what sustains societies. This is the dynamic of a system of capital accumulation, and not the dynamic of a system of social needs. What sustains societies is a collective deliberation on how the necessary social labor of providing food, shelter, health, child and elderly care, education and a couple of other things can be organised so as to restore our planetary environments and leave us time for our self-determinative individual and collective engagement with the world. Caring that this time is well spent is ultimately what defines our finite time4 in this world we share.

  1. Unequal exchange is a concept developed initially by Marxist economist Arghiri Emmanuel in the 1960s to explain the transfer of value in the global economy from the poor to the rich. The concept was later introduced into ecological economics to explain also the transfer of environmental services from the periphery to the centre.

  2. For instance, Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros do Castro’s “The Ends of the World”.

  3. Hyperseparation of humans from nature is a concept developed by the late Australian ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood to point to the denial of human dependence on nature that serves to legitimate irreversible destruction of environment.

  4. The finitude of human existence as the question of maximising free time that we can free up to spend on activities we care about and are committed to, as opposed to time we need to labor in return for a wage in a system that imposes an external logic of capital accumulation on the social system of production for human needs, is succinctly articulated in Martin Hägglund’s “This Life”. It’s an elegant reformulation of Marx’s ideas of freedom and socialism.