Elevate Socio-Ecological Transformation

This is the tenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!


Our generation faces a unique series of ecological challenges, from climate change and the transition away from fossil fuels, to how we can feed the world and leverage bio-technology without damaging the planet’s fragile ecosystem. But the ecological transformations necessary to answer these challenges are impossible without a corresponding social transformation in the way we fuel our cars, grow our crops and organise ourselves. As Ulrich Brand, professor of International Politics at the University of Vienna, says, we need nothing less than the “ecological modernisation of capitalism”.

Climate Change and Geo-Engineering

The People’s Climate March in September showed that, as activist Mona Bricke says, “we have reached a tipping point of movements”. She singles out 350.org as a unifying movement established to connect with the leaders who handle climate change. “In Copenhagen,” she says, “we got the impression that things were at a stand still and we knew we had to go back home and fight climate change at home.”

Mona’s home is Germany, from where she reports some interesting contradictions. The state of Brandenburg, for example, has transitioned to using 100% renewable energy for its citizens. All well and good, but they still mine and export coal to other communities. Mona tells us that, earlier this year, an eight kilometre line of activists stopped the huge coal mining caterpillars from working. “Little people stopped them,” she says, with obvious delight.

But there is trouble ahead. “You have a problem if you try to solve all problems,” Mona warns. For instance, the proposal of gas fracking as an alternative to coal mining. “We have to say no to that,” she insists. “The alternative to coal can by no means be fracking and it cannot be nuclear power either.” To illustrate the problem, Mona describes how, in the UK, activists against coal mining have turned to oppose fracking – while more coal than ever before is being used in the power stations. “We can’t move from one opposition to another,” Mona says. “We need to see the big picture.” It is inevitable, in the transition to renewable energy, that we will need to rely on some temporary gas power stations, she suggests.

Pat Mooney, a leading expert on technology and the environment and Elevate guest in 2009 and 2012, introduces us to geo-engineering, temporary climate hacks to alleviate the effects of climate change until such a time as the problem can be dealt with more permanently. Geo-engineering might seem like a reasonable strategy, given the real prospect of runaway global warming, but some of the proposals are extreme: blocking sunlight from reaching the earth by pumping sulphites into the air like an artificial volcano, for example. “Solar Radiation Management” proposals like this will, it is hoped, buy time to develop the technology to implement other schemes that capture carbon and bury it in the ground somewhere.

Pat describes these proposals as “two dreams” that allow companies to say “we don’t need to do anything else, we don’t need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions because we have these answers”. Unfortunately for those people who want “business as usual”, I’m sure you don’t need Pat Mooney to tell you that the idea of setting off artificial volcanoes “is simply crazy”. “The wealthiest countries,” he explains, “will make the decisions about how they will disperse these gasses into the stratosphere to block the sunlight.” As usual when there is a global price to pay, technical studies show that this kind of geo-engineering could be “devastating” to sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and wreck havoc with the monsoon in south Asia.

“In 2012, we were successful in getting a moratorium against all forms of geo-engineering,” Pat says. Will geo-engineering still happen? Well, according to Pat, yes. “Even though the UN moratorium is in place, the United States isn’t a part of it itself,” he says. “And we know that research is going on anyway in places like Russia and China,” he adds. Pat foresees the situation becoming so desperate over the coming years that we’ll reach the point where “governments will say they have no choice but to deploy geo-engineering and we’ll just have to hope for the best”.

Pat points out that the pressure on governments from the big energy companies is huge. “The fossil fuel companies have fifty-five trillion dollars worth of infrastructure they want to protect,” he says. “They’ve got twenty-one trillion dollars worth of assets in the ground and they will do anything in their power to exploit that fossil fuel resource.” They’re not going to let governments end the party. “For them, it’s simple enough to say we’ll use solar radiation management to delay the effects,” Pat says, “and then we’ll find a way to bury the stuff eventually.”

Into a sickened silence, we contemplate the sacrifices we all must make so that fossil fuel profits can go on unhindered. “The only way to prevent this,” Josef Obermoser suggests, “is a huge global movement that is able to create so much pressure that this is not going to happen.” “Exactly,” Pat agrees. “If there isn’t a huge public debate about it soon, then they will continue. It will be China, Russia and the United States, probably together, going ahead with Solar Radiation Management.”

Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology was initially developed as companies tried to find alternative ways of producing bio-fuels, Pat says, to “solve the problem of stealing food from people to feed their cars”. Now, however, the synthetic biology companies have moved away from bio-fuels and are creating flavour and fragrance crops that they can brew in a vat. “It threatens the livelihood of about a hundred million farmers right now,” Pat warns. “Crops like vanilla from Madagascar and saffron from Iran are all now being developed to be grown from vats rather than in the field.”

Synthetic biology is not like genetic modification, but instead builds and replicates DNA precisely, to make exactly what is needed or wanted in the marketplace. The proof of principle was established in 2010, when J. Craig Venter was able to recreate an entirely artificial self-replicating life form. “It really is a manipulation of life at its most fundamental levels,” Pat says, “and much more pervasive than genetic modification.”

As with geo-engineering, there is an international movement to regulate synthetic biology. “Last week in Korea,” Pat tells us, “the UN Commission on Biodiversity met, 194 countries. Almost all of them came out calling for a moratorium on synthetic biology until it can be properly regulated.” Almost all of them; the moratorium was blocked by the European Union and Canada. “They have agreed to establish a regulatory system to try to control synthetic biology at the national level at least.”

Yeah, but how close are we to actually having these synthetic crops in our food chain? “You’ll be able to buy so-called natural vanilla which has been brewed in a vat from Switzerland sometime later this year or early next year,” Pat says. Oh. Synthetic biology companies are finding it difficult to scale up production, so they’re concentrating on small, expensive products like vanilla and saffron; flavours, fragrances and cosmetics. “They’re not taking over coffee or palm oil at this stage,” Pat says, “but they may well soon.”

“Oof,” Josef sighs, shifting in his chair. “Very scary.” Pat laughs, leaning into the webcam. “I’m sorry to be saying only terrible things!” he replies. “Both geo-engineering at the maximum level and then synthetic biology almost at the nano scale.” But Pat is not a doom-monger. “We are looking for solutions as well,” he says. “The United Nations is paying attention.” Pat’s organisation, the ETC Group, have made a proposal to the UN, accepted by many governments, to establish capacity for technology assessment. This will give governments a systematic way to track these new technologies and hopefully have a public debate about them “before they’re forced down our throats or onto our faces or into our clothing”.

It would be easy to characterise Pat as a Luddite, a man who hates all new technology and is determined to stop its progress. That would be a gross misrepresentation; Pat is highly respectful of technology. Indeed, his socio-ecological concerns about technology are products of his great respect for its power. “People are becoming aware that technology is an extraordinarily powerful engine that’s driving a lot of social decisions,” he says. “We need to get control of those social decisions ourselves again.” He reminds us that we don’t have to blindly accept everything corporations, laboratories and human ingenuity can create. Pat wants us to retain control over the technologies we choose for our societies, “making sure the good ones go forward and the bad ones don’t”.


The battle for control over the use of technology is unrelenting. There is currently a world-wide UN moratorium on the use of the so-called “terminator” seed, a genetically modified organism that dies at harvest time, so that farmers can’t store the seed for the next year. “They can sell the commodity,” Pat says, “so you can still make wheat or rice from it, but farmers will have to go back and buy seed again from the company.” As Josef says, “it’s a self-destructing life form”.

This “terminator” seed is completely banned in Brazil and even Monsanto, one of the world’s leading GMO producers, have publicly vowed not to pursue its use. And yet… “We’re expecting that they will overturn the ban that exists in Brazil against terminator sometime within the next few months.” The legislative bills are already with the Brazilian Congress, delayed only by the Presidential Elections. “Twelve thousand years of farmers being able to save their own seeds will end,” Pat says and urges us to join the campaign, supported by the Catholic church, against the lifting of the ban. “Write to the President of Brazil saying that we don’t want this legislation,” he says. “It’s not a lost battle.”

Irmi Salzer, a member of La Via Campesina and an organic farmer, has more bad news, however. She reports that, although Austria had previously promised they would not allow GMO crops, “now they’re hedging their bets before the resistance gets too big”. She is worried that the decade-long fight against GMO might have to get more active. “The free trade agreement, TTIP, will overturn all the victories we’ve won,” she says. “It’s a Trojan Horse. This new agreement will be an opportunity to force through things that people have been trying to do for years.” Still under negotiation, TTIP could result in EU countries aligning their GMO and bio-technology regulations and protections with current, and more lax, US law.

Irmi shows us one crucial difference between current EU and US law, which TTIP could overturn, with potentially catastrophic consequences. In the EU, since an agreement on sustainable ecological protection in 1992, new technologies have to be proved safe before deployment: the burden of proof is on the companies developing and selling the technology. In the US, however, this principle is considered irrational and hysterical. “They want the opposite,” Irmi says, “that the opponents to a technology have to prove it is dangerous.” According to Irmi, TTIP will make the corporate overthrow of the long-standing EU ecological agreement much easier.

To make matters worse, democratic resistance to TTIP is proving difficult. Since the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, citizens of the EU are able to propose legislation if they can find support from at least one million citizens from at least four different member countries. This is called the “European Citizens’ Initiative” and is one of the very few examples of legislation that promotes direct democracy anywhere in the EU. Unfortunately, it cannot be used to stop the TTIP negotiations because there is no legal agreement yet to challenge with a popular legislative proposal! This leaves us in a Kafkaesque situation where, as Irmi says, “negotiations have to be concluded first, before any protests can start”. In other words, legal objections can only be lodged by citizens of the EU after TTIP has been signed into law. The Self-Organised European Citizens Initiative Against TTIP and CETA has already gathered well over one million signatories, from all over the EU. It should be clear to the governments pursuing TTIP that popular opposition is massive, loud and indignant; but we are legally powerless to stop the secretive negotiations.

We can see and hear big business building this Trojan Horse, but only when it has been dragged inside the city walls can we attempt to destroy it.

Food Sovereignty

In search of good news, Irmi turns to discuss La Via Campesina, a transglobal organisation that stands up for peasant farmers all over the world. It’s difficult to say quite how many farmers are represented because some countries keep no registers, but La Via Campesina estimate up to two hundred million people.

La Via Campesina coined the term “food sovereignty”, the right to produce your own food on your own land. The concept is in direct opposition to the global corporations and market institutions who currently dominate our food supply. “We see ourselves as part of a movement that wants to bring about social change,” Irmi says. La Via Campesina is a global solidarity movement, not just about the local environment and the “Buen Vivir”, the good life. They campaign for access to land, seed variety and local democratisation of the food supply. Not unreasonably, Irmi believes that it is the people who actually grow the food that lands on your plate who should be the ones negotiating any free trade agreements, not global corporations locked away in fancy tower blocks.

The principles of La Via Campesina are to resist, to transform and to build. “We have to work on all of these three levels,” Irmi says. “Resistance alone is not enough; we need to bring about transformation, build food co-ops and undermine our political systems.” The social and ecological aspects of transformation are, as we have seen, inseparable.

“The movement is successful and growing in Austria,” Irmi says, with defiance. One of the projects involved is Kleine Farm, run by Ulli Klein. Kleine Farm is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, a model imported from California, where the farmer is independent from the capitalist market economy. “We do not have to sell according to unit prices,” Ulli explains. They work out how much they have to earn to run the farm for a year and then manage their agriculture accordingly. At the moment, Kleine Farm supplies one hundred households with fresh, organic produce.

“The strength of Community Supported Agriculture,” Ulli says, “is that the behaviour of consumers is changing. People are taking responsibility.” The farm has also become a community space, where people can help out on the farm. “We publish a weekly farm newsletter and inform people about the reality of agriculture,” Ulli says. “We organise activities on the farm. The community is moving closer together.” Anna Ambrosch is another organic farmer from near Graz, whose BIOFUCHS project will be starting a community supported agriculture project next Spring. The movement is, quite literally, growing.

David Steinwender ends the session with a run down of the many socio-ecological initiatives in Graz: a seed library, farmers markets, food coops and community gardens among many others. “Elevate is the perfect venue to start the socio-ecological transformation,” he says. “After all, it is us people who will be able to bring about change.”

If we want to address climate change, then we must join the grassroots renewable energy movement and fight the fossil fuel future deployment of artificial volcanoes and geo-engineering. If we want to feed the world, then we must support small community farmers and organisations like La Via Campesina and fight industrial-scale synthetic biology, GMO and the totalising force of TTIP.

If we need an ecological revolution in the way we look after our planet, then we must lead a social revolution in the way we organise ourselves.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.


Elevate Socio-Ecological Transformation >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Jakob Isselstein

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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