New enclosures of the carbon market, Part II: Reimagining the commons

Naomi Millnerby Naomi Millner, University of Bristol

In my last post I reflected on a bizarre paradox – the ‘carbon credits’ with which governments buy out their emissions are providing justification for the displacement of complex eco-social systems with green-washed corporate investments. Especially in sub-Saharan Africa, thousands of indigenous farmers have been forced from their land without compensation across the last decade (see Al Jazeera 2011; Lang 2011; Vidal 2011a; 2011b). I wanted to link this trend with recent social-scientific work showing that this ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (Harvey 2003) is not such a paradox, but rather a logical consequence of the technocratic, capitalocentric administration of climate change mitigation. The enclosure of common land and its translation into exchangeable units might, on paper, appear to fix the balances of governments’ debt to the environment, but, in practice, any positive effects will be next to impossible to quantify (Gössling et al. 2007). Meanwhile the obliteration of long-standing, traditional farming practices can be seen as no less than a whole-hearted shooting in the foot, symptomatic of the broader present predicament (Bailey and Wilson 2009; Igoe et al 2006). Here I want to develop the positive note on which I ended, pointing to emerging strategies which complicate and re-imagine the ‘commons’ underpinning carbon markets.

The notion of re-imagining the commons has been developed in recent years by geographers – including Erik Swyngedouw (2011), Andy Merrifield (2011), and Mustafa Dikeç (2005) – in keeping with the diagnosis of a contemporary ‘post-political’ condition. After political theorists like Jacques Rancière and Colin Crouch, ‘post-politics’ refers to the reduction of substantive political disagreements to administrative wranglings, and a consensual portrayal of the (for example, environmental) commons in universalised, economised terms. For example, carbon credit policies provide a means to juggle figures on a balance sheet without actually addressing either carbon consumption, or the uneven geographies which make the system seem to work (Bond 2011). To reintroduce ‘disagreement’ into this account is to make visible or sensible a claim which is excessive to this ‘count’ of the common (Rancière 1999). Politics, for these theorists, means the assertion of an axiom of radical equality, and the staging of expressions of this equality which disturb the ‘givens’ of a presented situation (Swyngedouw 2011). It is to introduce dispute over what counts as the commons, based on a minority view excluded or refused by the status quo.

So what does this mean for the land grabbing scenarios I have described? What does it mean to re-imagine the commons in the context of powerful and pervasive narratives of environmental threat and coming catastrophe? A number of recent articles exploring the ‘radical imagination’ suggest three important strategies for academics and activists – and especially for coalitions of the two camps – which I’d like to draw out here, as stimulus for further reflection on how we might respond to such events. These are:

[i] Disturbing the idea of the common. Haiven and Knasnabish (2010) revisit diverse articulations of the radical imagination, emphasising with Cornelius Castoriadis that it is not a matter of producing it – the radical imagination is always in existence. Neither good nor bad in itself, the radical imagination is a ‘techtonic’ which can harden or transform within processes of social change. A ‘radical’ work on the imagination, for them, is to continuously revisit the idea of the common itself, thereby perpetually mapping and unmapping what the change is to be, and how it is to be enacted. For example, Jacqueline Lasky (2011) cites how recent work among social movements has sought to challenge, from feminist and indigenous perspectives, the solidifying place and power of the first indigenous Bolivian government led by Evo Morales. For Lasky this stands as a vital revisiting of the notion of common vision which has become coalesced after a wave of social change.

[ii] Prioritising dispute. In a special issue of Affinities on the intersections between anarchism, indigenism and feminism, editor Lasky also explains how she sees place-based struggles providing the means for self-determined re-articulations of the commons. The ‘self’ here is not the sovereign man or nation, but situated praxis. Self-reflective engagement and interaction brings critiques of capitalism, racism and gendered relations to bear on each other – so highlighting multiple axes of oppression. The intersections between anarchist, indigenous, and feminist movements (collectively termed ‘anarch@indigenism’) are productive not because they reassert a firm counter-identity, but because they initiate disagreement and dispute within existing movements and struggles, refusing a simple answer or movement. Thus, in the climate change scenario we need to look for instances of the practical intersection of multiple forms of critique in marginal and off-centre spaces – as, for example, in the coming-together of international activists, indigenous movements, and academics at events like the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia, which saw the crystallisation of numerous clashes between social movements and positions (see for example Building Bridges Collective 2010).

[iii] Becoming minoritarian. In the same special issue Ferguson (2011) calls this processual work on the common imagination ‘becoming minoritarian’, a phrase she borrows from Deleuze and Guattari’s account of temporality and becoming. As a third strategy I want to ask that we reflect on the potency of the minor way as a means of staking out a position, or taking sides. This is a call to arms which asks us to continuously redefine who ‘we’ are, based on affiliations with whoever is being excluded from a current hegemonic vision. This recalls the May 1968 graffiti scrawl, ‘we are all German Jews now’; the assertion of No Borders activists that ‘we are all migrants’; and Gandhi’s famous ‘yes I am also a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew’. Where the minority is, that is where we stand – not as that minority, but with the minority, forming a new minor coalition. Such a tactic may also be compared with what Chakrabarty calls a ‘provincialisation’ of the European imagination – a revisiting of its assumptions and norms (liberal notions of ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’…) in terms of their locatedness and locality, contra their universal extension. We are called upon, in this practice, to explore not only how the perspective changes from a marginal vantage, but also to make evident how lined and rich is the ‘blank canvas’ of land and territory presumed by colonialism and neo-liberalism in different ways (see Alfred 2010), and how contingent and precarious is the arrangement which places one minor view as judge and jury over the rest.


As in my previous post I would like to acknowledge the input of Dr Mark Jackson to this post; Mark brought these cited news articles, and many of the academic references, to my attention.


Al Jazeera (2011) Oxfam warns of ‘land grabs’ in Africa. (last accessed 22 December 2011)

Alfred T (2010) What is radical imagination? Indigenous struggles in Canada. Affinities: A Journal of Radical Theory, Culture and Action 4(10):107-140

Bailey I and Wilson G (2009) Theorising transitional pathways in response to climate change: technocentrism, ecocentrism and the carbon economy. Environment and Planning A 41:2324-2341

Bond P (2011) Emissions trading, new enclosures and eco-social contestation. Antipode doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2011.00890.x

Building Bridges Collective (2010) Space for Movement? Reflections from Bolivia on Climate Justice, Social Movements and the State. Leeds: Footprint Workers Co-op

Dikeç M (2005) Space, politics and the political. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23:71-188

Ferguson K (2011) Becoming feminism, anarchism, indigeneity. Affinities 5(1):96-109

Gössling S et al. (2007) Voluntary carbon offsetting schemes for aviation: efficiency, credibility and sustainable tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism 15:223-247

Haiven M and Knasnabish A (2010) What is the radical imagination? Affinities 4(2):i-xxxvii

Harvey D (2003) The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Igoe J, Neves K and Brockington, D (2010) A spectacular eco-tour around the historic bloc: theorising the convergence of biodiversity conservation and capitalist expansion. Antipode 42(3):486-512

Lang C (2011) Ugandan farmers kicked off their land for New Forests Company’s carbon project. (last accessed 22 December 2011)

Lasky J (2011) Indigenism, anarchism, feminism: an emerging framework for exploring post-imperial futures. Affinities 5(1):3-36

Merrifield A (2011) Magical Marxism. London: Pluto Press

Rancière J (1999) Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Swyngedouw E (2011) Interrogating post-democratisation: reclaiming egalitarian political spaces. Political Geography 30(7):370-380

Vidal J (2011a) Ugandan farmer: ‘My land gave me everything. Now I’m one of the poorest’. The Guardian 22 September (last accessed 22 December 2011)

Vidal J (2011b) Oxfam warns of spiralling land grab in developing countries. The Guardian 22 September (last accessed 22 December 2011)