Decolonise our future

An international, digital and feminist Green New Deal that decolonizes our future is our species’ hope. Español Português

Renata Avila Andrés Arauz
8 June 2020, 8.28am
Protesters hold a banner during a Fridays for future demonstration in Turin , Italy, on June 5 2020
Nicoló Campo/SIPA USA/PA Images

Biological and climate emergency is a reality, but there is no justice in how its causes and consequences are divided up between the Global North and the Global South.

The median person in the US consumes 44 million calories per day. The human body requires intake of 2 thousand calories per day. Exo-somatic consumption of energy – for non-metabolic purposes, such as transport or appliances – of the average citizen of the North surpasses several hundred times that of a poor citizen of the South. Think of the number of cars per capita to get a rough idea. Even endosomatic consumption of energy – bodily calorie intake – is still substantially less in the South. Hunger and undernourishment are still a reality for one-seventh of the planet’s human population.

But working households in the North are not to blame for these differences; bio-ignorant capitalism is to blame. And they are suffering its effects, too. We are living in a moment where a prosperous future is a prospect for the very few, as the post-COVID-19 crisis managers might erase in a second the social victories that took decades for social movements to build. This article is an urgent call to seize the moment and do it differently.

Only 100 corporations in the world are responsible for 71% of all global emissions. We know their names. And the names of their CEOs. Their offices are not guarded but in the open, untouchable by Courts. Their money, out of reach, somewhere offshore. The mess, pain and destruction provoked by them are spread all over the place.

The consequences of the climate emergency are mostly suffered by countries in the Tropics and by the poorest regions in those countries. There are numerous island-nations close to the Equator and entire communities at the risk of disappearing due to rising sea-level.

Progressives in the North have proposed a Green New Deal as a bold and just initiative to leap from failed austerity policies and to fight the biological and climate emergency. We are sympathetic to and, obviously, supportive of this.

As progressives, we cannot postpone the design of a shared vision of our planetary future. And that cannot happen without dismantling the colonial structures of our present.

However, we remind our friends that the virus or the climate do not stop at the border. Neither the effects and power exercised on the rest of the planet by its markets and military power. And the fight against the current climate emergency and health catastrophe shouldn’t stop at the border either. As progressives, we cannot postpone the design of a shared vision of our planetary future. And that cannot happen without dismantling the colonial structures of our present.

This is why we propose an initial conversation for an international Digital Green New Deal to decolonise our future based on four introductory elements: decolonising bio-ignorant capitalism, decolonising the political vehicles, decolonising the money, and decolonising technology.

Decolonising bio-ignorant capitalism

Bio-ignorant capitalism will scream with a strident voice that to go “back to normal” some, the vulnerable, and the poor must be sacrificed. Their preventable deaths, if only the machinery stops, will be uncounted -as Alex Cobham’s recent book argues. Capitalism is based on the profit motive. Profit exists in individualistic money-based accounting. The current accounting framework ignores life: it is bio-ignorant. The whole planet’s accounting standards aren’t defined by an international organization, they are defined by a private cartel, colonial in nature set up by the Big Four accounting firms of the Global North and other gatekeepers of capitalism, dubbed the International Accounting Standards Foundation.

Capital lives in accounting. This is why the accounting of capital needs to become an international public good and needs urgent greening and bio-updating. How can corporations continue to go about business and not account for a planetary climate emergency? For large-scale human and ecological tragedies? And how the impact on natural commons can be left out of the accounting equation?

Corporate accounting must undergo radical reform: capitalist firms should not report or distribute profits at the expense of huge environmental liabilities, even contingent liabilities. Climate emergency provisioning, including retroactive provisions for transnational oil corporations for not having divulged their complicit role in the climate disaster for decades, should be required as part of the financial accounting. How can companies receive tax incentives, government subsidies and massive bailouts without a financial recognition of their contribution to our present disasters?

Present-value of future costs for local remediation of agricultural and mineral extractive sites and for compensation for climate disaster must be incorporated in balance sheets to reflect the true insolvency of the extractive industries. Would have Chevron’s extractive operations plagued with oil spills in the pristine Amazon been profitable if they had to originally account for future costs of remediation and reparation? Audited life-cycle emissions accounting should become part of the disclosure of large corporations, in order to be subsequently targeted by climate emergency regulations. Some alternative energy corporations claim that they reduce emissions in the last part of the value chain but ignore higher net emissions of their upstream international production chain. Accounting cannot remain in the sphere of the Big Four; accounting -the main regulation of capital- needs to be reclaimed by an international commons in a forum such as the UN.

Colonial capitalism – a.k.a large transnational corporations – operate in the South with impunity. More recently, they dictate their own rules even in the Global North. Collectively, and sometimes individually, they are richer and more powerful than entire countries. Their operation increasingly disrespects human life (not to mention human rights) and completely ignores the life of other species. Biodiversity conservation is not only the aspiration of taxonomists of the North, but it is also the genome for an alternative sustainable future; it is codified knowledge embedded in ancestral wisdom of communities victims of colonisation, primarily, in the South.

The trade and intellectual property international law in effect today privileges colonial “intangible capital” at the expense of South’s knowledge embedded in the ancestral and biodiversity nexus. A Green New Deal would support the efforts of the South (primarily at the UN World Intellectual Property Organisation) to value biodiversity and ancestral wisdom as a form of protected knowledge and let the countries and communities of the South benefit from subsequent products derived from that knowledge, such as marketable biotechnology, medicines or cosmetics.

International economic law deployed in the last few decades has injected colonial steroids into the body of bio-ignorant capitalism. The bilateral investment protection treaties with neo-colonial and privately-administered arbitration (“investor-state dispute settlement”) have deepened colonial capitalism’ impunity and have subjugated entire nations to corporations. For example, the Washington-based World Bank’s ICSID has recently ordered Pakistan to pay over $6bn to an extractive transnational corporation for not having granted it permission (on environmental grounds) to extract; this is a re-run of similar episodes against countries in Africa and Latin America who dared prioritize the environment and neighbouring communities or national sovereignty over extractive transnational corporations’ profits.

For COVID relief efforts to be successful, we need an urgent global suspension of investor-state arbitration and a moratorium of further colonially-designed international trade and investment rules.

An international Digital Green New Deal must immediately scrap treaties that colonially protect transnational extractive corporations’ “investments” in the South and discard the disastrous Energy Charter Treaty and its intended expansion into the South. It should entail a moratorium on all new investment treaties. For COVID relief efforts to be successful, we need an urgent global suspension of investor-state arbitration and a moratorium of further colonially-designed international trade and investment rules.

Capital’s relation to labour must also be greened. In most metropolises around the world, workers lose over two hours a day moving from their home to their workplace and back. Overwhelmingly, workers pay the financial cost of transport. But indisputably, workers pay the time-value cost of transport to get to their workplace, as the coronavirus lockdowns have shown. A Green New Deal would effectively cut the workday by approximately two hours a day by establishing that a worker’s workday shall count from the moment the worker sets foot outside the home until upon returning home. Modern surveillance technologies (unfortunately) already allow for enforcement to be a trivial endeavor. This will not only effectively raise the living conditions of workers, but also has the potential to increase overall employment and to rebalance material gender relations which now heavily favor patriarchy. Moreover, this bold but straightforward measure would move capital to pressure investment in public transportation and urban planning.

Similar to the accounting of capital, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) statistics which ignore the laws of physics, chemistry and biology must undergo radical reform. The coronavirus pandemic has clearly shown the inadequacy of this. Under the current scheme, extraction is considered production, but soil regeneration is not. Capital-led destruction of forests is considered production, but nature-led reforestation is not. Women’s labor sold to capital or other men adds to GDP but women feeding their children does not.

The marketable “service economy” adds to GDP but home-based human care, neighbourhood-solidarity and social redistribution that saves lives does not. The UN system and national governments must quickly replace GDP with coherent bio-physical accounting that takes into account the dynamic nexus between humanity and nature. The call for a new metric has been a reiterative proposal recently echoed by Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, the current President of Mexico: the recovery of the economy after a pandemic cannot be such if the wellbeing of people, especially those traditionally left behind, is not taken into account.

These reforms in accounting would amount to a revolution that would rebalance the terms of trade between the Global South and the Global North and between rural food producers and urban consumers. It is only then that we will make a dent in the desperate urgency to migrate. In order to reach this, chrematistic economists must take the back seat and let our species’ metrics be led by geographers, demographers, biologists, physicians, nutritionists, epidemiologists, hydrologists, ecological engineers and the like. It is their knowledge that must be prioritized, it is their underfunded institutions that should take the centre-stage and it is them who must be briefing our political leaders in multilateral summits.

Decolonising the political vehicles

Decolonising the political vehicles is a difficult task in a global state of perpetual war when not even a global pandemic achieved a general cease of fire. The U.S. Military is one of the largest polluters, with higher emissions than entire industrialised countries. But war is not the only vehicle those in power use to impose their will.

The powerful use the privatisation of justice by BITs and FTAs - a system controlled by a small group of law firms, all from the Global North - and with capture the judiciary to administer the proliferation of lawfare cases against environmentalists and progressive leaders that fought for climate justice, accountability and reparations for centuries of extractivism. Many of these leaders were demonised while both powerful governments and the corporate press turned a blind eye on widespread political violence that resulted in hundreds of social and environmental activists killed.

The entire system should be reshaped and repurposed to serve people over profit. A first step will be a moratorium on their privatised courts punishing countries for adopting environmentally friendly regulations.

An initial idea will be to revive the attacked principle of universal jurisdiction globally and expand its applicability to prosecute massive environmental damage as a crime against humanity. That should be done by any court. This is part of the struggle for a binding treaty of transnational corporations and human rights. While doing so, all the assets of the perpetrators should be seized and repurposed to repair the damage caused, applying the joint criminal enterprise doctrine and reaching all the enablers of those crimes.

Global law and policy making should also be revised, including the colonial aid for trade practices that pollute the WTO, where developing nations are bullied into adopting perpetual rules in their detriment, and where, as explained above, their most valuable assets are for the powerful countries to grab and privatise. The entire system should be reshaped and repurposed to serve people over profit. A first step will be a moratorium on their privatised courts punishing countries for adopting environmentally friendly regulations.

Decolonising the money

Money is hierarchical. It is colonial in nature. One government –that of the United States– has the exorbitant privilege of an unlimited purse. This privilege of infinite money has been shared with select allies of the Global North with so-called swap lines. It has veto power in multilateral banks that can provide monetary relief amid a planetary emergency. It has the privilege of monetary triage in the biological and climate emergencies; it decides who has the money to live and who has the money to die.

A huge increase in public investment by one country in the Global North cannot be enough, even if some aggregate demand and its multipliers may trickle down to the South. Money should be decolonized to the extent possible. We need a planetary quantitative easing for the Biological and Climate Emergencies. We need an international bio-QE.

This can only be done by a kind of international money that few know but that already exists: the Special Drawing Rights (SDRs). This requires all countries to instruct the International Monetary Fund to issue trillions of SDRs for all countries’ public investment in our species’ biological and climate emergencies.

Because of the pre-existing technological disparities, this increase in international liquidity would even boost the exports of the Global North. Additionally, an international Green New Deal would include emergency issuance of trillions of SDRs to be managed by public commons such as UN bodies such as the World Health Organization, the High Commission for Refugees, UNESCO and its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, and the World Meteorological Organization, UNESCO. The challenge posed by the profuse exchange of SDRs will imply the need of digital or electronic SDRs, of the sort proposed by progressives such as Yannis Varoufakis and by insiders such as Mark Carney or Tobias Adrian.

Reparations for colonised peoples of the world must be quantified, along the lines of ecological debt, and be paid for with real assets. This transfer of wealth to the Global South will begin to set the stage to decolonise our future.

Central banks and financial supervisors in the Global South are obliged to follow dictates of Basel-, Washington- and Paris- based institutions, fully dominated by the paradigm of bio-ignorant capitalism in its worst dogmatic version: financialization. Sovereigns are stripped of their international public law status and are reduced to mere “commercial parties” subject to imperial laws of New York State or London.

Progressive forces need to be serious about democratizing central banks and euthanizing the rentiers of their control. Central banks are the most powerful institutions in the modern world, yet the least democratic. Progressives must plan the explicitly take-over of central banks and their international clubs.

Finally, issuance of international money is important, but there must also be a transfer of real wealth. Reparations for colonised peoples of the world must be quantified, along the lines of ecological debt, and be paid for with real assets. This transfer of wealth to the Global South will begin to set the stage to decolonise our future.

Decolonising the technology

A new, better branded colonial dynamic arrived in recent times. Digital colonialism, is the new deployment of a quasi-imperial power over a vast number of people, without their explicit consent, manifested in rules, designs, languages, cultures and belief systems by a vastly dominant power.

Disguised as “digital transformation”, the COVID-19 pandemic made explicit and tangible this aggressive and out of tune power dynamic. A transformation that is even contributing to the accelerated destruction of the entire planet, directly and indirectly, locking down the possibilities of the future with a political structure that only benefits few. Today, Tech Giants write and dictate the rules regulating them, shrinking the power of States over their future, while installing a global system of surveillance to concentrate power on them.

While some of the tech giants have publicly pledged to defend and even fund the innovation for a green future, few walk the talk.

The rules are designed to effectively perpetuate such power, regardless of changes of government. An example is the recently approved FTAs such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, a blueprint for a digital future we must fear as the common enemy of progressive forces, blocking the possibility for countries to build, own and control their digital futures. Avoiding at all cost to face justice or pay taxes, and even enabling the foreign tech company participation in national policy making.

While some of the tech giants have publicly pledged to defend and even fund the innovation for a green future, few walk the talk. Similarly to their unholy alliances with the US military and spy agencies, tech giants and extractives are joining forces to use artificial intelligence to fast-track oil extraction with advanced analytics, modelling for exploration and pipelines optimisation.

According to Greenpeace, Microsoft’s contract with ExxonMobil alone could lead to emissions greater than 20% of Microsoft’s annual carbon footprint. Tech leaders are boosting the expansion and efficiency of the extractive fossil fuel industry that needs dismantling. Automation and artificial intelligence are effectively accelerating the destruction of the planet, and companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft are their enablers.

In the meantime, they are very active at the global trade arena, regulating a future that will belong only to them with impact well beyond the tech sector. Add to that their “impunity by design” approach, with their companies out of reach from national courts and tax authorities and with their “intangible assets” owned by mailbox companies custodied by K-street and Magic Circle law firms in offshore havens. For example, one of the leading profiters of the COVID-19 crisis, Amazon paid $0 in federal taxes in 2018 in the US and has offices in 30 countries in the entire Planet.

For the average citizen, Big Tech is often equated to social media companies or products from mailing to social networks and online shopping. But its outreach and power goes beyond our modest screens and it is signalling a more aggressive era of privatisation, and corporate control, as they take over strategic infrastructure that governments lack the capacity to run locally. Public infrastructure is then run by Big Tech corporations, with limited liability and offshore operators, escaping national consumer laws and even national security considerations.

They are unaccountable for their impacts and failures.

When providing digital infrastructure to states, big tech giants are also extracting mass data generated by the public services, soon having the control and shaping the algorithms running the public sector, with principles and processes convenient to their industry, often leading to increased surveillance of workers, scientists and students, impeding them to unionise and also deskilling of the public worker force, leading to further privatisation and fragmentation, resulting in fewer jobs and austerity measures.

A Global Green New Deal must encourage digital social innovation, and, instead of granting million-dollar contracts to Silicon Valley, should institutionalise it at the community and citizen level to guarantee its scalability and permanence.

A decolonised technology for the international Green New Deal will mean abundant investment in education and research for local skills to develop our own green digital commons, where data from the public sector is used towards green policies benefiting the people, and where procurement privileges local, green companies that respect social justice and human dignity, making their source code available and their algorithms auditable.

A Global Green New Deal must encourage digital social innovation, and, instead of granting million-dollar contracts to Silicon Valley, should institutionalise it at the community and citizen level to guarantee its scalability and permanence.

Autonomous and linguistic communities will be encouraged to develop their own technology and digital content and to preserve and export their cultures to a new digital and green environment. Public policies will guarantee that the adoption of technologies at a massive scale does not create further inequality, exclusion, or imposition of values and practices that are foreign to the host communities. Instead, it will be an opportunity to rescue and develop further local knowledge, and find the solutions our planet urgently needs, scale them and repurpose them in other countries, without the innovation barriers imposed by the current intellectual property system.

Much has been written about the huge opportunities for capitalist firms to profit from the Green New Deal due to necessary technological breakthroughs to combat the Biological and Climate Emergencies. Monetising climate-breakthrough technology could be a reasonable incentive to bring it about.

Those countries which have an intellectual property regime favourable to capital and an asymmetric colonially-originated access to (English-language) knowledge have a large advantage. This will then imply increased concentration of wealth in the North and new colonial dependencies for the South, but also a very slow planetary-wide deployment of these technologies because financial yield would be prioritized over access.

With the international DGND money available for the investments, inventors (even in the North) could be compensated for their research (similar to how the Medicine Patent Pool works today) and the developed technology could become part of the public domain, so that people in the South can adapt, replicate and apply climate-breakthrough technology quickly, cheaply and on a massive scale, so needed to combat the climate emergency.

Decolonisation of technical standards also imply declaring them as public goods and decolonising the accreditation infrastructure onto national and regional epistemic communities. These tensions around technology transfer have already been at the forefront of the UN biological diversity and climate conferences and conventions for the last three decades; a Digital Green New Deal would quickly favour the position of the South on this matter.

Rooted in the local, in the decentralised and in the digital commons logic: those are the characteristics of the policies that will defeat digital colonialism and that could demilitarize, decentralise, if not dismantle, the power of Silicon Valley.

Final words

Only Progressive International forces acting in full coordination can bring about this change. We cannot lose sight of the structural transformations that are required.

Bio-ignorant and patriarchal capitalism must be reformed at its essence: accounting. The law-firm-ran privatized arbitration-based dispute settlement framework must be dismantled and a commons-based binding human-rights judicial system with universal jurisdiction must be enacted.

Money should be decolonised, and central banks should be yanked from the tentacles of bankers and put at the service of the public good. The digital commons should be recovered from the military and surveillance alliance of the extractive big tech giants.

We must challenge academia and media to reveal the true workings of the capitalist system, we cannot continue to get lost where the transformational battles must be fought. We have outlined some of the key gatekeepers of the colonial past, it is now time that we face the rogue forces against humanity head on.

An international, digital and feminist Green New Deal that decolonizes our future is our species’ hope.

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