Rethinking environmentalism in a ”ruined” world. Lessons from the permaculture movement

Laura Centemeri (2019)

In: Jens Hoff, Quentin Gausset & Simon Lex, Building a sustainable future. The role of non-state actors in the green transition, Routledge, p. 95-113.

Abstract. How do the meaning and practices of environmentalism change if we see the current environmental crisis as resulting not from accidental externalities but from a process of ordinary socio-ecological ruination brought about by the dominant logics of productivism and capitalist accumulation? In a world where socio-ecological ruination is ubiquitous, environmental engagement is not limited to protection from or denunciation against processes of socio-ecological exploitation. It also takes the shape of practices of care. I will discuss the notion of care as expression of environmental reflexivity and the case of the permaculture movement as an example of environmentalism grounded in practices of ecological care. Based on the results of a research project on the diffusion of the permaculture movement in Italy, my argument is that permaculture initiatives try to regenerate damaged socio-ecological systems through creating a variety of local pericapitalist economies. These alternative economies are always at risk of being recuperated by capitalist dynamics. One way of limiting this risk is to build networks of pericapitalist initiatives while multiplying the connections between the diverse forms of environmental engagement. This entails designing political ecotones in which environmental actors can coexist in their diversity and work to define a shared socio-technical imaginary.

Excerpt 1. “I argue that, when confronted with processes of ruination, environmental engagement is not limited to protection from, or denunciation against the exploitation of work and nature. It also takes the shape of ordinary activities of taking care of people and their environments, involving practices of socioecological repairing and regenerating. Engagement in taking care of human and non-human beings and their environments is a way of directly experiencing the relevance of alternative ways to define what is worthwhile and to forge value arguments that differ from the dominant ones in that they are sensitive to contexts. In fact, beyond its more perceptible forms, ruination points to an underlying process of erosion of value arguments diversity generated by the imposition of non-negotiable standardised rules and the forced marginalisation of contextsensitive value logics in the organisation of all spheres of social life. This erosion has been accelerated by the progressive hegemony acquired in recent decades by the neoliberal form of ‘governing through objective objectives’ (Thévenot 2015). The case of the permaculture movement serves as an example of a form of environmental engagement based on practices of ecological care (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017). Departing from the results of an ongoing research project on the diffusion of permaculture in Italy, I examine how practices of ecological care in permaculture initiatives give rise to a variety of pericapitalist economies. My third step  addresses the issue of the risk of ‘recuperation’ (Boltanski and Chiapello 1999) of ecological care as a new source of legitimacy for capitalist accumulation. Ecological care can be reduced to just another argument supporting a ‘green capitalism’ or an ‘economy of enrichment’ (Boltanski and Esquerre 2017).

Excerpt 2. In my view, underlying this transformation of environmentalism is the acknowledgment that the environmental crisis is related not only to random catastrophic events and episodic externalities but to a more ordinary and structural condition of progressive socio-ecological degradation. This ordinary process of degradation that, more often than not, goes unnoticed is linked to the dominance of growthism not only as a guiding principle of economic organisation but as a central socio-technical imaginary. Rob Nixon (2011) coined the notion of “slow violence” to point to those processes that create the conditions of “conjoint ecological and human disposability” (Ibid., p.4) or, to put it differently, of “simplification for alienation” (Tsing, 2015), that are necessary to sustain growth as currently intended, i.e. as measured by GDP. My point is that this disposability by means of simplification entails reducing the legitimate value arguments one can resort to in public decision-making processes in order to justify certain value practices against others. Justifiable value practices are those value practices that are socially encouraged, routinised and stabilised through “investments in forms” (Thévenot, 1984), the establishment of conventions (Diaz-Bone and Salais, 2011), rules of socialisation, so as to maintain the conditions for the reproduction of a certain socio-economic order. They rest on shared legitimate value arguments and shared “socio-technical imaginaries” (Jasanoff and Kim, 2015) : these arguments and imaginaries combine logics or “modes of valuation” (Centemeri, 2017) in specific ways that are privileged over others. In the current phase of global capitalism, dominant value practices are influenced by arguments and imaginaries that establish the uncontested centrality of economic growth, which is recognised as the source of social wellbeing. As a consequence, social goals are translated into standardised and quantified objectives to be achieved under budgetary constraints, giving rise to what Laurent Thévenot (2015) calls “governing through objective objectives”. The process whereby good government is defined as the achievement of “objective objectives” accounts for the progressive erosion of the diversity of legitimate value arguments in the public space and for public decisionmaking being understood as the result of calculation and not deliberation. As discussed by Torre (2018), these processes entail the steady transformation of sovereignty into a generalised colonial model in which increasing social inequalities are the norm (see Piketty, 2014).”

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