Barbara Rose Johnston, reflections on a lecture (SfAA Vancouver, 2016)

This year at the SfAA meetings in Vancouver I was honoured to serve as one of two discussants of the Michael Kearney Memorial Lecture (the other discussant was Mark Schuller). The lecturer was the noted scholar, Barbara Rose Johnston. Barbara’s work highlights the importance of linking environmental justice with human rights. Her lecture on March 31, 2016 was “a mix of stories, reflexive voice and analysis” that  explored the twin precipices of environmental disaster and disregard for human rights. While acknowledging simultaneously the potential of victory and the draining sense that power inevitably unleashes horrific backlashes, Barbara found a moment of hope in her concluding observation that “by documenting, communicating and advocating for a healthy transformative change we redefine the fundamental agendas that guide institutions of power.” 

The session was recorded by the SfAA Podcast Team and is to be posted.

These are my discussant comments.

What is to be Done? An action plan for transformative change.

“The transformative change that environmental justice struggles seek to achieve require fundamental alterations in the architecture of power.” Barbara Rose Johnston, 2016.

No truer words have been spoken. But. We know this. So why can’t we move forward? As academics we often suggest that to know the context gives us the answer and provides a path forward – a solution. From experience we build a response. But then Dr. Johnson reminds us of the backlash that comes with each tiny victory – the ways ruling classes dispenses punitive discipline enacted upon the bodies of Indigenous and working class peoples. Is this the grit that makes us stronger? Is this the experience that teaches us the way forward? What is to be done?

The Egyptian Arab Spring first encouraged us as an exemplar of the new digital social entrepreneurial activism. That a few young people on twitter and facebook could rouse a nation from slumber and bring down a corrupt authoritarian leader gave people hope across the globe. The reports from Tahir Square amplified the story of this new twitter revolution. Then the backlash, the disappointment as the story took what was presented as a surprising tone; but clearly for those of us who study social revolution we feared the outcome wasn’t going to be CNN-rosy for long. The only organization that had the institutional structure in place that had survived Mubarak’s attacks against civil society organizations was the authoritarian Muslim Brotherhood. Their grasp of state power was short lived. And the generals returned to power reinstating the status quo.

We are witnessing the mayhem of regime change across much of the so-called Middle East, a zone that for at least two centuries (longer if we consider the ancient Greeks). In Iraq and Afghanistan we witness how the vengeful war for democracy has thrown those societies into such great chaos that for some the earlier regimes are seen as golden eras of stability. In Syria we see another twitter revolution that descending into horrific acts of suppression and then disorganized armed insurrection.

Each of these examples presents a harsh lesson on social transformation. Say what one might; simply invoking the will of the people or the power of the masses will not bring us any closer to transformative social change. These are situations in which, on the one hand, the authoritarian state structure had sufficient foresight to understand that allowing any kind of civil society to coalesce would threaten the states regime. So in Egypt and Syria when the revolutions started the power all lay in the hands of the state and there was no effective means of resistance. The Egyptian state was strong enough (so far at any rate) to withstand the opposition and for it’s ruling elites to ultimately regain control over their territorial assets. In Syria the state, while still hanging on to power, is far weaker than Egypt and has lost much of its territorial possessions a disorganized array of insurgents. In Iraq US forces effectively destroyed (as much as they could) all institutions of the state and installed their own proxy. Here we see neither a legitimate indigenous counter movement, nor the institutions of the former state have much of a role to play in social transformation: Iraq has been made over into a dystopic capitalist hinterland.

Johnston argues that our ingenuity as a species “has led us to the precipice of [a] dangerous tipping point.” She goes further to suggest that the precipices of eroding human rights and ecological crisis are in fact one singular precipice: “in order to secure meaningful remedy, necessarily requires radical transformation in the structural arrangement of power.” Dr. Johnston may well be right. At the very least it’s a contention that I share. Though I suspect that we have come to this similar conclusion from different pathways.

As a teenager I didn’t really think much about the big picture issues. Growing up in a working class resource dependent town in the 1960s and 70s I knew first hand about strikes, unions, communists, and big business. I also had first hand experience of the world beyond the confines of urban space – I worked on our family’s fishing boat (was on it since I was a pre-teen, earned a share as a teenager), hiked and camped through the backcountry where I grew up. Like many other working class families, whether Indigenous or Kumskiwah, we ate food closer to it’s source – fish, game, produce- because it was good, but also be cause we had to. I am not sure these experiences either helped or hindered me. I would say that they have played a role in shaping how I think about issues that confront us today.

My first forays into professional anthropology involved arguments over fisherfolks’ local knowledge and the inadequacy of so-called bio-economic science to adequately account for what was really happening. But my first foray into politics was in the trade union that represented deckhands who fished on the boats in the local fishermen’s co-op.

This early experience of labour syndicalism and social democratic market capitalism contributed to my developing belief in the necessity of equity. As a crewmember in my own right I was accepted into the fraternity of the male workworld: I had proven my worth on the boat. In the union we talked fairness and equity. In the fishermen’s co-op that we all belonged to we learned about the ravages of private capitalism. As a cooperator we shared in the profits that the companies would have taken. This unique blend of syndicalism and market socialism opened my eyes to the possibility of social justice for all.

I should say that a book, lent to me by a high school teacher, also played a pivotal role in shaping my thoughts on issues of social injustice at that time and what needed to be done: that book was Brian Easley’s Liberation and the Aims of Science: An Essay on Obstacles to the Building of a Beautiful World. What I learned from Easley can be boiled down quite simply: (1) things aren’t always what they seem, (2) a beautiful world is possible, and (3) it’s worth fighting for.

I must also point out that simultaneously, simply as a part of who I knew I was, has been the place played by being Indigenous. The realities of racialized conflict and colonialism was clear where I grew up. I have written about these matters elsewhere. But it was not until I was employed at the University of British Columbia that I came to understand myself as an objectified subject. Sociologically speaking this is not a new experience: this is the realization of all kinds of people marginalized by structures of power tilted toward a minority ruling class. It is, just the same the experience of working in the academy brought home to me the critical linkages between human rights, environmental justice, and class struggle that motivates my interventions today.

So what is to be done? We know the answer. To a certain extent there is a ghost sitting here, to my left, whose early 20th century title I have freely borrowed without attribution. He was an intellectual and political strategist who understood that taking power from the minority requires sacrifice, commitment, but above all else organization and time. Even then he knew that nothing was guaranteed. I am not standing here today calling for a new vanguard party – different times, different methods. Nor do I place any hope in transnational NGO’s, the UN, or other similar bodies. The answer may well lie in working here in our homes making small changes. Keeping our histories alive.

In my home community there are stories of the old time when people forgot who they were. The youth disrespected the elders. The elders ignored the youth. And everyone disrespected the animals and world around us. Some calamity would befall the people. A rock slide, a flood, a giant wave. Most of the people would perish leaving a mere handful behind. But out of those remnants respectful ways were reestablished and the world continued on better, more beautiful than it had been before. As Dr Johnston tells us we are on the edge of a precipice. I fear that truly our only option is to fall and trust that in our rebirth our new societies will return to the ways of this land, remembering who we are, and reestablish the rightful relations between people and the other beings we share this place with.