The Calculable and the Incalculable – A Brief Note on Sustainability and Post-Industrial Identity in the First Quarter of 2017

Eric Boyd

University College London (UCL)

But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”

Ta-Nahisi Coates,

Between The World And Me

“You’re either at the table or on the menu.”

Michael Parr,

Senior Manager of Government Affairs, DuPont

Trying to get this reintroduction to the blog, an introduction to where the concept of sustainability lies in the first quarter of 2017, has been a task of Red Queen-esque proportions: it has taken all the running I can do to remain in the same spot. Within the first forty-eight hours of my sitting down with the literature in front of me, the White House announced that President Trump, “flanked by coal miners and coal company executives” had signed a bill effectively rolling back former-President Barack Obama’s climate policies such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Power Plan, endangering the Paris Climate Agreement reached by one-hundred and seventy-four states and the European Union in December 2015; a pledge to limit global warming by two degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels.[1]

Twenty-four hours previously Hurricane Energy announced that a series of successful wells drilled into the floor of the North Sea to the west of the Shetland Isles looks set to be the biggest new oil discovery beneath UK territory in the 21st century. Share prices for Hurricane Energy boomed in accordance, jumping five points after they announced the find. This in amongst the awarding by the UK Oil and Gas Authority of twenty-five exploration and production licenses for one-hundred and eleven off-shore sites in the UK’s territorial waters.

Although these two examples focus on Euro-American extractivism, I wish to point out that they are in no way blinkered or reductionist examples of threats to sustainable development to bring forth. As Naomi Klein exposes in her thorough and in-depth look at the effects of capitalism on the generation of climate change, and the stalwart prevention and limitation of sustainable development projects This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs. the Climate, such large-scale extractive industries as coal and oil mining are of global significance. Not only do they clearly exacerbate global warming, but they also encompass entrenched and stratified social and economic inequalities throughout both (so-called) developed and developing nations. By accruing vast sums of (financial) wealth via business-as-usual climate destabilising prospecting and resource extraction on a global scale, Euro-American extractivism transgresses political concerns and social movements that seek to produce and reinforce environmentally sustainable forms of development, and in doing so consumes (all other) social and cultural dimensions of sustainability.[2]

I encountered the extractive industry’s consumptive capacity first hand during fieldwork for my Masters dissertation.

Although examining the social contingencies of iron extraction within a remote mining community and not tensions along the hydrocarbon frontier, my research threw up an all-too-pressing question: what happens to a society when it discovers it is inextricably entangled with a resource that is causing its destruction?

During the summer of 2016 I spent two months conducting ethnographic field research in the town of Kiruna in the arctic north of Sweden for my MSc thesis. Kiruna is a remote mining town buried at the foot of the Scandinavian mountains, one hundred kilometres inside the arctic circle. It spends seven months of the year in (or near) perpetual darkness, and two of the remaining five months in constant sunlight; if you time it just right at the end of May you can pick a spot on a mountain to the north of the town and watch as the sun gets briefly swaddled by the Scandinavian mountains, before looming back up over the town minutes later.

Kiruna was founded in the late 19th century by Lussovaara-Kirunavaara AB (LKAB – the mining company) as a social experiment in curbing the rampant (perceived) amorality that plagued remote mining towns: prostitution, alcoholism, single-parenthood, the absence of formal education or healthcare facilities. LKAB directed a large percentage of its iron-mining revenue into the local municipality at Kiruna, superintending the funding of public schools, the hospital, social mobility schemes, residential construction, and establishing a railway line leading to ports in the south at Umeå and the north at Narvik in Norway. Over the course of the 20th century the mine at Kiruna has become one of the biggest closed-pits in the world, and certainly the biggest in Europe. To this extent, LKAB provides the European Union (EU) with approximately ninety percent of its iron ore via the single market, and makes up between five and eight percent of Sweden’s GDP as of 2012. A little over a tenth of Kiruna’s population is employed directly by the mine, with numbers of those indirectly employed fluctuating between fifty and seventy-five percent of the town between the summer and winter.[3] With the mine providing both personal and political economy to the town of Kiruna, and with LKAB’s prominent standing in the global iron market, its local populace is tethered to the macroeconomic forces of extractive centric global capitalism.[4] It is this local-global political economy that gives rise to the crux of the emergent tensions in amongst Kiruna’s physical and social landscapes. For LKAB to fulfil its national and international mandate to increase the production and procession of iron ore for at least the next fifty years, it will have to demolish at least one-third of Kiruna’s township, relocating and constructing the town three kilometres to the east of its original centre.

Made more explicit throughout the course of my fieldwork was the capacity of Kiruna’s redevelopment to bear a threefold tension between personal/individual, regional, and national identities amongst those that I had interviewed and observed. The central thesis of my dissertation concerned the social-production of resources –  how resource materials such as iron ore could reify local ontologies, and how these ontologies shift as the narratives surrounding the resource shift. So, in relation to Kiruna, how do identities that have been bound-up for over a century in the extraction and procession of iron ore shift when the mining of said iron ore threatens personal materialities, i.e the destruction of you and your family’s home, or business, or school, or all of the above?

Confrontation with such an existential dilemma gave rise to various modes of communicating anxieties among my sample population. Two forms of knowledge practice and exchange appeared to dominate local discourse on the destruction of their town, with the majority engaging in speculative rumour, and the other – a decidedly smaller group – in anticipatory narratives. A self-perpetuated forecast in which the abandonment of the town’s redevelopment and the continued extraction and procession of ore by the mine was all but certain, speculative rumour operated as a closed-loop of information passed around but never verified or discredited by any officials working at LKAB. This rumour-mill was worked most persistently by a sample that felt themselves marginalised by not being able to gain employment at the mine, their central belief being that employment at the mine was rooted in nepotism, which itself was an unfounded rumour. The anticipatory practice of the other rumour-mill involved heavily liaising with members of LKAB to verify or discredit rumours that they had heard, and to discuss the terms of the redevelopment as they currently stood. This group tended to be well connected to either the municipality or to the mine, owning businesses in the town or being related to someone that worked at the mine; an open-loop that required continual affirmation and reaffirmation from official sources.

One of the central conclusions I drew from this research was that the persistence of both of these forms of rumour was driven by the anxieties associated with living in such a precarious physical and social landscape. With the very bedrock that Kiruna was sitting on being continually excavated,[5] the identities of these communities were being challenged, as the resource that had built their town and sustained their livelihoods now threatened to destroy the physical environment through which they enact and derive meaning.

The summer of 2016 was also the season in which the post-industrial West began to see its latest venture in Hobbesian social experimentation – imposed austerity in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 – back-fire. The first wave of what would later be understood – as the tide rolled back and we would be left agape at the inability to reckon with the political anomie of the Conservative Right – as the overdue collapse in the belief of globalisation, came with the UK voting to trigger Article 50, exiting the EU on political promises of ‘taking back control’ by recentralising power from Brussels to Westminster. The second and arguably more shocking wave came with the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America.[6]

Almost immediately after the election of Donald Trump on the 8th November 2016 articles began circulating in newspapers and throughout social media[7] positioning identity politics[8] as the deciding factor among voters in 2016. Arguably – and similarly to the situation in Kiruna – the presence of vast existential threats were made palpable by both the so-called Brexiteers (politicians and public) and Donald Trump himself, both invoking a looming crises de nerf of national and personal identity.

In a polemical piece for The Guardian, Paul Kingsnorth addresses this identity crisis with calls for a need to return to grassroots environmentalism, facilitated by the dismantling of the EU and a rejection of globalisation, putting forward sarcastically a fairly reductionist sentiment: “Traditions, distinctive cultures, national identities, religious strictures, social mores – all would dissolve away in the healing light of free trade and a western liberal conception of social progress.” Kingsnorth further asserts that anti-globalisation movements were fuelled more by a sense of the loss of place and belonging than by a ‘general rage against “the system”’, and that it is this sense of cultural loss that the (political) right understands, yet the “left refuses to see: the heart of the west’s current wound is cultural rather than economic.”

As well as marking a clear difference between culture and economy, which is reductionist at best, and refusing to delineate between identities within nationalities,[9] the article fails to ask one basic thing: whose identity? What are the components that make up an individual or a community’s identity and are they at stake by the loss of globalisation/the reinforcement of (albeit environmentally based) regionalism?

Through the ethno-centric overtones of Kingsnorth’s article it is hard to gain purchase on what just exactly it is that makes up British or American nationalism beyond the brief line that globalisation and its supporters “prioritise rights over obligations” without actually stating what those obligations are. Adam Theron-Lee Rensch explores the regional and national ‘non-identity’ of America’s white rural poor in a personal exploration of identity’s rootedness in material conditions. “Joking about White Trash is, at its core, a joke that makes light of demoralizing (sic) poverty, one that serves no other purpose than that of an economic palliative: at least we’re better off than that.” Here, any binary between economics and culture is destabilised, and the two become inextricably linked and reciprocal societal conditions. As the rural white poor of America are discarded as White Trash, a statement on a community’s culture and identity – the incalculable – as derived from their material wealth – the calculable – is made unavoidable. In the resurgent emphasis on America’s white rural regions during (and after) the presidential election campaigns in 2016, Rensch writes “the abyss of the working poor” in the 21st century was made visible. The critical component of any abyss is that it is defined by absence: by what it is not, by the things that it does not contain, by the objects or milieu that surround it. Rensch argues that this is also key in the examination of the non-identity of America’s rural white poor, as their identity becomes practiced almost iconoclastically, eschewing the sparse material conditions in which they find themselves trapped, to reinforce narratives of historical dominion and nation building.

Through the doubling-down and fortification of these narratives, America’s rural white poor – now largely homogenised as the Conservative Christian Right –  become antagonistic, as identity built on narratives of dominion and nation building are considered as inherently racist, misogynistic, environmentally unfriendly, fraught with the myriad horrors of colonialism, by the liberal Left. What emerges from the Conservative Right is a collective identity similar to the one I had encountered in Kiruna: an identity that exists in a paradoxical state, reliant on a vision of the future as a relatively static view of the present or an idealised view of the past; an identity on the brink of resurgence.

Where does this resurgent identity leave the concept of sustainable development as a response to social, economic, and environmental inequalities?

Ta-Nehisi Coates concludes a deeply felt and paradigm-shifting letter written to his fifteen-year-old son, in which he dissects the brutalism of slavery and the ever-present threat of violence on Black bodies as a necessity to the structures that uphold White identity, expanding this violence beyond the body to include the environment:

“Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanised death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the selectiveness of cheap gasoline…the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent.”

That the extractive industry is an extension of what it means, historically, to be White in a post-industrial society is made profoundly clear. The inextricability of subjugation – over body, over landscape, over atmosphere – from the central narrative of Western colonial and industrial expansion submits that continual ascendancy over people and environment is no more by-product that it is an unassailable identity, an addiction we know not how to escape.

In her conclusion to This Changes Everything Naomi Klein draws an analogy between the move away from extractivism and the Abolitionist movement of the 18th and 19th centuries: in overthrowing a vast economic system dependent on the subjugation of its key resource, the challenge lies in the resignation of a politically reinforced belief system that is dependent on the fallacy of hierarchal dominance. This seems like a task of Herculean proportions, to conceive of an identity that has been historically, politically, socially and financially fortified for generations prior to you. This is what I witnessed in Kiruna, a community of people that would rather depend upon a future that was demonstrably not possible, a future that reaffirmed their identity as it is in the present: static in all but the resurgence of what the town once was for the community that wishes it to be so, an exclusionist and ultimately unsustainable identity.

This then is the challenge of sustainability in the first quarter of 2017; an identity that fosters sustainable development that must be born through the reconfiguration or out-right abandoning of hierarchal systems of finance and politics that drive the extraction of polluting, climate destabilising resources, and that, in doing so, consume the egalitarian nature of the sustainable development movement. Whether operating at grassroots or an international level, without coming to terms with this identity and acting reflexively to overcome it, whatever progress made will be fed back into the same destructive machine. The over-throwing of such a deeply, topologically vast and entrenched cosmology seems impossibly hard, and figuring out how is now more pressing than ever before: I wish us way more than luck.

Over the next few months this blog seeks to publish essays and research that deals with the nature of sustainability, in its social and environmental forms, to work towards building a network of multidisciplinary researchers that engage with ways of living that do not harm the ecological systems of which we depend upon for our survival. If you wish to contribute to the blog please do get in touch.

[1] Although there are contentions concerning how arbitrary the assignment of two degrees Celsius is, especially given the increased rate of climatic and environmentally disruptive behaviour recorded in the past decade; see here and here.

[2] I am by no means claiming that the extractives industry is the only industry to do this on such a large scale, the one other industry that comes to mind is the Military Industrial Complex (MIC), which hopefully I’ll either write more about myself or have a piece from someone that actually knows what they are talking about published on the blog.

[3] The numbers employed by the mine would drop relative to the population of the town in the winter, as the lucrative tourist season in Kiruna attracts greater numbers to the town looking for work. This is despite the temperature dropping to -20 degrees Celsius regularly between November and April.

[4] Again, this is not to say that we are not all implicitly tied to this paradigm of economic growth, but for the people of Kiruna the money in their wallets, the homes they live in, the schools they attend, the hospital they are treated in are directly attributed to and funded by the extractive industry. This is opposed to our own Western post-industrial proxy complicity in the maintenance of the carbon and hydrocarbon based extractive industries.

[5] Between 1.15 and 1.45am every morning over one-hundred tonnes of explosives – that’s two truck-loads – would be injected into the overhanging rockwall on which Kiruna sits and detonated by LKAB. It’s the last task of the backshift crews before they head home for the night.

[6] Of course, we are now seeing the rise of France’s far-right National Front, and there was the media’s brief dalliance in early 2017 with the Dutch Geert Wilders, founder of the far-right Party for Freedom. See here for a more in-depth and troubling read

[7] Uh-huh, I know

[8] I don’t particularly like using this term, it is almost always loaded, but it’s the right term to use here. If you have a better one please let me know.

[9] This is among other things which appear wilfully ignored, such as the fluid and shifting nature of identity – the blockades which Kingsnorth discusses exist at the intersection of regional identities, with non-indigenous communities co-opting indigenous groups and their legal doctrines to protect their environments – and the dismissal of ecology as a fundamentally global pursuit that requires co-operation on the scale of governmental systems such as the EU.

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