Linking Fanon and Sustainability?

Given the rising influence of Fanon amongst the increasingly radicalised youth of South Africa on and off the campuses, it came as no surprise to me that a student has asked to write his essay for the introductory Sustainable Development module on the link between sustainability and Fanon. I welcomed this, recalling the many hours spent in my 20s reading Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and how influential it was on my own thinking. This is how I responded: “How you find a link to Fanon is going to be interesting and challenging. In my view this link is a conception of humanism (I had given him a few weeks earlier an article on Fanon’s humanism from THES). In other words, the question at the centre of humanism is ‘what does it mean to be human?’ For Fanon, as per that article, but clearly also in WoTE, being human for the colonized is not straight forward because it means being liberated from the definition of what it means to be human imposed by the colonizer. What follows, therefore, is a dialectic of oppression and liberation that can, ultimately, lead to a new conception of what it means to be a free human that is not defined by the colonizer. That, however, is not simply a matter of identity politics – it is also a matter of economic transformation (for Fanon). If a ‘national bourgeoisie’ takes over that simply apes the behaviour of the colonizer, nothing really significant has been achieved no matter what psychological processes of liberation may have taken place. In other words, Fanon cannot be reduced to identity politics – becoming a free human is fundamentally about a structural process, i.e. economic transformation.

Rosie Braidotti, an Italian feminist/post-feminist writer, wrote a book called Post-Human which I can send you if you are interested. Her question is the same: what does it mean to be human in today’s world? She argues that Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man became THE DEFINITION of what it means to be human, that got universalised (via colonization). The Vitruvian man is white, male, alone and disconnected from nature, and perfectly proportioned. By becoming Universalised, the validity of the hegemony of Vitruvian Man was only possible by ‘othering’ all other significant relations – women were othered by sexualisation, people who were not white were othered by racialisation, and nature was othered via naturalisation. However, from the 1960s onwards paradigms emerged that challenged each of these ‘otherings’: feminism critiqued sexualisation, political ecology critiqued naturalisation, and post-colonial studies (founded by Fanon, arguably) critiqued racialisation. All three have disintegrated. This has implications for what it means to be human today. Her argument is that the essence of what it means to be human today is about a relational existence, where no gendered is ‘othered’, it is transcended; no race is ‘othered’, it is transcended; and nature is not ‘othered’, it is transcended. The result: the relational self, intimately connected to masculinity and femininity, to diversity of racial identities, and to nature in its diversity. In other words, like Fanon, Braidotti is not just about identity – becoming a free relational self (post-humanism) is dependent on a set of structural conditions that imply the collapse of capitalism, patriarchy, racism and exploitation of nature as we know it.

So what then is the link between Braidotti and Fanon? Both want to define what it means to be human for purposes of liberation. In this sense, Fanon was interested in a relational self, like Braidotti. But Fanon was writing when nature was not an issue. But one could argue that by linking identity and structure (by insisting on economic transformation), he has opened the door for taking into account any condition that has a bearing on what it means to be human. This, in turn, opens the door for a Fanonesque conception of sustainability, i.e. as a way of understanding what it means to be human not just in relation to the colonizer (a la post-colonial studies) and economic transformation (Marxist analysis), but also nature (a la political ecology), and, for that matter, gender (a la feminist studies). In other words, we use Fanon’s humanism as the point of departure and then run it to its logical conclusion in light of knew knowledge since he wrote, i.e. nature and gender matters. I think this would be a perfectly logical way to proceed.”

Fragile states and sustainability

Got an email today from my Head of Department suggesting a conference on fragile states. This was my response: “Hi, I quite like this, but I would like to include reference to the fact that the spread of fragile states is being driven by limits to our current use of strategic resources, with water, food and oil at the nexus of this crisis. Oil for example, is in trouble: to cover the costs of accessing ‘non-cheap oil’ (which is all we have left), the price must be higher – but a higher price undermines growth which reduces demand. And so the cycle goes – the Secretary of State (whose real job is CEO of ExxonMobil) is to resolve this, which is only possible with more wars to force price reductions by backrupting more countries. The issue, therefore, is not peak production, but peak demand. The result is price volatility and a growth malaise that Trump will fail to resolve. The alternative lies in the rise of renewables, now cheaper than fossil fuels in 60 countries (including SA). But for this transition to have its full effect, we may need to transcend the current model of short-termist, financialised capitalism that needs growth to avoid debt from destroying the global economy. But rising debt is what compensates for declining EROI (Energy Return on Energy Invested – from 100:1 in the 1930s to 10:1 today). Debt-based capitalism is a ticking time bomb, and the root cause of failing states. The US state as a failed state is a case in point.” (For a good reference on all this see Nafeez Ahmed’s book on Failing States)

Gathering of the clans at Centre for Complex Systems in Transition


Last Friday we brought together all the academic staff and postgraduate researchers who are affiliated to the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition in one way or another. My Co-Director, Prof Jannie Hofmeyr (systems biologist and complexity thinker), gave a history of our institutional evolution, and I introduced our intellectual project. Jannie and I see the CST as the home of the ‘Stellenbosch School of Thought’ because CST is quite unique in bringing together complexity thinking, sustainability science and transdisciplinary research. All the staff and postgraduate researchers then briefly introduced themselves and their research topics. It was a truly inspiring occasion – as the saying goes ‘build it and they will come’. Doing this kind of advanced research on African soil is a great privilege indeed. No-one can predict the synchronicities that will emerge from the connections that will be made between people with such diverse disciplinary backgrounds rooted as we all are in the challenges of the African context. But one thing is for sure, five years from now we will have made a significant impact!

The Class of 2017 completes their first module

Eve Annecke and I have just completed teaching the Sustainable Development module of our Masters Programme in Sustainable Development for the 15th time! – yes, we cannot believe it, this is the 15th year that our masters programme has been delivered. And this year the class was the largest ever, at 53 students (selected from nearly 150 applicants who qualified for entry). Of the 53, only 13 are men (mainly because of the low number of men who applied) and nearly 60% are black. More significantly, 33% of the group were non-South African – the highest ever. Of the 17 non-South Africans, 14 are from various African countries, including Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Ivory Coast and Namiba. The other non-South Africans are from The Netherlands, Spain and Australia. Most are from the private sector – 24 out of 53, followed by 11 from the public sector, and 5 from the NPO sector. Ten are full-time students, and the other 3 are a mix of consultants/unemployed. It was a high energy module, covering a lot of ground including ‘long histories’ from 13 billion years ago, to inner histories of what it means to be human in today’s transforming world. The strong non-SA African presence influenced the direction of the discussions, including questions about the implications of the Bannonist coup in the US for the future of Africa, and in particular what it means to be African in a world where racism is on the rise, humanism may be dying and environmentalism is on the defensive. We read Achille Mbembe and Ben Okri to help generate some answers to this question.

Thanks to all the wonderful people at the SI who supported us, and to the families who have supported the students as they commence a journey that is bound to transform them.

(The pics below from the top left: walking upstairs for class after the gong, sticking up pics of their respective ‘homes’, group work, class discussion, working in the gardens, Eve facilitating discussion, and end of course party in the hall.)

UpTheStairs HomePics GroupWork GroupDisInClass Gardening EveTeachingjpgFriParty


New book by my colleague Lorenzo Fioramonti – The World After GDP: brings together his recent on governance innovation and makes a very convincing case for transcending GDP as our way of measuring progress.

FLYER – The World After GDP

Renewables, oil peak and the crisis of banking

Today I posted three items on FB which are clearly linked in ways that I would love to explore further. The first is an article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper that reveals that wind power generated more energy in 2016 than coal power, and that coal power generated less in 2016 than in 2015. However, what was more significant than this to me is a reference in the article to the construction of a vast new infrastructure of “thousands” of wind farms – in other words, a new decentralised energy infrastructure to replace the centralized fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure. The second post was a remarkable article by Nafeez Ahmed entitled Brace Yourself for the Oil, Food and Financial Crash of 2018.  Using a recent report confirming oil peak by HSBC bank, Ahmed argues that the peaking of conventional oil production in 2005 will not only prevent global economic recovery it also contributes to a debt-driven finance bubble that will burst in 2018. The only alternative, he argues, is to prepare for a post-fossil fuel and post-capitalist economy. However, what will prevent this is the fact that global banks are capable of creating money via debt to sustain growth rates that are necessary to protect the value of the debt. Hence the significance of the third article which is about the remarkable – albeit gradual – acceptance of the notion that it is indeed banks that create money via debt financing. Quoting Mervyn King, former UK Governor of the Bank of England, the problematic role that banks play in the global financial system is lucidly explained and highlighted. It makes so much sense to connect the dots reflected in these three articles: the success of renewables that exacerbates the crisis of fossil fuel production by preventing scarcity from pushing up energy prices; the coming financial crisis exacerbated by debt-financed strategies to artificially compensate for the recessionary implications of oil peak – a strategy that the new Trump Cabinet is bound to reinforce and back up with military force; and the search for alternatives to the current system of money creation via ‘too-big-to-fail’ private banks, including either greater centralisation of control of money supply by central banks (e.g. as already started in India) or the promotion of localised (ideally non-profit) community banks (as has been prevalent in Germany). Surely the Trump Presidency is about defending the existing globalised financial system and the centralised fossil fuel-based energy system it is based on? Will the devastation caused by a possible global economic crisis in 2018 wreck these plans? Will alternatives to financialised capitalism and fossil fuel-based energy emerge on scale to replace the existing system? What alliances of forces are needed to make this happen? And what role will the construction of a decentralised renewable energy system play in creating a new global space economy of literally millions of renewable energy power plants? What is the relationship between the emergence of this new global space economy and the alliance of forces needed to bring about a global transition to a more equitable and ecologically sustainable world?  Herein lie glimpses of future trajectories.


Welcome to the age of anger

A truly remarkable brilliantly written critical overview of the root cause of the current global political crisis in historical perspective. A quote from Musil’ The Man Without Qualities about why we face the outbreak of irrationalism the world over says it all: this man suffers “immense loneliness in a desert of detail, his restlessness, malice, incomparable callousness, his greed for money, his coldness and violence” is “the result of the losses that logically precise thinking has inflicted on the soul.” I cannot see how anyone can comprehend the current historic moment – both globally and in SA where a once noble liberation movement has decided to retain a thief as President – if they cannot grasp this deep profound truth. Reconnecting a politics of the soul to a reconstituted theory of the economy and nature must surely lie at the heart of the new struggle for freedom in the c.21st – click on this link to the FB post.