Today, emerging visions of a better society are forged in practical experience and experimentation. They often emerge within the context of resistance against dominant practices such as the exploitation of natural resources or ideological concepts like of “development”. Practical experiments allow us to sketch out a more sustainable way of life and articulate demands for change within the existing system that would enable more people to embrace such lifestyle changes. The contexts, approaches, and methods employed by activists differ radically from one experiment to the next. As researchers with the IASS project Politicizing the Future, we were keen to facilitate exchange on the subject of societal visions among activists from very different contexts and to see what could be learnt from their experiences for the development of more sustainable societies.
Our curiosity led us to host a conference earlier this year titled “Concrete Utopias and Resistance in Extractivist Regions” – focussing on activism from regions whose economies are based primarily on the extraction of fossil resources. The conference was attended by three activists from Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, five activists from three initiatives based in lignite coal mining regions in Germany, and seven scientists from other research institutes with expertise on social movements, utopias and conflicts, as well as researchers from the IASS projects “Politicizing the Future” and “Social Transformation and Policy Advice in Lusatia”. Three interpreters joined us to support dialogue among the participants. On the first day of the conference we took a trip to the coal mining region of Lusatia to gain a more complete picture of the situation there, establish a common context for our discussions, and to bring these very different people together. Energy company Lausitzer Energie AG put on a tour of the Welzow-Süd opencast mine for us and we also visited the premises of the activist group Eine Spinnerei e.V., whose members campaign against coal mining and are involved in various civil society projects, including initiatives to combat right-wing extremism and establish an alternative school. The remainder of the conference took place at the IASS, where the participants shared their views on the emergence, significance, liveability, and effectiveness of visions in regions with extraction-focused economies.
In their discussions at the conference, the activists discovered both common ground and some remarkable differences in their thinking and experiences. All of the attending activists endeavour to put their ideals into practice here and now. Josi Kellert and Jesse Ditmar, for example, described the approach adopted at the initiative Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie e.V., where members decide as a collective how funds will be spent, pursue a sustainable procurement policy, and carry out all of the care work necessary for the initiative’s day-to-day operations, such as cleaning and preparing lunch. Mario Rodriguéz from Wayna Tambo – Red de la Diversidad described various forms of economic and political exchange and resource pooling that are largely disconnected from state structures and global markets. Depending on their context, these reciprocal and redistributive exchange relationships also incorporate various forms of community work.
Several participants explained that they turned to visionary thinking when their efforts to bring about change within existing societal structures proved unfruitful. For example, Marco Bazán of the organisation terre des hommes (Peru) talked about his earlier belief that everyone should enjoy living standards similar to those of the urban middle classes. His work showed him that this was not in the interest of those affected and nor was it a desirable societal outcome. Today, he supports communities in their efforts to rekindle indigenous knowledge with the support of modern technology. Friederike Böttcher and Adrian Rinnert from Eine Spinnerei e.V. were driven to take a stand against opencast mining after attending a public consultation that they felt was conducted in a wholly undemocratic manner. And while the participants’ visions of a good life in a sustainable future differed in detail, the participants were unanimous in their belief that money and market transactions unduly influence human relationships in contemporary societies.
The concept of utopia as an imagined community or place that is yet to be created did not resonate with the practices adopted by the conference participants from Latin America. Marco Bazán, for example, argued that indigenous knowledge holds the key to resolving many modern-day challenges. Adrian Rinnert noted that this is not an option in Germany, where people will need to develop a new relationship to nature and each other in a process that will span several generations. Mario Rodriguéz emphasised that the seeds of alternative ways of life can be found in the here and now, and noted that utopian thinking is not relevant to the struggles taking place in the Andes. In contrast to this, Professor Barbara Muraca argued that utopian thinking is useful in that it enables us to recognise alternatives to hegemonic neoliberalism. Despite their differences, the participants engaged in a lively and fruitful debate. Their discussions underscored the importance of listening closely to others’ views, adopting their perspectives, and taking time to question how we interpret and make sense of others’ experiences.
All of the participating activists reported that they had faced repression at the hands of state organs or other actors. The nature and scale of this repression varied widely. The activists from Germany had faced judicial harassment and the destruction of private property, for example. Yanda Montahuano from Nación Sapara del Ecuador – NASE explained that while his activism had put his life at risk, it also showed how a relatively small group can succeed in drawing international attention to its struggle for survival and the protection of the environment.
Evelyn Linde from Ende Gelände noted the importance of respecting the needs of each and every individual while working as a collective to achieve common goals. She also outlined the process of reflection that takes place within the organisation between its protest actions that enables Ende Gelände to develop a new consensus and encourages participants to reflect on their experiences, learn more about the background, and gain new skills that will contribute to the campaign. In doing so, the activists ensure that the development of this shared utopia takes centre-stage in a process of long-term resistance.
The three days available to us proved to be too short a time to grasp the different contexts, experiences, and perspectives in their entirety. The challenge of learning how we can better interrogate our positions and integrate both conceptual and experiential knowledge is of course of particular interest to us as researchers at a transdisciplinary institute.
These Blog Post in Spanish: