Building up debt traps: Risk, climate adaptation and microfinance

How to adapt to a changing climate is one of the foremost questions of our era. In the last decade, microfinance has shot to prominence as a highly-promoted tool of adaptation to climate and environmental change. In an abridged version of a 2009 report commissioned by the Grameen Foundation and Oxfam US, Dowla argues that ‘within the populations that will be most affected by global warming, the plight of many individuals is linked to the ability of microfinance institutions to adapt to the consequences of climate change’.

With access to already-existing as well as newly-adapted financial products and ser­vices, the argument goes that people and communities will be better placed to reduce risk, diversify their livelihoods, and build assets. ‘Green microfinance’ would facilitate adaptation in two key ways: ‘by improving ex-post [after the event] risk recovery’ via coping capacity enhancement, and ‘by improving ex-ante [before the event] risk reduction’ via adaptive capacity enhancement. Recommended strategies include improving access to microcredit for climate change responses as well as promoting insurance schemes to reduce the burden of climate risk on society.

In contrast to these emerging discourses and practices that frame microfinance as a key tool of climate adaptation, our recent research with rice farmers in rural Cambodia finds that microfinance loans are leading to an over-indebtedness emergency that significantly undermines borrowers’ long-term coping and adaptive capacity in a changing climate. Such loans often push households to borrow more, work more, sacrifice food quality and quantity, quit farming, and erode and sell their assets, including land. The cost of financialised coping strategies can trap rural populaces in financial obligations which they struggle to service and which manifests ultimately as over-indebtedness. Microfinance ends up promoting a particular form of climate adaptation: one that is individualised, incremental, and geared towards the further integration of populations into processes of capital accumulation.

This form of adaptation is highly profitable. Indeed, as Dowla argues in that same paper, each new climate-linked shock ‘opens up opportunities for the microfinance institutions and their clients’. Yet the corollary to this profitability is that the costs of such an adaptation tend to be borne by the poor, who find themselves exposed not only to the rigours of the environment but now the global market too.

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Max Ajl in conversation with Habib Ayeb on Food Sovereignty and the Environment

Max Ajl interviews radical geographer and activist Habib Ayeb. Habib Ayeb is a founder member of the NGO Observatory of Food Sovereignty and Environment (OSAE) and Max Ajl is a Postdoc at Wageningen University’s Rural Sociology Group, associate editor at Agrarian South and the author of A People’s Green New Deal.

Max:  Habib, you have made many films and written at length about food sovereignty in Tunisia and in Egypt. Can you start by telling us how you see the conversation around food sovereignty in this part of the world?

Habib: In recent years, the issue of food sovereignty has begun to appear in academic and non-academic debates, and in research as well – although more tentatively – in all the countries of the region. That said, the issue of food and thus agriculture has always been important, both in academic research and public debate, as well as the academy, political institutions, and elsewhere. During the 1970s and 1980s, in Tunisia and throughout what was called the Third World, we spoke mainly of food self-sufficiency. This was, in a way, and at that time, a watchword of the left – a left that was modernist, developmentalist and statist.

If I’m not mistaken, I believe that the concept of food self-sufficiency dates from the late 1940s with the wave of decolonization, which began after the Second World War, and probably also dates to the great famines which claimed millions of lives in India and other areas of the South. Furthermore, many states, particularly those governed by the state-socialist regimes that had acquired political independence during the 1950s and 1960s, had initiated Green Revolution policies.  These had the aim of achieving food self-sufficiency to strengthen political independence, in a Cold War context wherein food was already used as a weapon and a means of pressure in the context of the confrontation between the USSR and the Western bloc. It is in this context that the experiences of agrarian reforms and agricultural co-operatives in Tunisia (from 1962), in Egypt (from 1953) and in many other countries had proliferated. But almost all of these experiments ended in failure or were aborted by liberal counter-reforms, which were adopted everywhere beginning in the 1980s amidst the victory of liberalism, the USSR’s disappearance, and the development of a global food regime, and its corollary: the global market for agricultural products and particularly cereals.

It is at this point that the concept of food security, based on the idea of comparative advantage began to gradually dominate. It would appear for the first time in the official Tunisian texts in the sixth Five Year Plan of the early 1980s, in which the formula of food self-sufficiency would give way to that of food security. From then on, agricultural policies would favour agricultural export products with a high added value, whose revenues would then underwrite the import of basic food products.

Paradoxically, agricultural issues, food issues, and rural issues writ large would gradually disappear from academic agendas. There was a sharp reduction in funding for research on the rural world, and instead it went first, to the urban research profile, but also to examine civil society and political organizations. It was not until 2007/2008 and the great food crisis that agricultural and food issues, and furthermore the peasant question with its sociological dimension, would reappear in public debates focused on these matters. It was during the same period that the concept of food sovereignty, proposed by Via Campesina in 1996, would appear in Arab countries and to a much lesser extent in research. Even today, many use the food sovereignty frame to talk about food security, even while the two concepts are radically opposed, even incompatible.

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The Nobel Prize winner that predicted a crisis between nature and capital

Since 1901, December has been a time for Nobel Prizes. Only in 1969, as an afterthought, the Swedish Central Bank established the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel — a decision that was met with protests by some members of the Nobel family.

Nevertheless, a scientist who used much of his time on economics was rewarded a Nobel Prize in 1921. Admittedly, Frederick Soddy (1877–1956) received the prize in chemistry, for his work on radioactivity. But in the period from 1921 to 1934 Soddy wrote four books campaigning for a radical restructuring of the global monetary system.

I have been leafing through Soddy’s book entitled, ‘Money versus Man’, published in 1931.[i] The book opens with a full-page quote from another English polymath, John Ruskin (1819–1900).[ii] The social problems of England in the 1840s — ‘The Hungry 40s’ — and the financial crises that followed in 1847 inspired Ruskin. The mass deaths in World War I and the crisis that started in 1929 provided new inspiration to Soddy.

For Ruskin, and later Soddy, consumption was the only purpose of the economy. ‘There is no wealth but life’ is the basic message in Soddy’s long quote from Ruskin. It is on this basis we should read the title of Soddy’s book, placing money as a kind of enemy for humankind. Here is a new type of economics: we have standard neoclassical economics, based on the metaphor of equilibrium between supply and demand, and we have evolutionary (Schumpeterian) economics based on a metaphor from biology (innovations as mutations). Soddy offered us a third angle: economics rooted in physics, in the laws of thermodynamics.

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Green financialization and de-risking in Zambia’s renewable energy transition

By Simone Claar and Franziska Müller

Zambia’s has a history full of hopeful prospects and broken dreams. In the 1980s and again in the early 2010s, Zambia experienced an economic upswing. Labelled as an emerging middle-income country and called the new ‘African Tiger’, a mix of copper extractivism, an aspiring tourism sector, as well as political stability led to an impressive rise. However, the phase was short-lived, as Zambia’s political economy remains fragile: dependent on the price of copper and the world market, it is regularly on the verge of state bankruptcy due to a significant foreign debt burden. A history of structural adjustment programs in exchange for IMF loans and dependency on billion-scale Chinese loans means that Zambia became the first African country to declare bankruptcy in the wake of the Covid pandemic, first asking for a moratorium, and later for restructuring its Eurobond loans and Chinese loans. In this context, Zambia’s dependence on development financing is highly evident and deeply anchored in the state structures. Zambia’s political economy of energy and the ongoing energy transition reflect this tedious situation. Rising energy demands and lack of investment mean that widespread load shedding has become a frequent phenomenon. Climate change and recurring droughts negatively affect hydropower performance, which makes up 95 per cent of installed capacity. The current roll-out of renewable energy is a beacon of hope. Nevertheless, its financial structures give rise to the assumption that Zambia may also be the first African state where the miracle of green capitalism and “white magic” (Girvan 1978) is becoming manifest, resulting in both shiny solar panels and a loss of political and economic sovereignty. Analyzing Zambia’s energy transition’s political and financial toolbox, we delineate how green financialization and de-risking are executed based on blended development finance. 

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 A People’s Green New Deal: A Symposium

Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal intervenes in current debates regarding green planning, green future, green stimuli, and eco-socialism. It surveys a wide range of existing literature on the ecological and social crisis, ranging from ruling-class “great transitions,” to eco-modernist elixirs of the right and the left which bank on technological solutions to today’s social and ecological problems. It then considers and critiques an array of liberal, left-liberal, and social democratic proposals, some of them going under the eco-socialist moniker, and shows how they rest on continued exploitation and primitive accumulation of the periphery. 

A People’s Green New Deal contributions lie in, first, using frameworks of dependency theory, accumulation on a world scale, and ecologically uneven exchange to illuminate the costs and consequences of distinct approaches to the climate crisis, left and right. Second, the book’s emphasis on agriculture, land use, and agro-ecology makes it unique amongst books on the Green New Deal and parallel debates. Its emphasis on decolonization, national sovereignty, anti-imperialism, and climate debt repayments from the North to the South is a third contribution. A fourth is how it deals with technology. 

This review forum assesses the contribution of A People’s Green New DealSakshi situates APGND in terms of a counter-epistemology to Eurocentric and empire-blind resolutions, if not really solutions, to the social and ecological crises to which mainstream Green New Deals are addressed. Sheetal Chhabria assesses APGND’s contribution to thinking on a planetary scale about appropriate planning for a just transition, while criticizing the book’s uncritical embrace of certain Indian nationalist tropes. Güney Işıkara raises questions regarding political agency and organization, the role of national-level planning in any form of national-level green transition, and how to approach anti-imperialism on a world scale.  

Read the contributions:

Debunking the “Eco-Fortress Nationalism” of the AOC/Markey Green New Deal

tractor, tiller, tilling, equipment, agriculture, karnataka, india, transportation, mode of transportation, land, land vehicle, field, one person, landscape, agricultural machinery, day, nature, rural scene, plant, environment, driving, farm, dirt, agricultural equipment, outdoors, farmer, 4K

Photo: Farming in Karnataka, India.

Max Ajl’s People’s Green New Deal is a brutal reminder for the American left that even the most celebrated and progressive developments in American politics are still simply American politics, in other words they are a politics for America, and America first. Ajl situates both the longer history of environmental destruction and the response to it within a planetary frame without losing sight of geographical unevenness. The book is divided into two parts. The first part is where Ajl systematically debunks the American-centrism of the Cortez/Markey Green New Deal (GND). The second part is an imagination-widening exposition of an alternative People’s Green New Deal that centers the livelihood of the majority of the world’s people by putting forth an anti-imperial and anti-capitalist framework for a just transition. 

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Beyond Green Restoration: An Eco-Socialist GND

Following the resolution introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, the term Green New Deal (GND) has become the gravitational center of climate action debates. On the one hand, conservatives, as well as some leftist circles, designate the AOC-Markey resolution as “socialist”. On the other hand, the term GND was first made public by Thomas Friedman in his NY Times column as a capitalistic and patriotic project which serves as “the basis of a new unifying political movement for the 21st century” (p.4). It comes as no surprise that so much political confusion accrues around the concept of a GND.

Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal is the best leftist response I have read to the discussions whirling around this notion. It is clear-minded and well written. Politically, it constructs a consistent, uncompromising, anti-imperialist vision, well aware of the fact that tamed horizons are easily coopted and rearticulated by the ruling classes thanks to the elasticity of capital accumulation. Theoretically, its foundations are found in the “inherently polarizing” frameworks of dependency theory, world-system analysis, and (environmentally) unequal exchange (p.14).

Ajl evaluates GND proposals not only on the basis of targeted changes in physical production, but also in terms of their systemic implications. Some GNDs aim to preserve or strengthen capitalism, while others are designed to attack or abolish it (p.3). Correspondingly, the book is divided into two parts. The first one is concerned with what Ajl calls Capitalist Green Transitions (p.16) or “ruling class agendas” (p.20), while the second part sketches his vision of a People’s Green New Deal.

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How To Write About Pipelines

Writing about Indigenous rights or climate and environmental justice movements as a non-Indigenous person is difficult and complex. The magnitude of difficulty becomes manifold if the authorial voice falls somewhere on the white, western knowledge spectrum. What we have to say matters less than what we have learned in thinking with the Indigenous people and their knowledge forms. For non-Indigenous scholars, there is a constant need to be alert to the possibilities of reproducing colonial power structures and epistemic frameworks while engaged in knowledge production. The only way out of this conundrum is to constantly learn from Indigenous voices and epistemologies and be sensitive to structural inequities and epistemic injustices that have marred the academe. It is not adequate to merely provide nodding acknowledgement to the idea of environmental justice. Interrogating the colonial and settler colonial structures within environmental movements must be a continuous process. Particularly, the idea of Indigenous environmental justice is yet to assume the place it deserves in the literature on environmentalisms, environmental activism, or even Marxist ecology. While Black-Green solidarity and alliance is an indispensable condition for the flourishing of the environmental movements, the work towards achieving it has been disappointingly slow. These concerns resurfaced as I read Andreas Malm’s new work How to Blow Up a Pipeline.

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