How we will free ourselves together by adapting, transformatively, to climate breakdown

By Skeena Rathor and Rupert Read.

This article originally appear in Permaculture.

“This then is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed - to liberate themselves and their oppressor as well. The oppressors who oppress, exploit and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves.  Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.”   - Paulo Friere.

Readers of this magazine are well aware that we face a vast ecological challenge. That challenge has to be responded to socially and (at least with a small p) politically. For there is no way we get through what is coming without at minimum a serious rebuilding of community.

In the last issue of Permaculture, one of us (Read) outlined ‘Transformative Adaptation’ (TrAd) as a viable conception of how to respond to this challenge. TrAd has in common with permaculturalism and the Transition Towns movement a clear recognition that efforts to ‘mitigate’ the long climate emergency are plainly no longer enough. Climate disasters are here, and they are going to worsen for a long time to come. The climate and ecological emergency is completely different from emergencies as we have previously known them. It forms a condition that defines our lives. It is not going away. In this marathon, we have to create ways of organising and living together that are viable for the long term. 

Insofar as Adaptation so far has been practiced and funded (at all), it has mainly been ‘shallow’, merely incremental. Such as building higher and thicker sea walls to defend against bigger storms and rising sea-levels. This is not long-term viable, and actually adds, in the process, to the deadly carbon-excess problem. We have instead to adapt to a climate-chaotic world in ways that help to mitigate/drawdown, that work with nature rather than against it, and that transform our communities and society in the kinds of ways that it needs anyway to transform in. 

This is Transformative Adaptation (TrAd). And it will inevitably involve transformational socio-political change of a quite specific kind...

In the rest of this article, we succinctly undertake the following two (related) tasks: offering some examples of what TrAd could be or is, and explicating how, in order forTrAd to be realised, we are going to have to real-ise a social and political ecology. That is to say: we are going to have to find ways of embodying and developing the literal vital insight in the quotation from the great pedagogue Paolo Freire, above. We are going to have to get serious about overcoming the selfish fantasy that we can achieve freedom and self-realisation at the expense of others. 

One of us (Rathor) has dubbed the programme that develops this realisation ‘co-liberation’. Co-liberation calls for integrating self, community, and institutions toward greater freedom and greater belonging. Co-Liberation requires liberation work connected to power and leadership. If your freedom is integrally related to mine and mine to yours, so is my power, my thriving and my leadership. Thus how we co-liberate is informed by and informs how we do shared leadership and shared power. All liberation is, properly speaking, Co-liberation, where the ‘co’ is a matter of reclaiming our interdependence as a positive thing.

So: Co-liberation requires recognising that all liberation is interdependent –  that liberation depends on growing our common shared safety, freedom and thriving. Working with the scientific and spiritual truth of interdependence this pathway invites a shift in consciousness.

The need to free the oppressor and oppressed at the same time requires us to acknowledge that we can all be both in changing contexts and circumstances. Co-liberation seeks to free the parts of us trapped in repeated oppressor-oppressed behaviours at an individual/group and systemic level by creating ‘power-with and power-up’ practices.

The practical philosopher Hannah Arendt has described power as the ability to not just act but to act in concert. TrAd, as mediated through the novel conception of co-liberation that we are helping to develop, can enable us to figure and realise such power. Power thus reconceived is not something to shy away from. It is a wonderful thing.  As activists and activators this asks us to become ready to act in power and take power rather than resist power.

There won’t be anything worth calling ‘transformation’ unless there is an effort to co-liberate, in intentional etc communities and in organisations and movements, integrated where possible with the broader communities and society around them. And, let’s be honest, there won’t be Transformative Adaptation at scale unless we are sometimes unwilling to take no for an answer. In other words: What TrAd adds to standard permaculturalism includes an upfront willingness to do things which are not strictly legal or in obedience of the current system... We draw on the experience of Extinction Rebellion, and we hark back to great examples from the past such as the Diggers or the Kinder Scout mass trespass, and from the present such as the epochal Indian farmers’ movement and the Brazilian land-for-the-landless movement. If we are going to succeed at transforming in time to beat collapse to it, then we are sometimes going to need to do the kind of thing they did and do. We are going to need to seek to press the hand of local authorities or businesses or NGOs; we are going to need to do the kind of thing that ‘Transition Heathrow’ (aka Grow Heathrow, growing food on the site of a would-be runway) did, at scale; and do guerilla gardening at scale, and pop-up allotments (that we defend) at scale...

We need in such ways to step into our full power.

When we do these things non-violently, evoking the spirit of Gandhi and King, and evoking in those who might seek to stop or arrest us the difficulty of an oppressor-role that they don’t really want to be in, we are finding a way of creating the dance that can evoke co-liberation. Especially insofar as we can succeed in conveying that we are doing this not just for ourselves but for everyone. To draw attention to and to actually reduce the vulnerability (e.g. to potential food shortages) that threatens to affect us all in the not-distant future.

Let us mention here another contemporary example that we find inspiring. The Rojava area of northern Syria has sought, even while under vicious armed threat from hostile states (plus extreme ‘Islamists’) on both sides of it, to embody the kind of principles that we discuss here. Drawing on the ‘social ecology’ of philosopher Murray Bookchin, the (imprisoned) leader-in-exile of Rojava, Abdallah Occalan, has inspired an actually-existing feminist eco-anarchist self-governing region of four million people. 

If this kind of vision can be pursued in a place like Rojava, which is under constant extreme military pressure, then surely the co-liberationist vision of Transformative Adaptation can be pursued in the much easier environment of the UK.

Or is it actually the other way around: is the extreme pressure Rojava has been under the reason why Rojava has been able to pursue its remarkable broadly ecologically-viable path to freedom? And is the fact that it is in a part of the world under severe ecological strain (the long-term drought in Syria and the Government’s poor response to it having been of course part of the reason why Syrians rose up against the cruel Assadist dictatorship in the first place) too a reason why it has happened there? In other words: is the bitter truth that a country like the UK is unlikely to see a huge upsurge of efforts to transformatively adapt etc until it too faces severe societal (including eco-climatic) pressure?

This may be true. We hope to move ahead of that curve, and grow the vision outlined in this article into reality before we are on the edge of survival. (And we hope you’ll join us.) But even if in practice we have to wait til things get really dire before enough people see the need for something like transformative adaptation at scale, then we need to be ready, for when that time comes. We need, in other words, to be modelling what is needed, and practicing - trying out, learning through - the ways of being that it will take to flourish and to lead, in such times. Ways that are co-liberatory.

One of the pathways to co-liberation is the pathway of decolonizing our ways of knowing and being.  This asks that we practice being with other ways of interpreting, making sense of and communicating with one another and the earth.  So for example in your community, organization or movement you might make a systemic agreement to share a reverence practice at every meeting – we might agree to stand barefoot or touch the soil of home either as we enter into the meeting or whilst we describe the story of an idea we are having to meet a community-need.

We see co-liberation as a beautiful and attainable vision. A way, beyond the thought-constraints and fetters of previous ideologies, to find meaning and make real community together, in this long time of trial. For, to end with a quote from Nelson Mandela: “to be free is not to merely cast off one's chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”. This will be truer than ever, as we move deeper into the condition of climate breakdown.

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