Archive for October, 2013

Radical Political Economy of the Environment

October 17, 2013


Libres y Salvajes, (“Wild and Free”) by Santi Armengod

Originally published on Counterpunch, 15 October 2013

On Saturday, 5 October, the Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE) held a conference on the “Political Economy of the Environment” at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. As should be obvious, any application of a “radical political economic analysis to social problems” such as the devastating present environmental crisis should likely be welcomed at this late stage; thus, the URPE’s twin strategy of advancing a “continuing critique of the capitalist system and all forms of exploitation and oppression” and “helping to construct a progressive social policy and create socialist alternatives” should prove an attractive one to self-identified militants.  It it thus with militant desire that I attended the conference.

Fortunately, I consciously missed the morning plenary, entitled “Confronting Capital in Defense of the Environment,” given that Christian Parenti was slated to speak—while I liked his 2011 book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, I had been rather disappointed by his presentation just months prior at the 2013 Left Forum, where he presented a totally reformist—hence inadequate—vision for combating the specter of catastrophic climate change, one which I felt served to foster illusion and delusion with regard to the willingness of the U.S. ruling elite to act swiftly to redress climate breakdown. As far as I understand, Parenti presented very similar notions at the URPE morning plenary, side-by-side with his co-panelist Prof. Robin Hahnel, who in his comments regarding “Left Unity” on “Climate Change Policy” apparently cast carbon-trading mechanisms in a positive light. Less problematically, Sean Sweeney of Cornell’s Global Labor Institute reportedly advanced more legitimate perspectives than the other two plenary speakers in his arguments for a “Progressive Labor Agenda on Work and the Environment.”

As against what could be taken to have been a rough start, the first afternoon workshop I attended, “Environmental Issues for Developing Countries,” was quite excellent. The session began with the intervention of Fabián Balardini, who took a critical view of “Extractivism and the Governing Left in South America.” He opened his presentation by citing Karl Marx’s famous reformulation of G.W.F. Hegel’s observation that history repeats itself over time tragically, noting such repetitions to transcend tragedy for farce: in essence, the “pink-tide” governments advancing “Twenty-First Century Socialism” in Latin America are resorting to the same resource-intensive, environmentally destructive modes of “development” that had been advanced by the twentieth-century neo-liberal governments which they have replaced.

As has been theorized both by Rosa Luxemburg and David Harvey, this model is one of “accumulation by dispossession”: whereas previous Western-oriented governments in the region promoted extractivism in conformity with the neo-classical theory of “comparative advantage” (essentially, specialization), the new “progressive” governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador continue in this tradition by arguing that its perpetuation is necessary toward the end of decreasing material poverty and gross social inequality. As Balardini showed, however, citing the work of Ecuadorean economist Pablo Davolos, recent declines in poverty rates in these countries may have more to do with remittances from migrant laborers abroad than increased governmental spending resulting from taxes on increased natural-resource exploitation: indeed, Davolos infamously finds that a great deal of the income gained from “progressive” extractivist schemes has—rather than be transferred to the people through social spending—instead been invested in major international banks!

In light of such considerations, Balardini’s comical summarization of the political philosophy of the late Hugo Chávez is particularly adept: “Oil producers of the world, unite!” and “Two, three, many OPECs!” Similarly, Balardini showed the government of Evo Morales to be rather hypocritical, given its posturing on the one hand in the international arena against the undoubtedly terracidal climate-inaction regimes pushed by the U.S., Europe, and China, as juxtaposed with his mandated expansion of hydrocarbon and mineral exploitation in Bolivia, particularly on indigenous lands. Also farcical in Balardini’s estimation is the rule of Rafael Correa in Ecuador, who transformed the original indigenous proposal to without question leave the petroleum reserves discovered within the Amazonian Yasuní reserve undisturbed into a money-making scheme. As is well-known, Correa’s proposal was for the international community to provide for an estimated half of the projected market value of the Yasuní oil deposits (estimated at 840 million barrels), as based at least in part in the principle of constraining future carbon emissions, in exchange for his government’s observance of the indigenous and popular desire not to “develop” Yasuní—a region of the Amazon believed to possess in a single hectare more species than exist in all of North America.

Given that international donors only came up with $13 million of the estimated $3.6 billion Correa had demanded, the deal has been cancelled, with the country’s parliament voting ten days ago to authorize oil drilling in Yasuní. First tragedy, then farce… Beyond Chávez, Morales, and Correa, Balardini showed even the new government of José Mujica in Uruguay to favor the orthodox economic policies upheld by his allies, this despite his iconoclastic support for such social measures as gay marriage and marijuana legalization.

As should be obvious, then, this “progressive” economic model provides no real alternative to mainstream capitalism, instead merely mirroring its brutal and thoughtless legacy. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise, as Balardini revealed, that the percentage of primary products in export revenues has in fact increased under the “left-wing” governments, as compared to their neo-liberal predecessors; in this sense, Morales, Correa, and co. are merely following the money—according to data presented by Balardini, the extractive industries have in recent years proven more profitable than pharmaceuticals themselves! Similarly unsurprising, for all its horror, is the increase in the criminalization and repression of environmental protest in these countries, given the 150 ecologists murdered in Ecuador in recent years and the unleashing of police forces on indigenous protestors expressing their opposition to Morales’ plans to build a highway through the TIPNIS nature reserve (September 2011). But apologists of these “socialist” regimes can take pride in the fact that, like Prof. Hahnel, Correa too supports carbon markets!

The next speaker on “Environmental Issues for Developing Countries” was Paul Cooney, a Marxist economist working at the Universidade Federal do Pará in Brazil, who spoke on the “re-primarization” of national economies in Latin America—that is to say, the relative de-industrialization experienced in recent decades by countries such as Brazil and Argentina which has led them to regress into becoming major agro- and mineral-exporters. This historical process, which has followed from the existence of relatively high interest rates and, in the case of Brazil, the overvaluing of currency, has led these two countries to focus heavily on large-scale mining and capital-intensive agricultural production, particularly of soy crops. Indeed, on the global market, Brazil and Argentina have joined the U.S. as the largest soy exporters in the world.

In Brazil, growth in soy production has greatly accelerated the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, thus exacerbating this worrying trend which previously had been driven by the demand to massively expand the number of cattle to be reared and slaughtered for export. In Argentina, soy has become something of a monoculture, with Cooney claiming 95% of the crop to be genetically modified. One result of this process—the threat to domestic food security aside—has been the effective alliance with Monsanto and the massive use of its herbicides which have destroyed a great deal of the microbial life in the soils of Argentina. As highly capital- and land-intensive enterprises, soy megaprojects in both countries come to parallel the expansion of mega-mining in Brazil: the world’s single-largest iron ore open-pit mine is located in Carajás in the Brazilian state of Pará, and much of the recent impetus to erect hydroelectric dams in the country—think of the proposed Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon and home to tens of thousands of indigenous peoples—in fact corresponds to the energy demands of planned mining projects, noted Cooney.

The final speaker for this session was Sirisha Naidu, who discussed forest-management policy in India. Naidu contrasted the imposition of the “scientific management” forestry model during the British Raj and its perpetuation after formal independence in 1947 with the community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) model practiced at the grassroots and theorized by scholars such as Elinor Ostrom. As against the profit-based extractivism favored by the postcolonial State, Naidu explained that the coming of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992 explicitly opened space for community management of resources, leading eventually in 2006 to the Indian Forest Rights Act which recognizes the rights of so-called “encroachers” to the forests in which they may reside. Naidu welcomed the fact that the increased respect for CBNRM policies have in some cases successfully blocked the expansion of mining projects in Indian states, yet she expressed concern that it may also increase the risk of land being employed for less savory ends; moreover, she noted the problematic tendency to consider communities as monolithic entities, an approach which effectively papers over the very real social inequalities and oppressions experienced in such settings.

During the second afternoon session, there was a workshop on “Grassroots Initiatives against the Theft of Resources by Multinationals” on the continent of Africa. First to speak was Milton Allimadi, editor of Black Star News, who spoke on grassroots resistance in Uganda to the U.S.-backed dictator Yoweri Museveni, particularly as coalescing around the proposed deal between the Mehta Group and Museveni’s government to clear 30% of the Mabira rainforest to make way for a sugar plantation (2006-2007). Against this proposal, mass-popular demonstrations were organized, coupled with boycotts of Mehta sugar, leading Museveni to order violent repression, a move that only intensified the opposition movement, ultimately leading the government to suspend negotiations for the project—which would have greatly enriched the ruling elite, as Allimadi argued. He also mentioned that millions have been dispossessed of their lands in Uganda in recent years, given the introduction by foreign investors of commercial farming on lands that have been effectively expropriated in cohoots with the Museveni government.

After Allimadi spoke Maurice Carney, from Friends of the Congo, who presented a comprehensive overview of the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo/Zaire. A country approximately the size of Western Europe, the DRC is the site of vast mineral wealth—one estimate claims the sum of its geological resources to amount to $24 trillion—while its peoples have suffered the world’s most devastating war since WWII in recent decades, leading the UN consistently to locate it at the very bottom of the Human Development Report. Indeed, Carney revealed that it was from Congo that the U.S. military extracted the very uranium it would employ in the atomic bombs it dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. So in addition to the 10-15 million Congolese killed by the imposition of Belgian rule in the person of Leopold II at the turn of the nineteenth century, some 6 million have lost their lives in the wars which began with Museveni and Paul Kagame’s invasions to depose Mobutu Sese Seko (1996)—another kleptocrat backed by the U.S., one who in fact replaced anti-colonial Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who in turn was overthrown and murdered by the CIA in 1961 out of fear that the U.S. would “lose the Congo” and all of Africa if Lumumba were “allowed” to continue with his autonomous policies following Congo’s formal independence from Belgium (1960).

It is the U.S. “darlings” Museveni and Kagame, noted Carney, who constitute the “godfathers” of the mass mineral-exploitation of the eastern DRC that has sustained the genocide experienced in the region. Nonetheless, of course, both Western consumers and the world’s militaries remain entirely complicit in these massive crimes: as should be well-known, the coltan mined in eastern DRC constitutes a critical component of most if not all current electronics devices (cell phones and computers) as well as jet-fighter systems, while cobalt similarly serves many functions for the military-industrial complex. In conclusion, Carney noted that the international corporate media focuses far more on Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe than on the astronomically larger social devastation in DRC—mostly because Mugabe resists Anglo-American political designs, while the culprits in the DRC are entirely supported by the West. However, Carney expressed hope in the oppositional potential of the presently developing Congolese youth movement.

Lastly in this session, Tseliso Thipanyane of the South African Human Rights Commission spoke on the situation in his home country as well as in Nigeria. At the outset of his comments, Thipanyane observed that the historical trajectory of these two countries shows clearly the extent to which the interests of transnational capitalism have captured indigenous African elites, tying them indelibly into the perpetuation of the system. Optimistically noting that it would take 30 years and $1 billion dollars to remediate the Niger Delta following the extreme devastation wrought on the region by Royal Dutch Shell, Thipanyane noted a similar tendency in South Africa, especially given the shocking Marikana massacre of striking platinum miners in August 2012—a show of force, he claimed, which no one in South Africa would have expected from Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), which of course overturned formal Apartheid in 1994.

Nonetheless, Thipanyane observed that even at the Davos Forum in 1992, Mandela was threatened by powerful transnational economic interests, leading him to drop his previous advocacy of the nationalization of South Africa’s mines following the coming fall of Apartheid. In an analysis reminiscent of John Pilger’s recent denunciation of Mandela’s effectively capitalist economic policies, Thipanyane observed that since 1994 many ANC insiders have become major shareholders in the country’s large mining operations, leading inexorably to State capture by oligarchical interests. In environmental terms, Thipanyane mentioned the worrying tendency by which the sulfuric acid produced in mega-mining has penetrated the country’s water supply, forcing its government to begin to import water from Lesotho. In more systemic terms, he noted that, while Africa south of the Sahel famously stands to bear the worst impacts of climate change, the governments of the region can pay no more than lip service to the struggle against this horror, given their total integration into global capitalism.

Next and last for the day came the closing plenary on “Capitalism, Environmental Crises, and the Left.” First to address the audience was Prof. Joan Hoffman, who condemned hydrofracking as a proposed alternative to the petroleum-based economy (the idea of natural gas as a “bridge fuel”). She noted the fracking industry to act typically, as in the mantra of “come, harm, take, and go,” and she warned of the serious risks of large methane leaks from fracking sites, as well as the real threat of explosions. Against the “vampire economics” represented by hydrofracking, Hoffman proposed stewardship economics, which would be based on cradle-to-cradle production and powered by renewable resources such as solar and wind. Next spoke Salvatore Engel di-Mauro, editor of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, who warned of the problems posed to left-wing environmental politics by over-reliance on the findings of “bourgeois scientists.”

Arguing soil pollution and degradation to represent an ecological problem equal to climate change in severity, Salvatore noted that the employment of soil-quality indicators derived from the aforementioned scientists often leads to an increase in use of fertilizers, and he warned that the historical bioaccumulation of heavy metals in urban settings may pose a serious problem for the recent emergence of urban agriculture. Indeed, he observed that one approach favored by bourgeois soil scientists has been to engage in bioremediation schemes which aim to extract heavy metals from the soil so as to allow them to be liberated and reused in production! Salvatore clearly declared that the “neutrality” and “objectivity” which are mainstays of mainstream science must be broken with radically in the struggle for emancipation.

Finally, Paul Cooney spoke once again, this time on globalization and the second contradiction of capitalism, which he took from the work of Marxist economist James O’Connor. While capitalism’s first contradiction is better-known—referring to the class struggle between labor and capital—the second postulated contradiction has to do with the conflicts between relations of production and conditions of production, particularly in ecological terms, such that capitalism effectively “fouls its own nest,” as John Bellamy Foster writes, through the destruction of the life-world it prosecutes via its endless pursuit of profit. Invoking the spirit of (anti)catastrophism theorized by Sasha Lilley and comrades in their 2012 PM Press book on the subject—which was, incidentally, severely criticized by Ian Angus in last month’s issue of Monthly Review—Cooney argued that we still have two fronts with which to confront capital: labor and the environment.

Intervention as Radical Struggle: On Arendt, Negativity, and Resistance

October 7, 2013


First published on Truthout (copyright,, reprinted with permission)

NB: This essay is a modified version of the author’s submission for the 2013 Hannah Arendt Prize

“What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”

– Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition1

Doubtless, there exists much reason to study disobedience, the spark behind all knowledge,” as Gaston Bachelard claims in his Fragments of a Poetics of Fire. I would argue that Albert Camus is right to claim rebellion—which, as he says, can only ever be a social project infused by notions of solidarity, rather than individualism—intimately to be related to the defense of human existence—survival, in the first place—as well as to the political task of advancing human flourishing.2 Alarmingly, both such struggles today confront especially severe threat: as Noam Chomsky describes it plainly, the prospect of decent human survival is presently imperiled by the twin specters of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe.3 Given the totally inadequate approaches that constituted power have presented vis-à-vis these world-historical problems—radical denial on the one hand, and conscious exacerbation on the other—the question becomes whether we can hope for revolutionary interventions from below, emanating from that which Giorgio Agamben terms “the non-State, which is humanity,” to address these pressing dangers in rational and humane fashion.4 As we have seen in recent years with the shattering entrance onto the public stage of oppressed humanity seeking to manage its affairs autonomously from and antagonistically against the State and capital, such hope does not seem entirely without merit.

In this sense, Arendt is correct to note, as she did in reflecting on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, that the tide of history can shift radically and rapidly, once established hierarchies are disrupted by the broad-based delegitimization of prevailing power relations.5 Indeed, such a perspective seems to be one of the major, optimistic conclusions to be gleaned from George Katsiaficas’ sweeping study of People’s Power movements throughout much of Asia—that despotism is doomed once the demos struggles together to overthrow it, and that the militaristic repression perennially visited on dissident movements reflects the oppressors’ very fears of the power of the people.6 Hence, I completely reject the nihilistic notion that intervention constitutes little more than a “decoy or distraction in the face of futility” or a “cover or compensation for hopeless battles and set-ups.” Consider for a moment the Great French Revolution of 1789-1794: one would be at a loss to think of a similarly shattering event in human history, one that abolished monarchy and feudalism at a stroke—not to mention recognizing the end to formal slavery in Saint Domingue/Haiti, following the radical struggle of the slaves there themselves to destroy the system oppressing them. I claim that G.W.F. Hegel was right to celebrate this intervention as “a glorious mental dawn,” one that led “[a]ll thinking beings” to experience “jubilation.”Similarly, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just justifiably declared the Revolution as promoting the concept of happiness, which heretofore had been denied by existing social arrangements; it was for this reason “a new idea in Europe,” and a new reality.8

So while fatalism, defeatism, and any sense of Schopenhauerian pessimism should be considered misguided—as well, indeed, as reactionary, given the effective legitimization such orientations afford the powers that be—it would also seem questionable to claim, as Bachelard does in his Fragments, that human progress “amounts to a series of Promethean acts.” Granted, my concern here may have more to do with my conception of Prometheus and the common use of the adjective Promethean: Prometheus is rightly celebrated as a rebel who opposes divine authority in order to make critical scientific knowledge readily available to humanity. Yet the charge of prometheanism is often made, I think rightly, against certain interpretations of Marxism—arguably following from Marx’s own works—and other ideologies which base their social projects on the unquestioning domination of nature and the “development of the productive forces.” In light of the undeniably pressing contemporary ecological problems which have resulted from the uncritical productivism advanced systemically by capital—species loss, ocean acidification, the progressive melting of the polar ice caps, a greater incidence of drought and famine—any sense of Prometheus as the founder of an unbounded quest for scientific and technological development should not be welcomed today: consider Mary Shelley’s subtitle to Frankenstein (“The Modern Prometheus”), or J. Robert Oppenheimer. Against Prometheus, Herbert Marcuse likely is more justified to present Orpheus the lyre-player as an alternative mythological figure from which to draw inspiration: tranquility, aestheticism, and eroticism (particularly queer varieties) seem more germane to the depth of the current crisis.9

Turning, then, to the questions of how intervention might become “powerful and compelling” within the current juncture, and what role thought should have in this process, I would strongly agree with the major figures of the Frankfurt School in their emphasis on the centrality of negativity within conceptualization and interpretation. Their “critical negativism,” as identified by C. Fred Alford, is particularly relevant today: thought cannot assent to any social arrangement which perpetuates deprivation, suffering, and alienation as radically as does capital—as T.W. Adorno writes, “So long as there is still a single beggar, […] there is still myth.”10 Put plainly, thought should today ceaselessly be pointing out the utter barbarism of the hegemony of capital, patriarchy, and the State. Philosophy, in sum, should serve the end of agitation, indignation, and education, toward the end of organization, to paraphrase B.R. Ambedkar. This final concern—that of praxis—would to my mind be the principal goal toward which thought should strive today; basing itself in the prospects for dialectical affirmation against capitalist barbarism, philosophy would do well to counterpose the range of possibilities which we know are readily at hand, from our own personal desires for alternative societal arrangements, as from the compelling history of revolutionary social movements across the globe. Waxing, then, between an Adornian disgust at the machinations of hegemony and a Blochian emphasis on the principle of hope, philosophy could come to serve radical struggle—that is, intervention.

Passing from idealist critique to material intervention, it would seem that the world-Geist [Spirit] should take on the form of revolutionary, anti-systemic mass-movements. Engaging in direct action—with the examples of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and other black blocs in mind—this mass-movement would prioritize participatory democracy via popular control of all social institutions, from the means of production to cultural production and beyond. In this sense, I envision a mass-dual power strategy, whereby Agamben’s “non-State,” or humanity, both prefigures the emancipated future it desires and works actively to bring such into being—by doing- and being-other, as theorized inter alia by John Holloway.11 Concretely, this praxis would involve the physical blockade of capital, as seen recently in protests against the tar sands infrastructure or the planned Koondankulam nuclear plant in India’s Tamil Nadu state, as well as in the “mass disturbances” seen in China over ecological devastation, in addition to the disruption of its operations throughout the life-world, particularly through sustained general strikes. Indeed, the Industrial Workers of the World’s recent introduction of the concept of the ecological general strike, whereby laborers refuse their participation in capitalism’s ecocidal projects toward the end of developing participatory models that would allow for ecological balance, is an especially inspiring model for current and future intervention.12

In sum, it seems clear that radical struggle is the order of the day. Intervention, if it is to have concrete meaning or be relevant at all, seeks human happiness, tranquility, liberation—like art that is worth its name, in Marcuse’s formulation.13 Undoubtedly, the threats which are today aligned against the realization of these ends are considerable; Hegel was largely correct to identify history as a slaughterbench which sacrifices the happiness of humanity to hegemony. We can clearly see such analysis confirmed throughout the calamitous world today: think of the recent Tazreen and Rana Square disasters in Bangladesh, or the 2011 Somali famine.

However, it is also clear that humanity is capable of far more affirming projects than those which hold power today. Dialectical thought, and the praxis which may follow from it, can serve to overturn negation.


1>Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 5.

2Albert Camus, The Rebel (trans. Anthony Bower, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1956).

3Noam Chomsky and Laray Polk, Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (New York: Seven Stories, 2013).

4Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community (trans. Michael Hardt, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 65.

5Hannah Arendt, On Violence (San Diego: Harcourt, 1969), 48.

6George Katsiaficas, Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 2 (Oakland: PM Press, 2013); for the author’s review of Volume 2, please see “A Review of ‘Asia’s Unknown Uprisings,” The White Rose Reader, 21 July 2013.

7G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Colonial, 1899), 447.

8Quoted in Sophie Wahnich, In Defense of the Terror (trans. David Fernbach, London: Verso, 2012), 69.

9Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon, 1966).

10C. Fred Alford, Science and the Revenge of Nature (Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1985), 15-16; Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, London: Verso, 1974 [1951]), 199.

11John Holloway, Crack Capitalism (London: Pluto, 2010).

12For the IWW’s Environmental Union Caucus, see

13Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension (Boston: Beacon, 1978).

Rebellious Nursing! 2013

October 7, 2013

rebellious nursing

Originally published on Counterpunch4 October 2013

During the weekend of 27-29 September, the first ever Rebellious Nursing! (RN!) Conference was held at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in Philadelphia. Originally inspired by the annual Rebel Law conferences hosted by Yale University, the organizers of RN! 2013 based their desire to hold the conference on the impetus to restructure both U.S. healthcare and global politics on the basis of human needs rather than capitalist profit. According to the RN! mission statement, conference organizers view the provision of health as “a communal activity where all people [should] receive and have a say in competent, compassionate, and respectful care.” Fashioned in a horizontal manner, RN! 2013 sought to provide “safe, energetic spaces for engagement in liberation, justice, and health equity.” By means of the 24 workshops, 2 plenaries, and 9 lunchtime caucuses offered over the course of the two days of RN! 2013—not to mention the contributions of the estimated 300 registered participants, comprised of Registered Nurses (RNs), Nurse Practitioners (NPs), nursing students, and allies—the weekend lived out well the principal idea of the conference: “to create energy and community around the idea of nurses for social change.”

During the first session of workshops on Saturday 28 September, I attended “Health Worker Roles in the Environmental Movement,” a panel discussion led by three activists, one of them an R.N. Sustainability advocate and PASNAP1 affiliate Jerry Silberman opened by discussing the devastation promised by climate change, noting the well-known fact that its projected human impacts will be most acutely felt among the most impoverished peoples of Earth, who have of course contributed least to the problem in historical terms. Claiming the struggle against climate destruction to be yet another manifestation of the seemingly eternally recurring impetus to radically redistribute material resources, Silberman claimed the environmental crisis as being impelled by a generalized psychological block on the part of relatively affluent Northern peoples to honestly square with the bleak reality of climate devastation. It is this cognitive dissonance which makes a general societal response to such apocalyptical health threats as climate change, widespread cancer, and antibiotic resistance increasingly unlikely, he claimed, despite the intensifying nature of these worrying specters. Against the conformism which equates the development of history with progress and thus upholds the colonization of nature and society by hydrocarbon-powered cars, trains, and airplanes, Silberman counterposed a vision of modesty and voluntary simplicity. Next, eco-organizer and journalist Peter Rugh opened his comments by citing the world-famous poet Walt Whitman, who he revealed to have worked as a nurse in the U.S. Civil War, from his preface to Leaves of Grass (1855):

“This is what you shall do: Love the Earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy [sic], devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants….”

In his presentation, Rugh greatly emphasized the highly precarious and life-threatening conditions faced by those who labor in the oil and gas industries. Like Silberman, Rugh observed the destructiveness of climate change to function by grafting itself onto existing social inequalities. Theoretically, he favorably cited the (questionable) work that John Bellamy Foster has done over the past decade to rehabilitate Marx and Engels as ecologists, as through the Marxian theory of the “metabolic rift,” whereby the imposition of the capitalist mode of production dramatically accelerates humanity’s separation from its origins in nature. In parallel terms, Rugh also endorsed the vision proposed by Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson, who in a 2012 article on Al-Jazeera English argued for the “Securing [of] public health forever through clean energy.” Practically, Rugh sees great potential in the interlinking of trade unions, community groups, and environmentalists advancing an ecosocialist politics. Lastly, Sean Petty, R.N., spoke to the experiences of nurses responding to Superstorm Sandy in New York, claiming the collaboration between these rebellious nurses and the Occupy Sandy relief efforts to follow in the tradition of those responding to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and importantly to prefigure a grassroots, popular model whereby the State is displaced as administrator of social life altogether. Expressing disagreement with Silberman, Petty claimed the environmental crisis to be a problem more of power relations than psychology: while capitalists will go to the very “ends of the Earth” to extract hydrocarbons, and despite the fact that the U.S. military is the single-largest contributor to climate destabilization, the developing environmental movement is the “most dynamic” social process in the U.S. today, in Petty’s estimation. As encouraging signs of the contributions health-care workers can make to this movement, Petty enthusiastically cited the decision recently taken by both the National Nurses United and his own New York State Nurses’ Association to explicitly and publicly oppose the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. With regard to the roles that nurses in particular can make to the struggle against eco-destruction, Petty cited three important considerations: that nurses are most often on the “front lines” of prevailing socio-environmental realities, that they represent the most respected profession in the States, and that many nurses are collectively organized in unions.

During the subsequent discussion following panelists’ initial presentations, Petty argued that the present struggle must amount to nothing less than the total abolition of the fossil-fuel industry. In dialectical terms, Petty observed that nurses have collective power, but he lamented the yawning gap which has separated the environmental movement from the larger social-justice movement in the U.S. for some time. Critically in this discussion, Silberman discussed the needless breadth of medical waste as produced by the hospitals and the health-care industry at large, positing the alternative of sterilization and re-use of the various implements used by doctors and nurses in their everyday work—at present, as is well-known, these tools are overwhelmingly made of plastic and so are disposable. He also took a more negative view than his co-panelists of organized labor, noting it historically to have operated as an appendage of capitalism to help integrate workers into the dominant system—hence his trepidation over its potential for effecting the thoroughgoing anti-systemic transformations which must be realized if the looming environmental apocalypse is to be mitigated and largely averted.

Next came what was perhaps the most compelling workshop of the weekend: the analyses made by Family Nurse Practitioners2 Ronica Mukerjee and Linda Wesp of health disparities involving people of color and HIV+ and trans* individuals in the U.S. Giving consideration to the highly unequal social determinants of health and brutal historical trajectories which have greatly influenced the health disparities seen presently in U.S. society, Mukerjee and Wesp discussed six examples of gross medical abuse of oppressed social groups in U.S. history: germ warfare as a means of clearing Native Americans from the land, as conceived of originally by Jeffrey Amherst in the late eighteenth century; the infamous 40-year Tuskegee experimental observation of syphilis-infected black sharecroppers in the twentieth century (1932-1972); the subsequent intentional inoculation of Guatemalan patients with syphilis (1946-1948), undertaken toward the end of “advancing science”; the employment of forced sterilization schemes by the U.S. government, particularly in its Puerto Rico colony, where up to a third of all women were subjected to tubal ligation without informed consent; the groundbreaking advent of sex-reassignment surgery at Johns Hopkins University in the 1960s, followed by a reactionary backlash at that institution in the following decade, which lead generally to a marked decline in access to care on the part of trans* individuals in this country; and the outrageous neglect to the emerging HIV/AIDS epidemic practiced by the the Reaganist State on the one hand and for-profit pharmaceutical corporations on the other. Mukerjee and Wesp correctly situated these examples of abuse and disregard as contributing centrally to the development of distrust of and alienation from the medical establishment as experienced by black Americans, Native Americans, queers, and trans* people in the U.S. Furthermore, they righteously posed the question of how many HIV+ individuals died in the U.S. while awaiting treatment for their condition: as they noted, at least 41,000 Americans had died by 1987, the year when Reagan first publicly acknowledged the existence of HIV/AIDS. In contemporary terms, they observed that black Americans bear a disproportionate percentage of new HIV infections: 44% of the total, while corresponding as a group to little more than one-tenth of the overall U.S. population. This sobering reality—like that of the high incidence of diabetes mellitus among indigenous populations—cannot be divorced from historical considerations, as they stressed. In positive terms, Mukerjee suggested that the way forward “sounds a lot [more] like community organizing” than it does the mere administration of primary health care.

On Sunday morning, an RN/PhD, an FNP, and a nurse midwife presented on “Nurse-managed clinics as accessible models for primary care.” Lester Cohen, FNP, and Patricia Gerrity, R.N. and PhD, spoke to their experiences in Philadelphia in working in and advancing NP-run health clinics which have catered to especially disadvantaged and oppressed individuals and groups in that city. Like the audience with which they conversed, Gerrity and Cohen agreed that the nurse-managed clinic model provides a more collective, less hierarchical example of healthcare provision, compared to the typical MD-dominated practice. However, such an alternative model is not entirely bereft of hierarchies, as some audience-members pointed out, given that “mere” Registered Nurses face a limited scope of practice for engaging with patients, as compared with NPs, who are allowed by law to treat and diagnose disease and disabling conditions. Addressing this sort of divide between RNs and NPs, Gerrity and Cohen insisted nonetheless that their practices still allow RNs a relatively broader role in attending to patient education, especially with regard to diabetes and nutrition. Arguing (like Mukerjee and Wesp the previous day) that health is comprised of the foods one eats, the activities in which one engages, and the state of one’s emotions, Gerrity demonstrated how it is that the 11th St. Clinic which she has spearheaded seeks to address all of these health determinants: besides providing access to primary care in its 10 “patient remediation spaces,” the Clinic contains a kitchen, a fitness center, a legal clinic, and an urban farm! This 17,000 ft2 institute, erected originally in 1996 as the first nurse-managed clinic to be constructed in the U.S., attends to the needs of the community of North Philly, 60% of whom apparently go without any health insurance. Gerrity explained that the Clinic bases its philosophy on self-determination and proactive health, such that patients themselves are their own best primary care providers—indeed, it was through an intensive original 3-day session of dialogue with the North Philly community that the future character of the Clinic was shaped, urban farm and all. Similarly, Cohen explained his work with the Health Annex, which began as a UPenn-supported clinic located in a Philadelphia park comprised of 3 exam rooms. To his audience, Cohen recommended Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s American Health Empire: Power, Profits, and Politics (1971) as a dated yet still illuminating account of the U.S. healthcare system, and he noted the various significant frustrations he has faced in his work with marginalized populations over 3 decades, in light of the seemingly perpetual exacerbation of social inequality and exclusion. Noting that he entered nursing in the 1970s as a practical means of resisting the rightward shift seemingly gripping U.S. society that predated the rise of Reagan, Cohen observed that the Left and working people have suffered great losses since the beginning of his career—but at least the contributions he has made in his own work are good ones, he feels. For her part, Gerrity shared with us her basic guiding philosophy, as expressed by Victor Hugo: “Man [sic] is the only animal that cries because [ze] alone sees the difference between what is and what could be.”

The lunchtime caucus which immediately followed the session on nurse-managed clinics—one of four occuring simultaneously on the second day of RN! 2013—proved fascinating: “Migrant health justice.” From the self-introductions provided by those participating in the caucus, a common past commitment included sustained work with No More Deaths/No Más Muertes in the Sonoran desert on the US/Mexico border, as well as current collaborations with the Brooklyn Free Clinic. The discussion began with an elucidation of Canadian health law, which against the country’s reputation as a haven of humanity—or at least, as compared to its southern neighbor—stipulates the denial of health-care to non-citizens, much as the U.S. state governments do, a sick tradition in which Obamacare continues. Much of the conversation revolved around the tensions experienced between one’s identity as a social activist and a nurse at the same time; some participants expressed concern for the reduction of free time in which to engage in said activism that is implied by being a full-time nurse, while others thoughtfully observed that the work of a nurse itself constitutes legitimate political activism. One FNP noted the worrying tendency of the relatives of Mexican migrants to mail medicines from Mexico to their family-members, given that undocumented residents of the U.S. have no access to pharmacies here; the problem, as she noted, is that she often is not familiar with these Mexican equivalents. Most alarmingly, participants in the caucus discussed the trend whereby “illegals” are deported directly from U.S. hospitals and emergency departments after having received treatment there! Against such brutal realities, initiatives to declare “solidarity cities” which refuse to cooperate with the INS and other police agencies represent important countercurrents, though, as one caucus participant noted, there really does not exist any safe space for migrant workers under the dominion of U.S. immigration law.

During the final session on Sunday, Dr. Suzanne Smeltzer, R.N. and EdD, spoke to “Disability and the profession of nursing.” Smeltzer began by making the obvious point that people with disabilities “get a raw deal” under prevailing conditions, but the main focus of her comments was to indict the nursing profession for its complicity with the perpetuation of the marginalization of disabled persons. Noting disability to be an essentially universal experience, she revealed that a full one-fifth of the U.S. populace, or 60 million persons, live with disabilities, thus comprising the largest single minority in the States. (An estimated 1 billion people are disabled globally.) Crucially, Smeltzer distinguished between disabling conditions and the experience of disability, noting nurses and other health-care providers to be quite familiar with the physiological bases of the former, but remarkably clueless in terms of the embodied experiences of the latter. Indeed, citing a number of studies she and other colleagues had performed to investigate the attitudes of nurses with regard to disability, she found highly negative results among nurses in general, particularly nursing faculty. Specifically, nurses were found to have a marked lack of awareness, knowledge, and sensitivity to the lives of persons with disabilities: in the opinion of disabled persons themselves, nurses generally do not demonstrate respect for them but instead fear, ignore, stereotype, and even abuse the disabled, treating them like children! Unsurprisingly, then—and in parallel to the arguments of Mukerjee and Wesp on black Americans and indigenous persons—Smeltzer noted the tendency of disabled persons to avoid accessing primary care until it becomes quite impossible to continue to do so. The formal education of nurses in the U.S. seems intimately to contribute to this unfortunate reality, given that astonishingly few nursing textbooks even mention disability. Hence, the profession of nursing and nurses themselves are currently a significant part of the problem, in Smeltzer’s analysis—though potential exists for both to do otherwise.

To sum up, then, I would say that RN! 2013 proved highly successful in openly addressing a myriad of problematic realities related to the practice of nursing and the current manners in which healthcare is provided in the U.S. It is moreover to be celebrated that, beyond the already encouraging fact that the overwhelmingly majority of participants were female-presenting, a substantial percentage of conference-goers were trans* and queer-presenting. It is nonetheless true, as one participant observed in the closing plenary, that people of color were greatly underrepresented at RN! 2013—I do not know how the planned Nurses of Color lunchtime caucus went on Saturday. It is to be hoped that subsequent iterations of RN! conferences—and the daily work of rebellious nurses themselves everywhere—will serve to better advance and represent societal diversity. In doing so, they would carry on in the tradition which Herbert Marcuse identified, referring to a previous historical epoch: that of the medieval “traveling community of musicians and mimes […] whose assault shatters the stability of the established and ecclesiastical restrictions.”3


1 Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals

2 Or FNPs

3 Herbert Marcuse, Der Deutsche Künstlerroman (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1978), 13.