a short introduction to network ecologies

By Soenke Zehle

What I am most interested in in the context of this research platform is
the extent to which the debates on creativity and the economy of culture
resonate/link up with ecopolitical concerns, especially those developed
in the context of an (emergent) trans national network of organizing
around environmental and social justice issues in the global networks of
electronics production. This emphasis may sound odd, but it is the most
vital area of 'network culture' when it comes to broader ecopolitical
(or if you like Isabelle Stenger's term: cosmopolitical) concerns.

Given the fetishization of dematerialization-through-technology of an
earlier generation of cyberlibertarian theorizing about the network
society, I consider these efforts to have significance beyond the usual
environmental concerns about the toxicity of computers and the
implications of this toxicity to workers or users.

What I'd prefer to see in these debates is a reappropriation of the
concept of sustainability from within the conceptual horizon of network
cultures that have struggled with this notion (see the indymedia crisis)
in many other areas, thereby creating an opening for a more far-reaching
'ecologization' (or cosmopoliticization) of net.politics. Given that the
question of sustainability (in relation to the exhaustion and emergence
of institutitional forms, for example) is one of the key concerns of how
Ned and others have articulated the framework of organized networks, I
was intrigued by the possibility of framing some of the exchanges in
this research laboratory by developing - or at least considering jointly
- multiple registers of this term.

Following earlier interests in environmental justice as a minority
social movement signaling the rise of new forms of organizing, I have
come to discover a broad variety of approaches (environmental debt,
environmental/resource rights, social ecology, or resource efficiency,
but also occupational health and safety, just transition etc.) that
confirm my sense that ecopolitical perspectives on the network society
(or network ecologies) a) open up to important vectors of inquiry that
lead to more general descriptions of the contemporary conjuncture and
b) can serve as an integrative idiom to bring into views actors and
agendas often considered separately, and thus deprived analytically of
possible encounters that could facilitate a joining of forces on the
organizational level.

Many of these ideas come from reading across the board, but others were
simply 'in the air' when I became aware of new agendas and actors, so
they stayed with me and affected the way I responded to everything I
encountered since then. I spent some time (1993-2000) in the US and I
followed the development of the (organizational) idiom of environmental
justice from its origins in US minority social movements in the 1980s
to places like South Africa but also, finally, Germany.

The dominant eco-political idioms (in Germany and the US) owe much to
the grand (colonial) European tradition of reproducing the
culture/nature divide; its 'terra nullius' variety was given a new and
violent rearticulation in the US wilderness tradition whose emergence
accompanied the war against indigenous communities across the US, for
example (one reason why I have some difficulty with Negri's notion of
the 'exodus', which seems largely unaware of the coloniality of his use
of the term, but that is perhaps a different topic).

This is important because the post-1980s US environmental justice
movement was not only about a new minority social movement that exposed
to ridicule the conceptual frameworks developed by new social movement
theorists that referred to environmentalism as a post-materialist luxury
rather than a matter of survival or at least workplace health and
safety. This movement also wanted to make visible the 'coloniality' of a
wilderness tradition that had underwritten territorial expansion across
the US and later abroad. This is sometimes forgotten because early
environmental justice campaigns were often local and vulnerably to the
charge of NIMBYism (not-in-my-back-yard, i.e. an emphasis on simply
transferring the problem rather than addressing it structurally), even
though broader networks developed since then.

What is important in context of this research platform is that for many
people, ecopolitics is hardly accepted as a vehicle to advance causes of
social justice, or is used metaphorically (as in the frequent references
to the 'urban environment', for example). I have come to disagree, and
it is this disagreement that is my point of departure for the upcoming
exchanges on network ecologies in the context of research on the Chinese
approaches to the economy of culture.

To conclude, here are some of the registers of the notion of
sustainability that have some relevance to such a discussion, at least
in my opinion:

In Germany, I recently got involved as a contract researcher with an
NGO that wanted to launch a project called pcglobal.org (still going
on), and I have been surveying debates and the various (sometimes
complementary, sometimes mutually exclusive) conceptual idioms
mobibilized in these debates. In addition to the ones listes above, of
particular interest are attempts by ecological economists (key: Juan
Martinez-Alier) who want to revitalize the seemingly-exhausted notion of
sustainability to refer to the outcomes of (inevitable) ecological
distribution conflicts. When we (Europe) send ewaste to China, this is a
question of eco-justice on many levels, but so is the situation of
migrant workers in the contract nanufacturing centers across China etc.
By which I mean that when you spell out this notion of ecological
distribution conflicts from within the 'material' side of network
culture, the picture gets big pretty fast.

And it opens up to the need to bring labour and the environment closer
together - this is a very dynamic area at the moment, it may suffice to
point to UNEP-supported initiatives like http://www.sustainlabour.org>.
Organized labour seems to become increasingly aware of the need to
employ environment-related idioms to get out of the neoliberal bind of
simply having to insist on the correlation of wage increases and labour
productivity; here, even the politically rather problematic resource
efficiency debate gives them an opportunity to put in perspective this
fetishization of labour productivity and talk about how (Western)
corporations can create more room for development across the world by
scaling back their own resource use.

This is important to me as I have seen many Western activists cave in on
the question of climate justice, for example, letting the US and the EU
off the hook way to quickly because India and China are so
resource-hungry that positive change makes no sense unless they too
move. That may be, but if there are any echoes of earlier
tricontinentalist agendas in these current debates, it is (should be)
how the West can create room for 'development' by massively scaling back
its own resource use (a key demand in Latin-American environmental debt
campaigns, for example, that resist the monetization of these
interdependencies promoted by the almost exclusive focus on foreign debt
and debt cancellation).

On the level of new research methodologies - the combination of
indicators for such a combined socio-ecological sustainability (that
would translate the labour-environment encounter into a policy register)
is in its infancy, but stuff is happening all over to speed this up,
here too UNEP is playing a key role in pushing for _social_ lifecycle
analysis rather than merely ecological life cycle analysis etc. Among
electronics activists, there is some reservation regarding the
usefulness of such instruments, but everyone agress on the need to
develop them.

A third register is the emergent (yes I love that term don't I) new
resource geography (and a corresponding securitization of resource
issues), reflecting new south-south alliances that are likely to bypass
both the industrialized-countries-as-we-know-them (i.e. OECD) on the one
hand as well as some of the weakest economies across the so-called
developing world (i.e. parts of Africa) on the other.

Back home, Germany is set to become the most 'resource-efficient' major
economy by 2020 (so they say) and thus heavily involved in the debate
about the shifting resource geography of materials like copper (key to
the network society, no uncoupling of growth and resource demand has
occurred in this area yet - one proposal in this debate is 'urban
mining', i.e. the replacement of last-mile copper with fiberglass cable
or wireless solutions). We are copper junkies after all, buit find that
Chile is selling most of it to China... So in the midst of our
collective astonishment at what is happening in China, we already have
the first (corporate) actors argueing for a securitization of global
raw materials markets; one women from one of Germany's environmental
agencies attending one of our workshops complained that the Chinese are
buying all of our copper-rich ewaste for the recycling of what is
called secondary resources etc. The implication was, of course, that
they shouldn't - it's our waste. A fascinating and under-reported
dimension of the securitization of development issues, for sure, but
also a way to start discussing China's ambititious plans to become a
zero-waste circular economy in which the recycling and reintegration of
secondary resources plays a key role in future scenarios of resource

These are just three of the registers that could be developed from such
a conflictual reappropriation of the notion of sustainability. Once
again, I hope I can convey a sense of why I think ecopolitical
perspectives on the 'network society' a) open up to important vectors
of inquiry that lead to more general descriptions of the contemporary
conjuncture and b) can serve as an integrative idiom to bring into
views actors and agendas often considered separately, and thus deprived
analytically of possible encounters that could facilitate a joining of
forces on the organizational level.

Finally, I will leave questions regarding the link between such network
ecologies and aesthetic regimes (from postcolonial analysis of how 'we'
have looked at nature to artists developing an ecopolitical aesthetics
of disappearance, to more radical notions of a Virno- style 'exodus from
the depletion zone...') to our f2f-meetings in a few days.