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The Politics of Plants

interview
interview

The Politics of Plants

Tobias Müller on Research and Activism.

Imperialism and colonialism really continue to shape the environment.

Tobias Müller is a researcher with the ambition to engage and to act. He believes that ideas about politics and how to organize life are not just best theorized by academics but also through people’s everyday experiences. He is particularly concerned with the often-ignored voices of women, indigenous people and those living in the Global South. Interested in the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion, Tobias explores the questions around state legitimacy and grassroot resistance – topics he will focus on during his time at THE NEW INSTITUTE.


Tobias, you are currently traveling. Where are you at the moment?

I am in Mzuzu in the North of Malawi, a beautiful town overlooking Lake Malawi, one of the largest lakes in the world. In the last couple of weeks, I have been learning a lot about the people living at the lake shore, the challenges they are facing and the exciting projects that are going on.

What is the connection to your work at THE NEW INSTITUTE?

I want to understand how the question of climate change and the environment is connected to other political fault lines – and how it necessitates rethinking politics. To do that, we need to step out of the boundaries of the mainstream climate discourse, particularly in Western Europe.

Why is that?

The debate is often centered around the idea of the Anthropocene – which is focused on the industrial age and the incredible impact humans have had on the planet and atmosphere since the “atomic age”. But before that, there was colonialism – which meant genocide, slavery, and the complete transformation of ecosystems. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing calls this the “plantationocene”, the age of monocultures, not just in the North or in the Americas but also here in Malawi with all the tea and tobacco plantations.

What exactly did this mean?

Most forests in Malawi and Kenya are full of eucalyptus trees that were imported by British colonists from Australia. They grow very well here, but they need so much water that many indigenous plants perish. This continues to radically diminish biodiversity. Imperialism and colonialism really continue to shape the environment, to shape the world.

What else did you learn from being in East Africa that makes you think differently about how to tackle climate change?

The environmental and climate discourse in the Global North is a lot about the reduction of consumption. And there are important debates about degrowth, for example. But this discourse is often seen in quite an isolated way, as if the proposed lifestyle changes were applicable everywhere in the world. When I ask people here about deforestation, they say, of course deforestation is a problem, but how should we cook without wood? Or, you tell us to stop fishing in Lake Malawi, which has the highest biodiversity in the world – how should we feed ourselves? To these questions, a lot of Western climate change discourse does not really have an answer.

People in Malawi have a carbon footprint that is next to zero.

And what is the broader proposal for these people that find themselves on a very different trajectory than late industrial Euroamerica? Which brings us to the question of timelines: What is the story that we tell ourselves about where we are at? At COP26, you could hear a lot of speeches by heads of states saying: "Now is the time" and "It‘s up to us". Of course, this serves a purpose – but it also introduces a certain teleology: We are now the ones that are deciding where to go, the powerful heads of states. Now: Who speaks for the people whose crops are failing and literally don't have anything to eat?

How is all of this connected to your work in political theory?

For me, political theory means thinking about the key concepts that organize our common life, including justice, community, the state, but also the future or the people. Traditionally, a lot of political theory does that by looking at canonical texts, creating trajectories starting with Thomas Hobbes and ending with Carl Schmitt and Jürgen Habermas. But this is only one way to do political theory. People theorise about politics a million times every day all over the globe. We have ignored most of those voices, particularly from women, indigenous people and those living in the Global South. We need to take this grassroots political thinking and how the South, as Achille Mbembe reminds us, shapes theory, more seriously.

What does that mean concretely?

We find knowledge about key concepts of politics not only in books, but also in people's everyday experiences. We need to recognize that forms of statehood and governance have completely changed – in Malawi for example through the role that donor organizations have in the healthcare sector. The development industry and multinational companies have enormous financial and political clout, which completely skews the relationships between citizens, states, and international organizations.

How do you work in your research?

I call what I do ethnographic political theory. This means really understanding the politics of everyday life in situations that are not relevant at first sight, but which tell us a lot about how power is exercised. I bring this together with the canon of political and social theory to rethink key concepts such as the state and power. The rains in Kenya are becoming unpredictable, and as a result people lose their cattle and harvests. This means that what has been the basis of thriving communities for hundreds of years is evaporating. What is an adequate political answer to this? I think that is the type of new thinking that we need to get a better understanding of how climate change challenges everything we know about politics.

What would that look like?

I am interested in political alliance building that crosses the Global North and Global South. It is important to recognize the agency of people in the most affected countries in East Africa. Considering them only as poor victims is patronizing and unhelpful. There is specific knowledge in these societies that will prove vital for survival in a heating world. 80% of the earth's biodiversity is guarded by 5% of the population, which are the indigenous populations of the world. And they have been resisting the incursion of extractive companies, of logging, of plantations, for a very long time.

You are particularly interested in the resistance and tactics of Extinction Rebellion. How did your interest come about?

Extinction Rebellion is putting pressure directly on governments – there is a clear story that the governments have broken the social contract. They even quote Hobbes and Locke because they are not protecting the people anymore. They argue that people have the right and duty to rebel. I find it fascinating that some judges in the UK have accepted this argument and ruled that it was justified to damage property because it is proportionate to the non-protection of the state against climate disaster.

The focus is on systemic power, not individual failure.

Shifting the blame from the individual to the systemic level has massively helped the environmental movement. Remember that the idea of the “personal carbon footprint” was popularized in 2005 by BP and other fossil fuel companies. Extinction Rebellion has captured the imagination of people who were never activists before, who were suddenly blocking a road and being arrested in the thousands. This strategy of nonviolent direct action and civil resistance has inspired many across the globe to join, even in countries where engaging in civil disobedience means risking one’s life.

How would you describe your role between a scientist and a sympathizer?

I work with the method of participant observation – to really understand what people do, it is best to do it yourself: helping to organize a protest gives you good insight into the complexities the protest organizers have to deal with. I am an academic. I want to understand. I am very critical of a lot of things that the environmental movement and Extinction Rebellion do. But I share the idea that we need drastic societal change to confront the climate crisis.

What would this change look like?

There is a holistic and spiritual transformational part in Extinction Rebellion – drawing attention to the inherent violence embedded in social and economic structures across the globe, connected not only to the way we do business, aka capitalism, but also to patriarchy and colonialism. Let’s face it: The world that we build is built on exploitation and the destruction of a livable climate.
Climate change is inherently connected to global justice.

The climate crisis is also a racism crisis. Within Extinction Rebellion there are broadly two different camps. One takes this broader view; the other says, let’s focus on one thing, the climate crisis, and not get bogged down in culture wars and questions about racism, since that is a too difficult terrain.

How would you describe the difference between Extinction Rebellion in the Global South and in the Global North?

I know the movement best in the UK. They promise to give 20% of all the money they raise to support frontline communities in the Global South, in their struggles for survival, but also against extractive industries. The interesting question is who speaks for the non-white population of the UK, BIPOC people, and how that relates to the Global South. Most people in Extinction Rebellion are white middle-class people who have an interest in ecology, which is not a bad thing per se , but a lot of these debates are a bit removed from them. There have been a lot of frustrations of People of Color and people from Global South countries that their interconnected struggles, against ecocide, racism and economic deprivation, are not taken seriously. A lot of people also have left Extinction Rebellion for that reason.

How are these questions connected to your larger research topic which addresses issues of state legitimacy?

The question of the legitimacy of political institutions is always in the background: Do people think that the current status quo is legitimate? It is not unlikely that we are heading towards the partial collapse of society. And if you live in a situation where a large part of your indigenous way of life and your people have been obliterated – think for instance about most indigenous communities in North America – the question is: How legitimate is what they call a settler colonial state?

Climate change directly challenges state legitimacy.

The most interesting question to me is: Can states regain legitimacy, and if so, how? Because people feel they did enough to cut down CO2 emissions? And connected to that: How do we rethink democracy? Extinction Rebellion demands the establishment of citizens assemblies with real legislative power, which have been taken up with varying degrees of success. It is clear for many people that we need to radically rethink democracy – enlarge the franchise, for instance, to people much younger, because climate change is about future generations. Or giving people that are most affected by climate change democratic decision-making power in countries that emit most greenhouse gases.

How does all of this fit into a political theory?

I think we will have a very harsh awakening in the North Atlantic region to the reality of major cities like New York, London and Amsterdam being continually flooded and millions of climate refugees heading north. We need to take seriously what that means for young people rising up and the survival of democratic polities. It is a powder keg that we're sitting on. It is not only about decarbonizing our economy. To adapt to the impacts of global heating, we also need to address these other issues. All sectors of society are directly impacted by the climate crisis, which makes it the most important and most interesting challenge to political theory in the 21st century. There is also an enormous political opportunity here because, for the first time, environmentalism, anti-racism, trade-union struggles, feminist movements and others might really come together.

Can you complete this sentence: To me, this is personal because...

Because as a political human being, I have a duty to not remain silent in the face of the calamities we are facing. And as a researcher, I have a duty to reflect on these things and advance the public conversations so urgently needed.


Tobias Müller is an affiliated lecturer at the University of Cambridge. At THE NEW INSTITUTE, he is part of the programme "The Foundations of Value and Values".

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