Defend your “backyard”

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By ANSELM JAPPE*

“Acting minorities” can sometimes be more powerful than “silent majorities”.

Despite everything, something has improved in social and political life over the last few decades. Those who really want to change things have definitely abandoned the illusion that it would be possible to obtain real results through participation in elections, governments, ethics commissions, citizen conventions and petitions. Even when ecologist or “radical” leftist parties were part of governments, anywhere in the world, they achieved virtually no progress on the social or ecological plane.

Although everything seems to be blocked in the face of the "silent majorities", always in agreement with the rulers, we are witnessing an ebullition of actions practices: preventing the world from deteriorating, however small the scale, has effects real. And in this domain, the success rate seems to be clearly on the rise: to speak only of France, the fights ended up winning at Notre-Dame-des-Landes[I]; in Center Park; with regard to the new terminal at Roissy airport, in the Triangle of Gonesse[ii], close to Paris (Europacity); at Siven Dam[iii], at Amazon warehouses, etc. Often, it was the prolonged ZAD [“zones to defend”] that prevented the realization of these “large useless projects”.

And perhaps the most notable is the fear that visibly seized the “managers” and “planners”: several projects are abandoned even before the establishment of a ZAD [“zones to defend”] or other forms of militancy on the ground, that is , right after the first objections. Other projects are not even conceived: there is a de facto moratorium on building new highways and new nuclear power plants. “Progress” and “modernization” are beginning to have lead in their wings. Every dam, every TGV stretch[iv] or road, every plant or warehouse, every bridge, port or airport, every shopping center and every agricultural estate, every electricity grid, every meter, every waste that is proposed, in France, now runs the risk of running into opposition well determined. The complaints from industries, politicians and managers in response to this are truly good signs.

It would be absurd to call such fights "nimby” [acronym for not in my backyard – “not in my backyard”]. Beyond the personal motives of certain participants, these struggles create new social realities and alter power relations. If everyone defended their backyard, there would be no more pollution anywhere. In the same way, thevoluntary faucheurs"[v] have done more to stop (but unfortunately not stop) the advance of genetically modified organisms than all the parliamentary committees put together. “Acting minorities” are sometimes more powerful than “silent majorities”. The essential thing is to say: “they will not pass”.

If every extractive project in the world came across people determined to defend their “backyard”, world capitalism would quickly collapse. Furthermore, the ZAD demonstrate that “acting” is not the same thing as “violence”. In general, the absurd opposition between “violence” and “non-violence”, among which protesters are forced to choose, and which has allowed, for a long time, the powers that be to disunite and weaken extra-parliamentary oppositions is being overcome. In any case, violence always comes from the state.

It is true, relations with “local” populations or, in general, with “ordinary citizens” remain somewhat complicated, as well as with urban occupations. The ZAD easily seem to be a “separate”, “parallel”, “apart” world, populated mainly by young people without work or family, who may, eventually, arouse the sympathies of certain “common citizens”, but which would hardly spread. Thus, the ZADs and the Yellow Vests remain, to this day, worlds apart.

I can flatter myself for having accompanied this evolution since its beginnings, which coincided with my first youth. When I was about 13 years old, in 1975, I had already participated in a “citizens' initiative” in my neighborhood in the city of Cologne (in Germany) to prevent the felling of several trees for the duplication of a large road. Unsuccessfully. But, shortly afterwards, an occupation (a kind of ancestor of the ZAD) opposed, in Cologne, the construction of a highway in the middle of the city, this time succeeding. And I remember a girl singing “The flower grows and the concrete dies” – beyond a certain innocence, I can't help but think that the role of concrete was already, at that moment, clearly announced! Much later, in Italy, I organized a committee for several years that took a strong and finally successful position against the installation of two large cell phone antennas near the village where I lived.

If I already spontaneously sympathize with these struggles that brake the wheels of the carriage (or, better, the 4×4) that takes us to the abyss, it was with particular interest that I discovered the existence of the ZAD on the hill of Mormont, near Lausanne , in Switzerland. Its occupants oppose the project to expand the limestone mine operated for decades by the Swiss cement producer Holcim – responsible, according to a Greenpeace report, for several “human rights violations” in the corners of the world through which it passed. This company, which was already the second largest cement producer in the world, merged in 2015 with the French company Lafarge.

The latter never tried to hide its appreciation for the common good, from the time it was building the Atlantic Wall for the Nazi occupation to the scandal of 2020, when it was caught throwing waste into the Seine in the middle of Paris, passing through the ransoms paid to the Islamic State, in Syria, in exchange for its “protection”. This company, after having devoured a part of the hill, now wants to obtain authorization to destroy what is left, despite its scenic, natural and archaeological value and being officially “protected”. ZAD was installed in October 2020 in the part already purchased by the cement producer, with a view to future expansion. So far, the forces of order have bothered her little while they wait for the end of the legal process. Like any self-respecting ZAD, the occupation not only intends to prevent a new expansion of the deadly logic of capitalism's development, but also proposes to collectively elaborate new forms of life.

Such nature of the ZAD is well known for us to end here. Two more unusual aspects of Mormont's ZAD still seem to deserve our attention. To begin with, its objective: it is neither a nuclear power plant, nor an airport, nor a highway that arouses anger, but the simple extraction of limestone for the production of cement and concrete. A priori, this would seem much less harmful than, for example, the extraction of oil or gold, both in terms of extraction and use of these resources. Concrete doesn't go through something as harmful as plastic, pesticides and oil.

But, as I tried to demonstrate in my book Béton – Armor of massive construction of capitalism [Concrete – Weapon of Mass Construction of Capitalism], concrete is not only harmful because of CO emissions2 it causes, the amounts of sand it requires, and the waste it leaves along the way, but, above all, because of what it allows: the concreteness of the landscape, the standardization of the ways of building, the disfiguration of the world. A true “materialization” of the logic of value that governs capitalism, concrete is not a “neutral” material that can be used well or badly, depending on the case, but an element as devastating as oil, nuclear energy or pesticides. . We cannot help but be happy, therefore, that with this new ZAD, by targeting the concrete industry, it makes its mask of innocence drop a little more in order to fully integrate the club of threats to be fought if we want to save the foundations of life on Earth.

Another notable aspect: it is the first ZAD in Switzerland. This means that the contestation reached the “heart of the beast”: as we know, Switzerland is the base of several of the most obnoxious multinationals in the world (Nestle, Novartis etc.). It is, in the majority, they, and not the meticulous watchmakers, who create the mercantile wealth of the Swiss Confederation. Despite their merits, they are increasingly being challenged on their own territory: in November 2020, a majority of Swiss people approved a popular initiative proposing a law that would make multinationals liable, before the courts, for their misdeeds, even those carried out beyond Swiss borders. However, due to a peculiarity of Swiss law, the “majority of cantons” that did not participate prevent the implementation of this proposal.

It is, in fact, a characteristic of extractivism that it is carried out, at least currently, far from those who take advantage of it most, in the poorest places on the other side of the world. In general, the rich do not extract oil in their garden or pan for gold, using cyanide, in the river that passes by their mountain chalet, where they fish for trout. With concrete, the situation is somewhat different. Limestone is found in different regions of the world, so the market value of its ton is very low – which makes its transport over long distances inconvenient. It is extracted, therefore, in front of the door. It is an impact that is difficult to export, it is more “democratic” and reaches even the heart of Europe.

This is why it is so prone to contestation: one can hardly close one's eyes to it, in the same way one “forgets” that the cobalt in smartphones comes from bloody mines in Africa. The concrete shows us that it is an illusion to cynically believe that only others will pay the “price of progress”. One way or another, capitalism will turn against the countries that created it. The beautiful Swiss mountains, reduced to dust for the construction of highways, are just a small example.

Of course, it is necessary to wish that the zadistas Helvetians continue to go beyond the state of simple indignation at the attack on orchids (“The Orchids” is the name of the association that promotes the ZAD) or on Celtic ruins. The fight against the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport did not end with defending the frogs either, important as that was. “Against the concrete and its world” is, in fact, a very adequate proposal, as well as “Against the airport and its world” and a hundred other similar slogans. We can no longer speak, in good faith, of “sustainable development” and other forms of green washing.

Everything is related; and anyone who refuses a particular impact is quickly obliged, logically, to equally reject everything that produced this damage and made it “necessary”. So, to stick to the concrete: why bother proposing “alternatives” such as “ecological concrete” or let a useless debate take place on the question of whether it is necessary to import cement from other countries? Are there not enough buildings and concrete surfaces already and isn't it time to start dismantling them? Haven't we been able to build without using concrete for thousands of years? Does natural stone no longer exist? True, it could cost “more expensive”. This puts the “economy” up for debate. But, as we just said: if we pull a thread from the fabric of lies around us, everything else follows.

*Anselm Jappe is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sassari, Italy, and author, among other books, of Credit to death: The decomposition of capitalism and its criticisms (Hedra).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Translator's notes


[I] “The village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, in eastern France, has come to symbolize the country's biggest environmental and social struggle in years. It involves plans for a huge new airport for the region. The construction was first opposed by residents and ranchers, and then by environmental activists, as it threatened a protected wetland.” Source: France24

[ii] “A group of militants began, on February 7 [2021], an occupation of the zone to be defended (ZAD) of the Triangle of Gonesse, agricultural land located near the airport of Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle, in the Val -d'Oise. They oppose a project to install a station for the Grand Paris Express and a business district”. Source: newspaper Le Monde

[iii] The Sivens Dam, located in Tarn (near Toulouse), has been the scene of a struggle for its construction for over six years. On October 26, 2014, a 21-year-old young opponent of the project was killed in a clash with law enforcement. Source: La Depeche.fr

[iv] TGV, or Train to Grande Vitesse (High Speed ​​Trains) is the name given by the French railway transport agency to the country's major high-speed rail lines.

[v] Volontaires Facheurs(Volunteer Reapers) is an essentially French movement of around 6700 militants who have engaged, in writing, in the destruction of transgenic experiment plots and cultures of genetically modified organisms in the open field. Source: Wikipedia.

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