For the Commons

Global people’s movements are leading the fight for our planet

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A conversation with Ashley Dawson, author of Environmentalism from Below

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Small farmers protest in Delhi.

Ashley Dawson is a professor at the City University of New York, the biggest Metropolitan University system in the United States with about 400,000 students, most first-generation learners of color from working class backgrounds. He spoke with Ian Rappel, a socialist ecologist based in Wales who works for the Real Farming Trust and the Black Mountains College.

Originally from South Africa, Ashley Dawson went to New York to study post-colonial studies with Edward Said, Rob Nixon, and Anne McClintock. Researching his dissertation on anti-racism in Britain from the time of the Windrush generation to the new Millennium, he was drawn towards the way that the landscape in the UK was created through a contrapuntal movement between exploitation and dispossession in the colonies, and those processes as they simultaneously played out across British landscapes.

Ashley Dawson’s interest in environmental issues grew while living in New York City, where he was exposed to environmental justice movements arising across New York’s working-class communities of color that were, and remain, disproportionately impacted by the city’s polluting energy and infrastructure projects. Through participation and activism, Dawson developed an interest in the connections between local environmental justice movements and those working for international climate justice. Writing on those links, he was invited to the World Peoples Conference on Climate Justice and the Rights of Mother Nature in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2010, where delegates laid out an overarching call for ecological reconstruction for and from the Global South, including calls for climate reparations from the polluting countries in the Global North that would facilitate that. His latest book, Environmentalism from Below: How Global People’s Movements are Leading the Fight for Our Planet (Haymarket 2024), opens with his reflections on that experience and builds on many years of studying grassroots environmentalism.

What do you mean by ‘Environmentalism from Below’? And how would you contrast it with the kind of ‘environmentalism from above’ that we are perhaps more used to in the Global North?

‘Environmentalism from below’ describes the kind of popular movements that are reacting to threats to the ecosystems that they depend on in an immediate way for their sustenance, but also for their cultural heritage. These are movements that combine struggles around protection of ‘the Commons’ in a material sense with defense of their cultural ties to the environment around them.

In that definition I’m building on a tradition of analysis that comes out of historians and critics located in the Global South. Ramachandra Guha, for example, wrote extensively about the movements to defend Indian forests from the national forestry service, a bureaucracy initiated by the British Empire in India. That forestry department was charged with taking over communally controlled land and transferring its ownership, initially to the colonial power and then to the Indian state after independence. By the 1970s it had become obvious that the Indian state was logging these forests in a way that was completely unsustainable. In response, local people, particularly women, went into the forests and defended the trees with their bodies. They put themselves physically between the chainsaws and the trees because they were sustainably harvesting some of the forest produce themselves but also because the forests were seen by local communities as sacred in some form and were part of their collective identity. That example of the Chipko movement in India is what I mean when I use the phrase ‘environmentalism from below’.

We can contrast that with ‘environmentalism from above’ where that carries two different expressions. First, in the context of settler colonialism in the USA, for example, we have a historical preservationist approach.  Here, as settlers arrive at a frontier, they push Indigenous people off, and then start to develop the land through agriculture and then industrialization. Eventually this results in efforts to set aside some of that land as it becomes recognized as particularly beautiful and part of national patrimony. Through this route we witness the invention of the National Park system which in the US expresses itself through Yellowstone and all the other ‘great’ national parks.

The central idea behind this approach is that we need to conserve ‘wild’ places. But such wilderness preservation is based on enforcing a kind of dichotomy between people and nature. Nature must be seen as a thing ‘out there’, separate from human communities. And nature, in that assumed condition, needs to be preserved somehow by the state. In this attitude towards wilderness, you need to make sure that there are no human beings who live within preservation areas. In the US that process required the dispossession of Native Americans, who were violently kicked out of national parks like Yellowstone.

You can tolerate humans in such constructed preservation areas for sure, but the preference is for wealthy white people – historically, hunters like Theodore Roosevelt and, today, mainly middle class white city dwellers who drive from San Francisco or wherever up to Yosemite. This neocolonial environmental vision is a direct product of settler colonialism. It reinforces the false dichotomy, a symptom of the alienation that capitalism enhances, between people and nature. It is also a powerful illustration of the ‘metabolic rift’ that the system creates between society and ecology. From the perspective of environmentalism from below, I think that the neocolonial construction of wilderness is a highly racist tradition, both historically and in the present. I examine the long history and genealogy of this kind of wilderness construction and conservation, as well as its impacts and how people are resisting settler colonialism in a chapter of the book.

Seen from the perspective of environmentalism from below, there is a second problematic legacy that flows from development of the environmental movement itself. The Western environmental movement from the 1960s and 1970s onward was highly important and impactful, and of course had a very populist component to it. In the US, for instance, Rachel Carson testified before the US Congress to advocate successfully for the banning of DDT pesticides. That then led to the creation of various government regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and positive legislation through the Clean Air Act. All those developments were tremendous victories that still resonate but they crucially rely on the state to protect the environmental Commons.

Since the election of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, many decades ago, we have had a consistent right-wing attack on the state which has mobilized a lot of people politically because they see the state as somehow inimical to their interests. Now, some of that animosity is grounded in racism but I also think that it’s not entirely unfounded to be skeptical about the bourgeois state and, by extension, the kind of flawed environmentalism from above that places all its eggs in the basket of state environmental regulation. I think it is certainly a problematic project in comparison to what environmentalism from below entails – mass mobilization of people who want to defend the environmental Commons that they depend upon.

Today, the significance of environmentalism from below is not restricted to the poorest of the Global South – those who the historian Ramachandra Guha referred to as ‘ecosystem people’ – but to all of us. At some level today we are now all ‘ecosystem people’ facing ecocide, climate change and mass extinction. So, what I would argue, and I do in the book, is that there’s a lot of political potency in an idea of environmentalism from below and the kinds of movements that sustain it as they are spreading all around the world today. We need to pay attention to them and what they are doing, particularly since the main institutions that we think characterize so-called Western civilization – capitalism, the state and urbanization – are all so ill-fitted for the current moment.

In the next few decades, we’re likely to blow through a series of key tipping points, from  the collapse of the Gulf Stream to levels of heating that are going to displace a third to half of humanity. And these things are not wild speculation but up-to-date scientific assessments. So, we’re passing all these tipping points and all these institutions that Western modernity has created and exported to the rest of the world – like the nation-state – are totally maladapted. People will need to be able to move, and they will need to be able to engage in forms of bottom-up mutual aid and disaster communism. That’s what my book ‘Environmentalism from Below’ is looking at; how people are already really doing that kind of thing in a variety of different organizational forms, in a variety of different scales, and taking that kind of project very seriously.

Coming from the West, one of the things that is noticeable around environmentalism from above is that we have official state-sanctioned versions of environmentalism as you say. These could express themselves through so-called independent but state-funded environmental bodies (the EPA in the US, or Natural Resources Wales from where I’m speaking). Arguably, these have been mainly disarmed over the last few decades through ‘regulatory capture’ and have been flipped over to the other side. But alongside those bodies, the other accepted form of environmentalism seems to be based on NGOs. Most of these have their origins in the upheavals of the 1960s – the likes of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF – but even where they are supported by a mass membership base it feels sometimes that they are trapped in a form of top-down and substitutionist environmentalism. Their approach towards their base seems to be almost transactional where their membership provides money, but direct activism and political engagement is undertaken by the NGO – from political lobbying to the scaling of a skyscraper or oil rig. Does the kind of environmentalism from below that you are outlining in the book offer a more empowering approach and enriching tradition for environmental politics?

I would say that it does, but I’m not trying to argue that there cannot be a role for nonprofit organisations putting pressure on the state or environmentalists mobilizing through some of these existing nonprofits. But if these NGOs, pressure groups and progressive political movements are not connected to the people who are really mobilising on the ground then they risk becoming co-opted top-down entities.

I start the book by reflecting on the World Peoples Conference on Climate Justice and the Rights of Mother Nature in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2010, but in writing I was also thinking about the Green New Deal that was being promoted because Cochabamba was happening at a time of excitement around environmental economics following the Great Recession of 2008. There was a lot of discussion about a Green New Deal coming out of Britain and Europe, and it even caught on to a certain extent here in the belly of the beast in the US, but then it receded as a series of right-wing governments got elected across the world. That resulted in more austerity economics being implemented and all those Green New Deal discussions just seemed to end.

Even before it retreated, I had concerns and was writing about the Green New Deal, worrying about the top-down Keynesianism of it and the lack of any sense that we need to rein in capitalist growth. That problem with Keynesianism comes from its origins in a different historical moment – a time when people weren’t thinking about the precariousness of planetary ecosystems the way we are today. But I was also concerned about how those Green New Deal plans tended to be framed within the boundaries and assumptions of the nation state. Their approaches and solutions were consequently not just limited and top-down but also neocolonial in outlook.

The Green New Deal proposals resurfaced in the period 2017 through 2019, as progressive politicians mobilised around the Bernie Sanders campaign here in in the US, and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Those campaigns produced some exciting policy proposals. But I felt that once again they were not addressing our environmental problems in terms of the planetary system and, most of all, were not oriented around what is needed for the Global South and communities on the front lines of climate crisis.

What I try to do in the book is to redress that imbalance by exploring a variety of different issues that are of primary importance in the Global South, starting with agriculture – which as you know almost never gets talked about in Western Green New Deal plans – followed by urbanization, energy transition, biodiversity conservation and migration. Across those themed chapters I try to look at a variety of different forms of organization on different scales. For example, with the chapter on ‘Decolonizing Food’ I look at the global peasants’ movement, La Via Campesina, which is a transnational organization that has its own forms of representative governance built in. This movement doesn’t seem to suffer from the kind of substitutionalism that you’re characterizing in relation to the nonprofit environmental sector in the West. It really does try to mobilize people in a quite direct democratic fashion, including a strong gender equality component.

La Via Campesina probably lies at the most organized end of the spectrum of the movements that I look at in the book. I also look at groups that some might see as “disorganized”, in the sense that they are not utilizing hierarchical representative structures and transnational governance models. I’m talking about things like squatter groups in the neighborhoods of Global South cities where people are fighting against eviction.

In applying that broader bottom-up approach I’m really interested in exploring the kinds of traditions which originated with British radical historiography embodied, for instance, by EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. I have tried to emulate that whole idea of doing history from below by taking seriously people’s forms of organization as he did. In a place like India that tradition led to Subaltern Studies, an approach to history that exposed how peasants mobilized and resisted incursions on their land by British imperial forces. In mainstream top-down historiography we would never get to actually hear such voices because it was always the imperial functionaries who were writing about popular “riots.”

The kinds of mobilizations I look at need a bottom-up approach. They would be hard to understand clearly without that because they have a very flexible and, one might even say, spontaneous mode of organizing. In the book I have tried to reveal that broader spectrum of mobilization formations that are developing in a Global South context.

In the context of that broad spectrum of mobilizations and their forms, do you think there are any shared organizational strengths that are revealed through bottom-up environmentalism? For example, whether explicitly class conscious (in the case of La Via Campesina) or more spontaneous, do these mobilizations have greater democratic resilience and therefore stronger guiding principles? If so, are they better placed to resist being pressed into the official service of neoliberalism in contrast to some co-opted Western environmental NGOs?

Well, popular movements are sites of political ferment and contestation. While these movements are fighting to defend the environmental commons, they are also always under pressure from elite interests and the state. Leaders can sometimes be bought off, and people can be cowed into silence. But what I found in terms of a kind of set of principles is that a lot of these movements are thinking about environmentalism in a very extended sense. In contrast, elite interests are trying to narrow the lens of environmentalism. Elites might admit that we have a climate crisis, but they narrow its scope to focus purely on carbon dioxide. That allows them to argue that the crisis can be taken care of through technological fixes like carbon capture and storage. Or they can push neoliberal carbon offsetting mechanisms as narrow solutions. That elite narrowing hides the truth of our environmental crisis and its myriad different interwoven and intersecting facets.

I think that the actual complexity of environmental issues is better understood by people on the ground where, for example, the climate crisis is really hitting. Just by virtue of their material circumstances, they and their movements have more accurate understandings.

As a specific example, in the book’s chapter on energy transition, I explore the case of South Africa where the ANC government has at least accepted the discourse of a ‘just energy transition’. But the way that they are attempting to achieve that is very narrow: they are just bringing in private contracting firms to build renewable energy. Many of those firms are from the Global North, specifically Europe, so there are lots of questions being asked by popular movements about equity – an important consideration given the very high unemployment levels in a place like South Africa. So, the crucial question there is what are the implications of having an energy transition being run by a bunch of corporate consultants and engineers from some place in the European Union?

That’s an important question because, meanwhile, there are popular movements on the ground that are blocking roads because their communities are suffering constant brownouts – sudden drops in the voltage magnitudes of the power grids. Those serious outages reflect the fact that the national energy authority, Eskom, is in a state of political crisis. The people on the ground see that they are threatened in terms of their housing because they cannot afford to pay the utility rates that the state utility provider is imposing. They also see poverty and energy provision as life and death issues in the context of increasing urban temperatures related to the climate crisis. These movements see a connection between overlapping issues of housing, energy access, climate and poverty. On top of that, because of the ANC government’s approach toward energy transition, they have an awareness of the corporate capture of the state. All those issues are seen as interconnected, and they then fight those kinds of issues through direct action. Importantly, because of that interconnectedness, they are also putting pressure on labour unions and trying to bring them over to their side and into their struggles.

The movements for energy transition justice are just one of many different struggles, in very diverse contexts, that I look at in the book. If there is one set of unifying principles across all those struggles, then it is the kind of intersectional environmentalism where people really are making connections because they are directly exposed to these multifarious crises on the ground. That kind of environmentalism contrasts sharply with the top-down and narrowing type – where efforts are spent on saving one part or one issue in the environment – that is so readily co-optable by neoliberal discourse.

It sounds like bottom-up environmentalism entails a more holistic approach. How much of that is down to radicalism – in the sense that, to maintain holism, you would need to dig down to the causal roots of a crisis and build back up to find the connections with other trends, factors, issues and mass movements?

If that assessment is relevant how is holistic radicalism able to counter the kind of single-issue environmentalism that we have inherited from Western science and the political choices stemming from Rio ’92 – when the world’s political leaders pushed an agenda that broke down the emerging environmental crisis into a series of discreet environmental ‘issues’ – biodiversity, climate, desertification, pollution and so on?

Does the kind of bottom-up and radical-holistic approach you explore hold the key to infusing serious environmentalists with a newfound sense of radical optimism? Would that outlook prove helpful to young people in particular who are describing themselves as ‘the last generation’?

We are only going to win the environmental struggle if we get mass movements engaged. That is the only way to do things because environmentalism from above, despite some of its successes, is clearly always going to be vulnerable to political backlash. And, of course, that danger of political backlash grows stronger and stronger as the climate and the environment more broadly goes into deeper crisis.

Mainstream ‘liberal’ politicians in the Global North are coping with the climate crisis by promising to speed up the energy transition from above by throwing public money at private corporations like Ørsted, the big offshore wind developer. In the US, that’s what the Inflation Reduction Act under President Biden is doing, and I know similar things are happening with the EU’s European Green Deal. The problem is that even as these initiatives are developed from the top down, we are in a moment of unparalleled boom for fossil fuels. Politicians, including ‘liberals’ like Joe Biden, are not doing anything serious about that contradiction because they are, on one hand, saying to environmentalists; we are doing what is necessary by pushing Green New Deals. But, on the other hand, the message they are sending to fossil fuel interests, and their associated financial speculators, is do not worry; your capital will be safe, we are going to carry on digging out fossil fuels, and you will be fine.

While we are in that perilous moment in the West, there is a kind of parallel situation in the Global South. Politicians like India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, stating that India needs to enhance its energy independence and its energy sovereignty for economic development. To those ends the Indian government is building significant solar power projects but it also and in tandem intends to open billions of pounds worth of coal seams and build new coal-fired power plants.

I’m using Modi and India as an example, but this is a problem throughout the Global South because these countries feel like their space for development has been foreclosed by the pollution that the West has put into the atmosphere historically. There is anger in the sense that elites in some Global South nations are arguing that it is their time to develop economically now, and they are not going to cut back on the fossil fuels they feel are needed to achieve that.

The horrendous irony is that the economic power unleashed in that way by fossil fuels benefits a limited percentage of the population in a country like India, even as the country itself is one of the planet’s most vulnerable places to the environmental apocalypse that is brewing. I see those contradictions as being one of the huge dangers we face in terms of the current political establishment and its top-down approaches.

To make things worse, there is the threat of the far right and of fascists who are utilising explicit xenophobia to demonise certain populations and migrants. This eco-fascism is most evident in rich countries like those of the EU but are also mirrored in the Global South, where a leader like Modi is targeting Muslims in ways explicitly modelled on Western Islamophobia.

I guess if we are going to think seriously about optimism then, it must be about being able to mount some kind of meaningful bottom-up opposition to both of those political trends – the kind of liberal duplicity that encourages fossil capital and energy transition simultaneously, and the kind of fascist response to climate crisis that increasingly attacks migrants.

There are some good signs that the need for radical action is resonating in the West and that people here are radicalizing environmentally. As an indicator we might think about Andreas Malm’s book ‘How to Blow up a Pipeline’ becoming a bestseller, being adapted into a film, and his work being profiled in the New York Times and so reaching a much broader audience. At the same time, you have Extinction Rebellion in the UK that has been in the lead for this kind of bottom-up and youthful radical protest. The kind of radicalization and holistic perspectives that we have been talking about are definitely happening, but the resulting repression is also a serious issue.

Of course, that pattern has been happening for a long time in the Global South.  In fact, what I argue in the book is that movements in the Global South have been blowing up pipelines and defending the environmental commons for a long time. Militant action, including armed resistance by people whose environment has been threatened, has been ongoing for decades in Global South countries. That resistance doesn’t always get labelled ‘environmentalism’, but it is often a form of defence of the environmental Commons. Resulting repression by postcolonial forces, including bourgeois state actors and international interests like fossil fuel firms, has also been unfolding through that environmental politics for a very, very long time.

Those major political forces that are at work in the current global moment are unfolding at a time when everything that we have taken for granted in the relative climate-stability of the Holocene is being upended. Going forward, all the political certainties that we have become used to – nation states, national boundaries and the world’s mega-cities – are about to be thrown up in the air, probably within our lifetimes but certainly by 2100. Preparing for that massive reconfiguration – while still trying to build from below what we need to survive and make energy transition happen as much as possible – is I think the key set of environmental struggles we have before us.

Going into that uncertain world how important are the traditional principles of political struggles and mass mobilization? For example, what role does internationalism have in terms of creating the critical mass of environmentalism from below; joining up all the struggles that you’ve outlined, and making them politically holistic by joining environmentalism to broader struggles for social justice and peace as well?

Also, linked to that internationalism and again coming from traditions of struggle, how significant are the principles of class-consciousness and class solidarity? Environmentalism from below has good examples of class-conscious organizations like La Via Campesina, but how important is it that connections be forged between such environmental movements and the urban working class?

I think on both counts, internationalism and class solidarity, these are important questions. I start the book with my experience going to Cochabamba for the World Peoples Conference on Climate Justice and the Rights of Mother Nature. That event was convened by movements in response to the 2009 Climate COP in Copenhagen where global elites basically refused to agree to mandatory greenhouse gas emissions cuts – the beginning of the failing road that got us to the Paris Agreement. Evo Morales and others from various Global South nations were so disgusted by that direction that they concluded that we needed a people’s movement – a kind of global class response, based on grassroots environmentalism – a Green International. I feel so fortunate to have been there and be part of the deliberations that took place in Cochabamba. I wish that it had kept going but, you know, the political circumstances changed. The rolling back of Pink Tide governments in Latin America, and the election of fascists in places like Brazil meant that that project struggled. But I think it’s a movement that is worth supporting and fighting for, so I continue to be part of efforts to help organize this kind of Green International.

For that to succeed it must be consistently anchored in the global majority so that it reflects the demands of people’s movements in the Global South. We need to make sure that the history of global justice traditions – the fights against neoliberalism that took place against all the international trade agreements of the 1990s and the WTO – are very much woven into emerging forms of international environmental solidarity.

In terms of class consciousness, it is essential that we nurture connections and solidarity between people who are positioned in different parts of the capitalist world system. We need to go back to the lessons outlined by Antonio Gramsci who fought to connect the industrial proletariat of Northern Italy with the peasantry of the country’s South. That level of class solidarity is a paradigm that we need to continue to build for the present times and struggles. It is a vital element of developing the kind of holistic struggle we have already discussed. But in developing holism I think we also need to include other struggles that orientate around different elements of identity. That includes the kind of anti-colonial and anti-racist elements that very much came to the fore in Cochabamba, where very clear arguments were made that the pollution of the global atmospheric Commons was a product of colonialism. That led to an understanding that capitalism and colonialism should be seen as intertwined, with the conclusion that environmentalism needs also to be a kind of decolonial movement that has anti-racism as its linchpin.

Pushing outwards into other struggles we of course need to start analyzing gender. Women are at the forefront of ecological struggles around the world, and we need awareness of how the climate crisis breaks down disproportionately along gender lines to impact women. Women are key to social reproduction, and what we are witnessing is essentially the collapse of societies’ capacity to reproduce themselves around the world. To reflect the urgency of these struggles, we need to make feminism and transnational feminist mobilizing key parts of the environmental struggles we are engaging with. In turn, for that to be effective, that gender element needs to be clearly connected to class consciousness and internationalist anti-colonial efforts.

Environmentalism from below needs to be approached holistically as a movement but I know it can be a challenge to do that. The political left and social movements often run aground as they try to keep all these elements of struggle in play and strive to be as just as possible. But I think that unity and holism is what we have to struggle for, and I look to organizations like La Via Campesina as really good examples for how this can be done.

Did you find grounds for meaningful hope that environmentalism from below can help us with the traditional struggles for unity that we need to address? Finally, does the ecological plane itself hold any potential to enhance unity through from below – what benefits come from incorporating radical elements of the ecological struggle such as agroecology?

Well, as I put it in my book, people have no option but to keep fighting. I learned a great deal about the grounds for that real determination not to surrender in writing Environmentalism from Below. On one hand it is a ridiculously sweeping book because I basically sat down to think about how the key environmental themes illustrate where crises are unfolding today, and how movements are mobilizing in response. The themed book chapters start out by diagnosing the set of problems the capitalist exploitative dynamic is creating for an environmental topic, and then explore alternatives from below.

For example, in the Decolonizing Food chapter, I set out to analyze the crisis in agriculture and the food system and then go on to describe the alternatives that come from agroecology. For that chapter – in an approach I took for each theme – I tried to learn as much as I could about soil ecosystems by speaking to as many experts and doing as much reading as I could. In this case, that research got me thinking about the complexity of soil ecology and the immense variety of life found in each and every square sample of soil. That diverse suite of organisms is interconnected through an incredibly beautiful ecological interplay that, in turn, maintains the immense richness of the soil. That is a superb analogy for the kinds of holistic radical politics that we have been talking about, but it is also exactly the kind of natural system that we need to figure out how to sustain through our radical politics.

The ecological and political analogies expand in other directions too. The agro-industrial model of treating the soil as a neutral substrate that you can just dump chemicals onto with abandon is clearly no longer working. But the dominance of that monocultural approach reveals much about the authoritarian style of the system that capitalism is exporting around the world. The criticisms of communism have always been that it is totalitarian but if you think about the kind of ecological systems that flow from industrial capitalism, they are as top down and destructive as any form of totalitarian political rule that you could imagine.

In contrast, if we look at natural ecosystems of the kind we see in healthy soils, we can learn a lot about what a generalised environmentalism from below might look like. But we can also speculate on the holistic requirements that will be needed to shape the kind of genuine disaster communism that we must rely on increasingly. In that respect, towards the end of Environmentalism from Below, I discuss the coming necessity for border abolition and how Western countries have spent so much more on militarizing their borders, while encouraging Global South nations to interdict migrants, than they have on climate reparations. The required abolition of nation states and racist borders is one very good concrete way we could think about our environmental crisis and response because almost all of us are going to have to move as climate change accelerates.

Environmental from Below ends with a discussion of the political issues that we have been talking about, and how the current systems that we have in place are utterly unsustainable given the environmental crises that they are creating. In the face of all those realities we need to build up other forms of solidarity and alternative ways of being in relation to the planet. In a neat reversal of the Thatcherite slogan, we must do that because there is no alternative.


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Climate & Capitalism,  2024.