Social Ecology and Contemporary Urban Struggles

Graffitti from Rio de Janeiro protesting the world cup

In his essay in Social Ecology and Social Change, Federico Venturini initiates a dialogue between social ecology theory and contemporary urban struggles. In Brazilian cities like Rio de Janeiro, new urban movements have managed to mobilize large sectors of society against megalomaniac urban development projects. Venturini argues that social ecology has something to learn from these movements, and that urban activists have something to learn from social ecology.

Video: Federico Venturini tells why people should read Social Ecology and Social Change.

Transcript: "Hello, my name is Federico Venturini. I am one of the authors of a chapter of this new book Social Ecology and Social Change. My essay is about social movements and social ecology. I am speaking about my experience as a researcher and activist with urban social movements in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I have been there for almost one year, and I was part of the big struggles developed after 2013 agianst the megaevents and megaprojects in the city of Rio de Janeiro. I am using social ecology as a research framework and I am reaching the experience of the social movements on the ground and the theory of social ecology.

I think that this book is an incredible anthology with many different perspectives, and is very fresh. It is something that brings toghether different authors and different traditions - all toghether under the big umbrella of social ecology."

Below the image is an extract from Federico Venturini's essay Social Ecology and Contemporary Urban Struggles in the book Social Ecology and Social Change.

Protest in Brazil against the world cup and other issues in 2013

Image: Venturini discusses the case of urban social struggles, like the ones against the World Cup in Brazil in 2013, in his essay in Social Ecology and Social Change.

In many countries, the Left seems to have abandoned its longstanding tradition of forging strong relationships with the political base. Too often, the Left is entrenched in dogmatic discussions or narrow campaigns, while the development of genuine grassroots projects is left in the hands of right-wing or religious organizations. Rio de Janeiro reminds us of the importance of action from below, and this resonates with the basic principles of social ecology. Here, an articulated undergrowth of grassroots initiatives, such as community centers, popular education projects, land and housing occupations, all built on their own networks to mobilize for the protests, giving these protests both a structure and radical content. This is an important lesson for movements in core countries: continuously working in community organizations to build grassroots self-governing structures offers the possibility of mobilizing the population and creating a “political climate” favorable to radical social change. It also opens up spaces where alternative futures and social ecology principles can be put in practice, visible to the whole society. With the support of social ecology, such public arenas could help ground and solidify the moments of street protests and popular insurrection.

Bookchin reminds us that novelties often emerge from the periphery and two of the most extraordinary contemporary examples of realized utopias are the Zapatistas’ autonomous municipalities in Chiapas and the experience of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan. These experiences underscore the importance of a vision for the future such as the ones provided by social ecology. At the same time they show that this vision should not be a strict blueprint, but act as a guide, modified and adapted to each specific geographical, historical and social condition. Social ecology’s political approach provides a powerful tool for social change, something even a Marxist scholar like David Harvey acknowledges. In order to take maximum advantage of its potential, however, it needs to be adapted to specific times and places, also reconsidering, where needed, its electoral strategy. We should take into account the reasons why many contemporary social movements reject traditional political parties and representative democracy, and make sure we do not reproduce them. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, municipal elections would present many similar problems to elections at the statewide level. This city of six million people lacks any institutional framework at the community level. Therefore these urban social movements are now building their political structures entirely outside of the existing institutions. Social ecologists need to elaborate new ways to accompany them in their struggles, adapting a communalist politics to different contexts. Communalism, Bookchin reminds us, “is not a fixed electoral dogma that depends upon the state, in whatever form, to initiate municipal institutional changes. In practice, it will obviously vary from locality to locality and country to country.

Federico Venturini is a PhD candiate at the School of Geography at the University of Leeds, UK, where he studies the relationship between modern cities and urban social movements. Venturini participates in the Contested Cities project, and is a member of the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology.

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