Monday, February 28, 2011

216. The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time?

A Scene from an Early
Factory in England

Today's New York Times carries an editorial: The Anthropocene. According to some scientists, we have left the geological epoch, the Holocene, behind with the advent of industrialization around 1800 and have entered a new epoch marked by human caused global change to the planet Earth, hence the name the Anthropocene. 
The Times editorial adds: "... we are the only species to have defined a geological period by our activity — something usually performed by major glaciations, mass extinction and the colossal impact of objects from outer space, like the one that defines the upper boundary of the Cretaceous.
"...the true meaning of the Anthropocene is that we have affected nearly every aspect of our environment--from a warming atmosphere to the bottom of an acidifying ocean."
That is all the editors of the Times have to say about the "human caused" geological epoch and its colossal impact.  The reasons should be obvious.  The English Industrial revolution was a process of consolidation of a new mode of production on Earth: the capitalist mode of production.  Without changes in social relations of production, that is, without expropriation of peasants (e.g., enclosures of the commons) and creating a class of workers who had nothing but their labor power to sell, without monopolization of social means of production in the hands of a new class of capitalists, without commodification of the economy and production for capitalist gain (profit), there would not have been an industrial revolution.  It is also true that without fossil fuels to power the capitalist factories, there would not have been an industrial capitalism. 
So, to recognize the root cause of the Anthropocene epoch the Times editors and scientists who are engaged in this important debate would not be able to confront the truly world-historic predicament humanity faces. The Anthropocene epoch is the epoch of ecological crisis caused by the capitalist system that threatens life on Earth.  To face up to this challenge--that is to stop and reverse "human caused environmental damage" of historic proportion, humanity needs to do away with capitalism.  But that is the social system that the New York Times and the class it represents defend.  The task of defending nature is left to the rest of us. And, there is no time to lose.  We need a better social system that replaces capitalist savagery (it is an accurate term) with a society where humans live in harmony with themselves and with nature that they are a part of.  Let me call that ecosocialism. 
The Times helpfully points to a recent conference on the Anthropocene. The proceedings are published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The Introduction to the volume is reproduced below with links to the volume that offers free downloads of the papers.
    1. *     *     *
    Jan Zalasiewicz
  1. Mark Williams1
  2. Alan Haywood and 
  3. Michael Ellis, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society
March 13, 2011; 369 (1938)
1. Introduction
From the late nineteenth century, scientists were becoming aware of the extent of human influence on planet Earth. George Perkins Marsh’s influential Man and Nature [1] is perhaps the first major work to focus on anthropogenic global change, while the Italian geologist Antonio Stoppani [2] coined the term ‘Anthropozoic’ to denote the time of this transformation. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Svante Arrhenius [3] and Thomas Chamberlain [4] were exploring the relationship between CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and global warming. Arrhenius suggested that future generations of humans would need to raise surface temperatures to provide new areas of agricultural land and thus feed a growing population. In 2002, the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen [5] resurrected the concept of the Anthropocene to denote the current interval of time on Earth in which many key processes are dominated by human influence. The word quickly entered the scientific literature as a vivid expression of the degree of environmental change on Earth caused by humans, and is currently under discussion as a potential formal unit of the geological time scale [6,7].
2. What characterizes the Anthropocene?
The use of tools was once thought to distinguish humans from all other animals, and among the earliest people who lived at 2Ma in Africa were Homo habilis, the ‘handy man’. From that time, people have been modifying the Earth. For much of that human story, these changes were achieved by muscle and sinew, supplemented first by primitive tools, largely for hunting, and later by fire. Traces of humans in the Pleistocene rock record are rare, and stay rare until the Holocene.
The influence of humans is felt more strongly towards the end of the Pleistocene epoch, with the demise of much of the ‘megafauna’ that included the sabre-toothed cats in North America or the woolly mammoths of Siberia. On many continents, the disappearance of the megafauna appears to coincide with the arrival of modern humans. Like many events in the geological record, this extinction is diachronous—that is, happening in different places at different times. Thus, the megafauna disappeared in Australia 50000 years ago, but in the Americas 13000 years ago. Yet, the megafauna are still living in parts of Africa and South Asia, albeit under threat nearly everywhere.
From the beginning of the Holocene, about 11500 years ago, evidence for human activities becomes more widespread, with the rise of agriculture beginning first in the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East and gradually extending to northern Europe by 6000 years ago [8]. This change from hunting to cultivation leaves a clear fossil record in the pollen preserved in sedimentary successions through this interval. And, the clearance of forests, associated with the rise of agriculture, may have begun to elevate CO2 levels in the atmosphere long before the Industrial Revolution [8].
Following the Neolithic revolution of agriculture, humans began to live in villages and towns, and by the third millennium BC the cities of ancient Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley and the Indus Basin of Pakistan were well established and culturally distinctive. Still later, urban cultures spread across the tropical and temperate zones everywhere, with those in Europe, Central and South America and China being diverse and advanced by the first millennium BC. This rate of urbanization has accelerated through time, with the first million-strong cities possibly appearing in late medieval times. By the nineteenth century, London and Paris had clearly reached this size. Now, there are many cities with between 10 and 20 million inhabitants. These are continuing to grow, rapidly.
Urbanization is a direct result of a population explosion. Since 1800, global population has risen from roughly 1 billion, to 6.5 billion in 2000 and a projected 9 billion by 2050. That population growth is linked with the Industrial Revolution, which supplied the power and technology to feed those extra mouths. Cities, and especially megacities like Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro or Shanghai, are now the most visible expression of human influence on the planet. The growth of cities is therefore a characteristic feature of the Anthropocene.
In ‘terraforming’ cities and building the dams and agricultural land that water and feed them, humans have wrought a roughly order of magnitude change in the long-term rate of erosion and sedimentation [9,10]. Paradoxically, while deforestation and changes in land use have resulted in more sediment transported in rivers, many of those rivers are now dammed, preventing the flow of that sediment to continental shelves [11]. Such changes may be impermanent. If human construction were to stop, for instance, nature would soon take over these constructions, reducing them to ruins over a matter of centuries. After a few millennia, perhaps only a patchy layer of concrete and building rubble would remain.
The biological and chemical signals left by humans—invisible, intangible in our day-to-day lives—may leave a signal more profound than the physical structures of the world’s megacities. Thus, dissolution of increased atmospheric CO2 into the oceans is increasing their acidity. A significant drop in oceanic pH has already occurred, and further decreases are almost certain. The biological response is complex, but will stress many calcifying organisms such as corals or the marine plankton that form the base of many food chains. Ocean acidification alone may substantially change marine ecosystems over the next century, contribute to global biodiversity decline, and so produce a distinctive event in the future fossil record.
3. Dealing with geological time
The Earth is over 4.5Gyr old. This vast time span encompasses the formation of our planet and its oceans and continents, the origin of life and the evolution of the biosphere to its present complexity. To cope practically with such an extent of geological time, it is divided into more manageable packages that range from eons encompassing hundreds of millions—or indeed billions—of years, through smaller packages of time, such as the eras, typically characterized by a distinctive fossil record, perhaps most notably the dinosaurs and ammonites for the Mesozoic era beginning about 250Ma and terminating some 66Ma. These in turn are subdivided into periods of geological time, such as the Cambrian or Cretaceous, that may include distinctive, extensive rock units, such as the chalk strata of the latter. Periods are divided further into epochs and ages, and the record of fossils in rocks that were deposited in these shorter intervals of time is now so well constrained that we can correlate such units globally and reconstruct the appearance and conditions of our planet for many hundreds of different time slices.
The last period of time, the Quaternary, began just 2.6Ma, and includes two epochs, the Pleistocene and the Holocene. The latter—by far the shortest in the geological time scale—began only about 11500 years ago, witnessed by changes in climate that manifest in an ice core from Greenland [12]. The Holocene is really just the last of a series of interglacial climate phases that have punctuated the severe icehouse climate of the past 2Myr. We distinguish it as an epoch for practical purposes, in that many of the surface bodies of sediment on which we live—the soils, river deposits, deltas, coastal plains and so on—were formed during this time.
4. Examining the Anthropocene
To the Quaternary period a third epoch might be added, the Anthropocene. Should it be formalized, and join the Carboniferous, the Jurassic, the Pleistocene and other such units on the geological time scale? This would be a major change to perhaps the most fundamental framework—the temporal one—used by Earth scientists. Such changes are not carried out lightly, and require wide discussion, consensus and agreement, under the aegis of the International Commission on Stratigraphy and the International Union of Geological Sciences. Are the changes involved in the Anthropocene of sufficient scale to warrant such formalization and—whether they are or not—is it useful to formalize the term in this way? Formalization would require precision of definition—and that would certainly help international and interdisciplinary communication. But excessive formality, of course, can act as a hindrance to working science. Where is the line to be drawn here?
This Theme Issue is a contribution to this debate, and was conceived to examine various aspects of the Anthropocene, and to stimulate debate, both about the term itself and (more importantly) about the phenomenon it encompasses: the transformation of the Earth’s surface environments by human activity. This phenomenon is now arguably the most important question of our age—scientifically, socially and politically. We cannot think of a greater or more urgent challenge.
The opening paper of this issue by Steffen et al. [13] (the authorship including the architect of the term ‘Anthropocene’, Paul Crutzen) provides historical context to the Anthropocene concept, and examines the rapidly evolving—indeed, accelerating—trends in many global environmental signals, from resource use on land to patterns of oceanic and atmospheric chemistry. The authors stress recent human innovations—for instance, the startling advances in genomics that may profoundly impact on the future evolution of the biosphere. The effects of such transformational technologies may come to dwarf those of the smokestack industries, as regards lasting effects on this planet.
The Anthropocene is here treated as a geological phenomenon, comparable to some of the great events of the Earth’s deep past. But, the driving force for the component global changes is firmly centred in human behaviour, particularly in social, political and economic spheres. The paper by Kellie-Smith & Cox [14] examines the relations between the financial markets and the Earth’s environmental life support systems. They suggest that the future course of this relation may be influenced by a stabilizing negative feedback—thus, as environmental degradation hinders economic development, adverse affects on the markets will limit investment, acting as a brake on the likes of resource depletion and carbon emissions.
The science of Anthropocene change to the oceans is analysed by Tyrrell [15]. The major phenomena here are warming (and sea ice loss at high latitudes), sea-level rise and acidification, all demonstrably processes that are already initiated; and changes to ocean circulation, that have yet to be clearly demonstrated. Tyrrell shows how processes such as carbonate compensation will probably lead to continuing ocean change for many millennia into the future, even after anthropogenic CO2 emissions cease.
Vidas [16] examines the history of the law of the sea, the framework that regulates humanity’s exploitation of the vast (but finite) resource of the oceans. This framework stemmed from the early seventeenth century concept of Mare Liberum—‘the freedom of the seas’—by Hugo Grotius (originally commissioned to justify what was, in effect, the life of the privateer). Subsequently shaped by national, territorial forces, this developed into the modern framework, where geological concepts (like the extent of the continental shelf) remain central to such matters as national claims to stretches of the sea. Now, Vidas argues, as the oceans themselves change through anthropogenic pressure, one must envision new principles that acknowledge those pressures, to underpin future iterations of the law of the sea. Tickell [17] reflects more widely on the societal economic and social trends that brought about humanity’s current, pivotal situation—and on the kind of dynamics and institutional arrangements that may be needed to allow an Anthropocene epoch in which future generations can thrive.
Haywood et al. [18] analyse some of the ancient climates of Earth. They conclude that the relevance of studying ancient warm climates is not in the search for a direct analogue for twenty-first century global warming, but in the assessment and calculation of the response of global temperatures to increasing CO2 concentrations in the longer term (over multiple centuries), and in the assessment of the abilities of climate and Earth system models to predict future climate.
Syvitski & Kettner [19] show that the impact of humans on sediment flux began some 3000 years ago within the Yellow River basin. This trend accelerated in the past 1000 years, and the sum of human activity through deforestation, agriculture, mining, transport, waterway ‘re-plumbing’, coastal trawling and climate change has produced an effect equivalent to the level of a geological climate event, such as seen in the transition between the Pleistocene and the Holocene.
Merritts et al. [20] show that conceptual models linking channel condition and sediment yield exclusively with modern upland land use are incomplete for valleys impacted by mill dams. With no equivalent in the Holocene or Late Pleistocene sedimentary record, modern incised stream channel forms in the mid-Atlantic region of the USA represent a transient response to both base-level forcing and major changes in land use beginning centuries ago.
Ellis [21] considers the transformation of much of the terrestrial biosphere into anthropogenic biomes, or anthromes. He analyses the scale of this transformation by comparing the extent of change through different time slices of the Holocene. While human influence has been significant for more than 8000 years, it is only the last century that has seen a majority of the biosphere transformed into intensively used anthromes, and these are characterized by novel ecological processes, in increasingly profound manipulations of entire ecosystems.
Zalasiewicz et al. [22] consider contemporary environmental trends in stratigraphic terms, for instance, translating landscape modification (including urban growth) as a new lithostratigraphic signal, and biodiversity change as the fossil record of the future. Factoring in the potential for preservation of modern anthropogenic phenomena means that some of the most striking contemporary signals, such as megacity growth, may have low preservation potential, depending on tectonic setting. Conversely, biodiversity changes (including such novel aspects as unprecedented levels of global species transfer) have considerable permanence in determining the future course of biotic development.
The stratigraphic signal left by humans is continued by Price et al. [23], who discuss the gemorphological impact of humans on Earth. They note that in the past 200 years, humans in the UK alone have excavated and built up more than four times the volume of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain. Vane et al. [24] continue this theme, identifying a range of pollutants preserved in the sediments of the River Clyde that provide a stratigraphical record of the rise of Glasgow, one of the world’s first industrial cities.
It is clear that much work remains to be undertaken to understand the Anthropocene, even as its defining processes evolve. Considering the present in terms of the deep past, and vice versa, is difficult, because the methods of description and analysis of these two temporal realms are often greatly different. Nevertheless, it is important to try to put contemporary changes to the Earth, as clearly as possible, into a deep time context. This Theme Issue is intended as a step in that direction. The results of the studies herein, in sum, indicate that anthropogenic influence on Earth, albeit only briefly sustained (to date) on geological time scales, is likely to have significant and long-lasting consequences. The Anthropocene, on current evidence, seems to show global change consistent with the suggestion that an epoch-scale boundary has been crossed within the last two centuries.
1.              .            Marsh G. P. (1864) Man and nature:or, physical geography as modified by human action (C. Scribner, New York, NY).
2.             .            Stoppani A. (1871–1873) Corsa di geologia (Bernardoni and Brigola, Milan, Italy).
3.             .            Arrhenius S. (1896) On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature of the ground. Lond. Edinb. Dublin Phil. Mag. J. Sci. 41:237–275, (fifth series).
4.             .            Chamberlin T. C. 1897 A group of hypotheses bearing on climatic changes J. Geol. 5 653 683 (doi:10.1086/607921)
5.              .            Crutzen P. J. 2002 Geology of mankind Nature 415 23 (doi:10.1038/415023a) CrossRefMedline
6.             .            Zalasiewicz J., et al. 2008 Are we now living in the Anthropocene GSA Today 18 4 8 (doi:10.1130/GSAT01802A.1)
7.              .            Zalasiewicz J., Williams M., Steffen W., Crutzen P. 2010 The new world of the Anthropocene Environ. Sci. Technol. 44 2228 2231 (doi:10.1021/es903118j) Medline
8.             .            Ruddiman W. F. 2003 The anthropogenic greenhouse era began thousands of years ago Clim. Change 61 261 293 (doi:10.1023/B:CLIM.0000004577.17928.fa) CrossRefWeb of Science
9.             .            Hooke R. LeB. 2000 On the history of humans as geomorphic agents Geology 28 843 846 (doi:10.1130/0091-7613(2000)28<843:OTHOHA>2.0.CO;2) Abstract/FREE Full Text
10.           .            Wilkinson B. H. 2005 Humans as geologic agents:a deep-time perspective Geology 33 161 164 (doi:10.1130/G21108.1) Abstract/FREE Full Text
11.            .            Syvitski J. P. M., Vörösmarty C. J., Kettner A. J., Green P. 2005 Impact of humans on the flux of terrestrial sediment to the global coastal ocean Science 308 376 380 (doi:10.1126/science.1109454) Abstract/FREE Full Text
12.           .            Walker M., et al. 2009 Formal definition and dating of the GSSP (Global Stratotype Section and Point) for the base of the Holocene using the Greenland NGRIP ice core, and selected auxiliary records J. Quat. Sci. 24 3 17 (doi:10.1002/jqs.1227) CrossRef
13.           .            Steffen W., Grinevald J., Crutzen P., McNeill J. 2011 The Anthropocene:conceptual and historical perspectives Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369 842 867 (doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0327) Abstract/FREE Full Text
14.           .            Kellie-Smith O., Cox P. M. 2011 Emergent dynamics of the climate–economy system in the Anthropocene Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369 868 886 (doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0305) Abstract/FREE Full Text
15.           .            Tyrrell T. 2011 Anthropogenic modification of the oceans Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369 887 908 (doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0334) Abstract/FREE Full Text
16.           .            Vidas D. 2011 The Anthropocene and the international law of the sea Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369 909 925 (doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0326) Abstract/FREE Full Text
17.           .            Tickell C. 2011 Societal responses to the Anthropocene Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369 926 932 (doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0302) Abstract/FREE Full Text
18.           .            Haywood A. M., Ridgwell A., Lunt D. J., Hill D. J., Pound M. J., Dowsett H. J., Dolan A. M., Francis J. E., Williams M. 2011 Are there pre-Quaternary geological analogues for a future greenhouse warming Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369 933 956 (doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0317) Abstract/FREE Full Text
19.           .            Syvitski J. P. M., Kettner A. 2011 Sediment flux and the Anthropocene Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369 957 975 (doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0329) Abstract/FREE Full Text
20.          .            Merritts D., et al. 2011 Anthropocene streams and base-level controls from historic dams in the unglaciated mid-Atlantic region, USA Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369 976 1009 (doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0335) Abstract/FREE Full Text
21.           .            Ellis E. C. 2011 Anthropogenic transformation of the terrestrial biosphere Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369 1010 1035 (doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0331) Abstract/FREE Full Text
22.          .            Zalasiewicz J., et al. 2011 Stratigraphy of the Anthropocene Phil Trans. R. Soc. A 369 1036 1055 (doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0315) Abstract/FREE Full Text
23.          .            Price S. J., Ford J. R., Cooper A. H., Neal C. 2011 Humans as major geological and geomorphological agents in the Anthropocene:the significance of artificial ground in Great Britain Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369 1056 1084 (doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0296) Abstract/FREE Full Text
            .            Vane C. H., Chenery S. R., Harrison I., Kim A. W., Moss-Hayes V., Jones D. G. 2011 Chemical signatures of the Anthropocene in the Clyde estuary, UK Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369 1085 1111 (doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0298) Abstract/FREE Full Text

Sunday, February 27, 2011

215. The Bolivarian Revolution: Achievements and Challenges

By Samuel Grove and Iselin Asedrotter Stronen, The New Left Project, February 16, 2011

Communal Council Meeting
in Caracas
Iselin Asedrotter Stronen is a social anthropologist, studying for a PhD at the University of Bergen, Norway. She is researching social movements in Venezuela, doing her fieldwork in the barrios of Caracas. In discussion with Samuel Grove she explores in detail an extensive range of issues concerning the nature and prospects of Bolivarian Socialism.

Q: Why don’t you begin by saying a little bit about how you became in interested in Venezuela.
A: I became interested in Venezuela in 2005, when I was looking for a research topic for my Master’s thesis in Anthropology of Development. However I had been interested in Latin America and Latin American politics for a long time, and had also studied Politics and Human Rights in Chile. As I learned more about Venezuela, I became more curious, and went off to do fieldwork in Caracas for 6 months. In 2006 I also made a documentary from Venezuela together with a friend.
Q: What is your line of research?
A: In my Master’s thesis I looked primarily at social movements. I have now expanded on this for my doctoral thesis, which also takes a bottom-up perspective from the barrios (shantytowns) in Caracas. I am looking at the Communal Councils (organs of grass roots decision making established over the past few years) as a way to understand issues of resource distribution, local development and the changing relationship between the popular sectors and the state. Furthermore, I look at questions of political conflicts at various levels particularly in a context of Venezuela being an oil state; asking how this affects society, from a historical and contemporary perspective.
Q: Hugo Chavez has been president of Venezuela for twelve years, winning 15 out of 16 elections or referenda in the process. What is the secret of his electoral success?
A: His popularity derives from a number of factors. Firstly, it is important to put it into context: he was elected after almost two decades of increasing poverty and a crisis of legitimacy for the traditional political elites.  Hence, he didn’t just pop out of a box. It is perhaps better to see him as a catalyst for long-simmering social grievances.
Q: Former governments presided over a significant degree of social exclusion of the popular sectors, as well as a substantial amount of state violence in order to perpetuate their exclusion. Perhaps the most significant event in recent political history was el Caracazo—a popular riot in 1989 when hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand were killed. The riot was triggered by a new round of IMF reforms, after several years of increasing poverty and social unrest. In 1992, Chavez led a military uprising against the president who had ordered the military to quash the riots. Even though Chavez failed, he became extremely popular. That says something about the social and political crisis that the country was in.
A: It is also important to be aware of the huge difference between rich and poor in Venezuelan society. Spatially, socially and economically they live very different lives, and have very different lived experiences and historical memories. The better off have a lot of poorly hidden class and race based resentment towards the popular sectors, and while some leaders from the opposition now try to “reach out to the poor”, they have a real lack of credibility.
Under Chavez there have been major improvements in the quality of life for the country’s poor. The Gini-coefficient (measuring the income difference between the rich and poor) has been lowered and social improvements in the form of health, education, alimentation, sports, culture, and on a range of other fields have been significant.
These achievements have been very dependent on grass roots participation. Having grown up in poverty himself, Chavez communicates extremely well with the popular sectors; something which has facilitated their inclusion in the political realm. People have moved from a state of marginalization to taking an active part in social and political public life. Besides reducing poverty, recognition and inclusion into society are perhaps the most important factors for Chavez’s electoral success.
And of course, the opposition has so far not been able to present a credible alternative to Chavez. It is however important to be aware that there is more support for Chavez as President than support for his party, something that was reflected in the recent elections to the National Assembly, when the pro-government parties failed to secure an absolute majority.
Q: Criticism from the right has maintained that Chavez has resorted to more insidious means for holding on to power. In particular there is a lot of talk about the breakdown of freedom of the press. What is your evaluation of the level of press freedom in Venezuela?
A: In terms of audience share, the private media overwhelmingly dominates the media spectrum. Te be precise, private open channels and pay-tv have a share of more than 94 percent, according to a report by Mark Weisbrot and Tara Ruttenberg from the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington DC. Few people in Venezuela still consider the national private media as a media outlet as such, but rather largely as a propaganda machine for the opposition. The most aggressive now are the TV station Globovision, and the newspapers El Nacional and El Universal. It is beyond doubt that the major private TV-stations were involved in the 2002 coup attempt, and the opposition media both airs and puts in print things that would be considered far beyond journalistic standards, and even subject to sanctions, in other countries.
The most infamous case of “breakdown of freedom of press” in Venezuela was when the government’s broadcasting regulation body refused to renew the public broadcasting license of the private channel RCTV in 2007- which continued broadcasting from Miami by cable. This was strictly speaking a legal right granted to a government body, and it was done both on the grounds of RCTVs clear involvement in the 2002 coup, and because of repeated administrative-legal infringes. One can ask oneself if this was a violation of the freedom of press, or if it was a state’s legitimate decision within a country’s legal framework. The answer to that depends on the eyes of the beholder, but is also closely related to the qualitative content of the “freedom of the press”-ethos. Is it legitimate of a media outlet to call for the overthrow of a democratically elected government? To what extent is it reasonable that the corporate media use their aggregated power to actively pursue their owner’s private political and economical agendas? How far can they pull the string of journalistic work ethics and still claim to be “the media”? Is freedom of the press an absolute right? What happens when the media breaks with the responsibility entrusted to them as the custodians of an informed public debate?  A lot of polemics on the media in Venezuela revolves around issues like this.
Many people have learned to become quite media savvy- they view the media with skepticism. The government-associated media outlets have various practices. There are many good debates, documentaries and creative programs aired on the government-sympathizing channels, and many are made by or with people emerging from the popular sectors. This is important, because these are voices that were previously excluded from the public debate. The government news channel VTV reports from the government’s point of view as well, but have a very limited audience in comparison with Globovision for example.
In the international media, it often seems that “everything is allowed” when it comes to Venezuela: obvious biases, selective use of sources and inaccuracies. The mainstream journalist community in Caracas moves around in their own little circle, and primarily spends time with people with an opposition bias. Their reporting reflects that. But of course, this doesn’t only come down to individual journalists. The biases of the international mainstream media are a lot more complex than that.
Q: There also seems to be a great deal of distortion ‘by omission’. For many of us on the Left it is the creation and proliferation of community councils that is the most interesting and inspiring feature of the Bolivarian process; however we in the West don’t get to hear very much about them. Can you say a little bit about what they are and what they do?
A: The Communal Councils grew out of the multiple forms of grass roots organization that emerged after Chavez was elected - in particular the “social missions”. These depended on local level organization and a lot of organizational experience was conceived through this.
In short, a Communal Council consists of 150-400 families in urban areas (less in rural and indigenous areas). It plans and carries out local development projects with resources from the state. The projects so far have primarily been focusing on infrastructure and housing, but it can also be on whatever the community deems necessary—health, education, culture, sports, gender equality, socio-economic activities and so on. They have quite a complicated legal structure, so I won’t go into details—but basically, the community elects a group of people to head the Community Council- they are called spokespersons. All major decisions are taken in a Citizen Assembly and prior to deciding on projects, quite an exhaustive social diagnostic is carried out identifying the needs and resources in the community.
Around 30 000 Communal Councils have been registered around the country, though far from all of them are active. The decision to form a Communal Councils is taken by the community itself. The resources come from special state funds and are channeled through the state institution Fundacomunal, which also does the administrative follow up. They can also solicit funds from the Municipality, other government institution and some state banks.
It is often quite impressive what they have been able to achieve in terms of local improvements for the community, although there have also been a lot of problems along the way. The law was revised in 2009 to try to address this.
Some of the issues were insufficient coordination and oversight over the institutional follow-up, which provided space for economic mismanagement as well as inadequate institutional assistance. Other issues also dealt with the legal design of the Communal Councils- now the whole elected Council is a judicial body for example, and there are more chances to legally process cases of corruption. Elected spokespersons can also be revoked from the position if they don’t follow up on their responsibility. The new law also lowered the required number of families in a Communal Council area to provide better flexibility for organizing around “natural belonging”. But I think it is also important to underscore that these past years- or the first Communal Council “electoral cycle” if you can call it that- has been a learning process, both for the institutions and the Communal Councils. It is unrealistic to think that everything will go smooth from the very beginning. Prior to the revision of the law there was a major popular consultation across the country. Now, the question is of course to see what effects the “lessons learned” has had- on all levels. I am planning on going back to Venezuela this year to follow up on that.
Q: In 2005 Chavez rejected capitalism as a model for Venezuela and called for the creation of 21st century socialism. Presumably the community councils are fundamental to this vision?
A: In general, they have distanced themselves from Socialist experiences from the past, and one of the basic ideas is that it is a non-dogmatic approach to Socialism - dependent on the particular conditions of each society.
The discourse revolves around a combination of state control over strategic sectors, combined with extensive spaces and mechanisms for bottom-up collective organization. Private property and initiatives are vital, but new forms of ownership and management are also introduced. For example they talk of social ownership, where the whole community, and not only a cooperative, “own” and benefits from a locally based production unit. One of the main pieces in the bottom-up component is the Communal Councils. The long term vision is that these will eventually “give birth” to a Socialist Commune (Comuna) - a “confederation” of various Communal Councils that take on more and more responsibility for the public services and local development in an area. Some areas have been constituted as a Commune already, but the experiences so far are limited and quite varied. It is hard to say to what extent the Commune will actually materialize in the form that it is envisioned, I don’t think that either the people or the state institutions are really prepared for this yet, as it implies a lot of legal and institutional issues. However, the law regulating it was approved in December 2010, so time will tell.
The reforms that Chavez promoted- and narrowly lost- in a popular vote in 2006 were about changing certain structural conditions for speeding up change. However, Venezuela is still by all means a capitalist economy in spite of increased welfare services, broader political participation, experiments with collective production-and decision making organs, and more state intervention in basic sectors. It is far from clear what “Socialism of the 21st Century” really means.
Q: You mentioned the fact that in the recent elections for the National Assembly the PSUV (Chavez’s party) didn’t achieve an outright majority. Perhaps more ominously the PSUV only received one percent more than the opposition coalition in the popular vote. As you say this does not necessarily reflect a major shift in public sentiment towards Chavez himself. However it does (at the very least) indicate a certain degree of public exhaustion with the government. What do the recent National Assembly elections suggest for the long term prospects of ‘Bolivarian Socialism’?
A: I am not very fond of predicting the future, but perhaps in a few months time it will be easier to say something, when we see how the new National Assembly work together. It will be interesting to observe what attitude the opposition block (which has been absent for the past five years because they chose to boycott the 2005 elections) will assume, and if the two blocks can actually find a way to dialogue. Perhaps it is telling that the first thing some of the newly elected opposition lawmakers did, instead of showing up for the first session in the National Assembly, was to go to Washington and make an appeal to the President and various member of the Organization for American States (OAS) to react against the “devastation” of the Venezuelan democracy. This reflects the oppositions’ general strategy to shore up support abroad, above all in the US, for their opposition to Chavez. I think many of the new opposition lawmakers will use their position as a platform to agitate against Chavez, both at home and abroad, instead of actually engaging in political discussions.
The issue in particular that they vented in Washington was the Enabling Laws that Chavez was granted by the National Assembly in the beginning of the December. This came in the aftermath of the torrential rains that destroyed large parts of the infrastructure and agricultural crops, killed several dozens of people, and left well over 100 000 homeless. Through the Enabling Laws, which is a constitutional right, Chavez himself can submit law proposals to the National Assembly- within the framework and areas that the legislature has defined. The opposition claims that this is a way to stall the work of the new National Assembly, whilst the government claims that it is necessary in order to address in a substantial way the reconstruction work and preventive measures in the aftermath of the disaster. However, it is interesting to note that Chavez, in his first speech to the National Assembly, asked the lawmakers to reduce the time lapse of the Enabling Laws to five months instead of 18 months, as he originally was granted. This indicates that he is eager to show that he is stretching out a hand to cooperate with the opposition. He also vetoed a new Educational Law that had attracted a lot of criticism by the opposition, and sent it back to the new National Assembly for a new round of discussions.
I think that the failure to secure an absolute majority worries the government more than they will admit, but it is also important to recognize that the opposition actually secured fewer seats now than the last time they participated- in the 2000 elections. But I think it is good that they are back in, also for the government block. There is a need for dialogue between the two sides.
Q: What other problems does the government currently face?
A: The main problems are, in short, corruption, bureaucracy and crime. Corruption was one of the main sources of anger towards the old elites, so it is a huge problem that continues under the current government, in spite of occasional crack-downs both on government-and opposition figures. Though to what extent is of course difficult to quantify, but there is an increasing frustration among the people. There is however a lot of awareness of it, and on a lower level there is an impetus to change practices- in some communities people demand to supervise public work- to exercise a form of social controllership through the Communal Councils. The bureaucracy is also too slow, too inefficient, and has not been properly able to adapt to the new policies. Many who work in the grass roots are really frustrated because their initiatives get halted in the bureaucratic grind mill. Crime is also a major problem. Somehow (and somewhat counter-intuitively) crime rates have risen in spite of major social improvements. That is a bit of a puzzle for many who work with Venezuela.
In a long-term perspective I would say that the main challenge is to diversify the economy away from its major dependence on oil. This is a huge structural endeavor.
Q: Yes. I think they call it Dutch disease (the precipitate decline in the manufacturing sector accompanying an increase in natural resource extraction). At the Copenhagen Summit last year Chavez spoke of urgency of the world moving to a post-oil era—and yet, as you say, Venezuela is more reliant on oil than most. What steps is Venezuela taking towards a “post-oil era”?
A: I don’t think that they are seriously thinking of making the leap to a post-oil nation; rather the opposite. PDVSA has an ambitious strategy plan for expanding the oil-and gas industry. Many researchers, myself included, are concerned with the continuation of a vision of progress that relies on extractive industries as the cornerstone for national development. This issue is a blind spot in political debate, and goes to the heart of Venezuelan identity, history and society as such.
But in order to try to diversify the economy they are working on various fronts, both strengthening the national industry and national agricultural production. The countryside was gradually abandoned as oil revenues started to pour into state coffers more than half a century back, and the great bulk of the population lives in urban centers and along the coast line. This of course also puts major pressure on infrastructure, public services, and employment, as well as a whole range of other areas.
Venezuela also imports around 70 percent of their food, and the government has defined increased food self sufficiency as one of its major goals. As in other Latin American countries, there is a perverse concentration of land in very few hands, and much of it is lying idle. To increase food production and employment, the government has redistributed land to small farmers- campesinos- through land reforms, set up agricultural schemes and training and whole range of other initiatives, like making tractors with the help of Iran for example. But there is a long way to go here. Many campesinos have also been killed by hit men hired by the rich landowners.
State-controlled banks also have special financing schemes for productive activities. There are many more or less pinned down plans for stimulating local production in urban areas, as well as drawing up a new “production map” for the country- stimulating to increased local production based on each region’s specificities. This was also a central part of the reform package that the government lost in the 2006 referendum.
But to return to the original question: even though the non-oil sector has grown more than the oil sector during the past years, the overwhelming share of export incomes still come from oil, and Venezuela is in every sense an oil economy. To some extent, new production initiatives have had some success, but to radically change production-, consumption-, and settlement patterns is extremely complex. So they have a long way to go, and substantial success is far from given.
Samuel Grove is an editor of,  a website covering politics, media and culture in Latin America. He is the associate producer of the feature-length documentary Inside the Revolution: A Journey Into the Heart of Venezuela (Alborada Films, 2009). He is also is one of the founders of Level Ground, an organisation that challenges elite opinion and showcases alternatives (see   He has published articles on global politics for magazines such as ‘Red Pepper’ in the UK and websites such as ‘Monthly Review Online’  and ‘Upside Down World’. He is a PhD student at Nottingham University in the UK.