Commoners Against Climate Change

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This paper was presented at the “Climate Change” seminar, at the International Institute for Research and Education (IIRE, Amsterdam), February 22-26, 2008 [20 February 2008 Draft version].

We demand that the world takes the example of Ecuador and join with one voice to demand the revolutionary step of keeping the oil in the ground in order to rescue the world from the destructive path mapped and propelled by the fossil fuel mode of civilization. This major move makes both moral and economic sense and every nation that takes it should be adequately compensated for the positive contribution.

Nnimmo Bassey, Environmental Rights Action, Nigeria, 2007

There is a globally recognized need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by burning less oil. Coincident with this awareness are the calls for moratoria on oil and gas exploration and production. Beyond these calls are successful actions to block production and to leave the oil and gas in the ground. Since this program of halting emissions at the source both disempowers major petroleum corporations by denying them their product, oil, and reduces emissions from both deforestation associated with oil production and from the oil production process itself, it is a movement of world historical significance and demands close analysis and support.

This paper is presented in seven parts. Part one introduces the actors in general and summarizes our approach to the power of unwaged people and ‘commoners’ in the struggle against capital. Part two distinguishes our revolutionary eco-feminism from the liberal approach to the analysis of gender and climate change. This section of the paper further delineates aspects of the actually existing subsistence political economy from which much resistance to climate change arises and in which key elements of a post-oil, carbon-balanced society are located. Part three roots a fundamental power of the commoners in the international networks of the capitalist market which draw producers and consumers into one shared, global system thereby facilitating their efforts to mobilize resistance on a global scale.

Parts four and five turn to the analysis of the global ramifications of two actions undertaken by women in the Niger Delta and their allies in 1999 and 2002 aimed at stopping the destructive force of oil exploitation. Part six examines how coordinated direct action against the global warming activities of Big Oil has proliferated worldwide via commoners’ and indigenous peoples’ struggles to enact moratoria to stop oil production. Part seven concludes with observations about the implications of oil moratoria including the ways that they impel the transition from exchange values underlying capitalism towards use values underlying the resurgent commons.

 1. Introduction: Commoners vs. Capital

This paper reviews global direct actions against climate change, oil and war, undertaken by the unwaged and, in particular by peasant women of the Niger Delta in gendered and ethnicized class alliances with men within their own communities and with women and men on a global scale.

Three features of these direct actions are given special attention.

First, unwaged peoples are identified as historic actors against global capital. This is significant because the actions of these social forces suggest that the ‘way forward’ towards a post-capitalist, post-climate change and post-oil world is not (only) about workers taking over factories, but instead about the much broader conception of commoners taking over the commons. [1]

Second, the actions that these commoners have taken, especially global, coordinated direct action to stop the production and consumption of oil, are effective challenges to corporate rule and suggest strategies for further action.

Third, peasant women commoners of the Niger Delta, like much of the poorest half of the world’s population, already live in a largely non-oil age. The subsistence political economies within which 21st century commoners live provide actually existing low-oil, carbon-balanced alternatives to the capitalist political economy. When commoners (peasants, indigenous peoples, others) say “No!” to capitalist exploitation of oil, they already have a “Yes!” in mind, for they are acting against oil exploitation in order to defend their subsistence political economies which sustain them, the earth and the earth’s climate.

The paper details Nigerian women’s ‘production-consumption strikes’ of 1999 and 2002 to suggest ways in which these strikes have contributed to global movements for moratoria on oil production and the establishment of direct deals between oil producers and consumers. Ecuador’s offer to leave discovered oil in the ground expands this pattern. These shifts within the energy sector are indicative of the general direction of a global transition from a capitalist political economy to a commoning political economy. The power of indigenous peoples and peasant women commoners in this transition derives in part from their already-established subsistence relations and practices. This fundamental power is augmented by their participation in the global organizations of major petroleum corporations by virtue of the fact that they live on oil-rich territory. For instance by shutting down oil production, Niger Delta peasants significantly impact the international capitalist energy system in multiple ways.

 2. Gender and climate change

We here briefly contrast two kinds of “women’s global activism against climate change” in order to distinguish our perspective from the dominant ‘gender analysis’ of global warming. Perhaps the most prominent women’s international initiative against climate change is the Germany-based group “gendercc - women for climate justice.” The group is “an informal network which started at COP9 in Milan (2003) and was broadened during following UNFCCC Conferences. The network aims to encourage gender mainstreaming in UNFCCC negotiations and national climate change debates, to strengthen effective participation of women’s organisations and gender experts in climate change debates, to raise awareness and provide information related to gender and climate change, and to develop advocacy positions and opinions towards climate change policy” (

The network also lobbies for funding for gender analysis of climate change policies and climate mitigation strategies. Members of the network disagree on the approach to carbon trade, with members expressing “different views on whether to fundamentally oppose market based mechanisms, or whether to seek to use them and get more women involved in CDM [Clean Development Mechanisms] projects” (Rohr 2008).

The gendercc group, by seeking to work gender into ‘mainstream’ climate change policies, works fully within the blinkered framework of the capitalist climate change approach. In our perspective, there is no point in this ‘add women and stir’ approach because the ‘pot’ is already poisoned. That is, the mainstream policies, whether or not they “consider” women, are unworkable and exacerbate rather than mitigate climate change. Instead we seek direction about effective global activism against climate change by studying (and participating in) the actions of those indigenous and majority world women and their allies who offer a ‘whole new recipe’ in the shape of the defense and elaboration of actually existing subsistence political economies within which they live (Mies and Bennholt-Thompsen).

The subsistence political economy defended and promoted, for instance, by Niger Delta commoners is echoed and elaborated in diverse and multitudinous ways across the world within indigenous peoples’ movements, many of which are similarly facing off with oil companies and seeking the shut-down of oil production activities which are destroying the environment and their lives. And, like the Niger Delta women who in 1999 launched their “Gift to Humanity” campaign to shut down Nigerian gas flares, many indigenous peoples’ anti-oil struggles make universalist claims for the protection and defense not only of their own communities, livelihoods and cultures, but of all of planetary life.

According to Vandana Shiva, village commoning in India has long provided non-oil sources of fuel. “The ecological biodiverse farm is not just a source of food; it is a source of energy. Energy for cooking the food comes from the inedible biomass like cow dung cakes, stalks of millets and pulses, agro-forestry species on village wood lots. Managed sustainably, village commons have been a source of decentralized energy for centuries.”
Further, she states that “ecological, organic agriculture reduces emissions both by reducing dependence on fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and intensive feed, as well as absorbing more carbon in the soil. Our studies show an increase of carbon sequestration of up to 200% in biodiverse organic systems.

“When “ecological and organic” is combined with “direct and local”, emissions are further reduced by reducing energy use for “food miles,” packaging and refrigeration of food. And local food systems will reduce the pressure to expand agriculture in the rainforests of Brazil and Indonesia. We could, with a timely transition reduce emissions, increase food security and food quality and improve the resilience of rural communities to deal with the impact of climate change. The transition from the industrial globalised food system being imposed by WTO, the World Bank and Global Agribusinesses to ecological and local food systems is both a mitigation and adaption strategy. It protects the poor and it protects the planet. The post-Kyoto framework must include ecological agriculture as a climate solution” (Shiva, 13 December 2007).

The People’s Protocol on Climate Change recognizes that “there are large parts of humanity who are more dependent for their survival on their access to and use of natural resources, as well as on the state of the climate and the natural environment. We then stress that the specific needs of farming communities, indigenous peoples, coastal communities, fisherfolk, and other marginalized, poor and rural producers need to be given special attention in all adaptation efforts” (People’s Protocol, 10 December 2007). [2].

Inuk climate activist Sheila Watts-Cloutier, in her brief on climate change and human rights, observed that “As the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has noted, ‘the close ties of indigenous people with the land must be recognized and understood as the fundamental basis of their cultures, their spiritual life, their integrity, and their economic survival’” (Watts-Cloutier 2005).

These many testimonies underline the reality that women among peasants and indigenous communities are most closely connected through livelihoods to the natural world and are therefore most directly impacted by climate change and are prone to standing up against it. In this way, our ‘subsistence perspective’ valorizes commoning and conceptualizes it as the only way forward for planetary survival. This can be sharply distinguished from the gender mainstreaming approach of “gendercc - women for climate justice” and other similar groups which are situated - conceptually and in terms of the actions they advocate - within the corporate camp.

Our subsistence perspective is grounded in a marxist critique of capital, featuring a recognition of the “global net” of capitalism within which the world’s peoples are now entangled. We turn now to a brief exegesis on how capital itself “organizes, unites and disciplines” the exploited to resist and to transform capitalist relations of exploitation.

 3. “Disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production”

CLR James centralized the orthodox marxist perspective that “the working class is united, it is disciplined and it is organized by the very mechanism of capitalist production itself; and the more progressive capitalist production is, the more it unites those who are destined to be its grave-diggers” (James 1960:53). [3]

In 1985 James drew attention to the objective, physical capacity of capitalist technology to unite people: “The means of communication, means of information today are such that it is impossible to believe that as time goes on it does not mean greater and greater communication between people, which means, ultimately, a democratic system of some sort.... I’m speaking in particular about the objective materials, physical means of living, means of communication, means of spreading information. That is going on every day. That’s what I look at and say the tendency towards a democratic relation between people is bound to follow. I believe that’s what Marx and Engels meant ... There is an absolutely remorseless movement towards democratic relations between people. That I learned early, and I’ve never seen anything to make me change it. Television, in my opinion, is one of the greatest strengths of democracy, because the people who are working for television think of the whole public; that is what they have to [do]” (James 1986:26,29). The communications revolution is central to the emergence of the new society.

James built his view of capital’s tendency to unite people out of Marx’s statement in Chapter 32 of Capital, Volume One:

“One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralization, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the co-operative form of the labor-process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labor into instruments of labor only usable in common, the economizing of all means of production by their use as means of production of combined, socialized labor, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself.”

This sentiment was echoed, from the other side of the class divide, by C.C. Pocock, the Chairman of Shell and Managing Director of Royal Dutch Shell Group, in a speech delivered to OPEC in Vienna in 1977. Pocock observed that “The complications involved today in supplying the right crude when and where it is required in an increasingly diverse, competitive market grow greater, not less. Buyers and sellers, producers and consumers are all locked into a worldwide kaleidoscope, in which the movement of one piece inevitably alters the position of all the others” (Pocock 1977).

 4. Nigerian Women’s ‘Gift to Humanity’

In 1999, Nigerian women spearheaded an “Operation Climate Change” campaign to shut down gas flares in the Niger Delta. They dubbed their campaign a ‘Gift to Humanity’ in recognition of the contribution that they could make to reducing global warming emissions by stopping the flaring of natural gas in the Delta. Their shut-down was coordinated with activists’ occupation of Shell headquarters in London. This collective, simultaneous global direct action signaled the potential for a much wider set of relations of solidarity in support of all life. These relations of solidarity are manifest, for instance, in the 2007 Ecuadorian moratorium on oil production, addressed below. The 1999 ‘Gift to Humanity’ action also suggests tactics that, if adopted more generally today, promise to deliver success in the complex struggle to reverse climate change.

In Europe and elsewhere, Shell and other petroleum producers use valuable natural gas for electricity, petrochemicals or pressure maintenance in oil wells. In contrast, to save money, Shell and other oil companies in Nigeria flare or burn off most gas associated with the oil that is produced. In June 2005, the Port Harcourt organization, Environmental Rights Action stated that “More gas is flared in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. Estimates are notoriously unreliable, but roughly 2.5 billion cubic feet of gas associated with crude oil is wasted in this way everyday. This is equal to 40% of all Africa’s natural gas consumption in 2001, while the annual financial loss to Nigeria is about US $2.5 billion. The flares have contributed more greenhouse gases than all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. And the flares contain a cocktail of toxins that affect the health and livelihood of local communities, exposing Niger Delta residents to an increased risk of premature deaths, child respiratory illnesses, asthma and cancer.” [4]

Environmentalists in Nigeria, notably from among the Ogoni, Ijaw and other ethnic groups in the oil-rich Niger Delta; have persistently tried to douse these ‘flames of sHELL.’ On November 10, 1995 Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other environmental activists were hanged by Nigeria’s military dictatorship in what was described by a UK Queen’s Counsel as “an act of state-sponsored murder.” Those executed were part of an indigenous movement, MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People). In this movement, Ogoni women were prominent. The movement’s objective was to shut down the polluting operations of Shell. [5]

To protest Shell’s gas flaring and complicity in the murder of Saro-Wiwa, Niger Delta women and their allies staged simultaneous actions in Nigeria and the UK. These actions featured shut-downs of Shell, on an international basis, on and after Ogoni Day, 4 January 1999. Ogoni Day has been celebrated since 1993 to mark the anniversary of the day the Ogoni people launched their struggle against Shell and forced the oil company off their lands. While business-suited environmentalists occupied Shell’s London headquarters, women and men in the Niger Delta closed down gas flares.

In London on 4 January 1999 thirteen activists from three human rights and environmental groups occupied Shell headquarters. They barricaded themselves in the Managing Directors’ offices and broadcast the event to the outside world via digital cameras, lap-top computers and mobile phones. Six hours later, police cut off electricity, smashed down the wall and arrested the activists. Shell declined to press charges.

One participant stated that the London occupation aimed “to show real solidarity with people in the Niger Delta rebelling against Big Oil and its private security force (the Nigerian army). It was becoming increasingly easy for multi-national corporations to isolate struggles and resistance. The strength of linking together undermines their ability to do this. ...Oil companies, with their hideous environmental and social record, combine a series of struggles not only in the developing world but in the UK too.” [6]

Three days prior to the London occupation, on 1 January 1999 activists in the Niger Delta launched ‘Operation Climate Change,’ to shut down oil flow stations and gas flares in the Delta. [7]

Only days before that, on 11 December 1998 the Kaiama Declaration was issued by the newly formed Ijaw Youth Council, acting as part of the multi-ethnic, pan-Delta Chikoko movement. In the Declaration they resolved that all land and natural resources belonged to the communities and demanded

“that all oil companies stop all exploration and exploitation activities in the Ijaw area. We are tired of gas flaring, oil spillages, blowouts and being labeled saboteurs and terrorists. We advise all oil companies staff and contractors to withdraw from Ijaw territories by the 30th December 1998 pending the resolution of the issue of resource ownership and control in the Ijaw area of the Niger Delta.”

Operation Climate Change was planned as a ten-day program of non-violent civil disobedience. In the end, it lasted for several weeks. Actions targeted five oil companies operating in the Delta. Two hundred organizations from all parts of the globe endorsed a January 1999 letter to Shell, Chevron-Texaco, Mobil, Elf, and Agip. The letter warned the companies that the “World Is Watching” and that they should suspend their operations in Nigeria immediately. [8]

The Shell-backed military administration responded with a state of emergency. Two warships and up to 15,000 troops were deployed. Many women were raped by soldiers. Several flow stations were occupied by villagers who also attempted to shut down the flares. On January 4, soldiers using a helicopter and boats owned by Chevron, attacked environmentalists who were occupying a drilling rig, killed over fifty people and destroyed very many homes. [9]

Outraged by the rapes and murders, dozens of women’s groups from across the Delta, mobilized in a multi-ethnic umbrella organization called Niger Delta Women for Justice, took to the streets in Port Harcourt. On 11 January 1999 hundreds of women from Niger Delta Women for Justice, in conjunction with the Ijaw Youth Council, marched to deliver a protest letter to the military administrator of Rivers State, decrying the rape of women and land. The protesters dressed in black and carried placards, some of which read ‘Justice for Ijaws and her neighbours’, ‘The women are aggrieved, stop the killing’, ‘Ijaws are united in their declaration, let us dialogue’ and condemned the oil companies that have ‘Love for oil, hatred for the owners.’ [10]

A witness told Reuters that demonstrators “were confronted by three lorryloads of policemen who fired into the air and teargassed the crowd of surging women.” [11] The protesters demanded that the government open dialogue on the Kaiama Declaration and that the police release all political prisoners. The soldiers arrested at least thirty-four of the women, one of whom stated that soldiers had “stripped her naked and flogged her with koboko (cow hide whip).” [12] Others sustained injuries whilst fleeing from the rampaging soldiers.

Annie Brisibe, of Niger Delta Women for Justice and Friends of the Earth Nigeria’s Climate Change project, stated in a 1999 interview that, “I’ve been involved in organizing political awareness workshops for women through the Niger Delta Women for Justice movement. ...We focus on creating awareness about what a polluted environment can do to people. We point out the activities of transnational corporations - the gas flares caused by the oil industry, the improper waste management, the carbon dioxide and sulphur emissions - and make the connections between all of this and the frequent environmental problems in the Niger Delta.” [13]

Five oil companies - Agip, Chevron, Mobil, Shell, Texaco - and their operations were seriously impacted by Operation Climate Change. Shell production of some 400,000 barrels of oil per day (bdp) - fully half of the super-major’s total Nigerian output - was interrupted by the initiative to stop gas flaring and expel the company from Nigeria. Another 40,000 bpd of oil flow was interrupted from five of Shell’s flow stations in June 1999. Isoko youth occupied the flow stations located in five communities, in Otomoro, Egini, Oweh, Uzere and Oroni. Some 100,000 bpd were interrupted in November 1999 by Ijaw communities demanding compensation for other oil spills. Seven of Shell’s oil flow stations were allowed to reopen only upon agreement with the Ijaw in August 1999, ten months after community members occupied Shell’s oil facilities. [14]

Shell suffered a 95 percent drop in profits in the fourth as compared to the third quarter of 1998, or a loss of US$350 million. London’s Financial Times reported that of Nigeria’s production of two million barrels of oil per day, “up to a third of output was halted at one point last year [1998] by piracy and sabotage by activists demanding a fairer share of revenues for the region’s impoverished inhabitants” (The Financial Times, 09/06/99). Output interruptions and financial losses were very much greater in 1999. Shell was forced to make a public concession in 1999; a promise that it would stop all gas flaring in Nigeria by 2007. They did not follow through.

Actors in this international political drama, Operation Climate Change also known as the ‘Gift to Humanity,’ publicized the explicit connections between the destruction of the Africans’ economy and the destruction of the global ecosystem by Shell’s persistent practice of burning off associated natural gas. Nigerian peasant women asked for solidarity from women and other international activists in a joint campaign to protect life by putting a stop to the depredations of Big Oil. Environmentalists in Nigeria and the UK described their Operation to shut down Shell gas flares as a “gift to humanity” because it sought to cut carbon emissions that threaten humanity as a whole.

The aftermath for those engaged in the ‘gift to humanity’ campaign unfolded over the subsequent decade along three axes: first, the deepening of militancy within the Niger Delta around the demand for democratic ‘resource control;’ second, the achievement of significant success in expelling oil companies from the Niger Delta; and third, the experience of violent counter-insurgency at the behest of the Nigerian state and foreign oil companies. This third dimension of the aftermath exposed the power relations between women who try to interdict perpetrators of ecocide and those men who profit from expanded oil production with its escalating deadly emissions.

In 2005 the Nigerian women’s groups, including Niger Delta Women for Justice, that had contributed to a moratorium on gas flaring were labeled “terrorist” by the government which was being drawn ever more deeply into the U.S. global ‘war on terror.’ This demonization reveals the direct link between U.S. imperial ambitions via Bush’s ‘war without end’ and Big Oil’s manufacture of ‘enemies’ out of women activists fighting for an end to natural gas flaring. This corporate linkage constructs environmentalists, and especially women who reach for global consciousness and practical solidarity, as immediate targets for repression. The Nigerian women’s “gift to humanity” is, in consequence, a double gift. First, it provoked a leap in global consciousness about the dire common fate of all humanity if specific polluters amongst the world’s tiny clique of 400+ billionaires are allowed to run rampant outside democratic control.

Second, the African women’s gift of direct action to stop gas flaring provoked and accelerated an international groundswell of coordinated mobilization. This started with the 4 January 1999 occupation of Shell’s London headquarters and continued in subsequent actions including an International Day of Protest, Action and Carnival of the Oppressed in financial centres around the world on 18 June 1999 and international actions against the World Trade Organization in November and December 1999. A crucial part of this ‘globalisation from below’ was the launch of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution. After the victory in Seattle, there followed hundreds of actions against corporate rule in general and against oil companies in particular. Some of these are reviewed below.

 5. A Global ‘Curse of Nakedness’

In 2002, Niger Delta women again came to the forefront of global direct action against oil exploitation. Their activism, including the occupation of oil installations on and off-shore, inspired a global movement connecting Big Oil’s destructive activities with the impending US attack on Iraq. In this context, peasant women’s 2002 anti-oil activism widened the potential for relations of solidarity globally aimed at the defense of all life. Compared to the 1999 Gift to Humanity protest, the global mobilization against oil and war had grown exponentially by 2002.

On 8 July 2002, after ChevronTexaco ignored their earlier correspondence, some 600 women occupied the US oil giant’s 450,000 barrels a day (b/d) Escravos export terminal and tankyard. In their ten-day take over, the Itsekiri women negotiated 26 demands with corporate management. These included a demand that the government and oil companies meet with rural women and establish a permanent tripartite body (multinationals, state and women) for the resolution of problems related to oil operations. The most fundamental demand was that ChevronTexaco must go.

The women’s bold strike at ChevronTexaco’s export terminal immediately inspired at least twelve additional takeovers. Even before the Escravos group concluded negotiations, well over 1,000 women occupied six ChevronTexaco flow stations including Abiteye, Makaraba, Otuana and Olera Creek (Wamala 2002:38). One hundred women paddled a massive ‘canoe’ five miles into the high seas to take over the company’s production platform in the Ewan oilfield. ChevronTexaco evacuated its staff, shut down production and refused to negotiate with the women because, according to the US major, “they are not from our host community” (International Oil Daily, hereafter IOD, 19 August 2002). The positive results of the women’s takeovers encouraged youth to occupy six Shell flow stations in western Niger Delta on 20 September 2002 (IOD 23 September 2002).

The combined actions made significant impacts on corporate and government revenues.

On 26 September 2002, in the context of growing anti-war activism, Nigeria’s Environmental Rights Action, Project Underground and the Ecuadorian affiliate of OilWatch International called for a boycott against ChevronTexaco “to punish this company for the environmental damages and the human rights abuses committed during its operations in Nigeria and Ecuador. Chevron-Texaco will face trials for its impacts in Nigeria and Ecuador. These countries’ organizations use boycott as an instrument of pressure against the company, to make it remember that whatever is polluted MUST be cleaned up. At times when transnational companies frame up regimes of impunity for themselves, we must join efforts to punish companies with our protest, and our vow of censorship by not consuming these companies’ products. This campaign will provide a precedent to avoid other oil companies’ impunity, that in the same ways cause destruction and death” (Osouka, Martinez and Salazar 2002).

The international ChevronTexaco boycott, like the million-strong UK-based ‘StopEsso’ boycott of ExxonMobil, connected consumer action with the resistance of oil producing communities in several countries. In 2002 the UK polling firm, MORI Social Research, revealed that “the StopEsso campaign is working. In the last year [2001], one quarter of Esso’s customers have stopped buying from Esso. One million motorists say they’re boycotting Esso because of its stance on global warming. ... In July 2002, 5 per cent of car drivers told MORI they were already boycotting the company while 47 per cent claimed they would join the boycott if they were asked to by environmental groups. Greenpeace campaigner Rob Gueterbock said: “The chickens are coming home to roost for the world’s number one climate villain. For years Esso has sabotaged every meaningful effort to tackle global warming, including this week’s attempt to strike a deal at Johannesburg. But now a million motorists in Britain are punishing Esso at the pumps. If we are going to stop Bush we have to stop Esso. Now everyone can do their bit by joining the growing boycott’” (

In July 2002 the oil majors made specific promises to the insurgent women. Because ChevronTexaco and Shell were slow to implement their undertakings, 4,000 Warri women demonstrated on 8 August 2002 at the companies’ regional headquarters only to be attacked by police and soldiers. [15]

In an ultimatum published worldwide, the women demonstrators gave the Anglo-Dutch giant ten days to pay their hospital bills. Otherwise the women would subject Shell to the curse of nakedness (Adebayo 2002). In much of Africa, women throw off their clothes in an ultimate protest to say ‘this is where life comes from. I hereby revoke your life.’ Nakedness by elderly women, in particular, is used in extreme and life-threatening situations. Women wielding the weapon of the exposed vagina could be killed or raped. It is therefore with knowledge of the act’s life and death implications that women enter into such protest. Women who go naked implicitly state that they will get their demands met or die in the process of trying. Many men subjected to this ‘social execution’ believe they will actually die when exposed to such a serious threat. According to one Nigerian source, “In a lot of the rural communities here, the practice of throwing off the wrapper is a common [form of censure, given the] belief among the women folks here that it goes with some magical powers to inflict curses ranging from death to madness on its foes. In the 1980s it was very prevalent among the Gokana people of Ogoni” (International Oil Working Group, hereafter IOWG, 2 August 2003). In 2008 the 1993 Ogoni declaration that Shell is ‘persona non grata’ in Ogoniland remained in force.

By 12 November 2002 the movement against corporate globalization had expanded dramatically to oppose the impending US military attack on Iraq. Women in California were explicitly inspired by how the Nigerian women who captured Escravos had used the curse of nakedness and “shamed the men and won their cause.” They introduced a new anti-war tactic (Ivan 2002). With their naked bodies they wrote gigantic letters to spell “Peace,” photographs of which circulated the globe via the internet and print media to instigate still more nude demonstrators to enact variations such as ‘No War,’ ‘No Bush,’ ‘Truth,’ ‘Why?,’ ‘Paz’ and ‘Paix’ (Rosen 2003). In the weeks that followed, naked protests proliferated. Organizers sent photos of their demonstrations to the California women’s website ( Naked anti-war protestors marched in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 1 March 2003. At this point the Nigeria-inspired anti-oil naked protests had taken place on all seven continents; including Antarctica.

The ‘Lysistrata Project’ emerged in January 2003. Project organizers set up a website which provided several versions of the script of Aristophane’s 2,400 year old feminist anti-war drama, Lysistrata. In the play women from two warring states unite to deny their menfolk sexual and domestic services until the men make peace. The organizers invited anti-war people worldwide to present the play in their own schools, workplaces and communities on 3 March 2003 (03-03-03). Versions of Lysistrata were staged in 1,029 venues in 59 countries, according to the Project’s online incident report. Among the theatrical activists were unnamed “international journalists” who staged a version in Arbil, Iraq on the eve not of war but of massacre. The organizers described the Lysistrata Project as “the first-ever worldwide theatrical act of dissent” ( In the meantime, on 15 February 2003 as many as 50 million people marched against Bush’s attack on Iraq in the largest-ever global anti-war demonstration. Tremendous expectations were raised by these crystallisations, at an international level, of the burgeoning movements against corporate rule and against imperial war (Turner and Brownhill 2001:806). Some of these expectations were realized in September 2003 when international demonstrators,with African women at the forefront, closed down the World Trade Organization negotiations in Cancun, Mexico.

This international popular power built up through a reciprocal impetus between local and global actions was described by Dyer-Witheford in 1999 as a ‘circulation of struggles’. Between July 2002 and February 2003, the numbers of women engaged in naked protests grew from a few thousand in the Niger Delta to several hundred thousand worldwide. The world’s first global use of protest theatre contained a three-fold elaboration of the nudity message: first, women were revoking the very lives of men who destroyed subsistence. Second, women were withdrawing all subsistence life support services; especially sex, food and other housework. Third, the unwaged work of women in sustaining life was juxtaposed (by women and allied men) to the waged work of men engaged in sustaining profits through depredation and war.5 Insofar as this challenge was at once global and conscious, it transcended the idea that ‘another world is possible’ to embody - in however an embryonic form - the actually existing alternative.

In January 2006 Nigerian courts ordered Shell to stop the flaring of natural gas. Shell has appealed the ruling. As noted the oil giant has been unable to return to Ogoniland since 1993. On 19 September 2006, the Nigerian newspaper, Punch, reported that the government intended to cancel Shell’s licence in the block covering Ogoniland because its operations there had lapsed for more than ten years.

In a 23 September 2006 interview, Owens Wiwa stated that “It was Ogoni women who were most instrumental in preventing Shell from operating in Ogoniland over the past decade. This is a major success because not only have we driven Shell out non-violently, but we have set a precedent for all Nigeria and indeed the whole world: without local people’s agreement, no oil company can go in. A tremendous price has been paid in loss of life. But government’s revocation of Shell’s operating licence is a tremendous victory and it is due largely to the commitment of ordinary village women, mostly organized through the Federation of Ogoni Women’s Associations.”

The shut-down of all Shell operations in Ogoniland meant less gas flaring, less carbon emissions and less global warming. The shut-down was not limited to Ogoniland. Across the Delta, some 600,000 barrels a day, or about a quarter of Nigeria’s total production, was shut-in throughout 2006. [16] This entails a massive cut in greenhouse gas emissions.

How did Nigerian women and their allies accomplish this major achievement? Can their tactics be generalized? The activists mirrored Shell’s global reach by organizing simultaneous shut-downs of Big Oil across national boundaries. Production in Nigeria and Shell’s total integrated operations directed from head office in London were simultaneously shut down. Then this production-consumption strike was intensified by the consumption strike represented in a global boycott by petrol consumers.The coordinated direct actions that followed Operation Climate Change showed that these tactics have been generalized in global movements against war and the depredations of Big Oil. As the urgency of the global warming crisis sinks in there is every reason to believe that peaceful direct action for popular control over petroleum will expand. And similarly, we can expect that women’s initiatives and the coordination of global direct action will continue to be key features of this agenda to reverse climate change.

But the success of Nigerian communities does not end here. From 28-29 September 2006, member groups of Friends of the Earth International (FoEI ) from 51 countries including Nigeria’s Environmental Rights Action (ERA) and other national and international civil society groups, representatives of Niger Delta Communities and journalists gathered for the International Conference on Climate Change in Abuja. This conference with the theme: ‘Minimizing Climate Change Impact and Curbing Global Energy Chaos’ was one of the activities of the Biennial General Meeting of the Friends of the Earth International. The meeting concluded by presenting another model for democratic control of natural resources – the concept of energy sovereignty [17].

The simultaneous global production-consumption strike that grew out of Niger Delta women’s direct actions against Big Oil potentially threatened the very existence of major oil companies because it denied them some of the oil on which they depend and at the same time, denied them the customers whose purchases are necessary for the realization of corporate profit. In short producers and consumers posed the potential of exercising their joint power within the oil supply chain to annihilate oil companies.

By taking control, however temporarily, of significant Nigeria oil fields and export facilities Nigerian women and their allies also posited the possibility of selling oil on their own account. In fact, Shell complained in a 2003 report that as much as 20% of Nigeria’s 2 million barrels per day of oil production was subject to ‘illegal bunkering,’ that is, sold by parties who appropriated the physical oil and exported it under their own arrangements. The joint action of those engaged in the simultaneous production-consumption strikes had the potential, if expanded significantly, to disempower Big Oil. But it also had the potential to forge new relations between those controlling production and those seeking to consume petroleum products. Direct deals soon emerged. Most significantly, Venezuela exchanged oil with Cuba for doctors and with Argentina and Uruguay for cattle and related services.

Why are such direct deals an avenue to halting climate change? Not only do they sideline the biggest perpetrators, the oil trans-nationals, but they also put the processes of oil production and consumption under the control of groups that are and could increasingly be collectives. Such producer and consumer collectives can both determine how to decrease hydrocarbon use and how to use the revenues from the exchange for a transition to post-hydrocarbon society. A key point here is that the value attached to that which is being traded in direct deals (eg. A set amount of oil for a set amount of medical services between Venezuela and Cuba) is determined by the parties in the relationship and not by the capitalist oil market. The parties to direct deals negotiate use values and trade them.

For instance if Niger Delta women and their allied menfolk continue in their trajectory to establish resource control, [18] they are likely to curb oil production drastically and use the much higher per barrel revenues for ecological restitution and the provision of social services for the support of life.

In February 2008 the BBC reported that “The instability and violence in the southern region over the past four years have led to a significant drop in Nigeria’s oil exports. ... Nigeria’s government has ordered all oil firms that fled the Niger Delta in the wake of militant attacks to return to the area or cease operations. ... The oil companies say they cannot afford to risk their business interests and the lives of their workers because of the government’s inability to check the activities of militants....” (BBC 2008). [19]

This shut-down represent a tremendous increase over the 1999 Gift to Humanity action in the amount of emissions that are cut at the source.

Niger Delta social movements have been remarkably effective in imposing the moratorium on oil exploration and production that they have long been calling for [20].

 6. A Global Convergence of Actions against Big Oil

Citizens of countries across the world have become increasingly aware of the links between extreme weather events, carbon emissions, Big Oil and US militarism. This awareness has helped create the enabling environment for the proliferation of coordinated, direct actions against the global warming activities of the corporations exploiting hydrocarbons. This section examines the convergence of these actions via the review of a small number of the many calls for oil moratoria made in the past decade, as well as the more in-depth consideration of two successful but highly contended moratoria in Costa Rica and Ecuador.

Production shut-downs and calls for moratoria on hydrocarbon production multiplied in the first years of the 21st century. Keeping the oil in the ground is clearly the only way to achieve the 90% reduction in hydrocarbon use by 2050 that is minimally required to restrict global warming to under 2 degrees centigrade (Monbiot 4 December 2007). [21]

Direct deals, moratoria and production-consumption strikes are all struggles for peoples’ sovereignty over natural resources. These struggles have been strengthened by the hard-won United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, passed in September 2007.

In 1998 the Indigenous Environmental Network passed a pioneering declaration to fight climate change by targeting the perpetrators.

The dirtiest oil in the world is produced in the Alberta tarsands. Several national organizations led by the Council of Canadians have demanded a moratorium. Even Alberta’s ex-premier Lougheed has called for a moratorium. Confronted with toxic water, depleted rivers and rare cancers, the indigenous Chipewyan people of northern Alberta have also called for a shut-down.

The usually-oil company friendly World Wildlife Fund in February 2008 called for a moratorium on all oil and gas developments in the Arctic. This entails opposition to the building of any new pipelines, including the proposed MacKenzie Valley gas pipeline that the oil companies working in the tarsands want for the transport of natural gas from the Arctic to Fort McMurray to boil the oil out of the sand in a process which uses one barrel of oil equivalent to produce two barrels of oil.

The Inuit Circumpolar Conference in 2005 petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States to take action against the US government for human rights abuses due to climate change. This petition on behalf of 150,000 Inuit and other indigenous peoples of the Americas charged the US government with responsibility for failing to curb emissions by ‘third parties,’ that is, oil and other corporations (see Appendix 4 for excerpts from the Petition). A 2008 report spells out the urgency of the Inuit case.

“[A] team of climate experts has ranked the most fragile and vulnerable regions on the planet, and warned they are in danger of sudden and catastrophic collapse before the end of the century. In a comprehensive study published today, the scientists identify the nine areas that are in gravest danger of passing critical thresholds or ‘tipping points,’ beyond which they will not recover. Although the scientists cannot be sure precisely when each region will reach the point of no return, their assessment warns it may already be too late to save Arctic sea ice and the Greenland ice sheet, which they regard as the most immediately in peril. By some estimates, there will not be any sea ice in the summer months within 25 years” (Sample 2008).

Tim Lenton, an environmental scientist at the University of East Anglia and lead author of the report stated that “There’s a perception that global warming is something that will happen smoothly into the future, but some of these ecosystems go into an abrupt decline when warming reaches a certain threshold.” The study’s authors have calculated that the Arctic sea ice “will go into irreversible decline once temperatures rise between 0.5C to 2C above those at the beginning of the century, a threshold that may already have been crossed.” (Sample 2008).

Supplementing these demands that oil production be stopped is the December 2007 call from Oil Change International to end “oil aid,” or massive use of tax payer money to subsidize the oil and gas industry. Since 2000, at least $61.3 billion in international money has gone to subsidizing the oil and gas industry worldwide and an additional estimated $150-$250 billion in domestic subsidies have been provided by national governments to their oil and gas industries annually. [22]

Oil Change has pointed out the irony that “While the world’s governments are negotiating a complex system to reduce carbon emissions, they are subsidizing the very emissions that must be curtailed, and they are often doing so in the name of development” (Oil Change International 2007).

Mention has been made of the Niger Delta community’s 2006 victory in their legal campaign to force Shell to stop flaring natural gas. In the face of Shell’s refusal to honour the court order to douse the flares, insurgency in the Delta has increased to the point of cutting as much as a quarter of on-shore production (OilWatch Africa, email communication, 20 February 2008).

While many activists demand that oil production be shut down and no new reserves be developed, global production is also being reduced by war and by the exhaustion of deposits.

Millions of barrels of oil are not produced every day because of continued insurgency in Iraq against the US occupation and against the US-imposed Iraq Oil Law which, if implemented, would give foreign oil companies majority control of Iraq’s oil resources. If Iraqis can maintain sovereignty over their oil they would be in a position to participate in OPEC’s limiting of oil production.

On February 12, 2008, Iraqi unionist Hashmeya Hussein called for solidarity actions to protest the Oil Law on 22-23 February, the one-year anniversary of the Bush-appointed Iraqi Cabinet’s passage of the law. She called on people around the world to participate in protests such as that organized by Oil Change in Washington D.C., involving “street theatre antics, speakers and a march from Exxon to the White House” (Zahller 2008).

With respect to reserve depletion (peak oil) Citibank reported on 4 February 2008 that “total global liquid hydrocarbon production has essentially flatlined since mid 2005 at just north of 85 m [million] barrels per day.” Not only does OPEC refuse to raise production but non-OPEC countries, because of declines in reserves, are unable to do so despite higher prices (Citi 4 February 2008; Monbiot 12 February 2008).

This list of diverse calls gives a small sampling of a much larger population of initiatives requiring corporations to leave hydrocarbons in the ground. Some of the struggles to block oil production have been successful. They are, in effect, production strikes.

In 2002 Costa Rica became the first country in the world to declare its entire territory a no-go-zone for oil exploration and production, in a struggle led by indigenous people and a broad alliance within which women were prominent. The government terminated concessions held by Harken oil, formerly owned by George W. Bush. The US retaliated with heavy-handed efforts to impose a free trade agreement that would force open Costa Rica’s ‘services’ sector, including oil. At the time of writing a massive opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement may succeed and in so doing retain the oil exploration ban.

A highly significant move in 2007 by Ecuador took the drive for shut-downs to a new level. In September 2007, Ecuador’s President Correa announced at the United Nations that Ecuador would not allow production of oil that had been discovered in Yasuni National Park in the Amazon. The oil was to be left in the ground. In exchange the international community is asked to compensate the government with $4.6 billion, the equivalent of $5 per barrel of oil not produced. The government has sovereignty over the oil-rich territories and is using this sovereignty to defend the life-centred economy of virtually-uncontacted indigenous peoples.

In his speech to the United Nations, President Correa noted that Ecuador has worked, “with justice and creativity” to resist global warming. By keeping the oil underground, Ecuador will conserve one of the most bio-diverse areas of the world; but it will also forego hundreds of millions of dollars of investments. While asserting the country’s commitment to making “this immense sacrifice,” Correa also requested “co-responsibility from the international community and a minimum compensation for the environmental goods that we generate and from which all the planet benefits” (Correa 24 September 2007).

He argued that the proposal “will prevent the emission of around 111 million tons of carbon.” Ecuador’s opportunity cost “for not exploiting the crude” is at least $10 to $15 per barrel. As such, he requested that the international community contribute “5 dollars per barrel, to conserve the biodiversity, to protect the indigenous population who lives in the area [in] voluntary isolation and to prevent carbon dioxide emissions. The total amount we request is approximately 4.6 billion dollars” (Correa 24 September 2007).

The background to Ecuador’s proposal lay in a position paper written by activists within OilWatch, an international southern non-governmental organization, based at the time in Quito, Ecuador. The paper, presented at Kyoto in 1997, called for carbon credits to permanently keep underground some 920 million barrels of very dirty, heavy oil in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) homelands in Yasuni National Park (Alier and Temper 2007). The emission of hundreds of millions of tons of carbon would be avoided by not extracting the oil and by avoiding associated deforestation of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

During a ten year interval, as awareness about the climate impacts of oil production rose, the activists’ Yasuni-ITT proposal was taken up by the Ecuadorian government. Energy Minister Alberto Acosta lent his support to the project in early 2007. President Correa formalized the moratorium in September 2007. By 2008, Acosta was president of the National Assembly, elected to write a new Ecuadorian constitution. This is significant because the keep-the-oil-underground proposal would be immeasurably strengthened by constitutional provisions, especially if Ecuadorians ensure that their constitution takes precedence over international trade and investment rules and other international agreements.

The Ecuadorian proposal has been met with contradictory responses. Support came from Niger Delta social movements. Other advocates have pointed out that “this project, if successful, could be copied elsewhere - for instance in the U’Wa territory in Colombia, in the Niger Delta, [and] in some of the worst coal mines in the world” (Alier and Temper 2007).

The BBC reported that the proposal “has been favourably received in several quarters: Germany says it is taking the idea seriously. Norway is to send a delegation to Ecuador in the next few months. The World Bank is consulting with other international organizations. Italy’s parliament is about to vote on whether to give official approval to the project” [23]

In contrast the Arab Group’s Algerian representative at the December 2007 Bali UNFCCC Kyoto II meeting expressed concern about measures to [24]

In 2007 Yvonne Yanez of OilWatch argued for giving the highest priority to cutting climate change emissions at the source, that is, keeping oil, gas and coal in the ground. In contrast the World Bank is promoting profitable market-centred pseudo-solutions , including “clean” development mechanisms, direct foreign investment, official development assistance, technology transfer and public and private loans for technological changes, energy conversions, gas projects and agro-fuels.

Most industry and northern consumers “do not want to accept the uncomfortable reality that the only way of mitigating climate change is through not burning more fossil fuels.” It is within this context, according to Yanez, that the Ecuadorian proposal to leave the petroleum underground is presented as the only measurable way of cutting CO2 emissions and simultaneously avoiding the loss of natural forests. “It is not about looking for the best business offers to save the planet and its people, but rather about taking revolutionary measures” (Yanez 2007:59).

 7. Analysis of production-consumption strikes and direct deals

We re-affirm the global in the local and the local in the global. The exploited are organized, united and disciplined by capitalists to act in their own interests on a global scale.

This recognition of the actual trans-national or global scope and reach of the actors in the instances analysed here underlines the inaccuracy of both left and capitalist characterizations of oil and energy protests as initiatives that are merely local or at best as initiatives that are circumscribed by parochialism but pieced together by agents with an overarching reach such as the big international NGOs. Our analysis shows that the global character of local struggle in oil is an unavoidable and inherent consequence of the global character of energy capital. It is not spontaneous. It is structured. And this structure is not mechanical; it is dynamic and constituted by social relations of exploitation and their potential transformation into social relations of commoning.

The concrete moment of the transformation is the moment of negotiation, an on-going process, of new bases of interaction between and among producers and consumers who are in fact commoners (and potential commoners) in different parts of the globe. These negotiations centre on re-valuing energy, air, all of nature and all that is needed for the maintenance and full flowering of all life.

We have reviewed a number of initiatives aimed at keeping hydrocarbons in the ground as means of averting global climate disaster. In Costa Rica and Ecuador these initiatives have been realized to a greater degree than elsewhere, although both cases are still highly contended. A number of observations can be made regarding the global move towards moratoria on oil, gas and coal.

Moratoria clearly aim to reduce hydrocarbon production and also contribute to reducing the amount of oil available on the market and therefore reducing oil combustion and consumption. Moratoria may also raise the price of oil, causing further reductions in use. Measures to stop oil production and the necessarily entailed cut in oil consumption are, in effect, production-consumption strikes. These strikes deprive oil companies of their special commodity and its market. Therefore these strikes undermine the power of the strategically central corporations in the world capitalist system. These are the oil companies, the weapons and military contractors and the major financial institutions. This capitalist core has been called the weapon-dollar-petro-dollar coalition (Nitzan and Bichler 2002).

Moratoria work by placing a higher value on the preservation of nature and of the very lives and cultures of the inhabitants than on the short term profits accrued from oil sales. In this way, moratoria raise awareness about the negative impact of oil on the immediate environment and on the global climate. In addition, they express a new kind of valuation which places life before profit. This is significant given the ecological benefits of moving from a regime of exchange values to one of use values.

Let us consider more closely the actors involved in these ‘value wars’ (McMurtry 2002). Production-consumption strikes are premised on the fact that parties refusing to produce oil and declining to burn it are in charge of their resources and capacities. This control or sovereignty has always been the focus of struggle, which in some instances (for example, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba) is reflected through the dispossessed shaping state policy. To the extent that parties to the production-consumption strike have this control, they can use it to establish new relations with each other as in the case of the Venezuela-Cuba direct oil for doctors deal (and as was posited by the 2002 Nigerian women’s shut-down of ChevronTexaco’s oil production and export at the same time as global consumer boycotts of ChevronTexaco’s products were in force).

These new relations of direct deals have a very special revolutionary potential in that the value of the transaction is decided through negotiation by the parties to the deal rather than by profit-seeking actors in the capitalist market. In the Ecuador case, the direct deal is between a section of the Ecuadorian people, through the government; on the one hand, and any parties in the global arena, who agree to compensate or transfer values to Ecuador in response to that country’s commitment to suppress emissions underground. These parties might include those supporting debt repudiation and the payment of the ecological debt, groups of citizens that decide to make direct payments in cash or in kind, aid allocators, parties willing to make matching cuts in hydrocarbon production and a range of other actors.

The ongoing discussion in Ecuador about the value of not producing Yasuni oil has generated a long list of benefits to indigenous peoples and to non-indigenous Ecuadorians as well as to citizens of the region and the world. These values embrace the Amazon rainforest, bio-diversity, climate health, eco-tourism, social services expansion and relief from ecological and ‘odious’ debts. [25] In sum Ecuadorians value the protection of the commons by blocking pollutants at source and by committing to use compensation to elaborate the life-centred political economy.

The discussion has now begun outside Ecuador about the values to be secured through paying the government to keep the oil in the ground. Most immediate is the major value of a huge cut in deadly emissions that would otherwise be produced, combined with helping to retain the Amazon rainforest as the functioning ‘lungs of the world.’ The crucial point here is that Ecuador is offering to all comers an opportunity to imagine and determine the value each places on Ecuador’s ‘zero exploitation’ offer.

What is gained through joint valuation between Ecuador and its supporters, beyond the values mentioned, is a partnership of cooperation, sharing and solidarity. “This,” declared Ecuador’s President Correa in September 2007, “would be an extraordinary example of worldwide action to reduce the global warming in benefit of the entire planet” (Correa 24 September 2007). This partnership places producers and consumers in a cooperative dynamic of mutuality with the potential to underpin expanded collaboration in the support of life. Such expanded collaboration for energy sovereignty supports the Via Campesina goal of food sovereignty and makes more possible the achievement of global people’s sovereignty over all natural resources.

Ecuador’s President Correa has characterized this direct deal as “the recognition of the values of use and service, of the non-market values of a safe environment and the maintenance of planetary diversity.” Correa told the United Nations that “the Ecuador proposal seeks to transform the old conceptions of the economy and the concept of value.” Climate change, he pointed out, “forces us to a serious reflection on the actual model of development,” where, in a borderless world the US emits 23.6 tonnes of CO2 per capita per year compared to a world average of 3.58 tonnes, [26] thus “establishing with clarity where the major responsibilities reside with respect to affecting the environment and the life of the planet. This situation ... demonstrates that the present model of growth, based on the intensive use of fossil fuel and over consumption, is an untenable model whose benefits reach a privileged minority but enormously harm us all.” For Correa the Yasuni oil moratorium produces use values that “inaugurate a new economic logic for the 21st century” (Correa 24 September 2007).

Also of considerable importance in considering Ecuador’s moratorium are the paths not taken. In prioritizing the use values of the commons, Ecuador is rejecting capitalist market ‘pseudo-solutions’ to climate change (carbon tax, cap and trade, cap and auction, clean development mechanism). It is also exposing these ‘for-profit’ diversions for what they are - neo-colonial and ecocidal steps towards the tipping point of climate Armageddon. [27]

The Ecuador initiative stands against the ‘corporate rule’ trajectory of the Washington consensus and the logic of corporate profit taking. The proposal levers a transition from capitalism to global commoning. It deprives both Big Oil and emissions traders of their commodity. By drastically decommodifying in this way, Ecuador strengthens the world’s commoning alternatives. It short circuits and blocks efforts to privatize the remaining commons, especially indigenous territories. It is anti-enclosure and pro-commons.

We have suggested that production-consumption strikes are leading to direct deals. In this we see the beginnings of a transition from a capitalist political economy to a commoning political economy. That is, we see an erosion of the power of capital and the strengthening of a pre-existing commoning, life-centred or subsistence political economy that has been updated so as to be relevant to the present and future (Mies 1999).

We have indicated that many opponents of climate change are linked by the organization of corporations within the energy system. At the same time, opponents also rely on their own unique culturally inherited social forms which they combine with the organization that is the corporate form. We have seen how actors involved in the capitalist energy system have asserted control over parts of that system and used this control to turn this global organization away from profits and towards commoning. To the extent that the capitalist energy system is seized and redirected towards commoning, actors within it have reduced dangerous emissions and elaborated an alternative system premised on sustainable energy.

It is crucial to emphasize the feminist content of the revolutionary transition now underway. It is feminist insofar as it overcomes dispossession by enclosure and hence some of the exploitation of women under capitalism. The central actors in this challenge to capital are the multitudes of unwaged people, including indigenous people and small farmers. Because the unwaged are intensely engaged with nature in the course of supporting life, they and especially the women amongst them, are crucially and most immediately impacted by climate change. Those who occupy territory under which oil and gas reserves are located have suffered pollution and enclosure, intensified with corporate rule under neoliberal globalization. Especially the women who live on hydrocarbon deposits have repeatedly mobilized the global petroleum system within which they are incorporated to halt oil production. This mobilization has escalated in scale. From the 1999 ‘Gift to Humanity’ organized by Niger Delta women in coordination with allies who occupied Shell’s head office in London, there has been a great leap by Ecuadorian indigenous people, their allies and government onto the global plane to enlist in 2007 everyone in a collectivity to keep oil in situ and build carbon-neutral alternatives. This universalization of coordinated, direct action to keep hydrocarbons in the ground is mirrored in the call to all the world’s people and institutions to compensate the non-producers and thereby further support the emerging commons against capital.

In conclusion we can consider the question: What is to be done? Perhaps what people of good will need to do is to recognize and facilitate the emergence of the commons. With respect to recognition, this means, concretely, that we need to understand the production-consumption strikes and initiatives towards direct deals as the pivotal core of the transition to a world of commoners.

This ‘actually existing’ movement of commoners is the result of the exploited taking over some of the organizations of capital and using them to (a) undermine profit and private property and at the same time (b) negotiate and construct means for satisfying universal needs.

Corporations have long asserted sovereignty over natural resources, via imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, neo-liberalism and trade regimes such as NAFTA, EPAs, WTO trade and investment rules. Moratoria and other actions by commoners in defense of the commons (that is the ‘alternative’ global society for a post-oil carbon-balanced age) are limited by the institutional framework of capitalism, notably the hegemonic legal, property and trade regimes. Commoners assert and establish a degree of sovereignty over resources first by blocking capital from using those resources.

Some peoples’ struggles for such control over resources have found support at the level of the state (Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Costa Rica, others). These states have over-ridden corporate sovereignty over natural resources and engaged in direct deals and moratoria. In other cases citizens relate directly to one another across national boundaries, such as in the 1999 and 2002 Nigerian women’s actions.

State or national sovereignty over natural resources is a step in a process of reconfiguring the commons and asserting peoples’ sovereignty over natural resources on a global scale. This involves the move from national to peoples’ sovereignty.

The 2007 People’s Protocol echoes this sentiment: “We declare that in order to address the climate crisis, the people must have real stewardship, access and control over the natural resources on which they depend rather than TNCs, international financial institutions or even governments which represent the narrow private interests of a global elite and their local collaborators. In so-doing we assert people’s sovereignty over natural resources” (People’s Protocol 10 December 2007).

Esperanza Martinez of Ecuador’s Oilwatch argues for the sovereignty of the entire planet: “This [carbon trading] colonisation of both political space and environmental policy threatens not just the sovereignty of the ecosystems and cultures of the inhabitants of the global south, but the concept of a shared responsibility for reclaiming the sovereignty of the planet. Sovereignty as a concept and practice, both in terms of the ecosystems and cultures of indigenous people, cannot be turned into a commodity to be sold on the market of political policies or quick-fix carbon-shifting ‘solutions.’ Sovereignty is at the root of resistance to the commodification of land and life” (Martinez 2007).


Appendix 1:

See on ESSF: Climate Change Campaign: The Abuja Declaration

Appendix 2A:

See on Essf: New Orleans: A Raging Flood of Tears (September 11, 2005)

Appendix 2B:

See on ESSF: New Orleans: Hurricane Katrina

Appendix 3:

See on ESSF: The International Eco-logical Call

Appendix 4:

See on ESSF: Global Warming: Inuit Circumpolar Conference Petition

Appendix 5:

See on ESSF: People’s Protocol on Climate Change (Draft)


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Watts-Cloutier, Shelia, “Global Warming and Climate Change,” EarthJustice and Centre for International Environmental Law, 2005.

Yanez, Yvonne, “Mitigating Emissions or Mitigating Impacts,” in Boedt, Piet and Esperanza Martinez, Keep Oil Underground: The Only Way to Fight Climate Change, OilWatch, presented at the UNFCCC COP13, Bali, December 2007, pp.58-59.

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* 20 February 2008 Draft paper presented at International Institute for Research and Education Ecology Seminar: “Faced with climate change, energy revolution and social transformation”. Amsterdam, The Netherlands 22-26 February 2008. Presented on 25 February 2008.

* Leigh Brownhill is the author of Land, Food, Freedom: Struggles for the Gendered Commons in Kenya, 1870-2010.

Terisa E. Turner coordinates the International Oil Working Group and teaches at the University of Guelph in Canada.


[1This paper draws on Linebaugh’s definition of “commons” as “the theory that vests all property in the community and organizes labor for the common benefit of all” (Linebaugh 2008:6). We have also employed the term ‘civil commons’ to refer to social constructs which enable universal access of all members of a community to life goods. “The civil commons has innumerable expressions, from vernacular language itself to public health care, regulated clean air and water, universal education, public art and architecture, open environmental spaces, nutritious food, adequate shelter and affective interaction. It is within the civil commons that women create and socialize human beings, the most critical ‘product’ of human labour from the perspective both of capital and citizenry” (Turner and Brownhill 2001; McMurtry 1998).

[2See on ESSF for the full text of the Protocol: People’s Protocol on Climate Change (Draft)

[3Cited in Turner, Terisa E., “Rastafari and the New Society: Caribbean and East African Feminist Roots of A Popular Movement to Reclaim the Earthly Commons,” in Terisa E. Turner (Ed.), Arise Ye Mighty People: Gender, Class and Race in Popular Struggles. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1994, pp. 9-56.

[4ERA/Friends of the Earth, Gas Flaring in Nigeria: A Human Rights, Environmental and Economic Monstrosity, A report by the Climate Justice Programme and Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, June 2005,

[5Hunt, J. Timothy, The Politics of Bones: Dr. Owens Wiwa and the Struggle for Nigeria’s Oil, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2005. Okonta, Ike and Oronto Douglas, Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights, and Oil, New York: Verso, 2003.

[6"Sabbing Shell,” Do or Die, Issue 8, 1999,, In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 125-129.

[7“Office Politics,” Weekly Schnews, Issue 197, Friday 15 January 1999,

[8“VITAL STATISTICS: A sampling of Shell’s activity in Nigeria over the last four years,” Drillbits & Tailings, Volume 4, Number 18, November 9, 1999,, accessed 22 Sept 2006.

[9“Big Trouble for Big Oil,” Do or Die, Issue 8, 1999,, In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 260-262.

[10Obibi, Collins, ‘Ijaw women protest troops deployment to Bayelsa,’ The Guardian (Amsterdam), January 12, 1999.

[11Reuters, ‘Nigerian police disperse protest by Ijaw women,’ Port Harcourt, Nigeria, January 11, 2000.

[12‘Protesting Ijaw Women dispersed, beaten. At least 34 Women Arrested. Victims stripped naked,’ OGELE Bulletin of the Ijaw Youth Council Special Issue, 11 January 1999 and

[13Doherty, Ann, “Operation Climate Change: An Interview with Annie Brisibe of Friends of the Earth Nigeria,” Link Magazine, Issue 91, October/December 1999,

[14“VITAL STATISTICS: A sampling of Shell’s activity in Nigeria over the last four years,” Drillbits & Tailings, Volume 4, Number 18, November 9, 1999,, accessed 22 Sept 2006.

[15Protester Alice Youwuren stated that “we were just singing, we didn’t destroy anything. We were peaceful. The police and soldiers misbehaved. Look at me, seven armed men pounced on me and reduced me to nothing. I found myself in a Shell clinic a day after the protest” (Okon and Ola 2002). The United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN 2002) reported that Shell police killed at least one woman. Shell later “dismissed reports in the local press ... which claimed that a security agent at the scene shot dead an unarmed protestor. ‘To the best of our knowledge, the protests at our offices went without any major incident,’” Shell stated (IOD 14 August 2002).

[16“African Continent to Remain a Key Spot for Investors,” African Oil and Gas, A News Feature, 20 July 2006,

[17See on ESSF for the “Abuja Declaration”: Climate Change Campaign: The Abuja Declaration

[18Resource control refers to both control over physical oil fields, pipelines and other installations of the oil industry and also to control over petroleum sales revenue. These two dimensions of resource control are considered in Ike Okonta’s 2008 When Citizens Revolt, especially pp. 119-146.

[19AFRICOM the US military force in West Africa is scheduled to be fully operational as of October 2008.

[20See on ESSF for the “Abuja Declaration”: Climate Change Campaign: The Abuja Declaration

[2119Monbiot states that “There is now a broad scientific consensus that we need to prevent temperatures from rising by more than 2°C above their pre-industrial level. Beyond that point, the Greenland ice sheet could go into irreversible meltdown, some ecosystems collapse, billions suffer from water stress, droughts could start to threaten global food supplies . ... If we assume a population of 9bn in 2050, the cuts rise to 95.9% in the UK and 98.3% in the US. ... A paper in Geophysical Research Letters finds that even with a 90% global cut by 2050, the 2° threshold “is eventually broken.” To stabilise temperatures at 1.5° above the pre-industrial level requires a global cut of 100%. The diplomats who started talks in Bali yesterday [3 December 2007] should be discussing the complete decarbonisation of the global economy” (Monbiot 4 December 2007). Monbiot cites: IPCC, 2007. Climate change and its impacts in the near and long term under different scenarios. ;
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (Editor in chief), 2006. Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. Cambridge University Press.; and Andrew J. Weaver et al, 6th October 2007. Long term climate implications of 2050 emission reduction targets. Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 34, L19703. doi:10.1029/2007GL031018, 2007.

[2220Naomi Klein observes that “The Bush Administration, still roadblocking firm caps on emissions, wants to let the market solve the crisis. “We’re on the threshold of dramatic technological breakthroughs, Bush assured the world last January, adding, ‘We’ll leave it to the market to decide the mix of fuels that most effectively and efficiently meet this goal.’ The idea that capitalism can save us from climate catastrophe has powerful appeal. It gives politicians an excuse to subsidize corporations rather than regulate them, and it neatly avoids a discussion about how the core market logic of endless growth landed us here in the first place” (Klein, Naomi, “Guns Beat Green: The Market Has Spoken,” 29 November 2007,

[23“Paolo Cacciari, one of the Italian MPs in favour, says the motion before parliament already has the support of more than 50 of his colleagues from both left and right. None of them appears worried by the idea of reducing potential global oil supplies in this way. ‘We’ve extracted more oil than we were ever meant to,’ he says. ‘We have an ecological debt to pay back, and this suggestion by Ecuador is an intelligent solution. It’s the responsibility of all of us to look after these reserves’” (Gordon 2007).

[2422This controversy within OPEC was heightened on 18 November 2007 in Riyadh when Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa proposed a new eco-tax on oil exports by OPEC countries to lower demand for oil and thereby cut emissions. The proceeds would go for poverty reduction, including energy-poverty reduction, and alternative energies (geo-thermal, wind, solar). This economic and climate justice proposal would begin with a tax of 3% on the price of oil (Alier and Temper 2007).

[25Debt relief would allow the Ecuadorian and other participating governments to ‘sow the oil,’ as is being done by protagonists of the Venezuelan Bolivarian revolution for 21st century socialism.

[2624Monbiot 4 December 2007. Monbiot’s figures are based on global CO2 production in 2000 and a 2007 world population of 6,635 million.

[27As Shiva, Bond, Lohman, Monbiot and many others have argued, carbon trade and other capitalist market-based responses to carbon emissions constitute neo-colonial enclosures while allowing perpetrators to continue polluting.

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