Supplanting Oppressive Infrastructures (For AREA Chicago)

The organizing work I have been doing this year has been focused on transforming and supplanting dominant infrastructures with different infrastructures that model sustainable and just relationships. I arrived at this work of looking at infrastructures from developing a systemic critique of the nuclear weapons and power industry. In trying to understand this industry, infrastructures are conceived of as physical or ideological conduits for the transport of electricity, capital, death/life, and power.

There are many infrastructures that are woven into the nuclear industry. There are physical infrastructures, such as those that produce nuclear fuel for weapons and power, or the systems of diesel vehicle transportation that move the fuel from mine to power plants or weapons facilities. These infrastructures are driven by profit, and intrinsically linked to the economic infrastructures that assign worth to certain things, like uranium ore, yellowcake, and global hegemony, but not to others, such as quality of life and health, clean water, old growth forests, and so forth.

These economic infrastructures include the complicated bureaucratic networks of patronage from government to private corporation for the construction and operation of weapons and power facilities, all loans and risks of which are underwritten at taxpayer expense. Capitalism is another such infrastructure implicit in this relationship, where wealth is transported as numbers in computers all across the globe. By and large, the economic infrastructure in this country, our industrial jobs and the largest investments of capital, whether private or government, is that of a military economy. This fact illuminates another infrastructure, that of the social infrastructure that exists in order to perpetuate military dominance and empire.

This social infrastructure of labor exploitation, colonialism and genocide provides the foundation for other infrastructures that maintain the nuclear weapons and power industry, and continue to enforce America’s imperial designs militarily, economically and politically. Social infrastructures that reify empire include the ideologies that support white supremacist hetero-patriarchy, these infrastructures that value eugenic sameness and order our access and control of wealth, health, education, culture, power. Without the general population’s maintenance of and compliance with these social infrastructures, the other infrastructures of capitalism, nuclear power plants, or US weapons facilities would cease to exist.

Infrastructures necessitate maintenance. Infrastructures decay. Infrastructures are appropriated, re-appropriated. Infrastructures are constructed, and can be deconstructed, abandoned, reinvented.

The nuclear weapons and power infrastructures are closely reliant upon and interdependent with infrastructures of fossil fuel and imperial militarism. Conceiving of these juggernauts as physical networks or pipelines with points of pressure and vulnerability allows us more freedom in defining our relationship to them, as well as in defining the shape and form of our resistance to them. If these infrastructures exist somewhere, then they may not exist somewhere else. If they are permeable and in flux, they are susceptible to entropy, then we have an entry point.

One system of infrastructures that is becoming increasingly popular in America as an alternative to dominant infrastructures of militarism, capitalism and empire is that of permaculture. Permaculture includes a number of technologies that humans have been using for thousands of years to sustain ourselves, shelter ourselves, and incorporate our wastes back into natural systems. To an industrial society, permaculture forces us to radically change our relationship to the earth. We are challenged to work to sustain her, and to work reciprocally with her to sustain ourselves.

A permaculture farm has a number of infrastructures. Water infrastructures on such a farm, for example, will seek to get as much human use as possible from water before returning it into the natural system. Such an infrastructure may start with rain water catchment, such as a roof that slopes into gutters that drain into rain barrels. This water may then be used for cleaning or drinking, and then used again through a grey-water system. Grey-water may be filtered through rocks, gravel, sand, dirt, or poured into a bucket of mulch, and then used to water a garden.

Food from the garden is eaten, composted, and returned to the soil. Such a food infrastructure may include chickens or pigs, humanure toilets, worms, bees, fungi. This infrastructure may stretch outside of a single farm and network locally or regionally with other farms, supplementing what each is able to produce and diversifying the resources and landscapes to which single farm has access. These infrastructures are easy to comprehend on physical levels, when considering what to do with food, water, and waste.

But what of the social implications of permaculture infrastructures? And where do energy infrastructures fit into this system? Is there an ideological infrastructure built into permaculture that allows this system to move beyond environmental sustainability or “greening” to a just and sustainable social relationship?

The current conception of permaculture in America is shaped from David Holmgren’s twelve “Permaculture Concepts.” When applied, these concepts work to guide one’s relationship to their environment on a principle of permaculture, or permanent sustainable agriculture. These concepts include the observation of patterns and systems of one’s specific location or context, catching and storing energy and resources, reuse of resources, producing no waste, self regulation and the acceptance of feedback or criticism, integration and use of the marginal and edges, valuing diversity, and creative use and response to change. Using nature, ecosystems and biorhythms as analogy, we can observe how these concepts operate in our surroundings and learn to apply them to our social interactions.

As our fragile biosphere reaches its limits for sustaining first world consumption patterns, we will begin to see feedback from our environment that will shape and limit our own behaviors. As we burn more fossil fuels, continue urban development through new construction projects (“green” or otherwise), factory farm and mono-crop our food, and increasingly mine uranium/coal/oil/natural gas in increasingly destructive ways, we will see a rise in global temperatures, changing weather patterns, rise in sea levels, and species extinction. Food scarcity and disease will become major problems, and it is likely that the current infrastructures of social relations and capital will continue to provide access to resources, death/life and power to those who have control and power over those infrastructures.

In this scenario, it is absolutely necessary to recognize how dominant infrastructures privilege a certain few and deny access to others when beginning to conceive of alternative or supplementary infrastructures. We cannot simply change our infrastructures for food acquisition and energy without questioning and transforming the social and economic infrastructures that shape our local, regional, and global exchanges.

Permaculture as it is often applied and practiced allows certain segments of society with access to certain resources an amount of autonomy from dominant infrastructures. There is a movement among sustainably minded peoples to move away from reliance on capitalist markets for their food, and in many ways how and what America eats is a barometer for their politics. The green-washed corporatization of the sustainability movement has lead to the increased success of huge corporations such as Whole Foods, and in a similar vein farmers’ markets have proven very popular among wealthy urban classes who can afford to pay to buy direct from local farmers. Food justice remains a huge issue among poor communities, however, who do not have the luxury of securing access to healthy food with wealth. Permaculture in this sense can offer an immense amount of autonomy for poor populations that are able to grow their own food, or create their own local food production markets. This struggle is closely entwined with environmental justice, however, due to the high incidence of toxic industrial and energy infrastructures being located in, near, or upstream of poor communities and communities of color. In this sense, food justice is more than having access to healthy food, it is also having access to knowledge of permaculture technologies, clean water and soil, time, and the empowerment to initiate and organize such a project.

The issue of sustainably powering one’s household is even more complex. The technologies for installing autonomous and sustainable energy generation units are typically much more complex and resource intensive than growing one’s own food. Depending on the natural resources available to one’s household, such as wind, direct sunlight, or flowing water, and the energy needs of the household, the installation and maintenance of solar panels or micro-hydro power units could be costly. Technologies like solar panels require intense resource extraction, are generally not made locally, and are hard to repair and maintain with local resources and know-how. Again, the issue of who has access to these technologies and the resources to power them remains a social justice issue, one marked by gender, race, class, and status.

While building alternative infrastructures for food and energy allows us autonomy from dominant material infrastructures based on oppression, capitalism and militarism, these infrastructures, while unsustainable, continue to operate. In following the tenant of permaculture that instructs the use and valuing of diversity, and that which instructs the use and value of edges and the marginal, we must keep in mind that dominant infrastructures serve to most oppress those on the edges and the margins. If we are truly to value difference and the marginalized, we must recognize that these intertwining movements for environmental justice, just and renewable energy, gender, racial, and class justice, demilitarization, and nuclear abolition are in fact a global struggle for collective liberation.

When we look to the margins, we see groups working to sustain traditional food-ways and sustainable agricultural relationships to the earth. One such group, La Via Campesina (1), draws the links between globalization and the westernization of dietary and agricultural technologies and infrastructures that serve to oppress peasant and indigenous populations around the world. This group defines itself as “the international movement of peasants, small- and medium-sized producers, landless, rural women, indigenous people, rural youth and agricultural workers,” as well as “an autonomous, pluralist and multicultural movement, independent of any political, economic, or other type of affiliation.” Their group works along the permaculture principle of using locally available resources to defend “family farm based production” that is “in harmony with local culture and traditions.” Through reclaiming indigenous agricultural infrastructures, La Via Campesina reclaims, defines and defends their space on the margins of centralized capitalist corporate agriculture that seeks to colonize indigenous life-ways and labor.

As a system, permaculture seeks to restore our relationship with the earth from one of exploitation to one of stewardship through building new physical infrastructures, likewise it necessitates the building of new social infrastructures in order to supplant the oppressive social infrastructures that foundationally support capitalism, empire and militarism. We need to begin building the social infrastructures that will serve as conduits for material support, solidarity, free exchange of information, non-violent communications, and respect. Having built these, we will be free to tear down those that only allow access to a privileged few and serve to reify the infrastructures and systems of oppression.

My knowledge and understanding of the environmental and social implications of permaculture have been gleaned over the past two months while I have been on a national tour speaking about nuclear abolition and building alternatives to militarism, colonialism, and capitalism. Our tour has visited a number of different community farms and permaculture projects, both urban and rural, and we have been observing and learning from those who practice the building and transformation of sustainable environmental and social infrastructures. This tour is part of a larger campaign, called Disarmament Summer, based around northern New Mexico and working to transform the nuclear infrastructure of Los Alamos National Nuclear Weapons Laboratory.

Through this campaign, we have members of our youth network, Think Outside the Bomb, working with affected communities in the Espanola Valley that surrounds Los Alamos. There, we are building cross-cultural social infrastructures that are laying the groundwork of collaboration. We have identified the goals of our campaign by asking folks in affected communities what their visions of transformation of the weapons labs would look like. Due to the heavy influence that Los Alamos has on communities in the Espanola Valley, as it is the main provider of jobs, financial security, and community investment, folks there have demanded economic transformation of the nuclear weapons infrastructure of Los Alamos. They want to keep their jobs, but they want jobs to be safe, to not harm their bodies or their environment. Think Outside the Bomb and our partner communities are calling for a transformation of the labs’ industrial infrastructure to move it from weapons technologies to the development of technologies that focus on clean up and containment of nuclear waste, as well as renewable energy resources such as wind, solar, and hydro-electric.

This work will culminate with a ten day permaculture and non-violent direct action training encampment in Chimayo, New Mexico. There we will bring members of affected communities together with youth from across America to build physical permaculture infrastructures that will remain in the community, as well as to teach permaculture skills to folks so they can bring those technologies home to their communities. The camp will grow solidarity between guests on the land and their hosts by allowing visiting youth to develop a better understanding of what it means to be a community affected by nuclear infrastructures. The horizontal, cross-cultural social infrastructures that are being constructed to help sustain this organizing into the future will provide the framework for this solidarity, understanding and communication. They also serve to supplant and erode the oppressive social infrastructures that perpetuate the colonization and genocide of affected communities.

Think Outside the Bomb’s permaculture encampment and our Disarmament Summer campaign construct and highlight concrete infrastructures that we have at our disposal right now to transform and supplant nuclear weapons and power, fossil fuel energy, colonial and white supremacist social relationships, and the project of American empire. It is important for us to build up these alternative infrastructures while still agitating for social and political change so that we may remain focused and critical of our vision of a more just and sustainable world.


  1. Proposals of Via Campesina for sustainable, farmer based agricultural production. Published at the occasion of the WSSD summit in Johannesburg, August, 2002. Found at the site

Rebecca Riley is a puppeteer, musician and independent researcher. She is currently organizing with the Think Outside the Bomb network as the National Tour Coordinator. She is based out of Chicago, although she is living in a Chevy Astro Van somewhere along the west coast until the tour ends in August.


~ by scamuic on July 13, 2010.

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