post #3 in the series, from my book in progress Upcycling Ecopoetry

Upcycling will join other books arguing that the crucial changes that must come will be primarily driven by global populist movements for restorative justice for people, ecosystems, and the planet.  Established institutions, technological interventions, markets, and other factors will have to play a role too, but the systemic changes in human behavior that must occur—if they occur—will primarily come from the ground up, not top-down.  

In Environmentalism From Below, for instance, Ashley Dawson draws on the work of Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martínez-Alier, who argued that “environmentalisms of the poor” can be traced back to the colonial era in South Asia, Latin America, Europe, and elsewhere.  They sought to “retain under their control the natural resources threatened by state takeover or by the advance of the generalized market system” and were often murdered in the struggle.  In particular, they fought against enclosure policies—such as the many Enclosure Acts passed in England—that removed forests, arable and grazing lands, and other territory from their status as Commons shared by all to the control of the State or rich landowners.  The justification for such attacks on Commons, whether in England, India, Latin America, or elsewhere, was always similar:  enclosure would supposedly use natural resources in more productive ways (“productive” as defined by market economics) while simultaneously also conserving resources for future generations.  Guha and Martínez-Alier trace these struggles back to the colonial era, but Dawson stresses their importance on a global scale over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

“Environmentalism from below is animated by struggles for collective control of the environmental and social commons in the face of global environmental degradation and dispossession carried out by neocolonial extractivism and capitalism.  Unlike the dominant environmental movement in rich countries, which tends to work through legal and policy channels that assume the beneficence of the state, environmentalism from below often militates against state power.  Originating in the lives of marginalized or subaltern communities and their links to endangered worlds, environmentalism from below is a self-generating and unruly power.”        (5)[i]

Upcycling will stress the crucial role that imaginative story-telling, especially poetry, must play in imagining and working toward a less poisonous global future.  Some of the poets discussed come from rather privileged positions in society, while many others do not.  But in all cases their writing explores how endangered worlds struggling to survive must confront the power the status quo.  Their methods may be markedly different (a good thing for ecopoetry), but their urgency is shared.


[i] Ashley Dawson, Environmentalism From Below: How Global People’s Movements Are Leading the Fight For Our Planet.  Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2024.  Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martínez-Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South.  Earthscan, 1997.  Note that Martínez-Alier is Spanish; sometimes his first name in databases is spelled Joan and at other times, Juan.  

I have more to say about the history of the Commons for contemporary environmentalism and ecopoetry in an upcoming chapter in Upcycling.  For now, let me just mention that Dawson astutely surveys the role the concept of the “commons” has played globally in contesting “conservation” theory and practice as defined by elites. See chapter 4, “Against Fortress Conservation,” in Environmentalism From Below.

For other work on “environmentalism from below” as an alternative history of the environmental movement, I recommend: 

  • Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Alexander Elliott, James Cullis, and Vinita Damodaran, eds. Climate Change and the Humanities: Historical, Philosophical, and Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Contemporary Environmental Crisis. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2017.
  • Giovanna Di Chiro, “Climate Justice Now! Imagining Grassroots Ecocosmopolitanism.” American Studies, Ecocriticism, and Citizenship: Thinking and Acting in the Local and Global Commons.  Joni Adamson and Kimberly N. Ruffin, eds. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2012. 204-19.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.