Zapatismo’s Ongoing Lessons For Ecological Transition with Democracy and Dignity

“After talking and listening, we came to the conclusion that what we saw was the same thing: a profound crisis was approaching—not only an economic one, although it was also economic. A storm, in fact.”

Sup Galeano (formerly Subcomandante Marcos) of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) on May 4, 2015.

The Storm in which we find ourselves consists not only of the ravages of an increasingly brutal capitalism; it entails also a global ecological crisis. Such a crisis contains within it the crises endemic to neoliberal governance, but this crisis goes far deeper than the economic and environmental history of recent decades. The winds and rains of the Storm move in profound historical time; they resurface, from dreams of a past half-forgotten, in the recollection of other worlds; they emerge, in pain and rage, as worlds struggling to be born.

Galeano’s employment of natural imagery resurrects deep and forgotten knowledges of the lands that all of us inhabit. Since their explosive emergence in 1994, the Zapatistas have often framed their “500 year” struggle with hybrid discourses that invoke environmental or natural forces such as the “wind from below” or the “tree of tomorrow.” Such natural imagery might make outside observers and supporters uneasy, as racist and colonial discourses have, for hundreds of years, romanticized indigenous peoples’ “harmonious” relationship with nature. The Zapatistas, however, enjoy international fame for their ability to represent themselves as subjects of history. After more than two decades of open resistance, this empowered indigenous movement continues to frame its struggle for dignity, democracy, liberty, and justice as one that is rooted in, and for, Mother Earth.

Currently the Zapatistas are in the midst of a series of events leading up to the New Year, the 23rd anniversary of the 1994 uprising. In August, they held the festival “CompArte for Humanity,” October saw the initial deliberations of the 5th National Indigenous Congress (CNI), and in late December the “ConSciences for Humanity” will begin. In their invitation to national and international guests, the Zapatistas explain that “politics from above” has produced a crisis that threatens the very survival of the planet and “that the sciences and the arts now represent the only serious opportunity for the construction of a more just and rational world.” Additionally, the CNI has recently made history with its proposal to run an independent indigenous woman candidate for the 2018 Mexican presidential election. The CNI contextualized this monumental change in strategy, not as an attempt to take power but rather to galvanize organization and resistance in both the country and the city. This call to draw together self-determining movements into new relationships of resistance carries tremendous resonance throughout the globe. Zapatismo’s lessons of autonomy and resilience offer hope for surviving and transitioning out of capitalism, from within the Storm that is already here.

Just as the Zapatistas tell us that they are the “product of 500 years of struggle,” so too has the Storm of Eurocentric, capitalist progress assailed Mother Earth for centuries. Galeano explains that the Storm consists of an economic crisis “multiplied by the unnatural environmental disasters, seeing as they are the effect of a man-made cause: the transformation of everything, including the most basic and elementary of things—water, air, sun and shade, earth and sky—into commodities. And from there, the exploitation of these things, far beyond the most elementary logic.” The neoliberal tendencies of deregulation, privatization, and financialization that currently permeate local, national, and global policies not only fragment social systems through processes of political economy. Their pervasive power depends also on instrumentalist and utilitarian understandings of our world, which endeavor to manipulate, dominate, and homogenize complex ecologies. Ecologies are organic and inorganic, as well as social and political. This “world where many worlds fit” contains an infinite number of intersecting ecologies, although dominant Eurocentric ways of thinking, political forms, and ways of dwelling remain deeply instrumentalist.

Humanity’s perceived superiority to nature, and subsequent crusade to colonize and dominate it, served as a central myth in modern world capitalism’s ascension. Proposed solutions to ecological crisis will reproduce this foundational fallacy unless they recognize humanity’s interbeing with the earth. In the age of the Anthropocene, of climate change, of the sixth mass extinction, and the threat of systemic collapse, the untenable myth that humanity could perfectly administer its natural environment has reached, and surpassed, the boundaries of credulity that are now literally planetary in scale. Diverse movements have arisen and called for alternatives, but the myth’s roots run deep.

Institutional responses to eco-crisis, such as COP 21 and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, not only prioritize transnational capitalist interests, but also betray a much deeper and widespread incapacity to think outside of reductionist and insufficient ecological paradigms. For example, COP 21’s employment of strategies such as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) as a framework, rather than cutting emissions at the source, indicates a troubling inability to think outside of market logics. In this framework, polluters purchase the right to continue polluting in other places through the leasing of forests, which expropriates the means of survival from local peoples whose methods often work against corporate food regimes. In so doing, this corporate-owned agreement reproduces the evermore unrestrained and volatile commodification model that produced the crisis in the first place.

Such strategies from above are largely captured by an increasingly financialized, high-velocity, automated political economy, composed of “just in time” infrastructures which churn along in the pursuit of infinite growth. And while a growing network of movements such as the Indigenous Environmental Network a combine potent mixture of cutting analysis, organized action, and strategies for ecologically resilient existence, in the larger context of the left, we still have a long way to go in decolonizing our instrumentalist worldviews and daily practices, which reproduce capitalist infrastructures and social relations. Eco-crisis will be a pivot upon which the current global arrangement will reorganize itself, transitioning either toward increasing consolidation and brutality or something more decentralized and democratic. The current levels of unsustainable complexity in the global system mean that there is potential for this transition phase to be more or less catastrophic.

Transition means resilient, community-based solutions, always organizing and mobilizing against the global system of death that traps us. In our building of another world, it is important to remember that other worlds already exist, and resilient autonomous commoning is one important process keeping them in active resistance. Building autonomous networks in the city will depend on a deeper sense of historical time, creative uses of–broadly defined–scientific knowledges, and a sense of the artistic as we actually practice our freedom.

Capitalism depends on expropriating common land and subjecting those who work it to a very specific set of Eurocentric and individualistic private property rights. Alienated from the common working of land, people become dependent on the market to provide basic necessities. For many of us inhabiting urban areas, practices of self-conscious commoning are all but forgotten. As David Harvey has written in Rebel Cities, we are all constantly producing the city, although our collective product is stolen through a process of “accumulation through dispossession.” As such, our understandings of the social relations and ecological processes that we exist within are obscured from sight. Our lives are based around consumption. We are increasingly alienated from each other and the complex web of ecologies we compose, regardless of how “green” our consumption patterns are.

Zapatismo has made advances in indigenous education, health, women’s rights, and agro-ecology precisely because the movement’s autonomous, democratic, and community structures actually facilitate the practice of other types of social and ecological life. While capitalist social relations obscure our ecological existences, autonomy allows a clearer sense of how daily life is practiced day after day, which creates real space to change these patterns. The maintenance and creation of non-capitalist social relations does not occur in some mythical or pure form. Rather, these alternative ways of understanding, and being in, the world have been nurtured, guarded, and recreated throughout struggle. For instance, since February 2016 the Zapatista’s have begun an initiative with the organization Schools for Chiapas to “create resilient food systems resistant to climate change and political violence.”

As the Storm’s many fronts converge, the question remains: how can the Zapatistas’s struggle inform movements and organizations that are not indigenous, who don’t control non-urbanized land, whose collective memories of commoning are buried deeply in poor soil? The Zapatista’s would be the first to tell us that their path is their own and could never serve as a blueprint for other struggles. As their almost constant spaces for international encounter would seem to indicate, however, the movement is not opposed to productive exchange and cross-contextual learning. For those of us who lack the daily practice of democratic, anti-capitalist, and ecological autonomy, we would do well to listen.

There is no blueprint for transition; as the Zapatista’s say, the path will be made through walking and asking questions. As we learn from one another and wage larger political struggles, however, autonomy remains a most potent force for meaningful change in a deeply complex and seemingly unchangeable world. Resilient autonomy in the city can serve as an ever-moving process of building spaces resistant to capitalism, alleviating our dependence on it, and empowering organized people to believe in and work toward another world that is both “possible and necessary.” These projects may involve urban farming, land trusts, gentrification resistance, and land recuperations. As we practice our solidarity and our resistance to capitalism, however, we will find ever-new ways of applying and creating the sciences we need to live more freely. This transition will be a visionary and artistic practice of creating the worlds we want to inhabit. Let us listen with humble hearts to those in the Mexican Southeast, and throughout the world, who already walk this path.

Burke Stanton is a deprofessionalized student, writer, and musician interested in the intersections of radical ecology, radical democracy, and decolonization. He is currently travelling and learning in Mexico, and writes at