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XXIX.1 January - February 2022
Page: 99
Digital Citation

Coloniality, reproduction, and the climate crisis, or: How do we survive when the land is crumbling


Authors:
Luiza de Oliveira Martins

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In 2014, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a generous endowment of over 20 million dollars to a startup called Microchips Biotech [1]. The money was meant to support the research and development of the startup's flagship product: a wireless, smart birth-control implant that could be turned on and off through an app. Each implant was designed to remain active for 16 years—a significant part of one's entire fertile life—as opposed to the three years of currently available contraceptives. Additionally, the implant could collect a wealth of data about patients, ostensibly to provide tailored healthcare solutions.

back to top  Insights

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In interviews following the announcement, Bill Gates clarified that this device was being designed with the developing world (more so than with Northern audiences) in mind; according to him, in such regions access to this contraceptive would mean a "form of reproductive justice," as opposed to a "lifestyle choice" [2]. Often, this statement came coupled with a promise to start distribution of the device in 2018 in "Africa" (no clarification of which country); however, Gates and other company representatives also mention that the implant would indeed be released as a commercial product in the North—albeit at a later time. In November 2019, it was announced through a press release that Microchips Biotech had been acquired by Daré Biosciences and that the company aimed to continue the partnership with the Gates Foundation to raise additional capital for the product's clinical trial phase [3].

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Besides obvious concerns about data privacy and hacking in such a device, the mass distribution of the Microchips implant could have serious implications for the digitalized biometric surveillance of marginalized people—and open avenues for the mass control of fertility. In her 2015 book Dark Matters [4], scholar Simone Browne offers a thorough and compelling account of the technologies employed for the surveillance of Blackness in the U.S. and Canada—starting with the establishment of chattel slavery and reenacted in the present through the theatrics of airport security and the collection of census data. Scholar Louise Amoore investigates the emergence of novel border regimes in the aftermath of 9/11, highlighting how the "the biometric border is the portable border par excellence…deployed to divide bodies at international boundaries, airports, railway stations, on subways or city streets, in the office or the neighbourhood" [5]. Amoore and Browne understand racializing and gendering processes to occur in parallel, and in interrelation, to the enactment of surveillance; in becoming gendered and racialized, the body also becomes surveilled in all spheres of life, private and public. These discussions find alarming correspondences in how decision-making processes in public institutions increasingly rely on technologies that, though assumed to be neutral actors, make use of biased data against minority populations [6]. This in itself is a violence, one more way of killing an "other."

back to top  Land, Scarcity, and Overpopulation

In the book Caliban and the Witch, Marxist feminist scholar Silvia Federici [7] describes how processes of land privatization—starting in the 16th century and extending up until the 18th century—were animated by a perception that "land enclosures," as they were known then, were a way to boost agricultural productivity. The argument was that, left in the hands of the poor, these lands would become depleted, eventually ceasing to produce what was needed to sustain the local population. Federici notes that land privatization didn't in fact increase the availability of food for commoners; instead, it just created the ideal conditions for more food to be produced for export.

It is through the privatization of land that two centuries of starvation throughout rural Europe were inaugurated. Relevantly, Federici traces parallels between this process and the ways in which today people all around Asia, Africa, and Latin America suffer from starvation as a direct result of the destruction of communal land tenure—a consequence of the colonial process—and the subsequent shift from the production of foodstuffs meant to supply local peoples, to exports. Indeed, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang point out:

The settler…sees himself as holding dominion over the earth and its flora and fauna… He can only make his identity as a settler by making the land produce, and produce excessively, because "civilization" is defined as production in excess of the "natural" world (i.e., in excess of the sustainable production already present in the Indigenous world) [8].

In 1798, Thomas Malthus published "An Essay on the Principles of Population," an influential text in which he argued that while a nation's ability to produce food could increase arithmetically, its population would grow exponentially, leading to a destructive cycle that would culminate in what is known as a Malthusian catastrophe—war, famine, death. Through Malthusian lenses, scarcity is not an inevitable, desired, and necessary outcome of a capitalist system, but rather a result of the actions and choices of the poor—a line of thought that echoes the logic that governed the processes of land privatization discussed and criticized by Federici. Since Malthus's initial formulation, many people have periodically revisited and recycled his arguments. This group includes British biologist Paul Ehrlich, one of on the first to blame environmental collapse on overpopulation (Ehrlich discusses this in The Population Bomb, first published in 1969). It also includes U.S. activist Margaret Sanger, whose crusade for reproductive rights was animated by the perception that many of the problems that afflicted poor, racialized women were the results of unregulated fertility [9].


Interventions on the fertility and sexuality of colonial subjects are framed as necessary and beneficial.


More recently, Laura Briggs [10] stresses that population-control policies implemented in the Global South need to be understood as continuations of the colonial/imperial project, pathologizing the sex and reproduction of colonial subjects for the benefit of colonizers. Interventions on the fertility and sexuality of colonial subjects are framed as necessary and beneficial—economically, politically, environmentally. Briggs quotes biologist Julian Huxley, who argued that with too many babies being born in Asia and Latin America, "too much of that capital and skill and manpower will be used up in providing food, housing, education, health, and other services for them" [10, emphasis mine]. She highlights, furthermore, that it is within this context that the sexuality of those living at the margins of capitalism becomes coded as "dangerous and unreasonable, the cause of poverty and hence of communism, and needed to be made known, managed, and regulated" [10]. A similar rhetoric is also used to justify people of color living in the so-called developed world being disproportionately targeted by sterilization programs and population-control policies, as documented by scholar Dorothy Roberts [9].

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back to top  Eco-Fascism, Reproduction, and Data Collection

Discussing the U.S. war in Vietnam, Briggs points out that "the U.S. Agency for International Development distributed birth control pills to halt the spread of communism in South Vietnam, while the Defense Department dropped napalm on the North" [10]. Few examples materialize the links between climate, reproduction, and empire more clearly than the image of living human and nonhuman beings—fauna, flora, rivers, mountains—burning under the deadly blanket of napalm so that an empire's thirst for worldwide domination can be quenched. While the war crimes committed by the U.S. in the Southeast Asian nation in the second half of the 20th century were buttressed by the perceived threat of communism during the Cold War, similar tactics of annihilation and sterilization are now deployed throughout key geopolitical nodes of colonial power—this time against migrants fleeing political, economic, and, notably, environmental instability caused by the actions of so-called developed nations [11]. Most recently, reports of forced sterilizations being conducted on migrants and asylum seekers in ICE detention camps come to mind as egregious examples of ongoing colonial violences over marginalized subjects. Significantly, too, these actions occur in tandem with the expansion of border infrastructures that negatively impact wildlife, as well as actions and policies meant to promote the death of human subjects who attempt to cross the border, for instance the border police's systematic destruction of critical supplies (such as water cans) left by activists for those who attempt to cross the desert region of the U.S. Southwest border.

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The understanding that birth and death rates must be controlled to maintain colonial order emerges, as scholar Michelle Murphy points out, in the second half of 20th century; the postwar era when "population" became managerial category, a "quantity problem fixed by adjustable birth and death rates" [12]. She goes on to describe the concept of population as "an artifact of a particular way of counting," able to create a tally of bodies, to abstract them in such a way that it becomes possible to analyze their existence through a managerial gaze. This is the gaze that, she writes, is then poised to ask, "What should be done about them?" [12, emphasis mine]. It is through this conceptualization of population that lives then become subsumed into nothing more than deletable data points, numbers to be adjusted by policies that prevent the births, promote the deaths, and curb the movement of those whose lives are considered undesirable within colonial hierarchy.

Microchips Biotech reveals how this narrative is materialized in technologies currently being developed to provide supposed "solutions" to the so-called overpopulation problem. As conversations on the climate crisis and its current and future impacts gain prominence, concerns over possible connections between overpopulation, the increase of global temperatures, and fears of widespread scarcity have been placed once again in the spotlight—to the point that acts of white supremacist violence have been directly animated by the fear of a looming climatic disaster triggered by the presence of Brown and Black subjects within the borders of Northern nations [13]. These arguments are translated into calls for the surveillance and regulation of the fertility of these subjects—once again framed as necessary and beneficial. The uncomfortable truth of capital's perpetual hunger for disposable goods, exploitable workers, and natural resources—all key factors in the ongoing crisis—often remains un- or under-examined; the blame is shifted to those existing under the duress inflicted through centuries of colonial and capitalist domination. Ultimately, these concerns reveal the perversity of calls for care—reproductive care, in particular—that do not adequately address underlying capitalist-colonial dynamics.

back to top  References

1. https://www.gatesfoundation.org/about/committed-grants/2014/01/opp1068198

2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2014/07/17/this-amazing-remote-controlled-contraceptive-microchip-you-implant-under-your-skin-is-the-future-of-medicine/?utm_term=.d28b36e131e3

3. https://ir.darebioscience.com/news-releases/news-release-details/dare-bioscience-enters-agreement-acquire-microchips-biotech

4. Browne, S. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Duke Univ. Press Books, Durham, NC, 2015.

5. Amoore, L. Biometric borders: Governing mobilities in the war on terror. Political Geography 25, 3 (Mar. 1, 2006), 336–351; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2006.02.001

6. https://www.propublica.org/article/bias-in-criminal-risk-scores-is-mathematically-inevitable-researchers-say

7. Federici, S. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, 1st edition. Autonomedia, New York, NY, 2004.

8. Tuck, E, and Yang, K.W. Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, 1 (Sep. 8, 2012); https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/des/article/view/18630

9. Roberts, D. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. Vintage Books, 1998.

10. Briggs, L. Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U. S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2002.

11. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/23/magazine/climate-migration.html

12. Murphy, M. Against population, towards alterlife. In Making Kin Not Population: Reconceiving Generations, 1st edition. A. Clarke and D.J. Haraway, eds. Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago, IL, 2018, 101–24.

13. https://theintercept.com/2019/08/05/el-paso-shooting-eco-fascism-migration/

back to top  Author

Luiza Prado de Oliveira Martins is an artist, writer, and researcher investigating reproduction, herbal medicine, and coloniality. She is part of the curatorial board for transmediale 2021 and an assistant professor and vice-director of the Centre for Other Worlds, Lusófona University. She is a founding member of Decolonising Design. Luiza.prado@ulusofona.pt

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