The New School for Social Research welcomes Maristella Svampa as the Spring 2023 visiting Hans Speier Professor in the Sociology department.
Svampa is a researcher, sociologist, activist, and writer. She lives in Argentina and is a researcher at the Conicet (National Center for Scientific and Technical Research), Argentina, and professor at the Universidad Nacional de la Plata (province of Buenos Aires). She received the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Kónex award in Sociology (Argentina) in 2006 and 2016, the Kónex award in Political and Sociological essay (2014), and the Platinum Kónex Award in Sociology (2016). In 2019, she received the National Award in Sociology for her book, Debates Latinoamericanos.
Named for Hans Speier, a German sociologist and one of 10 founding members of the University in Exile, the Speier Professorship is a distinguished visiting professorship that brings scholars to the NSSR Sociology department to conduct research and teach, continuing The New School’s tradition of welcoming academics from Europe. Speier’s wife lost her job as a doctor due to being Jewish, and the family found refuge at The New School in 1933, where Speier became a professor of sociology until 1942, returning in 1974 as a professor emeritus.
Research Matters sat down with with Svampa to talk about her research, her teaching, and her time at NSSR.
What attracted you to a visiting professorship at New School for Social Research?
When I was young I was hesitating whether to come to study in the United States, here at The New School or whether to go to France. Although The New School appealed to me with all its history as the “University of Exile”, I finally studied in Paris. But long story short, I received an invitation by Carlos Forment [Associate Professor of Sociology] before the pandemic and finally I´m here.
Can you talk a little bit about your research interests, background and the intersections between ecology, economics, and philosophy?
In the last years, I’ve I studied a lot of social movements, first in Argentina, and other countries in Latin America. But in the last 15 years, I’ve amplified my field of research by incorporating many topics related to social environmental conflicts which served as an opening into the realm of the socio-ecological crisis, especially the divide of the relationship between Global North and South. So much of my research lies in interrogating the Anthropocene and the discussions in the global south. I also seek to connect the climate crisis and models of development in the global south and much of my criticisms interrogate neo-extractivism in Latin America and how this kind of model of development expands the fossil fuel industry. So largely my work lies in the connections between the Anthropocene, ecological collapse and how the different ways of transition manifest in the relationship between the Global North and South.
You’re currently teaching a class about neo-extractivism in Latin America. Can you discuss the class and the linkages to colonialism?
I work in different collectives with other colleagues in the south, especially in Latin America. Now, for example, we are reflecting about the consequences of energy transition in the towns, not only in Latin America, but in Asia, and Africa. Many of these places are facing corporate neo-colonial energy transition models that envision energy expansion as a means to get new business. They are not thinking about the urgency for changing social system and energy system. Energy transition is a possibility to accumulate more capital and imply more pressure from the north to the south to have strategic minerals. That is a kind of transition that further reifies old forms of colonialism in new ways.
In fact, it’s not a real transition, its energy expansion, it’s an exacerbation of exploitation of natural resources. We’re not alone when we talk that because there are a lot of resistances in Africa, in Latin America, that link lithium extraction or the exploitation of balsa woods in the Amazon region, the cobalt extraction or even the projects of green hydrogen in Africa. We call that “the false solutions.”
Can you kind of discuss a little bit more about the way this energy transition and this debt specifically, like provide some examples of how it specifically burdened the countries in the Global South compared to the Global North? Can you provide some examples of the communities in the Global South resist neo-extractivism?
There is a growing interest in many forms of energy democratization—decentralized forms of energy controlled by local communities associated with the state in different levels. It’s a kind of small and middle size projects because we have to avoid the big impacts associated with the mega projects. Our proposal is linked to works of decentralized, communitarian energy cooperatives. That is the problem now is a big push to introduce big energy projects such as solar energy but what ends up in happening is dispossession of land from the natives living there.
I study social environmental conflict in Latin America and I especially look into the different forms popular environmentalism manifests for the popular classes, indigenous people, peasant people, women and young people. In the last 20 years, there was an expansion of the frontier of extractivism in Latin America—-open pit mega mining, oil production, fracking and offshore extraction, agribusiness like soy and pol palm, expansion of mega-dams. So, there are many, many resistances linked to this kind of conflicts in Latin America. It was very complicated twenty years ago because it was the beginning of the commodities consensus. I prefer to talk about commodities consensus because there aren’t any differences between neoliberal conservative and progressivist governments. Both sides accepted this possibility to expand the frontier of a commodification and then that a lot of socioenvironmental movements in Latin America arose. There has been uniting amongst different collectives such feminist, youth and indigenous collectives to bring more awareness to these issues since its proliferation twenty years ago.
This has brought about a lot of political tensions. it’s important to add that Latin America is the region of the world where more people are assassinated defending nature. Every year there are a lot of people who died defending land, territory, and life, especially in Colombia, in Mexico, in Nicaragua, in Brazil, for example.
That’s it’s really interesting, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Cop City in Atlanta and the destruction of the forest to build a police training facility. One of the activist defenders of the land was murdered by a police officer. And hearing you speak about the situation in Latin America makes me think about similar situations happening in response to the climate crisis.
I think there are obvious connections because the Global South and North are fighting similar monsters when it comes to the climate crisis such as fires, the destruction of ecosystems, and pipelines expansion, Indigenous people have been on the front lines of many these fights in both the north and south and largely influence other resistance movements. We must look to their beliefs and ideologies around how humans should treat and attend to nature because many of these narratives fuel their climate justice philosophies.
What do you think of frameworks like de-growth that advocate for significantly shrinking our economic output to solve the ecological crisis, and are there any other solutions or frameworks you specifically advocate for?
Degrowth for me is connected with the theory of social metabolism. That implies the abandon the idea of growth and produce with less energy and raw materials in order to preserve strategic ecosystems in order to attend to the climate crisis. Degrowth is necessary in this context of climate crisis, particularly in the Global North, because is its responsibility. There is an ecological debt from the North in relationship to de South. in South America it’s not a question of the degrowth but to exit to the extractivism. In fact, we have to degrowth in some sectors, but in other sector like health, public services.
My seminar relates to these topics. I orient my class and discussions around four central concepts—-First: the connection between capital and the Anthropocene, and the consequences of the ecological crisis in the global south. Second: collapse, the different narratives about collapse, not only ecological collapse, but systemic collapse. Third: transition such as eco -transition, but especially energy transition and fourth: relational narratives, the different kind of relational narratives, not only in the south, but in the north, for example, in the north there are a lot of exceptional works about the multispecies studies, the relations between human being and not human being. In the South, there is a lot more reflection about the relationship between body, land, territory, water. I try to connect these four big concepts in order to interrogate the most important dimensions of the sociological crisis.